Teachers Day – India

September 5

True seekers are those who never end their quest.

–Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

All across India hundreds of millions of schoolchildren celebrate Teachers’ Day. In many schools, children dress up like their teachers. Teachers meanwhile, sit in the back of the room, like students, as the students lead class, and roles are reversed for a day. Students have a chance to see from their mentors’ eyes, and teachers remember what is was like to be a student, to have the one other job as important as teaching: learning.

The lesson plan may include a look at the man behind Teachers Day, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Born on this day in 1888 in Tamil Nadu, India, Radhakrishnan became one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century. According to George Conger:

“…Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of India … William James was influential in religion, and John Dewey has been a force in politics. One or two American philosophers have been legislators. Jacques Maritain has been an ambassador. Radhakrishnan, in a little more than thirty years of work, has done all these things and more… Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure…. like a weaver’s shuttle, he has gone to and fro between the East and West, carrying a thread of understanding, weaving it into the fabric of civilization.”

Radhakrishnan taught subjects including philosophy, ethics and comparative religion at the Universities of Calcutta, Oxford, and Ahndra.

In 1952 he was elected the first Vice-President of India. Ten years later the philosopher became India’s second President.

When his friends and former students wished to make his birthday a holiday, Radhakrishnan did not forget his first calling. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if 5 September is observed as Teachers’ Day.

Throughout the rest of his life, Radhakrishnan went on learning and teaching, holding true to his most firmly held belief:

“The true seekers are those who never end their quest. Even at the termination of one’s life one is still searching. Fulfillment is a distant goal.”

Ganesh Chaturthi

September 1, 2011
September 19, 2012
September 9, 2013

Today Hindus celebrate the birthday of the Colossus with the Proboscis, Lord Ganesh, aka Gajanana (Elephant-Faced Lord), aka Devendrashika (Protector of All Gods), aka Kaveesha (Master of Poets), aka Lambodara (Huge Bellied Lord) aka Vignavinashanaya (Destroyer of All Obstacles and Impediments) aka Akhurath (One who has Mouse as His Charioteer) or any of the other 101 names he goes by.

Ganesh: Colossus with the Proboscis

Ganesh is perhaps the most distinctive-looking deity of the Hindu pantheon. His birth was as unconventional as his profile.

While Lord Shiva was away at war, his wife Parvati sought to bathe herself, but feared someone might enter while she was vulnerable. To guard her door, she fashioned the model of a son out of clay or sandalwood paste, breathed life into him, and placed him outside with instructions not to let anyone in.

It just so happened that Lord Shiva came back from the battlefront while Pavarti was bathing. Ganesh didn’t know who he was and prevented Shiva from entering. Shiva, after a hard day of battling demons, was not in the mood to be stopped in his own house. With his sword he sliced Ganesh’s head clean off.

Needless to say, when Parvati came out of the bath to find her new son decapitated, she was quite perturbed with Shiva, and threatened to destroy the three worlds of Earth, Heaven, and Hell.

Like any good husband, Shiva instructed his men to go out and bring back the head of the first living creature they found. They came back with the head of an elephant, which Shiva placed atop Ganesh’s decapitated body and with a sacred breath, made him whole.

Ganesh became the great Protector, and also the bringer of good fortune and prosperity.

People celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with a festival lasting ten to twelve days. Large and small clay and metal models of Genash are created for the festival, sometimes 20 feet tall. Sacred traditional foods are offered to the god, including lotus flowers, fruits, sweets, and prasadam. At the end of the ten days, Ganesh’s likenesses are taken in a procession to the nearest body of water and submerged.

Submersion of Lord Ganesh
Submersion of Lord Ganesh

These days most idols of Lord Ganesh are made with Plaster of Paris rather than clay. Unfortunately, this  creates a toxic hazard when thousands of idols are submerged in local rivers and lakes on the final day of celebration. Indian activists try to combat, or at least mitigate the pollution by encouraging observers to perform short, symbolic submersions, or to return to tradition, natural materials like clay.

Paryushana – Jainism

August 26-September 1, 2011

Talk to the hand.

