Defining Hindudharma: The Tānūnaptra Metaphor

How can we understand Hindudharma’s unity? Why is it not artificial but theologically and divinely meaningful?

At the outset it must be stated that this piece is not an exercise in discursive reasoning, or some carefully worked argument based on some first principles or axioms. The “reasoning” here is rather analogous and more amenable to those with the intuition to grasp ideas through analogies.

In the Somayāga, following the Ātithyeṣṭi (where the god Soma is received as a royal guest), we have the Tānūnaptra rite, where the leftovers of the ājya (ghee) from Ātithyeṣṭi in the dhruva ladle are cut out in either four or five portions and then fed into a special camasa (a cup), known as the Tānūnaptra-camasa. The Ṛtvijaḥ (the sixteen priests of the Soma sacrifice) and the Yajamāna will touch this ghee, with an undertaking to not betray one another and act for mutual benefit.

In the Taittirīya​-Saṃhitā, we have an account of the story behind the Tānūnaptra rite as follows:

6.2.2.1

“devāsurāḥ saṃyattā āsan

te devā mitho vipriyā āsan

te ‘nyo’nyasmai jyaiṣṭhyāyātiṣṭhamānāḥ pañcadhā vy akrāmann agnir vasubhiḥ somo rudrair indro marudbhir varuṇa ādityair bṛhaspatir viśvair devais

te ‘manyanta | asurebhyo vā idam bhrātṛ vyebhyo radhyāmo yan mitho vipriyāḥ smo yā na imāḥ priyās tanuvas tāḥ samavadyāmahai tābhyaḥ sa nir ṛchād yaḥ||”

6.2.2.2

naḥ prathamo ‘nyo’nyasmai druhyād iti

tasmād yaḥ satānūnaptriṇām prathamo druhyati sa ārtim ārchati

The Deva-s and Asura-s were in conflict.

They, the Deva-s, were mutually hostile.

They, one another’s seniority, not conceding, fivefoldly diverged; Agni with the Vasu-s, Soma with the Rudra-s, Indra with the Marut-s, Varuṇa with the Āditya-s and Bṛhaspati with the Viśvedeva-s.

They thought: “To the Asura-s, to these foes [of ours], we have succumbed, as we are mutually hostile; whatsoever are our, these, beloved bodies, them we gather together; from these [bodies] he will be lost, who is the first of us to aggress upon/make hostile with/betray one another.”

Therefore, who, among those [who have covenanted] with the Tānūnaptra, first aggresses/makes hostile/betrays, to pain he passes.

The Aitareya-Brāhmaṇa (1.4.7; 1st Pañcikā, 4th Adhyāyaḥ, 7th khaṇḍaḥ) gives a similar account, which we will not translate literally in a full-fledged manner as above but simply note the additional points.

“ते देवा अबिभयुर्। अस्माकं विप्रेमाणम् अन्व् इदम् असुरा आभविष्यन्तीति। ते व्युत्क्रम्यामन्त्रयन्ता अग्निर् वसुभिर् उदक्रामद् ईन्द्रो रुद्रैर् वरुण आदित्यैर् बृहस्पतिर् विश्वैर् देवैस्। ते तथा व्युत्क्रम्यामन्त्रयन्त ते ब्रुवन्।”

“te devā abibhayur| asmākaṃ vipremāṇam anv idam asurā ābhaviṣyantīti| te vyutkramyāmantrayantā agnir vasubhir udakrāmad īndro rudrair varuṇa ādityair bṛhaspatir viśvair devais| te tathā vyutkramyāmantrayanta te bruvan|“

The Devas feared and reflected how due to their disunity, the Asuras are thriving. The Devas go as separate groups in their separate ways to take counsel (four groups as opposed to five in the Taittirīya version). Having taken counsel in their respective parties, they came to a decision.

“हन्त या एव न इमाः प्रियतमास् तन्वस् ता अस्य वरुणस्य राज्ञो गृहे संनिदधामहै; ताभिर् एव नः स न संगछातै यो न एतद् अतिक्रामाद्, य आलुलोभयिषाद्” इति तथेति ते वरुणस्य राज्ञो गृहे तनूः संन्यदधत।

“hanta yā eva na imāḥ priyatamās tanvas tā asya varuṇasya rājño gṛhe saṃnidadhāmahai; tābhir eva naḥ sa na saṃgachātai yo na etad atikrāmād, ya ālulobhayiṣād” iti tatheti te varuṇasya rājño gṛhe tanūḥ saṃnyadadhata|

The Devas thus arrive at a consensus that they should deposit their dearest bodies in the house of King Varuṇa, saying, “With those bodies, he will not be united; who transgresses this, who causes [the Tānūnaptra] to frustrate”. They then deposit their bodies in the house of King Varuṇa.

ते यद् वरुणस्य राज्ञो गृहे तनूः संन्यदधत तत् तानूनप्त्रम् अभवत् तत् तानूनप्त्रस्य तानूनप्त्रत्वं। तस्माद् आहुर् न सतानूनप्त्रिणे द्रोग्धव्यम् इति तस्माद् व् इदम् असुरा नान्वाभवन्ति

te yad varuṇasya rājño gṛhe tanūḥ saṃnyadadhata tat tānūnaptram abhavat tat tānūnaptrasya tānūnaptratvaṃ| tasmād āhur na satānūnaptriṇe drogdhavyam iti tasmād v idam asurā nānvābhavanti

The bodies being deposited in that house is what marks the “Tānūnaptra-ness” of the Tānūnaptra. They say that to the one [who has covenanted] with the Tānūnaptra, no aggression/betrayal is to be allowed. Therefore, the Asuras have perished.

The Aitareya version implies at the end that there is a direct link between the covenant to not betray or aggress upon one another with the defeat of the Asuras. Thus, it is not merely a covenant to not harm one another but effectively a covenant to fight together against anyone who threatens any one of them.

Now we shall see the mādhyandina​-śākhā’s Śatapatha​-Brāhmaṇa (3.4.2; 3rd Kāṇḍa, 4th Adhyāya, 2nd Brāhmaṇa) version, which further adds several distinctive, interesting nuances into the Tānūnaptra lore.

ātithyena vai devā iṣṭvā। tāntsamadavindat te caturdhā vyadravannanyo ‘nyasya śriyā atiṣṭhamānā agnirvasubhiḥ somo rudrairvaruṇa ādityairindro marudbhirbṛhaspatirviśvairdevairityu haika āhurete ha tveva te viśve devā ye te caturdhā vyádravaṃstānvidrutānasurarakṣānyanuvyaveyuḥ॥ 1

“The Devas having sacrificed with the Ātithya (i.e. Ātithyeṣṭi); [among] them strife entered. They fourfoldly separated; not conceding one another’s glory.”

Note: The text then goes on to state the four groups, making a sly reference to the Taittirīya version’s inclusion of a fifth group (Bṛhaspati and the Viśvedeva-s) and pointing out its apparent inconsistency, before ending with a reference to how an Asura-Rakṣa alliance came after and between the Devas, entering the Devas’ ranks. Further note that this version of the text directly links the usual Tānūnaptra lore with the actual ritual context in which the Tānūnaptra is performed (i.e. after the Ātithyeṣṭi).

te ‘viduḥ। pāpīyāṃso vai bhavāmo ‘surarakṣasāni vaí no ‘nuvyavāgurdviṣadbhyo vai radhyāmo hanta saṃjānāmahā ekasya śriyai tiṣṭhāmahā iti ta indrasya śriyā atiṣṭhanta tasmādāhurindraḥ sarvā devatā indraśreṣṭhā devā iti॥ 2

They know: “Wretched verily we have become; the Asura- Rakṣa-s have come between us; to [our] enemies we will succumb, alas! Let us agree; of one [of us]. let us concede the glory!”, thus [saying] they conceded the glory of Indra; therefore, they say, “Indra is all the Devas; with Indra as their eminent one the Devas are.”

tasmādu ha na svā ṛtīyeran। ya eṣām parastarāmiva bhavati sa enānanuvyavaiti te priyaṃ dviṣatāṃ kurvanti dviṣadbhyo radhyanti tasmānna ‘rtīyerantsa yo haivaṃ vidvānna ‘rtīyate ‘priyaṃ dviṣatāṃ karoti na dviṣadbhyo radhyati tasmānna ‘rtīyeta॥ 3

Therefore, let one’s own not quarrel. Whoever [is an enemy] of theirs, [who is] far from them, he enters between them; they (i.e. those who allow discord to foment) do a favourable [deed] for the enemies and, to the enemies, succumb. Therefore, he shall not quarrel. He, who knowing this [truth], does not quarrel, does an unfavourable [deed] for the enemies and does not, to the enemies, succumb. Therefore, let him not quarrel.     

te hocuḥ। hantedaṃ tathā karavāmahai yathā na idamāpradivamevājaryamasaditi॥ 4

They (the Devas) said: Hanta! Let us do this, by that which this [agreement] of ours shall become an everlasting friendship.

te devāḥ। juṣṭāstanūḥ priyāṇi dhāmāni sārdhaṃ samavadadire te hocuretena naḥ sa nānāsadetena viṣvaṅyo na etadatikrāmāditi kasyopadraṣṭuriti tanūnaptureva śākvarasyeti yo vā ayam pavate eṣa tanūnapāchākvaraḥ so ‘yam prajānāmupadraṣṭā praviṣṭastāvimau prāṇodānau॥ 5

They, the Deva-s, gathered together their favourite bodies and beloved abodes; they said, “Thereby from us he shall become separate (i.e. no longer one among us), he shall become scattered; who transgresses this [covenant] of ours!” – “Whose, what witness’s, is [this covenant]?” – “[This covenant is] Tanūnapāt’s the strong one’s. Who is that purifies/blows here (i.e. Vāyu), he is the witness of creatures here, entering [creatures]; they (Two) here are the prāṇa and udāna breaths (in and out breaths).

te devāḥ। juṣṭāstanūḥ priyāṇi dhāmāni sārdhaṃ samavadadire ‘thaita ājyānyeva gṛhṇānā juṣṭāstanūḥ priyāṇi dhāmāni sārdhaṃ samavadyante tasmādu ha na sarveṇeva samabhyaveyānnenme juṣṭāstanvaḥ priyāṇi dhāmāni sārdhaṃ samabhyavāyāniti yeno ha samabhyaveyānnāsmai druhyedidaṃ hyāhurna satānunaptriṇe drogdhavyamiti॥ 9

They, the Deva-s, gathered together their favourite bodies and beloved abodes; now, by taking hold of the ghee[-portions] they (the Ṛtvijaḥ/priests) gather together their favourite bodies and beloved abodes; therefore, let him not commit [to the Tānūnaptra covenant] with all and sundry unless the favourite bodies and beloved abodes are commingled. Whosoever he covenants with, to him he shall not betray; verily they say, “To the one [who has covenanted] with the Tānūnaptra, no aggression/betrayal is to be allowed.”

Let us surmise the ten key points of the multiple narratives of the TS, AB and ŚB:

1 The Devas are not able to admit to each other’s pre-eminence and are thus mutually hostile, causing them to go in their separate ways as four or five different parties. They realize that this discord has allowed the Asuras to overpower them or enter their ranks. (TS, AB and ŚB)

2 The Devas first take counsel within their own respective parties to discuss what they ought to do to resolve the conflict. (AB)

3 The Devas conclude that they ought to admit, by consensus, to the pre-eminence of one person among them. (ŚB)

4 The Devas separately agree that the way to remain bound to this decision is only if there is a price to pay for going back on it. (ŚB)

5 The Devas agree that their most cherished bodies/forms and abodes must all be deposited into a common pool (TS, AB and ŚB) and this common pool is entrusted to the guardianship of a leader deity. (AB).

6 The Devas also appoint a witness for the binding agreement, apart from the leader to whom the common pool of assets is entrusted. (ŚB)

7 Whichever Deva betrays the covenant will suffer pain (TS) and will be deprived of all shares in the common pool of assets, including whatever of his own that he had deposited in the first place. (TS, AB and ŚB)

8 No betrayal of or hostility towards one another is allowed under the Tānūnaptra covenant. (TS, AB and ŚB).

9 The Asuras perish because no hostility to any one of them is tolerated under the Tānūnaptra, the implication being that hostility to one from outside is deemed as hostility to all. (AB). So, apart from internal hostility, external hostility too is not tolerated.

10 One must be careful about any commitment he makes under the Tānūnaptra because there will be commingling of one’s dearest bodies and abodes with the similar assets of others. Once one commits himself to the Tānūnaptra with another entity, he is bound to them because there is no room for betrayal or going back under the Tānūnaptra. (ŚB)

Let us adopt a metaphor that will help us transmute the above ten points into an insight for how we can understand the philosophical basis of why the unity of Hindudharma makes sense and why, even if it is argued that this unity stands to become more defined in the course of time and is yet incomplete, this unity is not artificial but theologically meaningful.

11 Let the different, organically developing primary religious systems or sects or schools of a land be the Devas.

12 Let counter-religions, which primarily position themselves as opponents of an organically developing religion and, that are threats to more than one of the systems be the Asuras. The Devas reflect on the need for unity only after the Asuras overpower them. Likewise, the primary religious systems contemplate the case for unity only after being routed by the counter-religions.

13 Let the rituals, liturgies, texts, pantheons, festivals, pilgrimage sites, religious and endowments of the different systems be the contents of the Devas’ common pool of assets, consisting of the Devas’ bodies and abodes.

14 This shared “religious treasury” is deposited under a law that enforces the binding commitment of the parties to one another, in the same way the Devas’ common pool of assets is deposited with or witnessed by a Deva, i.e. Varuṇa in the AB or Vāyu in the ŚB, who punishes falsehood.

15 Among the various systems which have agreed to unite themselves to one another under a binding covenant, there is a chief system, whose pre-eminence and leadership are recognized across all members of the covenant. The chief system’s representative capacity for all other systems is also recognized. Let this chief system be the Deva whose pre-eminence is universally accepted by all other Devas i.e. Indra in the ŚB.

16 Each primary religious system that is a party to the covenant undertakes to never harm another member of the covenant and also protect one another in event of an external attack from the counter-religions.

17 The primary religious systems which are parties to the covenant are currently grouped under these following overarching categories: the Vaidika, the Āgamika​, Laukika​-Paurāṇika​, Grāmya​ and Āṭavika (tribal) religions.

Now, one must add a few nuances to this scenario, which are not available in the Tānūnaptra narratives but nonetheless inspired from them:

18 Just as Indra is chosen by the Devas but we know from the Veda that a Deva may combine with others to form dvandvas, so is the case in the Dharma that the leader system need not remain constant.

Example: The “pure” Vaidika system may have been the leader at some point of time but has coalesced with the Paurāṇika and Āgamika systems for several centuries now, to form a hybrid, that may be argued to be the leader now.

19 Each of the current parties to the covenant of the Dharma may have been the product of a similar covenant between a smaller group of conflicting entities. These smaller-level covenants become subject to the broader covenant but remain binding and enforceable.

Example: We have references from those like Kumārilabhaṭṭa, Jayantabhaṭṭa​ and even within the Veda, which suggest that the adherents of Vedaśākhā-s may have been hostile to one another. But at some time, the overwhelming majority allowed their fervour for individual Vedaśākhā-s to submit to and make way for the universal supremacy of the Veda. This can be seen as a smaller-level covenant. Once this is resolved and the Veda’s pre-eminence qua Veda is established over the individual Vedaśākhā-s, the Veda’s covenant with all other religious systems makes more sense.

20 Sub-systems and/or sects which are born as a result of the binding covenant (i.e born from the “religious treasury”) are automatically admitted into full membership under the covenant and will remain so unless they consciously choose to betray the covenant.

Example: Various systems such as the Mādhva​ or Vīraśaiva​, etc can be said to be the results of complex syntheses of Vaidika​, Āgamika​ and Paurāṇika​ systems. They are born from the “Tānūnaptra” of the Dharma, one can say. However, if a particular body declares itself as opposed to all other systems (such as when a certain body of Liṅgāyata leaders declared itself separate from Hindudharma and made disparaging statements against other systems). However, one should note that the actual Liṅgāyata laity on the ground may remain perfectly attached to the Dharma as ever and their Hinduness cannot be negated by the acts of a certain dissident body, which happens to be related to the laity).

21 As a final point, we must note that there can be multiple “Tānūnaptra-s” being realized in different lands of Bhārata. Can all of these Tānūnaptra-s stand in for a single covenant that is “Hindudharma”?

Example: For instance, there may be a shared understanding, beliefs and practices between the Laukika-bhakti tradition and a tribal religion in Utkala that amounts to a Tānūnaptra there. There may be a similar shared understanding between the particular Āgamika tradition of a temple and a Grāmya tradition surrounding a certain rural deity in Drāviḍadeśa. Can these disparate understandings amount to a single “covenant”?

Our view is that, yes, it is possible though we will elaborate this in a sequel. Tentatively, we suggest that it is a certain uniformity of view across the Laukika and Āgamika traditions that allows them to embrace tribal and village systems into a larger whole along with themselves. An instance of such uniformity lies in the idea that Śiva, Viṣṇu and Devī either manifest themselves as the deities of all peoples or these deities somehow act as the conduits through which Śiva, Viṣṇu and Devī make their power known.

The Tānūnaptra metaphor also provides sufficient defence against those who complain that historical processes of assimilation and strategic alliances are necessarily markers of the artificiality of the Hindu identity. Why? Because just like the Devas repeatedly perform sacrifices and may have to renew and update their own Tānūnaptra, our evolving Dharma too is a series of Yajña-s or long Sattra-s, where different pantheons, rituals and sacred spaces meld together, and which requires us to perform the sacred rite of “Tānūnaptra” by committing ourselves to the overarching Hindu identity. Thus, when we commit ourselves to the “Hindu” identity, it is not a mere artificial, survival strategy. It is divine. It is the earthly manifestation of the Tānūnaptra itself.

We end our essay here and will update it in due time.

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