August 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 8

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

August Power Days of India

by Sucheta Shetty and Anindita Basu

A silken thread the colour of gold becomes a powerful link of love from sister to brother in one of the holidays that makes August a joyful and power-packed month in India. The brother-and-sister celebration, midway through the Hindu lunar month of Shravan, is followed by joyous festivals in which two of the best-known and most-beloved gods of Hinduism hold centre stage. Krishna’s birthday, late in Shravan, is an important religious observance sweetened with candy and bright décor. Then, as the month of Shravan gives way to Bhadra and August winds up, the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is honoured in public festivals and with devotions that last into September, when colourful representations of Ganesh are paraded through the streets.

Raksha Bandhan: August 12, 2003

This Full-Moon day of the month of Shravan is a special day for brothers and sisters, and girls look forward to the occasion because, in exchange for tying a golden silk thread (called a rakhi) on the wrist of their brothers, they get showered with goodies, including hard currency, traditionally. The brothers reaffirm their vows to always protect their sisters. A rakhi, once tied, becomes a bond for life that cannot be broken under any circumstances. The holiday’s name comes from raksha, the Hindi word for protection, and bandhan, which means bond.

The festival’s origins are obscure and, strangely, have nothing to do with the brother-sister bond celebrated today. Mythology speaks of Jupiter, teacher of the gods, tying a rakhi on the wrist of Indra, the god-king, on the eve of his battle against the demon, Vrittra; a battle in which Indra emerged victorious. Another version states that it was Indra’s wife who tied the rakhi. The old texts also speak of the priests tying a rakhi on the wrists of those on whose behalf they offered prayers and sacrifice. This religious practice prevails even today, where the thread used is of a red-and-yellow colour, but it is done after any prayer-offering ceremony (especially at the places of pilgrimage) and is not limited to the full moon day of the month of Shravan.

A number of stories are associated with the sanctity of the rakhi. During the Freedom Struggle for India’s independence, the Nobel laureate poet Rabindra Nath Tagore used the rakhi to rally people from all walks of life against the Partition of Bengal. And then there’s the story of a Hindu dowager queen of a border state of India sending a rakhi to the Muslim sultan of Delhi, asking for his help to thwart a possible attack on her kingdom by a neighbouring one, ruled by another Muslim. This was sometime during the 1500s when India was increasingly being taken over by invading Muslims. The Delhi sultan did send an army, though it arrived a bit late. Traditionally, some women send rakhis, by post, to unknown soldiers on India’s borders whenever there has been a major armed conflict.

This is another festival where creativity is found in abundance, as is sadly, commercialisation. Rakhis of all shapes and sizes and all kinds of materials crowd the market places. From teddy bears on strings that lure the little girls, to musical rakhis that target the youth, to the more sober silken thread with an Om or similar symbol for the older generation, the rakhi shops that spring up in every nook and cranny have something for everyone.

The festival also has given rise to the concept of Rakhi Brothers and Sisters, which means that the brother and sister are not related by blood but regard each other as such, and the “adopted” sister ties a rakhi on her “adopted” brother’s wrist to indicate a bond between them that goes beyond blood relations. Interestingly, this is also an annoying time for incurable flirts, who are sometimes flooded with rakhis from girls who are sick and tired of their flirting.

Krishna Janamashtami: August 20, 2003

Krishna, one of the most-beloved gods of the Hindu pantheon, is depicted as a playful, mischievous character who grew up to teach the people the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita - a set of teachings that has become one of the most scared books of the Hindus. An incarnation of Vishnu, the second god of the Hindu trinity, Krishna was born (janam) on the eighth day (ashtami) of the dark-moon phase of the Hindu month of Shravan. The story of his birth has interesting parallels with that of Jesus. The exact year of birth is still mere speculation, but is thought to be around 1400 B.C.

The story of Krishna’s birth involves a brutal king who was the brother of Krishna’s mother. In the kingdom of Mathura in Northern India, the evil king, Kansa, had imprisoned his own father to ascend the throne. King Kansa had a sister, Devaki, whom he loved dearly and who was married to his friend Vasudev.

But on the day of their marriage, an Akashwani (literally, a voice from the sky) warned Kansa that Devaki’s eighth child would be the cause of his death. Ready to kill his once-beloved sister, Kansa was convinced by Vasudev to spare her life in return for the life of their eighth child. He promised to hand over the eighth child at its birth to Kansa. But Kansa was not willing to take any chances. So he imprisoned Devaki and Vasudev in his dungeons. One by one he killed six of Devaki’s babies at birth.

The seventh child is said to have been miraculously transferred into the womb of Vasudev’s first wife, Rohini, who visited them in the prison. Rohini gave birth to a child named Balram, said to be the incarnation of Vishnu’s serpent, Shesh Naag, the great snake on whom Vishnu reclines and dreams of the universe. (Vishnu’s dreams keep the universe in existence, hence the name Vishnu the Preserver.) After the child was miraculously transferred, Kansa was told that Devaki had had a miscarriage. When she got pregnant for the eighth time, the king posted guards around the prison cell to keep him abreast of developments.

At the stroke of midnight on a stormy dark night, a stunningly handsome, dark-complexioned child was born. He was Krishna, by whose powers the prison guards fell into a deep slumber and the locks loosened. The father, Vasudev, placed the newborn in a basket, with the intention of smuggling him out of the prison, across the river to a village on the other side where his friend Nand was a milkherd-cheiftain. But it was pouring torrentially and the Yamuna River was in spate. While Vasudev stood there on the riverbank, dripping with water and wondering what to do, Adishesh (another name for the snake Shesh Naag) appeared and, unknown to Vasudev, spread his hood over the father and child, shielding them from the downpour. At that moment, Vasudev spied a ford in the swelling waters, and he walked across to the other side.

At Nand’s house he found Nand’s wife, Yashoda, sleeping next to her just-born baby girl. Acting upon divine instruction, Vasudev switched the babies and carried the baby girl back to the prison cell. The chains binding him were replaced, the locks shut and the sleeping prison guards arose to hear the cries of the baby girl. They rushed to inform Kansa, who arrived to murder yet another baby. He was surprised to find a girl instead of a boy as he had expected. Devaki pleaded with him to spare the life of the innocent girl, as she could do him no harm. Kansa, however, wasn’t willing to take the risk. He picked her up to dash her against the prison walls, but she flew out of his hands and took the form of a goddess named Maya (literally, illusion). She laughed at Kansa’s foolishness and told him that he could neither harm her nor the one he should really want killed - because the other babe was safe in Gokul and would one day fulfil the prophecy of Kansa’s death.

In Gokul, Nand and Yashoda, unaware of the switching of babies, celebrated the birth of their baby boy and named him Krishna. However, their joy was short-lived, as Kansa ordered the death of all newborn babies in Gokul. Krishna, however, survived this and many future attempts by Kansa to end his life. He eventually grew up to defeat and kill his evil uncle in a wrestling match, thus restoring the throne to his grandfather, Ugrasen.

Hindus celebrate the day of Krishna’s birth with great devotion. Tradition is to observe a fast on this day, into the night, to offer worship to Krishna at midnight and generally chant his name throughout. Colourful decorations called jhanki, depicting Krishna’s birth and other scenes, are put up at homes, somewhat like nativity scenes and crèches that depict the birth of Jesus at Christmas celebrations in Christian homes. During the celebration of Krishna’s birth, one can see groups of children trooping from one home to another, taking a peek at the decorations and being offered the prasad, which are sweets offered first to the gods during worship and then distributed among the devotees. Large-scale festivities take place where Krishna was born, Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, India, as well as where he grew up with the milkherds, Vrindavan in the same Indian state, and where he lived for a large part of his life, Dwarka in Gujarat, India.

Dwarka has an interesting legend associated with it that says that an earlier version of the city was built on land Krishna borrowed from the Sea God and promised to return later. The old Dwarka that Krishna ruled is said to have been submerged into the sea after the promised period elapsed. The story is told in the epic Mahabharata, and archaeology has found its basis by discovering the remains of a city submerged in the Arabian Sea off the coast of present-day Dwarka. This is considered proof that the story of Krishna is more than just a Hindu myth. “The findings in Dwarka and archaeological evidence found compatible with the Mahabharata tradition remove lingering doubt about the historicity of the Mahabharata,” said S.R. Rao, a former advisor to India’s National Institute of Oceanography who was involved in much of the underwater excavation. “We would say Krishna definitely existed.”
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Ganesh Chaturthi: August 31, 2003

Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is the most visible icon in Hinduism today. He is said to be a repository of knowledge and learning and is believed to be the Remover of Obstacles par excellence. Consequently, no venture is begun without first propitiating Ganesh. A car owner, for example, will deem it more important to keep a small Ganesh idol on the dashboard than to renew his yearly car insurance in time.

Ganesh’s elephant head on a human body may appear strange to a non-Indian. But there is a lot of symbolism involved in this strange-looking form. The elephant head is said to represent the macrocosm (brahmanda) and the human body represents the microcosm (pindanda). Both coming together in the person of one entity represents the unity of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The elephant head is also said to be a symbol of infinite consciousness. Ganesh’s elephant head has only one tusk. This is said to be a symbol of oneness, or the one-pointed concentration with which one can attain perfection.

