– Narayanan Iyer
The moment a Sadhana Shibir on Durga Saptashati was announced by the Vanamala Centre for Art and Culture a couple of months back, it struck an immediate positive chord for three main reasons.
Firstly, the theme was Durga Saptashati. Durga Saptashati which is also known as Devi Mahatmya and Chandi Path is a Hindu religious text describing the victory of the Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. It is part of the Markandeya Purana, written by sage Markandeya.
Secondly, the sessions were to be conducted by Keerthanacharya Lakshmandas Velankar, a renowned Harikatha exponent and a scholar in Sanskrit and Philosophy.
Thirdly the venue was Auro Veda Farm on Kanakapura Road, away from the hustle and bustle of the city and promised to be an apt place for the spiritual retreat
This 2-day workshop was part of an ongoing series of lectures and workshops on Indian culture, called ‘Bharatiya Samskriti Darshana’
That made me signup right away and the day I was longing for, finally arrived on the dawn of March 11th. There were around 40 participants who had signed up and the various groups assembled at the venue. Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh and Dr Pranesh, the key co-founders of Vanamala Arts were already on the job, trying to ensure that everything was set for a smooth beginning. The participants also pitched in to help. We all had a sumptuous breakfast. The food was so good that I was in a dilemma whether or not to go for that extra helping, for fear of sleeping off in the session.
But any such fear was quelled by a fantastic start to the day’s proceedings. After a melodious rendering of the invocation by Shivashankari and a welcome speech by Dr Meera, Lakshmandasji was bang on target right from the word go. He set the context by explaining that it was important to understand the principles behind any shloka, epic or puranic text. There are subtle secrets behind any Mantra and these subtleties can be understood if we practise the mantra in the right way. He emphasised on doing Sadhana by being in the worldly life, rather than renouncing. He went on to explain the characteristic of Devi e.g.: She is Prakriti and Purusha, Vidya and Avidya
As the session unfolded, the divine vibrations from Lakshmandasji’s presence and speech were already being felt and any excitement from the lovely breakfast were already taken over by the sweet and impactful words of Lakshmandasji. Lakshmandasji said that Devi Mahatmya was not only for Jnanis and Jignasus, but for the entire mankind. He went on to explain the prerequisites before the main Patha, like Achamana, Pranayama, Devata Stotras, Sankalpa, Asana Shuddhi and Deepa Sthapana.He explained the significance of the four Purusharthas – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.
He then explained the significance of Kavacham, Argala Stotram and Keelakam.
Kavacham: Consisting of 61 verses, Devi Kavacham (armour) protects the reader in all parts of the body, in all places and in all difficulties. Every part of the body is mentioned and Devi, in different forms, is being worshipped. Lakshmandasji mentioned that our body is Devi’s Karuna
Argala Stotram: Here, Rishi Markandeya tells his disciples in twenty-seven inspiring couplets about the greatness of Devi. She has been described in all aspects and names and at the end of each shloka, prayer is offered to Devi for material prosperity, physical fitness, fame and victory.
Keelakam: Here also, Rishi Markandeya tells his disciples in sixteen shlokas the ways and means of removing obstacles faced by devotees while reading Devi Mahatmya. Reading of Keelakam brings blessings of Devi, spiritual harmony, peace of mind and success in all pursuits.
Lakshmandasji explained that in Durga Saptashati, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati refer to the same mother Goddess Durga. He said that any Mantra has more power only when it is received as an Upadesa from a Guru. He spoke about the Ratri Sukta. It is a description of Devi Ma’s power and what she can do for her devotees.
Then everyone chanted the first part of the Saptashati. After the chanting came the apt Tatva Gnyana from Lakshmandasji. He mentioned that problems still exist in the world because it is Mahamaya’s play for the world to go on. He talked about the Nama Rupa Rahita vastu (I am That). He said that Jagatjanani has true love for us, even after death! We all were so engrossed in the sessions that we did not realize that two sessions had passed and it was time for lunch. We had a coffee break with some light refreshing munchies.
There was an equally sumptuous lunch after which we got ready for the remaining two sessions for the day. These sessions were focussed on the second section of the Saptashati which talks about the slaying of the demon Mahishasura. Lakshmandasji explained that symbolically the asuras like Mahishasura represent the vagaries and vices of the human mind. Durga Devi represents the conscious self which is capable of killing these asuras. He said that we should all strive to achieve ‘Naija Sukha’ or true happiness rather than ‘Vastu Sukha’ or material happiness.
The last session of the evening saw the divine vibrations reach a new height. When honest vibrations of words strike the soul, they take the form of tears. Tears welled in Lakshmandasji’s eyes as he spoke about the greatness of the mother. I am sure many of us connected our own mothers and the divine mother through Lakshmandasji’s tears when he talked about the forgiveness and compassion of the mother, and this brought tears to our eyes as well. It was a moment of divine purification which cannot be explained in detail!
The day ended in contemplative silence and any words that were spoken were only an artificial mask for emotions. We had dinner and good sleep.
Day 2 was a refreshing start waking up to a serene surrounding full of fresh air and nature’s warm hug. As we headed back from morning coffee, Dr Meera had an interesting idea of doing an open air first session for the core part of the Saptashati which covers the Devi Namaskara Mantra (after which we have the slaying of Dhoomralochana, Raktabeejasura, Shumbha and Nishumbha). Everyone readily agreed and within minutes we had Guru Lakshmandasji seated in front of a tree and the eager shishyas on the ground by the side of a small Muruga temple. It resembled an ancient Gurukula where the pupils were waiting to savour the nectarine words of the Maharishi.
Lakshmandasji began by saying that some people can explain a small concept in many words and some can explain a very intricate and deep concept in very few words. The latter are the yogis. Through an analogy he explained that any message to be conveyed effectively has to be conveyed in a simple manner. Hence concepts are better conveyed through stories, and this is what our epics and Puranas beautifully did. The killing of Raktabeejasura by Devi in the form of Kali drinking every drop of blood before it fell to the ground, conveys that Devi will kill any Rakshasa that will come in our life. He went on explain in depth the meaning of the various attributes of Devi in the Namaskara Mantra. As he unfolded the secrets of Maya, Chetana, Buddhi, Nidra, Kshudha etc., one could feel the heavenly bliss. This was not any mere recitation; it was the flow of the highest knowledge.
The last session was back in the auditorium, courtesy Surya Devata who decided he wanted his privacy in the Gurukul! Lakshmandasji explained the significance of the Narayani stotram which is a mantra for getting rid of all adversities and everyone recited it in soulful chorus. The last sections included the part where Devi promises to take an avatar every time the beings are in danger, to kill the Asuras. Lakshmandasji ended the session with a request to preserve, with gratitude, the bounty which God has given us. He said we should also, at least give our love in return, to Bhagawathi. This can be done by living a simple life free from excess wants and desires.
The proceedings ended with a warm concluding speech by Dr Meera Rajaram, felicitation to Lakshmandasji and his wife Smt Meera, and all the participants were lucky to receive individual blessings from Lakshmandasji and Smt Meera Lakshmandas. There were group photos and selfies to seal the end, but well we all knew this was just the beginning. The platform was set for a new beginning for each one of us. We all got to meet such wonderful people at the Shibir. I have no words to describe Lakshmandasji’s greatness as his teachings transcended the complex with simplicity and the impact felt is something you can describe correctly only by being there. There are many experiences I would have missed out, some because I was not aware of them and including some might make this a dissertation rather than a write-up. So please pardon me for any mistakes in my description. My sincere thanks to my esteemed guide Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh for creating this opportunity and to all the organizers who did such a fantastic job! To the readers, please do not miss the next opportunity created by Vanamala!