Times Music’s sonorous recording of the celebrated Maha Mrityunjay Mantra, preceded by selected devotional verses, evokes powerful images of Shiva, the most awesome and yet the most gracious deity in the Hindu pantheon. In this Mantra, he is worshipped as the great Lord of Death and the devotee prays that he is released for bondage as painlessly as a ripe cucumber detaches itself from its stalk.
This is a telling image, because when it is ripe the cucumber detaches itself from the creeper without any trauma or pain. The prayer is: “We worship Shiva, the three-eyed one, who is full of fragrance and who nourishes all beings. May he liberate us from death like a ripe cucumber but not from immortality”.
Death, of course, is an inevitable correlate of birth. As the Gita says, “that which is born must die and that which dies must be born again”. However, a crucial dimension of Hinduism lies in the concept that there is a state of consciousness that transcends birth and death in the greater Life. In the West, they talk of ‘life and death’ as if they were terminal events, whereas our philosophy involves ‘birth and death’ as a cycle which can be transcended. Indeed in this, all the four Indic religions – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism – are agreed.
It is particularly significant that the Maha Mrityunjay Mantra seeks release from bondage but not from immortality. The Upanishads eloquently describe the Atman which is immortal and does not die with the body. What the worshipper of Shiva is saying, therefore, is that he or she seems a painless release at the time of death. The process of death can be extremely prolonged and painful, and the prayer is that when the time comes we should be able peacefully to shed our present bodies. Secondly, the prayer reiterates the quest for immortality which has been the motivating force in the Hindu tradition ever since the dawn of civilisation.
The Vedanta reiterates the immortality of the soul and its integral relationship with the Divine power that pervades the universe. There are varying interpretations regarding the relationship between the Atman and the Brahmnn, the divine within each one of us and a divine that pervades the entire cosmos. The school of Advaita holds that they are in fact one and only ignorance keeps us from merging into this unity. The Vishishtadvaita holds that although the soul is very close to the divine, it also retains its separate individuality, while the Dvaita school believes that the individual soul is forever separate but, having transcended the cycle of birth and death, remains in close and blissful proximity to the divine.
Be that as it may, Shiva also manifests the triple power of the divine notably in the beautiful concept of Nataraja – Lord of the Cosmic Dance – surely one of the great creations of human civilisation.
In his right hand, the divine dancer holds the Damroo (small two-faced drum) which represents the primeval sound or ‘word’ from which all existence springs. Each beat of the Damroo could perhaps be compared with a Big Bang whereby millions of galaxies spring into the being. In his left hand, he holds the sacred fire, which symbolises the ultimate destruction of these worlds in the aeonic cycles of time.
Had that been all, there would have been no scope of individual evolution, achievement and salvation, and that is where the special significance of his other two hands emerges. One is raised in the Abhaymudra, reassuring the devotee to be free from fear, and the fourth points to his upraised foot showing the path to salvation. Nataraja dances on a dwarf representing our limited human ego which has to be suppressed but not destroyed, while the nimbus around him represents the great Kalachakra, the unending wheel of time. All these images are evoked in Maha Mrityunjay mantra, an eternal source of inspiration and spiritual vibration.
The interfaith movement, which should really be better known around the world, has developed essentially over the last century. Its first major event was the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893 where, for the first time, representatives of all the world’s great religions gathered for a mutually fruitful dialogue. It was there that, by a stroke of destiny. Swami Vivekananda – who was not even an invitee to the Parliament – appeared, articulating the universal principles embedded in the Upanishads and making a tremendous impact which reverberates down to the present day.
Since then, there have been numerous other interfaith events around the world; in 1983, exactly a hundred years after the first Parliament, the second Parliament of the World’s Religions was held again in Chicago. The third conference in this series is scheduled for the first week of December, 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Over the decades several major interfaith oganisations have emerged, including the Temple of Understanding. This has resulted in a continuous series of meetings, conferences, seminars and spiritual summits, all directed towards fostering harmony, understanding and a creative dialogue between the world’s great religions. In India also, centres of the Temple of Understanding have been set up in several major cities around the country.
Hinduism is peculiarly well suited for this dialogue because of certain unique features. It is the only religion which does not trace its origins to any particular divine manifestation, prophet or book, and is based upon the collective spiritual insights of a whole galaxy of spiritually realised individuals-rishis-spread over many centuries.
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