India


The European spice trade was one of the major factors in the development of modern Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries. India was a great provider of spices, but the nutritional values of spices are not well-known in modern times and in the western world. Ayurveda – the ancient Indian science of natural medicine – considers eating habits fundamental to health. This includes the use of spices in food. Ideally, spices should be cleaned and dried in the sun or oven, as uncleaned spices contain little specks of dust, glass, insects etc. Spices should be stored in airtight containers(eg. glass jars, plastic containers or tins) in a cool, dry place – to preserve their freshness. They should be kept away from direct sunlight, mositure, heat etc.

Vedic philosophy describes three different modes of material nature – sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance) – which cover the broad spectrum of life. A person in goodness, for example is peaceful, happy, healthy and clear-headed. A person in passion is restless, subject to many desires and physically active. A person in ignorance is prone to laziness, sleep and anger. Mint, for example, is sattvic – it soothes the mind and calms the stomache. Chillis are, obviously, rajasic. As are onions and garlic – which are generally avoided in the brahminical (or spiritual/mindful) diet. Mushrooms and meat are considered tamasic and their main quality – aside from violence (in the case of meat) – is the dulling effect they generate. Spices take on similar qualities ‘under the modes’. Below are some spices and the benefits they give:

Black Pepper

Marich (Sanskrit (hereafter, S); kalimiri (Hindi, (H)))

Black pepper is a rajasic spice (‘rajas’ means in the ‘mode of passion’) and contains a lot of solar energy. The fruit is used in cooking and traditional healing. It is a very powerful digestive stimulant and it burns ama (toxic waste that builds up in the digestive system). Pepper is also a good expectorant. Black pepper is not hard on the digestive system because it does not increase pitta. Green and Red peppercorns are more rare, but have a more mature flavour than black pepper. White pepper is made from fully ripened black peppers that have had their outer shrunken skin removed. Garam masala and sambar powder feature ‘the king of spices’ in their blends. Black pepper is added to oats in during ramadan in the Middle East. Pepper is used in Malaysia in curry powder, soups and sauces. Fresh green pepper or soaked dried green pepper is used in Thailand.

Fennel (valyari or soomph (Hindi and Gujarati))

Fennel is one of the best herbs for digestion.  I got dysentry the first time I visited India and my stomach was cramping and rumbling even when I got back to South Africa. One of the ladies who visited our Temple was an ayurvedic practioner and she advised me to roast some fennel and boil into a tea. I did. And the cramps went away.  Fennel also dispels flatulence.  In India (and in Indian restaurants), they often serve sugar-coated fennel or fennel with rock salt – to aid digestion. Fennel also calms the nerves and aids mental alertness.

Cloves

Lavanga (S). Rajasic.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove plant. They are good for the lungs and stomach, are mildly aphrodisiac and analgesic (eg. you can chew them when you have a tooth-ache).

Ginger (adrak (Hindi))

Ginger is a root and is considered one of the best and most sattvic of the spices. It is a panacea or universal medicine. I can say this, speaking from experience, as it is the only medicine I have used in the past 18 years. Ginger is most commonly used for respiratory and digestive illnesses. It is a good tonic for the heart and also soothes arthritis. It helps with crams (and pre-menstrual cramps brought on by cold). Ginger paste is a good pain reliever for headaches and general bodily pains. The combination of lemon, ginger and honey as a tea has a heating effect and is a wonderful cure for sore throats and colds. Ginger powder can also be obtained at spice shops.

Turmeric (haldi (H))

Turmeric is a root that looks like the orange version of ginger. It is best taken in its root form, but more commonly available as a powder. Turmeric has many healing properties, but is best known for its ability to purify the blood. When externally applied, turmeric helps clot blood and can be applied to cuts in powder form. Turmeric is also used in fasting and adds colour to food.

Seeds

It is advised to dry roast seeds before powdering, as this gives more flavour to the spices. In traditional Indian aristocratic cooking traditions, spices are crushed to making the eating experience more pleasant (who wants to keep biting into coriander seeds?).

Cumin (jeera)

Cumin is a heating spice. It is used in many North Indian curries. It has a nutty, earthy flavour and is a key spice in Indian cooking. It is usually added after mustard seeds into the braise and goes brown quite quickly. Thereafter, fresh grated ginger and chillis are added, followed by powdered spices. Cumin is added to chaas or buttermilk, which is one of the healthiest beverages according to ayurveda. Chaas aids digestion and is generally good for health.

Mustard Seeds (rai/sarsoon)

Mustard seeds come in three varieties – black, white and brown. Black mustard seeds are one of the oldest spices. Mustard seeds are usually fried in ghee/oil at a medium-high heat until the seeds turn grey and pop. The frying or braising of seeds is called chauncing. Mustards seeds have a mildly nutty flavour which tempers spices that are used in braising. Mustard seeds can also be added to oil to see if it is hot enough for making a chaunce. Mustard seeds are also used in pickles and sauerkrauts and decoratively on delicacies like khandvi and dhokla.

Coriander (dhania)

Coriander adds wonderful flavour to Indian cooking in seed and powder form. The leaves of the coriander plant also adds flavour to food and can be used, like parsley, as a garnish. Since coriander powder loses its freshness quickly, it is better to purchase coriander seeds, roast them, and crush them with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Coriander seeds contain dietary fibre and are a great source of iron, magnesium and manganese (which reduce blood cholestrol). Coriander is often mixed with cumin to make dhania-jeera powder. This combination is used in middle eastern dishes like falafel and in the Egyptian relish, dukka. It is one of the key ingredients in the spice combination garam masala (which just means ‘hot’ or garam ‘spices’ masala).

Asafoetida (hing)

Asafoetida apprently has Roman origins. It is a resin, though it is generally available in powdered form. It is used as a substitute for garlic and onion (by Jains and followers of brahminical culture in India), aids digestion and counters flatulence. It is a useful ingredient in salad dressings.

Bayleaf (tejpatta)

Bayleaves were introduced by the Mughals to India over 1000 years ago. Bayleaves not only add flavour to food, they also add fragrance. They are used in dals and rice dishes and even sweets. They are used to flavour stocks, soups and sauces in the west.

Cinnamon (dalchini)

Cinnamon is a fragrant bark which is sweet and aromatic. It loses flavour quickly in powdered form. It is used in pilau (fancy or masala rice) and in briyani and various curries. It is also used in sweets and chatnis and is an essential ingredient in garam masala. It is also used in chai tea (which is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

 

This article is dedicated to Inno, Emina, Simone, Wepener, Ingrid, the BYS students at Wits and UJ and all those who want to know the techniques of mantra meditation.

I first spoke to Hare Krishna devotees in Cape Town in February 1997. Most of the devotees were in their early twenties. They wore eastern clothes. And they seemed to be happy. They were always chanting which sometimes frustrated me because I wanted to speak to them. I had so many questions.

The devotees had something I had been ardently looking for – a method of self-realization that connected them to God twenty-four hours a day. What was this? The chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Yes. It was that simple: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Their spiritual lifestyle complemented their constant chanting of the mantra. They refrained from intoxicants, meat-eating, gambling and were celibate. Everything they seemed to know – the philosophy, wisdom and practices of Krishna consciousness – was attributed to a teacher named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Aside from the obvious pleasure they derived from chanting, the devotees substantiated their practices with quotes from the Vedas. My second or third meeting with the devotees took place amidst the Parthenon-like architecture of the University of Cape Town (UCT). On this particular occasion, I approached a scholarly young woman named Rati. It was an incongruous situation. I was talking to a western girl, dressed in a sari, about the Ancient Indian spiritual culture. And this conversation was taking place amidst the neoclassical columns and steps of a university campus in Africa!

We philosophized on the Bhagavad-gita before Rati launched into an explanation of the chanting. I asked her, ‘How long should we chant?’ Rati answered matter-of-factly, ‘Twenty-four hours a day’. There was a distant look in her eyes as she quoted a verse from an ancient Sanskrit writing called the Brihad-aranyika Purana: harer nama harer nama/harer nama eva kevalam/kalau nasty eva nasty/eva nasty gatir anyatha. In this age of Kali the method for self-realization is the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names. There is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way’.

After reading Juan Mascaro’s Bhagavad-gita I was convinced that I could become ‘enlightened’ or ‘self-realized’ through spiritual knowledge and principled living. Impressed by my knowledge of Hinduism and my interest in the Vedas, Rati encouraged me to read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. We spoke again, a few days later, and she asked me if I had gained anything significant from the book. I replied, ‘Determination’. Prabhupada seemed, however, to be repeating the same thing over and over again in his ‘purports’ or commentaries to the Gita – chant Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare. It was the same message and practice the devotees advocated.

Rati carefully pulled some wooden prayer beads from a cloth bag and, very gently, extolled the glories of chanting the mantra. ‘These are for you’, she said. There was no need for me to chant, I thought. I was quite happy reading the Bhagavad-gita. Sensing my apprehension, Rati said, ‘Just try’. ‘Okay’, I replied. That night I chanted on the beads for about half-an-hour. The chanting had a profound effect on me. Everything slowed down. The mantra seemed to open my perceptions and my ability to see the unity of God’s creation. All the knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita assumed a tangible form in the chanting of Hare Krishna.  Statements of Krishna like, ‘I am the light of the sun and the moon’, ‘I am the strength of the strong’ and ‘of bodies of water I am the ocean’ made perfect sense.  The chanting gave me a sense of God’s presence within and without myself.

I saw Rati the next day. ‘How was it?’ she said. ‘I feel like there is no need to read the Bhagavad-gita now. The chanting seems to encapsulate everything Krishna says in the Gita.’ ‘Well, the two go hand-in-hand’, she said. Rati was very convincing.

We ascended the flight of stairs behind Braja Mohan prabhu’s house for the Sriji Mandir.  We stood on the top of the hill and admired the view of Varsana.  I followed Braja Mohan to the entrance of the Temple.  ‘You can leave your capalas here’, he said.  We took off our shoes and entered the crowded Temple.  I was the only westerner – something you would not find in a cosmopolitan ISKCON Temple.  Had I stepped back in time?  A group of local devotees, some in dhotis and some in western dress, huddled around a harmonium singing songs of praise to the Divine Couple.  Braja Mohan took me by the hand and led me through the crowd.  We wormed our way near to the front of the altar.

The brahmana priests were engaged in concentrated worship of Radha and Krishna.  The bell above the Temple Room door clanged incessantly.  The Deities were brightly dressed and, when the pujari blew the  conch, the restless-looking crowd burst into  rapturous song.  I closed my eyes and lost myself in song.   The assembly had become one mouth in their spirited praise of the ultimate worshipper, Sri Radha.  No hype.  No spiritual celebrity.   Just a heartfelt offering of love from a congregation to their Deities.  When the singing stopped there was a press of devotees towards the altar, where old women and men-with-moustaches-and-pants stretched to reach the sacred ghee-lamps.  By Braja Mohan’s grace, I was able to get a nice view of the Deities and offer prayers to the Divine Couple.  We left the Temple and retraced our way down the ancient stairway.  I bade good night to my friend, and took rest.

Braja Mohan, who had appeared very relaxed, suddenly said, ‘Come, let’s go!’ Yes, I decided, I would.  Braja Mohan stopped at a chaiwalla and bought some chai.  We sat together as he drank his tea.  ‘I want you to come to my house’, he said.

We turned around the corner and arrived at a small house at the foot of Vrsabhanu’s Hill.  An old woman greeted us at the door.   Braja Mohan said, ‘This is my mother’.  The old woman humbly offered pranams.  I returned the gesture.  She couldn’t speak a word of English.  Like many Indian village houses, Braja Mohan prabhu’s family residence opened into a courtyard.  Inside the courtyard were two cows, flanked by huge piles of grain.  Braja Mohan looked at the cows and looked at me and proudly announced, ‘This is my mother!  And this!  This is my father!’  I felt most embarrassed.  Just under a year ago I would have thought nothing of eating a  hamburger.  And here were two healthy cows being offered respect in the way that you’d offer respect to your parents!   I may have changed my ways but did that make me pious?  Did that make me a Vaisnava?

I was warming to my host: The loving reception of his mother;  his beautiful infant daughter, Gunjin (named after the flower in Sri Radha’s hair); and his natural respect for the cow.   Braja Mohan took me to a room at the side of the courtyard and said, ‘This is your room.  My house is your house’.  I had heard Indian businessmen in South Africa make similar pronouncements to sadhus.  Braja Mohan, however, said this with so much sincerity I felt like I had become a member of his family!  The room was spotlessly clean and white.  There was a picture of a white-haired Indian gentleman above the single wooden bed.  ‘That is my father’, Braja Mohan said.   He left the room and returned with a handful of writings in Devanagari, impressed with my recognition of certain Bhagavad-gita verses.  He started speaking to me in Hindi but stopped when I said, ‘Hindi samasta nahi‘ – ‘I do not understand Hindi’.

We talked and talked and talked.  Night fell, and Braja Mohan continued talking – about his family, his job in the fan factory in Mathura, about the sadhus who had visited his house and so on.  It was pitch dark.  We couldn’t see each other.  There was only the sound of the crickets and Braja Mohan speaking to his new friend.   I would have to stay the night in Varsana.  This was Radharani’s wish.  I was reminded, in some way, of the episode in Krsna Book where Uddhava and Nandamaharaj talk throughout the night.

After some time Braja Mohan’s elderly mother came upstairs with a candle, like a figure out of a fairy-tale.  She spoke animatedly to her son, visibly pleased to have a guest.   She disappeared into the darkness, returning with some braja rotis and sabji.   We relished this simple meal.  I was thankful for all the love and hospitality my hosts had shown me.  This must be the mercy of Sri Radha.   ‘Come’, Braja Mohan said, ‘it is almost time for arati‘.

ISKCON Mayapur, 19 March 2001

I made friends with Gulap Kali today.  Gulap is a female elephant, and her stable is near Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi.  Gulap was orphaned when the Ganga flooded, and adopted by the devotees of ISKCON Mayapur.  She has been engaged in the service of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava ever since.  She has the good fortune of carrying Radha-Madhava on her head during the Elephant Procession around the Temple Compound every Saturday night.  I have been told that she was once in a kirtan procession at the Yoga Pitha (next door to ISKCON Mayapur) and tears were streaming down her eyes as she danced with the devotees in ecstasy.  I called out to her – ‘Gulap’ – but she was a little shy.  Her minder allowed me to stroke the top of  her trunk.  And she acceded.

I bathed in Ganga around noon.  I visited the Jagannath Temple down the road from our Temple.  I took darsan of Jagannath-Baladeva-Subhadra and bought some maha-prasada at the little gift shop next to the Temple.  I also purchased a hand-woven dhoti at the hand-loom behind the Temple.

We took the ferry to Navadvipa.  By Krishna’s grace we met our brahmacari host Advaita Acarya prabhu.  Looking at the majestic white dome of Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi Mandir, Advaita Acarya remarked, ‘It is getting late.  Srila Prabhupada instructed his disciples to build the Mayapur Temple, but most of them are sick now.’  He mentioned how Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja had brought up this point in a lecture in Mayapur.  The ferry chugged along with its cargo of bicycles, women in colourful saris and men in gamchas and dirty shirts.  When will the Temple be built?

We just managed to get a train from Navadvipa to Howrah.  I decided not to go to Jagannath Puri, as it was outside of the authorized programme my Temple President, Sikhi Mahiti prabhu, had prescribed for me.  The beautiful green rice paddy fields of Gauradesa almost took my breath away.  Sadly, we were going back into the city.  Gaurakishore Babaji Maharaja – the Spiritual Master of Srila Prabhuapada’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur – told Bhaktisiddhanta that Calcutta was hell.  ‘Never leave Vrindavan’, he instructed him.  Why, then, did Bhaktisiddhanta make Calcutta the headquarters of the Gaudiya Matha?  And why did he leave his body in Calcutta?  Did he disobey his guru?  Vrindavan is a state of consciousness.  Lord Chaitanya, for example, danced ecstatically before Lord Jagannath at the Ratha Yatra Festival singing, ‘Mora mana Vrindavan! Mora mana Vrindavan!’ (‘My mind is Vrindavan!  My mind is Vrindavan!).  Similarly, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was always in Vrindavan consciousness and, therefore, never left Vrindavan – even when he was physically in Calcutta.

Calcutta was like a black-and-white ink sketch:  sooty, full of crows, full of dust and noisy.  We spent three hours at the station trying to buy tickets.  To no avail.  We crossed the Ganga, and tried to get ‘Tourist Quota’ tickets (tickets reserved for tourists) at Fairlie Place.  No luck there. I informed Padmanabha prabhu that the clerk had recommended we return tomorrow.  Padmanabha prabhu said, ‘No problem’.

20 March 2001 – Taking the train from Navadvipa Station to Howrah Station

My train to Howrah Station was delayed by 3 hours at Navadvipa Station.  Padmanabh and I visited the ISKCON Preaching Centre at Lake Avenue, Calcutta.  We were directed to an ISKCON Guest House called Geeta Bhavan (‘Gita House’).  Geeta Bhavan had been donated to ISKCON by a wealthy Calcutta businessman.  We were hungry so we left our bags in the room, hailed a cab and combed the streets of Calcutta looking for the Govinda’s Restaurant.

Pankajanghri prabhu taking us on a tour of Mayapur

18 March 2001, ISKCON Mayapur

Pankajanghri prabhu gave Bhagavad-gita class in the evening.  His words were simple, but profound: ‘There is the theoretical understanding, ‘I am eternal servant of Krishna’; and  there is the practical application based on sadhu, sastra and guru.  Many cannot put this into practice.  Then, there are those who put this into practice but cannot practice for long.  And there are those who practice for long, but who still fall away.  Devotional service can be quite testing‘.

I met Pankajanghri some hours later behind Radha-Madhava’s kitchen.  He was pacing up and down in the darkness, chanting his japa.  I offered him my obeisances.  I was surprised when he did the same back.  Senior devotees normally just fold their palms and say, ‘Hare Krishna!’  He reminded me of a schoolboy.  Youthful, despite his age.  He was very humble.  I asked him about the wooden Deity of Lord Chaitanya in Prabhupada’s rooms.  He dead-panned, ‘Clay’.  The Deity was made from clay.  I had some pictures of Radha-Madhava which I had bought at one of the gift shop booths on the Campus.  I asked him to write something at the back of one of the photos.  He asked me what I should write.  I said, ‘I just want your blessings, prabhu’.  He wrote, ‘May you always think of Radha-Madhava’.

Pankajanghri prabhu changed track and said, ‘It’s my birthday today’.  I said, ‘But I thought it was at your birthday the other day’.  He replied, ‘Yesterday.  That was our tithi.  Tithi is the according to the moon.  Today is our actual birthday’.  He went on, ‘One Vaisnava near here from the Gaudiya Math is a hundred years old.  He says, ‘Trees live to be a hundred’.  So, what’s the big deal about having a birthday?’.  I said, ‘It is different.  You are a Vaishnava’.  Pankajanghri then asked, ‘What is your name?’  ‘Michael’.  ‘How long have you been at the Temple?’ I said, ‘Here?’ ‘No.  In ISKCON’.  ‘Four years’.  ‘And you are uninitiated?’  I told him about my meeting with Radhanath Maharaja and he said, ‘He’s accepted you.  That’s real initiation.  You are fortunate to have a Spiritual Master!’

Since Pankajanghri prabhu is such a revered pujari (priest of the Deity), I wanted to ask him a pertinent question.  So I asked,’What is the essence of Deity worship?’  He replied, ‘You have to understand who you’re dealing with.   The Deity is not just wood or stone.  If you think like that, it’s because you think you are made of blood and marrow.  The Deity is spiritual.  Krishna mercifully comes in the form of the Deity for our benefit.  We should always have the consciousness that the Lord is sentient.  The Lord can, of course, alternate between matter and spirit, spirit and matter’.  His words shed new light on Deity worship for me.  He continued, ‘We have to be careful of offences.  In the beginning we are absent-minded.  We have bad thoughts and commit seva-aparadhas [offences while serving the Deity].  As we progress, there is improvement.  Everntually, after some years, our consciousness develops by serving the Deity.  We can take that consciousness outside the Temple and see the Lord everywhere’.

I thanked Pankajanghri prabhu, and took his leave.

Padmanabha and I passed the tulasi grove of the brahmacari asrama and made our way to the rear entrance of the Temple.  We left our capalas by the doorway, rang the bell and entered.  We quickly offered obeisances and headed for Srila Prabhupada’s murti.  We offered dandavats to Srila Prabhupada, touched his feet and offered obeisances to Lord Sthanu-Nrsimha, Sri Sri Pancha-Tattva and Sri-Sri Radha-Madhava and the Asta-Sakhis.  Everything about Mayapur was big.  Chunky.  The Temple walkways, buildings, the two Temple rooms, the chandeliers, the tulasi plants on their mandaps, the altars and, of course, the Deities.  The largeness of the ISKCON Mayapur Campus seemed to radiate the audarya (mangnanimous) mood of Lord Chaitanya.  Radha-Madhava’s exalted pujaris, Jananivas and Pankajanghri prabhus, were also there – as always.

The Temple Room resembled an airport hangar.  The roof was high and the interior spacious.  Sri Sri Mayapura-candrodaya Mandir was not a ‘finished’ Temple in the sense of Krishna-Balarama Mandir in Vrindavan; or Radha-Rasabihari, in Mumbai.  His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, ISKCON’s Founder-acarya, had placed Ananta-Sesa in the foundations in 1977.  He had  envisioned a colossal ‘Temple of the Vedic Planetarium’ in Mayapur.  Since he was no longer personally present, his disciples intended to fulfill his grand ambition.  This adbhuta mandir (‘magnificent Temple’) had been predicted by Lord Nityananda over 500 years ago.  His Holiness Jayapataka Maharaja related another prophecy by Srinivas Acharya, a confidential associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Srinivas Acharya had a vision in which he saw what appeared to be life-size Deities of the Pancha-Tattva, on the altar of a wonderful Temple, in Sri Mayapur Dhama.  These Deities were being worshipped by devotees from different parts of the world.  When Srinivas looked closer, however, he saw that the figures on the altar were not Deities but the Pancha-Tattva Themselves!  About a hundred years ago the great Vaishnava acarya, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, had a divine vision wherein he saw a beautiful Temple and Celestial City on the present ISKCON land.

One of our South African devotee-teachers, Nrsimhananda prabhu, was giving Bhagavad-gita class upstairs.  I rushed up the stair-case to catch the tail-end of it.  I marvelled at how much progress had been made on the Mayapur Campus since my first visit in 1997.  Everything was very pakka.  I mentioned this to the Director of ISKCON Mayapur, His Holiness Bhakti Purusottama Swami.  He humbly replied that it was because of the Festival.  We attended Gaura Arati, the auspicious worship of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in the Pancha-Tattva Temple Room.  The Festival period was over, so most of the foreign pilgrims had left and many of the local devotees had gone to Vrindavan or elsewhere.  There couldn’t have been more than 50 devotees in the Temple room.  Kirtan was still jubilant, and I got quite sweaty dancing, though the large fans kept me cool.  After arati, I caught up with some devotee acquainances.  I saw Subhaga Maharaja, whom I had met in Vrindavan in 1997.  The gentle Bengali sadhu informed me that he had had a brain tumour and that it had been removed.  He looked a little frail.  I also saw one of the cooks from Chowpatty Temple, Saci Suno prabhu.

I presented one of the pujaris with carob from my friend Nanda Kumar prabhu.  He gave me some of Radha-Madhava’s jewellery to give to him in reciprocation for his gift.  Padmanabha and I took some hot milk and moori with the brahmacaris, and returned to the ashram to take rest.

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