The Rime and the Mariner (IV)

Señora Rime 🐌

Let’s continue right from where we left off.

As I was saying, Hinduism doesn’t have a sacred book (it has many books, some of which were made into sacred books by later generations). Neither does it have a single deity.

Early Vedic people were nature worshippers. They made whatever element of nature they admired into a god or goddess. This is, actually, a pattern we see across all cultures. In Europe, you have the great gods of Thunder, Thor (Norway), Zeus (Greece) and Jupiter (Rome). You have the Sun-god Ra in Egypt, and Mithra is the Sun-god of the Persians. India has its own Sun-god too. – Anyway, let’s tell you in order.

Early Vedic people were nomadic. Originally from Central Asia, a branch of the Aryans came south and ventured into the region you’d call the Indian subcontinent. Another branch went northward, to Europe, of course.

These people spoke in a kind of early, Proto-Sanskrit, which later evolved into distinct branches. The people who went to Europe developed their language into the likes of Latin; the branch that came down to Jambudvīpa (that’s the oldest name for India that we have on record) developed the Proto-Sanskrit into Sanskrit proper. Sanskrit gave rise to many other Indian languages (not all, though) which are spoken today. My own language is Bangla (or Bengali); other prominent languages include Odia, Marathi, Konkani, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, etc. These are all major, modern languages in India, and all of these originally come from early Vedic Sanskrit, or Proto-Sanskrit as I called it. (The other major language group in India is the Dravidian Language group, we’ll talk about this later.)

Now, these Aryans, as they were originally nomadic, did not depend on agriculture in the beginning. The most important natural factor in their lives was the sun. The sun gave them light and heat, and they could graze their animals and hunt beasts as they needed to. Thus, in the Early Vedic times, the most important god was Surya, the sun.

Later, when the Aryans gradually became agriculturalists, their priorities shifted. The most important god, a few hundred years later, was no longer the sun, but the god of rain and thunder, Indra. Indra is the king of the gods in Indian mythology, he is the one who blesses the fields with rain. By the time these stories were written, Indra was already the main man in the pantheon. The changes in culture and civilization led to changing stories.

However, Indra is not the most important god in Hinduism. There are others who surpass him in both power and popularity. I will write to you about them, just wait.

When Hinduism was in this early phase, all the religious rites and practices were essentially open-air practices. Hindus did not have any ‘house of worship.’ They had sacrificial fires arranged in the open, which they called yajna/yagna, where they poured combustible liquids (like clarified butter or ghee) while uttering hymns and verses. There were no temples, no idols, – all they worshipped was nature, and the unseen, unknown forces of nature.

With the advent of mythology, Hinduism began to expand its pantheon over the centuries. Characters from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata became deities. Characters from the Puranas became gods of worship, and further Puranas were written around them.

And something else happened too. Note this, because this is very interesting. The native peoples of India, as they slowly began to mingle with the Aryans, began to mix their own folk cultures and beliefs with the Aryan culture. The Aryans adopted the folk elements of old India and enriched their pantheon continuously. Different regions of India developed different local versions and regional flavours of the same tales and same characters. Where there was one god before, now there were scores of variations on him.

But the tale of the Aryanization of India is not one of acceptance and peace alone. When the Aryans expanded into India, they carried sword and fire with them as well. There were conflicts. There were battles and wars. In the early days, after the Aryans had occupied the northern part of India, they gave it the name Brahmavarta, – ‘the land of the gods’. Later they expanded southward and renamed the whole region as Aryavarta, ‘the land of the Aryas.’

Native peoples were defeated, ousted from their land. The Dravidian settlements were pushed back southward. The jungle tribes and mountain tribes were cornered and reduced to weak minorities (they suffer to this day.) In the Indian mythologies, these people were made into races like Asura, Danava, Rakshasa – demons, giants, ogres. In other words, – not quite human. In the mythologies, these people are always the bad guys, the snub-nosed, dark-skinned, morally inferior lower class. – Make sure to forget this when you read those stories; otherwise, you’ll not be able to enjoy them.

This cultural domination and steamrolling is one of the darker truths behind the glorious Vedic civilization of ancient India.

* * *

As I am writing these letters, I have had to decide what style to adopt while doing so. Should I be very, very loose? Surely it can’t be like a lecture? – I ended up deciding that while I will keep it conversational, I won’t make a compromise about authenticity and thoroughness. Of course, I cannot write everything here. Neither do I have the knowledge nor do we have the time, that’s what those books are for. But still, I’ll write what I can. – I know it may seem that I am rather piling a lot on your plate here. I don’t care. I want you to be the best version possible.

I saw your post the other day. That’s what’s up. – You are going to make an impact, Elizabeth. Like Oprah, Ellen, or Joe Rogan. I’m not going to serve you thinned milk over here.

Apart from all the stories and tales that make up Indian mythology, one thing that came out of the Aryan cultural expansion is an incredible body of literature. – By literature, I mean anything that’s written. The Vedas, the great Indian epics, the Puranas, the numerous treatises on various subjects. The religious texts; the non-religious texts. All of it. I wrote a little bit about it in my previous letters.

My favourites among all of this are the hymns of the Vedas.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a religious person. I cannot stress this enough – I am a zero-religion person. But I am very spiritual. Intensely, you may say. And of course it is a private matter with me. – Living in India, sitting right in the lap of religious malpractice that has been here for bloody centuries, I have very little tolerance for organized religion. Of any kind. You know what kind of crap goes on deep inside the facade of organized Christianity. Well, what Christianity has been doing for the past several centuries, we have been doing for a lot longer. — I respect individual people with individual beliefs and disciplines. Someone starts raising some kind of a cult and forcing their own personal dogma on everyone else, – well, I am getting out of there and that shit is going down. Has to.

An honest tribe crystalizes out of the spontaneous connection between people, not imposition and brainwashing. – Believe me, had you been the CEO of a big spiritual order of some kind, with thousands under your wing, – I would have stayed a million miles away from you. When I say I dream of you becoming big, what I mean is your message going big; your mission going big. Not your name. Not your face plastered on hoardings all around the world. That is… ha, you ever read The Lord of the Rings or Silmarillion? That is what happens to Morgoth in those tales. Bloat. Dilution. Spiritual suicide. – I wish you never become a global super-leader, Elizabeth. And I wish your message reaches every single home across the planet.

“I want to be a voice without a form,” – someone very close to me once said.

As I was saying. I love the hymns of the Vedas.

I love them because… they are so lofty, you know? They express such beautiful, pristine ideas of philosophy, such wonderful explanations of our humanity and our reality! And how beautiful their tunes are!

I will talk to you about this later at length, in a letter which I will solely devote to the Vedas. In this one, I will just share two very special verses with you. One is a verse of leading an illumined life, another is a verse of transcending death.

The Gayatri Mantra

Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
Tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
Bhargo devasya dhīmahi
Dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt ||

– Rigveda 3.62.10

This one is also known as the Sāvitri Mantra. As you can see, it is from the Rig Veda, so it is one of the oldest verses we have. It is regarded as one of the most important verses in the Hindu texts. Ironically, very few people go to the trouble of finding out what it means.

Back when I was in school, – 11th grade, I think, – we were listening to a monk delivering a speech on the stage. He was a very good speaker. In his speech, he told us a little story, a little experience he once had. –

It was the first dawn of 2001, and he was on board a ship on the Indian ocean, looking at the first sunrise of the millennium. And being a Hindu monk, he raised his hands in namaskar, uttering lines of worship towards Surya, the sun.

There was an American aboard the ship, who caught sight of this spectacle. He waited until the monk was done; then he asked him, “Why do you worship the sun that way? It’s not a god or something, it’s a giant ball of burning gas, don’t you know that?” The monk nodded and smiled. He asked the American, “Say you are thirsty and someone gets you a glass of water. What’d you do to that fellow?”

The American said, “Why, I’d thank him, of course.” The monk said, “Indeed you would. Now think about it, you would express your gratitude towards this person who just got you a glass of water. This giant burning ball of gas, the sun, it literally gets us everything we need to survive; it gets us light, heat, the entire living world, all of it. So shouldn’t I make a point to thank the sun as cordially as possible? I do know that it’s not a person; but it’s a matter of gratefulness on my part, don’t you agree?”

That was the Surya Pranam mantra that the monk was uttering then. The Gayatri mantra is something similar; the word ‘savitur‘ in the verse means ‘sun.’ The first line is not integral to the meaning of the main verse – it is a default line that occurs at the beginning of many other Sanskrit verses; same with the monosyllable “Om”. Om, or Aum – if you pronounce it correctly, is a word that occurs at the beginning of all spiritual hymns and verses in Sanskrit. It does not have a specific, literal meaning. It symbolizes the Ultimate, the Absolute. One can interpret it in their own way. (There’s a whole lot of pseudoscience around this as well, for e.g. there’s a fake news item that often circulates on social media, saying that NASA has detected ‘Om’ to be the ambient noise of the universe. All this stuff is horseshit.)

The literal translation of the Gayatri mantra is this – “We meditate on the effulgent glory of the divine, vivifying Sun; may he inspire and enlighten our understandings.”

Written by an unnamed Aryan poet thousands of years ago, this simple verse has captivated hearts through so many years. You can take it literally, or you can take it figuratively – it makes sense both ways. It is a shloka (verse) that speaks of heartfelt gratitude and profound contemplation, a deep desire to discover the latent truths lying inside oneself, and outside in the universe. It is so beautiful.

And what has modern pseudoscientific, pseudospiritual mumbo-jumbo made of this elegant verse? – I have personal experience.

I had gone on a three-day camp with some trainees to an ashram over here. It was a typical modern Indian ashram – designed to cater to the luxurious ‘holy’ cravings of rich people, posh with modern amenities while at the same time maintaining a very ‘Indian’ aesthetic and ‘Indian’ spiritual veneer. The parents of these kids are rich, so they are happy to spend their cash and imagine that their darlings are getting some serious spiritual facelift. Well, I didn’t stop them. “Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree?”

But since I went along with them, and since they were trainees, I had decided to keep an eye on whether they are being fed superficial bullshit by those ashram guys. (They did, on many occasions. I spoke to the kids later and explained the stuff to them and set the thing right.)

Now one day, in a meeting, the main man who ran that camp addressed the kids and said, “Children! Do you know what this is?” “No sir.” “This is the Gayatri Mantra. Do you know what that is?” “Ummmm no sir not really.” “Okay, I will tell you what it is. It is — the most powerful mantra in the world! Now repeat after me…”

That was it. That’s all the explanation he offered. And not only did he leave the whole matter unexplained – he added magical properties to it out of thin air.

“The most powerful mantra in the world” -??? What is this, some voodoo trick? Are we in a magic class? Learning ‘powerful’ magic spells?

These are verses, man. This is poetry. They don’t have superpower magic loaded in them. They are words, and words carry meaning, and those meanings have to be unlocked by a human mind and interpreted by a human heart. Only then can you use it to build power within yourself. The verse has no ‘power.’ You have the potential for power. The verse is just an intellectual nudge to stimulate you to action.

Come to India, you’ll see. The Gayatri Mantra playing on cellphone ringtones; playing on cars in reverse; playing on damn musical doorbells. Like it’s a kingdom of imbeciles. Come to India, you’ll see, and you’ll facepalm.

The Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra

Oṃ tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ puṣṭi-vardhanam
urvārukam iva bandhanān mṛtyor mukṣīya mā ‘mṛtāt ||

– Rigveda 7.59.12

I like the Gayatri mantra, but I like this one better. Perhaps because it is associated with the god who’s my favourite.

This is also called Rudra Mantra. Rudra is another name for the god Shiva. Maha Mrityunjaya is ‘Great Death-conquerer’ in Sanskrit (maha = great, mrityu = death, jaya = conquer/conquerer)

The literal meaning of this verse is – “Aum; we worship the Three-Eyed One, the fragrant, the virtuous, the Supreme Being, the one who bestows nourishment, wealth and perfection. Like a fruit that is released from its stalk, may I be set free from death, and not from immortality.”

Of course, the first line is a statement of praise and supplication. The second line is a plea, a prayer that we are empowered – so that we can transcend death. You must have noticed, Elizabeth, the statement is not technically a ‘prayer’. No one is ‘being requested’ to grant anything. It is just a statement of a heartfelt desire. ‘May it be so,’ not ‘please make it so.’ This is quite different from prayers like “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” – where the deity is clearly requested to do something.

This difference in attitude is a key aspect in understanding Vedic way of thinking.

When I write to you in detail about the Upanishads, we’ll talk more about this, and why this is so. The Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, in the present day, is used by people as some kind of a powerful magical spell. Well, let people who believe in magic indulge in magic. I do not believe in that. I think that calling this verse a magical spell is an insult to it; it is lazy business on the part of so-called devotees, who don’t want to put in the mental energy and get to the pearl of wisdom hidden within the lines. — To get to that pearl, you’ll need to talk about the Upanishads. We’ll do it, – soon.

* * *

You must be wondering what these links are. Well, there’s a number of people in India who are Hindu supremacists. It’s exactly like what Hitler tried to do when he came up with his Aryan theory. – Now, these Indian supremacists have a number of myths and stuff they propagate all the time, and one of them is that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. It is convenient, you see – if they admit that the Aryans came from outside, then they cannot attack all the other groups of people who have migrated to India over the millennia. Then they cannot oust the Muslims; then they cannot kick out Western science and humanitarian values and democracy; then they cannot raise a finger against ‘heathen invaders’ anymore. — So they claim that Aryans had always lived in India. They were never invaders.

Below are the links to two articles which will help you deal with toxic idiots such as these.

I’m leaving one more thing with you. I considered getting you this book for your birthday but then changed my mind. I’ll get you something else. But you need to get someone else to get you this one. – I think you should read this before you read the R K Narayan book I mentioned earlier; or at least, you need to read the two of them parallelly.

A Discovery of India –

I know of no other book that introduces someone to India with such comprehensiveness and so much knowledge, understanding and affection. I am sure you will love it. There’s a charming backstory about how the book came into being. You’ll know when you read it.

Until the next time! 🐝

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