The Oneness of Hari-Hara in Telugu Bhagavatam

First published on Myind Makers in October 2015

Harihara-abheda or Harihara-advaita, the non-duality of Shiva and Vishnu was an intellectual movement in the Telugu literary sphere led by Tikkanna Somayaji (13th Century CE), one of the poet-trinity who composed Andhra Mahabharatamu. Though the concept of the oneness of Hari and Hara did exist in the older scriptures, the contemporary conditions warranted its revival as a movement. I have blogged about what led Tikkanna Somayaji to found the movement here. This article will dwell upon how the movement influenced Bammera Pothanamatya, the composer of Andhra Mahabhagavatamu. 

Pothana, is a 14th Century poet who hailed from the village Bammera (in the current day Warangal district of Telangana). He had the distinction of being a Sahaja Kavi, the one who got to imbibe the skill of poetry by his own nature. He is credited to have composed the Bhagavata in Telugu.  This Andhra Mahabhagavatamu is a work of epic proportions containing over 9000 poems and prose, largely following the content of the Sanskrit version. Can a text that is assumed to be proclaiming the supremacy of Lord Vishnu, provide the concept of oneness of these two prime deities Shiva and Vishnu? The composer of Sanskrit Bhagavatam would not have faced this intrigue as the Puranic age provided a platform to each of the faiths to proclaim supremacy of different deities and yet co-exist harmoniously. The early medieval India and the later medieval India, sadly had lost the harmony of the Puranic age. After a deep introspection, one can realize that it is the power mongering feudal elements carrying the religion badge that caused this unrest (and not the other way round, as some historians would want us to believe).

 

Bammera Pothana provided an interesting example of this concept of unity. His was a family that adhered to Veera Shaiva religion. But his chosen deity or Ishta Daiva was Sri Rama to whom he dedicated the Andhra Mahabhagavatamu. Sri V Sambasiva Rao, in the preface of his venture digitizing the text, says that Andhra Mahabhagavatamu is the first regional version of the Bhagavata.

The very second poem of this text is a soul filled adulation to Lord Shiva.

వాలిన భక్తి మ్రొక్కెద నవారిత తాండవ కేళికిన్, దయా
శాలికి, శూలికిన్, శిఖరిజా ముఖ పద్మ మయూఖ మాలికిన్,
బాల శశాంక మౌళికిఁ, గపాలికి, మన్మథ గర్వ పర్వతో
న్మూలికి, నారదాది మునిముఖ్య మనస్సరసీరుహాలికిన్

 I bow down with utmost devotion, to the one who delights in uninterrupted Tandava, the one with compassion, the one wielding the trident, the one who is the ‘Sun’ that makes the ‘lotus’, that is the face of Parvati bloom, the one who wears the crescent on his head, the one with a garland of skulls, the one who uprooted the pride of Manmatha and the one who resides in the minds of Munis headed by Narada.

Wasn’t Narada counted among the foremost devotees of Vishnu? But Pothana chooses to mention him in a poem on Shiva. May be that is the true devotion which would enable one to see the oneness. Narada was capable of that and so was Pothana! But the usage is worth noticing and contemplating on. Going to the poetical extremes of this unity, he also says

చేతులారంగ శివునిఁ బూజింపఁడేని,
నోరు నొవ్వంగ హరికీర్తి నుడువఁడేని,
దయయు సత్యంబు లోనుగాఁ దలఁపఁడేనిఁ, 
గలుగ నేటికిఁ దల్లుల కడుపుఁ జేటు.

The one who does not worship Shiva and praise Hari or does not imbibe the qualities of compassion and truthfulness, should such people be born at all, just to remain as a curse of their mothers’ wombs?

If the whole purpose of devotion is to imbibe compassion, then what is the use of a religion that shuns compassion? One can remember the verse of Bhagavad Geeta where Lord Krishna says that those devotees are dear to him who sees every creature in this universe with Maitri and Karuna. We encounter another heart-warming example in the 10th Skanda of the epic, where Lord Krishna is described as a toddler. The Sanskrit Bhagavatam in the same juncture, describes Shiva’s visit to have the Darshan of the delightful toddler god. Pothana, however departs from the episode and presents a poem visualizing the oneness between the two deities.

నువున నంటిన రణీపరాగంబుపూసిన నెఱిభూతి పూఁ గాఁగ;
ముందల వెలుగొందు ముక్తాలలామంబుతొగలసంగడికాని తునుక గాఁగ;
ఫాలభాగంబుపైఁ రగు కావిరిబొట్టుకాముని గెల్చిన న్ను గాఁగఁ;
గంఠమాలికలోని ననీల రత్నంబుమనీయ మగు మెడప్పు గాఁగ;

హారవల్లు లురగహారవల్లులు గాఁగ;
బాలలీలఁ బ్రౌఢబాలకుండు
శివుని పగిది నొప్పె శివునికిఁ దనకును
వేఱులేమిఁ దెలుప వెలయునట్లు.

The mud smeared on the child (Krishna) was, but the cover of ash of Shiva. The string of pearls which kept his lustrous curls in place was, but the crescent that adorned Shiva’s head. The mark of musk on Krishna’s forehead was, but the very third eye that won over Kama. The sapphire studded neck jewel of Krishna was, but the serpents that adorned Shiva. Thus the all-knowing child in his games manifested as the very Shiva himself, to proclaim that the Hari and Hara are one and the same!

I shall have to end the article with an admission that I haven’t yet read the full text of unabridged Bhagavatam in Telugu. My knowledge of the few verses is the legacy given to me by my parents and grandparents whose post dinner routine included a light minded recitation of poems that made a mark in my mind.  

References: Those interested to read the full text in Telugu can refer to this site –http://telugubhagavatam.org/

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Battling the demons – Abuse on Social Media

This was written for Myind Makers and was published in August 2015.

Ramayana, rich with its tales tells us the story of the Vanara Lords, Vali and Sugriva. Vali is believed to have a boon that lets him suck half the opponent’s energy whenever he duels. This makes him unconquerable and even conceited. When he banishes his twin brother Sugriva and even imprisons his wife, there was not much the latter could do. All the attempts to face Vali left Sugriva powerless given Vali’s boon. Sugriva then met Hanuman who was wiser not to waste his energies in facing Vali. Instead his power came of immense use in a much bigger battle in the Ramayana, making him an indispensable friend in need.

Symbolically, the story made me wonder about an individual’s loss of temper when provoked, thus reducing his or her own sense of balance, becoming vulnerable. Provocateur baiting is an age old war strategy used on people known to lose temper easily and it seemed to work. We see it working on Social media too. On Twitter where many express their political and ideological inclinations, provocateur baiting happens on a daily basis, trapping the unsuspecting individuals into knee jerk reactions. The same reactions fuel these baiters into driving their point home as the confused ‘Sugrivas’ see their own strength being used against them.

Social media has achieved a great level of equalizing and normalizing online opinions. Opinion making thus is no longer the turf of a select privileged lot. They can no longer pretend to echo the common sentiments which they anyways never do. The elitism that had been trumped in the first half of this decade has now resorted to this age old and time tested strategy of provocateur content. This brings to us, the flip side of the social platforms where the strength of individuals unknowingly works for the ones they oppose. I’m not saying that I am against these social platforms (albeit unknowingly) becoming tools for obscure public personalities to ‘redeem’ themselves and claim some fame (There is no point in debating the moral aspects of baiting and crying foul).

I see a deeper issue in provoking extreme reactions. I have seen more than a few cases where heated discussions have dented the professional productivity of an individual. Call me paranoid, but one cannot ignore the cascading effects of a negative online footprint which can work against the provoked individual in ways more than one. Resisting provocation thus becomes an important step towards achieving a saner discussion online. I am reminded of this Indic poetical feat called Avadhaana (popular in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada) where an Avadhaani is quizzed by 8 scholars testing various aspects of his or her poetical authority. One of them is Aprastuta Prasanga where he or she is interrupted with totally irrelevant questions. The rule is that the Avadhaani should not lose his wit and even answer the questions with an element of humour thus proving his wit.

As netizens, we do not face this constraint and it is totally within our power to decide whether a provocative content warrants a response or not. Before that, one can as well contemplate whether it is worth taking the content to heart and get affected enough to give an angry response. It is easier said than done and I admit I have lost my temper too. But conscious improvement is what we call as Sadhana and it is important not to give up on one’s own self when we are pursuing a Sadhana. Fact and wit driven dissent and debate add a lot of value to a discourse but not hate filled content, provocative or reactionary. For those who find themselves easily affected by such content I would like to quote a well-known Telugu poem composed by a 13th Century poet Bhadranna Bhupala

Tana kopame tana shatruvu
Tana shantame tanaku raksha daya chuttamb
ou
Tana santoshame s
wargamu
Tana du
hkhame narakamandru tathyamu sumati !

One’s anger is one’s enemy,
Balancing temper is one’s protection. Compassion is one’s relative.
Heaven is nothing but one’s own happiness
and hell is one’s own misery, so true it is

Again, admit that it is easier said than done. To put it in simple words, it could make a good start to avoid contact with those who provoke you or disturb your peace of mind. If you want to take on the proverbial provocateur Valis of today, it is necessary to ensure that they do not leverage on your strength, and in this context, your networks. Un-following some of the everlasting outrage handles on either side of political and cultural lines has helped me a lot in firstly guarding my own peace and secondly, limiting their reach to whatever possible minute level. It is also a noteworthy aspect that the number of followers/likes/retweets of an abusive/provocative profile or content (whether you accept it or not) serves as an endorsement of the content and the person. This makes me think that un-following a provocative person is also a moral obligation as you do your bit to stop the negativity from spreading.

Coming back to our analogy, it needed a Rama to successfully deal with the Vali of Ramayana. Rama could do it not only because he first secured himself from the consequences of a self-defeating step like facing Vali in a duel, but also because his arrow contained the power to pierce Vali’s impenetrable skin. Truth fuelled by a balanced tone of the narrator always has a long life. Not everyone is a Rama, though I don’t deny the possibility of acquiring the potential to become one. But till then, one can instead choose to be a Hanuman who preserved his strength for a bigger battle than consume himself by taking on Vali. This burns down to another topic of what is the greater battle or greater purpose. That is for each of us to ponder over.

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.