Punya

An Exposition by Asha Richards

On August 8, 1961, Bhagavan Nityananda—the great Siddha, the avadhūta, the Guru beloved by all his devotees—left his physical form and merged into the infinite bliss of supreme Consciousness. This date, August 8, marks Bhagavan Nityananda's Solar Punyatithi per the Gregorian calendar.

In India, the anniversary of a holy person’s departure from this world is referred to as a puṇyatithi, a “day” (tithi) of “merit” (puṇya). When a great being such as Bhagavan Nityananda (or Bade Baba, as he is endearingly called) leaves this world, their śakti and the fruit of countless merits accumulated from the noble actions they have performed during their lifetime remain on earth for the benefit of their devotees. For the devotees, the anniversary of such a being’s departure is a time of remembrance and gratitude. They offer prayers, participate in pūjā and other traditional rituals, and chant in praise of God, the Guru, and the one whose puṇyatithi is being observed. A puṇyatithi is a day of sacred celebration.

The Sanskrit and Hindi word puṇya, in puṇyatithi, holds much significance for spiritual seekers, and it is this word that I will be exploring further here.

Among its various, nuanced connotations, puṇya signifies that which is auspicious, propitious, fair, pleasant, good, right, virtuous, worthy, pure, holy, and sacred.1 By performing virtuous actions, puṇya-karma, one builds up merit. This merit is the invisible wealth of a life of dharma; such merit transforms one’s daily life into a righteous and spiritual one—a life that leads one toward God.

The merit acquired through puṇya-karma benefits a person not just in this lifetime but also in the next. Even to be in a position to perform such meritorious acts is, in itself, considered a blessing; it demonstrates that in past lifetimes one exemplified the virtues and behaved in a manner that promoted the welfare of others.

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Among the many meanings of the word puṇya, one definition that I am particularly drawn to is that of purity, śuddhatā. Growing up in a Hindu family in India, I learned that the concept of purity is important. I remember how on special days, pūjā would be performed to the family deity at home by a family elder. Before he began the ritual worship, the elder performing pūjā would take a cleansing bath and wear a clean vermillion-colored silk dhoti before approaching the altar for worship. As children, we were constantly reminded to remain attentive and make sure not to touch the person readying himself for the pūjā. If, inadvertently, we did so, he would be obliged to restart the process: perform another ablution and don a new set of clothing. It was only later in my life that I began to understand that the act of physical cleansing or outer purification performed before prayer is symbolic of inner purification.

          In Śrī Bhagavād Gītā, Lord Krishna says:

येषां त्वन्तगतं पापं जनानां पुण्यकर्मणाम्।
ते द्वन्द्वमोहनिर्मुक्ता भजन्ते मां दृढव्रताः ।।७.२८।।

yeṣam tu antagataṁ pāpaṁ janānām puṇyakarmāṇam
te dvandvamohanirmuktā bhajante māṁ dṛḍhavratāḥ

Those in whom evil has come to an end,
those men whose actions are pure;
they, liberated from the deluding power of the opposites,
worship Me with firm vows.2

Śrī Bhagavād Gītā teaches that the actions performed by a liberated being—one who has merged with God—are pure. Such a being sees the world as a manifestation of the divine. They honor the divine in themselves, in people and in the entirety of creation, and in this way they constantly worship God. Their actions are consequently free from the sway of the pairs of opposites, such as the notions of high and low, you and me, good and bad, pleasurable and painful, desirable and undesirable.

Acting under the mistaken sense of separation from oneness and the pull of the pairs of opposites, many human beings seek to protect and promote their ego-oriented desires. This is when pāpa-karma, impure actions, take over, generating the "evil" described by the Gītā. Pāpa-karma are deeds animated by negative tendencies such as selfishness, greed, anger, envy, and delusion. They ensnare our mind and can take ferocious hold of it. They pull us away from our experience of the intrinsic goodness and purity of our true Self.

The remedy for this condition is the performance of noble actions, or puṇya-karma. The beneficial actions that constitute puṇya-karma support us to strengthen the awareness of our own divinity and of the presence of divinity in the world. Helping others in need, being courageous enough to speak the truth, practicing honesty, remaining calm in challenging situations, being kind and courteous toward all living beings are all examples of puṇya-karma that can be practiced anywhere and at any time. Performing such actions helps us to cultivate the noble virtues—like generosity, serenity, strength, courage, compassion, respect, and love. Over time, we build a storehouse of these positive qualities, and they become our constant companions as we navigate the fluctuations of life, supporting us to stay focused on our goal.

Through puṇya-karma, we wash away the pollution of negative mental impressions, assiduously break the chains of attachments, and efface the concept of duality that makes us misunderstand the world as different from our own Self. Just as the constant flow of water in a river dislodges the dirt from the stones that lie on the riverbed, by consciously and repeatedly performing good, virtuous actions—actions of merit—we cleanse the mind of its impurities. Puṇya-karma propels the mind forward on its journey of purification. Such a pure mind becomes like the limitless sky—above and beyond.

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On a great being’s puṇyatithi, we honor them and acknowledge their incredible puṇya. We remember how their life and actions radiated all the beautiful connotations of this word, puṇya. We express our gratitude to them for having taken a physical form on this earth, for guiding seekers in their lives and sādhanā, and for the benefit we continue to receive from their śakti and untold puṇya-karma.

It is especially meaningful for us, as Siddha Yogis, to reflect on puṇya in the context of Bhagavan Nityananda’s puṇyatithi. Bade Baba was a janma-siddha, a being who was born with the perfection of full Self-realization; he had, from birth, already transcended the selfishness of ego and the perception of duality. He lived in nityānanda, the everlasting bliss betokened by his name, and his very existence on this planet was an expression of generosity.

Every action Bade Baba took, every word he spoke, every glance he bestowed upon those who came before him was replete with benevolence, with virtue, with auspiciousness—with puṇya. We see this in how Bade Baba touched the lives of thousands of people, how he alleviated the suffering of so many who came to him, and how he guided the sādhanā of those who longed to know God. Even today, all across India—in modest as well as wealthy homes; in tiny teashops and thriving businesses; in cities, towns, and little villages—one will find Bade Baba’s picture placed in people’s homes, on their altars.

Bade Baba’s presence on this earth brought innumerable blessings to those who received his darśan, who worshiped him, who remembered and took to heart his teachings—and his grace continues to bring blessings to countless souls throughout the world. It is this that we honor and give profound thanks for on the occasion of his puṇyatithi.

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1Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1995) p. 632.

2Bhagavad Gita 7.28; Jnaneshwar’s Gita: A Rendering of the Jnaneshwari by Swami Kripananda (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1999) p. 96.