Dec 3, 2012

Thirugnana Sambandar, the Impaler?

7th century Tamil Nadu, India. A little boy is born to pious Brahmin parents in the quaint little town of Sirkazhi. As the boy attains the age of three, he is taken to a nearby Shiva temple. While the father takes a dip in the temple’s pond, Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi appear in front of the boy. Before the father comes back to the son, they disappear and the little boy is left with drops of milk on his lips. When asked who fed him, the little finger points up towards the sky and the soft lips start singing a hymn praising the lord. Over the following years, the boy goes up to sing the most amazing hymns in Tamil that forms the Holy Book of Saivism (religion of the Shiva devotees). The little boy was none else than - one of the most renowned of the 63 Nayanmars - Thirugnana Sambandar. The lad who was fed by the Goddess herself!

15th Century Eastern Europe. The cruel of the cruelest King reigns over the country. The Ottoman Empire is being eroded away by this ruthless warrior. As tens of thousands of enemies' bodies get cruelly impaled in long and sharp arrows, the horrific image of this King spreads throughout Europe as a forest fire. He was none else than King Vlad III Dracula - the demonic warrior whose very thought and the bloody cruel punishments bring shrills and shivers to people up to this day!

Now, why are these two different people being juxtaposed? Do they share anything in common? What if they do? 

To understand the link here, readers should first clearly understand what "Impalement" is, and how it made Vlad Dracula stand out in history as the most horrific ruler. For the movie-buffs out there, impalement ("Kazhuvettram") is what Kamal Haasan (“Rangaraja Nambi”) gets as punishment for not practicing Saivism (worshipping Lord Shiva) in “Dasavatharam” movie. It's a kind of punishment where the body of a human is pierced from his bottom and pushed up through the body, to reach out through the head. (This being such a gory punishment is precisely the reason why the movie didn't show the way the punishment exactly works, but toned it down a bit). It was such a torturous execution method used in the early and medieval ages.

Now to the story that links everything up. It was the 6th century in ancient Tamil Nadu when the saint Thirugnana Sambandhar lived. It was a time when Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism coexisted in the land. However, oftentimes there were quarrels among these different groups, usually followed by persecution of the losing religious group. (Note that the Hindus were divided into Saivites and Vaishnavites, and the quarrels between them is yet another story!) The Pandya King called Koonpandiyan who ruled around the region of Madurai, was coaxed to convert to Jainism by the Jain monks in his country. This displeased the Queen and his ministers to a great extent, who were ardent worshippers of Shiva. After knowing about the young Saivite saint called Sambandar, they solicit his help to cure the king's recent illness and also to convert him back to Hinduism (Saivism). Sambandhar travels to Madurai and successfully cures the king's illness (that the Jains couldn’t) by singing a hymn and smearing holy ash on the king's arm. Unable to accept the defeat, the Jains set up a second test wherein the Jain literature palm leaves and the Saivaite palm leaves (of Sambandhar’s) are to be fed to fire, and whichever group defies the test of fire, wins. As the leaves are fed to fire, the Jain leaves are burnt to ashes, Sambandhar’s leaves are untouched. Unable to accept the defeat again, the Jains challenge Sambandhar for a final test - this time, a test of water. 

In the final test of water, palm leaves containing religious hymns from each side are dropped into the Vaigai River. While the Jain leaves drown and get washed away, Sambandhar’s leaves swim against the water currents. Sambandhar wins over the Jains in all the three tests. Amazed at Sambandhar’s feat, the king accepts to convert to Hinduism. What is more worthy to be highlighted here is that all the defeated Jains were impaled one by one, headed by the saint Thirugnana Sambandhar himself. A grand total of 8000 Jains were cruelly impaled on that gory day!

When the novelist Bram Stoker embarked on creating the world-famous horror novel, Dracula in 1897, he aptly named the protagonist with the name of the cruel warrior Dracula. King Dracula’s thousands of impalements speak of his horror. The same kinds of impalements have happened in the name of religion in our Sambandhar story as well! 

Now when I step into a Hindu temple and touch the feet of the 63 Nayanmar saints one by one - and when I reach Thirugnana Sambandhar - I would stop for a moment. To think.


Aug 5, 2012

God-built bridge in a Ghost-town!

The plot of the story is set several centuries ago. Morgan Freeman is the dad of Brad Pitt’s, and he’s a king who rules a small kingdom. He has three wives and four sons, out of which Brad is the first son. After winning a fanfare-filled competition of masculinity and strength, Brad gets married to Angelina Jolie who is a princess from a nearby kingdom. When it’s time for Brad to raise up the throne as king, his step mother turns out to be a villain and gets him banned out of the kingdom, and to live in the woods for 14 years. On the other hand, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a demon-king who rules a faraway island. He tricks and abducts Angelina to his place. With the help of a huge team, including his grateful friend Sylvestor Stallone, Brad sets out on a battle with Arnold. They build a bridge connecting Arnold’s island, reach the other end, defeat Arnold’s army. Eventually, Brad rescues Angelina and brings her back to his kingdom and they live happily ever after. Well, this is no Hollywood period movie, but the storyline of the great Indian epic - Ramayana.  But wait, how does the Ramayana story relate to here? The epicenter of our story here is the bridge that Rama and his team built - the controversial, debated, and worshiped - Ram Setu, Ramar Paalam or Adam’s bridge.

Rameshwaram is a town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is one of India's most revered pilgrimage spots. It is situated on the Pamban Island that is located between mainland India and Sri Lanka. At the eastern end of the Pamban Island is another town called Dhanushkodi that rivaled Rameshwaram in tourism. While Rameswaram was famous for its Ramanathaswamy temple, Dhanushkodi was also a flourishing tourist and pilgrimage town, back in the days. With Sri Lanka being just 31 km away from Dhanushkodi, there were many ferry services connecting it with Talaimannar of Sri Lanka. Trains from mainland reached the island at Pamban Station, from where the railway lines split into two directions- one towards Rameshwaram and another towards Dhanushkodi. At Dhanushkodi, it's a great to sight to watch the rough Indian Ocean meeting the calm waters of Bay of Bengal. It was at the tip of Dhanushkodi that Lord Rama built a bridge connecting Sri Lanka, as per Ramayana! But as destiny had it, the seeming auspicious Dhanuskodi was ill-fated.

Year 1964. The night of December 22nd. It should have been a very peaceful night after dharshan at the Rameshwaram temple for those 110 passengers who rode train No.653, the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger. The quaint meter-gauge train that left the Pamban station zoomed majestically toward Dhanushkodi. While in the train, those tourists should have been glad after finishing a long-planned pilgrimage trip with their family. Some of them would have cheerfully discussed about their next day's stopover at Dhanushkodi before heading back to their hometowns. But they were in for a total surprise

At 23:55 PM sharp, a few yards before Dhanushkodi railway station, the train was hit by a massive tidal wave. The whole train was washed away killing everyone on board. Along with them, over 1800 people died in the cyclonic storm in the whole town of Dhanushkodi. The high tidal waves moved almost 10 kilometers onto the island and ruined the entire town. All houses, the small railway hospital, the dharmashala, and all other structures in Dhanushkodi were swallowed into the sea.  Following the disaster, the Government declared the town as “Ghost town” (unfit for living).

I'm forced compare this with the sinking of the Titanic, and the commendable job by the Westerners to keep memories of the Titanic alive for several generations to come. Today, the whole world remembers the grand Titanic ship and its tragic end via the movie. Well, we don’t need a melancholic romantic Hollywood movie that would make memories of Dhanushkodi freeze within our hearts, but don’t those poor tourists and inhabitants of Dhanushkodi deserve to be remembered? Or at least to be known that such a tragic event happened?!

Zooming back to Lord Rama’s bridge from Ramayana. The Indian epic claims the bridge to have been built by Rama several thousand years ago with the help of his brother Lakshmana, his ape friend Hanuman and several other members of his team. He had used this bridge to reach Sri Lanka on foot and rescue his wife Sita from Raavana, the demon king of Sri Lanka. This very bridge starts from Dhanuskodi and continues to Srilanka! While this has been one of the great epics of India for several centuries, out of the blue, some American scientist “discovers” the remains of the bridge and names it “Adam’s bridge”, and claims it to be naturally formed, and not man-made, consequently suggesting Ramayana to be a myth.  As this blatantly strikes the religious beliefs of several Indians, there has always been opposition of this notion. There is also another group of people who fight for the destruction of the bridge and for making the sea deeper so that big ships can sail through, making for more efficiency of trade.

When the controversy around the truth and the debate of the bridge’s authenticity is saddening to many, even more sad - is the fact that a whole town that once flourished greatly, has been swallowed by a cyclone, and stands abandoned and helpless today. 

A God-built bridge in a Ghost-town indeed!

Jun 9, 2012

A Close encounter with GOD –II

(Continued from previous post) 

Humanity has seen humongous amount of changes over centuries, but the search for God has been one common thing right from Stone Age, up until today. Some people believe in God, while some people believe in themselves more than anything else. There is a third category of people who don't fall in either of these categories- they neither believe in God to a full extent, nor in themselves. Many of us fall into this category, and that’s the main reason for most of the miseries faced in life. (What do YOU believe in?) Even a more intriguing question to mull over is- Is there actually a difference between believing in God and believing in yourself at all?? 

Zooming back to my contemplation atop the sacred hills – As I finished hearing each of the personalities’ mystical answers to “WHO IS GOD?”, I felt the stars pulling me towards the unfathomable realm of GOD again. As I remained in the incredible trance, I saw myself gliding into thoughts of two experiences from my own distant past…

It was many years ago - the time when I was a college student. All that I got from my dad was a meager amount as pocket money. Just after finishing my lunch, I walked on the street on a late Sunday afternoon when I was confronted by a little, shabby clothed old lady who was in her late eighties. She came closer to me and earnestly implored, Son, I’m very hungry. Can you please spare me 1 Rupee for buying a vada for lunch…? I felt sorry for her, and without any hesitation, I spontaneously emptied out my pocket of all the crippled notes and coins and gave her all the money that I had. She was dumb-struck for a moment. I asked her to rather go and eat a sumptuous Biryani for lunch. She became totally overjoyed which reflected in the way her tiny old eyes shined. She smiled gratefully, baring her toothless mouth and glowed with radiance. I felt as if the petty money in my wallet illuminated her and the light transformed to everywhere- to every nook and corner of the street - the whole area was glowing with an aura of benevolence, joy and karma. All for a day’s pocket money.

Initially I felt the stars pulling me towards the realm of GOD was just an act of my mind. But soon I realized that this was not bound within my mind. It transcended to a limitless space of wholeness and oneness. This realm was not limited to time, space or any other boundaries. Continuing my journey towards this realm, I quickly slid into the thoughts of my second experience.

It was after I got my first job. I wanted to give away half of my first month’s salary to people who are in darn need. However, I didn’t believe in just “donating” money in the name of a cause, but wanted to go to an old age home, organize a free lunch, serve them all myself, and indulge in the whole experience. The free lunch at the old age home happened as I had wished. After their hunger was satisfied, all the old men and women sat around me and chatted leisurely. However, one among them still did not seem glad.

This old lady was staring at the wall as she spoke to me: “If you find Murugesan, can you please ask him to visit me sometime?” She kept repeating the same sentence at least 3 or 4 times. I thought for a moment and could easily guess that this Murugesan was the old lady’s son who didn’t take care of his mother in her old age. I went closer to her, held her hand and said with warmth, “I know Murugesan. I’ll definitely ask him to visit you soon!” She smiled with all her heart, this time turning her face towards me. Finally as I was preparing to leave from the old age home, some of them asked me what the occasion was, that made me do a good deed today.  I said to them aloud, “I got to meet and have a special lunch with you all, and that’s the occasion!” This day, I was able to fill a few empty stomachs, bring smile to the barren lips, and console a few wounded souls – all for just half of my monthly salary and some warmth in heart. I left the place not just “donating” or “serving food”, but it was much more than that.

Now that I was in a constant contemplation, all the answers to "WHO IS GOD" by those personalities and my two experiences flashed in my mind back and forth. All their answers didn't quite refer to someone very far and external. And my mind brought me my own experiences as answers. I was at the verge of understanding the answer to the question. As the stars put me to a sudden halt, I knew that I was already within the realm of GOD. With an eye-blinding luminescence and an enchanting realization, I saw God, Himself.

He was indeed the closest one to me in my life, who I have been with, all the time I have existed.

May 22, 2012

A Close Encounter with GOD!

A chilly February night on the hills of a less-visited holy shrine in Tamil Nadu. I sit atop a boulder and gaze at the starry sky. The small towns around the base of the hills are so noisy as opposed to the meditative silence here. Even crickets and other nightly insects seem to maintain silence at this place. This place had been one of the most-revered places of the ancient saints, and claimed to be abode of God himself. After starting to climb up the hill early this morning, right from the moment I reached the peak, I feel as if all the connections with my regular worldly life have got severed. My mind sees a never-experienced tranquility and stillness. As I continue to gaze at the sky, I have a feeling as if I’m being pulled by every star, as if using several strings, away from the world and into an unknown realm closer to God.

 As moments pass, I feel that the silence has changed into a mild, rhythmic and collective chant of the name of God. As I stay focused in my seeming journey to that realm, my human intellect pulls out a question from the world beneath the hills and shoves into my mind- “WHO IS GOD?” It repeats the question harmoniously over and over again- “WHO IS GOD?” “WHO IS GOD?” As the stars abruptly stop pulling me to that realm, I start looking for an answer to this question. And I see several well-known figures from my under-the-hill-life popping up and filling my mind’s vastness. They are Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, Siththar Thirumoolar,  Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, psychologist Dr.Joseph Murphy and Indian movie star Kamal Haasan. As I bewilderedly ask them why they are all here, they all tell me in harmony- “I HAVE THE ANSWER!

The first one to speak up is Bodhidharma, the Kanchipuram-born founder of Shaolin Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism. With a stern look on his face, he says, “As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you will never see that your own mind is the Buddha!” Sensing the puzzled look on my face, he continues, “To find a Buddha, all you have to do is see your nature”. As I was trying to decrypt what he said, I heard someone singing a poem. It was the mystical Tamil Siththar saint Thirumoolar.

Siththars were the mystical Tamil saints, astrologers, alchemists and scientists of ancient India. Thirumoolar being one of the most mystic of them begins to sing an odd poem that goes like this (translated version):

This poem of Thirumoolar sounded like a simple kindergarten school rhyme, but only after moments did I realize that it’s just the superficial meaning. The hidden meaning is that the five senses of a person are like the five cows he keeps at his house. When he succumbs to these senses, these uncontrolled senses make him go crazy in life, but when controlled, they reap him the ultimate benefits of human life. Thirumoolar adds, "Controlling the senses is the key to evidence the Master". I suddenly hear someone laughing. It was Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

With his typical chuckle, Jaggi Vasudev puts forth a radical question of how one knows where the “boundary of a person” lies - which is your own body and which is external to your body. The body that we humans have built up is nothing but accumulated food, since birth. The grain that we eat today becomes blood and bone tomorrow. So, in essence, body is nothing but accumulated food, taken from the earth over several years of life. If our body is all borrowed from outside, where is “You”??, he questions.  As I wonder with my mouth wide open, he chuckles again and says graciously that the human mind is not limited to the human body that is accumulated over the years, but transcends everywhere in the universe, and is boundless and limitless. Phew... This still adds even more mystery to my original question. 

As psychologist Dr. Joseph Murphy starts to speak, I yearned for a straight forward answer at least this time. He pulls out from one of his books and quotes from the Holy Bible,
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. (Matthew 7:7) 
When I was about to quickly judge him and anticipate his answer, he smiles as if he knew what I thought, and repeats, “If you ask in faith, you will receive. But who do you ask?     
-The treasure house!”  To me, his response was utterly confusing. I should ask the “treasure house”?!?! He smiles again and continues, “if you ask in firm belief, your prayers will get answered. For all your sincere prayers are listened by, and answered by the treasure house within you - which created you, healed you and continues to shape you every second - the “treasure house” within you – your subconscious mind. 

It is versatile Indian actor Kamal Haasan who begins to speak now. As I look at him, all that comes to my mind is his well-known atheist ideologies and rationalism. He says in a matter-of-fact manner, “God is omnipresent!” It blew me off for one second. Kamal says, God is everywhere?! He continues, “God lives in you and lives in me, for God is none other than you and me”. This leaves me even more perplexed.

All these people I’m evidencing in front of my eyes are from different lifetimes and varied backgrounds. Some are dead and some are alive. Some are saints, psychologists and some are show-biz personalities. Together, they bewilder me even more about my original question of “Who is God?” I feel lost in a world of mystics. As I stare at them as I think, all of them disappear with a momentary flash in the dark sky of the night. The silvery stars collectively begin to pull me again. As I move, I start to see a huge blazing light in the distant horizon of my mind, and I knew - I was not very far from the realm of God…

To be continued in the next post..

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