Sunday, January 22, 2006

Chapter 4


My painting of Lord Vigneswara was completed. I moved on to another deity. At this time I used to recite Lalitha Sahasranama( thousand holy names of the Goddess) every day and I wanted to focus on Shakthi in various forms. I began a drawing of Durga. Again, I started these drawings by offering prayers to Pillayar, Guru and then the specific deity in question . Shri Santhanada Swamigal had composed a kavacham on Durga.

I made a habit of listening to this along with my other prayers. I continued to listen to Swami Paramarthanada’s pearls of wisdom as well. In this manner, I managed to finish sketches of Bhuvaneswari, and Kamakshi Amman. Later, I did a few sketches of Lord
Muruga, Shiva and Vishnu. These pencil sketches were embellished with black ink, so they would look more effective. I shall call these my first set of gross paintings. There were three sets of these black and white paintings in total, always dealing with the
same set of deities.

The reason for this classification is rather curious. I carried on for nearly three years with this type of art work. It was always a portrayal of Devi in many forms, followed sometimes by Vishnu and Murugan. When I had completed my very first set of paintings, I gave a few away to family members hoping they would bring the recipients good luck. However, as I had not maintained copies, I set out to draw some of these images all over again. This second set, it seemed to me, turned out slightly better than my first attempt. I remember that my portrayal of Durga in the first set had been a little crude and the face lacked a serene and calm countenance. In the second set of Devi paintings, the eyes were more lively and benevolent and this seemed to transform the
image from just a crude drawing on paper to one which seemed to have more life!

Again, I remember giving away a few of these pictures, but this time I managed to retain photocopies of the original. During the evolution of these drawings, I continued with both prayers and philosophical lectures side by side. Although this was a period in my
life when there were a lot of turbulences, I felt that I could handle them without depending or leaning on other people for help. I was still relying on God as the last resort, for any unexpected curves life could toss at me. This was still, very much a major dependence and, despite all the lectures of Paramartha, one more hurdle I could not jump over just yet.

As if to reflect this inner uncertainty of mind, my art work took on a different nature as well. After the completion of the second set of God paintings, I began to explore an alternative medium of painting. At that time my eldest daughter wanted me to come up with some ideas of craft objects to sell at her school’s Christmas fair. So, I put aside my God paintings for a while and came up with the idea of creating photo frames using glass paints. I made quite a number of these photo frames in different sizes decorated in
an array of dazzling floral patterns. These proved to be quite popular and from there I moved on to creating a few floral wall hangings using the same floral motifs. In fact, my children insisted I should hang a few of these on the bare walls of our flat.

Although I did as they suggested, I felt a small voice inside me protesting- “ Put up some pictures of Gods, instead”. I considered this for a moment and then let it go. My children’s desires were more important. Curiously enough, these floral paintings did not
rest on the walls too long. I simply gave them away to a family member who happened to admire them. Even at this time I did not realise the significance of “that little voice”.

I think the true awakening of my inner consciousness, in the light of restrospection, occurred when I was involved in drawing the third set of paintings. After my episode of dabbling with different types of glass paints and floral patterns, I somehow got the urge to draw another set of Devi paintings. My intention at this point was merely a technical one - I wanted to improve my drawing skills.

Somehow, as always, my art had to reflect the on going process of self inquiry and self cleansing as well. Thus, I began the third and final set of Devi paintings. I worked on a series of five images over a period of a couple of months in the first quarter of 2002.I
had by now exhausted all the audio cassettes on Vedanta my mother had periodically sent me so far, and had already listened to the Upanishads several times.

In fact, I knew exactly what Paramartha would say next at any pause, or the particular joke he would make so we could understand a concept easily! I returned to my prayers and paintings. And subconsciously, I returned to my dependence on Swamigal. My mother would meet him quite often and he would always inquire how I was. For my part I would always ask my mother to seek his blessings on my behalf. So, it continued—with art reflecting my spiritual soul searching.

It was also during this period that I started having my visions. One day in the autumn of 2001, I had a very strange dream. I was at Tirupathi witnessing the splendour of the Lord as prayers were said and flowers were being offered.

I can recall this dream very vividly, because I could even smell the fragrance of incense and camphor that swirled about me. The priests were chanting Vishnu Sahasranama and my mouth was moving in unison reciting these thousand holy names of that supreme Lord.

The Lord, bedecked in garlands of many hued flowers, seemed to stay in my dream for a long time - as if he was giving me a private audience. I woke up in a daze. It was early in the morning on a Friday. Looking back now, almost all such dreams have occurred
early in the morning of a Friday, many, on full moon days.

