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A Love Letter to Ramanand Sagar

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Ramanand Sagar was honored with the Padma Sri; an award on par with attaining Knighthood, or a Kennedy Center Honor

Recently, I coerced one of my Ramayana buddies into watching the original Ramayana tv series produced by Ramanand Sagar in the late 80’s; a series that revived a whole consciousness and national pride, and had far-reaching effects on what is offered on Indian television today. Having seen at least seven different tv versions of the Ramayana, some of them numerous times, this most recent viewing confirms for me that while there are others I have enjoyed and even “loved”, this original is in a league of its own.

I did not discover the plethora of Indian tv serials available on YouTube and DVD until just about three years ago. I’ve been a lost cause ever since, taking a few other with me down the rabbit hole. We have a secret club (well, not really secret, but somewhat embarrassed at publicly admitting our enthusiasm) exchanging links to yet another subtitled series, and we have been known to shuttle entire sets of DVDs containing hundreds of episodes back and forth from one end of the US to another.

When I have confessed this obsession to various Indian friends young and old, it usually evokes a “you’re kidding — you?” laughing response. That’s generally followed by full disclosure of their own obsessions with similar series.

Those of my own generation, (50’s and above) may then share stories such as the one I heard recently from a woman friend: how excited she was when, as a young woman, she happened to be in a hotel restaurant at the time that the entire cast of B.K. Chopra’s Mahabharat came in. Even telling the tale 25 years later her face lit up with youthful excitement. Or I heard a young father’s enthusiastic recounting of how he recently watched Mahadev online with his children and they used the opportunity after every episode to have a lively family discussion about values, morality and choices.

I hesitate to use the word mythological when describing these series, but it’s the way the genre is referred to by the tv industry.

For us, while it is entertaining for sure, it is not just entertainment. It’s a form of devotional practice—even if it does come with cardboard crowns, hunky actors and subtitles. The very last thing we do at night is to be absorbed in the “leelas of the Lord” (the divine stories of the lives of the avatars and dieties).

Listening to the stories of God’s play on the earth is one of the nine paths of devotion recommended by the great sage Narada in the Narada Sutras; that practice is the core of the Srimad Bhagavatam itself.

Of course, Narada muni probably wasn’t thinking about Mohit Raina as Shiva when he was first disclosing the devotional path, but it’s the 21st century, and there it is.

Convincing my friend to sit through many episodes of this first Ramayana was not an easy task, because it was produced when technology —and perhaps production budgets—were both relatively low. Compared to the avalanche of green-screen / Star Wars-like / Industrial-Light-&-Magic quality mythologicals that now flood Indian TV, this original Ramayana can seem primitive indeed. And some people, my friend among them, just don’t like classic movies with their slower pace and dated production values.

For those who were a part of the 80’s – 90’s Indian television-viewing population, (a group that does not include me), this Ramanand Sagar Ramayana remains the standard against which all other Ramayanas—and there are many—are measured.

For those nurtured on the current generation of shows like Devon ke Dev Mahadev or the current Siya ke Ram with their superhero physiques, stunning sets, drop-dead-gorgeous costumes and video-game-influenced special effects, it takes entirely rebooting a mindset to return to the early days of foil crowns and fully-draped females, not to mention some aging and (gasp!) flabby-by-today’s-standards actors (translation: normal people) in a couple of the famous co-starring roles.

To make an American analogy, I believe Arun Govil, whose placid demeanor and beatific half-smile immortalized his portrayal of Ram, would have about as much chance of being cast to play Ram today as Rex Harrison would have of talk-singing his way through the lead in My Fair Lady—if that musical was being premiered in 2016 instead of in 1956. No one gets cast in a major Broadway production anymore who is not a triple-threat: actor, dancer and singer capable of belting out the big notes.

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Arun Govil as Ram.  He was the first of a trifecta of television actors (Nitish Bharadwaj and Mohit Raina being the others) who learned to cope with viewers who worshipped them as the deities they portrayed. All three were known to handle it with respect and grace.

Comparably, acceptable physical standards for tv and movies have radically changed in the past 15 years, in some cases sacrificing nobility of character and depth of talent for six-pack abs.

I muse that Arun, a handsome actor and very well-proportioned by 1986 standards, would no doubt need to spend three hours a day in the gym to meet current expectations for a hero, as did Mohit Raina during the 2011-2014 filming of Mahadev.

The brilliantly nuanced performance of older actor Dara Singh as Hanuman would never make it to the screen today, nor would Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of Ravan; so much more complex than some of the blustery characterizations of later versions.

So, despite our periodically giving way to laughter at the plastic demon costumes that look like leftovers from the sale section in the back of an Oriental Trading Company catalog, it didn’t take long for us to get sucked right back into the Ramayana vortex, and to be reminded that almost none of the writing in the mythological genre today compares with the powerful level of prose in the screenplays that Ramanand Sagar himself penned—and I say that going only by the English subtitles.

I assume we all know how unreliable subtitles are in conveying the beauty and subtleties of thought of the original language. Subtitles usually represent several degrees of devolution from their source material. By now, I’ve watched enough hundreds of hours of Hindi to know when they are skimping on or changing the English flashing at the bottom of the screen. To be profoundly moved by second-rate translations says something about the power of the original.

Our current viewing has reminded me that portions of Sagar’s scripts—particularly the monologues and question/answer segments—contain philosophical wisdom of the highest order. They come across with a vibrational frequency that remains unmatched. That frequency is the difference between a line that resonates as truth, and one that simply serves up well-known platitudes. I believe it was with the attunement of someone who has imbibed and lived the truths of his dialogues that Sagar succeeded in dispersing Vedic wisdom all over the globe.

Current mythologicals, with each generation of technology, put the emphasis more and more on buff bodies, lush sets and special effects. I admit to thoroughly enjoying all those improvements. Unfortunately, much of the time, improvements in production values have come at the expense of another, higher value—the level of vibration that infused Sri Sagar’s writings in this and other subsequent productions. I am confident that sentimentality is not coloring my observation through a lens of longing for things from my youth, because my youth was spent in the Bronx, NY in a Jewish home and all things Indian were far in my future.

The philosophies Sagar spoke through the mouth of Ram or any number of his other characters are a combination of the many versions of the Ramayana he lists in the opening credits plus his own interpretation. But oh, what an interpretation!

I have come to believe that like Tulsidas, Ramanand Sagar was another incarnation of Sage Valmiki.

Tulsidas, widely believed to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, put the Ramayana into the vernacular to make it available to those who could not access the story in scholarly Sanskrit. It was much like Johannes Gutenberg taking the Bible away from the exclusive provenance of monks and putting it into the hands of the people.

Sagar likewise re-cast the story in the new vernacular—television—and made the Ramayana available again to new generations on an unprecedented scale. His Ramayana has been viewed by at least 100 million people worldwide. Some YouTube uploads, from the many people who have uploaded it, carry viewer numbers in the hundreds of thousands still. Talk about making something available to a new generation! Perhaps only George Lucas has had that level of impact on mass consciousness.

Every year or two, there is a new Ramayana plying the airwaves. Of course there is, it is an inexhaustible source of remakes and retellings, no matter how difficult some aspects of the story are for a modern woman. (I will save wrestling with that topic for another post at a later date). Ostensibly, this newest one (Siya ke Ram) tells the story from the point of view of Sita. I caught a (probably bootleg) upload on YouTube of several episodes. I had to do without subtitles; since that kind of official release may be a few years away. But the story is embedded in me such that I can watch it and figure out most of what’s happening.

Tellingly, I happened to start with an episode where Ram (presumably taking a ritual bath) rises from the river water like Venus on the Half Shell, or Esther Williams in a 1930’s musical—a gorgeous man, dripping wet and stunningly lit. I wasn’t sure if this was the Ramayana or a centerfold shoot. I know that my first association with what I was watching wasn’t exactly devotional. I laughed out loud, both enjoying it and marveling at how the edges of commercialism are pushed.

A quick visit to the series’ Facebook page has the gushings of this generation of fans, that this is the best Ramayana ever, the one they’ll remember forever and ever.

I’m sure that’s true for the audience of now. I also know that, sucker that I am for anything beautiful and artistic as this production is, that I will be on alert for when, eventually, the dvd’s will be released.

But I’m glad I saw it right in the middle of my revisiting that first, landmark Sagar series. Between that one, and the later 2008 version also produced by the Sagar clan, a standard was set in a way that I, and legions of others, will cherish…”forever and ever.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tandav: In Which Shiva Dances on My Fingers to Drop that Cucumber from the Stalk

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The Shiva Tandav: The Dance of Shiva

When you chant something for years on end, whether the prayer is in a language you know or not, you’d best realize that at some point what you are asking for may well be granted.

I was just 15  in 1971, when I heard my first Sanskrit chant in a yoga class. I often quip that the only yoga pose I ever mastered was savasana, lying flat on the floor for deep relaxation in the corpse pose. What did make an indelible impression, though I had not a clue of what any of it meant, was the chanting.

One part of the chant at the beginning of class was, as I was to find out decades later, the “victory over death” prayer; the “Mahamrityumjaya Mantra“:

Om Trayambakam yajamahe sughandim pushti vardhanam urvarukamiva bandhanan mrityor mukshiya mamritat

Like many things from the teen years, it was forgotten as life moved on.

Later in life, with a renewed focus on chanting, I was re-introduced to the mantra and incorporated it into my practice, but not until I was in the lobby of a small hotel in Madurai, India, did I finally understand the meaning. On a huge yellowed wall poster was  an English translation:

“OM. We worship the Three-eyed Lord Who is fragrant and Who nourishes and nurtures all beings. As the ripened cucumber is freed from its bondage (to the stalk), may He liberate us from death for the sake of immortality.”

Cucumber? Somehow, as I had chanted the sacred words thousands of times, I had never imagined vegetables to be part of the equation. I smiled at the unexpected metaphor—even as I understood it to be about releasing attachment to the world as easily as the cucumber falls into the hands of the gardener when the time is ripe.

Now, at least I knew what I was chanting.

I later learned that the chant was part of the Rudram Namakam, a long daily prayer from the Yajurveda invoking God to slay all our bad qualities.

So this particular prayer, which entered my life at 15 and was re-encountered in my 40’s, which I have repeated thousands of times, is all about asking the aspect of the Creator responsible for the destruction of illusions to free you from the iron grip of the world process as a ripe soul, so that true immortality—enlightenment—may be attained.

Buddha statue's hand Generally in Thailand, any kinds of decorated in Buddhist church, etc. they are public domain of Buddhism

The prayer is said to be so powerful that it helps the soul release the body at death and crossover to find its eternal abode. For this reason, when my dear friend Lila was in her last days in hospice, already unconscious, I sat with her playing endless rounds of this mantra 24 x 7 during her final three days, fulfilling her last request to me. Those of us who knew Lila are quite sure that her cucumber fell straight into the hands of her beloved Gardener.

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When I moved 18 months ago from my last comfortable 4-bedroom home in the Northeast into a small bedroom in a shared house with friends in the mid-West, I was partly motivated by economic necessity. The other part was motivated by the chance to live in what unintentionally became an intentional spiritual community. All of us “Spiritual Golden Girls” are, in our own ways, committed to God-realization, by whatever name each calls it. But all also have to find new ways to generate consistent income well into the future in order to meet the basic needs of life in a world that has appeared to become, at our stage, increasingly economically unfriendly.

Around the time of my move I made humorous references to those who understood that I was shifting into the “vanaprasth” or “forest” stage of life.

According to ancient practices in Vedic times, when you finish raising your children, you leave your family and all your possessions because you recognize that, well,  sic transit gloria mundi—”all things must pass”—and that includes you. If you have a spiritual goal, it’s high time to get down to business. (Or, as someone once joked to me: “Why do people start reading the Bible as they get older? Studying for finals!”).

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It is said that Alexander the Great had his body carried out of India with his hands raised to show that you leave the world with nothing. (No, this is not Alexander the Great, but it makes the point.)

While such lofty goals were not exactly the motivation for the move, when the option presented itself, not only did I recognize the practicality, some part of me realized that a bigger force was at work.

For as long as I’ve been on a determined spiritual journey, my prayer has been the same; to attain God-realization in this lifetime. One of the hallmarks of that state is total equanimity regardless of the circumstances.

The Jesuits call this “indifference”. In this context, indifference doesn’t mean “selfishly uncaring”.  It means, not being invested in one side or another of an outcome; being at peace in all circumstances, however things turn out.

Most major spiritual disciplines recognize that state of being, and have lots of practices to cultivate it. Another term for indifference is “equanimity.” A quick check in with any of my house-mates will confirm that I have not yet reached this vaunted state.

Realizing Equanimity: Diamonds Form Only Under Great Pressure

The great ten-headed demon Ravana (aka Ravan) knew something about the result of indifference. In a famous incident from the epic Ramayana, he does what demons do when their ego inflates beyond all limits: he challenges God Himself. (There are many backstories enfolded in this little incident, but I’ll stick to the main points.)

Ravana, a great Shiva devotee, uses his immense strength to uproot Mt. Kailash, Shiva’s Himalayan abode, intending to carry the mountain—Lord Shiva and all—off to his island kingdom of Lanka.

Shiva responds to this display of arrogance by merely pressing down on the mountain with his big toe, trapping Ravana’s (many) hands.

 

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Ravan has 10 heads and lots of extra arms.

But Ravana is no dummy.

He is the offspring of a great Rishi (sage) and a Demon princess. His ten heads are said to represent his mastery of every branch of knowledge. (Alas, knowledge and practice are, as we all know, very different things.)

One such piece of knowledge is that when you need to propitiate an offended diety, it is wise to sing their praises, long and loudly.

Thus, Ravan chants the beautiful poetic verses that have come down the ages, almost hypnotic in their sublime meter. In some versions, Ravana, no stranger to austerities, chants this prayer, the Shiva Tandav Stotram, for a thousand years.

Ravana conquered the three worlds of earth, heaven and the nether regions; he has untold power and wealth. Yet, when under duress, this son of a sage demonstrates that he well-understands what true freedom really looks like:

“When will I worship Lord Sadasiva (eternally auspicious God), with equal vision towards the people and an emperor, and a blade of grass and lotus-like eye, towards both friends and enemies, towards the valuable gem and some lump of dirt, towards a snake and a garland and towards varied ways of the world?”

                                                                                                 —from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana

Shiva—one of whose qualities is being easily pleased—not only releases and forgives the penitent Ravan; he grants him the additional boon of the mystic sword Chandrahas. The gift comes with the warning that if he ever misuses the Chandrahas for an unjust purpose, it will return to Shiva. Then, despite Ravan having won a previous boon of near-immortality, his days will be numbered.

Of note, “Chandra” means moon, and the moon is said to govern the intellect. Perhaps Shiva was giving his great devotee a sword of discrimination in one great last chance at redemption from the snares of the mind—or in his case, ten minds.

Is there any smidgen of a doubt that Ravana will soon abuse this gift and meet his end? Shiva may be “easily pleased” but when granting boons to those craving worldly power, the boons often boomerang on the petitioner, much like lottery winners who end up more destitute than before.

Ravan has become the archetype for the very worst aspects of the human ego. Despite all his great knowledge, and lots of wise counsel, he unfailingly opts for the most self-aggrandizing choice. Yet, his plea to be released is really our plea to be released from enslavement to pampering our endless likes and dislikes, and from the ever-escalating rat-race of attempting to fulfill our insatiable earthly desires.

In short, our ego-generated desires are all born of the illusion that happiness lies just around the corner in the fulfillment of  “if only…”. These desires, in which we invest so much energy, petition and prayer, often constitute exactly the worst thing possible for our ultimate good—yes, even our plan to capture God and carry Him off to our own private abode so He can be our servant and answer our prayers at our convenience.

Well, so much for that idea.

It does not go unnoticed by me that the answer to Ravan’s question “When will I truly achieve equanimity…” is at least in part: “When God drops a mountain on your fingers, that’s when.”

Hmm. So back to that ripe-cucumber-falling-from-the-stalk thing.

cucumbers hanging in the garden

This particular cucumber, (and I know I’m not alone here) clings stubbornly to the entanglement of her old familiar vines and remaining attachments. I may want liberation while still in the body, but, as so much of what used to constitute my world has fallen away, it appears that what is revealed is—as Caroline Myss used to tease her students—that I’d like to achieve it with some sort of recognizably comfortable life, a modicum of economic security, a good manicure and a latte from Starbucks. There’s at least an echo within me of the prayer of the young St. Augustine: “O Lord, make me chaste—but not yet!”

So many days I feel like the guy hanging off a cliff, pleading with God to rescue him. You know the joke: the voice comes from the sky: “Trust and let go!” The guy reflects for a moment and calls out: “Is anyone else there?”

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Be careful what you pray for.

Dam, Dam, Dam, Dam Damaru Bhaje…

In the background, I can hear the Damaru—the drum of Shiva—as the compassionate Lord answers my lifelong prayer and does his ego-smashing Tandav right on my fingers, insistent that I give up my remaining illusions of control, security and a whole host of other things I thought I’d handled.

O Maheshwar, I like my lattes with an extra shot…

Rock climber holding on

When will I be happy, living in the hallowed place near the celestial river, Ganga, carrying the folded hands on my head all the time, with my bad thinking washed away, and uttering the mantra of Lord Shiva and devoted in the God with glorious forehead with vibrating eyes?”

                                                                                         —from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana