Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tat Tvam Asi - തത്ത്വമസി

Sabarimala hosts the temple of Ayyappan, located in the Western Ghats range within the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. The temple is on a hilltop, that is more than 4000 feet above sea level. The Sannidhanam, or the sanctum santorum, is a good climb of about 7-8 kilometers using the shortest route from the banks of Pamba. But, to reach the Sannidhanam, there are a few unwritten rules you need to adhere, that are handed down during the past few decades that people have been going there.

You start with a penance for 41 days, where you keep your physical and mental body clean. Clear your mind of impure thoughts, and develop the ability to remain calm when faced with extreme emotional influence. Specifically people are advised to control anger and not use any foul language. To signify the beginning of this penance, you put a "mala", a chain made of sandalwood or other wood denoting to others that you have begun the journey to reach Ayyappan. Immediately after this ritual, people will also start refering to you as "Ayyappan".

After you kept your promise to yourself during these 41 days, you will need to carry what is called an "Irumudi"; literally meaning "two bags". The bag, actually one bag, that has two compartments, where one is reserved for all the items that are going to be your offering to Ayyappan. The other compartment is for personal items, that you typically require for your journey, ie eatables etc. In earlier days, food was not available near the Sannidhanam, and you had to come back to Pamba. But these days, more offerings are carried in these portions, because of access to food during the journey back and forth.

With a good irumudi, you are now ready to proceed on your journey. There are many ways to reach the Sannidhanam. I will focus on the shortest, which is not necessarily an easy one. The one that i have used. The closest town to the Pamba river entry point to the Sabarimala is Nilakkal. During peak seasons, the government will require all private transportation to stop at this town and then use the KSRTC (government) bus service to reach the Pamba. From Pamba, you take a quick bath in the river. There are times when the water is running very low, and also the bathing ghat can be crowded, and also dirty. For many reasons, the bathing has become a courtesy or a forgone ritual to many. You pay your respects to Pamba Ganapathy and begin your hike.

A good hike, with the irumudi on your head, which is not very heavy, but soon becoming very burdensome, as you climb the steep hill. Since the path is not paved (atleast till the last time i went), there are other obstacles that you encounter. Sharp stones, slippery slopes especially during rain, but one thing is for sure, there are no wild animals.  You reach the main temple zone, and you have one final ascent, the 18 steps to the Sannidhanam. These are at a very high gradient, and you are nearly falling on the person below as you climb up. Once you cross the 18th step, you are in front of the entrance to the Sannidhanam. That's when the truth will hit you. It should it.

Written across the entrance of the Sannidhanam, in huge letters in Malayalam and Devanagari script, is what you were looking for; "തത്ത്വമസി" & "तत्त्वमसि" - "Tat Tvam Asi". Meaning "Thou are that".

You are the one that you seek. After all this journey, this simple truth is revealed to you. That the "one" that you seek is in "you". That God is in you. That God is you. That God and you are the same.

Did you have to come this far? Did you have to endure this journey? Maybe you did, maybe you didnt. The answer again only is known to you. But the hints were always there. The moment you decided you were going to Sabarimala, and you wore the "mala", you were called Ayyappan, by one and all around you. You had already recieved this information, but it takes time to realize the meaning.

For this reason, Sabarimala is open to all. People of all faith are welcome. People adorn in black or blue, colors that are very different from the saffron that is associated with the Hindus. The significance is very important. Recent attempts to change this notwithstanding, the beauty of Sabarimala Ayyappan was that he welcomed all, with a special love for first timers, referred to as Kanni Ayyappan.

Pray to him, pray to yourself. Seek within yourself. You will find it - Tat Tvam Asi!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Kun FayaKun (كُنْ فَيَكُونُ)

Growing up, i had the opportunity to visit many different temples of worship, of different faith. Hindu temples, Christian churches of the Catholic, Protestants and few others, Sikh Gurudwara, Jewish Synagogue, and also the temples of Jains, Buddhists, and a few other faiths, and other places of worship or prayer halls. Most if not all, seemed to follow a set pattern.

Inside the main hall there is usually a focal point, and while being seated anywhere, you had access or a view to this focal point. In a Hindu temple, it was the idol. And most if not all the other places of worship had a symbol, even if it was not a specific idol. Sometime it was a book, or it was pedestal from where the preacher or a leader would lead the prayer. It was easy to get used to the differences amongst the many religions and focus on this unifying theme of a place of worship.

It is easy to be mislead, like any wayfarer views, Hinduism to be a religion that propitiate a stone idol in place of god. As you mature in the faith, you realize and become aware of other teachings in vast truth of Hindu teachings, that god is universal. God has many forms. An idol is simply a symbol of god, and only a token to help your mind focus. And then it is easy to appreciate the different systems of faith, and how invariably, every religion that abhors idol worship, has to succumb to the trappings of us mortals. That God needs to be replaced by a symbol of some sort. The choice of the symbol, like the gods, are many.

All of these teachings and learning, didnt prepare me for my first visit to a Mosque. My first visit to a mosque, was the Jama Masjid in Delhi. For whatever reason, i didnt get the opportunity to visit a mosque before that. I have seen many a Dargah, but also realize the difference in this Sufi tradition of Islam, from some of the core tenets of Muslim belief system. God is formless, as God is beyond all this. I get that part, as there exists a similar concept within the teachings of other religions too. But there is philosophy, and then there is the practical offer of a prayer.

When i walked through the main courtyard of the Masjid, and arrived at, what would otherwise been the location of an idol or pulpit, i was instead greeted by a book shelf. Although this was part of a pleasure trip, the visit to the mosque, was not just to see around, but also offer prayers. And so, here was me, standing just before this old wooden shelf, filled with even older looking books, i would presume they were copies of the Qur'an.

I suddenly felt lost. I was unsure, what to do next. I am not a Muslim, nor had i before this, attempted to learn how Muslims offered prayer. All this was immaterial though, because in my mind it should have been simple as walking up to sanctum sanctorum, and offering your prayers. Well in this case, i was perplexed, as there was no defined sanctum sanctorum. And even if this was the center or a pivotal point within the mosque, there was nothing to grasp my attention.

This shelf of books also stood in front of a rather imposing wall, which was carved into a nice facade, looking like an arch. I didnt know then, but now know, this is the Mihrab, which helps point the direction to Mecca to the Muslims.

As i stood there, contemplating for a few seconds, i was able to better understand the concept of a formless god. Hindus see god in every form. But here i had to come to terms with this new idea. New idea? Not at all. At the least, not to me. No matter which temple i visit, my prayers are always done with my eyes closed. And so, truly when i think about it, the temple, an idol or a sanctum is only helpful in creating an apt ambiance and an appropriate atmosphere. But, standing here facing nothingness, was an important lesson, often missed out in temples and other idolatry worship. It was a reckoner to the fact, sometimes it is difficult to conceive the inconceivable. And so, even with a lot of gyaan around this, i was for a moment, taken aback.

We take it for granted that it is so easy to access or imbibe the spirit, we call god. Its in a picture, in a name, in an idol, a book, a cross, a stone, a metal, even a piece cloth. Its quite another thing to think that it is, but unfathomable. It is, beyond comprehension. And hence i think the reason to mandate that it be kept that way in Islam. A difficult choice to make, but when adhered to, a creates a truly higher plane of thought.

In the end, when you think about it really deep, you will understand: many forms, any forms, no form, are all the same.
Jab kahin pe kuch nahi bhi nahi tha
Wahi tha Wahi tha Wahi tha Wahi tha
Woh jo mujhme samaya
wohjo tujhme samaya
Maula wahi wahi maaya
Kun fayakun Kun fayakun

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bhaja Govindam - Verse 3

Bhaja Govindam
Verse 3

नारीस्तनभर नाभीदेशं
दृष्ट्वा मागामोहावेशम् |
एतन्मांसवसादि विकारं
मनसि विचिन्तय वारं वारम् ||

 Naristanabhara Naabhidesam, 
Drstva MaGa Mohavesam
Etan mamsava sadivikaram
Manasi Vichintaya Varam Varam

Seeing the full bosoms of young maidens and their navel
Do not fall prey to maddening delusions
All are just a form of flesh, fat, etc.
Remember this well. Think this over and over.

The immediate response to this, specially in this day and age, would be celibacy. We have heard this before, be celibate and desist from all vices. Today we live in a world, where it has become crystal clear, that nothing sells like sex. Everywhere we turn, we are enticed by display of skin, of both women and men.

In the previous stanza, Adi Shankaracharya, advises us against the desire to accumulate and hoard wealth. Here he has turned his attention to another common delusion for us, humans, our inability to control passion. Again, as i indicated, it may seem misplaced advise in our world today. Or then again, it is probably even more important and relevant today, than ever before.
While the lines are directed towards a male in the society, the import of these words are not lost to the opposite sex. The inability to control these passions are genderless, strange it may seem to some, but nevertheless an universal truth. I read in a book somewhere recently, "every time a man cheats, one must remember that there is a woman who assists him". My intent is not focus on infidelity and who is responsible, but more to highlight that this fact, sexual passion is not simply a male obsession. And more importantly, it necessary to realize that he in not arguing against biological needs or our basic human instincts.

He, rather, cleverly help us overcome these instincts. Human beings, have some inherent discriminative ability, that allows them to distinguish objects of the opposite sex. People pick and choose who they desire to indulge in this act. And thereby we are able to discern between our immediate family and members from outside. We are therefore able to curb our instincts in certain situations. We are also able to control when, where, and how. So it is not necessarily true that we have little or control on our instincts. We do. We infact have a lot of control and we can also train and tweak these instincts to behave. It is this that the master is trying to allude to by bringing the comparison to raw flesh. If nothing works, the imagery of raw flesh or blubbery fat is good enough to help us put a pause on these instincts.

The objects of human desire are not necessarily a threat to us, nor are they vices in themselves. The truth is in our hallucination in these. Our perception of how important these are to our lives that determine how these impact us. Shankaracharya's advice will allow us to develop the faculty required to focus on the essentials, rather than on indulgences.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Creation Theory

I am not so sure if God created man/woman or whatever. But it appears that man did create God. Every major religion in the world today, has some story around the creation of a man and a woman. The most popular across the world, atleast the Christian and Muslim world, is the story of Adam and Eve. Hindu literature speaks of Manu, who was the first man created by God. There is an entire page on Wikipedia, that is dedicated to the first man and or woman.

However, the more i think about it, the more i am certain, the story is entirely the opposite. God was created by man, not necessarily the first man. He had to. There was simply no way to control the unruly masses. Some form of laws were important. Laws alone were not enough, because, people probably found out that, they could break these laws, without having to worry about punishment. Talk about a flawed justice system. There had to be a higher being, that we all feared and willingly accepted as lord. The punishment for sins and rewards for good deeds were perceived, and not real. I am sure you understand how easy it is to convey perception of pain or reward, than the actual reward itself. Man, bestowed by eternal greed, fear and despair or by the quest for bliss and joy, can be influenced more by a promise than anything tangible.

God is invented or created by man, with a form of his likeness. This God is then presented as someone to be feared, and so must be appeased. The likeness then takes on fearful appendages and weapons. Or sometimes the God is merciful, and then is cloaked in white to signify purity and peace. The imagery must be the reason why some of the newer religions, atleast one in particular, require that there be no image at all to represent God. But even this attempt has not been fully successful, because people have attempted to fabricate alternates, like symbols to personify or equate to God.

The biggest causation for this theory is the medley of God and religions. Each religion has its God. Many of the newer religions, that originated in the Common Era (CE), have one or more Prophets, holy books, and its house of prayer. Each conceivably, distinct from the other. But, each new religion or faith, simply modifies  the set of beliefs in practice at that time. The hope and intent is for Man to evolve into something better, but invariably it can also regress or simply diverge. Man constantly evaluates the moral code structure and wants to gravitate to something different.

Few of the older religions, Hinduism in particular, professes polytheism, and provides its followers an array of gods and goddesses, and also demons and evils. The more the merrier, seemed to be their philosophy. Even the later religions that profess monotheism have not been able to control its followers, and have them adhere to its basic tenets. Many of them have varied branches, that can be radically different from the claimed origins. Man, it seems will not be bound down, when it comes to him and his God. He is more than willing to experiment, and if required another God to suit his tastes.

And finally, if God did really exist, she would clearly have done a better job, than create this species, which manages to invent unique ways to find unhappiness.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What's in a name?

Strange as it seems, a mere name plays a small but important role in the large scheme of my beliefs and my religion and culture. I am not referring to name of inanimate objects or other living creatures, but referring to our names, mine and yours. At an earlier instance, i had blogged about my name, and how it came about. My name was picked by my grandmother. These days you hear about people picking fancy names with intricate meanings, sanskrit one, ancient ones, new and modern ones, famous ones. Ram, Krishna, Aishwarya and Vijay (name used often by Amitabh in movies) used to be some very common ones. 

How does this all matter? And specially what is the religious connotation? Its clear what link that names like Krishna and Ram have. Children are named after personal gods and goddesses as way to appease their deities. Some parents name their children, in the fervent hope that they live up to their names. That will explain the numerous Kalam and Sachin that abound India.

All this seems so foreign, rather noise to me now. A small, and possibly insignificant lament by elderly neighbour fed my thought cells, with the most brilliant concept. It was not new, and is possibly known for centuries to others in India, but not me. To me this single explanation was meant to last a lifetime. 

We used to call this elderly neigbhour, KRK Uncle. KRK is initials, and i will leave it at that. He had named his children Shankaran, Raman and Narayanan, typical malayalee names of these lords. Of course, school, college and workplace had butchered their names to Shanks, Ram and Nara. I was sitting and have some idle chat with him, when someone referred to his youngest by this short name Nara. He politely answered the query, and sent off the enquirer. He then turned to me, and lamented about how names are being butchered. He then said, "in those days, we used to name our children, after gods. At our death bed, when we called out to our sons and daughters, we had the privilege of dying, while uttering the name of a god. It was believed that would take us to heaven." 

What struck me most was not the heaven or the dying part, but the fact that everytime one called out the child's name, you were calling the lord's name too. As i said earlier this simple explanation, prevailed on me. It was clear to me then, that this would influence the name i chose for my child. I called my son, Govind. A trip to Thirupati, few years before the birth of my son, influenced this particular variant of Krishna's name. 

Well there are intentions, and best laid out plans. I can tell you this. I chant the lord's name almost a thousand times a day. It usually takes about ten utterances of Govind, in increasing  tenor and temper, to gain my son's attention. Someone is surely paying attention, and extracting a price.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oru Jati, Oru Matham, Oru Daivam Manushyanu

These were the words of Sree Narayana Guru, it simply means, "One Caste, One Religion, One God for all mankind". I was born a hindu, and brought up so. But i also had to fortune to go to schools which which professed a different thought or none at all. My family also helped, because their was no direct imposition of strictures, other than a regular evening prayers, but we were also taught about humanity and brotherhood. My first direct exposure to the concept of one man, one god, or rather one man, many gods (both indirectly preaching the same concept or universal love), was from the singer KJ Yesudas.

I must have been 8 or 9, when life was full of black and white only. Yesudas had come to sing at our school, Bain School (a christian school run by Church of South India), as part of some fund raiser. The crowd was filled with malayalees, including our family. He singing was interrupted after about an hour or so, by some elaborate garlanding ceremony of a whole bunch of people. He soon ended the program, with thanks, but was clearly distraught. The interruption my mother believed was because he sang a few classical songs (bordering on devotional), altho' i dont particularly recall anything specific. We came out and waiting for my dad to pull his car, when we noticed that the real Gana Gandharvan was sitting in a black Ambassador near us, waiting for space to pull his car out. My mother walked up to him, tagging us along, and asked him, "why didnt you sing any Ayyappan songs", to which he pulled a rudraksha chain he was wearing around his neck, showed my mom three or four lockets, one ayyappan, one guruvayoorappan, one jesus and something else. He said, "for me all gods are one", and if we wanted to hear him sing more Ayyappan songs, we could visit his next program in chennai at a local ayyappan temple. The image of the chain extended by his palm, the lockets, and his bearded face mouthing those lines are still vivid in my memory.

This concept was further reinforced at my next school, Asan Memorial. I would later come to know that this founders and the trustees of the school were also devotees of Narayana Guru. But my school prayer was not any elaborate devotional songs, but a simple recital of a sloka by our painting master. And if he was absent, then we said the 'Father in heaven', christian prayer recited by our piano teacher, and sometimes a few small prayers by others. 

I came to fully understand and know about Narayana Guru much later. I remember passing the temple dedicated to him at Vepery, in Chennai, wondering who this man was. I also thought it was some jain cult or some nondescript guru from the north of India. When i did come to know of him, i still wondered this temple had his statue. I am yet to understand that, and more on this a little later.

A Doordharshan program in the 80's, introduced me to Sree Narayana Guru. The single biggest thing that struck me most about him, was the temple he opened in Kerala, were he consecrated a mirror as the prathishta (idol), to be prayed. Already a little attuned with the philosophy of Adi Sankaracharya, i was amazed by this simple yet sublime act. In one stroke, he displayed eloquently the Advaita philosophy. I interpret this as, 'pray to the god that you see in you', or 'you are the god you seek'. Of course, understanding this and appreciating these will require a lot more learning and discipline. But this temple would help bring this concept closer to the people, instead of some abstruse philosophy.

More readings and understandings, brought forth, the revolution he started in Kerala, changing its culture and traditions forever. I always abhorred the caste system, and never felt that true hinduism ever preached it, or practiced it, they way it was done in last few centuries. Narayana Guru's action to break these barriers and to educate people about these malpractices were the other actions that endeared him to me.  And before i forget, his teaching was again reiterated, by a song sung by Yesudas, 'Oru Jathi Oru Matham', in a music cassette of  songs and poems written by Narayana Guru.

This mantra has always reverberated in my mind and soul. We are all one, we just seek different paths to reach our goals. There is no need to play on these differences. Every religion, seem to agree that there is only one god. But the followers take that to mean that the other gods are somehow illegitimate and/or non-existent. Instead of understanding the unanimity professed, people accentuate the anomaly. It is therefore, important to once again reiterate these teachings.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bhaja Govindam - Verse 2

Bhaja Govindam
Verse 2

मूढ जहीहि धनागमतृष्णां
कुरु सद्बुद्धिं मनसि वितृष्णाम् |
यल्लभसे निजकर्मोपात्तं
वित्तं तेन विनोदय चित्तं ||

modha jahehi dhanagamatrishnam
kuru sadbudhim manasi vitrishnam
yalabhase nijakarmopatham
vitham tena vinodaya chitham

oh, fool! give up your insatiable desire for earthly possessions;
be sensible and develop serenity and contentment.
be satisfied and happy with whatever you may earn by the sweat of your brow
and whatever has destiny marked for your lot.

In the second verse of the Bhaja Govindam, sung by Adi Shankara, tells us to give up our thirst for wealth and other earthly possessions. This desire creates a vicious cycle that churns forever, taking us to the heights of joy, but equally bringing us to depths of sorrow. He calls us a fool, because only fools bring on suffering to themselves out of ignorance. Fools are also those among us, who believe we are in control of events, specially when things are going well. When the first mishap occurs, all those qualities that one thought they possessed seems to fail us. True happiness comes from renouncing this path or curbing this desire. How? He says clean the mind of these thoughts, the lust for objects, greed for wealth and focus on something else. Something better and real, the ultimate truth.

It all seems so impractical in todays life. How? With all the pressure of the family, work and self, how does one give up small desires? We need to earn to keep our family healthy, and money to pay rent, car, clothes and so many other things. We are quite unsettled when our neighbhour buys a better and bigger car. Or when our colleague wears a Prada watch, as compared to our more sober Indian Titan brand. At home, simple potato chips from a local bakery or shop is no comparison to a packet of Lays. Where does one start? But, think, more importantly where does this all end?

Adi Sankara time was no different. Even if Pepsi, Prada or Titan hadnt setup shop then, the desire and passion to covet and possess was not less in any sense. He gives a way out of this problem, asking us to take baby steps. Shankaracharya says we should begin with contentment, be happy with what we have. That would be sustenance and a little more. We are looking to live happily, and this is not something that can be bought in a store. A ten rupee note, that goes to buy bag of chips, lasts in our hands, hardly for 10 minutes, and in our mouths even less.

Its not easy to swim against the tide. This commentary is not about brands, and even less about the names mentioned here. Brands are created not by a company or a person, but because of the demand to possess something that many others cannot easily covet. So i will buy a brand of lucky jeans for 100$, because i know my friends will probably not buy such an expensive one. My joy will last, till someone from my circle, new or old, swaggers along in a pair of armani. If we are able to control our desire, in this case, to think, jeans is jeans, be it a 10$ cheap walmart version or a super-expensive designer version, that would be a start. Its not about the fact that we must buy cheap clothes. Buy what you can afford, within your means. Aspiring for something more, will start the ball rolling.

It is not easy. But every time we remind ourselves, and every attempt we make to overcome we win a small victory. This will hopefully inspire us to build on this success to reach the levels that Shankarcharya goads us to.