Of Pots and Pans
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
Historians usually refer to various periods in the history of mankind, by the metal used during the period, for fashioning vessels and implements. We thus have the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, etc. Going by this practice, we must dub our present times as the Stainless Steel Age, due to the widespread use the steel-derivative has gained in all walks of life. Gone are the numerous brass, bronze and copper vessels that were in use in all households till about a quarter century ago. Silver vessels too are conspicuous by their absence in every day use. The ostensible reason for the replacement of the aforesaid metals with Stainless Steel is the apparent ease in cleaning and maintaining the latter. Where Brass or Bronze required strenuous cleaning with messy blobs of Tamarind or ash, Stainless Steel calls for much less labour and is easily washed. While a few households still stick to Brass, Bronze and Silver for reasons of aesthetics, orthodoxy or health-consciousness, Stainless Steel has comprehensively replaced its competitors as the metal of choice for various domestic applications.
This piece is not intended as a tirade against “ever-silver”, but as a general discourse on vessels and their place in the Scripture.
Be they animate or otherwise, all creations form the Lord’s shareeram, according to the tenets of Visishtaadvaita. In as much as they are an integral part of the Parabrahmam, there is no essential difference between an erudite scholar and a senseless stone. We hence find that even inanimate objects, forming part of the glorious Bhagavat vibhooti, are as much entitled to recognition and appreciation, as are their human counterparts. And if you think long enough and search deep enough, you would always find some beautiful thing or the other about even the least significant of the Lord’s creations. Against this background was born this article is about Pots and Pans, which are normally considered to be essential but insignificant parts of our household.
Vessels may be inanimate things per se, but they have played extremely significant roles in the lives of many. Our scripture has numerous such instances, where vessels have made or marred lives.
It is a vessel, a golden one, belonging to Sri Ranganatha, that marks a turning point in the life of Sri Vipranarayana. Engaged in nandavana kainkaryam for the Lord of Srirangam, Vipranarayana falls prey to the charms of the wily Devadevi, who practically enslaves the poor Brahmin and drives him away when he no longer has any riches to offer her. Sri Rangaraja decides to take things in hand at this stage and visits Devadevi’s house as Vipra’s messenger, offering her a golden vessel as tribute. The vessel is one of those used for the Lord’s daily tiruvaaraadhanam at the temple and is missed immediately. When inquiries reveal that it is Sri Vipranarayana’s messenger who had delivered it, the King imprisons the poor, innocent Brahmin for stealing. Unable to tolerate Azhwar pining away in prison, Sri Ranganatha appears in the King’s dream, to tell him the truth and to reveal that the entire play was enacted by Him to bring to light the glory of Sri Tondaradippodi Azhwar, whose devotion had hitherto remained unknown and unrecognised.
If we stretch things a bit, we would find that the Lord’s avataram had its origins in a vessel. When the issueless Dasaratha performed Putrakaameshti desiring progeny, out of the sacrificial fire emerged a wonderful figure, with a beautiful vessel grasped in his hands, holding the vessel as dearly as one would hold his wife (the latter part of the sentence is not mine, but Sri Valmiki’s). The container was a magnificent one, made of glittering gold, with a luminous lid of silver. It was huge in size and appeared to have been made with all the expertise at the command of its divine makers. Dasaratha accepted the vessel containing the paayasam and carried it reverently on his head. It was this divine paayasam that led to the Emperor’s three wives conceiving and begetting glorious sons, Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna. Though the actual role of the vessel in the avataram may not have been crucial, yet, it must have been immensely proud of having been instrumental in the most magnificent of the Lord’s avataras. Here are Sri Valmiki’s words, dealing with the wonderful vessel-
“Tapta jaamboonada mayeem raajataanta paricchadaam
Divya paayasa sampoornaam paatreem patneem iva priyaam
Pragrihya vipulaam dorbhyaam svayam mayaamayeem iva”
Vessels’ association with the Lord, however tenuous, doesn’t stop with the Ramavataram. Devas and asuras were once engaged in the mammoth enterprise of churning the Milky Ocean in search of Nectar, capable of conferring immortality on the consumer. After a long and hard grind, a host of glorious beings emerged from the ocean, including Sri Mahalakshmi. The last to materialize from the waters was Dhanvantari, the founder of Ayurveda and an avatara of the Lord. And He carried in His hand the ubiquitous vessel, a pot full of coveted Nectar. Srimad Bhagavatam describes Him thus-
“Peeta vaasa mahoraska: sumrushta mani kundala:
snigdha kunchita kesaanta: subhaga: simha vikrama:
amrita aapoorna kalasam bibhrat valaya bhooshita:
sa vai Bhagavata: saakshaat Vishno: amsaamsa sambhava:
Dhanvatari: iti khyaata: Ayur Veda drik ijya bhaak”
It is significant that wherever Dhanvantari has a sannidhi, notably at Kanchi and Srirangam, He is depicted with a pot in His hand.
We are told by the Bhaagavata Purana that the asuras snatched the pot of nectar from His hands. We are puzzled-why should Dhanvantari, described as being brave as a lion, meekly let the precious pot of nectar be snatched away from Him by a bunch of asuras’
The ever-playful Lord, enamoured of assuming one role after the other, having brought out nectar from the depths of the ocean as Dhanvantari, obviously desired to take another avataram for its distribution. He then appeared before the contending party of Devas and asuras in the form of a delightful damsel, Mohini, and charmed the asuras off their feet. The infatuated asuras entrusted the pot of nectar to the Mohini for fair distribution between themselves and the Devas: what happened thereafter is history.
We have so far seen three occasions on which the pot or vessel had an extremely close association with the Lord. One more such instance occurred in Sri Krishnavatara too, making the pot indeed fortunate.
Since Gokulam was “seer malgum Aayppaadi”, prosperous beyond measure, milk and curds were stored not in small vessels, but in big, capacious pots. Once, to elude pursuers who were after Him for some misdemeanour or the other, Sri Krishna hid Himself in one such huge clay pot, belonging to one Dadhibhaandan, who promised not to reveal Krishna’s hiding place to those who were after Him. However, when the danger passed and Krishna wanted to come out of the pot, Dadhibhaandan, having recognised Krishna for the Parabrahmam that He was, would not let Him out of the pot, unless He promised Moksham for not only Dadhibhaandan, but for his clay pot too. Krishna had to assure both the pot and its owner of liberation, before He gained release. How fortunate the pot must have been, to have had the Lord’s tirumeni sambandham!
It is perhaps to commemorate His close association with the pot, that the Lord is to be seen during every Brahmotsavam in many Sannidhis, with one of His hands inside a pot, with a blob of butter in the other. The “Vennai Taazhi Kannan” tirukkolam is indeed one which captures your heart. At Tirumala, the Lord dons this role while ensconced on the “Chandra Prabhai”.
Emperuman is enamoured of not only carrying pots, but also of breaking them, we are told by the Bhaagavata Puranam. Once, when Yasoda was busy churning out butter from curds, Krishna wanted to be fed, with all the urgency of kids. And when the His mother obliged, she found that milk kept on the stove was about to boil over. When she left Krishna to attend to the milk, the divine toddler, His hunger not fully satisfied, became angry, took a small pestle that was lying about handily and broke the pot in which the butter, extracted with much effort by Yasoda, was kept. Not satisfied with this, He took whatever butter was left and was busy feeding it to a monkey, when the annoyed Yasoda put Him under house arrest by tying Him up to the grindstone. It can thus be seen that it was a pot again, which led to His imprisonment. Sri Krishna’s propensity not only to steal butter from the houses of gullible Gopis, but also to bang the emptied pots down with force, so that they broke into pieces, is chronicled by Sri Periazhwar too-
“Vennai vizhungi verum kalatthai verpidai ittu adan osai ketkum”
“Uruga vaittha kudatthodu vennai urinji udaitthittu pondu nindraan”
As a result, all the households in Nandagokulam sported broken pots and dented vessels, all the handiwork of Krishna.
Emperuman’s association with pots doesn’t stop there.
All of us have seen or at least heard of the ancient art form, “Kudakkoothu”, where the artiste dances with a pyramid of progressively smaller pots balanced carefully on his head. This sort of dance requires utmost concentration, balancing skills and a sure step. The slightest error in movement could send the pots crashing down, putting the dancer to shame. Would it surprise you to know that this extremely difficult art form too was performed by Sri Krishna with ease and abandon? Sri Periazhwar tells us that Krishna was an expert performer of Kudakkootthu-”Kudangal edutthu era vittu kootthaada valla em Kove!”. Krishna was such a perfect performer of this difficult dance, that Sri Nammazhwar is reminded of Him, whenever he sees other ordinary dancers performing-”Kootthar kudam edutthu aadil Govindanaaam enaa odum”. Azhwar is so enamoured of Krishna’s skills in this regard that he lovingly bestows a sobriquet-”Kudam aadi”-on Emperuman. “Kuravai kottha kuzhaganai Manivannanai Kuda koothanai” is another tribute to the Lord’s dance.
You can almost picturise the scene. There is an admiring crowd of Gopis and Gopas standing around, with Sri Krishna in the middle, dancing away with abandon, with a number of pots balanced on His head. With each facile movement of His, the Gopis hold their breath, fearing that the pots would come crashing down, but with a graceful counter movement, Krishna deftly restores their equilibrium, so that they remain on His magnificent head, forming a strange but beautiful crown. Beautiful beads of sweat appear on His forehead, seemingly decorating His hairline with a strand of glittering pearls. The carefully-tied hair, always irrepressible, is loosened with the speed of movement and truant locks of beautiful black hair fall on His forehead bewitchingly. The peacock feather, always stuck in His hair at a jaunty angle, manages to stay in place by some miraculous feat. The yellow silk (Peetaambaram) tied at His waist threatens to come unfastened, its knots loosened by the whirlwind movements of the Divine Dancer, and Krishna has to hold it up with one of His hands. With such a scintillating performance going on, can the celestials remain in their places? All of them, led by Brahma and Siva, troop into Nandagokulam to witness the Cosmic Dance. Though a famed dancer himself, renowned as the “ambala kootthan”, Sivaperuman too is mesmerised by the performance and watches keenly, hoping to pick up a tip or two about the art. Unfazed by all the distinguished audience, the Divine Dancer whirls away, details of His form hardly discernible in the speed of His movement. And with all this, the pots atop His head stay put, as if glued to it.
Here are some interesting stipulations about vessels, from the Smritis.
During the performance of a Shraddham for one’s forefathers, it is customary to appoint brahmanas to officiate as Visvedeva, Pitru and Sri Mahavishnu. And all of us offer them food on plantain leaves, at the end of the shraaddha homam. However, befitting the stature of these exalted guests, food is to be offered to them in vessels made of Gold (in the case of Visvedeva) and Silver (for Pitrus), say the procedures relating to Shraaddha Prayogam. Since we are unable to do this actually, we recite mantras telling the guests that food has been served in these valuable containers, instead of on disposable plantain leaves. And when oil is given to the invited brahmanas for a cleansing dip prior to officiating in the proceedings, it is to be offered in vessels made of copper, says Tirukkudandai Sri Gopala Desikan’s Shraadha Prayogam.
Even in auspicious karmas, the ubiquitous pot of water plays a prominent role, as an accommodation for various Devatas whose presence is requisitioned, whether it be a simple Punyaahavaachanam or an elaborate Udaka Shanti.
How nice would it be if food kept in a vessel never diminished or was ever exhausted! It would solve all problems of having to buy costly groceries month after month, wouldn’t it? When a horde of guests descends on us without notice, wouldn’t it be nice to have a vessel which had an inexhaustible supply of food? Our normal vessels and containers are designed to hold a particular quantum of food and become empty once the same is taken out. However, Draupati had a unique vessel-an Akshaya Paatram-which provided unlimited supply of food, irrespective of how many there were to feed. This was a gift to her from the Sun God, who found that the Pandavas, even during their jungle sojourn, had to entertain quite a large number of Brahmins and others as guests, who were loathe to parting company with the five brothers, despite their loss of kingdom and power. It was this Akshaya Paatram that came to the rescue of Draupati many a time, saving her from embarrassment and trouble, especially when the easily irascible Durvaasa Maharshi dropped in for lunch along with his large entourage, without any notice.
