Interesting Story of Yaksha in Kenopanishad

Did you know that the very first Avatara much before the famous Dasavataras was that of a Yaksha? I did not know this until I studied Kenopanishad. Here’s the story of this avatara from the Upanishad itself:
There was once a fierce fight between the devas and the asuras in which the asuras were thrashed. Having won decisively, the Devas had a great celebration. Devas congratulated and praised their leaders Indra, Vayu and Agni who stood out as the main architects and heroes of the victory.This victory had gone into their head as they seemed to believe that it was all their glory.They forgot that there was an invisible hand of Eswara behind and  the victory in fact belonged to Him. So, Eswara decided to show them their place. He took the form of a Yaksha(a celestial being)and appeared before them. Indra, Agni and Vayu saw the Yaksha and were captivated by the beautiful form. They could not take their eyes off the beautiful Yaksha. Before they could approach him to find out who he was, the Yaksha vanished.

Indra, intrigued by what happened, became curious to know who the Yaksha was. He asked Agni to go and find out. Agni went in the direction in which the Yaksha went, found him and asked: Who are you? The Yaksha just smiled and without bothering to answer asked Agni:”Who are you?”. This was the first slap on Agni’s face since he is famous all over the world. He replied: I’m Agni. Yaksha asked: What do you do? This was the second slap on his face. He replied: I’m capable of burning the whole world. Then as if to supplement this information, Agni added: I’m also known as Jataveda – I’m responsible for blessing people with wealth and knowledge.( As Jataveda, Agni is privileged to  receive oblations from devotees and pass it on to the respective Devatas. The devotees, in turn, are blessed with the benefits of the rituals). Clearly, this was an attempt, on the part of Agni to display his pride and salvage his ego.

Unimpressed, the Yaksha placed a kucha (a dried piece of grass) in front of Agni and said casually: Oh, you can burn anything and everything! Great. Then, Please burn this kucha (a dried piece of grass).

This is like adding insult to injury. It’s like asking Mohammad Ali, the great boxer to fight with a street urchin. Unperturbed by insults, Agni tried to burn the grass. However, he could not burn it even when he sat on it.  Humiliated thus, Agni retreated and reported to Indra that he could not figure out who it was.

Indra then sent Vayu on the same mission. He was also asked similar questions by Yaksha. Vayu also tried to impress him with his impressive biodata consisting of his alternative names, his capabilities and achievements.  As it turned out, Vayu also faced the same ‘Kucha’ challenge. That is, he was asked by the Yaksha to blow away a dried piece of grass. Expectedly, Vayu also failed the test and it was now the turn of Indra himself to find out who this stranger was.

As Indra went near the Yaksha, he simply vanished. Agni and Vayu could at least see him and even had a chat with him, although they could not make out who it was. Indra was intrigued by the turn of events. Undeterred and not accepting defeat, he just sat there meditating and praying. His prayers were answered soon as Uma appeared before him at the same place where the Yaksha stood before. She explained to Indra that the Yaksha was none other than Brahman itself. Enlightened thus, Indra went back and taught this knowledge to Agni, Vayu and all the other Devatas.

The story is symbolic. It encapsulates the teachings of Keenopanishad beautifully. The story starts with a statement that Brahman won the war for the Devas in their fight against the Asuras. However, in the moment of victory,  Indra, Agni and Vayu felt the victory was theirs. This is typical of all human beings. When we succeed, we forget the invisible hand behind. On the other hand when we lose, we blame Him(Eswara). The Devas are no different. Therefore, a lesson had to be taught to them. Brahman manifested in the form of a Yaksha. The fact that Agni and Vayu could see him but could not recognize who he was is also symbolic. Agni is the Devata (presiding deity) for speech whereas Vayu is the Devata for  the sense of touch. There is no way anyone can recognize Him(Brahman) through one’s speech or sense of touch. Taitriya Upanishad declares unequivocally that speech (words) cannot comprehend Him.

Then how come Indra could not even see Him. Indra is the presiding deity for the Mind and it’s impossible for one’s mind to enclose Him in thoughts. Taitriya Upanishad says: Even Mind retreats having attempted to enclose him in thoughts. How can anyone enclose infinity in one’s mind?

What, then, is the significance of the Yaksha appearing one moment and vanishing the very next moment when Indra tried to approach Him? Adi Shankara likens this act of Yaksha to lightning. The analogy is very apt. One cannot miss a lightning and at the same time one cannot see it too. Likewise, we might, at times, feel his presence under certain circumstances, albeit, fleetingly, only to lose the experience instantly. Intuitively, one might realize there is some force over and beyond what is visible to our senses. But that intuition will instantly yield place to our sense of ego.

Finally, Uma, in the story, represents Brahma Vidya or Sruti. Study of Sruti alone is capable of removing our ignorance. Uma appeared before Indra only when the latter sat there in meditation with a passion to know. Thus knowledge is given only to passionate seekers.

Thus the Avatara of Yaksha conveys the main theme of Kenopanishad which declares that there is an invariable presence of Brahman in every experience and cognition. Nothing ever is accomplished without His presence.

 

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Published in: on November 5, 2017 at 4:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Riddles in Vedanta(Upanishads)

Zen masters are well-known to use riddles (or Koans) as a preferred method of teaching. However, the origin of riddles dates back to Vedanta or Upanishads much before Zen koans came into existence. In this post I will try to present one such riddle straight from Keenopanishad. Here the riddles are presented in the form of seemingly contradictory statements. The resolution of the contradictions leads to understanding.

The Upanishad starts with a question from a student: Willed by whom or prompted by whose presence, do the sense organs perform their functions such as seeing, hearing, speaking, thinking or breathing?

The teacher says: “It’s the self (Atman or Brahman) which is indeed the ear of the ear, eye of the eye, speech of the speech” etc. The implication is that the ear, eyes, mind, organs of speech etc perform their functions merely by virtue of the invariable presence of the self, the Atman. He elaborates further saying that eyes, ears, organs of speech or the mind cannot objectify the Self or Atman. The student is confused. He wants to know if nothing can objectify the self, how does one arrive at this knowledge? The teacher says in exasperation: We do not know how to impart this knowledge except to say that Brahman is different from anything known or unknown! The teacher elaborates further: Brahman(Atman) is that which is not revealed by speech, eyes, ears or the mind but it’s that because of which all these organs function.

Just as some clarity seemed to be emerging, the teacher bowls yet another googly: “If you think you know Brahman very well, then you know very little of Brahman’s nature”. The implication of this statement is that Brahman is not an object to be known.

Now it’s the turn of one smart student to respond. He says: “I consider It known to me”. The teacher was taken aback by this bold statement. Therefore, the student explains himself: “I do not consider that I know Brahman well – Nor do I not know.  I know and also do not know”. Then the student makes a final remark: Whoever understands my statement above also understands Brahman.

As the dialogue between the student and the teacher ends, the Upanishad, picking  up the thread, sums up thus: Brahman is known to him who does not consider it an object of knowledge. He who considers it as yet another object of knowledge will never ever come to know Brahman. For those who really know, it’s not known (as an object of knowledge) and for those who do not know really, it’s known (as an object of knowledge).

This entire dialogue and even the summary of the last paragraph will surely drive anyone mad if it’s not taught by a competent teacher. The student surely needs a teacher who has himself studied under a tradition-bound teacher. It’s the way in which the words of the Sruti are handled by a teacher that makes these mantras meaningful.

Finally, the  Upanishad gives clarity in the mantra 4 of chapter 2. In this famous mantra, the mystery is finally unravelled. It declares: PRATI BODHA VIDITAM MATAM.

The Upanishad says in this mantra:Brahman manifests in every cognition and every experience. One does not have to go after a special experience to experience Brahman. He is present in and through every experience! Indeed it’s the invariable presence of Brahman which makes the Jagat what it is.

This mantra, if properly understood, will dismiss all schools of philosophies which say that Brahman is beyond all thoughts and hence one has to dive deep within and wait for that special experience. On the contrary, this Upanishad highlights that with proper understanding, one can experience Him in every thought and cognitive experience. If one probes this statement further, it will lead to Advaita philosophy(non-dualism)

Towards the end of the Upanishad, an interesting story is presented to drive home the message.

 

 

 

Published in: on September 16, 2017 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Smile that can make the day

Here’s​ my six months’ old grandson with a beaming smile without any provocation. (Click on the link below)

https://youtu.be/ObztIc5rV04

While smiling he looks at you fully focused and completely​ absorbed in the act. He invites a smile back and you have no choice but to oblige. You smile back as he gets even more ecstatic making all kinds of sounds. Then again you have no choice but to join him in the chorus or cacophony. It’s music set to no particular tune to all sitting around.  In fact it’s more than music as the infant weaves a magic all around and one quickly gets under his spell. It’s often said a smile is infectious but how about an infant’s smile? Won’t it launch a thousand smiles if not thousand ships? It’s a great blessing to start the day with an infant smiling innocently.

The enchanting smile of my grandson reminds me of a Shanti mantra which goes like this:

PoornaMadah poornamidam

poornat poornamudachyate

poornasya poornamadaya

poornamevavasishyate

This mantra is all about poornam. A simple translation of poornam is completeness. This mantra says everything is complete – this jagat, you, me. Each one of us is complete- as Rajaji says in his famous composition KURAI ONRUMILLAI. Yes, how can there be any regrets if you are complete by yourself. That is Poornamidam, the second line of the mantra. The first line says something which is easy to accept. It says Poornamadah – Brahman or Eswara or God is complete. The third line is reconciling the above two lines and says – Poornat Poornamudachyate, that is, from completeness is born completeness or completeness begets completeness. The fourth line says the obvious, that is, if you add poornam to another poornam, the result is also poornam. This is all pure Vedanta. A lot of  Vedantins have written commenteries on this. Here’s how this profound mantra applies to our interactions with a child.

I will replace poornam in the Shanti mantra with happiness or Ananda. This is acceptable because what is poornam is certainly ANANDA personified. With this substitution, the mantra, in its verse form, will look like this:

Happiness personified is the child – And so is the man, for, happiness begets happiness – Add happiness to happiness –  you still end up with happiness.

There is nothing like more happiness when you add happiness to happiness because there’s no scale for absolute, unconditional happiness. The child experiences this and transmits, as it were, to the elders. It’s unconditional because the child smiles without any reason or agenda and in turn we reciprocate by showing our happiness with an equally intense smile.

If only we can emulate a child, the world would be a very happy place to live in.

Published in: on May 26, 2017 at 12:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Well begun is half done

Someone asked me recently how long I would take to recite Vishnu Sahasranama. I said: Hardly 2 seconds. He thought I was kidding till I explained my logic which is the following: Vishnu Sahasranama starts with: Viswam Vishnu……, Right? If we understand the meaning of this properly, where is the need to recite the rest of the mantras? These two words capture the quintessence of Vishnusahasranama and even Vedanta. Here’s the explanation: These two words mean that the Universe is Vishnu. Once we say the Universe is Vishnu, nothing else needs to be told. The universe with all its diversity, the living & the nonliving, the sun, the moon, the planets, the entire cosmic order , the mind & intellect, the psychological order etc  are all manifestations of Vishnu. So evidently, the rest of the Vishnusahasranama is merely a matter of detail. You can check it out.

This is the beauty of our scriptures. The beginning lines of many of our scriptures are so well written that it becomes easy for any reader to follow the rest of the text. Here are a few more examples:

Consider Bhagavadgita, for instance. It starts with the lines: Dharma Kshetre Kuru Kshetre……It’s so beautiful. The field of an epic battle is being described as Dharma Kshetra. This is where Dharma will win and get established eventually. Entire Mahabharata is about Dharma and Gita makes a bold statement of this fact in the opening line itself. The rest of Gita deals with Dharma & Karma in all its dimensions and explains how it can be a vehicle for attaining the ultimate Purushardha, namely, Moksha. What a brilliant  beginning to the sacred text!

Consider yet another brilliant work of Vyasa – Bhagavatam. Here’s how it starts: Satchitananda Roopaya, Vishva Utpathyadi hetave, Tapatraya Vinasaya, SriKrishnave Vayam Namah. This opening verse contains the essence of the entire Vedanta. Krishna is described here as Satchidananda roopa.  The same terminology is used in Upanishads also to describe the formless Brahman. From this it’s clear that Hiduism, while preaching worship of form(idol worship), emphasizes the basic formlessness of the God. Itself being formless, It accommodates all form. In other words, It manifests as diverse forms in the Universe. The Sloka quoted above says precisely the same thing in the first two lines. The third & fourth lines reveal the Lord Krishna as the manifestation of Satchitananda Brahman who alone can rescue us from the sea of Samsara or bondage. To me, this is yet another brilliant beginning for an epic which is all about Lord Krishna.

