Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
Ageing is a continuous process. Every day we grow a little older. The progression is so slow and inconspicuous that we realize our having aged, only when the neighbour’s small boy starts calling us “ThAtthA”, instead of the customary “MamA” that we are used to. Age simply creeps up on us like a slow, inexorable and incurable disease.
Sri Dasarata was aware of age having caught up with him only when he detected a white hair on his head. We see others, our relatives or acquaintances, slowly being transformed from youth to the prime of their lives and thereafter to old age: but even the obvious ageing of our contemporaries does not arouse in us the realisation that we too are getting older. Many people have a curious reluctance to acknowledge the advance of age, and continue to retain the vestiges of youth by artificially clinging on tothe original colour of their hair and facial vegetation. Instances are also not infrequent, of people going in for cosmetic surgeries to hang on to the appearance of youth, even in middle or old age. All these, however, can at best be temporary palliatives, which appear to delay the onset of old age.
The socially correct terminology for an aged person is “Senior Citizen”, which expresses society’s regard for the elderly man and its acknowledgement of his past contributions. It is interesting to note that Shastras use the term “Seniority” to mean more things than just old age. The Sanskrit word “Vriddha:” refers to an old person. The term “Vriddha:” is used in three senses in Srimad Ramayanam.
The first usage is in the obvious sense, of age-“VayO vriddha:”. It is said that Sri Dasarata’s reign lasted sixty thousand years. And only when he espied grey hairs on his head did Sri Dasarata became concerned at his lack of progeny to carry on the distinguished line of succession in the IkshvAku Dyansty.
When a person gracefully accepts the advance of old age and accordingly adopts a suitable lifestyle, he invites the respect and regard of all around him, who look up to him for guidance and moral support. It should be realised that old people carry with them a lifetime of experience, that comes to one only with age. During this lifetime, they see, hear and experience so much that they become a walking encyclopaedia of do’s and don’ts. The joint family system, when in vogue, had much to offer, asthe elders in the family were able to guide the young ones in all sorts of tricky situations calling for moral and material judgement. The aged members of the family were especially careful in ensuring that their descendants did not commit the same mistakes as they did, thus preventing the young ones from learning things the hard way.
The second type of “Vriddha:” refers to those who have acquired seniority by their exceptional knowledge-“GnAna vriddhA:” Of the two types of seniority dealt with so far, that acquired by old age is attained automatically, without any effort on one’s part, as part of the processes of nature. It is with us one day, willy nilly. However, the second type of seniority, “GnAna vArddhikyam”, requires a lot of concentrated effort in its acquisition. When we talk of “GnAna”, we mean, naturally, the type of knowledge that aids us in liberation, and not the mundane education (“sumayAna kalvigaL”), which helps us only in amassing material fortunes, which are but mere baubles, compared to the endless bliss that awaits the seeker after emancipation. “sA vidyA ya vimukatayE” says the Scripture, acknowledging as wisdom only that which helps in deliverance.
Though one would expect the two types of seniority (one attributable to old age and the other to wisdom), to be concomitant, it is often not so. Old age and wisdom are not synonymous, in many cases. We find several people who have gone through a long life without acquiring the wisdom and maturity that should be the hallmark of a good life. Like the proverbial rolling stone, they do not gather the moss of wisdom in their journey through life. Despite opportunities aplenty, they do not care to seek out an Acharya and to learn about themselves, their real mission in life, the trick of getting out of Samsara and its recurring miseries and the everlasting bliss that could be theirs, if only they would just ask. AjAmiLa’s is one such instance of a wasted lifetime, irrespective of what happened tohim at the end.
It is perhaps to demonstrate that wisdom has nothing to do with age, that the Lord has blessed us with the likes of Sri Dhruva ,Sri Prahlada and ParIkshit Maharaja, who acquired the knowledge that matters in their infancy. Blessed with ParamAtma gnAnam early on, they built painstakingly upon their good fortune to become models of wisdom. Sri Prahlada, despite his unflattering antecedents, was able to shake off the genetic influences and the immediate threats from his powerful father to state with conviction that Sri Hari was the only one worth worshipping. He is mentioned reverently even by the Shruti—“PrahrAdhO ha vai KAyAdhava”.
Sri Dhruva, whatever his driving motive, was so focussed on his penance, that the Lord had to appear before him. And Sri ParIkshit, knowing full well that he had only seven more days to live, chose to spend those days in listening to the divine exploits of the Lord, rather than in the innumerable pleasures he could have enjoyed for the asking.
If it is any consolation to us, such “gnAna vriddhAs”, however, are rare to come across, as the LordHimself acknowledges in the Gita-
“bahoonAm janmanAm anthE gnAnavAn mAm prapadyathE
VAsudEva: sarvam iti sa mahAtmA sudurlabha:”
However, it is the seniors in wisdom that the Lord considers equal to Himself and treats with deep appreciation – “GnAnI tu Atmaiva mE matam”
Difficult as it might be, we have to make the effort to acquire this gnAna, for, this is what distinguishes us from the other species in the Lord’s Creation. A person bereft of such effort is no better than an animal, says the Scripture—
“GnAnEna heena: pasubhi: samAna:” . The purport is that having been blessed with a human body with its immense potential for upliftment, if we were to use it as a mere instrument for eating, drinking and making merry, without making any effortto rid ourselves of Karmic bondage, we would be hardly different from animals,who have no such opportunity for emancipation.
Further examples of “GnAna vArddhikyam” or seniority by virtue of wisdom, are the GOpis of Nandagokulam, who had acquired, at a very young age, the wisdom of the eternal relationship between the Paramatma and ourselves, (SEshatva gnAnam) which is on display in various pasurams of Thiruppavai-
“unakkE nAm AtcheyvOm, mattrai nam kAmangaL mAttru”
“nee kuttrEval engaLai koLlAmal pOgAdhu”
“NarayananE namakkE parai tharuvAn”.
“untannOdu uravEl namakku ingozhikka ozhiyAdu”
The third type of seniority is that displayed through Good Conduct. Those who possess this attribute are known as “Sheela vriddhA:” One would be under themistaken impression that wisdom automatically begets good conduct. This need not always be so. We may find vidvAns renowned for their scriptural knowledge sadly lacking in putting what they know into practice. Such dichotomy between precept and practice makes their distinction dubious. Whatever wisdom we acquire would be meaningful only if put it into actual practice. GnAnam should always beget “anushttAnam”. If a vidwan , master of four Shastras, doesn’t perform Sandhyavandanam or Brahma Yagyam, the knowledge acquired by him is indeed weighty in the real sense of the word and is burdensome. Conversely, one need not be well read in the scriptures to adopt good conduct. There are innumerable instances of this-Sri Shabhari, Sri GuhapperumaL, et al.
SadhAchAram or good conduct is to be acquired by emulating elders, who serve as role models.
“Yat yat Acharati shrEshtta: tat tat Eva itarO jana:
Sa yat pramANam kurutE lOka: tat anuvartatE”
Says the Gita, emphasising the need for taking a leaf out of the conduct of good people. This is all the more necessary because rules of conduct differ from time to time, place to place and from person to person, though there are some basic conventions of conduct which never change. In such scenarios, where we are in doubt as to the right course of conduct, all we have to do is to look for precedents set by exemplars like the Lord and His devotees. Laying down that it is the conduct of great people which shows us the right direction, Sri Rama says,
“Dharmasya tatvam nihitam guhAyAm……mahAjanA yEna gatA: sa panttA:”
Thus the best way to acquire seniority with respect to good conduct is to follow the right type of leaders-Acharyas.
From all the above, it would appear that the only seniority attainable without much effort is that by virtue of age, while the other two categories are difficult to achieve. Lest we should despair, our great Acharyas, both past and present, have shown us that a combination of age, wisdom and good conduct is not impossible of attainment.
We are told that Sri Ramanuja lived to be a ripe old 120 years. He acquired wisdom beyond his age when he was quite young and kept building on it till his last breath. And as for sadAchAra, he set sterling examples by his impeccable personal conduct. In his 120th year, Guruparampara has it that he stood up with difficulty, with support from his disciples and performed “arghyapradAnam”, demonstrating for posterity the need for adherence to one’s dharma, irrespective of age and other constraints. Swami Desikan is another Acharya who could attain gnAna, sheela and vayo vArdhikyam, and spent his entire life in the acquisition and propagation of right knowledge and right conduct, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice and inconvenience. Ifwe eulogize our Acharyas as “Peerless Preceptors”, it is because they not only laid down the precept but themselves followed it too, without exception.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore