Every year, I look forward to Thaipusam celebrations, for I thoroughly enjoy going to the temple and seeing the beautifully adorned Kavadis and savouring the spiritual energy and festive atmosphere in the temples. This year, Thaipusam is much more special because it is the first year I am actually participating in the festival, and fulfilling my vow to carry a pot of milk for Muruga.
When some of my colleagues found out about this, they had a whole host of questions about the festival, and I thought, what better way to complete my Thaipusam experience by sharing what I know, and hopefully, dispelling some misconceptions.
1) What is Thaipusam?
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated in the Hindu month of Thai (Jan to Feb, depending on the Hindu calendar), and is dedicated to Lord Muruga.
Lord Muruga also happens to be the brother of my darling.
The origins of Thaipusam can be found in the Puranas (ancient Hindu scriptures), and as with most other Hindu Festivals, have to do with the destruction of evil. While there are many tales surrounding the origins and significance of Thaipusam, one of the most commonly known ones revolves around the destruction of the demon Tarakasuran. It is said that Thaipusam is the day on which Muruga received the Vel from Goddess Parvati to destroy Tarakasuran. The demon Tarakasuran is a manifestation of the negative qualities that reside within us, to varying degrees, and the destruction of him symbolises the eradication of these destructive instincts that propel us to exhibit undesirable traits. When we worship Lord Muruga on this auspicious day, we pray for the knowledge to remove these negative tendencies within us.
The iconography of Muruga’s Vel also stands as a testament to the importance of this knowledge and is the perfect symbol to illustrate this.
2) Why do people take Vratas (fast) and what types of Vratas do they undertake?
Fasting during Thaipusam is a form of Tapas. Tapas refers to the observances of austerities and vratas in order to strengthen one’s mind and body. The purpose of a vow is for one to develop self-discipline and a strong character capable of withstanding discomfort. It is for this reason that whenever one takes a vow, they make a conscious effort to bring themselves out of their comfort zones so as to develop forbearance. This makes it easy for one to deal with discomforts in life without getting frustrated or overwhelmed.
There are many types of fasts that one can undertake and again, the Vel serves as a symbol to guide us.
To achieve purity in thought and speech, one spends time praying, and meditating and refrains from entertaining malicious thoughts or engaging in improper speech. This has always been the hardest for me, because I find myself getting very stressed whenever I have a negative thought when fasting, and it seems especially frustrating because I don’t seem to be able to control it. But over the years, I have realised that it is not about preventing negative thoughts, but rather about managing and mitigating these thoughts such that they do not translate into speech or actions.
Purity in action is the fundamental principle behind many of the actions undertaken by Hindus when they are fasting. They refrain from consumption of food types that make our minds dull and agitated (for instance, meat, onions and garlic), and eat simple, light food. For Hindus who are already vegetarian, they may choose to perhaps only consume fruits and milk, have just one meal a day, or abstain from consuming food from sunrise to sunset. Some may also physically challenge themselves by sleeping on the floor and not wearing shoes throughout the period of fasting. This enables us to cultivate control over our senses and desires instead of being controlled by them.
Our scriptures however do state that these various disciplines are primarily to strengthen our mind and body and not to weaken them. (i.e. One should refrain from the obsessive enjoyment of sensual pleasures, and should not instead completely abstain from food and starve the body.)
3) Is Self-Mortification (body piercing) necessary?
Self-mortification is a form of Tapas that is undertaken by Hindus during Thaipusam, and while it is a controversial practice, it is important to explore the intention behind an individual’s decision to pierce oneself. Any fast or Tapas that is undertaken by an individual has to be undertaken with the right intention of wanting to develop mastery over one’s senses and speech, for this will inevitably result in one developing the capacity to master the mind.
Piercing oneself during Thaipusam has to be accompanied by strict fasting and mental disciplines such as prayer and meditation, for the objective should be to undergo physical discomfort in order to build up tolerance to pain and strengthen the mind.
Is Self-Mortification then necessary? Of course not. The scriptures are full of tales of devotees who worship with nothing but whole-hearted, single-minded dedication, and are blessed abundantly.
Is Self-Mortification wrong? Also definitely not. It depends entirely on the intention of the devotee. If it is done with the intention of showing one’s devotion and is meant to strengthen his resolve, then it is for no one to judge.
4) So many pots of Milk. All of them wasted. Isn’t there a better way of showing our devotion to God?
Abhishegam is a ancient tradition of bathing a deity in a token quantity of Milk, Honey, Water and other items. This ritual is meant to symbolise the purification of oneself, as the statue of the deity is purified. This mixture is customarily to be served to devotees as Prasadham, thereby ensuring that none of it is wasted. Many temples also direct the milk from the Abhishegam to specific areas of the temple, where devotees can collect them in containers for consumption. If this practice is upheld, then there is no wastage and this would then be a moot point.
Unfortunately, in modern times, Milk is often channeled away as waste, due to the sheer quantity of it, and this then leads to criticisms, for why is there a need to waste so much of milk, a basic necessity, that many around the world lack.
While I have no answer to this dilemma, and while no one is in any position to stop anyone from showing their devotion in whichever way they deem fit, I can perhaps share a couple of thoughts.
1) A few years ago, a group of us felt that perhaps showing one’s devotion and charity need not be mutually exclusive. One can show his or her devotion, and at the same time help to eradicate hunger. We then carried out a milk collection drive 2 weeks prior to Thaipusam. We set up a booth outside Jothi Store, and appealed to Hindus who were purchasing the necessary for their participation in Thaipusam and asked them to, in the process of offering milk to Lord Muruga, to also consider doing the same for children who were in need of help. This period of time reaffirmed our faith in Singaporeans and the kindness mankind is capable of, for we managed to raise almost $5k to purchase special milk powder for needy children from the Children’s Cancer Foundation.
Charity need not be separate from devotion, for in Hinduism, it is looked upon as a religious discipline in itself.
2) I read this excellent blog, Living Hindu, while researching for this post, and the author has some really good ideas on how one can minimise waste during Abhishegam.
I really hope this little post goes some way towards answering some of the questions about one of the most important, vibrant Hindu festivals in Singapore 🙂
Title Image: Prof M.T.M Jiffry