Dead cow in the Ganga

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The mission to clean the Ganga will be a pipe dream as long as Indians have no problem in perceiving and accepting the river as both pure and dirty

The Ganga would be a good place to jump in. The question that looms before me is whether to jump into the Ganga in Kashi: the holiest of rivers in the holiest of cities, according to Hindus.
I ask friends and family. My French friend Pasquale has jumped into the Ganga in Kashi. See, nothing happened, he says. Then again, he is a war photographer who thinks riding a motorbike through the Swat Valley is normal. Another friend, Ashok, recently returned from Varanasi, said no, he didn’t even dip his feet in it.
An older uncle says to go deep into the Ganga and jump in. “In the middle, there is flowing water, so even the pollutants will be washed away,” he says.
“To be in Kashi and not immerse yourself in the Ganga is a waste of a trip,” pronounces an aunt.
It is this unshakeable faith in the Ganga that causes millions of Hindus to plunge in even though they see sewage flowing into it. This type of faith ignores rationality, data about faecal matter, coliform bacteria counts, contamination or even their own eyes—which is probably why it is called blind faith.
It is a mind game really. You may see dirt; you may even see the dead buffalo a few yards downstream. But because you believe that the Ganga is holy, you don’t really care. She will purify your mind, heart and soul. The body doesn’t even enter this equation. It is superfluous to this world view; merely a carapace to be shed en route to liberation.
Ganga mata pavithra hai,” they chant. “Mother Ganga is sacred and pure.”
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

The problem is the semantics—the difference between pollution and purity. Indians know that the Ganga is dirty. They also believe that she is sacred and pure. After all, that is why she descended from the heavens and came to earth: to wash away sins.
It is the reason for her existence. Her power originates in her creation myth. She is liquid Shakti; a tangible reality of divine power. She connects the heavens to earth; washes away the sins of us mere mortals.
This is why she is a great tirtha or pilgrimage site: because of what she takes from us (our sins) and what she gives to us (moksha, or liberation from death). This is why the Ganga is pure even though she is dirty.
When then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, he alluded to this distinction. Standing on the steps leading to the Ganga, Gandhi said, “The purity of the Ganga was never in question.” The problem was that a river “that was a symbol of India’s spirituality was being allowed to get dirty”.
Pavithra versus gandhagi: purity versus dirtiness. The Indian mind has no problem in perceiving the Ganga as both pure and dirty. It accepts both ideas, without really wanting to do much about it.
This is a problem for the Clean Ganga mission launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose links with this city are both obvious and tenuous.
Unlike in Chennai, where billboards and hoardings of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa are all over the place, Modi’s photos thankfully do not take over Kashi’s urban sprawl. Yet, of all the constituencies from which he could have stood, fought and won the 2014 Lok Sabha election—and he could have literally written his own ticket—Modi, significantly, chose Kashi as his constituency.
At Madison Square Garden, where he performed like a rock star, Modi asked the Indian diaspora to contribute to his dream of cleaning mother Ganga. In short order, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was set up under the newly renamed ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, headed by Uma Bharati. It has commissioned surveys and reports.
In August 2013, a 134-page interim report was submitted by a venerable group of institutions—seven Indian Institutes of Technology, Banaras Hindu University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Institute of Health, World Wildlife Fund and others. It states—no surprises here—that “the Ganga river’s present-day water quality is abysmal due to anthropogenic (human) wastes polluting the river network in various ways”.
This is obvious to anyone who stands on the Ganga’s banks. People bathe, wash their laundry and defecate all along the 2,510km long river that serves a staggering one-third of the Indian population. Faecal coliform bacteria levels are off the charts. Chromium levels are at least 10 times the permissible amount. Untreated sewage flows directly into the waters.
Add to that the fact that industries dispose their waste into the river—leather tanneries along its banks in Kanpur; carpet factories in Mirzapur; paper factories; distilleries and dyeing units—and you have the makings of an environmental disaster.
The Ganga is essentially dead, say activists. Her vaunted oxygen levels and ability to regenerate are being choked by the sheer amount of garbage being thrown into her, ranging from corpses to contaminants.
A Kanpur-based uncle of mine, who I will call Mahen, said that when he was young, crocodiles and tortoises were teeming in the Ganga, eating up corpses. “Within Modi’s term, the Ganga will get salvation,” he says. “It has to because it is a huge part of his promise to India.”
The Ganga’s pollution is linked to India’s population. Sometime in the 16th century lived a Bengali scholar named Raghunandana, who wrote 28 books on tattvas, or elements, which could be viewed as “how to” books. Vivaha Tattva: how to get married; Daya Tattva: how to show compassion; Grihastashrama Tattva: how to live as a good householder; and Durgapuja Tattva: how to celebrate Durga Puja are some of the books.
One of the books is called Prayaschitta Tattva, and it means how to make amends; or how to expiate sin. This section contains a verse about how to treat the Ganga.
Ganga punyajalan prapya caturdasa vivarjayet
Saucamacamanam kesam nirmalya madyamarsanam.
Gatrasamvahanam kridam pratigrahamatho ratim.
Anyatirtharatim caive anyatirthaprasansanam,
vastratyagamapaghatam santaram ca visesatah.
The verse talks about how to treat the Ganga. It lists, or rather prohibits, in some detail, 14 acts. Comments in parenthesis are mine. The prohibited actions are: no excretion, no bathing, brushing teeth or spitting out gargling water (only holy dip permitted); no cleaning of the ear and throwing earwax into river (Seriously? People did that?); no shampooing of hair; no throwing of used garlands (done all the time these days as a commercial activity—the Ganga is full of leaf candles and marigold garlands); no frolicking or playing in the water (come on—not even frolicking); no obscene acts (meaning nude bathing or sex?); no attachment or praise of other sacred places (meaning that they viewed the Ganga as a goddess who could get jealous?); no washing clothes and throwing garments (we discharge corpses these days); and in particular, no swimming across the river (I wonder why—because the river is so broad that people could urinate en route?).
Not a single one of these dictums has been followed. Instead, people believe that the Ganga will self-rejuvenate; that her waters, considered healing and self-perpetuating since the dawn of Hindu civilization, will simply continue to do so.
This is alluded to in a type of literature called Nighantu literature, a Sanskrit materia medica of sort—a glossary of words and objects that delineated the characteristics of herbs, trees, forests, water bodies, minerals, rocks, humans, animals and, well, pretty much everything that was available at that time. Some 30 works were written in this manner, empirically classifying among other things, water.
Nighantu is a hard word and concept to translate. It alludes to the secret meaning inherent in objects. Madanapala Nighantu, for instance, says that coconut water is an aphrodisiac, digestive stimulant and a cardiac tonic. How would the ancients know this? By making thousands of people drink gallons of coconut water and seeing the effect it had?
