With Deepavali and Eid just over and Chhath Pooja on this weekend, the quality of good behaviour seems unduly strained. Let’s amuse ourselves then, with stories of how God seems to find amusement. I was privileged three days ago to hear the most wonderful pravachan by an elderly lady called Jaya Srinivasan. She spoke on elements of ‘pyoor’ bhakti in English, breaking into frequent song and sloka in the mother tongues and in Sanskrit. I had such a good time listening to her (and not a few misty moments), that I’d like to share some highlights.
A popular story she cited about transcending sectarian differences concerns the fierce medieval Shiva bhakta called Narahari. He plied his trade as a most excellent jeweller in the pilgrim town of Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Narahari was notorious for his disdain of anything remotely ‘Vaishnava’, speaking with open contempt of ‘that Pandurang’ and never went near Him.
One day, however, a rich merchant took the notion of offering a splendid mekhala (girdle) to Pandurang. He naturally approached Narahari, who rudely refused when he heard whom it was for. After much persuasion that it was after all, just another commercial transaction, the jeweller agreed but on the surly condition that the merchant take the measurement himself. This was duly done and a beautiful mekhala carried off to Pandurang. Alas, it slipped off His waist. Back came the merchant and this time, took away a smaller girdle, which proved too tight. Back and forth went the girdle until the jeweller crossly agreed to measure Pandurang’s image himself. But to stick to his principles, he bandaged his eyes so that he would not see Pandurang and began to touch the image with reluctant hands.
At this point Mrs Srinivasan sang thrillingly in Sanskrit (the verses take poetic license because Pandurang’s image is very simple). When the jeweller felt the crown of Pandurang’s head, instead of a peacock feather, his fingers traced a crescent moon. When his hands slid to the neck, instead of the vanamala (wildflower garland), he found snakes. When he touched the hands, instead of the flute, he felt a trishul. Tearing off his bandage, the jeweller found the regular image of Pandurang. To his eyes, God appeared as Krishna. To his touch, He was Shiva. The jeweller, in the good, old style of our bhakti kathas, fell adoringly at the image’s feet, tearful and repentant.
The pravachan’s main theme, though, was the Tulsi Ramayan and Vibhishana’s unique bhakti was illuminated for us. Tulsidas vividly describes how Sri Hanuman recces silently around Lanka, recoiling from one fearful rakshasa after another. Suddenly, he spots a small, simple abode set about with a ‘navtulsi’ garden (with nine varieties of the holy plant). “This has to be a bhakta’s house! But whose could it be?” wonders Hanuman. It is three in the morning, the sacred ‘hour of Brahma’, and Vibhishana emerges with Sri Rama’s name on his lips. Hanuman melts utterly, for he realises what a dedicated bhakta this person must be to worship Sri Rama in Lanka, to keep his faith despite the very real and present danger to his person.
Another lovely incident: Sri Rama is an Avatar of Mahavishnu, whose descent as Varaha the Boar was so immense that poets say, “Not all the waters of all the oceans were enough to fill one of the Boar’s hair follicles.” This Supreme Power now humbly beseeches Varuna, Keeper of the Ocean, to allow him and his vanara army access to the island of Lanka. When Varuna does not appear, Rama finally decides to teach him a lesson and sends such burning arrows into the sea that the mighty waters start seething. Even the Ganga on Shiva’s head begins to boil! And yet, the ocean does not dry up. How is this possible? Here is a bhakta’s explanation. Far away on the outskirts of Ayodhya, Bharata does daily abhishek to Rama’s paduka. The water from those lustrations flows into the Sarayu and thence to the ocean. What can befall Varuna, when it is Sri Rama’s own charanamrit that protects him?
The biggest message I got from this experience was about ownership: ours, of God and God’s, of us. And how it does not matter if your mother tongue is Tamil or Hindi. The sacred stories are owned by us all.