Monday, September 3, 2018

Into the Great Heart: Legends and Adventures of Guru Angad - Kamla K. Kapur

Guru Angad was the second Guru of the Sikhs after Guru Nanak Dev. The author Kamla Kapur writes a poetic account of how Bhai Lehna, a Durga worshipper who comes to visit Guru Nanak, gets drawn to him and makes him his guru. In the first meeting Bhai Lehna mistakes Guru Nanak to be an ordinary servant and allows him to take his horse and lead him in. From that moment on Bhai Lehna is drawn to Guru Nanak and the Guru Nanak understands his great devotion for him.

Guru Nanak's companion through his years of travel is Mardana, a Muslim. Now Guru Nanak and Mardana live in the same town with their families. Guru Nanak's sister Nanaki stays with him, as does his Sulakhni and his two sons who vie for the position after Guru Nanak - Lakhmi Das and Sri Chand. While Sri Chand has a following of seekers who call themselves Udaasis, Lakhmi Das has a different style of living God's life, of hunting and killing birds and animals. Both sons wish to follow their father to his psosition but Guru Nanak is not convinced. Bhai Lehna's devotion impresses him more.

The story is driven by conversations between Buddha, a follower of Guru Nanak, Aziza, daughter of Mardana and the various women mostly. Mata Sulakhni is angry with Guru Nanak for what he subjected her to by leaving her alone with her small children. Nanaki supports her brother. The discrimination of gender, of religion even to play a musical instrument is shown gently through the narrative. We get a fair sense of how the society was then, the situation in their house and Guru Nanak's philosophy.

Two stories I remember of Guru Nanak. The first when he sees some Hindus praying at Kashi and giving water to their ancestors by facing East. He turns West and starts pouring water upon which the priests ask him what he is doing. He tells them he is watering his plants in Punjab. In another story he tells an ascetic who closes his eyes and says he has found all the secrets of mankind inside him. Guru Nanak hides his lota behind him and the man gets furious. Guru Nanak asks him how he found the secret to mankind when he could not find his lota.

As the story progresses we see that the family of Guru Nanak does not like the presence of Bhai Lehna and get him removed from their house. Bhai Lehna leaves with a heavy heart. The two brothers Sr Chand and Lakhmi Das fight one day leading to Lakhmi Das's death or rather, disappearance. Upset that his father will not make him the next guru Sri Chand leaves with his band of followers. Soon after, an ageing Mardana dies. Guru Nanak chooses his follower in a drastic manner. He calls all hopefuls, takes them to a forest, shows them a decaying corpse and asks the one who wants to follow him to eat the corpse. None touches it but Bhai Lehna asks if he should start with the head or the foot and if he could share it with the others. Just as he is about to eat it, it turns into a prasad. Truly, Bhai Lehna proves he is worthy of his guru's affections. In the end, Guru Nanak leaves his earthly abode and Bhai Lehna becomes Guru Angad, the second Guru of the Sikhs.

In one chapter, while mentioning that Guru Nanak disapproved of the Hindu rituals after a person's death because they frequently put poor people into debt, Kamla Kapur describes the entire process that takes place when a Hindu dies. The person is carried from the bed to the floor, feet turned towards the North to ensure he doesn't become a ghost, body bathed in curd and ghee, clothed in best outfit, covered in a shroud, widow and children touch the feet, lamp lit near the head of the deceased to light up the journey to the other word, men shave heads, women take of jewelry,  body taken to cremation grounds to the sounds of drums, stringed instruments gongs and conch shells. Flower petals and dry fruits are thrown over the body. The body is carried out feet first, as against head first from the womb, on the shoulders of four close relatives. The body is placed on a pyre. Wood piled. A pot of water is broken to symbolise that the form has broken and shapeless water has returned to the soil. The eldest son sets fire. Midway he lifts the club and breaks the deceased's skull.
Mourners bathe at a pond or well, wash their clothes and wear new ones to purify themselves from death. The bones are collected and consigned to a river, always to a river that takes away and brings. a feast follows to ensure the deceased has a good afterlife. A cow is given to Brahmin priests so that the deceased can clutch its tail and cross over to the other shore. You can imagine what Guru Nanak might have said about such rituals. But it was interesting for me to see it all laid out like this. I saw several, did a few, but never made sense of it all.

'Into the Great Heart' is poetic and easy to read. There are so many references to it which use the word 'poetic' and though I cannot put my finger on why, there is a lilting quality to the prose. Though simply told in a very accessible manner the characters stay with you. The philosophy and lessons are deep and clearly show that Kamla Kapur knows far more and far deeper about the philosophy and the story. Kamla Kapur is a poet, author and playwright. She taught play writing, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, mythology at Grossmont College, San Diego and currently divides her time between Kullu Valley and California.

'Into the Great Heart; is written with much love by a person who knows what she is writing and wants to share her understanding with her readers. An enjoyable and enlightening read.

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