When our son Mahar was born, we had made a resolution that we would visit Palani temple and offer his birth hair to Lord Murugan. So here we were, in India, on a road trip from Madurai to Palani. From our car, Mahar watched hundreds of people walking by. Ramakrishna, our driver explained to Mahar, “These pilgrims have resolved to walk from their homes to Palani temple. It will take them many days and nights. They carry their offerings on their head and go barefoot. When Lord Murugan calls, you simply go.”

The atheist in Mahar must have winked in disbelief, thinking, Ha, ha, how can Murugan call? Statues don’t speak. Ever since he turned two, Mahar had offered consistent protest to my daily pooja. My husband Ehud and I had spoken to him softly as well as sternly about his opposition, but nothing had come of these conversations. Mahar’s resistance saddened me but Ehud, ever the optimist, always said, “Don’t worry, India will work on him.”

Normally, Mahar would have cross-examined Ramakrishna on his theory about “when Lord Murugan calls.” Instead, he watched the endless stream of pilgrims and asked him curiously, “Do they eat, get water to drink, use rest stops? Do ghosts and goblins bother them at night?”

The temple was flooded with pilgrims. We entered the temple office to see if someone could help us. Mr. E. Meikandar was in the office and asked, “ How may I help you?” We spoke with him about our desire to offer Mahar’s hair to Lord Murugan. Mr. Meikandar gave us a grand tour of the temple, explaining its beauty, myth, truth and legend. Mahar stayed very close to Mr. Meikandar listening carefully. Soon we found ourselves seated on the floor, a few feet away from Lord Murugan. The priests offered Archana for the three of us and for Ramakrishna, smeared Vibhuti on our foreheads, adorned Ehud with a rose garland from the feet of Lord Murugan, and said, “ Be well.” Overwhelmed with emotion, I found myself crying. Mahar sat saucer-eyed, stunned and quiet. Ehud was ecstatic, Ramakrishna overjoyed. “Murugan, the child’s hair, our prayers and ourselves are at your sannidhi. Bless us with your grace...”

Behind us, thousands of pilgrims murmured, chanted, sang, and prayed. Smoke billowed from burning camphor, incense and lamps hung low. Amidst the ringing of bells, priests continued doing Archana and Abhishek, smearing Vibhuti on every forehead.

Coming out into the sunlit courtyard, we felt as though we had been ejected from the hot and dark womb of Mother Earth. Mahar did not wipe off the Vibhuti, as he would certainly have done at home.

We began looking at the statue of Bhogar and Mr. Meikandar told us about this sage, who is believed to be a contemporary of Agastya, a sage mentioned in the epic Ramayana.

“Many thousands of years ago, Sage Bhogar lived on this hill,” began Mr. Meikandar. “He was very sick and had traveled all over the world looking for a cure. Disheartened and unsuccessful, he returned to this hill. One night Lord Shiva appeared to him in dream and said, ‘Ask Murugan to heal you.’

“Sage Bhogar took the dream to heart. He created an amalgam of nine minerals. Mixed with herbs, the mixture became harder than rock. From this he sculpted a small statue of Lord Murugan. Every day, Sage Bhogar went down the hill, to a pond on the plains. He collected water from this pond, climbed up the hill and washed the statue of Lord Murugan with this water. He stopped eating and stayed alive by just drinking the wash water, known as Abhisheka Tirtham and eventually, he was healed from his miserable disease.

“This statue of Lord Murugan has been given a wash every day for thousands of years. Devotees have sipped this water with faith while praying to be healed,” Mr. E. Meikandar said, waving his hands over the milling crowd of pilgrims.

We were approaching the huge metal Hundi where Mr. E. Meikandar advised us that we could drop in our offering of birth hair. “Mom, this man keeps saying that the pilgrims are praying to be healed. I don’t see any sick or injured people here. Everyone looks healthy and they are so loud... chanting all these prayers. What sickness do they have Mom?” Finally, Mahar had caught up and was asking a real question, “What is wrong with me, Mom, that I must pray to be healed? What is wrong with you? Is Papa sick too?” He questioned me, needing a truthful answer.

We held his birth hair together and dropped it into the Hundi. Then we sat down to savor the present moment and digest the stories and legends that we had heard.

“A sense of ownership, an idea that our body is ‘I’ is the sickness we all have, Mahar. By offering our hair, we let go of that sense and idea. The offering is our way of saying to Lord Murugan, ‘at your feet we have let go of our sense of self, we do not claim ownership to our physical being, appearance and circumstances. Heal us from this sickness of identifying ourselves with our body.’” I spoke to Mahar in whispers.

He had quietly climbed onto my lap. As I held my child in a loving embrace, a message flashed in my mind’s screen: We offer a little child’s birth hair at the temple but the child is not yet rooted deeply in his sense of self. He is still living in the realm of innocence, instincts, feelings, and physiological reflexes that are innate to his biological being. But this rite of passage, Samskara, does send a clear message to the mother; it gives her a chance to begin learning to let go.

And there are a number of such Samskaras flashing similar message about learning to let go. After conception and the birth of a child, the very first thing that happens is the snipping of the umbilical cord. Mother and child are two separate beings. The child is born from the mother and yet, he is distinct and separate from her. The first lesson, therefore, is that a mother must let go of the precious child from her womb. Then a child gets his own name and from now on he will be encouraged to leave it behind as a legacy. Soon enough, the sacred time of breast-feeding comes to an end. When the child is given solids to eat, the mother hands her child over to the care of Goddess Annapoorna. Though the mother will continue to cook for the child, the nourishment will come from Annapoorna, the universal mother. Then, the child goes through Mundan Samskar—the removal of birth hair. Mother offers this hair at a temple and prays for the well being of the child as he grows up and away from her. That is the point of growing up—to grow away. Then comes the Aksharabhyasa, introducing the child to reading, writing and math and handing him over to Goddess Saraswati with a prayer, ‘O Mother, I will teach him to read and write but you teach him wisdom.”

Through the childhood years the distance between the child and the mother keeps growing. These numerous rites of passage, or Samskaras, celebrate each milestone. Are these rites designed by our wise ancestors for impressing upon women that, although they birth and nurture human beings, they must ultimately learn to let their children go?While continuing to be a source of emotional, physical and spiritual comfort for the child, the mother must learn to set the child free from strictures and unhealthy attachments, so that the child may, one day, give to the world all that he can and is meant to give. Women are given plenty of opportunity to learn to love without owning and to nourish without expecting anything in return. As they raise their children, they are constantly reminded by these sacred rites of passage that without love, life is meaningless; without the spiritual strength to let go, love is meaningless.

Mahar held me tight; as he does when he can sense that by embracing I am letting him read my mind and heart. Our eyes, both misty and soft, met for a long time.

Back home in Vermont, we are easing back into our routine—minus the daily opposition from Mahar to my daily pooja. Having seen thousands of barefoot pilgrims, all drawn by a tiny statue of Murugan, all praying to be healed, the boy has made peace with my pooja routine. He is beginning to learn and recite shlokas and he prays first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night.

Did a visit to Lord Murugan in Palani bring about this magic? Did India work her magic on him? We often wonder and we continue to pray that the magic will be real and lasting.

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