Saturday, 26 March 2016

Article on pain killers

The divine bandits

Banditry is rife in our pilgrimage places.

Apart from the myriad civic problems that your are faced with when visiting a place of pilgrimage, you have to contend with the divine bandits as well.  They are everywhere.  You have to be at your alert at all times to avoid being conned by one of them.

Let me share a couple of recent experiences so that you know what I mean.

During our recent trip to Rajasthan, we made it a point to visit those twin places of spiritual oneness - Pushkar and Ajmer.  One, considered to the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages, and the other, the resting place of the founder of the Chisti order of Sufism.  Doesn't get any holier than these in both the cases, does it?

However, our experience in both the place, I am sad to report, was anything but divine or spiritual.

First of all Pushkar:

Sadly known more these days for its annual camel fair than the place with the only Brahma temple in the world, Pushkar is a tiny desert place full of temples belonging to all deities and sects .  As soon as we arrived there, we were accosted by a host of guides telling us that they could take us through the entire place, and provide us with a full explanation about its significance.  One of them was particularly persistent, and said that his charge was only Rs 100 for the entire tour.  We agreed, and he first took us to the holy Pushkar lake where he related the story of Brahma and His consorts.  

Soon, he introduced us to a priest on the ghats of the lake, who he said would lead us into a prayer.  The monetary offering was optional, he said.  We relented.  The priest arrived and went about reciting the mantras and conducting the jodi ritual - oblations performed by a couple.  During the process, we repeated the mantras that he asked us to repeat.

One of the things that was subtly introduced was that we would make a sankalpa to contribute 1, 3, 7 or 21 days' daan for the maintenance of the ghat and the lake, and for feeding the pilgrims.  He never said how much it was for each day.  Naively I agreed to pay for 7 days.  When he escorted us to the billing counter, we realised our folly.  The amount per day was Rs 2100!  I had just made a sankalpa to cough up Rs 14,700!!!  When I protested, he said that one cannot break the sankalpa.  Somehow we bargained and got the contribution down to 1 day's worth (Rs 2100).  

The bill was made in the name of Shri Tirthguru Pushkar Purohit Sangh, and the transaction looked authentic.  So hopefully the money will be utilized for the right purposes.  I have no problems in making a daan, but I object to the manner in which the money was extracted from us.  Daan should be entirely voluntary.  The daani should have full knowledge of what he or she is giving away, and for what purpose.  While the latter was told to us, the amount was cleverly hidden away.  This, to me, is unacceptable.  

Cut to Ajmer.  Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti's holy dargah!  The Saint who brought Sufism to India!

Naturally, we were filled with excitement and spiritual fervour as the taxi neared the otherwise obscure desert town, only a short drive away from Pushkar.

As soon as we arrived in the tiny parking space that the taxi drivers regularly wait at, we were surrounded by touts who took it upon themselves to conduct us through the tiny, winding roads.  One of them got into a tiff with our driver as he heard him advising us to stay away from touts.  'What kind of a driver are you?  You are taking away my giraak,' he thundered!

We let the two bicker with each other and started walking up the 1 km long road that leads to the main entrance of the dargah.  Actually, crawling would be more appropriate, because there was hardly any space to manoeuvre.  The road was teeming with animals, people, vehicles and objects of all shapes and sizes.  Touts and beggars accosted us from all angles.  Handkerchief sellers stuck their wares under our noses, exhorting us to cover our heads before we entered the dargah.  We had to comply with their exhortations.

One of the shopkeepers generously asked us to leave our slippers in his shop.  When we proceeded to do so, he burst out saying that his shop was not meant only to leave slippers in; one also had to buy the chaddar.  Out came our slippers.  We somehow managed to leave them in the communal area just outside the entrance to the dargah.  One of the beggars who did not receive alms from us suddenly started gesticulating and demanding her share.  Another, desperate for attention, was seen rolling away on the road.  In one of the by-lanes, a group of children were staring at a large pig with a mixed feeling of awe and disgust.

We were happy to make it into the dargah in one piece.  Finally, time for some peace and quiet, we thought.  We thought too soon.  For no sooner had we entered, than there were further demands for money from the maulvis.  One of them was brandishing a peacock feathered broom in one hand and a bowl in another hand.  As I was about to enter the sanctum where the mazaar is situated, he whacked me with the broom and asked for money.  When I kept walking, he kept hitting me with the broom!  I wasn't sure if he was blessing me with the feathered broom, or assaulting me with his weapon.

Inside the mazaar, another maulvi hung out from the railings and asked for more money.  There were attention seekers everywhere.  It was close to impossible to even look at the mazaar peacefully, let alone stop and offer our prayers.  In the end we beat a hasty retreat.

We exited with feelings of despair, disgust and a sense of relief - at having survived the ordeal without any serious damage to life and limb!  It is ironic that the Khwaja is called garib nawaz, but the streets leading up to his resting place are filled by just them: garib.

Such is the state of affairs in our so-called holy places.  Over-crowded, filthy, chaotic, commercial and filled with money demanding opportunists.

It is high time the authorities of both the places looked into the matter.

Image sources:,_Rajasthan.jpg

Monday, 7 March 2016

Book recommendation: If Truth Be Told

If Truth Be Told: A Monk's Memoir
Om Swami
Harper Element, 2014

Extraordinary, unbelievable, uplifting!

This is not a review; it is a recommendation.  Like a few others that I have had the privilege to write about this one too is special.

What is also special is the manner in which it landed in my hands.  I had no idea about Om Swami prior to reading this, much less about this book.  

It so happened that the management of the Shankar Mutt in the area I live decided to build a library of spiritual and religious books in its new building.  Advertisements went out seeking donations in cash and kind from devotees, followers and local residents.  I too donated a few books for the cause.  As I was browsing through the books donated by others, I chanced upon this title.  There were plenty of other titles that I was considering perusing, but I was immediately drawn to this book.  Just as the saying goes that the story selects its author, in all likelihood the book also selects its reader.  Perhaps it was so in this case.

Like Sri M's autobiography and Swami Rama's story, this one too takes you along on an extraordinary journey.  Perhaps it is even more unbelievable because the Swami, in his earlier life had it all, as far as material comforts are concerned, and then chose to give it all away.

He had a loving family, he was educated, he had friends, money, and a high flying career.  Of course, he worked hard to build his career out of scratch in a foreign country.  This in itself is nothing short of a tapas of another kind.  Most would have been content with what he achieved through sheer hard work, grit and determination, and many would have basked in the comfort and luxury that such a career provided.  

Not our Swami.  His eyes were set on quite a different target altogether.  Apparently it was foretold; his Mother reveals as much to him towards the end.  But he still had to give up on his riches and comfort, reach out to the wilderness and seek out gurus who would be able to guide him on his spiritual quest.  Indeed such was his determination, that he even lets his friends and associates know that he won't be coming back until he has found his true Self.  

His quest for the apt guru, and his experience with the one he thinks is the right guru for him, are nothing short of extraordinary.  The guru that he finds is himself a fascinating character, as on one hand he initiates the novice seeker after seeking his Mother's permission, but on the other hand asks for his disciple's monetary assistance in furthering his own cause.  He is prone to swearing, living a comfortable life, and involving himself in worldly affairs.  

It is because of this adventure, wherein the Swami dares to seek out the spiritual in a material world, and the subsequent confusion and disillusionment that he is faced with, that we get to learn just how difficult it is for a genuine seeker not to get conned or ripped off.    

His sadhana in the Himalayan wilderness while he is faced with the vagaries of weather and hostilities of man and beast alike is awe inspiring.  When he finally achieves his goal, and is face to face with the object of his adulation, one cannot help feel a sense of beatific fulfillment on his behalf.  
In many ways, he has lived the tough life, so that all of us could benefit from his experiences which he generously shares with us.

And for that we need to bow down to him and seek his help and guidance in our own quests.  

This is essential reading for every genuine seeker.

Image source: