In many parts of the world, including India, we have entered the season of winter. Like snow, it is a simple and pure time. All of nature has turned inwards. Resources are scarce and must be used with awareness and discipline. Life survives by being simple and kind – with itself, and others.
Around the world, during the season of winter, there is a natural impulse to turn within, to conserve energy, and to be kind to others. And, we are all celebrating various holidays – “holy days”.
Today we begin the month of Mārgaśirśa. In keeping with the season, it is a time to cultivate devotion, simplicity, goodness, and purity of being.
There is a Sanskrit word that speaks to all of these qualities: pavitratā.
Pavitratā means purity, and also connotes sanctity, holiness, cleanliness, and goodness. The linguistic root of the word pavitratā is pū – this is the same Indo-European root as the English word pure!
It is a difficult word to translate, but is a major operating principle within the tradition. The divine is the purest essence (the most pavitra), and our task as we navigate life is to always return to, recognize, and honor it.
Over the course of millennia, the tradition laid out thousands of guidelines to help people stay connected to the purity of being, to pavitratā. There are instructions on absolutely everything: how to keep your house and space pure, your food pure, your body pure, your thoughts and feelings pure, your relationships pure, your work pure, your actions and intentions pure… (and these are all things we will be exploring together over the course of your studies here at Living Sanskrit).
However, as in many spiritual traditions, the dogmatic folks managed to turn these instructions – intended to keep us connected to the divine essence, whose nature is truth, goodness, and beauty – into weapons of oppression and control. Naturally, this is not our approach.
This month’s practice is an invitation to bring your attention and life back to purity and holiness. Cultivating pavitratā in your life does not mean creating divisions, judgments, and rigid restrictions around what is “clean” and “unclean”, “good” and “bad”. It means recognizing the divine presence everywhere and in everything, and making choices that will reveal and honor that eternally pure essence. Over time, and through further learning, you will learn what supports or hampers your ability to connect to the sacred.
Practice: Experience Your Purity
This month is dedicated to Lord Kṛṣṇa, one of whose roles is the protector of the pure and innocent. Any practices (ritual worship, chanting, dancing, japa, meditation, etc) offered to Him are particularly potent at this time.
Wearing, eating, or worshipping the tulasī (tulsī in Hindi) plant – who is the embodiment of pavitratā, is also traditional this month. This plant is also sacred to many Christians, and is called holy basil. Tulasī is revered as the goddess of purity and is a wife of Lord Kṛṣṇa.
The plant also has tremendous medicinal properties, and even wards off mosquitoes. It’s very easy to get sick in winter, and so there’s also a practical benefit to keeping tulasī around! You can eat the leaves, drink the tea, perform japa on a tulasī māla (rosary) or use the leaves for offerings.
Another traditional practice for this New Moon (and month in general) is to bathe in the Ganges River. The waters are considered pavitra (pure and holy) and capable of cleansing every sort of impurity and sin.
Since actually going there isn’t feasible for most of us, one alternative is to internally invoke the goddess of the river, Gaṇgā, as you bathe every morning. The purpose of this is to let go of any lingering guilt, shame, fear, or pride that might be keeping you from experiencing divinity and your own goodness.
Acts of kindness, charity, or selfless service are also really beneficial and highly recommended this month. As one elder described it, “In this month, we just try to be really, really good, and do everything we can that serves the good”. Set the intention of letting your speech, thoughts, and actions flow from kindness.
Lastly, remember that the purest and holiest place of all is the divine essence within your own soul – your ātman. Keeping the company of God within is the most important and beneficial practice of all. Whatever you do, wherever you go, do so with the awareness of your own divine essence.