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.