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8.26.2009

The nature and composition of divinity

Srinivasan stood contemplating over the beauty of the monument that lay silent in front of him. In the cool breeze, he could hear the wind echo through the rocks, bringing with it the messages of hard work and toil, passion and love, the call of war and bloodshed, hatred and fear, and a host of supremely high emotions that fell to dust with the collapse of this little world in stone.

He sat down and looked up to the remaining bricks and stone that made up this temple, as they still held on together a mystical stage that still had exquisit dansels dancing on its walls. The mesmerising beauty still enveloped him, the mysticism of the past still whispered in his ears and the ground plan echoed profound mysterious elements of truth that were now almost brought down to dust.

He wondered, to himself that this land in some era long ago was lush green and blooming. The air was pure and the earth rich with life. The waters were crystal clear with the sunlight shimmering in its waves and there in the middle of this silence and serenity would have been a rishi in deep meditation in a quest to attain higher bliss. Srinivasan imagined him sitting still, motionless in severe penance till at last the Lord appeared before him and asked him for a boon...

This was documented; his penance, the sacred syllables and the moment of awakening to the supreme, the experience and the boon all wrapped into sacred syllables that described it in the form of a simple scriptural verse.

-*-*-*-*-

Centuries past by, eras passed and a young man happened to walk this path and came upon this place. He lay under a tree enjoying the environment and decided to worship the lord here right under the tree. He installed a linga made out of the earth and offered it flowers and fruits for a while and then disappeared into the darkness of time.

-*-*-*-*-

Time shrouded this emblem of the Lord, this symbol of life till there came upon it a King who had been out hunting. He came by this place and decided to take some rest. As he settled for the afternoon he noticed a linga under the tree and went closer to observe this icon, or rather what remained of it. He decided to build a temple around it and give it proper ritual and worship. Soon there came up an exquisit temple that housed a linga that replaced what was uprooted and consecrated the newer version to the shrine chamber. But his happiness was short lived. War engulfed the land and the enemy was far too strong and the kingdom fell to the oncoming forces. The temple was ravaged and demolished and the shrine chamber was unrecognizable with the icon destroyed.

-*-*-*-*-

Years later another king happened to come in search of rich land and came upon this location. He decided to have a temple built around the same place. Within this extravagant temple he installed a much more larger and flamboyant linga in its shrine a little farther away. The temple grew with riches and was prosperous till it fell to invaders. Subsequently, newer temples came up and several "pranaprathisthas" took place to install newer versions of the linga within the main walls of the sanctum. And yet they fell to enemies.

-*-*-*-*-

It is NOW and Srinivasan was staring up at this delapidated structure that cried its past. A more recent version of this shrine was built a little farther away but by now the original location of the shrine was lost and so was the original shrine. Srinivasan looked up wondering what was left of the sanctity of this shrine. Srinivasan sat back thinking deeply...

What made this place get its sanctity? What, in this whole story actually defines the supreme?

Was it the effort that the Rishi took to worship and go into severe penance to have the Lord descend into this world and bless him?

Was it the mythology that surrounds this place and its reference in the sacred scriptures?
Was it the spot where the Lord had appeared?
Was it the earth or the air that was so sacred?
Or was it the era where everything was so pure that it wouldnt really matter whether he appeared here or 10 feet away.
Or was it the Linga that was kept here by a devotee who took to worshiping the Lord?
Was it the temple that was built to house this linga or any of the subsequent versions of the temples that were built?
Or was it the newer version of the idol that was consecrated by means of ritual and not by severe penance?
Or was it the very structure that protected it?
What is it that attracts us to temples? or Shrines?

Or is it pure Bhakti? That what ever it is this land is sacred and therefore even if there is a mosque standing in its place today it should not matter... Bhakti knows no form or designation of religion.

When we look up to this delapidated temple why does it hurt? Is it...


This exquisit structure in stone so paintakingly put together now destroyed by some heartless soul? The sanctity of this structure, but is it the structure that is sanctified or the earth on which it stands or the young man or the rishi...
The shrine that has been vandalized?
The feeling that the Lord has left us behind on this earth to face our peril?
Or the feeling that the purity of this earth has been vandalized by men and now there is nothing left of it but pure impending death in the form of slow pralaya...

