great Indian rope trick
Radhika Nagrath pays a tribute to Swami Vivekananda, who influenced millions by his spiritual wisdom, scientific vision and artistic sensibility
EVEN as we celebrate the 144th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda on January 12, the tallest religious icon of the 19th century shows no signs of waning from our memories. The day is now commemorated as National Youth Day. Unravelling the persona of this ‘Condensed India,’ as he was called, we come to know many hidden aspects of this multifarious personality. He is still living through the Ramakrishna Mission centres offering their services all over the world with the motto ‘Jeeva Sewa is Shiva Sewa’.
Vivekananda was a great debator and argumentator, never known to have been vanquished in argumentation by anyone, save by his master Ramakrishna Paramhansa on a few occasions.
He would simply turn over the pages of a book quite hurriedly from beginning to the end, and that was all — the book had been read. He could answer from Sir John Lubbock’s works to the heavy volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
He was both an ascetic and an artist. He was a keen observer of the artistic development of every nation and deplored the degeneracy that had come upon it everywhere, owing to the lack of originality.
In his conversation with Max Muller in England about Greek influence on Indian architecture, the Swami spoke of the far-fetchedness of the theory of the influence of Greek art on India. Seeing Taj during his travels, he had remarked, "If you squeeze a bit of these marbles, it will drip drops of royal love and its sorrow"’
He was an exceptional musician too. He knew, theoretically, the general technique of European music, particularly that of the French. He could sing a love song with as much abandonment as a prayer song to the divinity.
Down to earth
Vivekananda became well known in the US. Once he was given a rousing reception at a railway station as he got down from the train. A Black porter went forward to shake hands with him saying: Congratulations! I am extremely delighted that a man of my race has attained such great honour. The entire Black community in this country feels proud of you." Vivekananda eagerly shook hands with the porter and said warmly, "Thank you. Thank you brother." He refused to deny he was a Black.
He was insulted, humiliated and refused entry into many hotels in the South on suspicion that he was a Black. But he never protested or explained that he was an Indian. A western disciple once asked him why he did not tell them he was from India in such situations. ‘What!’ he replied, ‘Rise at the expense of another. I did not come to earth for that.’
Whenever the discussions turned to education, Vivekananda stressed the need for combining western science with traditional learning. He had a scientific mind and looked forth for invention rather than imitation.
A talk with Jamshedji Tata whom he met on the way to Chicago is the very testament for the same
" Why are you importing matches from Japan to India and giving her (Japan) money ? You are only getting some commission. If you would start a match factory in India, you would get the profit, many people of your country would be employed, and the money of your country would remain there."
Vivekananda had dreamt of a spiritual breadth that would one day embrace all religions. He called his dream ‘the ideal of a universal religion’. By universal religion he never meant any one universal philosophy or mythology or ritual held alike by all. He held, "We must learn that truth may be expressed in a hundred thousand ways" and all ways are right and lead toward the same goal. No one can teach spirituality to anyone. One has to teach oneself, growth must come from inside. "If it be true that God is the centre of all religions, and that each of us is moving towards him along one of these radii then it is certain that all of us must reach that centre. And at the centre, where all the radii meet, all our differences will cease, but until we reach there, differences will exist."
Gift of life
He may have talked about history, philosophy, religion, literature and science, but the gist of what he taught was ‘love’. "It is love and love alone that I preach, and I base my teaching on the great Vedantic truth of the sameness and omnipresence of the soul of the universe." The gift given by him to the nation is the Vedanta that says that man is divine and that the gift of life is the opportunity to realise that divinity.
Indian rope trick
The Bhunda narmedh mahayajna was held this time amid much fanfare
IN the freezing heights of Bachoonch village in the prosperous apple belt of the Spail valley, Bhunda mahayajna stole the thunder on Christmas. More than 70,000 people thronged the village, 9 km from Rohru town, to watch this death-defying rope trick held there to please the local deities after a gap of 70 years.
For locals, the Bhunda practice is nothing unusual — in fact, for them it is as old as the hills. But for strangers, the rope trick was a crazy ritual that could have plunged Kunwar Singh, a traditional ‘Beda’ man, into the jaws of death had he fallen from the rope into the deep nullah.
But he did not. Kunwar performed the rope trick for the eighth time. Interestingly, if Kunwar, who belongs to Lohar caste (family of silversmiths) performs the rope trick 19 times, his family will become twice born — Dvij, the Brahmins. Bhunda narmedh (human sacrifice) mahayajna went almost unnoticed all these years.
In 1996, Bhunda was performed in Pujarli village in Rohru tehsil after a gap of 30 years. In fact, Bhunda has been a part of the culture of the erstwhile Rampur Bushaihar state and Nirmand, now in Kulu district.
It is believed that Bhunda is performed to propitiate local devis and devtas. The deities, in turn, ring out evil spirits and ring in goodwill and prosperity for the villagers.
This time Bhunda in Bachoonch was different in the sense that Kunwar Singh became an "idol" as soon as TV channels Aaj Tak and Star News flashed the three-day-long ceremony live.
Four devtas attended the Bhunda festival — Bondra from Kotkhai, the special guest, Bakralu from Dalgaon village, Maheshwar from Pujrali village and the local Bondra devta of Bachoonch. It is necessary that at least one member of each family from the villages represented by the devtas are present at the ceremony. Otherwise, it is believed, the family would incur the wrath of the devtas.
For more than a month, Beda man eats his meal once a day and gathers clumps of munji grass found in hard to reach Khasnis grasslandsin the hills. He then weaves the sacred rope. An assembly of devtas, malis (human incarnations of devtas) and kardars (in charge of temple treasury) decides the venue and date for the Bhunda sacrifice. The rope measuring over 500 to 800 metres in length is then tied across a nullah that symbolises a "well of death". The beda, a sliding wooden device made by the Beda man is kept on the ropeway. This time the ropeway covered 300 metres and was 50 feet above the ground.
Accompanied by a procession led by a devta, the Beda man reaches the starting point of the hill amid drum beats. A few Brahmins perform puja. He wears a white kafan, containing panchratan — substances put into the mouth of a person while performing his last rites as per the Hindu faith. His wife is adorned with jewellery and declared a widow. At the end, the gifts, jewellery and Rs 35,000 is given to the Beda family from the temple treasury.
If the Beda man dies while trying the rope trick, the panchratan is put into his mouth and it is believed that the deity has accepted the human sacrifice in lieu of dispelling the evils spirits from the village.
If he survives, as it happened at Bachoonch on December 25 last, the villagers struggle with each other to get the panchratan, believing that it has become a divine oblation because the devta had made the sacrifice successful.
After this ceremony, the Beda man is deified and is carried in a palanquin of the presiding devta to the temple complex, where over hundreds of lambs are slaughtered one by one to propitiate the devis and other spirits during the shikha-pher ritual.
The villagers and guests share the divine Bhunda feast at dinner. The entire village offers lambs to the devta that day as per their income. The villagers believe that gods have accepted the Bhunda sacrifice and will ward off evil spells that arrive in the form of epidemics, natural calamities or even crop failures.
Historians say that the Bhunda literally means animal sacrifice. None knows about its exact origin, but they trace it to the cult of Parshuram in the hills, whose temple still stands at Nirmand village in Kulu district, the birthplace of Bhunda. The Narmedh text in the Parshuram temple mentions the Bhunda sacrifice, but nobody can read it as it is written in Tankri script, which is yet to be deciphered.
Also there is no record to ascertain that anybody who performed the ritual nine times actually became a Brahmin or not. The Beda man used to die or fall from the rope as the it covered a longer stretch and was positioned higher in the past unlike today.
"During British rule, this practice was banned after a Beda man had died while performing the rope trick," recall old-timers.
It is believed that the kings of the erstwhile Bushaihar state whose present scion is Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh patronised the Bhunda sacrifice in Rampur-Rohru, part of the Bushair state, where this ritual has become a part of their cultural heritage. The tradition continues among the god-fearing villagers in this belt.
The district administration intervened this time and laid safety nets under the rope. Even the organisers had tied two sand bags of equal weight across both sides of the Beda to help him balance as he slid on the beda, raising his hands skywards.
This has reduced the risk factor. But, Bhunda has staged a dramatic comeback in a new avatar.
Take it lying
NEW Year, New You? Of course. Why not? It has to be done. Everybody says so. say. It’s what we are all meant to be thinking about with the coming of the new year. You may have even been lured by photograph of a woman in lycra running along a beach, abundantly glowing with health and fitness and vitality and the kind of positive attitude that makes it possible to achieve all your goals and a few of other people’s, what the hell, and have you drunk your two litres of Evian because I know I have? This could be the New You. Why not? After all, it’s only about tweaking who you already are to become someone entirely different. The Old You will say it wants the New You very much indeed. "Bring it on," the Old You will say.
The Old You did go jogging once, but flopped down panting before she reached the corner. The Old You says if she can’t be the lady in lycra running along the beach she wants to be the one in the white waffle dressing-gown eating fruit salad — slice of kiwi speared on fork; hair in bunches — while sitting on a balcony with a terrific view. This would, the Old You figures, obviate any need for lycra.
The Old You, with all its dirty habits, is entirely fed up of itself. The Old You is genuinely looking forward to getting its marching orders from the New You, although it seriously wonders if it is even up to marching. The Old You’s current fitness level means it cannot even whip cream without having to take small, panting breaks slumped against the fridge. This may then bring on the need to lie down, perhaps for an hour, but possibly for longer if some interesting soap is on, all of which can distract from becoming a better person and achieving personal goals as well as impersonal ones and making more progress at work.
The Old You’s whipped cream is never as whipped as it could be. The Old You’s trifle is more like soup. The Old You has achieved some local fame with her trifle, which is said to be quite unlike anyone else’s.
The Old You prepares for the arrival of the New You with a great deal of excitement as well as vast amounts of eating, drinking, smoking and being inert. The Old You knows that the New You is not going to put up with any of that nonsense so it’s best to cram in as much of it as possible now.
So, the Old You will go to bed satiated the day before the change. The Old You will be quite drunk, as ever, and will have eaten excessively while taking no exercise, unless you count the distance between the fridge and the TV, which can actually mount up. Sometimes, the Old You can be a little too hard on itself. But it’s OK, because, come morning, the New You will have arrived and it’ll all be fruit salad and balconies and white waffle dressing-gowns.
Come the day of the big change, the New You will definitely want to go running at 6.30am, so that’s what time the alarm is set for. But when it goes off, what happens? What invariably happens is this: the Old You, who has so happily played along until now, has been so optimistic about the possibility of real change, acts like an only child who is presented with a sibling and basically tells it to mind its own business. The Old You, you know, would like to put a pillow over the New You’s face or, if not, at least pinch it on the arm really, really hard. The Old You sits on the New You, pinning it down, so that you cannot get out of bed to go for that run no matter how hard you try, which may not be very hard at all. Still, the New You doesn’t put up much of a fight. It turns out the New You wouldn’t say boo to a goose and is rubbish.
Ultimately, you have no alternative but to turn over and go directly back to sleep and then, by the time you wake up at, say, noonish, there is no sign of the New You whatsoever; no thought of a run. What a loser, the New You annually turns out to be.
You know, in all these years, I don’t think I’ve ever even properly seen its face. It’s not the Old You that always fails you. It’s the New You. As for two litres of Evian a day, and as the Old You will constantly point out, it has its dangers, particularly as it can give you the sort of "full" feeling that can otherwise be achieved with cake.
Here’s wishing everybody lots and lots and lots of cake.
— By arrangement with The Independent