As a child, I remember that I used to sit quietly and watch my granny do the daily puja in the “Pujor Ghor” every morning. She would chant holy prayers, decorate the images and idols with flowers and garlands and apply sandalwood paste on them. She would then bathe the Shiv Ling with water and milk. She would then do a small ‘aarti’ and finally blow the conch shell to signal the end of the ritual. This was the routine every morning. It used to take about an hour and half to complete the pujo!
It was from that time that I seemed to be drawn towards spirituality and our holy books. I used to buy small images of various gods and goddesses and keep them with me. I also got to read the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharat during the summer holidays. Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, the grandfather of legendary film maker Satyajit Ray has written wonderful books for children which contain detailed accounts from all the holy scriptures. They were written for children, yet they were fantastically detailed and used to fill me with an ethereal sense of happiness and profound knowledge.
I read through Ramayana and Mahabharat almost one after the other. In fact, I was reading the Mahabharat while the television series was still being telecast. But somehow, even at that small age, I found Mahabharat enormously more interesting than Ramayana.
Ramayana is a good story nevertheless, it has a lot to teach us but somehow I didn’t find the character of Rama to be as glorious as it is portrayed. I somehow couldn’t digest the way Rama treated Seeta and sent her away to the forest just to allay doubts of a lone washer man about her chastity and character. Though, many pundits have come up with remarkable explanations for this act, I still do not find any semblance of logic behind such a harsh step. Another incident which raises questions in my mind is the time when Seeta after being rescued from Ravana is asked by Rama to step into the holy pyre to prove her chastity. I somehow couldn’t and probably still can’t find any reason behind these acts of Rama.
An interesting story that I had learnt later was that before leaving for Panchavati, Rama had asked the Fire God, Agni to keep the ‘original’ Seeta under his protection. The 'Seeta' who went with Rama and Lakshman to the forest was just a ‘reflection’ of the original Seeta. So, when ‘this’ Seeta was rescued from the evil Ravana, through the holy pyre, the Fire God merely returned the original Seeta back to Rama. Nice story! But somehow it seems that it has only been cooked up only to prove that Rama could never do anything wrong to anyone. I am not saying that Rama does not deserve to be called great, I only wish that he could have been a little more human and not so 'divine'.
Getting to Mahabharat, the story is a marvelous piece. It has dealt with every human emotion in a way that no other book has, or ever will. Right from the marriage of King Shantanu to Ganga to Yudhisthir’s entry into heaven, the story is a fantastic tapestry of happiness, sorrow, success, defeat, avarice, enmity, envy and most importantly eternal knowledge. Knowledge - which is so profound that it remains relevant to this very day even after thousands of years. When I read the story for the first time, I was fascinated to know that the writer Ved Vyas himself is part of the story. He makes several appearances throughout the entire narrative – the most important aspect being that he is the biological father of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, whose sons the Kauravas and the Pandavas fought each other in the bloody battle of Kurukshetra. He makes an appearance once again much later and warns Draupadi to ‘take care’ of her hair as a subtle warning of her impending disrobing in the Kuru Sabha!
There are so many characters and incidents to talk about from the Mahabharat but the few characters that have had a lasting impact on me are Draupadi, Arjuna and Krsna!
Draupadi is perhaps the only woman in Indian mythology who chose to live life by her own standards and refused to be treated as an object. When she is dragged to court in order to be humiliated, she questions each of her five husbands about her plight. None of them can answer her questions. She takes a vow not to tie her hair unless the blood of Dushyasan is brought to her to wash off her humiliation. Draupadi is fiery, she is the epitome of womanhood. She proves her fiery nature when she asks Bheem to kill Keechak, the brother-in-law of the King of Viraat, for being lusty towards her. She proves that it is a woman who can either make or break a family, an entire race or a community. She proves without a shred of doubt that societies or people who do not respect women as equals are doomed for utter destruction.
The unique chemistry between Arjuna and Krsna is delightful. They are friends and yet Arjuna regards Krsna as his Guru. When Arjuna’s mind is restless just before the great war, he asks Krsna for guidance and thereby we receive from Krsna the teachings of Geeta! Geeta is not just a book, it is a way of life. It exhorts every human being to strive to be free from 'Maya' - the all pervading film of foolish emotions which baffles us everyday, to regard happiness and sorrow with the same feelings, to believe that death is inevitable and that it is not the end but a new beginning, to believe in doing one's own Karma and not to worry about the results, to strive to achieve salvation and getting rid of the cycles of birth, misery and death. It's a wonderful song that gives us enough to ponder and act on for the rest of our lives.
There are many small stories and parables in Mahabharat from which we can learn a lot. I sometimes feel very glad and proud that we as a generation have grown up seeing the Ramayana and the Mahabharat on TV. We may not know the inherent meaning of everything in the great epics but at least we do know the stories themselves. I do feel pity for the children of today. They are perpetually surrounded by computers and gadgets and are gradually turning into mechanized beings. They would probably never get to know about these wonderful stories from our past in as much detail or with as much attention as we did. Who could have ever imagined that kids of today would have to learn about HanuMan through a cartoon? And for many of them, he is not even a form of God anymore, he is just a superhero like SpiderMan or SuperMan. :-) But I guess, times have changed a lot. Kids have so many options for entertainment now that we cannot expect them to sit through over 100 episodes of Ramayana and Mahabharat. May be cartoons are the only way out! I just wish that the young parents of today would at least find some time in educating their kids by telling them stories from these wonderful epics from time to time. Maybe that's how our scriptures will pass on to the coming generations and fill their lives with eternal knowledge and bliss.