Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Maha Kartikai Deepam, Lighting the Sacred Flame Atop Arunachala

Lighting the Flame on the Hill of Fire!

Every year during the month of November an ancient ceremony is enacted at Arunachala in the South of India.
A huge copper cauldron is carried up to the summit from the Arunachaleshwar Temple and filled with ghee offerings, many of which are carried up by local and visiting pilgrims.

Each evening as the sun sets the lamp is ignited and burns throughout the night for ten consecutive days.
A lot of the foreign visitors run out of town during the main day of the festival, but i would not miss it for the world.

There is something very special about the atmosphere in this place during these days.

Come dusk on Deepam day, most of the town surrounding the entire Hill are outside on their rooftops. Everyone has ghee lamps prepared and offerings of flowers and incense.

When the sun is setting in the wast and the moon is rising in the east the head priest at the main Arunachalesvar temple sends a signal from the inner sanctum at the exact and auspicious moment.

A flare shoots up into the sky and the great cauldron atop the hill is lit and bursts into a mighty flame. At that instant a roar rises up from every place in and around the Hill.

The crowds cries out Harohara, three times. This translates as; This is a sight for the gods to see!

It is a truly exhilarating moment.

In a world torn apart by hatred, fear and the endless divisions created by countless human minds, we can take heart in the united joy which ignites itself as the eternal flame at Arunachala!

Arunachala is the sacred Hill which represents the Agni Lingam (Fiery Element) of India.

The following link will take you to one of my previous and more detailed posts on the;

Friday, 6 November 2015


Accept--then act. 
Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it...
This will miraculously transform your whole life.

Eckhart Tolle 

No matter how bad things may get, there is still a way for us to find the seeds of hope and peace right there in that difficult situation.

Life can deal us a series of blows and we might either give in to our misery and bitterness or dig deeper to find the point of our surrender and subsequent acceptance. 

Acceptance of what is is the beginning of making peace with ourselves and the world.

If we are ever to find any shreds of peace and happiness in this world, the sooner we welcome acceptance into our lives the better.

Do we really have any other choice at the end of the day? Aside from orchestrating our own swift demise, which is no solution at all,  but merely drags out our suffering on a subtler plane where we have even fewer choices.

We are not advocating a dull quiescence to whatever life throws our way. Rather what is being pointed to here is a calm submission to what cannot be changed. Whatever can be changed and whenever that opportunity may arise one should be ready to act, keeping in mind, that it is always better to err on the side of kindness to oneself and others.
A few days ago I headed outside on my bicycle. It was just before four pm and some heavy storm clouds were rumbling in the distance so I thought it wise to get out and complete my evening routine of walking and cycling before the rains came in.

Every day when I am staying in Tiruvannamalai, I like to take my cycle and ride or walk up the wide pathway on Girivallum Road. The sadhus who live along this stretch are so familiar with my evening and, on occasion, pre-dawn jaunts, that they have bestowed upon me the name 'Cycle Ma.'

In this tropical locality, it is usually searingly hot come late afternoon. However, Girivallum Road has plenty of shade and avenues of old, towering Tamarind trees line both sides of the road bringing shade and relief to all who pass that way.

Many small Hindu shrines, tanks and temples are built along this stretch of road. An assortment of sadhus also live there, some practising meditation, others hanging about chatting and drinking chai, still others sleeping. The pavement along here is something akin to an open living room.

In any case, it usually has a certain relaxed ambience and is a preferred spot for my evening walk and cycle ride and I seldom miss the opportunity to pass by.

The particular evening I speak of, I headed out from my compound taking the usual back route and cutting across an open field which comes out right onto the pathway between a large rice storage centre and an unused marriage hall. This route enables me to avoid the main highway until the crossing point.

As my luck would have it that evening I no sooner crossed the highway than large drops of rain began to fall. I made a b-line for the marriage hall which offered some sheltered areas along its sides and only just made it before the rain really set in.

I had passed an old fellow dressed in the simple orange attire of a sadhu. He was painfully making his way along the path. After the rain had begun in earnest he headed in my direction but as his legs were badly deformed he was not able to move quickly. By the time he reached the shelter, he was soaked right through.

I had seen many like him before, ragged, poor, wretched and unwell. He must have suffered from polio as a child and the marks of this ghastly disease had remained with him throughout his life.

He soon joined me under the shelter and we exchanged pleasantries via various hand signals. He spoke no English and I have only a smattering of Tamil words at my command.

He wanted to know where I was from, how many children I have etc. The usual questions that tend to pop up as introductions to most first time exchanges in this land.

He then proceeded to inform me that he had five grown-up children. Three sons, which he intimated by twirling an imaginary mustachio and two daughters, for which he pulled on his right nostril in order to infer a nose ring. The flourish with which he enacted the mustachios of his 'sons' was quite amusing. In Tamil Nadu, one seldom sees a man without some form of facial hair. The mustachio is regarded as a sign of manliness and no self-respecting male would be without one and the bigger and more extravagant, the better.

All his children were grown up and married and had families and children of their own. He had been a tailor in his younger days. The way he flapped his feet to intimate a treadle sewing machine led me to this conclusion and apparently with the small earnings from his trade he had raised his family in a simple way.

Then his wife had died and one misfortune had followed another. He began to take comfort in that family wrecker of all time, the 'bottle.' In the end, none of his five children would take him in and he was forced to leave the village where he had lived all his life. He donned the simple attire of a wandering sadhu and began to live with neither shelter nor the surety of food. All he had was a dirty white cotton bag which hung limply over one shoulder.

He looked utterly wretched standing there drenched and miserable. Large tears began to roll down his cheeks as he looked at me steadily. It was the more heart wrenching because he did not try to play up his situation in any way and he was not asking for money. He was simply acknowledging what his life had become.

My heart ached for him. So many countless old people, like him, faced the final years of their lives, homeless, destitute, lonely and unwell. 

The best years of this man's simple life had been spent in raising the children who had eventually cast him out onto the streets to face his end alone and penniless.

Many many times i have seen these old ones and tried to imagine what their days are like and how they feel each morning when they wake up.

We do not know how our lives will turn out. Whether we will face our old age amid conditions of love, comfort, and support or whether the opposite will be true. In fact, we do not know if we will even face our old age at all.

What always comes back into the mind, however, is how utterly essential it is to seek the truth of our inmost being while yet we can. Only with our confidence and certainty in who and what we really are, can we face the future with all of its uncertainties.

The innovations to help, the charities, groups, and individuals who have taken on the challenge of addressing the outer needs of people such as these are worthy and much needed but in the end, we cannot avoid the fact that we must go alone and unaided when our time comes.

When we see the difficulties that others face it can be quite overwhelming. We long to help and yet find ourselves constrained in so many ways and for so many reasons. Even when we can help in some way it seems like so little and so inadequate.

How is one to face a future such as this? I could only guess at what this man would be thinking and feeling in these moments.

I put money in his shirt pocket but knew very well that it could only bring the most temporary relief. Very likely he would drag himself across the road again to the wine shop for another draft of short-term 'happiness.'

Yet, right here on this road, one could witness a wide variation in levels of 'acceptance.' Each day I also passed those who had made peace with themselves. Those who had 'surrendered' were joyful and at ease whether there was rain or shine, food or famine. Those who resisted were struggling night and day.

Who knows if he could understand, but i turned him towards the mountain and tried to convey to him that his karma had brought him to the feet of a peerless sage in a powerful and sacred place. If he could somehow let go of his regrets and bitterness despite all, he could yet pass out his days with a peaceful heart.

Our true wealth lies not in our accumulated riches or the extended family crowd which may at any moment, be snatched away from us. As one of my teachers said; family and friends are like birds that gather for a moment in the branches of a tree before scattering to the four directions. 

Everything will be taken away sooner or later, whether we live in a mansion or on the side of a road, whether we have twenty children or none. 

Only what we have cultivated in our heart; in the inmost secret garden, will always abide, nourishing us and those around us and bringing us peace and joy when all else seems lost.