Monthly Archives: Dec 2011

Day 7: Pervading and purifying.

10 November 2011/day 5 of Panauti somayajña.

“O thou who seest all things, Sovran as thou art and passing strong, thy rays encompass all abodes.
Pervading with thy natural powers thou flowest on, and as the whole world’s Lord, O Soma, thou art King.
The beams of Pavāmana, sent from earth and heaven, his ensigns who is ever steadfast, travel round.”
Ṛgveda IX.86.5-6.

This morning, I am stepping on the earth more carefully than before; I take the Nepali tilaka with a careful hand, moving slowly to impress every moment with significance. It’s the last full day of rituals here, and I do not know if I will be blessed to witness this rite again.

I pull off my heavy sandals and duck inside, hoping to slip into the shelter’s peace unnoticed. A few children run past me, skipping a circle on the mats and then looking back at me giggling. People have already started to gather, and a lady makes a circling gesture, her and her companions’ faces asking an untranslated question. I nod. Today will be more parikrama indeed, to offer devotions into this living temple while it still stands.

I realise that I have not visited Indreshwar temple, and may not, because I don’t want to leave these potent fires to step on cold, ancient stone.

A few volunteers sweep yesterday’s dust from the carpets and mats as I set down my bag and jacket and prepare to walk. Two-and-a-half sides of the rectangular ground are covered; the remaining one-and-a-half sides are bare dirt with pebbles, sharp rocks, hay blades. My feet are already sore and torn. But I take heart; there is no need to rush on this calm, cool early morning, and I recall Śrī Ramana Mahaṛṣi’s instruction on parikrama:

“One should go round either in mouna (silence) or dhyana (meditation) or japa (repetition of Lord’s name) or sankeertana (bhajan) and thereby think of God all the time. One should walk slowly like a woman who is in the ninth month of pregnancy.”

Silent japa seems to echo and vibrate within the body, and I am already restless; walking slowly does not come naturally to me. But I move, my heart attentive to the centre fires, and a dreamy peace descends.

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Jeanine Miller: Bhakti and the Ṛgveda.

There is much ill-considered and nonsensical work on Indra, in both the world of “scholarly” research and in the speculations/opinions of popular culture…but once in a while, I have the joy of finding an author who reads the texts with respect, without prejudice.

What I mean by “ill-considered” is that people do not celebrate Ayyappa as “that god born when two other gods hooked up,” nor do they remember Govardhana as “that time when Krishna totally lifted a mountain.” There are profound spiritual meanings in these tales; the story can’t be properly understood unless the reader looks beyond the literal events. Yet, as I’ve written in this blog before, if a story involves Indra, then most “scholars” (the infamous Wendy Doniger and her downright pornographic, fascinatedly-repulsed approach to Indra at the top of the list) treat it as completely superficial, physical, and earthly, without allowing the possibility of greater significance. Or else, they force the Deva into the framework of an invented Western sociological history, portraying Indra as a masculine oppressor of women and matriarchical culture, as the Aryan dominator of ‘lesser’ or ‘darker’ tribes, or as simply a deified warrior-king with no true divine origin.

I am guessing from this book chapter that the author, Jeanine Miller, is not herself Hindu. She also references Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation of Ṛgveda; with this version, the only way one can view Ṛgveda as a spiritual text, is to read just about every noun as a metaphor for something else: “light” reads better as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” for instance. But many people take Griffith’s widely-available translation literally, and this is one of the reasons that Veda commands less respect nowadays than it ought.

So it’s extraordinary that, despite using Griffith’s text and without being devoted to these particular Gods, Miller combines sensitivity and poetry with solid scholarship, and writes some gorgeous interpretations of the Vedic Devatās and their worshippers.

A beautiful analysis of Indra is reproduced below, from the volume, Love divine: studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism…a well-reviewed text combining the works of several authors, which I hope to read in its entirety.

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Day 6: Still Panauti, Soma, parikrama.

Originally from 9 November 2011, day 4 of Panauti somayajña.

I feel under the weather this morning, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a somayajña happening, and barring death or other sudden catastrophe, I’ll be there. I haul my irritatingly delicate self to the grounds and, upon entering, notice people circumambulating the House of Soma.

I know about this practice, called parikrama or pradakṣina: walking a clockwise circle around a shrine or temple, to literally and symbolically place God at the centre of one’s life. It didn’t occur to me before, but of course it may be done here, in this living temple of fire. So I think back to my reading; it is to be done once for Gaṇeśa, twice for Śiva, but what is appropriate here? “An odd number,” instructs Ujjwol, “once, or three times, something like that.”

The morning Subrahmaṇyā song surrounds me as I walk. Light, almost dizzy, feeling strangely as if everything around me is unreal, I wonder if I am filled with weariness or wonder. After the morning rites, the musicians take over:

I had missed the first Soma-pressing yesterday, but again the pressing was done today, and I regret that it was difficult to see from our (and their) position. Still, the feeling of sanctity didn’t need bodily eyes to witness. Later, I discovered that Ujjwol had ventured to ask one of the priests about the beverage (which they’d shared amongst themselves after the offerings): what were they using, and what did it taste like?

“What is the Soma” is a valid question, as the original Soma plant has been lost. Soma-substitutes are prescribed and made acceptable in the texts, suggesting that the locating and gathering of Soma was an ordeal even in ancient times, and it is one of these substitutes – appropriately, Arjuna – that rests in the carts here. Soma is so sacred that the entire ninth maṇḍala of Ṛgveda hymns it, so symbolic that entire books can be (and have been) written about it, and so mysterious that scholars even today can’t agree what it was or what it did. Was it an entheogen, a mushroom like Amanita muscaria? An Ephedra species that stimulated and provided endurance, a sort of prototypical Red Bull? A lightly fermented juice, pleasant though not quite alcoholic, perhaps? Sour? Sweet? Bitter? And because the somayajña is so infrequently performed, few people alive have ever tasted the substance. So the priest who answered my friend, indirectly did me (and my blog research) a favour.

Apparently it tastes, “kind of plant-y,” which we both chuckled to hear.

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Day 5: Unexpectedly familiar.

A wrap-up of 8 November 2011: third day of the six-day ceremony.

The rituals today were extensive. Subrahmaṇyā was done twice more, at noon and at sunset, and pravargya was repeated this evening, after several lengthy pūjās in the afternoon.

See the metal screen at the upper right of the picture? It protects the roof from being ignited during pravargya.

It was an active day on the yajña grounds, too.

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Day 5 addendum: Subrahmaṇyā.

Here is all of the information I have so far on this particular chant; I’ll update this post if/when I learn more.

“Thereupon he recites the Subrahmaṇyā litany. Even as one would say to those for whom he intends to prepare a meal, ‘On such and such a day I will prepare a meal for you’; so does he thereby announce the sacrifice to the gods. ‘Subrahmaṇyoṃ! Subrahmaṇyoṃ! Subrahmaṇyoṃ!’ thus he calls, for the Brahman indeed moves the gods onward. Thrice he says it, because the sacrifice is threefold.

‘Come, O Indra!’ Indra is the deity of the sacrifice: therefore he says, ‘Come, O Indra!’ ‘Come, O lord of the bay steeds! Ram of Medhātithi! Wife of Vṛṣaṇaśva! Bestriding buffalo! Lover of Ahalyā!’ Thereby he wishes him joy in those affairs of his. ‘O Kauśika, Brāhman, thou who callest thee Gautama.'”
Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, Eggeling translation.

Sri Venkateswara University’s Oriental Journal, vol. 17, part 1, quotes both Sāyaṇa and Bhāskara on this litany:

Sāyaṇa: “Indra! who is otherwise called Hari (and who possesses a horse by name Hari)! You are welcome to the Sacrifice. Please come. Indra who possesses Medhātithi (the son of Kanva) as the arrow and who loved (Menaka) the daughter of Vṛṣaṇaśva. Please do come to the sacrificial hall, putting on the guise of a white deer (gaura mṛga).”

Bhāskara: “Indra! who is responsible for the creation of the universal sounds that form the vocabulary, or who possesses the greatness which cannot be described in words. You have come to the Sage Medhātithi. You have approached the wife of Gautama as debaucher. You have enlightened Kauśika in the guise of a brahmin.”

subrahmaṇyoṃ subrahmaṇyoṃ subrahmaṇyoṃ / indrāgaccha hariva āgaccha medhātitheḥ / meṣa vṛṣaṇaśvasya mene / gaurāvaskandinn ahalyāyai jāra kauśikabrāhmaṇa gautamabruvāṇa iti
Taittirīya Āraṇyaka I.12.3.

© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Day 5: Subrahmaṇyā.

November 8, 2011. Sometime in the morning.

It’s hard to sleep, through the chill and my own anticipation, and knowing that each time I close my eyes, the rite will be one day closer to ending when I wake. I wish I could stay all night in the yajña-śālā. I don’t know when the earliest rites begin, or how. Do the fires burn through the night? I fell asleep wondering, and this morning decide to fuel my own agni and get to the site as quickly as I can run up the hill.

