On the evening of Pausha Poornima, a unique prayer rose from Swargadwar on Puri Beach. The Bay of Bengal provided a majestic natural backdrop for the resplendent arrangements made by human worshippers. As dusk fell, the beach glowed with lamps, lights, and the holy fire. Chants and devotional music filled the air. Hundreds of Hindu saints from all over the country, the Maharaja of Puri, and other dignitaries gathered for the grand annual Samudra Arati, to be performed by His Holiness the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Shree Govardhan Math, Puri Peeth.
Behold the beauty The Samudra Arati is offered to the sea according to vedic rituals. Hymns and chants rise up with the clang of gongs to blend with the eternal rhythm of waves rolling on the beach. Colourful flowers and other ritual offerings surround the holy fire. As lamps spread light through the descending darkness, the Samudra Arati presents a scene of immense earthly beauty.
This prayer to the sea is also infused with deep spiritual significance. It is done to spread the message of peace and harmony among humanity, and the natural world around us. The sea is the abode of Lord Vishnu. Life on earth originated in the sea. All living beings are sustained by water. The sea is attuned to the cosmos, its tides influenced by the pull of heavenly bodies. The vastness of the sea reminds us of the Divine Creator of this infinite universe.
The holy kshetra of Puri in Odisha holds great spiritual significance for all Hindus. Lord Vishnu abides here as Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. As such, Puri is considered to be ‘Martya Vaikuntha’, or the abode of Lord Vishnu on earth. Puri, along with Rameswaram, Badrinath and Dwarka, are the most holy Hindu Char Dham or four divine sites. Through the ages, saints and sages have come here seeking divine enlightenment. The Adi Shankaracharya came to Puri in the 8th century C E.
Guru Nanak, Kabir, Tulsidas, Ramanujacharya and Nimbarkacharya also visited Puri. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, prayed here for 24 years. Srimad Vallabhacharya visited Puri and performed a seven-day recitation of Srimad Bhagavatam. The maths and meditation spots of many of these saints continue to exist in Puri.
Samudra Arati is performed daily after sunset by the young disciples of Shankaracharya of Puri. It’s a serene and dignified ritual evoking peace and tranquillity. Every year on Pausha Poornima, the Shankaracharya of Puri himself performs the grand Samudra Arati. Pausha Poornima, which falls in January, is considered auspicious for worship, especially at sacred water spots. The sea at Swargadwar (gateway to heaven) is considered most holy, and no pilgrimage to Puri is complete without a dip at this hallowed spot. Guru Nanak and Shree Chaitanya sang devotional hymns and prayed here.
The Samudra Arati was first performed here in 2008 by the present Shankaracharya of Puri as a prayer for the well-being of this beautiful world of nature. At that time, the strange restlessness of the sea terrified local residents. They feared a tsunami may come. Since the Shankaracharya began the tradition of evening prayers to the sea, the sea is considered to have calmed down. The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati Maharaj, is the 145th in the line of apostolic successors of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, to head Shree Govardhan Math, Puri. The Govardhan Math was established by Adi Shankaracharya. It is associated with Lord Jagannath’s temple, and is one of the four cardinal maths. The Adi Shankaracharya himself had installed the deities of Govardhananatha Krishna and Ardhanareeshwara Shiva here.
The Adi Shankaracharya’s original meditation seat is preserved with care in the math. The spiritual territory of Govardhan Math spans the entire eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. It extends from Arunachal and Meghalaya in the east, to Allahabad, Gaya and Varanasi in the west, and Andhra Pradesh till Rajahmundry in the south. Bangladesh, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are considered to be within the spiritual jurisdiction of the math.
Great contributions The Shankaracharyas of Puri have nurtured a time-honoured tradition of scholarship. The 143rd Shankaracharya, Swami Bharati Krishna Tirtha (1884-1960), made valuable contributions to mathematics. Before being anointed as the Shankaracharya, he passed the MA examination for the American College of Sciences in Rochester, USA, from the Bombay centre. His book Vedic Mathematics is the best-known among his many works.
The present Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri is also a renowned mathematician who has authored over 20 authoritative books on the subject. He is currently working on a textbook of mathematics for high school students. He is as adept with computers, as he is interpreting ancient religious texts and their relevance in today’s world.
The Samudra Arati is itself a wonderful blend of the ancient and the modern. Timeless Vedic rituals have been incorporated into a recently-launched tradition. The prayers to the sea for universal peace and harmony also touch upon present-day concerns about sustaining our environment.