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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Two Stories and Tolerance

Story One

Once, a group of people were sitting in meditation. A wily young boy walked in and was amused looking at all these people sitting silently with their eyes closed. Wanting to have some fun, he impudently poked the foot of one man with a needle. The man did not react. The boy was fascinated and also emboldened and went on to do the same to all the other people. None of them reacted either.

If you expected to read that the boy had a change of heart and realized his folly and sat down to meditate with the group, you’ve been reading too many motivational stories.

The Guru conducting the meditation session saw what was happening and waited. The boy wanted to see how much pain he could inflict and get away with. He kept poking repeatedly and then, people began to wince and wriggle but still, no other overt response. After a while, the Guru reprimanded the boy and sent him away.

He then asked the group why they did not stop the boy when he was obviously hurting them. The answers ranged from
“We must ignore pain when meditating”
 “I believe in non-violence”
“I was focusing on stilling my mind rather than worrying about the outside world”
“I thought he will be transformed when he does not see me responding”

The Guru then explained how the lack of response did not bring about any transformation as hoped for; only his reprimand caused the boy to stop hurting them. Besides, how can someone meditate in peace when experiencing distress that is real and immediate?

This is a story that I was fortunate enough to hear as it was recounted by His Holiness Sri Sri Rangapriya Maha Desikan about 10 years ago in Bangalore. Swamiji was talking about the importance of Kshatriya Dharma – the act of standing up against injustice - to protect an environment that is conducive to spiritual practice.

Today, as the intolerance debate builds up on Indian media, I am reminded of this story. I’m no savant, but with all due humility, I think in today’s times, there would have been a twist in Swamiji’s tale. The wily boy would not have quietly slunk away after being reprimanded; instead, he would have stood taller, gathered a group of supporters who knew nothing of the incident, and they would have collectively whined, “This is intolerance” and called the meditation group “Sanghis.”

Story Two

In times of yore, there was a snake that bit villagers passing by the forest path where it lived. A saint passed by, taught the snake a mantra and asked it to repeat that all the time and avoid harming people. Thanks to the effect of the mantra, the snake became more and more saatvik and stopped reacting when people came near it. 

Over time, as the villagers noticed the reticence of the snake, they grew bold enough to attack it even when it was quietly lying in its hole. When the saint passed that way again, he noticed the weak and injured snake lying close to death and asked what happened. The snake recited the entire story to which the saint explained, “I only said not to bite; why did you stop hissing…keeping yourself safe is important too.”

Had Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao lived during those times, it’s quite likely the hissing snake would have caused them to fret over the safety of their child. Notwithstanding the fact that they lived far from the forest and had all the facilities their riches could buy and had never actually encountered the snake ever.

I’m not one to wantonly say, “All is well,” but given that no country is devoid of snakes; isn’t a merely hissing snake safer than a biting one?

A few days ago, I asked a cousin’s kid who studies in a well known convent school in Bengaluru to recite her school prayer. And noted that it praised and prayed to Our Father in Heaven, the school’s founding Mother and exhorted the kids to be good and work hard. No prayers in Hindi or Sanskrit or Kannada, she said. The prayer my son repeats every day in his school run by a Hindu “forward caste” management trust, includes lines to the effect of saying “You, the same Lord, are known by different names as Ram, Allah and Jesus.”

And I have no qualms about it.

I’m proud of belonging to a culture which has taught me this acceptance – which, incidentally, is a step ahead of mere tolerance.

I’m not insecure that what some pseudo-intellectual or pretentious movie star says will defame or ruin what I and my country stand for. But that does not mean I will ignore it either. In keeping with Swamiji’s message, I feel it is necessary to assert myself…to say I don’t agree when one of these motivated individuals say that my country and its people are intolerant.

And I know I’m not so important, but before someone decides to apply this label to me, I’d like to mention…this blog post is not a bite….it’s only a hiss. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Algorithm for life

My relationship with computer engineering is like that of chalk and cheese…or – in typical South Indian fashion – like that of Oil and Shikakai powder…or a contemporary comparison that’s even more accurate.…it’s like that between Arnab Goswami and Subramanian Swamy.

So, it’s not likely that I will ever write a software program. But, at a recent motivational seminar conducted for Class 12 students, there were some queries thrown up about maintaining a positive attitude. This led me to try and think of how I deal with unpleasant situations that hold the potential of upsetting me. 
Did you notice what I just said?

“unpleasant situations that hold the potential of upsetting me”


“unpleasant situations that upset me”

Those few words that set it apart “hold the potential” convey a key aspect…one that we all too often neglect as we get caught up in the emotions that follow an event.

It conveys this: how I respond to something is a factor well within my control

This simple logic is what is summed up in motivational quotes such as these

The only problem is that we don’t often exercise this power because we haven’t learned to harness the mind to think in a positive direction...we have not trained it to work like this.

