25 November 2019

Kataragama and Athara Maga

Those conversant in Sinhala would get it immediately. A play on words. Kataragama is known to almost all Sri Lankans as a destination of pilgrims, place of worship and a place as good as any to reflect on times gone by if you’ve been there many times over the years. 

Kataragama. It is the name of a God, named after place but with many other names, and among them, these: Skanda, Kandasurindun, Murugan, Murukan, Kartikeya, Sanmugam and Gangeya. Katara-Gama, if one were to break it that way, would be ‘village in the desert’ or ‘desert-village’. Other legends have it that Kataragama is a corruption of Karthikeya-Grama, or ‘The Village of Prince/God Karthikeya’. ‘Athara Maga’ means ‘(somewhere) along the way.’ Nothing divine in that. No fascinating legends either.

So what’s this juxtaposition apart from the obvious play of alliteration? Well, it’s a well-known Sinhala saying, danagena giyoth kataragama, nodana giyoth atharamaga (‘if you know the road, you will reach Kataragama and if you don’t, you won’t’ or rather, by implication, ‘you will get lost’).  

It probably comes from a lived reality sans roads, maps, mobile phones or the internet. In application, it can refer to any number of things. It’s about knowing what’s what.  In other words it is possible to know the road, get to Kataragama and yet end up without any improvement in comprehension, say, of the eternal verities, the divinity of the divine, the divinity of self and the ata lo dahama (the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss, fame and defame, praise and blame, joy and sorrow).

There are Kataragamas everywhere. Any place of worship is a Kataragama in this sense. And it’s not just places. Any objective is a Kataragama. Here are some common Kataragamas: an examination, a career goal, knowledge acquisition, building a house, educating oneself or one’s children, a political project and even charity.  

Sometimes the practice itself indicates possibility of success. Speaking of theists, for example, some are wont to worship at shrines whereas others, not for reasons of doubt, do not. As it is said, ‘those who see god, do not need a human-made image whereas those who cannot see god need some form of representation to worship.’ This is not to say that idol-worship is silly, of course. If it gives succor, then it’s all good. Furthermore, in a world cluttered by myriad distractions, a mind that is not at ease can do with a prob that makes for focus.  

Achievement, however, according to my brother Arjuna, is possible when five key conditions are met: need, discipline, practice or rehearsal, association with the like-minded and a teacher. 

The first, need, is self-explanatory as long as one is clear about what one wants and has not fallen into the fairly typical traps of misnaming and delusion. The second and third are easy to say and understand in a literary sense but are hard to, well, practice! Sloth, arrogance and distractions can derail and they often do. Single-mindedness helps us get to Kataragama and anything less can lead us astray. 

Sathsangha is the fourth requirement. The Sanskrit term is a combining of sath (true) and sangha (collective). The seeker benefits immensely when he or she associates true people. ‘True people’ would refer to those who similarly seek, are honest to themselves and each other and have committed themselves to abide by the above five conditions.  

Guru. Teacher. That’s another easily misnamed and misunderstood word. Not all those offering advice and direction are gurus. Put simply, a mathematics teacher may or may not know something about literature, but if he or she teaches just mathematics the particular student is not going to further his or her knowledge about the word and its many wonderful uses. The right teacher is hard to find. A seeker needs, then, a Sathguru. Yes, sath as in a compound of knowledge, wisdom, absolute generosity, ability to impart knowledge, ability to nurture and discipline and the ability to recognize and expend effort on a student who him/herself has the potential to emulate, i.e. to become a sathguru.

We have advisors and aides, yes-men and yes-women, smart people who know to say that which pleases, charlatans preying on ignorance and credulity, individuals endowed with a streak so vile that they will point one in the wrong direction, take one to a desert and even convince seeker that he/she has indeed reached Kataragama. 

In the end, constant self-reflection, repeated re-assessment and humility to change course when it becomes clear that the wrong road has been taken will get us somewhere. Maybe not to the Kataragama of heart’s and mind’s desire but certainly closer to it with ample possibility of reaching the goal.  

Certain destinations don’t appear in Google Maps. That’s good to know. Kataragama beckons. That’s what life is about for most people. And Kataragama is not necessarily too far away and the road is not necessarily made of known and unknown perils. Knowing is key. We are often lost and we don’t know it. Athara Maga is not a place in that it has to be understood as more a plurality than a singular ‘place’. We spend most of our lives in one or another of these place. We are not alone either. These places are full of people. 

Kataragama is a good place to visit. Getting there is not as easy as it seems.