The stars may be immutable in their vast trajectories across the heavens but at the quotidian level long-held practices may need a little adjustment. Case in point: the widely popular Navratri Festival, literally ‘nine nights,’ was actually held over eight nights this year. Unlike the leap year phenomenon, which I never really understood, but blindly accept, one night didn’t actually ‘disappear.’ Rather, two astrological conjunctions, which normally occur over two consecutive days, this year happened within a single twenty-four-hour period. Ergo, we had eight instead of nine nights. Nobody minded and not a living soul (eight hundred million strong) thought to call this year’s festival “Ashtaratri.” Why split hairs?
The tenth day is called Vijayadasami (literally ‘victory on the tenth’), this joyous celebration of good over evil, when the goddess slays the demon. “Vijayanavami,” actually, this year, but then, who am I?
Everyone will have their own tale of happinesses, large or small, of this period when auspiciousness suffuses the very air we breathe. Mine can be shown in a single snapshot.
Wandered into Sri Ramanasramam on Vijayadasami. The elaborate rituals are all over. A long stream of devotees file slowly by the magnificently decorated idol of the goddess. As a life-long backbencher, I remain true to form and bring up the rear. God, it’s beautiful. Decide to take a picture. Begin shooting.
Along comes Sundaram, mellow head of this venerable institution, to quietly offer his pranams to the deity. I’ve been displaced from my customary end-of-the-line position, but that observation came later. What happened in the moment was something else. “Why don’t you go there?” he asks gently, pointing to the other side of the altar. Now, I’m always open to suggestions, but the reason I was on this side of the altar was precisely to stay out of everybody’s way, not to mention abjuring any positions of privilege which generally felt more uncomfortable than desirable. “You can go that side,” he offers again. Like an environmentally unfriendly fluorescent light, it takes a second or two for my brain to process the message. I switch sides.
Now I’m on this side looking at Sundaram, and he’s on that side looking at me. Of course, this is the position from which to photograph this gorgeous scene. I knew that. It’s a case of shooting oneself in the foot instead of shooting for the stars. Luckily for me, he knew better, and acted on it.
And then Sundaram’s face lights up with a dazzling smile.
Still within the teeming megalopolis of greater Chennai (imagine all the bonny folk of Eire squeezed into Dublin without any of the shimmering sublimities of the Book of Kells), cruising south along the ECR (East Coast Road), which by the way morphs into as picturesque a drive as anywhere on this earth, a must-see if you happen to be ever destined for Puducherry (Pondicherry).
On a weekend evening with throngs rushing to their leisure, if not pleasures, we’re headed to the Sai Baba Kendra, following scribbled directions garnered over an iPhone (thank you, Steve), driver and two passengers sharply scanning front and either side for critical landmarks (O Google, where art thou?).
There! the green-domed mosque, on the right. Take the left. Is it THE left? Too late — already taken — keep going, in God we trust, till we reach a T, never mind that it’s not a crossroads: turn right. Now we’re either dead right or hopelessly unlost, an easy 45 minutes, asking curiously unknowledgeable passersby or locals, whoever, the way to wherever. As it happens, without stopping or asking anybody nothing, we pass a Sai Baba mandir on the right; evening arati; temple bells. “Have no fear, I am here.” Keep going. Simple. And there it is. “Sai Baba Kendra.”
A haven. Home. Within sniffing distance of the Bay of Bengal, but any sounds of surf drowned out by the roar of exhaust fans cooling the kitchens of a multistory hotel on the other side of the back wall. Peace at last. And an ethereal satsang hall, warmly welcoming, all curvy bamboo varnished to gleaming perfection, no walls, high ceiling fans stirring the warm humidity into a more comfortable air. Devotees, gurubandhus, scattered about in informal fashion. Sweeping, elegant lines along the floor, like cosmic ripples, lead unerringly to the open altar where pilgrims may stand up close, and touch, life-size portraits of Shirdi Sai Baba and Guruji.
Evening bhajan, “Sai Baba,” in varied beat and melody, silence, and then aarati. Afterwards, there’s a buffet of prasad laid out upon the adjacent sands, simple and delicious. This evening it’s a large vat of aromatic biriyani rice, with a smaller canister of curd rice (tayyir saadam) to cut the richness of the former. Fruit, of course. Filtered drinking water. A bin to deposit the paper plates, taps at which to wash one’s hands.
The younger devotees were somewhat shaken when the previous satsang hall structure collapsed, on the day of Guruji’s mahasamadhi in November last year. The new hall has since ‘just come together,’ as such things are wont to do.
For three people, three hours later, a long and fruitful meeting under the selfsame satsang roof. A publication is on the anvil. Those who are near will hear.
I love Guruji’s quotes that drop into my inbox regularly. Like darts to the heart–there’s another story–they speak to me as if we were on his rooftop, that very first time in the early 90s when we were neighbors at the western lee of Arunachala, late into the night when there was no one else, just Guruji, my better half and me. Here’s an experimental sampling:
It is not by our efforts that we attain anything. It is by grace and grace alone.
Shun hypocrisy at all costs and beware of the gap between your speech and action.
Try to appreciate and enjoy the beautiful life that Baba has given you. It is an embodiment of his grace.
That which affects the heart is real art!
Baba is the mother, the loving mother, and the loving mother knows best what the child wants.
While the full moon remains hidden overhead, obscured by clouds throughout pradakshina, these three kids crowd into a small shrine at a wayside refugee settlement, Arunachala echoing in the partly-draped rock (right) and decorative string-lights, a ‘moon’ impaled upon a trishul (trident, centre).
“GururBrahma GururVishnu GururDevo Maheshvarah
Guruh sakshat Parabrahma tasmai Sri Guruveh namah”