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Bhakti – What Can It Achieve?

The appropriate question to pose would be, ‘Bhakti – What can it NOT achieve?’ At the offset, what is Bhakti? Traditionally several explanations are offered to explain what comprises bhakti. Some state Bhakti is devotion to a personified Godhead, while others maintain that Supreme Wisdom must be defined as Bhakti. To put it in a nutshell, Bhakti is a consuming fire of the soul that takes several forms. In the great Yogic masters, it takes the form of yearning for union with a higher force. In the Karma-Yogī, Bhakti becomes inextricable dedication to his duty. In a devotee of a personal God, Bhakti becomes an all-consuming love for that beloved Godhead. Bhakti can be as simple as pure love for a friend and as profound as the yearning for one’s soul. No description is comprehensive and no description is entirely false. Ādi Śaṅkara says,

अङ्कोलं निजबीजसन्ततिरयस्कातोपलं सूचिका
साध्वी नैजविभुं लताक्षितिरुहं सिन्धुः सरिद्वल्लभम्।
प्राप्नोतीह यथा तथा पशुपतेः पादारविन्दद्वयं
चेतोवृत्तिरुपेत्य तिष्ठति सदा सा भक्तिरित्युच्यते॥

aṅkolaṁ nijabījasantatirayaskātopalaṁ sūcikā
sādhvī naijavibhuṁ latākṣitiruhaṁ sindhuḥ saridvallabham|
prāpnotīha yathā tathā paśupateḥ pādāravindadvayaṁ
cetovṛttirupetya tiṣṭhati sadā sā bhaktirityucyate||

Bhakti is a constant tug at the heart, drawing one towards the creator – much like the tug that inexplicably attaches the Aṅkola seed to its tree trunk, the tug that draws an iron needle to the magnet, the love that binds a noble wife to her beloved husband, the inexorable entwinement of a creeper and the tree it rests upon, the inevitable magnetism between the river and the sea.

– Śivānandalaharī, 61

1. It is believed that the seeds of the Aṅkola tree that are exposed from insects consuming the fruits, return to stick to the tree trunk when rains begin. The seeds then sprout around the tree and grow into separate trees at the base of the parent tree.

A glorious example of such a constant and undying love for the creator was personified by Kannapan. To the undiscerning, Kaṇṇappan was a hunter who was neither read in the scriptures nor given to any form of penance. The Bhāratīya tradition however, glorifies Kaṇṇappan as one amongst the sixty-three Tamil Śaivite saints.

In a small village called Uḍuppūr near modern day Kālahastī was a hunter-chieftan, Nāgan. His son was the valorous Tiṇṇan, a precious son begotten by the grace of Almighty, after many years of yearning on the part of the parents. Nāgan annointed him chief of the huntsmen tribe and Tiṇṇan set out along with a few others, for his first hunt as chief. In the thick of the forest, an engrossed Tiṇṇan was separated from his kinsmen, as he raced after a scurrying wild boar. He managed to catch up to the beast by foot of the hill and to shoot it down, when his eyes fell upon an exquisite Śiva-Liṅga. Tiṇṇan was smitten. One of the tribesmen alone, who had managed to keep pace with Tiṇṇan, stood there, a witness to the inexplicable love that welled up within Tiṇṇan. Unable to tear himself away from the Liṅgam, Tiṇṇan asks his tribesman to leave for Uḍuppūr and to inform his parents that he had decided to stay on in the forest.

Tiṇṇan became consumed with the Śiva-Liṅgam. To him, the Liṅgam was not just a phallic representation, but a living receptacle of his undying love. He conversed with the Liṅgam as he would with a comrade. He inquired of the Liṅgam, ‘are you hungry? Do not fret; I shall bring you the juiciest meal in a jiffy.’ He would leave in order to hunt prey and would return with freshly hunted meat in his hands, water from the river in his mouth, and wild flowers carried in the matted locks of his hair. He would offer the best portion of the meat to the Liṅgam, spit the water upon it as consecrated offering, and shower the Liṅgam with the wild flowers preserved in his matted locks.

A pious preist who had been worshipping the Liṅgam for long, once arrived when Tiṇṇan was away hunting, and was aghast at the sacrilege. He initially believed the meat had been scattered by wild beasts. When the priest found meat at the altar everyday, he became deeply pained. He bemoaned the sacrilege and pleaded with the Lord, ‘who has dared to defile thee thus?’ The Lord appeared in the dream of the priest and said to him, ‘do not mistake the offerings to be sacrileges against me. Th offerings are in fact an outpouring of unimaginable love and adulation. If you wish to see the extent of the devotion of my dear devotee, hide behind the bushes tomorrow and watch.’

The next morning, the priest did as the Lord had instructed him to, and watched with horror, as Tiṇṇan offered meat and spat water unpon the Śiva-Liṅgam. Tiṇṇan began entreating the Lord with loving words. He said, ‘Eat, my Lord. This is the delicious meat of the forehead of a plump wild boar. I can assure you it is delicious because I tasted it first’. As he entreated the Lord thus, blood began trickling down the left eye of the Liṅgam. Tiṇṇan was alarmed. He rushed towards the Liṅgam and tried to wipe the eye with his garment. He then rushed into the forest and brought medicinal herbs to apply to the bleeding eye. When the the bleeding did not abate, he pulled out an arrow and gouged out his left eye. He then placed the eye as a replacement for the diseased eye of the Lord. Much to Tiṇṇana’s delight, the bleeding ceased immediately and Tiṇṇan danced in joy. Within a few seconds however, the other eye of the Lord began bleeding. Tiṇṇan was not fazed. He rejoiced on the other hand, for he had another eye to offer. He placed his left foot (along with the sandals) upon the eye of the lord so that he would be able find the spot when he was blind. He drew out an arrow from his quiver and readied himself to gouge his right eye out, when the Lord burst forth from the Liṅgam with the words, ‘halt Kaṇṇappa; halt. You are henceforth Kaṇṇappan’.

Glorifying Kaṇṇappan and the power of such love, Ādi Śaṅkara says,

मार्गावर्तितपादुका पशुपतेरङ्गस्य कूर्चायते
गण्डूषाम्बुनिषेचनं पुररिपोर्दिव्याभिषेकायते।
किञ्चिद्भक्षितमांसशेषकवलं नव्योपहारायते
भक्तिः किं न करोत्यहो वनचरो भक्तावतंसायते॥

mārgāvartitapādukā paśupateraṅgasya kūrcāyate
gaṇḍūṣāmbuniṣecanaṁ puraripordivyābhiṣekāyate|
kiñcidbhakṣitamāṁsaśeṣakavalaṁ navyopahārāyate
bhaktiḥ kiṁ na karotyaho vanacaro bhaktāvataṁsāyate||

A pair of sandals that walks the streets became the crown of the Lord. Water spat from the mouth became verily (waters offerd in) ceremonial bathing. A morsel of meat that was offered after it had been tasted was transformed to a freshly-prepared consecrated offering, and an uncouth forest dweller was transformed into a crestjewel amongst devotees. What indeed is beyond the reach of Bhakti?!

– Śivānandalaharī, 63

2. The one who placed his healthy eye upon the diseased eye of the Lord.

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Persistence and yearning – Yoga for today’s man

Much has been said of the need for mindful living, and for the need for detachment from materialism. In today’s world that is suffused with both unimaginable pleasures and unthinkable pressures, how feasible is it to lead a life of detachment and mindfulness? Are we all capable of realizing who we truly are, and of what truly comprise the essentials of life? In this fast paced world where every noble act is impeded by a lack of deeper faith or by a lack of true dedication, can man escape the clutches of materialism? Is modern man capable of dedicating himself to a higher cause, or is he capable of sustaining such a monumental effort as seeking liberation? Is he capable of withdrawing from this world into a forest as is described in ancient texts, and is that the only way to attain liberation?

The answer to that quandary lies in persistence, and in recognizing what true Yoga (union with a higher force) is. Great achievements, even that of true wisdom, does not fructify overnight. Sustained effort and the desire to see the task through, are the two pillars upon which triumph sits. The Yogasūtras of the great Patañjali state that triumph (in liberation) rests on practice and the yearning to achieve the desired end.

Retiring from day to day life and seeking the tranquility of forests in order to seek union with a higher self is not the only way to achieve liberation. The Śrīmadbhāgavata-purāna speaks of a character called Jaḍa-Bharata, who is a classic example of what sustained effort can achieve, and of the fact that retirement into the forest alone does not guarantee liberation.

Bharata was born the son of a great Yogī and king, Ṛṣabhadeva. The great yogī retired from worldly living, to the forest, in order to dedicate himself to penance. As he took leave, he instructed his sons in divine wisdom, and anointed Bharata the king of the land. He instructed them, ‘If one gives up the mortal coils with dedication to the omniscient, all pervading Ātma; the guru; me, your father; with tolerance of the twins of opposing experiences such as sorrow and happiness; with control over the senses; and with the deepest longing for the highest truth, He attains to that truth.’ Bharata treated these words as gospel truth. He led a life of purity and righteousness. He ruled over his land with kindness, fairness and dedication. He treated his duties as service to the Almighty and carried them out like they were a form of worship. In other words, he was a true karmayogi, to whom work was worship. This attitude cleansed him of all dross and made him an ideal seeker of true wisdom.

When it was time for him to step down as king, he left the burden of the kingdom to his son and retired to the forest, in order to spend the remainder of his days in contemplation of the Supreme. One fine day, Bharata was seated upon the banks of a river, engrossed in worshipping the sun when the most piteous cries reached his ears. Across the river, on the opposite bank, was a pregnant deer terrified by the majestic roars of an approaching lion. The helpless deer, too exhausted to dart away from the preying lion, fell into the waters, crying out piteously. The terror she experienced from the roars of the lion caused her to deliver the fawn in the river. Bharata was moved by the helpless fawn, who struggled to survive besides the dead mother. He dove into the water to rescue the fawn, and brought the young one to his hermitage. He tended to the motherless fawn and raised it with great care. Slowly, compassion turned to attachment, and attachment to obsession. As his end drew near, Bharata could scarcely think of anything other than the deer. He shed his mortal coils contemplating the deer, and was hence born a deer in his next birth.

This deer however, was unique for its samskāra (roots). It did not mingle with the other deer, nor did it hanker for food like a normal animal. The yogic practices he had indulged in, in his previous birth as Bharata, was not futile. Even though a deer, he lived with the realization that obsession over anything is detrimental. The maturity of his consciousness grew with every passing day, for he reminded himself every day of the essential truth of creation – that there is nothing other the Supreme that is eternal. He shed his mortal coils in the sacred river Gaṇḍakī, when it was time. Even through his birth as a deer, his desire for liberation was strong. This deep yearning led him to a new birth that would help him realize his goal of liberation.

He was now born the son of Aṅgira, a devout man. The small steps he had taken over the past two births had made him a perfectly realized soul. His identification with the Supreme was so perfect, he could not differentiate between people, between the good and the bad, or between pain and pleasure. He readily agreed to undertake any task he was entrusted with, for he did not find anything demeaning. He was given to silence, was pleasant, serene, and so untouched by the world around, he was referred to as ‘jaḍa’ – the inanimate! He was so engrossed in experiencing the divine in everything, He did not bother to defend himself when a band of dacoits carried him away to offer as human sacrifice. He wore the same calm as he did upon the breezy fields, when a man drew his sword to chop off Bharata’s head as an offering to Kālī. He was perfectly realized owing to the small steps he had taken consistently, and owing to lifetimes of yearning for realization. Goddess Kālī could not stand by and watch as the dacoits offered a realized soul as human sacrifice. She burst out of the image to slay all the dacoits and preserved Bharata so he would enlighten men who approached him.

Even in today’s fast-paced and ruthless world, man still has hope for realization and bliss. All he needs to do is persevere in his chosen path, with the deepest longing for wisdom.

नेहाभिक्रमनाशोऽस्ति प्रत्यवायो न विद्यते।
स्वल्पमप्यस्य धर्मस्य त्रायते महतो भयात्॥

nehābhikramanāśo’sti pratyavāyo na vidyate|
svalpamapyasya dharmasya trāyate mahato bhayāt||

There is no destruction to even an iota of effort made (towards realization), nor is there any impediment to such an effort. The smallest of advancement along the path (of self-knowledge) can deliver man from great calamity.

Bhagavadgītā, 2.40

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Pride – The Undoing Of Man

Pride is accepted in the Bhāratīya tradition as one of the six foes of mankind, that impede the blossoming of wisdom. Wisdom may be defined as awareness of the true-self, and pride is one of its greatest undoing, because pride leads man to identify with power that is fleeting and therefore false. Here is an anecdote from Śrīmadvālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa that elaborates how pride keeps one from doing the right thing for the right reasons.

In the Raghuvamśa was born the illustrious king Bhagīratha, who had heard from his very childhood, that sixty-thousand of his ancestors had been reduced to a pile of ashes due to a curse. He had also heard that it is the waters of the heavenly Gaṅgā alone that can liberate them. Bhagīratha decided to undertake the herculean task of liberating his ancestors. He commissioned his trusted ministers to safeguard his kingdom while he undertook penance in the forest. He performed mind-boggling penance to win the grace of Lord Brahmā, who revealed to Bhagīratha that he should please Gaṅgā with his penance. He then set out to perform the most austere of penance to win the grace of Gaṅgā.

Pleased with his penance, Gaṅgā appeared before the king and asked him what he desired. He said, ‘Devī, it is by your grace that my ancestors can be redeemed from the pile of ashes they have been reduced to. Please descend upon earth and deliver my ancestors from the hell they are in.’ Gaṅgā prided herself on being the most pristine river, and a river who was worshipped by the great sages and celestials. She found it unacceptable to flow down to earth, even if it meant her presence upon earth would benefit millions of souls. She said to Bhagīratha, ‘king, I am untouched by sweat and dirt. I am worshipped by gods. If I descend upon earth, I will be sullied by the sins of mankind’. Bhagāratha responded, ‘O’ Gaṅga, it is true that you will be the waters men wash their sins off in. However, you will also be the waters that the great sages of earth will revere as Viṣṇupadodbhavā (born of the feet of Lord Viṣṇu). These great sages who are dear to Lord Viṣṇu, will take a dip in your waters, crying out the Divine Name of the Lord with ecstasy. If you desire the association of these liberated souls, please accede to descend upon earth’.

Gaṅgā agreed to descend upon earth, but warned Bhagīratha that the earth was incapable of bearing the velocity of her descent. She advised him to earn the grace of Lord Śiva, for she said, ‘he alone is capable of bearing the burden of my swift descent’. Bhagīratha did as advised and earned the blessing of Lord Śiva. The compassionate Lord agreed to break Gaṅga’s fall by bearing her upon his head as she descended. He shook loose his matted tresses and stood majestically, his face turned skyward, awaiting the waters that would liberate millions of souls.

Gaṅgā looked down from heaven at the Lord standing there, His tresses swaying in the wind, and was suddenly smitten with pride. Her heart darkened with the venom of arrogance. She mused to herself, ‘I am Gaṅgā, the heavenly river. I am of immense power and inconceivable speed. I shall descend with all my might, that Śiva too is swept away into the nether world.’ The omniscient Lord recognized the dark shadow of pride that seized the heart of Gaṅgā. A playful smile danced upon his lips as she began her ominous descent. He bound her in the unending depths of his matted locks, along with her pride, in a trice! Gaṅgā was trapped. She found herself incapable of emerging from his locks, try as she may.

The velocity of her waves were no match for the will of the Supreme. Her pride which lead her to desire establishing her power over the welfare of sixty-thousand suffering souls, was shattered. Her pride which made her believe she was the most powerful was shattered. Her pride that she was the one blessing Bhagīratha too was destroyed, when he interceded on her behalf. He pleaded with Lord Śiva that he release her from his mighty tresses so that she could liberate his ancestors. Upon the words of Bhagīratha, Lord Śiva released a portion of the heavenly river to flow through his matted locks. Rid of the venom of pride that blinded her to the opportunity of service to mankind, Gaṅga now followed Bhagīratha to fulfil her duty. Bhagīratha became a father to her in some sense, for he opened her eyes to the nobility of her calling. She became known as Bhāgīrathī, the daughter of Bhagīratha. Humility embraces her, and she shone upon the matted tresses of the compassionate Lord like a diamond.
Devī Gaṅgā is worthy of our adulations not only because she is the heavenly river who is capable of destroying all our sins with her waters, but also because she has enacted this līlā in order to teach mankind the value of humility.

तिष्ठतां तपसि पुण्यमासृजन्सम्पदोऽनुगुणयन्सुखैषिणाम्।
योगिनां परिणमन्विमुक्तये केन नास्तु विनयः सतां प्रियः॥

tiṣṭhatāṁ tapasi puṇyamāsṛjansampado’nuguṇayansukhaiṣiṇām|
yogināṁ pariṇamanvimuktaye kena nāstu vinayaḥ satāṁ priyaḥ||

To which noble soul is humility not valuable; add as it does to the merit of the austere, the riches of those seeking luxury, and to the ease of liberation of the detached.

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Madālasā – An exemplary mother

The role of a mother is unquestionably the most significant in the life of a human being. Modern psychology elaborates how a healthy childhood results in a child growing up to be a secure, responsible and valuable member of society. It also documents that most pathologies arise from early, dysfunctional dynamics between a child and its primary caregiver, in most cases the mother. The influence a mother can have over the mental and emotional development of a child is enormous and, in most cases, indelible. In the eyes of the child, the mother is his or her primary model. What the mother says, does and believes, the child imbibes organically. The Śanti-parvā of the Mahabharata states the there is no guru greater than the mother. The Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa elaborates the anecdote of Madālasa, considered by many to be an exemplary mother.

Madālasā was the daughter of the Gandharva king, Viśvāvasu. She was stunningly beautiful, most virtuous and highly evolved spiritually. Once, an asura named Pātālaketu kidnaps her from her garden. Ṛtadhvaja, a prince of the illustrious Raghuvamśa rushes to her rescue. She falls in love with the prince and ends up marrying him. In due course of time the king sheds his mortal coils and Ṛtadhvaja ascends the throne. Soon a son is born to Ṛtadhvaja and Madālasa. The delighted king names the son Vikrānta. The citizens of the kingdom are pleased with the name, the queen however, seems amused; she laughs. When asked why she was amused, Madālasa responds, ‘lord, I see no sense in a name being given to the birthless soul to begin with, especially not the name ‘Vikrānta’. The word ‘Vikrānta’ means one who marches forth (and conquers). The soul is omnipresent and all pervading. How then does it march forth, lord? I am hence amused by the name.’

The newborn babe opens its eyes and began to wail. Madālasa begins singing a lullaby to soothe the distressed child. Only, this was no ordinary lullaby sung by a worldly mother. This song was replete with Vedic wisdom.

She crooned sweetly,

शुद्धोऽसि रे तात न तेऽस्ति नाम कृतं हि तत्कल्पनयाधुनैव।
पञ्चात्मकं देहमिदं न तेऽस्ति त्वं वास्य रे रोदिषि कस्य हेतोः॥

śuddho’si re tāta na te’sti nāma kṛtaṁ hi tatkalpanayādhunaiva|
pañcātmakaṁ dehamidaṁ na te’sti tvaṁ vāsya re rodiṣi kasya hetoḥ||

Child, you are pure and unattached. This name attached to you had only just been given to you; it is but a dream. This body that is comprised of the five elements is not yours; you are but a traveller (in the vehicle called human frame). Why then do you cry?

Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa, 23.11

तातेति किञ्चित् तनयेति किञ्चिद्दवेति किञ्चिद्दयितेति किञ्चित्।
ममेति किञ्चिन्नममेति किञ्चित् त्वं भूतसङ्घं बहुधा मा लपेथा॥

tāteti kiñcit tanayeti kiñciddaveti kiñciddayiteti kiñcit|
mameti kiñcinnamameti kiñcit tvaṁ bhūtasaṅghaṁ bahudhā mā lapethā||

Sometimes one is referred to as the father, sometimes the son, sometimes the husband, sometimes the lover. One is celebrated as kin sometimes and considered a stranger at other times. These titles arise due to the false identification with the body, and fall not prey to such illusions.

Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa, 23.15

Vikrānta grows from babyhood to youth, listening to the wise words of his mother. A sense of detachment for the materialistic world and an affinity for a higher purpose grows along with him. He evinces no desire for the life of a householder. Yet another son is soon born to Madālasā, and the king names him Subāhu, again, much to the amusement of the queen. Subāhu too follows in the footsteps of his brother, imbibing the spiritual values his mother feeds him from the cradle. A third brother, Śatrumardana is born to the royal couple, and he too turns out to be like his other brothers. All three sons retire to the forest seeking liberation.

When a fourth son is born, Ṛtadhvaja urges Madālasā to name him, and she names him Alarka. As Madālasā sets about instructing Alarka in Vedic wisdom, Ṛtadhvaja pleads with her to not initiate him in the path of renunciation. He says to her, ‘raise him in such a manner that he is of use in this world too. Having served mankind, let him then be liberated.’ She accedes to the request. She looks at the newborn baby and says to him, ‘son, grow up to delight my lord. Attend with care to deeds that yield fruit in this world and the next. Child, you are indeed blessed, for you shall rule the earth for long, and shall bring wealth and peace to all. Having thus served mankind, you shall be liberated.’

She continues,

सदा मुरारिं हृदि चिन्तयेथा तद्ध्यानतो त्वं षडरीञ्जयेथाः।
मायाप्रबोधेन निवारयेथा ह्यनित्यतामेव विचिन्तयेथाः॥

sadā murāriṁ hṛdi cintayethā taddhyānato tvaṁ ṣaḍarīñjayethāḥ|
māyāprabodhena nivārayethā hyanityatāmeva vicintayethāḥ||

Meditate ceaselessly on the Lord, Murāri, that you may rise above the six foes of man. Escape the clutches of māyā with discrimination, and ever remember the transient nature of (human life).

Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa, 23.58

बालो मनो नन्दय बान्धवानां गुरोस्तथाज्ञाकरणैः कुमार।
स्त्रीणां युवा सत्कुलभूषणानां वृद्धो वने वत्स वनेचराणाम्॥

bālo mano nandaya bāndhavānāṁ gurostathājñākaraṇaiḥ kumāra|
strīṇāṁ yuvā satkulabhūṣaṇānāṁ vṛddho vane vatsa vanecarāṇām||

Delight kith and kin as a child, dear son, and rejoice your parents by obeying them in adolescence. Fill noble women with joy in your youth and resorting to the forest, serve the hermits as your life nears its end.

Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa, 23.61

Alarka grows up to be an exemplary king of the Raghuvamśa who worshipped truth above everything else. The Valmīki-Rāmāyaṇa states that Alarka gouged his eyes out and offered them to a blind boy because he had promised to give the boy anything he sought. Not only had Madālasā raised three perfect renunciants, she had also raised the perfect man in Alarka.

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Significance of a Guru

Learning any skill is contingent upon us finding a guide who is capable of taking us under their wings, and inspiring us to find the truth we seek. In the world of spirituality where lesson that are learned are not physical but metaphysical, not tangible but intangible, the role of the guide becomes even more significant. In the spiritual path, a disciple is often times unaware of what he wants, and is therefore incapable of achieving his end without the grace of an able guide. Traditionally, two terms are attached to such a guide – ‘Guru’ and ‘Ācārya’. Tradition defines the two as follows –

गुशब्दस्त्वन्धकारः स्याद्रुशब्दस्तन्निरोधकः।

guśabdastvandhakāraḥ syādruśabdastannirodhakaḥ|

The Letter ‘gu’ denotes darkness of ignorance, and the letter ‘ru’, its defier. He who stall the march of ignorance is called a ‘Guru’.

आचिनोति हि शास्त्राणि आचारे स्तापयत्यपि।
स्वयमाचरते यस्मातमाचार्यं प्रचक्षते॥

ācinoti hi śāstrāṇi ācāre stāpayatyapi|
svayamācarate yasmātamācāryaṁ pracakṣate||

An Ācārya is one who incessantly engages with the scriptures, ever lives by the dictates of the scriptures, and inspires the disciple to live by them as well.

Rāmānujācārya was one such exemplary Ācārya. In Uraiyūr, a town neighboring the sacred kṣetra of Śrīraṅgam, lived a wrestler named Dhanurdāsar. He was a wrestler in the King’s court and was married to the lovely Ponnāciyār. His immense might, wealth and glory notwithstanding, he was enslaved by the loveliness of his wife. One day, he accompanied his wife to Śrīraṅgam. With one hand he held aloft a parasol to protect his wife from the scorching sun, and with the other, he spread out a carpet for the delicate feet of his wife to tread on. Swami Rāmājunan happened to notice this, as he proceeded along the road along with his disciples. He was taken aback that a man would be so enamoured with a woman. He chuckled aloud for Dhanurdāsar to hear.

Dhanurdāsar was oblivious to the reaction of the world around. His eyes were peeled to the darting eyes of his gorgeous wife. Swami Rāmānuja was moved to compassion. The Yatirāja (king amongst ascetics) approached Dhanurdāsar of his own accord and asked him, “you are a mighty wrestler, well-renowned and wealthy. Why do you enslave yourself thus, dear man?” Dhanurdāsar responded, “of what use is my might, revered sire? I have nothing in my arsenal that can match the might of my wife’s arching brows and the sharp shafts of her darting eyes! In reality, there is nothing upon this earth that can rival her dancing eyes.” Swami Rāmānujan recognized just how firmly the shackles of materialism bound Dhanurdāsar. He smiled indulgently and said, “what if I were to show you a pair of eyes that far exceed in loveliness, the eyes of your wife?” Without a second thought Dhanurdāsar said, “that is impossible”. Swami Rāmānujan responded, “what if I did?” An intrigued Dhanurdāsar responded, “I shall concede defeat in that case, and surrender to you as your slave.”

Swami Rāmānujan lead Dhanurdāsar straight to the sanctum sanctorum of Śrīraṅganātha. He stood Dhanurdāsar before the Lord and said to him, “behold, Dhanurdāsa, at the pair of lotus-eyes that is unparalleled in its excellence”. The Ācārya had not only recognized what Dhanurdāsar needed, but was willing to go the extra mile in reaching Dhanurdāsar to the destination he did not even know existed. Moreover, he blessed Dhanurdāsa with the vision required to behold the loveliness that was the eyes of the Supreme Lord. Dhanurdāsa’s eyes were now able to grasp the ethereal beauty of the Lord. He stood transfixed in what he beheld before him. As promised, he conceded defeat and surrendered at the lotus-feet of Swami Rāmānujan. Ponnāciyār too recognized the worth of such an Ācārya and surrendered along with her husband. The grateful couple renounced all their wealth and belongings, and moved to Śrīraṅgam so that they may serve the compassionate Ācārya, who has blessed them with the vision to differentiate the eternal truth from fleeting samsāra (materialism). Dhanurdāsar served Swami Rāmānujan with such care that he did not sleep on many occasions. He became Pillai-Uraṅgā-Villidāsar (he who did not sleep) from then. The grace of the Ācārya had transformed him from one who was deep asleep with ignorance to one who was ever wakeful to the Supreme Truth.

गुरौ न प्राप्यते यत्तन्नान्यत्रापि हि लभ्यते।
गुरुप्रसादात्सर्वं तु प्राप्नोत्येव न संशयः॥

gurau na prāpyate yattannānyatrāpi hi labhyate|
guruprasādātsarvaṁ tu prāpnotyeva na saṁśayaḥ||

That which is not found in the Guru, is found nowhere else. One can achieve everything by the grace of the Guru is beyond a shred of doubt.


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Arrogance – Lack of True Perception

Much is spoken of arrogance and about how man is best served when arrogance is given up. What exactly is arrogance and why must it be eschewed? In simple terms, arrogance may be summarized as the false perception of one’s superiority that is combined with the inability to acknowledge quality in others. In a single swoop, the arrogant misjudge their abilities as well as those of the others. Yogic texts pin arrogance down to a single lacuna – namely the non-identification with the higher self or the Supreme. In other words, when one fails to identify with one’s true self, he or she also fails to recognize that all of creation is but a reflection of the Divine Spark.
Running parallel to the non-identification with the Supreme is the identification with the fleeting, which results in man mistaking the ephemeral for the eternal. Arrogance originates from the misconception that man’s possessions are eternal, when in reality they are temporary. Man believes that the knowledge he seemingly possesses, the wealth that is his for the time-being, or the prowess of his limbs are his eternally. He prides himself as unparalleled, and is swept off his feet, little realizing that all he possesses is but fleeting in nature. This ignorance results in arrogance, and translates to cruelty and pettiness in deeds and demeanor. Unless arrogance is quelled, man cannot rise to the summit of perfection, for perfection lies in the recognition of a higher self.
Avatāras descend in order to establish order and to provide man with an exemplar of a perfect life. In their infinite compassion, avatāras enact līlās that explicate to man, how life situations are to be dealt with. Though above attributes and desires, avatāras adorn them in līlās in order to teach man how to rise above them. One such līlā described in the Śivamahāpurāṇa elaborates how the Supreme Lord extinguishes arrogance and helps identify the essential unity in creation. It must be borne in mind here, that avatāras enact līlās and do not identify with materialistic emotions and desires.
At the beginning of creation, Lord Viṣṇu and Lord Brahmā found themselves in an argument over who was superior. Lord Brahmā proclaimed, ‘The Vedas proclaim me to be the self-born Supreme. I am the essence of the universe and its creator.’ Lord Viṣṇu countered, ‘There is no creator, sustainer or annihilator superior to me. I am the supreme light, the all-pervasive Supreme that lies within each atom of creation.’ As they battled on thus for superiority, a liṅgam of blinding brilliance appeared between them. The endless column of light was so spectacular in its appearance, both Lord Brahmā and Lord Viṣṇu were struck with wonder. They decided to put the liṅgam to the test. Lord Viṣṇu assumed the form of a wild boar and set out to find the base of the liṅgam, while Lord Brahmā assumed the form of a swan and soared up, seeking to identify the end of the liṅgam. Thousands of cosmic years rolled by, and yet neither succeeded in the task they set out to complete. Exhausted and humbled, Lord Brahmā and Lord Viṣṇu began glorifying the liṅgam thus, ‘O Supreme One, we are ignorant of Thy true form. Accept our supplication and reveal Thyself.’
Pleased with the eulogy, the Supreme One made Himself visible to Lord Brahmā and Lord Viṣṇu. The two were delighted to behold the saguṇa (attributes) of the nirguṇa (attributeless) Brahman. The Supreme One them crafted the four Vedas from His breath and handed them over to Lord Viṣṇu. He said to Lord Brahmā, ‘unite with the aspect of Prakṛti known as Girādevī (Goddess of speech) and engage in creation.’ Turning to Lord Viṣṇu said the Lord, ‘Take the aspect of Prakṛti called Lakṣmī as your consort and sustain the universe. I, as Rudra, shall resort to the aspect of Prakṛti called Kālī and shall attend to the noble deed of annihilation. It is I who am known by the names of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Rudra owing to the three kinds of actions I engage in during creation, sustenance and annihilation. The wise recognize that (I am like) a single sheet of gold that produces various ornaments, but is essentially the same. A single lump of clay produces various pots. Celestials endowed with superior intellect as yourselves must recognize the underlying reality of all creation.’

यदैकस्या मृदो भेदे नानापात्राणि वस्तुतः।
कारणस्यैव कार्ये च सन्निधानं निदर्शनम्॥

yadaikasyā mṛdo bhede nānāpātrāṇi vastutaḥ|
kāraṇasyaiva kārye ca sannidhānaṁ nidarśanam||

Śivamahāpurāṇam, Sṛṣṭi-khaṇḍa, 9.36

ज्ञातव्यं बुधवर्यैश्च निर्मलज्ञानिभिः सुरैः।
एवं ज्ञात्वा भवद्भ्यां तु न दृश्यं भेद कारणम्॥

jñātavyaṁ budhavaryaiśca nirmalajñānibhiḥ suraiḥ|

evaṁ jñātvā bhavadbhyāṁ tu na dṛśyaṁ bheda kāraṇam||

Śivamahāpurāṇam, Sṛṣṭi-khaṇḍa, 9.37

With these words, the Supreme One rendered himself invisible. Lord Brahmā and Lord Viṣṇu recognized their folly in giving in to pride and arguing who was superior. They recognized themselves to be but a reflection of the Supreme, created by His sheer will, and resorted to their respective realms with humility and wisdom.

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Wisdom – Fruit of Ardor and Perseverance

It is common knowledge that anything valuable can only be acquired through perseverance and sincere yearning or ardor. When this is the case with common materialistic pursuits, it is all the more so with the acquisition of Divine Wisdom. The Kaṭopaniṣad relates the anecdote of Naciketā to explicate how ardor and perseverance can result in redeeming knowledge of the Self. 

There was once a brāhmaṇa by name Vājaśravasa who gave away his possessions with the desire to acquire merit (puṇya). His young son, Naciketā, a precocious child, noticed his father giving away a wealth of cows that no longer yielded milk. Recognizing no merit can accrue from the donation of unproductive cows, the boy importuned his father repeatedly, ‘Whom will you give me away to, father?’ Irate with the boy the father exclaimed, ‘Unto Death I give you!’ Naciketā left for the abode of Yama resolutely, with the following words – ‘Like corns mortals ripen and fall; like corn they rise again.’

Reaching Yama’s abode, Naciketā waited for three days and nights before the Lord of death returned. Even as he entered, a voice resounded in the background, ‘When a spiritual guest enters the house like a bright flame, he must be well received. Those inhospitable to such guests lose all merit (puṇya).’ The Lord of death recognized the inadvertent folly of not welcoming Naciketā as was customary. Yama granted three boons to Naciketā as atonement; a boon for each inhospitable night he had to stand in wait, expecting Yama to return. Naciketā sought with the first boon, that his father’s anger be appeased and that his father receives him with love upon his return to earth. After being granted the boon, Naciketā sought with the second, to learn from Yama, the fire sacrifice that bestows heaven upon the performer. Yama taught the sacrifice to Naciketā as requested. Pleased with the lad’s repetition of the sacred hymns taught to him, the Lord of death conferred a special boon on the boy. He stated, ‘the fire sacrifice shall now be known by your name, child.’ 

Urged by Yama to lay claim to his third boon, Naciketā stated, ‘When a person dies, some state he still exists while others claim he doesn’t. I wish to know the truth behind death – the secret of death.’ Yama responded, ‘The secret of death is one that has baffled even the celestials of yore. Seek of me anything else.’ Naciketā persisted, ‘The secret baffles even the celestials for it is hard to know. I see no boon worthier of having, and no teacher wiser than yourself.’ 

Hesitant to unravel the mystery behind death, Yama endeavored to entice Naciketā with several other boons. He stated, ‘Seek stupendous wealth; seek to be an emperor; seek every pleasure the earth can offer; seek women of unmatched beauty; seek to live as long as you desire; seek sons and grandsons who live a hundred years; seek anything else you desire. Seek not the mystery behind death.’

Naciketā responded, ‘Pleasures of the senses are fleeting, as is life upon earth. What good does stupendous wealth do me when I know I will face you sooner or later? It is the mystery of death I desire to have unraveled. I seek no other boon.’ Immensely pleased with the lad’s ardor and perseverance, the Lord of death proceeds to enlighten Naciketā. He said, ‘I spread before you, the fulfillment of all worldly desires; the power to dominate the earth; delights beyond imagination; you parry these with determination. I see the gates of bliss opening for you, Naciketā.’ The Lord of death then proceeded to reveal the mystery behind the phenomenon called death. He elaborated, ‘hidden in the heart of every creature lies the omniscient Self that is never born, nor will ever die. The Self is eternal and immutable. It is beyond name and form; beyond the senses and time. Those who realize the Self are eternally freed from the jaws of death. Awaken; seek the guidance of an illumined Guru and realize the Self.’ 

Thus, with ardor and perseverance Naciketā received wisdom from Yama; wisdom that had baffled even the celestials for ages. Though the Lord of death tempted the lad with many an enticing materialistic pleasure, Naciketā’s resolve was unflappable. With determination he achieved what he had set his heart upon. 

रत्नैर्महार्हैस्तुतुषुर्न देवाः न भेजिरे भीमविषेण भीतिम्।
सुधां विना न प्राप्नुयुर्विरामं न निश्चितार्थाद्विरमन्ति धीराः॥

ratnairmahārhaistutuṣurna devāḥ na bhejire bhīmaviṣeṇa bhītim|
sudhāṁ vinā na prāpnuyurvirāmaṁ na niścitārthādviramanti dhīrāḥ||

The celestials were neither jubilant by the precious stones the (churning of the milky ocean offered them), nor were they daunted by emergence of the exceptionally venemous hālāhala (upon churning the ocean). They rested not until ambrosia was theirs, for the resolute do not give up on the object they have set their minds on.

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Attachment – The Supreme Trap

The Supreme Trap

Uddhavagītā is a section of the eleventh canto of the Śrīmadbhāgavata. The section that describes Bhāgavatadharma or the code of conduct recommended for the sincere seeker. The section unravels as a dialogue exchanged between Uddhava and Kṛṣṇa, towards the end of the avatāra. The earthly mission that the Lord had intended to accomplish during His sojourn at earth was at an end. The celestials who had descended upon earth in order to serve the Lord too needed to return to their celestial duties. The līlā of annihilation of the Yadu clan was therefore conceived of, employing the curse of the sages as a ruse. Troubled by the turmoil of strife, Uddhava resorted to the presence of the Lord, seeking counsel. The dialogue that ensued between them spans twenty-three chapters of the eleventh canto of the Bhāgavata (7th-29th chapters).

In the avadhūta-upākhyāna, the Lord relates an anecdote to reiterate His admonishment that man must check attachments that spring from the delusion of multiplicity. Said He to Uddhava, “Wise one, I have decided to relinquish earth for my permanent abode. With my exit, the earth will be consumed by the vagaries of the Kali Yuga that stands glaring us in the face. Stay not much longer, Uddhava, for the effects of Kali will gradually change people into self-serving wretches. Relinquish notions of I and mine, and roam about the earth, your focus on perceiving my subtle presence.” Uddhava responded, “Lord, such is the potency of Thy māya, man stands powerless against it. Notions of I and mine assail him to never loosen their grip on him. Battered by the vagaries of the mind, I seek refuge in Thee, ineffective against the onslaught.”

The compassionate Lord provides Uddhava with an anecdote that enlightened him of the adverse effects of attachment. He relates to Uddhava, an encounter between the king Yadu and an avadhūta. Said Kṛṣṇa, “Yadu once chanced upon an exceedingly handsome and blissful avadhūta and became wonderstruck. He posed, ‘Where does your wisdom spring from, revered one? You engage in the world and are yet untouched by desire and unfazed by misery. You have no goal in mind and yet engage in action.’ Responded the avadhūta, ‘King, I have been blessed with countless Gurus who have illumined my path and have ignited the flame of wisdom in me. Listen as I enlist the illustrious Gurus. I have twenty-four Gurus including the earth, wind, sky, water, fire, moon, a pigeon, a serpent, the ocean, a moth, the honeybee, an elephant, and so on. The earth taught me to hold on to my identity, even in the face of hostility. Irrespective of how people treat her, dig a trough into her, she remains true to her nature. I learned one of the most important lessons from the pigeon; the lesson of detachment –

नातिस्नेहः प्रसङ्गो वा कर्तव्यः क्वापि केनचित्।
कुर्वन् विन्देत सन्तापं कपोत इव दीनधीः॥

nātisnehaḥ prasaṅgo vā kartavyaḥ kvāpi kenacit|
kurvan vindeta santāpaṁ kapota iva dīnadhīḥ||

Śrīmadbhāgavata, 11.7.52

Blind love or attachment must never be indulged in, lest one falls prey to misery,
as is evident from (the anecdote of) the unwise pigeon.

There was once a pigeon that lived in the forest along with his lovely wife. Engrossed in each other, the birds roamed about the forest joyously. The husband provided the wife with every whim and fancy, intoxicated with her. In due course, the wife produced handsome fledglings that filled the parents with immense delight. They rejoiced at the developing plumes of the fledglings, their immature caws and coos, and were besides themselves with pride. Once, when the parents were away foraging, a hunter who was passing by chanced upon the nest and trapped the fledglings in a net.The parents returned to find their precious little ones cawing piteously. Distraught at the plight of the fledglings, the mother flew right into the trap and was enmeshed in the net. The husband lamented, ‘Alas, my handsome children are trapped and my faithful wife too has followed my children to her death. Of what purpose if life to me now? How do I bear to live in this wretched nest bereft of my family? I too shall offer myself up to the cruel end the hunter had intended for my children. I shall at least be by their side when death claims me!’ Rambling thus, the pigeon who was unable to sunder his mortal attachment flew into the net to be claimed by the hunter.

Continued the avadhūta, ‘king, such are folks who enjoy a mortal frame but do not endeavor to rise above the drag of attachment, an endeavor to attain liberation.’

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Yakṣapraśnaḥ – A Dialogue between Yudhiṣṭhira and a Yakṣa

Yakṣapraśna is a section of the Āraṇaya-parva of the Mahābhārata, specifically designed to explicate the subtle nuances of dharma. Once, while living in exile from the kingdom, the Pāṇḍavas were importuned by a particular brāhmaṇa to retrieve his fire-stoking sticks that were imperative for his daily fire sacrifice. The sticks had gotten entangled in the horns of a stag, and the frightened beast had galloped like the wind, the sticks glued to his horns!

The Pāṇḍavas saw it as their duty as Kṣatriyas to restore the brāhmaṇa’s sticks so that his sacrificial rites may continue unimpeded. They set out after the stag and gave chase, but as fate would have it, lost the stag. They dropped to the floor under the cool shade of a mighty tree, exhausted and thirsty beyond expression.

Yudhiṣṭhira bade Nakula, the youngest of the brothers, to find a water source in the vicinity. He proceeds forth and chances upon a pristine lake filled with crystal clear water. Overjoyed he descends into the cool waters but is interrupted by a voice, “Touch not the water before you answer my questions, O’ child.’ Disregarding the voice, Nakula drinks from the lake and falls dead. Alarmed by Nakula’s delay in returning, Yudhiṣṭhira orders Sahadeva in pursuit of Nakula.

Sahadeva reaches the lake in due course to find his brother lying lifeless. Dismayed, he hastens towards Nakula. Tormented by insufferable thirst, Sahadeva decides to take a sip of water before proceeding and is met with the same ominous voice. Sahadeva too disregards the voice and ends up a heap in the waters, lifeless. Arjuna and Bhima too meet with the same plight and Yudhiṣṭhira is drawn to the lake seeking his siblings.

Pained by the sight of the lifeless frames of his siblings, he contemplates who could have effected such an end to the mighty heroes. Yudhiṣṭhira recognizes a celestial hand behind the mystery. He proceeds towards the waters to perform the last rites of the siblings when he is accosted by the same voice. Upon cajoling, the voice reveals himself to be a Yakṣa and states peremptorily that he would afford access to the lake only upon being answered. Thus begins a dialogue between the two, comprised of thirty-three sets of thought-provoking questions that encapsulate the dharmic sensibilities of Bhāratīya culture. Here are three sets of questions and answers exchanged between the Yakṣa and Yudhiṣṭhira –

किंस्विद्गुरुतरं भूमेः किंस्विदुच्चतरं च खात्।
किंस्विच्छीघ्रतरं वायोः किंस्विद्बहुतरं तृणात्॥

kiṁsvidgurutaraṁ bhūmeḥ kiṁsviduccataraṁ ca khāt|
kiṁsvicchīghrataraṁ vāyoḥ kiṁsvidbahutaraṁ tṛṇāt||

What is greater than the earth, and what sits higher than the sky? What is swifter than the wind, and what outnumbers grass?

माता गुरुतरा भूमेः खात् पितोच्चतरस्तथा।
मनः शीघ्रतरं वाताच्चिन्ता बहुतरी तृणात्॥

mātā gurutarā bhūmeḥ khāt pitoccatarastathā|
manaḥ śīghrataraṁ vātāccintā bahutarī tṛṇāt||

Mother is greater than the earth; father, higher than the sky. The mind is swifter than the wind, and thoughts outnumber grass.

कश्च धर्मः परो लोके कश्च धर्मः सदाफलः।
किं नियम्य न शोचन्ति कैश्च सन्धिर्न जायते॥

kaśca dharmaḥ paro loke kaśca dharmaḥ sadāphalaḥ|
kiṃ niyamya na śocanti kaiśca sandhirna jāyate||

Which of the dharmas is paramount, and which dharma leads to fruition inevitably? Restraint of what leads to cessation of misery and where does animosity not raise its head?

आनृशंस्यं परो धर्मस्त्रयी धर्मः सदाफलः।
मनो यम्य ने शोचन्ति सन्धिः सद्भिर्न जायते॥

ānṛśaṃsyaṃ paro dharmastrayī dharmaḥ sadāphalaḥ|
mano yamya ne śocanti sandhiḥ sadbhirna jāyate||

Being unsullied by cruelty is dharma-paramount. Adherence to Vedic injunctions is supremely fruitful dharma. Restraint of the mind leads to cessation of misery, and animosity does not raise its head amongst the noble.

किं नु हित्वा प्रियो भवति किं नु हित्वा न शोचति।
किं नु हित्वार्थवान्भवति किं नु हित्वा सुखी भवेत्॥

kiṁ nu hitvā priyo bhavati kiṁ nu hitvā na śocati|
kiṁ nu hitvārthavānbhavati kiṁ nu hitvā sukhī bhavet||

Relinquishing what does man become endearing? Relinquishing what makes man free of regret? Relinquishing what does man become wealthy? Relinquishing what makes man happy?

मानं हित्वा प्रियो भवति क्रिधं हित्वा न शोचति।
कामं हित्वार्थवान्भवति लोभं हित्वा सुखी भवेत्॥

mānaṁ hitvā priyo bhavati kridhaṁ hitvā na śocati|
kāmaṁ hitvārthavānbhavati lobhaṁ hitvā sukhī bhavet||

Relinquishing pride makes man endearing, while relinquishing temper leaves him free of regret. Relinquishing desires makes man wealthy, and relinquishing greed leaves him happy.

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Dīpāvali – Narakacaturdaśī

Warm Dīpāvali greetings from us here at Vedic Cosmos!

The most widely celebrated of Indian festivals, Dīpāvali has deep cultural and spiritual undertones to it. The name Dīpāvali itself means an array of lamps (dīpānām āvaliḥ,) and signifies cheer, wisdom and the triumph of good over evil.

Dīpāvali is associated with Lord Rāma’s return to Ayodhyā after having decimated the rākṣasa-army in Laṅkā, in the northern states of India. In the southern states of India, especially Tamil Nadu, Dīpāvali is called Naraka-caturdaśī, and is associated with the Kṛṣṇāvatāra.

Narakāsura was the son of Bhūmidevī, Mother earth. He was the personification of malice. He imprisoned sixteen-thousand princes and princesses, holding them captive in his dungeon for no apparent reason. He laid siege upon the celestial city of Amarāvatī. He looted Indra of his royal insignia, the parasol, and subjected him to the ignominy of looting his mother’s priced earrings. Indra appealed to Lord Kṛṣṇa, and the Lord arrived at Narakāsura’s city, Prāgjyotiṣapura, amount the redoubtable Garuḍa, with His queen Satyabhāmā by His side. The city was fortified by five moats that the Lord devastated in a jiffy. Past the moats was stationed Mura, a formidable rakṣasa, who charged Kṛṣṇa like the feisty sun of cataclysmic proportions. After decimating him, Bhagavān vanquished the seven sons of Mura, who stood between Him and the hapless princesses who prayed ardently to be rescued. Finally, Narakāsura jumped in the fray and battled Kṛṣṇa. He charged Garuḍa ferociously, and smashed his mace into Garuḍa’s plumes. The avian chariot of Kṛṣṇa stood unfazed, as if assaulted with a wreath of tender blooms. The assault, however, invited the wrath of the Lord. He could stand it no longer, for His dear devotee had been put in harm’s way. He released his Sudarśana-cakra. The brilliant disc, almost imperceptible owing to the its speed, beheaded the rākṣasa and felled him.

Bhūmidevī pleaded with the Lord that her son be redeemed. The compassionate Lord promised her that her son would find redemption in bringing joy to the world by his death, as he had brought misery to it while alive. He promised her that the day her son gave up his body would be celebrated with great pomp and joy. Thus was born, Narakacaturdaśī or Dīpāvali. The word caturdaśī means the fourteenth day of a fortnight. Dīpāvali is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight, and hence the moniker.