Of “Invisible Threads”, the veda and the strangest harikatha experience
The author would like to thank @Pinaki for helping with the editing and improving the structure with his invaluable input to the text.
Continued from Here:
satyasoma: But underneath the melancholy of it all, there is something quite strikingly beautiful about the way you put it, no? With 2500 kilometres separating the patrilineal descendant of somastambha and the prospective students of the jaiminīya brāhmaṇa sitting in an impoverished pāṭhaśālā, it is hard not to infer a deep and profound, yet subtle sense of pan-bhāratiya unity, a unity whose existence has been denied and our celebration of it, falsely invalidated.
rudradatta: Indeed, I did not mean to end my observation on a sad note. What I said with respect to the memory of somastambha’s name is just one of innumerable threads constituting this woven work, the warp and woof of dharma. Everyone knows about the dvādaśa jyotirliṅga-s for the śaiva-s, the divyadeśa-s of the śrī vaiṣṇavas or the śaktipīṭha-s of the śākta-s, covering the whole of bhārata or even what we call, akhaṇḍabhārata.
satyasoma: Would that not suffice, rudra? Or should I humour you and allow you to go on, in the unfailing hope that it will lead to something more than what I expect?
rudradatta: Allow me, soma. Thus, you have the Balinese brāḥmaṇas recognizing skanda as rohitaka supriyāya when praising him by several epithets in a stuti. The association of skanda with rohitaka (Rohtak, Haryana), I encountered in the mahābhārata as the following verse from the sabhāparva states while describing nakula’s conquest in the vāruṇeya (western) direction during the digvijaya:
“tato bahudhanaṃ ramyaṃ gavāśvadhanadhānyavat
kārtikeyasya dayitaṃ rohītakam upādravat” (sabhāparva 29.4)
“kārtikeyasya dayitaṃ”, it is said. Cherished and loved by kārtikeya is rohītaka.
Apart from this, a similar nāstika reference in the bauddha mahāmāyūrīvidyārājñī, and inscriptions to the same effect, which lay Hindu would associate skanda today with Rohtak? He’s hardly remembered there though it is exceedingly dear to him. Yet, thousands of kilometres away, in a small island tucked away in Indonesia, this connection is remembered.
Speaking of these “invisible threads” holding together bhārata, which, as the āryottama notes, even the wicked chacha appreciated, one has the peerless tradition of the rāmāyaṇa, after vālmiki, incarnating among the dramila-s as kamban’s poetry, among the Gonds and in Bali, Thailand, and Cambodia. Or the case of mahārāṣṭradeśa brāhmaṇa-s officiating at coastal rāmeśvara or the rawal who serves badrinātha at his temple at Uttarakhand hailing from among the nambūtiri-s.
But, the implications are more than just pan-Hindu unity transcending boundaries of land and language though it constitutes a significant part.
satyasoma: What else do these “invisible threads” imply, rudra, apart from pan-Hindu unity of thought and expression? What else did you see in these “threads”?
rudradatta: It is what I see beneath them, soma. The śruti stands underneath this tapestry as an inexhaustible source of traditions and stories, with every pada (word), vākya (sentence), a set of mantras and ākhyāna (narrative) in a brāhmaṇa having the potential to give rise to a tradition or a new story remembered by the masses. I could discuss several examples of that but that topic is for another day. But, I will content myself with one I can recount from personal experience.
satyasoma: The veda is the basis for everything in our dharma you say? Isn’t that a statement to which one pays mere lip-service?
rudradatta: I do not know if I can say for everything, soma. Perhaps more substantially than one would think, to put it safely. But it is not a basis in the sense you are thinking, soma. It is anachronistic to argue that the veda directly speaks of matters which arose way later than its time. What I refer to is how the veda is the source of “raw material” upon which new deities, practices and pious narratives are built. I speak about the indescribable sense of euphoria when one encounters an obscure part of the lofty śruti manifesting in the unlikeliest of places.
