Sunday, November 29, 2009

THE WALLET: A LOVE STORY

Here is a story by an unknown author that I have loved dearly ever since I first read it some years ago.

0o0

As I walked home one freezing day, I stumbled on a wallet someone had lost in the street. I picked it up and looked inside to find some identification so I could call the owner. But the wallet contained only three dollars and a crumpled letter that looked as if it had been in there for years.

The envelope was worn and the only thing that was legible on it was the return address. I started to open the letter, hoping to find some clue. Then I saw the dateline--1924. The letter had been written almost sixty years ago. It was written in a beautiful feminine handwriting on powder blue stationery with a little flower in the left-hand corner. It was a "Dear John" letter that told the recipient, whose name appeared to be Michael, that the writer could not see him anymore because her mother forbade it. Even so, she wrote that she would always love him. It was signed, Hannah. It was a beautiful letter, but there was no way except for the name Michael, that the owner could be identified. Maybe if I called information, the operator could find a phone listing for the address on the envelope.

"Operator," I began, "this is an unusual request. I'm trying to find the owner of a wallet that I found. Is there any way you can tell me if there is a phone number for an address that was on an envelope in the wallet?"

She suggested I speak with her supervisor, who hesitated for a moment then said, "Well, there is a phone listing at that address, but I can't give you the number." She said, as a courtesy, she would call that number, explain my story and would ask them if they wanted her to connect me. I waited a few minutes and then she was back on the line. "I have a party who will speak with you."

I asked the woman on the other end of the line if she knew anyone by the name of Hannah. She gasped, "Oh! We bought this house from a family who had a daughter named Hannah. But that was 30 years ago!" "Would you know where that family could be located now?" I asked.

"I remember that Hannah had to place her mother in a nursing home some years ago," the woman said. "Maybe if you got in touch with them they might be able to track down the daughter." She gave me the name of the nursing home and I called the number.

They told me the old lady had passed away some years ago but they did have a phone number for where they thought the daughter might be living. I thanked them and phoned. The woman who answered explained that Hannah herself was now living in a nursing home.

This whole thing was stupid, I thought to myself. Why was I making such a big deal over finding the owner of a wallet that had only three dollars and a letter that was almost 60 years old? Nevertheless, I called the nursing home in which Hannah was supposed to be living and the man who answered the phone told me, "Yes, Hannah is staying with us.”

Even though it was already 10pm, I asked if I could come by to see her. "Well," he said hesitatingly, "if you want to take a chance, she might be in the day room watching television."

I thanked him and drove over to the nursing home. The night nurse and a guard greeted me at the door. We went up to the third floor of the large building. In the day room, the nurse introduced me to Hannah. She was a sweet, silver-haired old timer with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye. I told her about finding the wallet and showed her the letter.

The second she saw the powder blue envelope with that little flower on the left, she took a deep breath and said, "Young man, this letter was the last contact I ever had with Michael." She looked away for a moment deep in thought and then said softly, "I loved him very much. But I was only 16 at the time and my mother felt I was too young. Oh, he was so handsome. He looked like Sean Connery, the actor."

"Yes," she continued. "Michael Goldstein was a wonderful person. If you should find him, tell him I think of him often. And," she hesitated for a moment, almost biting her lip, "tell him I still love him. You know," she said smiling as tears began to well up in her eyes, "I never did marry. I guess no one ever matched up to Michael..."

I thanked Hannah and said goodbye. I took the elevator to the first floor and as I stood by the door, the guard there asked, "Was the old lady able to help you?" I told him she had given me a lead. "At least I have a last name. But I think I'll let it go for a while. I spent almost the whole day trying to find the owner of this wallet."

I had taken out the wallet, which was a simple brown leather case with red lacing on the side. When the guard saw it, he said, "Hey, wait a minute! That's Mr. Goldstein's wallet. I'd know it anywhere with that bright red lacing. He's always losing that wallet. I must have found it in the halls at least three times."

"Who's Mr. Goldstein?" I asked as my hand began to shake.

"He's one of the old timers on the 8th floor. That's Mike Goldstein's wallet for sure. He must have lost it on one of his walks." I thanked the guard and quickly ran back to the nurse's office. I told her what the guard had said. We went back to the elevator and got on.

I prayed that Mr. Goldstein would be up. On the eighth floor, the floor nurse said, "I think he's still in the day room. He likes to read at night. He's a darling old man."

We went to the only room that had any lights on and there was a man reading a book. The nurse went over to him and asked if he had lost his wallet. Mr. Goldstein looked up with surprise, put his hand in his back pocket and said, "Oh, it is missing!"

This kind gentleman found a wallet and we wondered if it could be yours?" I handed Mr. Goldstein the wallet and the second he saw it, he smiled with relief and said, "Yes, that's it! It must have dropped out of my pocket this afternoon. I want to give you a reward."

"No, thank you," I said. "But I have to tell you something. I read the letter in the hope of finding out who owned the wallet." The smile on his face suddenly disappeared. "You read that letter?"

"Not only did I read it, I think I know where Hannah is." He suddenly grew pale. "Hannah? You know where she is? How is she? Is she still as pretty as she was? Please, please tell me," he begged.

"She's fine...just as pretty as when you knew her." I said softly. The old man smiled with anticipation and asked, "Could you tell me where she is? I want to call her tomorrow." He grabbed my hand and said, "You know something, mister, I was so in love with that girl that when that letter came, my life literally ended. I never married. I guess I've always loved her. "

"Mr. Goldstein," I said, "Come with me." We took the elevator down to the third floor. The hallways were darkened and only one or two little night-lights lit our way to the day room where Hannah was sitting alone watching the television. The nurse walked over to her.

"Hannah," she said softly, pointing to Michael, who was waiting with me in the doorway. "Do you know this man?" She adjusted her glasses, looked for a moment, but didn't say a word. Michael said softly, almost in a whisper, "Hannah, it's Michael. Do you remember me?"

She gasped, "Michael! I don't believe it! Michael! It's you! My Michael!" He walked slowly towards her and they embraced. The nurse and I left with tears streaming down our faces. "See," I said. "See how the Good Lord works! If it's meant to be, it will be."

About three weeks later I got a call at my office from the nursing home. "Can you break away on Sunday to attend a wedding? Michael and Hannah are going to tie the knot!"

It was a beautiful wedding with all the people at the nursing home dressed up to join in the celebration. Hannah wore a light beige dress and looked beautiful. Michael wore a dark blue suit and stood tall. They made me their best man. The hospital gave them their own room and if you ever wanted to see a 76-year-old bride and a 79-year-old groom acting like two teenagers, you had to see this couple.

A perfect ending for a love affair that had lasted nearly 60 years.

0o0

I had thought that I would post this story without any comment from my side, so beautiful is it. Yet I am tempted to say one or two things.

When the young man in the story meets Hanna in the nursing home, she has already lived a life of disappointed love for sixty years. Yet he finds her “with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye.” I found that touching and beautiful – and inspiring.

Someone once said a profound truth: After thirty, you are responsible for your own face. True, the face we are born with is genetically inherited from our parents, but the face we live with after thirty is of our own making. Hannah has a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye because she has lived the last sixty years of her life in love in spite of her deep disappointment.

And that was her choice. She could have chosen to live in hatred and darkness all these years. Hatred for her mother who prevented her from marrying the man she wanted to marry and darkness born of the bitterness her mother’s decision caused. And could have ended up like Miss Havisham of Dickens’s Great Expectations or even worse.

Heaven and hell are both here and now, and not somewhere else, after death. And it is we who choose to make our life heaven or hell – Chitragupta who decides whether we should live in heaven or hell resides in our own heart.

Also, sometimes our greatest blessings come to us in the guise of misfortunes. Losing the wallet is a misfortune for an old man but it is that misfortune that opens the gates to his greatest joy. He finds his beloved whom he had lost sixty years ago and had never met again, never even knew was alive.

There is a Chinese story of a poor farmer whose only horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. "Your farm will suffer, and you cannot plow," they said. "Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The next day the horse returned but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim at his good fortune. "You are richer than you were before!" they said. "Surely this has turned out to be a good thing for you, after all."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his leg, and he couldn't work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the incident. "There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor," they said. "Surely this is a terrible misfortune."

The old farmer said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came again, they said, "How fortunate! Things have worked out after all. Most young men never return alive from the war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you!"

And the old man said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

You never know, really.

I find it amazing that Michael and Hannah had been living in the same building, presumably for years, and yet neither of them knew of the existence of the other. Perhaps the miracle of his losing his purse and the young man finding it was needed to bring them together.

What a beautiful reward for the young man who took the trouble to look for the owner of the old wallet and return it!

0o0

The Power of Belief: 2

In his book Timeless Healing: the Power and Biology of Belief, Dr Herbert Benson, M.D., talks about a study made by Dr Stewart Wolf in 1950. The subjects of Dr Wolf’s study were women who experienced persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. These women were administered a medicine and were told that the medicine would stop their vomiting. The medicine given to them was the syrup of ipecac, a substance that actually causes vomiting. It is a drug that is commonly used for inducing vomiting in case of food poisoning and so on. As a result of the medication, however, the women’s nausea and vomiting ceased. Because the women believed they were getting anti-nausea medicines, they reversed the powerful medicine. “Even though many of us stock our medicine cabinets and first aid kits with ipecac to bring about vomiting in case of poisoning,” says Dr Benson, “these pregnant women with documented stomach distress thwarted the action of a drug that should have made them even sicker. With beliefs alone, they cured themselves.”

Dr Benson discusses another similar study conducted in 1988 in London. “For three or four decades”, says Dr Benson, “dentists have used ultrasound frequencies transmitted through a small hand-held device called a transducer to massage to patient’s face after [dental] surgery to reduce pain and swelling and to hasten healing. But dentistry does not know of any physiologic reasons why this technique works.” In the study, some patients were given the ultrasound transducer facial massage by the doctor according to the usual practice. Another group was given a mock massage by the doctor, with the transducer kept at zero frequency. Both groups were assured prior to surgery that the use of the ultrasound would reduce postoperative pain and swelling. When the results were compared, both the groups were found to have 30 percent less swelling compared to the control group which was not given the massage.

Once again we see here the power of belief in action.

Just as beliefs can heal, beliefs can also cause diseases and death.

