Of Uncles and Aunts – Part 1

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Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

When we come into this world, we inherit a host of relatives. There are primary relations like our parents and grandparents, elder brothers and sisters. No less important are other relatives, who might be beyond the immediate family circle, but nonetheless play a significant role in our lives and lavish love and affection on us right from childhood. In this category, we have a horde of uncles and aunts.

The English language, for all its expressiveness, is sadly lacking while describing relationships. For instance, our father’s brother, our mother’s brother, our aunt’s husband and a bevy of other relatives are described by the omnibus term “Uncle”. At a family function of Englishmen, if one were to call out “Uncle!”, several heads would turn, each claiming legitimate right to that term. However, ancient languages like Sanskrit and Tamizh have specific words to describe specific relationships. In Tamizh, for instance, the term “Ammaan” or “Maama” principally refers to the maternal uncle, as does the word “Maatula:” in Sanskrit.

However, for the purpose of this article, we shall dismiss all other uncles and concentrate on the Ammaan or maternal uncle, the brother of one’s mother.

I do not know whether we can attempt a generalization, but as far as I have seen, children develop an affinity and kinship with the maternal uncle early on in childhood, which are next only to their relationship with their parents. Have you wondered why this should be so? Well, it is fairly simple. As per Indian traditions, the child is more often born at the house of the mother’s parents-”Pirandagam”. So, in the first few months of its existence, the child is mostly in the arms of its uncle, when it is not with its mother. It is the uncle many a time who carries the child on his shoulders, coos and moos to the baby in its own language and rocks it to sleep, providing a respite to his sister, who is still weak after the delivery. Thus a close bond is formed between uncle and nephew, soon after the child is born. It would be no exaggeration to say that that the uncle is one of the relatives the child sees the most, in the initial few months and thereafter too, depending upon the distance between the parents’ and in-laws’ houses. Srimad Ramayanam tells us that friendship and love develop out of physical proximity-”Sannikarshaat cha souhaardam jaayate stthaavareshvapi”. The relationship does not taper off with the mother leaving for her in-laws’, but continues with periodical visits by the uncle for seeing, cuddling and playing with his new-born nephew or niece.

And when the child completes the first year of its life, it is on the uncle’s lap that it sits, while it has its ears adorned with ear-rings or similar ornaments. The first tonsuring too is done with the child ensconced in its uncle’s lap. And thereafter, when the child starts attending school, the long annual vacations in summer and the shorter ones in winter are often spent at the uncle’s/grandparents’ place, providing further opportunity for the bond of love, affection and camaraderie between uncle and nephew to be cemented further, till the relationship ripens into a life-long and loving one. It is often the uncle who teaches you to play cricket or similar games, takes you out on pleasure rides, tells you engrossing tales and puts you to sleep, often lying on his hairy chest. The boy usually can take much greater liberties with his uncle than with his father: while the latter often insists on absolute discipline and implicit obedience, the uncle is often more liberal, humouring the nephew and permitting quite a lot of license.

And whatever be the function concerning the nephew or niece, whether it is Upanayanam or other all-girls functions, it is the gift from the uncle, “Ammaan seer” that counts the most and is valued as such. This is so at the time of marriage too. And at marriages, uncles play an important part when the bride and the groom exchange garlands. (I wrote the following sometime back in a different context and it appears relevant here too). Quite a few years back, the maternal uncles of the bride and the groom used to officiate over this part of the marriage, each carrying his ward on his shoulders and running back and forth. This is usually a hilarious scene, with the uncles vying with each other in demonstrating their respective skills, making it difficult for the other party to put the garland around the neck of the bride or the groom. This carrying on shoulders was possible and easy, when marriages used to take place between children, or at best adolescents. However, with the current practice of marriages between full-grown adults in their late twenties, the uncles have to grunt and groan while carrying their charges, if at all they venture to undertake the rather risky business. I know of an uncle who, after carrying the rather bulky bride on his shoulders during the garland-exchange, was hospitalized for six months with a prolapsed disc.

Let me stop the general discourse and come to the subject on hand, which is to review the position of uncles as indicated in the scripture.

Often, momentous happenings have their origins in quite insignificant events. Would you believe it if I said that the entire course of Srimad Ramayana would have been different, had it not been for a close uncle-nephew relationship? Rama would not have gone to forest, Dasaratha would not have died, we would not have got acquainted with the great Hanuman, and Vali and Ravana would have lived on, hale and hearty. And the quite innocuous event (which set off the episodes in Ramayana culminating in Ravana’s death and Rama’s delayed coronation), is the taking of Bharata to Kekaya, by his uncle Yudhaajit. In fact, the event is considered so significant by Valmiki, that the Ayodhya kaandam begins with a narrative of Bharata accompanying his uncle to the latter’s place-

“Gacchataa maatula kulam Bharatena tadaa anagha:
Shatrughno nitya shatrughna: neeta: preeti puraskrita:”

Yudhaajit, brother of Kaikeyee and maternal uncle of Bharata, feels that quite a long time had elapsed since he last saw his dear nephew and comes to Ayodhya to take him for a stay at his own place. At his uncle’s palace, Bharata and Shatrughna are showered with avuncular love and affection and provided with whatever they desired. But for this affectionate gesture of Yudhaajit towards his nephew, of taking him away for a vacation in Kekaya, Bharata would have remained at Ayodhya, would have nipped his mother’s machinations in the bud despite Manthara’s misleading, Rama would have become Crown Prince on the appointed date and everyone would have lived happily ever after, but for those affected by Ravana’s misdeeds. You would thus agree that it was his uncle’s single act of taking Bharata away from Ayodhya, that was responsible for all that happened subsequently.

An interesting point to note here is that it was only Bharata who was invited by Yudhaajit. Shatrughna just went along with Bharata, just as Lakshmana accompanied Rama on His mission of protecting Visvaamitra’s yaagam. It was considered but natural for Shatrughna to accompany Bharata, no separate invitation being needed or extended.

There is no mention by name of any uncle in Srimad Ramayana, other than Yudhaajit. However, Sri Rama too must have had an uncle and Kousalya a brother, though we come to know of him only incidentally and indirectly. Rama gives away His possessions on the eve of His departure for vanavaasam,. While gifting His elephant named Shatrunjayam and thousand other pachyderms to one Suyaggya, Rama tells the latter that the majestic animal was a gift to Him from His uncle-

“Naaga: Shatrunjayo naama maatulo yam dadou mama
Tam te gajasahasrena dadaami Dvijapungava!”

It is interesting to note that Bharata’s sons Taksha and Pushkala too had an excellent relationship with their maternal uncle and were protected by him-

“Bharatasya aatmajou veerou Taksha: Pushkala eva cha
Maatulena suguptou tou dharmena cha samaahitou”

Yudhaajit remained Bharata’s benefactor to the very end. Towards the concluding years of Sri Rama’s reign, Yudhaajit sent his messenger to Rama, telling Him of a beautiful country in the custody of Gandharvas, which could be won over easily and annexed to Kosala Desam. Fully understanding what lay behind Yudhaajit’s request, Sri Rama sent Bharata and his sons with a huge army, won over the Gandharvas’ country and enthroned Bharata’s sons there. It is interesting to note here that Sri Rama addresses Yudhaajit as His own uncle, just as He treats Kaikayee as His own mother.

Though the uncles in Ramayana are quite benign towards their nephews, we find a diametrically opposite situation in the Krishnaavataaram. Devaki’s brother Kamsa was the antithesis of the benevolent uncle and had nothing but enmity and hatred towards his sister and her progeny. Though a loving brother initially, Kamsa’s affection turned into ill will, once he was forewarned that one of his sister’s children would be his nemesis. Accordingly, he imprisoned his sister and husband and as each child was delivered, killed it instantly and without mercy. The only infant to escape his custody was Sri Krishna, who managed to flee to Nandagokulam on the very night of His birth. And when he came to know that the eighth child of Devaki had indeed survived, Kamsa sent any number of asuraas to kill Krishna, who, however, proved too much for them. And finally, the dastardly uncle met his end at the hands of his divine nephew.

Initially benign uncles turning hostile later is a phenomenon we come across in the Mahabharata too. Once the battle lines between the Pandavaas and Kouravaas are drawn, uncles who had lavished affection on their nephews found themselves ranged against the latter, due to their alignment with one faction or the other. Arjuna is pained by the prospect of having to kill uncles inter alia and refuses to lift the bow-

“Tatra apasyat stthitaan Paartha: pitrun atha pitaamahaan
Achaaryan Maatulaan bhraatroon putraan poutraan sakheen tathaa”

However, once Arjuna reconciles himself to the prospect of having to slay the near and dear, uncles and nephews clash with vigour, with the uncles dying at times and the nephews at others. Salya was killed by Nakula and a host of other uncles met their ends at the hands of their beloved nephews. However, it is interesting to note that Shakuni was indeed partial to his nephews, the sons of Gaandhaari, devising for them ingenious methods (like gambling) by which they could gain control of Hastinapuram without drawing a single sword and without shedding a drop of blood.

