Wednesday, December 30, 2015


[An English rendering by Dr Bindu of the original Article in Kannada by

Dr SV Chamu, Former Chief Secretary, Astanga Yoga Vijnana Mandiram]

The desire to bedeck and decorate oneself is the innate nature of women. Quite naturally, lustrous, thick and ebony coloured hair is their coveted possession.  Since time immemorial in our country, those dark thick tresses have been the symbol of beauty, youth and luxury of women folk. Styling of hair is of special interest to them. Our legendary poetry, sculptures and paintings show beautifully and elegantly, their pride and fascination in this regard.

There is a large segment of women who decorate and fashion their tresses in a traditional manner in the present time too. However in contrast to what has been our heritage, we do see women adopting fancy hairstyles, cuts and braids.

It makes one wonder why such changes have come about. In this day, when our sartorial preferences and styles are driven by peer pressure, increasingly hectic lifestyles and the flood of exposure to global fashion, glamour of movies and advertisements are some of the reasons why grooming oneself in the traditional manner with a triple braid has slightly gone out of favour. This is also precisely the reason we would like to dwell in depth on the sense and sensibility associated with these traditional styles.

Our traditional ways of dressing hair is not just an act of beautification but has a deep cultural and philosophical purpose attached to it.  Undoubtedly, the traditional styles were designed to enhance the beauty of a woman.  But along with this beauty of the mortal frame, it also helps in expressing the inner beauty of the soul - the atma soundarya which lies at the root of all beauty. While external beauty was emphasized, our ancestors were not enthusiastic about encouraging fashionable decoration that would blur or mar the beauty of the Atman. In reality, a three-partitioned braid exhibits the beauty of the subtle body that an enlightened seer is privileged to see through his penance. We would like to express in this article a brief analysis of it.

Modern science describes hair as an outgrowth from the skin. But the origin of hair is not limited to skin alone. As we all know, our mane is intimately linked to many human emotions like sorrow, fear, anger, lust etc. Although it is not obvious to us, our emotional manifestations have their effects on the way we mop up our hair as well. The manner in which the hair is done, in turn reciprocates its effect on the mind. Well combed, well-oiled hair provides calmness, joy and good spirit to the mind. Shaggy hair, on the other hand, has a very negative effect on the mind. For example, loose and unkempt hair has been considered a sign of mourning in our tradition since ancient days.

This intimate connection between hair and our being is due their linkage through the hrudaya naadi. It can be said that whatever emotion the pulse conducts - lust, anger or joy - is transmitted, like the electricity flowing through a wire, upto the hair endings. Thus our tresses, facial and body hair are an instrument for influencing the naadi gathis and achieving physical health, mental balance and spiritual calm. According to our ancients the nerves from top to toe that transmit emotions are believed to originate from two naadis called ‘ida’ and ‘pingala’.

The branches of ‘ida’ naadi innervate the left side and those of ‘pingala’ naadi innervate the right side of the body. These two naadis along with the branches and sub branches are responsible for the functioning of the entire body. They are deemed to affect dharma and adharma, paapa and punya, happiness and sorrow and all other states and experiences in life. The ups and downs of emotions that humans perpetually experience are due to these naadis and it is on these wheels that the chariot of life moves on. These two, like the two wings of life’s bird take it around in the spiritual sky. To put it in a nutshell, these naadis are responsible for activities related to ‘dharma’, ‘artha’ and ‘kaama’.

However, these right and left naadis are not the ultimate. There is something beyond it, the central naadi the root of these naadis, the most mysterious ‘sushumna naadi’ which is the root of life itself. It is also known as the jnaana naadi. It is through this naadi that a man, through meditation is able to attain realization of God, the source and the culminating Light of spirituality. On reaching this mount, the mind finds peace. A sense of relief, calm and contentment can be attained. When one loses touch with this Light, the mind gets entangled and wanders, impelled by the forces of nature. Even when one is in a seemingly healthy physical and mental state of well-being, one should not forget the source of spiritual knowledge within oneself. If he does forget, he feels a gaping void in his life and is caught in a whorl of sorrow making it chaotic. On being reunited with that Light, the mind achieves freedom.

 ‘Triveni’ or the triple braid is a moot symbol of this high ideal. This ideal can be followed only by those who can control their senses. Triveni is not only a reminder of a certain way of life but is also the instrument to achieve it. The triple-braid enables one to control the five senses. The hair is parted into three- left, middle and right. The left and right tresses are interwoven with the middle to create the braid. This scheme suggests a subtle message; that the aadhibhoutika (i.e artha, kaama- worldly enjoyments) and aadhi daivika (i.e dharma, control of senses, spirituality) must be maintained in proportion for a truly fulfilling life. It is then that one’s life becomes truly harmonious. When this does not happen, life is full of ups and downs; it is one of imbalance.

Triveni is not just symbolic. The tri-division of the hair is a natural extension of the three naadis ida, pingala and sushumna. Keeping them tight-bound by braiding helps one to control the mind. They enable the mind to lead a harmonious life. This style of braiding springs forth from a deep understanding of the secrets of spirituality. It is at once a skilful blend of aesthetic beauty and an instrument and symbol of harmonious spiritual life.

The credibility of this view is reinforced by another traditional explanation. ‘Triveni’ means the convergence of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswathi in the place known as ‘Prayaga’. Speaking in the yogic language, the Ganga, Yamuna and the mysterious Saraswathi represent the ‘Ida’, ‘Pingala’ and the elusive ‘Sushumna’ naadis. It may also be noted that in the triple-braid too, only two locks are seen to be criss-crossing down the spine while third is a mystery. The physical location of the triveni (from head down to the waist on the back) down the spine correlates well with the three naadis which are said to run inside the spine or brahmadanda.

That our ancestors represented inner truths through physical means such as the decoration of hair is further illustrated by the tradition of hair parting or the ‘Baitale’. It is a norm that every married woman parts her hair in the middle. ‘Baitale’ is the separating line between the left and right hair partings. This line runs between the ‘Dwadashantha’ (above the forehead) to ‘Brahmarandhra’ (the occiput). It is also called the ‘Seemantha’. This practice of hair parting is prevalent in Hindus across our nation from the high Himalayas to the seas of the south. This line represents very closely the path to knowledge as expounded in the Aitareya upanishath that says etadeva seemaanam vidaarya etayaadwaaraa praapadyata. Saisha vidrutirnaama dwaha tadetannaandanam. Meaning- That Atman split the separating line and emerged from this door. This gateway is called ‘Vidhruti’. This is the pathway to joy and contentment. The meaning of this is well brought out externally by Triveni.

It is for this reason that during times of auspicious rituals and worship it is advised not to let one’s hair loose. Untied and unkempt hair does not provide the right state of mind required during auspicious events. Trimming of hair and shaggy hair are the signs of a restless mind. Individuals or nations that fail to control their senses with a balanced mind will never find contentment.

