Saturday, 30 December 2017

Ho Chi Minh City

Viet-Cam tour – First leg

Ho Chi Minh City, which was formerly called Saigon, is the business and financial hub of Vietnam, with a prominent history going back hundreds of years.  It was formerly called Saigon and was the capital of South Vietnam. Earlier Vietnam was under French rule and when they left Vietnam after the defeat of Dien Bien Phu, they left the country divided at the 17th parallel as North and South Vietnam. Soon after, North Vietnam which was under communist rule launched a guerrilla war against South Vietnam to reunite the country under communist rule.  In the civil war U. S. got involved on the side of South Vietnam and the communist guerrilla fighters, called Viet Cong, successfully fought the anti-communist forces of South Vietnam and U.S.  In 1973, America signed a cease-fire and left and in 1975 South Vietnamese resistance collapsed and Vietnam was reunited under Communist rule. After the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam in 1975, Saigon was renamed as Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, after the late Communist leader and President of North Vietnam, and abbreviated as HCMC. However the informal name of Saigon is still in use by people, and the city centre and the Railway station bear the name of Saigon even now.  Today, Ho Chi Minh City with its classic French architecture as well as ornate temples and pagodas is a popular tourist destination and this was also the first city of visit in our Vietnam- Cambodia tour.

This short account of History of Saigon and South Vietnam is relevant to our visit to Cu Chi tunnels on the morning of 4th Dec. 2017.  The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.  The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were also of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and in countering the growing American military effort.  By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Cu Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975. The relics of Cu chi tunnels are preserved with the traps, weapons used, models of fighters and back--up personnel.  We could imagine how difficult would have been the life in the tunnels infested with ants, scorpions, spiders and other insects with no free access to air, food and water.

Our next visit was to the Museum which was earlier called Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes and now renamed as War Remnants Museum.  It brings before us vividly the brutal effects of war on its civilian victims powerfully.  The museum exhibits a guillotine brought in by the French government and used by the French and South Vietnamese to execute their prisoners until 1960.  The Museum also features the grisly photos of victims of war who were exposed to strong pesticide and chemical spray and of the infamous My Lai Massacre.  If the visit to Cu Chi tunnels was disturbing, the visit to the Museum was shocking.  The photos of  children affected by US bombing and napalming was so harrowing that we left that section midway.  Also on display in the grounds were US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons.

In the afternoon we first visited the Reunification Palace, which was the former residence of French governor-general.  After their evacuation it was rebuilt as the official residence of the President of South Vietnam and was called Independence Palace.  After the fall of South Vietnam, it is called Reunification Palace and is used for holding official receptions or meetings and is open to visitors, on free days.  In the ground floor are the meeting rooms, and in upstairs is a grand set of reception rooms, used for welcoming foreign and national dignitaries.  In the second floor there is a banquette hall, bar and there is also a roof top cinema and helipad.  In the basement is the bunker equipped with telecommunications centre, war room and warren of tunnels.  In the back of the main building are the living quarters used by the then President.  After going round the Reunification Palace, we also went round Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office, the latter famous for its striking French architecture, and retired for the day.


Next morning we went on a tour of Mekong delta.  Mekong river is the longest river in Southeast Asia and runs over 2700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau to South China Sea through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  We traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to My tho, a former naval base and now a bustling port city in the Mekong Delta, about 2.5 hours away.  Upon arrival in My Tho, we boarded a motorized boat for a cruise in the Mekong River. After cruising for some time, we transferred to a small row boat to reach a little island village through a narrow canal with lush vegetation on both banks.  We strolled the island gardens and attended a traditional local music performance.  Later we enjoyed a horse cart ride in village roads.  Continuing to another island in the Mekong Delta in another row boat, we had our lunch in a picturesque scenic restaurant in that island.


After lunch we went to see the Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Phong village.  The beautiful structure features a mixture of Chinese, Vietnamese and Angkor (Cambodian) architectural styles.  There are three entrances to the pagoda. The central iron gate is always closed, while the two side gates only are open. The pagoda is surrounded by gardens of ornamental trees, ancient trees and bonsai, creating a peaceful atmosphere.  In the garden we have big statues of standing Buddha, laughing Buddha and lying Buddha. This pagoda provided shelter for Vietnamese patriots and is recognized as a national historical and cultural relic by the government.

In the evening after resting for some time in the room we visited by ourselves without the guide and driver, the temple for Goddess Mariamman, which was near our hotel.  It was built in 19th century by the Chettiar community living there at that time.  Many of them have gone back to India or shifted to other countries during the time of civil war. However the temple is still well maintained and is patronised by the local Chinese and Vietnamese people who believe in the Goddess as Goddess of good luck.  Joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and tender coconut are the offerings made to Goddess. Besides the main shrine for Goddess Mariammam, there are two other shrines for the guardian deities Madurai Veeran and Pechchi Amman and statues of other deities in the hallway.   The temple also has a Rajagopuram with a number of statues.

Next day we left for Siam Reap in Cambodia for the second leg of our Viet-Cam tour, my abbreviation for Vietnam-Cambodia tour. The entire tour including air tickets were organized through Odyssey tours.  Lucy, the tour guide in HCMC had been very friendly and helpful and made our experience in Ho Chi Minh City enjoyable.  Photos taken in this leg of the tour can be seen in my Flickr album "Ho Chi Minh City" @

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Dialogue on devotion and devotee

Gita essays – 20

While introducing chapter 12 Swami Paramarthananda says that this chapter gives both Veda purva bhaga as well as Veda anta bhaga condensed in 20 pithy verses and it is Veda saraḥ.  Lord Krishna also states in the concluding verse of this chapter "dharmya amṛtam idam” i.e. these words of immortal Dharma.  I am giving the essence of such an important chapter called Bhakthi Yoga as a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna.

Arjuna – O Lord! At the end of Viswarupa darsana yoga you declared that through single-minded devotion to one’s Ishta devata, the Cosmic Form can be known, seen and entered into by any devotee.   Earlier You have also emphasised the importance of the worship of Nirguna Brahman, the formless and attributeless Brahman.  Now a doubt arises in my mind as to which of the two methods, worship with form and without form, is better to attain the spiritual realisation. Will you please enlighten me?

Lord  Krishna– O Arjuna! It is difficult to give a straight answer to your question as it is like comparing two steps in a stair case as to which is better to reach the top.  One needs to start with Saguna Brahma upasana to go to Nirguna Brahma upasana and one need to practice Nirguna Brahma upasana to reach the final goal of Athma Jnanam. However let me try to clear your doubt in a devious way.

“Those devotees endowed with supreme faith who worship Me, ever steadfast fixing their minds on Me, these are considered to be the best by Me” (12 - 2).   However you should also understand that Nirguna Brahma upasaka attains Me because Nirguna Brahma upasana leads to Athma Jnanam, which alone can give Moksha, and Saguna Brahma upasana equips one with a pure mind and a single-mindedness necessary to pursue Athma Jnanam through Nirguna Brahma upasana. So let Me add also that “ The devotees who worship Me as the imperishable (Brahman) which is indefinable, unmanifest, changeless, all-pervading, immovable, incomprehensible and eternal;  restraining all the sense organs, being even-minded towards all, and being interested in the welfare of all beings, also come to Me only.” (12 - 3&4)

As Nirguna Brahman is formless and incomprehensible, it is inconceivable for the mind as well, besides being not available for the senses to perceive. So it is difficult to meditate upon unless the mind is properly prepared and so the devotee must have these qualifications of sense-control, equanimity and love of all. So for one with strong attachment to body-mind complex i.e. deahabhimana, the practice of Nirguna Brahma upasana is difficult.

Arjuna – O Lord! Then what will you suggest for those ardent devotees who cannot shed their individuality.  
Lord – They can reach Me through Viswa rupa upasana or Virat upasana, which is Saguna Brahma upasana or Iswara upasana as Iswara is the other name for Saguna Brahman.  Virat upasana is also called Ashtamurthy Iswara upasana, the eight murthys being panchabhuthas (space, air, fire, earth and water), sun (which stands for all the stars), moon (which stands for all the planets and satellites) and all the living beings. “ To those who worship Me (in that form), dedicating all actions to Me regarding Me as the supreme goal, meditating on Me with undivided attention with their mind totally set on Me, I shall soon become their saviour from the ocean of mortal samsara, O Arjuna!” (12 – 6&7).  So don’t despair if you cannot worship me through Nirguna upasana. “If you fix your mind and intellect on Me (in Virat form) only, you shall doubtless live in Me alone” (12-8)”, I assure.

