'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Subliminal Message?

I did not know what 'subliminal messages' were till I recently read about them in Wikipedia. Here is the definition: "A subliminal message is a signal or message embedded in another object, designed to pass below the normal limits of perception. These messages are indiscernible by the conscious mind, but allegedly affect the subconscious or deeper mind. Subliminal techniques have occasionally been used in advertising and propaganda; the purpose, effectiveness and frequency of such techniques is debated."

While reading the Wiki article, I was strangely reminded of a childhood experience. On my first visit to Tamil Nadu and to the hill temple of Palani, I encountered a strange symbol - it was painted all over the place and at night neonlighted garishly and very prominently at several strategic points on the hill and elsewhere. Here it is.
I did not know what the symbol meant but found it unsettling - it looked uncannily like a 'death's head' (in some representations, the resemblance is even stronger than in the above Wiki figure ) .

Somewhat later in life, I came to know it was the sacred syllable 'Om' in Tamil script - it is more of a symbol or glyph - in proper Tamil script, the 'm' letter (it forms the 'teeth' of the skull in my interpretation) is not written within the loop of the 'O' but outside, following the 'O'.

With the new Wiki-induced knowledge, I am tempted to read a subliminal 'memento mori' into the way this symbol is written in Tamil. But one can't rush to such a conclusion; for the Om glyph in Tamil is also said to be designed to mimic an elephant's head, coiled trunk and all - and so, it represents Ganapati(*)!

Yesterday, I conducted an inkblot-like test with the symbol showing it to several non-Tamilians and asking for reactions - including "no reaction". A robust majority of the subjects saw a skull with no prompting at all. And exactly one chap saw elephant-ness.

But I doubt if the skull was ever used as a popular symbol of mortality in India (before the Europeans came that is). Moreover, there is no apparent need to point at death or mortality in a symbol for 'Om', at least in the context of Indian religious expression. So, a subliminal encoding of any such thing is unlikely to have been attempted in the Tamil glyph and the resemblance I (and many others) saw is maybe just an uncanny coincidence.

Tailpiece: While working on this post, I spent some time looking at the Wikipedia articles on Skull and its symbolism and saw this: "An old Yoruba folktale tells of a man who encountered a skull mounted on a post by the wayside. To his astonishment, the skull spoke. The man asked the skull why it was mounted there. The skull said that it was mounted there for talking. The man then went to the king, and told the king of the marvel he had found, a talking skull. The king and the man returned to the place where the skull was mounted; the skull remained silent. The king then commanded that the man be beheaded, and ordered that his head be mounted in place of the skull."

And that vaguely reminds me of a story I read many years ago in a Malayalam children's(yes!) magazine. Lengthily titled: "The skull that brought death to four people and the laughing fish", this allegedly 'Babylonian' story, full of scary prophesies and creepy events, had given me nightmares for quite a long time. And far more scary than the portentous skull itself (the focus of the story) was the mysterious fish that laughed!

Note: Once upon a time, 'Balarama' was the only major Malayalam children's magazine; and it used to regularly feature articles and stories which could easily shake and/or depress (most) adults. And I am pretty sure the minds of many children were scarred by them; mine certainly was. I will record some examples in a future post.

(*) - The 'Om' symbol from Bali, Indonesia (see Wikipedia) does look like Ganapati.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

'Alakh Niranjan!'

Very recently, while struggling up Mount Girnar in Gujarat (the last post here), I heard a high pitched devotional song played from a road side stall. The refrain went:
"Alakh Niranjan Alakh Niranjan
Alakh Niranjan Girnari!"
That reminded me: not very long back, I had read the tragic story of Heer and Ranjha in Wikipedia; and there I had first encountered the Mantra: 'Alakh Niranjan'.

Wikipedia gave the meaning of this Mantra as: "Alakh means "that which is not seen" and niranjan means "without any stains.". It is implied that 'alakh' is a derivative of the Sanskrit word 'alakshya', the opposite of 'lakshya'. 'lakshya' is taken to mean 'target' or 'goal' but literally it could perhaps mean 'an object being seen'. 'Anjana' is a kind of black stone (with a high antimony content) and could also mean 'black spot' or 'stain'. So 'niranjana' could mean 'stainless', 'pure' that is.

So, the mantra could just be the join of two attributes of the divine: 'invisible' ('subtle'?) and 'pure'.

But there is another possible analysis: 'Alakh' could be derived from 'Allah'. So 'Alakh Niranjan' could mean the full declaration: "God is Pure(Purity)". And this derivation actually seems likelier - the Mantra is popular in and probably originated in Punjab and Sindh and the popular religion of both regions has been a very syncretic cocktail of Hinduism and Islam over most of the last Millennium (Sikhism is of course, the most remarkable of the many - often overlapping - belief systems which crystallized from this mix of faiths and cults). And phonetically, the sounds 'ha' and 'kha' are close and interchangeable, so 'Allah' could very naturally have become 'Alakh'.

The connection between 'Alakh Niranjan' and 'Girnari' is not difficult to piece together. One of the peaks of Mount Girnar has a shrine dedicated to Gorakhnath, a near mythical saint, whose legends have an all-North India (and well beyond) presence. And the 'Alakh Niranjan' mantra is believed to have been created by him. It is widely believed Gorakhnath initiated Jhulelal, the patron saint of Sindh (difficult to classify him as either Hindu or Sufi) into the mysteries of this mantra. And love-lorn Ranjha, Muslim hero of the Heer-Ranjha epic, turns a fakir/jogi, meets this same Master and finds solace in this very mantra. The word 'Girnari' could mean 'the lord of Girnar' and could refer to Gorakhnath.

Dattatreya, who 'owns' another peak of Girnar, has very similar syncretic credentials - over a wide swathe of India have flourished saints and Sufi masters (especially of the 'Mast Qalandar' type) believed to be incarnations of this sage of mythology (who in turn was the incarnation/amalgamation of all the 'Trimurtis'!). This impressive list of holy men features the Swami of Akkalkot, Baba Budan (who is credited with bringing coffee cultivation to Chikmagalur, Karnataka) and more recently, and most famously, the Sai Baba of Shirdi.

At least one guide book says Girnar contains the Dargah of a sufi saint. I could find no tomb there; it may well lie hidden beneath one of the temples; and the saint himself might have merged into Datta or Gorakhnath (or both).