Studies from an eastern home
The festival of Ras
HIGH to the south shone Orion, as, a couple of hours before dawn, on the second day after the full moon of November, we opened the great doors of the house and went forth into the silent lane. About us was the quiet of midnight. The moon, so little waned, made the black sky seem blacker, and the bright stars brighter, and in the air was a touch of wintry cold. Now and then, as we pressed onward to the temple, a couple of women, veiled and muffled, would pass us hurriedly, their bare feet as they struck the earth making still less sound than our own. The path was narrow by which, at last, we must tread our way into the temple-precincts. The court formed a parallelogram, giving, through an arch at its further end, upon the street. To right and left its sides were formed of long rows of buildings. The entrance to the temple itself, the hall of worship, was at some distance in the wall upon our right. And here, at the approach, the near end was almost closed by a small circular building, a sort of domed arcade, lifted high above the level of the ground
and surrounded by a procession path, with stairs to the right and left.
This was in fact the chapel of the exposition, standing open, silent, and empty, the year round. This morning, however, it was not empty: for on the altar beneath its dome stood the images, throned on flowers, of Radha and Krishna, brought there in procession from the sanctuary, some time after midnight. And without, on the stairs and terrace of the ambulatory, a line of quiet women circulated, their bowed heads and wrapt faces, or the beads half-hidden beneath their veils, telling of the worship in which they were absorbed. Even in the distance, outside the narrow precincts, the sight of these women doing pradakshina gave a feeling of unwonted stir. But nothing could have prepared us for the sight that greeted us as we actually entered. The whole court was ablaze with light. Inside square enclosures made of rope two separate choirs were seated on the ground, chanting the litanies to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. The walls right and left were lined with scores of little booths, where small religious images, household utensils, and a great assortment of baskets, were being bought and sold. And between the two, between devotees and traffickers, were coming and going hundreds of women. Here and there, in some corner in the shadow, would be found one seated alone and
lost in prayer; and high on the plinth, on a level with our heads, the quiet procession of worshippers went on, ascending to join the line by one stair, and leaving it to mingle with the crowd by the other. But down here, on the floor of the court, one met widows and family parties--mothers and their daughters, girls and their companions, threading their way, their worship done, from point to point; staying here and there to chat a moment with some friend, or pausing at the stalls to chaffer over their wares, and perhaps to buy a toy or a gift for someone at home. The crowd was constantly growing by the addition of newcomers, and as constantly being depleted by the loss of those who were drifting off for bathing to the Ganges side, or turning to go home. Within half an hour of dawn the precincts would be deserted. By night the images would be reinstalled amidst the shadows of their sanctuaries. For the present, however, all was piety and gentle gaiety. Outside, the fading moon smiled down upon the sleeping city. Nothing seemed to be moving beneath the folds of darkness. Yet here, within the little space of brilliant lamplight, buzzed the crowd of graceful well-born women. Here was day before daylight, in a world apart--a woman's world, whose very existence one sleeping a stone's throw off might never have suspected.
How well has Hinduism understood how to
provide opportunities, that each of her children, even her cloistered secluded womanhood, may feast on the changing circling beauties of the year! In all the round of months, no other full moon is held so beautiful as this, the first of the winter season. The rains are over; the festival of Durga, the Mother, is past; and now begins the out-of-doors life of forest and pasture. This was the time at which the Lord Krishna--living among the cowherds on the bank of the Jumna--went forth, with the herdsmen and herdswomen of Gokul, taking their cattle to the meadows of Brindaban. At this time of year began that wondrous life--of play and conquest, of constant self-sacrifice and easy victory--that is, in fact, the idyll of the Indian peasant, the epos of the Indian Herakles. In every woodland at this time of year may be heard, by the inner ear, the music of the Divine Flute-player. Out of any bush might peep the laughing face of the Holy Child, beneath its crown of peacocks' feathers. Mothers and maids have a reverence for all play: for He, the Lord, plays through these winter months in the forests round Gokul!
Three evenings ago, when the moon was full, the images were carried from temple to tabernacle at the hour of sunset with all the men of the village in procession behind them. Thus was dramatised the idea of the cowherds going forth.
[paragraph continues] All night long the priests watched and served, and at midnight began the women's worship. The Divine Cowherd was dwelling now in the pasturelands, and they came, as it were, to visit and adore. The next night the exposition began at two, and to-day it was opened at four. All these three dawns have been sacred to the women, and at eight o’clock this morning the festival will be over. But in rich mens’ gardens along the Ganges banks a special devotion may prolong it to a week, a fortnight, or a month. Each day, long before sunrise, the images will be carried to their throne of flowers, and there, beneath the sky, their visitors will worship them and spend hours of prayer that is more like play with the Herdsmen of Souls, tending his cows as in the forest at Brindaban
A little while and our feast will have vanished, for this year, into the past. But in truth a note has been sounded for pious souls in whose key the winter will be pitched. To mother and wife, will not the thought of any one of her beloved be as a glimpse caught of the Divine Cowherd--now spouse of the soul, and again the laughing, playing human babe? Is there any impulse or memory of sweetness that is not like the sound of his flute, calling suddenly across the meadows? Oh, when that note is heard, how eager should be the feet that haste to answer, along the forest paths in the secret places of the heart!
"When his flute calls," says a song of the people, "I must be ready! Early or late, easy or hard, no matter, I must go; and go, let the way through the forest be thorny when it sounds. I spread thorns every day on the courtyard floor, that on them I may learn to walk. And lest in the rains I should hear his call, I throw water where I am to step. For when He calls me I must hasten, and on the way I must not slip."
How foolish are those who dream that Ras Mela comes but once a year, and ends! To the eyes of the wise man life itself is that forest on the banks of the Jumna in which ever dwells the Lord, filling sweet days with mirthful labour, and calling the soul from height to height of hidden joy.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.