Slowly she climbed up the steps of the Mandap to clean the old lamp; Mandap, the temple porch with pillars holding an engraved roof, appeared tranquil, a place that held stillness. The mandap was attached to the temple of Lord Chenna Kesavulu, who is all smiles. The intricately carved pillars depicted the story of Rama; should it be called story of Sita?
Lamp at the mandap was burning, almost as if it held someone’s breath – long, steady and bright, with little twists and turns. Is it possible for one to breathe through a lamp? how stupid can one get, she winced, as she pulled the cotton saree’s thick pallu around her shoulders.
The December winds were gaining strength and the village was waking up to a chilly morning. But she was already in the mandap to fill the lamp, the fear that the oil would run out and would leave the lamp breathless made her shiver.
In her slow walk is a long story of karma and its cosmic dance. She drew the water from the temple’s well, washed her legs, carried the water and went in to say her prayers to the Lord and master. The temple was quiet except for the priest who was getting the Lord ready for the long day. She sat, her tired eyes looked at the beautiful Lord and wondered, how long??
In the tiny hamlet of the lush green village, on the banks of back waters of Krishna river, tucked under layers of devotion and surrender, is the story of Seshamma.
Married into the village some seven decades ago, Seshamma, then Seshu, was beautiful and benevolent; she grew up in a family full of piousness. She walked into this village, married to a learned and taller man, Kesavaiah, who was known even then for his deep sense of devotion and a thirst to know what lay beyond the mundane. Many days and nights he explored his devotion to Lord Chenna Kesavulu, for He being the only guiding force.
The village was awed by the devotion of Keshaviah, why they called him that instead of just Keshav, was not understood by Seshu at the beginning. Born into a farmer’s family, he already was well-read by fourteen. His faith to scriptures and God seemed a bit strange, but his mother was proud of him. Seshu gradually unraveled the bundle called Keshaviah and realized he was too wise and too devoted to Lord Chenna Kesavulu. His surrender to the Lord deep, something she struggled to comprehend, but was willing to be with it.
Slowly she got used to the routine of being Keshavaiah’s wife. Everyday, he woke up at 3 am, finished his bath at the well, and lit the lamp in the puja room in his wet clothes. At the break of dawn, he started his journey into the village through the mud lanes. After he completed the rounds in his own village, he went to four more villages on foot. Some of these villages were just two streets, but they have to be walked – around lakes, across streams, and in between fields. Singing the glory of the Lord and inviting his blessings, these journeys became everyday pilgrimage for him. In his own way, he spread the message of the Lord and the glory of devotion. While everyone came to visit Lord Chenna Kesavulu in the village, he used to be on the mission of seeing Lord in others out there. Years rolled by and Seshu slowly settled into her role and inched into being Seshamma.
But her life turned upside down when he shared his ‘plan’ with her; she felt shattered and lifeless as he detailed what he wanted to do. His explanation was not even worth being heard; she felt numb, confused and afraid all at the same time.
When did the thought come to him, she had no idea. Do such startling thoughts come to you in a flash or grow on you over time? She wondered. One evening, he shared his decision with her in a casual way. She was sitting in the courtyard binding Jasmine flowers with a banana fibre thread. The thread, made from the banana tree stem, is soft and does not hurt the soft stem of the jasmine flower. A cotton thread can cut into the stem and snap the flower if one is careless. Why am I rambling off about the thread when the most shocking news was given as an afterthought, she mused, the news snapping the life force out of her.
In his soft persuasive way, Keshaviah told her his decision to embrace Lord Chenna Kesavulu in absoluteness and go for ‘Jeeva samadhi’; it took her many moments to realize what he is saying and more importantly what he was going to do. She was shattered and did not understand how one can be so cruel to oneself and his loved ones, while embracing almighty? Can life force be muffled to reach a divine force? What happens to our son? What happens to me? Countless questions swirled in her head.
Jeeva Samadhi means at a decided day and time the saint or devotee sit in meditation and enter a state of stillness called ‘nirvana’ or ‘samadhi’. At that point they become one with the universal consciousness and the body comes to absolute rest. Then around the physical body people construct temple or mandap. The belief being that the body of the saint will remain undeteriorated for hundreds and thousands of years.
It is painful when death comes and snatches away your dear one, but how do we deal with it when the dear one chooses to part. It is not unhappiness, not loneliness, but a chasm so deep and so painful.
What happens to me at the site of the act? she thought, a ghastly act celebrated and revered. She can’t cry for it is a divine journey, a macabre act of self-realization. Keshaviah needed her permission before he began his pilgrimage to moksha. As she released him from the bondage of love and shared life, she got entrapped in lighting the lamp thinking it will continue to hold his breadth;
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
-James Weldon Johnson 1871 – 1938