Think about it... the original shrines of Somnath, Kashi Vishwanath, and many more temples are long gone... I really dont have a clue on what we are worshiping. What is the composition of divinity and why is it that in the middle of a mad crowd and a threat of a stampede, I still felt 3 seconds of absolute bliss and void at Thirupati... What is it we feel in these places... its far more than vibration... its something else...

8.18.2009

The Iconography of Divine Wisdom

How do we define knowledge? How do we define the difference between academically gained knowledge and that of divine wisdom? How do we comprehend the supreme nature of that wisdom where its nature is to be realized and not to be put to material use?

The ancient scriptures present to us the nature of this divine wisdom and the realization of it in the worship of three forms of the supreme. Each form represents one aspect of the Trinity and the iconography of this form seldom changed through the times. It is therefore very evident that supreme wisdom is of a different kind and in this yuga we have been given the nature of it possibly in the form of sound, in the form of Vak(or the spoken word).

Hence, being blessed with divine wisdom renders us the all knowing, where we just know the answer to every question and our life is in the purest intellectual form where even illusion of the people or life around us falls meaninglessly in front of our realm. This is one definition of enlightenment.

The second form of being blessed, is with words of sweetness that take form when we express ourselves using the sacred form of sound in producing Vakya. The spoken word is so sweet as honey and so potent in energy that it can transform even stone to gold. This comes with the talent of stitching sound into a beautiful garland of words with wit and overpowering intellect that the world is silent and speechless over its composition.

The third form of blessing is when the self swoons to the higher level of awakening where everything is music and words spoken stem from thoughts so pure that there is no malice, there is no hurt in the sweetness of the chosen word to the world around us. And therefore sound matters, the given word matters, truth matters, and possibly pleasant delivery matters. Most pray for one of few things, to be either blessed with Goddess Saraswati seated on our tongue such that what ever comes out is honey sweet. Other pray for better concentration and improved intellect for a longer duration of time to Lord Vishnu in the form of Hayagriva and lastly those who have gone beyond the maya of living, and really want to know whats beyond in the unknown choose to worship Shiva Dakshinamurti to be blessed with supreme enlightenment.

And this is when iconography echoes all around us, the vision of divine wisdom takes shape.

Saraswati: Goddess of learning

Ya Devi Stuyate Nityam Vibhuhairvedaparagaih|
Same Vasatu Jihvagre Brahmarupa Saraswat
||

O Goddess of great wisdom, who is praised by the intelligent, who has mastered the shastras, the consort of the creator himself, May you continue to reside on my tongue.

Shrii Saraswatii Namahstubhyam Varade Kaama Ruupini|
Twaam Aham Praarthane Devii Vidyaadaanam Cha Dehi Me||

To the Goddess Saraswati, who grants all the wishes of her devotees, I pray to you to bless me with enlightenment.

Sarasvathi Namastubhyam, Varade Kaamaroopini|
Vidyaarambham Karishyaami Siddhir Bhavatu Mey Sada||

Oh Mother, who blesses the world, I worship you at the start of my education. I bow to you to help me make this experience fruitful and bring success to my efforts.

Goddess Saraswati is depicted dressed all in white, on a lotus seat that symbolizes supreme pure wisdom and her vahana is a swan. She is occasionally associated with the color yellow, the color of the mustard flower that blooms in spring. She is depicted 4 armed which represents the four aspects of the human personality: mind, intellect, alertness and ego. She holds the veena, the scriptures in the form of a book, a garland of crystals or akshamala, and a kamandalu of water. She depicts not just the perfection of the arts but also the higher powers of meditation, creative energy and the rhythm in sound.

Hayagriva: God of learning and concentration

jnAna-Ananda-mayam devam nirmala-sphaTikAkRtim|
AdhAram sarvavidyAnAm hayagrIvam upAsmahe||


Hayagriva is a lesser known form of Lord Vishnu who is draped completely in white, horse headed and seated with his hand in vyakhyana mudra. He holds an akshamala and a book that depicts his form as a teacher. His face is always serene and peaceful.

He blesses his devotees with the power of remembrance and concentration to realize supreme wisdom.

