Of Human Bondage

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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

What do you think is the grossest of indignities that can be heaped upon a person? One may be abused, physically and verbally; one may even be punished with fines or with imprisonment. Worse than all these is the use of Fetters. Denial of liberty though incarceration is bad enough: but worse is immobilisation through fetters, severely curtailing the movement of one’s limbs. Though prisoners are normally kept in locked cells, the application of fetters to their hands and feet eliminates any possibility of escape. These days, when human rights are the watchword, the use of fetters has been forbidden by various courts, except where hard-core criminals and terrorists are involved. However, whether or not one has been tried and punished by courts, would it surprise you to know that all of us are severely immobilised by irremovable fetters? Do read on, to know more about these fetters and how we can get out of them.

Putting people in shackles so that they don’t escape, appears to be quite an ancient practice. We thus hear of cruel Kamsa clapping both Devaki and Vasudeva in irons, so that they did not escape with the eighth child, which was predicted to be the king’s nemesis. Such was Kamsa’s fear of the yet-to-be born Krishna, that not content with merely imprisoning his sister and brother-in-law in a maximum security jail, he also bound their hands and feet with manacles. It was one of the Lord’s principal missions in the Krishnavataram to rid His parents of their fetters, says

Sri Poigaiyazhwar—


“Pettraar talai kazhala perndu or kural uruvaai
settraar padi kadanda Senkan Maal”

“பெற்றார் தளை கழலப் பேர்ந்து, ஓர் குறள் உருவாய்,
செற்றார் படி, கடந்த செங்கண் மால்…”

If this were so, should not the divine parents been set free the moment Sri Krishna was born? Why did they have to wait for their release from their “vilangu” till Krishna grew up, arrived at Mathura and killed Kamsa?

The answer is that the bonds of Karma are stronger than any other. It was thus their accumulated sin that kept Devaki and Vasudeva in chains, even after they gave birth to the Supreme Being. This also strengthens our faith that the Lord is indeed an impartial arbiter, displaying absolutely no favour or nepotism in rewarding or punishing people as per their own Karma, be they His own parents or sworn enemies.

Speaking of the bonds of Karma, Sri Nammazhwar calls them the strongest available, stronger even than those of iron, to tie a person hand and foot, imprisoning the Atma in the maximum-security prison of the body, from which release is just not possible. Even if one were to escape the constricting confines of one body, it is only to be imprisoned in another body—from the frying pan into the fire, so to say. “Tinnam azhunda katti pala sei vinai van kayittraal” says the Azhwar, describing our plight as victims of our past deeds, good and bad.

“Good and Bad”? I am almost able to see the questioning frown on the reader’s face. We can equate our sins or bad deeds to shackles, but does the same apply to Punyam or good deeds? How would one’s meritorious acts form fetters?

Just as our sins deny us emancipation, Punyam also requires its fruits to be experienced, either in this world itself or in the exalted ones above, such as Svargam. Even if one were to attain the lofty status of Brahmaa the Creator, through one’s good deeds, after the effects of Punyam have been exhausted, one has to return to this mundane world of sorrow and suffering. It is only when we are rid both of Punyam and Papam, that we attain eligibility for Liberation, says the Shruti—“Punya paape vidhooya niranjana: paramam saamyam upaiti”. Thus, if we wish to get rid of our bodily shackles, we have to be free of both sin and merit. If sins can be equated to iron manacles, then Punyam can at best be called a golden handcuff, a “Pon Vilangu”, says Swami Desikan in Sri Varadaraja Panchasat—

“kasmai svadeta sukha sancharana utsukaaya
kaaraagrihe kanaka shrinkhalayaapi bandha:”

All of us know that Sri Krishna allowed Himself to be tied up by Yasoda with the shortest of ropes, displaying His Soulabhyam. However, it is a little known fact that Sri Rama too was tied up. Though we do not find this episode in Sri Valmiki’s magnum opus, we have it for a fact, from an equally impeccable source.

Hanuman, in his effort to prove his identity to a suspicious Sita Devi, recounts various intimate episodes from Her life with Raghava, to convince Her that he was indeed Rama’s messenger and not Ravana come in disguise. One of these is the story of Rama being tied up with bonds, made, however, of Jasmine garlands.

