On this date 29 years ago I was in Mysore for the first time. Having just arrived a few days before, I was feeling overwhelmed by the phantasmagoria that is India. On January 14th I was witness to my first Indian festival—Makara Sankranti. This is the only festival of the year in India that is based on the solar calendar. It marks the passage of the Sun from Dhanu (Sagittarius) to Makara (Capricorn). It also is considered to be the beginning of the auspicious six month period called Uttarayana, when the Sun is moving northward.
Surya (the Sun) represents the Father. In the Puranas, Surya is called the father of Sani (Saturn), ruler of Makara. On January 14th Surya begins a month long visit to his son’s house (Makara). Traditionally these two don’t get along very well, but they keep trying, every year, to work it out. The Sun’s transit of Makara is considered an important time in the relationship between father and son.
The Indian epic story, The Mahabharata, has a famous reference to Uttarayana. Bhishma, patriarch of the Kurus and grandfather of the Pandavas, through a bizarre and tangled series of events, ends up fighting against his grandsons in the great war, even though he is the noblest of men. Guruji once said to me that, in all of history, there have only been two truly great yogis—Hanuman and Bhishma. Bhishma, whose name means “one has has undertaken a terrible vow,” was the rightful heir to the kingdom of the Kurus. In order for his father to marry the woman he had fallen in love with, Bhishma renounced his claim to the throne and took a vow of life long celibacy. The ensuing disputes over the rulership of the Kurus spans two generations and forms the bulk of the Mahabharata.
Ultimately Bhishma fights on the side of the Pandava’s evil cousins. Even at his advanced age, Bhishma is an indomitable warrior who wrecks havoc on the Pandava army. It is only after several days of fighting that Bhishma becomes thoroughly weary and disenchanted with life. At this point he allows himself to be pierced by Arjuna’s arrows. Finally, he topples from his chariot and lies on the battlefield on his bed of arrows. Bhishma has a boon which enables him to choose the time of his death, and he says, “I have fallen, but I am not dead. I will keep my life from leaving me until Uttarayana comes.”
The Indian belief is that if death occurs during Uttarayana, there will be no rebirth. Bhishma realized that this was his last human incarnation and waited for the auspicious moment of Uttarayana to leave his body. The beginning of Uttarayana is considered to be a blessed time to begin a journey,
But, I digress from the story of that first Makara Sankranti. Gurji insisted that I stop by his house in the afternoon. When I arrived, Amma (Guruji’s wife) gave me a plastic bag filled with what looked like Indian trail mix. It was a mixture of peanuts, white sesame seeds, dried coconut, dal and jaggery (chunks of unrefined sugar). As she handed me the bag, Amma said “Yellu bella thindu olle maathad”—“Eat the mix of sesame seeds and jaggery and speak sweetly. “ Guruji explained that it was a good tonic for the liver and spleen. The “ella bellu” is a seasonal treat that celebrates the winter harvest of sugar cane. I ate quite a bit of it and then fed the rest to some monkeys on Chamundi Hill. After sunset, I was walking back to my hotel when I heard a loud beating of drums. I walked over to the double road to investigate and was amazed to see a long procession of cows, with their horns painted gold and their bodies covered in turmeric powder, running for their lives through burning straw. The cows looked terrified but all the people were having a great time. I asked someone what was going on. He said simply, “Surya has come back”, as if to say, “It’s all good.”