Thursday, May 4, 2006

Chapter 15


I had hardly finished this set of paintings when I received news from my eldest brother that he was to celebrate his sixtieth birthday in accordance to stipulated rites. The venue was The Sharadha Peetam at Shringeri. I was very happy to hear this news. However, I
was not too sure about making another trip to India especially as I had just been there less than a month ago.

Although such a trip would have provided me with the opportunity of visiting a very Holy place, and one that I had intended to visit during my last trip, I had to resign myself to not going for the function due to the extra expense involved.
However, a few weeks later, bowing to my mother’s wishes, I changed my mind and decided to make a quick dash to Chennai.

There I was, in late January 2005, back again in Chennai. My sister who lives in New Zealand had also come down for the function.
A lot of family members were attending the celebrations at Shringeri. I travelled with my sister, my sister in law and her daughter.
En route from Managalore to Shringeri a sudden decision was taken to visit the famous Sri Krishna Temple at Udipi. It turned out that my brother had a very good contact at the temple and this devotee could give us a tour of the temple.

I was overjoyed. It was early afternoon when we reached this famous temple. The contact proved enormously helpful and gave us a thorough tour of the whole temple premises including the enormous Go Shaala ( cow stalls) .

After we had finished the preliminary tour this man informed us that the head priest of the Math would be performing an evening puja at 7.30 p.m. and he insisted we stay and witness this function.
However, my sister- in- law decided that we could not stay on for it as it might not really be safe to drive back to Mangalore very late in the evening.
With regret, she informed the helpful man, we could not possibly stay.

My sister and I did not venture to say anything as we realised my sister- in-law did have a valid reason. Nonetheless I was disappointed by the decision.
Now came the surprising bit. Our guide agreed with our resolution but instead offered to take us for a very quick audience with the head priest of the math “ to get his blessings”.

We agreed and followed our friend into a small room situated on one side of the main sanctum. There was a huge silver throne in the middle of this otherwise very plain room.

We were told that this throne dated back several centuries and was one used by Saint
Madhvacharya, the founder of this Math. We stood in one corner of the room waiting for the chief priest to enter after finishing his evening bath in the temple tank. We didn’t have a long wait. Within a few minutes the door opened with a flourish and a young,
athletic man with a completely shaven head bounded into the room with great energy and got onto the throne. We were all surprised! We had expected an
old, venerable figure to come shuffling in slowly! Instead here was this smiling, enthusiastic priest who seemed to be in a rush to start the evening rituals!

There followed a very swift introduction and we bowed low with respect. Then this head priest said in a very clear voice “ You must stay for the Puja and only then you can leave”.

Saying this, he quickly leapt off the raised dais and hurried off to the main sanctum.
Crowds thronged everywhere and literally swept us in the same direction. Behind us, our friend said rather loudly “ The head priest has spoken from his throne. You cannot refuse his command”.
My sister in law reluctantly agreed to stay. However, she told us we must leave half way through the ceremony when she gave the signal.

The evening ritual began. And what an experience it was. I could observe every nerve fibre of the priest and indeed all his physical energy focused on Lord Krishna. It was as if he was invoking Lord Krishna to be part of Him. He gave the deity a ritual bath, anointed
the Lord with sweet smelling sandal wood, fanned him with great big feather fans, sang lullabies to him and put him on a swing to sleep!

We looked on fascinated and totally mesmerised by the rites. What struck me over and over again was the abject devotion and total Bhakthi that was exhibited. My sister in law also stood and witnessed the entire puja. No signal to leave was give, It was as though
she too had been transported eleswhere!!
I caught a glimpse of the Lord through the barred inner doors of the sanctum . He seemed to have a mischvievous smile on his lips!!

After this puja was over, we were told to collect prasadam from the head priest. There was a line of people queing up for this. I noticed that the priest was literally “ throwing” the prasadam down from a great height and one had to be quite adept and nimble to
catch it!
The reason for this was obvious. These priests were very holy and were not supposed to even “accidentally” make contact with any of us.
I was a bit concerned when my turn came as I was sure the prasadam which consisted of several packets of sweets as well as the customary vibhuti, etc , would fall on the ground .

I need not have worried. As I bowed low near the priest and focused on his hand I
noticed to my great surprise that it ventured lower and further down than it had done for the others. In fact He made sure I could received it properly. I don’t know what made me look up ( its not entirely respectful to make an eye contact), but I did so , and the priest looked directly into my eyes and smiled! It was a totally captivating smile that lit up his face and seemed to reflect his true inner self. In that instant I could clearly see Him as Lord Krishna!! Of that there is no doubt at all.

As we left the temple, I remember the last thing our guide told us. “ Look up at the frescoes adorning the inner sanctum They are very special because you can see all the Ten avatars of Vishnu carved on stone”.
What a fitting end to this marvellous evening!!

We proceeded to Shringeri the following morning. Here was yet another temple complex and ashram nestled in a beautiful valley with the serene river Tunga flowing through it. While attending my brother’s birthday celebrations I had ample time to wander around
and marvel at some of the ancient shrines that were dotted around in the vicinity of the Peetam.

Our family members were also able to get the blessings of the Archarya of Shringeri. I remember standing in a long line waiting to receive “holy” water from this man. The Acharya represents the head of one of four peetams established by Aadi Shankara several centuries ago. This is a highly venerated position and he is literally treated as a royal personage. Bearing all this in mind, I approached him, when my turn came, with great humility indeed. I received the holy water and, viewing my brother’s consternation, stepped back at a discrete distance , to sip it. My brother introduced me to him and said I lived in London.

