Thursday, July 4, 2013


Every aasrama has its special dharma or duty. It has been enjoined that a sanyasi should not remain in one place for any length of time. He has to be a parivraajaka or wandering mendicant. The idea is that he should be moving from place to place, coming into contact with his lay disciples, ministering to their spiritual needs, and guiding them to regulate their lives according to the saastras. This may be likened to "mass contact", a term familiar in politics. If a sanyasi remins in one place for a long time, there is the danger of his contracting "attachments" or getting involved in local controversies. There is also the adage, "familiarity breeds contempt", that is one of the reasons why a sanyasi is prohibited from staying long at any one place.

        This constant movement from place to place may prevent a sanyasi from devoting suficient time to medidation and other spiritual practices, and to the acquisition of aatmajnanam leading to the realisation of the Ultimate Truth. Therefore he is permitted to remain in one place during the chaturmasya period, comencing from the full moon in the month of Aani. This period also coincides with the rainy season, known as praavrt season.

        There is a reason behind the selection of this praavrt period for chaturmasya. The sanyas asrama is essentially one of ahimsa --causing no harm to any living being. That is why a sanyasi has to travel on foot. Even if one were to tread unwittingly on an insect while walking, there is every chance of one not causing its death, becasuse the feet are so shaped that the insect can easily wriggle out through the gaps and curves. During the rainy season, numerous insects spring to life and infest pathways. Any travel during this period will inevitably lead to himsa, causing pain or injury to these insects. In fact, while making the sankalpa for chaaturmaasya, a sanyasi has to tell the assembled devotees that the praavrt period is on, that he sees a host of insect life everywhere, and that if it is not inconvenient for them, he proposes to observe chaaturmaasyam in that place. The devotees, who feel honoured by the opportunity for this kainkarya, in their turn, request him to remain in their midst comfortably, and assure him that they will serve him to the best of their ability.

        Making the Chaturmasya sankalpa, the sanyasi says:

        Praayena pravrishi praani sankulam vartma drsyate
        Atasteshaam ahimsaarttham pakshaavai srutichoditaan
        Stthaasyaamaschaturomaasaan atraivaasati baadhake.

        On hearing this the devotees reply:

        Nivasantu sukhenaatra gamishyaamah krtaartthataam
        Yathaa sakti cha susroosham karishyamoo vayam mudaa.

        It is to enable sanyasins to adhere to the principle of ahimsa that they are prohibited from cooking their own food. In the process of cooking, insects that may happen to be in water, fiewood, vegetables etc., will be destroyed besides the germinating part of the grain. Therefore, sanyasins are enjoined to rest content with what householders give them as alms. They are also not permitted to pluck green leaves. That will be himsa to the plant, which has also life. In fact there is no agni for the sanyaasa aasrama. That is why they do not perform any homa (sacrifice in fire).

        The chaturmasya observance is a common feature of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Ashokan edicts, which are about 2,000 years old, show that Chaturmasya was observed for four months as the term indicated.
There is a reference to Chaturmasya in Srimad Bhagavatham also. It is recorded that when Sage Narada was asked how he became a great jnani, he replied that in his boyhood a number of sanyasins happened to observe chaturmasya at the place where he livd with his mother, and that jnana dawned on him as a result of eating the remnants of the food partaken by those great men.

 A sanyasi takes the resolve to observe chaturmasya after performing Vyasa Pooja. This pooja is as important to sanyasins as Upaakarma is to those who belong to the other aasramas. As custodians of the Vedas, it is our duty to preserve them in their pristine purity and effectiveness. The danda (stick), carried by a brahmachari, is symbolic of the determination to protect the Vedas at any cost. The object of Upaakarma is to revitalise the Vedic mantraas, should their efficacy be impaired, through causes like faulty pronunciation. The Vedas are recited on that day, after invoking the grace of Sri Veda Vyasa, who perceived through his spiritual powers, the Vedas and transmitted them for the benefit of the world, and invoking the grace of the rishis, who propagated the various khaandaas of the Vedas. The presence of Sri Veda Vyasa is invoked in a pot of water and worshipped. The Sama Vedins invoke the presence of khaanda rishis in balls of earth, or in arecanuts and worship them. Similarly the sanyasins invoke the grace of Sri Veda Vyasa and othe preceptors of aatma jnaana, before commencing their discipline of medidation yoga and aatmavichaara.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Child marriage during akshaya tritiya

Rajasthan has been in the news recently and for all the wrong reasons. First it was tigers disappearing, then it was a guidebook that referred to sati sites as tourist destinations, and then it was child marriages.

The legal age for marriage in India is 18 years for women and 21 for men. Any marriage of a person younger than this is banned in India under the Child Marriage Prevention Act of 1929.

