Hanuman, A 'Jewish Subramanya' And A War Against A Deadly Disease
In the times of a pandemic, here's a story from the not-so-distant past where the concepts of service, health and spirituality were beautifully interwoven.
And most importantly, minus the 'white man's burden'.
In northern India, whenever one needs healing and protection, the common Hindu seeks refuge in the Hanuman Chalisa.
In southern India, Kanthar Sashti Kavasam, a mystical and melodious hymn for Subrahamanya, does the same function.
In an unlikely way, both these divinities have got entangled in a modern Purana of a fight against a deadly disease. And what a message it has for modern humanity.
On 22 January 2021, a flight carrying two million doses of Covishield vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, took off from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, for Brazil.
Then, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made that famous tweet which showed Hanuman carrying the life-saving medicinal mountain — ‘Sanjeevini Parvat’ — from India to Brazil.
He was thanking India and Prime Minister Modi.
And Hanuman it was, who filled the mind-space of a hippie doctor standing near a Hindu temple somewhere in the heart of northern India in the early 1970s.
Dr. Larry Brilliant was part of the team that was battling a deadly disease that had ravaged humanity for millennia — smallpox.
He was now committed to its eradication — removal of the disease completely.
‘Unmulan’ — complete eradication; that was what his guru had said to him.
The guru was Neem Karoli Baba.
In 1972, Dr. Larry Brilliant had come to India on a spiritual quest, met Neem Karoli Baba and got orientated towards him.
Not only had Baba forced the doctor, who had come as a seeker to him, to go and render his medical services in the battle against smallpox, and predicted that it would be eradicated completely, he had also termed him ‘Subramanya’, the name of commander-in-chief of the army of the devas.
And after his guru had merged with the infinite, Dr Brilliant continued his dharma yuddha against the disease along with his Indian colleagues and WHO officials.
And he was contemplating Hanuman.
That was no accident.
After the tragedy of his son’s death due to cancer, Larry Brilliant and his wife Elaine, who had taken a Hindu name, Girija, had come to India in a spiritual pursuit.
Earlier too, he had been involved with the civil rights movement, marching with Rev. Martin Luther King.
Soon, among those who were on the spiritual quest, Larry had earned the nickname ‘Guru Commissioner’.
His deep scepticism actually helped the group in identifying the fake gurus from the real. It was then that they came across Neem Karoli Baba.
Baba had asked his disciples to study the Hanuman Chalisa and Ramayana.
A Jew, Larry Brilliant, was having his own struggle with the Hindu atmosphere. In his autobiography, he explains:
The first of the Ten Commandments is, “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and yet all over the ashram idols were being worshiped — not just respected or loved, but worshiped. It’s a big deal for Jews. While I had been looking for spirituality elsewhere — in Buddha and Jesus and all over India —I never worshipped stone idols and I was skeptical of anyone who wanted me to worship an idol, stone or human, or touch his feet.
Yet, he was strangely attracted to Hanuman when the group recited the Ramayana.
If he could not find any spiritual pull towards the ashram and Neem Karoli Baba as his wife did, he could at least make himself Hanuman and serve the people.
Still, he was depressed and in despair. Alone, by the lake near Naina Devi temple — where the eye of the goddess is believed to have fallen — he asked deep in his heart for a sign — at least a rainbow on the oil smear floating on the polluted lake.
But ‘silence was my answer; as hard as it was to accept, as sad and broken as I felt, it was time to leave the ashram’, writes Dr. Brilliant.
And that night, he came to say his goodbye to Baba.
Then it happened. It could have been a scene from a melodramatic devotional Indian movie. But it happened.
The devotees had arranged fruits and flowers before the seat of Neem Karoli Baba in the form of ‘Ram’ in Devanagari script.
A fruit from this arrangement fell down. The name of Ram was incomplete.
Instinctively, Larry went to pick the fruit and complete Rama’s name, something deep in him not wanting the Divine Name to be incomplete.
I got down on my hands and knees to pick up the apple and replace it to repair the name of God. At just that moment, Maharaj burst through the oversized double doors from his room, and before I could look up or move, he seemed to lunge at me, deliberately stepping on my fingers, pinning my right hand to the ground just as I grasped the apple.
Baba whispered to him even as his hand was pinned by Baba’s leg.
‘Doctor America’, Baba addressed him, as he always did, and asked him if he was by the lake and if he was talking to God. Then he asked if he was asking God for a sign.
What little was left of my skepticism vanished. I felt utterly at peace. He knew. He knew. I do not know how. But he knew. I felt loved like never before, completely understood, naked and yet unashamed. I felt accepted. Tears streamed down my face.
Right through his battle against smallpox as Larry Brilliant encountered problems, particularly corruption, Baba suggested that he read verses 62 and 63 of chapter two of the Bhagavad Gita.
He finds the message 'so similar to a message of Rabbi Hillel, who said that it is our duty to heal the broken world — tikkun olam — but we must do it without any regard to whether we receive personal credit from our actions.'
The next time Baba meets Dr. Larry Brilliant, he asks if Larry had studied the suggested shlokas. When Larry recites them, Baba makes an important personal spiritual gesture. He says:
Doctor America! Doctor America! Oh that is so good. You have read the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata. You are Subrahmanyum.
The person who interprets the name for Larry states that Subramanya was the name of a commander of the Pandava army, under Arjuna. Clearly wrong. The name, in fact, had a deeper meaning.
In the Mahabharata, Skanda or Subramanya is shown as the one who is worshipped for the remover of ailments.
Krishna, while explaining his greatness in the Bhagavad Gita, states that among the commanders of armies, he is Skanda, who is Subramanya.
Thus, the name has double significance, as not just the commander of the army of light, but also in battling the diseases that hurt and harm humanity, especially children.
Thus, Neem Karoli Baba had anointed Larry as Subramanya in humanity’s battle against smallpox.
And India would be Larry Brilliant’s dharma kshetra — Kurukshetra.
The autobiography of Dr Larry Brilliant is filled with interesting and inspiring insights.
Even after Neem Karoli Baba’s escape from ‘the Central Jail’ as he called his mortal body, he seemed to have guided and facilitated Dr Brilliant's fight against smallpox.
In Uttar Pradesh, the governor, Akbar Ali Khan, took a special interest in Dr. Larry Brilliant’s campaign of eradicating smallpox.
The governor had become personally involved in smallpox — he and I had a shared secret: we both believed in Maharaji’s prediction that smallpox would be unmulan. [sic]
In 1973, Baba had left his mortal frame and the doctor had become part of the team fighting smallpox and by 1977, smallpox was gone.
As the last case of smallpox — a child named Rahima Banu — was treated and cured, guess what Dr. Larry Brilliant and Girija did?
They took a pilgrimage to the famous six temples of Murugan-Subramanya, the Aru-Padai-Veedu in Tamil Nadu.
In 1979, a diverse group of professionals came together in Michigan as smallpox warriors—Neem Karoli Baba devotees and WHO epidemiologists as well as Indian and American eye specialists.
There were arguments. 'Don't be in a hurry to fight blindness, lest we lose our souls' cautioned Ram Dass.
Nicole, one of the fellow-warriors of Larry Brilliant answered, 'who cares if I burn in hell for a thousand years; if we can make one less person die blind.'
Vivekananda, the readers may remember, said exactly the same words.
Thus, was born the organisation, SEVA, and again here, Indian spirituality was at work.
Since its founding in 1979, Seva’s programs, grantees, and partners have restored sight to more than four million people in two dozen countries. Most of these surgeries were done for free. So much of Seva’s success was due to Dr. Venkataswamy, “Dr. V.,” who founded the Aravind Eye Hospital in honor of his teachers, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry.
The book Sometimes Brilliant was published in 2016. This is an India-centric global book.
It's is about a great achievement of humanity and the motivation for that achievement that came from transcending all kinds of barriers.
A Jewish doctor from the United States came on a quest and through the spiritual guidance of his Hindu Guru immersed himself as a divine commander in the fight against smallpox and there was victory.
In a way, this book is a spiritual classic. There is no white-man’s burden here nor ethical superiority claims of Western medico-religious missionaries.
There is no condemnation either.
Today, as we fight the coronavirus pandemic, this book becomes all too relevant — for it reminds the reader of the spiritual strength that sustains us as a species and of our place in the planetary evolution through pandemics and healing processes.
Silently, Mother India works — her blessings ever upon all humanity, as Swami Vivekananda said, proclaiming herself not through military might and economic dominance, but through peace and benediction.
Dr. Larry Brilliant has the soul to hear Her voice and that was a blessing for all humanity.
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