The tiny bulb burned itself out. And so did her friends. But the night was far darker than all of them combined.
“Oh what’s the point?” they sighed.
“But that IS the point,” said the divine light.
“Darkness will always exist. In the skies above and in lost souls below. It is your duty to burn as brightly as you can, so that even in darkness, the world can navigate.”
The night is long and bitter and it has only begun.
Shine. Shine as bright as you can. Till darkness gives up.
Sometimes life can be frustrating: Perhaps a loved one is unwell. Perhaps your own health is troubling you. Perhaps you miss old friends. Perhaps your manager spoke in an unjust manner… The list of things that can rattle us is endless.
It had been one such frustrating evening, not long ago. Being the night of Kaarthigai Deepam, I tried to put the day behind and hastily set out to make a kolam. It didn’t turn out too well, making me feel even worse. And then I lit a beautiful wax candle. Suddenly, everything seemed to be alright.
There’s something about a flickering flame — be it from an oil lamp, a wax candle, and to certain extent, fairy lights — that brings us happiness. Perhaps that’s why we light lamps at places of worship.
This post is inspired by two posts on Instagram, separated by time and context, and yet connected by light.
One of the strongest memories of my childhood is that of AM Radio. It would begin playing on the ancient transistor even before I woke up. Sanskrit mantras recited by M.S. Subbulakshmi, followed by the railway timetable, and finally, news in Sanskrit that would end with a few beeps. The last of the beeps would be longer than the first few — the clock had struck 7 AM.
I’m not sure if the order of the programs is right. There’s no way for me to verify either. We don’t listen to radio anymore, unless we’re in a car — and even in a car, it’s FM, or a USB stick, or internet radio that’s streaming from a smartphone — not AM.
Back then, on Sundays, the radio played Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — the thousand names of Lord Vishnu. Towards the end of the half-hour long recitation, is a conversation between Goddess Parvati and Lord Vishnu. The Goddess asks, dear Lord, what might a lay person do, in order to pray to you. Not everyone can possibly recite all the thousand names every day. Is there a shortcut to this? And the Lord obliges. He says, repeat this one verse three times, and it is equivalent to reciting all the names. I am paraphrasing, of course.
I learnt this one specific verse very early in my life — long before I learnt about its significance. I learnt it because every single Sunday, at precisely the moment that this verse was recited, I would wake up. One could say, I learnt it by accident, or divine intervention, or coincidence — I leave it to you, to decide, which of these is more accurate.
I don’t think I am very religious — certainly not to the extent my parents or grandparents are. I don’t perform the elaborate pujas that my mother performs. Nor can I recite any of the Sahasranamams the way my grandparents can. But religion does interest me.
True to the stereotypes of TamBrahms, as children, our summer vacations were spent touring temples. We were taught Sanskrit shlokas (couplets / verses), that I can still recall. I was also taught how to perform a basic neyvedyam (sacred offering). I pride myself in knowing what little I do. And I wish to learn the proper neyvedyam that my mom performs on special occasions. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to perform one of those with the camphor flame… But I digress.
What I am trying to say is, I am religious enough to take the shortcut of reciting one verse three times, as opposed to 108 verses.
Over the past few years, I have realised that being religious and being spiritual are not the same thing. Religion, is the path towards spirituality. And spirituality, is the path towards peace of mind. I came to this realisation when, a year into our marriage, Atul began playing a playlist of bhajans.
Knowing him for as long as I did — he who who wasn’t particularly interested in going to temples or explicitly praying — he was playing bhajans.
He wasn’t listening to the lyrics of these songs, he said. The melody just made him feel relaxed. It gave him the peace of mind that is so essential in today’s rage-infused society.
This inclination towards peace of mind, came up again, when he insisted that we visit the temple I frequented. It wasn’t that he did not like visiting temples at all, he said; he just had not found such peace of mind in the ones he had visited before.
Atul is not an atheist. He is spiritual. I began appreciating his world-view, when he said this: I don’t need to go to a temple, or speak a certain language, to speak with my God. And that was also the essence of the verse in Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram — you don’t have to say all the 108 verses. Just one, repeated thrice, was enough. The Lord himself, was giving a shortcut.
Over the past few months, I have begun my own morning ritual — somewhat similar to what my parents did back then. What used to play as clock-work, every morning on AM radio, now plays on an online streaming service, as soon as I wake up (let’s just say, the morning is a spectrum).
As one wise man said to me, language and form shouldn’t come in the way of spirituality and peace of mind. Hence, I will not share my morning invocation playlist with you.
What I will share, though, is another feel-good playlist that focuses on spirituality and peace. Here it goes:
1. Ma Rewa
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
It was during last year’s Indian Ocean Concert (in picture) that I first heard Ma Rewa. I swayed and clapped and danced on this number. It was only later, that I saw the lyrics.
Rewa is another name for the river Narmada. And life-sustaining, as all rivers are, Rewa is called Ma – mother. This song praises the holy river, and apparently, was used as a protest song by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (save the river Narmada). There is enough feminism and rebellion in this to become my week-day alarm.
Growing up, this song, and all the songs by the duo (Leslie Lewis and Hariharan) hit the sweet spot for us, bringing together classical music and English pop. We were such big fans, our parents bought two cassettes(!) of their albums — the only band accorded that multi-cassette honour.
Band: Indian Ocean Album: Kandisa Year: 2000 Language: Aramaic-East Syriac
This song is familiar. I’ve heard this, yes… Alam Alam Alam… I fished out my memories. “It’s Kandisa,” said Eeshta. And just like that, I rediscovered Indian Ocean. There’s a chance you’ve heard it before too. You can thank me later. Also, this my week-end alarm.
Band: Faridkot Album: Ek Year: 2011 Language: Local dialect of Hindi
“You now owe me some songs!” This was the message Sunaina sent, after sharing the album by Faridkot. If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have known about this beautiful album.
From where I sat in the office, I was within earshot of everyone in the office (and yes, I could see folks, before they could see me). I’d asked her for the songs after hearing them on her work-station — on loop. Haal-e-dil and Banjaare were her favourites, I think. I liked them too. Eventually, though, my favourite became, Madho. The song is about a devotee, who wants Krishna to come and help her cross the river on her boat.
Singer: Atif Aslam Album: Coke Studio Season 8 Year: 2015 Language: Urdu
Because no playlist of melodious music can be complete without Coke Studio. I’ll admit, I am no fan of Atif Aslam’s music (based on the songs sung for Hindi Cinema / Bollywood). But this one is an absolute gem!
6. Gurus of Peace
Singers: A.R. Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Album: Vande Mataram Year: 1997 Language: Hindi, Urdu, English
The stage is set at the school assembly ground. On the left side of the ground is the administrative block. On the right are classrooms for primary students. Connecting these two blocks are two bridges on the first and second floor levels, running behind the centre stage. The music begins playing, and the performers enter. As they begin performing their choreographed moves in perfect sync, more dancers enter in front, and below the main stage. Others stream in from behind the audience. And more fill in the bridges above the stage. This was the first block-buster musical I had seen — long before Kingdom of Dreams was even dreamt of.
The song, Gurus of Peace; the dancers, students handpicked from the primary, middle and senior secondary classes; the occasion, the school annual day; and the audience, an awe-struck set of students, and some very proud parents.
I was in school when this song was released, and it became an instant hit. Perhaps, because it cut across all faiths and cultures; or maybe, because it shattered stereotypes of Sikh musicians, the topics that rock music could cover and the format in which Sufi could be performed; or maybe, just maybe, it resonated with teenagers trying to figure out their identity. “Bulla, ki jaana, mai kaun hoon” (Bulla! I know not, who I am).
It is fitting, that this is the only song that I could not locate on the music-streaming site Gaana. Because this is one of very few songs that I remember seeing. Apart from its deep philosophy, what has endured through all these years is the visualisation of the song.
There are a number of versions of this song on YouTube. The official version is live in concert. There is another version with better audio quality and lyrics. But I’d rather show you the original music video (you can check out the better audio later).
PS: I know there are only male singers in the playlist. I’d love to hear more female voices in this space — if you know any, I’d love to listen to them. In the meanwhile, I have my morning invocation, dominated by M.S…
PPS: Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Here’s wishing for a peaceful dinner, and world 🙂
Featured Image: The stage for Indian Ocean’s concert on 23 November 2018. Here’s the story about that concert: Behind the Sounds.