Wonderful people pass through this small bit of land. I hope that what they are comes alive in this story.
Here in India, soon after I stop wearing my winter hat to bed, Passover comes.1 Though I don’t celebrate Passover in the traditional way here, it finds its place in me, and I feel at home. Along with the flush of new flowers, birds and the wild flurries of Holi colors, Passover brings alive the gratitude that comes with the end of the dark winter cold. It takes its name from the angel of death who passed over the houses of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and protected their children from the 10th plague on Pharaoh’s Egypt, the death of every firstborn. After this, the Pharaoh set the Jews free. In the spring of every year, my mother would tell me to go outside and pick a rock. She would put this rock together with our Passover dishes and utensils in a gigantic pot of water and boil it. She said that we cleaned the dishes like this to remind us that we were a part of the earth. Only then would the dishes be clean like the earth for Passover. It was as if we were not just here for ourselves. We were part of a larger flow. Lately, I have been reminded of this quite a bit.
Passover is a reenactment of how the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. That slavery still exists in many forms and cultures worldwide. It is good to remember the suffering of others whom we may not even know and to do what we can to reduce suffering— starting with taking responsibility for our own suffering and paying attention to how we might even unwittingly contribute to the suffering of others not yet born.
Passover comes with reminders of threads common to many traditions. It surprised me to learn that Mohammed emphasized the importance of the Jewish Passover many times in the Quran. The ultimate goal in both Yoga and Vedanta is freedom from the bondage of ignorance and pain. Traditionally, Passover celebrates the freedom of the Jews out of Pharaoh’s Egypt, perhaps in 1246 BCE, but that date is disputed. Yoga is not a religion nor is Vedanta. Yoga is a corpus of practices and Vedanta is a philosophy to be lived. Both are a training aimed at leading to a way of being and seeing, just as the best of Judaism or any religious tradition is. Many modern Jews extrapolate from the Passover story the wish for freedom from oppression to all people everywhere. Some celebrate the search for spiritual freedom.
Springtime is a time of deep cleaning. As in many households the world over, spring cleaning is a time to expunge the dust and debris from every corner of the house and a time to free oneself of things one does not need. My mother practically emptied the closets, attic and cupboards every spring and gave things to those who needed them. I seem to be moving in that direction, bringing order and simplicity where there was a profusion of confusion, both physical and otherwise.
There are some Passover practices special to this time of year which reverberate in all times. Matza, a cracker made from unleavened dough, is eaten instead of bread to remember the hasty escape of the Jews from the Pharaoh; there was no time to let the dough rise. During Passover, bread is also a symbol of being puffed up with false pride so during Passover bread is not eaten. It can be a gentle tapas, an austerity, not indulging in the simple pleasure of eating bread. It can also be a form of smrti or mindfulness of old habits and inclinations.
Before the start of the holiday, the children hide bread in the house. Before nightfall at the start of Passover, the father or grandfather does a search of the whole house, looking for any bread or other chametz (food not eaten during Passover). Once, before Passover, I hid a piece of bread in the freezer, expecting my parents to find it. Having forgotten that I hid bread there, I was chagrined to find it several days well into Passover.
Elijah is an important figure in the Jewish mind, especially during Passover. In the Bible he is said to be one of only three sages who saw God face to face and did not go mad or perish in flames. Elijah also represents the stranger. Because the Jews were strangers in a foreign land and because historically Jews have often been outsiders, we welcome the unexpected guest. There was always a place for Elijah at the seder, the special Passover dinner where the Passover story is read aloud. A full place setting and a chair were left empty at the table to remember him and to feed any wayfarer who might appear out of the night air.
Elijah always comes unannounced. In the true spirit of Elijah, Atithi,the word for guest in many Indian languages, literally means one who comes without appointment, without notice.(A= no, not + tithi=date, appointment) Elijah might be disguised as a beggar or a king. You only know it was Elijah if he disappears in a poof once a situation is resolved or a lesson learned. We also left a glass of wine for him at the kitchen door which was left open to the fresh night air of spring. By the end of the evening the glass was always empty. Elijah had come and blessed us!
Swami Veda encourages the practice of keeping a gratitude diary, jotting down at least one thing per day. Cultivating gratitude can lead to santosha or contentment, one of the 5 niyamas (restraints) of Yoga. Here, contentment is not complacency; rather it is a kind of mental and spiritual rigor that dislodges old habits of worry and mental grumbling.
I recently awoke one morning with the Passover song Dayenu going through my head. Dayenu goes back to the 9th Century and is sung by Jews around the world during Passover. It is about contentment and gratitude. Its refrain dayenu means it would have been enough, it would have been sufficient had God given only one gift and not all the others. It goes over a whole list of things, many associated with the Passover story.
Over the years, when Dayenu goes through my head, I think more about the great blessings of my life and how it would have been enough if just one or none had been given. It is a powerful affirmation. As I sing it, I mentally go through my list of wonders, one by one. The song Dayenu can be an exuberant exercise in gratitude, contentment and detachment.
Jews in Afghanistan and Iran, while singing Dayenu, hit each other over the head with green onions. (Not being Afghani or Iranian, our family didn’t do this.) The onion-hitting commences at the part Even if you had supplied our needs in the desert for 40 years but not provided us with manna. Some say that this was a reminder to let go of cravings for foods that the Jews no longer had in the wilderness but had enjoyed while enslaved in Egypt (like onions); others say it is a reminder to examine one’s cravings for unnecessary things.
Some of the other stanzas of Dayenu are:
If He had brought us out of Egypt. (It would have been enough.)
If He had split the sea for us. (It would have been enough.)
If He had drowned our oppressors. (It would have been enough.)
But wait. It says in The Bible that after the 10 plagues2 scourged the lives of the Pharaoh and his people, the Jews went free—only to be chased into the Red Sea by the Pharaoh’s men. When all seemed lost, God sent a miracle—the parting of the Red Sea—and the Jews rushed safely across to the other side. Seeing this, the Egyptian soldiers hurried after in the dry swath of land before them, but then the sea closed in on them and they all drowned.
Then the Jews rejoiced at the death of their enemies, but God called out to them that this joy was ill placed. Do not to be glad for the suffering of your enemies. The Egyptians are My children too.
Recently, a friend confided in me about a great loss. This prompted me to look for a passage in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim but I couldn’t find it. I came across a far more interesting remedy for the pain she was suffering. It was Love for Enemies. A well loved rebbe (rabbi of rabbis) admonished his son to pray for his enemies. If you think this is not serving God, he said, you should know that this prayer exalts God more than all the other prayers.
I thought about this a lot. How could praying for an adversary be the highest prayer? Perhaps because it defrays the false reality (incorrect perception really) of my turf and my terrain for a higher reality— that we are all inextricably interconnected. Not only that, it reaffirms the Shema, sometimes called the highest prayer in Judaism, which is often translated as:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Swami Veda has said that in the middle of a heated argument, offer a glass of water to the person with whom you are arguing. Do a secret favor, make a silent blessing for one with whom you are at odds, he would say. And don’t tell—anyone—or it is an energy leak on that meritorious act. Once told to another, an intended selfless deed can morph into an act of ego or false pride.
All this fits nicely with giving up one’s own small square of Personal Real Estate. It is the kind of opportunity I have been looking for lately. And then another such opportunity arrived: Holi!
Holi is another spring festival which at its core best, asks us to step aside, to forgive and be forgiven like children at play. It is the Indian spring festival of colors, mischief and of symbolically killing the demon and washing away old grudges. It starts the night before with a big bonfire made of the dead wood and leaves of winter. The following day, you splash all your friends and enemies with colored water. Some do it from the rooftops. Then together you might all walk down to Ma Ganga (the Ganges River) and wash it off.
Well, this year I did my share of water-vaulting—not with chemicals but with colored powders made from tulsi and beets. One little boy pelted me about 30 times and I feigned terrible defeat as many times. He didn’t get bored but I finally did so I took my bucket and walked into the center of the playing field. Under attack from every direction, I decided to just sit down on a convenient bench and take it. Many jubilant cries, handfuls of colored powder and buckets of water later, a bunch of us stood by the water spigot and helped each other get the colored powder out of our hair and faces. Then I flagged down a friend who gave me a ride on the back of his motorcycle to Ma Ganga.
That was the most fun of the whole day. It was a feat to get on the motorcycle, but once on, I barely held on. It felt like just letting everything fall away from me. Once there, I walked along the beautiful blue and hardly anyone was there, a rare opportunity on Holi. I sat straight and still near the river’s edge, my feet on the first step in the water, at one with the world. Then people arrived and splashed the step-sitters so vigorously that I didn’t even have to slide down the last slimy stair to immerse myself in Ma Ganga. She came to me.
I was given a ride back by motorcycle by another wonderful friend. I got to catch up with the extraordinary turn of events in his life, the kind of holiday sharing that reminds me of playing with my favorite cousin on Passover. When I got home I washed myself and my clothes for 2 ½ hours. Pink hair and green fingernails, it was almost time for the very best part of every day, sitting upstairs in silent meditation for an hour with the formless form of Swami Veda Bharati. Later I heard myself say to a friend who, somewhat depressed, had not come to meditation, the guru has no body. The world is in pain. We are all his hands and feet. He needs you.
Isn’t this true in any tradition, guru or no guru, belief in God or not? Every action or refusal to act affects the whole.
In India, it is common to reflect on non-ownership and non-doership after any act with the following prayer:
Om tat sat brahma panam astu.
May all this be an offering to Brahman .3
1 It begins at nightfall of the first full moon after the spring equinox and ends at sunset of the 8th day except in Israel where it ends one day earlier. This year, 2011, it begins on April 18th and ends on April 26th (April 25th in Israel).
2 The 10 Plagues of Egypt: The Nile River turned to blood, Egypt was covered with frogs, gnats, flies, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts that devoured all the crops, total darkness for 3 days over Egypt except over its Jews, the death of all first-born Children except that the angel of death passed over the houses of all Jews, sparing their children.
3God, the One God that is All, the Absolute Reality, the Expansive One, at once vast and infinitesimally small