Jan 152018
 

Today is the second day of the Tamil Pongal festival, a harvest festival dedicated to the Sun. It is a four-day festival which is usually celebrated from the 14th to 17th of January. Today is known as Thai Pongal, one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry, and the country of Sri Lanka, as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, United States, Singapore, Canada, Myanmar, and the UK. Thai Pongal corresponds to Makara Sankranthi, the harvest festival celebrated throughout India. The day marks the start of the sun’s six-month-long journey northwards (the Uttaraayanam). This also corresponds to the Indic solstice when the sun purportedly enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Makara or Capricorn.

Thai Pongal is mainly celebrated to convey appreciation to the Sun God for a successful harvest. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam. Many other special events take place in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu during Pongal, such as Chennai Book Fair and Lit for Life. From 1916 to 1952, annual cricket matches between Indians and Europeans called Madras Presidency Matches were held during Pongal.

The Thai Pongal festival may date to more than 1000 years ago. Epigraphic evidence suggests there was a festival called Puthiyeedu during the Medieval Chola empire, which is believed to have been a celebration of the first harvest of the year. “Thai” refers to the name of the tenth month in the Tamil calendar, Thai (தை). “Pongal” generally means festivity or celebration, but literally means “boiling over” or “overflow.” Pongal is also the name of a sweetened dish of rice boiled with lentils that is eaten on this day as well as presented as an offering. Symbolically the dish supposedly signifies the gradual heating of the earth as the Sun travels northward toward the equinox.

The day preceding Thai Pongal is called Bhogi. On this day people discard old belongings and celebrate new possessions. The disposal of worn-out items is similar to the traditions of Holika in North India. The people assemble at dawn in Tamil Nadu to light a bonfire in order to burn the discards. Houses are cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. The horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in villages. In Tamil Nadu farmers keep medicinal herbs (neem, avram, sankranti) in the northeast corner of each of their fields, to protect crops from diseases and pests.

The main event, Thai Pongal, takes place on the second of the four days of Pongal. During the festival, milk is cooked in a vessel. When it starts to bubble and overflows out of the vessel, freshly harvested rice grains are added to the pot. At the same time other participants blow a conch called the sanggu and shout “Pongalo Pongal!” They also recite “Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum” (“the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities”). This is repeated frequently during the Pongal festival. The Pongal dish is then served to everyone in the house along with savories and sweets such as vadai, murukku, paayasam.

Tamils decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the floor with decorative patterns drawn using rice flour and kolams/rangolis are drawn on doorsteps. Family elders present gifts to the young. The Sun represents “Pratyaksha Brahman” — the manifest God, who symbolizes the one, non-dual, self-effulgent, glorious divinity blessing one and all tirelessly. The Sun is the one who transcends time and also the one who rotates the proverbial wheel of time.

There are many kinds of Pongal but the two commonest at the Thai Pongal festival are Chakkara (or Sakkarai) Pongal and Venn Pongal, with Chakkara Pongal predominating. Chakkara Pongal (literally, sweet pongal) is generally prepared in temples as a prasadam, (an offering made to a deity). Ingredients include rice, coconut, and mung beans. It is traditionally sweetened with jaggery, which gives the Pongal a brown color, though it can be sweetened with white sugar instead. Here’s a video:

Nov 122016
 

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Today is the principal date this year (2016) for the Hindu traditional ceremony of Tulsi Vivah. Tulsi Vivah is the ceremonial marriage of the Tulsi plant (holy basil) to the Hindu god Vishnu or his avatar (incarnate form) Krishna. This ceremony can be performed any time between Prabodhini Ekadashi –  the eleventh lunar day of the bright fortnight of the Hindu month Kartik – and the full moon of the month (Kartik Poornima), but usually it is performed on the eleventh or the twelfth lunar day. The day varies from region to region. The Tulsi wedding signals the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the Hindu wedding season.

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Tulsi is venerated as a goddess in Hinduism and sometimes considered a wife of Vishnu, sometimes with the epithet Vishnupriya, “the beloved of Vishnu”. The legend behind Tulsi Vivah and its rites are told in the scripture, Padma Purana.  According to Hindu scripture, the Tulsi plant was at one time a woman named Vrinda (Brinda; a synonym of Tulsi). She was married to the demon-king Jalandhar, who due to her piety and devotion to Vishnu, became invincible. Even Shiva—the Destroyer in the Hindu Trinity—could not defeat Jalandhar, so he requested Vishnu – the preserver in the Trinity – to find a solution. Vishnu disguised himself as Jalandhar and tricked Vrinda into having sex.

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With her chastity destroyed, Jalandhar lost his power and was killed by Shiva. Vrinda used a curse on Vishnu to make him black in color and to be separated from his wife, Lakshmi. This was later fulfilled when he was transformed into the black Shaligram stone (a fossil), and in his Rama avatar, was separated from his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon-king Ravana. Vrinda then drowned herself in the ocean, and the gods (or Vishnu himself) transferred her soul to a plant, which was henceforth called Tulsi. In accordance with a blessing by Vishnu to marry Vrinda in her next birth, Vishnu – in the form of Shaligram – married Tulsi on Prabodhini Ekadashi. To commemorate this event, the ceremony of Tulsi Vivah is performed.

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The marriage of Tulsi with Vishnu/Krishna resembles the traditional Hindu wedding. This ceremony is conducted at homes and also at temples. A fast is observed on the Tulsi Vivah day until evening when the ceremony begins. A mandap (marriage booth) is built around the courtyard of the house where the Tulsi plant is planted. The Tulsi plant is usually planted in center of the courtyard in a brick plaster called Tulsi vrindavana. It is believed that the soul of Vrinda resides in the plant at night and leaves in the morning. The bride Tulsi is clothed with a sari and ornaments including earrings and necklaces. A human paper face with a bindi and nose-ring – may be attached to Tulsi. The groom is a brass image or picture of Vishnu or Krishna or sometimes Balarama or more frequently the Shaligram stone – the symbol of Vishnu. The image is clothed in a dhoti. Both Vishnu and Tulsi are bathed and decorated with flowers and garlands before the wedding. The couple is linked with a cotton thread (mala) in the ceremony.

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In Maharashtra, an important ritual in the ceremony occurs when the white cloth is held between the bride and the groom and the priest recites the Mangal Ashtaka mantras. These mantras formally complete the wedding. Rice mixed with vermilion is showered by the attendees on Tulsi and Vishnu at the end of the recitation of the mantras with the word “Savadhan” (literally “be careful” implying “You are united now”. The white curtain is also removed. The attendees clap signifying approval to the wedding. Vishnu is offered sandalwood-paste, men’s clothing and the sacred thread. The bride is offered saris, turmeric, vermilion and a wedding necklace called Mangal-sutra, worn by married women. Sweets and food cooked for an actual wedding are cooked for Tulsi Vivah too. This ceremony is mostly performed by women. The prasad of sugar-cane, coconut chips, fruits and groundnut is distributed to devotees.

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The expenses of the wedding are usually borne by a daughter-less couple, who act as the parents of Tulsi in the ritual wedding. The giving away of the daughter Tulsi (kanyadaan) to Krishna is considered meritorious to the couple. The bridal offerings to Tulsi are given to a Brahmin priest or female ascetics after the ceremony. In two Rama temples in Saurashtra, the ceremony is more elaborate. An invitation card is sent to the groom’s temple by the bride’s temple. On Prabodhini Ekadashi, a barat bridal procession of Lalji – an image of Vishnu – sets off to the bride’s temple. Lalji is placed in a palanquin and accompanied by singing and dancing devotees. The barat is welcomed on the outskirts of Tulsi’s village and the ceremonial marriage is carried at the temple. At the bride’s side, Tulsi is planted in an earthen pot for the ceremony. People desirous of children perform Kanyadaan from Tulsi’s side acting as her parents. Bhajans are sung throughout the night and in the morning the barat of Lalji returns to their village with Tulsi.

Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Ocimum sanctum), is an important culinary and medicinal herb in India and Thailand. It should not be confused with Thai basil although it is somewhat similar, but with a very distinctive aroma and peppery taste. It’s virtually impossible to find fresh in Western markets, but it’s very easy to grow and is a pretty plant with leaves of varied colors and a purple flower. This website gives you all you need to know about growing it: http://www.heirloom-organics.com/guide/va/guidetogrowingholybasil.html  It’s just like growing regular basil, and I’ve done it many times with little effort. It is well worth it.

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One of my favorite Thai dishes using holy basil is phat kaphrao. “Phat” is “fry” and “kaphrao” is “holy basil”.  You can make the dish with pork or chicken. I prefer pork. As per usual, you’re best off going to Thailand for the proper dish. I’ve had it cooked many times by Thai chefs, and have not been wonderfully successful making it at home. Once I goaded a Thai chef in Santa Fe to make me phat kaphrao the way he liked it, and it was HOT !!! He laughed when I ate it all in front of him, sweat pouring down my face.  This is a stir fry, so make sure you have all the ingredients prepared before you start. Another problem I have outside of Asia is getting the wok hot enough. Here’s a video if you want real hands on Thai:

My recipe here is a little different from the one in the video, but the results are about the same. In the video she uses a combination of hot and sweet chiles to accentuate the chile flavor. This is a good idea if you are not a fan of hot.

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©Phat Kaphrao

Ingredients

1 tbsp. of vegetable oil
¾ lb/300gm minced pork or chicken
1 red onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic
2 Thai chiles
1 kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced
1 tsp Thai fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp lime juice
sugar
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 large handful Holy basil leaves

Instructions

Pound the chiles in a mortar, then add the garlic and pound to a coarse paste. Place in a small bowl ready for use.

Mix together in a small bowl, the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, and oyster sauce. Dilute with a small amount of water. Add the sugar and stir the whole mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok as hot as you can get it.

Sauté the onion, garlic, chiles, and kaffir lime leaf briefly (about 30 to 45 seconds). Add the pork or chicken and sauté, stirring constantly, until the meat is cooked. If you have a good, hot flame this will not take long (about 2 minutes). You can use pre-cooked meat, but I don’t like to.

Add the sauce mixture and keep stirring until it is heated through and thickened.

Add the basil leaves and toss a few more times until they are just wilted.

Serve with plain boiled Jasmine rice and one fried egg per person with extra fish sauce plus chopped chiles on the side.

Serves 4

Sep 112016
 

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The Parliament of Religions opened on this date in 1893 at the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building which is now The Art Institute of Chicago, and ran from 11 to 27 September. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide, with representatives of a wide variety of religions and new religious movements. It was not entirely representative of all the faiths of the world, but it was a good start.

In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an early world’s fair. Consequently, because so many people were coming to Chicago from all over the world that many smaller conferences, called Congresses and Parliaments, were scheduled to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering. One of these was the World’s Parliament of Religions, an initiative of the Swedenborgian layman (and judge) Charles Carroll Bonney. The Parliament of Religions was by far the largest of the congresses held in conjunction with the Exposition. John Henry Barrows, a clergyman, was appointed as the first chairman of the General Committee of the 1893 Parliament by Charles Bonney.

Representatives of various faiths included:

The Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi.

The Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala was invited there as a representative of “Southern Buddhism,” the term applied at that time to the Theravada.[citation needed]

Soyen Shaku, the “First American Ancestor” of Zen.

An essay by the Japanese Pure Land master Kiyozawa Manshi, “Skeleton of the philosophy of religion” was read in his absence.

Vivekananda represented the faiths of India as a delegate and introduced Hinduism.

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, an Anglo-American convert to Islam, and the former US ambassador to the Philippines.

Rev. Henry Jessup, represented Christianity but also introduced the Bahá’í Faith.

There were also representatives of new religious movements of the time, such as Spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by Septimus J. Hanna, who read an address written by its founder Mary Baker Eddy.

Absent from this event were Native American religious figures, Sikhs, and other indigenous religionists. Nonetheless, it was a good start.

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Swami Vivekananda was one of the most important speakers on the opening day of the parliament.  Vivekananda (Bengali: স্বামী বিবেকানন্দ), born Narendranath Datta, was an Indian Hindu monk, and a chief disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. He went on to be a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century. He was also a key force in the revival of Hinduism in India, and contributed to the concept of nationalism in colonial India.

