Maha Shivaratri

jagatah pitarau vande paarvati parameshwarau - I bow down to Paarvati and Parameshwar the parents of the Universe

Maata mey Paarvati Devi, Pitaa Devo Maheswaraha |
Baandhava Shiva Bhaktaascha Svadesho Bhuvanatrayam ||

Paarvati devi is my Mother, father is Maheshwara – Shiva.
Relatives are the devotees of Shiva and my own country is all the three worlds.

-Sri Adisankaracharya

========================================
Dear Readers
Many thanks for the wonderful words of best wishes! And they have come just a day before and are coming during Mahashivaratri.
May He, the Bholaanaath with the divine mother Bhavaani, residing in every one’s heart, guide us at every step is my earnest prayer to Him.
Shiva means mangal. Auspiciousness. May that quality, by His infinite grace, abide in all of us in abundance!
With love and prayers
Swami Vimokshananda

courtesy: Dr S Adhinarayanan, India

Pat for a pet!

Ashram cat Kripa - waiting to enter into the Temple

In 1980, a clinical research project at Brooklyn College, New York, studied heart-disease patients after their discharge from the hospital. Dr. Erika Friedmann, Ph.D., Professor of Health and Nutrition Sciences at the College, tracked each survivor, studying their medical histories, lifestyles, families, relationships – every documentable detail. Co-researcher Dr. Aaron Katcher, M.D., reported:

“The presence of a pet was the strongest social predictor of survival…not just for lonely or depressed people, but everyone – independent of marital status and access to social support from human beings.”

Ashram cat Satwik making 'pranam' in the Temple

The Psychologists clearly spell out Ten Benefits in rearing a pet: While the primary benefits to animals are obvious – to place them in loving homes and keep them from being destroyed – the benefits to elderly persons are ten-fold (versus non-pet owners).

  • Pets lower blood pressure and pulse rate
  • 21% fewer visits to the doctor
  • Less depression
  • Easier to make friends (enhanced social opportunities)
  • Seniors become more active
  • Pets offer affection and unconditional love
  • Pets ease loss of a loved one
  • Pets fight loneliness
  • Seniors take better care of themselves
  • Sense of security

You, readers may just wonder ‘What! pets and Vedanta!

I was pleased when Skendha Singh from New Delhi, India commented that ‘pets seem to gravitate towards our places or seats of meditation’. It is so true! In our Ashram, we have now two pet cats – Kripa and Satwik. Both of them never leave the campus and are fond of being present in the Temple  during mangalarati time as well as evening arati time.

Ashram cat Kripa 'gravitating towards Meditation seat'

Kripa is more amiable and would not mind if any of our devotees just take him in hands and there he would cuddle quietly! And to sleep (or meditation?) he would always select one of the two monks’ aasana (seats) laid out in the Temple! He is also one of my keen students during Gita class, listening to my Talks, sitting on the chair. At meal times, he comes and takes his chair, surveying the whole neatly laid out table with an air of a ‘leader’ and immensely satisfied with just butter to give us ‘company’. Both the cats drink Ganges water from the Catbowl, kept for them inside the Temple. (Of course they have their own bowls at designated spots and regular feeds are provided.)

Ashram temple - fantastic front view of two images of Lion - pets to Durga

Yes, one of the pancha shanti mantra (the famous five peace chants) – tacchaiyn yora vrineemahe – loudly proclaim ‘shanno astu dwipade, sham chatushpade’ “May there be peace to humanity; may peace be to animals” goes back to the ancient Vedic times from when we, the Hindus have inherited the wonderful feeling to take care of not only the ‘two-legged’ but also the ‘four-legged’ ones. Our mythology is abound with creatures beloved to Gods and Goddesses. While Ganesha is fond of His mouse, His brother Murugan delights with peacock. Shiva’s favourite is bull, while Vishnu prides in eagle. Durga’s lion is well-known. Krishna had lovable calves and cows. Shiva’s servant Bhairav has dogs.

Among the beasts and birds, dog as a pet has become the most favoured species among the men and women all over the world. Saints are not excepted. Swami Vivekananda had a dog called Bagha who had been a stray mongrel and picked up from the street as a puppy. This dog became so close to Swamiji that once Swamiji had to caution the monks in Belur Math not to harass him anytime. On the day Swamiji’s body was cremated, Bagha remained close to the funeral pyre and wouldn’t move; he was so overwhelmed by grief that he stayed there for a long time. No one could make him eat or drink on that day!

Swami Shivananda, when he was President of the Order, had two big dogs Kelo and Bhulo. These were pedigree dogs brought from East Bengal. He would have lot of fun with them. While standing upstairs on the balcony of his room, he would sometimes play with the dogs by throwing pieces of bread in the down below courtyard as a treat. And lo! the dogs would jump and catch without fail in the mid-air! Showing his finger to the dogs, Shivanandaji would shout, “See, they are my dogs and I am Sri Ramakrishna’s dog!”

When shall we develop that dogged attitude of dedicating our life at the Master’s feet and lay there to do His bidding? When shall we acquire the ‘pet’-sense of sharanaagati – ‘surrender’?

Art work on Anjaneya

Today is the first night of navaratri which is holy and auspicious to all Hindus. Here in SA, the Divine Mother Goddess Durga is worshipped in Her three aspects as Mahakaali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, three nights each during this nine-day celebration. Not only Sri Ramakrishna kept in his room several pictures of Gods and Goddesses but also advised devotees to do so. “Divine feeling is awakened through such pictures” he said. Once he went all the way to see a home of a devotee, hearing that he had a large collection of religious pictures! You can also enjoy seeing one hundred ninety-nine ennobling pictures of Hindu Goddesses, one hundred twenty-seven of which especially on Durga at this Flickr site. The Lord of Durga – Neelakantha Shiva has eleven aspects that are called Rudras. The Shiva puraana speaks about the Eleventh Rudra who incarnates as Sri Hanuman. I am thankful to Simon Ram of UK who gave permission to place a rare picture of Hanumanji with Gauri-Shankar which you can find at the bottom of this post.

The drawing and a write-up on Visual Art Work that is displayed in a box down below, is by one 14 year old school student who regularly attends our Sunday School for Children. Presently this boy is schooling at Ladysmith High School and in Gr.9. His name is Yashteel Raj. He attends the Ramakrishna Centre – Ladysmith branch. He also enjoys reading and learning about Hindu religion through stories like the Ramayana, etc. Recently he wrote to me an email which I reproduce here:

Yashteel Raj of Ladysmith
Yashteel Raj from Ladysmith

Om Namo Narayanaya Swamiji

It was very good to see you on Saturday after such a long time.

I had to make an artwork about my culture this week and I was so inspired by your talk on Sri Hanumanji that I made a drawing of him carrying the Drona Mountain. I wanted to show you how it looks – I hope you like it.

Mom, Dad and Chiara also send their pranams.

Durga Durga

Yashteel Raj

—————————————————-

Yes, beta Yashteel, I  am immensely pleased to see your art work. Congrats! Indeed, your devotion to Sri Hanumanji has brought Hanumanji’s grace to you and you have excelled in it. May He bestow you the three essential things which Tulsidasji, in his mystical prayer hymn, demands from Sri Hanumanji – bala, budhi, vidya!

—————————————————–


Inspired drawing - an Art work on Anjaneya
Inspired drawing - an Art work on Anjaneya

Arts & Culture:

Visual Artwork Project

What is Culture?

Culture, as I understand it, is a word which describes an individual’s lifestyle. One’s culture is basically their way of life: their social and religious norms, cuisine, literature, and choice of music and art. Culture thus consists of person’s customs and traditions.

What is your Chosen Culture and

Why can it be defined as a Culture?

I have chosen to make my artwork about my own “hybrid” Hindu culture as it would be personal and I already know much about it.

My chosen culture can be described as a culture as it includes all of my social and religious norms. It consists of the food I eat (spicy) and governs, to an extent, the type of literature, art and music I come into contact with. It also consists of all of my customs and traditions.

My religion plays a very important part in my culture, so I chose to make an artwork which is relevant to it. My artistic talent lies in drawing; hence I chose to depict an event from the epic tale, the Ramayana, in this form. Here Lord Hanuman carries the huge Drona Mountain on his shoulders, from the Himalayas to Lanka, as it contains the rare sanjeevani herb required to heal Lakshmana.

What I found Difficult

I faced many difficulties while creating my artwork and tried to overcome them as best I could. These problems were:

  • My colouring was uneven and looked bad, so I “smudged” or “shaded”.
  • Some garments blocked vital muscles, so I made them semi-transparent.
  • I had some trouble drawing Hanuman’s hands and feet, but I got it right in the end.
  • Lord Hanuman’s ape-like mouth was hard to blend in to the face so I experimented with sfumato.
  • It was hardest for me to give texture to Lord Hanuman and the mountain. I tried utilizing tonal value to aid me in my plight.

What I Learnt and Enjoyed

  • I learnt how to draw another type of abdomen and six-pack, which stems from “Hercules-type” animation.
  • I discovered how to add tonal value to give texture and depth to an artwork.
  • Shading, in some cases, is more effective than colouring.
  • If you shade on differently textured surfaces, their texture will be implied on your artwork. This can be a easy way to create texture.
  • I enjoyed drawing Lord Hanuman and experimenting with different muscle-types and colours, etc.

Conclusion

I really liked making this artwork. Drawing is lots of fun and I really enjoyed expressing my culture in this form.

=======================================================


Sri Hanumanji with Sri Gauri-Shankarji - a rare picture
Sri Hanumanji with Sri Gauri-Shankarji - a rare picture, Courtesy: Simon Ram, UK

Boon or Bane ?

dipika-2008Children like to question. And I appreciate it as an expression of their intense thirst for knowledge. I wrote this given-below dialogue in an easy, conversational style between an imaginary child and myself. This is, of course, based partly on an actual discussion with a group of children, and later written  for Dipika 2008. It is an annual spiritual magazine especially for children, regularly brought out by Sri Sarada Devi Ashram at Asherville in Durban. My grateful thanks go to Sister Pravrajika Ishtapranaji for according her kind consent to reproduce it here.

Priyanta: Pranams Swamiji.

Swamiji: Welcome Priyanta, how are you?

Priyanta: I am well, Swamiji. Could you spare some moments to answer my queries?

Swamiji: What are you worrying about? Do you perform regular prayers?

Priyanta: Oh! I wanted to ask you exactly about prayer, Swamiji.

Swamiji: Okay what’s your question?

Priyanta: Swamiji, in prayer if we ask something from God, will God give it to us? Suppose what God gives me turns out to be unsuitable, then what happens?

Swamiji: Indeed, our Master Sri Ramakrishna says that God can hear even the foot steps of an ant. If you pray with diligence, sincerity and love, then God will give you whatever you pray for. It is true that many devotees do not know what to ask God for.

Priyanta: Is that so? I thought people ask for those things that they need!

Swamiji: That’s how it should be. But what they need and what they want are entirely different. Okay, now I will tell you a story from our Puranas.

Priyanta: What are Puranas, Swamiji?

Swamiji: Puranas have the insight of the Hindu scriptures called the Vedas, retold for the easy understanding of the common folk. The teachings are primarily taught in a very easy and interesting way. They are given through inspiring stories and parables. Do you know that in total there are eighteen Puranas?

Priyanta: Thanks Swamiji! Do you have an apt story with regard to my question on prayer?

Swamiji: Yes Priyanta. I will tell you the story of an asura (demon) called Bhasmasura. This demon performed severe penances to obtain the favour of Lord Shiva. Pleased with him, Lord Shiva appeared before Bhasmasura and said: ‘Dear devotee! I am pleased with your austerities and therefore I am willing to grant you a boon. What do you want?’ Bhasmasura folded his palms and sang the glory of Lord Shiva. Then he said: ‘O Lord! If I place my hand on someone’s head, that person should be burnt to ashes immediately.’

Priyanta: Oh! What a destructive boon!

Swamiji: Yes, what an ignoble boon did this Bhasmasura ask for! Not only that. He told Lord Shiva that he wanted to test it. He rose from his seat and rushed near Shiva trying to place his hand on the head of Lord Shiva! See what a danger!

Priyanta: Then what did Lord Shiva do, Swamiji?

