Marathwada Diaries: When Goddesses Come Home

Hindu mythic folklore is rich and colourful, creating whole worlds in which the divine interacts with the human. This time of year is particularly full of this interplay, merging the two and creating an elevated sense of companionship and closeness with God.

In my part of Maharashtra, Marathwada, 3 days after Ganpati arrives, the Mahalaxmi goddesses, Jyestha and Kanishta, also come home with their families. The legend goes that they are making their annual visit to their maiden home, and are as eagerly awaited as the homecoming of one’s own daughter.

In an already happy and excited home, what with the benevolent presence of Ganpati, their arrival raises the level of joy to ever greater heights. More than Diwali, this is the time to be in a Maharashtrian home.

Though the goddesses and their families only stay for 3 days, the festivities in their honor know no bounds. From special festive snacks to the best saris and jewellery being worn, celebrations are everywhere. Folks return to their native homes to join the family in welcoming the goddesses. A special place is created for them to stay, with vibrant textiles mimicking walls, lush carpets strewn with fresh marigold flowers and bountiful grains like rice and wheat, and multi-coloured ice lights to create an abundant and prosperous atmosphere. When they arrive, trumpets and drums bellow out grandly.

The first day is their arrival. On the second day, a feast is held. On the third day, their day of departure, there is an evening of haldi-kumkum, where women visit each other to share gaiety and good cheer. Throughout all of this, families come together on a joint activity, the hustle and bustle permeated with laughter and closeness.

This festival is about the homecoming of daughters. In today’s world, it is bringing far-flung family members back home as well, reconnecting them with elderly parents, introducing multiple generations to each other and restoring a deeper sense of family. We feel a renewed sense of belonging, which no Whatsapp forwarded meme can ever recreate. I didn’t know about this festival for so long. Now that I do, I’m so grateful for it because it is reconnecting me to my larger family.

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Yoga as Healing

After my yoga class, I went to talk to my teacher.

“Tell me about breathing,” I said.

He calmly turned to me, his eyes gazing steadily into mine. “Breathing is as important as movement. It is part of the flow,” he replied. Breathing, I understood, is essential to yoga.

“Yoga is about healing,” he continued. The Sanskrit/ Hindi word, vyayam, apparently is related to healing.

I liked this. It’s not about pushing my boundaries, or straining my muscles. It’s not even about how long I can hold my breath. This is typically what I think about when it comes to fitness – that getting fitter means stretching my physical limits, tearing up the muscles so that they rebuild with more strength, exerting myself to the point of soreness and exhaustion.

No, yoga is not about any of that. When I heard my teacher define it as healing, I thought about nurturing, caring, consoling. Showing compassion to myself. With all the stresses of life and what they inflict on the body and soul, yoga is permission to soothe. It is the act of tending lovingly to frayed nerves, tensed muscles and a distressed mind.

Yoga as healing means making friends with yourself, including your pain. When I’m holding my downward dog pose, I look with friendliness to my heels that want to touch the floor and are not able to. I send loving thoughts to my arms that want to push me up and are quivering in the process. I gently bring my mind back to my breath as it fidgets and runs off with distracting thoughts.

In all of this, I let go of toxins that are cluttering up my insides. In my mind’s eye, I watch them release from my cells and dissolve into the exhaled air. I feel my organs get restored. I experience my body relax into the moment. My breath joins the flow of the universe.

Yoga is healing, and healing is health.

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Ganpati Visits Us

It’s my favourite time in Mumbai: Ganpati, or Ganesha, is visiting! I wrote about this festival before, describing what the experience when Ganpati arrives in Mumbai. Clearly, I love this time of year.

For the next 10 days, Maharashtrians everywhere have this special house guest and they lovingly tend to him. They wake him up with a devotion-filled puja and aarti every morning, bells chiming and fervent voices ringing out in worship of him. Piles of steamed modaks, jaggery and coconut filled momos, are offered, they’re his favourite snack. Marigold flowers, in brilliant orange, yellow and white, cuddle around the jovial god. An oil-filled lamp burns brightly.

Ganpati is one of my favourite gods. He’s incredibly intelligent, which is why he was picked by Rishi Valmiki to transcribe the ultra-long epic, the Ramayana, as he recited it at breakneck speed orally. He’s a lateral thinker – when he and his brother were challenged on who could cover the universe the fastest, he chilled out until the last minute and then circumambulated his parents, who, for him, were his universe. He’s principled. When his mum told him to guard the house and let no one in while she bathed, he didn’t relent even to let in his father, losing his life in the bargain (that’s how he ended up getting the elephant head, when he was resuscitated). And he’s so comfortable with himself. He looks different from everyone else, has a totally different way of looking at the world, and he has fun with it. He does his thing.

Ganpati is my kind of god. He’s in town for the next 10 days. I’m happy.

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Quiet As A Still Pond

A few days ago, I wrote about How To Calm Down when we feel agitated. It’s a tough task, to say the least. At the moment of aggravation, giving in to the hot flush of self-righteous indignation is so tempting. And yet, after the first nanosecond, the gratifying feeling quickly dissolves and another nanosecond later, it has completely disappeared.

Beyond the disappointment that follows, there emerges a feeling of regret. Did I have to say that? Was it necessary to react like that? Usually, the answer is No.

I believe we all want to be kind. We want to care for others, help them where we can, and make them happy. And yet, we are often the source of their hurt through our words and actions.

One of the key motivations behind my explorations of various religions has been a desire to find a way to end this pattern. As I searched for ways to understand this behaviour and how to end it, I stumbled upon a marvellous short essay by Charlotte Joko Beck, an American Zen Buddhist nun.

In sharing the teachings of Zen Buddhism, she described a still pond. When the pond is still, one can see clearly the reflections of the surroundings and also the pond’s deepest depths. Seeing things as they are is only possible when the pond is calm and unperturbed. When it is shaken, the image disintegrates and it becomes hard to see anything. The shapes break up into incoherent fragments and it becomes difficult to make sense. In such a state of confusion and disharmony, how is it possible to see things as they are and act correctly?

And yet, we react. Anger and upset create disturbance in the mind, stirring the calm surface into a maelstrom. Conflicting feelings, memories, and fears arise out of the churning and cloud judgment. In such a state, it is almost a given that any action taken is likely to be the wrong one. Hence, the inevitable regret when acting in haste.

In his outstanding classic, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote about the pause that exists between a stimulus and its reaction. That pause is what the Buddha talked about when he taught to break the chain of reaction and thereby end suffering.

Take that pause. Stretch it for as long as needed for the mind to settle down, for the cloudiness to drift away, for the clarity of stillness to reestablish itself. It is only then that an appropriate action can be taken.

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How To Calm Down

We all have those moments when we blow our top.

When a rogue auto rickshaw barrels into us at a suicidal speed for the umpteenth time.

When people brusquely cut in front of us even as we wait obediently for our turn.

When our friends don’t show up at the appointed time, keeping us hanging, without so much as a hint of remorse.

These days, it feels like it is impossible to get through the day without at least one person offending us. What do you do then? Social norms require us to keep our cool. It is healthier to do so too. Research after research shows that maintaining equanimity is the way to avoid heart attacks and other stress-induced illnesses. Our ancient religions and philosophies recognized this long before, teaching us that that eliminating anger is essential to mental peace and true joy.

There are many ways to stay even-keeled. Count to ten. Pinch yourself hard so that the pain lets you distract yourself. I tried many of them, with mixed results. The counting didn’t really work for me; I ended up counting into the 100’s without serenity anywhere in sight. Pinching wasn’t much better. Yes, the pain was a sweet-sour distraction, but I got back to the source of my ill temper soon enough.

At my recent Vipassana retreat, I learned something new: how to calm down through breathing. I was taught to observe my breath. As I practiced this, I realized that when I get upset, my breath changes shape, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It becomes excited, punctuated, fiery. As I continued to observe it, it slowed down, like a frantic puppy that finally stops jumping around and settles down with a whimper of contentedness. Similarly, when I paid attention to my breath, it stopped banging against my rib cage, creating anxiety and stress, and instead, started moving like melting silk, soft, gentle and fluid.

I brought this technique back with me from my retreat. Now, when I realize I’m beginning to feel agitated, I move my attention to my breath and focus on watching it. Where is the air hitting my nose as it flows in? Where in my nostrils is the exhale landing? Can I feel the air when I soften my breath, and then soften it a bit more? Is the breath hard or gentle, warm or cool, dry or humid? Is it fragmented or coherent?

This little activity serves the purpose of taking my mind off anything around me. With a narrow area of focus (the space between my nostrils and upper lip), I get absorbed in studying it.

I’m not sure why it works, but this technique calms me down within seconds. At minimum, it gives my mind a diversion. I stop thinking about whatever is bothering me and shift focus to an innocuous area. There is a deeper explanation for this, I suspect. I haven’t fully understood it yet. Regardless, I have found a way to calm down that works for me.

I recommend you try it. Calming down and staying calm seem to be among the most urgent life skills in today’s world. Even if it’s just for yourself, or rather, especially if it’s just for yourself, make friends with your breath. It will smooth the turbulence and restore serenity. In such a placid state, there is only joy.

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Teacher’s Day

According to my calendar, today is Teacher’s Day. I don’t think it’s the same as Hindus’ Guru Poornima, which is a day set aside to revere our teachers. Nevertheless, it’s still a day I like. There is something nice about taking a moment to reflect on those who have shown us the way and give thanks to them.

Teachers come in all shapes and forms, if only we have the openness to recognize them and learn from them.

One of my most vivid memories of an unexpected teacher is about a snail.

I learned about perseverance from an insistent snail in the gardens of my Sri Lankan home. At the time, I was in high school, feeling like my life was stuck and not going anywhere. In typical melodramatic teen angst, I wondered about the futility of it all. As I sat, morosely, on the front verandah, my eye caught a moving lump.

It was a small snail, lumbering heavily with its shell on its back. Determinedly, it slid forward, millimeter by millimeter. For several minutes, I followed its progress. Bored at first, I slowly became fascinated by it; I marvelled at the tenacious way in which it kept going, at its own pace, unaffected by the speedy ants scurrying past it. It didn’t give up or get frustrated by the infinitesimally limited way in which it was covering ground. It kept going. Eventually, maybe it had been 20 minutes, it crossed the narrow paved walkway and joined the grassy lawn, blending into the tall grass.

I looked up into the starry night sky and took a deep breath. The universe had just revealed a profound truth to me. Keep going, the snail said. That is the most important thing. Keep going because this is the only way in which you will reach your destination. No matter the seeming pointlessness of it, no matter how much better others seem to have it, keep going. You will reach your shore, in your own time, in your own way.

So, this Teacher’s Day, I dedicate it to the little brown snail that taught me a fundamental lesson of life.

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The Need for New Milestones

1 January is called New Year’s Day, heralding the start of a fresh calendar year. Traditionally, it’s also the time when we commit, or re-commit, to new beginnings. If there are life changes we want to make, we tend to wait for this turning of the year, as if this moment is specially endowed with the power to instill significance and success to our goals.

For a long time now, I have felt the oppression of having only one day for new beginnings. Why is there only this narrow window wherein I am allowed to start with a clean slate? Depending on how I’m doing on my resolutions as the months get underway, I feel doomed without any opportunity to renew or rejuvenate my vows, until the next year is on hand. Self-improvement shouldn’t be held hostage to a calendar year.

Instead, I think there should be more “New Days”, days when I can mark the start of a new project or goal. For example, “New Yoga Day”, which would herald the beginning of my intention to practice yoga regularly. Or, ” New No-SugarDay”, which would mark my efforts to eliminate sugar from my diet.

This might sound silly but there is an importance to it. We respond to milestones. We like to mark major events, like birthdays, anniversaries and the like. Most of the current milestones simply track the progress of time. Why can’t we track our progress to become better people? Wouldn’t it be great to see how much kindness we have doled out since we promised ourselves to be kinder? Or to celebrate how much happiness we have generated since we decided to spend more time with our aging parents?

We need to be able to begin wherever we are, at whichever point in the calendar year. I should not have to wait for January to start eating more mindfully, or begin reading more, or change my work habits. While nothing stops me from doing so, there is a marked absence of ceremony and significance, which a milestone endows naturally. It is motivating, and it provides a means to keep us on track.

These days, the challenge isn’t to stay alive; there was a time in our history when life spans ended at 35 years and hence, it was an achievement to mark one’s longevity. Nowadays, our challenge is less about quantity and more about quality of life.

That’s why I want to create more “New Me” Days”, throughout the year. And I’ll celebrate them with a party.

 

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