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Culture Curious

Culture is always a fascinating subject. There is something within each of us that yearns to know about history, culture, mythology of a particular region or people. That is why perhaps we see a revival of works of art based on these themes. There is always something new and fresh to add to old themes. Sometimes facts are intertwined with fiction or the writer’s imagination and what comes out is a totally different perspective of what people already know. Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy or the Scion of Ikshvaku, for example, deals with characters we are all familiar with right from our childhood. But what makes these books compelling reading is the way the writer has approached existing themes and given them a fresh twist. They make you want to read every book as soon as it is released. Amish has created that eagerness which was associated with the Harry Potter series. Devdutt Patnaik’s works are also of the same mould. As a mythologist, he uncovers existing stories for a new audience. I feel so happy that through their works our people are rediscovering stories which were lost for some time due to the invasion of He-man, superman, StarWars series. If people in the creative field, like artists, dancers, storytellers, cinema directors delve into such themes associated with culture and heritage, the common man can easily understand these things. But individual sensibilities should be carefully handled. If a positive message comes out through the creative medium, then it is definitely a great effort.

For the sake of the movie Baahubali, the director created new kingdoms, new language also. A set of 750 words with its own grammar rules for this new language kiliki was created. How creative can that be! Coming to think of the effort, the research, the time that has gone into the making of this movie or the research that goes into making of a book with mythology themes- really our country is going ahead in all these areas and there is an audience waiting to lap this up. Which actually is the greatest reward for any creative person!!!!!!


The Holy Cow

The poor humble cow seems to be in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. The cow is worshipped by millions of devout Hindus in India. The very sight of a cow first thing in the morning is supposed to confer good fortune.

The mere thought of slaughtering cows or feeding on it is repugnant and alien to Indian culture. But we have to look at the issue calmly from all angles. At a time when planet earth is fighting the grave danger of global warming, consuming meat is not just a religious taboo but also a monumental environmental hazard as innumerable studies have shown. So it is better to pause and think from an environmental angle rather than just focus on religious taboos.

As land is being taken away for cultivating fodder for cattle which will be sold as meat, there are problems that are cropping up in many ways for the rest of the world. There is a huge land crunch and small farms are disappearing in many parts of the world. Fresh water supplies which are already dwindling are going dry as both man and beast compete for the limited supply. In Africa, the cost of maize which is used as livestock feed keeps increasing and it is also the staple diet of many Africans.

Animal carcasses and remains are further polluting the environment and causing environmental degradation. Many diseases are jumping from animals to humans in the modern world, Bird flu, Mad cow disease being a few. Another problem is that these cattle are fed with large doses of antibiotics to keep them disease free and all these end up in the consumer’s stomach. In the US alone 55% of antibiotics manufactured by pharmaceuticals are fed to animals. Just imagine the harm it can do to the health of those who consume the meat produced from these treated animals.

So in the interest of our health, it is best to focus on the practical implications rather than getting carried away by xenophobic hysteria.

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Of Temples Old and New


This year on the holy day of Mahashivaratri, I participated in the opening of a new temple in the town of Kericho. The Kamleshwar Mahadev Temple built by our Foundation came up in 2013 in Kibigori near Kisumu. Ever since, atleast four other temples have come up in Kenya and I feel very happy that many temples are now dotting the landscape. Even in other parts of the world, many temples are coming up periodically thus offering residents of nearby places a place of worship to call their own.

Temples help in connecting us to our culture especially when we are far away from India. It gives a sense of community feeling and we can organize and participate in many programs that reflect our culture. These temples also help in the locals’ understanding the spirit of Hinduism which is vasudaiva kutumbakam that is the whole universe is our family. There are many things people may feel they cannot undertake as individuals especially service initiatives but a temple brings people together and they can participate in many community programs and feel happy that everyone has contributed towards them.

In the Agni Purana, Lord Agni says that he who attempts to erect temples for gods is freed from the sins of a thousand births. Also, there is a belief that a place without any temple is not fit for people to live. This is now being set right as we find many temples coming up all over the world wherever the Indian diaspora is present.

Meeting with Umesh Shukla


Who would have not enjoyed seeing the movie Oh my god? It portrays pseudo-religious beliefs and questions the meaninglessness of various rituals. The movie is actually based on a Gujarati play Kanjee viruddha Kanjee which was directed by Umesh Shukla who also directed the Hindi movie version. So when I got a chance to meet Umesh Shukla, I wanted to understand why he directed such a movie. He has also written a number of stories which have been adapted to the screen, My area of research and interest is to understand the reasons behind customs about which I have written extensively, so I geared up to meet him.

He told me that being born into a Brahmin family, the Audichya Brahmin Shukla family, he used to perform all the rituals while he was a young man. But somewhere he began questioning the rationale behind such rituals and wanted to know the meaning of everything that we normally do. He was not very convinced with the answers he usually received. That is when he began researching for the content which later shaped up as the movie. It has received wonderful support from the audience especially the common people and youngsters. It has been translated into Telugu and Kannada staring popular regional heroes. He also spoke of the support he received from Paresh Rawal whose acting as the main character became a huge hit as he convincingly portrayed the role of Kanjee Bhai.

He also revealed that with the success of this movie behind him, he is working on another thought provoking concept of a 102 year old man sending his son to an old age home. I am sure as all his other movies this one too will be enormously successful. Simple themes which actually bring out a slice of life, the daily struggles of the aam janta make the movies thought provoking. As always there are various angles to the same issue and it is best to respect each one’s viewpoint.

The Holy Tulsi


Today is the twelfth day of the waxing moon (Shukla Paksha Dwadashi) of the month of Kartika. According to the Skanda Purana, the wedding of Tulsi with the Shaligram (sacred stone, symbolising Lord Vishnu) is celebrated today. The holy basil or tulsi is a symbol of purity and by wearing a garland of fresh tulsi leaves the Lord affirms that he will bless such devotees who are pure in their heart, in their word and deed and keep them close to him. Puja to Vishnu is considered incomplete without an offering of tulsi leaves. Tulsi vivah takes place on the next day of Karthik Ekadashi in all Vaishnavite temples. The festival also marks the end of Chaturya masa and the beginning of the marriage season.

Tulsi in Sanskrit means “unmatched” or “incomparable”. There are so many legends associated with the birth of  Tulsi. During the Samudra Manthan or the churning of the Ocean, Dhanvantri, the divine Physician appeared from the ocean with Amrit or nectar in his hands. Dhanvantri shed tears of joy and when the first drop of his tear fell in the Amrita, it formed the Tulsi. It is believed that Tulsi emerged during Samudra Manthan. Another Puranic reference is that Goddess Mahalakshmi pleased with the devotion of King Dharmadhwaja and Queen Madhavi was born to them as their daughter and she was named Tulsi. When it was time for her to depart from the world, she left a part of herself as the holy plant.

The plant has medicinal properties too. Hindus revere the plant and have it in their homes as it wards of negativity and ensures positive vibrations always.




Of Homas and Yagnas

It has been a memorable dassera for me as I got to perform the Chandi Yagna at the Sanatan Hindu Union temple on Vijayadasami day. As I was participating my mind went back to how our religion has so many wonderful events like these to purify our body and uplift our soul. These are meant to help us especially householders and professionals who lead busy lives to pause and think of the divine. The word Ritual itself is from the Latin word ritualis meaning doing something. Since the Vedic times, our religion has stressed the importance of doing rituals as they help in binding the community and giving each one, a sense of belonging. Those days there were no get-togethers and social dos, instead events like these conducted in temples and common places helped people to meet, greet and connect with one another. Rituals appeal to tradition and we have well-defined practices which are passed on to generations. Some rituals have a deeply symbolic significance woven around it. We have family rituals, social rituals and those that are common for an entire group or race or religion.

Homas are those that are performed at home periodically in a small scale like the ganapathy homa, sudarshana homa, ayush homa etc  which are conducted on birthdays and anniversaries for the immediate well-being of the family.

Then there are yagas which are conducted on a large scale in a grand manner in a public place like a temple for the wellbeing of the community. And then there are yagnas like the Athirudra mahayagna which are conducted on an even larger scale for the sake of peace and well-being of the entire world. The Vishnu Sahasranama says that the lord is the yagna, he is the receiver of oblations, he is the one who conducts, he is the one who blesses, thus he is everything. So with this spirit if a yagna is conducted, then the blessings of the lord will definitely be there on all those who are conducting and witnessing these noble events.

Tung, tung, tung, the ringing of the bell for the arathi brought me back to the temple and I looked on enchanted.




The Bhakthi of the Gopis

Recently there was a discourse series at Pushti Marg Haveli in Nairobi. I was very fortunate to attend these lectures. The theme was the love of the gopis for Krushn in Gopi Geet. Pujya Jejeshree conducted the discourses and in his usual style explained so beautifully all the verses and dwelt at length on the pure love of these gopis for the lord.

Gopi Geet is part of Srimad Bhagavat Puran more specifically it is in the first half of the Tenth Book in Chapter 31. The nineteen verses are sung when Krushn suddenly disappears after leading the gopis to perform the Raas in Vrindavan. Each gopi had a form of the lord for herself and there were so many Krushns at the same time.

The beautiful verses of gopi geet start with Jayati te dhikam janmanaa vrajah, that is vraj is always the winner because it was here the lord conducted all his leelas. The gopis bound him with their pure love and totally surrendered their body, mind and soul. There was no ego in them. So Krushn could fill in their hearts completely. The power of love is so strong and it binds the lord as we can see from the lives of the gopis. They were simple, unlettered cowherdesses, still the lord decided to leave all other important matters and spend time with them.

For a brief time, the fact that Krushn was with them made them a little haughty and that was when the lord decided to take off from there. He simply disappeared suddenly. Overcome with terrible sadness they pour out their viraha or sadness through these verses. We can call it the Gopis’ song of separation. They describe all his leelas and recall the good times they had with him and also praise him hoping to win him back.

I had a nice time hearing the discourses and I was transported back to the golden age and could visualize the wonderful Raas dance and the eternal love of the gopis who were willing to give up everything for their beloved.

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Welcoming Shraavan

I look forward to this month each year because it is very special and has a special place in my heart. This month Shraavan is also known as Shivmaas, the holy month of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. As per the scriptures Lord Shiva tells his beloved wife Parvati that out of all the twelve months, Shraavan Maas (month) is the most special and glorious to him. It is believed that fasting on any day during this whole month reaps fruitful results. Many Hindus fast for the entire month living on a diet of fruits and milk breaking their fast after sunset with a light vegetarian meal. People refrain from habits like smoking and drinking during this month. Most switch over to a vegetarian meal adhering to a strict diet throughout the month.

It is believed that lord Shiva saved humanity from the deadly halahala poison by swallowing it during the samudra manthan. The entire episode of the churning of the ocean, manifestation of various objects and beings from the ocean like fourteen rubies, conch, kaustubh gem, deities like Lakshmi, apsaras like rambha, supernatural animals like kamadhenu the divine cow, airavata the white elephant and finally the pot of nectar -all these they say took place in the month of Shraavan. There are so many festivals to celebrate in Shraavan.

Shraavan somvars are extremely holy and Shivlings are bathed with milk and honey, people observe fasts and holy chants fill the air in and around temples. Kaavad yatras are common in some parts of the country as devotees collect holy water from sacred rivers in kavads or wooden pots which are tied to the end of a stick. These are carried by saffron clad kavadias who go from the tirtha sthaan to a sacred Shiva temple to perform abhisheks to shivalingas.

This year the first day of Shraavan is on 3 August and the month ends on 1 Sep 2016.  But in some states like Rajasthan, UP etc Shravan has started already on 20th July. This is because of the difference in the calendars as some states begin the month on the full moon.

Like every year, we will have special puja on all four Sundays during the month which will be followed by lunch. We extend a warm welcome to all devotees to join us on all four Sundays to Kamleshwar Mahadev temple in Kibigori.


An encounter with Naga Bawa in Ujjain

The experience to know who Naga bawa is and why they are so important during Kumbh mela is completely out of the world. I always wondered about these clan who roam without clothes and live in the jungle and practice world’s weirdest cult. Many of us always thought that they practice witchcraft and harm people for their own advantage.

But in my research of last many years I found that they are purest ones to pray to Shiva and they enjoy the first right to take a dip in the water during the best timings of Shahi snan in Kumbh mela.

This time, I got one more chance to know and meet them personally and understand what they and why they do. If you have patience than read on.

Naga Bawas are generally found in many communities across India. They pray to only Shiva in its purest form. They don’t practice any witchcraft but surely pray to Shakti and many follow the tantric stream of philosophy. It certainly doesn’t mean that they harm any human beings. They many times smoke purely because they reach to the highest form of purity of heart and soul while worshiping Shiva and they need something stronger to come to back to the existing life and be normal. The material they smoke doesn’t make them addicted or spoil their health as it only works on their mental balance and due to their spiritual power, it doesn’t harm their body. They apply fresh ash on their body to keep the temprature of the body down which grows due to their sadhna or practice. They don’t cut their hair as most yogis believe that to be the part of shiva. They are mostly vegetarian and eat very less through out their life. They obviously don’t get married as they don’t want any more responsibility. They belong to Shiv Akahdas – a group of people from various school of thoughts but always worship Shiva.

I just loved to take their blessings and was so happy to know them again so closely. Every Kumbh I attend I get closer to the reality of life and our religious identity. I was really fortunate to see them going for bath early in the morning at 3 am at Ram Ghat. I managed to take bath immediately after that as that is considered auspicious.  I also found that there majorly two akhadas – Shiv and Vishnu. The followers of both the akhadas come for holy dip in different sides of the river.






Who is the pop of Hindu religion?

We often forget our roots in religion and how our roots were saved by our beloved Shankaracharya more than two thousand years ago.

I met the current Shankaracharya of Kashi and Dwarka, Shree Swarupananadji during Kumbh in Ujjain after having met him earlier during the Allahabad Kumbh. I have known him for more than a decade now and didn’t realise that he has turned 94. It was such a pleasure to find out that he still talks so well and his speech is not affected by his age. I had gone with another bunch of queries relating to the many commercial gods which have sprung up and why we are drifting away from the original Gods like Shiva and Vishnu and their family.

He answered very patiently to my research queries.

I also met his successor of Kashi Pith Shri Avimukteshwaranandji and had a long discussion about the current development of Hindu religion and its doctrines. The time has come when we should give due respect to our POP of Hindu religion and let the world know who they are.

Indore city- an example of women’s lib in our History

Indore city was beautified and ruled by Ahilyabai Holkar in the late 17th century. It is a great example of how a woman could change the city from dust to a beautiful town.

When she found that her son was not capable of holding onto the crown taking forward the legacy of the family, she decided to spend every penny of her kingdom to build various Shiv temples across India, build schools and monuments and various sources of water and other facilities for her people.

The city is mostly very clean with most of the modern amenities but has treasured the valuable monuments of history very well.

I personally liked the city very much as it was a perfect combination of history and modern lifestyle. I saw few Shiv temples, Ganesh temples, laal baugh and old market area. The city has a combination of Maharashtrians, Gujaratis and Rajputs.

One of the Shiv temples I visited had an excellent mirror work done and can be seen as an example of this very old art in modern times.

Har siddhi temple in ujjain

I had a strong reason to visit this temple as my husband’s family revered this devi and are staunch followers of shakti ma.

After visiting the temple once I wasn’t satisfied. I went again on the last day. That was the time I felt the power of the place and the maa. I stood in front of her for a long time to converse and understood why my family loves her so much.

Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain

It was a thrilling and enchanting experience to be at the Mahakal temple. The most important arati is called bhasma arati in the morning and only the really fortunate ones can witness it that too during the kumbh mela.

During the arati I saw many different avataras of Mahakal. It made me realise that finally we will be dissolved into ashes at the feet of shiva, he being the final destination of this life.

Many different sadhus and bawas came to attend this arati and their presence made it even more interesting to be there.

After performing arati we also performed shiv puja in the temple premises.

My experience at Ujjain Kumbh Mela

It was such a wonderful break from emails, whatsapp and mobiles as most of the time these didn’t work and also I didn’t even feel like touching it.

Kumbh is the best example of how people are self controlled, self-managed and very disciplined as even a troop of 20000 army and para military groups can not control the crowd. I saw them working tirelessly all round the day. It is also a symbol of charity as 90% of the visitors are served food by different akhadas and spiritual organisations.

The kumbh is ruled by naga sadhus who have the first right to bath in the water in the early morning muhurut. They can’t be stopped, controlled or be told by even the chief minister of the state.

I stayed awake for two nights to see the bhasma arati at mahakaleshwar and to see naga bawa and others take a holy dip in the water first thing in the morning on shahi snan day. We could manage to do some puja in the premises of mahakaleshwar in such times when there was no possibility of even getting darshan of mahakal.

I couldn’t believe that millions of people wait for both the things but don’t even get glimpse of any of them in their best times. I was blessed to see both of it early morning.