Voodoo and other forms of black magic are examples of belief causing death of people. Another physician, Dr Herbert Basedow reports a case of voodoo he witnessed among tribal Australians. Death happens because the witch doctor ritually points a bone at a man and the man believes he would die because his culture tells him that he would die when the witch doctor does this.

Here is the report from Dr Basedow:

“The man who discovers that he is being boned is, indeed a pitiable sight. He stands aghast, with his eyes staring at the treacherous pointer, and with his hand lifted as though to ward off the lethal medium, which he imagines is pouring into his body. His cheeks blanch and his eyes become glassy, and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted ... He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and the muscles twist involuntarily. He sways backwards and falls to the ground, and after a short time appears to be in a swoon; but soon after he writhes as if in a moral agony, and covering his face with his hands, begins to moan . . . His death is only a matter of comparatively short time.”

O0O

Beliefs can be empowering or self-limiting.

Most leaders are empowered by their beliefs. They have enormous faith in themselves and their vision and mission.

Mahatma Gandhi was a leader who drew enormous power from his beliefs. In his Autobiography, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India and a leader of the freedom movement, discusses his own reaction, and the reaction of other national leaders, to Gandhi’s decision to go start the Salt Satyagraha.

Subsequent to the Lahore Congress and the decision to celebrate 26th January as the Independence Day of India, Gandhiji decided to begin nationwide Satyagraha again. He wanted to begin it by breaking the salt law, which Gandhi said was what made salt, which is an essential requirement for even the poorest of the poor, expensive. But for the law, he said, salt could be had either for free or at a nominal rate by everyone. It is the tax imposed by the British that made salt expensive. Such was the state of affairs in the country that because of its unaffordable price, many poor people were not in a position to use enough salt in their food. Gandhi believed that salt should be free, as air and water are – that is how God has created it. It is for this reason that Gandhi believed that there is no worse tax than the salt tax and if you explained to people breaking the salt law as the next step in satyagraha, the common man would easily understand it and so would the world.

However, apart from Nehru, hardly anyone in the top leadership of the freedom movement was in support of Gandhi. Those who did not agree with Gandhi included Rajendra Prasad himself. Prasad and others felt that the British government cannot be forced unless pressure was put on it and breaking something as simple as the salt law would not put any pressure on the government. Also, another objection was that breaking the salt law and making salt was okay with people living close to the sea – but how are the people in places like Bihar and UP, which have no beaches, to break the salt law? People who lived close to the sea were a minority in India and the majority of Indians lived away from the sea.

Rajendra Prasad and others argued that the idea of making salt freely from the sea without paying tax for it to anyone might inspire people like the Noniyas [Salt-makers, a community whose traditional profession is making salt], but it will not inspire the others. “Will the educated people be inspired by the idea of each one breaking the law and making salt?” they asked Gandhiji. Everyone requested Gandhiji to choose some other symbolic act for breaking the law because something like making salt would be a definite non-starter. Rajendra Prasad himself suggested that the best thing, at least for Bihar, would be breaking something like chowkidari tax, which everyone had to pay.

In spite of practically everyone disagreeing with him and opposing him, Gandhiji’s belief in his scheme remained unshakeable. And on the basis of his faith, the salt satyagraha began. As history tells us, the salt satyagraha caught the imagination of the nation and the world and was a total success. It moved the masses at all levels as nothing else that Gandhi and the Congress had done before.

There is another interesting side to this story, related to belief. Prasad who saw no chance of the salt satyagraha succeeding had, in spite of his seeing no chance for the satyagraha to succeed, complete faith in Gandhi and his beliefs. He had learnt, says Prasad in his Autobiography, that Gandhiji saw far beyond the perception of others like him and because of this, he had developed implicit faith in Gandhiji’s beliefs. On the strength of this faith, Prasad and others supported Gandhiji on the salt satyagraha, which eventually turned out of be the greatest success so far in the history of India’s freedom struggle.

The success of the Dandi March and the salt satyagraha is a testimony to one man’s faith in the impossible and the faith of the other people in one man’s ability to make the impossible possible.

O0O

The power of belief could be used in one’s favour, as Gandhiji did, or against one, as some of us do. Losers use the power of belief against themselves, and winners use it in their favour. Losers believe they are helpless and totally dependent on their environment and as a consequence they become helpless and totally dependent on their environment. Losers surrender to what they call fate or destiny, and avoid becoming responsible for their own lives. Losers are paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and refuse to try out new things. They become, as Born to Win, the Transactional Analysis classic by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward says, “repeaters, repeating not only their own mistakes, but often those of their families and culture as well.” Winners, instead, challenge self-limiting beliefs – their own, and those of their families and communities, and at times, of the entire world.

All leaders believe in the impossible and make the impossible possible through their belief. It is perhaps for this reason that great leaders appear God-like to us. One of the definitions of God in the Indian culture is the one who makes the impossible possible. He does this, says the Indian vision, through his power called Maya, which is defined as aghatita-ghatana-patiyasi - the power to make possible what has never happened before. In leaders we call this power charisma.

All great leaders know that the past does not equal the future. Past failures do not paralyse their wings. Or else they would be like the little bird that failed the first time it attempted flight and never flew again.

0o0

A Simple Touch

She was a young mother of three children, aged fourteen, twelve and three, and she was herself attending college. In her Sociology class, her professor gave the class an assignment – the last project of the term, a project called smile. The class was asked to go out and ‘smile’ at three people and document their reactions.

She herself was a very friendly person and always smiled at everyone and said hello. So she thought the project would be easy.

Soon after the project was assigned, she went to McDonald’s one crisp March morning along with her husband and her youngest son. That was an occasion for them to share special time with their son.

They were standing in line, waiting to be served, when all of a sudden everyone around us began to back away. Even her husband did. Overwhelmed by a feeling of panic, she turned to see why they had moved.

As she turned around, she smelled a horrible 'dirty body' smell. There, standing behind her, were two poor homeless men. As she looked down at the short man, close to her, she saw him smiling at her.

His beautiful sky blue eyes were full of light as he searched for acceptance. He said, 'Good Day' as he counted the few coins he had been clutching.

The second man fumbled with his hands as he stood behind his friend. She realized the second man was mentally challenged and the blue-eyed gentleman was his salvation. She held her tears as she stood there with them.

The young lady at the counter asked him what they wanted. He said, 'Coffee is all Miss' because that was all they could afford. (If they wanted to sit in the restaurant and warm up, they had to buy something. He just wanted to be warm).

Then she really felt it - the compulsion was so great she almost reached out and embraced the little man with the blue eyes.

That is when she noticed all eyes in the restaurant were set on her, judging her every action.

She smiled and asked the young lady behind the counter to give her two more breakfast meals on a separate tray. She then walked around the corner to the table that the men had chosen as a resting spot. She put the tray on the table and laid her hand on the blue-eyed man's cold hand.

He looked up at her, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'Thank you.' She leaned over, began to pat his hand and said, 'I did not do this for you. God is here working through me to give you hope.'

She started to cry as she walked away to join her husband and son. When she sat down, her husband smiled at her and said, 'That is why God gave you to me, Honey, to give me hope.' They held hands for a moment and at that time, they knew that only because of the Grace that they had been given were they able to give.

That day showed her the pure Light of God's sweet love.

She returned to college, on the last evening of class, with this story in hand. She turned in 'her project' and the instructor read it. Then she looked up at her and said, 'Can I share this?' She slowly nodded as the instructor got the attention of the class.

She began to read and that is when she, the young mother, knew that we as human beings and being part of God share this need to heal people and to be healed. In her own way she had touched those two men, the other people at McDonald's, her son, the instructor, and every soul that shared the classroom on the last night she spent as a college student.

She graduated with one of the biggest lessons she would ever learn: UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE.


0o0

All leadership is transformational leadership and all leaders are transformational leaders. For, if you cannot touch and transform people, you are not a leader at all.

0o0

How to Stop the Mad Mind

Here is something beautiful from Osho.

Osho: There is a Sufi story...

Junaid was going through the market-place of the town with his disciples. And it was his way to take any situation and use it. A man was dragging his cow by a rope, and Junaid said ’Wait’ to the man, and told his disciples ’Surround this man and the cow. I am going to teach you something.’

The man stopped – Junaid was a famous mystic – and he was also interested in what he was going to teach these disciples and how he was going to use him and the cow. And Junaid asked his disciples ’I ask you one thing: who is bound to whom? Is the cow bound to this man or is this man bound to this cow?’ Of course, the disciples said ’The cow is bound to the man. The man is the master, he is holding the rope, the cow has to follow him wherever he goes. He is the master and the cow is the slave.’

And Junaid said ’Now, see.’ He took out his scissors and cut the rope – and the cow escaped.

The man ran after the cow, and Junaid said ’Now look what is happening! Now you see who is the master; the cow is not interested at all in this man – in fact, she is escaping.’ And the man was very angry, he said ’What kind of experiment is this ?’ But Junaid said to his disciples ’And this is the case with your mind. All the nonsense that you are carrying inside is not interested in you. You are interested in it, you are keeping it together somehow – you are becoming mad in keeping it together somehow. But you are interested IN it. The moment you lose interest, the moment you understand the futility of it, it will start disappearing; like the cow it will escape.’

People come to me and ask ’How to stop this mad mind?’ I say ’There is no need to stop, all that is needed is that you become disinterested in it and the rope is cut.’ That is the meaning of sannyas: become disinterested in the mind. That is the meaning of real vairagya, detachment. It has nothing to do with renouncing the world, but it certainly has something to do with cutting the rope to the mind. Just become disinterested in the rubbish and slowly, slowly you will see a gap arising. The cloud that used to surround you always is getting farther and farther away and, one day, suddenly it is no more there.

And when you are left without mind, that is the state of spiritual perception, that is the state of darshan, that is the state when you can see, you have eyes; otherwise your eyes are so full of smoke you cannot see.

Source: "The Sun Rises in the Evening" - Osho

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

There is a story of a farmer whose only horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. "Your farm will suffer, and you cannot plow," they said. "Surely this is a terrible thing to have happened to you."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The next day the horse returned but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came to congratulate him and exclaim at his good fortune. "You are richer than you were before!" they said. "Surely this has turned out to be a good thing for you, after all."

He said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his leg, and he couldn't work on the farm. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the incident. "There is more work than only you can handle, and you may be driven poor," they said. "Surely this is a terrible misfortune."

The old farmer said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of his broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came again, they said, "How fortunate! Things have worked out after all. Most young men never return alive from the war. Surely this is the best of fortunes for you!"

And the old man said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."
O0O

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Power of Belief

It was on 4th July, 1991, while the U.S. was celebrating Independence Day, that Chittiravel, a Tamil speaking Sri Lankan, was arrested as a suspected LTTE supporter in his hometown and taken away by the Sri Lankan police.

When he was first taken to the camp, he was forced to enter a large water tank, in which he was questioned and repeatedly dunked under water throughout the night. Finally he was stabbed in the thigh and removed from the tank. Then his torturers packed the large knife wound with salt and chilli powder and tied his thigh tightly. He was hung from a beam during continuing interrogation while his torturers burned the skin of his legs in many places with cigarettes. They had been drinking and repeatedly demanded, ‘You tell the names of the Tigers.’ Later, while his legs and arms were chained, one of the men knocked out four upper front teeth with a single blow of his fist. He also sustained a large wound on the left side of his skull.”

Chittiravel’s woes do not end here, but only begin with these. His “thumbs were then tied together behind his back and he was hoisted high off the floor, hanging from the rafters. While suspended, he was severely beaten with a large akappai [a wooden utensil for stirring large pots of rice]. As the beatings continued for a long time, the rope frayed and he fell to the floor.

Chittiravel suffered bilateral hip fractures. In the course of continuing years of detention, scarring of the fractured hip joints, which never healed properly, resulted in a chronically frozen pelvic girdle. After six months, Chittiravel was transferred several times, and in the third year of incarceration, he was released from a fifth place of imprisonment.”

Years ago, like many other devotees of Veeramma Kali [Mother Kali in the heroic form], the presiding deity of his hometown, he had taken a vow to walk on burning coals every year, firewalk being a fairly common vow that devotees of the Mother Goddess took wherever Tamil people are to be found. He had done it several years successively before his arrest. However, the bilateral fractures of both hips he had suffered as a result of the tortures in the detention camps had resulted in a permanently frozen pelvic girdle, crippling him for life. Chittiravel could not walk now – he could only move sideways, stretching out one leg at a time, and that too with great pain and discomfort. But this did not stop him from keeping up with his vow and performing a feat the very thought of which scares most of us.

Remember when we are talking of firewalking, we are not talking of a man quickly running over a tiny bed of dying or dead embers, his feet and legs wet, actually stepping over the coals once or twice – though even this is not something most of us would dare to do. Firewalkers actually walk at normal speed through a long bed of burning embers to fulfil their vows.

The firebed on which they walk barefoot is often more than five meters long, more than a metre wide and a full metre deep, as in the famous Uduppawa firewalking festival. The embers are prepared from tamarind wood, which burns slowly, producing fierce heat. A huge amount of tamarind wood is cut down and gathered in advance, and for hours fire builders heave logs into the massive fire built up, making flames leap to the skies. By evening even approaching the firebed becomes a daunting task, so hot is the whole place where the massive bonfire has been burning for hours. The bed of embers is, of course, pure fire, pulsing red, looking like a crouching vengeful fire dragon, as someone put it. Each piece of coal in the metre-thick bed of live coals is the size of a large potato. The bed smoulders furiously, every now and then sending up sparks and flames leaping out. It is over this that people serenely walk, to the accompaniment of fiercely beaten drums and loud, intoxicated chanting of mantras. The walker often balances a ritually sanctified pot on his head.

Like hundreds of other men, women and children, Chittiravel continues to walk over this scorching trench every year, to keep his vow to Veeramma Kali. The deformed man, bent from the waist, his legs not fully in his control, steps onto the fire with one foot, pulls his other leg near the first one, then stretches out the first leg as far as it would go sideways, pulls up the second leg near it, moves again the first leg, thus slowly moving across the entire length of the five meter-long, one metre-thick inferno as the entire population of his village shouts the name of the goddess in intoxicated ecstasy.

Chittiravel, like other firewalkers in his village, emerges from his firewalking completely unscathed by the fire.

He believes Mother Kali guards him through the firewalk and he is guarded.

o0o

Belief is an unbelievably powerful force. What we can do and what we cannot do are defined by our belief systems. Things become possible when we believe they are, and remain impossible so long as we believe they are not.

To give just one example, for ages people held the belief that it is impossible for the human being to run a mile in less than four minutes. In1954, Roger Bannister broke this imposing belief barrier. He believed he can, and he broke the barrier. Within one year, 37 others broke the four-minute barrier. And the next year, 300 others broke it.

It is their beliefs that make men and women what they are. Their beliefs about what they can and what they cannot decide what they can and what they cannot do. And their beliefs about who they are decide who they are.

This is a secret the world has known for a long time. While wise people use this knowledge to their own advantage and the advantage of others around them, clever, cunning people, the asuri types as Krishna calls them in the Gita, use this knowledge to weaken and exploit others.

Listen to a statement about India and Indians, made by Macaulay in the British Parliament on February 2, 1835:

"I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them to be, a truly dominated nation".

And that is precisely what Macaulay and the British did. They made us look down upon ourselves, made us believe we are worthless, everything that is ours is inferior to what belongs to the white man. All on a sudden, our country, which produced twenty percent of the world’s wealth – more than what the United States of America does today – became to us a nation of beggars. Our glorious past – a past unsurpassed in glory by any other country in the world – became a thing to be ashamed of. Our languages, our literatures, our philosophies, our religions, our ways of thinking and living all became matters of shame for us. Precisely what Macaulay wanted had happened, almost overnight: we lost of self-esteem. We lost belief in ourselves. And we became a truly dominated nation.

We are still to fully come out of this tragedy that fell on us.

Just as there is only one thing that made us fall, there is only one thing that can help rise up again to claim our lost status: belief in ourselves.

Fortunately, we have begun moving fast on this journey to the rediscovery of belief in ourselves.

It was a long, long time ago that the Bhagavad Gita said: śraddhā-mayo'yaṃ puruso yo yac-chraddhaḥ sa eva saḥ ||BhG_17.3||. “Man is made of his faith; as a man’s believes, so is he.”

Let’s hope that in our long journey ahead, we never again lose faith in ourselves, belief in ourselves.

O0O

Attachment and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the books I purchased while I was in Kerala recently was the just published Complete Short Stories of M Mukundan, a huge, nearly one-thousand-page volume of 157 short stories. I bought the book on a day I visited three book fairs in Thrissur: one inside the Sahitya Akademi premises, a second one in the Paramekkavu Devaswam hall, and a third one at the Thekkinkadu Grounds. Three book fairs, all within walking distance of one another! And all three fairs were crowded with visitors. It is not for nothing that beautiful Thrissur is called the cultural capital of the very educated Kerala!

This morning I read the first story in Mukundan’s collection, a story called Maunam. This is one of the nine stories in this volume that have not appeared in any previous collection. I am not a systematic reader, and love reading without much plan, but it so happened that this time I picked up the first story to begin with.

Now that I think of it, I wonder if my choice was unconsciously influenced by the title Maunam, meaning silence. Silence is something I love boundlessly and have sought throughout my life. I have memories of seeking solitude and silence in the deserted primary school near my house after the school hours were over and during the vacations. I was a young boy then and I would climb over the wall or crawl under the gate and spend hours all alone there. Another place I frequented was the upper floor of the tall gopuram of the temple where few people ever went, and a couple of other lonely places. I do not remember any occasion when I was restless at these places – their serenity always enraptured me and I was always ready to surrender myself to it.

Maybe I was also influenced, again unconsciously, by the fact that I have soon to give a session on silence to a group of corporate executives coming from all over the country as part of a training programme in corporate communication.

Mukundan’s Maunam, of course, has nothing to do with corporate communication or the world of business. It is the story of an old man.
The first thing that fascinated me in the story was the age of the old man. One of the things that the author tells us about the old man is that he was not even willing to think about death, in spite of his age. Mukundan adds that several acquaintances of his, people of his age, were already dead and gone.

Guess how old the old man is? One would imagine him to be in his eighties, or at least in his late or mid seventies. Isn’t that the age we associate with death today? Isn’t that the age when old men and women today find the people they grew up with have left them one by one? Isn’t that the age today when they accept the inevitability of a death soon to come?

But the old man in the story is not in his eighties, or seventies, or even in his sixties! He is all of fifty-six years!

No, this is not an error on the part of Mukundan.

I do not know when Maunam was written, but it appears it was written a long time ago. Maybe, it is one of Mukundan’s early stories. I wish the publishers had given the date of the original publication of each story, as they have done in some other collections. Mukundan has been writing for a long time now – forty-five years. He was born in 1942 and his first story appeared when he was twenty-one. Maybe Maunam was written sometime in the sixties.

In the nineteen-sixties, a man of fifty-six was an old man. In several government services, people retired from their jobs at fifty-six, because the government considered after that age a man was not in full command of his faculties and could not work satisfactorily, he should go home and spend the rest of his life in ease and comfort! As a young boy I remember considering sixty an impossibly old age. A man attaining sixty years of age was an important event that needed to be celebrated and was celebrated then. I remember our family celebrating my father’s sixtieth birthday – his shashtipoorti. At sixty you were really, really old – at least in popular perception. Perhaps a comparison would be to something like what it is to be eighty years old today.

Reading Maunam made me look back at those old days and smile. For I myself used to be in awe of people who had crossed sixty.

How the times have changed!

O0O

Maunam is a story of death. The old man in the story, Narayanan Nambiar, dies towards the end of the story.

As his soul learns in the ICU of the town hospital that death is about to come, it realizes with a shock that it is about to lose the nest it has occupied for the last more than half a century. The soul flutters about frantically inside its cage of flesh and blood. It then runs about desperately among the billions of cells that form his five-foot-six body. The soul is now in a state of panic. Nambiar has a massive cardiac arrest and his soul clutches on to him desperately with its hundreds of invisible hands.

Nambiar dies. The soul, flung outside his body, flutters around him in dread. Its days of being in Nambiar’s body and experiencing his joys and sorrows, his angers and retaliations, his kindnesses and compassions are over. Now there is nothing left before it but the beginningless void.

The soul goes and perches on Nambiar’s dead body. It showers kisses on his cold chest and on his cheeks that had a day’s growth of hair.

