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MUSINGS ON AVATARS
PART 1

By Prof. G. Venkataraman

 


Dear Readers, for the last 40 issues, between October 2004 to February 2008, we brought you a spiritual feast in the form of the "Gita for Children" in a serialized form. (To find all the issues of this series in one place, click here). Prior to that, we had started our first series entitled "Shirdi Sai – Parthi Sai" which is continuing till date. The "Gita for Children" series was taken from the book "Krishna - Arjuna Dialogue" authored by Prof. Venkataraman. As we concluded the final segment of this book last month, from this issue onwards, we are pleased to present a new series on "Avatars" or Divine Incarnations. These are adaptations of talks delivered recently on Radio Sai by Prof. G. Venkataraman, and are based on the book "Message of the Lord" authored by him a few years earlier. We hope H2H readers will relish the spiritual insights this series offers.

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Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. Starting this month, I intend to present a series of articles meant mainly for those who are not familiar with Indian mythology or Puraanas as we refer to them in India. Basically, these articles would revolve around the stories of Lord Rama and Krishna, whose names must undoubtedly be familiar to all readers, including those from overseas.

In presenting these articles, I wish to make an apology right at the beginning to Indian readers, many of whom might consider that my presentation is not adequate and lacking in many respects. I readily agree that my presentation is a rather simplified one. However, I have taken the liberty making it so, because my aim is to get across to the unfamiliar reader, the essential aspects of the two great Avatars, Rama and Krishna.

I am confident that despite their shortcomings, these talks would help those unfamiliar with the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha to understand better the numerous references that Swami makes to these great epics in His Discourses. I should also not omit to mention that Swami has not only narrated the stories of these earlier Avatars extensively, but has also written about them in His Ramakatha Rasa Vahini and Bhagavatha Vahini, to name just two books.

I do hope that this series would induce readers to refer to these sources for greater clarity and inspiration. With these caveats and introductory remarks, let me get on with the job.

‘I Incarnate from Age to Age’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna refers to the repeated Incarnations or the Avatars of Lord Almighty. According to the scriptures of India (Bharat), there have been several Avatars. In the very early ones, the Lord did not assume a human form; it was only later that He began to assume the Human Form. My focus would be mainly on the Rama and the Krishna Avatars, in both of which, the Lord came down with a Human Form.

Although God has incarnated many times – one really does not know how many – according to a common tradition, one counts only ten Avatars, all of which are supposed to be Incarnations of Lord Vishnu. You might be aware that Divinity has a three-fold aspect, related respectively to Creation, the sustenance of Creation, and finally the dissolution of Creation. According to folklore, these three aspects are managed by three Gods/deities/aspects, call it what you wish. They are respectively, Brahma [who is in charge of Creation], Vishnu [who plays the role of the Protector and Sustainer], and Shiva [who takes care of dissolving Creation]. Many religiously believe in this triune, but, as Swami reminds us, the Supreme is Formless, and as such, attributing specific forms like Brahma, Vishnu, etc., is largely a matter of convenience and may even be tradition.

How Does God Become an Avatar

The question then arises: “In that case, what is it that incarnates?” Vedanta gives a clue and Krishna confirms it in the Gita. Krishna says it is essentially the Unmanifest Divinity that is beyond Space and Time and which is Formless that assumes a particular form for a particular purpose. That Unmanifest Divinity is also referred to as Supreme Consciousness. In other words, at the highest philosophical level, God is Supreme Consciousness.

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The Ten Avatars of Lord Vishnu

And a projection of the Supreme Consciousness in some form on to space and time, and for the specific purpose of preserving Dharma (righteousness), is what really constitutes an Avatar. Since every projection on space-time has a form, when God incarnates as an Avatar, clearly the Avatar too has a Form. Maybe I should add a few more remarks to supplement the above.

You see, when God creates the Universe, it is not as if He moves from one plane to another. Let us say there is a tree and there is also sunlight. The tree would naturally cast a shadow; as a result, we then have both the tree as well as the shadow. The tree is the totality while the shadow, being a projection of the tree on a two-dimensional plane, has features related to the tree.

Thus it is that in the shadow we see bits and pieces of the trunk, the branches, the leaves, and so on. Of course, all the details in the original tree are not seen in the shadow. Similarly, when God creates the Universe by projecting Himself, all aspects of His Divinity are not fully evident in this projection. That applies to some extent to the Avatars too. For example, God is Eternal but in Creation, every entity that is born, including the Avatars, disappears later due to natural processes.

To repeat, as Krishna explains, the Universe is a projection of the Absolute, Eternal, Formless God on space-time. Further, all the diversity we see is a trick of the Divine Shadow Play; that is, on the stage called space-time, The One appears as many! You would surely agree that just because the shadow is there, the tree does not vanish or cease to be. This is a very important point, and it is to stress this that Krishna essentially tells Arjuna,

“Arjuna, in the ultimate analysis, I am what I am, Unmanifest Divinity, that is Absolute, Eternal, Attribute-less, and Formless. A portion of My Unmanifest Divinity is projected on the Universe, where I cannot be directly seen but certainly experienced. In addition, whenever required, I also appear in a special form to play a direct role Myself. It is such Incarnations that are called Avatars. All these diverse projections constitute an infinitesimal part of Myself, which is truly Infinite.

Let Me assert that when I make an appearance as an Avatar, it does not mean that I abandon My Absolute aspect and put in an appearance here on earth; not at all. Just as the Sun is always there while sunlight is present sometimes and absent at other times, I come and go as an Avatar, many times, even while My Eternal aspect always is.”

That is the essence of how Krishna explained it all to Arjuna. I guess I have given enough of a background to set the stage for what follows. While my main focus would be on Rama and Krishna, I shall, for the sake of completeness, start with a brief overview of the ten Avatars of Vishnu. I am aware that this point of view can be disputed and many questions also raised. To go into all of them would distract me from my present purpose; I shall, in my introduction, restrict to giving just a cursory overview of the ten Avatars, as I have heard it narrated.

Just to clarify once more, my main objective in the present musings series is to focus on the story of Rama and Krishna. However, for the convenience of many readers, I shall embed that narrative within the framework of the ten Incarnations of Vishnu that one traditionally speaks of. So, now onto a brief overview of the ten Avatars of Vishnu, as is popularly believed. By the way, I shall often use the words Narayana and Vishnu interchangeably, though there might be some technical disapproval of that.

An Overview of the Ten Avatars

Matsya Avatar

As you might know, according to legend, every time the Universe is dissolved, there is supposed to be a Great Flood or Pralayam as it is referred to. Apparently, the last time the Universe was dissolved, the Vedas got drowned in the Pralayam and sank deep into the waters. A new Universe had to be created, for which purpose, Brahma, the Creator, needed the Vedas. Vishnu was then given the task of retrieving the Vedas, which He did by assuming the form of a fish and descending into the waters. This Incarnation of Lord Vishnu as a fish is known as Matsya Avatara [matsya means fish]. Basically, this Incarnation was for a rescue operation, and had nothing to do with getting rid of the evil doers. However, let us not forget that what this tale reminds us is the importance of Vedas for the sustenance of Dharma; in other words, for the Universe to exist and be sustained, Dharma is essential – that is the broad message.

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Matsya Avatar
Koorma Avatar

Koorma Avatar

Next came, the Koorma Avatar, in which Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise. What for? To give the newly created Universe support. Even today, many believe that the earth rests on the back of a tortoise. I personally think that the real message is that it is the Lord who really supports and sustains the Universe.

Varaha Avatar

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Varaha Avatar

Moving on, we come next to the Varaha Avatar, where Vishnu assumes the form of a boar. This is the first time we see the Lord actually engaged in eliminating the source of evil, and I shall come to that story soon for it is intimately related to the story of Rama and Krishna.

Narasimha Avatar

The fourth Avatar of Vishnu is the Narasimha Avatar, and that story too will come up later, like that of the Varaha Avatar.

Vamana Avatar

On now to the fifth Avatar, which is the Vamana Avatar. Here Vishnu appears as a small Brahmin, a dwarf almost. There was an Emperor named Bali, who went on a conquest spree. Wanting to rule over all the three worlds [it was customary to talk of three worlds in those days] Bali decided, in accordance with the advice of his Guru Sukracharya, to perform a grand Yajna. In those days, whenever a big wish needed to be fulfilled, the person with the desire performed a Yajna.

At the end of the ritual, some God or deity was supposed to appear whereupon one duly made the request. Bali wanted the Lord to appear and grant him the boon that would ensure for him the rulership of all the worlds. Naturally, this ambition of Bali worried the Devas who ruled the heavens; they obviously did not want to come under Bali, an earthling. So they appealed to Lord Vishnu to do something, which of course He agreed to. And what did the Lord do? He incarnated as a diminutive Brahmin. Why? Ah, that is where the story lies!

Now when a Yajna is performed, priests and Brahmins gather there in large numbers because the one who performs the Yajna invariably gives away a lot in charities. For Brahmins, it is a good time to receive gifts! So when Vishnu appeared as a small Brahmin boy and joined the crowd, nobody saw anything peculiar in that; except Sukracharya, the Guru of Bali.

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Vamana Avatar

It was time to offer charity and distribute gifts, and Emperor Bali gave to each Brahmin what was asked for, which was always reasonable and within bounds. Came then the turn of Vamana, and the Emperor asked the standard question, “Oh Brahmin, ask what you want and I shall give accordingly.” Sukracharaya who knew what was to happen, cautioned Bali.

He whispered, “Emperor, beware! Do not make any such blanket promises!” The Emperor shook his head and said, “No, I have given my word and my Dharma requires me to adhere to it.” The Guru was dismayed but did not give up and said, “But Emperor, if you grant what this Brahmin asks for, you are finished.”

Before I carry on with the rest of the story as traditionally narrated, I must make a special reference to the way Swami tells this story, which He often does during His Onam Discourses. Onam is a festival in celebration of Emperor Bali. According to folklore, Bali ruled in that part of India called Kerala, and every year on Onam day, Bali revisits his old country to be with his people.

Swami says that Guru Sukracharya not only cautioned Bali but actually told him, “This is no ordinary Brahmin; this is the very Lord Himself, disguised as a dwarf Brahmin, out to thwart your ambition, at the request of the Devas or the demi-gods. Do not therefore agree to give what He asks for.” Swami says that Bali told his Guru, “Normally, one asks the Lord to give to us; but today, it is the Lord Himself who is asking to be given. How fortunate I am to have the chance to give! It is a privilege to have my hand above giving, and that of the Lord below receiving!”

Swami adds, “Bali had his priorities right; when it comes to choosing between man and God, one must always choose God. Bali had to decide whether he was going to accept his Guru’s advice and go against his word, or keep his promise, rejecting the Guru’s advice in the process. Bali chose wisely, and as a result, the Lord blessed him so that he could return once every year to reunite with his people and share their merrymaking.

To complete the story as usually told, when Bali agreed to give what Vamana asked for, the Brahmin said, “Oh Emperor, I do not want much; I just want what three footsteps of mine can cover.” Bali agreed and Vamana took the first step. With that, Vamana covered the whole earth; Bali had to surrender it to Vamana. Vamana then took the second step with which he covered the whole sky; that too was surrendered to Vamana. The Brahmin then said, “I have still one more step left; where do I put my foot after taking the step? The earth is no longer available nor is the sky. What do you have to say?” Bali said, “You may put your foot on my head.” Vamana did that and that was the completion of the conquest of Bali. So the story usually ends, with Vamana, the victor, and Bali, the loser. Swami however says that Bali did not lose at all; rather, he achieved perfect surrender and total redemption thereby. So what is the bottom line? Offering the head for the Lord to put His Foot on implies total surrender. Surrender to the Lord as Bali did – that’s the implied message. So much for the story of Vamana, the fifth Avatar.

Parasurama Avatar

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Parasurama Avatar

Technically, the sixth Avatar is supposed to be Parasurama, concerning whom there are many versions of the story. What makes this Avatar even more difficult to understand is that Parasurama and Rama have a confrontation! Avatar versus Avatar? I know that there are many interpretations, but since I am not able to understand them myself, I would be less than honest if I tried to relate any of those stories.

I should not, however, forget to point out that Swami has described the meeting between Parasurama and Lord Rama, and its tone is very different from what is normally offered. The gist of it is that when Parasurama gave Rama his bow, Parasurama formally transferred an aspect of the Divine that was with him to Rama, to complete the Divine aspect of Rama.

The Next Four Avatars

This brings us to the seventh Avatar, Lord Rama, whose story is narrated separately. Later, the Lord incarnated again as Lord Krishna, making it Avatar number eight; that story would be narrated in detail later; which leaves two more to complete the score of ten. Buddha is taken to be the ninth Avatar, while the tenth Avatar is supposed to incarnate in this the Kali Age, now running. The tenth Avatar is called the Kalki Avatar, and is supposed to come on a horse.

Many religiously believe in this chronology and for such people, Swami would not count as an Avatar. For me, and I guess for many like me, this acceptance or rejection does not matter. Swami is here, and we all accept Him as an Incarnation of God, not for this or that technical reason, but because verily He is the Embodiment of Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema and Ahimsa.

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That is what a Poorna Avatar is supposed to be; that is what Rama was and it was the same with Krishna. Thus, along with Rama and Krishna, Swami occupies a special place in human history, which is why I am offering this overview of Rama and Krishna Avatars for the benefit of those who are not familiar with those aspects of His Story. Incidentally, allow me to quote what Gandhi said about God. He said, and I quote from memory,

“He is no God who merely satisfies the intellect. God to be God must rule the Heart and transform the senses.”

That is what Gandhi said; does not that definition fit our beloved Swami perfectly? I think it does and that is why I have no problem in accepting Swami as God personified. Whether or not Sai fits into the traditional book-view is for others to worry about!

Let me move on. Now that I have given you the overview of the ten traditional Avatars of Lord Vishnu and the place of the Rama and the Krishna Avatars in this scheme, I should logically go straight to the story of Rama. I shall not do that and with good reason. According to the folklore, it so happens that the stories of Rama and of Krishna are tied up with the stories of a couple of Avatars that preceded these two. Why? Thereby hangs a tale and it is to that I shall now turn.

Hiranyaksha’s Destruction by the Varaha Avatar

It all starts with the Rishis or Sages Sanaka, Sananda, Sanatana and Sanatkumara making a trip to Vaikuntam, the Abode of Lord Vishnu, often hailed as Narayana. As they were about to enter the Lord's chamber, they were rudely stopped by two guards named Jayan and Vijayan.

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Lord Vishnu

(Swami has clarified that Jayan and Vijayan did so because they felt that the Rishis were not properly attired.) Feeling deeply insulted, the Rishis cursed the doorkeepers to be born on earth where they would be far away from their beloved Lord.

At this stage, Lord Narayana Himself came out to investigate the commotion outside His chamber. Seeing the Lord and fearful of being banished from His Divine presence, the two guards fell at His feet and begged for a waiver of the curse of the Rishis.

Narayana replied, "I am sorry the curse has to stand but you have a choice. You can either take ten births as virtuous men before returning to Vaikuntam or three births as evil beings full of hatred for Me. In the latter case, I shall kill you both in every birth of yours, and finally in the Dwapara Yuga, both of you after annihilation would come back to Me. The choice is yours."

Jayan and Vijayan thought that ten births would keep them away too long from Vaikuntam and therefore settled for three births, even as evil beings full of hatred for the Lord. Thus it was that Lord Narayana had to incarnate several times for destroying the earthly forms of His two guards.

Let us now follow what happened when Jayan and Vijayan were born three times, as demons. In their first such birth, they were born to Sage Kashyap via Diti, one of the Sage’s wives. These two demons were named Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashyapu. To get rid of these two demons, the Lord had to incarnate twice; on now to the story of the first of two such Incarnations.

By intense worship of Brahma, the Creator, Hiranyaksha gained several boons that conferred great powers. Feeling arrogant and immensely puffed up, Hiranyaksha then went on a rampage, conquering and harassing. As a part of this campaign, Hiranyaksha entered the nether world and challenged its chief Varuna to a battle. Varuna pleaded that he was not really a worthy opponent and that the only one who could give a good fight was Narayana. Thus Lord Narayana Himself became a target for Hiranyaksha. I suppose you see here an allegorical reference to modern man, who, flushed with his numerous scientific and technological successes, is now questioning the very existence of God from whom he has come. What this mythological story tells us is that, what is happening now is merely a re-run of an old episode!

