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.