On the other hand, the Mahabharata also narrates a beautiful tale of how a gifted and sincere nephew was able to save not only his uncle but his entire clan from annihilation.

All of us know that Emperor Janamejaya performed a Sarpa Yaagam, the aim of which was to sacrifice serpents in crores, dragging them out from their varied hideouts through appropriate mantras and making them fall in the sacrificial fire, thereby putting an end to the entire species. This yaagam was undertaken by Janamejaya to avenge for the death of his father Pareekshit Maharaja, who was bitten to death by a venomous serpent, Takshaka. The Yaagam had begun and serpents in their hundreds began to fall in the fire. Vaasuki, the King of Serpents, apprehensive of the impending doom, summoned his sister Jaratkaaru and sought the loan of her son Aasteeka, who, even at his young age, had attained the rare wisdom of sages through prolonged penance. Vaasuki explained the situation to his nephew and sought his assistance in saving the clan of serpents. Aasteeka, despite his youth, extended a solemn assurance that he would save Vaasuki from the certain death he was facing. Aasteeka set off to Janamejaya’s palace, the site of the Sarpa Yaagam and paid obeisance to the Emperor and to the Rtviks with such pleasing words that both were impressed at the mature tone and tenor of the young boy’s words. Impressed at the youth’s brahma tejas, the Emperor told him to seek any boons he wished. Promptly, Aasteeka sought the immediate halt of the Sarpa Yaagam. Though Janamejaya tried to tempt the mature boy with alternate bounties like untold riches, power, etc., Aasteeka stood firm in his resolve. Ultimately, the Emperor had to concede Aasteeka’s request and halt the vengeful sacrifice, thus saving the entire species of serpents from total extinction. When he heard the good news, Vasuki too was extremely relieved and pleased with Aasteeka and pressed him to seek boons. Displaying his selflessness and concern for humanity, Aasteeka prayed that whoever thinks of the aforesaid episode in the morning and evening should never face any danger from snakes of any sort. Vasuki granted the boon and the Mahabharata prescribes the following slokas for ridding oneself of fear of snakes:

“Jaratkaaro: Jaratkaarvaam samutpanno mahaayashaa:
Aasteeka: satyasandho maam pannagebhyo abhirakshatu
“Asitam cha Artimantam cha Suneetham chaapi ya: smaret
Divaa vaa yadi vaa raatrou naasya sarpa bhayam bhavet”

Leaving the dreaded serpents, shall we see another glorious set of uncle and nephew, both of whom were mature beyond their years and masters of Vedic wisdom? You must have definitely heard of Svetaketu, (the son of Uddhaalaka Aaruni) to whom the famous vaakyam “Tat tvam asi Svetaketo!” is addressed. Svetaketu had a sister, Sujaatha, who had married a Maharshi by name Kahola. When Sujaata was pregnant, her husband used to recite and learn Vedas by rote, night and day. One night when he was in the midst of such recitation, the child spoke to him from his wife’s womb-”You are no doubt very industrious, but your recitation does not bear evidence of your efforts” (meaning that it was defective). Kahola was extremely angry that an unborn child should presume to pick holes in his adhyayanam and he flung a curse at the foetus, willing it to be born with eight bends in the body. In the meanwhile, Kahola went to the court of the Videha Raaja, entered into debate with an eminent vidvaan who had prescribed death penalty to anyone who lost to him in debate. Kahola was roundly defeated and was drowned in the river, as punishment. The cursed child was born and was known as Ashtaavakra, due to the eight bends in its body. Having mastered Vedic wisdom within a few years, Ashtaavakra and Svetaketu, the nephew and uncle, who were equal in age, went again to Videha Raja’s court, defeated the Vidvaan in debate and rejuvenated Kahola Maharshi. Happy beyond measure at his son’s attainments, Kahola withdrew his curse and asked Ashtaavakra to bathe in the Samangaa River. And lo and behold! all of the boy’s bends disappeared and he became normal. The Vana Parva of Mahabharata contains many wonderful stories like this, each of them illustrating a particular aspect of Dharmam, in all its nuances.

(To be continued)

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