Bharat – A Civilization State

Bharat during Mahabharata times https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7651e.ct000605/

Recently the Member of Parliament from Wayanad, Kerala, stated that India is just a union of states. The mischievous subtext is that India is not a single nation but a collection of various nations like Europe. It also implies that the country is an artificial construct with nothing unifying the various states and territories.

This is not a new allegation. The MP from Wayanad had some illustrious predecessors. John Stratchley (some British dude) said, “The first and most essential thing to learn about India — that there is not and never was an India .” Winston Churchill (the British dude responsible for the Bengal genocide) said, “India is a geographical term. It is no more a nation than the equator.”

India, that is Bharat

India was a nation in ways these people could never fathom. The concept of Bharat has been alive for many millennia and has culturally united this land. Ancient Hindus understood this. They made pilgrimages to various holy places around Bharat. Students understood this. They traveled around to get the best education. Saints understood this. Adi Shankara established various mutts are four corners of Bharat. Besides them, our grammarians understood this and united the country with Samskritam.

In this article, we will look at evidence of these. I will be relying on the narratives of some historians you would have never heard of, like Har Bilas Sarda, Radha Kumud Mookerji, and R. C. Majumdar. I picked the summary of their arguments from J Sai Deepak’s excellent book India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution. I will also rely on what my Samskritam teachers taught me about Paninian grammar.

Bharat as a civilization state

Going to Triveni Sangam

A few years back, I went from Kerala to participate in the Kumbh Mela. I was among the millions of Indians walking along the banks of Ganga and Yamuna for the holy bath. Our boat to the Triveni Sangam had people from Rajasthan and Bengal. Though we were from three corners of the country, we all had the same reverence for Ganga and Yamuna and faith that the Saraswati met the other rivers at the Sangam.

There are two aspects here. The first is that people across the land venerated the geography of Bharat. Rivers, mountains, hills — all have a sacred story and are remembered in hymns and prayers. The nation itself is revered as a mother. This is quite different from how the West views nature.

The second: people traveled across the land for pilgrimages. Visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. The lack of physical comforts did not stop anyone. During these long trips, pilgrims took breaks, creating a network of numerous sacred spots. These pilgrims did not think of the country as different nations but as a unified cultural entity extending from the Himalayas to the oceans. This combination of nature and faith generated patriotism and cultural unity, of which the Kumbh Mela is a perfect example.

These pilgrimage spots were centers of higher learning as well. Think of Benares, Nalanda, Mathura, Takshashila, Ujjain, Prayag, Kanchi, Madhura, and Nawadwaip. Students from all over Bharat went to study at these places. With pilgrimage spots and learning centers unifying this land, it is no wonder that Chaitanya and Adi Shankara traveled from one end of Bharat to another. If there was no cultural unity, establishing four mutts at the four corners of Bharat would not make sense.

These indicate that the people of Bharat had an expanded geographical consciousness irrespective of the political boundary of the kingdom they lived in. There was a civilizational oneness despite the diversity, and this unity existed before the invaders and colonizers showed up. This unity exists even now. Thus Adi Shankara was not limited in his Malayali identity but had geographical consciousness to treat Bharat as one cultural unit.

Unification through Samskritam grammar

Panini’s Ashtadyayi

There is the story of a child who went to the gurukul and found the going quite hard. He wanted to quit. So the father told him, “Even if you don’t study a lot, please study vyākaraṇam. Else, instead of saying swajana (my people), you might say shva-jana (dog) or instead of saying sakalam (everything), you might say shakalam (part)”. Pronunciation and intonation are important; else, the meaning will be unintended and sometimes the exact opposite.

Among the six Vedangas, vyākaraṇa or grammar, is considered the most important by Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashyam. Among the grammarians, Panini is the most famous for many reasons:

1. He organized Samskritam using brilliant techniques with four thousand sutras. Just look at the concept of pratyahara, an elegant and impressive in-memory language compression technique.

2. He incorporated the works of other Shakalya, Sphotaka, Senaka, and other grammarians into his work.

3. He did not just mention how words are formed but also their meaning and relation.

Due to Panini, vyakarana-darshana became an important field of study.

But beyond these, there are two crucial points where Panini shined.

 Panini’s grammar has sutras for both Vedic Samskritam and non-Vedic Samskritam. For example, the plural form of देवः is देवाः in Samskritam, while it’s देवासः in Vedic Samskritam. Panini’s grammar has a sutra to address this. In Samskritam, there is a word called jahāra, whereas, in the Vedic texts, it’s used as jabhāra. If no grammar specified the rules, someone reading this could assume it as a typo and rewrite the word. Due to this guardrail, the Vedas remain like a tape recording from millennia back. This is why we say vyākaraṇam protects the Vedas.

Why does this matter? If not for this protection, a naughty Samskritam professor at Harvard could declare that the rishis made a typo in the Vedas. He could declare that the Harvard version of Vedas will fix this, and anyone who does not follow that is anti-minority and a Hindu nationalist. I am not kidding about this. Here is a case where the Vedas were misinterpreted to support the Aryan Invasion Theory. The preservation of personal names in Rig Veda has helped us understand how the various tribes migrated, giving a radically different view of the ancient world. Now, Panini could have left the Vedic Samskritam alone. That was language from a distant past. Instead, he saw a cultural continuity from the past use of language to his present. 

Panini was aware of Samskritam used in different parts of India and their variations. So, he integrated all the variations into this grammar. If he just cared about his political boundary, he could have ignored the regional usage at a distant place. But he did not. He had the geographical consciousness to see that all these lands were part of one unified cultural unit. The political boundaries have changed in various ways since the time of Panini. However, the land of Bharata still has the same name and culture since those times.

Finally

The British treated Bharat as a collection of countries in a Eurocentric way. But that view does not work for India because we did not operate on European concepts of nation and state. India bounded by the majestic mountains and vast oceans was designated by one name – Bharat. The geography was marked out by nature itself. If you think of the concept of nation as a monochromatic picture, India is a civilization drawn with a dazzling array of colors. In this civilization state, there was cultural unity within a federation of creeds. Each of them had the freedom to preserve their special features and enrich the central culture.

By parroting old British propaganda, the Member of Parliament from Wayanad is just following the path of his great-grand father who wrote The Discovery of India which discovered India, but not Bharat.

Book Review: Breath by James Nestor

Breath

A long time back, in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, some people had mastered the secrets of breathing, says James Nestor in his book Breath. The evidence is the meditating man seal or what we call the Shiva seal. It is from here that the wisdom spread to the world. The Indus-Sarasvati people discovered that breathing with different patterns — really fast, very slow, or holding breath — can cure diseases without medicines, influence body weight, and affect overall health. By influencing the nervous system and controlling the immune response, these breathing patterns can help a person live longer and healthier.

While the Yoga Sutras are well known, there are other ancient texts as well.

Thirteen hundred years ago, an ancient Tantric text, the Shiva Swarodaya, described how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. According to the text, these rhythms are the same throughout every month, and they’re shared by all humanity. It’s a method our bodies use to stay balanced and grounded to the rhythms of the cosmos, and each other

This knowledge then surfaced worldwide, like Japan, Africa, Hawaii, and Native America. They developed breathing techniques and benefitted from the calming effects.

Two things make the book interesting. The first is when the author acts as a human guinea pig, trying out various techniques with breathing experts worldwide. These are not yogic techniques, but activities like Holotropic breathing or the Wim Hoff method or taking a carbon dioxide shot.

The other is when he explains what happens inside our body when you do these practices. Breathing is more than just the physical act. Medically it’s known that breath affects every single internal organ affecting heart rate, digestion, and moods. Deep breathing influences the parasympathetic nerves, which signals the organs to rest.

Often you see remarks like what’s there to learn about breathing, after all, it’s just inhaling and exhaling. The modern age has caused us to pay little attention to breathing. This has resulted in diseases like asthma, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another aspect is that as we age, the lung capacity decreases, leading to high blood pressure and immune disorders.

The book acknowledges India as the source of all this knowledge. All the techniques the author tried, he says, comes from ancient Indian texts. The ancients people who did these experiments with breathing and discovered the possible miracles knew that breathing was not just inhaling and exhaling. They knew how to manipulate body functions by controlling their breath. They obviously knew a lot more than what Western science knows, like how the prana can control the mind.

When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above the soft palate so that it’s pointed toward the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

There are a couple of issues with the book. While the book mentions Indus-Sarasvati civilization by that name, it also mentions the Aryan Invasion Theory. It has a fascinating twist – the Aryans came from Iran and not Russia. Second, the author gives credit to Indians for discovering the secrets of breathing, but to talk to a yogi, he goes to Brazil. Why not go to the land where it started and where it’s a living, breathing tradition.

If you were one of those skeptical about yoga and pranayama, this book would change the way you think about breathing. By combing ancient wisdom with scientific evidence and first-hand experience, the book distills the knowledge in an easy-to-read narrative. In the end, it advocates breathing slow and less through the nose as it sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues.

Swami Vivekananda wrote that the breath is the fly-wheel of the body. In a big machine, the fly-wheel is set in motion first. That motion is conveyed to finer machinery until the delicate and finest machinery is in motion. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar. The fact that a sick child would live to the age of 95 is proof of the book’s secrets.

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Buddhism

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

While there were debates among the astikas (who abides by Vedas), there were similar debates between astikas and nastikas (Buddhists, Jains).

The prerequisite of these debates was that you would understand the opponent’s position well enough to state it and then debate. Let’s understand the process better — let’s look at a refutation that happened 1300 years back. Here, it was Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) refuting four schools of Buddhism.

Different schools of Buddhism

These were the Srautrantika, Vaibhashika, Yogachara Vijñānavāda, and the Shunyavada. All of them explored the question: is there an external world apart from us and came up with different points of view. We are a species that delight in metaphysical observations and can come up with darshanas that captivate and startle. In a dharmic venture, there is no monotheistic understanding. Instead, in trying to understand the world, these ambitious mind explorers came up with different explanations of reality.

The srautrantikas believed that when you perceive something it exists out there. For example, if you see a flower, it means that there is a flower right there in front of you. We also have unique experiences based on the object; the experience you have when you eat a mango differs from the experience you have when you eat roasted cashew.

This is what we experience daily, and it is natural to wonder how could anyone even have a position other than this? That’s where the Vaibhashika person comes and says hold on. We don’t see the flower just because it is out there, but because of the process that happens because of it. When you look at a flower, the eyes process that, and the mind creates an image of the flower. This is like the modern position that light waves hit our retina, resulting in some electrical activity in the brain creating the perception of the flower. The biological software processes signals from the biological hardware.

On hearing this, you can accept that it is a detailed and refined view than the srautrantika position. Now that we are here, what could be a position that could be a refinement of this?

The Vijñānavādin, brings a radical perspective — there is no external object. It is not like saying 2+2 = 5. The Vijñānavādin is saying there is no 2 or 5. Everything you perceive is just in your mind and what you feel as real is just an illusion. For example, in your dream, you will see new worlds and old friends, but the moment you wake up, all of that disappears. Vijñānavādin says the actual world too is similar, an illusion. If you thought that was rad, just see what the Shunyavadin has to say. The Shunyavadin takes it up a notch further and says that nothing exists. There is no external world, no mind. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Everything is shunya.

If your mind goes into DEFCON 2,  no one will blame you. We have ninety billion neurons entangled in a network of one hundred trillion synaptic connections. Only rishis with neurons which have seen the flashes of light between the extremities of darkness can come up with such darshanas.

To summarize, the Srautrantikas and Vaibhashikas, called the realists, agree that there is an external object, while the Vijñānavādins and Shunyavadins (the idealists) don’t. From now we will use this terminology.

Advaita is similar to Vijñānavāda. Gaudapada also argues that your waking world is like the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman. All of us, all the surrounding things are all are just names, forms, and behavior of Brahman. Now that the positions are clear, it’s time for Advaita to refute them.For that, Gaudapada uses a simple technique. Since the various Buddhist schools have been debating each other, he piggybacks on those arguments.

And so it starts.

The realist poses this question to the idealist. If you say that there is no external object, but just awareness, it seems odd. I can touch flowers, fruits, and feel happy seeing the Ram Mandir getting built. Each of these is a different perception inside me. If you say that there is one consciousness, then that conciseness is homogeneous. If consciousness is homogeneous, then the experience should also be homogeneous. Instead, our daily experience shows that diverse objects give us diverse perceptions. This means that there is a secondary object apart from this consciousness thing.

The idealist refutes it. The idealist rejects this from the standpoint of absolute reality. Look at a pot. If you have an external view, it will look like an object which exists. Now consider the same pot from the point of view of clay. There is nothing called pot, it is just a name, form, and behavior. Take a piece of cloth. It cannot exist without the thread, and you can say that the thread is the reality. The cloth is just a name and form imposed on the thread. Does the thread exist though? It is made of fibers and the thread is a name/form superimposition on the thread. Take it deep and deep and you end up with consciousness as the substratum on which everything else is a name and form. Hence, when you stand at the point of consciousness and look around, there is nothing else that differs from it.

The idealist continues: Hey, you realist, you had mentioned that it is diverse external objects which cause diverse experiences for you. In your dream world, you can eat an apple, drink lemon-soda, and experience happiness of the bhumi puja of Ram Mandir. In your sleep, all your sense organs have shut down. Your eyes are not seeing, your tongue is not tasting, and yet you have such diverse experiences such as all these. So saying that an external world causes diverse experiences is not true.

That works for the dream world, but what about the real world? Are we living in a Matrix to say that this is an illusion? Is this consensual hallucination? Gaudapada says, yes. Your waking world does not differ from the dream world. There is nothing apart from Brahman and whatever you see, feel and perceive is just Brahman with name, form, and behavior. This difference between the external and internal is all in the mind.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Now that the realists have been taken care of, Gaudapada turns towards the Vijñānavādins. So far he used the arguments by Vijñānavādins to refute the realists, but now it is time to take care of them. It might seem that Vijñānavādins and Advaitins were twins lost at the Kumbh Mela. Both of them claim that the world is illusory.

While that looks similar, there is one major difference. While Advaita says that Brahman is unborn, unchanging, and deathless, Vijñānavādins say that consciousness is momentary. If Advaitins think of Brahman as sunlight, always present and always shining, Vijñānavādins think of it as a strobe light, which flashes on and off. Reality is nothing but a stream of this consciousness hitting you at a fast rate creating an illusion of reality.

The problem here is that Vijñānavādins do not distinguish between consciousness and mind. They use the same word (Chittam) for both. When you experience a flower, a vritti is formed in your Chitta. When you smell the flower, you get another vritti. This happens at such a fast rate that it seems continuous. It is like a packet with awareness and context hitting you constantly. With meditation, you can slow down your awareness and see this happen in slow motion.

The Advaitin then asks, if consciousness is constantly born and dies, what leads to its birth again? Is it born from something which exists or something non-existing? Also, if what we perceive are flashes of consciousness, then how do you perceive the gap between two events? Is it blank? This does not sound right. The Advaita position is that just the vritti dies, but the consciousness never dies. Those who say that consciousness dies are looking for footprints of flying birds.

With all the three gone, the remaining one is the Shunyavadin. Gaudapada does not refute Shunyavada explicitly. Shankara in his commentary just mentions that they are like people who are trying to grasp the sky with their hands. A later debater says that if everything is empty, then you, Shunyavadin are also empty and hence there is no need to debate you.

These back-and-forth arguments illustrate the rigor of arguments among the various darshanas. Going through this process helps us understand each of the darshanas clearly. The people who discovered these darshanas because of their tapas are no longer with us, but these discoveries are still being talked about and they still captivate and startle.

References

Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Samkhya

6 darshanas in sanatana dharma

Though the six darshanas in Hinduism disagreed with each other, no one was excommunicated, put in house arrest, or burned at the stake. Instead, proponents of these darshanas would fight virulently but verbally. They would study the opponent’s position, debate and refute it. Let’s look at an example when an Advaitin refuted Samkhya 1300 years back.

If you observe our world, you will see creation and destruction happening. From the seed appears a tree. At some point, the tree dies but creating new seeds before that. Animals are born from few cells, and they die, but they create new animals as well. Mountains are formed from the earth and later they become part of the earth. Observing this pattern of cause and effect, a few millennia back, Kapila proposed the system of Samkhya.

Samkhya is one of the oldest darshanas with its main premise being the concept of pre-existence and transformation. For example, a tree comes from a seed, and thus you can say that the tree pre-existed in the seed. The effect (tree) pre-existed in the cause( seed) in an unmanifest form. With the birth of the tree, the cause transformed into the effect with a new name and properties similar to curd manifesting from milk. All the colors that later appear on the plumes of a peacock, pre-existed in the egg of the peahen. Extrapolating this, we can say that the entire universe pre-existed in cause from which it manifested.

The tree or curd are not something new coming into existence, but a change in the seed or milk. In Samkhya, each one of us, the Purusha, came from Prakriti. Prakriti is eternal unborn and undying. The Purusha which was unmanifest manifests with separate pure consciousness with a difference.

Compared to Samkhya, the Advaita advocated by Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) is quite radical. According to him, the entire experience we have is a projection. Think of a movie screen showing Uri: A surgical strike. In the movie, there is cause and effect and karma, but the screen is unaffected by the movie. Today it could be Uri, tomorrow it could be Bahubali. Now think of your dream world. You manifest a brand new world during sleep and this world disappears when you wake up. Gaudapada argues that even your waking world is similar to the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman.

In this darshana, there is no unmanifest manifesting. It is not like Brahman is the cause and the universe is the effect. Instead, think of it this way. You see a snake on the road, but on closer examination, you find that it was a rope. You see some water in the desert, but on closer examination, you find that it was a mirage. The assumed reality is found to be an error. Similarly, the world is a projection that we take to be real.

If everything is a projection, then what is real? Think of a necklace and a ring which are two separate things, both made of gold. The gold does not disappear when the necklace appears like how the seed disappears when the tree appears. Instead, the necklace is just a name and form imposed on the gold. Nothing new is born.

To show the superiority of Advaita, Gaudapada uses two techniques to refute Samkhya. The first one is a logical argument and the second one, a technical one.

According to Samkhya, the cause is transformed into effect. Prakriti is eternal and is neither born nor destroyed. The effect, Purusha (think humans), is born and dies. If the effect is created from an unborn, immortal cause, then the effect should also be unborn and immortal. Instead, the final fate of every Purusha is a foregone conclusion. From planets to stars, solar systems to galaxies, black holes to swirling nebulae, amoeba to homo sapiens, nothing is everlasting. According to Gaudapada, the immortal Prakriti transforming into a mortal Purusha is illogical.

The second refutation is done using nyāya. In nyāya, the logic has to be illustrated with an example. According to Samkhya, there is a cause and an effect. Gaudapada argues that if Samkhyans say that Purusha came from Prakriti, one can ask where the Prakriti itself came from? If that Prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that Prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause. See this article for more details.

Even though these debates happened and victories were claimed, none of these darshanas disappeared. Samkhyans never were forced to accept Advaita as supreme. No committee met and decided what is kosher and what is not. No one was declared as a heretic and excommunicated. Just open the Gita and check the name of the second chapter.

References

Upanishad Notes: Difference between Greek logic and Nyāya

A simplified example of Greek logic is as follows

  • All men die
  • Socrates is a man
  • Socrates will die

Compared to this, Hindu Nyāya has some additional steps. The most common example used is that of the fire in the mountain. The steps are as follows

QuestionNyāya statementNyāya term
StatementThere is fire in the hillPratijñā
WhyThere is smokeHetu
So what?If there is smoke, there is fire, like in the kitchenUdāhārana
And?There is smoke in the hillUpanaya
So?Hence there is fire in the hillNigamana

One important step in Nyāya is udāhārana and just because one could not be provided an entire darshana can be refuted. An example of that would be Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s teacher’s teacher) refuting Samkhya.

According to Samkya, the effect pre-exists in the cause, similar to how a tree pre-exists in the seed. Like how the tree is born from the seed, purusha manifests from prakriti. Gaudapada disagrees with this and among the many tactics he deploys to refute Samkhya, one of them is the lack of udāhārana.

He argues that if Samkhyans say that purusha came from prakriti, one can ask where the prakriti itself came from? If that prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause.

Reference:

अजाद्वै जायते यस्य दृष्टान्तस्तस्य नास्ति वै ।
जाताच्च जायामानस्य न व्यवस्था प्रसज्यते ॥ १३ ॥

There is no illustration to support the view of him who says that the effect is born from the unborn cause. Again, if it be said that the effect is produced from a cause which is itself born then it leads to a regressus ad infinitum.

Swami Vivekananda on why Hindus don’t say “My god is true and yours is not”

Swamiji starts by telling the history of the Middle East and the evolution of religion there. In the world of tribes, each tribe had its own god. If the tribes were allied with each other, they would have a common name like Baal or Moloch. When one tribe conquered another, their king would take over and claim that their god was superior as well. For the Babylonians, Baal-Merodach was superior. For Jews, Moloch-Yahveh was supreme over other Molochs. The supremacy of the gods was decided by humans through battle.

In India too, this issue was there. Here is where we differed because:

the great good fortune of this country and of the world was that there came out in the midst of the din and confusion a voice which declared एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति — “That which exists is One; sages call It by various names.” It is not that Shiva is superior to Vishnu, not that Vishnu is everything and Shiva is nothing, but it is the same one whom you call either Shiva, or Vishnu, or by a hundred other names. The names are different, but it is the same one. The whole history of India you may read in these few words. The whole history has been a repetition in massive language, with tremendous power, of that one central doctrine. It was repeated in the land till it had entered into the blood of the nation, till it began to tingle with every drop of blood that flowed in its veins, till it became one with the life, part and parcel of the material of which it was composed; and thus the land was transmuted into the most wonderful land of toleration, giving the right to welcome the various religions as well as all sects into the old mother-country.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

Due to this concept of oneness is everyone and everything, apparently contradictory ideas can live in harmony. This is the one lesson that India has to offer to the world. This is a concept that missionaries will never understand. They will never understand what Ishta is. The intolerance that they exhibit and the religious persecution around the world are because they don’t have the concept of unity in everything. Swamiji says:

If you go to other countries and ask Mohammedans or people of other religions to build a temple for you, see how they will help. They will instead try to break down your temple and you too if they can. The one great lesson, therefore, that the world wants most, that the world has yet to learn from India, is the idea not only of toleration, but of sympathy.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

We have examples of Kings building temples for Mohammedans and Christians and offering refuge to Jews and Zoroastrians. The differences in our way of worship did not matter.

It is impossible that all difference can cease; it must exist; without variation life must cease. It is this clash, the differentiation of thought that makes for light, for motion, for everything. Differentiation, infinitely contradictory, must remain, but it is not necessary that we should hate each other therefore; it is not necessary therefore that we should fight each other.

(Lectures from Colombo to Almora – 1897)

The Origin of Onam

Boat Race for Onam via WikiCommons

The popular narrative of Onam goes like this. There used to be a king who ruled Kerala called Mahabali. During his time — according to a popular saying in Malayalam — there was unity among people, who were honest and all around prosperity. Consumed by jealousy, Indra approached Vishnu and requested him to remove Mahabali. Vishnu took the Vamana avatar and asked Mahabali for three feet of land.

The charitable king agreed and Vamana, who was a little boy, grew to a gigantic form. With his one feet, he measured the earth. With the next he measured the entire universe. Mahabali realized who he was dealing with and offered his head for the third foot of land. Vamana placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him to paataal. Before leaving, the king asked for one boon, — to visit his people once a year — which was granted. Onam is the time when Mahabali visits Malayalis

By Raja Ravi Varma

If you hear this version, Mahabali is a martyr and Vishnu is a villain. Why on earth would Vishnu take an avatar to get rid of someone who had all the noble values? Now you can add the liberal, subaltern flavor to this. Vamana being the avatar of Vishnu was a savarna, who pushed a dalit down. This of course is a perfect example of brahminical patriarchy. There is even an Aryan Invasion version of Onam. Something seems to be incorrect here.

What is the truth as per our scriptures though? In fact, Parikshit had the same question and he asked it to Shukracharya. To know the truth behind this literary conceit, you just need to read Bhagavatam.

Let’s look at the sequence of avatars. In the list Vamana comes after Parasurama. This may not be a well know fact outside Kerala, but Parasurama is credited with the creation of Kerala. It is said that when he threw his axe and land arose from the sea. So if the Mahabali event happened earlier with an earlier avatar, then he obviously was not in the land we call Kerala.

For the next point, we need to go into the details of devas and asuras. The devas and asuras are children born of the same father. Kashyapa Prajapati had children with his wife Aditi and Diti. Though they were born of the same father, the children had different natures. The children of Aditi had more sattva in them, while the the children of Diti turned out to be asuras.

We all know the story of Prahlad who was the son of the erasure king Hiranyakashipu. Prahlad had a son named Virochana and Mahabali was his son. During his youth, Bali went for a war with Indra and lost his life, but the Asura guru Shukracharya revived him back to life. Shukracharya wanted his disciples to vanquish the devas. Bali wanted his revenge.

Onam Feast By Rohan S on Flickr

This was a time when Vishnu stood back. He had noticed the arrogance of the devas and wanted to teach them a lesson. Shukracharya had noticed this as well. That was the opportune moment for him. When the forces of Shukracharya and Bali were combined, the asura strength increased. Bali attacked Indra and defeated him. Bali then following Shukracharya’s instructions, ruled the devaloka as well.

Even when he was without a throne and was wandering around, Indra did not approach Vishnu and ask for his help in making Bali disappear. Who approached Vishnu and triggered the Vamana avatar?

That was Aditi. Seeing the sad state of her son, she approached her husband Kashyapa, who advised her to perform a vrata. Pleased with her vrata, Vishnu appeared before her. Aditi explained the homelessness of her son and pleaded with him to do something. Seeing her hard austerities and heart felt plea, Vishnu promised to find a solution.

Thus on a shravan month, on the Abhijit muhurta, Vamana was born. Mahabali was performing a yaga on the banks of river Narmada (not in Kerala), when Vamana appeared there. On asking why the child came there, Vamana said that he came for a dana of three feet of land. Hearing this, Bali ridiculed him, but Vamana did not change his request. Shukracharya, immediately realized who the boy was and asked Bali to withdraw his pledge to fulfill the request. When Shukracharya told him who the boy was, Bali realized that he was the same person who protected his grand father Prahlad.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. Prahlad had advised Bali to rule based on dharma, but with his typical arrogance he responded back that he was not afraid of anyone. Prahlad warned him that one day Maha Vishnu would kill him, but Bali told him that the rakshasas were powerful than Vishnu. Even a person like Prahlad could not take this mindless self-righteous posturing anymore. He cursed his grandson that he would lose his kingdom and all his prosperity. When Bali asked for forgiveness, Prahlad asked him to take refuge in Vishnu.

Snobbishness can sometimes be entertaining, other times, it can destroy your life. When Shukracharya found that Vamana was not listening to him, he cursed the king as well. This guru-sapam, sealed his fate. The king went and washed Vamana’s feet in preparation for his dana. Seeing this some of his soldiers tried to attack Vamana. Bali stopped them. He said, the same god, who caused the destruction of the devas and helped with our victory is now doing the opposite. Please be calm. Thus Bali himself did not have an issue with what was going to happen.

When Vishnu was about to keep his feet on Bali’s head for the third boon, Prahlada also appeared there. Seeing him, Vishnu was happy. Prahlada pleaded on behalf of Bali to Vishnu. Vishnu then promised to give Bali something which was impossible for devas to attain. He blessed Bali to live in a place called suthala (made by Vishwakarma) with all the pleasures of life. Vishnu also agreed to protect Bali’s family and the boon to see the Lord whenever he wanted.

“According to Vedic texts, there are 14 worlds in the universe – seven upper worlds and seven subterranean ones. Atalam, Vitalam, Sutalam, Tala-Talam, Rasa-Talam, Maha-Talam, and Pathalam are the seven lower worlds, all of which have been described in detail in the Puranas.

Of these, Pathalam is the lowest world inhabited by Nagas, the serpent people and is said to be a dreaded place. Sutalam, on the other hand, is considered by the asuras as equivalent to or even more desirable than ‘swargaloka’.

Revisiting the Onam myth

As Bali prepared to go to suthalam, he asked Vishnu to bless him with his feet. To satisfy Bali, Maha Vishnu kept his right feet on Bali’s head and blessed him. After Bali went to suthalam, the Indra was returned to power.

The part of Bali going to suthalam instead of paatalam has been lost. Even if Bali went to suthalam, he can still come to visit his subjects once a year.

Thrikkakarayappan by Ramesh NG on Flickr

But here is an interesting bit. With the false narrative that is going on, one would think that it is only Mahabali who is celebrated and Malayalis dislike Vamana. But there is a tradition where we keep two banana leaves and two seats and serve feast on them. This is for both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali. Also, one of the traditions followed now, is the creation of a floral decoration called the pookkalam. At the center of the the pookkalam, we keep a clay pyramid called Thrikkakarayappan. Thrikkakara is one of the few temples dedicated to Vamana and keeping Thrikkakarayappan, is honoring Vamana as well.

Finally, why is the festival called Onam? It comes from the name of the month of the birth of Vamana. Shravanam -> Savanam -> Avanam -> Onam. As the name of the month moved from Sanskrit to Malayalam, this change happened.

Bhagavatam, Vishnu Puranam, Vamana Puranam, Mahabharatam, Yoga Vasishtam, and Narayaneeyam reveal the special bond between Mahabali and Maha Vishnu. The name of the festival itself comes from the birth month of Vamana. The traditions followed now also reflect this divine relation. When there was no animosity between them, why is such a narrative prevalent today? Instead of propagating that version, it is better to remember that Onam is a time when both Maha Vishnu and Mahabali come together.

References:

  1. Speech by Swami Chidananda Puri
  2. Thiruvonam – Aitheehyavum Yadharthyangalum
  3. Revisiting the Onam myth
  4. The origin of the name Onam comes from a comment Prof. S Guptan Nair wrote in (2)

Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

Ishta – Swami Vivekananda on why Hindu sects don’t quarrel

Street Corner Missionaries

Wherever I go in the world, I see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on the roadside with pamphlets in various languages. I have seen this both in United States and Europe. Every year the church sends crores of rupees to India to convert Hindus and Love Jihadis target Hindu girls. To Hindus, who are used to multiple sects living together, multiple darshanas accepted as scripture and being followers of various gurus with radically different styles, this intolerance is an alien concept. Swami Vivekananda, using the concept of Ishta, explains why various sects never quarreled in India.

In a speech given in Jaffna, following his address at the Parliament of Nations, Swamiji noted

“The Shaivite does not say that every Vaishnavite is going to be damned, nor the Vaishnavite that every Shaivite will be damned. The Shaivite says, this is my path, and you have yours; at the end we must come together. They all know that in India. This is the theory of Ishta. It has been recognised in the most ancient times that there are various forms of worshipping God. It is also recognised that different natures require different methods.”

According to Hindu tradition, based on various proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, we all have different nature. Based on that nature, there are different method of worship and hence what works for you may not work for me. Most of us understand this innately, without understanding the yogic aspects behind this. Swamiji warns that the idea that there is only one way for everyone is “injurious, meaningless, and entirely to be avoided.”

Woe unto the world when everyone is of the same religious opinion and takes to the same path. Then all religions and all thought will be destroyed. Variety is the very soul of life. When it dies out entirely, creation will die.

Vivekananda

Swamiji then introduces the Sanskrit word “Ishta”. He calls it my way. Now my way is good for me, but probably not for you. Similarly your way is good for you, but not for me. Missionaries hate this. For them, your way is the highway to hell and my way is the only way. Hence the Hindus have to be converted either by force, by incentives or through educational institutions. They talk of love, but the goal is the destruction of our way of live, because it is different.

You see extreme versions of this even now. A missionary was killed in Andaman on an adventure to convert the natives. They are found in crossfire in war zones. They have served as spies. They show up in hostile countries with the Bible speaking of love. Mother Theresa fooled an entire generation with her story of compassion. Swamiji counters:

Their love does not count for much. How can they preach of love who cannot bean another man to follow a different path from their own? If that is love, what is hatred? We have no quarrel with any religion in the world, whether it teaches men to worship Christ, Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other prophet. “Welcome, my brother,” the Hindu says, “I am going to help you; but you must allow me to follow my way too. That is my Ishta. Your way is very good, no doubt; but it may be dangerous for me. My own experience tells me what food is good for me, and no army of doctors can tell me that.

In India, we have the freedom to worship the formless or a thousand forms., go to temples or perform pujas, do kriya or yoga. But “the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”

Reference

After death

Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

Discover Magazine writes on an interesting phenomena, that happens after we die. Usually, we expect the body to stop working. But instead,

Noble and colleagues at the University of Washington were testing a technique for measuring gene activity. As a control, they analyzed tissues from recently-dead zebrafish, expecting to see a steady decrease in new copies of genes as cellular activity tapered off. And that’s what they found — with some notable exceptions. After the zebrafish were dead, around one percent of their genes sprang to life, as though the cells were preparing to build something.

The idea that genes would activate after an organism’s death was unheard of, so the researchers wrote it off as a mistake with their instrumentation. But repeated tests, in fish and then in mice, continued to bear out the impossible: genes activating hours, or even days, after an organism died.[ After You Die, These Genes Come to Life ]

This reminded me of a recent lecture on the various pranas in our body and what they do. Out of all the pranas, one of them is activated after we die.

Speaking of pranas, there are five that requires mention. The prana above the throat is called prana. The one below the belly button is called apanan and is responsible for the excretion function. Samanan stays between these two — below the throat and above the belly button — and is responsible for digestion. Imagine our stomach as an engine generating energy by burning fuel. Like how the fire burns strongly in our traditional hearth, when air is blown, samanan helps with digestion. Vyanan is a prana which is spread all over the body, across all our naadis. The last — Udana — sits in the sushumna. At the time of death, it gathers all your accumulated karmas and leaves. Sometimes this prana gets attached to the body and will refuse to leave. That’s why Hindus cremate quickly. [ Why pranayama can control the mind ]