A moment of truth by the temple steps: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
We need to dust up ‘daan punya’ as a value worth keeping from the olden times, and remember how very politely Ram behaved, even with Ravan.
We’re headed to the close of Jyeshtha, which is the third month of the Indian civil calendar and the second in the Vaishnava calendar. Thursday was the occasion of the monthly Sankranti or solar transition between constellations, in this case the Mithuna Sankranti.
The ancient rituals for Jyestha, one of the hottest months of the year, include much bathing and fasting. But the personal plan comes with a social advisory: to acquire daan punya or merit through charity to those in our radar who could use a bit of luck and a helping hand.
This thought struck me forcefully when I saw a well-fed young man roughly say “Hutt (Shove off)”, to an old beggar cowering near the Ram Mandir behind Khan Market in Delhi. He had strolled out of the temple ferociously daubed with red powders. But the darshan and the charanamrit had clearly not overflowed in him.
Was this a case of taking too literal an interpretation of Goswami Tulsidas’s advisory for spiritual health, I wondered. What an awful irony, if so.
The 16th-century author of the Ramcharitmanas wrote his ‘people’s Ramayana’ in the everyday dialect of his region to simplify matters for the common man. Tulsidas, as noted by Ramayana scholars, observed in his day that the public was prone to be easily impressed and misled by all kinds of fantastical ascetics and their doctrines.
He disapproved of yogis who grew long nails, bound their hair in coils, wore strange, frightening ornaments and, so to speak, dressed for the fairground.
He is noted as saying in another work, the Vinayaka Patrika, ‘Bahumat muni bahu panth puranani, jahan-tahan jhagaro so (The seers profess many opinions, there are many old stories about many paths to salvation, and there are quarrels all over the place)’.
He submitted that real religion was much less complicated, that it was a direct connection between a soul and God, whom he was personally taught by his guru to see as Ram.
Therefore, Tulsidas’s repeated spiritual advisory for people living out their lives in this particular Kalyug was brief and straightforward: “Kalyug jog na jagya na gnana / Ek aadhar Ram gun gaana (In Kalyug, neither austerity, nor sacrifice nor deep knowledge is required / Singing in praise of Ram is the only path to salvation)’.
The public could not resist the triple impact of the simplicity of Tulsi’s case, the heartbreaking appeal of Valmiki’s story that Tulsi retold with his own twists like the Lakshman rekha incident, and Tulsi’s poetry, which seemed simple but was in fact profoundly musical and meaningful. The history of religion in North India changed forever with the Ramcharitmanas.
But had the message got lost in the 21st century, I found myself thinking, as I took in the momentary tableaux that flashed before me – the exit, the hesitant hand, the rebuke, the retreat, the strut-past.
Surely we need to dust up ‘daan punya’ as a value worth keeping from very olden times, and remember, even if we can’t or won’t give anything, how very politely Ram behaved, even to Ravan.
(The views expressed are personal)