Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Seventh Night - The Veena and the Jackfruit

goddess_saraswati_playing_veena_tp18 Veena Vadini
One of the many names of the Goddess Saraswati and so her association with the veena is fairly well known. But what has the lumpy, unprepossessing jackfruit have to do with the veena?  
Well, let me start with the veena first….
The veena, one of the oldest instruments in the world, symbolizes both the divine and the primordial. Its physical form is said to represent the human spinal cord and the sound that it creates is said to be closest to the human voice. Said to have been invented by Narada, the celestial musician and son of Brahma, many deities in the Hindu divine pantheon played this instrument including Lakshmi, Parvati, Hanuman and Shiva.
But apparently the maestro of the veena was Ravana who played this instrument with such expertise that he could please any divine power with his music!
There are several references to the veena in the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. As the story goes, Valmiki, after completing the Ramayana, said that when it is recited/sung, the instrument most suitable to accompany it was the veena.
But it is the association of the veena with the Goddess Saraswati that remains the most enduring and profound. Presiding deity as she is not just of knowledge and wisdom and the arts, but of all sound, musical and spoken (one of her many names is “Vach”) it is but natural that the veena should be such an integral part of her divinity.
In her hands, it symbolizes more than just music. It symbolizes harmony, not just musical harmony, but harmonious existence of all living things, it symbolizes the music of the universe, the eternal sea of sound in which rest all of creation, all of knowledge and all of healing.
19 Veenas, one music
Across the splendid expanse of its ancient history and in consonance with its image as the musical instrument of the gods, the veena has had as many avatars as the divinities that played it. Among the 25 or more known avatars of the veena, here are some of the more interesting ones
Veena Parivadini - Said to possess strings made out of gold and was performed by the Pallava king, Mahendravarman
Mahati – 20 stringed veena said to have been played by sage Narada
Pinaki – played with a bow.  Lord Shiva is also called  “Pinakapani” or He who holds of the Bow.
Rudra – Shiva’s instrument, named after him and is the veena currently played in North India.
Brahma veena - has only one string
Satatantri – the 100-stringed veena which existed over 2000 years ago and said to be the ancestor of the santoor.
Kinnari – mostly widely seen and mentioned in Sanskrit literature, paintings and sculptures.
Vipanchi – the 9 stringed veena which is mentioned in Adi Sankaracharya’s 'Soundarya Lahari'
Ravanahatta – the veena supposed to have been invented by Ravana and named after him. It is still popular in Rajasthan
Audumbari – the veena played during Vedic times by the wives of the sages when they recited the Vedas during sacrifices. “Audumbari” means “papal” in Sanskrit and it is possible that this veena was made out of the wood of the pipal tree.
Finally of course is the exquisite Saraswati veena that is to this day is played and is the most popular in Carnatic music
Which leaves us with the bit about the jackfruit…
Which is what the modern day veena is made from - the wood of the jackfruit tree! Chosen because of its particularly resonant quality. But I like the explanation given by Mangalam Muthuswamy, a well-known vainika. According to her, the tradition started in olden days, when the wood was taken from jackfruit trees growing in temple courtyards because it was believed that they had absorbed the resonance of the temple bells!

Magical jackfruit!


And the fruit that looks like a cross between a lumpy green hippo and a porcupine has other magical things about it….
The jackfruit grows all over Asia and in many Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Cambodia; one of the foods believed to increase breast milk production in nursing mothers is tender jackfruit!
And why not? Look at the nutrition that it packs in! Starting with beta-carotene, cued by the beautiful yellow-gold colour of its insides. Beta carotene, apart from being one of the most powerful disease-fighting antioxidants, is also the raw material, which the body converts into Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes millions of children in developing countries like India to go blind. The jackfruit’s cache of Vitamin A is high enough for it to be recommended in the Bangladesh government’s campaign to combat vitamin A deficiency.
Then, like so many other tropical fruits, jackfruit also is an excellent source of minerals like calcium, potassium, iron etc. In fact, it is said to contain more calcium and magnesium than the banana!
The jackfruit is also an excellent source of complex carbohydrate and dietary fibre, making it a great energy food. In fact, the jackfruit’s nutritional profile makes it the perfect staple food – which it is, especially among poor Asians. T
he seeds are even more impressive - dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and certain B vitamins, calcium, zinc, sulfur and phosphorous, apart from a whole range of antioxidants! In Kerala, many even say that kanji eaten with “spoons” made of the leaves of the jackfruit tree is good for respiratory problems!
Today and for the next 3 days, we worship the Goddess Saraswati, one of the Devi’s five avatars. Wellspring of all wisdom, all art. Awed by this, the Lalitha Sahasranama reels of a hosanna of names.
Veda-Janani - Mother of the Vedas, who feeds not only our bodies but also our souls as Gyanada - the giver of Supreme Knowledge.
Gayatri or the Gayatri mantra itself.
Without her we would’ve been mute, because She is Gomata - the source of speech.
Bhasharupa, the embodiment of language.
Kalanatha, Kalanidhih and Kalavati - the fountainhead, the presiding deity, the very embodiment of all art.
Kavyakala - the art of poetry.
From her springs rhythm and music because She is Layakari.
She is not just Yogini but also Yogada and Yogananda who blesses us with the wisdom and bliss realized through yoga.
And finally, She is Vedyavarjita - She who being all knowing, has nothing more to know.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sixth Night - What is Brinda doing in Your Medicine Cabinet? (Or for that matter, Gauri? Madhavi?)

Some would call her a herb but that would be the most inadequate of labels because she is so many things. Medicine, antiseptic, health food, tonic, insect repellant, air purifier. And as many think her to be, even your passport to heaven. She has been a part of our homes, our temples, our rituals, our everyday lives for centuries.
We name our daughters after her.
And she even figures in India’s most watched television serial.
But, lest we forget, she is also a Goddess.
Today is the 6th night of Navratri and the last one dedicated to the Goddess Laxmi. So what better occasion than today to tell you about Her most wondrous avatar.



Its English name “basil” is derived from Greek basileus which means “imperial” because the  fragrance of this herb is considered royal. In Latin, it is called Ocimum sanctum , ocimum said to be from the Greek word 'to smell,' and sanctum meaning holy or sacred. But it is in India, the place of its birth, where it has not one but many, many beautiful names.
Patrapuspha, Brinda, Gauri, Haripriya, Krishnamula, Madhavi, Manjari, Vaishnavi.
And of course - Laxmi

Nature’s GP
Remember that now almost extinct species of doctor called the general physician? Whom you went to not only to treat your ingrown toenails and your baby’s influenza, but also your mother-in-law’s dicky heart? Whose bedside manner was almost as healing as his medicines? Well, you could say that the tulsi plant is Mother Nature’s GP. Just look at the vast range of ailments that it can treat – coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma, influenza, headaches, skin diseases like ringworm, bad breath and pyorrhea, digestive problems, heart disease and insect bites.
Impressed? Wait – how about that if I tell you that it can sharpens your memory, is a nerve tonic, anti-malarial drug and painkiller!
Its wide-spectrum curative powers seem to be coming primarily because of the presence of two things. First, a chemical in tulsi’s volatile oil called Eugenol, which basically acts the way many anti-inflammatory medications including aspirin and ibuprofen work. This along with a whole host other chemicals in tulsi’s volatile oil, also makes it a very potent anti-bacterial agent, effective against all kinds of nasty microbes including Staphylococcus aureus (the food poisoning villain), Escherichia coli O:157:H7, (causes stomach problems like dysentery and diarrehea) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, (the lung infection baddie).
Secondly, tulsi is rich in antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene, which is the source material from which the human body produces vitamin A. And it is the presence of this that makes tulsi so effective in the treatment of heart disease, lowering cholesterol and treating eye disorders like night blindness. Incidentally, along with vitamin A, tulsi is also a good source of iron (7.15 % of your daily requirement in just 2 teaspoons of leaves) and calcium (6.3 %) and of potassium and vitamin C.


I know – many of you are going, “huh?” As I did too. Well, put in layman’s terms, an adaptogen is anything that helps prevent the onset of illnesses by strengthening the body’s immune systems and make you able to adapt and cope with a wide range of physical, emotional, chemical and infectious stresses. Did I just use the word “stress”? Yes I did! And this perhaps is the tulsi’s least talked about but most impressive attribute. That it is considered as a powerful adaptogen, a stress buster, strengthening the immune system by increasing antibody production with its antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Dr. Andrew Weil, that high-profile, high priest of integrative medicine in the West talks of a “study, published in 1991 in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology, compared tulsi to Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and found that holy basil was the most potent anti-stress agent of the three, and also had the highest margin of safety. However, this study, as well as a dozen others I found in a search of the medical literature, was conducted in laboratory animals, not humans….”

Well, laboratory animals or not, I for one don’t need more research to convince me. Because I think that with that spectacular bio-date of nutritional and medicinal properties, it’s more than likely that the tulsi is indeed a potent tonic.
Which is why like the rudraksha, it is worn – especially by Vaishnavites – as a necklace so that it remains constantly in touch with the body. Which is why often, Hindu and Buddhist japamalas are made of tulsi wood. And why among with all the protective mantras or “kavacham” that supplicate Durga, Narayana, Mahalakshmi, Gayatri, Shamugan there is one for the Tulsi as well….
Holy Herb
There are so many references to the tulsi in the Hindu ancient texts, both medicinal and religious, that it is the subject of a thesis and a book. But, the essence of it is that the tulsi plant, avatar of the Goddess Mahalakshsmi, was churned out of the ocean along with Kamadhenu the cow, the parijata and Dhanwantri, the deva who became the preceptor of Ayurveda. Considered so sacred that in the Padma Purana it is said even the soil in which it grows is sacred. That just one twig, is enough to cleanse the soul of the most heinous sinner, when placed near the dead body. So pure that many consider that it purifies the air around where it grows.
And since the Goddess Laxmi is Lord Vishnu’s consort, so the tulsi is His most beloved, so much so that it is also called Vishnupriya.
Which is how Brindvan got its name.
IMG_2090 You see, Lord Krishna, his most favourite playground was a spot near Mathura, which  – as one story goes -  was a lush tulsi grove. And  'Vrinda' is also one of tulsi’s many names. And so, to this day, the traditional pot in which the tulsi is grown is called a vrindavan.
I end with this beautiful little legend. It is said that Krishna, after completing his work on earth, continued to live in Dwarka with his wives. But the gods therefore wanted him back in heaven. So they kidnapped him. Rukmini and Satyabhama were inconsolable without their beloved Krishna. So, Narada, that Grandsire of Negotitions, brought the ladies a celestial deal. It was this. That the gods would return Krishna to them if Rukmini and Satyabhama could outweigh him when he sat in one pan of a weighing scale {tula).
”Done!” said the ladies and Satyabhama had the first go, heaping all of her vast riches onto the pan of the scale. But to no avail – it floated up light as a feather! Now it was Rukmini’s turn. She first cleared away all Satyabhama’s riches, then plucked a few leaves of tulsi and put it in the scale. The pan dropped down immediately, the one in which Krishna sat went up….
And he got to stay with his beloved wives.
Namastulsi  Kalyaani
Namo  Vishnupriye  Shudhe
Namo  Mokshaprade Devi
Namaha  Sampat  Pradaayike
Happy Navaratri!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fifth Night - A Lotus in Your Frying Pan

white lotus flower

Padma – Lotus
Padmavarna – She who is the colour of the lotus
Padmapriya: She who loves lotus
Padmalochana – She whose eyes are like the lotus
Padmalaya – She who is the abode of the lotus
Padmagandha – She who is the fragrance of the lotus
Padmakshi: One whose eyes are as beautiful as a lotus.
Padmahastam: One who holds a lotus
Nelumbo nucifera, Or as you and I know it – the lotus.
The most recurring association of the Goddess Lakshmi is with the lotus flower. “The meaning of the lotus in relation to Shri-Lakshmi refers to purity and spiritual power.” Wikipedia
That it is sacred, we all know.
The East has always regarded the lotus as sacred, pure; the symbol of beauty, eternity, fertility and prosperity. It also considered a sign of spiritual consciousness rising above the dross and the material because though its roots grow in mud and swamp, the stem carrying the bloom always rises above the water.
It also considered a sign of spiritual consciousness rising above the dross and the material because though its roots grow in mud and swamp, the stem carrying the bloom always rises above the water.
Virtually every God and Goddess of Hinduism are often shown sitting on the lotus, holding a lotus flower in their hand and have names associating them with the lotus.
In yoga, one of the most serene yet powerful of poses is the padmasana, the posture for meditation and one assumed by the Jain Tirtanthakaras (the 6th Tirtankhara’s name is Padmaprabha) and by the Buddha.
But did you know that the lotus leaf is no less a source of wonderment?
Scientifically speaking, that is.
You see, scientists have for years been fascinated by the fact that even though the lotus grows in swampy, dirty, muddy waters, it never gets wet or dirty. And that is because it is an astounding example not just of natural water proofing but also self-cleaning. If you have ever noticed the surface of a lotus leaf, it seems to have a wax like coating. Actually, this “coating” is thousands of microscopic bumps which ensure that when water falls on it, very little comes in contact with the leaf’s surface (only 2-3%!). Which is why water “rolls” up into little mercury-like beads, leaving the leaf dry and untouched. And every time these beads of water roll around the leaf’s surface, they also roll up all surface dirt and dust, leaving everything clean and and beautifully dry.
These amazing water-resistant and self-cleaning properties of the lotus leaf were first studied in 1997 by the German botanist, Wilhelm Barthlott. Since then, everyone from Dupont, the non-stick rajahs to manufacturers of aircraft windshields and computer hard disks have been researching and trying to mimic what is now called the “lotus effect”. And research continues to try and mimic the lotus leaf to coat airplane wings to keep them from icing up, to line the hulls of ocean liners to make water roll off them more easily and therefore make them move faster and of course for more efficient waterproof clothing!
Today is the 5th night of the Devi, dedicated again to her most enthralling avatar – the Goddess Lakshmi.
She is Lajja or modesty.
She is Tushtih or contentment
She is Pushti or nourishment and health.
She is Kantir - radiance,
She is Shantih - peace.
Matir - wisdom
Nirmala or Purity.
Dhrutih or Fortitude
Chinmayi or pure Consciousness.
She is limitless (Nirantara).
She is the oldest (Vrddha), yet She is the ever young (Taruni).
She is Murta - who has form yet She is Amurta -who is formless.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Fourth Night – A Poet, A Goddess and A Pot of Buttermilk

Today is the first of the three nights of Navaratri dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi


As MahaVishnu lay resting on a fig leaf in the form of a child, he began thinking as to who he was, who created him and how he should act, when a celestial voice said:
Nanyadasti santanam.”
(All that is, I am. There is nothing eternal but me.)
It was the voice of the Devi.
Consort of Lord Vishnu and considered The Devi’s most sublime form. Because we mostly propitiate for wealth and good fortune, not many of us remember that She is also considered the seat of compassion, peace and all things good and beautiful….
And I am reminded of buttermilk and a man called Puranadaradasa…
A few months ago, a folk singer landed up at my gate, as they often so. A young man with skin like dark chocolate and large, liquid eyes to match, he wore just a saffron dhoti and shallu. The tiny harmonium slung around his neck was so old and beat up that it was difficult to make out some of the black keys from the white. But when he began to play and sing, it was pure, divine magic. His fingers flew across those cracked keys, coaxing out the notes of Raga Tilang. His voice was like graveled, melted jaggery. And the song? A Purandaradasa devaranama. I listened enthralled, at one point moved to tears. And marveled at a man called Puranadaradasa who, nearly 5 centuries ago, with his pitara of magical songs must have roamed the land, touching the hearts of people just as this young singer touched mine – with the very same songs. Five centuries later. his compositions like his bhakti are like little pools of crystal clear water, uncluttered by affectation and needless ornamentation.
Even though he is called the “Pitamaha” of Carnatic music, Puranadaradasa was essentially the people’s poet. His compositions like his bhakti are like little pools of crystal clear water, uncluttered by affectation and needless ornamentation. You dip in and come out refreshed. And the language is simple and homespun but delicious, making the compositions go down like a glass of cool, spicy buttermilk on a hot summer afternoon.

So, of Purandaradasa’s many, many compositions - an astounding 4,75,000 compositions at last count – his sweetest, most beautiful and the one dearest to the hearts of us Kannadigas is the one he composed to the Goddess Lakhsmi. For 500 years it has been sung in a million different ways, spanning the entire musical gamut from Carnatic to folk, but however you sing it, the simple magic of the words never lessens as he begs for a visitation by the Goddess Lakhshmi……
“Sowbhayda Lakshmi baaramma
Namamma Ni….
Gejjekaalgala dhwaniya torutha
Hejje mele hejjeya nikkuta
Sajjana sadhu poojeya velege
Majjige volagina benne yante
Bhagyalakshmi baramma”
“O Goddess of Good Fortune, come
O Our Mother, come…
To the sound the anklets on Your feet
As You walk
As the good people get ready to pray
As butter emerges from buttermilk
O Lakhshmi of Good Fortune, O Mother

She is Bhagavati, the supreme goddess.
Bhuvaneshvari, the sovereign of the universe. Maha-Shakti - the Greatest Power, Mahabala - the Greatest Strength
Mahavirya – the greatest valour.
Mahabuddhih - the Greatest Intelligence,
Mahasiddih - the Greatest Fulfillment.
Maharatih – the Greatest Bliss,
Maharupa –the most magnificent form.
Maha-Pujya – the most worthy of worship, even by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Third Night

When Bri. Maya Tiwari was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer at the age of 23, and at the height of an extraordinarily successful career as a fashion designer in New York, her doctor recommend that she die painlessly with "heavy doses of morphine." Instead, Maya went on a self-healing process using “the wisdom and healing practices of the Vedas”. She realized that not only was the source of all disease and healing within us, but also that disease was an opportunity to go inwards, to re-establish contact with our own forgotten powers to heal us physically, emotionally and spiritually.
And to share with the world this personal journey from sickness to health, she wrote The Path of Practice – A Woman’s Book of Ayurvedic Healing, a glorious celebration of being a woman and of feminine power.
"The Divine Mother endowed all females with two gifts: the power to nurture and the power to protect. Shakti is more than the energy of reproduction. It is the spirit of protecting the sacred, gathering food, worshipping the Divine and giving birth to children, to inspiration, to idea and to art."
The book contains this amazing anecdote about the Lalitha Sahasranama
“Not long ago, I met Anna, a fourteen year-old girl who had been diagnosed with anorexia.  Anna said that her reason for not eating was that voices in her head were ordering her not to touch a morsel of food or else she would be severely punished…..As I meditated one day, I realized that she needed to be bathed in sounds of Vedic chants. I recorded a powerful chant for her that evokes the Divine mother’s presence – Lalitha Sahasranama, a thousand names of the Mother. Anna’s parents later described to me her reaction the first time that they played the tape in her presence. She suddenly became very quiet and her ex-pression became fixed, almost as if she was in a trance. As soon as the tape ended, she saked her mother to play it again. “I love the voice. I love the music,” she said.

She listened to the tape repeatedly throughout the next week.  Then she announced, “The voices are gone. I don’t hear them anymore. All I hear is the voice of the chants.” Anna is now eating normally and on her way to recovery.”
She is the Mother who guides us to walk the right path.
Because She is Madanashini, who destroys all pride and ego because She herself is Nirahankara – without ego;
Lobhanashini, who destroys greed because She herself is Nirlobha (without greed), Samshayaghni, who obliterates suspicion and doubt because She is Nishamshaya (without suspicion).
She is Krodha-Samani, who smoothes away anger since She is eternally Nishkrodha or without anger.
She is the mother who empowers us because She is Iccha-shakti-Gyana-shakti-Kriya-shakti- Svarupini, the Power of will, knowledge and action.
In her presence, obstacles melt away because She is Vighna Nashini. In her purifying radiance, we are freed from sin because She is Parampaapanashini.
With her blessing, we earn the fruits of good deeds because She is Punyaphalprada.
And so, She is Vandaru jana Vatsala – who loves her devotees like a mother.
Or then, She is just simply – Mata.

lalitha devi

The Second Night of Navaratri

mahishasura2 Tonight is the second night of Navratri
The Garba dance that is part of navratri celebrations comes from the word “Garbha deep”. Garbha meaning "womb" and “deep” meaning light. On the first day of Navratri is the ceremony of Ghat Sthapana, when a beautifully decorated earthen pot with holes in it is set up and worshipped.
That pot represents the Devi and her most beloved aspect – The Mother
Because she is the place where it all began.
And so the Lalitha Sahasranama is replete with names for the Devi in her most powerful but most benign aspect – the Divine Mother.
Vishvagarbha or She who has the universe in her womb.
Brahma-janani - the Mother of everything.
Sri Mahi - Mother Earth.
Pranada, the Giver of life
Pranesvari, the Queen of all forms of life.
Annada – the Giver of food and nourishment.
Karunarasa-Sagara, the ocean of compassion

Dayamurtih – compassion itself.
We fervently invoke her presence because She is Duhkhahantri, who ends all sorrow, but like a mother, doesn’t stop there and becomes Sukhaprada, enveloping us with peace and joy. There is room for all in her compassionate embrace, because She is Bhedanashini, destroying disparity and why not, because She is Nirbheda – without any differences.
Where She is, there is no fear because She is Raakshagni, the destroyer of the demons that rage not just outside but also inside us. But most of all, because She is Mrutymathani, the destroyer of that terrible fear that haunts all who are born - the fear of death.

In my hometown Mysore, we have a very special relationship with the Devi.
As the story goes, we were once terrorized by the terrible demon Mahishasura and that the Devi took it upon herself to liberate us, appearing as the Goddess Chamundeshwari, who, got her name because her habit of slaying demons,  got her name when she made short work of 2 other fearsome demons, Chanda and Munda. After she destroyed Mahishasura, She decided to take up residence atop a charming little wooded hill. Or so we like to believe and so, in gratitude, we Mysoreans named the hill Chamundi in Her honour, built Her a fabulous temple with a 120 ft high gopuram that you can see from almost any point in Mysore. Actually, the temple was a gift to Mysore from the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana in1128 A.D. And in case the demon had any ideas of resurrecting himself (demons are known to do such things), in a cunning sleight of hand, we put up a massive likeness of him on top of the hill so that he’d scare himself away.
We also called ourselves Mahishasura Ooru, now corrupted to Mysore, because in a way, we’re indebted to the demon too.

After all, he did bring us the attention of the Devi!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Goat and a Gyani (not Zail Singh)

goat This is a  story about a goat, a Gyani and his shisya, a wonderful insight into  human nature

Once upon a time there a Great Gyani (heretofore referred to as GG) who had a devoted shisya

One day, the shisya lost his only son
Cut to GG's kutir
Enter Weeping Shishya
Falls at GG's feet and narrates his sorry tale

GG implacable, doesn't bat an eyelid, pats a there-there on  shishya's back and tells him to be like the Banyan Tree (heretofore referred to as BT) in Buddha's teachings.....unmoved, come rain or storm, joy or sorrow etc., etc

shishya goes home, desperately practices his BT asana....

....without much success, acquiring an attendant slipped disc, but persists

One day, while practicing aforementioned BT asana, shisya sees GG weeping inconsolably under a...yup a BT!

Shocked, shisya unasana-s himself and rushes to GG, concernedly enquiring cause of such devastating anguish

in between wracking sobs, GG tells shisya that his only goat died

shisya is first sympathetic, wipes tears, administers there-there pats

Then suddenly, PING!
Glob of crow guano from BT falls on shisya's head a-la--apple-on-Newton.
Penny drops
Shisya remembers the BT guru-updesh
Reminds GG about it

GG takes few seconds off from weeping and wailing
Slaps shisya hard across face

Shocked shishya asks , "WHY?!!"

GG flings dirty glance at shisya and says

"Woh toh tumhara beta tha.."

"Yeh meri bakri hai!"

End of Story