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Dīpāvali – Narakacaturdaśī

Warm Dīpāvali greetings from us here at Vedic Cosmos! The most widely celebrated of Indian festivals, Dīpāvali has deep cultural and spiritual undertones to it. The name Dīpāvali itself means an array of lamps (dīpānām āvaliḥ,) and signifies cheer, wisdom and the triumph of good over evil.

Dīpāvali is associated with Lord Rāma’s return to Ayodhyā after having decimated the rākṣasa-army in Laṅkā, in the northern states of India. In the southern states of India, especially Tamil Nadu, Dīpāvali is called Naraka-caturdaśī, and is associated with the Kṛṣṇāvatāra.

Narakāsura was the son of Bhūmidevī, Mother earth. He was the personification of malice. He imprisoned sixteen-thousand princes and princesses, holding them captive in his dungeon for no apparent reason. He laid siege upon the celestial city of Amarāvatī. He looted Indra of his royal insignia, the parasol, and subjected him to the ignominy of looting his mother’s priced earrings. Indra appealed to Lord Kṛṣṇa, and the Lord arrived at Narakāsura’s city, Prāgjyotiṣapura, amount the redoubtable Garuḍa, with His queen Satyabhāmā by His side. The city was fortified by five moats that the Lord devastated in a jiffy. Past the moats was stationed Mura, a formidable rakṣasa, who charged Kṛṣṇa like the feisty sun of cataclysmic proportions. After decimating him, Bhagavān vanquished the seven sons of Mura, who stood between Him and the hapless princesses who prayed ardently to be rescued. Finally, Narakāsura jumped in the fray and battled Kṛṣṇa. He charged Garuḍa ferociously, and smashed his mace into Garuḍa’s plumes. The avian chariot of Kṛṣṇa stood unfazed, as if assaulted with a wreath of tender blooms. The assault, however, invited the wrath of the Lord. He could stand it no longer, for His dear devotee had been put in harm’s way. He released his Sudarśana-cakra. The brilliant disc, almost imperceptible owing to the its speed, beheaded the rākṣasa and felled him.

Bhūmidevī pleaded with the Lord that her son be redeemed. The compassionate Lord promised her that her son would find redemption in bringing joy to the world by his death, as he had brought misery to it while alive. He promised her that the day her son gave up his body would be celebrated with great pomp and joy. Thus was born, Narakacaturdaśī or Dīpāvali. The word caturdaśī means the fourteenth day of a fortnight. Dīpāvali is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight, and hence the moniker.

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Anger – Abyss Of Negativity

Modern science describes anger as a primary, natural emotion experienced when feeling threatened. It is stated too, that anger has been a tool in survival of man. Evolutionarily, feeling angered has enabled man to stand up to injustice, to defend himself and his loved ones from harm, and to protect his possessions. Mild irritability/anger may also be experienced, it is stated, when one’s basic needs of food, shelter, rest, and sex are not met. The emotion of anger is expressed as behavioral patterns ranging from mild verbal-expression of distaste, aggressive verbal-expressions (yelling,) or aggressive physical-expressions that may cause harm to oneself/property/others. While modern science agrees that behavioral expression of anger is preferable to pent-up anger as far as health goes, it also agrees that management of anger is imperative to sound physical wellness as well as social harmony. While modern science agrees that the emotion of anger is natural, it also adds that anger is largely, a negative emotion that causes more harm than good. The negative emotion is harmful for two basic reasons – A. Anger is accompanied by a gamut of physiological reactions including increased heart-rate, increased blood pressure, and increased hormonal output (adrenaline, primarily,) that can lead to illnesses, and B. Increased emotional responsiveness. In other words, human rationale takes flight when anger is experienced, resulting in undesirable expressions of aggression.

The Bhagavadgītā summarizes the consequences of anger most succinctly –

क्रोधाद्भवति संमोहः संमोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रमः।
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद्बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति॥

krodhādbhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohātsmṛtivibhramaḥ|
smṛtibhraṁśādbuddhināśo buddhināśātpraṇaśyati||

Bhagavadgītā, 2.63

From anger proceeds delusion and there from, forgetfulness (of right and wrong.) From such forgetfulness is born decay of discrimination, and ultimately destruction.

In the Sundara-kāṇḍa of Śrīmadvālmīkirāmāyaṇa is found a practical explication of this particular śloka. Hanumān set out for Lanka, singularly focused on finding Sītā. Insurmountable obstacles mar His path and He conquers them with admirable shrewness and grit, leaving the devas astonished. He reached the shores of Lanka and finds himself confronted by Laṅkiṇī, an irascible and scornful sentinel, who lands Him a blow heedless of properiety. Hanumān is enraged, but not enough to lose perspective. Bridling anger and recognizing she was no match for His strenght, He castigates her just enough to gain entry. He scoures every inch of the land, fervently seeking Sītā. After an arduous search He manages to meet Sītā, converse with Her and to allay Her fears. He then decides to meet with Rāvaṇa so He may afford wise counsel. Hence, He submits Himself willingly to the humiliation of being bound by the vile Rākṣasas. He enters the court like a lion does the forest, striking fear in Rāvaṇa’s heart. He thunders, ‘Set Sītā free if you wish to live!’ Enraged Rāvaṇa decrees Hanumān be slain. Calm and composed, Hanumān stands unfazed. Vibhīṣaṇa, Rāvaṇa’s noble brother rushes to Hanumān’s aid. Upon interecession Rāvaṇa decides to have Hanumā’s tail set on fire.

Hanumān is paraded around the city like a petty thief, bound in nothing but tattered rags, His tail a bright orange from the flame. Hanumān goes along merrily, neither humiliated nor angered. He serveiles the city, unmindful of a burgeoning flame His tail housed! Hanumān had now had enough. He decides to torment the Rākṣasas now. He leaps up into the sky, and begins setting fire to every single house in the vicinity. Fire spreads like a forest-fire in the wind, to envelop the entire city. Hanumān douses his tail in the ocean and turns to face the city that had been burned to the ground. He is overcome by remorse. Fear ceases His being contemplating Sītā too may have perished in the fire. He muses,

धन्यास्ते पुरुषश्रेष्ठा ये बुद्ध्या कोपमुत्थितम्।
निरुन्धन्ति महात्मानो दीप्तमग्निमिवाम्भसा॥

dhanyāste puruṣaśreṣṭhā ye buddhyā kopamutthitam|
nirundhanti mahātmāno dīptamagnimivāmbhasā||

Sundarakāṇḍam, 55.4

Blessed indeed are the superiour souls who douse rising anger in the cool waters of the intellect.

Hanumān goes on to point out,

क्रुद्धः पापं नरः कुर्यात् क्रुद्धो हन्याद्गुरूनपि।
क्रुद्धः परुषया वाचा नरः साधूनधिक्षिपेत्॥

kruddhaḥ pāpaṁ naraḥ kuryāt kruddho hanyādgurūnapi|
kruddhaḥ paruṣayā vācā naraḥ sādhūnadhikṣipet||

Sundarakāṇḍam, 55.5

The enraged man commits gravest of sins. He slays His preceptor and reviles the noble with vitriol.

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Vālmīki – A Testimony

Rāma-Nāma is touted as the tāraka-mantram or the proverbial cruise that ferries man across the ocean of materialistic existence. Much has been said about the efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma. The Viṣṇu-Sahasranāma glorifies a single utterance of the Rāma-Nāma as a peer to the chanting of all thousand names. The most compelling testimony to the efficacy of the Nāma is offered by the anecdote of the dacoit Ratnākara, who miraculously transformed into Sage Vālmīki.

श्रीरामनामसामर्थ्यमतुलं विद्यते द्विज।
नहि पापात्मकस्तावत्पापं कर्तुं क्षमः क्षितौ॥

śrīrāmanāma-sāmarthyam-atulaṁ vidyate dvija|
nahi pāpātmakas-tāvat-pāpaṁ kartuṁ kṣamaḥ kṣitau||


The efficacy of the Rāma-Nāma is such, there is not a sinner upon the phase of the earth whose sin can surpass the ability of the Rāma-Nāma to expiate it.

Ratnākara was a feared dacoit who held sway over an entire forest. Anyone who crossed paths with him owed Ratnākara everything he or she carried on their person. Once, Ratnākara encountered a rather odd individual in the forest. This recluse was dressed in modest garb, but carried a golden vīṇā. It was none other than the celestial sage, Nārada.

Ratnākara said ominously, ‘hand over all that you carry, should you wish to live.’ Nārada’s face belied no fear. Innocent as a rose, he looked up at Ratnākara with eyes drenched in compassion. He said to Ratnākara, ‘why do you thieve? Do you not know it is sinful to covet?’ Ratnākara’s response belied a subtle sense of dharma that lay buried deep within. He said, ‘I thieve not for myself, but for the benefit of my wife and child. It is my duty as a husband and a father, to provide for them.’ Nārada posed in return, a thought provoking question that left Ratnākara rather confused. Nārada posed, ‘Do you believe your wife and child would participate in the consequences of the sin you commit by thieving and terrorizing?’ Unsure, Ratnākara decides to run back to his hut deeper in the forest to find out. He ties Nārada to a tree nearby and rushes homeward. He finds to his utter consternation, neither his wife nor his child is willing to bear the burden of his karma.

Ratnākara recognizes that he alone is responsible for his actions, and the fruit of his actions accrue to him alone. Remorseful of all the sins he had committed in the past, Ratnākara rushes to Nārada, seeking a way to expiate his sins. Compassion incarnate, Nārada consoles the desolate Ratnākara and convinces him, his life too can be redeemed. Nārada endeavors to initiate Ratnākara in the Rāma-Nāma, but Ratnākara’s tongue, inured by the falsehood and cruel words he had uttered, was precluded from pronouncing the redeeming Nāma. Yet again, the compassion of his guru came to Ratnākara’s rescue.

Nārada split the syllables up and inverted them. He initiated Ratnākara, ‘Ma…. Rā…., Ma… Rā…, Ma.. Rā.., Ma. Rā, Marā, Marāmarāmarāma….’ Ratnākara’s cup overfilled with gratitude. He became consumed by the Nāma, lost track of the world around, his mind stilled in the most charming of sounds he had ever heard. Hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Ratnākara was no longer Ratnākara. He communed with the Nāma, becoming inextricably one with it. One fine day, his rapturous trance ended. He opened his eyes and stood up, startling those around. He had just emerged from an anthill that had covered his person. An anthill had formed over him while he was wrapped in the Divine Nāma, oblivious as much to his body as the world outside. He came to be known as Vālmīki from that day forward, born as he was, off an anthill (valmīkaḥ.) Not only had the Rāma-Nāma washed away the dross of his sinful ways, but had transformed him into the perfect receptacle through which would flow the peerless Rāmāyaṇam.

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Śakti – The Supreme

Śrīvidyā is the mystical science of Sanātana-dharma that eulogizes the Supreme as Lalitā-tripurasundarī. She is the embodiment of spiritual potency or Śakti, that animates all creation, including the manifestations of Godheads. Ādi Śaṅkara states,

शिवः शक्त्या युक्तो यदि भवति शक्तः प्रभवितुं
न चेदेवं देवो न खलु कुशलः स्पन्दितुमपि।
अतस्त्वामाराध्यां हरिहरविरिञ्च्यादिभिरपि
प्रणन्तुं स्तोतुं वा कथमकृतपुण्यः प्रभवति॥

śivaḥ śaktyā yukto yadi bhavati śaktaḥ prabhavituṃ
na cedevaṃ devo na khalu kuśalaḥ spanditumapi |
atastvāmārādhyāṃ hariharaviriñcyādibhirapi
praṇantuṃ stotuṃ vā kathamakṛtapuṇyaḥ prabhavati ||


Śiva, only if united with Śakti is empowered to act. Else, He remains, bereft of potency, even to stir. While so, how does one, devoid of any merit, endeavour to salute Thee or praise Thee, who art worthy of the adulation of the Gods, headed by the Trinity1?

At the highest plane of awareness, the Supreme is an undivided triune of Being (sat), Consciousness (cit), and Bliss (ānanda). At this state, no creation is possible. When the triune splits into distinct sections and unites with the potency (Śakti) of the Supreme, Kriyā (agency) is born, and creation evolves. Thus, the Supreme being too, devoid of potency, is inanimate. Śaṅkara hints here, at this subtle truth behind creation, and glorifies the Devī, from whom proceeds all of creation. He argues to Her Absoluteness by stating it is She who lends Śiva animism, and it is in creation that liberation is found.

The ten days of Navarātri are dedicated primarily, to the worship of this potency that animates creation and enables liberation2. The ten-day festival is informed by the Purāṇic episode of Goddess Caṇḍī slaying the asuras, Madhu-Kaiṭabha and Śumbha-Niśumbha. The Devī-māhātmyam3 describes in great detail, how the malevolent asuras were slain by the Devī. The anecdote is believed also to be, allegorical of the triumph of man over inner rajas and tamas. On this day, the first of the ten sacred days, may the Devī impel our intellect towards Divine knowledge, our hearts towards sacred thoughts, and our hands towards service to fellow man.

या देवी सर्वभूतेषु बुद्धिरूपेण संस्थिता।
नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः॥

yā devī sarvabhūteṣu buddhirūpeṇa saṁsthitā |
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaḥ ||

My salutation to that Supreme one (Devī) who shines as the intellect in all creation.

1. Ādi Śaṅkara suggests, ‘If Lord Śiva himself owes His ability to act to (the Potency that is) Devī, how then is he, a mere mortal, and that too, one devoid of any merit (puṇya), to claim authorship of this laudatory verse?’ After all, it is Devī alone, who has the power to act.
2. In some Northern states of India, Navarātri is also associated with the Rāmlīlā festival. Amateur actors don the roles of various characters of the Rāmāyaṇa and enact the itihāsa as related by Tulasīdāsa.
3. Chapters 81-93 of the Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa are known as Devī-māhātmyam, and are ceremoniously chanted during Navarātri.
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‘Gaṇeśa’ the word paints the following picture in the canvas of the mind – An inexplicably lovely form with winnow-like ears swaying gaily, a handsome trunk resting resolutely in a bowl of ‘modakas,’ eyes the dais of mischief, and belly as rotund as can be! Celebrated variedly as Agrapūjya, Vināyaka, Ekadanta, Heramba, Vighneśvara, Gaṇapati, and so on, He occupies a very important place in the Hindu Pantheon. Two aspects of Gaṇeśa-tatva serve as the basis for His preeminence – Gaṇeśa is both ‘vighna-kartā’ (creator of obstacle) as well as ‘vighna-hartā’ (annihilator of obstacles!) Any endeavor, even of the other manifestations of Gods, reaches fruition only by the grace of Gaṇeśa, and the undoing of any endeavor too is owing to His grace alone. The Nyāyendu-śekhara states,

अप्यन्यामरमारिराधयिषतां यत्पादपङ्केरुह-
द्वन्द्वाराधनमन्तरायहतये कार्यं त्ववश्यं विदुः।
तद्धेतोरिति नीतिवित्तु भजते देवं यमेकं परं
सर्वार्थप्रतिपादनैकचतुरो द्वैमातुरोऽव्यात्स नः॥

apyanyāmaramārirādhayiṣatāṁ yat-pāda-paṅkeruha-
dvandvārādhanam-antarāya-hataye kāryaṁ tvavaśyaṁ viduḥ|
taddhetor-iti nīti-vit-tu bhajate devaṁ yam-ekaṁ paraṁ
sarvārtha-pradipādanaika-caturo dvaimāturo’vyāt-sa naḥ||

The twin lotuses of His feet, even those desirous of adoring other manifestations of Gods resort to.

Hence do the wise celebrate Him as the peerless Supreme, the patron of all ends. May He,

Dvaimātura (Son to two mothers*, Gaṇeśa,) bless us.

The following Purāṇic anecdotes attest to Gaṇeśa’s roles as vighna-kartā and vighna-hartā, respectively.

The Mudgala-purāṇa relates the following anecdote. Once, Indra’s svarga-loka (heaven) became over-populated. Every soul that discarded the mortal-coils was given admittance to svarga-loka, and Yama’s Naraka (hell) lay empty. Indra was alarmed. He appealed to Lord Śiva most humbly, ‘Lord, not a single soul is being sent to naraka any longer. They all throng svarga. Admitting just one more soul into svarga will mean I may be displaced. Kindly intervene and send only the deserving souls to svarga.’ Lord Śiva responded, ‘Indra I am powerless to transgress the Divine Edict that whom-so-ever may step foot inside the temple of Somanatha will be afforded admittance to svarga. Parvatī is an adept in finding solutions to tricky situations such as these. Appeal to Her.’ Indra did as bade and Parvatī blessed Indra with a beautiful Boy fashioned out of the paste of Her body. She said to Him, ‘This handsome one will serve as the vighna-kartā (creator of obstacles) to those who have not qualified to attain to svarga!’

The second Purāṇic anecdote is as follows –

Once, Lord Śiva set out to destroy the tripuras (city-triad,) mounting His formidable chariot. The Three cities could only be destroyed by a single arrow that pierced through them all, and that could be achieved only when the three cities aligned in a row. Such an alignment was to occur only once in a thousand celestial years, and that time was now at hand. Intent upon the task at hand Lord Śiva rode forth in grave solemnity. All of a sudden, the peg of His chariot-wheel came undone! The all-knowing Śiva recognized the origin of this impediment. He had failed to seek Gaṇeśa’s grace for the endeavor at hand. He returned to seek the blessings of His son, vighna-hartā and succeeded in His cosmic endeavor.

Gaṇeśa is thus the composite of all auspiciousness (maṇgala-mūrti,) owing to His twin role as the destroyer of evil and the facilitator of the good. Gāṇāpatya treatise that adore Gaṇeśa as the Supreme personality describe Him as svānanda, as he embodies bliss. Personified, He is said to recline in an ocean of sugarcane juice, bestowing untold bliss on His devotees.

* Two different explanations are given regarding this particular appellation of Gaṇeśa. One Purāṇic account holds that Pārvatī is one mother while the elephant that afforded Gaṇeśa His head, is the other mother. Yet another account considers both Pārvatī and Gaṅgā to be Gaṇeśa mothers. He is as a result, referred to as Dvaimātura.