Lord Shiva Dakshinamurti - The Supreme Teacher

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu | Gurur Devo Mahesh Varaha||

Guru Shakshat Para Brahma|Tasmai Shri Guruve Namaha||
Guruve sarva lokaanaam Bhishaje bhava roginaam|

Nithyai sarvadhiyaanam Dakshinamurthaye namo namaha||

Lord Shiva is depicted teaching the Vedas to the Sanahadimunivars, the 6 great sages among whom Hayagriva is also seated. Lord Shiva is seen seated under a banyan tree facing south and draped in yellow. His right foot rests on the mythical form of apasmara purusha who signifies ego and ignorance and his left foot is folded on his lap. He holds a snake or a rosary in his hand and is sometimes depicted holding a bowl of fire in the other hand. He is either depicted in vyakhyana mudra or abhaya mudra or gyana mudra while the other hand holds a bundle of kusha grass indicating the sacred scriptures. Alternatively, he holds a veena, and is known as Veena Dakshinamurti.

Cutting across the entire pantheon of Gods that are housed in Hindu iconography, three forms of the supreme echo the iconography of divine wisdom. The purity in it, the evolution of the self through the experience of enlightenment and the sweetness of the words that come forth give us a brief hint of what potent powers lie deep within our being. Learning is one aspect which can be undone with time and can be forgotten, but divine wisdom once achieved is a state where there is no going back.

Photo courtesy:
Hayagreevar - Copyright © trsiyengar.com 2004-2005
Creative commons, Wikipedia

8.10.2009

To Lord Venkateshwara, I pray

Where the void meets chaos
Where diversity meets unity
Where noise meets silence
Where the self is and isn't

This is the moment of truth at the shrine of Sri Venkateshwara, Tirupati. It is one of the most popular shrines of India that has millions coming to meet the Lord, to have a glimpse of him and leave with a heavy heart, with deep emotion to have been blessed.

Getting to the foothills of Tirupati means we have been granted this divine vision, the experience of which is not easy to get. We are tuned into it from childhood to bear, to endure and to be patient till we make it to the inner shrine. This was a trip, of a different nature, of a profound kind for it was as eventful as one could have it. With a minor bus accident delaying us by 45 mins and waiting endlessly before the temple for our guide to emerge from the crowds, we were
finally guided towards the entrance of the temple.

This was a test of sheer endurance, with the harsh sunlight burning the stone and cement flooring that led to the temple, it was no easy walk to make it remotely close to the shrine. After 10 minutes of walk with blisters and heat eating into our feet that resisted the harsh treatment we made it to cooler ground. Then began the next ordeal, that of being a caged animal pushed among people and loving it as the only other echo among the chatter is the sound of the Lord's name. There were people everywhere, the pulse of India's population is truly felt here. We can insulate ourself from public transport, unreserved coaches, Mumbai locals but we cannot escape the queue of Tirupati darshan if we want to feel the real pulse of India.

Here caste doesn't matter, maybe even faith doesn't matter for one could be a foreigner subjected to the same ordeal. Here Bhakti matters for its the real test of facing the most powerful force in raw form. The gathering momentum of India's brute force, the raw power of the moving crowd that for some strange reason is racing towards the inner shrine and what's worse, we are in it. In the midst of this chaos lay a family within the caged queue, a helpless man holding his child who peacefully slept in his arms, with two other children staring at their mother who was not keeping well. She seemed to be in severe pain, sweating and gasping, seated on the floor, letting the world go by in all its insensitivity.

We were India's raw population and not a single soul among us even got down to asking what the problem was... and like a river in flood we moved on leaving the family to fend for itself. It was further down in the queue that I noticed a few Devasthanam personnel appearing like scouts with ID cards giving us water from outside the cage. I stepped close to the cage wall trying to hold on while the river of people waded by, speaking in Hindi and then reverting to broken Tamil on request. I tried in all my limited vocabulary to pass the message that there was a distressed family further down in the queue that needed medical attention and they had no way out except be part of this flood. Having gathered some attention and trying to explain the problem to them, I had quite lost my place in the flowing river with my husband patiently waiting and trying to figure out what I was trying to do. This was all I could do, limited within my cage, and braving the river flowing at me, the only good thing I possibly did was raise the alarm of someone in pain and helpless inside.

And then the madness increased, this was not just a river in flood, it was worse for it was reaching levels of stampede as I was being advised to stay in the center of the crowd and never make it to the corners for if I did, I would probably never make it in one piece should I fall or not endure this oncoming force.

We had now entered the temple, the Mecca of the Hindus lay in front of us in all its grandeur. This brings a mixed feeling no matter how many times we get this darshan, its always different, and its never enough. But this time we were here with a purpose, of having made a promise to return to visit the Lord and it had not been very easy fulfilling it. We felt the stress in every inch we covered, He didn't make it easy for us or for anyone else. And now we were racing into the sanctum.

And then we neared the main shrine, deafened by the din surrounding us, blinded by the gold that blankets the shrine roof, numbed by the eloquence of the atmosphere, feeling the fragrance and the essence of the temple shrine and holding on to dear life as we were given a push into the main mandapa. And then we made that crucial turn we saw all heaven descend on us.

Where the void meets chaos
Where diversity meets unity
Where noise meets silence
Where the self is and isn't



Lord Venkateshwara stood there in silence as if He had descended into real life to bless all of us. There was no one inside the sanctum, not a soul and the darkness inside enveloped in the cool air had just Lord Venkateshwara standing at peace with a few lamps burning around Him. He looked simply divine and warm and yet so far away from this chaos that completely surrounded Him. The mind went blank, the feet stopped to move, the breath stopped flowing, I ceased to exist and all that there was in front of me was the VOID.

This is what void is, void is where there is supreme bliss, where there is no sound, nor movement, nor breath, nor mind, but extreme emotion. Void is where the body doesn't matter but soul is completely awake, void is where senses cease to exist but consciousness is in complete power. Void is what happens to us for a few seconds when we are transported to the other world that appears in front of us in the form of Lord Venkateshwara. Void is that feeling of deep emotion where we can neither explain or prove but can only feel and emote.

In this drama of real and pure bliss that bathed us for a few seconds the heart felt overwhelmed and the tears rolled down in complete helplessness. We were rudely woken out of this bliss by a strong hand that pulled us away from that glimpse. We stepped out, emoting and overwhelmed, blessed, exhausted and at peace, in silence, in tranquility staring at the mass of people racing in for their moment of bliss.

We walked out, after having prasadam towards the main door with a bit of irritation towards the crowd that still continued to push. And then there was a scream from inside. We were told to move and a few men came racing out with a stretcher. We moved close against the wall as an army of men with walkies yelled asking for way. We watched as they carried a lady on the stretcher, the same lady who I had seen sometime back suffering in the corner as the queue passed by. She lay lifeless in the stretcher as it raced out of the temple door. My heart stopped as we watched her being carried out towards the ambulance. We wondered, had she just fainted or was it more serious than that, did our raising the alarm in broken Tamil help her get her medical aid sooner? What were the other million insensitive Indians doing instead of calling for help!

In this drama of life, where the single thought in the mind is to fulfill that desire of Darshan, maybe we can do better as compassionate human beings. If we find anyone suffering in the queue for Tirupati darshan or anywhere else, we can call for help and raise the alarm. The Devastanam has ambulances and medical personnel will come to the aid of the suffering person. All we need to do is inform the personnel in uniform that someone is in trouble. The queue will move on, and darshan is inevitable for we cannot and will not get out of it until Darshan is over. For those who collapse on the way, let the heart speak and let compassion flow. I was close to turning a blind eye like the others, I am not sure whether she would have survived without help from the masses - from us.

Where silence meets noise
Where life meets the gloom of death
Where blind purpose meets compassion

Let the heart flow, let the consciousness awaken
This probably is true worship, and the perfect endurance test.

8.03.2009

Divine dialog in stone


It was nearing dawn and Baladeva woke up, wiping the sleep off his eyes. It was a special day, one of worship, of peace and of divine dialog. Baladeva quickly got up to freshen himself culminating in a purifying bath as he lit the lamps within the chamber of his home and sat down to pray.

