If we can focus on the essence of a religion or ritual, than merely being dogmatic about it, we will awaken.
In response to my blogpost yesterday on the value of remaining detached – both materially and emotionally, a reader reached out to ask me this: “Sir, is the poonal (the cotton thread worn across the shoulder by Brahmin menfolk, who deem it to be ‘sacred’) an attachment? Or is it a ceremonial identity for those born into a sect?”
Now, I am not going to answer this reader’s questions in specific. But I am going to share what I think of being born a Brahmin; and having given up wearing a poonal, what I have understood about being prayerful, being spiritual versus being ritualistic and religious.
I come from a very conservative Palakkad Brahmin, Iyer, (Palaghattan) family. My upanayanam (sacred thread/poonal ceremony) was performed when I was 13. While, for some inexplicable reason, I took to liking the Gayatri Mantra, even though I never understood its meaning then (just to clarify, I never asked for, nor was I taught, its meaning), I loathed the practice of doing sandhyavandanam thrice daily. Looking back, I feel it wasn’t about the practice, it was the draconian manner in which it was forced upon me that got my goat. As an adolescent, I had more worldly, more physical, more spirited matters to deal with in my body and mind, than to explore the spiritual aspect of living. I simply resisted the whole idea of being Brahmin and having to imagine that I was ‘intelligent, exclusive and exalted’.
Here I was, getting the lowest grades in my class – I was in fact thrown out of PSBB, KK Nagar, by the venerable Ms.YGP, for scoring 8/100 in Geometry in a quarterly. So, far from intelligent, I felt like I was a duffer. Second, all I wanted to do was hang out with friends, watch movies, smoke, have girlfriends and talk about and do stuff that all adolescents indulge in. But no. To do any of that was sinful, I was told. Because a. I now wore a poonal and b. I am Brahmin. I began hating the idea of being Brahmin and privileged even more. So, somewhere, along the way, I gave up doing sandhyavandanam (citing time constraints), but the poonal stayed on – possibly because of the fear-your-God-else-you-shall-be-punished orientation that I had received all through my childhood.
I grew older wearing the poonal. I did stuff that was deemed sacrilegious wearing the poonal – which is, I ate non-vegetarian food, drank alcohol, smoked tobacco and had sex! But the poonal stayed on. And, as they say, history, repeats itself. So, at 13, my son, Aashirwad, had his upanayanam. Vaani and I were liberal with him though. He had a choice to wear his poonal or do sandhyavandanam. Nothing was forced on him. And so, he made a choice not to do either! I don’t think I ever sat him down and helped him understand the meaning and significance of the Gayatri Mantra though. Life just went on for all of us.
Over time, thanks to our bankruptcy, and the cathartic experience that we are going through, I leaned more towards spirituality and started moving away from religion and rituals. This journey was smoother for me perhaps because of my early resistance to being a ‘privileged Brahmin’ and my intense distaste for rituals. I preferred to understand Life than be driven by tradition. So, Osho, Rumi, Gurdjieff, Gandhi, Eknath Eswaran, Kabir, Thich Nhat Hanh, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty, Shirdi Baba, Sathya Sai Baba and Vivekananda, appealed to me more than the pantheon of Hindu Gods that I have been brought up propitiating. I understood that Life really meant living, not earning-a-living. And living meant celebrating each moment. I realized that happiness and inner peace were intelligent choices available to each of us and that God is within you and me, who must be loved, not someone who controlled you from the outside and who must be feared.
I understood the real meaning of the Gayatri Mantra. There are several ways it can be explained. But two flavors appeal to me the most:
One, Swami Vivekanananda’s single-line Twitter-friendly version: “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this Universe; may He/She enlighten our minds.” (Note – I added the ‘She’ to this to celebrate gender equality!)
Two, what a sage seeker once shared with me:
“Through the coming and going, and the balance of Life,
the essential nature, which illumines existence, remains.
May all perceive through subtle intellect
the brilliance of enlightenment.”
Consider both versions of the Gayatri Mantra’s meaning. Is there any religion in it? Is there any parochial Brahmin supremacy enshrined in it? Then why, why is it preached, promoted and peddled as a Brahminical virtue?
One night, in the summer of 2011, when Aash was down here in Chennai on vacation, both of us sat down to polish off a bottle of Glenfiddich (that Aash had bought for me from his first part-time job’s salary). The ladies of the house had retired. And soon father and son got talking about Life, Purpose, spirituality, religion, rituals, God and almost everything that remains inscrutable to us mortals. I shared with Aash how much Osho has helped me live a fuller and happier Life. And then I talked about the Gayatri Mantra – sharing the two meanings, that I have presented above, with him. I also told him what I thought of the wasted idea of Brahminism – of how important and relevant just being is compared to being ritualistic and religious.
I then poured myself one more drink, and declared emphatically, that what the world needs more is Humanism, not Brahminism. I said we need no more of religion or rituals but we urgently need compassion and spirituality. Aash stopped me short and said, in a dead-pan tone: “But Dad, you are still wearing your poonal, right? Doesn’t all this sound a bit hypocritical to you?!” I looked back into his eyes. I set my glass down, peeled off the tee-shirt I was wearing, removed my poonal, and politely discarded it in the trashcan in the kitchen!
To me, that night was nirvana, enlightenment, moksha – whatever! That night I detached from an idea that had been bothering me from my adolescence – an idea called Brahminism that was based on religion, community, caste and parochial thought! Since then I have abstained from religion – as it is practiced today – and from all rituals. I feel freer, I feel happier and I feel at peace with myself.
This inner peace and joy helps me deal with my Life much better. In the last 5-odd years I have been enjoying my journey of this lifetime more than I have ever for 44 years before that night. I am so much more happier despite my excruciating material circumstances. Maybe this is the enlightenment that the Gayatri Mantra invites us to embrace. At least this is the essence I have picked up – and I don’t see any reason why the whole world shouldn’t be knowing and learning this!