The general area of south Asia that was at one time under British colonial rule, has been torn apart by sectarian violence in the name of various religions for centuries  – Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, etc.  Vivekananda believed that he could unite these various faiths and, in the process, expel the British. His agenda was partially realized; the British were eventually expelled, but the sectarian animosity remains. His speech in Chicago is legendary. He was very timid when he rose to address such a large audience which numbered over 7,000 and began (famously):

“Sisters and brothers of America …”

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These words got a standing ovation from the crowd which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he resumed his address. He greeted all nations on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance!” It is not some quirk or coincidence that a Hindu should preach these words. Hinduism is extremely open to all manner of concepts of divinity and spirituality. In the speech Vivekananda also remarked about Hindus, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” There are even some Hindus who are technically atheists. Of course, there are also some pockets of rigidity and narrowness of vision within Hinduism. All faiths have their zealots. But at root Hinduism teaches that we all find God in our own way, and there is not a single path that is privileged.

When I was a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian church, my last step before ordination was oral examination by the entire presbytery. This is normally a routine procedure, but I hit a bit of a stumbling block. Being a professional anthropologist had raised some red flags in a few eyes. The formal Presbyterian organization, PC(USA), of which I was a member, is a strange beast. It was created by shoving together distinct organizations that had once been distinct, but were forced into each others arms by financial exigency. One branch in the US South was extremely conservative, and did not lie easily with more “liberal” Presbyterians. My presbytery was known for being extremely “liberal” but it had a small conservative, evangelical faction that was always causing trouble at presbytery meetings. This faction decided to make a point at my examination for ordination.

For ordination each candidate writes a “statement of faith” which is distributed to all members of the presbytery before the examination and becomes the basis for questioning. An evangelical member of the presbytery opened the questioning with the deathless: “I have eleven questions to ask you about your statement.” All the other members of the presbytery groaned in unison, but I smiled, “Bring it on.” I’ll debate anyone on any topic – anywhere, any time.

First question: “Do you believe that Jesus is the only route to salvation?”

This is pretty stock stuff for conservatives, who are adamant that Christianity is the only true faith. My reply was not what they expected, nor wanted.

“I do.” (So far, so good). “But I would not be so arrogant to state categorically that I know what the voice of Jesus sounds like. He may sound like Buddha or Mohammed for all I know.”

That set the cat among the pigeons. Even some “liberal” members were shocked. When it came down to asking me to leave the room after the questioning was over so that the members could vote on my ordination, I had a long wait – much longer than usual. One of my friends left the voting for a few minutes and came out to say, “It’s tough going in there, but you’ll pass.” I wasn’t worried. If they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either. In the end I was voted in overwhelmingly. Presbyterians just like the sound of their own voices – a lot. I had raised some important issues, which is all I ever want to do.

The thing is that I strongly believe that very few people have the remotest clue about God. For a taste of my ideas about God go here — http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/god/ Here is a sample:

So what is God? I told you – I don’t know. I’m pretty sure of what God is not – not male or female for starters (which is why I assiduously avoid pronouns); not an old guy in the sky sitting on a throne and making things work; not my friend in any conventional sense; not human in any respect. Somehow we have to break free of our limited vision, but how? I’d say that a good starting point is the cross-cultural study of religion. It’s not that I think that Buddhism or Jainism or Hinduism or whatever has a better view of God; they have a different one. Maybe when you put all the visions together you can build a better picture.

That was the agenda of the first Parliament of Religions, and, to a limited extent, it continues. Building bridges and ecumenism are not popular these days. Nationalism and xenophobia are much more popular than ever, and politicians love to use religion as their weapon. Christians can be among the worst offenders. As we know, radical Islam raises its voice these days. In no case is religion actually talking. These are political zealots using religion as a rallying point.

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Instead of fostering such conflict I’d like today to be a day of harmony even though it is the anniversary of 9/11 which saw the U.S. and the world torn apart, with the effects very much still with us. Islamophobia and conflict are on the rise in Europe and the U.S. Jesus preached peace – “Love your enemies.” One of my favorite Bible verses in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock” He doesn’t follow up with “Open and I will come in and preach to you.” He says: “if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Jesus knew that eating together breaks down barriers. Ancient Jews knew it too. They developed incredibly complicated dietary laws precisely to stop people eating with them. They knew it would lead to friendship and assimilation and they didn’t want that.

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You are different. Take today to eat with people, especially strangers. I do it all the time.  When I cook I serve a lot of different dishes and I put them in the middle of the table so that guests can help themselves. This is the norm in China, of course, but also throughout Asia and the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa.  I’ve never liked plating up individual dishes. That’s why I could never be a chef. I want everyone to come together.

What you are going to have to do is think of a dish or dishes that go well communally. I mentioned this recently in my post on the Hajj http://www.bookofdaystales.com/hajj/ where big rice dishes featured. I can’t be a whole lot of help because I have only one guest for dinner this evening. I’m roasting a chicken with potatoes and leeks served on one dish – help yourself. I’ll post photos after dinner. Meanwhile some ideas:

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Aug 072016
 

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Today is Nag Panchami ( नाग पंचमी) within the Hindu tradition observed throughout India and also in Nepal. It occurs on the fifth day of the waxing half of the lunar month of Shravan according to the Hindu calendar. There are many legends in Hindu tradition concerning the importance of reverence for snakes, and on Nag Panchami they are especially honored.

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In the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, Janamejeya, the son of King Parikshit of the Kuru dynasty initiated a snake sacrifice known as Sarpa Satra, to avenge the death of his father from a snake bite by the snake king, Taksaka. A sacrificial fireplace was specially erected and the fire sacrifice to kill all snakes in the world was begun by Brahmin sages. The sacrificial ceremony performed in the presence of Janamejaya was so powerful that all snakes began to fall into the Yagna kunda (sacrificial fire pit). When the priests found that only Takshaka (who had bitten and killed Parisksihit) had escaped to the nether world of Indra seeking his protection, the sages increased the tempo of their reciting of the sacrificial mantras to drag Takshaka and also Indra to the sacrificial fire. Takshaka had coiled himself around Indra’s cot but the force of the sacrificial yagna was so powerful that even Indra, along with Takshaka, was dragged towards the fire. This scared the gods who then appealed to Manasadevi (goddess of snakes) to intervene and resolve the crisis. She then requested her son Astika to go to the site of the yagna and appeal to Janamejaya to stop the Sarpa Satra. Astika first impressed Janamejaya with his knowledge of all the Sastras (scriptures), so the prince gave him the chance to  seek a boon. Astika requested Janamejeya to stop the Sarpa Satra. Since the king was never known to refuse a boon granted to a Brahmin, he relented, the yagna was stopped and thus the lives of Indra and Takshaka were spared. This day, according to the Hindu Calendar, was Nadivardhini Panchami (fifth day of bright fortnight of the lunar month of Shravan during the monsoon season).

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According to Hindu tradition, offering prayers to snakes on this day is auspicious and will usher in good fortune in one’s life. These prayers are followed by giving food to Brahmins. On this day cobras, and other snakes, are honored with milk, sweets, flowers, lamps and even sacrifices. Images of snake deities made of silver, stone, wood, or wall paintings are first bathed with water and milk and then worshipped with the reciting of mantras, such as:

नाग प्रीता भवन्ति शान्तिमाप्नोति बिअ विबोह्
सशन्ति लोक मा साध्य मोदते सस्थित समः

Naga preeta bhavanti shantimapnoti via viboh
Sashanti lok ma sadhya modate shashttih samh

Let all be blessed by the snake goddess, let everyone obtain peace
Let all live peacefully without any turbulence.

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In some regions of the country, the milk is offered along with crystallized sugar, and rice pudding (kheer). In addition there may be an offering of a lotus flower which is placed in a silver bowl. In front of this bowl, a rangoli (colored pattern) of a snake is created on the floor with a brush made of wood or clay or silver or gold with sandalwood or turmeric paste as the paint. The design pattern may resemble a five hooded snake. Devotees then offer homage to this image on the floor.

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Apart from scriptural allusions to snakes and festivals, there are also a number of Hindu folk tales. One such tale concerns a farmer who had two sons, one of whom killed three snakes during ploughing operations. The mother of the snakes took revenge on the same night by biting the farmer, his wife and two sons and they all died. Next day the farmer’s only surviving daughter, distraught and grieved by the death of her parents and brothers, pleaded before the mother snake with an offering of a bowl of milk and asked her for forgiveness and to restore the life of her parents and brothers. Pleased with this offering the snake pardoned them and restored the farmer and his family to life.

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In Hindu tales snakes are related to the rainy season – the varsha ritu in Sanskrit. They are also depicted as deities of ponds and rivers and are said to be the embodiment of water as they spring out of their holes, like a spring of water.

There are numerous foods that are eaten on Nag Panchami. Steamed balls made of various kinds of flour dough and flavorings are very common. Such foods are popular because it is considered inauspicious to use a knife in the preparation of food on this day. Here, for example, is a step-by-step recipe for kuler ladoo made with millet flour, raw sugar, and clarified butter.

http://www.spiceupthecurry.com/kuler-ladoo-recipe/

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There’s also besan ladoo which is more to my taste. Besan is also known as gram flour or chickpea flour, a staple in Indian cooking. You can find it in health food stores and online.  Heat 1 cup of clarified butter in a deep skillet over medium-low heat and add 2 cups of besan. Cook slowly, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the besan starts to brown. Add 2 cups of raw sugar, stir to mix well, and remove from the heat. Stir in 1 cup of chopped nuts, and a little powdered cardamom if you wish. Cool, and roll the paste into balls about the size of a walnut.

Apr 032014
 

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Today is the birthday (1781) of Swaminarayan , also known as Sahajanand Swami, the central figure in a modern sect of Hinduism known as Swaminarayan Hinduism, a form of Vaishnavism.  Swaminarayan was born in Chhapaiya, in Uttar Pradesh province, a village near Ayodhya, in a Hindi speaking region in India. He was born in the Brahmin caste of Sarvariya and was named Ghanshyam Pande by his parents. The birth of Swaminarayan coincided with the Hindu festival of Rama Navami, celebrating the birth of Rama. He is said to have mastered Hindu scriptures including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata by the age of seven.

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After the death of his parents, Ghanshyam Pande left his home on 29 June 1792 at the age of 11. He took the name Nilkanth Varni while on his journey. Nilkanth Varni travelled across India and parts of Nepal in search of an ashram, or hermitage, that practiced what he considered a correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy. To find such an ashram, Nilkanth Varni asked the following five questions on the basic Vaishnava Vedanta categories (words in parenthesis are rough approximations):

What is Jiva? (soul)

What is Ishvara? (lord/god)

What is Maya? (delusion)

What is Brahman? (true self)

What is Para Brahman? (absolute truth)

While on his journey, Nilkanth Varni mastered Astanga yoga (eightfold yoga) in a span of 9 months under the guidance of an aged yogic master named Gopal Yogi. In Nepal, it is said that he met King Rana Bahadur Shah and cured him of a stomach illness. As a result, the king freed all the ascetics he had imprisoned. Nilkanth Varni visited the Jagannath Temple in Puri as well as temples in Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Nashik, Dwarka and Pandharpur.

In 1799, after a seven year journey, Nilkanth’s travels as a yogi eventually ended in Loj, a village in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. In Loj, Nilkanth Varni met Muktanand Swami, a senior disciple of Ramanand Swami. Muktanand Swami, who was twenty-two years older than Nilkanth, answered the five questions to Nilkanth’s satisfaction. Nilkanth decided to stay for the opportunity to meet Ramanand Swami, whom he met a few months after his arrival in Gujarat.

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According to the sect, Nilkanth’s understanding of the concepts of the pancha-tattvas (five eternal elements), together with his mental and physical discipline, inspired senior sadhus (ascetics) of Ramanand Swami. Nilkanth Varni received sannyasa initiation (complete renunciation of the material) from Ramanand Swami on 20 October 1800, and with it was granted the names Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni to signify his new status.

At the age of 21, Sahajanand Swami was appointed successor to Ramanand Swami as the leader of the Uddhav Sampraday (sect) by Ramanand Swami, prior to his death. The Uddhav Sampraday henceforth came to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday. According to contemporary sources he proclaimed the worship of one sole deity, Krishna or Narayana. He considered Krishna to be his own I??a-devat? (cherished deity) even though he rejected the more licentious aspects of Krishna worship of his day in favor of a mood of a more puritanical character as had been true of Krishna worship in earlier eras

Sahajanand Swami was later known as Swaminarayan after the mantra he taught at a gathering, in Faneni, a fortnight after the death of Ramanand Swami. He gave his followers a new mantra, known as the Swaminarayan mantra, to repeat in their rituals: the six syllables Swa-mi-na-ra-ya-n. When chanting this mantra, some devotees went into samadhi (a form of trance), also called maha-samadhi (great trance) and claimed that they could see their personal gods. Swaminarayan also became known by the names Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj and Shri Hari. As early as 1804, Swaminarayan, who was reported to have performed miracles, was described as a manifestation of God in the first work (Yama Danda) written by a disciple, Nishkulanand Swami.

Swaminarayan encouraged his followers to combine devotion and dharma to lead a pious life. Using Hindu texts and rituals to form the base of his organization, Swaminarayan founded what in later centuries would become a global organization with strong Gujarati roots. He was particularly strict on the separation of sexes in temples. Swaminarayan was against the consumption of meat, alcohol or drugs, adultery, suicide, animal sacrifices, criminal activities, and the appeasement of ghosts and tantric rituals. He forbade alcohol consumption even for medicinal purposes.  He proclaimed that four elements needed to be conquered for ultimate salvation: dharma (order), bhakti (devotion), gnana (knowledge) and vairagya (detachment).

After assuming the leadership of the Sampraday, Swaminarayan worked to assist the poor by distributing food and drinking water. He undertook several social service projects and opened almshouses for the poor. Swaminarayan organized food and water relief to people during times of drought.

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Swaminarayan was also an advocate of women’s rights, to some extent. To counter the practice of sati (self-immolation by a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), Swaminarayan argued that, as human life was given by God it could be taken only by God, and that sati had no Vedic sanction. He went to the extent of calling sati nothing but suicide. Swaminarayan offered parents help with dowry expenses to discourage female infanticide, calling infanticide a sin.

In case of widows, Swaminarayan directed those who could not follow the path of chastity to remarry. However he did also lay down strict rules for women which included them being under the control of male members of the family. Swaminarayan restricted widows to live always under the control of male members of their family and prohibited them from receiving any education from any man excepting their nearest relations.

The Swaminarayan faith has been linked to patriarchal class structures that subjugate women. Members of the faith are defensive of the fact that some practices seem to restrict women, and make gender equality in leadership impossible. However, while many would assert that Swaminarayan Hinduism serves a patriarchal agenda, which attempts to keep women in certain roles, Swaminarayan himself, despite considerable criticism from those in his own contemporary society, insisted that education was the inherent right of all people. At that time, influential and wealthy individuals educated their girls through private and personal tuition. Hence many male followers of Swaminarayan made arrangements to educate their female family members. The literacy rate among females began to increase, and they were able to give discourses on spiritual subjects. Within the sect, Swaminarayan is considered a pioneer of education of females in India.

Swaminarayan was against animal sacrifices as carried out by Brahmin priests during Vedic rituals, such as yajnas (fire sacrifices), influenced by the Kaula and Vama Marg cults. The priests consumed “sanctified” prasad (food offered to deities) in the form of meat of these animals. To solve this problem, Swaminarayan conducted several large scale yajnas involving priests from Varanasi. These did not have animal sacrifices and were conducted in strict accordance with Vedic scriptures. Swaminarayan was successful in reinstating ahimsa (non-violence towards animals) through several such large scale yajnas that did not involve meat. Swaminarayan stressed lacto-vegetarianism among his followers and forbade meat consumption.

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Some historians believe that Swaminarayan worked towards ending the caste system, allowing everyone into the Swaminarayan Sampraday. However he did not approve of complete social leveling. He instructed his paramhansas (spiritual leaders) to collect alms from all sections of society and appointed people from the lower strata of society as his personal attendants. Members of the lower castes were attracted to the movement as it improved their social status. Swaminarayan would eat along with the lower Rajput and Khati castes but not any lower. He established separate places of worship for the lower caste population where they were in large numbers. However, Dalits, the lowest in the caste system, were always formally excluded from Swaminarayan temples.

It is said that Swaminarayan dispelled the notion that moksha (salvation) was not attainable by everyone. He taught that the soul is neither male nor female. Swaminarayan dismissed caste as irrelevant to the soul’s status before God, though in practice caste distinctions remained visible among them though reduced in complexity. Even now, however, for the vast majority of Gujarat’s lower-caste population, the sect is off limits.

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Swaminarayan ordered the construction of several Hindu temples and installed the images of various deities such as Nara-Narayana, Laxminarayan, Radha Krishna, Radha Ramana and Revati-Baldevji. The images in the temples built by Swaminarayan provide evidence of the priority of Krishna. The first temple Swaminarayan constructed was in Ahmedabad in 1822, with the land for construction given by the British Imperial Government. Following a request of devotees from Bhuj, Swaminarayan asked his follower Vaishnavananand Swami to build a temple there. Following planning, construction commenced in 1822, and the temple was built within a year. A temple in Vadtal followed in 1824, a temple in Dholera in 1826, a temple in Junagadh in 1828 and a temple in Gadhada, also in 1828. By the time of his death, Swaminarayan had also ordered construction of temples in Muli, Dholka and Jetalpur.

Swaminarayan promulgated general Hindu texts. He held the Bhagavata Purana in high authority. However, there are many texts written by Swaminarayan or his followers that are regarded as shastras or scriptures within the Swaminarayan sect. Notable scriptures throughout the sect include the Shikshapatri and the Vachanamrut.

Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri on 11 February 1826. While the original Sanskrit manuscript is not available, it was translated into Gujarati by Nityanand Swami under the direction of Swaminarayan and is revered in the sect as a book of social laws that his followers should follow. A commentary on the practice and understanding of dharma, it is a small booklet containing 212 Sanskrit verses, outlining the basic tenets that Swaminarayan believed his followers should uphold in order to live a well-disciplined and moral life. The oldest copy of this text is preserved at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and it is one of the very few presented by Sahajanand Swami himself. Acharya Tejendraprasad of Ahmedabad has indicated in a letter that he is not aware of any copy from the hand of Sahajanand older than this text.

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Swaminarayan’s philosophical, social and practical teachings are contained in the Vachanamrut, a collection of dialogues recorded by five followers from his spoken words. The Vachanamrut is the scripture most commonly used in the Swaminarayan sect. It contains views on dharma (moral order), jnana (understanding of the nature of the self), vairagya (detachment from material pleasure), and bhakti (pure, selfless devotion to God), the four essentials Hindu scriptures describe as necessary for a jiva (soul) to attain moksha (salvation).

Swaminarayan strove to maintain good relationships with people of other religions, sometimes meeting prominent leaders. His followers cut across religious boundaries, including people of Muslim and Parsi backgrounds. Swaminarayan’s personal attendants included Khoja Muslims. In Kathiawad, many Muslims wore kanthi necklaces given by Swaminarayan. He also had a meeting with Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta and a leader of Christians in India at the time. Bishop Heber mentions in his account of the meeting that about two hundred disciples of Swaminarayan accompanied him as his bodyguards mounted on horses carrying matchlocks and swords. Bishop Heber himself had about a hundred horse guards accompanying him (fifty horses and fifty muskets) and mentioned that it was humiliating for him to see two religious leaders meeting at the head of two small armies, his being the smaller contingent. As a result of the meeting, both leaders gained mutual respect for one another.

Swaminarayan enjoyed a good relationship with the British Imperial Government. The first temple he built, in Ahmedabad, was built on 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land given by the government. The British officers gave it a 101 gun salute when it was opened. It was in an 1825 meeting with Reginald Heber that Swaminarayan is said to have intimated that he was a manifestation of Krishna. In 1830, Swaminarayan had a meeting with Sir John Malcolm, Governor of Bombay (1827 -1830). According to Malcolm, Swaminarayan had helped bring some stability to a lawless region. It was during this meeting with Malcolm that Swaminarayan gave him the copy of the Shikshapatri currently housed in the Bodleian Library. Swaminarayan also encouraged the British Governor James Walker to implement strong measures to stop the practice of sati.

In 1830, Swaminarayan gathered his followers and announced his departure. He later died on 1 June 1830, and it is believed by followers that, at the time of his death, Swaminarayan left Earth for Akshardham, his abode. He was cremated according to Hindu rites at Lakshmi Wadi in Gadhada.

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Chutneys are a very important component of meals throughout India.  Westerners usually know only of chutneys that are cooked and bottled, but there are dozens of common chutneys that are made fresh daily and which act as dipping sauces or condiments.  Probably the best known is coriander chutney, made by blending coriander leaves with herbs and spices.  You can also make this chutney using half and half coriander and mint leaves.  Another favorite of mine is mint leaves blended with plain yoghurt.  It is customary to serve 3 or 4 chutneys with a meal, some sweet, some fiery hot.

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Coriander (cilantro) Chutney

Ingredients

1 cup finely chopped coriander leaves
6 to 7 cloves finely chopped garlic
3 tsp sugar
3 tsp lemon juice
4 to 5 green chilies
A small piece of ginger
½ tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste

Instructions

Grind the ingredients in a blender.   Add a little water and grind again.

Serve chilled.