So, it’s been about a year now and in some ways this has been the most life changing year of my life. I’ve had the chance to explore and learn more about the culture and heritage I come from.
In many ways, I had a typical childhood of most kids growing up in middle-class India. My parents, having faced a lot of hardships in their early years, much like folks from their generation, really wanted me to have a good life. And by good, I mean, mostly a life with material comforts. This was something they were optimizing for, since that was something their generation had to struggle, oh-so-much for. The downside with this upbringing was that we were shielded from a lot of good stuff that their generation had been exposed to, in terms of a more traditional Hindu upbringing. But times are different and I think I can safely say, if you are smart, can speak/communicate reasonably well, are able to write well and are presentable in appearance, you most likely are going to do just all right, in terms of bagging the material stuff.
So that brings me to the subject of Hinduism. If most of the material stuff is taken care of, what next. I honestly am not interested in making a zillion dollars. I’d much rather be the person who is happy when I am old, and if making a crap-load of $$ is the way to being that person then I’d be all for it. But I don’t think it is. At least studies taken of patients in their death bed doesn’t seem to reflect that.
So what is the way to happiness? The more I’ve looked into it, the more I’ve found that a lot of people (Buddha/Vishwamitra etc.) from the past have grappled with this challenge. In Ancient India, especially, children as young as 8, would leave their homes and go live in the forests, in educational academies called Gurukula, where they would explore (under the tutelage of a Guru) extremely ambitious ideas, such as understanding consciousness. A lot of the goodness that people think of when they talk of India, such as Yoga, the Vedas & Upanishads have all come from these places.
What’s really amazing is that these Seers (or monks), realized that trying to capture their ideas on pen and paper would lead to dilution. They realized that the **feeling** of an idea/concept was probably the closest most accurate representation they could use to transmit it. So what they ended up doing was using words (in Sanskrit) which when recited would bring up that feeling and this way transmit the idea. And thus was born the concept of a mantra. Obviously, these words had a literal translation as well, which related to the message being conveyed, but it was not the complete message, since words could go only so far.
This brings the idea of chanting. In India, I’ve been quite happy to see a lot of senior citizens really take to chanting. It’s quite common to see groups (of mostly women) get together everyday and chant two really popular Sanksrit Hymns — the Vishnu Sahasranama and the Lalitha Sahasranama. Modern medicine is just waking up to the enormous health benefits of chanting & this stuff has been known and followed here in India for thousands of years. Furthermore, a lot of these Sanskrit syllables require usage of certain parts of the speech system, which you don’t really do in modern languages such as English. Correct pronounciation of these syllables, activates certain neural pathways which these texts say promotes good health and well being.
One Mantra that stands out as the pillar in the ocean of Mantras in Hindu philosophy is the great Gayatri Mantra. The story, that has been passed down through generations is that there was once a great king called Viswamitra whose pride had been humbled during an encounter with a Sage. In order to teach the Sage a lesson, the King renounced his throne and took to the forests to gather spiritual powers (Siddhis is the correct term). And these Siddhis are not hocus pocus, they are the real deal — they are numerous accounts of yogis doing all sorts of supernormal things like stopping cars, burying themselves alive for days etc.. Back to the story though, during this journey he was transformed and was given this great Mantra of transformation called the Gayatri Mantra which he went on to share with the world.
This Mantra, the Gayatri, is a core part of a set of religious rituals that certain Hindus perform on a daily basis called the SandhyaaVandanam. What’s really amazing about this process is that, it’s almost like a full body workout. It requires squatting (on your toes), sitting down cross legged, getting up from a seated position to a standing position (about 3-4 times), going into a full prone position from a standing position (about 3-4 times), significant lung work (there are pranayama components along with extended Mantra chanting). It’s only now that most of the western world is waking up to the enormous benefits of sitting on the floor and the basic ability to be able to get up from a fully seated position to a standing position with ease. It’s pretty amazing to see 70+ year olds do these set of rituals with ease.
The SandhyaaVandanam is initiated to a person ideally at the tender age of 8. The guys back then knew that at this age the child’s mind still had innocence in it, and innocence is a very powerful tool. By exposing the child to these regular set of physical movements along with the requirement to concentrate on one thing wholly (Ekagra chitta), one would develop enormous mental fortitude and wisdom. This stuff is basically what Yoga is about — the ability to go past the body, the breath and finally have the mind dwell on one thing and one thing alone. Nowadays kids go through enormous pressures of fitting in and this leads to a crazy amount of confusion. Couple that with 20-second commercial segments, IPads & Game consoles floating around & this all spells a recipe for some kind of attention problem (modern medicine bandies about the term ADHD and is happy to push drugs your way). Often the parents have no clue as to how to get out of this and it’s really amazing to see these practises that are thousands of years old, solve these problems and provide kids with righteous wisdom. Hinduism, or rather Hindu thought, was never big on ‘reason’, quite unlike western philosophy and thought. Reason, was according to Hindu thought a very rudimentary tool which really couldn’t get the job done (the job being of thinking effectively). Wisdom, on the other hand was revered and the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra was seen as the pathway to developing this ‘skill’.
Up next.. the Vedas, Upanishads and Yoga..