Once during their happy days at Ayodhya, the divine couple were engaged in playing Chaturangam (Chess). Having won the game, Sri Sita tied up Her dear Prince with strands of fragrant jasmine, as a token of Her victory. As none else could have known this unless confided in by Chakkravartthi Tirumagan, this romantic titbit generates confidence in Sri Janaki’s heart about the bona fides of Hanuman. Here is Periyazhwar’s beautiful pasuram, describing this episode—

“alliam poo malar kodaai! adi paninden vinnappam
sollugen kettarulaai tunai malar kan mada maane!
elliam podu inidu iruttal irundador ida vagayil
Malligai maalai kondu angu aarttadum or adayaalam”

“அல்லியம்பூ மலர்க்கோதாய் அடிபணிந்தேன் விண்ணப்பம்
சொல்லுகேன் கேட்டருளாய் துணைமலர்க்கண் மடமானே
எல்லியம்போ தினிதிருத்தல் இருந்ததோ ரிடவகையில்
மல்லிகைமா மாலைகொண்டுஅங்கு ஆர்த்ததும்ஓ ரடையாளம்”

We see in some households the plight of the hapless husband torn between his wife and mother, each indulging in one-upmanship to demonstrate who wields greater power over the poor fellow. We wonder whether it is not the same case with Emeperuman too. Finding His wife tying Him up in the Ramavataram, perhaps the mother (Yasoda) indulged in the same game in the Krishnavataram, to display her superiority! Jokes apart, the two episodes, where Emperuman was effectively tied up, demonstrate that He is indeed susceptible to be immobilised by devotees’ bonds of love and affection.

Speaking of being tied up, we hear of the great Anjaneya being immobilised by the Brahmaastram let loose by Indrajit, when the Rama doota indulged in destruction and arson, reducing Lanka to shambles. Though no power could put fetters on the irrepressible Hanuman, he submitted voluntarily to the bonds of the Brahmaastram as a tactical measure, so that he could meet Ravana and give the rakshasa a piece of his mind.

The peculiar nature of the Brahmaastram is that after its use against a person, if other restraints are also applied, then the Brahmaastram loses its potency and the arrested person becomes free from its crippling effects (“Astra bandha: sa cha anyam hi na bandham anuvartate”). The stupid Rakshasas, in their eagerness to secure Hanuman in a fool-proof manner, bound him further with whatever they could lay their hands on—jute ropes, tree barks, etc. Instantly, the Vaanara Veera was automatically rid of the fetters imposed by the Brahmaastram. Still, he pretended to be bound, so that he could meet Ravana. Though the other rakshasas hardly realised that Hanuman was now free, Indrajit did and was filled with wonder as to why the monkey did not spring free from its captors and resume its spree of destruction.

Another bond, which is dreaded by everyone and spells instant death, is that of Varuna, the Deity of Waters. We find numerous references in the Shruti to the “Varuna paasam” and its deleterious effects and impassioned prayers to spare one from its rigours.

Bonds and Fetters need not always be physical. When one feels powerless to act due to constricting circumstances, then too one is bound hand and foot. Such was the case with Dasaratha, when he felt powerless to stop the march of events culminating in the banishment of Sri Rama to the forests. Having given two boons to Kaikayee, the Emperor felt powerless to go back on his words, as not only his credibility but that of the entire lineage of Ikshvaakus was at stake. He would have loved to tell Kaikayee to go to hell and retracted his earlier promises, but since he was bound by the fetters of Satyam (truthfulness), he felt incapable of doing so. “Sa satya vachanaat Raaja Dharma paasena samyata:” says Sri Valmiki, describing Dasaratha’s plight.

Coming back to our own unbreakable bonds of Karma, which bind us fast to Samsaara, we wonder whether there is no way out of it. Are we doomed forever to be fettered, bound hand and foot, unable to exert ourselves in any measure towards freedom from this eternal bondage?. Because, even if we were to take thousands of births, it would be difficult for us to wipe off the accumulated grime and gristle of our good and bad deeds. And we are told that only when the slate is clean would we be eligible for emancipation.

Our compassionate Acharyas have shown us the strategy to rid ourselves of these terribly painful shackles. They have shown us the path of absolute surrender to the Lord, that of Saranagati, which, once performed sincerely through an Acharya, frees us forever from the fetters of Samsara. All our sins (and merits too) are destroyed in a trice, leaving us pure and untainted, eligible in every way to the eternal life of blissful service to the Lord and His devotees. Thus, Saranagati or Prapatti ensures that – “Poya pizhayum pugu taruvaan nindranavum teeyinil doosaagum” — all our Karma is destroyed like mere dust by a raging fire. Once we perform Saranagati at the lotus feet of the Lord, these twin fetters of sin and merit drop off automatically, leaving us free to ascend to Paramapadam, says Swami Desikan—

“Mukta: svayam sukrita dushkrita shrinkhalaabhyaam
achirmukhai: adhikritai: adhivaahita adhvaa
svacchanda kinkaratayaa bhavata: Kareesa!
Svaabhaavikam pratilabheya mahaa adhikaaram”

Srimate Sri LakshmINrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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1 COMMENT

  1. sir. a very clearly articulated document. congrats and kindly continue to write such articles. also the document is mainly in english with necessary links to various other languages. kindly continue to write in this way.
    kind rgards
    Jai Sriman Narayanaya.

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