“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”
OM and Ganapati - the Essential Name and Form
In the Vedic tradition "the beginning" is a sacred notion that is ritualized and emphasized in time-honored ways to create the best trajectory or outcome. It can be the beginning of a prayer, an endeavor or even a new day. The worship of "the beginning" is the direct link to the very nature of creation and therefore a powerful sadhana. People in this tradition may not consciously relate to what underpins these treasured practices yet it is part of their DNA - the legacy of their culture.
The essential marker of "the beginning" is the inextricable linkage between the sacred syllable OM and Ganapati.Note the use of the singular. These two are one. Even the devanagari script reveals this truth. If you rotate the OM symbol, you see the head of Lord Ganesha, another of the names for Ganapati. Thus OM is personified as Shri Ganesha.
The significance of OM throughout the literature in this tradition cannot be overemphasized. It pervades the Upanishads, the Sutra literature, Puranas, Dvaita and Advaita philosophies and is emphasized by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
OM is the pranava mantra. Pranava cannot be translated in a simple English correspondence.The word is derived from the root "nu" meaning "to praise, extol" and the prefix "pra" meaning "greatly, exceedingly". The primary meaning is "that which is exceedingly praised" or "that by which great praise is given.Often it is defined as the universal hum or sound that is the basis of creation.However, sound presupposes air yet pranava exists before creation and remains when creation dissolves.
Swami Vivekananda speaks of "Sphota", an implied eternal, imperceptible element of sounds and words, i.e. that which gives sounds and words their meaning. He says that no possible means of analysis can separate OM from the eternal Sphota and therefore "it is out of this holiest of all holy words, the mother of all names and forms, the eternal OM, that the whole universe may be supposed to have been created".OM is therefore said to be Shabdabrahma, Brahma manifest in the form of sound.
The depth of symbolism contained in OM fills volumes in the literature of the Vedic Sampradaya.A brief flavor can be given by understanding the way in which the pronunciation of OM organizes and enlivens the production of all sounds in the organ of speech. Mandukhya Upanishad analyzes OM in terms of its three component letters:"A", "U" and "M".The place of articulation of these three letters is a key to understanding how OM represents the whole phenomena of sound production. "A" is the least differentiated of all sounds and is produced in the throat - the root of the tongue."U" rolls the impulse that began at the root of the tongue forward where it ends in the lips represented by "M".Thus all sounds that can be made by the vocal apparatus are contained in OM. But the pranava mantra has four parts. The fourth is the silence that pervades all sound, from which all sound arises, and to which it returns
Many other expressions of three and one arise from this basic idea based on the linkage between the Sanskrit letters and core concepts in the teaching.For example, "A" is said to represent creation and is associated with Lord Brahma."U" is said to represent Vishnu who sustains the world and "M" is said to represent lord Shiva and the final part of the cycle of creation when all is reduced back to essence. The trimurthi therefore represents three projections of the Supreme Reality. OM is therefore the signifier of the ultimate truth that all is one.
OM is also considered to be a pratika, a symbol upon which the whole is consciously superimposed for purposes of worship.The Upanishads recognize that the mind may need steps along the way and means of worship (sadhana) to realize the ultimate truth.Though there are several pratikas, the OM pratika is considered the most important.In this context, the three syllables of OM can represent the three states of consciousness (waking, dreaming and sleeping) which will, through meditation, support the realization of the fourth state (Turiya) which is not itself actually a state, but rather the unchanging reality or awareness that pervades the three states.It is said in Mandukya Upanishad that OM "is verily the Self.He who knows this with his self enters the Self".
The understanding of Turiya, awareness itself yet known as the "fourth", gives us another profound truth of the linkage of OM to Ganapati. The fourth day of the Lunar calendar every month is set aside for the "birth of Ganapati".But what is the birth of Ganapati? It is the emergence in the consciousness of the seeker of all pervading unity.
This relationship between OM, Ganapati and unity is repeated in the understanding of jagat and gaja.The manifestation is known as "jagat" composed of the syllables ja (to be born) and ga (motion).If we invert those syllables, we get the word gaja, the Sanskrit word for elephant. Gaja represents the opposite impulse of the emerging manifold universe. Gaja leads one back to the source.
All of the beautiful symbolism associated with OM and Ganapati, -Shabdabrahma, the removal of the suffering of duality and the reality of a life lived in harmony with the laws of nature - are enlivened by a conscious understanding and alignment with the powerful truths embedded in the gift of OM and Ganapati, the essential name and form.
The Winter Solstice and Makara Sankranti
The word solstice is from the Latin words sol (referring to Sun) and sistere (to stand still). This year, the winter solstice will be Sunday December 21st at 7:04 AM EST. This marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the winter solstice, the Sun is at the greatest distance south of the celestial equator and seems to hang at its lowest point in the sky as if deciding whether it will return along its habitual path or not. Daylight is at its minimum for three days and the breathless world and its inhabitants wait in suspense to see if the giver of light will grace earth anew with its glowing presence. A collective sigh of relief gives way to joy when it becomes clear that the Sun is indeed ascending and the light is perceptively increasing.
It is no small wonder that this awesome event is ritualized from ancient time right up until now. Every culture in its own way has marked this event as evidenced from the myths, stories, archaeological sites (such as Stonehenge), customs and traditions. Most celebrate this notion of a rebirth and return to light. In this context, is no coincidence that the day the Sun is first perceived to be returning is December 24th!
In India, the only Hindu festival based on the solar calendar occurs around this time but is somewhat displaced due to a drift of the solar calendar and the Zodiac (this phenomena is described in an article appearing below). The festival is the Makara Sankranti which celebrates the start of the ascending cycle of the Sun (Uttarayana) marking the beginning of the more auspicious half of the year (punyakalam)
Makara refers to the constellation of Capricorn. Sankranti is from the word sankramana which means to commence movement. Therefore this holiday occurs when the Sun enters the rashi of Makara. Makara Sankranti occurs on January 14th. It is one of the largest and most auspicious holidays in India and is celebrated in hugely varied ways depending upon the region. In South India it is called Pongol and is strongly linked to sharing in the blessings of bounteous crops. However, the thread of renewal, light and the path to moksha is woven all through the regional festivals. For example, it is the custom to discard old and dirty things right before this holiday to make way for freshness and purity. This outer action is but a metaphor for the internal purification that will pave the way for great progress on the path to light symbolized by the ascension of the Sun.
Sayana and Nirayana Cakra: Understanding Ayanamsha
All Vedic astrologers have to deal with the identity crisis that inevitably occurs when clients used to Western chart readings or who simply are looking under the "your horoscope" articles in their newspapers encounter Jyotisha for the first time. Even Jyotisha "diehards" may not really understand why there is not alignment between something as basic as the calculation of what sign and degree a planet occupies in these two systems.
The answer lies in the point of reference used for this all important calculation. Western Astrology relies on what is known as the Tropical Zodiac (Sayana cakra) which uses the Vernal Equinox as the point of reference and the Indian system uses the Sidereal Zodiac (Nirayana cakra) which adopts a fixed star as the point of reference. The reason for the discrepancy between these two is that there is a "wobble" in the rotation of the earth on its axis which results in the Sun not returning exactly to the same point of 0 degrees Aries each spring at the vernal equinox as observed from a fixed star. It misses by a tiny amount (around 50 seconds of arc according to the most widely used reference point) which may not seem to matter much but when it accumulates over years, the vernal equinox is seen to slip back and back into the sign of Pisces then eventually Aquarius and so on. This phenomenon is known as precession of the Vernal Equinox. At the present time, the discrepancy between the two systems is about 23 degrees 57 minutes. This ever increasing difference is known as the ayanamsha (moving part). If you subtract the daily specific ayanamsha from the planet's position in a Western tropical chart, you will wind up with its location in the Vedic Sidereal Chart.
A Western Astrologer is going to fix the Vernal Equinox as 0 degrees Aries regardless of whether the Sun is actually observed against the backdrop of the stars in the constellation of Aries on that particular day and year. In fact, eventually, there can be the bizarre situation where the Sun is actually observed by astronomers in the sign of Libra and a Western astrologer is saying it is in Aries - the opposite sign of the zodiac! This may be a contributing factor to the modern astronomer's opinion about astrology. However, as astrology is, at its heart, a divination system, the important thing is how well the astrologer integrates whatever system is being used with the cognitive faculty of intuition.
Jyotisha, in turn, establishes the planetary position primarily against the backdrop of the fixed stars so that real time observation matches the chart positions. The Sayana cakra or Tropical zodiac is used in Jyotisha to a limited extend for some aspects of calendar calculations. However, the all important mapping of the heavens for the purposes of divination strictly uses the positions of the planets against the Fixed or Sidereal Zodiac - the Nirayana cakra.
Since the stars in the constellation of Aries are very dim, the reference star used for "pointing" to the all important beginning of the zodiac of 0 degrees Aries is one of the brightest stars in the heavens. Westerners refer to it as Spica but it is known as Citra in Jyotisha and is the marker star for one of the 27 nakshatras that bears the same name. Its brightness is reflected in the symbolism of that nakshatras which is known as the "the shining jewel". The ayanamsha based on using Citra as the reference star is known as the Citra Paksha ayanamsha or the Lahiri ayanamsha and is the most widely used in India. However, those of you that have had your charts done by various jyotishis may find some minor discrepancies in the positions of your planets. This is due to the fact that there are variant opinions on the ayanamsha. In some charts, this can result in dramatic displacements either in the main chart or in some of the subtler divisional charts.
Media Corner: Book Review: Women of Power and Grace
- Timothy Conway, Wake up Press, Santa Barbara CA 1994
It is both refreshing and inspiring to encounter a book entirely devoted to the lives of nine saintly women. Coming from diverse backgrounds and representing three of the world's major religious traditions, these lives reflect a truth about holiness that is often overlooked. True spirituality, enlightenment or whatever you wish to call it is far from convenient. We somehow have this notion in the West that once enlightenment dawns, all goes well. This is a confusion of orders of reality. On the level of spirit, that boundless oneness is never lost bringing a connectedness and loss of fear and attachment which remains a permanent feature of life. However, as the stories clearly show, the order of reality called the body can remain incredibly challenging.
You will most likely recognize some of the women, for example, Anandamayi Ma and Mata Amritanandamayi (Ammachi) who are two of the more famous representatives from the Hindu tradition. Other names may be less familiar but their consciousness, service and vision are just as compelling. Some lives are filled with miracles serving as inspiration in a secular world. Others tell of amazing service to humanity under horrific conditions.
This book will be a treasure in any library and a sobering reminder when we are drowning in our own misfortunes or overly proud of our "contributions" what it really means to be challenged and to serve.