From the Known to the Unknown

Should I be ashamed that weird practices define my culture?

(This post is a continuation of my previous post Star Gazing)

One of the challenges I often encounter is when I have to explain to myself the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of Dharmic (of Dharma1) traditional practices in India.

During the times of so-called ‘Silent Generation’ (born between 1928-45), a vast majority of the society were practicing dharmic traditions. I do not think my parents (who belong to silent generation) had to put in any effort to either explain or justify these practices. They were busy focusing on ‘how?’ part of the practices.

Depending on economic, demographic, social, educational backgrounds, subsequent generations viz., ‘the Boomers’ (1946-64), ‘Gen X’ (1965-80), ‘Millennials’ (1981-96) and ‘Gen Z’ (1997-2012) got in to questioning ‘why?’ Because, at some point of their lives, they are more interested to have a justification for discontinuance of the the age-old practices.

The meaning for most dharmic practices are lost over time, either because people have no time or interest to seek for answers or there is no resource or guidance from. Unfortunately, we do not understand how some practices could be relevant for our time, for that matter, for any time in the past. When we ourselves are not convinced with the applicability of such practices, we are confused whether to follow or not to.

When these practices do not make sense, it is understandable that you tend to reject them or dissociate yourself with those who still want to practice without understanding or questioning why we do what we do.

So, there is no surprise that we end up with a feeling of guilt and inferiority complex to associate ourselves to age-old practices which have no meaning for us but are still part of our culture. To top it all, the burden of not being able to convincingly explain the reason and purpose behind these practices.

Fortunately for some, the changing demographics and life styles make it easy to move on without bothering whether or not to claim a culture as their own, more so for the younger generation.

I am sandwiched between the generation which did not question these practices and the generation which finds no reason to follow them, confused, as I cannot do either.

Our ignorance of the sixteen Samskaras which our families still follow for one reason or another, with no genuine understanding or commitment makes our position more awkward. Vivaha (Wedding) is one of them.

Courtesy: ‘Sanskrit Non-Translatables’ by Rajiv Malhotra P.161 (Samskara is not Ritual or Ceremony)

(You are encouraged to explore the great works of Rajiv Malhotra2 on Indology).

Indian Wedding and Arundhati Nakshatra Darshan

Comedy scene from a 2020 Telugu film

Making fun of Indian traditional practices is serious business.

That was a comedy scene in a popular 2020 Telugu movie wherein the heroine’s mother mimics performing a wedding ritual for her daughter with an unexpected co-passenger in a train in order to save her daughter from a bad alliance (arranged by the father of the girl). This (fake) wedding consists of three apparently easy steps.

1. Nishchaya Tambula (exchange of beetle leaves with groom to mark Betrothal),

2. Panigrahana (symbolically giving the girl’s hand into the boy’s) and

3. Arundhati Nakshaktra Darshan (showing the star Arundhati) in the sky.

Boom! And the imaginary wedding is over!

Funny, as it may appear, the actual Indian weddings are no less farcical, if you do not understand the meaning and depth of each of the event. Only difference is, in the real wedding there are more steps followed by both the parties (from bride’s and groom’s side).

Photographer knows better!

I have seen times when the wedding process was dominated by the priests performing the marriage. Now are the times when the photographer knows better and the bride and groom are more interested in capturing the event, than the act itself. So, the roles are reversed and the photographers plays more dominant role in the whole process at times asking the priest to pause the chanting of the mantras.

So also, Arundhati became an important ‘capture’ event for the wedding photographer than anything else and ironically, at times, star gaze scenes needs to be shot in broad day light. You will find a lot of these wedding event photos on the social media.

Courtesy, Google Image search.

The Story of Arundhati & Rishi Vashishta

The most popular explanation you get to hear why this practice is still in vogue is that Arundhati is the epitome of chastity and virtue and the newly weds need to imbibe from the story. Those who are in favour of this explanation also point out that our ancient Rishis know that these binary stars co-orbit each other which make them unique. That makes it a symbolic explanation to tell the bride and groom as to how they should be complementing each other in their life like Arundhati and Rishi Vashishta.

Below summary by TEDxUTAustin posted on the TED website along with Raj Vedam’s Ted talk3 has a better explanation as to how we should approach at understanding these stories.

“Long before the printing press and Google, families passed down knowledge through stories. Stories or myths, through their familiar twists and catchy characters, impart knowledge about the world and crucial moral lessons. Engineer and researcher Dr. Raj Vedam explores the hidden science behind the ancient stories that we often dismiss as myths”.

I used to wonder if this is all star-gazing in the middle of the wedding is meant for? What purpose would it serve other than ‘eye-testing’? Even if it is for it, what is the fun of testing the eyes of the groom (or bride for that matter) ‘after’ the wedding. Mind you, this is not a pre-wedding event (which can be used for acceptance or rejection of an alliance on the pretext of eye-sight being poor). Though my inference appears far-fetched, Archeoastronomy Researcher researchers like Rupa Bhaty4 seems to have similar view (that Arundhati Darshan used to serve the purpose of eye-testing though not necessarily as part of in the wedding event).

The Maxim: Arundhati Darshan Nyaya (from known to unknown)

What excited me more was when I heard Dr Gauri Maulikar from Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth explaining the usage of the maxim ‘Arundhati Darshan Nyaya‘ to mean ‘from the known to the unknown’. This made me curious and I wanted to explore how the Arundhati Darshan event in the wedding and the origin of the maxim are linked. That was easy and I did not make much effort. There is tons of research and YouTube videos available online by Nilesh Nilakanth Oak5. I am pretty impressed with the Scientific Framework Nilesh subjects himself and uses Astronomical observations from ancient texts to use them as effective tools (more reliable than archaeology) to date historical events. We will discuss in more detail later in another post.

For the purpose of current topic, the joint research of Rupa Bhaty and Nilesh Oak convincingly concluded that the practice of showing the Arundhati Nakshaktra to the Bride and Groom in the wedding actually started at a time when there was no significant poll star on the sky. They have shown how Arundhati was used as a proxy to identify a non-existent pivot on the sky, hence ‘from the known to the unknown’. They claim (and I am convinced beyond doubt) that Astronomical evidence corroborates their explanation. The concept of Earth’s ‘precession6‘ and the need to shift the poll stars from one to another over a span of 26k year precision cycle was new to me but there is great work Nilesh Oak did on this to help ordinary mortals to understand their research. All their work is available on-line. It is a shame that I heard about Nilesh Oak 9 years after he published his first work.

How ancient Indians encoded their observational wisdom?

So, clearly, the ancients have a message through this (star-gazing-in-wedding) practice. Not only that, they wanted us to ensure that this is passed on to generations. What a cryptic and novel way to embed their wisdom into a practice which they knew will go on for generations through wedding!

What does Arundhati Darshan practice tell us?

  1. Ancients observed the sky in such great detail with naked eyes and ancient Indians have the knack of encrypting their wisdom into customs, practices and rituals so that it is passed on to generations, surreptitiously.
  2. The ancient education system of retaining through reciting in the Guru Sishya Parampara (the teacher/disciple model) made their wisdom flow down for generations.
  3. They knew the binary stars Vashishta and Arundhati co-orbit each other and that this is unique.
  4. Their knowledge of Ganitha (loosely translated as Maths, but far more simple and superior), spherical trigonometry was far more superior than what we can imagine and they have extensively used in Astronomy, Navigation, Surveying and many other fields. There is a lot of research available on-line to support this view. Will ponder more in a separate blog post.
  5. Sky is their Clock, Calendar, Weather Forecast Tool and GPS Navigation.
  6. Human brain is the only Wikipedia or data repository which ancestors know could be mined by the future generations.
  7. Above all, our fore-fathers knew that the Poll Star shifts over time. Amazing!

Now, should I be ashamed of the weird dharmic traditions?

No, at least not for this one. If at all, I should be ashamed, it is for not understanding the purpose of each one of such practices.

Why Should I care?

There may be no need for me to pass on this practice to my future generations simply because I do not need to know what is the Poll Star of the current time. This is like saying that I do not want to care how time is read from the dial of a conventional clock which has one big hand and another small – because the future clocks are all digital and show the numbers.

The very thought that my ancestors (a.k.a Rishis) were more superior mortals and intelligent beings makes me shred my pseudo guilt associated with my tribe and their practices. It is a bonus if that feeling also helps me to hold my head high and feel proud of my ancestors.

The Bottom Line Is:

Remember, always approach ‘from the known to the unknown’.

If you are excited too, explore!