Iṣṭa-Devathā: The deity closest to your heart
Raja Ravi Varma, 1896
As a young man, I rendered the Gāyatrī Mantra (Rig Veda: 3.62.10), invoked the deities, awoke the gods each day at sunrise. The observance of my orthopraxis. Less young, I stopped the ritual. The Mantra’s opening syllable is Tát, literally, ‘That’. This, is a reclamation of ‘That’.
The central summary expression of Vedic insight is Tát [‘That’]. The Symbol ‘0’ is simply the proper unravelling of ‘That’ taken to its natural, necessary and inevitable limit.
In the celebrated lines of the Katha Upanishad:
‘Not by speech, not by mind,
Not by sight is It be apprehended.
How else is It comprehended
Otherwise than as: ‘It is’ ?’
Hinduism has no principal holy-scripture, no founding sage, no required observance, no pope nor doctrine of papal infallibility, no founding prophets who knew the answer.
[Perhaps because of this it has more holy-men per-capita, so many woolly-eyed mystics and whining secularists stalk the streets that you watch your every step to not step on one.]
‘Hinduism’ itself is a new word largely unknown in Sanskrit text. A motley mix of Sanskrit, Greek and Persian [and a river], it is meant for the outsider looking in.
The Kanchi Paramacharya [1894-1994], a sober and respected modern authority on the subject, reiterates a title emphasized in early times. The name of the tradition, he declares, is: ‘Nameless’.
Vishnu has a thousand names [Sahasranāmam] precisely because Vishnu is Nameless. The word ‘Nameless’ is simultaneously a name and a noun and an adjective about itself as a name and a noun. A meta-statement, a self-referential swivel.
There is no serious tradition that does not carry it, or some close variant of it. Is ‘Nameless’ a name? Or is it not a name? [Try it.] ‘Nameless’ is a Self-Eating Expression. And the Symbol ‘0’ is the paradigmatic Self-Eating Expression.
I am a regular at south-indian temples the priests always eyeing me in squinted suspicion.
Community and worship, chant and song, incense and flowers, lit lamps and rustling silk. The rigor of perfected Ritual, the propriety of Tradition, for its own sake. The Bhava of Benediction, the Rasa of Reverence. If your heart cannot hum in the cirque of the sacred, surely you miss.
The first temples, the tradition of Temple Worship, didn’t begin until well past the 2nd Century. The popular Puranas remained unwritten until the 5th Century. And the great temple shrines at Thanjavur and Madurai were far more than centers of ritual and ceremony.
The cities grew around them in concentric circles, and they served as the centers, literally and figuratively, for every Art Form. Music and Dance, Literature and Theater.
The word ‘Museum’ derives from the Greek Mouseion: ‘Seat of the Muses’ [and not to be confused with ‘Mausoleum’, which modern museums closely resemble]. Temples were the original Museums.
Swamimalai in Kumbakonam, my maternal ancestral home, now long demolished.