Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Swami Agnivesh - An Amazing Indian Life

Interestingly and intriguingly, 2020 had begun for me with an affectionate meeting at the Sahmat Cultural function on 1st Jan. with my favourite Swami ji, Swami Agnivesh.

author with Swami Agnivesh
Author with Swami Agnivesh at Sahmat Cultural function
(1 January 2020)

Coming from a liberal family of saints / scholars, I feel instinctively quite at ease with open minded Sadhus ... Fakirs. I had first seen Swami ji in 2005, presiding over an Arya Samaj meeting in Delhi. I recall how he had proposed that Nepal should be greeted on becoming a secular state. There was a loud unanimous "No, No!" by all those present and Swami ji had quietly shelved his suggestion.

Swami was a crusader for the poor and oppressed and called a spade, a spade... about all religious rituals... like Amarnath Yatra. To end the old blood feud, he had even proposed that 'derogatory' about Guru Nanak in Satayarth Prakash could be deleted... again vehemently opposed by other Arya Samajis.

Further links and information

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Great Memories of Great-Grandfather

This article was contributed to the prominent diaspora website in the USA, "India of the Past" in 2019

IT WAS October 2018. I realised - as if in a flash - on the night of 18th October that the next day was the 71st anniversary of passing away of my most beloved and esteemed great-grandfather – a unique Guru, a tactful teacher, a versatile scholar and renowned Vaidya of his time, Shri Pramatmanand ji.

L to R: Pardadee Bhua Chetan Kaur Ji, Author, Nanee Jee
Bishan Kaur & Dadee Ji Dhann Kaur. c.1956

As a child of about 4 years at that time, I have rather very vague - बहुत धुंदली सी - but distinct memories of the day. I had lost my mother about a year earlier and, therefore, used to spend more time in the loving care of my Naanee (maternal grandmother) Bishan Kaur, though my two great-grandfathers - Giatanand ji and Pramatmanand ji, not to speak of the grandparents - Dwarkanand ji & Dadee-maan Dhan Kaur, and the two paternal / grand paternal aunts simply adored me.

Father, reflecting a serious demeanour and seen mostly busy doing this or that work, seemed somewhat of a distant and forbidding figure. Perhaps, in those times, young fathers in large joint families, were also treated by the elders at home more in terms of grown up children! And they, in turn, might also have felt a bit shy or were not yet accustomed to be openly affectionate towards their own children, more particularly when there were several seniors always lurking around to do so! I was, as I have been told, a very healthy, playful and well adorned child-ever ready to ‘play’ with anyone who was imaginative enough to attract my attention and interest.

Author visiting the Baithak of his elders,
first time since childhood. 17 December 2006

Baba ji Pramatmanand ji would often like to have me by his side in his Baithak - an all-purpose larger room serving as pustkalaya (library); lekhanalya (room for writing books); aushdhalya (room with open Almirahs with lines of bottles of medicines); shishyalya (teaching room), sangityalya (with musical instruments lying around) and above all, the play-corner of his most beloved great-grandson, i.e., me – the first born of the 7th generation of the known history of the family! I was reputed to be the apple of his eyes – the fulfilment of his prayer; reputed to have been named by him even before my birth, after the name of a legendary saint scholar of a historic seminary of Amritsar! What an ironically tragic twist of destiny that it had taken me more than sixty years to cross the threshold of and enter this most pious premises, once the hallowed seat of imparting knowledge and wisdom by Vaid Bhushan Param Sant Pramatmanand Ji, my revered great grandfather !!!

Falaund Kalan
Shrine of Author's Ancestor - Baba Gajjan Shah Ji

On the fateful day of his passing away, I had been, perhaps, specially fetched – carried mostly on shoulders during the journey on foot by my maternal uncle, Jawala Singh from village Jandali, of my recently deceased mother, Malkit Kaur. It was located near the historic town of Payal, on Sirhind Canal, 7 Koh i.e., about 17 km from my parental village, Falaund Kalan. I recall that the Bawan – decorated bier for funeral procession – bedecked with flowers and buntings had in front the group of Band-baja musicians – Muslims professionals called from the nearby city of Malerkotla. The silently grieving women were moving behind the men folk. I, the Jyeshath - first born-great-grandson, was carried on his broad shoulders by my well-built maternal uncle Jawala Singh. I was waving ritually the Chaur – fly whisk – over the bier. This funeral procession, in a solemn tradition but not in overly sorrowful atmosphere, was symbolic of the expression of completion of a life of fulfilment of the most respected and distinguished elder of the family.

Baba Gajjan Shah Ji

The bier had been brought into the exclusive family cremation ground near the more than hundred-year-old Samadhi - mausoleum - of family patriarch Baba Gajjan Shah. My father was being given instructions to light the pyre. Pramatmanand Ji’s had no child and my father, Haridialnand, was his adopted grandson and the brightest shishya (pupil). He had been rigorously groomed since childhood by his Guru-grandfather to be the true inheritor of his mantle of all the multifarious scholarship and spiritual learning.

Minutes before my father was all set to light the pyre as per the ritualistic ceremonies, an army official, Ram Singh, belonging to our extended family, happened to arrive unannounced on his long awaited vacation after World War II. He was last known to have served in Italy. He had been able to bring with him a camera – something quite rare in those days in any village. He had immediately rushed to our exclusive cremation place. He politely interrupted the Agni-dah - lighting the fire - ceremony for a while, and clicked a photo of the group standing by the side of the mortal remains of the departed noble soul. I could discover the copy this small size photo in one of the family books when browsing through them after the death of my father in April 1978. Though not very clear in details, the enlarged photo has been indeed a rare monumental image capturing the moment – just before the mortal remains of the great soul were consigned to flames of fire.

Among the ten persons in the photo, I have been able to recognise eight of them. Standing left to right- the second is Lakhmananand, a dear real nephew, then about twenty years old, who had been born posthumously; Narain Darya, another elderly distant nephew; village headman & a distant grandson, Basant Narain; Tara Singh, again a distant grandson; Shyamanand, an elderly real nephew; Haridialnand, adopted grandson and chosen heir; Mahinder Dass, a distant grandson and a learned disciple; Krishnanand, a distant grandson and a young disciple. I had known Shri Basant Narain and Krishnanand quite well and was recipient of their great affection and blessings.

I have some deeply distant recollections of the largely attended get together at the Antim Ardaas – the last Prayer function on 9th November 1947 – marking the completion of Shri Akhand Path, he uninterrupted 48 - hour recitation Shri Guru Granth Sahib. The people of the Punjab were still under spell of great gloom over the barbaric violence in the wake of Partition of India. Our village was part of the area of Muslim state of Malerkotla, and the rulers called ‘Nawabs’, had been held in high esteem by the people. The Sikhs recalled with admiration and gratitude the historic bold stand taken by Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan (1672-1712) when the two innocent young sons of Guru Gobind Singh were bricked alive by the governor of Sirhind in 1705. The territory of Malerkotla had remained comparatively quiet during the worst killings of Muslims in East Punjab. Sadly, the last Nawab Ahmed Ali Khan had passed away on 18th October 1947. I think that I had heard people talking to suggest that noble people like Nawab Sahib and Pramatmanand Ji were departing this world because such noble souls cannot withstand the barbarity, inhumanity and utter cruelty of the time!

Entry in 'Red book' of ceremonial records

In September 2019, I was able to retrieve the old family ‘red-book’ of ceremonial records and the various traditional financial dealings. My father had been tutored to cultivate a habit of recording most meticulously the minutest details of the various social and religious ceremonies. He did the same after the passing away of Pramatmanand Ji, including the mention of the exact amounts of various expenditures involved. He has, among many other details, recorded, “The Most Pious 108 Sant Baba Pramatmanand Ji breathed his last at 8p.m. on Saturday, 18th October and Biwan dwara agni sanskar was performed at 4p.m. Sunday, 19th October.” The Community Feast had been arranged on 4th November. The Function of the completion of Recitation of Granth Sahib had taken place on 9th November. The Musicians of the band for funeral part had been paid Rupees 15 - a significant sum in those days; cost of wood for the pyre was Rupees 23, and 64 coins of double Paisas - large sized copper coins - were thrown around during the journey of the funeral procession! The family Guru – a dignified Bedi Sikh, a presumed to a direct descendant of family of Guru Nanak Dev Ji - had been given a ‘Dakshina’ of Rupees 11!

Then in October 2019, I also came across revealing references in Haridwar in the records of the family Purohit - Pandits including the signatures of many elders who had gone there to immerse the ashes of the members of the family. In 2009, we had discovered a copy of a long letter, more than 2000 words, penned sometime in 1945 by Pramatmanand ji to his young nephew who had joined the Army. It was about the conflict of litigation over family lands by his maternal grandfather, and it amply revealed his anguish over the unnecessary family feud. I have been keen to highlight his legacy of multidimensional scholarship Pramatmanand Ji, particularly his original hand written works, in Gurmukhi script, of Ayurveda and commentaries on the sacred texts Hindu-Sikh spiritual tradition. One big book, called ‘Moattam Sahib’, contains thousands formulations of ingredients of very special Ayurveda medicines, considered strict secrets like - present day patents. I am glad that Gajjan Bilas, the biography the family patriarch authored by him in Brij-Bhasha, has been long last published.

I have been speaking to the elderly persons in the village - not many survive now - who had personally known Pramatmanand ji. A very senior cousin who was the first in the area to do Masters in English in 1950 - and had then joined the Indian Revenue Service - had told me several interesting anecdotes about the scholarly Baba Ji. When asked about his education, Baba Ji was fond of saying that he had studied in the University of Himalaya Parbat. Similarly, when as a high school student he had once angrily spoken to Baba ji, ‘There is no Rabb-God… all talk about Him rubbish.’ According to him, Baba Ji affectionately drew him closer to his bosom and spoke very softly and sweetly, ”Son, first of all, one should not be full of any anger when trying to understand any deeper and complicated problem!”

It was my destiny to go around the world as the representative of India and have the privilege to meet the most magnificent personalities in various fields. In an inexplicably mysterious way, I feel that my pilgrimage on the path of particular point of view of life had indeed begun very early - in the most ennobling lap of my great grandfather, an extraordinary saint scholar who had devoted every second of his earthly sojourn in the love of learning the art and science of healing- of the human mind, body and spirit!

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Mahabharat in Armenian

Cover of Mahabharat in Armenian
Մահաբհարատա. Հնդկական էպոս
Mahabharat in Armenian Language (2001)

This edition of Mahabharat, translated into Armenian was published in 2001, by NOR-DAR publishing house sponsored by the Embassy of India in Armenia. 

Title Մահաբհարատա. Հնդկական էպոս
Mahabharat. An Indian Epic
Code 00-00005416
Barcode 2000000192017
Publisher Нор-Дар
ISBN 99930-64-59-9
Language հայերեն
Publication date 2001

Download PDF Extract

Ambassador's Foreward:

An Epic of Wisdom, Beauty and Joy for Ever

The Mahabharat has been hailed as a unique phenomenon in the history of human civilisation. The epic, consisting of about 220,000 illness of sublime poetry, is the longest literary work of encyclopaedic proportions which touches upon the entire range of knowledge about the heritage of the Indian people: their religion, mythology, ethics, philosophy, cosmology, law, state-craft, art of war, history, ethnology, etc. It as been said that, whatever is embodied in Mahabharat may be found elsewhere; but what is not found in this epic, it would be impossible to find anywhere else. In the context of the ancient tradition of intense cultural interaction between India and Armenia, it is indeed an occasion of fulfilment for the Embassy of India in Armenia that the celebrated annotated edition of the epic, original written in Russian for young readers by eminent Indologist Ms. Natalia Guseva is made available in Armenian language to the impressionable and discerning readers.

The Armenian people are well-aware fo the tradition of epic through David of Sasun, a superb work of this literary genre. The essence of the heroic epic of Mahabharat deals with the story of the descendants of Bharata, son on King Dushyant and Shakuntala, namely the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas. The greed, jealousy, anger and vanity of the Kauravas in depriving the noble Pandavas of their rights leads ultimately to a bitter and bloody war. The Kauravas are killed one by one. The Pandavas establish a rule based on Dharma, i.e. the Righteousness and Truth. The dead heroes, by the grace of Holy Vyasa, al emerge from the sacred Ganges and purged of their sins, meet in Heaven where there is no rancour or malice. The theme of ultimate peace and reconciliation represents the essence of Indian ethos.

The main story of Mahabharat accounts for hardly one fifth of the epic poem. It is the skilful narration and juxtaposition of the ultimate themes of Right and Wrong; Action and Contemplation; Life and Death; Friendship and Enmity; Love and Hatred, etc., which make Mahabharat the most comprehensive treatise of the eternal dilemmas of man. The metaphysical poetry of the epic takes on into the realm of soul-searching and soul-vision, expounding universal precepts and principles. Mahabharat could be called an epic of becoming, and the reader vividly witnesses the titanic heroes bringing ruin on themselves through flaws in their characters. The universal lesson is spelt by righteous Yudhishthir: “in all cases, war is evil… he who gains victory, also suffers losses”. This remains valid for all times and for all nations and individuals. The recent TV serial on the epic in India captured the imagination fo the people as an amazingly relevant interpretation and telling commentary on the contemporary themes of crucial significance.

For this edition of Mahabharat in Armenian language, the Embassy of India first and foremost, would like to express deep and gratefulness to Ms. Natalia Guseva for her spontaneous concurrence to the proposal for the translation in Armenian of her admirable work and also for her gracious gesture to contribute a forward to this edition. Ms. Guseva’s work has been ranked as a classic in its own right in telling the tale of the great epic in words of rare beauty, sublimity and simplicity.

The Embassy of India in Armenia expresses profuse thanks to Mr. Abgar Apnian, the First Secretary of the Writer’s Union of Armenia for conceptualising and implementing the project of the Armenian edition. The Embassy places on record deep appreciation of the dedicated and competent work of the translators, Mr. Nico Manukian, for his superb illustrations fo the book: his brush has surely succeeded in delineating the heroic characters of the epic in all their glory and downfall; compassion and vengeance; agony and ecstasy, etc. The Embassy is confident that the Armenian edition of Mahabharat would go a long way in further deepening and strengthening the historical and cultural bonds between India and Armenia.

Bal Anand
Ambassador of India to Armenia

illustrations from the book - Mahabharat in Armenian illustrations from the book - Mahabharat in Armenian
illustrations from the book - Mahabharat in Armenian Back cover from the book - Mahabharat in Armenian

Back Cover

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Saturday, June 06, 2020

Guru Nanak's 550th Anniversary - International Conference in Chandigarh

Dear and Esteemed Colleagues,

I presume that you might be interested in the evolving contours in the recent years of Sikhism in its scholastic, spiritual, political and cross cultural dimensions. The subject has indeed assumed significant diplomatic-strategic aspects also of the 'Pilgrimacy' and role of radical elements of the Sikh Diaspora in the context of the global celebration of 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak (April 15, 1469 - September 22, 1539) and more particularly of Pakistan's quite unexpected coming forward for the implement - at a lightning speed indeed - of the long cherished 'Sikh psychic dream' of the 'Kartarpur Corridor'.

An institution, named interestingly, 'Centre for Research in Rural & Industrial Development (CRRID)', in Chandigarh, proclaiming its founding to Sh P.N. Haksar's inspiring motto 'ceaseless striving in search of Truth through research' hosted, co-sponsored by Govt. of Punjab and Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), an 'International Conference on Guru Nanak's Philosophy...' on 7-8 Nov 2019.

