|The four most holy months in the Indian calendar is, from mid-July to mid-November, is a period of penance, devotion and celebration.
From Ashad Sud 11, Hindus become involved in a series of festive occasions, this day marking the auspicious beginning of the four holiest months in the Hindu Calendar called ‘Chaaturmaas’ has behind it an interesting story. The Puranas tell us that on Ashad Sud 11, Lord Vishnu descends into the Kshirasagar, the ocean of milk, to rest. On this day also, we are told, Lord Vishnu took the form of a dwarf called Vaman. He approached King Bali, who although was born into a demon family was himself a very righteous man. Lord Vishnu asked the King for a gift of land three strides in length. The guru of Bali, Shukracharya, and others warned the King against granting this gift, but the King did not listen. He took an oath to fulfill the wishes of Lord Vaman. As the king took the oath Lord Vaman wilfully grew into a giant. In two strides he covered the earth and heaven. Bali realized at once that God in person had come to test him. He quickly offered his body, on which the Lord placed his foot, thus taking the third promised stride. With devotion, Bali fulfilled the wishes of the Lord. The Lord regained Bali’s complete wealth and kingdom for the gods and Bali by complying won over the Lord’s heart. Lord Vishnu promised to reside forever in ‘Patala’ - the underground world of King Bali.
Laxmiji, Lord Vishnu’s consort became unhappy when she heard of this. How could this be - she in the heaven of Vaikunth and her Lord in ‘Patala!’ Distressed, she approached Shiva and Brahma who on consoling her, promised that they would in the Lord’s stead spend four months of the year in ‘Patala’ each, thus freeing the Lord for eight months. And so during four months of every year King Bali’s tremendous sacrifice and devotion earns him the Lord’s proximity.
During these four months the devout appease the Lord and remember Him all the more because of His absence by taking vows to perform penance, tell the rosary, perform prostrations, circumambulations, daily darshan at the mandir and spiritual reading. A story in the Puranas tell us why it is necessary to enhance our spiritual endeavors during these months :
Once in heaven, Indra the King of the demi-gods, and all the gods and goddesses were seated in an assembly. They were enjoying a dance performed by a beautiful damsel called Rambhaa. In perfect tune with the drums and rhythm Rambhaa danced, pleasing everyone. But towards the middle of the dance, the drum skin tore, and the dance had to be abandoned. A question now arose. Everyone wanted the dance to be completed, but from where would a skin for the drum be acquired that would give the necessary sound. Finally, the god of Death, Yamaraja, pronounced that the skin should be from an animal or person who has never taken any vows or performed any penances. The gods gave Yamaraja complete responsibility for the fixing of the drum.
Yamaraja pondered as to whose skin could be used because everyone has performed at least a small penance.After deep meditation he found an answer, “Subhadra, the sister of Lord Krishna,” he said aloud. He sent his messengers with the necessary instructions. Now it so happened that in the assembly of the gods Naradji was also present. On hearing Yamaraja’s decision he at once descended onto earth and told Lord Krishna about the assembly. The Lord at once approached his sister, Subhadra, and warned her. To say the least, Subhadra was dismayed and amazed. She, the sister of the Lord Himself and the wife of the famous and righteous Arjuna was in such danger! She was born into a divine family, and was surrounded by people of high merit and religious standing, then why this punishment! It was unbelievable.
Lord Krishna advised her to perform the simple ‘Gopadma’ penance. This entailed the sketching of a lotus the size of the hoof of a cow and then worshipping it with certain rituals. At once Subhadra performed the necessary rites. In the meantime, the messengers of Yamaraja arrived. But seeing Subhadra thus involved in service, they had to return empty handed.
Subhadra was of high birth and herself a lady of much merit. Her brother was the Lord Himself and her husband, Arjuna, the favourite devotee of the Lord. Both loved and cared for her intensely. Even then, it was of the utmost necessity that she perform some penance. If Subhadra was forced to observe certain sacred vows to free her from her sins then what of us mortals?
‘Chaaturmas’ is a spiritual season. A season of gaining knowledge, developing insight and strengthening our faith. For four months the entire Hindu atmosphere, at home, the mandir and even work is surcharged with the light of the aspirants' spiritual endeavors.
The slightest acceptance of a vow opens the heart to God and His divinity. There is a constant expectancy. The devotee feels he is doing something concrete on the spiritual path and comes to appreciate once again the God given fruits. He comes closer to God, understanding His ways and laws, and learns by first hand experience the benefits of a spiritual life.
The Bhavishyottara Purana mentions the great advantages of performing penance in 'Chaaturmaas.' It says: "One who forgoes the tastes of the senses, during Chaaturmaas, comes nearer to God and is hence liberated from the cycles of birth and death." Lord Swaminarayan in His Shikshapatri has also instructed the devotees: “My devotees should take up extra vows during Chaaturmaas and those who are weak should take vows only during the month of Shravan.”
We shall briefly see the importance of the festivals celebrated during these four months(Chaturmaas).
During these holy months we have the festival of ‘Guru Purnima’ on Ashadh Sud 15 (16 July 2000 ). For ultimate redemption the Upanishads point to a Guru. The Katho Upanishad says: “Arise and awake! Having approached the excellent and experienced obtain knowledge from them.” The first Guru in Hinduism is Ved Vyasa who wrote the eighteen Puranas including the Shrimad Bhagvat Purana. His birthday is celebrated as Guru Purnima. On this auspicious day Hindus all over India worship (‘pujan’) their Guru. 'Gu' in Sanskrit means one who removes darkness and 'ru' means to throw light i.e. enlighten the aspirant. One who leads an aspirant from the darkness of ignorance into the light of spiritual enlightenment is called a Guru. After having found a ‘Gunatit Guru’ through bowing or surrendering followed by spiritual enquiry and service to him, the aspirant begins his march towards God-realization.
Another festival that merits one with love and devotion for the Lord is the ‘Hindola Utsav’ (swing festival), celebrated for a month from Ashadh Vad 2 to Shravan Vad 21 . This festival has its roots in the devotion of the Gopis for Lord Krishna. In the natural gardens of Vrindavan they would, out of intense love, swing their Lord on swings made of creepers and overhanging vines. Today, devotees swing the Lord on decorative swings made of wood or silver. These are often decorated with exquisite and artistic designs made of materials such as flowers, vegetables, dry fruits, leaves, sweets, biscuits and fabric.
Installing the Lord's murti on a swing is symbolic of installing Him in one’s heart. The gentle pulling of the swing symbolizes the aspirant’s effort to entertain ‘Hari’ and bring Him closer to himself.
Our holy personages hold ‘Chaaturmaas’ in great esteem, for they are the months when purity and righteousness fill the atmosphere. And out of these four months, Shravan, is revered all the more for it crowns them all. Each day of this month is filled with divinity. Even a small penance or righteous deed performed knowingly or accidentally during this month yield’s great merits (punya). In the Puranas it has been said, "Non-violence is the greatest Dharma". Not only non-violence towards man but against animals of all kinds. The enormity of such a definition of non-violence has not been bettered by any other religion other than the Hindu Faith. ‘Naag-Panchmi’ is one of the highlights of this ideal.
Shravan Sud 5 represents the day when the soil heated during the summer is cooled by the rains and creatures from below ground such as snakes (Naag) come up to the surface. At this time no Hindu makes the mistake of killing any of these creatures and on the contrary he becomes merciful. Naag Panchmi marks the day when worship and ‘pujan’ of the snake deity (Naag) is performed.
On this day we see a confluence of three auspicious occasions. Firstly, the Brahmins change their ‘janoi’ (sacred thread), secondly, devotees take the opportunity of worshipping the Lord and thirdly, sisters tie ‘Rakshaa’ (decorative bracelet made of sponge, cloth and paper) on the wrist of their brothers. Out of these three occasions ‘Rakshaa Bandhan’ has captured the interest and gained wide popularity among the Indian masses.
Several stories relating to the origin of 'Rakshaa Bandhan’ are found in our holy books. In the Vedas we find a mentioning of Sacchi - the wife of Indra, who on tying a ‘Rakshaa’ on the defeated Indra, brought victory to the gods. In the epic battle of Mahabharat we find Kunti tying a ‘Rakshaa’ on Abhimanyu’s hand, which thus earned him fame as a formidable warrior. We also have a story of Lakshmiji tying a ‘Rakshaa’ on Bali’s hand and from then on a tradition of a sister (Laxmiji) tying a ‘Rakshaa’ to her brother (Bali) was born.
The latter story may seem strange for how could Laxmiji, a goddess, ever have been a sister to Bali, a demon? To understand the answer let us look at how the brother-sister relationship materialised. The story says that when King Bali sacrificed everything to Lord Vishnu, the Lord was immensely pleased and promised him that he would stay with him forever. Consequently Laxmiji spent sad days, contemplating on how to bring back her Lord. After having decided to visit her Lord, Laxmiji went to ‘Pataala’, the underground world of Bali. Bali was very happy to see Laxmiji and welcomed her with admiration and respect. Laxmiji tied a string on the hand of Bali and became his sister. Bali was all the more pleased and honored for how could he, the sovereign of the demons have Laxmiji, a goddess, as her sister! The new brother felt he should give a present to her new sister. But what could he give to a sister who had everything? Bali then promised Laxmiji to grant her whatever she wanted. Laxmiji asked for her Lord. Bali happily agreed to her wishes.
Even today, each year, the tradition of ‘Rakshaa Bandhan’ once again reminds us of a true sister-brother relationship. It tellingly reminds our sisters to ask for the Lord; for one who has the Lord has indeed nothing more to desire.
5000 years ago at 12 midnight Lord Krishna was born in a jail to Vasudev and Devki. On his advent the chains that shackled his parents snapped, the jail doors opened and the sentries were numbed into deep sleep. The birth of the Lord liberates those fervent souls bound by the worldly fetters. Vasudev carried the new born babe, fearing that Kamsa would kill his eighth child. On reaching the banks of the stormy River Yamuna, Vasudev was troubled with the thought of crossing a furious river. He prayed to the Lord and with a bold faith stepped into the rough waters. Immediately the waters of the Yamuna parted. Vasudev took his child to safety by leaving him in the care of Nand and Yashoda. For centuries the story of Krishna’s birth and his pastimes have been sung, re-enacted and celebrated infusing devotion and peace in the hearts of millions.
Our holy books tell an interesting story about the birth of Ganesh - god of auspiciousness. Once, while Lord Shiva was away from home, Parvati, his consort, created a child with her own powers. She called him Vinayak. The child was very obedient and followed her mother’s wishes to the mark. On one occasion her mother, wanting to have a bath, instructed Vinayak not to allow anyone through the door. While Vinayak was standing at the front door, Lord Shiva arrived home. Neither were acquainted with each other. When Vinayak refused to let the Lord in, Shiva was infuriated. A fight ensued in which Shiva beheaded Vinayak. On seeing the tragic sight of her son Parvati wept bitterly. Lord Shiva, having been told that he had beheaded his own son, rejuvenated Vinayak by placing an elephant’s head (the first animal that crossed his path) on his body. Both Shiva and Parvati blessed their son saying, “Dear child, you shall be the first god to be worshiped in all meritorious deeds. Those who fail to worship you on auspicious occasions shall not be successful. We also pronounce you as the chief of our army - hence the name Ganapati: meaning chief of all ‘Ganas’ (soldiers).”
Ganapati is remembered as a god of profound intelligence as shown by his large elephant head, for his patience to listen to our innumerable scriptures through his large ears. His small elephant eyes endow it with the power of sharp insight and a powerful sense of detecting evil as associated with his snout. He also has an infinite capacity to contain the poison of hatred and evil in his large pot-belly.
The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated with great pomp and festivity in the state of Maharashtra. People instal a murti of Ganapati on this day and offer worship for ten days before ceremoniously placing it in a river.