It is now almost three weeks since I lost my father. A massive cardiac arrest took him within seconds of him even realizing that anything was wrong with his heart; there are things good and bad about such a passing (although in a deeper sense it is all good): the death is completely painless, but leaves you and those close and near to you in a situation that Hamlet the King so brilliantly defines in Hamlet.
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
There are no last moment conversations, no final goodbyes, no saying of things left unsaid for too long. Whether this outweighs the benefit (if benefit it can be called) of a painless death, I am not very sure. But I do not want to be morbid. And this is not a personal essay; I wouldn’t use this forum for that. This small post is about my existential confrontation with a particular ritual, which then served as a means of transforming my view and attitude of rituals and prayers and the whole karma portion of my tradition which I have long ignored in my love for philosophical and intellectual pursuits.
I have read Anantanand Rambachan’s books on Shankara where he critiques the commonly held view (for which he claims Swami Vivekananda’s popularizing of the Vedantic tradition to be one of the main culprits) that the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, which can neatly be compartmentalised as a Jnana Yogic path, is a purely philosophic one from which either the ritual element can be entirely removed or in which this element may play a secondary and marginal role. In a totally non-intellectual form, I was confirmed of the falsity of this position, of a position that views the tradition as a purely intellectual one, in which the paramarthika vision of the Brahman as absolute Reality and the world as total contingency can give rise to an attitude that can totally do away with rites and rituals that are prescribed in the Vedas.
The scholarly debates on these points be as they may, it was Bodhayana’s elaborate distillation of the Vedic mantras and tantras (using the word literally) in his Grihya-Sutras that gave me the consolation that I so craved. I did not get, nor did I especially crave for, the consolations of philosophy! Yet this distinction itself to my mind is an academic one. For the priest who accompanied me in this 13-day journey of homas and nitya vidhis began with an elaborate explanation of the nature of the body and the soul, the purpose of human existence, the final abode of the soul, the meaning of ritual activity and so on. All this from the point of view of Shankara’s Advaita. Yet this Advaitic elaboration of meanings did not do away with the rites that were to follow and continue for the 13 days, but it in fact reinforced them; I remember getting a distinct feeling that the knowledge in theory (using the term with caution) was being congealed and materialized into praxis. The priest told me that we were doing Advaita.
The nitya karmas that we performed (in a guru-shishya staging) began grimly. And it was difficult to hold the heart and tears in place in the first couple of days. The deceased (ideally the father; as the first-born male child performs it) is conceived in the preta or ghost form. The ghost of the father takes a year to reach the abode of the pitrus or the fathers and forefathers. And the carrying out of the karmas is to help him to reach that abode peacefully. The preta is made to stay at the place where the karma is taking place – and the karma basically for the first 10 days involves giving the departed food and drink, while at the same time the performance is structured to repel the spirit from the pleasures and allures of this world that it has just departed from; the only world that it knows and loves. This making it stay at the place of the food and drink offering is done with the help of two stones on which we do avahanam of the ghost. Now the stones represent the deceased. Everything that is done to the ghost – and this doing includes feeding, directing, praying for the forgiveness of sins – is done left-sidedly. The yagnopavita is worn in the inverse, and all the offerings are given in an inverse hand movement. This is the very opposite of how one would conduct one’s affairs with one’s beloved father, and the opposite of what he’d expect of the son. The idea seems to be to reverse the patterns of behaviour that our (father-son) relation dictates. This must be either to repel the spirit from here or to confirm the passing away in the mind of the doer of these rituals. I could witness firsthand the psychological power and genius of both the mantras involved in all this and (more importantly) the techniques of performance (using both these in their literal sense).
This goes on for 11 more days, and slowly you come to terms (via the ritual) with the death and the loss. And you also psychologically feel more and more elevated as the days go by because you are slowly building up a relationship all over again with your father. You get a sense of duty and of love. In all this, a belief or faith in what is being done is not a pre-requisite, it is rather the result. And the truth of what you are doing is not a propositional truth or a credal matter – but it is rather a relational truth; it is about relationship and is therefore deeply existential. You pray for the forgiveness of sin and for the increase of knowledge, light, and insight for your father in this new world that he has been thrown into, and about which he knows nothing. As days go by, his knowledge increases, he gets fed, his sufferings get slowly resolved with the prayers for forgiveness to the gods that his son is committing himself to. By the 11th and 12th days, he is offered clothes, a torchlight, a pair of slippers, a boat to cross the vaitarani river (which belongs actually to the Garuda Purana), and an umbrella to assist him from the sun and the rains. The ritual converts him, inadvertently, into a living person with a new life. But what I want to emphasise, and it is something I cannot prove for it is something I personally experienced, is the reversal here. It is not something that one needs to go to with faith already, but it is something that one comes out with faith. Faith not in propositions, but a sort of relational faith. And it is as strong and profound as any other.
The structure of the ritual, across the 13 days that it is spread, has a cathartic effect because it is structurally developmental. It begins rather grimly as I said. But slowly this changes. Day by day you find your heart uplifted. However, in the final days, agni makes his appearance. And he so radically changes the very flavour of what is being done (changing it from grimness to auspiciousness) that one’s heart cannot but change too! One now offers to agni and it is agni that takes the offerings to him, and one does it without wearing the yagnopavita inversely. All this has a very profound effect – a “change of heart” effect! And the catharsis lies in this fact, in this evolution from the grim to the beautiful.
The ritual is teaching us something. You are engaged in a learning exercise. And if I may bring Carl Jung in here (for I had moments when I was thinking quite a bit about his psychological methodology in the midst of all this), the ritual is an enactment, a drama, a hero’s journey (the deceased being this hero who has to go through the all the travails of the intermediate world and yet swim across), a theurgy, but at the same time, it is also a teaching methodology. And the teaching is given to the depths of one’s mind, to the deepest layers of the soul; so that, when one comes out of this dramatic activity, one doesn’t really know what exactly has changed, but one is absolutely certain that life would never be the same again.
This is my evidence for the equal priority of ritual, of karma. My argument is from experience. And a deep soul-changing experience. I have also recognised how the Grihya Sutra of Bodhayana is no less in its subtley and beauty than Badrayana’s Sutras. And that the former is no less entrancing to someone with an intellectual bent of mind than is the latter.