Arjuna – Lord, You know I am scared of Viswa rupam! 
Lord – No problem.  If one cannot fix his mind on Virat rupam, he can reach Me through Eka rupa Iswara upasana, which I will call “Abhyasa yoga”. The devotee can take up any form as Ishta devata and practice Ishta devata upasana with all the disciplines I have mentioned for the Virat upasana.

Arjuna – O Lord! Upasana is a manasa vyapara, mental exercise.  For an extrovert, whose mind is difficult to be restrained, what is the way? 
Lord - If all upasanas are a problem, One can try to attain me the Karma Yoga way, by performing all actions desirelessly, Nishkama, dedicating the actions to Me, i.e. with Iswararpana buddhi.

Arjuna – Here also I see a problem.  Being very much involved in the world, it is difficult to perform nishkama karma
Lord – Here also I can help you, but no more ifs and buts.  He can keep his desires and perform sakama karma but the results of all his actions he must accept with prasada buddhi, avoiding any reaction, which I shall call “ sarva karma phala tyaga” which means he is renouncing all the fruits of his actions to Me. Because it was said as last, it does not mean it is in any way inferior to other stages.  “Better indeed is knowledge than practice; than knowledge meditation is better; than meditation the renunciation of the fruits of actions (as) peace immediately follows renunciation (sarva karma phala thyaga)” (12-12). { What Lord has said in 12-12 is more for the glorification of sarva kama phala thyaga}

Arjuna – O Lord! I am grateful to hear from You of the various ways of devotion that can lead a devotee to You. How can we know a devotee who has attained You? 
Lord – O Arjuna you can know through his qualities which I am listing for your benefit.  Such a devotee is a jivan muktha, as he has attained Liberation before death and is dear to Me as a parabhaktha. His qualities are:
1) adveshta sarva bhuthanam maitrah karuna eva chaParabhaktha bears no hatred, ill-will or malice towards all other creatures, humans included, and he is friendly and compassionate towards one and all. 
2) nirmamo nirahamkaraha – He is free from the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. He is always conscious of his real identity as sakshi ‘I”, and the ego ‘I’ he uses for transactions with the world as slave ’I’.  He has no attachment either to his meagre possessions, or to any relationships.
3) sama-dukha-sukha kshami – He views with equanimity, pleasure and pain, and he is of forgiving nature.  In fact, in his vision, there is nothing for him to forgive as he lives in the present, carrying no memory of past wrongs or insults, and in the present, as he does not identify himself with the name and form, any offence or insult, does not touch him.
4) santhushtah satatam yogi – He is always happy and contented and is firmly established in meditation.
5) yatatma drdha-nischayaha – His body, mind and senses are under his control and he is a man of firm conviction
6) mayyarpitha mano buddhihi – His mind and intellect is ever dedicated to Me as Paramatma 
7) yasmanno dvijate loko lokanno dvijate cha yaha - He feels oneness with the world and his heart is full of love for all other living beings, and his calm, peaceful, compassionate composure is one that is not  affected by the happenings in the external world, nor does it cause agitations in the external world.
8) harshamarsha bhayodvegair mukthaha – As regards inward agitations, he is also free of them for excesses of joy, fear, intolerance, and anxiety do not touch him.   Whatever feelings or emotions that come to his mind, they have no force, and are short-lived.
9) anapekshah suchirdaksha udhasino gathavyathaha – His mind has no dependence on external things, is pure, alert, unconcerned and untroubled.
10) sarvaarambaparityagi – He has renounced all ego-centric selfish undertakings.  Whatever he does is for universal welfare and social good and without any selfish motive.
11) yo na hrishyathi na dweshti na sochathi na kankshathi – He does not become elated when something agreeable happens nor does he suffer pangs of regret if something disagreeable happens.  He does not grieve over a loss or long for a gain.
12) subhasubhaparityagi bhakthiman – He is ever devoted to Me as Paramatma.  As he is beyond dharma and adharma, right and wrong, he is not concerned about the punya or papa attached to his action.  Any punya arising out of his action will accrue to those who praise, adore and worship him, while papa, if any, will go to those who insult or abuse him.
13) samah satrau cha mitre cha tatha manapamanayoh – He is the same to all whether they are his well-wishers or ill-wishers as he has love for all.  He treats alike honour and dishonour, i.e. with total nonchalance.
14) sithoshna sukha dukheshu samah sangavivarjitaha – He is free from all attachments, including his body-mind-complex. So he is immune to bodily and mental discomforts and disturbances, and his placidity suffers no change in all circumstances affecting the body-mind, like climate changes from one extreme to other or swings in experiences like pleasure and pain.
15) tulyanindasthuthrmouni –  His equanimity is undisturbed by praise or blame. He does not indulge in loose talk or gossip and enjoys silence as a means of communion with his Self. This state of silence arises out of intoxication with the supreme love for the Supreme Lord.  He becomes intoxicated with devotion, and enjoys silently that state of ecstacy, united in the Self, that is Paramathma.
16) santhushto yena kenachit anikethah sthiramathihi bhakthiman  –  In all places he feels at home, while calling no place as his home. He is happy and contented with whatever he has or gets and has no demands from anybody and no expectations in life.  He has a steady mind, fixed in devotion to Me as Paramatma. 
This parabhaktha, is a Brahmabhutha, one who has attained Brahman and is also a Parama Jnani and is very dear to Me.



Saturday, 18 November 2017

Viswarupam(2) – Lord’s consolation

Gita essays 19 

Seeing various warriors rushing into the blazing mouth of the Cosmic form to be bitten, chewed and swallowed, with the Cosmic form seemingly enjoying the act, Arjuna is gripped with fear and pleads with the Cosmic form, to have mercy and disclose its true identity and function.   Then Lord reveals to Arjuna that what he is witnessing, is the Lord’s manifestation of the laya aspect of His role as Kala thathvam, time principle.  In this role He will be annihilating the warriors in both the the armies.  This will happen with or without Arjuna’s participation. Arjuna is acting only as an instrument of the Lord in this game of destruction and so he need not feel sorry that he is responsible for all their deaths.  Therefore Lord advises Arjuna to get up and fight and get the name and fame for victory and assures the kingdom will be theirs for Pandavas to rule and enjoy.  After talking in generalities, Lord now talks in specifics in verse 34.
Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Karna and other brave warriors have already been slain by Me (as their time in earth is coming to an end).  Do not be upset with concern (for them); fight and you shall conquer enemies (eventually) in the battle (11-34)

Even after hearing Lord’s reassuring words Arjuna was not out of fear witnessing the annihilating aspect of kala thathvam.  Arjuna still has not got the mental equanimity to look at pralaya as the other side of creation.  So Arjuna saluting the Lord and bowing before the Lord prays to Him tremblingly in a choking voice with an overwhelming feeling of surrender unto the Lord.  He says that he is seeing the people on the right side of Dharma bowing to Him in prayer and people on the wrong side of Dharma trying to avoid Him in fear.  He finds the world rejoicing in His praise with delight and properly so, for He is the Imperishable Brahman; He is the greatest of the greatest being the progenitor of Brahmaji himself; and, He is the Sat and the Asat and the one beyond Sat and Asat.  Then Arjuna breaks into a praise of the Lord addressing the Lord severally as Primal God; the Ancient Purusha;, the Knower and  the Knowable; and the Supreme goal, who pervades the universe with His boundless infinite forms.  He offers thousands of salutations again and again;  in the front , in the back and on all sides, worshipping the Lord as Vayu, Yama, Agni, the Moon, Varuna, the great-grandfather of all and also as the All-in-one, pervading all with infinite power and prowess.

