Friday, October 3, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: About Saffron Clothes and Akshara Mana Malai

(a saffron clad mendicant in Kumbhamela)

I wear a saffron lungi/dhoti/mundu. And Shibu Natesan hates the colour. He prefers white dhotis. The reason for him to abhor saffron dhotis is its abundance use of anti-social elements in Kerala. In Kerala, like women wearing nightie as their ‘natural’ dress, most of the youngsters wear saffron dhotis as if it were the regional uniform for youth in Kerala. Saffron lungi was made popular by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) activists and it had given them a special identity. Saffron lungi, a black thread around their wrists, a sandal paste mark on their foreheads- anybody could recognize an RSS follower from this dress code. Later on during the Sabarimala season in December people started wearing these lungis as it had some meanings associated with pilgrimages. Though black lungi and black shirt are the prescribed uniform of the pilgrims who visit Sabarimala, where Lord Ayyappa resides, saffron lungis are also in vogue these days. One of the early devotional songs sung by Yesudas, clearly says, Sabarimala is the Southern Himalaya, and Southern Bhagirathi is Pampa river that flows at the foot of Sabarimala. The song also says, ‘the devotees wearing saffron go to Kashi/Banaras/ and devotees wearing black go to Sabarimala’. The belief comes from the fact that in Banaras the reigning deity is Vishwanath, Lord Shiva and in Sabarimala, it is Shiva’s and Vishnu’s son, Lord Ayyappa. There is an interesting fusion of Shaivism and Vaishnavism in the Ayyappa cult in Kerala. Ayyappa is controversially said to be a saint worshipped by the Buddhists who were chased out of Kerala by the joint effort of the Shaivaites and Vaishnavaites. Later to adopt the Ayyappa devotees into the fold of larger Hinduism, myths were created about his birth as the son of a Lord Shiva and Vishnu in his incarnation as Mohini.

There is another reason for Shibu to detest saffron lungis. You go to any junction in Kerala, you will see reckless youth standing there wearing these saffron lungis. They just do not give any damn to the elders, nor do they respect the social norms. Shibu is not a strong believer in social norms. However, he believes that the young people who wear saffron lungis carry within them a latent terror that is detrimental to the positive growth of a cultured society. Saffron lungis are popular amongst the auto drivers in Kerala. Interestingly, most of the auto-rickshaws in Kerala have ‘names’ of gods and goddesses. Most of these names are unheard of in the dominant Hindu pantheon. Gods and goddesses carrying these names are later recoveries from the regional religious myths. The resurgence of a nationalist and pride based Hinduism in the first decade of the new millennium, especially after the attack on the World Trade Centre by the Talibans in 2001 and the general hate wave against the Muslims, has caused the proliferation of saffron lungis amongst the youth. Most of the auto drivers are staunch RSS supporters, it seems. Some of them are even Shiva Sena followers. Today you could see a lot of Shiva Sena units in Kerala. It is an irony that the first wave of Shiva Sena establishment came in Maharashtra as a large scale opposition against the South Indian working class in Bombay in late 1960s and early 1970s. Shiva Sena got its foothold in the liberal soil of Bombay by spreading the idea of Marathi Asmita (Marathi Pride) amongst the jobless Marathi youth. Bala Saheb Thackarey needed to create an ‘other’ in order to focus the ire of the lumpen elements of Shiva Sena in the streets and consolidate its political influence amongst the Marathis. Educated and ready to work, the South Indians were holding most of the decent jobs. Shiva Sena wanted to oust the South Indians from the soil of Bombay and reserve all the jobs for the Marathis. Though Shiva Sena became a reckonable political power, they put their agenda of ousting the south Indians to backburner in due course of time. Today, their ire is against the Bhayyas (people of North Indian origin, especially people from Bihar and UP), who live in Mumbai and do most of the lowly jobs like taxi drivers and pan wallahs and so on. Somehow, the youngsters who wear saffron lungis and join Shiva Sena units in Kerala seem to have missed the point completely.

 (Kerala auto drivers wearing saffron lungis)

Wearing saffron lungis gives the youngsters some kind of political protection and this is maximum utilized by the auto-drivers and organized union workers. According to the government rules, auto drivers are supposed to wear Khaki pants and shirts during the duty hours. Though most of them do not obey this rule, regular checking conducted by the Police has made them adopt a new style. They wear a khaki shirt like an overall over their shirts, which give them an added authority as drivers, the way a white parasol gives authority to a medical student or nurse. With this they combine a saffron lungi for a complete uniform. Considering the meanings attached to a saffron lungi even the Policemen do not insist that they wear a khaki pants. Saffron lungis are highly revered when it is seen in a religious and spiritual context. There are so many well meaning people in Kerala and elsewhere in India, who stick to wearing saffron lungis in order to underline their lack of desire and greed. Though they live in the middle of the society, they seem to proclaim that they have eschewed the desires of life and have taken a path of renunciation. Though this is not the case always, wearing saffron lungis have become a common trend in Kerala. Responding to this added interest and catering to the increasing demand so many textile companies, local weaving societies and even branded companies have started bringing saffron lungis and they all have become very popular in Kerala. To affix it in the cultural memory of a region, most of the popular movie heroes, who at least in a few scene show their male virility by subscribing to the generic Hindu ideals and uttering bombastic dialogues replete with chauvinistic views, are religiously shown wearing saffron lungis. To tap the potential of this growing market, many companies have brought out lungis with various shades of saffron and also the shades of all other possible colours.

Saffron clothes are tremendously respected in India. If you wear a pair of saffron unstitched saffron clothes and move around in the country, you will never be harassed by the Police unless you have a criminal look on your face and your movements are suspicious. You extend your palm and you will be given food or alms by so many people. In trains you may travel without ticket at the corridors or near the bathroom. No ticket examiner will ask you to go out. Thanks to these privileges enjoyed by the colour saffron so many people switch to wearing saffron and become mendicants so that they could live without doing any job. So many spiritual gurus have come up these days and most of them wear saffron clothes so that their spiritual abilities are convincingly displayed in the society that is attuned to the virtues of saffron clothes; or the terror involved in it. Generally, in North India, if you go around wearing a white dhoti you are clearly marked out as a south Indian. South Indians have this special knack of folding it up and tying it below the waist line, exposing your legs below the knees. Though the North Indian people also wear shorts and their knees are also equally exposed, when they see a man wearing a folded lungi, they find it really funny. Some of them condescendingly say that most of the South Indians use their maximum energy in folding and unfolding the lungi. That’s why the youngsters from Kerala who migrate to other places, sooner than later switch to wearing shorts or track suits so that their regional identities are not exposed in one go. I recently had an experience of wearing a saffron lungi for morning walk. The reason for wearing one was that I did not find a pair of shorts at my disposal. I wore this lungi and went for a morning walk in Delhi’s famous Indira Gandhi National Open University campus that opens its door during early morning and letting the people from the neighborhood use its tracks for morning walks. While I was walking people looked at me reverentially and did not even show a hint of amusement or contempt on their faces.  Had I been wearing a white dhoti or a lungi with printed flowers or designs, I would have eked out a few giggles on that early morning trip to nature.


In Indian socio-cultural consciousness, the effect of saffron clothes is tremendous. India being a land of Sadhus and Sannyasis, this is one color that is predominantly seen in pilgrim centers. Thanks to its spiritual associations, when the Indian National Congress was looking for a flag for its own propagandist and political purposes, they adopted saffron along with white and green, seeing its potential to associate with the people’s imagination. When Indian became independent, in the national flag saffron remained along with the other two colours, heralding the spiritual bend of the Indian population. The ideological other of the Congress, manifested in the various offshoots of the parent Hindu Mahasabha that subscribe to a sort of parochial dominant Hindu ideology, too adopted saffron as the colour of their flags for its potent symbolism. Though today we could see silk saffron robes which shame even the most royal garbs of yester years, the origin of saffron clothes is different. The people who had renounced world, had also renounced their clothes. They wore white to highlight their spiritual purity. But they were not living in the luxury of households. They were living in forests and caves. And they were traveling from one place to another on foot. As they travelled these white clothes became dirty. The people who had left the worldly desires and ambitions did not mind wearing dirty clothes. They washed it whenever they found a pond. But the dirt remained. It became naturally tinted with a saffron/kavi colour. Later, with the establishment of spiritual mendicants as a part of the society’s imagination, people who left their homes started deliberately dirtying their white clothes to show the strength of their renouncing.

Recently, while talking to Dr.Deepak John Mathew, a Professor in the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, he told me another story about the origin of saffron clothes, which I found quite convincing. It was sage Buddha who had adopted saffron as his ‘official’ robe after leaving his family life in the royal palace. He adopted this dress code because, he wanted to stand with the wretched and condemned in the society. In his days, like even today , the most wretched, tortured and condemned people are those who live in the jails for their real or accused crimes. A jail bird is also automatically a social outcast. Michel Foucault in his Madness and Civilization speaks of the criminals, diseased and mad people who were sent to remote islands by a ship. This ship was called ship of fools. In the time of Buddha, these outcasts were given a uniform; of saffron clothes! Saffron being a stark colour which is visible in day light and darkness, were given to the social outcasts because they could be noticed from any distance. A society that practiced untouchability must have found this a very feasible solution to keep its own purity. They could avoid the people who were wearing saffron clothes. Also it was conducive for the authorities to locate a criminal if he tries to flee. As the criminals were put into hard work in fields and quarries and other work sites, it was easy for the slave driver to locate them. When Buddha decided to leave his home and to become a monk, he did a revolutionary decision to change his clothes. He adopted the clothes of the criminals and social outcasts. He achieved two things with this: one, he could tell the world that he was either a criminal or a nonconformist. Two, he is one with those who are outcasted. He wanted to say that he loved human beings without considering their social position. His prime philosophy was centered around three principles; Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha. Piety, Bliss and Discernment. He had piety for all those who suffered. He believed life’s fundamental aim was to experience bliss and he discerned what is right amongst a host of wrong deeds and highlighted that. Buddha’s adoption of saffron clothes perhaps scientifically justified today for the simple reason that world’s strongest penitentiary, Guantanamo Bay uses saffron clothes for its inmates. So is the case of the prisons like Abu Graib. The images of those hapless political and religious suspects in those jails, crouching in various poses wearing saffron clothes must be still afresh in the public memory.

(Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay)

I wear this saffron lungi because I do not have any other lungi. I have a white dhoti in my bag but I keep it for a special occasion in Thiruvannamalai. Besides, I keep this particular saffron lungi with me because it is gifted to me by K.S.Radhakrishnan, the artist. I draw a lot of wisdom from him and hold him in high esteem not only as a mentor but also as my guru. Though Shibu is not so senior to me, I hold him in a guru’s position because I believe that he is one of those rare people who have helped me to dispel my inner darkness. Guru being the dispeller of darkness, there are several people who appear as gurus in several occasions, make a mark in your life and leave. There are visible gurus and invisible ones. There are palpable ones and imaginary ones. It is not necessary that you need to keep a photo of your guru and do pujas every day. Keeping the light that these gurus lit up in your mind undying is important. However, one difference between KSR and Shibu as my gurus is that while I cannot say one irreverent word to KSR, but I could profusely pull Shibu's leg. And he does not lag in doing the same to me. Whenever we get a chance, we don’t waste time pulling each other’s legs. Sometimes we wonder may be in a very advanced age too, we would be doing the same (striking goals, is pulling legs in our parlance) as we refuse to kill those two small boys who grew up together long back in a small village called Vakkom. So I wear saffron lungi and Shibu does not miss the chance to ridicule me. His face contorts in deliberate efforts of distortion and I return the same grace looking at his white lungi. And we come out of Arthur Osborne’s house.

In the Ramana Ashram, preparations for evening prayer have already started. We enter in the large hall and see a lot of people in pure white clothes sitting inside in deep meditation and silence. Some of them walk around the main Samadhi where Ramana Maharshi’s golden statue is kept and Shibu hints at me that we too do the rounds. We start walking. We cannot walk together as the squaring corridor around the Samadhi is narrow. First we walk one after another, following many other devotees and followed by other devotees. They after some time we lose each other as our moving pace changes. I slowly forget Shibu is with me. He also must be in the same mental state. We keep walking. I lose myself in thoughts. In the morning, at the bookshop in the Ashram I had read ‘Who am I?’, a small booklet that carries the crux of Ramana’s teaching, standing. The words from the book reverberate in my mind. As I think more about it, my walking pace increases. Suddenly I realize the foolishness of it? What am I chasing? I slowly down the pace of my walking. I hear some hissing sounds behind me. Out of instinct, I turn my neck and see. A hefty European devotee, in his white shorts and white shirts, walks behind me chanting some words. His face looks red due to the effort of his brisk walking. I see beads of sweat on his temple. He seems to be unaware of everything around him. At the windows around the shrine, I see old people sitting like shadows in deep concentration. After a few minutes Shibu catches up with me. He whispers into my ears that we should go and sit in the hall so that we could her Akshara Mana Malai, chanted by the trustees and devotees in the Ashram. I agree and we go at one front corner of the hall and sit there and wait for the chanting to start.

(chanting Akshara Mana Malai at Ramana Ashram)

They are all old people. With studied patience, a natural calmness all of them sit in two rows, males in one row and females in the other. They face each other. Two old trustees, an old couple sit on a chair as they are too old to sit on the floor with folded legs. The priest finishes his aarti at the shrine. Suddenly the hall goes completely silent. Each person sitting in those rows have a small booklet in his/her hands. They wait as if for some cue to come from someone. We too wait expectantly. The silence is too deep to fathom. I feel the blue depths of an ocean where someone has taken a lonely dive. Then a humming vibrates the air: ‘Tarunarunamani kiranavalinihir tharumakshara mahimalai’ (This garland of words, like the rays of morning sun). I try to focus on the words. But the chanting is too deep to decipher and the Tamil seems to be inaccessible for me then. “Arunachalmena Ahame ninaypavar/ahatthe arupey arunachala”. “If one focuses on Arunachala in his mind/he could cut the roots of his ego, oh Arunachala.” I follow the chanting. The more l listen to it, the more I tend to forget the person who is listening to it. The more I feel that I have lost something about myself, the more it comes back to me. I am in confusion now. It says that if I think of Arunachala it will kill my ego, the I-ness in me. But here, hapless and helpless, I am thinking about the ‘I’ who is listening to it. I look at Shibu. He seems to be there yet not there. I do not want to disturb him. The chanting seems to have a strange effect on me. I am not thinking about it. I am just listening. Sometimes I feel a pain. Something is severed. I try to neglect it. I shift my numbing leg from under the other leg. I am not used to sitting on the floor for long time.

This chanting is called ‘Akshara Mana Malai.’ Written by Ramana Maharshi, almost hundred years ago, these hundred verses that comprise the crux of Maharshi’s philosophy are chanted every day at the Ramana Ashram. When Ramana Maharshi was alive, he also did the same with his devotees. Though devotees had taken it as a prayer that hailed the Lord Arunachala, they equally considered it as a praise of Ramana Maharshi. Interestingly, when the devotees praised Ramana in these verses, Ramana Maharshi too praised ‘himself’ without any embarrassment. For him, ‘bhagavan’ (god) was not different from him so when he chanted the praising of god, even if his name was uttered once in a while in the verses, he did not feel it was about him. He was a person who had transcended and had become one with the universe. He, like a child identified himself with the god and was never vainly proud of it. When devotees called him god, he also called them god because he could not see anything else in the universe other than god. He was a saint who lived his philosophy.

(Ramana Maharshi)

There is an interesting story behind Ramana Maharshi writing this Akshara Mana Malai. Ramana Maharshi himself and all of his devotees who lived the ashram used to go for begging alms in the nearby villages. This was a practiced started long back when Ramana was living in Skandashramam, where there was no kitchen of their own. As Ramana Maharshi was very much revered by the villagers, they used to cook special food for the devotees and Maharshi who came begging. They used to blow a conch and sing ‘Sambho mahadeva, sambho mahadeva’. Hearing this people came out of their homes and served them food in their begging bowls. But some other sannyasis and mendicants living there in Thiruvannamalai, finding this opportunity used to imitate the acts of Ramana Maharshi and his devotees, and take away all the food. It put the devotees of Ramana in distress as they were turned away by the people thinking that they were fake sadhus. Hence, they requested Ramana Maharshi to write some chanting verses for them so that they could make themselves distinct while going for begging. Though Maharshi tried his hand he could not go beyond a few verses. He left it there. Once he was on doing Girivalam, these hundred verses occurred in him. He recited them and they were written down by the devotees. This is known as Akshara Mana Malai. The chants that were composed as a begging anthem took no time to become the main prayer of the ashram. Even today, the piety and devotion fill in the air when it is chanted.

Coming back to our lodging, I sit quite for a long time. It is raining outside. Shibu flips through the pages of the books that he has bought that morning. I recline on the divan completely exhausted. Shibu takes out his sketching pad and starts sketching me. I smile at him and hold my pose. I am sure, this is another opportunity that I am giving him to make yet another distorted portrait of mine.

(Those who are interested in Akshara Mana Malai could follow this link

1 comment:

jithu said...

hello johny :)
had listened you talk on the symposium held on the sides of the display of works by KG Subramaniam sir some time back in Ernakulam. came across your blog now and read a few entries. its nice and made me happy. i rather liked the story and link you shared on ramana maharshi :)