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HONORING A KARMA YOGI – BHARATA RATNA M. S. SUBBULAKSHMI

dr-ram-sriram-1Dr. Ram Sriram retired as Distinguished Professor and is currently Professor Emeritus at the College of Business, Georgia State University, Atlanta.    He is the founder and President of the Carnatic Music Association of Georgia (CAMAGA).  He is the recipient of the Kala Seva Mani award from the Cleveland Aradhana committee for his life time service to promoting Carnatic music and the arts.  He is also a well-known Mridangist, who routinely accompanies senior Carnatic musicians visiting the US during their concerts.

Recently, two reputed Atlanta organizations – the Chinmaya Mission Atlanta and the Sankara Nethralaya-OM Trust (USA) celebrated the birth centenary of the renowned musician, Bharat Ratna Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi.  The two events, however, differed in their focus.

The Chinmaya Mission Atlanta event was held to honor, together, the memory of three great individuals, born in the year 1916, and who have contributed immensely to Indian culture, heritage, and philosophy: Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Chinmaya Mission, Swami Chidananda Saraswati, head of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, and Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi, musician and philanthropist.  While Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Chidananda were known for their contribution to Hindu philosophy and values, Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi was known for her accomplishments in Indian classical music.  Regardless, the three individuals, in their own ways, lived as Karma Yogis – refraining from the fruits of their actions and detached from fame, riches, and glory. 

m-s-subbulakshmi-music-legenderySmt. M. S. Subbulakshmi was born in the year 1916 as Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi in a middle class family of musicians: her mother was a ‘Veena player and her grandmother, a violinist.  Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi, growing in the midst such musical talent, became proficient in both vocal music and performing on the Veena even at a young age. She gave her first vocal music concert at the age of 11, Trichy accompanied by two musical stalwarts, Mysore Chowdiah on the violin and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillay on the Mridangam.  At the age of 13, she was invited to perform at the prestigious Music Academy, Chennai.  After relocating to Madras, she continued her musical learning from two stalwart musicians: Sangeetha Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Pandit Naryanrao Vyas. 

Within a few years of launching her career as a musician, Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi, became the most admired and popular Carnatic musician.  The awards and recognition she received from all over the world is a testimony to her musical caliber and, consequently, her popularity.  She performed in the most prestigious venues, not only in India but also abroad.  On the U. N. Day, she was invited to the perform to its audience of dignitaries.   Over the years, she performed in esteemed venues such as the Carnegie Hall, New York, Royal Albert Hall, London, and Festival of India, Moscow.  In recognition of her contribution to peace and bringing together cultures and people, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, often call the Asian Nobel Prize.   At the age of 42, as one of the youngest musicians, she was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (the Treasure of Music) by the Music Academy.  She later received the Indira Gandhi award for national integration – an award presented to individuals who have contributed to fellowship among religious groups, communities, and cultures.  In the year 1998, the President of India bestowed her with the highest civilian award, the Bharata Ratna (the Crown Jewel of India). 

The life of M. S. Subbulakshmi is more than her music, awards and recognitions.  Her life showed that regardless of one’s origins – she was born in lower middle class family – one can rise to be the best, if one is sincere and devoted.  In this regard, Mrs. Gowri Ramanathan, her grand-daughter, shared two anecdotes about Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi.  When she was asked to record the Venkatesa Suprabhatham slokas for the Thirupathi Devasthanam, Mrs. Subbulakshmi requested a year’s time to do so.  She, then, approached a Sanskrit scholar to guide her and correct her pronunciation of each sloka until she was confident that it was perfect.  Similarly, when she learnt a new composition, Mrs. Subbulakshmi would practice it innumerable times, sing the composition a few times in informal settings before she would venture to sing the composition in a public concert.  These anecdotes illustrate, nor just her approach to musical learning but of her personal discipline, perseverance, and sincerity – qualities that eventually made her the prima donna of Carnatic music. 

While rising to the pinnacle of musical achievements, Mrs. Subbulakshmi did not let her reputation, glory, or wealth affect her. She remained simple and modest.  She believed that musical scholarship is not just a personal achievement but a gift from God that, as Saint-Composer Thyagaraja Swami expressed, must be practiced with humility.  For example, during events honoring her, she would always remain at backstage until she was called to appear on stage.  To her, rendering the music with devotion is more important than the limelight or recognition. Similarly, she believed that the money she earned from her music should be shared with those who are in need.  She donated most of her earnings to charitable causes.  Citing another anecdote from Mrs. Gowri Ramanathan, after out-station concerts and when driving back home, she would stop in small villages and hand over all the fruits and flowers to women and children living in those villages, without even retaining a few for her consumption.  To her, the smiling faces of the women and children was more important than her personal needs. A true karma yogi, indeed.

MAY THE VOICE OF PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH

MAY THE VOICE OF PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH

by

Suvarna Lata & Pranav Teja

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace; one must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it; one must work at it. When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Peace is a ‘precious’ thing. Obviously, like all things ‘precious’, peace has never prevailed in profusion. Rarity has been its virtue and scarcity its merit.  It has been more of a spectral visitant rather than a permanent resident on the earth. On the contrary, war has always existed, and judging by the past, will continue to exist on the planet earth. It has been a constant cohort of mankind all through the course of history – right from the early civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome to the present day.

While the ancient knight-errants raised war to a code of morals, modern-day votaries of war like Nietzsche extolled love of danger and strife as the dominant mark of a ‘superman’. Defending war, he wrote: “The strongest and the highest will to life does not find expression in a miserable struggle for existence, but in a will to war.” One only wishes, Nietzsche had been through a war himself. Bad eyesight barred from active soldiering in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. One wishes, he had personally faced the brutality of the battlefields which he ‘idealized with all the imaginative intensity of inexperience.’

Having beheld the atrocities of war as a solider, Tolstoy condemned the scourge in the most scathing of terms: “Stupefied by prayers, sermons, exhortations, processions, pictures and newspapers, the food for power, hundreds and thousands of men, uniformly dressed, carrying diverse deadly weapons, leaving their parents, wives, children, with hearts of agony, but artificial bravado go, where they, risking their own lives, will commit the most dreadful act of killing men whom they do not know and who have done them no wrong…”.  “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won,” was the verdict of Napoleon after the Waterloo. On an average, there have been thirteen years of war to one year of peace in the annals of human history. The bygone millennium has particularly been the bloodiest of all times. Besides the two world wars, twentieth century has been witness to countless acts of violence across the world. According to an estimate (Matthew White: Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, 2001), the death toll due to wars, violence and indiscretion in the twentieth century was 188,000,000 lives: 83,000,000 killed by genocide, 42,000,000 by military deaths in war, 19,000,000 by civilian deaths in war, 44,000,000 by man-made famine.

Neither the new millennium has begun any differently. The ravages of the raging US-Iraq war and the increasing devastation all around wrought by growing militancy hold out no signs of peace anywhere round the corner. Animosity abides. Conflict continues. Holocaust persists. Looking back at history, surely one is bound to wonder: ‘what is history but a succession of wars, a trail of trauma and a stream of mayhem!” Sadly, it is a surmise that is not wholly flawed. Even so, the voice of peace was not always and altogether muffled by the clamor of conflicts. The sane voice of non-violence did echo when an epoch felt it exigent. Prophets of peace did descend whenever mankind sought solace from disease, death, distress, deprivation and discrimination. Perhaps, peace had its foremost exponent in the form of Buddha – the Enlightened One, as far back as 2500 years ago. Non-violence is the very first of the Panch Sila (five vows) he preached Bodhisattvas. He sought his followers to cultivate metta (compassion or mercy) not just toward humankind but toward every sentient being. An anecdote associated with the Buddha confirms this clearly. Watching a little lamb being carried for ‘sacrifice’ by the King to propitiate Gods, the Enlightened One pleads with him: “Of course you must admit that a monk is much more valuable than a tiny lamb. Kill me instead of the lamb, for you would win merit by a hundredfold.” The King is quick to realize his folly and make amends.  The Wise one reasons with the King” “To kill so that you may live longer is a reprehensible act. You have to sacrifice, not a bleating sheep, but your own bestiality to win the favor of God”.

Almost concurrently, Mahavira – the 24th and the last of the Tirthankaras of the Jain religion – too was busy preaching non-violence albeit in its most rigorous form. Mahavira believed even water had life and hence considered sailing and canoeing as an act of sin. To avoid micro-organisms from getting killed as a result of inhaling and exhaling in the breathing process, he prescribed his followers to constantly cover nose and mouth with a piece of cloth. He dissuaded his followers from taking up cultivation as tilling the land would mean killing many a tiny organism. That explains why most of the followers are found being traders rather than being agriculturists Mahavira did not even approve of tikoti parisuddha mamsa (flesh that is harmless in three ways) permitted by the Buddha for human consumption.

The gospel of peace got a great fillip with the emperor Asoka embracing Buddhism atoning the carnage of Kalinga War in 260 BC in which over 100,000 people were killed and even more people were amputated. He sent missionaries to countries as distant as Greece and Egypt and himself undertook Dharma Prachara Yatras to preach the basic tenets of Buddhism: dana (charity), daya (compassion), satyam (truth), saucham (purity), sadhutva (saintliness), dama (self-control), kritajnata (gratitude), dridha bhakti (steadfastness). He was largely responsible for the spread of the message of the Buddha across Burma, China, Japan, Thailand and other South Eastern Countries. About 600 years after the Buddha, the precept of peace found another of its great exponent in Jesus Christ. With the exception of the death of Jesus on the cross and of ‘the doctrine of atonement by vicarious suffering’, one finds remarkable coincidences in the lives and teachings of the two apostles of peace. We see Jesus’ message of peace not only in his teachings and stories, but also in the way he treated others, including those who put him on trial. At the time of his crucifixion, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” Even being put through the worst suffering, he urged his followers: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”

Any talk of peace is simply incomplete without a reference to Gandhi – easily the greatest peace apostle of modern epoch. Through his personal life, he demonstrated to the world how the practice of peace can transform an ordinary mortal into a mahatma (a divine soul). Through personal action, he showed how one can win over injustice through non-violence. The satyagraha (non-violent protest) that he led successfully to counter colonialism inspired later-day peace heroes like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, Martin Luther King Jr and Peace Pilgrim turn to the Gandhian path to fight against repression, racial discrimination and hegemonic subjugation.

Inspired by Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence, and following the concordant ideals of amal (right conduct), yakeen (faith) and muhabbat (love) in Islam, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan turned 100,000 soldiers from his Pashtun tribesmen into a non-violent army to fight the British rule in his country. Wielding the weapon of non-violence that ‘cuts without wounding and ennobles the man’, Martin Luther King successfully fought the evils of racism. The peace pilgrim led a campaign against the US war of hegemony against Korea. Walking bare-foot, living on alms and sleeping open-doors, she carried the message of peace over 25,000 miles speaking in churches, schools, for radio and television.

Thanks to the long pantheon of peace prophets who descended on the earth to awaken the ‘higher conscience’ of humanity whenever it was clouded by overpowering bestiality, and thus save mankind from violence and bloodshed.  One can very well imagine what the world would be like sans the sane voice of peace resonating every now and again. Even more urgent is now the need for peace on the earth. But, let’s not wait for another messiah of peace to arrive this time around. For, the world today is permeated by weapons of mass destruction and any flare-up even remotely could result in a virtual Armageddon. J F Kennedy said: “Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose, or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can — and save it we must — and then we shall earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessings of God.”