This post is an English rendering of my two posts in Tamil elaborating on the invocatory verse of a well known masterpiece of Sanskrit devotional literature called Nārāyaṇīyam by Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri, a scholar of different Indian philosophical systems (darśana-s), and Aṣṭādhyāyin, the descriptive grammar of Pāṇini. I use the word devotion and knowledge in place of the two Sanskrit words bhakti and jñānam respectively.
Bhattathiri lived in the state of Kerala in the sixteenth century CE. He condensed the well-known 18,000-verse epic Bhāgavatam written by the sage Vyāsa, into about 1,000 verses divided into 100 daśakam-s. This devotional work is chanted even today in India to alleviate human suffering due to any bodily disease or dis-ease of the mind.
My introduction to Nārāyaṇīyam
As many of you know, I come from a large family of siblings and cousins. One of my cousins is a great devotee and has been chanting Nārāyaṇīyam for the last two decades. She has been teaching how to chant these verses in Zoom sessions, explaining the meaning as she introduces each daśakam (set of ten verses). She has done special chanting sessions for the health and well-being of members of her extended family and friends.
One incident that happened almost a decade ago: my sister had a recurrence of cancer that had metastasized to her brain. She was gravely ill, I briefly visited her and returned after finding about her terminal stage of cancer. But my cousin did not give up and started special chanting of Nārāyaṇīyam for my sister’s health. By then my sister also agreed to have another risky brain surgery to remove the growth affecting her motor functions, with no guarantee of full recovery since all areas of cancerous growth could not be removed. Miraculously she recovered and was well enough to celebrate her only daughter’s wedding. After about six months she succumbed to cancer.
Our atheists and agnostics may dismiss this incident to be due to chance, but for those who have been raised as believers in a Higher Power, irrespective of their religious persuasion, can easily relate to this.
For example, those among us who know Indian history remember how the first Mogul Emperor Babur (16th century CE), when his son Humayun was seriously ill prayed saying in effect: ‘If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life up in exchange for that of my son Humayun.’ His wish was fulfilled and his son lived and expanded his empire.
I have also mentioned in one of my blogs a quote from Tennyson about the role of prayer in a human being’s life. https://avagamanam.com/2015/07/karma-remedial-action/
Devotion (bhakti) and prayer (prārthanā)
Devotion, bhakti is towards the Higher Being, called variously by different religions. The most commonly used word for that Being is God. In Hindu religious beliefs the three-fold ways of showing the devotion to the Higher Being are:
(1). Physical worship, pūjanam, of God. In physical worship, the formless God is invoked in an Idol, either at home or in a temple. This can be in the form of offering flowers, chanting of Vedic mantras, circumambulation of the temple, pradakṣiṇam and other forms involving the physical body.
(2). Singing praises of the Lord, called bhajanam and repetition of the name of God, japa. This latter practice is common to both Christianity and Islam as well. Usually one uses a string of beads to keep the mind in focus. This practice is subtler than the former in that one does not need a temple or a holy place or altar but needs mental ability to focus. Primarily this involves the vocal cord, it can be audible to others or just the lips moving, sometimes it can be totally silent as well.
(3). The subtlest one is called meditation, cintanam or dhyānam. Here the mind is total focus of the mental image of God or, the formless Higher Being. This type of focus is likened to an uninterrupted flow of a viscous fluid.
Typically one graduates from the physical to the oral and then on to mental activity.
With devotion as the primary condition, the next one is why a person is a devotee. There is a Sanskrit saying ‘without expecting a use even a dullard does not undertake an action’. Any of these three acts of devotion, for a normal person buffeted by wants and needs, these acts of devotion are generally a form of prayer, prārthanā. Just like there are two different words, devotion and prayer in English language, the Sanskrit words also are different. Prārthanam is derived from the verb arth meaning solicit, supplicate, beg, request, with the prefix pra which accentuates the meaning of the verb, the word meaning supplicating the Lord (to fulfill one’s desire / want / need).
A curious person may ask ‘Is the role of God but to fulfill all our wishes? If so, in what way then God is different from my sweet generous uncle?’. It is a valid question. Hindu tradition does not believe this way. The concept of karma is necessary to understand the more nuanced way the result of prayer is explained — since every action, karma has a consequence, that is, a result, this action of prayer also must have a result. But it is also well known that despite fervent prayers, our wishes are not always fulfilled. The reason is due to our past karma. This aspect has been elaborated in one of my earlier blogs on role of prayer and karma. https://avagamanam.com/2015/07/
In the tradition it is customary, if not a requirement that any creative work must start with a prayer. This also is reasonable since one starts a work, be it a prose or poem, the person has the desire to complete the task successfully. Thus for fulfillment of desire the opening statement or poem will be an invocation to the Lord. This brings us to the next question of who or what is this God? Is he the idol (mūtri) I worship, or the name I repeat or the from I meditate upon? There is a mystical poem in Tamil ridicules the notion of the idol (or for that matter any form or sound symbol) being God!
Plant a stone, calling it God, Circumambulate and murmur some deluded mantra,
Will that stone speak to you, when the Lord is in you?
Does the ladle stirring a pot of stew know the taste (of the stew)?
— Tirumūlar, Tirumandiram 6th century CE
This verse points to God within, that is, the inherence in all humans. This brings the question of ‘what is the matter, who created this world of things’? This is stated by a devotee of Śiva who lived in the ninth century C.E. He sings the glory of the Lord:
How can words praise you?
The One who has become Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth,
all life, who is both Is and Is Not, the King and the Subject
And who makes people dance ‘I, my, mine’
— Maṇikkavācakar, Tiruvācakam, 9th Century CE.
This enquiry as to the real nature of God is thus a subject matter for knowing, that is, it is a knowledge pursuit, the result is knowledge, jñānam of the Truth about God whom people worship. For this spiritual pursuit centered primarily on me who goes about knowing about the world (and God), no science can help and this falls squarely in the realm of knowledge.
In Hindu philosophical traditions, this word has a special meaning in that it is different from knowledge of the perceivable universe which includes all branches of knowledge. This special meaning is to know, to understand the substratum of this triputī of oneself (ātman / jīva), the world around (Jagat) and God (Īśvara). This analysis is of three kinds, total duality (davita), qualified duality (viśiṣṭādviata) and non-duality, (advaita). Ironically, all these are centered on three different interpretations of Upaniṣad-s, also known as vedānta. The word Vedānta means the final portion of the Vedas. These three interpretations happened at different time periods, advaita being the earliest in terms of chronology, other than the prehistoric Sāṅkhya system summarized below.
Duality is the foundation of Sāṅkhya philosophy of sage Kapila whose offshoot is the so-called practice manual Yogasūtra-s of sage Patañjali. Many believe that this system predates the vedas. This ancient thought happens to be the basis of most religious theologies till today. In a nut shell this philosophy is one of total disconnection between matter, prakṛti and spirit, puruṣa. Sāṅkya system postulates an infinite number of puruṣa-s and one prakṛti, which is insentient but undergoes changes to form this world of things and beings.Patañjali added a new wrinkle to this philosophy by adding the concept of God, he uses the term Īśvara as one of these infinite puruṣa-s. It is necessary to note here that though he uses the word Īśvara same sense of its English translation, The Lord. He ascribes no quality, no activity as understood today. I think that he uses this special puruṣa only as a means of mastering the mind of the seeker. His work is called Yogasūtra, simply known as yoga philosophy. What practitioners of yoga do today is not this philosophy but practice of physical postures, this yoga is based on a different work called Haṭhayoga.
A kind of Patañjali’s concept of Īśvara is common to most religious theologies of today with an overlay of ascribing qualities to this entity— there is matter with its various modifications which include the human body (including the mind), the souls of human beings (as well as souls of all living beings, according to Hindu thought); and there is one God, apart from, but other than the bodies and souls of the world and beyond. Even His residence is outside this world called Heaven.
Perhaps because of my science background, I am more drawn to questioning this ultimate duality of current religious philosophies. The pursuit of science has been to see the one behind the many, that is, not take perceived reality of duality is really the Truth. In modern science one can think of atom-molecule duality, subatomic particles duality, matter-energy duality or wave-particle duality being shown to be not really two separate and distinctly independent entities. Philosophically however, this is extended eons ago in Upaniṣads to non-duality being the absolute reality, this vision of the Upaniṣads is called advaita-vedānta.. This non dual entity is despite the perceived reality of duality. That is, this knowledge, jñānam does not interfere with perceived reality, one of duality — me-world duality, world-worlds duality, human being-God duality, space-time duality and so on. As long as one gets stuck in the perceived world of duality and, driven by desire to achieve something or shun away from something, for that person God is as real as perceived duality. Thus comes God, devotion, the role of prayer, wish fulfillment and so on.
The next question then is, what does this knowledge do to me? The simple answer is that it removes the delusion of taking relative reality to be the ultimate one and suffer the inescapable consequence of feeling constrained and sorrowful, despite flickers of experienced joy. Swami Chinmayananda used to highlight the plight of a man who tries to walk for a day wearing a one shoe size less than his foot size. He would then add,’Now Real You, The Limitless One push That into this puny little body-mind complex (due to ignorance) and lament about the state of your life! You deserve the suffering you are going through!’ Joke apart, it shows how difficult it is to comprehend this vision of unifying non-duality despite perceptual and experiential duality. A mere intellectual cognition does not help the person steeped in the limited body and the mind, but it is also well neigh impossible to get out of the difficult experiences one goes through in life.
With this background, let us try to understand the ‘why’ of Vyāsa and Narayaṇa Battatiri wrote the two great devotional works of Bhāgavatam and Nārāyaṇīyam respectively. Then we move on to discussing the similarities and differences between their two invocation verses to the Limitless Non-dual One, technically called Brahman.
Vyāsa and Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri
Hindu tradition holds that Vyāsa was the one who divided the vedas, foreseeing the inability of human beings’ reduced capacity to master a single Veda compendium. He is the author of an aphoristic work analyzing Upaniṣads, called Vedāntasūtra, a commentary to Yogasutra of Patañjali, and the composer of epics Mahābhārata (74,000 verses) and Bhāgavatam (18,000 verses). The last one, Bhāgavatam describes the ten incarnations of Viṣṇu, a devotional work of Vyāsa, only the invocation verse is the topic for this post. Vyāsa was believed to have lived about five millennia ago.
In contrast to Vyāsa, Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri lived in the 16th century C.E. He was born in Kerala, currently a state in India. He was a master of the descriptive grammar system of Pāṇini, was an authority of different philosophical systems of Sāṅkhya, Yoga and advaitavedānta, and an author of several works, including Nārāyṇīyam.
Despite the fact that both had clear knowledge, jñānam of the truth of God as revealed in the Upaniads, they are creators of two of the greatest works of devotion to God. In fact, the latter followed the footsteps of Vyāsa in that he condensed the 18,000-verse Bhāgavatam to his 1,034 verses Nārāyṇīyam, capturing the essence of what Vyāsa wrote. A modern day layperson who has just heard of advaita may wonder why create a poem extolling the greatness of God. Even today, many in India think that once you study advaitavedānta you will lose faith in God. This compartmentalization of bhakti, yoga and advaita into three separate and non-interacting paths appears to be common across the globe, not just in India. But in reality, these practices are not mutually exclusive but synergistic. The human being is endowed with the tangible physical body (sthūla-śarīram) and has the intangible mind, which includes the emotional and intellectual sides of the mind; this is called subtle body (sūkṣma-śrīram) in Hindu thought. Thus any human being is a composite, hence I use the term synergy among all three paths.
In addition, one finds find that great devotional works were written by many masters of advaita; many celebrated commentaries to Patañjali’s Yogasūtra-s and Kapila’s Sānkyasūtra-s were also by masters of Vedānta. This led me to conclude that comments I hear from my friends and relatives are based on personal opinions rather than based on facts, the result of not understanding the centuries old tradition.
Reasons for creation of the two
great works of devotion
In English literature, the sixteenth century poet George Herbert concludes his poem ‘The Pulley’ in which he imagines God creating the first man, pouring a glass of blessings on the human being, His creation He pored almost all of its contents but the blessing of rest. He paused and added:
When God at first made man, having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, contract into a span.”
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he, “Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me.
But keep them with repining restlessness; let him be rich and weary,
That at least, if goodness leads him not,
Yet weariness may toss him to my breast.”
This same search for freedom from the tyranny of mind, the constant yearning for rest was poetically expressed in a very popular Indian work, Yogavāśiṣṭha, attributed to Vālmīki, the composer of Rāmāyaṇa in which Rāma asks his guru Vaśiṣṭha:
“When can I be free from the weariness of my mind,
Attain the exalted state of being free from tossing of my mind,
Like clouds resting on the peak of the mountain Meru.”
