Legends of Nagapattinam

The golden fish & other  legends of Nagapattinam
Sthala Puranas of Bharat

Nagapattinam has a very ancient history. In fact, in Brahmananda Purana [circa 3000 B.C.E.], it is said that the area’s Soundarvaraja Perumal Temple has existed in all four yugas 1.

According to the Purana, Nagapattinam was originally called “Soundaranyam.” It’s current name, which means “City of the Serpent” is derived from the fact that, in Satya Yuga, Adisesha2 performed austerities here in order to obtain the boon of remaining with his Lord forever.

The purana also says that in the same yuga, the Vishnu devotee Dhruva performed austerities here. Dhruva’s intention was to get Lord Vishnu to appear before him and request the boon of becoming ruler of the entire world. According to the legend, the Lord did appear, but Dhruva was so overwhelmed by the Lord’s beauty that he forgot his wish and simply requested the Lord to remain in Nagapattinam as Soundarya Rajan [The King of Beauty] and bless the devotees. This is how the temple came to be.

Brahmanda Purana says that in Treta Yuga, Bhoomi Devi performed tapas here, and in Dwapara Yuga, Sage Markandeya. In Kali Yuga, there is a story about a Chozha King falling in love with a Naga princess at the temple.

Perhaps the most beautiful of Nagapattinam’s sthala puranas involves Adibattha Nayanar, the Shaivite Saint who was fisher-king of Nambiar Nagar. According to the story, after each day’s catch, it was Adibattha Nayanar’s practice to select the best fish and offer it back to Lord Shiva by releasing it in the sea. Eventually, Lord Shiva decided to give him a test in order to let the whole world know the glory of Adibattha’s devotion.

Suddenly, the nets of Adibattha and all the other fishermen of his village starting coming up empty. Amongst all the villager fishermen, only one fish a day would be caught. And this, Adibattha would continue to return to the sea. Soon the villagers had no choice but to begin selling off all their belongings in order to survive. But still the dry spell continued. The people eventually began to starve, yet still only one fish would be caught, and Adibattha would always reverently return it to the sea.

When the village’s plight reached its peak, Adibattha had an amazing catch—a single golden fish embedded with precious gems. Selling it would have solved all the village’s problems. It was the supreme test of Lord Shiva. Would Adibattha Nayanar sell the fish or return it as an offering to his Lord? Adibattha did not even flinch. Knowing that all prosperity comes from Lord Shiva alone, he offered the golden fish back into the sea as per his tradition.

At this moment, the Lord appeared and revealed that all had in fact been his divine play. He then blessed Adibattha Naynar and his people with everything they needed.

There are many other stories surrounding this area, including ones involving Sage Vasishta, Kamadhenu, Lord Krishna and Lord Rama.



1 According to the Vedas, a cycle of creation involves for yugas, or ages: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga.

2 The serpent upon which Lord Vishnu eternally rests.

Vishu: The New Year Festival of Kerala

If your first step is wrong, the whole journey will be wrong. World over an emphasis is put on beginnings. Getting off to a good start is essential, as the beginning is the foundation upon which everything that comes after rests. Indian culture, perhaps more than any other, stresses the importance of beginning things properly. The position of the stars and planets is taken into consideration to insure auspicious beginnings, homas are performed and stotrams are chanted to Lord Ganesha in order to remove potential obstacles before the start of any undertaking. Prayers to God are always offered. Even when studying the Upanishads, which declare the only true power to be our own Self, shanti mantras are chanted before beginning each session of study.

vishuUltimately, all these are ways of humbly admitting our finitude, the limited nature of our efforts, and are a means of supplicating to the Divine for favourable outcome. As Amma says, “Grace alone is the deciding factor”. By taking into consideration even subtle nuances beyond our intellectual understanding when we begin a project, we are both showing the sincerity of our effort as well as our faith in the words of the scriptures and the Guru.
In Kerala, the start of the Zodiac New Year*—when the sun enters into Sidereal Aries, Ashwini nakshatra—is celebrated as Vishu. It is said that what one sees when one first opens one’s eyes on Vishu morning is an indication of what one can expect in the year to come. Thus on Vishu, effort is made to assure one opens one’s eyes before an auspicious image—the Vishukkani.

While the festival is called “Vishu” only in Kerala, across India festivals sharing the same spirit—such as Ugadhi in Andhra Pradesh and in Karnataka, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Bihu in Assam and Baisakhi in Punjab—are celebrated around the same time of year.

The Malayalam word kani literally means “that which is seen first”, so “Vishukkani” means “that which is seen first on Vishu”.

Arranged in the family puja room the night before by the mother in the family, the Vishukkani is a panorama of auspicious items, including images of Lord Vishnu, flowers, fruits and vegetables, clothes and gold coins.

Lord Vishnu, the preserver of creation, is the aspect of the Paramatman that is focused upon during Vishu. In jyotish, Indian astrology, Vishnu is seen as the head of Kaala Purusha, the God of Time. As Vishu marks the first day of the Zodiac New Year, it is an appropriate time to offer oblations to Lord Vishnu.

Akshatam, a mixture of rice and turmeric, which is divided into halves of husked and un-husked rice, is placed in a special bowl called an uruli. The uruli traditionally is made of panchaloham, an aggregate of five metals. Panchaloham being symbolic of the universe, which is comprised of the five great elements—earth, water, fire, air and space.

A nice, well-starched cloth is then pleated fan-like and inserted into a highly polished brass kindi (a spouted puja vessel used for pouring sacred water). The val-kannadi, a special type of mirror with an extremely long and thin handle, often decorated with gold, is also inserted into the kindi. The kindi is then placed in the uruli on top of the rice.

Two deepams, which are fashioned from the two halves of a split coconut, are also kept in the uruli. The wicks are made from pieces of starched cloth that are folded into bulbs at the base. These bulbs are placed into the coconut oil that fills the deepams, anchoring the wicks in place. The starch helps the rest of the wick to extend straight upwards so that they will properly burn. The lighting of the deepam welcomes God into our lives and is also symbolic of spiritual knowledge—the remover of the darkness of ignorance.

Gold—both in colour and in coin—is central to the Vishukkani. Kanikkonna, a golden-yellow flower associated with Sri Krishna is used liberally throughout the puja room. This flower only blooms when the sun is in its most exalted position astrologically—the month surrounding Vishu. In the puja room, the flower verily represents the sun itself, the eyes of Lord Vishnu. Gold coins are symbols of monetary affluence, as well as cultural and spiritual wealth, which the elders of the family must share freely with the younger generation. Vishukkaineettam, the distribution of wealth, is another aspect of the festival. It should be given freely and accepted with reverence. On Vishu, the highly affluent families will not only give money to their children but also their neighbours, perhaps the entire village.

The Vishukkani will also be laden with gold-coloured fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, jackfruit, golden cucumber, etc. The akshatam, as it is full of turmeric, also is gold in colour, as is the shiny brass of the kindi, the panchaloham and the reflection of the mirror.

Last but not least, a spiritual book, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, should be made part of the arrangement. The book is the pramanam—the instrument used for attaining the eternal, non-perishable wisdom of the Rishis—as well as a symbol of that knowledge itself.

The grandmother or mother who arranges the Vishukkani will sleep in the puja room after she is finished and then, waking during the auspicious hour of the Brahma muhurata (4:00 to 6:00 a.m.), she will light the oil-lamp wicks and take in the auspicious sight. She will then walk to the rooms where the rest of the family is sleeping and wake them. Covering their eyes, she will then lead them to the puja room, where she will allow them to take in the auspicious sight.

Upon opening one’s eyes, one is overwhelmed with the glorious darshan of the Lord. The mirror—which is symbolic of Bhagavati (Devi), not only increases the lustre of the Vishukkani via the reflection it offers, but also shows our own face, reminding us that God is not someone sitting in the heavens upon a golden throne, but the pure consciousness that is our true nature. The mirror also points to the importance of making our mind pure enough to render this truth unadulterated.

The Vishukkani is not reserved only for those who come to the puja room, but is taken around—for the viewing of the elderly and sick who are perhaps too frail to come to the shrine. It is also brought outside and shown to the family cows. As it is brought to the cowshed, it in fact is on display for the birds, the trees, for all of nature to see.

Vishukkani points to a year of abundance—both spiritually and materially. Food, light, money, knowledge—all should fill our life. Taking in the Vishukkani we should pray that the vision remains with us throughout the year. It is not enough that the joy we take from viewing the Vishukkani comes only to our eyes. It must reflect in our thoughts and in our actions. The auspicious start of the year—which has come to us due to the grace of beginning it with a divine vision—is not for us alone. It is up to us to spread this love, happiness and hope to the rest of society.

*It is not the Solar New Year—the day when the sun crosses the equator, heading northward—a common misconception. It is possible that this confusion has arisen due to the fact that in Kerala the Vishu celebration originated about 1,654 years back. At that time, the Solar New Year took place at the same time as the Zodiac New Year. But where the Zodiac New Year is a constant, the Solar New Year is changing at a rate of one degree every 74 years.

Stupika installation at Amritapuri

6 April 2000, Amritapuri

Today the Gopura-Stuptika Pratishtapana ceremony was performed at Amritapuri ashram, and the main meditation dome, which is the highest point of the temple building, received a sacred Stupika (a pointed metallic apex vessel). The side domes also received smaller Stupikas.

According to the ashram astrologer, this is the first auspicious period since the temple was built. The installation was carried out for the benefit of the ashram and its relation to the world.

The architecture of religious buildings are symbolic. At the mundane level there is diversity. But at the pinnacle, culminating in unity the building merges in space, where it finds synchronocity with nature.


Amma is beyond all Bhavas

Question: If Advaita (non-duality) is the Truth, why is bhava darshan necessary?

Amma: Amma is not confined to any bhava (mood). She is beyond all bhavas. Advaita is the experience of non-duality. When there are no two, everything is the Atmaswarupa (form of the Self); everything is God. This is also the message that Amma gives through her Bhava darshan. Amma sees no separation. She knows everything as the one Self. It is for the world that Amma has come. Amma’s life is for the sake of the world.

An actor may wear many different costumes, but at all times he knows who he really is. The costume doesn’t make any difference to him. In the same way, no matter what costumes Amma wears, She knows Herself, and is not bound by anything. Amma has never worn these costumes out of her own wish. She simply conceded to the wishes of the devotees. The devotees desired that Amma wear them, and so they gave her the costumes as an offering, and in due course it became a custom. It means a great deal to them, and that is why Amma wears them.

Sometimes Amma goes to north India. There, devotees of Krishna often come to receive Amma’s darshan. They place a crown with peacock feathers on Amma’s head, they put a flute in Amma’s hands, they dress Her in yellow silk, and give Her butter. They rejoice in all this, and Amma accepts it because it makes them happy. Amma would never say to them, “I am a Vedantin, so I can’t accept this!”

God is formless and without attributes. But at the same time, He has forms and attributes. He is the Consciousness that pervades everywhere, and because of this, we can behold Him in any bhava. There is nothing wrong with this.

Although the devotees are well aware that Amma is the same at all times, they feel greater happiness and satisfaction during the time of Devi Bhava. In a temple, there is always an image of a deity, but people accord the deity greater importance at the time of the daily worship. At that time, the image is dressed in attractive costumes and ornaments. This gives the devotees greater concentration and joy. A lot of people go to the temples every day, but during holidays the crowds are much larger. The whole village will be full of festivities. Similarly, though the devotees come here to see Amma every day, the Bhava darshan is like a festival for them.

Temple worship is not done for God; it is done for the happiness and satisfaction of the devotees. In the same way, Amma wears these costumes for the sake of her children, and by doing this Amma is removing the “costumes” of others. Amma is gradually trying to lift people to the experience of their essential nature.

Today everyone in the world lives in costumes. People have different hairstyles, apply marks on their foreheads and dress in different fashions. We cannot separate costume from life because it is an integral part of life. Each type of dress has its relevance. A sannyasi’s, a lawyer’s, or a policeman’s costume arouses different attitudes in us.

A man was unlawfully cutting down trees in a forest. A policeman approached him and tried to stop him. But because the policeman was wearing civilian clothes, the man ignored him. The policeman left and returned wearing his uniform. Seeing the policeman in his uniform even from a distance, the man took to his heels. That is the importance of a costume.

In the present day world, more than the inner essence, it is the outer appearance that matters. A tea party was in progress. All the guests were dressed in expensive clothes and jewellery. Then one of the guests arrived in ordinary clothes, but the doorman wouldn’t let him in. The man left and returned wearing a formal suit. This time he was let in. When he reached the dining table he removed his jacket and placed it in front of a dish. He took off his hat and put it next to a plate, and placed his tie in front of a teacup. The other guests thought he was crazy. He turned to them and said, “When I arrived here in my ordinary clothes, they wouldn’t let me in, but when I came in this suit, I was finally allowed to enter. From this I gather that it was not I, but my clothes that were invited to this tea party.”

This is what the world is like today. People place their faith in external appearances. They try to attract others with their costumes. Rare are those who look for the inner beauty. The purpose of Amma’s costume is to remove people’s identification with the body and external appearances, and to help them realize their true nature. A thorn is needed to remove a thorn.

The Vedantins who talk about Advaita do not walk around without any clothes. They wear clothes like everyone else. They also eat and sleep. They know that all this is necessary to maintain the body, and they dress in accordance with the nature of the society they live in.
Great souls are born according to the need of the times. Sri Rama and Sri Krishna came in different ages. Whatever they did was in answer to the needs of the times in which they lived. It is meaningless to say that Krishna has to be exactly like Rama. Each divine incarnation is unique.

A doctor usually has many patients. He doesn’t prescribe the same medicine for everyone. Only after assessing the illness and the nature of a patient is he able to determine what sort of treatment is necessary for that individual. For some, oral medication is enough, while others need to be given injections. In a similar way, on the spiritual path, the need of each individual varies. We have to go down to the level of each person who comes here in order to uplift him or her.

We can see that the same sort of toffees wrapped in different coloured wrappers. Outwardly they appear to be different, but the contents are the same. Similarly, it is the same Consciousness that dwells in everything. But it isn’t possible to teach this principle to people without first coming down to their level. Having come down to where they are, we don’t let them remain on that plane of duality; we uplift them to the experience of oneness. That is what Amma does.

One cannot talk about Advaita to everyone, because everyone cannot comprehend the formless, attribute-less principle. Some people like Radha-Krishna the most; others prefer Yashoda-Krishna, while still others prefer Murali-Krishna. People also experience Amma in different ways. The taste of each individual is different. Each one finds joy in his preferences. We cannot say that this is wrong. Amma doesn’t say that everyone should find joy in one particular thing.

There are a few people who are born with a suitable samskara (inherent nature) that allows them to progress spiritually by following the path of Advaita. But many people cannot do that; if they were to follow the non-dualistic path, they would become even weaker spiritually. There are some pseudo-Vedantins who are lazy and don’t do any work. I f you ask them about this, they will reply, “Who is to serve whom when everything is the Atman (Self)?” If you ask them why they drink alcohol, they will say, “I don’t drink at all. I am the Atman. It is only the body that drinks.” There are people who drink and are promiscuous, while at the same time they claim to be following the path of Advaita. For them, Vedanta is a means to hide their wrongs. Until we actually experience that everything is one, we have to discriminate between the eternal and ephemeral.

We should know what dharma is and what adharma is — and we should shun adharma. If you eat chocolate without any restraint just because it is sweet, you will get a stomach ache. If a person starts killing everyone, saying that he does it because he enjoys it, what will be the result? There is a dharma for everything. We should encourage people to live their lives according to dharma. Vedanta is to be found in actions, not in words. If we wish to teach people to practice dharma in their lives, we first have to come down to their level. If Amma stays aloof because she doesn’t need anything, then the people will not be uplifted. We teach the deaf to communicate by using sign language. This doesn’t mean that the teacher is deaf; it only means that he comes to their level, because it is the only way to make the deaf students understand. Likewise, Amma assumes certain bhavas in order to come down to the level of the people, to make them aware of the underlying oneness that is beyond all bhavas. We say to children that if they tell lies they will become blind. We do this only to train them to speak the truth. If this were actually the truth, there would only be blind people in the world today. So we tell a lie in order to teach the children to speak the truth. Similarly, we have to act according to the nature of the people. Amma’s only aim is to lead people toward the Truth by any means. That which helps to uplift people — that alone is truly rational. Amma is only concerned with the upliftment of the people. This is all She wants. Amma doesn’t need any certificate of approval from the world.

A man is standing on a balcony looking down. He sees a man below, lying in the mud. If he remains where he is and does nothing but stretch down his hand, he won’t be able to save the man. He has to go downstairs, take hold of the man’s hands and lift him up. Similarly, in order to uplift people we have to come down to their level.

To reach the main road, we have to go through certain side streets. There are a lot of cars and buses running on the main road, so it will be easy to find transportation there. However, to reach the road from the side streets we need a bicycle or a rickshaw. Similarly, we have to adopt different means to lead people along the narrow roads of bondage, to help them reach the broad thoroughfare of non-duality.

The irresistible pull

1 April 2000, Singapore

At sunset Mother led Her devotees to a nearby park to meditate. They sat quietly together for a quarter of an hour, and then rose to head back home. Imagine the scene: a quiet, upscale neighbourhood, with neatly trimmed lawns and clean streets. Out of nowhere, there suddenly appears a small Indian woman in a white sari, walking down the middle of the street followed by twenty-five people of all races, most of them also white-clad. It might make you stop and look, and wonder. Apparently it did for a driver who, having passed the group, stopped his car about ten metres ahead. A dignified, middle-aged Chinese gentleman got out, and waited as Amma approached. He stood there, spontaneously raising his clasped hands above his head. As the group passed him, he followed, his eyes constantly on Amma. He went right up to the house entrance, and as Amma went inside, he prostrated.

Later he said that as he drove past Amma, he felt a very strange sensation. Without any thought or effort he simply got out of the car and followed the strong pull he experienced towards the “lady in white.”

One is reminded of the stories of Jesus walking along the shores of a great lake, and the fishermen leaving their nets and following Him.