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, 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.


The morning’s rituals were similar to yesterday’s, beginning with fire by attrition and then offerings made to various Devas. I wonder how many attendees comprehend enough Sanskrit, or follow enough of the rites, to understand exactly what is happening, when. I certainly don’t!

In the afternoon I returned to the hotel and had a pot of tea; while waiting for the brew, I decided to brave a question I’d wondered for days. I’ve seen many sorts of tilaka, in photographs and films, but never the forehead-marking the way it’s worn here in Nepal: bright red vermilion applied with a clump of rice, like the girl in this photograph. I wanted to know, why? And how does it stick?

“The rice, we get it from temple, blessed,” the proprietor explained, showing me a small bag of rice that he had brought from his morning worship. “We mix with kumkum and sometimes with a little bit of kurrt.” Though I asked him to repeat the last word a couple of times, I finally gave up on figuring out what the syllable, which seemed to cross cork and curt, could mean. Maybe it was some term in Nepali, and I thought to look up when I got home.

I finally realised, several hours later, that he meant curd, or what Westerners call yogurt. And with that, I finally understood why I am most drawn to bhakti and karma yoga, and not jñāna: because devotion and service may be done by anyone, but the path of knowledge is difficult to acquire when you’re a moron. :P

When I returned to the yajña grounds, I sat upon the thick mats to watch, and to my surprise and pleasure, a garland of mixed flowers was placed around my neck. I had never seen one of these garlands up close before; their making is not a tradition in the West, where flowers are arranged in bouquets for church services and other religious occasions. I held out the lovely necklace and looked at it. Daisies and marigolds in alternation were strung on a soft but strong twine; the scent was light and fresh. And there was more prasādam, a nourishing kichadi this time, blessed and delicious and warming in the cool air.

A lady with a camera paused in her photography and turned to me. “A big ball of fire soon,” she explained with a smile, pointing to one of the fire-altars. “You will want to see this.”

Pravargya! This was one of the rituals I actually knew about, and most certainly wanted to see.

Pravargya is first explicitly described in the Pravargya Brāhmaṇa of the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, but finds earliest reference in a simpler rite, Gharma, mentioned in Ṛgveda. While other Devas are invoked, the main purpose of Pravargya is to make offering to the healing twins, the Aśvins. Ghee and cow’s milk are poured into a great fire, which sounds straightforward enough until you see the huge fireball that erupts! The vessel is identified with the Sun, the rite with evoking the Sun’s lustre and fortifying the participants with that great energy; the ritual’s power is held to be too disturbing for women, and thus the sacrificer’s wife and other women are not supposed to witness it. But it seemed that the Vedic Society had chosen not to exclude ladies from attendance, and so I, and the lady with the camera, and many other women, remained.

I did not bring a camera on this trip, but fortunately, photographs of pravargya do exist, easily found with searching. Amidst cries of delight and shouts of victory to the gurus, to Paraśurāma, to Agni, brilliant plumes of fire flew skyward, as night began to fall.

After the pravargya implements were set aside, and somewhat calmer rituals resumed, a man standing next to me struck up a conversation, asking the question: Did I understand what I had just seen? Without waiting for an explanation to accompany my nod, he spoke a little about himself and the work he did in Panauti: tourism development. I thought I understood the interest in me then, as he spoke about the uniqueness and sanctity of Panauti town, what a special place it is. Of course, this specialness I have already seen for myself, in the brief time I have been here.

“For example,” he said, “do you know God Indra? God of power, of heaven?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I’ve heard of Him…”

~continued in the next post.~

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