My first introduction to this Holy man seemed somehow , totally forgettable. I did not really feel any sense of exhilaration from having met a religious leader held in awe by so many devotees. However, I chastised myself for being too critical and thought that
perhaps I might seek out an opportunity to get a private audience with him and get his blessings. I decided to ask my brother about this later. He knew the Acharya extremely well and promised me he would try and arrange something for the next day. However,
everyone seemed busy with the Shastiabthapurthy celebrations and I decided not to press this matter any further.

That evening I witnessed a puja performed by the Acharya. It is customary for this daily rite to be conducted with a lot of pomp and I sat in a vast auditorium watching the Acharya perform this late night puja on a raised dais.

There was a group of people in a corner chanting the Rudram and Purusha Suktham. It was peaceful to hear these ancient vedic chants. However, after a while my attention was focused on the Acharya himself. I noticed that although he seemed to be performing
many rites, his eyes were not really on the deity he was worshipping. He was constantly looking at the doorway of this vast auditorium as if to check out who was coming in or leaving.

There did not seem to be any positive vibrations coming from this holy man. I could not help but compare this evening puja to the one I had witnessed the previous day in Udipi. There was absolutely no way to describe either the mesmerising quality of that puja
ritual or the utter faith and conviction of that priest whose entire body seemed to quiver with total bhakthi and in whom Lord Krishna was totally dissolved at the end.

Today, I was watching a corpulent, old man ( actually I later came to know he was only in his early fifties),performing a ritual rather mechanically with absolutely no involvement in it whatsoever.
I had perhaps expected too much and felt strangely let down. In fact, I noticed the Acharya yawning a couple of times as he was performing the puja and it seemed to me he was really tired and ready to go to bed!

The next day was my brother’s Shastidhaamaabthipoorthy celebrations.
It came to me as great surprise that morning that in the middle of his busy schedule he had remembered my request of the previous day. He had arranged for someone to take me to see the Acharya at 9.30 a.m. that very same morning.

My sister agreed to accompany me. However , my mother warned me before I left that despite all my misgivings about this man, I had to observe the usual niceties. I was given strict instructions not to bring up the subject of that broken idol that Santhananda
Swamigal had wanted returned to Salem. In other words, my mother did not really give any credence to either my dreams or visions.
She perhaps thought I would embarrass myself in front of this Holy man by saying something that was totally irrelevant. My sister was sent with me in order to prevent me from committing any such folly!

At precisely 9.30 a.m. we entered his private quarters and were taken into what was called the “ Darbar room” or throne room. This was where the Acharya usually met people.
There was a carpet on the ground of this otherwise bare room. We sat down and waited. At this time I still had no idea about precisely what to say to the Acharya. I said a silent prayer to my Guru and requested him to speak on my behalf! I told him mentally “ If
you want your idol back you will have to ask for it. I have been warned not to ask silly questions”.

Within a few minutes the Acharya entered along with an assistant. He sat on the throne in a comfortable posture. My sister and I did our namaskarams. Then, the Acharya looked at us and smiled. He asked us if there were any problems either of us wished to discuss.
The man who came with him retired to a discreet distance at the far end of the room. Clearly, this was the general protocol as most people who visited the holy man came to unburden all their family problems and ask for advice.

My sister remained silent and looked at me. I stood up rather hesitantly, and began to talk. I started off by telling the Acharya that I had not come here to discuss any of my personal problems. Instead, I said I had come to him because my Guru had sent me here. He looked a bit surprised. “ Who is your Guru?’he asked. This was the cue or so it seemed. I don’t know how I managed to talk, but words seemed to flow out of my mouth, in perfect tamil!
I talked about how Sri Shantananda Swamigal had been our family Guru ever since I was little; about how he had taught me a sloka on Goddess Bhuvaneswari when I was just three years old; about the mantra he had given me years later; and all the visions I had
experienced; my paintings; about my out of body experiences, etc. In short, within the space of perhaps ten minutes I was able to give this most holy man a complete account of my spiritual journey thus far, including my momentous meeting with Amma!!
I was emotionally overcome by the time I finished. I noticed the Acharya yawning a few times during my narration carried , but did not really care!

I finished my speech or rather my Guru finished it off for me by saying the following:
‘ Acharya, compared to you I am a very ignorant person. In terms of knowledge, I know perhaps what is equivalent to a grain of sand while your knowledge can be compared to the vast ocean. Therefore, please do not consider me as pretentious when I just pass on
a message that my Guru wanted me to deliver to you.I understand there is an image of Goddess Bhuvaneswari that is currently here at the temple. This has to be sent back to Salem. This was my Guru’s instructions and I had to mention them to you. The outcome, however is not really a concern of mine. I’m sure you will do what is meant to be done..
Finally, I would like to seek your blessings so I can carry on painting religious deities as long as I live. I would not like to discuss my desires for Moksha or liberation as Vedanta decrees one should be free from all desires; even the desire to achieve liberation. That
is all.”

The acharya looked at me for a few minutes and then smiling softly, said “ You will always be able to achieve whatever it is your deep down subconcious mind feels.” So saying, he took a huge pomegranate fruit from the tray in front of him and gave it to me.

Then, he turned his attention on my sister and asked about where she lived and enquired about her family. He blessed her as well.
With that, our audience with this Holy man ended.

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