Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore
“Kol kondu vaaak kaakkaai Kaakaashi nyayam”
My co-passenger asked the air hostess how far it was to Mumbai from Coimbatore. The lady replied, ‘It is kilometres, as the crow flies’. Though I knew that the idiom ‘as the crow flies’ is often used to indicate distances by air, yet, when I thought about it, it sounded a bit funny. Why the reference to the crow and not to any other bird? After all, the crow is not known for its speed or coverage of long distances. In fact, you could think of a dozen other birds which are known fliers of long hauls at a good pace the vulture, for instance. Not finding a ready answer to this idle question, I turned my thoughts to other aspects of the crow. Indeed, there didn’t seem much to think about the bird, nor did it seem attractive enough in any way to be worth anyone’s thoughts. Since I didn’t have any interesting reading material on hand except the airline’s house magazine (which, incidentally, even a crow wouldn’t touch) I let my imagination loose and tried to discover whether anything of significance could be said about the crow.
When I shared my rather disparaging thoughts about the bird with my daughter, she came up with a spirited defence of the bird. ‘Have you forgotten the hapless crow’s Saranagati at the lotus feet of Sri Raghava, which is among the principal events in Srimad Ramayanam portraying the efficacy of Prapatti’? enquired she. How indeed could I have forgotten the episode’
The Kaakaasura Saranagati demonstrates for us several significant tenets about the concept of Prapatti. Though everyone knows the episode, it is worth recounting. During their jungle sojourn, Sri Rama and Sita stayed in the enchanting environs of the Chitrakoota Parvatam. To the northeast of the foothills was the Mandakini River with crystal clear waters, in which Mythily loved to bathe. Once, after playing for long in the dense and cool groves on the river banks, Mythily rested, happy but tired, sitting on Sri Rama’s lap. (You may wonder’would a mature, married woman indulge in playing! If you do, you have to remember that Sri Sita at that time had probably just entered her teens and was still practically a child). It was then that a crow materialized apparently from nowhere and started pecking at Sri Janaki’s chest with cruel and lewd intentions. Though She tried to drive it away with a stone, it was very persistent, flying away when the stone was thrown, but returning time and again to resume its nefarious activity.
The usually amicable Sita was driven to anger by the despicable crow’s dastardly deed. And adding insult to injury, Sri Rama, who was watching all this, made fun of Vaidehi (‘with typical male insensitivity’, adds my wife, who is looking over my shoulder as I compose this) for being unable to defend Herself against a mere crow. Driven by shame, anger and distress, Sita cried, and as many a girl does, slipped into the arms of comforting sleep. When She woke up, She found Sri Rama too asleep, with His head in Her lap. Just when She heaved a sigh of relief at having got rid of the crow, it returned with a vengeance and started pecking again at Her chest, drawing blood. The free flow of blood from the open wound fell on Sri Raghava, waking Him up. When He saw what was happening to His dear Vaidehi, Rama’s anger knew no bounds. He perceived the crow to be no ordinary bird, but the son of Indra come to harass Sri Janaki with vile intentions. His eyes blazing with anger, He plucked a darbha grass from the ground, (since He did not have His bow and arrows handy) empowered it with the Brahmaastra mantram and threw it at the crow (it is perhaps this incident that has given rise to the Tamizh saying, ‘Vallavanukku pullum aayudham’). The trivial blade of grass turned into a deadly missile spitting fire and pursued the fleeing crow.
With the lethal weapon in pursuit, the crow flew high, low, tried disappearing and used all its wile in evading the killer missile, which, however, stuck to the crow despite all its tricks, closing in all the while for the kill. Having tried its best to escape and failed, the crow found itself helpless and flew to its father, Devendra, seeking refuge and protection. When he heard the story, Indra realized that it was beyond his powers to save his son, as it was the Lord who had decided to punish the crow. Throwing up his hands, Indra told his son that none, absolutely none, including the four-headed Brahma, the all-powerful Rudra and Indra himself, could save someone whom Sri Raghava had decided to kill. No power on earth or elsewhere could interfere with the actions of the Ultimate. The hapless Jayanta turned next to his mother, believing that she would save him despite his heinous crime against the Jaganmaata. However, Indraani too, perceiving the horrendous nature of her son’s deed, refused to entertain him, as did other Devatas. Desperate by now and being pursued by the relentless blade of grass, Jayanta sought protection in turn from birds of his own feather, from Maharshis and from anyone and everyone whom he considered powerful. Not only on earth, but in the worlds above and below too, the crow could not find a saviour and was mercilessly driven out by even those he considered near and dear.
Finding no protector in all the three worlds, thoroughly exhausted and finding no respite from the pursuing missile, the crow ultimately decided to fall at the feet of Sri Raghava Himself. And though the criminal crow richly deserved the punishment of death for its dastardly deed, the ever merciful Lord, with His affinity for Prapannas notwithstanding the magnitude, quantum and frequency of their sins, afforded refuge to the beleaguered crow. However, since the Brahmastra could not go waste, He asked the crow whether it would offer its right eye as a target for the potent astra. The crow agreed with alacrity and escaped with the minor loss of an eye, in the place of its life. Sri Valmiki’s description of the event is extremely evocative’
‘Treen lokaan samparikramya tam evam saranam gata:
vadhaarham api Kaakutstha: kripayaa paryapaalayat’
This, then, is the Kaakaasura Vrittaantam recounted by Sri Sita to Hanuman in the Sundara Kaandam of Srimad Ramayanam.
However, the episode raises a few questions.
1. First and foremost, why did Sri Rama deploy the most powerful and the ultimate of all astras, the Brahmaastra, to kill a mere crow? Rama had obtained from Visvaamitra a plethora of astras of varying intensity and power and could have definitely chosen one suited for the minor task of disposing of a crow, even if he was the son of Indra. Instead, why did He indulge in overkill, as it were, and send the Brahmaastra in pursuit of the crow? Would anyone use a AK-47 rifle for shooting down a pigeon?
It was the gravity and monstrosity of the offence that prompted the Lord to employ a weapon of the caliber of the Brahmastram. The person committing the crime was the son of Indra, who has time and again been the beneficiary of the Lord’s munificence as well as His Consort’s. The crime was against the Universal Mother. Would anyone harbour inappropriate thoughts vis-à-vis one’s own mother? And how dastardly would it be to entertain the same with regard to a lady who is acclaimed as the ‘Jaganmaata’ and is the embodiment of maternal love and mercy!
Sri Rama’s choosing the Brahmastram to kill a mere crow also reflects His intense love for Vaidehi and His intolerance for anyone daring to harass His beloved. Sri Rama considers Sita to be dearer than His own life– ‘mama praanepi gareeyasee’and it is this boundless affection that causes Him to overreact, if His action can be termed as such. Nandagopa was said to keep vigil all night beside Krishna’s cradle, his spear at the ready to dispose of any insect that dared come near the divine boy ‘Koor vel kodum tozhilan Nandagopan’. It is this surfeit of affection, adoration and concern, that cause the loving Rama to react the way He did and send the ultimate of weapons in pursuit of the offender.
She refrains from self-protection as She believes implicitly that it is the Lord’s duty to protect Her. It is this admirable display of ‘Paaratantryam’ or dependence on Emperuman
2. Another question that begs an answer is whether Sri Sita was so helpless as to be unable to defend Herself against a mere crow. A lady who threatens to reduce Ravana to a heap of ashes cannot be all that weak and feeble as to be unable to dispose of a crow. Why then did Vaidehi put up with the bird’s torturous attacks till it could draw blood from Her breast’
The episode has a parallel in Sri Mythily not disposing of Ravana and escaping from Her demonic captors, though, as She Herself proclaims, it would have been child’s play for Her to annihilate the raakshasa and others of his ilk. She refrains from self-protection as She believes implicitly that it is the Lord’s duty to protect Her. It is this admirable display of ‘Paaratantryam’ or dependence on Emperuman, even in the face of the grossest of provocations, which makes Her reluctant to defend Herself, even against a crow.
3. One more question that may arise is whether such a grave and unpardonable sin, committed that too against the Lokamaata, deserves to be forgiven and whether Sri Rama was being overgenerous in affording refuge to the criminal crow. There are some crimes, such as the one committed by Jayanta, which are beyond pardon’the so-called unforgivable crimes. The Supreme Court of India, while upholding the validity of capital punishment, laid down that it was to be applied in the rarest of rare cases, where the offence was of the gravest nature, not calling for any mercy whatsoever (child rapists, for instance).
In the divine court of the Lord, there is nothing that constitutes an unforgivable crime. By nature, creatures are errant and it would be difficult to find spotless and immaculate ones, untainted by sin of any sort “na kaschit na aparaadhyati”. Taking into account the predilections of His creations, the Lord adopts an extremely sympathetic attitude towards their peccadilloes, forgiving them instantly, provided the offender repents and appeals for clemency, surrendering himself at the Lord’s lotus feet. The power of Prapatti or absolute surrender is such that even if the offence constitutes a cardinal sin of monumental proportions and even if it is committed repetitively, the Lord is always ready to forgive and forget. Swami Desikan puts this beautifully “etthanaiyenum teera kazhiya aparaadham panninaarayum pokkattru vizhundaal Piraatti sannidhi undu aagayaalum parama kaarunikatvaadigalaalum Perumal erittu kondu rakshippaar”
While the Lord’s propensity is thus to pardon even unpardonable offences, His Consort surpasses Him in the display of mercy and tolerance towards even habitual offenders guilty of the grossest of crimes. It is She who, as the ‘Purushakaaram’, recommends to the Lord that all surrendered souls be pardoned, despite their accumulated baggage of unpardonable sins. With Her at hand, there was indeed no chance of the hapless crow being punished for its offence, even though it was against Herself and committed with the worst of intentions. Thus, in the unlikely event of the Lord permitting the Brahmaastram to carry out its deadly errand, Sri Janaki would definitely have interceded in favour of the offender and ensured his pardon. In fact, there is a version of this episode in one of the Puranas (Paadma Puranam’), which says that the crow just fell helter skelter at the feet of Rama, exhausted by its efforts to evade the Brahmaastram. It was Sri Mythily who turned the crow’s head to face the Lord’s lotus feet, converting what was just a providential fall, into a poignant gesture of Prapatti, thus ensuring that the crow escaped a certain and richly-deserved death. Sri Valmiki says that the hapless crow’s mere act of falling near His feet was treated by the merciful Lord as an act of Saranagati and protection was afforded to the bird, which deserved death richly-
‘Sa tam nipatitam bhoomou sharanya: sharanaagatam
vadhaarham api Kaakutstha: kripayaa paryapaalayat’.
Here are Swami Desikan’s beautiful lines from the Abhaya pradaana Saaram, describing the minimum effort on the part of the distressed crow and Emperuman’s boundless compassion for even the worst of offenders’
“vadhaarhan pokku attru taam irunda idantthile vandu vizhunda maatrame saranaagati aaga kondu Perumal praanaarti aana ivanukku praana pradaanam panni rakshittaar”
4. One more question that may arise is as to why Sri Rama permitted the astram to gouge out the crow’s right eye. A pardon, to be worth the name, should be clean and with no strings attached. Mere reduction in punishment from hanging to a life sentence cannot constitute a pardon. So, is Prapatti that effective after all, if all it is capable of doing is to diminish the incidence of divine retribution? Why then is it touted as the panacea for absolving us of all sin?
The loss of eye for the crow was not intended as a punishment, nor was it indicative of the Lord’s perception that a lesser sentence was called for in view of the crow having surrendered. It falls under the category of “Nigraha anugraham” what appears to the uninformed to be a punishment, was actually be a blessing in disguise. In the crow’s case, the loss of an eye was intended as a terrifying reminder to the bird to never indulge in similar sin, and not as retribution per se. For a habitual offender, the temptation to indulge in repetitive sins is strong, despite any sentence he may receive for one of the crimes. We often see criminals making repeated visits to the prison, despite having served sentences earlier for similar crimes. For the crow, the loss of an eye acted as a constant reminder of what further sin was likely to beget and functioned as a deterrent, turning the bird from a sinful and wayward lifestyle into one of conformation with ethics and morals. Swami Desikan puts the matter succinctly thus “durabhisandhiyai vittu tirigaikkaaga oru kannai astrattukku ilakku aakkinaar aaagainaal astrattukku lakshyam koduttapadi aasrita hitamaaga endru nirneetam”
5. Another interesting question is why the Brahmaastram, which is capable of instantly achieving its aim, pursued the fleeing crow for so long, content to remain behind the bird patiently but menacingly, till the crow completed its tour of the three worlds in search of a saviour. The Brahmaastram is no ordinary missile but represents the ultimate in weaponry and is capable of delivering instant death to the target. And we are also told by Swami Desikan that during its long flight, whenever the crow faced other directions, the Brahmaastram menacingly pursued the crow from close quarters and when it flew in the direction of Chitrakootam and the Lord, the astram just followed the bird from a distance, without closing in. How could this be? Swami Desikan tells us that the Brahmaastram knew the Lord’s intentions well. It understood that Sri Rama wanted the crow to be merely taught a lesson and not to be annihilated, that He wanted the offender to reform and not to perish. Hence the astram pursued the crow but never touched it and ultimately made it fall at the Lord’s feet. Hence it might not be erroneous to draw the conclusion that it was the Brahmaastram and the Lord’s will, more than anything else, that was responsible for the crow’s Prapatti.
If the crow is portrayed as a gross offender in Srimad Ramayanam, the other epic, Mahabharatam, too shows the bird in a poor light. Once a crow was brought up by the sons of a wealthy merchant, who fed the bird morsels of rich left-over food regularly. Growing up on such a rich diet and with its ego inflated beyond measure by the affection showered on it by the children, the crow developed false pride and arrogance, considering itself superior to all others of its ilk. It looked at other crows and birds with ill-disguised contempt and insulted them with its condescending manner. It was so conceited that it once challenged a group of beautiful swans, boasting that it could outfly them in height and distance. Little realizing its limitations and status in the avian kingdom, the crow failed miserably when called upon to prove its merit and almost lost its life in the process, surviving only due to the mercy of the swans. Trying to compete with the swans on their flight over the ocean, the crow soon grew tired and fell into the deep waters. The swans took pity on it and gave it a ride back on their backs, telling the crow to realise its station in life and to have a realistic assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.
If all this is not enough, we are told by Sri Mahabharata again that the crow is an inauspicious bird and its flying behind a person is a bad omen’
“Prishttato vaayasa: krishna: yaahi yaahi iti vaasati”
While describing bad signs and portents, the same epic includes the preponderance of crows on trees to be a bad omen, on par with diminishing yield from cows and trees becoming bereft of flowers and fruits’
A crow alighting on the flagmast of a warrior spells doom, we are told again-
‘Dhvajeshu cha nileeyante vaayasaa: tat na sobhanam’
Portending the disaster about to befall them, the Kourava army was followed by another airborne army of crows, vultures and other birds of prey-
‘Gridhraa: kaakaa: badaa: syenaa: yaatudhaanaa: shalaaa vrikaa:
Makshikaanaam cha sanghaataa anugacchanti Kouravaan’
The contempt with which Shastras treat crows would be evident from the Mahabharata, which tells us that only sinners are born as crows those who forsake their duties to Devas and forefathers i.e., those who do not perform Sandhyavandanam, Pitru tarpanam, Shraaddham, etc. are born as crows’
‘Deva kaaryam upaakritya pitru kaaryam athaapi cha
anirvaapya samasnan vai tato jaayati vaayasa:’
If Garuda is considered to be the best of the avian species, the crow figures at the other end of the totem pole, looked down upon as the worst of birds, as can be inferred from Sri Janaki’s words of contempt addressed to Ravana, comparing him to a crow and Sri Rama to Vainateya- ‘yat antaram vaaayasa Vainateyayo:’tat antaram Daasarate: tavaiva cha’.
Sri Tirumangai Azhwar too speaks contemptuously of the crow, comparing it unfavourably with the rabbit, as far as the taste of its flesh is concerned “Eraar muyal vittu kaakkai pin povade!”. The comparison here is between the Arcchaavataram of Emperuman, with its easy accessibility and sweetness, and His primordial form with which He reigns at the difficult-to-attain Srivaikunttam. When you can have your eye-fill of the Lord at the nearby temple (akin to the tasty flesh of a rabbit which is already captured and skinned), why thirst after the unseen and remote paradise above (comparable to the tasteless flesh of a crow which is yet to be caught), enquires Azhwar.
By the way, did you know that the collective noun for a group of crows, in literary and fanciful language, is murder’ Just as we say a flock of sheep, we are supposed to say a murder of crows! Is that not very suggestive’
From all the aforesaid, one would be tempted to conclude that the crow is indeed a worthless creature. However, there are some redeeming features in the bird. As we all know, it is an extremely social bird,the moment it espies a morsel of food, it emits a raucous cry, inviting all crows in the vicinity to come and share. Unlike man, who believes in secreting everything for his own consumption, the crow believes in sharing and caring. It is also closely associated with Pitru karmas’ all of us who perform shraaddham know well that at the end of the ritual, a ball of rice (‘Vaayasa Pindam’) is submitted for the crow’s consumption. And even on a daily basis, most of us have the habit of putting on the window sill or terrace some portion of the cooked rice, before we ourselves eat, perhaps as part of the ‘Bhoota Yagyam’, which is one of the five great yagyas (‘pancha mahaa yagyaas’) we are supposed to perform daily. And it is the preferred vehicle of Sanaischara (Saturn) and is propitiated as such. Though people might consider the crow ugly and unseemly, Mahakavi Bharati says that the bird’s dark feathers remind him of the beautifully black complexion of Sri Krishna “Kaakkai siraginile Nandalaala! Undan karia niram tondrudadaa Nandalaala!” sings the inspired poet, who sees Krishna in anything and everything.
And leave alone everything else, it is the crow that Sri Periazhwar chooses for running errands for Sri Krishna. There must definitely be some positive features to the crow, if Azhwar utters its name in almost 20 pasurams, without a single word about any other bird. This must indeed be a unique feature in the entire Divya Prabandam, with a bird’s name figuring consecutively and conspicuously in 20 songs. Azhwar appeals to the crow time and again to come and comb the unruly black tresses of Sri Krishna and further to bring Vaasudeva a stick, with which He could control and direct the cows of Gokulam during grazing. And in the process Azhwar reminds the crow of what happened during Ramavataram and cautions the bird not to be lax in bringing the stick, as, otherwise, it might lose its other eye too’
‘Potrigazh Chittirakoota poruppadanil
Uttra vadivil oru kannum konda
Kattrai kuzhalan kadian viraindu unnai
Marrai kann kollaame kol kondu vaa
Manivanna Nambikku or kol kondu vaa’
We thus find that not everything about the crow is bad,it does have its redeeming features.
Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore