rituals

FASTING

FASTING

Amongst all the rituals I have practiced, my longest association as a practitioner and an observer has been with fasting! For as long as I can remember my mother fasted on Friday; ‘Santoshi Ma vrat’. This weekly ritual continues; because of her health and growing years, she has given herself some latitude. Presently, she does not eat anything sour; tomatoes, lime and the like are banned on Fridays, and she has her dinner before sunset. Luckily, for devout Hindus, dieting is a piece of cake.  We have a God assigned for every single day of the week and to appease them we fast on their day. Call it hilarious or illogical or just the whim of a staunch devout (an impressionable child who believed in the power of prayer);  I started fasting when I barely 16years old. Since I did not have a specific favourite God, I fasted on Saturday (the day I am born). This day is said to be ruled by Saturn. So, to appease the devil Himself to keep me out of harm’s way; I opted for this day. I very judiciously continued this ritual till I got married. Apart for the fervent hope that I was guarded from the evil influences of Saturn, fasting helped me stay slim. I was diligent, judicious and had absolute faith in what I was doing. Every Saturday, I woke up earlier than usual, went to the temple to offer my prayers before beginning my day. When in college hostel, my friends very concernedly had something nice and warm waiting for me when it was time to break my fast. Call it fate or that my years of fasting had rendered Saturn effectively powerless; I entered a family where food plays the most pivotal role. Thus, ceased my days of fasting.

Many years later, my colleagues were fasting for ‘Karwa chauth‘; and my reconnect happened. On an impulse, even I fasted that karwa chauth. This is a fast women keep for the longevity of their spouse. I was transported to my childhood days; my mother fasting, sitting in front of our temple singing bhajans, cooking prasad and humming a bhajan to herself, she used to be smiling and engrossed. Despite the empty stomach and extra work her countenance glowed; devoid of stress and zero sign of weakness. She read the ‘katha’, explained the significance to us; she had knowledge of the why of every small ritual. It was a very learning experience for us; and I probably wanted to relive all that, after so many years. But, throughout the day our discussion revolved around how hungry we were, what gift we would receive from our spouse, would our spouse return home early from work, was the spouse also keeping a fast for his wife, whether the moon would rise early (to be able to offer prayers and break the fast) or it would be a long arduous wait. So many discussions, yet none revealed the reason why this fast was so important. It threw no light on the essence nor the significance of this fast. It was about new clothes, jewellery, mehendi, the torture of fasting… To make it even more hilariously meaningless, my dear husband (totally distraught that I had kept a fast for his long life!) bought me a beautiful gold necklace set but could not make it home till past midnight! So, I ‘broke the fast’ sans ‘pati-dev’, happily ate dinner with the kids and was fast asleep by the time he could get away from work. Such was my reunion with fasting.

The next day, my guilt ridden better half made many snide jokes about this ritual, saying it was a big sham, fasting itself is a big sham, as per him. Even though he sounded disrespectful and was very rudely questioning the veracity of a very sacred ritual; his statements were undeniably true. He was voicing what I had experienced yesterday. Where was the faith; the simple honesty with which we practiced such rituals?  None of us seem to dwell on the reason anymore. We superficially follow ‘old traditions’ and grumble about the inconvenience such rituals cause to our daily life.

This lack of knowledge has made a mockery of these rituals. We keep fasts today for krawa chauth, vat savitri, bhai dooj, chhatt… but we all look drained and weary; our heart is not in it. The glow and radiance my mother had on her face; I have not seen it in a long time. Thus, began my journey of trying to figure out the true reason for fasting; the etymology of fasting; if I can call it that.

Fasting is the willing abstinence or reduction from food, food and drink too (absolute abstinence) for a period of time. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism or Hinduism, every religion has one common denominator for advocating fasting. Fasting is a way of purifying oneself. Abstinence from food, drink and physical proximity is a way cleansing the body, mind and soul.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity says, ‘The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but according to sacred tradition to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving. To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful. To repent for one’s sins and to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting’.

Islam believes, ‘By fasting, whether during Ramadan or other times, a Muslim draws closer to God by abandoning bodily pleasures, such as food and drink. This makes the sincerity of their faith and their devotion to God (Arabic: Allah) all the more evident.

Jainism states that, Self-starvation by fasting is supposed to help shed karma. Santhara (Self- starvation leading to death), the individual gets ample time to reflect on his or her life. The goal of Santhara is to purify the body and, with this, the individual strives to abandon desire.

Buddhism advocates the Middle Path, asking the followers to avoid extremes of indulgence and self- mortification too.

Sikhism is the rare path which does not promote fasting. ’Human mind requires the wisdom, which can be achieved by contemplating on words and evaluating it, torturing body is of no use’.  If you keep fast, then do it in a way so that you adopt compassion, wellbeing and ask for the good will of everyone: ‘Let your mind be content, and be kind to all beings. In this way, your fast will be successful. (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 905; 299)

One religion realized how farcical this sacred ritual would become and decided to stay away from it altogether. We stopped contemplating long ago; torturing our body without understanding the wisdom; fasting has become a mere charade.

Sources: wikipedia

Upanayanam

Upanayanam

In the long list of rituals, I have participated in, clueless and totally ignorant about what and why I was being a part of it, Upanayanam tops the list!

The first I heard about Upanayanam was in the context of my marriage; my husband -to -be got the thread ceremony done a day before our wedding, because per him it was ‘licence to marriage’!  I found it illogical and hilarious, but with a missing spirit of inquiry, I gave no further thought to it; it was another of the never-ending rituals we have in our Religion.

A few years later, I was an active participant in the Upanayanam of my brother – in – law. This time around the reason was very contradictory; my brother was keen on pursuing the path of sanyasi. Upanayanam was imperative to enable him to join the tutelage of an able guru. The same ritual for two different reasons! This comes back to me now as I attempt to elucidate below the essence of this amazing ritual.

Upanayanam (Yajnopavita, sacred thread) is the 10th samskara (rites of passage) in the 16stages of life. It marks the acceptance of a pupil by a Guru; initiate the process of learning, dwell into the study of Vedanta and evolve. From the medieval Indian texts to the present day Upanayanam is restricted to the upper caste (varnas), namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishya varnas, and is performed only for the boys.  Whereas, the Vedic period texts show that Upanayanam was encouraged for all members of the society, even shudras and women. Everyone wore the thread to indicate their status in their household. Today, it is a worldly ritualistic festival of sorts, performed only for the elite Brahmin boys!

In Hindu traditions, a human being is born at least twice — once at physical birth and second at intellectual birth through teacher’s care. Verily, the sacred thread ceremony indicates that the person has started to learn the sacrifices (Yajnopavita). The pupil is given the primary set of instructions (Brahmopadesha) and the student is declared as Dvija (born again). Traditionally, this ceremony is solemnized at age 8 amongst Brahmins, 11 years amongst Kshatriyas and age 12 among Vaishyas (Apastamba Gryha, 1.1.1.27 states that the maximum age to complete this ceremony is 24), unlike my husband, who got his thread ceremony done a day before our marriage, where he was 28!  Luckily for him, Gautama Gryha Sutra and other ancient texts state that there is no age restriction and anyone of any age can undertake the Upanayanam. The Baudhayana Grihya sutra in verses 2.5.8 and 2.5.9 states the teacher to “let him initiate, to school through Upanayana; a Brahmin in spring, a Kshatriya in summer, a Vaishya in autumn, a Sudra in the rainy season; or all of them in the spring.”

Every state in India has a different name for this ritual. The ceremony is called Munja or Mounji-Bandhana (literally, tying of the munja, sacred thread) in the state of Maharashtra. This name finds its origin in the name of a grass called Saccharum munja (Bengal cane). This grass is used to make a girdle that is tied around the waist of the child. In Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and in several areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the sacred thread is known as the “Janoi” or “Janeva”. Many other names (varying by region and community), are Bratabandha, Janivaara, Jandhyam, Poita, Pūṇūl, Janeu, Lagun, Yajnopavita, Yagyopavit, Yonya and Zunnar. The other Sanskrit term being Avyanga.

The “sacred thread” is a thin cord, composed of three cotton strands. The strands symbolize different things depending on the region. Like, in the Tamil Hindu community, each strand is for each of the three trinity of goddesses, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

As per the ancient Sanskrit texts the term Upavita was originally meant to be any upper garment (as stated in verse 2.2.4.22–2.2.4.23 of Apastamba Dharmasutra) or, if the wearer doesn’t want to wear a top, a thread would suffice.The proper manner of wearing the upper garment or thread, is from over the left shoulder and under the right arm.

The idea of wearing the upper garment or sacred thread, and its significance, extended to women.This is reflected in the traditional wearing of sari over the left shoulder, during formal occasions and the celebration of rites of passage such as Hindu weddings. It was also the norm if a girl undertakes the Upanayana ceremony and begins her Vedic studies as a Brahmavadini. They wore a thread or upper garment over their left shoulder. Those girls who chose not to go to a gurukul were called Sadyovadhu (literally meaning, one who marries straight). However, the Sadyovadhu, too, underwent a step during the wedding rituals, where she would complete Upanayana, and thereafter wear her upper garment (saree) over her left shoulder.

The invocation of tranquility, Udaka Shanti marks the beginning of Upanayanam. This is to invoke happiness and peace in the place. Invoking the blessings of ancestors is the second step. The blessings of the ancestors upto the Atman (the last 3 generations) and Brahman (beyond the 3 generations) are invoked to bless the sacred thread.

Preparations for learning marks the third step. The student is expected to learn to be simple in food, dress and learn to control his urges. Student should learn to submit as well as to seek, taking a solemn vow to learn and to acquire knowledge; this is the fourth step. The father (the first teacher) and the guru together whisper the Gayatri Mantra into the boy’s ear. This ritual is conducted carefully done, under the wraps, so that the boy pays total attention and not a single syllable is missed. This is the penultimate step.

The last step is explaining the significance of Upanayanam (second birth); concentrate on learning by seeking out and devote his entire time to build up his body and mind.

In Nepal, a slightly different ceremony is held which combines ‘चूड़ाकर्म‘ (choodakarma) (tonsure, shave the head) and Upanayana saṃskāra locally known as Bratabandhabrata meaning promise, bandhan meaning to be bound) It is held among the Bhramin and Kshytreya hill communities in Nepal.

Rajbali Pandey compares the Upanayana rite of passage to Baptism in Christianity where the person is born again unto spiritual knowledge, as the ceremony marked the initiation of the student for spiritual studies such as the Vedas.

Another veil lifted; every time I dive into our scriptures I am rendered nonplussed. Our predecessors seem to have lead the most modern lives yet stayed utterly simple and rooted to values and ethics. They understood the scriptures correctly and strived to live them, manasa, vacha, karma.

Sources:

http://creative.sulekha.com/upanayanam

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upanayana

 

Kalash Pooja

Kalash Pooja

My spiritual guide, my Master, recently published a post on Speaking Tree titled “Fasting and Autophagy: Ancient Wisdom and Scientific Research Intersect”. This brought back many memories and I pulled out my long forgotten notes; all the diligent studies I had done to understand the true significance of so many rituals I blindly followed in the past.

I have already written about Lighting the lamp, Prasadam, Idol worship and Bhajans. All these rituals have a profound meaning and done in true spirit and with perfect understanding, they should result in achieving our ‘goal of life’.  Another such ritual which I mindlessly followed was Kalash Pooja. This article is an attempt to understand the true significance of this important ritual.

It is believed that before the creation came into being, Lord Vishnu was reclining on His snake-bed in the milky ocean. From His navel emerged a lotus from which appeared Lord Brahma, the creator, who thereafter created this world.
And Lord Vishnu held Kalash filled with nectar during Samudramanthan (churning of the ocean). All deities are believed to reside in the kalash.

Since then the kalasha is viewed as a symbol of abundance, wisdom and immortality. The Purna-Kalasha is considered a symbol of abundance and “source of life”. It is also called Soma-Kalasha, Chandra-Kalasha, Indra-Kumbha, Purnaghata, Purna-Virakamsya, Bhadra ghata, or Mangala ghata.

We find a kalash in the hands of Hindu deities Brahma, our creator, Shiva our destroyer and teacher, Laskhmi our goddess of prosperity. Every auspicious occasion, be it Gruh Pravesh, Gauri pooja, Deepawali , marriage and  even to celebrate the arrival of a new born, we perform kalash pooja.

I enter this home with a kumbha; fill it with ambrosia and anoint

All those who drink of this heavenly water and protect this home.

I enter this house to dwell in it. ( Atharva veda: 3.13.7-9-5000BC)

The Kalash and its adornment have a very symbolic meaning for every occasion. To welcome the new born Kalash represents material things: a container of fertility – the earth and the womb, which nurtures and nourishes life. The mango leaves associated with Kama, the god of love, symbolize the pleasure aspect of fertility. The coconut, a cash crop, represents prosperity and power. The water in the pot represents the life-giving ability of Nature.

For Gruh Pravesh and other household functions, a silver or brass face of the Goddess is attached over the coconut of the Purna-Kalasha. In this form, the Purna-Kalasha symbolizes the Goddess as the manifestation of mother earth with her water, minerals, and vegetation.

Other interpretations’ of the Purna-Kalasha associate with the five elements or the chakras. The wide base of metal pot represents the element Earth, the expanded centre is water, neck of pot is fire, the opening of the mouth is said to represent air, and the coconut and mango leaves: ether. In context of chakras, the Shira (literally “head”) – top of the coconut symbolizes Sahasrara chakra and the Moola (literally “base”) – base of Kalasha – the Muladhara chakra.

The water in the kalasha symbolizes the primordial water from which the entire creation emerged. It is the giver of life to all and has the potential of creating innumerable names and forms, the inert objects and the sentient beings and all that is auspicious in the world from the energy behind the universe. The waters from all the holy rivers, the knowledge of all the Vedas and the blessings of all the deities are invoked in the kalasha and its water is thereafter used for all the rituals, including the abhisheka. The leaves and coconut represent creation. The thread represents the love that “binds” all in creation.
On some occasions the Kalasha is filled with coins, grain, gems, gold, or a combination of these items instead of water. The coronet of 5, 7, or 11 mango leaves is placed such that the tips of the leaves touch water in the Kalasha. These leaves are known as leaves of deity’s seat. The coconut is sometimes wrapped with a red cloth and red thread; the top of the coconut is kept uncovered. A sacred thread is tied around the metal pot. The Shira is kept facing the sky. The kalash is used for creating seat for invoked deities during the puja ritual. The water inside the kalash keeps this seat pure till the ritual of Pranapratishta (invoking deity into an image, idol, coconut or betelnut). Thus, the invoked deity principle stays for a long period.

Putting a coin is symbolic of sacrifice. Through this medium there is sacrifice of wealth and jiva (embodied soul)’s attachment is reduced. This qualifies the worshipper to benefit more from the sattvikta of puja ritual. A copper coin is put in the kalash. The copper has more capacity to project sattvik frequencies. It helps in emanation of sattvik frequencies present in the water into the atmosphere.

The betel nut kept in the kalash is to enhance sattvik and rajsik components in the water of the kalash. This increases the capacity of the water to emit manifest principle of deity. The betel nut contains particles related to absolute earth element which are useful in binding of sattva particles related to sattva component. This then easily helps in retaining the sattvikta of water for a long time. Five precious stones like pearl, diamond, emerald, blue sapphire, ruby and gold are also added to the water of kalash. The five precious stones and gold have capacity to attract and emit the principles of five superior deities. This benefits the worshipper. But with changing times the use of five precious stones and copper is reduced and replaced by alloys which are spiritually less beneficial.
The consecration (kumbhaabhisheka) of a temple is done in a grand manner with elaborate rituals including the pouring of one or more kalashas of holy water on the top of the temple.

There is a world of depth, meaning and essence to every ritual. Everything that was said and done during our Vedic period had the backing of science, logic and reasoning. It has sadly deteriorated with time and gone into oblivion today. Every ritual I have performed in the past would have fructified if I had done them myself, with full awareness and knowledge, the essence of what I am doing and why. I was always sincere but lacked the jijnasu quality, the spirit of inquiry was missing. Meditation (I have come back to Meditation, I know:) ) has made me aware of this yawning gap between my actions and ignorant actions!

