Monday, February 13, 2006

Chapter 6


The month of June passed by and I was improving very slowly. I had to attend a lot of physiotherapy sessions and these along with exercises made me a bit more mobile now. The months of June and July were typically busy months for my children as they had their exams. So, I did my best to keep things going smoothly at home and tried not to allow them to worry about my state of health.

We had not made any plans for the summer holidays. Initially, I did intend to make a trip home, particularly to meet Swamigal, but since he was gone, there did not seem much point in this trip. Also, the doctor had advised me not to undertake any long trips to avoid putting a strain on the back. I could not sit for long periods, and this also meant I could not carry on with that unfinished painting.

I was quite unhappy about the turn of events, but nothing much could be done. Then one day, a rather surprising piece of news came my way. I received a phone call from my sister-in-law . She had called to merely inquire about my health. During the course of this conversation I casually mentioned the vision I had about Balambikka a couple of months ago.

I remember saying this in the context that I was very unsure what was going on. First, I have been experiencing many strange dreams and now, my beloved Swamigal was no more. He, whom could I ask for guidance, especially when I was under so much physical as well as mental strain. These were some of the issues I discussed with my sister-in-law. She is an extremely pious soul and unlike some other family members who did think I was quite mad, seemed to be interested in the details of my dream, particularly the exact date on which I got this vision of Balaambika.

I told her it was the full moon day, in April 2002, towards the end of the month. We then discussed the possibility of my coming home for the summer and perhaps visiting a temple or two as a pilgrimage, and then ended our conversation.

It must have been a few hours later when she called me back. Apparently, on the very day I had this vision of the Goddess in the unidentified temple, my brother’s family
had visited a temple in the district of Trichy.

This was no ordinary temple visit. At that time, my sister-in-law had been doing some research on the Kula Deivam or, guardian deity for the family. Over the course of a few months, using historical data that tracked down exactly where our fore-fathers lived, she had narrowed the search to a few temples in the region of Trichy. She obviously considered it important to propitiate the deity that had been worshipped by our ancestors.

Finally, a temple had been selected in a village called Thiruvasi , where my father’s grandfather had once lived. It was widely believed he worshipped the deity in this temple. The temple priests then conducted a “Prasna” – i.e. a ritual for authenticating this information. It came to light at that point that this temple could be viewed as valid as housing the Kula Deivam, if some member of the household had a vision or premonition.

Now, my brother and his wife had taken a clutch of family members along with them on the trip. These members were individually asked about any visions or dreams they might have experienced prior to embarking on this journey. Although all members of my family are indeed deeply religious, no one had, on this particular occasion, experienced any thing special. In any event, some homams and pujas were performed at this temple and the party left.
This event had taken place on the very day I had the vision of my personal Goddess, whom I called out to as “Baalaambikkai”. My sister-in-law told me that the
presiding deity of that very ancient temple in Thiruvasi was also called Bala!

I remember being totally stunned by this piece of information. To this day, I can’t get over the extraordinary coincidence, indeed, a play of Devi - who appeared to me in such a vivid manner, here in London, thousands of miles away, from Thiruvasi, where my family had gathered together in their quest for the Kula Deivam.

What about the significance of the outstretched hands and the fact they looked like
they belonged to an old woman, not a young girl (Bala)? My sister-in-law explained this curious fact as well. The idol in the sanctum has two hands- the right hand is raised in the usual, protective, abhaya varadha, gesture, but there is something unique about the left hand. This resembles the gnarled hand of an old woman. The left palm is partially open and points downwards, in the boon- giving or “Varadha hastam” pose. However, the fist is loosely clenched by misshapen fingers . (The Sanskrit term for this Mudra or hand gesture is called “Kataka” or ‘Kartaka” Hastam and derives from the term “crab”).

To say, I was stunned is an understatement. I can’t get over this miracle, even now, as I am writing this and I don’t think, in my lifetime I can ever forget this mysterious turn of events and indeed the power and clarity of my vision. It seemed to me that these revelations that came to light nearly two months after my dream, gave me all the energy and mental strength I needed at that very low point in my life.

I decided to finish that last painting I had begun. My husband and children forbade me to sit and draw lest my back pain should recur. So, I finished this painting lying down on my front. It didn’t take too long. It was as though someone was hurrying me along. I finished my Devi drawing on a Friday and said my usual prayers. All the time I had been drawing, my back had improved, almost miraculously. By the time I finished the Bala drawing, I had not even the slightest trace of pain either in my lower back or right leg. It was only then I understood that last curious incident in my dream - that tremendous, heavy feeling I had experienced before entering the temple. It was almost a premonition of what was going to happen. I wanted to go home and visit this temple in Trichy, but my husband was still not very keen on my taking a long- haul air travel just as yet. Also, my mother’s 80th birthday festivities had been planned for August and I did not
want to miss it. While I was mulling over these issues, I had another vision, or, in hind sight, another premonition.

This vision appeared again, in the early hours of the morning. I am not too sure about the exact day of the week. I found myself in a temple . It was quite unfamiliar to me. I remember very clearly, the vastness of this temple, and the massive stone pillars. There seemed to be many stone pillars in what seemed to me a very ancient temple. Yet there was something incongruous in my dream. I remember seeing fluorescent tube lighting fastened to the top of some of these pillars and some scaffolding or construction work going on at one side of this massive temple complex. I was standing next to my second brother. No one else seemed present. There was a curtain in front of the deity and we were standing, waiting for it to be opened. All of a sudden, the priests opened the curtains with a flourish and I saw Lord Vigneswara. The idol was very white in colour and I couldn’t understand the significance of this. All I remember is standing,
almost by myself in front of this lovely, glowing white image of the Lord. I called my mother the next day and asked her to perform an archana at a Pillayar temple, the one my brother would normally go to in Madras. I thought that this was the only significance of my dream - the fact I had to think about and meditate on Vigneswara as well.

It seemed to me that try as I might, Saguna worship was here to stay. These visions and dreams were merely reinforcing the fact that I viewed God as a separate entity, apart from myself, and the oneness that I might have experienced in my dream was purely a physical phenomenon. Having listened extensively to Paramartha expounding the nature of Vedantic learning, I was quite puzzled about my experiences.

Paramartha clearly teaches us that any object apprehended by the senses or dreams, visions, etc are all strictly in the world of Maya. True Brahman can never be experienced, because it can never be the object of study or learning. It simply is the existence
principle itself. My intellect could grasp the logic and reasoning behind this argument. Yet what was I to make of these strange and mysterious visions I was having?

I pondered about this at great length and could only come up with this explanation. This was the guidance of Swamigal, taking me slowly, step by step up the ladder of spirituality. When I was a child, it was Swamigal who started me off on this spiritual journey with a simple prayer. Through my early years and as a young adult, he had continued to nourish my spiritual growth.

While listening to Paramartha’s magnificent teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, I was particularly riveted to one portion that describes the various steps in the
ladder of progress to Moksha or liberation. I felt that I must have, without conscious knowledge, progressed along several rungs of this ladder.
According to Paramartha, there are not many different paths leading to liberation - i.e. freedom from the sorrows that afflict us while enmeshed in samsara. Karma, and Bhakti yoga are not to be viewed as different paths, but merely transitory ways of moving from a
lower to a higher plane of understanding.

In the beginning, just as a child starts off education by attending nursery school, so so are we all taught the importance of simple prayers. At first, we are told to pray because prayer would please a particular deity, who would then grant our wishes. It is a small
bargain; you might think it is mercenary. Nevertheless, it is the only way most people would get attracted to religion. They want to know what benefit they would get by doing the prayer!

So, too, in the very beginning, my prayers always had a wish tag attached to it. I prayed before exams in order to get an easy question paper, then prayed again, so the results might be good, did specific mantras to help me out of difficult situations, etc. There was a
constant dependence on God and then later on the Guru, to guide and assist me at every stage. Swamigal’s mantra was also just that - to help me achieve strength of my mind, help me concentrate, etc. That is also an achievable goal. I followed his instructions and from these early steps, I found myself slowly moving on to the next higher plane.

No longer was it so important for me to get all my worldly desires accomplished through prayer or japa. I found myself moving away from clinging on to prayers as a life-line, and instead looked upon them as an enjoyable routine, whether or not my wishes were granted. This shift in focus from Sakama Karma to prayers being offered as Nishkaamya Karma took place almost without me noticing it. I did feel that prayers were no longer satisfying my spiritual needs and the vedantic philosophy was like a magnet, grabbing my attention. Here, I found the answers to all the questions raised by my intellect. Mere prayers were meaningless without understanding the very nature and intended purpose of them, and here, only the “Antha” (or the end), portion of the Vedas—i.e. the Upanishads - could help.

The transition from bhakthi to the next higher plane of reasoning is, as Paramartha says, only possible with the help of a Guru. My guru, Sri Santhananda, did not emphasise Advaita- in the sense that he did not give lectures on the Upanishads like the swamijis in the Chinmaya mission did. He was one of those self-realised souls whose main goal was to allow people to have full faith in a saguna deity, first. Later, he would initiate those whom he considered proper recipients, with the revelation of “Brahma Rahasyam”. As far as I was concerned, it was only his blessings that guided me to listen to Advaita philosophy as expounded by another Swamiji- Paramartha. Of this I have no doubt.

Similarly, my paintings developed slowly through various stages. In the first set of gross paintings, I was praying on a very gross level—i.e. sakama bhakti- I needed relief from various problems and appealed to various deities.

In the second set of paintings, I could notice a subtle shift. I enjoyed executing these paintings, just as I enjoyed doing my prayers or puja, with no particular motive. Finally, in the third set of my paintings, of which five had been finished before my vision, I had progressed beyond prayers and rituals and wanted this moksha or liberation, in exclusion to anything else.

Problems of this world started to lose their grip on me. I wasn’t particularly concerned about setbacks, minor or major. This doesn’t mean I was indifferent to family problems, nor was I fatalistic. Personal and financial problems still existed and did bother me in the sense, they had to be set right because this was my duty as a householder, caught up in the web of samsara.

Given the parameters I faced, I could only put forth the very best efforts I was capable of, given the limitations of Swabhava and Prarabhda, and then wait patiently for time and divine grace to sort out unpleasant circumstances and situations.

So, I was puzzled then, that at this stage in my journey, when I seemed to be moving to a higher level of nishkaama bhakti, that I should have these visions. To this day, I have not found an answer. However, I am still continuing to allow the bhakthi to mature more fully, whilst still established firmly on this path. My only true desire now is to be an instrument by which I could be of service to mankind - even, in a very small manner, for it is only by performing selfless deeds that one can achieve liberation in this life time itself.

We have to develop a world vision wherein, all the people regardless of caste, creed, religion and nationality are seen as part of that same Divinity, which is in and through every object in nature, which is present in the animals, and of course, among all of us lucky enough to have been born as humans!

Although I could not fully comprehend the strange dreams, I did not analyze them too deeply. Instead, I merely used these experiences to become more self-aware and indeed critical of my own thoughts and actions, especially during transactions with other individuals. As always, I wanted to see the big picture, not the tiresome irritations in life.

I did go home in the summer of 2002 to be with my mother on her birthday. During my stay, I was destined to visit the two temples I had foreseen in my dreams.

Soon after her birthday celebrations were over, my mother expressed a desire to visit the famous temple at Pillayarpatti housing this magnificent rock cut idol of Lord Vinayaka. I was fortunate to be included in this family trip. We reached this famous rock temple for
Pillayar one afternoon. Arrangements had been made at the temple for a special puja. As we entered the vast temple, it seemed strangely familiar. I remember looking around at the vast pillars and suddenly it struck me that I had seen them previously—in my
dream. I was quite stunned. We proceeded further inside the temple complex. A portion of the precinct had been cordoned off, in one corner. On enquiry, we were told that since it was a very ancient temple, some renovation works were being carried out. There was some scaffolding erected around some pillars and on the top of some of them were affixed fluorescent lights. Now, I could not pretend even to myself, that this was not familiar. Why, it was the same vision I’d had in my dream. My brother was nearby, standing alongside, just as he had been before.

We assembled in front of the doorway leading to the inner sanctum and the puja began. The huge black idol of Lord Vinayaka was just barely visible in the darkness of the inner room. This was a huge idol carved out of the rock inside a massive cave, thousands of years ago. The inner room was illumined by large oil lamps and in the dim light I could see enormous rats scuttling around the flowers and incense burners.
The priests began their prayers and this massive idol was bathed with holy water, oil, etc. Then, a screen was drawn around the idol so the priests could decorate the lord with flowers and clothes.

I remember sitting on the stone steps of the temple, eyes closed, saying a simple prayer to the Lord. I opened my eyes just as the priests drew back the curtain with a flourish. What my eyes beheld was something my intellect cannot comprehend even today. The
vision I saw in front of my eyes was that of Lord Vinayaka, completely covered by white, vibhuti.

The lord appeared totally white, just as he had appeared in my dream. They told me later this was called the “Vibhuti Alankaram”, or decoration of the lord with holy ash. I felt
exhilarated to have my dream come true in this manner. At the same time, I felt extremely lucky and indeed blessed to have such a beautiful darshan of the lord.

The next day, we visited the temple of the “Kula Deivam”, at Thiruvasi. I was curiously excited to visit this temple, especially because of the mysterious vision I had experienced on the very day my sister-in-law had visited this temple, a few months ago. We entered the ancient temple. There were not many people about, and it was very calm and peaceful. The temple priest did his small puja in front of the deity, and later took us in to the very inner sanctum to inspect this idol at close quarters. I stood in awe in front of this huge idol depicting Balambal. The priest lifted his lamp and took it closer to the idol’s left hand. I looked at her gnarled hand, the knobbly fingers were clenched as if holding an invisible crab!

We returned to Madras shortly thereafter and I felt energised by the whole episode. Shortly after this temple visit, I was fortunate to visit yet another ancient temple - this one was at Tirupathi. Once again, I couldn’t help but remember that lovely vision of the Lord I had experienced in my dream, in the autumn of the previous year. Only this time the darshan was for real . I was able to contemplate and meditate on the Lord, while sitting in front of the sanctum, as he was being bedecked with flowers, early in the morning. This is a sight I shall never forget.

There is another incident that I must relate at this juncture. At my mother’s birthday function, I happened to meet up with a cousin of mine I had not seen in a long time. She is an extremely religious person, well grounded in rituals and samskaras. Upon hearing details of this rather amazing dream I had experienced, she immediately took me aside and told me I should visit a particular temple while I was still in Madras. “Only”, she said, “it is not really a temple, rather a house and a temple , both together. You will understand what I mean if you visit this place”. I was quite intrigued and requested for the details regarding location, and the particular deity this place housed. My cousin informed me that the deity here is called “ Bala”- She told me that among all the female aspects of power or shakthi, this deity was indeed most powerful. I was instructed to visit this holy place without delay.

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