Friday, 11 October 2013

Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa – XIII

Bibek Debroy challenges preconceived notions of what a mantra is and what it can do for you in this no punches pulled blog post of Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa. Do they need to be pronounced properly to be effective? Do you need to understand the meaning? What does the mantra do to your mind? How does it change you? Where does the word derive from etymologically - and what are the implications of that? Read on for a candid airing, and do share your views. You can leave a comment, or connect with Bibek on Twitter @bibekdebroy

ॐ जयन्ती मङ्गला काली भद्रकाली कपालिनी। दुर्गा क्षमा शिवा धात्री स्वाहा स्वधा नमोऽस्तुते॥  It’s that time of the year, when the goddess is worshipped in many parts.  We have a family friend, who has faced some personal problems.  She came to visit us recently and told us she went a met a “guru”.  The “guru” advised her to recite this “mantra” before she went to sleep and that the “mantra” was remarkably successful. 

I tend to think of any “guru” in the following way.  Suppose a student comes to me and wants a reading list in Economics.  Before I can give a reading list, I need to figure out how much the student knows, what his/her capacity is.  My “instructions”, so to speak, will be a function of that knowledge.  Whether it’s Economics, or whether it is spirituality and religion, that’s a good guru’s role.  Having said this, I was extremely puzzled by the guru’s choice of the mantra.  I don’t need to translate the shloka.  Those are different names for the goddess.  I am not even very sure the guru knows where this “mantra” is from.  It is something called the अर्गला स्तोत्रम्.  अर्गल or अर्गला is a bolt or latch on a door.  So this “mantra” is a bit like opening the bolt on the door.  It is not the main mantra.  You are supposed to move on to the main mantra.  Just so that you have the facts, this stotram is taken from something called “Durga Saptashati”, which is taken from something called “Chandi”, which is taken from the Markandeya Purana.  And though stated by the sage Markandeya, this stotram was composed by the sage Vishnu.
What’s my problem with this mantra?  The argala stotram has 25 shlokas.  And once the two preliminary shlokas are out of the way, there is the familiar and constant refrain, occurring in every shloka. रुपं देहि जयं देहि यशो देहि द्विषो जहि. “Give me beauty.  Give me victory.  Give me fame.  Slay my enemies.”  Give, give, give.  I don’t think this is especially conducive to peace and tranquility of mind.  If you ask for all those things and don’t get them, you are likely to be extremely miserable.  Right towards the end of the argala stotram, you also have पत्नीं मनोरमां देहि मनोवृत्तानुसारिणीम्.  Translated a bit loosely, “Give me a beautiful wife, whose conduct will be such as to follow my inclinations.”  Therefore, feminism apart, I am not even very sure a lady should be reciting this.  I told our friend to recite Adi Shankaracharya’s भवान्यष्टकम् instead, the one that has the refrain गतिस्त्वं गतिस्त्वं त्वमेका भवानि.  I am sure she won’t listen.  Why should she?  I am not a “guru” and she has found peace.  She goes to sleep easily.  The fact of the matter is that I think she would have gone to sleep even if she had recited “Baa Baa Black Sheep” 108 times instead.
There is a story about a holy man who came to a village.  An aged brahmana couple lived in that village and husband and wife kept on quarreling, as they had for decades.  There was poverty to reckon with.  Every morning, the husband would venture out, to work as a priest and find something to eat.  He would return in the evening, often with nothing.  And a quarrel would break out.  Finally, in desperation, the wife went to the holy man.  He gave her some magic water in a bottle and told her, as soon as she heard her husband’s footsteps in the evening, to put three drops of that magic water on her tongue and recite a mantra.  Lo and behold.  The quarrels stopped.  After a month, the magic water ran out and the wife went in haste to the holy man, to ask for some more.  The holy man refused.  There was no more magic water.  As you will have guessed, there was no magic in that water at all.  When the wife placed three drops of water on her tongue and recited a mantra, her instinctive angry words were checked.  
There is a Sanskrit verse that begins, अमन्त्रं अक्षरं नास्ति.  अक्षर can be both letter and syllable, the purport being that there is no letter/syllable that cannot be a mantra.  What does the word mantra mean?  Depending on what I do with the etymology, it means something that frees the mind (contrived from trayate), or something that is a tool (from tra) or instrument for focusing the mind.  Some mantras are believed to have special mystical properties.  Even if they do, and I have no particular view on that, this is presumably a function of correct pronunciation, which we rarely do.  For most of us, mantras, whether it is the gayatri mantra or the maha mrityunjay mantra or something else, the mantra is a tool and no more.  And thus, any letter or syllable is good enough.  However, I also think that before we recite a mantra, we should at least know the meaning, without necessarily being a Sanskrit pandit.

