actually, there’s no magic involved. both are stories of faith. perhaps the sort of faith that brings miracle.
i heard one when i was a child, the other after i got married. as my husband, who is jewish, finished telling me why eight oil lamps are lit on hanukkah, i thought of a tiny pot of yogurt and the tale of madhusudan’s bhar. “bhar” means earthenware pot in bengali, and the sound of “r” at the end is more like a “d” said with your tongue touching the palate and rolling a bit. there’s also a soft nasal “n” sound as you stretch the “a” out as in “far”.
here’s a simplified version of the hanukkah story. of course, one can hear the fuller account and enjoy all the history and politics of the time, but i will tell it as it was first related to me.
more than 2000 years ago, when israel was part of the syrian-greek empire, the syrian king antiochus III tried to make the jewish people worship greek gods. in judaism, images and idols are strictly forbidden. you cannot put an idol in the temple, that would desecrate the very place.
a statue of antiochus was erected in the temple of jerusalem, the holiest of jewish places of worship. people were ordered to pray before it. the jews refused to comply.
the maccabees, an intrepid group of jews, decided enough was enough and opposed the syrians. after a three-year war, the temple was reclaimed. but it was in a terrible state, practically destroyed.
the jews cleaned the temple and repaired it… now it was time to light the menorah, the lampstand with seven branches, and bring back the sense of holiness to the temple. that’s when they found there was only a small jar of oil left.
it was winter, not easy to move around. it would take many days to go and fetch more oil. how would they pray, how would they make sure the menorah stayed lit? that was a requirement, the light symbolised divine presence.
the maccabees put their faith in god and lit the menorah. for eight days the lamp remained burning, the flames unextinguished. till fresh supplies of oil reached the temple.
jews celebrate this miracle every november/december during the festival of hanukkah. they light the hannukiah, a stand with eight lamps. there is a ninth lamp, this is used to light the others. on the first day of hanukkah one lamp is lit; on the second, two; and so on… till all eight are glowing beautifully in the dark. it’s a sparkling and happy festival, with song, gifts for children, and prayers. there’s also a lot of eating of oily food. you may have heard of latke, that’s consumed in large quantities during hanukkah, fried doughnuts too, and many other merrily fried things.
the tiny jar of oil instantly made me think of a small pot of yogurt.
memory is a funny thing, some parts of what you heard years ago stay sharp and clear in the mind, while many details are forgotten. only what struck you the most remains. the rest is faint and amorphous.
i’d heard the tale of madhusudan’s bhar from my mother, when i must have been six or seven years old. this story is not from history, it is a parable. though to me it’s always a story my mother told me, that’s all.
a very poor woman and her son lived near the forest. she was a widow and somehow made a meagre living by spinning yarn and earning just about enough to feed her little boy and herself.
she was a devout woman and prayed to sri krishna every day.
i have forgotten the boy’s name and though an internet search tells me he was called jatila, i’ll just call him the boy.
when he started going to school, he had to pass the forest on the way. he liked school but the forest scared him. so he told his mother he was terrified and he wanted someone to accompany him when he walked in the forest.
his mother was in a quandary. she prayed hard and pleaded with krishna to take care of her son.
the next day, she told the boy, “when you get scared, call your madhusudan dada, he’ll come to help you.”
madhusudan is another name of krishna; and we call our elder brothers “dada”.
the boy was intrigued. who was this madhusudan dada? his mother said, he’s like an elder brother and he lived out there, he took care of the cows.
the following day, the boy was scared again and he called out, “madhusudan dada! madhusudan dada!” exactly as his mother had told him to.
there was no answer. no one appeared. the boy began to cry. then he remembered his mother’s words and because he trusted her, he called out again.
suddenly he heard a flute playing, and then a young boy, a little older than him, appeared before him. he had a flute in his hand, a peacock feather stuck in his headband, he wore a simple cowherd’s dhoti and kurta.
the young cowherd spoke to the boy and said he need not fear. then he walked with him to the edge of the forest.
on his way back, the boy called out to madhusudan dada again and he was there.
the boy told his mother, yes, indeed, he had an elder brother who came to help him in the forest. his mother was surprised but she knew who it must have been.
from then on, madhusudan would come every day and they’d cross the forest together.
one day, there was a picnic in school. each child was supposed to bring something. the boy’s mother was too poor to be able to buy or prepare any food for the picnic.
when the boy met madhusudan, he was sad. madhusudan asked him what the matter was. on hearing what bothered the boy, madhusudan smiled and extended his hand.
a little bhar sat on his palm. he gave it to the boy and said, “go, take that, and go to school.”
the boy looked at the tiny pot. there was sweet yogurt inside. but…
“there are so many boys in my class… there’s so little curd. how will it feed everyone?” the boy asked.
madhusudan said to him, not to worry, just take it along.
of course, when the teacher (not a very pleasant man) saw the little bhar, he made fun of the poor boy’s contribution.
at the end of the meal, it was time for dessert, the teacher told the boy to serve everyone from his tiny pot, even though there was barely any yogurt in it.
the boy started to serve. as he took out some yogurt, the pot filled up. he was astonished. he served some more yogurt and the bhar was full again. this continued till each and every one at the picnic had been fed. the yogurt in the tiny pot never got over.
the teacher later wanted to see madhusudan, but failed to, for he didn’t have faith nor did he possess purity of heart. the poor woman’s complete faith and the boy’s innocence and trust in his mother reached the divine. and the boy saw his madhusudan dada. there was the miracle of the tiny bhar.
i have always loved this story. the surprise and joy in it… the filling up of the bhar. and madhusudan, the mysterious one in the forest.
it was krishna’s birth anniversary yesterday, janmashtami. he was born, it is said, on the eighth day of the krishna paksha or dark phase of the month of shravan. this festival usually falls in august. at my family’s home in calcutta, the annual utsav is held to celebrate it. vaishnavs around the world have rejoiced the advent of the eighth reincarnation of vishnu, with infant sri krishnas sitting on their jhoola, or swing. people have taken turns to pull the jhoola. lots of sweets and dairy based food have been gorged. many tales of krishna told.
i hope you always have abundance and miracle in your life. the oil jar and the bhar, i hope they make sure we never run out of faith.
would like to thank our reader, dawn kay, who said she’d also like to read about indian lores and culture on writersbrew. made us go, hmmm… we loved the idea. it was dawn’s birthday a few days ago, this story is for her. happy birthday, dawn.