What set me thinking on these lines is also something I’ve been studying recently – the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) propounded by Albert Ellis. The basic premise of this technique is that just events cannot cause someone to feel anxious, angry, sad or jealous. Instead, it is the beliefs we create about these events that drive us towards unhealthy feelings and behaviours that are self-defeating. If we learn to disrupt these incorrect beliefs with more positive ones, it has a positive effect that leads to new, positive feelings.

When I read about REBT for the first time, I realized this is what I have been unconsciously doing since quite some years now. And those questions from the Class 12 students motivated me to try to create an algorithm that summarizes my approach to difficult situations.

Abstract stuff? Maybe…
But it works for me. 
Every. Single. Time.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Yes, I've Changed....

A few months ago, I noticed my sister’s peculiar behavior on Whatsapp. She was online but was taking much longer than usual in her replies to me. Clearly, she was preoccupied and when she told me the reason, I found it quite puzzling…what would she find in common to chat about with her batchmates from Goa Medical College after a gap of some 20-plus years?

Just some months after this, I watched a friend get excited about catching up with school mates on Whatsapp and meeting them at a class reunion – again, some 20-plus years later.

I wondered what could be the motivation behind such emotion. And put it down to the rather obvious extrovert nature of these two people. I remember also a sense of smugness in telling myself that this would never happen to me. I had better things to do than chat like a teenager with not a care in the world.

Today, less than a month after I got pulled into a Whatsapp group of St. Mary’s High School Class of 1991, I’m not so sure. Okay..I still don’t chat like a teenager but am finding myself spending quite a few minutes every day catching up with things happening on the group and posting more than an occasional comment. And judging from the comments my activity has invited, it looks like I’m not the only one overwhelmed at this turnaround.

The group admin commented that she is quite surprised to see the level of my interaction. Perhaps others too felt the same but held back from saying it aloud. Nothing startling in this response considering that they last knew me as a studious and silent 15-year old who seemed more inclined to academics than talking or having fun in class.

Today, almost 25 years later, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. If a silent girl has turned into an expressive teacher, there is also 
  • A wayward kid who has changed into a “domesticated” and caring husband
  • An impish guy of yore who now doles out gyaan on life and learning from it
  • A bubbly teenager who is now an investment banker to the royals of the Gulf, 
  • A guy who stayed in the background who now shows up as having a phenomenal memory
  • A seemingly glamorous young one who is content today as an efficient homemaker
  • A hesitant girl who is today competently mothering two growing boisterous kids
  • A serious engineering student who now makes the world smile in her avatar as an RJ
  • Someone whom some labeled as “khadoos” who takes time to make an old teacher and her friends feel appreciated
  • An unadorned child who now captures the beauty of the world in her paintings                                                                                                                                                                             The list is endless…and I’m only stopping here because I need to hold your attention long enough to read the other things I want to say…

Change is the only constant, they say. Sometimes, we change willingly; at others, we are forced to change and in some rare cases, we may even refuse to change. Circumstances we endure, situations we experience, people we meet, books we read, conversations we have, the thoughts we form…all these contribute to making us the individuals we are. What I am today is the sum of all I have been through and not everyone can possibly know or understand what that is. They only see this me after a long gap and I seem like a different person now.

What is astounding though, is that, despite the distance in space and time, there is a camaraderie that exists between us. Maybe it is because of the distance that it exists…after all, they do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe during the innocence of those childhood days, we forged bonds strong enough to endure the vagaries of time. Or maybe it is just the fact that we are able to respond with unconditional positive regard to these friends (and receive it from them, too) that makes the interaction predominantly pleasant. That you don’t actually live with them day in and out and that some important decisions in your life are not influenced by them, also contribute…reality is always glaring in its clarity as compared to the rosy tint that seeps in when viewing someone from a safe distance.

When I was 18, I was once asked, “How much do you think another person is important to your happiness?” I remember defiantly saying, “Maybe just about 10% - mostly, I’m the one solely responsible for my happiness.” Today, I’m not so sure of that answer and cringe at the naïveté with which it was uttered. 

For I have come to realize that in the process of being responsible for our happiness, we often tend to base our attitudes on the way others treat us or think of us. Which is precisely why it is easier to be happy when we get positive inputs from those around us than when conditions are not so conducive.

Now I know what got my sister and my friend hooked. The reason why we make time for people with whom – ostensibly – we now have nothing much in common. They represent to us a period of our life that will never come again….a time of innocence, a time when we did not know what the future held but which we fondly hoped to be full of promise. And maybe in relating to them today, after all the initial surprise of how things turned out for each one has dimmed, we are left with a quiet joy that for all the trepidation of youth, things did turn out right for us after all. Maybe this promise will give us the strength we’re looking for as we dither over the choices of today.

There’s talk of a class reunion next year. People are working out dates and venues. Classmates from outside the country are making travel plans. I’m no extrovert…but I find myself getting caught up in the enthusiasm. I know I have to write my psychotherapy exams in about 10 days time and am not as prepared as I would have been in my student days. Yet, the urge to reach out and share these feelings and thoughts is such that I’m taking time to write this and dedicate it to these wonderful classmates of mine. 

Because the naïveté of the past has gone as has the smugness of a few months ago. Because I now fully understand that I am as much a result of the people around me as of my own efforts. Because I have realized the need to grab this moment and make the most of it – for it will never come back again. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Thank you, Students for making me a Happy Teacher

 “Are you a repeater?” the teacher asked. The little girl being addressed stared back incredulously, wondering if she had heard right. The teacher repeated the question and this time, the answer came out firmly, “NO.”

I can never forget that sense of embarrassment that overcame me when I was thus addressed with that most blasphemous of terms – “repeater” – St. Mary’s Convent lingo for someone who had failed a year and was repeating the same class. As a young girl in Class 5, I remember feeling a sense of acute disappointment that my teacher thought I could answer a tough question only because I had already heard the chapter being taught the previous year.

Today, being a lecturer myself, I can easily sympathize with the sense of disenchantment that must have prompted such a question from my school teacher.  But eternal optimist that I am, I just cannot let that feeling get me down for long. For there is so much I have learned from my students ever since I became a teacher.

Teachers Day is an occasion when people eulogize their teachers. But maverick teacher that I am, I find myself more drawn towards using this occasion to talk of how my students, over the past 15 years, have helped me learn and grow.

A few months into teaching, I ran into a brilliant student who, I suspected, knew that I did not know much about the subject I was handling – Human Anatomy and Physiology. Of course, I may have misunderstood that hawk-like attentiveness because of my own insecurity but it drove me to prepare better for my class, reading up more than what was essential, to be equipped to handle any query that came my way. Thanks to all that effort, I think I managed to redeem myself pretty decently…and in the process, gained a lot of insight into the subject, too.

As a teacher, you learn quite a bit of students’ study habits from the way they frame their answers in tests and exams. I’ve classified students into two categories: the “muggers” who learn everything by heart and then regurgitate that into the answer paper. And the “understanders” who understand things and attempt to explain it in their own words…their answers are not perfect, but reading them, you know they have understood the concept. I’ve always had a fondness for the latter category. And from it came another student who, it turned out, was helping his father manage the family business after college hours. Attending college from 9.30 am to 4.00 pm, working at the shop from 4.30 pm to 10.30 pm and still finding time, energy and interest to really understand the complicated stuff we teach in Pharmacy, write lab records meticulously and almost never miss a single day’s class…Wow..That calls for a special kind of drive. Even today, I find myself quoting this example to students who suffer from a lack of motivation. In fact, I’ve used this to motivate myself too on occasions when I’ve felt lethargic.

And then, there was a student who I thought had it all together – class topper, intelligent, good looking, excellent communication skills, good friend circle..…the works …what more could someone want? But one day I was stunned to learn an unexpected fact from him….that both his parents suffered from an inborn hearing and speech impairment. Can you imagine not being able to hear the comforting voice of your parents? Can you imagine foregoing the joy that comes from them listening to you? And yet, this student did not exhibit any of the bitterness we tend to expect in someone who has been dealt an unfair blow by life. Often, at times when I’ve been in danger of slipping into a cynical dissatisfaction with some situation I’m facing, I’ve remembered the positive attitude of this student and tried to emulate it.

Another student I remember well is one who belonged to that category I dreaded being put into – repeater. He was still in college when others from his batch had graduated and landed plushy jobs about two years before. It was rumored that he was stinking rich and that information was kind of used by other teachers to imply that it did not really matter to him whether he finished the course or not. Once, when one of his new classmates did not have money for the college tuition fee, he was the one who stepped forward to bear the expense. From him, I learned the meaning of standing by a friend, through thick and thin.

These are but a few examples of ways in which interacting with my students have transformed me. To all of them, I’d like to say a big thank you for enriching my life thus.

I’ve had students who have
  • Lost a parent mid-session and yet, gone on to complete their course with decent scores...they’ve taught me what resilience means.
  • Had financial difficulties and worked at part time jobs to pay their way through the course.........they’ve taught me what strength of purpose means.
  • Played the fool in class and provided precious moments of laughter in tense situations......they’ve taught me how to bear my burdens light.
  • Transferred from an Indian language to English as medium of instruction after their 12th Std and are today marketing managers of leading brands of pharma products.....they’ve taught me of the rewards that follow hard work and persistence.

Over the years, I’ve moved from looking for that elusive spark of academic intelligence in my students to looking for the spark of humaneness …emotional intelligence, you could call it. Because I’ve found that the latter is what proves a stronger determinant of success and happiness in life.

Everyone knows a teacher does not “make” much…but the rewards you earn are mind blowing…

  • Intellectual satisfaction when students experience an “aha” moment, understanding some concept you’ve explained.
  •  Joy and laughter, a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye after you’ve laughed with them at a joke someone has cracked in the lab or class.
  • A sense of being trusted and valued when they share their troubles, secure in the knowledge that you will listen without passing judgment and maybe show them a way to cope.
  • Immense respect that drives them to touch your feet (despite your forbidding it) when they leave college.
  • The quiet satisfaction that comes with knowing they are doing well in life and that you have, in some small way, contributed positively to another human being’s life.
  • The glow that lights you up from within when someone shyly says, “Thank you, Ma’am for EVERYTHING”  or like a student recently told me, “Ma’am, please keep guiding me thus throughout my life.”

I cannot imagine any other profession providing such a terrific package…

This year, it is indeed a wonderful coincidence that Teacher’s Day is also Krishna Janmaashtami – the  day we celebrate the birth of the greatest Guru the world has ever seen. On this auspicious day, I’m praying that He bless all of us with Jnyaana (Knowledge), Bhakti (Devotion) and Vairagya (Detachment).

Perhaps we teachers need more of these. Knowledge to keep up with the latest developments. Devotion to perform the duty we’ve been entrusted with – of creating good citizens.  And detachment to avoid getting stressed when we find students don’t behave as we expect them to….

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Happy Independence Day

A few days ago, I received this insightful message on Whatsapp.

Today, as I join my fellow Indians in celebrating our 69th Independence Day, I cannot but help think how totally this applies to my sentiment for my country, too. 

The older I grow, the longer I dwell in the energy of this divine land and recognize the scent of Her skin, the more I grow aware of how lucky I am to be born in this punya bhoomi. No doubt, we have a lot of imperfections; certain conditions in our country do leave a lot to be desired - poverty, illiteracy, corruption, squalour, disease are major problems we face. But so do many other nations....including the ones we term "developed." What matters most is our attitude towards dealing with them. 

Break down any major major problem into smaller ones and you are sure to find something you can do as an individual to help solve a small part of it. This is the best approach to adopt - doing our bit to contribute towards our nation and countrymen. Can't think of what exactly to do? Just take a look at the stories on The Better India or The Ugly Indian and you will realize how much a single inspired person can achieve when he decides to act on his motivation.

As we celebrate yet another Independence Day, let us not be content with forwarding messages that say "Saare Jahaan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara" - let each one of us pledge and draw up an action plan to actually work towards making that sentiment a reality that the saaraa jahaan accepts. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Of Handy Hints and Me

Recently, I picked up a book at the library titled “Femina Handy 
Hints – The A-Z of Household Solutions.” It is indeed a treasure trove of information, thoughtfully collated from the tips sent in by Femina readers over the years. 

Reading this book, you will learn how to prevent spoilt milk from curdling, how to turn an ordinary tawa into a non-stick one, how to use leftovers creatively, how to clean a sticky sandwich maker, how to make your bathroom tiles sparkle using banana skin and so on. There are tips on every possible issue you may face in your house…all you need is the memory to recollect the right remedy at the right time and the patience to follow instructions. I’m sure this is a hugely popular book and that there must be hundreds of women (and maybe some men, too) who diligently follow its prescriptions.

As I read the book, I found myself paying selective attention – the tips that seemed easy to adopt, stuck in my mind quite well. Those with long-drawn procedures that extended beyond two steps – I just skipped. Which should tell you something about my approach towards household work – I’m thorough with the important tasks but have little patience with anything that involves elaborate prepping. With an attitude like this, it’s not difficult to understand why I cannot lay claim to running a perfect, spotless house.

My house and kitchen are clean enough to avoid disease and tidy 
and uncluttered enough to let me perform operations in a streamlined manner. But stepping in, you would not find the floor sparkling or the kitchen counter gleaming or the coffee powder container unblemished or the drawing room furniture immaculate…well, I’m sure you get the drift….

                                                            Guess which of these two is my kitchen?

As a student in the pharmacy college, I remember that I would keep my lab workbench clean, perform the experiments as prescribed, record my observations accurately and repeat procedures if the desired result was not achieved. 
Process validation and analytical method validation were topics that always held a stronger appeal than cleaning validation. I don’t remember ever having beautiful handwriting or the patience to doll up my journal entries using different coloured ink like some of my classmates did. Sometimes, I have a sneaking suspicion that some of their homes today would look like something out of Good Housekeeping or Inside Outside. And just in case you’re wondering how come I know the names of all these magazines if I’m as klutzy as I claim to be – its only because I’m obsessed with reading anything I can lay my hands on….yes, even magazines whose tips I don’t intend following.

I multi-task cooking and cleaning with a full-time job as a lecturer and freelancing as a writer. And reading and thinking (what I believe to be profound thoughts) and working on my self-development. And attending to umpteen simultaneous demands from people around me with the precision and time management skills that I like to think have been born out of years of working in the chemistry lab. 

Armed with experience over the years, maybe someday I will write a book on Handy Hints too – it will be on topics such as “How to help your kid with a complex math problem as you’re cooking dinner” or “How to lend a shoulder to a distraught student on the phone even as you are in the middle of a family function” or “How to find time to read for at least 20 minutes every day.” 
The book I propose to write someday

My only fear is that 
there may not be many takers 
for my proposed book.

It is easy to rub pearl jewellery with olive oil to make them regain their shine. The fact that they will shine after rubbing them, that your friends will notice the shine and ask about it, that you will get a chance to share your expertise on shining pearls are all guaranteed. And this promise of a result is a great motivator.

But my tip on asking your kid to independently try out multiple ways to solve a math problem while you run to the kitchen to stir the sambar for a few seconds is not so fool-proof. Because it assumes that you have a kid who is patient enough to work on his own; because it assumes that you and your family will be satisfied with a functional sambar than some other exotic, nuanced dish for dinner. Besides, delaying the stirring may result in burnt sambar and too much stirring may lead to a frustrated kid and in either situation - an annoyed you. 

Also, there is no guarantee that your efforts with either the kid’s math problems or the sambar will yield fruit in the form of higher marks or appreciation of your cooking. Because those outcomes depend on someone who is human and not a gem and who, in fact, may be – more often than not – highly unpredictable.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Yaatra 2015 – Part 5

I hope you enjoyed the last post on our visit to Haridwar and Rishikesh. Indeed, Shreeharsha covered all aspects in such detail that there is nothing really left for me to add.

So, on to Day 6 and our trip to Kurukshetra – a place that occupies an indisputable significance in the Hindu psyche for having been the site of the Mahabharata war which established the supremacy of Dharma.

We set off early along with my sister, brother-in-law, Shreeharsha and a relative who was using their home as a base during her internship in one of the law firms of Delhi. It being a Saturday, traffic was light and we reached Kurukshetra within 4 hours, including a 30-minute break at a local dhaba to savour the famed paratha. At the dhaba, just as we were about to settle our bill, 2 plates of jalebi materialized at our table. Apparently, in an attempt to indulge my brother-in-law’s sweet tooth, my husband had ordered 2 jalebis….but then, people from that part of the country probably have a unit of measurement quite different from us South Indians with puny appetites.

On reaching Kurukshetra, we first proceeded to the Brahma Sarovar which Wikipedia says is “supposed to be the world’s largest man-made pond.” We were told that pilgrims throng the place on the occasion of a solar eclipse because bathing in this holy pond is believed to free people of sins.

Now, there are people who pooh-pooh this belief. How can washing in a place – which itself may be polluted – serve to wash sins away? We have conveniently chosen to hang on to the most superficial of aspects, without sparing a thought for what it actually implies.

Well, the teachings of Sanatana Dharma are made up of different layers and designed to benefit the followers at the physical, emotional, social and spiritual levels.  I’d like to humbly attempt an explanation on the emotional aspect only of this particular belief.

When we are told that our sins will be washed away by doing a particular act, it does a few things for us at the psychological level:
First, we feel we are forgiven – and forgiveness from an outside entity helps us in forgiving ourselves. In turn, this enhances our sense that all is not lost; that there is still scope to improve and make amends for the wrong we have done.

Second, feeling remorse is the key to not repeating errors. When someone regrets his sins and makes the effort to travel to a holy place and bathe in a holy river, the seriousness of his misdeeds is driven home with greater impact. This awareness is supposed to motivate him to stick to the right path in the future.  

Of course, I don’t know how much this holds true in today’s times when journeys to most pilgrimage places have now been rendered ridiculously easy thanks to better transport, infrastructure and technology. Trekking for days together, braving inclement weather, wild animals and dacoits and depending on the hospitality of strangers is definitely more remorse-inducing than a helicopter ride or an e-darshan from the comfort of your home.

Cynics choose to view such belief systems in an Arnab Goswami-esque way by focusing on a part of the entire teaching instead of the whole. For example, there is a story in the Skanda Puran where a dialogue between Lord Shiva and Parvati clearly indicates that merely bathing in the Ganga will not help one wash sins away or attain Moksha….but how many of us even know of it?

Ok…that’s enough of a… back to the trip. 

After paying respects to the deities in the temple located within the Brahma Sarovar, we visited a shrine established by the Shree Jayaram Vidyapeeth where the four Vedas are represented as four deities. A highlight of this place was our walk through what is called the Char Dham Yatra Divya Darshan  – a depiction of the holy places of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – and the caves which have been fabricated to simulate the shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi in Jammu. Someday, with His blessings, I hope to make the journey to these places too.

Next, we visited Jyotisar, the site where The Song Celestial – Bhagavad Geeta – was delivered by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. We did a pradakshinaa of the holy Peepal tree which is said to be the sole existing witness to the Lord’s message. As we went around this tree, I remember praying for at least some of the wisdom to rub off on to me to make this worldly journey smoother and worthwhile. Even as we sat down to do a symbolic recitation of the 12th chapter of the Bhagavad Geeta, the place was besieged by two busloads of tourists from Tamil Nadu and the ensuing cacophony made us rush to the next place on the itinerary – the Bhishma Kund at Naraktari.

The spot where the mighty Bhishma fell on the 10th day of the Mahabharata war, is marked by a small water tank called the Bhishma Kund and a temple that houses idols of the great warrior with Krishna, the Pandavas and Draupadi. We were told that the water of the Bhishma Kund is Ganga Mata herself, who came at Arjuna’s request, to quench her son’s thirst as he lay dying on the battlefield. The place is significant as the site where the VishnuSahasranaama Stotra came into existence in the form of advice given by Bhishma to Yudhishthira.

We were able to sit calmly and recite this stotra, feeling blessed to be able to do so at the site of its origin. As we neared the end, the same noisy tourists caught up with us but luckily, they straggled in as ones and twos and were surprised into silence by our recitation. My son, of course, found his own way to partake of the holiness of this place – by bathing in the Kund along with some local kids.

Post-lunch, a glorious two hours were spent in appreciating the artifacts in the Sri Krishna Museum which has a total of six galleries. 

This museum boasts of a wide array of sculptures, pottery, bronze castings, terracotta artifacts, miniature paintings, artifacts obtained from underwater excavation in Dwaraka and of course, an unforgettable Multimedia Mahabharata and Geeta Gallery.

By 7 pm, we were back at my sister’s house and it was time to finally pick up some gifts for folks back home. There is a local, colourful, noisy bazaar near her house selling every possible thing one could want or need. This bazaar is held on Saturday and is therefore, called Shani Bazaar and me and my sister spent an hour here making a few purchases. Yes, that’s right – just one hour….because I knew exactly what I was looking for and I’m not equipped with the normal womanly trait of a love of shopping and impulse buying.

Sunday was the day we had reserved for the Akshardham temple at Delhi but we thought better of it for a few reasons. For one, the entire week had been spent traveling, leaving us with very little time to spend with our loved ones at home. Secondly, our flight – wonder of wonders – had been rescheduled to depart a good four hours earlier. Thirdly, “timeless” people must not aspire to do as much as punctual people do :-)

But time flies fastest when you most want it to slow down. Too soon, our cab to the airport had arrived; we had bid our farewells and were on the flight to Chennai, watching a golden sunset from a vantage position. An overnight stay at a hotel in Chennai and an early morning journey by Shatabdi later, we were back to what is (to us - and all the discerning people it has attracted from all over the world) the best place on earth – our naturally air-conditioned home city of Bangalore.

Surprisingly, there was none of the fatigue that comes with traveling for extended durations. This trip was an eye-opener to several things – the beauty and grandeur of our motherland, the unshakeable faith that sustains billions of Indians and most importantly, a window into my own inner self. Before we left, I had resolved to stay focused on traveling as far within as outwards and thanks to His immense grace, there were multiple spiritual experiences that have taken me one tiny step ahead on my journey towards the divine.

The biggest learning was from Mata Ganga who is as graceful as She is powerful. Who, even as She surges ahead, gives the impression of being firmly rooted. Who unquestioningly embraces all that comes Her way and makes it Her own without ever losing Her own identity.  

Over the past few months, I have found that just picturing Her in my mind’s eye is a hugely calming experience. One that leaves me feeling energized to meet the ever-burgeoning demands on my time and abilities. One that elevates me above the pettiness that comes so naturally to the human mind. One that keeps reminding me that I am – first and last – a Seeker on the path to Satchidananda

Monday, 22 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 4

And now, it is time to talk of the highlight of the trip in many ways - our visit to Haridwar and Rishikesh...those holiest of holy places that literally swept us off our feet. And the surprise I promised in Yaatra 2015 - Part 3? A refreshing take on our experiences through the eyes and voice  of my young nephew Shreeharsha - a techie turned MBA, who is also a writer in his own right. 

"The sea: Till when will you keep pouring all your water in me?
The river: Till you become sweet.”

In our case, we ask the Ganga till when she plans to flow, she says, till I take up all your sins.

The Haridwar and Rishikesh trip was my pet project. Mom had put me in charge of doing all the research and planning the trip with my aunt, uncle and cousin. It would be my first overnight trip after moving to Delhi.

A little time surfing the Net showed up many trip plans - some even did it in 24 hours and just cost about 1000 rupees. But for us, soaking in the holiness of the place took priority over time or money. So we decided on a peaceful 2 days and a chose a comfortable cab best suited for us.

We started off early in the day. The ride was on time and as ever I was not. Luckily this time around I had my uncle to share the podium of the “timeless” people. Thanks to the lack of traffic, we made good time. Sticking to my reputation I got sick once in the car before breakfast. To avoid any more episodes I decided to take a long nap till we reached Haridwar.

Haridwar is situated on a flat piece of land. Although it is at the edge of the Himalayas, there are very few hills and valleys in the city itself. We entered the city by noon and caught the glimpse of the Ganga as we made way towards our hotel. We checked into our AC rooms only to realize that Haridwar was a cool place and we could've done without the AC.

The receptionist suggested we have lunch at the Chotiwala hotel. I had first seen this eatery in Rishikesh 15 years ago when a real man wearing blue paint with an upward pointing choti and a south Indian attire sat at the door and invited guests. The Chotiwala is all but clichéd now with dozens of Chotiwalas all over the two holy cities.

Lunch was a north Indian version of south Indian food and following it, we headed out to the Manasa Devi temple. Situated atop the Bilwa Parvat, it is one of the most famous places in Haridwar and can be reached on foot or via ropeway. We chose the latter and were deposited at the temple in less than 2 minutes.

We bowed before the Goddess, received blessing and “beatings” from all the other shrines, made offerings, and gazed at all the threads tied to posts by pilgrims praying for this or that wish to be granted. To me, it seemed like an inventory of human greed….but if you’ve read the last part of the Yaatra series, you know my aunt’s thoughts on this…and….we’ve agreed to disagree.

From the hill, we had a breathtaking view of the entire town of Haridwar and the enormous Ganga and how she has been diverted into the ghats where the evening aarti would be performed.

We witnessed the Ganga Aarti in the evening as it was performed by priests of the Ganga Maata temple. From where we sat among maybe 5000 people, the song was faintly audible but the flames and their reflection in the Ganga was really something. We too offered our prayers using the small aarti boat made of leaves, containing flowers and a lighted wick, watching how far in the water it went. Not that it meant anything, but watching it go felt like letting our ego and attachment to this mortal world go. Among the 5000 odd people, we suddenly felt nothing. The crowd simply faded into nothingness. We could just feel the grace of Ganga Maata and an urge to surrender.

The next day, we went early to the ghats for the Ganga Snaan. The water was ice cold, but the flow and the feeling of it being Ganga overrode the chill. I got out early from the water; one of the disadvantages of being thin is that you get cold very soon. But my cousin really had a great time.

After the bath, morning Sandhyavandanam and breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and started towards Rishikesh. The ride took hardly an hour as we passed various temples and even some south Indian establishments; in fact there were ashrams and temples from all parts of the country. Rishikesh brought out the mountains. We were officially in the Himalayas.

The city of Rishikesh was strikingly different from Haridwar. It seemed more tourism orientated with shops selling books, merchandise, accessories, music CDs among other things. There were a lot of adventure sports establishments, too and rafting, hiking and safari seemed to be very popular. Rishikesh had more foreigners than Haridwar – was it perhaps because of the numerous yoga and wellness centers promising eternal calm? Also, the ghats of Haridwar are famous only from a religious POV whereas Rishikesh is less crowded on the river bank and allows silent siesta.

We walked over the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula which are suspended bridges across the Ganga connecting the city to the temples across the river. The Gita Bhawan and Lakshmi Narayan temple were the only places we visited. The boards in the Gita Bhawan were really philosophical – and I mean that in a good way. One such board read "Offer yourself and not any material article;" another visibly placed board said something like “Offer your mind, body, intellect, senses and soul here, and open yourself up to the grace of God." Reading these boards, it seemed to me like the dehydrated walk across the Ram Jhula in the blazing sun had been worth it.

My cousin made friends with touring Tamilians at Rishikesh, Tamil actor Vijay fans to be specific. My aunt and I didn't exactly warm up to this. Perhaps a giving of being adults.

Speaking to my mom just before we left Rishikesh, my aunt said she could live there forever and didn't feel like going back. I was going through the same feeling. I thought I should make a Facebook status of it. Something like "I could get lost in the ghats of Haridwar forever." Thankfully, better sense prevailed because apparently, I could get lost in Haridwar but not lose my Facebook.

Nearly a month later, Vellukudi Krishnan Swami visited Delhi. I was exhilarated and attended all the upanyaasam sessions. Since the sessions were small, he took questions. I made myself ask a small question. "It is important to walk on the footsteps of our elders as it is a tried and tested path, but in today's time, especially for the young, it is also important to keep in pace with modern rationality. How do we strike a balance between the two?"

He looked up and, with an expression that revealed nothing, said, "It will come, you need to listen more. Things won't come that easily, you need to work a little." I kind of exasperatedly wondered why gurus are always mystical? Guess they don’t believe in handing things out on a platter.

This trip had been one such battle of striking balance. Between wanting to get lost in the grace of Ganga to making the Facebook people know what you are thinking, it was a struggle. Between spirituality and society. Why can't one be a part of both? 

That's when it struck me. The Ganga is praised to godliness not just because of mythology but also because of Her service to society. Spiritual gurus have, since ages, showed societies how to lead an ideal life. 

Being spiritual doesn't mean they are removed from society. Similarly, being in society shouldn't mean we are removed from spirituality.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Yaatra 2015 - Part 3

Day 3 proved to us the profoundness of the quote, “Man proposes God disposes.” We left home quite early to avoid traffic and yet, got stuck for a good 45 minutes…at 7.30 in the morning. This ensured we reached Agra with the midday sun for company but that did not stop us from being enthralled over the beauty of the Taj – the picturesque mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna. The minarets, the marble vaulted dome, the ornate spires were striking to behold. Yet, within the tomb, I sensed a kind of unsettling heaviness that kind of made me glad to move out.

From the Taj Mahal, it was onwards to Mathura – that hallowed part of Braj Bhoomi where Lord Krishna was born. The Keshava Dev temple is built over the prison where the Lord was born and is the highlight of the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex. Entering into the complex itself, we were aware of a calmness descending upon us…mind and body seemed to slow down in complete awareness of being in the presence of the divine.

I found the simple, implicit faith of the devotees thronging to these temples quite touching. And because mobile phones are not allowed inside the complex, there was none of the obsession with photography on display. People either sat silently inside the temple or sang bhajans…both of which were conducive to a holy atmosphere.

Unlike South Indian temples, there is no concept of “archana” in the temples of the North. Which I kind of liked because it does not take one’s attention away from offering a mental prayer. Of course, the subject of the prayer may still be the same – whether with archana or without.

Quite a few cynics often point out how humans have reduced prayer to a business relationship, pleading with the Almighty to grant favors for this or that worldly desire. But my attitude is…even if to ask, at least they are coming towards a source of positivity with such immense faith and sense of surrender! At some time, He Himself will lead them further to a stage of prayer without expectations.

This is the concept of “Drishta drishya vashaat baddaha; drishyaabhaavaat vimuchyate” which means the one who sees is bound by his view of the objects he sees. When a person keeps seeing the Lord, he gets bound to Him and ultimately, this bondage will lead him to the Source itself.

And when He Himself accepts the devotees who come with requests, who am I – a mere mortal – to sit in judgment over them?

Next stop was at the Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan where the image of Krishna is featured as being bent at three places. The darshan of the Lord in this temple is interrupted by drawing the curtain at regular intervals…the belief is that His charm is so great that ordinary mortals cannot bear it continuously. People also say that staring for too long into His eyes can cause a loss of self-consciousness.

Anyway, I did not perceive any such danger because I was following the advice given me long ago by a spiritual guide….when in a temple, look at the feet of the Lord, and try to cultivate the spirit of surrendering to them. Ever noticed how one of Lord Venkateshwara’s hands points at His feet and is inscribed with the words “Maamekam sharanam vraja”? Surrender all to me, is  precisely what the Lord is trying to tell us.

We had a singular experience while visiting this temple. My sister who accompanied us, has been to this temple about 7 times since she relocated from Bangalore to Delhi and she had never seen this temple very crowded. But the day we went, there was a huge group of devotees from Maharashtra who were there as part of Bhaagvath Saptaha ( a week-long study of the Srimad Bhaagavatam) singing bhajans and chanting the Lord’s name and it was in their midst that we had darshan of Banke Bihariji. I felt He had orchestrated this entire sequence of events for me to learn something vital.

Let me explain this. I generally avoid visiting temples when they are crowded because I don’t like the noise and the sense of chaos. But as taught by the learned ones, the Lord is happy when a devotee comes along with other devotees to offer his prayers. So, I saw this incident as a lesson in learning to disregard personal comfort and instead, focus on meeting Him. At the same time, He made me part of a crowd that was full of devotional fervor; the chants of this group were familiar to me because I had grown up listening to them (as I was born and brought up in Goa). And to my pleasant surprise, my focus stayed on the Lord and I didn’t even notice the jostling.

There were other positive results, too. The crowd was so huge that, as we walked through the narrow lanes, visibility was very limited and we were unable to perceive the surroundings… which, I had been warned by well-meaning friends, were quite dirty. Also, as this mass of humanity swept into the temple and out of it, there was no opportunity for anyone to demand any money from us for darshan or prasad …which again, well-wishers had cautioned me about. The crowd also ensured that the notorious monkeys stood no chance of approaching us to snatch our belongings away.

When people had warned me of these unpleasant aspects of the temple visits, I had not really paid attention, deciding to take it as it comes. After my experience at the temple, as I analyzed these aspects, I’m compelled to believe in the adage “Whatever you are aware of, that is where your energy goes and that is what the Universe creates as your reality.” I had made up my mind that my focus was going to be on the Lord and not the external surroundings in which He chooses to dwell…so He was benevolent enough to let me see and experience only Him without fretting over the external trappings.

Yet, I equally strongly feel that from a social point of view, it is important we respect the sanctity of such places by keeping them clean – in the physical as well as moral sense. The devotees must want to see their Lord in conditions that befit His grandeur. This can only be possible if there is actual action to maintain these holy places in good condition without raising demands for money from the devotees who flock to receive His grace.

Besides the Banke Bihari temple, we visited the Prem Mandir – a monument dedicated to divine love – established by Shri Kripaluji Maharaj. Every one of the marble stones that make up the temple has been hand-carved by artisans. This temple is located in the midst of a beautiful garden and the main deities are Radha Krishna and Sita Ram. 
Image courtesy:
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to visit the numerous other significant places in Vrindavan. These, along with places such as Gokul, Nandgaon, Govardhan Parvat and Barsaana are still unchecked on our “must visit” list and I only pray He sees fit to ensure we do so in this lifetime.

Part 4 of Yaatra 2015 will hold a surprise but I’m not telling right now!