Tag Archives: Hinduism

Garhwal Diaries 7 – Offering Prayers at Kedarnath

After offering my prayers i took a round of the temple complex. Here are a few snap shots:

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Indian Mystic Sadhu

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A temple behind a temple

IMG_0275Carvings within the temple complex

IMG_0279For Whom the Bells Toll

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Temple pichhwada!

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Shiva: A Cultural History or Logical Myth?

India is a country of great religious and cultural diversity. Hinduism, being the oldest practiced religion in the world, abounds in Gods, Goddesses and myths. But little do we know that every myth has logic and science behind it.

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Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwar are the Godheads and they seem to be in a constant struggle for dominance. Many scholars believe that each is a manifestation of the other, thereby following the concept of one God. Among these three, Shiva is the most debated one.

The reason, perhaps, is the fact that none have been able to understand Him clearly due to His paradoxical nature. He is the stoic ascetic and the loving husband. He is the destructive power as well as the creative energy. He looks fierce and handsome. He is the wrathful God as well as the serene yogi. He encompasses all these contradictions within himself at the same time. Moreover, he is a dancer, who performs the dance of death which is the key to life.

Let’s take a look at some of His primary features or traits and attempt an analysis:

Shiva’s matted locks decked with a crescent moon

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Shiva’s unkempt hair is in indication of his asceticism. This contrasts with his role as the beloved of Parvati. The crescent moon indicates the changing seasons and rejuvenation of life. This again contradicts with Shiva’s image as the destroyer.

Snake

Shiva wears a snake coiled around his upper arms and neck and waist. Snakes symbolize the Hindu concept of reincarnation. Their natural process of shedding skin is symbolic of the transmigration of human souls from one life to another.

Damru

The upper right hand holds a damru or an hourglass shaped object which has a double significance. Some scholars believe that the first syllable of sound came from Shiva’s damru while others claim that the triangular upward and downward representation of the damru symbolizes the male and female procreative potential, namely, the Lingam, and the Yoni. The creation of the world begins when the lingam and the yoni meet at the mid-point of the damru.

Shiva and Dance

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Shiva as Nataraja or the Cosmic Dancer is the second most popular form of Shiva worship, after the Shivalingam. The very idea of dance carries within it a variety of significations. Dance, according to ancient Hinduism, is used to induce trance, ecstasy and the experience of the divine. Dance was meant to be a rhythmic release of energy which was aimed at approaching God. Therefore, Nataraja, represented the rhythmic movement of the entire cosmos.

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva’s dance symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and annihilation as well as the daily rhythms of birth and death. Shiva’s dance is perceived by some scholars as the source of all movement within the universe. According to historian, Anand Coomaraswamy, Shiva’s dance represents five essential activities: ‘Shrishti‘ or creation;’ ‘Sthiti‘ or preservation’, ‘Samhara‘ or destruction’, ‘Tirobhava‘ or illusion; and ‘Anugraha‘ or emancipation. In this way the figure heightens its paradoxical nature by uniting its inner tranquillity with outer activity.

The dance of Nataraja is not just a myth. There is a vivid logic behind it. Nataraj’s dance is an allegory of the human condition. Shiva, here, is not just a personal God but a universal principle. The place of the dance, Chidambaram, which is regarded as the centre of the universe, is actually symbolic of the human heart. Shiva performs the dance of Nature.

At an individual level, man is a unity in himself. But at the same time he identifies with the cosmos and is in harmony with the world around him. As Coomaraswamy says, “Everywhere is God, everywhere is the heart.” Shiva’s dance destroys ego, and achieves a state where the self is free of illusion and impure deeds. Shiva dances in order to destroy, to create and destroy again.

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Shiva’s physical structure and his dance is an evidence of the superior intelligence of the ancient Indian philosophers who created this magnificent metaphor of the perfect man in complete harmony with Nature.

The cultural history of India is full of myths but every myth has logic behind it. All of them relate to a way of living and conducting life. They educate us on the realities of existence and ways of being in amity with our natural surroundings. The irony is that in our efforts to simplify our lives, we manage to complicate it even further. A careful look at our deities would provide simple answers to our complicated questions.

A Lifetime Spent

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It was her 25th marriage anniversary. They had decided to throw a party in the evening. But instead of being ecstatic she was in a reflective mood. Thinking, wondering, pondering…a whole series of events and images came to her mind. Not all of them were pleasant but definitely memorable. Sitting with a cup of tea in her hand in the small yet cosy balcony she thought about her marriage to a stranger whom she had eventually befriended.

They had spent twenty-five years with each other. This was unbelievable keeping in mind the first impression she had of him. Their parents had fixed up their marriage. He was thirty-seven years old. She had freaked out when she heard this. How could she marry a man ten years older to her? Her mother consoled her by saying that he was a rich and a self-made man. And although he was not good-looking by normal standard, everyone thought well of him. They were no longer wealthy enough to spend lavishly on her marriage as they did during her sisters’ marriage. Moreover, his family had no demands. They were strictly against any form of dowry.

She was not consoled but resigned to her fate. At five feet and one inch she definitely was not tall. And although her features were not as sharp as a classic Indian beauty’s should be, she possessed a complexion lighter than wheatish but darker than fair and an innocent face which appealed to most people she met. She had another asset – her keen sense of perception.

She had to go to Jamshedpur to meet him. Her relatives wanted her to see the groom once before marriage. She wondered why she was asked to do so since she did not exercise the actual choice of denying him. Perhaps, it did not matter whether she met him or liked him after meeting but that he wanted to see her. This very thought filled her with distaste. Moreover, she did not like the idea of living in a small city after being in Calcutta all her life. She would have to begin her life afresh in a new city, with new people. This terrified her. She would have to resign from her job in the Bengali medium school she was teaching in. There were no Bengali schools in Jamshedpur. How would she ever adjust was the question of the hour.

She met him in the evening. Her initial sense of repulsion, doubt and fear came back. She tried to fight back the feeling of being commodified; something that she always felt when any man came to see her with marriage in mind.

He was pitch dark. About two inches taller than her, his appearance was a far cry from all the good-looking men she had met and who had rejected her on the basis of being too thin or too short. She refused to look at him, partly because she was shy and partly because she was horrified to see her future glaring at her. Through the formal conversation which carried on for about two hours, in which her future was decided for her by her elders, but in which her opinion was not asked, she gauged that this man had a good sense of humour. He smiled quite a lot and made others laugh around him a lot more. Though she would have liked to be an audience to some of his jokes, this would have been unthinkable. So she continued her conversation with her prospective sister-in-law.

The date of their marriage was fixed on 24th April, 1983.

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The days after that passed in a daze. With all the clothes and jewellery shopping, distribution of cards, meeting the bridegroom’s relatives who could not contain their curiosity to see the new bride, she hardly had any time for herself.

On the day of her marriage, she observed the customary fasting ritual. She did not care much for it but with vigilant elders around her, she had no choice. She did not feel the pangs of hunger until late in the afternoon but on complaining she was reminded that she would have to go through it for her and her husband’s well-being since starvation on the big day would guarantee a lifetime of happiness. On inquiring whether her husband would also do the same she was told that it was not incumbent on men to perform these rites. Again the injustice of it all struck her. Everyone seemed to be implying that the welfare of her marital life would solely depend on her actions and her fate. But what about the person she was marrying? Was he not going to share her responsibilities? She helplessly accepted this contention too.

Her aunts tried to force her to go to the beauty parlour in order to look beautiful for her husband-to-be and the guests. She noted that it was not for herself but for others that she was supposed to look good. Immensely irritated by everything that had been happening to her for the first time she vehemently refused to comply. She was never fond of artificial colours anyway. People not so good-looking required make-up, she reminded herself. Her husband would have to accept her the way she was, she thought with some pride.

bouBut she did look enchanting. The lack of makeup heightened the quality of innocence in her face and everyone praised. Some neighbours and distant relatives congratulated the bridegroom’s family for having coveted such a prize. A prize indeed she was and she hoped that they would prize her even after her marriage. Although the stories she had heard from her married sisters about their married life was in no way consoling.

Vermillion was applied on her forehead at 12:00a.m. By the time the marriage ended it was well past midnight. Everyone, including she, was exhausted and in no mood of celebrating. But she had to continue smiling, looking interested and shy, as was expected of her. Next day the journey back to her new home was a tearful one.

A long time would elapse before she could start considering her husband’s home to be her own. Nor did he make any special efforts to make her feel at home. He was too busy with his newly set up business and did not spend much time with her. They did go on a honeymoon which was short but pleasant. She found her husband quite weird. Although he did not give her any reason to complain yet she had no reason to praise him. He never stood up for her in front of his family. He tried to even know her better. In other words, he never bothered himself with her and left her to fend for herself all the time. He did not restrict her movements but being a newcomer to the city she did not know where to go and was inevitably left to the mercy of her in-laws to entertain her.

borShe would escape to Calcutta every now and then. Although her husband did not object to it her in-laws would harangue her about the necessity to serve and care for her husband and her sister-in-law would sarcastically remark that her home in Jamshedpur was more luxurious than her mother’s place. She felt like telling them that the size of the house did not matter to her but the amount of love she found in that place. She felt like telling them that she felt suffocated in this huge house where no one cared for her but where everyone kept reminding her of her duties towards her husband, although none educated her husband of his duties towards his newly wedded wife, which he neglected most of the time. But this would have been blasphemous. So she told them that she was lonely here without friends. This merest self-defence elicited a grunt from her eldest sister-in-law who told her that she had to be friendly person herself to make friends. But later, her younger sister-in-law approached and told her that she would have to adjust despite all odds. This was the fate of all women. Perhaps, she detected a note of empathy in her words which warmed her to this otherwise stoic woman. But she did not get to know her well. The only person who empathised with her in the new household died at childbirth five months later.

She found it extremely annoying that it was her conduct that was always kept under tight scrutiny. No one bothered about her husband’s code of conduct. What was his office like? Why did he not come home last night? Why did he travel so frequently? Why did he not take her along in these long tours? What did he do there? Such behaviour which would normally be considered abominable in a woman remained unnoticed in a man. This irked her. If she came later than usual from the market her sister-in-law questioned her on her whereabouts under the guise of being concerned. If she visited her friend then her mother-in-law would insist that her brother-in-law drop her to that friend’s place. She was self sufficient. She did not need a protector. All she had desired was for a companion and instead of that she found tutors, guides and protectors.

But she was one of the few lucky ones. She realised this on speaking to her neighbours. Finding her a reserved but comfortable companion, some of them confided in her. They told her about the problems in their households. Some of them were regularly beaten up by drunken husbands. Some had mother-in-laws who made them work whole day in spite of the presence of servants. Some said that their husbands had extramarital affairs. Earlier they were quiet about it but on realising the helplessness of their wives, they sometimes brought their girlfriends home under the guise of friends or business partners. There was no way to retaliate against such humiliation.

She felt mad with rage on hearing all this. Sometimes alone at home she would contemplate on such occurrences. Her mind would be clouded by doubt regarding her status in her husband’s life. Even he did not stay at home most of the time. Did he too engage in similar clandestine affairs? And even if he did what would she do to maintain her self-respect? Nothing was the answer. She could do nothing except for raving and ranting in front of him and even that would not help because he was hardly at home.

She decided to look for a job to save herself from such ignominy. She informed her husband about this and was a little surprised to see that he encouraged her whole-heartedly. She had not expected such cooperation. In fact she was banking on a lukewarm acceptance in a slightly disapproving tone since men in the modern days hated to seem outdated and yet preserved the centuries old chauvinist instincts within themselves. His enthusiastic response filled her with joy, moreover so, since her brother-in-law opposed to this decision. He considered this to be an insult to the supposedly hard working men when the womenfolk of the house took it upon themselves to earn a living. Very uncharacteristically and for the first time, her husband opposed to his brother’s viewpoint. Men should not take it on their ego when women try to be economically independent. After all, without economic independence all other form of independence is a farce, he told them. None dared to say anything to her after that.

Very soon she had to face a disappointment. Bengali, her mother-tongue and also the language in which she had been educated proved a drawback. She had to know English or at least Hindi if she wanted a job as a school teacher in Jamshedpur. There was no scope for Bengali and even the Hindi-medium schools were fast disappearing. On hearing this, her brother-in-law gave a triumphant smirk, her sister-in-law made a sardonic remark about the more luxury people get the more demanding they become and her mother-in-law refrained from getting into this whole discussion.

But one thing was clear to her by now – that her husband was not a bad person that she thought him to be all this while. He was a workaholic for sure and also seemed to be a bit insensitive since he never bothered about her needs. Yet he was more humane and broad-minded than any of his family members were. Since she could not meet the professional requirements, she thought of requesting her husband to take her along with him on the innumerable tours he went to. Emboldened by the fact that he supported her once, yet fearful that he would think that she was crossing her limits, she thought of putting this proposal before her husband. Although hopeful, she was not entirely sure of a positive response. She was in for a surprise again. He readily agreed to the proposal.

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In fact she had second thoughts after speaking out her mind. She was not sure whether she would be able to converse with his business partners or mix with the people he socialises with. Her self-confidence received a setback with her rejection in schools. But he husband pacified her saying that the people he socialised with were down-to-earth and nice people, in the midst of whom she would not feel out of place. He had thought of asking her to accompany him long time back but was not sure about her reaction since she seemed so conservative and introvert and a nomadic lifestyle would not suit her, or so he thought. Coward, she thought to herself. Or plain disinterested. How can one ever decide about another person without even trying to know her?

In spite of all her anticipation, she did accompany him to all her tours. It was in these tours that she discovered the person she got married to. She had only seen the serious side of him. Away from home, she saw the romantic side too. He remained busy most of the time. He did have a streak of insensitivity in him. Or maybe his business demanded such dedication from him. But the ogre had assumed a more acceptable and human form for her. He had his own flaws. He was extremely stubborn; always refusing to listen to any suggestions she gave. In spite of all his broad-mindedness, he felt that since she did not have a profession, she should concentrate on the duties of the house and not instruct him about the ways of the world. She thought this was unjustified since she had a strong sense of perception which he lacked and which he should exploit to his best advantage than refute it. Sometimes he would even taunt her for not doing anything and would refuse to understand that household chores were also difficult and deserved to be praised.

It took some years for the stranger to become her friend. And their friendship consolidated with a birth of a daughter after two years of marriage. She had wished for a girl who would grow up to be her friend and companion. Her husband, laconic as usual, did not voice his opinion. So all her prayers to God would be a request for a girl child, which was indeed granted to her in December of the very same year. This gave a complete new turn to her life and filled the void that was created due to a very busy husband and lack of profession. Some of her neighbours expressed their sorrow on giving birth to a daughter but she was ecstatic. Her ecstasy was doubled when her husband’s reprove quietened the crowd who came to see the child and expressed grief in return. She had decided to live her life through the child, to give her every opportunity that she lacked in her life, to make her self-sufficient and in a way, make up for the shortcomings in her own personality. Many a time she had thought of breaking all the bonds that her marriage had imposed on her but she lacked the courage and even the financial means to do so. She was determined that her daughter would not go through the same trouble that she herself faced. And even if she would then she would also have the means to escape. She had reconciled to the fate that her elders had chosen for her but her daughter would decide her own fate. She was sure about that.

Twenty-five years seemed a long time ago but she still felt as young as before. She had not just adjusted but also adopted the culture of the place. Jamshedpur became her home. She never worked henceforth in spite of all the coaxing that her husband employed on her so that she would tutor students at home atleast. She decided that her profession and vocation would be to bring up her child. In spite of occasional bickering with her husband and the verbal clashes with her in-laws, she rated her marriage as reasonably successful although she was not sure if she was completely happy. Perhaps, she would have been if she could convince her husband to move out of a joint family and live separately and peacefully because the family never forgave her touring round the country with her husband. But her husband’s stubborn nature stood in the way of her happiness.

Twenty-five years later she was dressed up and still waiting for her husband, not for him to return from his business trip but from the other room where he was on the phone conversing with the organisers about the evening party. She was tired of waiting. After all she had waited all her life…for everyone and everything. At the moment she was eagerly waiting for the arrival of their beloved daughter from Delhi. They would have to go to the airport to receive her. So instead of waiting any longer she decided to call on her husband.

Mesmerising Elephanta Experience

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Ten nautical miles away from the busy city of Mumbai lie the enigmatic Island of Elephanta.  Water bodies tend to have a soothing effect on me and but not this time. The heat and the moisture made the atmosphere in the boat extremely oppressive. I was more troubled by the number of food packets, plastics and coconut shells which went floating past.

Water in sea

However, we reached the island within forty-five minutes and then took a tram which dropped us nearer to the hill that was the famous abode of Lord Shiva. One look at the gigantic proportions of the temple architecture made all my hard work seem worth it.

History

The majestic rock-cut temples whose history remains a mystery to this day, is said to have been built during 450-750 A.D. under the influence of Buddhist architecture. Excavated in the 8th century, this imposing cave shrine added to the glory of the ruling Rashtrakuta dynasty which ruled the coastal area from 757-973A.D.

From the outside of the cave

The term “ilha do elephanta” was coined by the Portuguese several centuries later because they found a monolithic stone elephant in the island. “Gharapuri” or the “City of Caves” as this island was known during the reign of the Konkan Mauryas is not only the serene abode of Lord Shiva but also one of the great examples of Indian art and sculpture displaying the lore of Shiva.

It was a thrill to see some research that I had done prior to going being identifiable. The larger-than-life architecture of Sadashiva or The Eternal Shiva was breathtakingly beautiful and justified the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) using it as their emblem.

Contrary 

Contrary to the popular belief that Brahma is the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Maheshwar, the destroyer, the Sadashiva statue depicted Shiva as the creator, preserver and destroyer. The three heads had three different expressions on their faces. It was amazing to see that even stones could express emotions. Besides the statues, there were approximately nine stone Shivalingams which were enshrined within the precincts of the cave.

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I was transported to a completely different century altogether. The immensity of the architecture made all the manifestations of Shiva seem mysteriously alive. Was it myth or was it history? I wondered. I knew that every myth had logical base which we failed to recognise in the modern days. I was also aware of the fact that every God in the Hindu religion represented aspects of human nature.

Broken Image

These statues, too, did the same. Shiva as the serene Yogi, as well as the loving Husband, as the supreme Dancer, and the Wrathful God – He is all in one at the same time…and so are we. We, too house paradoxes within ourselves like the concept of Shiva. It was then that I realised the actual essence of pantheism and understood the profundity of our mythical heritage.

Current

The Elephanta Caves was deservedly declared the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1987. A symbol of ancient Indian culture, religion, myth, history, sculpture and architecture – this temple is an exemplification of a confluence of Science and Arts since its very existence proves the brilliant engineering skill which combined with religiosity, artistic temperament and an aesthetic sense in creating this grand emblem of Indian culture.