Tag Archives | Hinduism

Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M

Western scholars and Indian scholars obsessed with western interpretations have tried to explain the evolution of the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma using Western terminology. Apparently, initially it was naturalistic and anthropomorphic polytheism which then gradually yielded to monotheism and later to monism. Max Müller suggested that there was a transitory state called henotheism between polytheism and monotheism. But all this terminology is alien to dharmic thought and it is outright silly to refer to such terms. Even a person like Prof. Vinay Lal in his terrible course on Indian diaspora mentions that when Hindus don’t have concepts like these, it is ridiculous to talk about Hinduism using those concepts.

If you read such introductory books on Hinduism, they will mention that the Vedas were sruti, revealed to sages who followed their saadhana. Less mentioned is the fact that there were a large number of people who had unique experiences by following the many practices available as part of the tradition. Such people did not live only in the ancient past, there are many who live amongst us, who have attained higher states of spiritual existence. Some of them live in the holy places in the Himalayas, some live among the mango men. Some demonstrate their siddhis, others don’t.

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the life of a seeker and the many spiritual souls he met along the way. Living With the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama was another one. Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master (A Yogi’s Autobiography) is interesting because the yogi was born as a Deccani Muslim – Mumtaz Ali Khan – in Trivandrum in 1948. At the age of nine, when he was just walking in his house, he saw a stranger standing under the jackfruit tree in the compound. As the boy approached him, the stranger asked if he remembered anything and boy replied in the negative. The stranger then said that years later, he would remember everything and went away.

Two years later, he experienced kevala kumbhaka and along with it tremendous happiness. As he grew up, he met various people who suggested books (on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita, Yoga, Kudalini) and taught him yogic practices. Among the people whom he met in Kerala included a tea shop owner turned saint, a naked lady on the beach, and a Sufi saint. At the age of 19, he left for the Himalayas and while wandering around Badrinath, he went to a cave where he met the person whom he had seen at the age of nine in Trivandrum. He spent the next three years traveling with his guru in the Himalayas, after which he returned back to Kerala where he still lives.

In the introduction of the book, the author mentions that he had many unique experiences of which many would be unbelievable. This book includes topics  like meeting beings from another planet and walking through doors. Books by other spiritual gurus too contain such unbelievable anecdotes. What is fascinating about the book is the way it reveals what a spiritual country India still is. All way from Kerala to the Himalayas, there is a culture which transcends language and unites the nation. There are many gurus teaching in many traditions in the free flowing marketplace of ideas without the fear of blasphemy. Even before the British invented a nation called India, there existed an India where an 8th century Malayali named Shankara could travel, learn and teach. That India is very much alive in M’s book.

Postscript: I have never met the author nor listened to any of his teachings. Just chanced upon the book while browsing the spirituality section of a bookstore.

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Abraham Eraly’s Facile Spring

Abraham Eraly has a new book on the Gupta period which is considered a Golden Age in Indian history. There are two reviews of The First Spring.  The first review by Bibek Debroy has Eraly’s theory on why this period was considered as the Golden Age.

First, Buddhist (and Jain) ethics emphasised equity and access and human enterprise. “Fatalism” had not set in. Second, agriculture went through a transformation. There was monetisation, capital formation and trade, with increase in literacy. Third, guilds provided skills and their standardisation, and testing and certification of goods and services. They also regulated prices and working conditions of labourers. Fourth, kings had contractual obligations, not a divine right to rule. More importantly, s/he possessed executive duties of ensuring domestic and external security, with almost no legislative powers and limited dispute resolution powers. “One of the most laudable aspects of the political developments of the classical age was the robust growth of village self-government in many parts of India.” To use today’s jargon, we had better governance and decentralisation, with optimal provision of public goods and services. Fifth, there was urbanisation, not a retreat into a rural Arcadia. Sixth, cross-fertilisation led to innovation and experimentation. Seventh, rigidities of caste had not set in. Individually and in isolation, each of these propositions is plausible and known. Taken together, they represent a coherent story of why civilisations rise (and fall). The reversal into dark ages is explained by a reversal of each of these trends. Though not an Eraly estimate, there are rear-casts that between 500 BC and 500 AD, India had a per capita income of about $150. That made it one of the richest regions of the world.[Lessons From The Golden Age (H/T Yashwant)]

Eraly is a believer of the Aryan Invasion Theory and has romantic notions of Buddhism. His analysis of Vedas is based on translations by Wendy Doniger and so his observations have to be taken with quintals of salt. Nayanjot Lahiri’s review bursts Eraly’s balloon.

Eraly’s new book brings more than a millennium within the ambit of ‘Classical India’. This makes the scope of The First Spring highly ambitious, including in it India’s sprawling landscape, polity and society, economy and everyday life, philosophy and literature, even arts and religion, across 1,300 years and more.

Unfortunately, this is compromised by unsubstantiated generalisations, by an ignorance of archaeology and the kind of information it has yielded on many of the issues examined here, and by a complete disregard for some segments of the India it claims to describe.

Anyone with a working knowledge of ancient India would be appalled, for instance, by the book’s characterisation of classical Indian civilisation as essentially Buddhist. Is this a reaction to what Eraly supposes to be a “common misconception that it was a Hindu civilisation”? He should know that such labels are no longer used to characterise Indian history and, certainly, the millennium he examines was neither Buddhist nor Hindu but one marked by multiple religious traditions. Mathura is one example where there were Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu practices besides the worship of fertility deities. Nagarjunakonda is another instance of religious heterogeneity, with over 30 Buddhist establishments, 19 Hindu temples and some medieval Jain places of worship.

Eraly ignores the evidence of archaeology, goes for unproven generalisations, and doesn’t include the Northeast in his narrative.

Similarly, if Eraly had cared to look at the details of ordinary living that have emerged from excavations in the Gangetic plains, he’d find it difficult to believe that the Aryans “changed farming techniques” and introduced iron there. Rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium in the 7th millennium BC and communities with broad-based farming patterns were flourishing there from the early 2nd millennium BC onwards. If the area did not have to wait for the putative Aryans for the consolidation of its agricultural base, neither did it require them for producing metallic iron, which was used there from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC itself.

Eraly’s description of cities also ignores archaeology, including the splendid ruins of urban Taxila, the most extensively excavated urban landscape of ancient India. Even when he describes Ujjain, he does not say anything about the town plan and building tradition that various seasons of digging has revealed.

These, though, are just the small things that Eraly so often forgets to mention. The most serious lacuna is that a big chunk of India, from Assam to Nagaland, is missing from the narrative. You wouldn’t know from the book that the epigraphs of the kings of Assam, for instance, have been extensively used to reconstruct the agricultural practices and the settlement pattern of the Brahmaputra valley or that there are Gupta type architectural remains near Tezpur. Nor would you learn about Tripura, not even about the presence of Buddhism there, otherwise so central to this book, as the relics of the Buddhist stupa at Shyam Sunder Tilla so dramatically reveal.

This is a book which aspires to have a reach. Alas, that aspirational reach exceeds its author’s intellectual grasp.[Facile Spring (H/T Yashwant)]

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In Pragati: Secrets of the cellars

(Flickr: jynxzero)

The 8th century CE was a period of Hindu resurgence in Kerala. Adi Sankara, who wrote about Advaita with literary force and philosophic depth lived during this period. The Tamil poets—Saiva nayanars and Vaishnava azhvars—created large volumes of influential devotional literature and triggered a popular mass movement. Economically these were prosperous times due to extensive external trade. Devotion coupled with wealth resulted in a spurt of temple construction; rulers and lay people considered the construction and protection of temples as an essential social responsibility and donated generously.

Though the original shrine may have been built in the 6th century, it is during this period that we hear about Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for the first time in Thiruvaimozhi of Nammazhvar. In ten verses Nammazhwar describes Thiruvananthapuram, one of the 108 sacred sites for Vaishnavites, as one which has “lots of trees, lots of fragrant flowers, and most beautiful gardens” and called it Ananthapura implying it was enclosed by walls. He also describes the idol of Vishnu as reclining on the venomous Adisesha, exactly the same way see him today.

Over the next millennia, Sri Padmanabhaswamy would see prosperity, war, and invasions—both domestic and foreign. Initially he was part of a small kingdom, but that small kingdom, under the leadership of a visionary king would grow to become one of the three major kingdoms of Kerala, encompassing not just South Kerala, but parts of Tamil Nadu as well. Eventually the kingdom would belong to him. He would also accumulate staggering amounts of wealth over centuries; a humbled Dutch captain and a powerful British Resident would among the many who would go before him with their offerings. The story of how this wealth came to be and how it was safely guarded by the priests and the royal family for all these years is inseparable from the history of Kerala.

Source of wealth


In Cleopatra, a life, Stacy Schiff recounts how Egyptian temples stood at the center of religious and commercial life with the temple priest also moonlighting as a reed merchant. Such a system did not exist in Kerala. Its temples were never known for odious extravagance or opulence. Many other ancient kingdoms accumulated wealth by invading and plundering their neighbours, but according to historians, Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s cellars do not contain war booty. Then how did the temple accumulate so much wealth?

After the mention of the temple in the 8th-9th century by Nammazhwar, there is not much information for another three centuries. Around the 12th century, Venad, a small Kollam-based kingdom became an independent entity and Sri Kotha Keralavarma (1125 – 1155 CE) started the reconstruction of the temple which would go on for another six centuries. During this period, we hear about donations to the temple for the first time: silver by a nobleman in 1183 CE and ten golden lamps by Parantaka Pandya. Veera Keralavarma, ruler of Venad (1344 – 1350 CE), donated vast amounts of land and about 3000 pieces of gold to the temple in response to him being responsible for the death of a few Brahmins.

The current wealth has been retrieved from some of the six cellars around the sanctum sanctorum. These cellars existed around 550 years ago and there is mention of ornaments being retrieved from the cellars to decorate the painting of the king of Venad during that period. In 1686 CE, the temple was gutted by fire and there was no worship for three decades but the priceless valuables remained safe in the cellar. Just two years before the fire, Umayamma Rani, who would later flee due to an attack by a Mughal invader, donated various ornaments and silk to the temple. It is mentioned that such donations were moved to the cellar for safe keeping. When various kings ascended the throne, they too donated gold and other precious stones to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.

In the 17th century, the pettiness of the kings of small territories came quite handy to the Dutch who devoured Kochi, Kollam and various other kingdoms. Interfering in the internal affairs and exploiting the difference of opinion among the kings was the Dutch policy and by this they could eventually control the whole of Kerala and the lucrative spice trade. During this period, Travancore was whipsawed by a poor economy and constant conflict between temple administrators and noblemen.

This was a feud which had started at least a century earlier. Rules for managing the temples of Kerala were set as early as the 9th century when various noblemen met in Paravur. In 12th century, the committee which managed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple used to frequently get together to make decisions, but the relationship between the king and the temple administrators was not always cordial. In the 17th century, during the time of Adityavarma (1672 – 1677 CE), a group of eight noblemen under the direct supervision of the king was responsible for the temple management. The temple administrators divided the temple property into eight and gave them to Nair chieftains for revenue collection. Soon a feud started with with the king’s men on one side and the rest of the administrators on the other side leading to a brief closure of the temple.

All this leads to the resolute and brilliant Marthandavarma, the founder of the kingdom of Travancore as well the person responsible for the the current state of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. During this period of strife, Marthandavarma annexed the smaller kingdoms around Venad to create Travancore. He defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, sixteen years before the Battle of Plassey. For India of that period, this was a distinction of some weight. The Dutch agreed to support the king in his fight against other European powers and the commander of the Dutch forces, Eustachius De Lannoy, became the commander-in-chief of the Travancore armed forces. De Lannoy too made donations to the temple and it is possible that the Dutch coins and the Belgium cut-glasses came from him.

Marthandavarma also embarked on a construction spree at the temple. The repairs and the construction of the buildings around it started in 1731 and was completed two years later. The current temple structure and the sanctum sanctorum were built during his period. Some of the underground cellars were strengthened with the aim of keeping the temple wealth safe from fire. In 1733, the idol of Sri Padmanabhaswamy was reconstructed using saligram silas (Ammonite fossils) bought from Gandaki River in Nepal. The construction of the temple tower which had started in 1566 CE, reached five stories high during this period and would be completed during the time of his successor. He also made arrangements for the main festival to be conducted twice a year.

This visionary king in a unique historical and spiritual move surrendered all his riches and the kingdom he built to the family deity on January 3, 1750 CE; he and his successors would rule the kingdom with the official designation of Padmanabhadasa or devotee of the deity. That arrangement continues till today.

