What I learnt chasing Foo Dog figurines

Superstition always leads to fear and worry. Or just the opposite may happen too.

The other day a friend visited us. The conversation hovered on Vaastu and Feng Shui for a while. Then we talked about the merits and demerits of following rituals and believing in superstitions. After my friend left, I reflected, with amazement, on how I had grown out of “investing” in Vaastuand Feng Shui. I have nothing against these practices – I strongly believe they are sciences in their own way – or those who follow them. To be sure, I was, until a few years ago, very superstitious and heavily reliant on Vaastuand Feng Shui to determine how – where and with what – I must live.

Once, while on a three-day trip to Bangkok, Vaani and I spent over three-quarters of a day, in Chinatown, searching for Foo Dog figurines. Foo Dogs are the ancient sacred dogs of Asia who guard Buddhist temples – our Feng Shui consultant had advised us to get those figurines so that our home could be “protected”. Imagine, hunting for Foo Dog figurines in Bangkok, when there are possibly so many more entertaining, enriching, energizing things to do in that amazing city?!


Over time, with the practice of daily silence periods, I realized that relying on “external reference points”, however scientific they are or may have then appeared to be to me, are signs of a weak mind, one that is not self-aware. The ones with courage, I discovered, are the ones that know themselves. And if you know yourself, I soon learned to ask myself, why do you need to lean on a crutch __ a talisman, a figurine, a ring or a number? All these crutches are ostensibly to help you navigate better through Life. But Life is not the issue. It is your fear which is weakening you. And the best way to deal with fear is to look it in the eye and face it! These crutches cannot possibly help you face your demons, your fears. Never!

My evolution and learning has also taught me that what scares you often has the power to liberate you. Almost all of us have a good luck charm, a lucky number, and believe in something, often absurd, that we have been conditioned to. Nobody wants to do anything with the number 13 for instance. Or we prefer our favorite colors or numbers. There’s a view some people hold that if you bang into a piece of furniture when you are leaving to get something important accomplished, you must treat that as an early warning sign of something terrible that’s on its way. People that champion a scientific temperament will reason against this, intensely. And which is why those who want to believe in superstitions and premonitions will resist all rational arguments, however reasonable they may be. But here’s a simpler take. If everything is an event in this lifetime, a mere data point, including your birth and your impending death, and since the soul is imperishable, eternal, then what consequence does a furniture that comes in the way or a cat crossing your path or a mere number have?

In anyone’s Life, three things are absolutely inscrutable:  birth, death and soul. Now birth is without choice, death is unavoidable and the soul is not visible. What else is important when these three dimensions of your Life are beyond your control? When I look back, I feel that being superstitious, being ritualistic and being wedded to mere methods does make you fearful. And lonely. When I let go of whatever was controlling me, I felt free.

Enjoy being liberated. It’s a beautiful world out there. A stumble here, a fall there, a number here and a cat there, nor Foo Dogs figurines at your door, can make no difference to you, if you choose to feel the air in your lungs, being present in this – the only certain, happening, available, magnificent, miraculous – moment of your Life! 

Death is a celebration: accept it when it comes calling!

Death is not something negative. There’s no point in you fearing it. It is the only constant about Life!
Ever since my father-in-law’s passing away a few days ago, there have been scores of rituals that the family is being asked to follow. I am not ritualistic but in the context of the extended family’s preferences, I am having to live with whatever’s going on. I find it particularly ridiculous that people want to ‘purify’ our living space (my father-in-law passed away at our home). The reason given is that the ‘negativity of death’ needs to be driven out of home so that we can live without its ‘ghastly shadow’ looming over us. So, we will go through an elaborate ritual that will, in the sweltering heat of Chennai, leave all of us drained and consume a full day! This is apart from the several days of rituals that my brother-in-law has undertaken to perform as part of the obsequies.
I see all this as avoidable. I am not saying that rituals don’t have meaning. They may be very well-intentioned. But I would much rather celebrate the departed person’s Life than conduct rituals. For instance, my father-in-law was a career teacher. It would warm his soul surely if an endowment to educate needy children was set up in his name and memory. My wife and I had set up one in my mother-in-law’s memory a few years ago – but owing to our bankrupt situation, we have had to pause the activities. If we had the means, this is what we would like to do for my father-in-law too. And let me hasten to add that rituals don’t come cheap anymore – and rightly so; after all priests are also knowledge workers and so their time and inputs must be duly compensated. But the moot question is – do we want to do something that no one enjoys, understands or will remember or do we want to invest in a creating a lasting legacy that will remain a celebration of the departed person’s Life?
Also, how can a navagraha homam (an elaborate ritual to appease the nine planets) drive away the shadow of death; how can it ‘purify’ a living space of death’s ‘influence and negative energy’? Also, why is death seen as a negative event or energy? The unalterable reality is that death is always an integral part of every Life. The moment you are born, your death is waiting for you. The truth is we are all speeding towards our death – albeit at different speeds. You can’t escape death. You can’t avoid it. You can’t postpone it. It is your most logical, inevitable, destination. And death may perhaps not even be an end. As the proponents of the law of karma believe, death may just be the beginning of yet another, unknown, journey. By fearing death, by imagining it to be a negative aspect of your Life, you are only being immature and unintelligent.
I also find the entire gamut of rituals very discriminative and gender-biased. I had a rather ugly debate with the priest when he would not allow my daughter – my father-in-law’s only grandchild available at the time of the last rites being performed at my place – to light the fire to be taken to the cremation ground. The priest’s argument that women must not participate in the funeral rites and that they must not visit the crematorium did not cut any ice with me or with my wife and daughter. They did go to the crematorium to see off my father-in-law. And I am proud that they went ahead and did what they believed in!  
My personal view is that the only necessary process to be undergone when someone dies is the act of cremation or burial. Beyond that we must ideally spend every resource in celebrating that person’s Life. Investing in rituals because you hope to drive away or keep at bay the influence of death is a redoubtable choice. As Osho, the Master says, “Death is not an enemy. It is a friend. It is an absolute necessity for Life to be.” Isn’t it beautiful? It surely inspires me to live Life celebrating death and accept it when it comes calling!

Of God, Prayer and Rewards

Prayer in the purest sense is an expression of gratitude for all that you have and is an offering, of anything, including yourself, to the Universe.
I know someone who is never available for any conversation or meetings. Every time we try to connect with him he’s either at work (which is for about 5 hours a day) or he is performing poojas, worshipping. He’s runs a small business and by his own admission, performs 8 prayer rituals a day, in three spells, over 12 hours. Is he happy, I asked him one day. “Hardly. Business is tough. A lot of money is stuck with debtors. I am continuously in prayer trying to seek a way out,” he said.
To each, his or her own way. Especially in matters concerning faith and prayer. But Zen offer a beautiful perspective on prayer. And it is worth understanding and thinking about.
Zen Buddhism says that true prayer is when no petition, no wish, is made, when no assistance is sought, but when mindfulness is practised. Through such practice, you offer whatever you have, a flower, an incense stick, or maybe even yourself, to something higher than yourself. What can be and is greater than you? Creation. Creation is the higher energy. So, offering yourself to Creation, makes you be one with the Universe. When you offer yourself you are expressing your gratitude for your creation and everything that you have. You are saying – “You created me. Thanks. I am offering everything I have, mindfully, consciously, with all my being, to you.” That’s when you truly unite with the Universal energy and are soaked in its brilliance and abundance.
The popular notion that prayer is an appeal to an “external, invisible” God is a by-product of how religion has come to be practised over many centuries. Maharishi Patanjali had demystified this in one of his works, perhaps at the beginning of the Common Era, where he equated God to be a mere clothes peg. Just as you would hang a coat on a clothes peg on the wall, we have been taught to pray looking to a “non-existent” God. He says, God is an invention, because, if God isn’t there, who will you pray to? But just as you would have learnt to hang your coat elsewhere if there were no clothes peg, you must learn the value of prayer, and develop the ability to pray, in the purest, truest sense. When you pray, as a means of complete surrender to Creation, then you don’t need a God, you are the prayer and you are one with who you pray to. God, he says is for beginners. Like when you are learning cycling, you need the small wheels on either side of the bicycle’s rear wheel to help you balance. But once you have mastered cycling, you don’t need those two small wheels jutting out – you discard them and that helps you ride freely. So, it is with prayer. The more you learn to pray, unconditionally, humbly, as a thanksgiving, the more peaceful you become.
True prayer is totally non-ritualistic and non-demanding. It imposes no conditions. It asks for nothing from you – not your time, not your offerings. You don’t need to fast nor do you need to give up or abstain from anything! It is not what you do out of fear (that God will punish you if you don’t pray) or out of greed (I want this or that – grant me my wish!). It is always about being in the moment. The moment that you choose to offer your gratitude to Creation for all that you have and are endowed with – that moment itself is your prayer. You can be anywhere in that moment – you could even be seated on the potty! Also, there is no price to be paid in prayer and there are no rewards to be claimed. When you pray, you pray. And that prayerful moment, when gone through with all humility and gratitude, is itself the reward, the treasure, the fortune!