Sunday, 29 November 2015

Why I love Bharatvarsh

Over the course of its earthly peregrinations from a unified state as Pangaea, to Jambudvipa, to its present state with its own identity, our Bharatvarsh has made many glorious contributions to humanity.  

The invention of zero, for example.  Also Sushruta’s pioneering efforts in surgery, Aryabhata’s contribution to early maths and astronomy, or Baudhayana’s discovery of the theorem, which came to be known as Pythagoras’ theorem later.

Or how about J C Bose’s discovery of life in plants, Raman’s experiment on light scattering, which is called Raman Effect, Sarabhai’s space project which ultimately led to the present day Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, or Kalam’s work on developing the ballistic missile?

In the field of arts and literature too, there have been innumerable luminaries who have enriched our culture with their contributions.  Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam and Meghdoot, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, Bharata Muni’s treatise on dance, Natya Shastra that led to the dance form, Bharatanatyam, and Tagore’s Gitanjali and Rabindra Sangeet, to name a few.

Yes, we are filled with pride when we listen to the heroic tales of Shivaji, Rana Pratap and Bhagat Singh.  We are immediately satiated when we listen to a Lata-Rafi duet, A R Rahman’s music, or Amitabh Bachchan’s filmi dialogues in his rich baritone.  We cannot contain our joy when we witness a Sachin Tendulkar century, or for that matter, when Sania Mirza wins yet another world title.  We jump with joy when Sushmita Sen wins the Miss Universe, and Aishwarya Rai the Miss World title.

India today is home to one of the largest community of intellectuals; doctors, engineers, economists and scientists.  After years of subjugation, we are witnessing the growth of economy, and our clout among the nations of the world is growing by the day. 

All that is fine.  I am filled with happiness to note all these achievements. 

But for me, quite apart from any of these, there is another reason why I love this land. 

Its spiritual history. 

There simply cannot be another place on this planet or any other for that matter, where so many spiritually advanced adepts, yogis, sadhus, saints, seers, gurus took birth, breathed, lived, meditated, attained moksha, and showed others the light. 

I don’t think I can take all the names of the saints of our land; there isn’t enough time or space for that.  I can only quote a few shining examples that I have had the good fortune of reading about. 

In the south of Bharatvarsh, Adi Sankara took birth in Kalady, a quiet little town on the banks of the Poorna River.  He traversed the length and breadth of the land, took disciples, debated with scholars on philosophical systems, consecrated four mathas in four corners of India, and finally ascended the Throne of Omniscience in Kashmir.  By the time he had achieved all this – 32 years of age – he had firmly established the advaita school of thought, which clearly elucidates the oneness of the atma and the paramatma.

In much more recent times, another southern luminary, the Saint of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi quietly went about practising and preaching his method of self-enquiry, and miraculously healing those who approached him of such conditions as tetanus, leprosy, terminal cancer, and in one instance, even death.  However, when he was afflicted with sarcoma towards the end of his earthly tenure, he refused to heal himself as his physical condition was a result of taking on his devotees’ karma. 

In the west of the country, around the 13th Century, scores of saints took birth in the holy land of Maharashtra.  Pandharpur became the epicentre of the bhakti movement started by these illustrious sons and daughters of the soil, many of whom were ordinary peasants.  The child-saint of Alandi, Jnaneshwar and his siblings were orphans and outcastes, but their life was full of miraculous achievements, and culminated in Jnaneshwari – the gift of Gita written in the colloquial language for the benefit of the masses. 

Namadeva, the son of a tailor made the Lord drink milk from his hands even when he was a little boy, while Gora Kumbhar, the potter, so lost himself in divine ecstasy that he once trampled his own child in a mound of clay (the child was eventually restored to him by the Lord Himself).  Sawata Mali sang his abhangs while tending his garden, and Chokhamela who was an untouchable was so close to the Lord that when a priest slapped him for transgressing a social norm, he was aghast to find that the Lord’s cheek was swollen.  It is said of Tukaram that he went away to Vaikuntha in a vimana of the Lord. 

Likewise, Eknath, Bhanudas, Kanhopatra, Santaji Pawar, Raka Kumbhar, Narhari Sonar, Janabai, and many, many more have sanctified our land with their holy presence.  Indeed, this is probably the real reason for epithet, ‘maha’ in Maharashtra. 

In the northern part of Bharatvarsh, Tulsidas retold the timeless story of Ram and Sita in his Ramcharitmanas, whereas Surdas preferred to become blind again after he beheld the vision of his ishtadevta, Lord Krishna just once.  Another great devotee of Krishna, Meera gave us many bhajans that are soaked with devotional fervour and longing for union with her Lord. 

Many more adepts and yogis of the north have made the places of pilgrimage touched by the Ganga and the mystical loftiness of the Himalayas their home, and have inspired others through their tapas and sadhana.  Even today, the ageless Guru Babaji is said to be present in the Himalayas, showering his grace on those worthy of it. 

As Diana L. Eck has said about the tirthasthals of Bharatvarsh,

…what is clear from the study of Hindu India is that its geographical features – its rivers, mountains, hills, and coastlands – no matter how precisely rendered, mapped, or measured, are also charged with stories of gods and heroes.  It is a resonant, sacred geography.    
Moving to the eastern part of this sacred geography, one is touched by the story of the Saint of Dakshineshwar, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who answered his would-be student, Naren’s query about whether he has seen God, with ‘Yes, I have seen God.  I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly..!’  

In the same sacred geography, about a hundred years before the time of the Paramahansa, Baba Lokenath Brahmachari attained such a level of oneness with the universal spirit, that he chastised an untamed lion for wandering into his ashram’s premises, patted it affectionately, and sent it along its way back into the forest! 

It is not just the seers of one faith that lit up the path of their followers in Bharatvarsh.  Guru Nanak spoke against blind beliefs and superstitions, while Kabir, Sai Baba of Shirdi and Shishunala Sharif, unified people of all castes and religions.  Buddha advised followers to find their own way in attaining liberation from pain and suffering, while Mahavira gave the five ethical principles for his followers to achieve emancipation.  Dargahs of Sufi peers dot the landscape, and Velankanni in the south is a blessed place of pilgrimage for many.

Madhvacharya (who propounded dvaita), Ramanujacharya (vishishtadvaita), Guru Raghavendra, Nammalvar, Kanakadasa, Purandaradasa, Basaveshwara, Akkamahadevi, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Akkalkot Maharaj, Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar Giri, Paramahansa Yogananda, Maheshwarnath Babaji, Bengali Baba, Swami Rama, Mahayogi Gambhirnath, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Anandamayi Ma, Paramahansa Ram Mangal Das…  One could go on and on; the list is endless.

This phenomenon is not confined to the glorious past of Bharatvarsh.  Even today, genuine saints are quietly carrying on with their sadhana, unseen, unheard, and away from the bustle of daily life.    
Truly we are blessed to have been born on this holy land.  For me, these stories provide the real meaning to that song by Iqbal, Saare jahan se achcha…

Unfortunately, the current educational system of Bharatvarsh is western in its outlook, and worldly and phenomenal in what it imparts, leaving our children vulnerable to deculturation and narrow minded religious influences.  I feel that we would be failing in our duty if we do not inculcate a sense of respect and a spirit of inquiry towards our spiritual heritage in our children, by teaching them life lessons from the experiences of the spiritual masters.  

Many works have been consulted in writing this panegyric on the spiritual preeminence of Bharatvarsh.  Indeed, these can be recommended – from an inexhaustive list of resources – for further reading if one is interested in learning from the lives of these saints and about spirituality in Bharatvarsh:
  • Sankara Digvijaya: Madhav Vidyaranya
  • Saints of Maharashtra: Savitribai Khanolkar
  • Autobiography of a Yogi: Paramahansa Yogananda
  • Yogis of India: Sivarupa
  • Vivekananda A Biography: Swami Nikhilananda
  • Bhakti Schools of Vedanta: Swami Tapasyananda
  • India A Sacred Geography: Diana L. Eck
  • Apprenticed to a HimalayanMaster: Sri M
  • Living with the Himalayan Masters: Swami Rama

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Thursday, 12 November 2015

Film review: Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (*no spoilers*)

There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you go to watch a Sooraj Barjatya film.

(A) Suspend disbelief, and (B) Never go by critics' reviews.

'A' because a few liberties are always taken in his films, especially when it comes to the medical field.  You just have to accept what's being presented, let go, and enjoy!  That's the best way to watch his films.

'B' because the last time the critics panned his film, it went on to become Indian cinema's biggest ever hit: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun..!  

So what's Prem Ratan Dhan Payo all about?  

I won't give away the story, but you may get a general idea about what it might be about. 

So here goes.

Remember Chitchor?  That simple yet touching film made by the same Rajshri Productions, with unforgettable songs by Ravindra Jain and Yesudas?

Take that.

Also, while you are at it, grab Paheli (incidentally Amol Palekar acted in Chitchor, whereas he directed Paheli).

Also add a dash of Mark Twain's Prince and the Pauper.  

And don't forget to sprinkle a bit of Ram aur Shyam, Seeta aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz and Kishen Kanhaiya.  

Oh, and for the title, replace Ram with Prem in Meera Bai's bhajan, Ram Ratan Dhan Payo.  

And there you have it.  Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.

Okay, I am being a tad unfair.  Yes, PRDP reminds one of all the films mentioned above, yet it is different.  

For starters, is made on a much larger, grandiose scale.  There are subplots woven into the story.  Barjatya has made all efforts to present the story in a novel, light hearted manner.    And it works.

So what's the same?

As with any Barjatya film, PRDP, at its core, is about love.  It displays Indian tradition and draws its emotional appeal heavily from family values and relationships within the family.  It is opulent.  The sets are lavishly mounted, and it is a visual treat.  

And what's different?

First of all, PRDP does not have a massive starcast, as in HAHK.  There's only Anupam Kher.  Reema Lagoo and Alok Nath are conspicuously absent!  

There are less songs than a typical Barjatya film.  

And - get this - there is action!  There is a stunningly crafted horse-coach scene in the beginning, sword fight in the middle, and dishum-dishum at the end.  Too much action for a Barjatya film!  

A few grouses

The background music was a bit too loud, making it difficult to follow the dialogues.  Some songs have been cut to trim down the overall length of the film (it is now 174 minutes long).  

Does it recreate the magic of HAHK?  No.  But then, I don't think any film can.   

What works?

Barjatya has got starpower with him, as usual.  That alone will ensure the opening.  Prem has become a saleable commodity, which will draw in Salman Khan fans by the lakhs.  

The music, songs and choreography are first rate, and it seems that Himesh Reshammiya has a hit on his hands. 

Overall, terrific Diwali entertainment.  Enjoy it!

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Saturday, 7 November 2015

How about banning some non-Diwali pollutants?

It’s that time of the year again.  Diwali is round the corner!

It is time for lamps, sweets, new clothes and fireworks.  

Did I say fireworks? 

It seems that many people want to take the fun out of the festival this time round.  The amount of paranoia and sudden discovery of environment-consciousness beggars belief.

The Chief Minister has also thrown his hat into the ring.  I received a recorded call on the mobile in which he has appealed against the bursting of crackers during this Diwali.

In other parts of the country, parents of toddlers have registered a case in the court against the bursting of crackers, school children are taking out processions with placards reading, 'Let's celebrate pollution free Diwali', celebrities are tweeting about going noiseless this Diwali, and just about anybody who is somebody is expressing his or her anguish at the immense suffering caused by the bursting of crackers during the festival.

How noble!  

This got me thinking.  Why target only Diwali?  Since we are so good at banning everything, why not look at a few other irritants that can also be banned?  

Here are some suggestions.

Diwali lasts for 3 days in a year.  The rest of the 362 days of the year, and even during those 3 days, there are millions of vehicles on the road emanating noxious fumes.  Several studies have shown that if you are a city dweller, your lungs turn black due to the exposure to vehicular emissions, and are prone to asthma and bronchitis.  Why not BAN VEHICLES?

Apparently India has signed on to the global anti-smoking drive.  But just walk around any street, and you will find men, and yes, women too, smoking like chimneys.  Second hand smoke has been proved to be as dangerous as actively smoking beedis or cigarettes.  Perhaps the parents of those toddlers can go to each one of the culprits and pluck that stick out of their mouths!  After that, they can - literally - kick their butts.  

Sources of noise:  Ah yes, those green-twine bombs make a lot of noise.

The Government says that a cracker should not emit more than 90 dB at a distance of 5 metres.  Then how about the HOOOOOOOOOOOOONK!!!! that cars and bikes emit?  Forget busy intersections, even the so-called silent zones - schools and hospitals - are not spared from the earsplitting cacophonous horn.  And not to forget that annoying reverse-parking alarm.  Can you SILENCE THEM? 

Also, don't these cracker-phobics find the religious 'call for prayer' at 5 in the morning disturbing?  Or how about late night clubs that keep the party going on well past the prescribed closing time?  What about celebrities' or ministers' events that can go on for hours and cause traffic jams?  Or the missionaries' stage shows wherein loud proclamations of miracle healing are made, followed by exhortations to change over to the true path.  Why don't you BAN ALL OF THEM?  

Bursting crackers is very risky they say.  They can explode, they are flammable and can cause burn injuries.  Driving is highly risky, yet we do it every day, don’t we?  Have you seen how we drive on our roads?  Can there be anything riskier than travelling on our roads?  Death is a constant co-passenger on our roads where the only rule is that there is no rule.  Why not BAN DRIVING?  

I could go on, but you get the idea...

In the UK, Guy Fawkes day is celebrated every year round about the time of Diwali.  There are massive fireworks displays to commemorate the foiling of the plot to blow up the Parliament House by Guy Fawkes and his colleagues in 1605.  

If western people celebrate an event that happened about 400 years ago, it is fine.  But somehow a tradition that goes back thousands of years has now suddenly become passe for these western educated and culturally shortsighted elite.     

I still remember that as children, we used to plan for the bursting of crackers several days ahead of Diwali.  Buying the crackers and dividing them into three portions to be lit on each of the three days of the festival gave us immense joy.  Then on the first day of the festival, we would compete with each other to be the first to go out and burst the cracker.  By evening, the entire street would be lined with lamps and families would come out to light flowerpots, bhoomi chakras, vishnu chakras, sparklers, rockets, pencils and wires.  Sometimes we would gift these crackers to the less privileged children, which invariably brought about a huge smile on their faces.

Are you saying that the very same toddlers, whose parents have filed the litigation would not enjoy fireworks?  As usual, it is not the children, but the adults that are the problem.

Would you give up on your time honoured tradition, just because there is a risk involved in following the practice?  There is an element of risk in everything that we do.  It is not banning, but managing the event responsibly that is the key here.  So what can we do to have a safe Diwali this year?

The first and foremost is awareness and safety consciousness.  There may well be government legislations and safety norms that cracker manufacturers have to adhere to, but without our own mindfulness and efforts, these can never make a difference. 

By all means, go for noiseless crackers.  Spend less on crackers, but do not totally ban them from your children's lives.  Distribute the crackers that you among with the less privileged.  Why not identify a communal area in your locality where families can get together to burst crackers.  That way, smoke and noise can be reduced in the residential areas.  This would also help those with respiratory and cardiac problems, and animals that are sensitive to noise from crackers.  Do not burst crackers during the official night time (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.).  

Diwali is a wonderful festival that signifies the victory of good over evil.  If we follow some basic precautions, it is possible to safely celebrate this victory with lights from lamps, serial sets and firecrackers.  

The take home message is celebrate, but be responsible.

Here’s wishing a happy and safe Diwali to all!

And yes, I will be bursting crackers this year too!  

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