The mystical quality of rains across cultures

When North India's heat-ravaged plains saw pre-monsoon showers, it reminded a belief- holy men can summon rain from burning skies.
The mystical quality of rains across cultures

When the heat-ravaged plains of North India welcomed a few pre-monsoon showers, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an interesting belief in world culture—that holy men can wring rain out of burning skies by their penance, even by just their presence, by setting foot in rain-starved places.

To begin at home, it’s an old Indian belief that there exist holy men who can make rain come and make it stop, by appealing to the gods. In the Ramayana, the sage Rishyasringa is said to have made rain fall on parched land just by his presence. As recently as the 20th century, it seems former Tamil Nadu CM M G Ramachandran besought a luminous sage revered across the south to save the state from drought, and rains did come.

The sage was the 68th Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (1894-1994). He was away doing padayatra in the Deccan outside TN, which underwent a severe drought. The story has it he was finally besought in despair to return to the state. The sage knew his duty and made his way back. The legend goes that as he crossed into TN, dark clouds began to gather and it rained. Such stories may defy ‘rationalism’ and not be reported in our media, but how do we explain what happened? Meteorological coincidence?

It is a belief that when the Vedas, revered as ‘God’s Breath’, are chanted with sincerity, the good vibrations benefit everybody. It is expressed thus: “Samastha loka sukhino bhavantu” or “May all people everywhere live well and be happy”.

The ancient Jews had a similar belief, as found in the story of scholar Honi, the Circle-Drawer of Galilee, who lived in the 1st century BCE.

It says in the Mishnah, a Jewish work of priestly literature, that Honi “drew a circle, stood within it and said before God, ‘O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children’.

Rain began falling in a half-hearted smatter. Honi said, ‘Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.’ It began to rain with tremendous force. Honi said, ‘Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.’

Then it rained in moderation, until Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They told Honi, ‘Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away.’”

Honi, like Jesus after him, spoke to God as a son to his father. He was later ordered by powerful people to pray for the destruction of political rivals. But he did not want God to hurt Jews or their enemies and was stoned to death for his non-cooperation. Legend says the most appalling storm broke out, destroying the wheat crop of the country. They say Honi “returned” in spirit 70 years later. Greek commentators who otherwise scoffed at miracle men as ‘deceivers’, notably held up Onias (Greek for Honi) as ‘righteous and genuine’.

Such seers give us a standard of behaviour, a reminder that good thoughts and deeds can enable a land’s well-being.

As the burning North cautiously begins to take cheer with the first showers, there’s a poetic promise in the weather report—‘rain-laden winds’. Here, one cannot but salute the ultimate ‘rain queen’, Sri Krishna’s fiery, beguiling consort, Satyabhama, whom we see represented in Kuchipudi dance in the suite called Bhama Kalapam. No less than Patanjali, author of the Mahabhashya grammar book, reportedly gushed in the 2nd century, “Satyabhama is a bhama (vama/woman) par excellence. Whenever anyone mentions the word ‘bhama’, we always think of Satyabhama by the law of pre-eminent association.” Why do we associate her with romancing rains? Mukku Thimmanna, court-poet to Krishnadevaraya, emperor of Vijayanagar in the 15th-16th century, had the answer: “Satyabhama is like a beautiful peacock displaying its iridescent train (kalapam) to the rain cloud that is Krishna (Ghanshyam).”

However, in my humble opinion, nothing that came my way matches the beauty and pain in Valmiki’s eulogy to the rains in the Kishkinda Kanda, Sarga 28, of the Srimad Ramayanam.

Rama and Lakshmana are hunkered down in a cave during the chaturmas, the mandatory monsoon retreat when it is impossible to travel. The cave is halfway up Mount Malayavata, in Kishkinda. Rama has been through a lot already. Now the two brothers are sitting out the rains, after which Sugriva can send his scouts out to look for Sita.

It’s a time of interminable inactivity, compared to which our traffic jams seem paltry. Not only is Rama impatient to move on but he’s also homesick. “Bharata would have begun his monsoon retreat at Nandigram outside Ayodhya on the full-moon day of (the month of) Asadh,” he says wistfully. “And the Sarayu must be full and flowing fast.” But he gamely renews his spirit by appreciating the beauty of nature, birdsongs, flowering trees, magnificent cloud formations and silvery swathes of rain.

Lacking that pristine abundance of nature in cities, how may we connect to the emotional and spiritual potential of rains like Rama did? One thing he says is that rains are when people learn to sing the Sama Veda. Since our classical music comes from the Saman, all we have to do is tune into the rain ragas, the Malhar family. It’s all ours, those uplifting spiritual showers of svaras.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


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