Pillaiyaar and Periyaar!

If you have read my earlier blog on ‘God as a partner in crime and quid pro quo’, you may have known how Pillaiyaar, the elder son of Shivan, commonly known as the elephant God, played a crucial role at a defining moment in my life. However, from my earlier days, I say the name of ‘Murugan’ anytime I think of God. He is the second son of Shivan, popularly known as the God of Tamils, people speaking my mother tongue. I generally don’t ask or pray with any specific request. Any time I go to a temple/mosque/church or any other divine worship place, I just say ‘Kadavulae, Murugaa, Sivaa, Sithaiyaa’ and end there. Sithar is Shivan too and He is our family God. Kadavul is God in Tamil.

I come from a very religious family and religion was there in everything we did in our way of life. I studied in TVS High School, Madurai, perhaps the best school in Madurai and was blessed to have great teachers. Every morning, we did have prayer in school which included a hymn on God and also one on T. V. Sundaram Iyengar who founded the TVS establishment. TVS in Madurai can be compared to Tata in India. Madurai had TVS Bus service, running local city transport when I was young. It was known for its punctuality. You could watch the bus coming to a bus stop and set your watch! They run many successful businesses and academic institutions.

After my MSc in IIT Madras, I did not want to go abroad as going to Madras itself was somewhat scary for me. I was born and raised in Madurai until I was 20 years old and lived in a secure environment well protected by a large family and friends. GATE was just introduced for postgraduate admission and many of us wrote GATE. I skipped GRE and TOEFL. I ended up in IIT Delhi to do an MTech on chemical analysis. After  my MSc at IIT Madras, the course was a big let down and one of my friend left the course. For me it was more useful for personal development. I could get my MTech degree with 9.88/10.00 grade points and got  my first publication as well.

During my MTech, I finally wrote GRE, TOEFL and AGRE. Also, I figured out that if I could live in Delhi, I could live in USA as well. For someone from Tamil Nadu, in some sense, both are foreign. Though I did learn some elementary Hindi, I was more comfortable in English, after Tamil. It would take two days to reach my home in Madurai, from either Delhi or America. I only applied to Universities that had no application fees. I accepted the first offer that came my way and went to the Kansas State University. As I was getting ready to leave, I received a letter from the International Student Center at KSU. It warned: ‘You are coming to a far away place to a country very different from yours. Be aware that you may have a cultural shock’. I couldn’t have learned much about life in the USA but I really did not have a cultural shock when I landed in the USA. I did have my first cultural shock when I returned after my studies to work in Kanpur!

Twenty years ago, on the day of Buddha Purnima, I went to Bithur, 18 km from the IIT Campus in Kanpur by bicycle with a friend of mine. Bithur is a very important town for Hindus and there used to be a board there claiming it to be the centre of Universe. Besides, it is believed to be the birthplace of Lava and Kusha, the twin sons of Rama and Sita. Also, Sita was supposed to have entered the earth in this place, on the banks of the holy river Ganges. I was very curious to visit and when I did, it was very disappointing. It would be difficult to grow in India without listening about Ramayana and Mahabaratha. Now the Government wants these to be taught in schools and I don’t like this idea. In any case, when most in India revere Ramayana, it was saddening to see the Lava-Kusha Janmastan (birth place) in such a terrible condition. It has not been maintained at all. I am surprised why all those who talk emotionally about Ramayana don’t do anything to maintain places like this.

Coming from Madurai, which boasts of a unique city festival, Chitra festival (April-May every year), I am very much used to huge crowds and enjoy being in the crowd. It happens during the full moon day in the Tamil month of Chithirai. Every year, the newspapers would mention that 5 lakh people attended the festival (0.5 million). The crowd I saw in Bithur during the Buddhapurnima (another full moon day) was too much even for me. I suspect it could be several millions. Taking a dip in Ganges during such an auspicious day is considered holy and it seemed like everyone was there.

Ganges in that place looks far from clean. I had gone to Rishikesh where I had a nice bath. I told my friend that taking a dip in that place would be tough and I might have neither the immunity nor faith. We decided to cross the river and walk upstream until there were no more people and take a dip. There were no permanent bridge but a temporary one was made out of big barrels. The barrels with big holes were kept and a wooden bridge was made on top of these barrels. A boat could go through a barrel.

There was too much crowd and the bridge had no place empty. I wondered if the area of the bridge would be almost the same as the foot print of all the people standing on the bridge. Even in that crowd, there was some order and you could join the crowd moving in one direction or other. One barely moved and the human wave was crossing the bridge. Suddenly, some security and police came with some lathi (a stick to beat the crowd) and was shouting. No one was beaten and everybody was being pushed away from one barrel. I was worried about a stampede. Then I saw a boat from my left side approaching the barrel. The boat had some ‘purohits’ or ‘brahmins’ being taken somewhere. The occupants of the boat did not want to have any human being standing on the bridge while the boat crossed. There could have really been a stampede at that time. Thankfully Pillaiyaar was still watching and no untoward incident happened. However, I was shocked looking at the faces of the occupants. They had so much hatred and contempt on their face, shouting away the people standing on top of the bridge and the police were helping them. Weren’t the people on bridge fellow humans too?

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I never had any such experience during my stay in Tamil Nadu. I have read about some groups not being allowed inside temples. I have read about the priests throwing ‘viboothi’ on the ground for some group of people as they were inferior. I have myself not seen such acts. I was thinking to myself. If such an incident were to happen in Tamil Nadu, some one could have jumped on the boat and beaten the hell out of the occupants. People had learned self-respect. Someone called Periyaar had fought against oppression and instilled confidence and respect among the population that has been suppressed for long. People in Bithur chose suffering and put themselves in a lot of discomfort and let the boat pass through. I was squeezed from all sides and luckily no one had any major injury or lost their  life. It could have happened. I hope such things don’t happen there any more.

I witnessed many such events during my stay in Kanpur.  People were treated without any respect or dignity. Most of them accepted such treatments without questioning them. I read the following news in the Hindu today. The Prime Minister of India is being warned by the priests:

Shrikant Mishra, one of the main priests at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, who officiated the rituals when Mr. Modi visited the temple after winning the general election, says the belief about the Kaal Bhairav temple is a “shastriya parampara” or classical one. “Kaal Bhairavji is considered Dandapani or one who can mete out punishment, therefore anyone who visits Kashi has to pay obeisance to him first. If the BJP leadership here has sent a word to the Prime Minister, it is not wrong,” he said.” (1)

This, I see is a major problem among the Hindu way of life. That God will meet out punishment if you don’t pay obeisance to Him first! Of course all my friends will quote from any number of books that this is misinterpretation. God is all love and is not looking for your petty obeisance. You only have to live a life following some ethics. I was pleased to read the response of A R Rahman when he was issued a fatwa. If the Prime Minister can be warned this way, you can imagine what our priests can do to the ordinary people. I wish every state had a Periyaar in India. If not, these priests would have ensured that we continue to live in an imagined glory without trusting our own skills.

We can still look forward to a God who would come in the future and relieve us of all our worries without trying what we could. Or course, we can also realise that God wants you to look after yourself. If not, the ocean would have drinking water and all the energy in the key board or pen or your shirt would have been usable. If you want drinkable water and usable energy, go figure out. That is what God has told you clearly and loudly. Those, who want to cheat you in the name of God, would like you to believe otherwise. Be wary of them. That is what Periyaar told us. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are far more progressive than Gujarat when it comes to all indices based on human development. It may not be the case when it comes to investment today. We have learned very well that growth is not just some rich people making more money! If not we would not have witnessed the American economy collapse in 2006-07 and Obama getting elected in 2008. It is in your hand to learn what you need to take care of you and your family. God is with you and (s)he is not going to help you, if you don’t do your work.

(1) http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/modi-asked-to-seek-divine-help-to-break-varanasi-visit-jinx/article7660114.ece



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