Enjoy A 10% Discount On Your First Order

Special Offer

Don't miss today's featured deals

Latest Articles

Discover Knowledge Today

  • Tara and the Cult of the Female in Buddhism

    Tara and the Cult of the Female in Buddhism

    Standing Avalokiteshvara The female in Buddhism, despite its Master's reluctance to admit women folk into the order, was its psychological need and comprised its spiritual structure. Compassion - the softest aspect of being, man or divine, which was the core of Buddhism, best revealed itself in a female frame. Hence, in the course of time, feminineness dominated the Buddhist ambience so much so that even the images of the male gods like Avalokiteshvara were conceived with a feminine touch in their appearance and as an essential aspect of personality.The feminine tenderness and grace with which subsequent Buddhist images were conceived define the epitome of Buddhist iconographic perception and art. After benevolence and protectiveness, other virtues which a female best represented, were added to the cardinal of compassion this feminine aspect was more thrusting and diversified with the result that during Mahayana phase, more so in Tibetan Buddhism, the number of female deities reached in thousands.Such psychodynamics apart, factors outside Buddhism, especially plurality cult of Brahmanism and preponderance of feminine elements, played a vital role in determining the male-female ratio and their relative significance in Buddhism too. By sixth century or so mutuality of Brahmanical male and female 'devatas - gods, was completely revolutionized, the female gaining supremacy and priority over the male, even the great Trinity - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Texts like Devi-Mahatmya in the Markandeya Purana and Devi-Bhagavata among others installed Devi not only as possessing attributes and cumulative energies of all male gods but also as preceding them, even creation. Invoking a different form or aspect in each of the 'dhyanas' - meditative visions, these texts perceived Devi - Divine Female, as one and also as many, the former defining unity, and latter, diversity. To this plurality were added her 'shaktis' - subordinate powers. Aboriginals as well as Vedic Aryans had some early female deities but while those in the former tradition were just regional inoperative boon-bestowing icons, most of the latter represented aniconic elements or aspects of nature - usually terror inflicting, they appeased by laudation and 'havya'!  - offerings. The more accomplished post-Devi-Mahatmya form of Devi was, however, completely different from them both. Early Female Deities in Buddhism Nirvana Buddha Under the Tree of Life The Buddhism, too, had some early female deities, mostly inherited from erstwhile cults, as the Earth goddess and some yakshanis, Hariti in particular, from aboriginal tribes, and Lakshmi and Saraswati, from the Vedic. Interestingly, the Earth goddess who had iconic presence in pre-Buddhist cults was in Buddhism a symbolic presence, while Lakshmi and Saraswati, the aniconic Vedic deities, had in Buddhism well-defined iconographic forms. When the Buddha invoked the mother earth to be the witness to his act of conquering Mara and its hosts, he perceived her as all-seeing formless one competent to certify genuineness of his act.Except the Lalitavistara that talks of her as appearing in person, or the Nidanakatha and Mahavastu that talk of her quaking and dispelling Mara and its hosts, in the entire Buddhist literature the mother earth remains a non-operative aniconic spiritual presence. The earth goddess is alluded to in texts time and again sometimes as Sthavara - Steadfast, having ten lac forms, and at other times as Aparajita - Undefeatable, in Buddhist narratives she does not appear again. In the Mahayana narratives she appears before the pilgrim Suthana but only to proclaim that she has been the witness of the 'spiritual transformations of all Buddhas when they were to almost attain enlightenment', a role identical to her earlier one. Maya Devi and Buddha's Birth   Later, after Buddha's mother Mayadevi was deified around Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, the role of mother-goddess shifted to her.   Tushita Buddha This human-born mother of their Master was more intimate a mother and inspired greater reverence than did the symbolic earth goddess. As the tradition has it, Mayadevi gave up her mortal frame soon after the Buddha was born, only to seek greater freedom to roam and re-visit her son as and when wished. Consequently, each time a Bodhisattva was born Mayadevi re-created herself to be his mother. She was thus the mother of all Bodhisattvas and all Buddhas. She was present on all eventful occasions in Buddha's life, as at river Niranjana where he emaciated due to fasting. Her eyes melted into tears the moment she saw him. Buddha visited her in Tushit or Trayastrinsha Heaven and delivered sermon.She is said to descend from Heaven on the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana and weep over his robe.The other woman who rose to divine heights and attained Buddhahood was Mahaprajapati Gautami, Buddha's maternal aunt, who brought him up after his mother Mayadevi died. However, Gautami appears in Buddhist narratives only after Sakyamuni attains Buddhahood and accepting his path she embarks on her quest for liberation, as a regular monk. She was the first woman to seek monastic life on par with men and establish the order of female monks. She was the founder of nuns' order and was the ever first preceptor of its first batch. She had thus an outstanding role in the growth of institutional life in Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition venerates Gautami as the female Buddha, who destroyed all her imperfections, acquired great powers, knew others' thought, heard divine chorus, and was beyond the cycle of birth and death. No shrines are dedicated to Gautami but her legends figure in Buddhist sectarian art and faithful heads have always bowed in reverence over them. Hariti and Yakshani Cult Yakshas-yakshanis, often interchanged with 'devatas', were an integral part of pre-Buddhist cosmology and their worship a major cultic activity of Indian populace. Buddhism neither questioned or prohibited nor ignored yaksha-worship. Rather, yakshas-yakshanis were a recurring theme in early Buddhist art. Buddha even advised people to honor, worship and make offerings to yakshas as it brought prosperity. He even ordained that Hariti, the yakshani, would have a shrine at every monastery and also daily offering. Since then Hariti shrine became a monastery's essential feature, and Hariti, its protecting deity. The benevolent matron surrounded by children, Hariti represented female procreativity, abundance and fertility.Hariti, meaning thief, was initially a devourer of infants. Buddha transformed her into a protector of children and benefactor of humans. As the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya has it, Hariti was the daughter of Sata, patron yaksha of Rajagraha. Her name was Abhirati. After Sata died, his duties towards Rajagraha devolved on Abhirati and her brother Satagiri. Abhirati had, however, a different mind. Instead of serving as protector she had a vow to prey on children of Rajagraha and the same she revealed to her brother. When nothing could dissuade her, Satagiri married her to Panchaka, the son of the patron Yaksha of Gandhara. She had by him five hundred children. Before long, impelled to act by her baneful pledge she along with her offspring came back to Rajagraha and began abducting and devouring infants and children. Reports reached the king, and on his counselor's advice offerings were made to the unknown yaksha but all without result. Meanwhile, a yaksha disclosed all that Abhirati was doing. The term Abhirati meant a 'joyful girl', something not co-relating with her act. People hence changed her name to Hariti, the thief. Finally, townsfolk approached Sakyamuni who moved by their grief decided to deal with Abhirati in her own coins. He concealed Abhirati's youngest son Priyankara under his alms bowl. Not finding him anywhere, Abhirati broke into tears blinding her almost. Eventually, advised by a senior yaksha she also went to Sakyamuni and pledged that she would end her life that very day if her son was not restored. It afforded to Buddha the opportunity to make Abhirati realize the grief of parents who lost their only son when the loss of just one out of five hundred crazed her. This Gandharan masterpiece, carved in a warm-toned schist, portrays Hariti  as the epitome of maternal grace, a regal yet figure.   Realizing her ills Hariti empathized with parents whose children she had stolen and promised not only to desist but also protect and nourish them since onwards. She turned to Buddha as her spiritual guide and to his path. Buddha restored her child. He ordained that she would have a part of offerings, and with it she would nourish her offspring. He also revealed to her what turned her into a devourer of infants and children. In one of her previous birth she was a herdswoman in Rajagraha. One day when in market to sell her buttermilk, a huge crowd of people celebrating some festival invited her to dance. Accepting the invitation she participated and danced and aborted in exhaustion. Despite all that, she sold her buttermilk for five hundred mangos and staggered homewards. On her way she met a Pratyeka (solitary) Buddha. Impressed by him she offered him all her five hundred mangos. In her moments of deep reverence she pledged to avenge people of Rajagraha for her miscarriage by devouring their children. Lakshmi and Saraswati Prajnaparamita   Lakshmi and Saraswati are two Rig-Vedic deities in the Buddhist line. Their absorption into the Buddhist stream was perhaps necessitated by what they represented - Lakshmi, abundance, prosperity, fertility, happiness, beauty, luster, sovereignty among others, and Saraswati, art, culture, learning and all fruits of intellect. With followers from ranks and upper strata Buddhism could hardly ignore Lakshmi. And, an order as was Buddhism, esteeming wisdom, reasoning, oratorical skill . as the best of man, might not reject Saraswati who besides harnessing them had a lot in common with Prajnaparmita, the most venerated Buddhist divinity.   Devi Saraswati The early Buddhist texts are, however, evasively silent about them both. Lakshmi has significant presence in early Buddhist art at Bharhut, Sanchi . but Saraswati is completely missing. By around the 3rd century C.E., even Lakshmi disappears. Except a couple of them, Lakshmi images are not seen even in Gandhara sculptures. From around the sixth-seventh centuries Lakshmi images begin appearing on a larger scale but they are on Brahmanical lines, not Buddhist. Lakshmi's presence in early art but absence in texts, and in art, her icons decorating subordinate spaces, not forming part of the proper Buddhist theme, are enigmatic. Maybe, while rich donors commissioning construction of a stupa, or a part, at Bharhut, Sanchi or anywhere, insisted inclusion of Lakshmi icons for her favor, the order of the monks that determined the line of a text, or the body of the theme to be carved at a sacred site, was reluctant to admit her into the pantheon, at least as regular deity. The conflict was perhaps resolved by including Lakshmi icons as subordinate motifs, not as official deity, or part of a regular Buddhist theme. Saraswati was the patron of intellectuals - poets, dramatists. Like rich donors these intellectuals weren't instrumental in constructing a shrine, and, hence, Saraswati images weren't patronized. Apart, Buddhism had Saraswati's substitutes in Tara and Prajnaparmita, the deities with wider range of attributes and personality aspects. It was in late Tibetan Buddhism that the order of Lamas laid fresh impetus on Saraswati worship and consecrated her in Buddhist pantheon. Tara 'Whose smile made the sun to shine and frown made darkness to envelope the terrestrial sphere' is how the 778 AD Nagari inscription of Kalasan Chandi sanctuary at Java pays homage to Tara. This apart, Prince Shailendra, the founder of sanctuary, lauds the goddess as the savior of men and the most noble and venerable one. The temple she then enshrined was just one but by around 12th century Java hardly had a household shrine which was without an image of Tara. Goddess White Tara and Cosmic Buddhas Tara, the principal Buddhist goddess conceived with a wide range of attributes and personality aspects, has in Buddhism the same status as Devi or Durga in the Brahmanical. As various Brahmanical goddesses look like different forms of Devi, most Buddhist deities look like Tara's 'bhedas' - manifestations. As Devi preceded all gods, Tara as Prajnaparmita - Perfection of Wisdom and highest metaphysical principle, is claimed to have priority even over Buddha. Like Devi who revealed to Vishnu who he was and what for he was there, in Buddhism, Tara was the light and the prime source of Buddhahood and thus of all Buddhas. Like Devi, who is Shiva's consort, Tara has been conceived as the consort of Avalokiteshvara. Like Devi who is the mother of the gods of the highest order, Tara, at least in Mahayana Buddhism, is the mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Tara had an early presence in the Buddhist pantheon; however it was largely after the emergence of the Devi cult around the sixth-seventh centuries that Tara rose to a status on par with any other Buddhist god and was sometimes venerated like the great Master himself. Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of deities with local identities; Tara is the deity known to all, and her mantra - hymn, to every lip. In Tibet she is almost its national deity. Goddess Tara Who Guides Through Troubles (Ten Mahavidya Series) Tara in Brahmanism   Scholars have discovered in early texts like the Mahabharata a term 'tarini' meaning one that carried one's votaries across waters of tribulation and linked it with Tara suggesting her early origin and Brahmanical connection. The argument is little convincing. Tara's form, as emerged later in the Tantra, or as one of the Mahavidyas, was not known to the writers of the Mahabharata or of the main eighteen Puranas. Not so early, she undoubtedly preceded Mahavidyas, as when with one Mahavidya, not ten, the Mahavidya-cult was just evolving, Tara had her fully evolved form. Her transformation as one of the Mahavidyas occurred long after. Sri Vedavyasa AGNIMAHAPURANAM: (SANSKRIT TEXT, ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND INDEX OF VERSES) (Two Volumes) In her early form Tara was seen as commanding shaktis - powers that controlled rush of waters, protected navigators and guided boats.Before her emergence as second Mahavidya Tara's concept continued to change. In Agni Purana, she is a Yogini, not devata.In Mayadipaka, she has one form while as Mahavidya, another. Shaivite tradition considers her as the transform of Mahamaya, the great illusion. Shiva's epithet after he consumed arson during ocean-churning was Akshobhya - unperturbed, and Tara was his consort. Tara's prime presence is, however, in Tantra. Brahmanical Tantra-books do not go back beyond 6th century. Obviously, the Brahmanical Tara must have emerged only afterwards. The Java inscription, dated 778, and Chalukyan dated circa 1095-96, comprise her earliest known epigraphic records. Not as popular in South as in North, Tara is the principal deity of all significant Tantras. In Brahmanical texts too, Chinachara-krama - worship-mode as prevailed in China, was the accepted mode of her worship. Apart, the legend that sage Vashishtha went to Mahachina to learn the mode of worshipping Tara from Buddha, as the same was not known to anybody else, as also her form different from all other Brahmanical divinities, suggest that the Buddhist Tara was her prototype. Mahavidya Goddess Tara   However, the two concepts of the goddess are widely different. Despite that in Buddhism Tara has many manifestations, she is almost always benevolent, compassionate, gentle, playful, young, lustrous, and protective. The Brahmanical Tara, especially as the Mahavidya, is almost always fierce, often horrible to behold, and potentially dangerous, the same as Kali.  The Mantra Mahodadhi of Mahidhara (English Translation Only)   She is usually conceived as riding a corpse in the cremation ground, or as standing in the attitude of an archer - pratyalidha posture. Not that Tara does not have a fierce form in Buddhism, or a benign one in Brahmanism, in general, in the former context she manifests gentle aspects, while in the latter, fierce ones. Brahmanical texts allude to her several forms, however, among them three - Ekajata, Nilasaraswati and Ugra are more significant. Tararahasya, Taratantra, Tantrasara and Mantramahodadhi are the principal Brahmanical texts on Tara's Tantrika-cult. Origin of Tara Ambiguity prevails in regard to both, place and period of the origin of Tara. Buddha was reluctant to admit womenfolk into the Sangh. Hence, an early worship-cult of female principle might be a remote possibility. Western scholars, misled by her 7th-8th century representations in stone, fix her origin around then and somewhere in Himalayan region, more likely Tibet, or around. No doubt, Tara's early pictorial representations, in caves at Nishik, Ellora, Kanheri etc., are datable to 6th-7th centuries, but a concept or a metaphysical principle would emerge so extensively and with such pre-eminence in art in simultaneity to its origin is something difficult to concede. The journey of a religious concept from the mind it was born in to the mind that believed it, and further, to formal visualization into stone or any other medium, which represented it, might have taken pretty long time, a few centuries or so. More reasonably, Tara had her origin during early centuries of the Common Era, perhaps as a cult already prevalent amongst aboriginals or others, which the liberal Buddhism readily adopted. Being mightier and more popular the Tara-cult absorbed other concurrent similar cults and emerged as the mightiest. Tara's visual transforms emerged late, not before 4th century at least. Early Avalokiteshvara images are without Tara, which suggests that her form as his consort was a later development, perhaps in pursuance to Ardhanarishvara model of Shiva and Shakti. Green Tara with Twenty-One Taras Such academic allusions that the worship of Tara was revived in Tibet by Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika school, apart, the origin of Tara abounds in several interesting myths. It is said that all creatures of the world began lamenting when Avalokiteshvara was about to attain nirvana - final liberation. Avalokiteshvara heard them. His heart melted in compassion for their suffering and a tear rolled from his eyes which turned into Tara. The so-born Tara was the essence of the essence of compassion. The Swatantra-tantra relates her origin in a Cholana lake, which lay on the western slope of the mount Meru, the Indo-Tibetan borderland which had around it several lakes and many monasteries. People living there looked for a deity to help cross these lakes. Ultimately, their desire had divine sanction. On Cholana's right bank close to village Tar was a mountain. People one day saw on it twenty-one figures of the goddess Tara which have come into existence of their own.Since then the great goddess was always there to help cross the lakes. This form of Tara is essentially her original form. Root 'tri' from which the term Tara developed itself means to 'swim across'. All her names popular in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan give this meaning. In islands like Java she was especially popular, perhaps for helping people against tempestuous seas. In Buddhism this aspect was not so significant but as 'Tarini' she enabled her votaries to wade across 'bhavasagara' - ocean of life. Tara's Bhedas or Forms of Tara Buddhist Long Life Goddess - White Tara Otherwise innumerable, Tara's main forms are five : Sita or White Tara,   Green Tara - The Savior Goddess   Shyama or Green Tara,   Yellow Tara Kashmir Style, 18th Century   Bhrakuti or Yellow Tara   Ekajati (Blue Tara or The Ferocious Tara or The Single-Breasted, One-Eyed and Single-Toothed Goddess) Ekajata or Blue Tara,   Red Tara Kurukulla with Pancha Mahabhuta Landscape  and Kurukulla or Red Tara.   White Tara manifests in seven forms, Green Tara in ten, Yellow Tara in five, Blue Tara in two, and Red Tara just in one. These five forms relate to five sacred colors associated with five Dhyani-Buddhas whose Shaktis these forms are. They also represent five cosmic elements. Her two other forms : Rajeshvari-Tara, equated with Gauri or Vishvamata, and the blue lotus-carrying Pitha-Tara also occur in the Sadhanamala. Apart, the sacred Tara-mantra commemorates her in eleven forms. In yet another classification her forms are twenty-one.The Vajrasana White Tara, her foremost form, represents Prajnaparmita. She is usually two-armed, right held in varada, and left in vitarka-mudra - teaching posture, besides it carries the stem of a full blown lotus. She generally has a third eye, symbolic of knowledge, but sometimes as many as seven, grafted on soles and hands. As the Shakti of Amoghasiddha, she carries stems of lotuses in both hands. Lotus supports a Vishvavajra - double thunderbolt. Texts perceive her as the timeless youth of sixteen, lustrous as moon, and adorned in white and with brilliant jewels. In Tantra, she manifests as white complexioned Janguli, with two or four arms, wearing white garment, white jewels and carrying white serpents. With original two hands she plays on vina, of the other, right is held in abhaya and left holds a white serpent. Rays of moon form her garland.Green Tara carries a fully or partially closed blue lotus. With right leg pendent reaching a foot-rest made of a smaller lotus she sits on a lotus-throne. Sometimes her seat is supported on two roaring lions. She carries the image of Amoghasiddha in her head-dress. When with Avalokiteshvara, she is usually on his right. A urna mark defines her forehead. She is sometimes accompanied by her own eight forms, and at other times, by Ekajata and Marichi, or Janguli and Mahamayuri, her manifestations. When with Janguli and Mahamayuri, she becomes Dhanada, giver of wealth. As Dhanada she has four arms, upper ones in usual postures, lower ones carrying a goad and a lasso. Some texts perceive her as two-armed, one carrying a lotus and other held in varada, and as three-eyed. Surrounded by Shaktis having various colors she is conceived with a smiling face, as adorned with bright pearls and wearing shoes set with jewels.Yellow Tara or Bhrikuti, the goddess that frowns, is Tara's angry form. She carries Amoghasiddha in diadem, holds her right hand in varada and carries in the left a blue lotus. She is flanked by Marichi on her right and by Ekajata on left. She is conceived as a celestial maiden with timeless youth and adorned with jewels. Khadiravarni Tara and Vajra Tara are her forms. Adorned with all sorts of ornaments, she is represented as seated in the midst of Matrikas, divine mothers, having eight arms, right ones carrying vajra, arrow, conch, varada, and the left, lotus-bow, diamond-goad, noose and the forefinger of the fourth raised towards sky, four faces, yellow, black, white and red from left to right, and three eyes in each face. She sits on the moon placed on a lotus representing universe. In another innovation, she sits on a diamond-throne, has red body color and four Buddhas on her crown.Blue Tara or Ekajata, one with single chignon, manifests Tara's ferocious - ugra aspect and is hence known as Ugra Tara. As represented in texts, she stands in archer's posture, has short stature, one face; three eyes and protuberant abdomen, is fierce and terrible-looking, wears necklace of human heads, and is adorned with a blue lotus. She rides a corpse, is adorned with eight snakes and five mudras - attitudes, has red and round eyes and protruding tongue, and is in the prime of youth. Always very happy she is resplendent because of her wild laughter and dreadful with her protruding jaws. She wears tiger-skin around her waist. In her two right hands she carries sword and scissors, in the left, blue lotus and skull. Her chignon is brown, and head adorned by Akshobhya. Kurukulla   The four-armed Red Tara or Kurukulla is red-complexioned, sits on red lotus and wears red garment. One of her right hands is held in abhaya, while in other is carried an arrow, in one of the left is held a quiver of jewels, and in other, an arrow made of red-lotus-buds set on a bow of flowers drawn up to ears.Many of Tara's forms are merely her attributes. Over-emphasis make them look like her bhedas - forms. She is one throughout. Her attributes are two-fold, pacific and angry, or five-fold according to five sacred colors, pacific being white or green, and angry red, yellow or blue. Pacific forms have smiling expression, long and wavy hair and ornaments that befitted a Bodhisattva, and angry, fierce and awe-striking. Many of Tara's forms - Janguli, Prajnaparmita, Marichi, Bhrakuti. have emerged in the tradition as independent goddesses and have shrines dedicated to them. BIBLIOGRAPHY Miranda Shaw  : Buddhist Goddesses of India Mallar Ghosh : Development of Buddhist Iconography in Eastern India : A Study of Tara, Prajnas of Five Tathagatas and Bhrikuti Hitendra Shashtri : ASI Memoirs No. 20 : The Origin and Cult of Tara Tom Lowenstein : The Vision of the Buddha David Kinsley : Tantrik Visions of the Divine Feminine Vessantara : Female Deities in Buddhism Chhaya Haesner : India : Land of the Buddha Prithvi Kumar Agrawal : Goddesses in Ancient India Vasudeva S. Agrawal : Ancient Indian Folk Cults Eva Allinger : The Green Tara as Saviouress from Eight Dangers in the Sumtsek at Alchi Shashi Bhushan, Dasgupta : An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism M. K. Dhavalikar : The Origin of Tara Edward Conze : Buddhism, its essence and development Pratapditya Pal : Two Metal Images of Mahashri Tara, in Proceedings of Indian History Congress Gill Farrer-Halls : The Feminine Face of Buddhism Sadhanamala, ed. Benoytosh Bhattacharya Buddhist Women Across Cultures : ed. Karma Lekshe Tsomo Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender : ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon
    by Nitin Goel on July
  • The Hindu Temple - Where Man Becomes God

    The Hindu Temple - Where Man Becomes God

    Ancient Indian thought divides time into four different periods. These durations are referred to as the Krta; Treta; Dvapara; and Kali. The first of these divisions (Krta), is also known as satya-yuga, or the Age of Truth. This was a golden age without envy, malice or deceit, characterized by righteousness. All people belonged to one caste, and there was only one god who lived amongst the humans as one of them. In the next span (Treta-yuga), the righteousness of the previous age decreased by one fourth. The chief virtue of this age was knowledge. The presence of gods was scarce and they descended to earth only when men invoked them in rituals and sacrifices. These deities were recognizable by all. In the third great division of time, righteousness existed only in half measure of that in the first division. Disease, misery and the castes came into existence in this age. The gods multiplied. Men made their own images, worshipped them, and the divinities would come down in disguised forms. But these disguised deities were recognizable only by that specific worshipper. Kali-yuga is the present age of mankind in which we live, the first three ages having already elapsed. It is believed that this age began at midnight between February 17 and 18, 3102 B.C. Righteousness is now one-tenth of that in the first age. True worship and sacrifice are now lost. It is a time of anger, lust, passion, pride, and discord. There is an excessive preoccupation with things material and sexual.   Temples appeared on the horizon only in the Kali-yuga. During this existing last phase, temples (as public shrines), began to be built and icons installed. But the gods ceased to come down and appear in their own or disguised forms. However, their presence could be felt when the icons were properly enshrined, and the temples correctly built. In contrast to the previous periods when the gods were available to all equally, now it is only the priests, belonging to a traditional hierarchy of professional worshippers, who are the competent individuals to compel this presence.   From the contemporary point of view, temples act as safe haven where ordinary mortals like us can feel themselves free from the constant vagaries of everyday existence, and communicate personally with god. But our age is individualistic if nothing else. Each of us requires our own conception of the deity based on our individual cultural rooting. In this context it is interesting to observe that the word ‘temple,’ and ‘contemplate’ both share the same origin from the Roman word ‘templum,’ which means a sacred enclosure. Indeed, strictly speaking, where there is no contemplation, there is no temple. It is an irony of our age that this individualistic contemplative factor, associated with a temple, is taken to be its highest positive virtue, while according to the fact of legend it is but a limitation which arose due to our continuous spiritual impoverishment over the ages. We have lost the divine who resided amongst us (Krta Yuga), which is the same as saying that once man was divine himself. But this is not to belittle the importance of the temple as a center for spiritual nourishment in our present context, rather an affirmation of their invaluable significance in providing succour to the modern man in an environment and manner that suits the typical requirements of the age in which we exist. Making of the Temple The first step towards the construction of a temple is the selection of land. Even though any land may be considered suitable provided the necessary rituals are performed for its sanctification, the ancient texts nevertheless have the following to say in this matter: “The gods always play where groves, rivers, mountains and springs are near, and in towns with pleasure gardens.” Not surprisingly thus, many of India’s ancient surviving temples can be seen to have been built in lush valleys or groves, where the environment is thought to be particularly suitable for building a residence for the gods. No matter where it is situated, one essential factor for the existence of a temple is water. Water is considered a purifying element in all major traditions of the world, and if not available in reality, it must be present in at least a symbolic representation in the Hindu temple. Water, the purifying, fertilizing element being present, its current, which is the river of life, can be forded into inner realization and the pilgrim can cross over to the other shore (metaphysical). The practical preparations for building a temple are invested with great ritual significance and magical fertility symbolism. The prospective site is first inspected for the ‘type,’ of the soil it contains. This includes determining its color and smell. Each of these defining characteristics is divided into four categories, which are then further associated with one of the four castes: - White Soil: Brahmin- Red Soil: Kshatriya (warrior caste)- Yellow Soil: Vaishya- Black Soil: Shudra Similarly for the smell and taste: - Sweet: Brahmin- Sour: Kshatriya- Bitter: Vaishya- Astringent: Shudra (a reminder perhaps of the raw-deal which they have often been given in life) The color and taste of the soil determines the “caste” of the temple, i.e., the social group to which it will be particularly favourable. Thus the patron of the temple can choose an auspicious site specifically favourable to himself and his social environment. After these preliminary investigations, the selected ground needs to be tilled and levelled: Tilling: When the ground is tilled and ploughed, the past ceases to count; new life is entrusted to the soil and another cycle of production begins, an assurance that the rhythm of nature has not been interfered with. Before laying of the actual foundation, the Earth Goddess herself is impregnated in a symbolic process known as ankura-arpana, ankura meaning seed and arpana signifying offering. In this process, a seed is planted at the selected site on an auspicious day and its germination is observed after a few days. If the growth is satisfactory, the land is deemed suitable for the temple. The germination of the seed is a metaphor for the fulfilment of the inherent potentialities which lie hidden in Mother Earth, and which by extension are now transferred to the sacred structure destined to come over it. Levelling: It is extremely important that the ground from which the temple is to rise is regarded as being throughout an equal intellectual plane, which is the significance behind the levelling of the land. It is also an indication that order has been established in a wild, unruly, and errant world. Now that the earth has been ploughed, tilled and levelled, it is ready for the drawing of the vastu-purusha mandala, the metaphysical plan of the temple. The Metaphysical Architecture of the Temple The basic plan of a Hindu temple is an expression of sacred geometry where the temple is visualized as a grand mandala. By sacred geometry we mean a science which has as its purpose the accurate laying out of the temple ground plan in relation to the cardinal directions and the heavens. Characteristically, a mandala is a sacred shape consisting of the intersection of a circle and a square. The square shape is symbolic of earth, signifying the four directions which bind and define it. Indeed, in Hindu thought whatever concerns terrestrial life is governed by the number four (four castes; the four Vedas etc.). Similarly, the circle is logically the perfect metaphor for heaven since it is a perfect shape, without beginning or end, signifying timelessness and eternity, a characteristically divine attribute. Thus a mandala (and by extension the temple) is the meeting ground of heaven and earth. These considerations make the actual preparation of the site and laying of the foundation doubly important. Understandably, the whole process is heavily immersed in rituals right from the selection of the site to the actual beginning of construction. Indeed, it continues to be a custom in India that whenever a building is sought to be constructed, the area on which it first comes up is ceremonially propitiated. The idea being that the extent of the earth necessary for such construction must be reclaimed from the gods and goblins that own and inhabit that area. This ritual is known as the ‘pacification of the site.’ There is an interesting legend behind it: Once when Shiva was engaged in a fierce battle with the demon Andhaka, a drop of sweat fell from Shiva’s forehead to the ground, accompanied by a loud thunder. This drop transformed into a ravenously hungry monster, who attempted to destroy the three worlds. The gods and divine spirits, however, rushed at once on to him and held him down. When the demon fell on the ground face downwards, the deities lodged themselves on to the different parts of his body and pressed him down. It is because of this reason that the recumbent individual came to be known as ‘Vastu,’ which means the lodgement of the gods. He is pictured as lying down inside the mandala with his arms and legs so folded as to cover the whole area, and his head pushed into the north-eastern corner of the square. As many as forty-five gods are lodged on his body directly on the limbs and joints. This vastu-purusha is the spirit in mother-earth which needs to be pacified and is regarded as a demon whose permission is necessary before any construction can come up on the site. At the same time, care is taken to propitiate the deities that hold him down, for it is important that he should not get up. To facilitate the task of the temple-architect, the vastu-mandala is divided into square grids with the lodging of the respective deities clearly marked. It also has represented on it the thirty-two nakshatras, the constellations that the moon passes through on its monthly course. In an ideal temple, these deities should be situated exactly as delineated in the mandala. Sanctum of a Hindu Temple In the central grid of the vastu-mandala sits Brahma, the archetypal creator, endowed with four faces looking simultaneously in all directions. He is thus conceived as the ever-present superintending genius of the site. At this exact central point is established the most important structure of the sacred complex, where the patron deity of the temple is installed. Paradoxically this area is the most unadorned and least decorated part of the temple, almost as if it is created in an inverse proportion to its spiritual importance. Referred to as the sanctum sanctorum, it is the most auspicious region in the whole complex. It has no pillars, windows or ventilators. In addition to a metaphysical aspect, this shutting off of air and light has a practical side to it too. It was meant to preserve the icon, which, in olden days, was often made of wood. Also, besides preventing the ill effects of weathering, the dark interior adds to the mystery of the divine presence. Throughout all subsequent developments in temple architecture, however spectacular and grandiose, this main shrine room remains the small, dark cave that it has been from the beginning. Indeed it has been postulated (both by archaeology and legend), that the temple developed from the cave-shrine of the extremely remote past. This is another instance in Hinduism where the primitive and the modern, along with all the developments in-between, can be seen to co-exist remarkably and peacefully. Dilwara Temple, Mount Abu, Rajasthan When the devotee enters a temple, he is actually entering into a mandala and therefore participating in a power-field. The field enclosures and pavilions through which he must pass to reach the sanctum are symbolic. They represent the phases of progress in a man’s journey towards divine beatitude. In accordance with this scheme of transition, architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase in the devotee’s onward movement, gradually preparing him for the ultimate, awesome experience, which awaits him in the shrine. This process mirrors the four-phased spiritual evolution envisaged in yoga, namely the waking state (jagrat); dream state (swapna); the state of deep sleep (sushupti); and finally the Highest state of awareness known in Sanskrit as turiya. This evolution takes place as follows: On reaching the main gateway, the worshipper first bends down and touches the threshold before crossing it. This marks for him the fact that the transition from the way of the world to the way of god has been initiated. Entering the gateway, he or she is greeted by a host of secular figures on the outer walls. These secular images are the mortal, outward and diverse manifestations of the divinity enshrined inside. In this lies a partial explanation behind the often explicit erotic imagery carved on the outer walls of temples like those at Khajuraho, where the deity inside remains untouched by these sensuous occurrences. Such images awaken the devotee to his mortal state of existence (wakefulness). The process of contemplation has already begun.   As he proceeds, carvings of mythological themes, legendary subjects, mythical animals and unusual motifs abound. They are designed to take one away from the dull and commonplace reality, and uplift the worshipper to the dreamy state.   Chhapri Temple, Central India The immediate pavilion and vestibule before the icon are restrained in sculptural decorations, and the prevailing darkness of these areas are suggestive of sleep-like conditions. Finally the shrine, devoid of any ornamentation, and with its plainly adorned entrance, leads the devotee further to the highest achievable state of consciousness, that of semi-tranquillity (turiya), where all boundaries vanish and the universe stands forth in its primordial glory. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. The devotee is now fully-absorbed in the beauty and serenity of the icon. He or she is now in the inner square of Brahma in the vastu- mandala, and in direct communion with the chief source of power in the temple. The thought behind the design of a temple is a continuation of Upanishadic analogy, in which the atman (soul or the divine aspect in each of us) is likened to an embryo within a womb or to something hidden in a cave. Also says the Mundaka Upanishad: ‘The atman lives where our arteries meet (in the heart), as the spokes of the wheel meet at the hub.’ Hence, it is at the heart center that the main deity is enshrined. Befittingly thus, this sanctum sanctorum is technically known as the garba-griha (womb-house). The garbhagriha is almost always surrounded by a circumambulatory path, around which the devotee walks in a clockwise direction. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, this represents an encircling of the universe itself.   Kandariya Temple Khajuraho No description of the Hindu temple can be complete without a mention of the tall, often pyramid-like structure shooting up the landscape and dominating the skyline. Temple of Minakshi, Madurai   This element of temple architecture is known as ‘shikhara,’ meaning peak (mountain). It marks the location of the shrine room and rises directly above it. This is an expression of the ancient ideal believing the gods to reside in the mountains. Indeed, in South India the temple spire is frequently carved with images of gods, the shikhara being conceived as mount Meru, the mythical mountain-axis of the universe, on the slopes of which the gods reside.   Temple of Mahabodhi, Bodhgaya   In North India too, it is worthwhile here to note, most goddess shrines are located on mountain tops. Since it rises just above the central shrine, the shikhara is both the physical and spiritual axis of the temple, symbolizing the upward aspiration of the devotee, a potent metaphor for his ascent to enlightenment.  Conclusion Man lost the divinity within himself. His intuition, which is nothing but a state of primordial alertness, continues to strive towards the archetypal perfect state where there is no distinction between man and god (or woman and goddess). The Hindu Temple sets out to resolve this deficiency in our lives by dissolving the boundaries between man and divinity. This is achieved by putting into practice the belief that the temple, the human body, and the sacred mountain and cave, represent aspects of the same divine symmetry. Truly, the most modern man can survive only because the most ancient traditions are alive in him. The solution to man’s problems is always archaic. The architecture of the Hindu temple recreates the archetypal environment of an era when there was no need for such an architecture.   References and Further Reading Danielou, Alain. The Hindu Temple (Deification of Eroticism): Rochester, 2001. Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (2 Vols.): Delhi, 2002. Lundquist, John M. The Temple (Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth): London, 1993. Marathe, Kaumudi. Temples of India (Circles of Stone): Mumbai, 1998. Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997. Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Indian Temple Traditions: Bangalore, 1997.
    by Nitin Goel on July
  • Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

    Nepal - Adventures in a Living Museum

    Having partaken of a handful of splendid artworks in the museum you have just exited, a feeling of smug satisfaction envelops you. A privileged scholar and enthusiast, viewing those magnificent sculptures behind thick bullet-proof, humanity-proof glasses after paying the hefty ten dollar entrance fee gives you an intellectual kick and stirs your thinking buds, inspiring you to dole out abstract interpretations of the marvels you have just witnessed. Gladly, you enter the street outside. Just in front of you is another narrow lane, and believing yourself to be an adventurer rather than a mere tourist, you decide to explore it. On both sides are high, but small houses, overlooking the thin, cobbled passage. Just ahead is a shrine and surprisingly the statue installed there seems to be of the same finesse as seen in the museum. Slightly further is another shrine, then another, and as you continue walking, their sheer number and superior aesthetic leaves you spellbound. While you are working on to absorb this initial experience, there emerges a beautiful and robust peasant woman, dressed in poor, but colorful and vibrant clothes. In her hands she holds a thali (saucer) wherein are arranged various implements used for performing rituals. What happens next is unbelievable. This pious lady dips into one small dish and whips out a thick swab of rich red vermilion. She then lays down her thali and proceeds to daub the priceless sculpture of undoubted antiquity with this greasy paste. Sacrilege. Such a fantastic example of human artistic instinct needs to be installed in the spiritually sterile atmosphere of an air-conditioned museum. Along with the descriptive tag, there need be a de facto 'touch me not' sign too. Meant to be contemplated from a distance, nobody should be permitted to view these masterpieces for free. After all, people need to pay for viewing their heritage.         The fact is that, many superior deities of unknown antiquity, have had their facial features almost effaced due to the constant smearing of their bodies with ritual substances and intimate contact with devotees over the centuries.           Palanchok Bhagwati         Thus what they may have lost in their 'art museum' value, they have gained manifold in spiritual potency. Your mind, which once enabled you to get a doctorate, grapples with disbelief.               Guardian lions flank the entrance to the hilltop temple of Changu Narayana, twelve kilometres east of Kathmandu. This pagoda is the oldest Vishnu temple in Nepal, dating back to the fourth century, and also a repository of priceless stone sculptures including the most archaic inscription so far discovered in the valley.       What happens next is even more fantastic and leaves you dazed. Almost all shrines you have seen are flanked and guarded by mythical beasts of fantastic appearance and large proportions.         Accompanying the devoted lady is her young and restless offspring dressed in tatters. While his mother interacts with the deity, the young urchin climbs on to the back of the wrathful lion guarding the temple. His mother makes no effort to stop his rocking antics. Viewing this vision lays waste years of experience ingrained in our collective unconscious. A 'mere,' peasant lady, a nameless face, has the right to touch, interact, or to put it honestly, do whatever she wishes with a priceless work of art, while we, priding ourselves as connoisseurs of fine art, have had to make do with a stifling distance from our beloved gods, even though we convinced ourselves that we were the privileged ones, the chosen ones who had the good fortune to have laid our eyes upon those divinities, in the dim, protective light of clinical interiors of a museum. Humbled, you retrace your steps. Such is the magic of Nepal. But it is definitely some consolation that this spell is cast on almost everybody who first lands in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Kathmandu city itself is part of a larger area known as the Kathmandu valley, comprising of three cities, the other two being Patan and Bhaktapur. The Birth of the Kathmandu Valley: Many many legends ago, the Kathmandu valley was a vast lake, at the center of which bloomed a resplendent lotus. From this thousand-petalled lotus shone a light which illuminated the entire valley. This luminescence was called the Svayambhu or the Self-sprung. This magnificent lotus did not escape notice of the bodhisattva Manjushri, who had vowed to serve humanity through his deep intelligence. In his wisdom he realized that the Himalayan people would be immensely benefited if the lake were drained and the lotus made accessible to human worship. Flying through the air, Manjushri landed on the Nagarkot peak at the edge of the lake and holding aloft his sword of wisdom called 'Chandrahas,' made one mighty swoop that cut a gorge through the mountain range that separated Nepal from India. Thus the original lake was drained, and left behind was a fertile and abundant valley. Though they differ with this legend, almost all geologists are unanimous that the Kathmandu valley was once indeed a great lake. Landscape Painting of Swayambhunath Temple     At the same spot where stood the self-emanated pillar of light, now stands the Svayambhunath temple, the valley's most venerable Buddhist site, and also an awesome power place, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Actually a stupa, its date is set to precede the Buddha himself. It sits upon a forested hill like a cap of snow, and every twelve years the king of Nepal comes to a nearby field for homage.   Swayambhunath Temple   It is significantly relevant to note here that the king is believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and his gesture is typical of the harmony that pervades the entire valley, where the two great faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism commingle and coexist in a unique synthesis. Hence it comes as no surprise that countless Hindus and Buddhists climb the hill to worship, for Svayambhunath is sacred to both.   The steep steps climbing to the shrine have thoughtfully been provided with iron rails at frequent intervals, but on the first visit however, it is a fairly disconcerting experience to observe aggressive monkeys sliding down the railings towards one at high speeds. Indeed, hoards of monkeys have given Svayambhu the trivial name of 'monkey temple.' Characteristically, this aspect too is not without its mythical origins. Apparently, Manjushri chose this sacred spot to cut off his hair. Every lock of his hair turned into a tree and the lice into monkeys. A completely serious survey by a foreign agency has concluded that the number of monkeys always remains the same. The Rough Guide to Nepal has this to say on the Svayambhunath:"Even if temple-touring makes your eyes glaze over, don't miss Svayambhunath." Only from the air is it evident that Boudhnath stupa, Nepal's largest Buddhist relic mound, is designed as a mandala, a sacred religious diagram composed of concentric circles within squares. If you thought that this one temple, more ancient than history itself, was sufficient to sum up the stupa architecture of the valley, think again. There exists another (in addition to hundreds of smaller ones) which exudes a sacred power parallel to the great Svayambhunath, and inspires equally intense devotion and reverence. The stupa of Boudhanath lies along the ancient Kathmandu-Tibet trade route and is considered to be the most auspicious landmark along this path. One of the world's largest stupa, it is believed to be the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet, and since the annexation of Tibet in 1959, the area around Boudhanath has become the Mecca of Tibetan exiles in Nepal. Indeed, for an authentic experience of Tibetan culture, nothing beats Bouddha. The building of the stupa itself is made in the shape of a three-dimensional mandala, whose successive tiers can be ascended, acting as a powerful metaphor for spiritual growth. Like almost all ancient buildings of Nepal, ascribing a historically verifiable age to the Boudhanath stupa is a futile exercise. Legend comes to the rescue however, and a Tibetan text narrates how one of Indra's daughters was once cursed to take birth on earth as a mortal, for she had stolen some flowers from heaven which had caught her fancy. Born as a lowly poultryman's daughter, she nevertheless prospered and decided to use some of her wealth to build a stupa. She petitioned the king for land, who cynically granted only that much land as could be covered by a buffalo hide. Using the accommodating genius inherent in all women, she very deftly cut the hide into thin strips and joined them end to end to enclose the area needed for the gigantic stupa, and the king being bound by his word granted her wish. Tibetans attach great significance to this tale since it is attributed to Padmasambhava, who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet. Amazingly, in the same manuscript the guru warns of an invasion by an enemy, which would scatter the Tibetan people to the lands of the south. A Nepalese tale provides a firmer historical foundation. Apparently, a draught struck Kathmandu during the reign of the king Vrisadev. Deeply perplexed, the monarch consulted his court astrologers who advised him that a man possessed of the thirty-two virtues should be sacrificed to propitiate the rain gods. So the king summoned his son Manadeva and commanded him to go to a specific spot at dawn and sever the head of a shrouded person he would find sleeping there. Dutifully, the son carried out the king's request, and no sooner had it started raining that he realized that he had slain his own father. Befittingly, in popular parlance this tale is entitled 'The prince who was ordered to kill his father by the father himself.' Aggrieved by his folly, the repentant prince prayed to the goddess Bajra Yogini, who let fly a bird from her hand and commanded him to build a stupa where it landed. The spot was Bouddha. Changu Narayana Courtyard Connoisseurs of Nepal will recognize the king Manadeva mentioned above. He is responsible for leaving behind the earliest written record of Nepalese history, an inscribed pillar installed in the temple of Vishnu located on a hill. This shrine, called the Changu Narayana temple, is historically a contemporary of both Svayambhunath and Boudhanath, and is believed to be the supreme example of Nepalese temple architecture. It is a beautiful and pensive site, which retains its palpably ancient atmosphere. The main shrine is surrounded by an open courtyard, the latter being an outdoor museum of priceless works of art, displayed in an almost offhand manner and all the more exciting for it. However what takes the cake is the walk to Changu Narayana from Nagarkot (which is at a higher elevation). On this route you may actually have the good fortune of witnessing laundry drying over ancient masterpieces of undeniable artistic merit. Garudasana Vishnu       Wandering about the courtyard, soaking in the phenomenal surroundings, you come across an image of Vishnu riding his mount Garuda. It will definitely ring a bell. Unconsciously, your hand dips into your pocket, and takes out a ten-rupee Nepalese currency note. Inscribed right there is the image in front of you. Indeed, one of Nepal's greatness is that the people are not apologetic about the fact that they are a deeply religious people and that the sacred dimension pervades each and every aspect of their existence. Thus they declare with pride their status as the only officially Hindu kingdom in the world.     Manadeva Garuda, 6th century       The earliest (and the most enigmatic) sculpture of Changu Narayana is that of the eagle-man Garuda, kneeling in adoration in front of the sanctum sanctorum. He is called the Manadeva Garuda, since his face, with its unique moustache and life-like human features, is said to be a portrait of the great king himself. Some believe this attribution to be apocryphal, but is nevertheless suitable, since the strength and simplicity of this legendary (and historical) king is abundantly displayed in this Garuda image of a warrior at prayer.                 Another area where Changu Narayana scores is in the amazingly carved intricate roof struts depicting multi-armed deities. The roofs of traditional Nepalese buildings are very heavy and project far beyond the bearing walls, thus requiring additional support. This is achieved by angling (at 45 degrees) a number of wooden braces (brackets or struts) between wall and roof.         Temple Struts of Changu Narayana   Called tunala in the Nepali language, these brackets are usually carved into likenesses of gods and goddesses, associated with the principal deities of the temple Hence, here we observe the ten incarnations of Vishnu along with protector deities and numerous female divinities. Changu Narayana indeed presents one of the best examples of Nepalese craftsmanship of this genre. The Vishnu of Changu Narayana is also worshipped by the Buddhists as Hari-Hari-Harivahanodbhava-Lokeshvara.   Buddhanilkantha The cult of Vishnu in the valley is not restricted to the Changu Narayana temple alone. Eight kilometres north of Kathmandu lies the 'Sleeping Vishnu,' more popularly known as Jalashayana Narayana, or 'Narayana lying on waters.' The valley's largest stone sculpture, this five metres long (yes that's right) Vishnu, carved from a single massive block of hard black stone, lies gently in the waters of a tank, thus giving an appearance of floating, a seemingly dreaming, half-smile on his lips. Devotees toss flower petals, coins and red powder onto the image and bow humbly at its feet, while morning and evening Brahmin priests perform elaborate rituals, chanting the thousand names of Lord Vishnu.   This fascinating sculpture was supposedly "found," some fourteen centuries ago by a farmer tilling his land. It is no big deal 'finding' artistic masterpieces in the Kathmandu valley. Anyone can do it, even you and me, provided we look with sufficient zeal and faith. Superior examples of skilled craftsmanship abound, with museum-quality artworks dispersed around almost carelessly, though not irreverently. Narrow streets often widen into squares housing small temples The constant outstanding feature, even among such lesser known shrines is the indisputable fact of their high aesthetic merit, whether reflected on the exterior walls, or the fine workmanship evident in the deity sculpture installed therein. Indeed, the entire valley lies scattered with magnificent examples of human creative devotion, waiting to be discovered. No less intriguing is the name given to this Vishnu temple. It is called Buddhanilkantha, a source of endless confusion. It has nothing to do with the Buddha, though that doesn't stop many Nepalese Buddhists from worshipping the image as Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The word 'Nilakantha,' means 'One who has a blue throat,' and rightly belongs to Shiva. According to legend, Shiva's throat turned blue when he consumed a deadly poison which was threatening the stability of the living world, as a consequence of which his throat turned blue. Exactly what this has to do with Vishnu is unclear, but the waters of the tank in which the god rests are said to be magically connected with the Himalayan lake of Gosaikund, where Shiva sought relief from the burning poison. Though this shrine is invariably popular, there is one person who as a matter of policy never puts in an appearance here; he is the king of Nepal. Some say the boycott goes back to the seventeenth-century, when the reigning king (Pratap Malla), was visited in his dream by Lord Vishnu, and warned that he and his successors would die if they ever visited Buddhanilkantha. Others say it's because the king, who is said to be a reincarnation of Vishnu himself, must never gaze upon his own image. Ihi ceremony ('bel marriage') for young girls, Bhaktapur   But the gods of Nepal do not represent a forgotten era of the past. The deities here are living, and participate in the ordinary existence of everyday life as much as we mere mortals do. Nowhere is this exemplified more charmingly than in the uniquely Nepalese custom of Bel-Marriage. Traditionally the Newars (the predominant ethnic group of the valley), marry off their pre-pubescent girls to a fruit of the Bel tree (Aegle marmelos) which symbolizes Lord Narayana himself. The marriage ceremony is elaborate, accompanied by a feast.   An urbanised lady with (mark) and pote (necklace) By this custom, if a Newarni's future mortal husband should die, she is not considered a widow because she is still married to Narayana. The Newar "widow" therefore undergoes none of the often disagreeable sanctions imposed on widows. In fact, Newar marriages are much more egalitarian in all respects, and a woman is free to leave or divorce her husband, to remarry, and she scorns sati. Hence is solved the enchanting mystery behind those smartly dressed, evidently virginal adolescent girls, thronging the streets of Kathmandu, who in spite of not being married in the 'earthly' sense, nevertheless adorn their foreheads with thick swabs of vermilion associated in India solely with a married status. The rich red of the vermilion complements well the Nepali woman's rosy cheeks, an enchanting feature, and one of the many distinguishing characteristics pointing out their Mongoloid origins. Realization of the inherent sacrality of women reaches its peak in the cult of Kumari where Durga, as the personification of maiden virginity, invests the body of a living prepubescent girl, who is worshipped exactly as if she were the divine Durga herself. Although the Kumari is supposed to be a Hindu goddess, she is chosen from the Buddhist Sakya caste of goldsmiths. High priests search for her amongst small girls of this clan, looking for a child worthy enough to serve as a vehicle for the goddess (The present Kumari was installed in 2001, when she was three and a half years old). Traditionally, she is supposed to manifest the battis lakshanas, or the '32 perfections,' some of which are: A neck like a conch shellA body like a banyan treeEyelashes like a cowThighs like a deerChest like a lionVoice soft and clear as a duck's More practically, she should have a perfect health, no small-pox scar, a skin without blemish, dark eyes and black hair, no foul smell of the body and no loss of teeth. Kumari A likely candidate whose horoscope exactly matches that of the king is chosen. The next test occurs around midnight when over a hundred buffalo and goats are slaughtered, and their severed heads, with lighted wicks placed between the horns, are set in rows on the ground. Naturally these goings-on are unlikely to frighten a real goddess, particularly one who is an incarnation of Durga, so the young girl who remains calm and collected throughout this ordeal is clearly the new Kumari. Lastly, in a process similar to the selection of the Dalai Lama, the Kumari then chooses items of clothing and decoration worn by her predecessors as a final test. The would-be goddess is then taken upstairs for a secret ceremony in which she is purified of all past experience and Durga fully possesses her body. Attendants dress her in red with golden ornaments, paint a third eye on her forehead and rim her eyes with collyrium. Then she walks on a strip of white cloth (the Kumari's feet should never touch the ground) and takes her residence at the Kumari ghar (house of the virgin). The goddess Kumari grants audiences to both Hindus and Buddhists. Most common are government officials hoping for promotion, and women with menstrual problems. Each year, the king also comes to receive her blessings, and obtain from her the right to rule for another year. In exchange, he presents her with a gold coin and touches his forehead to her feet. Many are the stories of kings who lost their kingdoms when the Kumari failed to bless them. Anderson (1971) writes how in 1955, the goddess put the tika mark first on the then crown prince Mahendra rather than on that of the King Tribhuvan. History knows that after eight months, the king died, and crown prince Mahendra became the monarch. The tradition of Kumari is said to have originated in the eighteenth century during the reign of King Jaya Prakash Malla, an intimate of the goddess Taleju (a form of Durga who protects the Kathmandu valley). One evening the intoxicated king made a pass at her, and the insulted goddess disappeared. She finally consented to return, but only in the form of a virgin Newari girl of the Sakya caste. Another legend states that during the reign of the same king, a virgin girl from a Shakya family claimed to be possessed by Durga. The king, considering the girl an impostor, banished her, whereupon his queen became seized with convulsions. Taking this as a divine sign of his error, the monarch recalled the girl and decreed that she should be worshipped as the goddess Durga she was possessed with. A variant tale claims that a Shakya virgin girl died as the result of an unseemly sexual assault by the king, who established the cult of the virgin goddess as a penance and to escape the combined curse of the entire Shakya clan. Or so the stories go. Actually, the tradition of the Kumari predates Jaya Prakash's reign by at least five centuries and has its roots in ancient Indian practices. The Kumari's reign ends with her first period (or any serious accidental loss of blood.). Once the first sign of puberty is reached, she reverts to being a normal mortal, and retires with a modest state pension. The search then begins for a new Kumari. The transition to life as an ordinary mortal can be hard, and a former Kumari may have difficulty finding a husband. Tradition has it that the man who marries an ex-Kumari will die young, but it's more likely a natural belief that taking on a spoilt ex-goddess is likely to be hard work. As a food for thought, the potential for psychological studies on Kumaris and deposed Kumaris staggers the imagination. At the Feet of Pashupatinath Pashupatinath Temple As Svayambhu and Boudha link the valley through myth and history to the entire Buddhist world, so is Pashupati a major destination for pilgrims from all over the Hindu world. Nepal's holiest Hindu pilgrimage site, the sacred complex of Pashupatinath is an amazing enclave of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and half-naked sadhus. The essence of Hinduism, at least three millennia of unbroken tradition, coalesces in this sacred territory, littered with shrines and priceless sculptures, raised over the centuries to the glory of the great god Shiva. Indeed, it is one of the most important Shaiva sites of the subcontinent. Pashupatinath is on the eastern edge of the town, a stone's throw from Tribhuvan international airport (whose runway was once a grazing ground for the sacred cows of Pashupatinath). The site is sanctified by the presence of the Bagmati river, which is said to be linked to the river Ganga by an underground stream. A ritual bath here is said to ensure release from the cycle of samsara, and it is widely believed that husbands and wives who bathe here together will be remarried in their next life. The sprawling complex is littered with ancient sculptures, practically a veritable, over-sized museum, with a sixth-century Buddha, often draped with drying laundry, a gigantic 1,500 year old linga, and rambling old courtyards where pilgrims and squatters cook and wash and live. Nevertheless, despite the continuous activity in and around the temple, there is always a sense of peace and tranquility here. Milk flows down the body of Nandi. The dog riding the stone beast makes a tasty snack of the devotee's offerings.   An amazing collection of stone sculptures, some of them dating from the fifth century, lie scattered about. Not surprisingly (remember it is Nepal), many of the images are of Buddhist origin. It is an indication of the richness of this country's artistic heritage that many of these artworks, so casually distributed about, are masterpieces. There's a positive jungle of temples, images, sculptures and chaityas (small stupas) with Shiva imagery dominating. Images of the bull Nandi stand guard, tridents are dotted around and lingams rise up on every side. Indeed, here is beauty commissioned by art's greatest patron, religion, so that hardly a stone is unchiselled or wood uncarved. The windows of even the humblest dharamshalas (modest rest houses for pilgrims) are ornamented with wasp-waisted deities and intricate floral designs. Temple spires writhe with golden serpents, and on two of the platforms on which the dead are cremated are sixth century stone carvings of rare beauty. The actual existing gold-clad, two-tiered pagoda temple dates from the late seventeenth century, but inscriptions indicate that a temple has stood here since at least the fifth century, and some historians suspect it goes back to the third century BC. To the believer's at least, there is no doubt regarding the origins of Pashupatinath. According to chronicles, the first human being to walk the forests of the valley was called Ne, a cowherd who was the progenitor of the Nepalese people. On one occasion, he noticed that a milky cow would not give milk but wander away by herself into the forest. Following her, he discovered that she would water a certain spot with her warm milk. Ne dug at that spot and uncovered the original lingam. Setting it up, he worshipped it as Pashupati, Lord of Beasts. Several tales are told of how Shiva came by this title. Nepali schoolchildren are taught that Shiva, to escape his heavenly obligations, assumed the guise of a one-horned stag and fled to the forest here. The other gods pursued him and, laying hold of him, broke off his horn, which was transformed into the powerful Pashupati linga, which displays four carved faces of Shiva, plus a fifth, invisible one on the top (Buddhists claim one of the faces). The present linga is a fourteenth century replacement of the original one, which was damaged by Muslim crusaders. A special sub caste of South Indian Brahmin priests tends to it in a daily cycle of ritual bathing, dressing and offerings. Wearing the ceremonial orange robes of the Pashupata sect, the priests array the linga in brocade silk and bathe it with curd, ghee, honey, sugar and milk. In addition, once every year, Buddhists place a Bodhisattva crown upon the Pashupati lingam and worship it as Avalokiteshvara, or with the crown and four faces, as the five transcendent (Dhyani) Buddhas. Lord Pashupati is the country's official protector, invoked in royal speeches and cited on treaties and pledges. Every morning Radio Nepal opens its programme with a prayer to Pashupatinath and when the king, himself a reincarnation of Vishnu, addresses his people, he calls upon Pashupatinath to bless and protect them all. Before commencing on an important journey, his royal highness will always pay a visit to the shrine to seek the god's blessings. Nepali kings style themselves "Favored by the Feet of Pashupati" and "Laden with the Dust of Lord Pashupati's Lotus Feet." It is said that the last king of the Malla dynasty stripped the temple of all its gold and had it melted down to finance his war against the invading Gurkhas. Such is the power of Pashupatinath, believe the devout, that he lost the battle. Truly, as the recipient of the universal adoration of the Nepalese people, Pashupati's abode is the kingdom's most holy beacon. Pashupatinath is a protector of animals, so there are no sacrifices at this great shrine. As the shepherd of both animals and humans, Shiva as Pashupati shows his most pleasant and creative side.       Shiva is present also in Pashupatinath's fluctuating population of sadhus, wandering Hindu devotees who have renounced the strictures of caste and normal custom, and beg to meet their minimal daily needs. Some perform austerities or smoke incredible quantities of ganja (marijuana). Sadhus may wear splendid orange robes or appear naked smeared in ashes from the cremation ground. Some are genuine devotees, even saints, others are rogues, charlatans, or misfits who can't fit into society in any other way. Nepalis as well as tourists find them bizarrely fascinating.     A Short Note on Bhaktapur(Or How to Transform Your Taxi Into a Time Machine) Bhaktapur, or Bhadgaon as it is sometimes called, is located in the eastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, about 19 kilometers from the heart of Kathmandu city. Modern Postcard (Bhaktapur) Rising in a tight mass of warm brick, Bhaktapur appears something like what Kathmandu must have been before the arrival of the modern world. It often feels more like a big village than a small city, a sensation intensified by the absence of traffic. Thanks to a long-term German funded restoration program, and to the policies of an independent-minded municipal council, much of the city is pedestrianized. Taxis and tour buses stop at the outskirts, from where it is a short walk to the heart of the city. Wandering about the herringbone-paved streets and narrow alleys, unmarred by traffic, every turn of a corner brings a new wonder; a neighborhood shrine, a sudden vibrant courtyard, or a red and gold pagoda. Everywhere the burnt-peach hue of bricks is offset by the deep brown of intensely carved wood - the essential media of the Newar architects. Private quarters may be dark and cramped, but people are rich in public space, and the open squares are living exhibits of all the mundane activities of daily life: people spinning wool, throwing pots, husking grain, nursing children, bathing, pounding chillies, hammering jewelry or selling vegetables. Indeed, when you drive into Bhaktapur, your car is a time machine and you are back in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tradition has it that Lord Vishnu himself built the city in the shape of a sacred conch. Surprisingly enough, aerial photographs confirm the shell shape of Bhaktapur. Due to its numerous temples and shrines and the pious nature of its people, it became known as the city of devotees (bhakta meaning devotee in Sanskrit). Historically, Bhaktapur was once the capital of the entire Kathmandu valley (mid 12th - late 15th century). With the subsequent fragmentation into three kingdoms and the rising importance of Kathmandu, the city was left to dream in peace. It is not as old as either Patan or Kathmandu, but oddly enough it looks older, for Bhaktapur has managed to preserve its medieval identity almost intact. Of all the ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley, it is the least changed. There are no modern buildings; nothing obtrusive that jars the eye. There is also far less western attire about. The elderly and the old stick to their traditional dress. New buildings too are now required to follow traditional architectural styles. This is one Nepalese city that has got its act together, and it wears its status as a UNESCO world heritage site proudly. It's hardly surprising therefore that an increasing number of travelers (like the author himself), are heading to Bhaktapur straight from the Kathmandu airport. In a hundred years perhaps, Nepal will be forced to recreate Bhaktapur in a historical park run by costumed employees, but for the present it remains genuine. A visit here restores faith in the possibility of a tranquil urban existence, and inspires admiration for the traditional culture of the Newars. The city undoubtedly remains one of the last bastions of authentic Newari culture, and even today, you can meet people in its backstreets who speak not a word of Nepali. In the immortal words of Mary Slusser: "For the moment at least, Bhaktapur remains one of the remarkable treasures of the Kathmandu Valley - indeed, of the globe." Conclusion: Consider the following: Where else would one find: a). A land where Vishnu still rules.b). A place where you can see Goddess Durga in flesh and blood.c). A whole category dedicated to shamans in the yellow pages (jhankris).d). Actually ascend a three-dimensional mandala (Boudhanath).e). A country where every woman is a bride of the god, and wears this distinguished stature on her person proudly. Indeed, Nepal is the ideal place to rise above the theoretical, often stifling textbooks, and see the twin strands of Tantra and Shamanism actually at work, rooted in the eternal and faithful depths of Hinduism, and tempered by the sobering influence of Buddhism. The valley's living culture is a unique hybrid of Hinduism and Buddhism, and presents a remarkable case study in the way two great religions can both enrich each other, and evolve independently at the same time. Some examples underlying this syncretism are: 1). Kumari, a Hindu goddess, is chosen from the Buddhist clan of Sakyas.2). The king worships Kumari, who as mentioned above, is a Buddhist.3). The king is a reincarnation of Vishnu, bur nevertheless addresses Pashupatinath as his patron deity, and is barred from visiting one of the most important Vaishnava shrines in the region.4). A significant temple of Vishnu is given the name of Buddha Nilakantha, even though it apparently has nothing to do with Buddhism. Walking around the Valley, you experience the unmistakable feeling that something mysterious and wonderful is about to happen. So you wander around, with your tongue hanging out in a primal longing. And things do happen. A chance encounter, a sudden moment of primordial awareness, a realization of the awesome faith that integrates the anarchic fabric of this diverse society, or a sense of belonging to a place, which a few moments back, was just another foreign land. One enters Nepal as a traveler, and leaves as a pilgrim. The author had the good fortune of making two trips to Nepal in preparation of this article. References and Further Reading Aran, Lydia. The Art of Nepal: Kathmandu, 1978. Bubriski, Kevin and Keith Dowman: Power Places of Kathmandu: London, 1995. Doig, Desmond. In the Kingdom of the Gods (An Artist's Impression of the Emerald Valley): New Delhi, 1999. Lonely Planet Guide to Nepal: Hawthorn, 1999. Majupuria, Indra. Nepalese Women: Bangkok, 1996. Moore, Wendy and R. Ian Lloyd. Kathmandu The Forbidden Valley: New Delhi, 1990. Moran, Kerry. Nepal Handbook, Moon Travel Handbooks, Emeryville, CA. Patan Museum Guide: Patan, 2002. Reed David. The Rough Guide to Nepal: 2002. Sanday, John. The Kathmandu Valley: Hong Kong, 1989. Slusser, Mary Shepherd. Nepal Mandala (A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley) (2 volumes): Kathmandu, 1998.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • The Life of Buddha and the Art of Narration in Buddhist Thangka Paintings

    The Life of Buddha and the Art of Narration in Buddhist Thangka Paintings

    In its characteristic unique way, Buddhist thought divides the eventful life of its founder into twelve glorious "events." These defining incidents of his life are given visual form in densely packed sequences narrated in a special genre of paintings known as the "Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha's Life" (Tib. Dzad pa chu nyi). These artworks not only delineate Buddha's gradual progress towards spiritual enlightenment, but also present a visual depiction of a vast number of abstract philosophical notions underlying esoteric Buddhism.     These twelve significant episodes in the life of the Buddha are: 1). His Promise to Take Birth in the Human Realm and Guide Sentient Beings from Ignorance to Enlightenment. Before the Buddha was born into this world as Shakyamuni, he was a bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven (home of the contented gods). His name there was Shvetaketu ("White Banner"). From here he witnessed the dark ages engulfing the human realm, leading to its spiritual impoverishment. Moved to compassion like a true bodhisattva, he vowed to manifest himself in the sentient world and relieve people from their sufferings. Buddha Holding a Lotus Promisesto Manifest Himself on the Earth Indeed, in strictly canonical terms, a bodhisattva is defined as an individual who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth better known as nirvana, but postpones his own enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow beings to this same source of fulfillment. Thus, Buddha, looking down upon the sentient beings suffering in the throes of ignorance, felt a pang of compassion, and in accordance with his bodhisattva status, decided to descend to the earth and spread the word of Dharma. Visually, Buddha is depicted making this vow surrounded by other sacred beings, holding aloft a lotus flower in his right hand, symbolizing the purity of his intention.   2). Queen Maya's Dream: The Lalitavistara (1st cent. AD) says that Buddha himself selected the time, place, and caste of his birth. He finally short listed King Shudhodhana and his wife, Queen Mayadevi, rulers of the Shakya (Lion) clan, as his future parents. This generous couple was well known throughout the land for their just and noble bearing. Scriptures assert that Buddha chose a king as his father since the royal caste was more respected that the priestly one. It indeed seems strange that the Buddha, who never believed in the caste system, was so particular in the choice of a Brahmin or Kshatriya family for his own birth. In fact, it was precisely to show the futility of the notion of high-birth as an aid in spiritual salvation that this choice was made. Queen Maya's Dream   The bodhisattva's descent from the Tushita heaven occurred as a dream to Mayadevi. In this dream, a white elephant approached and touched her right side with its trunk. Through this symbolic act, the bodhisattva entered the womb of Mayadevi and impregnated her.   The choice of an elephant as a symbol of her impregnation is a well-thought out metaphor because elephants are known for their strength and intelligence, and also associated with gray-rain clouds and thus with fertility, since rainwater means that seeds will germinate and vegetables will be able to grow. The white color (of the elephant), adds to this an element of purity and immaculacy. The royal fortunetellers explained that the dream announced the queen's pregnancy, and that the newborn would possess exceptional traits. 3). The Birth of Buddha: The Zen master Daisetz Suzuki once narrated an interesting story. A young student said to his master, "Am I in possession of Buddha consciousness?" The master said, "No." The student said, "Well, I 've been told that all things are in possession of Buddha consciousness. The rocks, the trees, the butterflies, the birds, the animals, all beings." The master said, "You are correct. All things are in possession of Buddha consciousness. The rocks, the trees, the butterflies, the bees, the birds, the animals, all beings-but not you." "Not me? Why not?" "Because you are asking this question." According to legend, Buddha was born from the right side of his mother. Immediately upon his birth, he stood up and took seven steps, and wherever his feet touched the earth lotuses sprang up. Raising his hand he said: "Worlds above, worlds below, there's no one in the world like me." Finally, Suzuki elaborated. "They tell me that when a baby is born, it cries. What does the baby say when it cries? The baby says 'Worlds above, worlds below, there's no one in the world like me!' All babies are Buddha babies." So what was the distinguishing characteristic of Queen Maya's baby? He knew that he was a Buddha baby. According to Joseph Campbell, "The whole thing of Buddha consciousness means getting to know you are it. That takes a lot of work, principally because society keeps telling you that you are not it."   Birth of Buddha   But we are here a bit ahead of ourselves. Mayadevi had successfully carried the Buddha-to-Be for ten months without any complications or pain. Near the end of her pregnancy, she took a trip to her parental home to have the baby there with her mother, an ancient custom that is still sometimes practiced. On the way however there was a pleasant grove, overflowing with a rich profusion of fruits and flowers. Desiring to rest among them, the queen instructed her party to put camp there. She stepped out of her palanquin and reached to grasp one of the branches of a flowering tree. No sooner had she done so than she felt the throes of giving birth. Standing thus, with her hand to the branch, she delivered, and the Buddha-to-Be emerged from his mother's right side.     In visual depictions, Mayadevi's unique posture has given rise to an entire genre of feminine imagery, where amply endowed female forms stand sinuously in dance postures with the left leg crossed in front of the right.     The lifted hand grasps a tree, entwined around the branch in a manner identical to that of the tree goddesses and female tree-spirits (yakshis) of yore, who denoted fertility in early Indian art.       Here, not only does Mayadevi's posture provide a powerful statement presenting her as fertility incarnate, but as the mother of the Buddha-to-Be, she is also the generative source of the enlightenment process.     Brahma and Indra stand ready to bless the child.   Present at the time of birth were the Hindu gods Indra and Brahma. Normally in those ancient circumstances, everything connected with death, birth, excrement, and blood would have been considered unclean. The presence of these two important deities of the Hindu pantheon has significance over and above political interpretations. It indicates that the birth in question was non-defiling one, graced by their auspicious presence. In paintings, Brahma is easily recognized by his four heads (three visible and fourth invisible at the back). Indra too stands ready, holding a cloth to wrap the baby. The advent of the newborn was accompanied by many pleasurable happenings not the least of which was a bountiful rainfall, leading to a rich harvest and prosperity all around the kingdom. Hence his father gave him the name 'Siddhartha,' meaning 'accomplisher of aims.' He was also called 'Gautama,' which was his clan name (gotra). How he got the third of his popular epithets (Shakyamuni), we will see later. 4). A Youth Dedicated to the Mastery of Learning and Athletics: Seven days after giving birth Mayadevi died, and her sister Mahaprajapati raised the prince. Additionally, thirty-two nurses were appointed after careful selection for his care, eight to carry him, eight to suckle him, eight to bathe him and the other eight nurses to play with him. The Upturned Elephant (top-right corner) Comes Back to Life As the son of the king, Siddhartha was provided with the finest upbringing. His life had ample quantities of both opportunity and security. He received the finest education and mastered all lessons taught to him. In his younger years, he excelled in sports and other contests of skill. The vigorous training befitted the grooming of a future monarch. He was said to particularly excel on the horse and with the bow. The most significant episode of his youth occurred during the contest for winning the hand of the beautiful princess Gopa. An elephant had been placed inside the city gate to test which one was the strongest. Devadatta, Buddha's cousin, killed the animal with one hand. Siddhartha, seeing the mindless killing, picked up the animal lightly and tossed it over the city wall, where it came to life again. Needless to say, Siddhartha was chosen as the groom. 5). The Skilful Conduct of Worldly Affairs: Shudhodhana Counsels Buddha   When he came of age and assumed royal duties, prince Siddhartha became a true man of the world and had a retinue of many queens and attendant ladies. Narrative paintings depict him at court, consulting his experienced father in the skilful conduct of material affairs.   6). The Four Encounters: Having been warned by the court astrologers that his son may well give it all up and choose the path of meditation, Buddha's father tried his best to shield him from the harsh realities of life. This state of affairs continued until one day, by chance, while riding his chariot, Siddhartha encountered an old man walking along the road. Intrigued by his first encounter with old age, the prince addressed his charioteer: "Who is this man there with the white hair, feeble hand gripping a staff, eyes lost beneath his brows, limbs bent and hanging loose? Has something happened to alter him, or is that his natural state?" Buddha's Encounter with Death "That is old age", said the charioteer, "the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigor, the cause of sorrow, destroyer of delights, the bane of memories and the enemy of the senses. In his childhood, that one too drank milk and learned to creep along the floor, came step by step to vigorous youth, and he has now, step by step, in the same way, gone on to old age." The charioteer thus revealed in his simplicity what was to have been hidden from the king's son, who exclaimed, "What! And will this evil come to me too?" "Without doubt, by the force of time", said the charioteer. And thus the great souled one, whose mind was but a store of merits, was agitated when he heard of old age - like a bull who has heard close by the crash of a thunderbolt. He further encountered in such manner a sick man and a dead man, leading to great turbulence in his mind. One day he came across an ascetic mendicant. "Who art thou?" he asked. To which the other answered, "Terrified by birth and death, desiring liberation, I became an ascetic. As a beggar, wandering without family and without hope, accepting any fare, I live now for nothing but the highest good." Convinced that herein lay the way to quell his mental agitation, Gautama resolved to follow this holy man's example. 7). The Renunciation of Worldly Life: The Buddha Leaves His Sleeping Wife and Child   Having made the decision, Siddhartha requested his father to allow him to proceed in his quest for truth. On hearing of the prince's resolve, his father became extremely anxious and entreated him to revert his decision. To which Siddhartha replied thus: "Father if you can fulfill my four desires, I promise not to leave you. These are: First, I should not die; Secondly, No disease should ever afflict me, youth should never desert me, and finally, prosperity should always be my companion." Hearing these impossible demands, the king was extremely dejected and became resigned to his fate. Gautama left the luxurious palace of his father in the middle of the night, leaving behind his sleeping wife and son.   Buddha Shaves off His Hair   The first thing Gautam Buddha did after leaving his father's palace was to severe his long and beautiful hair with his princely blade. He thought, "These locks of mine are not suited to a monk; but there is no one to cut the hair of a future Buddha. Therefore I will cut them off myself with my sword." And grasping a scimitar with his right hand, he seized his top-knot with his left hand, and cut it off, together with his jeweled turban. His hair thus became two finger-breadths in length, and curling to the right, lay close to his head.     Taking hold of his top-knot and diadem, he threw them into the air, saying: "If I am to become a Buddha, let them stay in the sky; but if not, let them fall to the ground." They rose into the air for a distance of one league before Vasava (corresponding to the Indra), the chief of gods, perceiving them with his divine eyes, received them in an appropriate jeweled casket, and established them in heaven. "His hair he cut, so sweet with many pleasant scents, This Chief of men, and high impelled it towards the sky; And there god Vasava, the god with a thousand eyes, In golden casket caught it, bowing low his head."   8). The Six Years of Austerities: Buddha's Asceticism   Wandering in his search for enlightenment, Buddha came to a pleasant hermitage by a lovely stream, where, for six years, he joined five mendicants in a way of discipline based on progressively severe fasting. He ate a single grain of rice for each of the first two years, drank a single drop of water for each of the second two years, and took nothing at all during the last two. Consequently, his bones stuck out like a row of spindles, and when he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine. His hair fell out and his skin became withered.     But all this was in vain. However severe his austerities, perhaps even because of them, the body still clamored for attention, and he was still plagued by material craving. In fact, he seemed more conscious of himself than ever. Buddha had to face the fact that asceticism had failed to redeem him. All he had achieved after this heroic assault upon his body was a prominent rib cage, and a dangerously weakened physique. Finally, it dawned upon him that physical austerity is one of the two extremes, and that the 'Middle Way between these two extremes is the path to enlightenment.   He thus slowly rose, and went to bathe in the stream. He crossed over to the far bank where he met a village girl named Sujata who offered him a bowl of rice pudding (kheer). It was the first food he had accepted in years and it instantly restored his body to lustrous good health. Thus nourished, and accompanied solely by his own resolve, Siddhartha strode majestically towards the bodhi tree, to make his last bid for liberation. Abandoning himself to meditation, he vowed not to move from that spot until he had attained full enlightenment. 9). The Defeat of Mara: Mara's Challenge to Buddha Hearing this solemn vow, Mara, the Buddhist manifestation of death and desire, felt threatened. Mara's power over sentient beings originated from their attachment to sensuous pleasures and the consequent fear of death which lead to intense suffering. Enlightenment would free Siddhartha from Mara's control and provide an opportunity for others to free themselves also by emulating him. Likewise, Mara first sent his three beautiful daughters named Desire (Future), Fulfillment (Present), and Regret (Past). The Buddha had already disengaged himself from these pinnings and thus remained unmoved. This prompted Mara to intimidate the venerable one by installing fear in his heart. Towards this end he generated an army of wrathful and hideous creatures, the very personifications of death. But all through the tribulations, Buddha sat calm and unflinching, and Mara had no other recourse than to withdraw, and thus was cleared the final hurdle on the way to Buddha's enlightenment. 10). The Proclamation of the Teachings: Having gained enlightenment, Gautama came to be called Shakyamuni, or the silent lion, indicating the explosive potential he carried within himself. He first went up to Sarnath near Varanasi where he met the five disciples with whom he had previously traversed the path of asceticism. Though they had deserted him after their failed experiment, the unearthly glow from his body now attracted them. Hearing his discourse, they became his first followers. Amongst these five was a disciple named Assaji. Once when Assaji was begging for alms, he encountered an inquisitive gentleman named Shariputra, who was then a follower of Sanjaya Belatthiputta, a renowned skeptic sage of the times. Shariputra, along with his fast friend Maudgalyayana were Sanjaya's fervent and most important disciples. Of late however, they had both started experiencing disillusionment and felt dissatisfied by their master's nihilistic philosophy. Now in this state of mind, Assaji's noble mien and air of self possession so impressed Shariputra that he asked him who his teacher was and what doctrine he taught. Assaji answered him only briefly but it was enough to convince Shariputra. He immediately bounded over to Maudgalyayana and related to him what had happened. Maudgalyayana was able to perceive the greatness of Buddha's teachings and he and Shariputra thereupon resolved to become followers of Shakyamuni. They also brought over Sanjaya's complete entourage of two-hundred-and-fifty disciples to Buddha's monastic order. Buddha with Shariputra and Maudgalyayana   This story is symbolic of the transformation Buddha's teachings bought about in the prevailing milieu of the times, wherein an entire school of thought came under the influence of his teachings. Later on Buddha was to predict that these two would become the foremost of his disciples. Thus, characteristically, in the narrative paintings outlining the significant episodes of Buddha's life, there is nearly always at the center, a dominating image of Shakyamuni, flanked by his two devoted disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana.   11). The Descent from the Trayatrimsa Heaven: The Trayatrimsa Episode   Queen Maya, after her death, was said to have been reborn in the Trayatrimsa heaven. Having attained enlightenment, Buddha decided to ascend to the Trayatrimsa heaven, literally the heaven of thirty-three gods, to visit his mother. The name 'thirty-three' derives from the fact that it is the residence of the 33 gods of Hinduism, an ancient notion, having roots in Vedic thought. With three strides Buddha reached the heaven, where he preached before the divine congregation, including his mother, for several months. In painted depictions, we see the Buddha seated on the throne of Indra, the king of the gods, sitting in the so-called European position, with his legs hanging down.     When the inhabitants of the earth fervently supplicated him to return, Buddha coasted downwards with the help of a ladder that had thirty-three rungs, handcrafted by the divine architect Vishwakarma. This descent is the most celebrated event of the entire episode and is often glorified in independent artworks. This legend cosmicises the historical Buddha in several ways. His ability to move between the two worlds is clearly indicative of his transcendental and divine nature. Moreover, the ladder here, reminiscent of the story of Jacob's ladder in the Bible, serves as a cosmic pillar that connects heaven and earth and is echoed in Shiva's symbol, the lingam. There too the lingam stretches from the heaven down to the netherworld and is worshipped by Brahma and Vishnu.     Similarly, the descending Buddha is revered by Indra and the four-headed Brahma, as well as other sacred beings. Yet another link is reflected in Buddha's taking three steps, both on the way up and down. The idea is clearly related to Vishnu's three strides in the myth of the Vamana (dwarf) avatar.   12). The Passage into Parinirvana: Traveling great distances to disseminate his teachings, Buddha finally reached the city of Kushinagara, where he asked his disciples to spread a couch for him in a grove. He lay there, reclining on his right side, facing west, with his head supported by his hand.   Shakyamuni realized clearly that death was approaching. Towards midnight of the same day, the event known in Buddhist terminology as the Parinirvana, or "Final Nirvana," took place. It was a full-moon night and also his eightieth birthday. The Enlightened One passed through progressively higher planes of meditation until he attained entry into Parinirvana.   One scripture gives an eloquent description of the scene: "The trees burst into full bloom out of season, bent down over the Buddha, and showered his body with their flowers, as if to do him supreme honor. There were heavenly flowers that rained down and scattered over the venerable one. . . . And the world was like a mountain whose summit has been shattered by a thunderbolt; it was like the sky without the moon."     Buddha's Parinirvana The death of a truly great man often marks the beginning rather than the end of an era in terms of the progress of human spirit. The difference lies in whether that man lived essentially for his own glory or devoted his life to the pursuit of eternal principles of truth and to the true happiness of all mankind. The image of the dying Buddha is not supposed to evoke sadness as much as a feeling that all beings have the potential to become enlightened and attain release from the sufferings which characterize samsara. His serene, composed, and restful demeanor (he is actually slightly smiling) is meant to communicate his attainment of the highest state of Indian meditation, that of a deep, quiet and blissful sleep known in Sanskrit as 'turiya.' This is precisely the reason why 'Parinirvana' is thought of as the 'final' or 'highest' nirvana. References and Further Reading Bangdel, Dina., and John C. Huntington. The Circle of Bliss Buddhist Meditational Art: Chicago, 2003. Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time: New York, 1999. Ikeda, Daisaku. The Living Buddha An Interpretive Biography: Tokyo, 1989. Gyeltsen, Korchak Tulku Kun-ga. The Twelve Deeds of the Buddha: Boudha, 2003. Keown, Damien. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism: Oxford, 2003. Khosla, Dr. Sarla. Lalitavistara and the Evolution of the Buddha Legend: New Delhi, 1991. Kumar, Nitin. Buddha - A Hero's Journey to Nirvana (Exotic India article of the month): April 2003. McArthur, Meher. Reading Buddhist Art (An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols): London, 2002. Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001. Meulenbeld, Ben. Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas: Holland, 2001. Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia Its Mythology and Transformations: Delhi, 2001. Zimmer, Heinrich (Edited by Joseph Campbell). Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Krishna the Divine Lover in Indian Art

    Krishna the Divine Lover in Indian Art

    The major gods in Indian art traditions have all been given consorts. They are rarely described as celibate recluses. In their incarnate form they are explicit in their demonstrative attraction for the opposite sex. The goddesses do not lag behind. Their love for their husbands or lovers is often portrayed in an assertively earthy and sensual manner. Gods and goddesses represent a conscious duality, complementing each other. Krishna was physically irresistibly appealing. Ancient texts dwell at length on his exceptionally alluring countenance: a blue complexion soft like the monsoon cloud, shining locks of black hair framing a beautifully chiseled face, large lotus like eyes, wild -flower garlands around his neck, a yellow garment (pitambara) draped around his body, a crown of peacock feathers on his head, and a smile playing on his lips, it is in this manner that he is faithfully represented since the ancient times to the modern.   Much as in the Christian art of Medieval Europe, it is woman the Mother, the Madonna suckling a babe who has been painted with reverence, in the Indian Diaspora it is woman the beloved who has been painted with love and passion. The female friends of Krishna with their warm sensuous faces, eyes filled with passion, and delicate sensitive fingers, represent not the beauty of a particular woman, but the beauty of entire womanhood. In fact, she is there as the incarnation of all the beauty of the world and as a representative of the charm of her sex. In the embrace of Krishna, the gopis, maddened with desire, found refuge; in their love dalliance with him who was the master in all the sixty-four arts of love, the gopis felt a thrill indescribable; and in making love with him in that climatic moment of release, in that one binding moment, they felt that joy and fulfillment which could not but be an aspect of the divine. Through their experience, thus, the erotic the carnal and the profane became but an aspect of the sublime, the spiritual and the divine.This cumulative myth sustained one basic point: for women, Krishna was a personal god, always accessible and unfailingly responsive. He was a god specially made for women. In the popular psyche, Krishna and Radha became the universal symbol for the lover and the beloved. Krishna was the ideal hero, and Radha the ideal heroine. Often the colorful legends surrounding his amorous adventures with female friends prove to be of supreme inspiration to artists. The following tale describing Krishna teasing the gopis by making away with their clothes while they were bathing in the river is one such example : According to tradition, unmarried girls from ten to fourteen years of age worship the Goddess Durga in order to fulfil their desire for a suitable husband. But the unmarried girls of Vrindavana were already attracted by the beauty of Krishna. Thus they daily worshipped goddess Durga early in the morning after taking a bath in the river Yamuna, and supplicated the goddess to arrange for their match with Krishna. Each morning, the gopis would assemble together at the banks of Yamuna and, holding one another's hands, loudly sing of the wonderful pastimes of lord Krishna before entering the river. It is an old system among Indian girls and women that when they take a bath in the river they place their garments on the bank and dip into the water completely naked. The portion of the river where the girls and women bathe was strictly prohibited to any male, and this is still the system in some parts. One day Krishna appeared on the scene with his friends. Observing the garments left on the bank by the bathing gopis, he immediately collected all the garments, climbed up a nearby tree, and with a smiling face spoke to them thus: "My dear girls, please come here one after another and pray for your garments and then take them away. I'm not joking with you, just telling the plain truth. Please don't come here all at once. Come alone one by one; I want to see each of you in your complete beauty, for you all have thin waists." When the girls in the water heard such joking words from Krishna, they began to look at one another and smile. Though outwardly showing resentment they were joyous to hear such a request because they were already in love with him. They then addressed him : " Do not joke with us in this way, it is unjust to us. You are a very respectable boy and very dear to us, so kindly deliver our garments immediately because we are all shivering from the cold water, and end our suffering." But all their supplications could not convince Krishna. Seeing that Krishna was strong and determined, they had no alternative but to abide by his command. One after another they came out of the water, but because they were naked, they tried to cover their nakedness with their soft hands. On observing this Krishna chided the gopis, addressing them thus: " My dear girls, you have committed a great offence by going naked in this holy river, because of this the presiding deity of this holy river is displeased with you. Therefore to please this deity touch your forehead with folded palms and ask for his forgiveness." The gopis were all simple souls, and whatever Krishna said they took to be true. They followed his command, but in doing so exposed their nakedness in all its beauty to Krishna's gaze, which was exactly what Krishna desired. All the unmarried gopis who prayed to Goddess Durga to have Krishna as their husband were thus satisfied. A woman cannot be naked before any male except her husband. The unmarried gopis desired Krishna as their husband, and he fulfilled their desire in this way. The India art tradition visualises the love adventures of gods and their female friends because it acknowledges that sex is the supreme fact in life, which provides the urge to procreate and maintain the species. It is concealed like lightning in a cloud, and in its glow is the birth of art, literature and science. Sex union among lovers is the most exalted experience in life, and in mutual ecstasy the liberation of the soul from the narrow 'self' takes place. This is the supreme experience of lovers as well as mystics. That is why in describing the union of God and soul, the extremely beautiful imagery of man and woman is employed by mystic saints and artists. Thus we see that the classification of love into 'carnal' and 'spiritual' is arbitrary and unwarranted for the so called 'spiritual' love has its roots in the so called 'physical' love. This art thus sanctifies human love and places it on a par with divine love. In it we find sacredness wedded to sensuous joy.   It is not a spiritual art where spirit and body are regarded as two separate entities. It is not gloomy, cold and forbidding, but is an art which is a happy blend of the sensuous and the spiritual. The spirituality is not chilled by an asceticism which is disdainful of female loveliness and the delights of love. In fact, its spirituality very much based on flesh and blood. It is an art which glorifies female beauty and revels in the loveliness of the female form. The knitting together of form and color into a coordinated harmony is the hallmark of this art. Form and color are so blended that the effect is musical. To achieve such a harmony, the artist uses both line and color in these paintings. The line which he uses is the musical rhythmical line, which express both movement and mass, representing the flow and ardor of impassioned love. The type of line which Blake admired, and regarded as the golden rule of art is this: " The more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art, and the less keen and sharp, the greater is evidence of weak imagination." And what a rhythm these dancing lines create, a pure limpid harmony! That is why these pictures are so comforting and so soothing like the concertos of Bach and Mozart. This line is effectively supplemented by colors-the blues, yellows, greens, and reds, the pure colors of earth and minerals, which shine like jewels.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • The Five Meditating Buddhas - An Enquiry into Spiritual Aesthetics

    The Five Meditating Buddhas - An Enquiry into Spiritual Aesthetics

      Long, long ago, before the idea called history evolved, there existed a sexless entity called the Adi-Buddha or Primordial Buddha. From ‘Him’ emerged the duality which was to be the potential progenitor of all creation. This dual element is visualized in Buddhist aesthetics either as the deity Vajrasattva or Vajradhara. The significant characteristic common to them is the bell (female) and thunderbolt (male), which they hold in their hands. These deities are believed to be two expressions of the same principle, and the wellspring of all creation. The above hierarchy is essentially spiritual. It represents an idealized abstract state, graspable only to those on an elevated mental plane. Ordinary mortals like us, require some kind of a concrete expression to bring forth a heartfelt response. In Buddhism, the path to spiritual salvation is not envisioned as some lofty abstract journey, rather it is stressed that the attainment of enlightenment involves a profound transformation in our innermost being. But how is such a dramatic transformation to come about? The answer is said to lie within those very inherent negative traits which keep us spiritually imprisoned and unfulfilled. The same knotted energy that feeds the poisonous delusions, when unknotted, empowers and enlightens the mind. In its typical penchant for classification and categorization, Vajrayana Buddhism divides the negative delusions plaguing the human form into five categories. These are: ignorance, anger, pride, attachment, and jealousy. They are said to be the sum total of all factors which keep us away from enlightenment. But hope lies in the belief that the human mind holds within itself the potential to metamorphose these negative traits into positive attributes. In a supreme moment of creative inspiration, which can be counted amongst the highest achievements in the history of human aesthetic instinct, these transformed emotions are visualized as five different, beautiful and resplendent Buddhas. Invariably seated upon their auspicious lotus thrones, they are known collectively as the Dhyani Buddhas. This is in consistency with their iconographic representations, where they are inevitably shown seated in the posture of meditation, known in Sanskrit as Dhyana. They are also known as ‘jina,’ meaning victory, signifying a conceptual victory over our unenlightened minds. All the five Dhyani Buddhas are said to have originated from Vajrasattva himself. But it needs to be appreciated here, that though they have all sprung from the same spiritual father, these Buddhas nevertheless have important physical differences. For example, each displays a different hand mudra, is associated with a different direction, rides a different animal, denotes a particular moment in the life of the historical Buddha, and has a different color. The last is a unique contribution to the aesthetic heritage which is shared by all humanity. Indeed, the link between our negative emotions, and the positive qualities into which the Dhyani Buddhas transform them can be illustrated most directly through the medium and experience of color. It is well known that changing the color of our surroundings can have a profound effect on our state of mind. Color also expresses our emotions, as when we say that we are green with envy or feeling blue. Color is logically thus one of the significant means through which Buddhist art gives a tangible form to human emotions and nowhere is this more explicitly displayed than in the typical iconography of the five Dhyani Buddhas. Each of the five Buddhas first identifies a specific human failing and then helps us in transforming it into a positive attribute, bringing about the spiritual evolution required for enlightenment. How they inspire us to achieve this transition through their traditional iconography is discussed below.The five Dhyani Buddhas are: 1). Vairochana2). Akshobhya3). Ratnasambhava4). Amitabha5). Amoghasiddhi 1). Vairochana, The King (Tib. Namnang)   In the Rigveda (the world’s earliest codified text) the word ‘vairochana’ has the connotation of a brilliant and luminous sun. Indeed, Vairochana in Tibetan is called ‘Namnang, meaning ‘The illuminator.’ Vairochana displays the Dharmachakra mudra. Dharmachakra in Sanskrit means the 'Wheel of Dharma'. This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the historical life of the Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath. It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel of the teaching of the Dharma.   Vairochana is an idealization of this central function of the Buddha as a teacher, without which there would have been no Buddhism, and no path to enlightenment open before us. The wheel he is conceptually turning was once a solar symbol in ancient India and later came to be a signifier of kinghood. The logical reasoning being that as the sun is the originator and nourisher of the earth, so is a king to his people. Also consistent with this context is the fact that Vairochana is said to rule from the center of the world, with the complete Vajrayana pantheon (including the other four Dhyani Buddhas) arrayed around him. Similarly, the sun too is the center of the solar system; likewise a king is the de facto center of his domain. Significantly, Vairochana is said to be the sum of all the Dhyani Buddhas and combines all their qualities. He is therefore, pure white, since white is a blend of all colors. Indeed, his lotus seat is supported by a pair of two great lions. The lion is the king of beasts and when he roars all others fall silent. Similar is the roar of Buddha’s teachings, in relation to the grandeur of which all other voices of our everyday life become insignificant and fall silent. Not surprisingly, meditating on the image of Vairochana is specifically believed to transform the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom preached by the Dharma. When Gautama Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma, it illuminated (like a sun), the hearts of men and women darkened by ignorance. Vairochana’s distinguishing emblem is the golden or solar wheel. 2). Akshobhya, The Mirror to Our Souls (Tib. Mikyopa): According to the Tibetan Dhammapada: Those who control their wrath when it rears upAs they would a horse when it strays loose,I call ‘the best trainers,’those who do not, are common beings.   Akshobhya is believed to transform the human failing of anger into a clear mirror-like wisdom. With this wisdom, we see things just as they are, impartially and unaffectedly. Indeed, whether it be a red rose or a bloody dagger, a mirror will reflect both just as they are. It will not be judgmental and distinguish between the two reds, attempting to hold to the first and flee from the second. No reflection in a mirror sticks to it, and none repels it. The mirror always stands imperturbable and immutable, just as we should, whether the circumstances be favorable or unfavorable to us. Akshobhya’s blue color is closely linked to the mirror symbolism. Blue is the color of water, and water has the capacity to act as a clear mirror.   He makes the Bhumisparsha mudra (earth touching gesture). This gesture recalls the incident just before Buddha’s enlightenment when he was challenged by Mara, the personification of evil. Mara was convinced that the spiritual throne where Buddha was sitting belonged rightly to him. Accordingly he challenged Buddha to prove his claim to the seat. Buddha moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth to bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred thousand roars, and validated Buddha’s assertion. More relevant to our interest here is the fact that this gesture suggests confidence, deep-rootedness, and the same kind of determination which carried the Buddha to his enlightenment, inspite of the numerous hurdles which crossed his path. Akshobhya’s emblem is the vajra. The Vajra is the quintessential symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism, which derives its name from the vajra itself. The Sanskrit term vajra means 'the hard or mighty one', and its Tibetan equivalent dorje means an indestructible hardness and brilliance like the diamond, which cannot be cut or broken. The vajra essentially signifies the immovable, immutable, indivisible, and indestructible state of enlightenment. Thus is Akshobhya touching the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, the earth too being a symbol of the immutable, the solid, and the concrete. Akshobhya’s mount is the elephant. An elephant places its foot upon the earth with unshakeable certainty. It has the same unalterable quality as the Buddha’s fingers touching the ground, and the same determination that carried Buddha through his tribulations. Akshobhya is considered the ruler over the eastern direction. It is the direction where dawn takes place. Indeed, Buddha’s victory over Mara heralded the dawning of a new, spiritual reality. 3). Ratnasambhava, The Gem of a Buddha (Tib. Gyalwa Rinjung): Ratnasambhava means ‘Born from the Jewel,’ ‘ratna’ signifying jewel in Sanskrit. Ratnasambhava is believed to transform the negative human trait of pride into the wisdom of sameness. This wisdom brings out the common features of human experience and makes us see the common humanity underlying all men and women. It makes us see ourselves as fellow-beings, organically united to the total stream of humanity. In this state of enlightenment, there is nobody superior or inferior to the other, leaving no scope for pride to develop. Ratnasambhava displays the Varada mudra. This mudra symbolizes charity and boon granting. Indeed his distinct emblem is a jewel (ratna), associating him with riches and Ratnasambhava is sometimes described as the Buddha of giving. But he makes no distinction and gives freely to all (the wisdom of sameness). All beings are equally precious to him. Whatever our social position, race, sex, or life form, we are all made from a common clay. The grace of Ratnasambhava shines equally on the palace and dung heap. Meditating on his wisdom we develop solidarity with all humanity, nay with all forms of life. The wisdom of sameness gives us the clarity of mind to perceive in the correct perspective, the eight experiences, arranged into four pairs. These are gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain. These experiences always come in pairs. If we chase one we will lay ourselves open to the other. For example, if we pursue pleasure, we will undoubtedly at some time experience pain too. This is a spiritual expression of Newton’s third law of dynamics namely that ‘each and every action in the universe has an equal and opposite reaction.’ Ratnasambhava’s color is yellow. This is the color of the earth. The earth too is extremely generous in sharing with us her riches. Also she gives without any expectation or favor in return. She gives and also receives all equally. The earth is thus the great leveler. Similarly, Ratnasambhava’s radiance dissolves all boundaries of self and the other. We can then just share with others – without any associated sense of giving, because giving requires a ‘self’ to give and ‘others’ to receive, a duality which Ratnasambhava helps us transcend. The animal associated with Ratnasambhava is the horse, who ferries over the suffering beings with full vigor. It also suggests a journey, a spiritual voyage such as that on which the Buddha-to-be set forth when he left his life at home, riding on his faithful charger. In Tibetan art, the horse is often shown carrying jewels on its back. This is a further reinforcement of its relation with Ratnasambhava. Ratnasambhava guards over the direction south. The sun is in the south at noon-time. Its rays are then a light-golden-yellow, the hue of Ratnasambhava himself.   4). Amitabha, The Gentle and Lovable Buddha (Tib. Opame): Amitabha is undoubtedly the most well known and popular of the five Dhyani Buddhas. He is red in color. In Tibetan Buddhism, red is the color of love, compassion, and emotional energy. His direction is the west. It is in this direction that sunset takes place and indeed he is envisioned as the setting sun (red). During sunset, the sun is gentle, and we can directly look into its fierce power, without coming to any harm. As it disappears into the west, the sun is like a proud and fierce king, who at the end of a hard day of rigid protocol turns gentle and jovial, and allows anyone to approach him. Amitabha is thus the supreme power and energy of nature, cast on an earthly plain, accessible to all of us. No wonder he is the most popular of all Dhyani Buddhas.His unique emblem is the lotus. He is thus associated with all the attributes of the lotus: gentleness, openness, and purity.Amitabha’s mount is the peacock, which is capable of swallowing poisonous snakes without coming to harm. In fact, the peacock is believed to derive its rich plumage from the poison of the snakes on which it feeds. This symbolism, of being open even to poison, and transmuting it into beauty, gives us a feeling of the purifying and transforming power of Amitabha. For us ordinary mortals, it signifies that even our darkest and most venomous aspects can be transformed by meditating on his image.     Amitabha’s image has both a simplicity and archetypal quality to it. His demeanor is totally relaxed and his hands are in the Dhyana mudra, the mudra of meditation.     According to tradition, this mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha when he was meditating under the pipal tree, in the pursuit of Nirvana. In conformity with his hand mudra, the essential message of Amitabha is that of meditation. His association with the setting sun suggests the withdrawal of our external sense perceptions inwards, into higher states of meditative concentration. Elevating ourselves to such a spiritual level has the ultimate objective of uniting us with that intangible Universal Consciousness which pervades all tangible reality. Amitabha thus provides us with the archetypal infinite wisdom that helps us transmute the negative trait of obsessive attachment into a discerning awareness that we are all made up of the same primitive substratum. So contemplating, we are able to realize that the object we crave for is not separate from us, and already as much a part of ourselves as we are of it.   5). Amoghasiddhi The Lord of Karma (Tib. Donyo Drup pa):       The fifth Dhyani Buddha is Amoghasiddhi, whose distinctive emblem is the double dorje, also known as the crossed vajra.             The hand mudra made by Amoghasiddhi is the Abhaya mudra. Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. Thus this mudra symbolizes protection, peace, and the dispelling of fear. According to the Buddhist tradition, Buddha’s cousin Devadatta felt greatly jealous of him. His jealousy knowing no bounds, he once even attempted to murder the Buddha. His plan involved loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path. But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal. Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement of the senses, but also the absence of fear.     Indeed, Amoghasiddhi’s whole presence removes terror and fear. His body is green, the color of the peace and tranquility of Nature. It is a soothing and relaxing color, which calms anxiety. Amoghasiddhi rides on Garuda, the half-man and half-eagle composite, who feeds on snakes. Blessed with a telescopic vision, Garuda can detect the presence of serpent-like negative delusions plaguing our mortal frames even from a considerable distance. Also, Garuda is associated with the Himalayan ranges of the north, which is the direction of Amoghasiddhi too.     Amoghasiddhi is particularly associated with energy and is known as the Lord of Karma. As a Buddha of action, he represents the practical achievement of results using the wisdom of the other four Buddhas. His double vajra too is a symbol of the successive conclusion of all actions. This is the reason why that after a deity statue has been completed and consecrated, a crossed vajra is inscribed upon the metal strip used to seal its base. The goddess Green Tara is believed to have emanated from Amoghasiddhi and not surprisingly, she too is deified as a deity of action in the Buddhist pantheon. Indeed, Green Tara is always depicted in a posture with her right leg extended, signifying her readiness to spring into action. Amoghasiddhi is believed to alter the negative human failing of jealousy into the positive wisdom of accomplishment. Jealousy is a positive human emotion in as much that it fuels our ambition and prompts us to achieve greater heights. But its negativeness stems from the fact that it is almost always accompanied by a bitterness towards the one who is the target of our envy. When we are able to ward off this associated feeling of resentment, and realize at the same time that the object of our jealousy is but a medium prompting us to greater karma, leading to higher accomplishments, we would have the read the message of Amoghasiddhi successfully. Conclusion: The five Dhyani Buddhas represent the five basic types of human personality and demonstrate the absolutely perfected form of these personality types. Most importantly, each of them represents a negative quality as well as the completely transformed aspect of that failing, manifested as a glorious wisdom. It is an ample demonstration of the genius of Vajrayana Buddhism that these weaknesses are not denied or suppressed. They are instead worked upon, until their illusory nature is understood and they become aspects of one’s inherent wisdom. References and Further Reading Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs: Boston, 1999. Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999. Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism: New Delhi, 1992. Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Buddhas (Ritual Symbolism Used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects): New Delhi, 2002. Landaw, Jonathan., and Weber, Andy. Images of Enlightenment (Tibetan Art in Practice): New York, 1993. Majupuria, Trilok Chandra. Sacred Animals of Nepal and India: Kathmandu, 2000. Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997. Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001. Sparham, Gareth. The Tibetan Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha): London, 1986. Subhuti, Dharmachari. The Buddhist Vision (An Introduction to the Theory and Practice): London, 1992. Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997. Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas (A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities), Birmingham, 1993.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Mysterious and Inspiring Stories of Hanuman Ji

    Mysterious and Inspiring Stories of Hanuman Ji

    Little Hanumana Goes for the Sun Having Vayu (god of air) as his illustrious father, Hanuman was no ordinary child. He was spirited and energetic. He was obviously endowed with awesome strength and the shastras abound in tales narrating his remarkable feats. Once for example he mistook the sun for a ripe fruit (monkeys are naturally lured by red ripe fruits), and rushed towards the sky in an attempt to grab it.   On his way he saw Rahu trying to devour the sun and thus cause an eclipse. Mistaking Rahu to be a worm, Hanuman dashed towards him, attempting to catch him. Rushing for his life, Rahu sought shelter in the refuge of Indra, the lord of the skies. Indra picked up his deadly thunderbolt, mounted his white elephant named Airavata and made off in search of Hanuman, seeking to restrain his seeming impudence. The clouds rumbled and lightning thundered across the vast skies in an expression of Indra's wrath. But neither this scary scenario, nor the mightily armed Indra on his high mount, was sufficient enough to induce even a trace of fear in the heart of Hanuman. On the contrary, the spectacle only served to fuel his excitement and mistaking Airavata for a toy, he made a grab for the pachyderm, seized its trunk and leapt on its back. Taken aback by the child's spirited and playful defiance, Indra stuck at Hanuman with his thunderbolt, and the wound thus inflicted hurtled him speedily down to the earth. His father Vayu immediately sprung to his rescue and caught him in mid air. The sight of his beloved son lying helpless in his arms infuriated the wind-god. He drew in a mighty breath and sucked away all the air from the cosmos. "Let all those who have harmed my son choke to death," he thought out aloud. Predictably there was panic in the cosmos. Without air, life on every level was threatened. The gods, realizing their folly, went in unison to Vayu and asked for his forgiveness. To make amends they showered the following blessings and powers on the child: a). Brahma: "May you live as long as Brahma himself lives." b). Vishnu: "May you live all your life as the greatest devotee of God." c). Indra: "No weapon of any kind will wound or hit your body." d). Agni: "Fire will never affect you." e). Kala: "May death never court you." f). All the Devas (gods): "None will ever equal you in strength and speed." Brahma concluded the session by bestowing on Hanuman power greater than even Vayu and Garuda, and endowed him with a speed faster than even the mightiest wind. Thus pacified, Vayu restored air into the cosmos. There was one catch however. It was decreed that Hanuman would remain blissfully unaware of his own prowess, unless, during the course of a meritorious deed, his memory would remind him of his superhuman ability. It will be seen later how this apparently insignificant matter lays bare the symbolical significance of Hanuman. Hanuman's Education As he grew up, Hanuman sought to educate himself and for this purpose he chose Surya the sun god as his guru saying: "You see everything there is to see in the universe and you know everything there is to know. Please accept me as your pupil." Surya hesitated. "I don't have the time," he said. "During the day I ride across the sky, and at night I am too tired to do anything." "Then teach me as you ride across the sky during the day. I will fly in front of your chariot, facing you from dawn to dusk." Impressed by Hanuman's zeal and determination, Surya accepted him as his pupil. Thus Hanuman flew before the chariot of the sun god, withstanding the awesome glare, until he became well versed in the four books of knowledge (the Vedas), the six systems of philosophies (darshanas), the sixty-four arts or kalas and the one hundred and eight occult mysteries of the Tantras. Having become a master of all that he set out to learn, it was now time for Hanuman to pay for his education (guru-dakshina). Surya asserted that watching the devoted pupil study was payment enough for him but when Hanuman insisted on giving something to express his gratitude, the sun god asked him to look after the welfare of his son Sugriva, who was the stepbrother of Vali, the king of monkeys. Before Vali became the lord of apes, a simian named Riksha ruled over them. Once it so transpired that Riksha fell in an enchanted pool and turned into a woman. Both the sky-god Indra and the sun-god Surya fell in love with her and she bore each of them a son. Indra's son was her first born Vali while Sugriva her second offspring was the son of Surya. After bearing the sons, Riksha regained his male form. Rama and Lakshmana Confer with Sugriv, Hanuman and Others When Riksha died, in accordance with the law of the jungle, the monkeys fought each other for becoming the leader. Vali successfully killed or maimed every other contender to the throne and became the undisputed ruler of the monkey world. As one who had successfully earned his dominant place among the apes, Vali was not obliged to share the spoils of power with anyone, but being of a magnanimous nature he shared everything with his younger brother Sugriva. It was in these circumstances that Hanuman entered the companionship of Sugriva who later became the king of monkeys himself. It was under Sugriva that the massive army of monkeys helped Lord Rama reclaim his wife Sita Ji who had been abducted by the demon Ravana.   Hanuman The Selfless  Birth of a Poet - Valmiki is Inspired to Write the Ramayana A pair of lovebirds, enjoying their natural freedom, was soaring the boundless skies. Fate however had scripted a cruel ending to their mating. A hunter's arrow found its mark and the devoted female lost her male. She did not however escape from the scene but rather lingered on, circling over the lifeless form of her mate. Witnessing this poignant episode inspired the accomplished sage Valmiki to poetry and what came out of his heart was the Ramayana, one of the greatest poems the earth has had the good fortune to inherit. Indeed, Valmiki's poem became renowned in the three worlds as it struck a chord in every heart that heard it.   One day Valmiki came to know that the great Hanuman too had penned the adventures of Rama, engraving the story with his nails on rocks. A curious Valmiki traveled to the Himalayas where Hanuman was residing to see this version. When Hanuman read out his narration, Valmiki was overwhelmed by its sheer power and poetic caliber. It was truly an inspired piece. Valmiki felt both joy and sorrow. Joy because he had had the chance to hear an exceptionally beautiful poem, and sad because it obviously overshadowed his own work. When Hanuman saw the unhappiness his work had caused Valmiki he smashed the engraved rocks destroying his creation forever. Such was Hanuman's selflessness. For him, narrating the tales of Rama' s adventures was a means to re-experience Rama, not a means to fame. Hanuman's name too illustrates his self-effacing character, being made up of 'hanan' (annihilation) and 'man' (mind), thus indicating one who has conquered his ego. Hanuman and Yoga If yoga is the ability to control one's mind then Hanuman is the quintessential yogi having a perfect mastery over his senses, achieved through a disciplined lifestyle tempered by the twin streams of celibacy and selfless devotion (bhakti). In fact, Hanuman is the ideal Brahmachari (one who follows the path of Brahma), if ever there was one.   Hanuman as Yogacharya     He is also a perfect karma yogi since he performs his actions with detachment, acting as an instrument of destiny rather than being impelled by any selfish motive.   Hanuman - The First to Teach Pranayama and the Inventor of the Surya Namaskar Pranayama is the ability to control one's breath so that the inhalation and exhalation of air is rhythmic. Vayu, the god of air and wind, first taught pranayama to his son Hanuman, who in turn taught it to mankind.   Surya Namaskara: A Technique of Solar Vitalization   The Surya Namaskar (salutation to the sun) too, was devised by Hanuman as a greeting for his teacher Surya.   Why Images of Hanuman Ji are Used on Amulets and Jewelry   Mahiravana As the battle with Ravana progressed, the demon lost all his brothers and sons and it became clear that he was headed towards defeat. Finally, he sent for his only surviving son Mahiravana, a powerful sorcerer who ruled over the underworld (patala loka). Mahiravana was a great devotee of Goddess Kali from whom he had obtained vital occult secrets. Initially Mahiravana did not wish to join the fight against Rama since he felt the latter's cause to be just. But understanding Mahiravana’s weakness for ritual magic Ravana addressed him thus: "Think of the powers the goddess Kali will grant you when you offer to her the heads of two handsome and virile youths like Rama and Lakshmana." Needles to say, Mahiravana agreed.   Mahiravanacaritam in Indian Paintings (An Old and Rare Book) The great sorcerer Mahiravana managed to kidnap both Rama and his brother Lakshmana while they were sleeping. He left behind, in place of their bed, a dark trail stretching deep into the bowels of the earth. Hanuman immediately dived into the tunnel and made his way to patala, the subterranean kingdom of Mahiravana. There he found the two brothers tied to a post, their bodies anointed with mustard oil and bedecked with marigold flowers, ready to be sacrificed. Near them, Mahiravana was sharpening the sacrificial blade and chanting hymns to invoke the goddess.   Pancha-Mukha Hanuman Pendant withHis Yantra on the Reverse (Two Sided Pendant) Hanuman taking the form of a bee whispered into Rama's ear, "When Mahiravana asks you to place your neck on the sacrificial block, inform him that being of royal lineage you have never learned to bow your head. Tell him to demonstrate how to bow one’s head." Mahiravana fell for the trap. No sooner had he bowed his head in the ritually prescribed manner than Hanuman regained his form, seized the blade, and decapitated the sorcerer. Thus did Hanuman turn the tables and sacrificed the demon himself to Mother Goddess Kali. Impressed, she made Hanuman her doorkeeper and indeed many temples of the goddess are seen to have a monkey guarding their doorways. Further, to this day, Hanuman is invoked in any fight against sorcery, and amulets and charms depicting him are therefore extremely popular among devotees.   Hanuman as Protector Against Negative Astrological Influences Navagraha Deities With Their Respective Vahanas   Mahiravana's death filled Ravana's heart with fear. He consulted the court astrologers who studied his horoscope and decreed that the alignment of celestial bodies was not in his favor. Now, Indian astrology is governed by nine planets, known as the Navagrahas.   Ravana thought that by changing the alignment of these heavenly bodies he would be able to alter his destiny. Mounting his flying chariot he rose to the skies, captured the nine planets, and herded them to his capital in chains. He then began a series of rituals which if successful would force the planets to realign themselves in his favor. When Hanuman came to know of this ritual, he assembled and led a band of daredevil monkeys to Ravana's sacrificial hall, intending to disrupt the proceedings. They found the villain sitting beside a fire altar with his eyes shut in profound meditation, mouthing mantras. The group of simians let out a loud war cry and rushed into the hall. They snuffed out the sacred fire, kicked off the ceremonial utensils and wiped off the occult diagrams (yantras) painted on the floor. Unfortunately none of this roused Ravana from his deep trance and he continued chanting the sacred mantras. Hanuman realized that Ravana would have to be stopped at any cost, otherwise the villain would succeed in changing the course of destiny. Towards this end he devised a mischievous plan, and ordered his lieutenants to enter the female chambers and scare away Ravana's many wives. The monkeys did as instructed and attacked Ravana's queens and concubines, pulling their hair, scratching their faces and tearing away their clothes. But it was all to no avail; the immovable Ravana did not stir. At last the monkeys confronted Mandodari, the chief wife of Ravana. They bared their teeth, beat their chests and began to grunt menacingly. Terrified, Mandodari lamented, "Woe is me. My husband meditates while monkeys threaten my chastity." Her words ashamed Ravana to open his eyes and rush to her defence. Thus having successfully distracted Ravana, Hanuman ran back to the sacrificial hall and liberated the nine planets held captive there. For having successfully aborted Ravana's misplaced attempts to subvert fate, Hanuman won the eternal gratitude of the grahas and is thus believed to exercise considerable power over them. Correspondingly, he is worshipped by his devotees whenever they perceive their troubles to be a result of the unfavorable configuration of celestial bodies. Indeed, Hanuman is often shown trampling under his feet a woman who is said to represent Panvati, a personification of baneful astrological influences. Another interesting legend deals specifically with the planet Saturn (Shani). Perceived to be an unfavorable influence, it is believed that Saturn visits each individual at least once in his/her lifetime for a period of seven-and-a-half years (saade-saati). As fate would have it, Shani descended on Hanuman when he was busy building a bridge over the ocean to help Rama and his army cross over to Lanka. Hanuman requested the planet to postpone his visit till he had successfully assisted Rama in regaining Sita. But Saturn was adamant and Hanuman had to bow against the will of nature. He suggested that Shani sit on his (Hanuman's) head as his hands were engaged in serving Rama and his legs were too lowly for him. Saturn happily settled on Hanuman's head and the mighty monkey continued with his work, piling heavy boulders and stones on his head in an apparently casual manner and carrying them to the construction site. After a while Saturn found it impossible to bear the load of the heaped boulders any longer and wished to climb down. Hanuman insisted that he complete his mandatory seven-and-a-half years but Saturn pleaded for release saying that the seven-and-a-half minutes he stayed on Hanuman's head felt like seven-and-a-half years anyway. Thus speaking Saturn took leaveand since then worshippers of Hanuman rest assured that the unavoidable ill effects of Saturn's saade-saati (seven-and-a-half years stay) can be whittled down by a true devotion to Hanuman. Hanuman and Tantra Tantra represents the occult side of Hinduism. With the aid of chants (mantras) and diagrams (yantras) Tantriks (practitioners of Tantra) channelise the powers of the cosmos for the advantage of humanity. Tantriks believe that Hanuman is the most accomplished of their lot having achieved the much- sought after eight occult powers: 1). Anima - The ability to reduce his size. 2). Mahima - Ability to increase his size. 3). Laghima - The ability to become weightless. 4). Garima - Ability to increase weight. 5). Prapti - The ability to travel anywhere and acquire anything. 6). Parakamya - Irresistible will power. 7). Vastiva - Mastery over all creatures. 8). Isitva - Ability to become god like with the power to create and destroy. The Ramayana abounds with tales illustrating Hanuman's mastery over each of these siddhas (occult powers). Not surprisingly, he is reverently deified as a Mahsiddha (Maha=Great). Hanuman and the Potency of Mother's Milk After the annihilation of Ravana, Rama asked Hanuman how he would like to be thanked for his services. He answered, "My lord, let me spend the rest of my days in your service." Rama gladly accepted the request. Thus Hanuman too boarded the chariot, that was to take Rama and his entourage back to Ayodhya. On the way however, Hanuman thought of visiting his mother Anjana who lived on a mountain nearby. Rama and all other members of the party too were curious to meet Hanuman's mother and hence the chariot was diverted to her dwelling. On reaching the place Hanuman approached his mother whose happiness knew no bounds. She embraced her bundle of joy. All others present too bowed in reverence to the mother of Hanuman. The worthy son narrated to her the entire sequence of events ending with Ravana's death on the battlefield. Surprisingly, his words did not please his mother but rather she became remorseful and addressed Hanuman thus: "My giving birth to you has been in vain, and feeding you with my milk has been of no avail." On hearing her strange words all became panicky and were left speechless. Hanuman too stared at her in mute incomprehension. After a brief pause she continued with her tirade: "Shame on your strength and valour. Did you not have enough power to uproot Lanka on your own? Could you not have annihilated the ten-headed monster and his army yourself? If you were not strong enough to do so it would have been better if you had at least perished yourself in fighting him. I regret the fact that even though you were alive Lord Rama had to build a perilous bridge of stones over the turbulent ocean to reach Lanka and had to fight the massive army of demons and thus suffer a great ordeal in order to recover his beloved Sita. Indeed, the nourishment my breast has given you has proved to be unfruitful. Go away and don't ever show me your face again." She was obviously referring to the instance when Hanuman was deputed to go and search for Sita in the city of Lanka. Only when he had confirmed Sita's presence in Ravana's custody could a formal battle be launched to rescue her. Hanuman not only brought news of her wretched condition in captivity but also during his brief visit managed to burn down the whole city and thus gave Ravana an inkling of the times to come. Anjana's annoyance stemmed from the fact that even though Hanuman was supremely capable of bringing back Sita on his own during that visit itself, he did not do so and much effort had to be expended later to accomplish the mission. Hence was she trembling with wrath. With folded hands Hanuman addressed her: "O Great Mother, no way have I compromised on the sacred worth of your milk. I am but a mere servant. During that visit I had been instructed only to search for Sita and not kill Ravana. Had I done so of my own accord it would have amounted to overstepping my brief. I therefore acted scrupulously and kept my word." In fact, Hanuman had asked Sita, when he met her in Ravana 's captivity, whether she would prefer to be rescued by him at that very moment. She replied in the negative stressing that it was her husband's duty to liberate her and Rama himself would have to come and take her back. The entire gathering corroborated Hanuman's version and much mollified his distressed mother. She spoke to him affectionately: "Dear son I never knew all this but now that I do it is comforting that my milk has indeed borne abundant fruit." श्री हनुमान-अंक: (Shri Hanuman-Ank) - The Most ExhaustiveCollection of Articles on Hanuman Ji The repeated glorification of her own milk by Anjana was not relished by Lakshmana, who thought it an exaggeration. Sensing this, she addressed him saying: "Lakshmana, you are wondering why this apparently feeble monkey-woman is harping on the efficacy and potency of her own milk? My milk is indeed extraordinary." Saying this Anjana squeezed her breast and the oozing milk shower shot to a nearby mountain cleaving it thunderously into two. Addressing Lakshmana again she elaborated: "Hanuman has been brought up on the same milk, how could it ever go to waste?" (This story was narrated in the annual issue of the spiritual journal 'Kalyan,' published at Gita Press Gorakhpur. (Page 321)).   Why Idols of Hanuman are Red in Color Every morning in Ayodhya, Hanuman Ji would observe Sita put a red mark on her forehead and smear the parting of her hair with vermilion powder, enacting a ritual which is the exclusive prerogative of married women in India.   Veer Hanuman Being naturally of a curious bent of mind he asked her the reason behind this daily ritual. "For the well-being of my husband," replied she. Hanuman, ever the humble well-wisher of his chosen lord wondered: "If a virtuous woman like Sita has to apply vermilion in this manner for the good of Lord Rama, I, a mere monkey, need to do more." Thus thinking, he took a bowlful of the paste and smeared his whole body with it. Needless to say, both Rama and Sita were moved by the purity of Hanuman's heart. Since then, idols of Hanuman are colored a rich vermilion red.   Why Hanuman is Shown Tearing Open his Own Chest Once Sita gave Hanuman a necklace of pearls. After a while, the residents of Ayodhya observed him breaking the necklace and inspecting each pearl minutely. Intrigued they asked him the reason. "I am looking for Rama and Sita," replied Hanuman. Laughing at his apparent naivety the spectators pointed out to him that the royal couple was at the moment seated on the imperial throne. "But Rama and Sita are everywhere, including my heart" wondered aloud the true bhakta. Hanuman Ji Tearing His Chest to Reveal Rama and Sita   Not understanding the depth of his devotion, they further teased him: "So Rama and Sita live in your heart, can you show them to us?" Unhesitatingly, Hanuman stood up and with his sharp talons tore open his chest. There, within his throbbing heart, the astonished audience were taken aback to find enshrined an image of Rama and Sita. Never again did anyone make fun of Hanuman's devotion.   The Five-Headed (Panchamukhi) Hanuman - An Intriguing Image TheVaishnavas believe that the wind-god Vayu underwent three incarnations to help Lord Vishnu. As Hanuman he helped Rama; as Bheema he assisted Krishna; and as Madhvacharya (1197-76), he founded the Vaishnava sect. The Vaishnavas evolved a composite form of Hanuman with five heads and ten arms, incorporating in the composite image five important Vaishnavite deities: At the centre a monkey's face (Hanuman). A lion's visage representing Narasimha gazing southwards. An eagle's head symbolizing Garuda facing west. A boar head of Varaha (north). A horse's face for Hayagriva (facing the sky). Panchamukhi Hanuman   Each head signifies a particular trait. Hanuman courage and strength, Narasimha fearlessness, Garuda magical skills and the power to cure snake bites, Varaha health and exorcism and Hayagriva victory over enemies.   It is interesting to note that in his youth Madhavacharya distinguished himself in physical exercises and field games and is said to have had a wonderful physique. Truly, physical prowess is an integral aspect of the cult of Hanuman and he is the patron deity of wrestlers and body-builders. He is most popularly referred to as 'Vajra-Anga-Bali,' meaning the Powerful One (bali) with a body (anga) hard as a thunderbolt (vajra). The Spiritual Significance of Hanuman The goal of all mystical yearning is union of the individual soul with the universal soul. In the Adhyatma ('spiritual') Ramayana, Sita represents the individual (jiva-atma), which has separated from the universal (param-atma) symbolized by Rama. In a beautiful interpretation, Hanuman here is said to personify bhakti, which annihilates the 'ahankara' or ego (Ravana), and re-unites the two. The Enduring Relevance of Hanuman Hanuman Ji is no ordinary monkey. While embarking on the search for Sita, the monkeys were confronted by the vast ocean lying between them and Lanka. They wondered how they would make their way across this mighty obstacle. Someone suggested that Hanuman jump and cross over the sea. But Hanuman was doubtful, "I cannot do that," he said. At that moment, one of his companions reminded Hanuman of the awesome powers lying dormant within him. Instantly Hanuman regained memory of his divine strength and he successfully leaped across the ocean. Thus our mind too needs to be reminded of its divine potential and of the fact that it can achieve phenomenal heights provided it believes in its ability to perform the task in question. Truly Hanuman is symbolic of the perfect mind, and embodies the highest potential it can achieve. References and Further Reading: Khokar, Ashish and S. Saraswati. Hanuman: New Delhi, 2001. Nagar, Shanti Lal. Hanuman in Art, Culture, Thought and Literature: New Delhi, 1995. Pattanaik, Devdutt. Hanuman An Introduction: Mumbai, 2001. Shri Hanuman Ank (In Hindi): Gita Press Gorakhpur, 1975. Tompkins, Ptolemy. The Monkey in Art: New York, 1994.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Mother Goddess as Kali - The Feminine Force in Indian Art

    Mother Goddess as Kali - The Feminine Force in Indian Art

      The worship of a mother goddess as the source of life and fertility has prehistoric roots, but the transformation of that deity into a Great goddess of cosmic powers was achieved with the composition of the Devi Mahatmya (Glory of the goddess), a text of the fifth to sixth century, when worship of the female principle took on dramatic new dimensions. The goddess is not only the mysterious source of life, she is the very soil, all-creating and all consuming.   Kali makes her 'official' debut in the Devi-Mahatmya, where she is said to have emanated from the brow of Goddess Durga (slayer of demons) during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces. Etymologically Durga's name means "Beyond Reach". She is thus an echo of the woman warrior's fierce virginal autonomy. In this context Kali is considered the 'forceful' form of the great goddess Durga.   Kali is represented as a Black woman with four arms; in one hand she has a sword, in another the head of the demon she has slain, with the other two she is encouraging her worshippers. For earrings she has two dead bodies and wears a necklace of skulls ; her only clothing is a girdle made of dead men's hands, and her tongue protrudes from her mouth. Her eyes are red, and her face and chests are besmeared with blood. She stands with one foot on the thigh, and another on the chest of her husband.   Kali's fierce appearances have been the subject of extensive descriptions in several earlier and modern works. Though her fierce form is filled with awe- inspiring symbols, their real meaning is not what it first appears- they have equivocal significance:   Kali's blackness symbolizes her all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because black is the color in which all other colors merge; black absorbs and dissolves them. 'Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her' (Mahanirvana Tantra). Or black is said to represent the total absence of color, again signifying the nature of Kali as ultimate reality. This in Sanskrit is named as nirguna (beyond all quality and form). Either way, Kali's black color symbolizes her transcendence of all form.   A devotee poet says: "Is Kali, my Divine Mother, of a black complexion?She appears black because She is viewed from a distance;but when intimately known She is no longer so.The sky appears blue at a distance, but look at it close byand you will find that it has no colour.The water of the ocean looks blue at a distance,but when you go near and take it in your hand,you find that it is colourless." ... Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1836-86) In many instances she is described as garbed in space or sky clad. In her absolute, primordial form she is free from all covering of illusion. She is Nature (Prakriti in Sanskrit). It symbolizes that she is completely beyond name and form, completely beyond the illusory effects of maya (false consciousness). She is said to represent totally illumined consciousness, unaffected by maya. Kali is the bright fire of truth, which cannot be hidden by the clothes of ignorance. Such truth simply burns them away. Her motherhood is a ceaseless creation. Her disheveled hair forms a curtain of illusion, the fabric of space - time which organizes matter out of the chaotic sea of quantum-foam. Her garland of fifty human heads, each representing one of the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes the repository of knowledge and wisdom. She wears a girdle of severed human hands- hands that are the principal instruments of work and so signify the action of karma. Thus the binding effects of this karma have been overcome, severed, as it were, by devotion to Kali. She has blessed the devotee by cutting him free from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth are symbolic of purity (Sans. Sattva), and her lolling tongue which is red dramatically depicts the fact that she consumes all things and denotes the act of tasting or enjoying what society regards as forbidden, i.e. her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world's "flavors". Kali's four arms represent the complete circle of creation and destruction, which is contained within her. She represents the inherent creative and destructive rhythms of the cosmos. Her right hands, making the mudras of "fear not" and conferring boons, represent the creative aspect of Kali, while the left hands, holding a bloodied sword and a severed head represent her destructive aspect. The bloodied sword and severed head symbolize the destruction of ignorance and the dawning of knowledge. The sword is the sword of knowledge, that cuts the knots of ignorance and destroys false consciousness (the severed head). Kali opens the gates of freedom with this sword, having cut the eight bonds that bind human beings. Finally her three eyes represent the sun, moon, and fire, with which she is able to observe the three modes of time: past, present and future. This attribute is also the origin of the name Kali, which is the feminine form of 'Kala', the Sanskrit term for Time. Another symbolic but controversial aspect of Kali is her proximity to the cremation ground: O Kali, Thou art fond of cremation grounds;so I have turned my heart into oneThat thou, a resident of cremation grounds,may dance there unceasingly.O Mother! I have no other fond desire in my heart;fire of a funeral pyre is burning there;O Mother! I have preserved the ashes of dead bodies all aroundthat Thou may come.O Mother! Keeping Shiva, conqueror of Death, under Thy feet,Come, dancing to the tune of music;Prasada waits With his eyes closed ... Ramprasad (1718-75)   Kali's dwelling place, the cremation ground denotes a place where the five elements (Sanskrit: pancha mahabhuta) are dissolved. Kali dwells where dissolution takes place. In terms of devotion and worship, this denotes the dissolving of attachments, anger, lust, and other binding emotions, feelings, and ideas. The heart of the devotee is where this burning takes place, and it is in the heart that Kali dwells. The devotee makes her image in his heart and under her influence burns away all limitations and ignorance in the cremation fires. This inner cremation fire in the heart is the fire of knowledge, (Sanskrit: gyanagni), which Kali bestows.   The image of a recumbent Shiva lying under the feet of Kali represents Shiva as the passive potential of creation and Kali as his Shakti. The generic term Shakti denotes the Universal feminine creative principle and the energizing force behind all male divinity including Shiva. Shakti is known by the general name Devi, from the root 'div', meaning to shine. She is the Shining One, who is given different names in different places and in different appearances, as the symbol of the life-giving powers of the Universe. It is she that powers him. This Shakti is expressed as the i in Shiva's name. Without this i, Shiva becomes Shva, which in Sanskrit means a corpse. Thus suggesting that without his Shakti, Shiva is powerless or inert. Kali is a particularly appropriate image for conveying the idea of the world as the play of the gods. The spontaneous, effortless, dizzying creativity of the divine reflex is conveyed in her wild appearance. Insofar as kali is identified with the phenomenal world, she presents a picture of that world that underlies its ephemeral and unpredictable nature. In her mad dancing, disheveled hair, and eerie howl there is made present the hint of a world reeling, careening out of control. The world is created and destroyed in Kali's wild dancing, and the truth of redemption lies in man's awareness that he is invited to take part in that dance, to yield to the frenzied beat of the Mother's dance of life and death. O Kali, my Mother full of Bliss! Enchantress of the almighty Shiva!In Thy delirious joy Thou dancest, clapping Thy hands together!Thou art the Mover of all that move, and we are but Thy helpless toys ...Ramakrishna Paramhans Kali and her attendants dance to rhythms pounded out by Shiva (Lord of destruction) and his animal-headed attendants who dwell in the Himalayas. Associated with chaos and uncontrollable destruction, Kali's own retinue brandishes swords and holds aloft skull cups from which they drink the blood that intoxicates them. Kali, like Shiva, has a third eye, but in all other respects the two are distinguished from one another. In contrast to Shiva's sweet expression, plump body, and ash white complexion, dark kali's emaciated limbs, angular gestures, and fierce grimace convey a wild intensity. Her loose hair, skull garland, and tiger wrap whip around her body as she stomps and claps to the rhythm of the dance.   Many stories describe Kali's dance with Shiva as one that "threatens to destroy the world" by its savage power. Art historian Stella Kramrisch has noted that the image of kali dancing with Shiva follows closely the myth of the demon Daruka. When Shiva asks his wife Parvati to destroy this demon, she enters Shiva's body and transforms herself from the poison that is stored in his throat. She emerges from Shiva as Kali, ferocious in appearance, and with the help of her flesh eating retinue attacks and defeats the demon. Kali however became so intoxicated by the blood lust of battle that her aroused fury and wild hunger threatened to destroy the whole world. She continued her ferocious rampage until Shiva manifested himself as an infant and lay crying in the midst of the corpse-strewn field. Kali, deceived by Shiva's power of illusion, became calm as she suckled the baby. When evening approached, Shiva performed the dance of creation (tandava) to please the goddess. Delighted with the dance, Kali and her attendants joined in. This terrific and poignant imagery starkly reveals the nature of Kali as the Divine Mother. Ramaprasad expresses his feelings thus: Behold my Mother playing with Shiva,lost in an ecstasy of joy!Drunk with a draught of celestial wine,She reels, and yet does not fall.Erect She stands on Shiva's bosom,and the earth Trembles under Her tread;She and Her Lord are mad with frenzy,casting Aside all fear and shame. ... Ramprasad (1718-75) Kali's human and maternal qualities continue to define the goddess for most of her devotees to this day. In human relationships, the love between mother and child is usually considered the purest and strongest. In the same way, the love between the Mother Goddess and her human children is considered the closest and tenderest relationship with divinity. Accordingly, Kali's devotees form a particularly intimate and loving bond with her. But the devotee never forgets Kali's demonic, frightening aspects. He does not distort Kali's nature and the truths she reveals; he does not refuse to meditate on her terrifying features. He mentions these repeatedly in his songs but is never put off or repelled by them. Kali may be frightening, the mad, forgetful mistress of a world spinning out of control, but she is, after all, the Mother of all. As such, she must be accepted by her children- accepted in wonder and awe, perhaps, but accepted nevertheless. The poet in an intimate and lighter tone addresses the Mother thus: O Kali! Why dost Thou roam about without clothes?Art Thou not ashamed, Mother!Garb and ornaments Thou hast none;yet Thou Pridest in being King's daughter.O Mother! Is it a virtue of Thy family that ThouPlacest thy feet on Thy husband?Thou art without clothes; Thy husband is without clothes; you both roam cremation grounds.O Mother! We are all ashamed of you; do put on thy garb.Thou hast cast away Thy necklace of jewels, Mother,And worn a garland of human heads.Prasada says, "Mother! Thy fierce beauty has frightenedThy consort. ... Ramaprasad The soul that worships becomes always a little child: the soul that becomes a child finds God oftenest as mother. In a meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, some pen has written the exquisite assurance: "My child, you need not know much in order to please Me. Only Love Me dearly. Speak to me, as you would talk to your mother, if she had taken you in her arms." Kali's boon is won when man confronts or accepts her and the realities she dramatically conveys to him. The image of Kali, in a variety of ways, teaches man that pain, sorrow, decay, death, and destruction are not to be overcome or conquered by denying them or explaining them away. Pain and sorrow are woven into the texture of man's life so thoroughly that to deny them is ultimately futile. For man to realize the fullness of his being, for man to exploit his potential as a human being, he must finally accept this dimension of existence. Kali's boon is freedom, the freedom of the child to revel in the moment, and it is won only after confrontation or acceptance of death. To ignore death, to pretend that one is physically immortal, to pretend that one's ego is the center of things, is to provoke Kali's mocking laughter. To confront or accept death, on the contrary, is to realize a mode of being that can delight and revel in the play of the gods. To accept one's mortality is to be able to let go, to be able to sing, dance, and shout. Kali is Mother to her devotees not because she protects them from the way things really are but because she reveals to them their mortality and thus releases them to act fully and freely, releases them from the incredible, binding web of "adult" pretense, practicality, and rationality.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Buddha and Christ - Two Gods on the Path to Humanity

    Buddha and Christ - Two Gods on the Path to Humanity

    An enduring episode in the annals of Christian art is the 'Last Supper' of Jesus Christ. This was the final meal he had prior to his crucifixion. However, before partaking of the food, Jesus rose from the table, took off his outer garments and tied a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of his twelve disciples sitting around him. Intrigued and bashful at the same time, one of them exclaimed: 'You, Lord, washing my feet?' The Great One answered: ' At present you do not understand what I am doing, but one day you will.' After washing their feet, he put on his garment and sat down again. Addressing them he said: 'Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me master and lord, and rightly so, because that is what I am. If I then, your lord and master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you.' Yes, the Great Christ himself knelt on the hard floor, and with his graceful hands, cleansed the feet of each and every of his disciple. This inspiring parable gives us a significant insight into Christ's humility and the essentiality of his message: "He who wants to be great must become the smallest of all." (Mark 9.35). Buddha was born into a royal family amongst rich and extravagant circumstances. Yet he gave it up all and became a monk, subsisting on the charity of others. Thus from the highest material station he graduated himself to the humblest and lowliest worldly state possible. Hence says Christ at another place in the Bible: "Whosoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14). As a relevant aside it should be observed that the symbolic washing of the disciple's feet also signifies that by sacrificing himself at the cross, Jesus has in a sense washed away the sins of all humanity. Jesus Christ and Buddha, born in two different traditions separated by large geographical distances, nevertheless share common characteristics, which is not surprising since they are but both manifested expressions of the universal human yearning for mystical harmony with the rhythms of nature. According to Robert Elinor, 'Buddha and Christ are but local inflections of a universal archetype: the Cosmic Person imaging wholeness.' Beneath the perceived differences underlying these two visionaries, there are subtle unifying attributes which are amply exemplified in the life they led and the message they spread. An important idea in this context is the belief shared by both in the natural cosmic law of cause and effect, popularly known as 'karma.' Christ says for example: 'Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive earthly men their trespasses neither will your Father forget your trespasses. Therefore all things whatsoever you would like that men should do to you, do them; for this is the law and the prophets.' And of course the popular quote: "You shall love your neighbor as yourselves." (Mark 12: 31) The Buddha reiterates whatever Christ puts forward and elaborates: 'Hard it is to understand: By giving away our food, we get more strength; by bestowing clothing on others, we gain more beauty; by founding abodes of purity and truth, we acquire great treasures. The charitable man has found the path of liberation. He is like the man who plants a sapling securing thereby the shade, the flowers and the fruit in future years. Even so is the result of charity, even so is the joy of him who helps those that are in need of assistance; even so is the great nirvana.' Since they both embodied universal human aspirations and their ultimate realization, it was but natural that the art they inspired too would develop motifs which would elaborate similar principles, though the metaphors deployed would vary, being dependent upon local contexts. Rather bewilderingly for the interested reader, the first verses of the New Testament are merely a long list of names. Now the New Testament is the sacred scripture from which much of our information about the life and deeds of Christ are derived. Thus this lengthy array of names is bound to have some spiritual import too. It does. These names enumerate the ancestors of Joseph, Christ's earthly father. Significantly, one of the names mentioned is that of David, the second and greatest king of Israel (famous for his victory over the giant Goliath). Thus is Jesus proved to belong to a line of kings. We have already noted Buddha's royal antecedents. This typical characteristic presented both a challenge and opening to artists. Here was an abstract attribute (divinity) reduced to an earthly metaphor (kingliness), and thus was presented a solution to the difficult task of representing simultaneously their twin nature: fully human and fully divine. The question only remained of developing visual formulae that would convey eloquently the dual personalities of these exalted beings. Both traditions went about it differently: Gossaert. The Adoration of the Kings, c. 1510   According to Christian legend, towards the end of one hard December in Palestine, a Jewish carpenter and his pregnant wife traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed by the bureaucrats of Imperial Rome. There was no room for them at the inn, so they lodged in a stable, where the young woman, weary after the long journey, gave birth to a son. Alerted by angels. Shepherds hurried down from the hills to see the baby. Three kings guided by a star, came from the east to offer him gifts. The shepherds signify the Jewish people while the three kings are differently colored: black, brown and white, representing Africa, Asia, and Europe respectively.   The essence being that not only the people of Israel rather rulers from all over the world came to venerate the infant Christ. That he was glorified thus by kings representing the majority of humanity reconfirmed his own status as the king of kings, or ruler of the world. Of related interest here are the individual offerings made by the three kings. These were namely: a). Gold: Symbolic of Christ's earthy kingship.b). Frankincense: This incense is used in worship and hence is a metaphor for his divine status.c). Myrrh: A resin used in the embalming of the dead, thus predicting Christ's imminent and unnatural death. Here it needs to be observed that the identification of the three visitors as kings is a later modification in Christian art as the Bible itself does not specify their royalty, rather only mentions them as 'wise men from the east.' But more importantly when they came, they asked for the 'newborn King of the Jews.' (Matthew 1:2)       The Buddhist aesthetic too was faced with a similar dilemma, namely the simultaneous depiction of humanity and divinity. But rather than take the Christian route of narrative theology transformed into verbal metaphors, the art of Buddhism presents a hard-hitting picture of the Buddha himself bejeweled and crowned as a king would be.         But if only things were so simple. This leaves the issue of divinity wide open and also a logical basis needs to be given to the representation. Both are resolved in a single and graceful stroke of artistic ingenuity. The answer lies in the gesture Buddha makes with his hands (mudra), the thumb and index finger of both hands touching at their tips to form a circle. This circle represents a wheel, and herein lies the key to the whole symbolism. In Sanskrit, the word for wheel is 'chakra,' and in ancient times the title of Chakravartin or 'wheel turner' was conferred upon a powerful and mighty ruler. The idea being that as the chariot of majestic and warrior king rolls along, all impediments on his path get crushed and no obstacle can stand in his way, expanding his empire endlessly. Similarly is Buddha glorified as a Chakravartin, the circle which his fingers make signifying the wheel, visualized as the wheel of dharma. The wheel's swift motion serves as an apt metaphor for the rapid spiritual conquest wrought by the teachings of the Buddha. Not to be interpreted in a literal sense, Buddha and Christ are of course not sovereigns over material kingdoms, but rather cosmic emperors, ruling the spirit rather than the body. Verily does say Christ: 'My kingdom is not of this world.' (John 18:36) Humanity - Their Common Religion: Jean Beraud. Christ in the House of the Pharisee, 1891 One of the prominent Jews of the city once invited Jesus for dinner. Jesus arrived and took his place at the table. Just then, a woman with a bad reputation in town entered. In her hands was an alabaster jar containing an ointment. And she stood at his feet behind him weeping, and she began to wash his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair, and she kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the host saw this he said to himself, if this man was a prophet he would have known who and what sort of woman this is that is touching him: for she is a sinner. Jesus (as if reading his thoughts) said to him, Simon I have something to say to you. There was a creditor who had two debtors: one owed five hundred pounds and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he freely forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him most? The host answered, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. And he said, You have judged rightly. And he turned to the woman, and said to Simon, Do you see this woman? I entered your house, and you gave me no water for my feet. But she has washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. You gave me no kiss: but since the time I came in this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil: but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven. For she loved much. But he to whom little is forgiven, loves little. This tale from the Bible illustrates Jesus' all embracing forgiveness. In Christ's kingdom of heaven there is mercy for all. Thus said Buddha: 'No sin is so great that a person cannot be purified of it. Imagine that you had murdered several Buddhas; you could still be purified.' (Dhammapada 295) "Father, forgive them, for they not what they do."Francisco De Zurbaran c. 1632-4 Yes. A person can be great enough to forgive even his own murderers, as Christ said when he was hung on the cross: 'Father, forgive them, for they not what they do.' (Luke 23: 34) It is well established that both these luminaries evolved out of the latent reaction against centuries of blind ritualism that plagued the local communities. The original meaning and symbolic structure of the rituals had been lost and what remained was exploitation and subjugation of the masses by the priestly class. Not surprisingly thus, Buddha and Christ offer refreshing insights into religious behavior. Christ says for example: When you pray, don't pray like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by others. Enter your closet, shut the door, and pray to your father in secret; and your father who sees you in secret shall reward you openly. And when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the hypocrites do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore do not be like them. (Matthew 6:5-8) Dull repetition of sacred verses does nothing to remove rust on the soul. (Buddha in the Dhammapada 240). In a beautiful simplification Christ also elaborates upon the sup eriority of brotherhood of man over mere ritualism: If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5: 23-24) Views on Charity: Many people appear to be generous, but in fact are trying to gain advantage for themselves. (Dhammapada 249). Take heed that you do not give alms making it a show. When you give alms, do not sound a trumpet. But rather when you give alms, let your left hand not know what your right hand does. Your alms be in secret and your Father who sees it in secret shall reward you openly. (Matthew 6: 1-4) On Being Non Judgmental: It is easy to see the fault of others, but much harder to see your own faults. You can point out other people's faults as easily as pointing out chaff blowing in the wind. But you are liable to conceal your own faults as cunning gambler conceals his dice. (Dhammapada 252) Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged; and with what measure you give, it shall be measured to you. And why behold the speck that is in your brother's eye but do not consider the log that is in your own eye? How will you say to your brother, Let me pull the speck out of your eye, when you are blind to the log in your own eye. First pull the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7: 1-5) And also: You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you , Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, Do good to those that hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you, and persecute you. That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, And sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5: 43-45) Right he is. Who are we to make judgment on what is right or wrong? They are both twin aspects of the same reality manifested on the earth by the divine powers above. The Cross and the Tree: It is well known that Buddha attained enlightenment under a tree. In popular parlance it is known as the bodhi tree or 'tree of knowledge.' It is not without significance that Buddha found grace under a tree. The tree, with its annual renewal of foliage, reminds us of life's continuity and suggests that Buddha was that day reborn (spiritually), as each of us will be on our own day of resurrection (Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3: 3)). According to legend, the denuded tree on which Christ hung was made from the wood of Eden's Tree of Knowledge. It is through ascending this tree of knowledge that an ordinary human can transcend all that is material and mundane in life, gaining the heights of heaven. Thus by ending his life at the cross, the great Christ in a sense infused us with the promise of a new, spiritually enlightened life. Thus was the tree of knowledge transformed into the 'tree of life.'     The tree of life is a common feature of salvation mythology and is said to be standing at the axis of the cosmos. It is the place where divine energies pour into the world, where humanity encounters the absolute, and becomes more fully itself. Buddha and Christ, as incarnations of god, are themselves the navel or axis of the world, the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time. More than a physical point, it is a psychological state which enables us to see the world and ourselves in perfect balance. Without this psychological stability and this correct orientation, enlightenment is not possible. The tree of life grows throughout the world as the principal symbol of cosmic centering and regeneration. Continually reborn through its seed at the world axis, its root thrust down through the earth to the underworld, its trunk rises through the world, where it grasps everything in its immeasurable arms, and its crown glances heaven.   Indeed, the cross is a cosmic symbol, its vertical and horizontal lines spanning the universe. According to Rutherford: 'The cross of Christ on which he was extended, points, in the length of it, to heaven and earth, reconciling them together; and in the breadth of it, to former and following ages, as being equally salvation to both.' It is the heavenly ladder, the only ladder high enough to touch heaven's threshold. A beautiful thing about the cross is that its center of gravity is not at its exact center, but upwards where the stake and the crossbeam meet. In simple terms it symbolizes the tendency to remove the center of man and his faith from the earth and to "elevate" it into the spiritual sphere. In a mystical dissertation on the notion of cosmic wholeness, Jesus describes himself as a tree:   Christ Crucified on the Vine, about 1435.German,Middle Rhineland Plaster, Painted, diameter: 21.6 cm.   I am the true vine and my father is the gardener. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away; and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, to make it clean and bear even more fruit. You have already been made clean by the teaching I have given you. Dwell in me, as I dwell in you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself, but can only bear fruit if it is united with the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you are united with me. (John 15: 1-4) Heaven is god's throne and earth his footstool (Isaiah 66:1), and Christ, suspended on the cross, is the connecting link. Indeed, just as Buddha gained enlightenment by conquering the five senses, Christ, pinned in five places (the two hands, the two feet, and the head crowned with thorns), nails down the five senses.   Conclusion: Christ and Buddha, two manifestations of divinity, showed us that true salvation lies only on the path of humanity and compassion towards all. Indeed, through their humanity they are both related to us, and through their divinity, to god. References and Further Reading Campbell, Joseph. Myths of Light (Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal): Novato, 2003. De Weyer, Robert Van. 366 Readings from Buddhism: Mumbai, 2003. De Weyer, Robert Van. 366 Readings from Christianity: Mumbai, 2003. Elinor, Robert. Buddha and Christ (Images of Wholeness): Trumbull, 2000. Finaldi, Gabriele. The Image of Christ: London, 2000. Gideons International. The Holy Bible: Tennessee, 1978. Jung, Carl. Man and his Symbols: New York, 1968. Kumar, Nitin. Buddha - A Hero's Journey to Nirvana (Exotic India article of the month): April 2003. Macgregor, Neil. Seeing Salvation (Images of Christ in Art): London, 2000. Manser, Martin. Bible Stories: Bath, 2000. Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001. Parrinder, Geoffrey (compiler). The Wisdom of Jesus: Oxford, 2000. Ramakrishna Mission. Thus Spake The Christ: Chennai, 2000. Ramakrishna Mission. Thus Spake The Buddha: Chennai 2000. Taylor, Richard. How to Read a Church: London, 2003.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Buddha - A Hero's Journey to Nirvana

    Buddha - A Hero's Journey to Nirvana

    If when my wife is sleepingand the baby and Kathleenare sleepingand the sun is a flame-white discin silken mistsabove shining trees,-if I in my north roomdance naked, grotesquelybefore my mirrorwaving my shirt round my headand singing softly to myself:"I am lonely, lonely.I was born to be lonely,I am best so!"If I admire my arms, my face,my shoulders, flanks, buttocksagainst the yellow drawn shades,- Who shall say I am notthe happy genius of my household? -- William Carlos Williams Joseph Campbell, in his epochal book 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces,' emphasizes that the essential trait of a hero in the making is his restlessness. Not at ease with his immediate environment and circumstances, a constant unease gnaws at his heart, prompting him to question the very nature of his existence. This inner strife is the first inkling that a greater destiny lies ahead of the potential hero. Campbell divides the evolution of the hero into five distinct phases: 1). The Call to Adventure2). Crossing of the Threshold (Entering the Unknown)3). Trials and Tribulations of the Journey4). Attainment of Enlightenment5). Return of the Hero The Buddha's journey to spiritual awakening or 'Nirvana,' as it is popularly called, perfectly mirrors the above mentioned progressive development of a hero. The Call to Adventure Gautam Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha, in the lap of luxury. Exposed to an overdose of riches and comfort right from the beginning, the prince, while still relatively young, exhausted for himself the fields of fleshly joy, thus becoming ripe for a higher, transcendent experience. The young prince remained glued to his pleasure chambers and had no contact with ground reality. His palace, and the sensual pleasures which it contained, were his only limiting worlds. Once, after a particularly hectic schedule of sensual frenzy, Siddhartha was suddenly awakened from his blissful sleep, in the middle of the night. Surrounding him were the remnants of last night's debauchery and revelry. The sight of the shameless naked flesh and the overflowing wine pitchers jarred him into the unreality of his own reality. He felt suffocated in those very environs which had once given him what he thought were the pleasures of paradise. He immediately arose form his gold-gilded bed, descended the stairs and asked his favorite charioteer to take him to an open space where he could breathe more freely. He had traveled only a few miles when he came across a sight which was totally new to him in terms of the distressing emotions it stirred up in the innermost depths of his heart. Right in front of him was an old man, tottering on a stick, his physical frame entirely ravaged by the trials of time. Never having been exposed to such an image, Siddhartha asked his charioteer who that individual was, and why he was the way he was? When he heard that the man had deteriorated due to his advancing age, the next natural question was whether he himself, Siddhartha, the prince of the mighty Shakya clan, and all those whom he loved would one day be exposed to the same degradation? Confronted with the truth, the reply completely shattered him, and he asked to be taken back to the comforting environs of the palace. In the journey of the hero, a figure suddenly appears as a guide, marking a turning point in the biography. This symbolic figure is somehow profoundly familiar to the unconscious, but is unknown, and even frightening to the conscious self. Thereafter, even though the hero returns for a while to his familiar occupations, he finds them unfruitful. A continuing series of signs of increasing force will then become visible. According to Campbell, "The Four Signs," which appeared to the Buddha, are the most celebrated examples of the call to adventure in the literature of the world. These are signals from a higher domain, summons, which can no longer be denied. Here it is also significant to note that being awakened in the midst of his blissful sleep was another call of destiny. Modern psychoanalysis has confirmed that when we are asleep, we travel to realms unavailable to our waking moments. These are the depths of our consciousness, which is but a part of the combined heritage of humanity. To quote the words of Jung, in a dream: "man is no longer a distinct individual but his mind widens out and merges into the mind of the mankind - not the conscious mind, but the unconscious mind of mankind, where we are all the same." Jolted from his subliminal dream state, the immediate horror of his temporal circumstances made Siddhartha, the future Buddha, realize his own cutting of from this eternal dimension of life. Thus a feeling of rootlessness gripped him and he felt himself disjointed and lonely, even amongst the multitude of those who loved him. The hero's journey almost always begins with such a call. According to Campbell, the moment the hero is ready for the destined adventure, the proper heralds, or callers to his destiny appear automatically, as if by divine design. We have already noticed the first such herald, namely the old man above. The Buddha later came across three more such signs: a sick man, a dead man and a monk. His mind greatly agitated by the first three disturbing views, Buddha at last came upon his final call, when he laid his eyes upon the monk. The confident spiritual calm he perceived within the monk emboldened him to the fact that amidst the inevitability of suffering and distress, there was still ground for sufficient optimism, and salvation. Thus the first stage of the mythological journey, which is the 'call to adventure,' signifies that destiny has summoned the hero, and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. Crossing of the Threshold (Entering the Unknown) Your real dutyis to go away from the communityto find your bliss. Breaking outis following your bliss pattern,quitting the old place,starting your hero journey,following your bliss. You throw off yesterdayas the snake sheds its skin. Its by going down into the abyssthat we recover the treasures of life. The hero feels off-center, and when one is off-center, it's time to go. The hero leaves a certain social situation, moves into his own loneliness and finds the jewel. This departure occurs when the hero feels something has been lost and goes to find it. It is the crossing of the threshold into a new life. It is a dangerous adventure, since one is moving out of the known into the unexplored, unknown sphere. The disenchanted prince Siddhartha believed that he was setting out on an exciting adventure. He felt the lure of the 'wide open' road, and the shining, perfect state of 'homelessness.' But even then, it was not easy enough for him to leave behind the structured space of his home for the untamed forests. Texts mention that before finally leaving his palace, he could not resist the temptation to take a last peek at his wife and son sleeping upstairs. But his resolve was strong enough to bear the emotional brunt of the separation. Not looking back again, he went directly to his destined quest. Trials and Tribulations of the Journey When he set about on his journey, the Buddha did not know what lay in store for him. What he did know was that: The goal of lifeis to make your heartbeatmatch the beat of the universe,to match your nature with Nature. The joy of the hero's adventure lies in exploring the unknown, through which nature unfolds and reveals its hidden treasures. The Buddha too experimented with various unexplored avenues, before coming to the ultimate spiritual realization. He first tried asceticism. Since he believed his disillusionment to stem from the cravings of his body, his first reaction was to negate it totally, even to the extent that he stopped eating. Consequently, his bones stuck out like a row of spindles, and when he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine. His hair fell out and his skin became withered. But all this was in vain. However severe his austerities, perhaps even because of them, the body still clamored for attention, and he was still plagued by lust and craving. In fact, he seemed more conscious of himself than ever. Finally, Buddha had to face the fact that asceticism had failed to redeem him. All he had achieved after this heroic assault upon his body was a prominent rib cage, and a dangerously weakened physique. Nevertheless, Buddha was still optimistic. He was certain that it was possible for human beings to reach the final liberation of enlightenment. And at that very moment, when he seemed to have come to a dead end, the beginning of a new solution declared itself to him. He realized that instead of torturing our reluctant selves into the final release, we might be able to achieve it effortlessly and spontaneously, as Campbell says:   What you have to do,you have to do with play. Opportunitiesto find deeper powerswithin ourselvescome when lifeseems most challenging. This was a momentous event in Buddha's journey towards herohood. Rather than relying upon external discourses or props, he awakened to the fact that he would have to delve into the infinite depths of his own inner being to come up with the Eternal Truth. Having thus resolved, he accepted the bowl of milk-rice offered to him by Sujata, the milk-maiden. After eating this nourishing dish, the texts tell us, he strode majestically towards the bodhi tree (tree of life), to make his last bid for liberation. The tree of life is said to be standing at the axis of the cosmos, and is a common feature of salvation mythology. It is the place where the divine energies pour into the world, where humanity encounters the absolute, and becomes more fully itself. We need only recall the cross of Jesus, which according to Christian legend, stood on the same spot as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The hero as the incarnation of god is himself the navel or axis of the world, the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time. More than a physical point, it is a psychological state which enables us to see the world and ourselves in perfect balance. Without this psychological stability and this correct orientation, enlightenment is not possible. Hence, seated at the spiritual center of the world, Buddha dived into his own inner universe. As he sat in isolated meditation, the potential hero gave himself to the practice of mindfulness. This practice consists in observing, as a detached observer, all our activities: eating, drinking, chewing, tasting, defecating, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, speaking, and keeping silent.   He noticed the way ideas coursed through his mind and the constant stream of desires and irritations that could plague him in a brief half hour. He became 'mindful' of the way he responded to a sudden noise or a change in temperature, and saw how quickly even a tiny thing disturbed his peace of mind. This mindfulness was not cultivated in a spirit of neurotic inspection. Buddha had not put his humanity under the microscope in this way in order to castigate himself for his 'sins.' The purpose here is not to pounce on our failings, but becoming acquainted with the way human nature works in order to exploit its capacities. He had become convinced that the solution to the problem of suffering lay within himself and deliverance would come from the refinement of his own mundane nature, and so he needed to investigate it, and get to know it objectively. This could be achieved most effectively through extasis, a word that literally means 'to stand outside the self,' and which is the same as the practise of mindfulness. As Buddha thus recorded his feelings, moment-by-moment, he became aware that the dukkha (suffering) of life was not confined to the major traumas of sickness, old age and death. It happened on a daily, even hourly basis, in all the minor disappointments, rejections, frustrations, and failures that befall us in the course of a single day. True, there was pleasure in life, but once he had subjected this to the merciless scrutiny of mindfulness, he noticed how often our satisfaction meant suffering for others. For example, the prosperity of one person usually depends upon the exclusion of somebody else, or when we get something that makes us happy, we immediately start to worry about losing it. As Buddha observed the workings of his mind, he realized how one craving after another took possession of his heart. He noticed how human beings were ceaselessly yearning to become something else, go somewhere else, and acquire something they do not have. Blinded in our desires we almost never see things as they are in themselves, but our vision is colored by whether we want them or not, how we can get them, or how they can bring us profit. These petty cravings assail us hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, so that we know no rest. We are constantly consumed and distracted by the compulsion to become something different than what we are at present. 'The world, whose very nature is to change, is constantly determined to become something else,' Buddha concluded. 'It is at the mercy of change, it is only happy when it is caught up in the process of change, but this love of change contains a measure of fear and insecurity, and this fear itself is dukkha.' This constant changing whirlpool of dynamic flux characterizes our temporal existence and dominates it so thoroughly that we lose touch with the eternal essence of our lives, remaining subsumed only in the fleeting and passing moment of current time. Buddha realized that he just had to find that essential link in his inner being, which bound the transient to the eternal. Our existence is defined by our mortal self, and also an immortal divine spark underlying it. When we have found the bridge that links the two, we have attained salvation. Brooding in this manner, Buddha finally was on the verge of enlightenment, when he was confronted by Mara, Buddha's shadow self, or the residual forces within him which still clung to the old ideals he was trying to transcend. Mara came out decked like a Chakravartin (World Ruler), seated on an elephant, and accompanied by a large army. Mara's name means delusion. He symbolizes the ignorance which holds us back from enlightenment.   As a Chakravartin, he could only envisage a victory achieved by physical force. Mara thus was convinced that the spiritual throne, where Buddha was sitting, belonged rightfully to him. Accordingly he challenged Buddha to vacate the seat. But the Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth to bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred thousand roars, so that the elephant of the antagonist fell upon its knees in obeisance to the rightful owner of the throne. The army was immediately dispersed and Mara vanquished. The earth-witnessing posture, which shows Buddha touching the ground with his right hand is a favorite icon in Buddhist art.     It not only symbolizes his rejection of Mara's sterile machismo, but also emphasizes the profound point that it is the Buddha who is a true Chakravartin, since it is through the heart that a lasting empire is won, and not through the sword.   Attainment of Enlightenment Having thus overcome Mara, Gautama crossed the final obstruction to his enlightenment, and won over to Buddhahood. He called this blissful state of immeasurable peace 'Nirvana.' Nirvana literally means blowing out or snuffing out (as a flame). But Nirvana did not mean personal extinction: what had been snuffed out was not Gautama's personality, but the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion, which were once the basic impulses governing his behavior. Through his practice of mindfulness, Gautama had come to the conclusion that it was these three negative traits that were at the root of all suffering in the world. The extinguishing of a flame is invariably followed by a certain coolness. It was this coolness that descended into Gautama's heart and permeated his each and every core. The permanent retention of this feeling is Nirvana, which is similar to the cooling experienced when recovering from a fever. Indeed in Buddha's time, the related adjective 'nirvuta,' was a term in daily use to describe a convalescent. Return of the Hero Having attained enlightenment, the hero-quest has been accomplished. The adventurer now has to decide what to do with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round or cycle of his adventure requires that he now start the process of bringing back to humanity the boon of illumination granted to him. This is the call which the mythical hero often refuses. The Buddha too doubted whether his message of realization could be communicated at all. It is in this context that he is given the title of Shakyamuni. Shakya derives from the fact that he was a descendent of the Shakya clan, and muni is a Sanskrit word for silent. The message here is that Nirvana is something that could not be described in words. The Buddha further thought that: 'If I taught the Dharma, people would not understand it and that would be exhausting and disappointing for me.' But failing to heed the call to return is not fulfilling the complete requirements of the heroic cycle. It is a part of the hero's evolutionary destiny to knit together the world of higher spiritual bliss with the mundane world of everyday existence, as he had bridged together transient time and eternity. At this crucial moment of uncertainty, the god Brahma intervened. Like Mara, he too was a projection of Buddha's subconscious mind, the only difference being that he was a positive projection. Brahma requested Buddha to 'look down at the human race which is drowning in pain and to travel far and wide to save the world.' There was no way in which the compassionate Buddha could refuse this call. He understood that staying locked away in his personal Nirvana would be a negation of all that he had achieved, it would be like entering a new kind of pleasure palace, such as that of his father which he had left behind a long time back. The Buddha thus carefully listened to Brahma and gazed upon the world with his eyes full of compassion, realizing that the gates of Nirvana were wide open for all, and he was the destined instrument to lead humanity it. The Buddha spent the next forty-five years of his life tramping tirelessly through the cities and towns of Northern India. Indeed there were no limits to his compassionate offensive. Conclusion The essential message of Buddha's life is that each of us (irrespective of sex or creed) is capable and deserving of Nirvana, having a potential Buddha hidden in us. Buddha was born an ordinary mortal. His path to fulfillment was not smooth and uneventful. Rather it was a journey full of exciting experiences and mistakes made. He learned from each of his mistakes, making it a springboard for all future, and finally the ultimate success. The day we realize and awaken the Buddha within, that would be our own Nirvana, which though personal, would bind us to all humanity like never before.   References and Further Reading Armstrong, Karen. Buddha: London, 2000. Bly, Robert, Hillman James, and Meade Michael. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart (Poems for Men): New York, 1992. Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999. Campbell, Joseph: The Hero with a Thousand Faces: London, 1993. Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001. Osbon, Diane K. A Joseph Campbell Companion (Reflections on the Art of Living): New York, 1991.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Shakti - Power and Femininity in Indian Art

    Shakti - Power and Femininity in Indian Art

    Long ago, there reigned a mighty king named Ila. Once while hunting, he came upon a grove where Shiva was making love with Parvati, and surprise of surprises, Shiva had taken the form of a woman to please her. Everything in the woods, even the trees had become female, and as he approached even King Ila himself was transformed into a woman! Shiva laughed out aloud and told him to ask for any boon except that of masculinity. Thus says the Shaktisangama Tantra: Woman is the creator of the universe,the universe is her form;woman is the foundation of the world,she is the true form of the body. In woman is the form of all things,of all that lives and moves in the world.There is no jewel rarer than woman,no condition superior to that of a woman. No wonder even the most powerful of gods, like Shiva above, crave to enter the feminine form, hoping to acquire at least some of her glorious power. According to the Devi-Mahatmya: By you this universe is borne,By you this world is created,O Devi, by you it is protected. The earliest term applied to the divine feminine, which still retains its popular usage, is Shakti. The word Shakti is used in a bewildering variety of ways ranging from its use as a way of signifying the ultimate primordial creative power, to expressing the capacity or power of words to convey meaning. Etymologically it is derived from the root 'shak,' meaning potency or the potential to produce, an assertion of Her inherent creative aptitude. All interpretations of the word 'shakti' hold common one parameter, namely power. Specifically, Shakti means power, force and feminine energy. She represents the fundamental creative instinct underlying the cosmos, and is the energizing force of all divinity, of every being and every thing. Devotees believe the whole universe to be a manifestation of Shakti, who is also known by her general name Devi, from the Sanskrit root 'div' which means to shine. This feminine power has been given expression in a multitude of female figures as also in abstract representations, both in sculpture and painting. Primarily, Shakti is depicted in art as one of the following icons: 1). The Yoni (Female Generative Organ)2). An Independent Goddess3). The Goddess and God Together as a Couple The Yoni In a tragic turn of events, Sati, the wife of Shiva ended her life by jumping into flames. She had felt slighted at the insufficient honor accorded to her husband at a ritual sacrifice performed by her father. Shiva became inconsolable following her death. He retrieved her charred body from the fires, carried her on his back, and wandered across the three worlds performing a mad dance of seething destruction. Fearful that Shiva in his insatiable yearning may destroy the entire manifested existence, Vishnu in his role as the preserver of the world cut up Sati's body piece by piece to relieve Shiva's burden. Her body was divided into a total of fifty-one fragments. At each of the fifty-one spots where these pieces fell, a pilgrimage center (Shakti-pitha) came into existence. The most important and significant of these sacred sites remains the place where fell Sati's organ of generation. This place is today identified as Kamakhya in Assam, and a temple was built on the hilltop to mark the spot. It contains no image of the goddess, but in the depths of the shrine there is a yoni (vulva) shaped cleft in the rock, adored as the one belonging to Sati herself. A natural spring within the cave keeps the cleft moist. During July-August after the first burst of the monsoon, a great ceremony called Ambuvachi takes place. At this time of the year, the water runs red with iron oxide, and the ritual drinking of this elixir is symbolic of partaking the menstrual fluid of the Devi.   In the branch of Tantra known as Shaktism, the menstrual taboo is broken down and the menstrual fluid is regarded as sacred and becomes the object of veneration. A menstruating woman is placed in a special category during ritual practice. Her energy at this time is said to be different in quality, and the rhythm that occurs in her body appears to be related in a mysterious way to the processes of nature. In the chakra-puja of the left-hand Tantriks, menstrual fluid may be taken as a ritual drink along with wine, and a special homage is paid to the yoni, touching it with one's lips and anointing it with sandalwood paste. During the whole proceeding, the participant continues to offer libation from a yoni-shaped ritual vessel called the kusi.       Both in physical appearance and metaphysically, the yoni is akin to the lotus flower. Both represent the perfection of beauty and symmetry. The yoni is likened to the lotus in the early stage of its opening and also in its fully open form. In addition, the lotus remains unaffected by the surface of the water where it rests, and its petals also are not soiled by the mud they spring from. Similarly, the yoni too remains perpetually pure and is not soiled by any action. The Tantric Buddhist Goddess Vajrayogini promises her approval and blessings to the man who worships her in this way: 'Aho! I will bestow supreme successOn one who ritually worships my lotus,which is the bearer of all bliss.' The yoni or female generative organ is thus venerated for its obvious properties of fertility and growth. In addition it is believed to be the seat of concentrated energy (tejas) which gives rise to all creation. In fact the English word for yoni, 'vulva,' has a root meaning signifying a revolving or circular motion, and indeed in occultism the vulva is conceived of as a talismanic vortex, a whirling life force that concentrates a fiery essence. The Independent Image of the Goddess In the Ramayana when Rama the virtuous prince, set out to fight Ravana the mighty demon, he first invoked the goddess Durga. The villain was eventually killed on the final day of the gruesome battle, which lasted for ten days. In a continuing, unbroken tradition, this occasion is still celebrated as Durga Puja. The festivities span nine days, culminating on the tenth day in one of the biggest festivals of India, namely Vijaya Dashmi, literally translated as the Tenth Day of Victory. Significantly, in many parts this is an occasion to celebrate military might and a symbolic worship of weapons is still common. What greater paean can be sung to the power and glory of the Goddess? It is the men who go out to war, but before doing so they must invoke Shakti, deified as the Goddess Durga. The word Durga is made up of 'Dur,' which means difficult, and 'ga,' meaning go against. Thus Durga is the triumphant aspect of Shakti, which brooks no opposition.   In her iconographic representations too, Durga is invariably shown adorned with weapons, poised for battle.     In fact many of the narrative depictions represent her battling a hideous buffalo-demon, though, notwithstanding the essentially gruesome composition, the goddess herself is always shown of a pleasant and charming countenance, a picture of supreme beauty.   According to Shankaracharya: Who art thou, O Fairest One! Auspicious One!You whose hands hold both: delight and pain?Both: the shade of death and the elixir of immortality,Are thy grace, O Mother!   The goddess embodies within herself both the creative and destructive principles which are but one and the same. While Durga is the most potent icon to express the aggressive and destructive behavior of Shakti, Lakshmi is the quintessential goddess who proclaims her creative aspect. Without exception Lakshmi is depicted in art as full-breasted (symbolizing her powers of nourishment), and wide-hipped (signifying her fertile, child-bearing capabilities).     It is also for this reason that she is almost always shown in association with the lotus, which forms one of her most important iconographic attributes. The image of the individual goddess stresses that her divine power is not dependent on her relation to a husband-god, rather that she bears her identity through her own right and might. An apt epithet of Shakti in this context is 'Svatantrya,' meaning independence or freedom, signifying that her existence does not depend on anything extraneous to herself.   The Goddess and the God In many instances, the goddess is shown coupled with the god, as wife and husband. Like all goddess imagery this too has metaphorical import. Consider for example the most evocative of such depictions: the great goddess Kali dancing over the corpse of her husband Shiva. This is a statement of the superiority of feminine divinity, and indeed Shiva, addressing the goddess in an ancient text says: 'I, the Lord of all, am a corpse without you,' and Krishna confesses to Radha: 'Without you I am lifeless.' The intention here is not to portray the goddess as a slayer of men but as the power (Shakti) of Shiva, who without her is inert like a corpse. The Shiva corpse may in fact be interpreted as representing the Tantric adept performing one of his yoga exercises, the 'shavasana,' or posture of the corpse,' in which the yogi lies on his back utterly relaxed in mind and body. All his energies are abandoned and symbolically externalized in the figure of the Shakti dancing above him. The purport being that detached from his feminine side, the yogi is incomplete and as good as dead. This belief is expressed in the words: 'shivah shakti vihinah shavah' 'Shiva deprived of Shakti is a corpse (shava).' This statement recurs in most of the Tantras in one form or another. To regain his Shakti and return from his trance like state, the power of the goddess must repossess and complete him. This metaphysical process of union is depicted graphically through the act of sexual intercourse. But it is no regular act of making love. Here it is the woman who rides the male. In this inverted sexual position, the female straddles the male and is the prime mover and active power. This reverse act of lovemaking is known in Sanskrit as viparita-rati. It signifies the feminine urge to create unity from duality and its constant aspiration to unite with the male principle. This is emphasized in the Gandharva Tantra where it is written that 'She who is the sun, moon, and fire, lays down the purusha (male) and enjoys him from above.' She (Shakti) is the active lover of a quiescent Shiva and her union with him is critical for him to be able to assert his divinity and powers. The very first verse of the Tantric text Saundaryalahari states: 'If Shiva is united with his Shakti he is able to exert his powers as a Lord; if not, the god has not even the strength to move.' Indeed, she is the potency that dwells in each of the male gods and the spark that arouses them to action. In fact She is His Power. If we accept the ancient Hindu precept that divinity resides in each individual, we realize that Shakti is the inherent power that lies in each of us. This is independent of the gender of the individual in question.       Another popular image which shows the goddess as Shakti united with her god is the Shiva linga. This is a composite icon which shows a yoni and a linga (male generative organ), conjoined together.     Though it is commonly believed that the Shiva-linga shows the male organ penetrating the female, an actual physical appraisal points to a contrary direction. The yoni forms a pedestal and the abstract geometrical shape of the urdhvalinga (erect phallus) rises out of the yoni (womb). The linga does not enter the yoni (as is popularly believed), rather it emerges from the yoni. According to scholar Stella Kramrisch, this fundamental relationship of linga and yoni has been obscured by patriarchal interpretations. Nevertheless, the ever-creative yoni does assert itself, for the goddess as Shakti is the essential creative matrix, underlying all that which exists.   References and Further Reading Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999. Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997. Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali (The Feminine Force): London, 1995. Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment (Women in Tantric Buddhism): New Delhi, 1998. Subramanian, V.K. Saundaryalahari of Shankracharya: Delhi, 2001. Tigunait, Pandit Rajmani. Sakti The Power in Tantra: Pennsylvania, 1998. Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • The Dance of Shiva

    The Dance of Shiva

    It is said that man danced before he spoke. He certainly danced before he painted and sculpted reliefs on his walls. All cultures of the world have given dance a ritual status before any formal ritual or liturgy was codified in texts, or recreated through relief or paint. Yoga, like dance, is much more than a mere physical exercise. It is a holistic way of relating to the body that involves an increasing awareness on all levels: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. Yoga unites the functions of each of these aspects of our personality. This is true for dance also. Certainly any successful dance performance is characterized by a balanced harmony between the body and spirit. What is suggested here is that dance, like yoga, is a conscious attempt at integrating all the tiers of our existence. It does not negate but on the contrary affirms the sensual nature of our objective physical being, and treats it as fundamental to any attempt at spiritual awareness as our subjective intangible soul. He is the god of destruction, his dance too is thus essentially of a similar nature. A ring of flames encircles him. These are the cremation fires which are ultimately going to consume our mortal bodies. But on the other hand dance is also an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and transforms the perpetrator into a higher realm of reality and personality. Thus the forces gathered and projected in his frantic, ever-enduring gyration are both of creation and annihilation. The Hair of Shiva Shiva's tresses are long and flowing, and dark as the night is. Supra-normal energy, amounting to the power of magic, resides in such a wildness of hair untouched by the scissors. The celebrated strength of Samson, who with naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion and shook down the roof of a pagan temple, was similarly said to reside in his uncut hair. Nandi the Bull of Shiva Shiva rides on the bull. Only those who are masters of their own impulses can ride on the bull. As Mahayogi, the god is master of the bull. This is true even when he is with his shakti, and his images therefore often represent him sitting upon its back, poised gracefully and fully in control. "Among those who have mastered the bull you are the bull keeper. O Lord! Riding on the bull, you protect the worlds." --- Lingopasana-rahasaya Kundalini and the Marriage of Shiva The metabolic energy called Kundalini is symbolized as Parvati. She is conceived as the serpent power which lies coiled in the lowest chambers of the human body. Kundalini when properly quickened, unfolds her vibrating hoods and by an upward sweep enters the spinal cord and then the brain, and finally unites above the head with Shiva. In mythology, Shiva's wedding with Parvati is the entrance of this serpent power into the Higher Mind which is compared to the snowy mountains of Kailash. Kailash is the symbol of the highest mind and Shiva has his abode on this mountain where silence reigns eternally. The analogy is between a human wedding which releases the highest ecstasies of the flesh, and the wedding of Kundalini with Shiva, which is a symbol of the highest bliss attainable by an individual soul.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Every Woman a Goddess - The Ideals of Indian Art

    Every Woman a Goddess - The Ideals of Indian Art

    In India a woman with a fiery temperament is often nicknamed Durga in recognition of the divine spark within her. She is the fervent autonomous goddess who knows how to stand for herself. The living traditions of India have always identified the female of the species with all that is sacred in nature. But it is not always the warrior woman who is identified with the goddess, but also woman as playful, lovable, and of course as the Mother. In a delightful vein it is conjectured that the kick of a woman is sufficient and necessary for blossoms to spring from the sacred Ashoka tree. An entire ceremony has developed around this theme. Women dance around this tree and gently kick it to bring it to bloom. Ancient Sanskrit poetry describes this happening through the eyes of a jealous lover, who wishes that it were him, rather than the tree which benefited from the touch of her foot: 'She plucked its buds for her ear,then repaid it with a gentle kickI might have been the one she struck,She might have taken the bud from me,but I'm cheated by a tree!' The idea being that by their mere touch, the fertilizing power of a woman was transferred to the tree, which then burst into flowers. All things that arise from the earth in the form of vegetative life mirror the great generative function of the Goddess. The process of transformation that is possible in mortal woman mirrors the miracle of growth that occurs in nature. Such figures emphasize the importance of fertility and its associated elements of bearing and nourishing children. The female figure is an obvious emblem of fertility because of its association with growth, abundance, and prosperity. There is also the suggestion that a tree is vulnerable to careless handling like a woman. A tree that has come to flower or fruit will not be cut down; it is treated as a mother, a woman who has given birth. Thus the metaphoric connections between a tree and a woman are many and varied. A relevant one here is that the word for "flowering" and menstruation is the same in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit a menstruating woman is called a 'pushpavati', "a woman in flower". Menstruation itself is a form and a metaphor for a woman' s special creativity. Thus a woman's biological and other kinds of creativity are symbolized by flowering. It is interesting to note here that decoctions made from the bark of the same Ashoka tree are used to soothe menstrual cramps and excessive blood loss during menstruation. The bark decoction also relieves the pain and tension related to menopause. It comes as no surprise that prosperity and abundance too is visualized in the form of a female, namely the Great Goddess Lakshmi. She is often shown holding a pitcher. This pitcher or pot in addition to being likened to a womb, is said to be the pot of bounty, or the harbinger of prosperity. In extension of this conception, Indian aesthetic principles cutting across all schools, sects, and traditions, state in a universal voice that all female forms should be endowed with abundantly full breasts, a narrow waist and ample hips, symbolizing their child bearing capacities and also the power to nourish and sustain their creations, a la Mother Nature. Indeed Nilakantha Dikshita, an ancient aesthetician, lays stress on the milk of the woman as goddess, sustaining the babies of the earth, her children. He fancies that he pearl necklace on the breast of a goddess creates the illusion of drops of milk dripping and overflowing in fast succession from her moist bosom, in her great and surging affection of motherhood, as she fondles us like babies. This has a parallel to the Great Greek Goddess of fertility, Gaia, the Earth Mother, who is visualized with the mountains as her breasts, the caves her womb, and the earth's waters her female fluids. Thus the body of a woman is nothing but the microcosm of the Earth, embodying in itself all the mysteries of creation, and their solution. The Buddhist art of India too displays these same symptoms. In the important Buddhist stupa of Bharhut, belonging to around 100 BC, there can be observed an interesting phenomenon. On the railing that encircles the main monument there are numerous sensuous female images. It would be easy to assume that these images were created in order to satisfy the viewing pleasure of male devotees. But a study of the stupa's numerous inscriptions enables us to set aside any such facile assumption. The railing was constructed as a result of community patronage in which the different parts of the railing; pillars, crossbars etc., were donated by various individuals. The inscriptions reveal that many of these sensuous figures were commissioned by women, including Buddhist nuns and monks, often identified by their names. Clearly there was a higher purpose behind the exercise. The Bharhut stupa was a sacred building built to enshrine a casket that contained a portion of the relics of the Buddha after his cremation. Buddhist pilgrims visited the site to gain proximity to the relics and to experience the unseen presence of the Buddha. Hence it was a ritual space and public domain. Male and female, young and old would have made the pilgrimage and, in the course of repeated ritual circumambulating of the stupa, they would have been exposed to these images. We find, then, that these images were not intended to be viewed as solely sensual objects. We can thus be fairly certain that the function of such imagery was spiritual, and relevant to the sacred structure to which it belonged. Even then their sensuous portrayal raises questions and requires reiteration of the positive association of woman with fertility, growth, abundance, prosperity and hence, the auspicious. Ancient art texts known as the 'Shilpa Shastras' confirm that the potency of women's fertility and its equation with growth, abundance and prosperity led to women becoming a sign of the auspicious. In fact, women served an apotropaic function whereby their auspiciousness was magically transferred to the monument upon which they were sculpted or painted. A royal palace, a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu shrine, gained in auspiciousness and fortune when adorned with the figure of a woman. A text of the tenth century, the 'Shilpa Prakasha', that provides guidelines for practicing temples architects and sculptors, categorically states that figures of women are a prerequisite on the walls of temples. Its choice of phrase underscores the significance of the theme. "As a house without a wife, as frolic (play) without a woman, so without (the figure of woman) the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit." Thus by the mere addition of feminine images it was believed that a whole complex could become sacred and auspicious. In fact the same text lists the different types of women who best sanctify a monument, and instructs the sculptor on how to exactly carve these figures. The most important of these feminine images are: A Woman Dancing A Woman Adjusting her Anklets A Woman Drummer A Mother with her infant in her arms A Woman Smelling a Lotus A Woman Playing with a Parrot A Woman Dancing Dance has been defined as a motion that arises from emotion. The human body has a natural appetite for rhythm, and while dancing, not only does the dancer's body vibrate, but by its rhythmic character, also spurs the viewers to a vibrating response. A primitive or a child emotionally aroused, say by some pleasurable observation, will break into a dance of glee. Repeating that particular dance action can recapture the emotion, and thus in dance, motion and emotion are interchangeable. The capacity for such interchange and build-up of feeling is at the root of the identification of dance as a sacred overture. Dance is an ancient and instinctive expression of the life force, and probably predates drawing and painting as a form of creative activity. It is a form of magic: the dancer becomes amplified into a being endowed with supra-normal powers, and her personality is transformed. Dance is also an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and summons into the dancer a new and higher personality. Underlying this celebration of dance is the distinct Indian attitude to the body and the senses. Neither is a temptation nor snare. The relationship of the body, senses, mind, intellect and soul is articulated in the Upanishads and is seminal to the world-view where the body is regarded as the abode of the divine and the divine descends in the body. Logically, the body beautiful is the temple of god and dance is a medium of invoking the divine within. Each form of dance - the stance, the movement and the context - is imbued with deep spiritual and symbolic significance. Dance reflects a state of being at the highest order of spiritual discipline (sadhana) and is hence considered a yoga. Its performance is a ritual act, a sacrifice of the personal self to a higher transcendental order. It is the medium which evokes the supreme state of bliss (ananda) and also the vehicle of release (moksha). The metaphor of dance also lies at the heart of many creation myths. The life force expressed in the act of movement becomes a symbol of creation. Through the medium of dance, a woman embodies the progenitive powers of cosmic energy, through whom, according to an ancient dance treatise 'the entire phenomenal world is kindled into life.' It does not come as a surprise therefore that in ancient times, a woman dancer was considered an inseparable part of any ritual worship in temples. Every temple of consequence had attached to it one or more dancers. Such women were known as Devadasis. These sacred dancers were symbolically married off to the presiding deity of the temple. Thus an 'ordinary' human woman was found holy enough to be married off to a god, the Lord of the temple. The transformation of an ordinary girl into a Devadasi was marked by important rituals, after the completion of which the woman was considered 'an ever auspicious woman' (nityasumangali). The traditional view holds that all women, by their very nature, share the power of the goddess. The devadasi initiation rites celebrate the merger of her individual female powers with those of the goddess. It is this quality of 'eternal auspiciousness' in a woman that brought into existence this tradition since the earliest times. The importance of the devadasis can be gauged from the fact that their presence was deemed necessary at the slightest event of importance taking place in the temple, for example bathing the deity in the morning, or waving the sacred fire lamp in front of him. An important ritual was the participation in the twilight worship held at sunset. The 'junction' of twilight, when the day slips into the night, is considered extremely dangerous, and so the gods need all the support and attendance they can get. The ritual waving of the lighted lamp by a devadasi was considered the most effective method of warding off an inauspicious state of the divine. Thus their participation in the affairs of the temple was not restricted to dancing on important religious festivals and events, without which the celebrations were thought of as incomplete, but also managing the day-to-day activities along with the officiating priest. But dance of course remained their most accomplished contribution; indeed the life of a devadasi required a strict adherence to dancing schedules and practice. Dance is potentially both sensual and hypnotic. Its passioned performance helped to evoke the atmosphere of the temple as a place removed from the mundane world, the temple as a celestial abode of the deity. A Woman Adjusting her Anklets The Indian tradition thinks of feet as impure. Even then the feet of a woman are worthy of adornment, no less than any other part of her body. In fact the image of a woman adjusting her anklets was considered sacred enough to be carved out in temple walls. A woman has no associated impurity, anything and everything connected with her acquires a status over and above its material existence. Wearing jewelry and adorning themselves with ornaments comes naturally to a woman. Ancient texts identify sixteen different embellishments (solah-shringar), which acknowledge and celebrate the beauty and divinity of the female form. Sixteen, a significant number, corresponds to the sixteen phases of the moon, which in turn is connected with a woman's menstrual cycle. A woman of sixteen is considered to be at the peak of physical perfection in her life. This is another pointer to the identification of the female with the spiritual. The anklet is mentioned as the last of these sixteen ornaments.   It is not that women do not realize the spiritual potential of ornamentation. By adorning their visible, material body, they also satisfy a universal longing for the embellishment of its intangible counterpart: the human spirit. If this were not so, the desire for ornamentation could not have survived, nay thrived during the    continuing course of history.   A Woman Drummer In India music was linked with the origin of life itself, where sound is regarded as the primordial vibration of divine energy. Human mind has resorted to music, the language of symbols, achieving in the process an inner unification of the mind by means of an outer integration of musical principles. Music at the summit of its perfection has striven to symbolize the highest and innermost realities of the mind: a spring of self-expression which eventually flows into the ocean of spiritual experiences. It aspires to be an art guided by knowledge and motivated by inspiration to bring to man a sense of eternity and a state of ecstasy, which is all that he in his mortal frame can taste of immortality. The purpose of music is to enable the mind to comprehend eternity and to enjoy ecstasy. On a practical level, music has a high educational value, it ennobles the mind and awakens and feeds the aesthetic sense. A lady playing a drum is a representation soaked in symbolism and rich in metaphorical imagery. A drum represents thunder, the voice of cosmic energy. Of all musical instruments, the drum is the most primeval means of communication, its percussive sound traveling to the heart and, by extension, suggesting the ability to communicate with supernatural forces. The symbolism of the drum operates at many levels. Firstly there are its materials - wood and hide. The hide being a symbol of regeneration. Since ancient times, the skin of a sacrificial animal, such as the bull or horse, represents the fat of the animal and, by extension, all life-sustaining produce; also progeny. Indeed all qualities associated with the natural functions of a woman. The wood of the drum is symbolic of a tree itself, which expresses maternal nourishment and support. It is wood that gives shelter at birth as a cradle and in death as the coffin. It is noteworthy here that in China wood is also an emblem of spring, the season of fertility and ripe blossoms. That the drum is hollow from the inside is also not without spiritual significance. It is a receptive void, to be entered as a woman is, protective, cavernous, a furrow, a shelter and hence a symbol of the womb and therefore birth. Finally the oval shape of the drum is a symbol of fertility, the feminine creative principle.   A Mother with Her Infant in Her Arms A child's first master is always his/her mother, whence the crucial role she plays and the particular regard in which she is held by both child and man. It is not merely that she has given him life, which is often a fortuitous accident, nor only because she has nourished him with her milk, but because she is the one who initiates the child into the society of man and who teaches the first rudiments of language and behavior on which his whole future development depends.     All women have two natures, two distinct characters, as both lover and mother. As lover she represents the strength and creative power of the male principle, which without her is sterile. She is his inspiration, the instrument of his realization, the source of his pleasure. She is the image of Shakti, the power and joy of the gods, who without her would have no existence. It is as mother, however, that woman represents the transcendent aspect of the divine. She is the supreme refuge in which the male plays no role. The goddess mother is the sole source of being, the supreme state of consciousness, the principle of life itself. Woman is the image of the calm of primordial night for which man yearns, tossed on the waves of life, seeking the state of perfection, the total peace from which he came forth. The universal mother thus appears to man as the supreme state of the divine. All creation, all thought, all form, all existence come from the mysterious energy that appears in the substratum, this matrix of the great goddess, the universal mother, from whom all forms and beings come.   As mother, woman is divine and is worshipped. A mother is bereft of artifice. She is man's comfort, wandering through the deserts of the world. She is forgiveness, charity, and limitless compassion. The woman who realizes the perfection of her maternal role is the very gate of heaven. The respect and duty owed to this first of all masters and the authority she retains make the mother an essential and symbolic figure throughout life. This is woman's double nature: passive in her relationship with men, active as mother of her children. It is well known, moreover, that the most coquettish and timid woman, when her child is in danger, becomes courageous and enterprising, heedless of her makeup, her weakness, her hair, or the injuries she mighty receive.         In visual representations, the mother is most often shown suckling her baby. Indeed the grace and sweetness of vegetal life pervade and enliven the lovely bodies of both mother and child. Here fertility and maternity, the grand old themes of the archetypal figures of the mother goddesses are relieved of their ancient abstractness and diagrammatic monumentality, achieving a composition of refined and intimate realism. Brought down to the terrestrial plane from the sphere of ideals, such an image is both contemporary and eternal.   Woman Smelling a Lotus To the Indian imagination this beautiful flower is associated with divinity. An early medieval text describes the goddess as being: Slender as the lotus-fiber,Lotus-eyed,In the lotus posture,Pollen dusting her lotus-feet,She dwellsIn the pendant lotus of the heart. Indian literature classifies women into four types of which the highest is Padmini, the Lotus Lady whose very breath contains the fragrance of the lotus. Because of its entrancing fragrance, the sweet and pervasive freshness of the lotus is captivating. The honey produced in the calyx is so sweet and maddening that it is believed that the bee forgets to get out of it and prefers to remain veiled inside the lotus through the night.   Ancient mythmakers used the lotus as a common symbol of fertility. The plant was native to many areas of the world, so it occurred frequently in myths and was highly revered by people of many cultures, including the Egyptians and the Persians. It is the very behavior of the flower that gives rise to this symbolism. Sinking to the bottom of the water at night, it rises to the surface in the morning, and spreads its petals on the surface. This awakening and blooming of the lotus at the first rays of the morning sun is a recurrent theme in Indian literature also. The lotus is the symbol of absolute purity; it grows from the dark watery mire but it is untainted or unstained by it. As the seed of the lotus grows from the waters and from the earth's soil, it is a symbol of divine or spontaneous generation. Birth such as that of the lotus implies an immaculate and uncontaminated conception. Thus the lotus, as divine womb, becomes a potent sexual metaphor. Padma or kamala, meaning lotus in Sanskrit, is a synonym for the female generative organ - it is both soft and open.     Thus by signifying the relation of the sensual to the spiritual, beauty to purity, and the physical to the divine, the potent metaphor of the lotus again emphasizes the inherent sacredness in women.   Woman Playing with a Parrot The parrot is the vehicle of the god of desire Kama, the impeller of creation. Kama is the god of beauty and youth. Creation is always preceded by desire, there can be no creation without desire. Indeed the symbol of the parrot is another pointer to the fundamental association of the feminine with the creative principle in nature.   Conclusion Thus the Indian aesthetic tradition regards woman as an aspect of the Great Mother of all life, a vessel of fertility, and life in full sap. She embodies mystery through her fruitfulness. She is associated with nature and the earth. Indeed men in a number of primitive societies refuse to interfere with agriculture, believing it to be magically dependent on women. Because of her unique physiological experiences, like menstruation, defloration, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation, she is responsive to the mysterious periodicities connected with the phases of the moon, the cycles of the months, the seasons of the years and the rhythms of nature. She lives separate existences as virgin, wife, mother, widow or spinster, each with its own experience and power. As a mother she is one of the great primordial archetypes of humanity. From her womb a new creature is born, at her breasts it is nourished, by her hands it is guided. Indeed woman is superior to man in many ways. She has greater vitality; her resistance to disease, physical injury and major shocks is better than man's; girls, as a rule, are more precocious in their development than boys, and do not succumb so easily to illness. Women are more practical and down to earth, and some anthropologists think that rule by women preceded rule by men, and that the patriarchal system developed only when men settled down to a civilized life so as to leave women free to bring up the family. Woman is the originator of families, the preserver of the established order and the perpetuator of traditions, which she imparts to her children. Through her the past is continued, not only in the physical life of her children, but in the respect for traditional heritage that she instills into them. As the Great Goddess rules the heavens, her earthly counterpart, the woman, rules the home. It is the presence of women that lies at the source of most forms of totemism, exogamy, taboo, initiations, blood-rites, fertility rites and the mysteries. With women are associated the ideas of the unconscious, for some instinctive and intuitive process seems to put her in touch, through some secret sympathy, with the very heart of things. She symbolizes the wisdom of the community, and the old woman and sage-femme is the keeper of the tribal lore and often the source of tribal strength. She is priestess, prophetess, sibyl, medium, oracle, pythoness, and witch. Skilled in herbs and balms she is the natural healer and nurse, first of her children, then of her hunter and warrior husband. Man penetrates into her interior, and deep within her body the child is created. She therefore stands for the innerness of things, the place where secret and hidden things happen. Indeed it is in her womb that the great magical transformation takes place that changes sperm into men. Thus Manu, the first law-giver, said: "The gods are satisfied wherever women are honored, but where they are not respected, rites and prayers are ineffectual."(Manu Smriti 3.62) References and Further Reading Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999. Danielou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation; The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India: Vermont, 1993. Dehejia, Vidya (ed.) Representing the Body (Gender Issues in Indian Art): New Delhi, 1999. Dehejia, Vidya (ed.). Devi The Great Goddess (Female Divinity in South Asian Art): Washington, 1999. Leslie, Julia. Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women: Delhi, 1992. Pal, Pratapaditya (ed). Dancing to the Flute (Music and Dance in Indian Art): Sydney, 1997. Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997. Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997. Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990. Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia; Its Mythology and Transformation (two vols.): Delhi, 2001.
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Philosophy of

    Philosophy of "Namaste" and Comparison with the "Handshake"

    Philosophy of "Namaste" and Comparison with the "Handshake" The gesture (or mudra) of namaste is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart, and lightly bowing the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting straight from the heart and reciprocated Namaste Lady Namaste is a composite of the two Sanskrit words, nama, and te. Te means you, and nama has the following connotations: • To bend • To bow • To incline All these point to a sense of submitting oneself to another, with complete humility. Also important to note here is that the root 'nama' is a neuter one, the significance of which will be elaborated upon later. The word nama is split into two, na and ma. Na signifies negation and ma represents mine. The meaning would then be 'not mine'. Indeed there is nothing that the ‘I’ can claim as its own. Namaste is thus the necessary rejection of 'I' and the associated phenomena of egotism. It is said that 'ma' in nama means death (spiritual), and when this is negated (na-ma), it signifies immortality. The whole action of namaste unfolds itself at three levels: mental, physical, and verbal It starts with a mental submission. This is parallel to the devotion one expresses before a chosen deity, also known as bhakti. The devotee who thus venerates with complete self-surrender is believed to partake the merits or qualities of the person or deity before whom he performs this submission. Finely Carved Humble Hanuman - Made in Nepal There is a prescription in the ancient texts known as Agamas that the worshipper of a deity must first become divine himself, for otherwise worship as a transaction would become invalid. A transaction can only be between equals, between individuals who share some details in common. Hence by performing namaste before an individual we recognize the divine spark in him. Further by facilitating our partaking of these divine qualities, namaste makes us aware of these very characteristics residing within our own selves. Simply put, namaste intimates the following: 'The God in me greets the God in you''The Spirit in me meets the same Spirit in you' In other words, it recognizes the equality of all, and pays honor to the sacredness of all. Translated into a bodily act, namaste is deeply rich in symbolism. Firstly the proper performance of namaste requires that we blend the five fingers of the left hand exactly with the fingers of the right hand. The significance behind this simple act in fact governs the entire gamut of our active life. The five fingers of the left hand represent the five senses of karma (karmendriyas), and those of the right hand the five organs of knowledge (jnanendriyas). Hence it signifies that our karma or action must be in harmony, and governed by rightful knowledge, prompting us to think and act correctly. Tibetan Buddhist Lord Buddha in Namaskara Mudra, Robe and Lotus Seat Consist of Buddha Figures Namaste is a binding symbolic ritual. The reconciliation, interaction and union of opposites is amply reflected in this spiritual gesture. By physically bringing together the two hands, namaste is metaphorically reconciling the duality inherent in nature and of which the marriage of two humans is an earthly manifestation, a harmonious resolution of conflicting tensions. Thus namaste, which symbolizes the secret of this unity, holds the key to maintaining the equilibrium of life and entering the area where health, harmony, peace and happiness are available in plenty. In this light, Durga Puja is a celebration of the quintessential victory of devotion over arrogance, of divine love over worldly ego, of dharm over adharm. Purushottam Rama was the first to invoke the Katyayani-roopa of Devi Durga for His endeavour to slay Lankesh Ravana. The latter being the shishya (student) of none other than Lord Brahma, Rama would never have been able to destroy him and rescue His wife Seeta from his demonic clutches without calling upon Her. This is considered an untimely invocation because Durga Puja was originally observed in the spring navaratri. Called Basanti Puja (in Sanskrit 'basanta' means 'spring'), it is celebrated to this day on a similar scale but in limited pockets of the delta. The more iconic festival of the fall, when Bhagavan Rama is said to have evoked her upon Tretayuga, is called 'akaal bodhon', which literally means 'an untimely invocation'. In this context, namaste is equated with the image of Ardhanarishvara, the form symbolizing the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, or the coming together of the parents of the universe, for the purpose of creation. Kalyana Sundaram (Marriage of Shiva and Parvati) - Super Large Size In this form Shiva has his beloved spouse engrafted in his body. By commingling in his physical frame, Parvati has obtained an ideal, archetypal union with her husband. Indeed which couple could be more devoted than the one which finds completion only by merging into each other? By merging her creative aspect with him, Parvati balances Shiva's destructive urge. Ardhanarishvara (Shiva - Shakti) Similarly when Ardhanarishvara dances, the dance step is itself believed to be a combination of two principal and opposite styles of dance. Dancing Ardhanarishvara (Shiva Shakti) 'Tandava', the fierce, violent dance, fired by an explosive, sweeping energy, is an outburst, precipitating pralaya (dissolution of the world).   Shiva's Ferocious Tandava On the other hand is 'lasya', the gentle, lyrical dance, full of sweetness, and representing the emotions of tenderness and love. It is in the lasya of the goddess that death is annihilated and turned into transformation and rejuvenation, rebirth and creation.   Dancing Shiva Parvati The image of Ardhanarishvara is thus the perfect master of the two contrary elements in the manifested universe. Such an ideal, perfect marriage is the message of namaste. Thus is 'nama', the root of namaste, of neuter gender, just like Ardhanarishvara is. Namaste recognizes the duality that has ever existed in this world and suggests an effort on our part to bring these two forces together, ultimately leading to a higher unity and non-dual state of Oneness. Some of these dual elements which the gesture of namaste marries together and unifies as one are: '• God and Goddess • Man and Woman • Heaven and Earth • Sun and Moon • Solar bull and Lunar cow • Theory and Practice • Wisdom and Method • Pleasure and Pain Creation and Destruction • Mind and body • Objectivity and Subjectivity • Intellect and Instinct • Reason and Emotion • Thought and Feeling • Inference and Intuition • Argument and Experience • Word and Meaning • Katabolism (breaking up) and Anabolism (building up) • Right side of body (warm) and Left side (cool) • Front side of body (positive) and Rear side of body (negative) • Brain and Heart • Sahasara Chakra and Kundalini • Pingala (yellow solar channel in body) and Ida (white lunar channel) • Hot breath and Cold breath (Yoga) • Exhalation and Inhalation (Yoga)   There is indeed no sphere of our existence untouched by the symbolic significance of namaste. Finally, the gesture of namaste is unique also in the sense that its physical performance is accompanied by a verbal utterance of the word "namaste." This practice is equivalent to the chanting of a mantra. The sonority of the sacred sound 'namaste' is believed to have a quasi-magical value, corresponding to a creative energy change. This transformation is that of aligning oneself in harmony with the vibration of the other. At its most general namaste is a social transaction. It is usual for individuals to greet when they meet each other. It is not only a sign of recognition but also an expression of happiness at each other's sight. This initial conviviality sets the positive tone for the further development of a harmonious relationship. Namaste as a greeting thus is a mosaic of movements and words constituting an intimation of affirmative thoughts and sentiments. In human society it is an approach mechanism, brimming with social, emotional and spiritual significance. In fact it is said that in namaste the hands are put together like a knife so that people may cut through all differences that may exist, and immediately get to the shared ground that is common to all peoples of all cultures. Comparison with Handshake: In the current context, a comparison with the widely prevalent 'handshake' is inevitable. Though shaking hands is an extremely intimate gesture, namaste scores over it in some ways. Primarily is the one that namaste is a great equalizer. You do namaste with God (and not shake hands!). A king or president cannot shake hands with the large multitude they are addressing. But namaste serves the purpose. It is the same gesture one would have exchanged with a king when with him alone. So no incongruity arises. In the absence of namaste, those facing a large audience will have to make do with a wave of the hands, a much less congenial greeting, and indeed which does not state the essential equality of all people, but highlights the difference even more. But on a parallel level it has been conjectured that both the namaste and the handshake developed out of a desire on the part of both the parties to show themselves to be unarmed and devoid of malicious intention. The outstretched hand or the palms joined together, both establish the proponents as disarmed and show that they come in peace. Conclusion: As much as yoga is an exercise to bring all levels of our existence, including the physical and intellectual, in complete harmony with the rhythms of nature, the gesture of namaste is a yoga in itself. Thus it is not surprising that any yogic activity begins with the performance of this deeply spiritual gesture. Namaste Yoga Lady Idol with Inlay In fact, it is given the status of a mudra, that is, a gesture displayed by deities, where it was known as the Anjali mudra. The word Anjali itself is derived from the root Anj, meaning "to adorn, honor, celebrate or anoint." Namaste Lady (Anjali Mudra) The most important thing to remember while analyzing Namaste is that the gesture we make for greeting humans is the same that we make before God.   God and Goddess Priest and Priestess King and Queen Man and Woman Heaven and Earth Sun and Moon Solar bull and Lunar cow Sulfur and Quicksilver (Alchemy) Theory and Practice Wisdom and Method Pleasure and Pain Astral body (consciousness) and Etheric body (sensation) Mind and body Pneuma (spirit) and Psyche (mind) Hun (spiritual soul) and p'o (material soul) (Chinese) Conscious and Unconscious Animus (unconscious male element in woman) and Anima (unconscious female element in man) (Jung) Objectivity and Subjectivity Extraversion and Introversion Intellect and Instinct Reason and Emotion Thought and Feeling Inference and Intuition Argument and Experience Talent and Genius Silence and Cacophony Word and Meaning Schizophrenia and Epilepsy Depression and Mania Sexuality and Anxiety Katabolism (breaking up) and Anabolism (building up) Ontogeny (individual evolution) and Phylogeny (race evolution) Right side of body (warm) and Left side (cool) Front side of body (positive) and Rear side of body (negative) Brain and Heart Sahasara Chakra and Kundalini Insulin and Adrenalin Pingala (yellow solar channel in body) and Ida (white lunar channel) Hot breath and Cold breath (Yoga) Exhalation and Inhalation (Yoga) Linga and Yoni There is indeed no sphere of our existence untouched by the symbolic significance of namaste. Finally, the gesture of namaste is unique also in the sense that its physical performance is accompanied by a verbal utterance of the word "namaste." This practice is equivalent to the chanting of a mantra. The sonority of the sacred sound 'namaste' is believed to have a quasi-magical value, corresponding to a creative energy change. This transformation is that of aligning oneself in harmony with the vibration of the cosmos itself. At its most general namaste is a social transaction. It is usual for individuals to greet when they meet each other. It is not only a sign of recognition but also an expression of happiness at each other's sight. This initial conviviality sets the positive tone for the further development of a harmonious relationship. Namaste as a greeting thus is a mosaic of movements and words constituting an intimation of affirmative thoughts and sentiments. In human society it is an approach mechanism, brimming with social, emotional and spiritual significance. In fact it is said that in namaste the hands are put together like a knife so that people may cut through all differences that may exist, and immediately get to the shared ground that is common to all peoples of all cultures. In this context, a comparison with the widely prevalent 'handshake' is inevitable. Though shaking hands is an extremely intimate gesture, namaste scores over it in some ways. Primarily is the one that namaste is a great equalizer. You do namaste with God (and not shake hands!). A king or president cannot shake hands with the large multitude they are addressing. But namaste serves the purpose. It is the same gesture one would have exchanged with a king when with him alone. So no incongruity arises. In the absence of namaste, those facing a large audience will have to make do with a wave of the hands, a much less congenial greeting, and indeed which does not state the essential equality of all people, but highlights the difference even more. But on a parallel level it has been conjectured that both the namaste and the handshake developed out of a desire on the part of both the parties to show themselves to be unarmed and devoid of malicious intention. The outstretched hand, and the palms joined together, both establish the proponents as disarmed and show that they come in peace. Conclusion As much as yoga is an exercise to bring all levels of our existence, including the physical and intellectual, in complete harmony with the rhythms of nature, the gesture of namaste is an yoga in itself. Thus it is not surprising that any yogic activity begins with the performance of this deeply spiritual gesture. The Buddhists went further and gave it the status of a mudra, that is, a gesture displayed by deities, where it was known as the Anjali mudra. The word Anjali itself is derived from the root Anj, meaning "to adorn, honor, celebrate or anoint." According to Indologist Renov "Meditation depends upon the relationship between the hands (mudras), the mouth (mantras) and the mind (yoga)". The performance of namaste is comprised of all these three activities. Thus namaste is in essence equivalent to meditation, which is the language of our spirit in conversation with god, and the perfect vehicle for bathing us in the rivers of divine pleasure.     References and Further Reading Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999. Nambiar, A.K. Krishna. Namaste; It's Philosophy and Significance in Indian Culture: New Delhi, 1979. Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Krishna The Supreme Personality of Godhead: Mumbai, 1996. Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Bharatiya Pranama Paddhati (Respectful Salutations in India): Bangalore, 1997. Sivaramamurti, C. Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature: New Delhi, 1994. Sudhi, Padma. Symbols of Art, Religion and Philosophy: New Delhi, 1988. Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997. Walker, Benjamin. Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: London, 1977
    by Nitin Goel on June
  • Churning the Ocean - Samudra Manthan as a Roadmap for Sadhana

    Churning the Ocean - Samudra Manthan as a Roadmap for Sadhana

    Even the most hardhearted of persons would step away from a flower lying on his/her way, being wary of crushing it under one’s feet, even though they would think nothing of kicking away the hardest of stones. The Indian tradition believes that a flower is the abode of Goddess Lakshmi, its almost divine softness and beauty being but an expression of aspects of the goddess herself. In fact, the proud god Indra who once showed disrespect to a garland of flowers had to undergo a lot of distress resulting from it. It so transpired that the great sage Durvasa once offered Indra a garland made of beautiful blooming flowers. The vain king of gods placed it on the head of his elephant, who immediately threw it down and trampled it under his feet, prompting sage Durvasa to place a curse upon Indra that since he had disrespected Lakshmi (living in the flower), she would soon desert him. Very soon the gods began to loose their vigor, and the demons, seeing their chance defeated them in battle and drove them out of heaven. The gods then repaired to Lord Brahma, seeking his advice. Shri Narayana Lakshmi on Shesha Venerated by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra and Narada       The nature of Lord Brahma is such that he can give only specific boons, but never lasting relief from distress. Therefore he suggested that all of them, together with Lord Shiva, should go to Shri Vishnu asking for his intervention. The Great God Vishnu however made it clear that the present time was favorable to the demons, and the only immediate recourse was to go ahead and make peace with them. After securing this semblance of friendship, the gods and demons should then strive to churn the ocean together, from which would result the nectar of immortality (amrita). Towards this end they could use the mighty mountain ‘Mandara’ as a churning rod and the serpent as the rope. Before beginning the actual churning, the gods must pour plants, grasses, herbs etc into the ocean. The Lord then finally promised that he would ensure that only the gods, and not the demons would get to drink this nectar. The gods faithfully obeyed Lord Vishnu’s instructions and poured herbs into the ocean. This symbolizes that our spiritual journey has to be preceded by the hearing of the divine words of the Vedas (Upanishads, Vedanta etc), only when these sacred utterings are poured into our ears are we ripe enough to undertake the actual journey (sadhana). They then went ahead and made peace with the demons. The two groups agreed to churn the ocean to obtain amrita. Together they uprooted the huge mountain named ‘Mandara,’ and started carrying it to the ocean. However, though it is not too difficult to pick up a heavy object, carrying it a distance is another matter. The gods and demons found its weight difficult to carry and abandoned it midway. Seeing their dejection, Lord Vishnu appeared seated on Garuda and effortlessly placed the mountain on Garuda’s wings, mounted the bird himself, and thus carried over the mountain effortlessly to the seashore. The mountain Mandara here is symbolic of our mind (manas), its stability representing the determination of our resolve. Our mind has to be brought over to the shore of sadhana. However, this is not possible without grace of god (bhagavat kripa). It needs also to be remembered that though there was no need for God to create the whole complicated paraphernalia of churning the ocean when things could have happened by his mere resolve. The whole purpose was to bring home the fact that effort is the vehicle of divine grace. Also, the bird Garuda is symbolic of the Vedas with the flapping of its wings representing the rhythmic chanting of Vedic hymns. The Shrimad Bhagavata says: ‘The three Vedas are called Garuda.’ (12.11.19) Chaturbhuja Shri Vishnu on His Mount Garuda     Thus only when we have placed our mind on the wings of the Veda, reposing our full faith in the divine word, can we said to be on the path of sadhana.   The next requirement was a churning rope and for this purpose the mighty serpent named Vasuki was patronized with the promise of a share in the nectar. The snake was wound round the mountain and Lord Vishnu, accompanied by the gods, walked over to the serpent’s mouth taking position there. This action was not appreciated by the demons who insisted that the tail being a ‘impure organ’, and they being from an exalted lineage, they would not work from that end. The Lord smilingly left the head and with the gods in tow, walked over to the tail. Tortoise Incarnation of Lord Vishnu   The two sides then began the actual process of churning. However, due to its weight, the mountain began sinking in the ocean. Seeing their efforts thus go waste the churners became dejected. The Lord then incarnated as a giant tortoise and dived into the waters, lifting the mountain on his back. When the churning started again, the movement of the massive mountain on the back of the tortoise made God feel as if someone was pleasantly scratching his back.   The tortoise here represents the state of sadhana where all sense organs have been withdrawn and it is with such a support that the mind progresses in sadhana. The Bhagavad Gita says: ‘Like the tortoise, which withdraws its limbs from all sides, the person who withdraws his senses from all sense objects, obtains a steady wisdom.’ (2.58) The slight scratching on the mighty Lord’s back indicates that he takes note of our spiritual endeavors, and our sadhana gives him pleasure. Not only did the Lord incarnate as a tortoise, but also entered into the demons as their ‘demonic nature’, supplementing their essentially ‘rajasic nature’ by strength and energy. He also entered into the gods as their ‘godly (sattvic) nature’, increasing their power and then finally permeated the snake Vasuki as sleep, which was but a manifestation of its essentially tamasic nature (it is well known that a snake is one the most tamasic creature). The slumber not only made it trouble free for the serpent itself but also ensured a smooth operation of the churning rope. The serpent Vasuki symbolizes desire and its slumber indicates that only when all our desires go to sleep (by god’s grace) can any spiritual progress be said to have really begun. To ensure complete stability, the Lord then pressed the mount by placing a hand over it. Thus, even though this enterprise was undertaken with a ‘worldly motive,’ namely the victory of one group over the other, it was made truly divine what with the Supreme Lord pressing the churning rod from above, supporting it from below in the form of a tortoise, entering not only into the bodies of the gods and demons, but also the mountain (representing its stability and determination), and finally in the serpent too. The demons pull from the side of the serpent's mouth   With the churning in progress, a deluge of poisonous fumes began issuing forth from the nostrils of Vasuki. The demons who had insisted that they be allowed to hold on to the serpent’s head were now the one’s facing the heat.   The gods, who had faithfully followed the directions of God, were not only safe but the same fumes tormenting the asuras on rising in the air became clouds and carried over to the gods showered their cooling waters over them. Shiva Parvati and Ganesha Seated Against a Shiva Ling on the Icy Peaks of Mount of Kailash with Nandi When even with the combined effort of both sides, no nectar turned out, the Great Lord began to churn the sea himself. With this invincible support, the first by product of the churning of the ocean emerged - namely the hot and deadly poison named Halahala, which immediately began to torment the worlds. The frightened creatures of the world wondered where to seek solace from this plight. They came to the realization that Lord Shiva, with all those poisonous serpents entwined playfully about his body was the only one who could perhaps resolve their distress, plus the hot poison would be an ideal drink for him living in the sub zero peaks of Mount Kailash. Gods Praying Shiva for their Protection from 'Asuras'     They then went over to Lord Shiva and brought to his notice the fact that the world was being threatened with dissolution, and since he was the ‘Lord of dissolution’ he must to something stop this untimely annihilation of the world.   Seeing their distress Lord Shiva was overwhelmed with compassion. However, before he proceeded to initiate any drastic remedial measure, like a good husband, he took his beloved wife into confidence, informing her that he wished to drink away this poison. The Great Goddess, sharing her husband’s compassion and very well knowing his prowess, agreed to it. Lord Shiva then took the poison in his palm and swallowed it. The same deadly venom that was threatening to end the worlds now became a beautiful ornament of Lord Shiva, turning his throat a light blue, a monument to his supremely compassionate and sacrificing nature. Truly says the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana in this context: Shiva Ornaments Himself   Compassionate ones generally undertake a lot of trouble to relieve others of their suffering. However, this is no pain at all, because relieving others of their suffering is the highest worship of god. (Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 8.7.44)   The emergence of poison as the first product of the churning indicates that obstacles inevitably come up whenever any good work is undertaken, whether they be in form of suffering or physical impediments blocking the goal. The bigger the job you set out to do, the stronger is the poison that will turn up. Those on the path of God do know that once they have set out on their way, the negative tendencies kama, krodha (anger) lobha (greed) etc. start tormenting one with surprisingly strong vigor. Only the one, who like Lord Shiva, bears of the Ganga of knowledge on his head can survive, nay even come out stronger after encountering them. Therefore, whenever any bitter poison, be it in the form of suffering or a negative tendency, surfaces in our lives, it is to Lord Shiva we should look up to. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: "That which begins like poison, ends up like nectar (amrita); and that which at first seems like nectar ends up as poison." (18.37-38) Kamadhenu   After Lord Shiva had partaken the poison, the gods and demons began to churn the ocean again with renewed effort. Next to emerge was the cow Kamadhenu, who provides us with the necessary materials for Vedic sacrifices (milk, ghee etc).   The Brahmins laid a claim on her saying that Brahmins had a right to the first thing that emerged. To the query that the first item to emerge was the deadly poison, the Brahmins became at a loss for words. However, since both the gods and the demons equally revered the Brahmins, they were respectfully allowed to have their way. Next emerged the beautiful horse named Ucchaihshravas, radiant like the white moon. Indra had already been instructed by God not to ask for it, so he kept quiet. The king of the demons expressed his desire for it and was allowed to take possession of the horse. The horse Uccchai (high) Shrva (praise) signifies the lofty praise and adulation that is initially heaped on those on the spiritual path. Like a swift steed it carries away the adept from the correct path. The true seeker must always resist its appeal. Here it must be realized that gods and demons are both born of the same father, the sage Kashyapa. However, their mothers are different. The gods are born of Aditi, meaning without duality (A-diti). Aditi symbolizes the non-dual perspective of seeing things, wherein each and everything is recognized as an equal part of the universal divine whole. The mother of the demons is however Diti, meaning taking a dual perspective of things not recognizing the inherent and essential unity underlying all manifested existence. For the sadhak it is necessary to utilize both these tendencies in his\her spiritual journey. It is not that we have to direct only our positive tendencies towards God, all the inclinations of the mind – whether good or bad need to be directed towards God. Next came Airavat, the majestic white elephant. Since the demons had taken the horse, it was now the turn of the gods, hence Indra took the unique elephant as his vehicle. The elephant, with its eyes much smaller in proportion to its large body, is a symbol of minute (sukshma) perspective, meaning the capacity to see the essential, ‘hidden’ nature of things. Then there came out the jewel called Kaustubha (pure consciousness), which the great Lord Vishnu took as an adornment for his chest. Thereafter arose the wish-fulfilling tree Parijata and nymphs known as apsaras, both of which ultimately became the delight of heavens. Next emerged none other than Goddess Lakshmi herself, the very embodiment of affluence and prosperity. Seeing her beauty par excellence, the hearts of all those present there (except Lord Vishnu) became agitated, kindling in all a desire to make her their own. Indra fetched a seat for her with his own hands, Vishwakarma gave her many splendid ornaments and Lord Brahma a lotus. Thereafter Goddess Lakshmi, shining like a creeper of gold, holding a garland in her arms, set out in search of a suitable spouse, who was without blemish and would prove to be an eternal companion. She laid her eyes on all the three worlds critically scrutinizing all her suitors, saying to herself: 1). Some are high quality ascetics, but have no control over their anger (like sage Durvasa). 2). Though some are extremely knowledgeable, they are not above attachment (like Shukracharya). 3). Some are truly great but have not been able to win over kama (physical desire), like Lord Brahma. 4). Some are extremely prosperous (like Indra), but what use is such affluence when one has to depend on another for protection? 5). Some, though scrupulous in performing their dharma, lack compassion (like Parashurama). 6). Some are prone to sacrifice (like King Shibi), however mere sacrificial nature (tyaga) is not sufficient enough for mukti (final liberation). 7). For those free from attachment (like the eternal celibate brothers – Sanak etc.), they will have never have anything to do with the ‘other’, e.g. one’s wife etc, and therefore no relationship will be possible. 8). For those (like sage Markandeya) who have managed to gain a very long life (chir ayu), they do not possess the amiable nature preferred by women. For those who are amiable, they but possess a limited life span only. 9). The one who possesses both (longevity and amiability like Lord Shiva), lives inauspiciously. 10). Finally, the one who is totally auspicious, eternal and infinitely amiable, is indifferent to me (Lord Vishnu). Coming to this conclusion, Devi Lakshmi finally chose as her spouse the Supreme Lord Vishnu, the eternal abode of all auspicious qualities, untouched by the three gunas, absolutely independent, and not expecting anything from anybody (nirpeksha). Lakshmi Narayana   Thus, much like the Hindu Marriages today, The Goddess Lakshmi placed a garland of flowers round the neck of Lord Vishnu, and stood by him silently waiting for his grace. She made the bosom of Lord Vishnu her permanent abode, thus ensuring that he would never embrace anybody other than Goddess Lakshmi. Actually, the one who is completely free from desire, not coveting any form of material prosperity is truly the ‘richest.’ All others, wandering here and there, tormented by the desire to possess material objects, are the poorest.   From her cosy niche on her beloved God’s chest, Goddess Lakshmi bestowed her grace on the gods, since they were the objects of her husband’s affections. The gods thus were endowed with all virtuous qualities, She ignored the demons however and they became dispirited, unenterprising, shameless and greedy. Next arose from the ocean a girl with lotus eyes, she was Varuni, the presiding deity of wine. She was taken by the demons. Dhanvantri     At last there emerged from the ocean a wonderful person with long and muscular arms, holding in his hands a vase brimming over with the nectar of immortality. This was none other then Dhanvantri, the founder of Ayurveda.   The demons, first to break the terms of agreement, forcibly took away the vase, intending to deprive the gods of their rightful share. Thus cornered, the gods once again took refuge with Lord Vishnu. The Lord consoled them saying that he would ensure that the demons would not get to drink the nectar. Meanwhile, a quarrel had ensued between the demons themselves, each clamoring to get a share of the nectar first. At this moment Lord Vishnu took on the form of a bewitchingly beautiful woman named Mohini. Her color was slightly dark, and her body taut and highly attractive. The sari falling over her big island like hips, the melodious tinkling of her anklets, her bashful amorous smile and dancing eyebrows, set ablaze the demon’s hearts with desire. Captivated by her charms, the demons addresses her thus: "Lady, who are you? Where have you come from? Tell us whose daughter you are. It is pretty clear that your beauty is untouched. You have come here at an opportune moment. Right now, we demons, even though we are the sons of the same father, are fighting each other for the nectar of immortality. We request you to distribute the nectar on our behalf, so that we do not again fight between ourselves." To this Mohini replied: "How can you high bred people place faith in a wanton woman like me? Certainly no wise person would do so." By such jocular and enticing remarks she made the demons trust her all the more. Laughing aloud they handed over precious vase to her. Taking the pot in her hands, Mohini said in a sweet voice: "You will have to accept whatever I do, whether right or wrong, only then will I distribute the nectar." The demons, their intelligence clouded by the dark clouds of infatuation, did not fathom the depth and significance of her words and agreed to her condition. Lord Vishnu as Mohini with Amrit Kalasha   The two groups then sat in a big hall. After a while Mohini entered the premises, wearing a very beautiful sari. Burdened by the weight of her hips, her gait was slow and deliberate, her eyes swimming as if inebriated. Looking at the gathered assembly with side-glances and captivating smiles, she enchanted all by her persona, helped in so small measure by the slight slipping of the cloth covering her nubile chest. She arranged the mesmerized assembly into two separate rows of gods and demons. Mohini then started feeding the gods first with the nectar of immortality, even though all the while her gaze was directed at the demons, beguiling them with the charming movement of her eyebrows and the alluring smile dancing on her cheeks.   Lord Vishnu as Mohini   The demons were abiding by the pledge made to her, and out of affection for her and feeling it below their dignity to quarrel with a woman they kept quiet. They were wary of affecting their bond of attachment with her. Mohini continually fed their self-esteem even as she continued to feed the gods, saying, "let these niggardly gods drink first, sensible people like you can wait a bit."   Rahu - Navagraha (The Nine Planet Series)   The demon Rahu saw through the Lord’s actions and disguising himself as a god, stealthily entered their row, seating himself between the sun and the moon. However, no sooner had he partaken the amrita, he was exposed by the duo he was sitting between. Lord Vishnu immediately cut off Rahu’s head with his discus. His torso, where the amrita had not reached fell to the ground while the head, which had been touched by the amrita became immortal.   Cherishing this old enmity, Rahu to this day, periodically assails the sun and moon. Here the message is amply clear – one who backbites or complains, has to face eclipses. Also, the recognition of God in his true form is bound to yield at least some lasting effect, exemplified in the partial granting of amrita to Rahu. In this way even though the factors such as time, place, apparatus, activity and the objective of both the gods and demons were the same, there was a great divergence in the fruits the two sides reaped. The gods easily obtained the fruits of their labor, namely the nectar of immortality, because of taking resort of the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. However, looking away from these grace-bestowing feet, the demons, even though having worked equally hard, were excluded from the fruit. The great sage Vallabhacharya says: "A single lila of God achieves many objectives." (Commentary on Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 10.6, Karika 2). Thus through the one act of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean), the following objectives were achieved: a). The positive forces in life gained the nectar of self-realization. b). Through the actual process of churning, a roadmap was laid for all sadhakas (spiritual aspirants). c). All in all it is a delightful lila of God for all to savor. d). Establishes the inspiring ‘nature’ and supremacy of Lord Shiva. e). Points out that it is the hand of God which is behind each and everything that takes place in this world. f). Lays down the principles of political expediency (for eg. There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics). g). The secret of success is surrender to god, meaning obeying his will, and not in giving up action. h). Drinking up other people’s troubles is a permanent ornament (for those like Lord Shiva) even though they may not be well-dressed in the conventional sense. i). The only perfect being in this world is Lord Vishnu, making him the ideal suitor for Goddess Lakshmi, signifying that he has the sole claim on all the world’s prosperity, including the miniscule portion we are lording over possessively. All of it needs to be put into use as directed by God. j). God has strange ways of bestowing his grace. What at first may seem detrimental to our interests may turn out doubly beneficial (as the gods experienced when they were made to hold the tail end of the churning rope). Conclusion: Don't miss the Tortoise supporting the mountain under the waters It was God who inspired the whole process of samudra manthan. It was he who informed the gods as to how to go about it. It was he who carried the mountain over to the ocean. He as a tortoise supported the mountain on his back. From the top he pressed the mountain down giving it a firm stability. He was inside all the gods and demons (as their strength) and inside Vasuki as sleep. When nothing turned up for a while and the two groups became dejected, he himself churned the ocean. Finally, it was the Lord himself who made sure that it was only those who deserved it (adhikari) received the nectar of immortality. Indeed, lot is happening in the world, but behind all is working the one and only shakti (power) of God. References and Further Reading:   Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002. Devi, Shrimati Dayakanti. Shrimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (With Word to Word Meaning in 8 Volumes): Allahbad, 1993. Dogre, Shri Ramachandra Keshav. Shrimad Bhagavat Rahasya (Collection of Discourses): Delhi. Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005. Puri, Swami Shantananda Puri. Srimad Bhagavatam Its Message for the Modern Man: Mumbai, 2002. Prabhupad, A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srimad Bhagavatam (47 Volumes): Mumbai. Saraswati, Acharya Bhagavatananda. Shrimad Bhagavat Parijat: Varanasi, 2002. Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagawatamrit (The Elixir of the Bhagwat) Mumbai, 2005. Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003. Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Vyanjan: Mumbai, 2006. Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Sarvasva: Mumbai, 2005. Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004. Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002. Tejomayananda, Swami. Shrimad Bhagavata Pravachan (Discourses on The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana): Mumbai, 2006. Vallabhacharya, Shri. Subhodini (Hindi Translation in 13 Volumes): Jodhpur, 1968.
    by Nitin Goel on June

TESTIMONIALS

BACK TO TOP