But not just any hand. The hand above symbolizes the concept of Ahimsa, the central component of the Jain religion. It means the practice of non-violence, but far beyond our common perception of it. Ahimsa is the absence of harm toward any living being, human or animal. For this reason vegetarianism is a essential part of Jainism. In fact, during special festivals, such as Paryushana, some Jains restrict themselves to eating those parts of plants that do not endanger the plant itself. (However, “fruitarian” diets are not necessarily practiced throughout the year.)

Ahimsa also means practicing the self-discipline not to cause harm to one’s own soul. And that means no sin. States the Puruṣārthasiddhyupāya 4.42:

All sins like falsehood, theft, attachment and immorality are forms of violence which destroy the purity of the soul. They have been separately enumerated only to facilitate their understanding.

The circle in the palm of the Jain hand represents the cycle of reincarnation, and the 24 spokes are the 24 Tirthankars, great prophets of Jain, the last of whom, Mahavira, lived over 2500 years ago.

The name of this week’s festivities, Paryushana, literally means to close in, to remain near to one’s self and soul. Paryushana stems from the tradition of monks to stay in one place, in the towns, during the rainy season. The rainy season could last four months, but the minimum duration for Paryushana was 70 days.

The period of Paryushana commences by Bhadrapada Shukla panchami, the fifth day (panchami) of the bright/full moon (Shukla) of the month of Bhadrapada (August/September).

During this time people replenish their faith through meditation, self-control, and through the wisdom of the Dharma.

There are two sects of Jainism. Digambara and Svwetambara (pardon my pronunciation.)

The Digambaras observe a 10-day festival starting on today (although the date can vary slightly by sect and location). Digambara Jains use this time to focus upon the Dashalakshana vrata—the 10 components of the Dharma:

Forbearance – Kshama
Gentleness – Mardava
Uprightness – Arjava
Purity – Shaucha
Truth – Satya
Restraint – Sanyam
Austerity – Tapa
Renunciation – Tyaga
Lack of possession – Akinchanya
and Chastity – Brahmcharya

The Svwetambara Jains celebrate an 8-day festival which ends today. During this time the Kalpa Sutra is recited. The Kalpa Sutra recalls the birth, life, and journey toward Nirvana of Mahariva.

The holy festival closes with participants seeking forgiveness for their sins of the last year.

I grant forgiveness to all living beings
May all living beings grant me forgiveness
My friendship is with all living beings
My enmity is totally non-existent
Let there be peace, harmony, and prosperity for all

Living Jain: Daily

Pluralism.org – Jain

The Significance of Paryushana Mahaparva

The Paryushana Parva

Krishna Janmashtami

August 21-22, 2011

In the house of Vasudeva will the Supreme Lord, the original transcendental person, personally appear…

Bhagavata Purana, 1:23

After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down.

Eric Clapton, After Midnight

Though worshipped differently across many Hindu sects, Krishna is one of the holiest figures–if not the holiest–in the Hindu religion. He was born at midnight on this, the eighth day after the full moon of Bhadrapada/Shravan, in the year–well, before you were born.

In 2010 Sri Krishna Jayanti, or Krishna Janmashtami, falls on September 1 or 2, depending on location.

Krishna is considered the eighth and greatest incarnation of the god Vishnu. In art, he’s commonly pictured as a baby or as a youngster playing the flute. Krishna means “black”, but he’s more often depicted as blue.

Before Krishna was born, a prophecy was told to the King Kamsa. That he–the king–would be killed by his cousin’s son. Kamsa placed his cousin Devaki and her husband Vasudeva in prison. Every son that Devaki bore, Kamsa had killed. Six children in all. The seventh boy, Balarama, was magically transfered to the womb of another woman. The eighth child Vasudeva managed to sneak out of the prison. The boy was Krishna. Vasudeva encountered a cow-herding couple who had just given birth to a daughter. They switched babies and Vasudeva returned to the prison, showing Kamsa that the child was a girl, not a boy.

Krishna grew up with the humble cow-herding family. He was a mischievous kid, known for playing pranks and for seducing women with the romantic music of his flute.