Thus the practice of Triveni is rich in symbolism and is a means of achieving the spiritual knowledge in the course of our daily routine. But this scientific practice is losing its hold today due to ignorance. We are drifting from a harmonious existence to one of tumult and imbalance. We need to prevent this regression by introspecting and understanding the basis of our culture and the well-tread path taken by our ancestors. It is still not too late for change.

Sriranga Mahaaguru, the fountain-head of the Mandiram, used to say that ‘Ashtangayoga’ or the eightfold yoga has been exquisitely woven into the attires, food habits, education, art, science, routine activities etc of Bhaarateeyas. Triveni is an epitome of the same.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Science of Tiru-Tambittu Deepa (Sacred Rice-Mound Lamp)

[This is a translation of a Kannada article penned by Sri Sri Rangapriya Swami. It succinctly captures the endearing and engaging conversation on the above topic he had with Mahaaguru in Hedathale, sometime in the mid nineteen fifties. The Kannada article is not only a refined and edited version of the notes made by him at that time, but also includes additional descriptions by him that he could recall. In this article an abbreviated format of “Sri V” is used to denote Swamiji based on his earlier name Sri H.S. Varadadesikacharya. He begins by giving an introduction to the tradition of Tiru-Tambittu Deepa.]
English Rendering by Padmashree Mohan

Tiru-Tambittu Deepa (‘Purattaasi Maavu Vilakku’ in Tamil) is a special vrata (a religious practice) observed on Saturdays in the months of Shraavana or Bhaadrapada (August-September as per the English calendar). 
Tiru-Tambittu Deepa

On these days, young boys after completing their prescribed daily rituals of bath and Sandhya-vandana, proceed from one home to another home of sages and elders singing out aloud "Sri Venkateshaaya Mangalam," or "Sri Nrsimhaaya Mangalam," or "Malai Kuninju Ninra Perumal to seek bhiksha (alms) of rice. (The latter expression refers to Lord Srinivasa who stands, gently bent forward with compassion, atop the Tirumala hills to receive eagerly his tired devotees.) This alms-seeking is a spiritual practice and very different from begging for food.  This bhiksha is called upaadaana and it refers to collecting offerings to God given devoutly by the masters of the household. 
The hallowed alms thus collected is made into an edible offering to be offered to the Lord during worship and then to be given to Bhaagavatas (the devotees of God.)  Normally it is made into cooked rice, offered to God and then distributed among devotees. On the above-mentioned Saturdays, there is another recommended method for the use of this bhiksha. The rice is soaked in water and the wet rice grains are pounded to a fine powder in a mortar. Coconut and jaggery are also pounded to a paste and mixed with the moist rice flour.  The mixture is then pounded again to be made into dough.  (Alternatively, the rice collected from alms may be ground into dry flour and then mixed with coconut and jaggery to form dough.  However, the first method is considered superior.)  The moist dough is then placed in a plate, and shaped into two balls with deep hollows in the center.  Ghee is then poured into these hollows.  The plate is then placed before God.  Two cotton wicks are placed in the ghee contained in the mound exclusively on the right side, and the lamp is lit as part of worship.  This Rice-Mound Lamp (Tiru-Tambittu Deepa) is left undisturbed till the light consumes all the clarified butter. When the light gently dies out, they devoutly utter (in Tamil) "Perumaal Malai Eerinaan," which means the Lord has ascended the top of the hill. After this, the wicks are discarded and the rice dough (soaked with the percolated clarified butter) from both the mounds are combined and kneaded together and then rolled into many smaller balls to be distributed among all as Prasaada (the offering to God to be partaken by the devotees) and the remaining is consumed by the one observing the Vrata.  This particular Prasaada is called "Tambittu" or more appropriately (in Tamil) "Tiru-Vilakku Maavu" - the wet rice-flour-based dough of the divine lamp. Even if one has not ventured out to collect upaadaana (alms) they may prepare the Tambittu out of rice from their own homes and offer it to God and then distribute it among all as Prasaadam.  Some make a vow to perform the Tambittu Vrata towards the fulfillment of specific wishes. Others do so without being desirous of any particular material end in mind.

{Similarly on one Saturday in the month of Bhaadrapada Sri V after having performed the Vrata proceeded with Tiru-Vilakku Maavu Prasaadam to offer it to Mahaaguru (His Spiritual Master and Elder Relative) at about 3-30pm in the afternoon. Most elders would have accepted the offering routinely as part of the practice of the vrata without any deliberations.  But Mahaaguru did not do so. He usually used such occasions to educate and enlighten his disciples and others regarding the inner and external scientific basis of traditions instituted by jnaanis (enlightened ones) and rishis thereby removing the veil of ignorance in their minds.  In this instance too, Sriranga Mahaaguru blessed Sri V with several educative insights. For this he himself initiated the conversation first by asking questions and using them as a means for further explanations}.

Initially, Sri V entered the house of Sriranga Mahaaguru with the Tambittu offering in a plate.  He placed the plate on a raised platform near a pillar and prostrated to Mahaaguru.  He bent and did abhivadanam (an introductory Sanskrit verse elucidating one’s lineage and line of vedic study), picked up the plate again and held it before the Mahaaguru.  Instead of simply taking the offering, he started asking some questions.

Sri Guru: What is that?

Sri V: Tiru-Vilakku Maavu, Maama. (In Tamil, Maama is a respectful appellation for elders). 

Sri Guru:  Why should I take this?

Sri V: I do not know.  But you must accept this and bless me.

Sri Guru: If you will tell me why I should accept this, I will take it from you.

Sri V did not know the answer to the Mahaaguru’s question.  He only remembered someone saying that the tambittu prasadam had to be distributed among all because it is the prasaada of jnaana. However he knew that it was an incomplete explanation.  He was desirous of knowing the correct answer to the question from the Master exponent Mahaaguru. So he said what he had heard and awaited further elucidation from the Master himself.

Sri V: Besides being sweet, this is jnaana-prasaada.  Hence I have heard that it must be shared with all.

Sri Guru: How does this become jnaana-prasaada?  Jnaana is realized within oneself. Have you not heard that Bhagavad Geetha expounds that jnaana is to be realized by one within oneself at an appropriate stage and time of Yoga saadhana (the practice of yoga)?

Sri V: I have heard that.

Sri Guru:  How can this external sweet preparation become that jnaana experienced within?  Moreover, is jnaana-prasaada something present inside?  When the mind is calm - without turbulence– that state is called manah-prasaada. How can this externally constituted and material-based offering which you make become such a prasaada?

Sri V:  I do not know, Mama…In just the same way that the offering to God of sugar, coconut, flowers and fruits in a temple become prasaada, I suppose. 

Sri Guru: The question that I asked earlier applies to these too.

Sri V: I do not know the answer.  You only should tell. 

Sri Guru: (Goes into dhyaana for a little while and with a tranquil mind, answers in the following words). Jnaana-prasaada is certainly an inner experience.  It is the transcendent consciousness which confers internal bliss and is beyond the senses, mind and intellect. However, the mind, the eyes and the hands of a jnaani or a mahaatma who has experienced that jnaana-prasaada are also charged and energized by the rays of that transcendent light. Now if such an embodied being of Supreme consciousness touches or sees any external object, then the same Jnaana-Prasaada is transmitted into it and that object also becomes Prasaada. Partaking such a sanctified substance with love and devotion helps re-kindle the same jnaana-prasaada inside that person too.  That is why the intermediate substance is also called Prasaada.  This is the origin, background and intent behind this tradition.

(As Sri V was listening to these soothing and refreshing words of the Mahaaguru he is filled with an inexplicable sense of mental bliss, akin to the manah-prasaada mentioned above. But he persists with asking more questions to get other insightful answers on a rare topic such as this.)

Sri V: Why should only this specialized and deliciously sweet mix of rice flour, finely shredded coconut, pounded jaggery and ghee befit being called jnaana-prasaada?

Sri Guru: That mix of rice flour, ghee from cow's milk, coconut and jaggery (Brown Cane Sugar), when blended in right proportions to prepare this delectably sweet tambittu and taken as prasaada greatly helps in putting the Dhaatus (seven vital inner elements) and senses into a state of balance that is favorable to perform dhyaana (meditation). "mumukshoh maadhuryam." "saatvikaah madhura priyaah."  Madhura-Rasa, which may be understood as sweetness, is particularly dear and beneficial to those desirous of moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death) and to saatvikas (the virtuous). Many substances may produce an experience of sweetness.  But the sweetness of the Tambittu stimulates a special kind of Prasannataa (bliss) and does it quickly too.

Sri V: In that case, would it not be enough simply to consume such a preparation?  Why should we go through the tantra (a religious performance) of placing it before God, lighting a lamp in it and so on?

Sri Guru: That is not a mere tantra, a mere bodily motion.  The Deepa is lit with a divine motive to reach God.  The light that is lit represents the Light of the Paramaatman Himself.

Sri V: Why should we use only ghee to light that lamp?  And what is the need to add so much ghee into it?  Is it because ghee can make everything that much tastier to eat?

Sri Guru: That cannot be explained with such levity.  In this instance, ghee is not added just to enhance the taste experienced by the tongue.  Ghee, no doubt, promotes health, longevity and vitality. Ghee made from cow's milk not only nourishes the body, but also provides sustenance for the Atman (the soul). Further, it is important to use a wick of appropriate size in the Tambittu vessel filled with ghee and then light the Lamp. Then, if one gazes intently for a while at the soft and gentle flames of such a Deepa the very sight and aroma from this divine flame will induce the Dhaatus and mind into a state of tranquility. Subsequently rasa (mood) induced by consuming this prasaada leads one to the Paramaatma-Rasa.

Sri V: Why are two circular hollow cavities made in those two mounds?

Sri Guru: Those two mounds represent the two halves of the brain.  The right side of the brain is Purusha (the male principle), and the left side of the brain is Prakrti (the female principle).  The lamp is lit only on the right side which symbolizes Purusha.

Sri V: What is the reason behind shaping the mounds to represent the brain and then to light the lamp?

Sri Guru: When a person with proper samskaara (subtle impressions and predilections accumulated in mind due to past experiences) gazes on the gentle and steady flame contained in a receptacle resembling the shape of the brain, then the mind can reconnect to the original Paramaatma-jyoti (the light of Paramaatman) glowing in the brain.  With the aid of this lamp, if a person is able to obtain that spiritual experience, there is no doubt that one’s deepest longing gets fulfilled.  Because the lamp represents Paramaatman, its darshana (sight) will leave favorable samskaaras in the minds of other people too. 

Sri V: My grandmother says that the use of moist rice powder is superior to dry rice flour in the preparation of this Tambittu. How is this? Is not the end product the same whatever the method?  Why go through the more laborious and tiresome process of pounding the soaked rice?

Sri Guru: Physical strain is not the consideration here. When the tambittu is made, with the right proportion of wet rice, shredded coconut and jaggery bits, and pounded and blended together it acquires a special hue. It is important that right amount of jaggery is added. Then, the resulting color which emerges will resemble the color of the human brain. Tambittu made from dry rice flour does not yield such a color. Hence the darshana of the tambittu made of pounded ingredients has a greater impact.

Sri V: Why is this Vrata only observed on Saturdays of the months of Shraavana or Bhaadrapada?        

Sri Guru: This vrata is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Just like the month of Kaartika and the Mondays of that month are special for the worship of Lord Shiva, Saturdays in general, and particularly those in the months of Shraavana and Bhaadrapada are favorable for the worship of Lord Vishnu.  Hence these days, and these months are propitious for worship of Lord Vishnu. 

[Sri Mahaaguru’s illuminating exposition, transcendental presence, and radiant eyes   filled Sri V with unspeakable contentment and bliss. He looked at the Mahaguru steadily filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Gladdened by the intent and mood in Sri V’s looks Mahaaguru uttered: "Now give me the Tiru-Vilakku Maavu you have brought.  It is now imbued with a special Rasa." Sriranga Mahaaguru accepted the tambittu, and Sri V prostrated to him again and returned home.]

Monday, August 3, 2015

Urdhva Pundra

Since ancient times, it was the custom of the inhabitants of this holy land BhaarataVarsha to display a distinctive religious mark on their foreheads. Until a couple of generations ago, this custom was considered mandatory. However, just as our style of wearing clothes has undergone a change due to the influence of western culture, there has been a transformation even in the manner of donning this laanchana (religious mark) on our foreheads. Nevertheless, even now people from different religions continue to apply these marks according to the custom prevailing in their respective religions, although their number has become sparse. From the point of view of culture, this situation is regrettable, since displaying one's religious mark is not a meaningless custom as is believed by the modern generation. We are not aware as to how old this tradition is. For, there is no reference to this practice in the vedas and the ancient upanishads. Perhaps, since the vedic tradition was more committed to performing rituals, there was no place for these religious symbols. In due course, various aspects related to the Supreme Knowledge and devotion to God, which were taught by the upanishads surfaced and revealed themselves through various religious sects of our country. Among those religious sects, Vaishnavism and Shaivism are notably prominent. It may not be out of place to state that wearing the laanchanas is very closely associated with the evolution and development of these sects.  
Let the history of sporting these symbols rest as it may, there can be no doubt that this practice is a reflection of the supreme spiritual advancement of the inner soul (Atman) that manifested in the ancient Seers of our land. Tatvajnaana and yoga are embedded in them. Supreme knowledge and devotion to God are entwined with them. Behind these divine symbols, are the recollection of the experiences and inner vision of our accomplished ascetics. In it there exists an inner spiritual dimension of a human body becoming the path to illumination. To summarize, these laanchanas are capable of revealing profoundly the essence of the secrets of the Atman that are essential for the upliftment of mankind.
That is exactly why our ancestors placed such a great emphasis on the laanchanas. They declared that without the laanchanas, the performance of traditional rituals like puja, homa, japa, etc. would not yield the desired fruits. They also provided a sense of identity for the spiritual community. But it is also true that these symbols of identity sometimes led to excesses and meaningless hatred among different spiritual communities. The lack of mutual respect for other traditions (distinguished by these symbols) often resulted in various disputes, vilification and derision. But this was the handiwork of a few senseless and ignorant individuals. If only they had been aware of the inner consonance of the laanchanas, perhaps they would not have indulged in mutually denigrating these symbols.
We wish to consider here one such distinctive divine symbol and elaborate on its majestic intentions and implications. That symbol is what is known as Urdhva pundra. This urdhvapundra enshrines within itself the very essence of Vaishnavism. If one were to dwell at length on it, it would be necessary to establish the fundamental and underlying principles of Vaishnavism. Our intention in this article, however, is to present only an overview on the subject.
The materials used for Urdhvapundra which is in a powdery form, are pure white earth (mud), turmeric powder (called arasinapudi or manjal), rice flour, tulasi, sandal powder, kumkum (vermillion powder). The urdhvapundra is the distinctive symbol which a Srivaishnava wears on his forehead and also at specific locations above the navel. Urdhvapundra is more familiar to all by the name Naama. When the paste is being applied at different locations on one's body, one utters with reverence the different sacred Namaas (names) of Mahavishnu and meditates on Paranjyoti, Paramaatman and Mahavishnu. Hence, it is also known as Naama. The extent to which the Lord's name occupies a pre-eminent position in Vaishnavism, can be inferred from the following:  
sarvEShAM  aghavatAM idamEva suniShkRutaM
nAma vyAharaNaM viShNOH yataH tadviShayAmatiH (Bhaagavata–6.2.10)
sAMkEtyaM pArihAsyaM vA stOBaMhElanamEva vA
vaikuMThanAmagrahaNaM aSEShAgha haram viduH |         ||14||
patitaH sKalitObhagnaH saMdaShTaH tapta AgataH |
harirityavaSEnAha pumAnnArhati yAtanAM||                       ||15||

(ಸರ್ವೇಷಾಂ ಅಘವತಾಂ ಇದಮೇವ ಸುನಿಷ್ಕೃತಂ|
ನಾಮವ್ಯಾಹರಣಂ ವಿಷ್ಣೋಃ ಯತಃ ತದ್ವಿಷಯಾಮತಿಃ||                      (ಭಾಗವತ   6.2.10)
ಸಾಂಕೇತ್ಯಂ ಪಾರಿಹಾಸ್ಯಂ ವಾ ಸ್ತೋಭಮ್ಹೇಲನಮೇವ ವಾ|
ವೈಕುಂಠನಾಮಗ್ರಹಣಂ ಅಶೇಷಾಘಹರಂ ವಿದುಃ ||                       ||14||
ಪತಿತಃಸ್ಖಲಿತೋಭಗ್ನಃ ಸಂದಷ್ಟಃ ತಪ್ತ ಆಗತಃ|
ಹರಿರತ್ಯವಶೇನಾಹ ಪುಮಾನ್ನಾರ್ಹತಿ ಯಾತನಾಂ|| )                     ||15||
(Just by uttering the Naama of Vishnu, a person would have atoned for however heinous a sin he may have committed. The moment he utters the Naama of Vishnu, his mind drifts towards God. It is said that even if one has an indifferent view about Vishnu, or utters His Naama with an intention of jeering at Him or disgracing Him, even then all his sins are sure to vanish. A person just by uttering the name “Hari”, under any situation whatsoever, such as while falling down, slipping, loosening his muscles for relaxation, bitten by a snake, burnt by fire, beaten up by someone, and is himself not in his control, becomes absolutely undeserving to enter Naraka (hell)!”)
Uttering such sacred names of the Lord, which assures Moksha to mankind at all times, the urdhvapundra which is in the form of three vertical lines, is applied from the centre of the eyebrows upto the junction of the forehead and the hair (ದ್ವಾದಶಾಂತ). Although this shape is most commonly used, there are other methods of representing the urdhvapundra according to some texts. For example, there was a practice of representing it in the shape of the tip of a flame, leaf of bamboo, a lotus bud, a fish, a tortoise, or a conch.
The technical texts describe in detail the method of preparation of the mud mixture for urdhvapundra. It has to be prepared out of the soil collected from the top of a mountain, or the bank of a river or from the roots of a tree. For application of this mark, one can also make use of red, black or yellow (gopichandana) mud.  According to the sacred texts, soil having various colours rewards a person with benefits like peace, wealth and power. The white earth has been accorded a special title as “Vaishnava”. The Shaastras declare that satvaguna (virtuosity, serenity) is white in colour and Vishnu is the Supreme Lord (adhipati) of sattva; this may perhaps be the reason for according such prominence to white mud. Ancient texts tell us that Bhagavad Raamanujaachaarya discovered a mine containing such sacred white mud at Melukote and popularized its use.   
While applying this Urdhvapundra at various locations on one’s physique, one has to contemplate as follows: Keshava in the forehead, Naaraayana in the abdomen, Maadhava in the chest region, Govinda in the neck (centre), Vishnu in the abdomen (right side), Madhusudana in the right arm, Trivikrama in the neck (right side), Vaamana in the abdomen (left side), Sridhara in the left arm, Hrishikesha in the neck (left side), Padmanaabha in the lower back, Daamodara in the back of the neck.
Our ancient scriptures ordain as follows: While offering puja, performing homa during dusk and dawn, the urdhvapundra shall be applied uttering the above names as prescribed, and with a serene mind. Further, a spiritual guide Satyavrata proclaims, “A person on whose forehead clean and clear urdhvapundra is seen, is pure and deserves to be worshipped even if he is a chandaala (an untouchable)”.
These are the customs in vogue since ancient times relating to urdhvapundra. There is a need to direct our attention to the knowledge and science behind this tradition. It is necessary to reflect on the reasons as to why these symbols have to be applied on the forehead and other specific parts of our body.
That the spiritual architecture of our body has played a significant role in the quest for truth by the seers of Bhaarata, has been established elsewhere (in a series of articles on Yoga, for example). The Maharshis of this Bhaarata Varsha, through the process of meditation and contemplation, entered the inner spiritual centers of the body and had the vision of the Subtle and Gross Tattvaas (principles) upholding the human body culminating in the marvelous sight of the Supreme Brahman which is the source and substratum of all. They traced the inner secret spiritual path with the help of praana and manas and reached the Brahma Randhra (top of the skull), and there, with their inner eye, had the Vision of Paravaasudeva Naraayana.
“tadEva nArAyaNasthaLaM| tadvEttA muktiBAk | tristHAnaM ca trimArgaM ca tribrahma ca trayAkSharaM | trimAtraM ardhamAtraM vA yastaM vEda sa vEdavit|
(ತದೇವ ನಾರಾಯಣ ಸ್ಥಳಂ ತದ್ವೇತ್ತ ಮುಕ್ತಿಭಾಕ್| ತ್ರಿಸ್ಥಾನಂ ಚ ತ್ರಿಮಾರ್ಗಂ ಚ, ತ್ರಿಬ್ರಹ್ಮ ಚ ತ್ರಯಾಕ್ಷರಮ್| ತ್ರಿಮಾತ್ರಂ ಅರ್ಧಮಾತ್ರಂ ವಾ ಯಸ್ತಂ vವೇದ ಸ ವೇದವಿತ್ ||)     
        (“That alone is the Abode of Naaraayana. The one who understands this, deserves mukti. He is the one who has understood the three abodes, the three paths, the three brahmas, the three aksharas, the three maatraas with the ardhamaatraa; he is the true knower of the vedas”). These words establish the jnaana and vijnaana enshrined in the inner vision of Paramaatman.
The evolution of Srivaishnavism commenced from such yogis who achieved that state through their experience. The various rituals and traditions point towards the inner secrets of yoga. Their goal was to attain perfection in yoga. Among them, the practice of applying urdhvapundra shows the connection to the thrinaadis (ida, pingala, sushumna- the three inner spiritual paths), represented by the three lines. The three lines on the abdomen, chest region, neck, and forehead ultimately point towards and culminate in the brahma randhra, which is the Abode of Paravaasudeva. This establishes that this is the place where a person’s ultimate bliss lies. 
Incidentally, an experimental and experiential observation related to the above claim, as demonstrated by one of Sriranga Mahaaguru’s jnaana prayogas, comes to our mind.  The inner urdhvapundras manifested, during meditation, on the body of one of his disciples whom he guided through the spiritual path to its culmination. The three nerves indicating the urdhvapundra became distinctly visible on his forehead, and the other vaishnavaite symbols started appearing on his arm and other said locations. Srirangaguru revealed this information to us. Later on we ourselves noticed this a couple of times. After the symbols pertaining to Vishnu distinctly appeared and disappeared, the symbols related to Shiva started appearing on the body of the same disciple as though they were naturally etched on his body. Upon seeing this, Sri Mahaguru named him “Shankara-naaraayana Daasa
This incident is narrated here to establish that these symbols are not just a figment of imagination. They stem from the individual’s jnaana. If an individual attains this state through his saadhana and grace of the Lord, then these symbols would rise from the depths of his being and would become visible to him. The jnaanis who realized this, designed an integral practice of representing them on their bodies at the specified locations and with the designated materials. This pattern is such that the minds of mortals with samskaara which dwell on the shape, type, color and proportions of the urdhvapundra also become enlightened individuals like the original seers. Here the value is not only for the specific mud but to the exquisite, brightly colored vertical lines drawn, which becomes a medium for the mind to latch on and progressively make it possible to travel to the inner realms and realize the Summum Bonum of Life i.e.         Lord Vishnu.

[English Rendering by CR Sreedhar of the original Kannada Article by Dr Sri SV Chamu]

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bhaagavata Dharma

(Original Article in Kannada by Dr. S. V. Chamu. English Rendering by Sri K. Mukundan)

People are born in this world possessing either a Theistic or Atheistic disposition, right from birth. That is why an atheist cannot be transformed into a theist or vice-versa by persuasion. It is this phenomenon that has been confirmed by our ancestors, through this shloka:
Janmaantara sahasreshu yaa buddihi bhaavitaapura |
   Thameva bhajhate jantuhu upadesho nirarthakah ||
{Beings assume only those tendencies that which has been cherished by their intellect through thousands of births. Persuasion is of no avail.}
Our Itihasas and Puranas illustrate this through stories of various theists and atheists. The story of Prahlaada and Hiranyakashipu is an example of this. Hiranyakashipu who is blinded with ego hates divinity in toto. He wishes that his son Prahlaada too should follow his footsteps. But Prahlaada is a realised soul who has experienced the presence of divinity within, right from his birth. Hence all attempts made by Hiranyakashipu to transform Prahlaada go in vain. Enraged by his failure he metes out cruel punishments to his son. However, none of these punishments is able to weaken the resolve of Prahlaada. On the contrary, he unilaterally surrenders to the Lord whom he is able to perceive everywhere. None of the punishments is able to make even a small dent on him in view of his total immersion in the Lord. The same all-pervasive Lord who was sighted by Prahlaada in his heart emanates from one of the pillars, kills Hiranyakashipu and saves Prahlaada.
Vena, who was born to the noble and devout Angaraja was an apostle of atheism right from birth.  Charakacharya says “Paatakebhyah param chaitat Paatakam naastika graha” (the sin of atheism surpasses all sins). We may see such a sinner in Vena.
Even in devout people, the divine disposition is not always of the same type. In most people it expresses itself in a cursory manner. Offering salutations with folded palms to the Lord within while passing through a temple, participation in various temple festivities, undertaking pilgrimages, performing ceremonies for the departed souls-all these are illustrations of the theism in the masses. In many people, we see these practices as a mechanised adherence devoid of any strong faith, understanding or devotion. Such people undertake these ventures to spend their assimilated wealth. While for some it is part of entertainment. They return from their pilgrimage to their daily routines without imbibing the spiritual gains that are to be reaped from these activities. Though theism is superior to atheism, theism devoid of a proper goal and perseverance does not pave the way for a man’s spiritual progress. It thus resembles other activities which are performed as a result of tradition or by force of habit. It is the duty of all those with a theistic bent of mind, to develop their insight in the realm of spirituality. For, the pure state of mind that has given rise to such a theistic disposition is itself a gift of Almighty. This is possible only with dedication and rational effort. In particular, it has to be a whole-hearted effort, cherishing the ideals and following the footsteps of those great men who have achieved the ultimate goal of realisation.
Faiths such as Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shaaktha and so on, that have sheltered the full-fledged development of a spiritual culture in the history of our country, have been existent since times immemorial. There are many Saints who have carved a path for their liberation by following these faiths.
For instance, the names of those who have attained fulfilment following the Paashupata faith are enumerated in the following shloka:
Doorvasa Kaushika Suresha Mrukandu Putra Devejya
Baana Vidhishakthi Dadhichi Raamaan |
Vaamadeva Kavi Kumbhaja Gouthamaadeen
Punyanimaan Parama Paashupataan Smaraami ||
{I pay homage to sanctified saintly Paashupatas such as Doorvasa, Kaushika, Suresha, Mrukandu’s son Devejya, Bana, Vidhishakthi, Dadhichi, Rama, Poet Vaamadeva, Kumbhaja and Gouthama.}
Similarly the names of saints who are foremost in the Vaishnava faith are listed in the following shloka:
Prahlaada  Naarada Paraashara Pundarika
Vyaasaambareesha Shuka Shounaka Bheeshma Dalbhyan |
Rukmaangadaarjuna Baleendra Vibheeshanaadeen
Dhanyaaniman Paramabhaagavathan Smaraami ||
{My tribute to those gratified, extremely divine personalities such as Prahlaada, Naarada, Paraashara, Pundarika, Vyaasa, Ambarisha, Shuka, Shounaka, Bhishma, Dalbhya, Rukmangada, Arjuna, Balindra and Vibhishana.}
In reality, there are innumerable personalities who have attained the apex of spiritual enlightenment following these faiths. The shlokas list only those who are foremost among them.
We wish to present here a brief introduction to the tenets of Vaishnava faith or disposition of a Bhaagavata in this article.
The Rishis of yore of this country worshipped thirty three deities through complex and arduous yagnas. A spontaneous outpouring of the exalted qualities of these Devas form the body of Vedas. Due to intellectual degradation and other historical reasons the various facets of the Vedic culture were lost in course of time. But few other aspects stood the test of time and have become an invaluable part of our life even today. At the same time many methods of worship centered around some deities, expounded by Vedas, have undergone holistic development providing spiritual support to our people. Especially Vishnu, Shiva, Shakthi, Surya, Ganapathi and Skanda have become the Deities worshipped in especially influential faiths.
Among these faiths Shiva and Vishnu have got the primacy. The great works of Mahabharata, Bhagavadgita, Ramayana and Bhaagavata, that portray Vishnu, one of the two prime Deities and subject of this article, have institutionalised the worship of this Deity. These together with Agama Shaastras that were composed in later days, drawing inspiration from the former, became the life breath of the Vaishnava tradition that got established in all parts of the country. The thoughts, deeds and way of life expounded by them are the Bhaagavata (Vaishnava) Dharma. This Bhaagavata Dharma has imbibed in it the essence of Veda, Upanishad, Yoga and Saamkhya and has continued the task of providing the ultimate peace to mankind. The works published in Tamil and other regional languages based on this tradition, have enchanted the minds of common man and scholars alike. The institutions that have developed based on this tradition, have ironed out the inequities in society, and gone a long way in creating harmony among various groups. Arts like Sculpture and Dance have drawn inspiration from this tradition and added aesthetic beauty to lifestyles. In short, the Vaishnava cult is a glorious evolution of intellectual and emotional development over thousands of years.
Recounting the entire developments is neither feasible nor intended in this short article. Instead, we would like to bring out certain original concepts of the sacred Vaishnava perspective, in this context.
Sacred texts such as Veda, Upanishad and Gita contain the extempore descriptions of the state of that absolute eternal truth realised by the Rishis of this Land, through their penance or spiritual achievements. All these works extol the reality of the absolute truth. For example, the sage who recited Purushasuktha describes his vision of the Cosmic Purusha as follows:
“Purusha has countless heads, eyes and feet. He encompasses the whole of earth and also transcends it. All that is present now is His manifestation. He has existed before and is to manifest in future too. He is the God of immortality. All these are indeed the attributes of His glory. But His glory exceeds all these descriptions. All living beings are just a fragment or a quarter of his personality. He stands beyond the world of darkness, shining with the colour of Sun. I have realised that glorious Divine Purusha”.
Naaraayana Suktha also beautifully eulogises the inner experience of the same Truth by another Rishi by name “Naaraayana” as follows:
“The heart above the navel is the abode of the whole (micro) universe. There is a subtle crevice at the end of this. Everything is embodied in that. There is a big fire enshrined in its centre. Its flame has engulfed the whole Universe. It has traversed in all directions. In its centre is present a tuft of fire pointing upwards. That shines like the streak of lightning present in the middle of the blue cloud in the sky. That is as subtle as the edge of a grain of paddy. It has the radiance, lustre and the colour of Gold. With its subtleness equivalent to the atom, it stands no comparison. Paramaatman is present at the centre of this tuft of fire. He is Brahma, Shiva, and Indra. He is Akshara. He is the Swaraat ruling and staying beyond everything.”
Sacred texts like Gita and Upanishads expound in detail, the same Truths that have been experienced by various sages in the innermost recesses of their hearts.
The ultimate goal of Vaishnavite tradition is to realise the Supreme Divinity that is being addressed by various names like Vishnu, Naaraayana, Vaasudeva, Paramaatma and Akshara. Our ancestors attained that effulgent state through Yoga and Penance. But the path of Yoga is not suitable for everybody. Everyone cannot realise the core of their being by ascending the steps of Ashtanga Yoga. The Vaishnava tradition or Bhaagavata Dharma hence attempts to transform the ordinary lives of men into an exercise in Yoga which culminates in the same fulfilment. It shows a systematic and special path of Bhakti (devotion) to attain the same cherished goal of Yoga. This is illustrated by Bhaagavata as below:
Ye vai Bhaghavataa prokta Upaayahyaatmalabdhaye |
Anjah Pumsaamavidushaam viddhi Bhaagavataan hi taan ||
{Whatever simple practices are prescribed by God for the ignorant to attain Him, recognise them as the “Bhaagavata Dharma.}
When a person identifies himself as a celestial being or a mortal, having distanced himself from God, he is engulfed by illusion and amnesia by the Maya of God. In order to avoid this state, a wise man should worship God with a firm belief that his teacher is a Celestial Being. Just as a thought process causes dream and mental desires that are virtual, in the same way, the mind is affected by resolution and restlessness, as a result of the past actions of life. A wise person should control these mental states. This paves the way for Divine support-this in essence is the core of Vaishnava Faith.
In case a man wants to escape from delusions, by controlling his mind, he should submit all his worldly actions to the Lord. He should not own any of the actions.
One of the invaluable advices of the Bhaagavata Dharma enunciates:
Kaayena vaacha manasendriyairva
Budhyaatmanaava Prakrutheh Swabhavaat |
Karomi yadyat sakalam parasmai
Naraayanaayeti samarpayaami ||
The same idea as in the above shloka is enunciated by Shri Krishna in the following:
Sarvadharmaan parityajya maamekam sharanam vraja |
Aham tvaam sarva paapebhyo mokshayishyaami maa shuchah ||
{After renouncing all the tendencies that are triggered in a man due to the senses, mind, intellect etc., approach me as the sole refuge. I will protect you against all sins. Do not be disheartened.}
Relinquishing the influence or disposition of senses, mind and intellect you seek refuge in Me alone.  As you cannot do away with all this paraphernalia of the material world, don’t own these actions but submit them to Me.
Listening to the stories of the Lord, Reciting His Names, singing His stories without any inhibitions, wandering with total renunciation, laughing and crying being overcome with His Devotion, dancing like one intoxicated under the influence of divine bliss, being fully unaware of the world around, are some the characteristics of a true Bhaagavata. We have heard that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had all these attributes.
From all this it may be inferred that to follow the Bhaagavata Dharma it requires a more emotional predisposition as against a predominantly intellectual one. But there is also a certain inherent outlook behind this. The verse of Purusha Suktha “Sa Bhoomim Vishvato Vrutva“ is very much applicable to the Bhaagavata Dharma as well. He worships the Lord by beholding the Sky, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Jyotis, Sathvas, Directions, Rivers and Seas as comprising the Body of the Lord and prostrating to the same. In short all the three attributes Bhakti, Jnaana and Vairaagya (devotion, experience of Divinity, and lack of interest in the material world) are to act simultaneously on his personality.
Bhakti, Jnaana and Vairaagya manifest in him who walks in the path of Bhaagavata Dharma, having immersed in the Divine Feet of Achyutha. Bhaagavata declares that he attains incomparable peace through this. In a way, Vaishnava faith appears to be simple. On the contrary, as Vaishnava Faith prescribes, the same unalloyed dedication is needed to realise the truth as Yoga. Bhaagavata Dharma is as difficult to practice as the Yoga. Vaishnavism is advocated in essence by various shlokas of Bhagavad Gita. An example is this Shloka:
Ananyaaschintayantho maam ye janaah paryupasate |
Thesham nithyaabhi yuktaanaam Yogakshemam vahaamyaham ||
The Raasapanchaadhyaaya of Bhaaghavata beautifully illustrates the stories of the followers of this Bhaagavata Dharma.
We do not foresee any region of our country where Vaishnavism is not practised. This faith has especially cherished the lives of people in the Dravida region, Maharashtra and Gujarat, by assuming the form of dance and festivities. This is a beautiful manifestation of the Bhaaratiya Tradition and Lifestyle.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Many Ramayanas: What is so Special about Valmiki's Version?

Dr R. Mohan

For millennia Valmiki Ramayana has occupied the pride of place as “The Ramayana”. While there have been other versions like Adhyatma Ramayanam, Ananda Ramayanam, Kamba Ramayanam, Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and many others1, Valmiki’s Ramayana was always accorded primacy. Recently many arguments have been advanced2 to suggest that there is a myriad of Ramayanas and no one version can be considered as the original nor can another be relegated as a retelling. Each Ramayana comes with its own aesthetic experience and is as such unique. In short Valmiki’s version is one of the Ramayanas and not “The” Ramayana. Looking at it unbiasedly it does seem to make sense. The Ramayana is after all a story of love, separation and reunion described in a poetic fashion by Valmiki. Who can say that none can do a better job of it for all time to come? One could argue that Valmiki’s version is valued for its authenticity, for Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama. At which point I am tempted to ask a hypothetical question. What if another contemporary had written Rama’s story with equal finesse? We would then have to invoke a combination of Valmiki’s poetic skills and his contemporary existence to buttress his claim to fame. And again, if it can be proved that Valmiki came much later than Rama’s time, would Valmiki lose his numero-uno status? Or would we then be compelled to create a contemporary of Rama in whose tradition Valmiki follows much later? Such arguments and counter arguments can continue ad infinitum.

The tradition of story-telling in India: From Vedas to Itihaasa, Purana and Kaavya
To understand the speciality of Valmiki’s Ramayana one must understand the spiritual and mystic traditions of our literature and culture. In our traditions, the Itihasas (of which the Ramayana is one) and Puranas are a continuation of the traditions of Shruti and Smruti. While Shrutis were diaries of the spiritual experience of the drashta-rishi, Smrutis were injunctions arising out of the recollections of the spirit of the Shrutis. As time progressed and people became less inclined to the rigours of penance, the Rishis were left with the unenviable task of leading men on the path of spiritual advancement without the trappings of formal methods. The unbounded ecstasies which were hitherto attained with penance and uncompromising self-control had to be imparted to a people given to the pleasures of life. To this challenge, the Rishis responded in the most ingenious manner. They decided to speak to people in the language of poetry (kaavya), history (Itihaasa) and parable (Purana). The tales were that of kings, princes and the common folks that everyone was familiar with. But the themes and elaborate imagery that they conjured up, served to silence the minds and put them on the path to spiritual upliftment. This approach was taken to its logical conclusion in the development of the visual arts, most notably in the Naatya Shaastra.

Why is story-telling so effective?
Lest it should sound like a piece of fantasy, an everyday example might serve to show the effectiveness of the approach. Consider a young boy who in his playfulness runs all over the house in merriment. The mother with a bowl of food calls out in vain to the child to come and sit down to have his food. But the brat shows no sign of letting up. At this point the mother calls out to the boy with the promise of a story. The boy now all wide eyed comes and sits impatiently next to the mother. As the mother weaves a magical story with wondrous twists and turns, the boy stares wide eyed and gets immersed in the proceedings. As the boy stares with his jaws drooping, the mother slips in morsel after morsel until the bowl is empty. Similarly the Rishis employed stories with myriad weavings of various rasas from srungara (love) to roudra (anger) to shaanta (tranquil) that would induce in listeners an effect akin to the tranquilizing effect of penance, meditation and trance. While it seems a tall order to generate such exquisitely crafted narrations, the Rishis employed a very simple trick by which countless numbers of such stories may be generated.

Crafting a story: The art of modulating the mood
This trick is employed by all of us quite routinely. Say, a friend describes the scene of a gory accident completely, including the blood stained clothes, the bone protruding out at the elbow, a smashed skull of the deceased and the victim griping in pain; chances are that it will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, and horror/fear in the mind. If you are of a sensitive disposition, you may shudder when you get on your bike the next time. If the friend is a good narrator, he can pull it off even though the entire incident may be a concoction. Similarly, effective public speakers use ‘rags-to-riches’ and ‘zero-to-hero’ stories to induce a positive frame of mind in the audience. Describing an atrocity in graphic detail evokes anger and passion in the listeners. Similarly, an experienced speaker can induce a feeling of amazement, humour, curiosity or any such mood by wordplay and story-craft. In each of these cases, the mood rides piggyback on the actions and situation of the characters in the story. These are all remarkable experiments in our everyday life which are well understood and often used. For these experiments to succeed, few preconditions exist. Firstly the narrator must have a direct experience of the state of mind to be conveyed and its visible manifestations. He must be able to sink into the mood at will. It must be noted that though the story itself may be fully or partly fictional, the mood must be a real experience of the story teller and he must be a master of that mood. Secondly, the narrator must have the gift of the gab to yoke his words accurately to his mood. Thirdly the audience must be attentive.  

The Rishi as a (hi)story-teller
Coming back to the problem at hand, the Rishis had a similar task cut out for them. They had to develop stories that would induce in others the meditative state they themselves had gained by immense askesis. Recalling the conditions for crafting an effective story, it is imperative that the Rishis must have first-hand experience of meditation and its pinnacle of joy – the state of Samadhi and the experience of the atman (Atmabhava or Atmadharma). This of course they had. But they had also to understand the subtle means and signs by which that supreme experience modulates the subsequent outward activities and qualities of an Atmavaan (self-realized person). These qualities are called Atmagunas or the manifest qualities of the Atman himself. The man/woman replete with the Atmagunas or preferably a direct knowledge of the Atman becomes the hero of the story and is the vehicle by which the Atmabhava is induced in the audience. When poetry flows from a mind that dwells on such an Atmaguna-sampanna, a perfect persona replete with Atmagunas, the result is a vivid epic whose plot and aesthetics can soothe and caress the mind into a state so calm, tranquil and sublime. Thus is born an epic like the Ramayana, from the crest of Rishi Valmiki – the Adikavi (the first and foremost among Kavis).

Is Valmiki’s Ramayana truly such a work? Where is the proof?
One might suspect that we are bent on thrusting greatness upon Valmiki. But an unbiased reading of the epic will show this exact process at play. The purpose of Ramayana is stated explicitly as ‘Vedopabrahmanaarthaya’ – ‘for expanding on the message of the Vedas’, thus indicating that the kaavyas were natural extensions of the Shrutis3. The modus operandi is to expand the reach of Dharma in the hearts of men, by flavouring it with Kama (sensory pleasures) and making it pleasing to the ears4. The Ramayana opens with the conversation between sage Valmiki and Narada who is an eternal Tapasvi and is the best amongst those who know the science of speech (vaagvidaam varam)5. Note that our preconditions 1&2 for a Kavi-storyteller, namely that he should be an enlightened soul and a gifted wordsmith are satisfied in Narada, Valmiki’s guide and inspiration in this endeavour. Valmiki asks Narada for a contemporary who is Atmavaan (one who knows the Atman) and possesses a long list of superlative qualities including self-control, truthfulness, indomitable strength, compassion and large heartedness6. In reply Narada describes the qualities of Sri Rama as the only one with such a rare combination of qualities7. As a Jnaani would testify these are verily the Atmagunas. We may recollect from the previous discussion that to build a narrative that infuses Atmabhava in the audience, it is necessary to have a hero who oozes Atmagunas. It is thus evident that Valmiki is searching for such a persona and the pivot of his impending epic. Narada emphatically proposed Sri Rama as that persona, a dharma murti, a paragon established in the virtues of the atman, one who has realized the self, is in complete control of his senses, yet proceeds to live the life of a mortal with all its trappings.
Subsequently, sage Valmiki proceeds towards the banks of the river Tamasaa for his ablutions. Here on witnessing the killing of a male crane by a hunter, when it is in a delightful mood with the female partner, the sage is overcome with grief. His grief spontaneously gushes out in the form of a quatrain. He is surprised to note that his grief stricken outpourings had 4 paadas (quarters) of 8 aksharas (syllables) each and was rhythmic enough to be sung to the accompaniment of a lute8. The sage then resolves to compose the Ramayana in a fashion similar to his previous conversion of shoka to shloka9. This shows that in Valmiki, the vaak (speech) was yoked to the inner moorings of the mind and on realizing the power of this process he consciously sets about employing it in the creation of the Ramayana. Subsequently when Valmiki gets down to writing the Ramayana, he sits down on his darbhaasana facing the east, and by means of penance and Atmadharma, he sets out to discover the gati (activity, along with the underlying thought and word) of Rama10. One must note that although the story has already been revealed to him by Narada, Valmiki once again undertakes to see the story in the light of his yogic experience and Atmadharma.  Thus it is amply clear that the immortal epic Ramayana, the first Kaavya was conceived as a means of inducing Atmadharma and Atmagunas in men. Thus the opening cantos of Srimad Ramayana attest emphatically to the fact that Valmiki is weaving an exquisite poetry in spiritual dimensions based on an anecdote. This art of epic creation is highly sophisticated but spontaneous, a mechanism perfected by the Rishis.

and Rishi
It is thus apparent that the process of writing a Kaavya, Purana or Itihaasa is ‘light years’ away from just ‘writing poetry’. It requires a rare combination of penance, insight, an intimate knowledge of the workings of human nature and lastly a natural flair for poetry and writing. While modern discourse focuses on the latter, the former is most emphasized in Indian thought. A Kavi is put on the same pedestal as a Rishi (Naanrishih kurute kaavyam). Even a reciter of a Kaavya ought to have the qualities mentioned in order that the audience may be led upwards in their spiritual pursuits. Thus this was considered a specialized job with the title “Sootha-puranika”. Precisely for the same reason it is decreed that Itihasas and Puranas must be heard or learnt from a guru.

Valmiki’s poetic abilities and his vantage position of being a contemporary of Rama were only incidental to his ability to see the self-realised perfection in the character of Rama. To see this, one has to be a yogi himself and be doubly blessed to understand the science of yoga and its manifestation in man. Valmiki was one such along with Vyaasa and Kalidasa and it is no surprise that their works have traditionally been placed on the highest pedestal. This is not to say that other Ramayanas by Kamban or Tulasidas are inferior. They too have their fair share of valuable gems filled with the rasa of bhakti. But the science behind the creation of a Kaavya has seen its full bloom in Valmiki’s masterpiece. It is at once exquisite art and esoteric science.  An understanding of the greatness of such Kavis requires insight into the inner working of the tools of our tradition and can only come from one who has realized the Self himself. This perhaps explains why most modern discourse on such topics turns out to be a futile exercise in semantic jugglery.

[This article is based on the original expositions on Ramayana by Sriranga Mahaguru of AstangaYoga Vijnana Mandiram]

  • [1] see for a complete list
  • [2] A.K. Ramanujan: ’Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’
  • [3] Valmiki Ramayana 1-4-5
  • [4] Valmiki Ramayana 1-4-8
  • [5] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-1
  • [6] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-2, 3, 4, 5
  • [7] Valmiki Ramayana 1-1-8 through 1-1-19
  • [8] Valmiki Ramayana 1-2-17[9] Valmiki Ramayana 1-2-40
  • [10] Valmiki Ramayana 1-3-1, 2