Throughout the obsequies, the soul hovers around Nambiar’s body. Taking its seat on a ray of sunlight, it watches Nambiar’s body being reduced to ashes in the funeral pyre.

Weeks are over since Nambiar’s death, but his soul refuses to go away. It seeks refuge in his naphthalene-smelling clothes kept neatly folded in the almirah. It crawls about in silence among the other things associated with him – like his framed photograph on the wall, his ear-studs and ring kept in his wife Janu’s tin trunk.

One day the soul finds the clothes are no more there. It switches its perch on to the studs and the ring. Soon it finds the studs and ring too are gone. It then moves on to occupy the framed photo. Lying there it dreams of the scent and the warmth of the body that it has lost forever. It showers tender kisses on the neck, the cheeks and the head in the photograph.

A monsoon wind brings the photo crashing down from the wall. The glass shatters on the ground to a thousand shreds. The photograph, minus the glass, is picked up and put on the top rack of the almirah. There cockroaches feast on it and eventually all that is left of it is just a few white spots. The paper is now flung away and lies in the gutter. But still Nambiar’s soul refuses to leave it. Eventually the first rain of the next season carries that too away and it disappears forever.

There is nothing left now that belonged to Nambiar. Still, says the story, the soul refuses to move on. Instead, it haunts the men and women who carried Nambiar’s memories in their hearts.

O0O

I remember reading sometime back a very different short story by Madhavikkutty which too talks about the soul of a dead person hovering around, watching everything that happens and listening to the talks of family members. Years back the Hindi magazine Dharmayug had brought out a theme based special issue on incidents like this. Several books like Life after Life, Life after Death, and Tales of Reincarnation also talk about such experiences. Movies have been made on this and similar themes, one of the most famous ones in recent years being Dragonfly, which inspired the Hindi movie Saya.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I love deeply, published in English by Oxford University Press with an Introduction by Carl Jung, talks about what exactly happens when someone dies, what happens to the dead man’s mind and consciousness in those moments and in the moments following death, what happens to these a day later, two days later, three days later and so on. The book, based on the experience of yogis who were able to retain their memories through death and afterwards, speaks about the bardo state, which is the state of bodiless consciousness after death. It discusses the changes the mind and consciousness undergo from day to day, the experiences they have, and how the mind and consciousness seek, find and re-enter a new body. Most souls, the book tells us, are able to find a new body appropriate to their needs – appropriate to their psychological inclinations, their ambitions and aspirations, their compelling needs, the scripts they had written in their inner depths during their previous existences in human bodies, their karmas, vasanas and samskaras – within forty-eight days.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a training manual. Its purpose is to train the mind to retain consciousness in the moments of death and during the bardo state so that the dead individual can avoid some of the painful experiences in the post-death state and also wisely choose its next embodiment. Originally people in Tibet used to be taught the book when they were young and given training in retaining their consciousness in their moments of death. Later on as Tibetan culture degenerated, the book was reduced to one of rituals the significance of which few people understood.

The rituals performed in Hinduism at the moment of death are based on this understanding. They centre around destroying the body as early as possible, so that the mind and consciousness do not cling to it, and then urging the soul to move on, on its onward journey.

One of the dual functions of the shraddha ceremony too is this reminding the soul not to cling to its previous existence on earth and to move on, the other being telling the departed ones how dearly we still hold them in our hearts.

A sight that I used to enjoy watching in the Himalayas was logs floating down the rivers, like the Ganga. I used to stand by the river and watch as scores of them hurtled down at great speeds through the torrential Ganga. In the words of the brahmana Ashman to King Videha, the Mahabharata tells us human relationships are like the meeting of these logs in the sea. The logs are felled at different places in the Himalayas, they come down different rivers, and they reach the sea. Imagine, the epic tells us, two logs meeting in the sea and then, after a brief meeting, parting again. Human relationships are no more than this.

Yatha kashtham cha kashtham cha sameyatam mahodadhau
Sametya cha vyapeyatam tadvad bhootasamagamah.

When the Mahabharata tells us this, the epic is telling us what the shraddha ceremony tells the departed soul, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches the living individual. And for the same reasons. It is not really true that our meetings with one another in this world are things over which we have no control, as the logs have no controls over what happens to them once they are cast into the river. The Upanishads tells us that who our father is, who our mother is, who our relations are, what the environment we are born into is, are all decided by us and not by chance or by an all powerful fate over which we have no control. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the same thing in greater detail than the Upanishads do. [Incidentally, the Book of the Dead, written in Tibet some eight or nine hundred years before Freud, speaks of the Oedipus and Electra complexes!]

But it is important that the dead one forgets his earthly attachments and moves on instead of clinging to them, as the soul of Nambiar does in Mukundan’s story. It is for this reason that the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Tibetan Book of the Dead all speak of relationships as temporary and as things to be not to be taken in greater seriousness than they deserve. To underline this point, the Mahabharata tells us: Each one of us has had thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives in our past existences – who do they really belong to, and who do we belong to forever?

Matapitrsahasrani putradarashatani cha
Samsareshvanubhootani kasya te kasya va vayam?

In his masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Attachments tie us down and reduce the chances for spiritual growth and awakening by not allowing us to move on.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stories in our spiritual traditions that speak of the harms of attachment. One of my favourite among these is the story of Jada Bharata that the Bhagavata tells us.

Bharata was the son of King Rishabha, who was a just and wise ruler. As was the ancient Indian tradition, towards the end of his life Rishabha relinquished his kingdom and powers in favour of his eldest son Bharata and retired from active life. He wandered all over the land, not caring for anything, not caring even for his body, in a god-intoxicated state. He had become an avadhoota and his outer life became that of the blind-deaf-dumb man who roams the world naked, like an idiot, like a ghost, like a madman.

Bharata ruled the kingdom for a long time as wisely and competently as his father and other ancestors did and then, following the tradition, decided to relinquish it in his turn. He divided his kingdom among his sons and then went to Pulahashrama to live the rest of his life in spirituality there. His only joy now was the joy born of his devotions and meditation – the highest joy possible to man. And in that joy he forgot everything, including himself.

And then tragedy struck one day. The great Bharata, the former king who had given up an entire kingdom, all its wealth, all his powers, his wives and children and his subjects who too were like children to him, and had retired to an ashram seeking oneness with the Whole, developed attachment to a baby deer in the jungle.

As was his habit, Bharata was sitting lost in bliss one day on the bank of the river Gandaki when he was brought back to the world by the terrible sound of a roar nearby. It was a mighty lion. Opening his eyes and looking around, he saw a doe lifting up its head from the water it had been drinking from the river. The doe turned its head back and looked behind it, its eyes wide with mortal dread. The next moment, with its head still turned backward, without even losing the time to turn the head around, it took a mighty leap into the river. It had to save itself and the baby in its womb! And then it happened. As it landed in the river, in its terror and the strain of the leap, the doe delivered its baby into the river. Frantically swimming it reached the other bank, where it fell down dead from the strain and shock.

The king in the ascetic Bharata was awakened in that instant. He too leapt up from his seat and rushed towards the river. The lion had already moved away. The mother doe lay dead on the other bank. The baby deer was floating down the river. Bharata jumped into the Gandaki and taking mighty strokes through the current, reached the infant deer fast floating downstream. He carried the newborn baby deer to the safety of the banks.

The king’s heart melted for the orphaned baby. He dried the baby’s wet body and started caring for it. Left to itself, the king knew it wouldn’t survive one single day in the jungle.

The king now started looking after the baby deer. The baby deer followed him wherever he went. At night it slept close to him, sharing his body’s warmth. On his walks Bharata’s eyes now looked for tender grass wherever he went. His thoughts were now constantly of the helpless, tender baby that fate had brought to him and left in his care. And soon, he started loving the baby deer as he had once loved his children.

Love, compassion and caring are among the noblest emotions a human being can feel. These are what make us human. And yet, Indian spiritual wisdom tells us, these should not lead one to attachment. Love, care, show compassion, but do it with detachment. Total commitment, but with detachment – that is the way to live wisely. Practice the human dharma, but be an asanga.

Unfortunately, this is as difficult as walking on the edge of a sword – on asidhara. But all attachments have to be cut firmly with the sword of detachment – asangashastrena drdhena chhitva, as the Gita puts it.

The ascetic Bharata failed. He soon grew attached to the baby deer that he had saved from the stream. He soon forgot what constantly occupied his mind earlier. The days of god-intoxication was now no more than a distant memory. His mind was now constantly occupied with the baby deer. Its needs, its wants, its comforts, its safety – these are what occupied his mind now. Asana-shayana-atana-sthana-ashanadishhu – while seated in his ashram, while lying down on his grass mat in the ashram, while wandering in the jungle, while eating, while drinking, awake, asleep, dreaming, his mind was constantly with the deer.

Remember Bharata was an old man. He had retired to the jungle as an old man and had been living there for years when the baby deer came into his life. One day he fell sick, and realized the end of his journey was close by. By then he had started living for the deer totally. As he lay awaiting his death, his final thoughts naturally were about his deer. What will happen to it? Who will look after it? Will it be safe in the fierce jungle?

The story tells us that because his mind was so preoccupied with the deer due to his attachment to it, in his next birth Bharata was born a deer. The ascetic’s attachment stood in the way of his spiritual progress and rather than taking him into a still advanced state of consciousness – into a higher birth – in his next life time, he was reduced to a deer.

Bharata’s journey does not end here, of course. But that does not concern us here.

O0O

There are several beautiful Buddhist stories that tell us of rebirths in lower life forms due to attachments. One of my favourites among them is the story of Ba Saing from Burma, the present Myanmar. I have written about this elsewhere on this blog under the title Reincarnation: The Persistence of Memory. Another such story I love is from Sri Lanka, which talks of how a man was first reborn as a snake, then as a dog, and then as a calf, all due to attachment to his adulterous, murderer wife, all in her own house. Eventually he is reborn as her own son, though this time he is born with past life memory, which the Buddhists call jatissara nana, through which he is able to escape his attachment to her and free himself of her.

One of the central messages of the Gita is that we should be free from attachments while still being fully committed to our dharma. The birth of the Gita itself happened because Arjuna refused to fulfil his dharma, or found himself incapable of fulfilling his dharma of fighting the Mahabharata war, due of his attachment to his grandsire Bhishma and his guru Drona and other near and dear ones.

O0O