Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
My neighbour was remonstrating with his son over some minor infringement of discipline. ‘What will people say if they come to know of your conduct’ he queried. These, however, were not his exact words. Since he was speaking in Tamizh, he said, ‘Naalu perukku terindaal enna aagum’. I was listening to the exchange between father and son with interest, as anything happening at the neighbours’ is of special interest to us.
In this case, the gentleman’s reference to ‘Naalu per’ or four people, set me thinking. Whenever we refer to popular opinion, we Tamilians refer to four people, who appear to represent society at large. ‘Naalu per enna ninaipppaargal’ is the worry uppermost in our minds, when we contemplate a course of action which society may not approve. When you think of it, you wonder as to why the popular saying should refer to four people and not three or five or even ten’ There must definitely be something significant about the Number four, without which the saying would not have gained currency. When I considered the matter further, I realized that prior to starting the purificatory ritual of Punyaaha vaachanam, which is a prelude to almost all vaidika karmas, it calls for the propitiation of four Brahmins ‘Chaturo braahmanaan toshayishye’. When Vibishana decides to flee Lanka and perform Saranaagati at the lotus feet of Sri Raghava, he does so with four of his acolytes in accompaniment ‘Chaturbhi: saha raakshasai:’ While this is so for auspicious matters, even when one is on one’s last journey from home to the burning ghat, it is four persons who officiate as pall-bearers. Wondering at the propensity of Number Four to dominate the numerical scene, I did some more research and came up with an astonishing number and variety of occasions where the integer towers over other numerals.
The Four Vedas:
Being basically vaidikaas, the first usage of Number Four that strikes us foremost is in the context of the Vedas being four–Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Saama Veda and the Atharva Veda.
However, were the Vedas always four in number’ We are told that in the Krita Yugam and Treta Yugam, the Vedas were one vast, undivided and undifferentiated body of knowledge. The Bhaagavata Puraana tells us that in the Krita Yuga, Vedas were only in the form of the Pranavam ‘Veda: pranava evaagre dharmoham vrisha roopa dhrik’.
During the Dwaapara Yugam, Krishna Dvaipaayana took birth as the son of the famed Paraasara Maharshi and as an avataaram of Sri Mahavishnu. Once, deep in meditation on the banks of Sarasvati River at Badarikashramam he looked into the future and finding men weak in physique and intellect and incapable of imbibing the vast body of Vedas, out of mercy for these weaklings, Krishna Dvaipaayana divided the Vedas into four, for convenience of study. It is thus that he acquired the name ‘Vyaasa’–‘Vyadhadaat yagya santatyai Vedam ekam chatur vidham’. These four Vedas were in turn imparted by Veda Vyaasa to four disciples of his – ‘Rig Veda was imbibed by Paila, Yajur Veda by Vaisampaayana, Saama Veda by Jaimini and Atharva Veda by Sumantu. They, in turn, imparted the Vedic wisdom so acquired to their sishyaas, paving the way for people specializing in the study of particular branches of the Shruti.
Four Divisions of Vedas: We sometimes come across a classification of each Veda/saakha into four parts, viz.,
For instance, the Yajus shaakhaa consists of the Taittireeya Samhita, the Taittireeya Yajur Brahmanam, Aaranyakam and the Taittireeya Upanishad.
However, the Vedas themselves contain several references to ‘Trayee’ or three Vedas. We find, for instance, the Kaataka Prasnam referring to three Vedas’Esho eva trayee vidya’. The Bhaagavata Puraanam too tells that in the Tretaa Yugam, Vedas emerged from the Lord’s heart, in the form of three separate bodies of knowledge’
‘Tretaa mukhe Mahaabhaaga! praanaan me hridayaat Trayee
Vidyaa pradurabhoot tasyaa: aham aasam trivrut mukha
Rg, Yajus and Saama Veda are considered the principal Vedas, with Atharva Veda often being denied the status of an independent Veda, since it is regarded as an adjunct of the others.
Four Officials at Sacrifices:
Similar to the number of Vedas, the persons in charge of performing a sacrifice are also four in number’
The Hota sits near the sacrificial fire and recites mantras in praise of various deities. The Rig Veda details the functions of the Hota. The official who is engaged in the actual performance of the ritual from beginning to end is known as Adhvaryu, while one who sings the melodious verses of Saama Veda is called Udgaataa. The person in charge of general supervision of the Yagya, to ensure that everything is done as prescribed in the scriptures, is Brahmaa (not to be confused with the four-headed Brahmaa).
Speaking of the four Vedas, Tirumazhisai Piraan calls them, ‘naal niratta vedam’. What is this quartet by which Vedas are qualified? They are nothing but the modulation with which Vedas are intoned, consisting of four types’
It is these intonational differences, cumulatively known as ‘Swaram’, that impart to the Shruti its majesty and grandeur and also represent differences in purport. Swaram is an indispensable component of Vedic recitation and mistakes in the same are likely to have major consequences. We hear of Tvashttaa (who developed enmity with Indra) performing a sacrifice to beget a son who would kill Indra. He recited the mantra, ‘Indra shatru: vivardhasva’. However, due to an error in intonation, the son who was born to him was killed by Indra, instead of becoming the killer of Indra.
Thus, a Veda mantra recited with improper intonation could very well prove counterproductive, often producing a result diametrically opposite to the one desired. It has now become the fashion in schools and colleges to begin the day with prayers from Vedas. Unfortunately, however, scant attention is paid to proper recitation. And in an ultimate insult to Mantras, we find the Gaayatri mantra blaring out even from tea shops, in the form of a song set to music by some accursed composer totally unaware of the significance of the mantra and the way it is to be intoned. And now, we have doorbells which recite the Gaayatri mantra in a mellifluous but totally incorrect fashion. When you go to such houses, it is better to knock on the door, rather than ring the bell and set off a string of mantras which can cause nothing but harm, the way they are recited.
Four Classes of Devotees:
Four figures prominently again, in another context. The Lord classifies His devotees into four categories’
‘Chatur vidhaa bhajante maam janaa: sukritina: Arjuna!
Aartho jigyaasu: arthaartthee gnaanee cha Bharatarshabha!’
Those with a preponderance of meritorious deeds worship Emperuman. However, the basic purpose of all devotees is not the same. Depending upon the degree of their devotion and merit, while some go to Him seeking wealth and prosperity in their various forms, some who have lost their riches pray to Him for their restoration. While these two are basically materialistic in their pursuit, there is a third category of devotees (the ‘Jigyaasu’), which is inspired by the knowledge that the Jeevaatma is indeed a blissful entity. These bhaktaas seek to realize the Jeevaatma, prompted by the extraordinary pleasure afforded by Aatma anubhavam. Towering head and shoulders above these people is the fourth category of devotee, the Gnaani, who regards both material prosperity and Aatmaanubhavam as mere baubles and spurns all mundane or even divine objects of pleasure. His single-minded devotion is focused on attaining the glorious Lord and being of eternal and everlasting service to Him. It is this fourth category of worshipper who is dear to the Lord, since the Lord is dear to him’priyo hi gnaanina: atyarttham aham sa cha mama priya:’
Four Types of Food:
It is again in the Gita that Sri Krishna speaks of another group of four’four types of food. This classification is made based on the manner of intake of food. The Lord tells us that it is He, in the form of the Vaisvaanara Agni located in the stomach, who enables digestion of all food that we consume’
‘Aham Vaisvaanaro bhootvaa praaninaam deham aasthita:
Praanaapaana samaayukta: pachaami annam chaturvidham’
And what is this ‘annam chaturvidham’? Sri Ramanuja says that it is
1. food which is to be bitten and chewed,
2. that which is to be sucked in,
3. that which is to be licked and the last,
4. liquids which are to be drunk.
For instance, rice, vegetables, etc. are to be bitten by the teeth and chewed well, while succulent fruits like mango are more to be sucked at. Viscous items like honey have to be licked and milk, water, etc. are to be drunk. All these four types of food are assimilated in our systems, only due to the existence of a digestive ‘fire in the belly’, so to say, which is none other than the Lord. When you shut your ears with your palms, you hear a hum. The Brihadaaranyakopanishad tells us that this is the sound of this Paramaatma.
The Four Varnas:
The much-maligned but little understood Varna system too classifies human beings into four categories’Braahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vysyas and Shudras. Sri Krishna tells us in the Gita that this is a classification based on character, qualities and profession –
‘Chaatur varnam mayaa srishtam guna karma vipaakasa’. The profession-wise classification of people into four categories was as follows:
1) Those who devoted their lives for catering to the spiritual welfare of the populace through a life of prayer and penance, scriptural studies, fasting and self-denial. Poverty, chastity, contentment, devotion, cleanliness of body and mind, celibacy or Brahmacharyam as a way of life (but for the purpose of creating offspring), etc. were the prescribed virtues for Brahmins.
2) Those who were in charge of administering the country, ensuring an efficient Government catering to every need of the citizens, protecting them against onslaughts by alien invaders, etc. Unlimited bravery, tolerance, generosity, putting public interest before self, an eminent sense of justice and fair play and the readiness to sacrifice one’s life and those of one’s near and dear for the cause of the people, were qualities expected of a Kshatriya.
3) Those engaged in trade, industry and commerce and agriculture, making a living by identifying and satisfying existing and potential needs of the populace were the Vysyas. Belief in God, enthusiasm in earning wealth, keenness in sharing it with have-nots, etc. were the hallmark of a Vysya. It is interesting to note that the occupation of Vysyas was again classified into four’Agriculture, Dairy farming, Trade and Money-lending’
‘Krishi vaanijya go rakshaa kuseedam turyam uchyate’ -(Srimad Bhaagavatam)
4) The fourth class of people were the service-providers, catering to the miscellaneous needs of the community and without whose contribution the society would grind to a halt. Patience, industry and hard work were the hall mark of Shudras.
It can be seen from the Scriptures that many of the so-called lower classes were praised sky-high ‘Sri Vidura, Dharma Vyaadha, Nampaaduvaan, et al are but a few examples’ there were instances galore of the so-called people of higher birth being castigated for their misconduct, through ostracism and universal condemnation’Ajaamila, Kshatrabandhu, Asamanjasa’ the list is long.
However, if there is one tenet that has consistently disregarded caste barriers in eulogizing devotees of the Lord, it is Sri Vaishnavism. Sri Nammazhwar, whom we regard as the Chief of Surrendered Souls (‘Prapanna Jana Kootasttha’) and who is held in high reverence by all, belonged to a so-called low caste. One of Sri Ramanuja’s exalted preceptors, Sri Tirukkacchi Nambi, was a Vysya, with whom Sri Varadaraja was supposed to have conversed daily. Sri Maaraneri Nambi and Sri Dhanur Daasa are two more examples of exalted status being attained by sincere devotees, irrespective of their birth. Those who consider the Lord to be their everything and surrender themselves heart and soul to the Emperuman with four beautiful shoulders are indeed our masters, irrespective of their caste, says Sri Nammazhwar’
‘Kulam thaangu saadigal naalilum keezh izhindu, etthanai
nalam taanum illaada chandaala chandaalargale aagilum
valam taangu chakkaratthu annal Manivannarkku aal endru ul
kalandaar, adiyaar tam adiyaar em adigale’
குலந்தாங்கு சாதிகள் நாலிலும் கீழிழிந்து, எத்தனை
நலந்தா னிலாதசண் டாளசண் டாளர்க ளாகிலும்,
வலந்தாங்கு சக்கரத் தண்ணல் மணிவண்ணற் காளென்றுள்
கலந்தார், அடியார் தம்மடி யாரெம் மடிகளே.
(To be continued…)
Srimate Sri Lakshminrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore