Do you remember I wrote about cāturmāsa in September? A week ago, on Monday, the smiling face of full Moon marked the beginning of its final quarter, the month of kārtika, which is especially dear to bhakti-yogis for belonging to Śrīmatī Rādhārānī, Śrī Krishna’s feminine energy. It cases the most intimate pastimes in Vrindavan, the forest village of tulasī tree. Among millions, I’ve taken a vow, in addition to my regular practices, to wake up early, bath in cold water, offer a ghee lamp and sing a compilation of eight stanzas, Śrī Dāmodarāṣtaka, from Padma Purana that reminds of the essence of life.
The austerity of taking an icy shower has a deeper impact than I’d like to think. As unpleasant as it may feel, it is vitalizing. A warm shower cleanses the body but a cold one purifies the subtle self – the mind, intelligence and ego. It removes the mental plaque of hankering and lamenting, and brings the mind, in a shocking fashion, to ‘now’, which is a prerequisite for meditation. It is a sacred act, along with applying auspicious clay markings, tilak, on the sensitive points like the heart, throat, forehead and crown, and dressing in clean clothes. Such routines transform the body into a temple and align it with environments and activities of compatible nature.
One and a half hour before sunrise is known as brahma-muhurta, a period more advantageous for yogic processes than any other. Wagtails, swifts and nightingales softly tune their vocal instruments at such hour during the summer, but now, due to the frosty season, they are composing lyrics in a warmer location, perhaps in Southern Europe or Africa. Only sounds heard in our home are the tapping of a clock on the wall – tick tack, tick tack – and an occasional shuffle on a highway, two kilometres away.
Gradually, the silence is overridden by a brass bell and Sanskrit invocations. When a hint of camphor climbs a column of smoke at the burning tip of an incense stick and blossoms with the sweet aroma of ghee, I’m already sitting on a woollen mat on the floor and reciting maha-mantra, a thirty-two syllable prayer from Kali-Saṇṭāraṇa Upaniṣad. It’s the recommended method of self-realization for the present Age. Unlike most of the Vedic mantras, it’s an open one available for everyone regardless of a prior qualification, gender, race, nationality, religion or language. Because there are no hard and fast rules in chanting it, it won’t produce an ill result even if pronounced incorrectly, jokingly or without comprehending the meaning.
hare krishna hare krishna
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
It’s the only sound I live to hear in the darkness of each morning. Habitually, the mind is restless and wanders around, but I pull it back as often as it tries to treat the mantra as elevator music on the background of my worldly thoughts and desires. The sound vibration is the most valuable gift I’ve been given in this lifetime. It is a relationship in which I am an eternal, individually conscious soul with a temperament of devotional service, instead of being a sack of bones, mucus, blood, senses, moods, cravings, intellect, social status or any other designation I’ve been so eager, for lifetimes, to be recognized by. It is the base, path and destination of love. Sometimes I’m able to immerse in it more profoundly than other. In the phases of enlightenment, like kārtika, it is easier.
The idea of contemplation, study of philosophy, asceticism and taking commitments that are directly linked to Divinity, is to revive a consistent and genuine state of consciousness which defines my culture and lifestyle. It is like charging batteries by being connected to the source of energy. The sense of identity, knowledge and bliss generated, establishes the platform from which I act and make choices at every moment, whether physical, ethical, emotional, social, intellectual or transcendental. It allows a greater freedom from the conditioned nature and lower modes of passion and ignorance.
Cooking, like breathing and the rest of activities we do, is karma which is often misunderstood to mean a punishment or retribution, although it refers to any deed – the universal principle of causality – done either according to or against nature by all living entities. Akarma, which is ascribed to yoga, refers to inaction. It is work executed through the senses, just like karma, but in proper knowledge. It doesn’t accumulate material reaction or entanglement in the cycle of birth and death, samsara. Developing an understanding of one’s involvement and liberation from the karmic network is a privilege and responsibility of a sentient being.
When we speak of cooking, much is said about the sensual,moral and social experience. However, it’s rare to hear a discussion about our relationship with food on higher levels of consciousness. We spend a lot of time thinking about, shopping and preparing eatables according to our values and view of life. Cooking, dining, serving and sharing meals have more potential than commonly given.
When I started practicing bhakti-yoga, I had been a vegetarian for many years. Yet, I had never tasted anything like the food I was served in the temple I visited for the first time. It clarified my thoughts and made me utterly ecstatic. It carried the awareness of the person who had cooked it and, instantly, elevated me from the mental disposition I was at. It was a spiritual revelation. I learnt an attitude or focus while baking, boiling and roasting is the core element that deserves the same level of purity than personal hygiene, ingredients, utensils, location, association, methods and techniques used.
What’s in the heart will be on the plate. Food that comes from the yearning of a soul to exchange affection and serve other living entities and God nourishes our eternal needs, whereas food created by ego, no matter how expertly done, only satisfies the physical and, at best, the metaphysical body. The first will make us blissful and free from further material implications and negative psychic traits, whereas the latter will increase our blindness. There is a gulf of difference in the intensity of happiness and satisfaction derived on a sensual, communal or spiritual realm.
Although a plant-based diet is more compassionate than meat-eating, it is not free from karmic reactions. Sometimes harvesting, storing, transporting and preparing grains or vegetables involve intentional or unintentional violence and, even, killing of other living beings. Therefore, Veda, the authority on yoga and reincarnation, recommends sanctifying food. It involves recognizing one’s interdependent position in the universal organism and respecting all forms of life. For thousands of years, kitchen yogis have been cultivating attributes like equal vision, peacefulness, self-control, cleanliness, humility, truthfulness, tolerance, wisdom and sense of duty in the loving dedication to para-brahman, Krishna, for the immortality of everyone, the savoured and those who savour. Following in their footsteps, I have baked this apple tart.