To get on with my narration, Varaha is the Avatar of Lord Vishnu when He came to save Mother Earth from demon Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha was huge and all beings trembled before him. Even Brahma, the Creator, could not subdue this demon. Going on a conquest spree, Hiranyaksha invaded the heavens forcing the Gods to take shelter in caves. I have already mentioned that Hiranyaksha also frightened the wits out of Varuna, the ruler of the nether world. Hiranyaksha now turned his attention to Earth, then ruled by Manu. The demon snatched the Earth away and took it to the bottom of the Ocean, making life on earth impossible.

Manu and his wife fled and threw themselves at the feet of Brahma. The Creator was deeply concerned and said, “I cannot personally destroy this wicked demon because of a boon I have granted him. But he is not safe from the might of the Lord. So let us appeal to Lord Vishnu.”

Brahma then meditated on the Lord, and from Brahma’s nostril there fell a tiny boar [Varaha is the Sanskrit word for boar]. It was the Lord appearing in that form. The moment the boar appeared, it instantly grew huge in size. With a mighty roar, the boar leapt into the air, and dived into the Ocean to bring the Earth up.

Meanwhile, Hiranyaksha was going round in search of Narayana so that he could challenge Him. On the way, he met Sage Narada who readily obliged the Asura with information concerning Narayana's whereabouts. Narada said that Narayana had assumed the form of a boar so that He could lift the Earth with His tusk from the bottom of the ocean. Incidentally, on the ceiling of the Poornachandra Auditorium in Prashanti Nilayam, there is, among the many illustrations there, a depiction of Narayana in the Varaha Avatar. Narada added, “Narayana is just about to surface from the water, and if you hurry you can catch Him". For those of you who do not know, Sage Narada is a great devotee of Narayana, constantly wandering amongst the three worlds, singing His praise. Narada is popularly referred to as a great troublemaker, but that of course is an uncharitable description. In actual fact, Narayana makes Narada play that role as a part of His great Drama!

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The Varaha Avatar - Rescuing Mother Earth

Hiranyaksha rushed to where Narayana was (in the form of a boar), and challenged Him. A prolonged fight ensued, witnessed by the Devas or the Gods of heaven, the sages, etc. Among those present was Brahma, the Creator (and son of Narayana). Feeling anxious for the Lord, Brahma (who earlier had granted the boons which made Hiranyaksha powerful) pointed out to Narayana that it was then the sacred hour of Abhijit Muhurtam and this therefore was a good time to finish off the Asura; a delay would mean the onset of darkness when annihilation would be more difficult since Asuras gained strength in the dark. The Lord smiled as if to say, "I am Time itself, and this son of Mine is trying to teach Me about the right time to do things!" Anyway, responding to Brahma's wish, He immediately destroyed Hiranyaksha.

Mission accomplished, The Lord returned to Vaikuntam to await the moment when another Incarnation would be necessary, this time for the destruction of Hiranyakashyapu. For long, I used to wonder why the fight between Varaha and Hiranyaksha took so long, when the Lord was supposed to be all powerful. It was only later that I realised that Hiranyaksha taking the Earth away is symbolic of humanity being hijacked by evil forces, and that to rescue humanity it takes a long fight over evil. Given today’s circumstances, I am sure you would agree with my broad view of this allegorical story.

Hiranyakashyapu’s Elimination by the Narasimha Avatar

This brings us now the story of how the Lord took care of the second demon, Hiranyakashyapu. If you happen to look at artists’ rendering of Hiranyakashyapu, you would find the features to be entirely human, a reminder of the fact that it is not the bodily features that are demonic, but the behaviour. Anyway, to get on with our story, Hiranyakashyapu had but one desire - to be invincible and to be the lord of the three worlds. And in order to achieve this, he did intense penance to propitiate Brahma, the Creator. Pleased, Brahma appeared before Hiranyakashyapu, permitting the latter to ask for boons.

Hiranyakashyapu said: "I do not want to die. So grant me that no creature of yours (i.e., in Creation) will cause my death. Death shall not come to me inside the house nor outside; not during day nor night; not on earth nor in the sky ..." Smilingly, Brahma granted the request. Confident that he had insured himself against all possibilities of death, Hiranyakashyapu promptly launched a campaign of conquest and soon became the master of the three worlds, exactly as he had once dreamt.

Hiranyakashyapu had four sons of whom the youngest was Prahalada. Though born an Asura, in nature and temperament he was the just the opposite - gentle, sweet, full of kindness, in short, totally Sattvik. At the age of five, Prahalada was placed under tutors for receiving education. Traditionally, the instruction would include both the secular and the spiritual, but hating Narayana as he did, Hiranyakashyapu gave strict orders that Prahalada must be taught to worship only him (i.e., Hiranyakashyapu) as the Supreme Lord and not Narayana.

However, swept by his devotion for Narayana, Prahalada refused to accept his father as the Supreme One. Infuriated, Hiranyakashyapu tried his best to frighten Prahalada, but finding that threats did not work he ordered that Prahalada be killed. The young Prince was totally unperturbed. Constantly chanting Om Namo Narayanaya, he faced all dangers. Many methods of killing him were tried, such as crushing by elephants, rolling from mountains, drowning in the sea etc., but every time Prahalada had a miraculous escape.

Exasperated, Hiranyakashyapu sent for his son in an effort to persuade him once more. But it was of no avail since Prahalada would acknowledge no one but Narayana as the Supreme Lord. In desperation Hiranyakashyapu said, "I am the ruler of the three worlds and so I should be your Lord. How can you give that status to Narayana? Where is this Narayana whom you are constantly worshipping? I don't see him." Smiling, Prahalada replied, "Father, He is everywhere." Eyes red with anger Hiranyakashyapu mockingly asked, "Is He in this pillar?" Prahalada replied, "Yes, of course". "In that case," roared Hiranyakashyapu, "see what I do to Him". So saying he kicked the pillar.

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Lord Narasimha

Immediately, a thundering noise of terrifying intensity was heard. The pillar split into two and from it emerged a weird creature, half human and half lion - Narayana had come in the form of Narasimha (man-lion). Such a creature did not belong to Brahma's Creation. Suddenly Hiranyakashyapu remembered the boon granted by Brahma. No death from earthly creatures for sure but was he safe against this one?

He looked around and discovered that it was neither day nor night; it was twilight, again a bad omen. Meanwhile, Narasimha lifted Hiranyakashyapu and carried him to the doorstep - neither in the house nor outside! Sitting there Narasimha placed the Asura on his lap - neither on Earth or in the Sky - and proceed to tear him apart and, as a gory finale, removed his entrails and wore it as garland. Hiranyakashyapu was dead and Narayana's mission was over.

It may be noted that in both the Avatars discussed above, the Lord did not assume a human form; nor did the Avatars fall in the category of Poorna Avatar. They were instead, Karana (functional) Avatars.

Swami has commented that Hiranyakashyapu was a great scientist and behaved very much like his counterparts of today, i.e., in denying the existence of God. What about Prahalada? Was it right on his part to disobey his father? After all, do not the Vedas declare that mother and father are God? About this, Swami says that elders must, of course, be revered but if anyone comes between an individual and God, then God has priority. Thus it is that Prahalada, applying fundamental discrimination, placed God above his father. Similarly, as we saw earlier, in the Vamana Avatar, Emperor Maha Bali placed God above Guru; and, as we shall soon see, in the Ramayana, Bharata chose God above mother. Swami has also pointed out the inner significance of the other aspects like the kicking of the pillar. The pillar represents ignorance, and when ignorance is destroyed, Knowledge shines forth.

That brings me to the end of this first instalment. Next time, we shall pick up the story from where we are leaving now. I do hope this article was of some use. Do write to us at [email protected] and tell us what you think.

Jai Sai Ram.

(to be continued...)

– Heart2Heart Team

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Vol 6 Issue 03 - MARCH 2008
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