The pipal and the neem are the royal children of Mother Nature's kingdom of trees. As the new year approaches they shed their leaves, sprout tender green shoots again not long after. It is all the work of Mother Nature.
The custom of marrying the pipal to the neem and of installing the idols of Vinayaka and Nagaraja under them goes back to the dim past. After the winter months these trees will be bare and Vinayaka and Nagaraja will remain exposed to the sun. This is the time when we may sit under the open sky and bask in the sun because it is now neither too warm nor too cold. When it rains or when the sun beats down harshly on us, we need to shield ourselves with an umbrella. And when it is bitterly cold we cannot sit in the open and gaze at the sky. But now, when the leaves fall and the warmth of the sun is comforting (it is believed that with Sivarathri the cold season bids you goodbye with the chant, "siva, siva"), we may sit in the open, by day or at night, to gaze upon the sky. To proclaim the beneficial nature of this season as it were- when the pipal and the neem are shorn of their leaves- Mother Nature worships the gods under the trees (Vinayaka and Nagaraja) with the rays of the gentle sun.
Nagaraja may also be called Subrahmanya. Indeed to the Telugu-speaking people the name 'Subbarayudu" denotes both Subrahmanya and the snake. The Tamil-speaking people worship snakes on Sasti, a custom that has existed from time immemorial. Mother Nature's concern for Vighnesvara and Subrahmanya, the children of Parvati and Paramesvara, is but an expression of her love for all of us who too are but the offspring of the same primordial couple. There is fullness about this love. As I said just now, when it is neither too warm nor too cold, Vighnesvara and Nagaraja are exposed to the sun. But, as the sun gets warmer with the advance of spring, Mother Nature protects these deities from the heat. How? The trees now burgeon and form a green umbrella over Vinayaka and Nagaraja. The shedding of leaves, the burgeoning again, all this is a part of the natural process and according to the immutable law of the universe, which has been in force from the very beginning of time.
There is a law governing the behaviour of everything in this universe. All must submit to it for the world to function properly. Otherwise things will go awry and end up in chaos. It is the will of the Lord that all his creation, all his creatures, should live in happiness. That is why he has ordained a dharma, a law, for each one of them. It is compliance with this dharma that ensures all-round harmony. While Isvara protects his children from rain and sun, he also provides them, when needed, with the warmth of the gentle sun. His love for his children is expressed in the schema ordered by him for the functioning of Nature and the law he has laid down for trees is a part of it.
To be worthy of Isvara's love we must possess certain qualities, certain virtues. If there is a law that applies to trees, there must be one that applies to us also. We shall deserve the Lord's love and compassion only by living in accordance with this law and by working for the well-being of all mankind. What is called dharma is this law, the law governing the conduct of man. Isvara has endowed man with intelligence, but it is by using this very intelligence that human beings keep violating their dharma. If it is asked why they do so, all we can say in answer is that it is but the sport of the Lord. Man goes seeking this and that, believing that they will make him happy, and all the while he keeps violating his dharma. But he will discover sooner or later that it is dharma alone that gives him happiness in the end.
There is something that somehow turns people all over the world towards dharma. It is this something that inspires human beings everywhere to go beyond their material needs and do things that appear strange. How? One man reads the Bible, cross in hand; another smears ashes all over his body; and a third man wears the Vaisnava mark. From generation to generation mankind has been practicing such customs even without deriving any perceptible material benefit. What is the reason for this?
Man first earned the means for his daily upkeep. But he soon discovered that meeting the needs of the present would not be enough. So he tried to earn more and save for his needs also. The question, however, arose as to what precisely constituted his "future". As he reflected on it, it became clear that his "future" on this earth would be endless, that he would not live a thousand years or ten thousand. So he concerned himself with earning enough to see him through his life and at the same time leaving enough for his children.
What happened to a man after his death was the question that worried him next. The great men who emerged from time to time in various climes came to believe that the entity called man did not cease to exist even after his body perished. The truth dawned on them that the money and property acquired for the upkeep of a man's body served no purpose after his passing. As a next step they formed a view of what a human being must do in this life to ensure for himself a happy state in afterlife. Religious leaders in different countries taught different ways to achieve this. The cross, the namaz , the sacred ashes, the sacred earth came to be adopted in this manner by people belonging to different religious persuasions.
" You must look upon the world as belonging to the Lord, and it is your duty to so conduct yourself as to conform yourself to this belief. This constitutes the dharma of humanity. Acts dictated solely by selfish interests will push one into unrighteousness. A man must learn to be less and less selfish in his thoughts and actions; he must always remember the Lord and must ever be conscious that he is the master of all this world. " This view is the basis on which all religions have evolved.
No religion teaches us to live according to our whims and fancies; no religion asks us to acquire wealth and property for our personal needs alone. If a man believes that he alone is important, that he is all, he will live only for himself. That is why all religions speak of an entity called God and teach man to efface his ego or I-feeling. "Child, " they tell him" , "you are nothing before that Power, the author of this universe. It is he -- that Power -- who has endowed you with intelligence. Your intelligence, your intellect, must guide you on the path of dharma, righteousness. For this purpose, you must look up to this Power for support. " The great importance attached to bhakti or devotion in all religions is founded on this belief, the need for divine support for virtuous conduct.
Ordinarily, it is not easy to develop faith in, or devotion to, God expressed in abstract terms. For the common people devotion must take the form of practical steps. That is how ritual originated. Sandhyavandana, the namaz and other forms of prayer are examples of such ritual. The religious teach people their duties, how they must conduct themselves to God in the very midst of their worldly life.
"Love everyone. " "Live a life of sacrifice." "Serve mankind. " Such are the teachings of the various religions. If a man lives according to these tenets, it is believed that his soul will reach God after it departs from his body. Those who subscribe to Advaita or non-dualism declare that the soul will become one with the Godhead. According to another system of belief, after reaching the Lord, the soul will serve him and ever remain happy as the recipient of his compassion. There is no need to quarrel over the nature of the final state. "By following one path or another we attain the Lord. And that will be the end of all our sorrows, all our frustrations and all our failures in this world. There will now be nothing but bliss, full and everlasting. " No more than this do we need to know for the present.
If the Paramatman is to draw us unto himself we must, without fail, perform our duties to him as well as to the world. It is these duties that constitute what is called dharma. Again, it is dharma that serves us when we dwell in our body and when we cease to dwell in it. It serves us in life and afterlife. When we are in this world we must do that which would take us to a desirable state after we depart from it. We take an insurance policy so that our relatives will be able to take care of themselves when we are gone. But is it not far more important to ensure that we will be happy in our after life? Dharma is after life insurance. But in this life too it is dharma that gives us peace and happiness.
There need be no doubt or confusion about the dharma we ought to follow. We are all steeped in the dharma that our, great men have pursued from generation to generation. They have inwardly realized eternal beatitude and we know for certain that they lived without any care, unlike people in our own generation who are always discontented and are embroiled in agitations and demonstrations of all kinds. All we need to do is to follow the dharma that they practiced. If we tried to create a new dharma for ourselves it might mean trouble and all the time we would be torn by doubts as to whether it would bring us good or whether it would give rise to evil. It is best for us to follow the dharma practiced by the great men of the past, the dharma of our forefathers.
Man is subject to all kinds of hardships and misfortunes. To remind ourselves of this, we eat the bitter flowers of the neem on New Year's Day-that is on the very first day of the year we accept the bitterness of life. During the Pongal ceremony, which is celebrated almost towards the close of the year, we have sugarcane to chew. If we have only sweetness in the beginning we may have to experience bitterness towards the end. We must not have any aversion for the bitter but welcome it as the medicine administered by Mother Nature or by dharma. If we do so, in due course, we will learn to regard any experience, even if it were unpleasant, as a sweet one.
Great indeed were the misfortunes suffered by Sri Rama during his exile in the forest. To a son going on a long journey the mother gives food to take with him. Kausalya does the same when her son Rama leaves for the forest, but she does so after much thought, for she wants the food to last during all the fourteen years of his exile. And what is that food? Kausalya gives Rama the eternal sustenance of dharma. Raghava, she says to him, "it is dharma alone that will protect you, and this dharma is what you yourself protect with courage and steadfastness. " It is the escort of dharma that the mother provides her son sent out from his kingdom.
Yam palayasi dharmam tvam dhrithaya ca niyamena ca
Sa vai Raghava-sardula dharmastvamabhiraksatu
It was dharma that brought victory to Rama after all his struggle. If a man treads the path of dharma he will win universal respect. If he slips into adharma, unrighteousness, even his brother will turn a foe. The Ramayana illustrates this truth. Sri Rama was regarded with respect by the vanaras. What about Ravana? Even his brother Vibhisana forsakes him.
Dharma --- and dharma alone is our protecting shield. How did Ravana with his ten heads perish and how did Sri Ramachandra rise with his head held high as Vijayaraghava (the victorious Raghava)? It was all the doing of dharma.
One's religion is nothing but the dharma practiced by one's forefathers. May all adhere to their dharma with unwavering faith and courage and be rewarded with everlasting bliss.
For a general background, please see here