– Yogavāśiṣṭha (5-4-19)
Vyāsa’s weariness, reason for writing Bhāgavatam
According to Indian tradition, despite his phenomenal works (dividing the vedas into four branches, writing an aphoristic work on analysis of all Upanishads, Vedāntasūtra-s, showing his mastery of knowledge of the upaniṣads as well as writing the story of the fratricidal battle in his magnum opus, Mahābhāratam, felt weary. Perhaps because of the fratricidal war and consequent untold destruction by and of the feuding cousins, who were his grandchildren. According to the story, celestial sage Nārada advised him to write a book on the ten incarnations of God on the earth. It is believed that God manifested himself on the earth to protect the righteous and destroy the unrighteous rulers, and He has come to this earth ten times during a cycle of creation. Vyāsa felt totally at peace with himself after finishing Bhāgavatam a work dedicated to the description of the ten incarnations.
Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri, his debilitating
disease and his work Nārāyaṇīyam
In contrast to Vyāsa’s weariness which was mental anguish, the 16th century C.E prodigy Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri had chronic physical and debilitating pain with inescapable sense of weariness. According to the story, Battathiri wanted to take over the illness of his guru so the latter could continue to teach. The Lord answered his prayer, his teacher was freed from the disease, but Bhattathiri became more and more incapacitated, being unable to move his limbs. His apparently incurable physical affliction resulted in the mind being preoccupied by the illness.
One of his friends suggested to him to compose a work on incarnations of Viṣṇu at the Kṛṣṇa temple at Guruvāyūr (in Kerala state, India). He had to be carried to the temple daily. Each day he composed a set of verses, called daśakam (set of 10 verses). On the 100th day, on completion of his last daśaka, he was completely cured of his disease. His work, called Nārāyaṇīyam encapsulates the content of the 18,000-verse Bhāgavatam in about 1,000 verses, except for the small twist! He ends most of his daśakams with a prayer verse to Lord Nārāyaṇa (another name for God) to cure his disease.
Invocation verses of Bhāgavatam and Nārāyaṇīyam
Before I start with the description of the two invocatory verses, I like to share with you as to how I was introduced to this famous work Nārāyaṇīyam, that too when I became an octogenarian! Even though I have heard of the name Nārāyaṇīyam from a colleague of mine in 1965, and remember my cousin’s prayer for the health of my late sister, only after my cousin asked some questions on the meaning of one of the verses in Nārāyaṇīyam, I discovered the depth of knowledge of Śānkhya, Yoga and Vedānta the author exhibited in his a work of devotion, bhakti. The very first verse made me understand Bhattathiri’s profound knowledge of Vedānta.
In Indian tradition, any sacred or secular work must begin with an invocation to Īśvara, The Lord. Both Vyāsa and Bhattatiri follow this tradition.
Vyāsa’s first verse from Bhāgavatam
Janmādyasa yato’nvayāditarataścātheṣvabhijñaḥ svrāṭ
Tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi kavaye muhyanti yatsūrayaḥ |
Tejovārimṛdāṃ yathā vinimayo yatra trisargo’mṛṣā
Dhāmnā svena sadā nirastakuhakaṃ satyaṃ paraṃ dhīmahi ||
(Below is a version with sandhis resolved and component words of compounds hyphenated )
Janmādi asya yataḥ anvayāt itarataḥ ca artheṣu abhijñaḥ svarāt
Tene brahma-hṛdā yaḥ ādikavaye muhyanti yatsūrayaḥ
Tejaḥ-vāri-mṛdām yathā vinimayaḥ yatra trisargaḥ amṛṣā
Dāmnā svena sadā nirasta-kuhakam satyam param dhīmahi)
An English rendition of this invocatory verse follows.
That from which creation (sustenance and dissolution) came about
Which permeates all creation and beyond
Which is the knower of all things but self-effulgent
Which revealed the Creator the Vedas,
(the central meaning of) which deludes (even) the learned
Where Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution appear real
Similar to seeing water on dry ground (mirage)
Due to its power (called māyā)but which for ever is
free from this appearance (of these phenomena)
That Timeless Truth may we contemplate upon.
Those of us who have an in-depth study of Vedānta texts can clearly see the echo of Taittirīya and Śverāśvatāra Upaniṣads, Vedānta-sūtra, as well as the concepts of relative and absolute realities of one non-dual Truth called Brahman, and the power of māyā that manifests this Truth to appear as though many – of the individual, phenomenal world and ‘God’ as is popularly understood by most of theists as well as atheists!
It seems sage Vyāsa has encapsulated the essence of all Upaniṣads, pointing to an entity that seems to both responsible for and free from this phenomenal world. Thus from the stand point of creation, sustenance and dissolution of this world, It seems to be responsible, but in reality It is untouched by this world. This is one of the seeming paradoxes of the vision of Vedānta, also called advaita-vedānta, or just advaita.
Note that the word Vyāsa uses the word param satyam, to indicate what is popularly called God in many religions. Note that Truth has got no form, name, qualities, functions, or anything one can relate to in this observable universes of ours (nāmā, rūpa, guṇa, kriyā, saṃbandha). And contemplation on this Truth is the invocation!
Incidentally, when I first read a book on Kabala, which is a Jewish mystical tradition about five decades ago, I found the reason for God being called genderless. The book said that the One which was before creation which has gender differentiation, how can one attribute gender to that One. I found that there is no pronounceable name for ‘God’ in the tradition.
I remember Swami Dayananda’s analogy to help one understand this unique vision of God described in Upaniṣads.‘The Sun is responsible for life on Earth, the deluge and drought, scorching heat, formation of deserts and so on. But we also know the Truth about the Sun, that in itself, namely, its true nature is untouched by the Earth nor her issues, ever-free of these changes on Earth. Thus, with reference to the Sun, it being responsible for life forms on earth and seasons etc., is the relative truth, but the absolute, that is, timeless and changeless truth, is that Sun bears no such responsibility. By its very presence things happen on this Earth as well as other planets of the solar system.
Extrapolating this to the vision of the Upaniṣads, Brahman, referred to in this innovatory verse as the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of the phenomenal world is the relative truth which is called God, Īśvara, but, untouched by this triple role pertaining to the world. This invocation ends in ‘may we contemplate on Timeless Truth (param satyam). Even the word truth, in any language has no form or limited by time or space. quality. There is no reference to prayer, as is commonly understood — a volitional act by the human being, often prompted by some unfulfilled desire to gain to get rid of an object or condition he /she wants.
Students of vedānta may note that I am not discussing the reality of the world, how it came about, nor the core idea of all Upaniṣads, that you are Brahman, the limitless, that is beyond limitations of time, space and causality despite the perceived and experienced limitations of the body and mind. I do not also discuss the result of this understanding on the human being. This omission is deliberate since it takes away the focus of comparison of the two invocatory verses.
Nārāyaṇa Bhattathiri’s invocation verse in Nārāyaṇīyam
Now we take a look at the invocatory verse of Battatiri. He lived several millennia after Vyāsa, and this verse highlights the major difference brought about by the changes in belief systems of society despite the fact that more than three fourth of the verse is an elaboration of Vyāsa’s invocatory verse in Bhāgavatam
Nirmuktam nityamuktam nigamaśatasaharasreṇa nirbhāsyamānam
aspaṣṭam dṛṣṭamātre punarurupuruṣārthātmakam brahmatattvam
Tattāvadbhāti gurupavanapurapate hanta bhāgyam janānām.
(Below is a version with sandhis resolved and component words of compounds hyphenated )
Sāndra-ānanda-avabodha-ātmakam, an-upamitam, kāla-deśa-avdhibhyām
nirmuktam, nitya-muktam nigama-śata-sahreṇa nirbhāsyamānam
aspaṣṭam dṛśṭamātre punar-uru-puruśārtha-ātmakam brahma-tattvam
tat tāvat bhāti guru-pavana-pura-pate hanta bhāgyam janānām
An English rendition of this invocatory verse follows.
The Truth that is Brahman, is the essence of understanding of limitless bliss,
Has no comparison (to anything in the phenomenal world),
Is free from the limitations of time and place, ever free,
Is illuminated by thousands of Upaniṣads; (but still) is not clear
By seeing this (Truth) which is the core of ultimate seeking (by all humans);
That (Truth) indeed is in the form of the Lord of Guruvāyūr,
This is the great fortune of all people.
Even a cursory look at the English rendering shows both the similarity and the critical difference between the two introductory verses, dealing with the same subject matter. I will elaborate on similarities and differences between the two invocation verses in my next post. There I will explain the meaning of each word of the first verses of Bhāgavatam and Nārāyaṇīyam.