There is an old proverb: What we really know is only a hand full; what we need to know and learn about, is as large as the world! I was reminded of this adage recently, when my friend sent me the following two episodes in the life of a 20th century saint in India.
This saint is well known for his wisdom. True to his monastic way of life, he also practiced several traditions and rituals. One such tradition is giving a tea spoon of holy water to each of the devotees at the end of his daily prayer services. The rituals required him to offer the holy water only for those who had stayed within the land or had not crossed the ocean! Clearly such tradition rules out all those who are immigrants and living abroad! This is exactly the thought that crossed my mind, when I first heard the story. Hold your thoughts in check and let us continue. Some times there is a tendency to look for reasons for specific actions and their justification or argue endlessly on its right and wrong. Let us also put a brake to such instant analysis, rationalizing or condemnation! One day the saint was visited by the famous Indian classical musician, Mrs. M.S. Subbalakshmi. She had just returned from U.S. after her very famous and successful concert at the United Nations. This was recognized as a major accomplishment of great pride to all Indians, at that time. But the famous musician – popularly known as M.S. – had indeed crossed the ocean. Every one wondered how the saint would honor this jewel from India and yet keep faith to his ritual! As M.S. approached the saint, he broke open a coconut, and offered the fresh, sweet coconut water to her as his blessing for the day, while saying, “Holy water and coconut water – what is the difference? They are all God’s creation”.
Some of you may not be at ease with the above situation and the way the saint handled his predicament. There could be those, who might argue, why did the saint not change the ritual? After all, local, foreign, those lived within the shores, those who crossed the shores, are they not all equal in the eyes of the God? You have to find your own answers. Truthfully, I had similar thoughts and conflicts in my mind as well. That was until I heard the following story, also from my friend. After hearing the second story, I reminded to myself, on the limits of what we know and the old adage, I mentioned earlier. The second story:
On another occasion, an old acquaintance was visiting the saint. This visitor, a freedom fighter, was blind since he had lost his eye sight during a brutal attack by the British, during his freedom struggles for India. On this day, he had come to pay respects to the saint, after many years. But, it was also the day when the saint was observing his vow of silence! Another ritual and yet another predicament! It is also the tradition that the saint can not be touched by any one. That is the life of a renounced saint. As the old man approached nearby and was introduced, the saint broke his silence, called out to the blind man by his name and engaged in a short but pertinent conversation with him. Then he resumed his vow of silence! All his followers were dumb founded. They had never seen the saint violate his traditions and rituals so blatantly. Next day, one brave soul asked the saint about his breaking the rules. The saint replied, “You see, the visitor was a blind man. He can not touch me, because of my chosen way of life. How else could he know he was with me? After all he has taken the trouble to visit me, at this old age and despite his blindness, after years of service in the struggle for freedom for the nation. Is it not God’s nature to be kind to such people and in such situation?”
Traditions and rituals evolve over a period of time, suitable for and consistent with the way of living at that time. One needs to learn the principles behind them and adhere to them. As time and circumstances change, there is always room to live within the traditions or modify them, consistent with the principles behind them. Following the rituals blindly is foolishness. But, ridiculing rituals because of our lack of knowledge of the principles behind them is not wise either! It is truly a matter of how much we know and how much we seek to learn.
The above are two stories from the life of Sri Chandrakesarendra Saraswathi, Jagadguru Chandrashekarendra Saraswati Swamigal (Tamil: சந்திரசேகரேந்திர சரஸ்வதி சுவாமிகள்) (May 20, 1894 – January 8, 1994) or the Sage of Kanchi was the 68th Jagadguru in the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. He is usually referred to as Paramacharya or MahaSwami or Maha Periyavaal.
One final note: It is easy to be judgmental based on an incident, a statement or certain situation. Our limited knowledge and rituals and expectations blind us from stepping back and looking at the big picture. When we do, there is a beautiful picture that is much more meaningful than the pixel. With out such reflection, we are likely to get stuck on the pixel – on a specific incident, episode, statement, ritual, etc. – and miss out on the beautiful picture, the true joy of life. One can over come such pitfall, if we constantly challenge to ask ourselves: How much do I really know?
Even among those who are committed to the principles described in the scriptures, some believe them as the mere literal rules of life. These persons carry out varied rituals, which lead to their joy and wealth, with heaven as their ultimate goal. When practiced with enjoyment and power and future abode as the goals, the words or principles of this nature are neither permanent nor useful. B.G. 2. 42 to 44.
A tank full of water is useful only when there is a need for the water in it. When there is abundance of water every where such as in a flood, the water in the tank – as an isolated source – finds no special use. Similarly, a person of wisdom (learned person of sustained contemplation and analysis) finds himself/herself possessed with knowledge, which far exceeds that found in the literal reading of scriptures. B.G. 2. 46.
What appears to be night (darkness, passive and direction less) for others is a period of awakening for the person of self control (of saintly nature). When every one around is active and anxious, it is a period of quiet inactivity (reflection and contemplation) for the person of self control. B.G. 2. 69.
What a nice story. Yes, being judgmental surely limits us all.
Very nice article Subbu. I always hear complaints about rituals that are being followed in our culture without understanding the reason. I guess many of us hit this wall that prevents us from learning further.