This time of the year is not only about the goddess, it is also about asuras.  Our sacred texts use the words asura, daita and danava synonymously.  Daityas are descended from Diti (married to the sage Kashyapa), danavas are descended from Danu (also married to the sage Kashyapa) and asuras are antitheses of suras or gods.  But let’s use the words synonymously.  Not all asuras were bad and some of them were deceived and lost their kingdoms and riches.  Did you know that Shanti Parva (the Moksha Dharma part) has instructions given by such asuras (Bali, Namuchi, Prahlada/Prahrada) to Indra?  Indra essentially wanted to laugh at these asuras, given their loss of prosperity and his gain of prosperity and kingdom.  He was extremely surprised to find that they were perfectly cheerful.  Next time, I will tell you a little bit about what these asuras told him.


Sanjeev Shukla said...

Well written article, & necessary in times of frauds & charlatans masquerading as Gurus, but it presents a limited perspective. Mantras are a vast science. Your friend's Guru may or may not have been a fraud. But while you are a mystic in essence, your learning appears book learning/logic driven, rather than experience driven. This is the difference between Ramakrishna & Hazra.
1. First, while this may be counter-intuitive, according to tantric tradition, the meaning of the mantras is less important than the chanting itself. Each syllable of the Devanagri alphabet corresponds to a petal of a psychic center (chakra) in terms of the psychic physiology (e.g. Mooladhara/Ajnya). As energising each petal of a psychic center has an effect on our being, chanting these syllables in a certain order repeatedly creates & amplifies an effect, which creates an aura. The aura/effect may be connected with health, wealth, detachment, enmity, friendship, sorrow or connection with an aspect of divinity. Repeated chanting of the mantras in a particular scientific or ritualistic manner (puruscharana) leads to fructification of chanting practice on lines of the objective identified. These series of syllables were conceived/ visualized by rishis or seers & codified as mantras. The Rishis first identified the series of syllables & then 'reverse engineered' the meaning to align with some of the potential benefits of the mantra.
This is why meaning of mantras like the Mahamrityunjaya don't make complete sense. If the Mahamrityunjaya is for health why don't we just chant "Swaasthya Dehi Maam" or something like that? Why the convoluted meaning?
2. Second, it is believed that most people persevere for spiritual emancipation, when basic needs are satisfied. Which is why so many of the vedic & tantric mantras are not about spiritually lofty objectives, but about addressing the disturbances in life & providing a 'full' life. Try selling 'Moksha' to a person suffering from Oral Cancer. Mantric invocations to the Devi also focus on creating a sanskar of health /protection /fullness /wellness /auspiciousness as a foundation for spiritual sadhana. 'Roopam Dehi, Jayam Dehi, Yasho Dehi, Dvishojahi' is in the same vein. So let it be with the mantra. You are correct that the Argala Stotram is not the main mantra, but it is a supporting or foundation mantra for creating the sanskara/aura. It is true that those who attain these fundamental sanskaras do not necessarily perform spiritual sadhana, & it is also true that those who don't attempt to create these sanskaras may more effectively pursue spiritual sadhana. But the tantric science is systematic & sure to bear fruit.
3. In the tantric concept, bhava (devotion), psychic syllables & belief can together or individually create the explosion, & all together they are most wonderful. Hence, the rishis would reverse engineer mantras to align meaning with effect to create faith. Otherwise certain gurus prescribe only a series of syllables & not a conventional mantra, which has a meaning. But where do you find such gurus?
Bhavanyashtakam is wonderful, & so is the Argalastotram, but the Argalastotram is fundamentally a tantric invocation. I see your level of knowledge on it is significant, yet you do not appear to have experienced the effect of Argala or purushcharana. It is possible that the friend would have experienced the same effects with 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' 108 times due to faith or devotion. But tantra is a science of cause & effect; faith can only intensify or restrict the effect/or accelerate or delay the effect - but it cannot replace the effect inherent in the tantric practice.
4. A lot has been made of correct pronunciation of mantras for effect. I agree with this, but I believe a range of pronunciations address the objectives & there are many other components to the sadhana as well.

Rohini Bakshi said...

I don't normally comment on my own blog, but this article of Bibek's impels me to. It made me think of gender inequality. If a woman should not be chanting the shloka like 'give me a 'good' wife, what should she be chanting?

Not that gender inequality is unique to Hinduism (we've all seen the usual list of 'women in the Vedas') Neither the Buddha, nor Jesus allowed women in their clergy/sangha. In fact gender bias in profane Western Literature only began to be addressed in the mid to late 20th Century. And not that it's germane to this discussion, but women didn't have the vote in Switzerland till 1978.

So what is the solution for the devout Hindu woman today? All stotra phala-shrutis inform her that the nara or pumaan who does this puja will benefit with cattle, children and a 'good' wife. The mritasanjeevani stotra (and many others I'm sure) ask for protection of the sutaan, and bhAryA. Does that mean the stotra is irrelevant to a woman? Or that she should pretend that she's reading it on behalf of her husband?