Each day, we take two meals at the café adjacent to my friend’s guesthouse. The morning tea is especially welcome; my cold hands take warmth from the mug, and then the sweet brew drives away the lingering chill. Breakfast is delicious as always, and I wish I could tell the cook – the proprietor’s wife – my appreciation clearly, instead of via gestures and smiles.

At some meals, the proprietor of my friend’s guesthouse has spoken about respect and Nepali traditions. Today he speaks to my friend about the short traditional homes, how the door frame is deliberately lower than the ceiling because a house should be respected; one therefore bows the head upon entering.

I remember this as I enter the śālā this morning, for I have been bowing to this place, these priests – fortunate beings! what must it be like to do this work?! – since the first day, in my mind, in my heart, every time. Coming here feels familiar now, as if my normal routine always begins with dropping my shoes and stepping into this otherworld.

The assembled priests continue their morning offerings for the next half-hour. Then they rise and move to the open entrance of the inner sanctum; one priests picks up a huge iron karai and stands behind them. In a group they wait. The microphone is passed. I perk up; I’ve never seen them do anything standing there. This is something new.

They start to chant, and I freeze, listening acutely. I don’t always understand what the priests are saying, but I know what this must be. They sing the refrain three times:

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Brief quote.

“Indra is ‘apprehended by the understanding, and appreciated by the wise,’ i.e. in his essence and very self, he is not cognizable by the senses, but is perceptible by the intellect only. He is therefore neither the firmament, nor an orb or luminary, nor any phenomenon of visible appearance, and must of necessity be something that is existent in the Universal Fire, emanating from it, and then by itself acting outwardly and visibly.”

–Albert Pike, from Indo-Aryan Deities and Worship as Contained in the Rig-Veda, 1872.

Day 4: Panauti, passion, penance.

What follows is a story I’ve read before, but never had I heard the part about Panauti village. This is my best recall of the way it was told to me, by a gentleman who knew only that I was a Canadian visitor, and not a devotee of the very Deva whose deeds he described.

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Day 4: Panauti, site of stories and sights.

Notes from the evening of 7 November 2011.

If the Vedic Society fulfils its undertaking, of holding one somayajña each year for a total of 108, then no-one who conceived the project will live to see it completed. I don’t know whether this thought saddens or encourages me.

The Vedic Society has not only sponsored this event, but aims to teach agnihotra, to keep the fires burning after the yajña ends. At the ritual site, there is a spacious tent displaying posters which tell the life story of Shree – the Kalki avatara whom the Society counts as guide and guru – and explain his aim of spreading agnihotra and reviving the pre-eminence of Vedas and Vedic study. Agnihotra is performed daily by practitioners who – unlike me – remembered to bring their supplies with them, and it’s also taught on the grounds.

In what has been a recurring situation in my life, someone notices me awkwardly standing around, and begins to talk to me; he tells me a little about Shree and the Society. “Have you had prasādam yet?” he asks. I shake my head, while mentally replying, no, because I’m afraid to breathe wrong on these sacred grounds. “First we will have darshan and then eat,” he pronounces. “Come,” and he brings me to the one tent I haven’t ventured to visit.

Inside this small shrine, diyas burn. A single wide altar rests close to the ground, draped with saffron cloth and hung artfully, impossibly thick with flower garlands. Five images, decorated with love, look out: Shree, three other gurus of importance to the Society, and Lord Paraśurāma, sixth avatara of Śrī Hari Viṣṇu. The gentleman makes his obeisance; to my relief, his actions are familiar, not different from my home pūjās. I touch my palms, resting the thumb tips gently against my breast, and look into the murtis’ eyes.

I forget to be nervous. The gazes that meet mine are radiating compassion and surrender to wisdom; they melt away the intense burdens of timidity and society and identity. For a moment I feel a vital, calm core only housed for a short time in flesh, and it is such a relief…So this is darśana, to realise how to see and be seen by God, the essence without the mask, to glimpse divine light for a timeless moment.

I have little information about these five, so even the illusion of knowledge is absent; I simply give thanks for the ritual and for them. I bow, and leave the diyas’ light for the sunlight, and resolve to come each day for darśana until the ceremony ends.

The prasādam was a spiced chickpea dish served in a small bowl of green śal leaf, and handed to me with a smile; it tasted – as prasādam always does – of delight.

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Day 3: Panauti, at the yajña.

Again, originally from 6 November 2011.