I had the pleasure to participate in this conference of eight sessions - with as many as 32 scholars / academicians making their presentations on various subjects related to the Vaani / teachings of Nanak - of the Seminar apart from the inaugural session with keynote address by Prof Murli Manohar Joshi & Presidential remarks by Sh M. Hamid Ansari. The valedictory session was addressed by Dr Manmohan Singh.

The deprivation of 'Khulle Deedaar - Unrestricted Access' to the Sikh Shrines in Pakistan has been the most agonisingly experienced psycho-spiritual wound among the faithful of the dynamic community. The matter has got incorporated in the regular Ardaas - Prayer after every formal religious function. The words are reproduced below:

ਸ੍ਰੀ ਨਨਕਾਣਾ ਸਾਹਿਬ ਤੇ ਹੋਰ ਗੁਰਦੁਆਰਿਆਂ, ਗੁਰਧਾਮਾਂ ਦੇ ਜਿਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਤੋਂ ਪੰਥ ਨੂੰ ਵਿਛੋੜਿਆ ਗਿਆ ਹੈ,
Sree Nankaanaa Sahib tae hor Gurdvaareaan’, Gur'dhaamaan’ dae jinhaan’ thon’ Panth noon’ vichhor-eaa geaa haee
ਖੁਲ੍ਹੇ ਦਰਸ਼ਨ ਦੀਦਾਰ ਤੇ ਸੇਵਾ ਸੰਭਾਲ ਦਾ ਦਾਨ, ਖ਼ਾਲਸਾ ਜੀ ਨੂੰ ਬਖ਼ਸ਼ੋ ॥
Khullhae darshan dee-daara tae sevaa san-mbhaal daa daan Khaalsa jee noon’ bakhsho.

I am taking the liberty of presenting - below - the Paper, running into about 2750 words, presented by me titled, 'Guru Nanak - Poet and prophet of Oppressed and Persecuted'. I was tempted to quote a few parts of it in this covering note - but was dissuaded by the feeling not to make it any longer - and leaving it to you to have a quick look at it - as and when you feel inclined.

Guru Nanak - Poet and Prophet of Oppressed and Persecuted

Bal Anand, Indian Foreign Service (Retired)

All those who have lived through the last five centuries in the mystically blessed and also terribly tormented ancient lands of five rivers, and areas lying beyond the adjoining north-western regions of Bharat i.e. India, have indeed been spiritually solaced and sustained by the resplendent eternal presence of Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji (April 15, 1469 - Sept. 22, 1539 A.D.). During all these years of trials and tribulations wrought upon the people of these lands by their own innate flaws of character or inflicted upon them by the unjust rulers and rampant invaders, ‘the dhuur ki Baani-the deepest Divine discourse’ of the Guru conveyed in the soul stirring sublime poetry, in their own genuine tongue, has been burning bright for all to enlighten their lives.

2. When the toiling and harmony loving people of Guru Nanak’s beloved Punjab were brutally cut apart, amidst rivers of blood and tears - four centuries after his lifelong mission of healing the wounds of religious and social divides with Divine notes of harmony in knitting humanity together-I too had experienced shivers into morrow of my bones as an innocent child of four years, awkwardly awakening to the cruelest ways of the world, by the soul piercing song in my ‘maan-boli’, which seemed, as if, to convey it all to me, “Nanakaane vall nuun jaandia raahiaa ve, meire Pritam nuun sandesha devin jaa… O dear traveler, journeying towards Nankaana, please do convey the deepest cry of my soul to my beloved Guru…” I need not delve into details of those days of the most barbaric mass murders in history of humanity to which people of Punjab had been subjected when India was proclaimed to have awakened to the long awaited dawn of Independence.

3. While speaking to you all at this moment, ladies and gentlemen, in the city beautiful, I indeed feel acutely conscious about my own odd journey of life spanning seven decades and a half, my obvious limitations to fully fathom and understand the most pious life of the great Guru. In his relentless and epochal search until his last for the ultimate truth and an eternal moral order, more pin pointedly during the last five decades since the world had celebrated the quincentenary of the self-proclaimed ‘Saier- songster (of Supreme Creator) and ‘Neechan andar neech-the lowliest among the lowliest’, one of the most extraordinary poet-prophet of humanity has ever known..

4. Dear Friends, please permit me to start with certain basic facts to elucidate my topic of the day. Firstly, we have to begin with an honest admission that ‘no manuscript in Guru Nanak’s own hand has survived the onslaught of time’. Prof. Pritam Singh, the painstaking scholar of manuscripts, has underlined at length how the pervasive practice of writing anything in Gurmukhi or Devanagri scripts ‘without separating different syntactical units from each other’ has posed a formidable challenge and that ‘readers needed a long period of training to read such text correctly…’ Guru Nanak had, however, most thoughtfully entrusted to his toughest tested successor, Bhai Lehna elevated to be Guru Angad, the manuscripts of his own compositions and also the writings of other likeminded saint poets collated so diligently by him during his wide spread travels and intimate discussions with several of them. A total of 974 hymns - in 19 major ragas i.e. melodies of Indian classical music - attributed to Guru Nanak had been later incorporated in Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) by Guru Arjan Dev Ji, when he compiled the Granth, sixty five years later. A majority of Guru Nanak’s verse creations are in the form of quatrains and in other popular verse forms -  ‘the themes are ethical, philosophical, or devotional and in their totality make up the cosmic vision.’

5. Guru Nanak’s composition titled Japji - the Holy chant - comprising of 38 Pauris, literally 'ladders', implying poetic stanzas, has been rightly adopted as the prayer for recitation at early dawn, known in the Sikh tradition as ‘Amrit Vela-the ambrosial hour’. Japji, opening with invocation to God, has amplified the concept of Supreme Being, with a statement on the nature of God: His uniqueness, Omnipotence, Immortality, etc. and reaffirms His being both Truth and Reality. It concludes with an assertion that knowledge of God is obtained through the grace of the Guru - an enlightened individual. The prominence of this composition has been ‘recognized as such by the Fifth guru, Arjun, when he gave it the first place in the sacred anthology.’ In essence, it is a monotheistic concept of Supreme Being, known in Sikh tradition as, ‘Ek Oankar - One Sole Supreme Being’. Another composition of Guru Nanak for morning recitation is Asa Ki Var, ‘a disquisitional poem of 24 stanzas, interspersed with Slokas (groups of poetic couplets); it denounces falsehood and hypocrisy in the practice of religion in society.’ The Var Majh; in Raga Ram Kali Dakhani Onkar; Solahe (sixteen-stanza poem) in Maru Rag and Sidha-Ghoshti, again in Rag Ram Kali, Guru Nanak expresses his broader thinking over philosophical and ethical issues and points out that meditation - Naam Simran is indeed the true Yoga. The primary purpose of all these verses has been to free the minds of the ordinary people from all types of superstitions and negative social practices.

6. When we turn to the group of four poems, in Raga Asa and Telang, ‘expressing strong indignation of Guru Nanak over the barbarities perpetrated by the invading armies of Babur over the people of Punjab including large scale dishonour of the women-folk’, we come across a rare example of a man of prayer and meditation demonstrating a supreme courage of convictions in denouncing the tyrannical deeds of the ‘the Paap ki janj – marriage party - mafia of sinners coming from Kabul’. The death and destruction during the sack of Lahore for four days in the middle of January 1524 finds mention in the boastful narration in ‘Babur-nama’ by emperor Akbar’s grandfather and the forceful challenging counter narrative in the poems ’Babar-vani’ by Guru Nanak- “Bavarvani phir gayi… Babar’s sway has spread all around; even princes are roaming without food…” The painful plight of people is poignantly pictured by Nanak in another hymn: “O our Lord, our Creator, when there is such killing, such suffering, such pain, so much spilling of blood, so much shrieking, do You not feel pity for the poor!” Guru Nanak’s had felt deeply outraged with the indignities and cruelties piled upon helpless women and expressed their plight with the most graphic poetic images: “Jini siri sohani pattian, mangi paae sandhur - Women whose heads were adorned with tresses; Parting of whose hair was daubed with vermilion; Their locks are shorn with shears, their throats choked with dust… Thou art the Author of all things; Thou seest all. Strange are Thy manifestations!”

7. Guru Nanak - the indefatigable seeker of Mukti - the Salvation of the soul via the pursuit in practice of an honest living following the path of Truth and Nobility - was passionately committed to justice, equality, fraternity and fair play for all. He castigated the rich and powerful for their greed and lust and indulging in atrocities against the poor - he chose to be counted with the clans and classes of Bhai Laalo, the hardworking carpenter friend and Bhai Mardana, a soul mate lifelong musician companion, who was also dubbed to be of low caste even among followers of much acclaimed equalitarian faith of Islam. Here Guru Nanak consciously moved beyond limitations of Bhakti movement and its attendant divide of Nirgun and Sargun i.e. Formless and Formal. He equivocally challenged the hypocritical orders of the day - the caste and rituals ridden Hinduism and unjust and intolerant practices of comparatively recently arrived Islam. Guru Nanak indeed echoed Kabir, “Tu kehta kagad ki lekhi; mein kehta aakhan ki dekhi - you speak of what is written on the paper; I speak of what I have seen with my eyes,” by proclaiming, “Jiho dittha, tiho kiha - I said what I saw.” The inspiration and courage of conviction for Guru Arjan for the inclusion of the verses of the several low caste saints - Kabir, Ravidas, Nama, Sadhna, Sain, etc. - in the Granth Sahib had certainly its sacred fountain source in the integrating spiritual ground so assiduously prepared by Guru Nanak.

8. We have to understand how Guru Nanak had adopted systematic strategy to diagnose the crises of institutions of the contemporary society. He noted quite clearly how the native Hindus had become deeply demoralized and confused and were leading contradictory lives, “Antar Pooja parhi kiteba sanjum Turka Bhai… - inside home you worship (as Hindu), but outside you read other books to impress the Turks; Discard this hypocrisy! Devotion to Name will ensure liberation.” Though the ‘Nirguna’ saint poets had not hesitated to employ blatantly strong expressions to condemn caste distinctions, Nanak, in a rare poetic restraint, preferred to use touching poetic twists to ceremonial practices like the wearing of ‘janeoo - sacred thread’ saying, “Daya Kapah, santokh soot… Out of the cotton of compassion / Spin the thread of tranquility / Let continence be the knot / And virtue the twist there on. O Pandit…” Similarly, Guru Nanak sought to chastise the Muslims to follow their religion as enunciated by their saintly guides and not the sinful rulers,” Musalman kahanu muskilja hoe ta Mussalman kahave / Awwal Aaoli din kar mittha musklmana mal musaave… To be a Mussalman is not easy: only he who is one in reality, should make the claim. Follow first in the footsteps of the saintly; accept their bitter words as sweet… O Nanak, if he extends his mercy to all; treats all living beings as the same - himself a Mussalman he can proclaim.”

9. The most refreshing and relevant notes for his troubled times struck by Guru Nanak pertain to defending the dignity of the womenfolk and underlining biological and societal crucial role of women in the overall scheme of Nature. He condemned extolling of the orthodox Hindu cults of celibacy and renunciation and sought to elevate ‘Grahisatha-life of a householder’ as the noblest obligation ordained by ‘Srijanhar-Supreme Creator’ of the Universe. He was strongly critical of perverted notions among Muslims of treating women as slaves for indulging in animal lust. He emphasized that husband and wife are indeed created equal and that fidelity was enjoined on both. Guru Nanak pictured domestic bliss as a cherished ideal of life and marriage as the metaphor for consummation of love for the Divine. In the Asa ki Var, Nanak rejects the superstition of Sutak - implying that a woman giving birth to child is unclean and impure for a number of days - depending on the caste to which she belongs! In his masterly composition, Nanak says, “Impurity of the mind is greed and the impurity of the tongue is falsehood. The impurity of the eyes is to gaze upon the beauty of another man’s wife and his wealth. The impurity of the ears is to listen to the slander of others…” Nanak proclaims the eternal truth saying, “Within a woman, a man is conceived; to a woman he is engaged and married… through a woman, his future generations come… So why call her bad? From her, Kings are born.” Guru Nanak had condemned the ‘Sati-pratha - wife burning herself on pyre of dead husband’ - he says that it is nobler to live with pious memory of the departed loved one than embracing an unnatural quicker death.

10. Most esteemed friends, in the pointed context of Bharat, we must finally reckon all the reformative social and spiritual movements and their eminent apostles at the altar of the fraternity and equality of people: for their totally unalloyed belief and practice in the equality and justice for the spiritually dehumanized for ages, the so called ‘Shudras - the untouchables’: born to be treated worse than animals according to the glorified scriptures of dubious Divine Origins. Guru Nanak’s travels far and wide for interaction with the leaned scholars of various schools of spirituality including those with humbler origins but higher thinking minds indeed represented a path breaking initiative in the spiritual annals of the world. He castigated the caste distinctions as totally false and vicious man made divides, “Jaanhe jot, naa poochhe jaati - recognize the godly light in all; Braham binnd te sab utpati hoee, maati ek sagal samsaran - The Cosmic minute created it all, the entire creation has the same element.”

11. Following the path lit by Guru Nanak, the assigning of place of honor to the so called low caste Bhakats and Muslim savants in the Granth has been indeed the most admirable example in the history of the holy books of the world. The truest tribute to Baba Nanak, therefore, on the 550th anniversary of his arrival will be the sincerest pledge by all for the total rejection and purging of caste from their lives in all its ugly manifestations: the Sikhism had indeed owed its origin to equality of ‘Sangat in Pangat’ - the pious Congregation in the queue of perfect equality: enough of preaching so far, the hour of action and practical measures beacons us all from Kartarpur! The 550th anniversary of great Guru’s auspicious arrival and 70 years, 5 months and 7 days of his gracing the planet earth indeed deserve to be celebrated by everyone in the world by reflecting over all those days of his life and 974 most precious hymns composed by him to illuminate mind and soul: they are like the shining pole stars in the arduous and complex voyage by human beings in this complex world. Guru Nanak indeed exults in concluding several of his hymns, saying, “Nanak, Saier eva kahiya-thus spake, Nanak, the poet” - indeed a rare example by a spiritual master to proclaim himself a bard of Almighty! Guru Nanak was a gifted reconciler of religious and cultural differences; in a way, he foresaw the plural and multicultural destiny of India. It is no surprise why Dr BR Ambedkar had deeply admired Sikhism as a great faith practicing equality and justice and an ideal option for his people oppressed and persecuted in the name of sacred scriptures. The Nanak community has to do ‘Atam-manthan i.e. self-scrutiny to rededicate itself to eternal values of hard work, devotion, truthful living and self-sacrifice.

12. To conclude, dear friends, I may kindly be pardoned for re-striking some intimately personal notes. I recall how since my early childhood, the Gurpurab - ‘Kattak di Pooramashi, mela Nakane da’ - falling exactly a fortnight after Deepawali on Amavas, was a soul stirring festival - commemorating not any distantly mythological event but historically well documented happening of the arrival of a godly person who had no claims to any name, fame or kingdom. My pious grandmother, with always prayers on her lips, gave me ‘Gutika - a sacred booklet’ to recite, as soon as I had learnt the Gurmukhi alphabet; my initiation to Japji, Rehraas and other verses of ‘Nitnem-daily prayer’ began during years of my profound innocence. Grandfather was also not behind the scene and tried to smarter by making me soon learn ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ by heart. From a sleepy village in a small state of Muslim Nawab, the family moved to a newly emerging neighbouring town in 1951. The most impressionable first writing inscribed on a wall to be read by me was on the roadside water tank of the Gurdwara meant for animals, saying: “Sewa Kraee 500 Rupaye, His Highness Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan Sahib of Malerkotla”. I soon understood how Guru Nanak was indeed for all faiths and all ages; children played games, shouting, “Amba Vali kothri, Anaaran Vala Vehra; Babe Nanak da Ghar Kehra?” My generation has indeed grown up shaping our sensibilities about teachings of Nanak by particularly relating them to various contours during the march of the nation since the celebration of quincentenary of his birth. Incidentally, the grand success of feature film ‘Nanak Naam Jahaj hai’ and the regular reports of excellence of the University founded in his name in Amritsar come instantaneously to my mind.

13. Esteemed Friends, exactly half a century after half the millennium of birth of Guru Nanak, our country and our world have indeed been witness to amazingly spectacular changes of the technological and socio-psychological kind. Humanity would seem to be confronted with more and more complicated challenges - including even the sheer survival of the human race on the only planet known so far to house humanity! Personally, I had never dreamt that I would be destined to trot the globe in the service of motherland, including 777 days of the ‘Tapasya-Pious Act’ of the duty in the sacred soil of the holy footprints of Nanak i.e. Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib and 26 other ‘Guru Nanak – Dhams’ and in addition the birth place of Guru Ram Das; eight sacred spots associated with Guru Arjan and 12 with Guru Har Gobind were officially recorded by Govt. of Pakistan in 1962. I and my wife had the good fortune of roaming about in the streets of Dera Baba Nanak on March 12, 2012 - and were, by grace of Guru, luckier even in locating the long left home of birth of my wife in ‘Guru ki Nagri’. While we were having, via ‘doourbeen-telescope’, ‘Darshan-holy sight’ of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib of Kartarpur, we had not visualized that the realization of ‘historic dream’ was around the corner and that a new glorious destiny was awaiting Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib.

14. Guru piari Saadh sangat ji - Guru’s beloved and blessed congregation before me, lastly, let us hope and pray that in spite of various attendant odds, the Kartarpur Corridor would indeed inaugurate many new flood-lit gates for the forcibly separated people of the land of five rivers, longing for ever to live in love, peace and prosperity for all! The ‘Gurmukhs’- people of Guru’s grace - indeed look forward to the time when they would also be able to roam about as free spiritedly as their Guru had in his own epoch, singing hymns composed by him for all and for eternal Time - with ‘sarbatt ka bhala-welfare of all’ on their lips and in mind and soul!

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Monday, June 01, 2020

Indian Diplomat's Wife - on Life and Time in Saudi Arabia

(This article was published on June 29, 1992, in newspaper Riyadh Daily, Page 2, Columns 3-8)

By Raina Abu Zafir (Special to Riyadh Daily)

OF ALL the members of the diplomatic corps there are a large number who leave an indelible mark on the social register of the place of their posting. 

Riyadh has been witness to many incoming and outgoing diplomats. There have been many whom we’ve met through these columns and have remembered long after.

Mrs. Aradhana Balanand, wife of Bal Anand, Minister at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh, though outwardly reserved and soft spoken, has a warmth and codiality of personality which has endeared her to people as much as her husband.  

The Bal Anands will soon be leaving these shores for another posting. We wish them the best. 

Please tell us something about yourself?

I was born in a town situated on the River Ravi in the Punjab. As my father was an officer in the Indian Railways, I ad opportunities from the very beginning to travel with my family to the far-flung regions of India: the lush green Assam; the ancient city of Patna in Bihar; Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh; the state of Rajasthan, known for their valor its people and their colorful desert life traditions. After a brief stay in Allahabad, the city Nehrus, I came with my family to New Delhi which became my home after my marriage. The most enduring memories for me are the luxuriously long travels with my brothers and sisters by train speeding through the vast stretches of villages, cities, jungles, hills, etc. and the myriad sights of Indian people on the railway platforms.

Could you tell us about your country?

As referred earlier, I have been fortunate to experience the amazing variety in India of the cultural traditions, social customs, food habits, languages, costumes, etc. This variety of living patterns has been shaped by the conditions of climate and the immediate environments.

I have, however, noticed that strains of cultural similarity and a shared destiny have always existed among the people of India who have chosen to be united by the secular and democratic political system of independent India. The genius of Indian civilization, perhaps, lies in its ability to absorb and encompass the many cultures it has come into contact with. Many races and faiths have made their home in India and have contributed to the richness of the composite culture of the land.

Islam came to India in the century of its birth and the Islamic impact on the art, literature and architecture has been inestimable.

The prismatic beauty of the cultural traditions is best exhibited during the folk festivals and fairs which are typical to every region of India. There have been systematic efforts to preserve and nourish the popular and folk dances, arts and crafts, and songs. The means of modern mass media have certainly been a great help in this. At different places of our stay, our houses had typical local fruits, flora and fauna. I have vivid memories of the fruit-laden mango trees which we would eat to our hearts' content, inviting sometimes even sickness by overeating the delicious fruit!

How would you compare your life here to that of India?

While thinking of the comparison between life in the Kingdom with that in India, I must say that there are many similarities between them, particularly the fact that the family is the pivot around which the life revolves. The city of Riyadh offers secure life with all the modern comforts. During my brief travels to different parts of the Kingdom, I have been impressed by the facilities available to the people. The Asir region which is so full of natural beauty. The modernization in terms of economic and industrial development in the Kingdom has indeed been impressive. The presence of a large number of Indians, including a significant sprinkling of highly qualified professionals, adds a special positive dimension of the stay of the Indian diplomats in the Kingdom.

What are your impressions of the different countries you have visited so far?

The duties of my husband have taken us to different countries fo the world and have found each of them beautiful and lovable in its own peculiar ways. We have been posted to Iran, Maldives, Romania and Spain before our arrival in the Kingdom. We have been blessed with the kindness and generosity of friends in all these countries.

We have been surprised and touched by the deep knowledge and genuine regard for the heritage of India of many friends though had never been to India. For example, in Romania, Rabindranath Tagore is the most popular poet and the students of Bucharest study Bengali and stage plays of Tagore. Similarly, the Spanish tourists love Rajasthan and the Himalayas. We continue our contacts with many friends in the countries of our previous postings and we hope to have a similar experience after our stay in the Kingdom.

What do people want to know the most of India?

We have found that people in the various countries are keen to know about historical heritage, composite culture and the dynamic polity of India. We have also come across many scholars of Indian philosophy and literature. Indian films are very popular in most of the countries and film personalities like the late Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini are household names in distant lands.

What would you like them to know most of India?

I feel that friends from other countries may try to understand more deeply that India is the home of such a large number of people with different religions, languages and distinct cultural identities but united with a passionate commitment to their all round development through democratic means. The vast progress made in the crucial sectors of agriculture, health and education, need be understood with a balanced approach. Naturally, I would like more friends from other countries to pay visit to India because the innate beauties of life in India with its pluses and minuses could only be understood when one mingles with the people of India. India has so much to present in terms of its historical, cultural and artistic heritage as well as the current achievements in various fields of human endeavors.

How would you compare the status and role of woman in your country to those of women elsewhere?

It may be mentioned that the constitution of India has provided full and unfettered opportunities to women to excel themselves in every field of national life. In fact, women played an important role during the freedom struggle of India. I think women in India are doing quite well and compare favorably with their sisters in other countries. One has only to look at the declaration of academic results in the Indian newspapers to find how girls are beating the boys in almost all examinations. The success of the modern Indian woman, to my mind, has been her remarkable capability to strike a harmony between her chosen profession and her traditional duties at home. I must, however, add that much more remains to be done for the welfare of women in India.

Do you meet many women here?

During my meetings with them, I have found Saudi ladies very friendly, hospitable and helpful. I had opportunities to attend a few Saudi marriages and was impressed by the spirit of gaiety and the typical traditions associated with the marriage ceremony. I think the Saudi women are doing very well to cope with the evolving environs in the Kingdom.

How do you spend your time?

I am, by nature, a home bird and I’m very happy managing the household and looking after the family. During the previous years, bringing up of our two sons was almost a full-time job. Now the younger son is with us while the elder one studies in India. We have quite a busy routine of activities with the diplomatic colleagues and local friends. There are also social and cultural events in the Indian School and the embassy.

Do you have any hobbies?

I am very fond of music, particularly of the old classical tradition. We enjoy Urdu poetry which is common to all the countries of the Indian subcontinent. We have been collecting over the years cassettes of music and songs. The poetic form of Ghazal, as you know, has been imparted a special eminence by the innovative singers like Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh, Gulam Ali, and a host of the new generation of singers. I have also been an avid reader of Hindi/Urdu fiction and the novels of great writers of Bengal which are available in translations.

What are your impressions about Saudi Arabia?

We have had a very comfortable and rewarding time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The war for the liberation of Kuwait - I returned to Riyadh from India a week before the start of it - would indeed be a historical experience to remember. The city of Riyadh offers interesting opportunities for shopping and the women are compulsively drawn into this never ending game.

What do you find unique about this place?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a unique and proud heritage of its own. The utilization of the national resources for the all round development of the country and the welfare of the people has indeed impressed me the most.

Extract from Saudi Gazette on 14 July 1992:

Three receptions will be held in honour of Indian Embassy minister Bal Anand and his wife as they prepare to depart the Kingdom after three years of service at the Indian mission in Riyadh. Ambassador Ishrat Aziz and his wife will host a gathering at their residence the evening of Wednesday, July 15. The following day R.O. Wallang, first secretary at the embassy, and his wife, Dr Wesline Wallang, will hold an afternoon reception to bid the Anands good-bye. And the minister himself has scheduled a farewell reception at the Anand residence on the evening of Wednesday, July 22. Anand came to the Kingdom in 1989 after working in Spain. Anand’s wife and 12-year old son, Varoon, will accompany him to Islamabad, where he has been appointed deputy high commissioner at the Indian Embassy there. His 18-year-old son, Aditya, will begin university studies in India.


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