Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
The word “Avataara” means “to come down”. Though any number of words are available to denote the Lord’s numerous and periodical visits to the mundane worlds of ours, it is the word Avatara which brings out Emperuman’s sterling quality, that of unbounded Accessibility or Soulabhyam. The Parama Purusha, reigning supreme at Srivaikunttam in the blissful company of its permanent inhabitants, has absolutely no need to forsake His eternal abode and come down to this sorrow-filled land of ours. If He does, it is indicative of His matchless mercy for us mortals. The Supreme Being, whom even the most accomplished of saints and the most exalted of deities cannot set eyes upon, descends voluntarily to the world below, making Himself visible to the jaded and jaundiced eyes of mere mortals. Not content with this come-down, the Lord also moves as one among us, sharing our happiness and sorrow, partaking in our pleasure and pain, rejoicing with us during celebrations and shedding more tears than us when we are in distress-
“Vyasaneshu manushyaanaam bhrisam bhavati du:khita:
It is these traits of Emperuman, those of Soulabhyam and Souseelyam, which set Him apart from other deities and make Him the universal object of admiration and adoration.
Apart from the three avowed objectives of the Lord in assuming avataras, as proclaimed in the Gita (viz., protection of the righteous, destruction of the wicked and re-establishment of Dharma), are there other incidental goals which Emperuman has not specified? After all, there is no need for Him to descend from His eternal abode, for achieving the aforesaid objectives-being the omnipotent being that He is, it is enough for Him to just will them to be so. For instance, He could have sat in comfort at Srivaikunttam and merely willed that Gajendra be saved from the crocodile and the job would have been done. Sri Ramanuja tells us that while this is indeed so, what the Lord’s devotees need is not mere protection from threats, but yearn to see Him in person, to offer paeans of praise to His face and to shower His holy feet with the choicest of flowers-all these can not be achieved without the physical presence of the Lord, which is the principal reason behind His avataras. Thus, beyond anything else, it is a desire to please the devotee that makes Him come down to our mundane worlds, which makes the ocean of difference between mere “Traanam” (protection) and “Paritraanam”(comprehensive and complete protection), as indicated in the Gita sloka, “Partitraanaaya saadhoonaam..”.
However, Sri Koorattazhwan puts an entirely different light on the matter. He says that the Lord descending to the earth for protecting His devotees and pleasing them, to enable them to have their blissful eye-fill of Him and to adore Him in person, is only one aspect of Avataras, and a minor one at that.
The prime purpose, according to Azhwan, is for satisfying the need, not of devotees, but of the Lord Himself. To the puzzled reader, who wonders what possible axe of His own the Lord can have to grind in assuming an avatara, Azhwan reveals the Lord’s insatiable need for and delirious delight in seeing, mingling and interacting with His beloved children down below. More than the devotee yearns for His company, it is Emperuman who pines away for us, longing to be one amongst us, hoping against hope that at least His personal visit would impress us so much that we would forsake the path of perdition that we insist on treading and step instead on to the path to Paradise. This is the prime motivation behind the Lord’s periodical descents to the earth, according to Azhwan, which takes the Lord’s endearing and enchanting virtue of Soulabhyam to a new pinnacle.
Let us leave Emperuman and His avataras for the present.
Would it surprise you to know that there is another exalted entity, which too assumes avataras? Though the Lord’s periodical come-downs attract wide attention and acclaim, the avatara of this other entity is hardly known and appreciated. Shall we see a little about this little-known avatara?
The Vedas, as we know, are no less than the Lord Himself in glory. They are without a beginning and an end-“Aadyanta rahitam”. They are as unblemished and eternal as Emperuman. They are as vast and unfathomable as the Lord Himself is-“Anataa vai Vedaa:”. In their pristine purity and lack of mundane origins, they are akin to the Parabrahmam. We may even hold this stupendous storehouse of wisdom one step above the Lord, since we come to know of Him and His glory, only through the Shruti. Even when Emperuman attempts to lift us out of this mundane morass, He does so only with the aid of the indispensable Vedas-“Magnaan uddharate lokaan, kaarunyaat Shaastra paaninaa”. Though all of the Shruti is one continuous eulogy to the Supreme Being, nonetheless it is independent and does not owe its origin to the Lord-all He does is to bestow the four-headed Brahma with the wonderful wisdom of the Vedas, at the beginning of each Yugam-“Yo Brahmaanam vidadhaati poorvam, Yo vai Vedaanscha prahinoti tasmai”. Thus the Lord merely propagates the Shruti and is not its author.
Seeing the Lord descending periodically to earth on various missions, the magnificent Shruti, the venerated Vedas, too decided to take an Avatara. And this avatara was so glorious and magnificent that till date we keep speaking of it, despite the event having occurred millennia ago.
To relieve you of further suspense, when the Lord took an avatara in the Ikshvaaku dynasty as Sri Rama, Vedas too decided to descend to the mortal worlds. Since the Shruti is nothing but a paean of praise to the Parama Purusha, once the Supreme Being decided upon an avatara, Vedas too resolved to be born, to record, chronicle and adulate the Parabrahmam and its activities during His sojourn on this earth. This is what the paraayana slokas of Srimad Ramayanam tell us-
“Veda vedye Pare Pumsi jaate Dasarathaatmaje
Veda: Praachetasaat aaseet saakshaat Ramayana aatmana”.
Eternally used to singing Emperuman’s praises, Vedas refused to be left behind when the Lord descended to earth as Sri Rama, and were born through Sri Valmiki as the glorious Ramayanam, so that they could continue their pleasurable occupation of praising His glory.
When you think of it, there appear to be several similarities between Emperuman’s avatara and the Shruti’s.
1. It was after careful consideration that the Lord chose His father during Ramavatara. To give Himself the best of backgrounds, the Parama Purusha opted for the Ikshvaaku Vamsam, famed for its sense of justice, fair play, philanthropy, valour, etc. After considering and discarding several possibilities, the Lord chose Dasaratha as His father-“Pitaram rochayaamaasa vriddham Dasaratham nripam”.
The Shruti too, while deciding upon an avatara, chose the best possible of persons to emerge through-a Maharshi of renown, with latent sensitivities and limitless devotion, which would be conducive to the composition of a great Epic. Had he not been endowed with great erudition and compassion, Sri Valmiki would hardly have been able to author the scintillating story of Sri Rama.
2. The very purpose of the Lord’s avatara is to rid Himself of His Supremacy (Paratvam) and to display His endearing trait of Soulabhyam (Accessibility).
Similarly, Vedas too, in their immaculate original form, are not easily comprehensible to ordinary mortals, only accomplished Yogis being able to divine their deep purport. Further, an extensive knowledge of such Shastras like Meemaamsa, Nyaayam, Seeksha, Niruktam, etc. is required, if one is to have first-hand knowledge of what the Shruti really says.
However, when the Shruti took the form of Srimad Ramayanam, it became easily comprehensible to all, set in the simplest of metres (the Anushtup Chhandas) and couched in the easiest of phrases. In its original, immeasurably extensive form, it was impossible for mortals to learn the entire Shruti. Srimad Ramayanam being limited to 24000 slokas, was more within the grasping powers of humanity.
3. The primary purpose of Emperuman’s avataras is to protect the saintly and to establish Dharma on a firm footing. Destruction of the wicked is incidental to these principal objectives.
Vedas too, by laying down the guide posts for human conduct, result in Dharma Samsthaapanam and Saadhu Paritraanam. However, the Vedic avataram is more compassionate than the Lord’s, in the sense that no Dushkrit vinasanam (annihilation of the unholy) ensued due to the Vedas being born as the Ramayana.
4. When the Lord assumes an avatara, not even a minute bit of the glory, magnificence and splendour, that characterise His eternal form at Srivaikunttam, is diminished. “Aadi am sodi uruvai angu vaitthu ingu piranda Veda mudalvan” says Sri Nammazhwar, telling us that even during His avataras, Emperuman retains all the majesty and grandeur of His primordial form.
During its avataram too, the Shruti retained all its pristine purity and immaculateness while being born as Srimad Ramayanam. None of its magnificent purport was lost due to the new form and format it assumed. As Sri Valmiki himself says, Ramayanam incorporates all that is of essence in the Shruti-“Punyam Vedaischa samhitam”.
We have seen the aspects of similarity between the Lord’s avataras and that of the Shruti.
However, are there any pointers to the Vedas having been born as Srimad Ramayana, or is it just the fertile imagination of a facile poet?
There are indeed many such indications, a plethora of similarities, which confirm that Srimad Ramayanam is indeed an avataram of the venerated Shruti.
1. The Yajus:Samhita, consisting of the principal and major portion of the Yajur Vedam, consists of seven Kandams.
We find that Srimad Ramayanam too consists of seven Kandams-Baala Kandam, Ayodhya Kandam, Aranya Kandam, Kishkindha Kandam, Sundara Kandam, Yuddha Kandam and the Uttara Kandam.
2. All that the Vedas have to say can be clubbed under five major heads- (Arttha Panchakam)–Nature of the Parama Purusha, nature of the individual soul, the strategy for the latter to attain the former, the impediments that stand in the way of the Jeevatma’s liberation and the fruits of emancipation.
A thorough perusal of the Epic would tell us that Srimad Ramayanam too is all about these five crucial topics. In fact, the Epic starts with an exhaustive description of the nature and attributes of the Parabrahmam, as recounted by Sri Narada to Sri Valmiki. And the other four components are to be found narrated at appropriate places in the Epic. Thus, Srimad Ramayanam is indeed Shruti, its contents being described by Swami Desikan as “Shokam tavirkkum surudi porul”.
