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Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Kali the Fierce Mother

Parvati watched her son, Skanda, struggling to defeat the demon Raktabeej on the battlefield. The demon was winning. A worried Parvati knitted her brows. From the centre of her brows emerged Kali, dark as death, long disheveled hair covering her naked body. With bloodshot eyes and her enormous tongue hanging out, she rushed to strike terror in the hearts of  all the demons.kali 2

Kali is thus the terrifying face of a loving mother. But so often she is mistaken for the terror she portrays.

The Encylopedia Britannica describes Kali as the “ Major Hindu goddess whose iconography, cult and mythology commonly associate her with death,sexuality,violence and paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love.” This description is an ill-informed, gross misinterpretation of a sublime idea.

To understand Kali, we must get to her roots, look beneath the dark veneer.

Kali comes from the Sanskrit word Kala meaning time. Time is ultimate leveler. Nothing escapes the all-consuming march of time.The Mahanirvana Tantra says,”Just as all colours disappear in black,so all names and forms disappear in her.” Kali is All and Nothing. Everything ultimately dissolves in to infinite Nothingness.

For Kali is none other than Parvati, the timeless Shakti, the creative energy that is constantly manifesting around us.

Just as Shiva destroys so that he many create, so does his consort Kali. As Mahakala and Mahakali ( the masculine and feminine principles of the Great Time), they are the regenerative forces of Nature. Nature, both within and without.

In Hindu mythology demons often represent the evil with us. Parvati could not see her son losing in his fight against the demons so she came to his rescue. So does Ma Kali, the dark mother, help her children who seek her refuge. But a mother’s love is tough. She will let her children fall and be bruised so that they may learn to walk.

So yes, in a way Kali brings death but by way of transformation. She destroys the ego, the illusory view of reality. We are more than just this body, she reminds us by wearing garlands of skulls and dismembered limbs.

Hence there is the practice in some fringe cults of offering animal sacrifices (goats) to Kali by her devotees who seek to be liberated. Then there are those devotees who have shunned society and rejected everything to do with the material world and are found praying to Shiva and Kali on cremation grounds. With ashes smeared on their bodies, they meditate on the impermanent nature of the world.

This is not to say that they worship Death. In none of the stories or scriptures is Kali associated with cannibalism as some non-Hindus believe. Nor is Kali associated with human death in any stories or scriptures. Contrary to common belief, Kali is not the goddess of Death. Yama is the Hindu god of death.

Kali’s naked form and the tantric practice of worshiping Shiva and Kali as the divine couple are often associated with sexuality but Kali’s nudity is primeval and her connection with Shiva is fundamental, like nature.

Kali is first mentioned in the Vedas as one of the seven tongues of the fire Agni. She was described as the black tongue of Time.

In time, Kali herself has evolved and transformed into the fierce Mother, timeless and all encompassing, who with her compassion destroys our veil of ignorance.

Hindu Devas and their Japanese Avatars

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As much as I like to discover the esoteric meaning of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I am equally fascinated by their history. Where they came from, how they evolved and their place in the world in present times. In my previous posts I have often touched upon other forms of the deities, as they are worshipped today, in other countries or religions.

A few days ago I came across an excellent post by Videshi Sutra on the integration of Hindu devas into Buddhism and their journey to Japan via China.  
Videshi Sutra says… 

This is a historical phenomenon, which entertains and fascinates me to no end. Buddhism had a huge impact on all East Asian cultures, especially on their pantheons of deities. On first glance it might seem odd that a reform movement, which rejected many of the core tenets of Vedic religion would transmit a belief in Vedic deities. This apparent oddity is a misunderstanding of Buddhism’s “atheism,” and a misunderstanding of what a “Deva” actually is.

Most forms of Buddhism, while rejecting the concept of all-powerful gods or creator deities, openly accept the existence of powerful supernatural beings.

In the Buddhist pantheon, the Devas have generally converted to Buddhism and now serve as his protectors, the protectors of his teachings, or as helpers to mortals who are trying to achieve enlightenment.

To find out  more on how the Buddhist versions of Hindu gods were integrated into Japanese   culture ( with fantastic images) read the rest of the article here Hindu Devas Take a ( Silk Road) Trip to Japan!

Contemplating Ganesha

ImageGanesha the elephant-headed god, one of Hinduism’s most well known faces, is steeped in symbolism.

Over the ages, the story of Ganesha’s unusual birth and his unique form have been interpreted in various ways. For the purpose of this post I have taken the most widely accepted versions and in the true spirit of Hinduism given you my own intuitive understanding of them.

Ganesha is said to be the physical form of the symbol Aum. Aum is the symbol of Creation. It represents the unmanifest Shakti which manifests as Prakriti or Nature. Thus Ganesha born of Shakti represents all Creation.

The mantra Aum is also Pranava, the prime mantra through which all existence is known. ‘Pra’ means Prakriti and ‘nava’ is the boat which helps us navigate the endless ocean of Creation called Prakriti. So it is through her son that we may know the mother.