7 p.m.
There are so many temples and shrines here, and small acts of worship abound everywhere, but I haven’t yet worked up the courage to touch a single bell or ask anyone about what I see. Already I notice that custom here is different than what I recognise from books and films, and it seems unimportant to record it perfectly or understand it completely. I am content to stop over-thinking, and instead to observe, to walk gently over the rocky rises and dips of the earth, to try and learn this place without asking too many questions. In this town I experience a longing to pray and slow down, witnessing how religion is indeed life for others around me. The whole area is suffused with a devotional feeling beyond words.

Perhaps this is one reason that it took me so long yesterday to discover the somayajña’s exact location, or even to find someone who understood what I was asking. I kept wondering, could such a huge undertaking really go unnoticed? but here, where bhakti seems bone-deep, I could’ve imagined this yajña to be just one event of many throughout the year.

After finally finding my way yesterday, I discovered a śālā that was still under construction, though nearly complete. The site was quite beautifully chosen:

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Day 3: Panauti dawn.

First written 6 November 2011.

5:34 a.m.
I’ve visited mountain areas before; I know it can get very cold at night. In packing for Panauti, though, I was so focused on the yajña that I completely forgot about the weather. Since 3:30 a.m. I’ve been awake, shivering, buried under a bedroll, wearing my rain jacket and wrapped in a mylar emergency blanket from my first-aid kit.

I don’t know when dawn comes here, but since it’s the auspicious – albeit chilly – hour, I decide to take out my volume of Upaniṣads. I open to a random page, read what I find, and can’t help but laugh.

“It is not there: it has not set
Nor ever risen.
Gods, by that truth
May I not be parted from brahman!

It does not rise or set for him: it is always daytime for the one who knows the inner teachings of brahman.”
Chāndogya Upaniṣad, III.II.2-3.

Darn it, I think. If only I were a realised, enlightened being, I’d be warm right now.

6:56 a.m.
Light. Cocks crow, a heavy mist hangs over the hills; a bird I cannot name sings a song so sweet it sounds unreal.

Bells of worship have been chiming for more than two hours now. I feel admiration for the strong town residents and a small measure of contempt for myself. My bones jitter and clatter in the freezing damp air…yet long before the sun ascends the horizon, the townspeople are awake, praising God through the dark fog, heedless of dawn and warmth.

Dawn in Panauti, Nepal

© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Day 2: Kathmandu, Panauti.

Originally from 5 November 2011.

To reach the final destination at last, after two days of travel, I opted for a two-hour car ride from Kathmandu to Panauti. It was a beautiful drive, and intimidating besides…

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Day 1: Delhi, awaiting Nepal.

Originally written 4 November 2011.

The smoggy haze of Delhi air hangs heavily, reachingeven the enclosed airport, the not-unpleasant fragrance of fire and smoke, though nothing is burning. To my friend it smells of the woods; it pricks my senses with the memory of pothole tar simmering in summer heat. It’s strange that one place, one scent, can remind two people of completely unrelated childhoods.

It’s reassuring to see palm trees through the window-glass, arching against the sky in thick sprays of exuberant green, and white blooms bursting from slightly smaller shrubs between the palms. The warmth and vitality are soothing, seeping into my bones to drive the deepening Canadian cold away. Finally, some civilised vegetation, I remark half-jokingly, in a snuffy British accent; I grew up with subtropical plants, and Winnipeg lacks nearly all of the florals and greenery that I love.

We entered India through a long organised queue of people, smushing up to customs officers at the international arrival counters. An exasperated clerk requested the crowd, in a mixture of Hindi and English, to form an orderly double line instead of crowding the officials all at once. His listless speech suggested that he knew the command was useless, and indeed, a few people shuffled over as if to suggest obedience, then returned to the directionless crush after he looked away. Though I was tired and wanted to sit down, I still chuckled to see that a queue lacking clear direction could be jumped; a woman with an infant in her arms went to the front of the crowd and went through.

I’m sitting now in the Delhi airport visitors’ lounge, with 8.5 hours to go until departing for Kathmandu, and falling into a warm, contented drowse. There are people everywhere, mostly families, and nearly everyone quite dressed up; beautiful silk sarees swish past me, the women wearing them like ethereal flowers in their brightness. A loud rush of sound accompanies the scene, a blend of conversations in multiple languages and the shuffle of feet on the dusty tile floors. Even the birds outside seem to sail with calm abandon in the high air. Only the officers seem out of place; they slouch on chairs and against walls, posted at every entrance with machine guns on their hips and arms.

I feel as if I should have really moving, revelatory things to say, that this should be the first day of stunning observations which eventually land a “Westerner finds enlightenment in Asia” book deal. But, like the folks waiting at International Arrivals, I’ve never been good at staying in the standard lines. Why start now?

© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.