All About Hinduism

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

The Birth of Krishna

It was a dark and stormy night.  Deep in the prison cells of Mathura, Vasudev and Devaki waited anxiously for the birth of their eight child. Outside, the winds wailed and the rain fell in torrents.  Inside the prison walls a terrible foreboding filled the hearts of the expectant parents.

The moment of truth was upon them. Although Devaki had no reason to doubt the divine prophecy, her heart trembled with fear. King Kamsa, her brother, had already killed her seven children with his bare hands. What was to say he would not do the same again? A great sadness enveloped her.

Soon the auspicious hour drew close. The storm quitened and the night stilled.The star Rohini shone brightly. And as was foretold, at the stroke of mid-night, Devaki bound in chains, gave birth to her eight child, a baby boy.Image

Instantly a soft light filled the dark cell. In the glow Devaki and Vasudev saw Vishnu in his divine form with lotus eyes and four arms bearing the conch, disc, mace and lotus.

They recognised at once the Supreme Lord and bowed before him. But soon the moment passed; the veil of Maya descended upon them once more and Vishnu appeared to them as their newborn baby. Vasudeva and Devaki were overcome with joy. They called him Krishna for he was dark as the night and shone with the tejas of a thousand full moons.

Presently they heard a voice, “Vasudeva take the young child and leave him in the house of Nanda the chief of the cowherds of Gokul and bring back with you the girl–child who has been born there.”

How could he, who was bound in chains and behind bars, take his boy to Gokul?  Vasudev’s heart sank. But willed by a power beyond him Vasudev stood up and took the boy from Devaki. And lo and behold the chains slipped away and the prisons doors opened. The guards were fast asleep. Vasudeva hurried out.

Outside the rain continued to fall and the river Yamuna was flooded. Vasudeva lifted Krishna over his head and stepped into the river. The waters were steadily rising but Vasudeva pushed on. He had to reach the other bank. Soon the swollen river threatened to drown both father and son. But as soon as the river had touched the baby’s foot, the waters began to recede. Yamuna having touched the Lord’s feet now made way for Vasudeva.

At last Vasudeva came to the village of cowherds. A burning lamp guided him to a house where a mother slept with her newborn babe. Quietly Vasudeva swapped the babies and rushed back to the prison with the little girl before the guards woke up.

In the morning when Kamsa learnt that his sister had given birth to her eight child, his nemesis, he rushed to the prison to see it for himself. Sure enough there she was, a helpless little girl. A great thunderous laugh escaped Kamsa. Was this the child who was to be his end? Without a second thought he rushed forth, grabbed the child and flung it against the wall.

But the girl rose above their heads and assumed the form of the goddess. “The child you wish to slay lives,” She laughed as she disappeared.

For the next twelve years Kamsa tried his best to harm Krishna but was eventually killed by him in a battle.

And so Krishna, the eight incarnation of Vishnu, was born to restore the balance between good and evil and to reveal the true nature of the Supreme Being to men.

Krishna is believed to be the highest incarnation of Vishnu. He was the Purna Avatar. And whether he is worshipped as the adorable baby Krishna who had all of Gokul enthralled, or the cosmic love of Radha or as the Lord who revealed himself to Arjuna on the battlefield and gave him the Gita, his enchanting form with flute in hand, holds the heart of India captive even today. Image

Today across India Janmasthami, Krishna’s birthday will be celebrated with great devotion and awe. Many will observe a fast through the day and break it at mid-night after the Lord is born. Mathura his place of birth and Vrindavan where he grew up will see the biggest festivities

 

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Raksha Bandhan

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Last week I sent a small coloured thread, a rakhi, in the post to my brother in India which I hope he will receive today and wear it on his wrist as most Indian men will; a token of the quiet but sacred bond between a brother and sister.