After prayer and praise, Arjuna changes track to contrition seeking forgiveness for having treated Him lightly earlier during the intimate moments of friendship and camaraderie.  Then he has even called Him by His caste name as ‘Hey, Yadhava’.  A sample of Arjuna’s earlier intimacy with Lord Krishna is given in an incident that happened before Lord Krishna went as Pandava’s ambassador to Duryodhana’s court.  King Dhritharashtra sent Sanjaya to Pandava’s camp to get a report on the conditions there.  When Sanjaya visited the camp he was surprised to see Arjuna talking to Lord Krishna lying down with his legs lazily placed in Lord’s lap. When Sanjaya returned, he reported to king Dhritharashtra that Arjuna being so intimate with the all-powerful Lord, kauravas have no chance of winning the war.  After recounting how he had behaved with the Lord disrespectfully while at play or at rest or at meals or while chatting, treating Him as a friend, Arjuna seeks Lord’s forgiveness with these words in verse 43 & 44. 
You are the father of this world, moving and unmoving. You are the adorable one and the greatest guru. How can there be another superior to you when there is no one even equal to you in the three worlds, Oh Lord of unequalled power? (11-43) 
Therefore, bowing down and prostrating my body, I propitiate you, the adorable Lord.  Oh Lord! You should forgive my offences just as a father forgives those of the son, just as a friend forgives those of his (dear) friend, and just as a lover forgives those of his beloved. (11-44)

After praising the Lord and pleading for forgiveness, Arjuna tells the Lord that though he is overjoyed at seeing the Viswarupam of the Lord, he cannot get rid of the feeling of fear in Its presence.  So he prays to Lord to revert to the old form so that he can talk to the Lord without the feeling of fear, regaining his peace of mind.  Lord then informs that this Cosmic form he witnessed is being shown to Arjuna as a special case for no one without His Grace can have the vision of this form just by the study of the Vedas or performance of sacrifices or by observance of severe austerities or by engaging in other rituals or charities. Now that Arjuna does not feel comfortable in Its presence, It will be withdrawn and he can witness the previous form without fear and with a peaceful mind.  So saying Lord takes away the Divine eye, that He had given, from Arjuna.  Arjuna not seeing the Cosmic form and seeing only the old familiar form, feels greatly relieved and thanks the Lord, in a transport of joy, with these words. 
Now seeing this Thy gentle human form, O Krishna, I am composed and restored to my own nature! (11-51)

Apparently Arjuna is more at home with Eka rupa bhakthi  and is not comfortable with Viswarupa bhakthi.  Sensing this Lord again reminds him of the glory of Viswarupa Bhakthi.  He tells Arjuna that the Cosmic form he had seen now, is not within easy reach of even Devas and Gods and they are always longing to have a vision of the Cosmic form.  So what to say about human efforts?   Not all the scholarship in Vedas, or the rigorous penances or the sacrificial rites or charitable gifts by themselves or in combination will enable humans to see Him as Arjuna had seen.  It is possible only through Ananya bhakthi to gain this vision.  Lord also gives the recipe for Ananya bhakthi for his benefit, and through him for our benefit, in the concluding verse of this chapter, verse 55, which Swami Sivananda calls as the one  containing “the essence of the whole teaching of the Gita” ; 
He who does all actions for Me, who looks upon Me as the Supreme goal, who is devoted to Me, who is free from attachment and who bears no enmity towards any creature, he attains Me, O Arjuna! (11-55)

Swami Paramarthananda calls this “a seed verse” as this contains the seed for the teaching in the next chapter. Here the Lord prescribes the following four criterions for a devotee to qualify as an Ananya bhaktha and become eligible for the vision of the Cosmic form and to attain Him; 
1)      his work is all for the Lord (in any form)
2)      Lord is the Supreme goal for him
3)      he is free from all worldly associations  &
4)      he has no sense of enmity towards any living being. 
With the vision of the Divine Cosmic form, egoism and the notion of duality will be erased from the mind of ananya bhaktha totally and the devotee comes to understand without any trace of doubt, the basic identity of the universe including his own self with supreme Brahman, which is termed as attaining the Lord.  Through Cosmic form Lord has demonstrated to Arjuna that He is none other than the Supreme Brahman, the substratum sustaining the universe and all movements therein are according to His Divine Law only.