Monday, April 27, 2015

He is a "Big Yardstick!"

They had come from far and wide; from all parts of the country.  There were families with young boys and girls, old couples and young men and women.  All of them assembled at Gate 15 of the Departure lounge of the Delhi International Airport.  The gate enclosure itself was a small area with not even sufficient chairs to seat the older people.  They stood for over an hour at the boarding gate for the announcement of a flight that had a special number - 555.  Almost all of them were on a vacation and were visibly excited.  That the lounge was small did not dampen their spirits; it probably enhanced their excitement.

The flight was expected to take one and half hours.  It took off on schedule and the first one hour was uneventful.  Suddenly some kids got up and started to take pictures from the aircraft’s windows.  Those on the window side seats were probably doing that already.  Taking pictures from the aircraft is prohibited, but nobody seemed to bother about it.  Even the air hostesses smiled away.  For a few minutes most of the passengers were out of their seats and clicking.  Mobile phones have made photo-taking very easy now.  Of course, the thrill of carrying a camera, purchasing film, loading them, clicking photos, sending it for developing and printing and thereafter waiting eagerly for the printed snaps is long dead and gone.  I strongly suspect that the value of photos itself is now compromised.  Whatever it is, this was a time to click away.  And all of them did it in plenty.  Most of them would not have read or heard about Kumarasambhavam.  But to understand Himalayas that was not required.  His very presence was enough and more.

Mahakavi Kalidasa has described Himalayas as the majestic yardstick, standing to the north of our country and the King of Mountains.  Kalidasa starts his celebrated Mahakaavya “Kumara Sambhavam” with this praise of the Mountains.  The Himalayas is not just another mountain range for the Mahakavi; he is the symbol of the ethos of our lofty values.  His size is just too great and hence he is called a yard stick.  Was he justified in calling Himalayas as a yardstick?  He is a yardstick for measuring the Earth.  When we consider the size of the Himalayan Range we realize how right Mahakavi Kalidasa was!  To measure the size of the Earth, we require a yardstick of the size of Himalayas as nothing else will suffice.  Earth’s diameter is said to be about 12,720 Kilometers or 7900 miles.  The Himalayan Range extends from west to east for a length of 2400 Kilometers or 1500 miles.  Therefore, it is easy to measure the size of the earth using the Himalayas as the yard stick.  Earth’s diameter is 5.3 yards if Himalayas is one yard!  This is not a yard of three feet.  That yard is only for measuring very small things. 

Those on the flight could get a clear view of the Himalayas as the flight was approaching Srinagar.  It was a clear and sunny day and enabled viewing the snow clad mountain peaks, flowing rivers and the evergreen forests.  It did not matter that they were flying at 34,000 feet. They were not looking at a small hill; it was the Himalayas who stretched as far as the eyes could see and comprehend.

The Himalayan range has nine out of ten highest peaks in the world.  Geologists say that this is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world.  The range gives birth to innumerable rivers and the big three siblings are The Sindhu (Indus), Ganga and Brahmaputra. Brahmaputra is considered a brother.  600 million people depend and live in the cradles of these mighty rivers.

There is a Hindi film by name “Yaatrik”, produced in the year 1952 and directed by Kartick Chatterjee.  It is the story of a group of people on a trek in the Himalayas during their pilgrimage. The film brought considerable boost to the career of the well-known actor of yesteryear, Abhi Bhattacharya who has played the role of a young Bramhachari. There is a song in this film, sung by Pankaj Mullick who was at his peak as a play back singer then.  The recording is available and can be heard on YouTube.  The stanzas of the song are taken from the verses of Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhavam.

When we hear that song and recall the words of the Mahakavi Kalidasa, there is no doubt that he is a Yardstick.  But he is not just a yardstick; he is a big yardstick indeed!     

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Casabianca and Mount Vindhya

"The boy stood on the burning deck
When all but he had fled,
The flame that lit the battle's wreck 
shone around him over the dead"

"Casabianca" is a famous poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, an English poetess from Ireland.  She lived for only 41 years (1793-1835) and in her short life span wrote several poems, said to have been published in 19 volumes.  Her eldest brother Lt General Sir Thomas Henry Browne had a distinguished position in the Army and other brothers also held high positions in the Government. Her husband Captain Alfred Hemans served in the Irish Army.  She was naturally well versed in battlefield exploits.  "Casabianca" is a true account of an actual incident from the 1798 "Battle of Nile", between the French navy and British navy under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson.  The poet was only five year old when the incident happened.  This probably left a deep impression on her and resulted in the writing of the poem.  British Navy ships chasing the French navy made a surprise attack on them in the Aboukir Bay near the Egyptian city of Alexandria.  This surprise attack and destruction of the French navy ships in the Aboukir Bay defeated Napoleon Bonaparte's plans of attacking the British forces in India.

Louis de Casabianca was the captain of the French flag ship "Orient" that took part in the Battle of Nile.  He had taken his 12-year old son Giocante de Casabianca also on the voyage.  When the ship was attacked by the British, father Louis was standing on the deck with the young boy Giocante, supervising the activities on the ship.  The captain was called by another officer for attending to an emergency in the lower deck.  While going over there, the father advised the son to stay on the deck till he returned.  When the father was on the lower deck, the ship's magazine (a place in the ship where ammunition or other explosives were stored for distribution in time of need) exploded and the whole ship became a giant inferno.  As the other sailors abandoned the ship and jumped into the sea, they asked the boy to accompany them and save himself from death. He refused to leave without his father or his permission.
Say, Father, say, if yet my task is done
Speak Father, once again he cried
If I may be gone
Shouted once more aloud 
My father, must I stay?
alas, of course, there is no response

The father was in no position to reply as he had died in the explosion on the lower deck. The boy would not listen to others and did not move without his father.  He dies on the deck in the burning flames.  The poet concludes:

With mast and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part-
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart

The father did not return.  The son would not leave.  Casabianca, the 12-year old boy, is burnt with the ship and dies, and yet lives as a symbol of a faithful son for ever.  The picture given above (from the internet) aptly explains the situation.  


Several million years ago, the legend says, the mountains had wings and could fly in the sky.  This was causing havoc in the order of things.  Lord Indra wanted to restore some order and using his weapon, Vajraayudha, cut the wings of all mountains.  The problem of flying mountains was stopped for ever.  But one mountain, Vindhya in Central India, had the special capacity to grow.  His growth resulted in another problem; it obstructed the movement of people on either side to cross over to the other side.  Sun god was also afraid that one day his path too would be obstructed and his movement restricted.

Sage Agastya is considered as the shortest of the seven celestial sages, known as Saptarshis. He was requested to do something to stop the growth of Vindhya.  Agastya Rishi is highly revered and considered as the founder of the "Siddha Form of Medicine", a branch of Ayurveda.  He was held in high esteem by all including Vindhya. The sage who lived in the Himalayas came south with his wife Lopamudra. Looking at the sage near him, Vindhya bowed to him in reverence. Agastya blessed Vindhya and told him that he was going south for some work and would return after sometime.  He also told Vindhya that his growth would create problem for him to cross over to the north when he returned. Being a short man, it was difficult for him to climb a growing mountain and move to the other side. Due to the respect he commanded, Vindhya promised the sage that he would stay in his bowed form, thus shortening his height, till the sage returned from the south.  He would hold his growth till Agastya returned to the north.  The sage was happy and went south.  He told his wife Lopamudra that they would settle down in south forever.  Vindhya is waiting for the sage to return; that is not going to happen as the sage Agastya has settled down in south of South India.

Agastya is still believed to be living near Rameswaram.  He is said to have been present when Lord Rama created the Temple of Rameswara, during Ramayana days.  He is credited with being the earliest author of Tamil Grammar.

Casabianca waited for his father who could not come.  Vindhya is waiting for a sage who would not come.  We also keep waiting for things that either cannot come or do not come.......

Friday, April 10, 2015

Handcuff him and bring here!

Arrangements were being made at a frantic pace for one of the most important wedding functions of all times.  All the family members had assembled at the Groom's camp to join the "Baaraat" and proceed to the Bride's place on the day fixed for the wedding. Responsibilities were distributed to all the key functionaries, according to their respective abilities and capacities. Everyone was present and extremely busy.  Only one person was missing......

Srinivasa was only one of his many names.  He had (and has) innumerable names among which Srinivasa, Venkatesha and Balaji are the more often used. He went to the forest on a hunting expedition.  By sheer coincidence, princess Padmavati also came to the forest with her sakhis (friends) to enjoy the scenery of the flowering season.  One wild elephant chose to rush in the direction of the princess and her friends.  They were all scared and all her friends ran away leaving her alone before the wild elephant.  Just at the right moment Srinivasa appeared and chased the elephant away. Since he was on a Bete (Bete meaning hunting) mission with a bow and arrows in his hands, he got one more name: Byataraya Swamy.  The elephant ran away leaving Srinivasa and Padmavathi alone in the forest. They had to see each other and naturally it was love at first sight.  Before the love could progress further, all those friends who had ran away came back and took away Padmavathi. Srinivasa came back to his hut, alone.  His mother Bakulavathi understood the situation. The seven celestial sages, Saptarshis, were assigned the task of mediating and finalising the other aspects for the marriage with King Akasharaya, Padmavathi's father. Only remaining issues were arrangements for the marriage and the wedding function.

Srinivasa was alone with his mother.  How to go about arrangements for the marriage?  It was no ordinary marriage; the bride was a King's daughter. Arrangements had to be in a scale befitting the status of the bride's family. Srinivasa summoned his eldest son, Lord Brahma.  Brahma was anointed as the "Chief of Groom's party", being the eldest of the family. At his command all the other office-bearers of the celestial arrangement faithfully presented themselves for duty as well as part-taking in the ceremony.  Finance was the biggest problem for making the arrangements.  Wealth (Goddess Lakshmi) had deserted Srinivasa and he did not have even a rupee or dime with him.  Brahma summoned Kubera, the richest among the group and Treasurer of the celestial family.  A Long Term Loan was arranged to meet the marriage expenses, though at a high rate of interest. Lord Brahma and the "Vatavruksha" (Big Banyan Tree) in the forest became witnesses to the loaning transaction.  Funds were not a problem now.

Brahma distributed the responsibilities for preparations equitably.  Fastest stenographer Ganesha was assigned to writing all the invitations.  His six-headed brother Shanmukha was given the task of distributing them and inviting the guests; he could fly on the peacock and invite six at a time using his six heads.  Varuna, Water Lord, was placed in-charge of supplying water. Fire Lord Agni was the chief cook so that there was no complaint of shortage of firewood or adequate heat for cooking.  Sun was advised to supply adequate lighting during daytime while Moon was to do the same during the nights.  Vayu, Lord of the Winds was tasked with ensuring proper ventilation, fans and fragrance.  The doctor twins, Aswinis were to take care of emergency medical aid in case anyone fell sick.  Yama, the merciless prison-keeper, was made head of the Disciplinary Committee.  Garuda, the fastest flier, was the chief of transportation. Indra, head of the Devas, took on himself the task of supervising all other arrangements.  Others too got assignments in tune with what they are good at. Srinivasa was satisfied with all the arrangements being made.  But he felt someone was missing........ 

Srinivasa realised that Hanuman was the one missing in the group.  "Where is Hanuman?", he thundered.  There was a lull and nobody answered.  Invitation committee was questioned.  Somebody sheepishly replied, "He has refused to come.  Says he cannot eat the red rice served to you!".  All others were anxious as to what would happen next. Srinivasa smiled.  "Handcuff him and bring him here.  Tell him not to worry about what I eat. He will get the finest white rice, excellent ghee and everything else that goes with them. The Baaraat cannot proceed without Hanuman!", he instructed.  His instructions were carried out immediately.  Hanuman was handcuffed and brought before him without loss of time. After arrival of Hanuman Baaraat moved and the wedding function continued.

Even today Hanuman stands before Lord Srinivasa in Tirumala-Tirupati, handcuffed. The idol in the small temple in front of the "Sanctum Sanctorum" Mahadwaram (Main door) on Sannidhi street is called "Bedi Anjaneya Swamy" (Hand-cuffed Anjaneya Swamy, as can be seen in the picture given above). Naivedyam (offerings to the Lord) is brought here after the ritual at the Lord's abode every day and placed before Hanuman.  

During the last two weeks, Lord Balaji's prasadam was given to me several times by devotees who made trips to Tirumala hills.  There cannot be any complaint about the quantity, quality or the number of times the prasad was given.  It is one of the most delicious prasadam one can ever get.  Whenever I get the prasadam, I ask a question: "Have you seen Bedi Anjaneya?".  Invariably the answer is "What is that?".  Bedi Anjaneya temple is right there in front of the main door of the Balaji temple.  Most people cross it and go to the main temple or pass through that when they return after the darshan.  But Bedi Anjaneya is mostly forgotten.  Fifty years ago, one would have the Darshan of Varaha Swamy and Bedi Anjaneya before going to the darshan of Balaji.  Today's fast trips have made it impossible to see other attractions around the main temple.  Waiting in the long queue has rendered other issues immaterial.  Varaha Swamy is known but not visited; Bedi Anjaneya is totally forgotten.

There is another popular story about the handcuffing of Anjaneya.  It is claimed that Anjaneya was born in one of the seven hills of Tirumala called Anjanagiri or Anjanadri.  (It is also claimed that he was born in several other places; Hampi in Karnataka, Trayambakeswar in Maharashtra as well as in the forests of Jarkhand). He was very mischievous as a child and often troubled the ascetics in the forests.  On their complaints, his mother Anjanadevi handcuffed him.  Another story claims that he was running away in search of a camel (camel in Tirumala Hills?) and to stop him she handcuffed him.  Lord Hanuman is the hero of many many such stories.

Anjaneya is highly revered and if one goes by belief, it is most unlikely that he ever refused to carry out the wishes of the Lord.  The stories above are only many ways of explaining how the Anjaneya statue in Tirumala is in the form of a handcuffed Hanuman. Nevertheless, Bedi Anjaneya is indeed a reality and can be seen even today in font of the main door of the Balaji temple.

Will you visit him at Tirumala when you go there next time?  Please do so before collecting the Laddu prasadam!  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ekadashamukha Avalokitesvara

Most of the big cities in the world have their own museums where collection of artifacts and other objects of historical, scientific, social, cultural and artistic values are displayed for viewing by the general public.  These museums also act as an important knowledge source for students, scholars and scientists for their studies and research.  They periodically conduct festivals and seminars which provide impetus to dedicated studies. Museums in cities like Paris, London, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Montreal, Mumbai, Mysore and Hyderabad are huge and spread over many floors and sections. Some of these cities have museums in multiple locations with division of display items based on diverse themes. Items on display are often invaluable and much effort is required for safeguarding them. There are museums dedicated to a particular aspect of life like the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Canada and Museum of Flight in Seattle, USA. A proper viewing of such museums cannot be completed in a single day. Most of the museums provide maps showing the arrangement of display items so that the visitor can view the galleries systematically without missing any of them. Museums like the one in Washington DC provide brochures which give an indiction of the major attractions for viewing by the visitor in the their available time.  The visitor can decide how much time he wants to spend there and accordingly see the highlights from the most important items to whatever he can. Visiting museums and viewing the rare items and articles is a matter of personal liking and interest.

The city of Seattle, Washington state, USA has three museums; Seattle Art Museum, Asian Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park.  On a visit to the Asian Art Museum there three years ago, I chanced to see a bronze statue about 20 inches in height with a caption "Ekadashamukha Avalokitesvara".  The statue had 11 heads, three each in three steps one set above the other, and two heads one each above them. A picture of the statue, downloaded from the internet, is given alongside. This is a rare statue and I had not seen a similar one earlier.  Our mythology refers to "Ekadasha Rudras". Ekadasha vaara (vaara means times - eleven times) Rudrabhisheka is an eloberate form of worshipping the 11 forms of Lord Shiva with the names Mahadeva, Shiva, Maha Rudra, Shankara, Neelalohita, Eshana Rudra, Vijaya Rudra, Bheema Rudra, Devadeva, Bhavodhbhava and Aditya Rudra. But there is no reference to any 11 headed Rudra or Eswara.  This created an interest to further dwell on the subject.

During a visit to Ajanta and Ellora caves last year, the guide there took us from one cave to another cave and explained the importance of each cave.  When he took us to the most popular painting in the Ajanta caves, he showed us the painting shown alongside and mentioned that this is one of the Bodhisatvas. The mural painting on the wall of Cave No. 1 was mentioned as "Padmapani" (Holding a lotus in his hand).  He mentioned that this was a form of Avalokiteswara.  That led to the linking of the statue in Seattle museum to Buddhism and the link to Ekadashamukha Avalokiteswara unfolded.  There is extensive reference to Avalokitesvara in Buddhist literature.  He is a Bodhisatva who embodies compassion of all Buddhas.  Avalokitesvara means "The Lord who looks down from above".  Mahayana sect of Buddhists consider him as one of the most revered Bodhisatva. The mission of Bodhisatva is to free all sentient beings from Samsara, which is the cycle of birth and death.

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes seven forms of Avalokiteswara.  Amoghapasha, the one connected with the net (pasha) is the first.  Sahasrabhuja Lokeswara, the one with thousand heads and eyes is the second. Hayagriva (the one with the head of a horse) is the third. Chundi is the fourth and Chintamani Chakra (Sudarshana) is the fifth.  Ekadashamukha is sixth and Arya Avalokitesvara is the seventh.  It is interesting to note that "Purusha Sukta" in Hinduism refers to the Lord as one with "Thousand heads and Thousand Eyes". (Here thousand means infinite; hence infinite heads have infinite eyes.  It is not merely one thousand as generally understood).  Vishnu is also known in one form as Hayagriva.  He also holds Sudarshana Chakra.  Does it indicate that Buddhism also branched out from Hinduism?

Avalokitesvara is known with different names in various parts of the world. Transalated to Chinese it is said to become "Kaun Shi Yin" or "Quan YIn" meaning looking down upon the worlds. Buddhists believe that if one calls Avalokitesvara, he will appear and help the one who calls him.  Chinese also refer to him as "Guanyin", mening personifiction of perfect compassion. One story explains how Avalokitesvara got thousand hands and eleven heads.  Bodhisatva vowed that "should he ever become disheartened in saving sentient beings (one having power of perception by senses), may his body shatter into thousand pieces".  Once when he cleared the hell by helping all the suffering beings and looked down from a higher realm, he still found many beings flooding the hell.  In that moment of despair, his body shattered into thousand pieces.  His personal Guru, Amitabha Buddha then appeared and using his miraculous powers converted each of the pieces into an arm with an eye of wisdom in each palm. Avalokitesvara then continued his mission with these 1000 hands.  The picture given alongside shows the 1000 arms and 11 heads.

There are many versions of Avalokitesvara in Buddhist texts.  In Sri Lanka he is called "Natha". In Cambodia he is worshipped as Lokeswara. Chinese buddhists believe that there is a female form of Avalokitesvara with 1000 hands, similar to the picture shown here.  What does Ekadashamukha represent? It is believed that the additional ten heads are meant to teach the ten planes; eight in eight directions and two for worlds above and below.  (Something similar to "Dasharatha", the one whose chariot could move in any of the ten directions - East, West, North, South, North--West, North-East, South-East and South-West plus above and below). The stories of Bodhisattva and Ekadashamukha Avalokiteswara are as interesting as his bronze statue displayed in the Seattle museum and the mural painting of Ajanta and Ellora caves.