I will take a couple of more examples from Upanishads and rest my case.

Let us take Taitriya Upanishad. It starts off with the line: Brahma Vit Apnoti Param. Tadeshabhyukta. Satyam Jnanam Anantam Brahma. It says: One who knows Brahman attains the highest Goal(Param).Then it goes on to describe what is the attribute of Brahman. It says: Satyam Jnanam Anantam Brahma. Volumes have been written to explain just this statement alone which defines Brahman.  If one understands this one line properly, entire Taitriya Upanishad is as well understood and assimilated.

Esa vasyopanishad is another great example of a great beginning. The opening line of the opening verse is: Esa Vasyam idam Sarvam.… It declares straight away that Eswara pervades the entire Universe. This statement is similar to Viswam Vishnu of Vishnusahasranamam which we saw in the beginning.

I suppose one can go on and on with several examples from our scriptures on the importance of a good & insightful beginning to any great work.

The title of the post is an old saying attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Not satisfied with this proverb, the famous poet John Keats, in one of his letters, points out that a more appropriate saying is: ‘Not begun and yet half done’. I think this applies to Upanishads in a sense. All Upanishads begin with a Shanti Mantra or an invocation. These mantras, with their very profound meaning, set the tone for the main Upanishad text. The Shanti Mantra puts the student in the right frame of mind to absorb the Upanishad message. Thus the teacher’s job is already half done.

More on the Shanti Mantras in another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 1, 2017 at 11:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dismissing Atheism – the Upanishad Style

Atheism and Atheists have existed all the time. One may be under the impression that this is a modern phenomenon caused by science and in the ancient days everyone was a believer. Far from it. Even during the Vedic period there were several atheists. That was the reason why Upanishads had to make certain statements to dismiss atheism.

The Taitriya Upanishad dismisses atheists in its inimitable style. It needed only two lines to do this. Let me quote this here:

Asanneva sa bhavati asad brahmeti ved chet asti brahmeti cedveda Santanam tato viduriti

A simple translation is: If anyone knows Brahman as non-existing, he becomes nonexistent. If anyone knows that Brahman does exist then they consider him as existing by virtue of that (knowledge).

Surely, a preliminary reading of the translation is confusing. What is the Upanishad trying to say here? In simple terms, it says: If you say there is no God, then you yourself do not exist and if someone knows God as existing, he comes into existence too. This is still confusing. Isn’t it? One can get further insight into this statement by understanding how the Upanishads explain God. In fact the quoted mantra appears in Taitriya Upanishad after a detailed discussion on Brahman (or God). Let me try to summarize the discussion in this post:

Upanishads use different teaching methodologies to convey truth. The method employed in this Upanishad is known as KARANA – KARYA PRAKRIYA.  This may be translated as a methodology describing cause and effect.

The key to understanding Brahman(a Vedic terminology for Eswara or God) is just one famous line in this Upanishad, which is: SATYAM JNANAM ANANTAM BRAHMA. I will restrict myself to explain just this line in this post. I may not be able do complete justice to the discussion, considering that commentators have written volumes analyzing this line alone. Nevertheless, let me try.

Let us start with Jnanam or knowledge. Sastra says jnanam or Knowledge is Brahman, that is ‘Total knowledge’. It’s not knowledge of a particular thing. It may be understood as total integrated knowledge.

One may think that science has created knowledge. No – scientists have merely discovered existing laws. Newton did not create the law of gravity nor did any scientist create the laws of thermodynamics. They always existed. Everything in the Universe that exists is an expression of Eswara’s knowledge. In other words Eswara or Brahman is the cause of this knowledge.  If nothing can exist without knowledge or everything that exists is nothing but knowledge, then that total knowledge has got to be limitless or ANANTAM. The total knowledge, that is Brahman, manifests as different and distinct objects in the Universe. The very fact of manifestation or existence of an object requires knowledge as a prerequisite. In this sense Satyam (which is existence) and Jnanam are synonymous.

Sastra says: Satyam alone was present before the Universe began to manifest (Sadeva Soumya Idamagramasit: Chandogya upanishad). Satyam, as we have seen, is same as the Total Knowledge or Jnanam. The laws that scientists keep discovering from time to time are themselves manifestation of this all-knowledge which is Brahman.

For example, First law of thermodynamics which  says categorically that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, is a law which is followed in the entire universe. Similarly, law of gravitation governs the entire universe. Likewise, the theory of evolution and the rules behind cell division and multiplication, and all other theories of biological sciences explain how life evolved on earth – all existed much before scientists stumbled on them. All this indicates that there is a Universal order governing every piece of existence. That is, all life and its evolution, nature and its laws governing its existence and the laws by which scientists and technologists exploit nature are all based on a certain order. Science can only try to understand the order and these laws little by little in small steps. They don’t create any laws or knowledge but use those laws to create new materials.

Scientists like Stephen Hawking are struggling to identify the nature of this all-unifying knowledge without success. Stephen Hawking talks about the possibility of discovering a theory of everything.  Although scientists haven’t found such a theory, they do appreciate that the fundamental laws of nature are universally obeyed everywhere in the universe and there has to be one unifying law governing all laws.

Therefore, the Total knowledge which is Brahman, exists in everything that one finds in the universe (or Jagat). Without that knowledge nothing can exist. Since knowledge is a prerequisite for everything that exists in the jagat which is vast and infinite, the knowledge can as well be described as Limitless or Anantam.

That is why Sastra says that Brahman is both the efficient cause as well as the material cause. That is, Brahman has made the universe with Himself as the material. This is easy to understand if one looks at Brahman as all-knowledge. Knowledge exists in everything and everything is made by knowledge. That is, Knowledge is the maker as well as the material because the maker and material themselves are nothing but knowledge.

Brahman, which is all-knowledge, is self-existing. Everything else draws its existence from Brahman. Brahman is self-evident and everything else becomes evident because of Brahman. Brahman is self-revealing and everything else is revealed because of It.

With this understanding, it’s easy to demolish an atheist’s point of view which says Brahman doesn’t exist. If Brahman doesn’t exist, clearly the speaker himself doesn’t exist. In other words, the very fact of one’s existence is proof of the fact of Brahman’s existence.

 

Published in: on February 18, 2017 at 11:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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Chasing Reality

This is the story of my 3-year old granddaughter. She moved to our place along with her mother who was expecting her second child. She was super excited to be with her pampering grand parents. But soon she realised her father could not be with her. However, she  settled down with her new routine and was thoroughly enjoying her preschool where she was being taught singing and dancing. Then one fine day her father came over to visit us and she was on top of the world. This didn’t last long as he had to leave with in a few days. Her world plunged into darkness as she couldn’t understand why he had to go back. Flexible as kids are, she got over her sorrow within a couple of days. She was back again on her feet enjoying every moment. Her next moment of excitement came when her mother went to hospital for delivery and gave birth to a baby boy to play with. Her excitement did not last long, though. She saw a rival in the new arrival as she found her mother’s attention was more towards the new baby. With jealousy comes anger and we could see her throwing up tantrums over trivial things. She overcame this as well over a period of time. But she could never reconcile to her father appearing and disappearing time and again. Although she could not express, she sure must have faced several unanswered questions such as: What is real – Me living with my parents or with grandparents? The school is the reality or home with pampering grandparents. If parental love is real, how come my mother doesn’t show the same love after the arrival of the new baby. Does reality which is constantly changing has any meaning.

Her young mind would have found some convincing answers when she finally moved to her father’s place along with her mother and the newborn. Having finally found the warmth of love from both parents, she may finally conclude: Yes, this is the ultimate reality – not my grand parents, not my friends, not my school.

Did the elders fare any better in the emotional drama? Far from it. The parents and grandparents were equally or more affected than the kid herself. Their heart sank along with the kid’s and their spirits got elevated as the kid got excited. Not just that. When both the grand kids finally left them, they could not take it in their stride. The silence in the house was overpowering. The house felt desolate and lifeless without the usual noises.

Look at the contrasting experience after the kids left. During their stay, time was in short supply. Now there is plenty of time on hand. There was plenty of noise then. Now there is deafening silence. There was plenty of fun, then. We all would laugh, make faces, whistle, sing & dance to no particular tune. Now that is replaced by meaningless monotonous work, matter-of-fact conversations, gentlemanly behaviour and plain boredom. Every piece of work had a purpose then, while now whatever work we do seems meaningless.

What is reality? They living with us or they living away from us? If the elders understand the realities, why do they find the separation unbearable?

The fact of the matter is that none of the things that we see as reality are real. All that we see in the human drama are mere emotions. Emotions come and go. They are not real. Whatever is changing with time is not real. And we are chasing the so-called reality which is constantly changing. What then is the reality that does not undergo any change? Awareness or Consciousness which lights up all the seemingly real things is the only reality. It’s that without which the relative world of experiences and emotions cannot exist. One may call it God, or Eswara or Brahman ( as in the Vedic terminology).

Published in: on February 11, 2017 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Can Culture exist independent of Religion?

Last month I had been to the temple town Tiruchanoor (near Tirupati) to take part in the grand celebrations of Brahmotsavam of the Goddess Padmavati. I have been attending this festival fairly regularly every year. I often wondered why I attend this so regularly without fail. Is it because I am a great devotee? No chance. I do not consider myself as one. Do I love the elaborate rituals that go on and on endlessly? No way. I’m not much of a lover of rituals either. In fact I do not perform any rituals at home.  I discourage rituals, especially those that lead to wastage of food items like ghee which is poured into fire as an oblation or offering to Gods. In a country where so many poor go hungry without food, I believe it’s a colossal waste. It’s not just ghee that is wasted – the priests use a lot of other stuff like coconut water, honey,milk, curd, fruits and what not. OMG, the amount of food stuff that goes waste is mind-boggling. I’m aware that purists and traditionalists would vehemently oppose my views in this respect.

Then, why do I attend this festival so regularly? I’m trying to make sense of my annual visits.

I have two great reasons to take part in the festivities: The festival presents rituals, no doubt, but most of the rituals are performed to the accompaniment of certain mantras and Nadaswaram music. Music is a big attraction for me in this festival. One may wonder how this is different from what we get to hear in Chennai or Bombay. It’s indeed a very different kind of experience. It’s different especially when the royal procession of the Goddess seated in a decorated vehicle is taken around the small town. The procession takes about three hours to complete and one is fully entertained with one of the finest exhibitions of Nadaswaram recital by some very talented players. This is pure classical music. It’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it takes place in the cool hours of late evening out in the open. The beauty of the music and the ambience complement each other and one can easily lose oneself completely.  The spiritual experience one gets out of a great Nadaswaram recital in the cool hours of late evening is simply unmatched. Good music in the right ambience has the capacity to take one’s mind to a level where the real self is experienced.

The second reason for my annual visits relates to the celebration of Tirumanjanam or holy bath of the goddess conducted to the accompaniment of mantras from Upanishads. What a contrast – Upanishad mantras, describing reality on one hand and the ritualistic holy bath of the goddess on the other! The various actions performed are aesthetically pleasing and conducted with great reverence. This is accompanied by chanting of mantras which are declarations of the ultimate reality. The ritual is performed as dictated by the karma kanda of the Vedas while the mantras are straight from Upanishads which are at the end of each Veda (otherwise known as Vedanta). The beauty of the Upanishads is that it doesn’t deal with any Gods or Goddesses. In fact there is no mention of names of any gods. It gives only the vision of Truth. Let me illustrate this with an example from Tatriya Upanishad. It starts off with the famous statement – Satyam Jnanam Anantam brahma. This statement encapsulates the entire Vedanta beautifully, if understood properly. Let me try to explain. Brahman, in the Vedic terminology, refers to the ultimate reality. A simple translation of the mantra is : Brahman or Eswara is Existence, all-knowledge and limitless. Put differently, all that is here is Brahman. What does this mean? It simply means that you, me, the entire universe, our minds, the cosmic order, psychological order and every other order – conceivable and inconceivable – is Brahman. This necessarily leads to the inevitable conclusion of non-duality or Advaita. The beauty of this declaration is that it defines reality without naming any god. The god can be Jesus or Allah or Eswara or Narayana as long as one understands It as Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam.

In the light of such great mantras which go with a highly ritualistic Tirumanjanam, the ritual itself looks highly insignificant, wasteful and meaningless because the performer of the ritual, the materials with which you perform the ritual, the gods receiving the offerings in the ritual are all manifestations of  Brahman, the only reality. The mantras, if understood, can liberate even without the need to perform the ritual, while the ritual performed mechanically can only lead to deeper bondage.

Well, then, can one have such festivals without the rituals? It’s a tall order. Cultural richness comes with a price tag. Some even say that without religion there would be no culture. There may be some truth in it. The musical compositions of great saints like Tyagaraja were, after all, created in their great moments of ecstatic devotion to their favourite gods. Today, all great musicians rely heavily on Tyagaraja’s musical compositions to lend richness to their concerts.

So, it looks like we owe our rich cultural heritage to our religions. There is no way one can separate the two.

Published in: on December 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ganesha – The most Cosmopolitan among the Gods

My Ganesha is a Vaishnavite, said one showing the familiar mark of auspicious Tiruman on the forehead. Mine is a typical Shaivite with Vibhuti (sacred ash) spread out on the forehead, said another. Yet another quipped: ”My Ganesha can dance”, showing an idol with a dancing pose. My Ganesha does not mind wearing Jeans, said another proudly displaying a photo of an idol wearing Jeans.

I have not seen any Ganesha idol with Jeans except in a picture. However, here are a few pictures of various Ganesha idols which I am familiar with. Personally, I like the first picture with a simple decoration which looks extremely sathvik (calm & virtuous). This is from my niece.

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You cannot have a more Cosmopolitan God than Ganesha ( I use the word cosmopolitan in the sense of belonging to all sections of the society). Everyone loves him irrespective of caste, creed or culture. Ever since Tilak popularized the so-called SARVAJANIC GANESH festivals(public celebration) way back in late 19th century, Ganapati idols have evolved in appearance and the mode of celebration has also changed significantly. Starting with very simple and Sathvic looking idols to the most modern and fashionable idols of today, the variations are mind-boggling. It is as if the Lord can fit into any description and any imagination of a person. There is no rigid dress code either. I’m sure if He were to choose to appear before us, He will not mind dancing to our crazy tunes. Not just that – He is as happy with His favourite MODAK (Kzhakottai in Tamil?) as He is with, say, Halwa or Rava Kesari or Laddus or any sweet made with jaggery. For instance, our Pillayar(Ganesha)loves Seera with Sundal. Seera is Rava Kesari and Sundal is made from chana or black chickpeas. He doesn’t mind anything that we offer as long as it is offered with devotion. It’s this flexibility that attracts and inspires millions to worship Him. In Mumbai, for instance, even Muslims are known to visit and offer prayers to SARVAJANIC Ganesha. Politicians of all hues support and generously donate money for the celebrations.

This Hindu God in a sense captures the spirit of Hinduism. The way Ganesh Chaturdhi is celebrated reflects the Hindu way of life and our understanding of God. God, for us, is not someone sitting up there in the Heaven deciding our fortunes in life. God is right here in our midst manifesting Himself in the form of universal laws & universal order. Indeed the laws, the order, the dharma are Him. He is inseparable from all this. In that sense Hinduism is not a religion. It’s a way of life. You may call God by any name, Eswara or Allah or Christ as long as our understanding is not flawed.

I have only one complaint against the celebrations, though. Tilak might have started Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs with Pandals (temporary structures); however, he would never have endorsed noisy celebrations or traffic jams.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Adam Smith and Vedantik Self

Here is an unintentionally comical epitaph of a soldier of mid-5th century CE in Greece: “This memorial is set over the body of a very good man. Pythian, from Megara, slew seven men and broke off seven spear points in their bodies…………….This man, who saved three Athenian regiments….having brought sorrow to no one among all men who dwell on earth, went down to the underworld felicitated in the eyes of all”.

With the above example, Peter Singer, a well-known philosopher of this century points out that until a couple of thousand years ago, our moral circle was limited to city-states meaning that the qualification for goodness is to protect the citizens one’s city by slaying men living in the neighbouring cities! In Greece, it was Plato who for the first time advocated the principle of expanding the moral circle beyond a city to the country. He insisted that a Greek should extend his goodness to other Greeks living within Greece. Peter Singer argues that we have come a long way since then in extending our moral circle. He attributes this to literacy and the age of reason. While, it sounds good as a theory, it is perhaps not borne out by facts. To take a recent example, Chennai floods brought together all Chennaites living across the globe. Overwhelming support was extended by Chennaites living in  all corners of the world – a great example of total loyalty within the narrow circle of Chennaites. However, I wonder how many Chennaites bothered to help out when Uttarakhand suffered a huge calamity of large-scale destruction due to land slides and floods in 2013.

Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher of 18th century, in his theory of Moral sentiments, makes a similar point. He asks us to imagine a scenario like this: Let us say a big calamity like a severe earth quake strikes China killing a million people and you are a complete stranger to China. How would you react? He answers saying that one would perhaps feel very sad for a while after hearing about the calamity and then get back to work on the following day as though nothing had happened. In today’s world, one would perhaps go a step further and write out a cheque for the victims and then forget about the whole thing. On the other hand, Smith asks, what would one do if an accident were to happen and one cuts his finger. Smith surmises that the same guy would keep brooding over it for several days and would find it difficult to get it out of his mind.

Are we humans condemned to be selfish all the time? No, says Adam Smith. He explains this with another example. He asks us to imagine another scenario wherein you have a choice of either protecting your little finger or killing a million Chinese. He says we would most certainly choose the former. No sane person would refuse to sacrifice his little finger for the sake of saving a million Chinese lives. He attributes this to an inner voice or a neutral spectator within. To quote: “It’s not the feeble spark of benevolence ……. counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It’s a stronger power , a more forcible motive that exerts itself on such occasions. It’s principle, conscience the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct…………..It’s from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves….and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected by the eye of this impartial spectator. It’s he who shows us the propriety of generosity………; the propriety of resigning the greatest interest of our own for the yet greater interests of others and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves”.

These are very interesting lines coming from Adam Smith. He concludes his discussions on an optimistic note invoking an inner spectator! Isn’t this thesis close to what Vedanta refers to as Sakshi within. Vedanta goes a step further to state that the Sakshi within is universal. Sakshi which is Consciousness is understood by Vedantins as the non-dual reality which illumines everything else.

Published in: on June 27, 2016 at 12:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Purandara Dasa Conveys Advaita through a humourous song

Advaita or non-dual reality proclaims that there is only one without a second. The essence of Advaita is captured in the so-called MAHAVAKYAS of our Upanishads. (A MAHAVAKYA is a profound statement of reality in one sentence). Advaita implies that there is no second reality other than Eswara or God. But then one sees diversity all around. How does one account for it? This can be accounted for only by saying that the CREATION IS THE CREATOR! This simple message of our Upanishads is brilliantly captured in a song by the saint Purandara Dasa. The song is very simple and humourous besides conveying a profound message. Here is the link to the song and my brief explanation:

alli nODalu rAma illi nODalu rAma
ellelli nODidara alli SrIrAma || pa ||

rAvaNana mUlabala kaMDu kapisEne
AvAgale bedari ODidavu
I vELe naranAgi irabAradeMdeNisi
dEva rAmacaMdra jagavella tAnAda || 1 ||

avanige iva rAma ivanige ava rAma
avaniyoL Ipari rUpavuMTe
lavamAtradi asura duruLarellaru
avaravar hoDedADi hatarAgi pOdaru || 2 ||

hanumadAdi sAdhujanaru appikoMDu
kuNikuNidADidaru haruShadiMda
kShaNadali puraMdara viThalarAyanu
konegoDeyanu tAnobbanAgi niMta || 3 ||

Translation: Rama is here, Rama is there, He is everywhere! The mighty forces of Ravana fled from the scene when they saw Rama in every monkey.  While the evil forces got frightened and ran away, noble souls like Hanuman embraced each other and danced seeing only Rama in everyone!

Analysis:The saint brilliantly brings out the message of Advaita through this composition. If there is only Rama everywhere, everyone will see only Rama in every other person. One will only see Rama all around including himself. Then the poet-saint says with a touch of humour that Ravana’s army saw only Rama in every monkey in the army and hence started running away. Extending the logic and humour further, the saint adds: Hunuman and other good souls like him started embracing each other on seeing Rama in other persons.

The fact that the army of Ravana runs away seeing Rama everywhere means that egoistic minds feel threatened by the truth of advaita and hence would flee to a place where they would see multiplicity and feel at home.

The melodious song in the link above was sung by Mambalam sisters in the Raga Natakuranji. I have heard this song sung in much slower pace than the one in my link. However, I feel this pace is just right for this song. It’s in tune with its humourous content.

Published in: on April 23, 2016 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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