Hence, Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra which is the seat of Shakti. By meditating on Ganesha the Kundalini Shakti is realised and awakened to remove all obstacles and transform us.

As Parvati created Ganesha by herself with no help from Shiva, he is our direct link to Nature of which we are also a part. Ganesha leads us to ourselves.

Parvati created Ganesha so that he may guard her honour. Hence Ganesha is portrayed as the typical mother’s boy who adores her and above all protects her.  Thus he is ‘Ganesha- Guardian of all Beings’. In protecting all of Creation, he protects Prakriti his mother.

Adi Shankaracharya who established Ganesha as one of the five main deities said this of Ganesha,

“Though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa).
He is, ‘Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.’ This means Ganesha is unborn (ajam), he is without attributes( Nirvikalpa), he is formless (Niraakaar) and he symbolizes the consciousness which is omnipresent.” Which brings us back to why Ganesha is associated with Aum.

As for Ganesha’s form, the big elephant head symbolizes intelligence and wisdom. His big ears pick up on the softest of prayers whispered by his devotees. His small shrewd eyes miss nothing and his trunk represents discretion. An elephant may use his trunk to fell trees or pick up a blade of grass depending on the situation.

He is Ekdanta, the one with a single tusk. This stands for single mindedness.His big belly holds all the knowledge of the Universe.

An elephant is not hindered by any obstacle in his path. He simply steps over it or goes around it. Hence Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and of his four arms one is raised in the Abhaya mudra, which says to his devotees, ‘fear not I shall protect you.’

The second hand holds a noose to rein in the wandering mind while the third has the goad to push people onto the path of righteousness. Finally, the fourth hand holds a sweet modak which shows his eternal childlike nature.

 Om Gan Ganapataye Namah !!

Parvati Creates Ganesha

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Up on Mt. Kailash while Shiva sat lost in meditation, Parvati his wife was getting lonely.  She had Shiva’s subjects for company and his faithful attendant Nandi took good care of her. Yet, Parvati longed for someone to call her own. She longed for a child.

Once when she was bathing, scrubbing sandalwood paste on her body, Parvati decided to make herself a child. She mixed the scrapings from her body with the clay from the river and lovingly created a young boy with it. He was so fair and beautiful that she breathed life into him.

Many months passed and one day while Parvati was in her cave and Ganesha stood outside guarding the entrance, Shiva returned home. Ganesha had strict instruction from his mother  to not let anyone in, so he forbade Shiva from entering the cave.  Furious at being stopped from going into his own home and unaware that the young boy was Parvati’s son, Shiva in a fit of temper cut the boy’s head off. When Parvati came out and saw what had happened she was overcome with grief and rage. She summoned all the goddesses to avenge the death of her son. A terrible war ensued and Shiva soon realized his mistake. He tried to calm Parvati down but she demanded he bring her son back to life.

Now Shiva didn’t know what to do so he approached Brahma, the Creator, for help. Brahma suggested they get the head of the first animal they find which is lying down facing North.  Shiva’s servants went into the forest looking for such an animal and returned with an elephant’s head. Shiva then placed the head on Ganesha’s lifeless body and resurrected him. Parvati was overjoyed but soon her heart sank at her son’s plight. “What kind of life will my son have stuck with an elephant’s head?” she asked Shiva.

Shiva promised Parvati that their son would be called Ganapati, Lord of all beings. Loved and adored by all, he would be worshiped first, before any other god.

And so we’ve come to love and adore this playful, clever little potbellied boy, darling of his parents and guardian of all beings. He is the remover of all obstacles. We chant his name before any auspicious work is begun and before any kind of worship. To him we pray for peace and harmony.

Historically however, it was only around  the fourth or the fifth century that Ganesha rose in prominence. It was during the reign of the Gupta dynasty when Hindu traditions shifted towards Brahmanism that Ganesha was established as one of the five prime deities.

Nonetheless, he is today one of Hinduism’s most favourite gods. He has truly become Lord of the People. I wonder if the rather charming anecdotes of Ganesha’s life have been largely responsible for his popularity. Or, is it because humans have a strange affinity towards elephants? We love elephants because they are so much like us. Or perhaps we just like someone who is not so perfect but wears his imperfections so well. Well, whatever it is, no Hindu home or life is complete without Ganesha in it.

Ganesha’s is also worshipped as the remover of obstacles by Jains and Buddhists. As Hinduism gradually spread to south east Asia so did the worship and iconography of Ganesha. Modified forms of Ganesha continue to be worshipped in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma Thailand, Combodia and in some Buddhist sects of China and Japan where he is known as Kangiten.

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5th century “image of Ganesha, consecrated by the Shahi King Khingala.” found at Garddez, Afghanistan.

I look forward to exploring some of the  symbolism behind Ganesha’s birth and form in my next post.

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