By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
As I write today (Jan 14th), the dawn has lit up bright with the most welcome arrival of the sun in our Curepipian skies, lifting the dullness and darkness that have hovered over our town, accompanied by recurrent spells of rain which were at times very heavy. Two days ago, Tuesday, was pure misery by this measure! Tropical depression Danilo was showering its wet blessings on us as it left Rodrigues and continued its course in our direction, skirting the island in the north at about 65 km on Monday afternoon.
“The traditions of Hindus originated in India in hoary times. Being an agrarian society, they therefore observed festivals in all seasons, offering prayers to their deities, seeking blessings and celebrating in a unique way in recognition of their connectedness to the five elements of the creation, namely fire, space, air, earth and water that make up the universe of which the Earth is a part. This is the dimension of the sacredness of Nature with its invisible and invincible forces…”
There was a little respite in the rain, and we were looking forward, after these several days of oppressive humidity and heat with the intermittent rainfalls, to an opening up the next day. It was only on Wednesday afternoon that Danilo’s tail-end left for good to be replaced by a sunny warmth that had housewives rushing to get their accumulated washings of towels and clothings be spun in the machine. I know for a fact that many a machine did more than double duty! That’s the kind of little talk that oils the cogs of the wheels of my seenager life. Seenager? – well, I believe that this is the new term that is being used to define the category of senior citizens who are – or try to be – as active as teenagers. Like taking morning walks in good, gossipy company at Trou-O-Cerfs.
And just as well that today too, most aptly it is a bright and dry morning, for today in the Hindu calendar is the festival of Makar Sankranti. It marks the start of ‘Uttarayana’, that is, movement of the Sun from tropic of Cancer to tropic of Capricorn (actually, it is only apparent movement – because it is the Earth which revolves around the Sun), a transition that lasts around six months.
The traditions of Hindus originated in India in hoary times. Being an agrarian society, they therefore observed festivals in all seasons, offering prayers to their deities, seeking blessings and celebrating in a unique way in recognition of their connectedness to the five elements of the creation, namely fire, space, air, earth and water that make up the universe of which the Earth is a part. This is the dimension of the sacredness of Nature with its invisible and invincible forces, which makes them look upon the Earth as the ‘Mother’ who nourishes all of us.
It is the same connectedness or communion that has been lamented as having been lost on us and that has led to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus, for humanity has predominantly blindly followed into the dominion road. Nature’s bounty was for us to exploit, and we have been doing so almost recklessly, and hence the reality of climate change which is reckoned to be our greatest existential threat.
We thought that we were gaining the battle, and that at the start of 2021 we would at long last leave behind us the imprisoning and traumatizing days of the past year as the pandemic was being brought under control. Not so soon, said the new variant of Covid-19, whose more rapid transmission has to date made it spread to 50 countries – and counting. And countries that had once damped down their first surges are now prey to such wildfire spread of the virus that even stricter lockdowns are being imposed, with heavy penalties for any defaulters so grave is the situation. The latest is China, which has locked down 22 million people who are being tracked with a QR code. A friend from Saskatchewan in Canada sent me a post this morning to the effect that it is the province that has the highest active case-rate of Covid-19 in the country.
Someday when it is all over – years down the line – there will be a lot of explanation to be done about what I call the asymmetric pattern of attacks by this invisible creature with seemingly emergent and elusive properties. For example, there is as yet no cogent explanation of why the numbers of daily cases and deaths are falling so dramatically in India, to below 20,000 and 500 per day respectively, with its 1.3 billion people most of whom live in very crowded conditions. The most inexplicable is perhaps the low incidence in the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai, the largest in Asia no less, where reside nearly 750,000 people in cheek-by-jowl conditions. A few weeks ago it registered zero-case! Such mysteries will continue to baffle medicos and health experts for long.
Perhaps this relatively better situation in India is what will allow the celebration there of Makar Sankranti a little more freely, as also the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar towards which people have started to travel already.
Protection will no doubt come from the special prayers which are devotionally offered to Sun Deity today for His goodwill on humanity. The Sun being in the centre of the solar system is the main source of light and energy to the whole universe – bringing warmth and light to the world that allow people, plants and animals to exist and thrive. Without the Sun the whole creation will disappear. The ‘Atharva Veda’ and the ‘Markandey Purana’ sing the glory of the Sun as the cause of Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution of the universe.
During worship of the Sun as Deity, prayers are addressed to Him as Brilliant, Nourisher, Light of the world, King of Constellations and Sustainer along with hundreds of other names qualifying His goodwill and grace.
All these properties of the Sun identified and glorified by our Vedic rishis or seers are perfectly in accord with what science (specifically physics, astronomy, cosmology) continues to uncover, such that there is a convergence between the two disciplines of science and spirituality. This only confirms that, at the end of the day, the quest of both disciplines is a search for that Great Truth which is reflected in all that exists, including us human beings. The rishis used the term Brahman for it, for western philosophers it is Ultimate Reality, and for the Abrahamic religions it is God.
All perfectly compatible with the Vedic vision expressed in the saying: Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti – Truth is One, Sages Call It by Various Names. This is another expression of what Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, in his later years President-Philosopher of India, wrote in his book The Hindu View of Life – to wit that Hindus prefer a colourful diversity to a dull uniformity: of thought and ideas, of practices and customs.
And Makar Sankranti illustrates this superbly, for this great festival is celebrated throughout India under different local names such as Pongal (boiling) in Tamil Nadu, Pedha Panduga (big festival) in Andhra Pradesh, Lohri (loh: light or warmth of fire and revri: crisp toffee like dessert made from gur, spices and sesame) in Punjab, Maghi in Haryana and Himachal, Uttarayan in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Magh or Bhogali Bihu in Assam, Shishur (winter) Sankraat in Kashmir valley, and in Kerala it is known as Makara Vilakku. It is also celebrated in Laos as Pi Ma Lao, in Thailand it is Songkran, whereas in Myanmar it is Thingyan. In Nepal, it is known as Maghe Sankrati and in Cambodia Moha Sangkran.
As for me, time now to have my khichree, the yummy dal and rice meal laced with ghee that is our local tradition on the day of Makar Sankranti.
Makar Sankranti Abhinandan to all!
* Published in print edition on 15 January 2021