‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal in 1851. With characteristic pithiness, the great American philosopher isolated a fundamental human truth — and well before the ravages of civil war and world wars or the advent of the atomic bomb or AIDS. It’s true, fear can debilitate and destroy. It clouds our judgment, saps our greater vitality. And yet, we live alongside our fears — driving to work, boarding a plane, visiting the doctor for a routine checkup, or giving that presentation in the conference room. Our fears lurk on the periphery of our conscience, murky figures at best, but we see them every day as surely as our own faces in the mirror. Some we dispel with reason, others won’t shake so easily.
But what if we could allay our fears, even master them, by simply telling ourselves we can? That’s the idea at the heart of a public vigil to be held at the Durga Mandir Temple on Route 27 in Kingston, beginning on Saturday, December 30, at 10 a.m. and concluding on Sunday, December 31, at 10:30 a.m. Followers of Yogiraj Brahmrshi Barphani Dadaji, one of India’s most well-known holy men, will lead a 24-hour mantra repetition, or jaap, to encourage fearlessness. Participants will chant aloud the Mahamritunjaya Mantra, a prayer specifically worded to relieve fear, particularly the fear of death and loss.
The eighth annual 24-hour event, conducted in a mixture of Sanskrit, Hindu, and English, is a worship service with singing, prayers, a fire ceremony, and a procession. As part of the event, 108 Parthiv Shivs (clay statues), will be immersed in the pond behind the temple. “Behind this ceremony lies profound symbolism,” says Rajyalaxmi Shaha, coordinator of the event. “It is to remind us that our physical existence is temporary — having its origins and dissolution in the formless absolute.” A fire ceremony concludes the vigil. “It is natural to revere fire — Brahmateja, Divine Flame, Sacred Glow, Divine Light, or Latent Light,” Shaha says. “The Vedic hymn ‘Agne Supatha Raye’ prays to this omnipotent, supreme power to enlighten and inspire us towards the righteous path.”
Shaha says that people of different faiths regularly participate in the event. She also expects that some will attend who are not religious at all but simply wish to find inner peace through meditation. An Indian food buffet follows the ceremony. Shaha says that it is not necessary to participate for the full 24 hours. “If you do it (chant the mantra) with full concentration you will receive the same benefit as someone who is there for 24 hours but doesn’t want to be there or doesn’t want to meditate. You receive what you put into the meditation and prayer. Even one minute is valuable if the person is completely focused.”
Shaha also serves as secretary and treasurer of the Om Kriya Yog Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the teaching of Om Kriya Yoga with offices in Princeton Junction. Shaha, who was born and educated in India, says that mantras are an integral part of the practice of spirituality in her culture. “Jappa (mantra repetition) is Nada Yoga, the yoga of sound,” she says. “With the right sounds that come from chanting, we invite a calming energy. You can use sound as a means of spiritual transformation.”
Achieving spiritual transformation and, ultimately, spiritual liberation, or moksha, is part of the essential fabric of life in India going back several thousand years and woven into the culture. “I did not attend any school for my spiritual training. It is simply part of the life you are born into,” says Shaha.
Born in Varanasi, India, Shaha grew up in India. Her father runs a successful construction company and is also involved in politics; her mother is a homemaker and social worker. Shaha’s formal schooling closely relates to her spirituality. She received a bachelor’s degree in the study of Sanskrit, an ancient language in which many Hindu scriptures and epic poems were written. She earned her masters degree in English from Banaras Hindu University. As a project manager for MarketSource, she developed and created websites for Fortune 500 companies, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Mylanta, and Pepcil. She now works for a company in Piscataway.
The mantra to be chanted during the fearlessness vigil is in Sanskrit (although an English translation will be provided for those who prefer). However, Shaha points out that while knowing the meaning of a mantra’s words enhances the experience, the sound itself of the chanted syllables conveys transformative power. “The sound channels energy. The chanting or reciting of mantras activates and accelerates the creative spiritual force, promoting harmony in all parts of one’s self. Inner harmony — serenity — allows us to get in touch with our deepest self, our ‘inner voice,’” Shaha says.
The quest for serenity can prove a difficult path, whether in India or New Jersey. Shaha, who has lived with her family in Princeton Junction since 1984, is married with two grown children. Her husband, Shree Prakash Shaha, is a civil engineer. She says she has often felt the stress of life’s demands. “There is so much noise, so much distraction in our world today. As a mother, you worry not only about yourself, but your children too. As a wife, you are always trying to be the best spouse. Without a way to find calm within yourself, you become numb to life; you can’t keep up, you can’t cope.” She says it saddens her that the most popular way in America to deal with stress and anxiety seems to be the pharmaceutical method. “People turn to antidepressants and other drugs for the answer. They look outward for answers but the answer always comes from within.”
The “answer,” she says, is meditation, which gives the practitioner inner harmony and enables him or her to rise above — to transcend — the vicissitudes of human life, as well as the more mundane bumps along the road. “Meditation relieves stress and allows you to enjoy people and the world around you,” Shaha says. “You see the beauty of life in everything. There is joy and beauty all around us but so many pass it by, they don’t even notice.” For Shaha, meditation most often takes the form of yoga practice. She points out that many people take yoga classes for their physical health, but the real benefit comes from the inner quiet that accompanies what yogis call their practice. Such an improved outlook, she says, is one of the daily benefits.
Although yogic meditation has an individually contemplative focus, the chanting of mantras by a group introduces a communal power: prayer acquiring a kind of synergy, says Shaha. Participants in the fearlessness vigil on December 30/31 can tap into the dynamics of group meditation or look inward. “When you come to the jaap, you create your own space,” Shaha says, “and the space you create you meditate in.”
Many regard the approach of the new year as nothing more than a challenge to plan one last party before changing calendars. And yet, as arbitrary and secular as the holiday may be, it provides an opportunity for renewal, a chance at a fresh start, a clean slate — hence the custom of making New Year’s resolutions. Shaha and the other vigil participants would argue that the day-long repetition of the Mahamritunjaya Mantra creates an ideal mind-set for all successful resolutions. “We live in a time when fear pervades our lives,” Shaha says. “What better way to overcome a force that holds us back than to repeat this mantra designed to banish fear. Imagine what we could all do if we had no fear.”
Public Vigil to Encourage Fearlessness, Saturday, December 30, 10 a.m, to Sunday, December 31, 10:30 a.m., Durga Mandir Temple, 4240 Route 27 North, South Brunswick. Bring a cushion or blanket to sit on. Donations welcomed. 609-936-0263.