Well, I was deeply offended as a kid by these things. Clearly the texts were written by a male elite for a male audience. I stopped reading the Shiv Puran when I reached the bit which says nara/pumaan will benefit from the reading and even abandoned the Gita in my first reading when I read Arjuna's views in 1:39-43 about the 'horrors' intermixing of castes and corruption of women.

But I'm a lot older now and perhaps a tiny bit wiser. The way I see it, Hinduism has always re-invented itself, and adjusted to new socio-political scenarios. But there's bound to be a time lag, and needs enough agitation for change (e.g. animal sacrifice to vegetarianism). So, much like the 'feminists' (both male and female) who took it upon themselves to re-cast 'he' as he/she, his/her, or use the plural to circumvent gender altogether, I choose to re-interpret nara/pumaan as standing for 'human being'; and I take bhAryA to stand for 'spouse'. Then the texts speaks to me directly.

Rather than judge the faith by it's textual presentation, my devotion is firm in the belief that it's only a matter of time before gender equality becomes a part of the texts.

Anonymous said...

@Sanjeeva Shukla:

Sir, its true that repeated chanting of Mantra's in a specified order can do a lot of wonders but, then,i guess, Kalidasa was not a tantric, nor did he know any mantra's or, for that matter, their meanings and yet attained unparalleled Spiritual heights. Didn't he? Thats called "Bhakti". Bhakti has no side-effects. On the contrary, the tantric methods, if not adhered properly can be fatal.

Also, Devi need not be worshipped for Moksha only. One can very well worship Devi for Bhautik sukh and get health, wealth and its very very well accepted in Hinduism. Message here, to my mind, is that whatever wealth one attains should be put for the cause of Dharma.

A Seeker

Mihir jha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vijaygkg said...

I don't disagree that you can re interpret words in the scriptural texts (and there are many) but one must draw a line between interpretation and reworking or versioning a text. I don't think that's your intention. I would also go a bit further. That in the matters related to ritual/ceremony,etc if women perceive themselves to be playing an inferior role,they ought to accept it anyway,out of respect for tradition that does nothing to harm them (well,other than a grouse against the ritual).
I would like to put this in a broader perspective too. Too often,modern hindus have fallen into the trap of reworking ritual or qualification to ritual as a panacea to eradicate perceived social wrong. The debates on whether a dalit ought to be able to be a brahmin or the position of a shudra are suchlike.
In my opinion,if a dalit or shudra denied certain forms of ritual,he/she ought to accept it gracefully. It does not diminish his position in daily life,since in a legal/social sense,she/he is fully equal and emancipated to pursue his/her life. There's no reason to mangle ritual to heal their psyche. The very fact that independent remedies outside of mangling ritual tradition have been applied to give full rights to each is reason enough for them to not feel vindictive or reinterpret narrow ritual.
On the other hand,outside of ritual,you are free as a person to interpret,apply or not apply any scripture to living your daily life,subject to the proscriptions on you by law. For example,you may choose to believe certain provisions of the manusmriti,but are not equally free to apply it in your daily practice.
So we shd be changing the nature of the debate rather than seeking to retrofit scriptural or traditional texts or ritual to suit your modern fancies and values,which may wax/wane as you go along.
I think this is a more durable framework and philosophy than attacking or changing texts or rituals already existing

Rohini Bakshi said...

Thank you for your comment. And you are right – my intention is not to rework, revise or ‘re-version’ the Scriptures. But you’re missing a critical point that I tried to make all day yesterday – obviously not very well!! – That Hinduism has a tradition of reassessing socio-political realities and adding to the corpus of text – even if it means altering an earlier point of view. If that were not the case, the Upanishads would never have been written after the Brahmanas. The shrauta sutras would never have been written after the Upanishads. Shiva and Vishnu would never have become supreme deities after Indra, Agni and Soma. For that matter Indra would not have become supreme after Varuna.
Far from rejecting the older texts, Hinduism has a way of retaining the old and amalgamating the new, recasting old ideas, bringing some to the fore and leaving some in the background - to suit new situations. So, far from rejecting any of the texts, all I’m saying is in this day and age, it is a requirement that women and other disenfranchised sections of society be given recognition by the creation of new texts that reflect modern realities. There is nothing ‘new’ about new texts in Hinduism, as I have explained above.
As for accepting inequality ‘gracefully’ or out of respect for tradition, I totally disagree with you. Swami Vivekananda was an outspoken proponent of women empowerment. Somehow after him no one seems to have championed the cause. Our political leaders men and women alike show absolutely no will to change the situation. I think that religion can take the lead and make the difference.

vijaygkg said...

I don't disagree with your views entirely as mine are not yet clear,and yes,new scripture/commentary is the right way to go,but obviously a fairly daunting task intellectually that could stand the test of time. And yes,few scriptures are considered entirely infalliable,other than the veda

Unknown said...

nice post! Thanks for providing the complete information of navarathri festival, During this festival me and my mother offer prayers to her daily by chanting durga mantra with devotion.