3. After delineating several strategies for liberation, Vedas (the Upanishads in particular), glorify Nyaasa Vidya or Saranagati as the best of paths for emancipation-“Tasmaat Nyaasam eshaam tapasaam atiriktam aahu:”.
This concept of Saranagati forms the entire foundation of Srimad Ramayanam-so much so that the Epic is fondly called the Saranagati Vedam. It was as if the Vedas took an avatara specifically to highlight the importance of Saranagati as a sine qua non of Liberation. Several episodes of Saranagati are featured in the Epic-those of Devas to Sri Mahavishnu, (seeking protection against the atrocities of Ravana), that of Sri Lakshmana praying Sri Rama that he too be taken to the forest, that of Sri Bharata to Sri Rama imploring Him to return and assume the reigns of Ayodhya, that of Dandakaavana Rishis to Sri Rama seeking protection against Khara, Dooshana and other raakshasas, the surrender of the hapless crow who offended Piraatti, Sugriva’s Saranagati to Sri Lakshmana, the renowned Saranagati of Sri Vibhishana at the lotus feet of Chakravarthi Tirumagan, that of Sri Rama Himself addressed to Samudra Raja and that of the rakshasis of Asoka vanam to Sri Sita.
Thus, from beginning to end, Srimad Ramayanam could be termed a continuous saga of Saranagatis, setting out the modalities therefor and confirming its efficacy as an instrument for achieving not only liberation but also other lofty ideals. In the words of Swami Desikan, “Ippadi aaru kaandatthilum Saranagati dharmame anjuru aaniyaai kokka pattadu”
4. Vedas, as we know, have functional divisions like the Samhita, (incorporating the mantras and guidelines for ritualistic worship of the Ultimate), Braahmanam and Aaranyakam, with the Upanishad forming the fitting finale or the quintessence of esoteric and philosophic instruction.
Srimad Ramayanam too conforms to this pattern and format–while the rest of Ramayanam consists of the Samhita and Brahmana portions, the sections dealing with Saranagati represent the Upanishad part, says Swami Desikan-“Idil abhaya pradaana prakaranam sarva rahasya saarangalayum veliyitta Upanishad bhaagam”.
5. Vedas are intrinsically musical. Music, as we know it now, and the seven Svaras that form the foundation of all music, emanated from the three basic Svaras of Udaattam, Anudaattam and Svaritam, that characterise Vedic recital. The Sama Veda in particular is comprised of divine music which is a rare pleasure and privilege to hear.
Srimad Ramayanam too was sung, not merely recited, by the young sons of Sri Rama, we are told. Set to appropriate Ragas and beats (“Tantree laya samanvitam”), the story of Sri Rama makes an everlasting impression on listeners, even till date, when sung.
6. Vedas are full of terse exhortations like “Satyam vada” (Be always truthful) “Dharmam chara” (Always tread the path of virtue), “Maatru devo bhava”, “Pitru devo bhava” “Acharya Devo Bhava” “Athithi Devo bhava” (Venerate your parents, preceptors and guests as veritable Gods) and so on, laying down guidelines for good conduct.
Srimad Ramayanam toes the line of the Shruti faithfully, with its emphasis on honesty even in the face of the worst of adversities, never straying from the straight and narrow path of Dharma irrespective of provocation, filial and marital fidelity and so on. In its avataram as Srimad Ramayanam, the Shruti appears to have abandoned its cryptic and aphoristic pattern of instruction, preferring to sugar-coat its directives in ways much more palatable to mankind.
7. Not a single word of the Shruti is false or untrue, with the entire body of Vedas representing the highest of truth.
Sri Valmiki’s magnum opus too contains not a grain of untruth, as per the certification of the venerated four-headed Brahmaa-
“na te vaak anrutaa kaavye kaachit atra bhavishyati”
Thus, whichever way we look at it, Srimad Ramayanam qualifies eminently to be called an avatara of the venerated Vedas. In fact, Swami Desikan goes to the extent of saying that even if the four Vedas are placed on one side of the balance, it would not tilt in their favour, if Srimad Ramayanam is placed on the other side. This is rich tribute indeed, from the most exalted of sources.
Let me conclude this piece with another quote from Swami Desikan’s Abhaya Pradaana Saaram, confirming that Srimad Ramayanam is indeed an avatara of the Shruti-“Sri Valmiki Bhagavanaale drishtamaai iruppadoru Saranagati Vedam”. The Acharya says that the Epic has all the admirable traits of Vedas and was “seen” (not created) by Sri Valmiki. Just as other Veda mantras too existed prior to their discovery by various Rishis (who are known as “Mantra Drashtas”), Srimad Ramayanam too was brought into this world by Sri Valmiki, not as his own creation, but merely as a recital of an existing work, which is without a beginning and an end.
Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana
Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore