Friday, January 14, 2011

Thai Pongal

An Indian thanksgiving Event

Pongal in Tamil means"boiling over or spill over." The boiling over of milk in the clay pot symbolizes material abundance for the household. Thai Pongal, celebrated at harvest time on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai, is traditionally intended to thank the Sun God and farmstead livestock that helped create the material abundance.

The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning " the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities" is often quoted regarding the Pongal festival. The festival usually occurs from January 13 — 15 i.e. the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day of Thai.In short Pongal celebration is a thanksgiving eventfor the abundant harvest in the preceding year.

It is a thanksgiving festival celebrated by Tamils of Hindu faith. It is celebrated during the harvesting month to thank God and to offer gratitude to nature for a good harvest. It is the time to offer gratitude for the main essentials needs of living things that is water land, air. And not forgetting the graciousness of the sun, they offer the day’s prayer to Surian, the Sun god.

Ponggal celebrated for three consecutive days.

The first day it is celebrated for the harvested crops and shared with friends and relatives. The main feature of this festival is the boiling of milk in a clay pot until it overflows when the family members gathered round the pot shouting, ”Ponggale oh Ponggale” then add rice to it.

The second day known as Mattu Ponggal, cows are adored and given the offerings. This is the time when villages decorate the cows and also the elders seek God’s blessing for their children. The cows are given a bath, their horns painted and they are decorated with garlands.

And on the third day known as Kanni Ponggal is dedicated to young vrgins. Young women pray for a good life and a dashing great husband. The young unmarried ladies wearing new clothes, gold and silver ornaments will have special prayers for their future marriage.

Ponggal is the only Indian festival that is based on the solar calendar and it is on the fourteenth of January every year. For other Hindus festivals it follows the lunar calendar. It marks the day when the Sun purportedly shifts northwards. It signifies the commencement of Uttarayana, which represents the northward journey of Sun.It other parts of India it is celebrated as Makar Sankranti

Significance of boiling over of spilt milk

The spilling of milk means prosperity and if the milk spills as the sun rises, it is a good sign for the family.

Half of the boiled milk is then scooped for offering to the departed parents and ancestors and remainder for the family and friends to drink. Then sweetened rice is added for cooking. As the sweetened rice is about to cook, a spoonful of ghee is added. Once the sweetened rice is ready, an offering is made to the ancestors and the remainder shared with neighbors.

Ponggal and its relevance to us

Traditionally Pongal used to be a harvest festival of peasants in villagers, who plough their land, plant crops and rear herds of cattle. Today it is being celebrated by everyone, even those residing in urban areas in high rise buildings and who have nothing in common with those villagers to whom pongal was such a meaningful festival. To many today in urban areas Pongal has become a symbol of their culture and tradition which they want to uphold for fear they may soon be forgotten by the future generations.

Pongal and Christianity

When we were children, in the sixties and seventies, we never celebrated Pongal as we were told it is a strictly a Hindu festival, whereby the Sun and Cow were being worshipped as gods. But today after 30-40 years, the Church seem to have taken a totally different stance. It encourages its followers to actively celebrate the festival, as it contends that is more of a Tamil culture, which all Tamils must uphold. Why this change by our church?

A festival that the church forbade some 30 years ago is being actively celebrated in the church today. In fact in many parishes, it has taken over the Eucharistic celebrations of mass on Sunday. Why such over-enthusiasm? Is it right to incorporate an ethnic culture totally into our Sunday mass attended by many races to the extent of driving away many to other churches for Sunday mass? Wouldn’t this massive infiltration of cultural elements into mass distract the minds of the congregation away from Christ who should be focus of our attention during mass?

The mass is a very solemn celebration where we should seriously listen to the word of God, witness the transformation of His body and blood, subsequently receive Him in Holy Communion and then go forth to share His love with others. Other cultural activities, singing, dancing and various performances should be held outside the mass so as not to allow them to divert our focus from Christ who should be centre of our Eucharistic celebrations.

Tamil culture and Hinduism

Pongal had been celebrated much before Christianity came to India. Obviously looking at the way had been celebrated, it is obvious that it is basically a Hindu festival. It is easy to understand that as the Tamils were all Hindus and the vast majority of them continue to be so till today. Tamil culture is so inter-twined with Hinduism that it is difficult to separate one from the other.

Being traditionally a Hindu festival, is it wrong for Tamil Christians to celebrate? Is it wrong to thank the Sun, the greatest gift of God to man, without which no life would exist? Is it wrong to appreciate and adore the cow, which provided for all the needs of men? Regardless of one’s religion I see why we cannot adore the marvels of God and pay tribute to His creations that provide us with all our daily needs. While it is not wrong for Christians to celebrate Pongal, we should not overdo things so as to mask the presence of Christ at mass which all excessive cultural activities do.

While we go about celebrating Pongal as our right, we must be aware that there have been fears expressed by fellow Hindus that this change of mindset of the Church in going all out to adopt Pongal and certain other cultural practices by the Indian Christians may be part of its tactic of "inculturation,” aimed at getting Christianity to appear less Western and more Indian thereby more appealing to them to embrace it. It is our duty to allay such fears among our fellow Indians from the Hindu faith as it would be morally wrong to convert someone from one religion to another.

Thanking Mother Nature for the abundant harvest that gave the peasants and their families good life is indeed a noble one. Sharing their harvest with neighbors is a of greater nobility which we should all emulate regardless of our own faith or culture.

We should take Ponggal as an opportunity to thank the Almighty for the abundant blessings we received either overtly or in disguise. Often these blessings come in disguise, which we only realize much later when we overcome the various crisis that come our way. It is in sharing our blessings with our neighbor will we be rewarded with more.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sunday Reflections - Baptism of the Lord

Sunday Reflections (Sunday 9 Jan 2011)

Baptism of the Lord (Mathew 3: 3-13)

Last Sunday we commemorated the baptism of the Lord. In the Gospel Mathew clearly highlighted the event where Jesus was reluctantly baptized by John the Baptist. As Jesus was baptized, Mathew described how the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descending upon Him as a dove. There was a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

This scene as described by Mathew illustrated the concept of Holy Trinity, which is one of the basic tenets of our faith. As children before this used to be an interesting story told to by our priests and catechism teachers, which illustrated the might of the God of the Universe.

For all of us who have been baptized as infants, that event in our lives was more of a ceremony that officially admitted us into the Church. Only later did we realize that it was a ceremony that made us members of Christ’s body. Whether we remember the day or not, it is time we reflect on its meaning, the meaning of being baptized into Christ, into His death and rising and by doing so becoming part of His mission.

Jesus’ baptism was the start of His public ministry, His dedication to doing the work of His Father. So to it should the beginning our public life to do His will in the world, amongst the the people we live.

A good friend of mine in his fifties is so frustrated at the evils in the world that he strongly believes that Jesus will come back very soon to save the world once and for all. He gets all sorts of dreams and even visions which he interprets as signs of Jesus’ impending return to mete out his untainted judgment to punish the bad and reward the good.

It is unfortunate that many of us, like my friend, even as grown up-adults, see the baptism of Jesus as miraculous vision of God coming down to us in majesty and power to put an end to all our woes. Many still wait for the coming of God in the form of the Holy Spirit to work miracles to cure the ills of society. If that is so we are badly mistaken and our wait will be just in vain.

God is already here among us in the form of fellow humans and the Holy Spirit is already within us as our intellect, energy and as our conscience. He has already equipped us with all that we possess to be his miracle workers among men and it is time we realize that.

It is time for us to seek Jesus in the people around us, especially the poor, sick and lonely.It is time to seek Jesus in those oppressed and marginalized. It is time for us to seek Jesus in those who disagree with us and even those who hate us. It is time for us to seek Jesus in our enemies.

As we renewed our baptismal vows last Sunday let us pledge to go forward to be the miracle workers to alleviate the pain and sufferings in our midst, be it in our selves,our family or society as a whole.

The Gospel reading for the week is as below.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him. But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?

And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfill all justice. Then he suffered him.

And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him.

And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.