Gajendra Moksham – When the God rushed to the rescue

This is in continuation to the last Sunday’s post on Gajendra’s Prayer

The best part of the episode of Gajendra in my view is not the prayer itself, but the response to the prayer by Lord Vishnu. At that time as Pothanamatya describes in a descriptive poem about what Lord Vishnu was immersed in,

అల వైకుంఠపురంబులో నగరిలో నా మూల సౌధంబు దా
పల మందారవనాంతరామృత సరః ప్రాంతేందు కాంతోపలో
త్పల పర్యంక రమావినోది యగు నాపన్నప్రసన్నుండు వి
హ్వల నాగేంద్రము పాహిపాహి యనఁ గుయ్యాలించి సంరంభియై

Vishnu was delighting in the company of Rama (Lakshmi) in the gardens of the principal mansion of the city of Vaikuntha, beside a lake of nectar on a bed of flowers. This was when he heard the pleas of Gajendra. Pothanamatya uses the adjective Apanna-prasanna (The one who can delight those in distress) and ends the poem indicating his sense of urgency with the word Samrambhi (One filled with extreme eagerness)

His response to the prayer is filled with an urgency to save the one calling out to him. Here, Pothanamatya unleashes his narrative best, slightly departing from Vyasa’s narrative in the Samskrita Bhagavatam.

సిరికిం జెప్పఁడు; శంఖ చక్ర యుగముం జేదోయి సంధింపఁ; డే
పరివారంబునుఁ జీరఁ” డభ్రగపతిం బన్నింపఁ” డాకర్ణికాం
తర ధమ్మిల్లముఁ జక్క నొత్తఁడు; వివాదప్రోత్థితశ్రీకుచో
పరిచేలాంచలమైన వీడఁడు గజప్రాణావనోత్సాహియై.

In his eagerness to save the elephant, He does not stop to tell Sri (Lakshmi, about Gajendra’s plight) He does not even take up his Shankha and Chakra, He does not call out to his retinue, nor does he summon his vehicle, Garuda, He does not even stop to set right his hair which had fallen over his ears He does not even leave the garment of Lakshmi which he had caught in the middle of a romantic interaction, thus forcing her to follow him.

తనవెంటన్ సిరి; లచ్చివెంట నవరోధవ్రాతమున్; దాని వె
న్కనుఁ బక్షీంద్రుఁడు; వాని పొంతను ధనుఃకౌమోదకీ శంఖ చ
క్రనికాయంబును; నారదుండు; ధ్వజినీకాంతుండు రా వచ్చి రొ
య్యన వైకుంఠపురంబునం గలుగువా రాబాలగోపాలమున్.

This alarming way of his leaving Vaikuntha leaves everyone unsettled and they all follow him with Lakshmi only speculating what could have caused her spouse to leave in the middle of their union, as she hurried along with him. The women folk attending to her follow the couple. Garuda hurries to his side and his weapons, the Shankha, the chakra and the Gada follow him to be available at his invocation. Behind them Narada and Vishvaksena followed. An unprecedented spectacle of an exodus of the whole Vaikuntha with none of them knowing about the reason!

Thus the Supreme Lord makes every cosmic being follow him only to find that the cause of all the disturbance were an elephant and a crocodile!

One can’t help admiring the style of Pothanamatya for striving to show how the Supreme Lord is deserving of the prayers of Gajendra and not the other way round! In literary magnitude, Vishnu’s response, his rushing to the Trikuta Lake and his act of saving Gajendra took almost equal number of verses as the prayer of Gajendra itself! The heartening highlight of the episode of Gajendra is the God’s eagerness matching with that of his devotee, thus hinting the inseparable relationship between both.

The literary lovers of Telugu can also observe that the chandassu used by Potanamatya for these poems is called Mattebhamu (literally translating to an ‘intoxicated elephant’), suiting the context beautifully. This was pointed out by @Vamsee9002 in one of our #Kavitvamu twitter chats.

Gajendra Moksham as an episode made its presence felt in popular folklore and in the lives of philosophers and reformers.

As an anecdote goes, a humorous conversation is believed to have happened between the Mughal emperor, Akbar and his favourite minister Birbal regarding this episode of Bhagavata. Akbar laughed at the urgency shown by Vishnu saying the God could have easily sent one of his guard, servants or his weapons to kill the reptile. Akbar found it laughable that the Supreme Lord rushes in such a (almost embarrassing) manner to save a mere elephant from a mere crocodile.

Birbal responded after a while by throwing a heavy stone into the Yamuna and spreading the scare that the emperor’s only son had fallen into the river. A distraught Akbar is believed to have rushed and jumped into the river to save his child from Yamuna’s currents. After he was pulled to safety, Birbal puts the emperor’s question back to him that Akbar could have ordered any of his guards who were better swimmers. Akbar then is said to have realized the intensity of compassion and love Lord Vishnu bore towards his devotees as something similar to that of a caring parent and not that of a powerful ruler.

It is also widely believed that Bharat Ratna. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya chanted Gajendra Moksham as he was immersed in the challenging project of building the famed Benares Hindu University.

My introduction to Gajendra moksham began as a bed time tale from my grandparents and my interest increased by my parents reading out the verses of Bhagavatam. One can’t help appreciating the magnetic effect Bhakti can have whether or not one chooses to tread the path.

I had earlier written about Pothana here.

For the full Telugu version of Vishnu’s arrival, please refer here.

My last post had also got an interesting suggestion from a friend about studying the social and cultural fabric that influenced this 13th Century version of Bhagavatam. A bit of pondering led me to a new discovery. Shall write more about it as time permits.

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Gajendra Moksham – The roller-coaster ride of Bhakti in the Supreme

Gajendra Moksham or “Liberation of the King of elephants” is an episode in the Eighth Chapter of Bhagavata Purana believed to be composed by Vyasa and narrated by Shuka to Parikshit. The story revolves around the struggle of Gajendra, the elephant against a crocodile in a lake at the foot of Trikuta range. My reference for the current post however is Andhra Maha Bhagavatam by Bammera Pothana, a close translation of Vyasa’s Srimad Bhagavatam.

The crocodile tries to drag the elephant king into deeper waters when Gajendra is engrossed in playful bathing along with his consorts. The detail with which Pothana (assumedly Vyasa too) describe the environment of Trikuta and the lake which subsequently turns into a battle field is noteworthy. The episode is believed to symbolize the struggle of a human between materialistic indulgence and spiritual pursuit. The battle between the two as the author describes goes on for a thousand years in which the crocodile gains over the elephant. Gajendra, at the end of his wit, will and strength turns to pray to the Supreme spirit.

The prayer of Gajendra has many interesting aspects to observe, mainly its tone which transits from a philosophical and scholarly beginning to a pleading tone at the end. The prayer begins with Gajendra invoking the Supreme Spirit who is the reason behind the emergence, sustenance and collapse of the universe himself being beyond the cycle of birth and death and the one who is the cause of his own existence.

Gajendra then compares the Supreme Lord to that of an actor who plays different roles and is yet unaffected by the nature of those roles. The Supreme spirit while described to be having many forms is still beyond the physical constraints of those forms. The Supreme spirit is also extolled as the one whose level of purity is unattainable by any thought, word and deed. He is beyond the Gunas, names, forms, actions, creation and deluge.

The next part of the prayer tends to elaborate more on the compassion of the Supreme Lord (Gajendra needs that more than anything!) with attributes like Dayasindhu (Sea of compassion), Soumya (gentleness personified), Dukhanta Kriti (One adept at ending miseries) and still balances with attributes related to detachment, knowledge and being beyond sensory constraints.

The prayer then goes on to elucidate the various kinds of people who are favoured by the supreme spirit. Gajendra describes them as being free of materialistic desire and as seeking the truth and as those who have surrendered themselves to the Supreme Spirit. The Supreme Spirit though described largely with male characteristics is then acknowledged as someone who is beyond the three genders (Male, Female and Transgender).

The Human psyche that doubts its own faith is acknowledged by Pothana (Assumedly by Vyasa) in this turn of the prayer. Here Gajendra who is now tired of extolling even doubts the existence of the Supreme spirits. The loose translations of those doubtful prayers are given below.

He who is described as present in those who pray for his grace and the great Yogis, in all directions and everywhere, does he exist at all?

Why doesn’t he come to my rescue, the one who is famed to protect the oppressed from the hands of oppressors, why doesn’t he listen to me? He being the one who protects his refugees without qualifying their merits and demerits, why does he heed my call of distress?

To a keen reader, the increasing desperation in each verse becomes evident in this second half of the prayer. Before the prayer, Gajendra is described as the one who is the lord of the most exalted species of elephants (Bhadra Gajas) and as someone who supported the sustenance of multiple trees by his constant watering and as the one who sported with tens of thousands of female elephants. (Quite some reasons to feel arrogant and egoistic, right?) He is the King who cannot be seen as rescued by any lesser being than the Supreme spirit himself! The distress of Gajendra towards the end can melt even the agnostic readers where he says his strength, every ounce of it is spent, his courage is exhausted, his vitality is slipping fast and he is near fainting as his body is collapsing. At this stage of helplessness, Gajendra says he knows nobody but the Supreme Spirit and only that spirit can protect him.

The swing of tone between extreme surrender and doubt intensifies when Gajendra again says he is now doubtful of that compassionate being who can listen to every being in the universe, who can move even among the inaccessible spaces, who is a witness to every event and who rushes to help those seeking refuge. One can observe the striking similarity with one’s own experiences where one’s faith passed through a similar roller coaster ride.

In the next Post, I shall write about the response of Vishnu to this call and it is more exciting!

For a verse by verse reference of Gajendra’s prayer in Telugu, refer here

Telugu Poetry – First attempt

Telugu poetry (Chandobaddha or adhering to metre) had been dear to me in my high school days. Like all loves of childhood that does make its way back to one’s life, I found myself getting back to it these days.

The below is my first attempt at the Chandobaddha Kavitvamu. The Chandassu chosen was Utpalamala. Find out more about Utpalamala here.

The poem is a tribute to Annamacharya, Pothana and Ramadasa -my three favourite composers and poets in Telugu.

విందుగ యన్నమయ్య తిరువెన్నుని కీర్తుల పాడెనే ముదం
బొందగ శౌరి గాథలను పోతన కోరి రచించెనే చెరన్
పొందియు రామదాసు మనముంచెను రాఘవు ధ్యాసలో మహా
నందము గూర్చిరే తెలుగు నాటికి నేటికి వేల్పులీ కవుల్

Hinduism’s fight against Caste and Birth based discrimination

This was written for Myind Makers, a Startup Platform for exchange of Ideas, run by a team of US based Indian professionals. The article was published in July 2015

I hope the title of this piece did not make you read it twice. Hinduism’s fight against Caste and Birth based discrimination is not an oxymoron or anomaly. For the population that was made to study for at least three generations that ‘caste-ism is one of the evils in Hinduism’, this might come across as a surprise. We have sadly failed to study about the scores of Hindu gurus, composers of Bhakti movement and literary poets who in their own ways have shown the irrelevance of caste in their body of work.

One of the earliest commentaries advocating the need to look beyond the concept of ‘outcaste’ appears in Mahabharata in the Ashvamedhika Parva (I shall not be surprised if one is able to find even earlier sources too). A Brahmana named Uttanka is given a boon by Krishna that he would be able to find water whenever he is thirsty. Uttanka remembers the boon when he feels thirsty while travelling through a desert. He then encounters a Chandala who offers him water to quench his thirst. Looking at the Chandala’s state, Uttanka is angered and refuses to drink the water despite repeated requests. After the Chandala leaves, Uttanka invokes Krishna demanding that a Chandala cannot be sent to give him water. Krishna chides him saying that it was in fact Lord Indra who was offering him the Amrita upon Krishna’s request. Uttanka’s attachment to the Chandala being outcaste thus deprives him of the divine nectar. A lot of interpretations could be drawn out of the episode but philosophically it does glaringly strike that obsession with untouchability keeps one away from realising the true potential of Atma (The jnana being symbolized by the nectar in this case).

Coming to the Hindu gurus, Adi Sankara’s encounter with a Chandala in whom he saw Shiva is well known. Maneesha Panchakam of Sankaracharya composed in that context stresses on the concept that Atma is unaffected by the physical attributes, one of which is caste. Adi Sankaracharya also composed Upadesha Sahasri, which is regarded as the teacher’s manual for imparting the concept of Advaita. In the verses describing a student’s graduation from learning theShrutis to learning about the nature of self, Sankara urges the teachers to prod the students to answer the question of ‘Who am I?’ He then directs the teachers to question and refute those answers which associate the student with birth, caste, gotra and other physical attributes which limit the self to just the body. Obviously, a school of thought which propounds ultimate one-ness, the identification with any classification is a strict no-no

Most of us might have heard this story of Sri Ramanujacharya, the leading proponent of Visishtadvaita. Ramanuja as a young student receives the mantra from his teacher to attain moksha (loosely translated as liberation). The teacher gives strict instructions to keep it a secret. As is believed, Ramanuja climbed up the roof of the temple and shouts out theMantra so that everyone in the village hears it. He then argues with his teacher that it is worth facing the consequence of leaking the ‘secret’ if everyone in the village gets to know of the path to Moksha. In another incident, Ramanuja became the disciple of Tirukachi Nambi a proponent of the Vaishnava philosophy, who belonged to a lower caste. Defying scepticism from the orthodox people around him including his wife, Ramanuja went ahead to serve Tirukachi Nambi with a single point aim of gaining knowledge. Sadly these anecdotes are not spoken about much and the reformist side of the great guru remains eclipsed.

Bhakti movement saw scores of composers who sang in the streets about the Supreme Lord’s equal treatment to all beings and that human made stratifications meant nothing to Him. A striking success case is the movement headed by Mahatma Basaweshwara of Karnataka in the 12th Century. A poet, philosopher, reformer and a political figure himself, Basaweshwara put up an active fight against untouchability. Shivanubhava Mantapa, an institution he founded is believed to have initiated the concept of social democracy ensuring fair representation across genders and classes. Exponents of this institution like Akka Mahadevi have propagated this philosophy through the Vachana literature. The success of this movement is seen today as we see the members of this community assuming positions across all spheres of life from priestly to political.

Narsi Mehta or Narsihn Mehta, composer of the famous bhajan Vaishnav Jan Toh, also known Adi Kavi in Gujarati literature was believed to have dined with scavengers, going against the orthodox beliefs of discrimination. The spirit of soul being unaffected by such discriminative attributes was echoed by a number of saints across India from the compositions like Sant literature of Maharashtra, compositions of Odiya poets and the Dasarapadas in Kannada. A cursory research into these works throws up a lot of examples speaking against birth/class based discrimination and oppression. Legends about miraculous incidents like the statue of Lord Krishna in Udupi turning around to give Darshan to Kanakadasa tell a lot about the strong belief that the divine favoured true devotion and merit over social privileges.

I personally desire to study them all in detail and also wish there was encouragement by State towards propagating the compositions of saints which establish Hinduism’s intellectual transaction of discriminative thought. The propagation of such knowledge and awareness of the oneness behind these compositions I am sure would help us unite and progress as proud inheritors of this civilization.

One example which stays close to my heart is the Telugu composition, Brahmamokkate Parabrahmamokkate by Annamacharya, another exponent of the Sri Vaishnava philosophy. I shall end this article with a loose translation of the immortal composition.

There is but one Supreme Being, the one and the only one Supreme Being

There are no such fixations of who is high and who is low, for Sree hari resides in everyone

The state of sleep of a king is not different from that of his servant. The earth on which a Brahmana steps on and a Chandala moves on is one and the same

The sensual pleasures are the same irrespective of whether celestial beings indulge in them or the animals and insects. The day and night are one and the same for those who are rich and those who are poor

The taste of delicious food and decaying food would differ but the tongue that tastes them is the one and the same. The wind that brushes past the foul and fragrant is one and the same

The rays of sun are one and the same whether they fall upon an elephant or a dog. The name of Lord Venkateswara is the one that can protect the meritorious and the sinful alike.