Among the fingers of the hand, the Thumb occupies a unique position. If the five fingers could be compared to brothers, then the Thumb is clearly the Big Brother among them. While being one among the five fingers, the Thumb is set slightly apart from the others and is somewhat bigger in size too. However, when something is to be done with the hand, the thumb joins the other fingers dutifully and fulfils the task. The importance of the Thumb is realized only in its absence. Even if any of the other fingers is lost due to accident, the function of the hand is not substantially impaired. If the thumb is lost, the hand loses its mainstay and dexterity too. We have heard of the Thumb Rule, which is supposed to signify empirical formulations. If you look into why the thumb should occupy a position of such importance, we find several clues in the scripture.
There is something about the size of the Thumb that is extremely significant. For, Upanishads tell us that the Paramaatma, in His diminutive form as the Inner Dweller of all beings, is just the size of a Thumb. We are surprised too to note that this idea of a thumb-sized Emperuman is reiterated time and again in various bodies of the Scripture. For instance, the Taittiriyopaishad tells us that this thumb-sized Paramaatma resides in the heart of all beings, the heart in turn being just thumb-sized “Angushtta maatra: Purusha: angushttam cha samaasrita:” To clarify doubts whether the Parabrahmam (which derives its name from its hugeness) could ever have such a miniature form, the Upanishad confirms immediately that it is indeed the Lord, who takes this minute shape and structure, while residing in the bodies of His creations “Isa: sarvasya jagata: Prabhu:”. The Kathopanishad expands on this to tell us that the Paramaatma dwells in the Jeevaatma, in the diminutive form of a thumb Angushtta maatra: Purusha: madhye aatmani tishtthati. However, despite the size and location, He is not to be mistaken for the Jeevaatma Isaanam bhoota bhavyasya na tato vijigupsate. And despite this small size, He is as lustrous as ever and brilliant as a fire unclouded by smoke, says the Kathopanishad again “Angushtta maatra: Purusha: jyotiriva adhoomaka:”. Thus, the Kathopanishad is so enamoured of the Lord’s thumb-sized version, that the same is eulogized in no less than three contexts.
Is there any need for the Upanishads to belabour the point that the thumb-sized entity is the Paramaatma and not the Jeevaatma? Apparently yes, because there appears to have been a hot debate on the subject among philosophers of various hues, with some saying that because of the diminutive size and location within the human body, the entity must indeed be the Jeevaatma. This confusion is obviously caused because the Jeevatma too is said to be of the same size that of a thumb. This is borne out by the Mahaabharata, which tells that Yamadharmaraaja extracted from the body of Satyavaan (the husband of the famous Pativrata Saavitri) the thumb-sized Jeevatma and pulled him with his deadly rope.
“Tata: Satyavata: kaayaat paasa baddham vasam gatam
Angushtta maatram purusham nischakarsha Yama: balaat”
Readers would observe that the terms “Agushtta maatra:” (thumb-sized) and “Purusha:” appear to be common to both the Jeevaatma and the Paramaatma. However, it is to dispel this misconception and to confirm that the Inner Dweller of all beings with the size of a thumb, eulogized by the Upanishads, is indeed the Paramaatma, that the Shruti adds that this entity is the Ruler of All, brilliant beyond conception, the master of the past, present and future, etc. all of which apply only to the Lord. The Mahabharata too tells us that this dwarf-like form of the great Lord resides in the hearts of everyone, unseen and unknown.
“Angushtta maatra: Purusha: mahatma
na dirsyate asou hridaye nivishta:
Aja: chara: diva raatram atandritascha
Sa tam matvaa kavi: aaste prasanna:”
Has anyone at all seen this particular form of the Lord? While the aforesaid sloka tells us that this thumb-sized Paramatma cannot be seen by anyone, there appears to be an exception to this rule, and a mere ten-month old baby had a glorious vision of this diminutive Lord in all His splendour, we are told by the Bhaagavata Puraanam.
The pregnant Uttara (wife of Abhimanyu) is targeted by Asvattaama, who lets loose a potent astram intended to destroy her foetus. And when this missile enters Uttara’s womb, the Lord, in His thumb-sized form, repulses this astram and renders it harmless, thus protecting Parikshit, who is the ten month-old baby threatened by Asvattaama’s astram. And the sight that Pareekshit was blessed with even before birth is indeed wondrous and glorious. Lying helpless in the womb, He sees the Lord, just as big as a thumb, sporting a beautiful golden head gear, with a complexion akin to dark clouds, wearing lightning-coloured and silken clothes, with four long and strong arms, golden rings dangling from His well-shaped ears, beautiful and brilliant beyond imagination, and wielding a mighty mace (Gadaa). The Lord destroys the astram and Parikshit is born safely, blessed by Paramaatma even at birth. Here is the beautiful slokam from Srimad Bhaagavatam.
Angushtta maatram amalam sphurat purata moulinam
Apeechya darsanam shyaamam tadit vaasasam Achyutham”
What would be the supreme sacrifice you could ask of an archer? His right thumb, of course, for, without that he could never touch a bow again nor use it effectively. This, then, was the Gurudakshina demanded of Ekalavya by Dronaachaarya. Ekalavya of lowly birth had learnt archery from Drona on the sly, when the latter was teaching the Paandava and Kourava princes. With the burning desire for excellence in archery etched in his soul, Ekalavya hid in the distance, watching each and every movement of the teacher and the students, concentrating fiercely on their stance, gestures, sighting, etc., till he became next only to Arjuna in archery. Fearing that Ekalavya could emerge as a competitor to Arjuna, Drona demanded his Gurudakshina from Ekalavya, representing the cutting off of his thumb. Despite all his efforts at excellence in archery being brought to a naught through this cruel demand, Ekalavya sacrificed his thumb willingly and without demur, his face wreathed in a smile at having been able to please his Guru-
Tathaiva hrishta vadana: tathaiva adeena maanasa:
Cchitvaa avichaarya tam praadaat Dronaaya angushttam aatmana:
If such is the significance of the Thumb which presides over the hand, can the importance of its counterpart on the foot be any less? The foot too is dominated by the Big Toe, which towers over the other toes in size and importance. Puranas and Itihaasaas tell us that those performing penance stand on a single foot and that too on their big toe, in the final stages of their tapas, supporting their entire body on their big toe, with their hands raised and folded in prayer. For instance, the Mahabharata tells us that the deity of death performed severe penance, culminating in standing on the big toe in the final stages. We are told too that Dhruva too, at his tender age, stood on a single foot, supporting himself on a big toe, concentrating his entire being on the Ultimate.
The Lord’s Big Toe is as adorable as the rest of His glorious person. It is from this toe that the holy river Ganga emanated, we are told by the Bhaagavata Puraanam. During Trivikrama Avataaram, when the Lord’s foot went to the worlds above in quest of the second foot of land promised by Mahabali, the four-headed Brahma performed tirumanjanam for the divine foot at Satyalokam. And from the water washing the Lord’s Big toe originated the Ganga, which till date destroys the accumulated sins of all those having a dip in it.
Yat paada sevaabhiruchi: tapasvinaam asesha janma upachitam malam dhiya:
Sadya: kshinoti anvaham edhatee satee yathaa pada angushtta vinissrutaa sarit
The fifth Skanda of Bhaagavatam tells us that during the Trivikrama avataaram, the Lord stood firmly on earth with His right foot and extended the left to the heavens. In the process, the left big toe and the nail therein pierced the ceiling of the heavens, from which flowed the Ganga, which acquired cleansing capabilities due to its glorious association with the Emperuman’s holy foot.
The Lord’s toe is no less powerful than His hands. Sugreeva expresses doubts about the capability and strength of Sri Rama to face the phenomenally strong Vaali. Smiling to Himself at Sugreeva’s ignorance, Rama lifts the mountainous carcass of Dundubhi with His big toe and throws it miles away, conclusively proving His prowess.
Raaghava: pratyayaarttham tu Dundubhe: kaayam uttamam
Paadaangushttena chikshepa sampoornam dasa yojanam
Is there any doubt that Dundubhi must have attained the loftiest of worlds, since his remains came into contact with the Lord’s tiruvadi?
We have read in the Uttara Kaandam of Srimad Ramayanam that Sriman Narayana stood at the entrance to Mahaabali’s palace in the worlds below, guarding the entrance of His bhakta. When Raavana, during his successful military campaign across the worlds, attempted an unauthorized entry into Mahaabali’s palace, he was booted by the Lord with His big toe and thrown afar. The throw was so powerful that Raavana landed millions of miles away, says the Bhaagavata Puraanam.
Raavana appears to have been assaulted with the big toe, more than once. When he attempted to lift the Kailaasa Parvatam, Siva pressed down the mountain with his toe, catching Raavana’s hand squarely beneath the mountain-
“Tato Rama! Mahadeva: prahasan veekshya tat kritam
paada angushttena tam sailam peedayaamaasa leelayaa
When Brahmaa commenced the process of Creation and desired to bring forth Prajaapatis who would in turn create men, animals and birds, from his left toe was born Daksha, the principal among the Prajaapatis. While Daksha was born from the right toe, his wife-to-be originated from Brahmaa’s left toe, we are told by the Mahabharata.
Coming back to the Thumb, we find that it plays a big part in the most basic of all Vaidika karmas, viz, the Aachamanam. After the intake of water to the accompaniment of Achutha, Ananta and Govinda naamaas, the lips and the chin are to be wiped with the thumb, which is to be washed thereafter. And as regards touching the various parts of the body with the twelve divine names of the Lord, it is again the thumb which is given the pride of place. We touch the right and left cheeks with the Kesava and Narayana naamaas with the thumb only. And thereafter, the thumb has to accompany the other fingers in turn, when the other places like eyes, ears, nose, shoulders, chest and navel are to be touched. For instance, when we say “Maadhavaaaya nama:”, the right eye should be touched by the ring-finger along with the right thumb. It can thus be seen that while the fingers other than the thumb are not needed for the Kesava and Narayana naamaas, for all other naamas, the thumb has to accompany the other fingers, just as a big brother guides and escorts younger ones. And during Praanaayaamam too, the thumb plays a big part in pressing and releasing nostrils, to hold and release breath. During Karanyaasam for Gaayatri Japam too, the thumbs of the two hands are given a pride of place.
To conclude, the Thumb appears to occupy an important position in the worldly scheme of things too. We find that the “Thumbs-up” sign is displayed to signify victory, good wishes, etc. For positive identification of a person, it is his thumb impression that is considered and not that of any other finger. For illiterates, their thumb impression takes the place of a signature. New-born babes suck their thumbs and not any other finger. In fact, the precedent for this was set by the Lord Himself, the Baala Mukunda, when He lay on a fig leaf amidst the swirling waters of the cosmic deluge, sucking His big toe Kara aravindena padaaravindam mukhaaravinde vinivesayantam
Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paaduka sevaka Srivan Satakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama: