SALUTATIONS to the Supreme Lord, the primordial
power that divided the year into the four seasons. Salutations to Surya
the Sun-God who on this great day embarks on His northward journey.
The Sanskrit word "Shankramana" means "to begin to move". The day on which the sun begins to move northwards is called Makara Shankranti. It usually falls in the middle of January.
Among the Tamilians in South India this festival is called the Pongal.
To many people, especially the Tamilians, the Makara Shankranti ushers in the New Year. The newly-harvested corn is cooked for the first time on that day. Joyous festivities mark the celebration in every home. Servants, farmers and the poor are fed and clothed, and given presents of money. On the next day the cow, which is regarded as the symbol of the Holy Mother, is worshipped. Then there is feeding of birds and animals.
In this manner the devotee's heart gradually expands during the course of the celebrations, first embracing with its long arms of love the entire household and neighbours, then the servants and the poor, then the cow and then all other living creatures. Without even being conscious of it one develops the heart, and expands it to such proportions that the entire universe finds a place in it.
As Shankranti is also the beginning of the month, Brahmins offer oblations to departed ancestors. Thus all the great sacrifices enjoined upon man, find their due place in this grand celebration. The worship of the cosmic form of the Lord is so well introduced into this that every man and woman in India is delightfully led to partake of n without even being aware of it.
To aspirants all over the world this day has a special significance. The six-month period during which the sun travels northwards is highly favourable to aspirants for their march towards the goal of life. It is as though the aspirant were flowing easily with the current towards the Supreme. Paramahamsa Sannyasins roam about freely during this period, dispelling gloom from the hearts of all, Devas and Rishis rejoice at the advent of the new season and readily come to the aid of the aspirant.
The great Bhishma, the grandfather of the Pandavas who was fatally wounded during the Mahabharata war, waited on his death-bed of nails for the onset of this season before finally departing from the earth plane. Let us on this great day pay our homage to him and strive to become men of firm resolve ourselves!
As already mentioned, this is the Pongal festival in South India. It is closely connected with agriculture. To the agriculturalist it is a day of triumph. He would have by then brought home the fruit of his tons. Symbolically, the first harvest is offered to the Almighty-and that is Pongal. To toil was his task, his duty, but the fruit is now offered to Him-that is the spirit of Karma Yoga.
The master is not allowed to grab all the harvest for himself either. Pongal is the festival during which the landlord distributes food, clothes and money among the labourers who work under him. What a noble act! an ideal you should constantly keep before you, not only ceremoniously on the Pongal day but at all times.
Be charitable. Be generous. Treat your servants as your bosom-friends and brother workers, This is the keynote of the Pongal festival. Thus would you earn their loyalty and enduring love.
The day prior to the Makara Shankranti, is called the Bhogi festival. On this day, old, worn-out and dirty things are discarded and burnt. Houses are cleaned and white-washed. Even the roads are swept clean and lovely designs are drawn with rice-hour. These practices have their own significance from the point of view of health. But, here I remind you that it will not do to attend to these external things alone. Cleaning the mind of its old dirty habits of thinking and feeling is more urgently needed. Burn them up with a wise and firm resolve to tread the path of truth, low and purity from this holy day onwards. That is the significance of Pongal in the life of the spiritual aspirant.
If you do this, then the Makara Shankranti has a special significance for you. For the sun, symbolising knowledge, wisdom and spiritual light, which receded from you when you reveled in the darkness of ignorance, delusion and sensuality, now joyously turns on its northward course and rushes towards you, to shed its light and warmth in greater abundance upon you and to infuse into you more life and energy.
In fact the sun itself symbolising all that the Pongal festival stands for. The message of the sun is the message of light, the message of unity, of impartiality, of true selflessness, of the perfection of the elements of Karma Yoga. The sun shines on all equally, it is the true benefactor of all beings. Without the sun life would perish on earth. It is extremely regular and punctual in its duties and never claims a reward or crave for recognition. If you imbibe these virtues of the sun, what doubt is there that you will shine with equal divine lustre!
He who dwells in the sun, whom the sun does not know, whose body the sun is and by whose power the sun shines, He is the Supreme Self the Indweller, the immortal Essence. Tat Twam Asi - "That thou art". Realise this and be free, here and now, on this holy Pongal or Makara Shankranti day. This is my humble Pongal prayer to you all.
On the Shankranti day, sweets, puddings and sweet rice are prepared in every home, especially in South India. The pot in which the rice is cooked is beautifully adorned with tumeric leaves and roots, the symbols of auspiciousness. This cooking itself is done by the ladies of the household with great faith and devotion, feeling from the bottom of their hearts mat it is an offering unto the Lord. When the milk in the Pot in which the rice is cooked boils over, the ladies and the children get round the pot and shout "Pongalo Pongal' with great joy and devotion. Special prayers are offered in the temples and houses. Then me people of the household gather together and eat in an air of love and festivity.
There is family re-union in all homes. Brothers renew their contact with married sisters who have gone away to live with the husband, by giving the sisters some presents.
The farmer is lovingly greeted by the landlord and is given presents of grains, clothes and money.
On the next day, the herds of cows are adorned beautifully, fed and worshipped. In some villages the youths demonstrate their valour by taking "the bull by the horn" (and often win their bride!). It is a great day for the cattle.
On the same day, young girls prepare various special dishes-sweet rice, sour rice, rice with coconut-and take them to me bank of a river or tank. They lay some leaves on the ground and pace on them balls of the various preparations for the fish, birds and other creatures. It is an extremely colourful ceremony. The crows come down in large numbers and partake of the food. All the time the valuable lesson is driven into our minds: "Share what you have with all': The crow will call others before beginning to eat!
Both these days, which am family re-union days are regarded as being inauspicious for travel. This is to prevent us from going away from home on those days.
When you celebrate the Shankranti or Pongal in this manner, your sense of values changes. You begin to understand that your real wealth is the goodwill and friendship of your relatives, friends, neighbours, and servants; that your real wealth is the land on which your food grows, and the cattle which help you in agriculture and the cow which gives you milk. You begin to have greater love and respect for them and for all living beings-the crows, the fish and all other creatures.
In Maharashtra and in North India, spiritual aspirants attach much importance to Makara Shankranti. It is the season chosen by the Guru for bestowing his Grace on the disciple. In the South, too, it should he noted that it was about this time that mahadeva favoured several of the Rishis by Messing them with His beatific vision.