But child marriages still take place in India , particularly around the Hindu holy day of Akshya Tritiya. Normally Hindus decide the date for marriages based on horoscopes interpreted by pundits. Some dates however are considered so auspicious that no pundit needs to be consulted. One such day is Akshya Tritiya (also knows as Akha Teej), the third day of Baishakh, the month of the Hindu calendar generally falling in May. During this time lots of marriages take place. Unfortunately, many of them are child marriages.

Usually we consider marriage as a very serious decision to be taken by people who are ready to spend the rest of their lives with someone of their choosing. Children are not ready to take such decisions, and it can be assumed that when child marriages take place the children who are getting married do not have a choice in the matter and are being forced, or are too young to understand what marriage means.

Yet it is a religious tradition in many places in India and therefore difficult to change. People feel that traditions are valuable and should not be changed, especially religious traditions, since changing these would amount to asking people not to practice their religion, a fundamental principle of democracy.

Probably the main reason such child marriages were first started and then kept going was because in feudal times they served to strengthen family alliances for business or military purposes. It was like a business deal for two rich or powerful families to marry their children so they would have to work together or defend each other; betrayal would mean their own children got hurt. Such matrimonial alliances worked only if the bride and groom were not too fussy about who they were going to marry. This fussiness could be reduced by making sure they were too young to even understand choice or what was happening to them. By the time they reached an age where they might object or decide to find their own marriage partners, it was already too late.

The benefit of child marriages to poorer people is that child marriages are cheaper than adult marriages, since a child marriage need not be as prestigious as an adult marriage. If siblings of different ages can be married off at the same time, it further reduced expenses. So this was often done: two or three sisters married in a single wedding ceremony.

Another reason often given is that child marriages protect the girl from other men who, once she is married, may see her as being unavailable and belonging to someone else.

And that is really the crux of the problem -- child marriages are a reflection that, like sati, women and girls are seen as property that 'belongs' to someone: her family, her husband, her in-laws. A woman/girl is either a burden or can be 'traded' and used in any way the others see fit. If her marriage is left too late, it may mean that no one wants her and then she will be seen as being not valuable and no one will want to marry her. She is a burden to her own family because she is an extra mouth to feed and they have to find money to spend on her dowry. Her only role in life is to do housework and to bear children. In some communities where child marriage takes place, instead of dowry there is a system of 'bride price' where, when the girl gets married, the husband's family has to pay a sum of money in exchange for the bride. Instead of making things better, this system also means that families are eager to get their daughters married off so they can bring in money.

In any case, child marriages are worse for girls than for boys, since the girls are usually younger than the boys. Marriage also puts an end to any education girls may have been receiving. And if they get pregnant while still young, their health gets much worse since their bodies are often not ready to bear children. According to the United Nations, maternal mortality i(which indicates the number of women dying in childbirth or from pregnant-related causes) is 25 times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for 15-19-year-olds.

Interestingly enough, around the same time as Akshya Tritiya this year, the United Nations had just concluded a special session on children where they adopted 21 child welfare goals for the next decade. One of these was to end "harmful traditional or customary practices such as early and forced marriage".

To stop such child marriages, governments and civil society organizations are trying to get laws against child marriage made stronger, since it does not seem to be working in its present state. Right now the police cannot make arrests without applying for a magistrate's order, which may take days. The punishment, a maximum of three months in prison, and a fine is not enough to stop people. Proposed changes include more punishment, a compulsory registration of all marriages rather than just religious rites, the appointment of anti-child marriage officers in every state, and making it a law that anyone who attends a child marriage has to report it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sankranthi in Karnataka – Kannada Makara Sankranti

Sankranthi, or Makara Sankranti, is a harvest festival in Karnataka as is the case in other parts of India.  Sankranthi is celebrated when sun transcends from Sagittarius to Capricorn during the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Sankranthi means ‘change of direction’ and is based on solar event and it also marks the arrival of Spring Season. In Kannada culture, Sankranthi is synonymous with ellu (sesame-jaggery mix), sugar candies and sugarcane.

Uttarayana, the day time of Devas, begins from Sankranthi and the next six months are considered highly auspicious. There are also numerous other legends that are associated with Sankranthi.

The day before the festival all the houses are thoroughly cleaned. And on the day of Sankranti, green mango leaves are used to decorate doors and windows and the thresholds of houses and colorful rangoli is drawn on the doorsteps. People also fly kites on the day.

Talk about Sankranthi and the first things that a Kannadiga would remember is sugarcane. Stacks of sugarcane sticks piled up in the market herald the arrival of the Sankranti festival. Shredding the sugarcane with teeth and munching the juice off it is a major activity on the day.

People also exchange yellu – a mixture of fried sesame, peanuts and gram with jaggery and copra. People visit relatives, friends and neighbors on the day and exchange yellu balla. The festive feast includes rice and moong dal kichdi (both sweet and salt), curries with freshly harvested field beans, sweet potato, sweet pumpkin, etc. The list increases as one travels to rural Karnataka.

Numerous music and dance festival are also held during the period.