In Southern India, every Temple with a decent income celebrates at some part of the year a grand festival called the Brahmotsavam. The Brahmotsavam, literally the great festival, is a great program of festivals extending over ten days. During this period, every morning and evening the God of the Temple is taken out seated on a huge vehicle and carried through the town. Even to the mere sight-seer, the festival is a grand occasion. The commencement of the utsavam or festival is marked by a ceremony called the Dhwajarohanam or the hoisting of the flag. In the center of the outer court of the temple stands a huge stone-pillar called the flag-stand (Dhwajasthamba), and on this occasion a long strip of new cloth is wound round the pillar with solemn ceremony.
Every religious act public or private, of a Hindu must begin with a formal Sankalpa or resolution. Everything one does must be done with a determined will and not in a slipshod manner. The object of the Sankalpa is only to impress this idea on the mind. When the act is private, the two hands are brought together, the left hand is grasped with the right and both are placed on the right thigh. But when the act is public the Dhwajarohanam is the outward symbol, It indicates the vow undertaken by the people of the town to celebrate the festival. Hence it is that no one who was present within the limits of the town on the occasion of the Dhwajarohanam may leave the town or do any other thing such as marriage etc., until the festival is over. The close of the festival is marked by the Dhwajavarohanam or the lowering of the flag.
During the festival, the God of the Temple is taken out seated on a vahana or vehicle. The vehicles are many in number, viz., the swan, the lunar orb, the solar orb, the lion, the horse, the elephant, the car, the garuda, etc. To the intelligent student of religion, every one of these carries a world of meaning. To the work-a-day men and women of the world, these utsavams would appear as mere fun unless the meaning which underlies each symbol is explained to them.
The Brahmotsavam proper is intended to teach us the way to divine self-realization. Let us see how this divine realization is attained? On the morning of the first day, the God goes out on no vehicle, but during the night, He is taken out on the swan. What is this swan? These swans, according to the Puranas, live in that inaccessible region, called Manasasaras, the mental lake. They have a wonderful power of separating the milk from a mixture of milk and water. All this is most suggestive and pregnant with meaning.
The swan represents the Viveki whose life is of the mind, who is able to discriminate between the transient and the ever-lasting, to whom God sends His grace, in whom He loves to dwell. This then is the first lesson that is taught, that Viveka is the first acquisition that has to be made, for He loves to reside in the heart of the Viveki (wise man or sage).
Let us next see what garuda-vahana or the eagle-vehicle means. The garuda-utsava is considered the most important of all and it is also considered more beneficial religiously to worship Him as He is seated on His favorite vehicle just at the entrance to the temple than anywhere else. The rationale of this will appear by the following explanation.
Garuda, the king of the feathered tribe, represents, like the Phoenix of old, the soul of man. Hence, the great importance of the garuda-utsava. The Visishtadwatin holds that Narayana is the soul of all souls, and the garuda-utsava expresses this phase of thought. That garuda is intended to typify the soul of man clearly appears from this; that while the swan, the horse, the elephant and the other vahans are representations from nature, the garuda which should have been a representation of the eagle which the garuda is supposed to be, is represented as a human being with an aquiline nose with the addition of a pair of wings. From a similar consideration it would appear that the Hanumanthay-vahana too represents Man and is intended to convey an important truth the Vedanta with reference to Man as Mind.
The garuda represents Man; it typifies Man the Perfect. The garuda Vahana is by itself an admirable study. The representation is of a man possessed of gigantic muscular power in a kneeling and self collected attitude, with steadfast, piercing looks. His open arms seek service, and his extended wings reveal a readiness to render assistance wherever assistance may be necessary. The brilliant star on his breast is the fire of love that is burning in his heart with a thousand tongues. The lines on his heavy brow betray the severe struggles he had to face in his career. There is a touch of sadness in his countenance as he looks upon the world enveloped in darkness, but those firm set lips reveal a smile expressive of hope. His very enemies hiss and flourish on his bosom, and they that breathed no more when merely his shadow fell upon them, are exultant in his presence. He has obtained the crown of glory which he wears, the reward of his struggle life after life. Standing at the entrance to the temple, he surveys the world with its teeming millions steeped in ignorance. On one side of him lies the region of bliss nirvanic, the abode of Narayana to which he has gained the right of entrance. On the other lies the wide, wide world steering without a guide, and shrouded in the thick folds of darkness and of gloom. Full of compassion to the suffering world, he renounces the bliss of beatitude and resolves to devote himself to the helping of humanity. So we must worship him as he stands at the gateway to the temple and full of compassion, makes the great renunciation.
The last festival is called the thirthotsavam, literally water festival. On this occasion, after the return of the God to the temple, He goes out once more, this time without any vehicle but in His prabha and comes back, the whole town following Him to the temple. Within it, His blissful abode, the bhaktas flock together, and receiving his prasada or grace, plunge into the sacred waters of the temple tank. What is all this but a representation of what takes place in reality in those higher regions we read of in our scriptures. Does not the plunging into the sacred tank typify the entering into Nirvana? Is this not the end of all religious aspiration? One noteworthy feature in the last festival is the solicitude of the God-who goes into the town a second time, revealing Himself in all His native glory, to collect together all His bhaktas and confer on them His prasada. Realize this idea, and feel how full of hope life becomes. Such is the inner meaning conveyed in many of the festivals conducted in our Hindu temples. M. D.