Things that have led great people to enlightenment

Iranian poet Hafiz was led to God by an impossible love, at the age of 60. He wrote 500 ghazals (songs), 42 rubais (quatrains) and some qasidas (poems of praise). He died at 69.
Iranian poet Hafiz
Iranian poet HafizWikimedia commons

How do we describe an anubhuti or sensation of God’s benevolent hand? I connect it with ‘entheon’, a place to discover ‘God-within’. The mysterious Soma Rasa of the Vedas apparently sparked ‘God-visions’. The Eucharist (“This is my body and this, my blood”) performed with wafer and wine, say some, is a later version of the wine that induced divine inner visions in the first Christians.

A story you may like in this regard is about great Iranian poet Hafiz, born in the early 14th century in Shiraz, once famous as the city of wine and roses. The son of a coal merchant who died in debt, Hafiz was raised by an uncle and worked for a draper and then as a baker’s boy. While doing delivery in a rich neighbourhood, he chanced to see Shakh-e-Nabat, a young woman of exquisite beauty. She remained the unattainable love of his life and many poems were addressed to her.

The utter impossibility of his love led Hafiz to God. After many 40-day prayer-vigils, his moment of ‘God-realisation’ or ‘cosmic consciousness’ came at 60. On the last day of his vigil, he met his spiritual guide Attar of Shiraz (not the famous Farid-ud-din Attar of Nishapur from two centuries earlier). He gave Hafiz a cup of wine and that’s when he had his ‘God moment’. A prodigious output of 500 ghazals (songs), 42 rubais (quatrains) and some qasidas (poems of praise) followed, written only when divinely inspired. He died at 69.

The orthodox mullahs detested Hafiz and tried to oppose his burial by regular rites. But common people of Shiraz loved him, and still do, as I discovered on my visit there. To defuse the conflict, they divided Hafiz’s poetry into couplets and asked a little boy to choose one, agreeing to do as it suggested. The child drew a classic Hafiz barb at the orthodoxy: “Neither Hafiz’s corpse nor life negates him: with all his misdeeds, Heaven awaits him.” So, it is something that came to Hafiz through his anubhuti, the ‘entheon’ in Greek, from which English gets ‘enthusiasm’.

Sometimes, God-love is in our destiny. In several Puranas, including the 11th skanda of the Srimad Bhagvatam, it was foretold a great devotee of Narayana would be born in the southern country in the region watered by the river Palar, present-day north Tamil Nadu. And sage Valmiki wrote: “In the month of Chaitra under the ninth lunar mansion, when the sun had gone to the zodiac sign of Cancer, Lakshmana and Shatrughna were born.” So, when a son was born in 1027 CE to Kesavacharya in Sriperumbudur in the same birth month and zodiac sign as the sons of Sumitra, he was convinced his baby was Lakshmana reborn and named him Ramanuja, meaning Rama’s younger brother.

Ramanuja’s brilliance shone from childhood. He had to hear a lesson only once from his teacher to grasp its meaning, however difficult it was, and he frequently sought out the company of holy men.

At that time, a well-reputed devotee called Sri Kanchipurna lived in Kanchipuram. He went daily from Kanchi to Poonamalli, a neighbouring village, to worship the deity there. Sriperumbudur is midway between these two places, so he would pass Ramanuja’s house every day. Though born “outcaste”, he was revered by priests because of his deep devotion.

One evening, Ramanuja met Sri Kanchipurna. Seeing the tejas or lustre of Kanchipurna’s face, he felt greatly drawn to him. Very humbly, Ramanuja requested him to eat at his house that night. After Kanchipurna had eaten, Ramanuja went to press his feet in service. When the guest protested, citing caste, Ramanuja’s face fell. “It is my misfortune if I cannot serve you. Is it the wearing of a sacred thread that makes a brahmin? Only he who is devoted to God is a genuine brahmin.” It was Ramanuja’s entheon or God-within that spoke. Struck by his devotion, Sri Kanchipurna had a long conversation with him and went his way the next day. They remained greatly attached to each other.

Though lost in thoughts of this mystic heritage, a fractured toe was my particular souvenir of a trip to the Kaveri basin in Tamil Nadu through the fabulous historical belt called Chola Nadu. Every name you went past there was resonant with music, history and bhakti: Swami Malai, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur, Seergazhi, Chidambaram, Thiruppanandar, Thiruvalangadu—they rang like a litany.

Chidambaram (‘chit-ambalam’ meaning ‘little temple’ in old Tamil) is extra special, as it is the one place where Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja, Lord of Dance. It’s still called ‘Thillai’ after the swampy trees that once surrounded it, but there isn’t even one to be found near the temple now. I hobbled in through the South Gopuram, the gate through which saint Thirugnana Sambandar entered in the 7th century. I had to sprint to catch the spectacular noon arati before the sanctum was closed. But I remember feeling peaceful, thinking, “I wasn’t supposed to come to Chidambaram, so if I’m here, I guess I’ll get darshan.”

And I did. But then I felt faint with hunger, fatigue and pain and just wanted to curl up in a cool temple corridor and rest. Suddenly, a voice called from behind a granite pillar. It was a priest, offering lemon and curd rice from stainless steel buckets. I ate some gladly and asked, “May I have more, I’m so hungry.” You’ll never believe what he said: “I’m happy you’re asking. Some people don’t like to eat temple food.” I can’t imagine why, when it’s a gift in God’s name. I like to think of this incident as an entheon moment, an anubhuti, being unexpectedly fed by God’s kindness when I needed it.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


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