Let me get to the example, Soma. In the course of doing pañcāyatana pūjā for the Great Five (śiva, viṣṇu, ambā, ganapati and sūrya), many would, offer dīpārādhana with a pañcamukha dīpa (a “five-mouthed” lamp). During one such performance, I heard the following verses from the taittirīya brāhmaṇa being repeated thus:
“nárya prajā́ṃ me gopāya / amr̥tatvā́ya jīváse / jātā́ṃ janiṣyámāṇāṃ ca / amŕ̥te satyé prátiṣṭhitām /
átharva pitúṃ me gopāya / rásam ánnam ihā́yuṣe / ádabdhāyó ‘śītatano / áviṣaṃ naḥ pitúṃ kr̥ṇu /
śám̐sya paśū́n me gopāya / dvipā́do yé cátuṣpadaḥ // aṣṭā́śaphāś ca yá ihā́gne / yé cáikaśaphā āśugā́ḥ /
sápratha sabhā́ṃ me gopāya / yé ca sábhyāḥ sabhāsádaḥ / tā́n indriyā́vataḥ kuru / sárvamā́yur úpāsatām /
áhe budhniya mántraṃ me gopāya / yám ŕ̥ṣayastraividā́ vidúḥ / ŕ̥caḥ sā́māni yájūm̐ṣi / sā́ hí śrī́r amŕ̥tā satā́m //” (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 184.108.40.206-26)
satyasoma: Strange. Why would a verse with ahirbudhnya occur here? Is it because it is one of the names of rudra in later day texts and presumably it was a śiva-pañcāyatana? (pañcāyatana worship, but with Śiva placed specifically in the centre and the other four in the intermediate quarters) But if it is so, why particularly at this point? Do the other verses refer, somehow, to the other four devas?
rudradatta: No. The reason is less farfetched and simpler but more amusing. See, the pañcamukha dīpa is a five-flamed lamp. In the śrauta system, the three well-known fires are gārhapatya, dakṣiṇāgni (also known as anvāhāryapacana) and āhavanīya. That we know, right?
satyasoma: Yes yes, I’m aware. The equivalences with the three lokas and the trimūrti in later texts; that all we have heard of.
rudradatta: There are two other fires established at the very beginning of the śrauta life, in the agnyādheya ceremony (the establishing/setting-up of fires as a preliminary rite to qualify one to perform śrauta rituals). Namely, the sabhya and āvasathya fires. The above five verses are mentioned by bhagavān baudhāyana in his śrautasūtra as the virājakrama mantra-s and they are employed by the yajamāna (the sacrificer) to pray to those five fires, in the order I just mentioned.
satyasoma: Ah! I got it! Five sacrificial fires, five-mouthed lamp! That is the connection?!
rudradatta (smiling): Yes. In the relatively popular pañcāyatana pūjā, you find this obscure set of mantra-s from the taittirīya brāhmaṇa making an appearance and yet many of those who recite it will continue to do so without knowing the significance or the raison d’être behind it.
satyasoma: I can top that example of yours, rudra! As obscure as the reference may be, it is not so unimaginable to find mantras from the veda, however unrelated it may be, in a pūjā performed mainly by smārta brāhmaṇa-s.
Take this example! How many people would know that when they say the word, āratī, to speak of their beloved daily ritual, they are really uttering a slightly distorted version of āratrikā, which ultimately derives from the words of a veda mantra?
rudradatta: Seems familiar. I remember hearing about this from someone. Refresh my memory, Soma.
satyasoma: Apparently, the āratrikā rite is found in the atharvaveda pariśiṣṭa (supplement to the atharvaveda). There occurs this vidhi of which I will quote some of the verses I remember and are especially relevant:
“athāto rātrisūktānāṃ vidhim anukramiṣyāmaḥ 1
śuciḥ śuklavāsāḥ purohitaḥ 2
pārthivasya paścimāṃ saṃdhyām upāsya darbhaiḥ pavitrapāṇī rājānam abhigamya 3
piṣṭamayīṃ rātriṃ kṛtvā 4
annapānadhūpadīpair arcayitvā mālyaiś ca 5
prajvalitaiś caturbhir dīpakair arcayitvā 6
ā rātri pārthivam iṣirā yoṣeti sūktadvayena rātrim upasthāya 7
trāyamāṇe viśvajite ahne ca tveti rājānaṃ pradakṣiṇaṃ triḥ kṛtvā 8”
The rite was originally performed by a royal purohita, dressed in white robes, for the king at the time of the evening saṃdhyā. He would make an image of Goddess rātri out of flour and worships it with food, drink, incense, lamps and garlands. He worships her with four lamps burning and installs the idol by uttering two sūkta-s, “ā rātri pārthivam” (atharvaveda, śaunakiya śākhā, 19.47) and “iṣirā́yóṣā” (same text but 19.49). The purohita then waves the lights in a circular fashion in front of the king thrice for his protection from evil. I learnt about this, thanks to Dr. Nirmala Kulkarni.
rudradatta: This is interesting. Hence an apotropaic rite initially performed only for the kings, was later adopted by the common folk as well. It is worthwhile noting that so many of the practices Hindus take for granted as beginning-less features can be traced in some form to the śruti. Speaking of which, one can argue that even the harikatha to which the masses flock has roots deeply embedded within the śruti.
There has been an intimate link between the yajna and public recitation of sacred knowledge, often unappreciated by the lay Hindu. It is no coincidence that the mahābhārata is framed as janamejaya listening to vaiśampāyana at the sarpa-killing sattra or that the uttarakāṇḍa states how vālmīki has the sons of rāma go around the city singing the rāmāyaṇa on the occasion of the aśvamedha held by rāma or that ugraśrava sauti recites purāṇa-s to the sages at the sattra held by śaunaka.
Indeed, when one traces the origin of this, one realizes the roots of a formalized public discourse lie in the hoary pāriplava rite of the aśvamedha where various branches of knowledge are recited to different groups, with the itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s being narrated to fishermen and bird-catchers. But let me put that discussion aside for now. In all this, I forgot to ask you as to why you are here. Is everything okay, soma?
satyasoma: Yes, everything is fine, Rudra. It is a strange coincidence, I think, that you should mention harikatha just now. I attended one a few days ago, by this famous, “new-age” reciter at the behest of a friend. The harikatha was full of the clichéd attacks on rituals and vedas being incapable of leading a man to the highest good. This brāhmaṇa was carefully combining paurāṇika narratives with “commercially hot” words and phrases like, “be spiritual not religious”, “rituals are for the ignorant”, etc. I wonder, if he knew how the śruti equates viṣṇu with the yajna (sacrifice) itself. As I was sitting in my seat, cursing myself for being there, something strange happened, rudra. That’s what I came here to talk to you about.
rudradatta: What happened soma?!
satyasoma: Irritated with the vedanindana and avamatya he showed to rituals, I turned my head upwards and had the strangest vision ever! I saw “beings” standing in mid-air by the left side of the arch above the stage. I will tell you how it all played out in front of me. It was as if I, like arjuna, was given divya cakṣūṣi (divine eyes), for I do not think that what I saw, I could have seen them with the eyes of a mortal! The three beings! The first one was an old man, with silver hair and a thick beard indicating his antiquity. He had several heads, trunks and feet, similar to the puruṣa of puruṣa sūkta! Imagine that, rudra!
rudradatta: “sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākṣaḥ sahasrapāt!” I can imagine! Go on, Soma! Do not stop now!
satyasoma: He was slowly thinning but, dressed in majestic garbs, he had a regal countenance and lordliness that remained largely unaffected by his age. His many heads were adorned by a single crown that was singularly unmatched. The second being was a handsome, young man who, though not possessing the royal look of the first, was nevertheless dressed magnificently, having several faces, each of them extremely resplendent and rivalling the other in beauty. All of his faces, his two shoulders and his trunk were covered with the auspicious symbols of viṣṇu!
I saw him rend his way out of one of the many trunks of the first one! The second one then feasted on part of the body of the first and remorselessly fattened himself! The first one became emaciated greatly! But in a short while, he too started thinning out. Then out of both of them, a luminous third one materialized, sporting a crown similar to that of the first being, but also having the auspicious marks of the second. He then devoured parts of both the first and the second and it seemed as if he had overpowered them, but not for long. He too became weak. The three of them then smirked condescendingly at the reciter of the harikatha and said, “etat sarvaṃ mariṣyati (This all will die)”! Then it all disappeared, rudra! What do you make of this? Tell me for it has been robbing me of my sleep for the several nights!
rudradatta listened with rapt attention and looked at satyasoma with trepidation and began to speak.
rudradatta: The trajectories of our minds seem to be crossing more often than I would hope for, for the coincidences are becoming too inordinate and frequent. Hear me out, soma, for this is what I think is the meaning of whatever you saw.
For a few weeks, in the course of reading various śāstra-s and other texts, a series of imaginations occurred to me. Since they were my own imagination, I naturally did not make much of it then. But what I saw with the internal eyes of my restless mind, something similar to what you have seen with your external eyes, Soma!
During one such study, I was reading the charming āgamaḍambara of jayanta bhaṭṭa. There is a particular scene in that play, which is rather touching; I read it again and again. This episode where a ṛtvik (a priest who performs śrauta sacrifices) and upādhyāya (a teacher) speak of the impending decline of śrautam as pāñcarātra, śaiva and others overpowered it even as these systems relied on the śruti as pramāṇa. There, the ṛtvik, with a tinge of sadness I can only intuit, tells the upādhyāya:
“vayasya, yathā manyase. kaḥ svārtham avadhīrya madhyastho dharmaikatāna buddhir bhavati? kiṃ tu kathaṃ vedaikaviṣaya yājanādhyāpanādi vṛttibhir asmābhiḥ kālo netavyaḥ?”
(Friend, it is as you think. Who, disregarding his own goals, impartially, have only dharma in his intellect? But how [when] performing sacrifices, teaching, etc; exclusively concerns of the veda, being our profession, should we pass our time?)
The upādhyāya replies:
“vayasya, yathaivātikrānto nītas tathaivāgāmy api grāsavasanamātra santoṣibhir neṣyate”
(Friend, whatever way we have led in the past, the [same] way in the future. With just a morsel to eat and clothing, we shall be content; without desire.)
And then both of these men speak on how the pāñcarātrika-s imitate the śrautin-s with impunity. As you very well know, I do have great regard for the vaiṣṇava contributions to our dharma, be it pāñcarātra or the great system of rāmānuja, who himself was a peerless defender of the veda’s authority. Yet, I felt some resentment about the disregard for the veda by many who represented these schools and thus, when I read it, I had visualizations similar to what you saw. And I will now explain what you saw!
satyasoma: Tell me without delay! My mind is restless with excitement!
rudradatta: The first being, old and of royal effulgence; he is the veda, the śrautadharma of majestic form. Divided into countless śākhā-s, each with a plurality of scriptures within, you saw him with several heads, trunk and feet! The second being is pāñcarātra, oh soma! Having his origins in the vājasaneya śākhā of the veda, as the pāñcarātra texts themselves state, you saw him tear himself out of one of the trunks of the first. Yet, ignoring his origin in the veda, he would put himself above it.
With his own unique mantraśāstra and kriya (rites) dedicated to the great nārāyaṇa, he would indeed have appeared very handsome to you, with all the auspicious marks of that deity. Feeding on the śruti as necessary, he grew in stature and thought he had won, just as the śrautin characters from the play thought he won! But time was not kind to him, oh soma!
In a short time, in a few centuries, as it were a drop in the kālasamudra (ocean of time), this complex ritual system dwindled into obscurity, with many of its initiations being forgotten. Having his origin in both the first and second beings, both the veda and pāñcarātra, comes the third being, the great system of rāmānuja. He adduced countless proofs from the veda with the venerable one (yāmunācārya) before him and the lion (vedānta deśika) after him both defending the pāñcarātra. Having taken up the mantle to explain vedānta, the end of the veda which has no end, comes this system of viśiṣṭādvaita śrī vaiṣṇavam! In staking a claim to their knowledge of the summum bonum of the vedic texts, they indeed sport a crown similar to that of the first. In that it is a system devoted to viṣṇu, he also has the same auspicious marks of the second! He is that third person you saw! Gradually, obscuring his two progenitors, he attained immense greatness!
Sadly, he too met his match, oh Soma! The pāñcarātra, the illuminating and high philosophical thought of rāmānuja vedānta combined with the devotional system of śrī vaiṣṇavam; both of them have been reduced to weakness. The veda continues living on albeit in dire straits, as the emaciated man you saw. The only thing really left is devotion, bhakti. But like many things in this world, such as patriotism and compassion, it has become the refuge of scoundrels. In this case, it is scoundrels who despise rituals.
The “new age” harikatha exponent has lived off by doing nindana of the rites of the veda as useless and he has prospered greatly! But his time too shall pass! The dharma has śāstra for its basis. It has karman (rites) for its basis. Without these, the insipid talk of that silly man, like cotton candy, lasts in its effects for but a short while. Having only this mediocrity as food for their buddhi, his audience will soon seek out other avenues, going into navya-pāṣaṇḍa (neo- vedānta, bābāisms) or worse, abrahma religions! Hence, they said, “etat sarvaṃ mariṣyati”! The “tradition” of this degenerate harikatha exponent, if one can even dignify it with such a term, will die soon. Do not think that it will leave something better behind for it has come up only by butchering the śāstra-s and sampradāya-s it fed upon. It will simply leave a void, ready to be filled by the first things to exploit it.
satyasoma: A warning as to what will come to pass in the future, uh, rudra?
rudradatta: Indeed. You already see Hindu youth turning towards the above-mentioned avenues, lapping up the puerile teachings of babas or a xyz-ānanda, when they fail to get answers from the “pandits” at their local temples. In fact, our friend, vaṅgasiṃha, informed me of some opining that we should be thankful that these Hindus have not converted yet. Such is the pitiful state of affairs, oh soma!
satyasoma: This is like that story of bhṛgu and varuṇa where varuṇa explains to bhṛgu his visions of horrible punishments in the afterlife, except that this ends on a far grimmer note.
rudradatta (laughing): Except that I’m no varuṇa and you’re no bhṛgu…
satyasoma: And yet, somehow, our lives are just as dramatic.