Ganesh broke off his other tusk to write the Mahabharata epic as dictated by Ved Vyas, the divine being who is credited for having produced all Hindu scripture. Ved Vyas couldn’t find a suitable person to write the epic as fast as the words flew from his mouth, so he approached Ganesh. Ganesh agreed and started transcribing the rishi’s words, but the rishi spoke so fast that every pen Ganesh used would soon snap and break. Disgusted, Ganesh broke off one of his tusks and proceeded with the transcription, and this “pen” stayed in one piece until the Mahabharata was complete.

Ganesh has four arms representing the four directions. Each of his hands holds an object that may vary with each depiction of his form. Most commonly depicted are the noose and goad, which represent control over ego and material desires. The other two hands form the gestures of abhaya (lack of fear) and varada (bestowing blessings). Ganesh has a big belly, indicating that he holds the abundance of the universe within him and projects it out from him. His small, penetrating eyes represent the inner eyes with which one can see that God is in everyone. One sees unity instead of duality; We instead of Us and Them.

Ganesh has big ears and a small mouth, which is said to mean that one must be a good listener and speak little. Just as the elephant fans its ears, we must fan away all negativity that falls on our ears and take in only that which expands our consciousness. The trunk of the elephant is powerful enough to uproot trees and flexible enough to pick up a needle. Being a mixture of strength and gentleness, Ganesh has for his mount a mouse. The mouse again represents the ego that moves in the darkness of ignorance and interferes in other people’s business, just as a mouse moves in the dark and steals and hordes food from people’s kitchens and chews and destroys their things. Ganesh mounted on a mouse represents the taming of the ego - control over all arrogance, lust, anger, greed, infatuation and attachment to the material world.

Traditionally, Ganesh’s birthday was celebrated privately in houses in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. Depending on the region, idols of Ganesh were made out of clay or sugarcane and ritually worshipped for a fixed period of time starting with Ganesh Chathurthi Day. The period varies from family to family. It may be as short as one-and-a-half days or as long as 11 days. But it is always an odd number of days. The ritual worship is carried out twice a day and offerings are made to the Lord of his favourite dishes, especially sweet modaks. Houses are decorated festively, and friends, relatives and neighbours are invited to participate in the festivities. At the end of the period of worship all the idols are immersed in a body of water.

G oa has a regional tradition of drawing pictures of Ganesh on paper, which dates back to the days of Portuguese colonial rule when it was illegal to keep idols of Hindu gods in one’s house. People would draw pictures of Ganesh on paper and use special wooden boxes with sliding doors to display the pictures. If there was suspicion of Portuguese soldiers being around, the doors of the boxes would be slid shut and the boxes would appear to be ordinary chests for storing household goods. The tradition still endures as Ganeshas drawn on paper share space with the clay idols.

During the Freedom Struggle, the firebrand Bal Gangadhar Tilak popularised the concept of public celebrations of the festival in his home state of Maharashtra in an effort to inculcate a sense of pride among the people, who were increasingly being battered spiritually by snobbish colonials. It was also an excellent means to get around the law passed by the British that restricted the gathering of people in public places for meetings. Lokmanya Tilak (as he was popularly called) used the festival as a platform for fiery speeches that inspired people to unite against the foreign rulers who were dictating terms to them on their own land.

Today, the festival still remains a hugely popular one in the state, with colourful floats and tableaux being taken out for the occasion. Bombay, the capital of Maharashtra, India, comes alive during this period. Different localities compete with each other to see who can come up with the best decorations and the biggest and most beautiful idols. Every tableau has a theme that could range from mythology to nuclear weapons, literacy to national integration. In a sense it still fulfils the original intent of Lokmanya Tilak in starting the public celebrations - making a statement that captures the current mood of the people, and informs and inspires.

Even the idols vary from the regular garishly painted clay idols to innovative eco-friendly Ganeshas made entirely of coconuts or other such chemical free, natural materials. One may depict a cute baby Ganesh, another may show him dancing like his father Shiva in the form of Nataraj (god of dance and drama), or he may play the flute like Krishna, or hold the globe protectively in his hands. There is no limit to the imagination when it comes to Ganesh idols in Mumbai (Bombay).

On Anant Charturdashi Day, which is the 11th day of the celebrations (and the 14th day of the bright-moon phase of the month of Bhadra - September 10 this year), almost all the idols are taken out in huge processions to the city’s beaches, lakes and wells for immersion. The joy and enthusiasm in the air is infectious. It reflects in the eyes of grannies and children alike as they watch the beautiful Ganeshas glide by and shout out their farewells. “Ganpati Bappa morya, pudhchya varshi lavkar ya!” they say. “Beloved Lord Ganpati, come back soon to visit us next year!”


For all this month’s world holidays, please see the August Interactive Calendar.