As his consciousness drew inwards into a more divine world, Baladeva let his imagination loose on the form of Lord Shiva. After several hours of deep meditation he offered himself as a medium requesting the Lord to descend through his imagination and his hands into the stone that he was going to create the Nataraja out of.

A learned man who had dedicated his life to making sculptures belonging to the iconographic family of Lord Shiva, Baladeva was a renowned sculptor in the Chalukyan court who belonged to the presiding guild of the time. He was well versed in the art of sculpture, he breathed the Shilpa shastra into every sculpture he made and this was divine worship to him.

On this day, he prayed that his worship would be an offering of everything he had, every thing he was capable of and every possible good thought he had ever had in these years of his life. He was getting into another world, into another realm where he detached from his earthly life, his wife and family, his court and wealth and retreated into this world far away from the calls of responsibility. He was here, just him and his imagination to enter into a dialog with the Lord.

Bowing down to the sacred shrine before him, asking the Lord to descend into stone through the passage of his imagination, Baladeva took up the tools and headed towards the divine stone that had remained soaked in water for over 18 days and had been treated to receive and house this divine energy that was soon going to be induced into it. He sat at the center of his chamber, with a lamp light flickering casting shadows of this rocky mass around the stone walls. He closed his eyes, as he felt the surface, to feel the form, to enter into the world of divine dialog.

In the silence of the chamber, as the rising sunlight streamed through the decorative grills of the jali window and the smoke of incense rose into the air clouding the chamber, the sounds of a metal digging into solid rock became more audible to the world outside. With his eyes closed and the thoughts nullified the Lord began to appear in divine light within his mind. He sat carving, his fingers energized by divine presence, his intense imagination was so strong that no noise of the outside world even remotely affected him. Food could wait, sleep could wait, breath could wait, wife could wait, children could wait, King could wait, war could wait but the music within the mind played along as he expressed himself minute after minute into his stony canvas.

Bhakti oozes from within the mind, trickling into reality in tiny drops of tears and sweat while the limbs move on feeling their way through the undulating form that makes up the Lord. Stony pieces rain around the room, dust bathes him, the fire continues to glow feeding into the oil and the shadow cast by the stone starts to take divine form. There is grace in His form, there is compassion in His hand mudras, there is wilderness in His jatamukuta [Head dress], there is beauty in His eyes, there is poetry in His stance, there is stability in His being, there is eternal love in His presence.

The thoughts don't waver and the channel of divine presence continues to stay alive as pure love enveloped in discipline, carves out this form that defines the true nature of the being within. As the beeja mantras of the Lord sprinkle forth in droplets of sound that whisper through the room, a mind works tirelessly on, to bring down that form to reality. For 40 days and 40 nights Baladeva worked on, sporadically taking to a meal made with care and purity, offered to the Lord and then consumed as he relayed his mind back into his imaginary world of charm and splendor bringing down every intricate detail into reality to be witnessed by all.

The sculpture came to completion and Baladeva gave his finer touches to it. The room, now in darkness held just two images within it, that of a sculptor looking up with awe for the first time to see a masterpiece and the second was the distinct shadow of the Lord dancing against the walls. In the darkness of the night, there was divine light within the room, in the silence of the night, one could hear the beats of the dancing lord, in the stillness of the night, one could feel the air swirl as he cut through it with His jatas [free flowing hair of Shiva in dance]. Baladeva gazed on exhausted, in complete bliss, ecstatic to see the Lord stand there in front of him. He bowed asking for the Lord's blessings as he raised the lamp light up to Him. He has now closed the divine channel, the Lord has descended, the stone is alive with life and the fire is his divine light to see and imbibe the presence of the Lord, flawless and beautiful in front of him.

Pure worship with discipline and devotion renders a man to perform amazing feats, when the mind is not distracted and is full of love and devotion. Its such an unthinkable feat these days...

*-*-*

Baladeva is a sculptor of the Chalukyan dynasty who specialized in making Shaivite Dwarapalas. His signature is found at the feet of these idols and his dwarapalas often come with a 3rd eye indicating his inclination more towards the Shiva faith. Baladeva is one of the rare names recorded in inscriptions representing ancient indian guilds of the Chalukyan era.

Picture is of Nataraja, belongs to the Madurai Meenakshi temple and is not of Chalukyan origin historically.