Chhath at the crossroads

Religiosity is on the streets. The roads are full of religious commerce. Crowd, an unmanageable crowd, overlapping the shops of various concerns, horn-blowing, smoke-emitting vehicles, packed plastic bags with items of religious rituals can be seen all over the streets. Interestingly, I noticed a thela that has chicken chilly written on it that has changed its business for some pious days and was now selling hawan samagri. Chhath geet (at times with DJ effect) played in the background. I could sense the sound of blowing horns and religious fervour entering my ears simultaneously. 

  • Published 6.11.16
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Religiosity is on the streets. The roads are full of religious commerce. Crowd, an unmanageable crowd, overlapping the shops of various concerns, horn-blowing, smoke-emitting vehicles, packed plastic bags with items of religious rituals can be seen all over the streets. Interestingly, I noticed a thela that has chicken chilly written on it that has changed its business for some pious days and was now selling hawan samagri. Chhath geet (at times with DJ effect) played in the background. I could sense the sound of blowing horns and religious fervour entering my ears simultaneously. 

I found myself on a strange crossroads of tradition and modernity, religious spirituality and rituals, faith and commerce, Bhakti and bargain, Sun God and smoking vehicles depleting the ozone layer. I was compelled to interrogate and introspect, why we celebrate Chhath Puja? Whom do we worship? What is the procedure? 

Chhath is celebrated six days after Deepawali in the month of Karthik. It is a four-day procedure beginning from Nahay Khay. On this day the one who is to observe the fast usually takes a holy bath in a river, preferably in the Ganga or Kosi. After purification, they have boiled rice and water guard prepared in ghee and rock salt, once during the day. Many 
people use the Holy water of the Ganges to prepare the prasad.

Next day is called Kharna. On this day, the person observing Chhath fasts for the whole day and eats once after sunset. The meal is that of kheer and puri. The purity measures are strictly taken care of. After this, they are set for a 36-hour fast.

The third day is evening arghya. The person fasts for the whole day. The day is spent in preparing the offering of thekua, a sweet preparation of wheat flour, sugar and ghee. The preparation is arranged on bamboo baskets known as soop and daura. Other items in the basket include fruits, aarta made up of cotton, areca nut, clove, cardamom, turmeric, ginger etc. The person along with the family members goes to the bank of the river and offers arghya to the evening Sun. The prayer concludes the next day with offering of arghya to the morning Sun. 

The procedures take place while people present there sing the Chhath geet. These songs include the rituals, protocol, wishes and the prayers to the Sun God and Chhathi Mata. These songs are dedicated to Chhathi Mata as well as Sooraj (Sun) devta. The Sun is worshipped with the belief that it can heal many diseases. So, Chhath is observed to 
get an illness-free life. Moreover, the wishes are very material. The songs include the wishes for sons, daughters, their weddings and children. People pray for health as well as wealth and there is a direct prayer to the Sun God without any priestly intervention and mediation. 

There is no certainty regarding the history of this fast and also about who this Chhathi Mata is! Some people believe her to be the goddess of fertility whereas others think she is Shashthi Devi. But there is no authoritative record of the same. Many people observing this fast are unaware of any history or mythology of this but everyone tends to have faith in 
this puja and also a belief that the wishes are fulfilled by observing this long fast. The God and the Goddess fulfil the wishes by being happy with the penitence. Purity and hygiene are of utmost importance in this puja. 

What is interesting is a strange amalgamation of the folk and the priestly. Some people trace it to the age of the Vedas; some trace it to the Ramayan whereas some think that the Mahabharat has the first reference to such a fast. But what is important is to notice its implication in the present. 

We are at an age and stage of globalisation where commerce is expanding internationally. Moreover, we are in a computer age of rationality and scientific temper. We are in a hurry to accept the new, the modern, the international and the multinational. In this race, there is always a threat of merging identities and thereby losing individual identities. This is a difficult situation where one wants to unburden oneself of the past in order to accept the new and at the same time mourn the loss with a sense of nostalgia. This feeling of nostalgia compels us to keep some reminiscence of the past in the form of a relic. 

I notice the same pattern in case of Chhath Puja, a ritual that takes place twice a year. There is no harm in following certain norms, observing a particular fast or having faith in a certain god but the problem lies in accepting it uncritically.
This is the charm of a relic that one does not have to be critical of it. At times a sense of fear is instilled to keep the ritual going without much interrogation. 

This uncritical faith is termed “Bhakti” and thus the ritual gets repeated undisturbed by the passage of time. It is co-opted in the time we live in and that is what forms the crossroads. The puja appears to take place somewhere else for someone not among us. Theoretically, this is a worship of a very important element of nature but somehow the deification of this element makes it an alien phenomenon without a direct responsibility toward ecology. 

One tends to be particular about the ritualistic form of worship but this form of worship does not take any responsibility of ecological concern. One may feel proud of one's tradition that nature worship is alive even in rituals but one needs to be critical whether it is alive only in the form of a ritual.

It is because of this uncritical faith that we find ourselves at the crossroads. Plastic bags pollute the environment whereas purity measures are strictly observed. The Sun God is worshipped and the number of patients with vitamin D deficiency is increasing remarkably. Pollution level is rising and so is insistence in the ritual. 

Should we not ask ourselves why doesn’t our faith translate into an everyday behaviour? Why do we prefer four days of holiness? 

Most importantly why is nature worship not saving our nature? I think the answer to this relic form of Bhakti is a constant 
interrogation. That might just help us to cross the crossroads.

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