This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore
For long, whenever a caricature is drawn of a Londoner, he has always been picturised with a bowler hat on his head and an umbrella under his arm. He may forget even his preferred breakfast of bacon and eggs in the morning, but not to carry his umbrella, we are told. London weather is said to be so nasty that precipitations occur frequently and without notice– hence its residents’ attachment to the umbrella. We
in India too like to carry an umbrella during the monsoon season (which, alas, has become almost non-existent during the last couple of years). And ladies prefer the umbrella during rain or shine, to protect their lily-white complexions from the Sun. This applies especially to Japanese ladies, whom you always find (at least in movies) sporting trendy umbrellas in their hands—so much so that it appears to be as much a part of Japanese traditional costume, as the Kimono. However, as you would have observed, the umbrella appears to be on its way out during recent years, replaced by Raincoats, Duck-back wear and such-like, which provide comprehensive and body-length protection against a downpour. The younger generation perhaps considers the umbrella unfashionable and prefers to cover itself with shiny plastic, leather and vinyl, as its answer to rains. Before it becomes extinct, let us capture a few glorious glimpses of the umbrella’s hoary history.
The Lord appears to have created us in His own mould, perhaps in the fond hope that we would be as good and holy as He is. Though we have belied His expectations, we do stick on to things that remind us of our origins and parentage. We find, thus, that in carrying an umbrella too, we are only copying Him.
My ever-critical daughter, peering over my shoulder, remarks, “You have got away with quite a few wild statements in the past. You have linked the most insignificant of things to the Lord, like a speck of dust, a blade of grass, a strand of hair and even a piece of stone. This time, however, you are going too far by trying to connect a mere umbrella with Emperuman and are surely going to fail! Let me see how you do it!”
Ruing the misfortune of having to answer to mere infants with pretensions of being literary critics at sixteen and spurred on by the compulsion of having to prove her wrong, I lay the following lines before you, who are the final arbiters in the matter.
To repeat, it is very much the Lord who first held an umbrella. Whenever you see sculptures of the DasAvatArAs, you find that each avatAra is depicted with distinct items in the Lord’s hands. For instance, you are able to recognise Sri Rama instantly by the bow and arrow He holds stylishly, Sri Krishna by His flute, Sri Balarama by the Plough and Sri Parasurama by the murderous axe slung over His shoulder. Similarly, the observant among us would have definitely noticed the distinctive feature of the VAmanAvatAra—the Umbrella.
When the Lord makes His appearance at MahAbali’s asvamEdha yAga in the form of an enchanting BrahmachAri, short and sweet, radiating wisdom and penance, His attire is completely in tune with the role adopted. As a BrahmachAri, He holds a Dandam (a stick of the PalAsa tree) in His hand, has a belt of darbha grass, a yagyOpaveetam sprawling resplendently in His chest and holds a Kamandalu or water-container in His other hand. His chest is covered by deerskin, which the Lord uses to hide the presence of the inseparable Sri Mahalakshmi. Onlookers are so astounded by the beauty and splendour of the small boy, that they rise to their feet automatically. They wonder whether it is verily the Soorya BhagavAn who has honoured the sacrifice with his presence, or the illustrious Agni himself. Such was the impressive entry made by Emperuman at Bhrigukaccham on the banks of the Narmada, where the asvamEdha yAga was in progress.
The point of this lengthy description is that the BhAgavata PurANa tells us of one very important item held in the Lord’s hand, viz., an Umbrella—
“Cchatram sadandam sajalam kamandalum vivEsa bibhrat hayamEdha vAtam”. One wonders—against which element did the Lord need protection, that He carried an umbrella? Was it against the blazing Sun? It could not be, for the timely rise and set of the Sun is attributed to his fear of the Lord—“bheeshOdEti Soorya:” says the Taittiriyopanishad. Could it have been against pouring rain? This again was not possible, for Varuna the Deity of Waters, VAyu the Windgod and Indra the Chief of celestials, all of whom jointly send down rains, are in equal fear of the Lord, says the same Upanishad—“BheeshAsmAt VAta: pavatE, bheeshAsmAt agnischa indrascha”.
We are told that the umbrella was a gift to the Lord by the heavens above, just as the Yagyopaveetam was gifted by Brihaspati, the belt of Munji grass by Kashyapa Maharshi, the kamandalu by BrahmA and so on—“koupeenam AcchAdanam mAtA dyou: cchatram jagata: patE:”
Does the umbrella’s association with the Lord stop with the VAmanAvatArA? Not at all, as we shall see presently.
During the Ramavatara, in describing Sri Rama’s return from His father’s palace without any of the trappings of the YuvarAjA due to KaikEyI’s machinations, Kamban says,
“kuzhaikkindra kavari indri, kottra veN kudayum indri
azhaikkindra vidhi mun chella, Dharumam pin irangi Ega”
To Kousalya, who had been expecting Her darling’s return with all the trappings of power like acolytes fanning Him on both sides, a courtier holding aloft a decorated umbrella made of the purest of white silk and so on, Sri Rama’s return unaccompanied by any of the aforesaid adornments comes as a severe disappointment.
We see thus that the Umbrella has for long signified power, prestige and honour. That this is true today too, even at much lower levels, is seen from the lackey following the village landlord, holding an umbrella over his head. And we find Emperors being described as “Eka CchatrAdhipati”, indicating that their umbrella of power extends over the whole world—this, however, is a misnomer, for it is only Emperuman who could truthfully claim this title, being the Supreme Lord of all the universes.
After His triumphant return from Lanka, Sri Rama accepts the throne of Ayodhya at the request of Bharata. At the Coronation, signifying His overlordship over all, a beautiful white umbrella is held over the head of Sri Rama. The good fortune of holding the same falls to the lot of Shatrughna—“Cchatram tu tasya jagrAha Shatrughna: pANdaram shubham”.
If Sri Rama was accorded the honour of a ceremonial umbrella only at His coronation, Sri Krishna managed to corner the same on the very first day of His birth. It is raining cats and dogs, the precipitation coming down in torrents, when Sri VasudEva leaves KamsA’s prison for the safety of NandagOkulam, bearing the just-born Krishna. He is worried what would happen to the infant, if it were to be drenched in the downpour. He need not have been concerned, for, the moment he stepped out of the prison, there was AdisEsha, holding his hoods protectively over the Lord, ensuring that not a drop of rain fell on the Paramapurusha’s tirumEni.
It is perhaps from this episode of the Strange Snake functioning as the Lord’s umbrella, that Azhwars, come up with the following formulation—
“chendrAl kudayAm irundAl singAsanamAm
nindrAl maravadiyAm—neeL kadaluL endrum
puNayAm maNi viLakkAm poompattAm, pulgum
aNayAm TirumArkku aravu”
“சென்றால் குடையாம் இருந்தால்சிங் காசனமாம்,
நின்றால் மரவடியாம் நீள்கடலுள், – என்றும்
புணையாம் மணிவிளக் காம் பூம்பட்டாம் புல்கும்
அணையாம், திருமாற் கரவு.”
Here too, the primacy of the Umbrella is evident from its being mentioned ahead of the Lord’s throne, footwear, boat, luminous lamp and the softest of beds.
We have seen that others hold an umbrella over the Lord’s head, as a measure of protection, honour and adoration. Is there any instance of Emperuman holding an umbrella over the heads of others? Yes, indeed there is. He is so accessible and likes so much to mingle with us, that He doesn’t shrink from performing even the most menial of services for His ardent devotees.
The residents of Gokulam had the practice of performing poojA every year to Indra, the Chief of Celestials, who ensured timely rains, so essential for the sustenance of both man and cow. Sri Krishna, intent on teaching arrogant Indra a lesson, convinced His father and GOpAs that worship ought to be performed to the actual benefactors of Gokulam, viz., the cows which showered wealth through their
munificent flood of milk, Brahmins who performed VEda pArAyaNam for universal welfare and to the Govardhana hill, which was responsible for the cows’ well being. The GOpAs, impressed by Sri Krishna’s well-reasoned arguments, agreed and performed worship to the aforesaid, ignoring Indra. Indra was furious at this and to teach the ignorant cowherds a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry, sent down torrential rain, accompanied by terrifying claps of thunder and continuous flashes of lightning, enough to blind the eye. Due to the incessant rain, the entire Gokulam was almost submerged in floods, with men, women and children shivering in the sharp wind and drenched to their skins, not to speak of the cows and calves. And there was absolutely no sign of the downpour letting up. All the Gopas ran to Sri Krishna for succour. And the Lord came to their rescue by holding up a huge umbrella, under which all of them could stay safe and secure against the onslaught of rain and hail. And what was this umbrella, which could accommodate hundreds of cowherds and their families, along with the innumerable cows and calves of Nandagokulam?
Assuring the shivering Gopas of immediate protection and to send a strong signal to Indra, Sri Krishna, barely into His teens, just plucked up the massive Goverdhana mountain with little effort (as if it was just a toadstool) and held it up with a single hand for seven continuous days, not even shifting a foot, affording protection to all the residents, man and beast, of Nandagokulam. And Indra, having found out to his chagrin that his powers were nothing before Sri Krishna’s, stopped the rains and restored normalcy.
It is this episode, of the Lord having held a huge umbrella over His devotees, which comes in for generous praise from all Azhwars.
Listen, for instance, to Sri Andal-“kundru kudayAi edutthAi guNam pOttri! – குன்று குடையாய் எடுத்தாய் குணம்போற்றி”
Azhwars are so enamoured of the episode, of the little Lord having held a massive mountain with His single palm for seven days together, to protect unlettered cowherds and dumb cows and calves, that they recount it time and again in their outpourings.
“malayai edutthu kal mAri kAtthu pasu nirai tannai
tolaivu tavirttha PirAn”
“மலையை எடுத்துக்கல் மாரி
காத்துப் பசுநிரை தன்னைத்
தொலைவு தவிர்த்த பிரானைச்
சொல்லிச்சொல் லிநின்றுஎப் போதும்
தலையினொடு ஆதனம் தட்டத்
தடுகுட்ட மாய்ப்பற வாதார்
அலைகொள் நரகத்து அழுந்திக்
கிடந்துஉழக் கின்ற வம்பரே.”
says Sri Nammazhwar too.
However, I am forgetting the most obvious thing that comes to our mind, when we talk about Umbrellas—they are the ones that Sri Varadaraja sports magnificently over His majestic head, on the day of the GarudOtsavam. These umbrellas are indeed stately specimens of their species– broad, wide and fitting in every way to the Paramapurusha they serve. We are told by Sri DoddayAchAr Swamy that these umbrellas are studded with precious stones, with their sides decorated by pearls. It is indeed a great sight to witness Sri Devadiraja adorned by these umbrellas.
A great roar of devotion rends the air, as Sri TEpperumAL , in all His majesty and splendour, with a prasanna vadanam, with the chAmarAs waving gently, resplendent under the famous umbrellas adorned with pearls and precious stones, appears at the temple entrance, ensconced on Sri Garuda.
It would appear that there is close competition between Sri Adisesha and Sri Garuda, as to who would serve as an umbrella to the Lord. For, during Sri Krishnavatara, Sri Andal tells us that VainatEya circled overhead when the little Lord was tending to cows in the meadows of Brindavanam, protecting the Paramatma from the blazing Sun and thereby preventing His already dark body from acquiring a deeper shade of black—
“mElAl paranda veyil kAppAn Vinatai siruvan siragennum
mElAppin keezh varuvAnai VirundAvanattE kaNdOmE”
It goes to the credit of the Umbrella that it is one of the items to be offered to the Lord during daily worship or TiruvArAdhanam.
All of us may be having any number of umbrellas at home: we need, however, to acquire one more—one which would afford us comprehensive protection against a heat more cruel than that generated by the Sun and more penetrating than mere torrents of rain. This is the unbearable heat spawned by SamsAra, the unending and vicious cycle of births and deaths.
Prapatti or Saranagati is the only umbrella, which can afford us the shade of comfort against this heat. Once we surrender ourselves heart and soul to the Lord, He gifts us this protective umbrella of “abhayam”, providing us safety and security while we are in this mundane land and unimaginable bliss at the end of this birth.
This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore