Friday, January 13, 2006

Chapter 3


I was now at that juncture where my road began to twist and turn treacherously. The only amazing fact was how my interest in art began to take over and act as a buffer to this inner turmoil and turbulence. I needed spiritual guidance, but I was miles away from
home. My religious paintings seemed to bring calmness and peace of mind, at least temporarily , until Swamigal came back into my life – or so, I thought.

One day in 1993, my husband decided to change the d├ęcor of our London flat. He had been complaining for some time now that our small flat had become too cluttered with my many bronze statues and paintings. So, we went from clutter to minimalism almost
overnight. . We had Laura Ashley floral designs and patterned wallpaper. My girls were delighted with the transformation and I didn’t mind particularly just as long as everyone was happy. Also, I reasoned to myself, true faith is only in the heart. The removal of all
vestiges of Hinduism and Indian art were only external. It could never affect or shake my belief in Goddess Bhuvaneswari. Instead, I had the carpenter create a small puja cupboard in a corner of the kitchen. In this small space I stuck a few pictures of deities and placed my bronze statue of Bhuvaneswari. My puja and prayers continued as always.Only, the paintings seemed to be put on hold.

However, for some unexplained reason the walls in our now, renovated flat remained unadorned from 1993 until 2002. This was not so by choice. We simply didn’t find an appropriate painting to buy as an investment- and there were other reasons too. My husband was very busy with his work and travel; the children were engrossed with studies, ballet and music lessons and none of us really had time to consider that the walls remained unadorned.

It was in the summer of 1993 that I met Swamigal again. I wanted my daughters to receive his blessings. At that time he was in Salem. A huge temple complex had been built during 1970’s on the top of a small hill near the village of Udayapatti in the Salem
district of Tamilnadu. The unique feature of this temple is that Lord Skanda faces the sanctum of his mother. Directly in front of the sanctum housing the statue of Skanda stands the magnificent 18 armed Goddess Ashtaa Dhasa Bhuja Mahalakshmi Durga Devi,
the slayer of the demon Mahisha.

In the courtyard surrounding the temple there are huge statues of the five-faced, Heramba Ganapathi, Anjaneya, Vishnu and Shiva. A feeling of utter peace and serenity engulfed me as soon as I set foot in this holy place. My mother and I performed Guru Pada puja for
the Swamigal as soon as we entered the temple. Later, we had a private audience with Swamigal in a small room on the temple premises. He seemed very weak and frail, that day, and appeared a lot older than I had imagined he would be. It was obvious he was
in pain of some sort—an abdominal condition, he explained with a slight smile.

At this time Swamigal was actively involved in planning and building another temple complex near Madras and spent some time chatting with my mother about the difficulties in financing the project. Then, he turned his attention to me and asked me if I had a
health problem as I had lost a lot of weight. I reassured him quickly and said that perhaps my body was just unable to handle the common stresses of life very well. I have never felt it appropriate to discuss personal problems or family issues with a Swamiji . I feel
one has to really sort out these issues at a personal level. I just needed his wisdom and blessings at this point. I also informed him that a mantra he had given me (through my mother), wasn’t really working well for me. Ignorant as I was then, I did not realise that I
was not a worthy recipient for the mantra, not the other way around

In fact, a curious incident happened while reciting this mantra and I narrated this to Swamigal. At that time in London, we were fortunate to have as our neighbours a lovely couple who lived in the flat upstairs. A Christian lady married to a Muslim. Over the years, we had got to know them well and they loved my children, spending a lot of time every day playing with them . One day, this lady knocked on our door in a panic. Her husband had been admitted in hospital and was in a critical condition. Apparently he had
collapsed suddenly and had been given just 48 hours. The couple’s only son, a doctor, had come down to be of comfort to her.

Distressed at the sight of her grief and seeing how she was so close to a state of nervous breakdown, I immediately rushed to my puja cupboard and gave her some vibhuti. “Apply this on his forehead”, I told her. Later, she informed me she had smeared it all over his body. I assured her in the meanwhile I would pray for his life. Although a Christian, this lady had been on a visit to Tirupathi, some years ago while on holiday, and she was aware I maintained a daily routine of prayer every morning. So, she seemed to take strength from my assurances.

During the next 48 hours I recited the mantra Swamigal had given me. However, my thoughts were entirely focused on my neighbour and I prayed he would live. I knew chances were slim as his condition needed a liver transplant and chances of survival, according to his son, were not very good. The next day, my doorbell rang at 1 a.m. My husband and I feared the worst. Imagine my surprise when I was greeted with a huge smile. That look of relief on my neighbour’s face said it all. She thanked me gratefully, convinced my prayers had helped. She attended church regularly and we were both on the same plane of understanding.

Swamigal listened to my story and then said quite abruptly “Get up and go that picture of my Guru”. I got up and walked towards the enormous picture of his guru “Judge Swamigal”that adorned almost the entire wall on this side of the room. Swamigal asked me to do sankalpam and then namaskaram in front of this picture depicting his Avadutha preceptors. Then, he asked me to sit directly in front of him. He said “I will give you a mantra now, but this is one that you have to chant in your mind. Keep the image of the Goddess Bhuvaneswari firmly in the space between your eyebrows, and then, mentally chant this mantra now, in front of me, with your eyes closed, sixteen times. Make sure that even your tongue doesn’t move during this mental chanting.” I did as I was asked. I closed my eyes and meditated on Goddess Bhuvaneswari and recited the small mantra sixteen times. At the end, I could feel a warm and pleasant sensation rather like a mild electric current pulsing through my entire body.

I opened my eyes and he smiled. We did our final namaskaram and while giving the kumkum and vibhuti prasadam, he said to me “Remember your sankalpam. Have full faith in Her at all times. “He repeated these words in English “full faith” several times,
emphasising them. “If you do this mantra with full faith and devotion thinking of no one else but her”, he continued, “then she will enter you and become one with you. There will be no difference between you two.” He said this and laughed loudly- not in a mocking tone- but the laugh seemed to tell me “This is such a simple truth and yet no one comprehends it”.

This was Vedanta in a nutshell. But at that period in my life, I was still coming to grips with “God” as a Saguna deity. “Nirgunam Brahman” seemed a long way away!
Instead, I listened to what he said and nodded my head dutifully. I wasn’t sure what he meant by this merging business! How could I , such a lowly, miserable creature assailed by so many negative qualities, ever be compared to the Goddess of incomparable virtue?

Later, reflecting on what he said, I thought if I did the meditation in the way that he instructed me, I would probably see a big glow in front of my eyes. This would then grow bigger and bigger and then totally engulf me. Maybe, I reassured myself, that is the process by which the goddess will enter me. How long would she stay inside me? Would this be a temporary or permanent phenomenon? I had heard stories of how the spirit of the goddess would enter some deities, particularly during temple functions. Somewhere, at the back of my mind there was a bit of real concern. I should guard against becoming totally mad.

I remember leaving Skandashramam that day feeling curiously rejuvenated. Before leaving, I requested Swamigal’s permission to take a photograph of him as well as the temple deities. I needed this for my puja cupboard back in London. I still have and cherish that photograph I took of him on that day. His eyes are gentle, and smiling and seem to say “Don’t worry about any upheavals in life. I’m here to help you”.

That visit was a very special experience for my eldest daughter as well. She was to sit secondary school entrance exams for a prestigious independent school later that year. Competition for entry into this particular school is always fierce and we hoped she
would be lucky.” Pray for me, mummy”, she said on the morning of that day long exam. I was hoping she would get an easy essay question in the English part. She did well, managing to secure a place and I felt relieved my prayers had been answered.

However, it was only a year later that she told me what she had written for the English essay portion of the exam. The title had been “Write about an unforgettable experience or journey in your life”. My daughter said “Mum, I didn’t mention this earlier in case you would worry- but I wrote about our trip to Salem and our meeting with that lovely, wise man”. In my heart I said a silent prayer to my Guru. He had helped her as well! Of this there can be no doubt. I made my daughter rewrite her essay and sent it over to him in India. She had titled it “The Shining beacon of hope”.

Over the next few years, I gradually increased the amount of time I spent every morning doing my prayers and meditation. This transformation took place gradually without any conscious or concerted effort on my part. I just felt happy sitting cross-legged on a
mat in front of my puja cupboard, every morning saying prayers such as Vishnu Sahasranama, Lalitha Sahasranamam, and so on.

Sometimes, I would play audio cassettes of prayers and slokas and listen to them with my eyes closed, deep in meditation. At first, my mind refused to stay calm and thoughts would flash by almost continuously. Slowly, the occurrence of these random thoughts
slowed down and over the course of the next three years, I was able to sit down, close my eyes and think of my Guru and then the Goddess Bhuvaneswari in quick succession. Moreover, I found that I was able to hold on to these images for a progressively longer
period of time.

Very often, I would experience a total, unreal, darkness that I could see in my mind and then the unfolding of a rosy, red, many petalled lotus. This flower started off as a small shiny dot right in front of my eyebrows and then became more distinct as it opened out its
myriads of petals that seemed to dance and move in waves right in front of my eyes.

It was only with great reluctance I would come out of my meditation because I was aware of the pressing need to do house work and take care of the running of the household. My prayers and meditation only took place while the children were off at school and my husband away at work. None of them realised quite the amount of time I spent on cultivating my spiritual side. In fact, very often I had precious little time left after my daily prayers in which I had to cram all the housework and laundry - and then produce tea – and later, dinner for the children when they came home in the afternoon.

Three years went by in this manner. I found that my prayers were giving me a great deal of mental strength and peace of mind and I found myself reciting my Guru’s mantra almost automatically while taking a long walk, cooking or even grocery shopping. In fact, any mundane activity my mind was engaged in that didn’t require particular concentration was the ideal time for the mantra to seep in almost unnoticed. There was also another change taking place at this time to which I didn’t give much thought. My prayers, or so it seemed to me at that time, were making me very dependant on God, as a separate deity who had the power to make wishes come true and without whose blessings and divine grace I could not really function.

My prayers were some kind of a lifeline thrown to me to grab on to especially during times of mental stress. At this time, I spent a lot of time researching, especially on the internet, for the most powerful slokas one could recite for various specific deities. For example, there was this Kavacham( a type prayer form meant for protection of devotees) in praise of Lord Skanda that I became hooked on to. There was Aditya Hridayam( in praise of the Sun Lord), Lakshmi Stotrams ( for the Goddess of Wealth)—the list was endless. Then there were kavachams for Lord Vinayaka and Murugan and Guru composed by Swamigal himself, that I would recite or listen to sung melodiously on the audio cassettes. Very often I would fill my time during the day and the silence of the empty flat with just prayers - hymns from the Vedas were particularly soothing. When I sat down in front of my small puja place and looked at the photos of the various deities, there were not just inanimate figures. Instead, it seemed to me they were actually flesh and blood individuals, listening with great compassion to me and very often I did just that - talk to them like they were my mother, father brothers or sisters. I didn’t feel I had become God – crazy. This feeling of total supplication and familiarity came quite naturally because of the attitude of Bhakthi. I’m sure many a devotee has gone through this stage.

In fact, very often I would be angry with my Gods if things didn’t really go according to my miserable plans or wishes. I would rail and rant for sometime, realising even as I was doing this, the futility of this action.
So, in a sense, although I was firmly established on the Bhakti aspect of the spiritual path, I was not progressing terribly well as I was just transferring dependence on the Guru to dependence on various deities.

In 1996, I returned home during the summer to attend my nephew’s wedding. Although I had been coming home for a brief holiday during previous years as well, I hadn’t really met Swamigal again. This year was different. He was staying in Madras for a few days,
that particular summer at a devotee’s home. My mother accompanied me when we visited him. I found him extremely pre- occupied on this occasion. He had these huge architect’s plans in front of him - plans of the proposed construction of the huge temple complex near Tambaram. It was to be called Skandashramam.

He explained to my mother how he had managed to receive generous contributions from several wealthy business people to make his dream come true. At this point he expanded a bit more on the nature of the deities he meant to install at this temple. One deity, an incarnation of Lord Shiva would be represented as half lion and half bird. Two other deities representing Goddess durga or Kali were to be seen riding on lions and carrying terrible weapons of destruction in their hands. I still remember Swamigal laughing and telling us that this was the image in which Bhuvaneswari herself wanted to be worshipped at this temple. He had been blessed with these visions in his dreams. We sat and listened to the Swamigal. In particular, it struck me as very odd that he would want to build yet another temple complex and spend so much money on its construction. Surely, I thought, he has already established two big Ashrams and is doing a lot to promote the recitations of Vedas and Homams. Isn’t this enough? I came away from that meeting feeling a bit disappointed. I couldn’t understand the justification of spending a massive amount of money on a building to house some more deities, particularly in such an impoverished country like ours.. For some reason, unknown to me at that time, my faith in my Guru was being tested. I didn’t realise this at the time.

The period that followed immediately, is in my opinion, one of doubt and reasoning. Somehow, I had the feeling I was adrift in this mire of prayers and chantings and began to question my sanity and the very purpose of time spent on puja. It was clear that my japa and prayers gave me peace of mind, but they didn’t leave me satisfied in my spiritual pursuit.

I was losing the larger picture of the world around me by concentrating solely on a selective portion of it. I decided to do some more research into the actual philosophy of
the Hindu religion, rather than just accepting prayers as the only route to achieve peace of mind. Although I didn’t give up my prayers altogether, I simply shortened the amount of time I spent on them. For example, I would do just half an hour of prayers and meditation
in the morning. The remainder of my disposable time was filled with Vedantic Teachings.

I must mention here that my mother had been, over a number of years, attending a lot of lectures on various Upanishads given by a disciple of Dayananda Swamiji in Madras.
His name was Paramarthananda, and his lectures had become very popular and indeed fashionable in the city! I remember attending a few of Swamiji’s talks much earlier , about 6 or 7 years ago. Somehow, sitting and listening to Paramartha expounding on the three different states of conciousness went right over my head. The steady drone of his voice on that warm day was even soporific! I was obviously not ready to receive his wisdom at that point in my life. However, now, I had this curious feeling of incompleteness by persevering solely with my usual prayer routine. The desire to learn more about the actual philosophy and esoteric significance of these prayers was indeed paramount in my mind. Luckily, help was at hand.

My mother was more than happy to provide me with a large number of audio cassettes on various Upanishads and sacred texts. I started off with a primer called Tattva Bodha and progressed slowly through a few of the Upanishads such as Kathopanishad,
Isavasya, Kaivalyam, Mundaka and so on.

Swami Paramartha’s talks immediately appealed to me. His very lucid and sometimes
humourous style made difficult vedantic concepts terribly easy to comprehend. I spent hours and hours every day listening to him. It seemed to me that Swami’s voice, expounding truths that were as old as time , and yet so appropriate and relevant to our lives in the present, gave me renewed strength and vigour to carry on with my journey.

So, another chapter in my spiritual journey had started, even without my realisation.
I listened to about 200 audio cassettes expounding the greatness of Bhagavad gita. I must have gone over the entire series over and over again nearly three or four times. Every time, I would learn something new, understand better a concept or idea that I had
missed earlier. In fact, from the period 1996 up until 2001, I was listening non stop to any and every one of the cassettes that discussed Vedanta in detail. Even at this time, I did not realise that it was only Shri Santhananda’s unseen hand guiding me in this
direction. Instead, I felt, I was just lucky to have access to Vedanta just at the most appropriate juncture in my journey.

During a short visit home in the summer of 2001 I did have the opportunity of meeting Swami Paramartha. I thanked him sincerely for all the support he was giving me through the medium of his lectures. I mentioned to him then about the conflict in my mind, the
difficulty of approaching nirgunam Brahman, while still in samsara. He reassured me it was eminently possible and one should just persevere in this path, while at the same time doing one’s duty to the children and family. He gave me his blessing and for my part I
was extremely happy to receive it from a person so wise and learned. However, there was still a conflict in my mind. I was questioning various external paraphernalia of bhakthi and its manifestations.

It was during this intense period of reasoning and self- enquiry that I started to paint again. It soon developed into a time consuming hobby. I was only interested in drawing religious figures. So, the natural place to start was Vigneswara. At this time, I was drawing the deity’s image on ordinary sketching paper using a pencil. Without conscious volition, I always seemed to start these figures by first drawing the mandapam and Aasanam and then the image of the particular deity, starting from the crown adorning the head.

In the case of Pillayar, I had started off rather ambitiously, trying to portray him with ten hands. As usual, I started my drawing by praying sincerely to Lord Vigneswara and recited the kavacham written by Shri Santhananda Swamigal. This is an established routine even now. Later, I would continue to work on my chosen picture, listening to my Vedanta tapes. Sometimes, I would listen to bhajans or prayers . However, my mind was always concentrating on the deity whose image I was drawing. I could not allow my attention to waver even for a second, because if it did, I found I could not draw effectively. Essentially, this whole process served to discipline my mind, to
first, concentrate, second, cleanse itself by listening to prayers and Vedanta, and finally, it allowed me to emerge from the experience by constantly being aware of my actions.

I was becoming more critical of my thoughts and actions and continuously assessing my
conduct and behaviour . What is the purpose of reading Bhagavad Gita or listening to Swamiji’s Vedanta, I thought, if I cannot do proper nidhidhyasanam or assimilation?

He said so often - “To be happy you don’t need anyone else except you yourself”.

How simple, yet so true. The great truths of Paraa Vidya and the Mahavakyams, are also extremely simple once you understand them.

One has to see Brahman in every inanimate and animate object, in nature, animals and human beings—in this universe. Love ,understanding and a genuine sense of forgiveness towards people who might hurt you are all great virtues. We have heard about
their importance since childhood and by attending classes on moral/religious studies in schools. Yet, how often do we put them into practice? I found from personal experience that one should consciously want to modify their behaviour before any results can be noticed.

In our ancient land there have been so many religious seers and guides. All of them have more or less worked towards the same goal; that is, helping people to go through life’s many challenges and acquire not just mental peace but also self-awareness. This is
and can be the only way forward for hordes of us still stuck to the Saguna way of worship. The shift from a very self-centred and selfish vision to seeing divinity in literally everything in the universe is what all these wise people preached.

All this is so simple for a person who is reasonably intelligent to understand. Yet, why do people wound each other unnecessarily?
Why do nations fight unnecessary wars and why are some people so evil? Prarabhdha and previous karma do go a long in helping us to understand why some people are criminals and why some others have a more sattvic nature. The three Gunas are indeed
mixed up in various proportions among people and we just have to accept it and move on.

This doesn’t translate as condoning a criminal or letting a thief or convict go unpunished. Dharma or righteous conduct should always be upheld and this is not the issue I’m discussing here. Instead, I am talking about getting onto that path of self awareness and self analysis that continually forces you to be more aware of your own shortcomings instead of just focusing on the apparent negative qualities of other individuals.

Progress can only be made when real understanding of human behaviour substitutes fault- finding. As I said earlier this fault-finding business makes you exhaust yourself by going round and round in a circle. Wrong doers never accept their faults. Instead they justify their own actions and find fault with you – and so on endlessly.

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