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Musings on mantrA/garuda-7

From: M K Sudarshan (
Date: Thu Apr 03 1997 - 00:56:55 PST

srimathE lakshmi-nrsumha parabrahmaNE namaha
sri vedanta desika guravE namaha

Dear "bhAgavatOttamA-s",

I am not sure about all of you, but I like the ending of the "Mukkur-swamy"
story very, very much. It makes one feel good; it has a nice, wholesome
"lived-happily-ever-after" fairy-tale ring to it !

When I imagine that scene of the poor little boy saying proudly to his guru,
"It's true, my dear Master, believe me, it truly works, your great
"mantrA"!!" --- when I run that scene in my mind I feel so happy for the
little "fella'"(as you Americans say) !!


The story itself is nothing but a "good yarn" which elements of slapstick
and fable, skillfully introduced into it, ensure absorbing reading.

But the real reason I enjoy this story of Mukkur Swami II is that it helps
me understand, in very limited yet very satisfying way, 4 key verses from
Swami Desikan's "garUda-panchAshat" and "garuda-dandakam".

I will have to explain all this in a few very long-winded posts, if you all
don't mind. Please bear with me.

Now, the aforementioned 2 hymns of Swami Desikan together cover the theme of
the GarUda-legend, "mantrA" and its esotericism. In 52 sparkling verses of
the "garUda-panchAshat", the poet paints a portrait in rich Sanskrit, in 5
different sections, the entire Garuda-mythology and its symbolism.

When you read the hymns -- in English translation, too -- they're likely to
come across to you as little more than exuberant paean to one of the
foremost "nitya-suri-s" (a term that can be said to approximate "God's
archangels"; but which, in fact, is symbolically larger in conception than
what that Christian term suggests).

After reading the hymn, a lay reader, will most likely be impressed with the
masterly poetry employed by the "kavi-simham" to describe the Garuda-legend
---- stealing "divine-elixir" to liberate mother from bondage, conquest of
formidable foes like Indra, exploits in the nether-worlds of serpents, the
rout of poisonous adversaries, GarudA's might and valour, and his
subservience to Lord Narayana etc. After reading it all, a lay reader will
definitely marvel at the way high-voltage power of poetry has been harnessed
by Swami Desikan to narrate a tale of grand, near-epic proportions.

While the tale of Garuda, recounted as it is by Swami Desikan in outstanding
verse, does certainly impress a lay reader with its poetic value and strong
story-line, it nevertheless remains simply a "a good-story-well-told". The
lay reader may thus entertain a lurking question in his/her mind,
"Yes,'garUda-panchAsath" is an excellent poetic rendition, no doubt, of the
action-packed saga of Garuda, the divine conveyance! But so what? What is so
special about it ?! After all it remains a narrative-poem ! So what is all
the fuss about a narrative-poem that these SriVaishnavA-s are always fond of
making ?

Aren't there poetic accounts, of comparable grandeur, of similar exploits of
minor gods and goddesses, in other mythologies of the world, too, like the
Greek, Nordic and Semitic epics (Hercules, Valkyrie and Gilgamesh, for
instance) ?

Why should "garUda-panchAshath", which is not even a song in praise of the
Supreme Lord, but simply an account of the mythical derring-do of the Lord's
"archangel", be invested with so much religious and spiritual significance
in the SriVaishnava tradition ?

These are the sort of questions that may run through a lay reader's mind.

Now, a devoted SriVaishnava however, dear "bhAgavatOttamA-s", does not
approach the hymn like a lay reader.

A SriVaishnava firmly understands that a poet of Swami Desikan's genius does
not sing paeans out of pure poetic sentiment. If the "achAryA" had indeed
done so, then, his 28 "stotrA-s" -- which are, no doubt, effusive paeans --
would not have become the handy sources of devotional litany of
daily-worship which they have been for many ages, and continue to be even
today, in countless SriVaishnava homes, temples and places of public prayer
in all corners of the world.

If Swami Desikan's hymns had been inspired solely by a striving for poetic
excellence, then, in the pantheon of great poets of India, he probably would
have been granted a seat of importance equal to that of, perhaps, a
"kAlidAsa" or other such eminent poet of the past; his poetry would probably
be held up as an example of the dizzy heights to which ancient Sanskrit
literature in India scaled over the centuries. But nothing more would have
accrued to Swami Desikan! He certainly would not have been granted the
pedestal of an "AchAryA" in that special SriVaishnava mould by which he is
world-renowned today !!

