Monday, March 24, 2008

Goddess of the Arts - Saraswati

Saraswati, the Goddess of the Arts. A bearer of wisdom, a beacon of knowledge and an aficionado of music, she is a Goddess that has alternative blessings. Ones that don’t scream wealth and power, her blessings are subtle and unique. She is the one who protects the skilled, the talented and the gifted. She exudes confidence in every idol she is sanctified in. She is the one to turn to if you want to clear those nasty entrance examinations, she is the one who resides in the homes of accomplished musicians and artists, she is the embodiment of learning.

Saraswati is depicted as a woman with four arms. In one she carries the sacred book of Hindu principles, the ‘vedas’. In another she carries a rosary, a symbol of spirituality as a means of higher consciousness. Her two other accessories are a stringed instrument called the ‘veena’ and a pail of sacred water. The ‘veena’ she plays is the song of love, feelings and emotions. The water she carries symbolizes purity. Saraswati is a benevolent Goddess who is appeased by the worship of arts and sciences. A commitment to one’s talent is prayer enough for Saraswati is the one who has bestowed those creative gifts. By respecting and nurturing those gifts we are respecting and nurturing her.

Not many people are aware of the hidden nuances in the depiction of gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology. Whether it is an idol or a painting, there are teachings even in the surroundings of the Gods. Saraswati is often accompanied by a white swan mythology says that when a mix of water and milk was offered to the swan, it would drink only the milk from it. Symbolically, she could distinguish between the good and the bad, pure and impure. Some artwork also depicts Saraswati in the company of a peacock, a bird known for its proud and flamboyant nature. Since the peacock is depicted as Saraswati’s mount, she in one sense conquers the pride and her teachings are simple, don’t be concerned with external appearances. The soul is the keeper of all goodness.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Try Ayurveda this Navratri

'Vasant Navratri' is early this year, from 6th – 15th April 2008. The nine holy nights of Navratri are dedicated to Goddesses Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Durga (Goddess of Creative and Feminine energy) and Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge) . The practice of observing a nine day fast also called ‘Navratri Vrat’ is widely popular in Northern India and though these 9 holy days occur twice in a year in the Hindu calendar, the rituals and practises remain similar. A better explanation of these 9 holy days is given by - "Navratri is a Hindu festival of worship and devotion. The word Navaratri literally means nine nights in Sanskrit; Nava - Nine and Ratri - nights. During these nine nights and ten days, nine forms of Shakti (metaphor for goddess Durga ) i.e. female divinity are worshipped. Shakti is the root of everything. Navratri commences on the first day (pratipada) of the bright fortnight of the Hindu lunar month of Ashwin. The festival is celebrated for nine nights twice every year. The dates of the festival are determined according to the Hindu lunar calendar, the festival may be held for a day more or a day less. The following 9 forms of goddesses are worshipped during these nine days."

Most urban homes are extremely conscious of ‘navratri days’ and it is not uncommon for restaurants to lose tens of thousands of rupees worth of income during this period. The people that don’t actually fast the entire day make it a point to at least abstain from non vegetarian food and liquor. Punjab and Haryana are equally enthusiastic about this time of the year and both men and women fast for the entire day, eating only one meal after sundown. In metropolitan towns and cities observation of a daylong fast has taken on a new meaning. Rituals permit partaking of fruits, dairy products (salt free) and vegetables, pretty much excluding only lentils, rice and grains. Pretty easy ‘fast’ if you ask me. Entire menus are developed to accommodate these nine days and make sure patrons come in even if it means eating breads make of vegetable flour (water chestnuts can actually be made into a kind of coarse, greenish flour, which can be kneaded and rolled to make ‘roti’)! So there is a loophole for everything. Cool! I like the whole accommodating feel this kind of fasting has, it’s more like detoxifying.

Speaking of detoxifying, this may be a good time to discover a new facet of vegetarian food – Ayurvedic Food. The basics of Ayurveda are hard to chronicle in a blog, in fact that kind of science requires deep study and practise. From a laypersons point of view, Ayurveda perpetuates that a healthy body is one that is in harmony with all the elements, is self healing and is balanced. In order to achieve this kind of overall health one must first bring harmony and balance into their lives through a nutritious diet and an active lifestyle. Ayurvedic cooking incorporates these principles into cooking methods, ingredients and recipes to produce a holistic fare. Cooking is almost treated like alchemy in Ayurveda. The combination of herbs, spices, seasonal vegetables and natural sugars and fats in Ayurvedic cooking is the key behind transforming an ordinary vegetarian dish into a balanced and highly nourishing meal. Ayurvedic food is aromatic, wholesome and almost healing in nature. The principles of the five Elements, the three Doshas, the three Gunas, the seven Dathus and the six Tastes form the core of Ayurvedic food. There is a special emphasis on organic ingredients, seasonal fruits and vegetables (nature provides in tandem with the needs of the body and the state that it is in), cooking methods and even the cook’s internal vibrations. The most inspiring part about this is the fact that it does not take more effort, time or means to make an ayurvedic meal. You should have access to fresh vegetables, fresh ground spices, herbs, a healthy cooking medium like olive oil (preferable, but I believe Canola is really good for the heart) and a cooking area that is well ventilated and clean.

Few practises of Ayurvedic cooking are given below as a start-up:

• Ayurvedic cooking doesn’t insist on the use of ‘ghee’ or clarified butter but their argument is quite intriguing. ‘Ghee’ is essentially a diary product, it is a proven digestive, it lubricates the connective tissue, it is a catalytic agent and carries the medicinal properties of herbs. All cooking mediums and fats should be consumed in moderation and the same holds good for ghee too.
• Sautee spices in ghee/oil first so that all its essential oils are released.
• Do not extensively wash vegetables, instead wash gently and soak in warm water to release germs.
• Plan your meal and organize your ingredients.
• Have a positive frame of mind when you cook, unwind and treat the activity like an experience and not a chore. You will infuse the food with love and good vibes.
• Eat up to 1/3 capacity of your stomach, drink to 1/3 and leave 1/3 for God (Ashtanga Hridayam).

Lastly here is an easy recipe of delicious Indian food. Cumin is one of my favourite Indian spices, so we will do a light and summery ‘potato yoghurt curry’ that you can have with white rice and any Indian bread.

Potato Yoghurt Curry
4 boiled potatoes cubed (large pieces)
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp dry coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala
2 tbsp fresh yoghurt
2 tsp olive oil/ghee/cooking oil
1 ½ cup warm water

Heat the oil, add the cumin seeds and let them darken slightly. Add the spices and potato. Stir and cook on low heat for 2-3 minutes. Mix the yoghurt in warm water and add with a dash of salt. Cook on low for 6-7 minutes. Garnish with fresh chopped coriander leaves. This dish is ideal for summers, its light yet has the wholesome goodness of potato carbs, the garam masala adds a zing but its heaty properties are reduced by the yoghurt.