Posted in India, Religion

The story of Nandanar

‘Caste did not exist in early India’, many today like to affirm. Then I remember the story of Nandanar, who is known because of his devotion to the god Shiva. There were  many others who lived along with him, unknown, and unsung.

Nandanar’s  exact date is not known, but he probably lived in the seventh or eighth century. The story of Nandanar and his devotion appears in the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar [12th century],  which is the Tamil account of the sixty-three Nayanar [Shaivite] saints. Nandanar’s story  was made famous by Gopalakrishna Bharati in his Nandanar-Charitra. In the nineteenth century this was sung in every village in Tamil Nadu.  Gopalakrishna’s version, which  added a few details to that of Sekkilar, is given below.

Nandanar was born in village Merkattadhanur (now Melanallur) in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu in  a low caste (Dalit) family.  He worked as a bonded labourer for a land owner of the Vedhiyar caste. As an untouchable,  Nandanar was not permitted to enter the village temple, but yearned to visit it, and used to play the yazh (an instrument) and sing devotional songs from some distance away.  He desired to go to Tiruppungur to worship the deity Shivaloganathaswami in the temple there, and one day managed to reach  there.  He stood outside the temple and attempted to look at the linga within, but a large image of Nandi blocked his view. It is said that at Shiva’s command, the Nandi moved a few feet to the right, so that Nandanar could view the linga.  Returning to his village, filled with joy,  Nandanar was determined to go to Tillai (Chidambaram). Everyday he would say, ‘I will go tomorrow’, and thus he earned the name Tiru Nalai Povar, ‘one who will go tomorrow’, and is still known by that name.  Finally he approached his Vedhiyar landlord for permission, who told him to worship the gods of his own caste. His own community members too, told him to leave the high caste gods alone. Nandanar did not give up. Once again he asked the landlord, who said he would permit him if he transplanted  paddy in 40 velis of land (250 acres) in one day, an impossible task. By the grace of Shiva this was done, and Nandanar set off for Chidambaram. Here too he could not enter the temple, but it is said that the Lord appeared to him and to the temple dikshitars (priests) in a dream and said that after purification by a ‘fire bath” he would be permitted to enter. The dikshitars built a Vedic fire which he entered, and is said to have emerged from it with a tuft of hair and sacred thread, like a brahmana. He then entered the temple and merged with Lord Nataraja.

Historians believe that Nandanar was actually burnt to death and never entered Tillai, but today his image is in leading Shaivite temples along with those of the other Nayanars.  He has been praised by Ramalinga Swami, Narayana guru, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Sivananda, and several others, and is perhaps the most well-known of the Nayanars. In 1910 Swami Sahajananda established the Nandanar School and Nandanar Matha  at Chidambaram in his memory.

 

 

Posted in Religion, Upanishads

Unreality: The Tejo-bindu Upanishad

That the world and everything in it is unreal is a theme of the Upanishads. Here are a few extracts from the third chapter of the Tejo-bindu Upanishad

‘The form of the mind is false. The form of the intellect is false. I am eternal, perpetual and originless…the three bodies are false, the three gunas are false, all scriptures are false, the Vedas are false, all Shastras are false, I the Atman of consciousness am true. The triad of murtis are false, all beings are false, all truth is false. I am Sadashiva, pervading all existing things. The preceptor and pupil are false, the mantra of the preceptor is false.. Whatever is seen is false, what is conceivable is false… all living creatures are false, all enjoyments are false, right and wrong action is false, what is lost and obtained is false, grief and delight are false, good and bad conduct is false. All form, taste, smell, cognition is false, every result of human existence is false, I alone am the absolute Truth.

A passage follows on the mantra ‘I am Brahman’ which supersedes  all others and destroys all duality, all diseases of the mind and all bonds.  This mantra alone should be used.

 

Posted in Religion, Uttarakhand

The descent of the gods of Uttarakhand

Akedarnath-temple-and-mountain

The mountains have received their first snowfall. As winter sets in, the temples in the high mountains of Uttarakhand are getting ready to close. The dates have already been announced. The gods and goddesses from these will move down to their winter abodes, and return again in May.  Many rituals accompany this annual journey. After a special bath, puja and worship, the image of the deity is placed in a decorated palanquin, ready to be carried. A band accompanies it for some distance, then devotees and pilgrims continue the journey. After more rituals the deity is installed in its winter temple. Worship will continue there till the gods return.

Kedarnath, Badrinath,  Gangotri and Yamunotri, are the most important temples, known as the ‘char dham’, though others close down too. Kedarnath is one of the names of the god Shiva, at Badrinath the god Vishnu is worshipped. Gangotri and Yamunotri represent the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.

This year, Gangotri, the abode of the goddess Ganga, will be the first to close on 31 October. Yamunotri and Kedarnath will close on 1 November, Badrinath on 16 November. The goddess Ganga goes to her winter temple in village Mukhba, the goddess Yamuna to Kharsali.  The deity of Kedarnath descends to Ukhimath, and of Badrinath to Joshimath.

Pilgrims to the temples were fewer after the great floods of 2013, but reached 15 lakh [1.5 million] this year.

 

Posted in Books, Buddhism, India, Religion

Books and texts of India

As I read and write on history and historical themes, I am always amazed and in awe of the people of the past, who did so much, gained some recognition in their lifetime, and now are hardly remembered. Perhaps they were as brilliant as those who remain famous today, but for some reason, they are not known to the same extent.

There are artists, musicians, leaders, prophets, and of course, writers. And there are books. I will be trying to make some of these books from India better known, dating from the earliest to the modern.

There are the Vedas and all related Vedic texts; The Mahabharata and Ramayana in their innumerable different versions in regional languages; the Puranas and their stories; and the poems and writings of so many more in all different languages. Right now I am writing something on the Manimekalai, an epic in Tamil. It has a Buddhist theme, but also tells us a lot about women in early south India, and about religion and life in general.

Posted in Books, Religion, Sufism

The future is contained in the past

It was long ago in the 1980s. I had never written a book, and had no idea that I ever would. Certainly there was no way I could know that one day I would be able to share my thoughts, ideas and knowledge, on one of my favourite subjects, religion.

I visited the USA for the first time, and staying with a friend in New York, I had to look in on Barnes and Noble. What a bookshop! There was so much I could have bought, and so many days I could have spent there. But I was not there for long, and did not have much money left. Then in the back of the bookshop there were second-hand books. I came across a series under the heading Great Religions of Modern Man. There were six hardcover books in the series, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Each book had quotes from original texts, along with a general introduction and some comments. I couldn’t resist and though it was quite expensive for me,  I bought the set!

And below I share a quote from one of the books, in memory of that visit.

From a Sufi text:
‘The Lord of the Spirit and the Word [Jesus] used to say: “My daily bread is hunger, my badge is fear, my raiment is wool, my mount is my foot, my lantern at night is the moon, and my fire by day is the sun, and my fruit and fragrant herbs are such things as the earth brings forth for the wild beasts and the cattle. All the night I have nothing, yet there is none richer than I!”.’ (From the writings of Al-Hasan al-Basri, a Sufi saint from Basra in Iraq, who died Ce 728; trans. A.J. Arberry.)

Posted in death, life, Religion

The West and the East: Life and Death

Western religious systems generally want to change and improve the world–the Eastern often want to ignore it, as the world, life and death are considered unreal. The only reality is the eternal unchanging soul. Here is a typical passage from an important text.

‘It matters little to these countless beings which are continually being born only to be destroyed, whether the noble and kind-hearted grieve or delight over their fate. The widespread illusion called samsara [world or worldliness] is an arena for incessant births and incessant deaths. Neither exhilaration nor bemoaning is called for from any quarter.’
Yoga Vasishtha, 14.34-35, trans. by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha.

Can one ever agree with this and ignore the world?

Posted in Books, Religion, Writing

Fiction and non-fiction

I am mainly a non-fiction writer–but I wanted to diversify, and have completed a novel. I’m still working on improving it and tying up loose ends. Simultaneously I have an article to complete on Zoroastrianism–and today I’m focusing on that. I have most of it in place, but I have started wondering about the authenticity of later texts, and about the authenticity of the translations. It is only a five to six thousand word article–I have written more about Zoroastrianism in my book Religions of India. Now I have the idea of writing a whole book on this ancient religion.