My father wears a crisp white cotton dhoti, a sarong-like outfit, having bathed prior to entering the puja room. When he dips a small copper spoon in a small copper vessel full of water to take the achman (three sips of consecrated water), there are three small hollow tinkling sounds. He sprinkles his body and the surrounding area with a few drops of water.
My father then uses both hands to make a series of gestures. One looks like a fish, some others involve interlocking fingers, or tapping the index and forefinger of right hand on his left palm and snapping them in a circle. Thereafter, he takes a rosary made up of 108 rudraksh beads in his left hand. (Rudraksh beads, the seeds of a tree with the botanical name Elaeocarpus ganitru, are venerated in the Hindu tradition. Rudra is another name for Shiva, and the bead's name translates to Rudra's eye. The rudraksh is said to be his most potent manifestation.) And over the next 30 to 40 minutes, my father sits silently and chants a mantra or God's name for each rudraksh bead on the rosary.
A devout Hindu, my father performs these rituals, which comprise the sandhya puja, without fail. It's his duty as a Brahmin, a member of the Hindu priestly caste, invested unto him when he received his sacred thread and the sacred Gayatri mantra (the 24-syllable Vedic mantra for spiritual evolution and liberation) from his father.
As a child, I was fascinated by my father's morning ritual. My father made my sister and me study in front of him while he carried out his prayers. In between memorizing multiplication charts and figuring out algebraic equations, I got to know the rhythm of the ritual. Occasionally, I felt the spray of water as he sprinkled it about himself. Yet I never quite understood the meaning of it all.
Both my parents tried their hand at teaching me to meditate during my adolescence. I think their aim was to calm my raging teenage hormones.
My mother started on her path as a yoga teacher with me and my sister. We were reluctant students. Despite my teenage resistance to instruction from a parent, the yogic asanas (postures) were kind of fun. It was almost a challenge to see how flexible my body was. While I never did well in gymnastics at school, such as handstands or cartwheels, I could hold a yoga posture pretty decently.
The meditation portion of mum's mandatory yoga classes was boring. She tried her best to get us to sit cross-legged, ideally in the lotus position, concentrate, clear our minds, and think of nothing as we intoned Aum, the most supreme and sacred syllables of Hinduism.
But I just couldn't get to the deeper, meditative level. Although I tried desperately hard to follow mum's instructions, not more than five minutes passed before various thoughts would start crowding my mind. An incident from school. A scene from a favorite TV show. An annoying tune that just wouldn't get out of my head. Eventually, I'd just give up.
Four years later, when I was living in India and attending university, I got into yoga as an alternative to pumping iron at the gym. I studied at a New Delhi branch of the same school from which my mother learned yoga in Kerala.
I began to see that there was something calming about doing yoga, although a good session had me sweating. And this time around, I managed to make it through the meditative portion. It was soothing to sit, take some time out from the mundane activities of my everyday routine, and relax. I also learned it was normal to have thoughts crowd your mind. The trick was to let them come and go, concentrating instead on the pranayama, the inhalation and exhalation of breath.
A few years ago, a sage from India journeyed through Toronto. Rumors about the modern-day saint's magical powers were flying around in the South Asian community. Unlike my father, and like many people, I am skeptical of miracle-working sages. I've heard many accounts of self-styled gurus who con average folk with their sleight of hand
I sat before him, and bowed as I would to an elder. The sage held out his hands, and I was guided to extend mine. He muttered a few lines, and suddenly I felt something in my hand. It was a small idol of Ganesh. The sage asked me to keep it in my room and chant a Ganesh mantra every day.
"You are worried," he told me. "God will help you overcome your troubles."
I'm still unsure how the idol got into my palm, but my father was sure it was a miracle. He guided me in the placement of the deity in my room-deities should face North or East.
I was in fact going through a difficult phase at that time. I was almost done with college, and I was worried about my grades. More than that, I was concerned about my future and unsettled by my parents' constant suggestions about marriage possibilities..
I decided it couldn't hurt to take the sage's advice and integrated it into my yogic meditation. Every morning, after doing the asanas, I took a few minutes to chant a mantra addressed to Ganesh. No more miracles were forthcoming. I got decent grades and got my master's degree. The nagging about marriage continued in fits and spurts. And I eventually found my calling as a writer. But the meditative exercise did give me some time to reflect on my worries, and either have epiphanies or moments of clarity.
Over the past few years, with a chance to live apart from my parents, I've come to appreciate their routines. Like my father's sandhya pujas. The sounds of the slurp, taps, snaps, and small clangs have become reminders of home. I am also old enough to engage my parents in dialogue about their lives, rather than simply taking a characteristically adolescent rebellious stance, and so I recently decided to ask my father about his rituals of meditation.
His answers were similar to the yogic theory my mother had told me over the years. I learned that the rituals that fascinated me as a child were actually a preparation for the act of meditation.
"By sprinkling water around me, I am purifying the area in which I am about to meditate," he told me. "The idea is that it creates a barrier for bad energy. But you can just think of it as creating a sacred space for yourself, away from the clatter in the kitchen, or the phone ringing."
Although he didn't fully explain other aspects, such as the hand gestures, he did mention that a mantra is used as a means to focus the mind on the breath. The breath, he said, is the life force. And by using God's name to contemplate the life force, a union between self and God is realized.
There are also temporal benefits of the sandhya puja, my father explained. Chanting the mantra and deep breathing allow you to de-stress.
"I get a lot of answers when I meditate," he said. "From work to how to deal with my rebellious daughter."
My father's explanations have demystified some of the rituals of our faith. As an adolescent, I found it was easy to be dismissive of some aspects of Hinduism such as meditation. Hindu mythologies of meditating sages and boon-granting gods were great as bedtime stories. And as much as I would have loved to get a boon or two, I was unable to see meditation as part of my daily life. Understanding my father's take has made meditating and chanting God's name relevant to me.
I'm still not as consistent as my father. I don't follow his rituals of meditation. I either meditate after a yoga session or on the subway. I usually don't ask God for anything, but I often get rewarded with a feeling of contentment.