Swamiji: You see, God is always bound by His devotee’s love. He even becomes a servant of His devotee, just to please him. So, Lord Shiva ran to Lord Vishnu who calmed Lord Shiva and said that he would deal with the demon Bhasmasura. Lord Vishnu then took the form of a beautiful damsel and stood on the pathway of Bhasmasura who was trying to test his boon on Lord Shiva. The demon was charmed at the beauty of the dancing girl. Now, do you know Priyanta, what dance Lord Vishnu performed in the form of Mohini?

Priyanta: Swamiji, is this dance called Mohini-aattam?

Swamiji: Yes, truly so! This Mohini-aattam is very popular in Kerala, in the southern part of India.

Priyanta: Okay. Then Swamiji, what happened?

Mohini directing Bhasmasura in dance
Mohini directing Bhasmasura in dance...Painting by Raja Ravivarma

Swamiji: Lord Vishnu disguised himself as the world bewitching Mohini and then showed the demon this dance. Bhasmasura, captivated by her beauty and grace, wanted Mohini to be his wife. Mohini informed him that she would marry only that man who could perform the dance as well as she could. So the demon king requested Mohini to teach him the steps of the dance. Mohini then showed him the movements of the hands and, in the heat of the moment, Bhasmasura copied her hand gestures and placed his hand on his own head. Thus see how Bhasmasura was destroyed!

Priyanta: So Swamiji, the boon from God may turn out to be dangerous!

Swamiji: Yes, if you do not know exactly what to ask for. You see, this simple story from the Puranas has many good messages for all of us. Can you tell me a few morals from this story?

Priyanta: Yes Swamiji. Firstly God will definitely give us what we pray for. Secondly, I think that we should not pray to God for anything that is destructive. Thirdly we must know that we should not harm anybody with our prayers.

Swamiji: Well said Priyanta! Suppose you ask your father for a pistol, he will not give it to you. Why? Because, if you should get angry with someone, you might shoot that person with it or you may even accidently hurt yourself. So, if you seek something destructive, you are sure to harm others and yourself too. And finally what is the best form of prayer? Harmless as well as beneficial to everyone is the prayer for auspiciousness, peace, fullness and goodness. Like this one for example:

Om sarveshām svastir bhavatu
sarveshām shāntir bhavatu
sarveshām pūrnam bhavatu
sarveshām mangalam bhavatu

The meaning of this prayer is:

May there be auspiciousness to all
May there be peace to all
May there be fullness to all
May there be good to all.

——————————————————————————–

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravivarma, one of the greatest Indian artists of the 20th century
Raja Ravivarma, one of the greatest Indian artists of the 20th century

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was born in Kerala, India. At the age of seven he started drawing on the palace walls using charcoal. The talent of the child was noticed by King Thirunal Maharaja. Most of Ravi Varma’s paintings are based on Hindu epic stories and characters. His illustrations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata became the standard visual representation of the classics. His paintings are famous for vibrant colours and textures as can be conceived in the famous painting depicting Mohini directing Bhasmasura in dancing art.  

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda saw the beauty of the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma at the palace of the Gaekword of Baroda. Swamiji noticed the characters coming to life in these paintings and was moved by intense emotion. In 1893 Swamiji met Ravi Varma in America at the famous Chicago exhibition during the Parliament of the World’s Religions held there. Swamiji’s considered views on Art can be read here.
————————————————————————————

Shiva and Seva

Shivaratri
Courtesy: Dr S Adhinarayanan, India

Happy Maha Shivaratri Greetings to all !

Maha  Shivaratri is a momentous occasion for most of the Hindus in South Africa. It favours a deep fervour to their religious feelings in as much as for long twelve hours in each phase of day and night, devotees not only keep vigil in the night but also follow fasting to ritualistic performances.

