The Tales the Letters Tell

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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

One question frequently asked of writers is how they choose their topics? whether they have to strain the sinews of their brain to find some new topic or a new angle to write about or whether inspiration strikes them like a luminous flash of lightning, giving them new insights into old things, which they can put on paper for popular edification. Though I do not have any pretence to being a writer, due to the sheer volume of essays (which must have crossed 300 by now) I have produced, some people tend to regard me too (!) as a writer of sorts and ask me the aforesaid question. I always reply that the Lord’s creation is so vast, so varied and so inspiring that anything and everything prompts me to write. If only one had the time, one could probably write volumes about each aspect of Bhagavat Srishti, in all its kaleidoscopic variety. For instance, some of the readers might remember that I have written about a stone, a blade of grass, hair, medicines, doctors, mountains, clouds, rivers, gates, birds, smoke and a host of other apparently unlikely subjects, all, however, with reference to some aspect or other of Emperuman’s glory. And our Acharyas have written so much on the significant aspects of our Sampradaayam that one could perhaps spend several lifetimes researching into, discovering and writing about the innumerable nuggets of wisdom embedded in their works.


The aforesaid introduction is not for blowing my own trumpet, but to point out how even apparently insignificant matters can provide pointers to great concepts of philosophy. For instance, yesterday, I found one of my colleagues with a primer (‘Aricchuvadi’) in his hands, ostensibly to instruct his infant son in the alphabets. When I glanced through this perfectly innocuous and commonplace book, the sight of the letter “A” triggered a thought process, which is indeed the subject matter of this essay (“You have come to the point at last!” remarks my daughter).

After leaving elementary school, not many of us would have thought much about the alphabets. However, truth to tell, alphabets in general and the first letter thereof in particular, are extremely significant and hide a wealth of information. Most of the ancient languages of the world begin with the letter “A”. It is indeed surprising to note how alphabets of languages like Sanskrit, Tamizh, English, etc., spoken by peoples separated geographically by millions of miles, all begin with the letter “A”. Don’t you think it is noteworthy that a particular sound and letter should be considered so important to occupy the primacy of place among the alphabets of several languages?

The “Akaaram”, as the letter “A” is called in Sanskrit,(or “Akaram” as it is known in Tamizh) is considered to be the very backbone of the entire alphabet. This is the sound which props up the entire set of letters. Just as zeroes gain significance only when preceded by other integers like 1 or 2, so too the other consonants in the alphabet can stand up, so to say, only with the aid of the Akaaram, without which they are at best a meaningless jumble of letters worth nothing. For example, the letter “Ka” is formed only when the consonant “ik” is supported by “A”. We can therefore safely conclude, without fear of contradiction, that the letter “A” or the Akaaram is the root of all sounds and letters, without which there would be no alphabet, no significant sounds, no language and no communication.

This is no original discovery of mine, but one chronicled by the Shruti, which lays this down simply but succinctly thus “Akaaro vai sarvaa vaak” (All words and speech are indeed the Akaaram, for they are based on the Akaaram, says the Iytareya Braahmanam). Such is the primacy accorded to this letter that the entire process of speech is said to be symbolized by it. Another branch of the unblemished Vedas, the Bahvrichopanishad quoted by Swami Desikan, lifts the Akaaram to the highest pedestal possible, by confirming that the letter is indeed the Brahman “A iti Brahma”. And if you have any lingering doubts about the glory of the Akaaram, here is the Lord Himself telling us that among letters of the alphabet, He is the letter A “Aksharaanaam Akaarosmi” (Bhagavat Gita). Even the Sanskrit Dictionaries (Nighantu) define the letter to mean the universal Lord Vishnu “A nishedhe pumaan Vishnou”. And there are innumerable other quotes confirming the divine status of the letter A.

And the Shastras do not stop with equating the Akaaram with the Paramaatma. To make matters crystal clear, they say too that this Parabhrahmam, which is signified, symbolized and is verily the letter “A”, is none other than Emperuman Sriman Narayanan. This is no sectarian formula propounded only by Srivaishnavaas The Bhaashyotkarsha Deepika, an elaboration of Sri Sankaracharya’s commentary, commenting on the Gita sloka mentioned above, in turn quotes the scripture to confirm that the Akaaram is indeed Vaasudeva Akaaro Vaasudeva: syaat. The Akaaram is the first and foremost among the names of Sriman Narayana, says the Shrutaprakaasika, quoting the Hari Grantham, “A iti Bhagavato Naarayaanasya prathama abhidhaanam”. The real meaning of the Akaaram is Sri Mahavishnu, says Sri Bhattar in his Ashtasloki “Akaaraarttho Vishnu:”

It is not merely Vishnu that the Akaaram signifies, but also His inalienable and constant Consort Sri Mahalakshmi. Though there is no separate indication or mention of Her here, whenever and wherever the Lord is mentioned, She too is spoken of by inference, since She forms an indivisible part of Him. There is no need to mention Her separately, because She and the Lord form an indivisible whole “tat antarbhaavaat na prithak abhidhatte Shrutirapi” says Sri Bhattar in his Sri Gunaratna Kosam. Another venerated body of knowledge that the Akaaram is supposed to symbolize is the Rig Veda, which is evident from the following sloka quoted by Srimad Injimettu Azhagiasingar in his commentary on Srimad Rahasyatrayasaaram.

“Akaaraatma hi Rigvedo Ukaaraatma Yaju: Shruti:
Sama Vedo Makaaraatma anusvaaro hi Atharvana:”

With such an exalted stature, is it any wonder that the letter A is regarded as the embodiment of auspiciousness and divinity? Many authors have considered it extremely propitious to begin their works with the Akaaram, since it is a divine sound, as it symbolizes the Lord Himself, and would ensure the unhindered completion of their works. Only serious spiritual writers know what a lot of hindrances crop up impeding their effort. Beginning the book or work with the letter “A” was, by itself, considered adequate to remove all hurdles and enable the work to be completed with expedition there was no need for invoking any other source for ensuring auspiciousness “Akaaram prayunjaanena kim naama mangalam na kritam”. And since well begun is half-done, the Akaaram was considered extremely propitious and the ideal alphabet to commence works with.

Proof of this concept is spread all over our spiritual lore. The hallowed Rig Veda begins with the letter A “Agnimeele purohitam”. The Saama Veda too follows suit by commencing with an Akaaram “Agna aayaahi veetaye”. Among Upanishads, the Naarayanopanishad, for one, begins with an Akaaram “Ambhasya pare bhuvanasya madhye”, as does the Atharva Shiras “Atha Puruso ha vai Naraayano akaamayata”. The Brahma Sutras have as their first aphorism, “athaatho Brahma jigyaasaa”. And above all, it forms the first letter of the Pranavam, which is comprised of the three letters A, U and M. No less than 90 of the hallowed names of the Lord listed in the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram begin with A, accounting for a tidy 9% of the tirunaamams.

Thus, can there be any better or more auspicious letter to begin your composition with, than A? It is this hoary practice that Sri Ramanuja follows, when commencing his magnum opus, Sri Bhashyam, the beautiful commentary on the Brahma Sutras. “Akhila bhuvana janma sthema bhangaadi leele” begins the Sri Bhashyam (the invocatory verse). “Akhila” means universal. Though there are other words too conveying the same meaning, (like “nikhila”), the fact that Sri Ramanuja prefers to begin his work with “A” is a pointer to us all. Emperumaanaar sticks to this tested mode of commencement in his “Vedanta Deepam” (an abbreviated version of Sri Bhashyam) too with the words, “Atra ayam eva hi Veda vidaam prakriya”. (if one doesn’t count the invocatory verse to this work).

Other examples that spring to the mind while considering sacred works beginning with Akaaram, are the Second Tiruvandaadi of Sri Bhootattazhwar “Anbe tagaliyaa aarvame neyyaaga”. Sri Tirukkurugai Piraan Pillaan’s “Aaraayirappadi”, the pioneering commentary on Tiruvaimozhi, also begins with the letter A “Apraakrita sva asaadhaarana divya roopa”. Four of the 28 Stotras of Swami Desikan begin with the Akaaram – the Garuda Panchaasat, Bhagavat Dhyaana Sopaanam, Nyaasa Dasakam and the Abhitistavam. Three other esoteric works of the Acharya, the Rahasya Padavee, the Rahasya Sandesam and the Paramapada Sopaanam commence with the letter “A” or the akaaram The ancient Tamizh poet Tiruvalluvar too is partial to Akaaram and the first Kural begins with the letter A “Akara mudala ezhutthellaam”, which incidentally, is a tribute to the glory of the Akaaram.

Well, having convinced ourselves that the Akaaram is indeed representative of the Ultimate, shall we see whether this letter, by itself, has any meaning? And why should this letter, and not any other, stand for the Lord? And what aspects of Emperuman does this single letter signify? There is any number of letters in the alphabet, why should “A” alone be indicative of Emperuman and none other?

1. First and foremost, etymologists tell us that the letter A originates from the Sanskrit verbal root (dhaatu) “ava” and this means “to protect”. Hence, the Akaaram symbolizes Protection. When the termination “va” in the root “ava” is dropped, the resulting Akaaram denotes one who protects. Since there is no limitation to this aspect of protection, we can consider this to be universal protection. This means that the Lord is the protector and preserver of all beings and objects in this wide world and others.
Says Sri Pillai Lokacharya, “Akaaram sakala sabdatthukkum kaaranamaai irukkayaale sakala jagattukkum kaaranamaai sarva rakshakanaana Emperumaanai sollugiradu”

2. There are certain other auspicious attributes of the Lord which are basic to His protection like Gnaanam, Balam, Isvaryam, Veeryam, Shakti, Tejas, etc. all of which are also derived meanings of the Akaaram.

3. Further, the Akaaram also includes the Divine Consort Sri in the ambit of its purport, due to Her inseparability from the Lord.

4. Just as the Akaaram forms the root and base for all other letters, words and sounds, so too the Lord is the sole basis, support and sustenance for all beings and things He is the sole “Aadhaaram”, as is brought out by the following Sri Vaamana Puraana slokam-

“Akaarena akhila aadhaara: Paramaatma abhidheeyate
Samasta sabda moolatvaat Akaarasya svabhaavata:
Samasta vaachya moolatvaat Brahmanopi svabhaavata:
Vaachya vaachaka sambandha: tayo: artthaat prateeyate”

5. As the Akaaram is the material and instrumental cause for all other letters, so too is the Lord for all animate and inanimate beings and things in His creation. Thus the letter A brings out the causal relationship “Kaaranatvam” that of the Creator and Creation, subsisting between the Paramaatma and ourselves.

6. Flowing from the aforesaid role of the Lord as the Creator, all His attributes like omnipotence and omniscience, which are essential for the creative function, are also to be inferred from the Akaaram.

7. Since protection includes creation, preservation and destruction too as per the needs of the time, Akaaram also indicates the Lord’s various roles as the Universal Creator, Protector and Destroyer, says Sri Bhattar “Akaaraarttho Vishnu: jagat udaya raksha pralayakrit”

We have a small doubt here. We know that the moola mantras for all the Devatas begin with the Pranavam, which in turn has the Akaaram as its first letter. For instance, if you take the Panchaakshara mantram of Siva, it begins with the Pranavam, which is followed by “Nama: Sivaaya”. In such a case, if we were to apply the rule that the Akaaram in the Pranavam invariably indicates only Sriman Narayana, how can this form part of mantras relating to other Devatas?

The answer is that all mantras, in fact all words in all languages, are indicative of Lord Sriman Narayana only. This is because, to begin with, the Akaaram in the Pranavam, to repeat, decisively stands for Emperuman: so too, the names of all Deities, whether Rudra, Agni, Vayu or Soorya, indicate only the Paramaatma Sriman Narayana, who is the Inner Dweller of all these deities, as He is of us. Just as the name Sadagopan indicates not the physical body but the Jeeva inside the body, so too, since the Jeeva has Sriman Narayana as his Antaryaami, the name Sadagopan actually refers to the Paramaatma.

Without being circuitous, we can also say that all names of all persons and deities refer only to the Paramaatma, due to their Yoga shakti. For instance, the name “Agni” may be superficially taken to mean the fire god. However, if we look into its etymology, it means someone who leads us ahead “Agram nayati iti Agni:”. And who else but the Paramaatma leads us ahead to emancipation and bliss, acting as the Leader guiding us through this minefield of Samsaara? Thus, the name Agni really refers to Sriman Narayana. This way, all words and names, of all persons and deities, can be taken to mean the Lord. This being so, all mantras too, whichever Devata they are addressed to, are in reality about the Lord of all beings, viz., Sriman Narayana.

Another popular use of the Akaaram is in a negative connotation “nishedham”. If we wish to refer to the opposite of a particular quality, we add an A before the word. While “Satyam” indicates the truth, “Asatyam” refers to the opposite untruth. This, however, is not universally. So not all words beginning with A are negative in connotation.

To conclude–Coming back to our opening theme, readers would appreciate that it is not at all difficult to find topics to write about (especially for those of our Sampradaayam) as anything and everything in the good Lord’s creation is worth writing about, as all of them represent but aspects of the Lord’s boundless bounty and beauty. If a mere primer (that my colleague had in his hands) could generate an article running to 2400 words, it goes to show how write-worthy things are. The only question is of finding the time to write.

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:
dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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