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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

SYMBOLS AND SUBSTANCE

Part 1: Introduction

(Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana, I am writing the following essays for the benefit of anyone, adult or child, Hindu or non-Hindu, who may be interested in learning about symbolism in the Vedic religion. I hope this explains why we have so many “gods” in the Hindu pantheon. I hope it also helps remove the misconceptions about idol worship in general)

There are approximately 1 million people of Indian origin living in North America. A recent survey indicates that approximately 5 million people of Indian origin are dispersed all over the world. Approximately 80 % of them follow the Vedic tradition. (Please note that I did not use the word “Hindu” here. The word Hindu did not come into use till the 18th century.) We are uprooted, but we need to keep our roots wet and fertilized, because as Tagore said “emancipation from the roots is not freedom for the tree”. Besides “We can but give only two things to our children: First, the Roots; next, the Wings”.

Children of “Hindu” parentage born and raised outside of India (my children included) often question the symbols and rituals of our tradition. In the early 1970’s, when my children were young they wondered why we do not go to a temple when their friends went to the church or the synagogue; wondered why they had to wear “thilak”; why we did not celebrate Christmas but celebrated Diwali. They asked me probing questions. They asked me about the forms and idols we worship. I had to find out why.

My studies ended in the completion of a book on Symbols and Substance. I wrote this book several years back. Two of these chapters were even published. Then, the Journal in which they were published went out of business. Since my intention is to reach all children of all traditions I decided to publish these essays at this website.

In the following essays, I take up the Hindu pantheon of Gods, one at a time and explain the philosophical meaning behind each one of these forms. There are many explanations to choose from, some deeper than others. I chose the simple ones and kept my explanations brief. I have also added the sources that explain the philosophical meanings. You may know other interpretations of these forms. Please share them with me.

If the following essays help our children understand the meaning of the images, forms and rituals of our tradition, this effort was worthwhile. Before I describe the individual forms, I wish to make some general comments.

The vedic tradition says that the Almighty is ONE, by whatever name we call IT. It is not possible for most of us, particularly children, to meditate on a Formless, Absolute, abstract entity called BRAHMAN. Ordinary men and women need an object, a sound, or something to focus on. In order to help grasp the formless Brahman, the wise sages of India gave a form - many forms - to the formless. The vedic teaching suggests that we latch on to a favorite deity (in the form of a “vigraha” or “moorthy”) for prayer and meditation; and once we have reached a certain level, it asks us to go beyond the form to the formless.

The tradition also concedes that men and women differ in their tastes and temperaments. Let us take the example of buying a car, a personal automobile. I like blue or green color. You may like red or black or harvest gold. I like Toyota. You may like BMW. Similarly you may like a big bellied, elephant-headed Ganesha; I may like the mischievous, playboy in the form of Krishna. Therefore, the tradition created these images of Gods and built elaborate stories (“puranas”) about each one of these deities, so that you can develop a relationship. At the same time, there are deep philosophical meanings about every detail of each one of the deities. This book is about some of the Forms of the Formless and the Substance behind these Forms.

Several people helped me in preparing this book. I would like to make special mention of the following: Nagam Atthreya, my brother, for stimulating my interest and his friend, the late Mr.C.S.Swaminathan, who suggested I help my children understand our traditions; the late Mr.R.Ramachandhran of the TVS Group of Companies, Madurai who provided all the photographs; the late Mr.G.V.Pillai, a Tamil scholar and a sage who verified the accuracy of my descriptions and added to them.

A special thanks to my children (Bama, Hari and Sheela who are in their early 40’s) who made me learn about my own tradition and Ramaa who made me share this with all the children of the world.

A final plea: in this age of fundamentalism, let us celebrate our tradition. But let us not deny others their freedom to celebrate theirs. Let us not become fanatic. Let us remember that Vedic Dharma (it is NOT a religion) and Tolerance are synonymous. The Vedic teachings say: “There is only one truth; people call it by different names”.

The next essay will be on Lord Ganesha.

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