Category Archives: History and Culture

What a world we have created! – Competition corrupts

I received this through my child’s middle school mailing list.

“Neuqua Valley Cheerleaders will be selling “Beat Waubonsie” t-shirts for the upcoming Neuqua vs. Waubonsie football game.  T-shirts will be on sale on Wednesday, October 15th and Thursday, October 16th during all lunch periods in the Cafeteria.  They can be purchased for $10.00 – cash or checks written out to NVHS will be accepted.”

It is admirable to raise funds for the cheerleaders. But I am surprised at this choice of words for the t-shirt. Does excellence in sport have to come through war cries? Why cannot such a t-shirt just encourage the home team to excel? Wouldn’t a “Go Neuqua!”or  “Neuqua is the best” do?

Seems like a small matter.. but this is how our children slowly get brainwashed into aggression, never able to appreciate others, always putting oneself first. I am guessing such tactics start even much younger.

Competition, the wise say, is always with yourself. The world we have created says differently.

 

Nagalinga tree – divinity everywhere

In the middle of all the destruction/construction happening in Chennai, where large bungalows with very old trees are making way for boxy apartment complexes with barely any greenery, one tree has survived the axe. Why? This tree, called aptly as Nagalinga tree, is a vivid reminder of divinity – the flowers are a unerring depiction of a Shiva linga resting under the hood of a thousand-headed snake. (naga – meaning snake and linga – a popular symbol of Shiva)

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There are many of these trees struggling too close to compound walls, yet they thrive. In its namesake park, the Nageshwara Park (“Snake Lord”), Mylapore, it stands in lieu of a temple. People coming in for morning walks step out of their sneakers, tenderly touch the tree and place their palms on their eyes, before going on their laps.

The flowers are so much in demand that devout mamas in the apartment wake up earlier and earlier to grab more than their share of these flowers for their morning poojas. My father is the current reigning champion managing to step out at 3am to get the choicest flowers!!

So, atleast until there is some devotion in the population, it is safe to say this tree will survive extinction!

Gargi – unique or “one of many”?

 

In many Hindu articles and blogs, the Brahmavadin Gargi Vachaknavi is mentioned proudly as a shining example of the glory of Indian women and the superior status that Vedic women had.

Gargi Vachaknavi appears in the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad in a section relating a philosophical session (Brahma sabha) in King Janaka’s court. Many scholars in the court question the renowned sage Yajnawalkya on the nature of Brahman. Gargi is one of the questioners who raise some of the more difficult questions. She does concede to the scholarship of Yajnawalkya at the end. 

All the recent mentions of Gargi Vachaknavi (blogs, articles, Upanishad Ganga TV serial) seem to hold a tone of surprise and special appreciation about the fact that a unmarried girl was part of the Brahma sabha and dared to question the great sage Yajnawalkya in the august court of King Janaka in the presence of many famous scholars and philosophers.

In the context of the last couple of millennia with so very few women scholars/philosophers not just in Hinduism, but in all religions, the mention of women like Gargi, Mythreyi, Ghosa, etc come with a element of uniqueness and surprise. 

However, when I read the actual translation of the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad, what struck me was that there is no “special’ mention of Gargi’s “womanhood”. She is just treated as one of the other scholars. There is neither a tone of surprise nor of appreciation that there is a woman in the mix.

This leads me to believe that, though Gargi rose to the “cream” of the women due to her presence in a large court, it was not so uncommon for women to learn and discuss Brahma gnana and philosophical topics. If she were so unique, the Brhdaranyaka would have indicated it. 

Many of the sutras talk about women being initiated (upanayanam) –

Harita says that women are of two types: those who speak about Brahman and those who soon become wives. Of them, the first type has initiation, establishment of fire, the vedic studies and observance of begging alms. The second is just initiated and soon married. Yama also mentions tying of munja grass girdle (upanayana) for women who were taught the Vedas and who had to recite the Savitri (the sacred Gayatri mantra). Katyayana, Yajnikadeva and Satyasadha specifically mention chanting and performing fire ablutions for unmarried girls.

So, it is quite possible that many women were educated in the knowledge of Brahman and the various religious texts, and could hold forth equal to men in these topics. Gargi and others, while the “cream” appearing in the Upanishads, may not have been so unique as we suppose them to be.

More than quoting a handful of special women, it is the ubiquity of women scholars that should cited more often. An ubiquity that is still missing in the modern world, where we have equality in many areas, but not in the most important pursuit – the spiritual realm!

 

Oldest Profession? Call it “Oldest vice”

 

In the aftermath of the sorry “Nirbhaya” episode, many politicians, celebrities and even so-called religious leaders are developing the practice of putting their “foot in their mouth” into a fine art!! From the suited-booted Todd Akins in the US to the saffron-clad Asaram Bapus in India – this notion of blaming the women for men’s weaknesses seem embedded in the psyche.

It reinforces the challenge I face as a mother narrating puranic stories to my children (ages 10 and 8). While it is so heart-warming to see them absorb the stories, accept them at face values and even be influenced in their actions by these stories, I stumble when faced with stories that deal with the world’s “oldest profession” as it is called.

I stumbled when we watched the episode of Satyakama Jabala on “Upanishad Ganga”.

Me: Nobody would teach Satyakama since his mother Jabala was considered an evil woman
Son: Did she do something bad?
Me: Well, she was a prostitute
Son/Daughter: ???
Me: Well, she didn’t have a husband like other women with children. Many men came and stayed with her. (me trying to avoid going further)
Daughter (who is a little more aware): Then, who was Satyakama’s dad?
Me: Well, since we lived with many men, she didn’t know. 
Daughter: But why? Could she not have married one of them?
Me: She could have. She was forced to be with many men.. maybe she was too poor or helpless. But once you do that, the whole town thought you were bad and nobody would marry you. 
Son: But that’s not fair.. if she is poor, then they should help her. 

Well, children do see things in black and white – maybe that’s the way to see it. Long story short, all our puranic stories as well as stories across the world, while acknowledging these women were pushed into it, at the same time, turn around and point to women as sinners, evil and temptresses. Same with Jabala, Mary Magdalene as with Nirbhaya.

One runs into this everywhere.. vedantic texts (Bhaja Govindam), Carnatic compositions (para dhana nari in dhyaname, para himsa para bhama in ente nerchina).

It used to puzzle me why great saints like Adi Shankar and Tyagaraja focused so much on this as though this were an everyday occurrence. Atleast in the circles we move in, it is so rare to hear of explicit violations. However, even while not widespread, they probably mention it only because it is the oldest vice.. a vice that predated drugs, alcoholism, cheating for money, etc.

Let’s never forget – It is only because men had this oldest vice that the oldest profession was created.