What are God’s gifts to man? Or to humankind, to be all pervasive! Some say all things in this world, all things bright and beautiful; all things wise and wonderful are his gifts. But there are also things that are not so bright, not so beautiful and not so wise in the world, even things that are gloomy, dark, cruel, macabre and hideous. They are also God’s gifts or at least they also bear the mark of his handiwork. His copyright mark! Then how to sort them out or separate them, like chaff from grain, to our advantage?
It is here that, some say, God’s real gifts come to play, gifts such as intelligence, wisdom, or that uncommon commodity we call common sense.
According to Christian theology, there are seven cardinal sins that are to be abhorred. And there are also seven cardinal gifts that God had made to man, says the Book of Isaiah: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and, equally important, Fear of the Lord.
The last mentioned is perhaps a sort of leash with which God is supposed to hold man back when he is in a mood to indulge in something fishy, tricky or nasty. It is as if the good Lord says: Enjoy all the gifts the way you want, but remember there will be retribution if you cross the limit.
The problem with God’s material gifts is that he is not at all even handed. Not all people come to enjoy his gifts like good health, wealth, good education, good fortune etc. Vast multitudes of people all over the world are way off his ken when it comes to apportioning these gifts. Many may have strong feelings about God’s partiality to some and neglect of suffering millions. But God, being clever, would throw up his hands and plead inability to perform the way desired by everyone. Man’s life in this world, he would say, is governed by Fate or Destiny and no one, not even God himself, can alter it. ‘There is no armour against Fate,’ as James Shirley had succinctly put it in the poem ‘Death the Leveller.’
This point is buttressed in a popular story I had heard in childhood. One day Siva and Parvathy were sitting on Mount Kailas, watching the activities of the multitudes of people down below. From among them Parvathy singled out a haggard looking man going into a Siva temple and asked Siva why he was not giving any solace to that poor man who was a great devotee of the Lord. Siva said nothing could be done to alter that man’s condition as everything was pre-ordained or dictated by Fate. To prove his point he said he was placing a large pot of gold on the side of the path from the temple to the man’s home. If he was fated to get it he could grab it and live his remaining life in immense wealth.
But as the man came out of the temple and walked back home something inexplicable happened. He thought of the large number of beggars he saw outside the temple gate, including many who were blind, and his mind was filled with compassion. He felt sorry for them and thought of the great hardship the blind had in doing their daily chores without God’s gift of eyesight. Just to experience their plight, he closed his eyes and walked some distance in great difficulty, and then opened his eyes and walked ahead, not realizing that he had just bypassed a great treasure trove on the kerb.
Sometimes God may get credit for the immense pains that men make to succeed in life. We normally call a talented man a ‘gifted man.’ A ‘gifted musician’ means his talent as a musician is a gift from God. Here all credit is attributed to God, totally negating the great pains the man had taken from childhood to youth to middle age to even old age to learn, improve, improvise and perfect his music. But here again, God may say, he can perfect his music only if he is destined to be perfect.
If Death is the leveller, so is Birth. All newborns are alike and it is only the care they receive, the circumstances they find themselves in and the opportunities they get that shape them up for their future roles. None of them need to be a precocious child to succeed in life. To come up in life all that is needed is solid common sense and a knack to grab at opportunities when they come. Of course with a little bit of God’s grace.
People are so overwhelmed by the gifts of God they received, or hope to receive, that they want to reciprocate the divine gesture both in cash and kind. It is immaterial whether God wants, or approves of, their gifts. In fact God, in any religious perception, would be more than satisfied if he was always kept in mind, that is kept in thought and deed. Nothing more, nothing less.
But no. Both the devotees of God, and the innumerable intermediaries between the devotees and God, would want it otherwise. Huge donations in cash, highly ostentatious poojas and expensive offerings are the in thing in any place of worship nowadays. No one can visualize a temple anywhere without the ubiquitous hundis, big and small.
As for the devotees there appears to be a sort of competition in both devotion and donation: Many a devotee may want to outdo every other devotee in such a way that God would be pleased with him. Take the case of the Sabarimala Temple, one of the richest temples in Kerala where devotees in their hundreds of thousands from all over the country make their annual pilgrimage. Their contribution to the hundi is mind boggling. The costliest contribution so far was perhaps made by the so called ‘liquor baron’ Vijay Mallya who donated 32 kg of gold and 1,900 kg of copper to gold plate the roof of the sanctum sanctorum some years ago. That glittering offering, which would put in awe every pilgrim visiting the hill shrine, anyway did not come to the aid of Mallya who had to flee the country in subsequent years as a fugitive from law when pursued by investigating agencies probing his alleged financial frauds.
In most temples there is a weighing balance for ‘Thulabharam’ at which a devotee can measure an offering against his body weight. The most common offerings are plantain fruits of kadali variety, sugar, sarkara, tulsi leaves etc. A rich devotee, a builder, made headlines some years back when he offered his weight in gold to Lord Krishna of Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur district. The total quantity of 24-carat gold required for the offering came to 70 kg, a record for the temple where the previous highest gold offering was only two kg.
Guruvayur temple also receives occasional offerings of elephants, young or adult. One such ostentatious offering came from the late Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who presented to Lord Krishna a calf elephant.
A new kind of offering, disturbing in its own way, is also reported in recent times from Guruvayur temple. An increasing number of men, devotees of course, bring their aged mothers for the much sought after darshan of their Lord, and just leave them there, to fend for themselves. A new phrase has been coined by the media to describe this inhuman offering, Nada Thallal, meaning abandoning at the threshold.
The new trend is definitely a reflection of the fractured family relations evident in the emerging Kerala society. The devotee son may perhaps be feeling that due to many reasons he can no longer afford to keep his mother at home and ‘Nada Thallal’ is his best option in the circumstances. In a morbid way he may be saying that his mother is his most precious possession in this world, far more precious than the builder’s bullion, and that he is making an offer of his most precious possession to God.
Would God approve of such an offering or would there be retribution, ‘fire and brimstone,’ for the errant donor?
God alone knows.