Donations would continue to flow even during the British reign with the Resident offering generously to the temple. In 1932, when Chitra Thirunal ascended the throne, one of his first acts was to open these cellars and estimate the wealth; it was calculated to be around one crore rupees. If the temple had so much wealth, how did it survive looting by the insiders and the invaders? Appropriation of temple wealth was considered as one of the five great sins prescribed by the Dharmasastras and it may have prevented the looting of the temple by the administrators.

Though Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughals and Tipu Sultan did not reach South Kerala, various Islamic invaders did attack Venad. In the 14th century, there is mention of Muslim invasion into the region and how it was spoiled by Iravi Ravivarma. Another successor, Adityavarma, who was responsible for constructing the Krishna temple and protective shelters for cows in 1374 CE too repelled such attacks. In 1690, a person referred to as “Mughal Sardar” attacked the southern border of Venad causing the regent Umayamma Rani to flee. Kottayam Kerala Varma who had come on pilgrimage from Malabar defeated this adventurer.

On record

Since it does not contain war booty, did all the wealth, found in the underground cellars come via offerings by various devotees, kings, queens, and traders? Besides the temple inscriptions and royal decrees, the most detailed records of the assets come from what is known as the ‘Mathilakam records’ which are about 100,000 palm leaves stored in thousands of bundles, in the Kerala Archives. Some of these records were published, but a vast majority of them remain unwrapped; an effort was launched in 2009 to publish the rest, but the plan was abandoned in 2011 as the government does not employ anyone who can read the ancient script.

This is disappointing, since the royals kept meticulous records and if we could read them we would know the source of the Roman and Napoleonic era gold coins, Venetian ducats and drachmas as well as the solid gold idols of Sri Krishna and Vishnu. It could also help solve another mystery: In 1766, the Zamorin’s entourage fled from Malabar to Travancore, presumably after emptying the Calicut treasury, to escape the pillage of Haider Ali. The Zamorin took his own life than surrender. It is possible that some of that wealth reached Travancore treasury. If the records don’t mention this, an inventory of the items would reveal if there is any truth to this.

The discovery of the the wealth has caused various experts to advance theories on its origins including some indulging in imagination. Usually absence of facts causes myth to be created, but in this case speculation and hoary propaganda is unwarranted since the source of the wealth is well documented. If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.

(The author wishes to thank Manmadhan Ullatil (for pointing out the Calicut link), Lakshmi Srinivas, Nikhil Narayanan, R N Iyengar and @NR_Tatvamasi for sharing information. This article was published in Aug 2011 issue of Pragati)

References:

  • A Sreedhara Menon, ;A survey of Kerala history(Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society [Sales Dept.]; National Book Stall, 1967).
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Marxists and Museums

Now that wealth of staggering proportions has been found in Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, various suggestions have come up on what to do with it. Some want it to be taken over and used for “social good” while others want it in a museum while there is no case for monetizing this treasure or confiscating it.

One point is missing in this debate: religion. The artifacts found in the cellars were offerings made to Sree Padmanabhaswamy by devotees and there is no reason to detach it and place it in a secular setting. In this Op-Ed piece P. Parameshwaran looks into why communists are obsessed with turning devotional items into museum pieces and where it has led them.

High profile Marxist academicians of Kerala have been taking very keen interest in the sensitive issue of the new findings in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Most of the party leaders have been prudently reticent, obviously for fear of public anger. What the intellectual giants want is to keep all the valuable articles found in the temple vaults in a state museum, for public exhibition. There is nothing unexpected about this, because for them religion, temple and spirituality are all meaningless and dangerous superstitions. Of course the large followers of the party are not with them in this anti-religious attitude. But the intellectuals are a different class. They hardly communicate with the masses, as they still live in an ivory tower of irrelevant theories and obsolete ideologies.

This is neither a new phenomenon nor something peculiar to Kerala or Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. This is inherent in the communist psyche all over the world. They have put in practice this ideology which prescribes places of worship and religious and devotional items to be exhibited as artefacts in museums. This has happened in the Soviet Union and communist China (both in the mainland and in Tibet). But, in the twists and turns of history in the communist countries the entire process has been since reversed and instead of sacred places turning into museums the party itself has become a big museum, while temples and churches have emerged more powerful than ever.[Marxists as museum pieces via Michel Danino]

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Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.

At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.

The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

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