Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Puja Chronicles: the memory and the questions blend ...

Be it Deepabali/Diwali or, Halloween, the fearful and the dreadful are not kept at a distance. Each is a celebration of the duality of existence - of light and of darkness. The legends behind each is varied. The legends associated with Diwali include the mythical return of Rama to his kingdom after a period of 14 years; the mythical slaying of the demon Narakasura by Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu); the return of Bali (the demon-god slayed by another incarnation of Vishnu- Vamana) from the nether-world, to dispel ignorance; the celebration of goddess Lakshmi and that of goddess Kali. Each of the myths involves the victory of good over evil, light being the symbol of wisdom, knowledge, wealth and goodness. 

Of all the rituals that I have seen, I feel intrigued by three specific rituals. 
The first is the act of praying to the goddess Alakshmi (see the post regarding this here). 

The second is the the lighting of the 14 lamps on the eve of Deepabali, which is said to be a custom that started when lamps were lit as the mythical Rama returned to his kingdom after 14 years. I didn't know of this myth for a long time and created a significance of it in my mind. I believed (and continue to do so) that the 14 lamps lit somehow signify the 14 generations of ancestors who preceded me. I had no idea of myths involving Halloween celebrations then. In the presence of the pumpkin being 'Halloweenified' by K_ and A_, I thought of looking up the legend behind the celebrations.

I was in for a surprise when I realised that the legend of remembering the ancestors, that I had thought of as the explanation of the 14 lamps-lighting ceremony as a child, is eerily linked to the beginning of the custom of Halloween celebrations! Traced backed to the Celtic custom of celebrating Samhain, Halloween has its origins in the belief that on this day of the year, the border between this world and the Otherworld becomes thin allowing the passage of spirits into the human world. The spirits that could harm were repelled by carving out hollowed faces in turnips (pumpkin was adopted at a later stage for the same function) and placing them at the entrance of the house/ at windows; and, by wearing costumes that were repelling. The lamp placed within the hollowed turnip/pumpkin is symbolic of the souls in purgatory. 

It left me perplexed and humbled to feel that the Alakshmi, the 14 lamps and the carved face on the pumpkin on Halloween are connected by this inherent idea that the positive and the negative co-exist simultaneously. Life is not a shade of black and white. When the prayer to Alakshmi is offered, the act is that of humble request to the 'goddess of misfortune' to leave. When the Halloween pumpkin is lit with a candle, it is not to ward off the spirits of one's ancestors. Goodness and evil, darkness and light, hope and frustration (and all the antithetical ideas that can occur in your mind) co-exist in a strange sense of simultaneity. 

The idea of simultaneity is also evoked in the act of worshipping goddess Kali, which is the third ritual that intrigues me during this festive days. Kali has a terrifying form. The mythology of Kali is beyond the scope of the blog. You could have a look at  the wikipedia article on Kali. To an individual who does not understand the complex symbolism, Kali appears to me to be the confluence of all the oppositional ideas. When in the battlefield, the mother goddess, in the form of Kali is fierce. Her form can repel an individual. All that the mind tutors to believe as bad and ugly is present in her form. In popular iconography of Kali, she is naked; her tongue hanging out as she steps on her husband, Siva; she wears a garland of severed heads; and carries in her two hands a sword like weapon called kharga, a severed head while the other two are in the abhaya mudra (a gesture bestowing fearlessness) and varada mudra (a gesture bestowing blessings). She is usually depicted as dark skinned. The apparent opposites blend in this iconography. The violence of expression cohabits with the benevolence of bestowing blessings. 

It is possibly this simultaneity of the opposing forces/worlds that makes Little Miss Muffet of the household so excited to celebrate Halloween. In her innocence, she does not find the difference between what the adult world would designate as 'good' and 'evil'. Perhaps, this is the wisdom, that, inclusivity is more potent than exclusivity; maybe,this is the 'light' that dispels the 'darkness' of prejudice.
As the season of Halloween and Diwali passes this year, this humble blogger continues her journey towards that light ... an apprentice journeying to realise the celebration of that 'sound' which was 'noise' before....

Image: candles lit at the Esztergom Cathedral in Esztergom, Hungary @ self.


ArijitPaul said...

Good one. It reinforces my belief, that no matter who we are, where we live, what is our past and what is our present, fundamentally we all are alike. We all have the same passions, same fears, same joys, same tears. Only the facade changes. Halloween or Deepawali, behind the facade of ritual it is the same.

Susmita said...

@Arijit: you said it so crisply ... "behind the facade of the ritual it is the same".

Nandini Basu said...

thanks susmita for this post. really well written...but i personally loved the portion about the Black Mother.

Susmita said...

@Nandinidi: i am so intrigued by that icon that i have a feeling i can keep writing on it :) thank u for reading :)

sup said...

Thank "god" I was brought up in a culture where I learnt to appreciate pluralism of gods (including even their non-existence :p) , with all their symbolisms, contradictions, human-like qualities - jealousy and greatness alike. I like the mathematical simplicity of single omnipotent GOD of Islam and Christinity also - But having 330 millon gods (tetrish koti deb-debi) is big fun.:))

-- This is just a light hearted response, not so much related with the mystrey posed here about why we like Kali / Halloween.

Susmita said...

@sup: this comment inspired a forthcoming post :) hence will just say : Thank "gods" :))