Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
While at school, I was not particularly good at Maths (“Were you particularly good at any other subject?” mocks my conscience, inconveniently waking up from its usual deep slumber). The subject did not stir any intellectual excitement in me. I belonged to the class of plodding and laborious students, to whom mathematical concepts and problems of the VII standard become somewhat comprehensible only when they reach the VIII standard and so on. However, once I stepped into college, I developed a fascination for numbers, which led to my scoring a centum in both the mathematical papers (my sister rather uncharitably attributed this to a valuer who was both blind and over-generous). And after the first year of college, I migrated to the Commerce stream, bidding good bye to Maths (much to the relief of my Maths Professor).
However, whether or not one is good at Maths, Numbers plague one constantly, right from birth to death. We constantly have to reckon, calculate and compute, whether it is for the simple purpose of finding out whether the shop-keeper has short-changed us or for balancing our domestic monthly budgets (which have an uncanny knack of never balancing despite all your assiduous efforts). So, willy-nilly, we have to make friends with these numbers. And once you get to know them well, you find that they hold a fascination which is all their own. They speak to you in all sorts of ways, conveying information that is both astonishing and enlightening. And when applied to the field of spiritual literature, numbers are no less versatile and enable us to appreciate the boundless beauty and auspicious attributes of the Lord and of His bounties.
In this series, we have so far seen the beauty of integers like four, five, six, seven and twenty-six. We shall now look into the glories of Number 8, which appears to be no less significant than its numerical companions.
When you look around, what you find is the Directions. Normally, when you are asked how many directions there are, you would reply offhand that they are four—North, South, East and West. However, there are four more subsidiary directions, viz., North East, South East, North West and South West, making in all Eight Directions. These subsidiary directions or “Avaantara dishaa:” as they are called, are respectively Eesaanyam, Vaayavyam, Aagneyam and Nirruti. ”Chatasro disha: chatasro avaantara dishaa:” says the Shruti, confirming that directions are eight in number. And during the process of Creation, where did these directions originate from? From the Lord’s ears, says the Purusha Sooktam—“Padbhyaam Bhoomi: disha: shrotraat”. Incidentally, the four principal directions are associated with four Vedas—Rg Veda with East, Yajur Veda with South, Atharva Veda with West and Saama Veda with North. This we learn from the Kaataka Prasnam—“Richaam praachee mahatee dik uchyate, Dakshinaam aahu: Yajushaam apaaraam, Atharvanaam Angirasaam Prateechee, Saamnaam udeechee mahatee dik uchyate”.
Sri Nammazhwar is emphatic that all worship should be addressed to only Sriman Narayana and all flowers should be used only for adorning Him. In an avaricious mindset for appropriating all available flowers for the Lord’s worship, Azhwar says that flowers not only from one’s own garden, but brought from all the eight directions should be used in the Lord’s worship—“En thisayum ulla poo kondu etthi ugandu ugandu”. And such worship would afford us infinite bliss, Azhwar avers.
These eight directions are guarded by eight deities known as the Ashta Dik Paalakaas.
Gods ruling the eight sides are –Indra, (East), Agni (Southeast), Yama (South), Nirriti (Southwest), Varuna (West), Kubera (North) and Eesaana (Northeast). However, according to the Manu Smriti, they are—
7. Varuna and
The Manusmriti tells us that the King is the personification of these eight deities—
“Soma Agni Arka Anila Indraanaam Vitta Ap patayo: Yamasya cha
Ashtaanaam Lokapaalaanaam vapu: dhaarayate Nripa:”
There is a further group of Deities which is eight in number—The Vasus. Along with the eleven Rudras and the twelve Aadityas, they make up the deities who are propitiated during Pitru karmaas. And if we add the two Asvinee Devaas, the aforesaid Devatas make up the famed group of thirty-three major deities, as enumerated by Azhwar—“Enmar padinoruvar oriruvar eeraruvar”. It is interesting to note that Azhwar’s recital follows the order laid down in the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad, which poses a question as to who are the principal 33 Devas and comes up with the following answer: “Ete trayastrimsatvena Devaa iti, katame te trayastrimsat iti, ashtou Vasava: ekaadasa Rudraa: dvaadasa Aadityaa: te ekatrimsat Indraschaiva Prajaapatischa trayastrimsou iti”. In this count, Indra and Prajaapati are included in the place of the two Asvinee Devas. The importance of Vasus among these 33 can be gauged by the fact that both the Upanishad and Azhwar mention them first as “Enmar” (the group of eight).
According to the Upanishad, these eight Vasus are the following:
2. Earth or Prithivee
Here is the Upanishad slokam—“Katame Vasava: iti, Agnischa Prithiveecha Vaayuscha Antarikshancha Aadityascha Dyouscha Chandramaascha Nakshatraani cha ete Vasava:”
According to the Mahabharata, the names of the Eight Vasus are as follows:
“Dharo Dhruvascha Somascha Ahascha Anilo Anala:
Pratyooshascha Prabhaasascha Vasava: ashtou prakeertitaa:”
Of these eight Vasus, who is the first and foremost? The Lord answers this in the Bhagavat Gita, telling us that among Vasus, He is Agni—“Vasoonaam Paavakaschaasmi”. Agni occupies a pride of place among Vasus on account of his origin from the holiest of sources—the Lord’s face (“Mukhaat Indrascha Agnischa”—Purusha Sooktam)—and also because he is the conveyor of sacrificial offerings to the other Devatas. These Ashta Vasus were the grandchildren of the Creator, the four-headed Brahmaa and the progeny of the Prajaapatis created by Brahmaa and entrusted with the task of populating the world, says the Mahabharata—
“Pitaamaha: muni: Deva: tasya putra: Prajaapati:
Tasya Ashtou Vasava: putraa: teshaam vakshyaami vistaram”
The Eight-Armed Lord
How many hands has the Lord? The immediate answer would be “Four”, for, is He not acclaimed in the Sahasranaama Stotram as “Chatur baahu:” and “Chatur bhuja:”?
Well, correct though this answer might be, at times Emperuman sports Eight hands. Do we have scriptural support for this? Yes indeed, says the Bhaagavata Puraanam. When Daksha Prajaapati performed penance seeking inspiration for the task of creation, the Lord appeared before Him with eight long and beautiful hands hanging down like the branches of a great tree, with His holy feet thrown over the broad shoulders of Garuda—
“ Krita paada: Suparnaamse pralamba ashta mahaabhuja:”
Daksha Prajaapati was not the only fortunate beneficiary of this wonderful spectacle of the Lord sporting eight hands. Even the Prachetaas, performing hard and sincere penance under water, were rewarded with the stupendous sight of Emperuman, ensconced on Garuda and sporting eight beautiful arms, with Sri Mahalakshmi adorning His chest—
“Peenaayata ashta bhuja mandala madhya Lakshmyaa spardhat Shriyaa parivruto Vanamaalaayadya:
Barhishmata: Purusha aaha sutaan prasannaan parjanya naadarutayaa saghrunaavaloka:”
We mortals need not be envious of these worthies who had the extreme good fortune to have seen the Lord with eight hands. Due to His boundless mercy and soulabhyam, even today Emperuman favours us with this magnificent spectacle, with eight glorious hands, at the divya desam of Ashtabhujakaram at Kaancheepuram. Swami Desikan was so much taken in with this unusual and indescribable form of the Lord that he composed a stotram on Him, known as the Ashta Bhujaashtakam in eight beautiful verses. Emperuman presents Himself before Tirumangai Azhwar, in all His splendour and magnificence, tall and handsome, resembling a beautiful dark cloud, eight weapons adorning His eight hands, with broad, black eyes resembling just-bloomed lotuses, displaying all His charm and rendering Azhwar speechless with stupefaction. When Azhwar recovers from his trance, he wonders who this brilliant and beautiful entity could be. Emperuman identifies Himself to Azhwar as being the native of Ashtabhujam—“Atta bhuya karatten endraare!”. One of the unparallelled attributions Azhwar reserves for this Emperuman is “Sentamizh paaduvaar taam vanangum Devar”.
Normally, the Lord holds five weapons in His hands—“sadaa Panchaayudhee bibhrat sa na: Sriranga Naayaka:” However, at Ashttabhujakaram, He sports eight weapons. These eight are enumerated by Azhwar thus—“Sempon ilangu valankai vaali, tin silai, tandodu, shankam, ol vaal, umbar iru sudar aazhiyodu Ketakam on malar pattri”.The Lord thus holds eight items in His beautiful hands—
1. A golden arrow
2. The sturdy bow Saarngam
3. A Cudgel
4. The Cosmic Conch Paanchajanyam
5. The Sharp Sceptre Naandakam
6. The Divine Discus Sudarsanam
7. A Shield and
8. A just-bloomed flower.
The Bhagavata Purana tells us that when the Lord appeared before the Prachetaas, pleased with their focused and hard penance under water, He did so with eight weapons in His beautiful hands, dazzling everyone with His brilliance—
“Kaasishnunaa kanaka varna vibhooshanena bhraahjat kapola vadano vilasat kireeta:
Ashtaayudhai: anucharai: munibhi: surendrai: aasevito Garuda kinnara geeta keerti:”
Swami Desikan pays tribute to Sri Sudarsana Azhwaan, who too holds eight weapons in His beautiful hands, in Paramata Bhangam—“En padai endi nindraan ezhilaazhi Iraivane”
According to the Vishnu Dharmottara Puranam, the eight-armed Trivikrama holds and blows the Conch with two of the hands, while the others hold a Cudgel (Dandam), Noose (Paasam), Discus (Sudarsanam), Mace (Koumodakee) Shankham and Lotus.
The Vishnu Kosha tells us that there is a eight-armed Rajagopala too, the Prince of Cowherds, with two of the normal hands playing the flute and the other hands carrying a Lotus, an Axe (Parasu) and Discus on the right side and a Sugar-cane stalk, Noose and Conch on the left side. The drawn image in the book, of this Rajagopala, is extremely enchanting and I regret being unable to reproduce the same here for your enjoyment. There is a eight-armed Venugopala too depicted in the Ratham of the Suchindram temple, who is breath-takingly beautiful.
Apart from Ashtabhuhjakaram, Emperuman is to be seen with eight hands at Coimbatore too, where we have quite an old sannidhi of a magnificent Trivikrama and where Srimad Injimettu Azhagiasingar observed a Chaaturmaasyam.
Kriyaadhikaara speaks of an eight-armed Nrisimha, with the normal right hand assuming the gesture of protection, the other three hands on the right carrying the discus, the dart and the sword, while the four hands on the left hold the conch, bow, sword and the mace.
At Tirunagari (near Seerkaazhi) too, Sri Nrisimha sports eight hands, as Ashta bhuja Nrisimha.
The Vishnu Dharmottara Puraanam protrays a eight-armed Hayagreeva, with four of His beautiful white hands holding the Shankham, Charkram, Gadaa and Padmam, while four other hands hold the four Vedas, picturised as four children.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore