Makar Sankranti is celebrated on 14th January all over India. In some places it is called Khichadi Sankranti, in some Til Sankranti, at others Pongal. In South India it is called Pongal, and pongal means khichadi. On this day in Kerala, people gather together at temples, set up stoves and cooking vessels and prepare pongal. There are prayers and the traditional five instruments, drum, veena, etc., are played. Caparisoned elephants are walked down the streets. After preparing the khichadi, everyone takes it back home in their respective cooking vessels.
Makar Sankranti is also celebrated in Sri Lanka, as well as in Kashmir, Uttaranchal, Kumaon and Garhwal. This is India’s biggest festival based on the solar calendar. All other festivals are based on the lunar calendar, whether Shivaratri, Janmashtami or Navaratri. Makar Sankranti is the only festival based on the solar calendar, because it is the day when the sun stops in the house of Capricorn and turns back towards the house of Cancer. Now the days start getting longer and the nights shorter.
Makar Sankranti is in fact associated with several traditions. One is the eating of khichadi, curd and rice flakes. The second is the ritual of bathing in the Ganga. The third is the association with the sun and astronomy, and the fourth is the association with yoga.
The descent of Ganga
The river Ganga originates at the Gomukh glacier in the Himalayas. From Gomukh, it descends to Gangotri. A temple dedicated to Mother Ganga exists there. Nearby is the rock of Bhagirath. At this spot, King Bhagirath is believed to have done penance so that Ganga would descend down to earth from the heavens. It is a famous story.
Kapil Muni had cursed to death by fire the seven thousand sons of King Sagar. In order to liberate their souls, Ganga had to be brought down from the heavens. Several kings attempted this, but in vain. At the end, Bhagirath, king of Ikshvaku (an eminent solar dynasty) succeeded. The rock near Gangotri is attributed to him. Higher up, about twenty kilometres from there, is the Gomukh glacier. From there, the Ganga flows down to the plains, towards Prayagraj, through Varanasi, Munger and Kolkata before reaching Ganga Sagar. Ganga Sagar is a tiny island, and here the river meets with the sea. Gangasagar means the meeting of Ganga and the sea. On that island there is a temple dedicated to Kapil Muni. On Makar Sankranti, a big fair is held at Ganga Ssagar, and from here to Gangotri, all along the banks of the Ganga, thousands of people bathe in the river.
Two paths of yoga
The association of Makar Sankranti with yoga is esoteric. In yoga they say that on this day the sun ascends – is in uttarayana, and on Karka Sankranti, the sun descends – is in dakshinayana. These are the two paths: northwards or uttarayana, and southwards or dakshinayana.
Those who want to understand yoga should know that uttarayana and dakshinayana are the two paths an aspirant can walk on. The jivatma, individual soul, that practises yoga, travels on one of these paths. One soul may go the uttarayana route, and another the dakshinayana route. The experience of these paths takes place in the state of dhyana in this live body.
When you practise dhyana in padmasana or siddhasana (these are the two asanas for dhyana, you cannot practise dhyana sitting in an armchair because to achieve dhyana you need to do mudra, bandha, asana and pranayama), what happens? In the state of dhyana, your mind exists in one of the five states. The mind may run here and there, be in a state of depression, excitement, restlessness, sleep or one-pointedness. In yoga, these states are called moodha, dull, kshipta, scattered, vikshipta, oscillating between dissipation and one-pointedness, ekagra, one-pointed, and nirodha, cessation. The mind stays at one point or the other, on some movement or the other, it moves from place to place and stays in some state or the other. Does it or not? The mind fixes itself on something or the other. The mind has two important moods – uttarayana and dakshinayana.
The Bhagavad Gita (8:24-26) refers to the paths of uttarayana and dakshinayana:
Agnirjyotirahah shuklah shanmaasaa uttaraayanam
Tatra prayaataa gacchanti brahma brahmavido janah.
Fire, light, daytime, the bright fortnight, the six months of the northern path of the sun, departing by these, those who know Brahman go to Brahman.
This is the reference to uttarayana. Dakshinayana has been referred to as:
Dhoomo raatristathaa krishnah shanmaasaa dakshinaayanam
Tatra chaandramasam jyotiryogee praapya nivaratate.
Attaining the lunar light by smoke, night time, the dark fortnight also, the six months of the southern path of the sun, the yogi returns.
Then it is said:
Shuklakrishne gatee hyete jagatah shaashvate mate
Ekayaa yaatyanaavrittimanyayaavartate punah.
The bright and the dark paths of the world are verily thought to be eternal; by the one (the bright path) one goes not to return and by the other (the dark path) one returns.
In travelling on one path, the yogi does not return. If he travels on the other path, it is possible that he will come and go. For spiritual aspirants, Makar Sankranti represents the path of uttarayana. What is uttarayana? Who goes on this path? And who goes on the path of dakshinayana?
Nada, bindu, kala
From nada, bindu and kala three forms emerge. Nada means sound. I am talking now. Does the sound of my voice have a form? Does my nada have a form? It does, but you cannot see it with your eyes. However, you can see the form of a bindu, point. I am a point. In a temple, Shiva is a point. Guru is a point. These are all points. What is kala? The experience that arises within your mind is called kala. Nada, bindu and kala: sound, object of concentration and internal experience are the three essential forms. The one who holds on to these three forms while walking the path of dhyana, yoga, spirituality and dharma is said to have taken the uttarayana route. The one walking the uttarayana path always sees the light within. He sees the inner light.
In the vedic literature, Paramatma, the supreme spirit, is considered to be without form. He is considered formless, imperceptible, trikalateet, beyond time, shabadateet, beyond description. He is faceless. He does not have a place or name, but for the purpose of sadhana, that formless God has been given a form. The form is imagined. Never make a mistake on this point. The sadhana which is done on a form is the way to experience sadhana on the formless.
From mooladhara chakra to anahata chakra is the dakshinayana path. From anahata chakra to ajna chakra is the uttarayana path. If kundalini reaches anahata chakra, then it has reached the point of no return. If it reaches up to manipura chakra, it can return or descend at any time. Swapishi kulakunde kuharini (Saundarya Lahari v. 10) – it can descend to its resting place and go to sleep. The resting place of kundalini is swadhisthana. The word swadhishthana means your own residence. So kundalini goes back to its residence and falls asleep. After reaching anahata chakra, however, kundalini is unobstructed, unhindered. Thereafter, it does not return. Anavrittim, anavrittim – no return, no retreat.
After anahata, there is vishuddhi chakra, and after vishuddhi, ajna chakra. The Ganga flows till here. Beyond this, there is no Ganga; beyond this lies the sea. That very Ganga becomes the sea. The sages have sung,
Muralee kaun bajaave gagan mandal ke beech?
Gangaa-Jamunaa beech muralee baaje,
uttar dishee dhuni honve
Vahan muralee kee teraee suni-suni rahe gopikaa moha
Muralee kaun bajaave?
Who plays the flute in the centre of the skies? The flute plays between Ganga and Yamuna, in the northern realm. There, hearing the music of the flute, the gopis are enraptured. Who plays the flute?
Between Ganga and Yamuna, the flute plays at ajna chakra. The ajna chakra is your Prayagraj, where Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet. It is Triveni, Sangam, the meeting point. Right behind the eyebrow centre in the medulla oblongata is the position of ajna chakra. There Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet. After that, Gangasagar begins. Those who travel on the uttarayana path travel from anahata chakra. Those who travel on the dakshinayana path start from mooladhara.
Man is different from other species because of his ability to have yoga, union. All other human faculties are also present in animals. Whatever you do, animals can do as well. It has been said:
Aahaara nidraa bhaya maithunam
cha samaanam etat pashubhih naraanaam.
Jnanam naraanaamadhiko vishesho
jnanena heenaah pashubhih samaanaah.
The basic instincts of hunger, sleep, fear and procreation are common to human beings and animals. It is knowledge alone that distinguishes man from animal.
Man has only one special quality that separates him from animals, and that is yoga. Yoga means the ability to go within and to be able to turn the mind towards the uttarayana path. This is reiterated in our dharma, our traditions and the instructions given to us by our gurus. I am not saying anything new. I am only giving you a small reminder.