Of Ganga Maiya & the Whanganui

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The news of a New Zealand river being granted legal personhood by its Parliament was as widely shared in the #socialmedia as it was treated with a sense of subdued wonder. But, at least it wasn’t scoffed at. The river is called Whanganui. And it is now legally a PERSON – as in, it has the same rights as those of a New Zealand citizen. Apparently, this battle for Whanganui’s rights is 160 years old and New Zealand’s native people, the Maori, who fought it, sang the traditional waita folk song to celebrate this win. A personhood for Whanganui isn’t just about solving a legal tangle, it’s about identity, ecology, and human history above all else. It’s also about something else: Confluence of Maori heritage with ancient Hindu (Indian) heritage and cultural history. According to the article, the local Maori people have always recognized the Whanganui ― which they call Te Awa Tupua ― as “kin” and an “indivisible and living whole”. They view their own health as inextricably linked to the health of the river. There’s even a Maori saying that says: “I am the river and the river is me.” Indians still call the river Ganga, fashionably contorted in English as The Ganges, Ganga Maiya or Maa Ganga. Maiya and Maa both words mean ‘mother’. Ganga maiya also has very many mythological stories about her. She finds a mention in the Rig Veda, the oldest of ancient Indian scriptures. She is also the holiest, purest, and most sacred of India’s rivers. Ganga isn’t alone in her personhood and her divinity. She is joined in confluence by Yamuna and Saraswati, all three of whom merge into one another at the beautiful Triveni sangam (confluence of three rivers) at Prayag (meaning confluence, also a way of referring to Allahabad, a major city in Uttar Pradesh) in Allahabad. Whanganui’s personhood entitles her to ‘$80 million in damages as well as $30 million to improve the new “person’s” health and $1 million to set up a framework to represent the river’s interests’ (link to the HuffPost article). Her interests will now be represented in court by two guardians from the indigenous Maori community. While the modern New Zealand embraces its ancient culture despite its modernity, modern India has tried its utmost and continues to distance itself from that very culture that makes it great. As Indians, we need to keep in mind that when Ganga was Ganga maiya and not The Ganges, pollution and dams were not routine. That for us too ‘I am the river and the river is me’ was as true and pure as the life-giving powers of Ganga’s waters. But, all went downhill when Ganga Maiya became The Ganges, and commission after commission has failed to stem its decline into a highly polluted water body. If we want to become a modern country, we should do it on our own terms – by reclaiming our cultural identity. Our ancient cultures have survived because we learnt to live WITH our surrounding environment and ecology, rather than exploiting it. Whanganui’s legal personhood resurrects the need for this approach in our modern societies. Our emotional involvement with our environment is what makes us truly human, not the cutting off of it. Yes, we think rationally but our motivations have to come from a place of feeling and not logic. The sooner we realise this as Indians, the better it will be for our generations to come. Let us accept and embrace who we are as a people. Let others not guilt us into mocking our own cultural identity that made us valuable enough for them to come and ransack, loot, pillage, and rule us for control over what we had once built. Let’s join in the spirit of the Maori today…  

Har Har Mahadev!

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I write this on the night of Mahashivaratri. The night of Shiva. In India, a Western-educated understanding of Shiva as a ‘deity’, a ‘God’, a ‘Divinity’ is common. He is Lord Shiva, I remember my class teacher at school telling us. Like Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Vishnu, and so on. Address them as Lord. Treat them with respect – this is where the love for labels and titles began. This behaviour was different from that of my elders. Generally speaking and during storytelling, it was Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu… but when talking about their accomplishments, their special attributes, they used the word “bhagwan”. When praying to them, they called them ‘bhagwan’, and it does not mean ‘divine’, it means one who is fortunate or blessed, one who has risen above the ordinary. It is an indicative word. And I would feel a special awe for my teachers, who taught us to respect Shiva and the rest as ‘Lords’. Like that was the right thing to do. Like saying Lord this and Lady that. It felt so cultured, so civilised, and so CORRECT, then. So, I believe all of us who have been through a somewhat elite education system in India, particularly the English Medium, have drunk some amount of this kool-aid. It lets us think we are somehow superior to those ‘others’ calling Ram, well just Shri Ram. Or Krishna, just Krishna. Or Shiva, Shiva. ‘Bhagwan’ was good but it was still Bhagwan, some word in the regional language while Lord was to revere our Gods as ‘Gods’. No lesser than their Gods – the almighty, the merciful, the ever-loving ever-forgiving punisher of sins, giver of life. That God who had a rival in Satan or Shaitaan for our attention. That God who had magical powers to wipe out sins, just not enough to wipe out Satan. The God who was eager to forgive all your sins just as much as he wanted to always watch over you while you went about committing them. The act was yours, motive His, guilt all yours, money His, Glory His. In front of them, Shiva, this crazy ash-covered dude with braided long hair, smoking a chillum (cannabis, yes), bluish body throat downwards, dressed in a leather skin as loincloth, holding a damru, snakes draped around his torso just hanging about, the river Ganges flowing out of his hair bun and the moon perched atop that felt comical, wild, crazy to say the least. It was so ‘unGodly’ to make him come across as the problem child among all these more civilised Gods – some of which you can visualise, others you are not allowed to. It’s like your hippie mom gatecrashing a kitty party at your best friend’s place where her mum is handing out finger food and cocktails in summer dresses. Look how much respect they gave their Gods. And look at us! We made them look crazy: Ganesh had an elephant head, Vishnu had so many arms, always relaxing in a river/sea of milk under the head of a cobra, Goddess Lakshmi floated around in a lotus, Brahma had three heads if multiple arms wasn’t enough; Ram was the most human-like but his rival, that evil Raavan had ten heads, was granted a boon by the crazy Shiva, and was basically revered for his knowledge; Krishna was beautiful and full of grace and human-like but he too had a viraat (large) swaroop (appearance) that a true devotee could see. Somehow all this imagination was seen as tacky and way too much but this imagination wasn’t – that God is like this guy who lives in the clouds and sends us people from time to time to talk to us, live amongst us – his deputies. He’s busy following each and everyone of us down to the last thought & deed but has no time to personally descend and talk to us, man to man. That this God turns water into wine and allowed one of his own to defy laws of physics, allowed him to walk on water, defy laws of biology and allowed a virgin birth. That Garden of Eden and that Noah’s ark. Somehow, that was all okay. This happened and that didn’t. It didn’t occur to me then. This took some time coming. But when it finally did, it came down to making a choice. I was going to go for batshit crazy. Because Hindu culture’s batshit crazy is pointedly ascribed with meanings, historical context, and humanitarian associations. It’s a culture, and not an -ism. Come Ganesh Chaturthi (Ganesh’s birthday) and one can see innumerable moortis of Ganesh playing the harmonium, dancing, even cooking – for those who want to be politically correct, reading a book, writing at his desk, and so on. Ganesh is seen as the ‘God’ of joy, the ‘Lord’ of auspicious beginnings. What’s wrong with celebrating ‘joy’? If Ganesha can be happy doing all these things – cooking, playing harmoniun, reading, and writing, so should we, right? It’s a culture that lets you be. Also, a word on the ‘moortis‘ (images – 2D as well as 3D). It’s different from an idol or statue – the same Virgin Mother all over the world. In the Indian languages, moorat/moorti is used to mean an image or form or embodiment of a person, concept, or idea. A mother (any mother, any woman who has attained motherhood) is seen as a moorat of unconditional love. The result may be the same – a statue, but the underlying context is different. Since the concept of moorti was so flexible, there was full chance that the image in your mind could be different from that in mine. Perhaps this is the reason why our Bhagwans have many hands and many heads. Perhaps that’s why our ‘Goddess’ Durga is invoked at all sorts of tableux during the Pujo in the state of Bengal, used to make cultural and political statements – She could be celebrating the Pujo in her ‘divine’ avatar or slaying rapists in the form of the demon Mahishasur. Imagination at its best. You see? Batshit crazy. You’ll see the good old Buddha lean and meditating, or fat, laughing, and celebrating. Beat that. Ever seen occidental Gods play football? Here’s our Ganesh with both his teams of more Ganeshas. And look who’s the referee – Shiva, Ganesh’s father. It’s a helluva existential match. Thanks to this batshit crazy imagination, some guys down here imagined the concept of ‘zero’. And no Intellectual property rights, too. Imagination in the right direction. They also figured out that the Earth was spherical, and the distance between the Earth and Sun, Earth and the Moon, without any tools or major labs or even a strip of paper – just mental maths. Also very many philosophical, political, cultural, and religious concepts. It’s thanks to this zero that I am writing here, self-publishing a post that can be seen across the world through the internet. Zero. Yoga. Ayurveda. Imagine the money the Indian Sub-continent would have made had all this been patented. Especially in the world of internet and space programmes. In the world of couples yoga and dog yoga. In the world of Golden turmeric latte and texamati rice. So, what better than to say Har Har Mahadev to this imaginative realm called the Hindu culture? Look at these beautiful posters… and tell me this isn’t imagination flying. And why not? We are celebrating Nataraja (lord of dance), the Adiyogi (the first Yogi, smoking a chillum), and the Shiva (In whom all things lie, pervasiveness, also liberation, moving from darkness of ignorance to light) today.  Such was the power he had attained over his body that poison failed to kill him, and the mind was untouched by the harmful effects of cannabis. He was generous, gracious, and had attained extreme perfection in the two things he is known for – Yoga, and Dance. His third eye indicates his heightened sense of intuition, which is known as the highest kind of intelligence. If a man achieved this today, we’d call him God of yoga and dance, just like Sachin Tendulkar’s fans call him God of cricket. But because this happened aeons ago, it appears batshit crazy now. Except that this batshit crazy truly works – Indian classical dance is an amazing tool for story telling and expression of beauty. The yoga is helping more number of people in the West than ever to attain health, well-being, and money, even when practised and taught in an imperfect manner. Is he divine? Yes. Through his contribution to the human race. Is he batshit crazy? Of course he is. You’d have to be, right?, doing what he did?

All Veg doesn’t mean fretting over protein

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Last week when I was watching ‘Dangal’ (great movie, by the way), I saw how the filmy Mahavir Singh Phogat played by Aamir Khan left no stone unturned to ensure his daughters, Geeta and Babita Kumari Phogat, got proper nutrition i.e. protein, after all they were training to become wrestlers. There’s a decent bit of spotlight on their mother’s staunch reluctance to allow the “chikken” into their home and hearth, leaving Mahavir to ask his nephew to build from a scratch a separate fireplace. As if that wasn’t enough, the nephew was also in charge of executing the recipe for chicken curry. The mother, ably played by Indian soap opera sensation Sakshi Tanwar, was left to look on in dismay as the daughters learnt to eat up chicken. I belong to that significantly large community of vegetarians in India and I connected with that part of the story, maybe because in the first week of 2017 on the very second day of my free weights workout of which I’ve had just three so far, my trainer told me to bulk up on proteins. “You’re veg. So you don’t get enough proteins.” That was the verdict after my tryst with free weights (the lightest ones on the row). So, back to the “chikken” scene in ‘Dangal’, I don’t know whether it truly happened in the lives of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters, Geeta and Babita Kumari Phogat. And, while many who will choose to draw inspiration from this story of utter grit, belief, and valour, some part of it will go in the direction of adopting non-vegetarian food in order to achieve physical fitness. Well, as per latest research, that is hardly necessary, according to this article in www.Scroll.in that says You Don’t Have to Feast on Meat to Get your Protein. This story is amazing as well. It speaks of Melbourne’s Andrew Taylor, the Spud Fit guy who ate nothing but potatoes, yeah spuds for all of 2016. He is @spudfit on Facebook and his website is www.spudfit.com, which also has a blog in which he talks about food minimalism, on how junk is punishment, not a reward. In so many ways, spudfit seems like something that would give results totally opposite to being fit, since potatoes (and rice) are usually the first thing that people who are trying to lose weight and or getting fit rid their diets off. However, Andrew Taylor actually lost 53kgs over the year while eating only potatoes, usually mixing with nut or soya milk and at times a can of baked beans. It’s interesting how Taylor explains Spudfit challenge – it’s a challenge to get over your food addiction. Taylor, who describes self as a thinker, learner, wannabe athlete, and a plant-eater, probably did not have to worry about where he was going to get his proteins from. I’m a plant-eater too and have been all my life and this question often pops up. And many Indian youngsters today might be thinking, particularly after what they see in ‘Dangal’ that to be strong and fighting fit, the one thing they need to do is switch to non-vegetarian diets. That is the one thing that Taylor’s Spudfit debunks, supported by new research that says foods contain ‘Hidden Proteins’ that helps us make the recommended daily allowance (RDA). It’s something our mothers and grandmothers have known for long but we’ve chosen to ignore it. Note how Konkani and Maharashtrian diets prominently feature peanuts and sprouts, Punjabis eat paneer (cottage cheese) and dry fruits, South Indian food contains a lot of urad dal, fermented which also provide Vitamin B complex, and so on. In any case, nutrition studies are mostly done on Western populations and Indians require a lower calorie count, relatively speaking. Unless, of course, you’re training to be a wrestler, probably. Then you surely need a lot more protein. But, as far as the original post on the The Conversation by Jennie Jackson, a lecturer in human nutrition and dietitics says in How Much Protein Do You Really Need? that normally people would need 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. And this, apparently, is not hard to achieve even without the meat and poultry.

Taherians rejoice, 2017 is here

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It’s 365 minus 1 and it’s already too much to take. Taher Shah in 2017 Little did I know that while we were performing our annual ritual of playing his videos on the 31st night, Taher Shah, the master of love, humanity, and angels and of course music (of the Angel and Eye to Eye fame) had let spill some more of his creativity into this world. Sharing his message in the link above. Our Taher Shah ritual is a prelude to playing 80s and 90s Bollywood music late into the night as the old year gives way to the new. The exercise is reassuring in the sense that when you start a new year thus, it can’t really get worse. Something like when you break a glass vessel only to expect some chiding, scolding, and maybe shouting by mom and all she says is: “Oh, it’s glass that broke. Don’t worry, good things will happen now”. Ask her if you can go ahead and break more so best things can happen… Or don’t. So for me, Taher Shah’s albums fit into that category. Taher Shah’s latest is a cat video, with golden trees and leaves, the master sitting on a golden throne-like chair, cradling a white cat. His message, a reiteration of love, humanity, and angels i.e. Farishta… ‘She will certainly return your love, just make it angelic and see’. I only have one critique of his message, being inured to all things Taher Shah by now: the man-bun is actually nice. And am not missing the purple bathrobe either. Anyway, adding this to my playlist for 31st December 2017, Are We There Yet?