One of the most common legends about the sacred centers of India that we all grew up listening to is the legend of the water that turned into ghee. The sacred pulse of India is never out of sight. A great temple, a sacred centre is never far away. This is as true about north India where there is hardly any ancient temple left, as it is about south India.
Almost every district and region in India have at least one such great centre. In north India, it is often called a Dham, which attracts millions of crowds on the festivals and thousands every day. When a great festival arrives, the activity becomes intense at these places. And no such festival can be complete without the grand feast, or ‘bhandara’ as it is called in North India.
The amount of food that is cooked and served in these bhandaras can put some of the greatest catering services in the world to shame. What is served in these bhandaras is prasada, not just-food. Entire villages pour in for getting this prasada. “प्रासादी पाना है”… As they would often say about the bhandara. It is not just-food.
Having prasada in a bhandara is more than the act of eating. It becomes an act of divine partaking in a cosmic event. The gods come to bless the place, the food, and the entire event. It is only natural that legends would be attached to these events. One of these legends is about the water that became ghee.
One such sacred centre is the Karah Dham of Morena, and it is one of the first that I became conscious of 25 kilometers from Gwalior, on the Agra-Bombay Highway, also known mundanely as NH 3, a quiet state highway branch left. About five kilometers ahead on this wavy road is the Karah Dham, or the Dham of Patia Wale Baba.
It was made famous by many saints who did tapas there, most famously by Patia Wale Baba, who lived during the first half of the 20th century. He sat on a ‘patia’, a slab of stone, for many years doing tapas and that is how he became famous as ‘Patia Wale Baba’.
After him, a great lineage of gurus started which continues till today. The place boasts of a great kshetra, a sacred center with tens of temples of all primary gods and goddesses of India. As most people would not be able to visit the Char Dhams across India these local centers of devotion would often substitute them.
Although devotees visited these Dhams throughout the year, on certain occasions like the day like anniversaries of saints and great festivals like Nava Ratras, grand feasts would be organized. And to get prasada in these bhandaras everyone in the nearby regions would visit.
The atmosphere was electric. The devotees would sing to the glory of Patia Wale Baba (and not those who donated for the event) and how everything went about peacefully and satisfactorily without any mishap.
My father was a great devotee who would tell and retell every little aspect of the Dham to me again and again and again. One legend he would take particular care to tell with much panache and style. It was the legend of the water that became ghee.
Once during the Baba barsi (anniversary), scores of years ago, a great crisis struck the organizers of the bhandara. Of course, my father was not an eye witness. He had heard it from someone else. These stories were always retold, and no one could pinpoint their exact origin.
This is the core character of the katha pravachan parampara of India. The stories are not created. They exist. They always are. The devotee gets to tap into their magic, their grace.
There is no historical time where one can locate them firmly and no particular space which can be said to be their origin. They exist from times immemorial. That is why they are always retold, never told fresh.
So on that fateful Barsi, the organizers ran out of the ghee needed to cook the pooris. There were still hundreds of people to feed. The organizers and the cooks ran in panic to Patia Wale Baba. He listened to their problem calmly and told them not to panic.
With a calm voice and firm conviction, he told them to pull out some water from the well. Some of the bhaktas dithered as to why was he telling them to pull out water when they needed ghee. But doubt seldom has many places in these stories.
Various devotees ran to the sacred well of the teertha and dipped their buckets into it. When they started pulling them they were surprised to find them heavy and when the buckets came in sight they were pleasantly shocked to find that they had actually pulled out the ghee and not water from the well.
Was the well actually throwing up ghee? Looking into it all they could see was water but as they pulled that water with their buckets it would turn magically into ghee.
Patia Wale Baba said that they could pull as much ghee as they needed from the well, but only as much and not a gram more. And when the bhandara is done and enough ghee is donated to the Dham later on they should actually put the ghee back in the well which would again turn into water.
This is what the bhaktas did and such was the glory of Karah Dham. Is there any other place which has a miraculous story like this? So would my father say. I was a kid who wasn’t yet addled on rationalism either in school or through books. Of course, I believed what he said.
But when I grew up and started going around to various sacred places across the country I found that the same story was repeated in almost all local sacred centers. The story was almost literally the same with just different names. And every devotee at every such place was convinced that it was the special grace of their Dham which had enabled such a miracle.
These stories are repeated almost in a pattern all across India but this article is not about that. It is about another very important aspect of the Hindu psyche. There are three important instructions that the guru gives in this story which are the point of this article.
The first important instruction that the guru gives them is that they will get what is necessary; that the universe will provide them what is required and what is necessary to accomplish a task as sacred like organizing a bhandara.
So the first great feeling that this story conveys is the feeling of comfort in the knowledge that the universe has a way of throwing up just what is required and just when it is required.
The second part of the instruction of the guru is that they should take only as much as is required and not a gram more. The sense to hoard things, to accrue them for the future is highly resented here. Not to worry about the future, not to hoard more than what is immediately necessary is a necessary corollary of having faith in the workings of the universe.
Even more importantly it tells us that the grace of the guru and the sacred instruction cannot be used for personal gain. Only in the times of great public and selfless crises like the one of the running of out the ghee with hungry mouths to feed, can the grace of the guru be used to tweak the universe and its rules a little, to achieve what is required.
Nature, the first order, the order of the universe cannot and should not be tweaked more than what is extremely and absolutely necessary for survival.
The third most important instruction that the guru gives is that they should return the ghee back to the well or the pond when they have enough of it, and when they can afford to do so. The underlying instruction here is that there is no free lunch in the universe. The universe cannot be cheated by magic, even for an emergency.
The magic summoned by bhakti and the grace of the guru provides a loan in time and space to the devotees, a loan which has to be paid back when it is possible to do so. If this is not done, then the grace of the guru does not work again. The universe, once cheated, doesn’t yield again. Nature once betrayed, doesn’t comply again to the particular demand of the individual.
On the surface, this is just a superstitious story of ignorant primitives, who did not have the benefit of rational logic and scientific temper.
To an ‘educated modern mind,’ this seems like the ignorant stories of terrified primitive men who did not have the tools to know about the secrets of the universe and thus relied on concocted myths and imagined magic.
But I am not interested in deciding whether rational science is true or whether faith or shraddha is true.
I am trying to point towards the implication of the loss of this ‘primitive worldview’ and the imbibing of ‘rational logic’ and ‘scientific temper’.
A civilization which rejects ‘superstitious’ worldviews, like the one conveyed through this story, works on rational logic. The modern civilization which came out of Industrial Revolution technology and Enlightenment worldview worked on rationality and empiricism. ‘Primitive’ stories like these had no place in a rational civilization.
It is interesting to note that the modern fairytale of unlimited economic progress was also created by this ‘rational civilization’. That it is impossible to keep growing limitlessly and eternally on a limited planet with limited resources is something even a fifth standard student can understand.
Why an entire civilization fails to understand it defies any rationality or logic, the same values on which this civilization stands. The paradox couldn’t be more complete, especially when you look at the ‘primitive’ civilization with ‘superstitious’ values.
This ‘superstitious’ civilization which celebrated stories of water becoming ghee subconsciously recognized that there is no free lunch in the universe. You cannot exploit Nature endlessly without consequences.
The ‘primitive’ devotees operating on shraddha and dharma alone, instinctively understood through these stories that you have to take from Nature only as much as you need.
And that if sometimes you extract more than usual or more than the usual cycles of Nature allows, then you have to give it back what you took. The principle of reciprocity was inherent in this story. The value of responsibility was the operating principle. The notion of limited resources was the starting point.
Today we recognize these principles with scientific terminology and ecological jargon. The scientific knowledge which often needs billions of dollars of research, the manpower of hundreds of thousands of people, and educating agencies which once again need billions of dollars and years of faulty implementations were effortlessly, costlessly, and informally disbursed through these stories which were discarded in one sweep as ‘superstitious’ and ‘primitive’ when we chose to adopt the civilizational standpoint which operated on rationality and logic.
The contrast is very clear. The takeaway is palpably obvious. Sanatana Dharma invented mechanisms of dispersing necessary wisdom essential for living a sustainable life through the means of stories, centered around the sacred centers which revolved around the institution of the temple and the occasion of the festival.
To destroy this civilization completely by refusing to acknowledge its wisdom and to adopt a ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ civilization and worldview is not only to destroy culture but also to destroy Nature. Generations of scientists and decades of ‘scientific temper’ find it hard to teach the masses what the simple ‘superstitious’ story of the water that became ghee could.
Dharmic and traditional societies had a wonderful and decentralized way of teaching worldviews and lifestyles which were necessary not just for their own survival but also for a harmonious co-existence with Nature. These stories are often called superstitious myths by scholars but often taken as eternal truths by the devotees.
That our rationalistic civilization can no longer incorporate these ‘myths’ in a logical worldview is obvious by the loss of ecological and social common sense. And its results are too obvious, not just in the collapse of a healthy society but also in the collapse of eco-systems the world over.
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