Action is purification of the mind; not for gaining (knowing) the truth. Knowledge of the truth is by inquiry alone; not even a little knowledge is gained by crores of action. Vivekachudamani (5.11)

Sources:

http://ajitvadakayil.blogspot.ie/2013/05/kalasha-symbol-of-cosmic-womb

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalasha

http://bharathkidilse.blogspot.ie/2009/10/kalasha

The lamp we light

The lamp we light

All Hindus light the lamp in front of the deity, without which our prayers and worship remain incomplete. This is a ritual we have followed since time immemorial. We all do so with utmost devotion and dedication. The meaning of these rituals has never been asked or questioned either. Apart for the simple meaning our folks gave us, ‘you should not, and must not keep the prayer room in dark! A light must burn always.’  Which is explanation enough for us and we stick to it with complete faith. When we run out of oil or clarified butter we become creative and improvise with the small bed light. We are all following instructions and trying to be as true to them as possible. Most of us do not delve deep and try to understand or ascertain why we need to light the lamp in the first place and when we are lighting the lamp, then which lamp should it be? What significance does an oil lamp have and why the effect is nullified the minute we switch on the night light to replace the oil lamp? In the hustle-bustle of our work-home-work routine we barely manage to spare a few minutes to light the lamp every day without fail, that itself is like a big accomplishment for us.

Swami Tattvavidananda, here talks about the lamp, the oil lamp; its’ significance and meaning which clears the soot of our minds and lights up the lamp of understanding explaining ‘why only oil lamp’. ‘In the inner shrine of the temple, the darkness unremittingly tries to envelope the lamp, and the latter in return is struggling to dispel that darkness. Such struggle is constantly going on in the devotee’s heart too between the ignorance and the desire for the knowledge. This is the symbolism of the tiny lamp in a corner of the inner shrine.

The lamp in the shrine is necessarily an oil lamp. It cannot be substituted with an electric lamp, though of similar appearance, for every aspect of the oil lamp has significance. Typically, an oil lamp is lit inside the shrine. The word ‘sneha’ means the oil and also love and affection. When the aspirant settles into devotion to the Lord, he acquires equipoise of the mind. In the metaphor, that devotional state of mind serves as oil for the lamp of knowledge. Oil has two characteristics: it is very sticky, and it flow is continuous and unbroken. The devotee should acquire these two characteristics in the heart in his devotion to the Lord.’

‘The symbolism continues further. There is a varti, wick made up of cotton, that sustains the flame. It stands for proper value system in the devotee’s life, e.g. discipline in the eating habits and speech, right attitude towards others and so on.’ Even after years of worship and temple going, keeping a light burning in the temple room also change is not visible and some of us wonder why so. Our prayers are a distracted mutli -tasking duty juggling between the kitchen getting our kids ready for school and mentally worrying whether the maid is going to come or do we have to do the dishes also before leaving for work. Can we honestly remember a day when we can say that ‘yes, today we only prayed’. Without any other thought sneaking in we are barely able to light the lamp every day, praying is very farfetched.

Oil – lamp has a wide base serving as a receptacle. It holds all the oil required to fuel the flame, and also provides stability to the lamp. The mind filled with vairagya or dispassion is the base. To summarize, the seers have incorporated the entire teachings of the Upanishads and the Gita in the temple worship. Once we understand correctly the symbolism of temple worship, the temple emerges from a seat of worship to a seat of learning.’

The base, the oil, the wick and the eternally burning flame, all have their own meaning and significance and definitely cannot be replaced with anything else. The minute we start replacing anything, we are filtering or diluting the process and the essence diminishes accordingly. We on our own can put ourselves to a test and decide why after all these years of praying and temple visiting, we are yet to really get there, find peace or see a change in ourselves. One among the above steps, maybe more than one will be missing or adulterated, hence the result, or the lack of it. Maybe the change is yet to come because a few steps are wrong or bereft of the essence of worship.

Hindu religion is a highly evolved and scientifically structured religion. The Brahmins used to perform the Pooja and all the rituals because they were given this education since childhood. The Gurukul system was so prevalent and compulsory for every child because only by living with the guru, watching the guru, learning from the expert in person is the only way you can assure yourself that you have learnt it all correctly, the method, the meaning and its significance. How else can anyone replicate it and achieve the same heights that the guru attained? This may be the reason why today’s India is lacking in true realized souls, even though we have an ever increasing number of devotees and Temples. We need to be with the guru or listen to the guru with all our heart to really know, learn and imbibe. It is strange that we eagerly accept a teacher when we need to learn any subjects, like English, Math or Science but when it comes to learning about the most important thing, worship, for our personal betterment some like me think we know it all, or some of us conveniently assign the task to the temple priest and continue to light the lamp with whatever is available at home unmindful whether what we are doing is beneficial or simply a routine duty.