Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
An Achamanam is the simplest of Vaidika karmAs, yet none the less in importance than an AsvamEdha Yagyam. Its importance can be well realised when we note that it forms the prelude to all rituals. No vaidika karma can be begun without an Achamanam.
What is the role of this short, simple act? Its main function is to purify the body and the mind. One may ask: before performing any ritual, we usually bathe well, wear a pure cloth, and apply TirumaN to the forehead and at eleven other places in the body, and are as pure as can be. What indeed is the need for another purificatory act, however short or simple? The answer to this question lies in an analysis of the ritual of Achamanam.
The act consists of sipping water in a cupped palm thrice, to the accompaniment of the mantras ?AchutAya nama:, AnantAya nama: and GovindAya nama:, with the PraNava preceding these nAmAs, and thereafter touching twelve parts of the body with various fingers of the right hand and the palm, chanting twelve holy names of the Lord, all the while keeping the mind fixed on Him. Simple as it may sound, there are many do?s and don?ts relating to this function, some of which are enumerated here.
Some of the don?ts first- Achamanam in not to be done standing up, but always in the “KukkutAsanam” or a hen-like posture, sitting down with the soles of the feet firmly planted on the ground, the hands between the knees.
Achamanam is not to be done facing the west or the south, but always facing the east or the north. Achamanam should not be done with impure or falling water, as from a tap or rain, but usually with water from a river or tank, or from a vessel held in the left hand. When doing this in a river or tank, the left hand should be touching the water.
It should not be performed casually, while speaking to others, wearing a shirt or footwear, with a covered head, with laughter etc., but with devotion, and with the consciousness that one is uttering the holy names of the Almighty, which purify and protect. Nor should it be done while wearing a ?Pavithram?. While performing an achamanam, the pavithram should be kept in the gap between the right ear lobe and the head. This is perhaps meant to avoid the sharp ends of the pavithram hurting the eyes.
Though an Achamanam generally precedes all karmAs, there are specific mentions in the Smritis about the occasions that call for one. These are enumerated below:-
Immediately after waking up in the morning After urination and other forms of excretion After brushing one?s teeth Before and after a bath After wearing clothes As a preliminary to all nitya and naimittika karmAs (daily and occasional rituals) like Sandhyavandanam, Brahmayagyam, Adharashakti tarpanam, VedAdhyayanam, PitrutarpaNam, mantra japam,etc.
Before and after a meal Speaking with or touching Unsuitable persons Before and after giving or accepting alms or donation After sneezing, shedding tears or blood Upon association with contact with women, blood, human hair, fire, cows, cats, mice, refuse, etc. Before and after crossing a river The aforesaid are only indicative occasions for Achamanam and not an exhaustive list.
It is not enough that water is sipped with the mantra- it must reach the heart, and not merely stop with the tongue, mouth or throat. This will be possible only if enough water is taken in the cupped hand. Smritis lay down that the quantum of water should be such that the ?Masha? rEkhA in the palm is immersed. This water is to be conveyed into the mouth via the bottom of the palm, known as the ?Brahma TIrttham?.
It is a measure of this act?s significance that the mantras accompanying it are acclaimed to be the holiest.
The tirunAmAs Achyutha, Ananta, and Govinda are a panacea for all ills, and destroy all disease, however deep-rooted and serious, says Sage Vyasa- ?Achyuta Ananta Govinda nAma ucchAraNa bhEshajAt nasyanti sakalA: rOgA: satyam satyam vadAmyaham? These words come from the mouth of one of the most erudite, venerated sages, who was a master of the Scriptures and the author of the Brahma SutrAs, whose credibility is beyond question. The Achyuta nAmA indicates the Lord?s attachment to His devotees and His promise never to forsake them, especially in times of distress. It is significant that this tirumama has the akAra or the letter A at the very beginning, because the letter alone is considered very auspicious and symbolic of Emperuman (?akAra: Vishnu vAchaka:? ?akArArtthO Vishnu:? etc.)
The Ananta nAma describes Emperuman?s Paratvam or supremacy. He is limitless-unlimited by time, place or object (?dEsa, kAla, vastu paricchEda rAhityam?). He pervades all objects, and is present always at all places. Thus this sobriquet declares that the Lord is capable of protecting His devotees.
The Govinda nAma indicates the Lord’s soulabhyam or accessibility.
The omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient Lord took birth in the midst of unlettered cowherds, sharing fully in their happiness and sorrow, stealing butter like an ordinary greedy mortal child and getting punished for it, etc. If the Lord were to be only supreme and inaccessible, He would not be of much succour to us. On the other hand, if He were to be accessible but not possess omnipotence, He wouldn’t be capable of protecting and preserving us. This unique combination of Paratvam and Soulabhyam makes Emperuman both capable of and inclined to rush to the rescue of souls in distress.
What better evidence of the efficacy of the Govinda nAma do we need, than the episode of the Damsel in Distress-Draupati. When she cried out “Govinda! PundarIkAksha!Raksha mAm sharanAgatAm” the Lord protected her modesty with bales of clothing appearing miraculously to overwhelm even the powerful DucchAsana, intent on disrobing her. Sri LokAchArya goes to the extent of saying: “Draupadikku Apatthil pudavai surandadu tirunAmam irE”( it is indeed the Govinda nAma that saved PanchAli’s modesty – by implication, this denies the credit for this act of protection to the Lord Himself, and ascribes the same to His tirunAmam). The Acharya says that Emperuman’s holy names are more powerful than He Himself is, lauding the comparative greatness of the “Vachaka”( the name) over that of the “VAchyam” ( the possessor of the name). Even when the Lord is too far away to protect us, His hallowed name, if it is on our tongue, will protect us immediately (“avan doorastthan AnAlum idu kiiti nindru udavum”). The combination of the Achyuta, Ananta and Govinda nAmAs has the effect of purifying us bodily and in spirit, of destroying all disease, whether of the body or the soul, of affording us constant protection, and washing away all sin, past, present and future. Thus it is out of their infinite mercy that the Maharshis who authored the various Smritis prescribed Achamanam as a prelude to and as a concluding act to all vaidika karmAs, and even to our daily ablutions.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
to be continued…