Jñana Yoga or Karma Yoga, a difficult choice

pics of sadhu and lady at Panchavati Nashik by Arun Shanbhag

At the ghats in Panchavati, Nāshik, I was intrigued by this sādhu pondering the mysteries of sat and asat, while a lady was busy washing her cooking utensils. Verily a juxtaposition of the paths of Jñāna yoga and Karma Yoga. Which path to follow? This is a difficult decision for many to make. If you have not (yet) come across this quandary, consider yourself lucky.


See pics from, Neelkanteshwar Mahadev Mandir, in Panchavati, Nashik

Peigutso Lake towards Saga

Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, Day 6: Peigutso Lake (4,400 m; 14,436 ft) on the Tibetan Plateau


photos of Peigutso Lake in Tibet by Arun Shanbhag
After lunch and pics of local kids, we headed west along a ravine and climbed a pass. There before us was the serenely beautiful Peigutso Lake. Overcast skies quickly gave way to more dazzling azure skies with bright cumulus clouds and turquoise blue water. The scene hushed us all and we simply stared in silence at the magnificence spread before us.
photos of Peigutso Lake in Tibet by Arun Shanbhag


There at that time, my mind was preoccupied by physical discomfort and I did not appreciate the view as much. It had been a few days without bathroom facilities or showers. It was biting cold and the wind was relentless. In the rarefied air I developed the characteristic high altitude-induced dry cough. While the medication (Diamox) ameliorated some of the effects, the cough and headaches persisted. Despite our sherpas’ best efforts at cooking, I was nauseous and could not get anything down. For most of the trip I survived on honey spread over thick rotis and warm yak milk. And ladoos and mithai I had carried from Mumbai.

photos of Peigutso Lake in Tibet by Arun Shanbhag

This is a yatra

And so on I complained about material wellbeing. It would have been excusable if I was on an exotic vacation and expected to be pampered. But I was on the most difficult and sacred of all yatras – where it should have been about the “inner journey.” The physical discomfort is essential to force us to divorce ourselves from the comfortable mundane of our lives and turn our minds inwards to pose the trickier questions: What am I doing here on this planet? What is my purpose? Who is breathing? We don’t need to arrive at the answers, but we certainly need to start asking these questions; wallowing in the discomfort of reflection is the entire purpose of a yatra. Many revel in such an opportunity and such a yatra prepares us to reflect more deeply on our inner journey.

Personally, this yatra was a beginning, transition to a new level, turning a key to unlocking more mysteries and ecstasy. I didn’t know it then, but the mental and emotional manifestations of this yatra will continue to unravel over the rest of my life.

(I edited and reposted these two paragraphs in Dec 2014, more than eight years later)

We continued our drive in the valleys between rolling hills, through ravines and water logged streams. We crossed the wide, peaceful Brahmaputra river and arrived at the chinese military base town of Saga. Here in the middle of the barren desert were all the amenities you’d expect in an army town – pool tables, bars, gambling dens and dancing girls. Girls with garish make-up walked the pavement, reminding us once again of the impermanence of material beauty. It was also the last opportunity to buy warm gloves, hats or other cold weather accessories.


Next on the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra: Brahmaputra and Onwards to Paryang
Start of Kaliash Manasarovar Yatra: Rendevous with Sagarmatha (Everest)


Meeting Amma in Boston

Mata Amritanandamayi Amma

Prema rasāmrta varshini mātā amrtānandamayi |
Prema bhakti sandāyani mātā amrtānandamayi ||

Showers us with immortal nectar of love, O mother;
Grant us the capacity for love & bhakti (selfless devotion), O mother Amritanandamayi ||

Two weeks ago, I got the opportunity to experience darshan of Mata Amritanandamay, better known as Amma. What started as a casual email invite, turned into a life fulfilling experience. Below, I have used my tweets to supplement my notes. Continue reading “Meeting Amma in Boston”

Gita Press Bookstore: Karma Yoga in Action

Gita Press Gorakhpur Bookstore

Tucked away on gritty Princess St and across from Parsi Dairy Farm is one of my favorite book stores: Gita Press Ki Dukan (Bookstore of the Gita Press).

See, I came late to this genre of Hindu scriptures. Educated in a convent school, I drank deeply of the Kool-Aid that western writers were the axis around which the Universe rotated. We studied Browning, Byron, Keats and O’Henry, and passed on Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, Kanaka Dās and Tukaram. I knew more about priests and nuns, and zilch about Alvars and Nayanmars. Romeo & Juliet was a Classic, Ramayana a myth. We doted on Shelley, Hemingway and Shakespeare, but skipped Tulsidās, Mirābai, Tyāgarājā and Kālidās. I knew more about St Peter than Bhagwān Ādi Shankarāchāryā or Swami Madhvāchāryā.

Thankfully I graduated and real education could begin. A tiny booklet of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures bought at a railway station was the spark. And what a roaring fire it kindled. Was engrossed in it for days. Followed hungrily by the Bhagavad Gitā, Upanishads, Purānās, commentaries of various masters and Bhakti poetry. I had just scratched the surface. Continue reading “Gita Press Bookstore: Karma Yoga in Action”

Dwijā – The Twice Born

Composite image of fetus overlaid on pic of cosmos by Arun Shanbhag, Who is a Dwija or Twice born?

In the Vedās, Upanishads, Gita and the Purān, we often encounter the term, Dwijā – twice born (Dwe – two; – born). A person is called a Dwijā, after his thread ceremony.

What two births are implied here? Continue reading “Dwijā – The Twice Born”

Celebrating Rām Navami

photo of 13th century Chola Bronze at Arthur Sackler Museum, Harvard by Arun Shanbhag
Gosvami Tulsidas Ramcharitamanas Ramayana Śri Rām Navami


The Divine Consciousness – manifest or unmanifest, there is no difference
So chant Sages, Puranas, Buddha and Veda.

That which has no attributes, is formless, unseen and unborn
Manifests itself (as Sri Ram) purely out of love for his devotees.


Wishing All
Bliss in Śri Rām’s Grace

M&m and A


Continue reading “Celebrating Rām Navami”

Ganesh Chaturthi

Picture Ganapati Ganesh Chaturthi painting by Arun Shanbhag

vakratunda mahaakaaya kotisurya samaprabhaa |
nirvighna kuru mae deva sarvakaaryeshu sarvadaa ||

With a curved trunk and generous form
Whose splendor matches ten million Suns
Remove obstacles Deva!
In all that I do!

_____
Ganapati Bappa, Mowrya!
M & A

Ganesh Vandana – Tribute to Ganesh

The light of the Sun imbues our existence with life and summons our gratitude and reverence. Daylight breaking over the horizon is a very auspicious time for all Hindus, and heralds the start of a new day. A time for new beginnings, new hopes and possibilities. A pristinely beautiful time to thank the Supreme Being for our good fortune, to pray for the courage and fortitude to face old and new challenges; and to uncover our kinder and compassionate souls in dealing with his children.

What better way to start the day than by appealing to Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of Beginnings. Ganesha, the pot-bellied darling of children all over, is also identified as Vignesh, the Remover of Obstacles, and Vakratunda, One with the curved trunk.

Notes are excerpted from my book, Prarthana: A Book of Hindu Psalms, from the prayer Ganesh Vandana. © Arun Shanbhag 2007


Earlier Ganesh Chaturthi Posts:

Ganapati Flower Sellers:

Tirth Yātra: Temples of Tāmil Nādu

Pics of Kapaleeshwara Temple in Mylapore Chennai by Arun Shanbhag
Even as a child, I enjoyed visiting temples. The prasad was certainly a big draw. I’d stop by random SatyaNarayana Pujas, just to receive of the nectarine prasad. Aarti bhajans were equally soothing. At annual Wadala GSB Ganapati celebrations, while we were enticed by stalls selling bhajiyas and bondas, we first paid our respects to Ganapati, our friend and confidant, with whom we traded future visits for good performance in exams. Continue reading “Tirth Yātra: Temples of Tāmil Nādu”

Uma: Quencher of Thirst

It was a blazing hot summer afternoon in Hampi. As I walked out of the magnificent Vithala Temple, my throat was parched. Even my sweat had dried in this arid North Karnataka summer. The sight of this woman under a bright red umbrella, tending a cooler with drinks was an oasis of bliss to a weary traveler. I ambled over and quickly gulped two bottles of my favorite: Limca! Aaaah! I bought a few more bottles for M and the driver.

She charged me 12 rupees for each. I gave her the money. But ever eager to practice my kannada and engage in conversation, I asked here only jokingly, why it was 12 rupees here, while it was only 10 rupees in the city. She must have been surprised by my heavily accented and rudimentary kannada, and realizing I was joking, she started giggling. I could not keep a straight face and started to laugh too.

I made small talk, asked her name and generally how many drinks she sold in a day. Her name was Uma and she sold about a crate (of 12) each day. I estimated she made 4 rupees profit on each bottle, netting her about 50 rupees a day (slightly more than a dollar)! And for that she had to stand in this heat all day! And some one had to drop her here and pick her up in the evening. And she has not yet eaten! Life is tough! But she had a certain calm about her and I think this pic radiates her inner peace. And her confidence!

As I prepared to leave, I asked her again why it was 12 rupees for each drink: yaakae hutnerdu rupaiya?
Now she really burst out laughing, and I laughed with her. After a few moments she composed herself, then lifted the lid of the cooler, pointed inside and with a twinkle in her eyes mouthed a single word: Ice!

On this blistering hot day, she knew the magic word. For that thirst-quenching ice cold drink, I would gladly have paid twice as much!



I was gifted this small, yet well done bronze of Uma by my cousin brother Ramnath. He has a good eye for art work.

This is Uma (Parvati) as Shivakami – the beloved of Shiva, in a classic tribhanga pose. This is purported to be a late 18th century reproduction of the 11th century piece from the Kulottunga I era. I have had this for several years and I never tire of admiring it. It is small and fits nicely in the palm of my hand. I am drawn to her graceful pose. I am drawn to her exceptional beauty. I am drawn to the inner calm she radiates! And I am drawn to the confidence she exudes!

The craftsmanship is exquisite for so tiny a piece and we have no idea where this statuette resided for the last several centuries. The sharp features suggest she was not used for any puja. Prolly stayed in a noble household.

It is said that the easiest way to reach Shiva is to appease Parvati (or Uma) and have her champion you to Shiva! Perhaps it is that restlessnes in my heart that draws me to her. I certainly thirst for her grace! And every time my eyes fall on Uma, I know my thirst will soon be quenched.

Girl in Saga

Enroute to Saga [Elevation: 4,600 m (15,091 ft)], a Chinese army outpost on the Tibetan Plateau


After a long drive from Nyalam, past the Sishapangma Base Camp office, we had stopped literally in the middle of nowhere, for a lunch break. Our team of cooks had left a few hours earlier, so they could find a half-way place, pitch tents and cook warm food. At this point of the trip, I had lost my appetite and while the rest ‘enjoyed’ lunch, I sat in the car and munched on ladoos and granola bars. Continue reading “Girl in Saga”

Prarthana: A Book of Hindu Psalms

After five years of research and writing,
Prarthana: A Book of Hindu Psalms
was released on Ganesh Chaturthi, September 15, 2007.

This was my second book. When you see both my books juxtaposed on Amazon, you will nod: yup! only a Gemini could pull this off!

I am grateful that I was given this gift of compiling Prarthana in this form. With that also comes a responsibility of taking this message of our dharma to a wider audience. So I ask you to support this by purchasing a copy for yourself and your family.

With the festive season of Diwali soon approaching, you may want to pick extra copies for your friends and colleagues. Prarthana makes an excellent gift!

Get more details of Prarthana, as well as text excerpts at http://www.arunsprarthana.com
There you can also see details of the special pricing and how to buy it by credit card or check.

Prarthana is also available at Amazon for the List price.

I leave you with part of a review from Ellen Duranceau

… these prayers speak to something common to all of humanity: a spiritual impulse for light to dispel darkness; for connection to nature, to other people, and to the universe itself; for the courage to rise above our anguish or fears, to find hope and the best within ourselves, and to share our best selves with the world. In a time of great divisions, it is heart-warming to dip into another faith tradition and find common bonds, rather than alienation.

Perceiving your true form

Spent the last few days at a family gathering celebrating my father's 80th birthday. During the relaxing holiday, I came across these lines extending a verse (sada sarvada yog tuzha ghadava) which I had frequently recited as a child:

jhya jhya sthaLi hey mun jaaya mazhe, tyaa tyaa sthaLi hey nijarupa tuzhe
mi thevito mastak jhya thikani, tethe tuzhe sadguru paay doni

Loose translation:
Wherever my mind wanders, there I perceive your true form.
Wherever I place my forehead, there appear your two feet.

Such a beautiful verse and it resonates well with my own belief in the Universal Consciousness. The divine exists everywhere and where ever I bow in reverence, there she is! Any suggestions for improving this translation. Also, anyone know the author?

Kailash Manasarovar: Brahmaputra and Onwards to Paryang

Kailash Manasarovar Yatra: Brahmaputra, Day 6,7: Paryang Elevation: 4,540 m (14,895 ft)


Considering the spectacular Peigutso Lake, the 185 km drive from Saga to Paryang was tedious. We made a bee-line to the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which remained featureless; the skies were overcast and in the distant south we discerned the grey-brown outlines of the Himalayas. The road continued to be desolate; we didn’t even pass any settlements along the way. Just us and a long dirt road.

They were badly rutted and often, the roads were cut by streamlets creating dangerous ditches. The ride was extremely bumpy and we were constantly jostled. We longed for stepping out to stretch our bodies, but the biting cold and relentless winds were ever present; forcing us to dart back to the refuge of the van. Thus even simply riding was torturous and everyone appeared fatigued and listless in their interactions. We were eager to get to Paryang, our last stop before Lake Manasarovar.
Continue reading “Kailash Manasarovar: Brahmaputra and Onwards to Paryang”

Meaning of Puja

What is a Puja?

I generally translate puja to mean a devotional service. But based on a query in my previous post, Pratik provided a beautiful and succinct explanation. Considering no single word or phrase comes even close to incorporating this meaning, I recommend not translating it, but using the word puja as is, in the english language. Interestingly, this meaning is not unique to Hinduism (or Sanatana Dharma) and applies to all religious beliefs.

Pratik writes:

Pu comes from the word Poorna in Sanskrit meaning complete, Ja comes from Aja meaning born. So Puja is that which is born out of completeness or fullness.

It signifies that you feel complete and happy, and you are grateful to the Divine for bestowing that completeness in life. In fact the offering that we give symbolizes all the good things bestowed upon us by the Divine. It (is) like we are imitating the Divine in gratitude.

Beautiful, no?

Sandhya Vandan

My nephew Varun, learning to do the Sandhya Vandan, a service in preparation for reciting the Gayatri Mantra. It was about 3 weeks since his Upanayana (thread ceremony) during which he was invested with the sacred thread (see it on his left shoulder) and had his head shaved, marking his re-birth as a student of the scriptures, seeking the ultimate truth.

Sandhya Vandan

Nature’s Shrine: A place to give thanks

For me, God exists in Nature and I see him in a beautiful sunrise.
I can add, I see her in the blue skies, towering mountains, the chirping birds, the butterfly and the serene lake. Wherever you see her, take off your shoes and gaze in awe at her munificence!

The pic was taken many, many years ago in the idyllic town of Brevard, NC along the Appalachian Trail. My favorite escape from the rigors of grad school!

Worship at a small shrine

Here and on I posted pics from the Chicago Balaji Temple and the Durga Devi Shrine within the Atlanta Temple. These are both very elaborate temple structures. However, not all worship occurs in such embellished temple complexes. On a regular basis worship takes place at the simple home altar. Routinely folks worship at small road side shrines in rural India. They offer an opportunity to slow down from our hectic pace, take off our shoes and give thanks.

Near my ancestral home along coastal Karnataka, we prayed at an outdoor shrine to Naga, the snake deity. In a small clearing in someones backyard, was a simple cement pad on which were consecrated two stone tablets. A few, roughly hewn red sandstone blocks act as an altar, which even collects moss during the monsoons.

As part of the puja (or service), the priest poured water over the tablets, placed flower garlands and sprinkled vermillion. A bundle of hand-made cotton wicks, soaked in oil, were lit and waved in front of the deity in a clockwise direction. This represented aarti, an offering of fire and light. Following the aarti, family members walked clockwise around the shrine (see pic) in pradakshina. A dried palm frond on the ground in front of the altar, formed a biodegradable mat to stand on.

Very simple!


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