Or did some sage who had meditated for centuries to the point where he was so attuned to the nature of things, drink the coconut water, get a— shall we say—rise, and decide it to be an aphrodisiac? I say this tritely, but honestly, I am a secret practitioner and admirer of these subtle ways. Cowrie shells, alternative medicine, astrology, crystal gazing—you name it and I am interested.
I studied acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I believe that the ancients in most cultures took an empirical approach towards health and healing that resonates with me more than the randomized double-blind clinical trials of drug companies all of whom have a commercial agenda to sell drugs.
As my cousin who worked for years in the US pharmaceutical industry says, “The permissible diabetes numbers used to be 140—no problem. Now, they keep reducing the acceptable level every year so that drug companies can sell more Metformin.”
I’d love to know how the Nighantu literature was composed. How did our ancients know that buffalo milk was soporific, that sheep’s milk was easy to digest and that Ganga water was different from the waters of the Narmada, Bhagirathi or Saraswati?
Amid this materia medica approach is a particular type of literature that fascinates the tree-lover in me. Like Prem Koshy, the ebullient proprietor of the Koshy’s restaurant in Bengaluru, I hug trees. There is a particular brand of poetic convention called “Dohada” rituals.
Do hada literally means two hearts and it talks about cravings that pregnant women—and pregnant trees—get. These Dohada rituals allude to the intimate connection between trees and women; and allude to the hunger or yearning that comes about when you are pregnant with children or buds. The simplest way to explain this is to describe the trees and their rituals. In the Parsvanatha Chaitra, there are descriptions such as the following:
“The Priyangu tree bursts into blossom when touched by beautiful maidens. The Bakula trees bursts into blossom when sprayed by a mouthful of liquor from maidens who are giddy with sport and merriment. The Asoka tree waits to be kicked by the heel or foot of young maidens who have red lac as decorations on their feet before it gives itself to flower. The Tilaka tree is happy with just a glance from maidens. The Kurabaka tree needs to be embraced and enfolded by heavy-breasted young maidens. The Mandara tree likes pleasurable talk; the Champaka likes to be surrounded by scantily clad, laughing young maidens who sport under the full moon. The Nameru tree likes songs and is partial to young women who sing to it before it blooms.”
The over arching motif is the intimate connection between women and trees, all of which is described by the word, Salabhanjika: she who seizes the branch of the Sala tree and breaks it.
As a birdwatcher and tree-hugger who gains strength and solace from trees, I can totally relate to plants blooming when touched, sprayed, kicked, talked to and sung. Jagdish Chandra Bose, the scientist who discovered that plants are sentients beings with feelings (as exemplified by the quivering of injured plants) would have approved.
If plants have life, why not water? Even in our time, our mothers and grandmothers treat river water with a respect and sanctity that those of use who use rationality to mask our receptiveness towards the sacred cannot ignore.
Water that is exposed to the sun’s rays in the morning and the moon’s rays at night is considered rejuvenating, promoting strength and intellect, and balancing to all the body humours.
My mother does this. She places water in a copper pot, throws in some tulsi or holy basil leaves, along with some cardamom and cinnamon, leaves it out in the sun in the morning and makes it “absorb the moon’s rays” through the night and then drinks it on an empty stomach the next morning. All good things; all prescribed in Ayurveda. But how did my mother know? Through word of mouth and homespun wisdom that she heard from her parents, perhaps; or through the all-encompassing word that we call tradition.
The Sanskrit word for tradition is agama, or “that which has come down”. The word, gam, meaning “to go”, and the prefix a, which means “towards”. Agama means “to come towards” us. The word, Ganga, flips this around. Gam-ga, or “because she goes, she is Ganga”.
River waters, too, are classified in the Nighantu literature. In an English translation, titled Materia Medica of Ayurveda: Based on Madanapala’s Nighantu, by Vaidya Bhagwan Dash, the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu and Satadru are considered to have healing properties because they have fast-flowing water that originated in the Himalayas and flows through rocks.
In contrast, rivers that flow out of the Sahayadris—the Sahya mountains—like the Godavari causes kustha or obstinate skin diseases like leprosy. Rivers like the Shipra and Reva, which originate in the Vindhyas, cause anaemia and skin diseases. If I were a non-Himalayan river (and I know I am anthropomorphizing here), I would be really pissed.
A Kashmiri polymath called Narahari Pandita took this riverine water analysis to the next level. He is believed to have lived in the 17th century (some say the 14th century), knew 18 languages and wrote the magisterial Raja Nighantu, with chapter headings such as the following:
1. 47 types of forests with details of names, properties, actions and uses
2. 40 types of fragrances
3. 154 types of human beings with age, qualities, character and ailments
One of the 24 chapters talks about the Ganga’s waters, which have the following properties: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property, wholesomeness, potability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused by dehydration, digestive property and ability to retain wisdom.
Consider this: people actually believe that the Ganga gives you the ability to retain wisdom. Our ancestors believed that, and to some extent, that belief has percolated down the centuries. For a Hindu, wisdom is the highest of aspirations, falling just below moksha.
If Indians believe that the Ganga can give you wisdom, the highest of all human desires, then pollution and defecation are trivial problems. If faith can heal the planet, then the Ganga doesn’t need human intervention. The reason why cleaning the Ganga is so complicated is because it requires behavioural modification—or brainwashing—on a scale that is staggering.
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Photo: Shoba Narayan

You cannot even point fingers and say that it is the peasants, the illiterate, the great unwashed hordes who are causing this contamination. It is People Like Us (PLUs). My cousin Vikram studied economics at Princeton, went on to Harvard Business School and now works in public policy. When his father died, he acceded to his mother’s wishes and brought his dad’s ashes to throw into the Ganga. He knew that this act only increased the amount of anthropogenic waste (or waste from human activity) that went into the already burdened river.
“As a climate change activist and someone who believes in sustainable living, what I did to the Ganga was abhorrent to me,” said Vikram. “But as a son, it was the least I could do for my grieving mother, who firmly and fervently believes that throwing my dad’s ashes into the Ganga will take his soul to heaven.”
There are tens of millions of Vikrams in India who do this every single day. Eighty million of them converge during the Kumbh Mela to bathe in this holy river at a holy moment. This happens all along the course of the river and its tributaries, across 29 cities in 11 states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and West Bengal.
Kashi, as it turns out, is one of the worst offenders. And while we are at it, I might as well tell you that I am going to refer to the city by its ancient, intimate name—one that is used by locals and all over south India.
Not Banaras, the name given by invaders beginning with the Sultans, the British and even Mark Twain, who famously observed that “Banaras is older than history; older than tradition; older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Not Varanasi, the city’s official name, denoting the stretch of land between where the Varuna river and the now-dry Assi river join the Ganga. The name I love is Kashi, from the Sanskrit root, kash, which means shining; as in Pra-kash; as in “moksha prakashika kashi”, the effulgent city that offers the path to moksha or enlightenment. Kashi, the city of light, the luminous one.
In some parts of south India, wedding rituals include the Kashi Yatra, where the bridegroom mock threatens to walk out of the wedding and head to Kashi to become a sanyasin—an ascetic scholar. My husband did this. With a great deal of merriment, all my relatives charged after him to make nice.
“Please don’t leave for Kashi,” my father repeated after the priest. “I will give you the hand of my daughter: a good woman who will stand beside you for the rest of your life.”
And there the wedding rituals take over with a lot of flower throwing and drum-beating so that the poor bridegroom or bride cannot think—which perhaps is the point of these rituals: to literally beat the young people into thoughtless submission.
My husband didn’t leave: not then; not now.
Kashi was not just the place where eligible young men went off to escape getting hitched. At one time, it was a centre of learning where young ascetics and students flocked—to study with scholars, formulate their beliefs, and search for the divine.
Like Greece in the time of Socrates and Plato, Sanskrit scholars used to stand in the street corners of Kashi and invite other philosophers to debate with them. Anyone who came up with a new theory or a new philosophy had to road test it first in Kashi.
The famous grammarian, Patanjali, who wrote the yoga sutras, taught here in the 2nd century. Vatsyayana lived in Kashi in the 3rd century and wrote the Kama Sutra, the treatise on sexuality. The three great Hindu philosophers—Shankara in the 8th century, Ramanuja in the 11th century and Madhva in the 13th century—all spent time here.
It wasn’t just the Hindus. At least two Jain tirthankaras (sages and teachers) spent chunks of time in this city. An entire sect of people who believe that Jesus was buried in Kashmir also believe that he spent time in Kashi. The Buddha spent his summers in Kashi. Many of the Jataka tales about the previous births of the Buddha—he was called Bodhisattva before he became the Buddha, the enlightened one—were centred in Kashi.
Several stories begin with the line, “Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta ruled Kashi…” The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD, and they referred to events that happened a few hundred years ago, all of which lends weight to the Hindu claim that Kashi is the oldest continually occupied city in the world.
Kashi was to Indian philosophy what Florence was to Renaissance artists, what Paris was to the Impressionist painters and what Silicon Valley is to today’s entrepreneur—an intellectual hub where ideas could cross pollinate. It was the place to be; to learn from other scholars engaged in the same pursuit, whether it was philosophy, logic, metaphysics, spirituality or poetry.
“There is hardly any city that can claim greater antiquity, greater continuity and greater popular veneration than Banaras. Banaras has been a holy city for at least 30 centuries,” said the great Indologist and Sanskrit scholar P.V. Kane, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna. “No other city in India arouses the religious emotions of Hindus as much as Kashi does.”
As I stand in front of the goddess Annapurna, I am trying to feel aroused—religiously, I mean. All around me are men and women, palms together in supplication, staring at the goddess with her large black eyes, muttering appeals, their gaze unwavering, lost in hope and prayer.
I envy their transcendence, their engagement with divinity, even if it is self-perceived. I want to feel it. If Kashi doesn’t do it for me, I am a lost cause. Please, I mutter, let me experience divinity. Instead, my mind remains stubbornly observant, questioning and judgemental.
Something is wrong with me. Do these devotees actually believe that the goddess will change their lives? How? How can they surrender free will, ego, pride and sense of self to a nebulous higher power?
The goddess gazes back at me passively. Don’t tempt fate, I think to myself, a little fearfully. I remember the Tamil movies I watched as a child in which a wrathful god decided to teach a disbeliever a lesson by throwing hardships and life lessons her way.
Those movies showed a beautifully simple cause-and-effect relationship between humans and god. You go to this temple and voila, your blind son gets his eyes back. Sudama offered Krishna some beaten rice. When he returned home, his hut had become a mansion.
Having grown up in a religious family, I am not an atheist. I am not even agnostic. I am a Hindu—a questioning one, perhaps, one who is hypersensitive to petty religious hypocrisies for sure. But I have long lost the boundless self-confidence with which I could dismiss the divine.
The school of hard knocks has made me a little more humble; it has taught me that everything in my life is not in my control, that there is such a thing called luck—or the divine hand if you will—and that random acts can change the course of a life.
A priest stands in front of the idol, chanting Sanskrit mantras, some of which I recognize.
Annapurne sada purne, Shankara prana vallabhe…
Oh Annapurna, always whole. The one who gives Shiva his life force. Please give me the boons of wisdom and detachment. “Jnana Vairagya Siddhyartham, Bhiksham dehi cha Parvati.”
Man, my ancients were obsessed with detachment as a path to wisdom. Yoga says the same thing. It says that vairagya is letting go of attachments, of fears, of sins, of false identities. Put that way, it is uplifting. You fly free of all these illusions or delusions of grandeur and remove yourselves from the shackles of fear. If a goddess can do that, I will stand in line.
My grandmother used to say these shlokas to Annapurna, which is why I know this bit by heart.
Above the stove in my home is a tiny bronze image of Annapurna, given to me by my grandmother after she visited Kashi. My cook, a devout Hindu, places steaming hot rice in front of this tiny idol and allows the steam to envelop the goddess, offering the cooked food to her first before setting it on the dining table.
In Kashi, I view first-hand the goddess who has been part of my family for three generations. Two women stand on either side of the idol. They are folding saris into long strips and placing them on top of the idol. Stalks of yellow wheat are placed next to the idol.
Annapurna is the goddess of grains. She epitomizes sacred food, holding in her hands a vessel and a large ladle to dole out a nourishing, unending supply of food to her people. She is the queen of Kashi. The story of how she came here is one that I relish, as a spouse and a feminist.
It turns out that Shiva and Parvati, or Shakti, as she is called in this story, were having a philosophical discussion in their Himalayan mountain abode. Shiva grandly pronounced that the whole world wasmaya—an illusion. Only he (or the realization of him) was the true reality.
“Is that so?” asked his wife. As Shakti, she was the material half of the world, manifested in all things. Stung by her husband’s dismissal of her role in creation, she vanished.
The world came to a standstill. Time stopped. The earth became barren; devoid of sustenance. All of creation suffered. Seeing this, the compassionate goddess Shakti appeared in Kashi as the goddess Annapurna. She set up a kitchen and began feeding the world again.
Shiva did something that all men ought to do when they are proved wrong in a spousal quarrel. He showed up at his wife’s door and made nice. The mythological version of an apology is that Shiva appeared with a begging bowl in hand, shame-faced and sheepish at his grandiosity.
“Say it,” the wife must have said.
“I realize that the material world is as important as the spiritual,” Shiva must have mumbled. “I shouldn’t have dismissed it. Your role is as important as mine. More important.”
The smiling wife fed her husband. All was forgotten.
The husband and wife made a deal. In Kashi, Shakti would take care of the people during their lives. Shiva would help them after they died. Living and dying: a good division of duties. Both are important in Kashi.
This is the second in a four-part series from Kashi. Read the first parthere.
Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Ajmer Dargah

Mint has been sending me on trips to various spots to write on “sacred food.” This week, it is Ajmer Dargah. What a sensual experience. I respond to scents and sounds. The enveloping scent of roses was amazing. You have to read it at the site for the full photo cum words experiences. Oh, I am taking photos for these pieces myself.

For Mint on Sunday here

Photos here

I am standing outside the main shrine of the Ajmer Dargah listening to a spirited group of qawwali singers perform. They voices are entreating; their eyes sincere, rising up to search for the divine. They sit cross-legged and pray, using their hands to express the strength of their feeling. They aspire towards rapture; to forget the self. They seek oneness with God– a quest worth undertaking; the only quest worth undertaking for some people. Non-believers though, have to begin with the rather somber question that crashes debates from the realm of the divine down to earth: what is God?

When you think about it, God is such an abstract concept, which is probably why humans gave labels and names when they began the discussion: Mohammed, Jesus, Mary, Kali, Hanuman, Durga, Buddha or Zarathustra. Only Hinduism has female Goddesses; the rest are men, most of who began as prophets and teachers before being converted into and worshipped as Gods. Are Sri Sri Ravishankar and Mata Amritanandamayi going to be the Gods of tomorrow? An uncomfortable thought.

Religion—all religions were an effort by early humans to wrap their head around this nebulous idea of the cosmic controller. He—or she– who has created this web of life that we all inhabit. When early humans confronted events that shocked, awe and confused them, they had to explain it somehow. A child gets hit in a road accident and dies. Why? Who can explain the timing of it? Why now? Why to this particular child? Religion, I am guessing, was the answer that early humans came up with when they got hit by the proverbial truck or the Paleolithic version thereof. Why did the lion kill my son—of all people? When he was such a great warrior? Why now, when he was making off with that eligible Homo sapien beauty in the neighbouring hunter-gatherer group? Questions that have no answer. Ergo, religion. Religion was—is—the human search for answers; a quest for truth; a way of explaining the happenings of the world, much like scientists do today– except now science is looking for alien life and cloning genomes; and religion has climbed down from its pioneering expedition into the soul and became an ‘opium for the people,’ to quote Karl Marx.

Most religions began with mysticism. One man goes into a cave or sits under a tree. He meditates; and gets visions that answer fundamental questions. He spreads these ideas to his followers. Over time, they get codified and formalized as a faith. One man’s interpretation of the answers that sprung from his subconscious resonates with countless people. They affiliate themselves with this idea and give it a name. Behold religion.

Music, dance and rituals are tools that most religions use to disseminate ideas to the masses. The acts of praying, singing and dancing help devotees connect with a higher power. Religious music, whether it is gospel or bhajan, springs from the same place and has the same goal: to connect with the divine. Sufi music does it better than most. The qawwali is one manifestation; the Mevlevi order is another. You may have heard of the Mevlevis. They are also called whirling dervishes; and they are unforgettable. A Japanese sensei told me that whirling was a way to center yourself and sync your soul with the universe. Try it. One hand reaches for the heavens; another reaches for the earth in a diagonal. And then you whirl—round and round—for several minutes or more. It is that easy; or that difficult. I once watched whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey. It was among the most moving things I have ever seen. A line of men, clad in white robes, circling for a long time– time that extended out like their hands. They were in a trance and put us in one too. Although I didn’t know it then, there was a connection between the whirling dance I watched and the poetry of Rumi that I loved.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

Rumi

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is perhaps Sufism’s most famous poet, thanks to numerous translations and Turkish writer, Elif Safak’s novel, The Forty Rules of Love. The novel tells the story of how Rumi became the student of Shams Tabrizi, a Persian Sufi dervish. When Rumi died, his son, Sultan Walad founded the splendid Mevlevi order. They have been dancing ever since.

“Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

Rumi

Like the bhakti cult, the philosophy behind Sufism is the idea of tawhid, a complex Persian word that symbolizes the primal root; the foundation from which we all spring from. Sufism believes that we have become cut off from this primal connection to God. All human action—the whirling, the singing, the poetry— is an expression for the devotee’s longing to return to this root; to restore the connection. This is why the annual Urs, officially the death anniversary of a Sufi saint, is celebrated joyfully as a wedding anniversary. The logic is that death reconnected the saint’s soul with its primal root, with God.

The word Urs, comes from the Arabic word ‘uroos’ and it means ‘wedding.’ When a saint dies, as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti did in Ajmer, he has achieved wisaal or the ultimate union with the beloved. Realize that they don’t say “union with God.” Instead, they view God as their beloved. This intimate, all-encompassing lover-like connection is what differentiates Sufism from its parent religion, Islam. William Chittick, a leading translator of Islamic texts who studied at the University of Tehran has described Sufism as the “interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.”

For a Hindu, it is easy to understand and access Sufism through its music and its tolerant, enveloping tenets. Indeed, millions of Hindus visit this shrine every year, clad in colourful saris and bright red bindis. “It is a Ganga Jamuna sanskriti here,” said a Hindu devotee, the Ganga referring to Hinduism and the Jamuna to Islam.

This then, is the distinctive beauty of this dargah. It is not just open to people of all faiths; it welcomes them. If you have a wish or mannat that you want fulfilled; a prayer that must reach God; an offering of thanks that you want to give, you are welcome here. And people do. They come from the four corners of the world, carrying baskets heavy with flowers–a ring of roses interspersed with marigolds— an aesthetic that is distinct to Indian places of worship. Multicolored flowers put together in an artistic way. The heavy scent of red roses fills the air.

Devotees bring nuts and fruits. They carry blankets and shawls to place on top of the tombstone. They tie strings with objects on a stick that extends across the empty cauldrons where food is cooked. The hanging objects offer clues to human frailties and wishes. There is a metal house, a cradle, a hand, a comb–each symbolizing a desire for a job, marriage, children, or wealth. People throw in money and rice grains into the empty cauldron. At the side of the cauldrons are metal containers filled with sacred food that has been cooked early this morning. The kesariabhat, as it is called, is orange and follows the usual recipe of broken wheat, sugar, ghee, and dried fruit, all stirred together for hours before distributing to the faithful. It is vegetarian, although legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan mixed the meat of a Nilgai-deer that he had shot while hunting with the vegetarian food.

The dargah’s link with the Mogul emperors is close and traverses generations. It was Emperor Akbar, who ordered the first giant cauldron built. It is called Badi Degh (or Big Cauldron) and can cook a whopping amount of food. Akbar pledged to come to Ajmer on foot if he won the battle of Chittorgarh. When he won, he kept his promise and distributed food from the big cauldron. Some say that the big cauldron cooks 125 ‘mounds’ of rice, a number that is hard to fathom. Let’s just say that food from the big cauldron can feed about 15,000 people.

Not to be outdone, Akbar’s son, Jahangir ordered the construction of the smaller cauldron, called Choti Degh.   He ordered that this food be distributed to 5000 people, taking the first offering himself, after which his queen, Noor Jahan and the other women of his harem followed suit. This kind of largesse was typical of the empire building Mughals. Today, moguls of a different sort, from hedge fund managers to business magnates pay money to the Dargah to have food cooked and distributed. Typically, this happens during the Urs every day or to mark a special occasion.

Every place of worship, be it a church, mosque or temple, has a rhythm. It is both universal and distinctive. The ethos of a religious place emphasizes simplicity and purity when you approach the shrine. You wear your best silks when you approach the shrine, or you go as a simple person clad in white with minimal clothes. There is water so that you can wash up after your long pilgrimage. There are offerings that you can buy. At Ajmer, it is red roses, attar, nuts, and most importantly, the chaadar or blanket that you can lay on top of the tombstone as a mark of respect. Through these utilitarian tools, you access the divine. Every year, various world leaders send a chaadar during the Urs as a mark of respect. This year, it was Barack Obama’s turn and he sent an embroidered red chaadar via the US Embassy.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the saint who is enshrined in this dargah was born in the Sistan region of Iran. His life followed the fairly standard trajectory of most great spiritual leaders. Pious family? Check. Interested in spirituality from a young age? Check. As a boy, he prayed and meditated instead of picking fruit from the famous Iranian orchards. Makes you wonder about future saints who are born in this era. If any child in our age has a spiritual calling, are they heeding it? Or are they playing Play Station 3 and other video games? The world might be losing the next Buddha or Khwaja to Candy Crush saga. Sad, isn’t it?

Moinuddin’s next experience is something I would have liked to have. While working in his orchard– which itself, is an experience not to be sniffed at, given the legendary quality of the melons of Iran— Moinuddin had a visitor. Being a well brought up child, he greeted the dervaish (spiritual man) properly by kissing his hands and gave him fruit. The dervaish, whose name was Sheikh Ibrahim Qandozi, was impressed by the pious nature of the boy. He took out some khul from his pocket. This is described as the dregs of sesame seeds after the oil is extracted. Some historians say that this was bread. Anyway, the dervaish put this piece into his mouth, chewed it a bit and then put it in Moinuddin’s mouth. The boy lost all connection with the current world and went into a mystical trance. This event caused the scales to fall from Moinuddin’s eyes, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster. He went into the divine realm and realized the true nature of things. I would have like to eat this sesame patty too.

After this experience, there was no turning back. Moinuddin left for Bukhara, then a great center of learning, where he finished his education. After that, it was onward to Samarkand to study philosophy, theology, and grammar. In Baghdad, he met a great Sufi Dervaish who became his guide and teacher for 20 years. It was here that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty received the instruction to go to Hindustan or India.

Ajmer at the time was a great amalgam of many faiths. It was the pleasure resort of emperor Shah Jahan–a far cry from the dusty and gray town that it has become today. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty set up his spiritual order using Ajmer as base. He became known as Garib Nawaz for the compassion with which he treated poor people. He spread Sufism throughout North India, gained many disciples and most importantly, established the Chishti order that continues to this day. His real achievement was to make his faith accessible to all.

Religions evolve through a somewhat contradictory impulse: by defining and differentiating themselves. It is one of the things that bother me about faith; any faith. You’d think that prayer or connection to the divine would make you see the world as one. Most religions advocate this notion of treating everyone as your brother or sister. Except that the deeper people go into religion, the more they seem to define themselves through ever-narrowing parameters, be it Sri Vaishnavism or Seventh Day Adventist. Religion doesn’t expand the self even though every great text advocates it. It causes a narrowing of boundaries in a sense so that you begin affiliating yourself with a Pentacostal order or a specific guru. You call yourself Sufi or Mahayana or Orthodox. You view other orders, even if they belong to the same religion with some amount of suspicion. “All religions are the same,” you say piously, while hobnobbing with other acolytes of the same order.

The relationship between what some call “mainstream Islam” and Sufism reflects this trend and is fraught in this way. Sufi practitioners emphasize that Sufism originated in Islam; that early Sufi thought was directly drawn from the Koran, except that it was internalized. Internalization is a word that comes up often in Sufism to explain its tolerance to all faiths and the use of song and dance in worship. The 12th century Muslim theologian Al Ghazali has a wonderful passage in his treatise, “The Alchemy of Happiness,” in a chapter titled ‘The use of dance and music as aids to religious life.” The fact he has to defend music and dance speaks to his desire to make Islam and Sufism compatible with one another, which leads to the conclusion that they were diverging, even as early as the 12th century.

In the chapter, Al Ghazali says, “The effect of music and dancing…fan into a flame whatever love is already dormant in the heart, whether it be earthly and sensual, or divine and spiritual.” Made me want to go out and dance. There is more that Al Ghazali defends. “As regards the erotic poetry which is recited in Sufi gatherings, and to which people sometimes make objection, we must remember that, when in such poetry mention is made of separation from or union with the beloved, the Sufi, who is an adept in the love of God, applies such expressions to separation from or union with Him.”

I am sorry to say this again and again but when and why did religions become so prudish? A few centuries ago, erotic sculpture and poetry was acceptable on the path towards God. What happened? When did we decide that God required seriousness? What happened to joy?

There is a lot of joy in the singing at the dargah. People sway in ecstasy; some, with tears rolling down their eyes. The whole atmosphere combines sensual bliss—the scent of flowers—with spiritual elevation. It is as faith should be, mixing the everyday with the elevated; the mundane with the divine; the senses and the soul.

I didn’t taste the kesaria bhat though. It was Ramzan when I went. Nobody was eating anything during the day. It seemed inappropriate for me to do so, even though there were several enticing containers full of them.

I was disappointed not to taste the food. It was a sign, I told myself. The women in my family use this word when they contemplate visits to temples. The God or Goddess has to “call” you, they will say. Or call me back, in this case, I thought– to taste the food during Urs.

A surprising twist emerged as I exited the dargah. My guide was waiting outside. He wanted to know if he could hitch a ride to Jaipur with me. His reason epitomized the Indian web of relationships. “My daughter-in-law’s brother’s wedding happened a few days ago and my sammdhi (the inlaws) have invited me for food after a puja. You like dal, bhaati, churma, don’t you?” he offered as explanation.

Two hours later, we drove up to a small flat on the outskirts of Jaipur. Inside were about 20 people, all colorfully dressed in saris. In quick order, plates were produced. We were the last two eat. They gave us a stainless steel plate filled with spiced dal; the bhaati, which was a round ball of cooked wheat dough; and churma, a sweet mixture. There was a piquant pickle and some water. We ate quietly. Men came up with additional food to serve. This is what I have noticed in traditional Indian homes. People accord the food the girth and seriousness that it is due. In my ancestral village in Palghat, you’d sit on the floor and eat from banana leaves, pretty much in silence. The focus was on the food; and in the eating. The servers would watch and add dishes quietly. This was how we ate the dish in Jaipur. It was delicious, although my driver told me later that he had eaten better versions of the dish. “You need to cook it on a slow fire, using firewood and cow-dung patties,” he said. “The scent of smoke gets infused into the dish. That is when the flavours bloom and take on a smoky hue.”

At the home, our hosts entertained us with questions about me and answers about them. After a few minutes of whispering, they asked a simple question: “What caste are you?”

I paused mid-mouth. Why were they asking me this question? Was it because I was dressed, all in black? Being South Indian, I didn’t have any context about the Ajmer Dargah, except what I had read. In my attempt to blend in, I had decided to wear all black to the Dargah. It was only after I arrived that I realized how unnecessary this self-imposed dress code was. I could have worn my bright red Kanjivaram wedding sari and still not have stood out.

Once I got that misunderstanding out of the way, I considered options. Call me naïve, but I think India should move beyond the caste conversation. But this was not the time for pseudo-intellectual if well-thought-out principles. So I answered my hosts. They were delighted because they belonged to the same caste too, they said. “We are Pandas,” they said. “We are the caste that does all the rituals at the Jagannath Puri temple.”

I concentrated on the food. It was delicious.

After the meal, my host took me through all the rooms were many women were engaged in rocking babies to sleep, chatting with each other, or combing hair. I asked them if they would pose for photographs. It might get published, I warned. They weren’t fazed. They came to see me off at the gate and stood in line for a photo that reflected the glorious colors of the land.

As for the dal, bhaati, churma, I felt like asking them to pack me some but I didn’t. I would just have to go back. For the kesariabhat and good old fashioned dal, bhaati, churma, made in the village with cow-dung patties and smoke.

END

Wearing a burqa

Stereotypes interests me.  Perception too.  What image do you have when you hear a person’s voice? Or read their work? How does this match up to reality?

It was a real delight to meet this young Radio Jockey and hear her candid views.  In Mint.

In search of a unique Islamic identity

How the modern generation is reclaiming Muslim identity from conservative orthodoxy
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First Published: Thu, Dec 20 2012. 08 52 PM IST
Sanobar--621x414
Sanobar Sultana, or RJ Sano, thinks modern and dresses orthodox. Photo: Saisen/Mint
Why are you in burka? I ask Chennai’s popular radio jockey, Sanobar Sultana. “Because I want to prove a point. Because I want to prove that it is possible to be a modern Muslim,” she replies, before breaking off to introduce the next song.
Sultana, or RJ Sano, as she is known, is the host of The Breakfast Show on Chennai Live, a radio station. She is a beautiful 29-year-old with the wisecracking mien of many young radio jockeys (RJs). The Chennai Live website describes her as a “passionate Chennai-oholic” who dreams of being chased by tube lights. She has a master’s in environmental sciences and an unrequited ambition of being a postman, the website says. Listeners love her clear voice. They wake up to listen to her upbeat conversation, jokes and interviews. She signs off her show with a “Love you, guys”. Sultana, in other words, is your archetypal image of a hip RJ. Except she is clad in a burka.
Sultana lives with her in-laws in Triplicane, one of Chennai’s traditional neighbourhoods. Her mother-in-law takes care of her four-month-old daughter while she comes into the radio station every weekday from 7-11am to record her show. Sultana’s mother doesn’t wear a burka; her mother-in-law disapproves of her wearing one, and her husband, a computer professional, believes that “Hijab is in the heart” of but is supportive of her sartorial choice.
She began wearing her burka about six years ago, when she was searching for an identity. “You know how all young people go through this ‘who am I’ phase?” she asks. “Well, I found myself when I wore a burka.”
Sultana acknowledges that it would be far easier for her without a burka. “People stare at me as if I were a terrorist when I walk into a five-star hotel,” she says. A television channel rejected her job application because they didn’t want to put a burka-clad anchor on national TV. “But how come you can have a Sikh man in a turban on television but not a Muslim woman in a hijab?” she counters. Even her husband would prefer to go out at night with her sans burka. At themed events hosted by the radio station, her listeners come up to her and gawk, unable to match the modern wisecracks with the old-fashioned burka. It is these people who Sultana wants to influence. She wants to change the way people think—about Islam and about Muslim women.
What are the stereotypes that come to your mind when you see a burka-clad woman? I’ll tell you what comes to my mind, and these aren’t rational. When I see a burka-clad woman (or for that matter, a woman wearing a nine-yard sari), I think that she comes from a conservative family; that she may be suppressed; that she perhaps is a conformist, not an eccentric or free spirit. Sultana is none of these things. So, this perception, in a sense, is what she wants to change.
“Aren’t you putting your religious identity over your national one?” I ask. “You are identifying yourself with Islam more than you are with being an Indian.” As the words come out of my mouth, I wince at what I have just said. Because the burka is so obviously a Muslim dress, I am assuming that she is choosing between being a secular Indian and being a Muslim. Can’t the two coexist? Have I offended her?
Sultana doesn’t wince at my accusation. “Why do you ask this question? Why is that even a choice?” she asks. She loves India, she says. She wants her daughter to be an Olympian and represent the country. I wonder if she will want her daughter to wear a burka, but I think I already know her answer. That will be my daughter’s choice, she will say. Just because she has chosen to wear a burka doesn’t change who she is. She is Muslim, for sure, and also Indian.
Ever since France banned the burka in 2011 and even before that, more and more Muslim women across the world have embraced this traditional item of clothing as both a fashion and political statement. A burka and hijab are part of their identity, they argue, and are willing to fight for it. This trend has reached India, with young Muslim women who never saw their grandmother or mother in a burka, choosing it as their own.
As someone from the outside, it is hard for me to relate to wearing an all-covering piece of clothing on a hot day. Then again, I imagine that the same could be said of a sari. Sultana and I go back and forth, arguing about faith and personal freedom; and about reverting to constraining and outdated roles of womanhood. We discuss West Asia where burkas are de rigueur. A woman wearing one would not be stared at, I offer. Sultana has no patience for West Asia. She believes women in West Asia are repressed; not Muslim women in India.
“Did you know that the Prophet’s wife was a businesswoman?” asks Sultana. I nod. I do. “Then what is the point of banning women from starting businesses or doing certain things like driving?”
Can an object of clothing be part of your identity? For many Indian women of the previous generation, saris were part of their identity. It defined who they were; they felt bereft without one. Indian women of this generation flit easily between Western and Indian clothes. Clothes aren’t part of their identity. Instead, an item of clothing has become like an accessory—to be chosen during certain times, and discarded during others. Except the burka, which for young Muslim women, like Sultana, is part of (their) identity—even if it is a misunderstood one.
Shoba Narayan, like Sultana, is a “passionate Chennai-oholic”. Unlike Sultana, she hasn’t found her sartorial identity.

Beliefnet

I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana