Monday, April 11, 2011

Asato ma satgamaya

My sister and I, we grew up in a city far away from the roots of our ancestral lineage. We learnt to speak other languages before we were fluent in our mother tongue (which in our case is Malayalam, recognized now as one of the toughest Indian languages to learn!!). But I owe a lot to my mother, who insisted we learn to read and write the language that her parents were familiar with. Her most endearing line was "When you write to them in Malayalam, they can read it again and again - unlike when you talk to them on phone..."

Thus, we learnt the language in all its beauty - along with the rich bounty of poems and songs and of course, movies. This helped us when we finally returned to Kerala, and I joined my 10th standard in Chinmaya Vidyalaya in a quaint little town (which has changed very little even today!) called Kannur. Both my sister and I were above average performers in our Dubai school. But the first day came as a rude shock - even the assembly.

I remember feeling silly and almost tearful standing in the morning assembly, unable to quote a single line from the prayer at the beginning of the day, or a hymn at the end of the day. The first prayer of the day was the famous shloka from the Upanishads :

Asato Ma Satgamaya
Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya
Mrityor Ma Amrutam gamaya

Loosely translated (for some of these words have no English equivalents), it means:

"From ignorance lead me to truth
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality"

The beauty of this prayer is that it does not ask for anything tangible - not food, not shelter, not fame, power, money.... in fact, not even health, or longevity. Neither does it ask for good fortune, or prosperity - no, not even peace of mind.....While some may argue about the "Amrutam gamaya" (the immortality) part, the true sense of this line is something else.

The line actually implores the all-powerful to give one the sense to understand that life, death and all that comes in between, doesn't belong to to the individual. One is then, just part of a larger scheme of things.... which is immortal...

Why have I suddenly thought of this? Well, I am caught up in the frenzy of the Navratris which are scaling demonic proportions in cities like Delhi. All of Delhi put together, crores must have been spent in the name of 'Mata Rani' through 'Jagrans' (all-night gatherings where everyone spends the night in singing hymns appeasing the Goddess) or bhandaras (where food is served free of cost to anyone who visits)....or, at a smaller level, as kanjaks, where money, gifts and prasad are distributed to girls...

Of course, we strictly adhere to the no-onion, no-garlic, no-non veg, no-alcohol regime for these nine days. We also make sure at the end of the nine days, we worship the girls we invite home for the kanjak (many folks i know wash the feet of every girl who come into their home that day...). But that doesn't necessarily mean we respect womankind.. it doesn't mean we will stop leching, molesting or raping our womenfolk.

We worship the Goddess, follow every rule in the book with fervour during these nine days. We ask for wealth from "Lakshmi", prosperity through education from "Saraswati" and power to fight our enemies from "Durga".... what a far call from the prayers I recited every day in the morning....

Is it strange then, that the devotion I felt in the simple one minute invocation of the Gods in blistering heat outside my school, is dearer to my heart than all the rituals I do today?

....Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamayaa!! Jai Mata Rani Ki......


  1. A lovely thought, expressed very lovingly & beautifully. God cannot be impressed by rituals, for He doesn't care for them. He is moved by the devotee's love for Him and his creation.

  2. @Meeta .... thank you .. yes, probably thats what makes Him God!!

  3. @ A ... Thank you, glad you liked it.

  4. Beautiful post Meena.
    We Indians may live in any part of the world, still we have our culture and religion close to our heart and inculcate the same in our kids.

  5. Beautiful are so right about the prayer....

  6. @Shobha ... thank you so much... yes, i have seen it too. We tend to grow fonder of our roots when we move further away from it, don't we? :-)

  7. The answer to that prayer is Jesus Christ.Jesus said that 'I am the truth, I am the light,I am the life,' One can not find life out side of Him. Please read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. That will through light on the prayer. Also the Rig veda's descripition of the purusha prajapathi fits only Jesus Christ.

  8. Sorry for the spelling 'through ' instead of'throw'

  9. @Anon ... I am a believer of the supreme power -whether it it Ram or Christ, is merely a perspective to the trainimg the the mind has recieved. Thank you for coming by. Will certainly read up your recommendations.

  10. We had that same prayer at Kendriya Vidyalaya (and boyy did I love it) and probably the reason why I am more of an "ecumenical" person.. I used to recite those verses with so much of devotion that God actually heard my prayers. I prayed and "I waited patiently for the LORD; And He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps." My personal experience with God is that it is all Him and never our works - it is all His grace (which clearly is unmerited) upon us, His creation. That's why these verses are more powerful than all those rituals put together!!

    1. Thanks to you, I read this post once again, and relived the emotions once again - and coincidentally, it is that time of the year when the Navratra frenzy is at its peak....... Thanks Stanley!

  11. Meena.. asatoma was one of the prayers we said in our school assembly daily and to tell u the truth I didnt know what it meant until I read ur post.. you brought back memories, but knowing the true meaning of these lines, I feel sated and proud that we have uttered such wise words half our lives..
    They are back on my lips again, thanks to you...

    1. Am honored, Punam, that I may have been a cause for you to have said this very comforting prayer again. Our traditions are so rich in their meanings - if only today's people had the patience to understand them!