As the 2020 Holiday season begins and as many of us will be required to celebrate miles apart from those we love, we must find a place of gratitude.
Gratitude is a buzz word in our “wellness” culture now, but it has always been a powerful ancient concept. We can look towards ancient Indian philosophy, originating in Hinduism, to reconnect to an authentic relationship to gratitude and return to the source of the stillness and mindfulness. “Gratitude is exalted as one of the most important virtues (dharma) in many Hindu texts,” says Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished Professor of Religion, University of Florida. “It is both a human and divine virtue”. The Hindu teachings are two-fold: first we must feel Gratitude for all that we have and second, we must Give without expectation of return. Seva is an extension of the concept of Gratitude in Hinduism and Sikhism. Seva is selfless service, and a dedication to others, performed without expectation of result or reward. "Service should not be exhibitionistic. You must seek no reward, not even gratitude or thanks from the recipients." This is the essence of Seva. Together, we must live and give with gratitude. So what are some ways to practice gratitude? Consider the story of Saraswati.
The Story of the Goddess Saraswati
According to Hindu mythology, the Goddess Saraswati is represented as the “divine consort” of the Lord Brahma, the Creator of the universe. In the beginning there was chaos. Everything existed in a formless, fluid state. Brahma, the Creator asked "How do I bring order to this disorder?" "With Knowledge", said Devi, the Mother Goddess. Dressed in pure white, and heralded by a peacock, Devi emerged from Brahma's mouth riding a swan as the goddess Saraswati.
"Knowledge helps man find possibilities where once he saw problems" said Saraswati. Under her tutelage Brahma acquired the ability to sense, think, comprehend and communicate. He learned to look “upon chaos with eyes of wisdom and thus saw the beautiful potential that lay therein.” Saraswati taught Brahma to hear the melody of mantras in the cacophony of chaos and he named Saraswati, Vagdevi, goddess of speech and sound.
The sound of mantras filled the universe with vital energy, or prana. Things began to take shape and the cosmos acquired a structure: Gods became lords of the celestial spheres; demons ruled the nether regions, humans walked on earth. The sun rose and set, the moon waxed and waned, the tide flowed and ebbed. Seasons changed, seeds germinated, plants bloomed and withered, animals migrated and reproduced as randomness gave way to the rhythm of life.
Brahma thus became the creator of the world with Saraswati as his source of wisdom.
However, since Saraswati was the first being to come into Brahma's world, he began to view her with desire. She turned away saying, "All I offer must be used to elevate the spirit, not indulge the senses." But Brahma persisted. This incensed Saraswati and she cursed him in rage, "You have filled the world with longing that is the seed of unhappiness. You have fettered the soul in the flesh. You are not worthy of reverence. May there be hardly any temple or festival in your name." In despair, Brahma sought to conduct a yagna, fire sacrifice, as a cleansing ritual. However, in order to conduct a yagna ritual, he needed to have a wife. The myth tells that Brahma chose Saraswati to be his wife and she agreed, and they were reconciled.
Brahma created the universe with the help of Saraswati and acted as the guardian of the cosmos. Saraswati helped him to institute dharma, sacred laws that ensure stability and growth in society. Interestingly, the story goes on to discuss how Brahma also needed the help of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, who provided the resources needed to ensure cosmic order. So the question arose: who did Brahma need more? Lakshmi or Saraswati? Wealth or knowledge? The goddesses argued, "Knowledge does not fill an empty stomach" said Lakshmi. "Wealth keeps man alive but gives no meaning to life" said Saraswati.
Brahma proclaimed: "I need both knowledge and wealth to sustain the cosmos. Without knowledge I cannot plan. Without wealth I cannot implement a plan. Wealth sustains life; the arts give value to life. Thus both Lakshmi and Saraswati are needed to live a full life.”
Then Shiva, the Destroyer, awoke from his meditations and looked around to discover a world on the brink of corruption. He felt it was unsalvageable and decided it was time to wipe the slate clean. He opened his third eye, releasing a terrible fire as he attempted to destroy the three worlds. Badavagni (Fire (agni) of Doom) emerged.
There was panic everywhere. Saraswati calmly stated, "Do not worry. Shiva's fire burns only that which is impure and corrupt”. She took the form of a river and with her pure waters picked up the dreaded fire: "So long as the world is pure and man wise, this terrible creature, Badavagni, will remain on the bottom of the sea. When wisdom is abandoned and man corrupts the world, Badavagni will emerge and destroy the universe."
Saraswati’s predictions seem wise, and prescient. Impurity and corruption only gain power when we lose sight of gratitude. We must not “ fill the world with longing that is the seed of unhappiness.” As we move forward, we must give without expectation, selflessly, and work collectively to retain peace and stillness, to live a “full life”.
Saraswati is considered the Mother of the Vedas (Ancient Sacred texts of Hinduism). She is a patron of knowledge, learning, music, wisdom and all creative acts and arts. She is a figure of the unobstructed flow of consciousness and wisdom. She instills order and clarity in a world of chaos and confusion. “To realize her one must go beyond the pleasures of the senses and rejoice in the serenity of the spirit.” That means letting go, centering the self and finding stillness, gratitude and presence.
These meditations and things are not often pondered in our western society...but worth considering. It is important to realize your capacity, and contemplate your purpose, and ask what’s it all for? Meditating on the unknown. Humans are separated from other species by their capacity for self-analysis. And, especially in times of suffering and uncertainty, our faith and spirituality are true assets. Gratitude requires a faith in something bigger than self. It is humbling, and allows one to be patient, appreciative and reflective.
As you contemplate ways to engage in your community this holiday season, express Gratitude, practice Seva, and leave space for Saraswati. She will inspire you with plenty of ideas.