If the Lord were to visit your home, what would you think of offering Him first and foremost? Shastras tell us that honoured guests like the Lord and Acharyas have to be welcomed with a pot full of water-a Poorna Kumbham. Even today, we see this being done whenever an Acharya visits a home or public place. If fact, the Scripture tells us that the Lord desires little from us by way of “upachaaram” (ministration), except for the aforesaid Poorna Kumbham, some water to wash His holy feet with and a few words of enquiry as to His welfare-
“Anyat poornaat apaam kumbhaat, anyat paadaavanejanaat
Anyat kusala samprasnaat na cha icchati Janaardana:”
Talking of vessels, it is customary to maintain at least three sets of vessels in the household-one meant for the Lord’s tiruvaaraadhanam, one intended for use in Pitru kaaryam like Shraaddham, Tarpanam etc. and the third set meant for our own use. Ideally, these different sets of vessels should not be mixed up and vessels intended for use by one class should not be interchanged with the others. And where there are two or three males in the house, each should have his own “Teerttha paatram” for performing Sandhyavandanam, etc. And according to Manu, vessels made of bamboo or clay are fit for use by Sanyasis.
Sri Mahabharata asks an interesting question. How would you carry an open vessel brimming over with oil? You would be extremely careful in holding the vessel in your two hands, walking gently and with care, all your concentration focussed on carrying the container safely, without spilling oil. This would leave you little thought to spare for other matters.
The Lord asked Naarada Maharshi to do exactly this-to go round the world carrying a vessel full of oil held in his hands. And on the Maharshi’s return, the Lord asked him how many times thoughts of Emperuman had crossed his mind during the endeavour. Narada laughed and said, “Are you joking? With a full vessel of oil in my hands, all I could do was to concentrate on carrying the same safely. I can’t very well keep thinking about you, with such an onerous task entrusted to me.” The Lord too laughed in turn and told Narada that if people of the mundane world remembered Him even once during their day of toil, it would be equal to Narada’s normally constant thoughts of the divine.
The point of the story is that the Lord recognises the lives of tears and toil that we are forced to lead due to our accumulated baggage of Karma and makes due allowances therefor, in reckoning our sincerity and devotion to Him. He recognises the fact that we are only “part-time” devotees and refrains from comparing us unfavourably with “full-time” ones like Azhwars and Maharshis.
Which would you say is the biggest vessel? A cauldron, the biggest you have seen? No, it is the Earth which is the biggest ever vessel, says the Yaksha Prasna of Sri Mahabharata, for Mother Earth contains everything within Herself.
The other day I was watching a craftsman in a vessel store etch the name of the customer on the vessel she had bought. Such branding of vessels is essentially intended to identify its owner, in case of a mix-up. I realised with a start that the practice was very much similar to Samaashrayanam, which involves the branding of the devotee’s shoulders with imprints of the Shankha and Chakra. And just as the initials of the owner are etched on the vessels to indicate ownership, the branding with the Lord’s insignia is also supposed to indicate that we belong to the Lord and to none else, that just as vessels are for use according to the owner’s whims and preferences, we too are abject Seshas or slaves, to be used by the Lord according to His wishes.
Let me conclude this piece with an interesting titbit-do you know which famous Rishi had his origins in a pot? Extremely short in stature but tall in glory, an admirer of Sri Rama whom the Prince of Ayodhya visited at Dandakaavanam and from whom He received the Vishnu Dhanus and other divine weapons, one who drank up the entire waters of the ocean, one who destroyed the rakshasas Vaataapi and Ilvala, one who is held in high regard both by Saivites and Vaishnavites and one who is closely identified with Tamizh? This Maharshi, whom Sri Rama Himself addresses as “Bhagavan!”, is none other than Sage Agasthya, who is also known as “Kumbha Sambhava:”, “Kumbhee soonu:”, due to his having originated from a “Kumbham” (pot).
So, Pots are not as insignificant and inconsequential as they appear to be, are they?
Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana
Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore