The Shivarathri of my life...
Specialty of Shivarathri as a student of Sri Sathya Sai
For a student in the educational institutions of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, festivals and celebrations across cultures, religions and nationalities gain significance because Swami, as He is affectionately called, emphasizes on the religion of love, the caste of humanity, the language of the heart and the omnipresent God, by whatever name you wish to call Him/Her. And based on his/her own inclinations and interests, different festivals fascinate different students who have passed out of the portals of His university. As a student, the most memorable festival and celebration for me was the MahaShivarathri.
Lord Shiva is one of the most important Gods in the Bharatiya culture and forms an integral part of the holy Trinity as the destroyer - Brahma (the creator) and Lord Vishnu (the sustainer) being the other two. As per the lunar calendar, the 13th night of the waning fortnight is considered as a special night for Lord Shiva - the Shivarathri (Rathri means night). The 13th night in the month of Maagha or Phalguna comes once a year and is considered as a special Sivarathri, the MahaShivarathri.
Massive and magnificent celebrations take place all over India, especially in the northern part of the country which is bordered by the mighty Himalayas. Apart from thousands of temples, the famous shrine, Kedarnath and the devotion-inspiring Mount Kailas with the Manasarovar Lake are located in these Himalayas. However, celebrations at Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparthi, which is the abode of Sri Sathya Sai, take on a slightly different flavour. The celebrations there are exactly as dictated by Swami who is widely considered to be a Shiva-Shakti Avatar.
Instead of delving into a prose on how the celebrations are different, I feel it would be a much better idea to actually relive one such special Shivarathri.
So here is the narrative of a Shivarathri that I can never forget my entire life. This was the Shivarathri of 2000 - March 4th. As always, Swami showered such a bounty that raises goosebumps on my entire being in gratitude and wonderment.
A little background before the story. I know that whenever I begin like this, there is a danger of the narrative getting very long, but well, that is my weakness. However, let me assure you all that the background will definitely add to the richness of the story. The background will arrive in two parts.
Background - Part 1
I had joined the Sri Sathya Sai Higher Secondary School in 1998. The first Shivarathri I witnessed in the divine presence was in the February of 1999. That year, Shivarathri happened to fall on the day that is globally chosen to celebrate Love - 14th February. In the morning, all of us students sang the songs and stotrams in His presence and Swami delivered His divine discourse in the evening. Swami spoke on a range of topics from how attachment leads to suffering, how love should be cultivated in one’s heart, how one should see only the good in others and never find faults and how one should make Swami as the ideal for all our activities in life. He however, concluded on a note that had not been heard for a long time till then. He said,
Embodiments of Love!
As pointed out by the Vice Chancellor in his speech, I used to bring out Atmalingams from this body on the occasion of Shivarathri in the earlier years. Lingodbhava (emergence of Linga from the stomach through the mouth) used to take place on every Shivarathri. To witness this sacred event, lakhs would gather in a small hall. Consequently, there used to be stampede resulting in injuries to devotees. Due to this, I discontinued Lingodbhava in public. There is a specific time for this. It may take place at any moment between 8 and 10 in the night. It takes place at the right time irrespective of the place I am in. It is bound to take place. It is natural on Shivarathri night. Those who are fortunate to witness this sacred Lingodbhava are freed from all sins. One must see how it emerges. But, some people may not be able to see this even if they are sitting close by. Witnessing the emergence of the Lingam is of utmost importance. Once it emerges, everyone will be able to see it and it has its own benefits. There are many such important aspects attached to this auspicious occasion. You will be immensely benefited if you keep awake and sing the glory of God at least on this night.
That was enough to charge me into full vigor and energy. As far as my memory goes, that is the only Shivarathri when I kept awake the whole night singing bhajans. The practice among the students in Parthi is a very unique one. They reserve their places with the sitting mats. However, once the place is vacant for more than an hour, it can be moved and taken possession of. So, the whole night, some students keep awake just to displace mats and wend their way to the front lines! I too was among such students. With every passing hour, I progressed ahead, displacing the mats that had been placed there for ‘reservation’. It was like the survival of the fittest. As students dropped off to sleep, we conquerers kept awake and surged ahead. By 4am, I had reached the first line! Victory!
Then, something totally unexpected happened. It was just past 5:45 am when there were signs of Swami coming for darshan. Needless to say, the atmosphere got supercharged with excitement. Swami came straight to the stage and even as He sat there, seemed to be in a sort of discomfort. In a few minutes, He was clutching His throat with two fingers and tears welled in my eyes, seeing Him in pain. Like the others around me, I began to sing the bhajans even more loudly. I felt that it was the only way of giving some comfort to Swami. Maybe I could scream so that my throat would hurt instead of His. The situation seemed to only get worse and Swami’s body began to quiver and quake, shiver and shake from the pain and effort. And yet, a sweet smile danced on His face.
I then remembered having heard about the Lingodbhava that Swami used to perform - first from my father and the discourse on the previous evening. I felt that Swami was about to perform the Lingodbhava! I looked around and nobody had a camera. Mine was just on my lap! But try as hard as I did, the tears in my eyes did not allow me to shoot! I just watched in awe and wonder as Swami performed the Lingodbhava. In one sudden spasm, Swami moved ahead and from His mouth emerged the golden globule - the Hiranyagarbha Linga. And as He picked the Linga and exhibited it, I guess I was the only photographer taking pictures. ( There was the video camera running however and video stills from the movie flooded the market later on.) In the discourse that followed, Swami said something very poignant.
The principle of Hiranyagarbha is spread all over the body. It assumes a form when I will it. Whoever has seen this Lingam at the time of its emergence till its complete journey outside will not have rebirth. One should see its form as It emerges. In order to sanctify your lives, such sacred manifestations have to be shown to you every now and then. Only then can you understand the divinity in humanity. This Lingam will not break even if it is dropped from a height with force. This is Amruthatwam (immortality). It is changeless. You cannot see such a manifestation anywhere else in the world. It is possible only with Divinity.
Needless to say, we were all thrilled. The blessing and bounty was so immense and tremendous. I felt overwhelmed that in my first year as His student itself I had been able to witness the Lingodbhava.
Background - Part 2
This part of the background is something that I am definitely not proud of. But the need for mentioning it is vital for the story and so I proceed. In the academic year 1999-2000, my XII grade, I got caught in an indiscipline problem. The result of that was me getting banned from participating in an sports and cultural events and competitions for the academic year. That did not hurt me as much as the other punishment that the warden awarded me - no permission slips to take camera to the mandir!
I felt as if my life support was plucked out. Taking pictures of Swami with the camera had become so much a part of my life that I could not think of sustaining without it. And as Shivarathri arrived, I felt that not being allowed to shoot would really become unbearable. I had been eagerly anticipating the Shivarathri with the intention of taking pictures of Lingodbhavam. And all those hopes were cruelly dashed. I felt cheated! My thinking was that nobody has the right to take someone away from Swami - whatever be his ‘crime’. I got angered. I was upset. But I was helpless too.
With this background, we now move on to the main story.
Complete confidence in Swami's act...
February 2000 was coming to an end and Shivarathri was approaching. I was wondering as to how I would be able to take pictures of the Lingodbhavam. I kept complaining internally to Swami that I wanted to take photos on Shivarathri. Finally, one day before the D day, I wrote a letter to Swami. I do not remember the details but here is the gist which I remember very well. It was this - Swami! You know how badly I wish to take the Lingodbhavam picture. Now, I am not being given a permission slip to get my camera. Please promise me that if you perform Lingodbhavam this year, I shall get a picture of the Lingam in your mouth.
Armed with this letter, I went and sat in the mandir. Swami came and accepted the letter from me. I was so thrilled and happy. I felt that Swami had given me a personal promise. Overnight, my attitude changed from, “I am the unluckiest guy in the hostel” to “Swami will perform Lingodbhavam only if I take camera to Mandir.” That is the kind of confidence that an assurance from Swami bestows!
The D-day dawned and I went to the warden’s office to request for the camera slip. I was not given permission and I went for the morning session in the mandir without my camera. We sang stotrams and songs in Swami’s presence and it was very uplifting. For the evening session, I hoped that I would get the permission slip though I had no idea as to how that could possibly happen.
“If you do not take your camera Aravind, remember that it means there will be no Lingodbhavam”, I told myself and felt pacified.
Thus, in the evening, I again went sincerely to the warden’s office with the determination to stand there till whatever time necessary. The warden ignored me and I continued to stand. All the students in the hostel had left for mandir and I was maybe the last one still in the hostel. I knew that the warden would now come on the rounds to ensure that all had left and would drive me out to mandir.
“He has no idea of the impact of his actions. By denying me a permission slip, he is denying the world of the phenomenon of Lingodbhavam” - the heights that the ego can ascend!
As warden re-entered the hostel, one of the teachers came back to him and said,
“Sir! Today our school boys are chanting Vedas. Please let Aravind take camera so that good photos can be taken when Swami blesses them.”
I could not believe my stroke of luck and the warden could not believe the predicament he had been put into. He was in no mood to let me off the ‘punishment’ that he had imposed on me. He found a midway solution. He signed a permission slip for me but said,
“This is valid only for today evening. Even if you plan to sit the whole night in the mandir for bhajans, make sure that your camera is returned to the hostel.”
I could sense the disappointment in the heart. The previous year, Swami had performed the Lingodbhava early the next morning. If that were to happen this year, I would not be able to take photos! But again I told myself that was not possible because if I did not have camera, then the event could simply not happen!
The unbelievable turn of events...
I reached the mandir with the camera. When some of my friends saw me, their jaws seemed to drop in amazement as to how I managed to get the camera. I simply smiled and moved to the second line and sat. In the meanwhile, warden arrived and told me, “You need not sit in the front. You have a zoom lens. Sit back and take pictures from there itself.” Thus it was that I landed in the 8th or 9th line with a sad face.
The evening proceedings went on fine. There was Veda chanting ( how can I forget that which was instrumental in getting me a camera slip!) followed by a couple of speeches after which Swami delivered His divine discourse. Then, the bhajans began which would go on throughout the night till the Aarthi the next day morning. Swami moved into the interview room. My mind was not at all on the bhajans. I was going on wondering as to how I would manage to retain my camera till next morning when Swami would do the Lingodbhavam. Even as I was furiously thinking thus, Swami arrived out of the interview room. Instead of moving towards His residence, He came to the dais and sat on the chair. This was something new. It was part of His uncertainty that all of us loved.
As Swami sat on the chair, all of us noticed that He seemed to get spasms in His stomach, chest and throat. I got excited - Swami was going to do the Lingodbhavam now! And I had my camera with me. I was so sure of getting a picture of Swami with the Lingam in His mouth. As Swami’s symptoms progressed, He requested all the photographers in the first two lines to put their cameras down as the flashes were very disturbing. At that instant, I realized why being shunted off the the 9th line was also His blessing. While everyone was made to put down the cameras, I was not told anything since I was so ‘far away’!
I knelt down and waited with bated breath for the moment. The spasms became more frequent and intense and my heart was thudding so loud and hard. I knew that the moment would arrive anytime soon. Amidst all that excitement and anticipation, a thought arose in my mind.
“Aravind remember what Swami said? Whoever has seen this Lingam at the time of its emergence till its complete journey outside will not have rebirth. One should see its form as It emerges. If you try to take a photo, there will be a moment when the shutter closes and you will be cut off from the Lingodbhavam. Is it worth sacrificing your liberation for the sake of a picture?”
This thought really disturbed me. And so I did something really crazy. I just focused on Swami and kept my camera to the side of my head. My idea was to simply shoot blind when the moment happened. Within a few minutes it happened. Swami did the Lingodbhavam and then even moved amidst the gathered thousands, displaying it for them to see. I shot blindly and since it was the age of film cameras, I had no idea as to whether ‘the moment’ had been captured.
It was only a week later, when the film rolls were developed by my father in Mumbai, that I got a confirmation of having captured the magical moment. Today, when I think about the probability of getting such an image in the circumstances I was in, I know it is impossible. What a gift Swami had given!
I have witnessed at least half a dozen Lingodbhavams. I have photographed them with cameras that shoot at 5,7 and 9 frames a second. But I have never managed a photo like that ever. I have also not seen another such photograph anywhere else, taken by anybody else. Of course, there have been video stills made from the films that were shot on those occasions - but no high resolution images. Naturally, for such images cannot be taken, they have to be given.
This, till date, remains my best Shivarathri ever.
I also realize that when it comes to Swami, photos are never 'taken' by the photographer but are always 'given' by the Lord.
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