Roj Amardad Mah Adar, 1386 Yz.
Very often we hear the phrases “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious; I don’t believe in rituals and ceremonies; God lives in my heart; just be a good person; it’s not necessary to wear Sudreh kusti…” These clever words are often used by celebrities and the general public. For many such persons, ceremonies and rituals are a later day addition to the pristine ‘Gatha only’ religion formulated by Zarathushtra.
But there also exists a number of people who have experienced the power of prayers and rituals first hand. While going through the old Parsi Avaz issues I came across a very interesting story of the power of ceremonies where the protagonists were not Parsis, but Hindus. This story appeared in the Diwali 1954 issue of a popular Gujarati magazine called ‘Kismet’, written by Anil Vyas and was chanced upon many years later by the pious and highly erudite Udvada priest Ervad Dinshaw Kavasji Sidhwa. Ervad Sidhwa, or ‘D Kavasji’ as he was popularly called, sent the story along with a foreword to Jehangirji Chiniwala, the editor of Parsi Avaz who promptly printed it in the issue dated 9th August 1970. The following is a free English rendering of the account, along with some of my own explanatory notes.
The author, Mr. Vyas was in touch with two exceptional brothers, both priests with a scholarly bent of mind. The elder, called Chandresh was a profound Sanskrit scholar with a fabulous memory, capable of reciting any verse from the four Vedas after the prompt of the first few syllables. He stayed in Chanod, near Valsad and travelled extensively to perform rituals for many clients.
The younger brother, called Kapilabhai, or Kapil, was also a Sanskrit scholar who had moved to Kashi (Varanasi) and settled there in academic life. As a ranking scholar, he held a high position at the Benaras Hindu University and for some time served as a professor at Calcutta University.
It so happened that Mr. Vyas needed to get performed some ceremonies for a deceased relative. Being in touch with Kapilabhai who had arrived at Mr. Vyas’s place for some other work, he requested the formidable scholar, who was also a qualified Brahmin priest to perform the ceremonies.
On the appointed day, they gathered at home to perform the rituals. Mr. Vyas began chatting with Kapilabhai as he began making the preparations for the rites. A seemingly ‘rational’ man, Mr Vyas asked Kapilabhai: ‘please excuse my directness, but as a profound scholar, how do you reconcile performing these arcane rites with your academic brilliance? I mean, how do we know whether these ceremonies really help? What is the proof?’
Kapilabhai, probably used to these sort of questions, finished his preparations and then sat down to recount a story to Mr. Vyas.
‘Many years ago’ began Kapilabhai, ‘I was residing in Varanasi and immersed in my studies. Everyday, before sunrise, I would walk from my residence to the Manikarnika Ghat (the largest and most famous of the cremation ghats in Varanasi, where, orthodox Hindus believe, cremating a person frees him from the cycle of birth and death.) At the Ghat, I would perform my morning ablution and then pray the Surya Namaskar, while standing in the Holy Ganga. The Ghat was functional around the clock and many families would be there, performing the last rites of some relative. On the way from my residence to the Ghat, there was a small hut which was used as a temporary residence by many ascetics and Sadhus as they visited Varanasi and stayed there for a few days before proceeding on their endless roaming throughout the country, from one place of pilgrimage to another.
‘One day, as I was making my way to the Ghat from home, I saw a Sadhu standing at the entrance of the hut. I immediately stopped and bowed low before him. He returned my greeting with a bow and smile and I made my way to the Ghat. After my ablution and prayers, as I walked past the hut, I decided to meet the new Sadhu. I went in and introduced myself and we started talking. I came to know that the mendicant had descended from the Himalayas and was here for a few days pilgrimage.
‘Over the next few days, I developed a friendship with the Sadhu and after my work was over, I would go and sit with him and we would talk about our studies and experiences. In this manner, we became quite friendly with each other. Every morning, as I passed the hut I would shout out my salutation: ‘Jai Mahadev!’ and he would reply from inside ‘Jai Mahadev!’
‘One day I passed the hut and made the customary salutation but didn’t get an answer. Thinking the Sadhu might be engrossed in prayers I proceeded to the Ghat. As I performed my ablution, I saw a family had come to the Ghat to perform a cremation. But it was not a normal cremation. It was a ‘Putli Vidhan.’ [When a Hindu goes missing, and despite best efforts he is not found, then after a period of 12 years, it is advised to perform his after death ceremonies. In such cases, a small doll is made out of Kusha grass and this is cremated, in absence of the physical body. All other funeral rites are then conducted.] The old parents, a grieving wife and a young son, about 12 went through the ceremonies and cremated the doll, in lieu of the body of their son/husband/father who had gone missing more than 12 years ago. They were Brahmins from the Punjab and had come to Varanasi to specially perform these rites.
‘As I walked back, I checked inside the hut to see whether the Sadhu was there. He was sitting there but looking uneasy. I inquired and he said that he was feeling intense agony and acidity throughout his body. He was quite in distress. I advised him to eat something cool like yogurt or butter milk to ease the burning, and promised to inquire about his health the next day.
‘The next morning, as I passed the hut I made the customary salutation of ‘Jai Mahadev’ and to my relief the answer came through immediately. As I reached the Ghat, I saw that the same family who had performed the grass doll cremation were today feeding the Brahmins a feast of kheer, puris and savories as part of the concluding practice for the cremation.
‘I finished my prayers and went to the hut to inquire about the Sadhu’s health. He was looking much better today and said: ‘yes the burning has gone but despite not having eaten anything since yesterday, I’m feeling extremely bloated. For some queer reason I can feel the taste of kheer and puri on my tongue…’’
‘For a minute I kept quiet but then could not control myself. I bowed deeply and said: ‘forgive me, your holiness for my indiscretion, but can I ask you about your life before taking the vows of renunciation? The Swami looked at me with kindness and replied: ‘what is there to apologize for? When one has renounced the world, nothing of this sort matters. What is there to talk about family and the material world?’ he smiled.
‘I apologize again, my lord, but I would never dream of asking such a personal question yet I can’t control myself due to what I saw at the Ghat yesterday and today and not somehow link the two in my most fervent imagination. If I have your permission, I would like to recount the incident…
‘The Swami smiled and nodded his assent. ‘Yesterday’ I began, I saw a family at the Ghat in the morning. They had come from Punjab – an elderly couple, their daughter in law and a young grandson. They had lost their son in some mysterious circumstance and had never heard of him since more than 12 years. Being devout Brahmins, they had decided to perform the after death ceremonies for their son, since the 12 year waiting period had got over. As they paid the priests who made the doll out of Kusha grass and set it alight I came to your hut to inquire about your health and you described the burning sensation in your body. This morning, the family fed the Brahmins at the Ghat kheer, puri and savouries as part of the concluding rites. And as I came to see you, you describe a bloating feeling in your stomach and the taste of kheer and puri on your tongue. Forgive me, holy one, but it seems to be too much of a coincidence… Please forgive my audacity, swamiji… ‘
‘The Sadhu said nothing but sat straight, his eyes burning holes in my body. At any moment I expected to hear some violent curse or worse… Suddenly he got up and with a curt ‘remain seated here’, left the hut, walking purposefully, with long strides, towards the Manikarnika Ghat. He returned some minutes later, but there was a change. He seated himself in the lotus position and to my surprise, there were tears in his eyes. For some time he struggled to regain composure, but then the years of training took over. He dried his eyes and in a soft voice, began a most singular story… ‘
‘You were right, my friend. There is, indeed a connection between what you saw at the Ghat and what I experienced. The family you saw were none other than my own beloved parents, my loving wife and my son… oh, how he has grown! Yes, they had come to perform my after-death rites, because since they day I left them and took renunciation, they have never heard from me, and rightly, they must have concluded that I had passed away… I saw them just as they were leaving the Ghat to return to Punjab…
‘But, I exclaimed, ‘didn’t you meet them? Couldn’t you have eased their pain and given them one last chance to see their son/husband/father? How could you let them go?… ‘
‘Oh how I wanted to meet them, to fall at the feet of my parents, to console my wife, to hug my son…’ the Swami said, in a voice that crackled with emotion, but which also contained an ice cold steelness. ‘But then I thought, will I be able to leave them? Or will the bonds of love and family drag me into the material life once again, what then of my rigors and tapasya over these last 12 years… No! I could not do that. Standing there, a few meters away from them, I folded my hands and bowed down low to all of them, one last time, and then with my hand on my heart and chanting ‘Hari Om’ on my lips, I turned back, taking large breaths and invoking the practice of pranayam to quell my throbbing heart.’ Saying so, the Sadhu moved his finger over his lips, so as to seal them forever, and made a low bow to me.
‘I bowed back deeply, both chastened and ashamed that my outspokenness had so affected this holy man. But my mind kept thinking… here was the chance that nature put before the Sadhu… a chance to meet his family again one last time, to enable him to quell the thousand questions that his parents must have asked about their son, those hundreds of nights his wife must have laid in the cold bed and wondered when her loved one would return, the tumultuous thoughts of his son as his friends must have asked ‘where is your father?’… All that on one hand and the vows of renunciation… of giving up everything for the Lord, to break all material bonds and ties, to take Him as the be all and end all… to forever lose oneself in the Immortal Mysteries of Time and Consciousness… what must be the strength of this man, what emotions must have played in his heart, and how deeply he must have felt as he made his choice… I could do no more than fall at his feet and ask for forgiveness.’
‘He merely looked at me and it was obvious that the time for conversation was over. I left him, deeply immersed in my own thoughts at the most extraordinary turn of events.’
‘The next morning I passed the hut and made the customary salutation: ‘Jai Mahadev!’ but there was no reply. I went in to check but the hut was empty. For the next few days I kept checking, but Swamiji had departed. I never saw him again…
‘So, Anil bhai, to answer your question, yes ceremonies do have an effect. They are not meaningless gestures, nor are they methods of enriching priests. They are Spiritual Kinetics of the highest level, means for attuning our mundane lives with the the great cosmic events that unfold every minute and second. From that day on, I never questioned rituals and ceremonies, and whenever called, I perform them with the greatest seriousness and devotion. You can understand that the doll of grass was not the Swami’s body and yet the ceremony had such a profound effect on him! There is more to religion and rituals than we can ever underrstand. In my mind, I always wonder where the Swamiji must be. Wherever he may be, may he progress ahead and may he bless us!’ Kapilabhai concluded.
Readers of Frashogard, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know! Nature’s mysteries are all encompassing. In my years of priesthood I have experienced many events which might be difficult to believe for a rational mind. But after years of validation, there is no doubt in my mind as to the effectiveness and utility of all our ceremonies and prayers. Devotion, love and faith can conquer the most difficult of situations. This story, recounted so simply by the scholar, show that college degrees and scholastic achievements, rather than helping, can actually be a hindrance to our spiritual progress. Our community is highly educated but lacking in faith and devotion. May we all develop faith and expand our consciousness.
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram