Monday, December 26, 2016

You are the light of the world

I was fortunate enough to attend a faith appreciation workshop at the Heartfulness mediation center this Christmas and I am so glad that I got this opportunity. Though I grew up in a predominant brahminical environment, I have always "known" Lord Jesus thanks to my early schooling when my headmistress "Ms. Rose" served as a huge example of inspiration, generosity, and 'public figure of respect' (though of course the school never ever did try to convert us or anything like that!). I have had some wonderful wonderful friends and neighbors who follow the Christian faith who have been the very epitome of joy, love and grace along the course of my life. I've also celebrated Christmas in my own way many times. One particular instance stands out in my mind....I must have been about 10 or so when I decided that I am being greatly deprived of celebrating the best festival of the year and that I must do something about it. So up I came up with a secret Christmas celebration plan - gathered all my friends in the garden, hung some nice hand made stars on the trees, pleaded mom to buy us some plum cake from the store, and lo, we had the best Christmas party in town set amidst some lovely greenery, wonderful smell of flowers, and a feeling of deep happiness. Oh, what joy that was - to finally have my own stars and celebrate Christmas (though I doubt if I really knew what Christmas was back then!!). I have also heard and read stories of Jesus, his many miracles and in recent times parallels of his life with Lord Krishna.

But I have always balked at reading the Bible. I have been very wary of words such as 'satan', 'sin', 'temptation', and 'evil'. They conjured up feelings of fear, suffering and negativity rather than the one of joy, abundance and positivity that I am used to in my own faith (or rather the way my faith was introduced and instilled in me by my grand parents, parents and my society through the beautiful and joyful stories of Krishna and Rama). I have also been witness to the scare and 'shared opinions' on mass conversions. So while Lord Jesus was someone I highly respected and 'believed in' (as in I kind of instinctively 'knew' him to be 'true' as much as my own Krishna or Rama), the Christian faith itself is something I viewed with suspicion and caution. So whenever I came across copies of Bibles in hotel night stands, or read the quotes outside churches or saw them on car rear glasses, I  did not pay much attention to them. For, I thought, that they after all will be filled with words meant to 'caution' and 'scare' than 'encourage' and 'enlighten'. But all that changed this weekend when were given this quote to interpret and understand in our workshop.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

When I read these lines, I felt a profound sense of truth and an instinctive understanding, a sort of  'familiarity', a realization that indeed the Divine is in all of us and it is but just waiting to be given an opportunity to shine through. Just a few days back, I had read this blog on "Total Giving, Total Living" by Sadhguru and it had struck a chord with me. As human beings, we are always calculating, measuring, wondering - either the materials, our emotions or our responses - how much am I giving, how much am I receiving, am I receiving less, are people loving me less, am I getting enough attention, am I doing too much, so on and so forth. Where is the grace? Where is the 'expectation less' giving? Even if we give 'without expectation', aren't we mentally patting ourselves on the back and feeling 'good' for being a 'do-gooder'? Is that bad? Who is the 'one' actually giving and who is the 'one' feeling good? If I give you what you desperately need, and I say not one word in acknowledgement of that act lest you feel indebted, but I secretly appreciate myself in the deep recess of my mind, and I feel soooo good, am I the one who "gave" you what you needed or are you the one who "gave" me what I needed? How do I give with a capacity where I do not even think 'I am giving' - the operative here being the "I". I guess that's the state one needs to work towards - to remove the I, to dissolve the I and to let the pure light of divine shine through. How does one "let our light shine"?

So many questions to ponder and so many thoughts to work through.

But coming back to the quote from the bible, I felt kind of startled - to know that such pearls of wisdom have been masked amidst words such as the one I mentioned above (which obviously I have taken a deep dislike towards!). Then I realized, perhaps it's the language and the time. It's the language that was used when Jesus lived and the idioms and generalizations of his time. Maybe those are the ones I am not liking and perhaps I should set aside my reservations with it and read the Bible. And as for Jesus, I think I should get to know him better - to give and to give so unconditionally, what must it have taken him (when I see him as a human, just like one of us, who walked and talked hundred of years ago) and what must he have done to let the light shine forth. Jesus has become an inspiration in my mind today - not as a Lord, God, or someone up there in heaven, but as someone who I can strive to be like, much like my Shirdi Sai and his life. Or the Adiguru Shiva.

And by some quirk of destiny, in the evening, I came upon a copy of the Bhagavad Gita which was opened to this exact page and verse that went
buddhir jnanam asammohah ksama satyam damah samah
sukham duhkam bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
ahimsa samata tustis tapo danam yaso yasah
bhavanti bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
In essence, what the above words state is that everything arises from him and manifests in individuals as per their actions and merits.

There seems to be a connection here somewhere - between my understanding of the quote from the Bible and this verse from Bhagavad Gita though I am not exactly sure what it is right now.

In any case, let us strive to let our lights shine through - whether it is Jesus, Krishna, Rama or Shiva who inspires you. Let us seek the highest that we know.

A wonderful holiday season to you all! 

Friday, December 16, 2016

A lesson in Surrender

A few months before I began planning my Mount Kailash trip, a thought came to me (or someone must have told me)  that I must undertake a similar Parikrama (or a Girivalam as we call it) of the mighty Arunachala. A Girivalam before going to Kailash and a Girivalam after coming back from Kailash - this came as an almost clear cut instruction for me. I decided I must do this and off we went to Tiruvannamalai in July. The plan was to start the Girivalam early in the morning so that we could complete it well before mid-day since we were doing it barefoot. But as luck would have it, we could start off only by 6.30 or so. Everything happens for a reason as they say (and I firmly believe) and so there was a reason for our delay in the morning that day too which we wouldn't realize until later in the day.

The Girivalam outer path is about 14 kilometres and winds around the Arunachala hill. As per the Ramana Maharishi's guide to Girivalam AND this site on Agasthiar, one could start the Girivalam from either the Ramanashram or the Brahma Linga shrine that's inside the main Arunachala temple, exit the temple from the south gopuram entrance and thence forth go around the hill in a clock wise direction, stopping at all the eight lingams. The eight lingams are built in each of the eight directions by the dikpalakas (i.e. guardian deities who guard the directions) and are named after them - Indra Lingam in the east, Agni in the southeast, Yama in the south, Niruthi in the southwest, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the northwest, Kubera in  the north, and the Esanya lingam in the northeast (Source: Guide to Giripradakshina) - that's also the order in which you will come up on their shrines during the Girivalam. One must do the Girivalam with a single mind focused on devotion, constantly keeping his or her gaze on the Arunachala, and be silent and meditative as much as possible. As Ramanamaharishi had said, one must also not hurry through this entire sadhana as if one simply needs to accomplish a goal - one must walk as if one were a nine month long pregnant lady holding an oil lamp in her hands - such must be one's pace and care while doing the Girivalam.

Arunachala darshan from Isanya Ashram
Photo & title Credit: 

Overall, the Girivalam is designed and meant to be an exercise in withdrawing into oneself to enable the possibility of going deeper into our consciousness and experiencing the 'Brahman'. It is a sadhana that can help us realize the true reality of nature, our connectedness with it (the cosmos/creation), and our oneness with it while keeping the Arunachala as one's axis or anchor. The Kailash parikrama is also pretty much done with the same intention - the only difference being here in Tiruvannamalai, one uses the Arunachala as our focal point while at Kailash, it is the Mount Kailash. You will also know that Tiruvannamalai is one of the "Bhuta Lingams" (i.e. places where the Divine/Shiva has manifested itself as one of the five elements) and represents the Fire element. In line with that, the entire geography/area is also one where the temperatures soar and heat is a constant companion. In contrast, Kailash is exactly the opposite - with temperatures dipping below zero degree Celsius. Having born in the Dravidian land, it is only right that I pay my respects to the Fire before I can get the strength to embrace the cold. So there I was, on that fine day in July, in Tiruvannamalai to do my Girivalam and seek his blessings to help me experience the 'oneness' at Kailash.

View of the main Arunachala Temple as seen from the way to Virupaksha Caves

We had been to Tiruvannamalai just a few months before this trip, perhaps sometime in last December, when we had taken the longest time ever to complete the Girivalam. We had started again early in the morning (5.45ish) and had hoped to complete the Girivalam well before the noon Sun hits our head. But alas, that plan was not to be then too. Right at the beginning of our Girivalam, we had the wonderful experience of seeing the Mookupodi Siddhar at Seshadri Ashram. Though we had no idea about this particular Siddhar then, when we entered the Seshadri Ashram, we saw a huge group of people gathered around an old man who seemed to be behaving a bit eccentricly (I am sorry to use this word but not able to describe it in any other way!). As anyone would do in such circumstances, we also joined the group of people and started watching this senior who made his way to the front of the Seshadri Ashram and sat down right in the middle of the front courtyard to have his breakfast. Post that, he flung the empty plate and tumbler a little violently and rose to disappear in the direction of the inner portions of the ashram - perhaps to a resting area.

The entire episode was a little nerve wrecking for me as his violent behavior was a little scary. Yet, people seemed to be pushing themselves towards him while still keeping a respectful distance. Wondering why, I found out that people were hoping to be beaten by him (he carries a walking stick of sorts) - his beating is supposed to herald good luck (as that would mean he takes away some of your bad karma for himself or something like that - I do not know about it fully to write the correct explanation here). In spite of my fear, I simply couldn't tear myself away from that crowd, overcome by a morbid kind of curiosity and hope - I have no clue for what! Thankfully, he did not beat anyone (or me!!) that day during that hour or so that we spent gathered around him. Strangely though, we were left with a beautiful feeling of elation (maybe all that adrenaline rush from the fear says my logical brain!). In retrospect, now that I think about it, the elation seemed to have stayed with us the rest of the day!! I think I was quiet drunk with happiness almost the entire day - in spite of the tiring walk of 14 km, a hot sun overhead, and the burning tar road underneath our bare feet (it was past 1 in the afternoon by the time we completed the Girivalam as we lost quiet sometime in this episode!). At one point, we were singing joyously totally unmindful of the aching legs and back! I even rushed back to the market after we completed the Girivalam and came back to our hotel - to buy some native seeds for my gardening friends back home - to the shock of my mother in law who wondered where I am getting all that energy and enthusiasm from! Strange, indeed.

So, with this memory of my immediate past experience of the Girivalam, I was supremely confident that I can very well once again undertake the parikrama in barefoot and come back none the worse. Well, well, the day had something else in store for me - least did I know! As they say about the best laid plans of men and mice, yadah, yadah!!

Due to the delay in getting some things done in the morning, on that day in July, we could start our Girivalam only by 6.15 or so. Mindful of the fact that one must try to be in a meditative mode and not hurry through the exercise, I did not let myself set a fast pace initially however otherwise my logical mind urged me to (not my body though - it seemed to want the opposite!). We lingered for a few minutes in Seshadri Ashram hoping for a repeat darshan of Mr. Mookupodi Siddhar but well obviously not as he is a wandering ascetic! The rest of the Girivalam was quiet uneventful so to speak - i.e. until about the time we came to the Vayu Lingam. It must have been about 11.30 or nearing 12 by then I think and by that time the late Summer Sun was out in his full radiating glory. The tar road underneath glistened with a "I-seem-like-am-melting-but-am-not" look and the trees that were giving shade till then seemed to be becoming more and more sparse as we approached the last of the two lingams. The hot road seemed to stretch ahead into a vast expanse of barrenness devoid of any shade as far as the eyes could see - the sidewalks lined with tiles were no better, broken in places and as hot as the tar road if not more.

Where must one step, where can this by-now-rubbed-raw feet find some respite, where is there shade - my entire mind was filled with thoughts of only these questions. Arunachala disappeared (save for the by-now-habit chanting), the intent of Girivalam disappeared, all other thoughts disappeared - it was just the Sun, the road and my screaming feet. I started picking up my pace hoping the speed will help lessen the time my feet rests on the hot road, I started trying to fantasize about Kailash hoping the mind can be fooled into thinking the road is not so hot, I kept looking up at the Sun hoping that he will shine a little less to provide some respite - alas, not to be. It only seemed to be getting hotter and hotter. I started running - never mind the protest of my stiff back and joints and raw feet - and the thought of funny looks people were throwing at me. But I couldn't keep at it. I decided to slow down but where do I step - where are the trees, where are the trees, where are the trees, screamed my body. I then started throwing my shawl on the ground, stepping on it for a second's respite, then picking it up, and running another 4 - 5 feet, throwing it down again, and repeat. But that was not happening too. It wasn't this difficult last time, I remembered thinking, I was barefoot then too. It wasn't summer, said someone in my mind.

What do I do, I cried - I must complete the Girivalam at any cost - I cannot afford to quit - my entire Kailash sankalpa depends on this, my crooked, stupid mind came up with a dumb reasoning - if I am able to complete this Girivalam successfully, I will not have any problems in doing the Kailash trip, it bemoaned. Oh, lord, what have you in store for me? Somehow managing to come out of the Kubera Lingam and it's wonderful shade, I dragged myself to the Esanya Lingam. Just keep walking, just keep walking became my chant - remember Dory of Finding Nemo? Just keep swimming, just keep walking - my mind was in chaos, trying desperately to distract itself but helplessly finding itself back on the road however much I tried. I can't, no I must, how can I, no you must, I will die, no you might just faint, can I sit and drag myself? The bum might not feel as much heat as the feet?

Oh, what a kaleidoscope of useless thoughts. Just keep walking, just keep walking, Arunachala! Arunachala, where are you one needs you?! Just keep, I can't. I just can't. Not anymore. By then, I must have been just some 700-800 metres short of the Esanya Lingam,the last of the shrines in the Girivalam path though of course one still needs to come to the main Arunachala temple to complete the Girivalam. I wasn't sure if my body gave up first or my mind. The next thing I know, an auto appears out of nowhere, my husband rushes me into it, and zoom, I seem to have been transported to the coolest place on Earth - I am inside the Esanya Lingam. Fully conscious yes but utterly dejected, beaten and disappointed immensely in myself. How could I have given up? What happened to my will power? Where was "I"? What was "I" thinking? How can "I" give up? "I" was strong, "I" could do it last time, "I" gave up this time. I sat down and closed my eyes in the pretext of prayer and I had no other go than to let it all go. I tried to control myself, conscious of the others around me but not to be. I sobbed, I cried, I beseeched. Why, why, why? Why couldn't "I"? Tears flowed uncontrolled as I went so deep inside myself in misery and desolation that I lost consciousness of my surroundings. A strange peace filled me - the calm that comes after the storm - all is over, give up the "I" - then "you" need no more feel desolate. "You" need no more feel disappointed. "You" need no more feel like a failure. Give up the "I" and surrender. Find the joy, find the happiness in dissolving the "I" and feel the inevitability of life.

That day, I got the closest to "I" ever was to God I think. Broken, I felt complete in him. Defeated, I felt victorious in hearing his voice. Lost, I found myself consoled. A lesson in surrender it was. Short lived but the memory offers me hope. I yearn for more and more of it. Arunachala has become my hope, to find myself, loose 'myself'.

Since then, many wonderful things have happened. My Kailash trip happened (and boy, was it the best thing that happened to me or what?). I also returned to Tiruvannamalai early this month to complete my 'after Kailash' parikrama, did the outer Girivalam (sans the egoistic confidence) and also got the fortune to do the inner Girivalam (oh, what a blessing that really was and what a miracle). While that day in Arunachala in July was one day of surrender and loosing myself, the entire Kailash parikrama was also 15 days full of surrender, loosing myself in the love of devotion, and floating in a sea of happiness. I am eternally grateful to whatever happened this year as I keep hoping to surrender the "I" completely.

Here, let me leave you with a few pictures of Arunachala (and its foothills) that I took from the inner Girivalam:

A beautiful plant enroute Tiruvannamalai that captured my heart

Inner Path - Girivalam

Rough, Thorny and Peaceful

Marks made by benevolent souls to guide the pilgrims on the Inner Path

The Nandi darshan from Inner Path

Beautiful, pure white shells littered on the Inner Path - I didn't want to touch it for some reason for a closer shot! Strange, the presence of these here. 

Some sort of worship site - though I couldn't find out whose

I think this must be the Kalyani (Pond) behind the Kaatu Shiva Temple

The marks on the Inner Path :)

The end of the Inner Path leads straight to Pachaiammal Temple - Oh, I felt so blessed chancing upon her

Beautiful Temple Courtyard and its Guardians at the Pachaiammal Temple

Note: Girivalam through the Inner Path is banned by the Forest Department and for good reason at that. We found so much litter and plastic spoiling the beautiful and serene landscape - the heart cried at the insensitivity and apathy of human beings - calling themselves pilgrims. God save them!

My once in a lifetime trip to Kailash!

I had the opportunity to visit Nepal (Muktinath) and Tibet (Mount Kailash) in August 2016 and it has been the best trip of my life so far.

At the foothills of Mount Kailash @ Dirapuk

Here's my experience through it all:

I hope I would be able to write more about how I planned the trip, how much it cost me, my itinerary, my packing list and so on and so forth - so that it may help someone who wants to undertake a similar trip. Till then, take a look at my blogs and shoot me an email to a drop of wisdom at g mail if you have any specific questions!