A Farewell To The Evolved Soul

On 21 – 12 – 2007  my husband’s aunt passed away, a plain tribute, in my opinion, will negate all that she represented; it will do an injustice to her spirit that defied structures of all types. Before I write the memoriam I want to make my position clear. I did not know the subject too well, did not have many opportunities to get very close to her. I lived for many years after my marriage outside Chennai and as soon as we returned to Chennai I had been smothered with responsibilities and had to grapple with the grief at the loss of my parents, I had drawn myself into a shell. This writing is not only an emotional response to the passing away of my husband’s aunt (will henceforth be referred as my aunt, and will also refer to my husband’s uncle as my uncle) but is as much an urge to engage in exploring the complexities of human relationships, the motives behind the choices we make and the ironies of life.

My aunt’s biography is difficult to put together as her life followed a trajectory that was unique in many ways. She hailed from Vellore and was married to my father-in-law’s youngest brother who was from Chittoor. Her name was changed as soon as she was married into the family as her husband’s sister had the same name as hers. I had always wondered what it would feel like for a young bride to be called by her husband by a name that is not what she came with. Did it sound for many days as if her husband was calling some other woman?

The couple lived the most part of their married years in Madras. They have a daughter, who is now 47 and is a mother herself of a twenty year old son. My uncle was a professor of English in a college. My aunt started out as a school teacher in the Chinmaya Vidyalaya and later became the headmistress of the same school. At a time when not many of her generation of women from her family went to work, she was a working woman and a successful one to boot. She rode to work on her moped, crisscrossed long distances the streets of Madras on her own not wanting a man to wait on her. She was fiercely independent and very progressive in her thoughts. She pushed the boundaries of her life, always searched for frontiers beyond the immediate. That was what she set out to do when she got involved passionately in the activities of the Chinmaya Mission along with her husband. It was a definitive path that they were laying for themselves, a path where they were to traverse together but contained as independent entities to themselves.

My aunt and uncle learnt Vedanta and Brahma sutras from renowned gurus like Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda Saraswathi. When I got married and got to know her, she had retired and was actively involved in teaching slokas and the Bhagavad Gita to a group of people, my uncle too had taken to teaching the Vedanta after retirement. It seemed a logical step that they entered Vanaprastha ashrama of sorts after their commitments and responsibilities as parents had been completed and after their retirement from their jobs.

The aunt built a community of students along the years. They stayed with her, became a family during the years that her daughter was busy with her own. My aunt kept herself busy, traveled long distances to teach to her dedicated students. During these years she developed several health problems, she was diagnosed to be diabetic, she had a heart attack, underwent bypass and prior to that angioplasty and the likes. To sum up her health was on a downward slide.

The knowledge of the mortality of her flesh was the test she was forged through, a thorough Vedantin that she was, she watched with amusement the natural course of decay that her body was preparing for. This was the phase when I got to meet her quite a few times and I observed that nothing took the smile from her face; even on occasions that she was breathless she gave her elusive smile. With me she never had anything much to talk, since the time I got married into this family I realized that smiles cemented our relationship.

At about the same time her husband announced that he was going to become a sanyasi. Steeped in Samsara I cannot imagine what it means for a spouse to accept the decision of her partner wanting to become a sanyasi, to renounce life — i.e., marriage, relationships, responsibilities and commitments. Many people in the family found it difficult to accept and understand. Myriad questions crowded our minds – what about his responsibility to his wife whose health was a matter of great concern (her heart condition was having a debilitating effect on her health)? Can’t a person continue to be in samsara and still live a life of deep reflection and understanding?

My aunt seemed to understand and accept his decision; she acted with commendable grace when her husband’s brothers and relative who meant well for her expressed their disapproval of her husband’s decision. Her daughter too seemed to understand the deep understanding that her parents shared that caused such a decision from one and a total acceptance from the other. In fact my aunt sometimes, by her demeanor and detachment appeared more like a sanyasi.

As outsiders we are not privy into the layered relationship between the couple, they remained couple in my opinion even after my uncle took sanyasam. We were looking at them in their new roles, but they were not very different to each other – each seemed to know the yearnings of the spirit that took them on their respective paths. So similar had their pursuits been that any of them would have made a good candidate for Sanyasam, in fact both of them had shifted gears and moved in their own way into the last stage of Varnashrama dharma – one wore the kashayam while the other did not, and that was the only difference.

The greatest blow for all of us was when their only daughter lost her husband suddenly, and she was only 45 and she had a son in his teens.  My aunt became an anchor in their lives, this was only natural. What struck me was she became an indulgent parent wanting to recreate the cocoon of blithe, fun of early motherhood unsullied by pains and suffering; the mother and daughter were able to defy time and regress to idyllic moments when they teamed and started traveling and visiting places and meeting people, putting their past behind them.

And then the end came — the brain hemorrhage that suspended my aunt between life and death for almost a week. My uncle saw the end much before us, he wanted us to let her go. The doctors wanted to give her more time before removing her from the life support systems, and the family opined that being an evolved soul, she would know when to leave. I wonder what worked in the subconscious that would have remained alert with the vasanas of the days just before the blackout. There are many ways I have seen people passing away — my mother was surprised into a sudden death, my father chose his way out; I am confused if death is a larger design and am not clear if human will does prevail.

Did my aunt want to hang on longer for the sake of her daughter and her grandson whom she was fond of? I have read about near death experiences of a few people who felt their soul disengage from the body and watch their dear ones helplessly. As her daughter  visited her at the insular ICU, did she look on, helpless at the strength of matter that  prevailed on her spirit? Like always, did she put up a fight? And what was it for an evolved being like her wanting to hang on instead of slipping away which she would definitely have done on changed circumstances, that is, if it was not necessary to be there for her daughter? Did she not know that someday she would have to let go, and did she procrastinate that day because of her love for her daughter?

The doctors finally gave up hopes as they saw the condition not improve. Her husband (Swamiji) requested the doctors to remove her off the support system the next day, on the  Vaikunta Ekaadasi day and let her go away. He left for Pondicherry for a discourse. On Vaikunta Ekaadasi, she was removed off the Ventilator and she was able to breathe on her own for about 24 hours. The next morning she wrapped herself up and slipped away.

As she lay dead, she seemed so alone, despite having her students and her daughter besides her. The Brahmin lead the grandson through the funerary rituals. I heard, among several mantras ‘Kalyani Namnaha, Athreya Gotra’. I was struck by the irony of these words. She had relinquished her name when she was married into this family and she had left behind her parents’ gotram and had taken her husband’s Athreya gotram soon after marriage. Her marriage was for all purpose defunct and her identity after her death was constructed on what was not hers.  Knowing her sense of humour, she would have joked at this quirk of irony had she been alive to hear this!   


Vaikunta Ekaadasi

Today is Vaikunta Ekaadasi, the eleventh day of the waxing moon in the lunar cycle, in the month of Margazhi. It is believed that on Vaikunta Ekaadasi the devas and the asuras churned the ocean of Milk and the iridescent Lakshmi emerged with amrutham, also the earth was blessed with the like of Kalpa Vriksham, Kamadhenu and Parijatha pushpam – all blessings from Lord Vishnu.

On Vaikunta Ekaadasi, the day sacred to Lord Vishnu, many people throng the Vishnu temples to participate in the day-long sevais done to the Lord; the Lord is dressed tastefully with flowers and ornaments and taken in procession around the temple. These temples remain open the whole night, there are pravachanams, singing of Thiru-vaai-mozhi and other religious activities in the precincts of the kovil, the temple transforms into a hub of activity for the community living in the neighbourhood. Many people spend the whole day at the praharam of the temple.

Ranganatha swami temple in Sri Rangam, Padmanabha Swami temple in Thiruvananthapuram and the Parthasarathy Kovil in Chennai get inundated with devotees; the Swarga vaasal (the gate to the heavens) in the Sri Rangam temple is opened today – Vaikunta Ekaadasi is the only day when the vaasal is opened. (See the pic below)












Early in the morning utsava murthy of Lord Ranganatha dressed in rathna-angi (dress made of rathnam) is lead through the Swarga vassal or vaikunta vassal, also called the parama-pada vaasal, to the thousand pillared hall. It is believed that Lord Ranganatha led the great saint Nam–azhvaar to the heavens through this gate. This gate is then thrown open and the devotees rush through the gate to get the darshan of the mulavar in the supine anantha-sayana posture on ksheera-sagaram. People fervently pray that they too are lead to the swargam, parama-padam or vaikuntam by Lord Ranganatha. This is why Sri Rangam temple is called the Boologa Vaikuntam (the heaven on earth).

This day many people observe fast and attempt to stay awake the whole night in the belief that they will go to Vaikuntam, the heavenly abode of Lord Vishnu. This is not a difficult task for those who spend the night at the temple, or the tradition of staying awake the whole night might have begun with staying up at the temple participating in the activities at the temple. Life, in olden times revolved around the temple. Temple was the cultural, social and religious nerve centre for the community of people living in a village or small town. As cities developed and spread far from temples, the influence of the temple on an individual became less. Religious and philosophical motives governing certain traditions could have been replaced by more temporal intentions. For instance, in the earlier times people staying awake the whole night during Vaikunta Ekaadasi or Shiva Rathri, caught in the atmosphere of bakthi, would have spent the day and night meditating on the Lord. Later, as recent as my father’s days continuous shows of mythological movies were shown in the theatres to enable people to stay awake the whole night. The tradition continues sans the spirit. My father spoke of how he with his cousins spent the whole night at the theatre watching two to three movies at a stretch. When I was young three movies were telecast through the night on the Doordarshan. There are not too many mythological movies, so every year it was ‘Tirumaal Perumai’, ‘Sampoorna Ramayanam’ , ‘Bhakta Prahalad’ during Vaikunta Ekaadasi and ‘Thiru – vilayaadal’, ‘Thitruvarul- chelvar’ and ‘Saraswathiyin Sabadam’ for Shiva Rathri; by the time I was eleven and twelve I had seen these movies several times that I knew the dialogues in these movies by-heart.

The next day, the fast is broken with a special meal that is gentle on the body system whose metabolism would have slowed due abstention from food. A type of keerai (greens) called the avithu keerai is cooked with coconut, a pachidi (sauce) is made with gooseberry and sundakai vatha kuzhambu is included in the meal. This diet acts gentle on the stomach that might have developed acidity with a day’s fast and for ulcers of the mouth caused by staying up the whole night.

Margazhi Thingal, Moondram Dinam

The turf for drawing kolam had to be made ready first. There was a platform running from the entrance of my house to the gate, on either side was our garden, the infamous one tended by the duo – my grand mother and her old gardener. Beyond the gate, and leading to the road was a rectangular patch of land, overgrown with grass and weeds for the best part of the year. There was a small clearing about 5ft x 5 ft where small kolams were drawn every morning. 

First, well before Margazhi, came the task of making this clearing larger. My gardener was pressed into service. He dug into the hard ground and pulled out clods of earth that revealed knots of roots that spread their tentacles on all sides. As he tugged the roots out little tremors ran on the surface as weeds shuddered themselves out of the earth.

He patted and levelled the loose soil. Then it was up to me to discourage weeds and grasses from growing again. My grandmother asked paal kaara Lakshmi who doubled and tripled into various roles after she distributed milk, to bring fresh cow dung everyday and leave it near the gate. The green blob of dung invited me every morning, my grandmother taught me how to mix the dung in water and sprinkle it on the clearing. After a week the cleared ground shone green in the morning light like jade. And I was recommended to keep using the dung till the end of Margazhi.

On the first day of Margazhi that year I plugged my ears with cotton wool, wore a muffler and stepped out into the dark morning. My friend who was half finished through a complicated kolam asked me to sprinkle water, clean the ground and keep pullis. She said that by then she would be finished and will then help me through my kolam.  I had chosen a simple kolam that had straight lines joining the dots to make geometrical lotus pattern. I had taken great pains to keep the dots well aligned and maintain a uniform gap between them, hence the lotuses were all of the same size.  My friend drew large lotuses with manifold petals on the four sides of the kolam. Just as we were finished the bajanai group was returning; the first rays of the sun slanted through fog and cast a golden luminosity, and my kolam appeared like a pearl accentuating a piece of jewellery made of jade.

A Note On Kola Podi 

Usually kola podi was bought from an old man who lugged it and rock salt on a small cart, he measured the powder in padis. My mother bought the podi in an old Amul tin. She took small quantities and mixed rice flour in equal measure. The kola podi  is coarse and is ground from a particular rock. My mother added the rice flour from her kitchen for two reasons. She said that we draw kolams so that small insects like ants got some food, and according to her the kola podi from the market was inedible. She said that using only rice flour to draw large kolams was uneconomical, also the finely ground flour is not easy to use on clay surface. She used only rice flour to draw small kolams in the pujai room and so do I now. She also said that the rice flour gave a pearly brightness to the otherwise dully coloured kola podi of the market.

Margazhi Thingal, Erandaam Dinam

When I was eleven I was initiated into the art of drawing kolams by my mother and grandmother. I sat outside during dark mornings watching my mother draw kolams, she allowed me on certain days to fill colour powders in the kolam, that was only on festive days like Bhogi and Pongal. She also allowed me to write ‘Happy Pongal’ and draw sugarcanes and pots overflowing with pongal on the either sides of her kolam. 

During evenings I feverishly learnt and practiced drawing pulli kolams in my notebook. My friend who lived in the flat above ours was an expert in drawing kolams. She was older to me by four margazhis, had spent five margazhis drawing kolams. So she was definitely my senior and more accomplished in the art of drawing kolams. She adopted me as her protégé, she lent me her book for kolams, marked the simple ones that I could start with. 

My friend’s kolam book was a prized possession, at no cost should I show the kolams in the book to other girls in the neighbourhood she warned. Her book had a rich repertoire of kolams that she had inherited from her mother, grandmother and aunts. 

I copied the simple pulli kolams with great difficulty, the pages were darkened by overt usage of eraser; some of the kolams I abandoned midway as I got lost in the labyrinth of dots. My friend gave me a doleful look, worried how I would fare the next year. “Get your strokes properly first, draw kolam every morning for a year before next Margazhi,” advised my friend. That would be real hard work I calculated, that would mean getting up early every single morning for a year, sprinkling water on the ground, scouring away the extra water and drawing kolam on wet surface.

I was flattered by the fact that my friend lent her kolam book to me, the other girls in the neighbourhood could not understand why she chose such an unpromising person to pass on her knowledge. I did not want to let down my friend. I took her advice seriously that year. 

I would have spent about ten kilos of kola podi that year drawing kolams every morning and on important occasions. On festival days I filled every square area outside my house with kolams. My maid swept a hill of kola podi in the evenings, and shook her head with disapproval at my obsession.

I believed that I was ready for the next Margazhi.    

Margazhi Thingal, Mudhal Dinam


Today is the first day of Marghazhi. I woke up early, and woke my son early too as he had to study for his exams. He wanted to sleep on a little longer. I told him he ought to be up early as there was the larger responsibility of waking the gods up. He knows I sort of get crazy, but not first thing in the morning. I added that waking the gods up is more important than preparing for exams; he sat up immediately with a look that said ‘anytime for anything that is not related to political science and geography’.

“What do you mean?” he asked, not very vocal and wary not to be conned by me in the morning when his alertness is at its lowest. I told him that the month of Margazhi in the temporal world is the morning time in the world of the gods, our activities on this month are tuned towards serving god and the first thing is to make the gods feel that they are going to have a pleasant day by waking them up in a proper manner.

“How’sthatdun?”  By lighting lamps and placing it outside the house, by having bath first thing in the morning, decorating the house with kolams, singing bajans and visiting temples to recite the ‘Thirupavai’. “Is it a holiday today then?” my son asked. “Waking up the gods involves too much work. It has to be declared a holiday.”

“We did this and more before we left for school when I was your age,” I told. My son groaned and took solace in political science to listening to my when- I-was-your-age tirades.

A straggling group of people went around my apartment building singing bhajans, they do this only on the first day of Margazhi, a symbolic recall of the bygone days when every locality had groups of people walking barefoot singing bhajans and collecting rice which was used for making venn pongal the next day and offered as prasadam.

Till I was ten I went with the bhajan singing group of women, men, boys and girls of my locality, singing hoarse as mist made my eyes smart. The group left for the rounds before dawn, cruising through fog and mist of the wintry morning, voices of people drowned by the sound of jalra. More people joined on the way and they took turns in leading the group in singing. I enjoyed these morning detours through lanes and bylanes, my hair moist after the bath and lips dry with the coldness of the morning and the strain of singing aloud. Last of all we returned to where we began and I loved that the best as we ate charkarai pongal or  venn pongal and shundal. On auspicious days there were vadais as well. Each day’s prasadam was sponsored by different families. There was so much prasadam that after I ate my portion I was given more prasadam in dhonais to carry home for my family members.

The Parijatham And My Son

My parijatham plant is recalcitrant, dragging its feet to put out the blossoms of the year. The plant reminds me so much of my son who is entering his teens; the plant too appears to be in young adulthood with its own character and preferences. The plant did not want to be huddled with marudhani on one side and the golden oleander on the other side. I did not want to pamper it, but somehow it was getting sullen and refused healthy growth. It was given its share of attention through the year from me and from my gardener, still the plant felt left behind.

One morning I found a flower, from far it appeared like a jasmine, but the translucent red stem reflected the sun. I knew it was a parijatham flower. I wondered where it came from, I knew my plant was sulking there was no way that it would put out such a beautiful flower, I looked up and saw that the flower had fallen from my neighbour’s garden. I groaned at the uncanny repetition of an incident from my childhood, except that I do not have my grandmother’s patience and compassion.

The next Sunday I waited for my gardener, told him about the flowers from my neighbour’s garden and expressed concern that the winter would pass by and our dear plant may forget that it can blossom. My gardener belongs to the breed that illustrious people like my grandmother come from. He asked me not to worry and told that there is still enough time left for the plant to bear flowers.

I wanted to take no chances, I told my gardener so. With his help I moved the plant to the centre of the terrace, moved the aloe vera and asparagus to keep it company. I put a tall bamboo stick in the middle of the pot, bunched the slouching branches, and fastened it to the stick.

My plant immediately cheered up, the leaves perked up; it enjoyed the attention it was receiving. It stood tall and beautiful. Within a few days my plant showed tells tale signs of budding, the shoots had a fuzz of life. The plant is in no hurry, it is taking its own time like my son who seems to be following his own clock. Being a worrying mother I try to urge him to take the world on, anxious that a winter will pass by. Nevertheless, like my parijatham plant in all its glory my son too will blossom. It is just that I have a world to learn from my grandmother and my gardener.