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Raksha bandhan is celebrated widely across India in the bright fortnight of the month of Shraavan. Sisters tie a rakhi on their brother’s wrist and pray for his wellbeing. In turn the brother pledges to protect her and look after her till the end of his days. It’s a simple act based on love and trust and celebrates a very special relationship. It is this simplicity that makes this festival  so special. And it’s a joy to see women flock to the markets to select the best rakhis  for their brothers and then the men sporting these colourful bands of various sizes and designs for days afterwards.

This tradition of tying a thread as a talisman to protect the wearer, dates back to ancient times and goes beyond the brother-sister relationship.

The Puranas refer to a battle between devas and asuras. The King of devas, Indra was losing. So his wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses for protection and tied it on Indra’s wrist. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies.

In Rajasthan when the men went to battle, the women tied a thread around their wrist after applying a tilak or vermilion powder on their foreheads. They believed this would protect their men and bring them victory.

Over time raksha bandhan turned into a scared festival for brothers and sisters.

In one famous instance, the queen of Mewar Mharani Krmavati was under threat from the Muslim governor, Bahadur Shah who had laid siege to her kingdom. Desperate for help she sent a rakhi to the Mughal king Humayun. Touched by the trust placed in him Humayun came to her rescue and freed her from Bahadur Shah and his men.

In Maharashtra, this is also the day when the fisher folk celebrate Narali Purnima. With the sea raging and the rivers swollen from the Monsoon rains, the fishermen go out to sea with offerings of coconuts to propitiate the sea god Varuna, to seek his protection and blessing for the year to come. It is believed that this brings the Monsoons to the their end making it safe for the fishermen to resume work again.

On a personal note as I have only daughters, we have our own tradition at home. They tie each other rakhis and I tell them this means they vow to be stand by each other all their lives. They think it’s cool. They call them Indian friendship bands. That will do just fine I think.

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Upanishads Part 4

  The Nature of Self.    

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(In this concluding part of the series on the teachings of the Upanishads we look at the Self that is Reality.  Exracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran.)

Astrophysicists, when speaking of creation, tell us that in the beginning all matter in the universe would have been present in that  ‘primeval atom,’ super condensed to an unbelievable degree. In such a state, matter would no longer be possible as matter. It would be stripped down to pure undifferentiated raw energy. Variations like gravity and light would not emerged and Time and Space would not yet be real.

The sages would find this a prefect metaphor for the unitive state. In samadhi, reality is condensed into pure potential, without dimensions or differentiation. Physicists do not say there was nothing before the Big Bang; they say everything came from that, and nothing more can be said. Similarly, samadhi is not emptiness but complete fullness.

That fullness the Upanishads call sat: absolute reality, in which all creation is implicit as on organism is implicit in its DNA or a tree in its seed.

The joy of being in this state cannot be described. It is infinite. This is the second message of the Upanishads. The infinite, unbounded, full of joy – is our native state. This is Sat-Chit- Ananda. Pure unconditioned awareness which is Absolute Bliss.

How can one attempt to explain such a state, the true nature of one’s Self? “Words turn back frightened,” the Upanishads say. Yet, the sages must have longed so ardently to communicate that they had to try even if the picture was doomed to be incomplete.

Here are glimpses of what they realised…

Whatever we are, whatever we may have done, there is in each of us an inalienable Self that is divine;

As the sun, who is the eye of the world,
Cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes
Nor by the objects it looks on,
So the one Self, dwelling in all, cannot
Be tainted by the evils of the world.
For this Self transcends all !

                                                (Katha II .2.II)

They remind us that the same Self dwells in all:

As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects of differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape,
Of every creature in whom he is present.

                                                  ( Katha II.2.9)

They call us to discover that Self “which knows no aging when the body ages: this knows no dying when the body dies.” (Chan.VIII.I.I,5)

They place us in a compassionate universe where nothing is “other” that ourselves- and they urge us to treat the universe with reverence, for there is nothing in the world but That

The Self is the sun shining in the sky,
The wind blowing in space: he is the fire
At the altar and in the home the guest;
He dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth,
And in the vast firmament;he is the fish
Born in water, the plants growing on the earth,
The river flowing down from the mountain.
For this Self is supreme!

(Katha II.2.2)

Most significantly the Upanishads tell us that our. native state is a realm where death cannot reach. They knew first-hand that when the Self withdraws consciousness from the body, the continuity of personality is not broken. Death would not be different.

As a caterpillar, having come to the end of one blade of grass,
draws itself together and reaches out for the next,
so does the Self, having come to end of one life and shed all ignorance,
gathers in its faculties and reaches out from the old body to new.

( Brihad.III.4.3)

Finally, if both body and mind are made of prana which dissolves on death and if personality returns life after life than surely heaven too must be a state of consciousness, part of the created world. It might be more blissful than the physical world but it too had to be transitory.

The goal then is Self- realisation of one’s true nature: not matter embodied or disembodied, but the uncreated Self.

Thus Self -realisation is immortality in an entirely new sense: not ‘everlasting life’ but beyond death and life alike.

It must be understood here that Upanishads present no system. When much later India’s mystics and philosophers built structures based on these foundations they found they had produced points of logical disagreement. But they all understood that in practice all systems come to same thing. From one point of view the world is God, from another there will always be a veil of difference between the embodied person and the Godhead. Both are true, and neither is the whole truth. Reality is beyond all limitations.

In the end then, the Upanishads belong not just to Hinduism. They are India’s most precious legacy to humanity.

Upanishads -Part 3

ImageLat year when I was visiting Bombay, I saw someone wearing a t-shirt which proclaimed, I was an atheist till I realised I was God.  It made me chuckle. It was a clever spin on the now well known Vedanta philosophy of non-dualism which states – That which is without is within. The same One pervades everything. The Self is God.

But is it really that simple and how did we come to this understanding? What does it really mean?

This brings us to the most fundamental discovery made by sages of the Upanishads.

You Are That –Tat Twam Asi

As the rishis delved into the depths of human consciousness peeling layer after layer of awareness they found that the mind is not consciousness, it is only an instrument of consciousness.

When the concentration is so profound that the mind-processes have come to a stand still and awareness has been consolidated even beyond the mind, little remains except for the awareness of “I”.   Space and Time vanish and you rest in meditation in what the Taittiriya Upanishad calls the “body of joy”, a silent, ethereal inner realm at the threshold of pure being.

In this silence, Shanti, you become aware of something vast, intimately your own but not the finite limited self you had been calling “I”.

No amount of will can erase this “I”, the thin veil of personal identification that seperates us from infinite consciousness. Yet, in deep meditation it suddenly vanishes.

This state the Upanishads call turiya – literally “the fourth” for it lies beyond waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. Turiya, the Upanishads say, is waking up in dreamless sleep.

In later Hindu thought this awakening came to be know as samadhi, complete absorption or moksha, liberation, for it brings freedom from all conditioning and the limitations of mind and space.

The Upanishads tell us that when the  ‘I’ has dissolved and the observer and the observed become one, just chit remains. Pure undifferentiated consciousness. This is our real Self. And, it is identical with the undifferentiated unity which the sages called the Brahman.This is not a reasoned conclusion but something that is experienced at the very centre of one’s being.

The Self is Brahman – is the central discovery of the Upanishads which gave birth to Its most famous mahavkya, formulation : “Tat twam asi” – You are That.

“That” is the characteristic way in which the Upanishads point to a Reality that cannot be described; and “you’ is not the petty, finite personality but the pure consciousness that ‘makes the eye see and the mind think’ – the Self.

And thus we come to the basis of the non- dualistic Vedanta philosophy – The Atman is Brahman, the Self is God.

To understand Self then is to understand God.

So what is the nature of this Self? The Upanishads go to great lengths to show it to us and we will look at some of the explanations in the next post.

(extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran.)

 

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