Lord Shiva at Ramakrishna Temple HQ
Lord Shiva at Ramakrishna Temple HQ

Our Ramakrishna Centre observes Maha Shivaratri from 6 pm to next 6 am. The period is divided into four sessions of three hours each. And each session has puja, pouring of milk, curd, ghee, honey in respective four sessions, pasting of chandan, offering of vilva leaves, garlanding of flowers etc, arati, discourses, a combination of bhajan and kirtan. After attending initial puja at HQ, I spent my first session at Phoenix sub-centre where more than 400 devotees had assembled.  A large number of devotees had to be accommodated in the adjoining covered space where CCTV had been installed for that occasion. The topic of my Talk was ‘Shiva-shakti’. The second session was at HQ where the theme of my Talk was on Maheshwara and the Monk, comparing the salient features between Lord Shiva and Swami Vivekananda.

Discourse on 'Shiva Panchakshara Stotram'
Discourse on 'Shiva Panchakshara Stotram' at Chatsworth Subcentre

Third session was at our Chatsworth sub-centre where I took up the panchakshara mantra (Five-letter mantra) of Shiva, “Om namah shivaaya” for discussion. This was based on the stotram composed by the great Adishankaracharya. And in the fourth session I was at Asherville Sri Sarada Devi Ashram where I spoke about Master and Shiva. Back at HQ at 5 am and witnessed the havan ceremony where devotees performed the yajna.

Offering holy Vilva leaves to Shivalinga at Sri Sarada Devi Ashram
Offering holy Vilva leaves to Shivalinga at Sri Sarada Devi Ashram

Devotee Pravesh took me by his car to all these places hopping from one to another in quick succession so that everywhere I was present timously.  And the day being spent on fasting and thinking of Lord Shiva, the night spent again in speaking about Him and His glory. Indeed a very soul-fulfilling experience!

Swami Vivekananda’s famous address at the pilgrim town Rameshwaram came to my mind when on this Maha Shivaratri holy night I started recollecting my memorable experience in one of the jyotirlinga spots. In that Address, Swamiji clearly spells out the intimate connection of Seva (service) to Shiva.

Swami Vivekananda

 This is the gist of all worship — to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.

Let me narrate how a poor woman in one place of pilgrimage, illiterate yet knew what is real worship of Shiva. 

When I went for darshan of the famous jyotirlinga at Bhimashankar in Maharashtra state some years ago, from the bus I could see the distant black clouds hovering the hills. Walking from the bus stand to the temple through the small vendors’ shops and watching the selling of all and sundry items of worship and interest to pilgrims was, as enchanting as drenching in the drizzle.

It was noon by the time I reached the holy temple. After darshan, when I was sitting at the entrance in utter quietness, I saw a lady coming towards me. She briskly asked me, “baba, have you had your meal?” I replied in the negative. Undoubtedly I was indeed hungry but had no inclination to go to the roadside eateries. She then asked me to accompany her to her home which, as she showed, was up in the hills. I was, obviously hesitant – should I go or not? Was it proper to go with an unknown woman? and what dangers might be lurking? – as is known well that the places of pilgrimage do have the usual human perils too.

Yet, finally I decided to go as I felt Master is with me and was confident that no evil shall befall. Reaching her home, in that biting cold and amidst the rains, I found her child playing with her little brother. It was easy for me to establish rapport with those children. Within half an hour the lady served me hot rotis with alu sabji. Did I feel it was nectar like? Yes, the love and affection that beamed in her face while feeding me cannot be forgotten.

After food, she raised some questions about some puranic tales. My answers seemed to be satisfying to her. In my narration, I drew some of the similes spoken by Sri Ramakrishna to her attention and she ran inside her kitchen and brought a small photo of Thakur with great joy! I felt that Master only brought me to her home as He knows where to feed His son! 

And taking leave of her and thanking profusely for her cordial, hearty hospitality, I offered a few Rupees that I had. The unlettered village woman’s face turned sour and she quipped angrily whether I am paying the charges for the meal that she supplied. She scolded me saying, was it not that she served me thinking that Lord Shiva had come to her home as atithi (honoured guest)?  It was quite difficult to convince her of the necessity to have that amount. Finally when I said that she should spend the money on her children’s dress for the ensuing Diwali, she hesitantly relented.

Poor indeed but with what a rich heart;  ever ready to serve a sadhu signifying that Rural India is such that it cannot see a monk in ochre robe go unfed.  India is not a punya bhumi (blessed land) merely on poetical terms…

============================================