On Ponnanganni Keerai, Epigenetics, Ancestral Karma, & Mahalaya Amavasai

collage of ponnaganni keerai, DNA, and Mahalaya amavasya

The last time I visited my mom’s home, she was excitedly describing a discovery she made. What she thought all along as weeds that grew around our neighbourhood was actually the great ponnangani keerai (ponnanganti aaku/honnagone). Ponnanganni takes me back to a faint association with ‘good for eyes’ but other than this I don’t remember the look or taste of it. However, as always, mom being great at passing on her excitement got me to take a bunch of ponnanganni roots back home.

picture of ponnaganni keerai plant

All is well that grows well and I was glad that I added another gem in my leafy greens garden, already dreaming about feeding the kids a healthy keerai kootu. Well, until that one day when I spotted holes on some ponnaganni leaves! What looked like a larger version of cabbage worms, a kind of caterpillars were busy devouring my fondly growing ponnaganni. While another pest in the garden would have been shot at site with neem oil, I left the caterpillars to have their feed, feeling alright to harvest the left-over leaves in some days.

Why was it alright to allow the caterpillars to feed on my garden plant? 

I kept pushing this question aside in my mind for I know I like caterpillars for some reason. Last week, I decided to harvest the ponnaganni leaves after carefully picking these creatures and dropping them on the society compound plants. As I was cleaning and preparing the keerai kootu, however, I went into a deep pondering of what this incident was to perhaps bring in.

green caterpillar on leaf
Source: Shutterstock

It wasn’t that I wanted to do justice to the ecological pyramid, but maybe because I cannot imagine a world without butterflies. Why, of course, having a butterfly visit our garden is a delight!

So, the fact that the caterpillars were destined to become a butterfly tomorrow influenced its life today. 

And that triggered a series of connecting the dots that day, in me!

The caterpillars’ ancestors were the primary (and the sole) determinants of their survival. If I had not identified these as caterpillars or if I did not know that these would turn into butterflies, they would have been gone long ago. The next moment, my mind got as silly as thoughtful it could – to compare this scenario with humans.

Do our ancestors who lived eons or years ago influence our lives today? 

The logical answer is: this hypothesis cannot be tested or falsified. As someone who doesn’t live by rationales, I kept moving further in my thoughts.

What anyway from our ancestors can have an impact?

It wasn’t convincing to go in the lines of popular culture that talks about raw cause and effect – the great grandfather killed someone; so life is throwing revenge back at the grandson, or the grandfather lived a generous life that gets back to bestow the grandson with good luck – the placement and turn of events in life cannot be as simple as this. Rather, the flow of thoughts opened doors to some quiet epigenetics contemplation.

Before you read further, let’s understand what epigenetics is:

According to classical biology, all that happens in our body is rooted in the information studded in our DNA. However, a newly significant branch of biology, ‘epigenetics’, is about understanding what and how other factors override or change what is written in our DNA.

Let me give an example. Say, a pair of identical twins carry the same susceptibility to diabetes genetically. That is, their DNAs are exactly the same and hence the chance of becoming diabetic is the same. However, while one twin becomes diabetic at 40, the other might at 50 or might not become diabetic at all. Studying such phenomena that are beyond what is present within the DNA is epigenetics.

image of DNA uncoiling to its subunits
Source: Vienna Biocenter

Recent research says that it is possible for such epigenetic changes to pass on to the subsequent generations as well, simply put – ‘transgenerational inheritance’. Say, a person walking on a road witnessed a road accident that bore a deep psychological shock within. It is possible for the effects of the shock (either psychological or biological or both) to be carried by the developing sperm or egg within his/her body to the next generations though it does not change the information in the DNA. The effect of the shock can manifest in any children/grandchildren of the future generations as fear of crossing roads, fear of speed driving, dislike of the smell of blood, or the visual impact of a cloudy day, busy traffic, and a car crash. It is important to understand that not all such epigenetic add-ons necessarily need to be acquired or expressed in all children/grandchildren.

But there is no known basis of why that one child born 250 years later than the grandmother did was selected by nature to live the effect of what happened to her centuries ago. 

Until science has an answer to this question, I find ‘ancestral karma’ an appropriate term for this. Unfortunately, we began to associate ‘karma’ with ‘reward and punishment’, ’cause and effect’, and things like excuse/justification for one’s shortcomings and incapability. Instead, when we begin to look at ‘karma’ as nothing but just memory – emotional, physical, & mental memory of how we perceived situations before – we will also begin to understand that ‘karma’ is a workable part of ourselves and not pre-determined confinement we are pushed into.

As long as you are unwilling to forgive a friend who did not help you in need, you will live with what we call It’s your karma principle. The moment you begin to reflect on what could have been on the other side for your friend or letting the grudge leave you and feeling emotionally settled within for what happened years ago, you are actually on the path of working on your karma and adopting the Conquer your destiny by will principle.

Alright. What if we did really carried ancestral karma? First of all, are we even going to know it? Or, is it even important to know it?

Yes, we simply would not know and maybe need not know. But something strange I have observed is that some unique life events or patterns run in some families, such as being a single parent, experiencing (non-genetic) issues in conceiving a baby, losing a loved one, and facing a similar accident in life. While such reoccurrences within families need not necessarily source from an ancestor’s life, the mere fact that an undesirable life event manifesting in more than one or two members related through blood does give rise to a possibility of transgenerational inheritance. It would require a considerable interest, inclination, intent, and insight to study patterns that run in families to identify such inheritances.

If you read through this post up until here, perhaps, there is a reason why you landed here! I believe in serendipity.

Regardless of whether we identified such inheritances or not, is there anything we can do about it?

We would not have a clue of what had happened inside the zillions of cells of thousands of our ancestors who had lived before us.

  • However, if you feel convinced of a possibility that we might be carrying a physical, cellular, emotional, or mental memory of something that could have happened to one or more of our ancestors, and
  • if you think it might not be necessary for you and any of your next generations to continue to bear the brunt of a distant memory, and
  • that you know you are not possibly going to know the facts of events or memories of the bygone past,

Would it be worth to sit quietly, ask the forces around you to help you, or maybe guide you to get rid of whatever unwanted is shadowing you and your kin for years? None of us logically know if it is a practice worth it, but perhaps if our guts are in alignment with asking for guidance, can we give it a try?

showing an image of people praying to the amavasya dark moon
Source: Pillai Centre

Alternatively, when we practice meditation, over the years, we would be unconsciously dropping off of such karmic baggage and most importantly, prevent passing down of these to our children and the entire lineage.

I am writing these lines on the night of Mahalaya Amavasya. I am not sure if I understand what our scriptures say about performing rituals to the dead ancestors on Mahalaya Amavasya. Honestly, I haven’t been inclined to such rituals. However, I earnestly feel the need to save our children from what they need not carry including unknown memories, ancestral karma, or ‘whatever’ for that matter!

Every plant, every creature has a story to tell only if we were to attune to what it is telling. This was the story of my ponnaganni keerai and those caterpillars.

Have a thought to share? Please share in the comments below.

May all of us be free of what we potentially need not owe to!

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