Athato brahma jijnasa (Brahmasutra 1.1.1)
Now is the time to inquire about the Absolute Truth
I do not know when the concept of God first entered my mind. It could perhaps be in my infancy when my mother, like all mothers, must have told me stories of gods and goddesses. But the earliest memory that I have about God, to be exact about Goddess, was when mother took me, then a five year old, to the site of an erstwhile shrine of my father’s family at Pattom.
The strange thing about that visit was that my Goddess, whom we called Palliyara Bhagavathy, was missing. Though there had been a full-fledged shrine at that site long, long ago, it could not obviously withstand the ravages of time, nature, or man. All I could see there was a dilapidated platform. Everything else had been lost, possibly in some past upheaval, like the infamous ‘floods of 99’ (1099 ME), or some other disaster. There was a solitary oil lamp, mounted on a metre high iron rod implanted in earth, to bestow on the site the aura of a place of worship.
After mother lit the lamp (with oil and wick carried by her) we circled the platform and prayed before an unseen Goddess. The idol of the Goddess, mother told me, had been removed to the thekkathu of a Namboodiri mutt near Kannammoola for safe keeping after the temple structure came down. It was when I was in the early years in college that the shrine was re-built and the idol of Palliyara Bhagavathy was resurrected from the thekkathu and re-installed in all its glory at its original site.
From that five year old till now, when I am nearly 75, my attitude to God the Almighty varied a great deal, from fearful worship as a child to absolute devotion during the middle age to sort of ambivalent stance during old age. In my teens or early youth I have not been a regular temple goer. Temple going became a regular, intense affair during middle age, but the intensity somewhat tapered off with the onset of wrinkled old age.
I think the reference to absolute devotion needs a little bit of explaining. My wife had undergone two brain tumour operations four decades ago but had made remarkable recovery. Then about two decades ago she suddenly developed an excruciating, nebulous pain in the legs while walking. Walking became arduous always and almost impossible at times. She could not lift a leg to move forward because of the pain, and she usually took about half an hour to 45 minutes just to cover a distance of two metres. Several doctors were consulted, including some doctors of a pain clinic from the United States who visited Thiruvananthapuram, but there was no let up.
One morning I was helping her to walk the two metre distance from her bed to the toilet, and even in nearly half an hour she could not make one step forward. Then I remembered her old time practice of of taking a coin, circling it about her head, praying, and keeping it away to be put in the hundi of a famed Devi temple near our house at Sasthamangalam. I took out a coin, circled it around her head and prayed to that Devi to give her some relief from the pain.
At that very instant I had a brainwave. Suddenly I remembered the advice given by a young and energetic physiotherapist at Vellore twenty years ago when she was giving initial lessons in walking to my wife after her first, debilitating brain surgery. I remembered the girl saying that one should first shift the body weight to the left leg and then lift the right leg and place it forward. After this, shift the body weight to the right leg and then lift the left leg. We normally do it always, alternating body weight to the right and the left legs in quick succession, without being aware of it, but for those traumatically deprived of the ability to walk this was an essential first lesson.
I asked my wife to do exactly as the physiotherapist had advised her in 1980. It was wonder of wonders to me when my wife could slowly walk without experiencing any pain at all, for the first time in eight months. What the experts in Thiruvananthapuram or the pain clinic specialists from abroad could not suggest, a coin for a Devi could do.
Was it divine intervention or just remembrance of a thing past? For long I tended to believe that it was indeed nothing short of divine intervention. At least to the extent of inciting my brain to go twenty years back to find an easy, commonsensical answer to our very difficult, long- standing problem.
In spite of such an episode in my life I gradually deviated from the straight and narrow path in my relationship with God. My distrust of astrologers and lack of faith in temple priests contributed a great deal to that disenchantment.
There was a time when I had immense faith in astrologers. For everything connected with my career, my family in general and my children in particular, I went after them for their supposedly wise counsel. There was in fact no astrologer worth his name in Thiruvananthapuram whom I had not consulted. On their suggestion I did various pujas from time to time and went to all the temples, including such far off places of worship like Kalahasthi in Andhra Pradesh and Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. I met the temple priests specially named by the astrologers and paid them hefty sums for pujas, not realizing then that a part of that would go to the astrologers as commission. At some point of time in my life I got disgusted with these charlatans who masqueraded as astrological geniuses and stopped going to them forever. They also made me even detest astrology as it was generally practiced.
The same was the case with priests. Priests today, unlike their counterparts in the distant past, are thorough professionals, or rather spiritual executives. When forty years ago I called a priest for a Ganapathi Homam in my house, I was given a long list of items needed for the puja, including bricks and sand to prepare a homakund and firewood and large vessel to prepare the payasam offering. As the homam took place in the wee hours, we had to pick up the priest from his home. But not now. The priest would come in his car, bringing all the items needed for the puja, from flowers to incense sticks. Not only puja items, but also pre-fabricated homakund, gas stove and gas cylinder. The service comes as a package. Just pay the priest accordingly.
Such commercialization is visible in the affairs of all the temples, big and small. Like the flourishing ashrams we find today, temple managements also act in terms of investments and return. Spirituality and faith are mere adjuncts to make big money.
In such crass commercialization where to find our God? The idols of Gods and Goddesses are supposedly infused with life, chaithanya, by the Tantris. I do not know if the idol in front of me is infused with life by the Tantri when installed. The scriptures say there are 33 crore gods in heaven. Perhaps we may find an equal number of idols of gods in temples in our land, temples that are big, small, mini and micro. As though they are not enough many thekkathus, traditional family shrines with a pre-brahminical form of worship, are steadily being converted into full- fledged temples in the brahminical way of worship. In the thekkathu the objects of worship are mostly antler horns, or sword, pestle, spear etc. The pujas are normally performed once a month or during full moon and new moon days, by a member of the family, not a Brahmin priest. The traditional objects of worship are given a formal burial when replaced with stone idols of deities.
For all these idols a multitude of tantris well versed in the relevant scripture may be needed to infuse Godly spirit or chaitanya into them. Do we have them? And do all of them do their job as prescribed? I doubt very much and we have only their word.
If indeed the idols are infused with chaithanya or Godly spirit, would they permit, or condone, the no-holds-barred exploitation in their name by at least some in the priestly order and the temple managements? Or remain inactive when faced with such reprehensible acts as desecration, theft, breaking up of idols etc?
Such thoughts, which many may find as inappropriate for an old man, have plagued me for long, making me give up belief altogether in all gods of heaven. What I persuaded myself to believe was in the interminability of Paramatma or Brahman (or Vishnu), a concept which according to me related to the life sustaining, Oxygen-enriched atmosphere enveloping the world. It is as the Upanishads say the cause and effect of life.
The Prasthanathrayi, (the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita), have all made references to Paramatma as a formless, shapeless entity enveloping the whole world. Seers of old like Shankara, Madhavacharya and Ramanuja might have had differing arguments about the oneness (Advaita) or duality (Dvaita) of Jivatma and Paramatma. Whatever it be, what I have come to believe is that every newborn draws life breath from it and every man and woman dying exhale their life breath into it. Without this life sustaining air covering the world, there would be no life anywhere. This may be called by any name, Paramatma, Brahman, or Lord Vishnu.
In one respect I am in total agreement with the scripture writers: the complexion of God. In all scriptures Vishnu and his avatar Krishna are depicted as blue in complexion. I think the colour of cosmic nature is blue. Water is colourless, but the oceans are blue. Air is colourless, but the sky is blue. Trees have green leaves, but the distant mountains are blue. Blue indeed is the cosmic colour. And that which envelops the entire world like a protective, life- sustaining sheath cannot have any colour other than blue. My pranams to that entity, by whatever name it is known.
Here is my God, the Almighty.