Prior to this incident, I had always slept quite soundly, and except for some fanciful and rather illogical dreams, my dreaming state had been very ordinary- not unlike that of any other average person. I must however admit that during the summer of 2001, I visited
Tirupathi temple along with my sister. Somehow the darshan we received that day was not very fulfilling to me. First of all, we had to
stand in the dharma darshan queue for what seemed like ages, and when we reached the main sanctum, we were told that no particular puja was going on just then. We could only get a very distant glimpse of the sacred idol. I have had better darshans
before, and although I was happy to see the Lord, albeit from a distance, in my opinion, it was only second best.

Later, we descended the sacred hills and made our way to Tiruchaanur to visit the Alamelu Thaayar temple. Here, we found we did not get a glimpse of the main deity
at all as there was a massive crowd. There was a puja being conducted outside using the Utsava Murthi. I barely managed to get a sight of the Devi here because even as we hurried to get a view, the priests pulled a curtain in front of the idol. On the whole, I felt
very sad and, in a way, let down by my gods. “I only came to see you and seek your blessings- why didn’t you grant me even that simple pleasure? Haven’t I been praying to you all these years, with single-minded concentration? Is this how you reward me?” All
these questions were running through my mind. Anyway, nothing more could be done and my sister and I returned home.

Back in London after that summer visit, I had this beautiful vision of the Lord. I remember excitedly calling my mother on the phone and telling her all about it. I continued all my prayers with renewed vigour. Things were fairly normal for a while until the next curious dream incident.

This occurred later that year. This dream was very unusual because I felt as if I had already died. At least, my physical body was no longer relevant. Instead, I felt as if I was being pulled upwards by a very powerful magnet. This is indeed the exact sensation I felt at the time (funnily enough, corroborated by a visiting Swamiji over a year later). I felt propelled upwards into this huge glowing and shining globe of light, and felt myself leaving the body from right at the top centre of my head.

There are very few such incidents that I can now recall with accuracy. This was one of them and the very force of that pull was the lasting impression I had of this dream. I told my mother about this as well. She thought that since I did a lot of prayers it might not be too surprising to get such a dream. However, only I knew that despite what anyone might say or comment, these were not your ordinary dreams reflecting the subconscious wishes or desires. I can honestly assure you that at no time had I wished to leave this body
voluntarily or otherwise!

It was only after these powerful dreams that I renewed my paintings of Devi. Over a few months in the early part of 2002 I managed to draw five of them—Durga, Bhuvaneswari, Mahalakshmi, RajaRajeswari and Maangaadu Kamakshi Amman.

At this time, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life and my main intention in drawing these figures was not only to gain mental strength, but also to appeal to Devi, whom I considered to be a Mother, as a last resort to help me and my family. This third set of paintings was more beautiful in my opinion than the previous attempts. The faces of my Devis appeared truly serene and calm.

However, over the next few months, the problems I encountered seem to only grow in size and my patience was to be sorely tested.

In a very radical move, I decided to completely stop all my prayers. I was not disheartened that my prayers had yielded no fruits - because at no point had I set up a bargain with God.

I just decided to stop the prayers and concentrate on Vedanta instead.

Listening to thought provoking lectures replaced meditation and japa. I returned to Paramartha’s tapes. Unconsciously, my mind was firmly established in bridging that gap between dvaita and advaita. I was now more concerned with every minute detail of how
I interacted with the world around me in an effort to overcome my negative qualities. This period of introspection had been going on for quite some time, but seemed to have somehow now gained momentum.

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 décor 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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

In what follows, I have attempted to narrate my spiritual journey from childhood. You may, of course, interpret it in any manner suitable to you depending on the exact position you are at in this quest for eternal liberation.

As far back as I can remember, religion has always played a major role in my life.

During my childhood, major festivals and pujas were always celebrated with great care, and elaborate rituals were performed in strict accordance to the methods prescribed in the shastras. Being the youngest of a rather large, extended family, these religious days
were immensely enjoyable for me. First of all, I could dress up in a pattu pavadai and adorn myself with shiny bangles and chains.
Secondly, a lot of relatives would turn up and I could play with my cousins. Finally, there would invariably be a large feast and I could eat lots of sweets.

I must have been about three years old when I had my first introduction to my Guru. His name was Shri Santhananda Swamigal of Pudukkotai, but we called him just “Swamigal” as if to imply there could be no other resident Guru for our household.

My first meeting with him stands out in my memory for two reasons. The first was his rather daunting physical appearance. As for the second, I was taught my first proper prayer.