When the King heard of Krishna’s existence he invited Krishna to a wrestling match, set up to trap and kill Krishna and his elder brother Balarama. The brothers foiled King Kamsa’s plans, defeating first a mighty demon elephant and the King’s best wrestlers.

When the King drew his sword, Krishna grabbed him by the hair and crushed him to death, fulfilling the prophecy.

The holiday comes to a climax at midnight tonight, when Krishna was said to have been born. Krishna is worshipped through the chanting of Vedic hymns, and mantapam structures built in his honor are decorated with thindis snacks and fruits…

After midnight, it’s all gonna be peaches and cream.

— Eric Clapton

Indian Independence

August 15

The Twentieth Century witnessed over 140 countries gain independence. [35 of them in the years 1960 and 1991 alone]. But few, if any, stirred such emotion, involved so much conflict, changed and disrupted so many lives, inspired so many future leaders, and so fundamentally altered the world we live in, both politically and philosophically, as the independence of India.

A hundred-year struggle against imperialism and colonization came to a climax as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his people on the eve of India’s long-awaited independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long surpressed, finds utterance.

Nehru during his Tryst with Destiny speech
Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech

India found that, like so many other countries, while freedom and self-determination solved some ills, other problems were exacerbated. The partition of India into two separate, independent nations disrupted millions of lives and led to a bloody conflict that has not healed to this day.

Less than six months after independence, the Pakistani-Indian conflict would take the life of Mohandas Gandhi himself, the Indian former-lawyer who used civil disobedience to combat racial injustice in South Africa and who raised peaceful resistance to a new level to free his own countrymen in India. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu radical, who was angry at Gandhi’s cooperation with Muslim Indians and Pakistanis.

Indian flag rises above Red Fort, Delhi

Despite the death of its greatest leader, the story of Indian independence showed the world that the principles Gandhi preached, concepts of non-violence and the power of peace, were not mere religious dogma, not words spouted by the powerful to keep the powerless meek and compliant, but were weapons capable of ending an Empire.

Swami Vivekananda was once asked by an Englishwoman, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” To which the Swami replied…

That is true from the point of view of the Englishman…but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered.

The gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies…but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.

Swami Vivekananda Vedanta Lecture – Spirituality, the Gift of India

Raksha Bandhan

August 13, 2011

All across India sisters tie special colored bracelets of thread around their brothers’ wrists, as a symbol of protection. Likewise, the thread reminds the brother of his pledge and duty to protect his sister.

The threaded bracelet is called a rakhi and the holiday is Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu and Sikh celebration of brothers and sisters. It falls on the full moon (Shravan Poornima) in August. (August 16, 2008. August 5, 2009.)

There are two main stories of how the tradition came about.

One is that the goddess Draupadi tore a strip from her sari and wrapped it around Krishna’s wounded finger after battle. Later, Krishna returned the favor. When Draupadi’s malevolent brother-in-law attempted to dishonor her by removing her sari, Krishna continuously elongated her sari so she could not be disrobed.

Another is that Shashikala blessed a silken talisman and tied it around Lord Indra’s right wrist to protect him from harm during the battle of gods and demons. The rakhi gave him the strength to defeat them.

The tradition was further popularized during India’s Moghul period in the 16th century. Facing attack from the sultan of Gujarat, Queen Karnavati of Rajasthan sent a sacred Rakhi thread to the Mughal emperor Humayan, to remind him of their special connection and in the hopes of receiving assistance against the enemy.

This year in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, about 700 young men and women at H.K. Arts College reversed the tradition. Boys bestowed Rakhi on the girls as a symbol of determination to stop female foeticide, a crime that is largely responsible for lopsided male:female ratio in India, especially in states like Gujarat where that ratio is 100 to 83.

Female Foeticide in India

Mahavira Jayanti

April 16, 2011
March 28, 2010
April 11, 2009

I say with conviction that the doctrine for which the name of Lord Mahavir is glorified nowadays is the doctrine of Ahimsa. If anyone has practiced to the fullest extent and has propagated most the doctrine of Ahimsa, it was Lord Mahavira.

Mahatma Gandhi

Today is Mahavira Jayanti, in honor of the birthday of Lord Mahavira, who spread the Jainism religion and philosophy in India in the 6th century B.C. The holy day falls on the 13th day of Chaitra. The date varies in the Gregorian Calendar.

Mahavira was the last of the 24 Tirthankars, or “ford makers,” whose teachings form the basis of Jain Dharma, and he is one of only two for which we have concrete records of their lives.

Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, influencing both Hindusim and Buddhism. Jainism stresses self-control, non-violence, ascetic living, and the the divine potential in every soul. Jainists are noted for their high level of literacy throughout history. They are also known for their vast libraries going back to antiquity.

Jainism does not revolve around any one prophet or God but around the central tenant that God is an amalgamation of the qualities within each and every soul that are pure and divine.

Mahavira was a title meaning “Great Hero.” Maharvira was born to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala in the kingdom of ancient Vaishali, in what is now Northeast India. His name, Prince Varhaman (Varhaman meant “increasing”) is believed to refer to how all good things in nature flourished prior to his birth. Of course, if he was born in April, that’s no real shocker.

What was surprising was that at age 30 the wealthy, priveleged Prince suddenly renounced his family, his inheritance, and all his worldly possessions to live an ascetic life and to devote his life to the spiritual and achieving enlightenment, or Keval Gyan.

Throughout the remainder of his life he traveled across India, with no possessions, often without even footwear or clothing, and preached the principles of Jainism to the people of India.

At one point he was said to have amassed nearly half a million followers. His teaching solidified the shape of Jainism that would persist for over 2500 years. He died at the old age of 72, the last of the Jain prophets.

Though far more people practice Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism is still one of the most populous religions of the world, with over 4 million followers.


April 13 or 14

In the month of Vaisaakh, how can the bride be patient?  — Guru Granth Sahib p133, Sikh holy book

Vaisakhi has long been celebrated as the New Year by the cultures of Punjab in northwest India and eastern Pakistan. But for Sikhs, Vaisakhi is one of the most important holidays of the year.

Celebrated every year on April 13 or 14, for Sikhs Vaisakhi (also Baisakhi) commemorates the founding of the Khalsa Pantha (Order of the Pure) by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

Guru Gobind Singh, as you may recall, is the last of the ten mortal gurus. He’s worshiped for, among other things, upon his death handing over the title Guru not to a person, but to the Sikh holy book itself, Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of divinely inspired writings by the first ten Gurus.

But he is also known for transforming Sikhs into a family of holy warriors, or soldier saints, known as the Khalsa Pantha.

On this day in 1699, at the Vaisakhi Festival in Anandpur Sahib, Gobind Singh called together some of his most devoted followers outside his tent. In front of a crowd of thousands, he asked who was willing to give their life to Sikh cause. A man volunteered. Gobind Singh took him into the tent and reappeared moments later alone, blood dripping from his sword.

To the crowd’s astonishment Gobind Singh asked again who was willing to give their life. Another man volunteered. Gobind Singh led the man to his tent and again came out alone with his bloody sword. This happened three more times.

Gobind Singh founds the Khalsa, Vaisakhi 1699
Gobind Singh founds the Khalsa, Vaisakhi 1699

After the fifth time Gobind Singh returned to his tent and brought out the five men unharmed, with turbans around their heads. He baptized them with a sacred nectar of immortality called amrit and declared them the Panh Piara, the Five Beloved Ones. These were the first five of the Khalsa, the elite group of holy warriors who would ensure the survival of the Sikh religion over the next three centuries.

Even today, though Sikhs are a minority in India, they still traditionally hold a disproportional number of military posts as commanders and officers.

Vaisakh is the first month in the Nanakshahi calendar. It coincides with April and May. The Vaisakhi festival is celebrated with processions and parades throughout Punjab as well as in Sikh communities throughout the world. The largest Vaisakhi parade outside India is in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The month of Vaisaakh is beautiful and pleasant, when the Saint causes me to meet the Lord.” — Guru Granth Sahib p134