Here was a man with the most alarming and ferocious-looking hair. This hair was brown, matted and long - very long. It touched the ground and made a soft swishing noise as it skimmed the edges of the ochre robe he wore. I remember staring transfixed at the
sight of Swamigal doing his morning japa on the roof terrace of our family home. At that point, he was staying for a few days at our house. A big homam was being done to propitiate the nine sacred planets and over the next few days, verses from the Ramayana
were chanted. As children, we were given strict orders by our parents not to be seen or heard from, unless we were summoned by my father to receive Swamiji’s blessings. We were also expected to observe a strict fast and could eat only once in the day, that too,
in the late evening after the Brahmins had been fed.

My aunt was taking care of me then, as my mother was industriously attending to the details of this homam. She was in charge of giving my siblings and me a little drink of milk at frequent intervals to keep us going through the day until supper time.

On one of these days, while smoke from the Homam slowly filtered through the house from the roof- terrace, where it was being performed, my aunt took me downstairs, perhaps with the intention of preventing me from becoming too bored and a nuisance to others. I, after all, was only three years old at that time. So, we carefully made our way downstairs, perhaps with the notion of going outside into the garden. However, we suddenly came upon Swamigal sitting all alone on the sofa in a rather airless front hall.

My aunt remembers switching on the fan and asking me to do my namaskaram to him. Swamigal smiled and very gently asked me to come towards him. He asked me if I knew any slokas, to which I replied that I did not.

So began my first introduction to prayer. Sitting cross-legged in front of this benevolent man I was taught a very small sloka in praise of the goddess Bhuvaneswari. I had to recite it several times and, when Swamigal was confident I would never forget it, I was allowed to leave. My Aunt feels that he had mentally accepted me as his disciple at that very moment.

In later years I came to understand that my Guru’s visit to the house had indeed been a momentous one. A huge portrait of Goddess Bhuvaneswari had been properly established in the small puja room right at the top of our house. From then onwards daily homams
and pooja to the deity were performed and over the years, quite literally, this small space became sanctified. It still remains, in my mind, a shrine to both my Guru and his Goddess and here, his physical presence is very tangible.

Shri Santhananda Swamigal, as I have mentioned, is the third in the line of Avadutha Saints. The word Avaduth literally means “clad in space”. Although our Swamigal wore a simple ochre robe, his preceptors wandered about without clothes and put their bodies
through rigorous penances and tribulations in order to achieve the highest degree of mastery over senses.

Born in 1920 as the tenth child to his parents, Subramaniam as he was then called was clearly destined for a spiritual life. Until he attained Samadhi in 2002, Swamigal promoted and extended Saktha worship or the worship of Devi as Goddess Bhuvaneswari. During his early years Swamigal performed severe penances and Tapas in the Himalayas and wandered extensively in North India before he was initiated
into this holy order of Avaduthas. It was in the early sixties that he installed a massive Bhuvaneswari idol in the temple at Pudukkottai. After this, various other temple complexes were built in later years, including a massive hill top temple at Skandashramam in Salem in early 1970’s and in his final years, yet another temple housing rare and less well-known deities from the shastras, at Skandashramsam in Tambaram. He had the vision - and Goddess Bhuvaneswari made sure that sufficient financial contributions poured in to make it a reality!

I remember vividly a visit to the Bhuvaneswari temple in Pudukkottai in the early sixties, when Swamigal performed a huge yajna. Our entire family attended this function. My father had contributed financially towards this yajna, as was quite customary in those days. The concept of sharing wealth and making charitable donations is one I literally grew up with. My father was at that time a relatively prosperous businessman and if there is one major attribute he possessed in addition to mental acumen, it was generosity. Money never rested easily with him!

Three days were spent entirely at the yagna sala. This involved sitting in one spot and watching priests chanting mantras and offering oblations into the fire. This was quite a difficult feat for a fidgety ten year old! The only way to keep boredom at bay and to prevent myself from nodding off to sleep was to recite these mantras, and so this is precisely what I did - so many times and so incessantly that the four lines of the mantra (taken from the Devi Mahatmyam), still run like an endless refrain in my mind whenever I relax or go for a long walk.

Back at home, the routine of morning prayers and going up to the “Mel Maadi”,
( Upstairs room), as the puja room was called, became firmly
established in my childhood days, particularly on exam days!

My mother was a tremendous devotee and a major influence in my spiritual evolution. She used to rise very early each morning, literally at the crack of dawn - “Brahma Muhurta”- to go upstairs and recite the 700 verses of the Devi Mahatmyam. Despite the fact that she is now over eighty years old, she still does!

She was, and still is a stubborn woman who would insist on fasting several days a week and literally starve herself during the nine days of navarathri—all for the benefit of my father. In fact, I don’t ever recall her sitting down for a meal along with the family at the dining table. I can only remember her serving to the needs of my Dad and being continually worried about his health. My father was a very busy man. However, he would always begin his working day by spending some time in quiet contemplation of the Goddess Bhuvaneswari. In later years, his heart condition meant he couldn’t climb the stairs to the puja room at the top of the house. Instead, a black and white photograph of the deity that Swamigal had personally installed upstairs was placed in a downstairs puja room near the kitchen. Here, he prayed every morning.

These happy childhood days ended rather abruptly at 8.20 a.m., February 14th, 1968- the day my father died. I was fourteen then. The years that followed are a bit blurred in my memory, perhaps intentionally so. All I can say is that the carefree and secure feeling of
childhood was totally and irrevocably lost.

Afterwards, my mother threw herself into both social service and religion with great vigour. She realised she had to be mentally strong if she had to help her children; she derived this strength from her Guru and her unwavering faith in him. I myself met the Swamigal a few times after my father’s demise, including right after the event. He blessed me and my siblings, mentioning that the day my father left us was a very holy one called Maha Magham. He remarked that our Dad would have been lucky and his atma would certainly merged with God, because at the very moment he died, thousands of people would have been taking a dip in the holy Ganges.

These kind words didn’t serve to console any of us; yet, in my heart I always knew my Father had reached Maatha Bhuvaneswari. In fact, on that terrible day he died I remember rushing up to the “Mel Maadi” puja room, and, while a chorus of wails and sobs racked the whole house downstairs, I entered this empty room and asked Bhuvaneswari to take care of his soul. And indeed, she had already accepted him – for, at the very time of his death, my aunt and uncle were visiting the Bhuvaneswari temple at Pudukkottai and the first Archanai was in my father’s name - almost at the very minute he passed on. I heard about this only recently from my aunt who
possesses an extremely good memory. Even now, 35 years after his death, it still comforts me to know that my prayers for him, said on that day, were not in vain.

As a college student, time flew by very quickly. Although frequently busy with my studies and generally enjoying myself in the company of friends, I never lost sight of the importance of spiritual nourishment.

One particular friend of mine – regarded by others in our group as slightly peculiar - was always interested in philosophy and scriptures, attending a lot of lectures given at the Chinmaya mission in Madras. I found that we did have a lot in common after all, and was slowly drawn into discussions of the teachings of great souls like Ramana Maharshi and Swami Vivekananda. We used to read poems by Rabindranath Tagore and discuss his love of nature and perception of oneness with the Supreme Being. I also remember attending lectures given by various Swamijis expounding the art of meditation. One incident stands out in my memory: my friend insisted she heard divine music when she was meditating on “nothingness”or “Soonyam”. This was directly after an uplifting lecture by a visiting Swamiji. Intrigued, I went to my room, switched off the lights and tried to blank out my thoughts, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Except for a terrible cramp, I did not see any dazzling lights or hear celestial music. I must admit I was quite annoyed with myself. I decided that perhaps I was not spiritual enough. At that time, Swamigal had come to stay for a few days at our house. These occasions were quite rare in our household, especially after my father died.

In the very early days when Swamigal visited us, my parents would perform pada puja and my mother used to give him bhiksha. This was a truly unforgettable sight. I can still see Shri Santhananda Swamigal receiving three handfuls of food vividly in my mind’s eye.
Rice mixed with Sambar and Yogurt was usually given. It was truly amazing to see the Guru accept the food in the cupped palm of one hand and eat it so meticulously with the other hand. Not a single grain of rice fell to the ground. Regrettably, these visits became
fewer over the succeeding years.

So, during this period - perhaps his last stay at our house - I was able to talk to him on one day. It was late in the evening and the endless streams of visitors who had flocked to see him earlier had abated for a while. Sitting in front of him, I asked him about this
problem I had experienced. Why was I not able to concentrate on “Soonyam”? I had been told this was the only way to learn the art of meditation. Swamigal laughed loudly and said that it was not surprising I had this problem: “ How can you meditate on nothingness?
Think of Ambal and concentrate on her instead. Someone has advised you wrongly.” I was genuinely relieved to hear this as I didn’t want to give up the image of Bhuvaneswari that would automatically come to my mind (and still does), whenever I close my eyes to do dhyanam.

The next time I met the Swamigal was several years later, in the early Seventies. My mother was worried that she couldn’t find a suitable match for me to get married and wished me to have his blessings He was staying at the house of one of his numerous
devotees at the time . Swamigal gave me a mantra- not directly, but through another priest - and asked me to recite it about one or two lakh times. I realised how important my marriage was to my mother and for her sake, I approached this mantra in a very
methodical manner and managed to recite it the prescribed number of times. It wasn’t very surprising then that during this period my marriage was arranged and soon afterwards I left the country. The year was 1975. I wasn’t destined to meet the Swamigal again until 1993. However, his guidance continued. That is to say, he was there for me when and if I needed him.

My husband and I were living in New York and my mother visited us in 1976. Swamigal had sent me a small bronze statue of Bhuvaneswari to worship. I put her into a small hallway closet in our tiny flat , adorned her with a silk skirt and some jewels and
prayed to her everyday. I was studying at University then, and was desperately hoping to get a job when my degree course ended.

One day, in the summer of 1978, when I was still job hunting, I felt very strongly in my mind that I should paint a picture of Goddess Bhuvaneswari. That was my very first attempt at drawing a religious deity. I had dabbled in art before, and had done some abstract oil paintings earlier just as a hobby. Slowly this new image took shape. I soon found I could draw better when my mind was totally engrossed in the deity. I began the practice of listening to audio cassettes. To the background music of prayers, bhajans and kirtanas on the Devi, I finally finished my painting one Friday. It is a very simple and stark black and white etching of the Goddess. A few days later, I got my first job.

Working life was hectic and my artistic ambitions were temporarily put on hold. Nevertheless, my routine of morning prayers continued. The commute from our home to Manhattan was about an hour everyday and this time was ideal for me to listen to bhajans
and prayers while travelling on the bus or train. Working life however ended when the children came into our lives; we moved to London shortly after the birth of my eldest daughter in 1984. Life as a young parent was chaotic. However, I did find time to do a few more sketches of various deities, particularly Shiva and Anjaneya. Nonetheless, my very first portrait of “Amman” still took pride of the place in the living room. She was enthroned above the mantelpiece and to me it seemed that she was looking over all our family, protecting us.

The décor in our cramped London flat, especially in the early years was typically Indian. My “God” paintings meant a lot to me - not from an artistic perspective but from the sense of spiritual enjoyment they exuded. I have always felt that what I might have lacked from good family relationships and material wealth were more than made up for by the slow evolution of my spiritual side. In fact, this latter development took place only because of the trials of samsara. No one goes through life without a few hiccups- some may be small and manageable, others may be huge setbacks to health, wealth, or personal relationships. How prepared we are to face these demons that rise out of samsara really depends on the state of our preparedness, or mental strength.

I have found from personal experience that mental strength is only acquired in proportion to the battles we face in life. For example, the ability to endure harsh words and untruthfulness cannot materialise automatically. In fact the more sensitive a person is, the more these cruel deeds and actions of disrespect from gross individuals seem to hurt. The solution isn’t to become less sensitive and develop a tough hide so these barbs will not hurt. Very often we find that the most kind-hearted souls are actually the people
who are the most sensitive . Unless one is sensitive to the feelings of others, how would one realise why or how they are upsetting them? On the other hand, a sensitive person who is either deliberately misunderstood or wounded with harsh words may or may not
choose to react. That again, depends on his or her level of mental preparedness. It is this building up of mental preparedness I’m talking about. It is distinctly analogous to a country spending money on defence so it can be properly equipped in the event of a
conflict. This cannot be done overnight. Soldiers have to be trained and the weapons arsenal has to be built up only over time.
Similarly, we have to undergo strenuous training in order to discipline our own mind and acquire “weapons” such as sense control, mind control, and virtues such as viveka(discrimination), vairagya( dispassion), fortitude, and tolerance. The acquisition of these virtues and indeed the polishing of an individual happens only over time. In Fact, the more tumbles and disappointments we experience in life, the wiser we get, assuming that we learn from them.

We have the luxury of this one life where we are continually travelling non stop from birth until inevitable death. The earlier we prepare ourselves to fight battles in life, the better off we are - and happier too. By fighting life’s battles I do not mean here that one has to engage in a battle of words, or actions with whomsoever you perceive to be the wrong doers. That fails to work because the individuals who hurt you would never accept their fault. They are too insensitive and therefore incapable of seeing their errors.
Instead, these gross individuals are actually clever in the way they justify their deeds or unjust actions. Confronting them about their wrong doings simply does not work because it will be never accepted as such by these people who have no conscience. Instead our
peace of mind can only be preserved by gaining the spiritual maturity to see the overall picture - that is when we can develop the ability to completely disassociate the inner self from all these distressing situations. Only then can there be no reaction to any
adverse situation. You have to develop a good shock- absorber for life!