What, however, sets apart Swami Desikan from eminent poets of the past is
that his "stOtrA-s", as we know them today, are not just works of excellent
poetry ! They are much, much, much more than that!

Let me explain.

A poet's principal impulse, at best, is a pantheistic appreciation of the
Ideal of Beauty.  A Wordworth will wax eloquent about a field of "Daffodils"
or a Shelley will sing about "Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude"; Kalidasa
will paint vivid vignettes of themes from the epic "Ramayana"....

Then there is another kind of poetic impulse that seeks to capture the
glorious landscapes of the human heart. Shakespeare, for instance, will stir
your soul with a sonnet or soliloquy on moral dilemmas of the Hamletian
variety that beset humans in life. 

But all poetry of the above sort, while it certainly does transport a reader
to  heightened states of spiritual experience, nevertheless, I believe stops
just short at the very doorsteps, so to speak, of that ACME of human
experience ---- total identification with the idea of a Godhead (Narayana).

The great poetry of a Wordsworth, Shakespeare or even a KalidAsa -- why, of
poetic tradition anywhere in the world that I'm aware of -- those verses do
not move or prod one, do they?  to become aware of the primal well-spring of
yearning that gushes silently deep within everyman's spirit --- that
yearning for absolute identification with a Transcendent Principle ruling
all creation, all existence.

Swami Desikan's hymns, on the other hand  -- even in English
translation/paraphrase -- do just that ! Not only do they appeal to our
sensibilities of poetic excellence ("rasA") but they also take a reader
beyond that critical threshold of human experience ... experience of Beauty
...onward unto something, something larger .... something we can only
define, for want of a better term, as "vEdic-experience"
experience that lifts the human spirit and carries it on "Garuda-wings", as
it were, soaring across an uncharted, yet safe and secure voyage, an
odyssey, where understanding is born ....a rare, private and personal
understanding of what this world, this existence ... this idea of 'reality'
and our own little place in its grand scheme of things ... what this is all
about .....

Swami Desikan's poems have such an effect !

Without our even realizing it, Swami Desikan's poetry exerts a strange power
on us; before we know it, we find ourselves, even as lay-readers (the
"jadA-s" of this world), encouraged to begin contemplating the Unknown, the
Supreme .... the reality of things seen and unseen ....

Consider, for example, a lilting, soothing verse -- with its soft
metric-rhythm that trots like a majestic horse --- from Swami Desikan's
"gOpAla-vimshati" :

       padavI-madavI-yasIm vimUkthEhE
        atavIsampada-mambUvAha-yantIm      I
        karUNAm kAraNa-mAnUshIm bhajAmi II

You read a verse like the one above, dear "bhAgavatOttamA-s", and believe
me, you cannot help becoming desperately curious and wanting to discover for
yourself the real Identity of the "mysterious Spirit called "karUNA"" Swami
Desikan alludes to.... and which Spirit, in the poet's words, "took a dark,
human form ... cast a spell with its bewitching strains escaping from a
slender reed held to its full cherry-red lips.... and which drifts --- like
a wispy cloud... like a mysterious apparition .... through dense, dark, lush
and lovely woods and .... which seems to ever beckon me to follow it down
that easy pathway of promise eternal release....".

When you read such heady verse, dear "bhAgavatOttamA-s", and its sentiments
that surpass human expression, as the one in "gOpAla-vimshati" above, you
realize that Swami Desikan was not inspired by instinct for poetic
excellence alone!

Swami Desikan's inspiration and motivations came from different quarters
.... they were rooted much deeper ... in the supra-terranean realms of
"vEdic-srUti". The "kavi-simham's" prime concerns were not merely with
conveying the poet's Ideal of Beauty ; his poetry seemed more pre-occupied
with the problem of how to transport ordinary human experience beyond what
is beautiful a real apprehension of what is TRUE and LIBERATING, too !

A verse of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, runs as follows (in Edward
Fitzerald's translation):

                   Strange, is it not ? the myriads who
                   Before us passed the Door of Darkness through
                   Not one returns to tell us of the Road
                   Which to discover we must travel too !

The above verse, too, dear "bhAgavatOttamA-s", speaks yearningly of a
Reality that lies "beyond the Door of Darkness" that the many dead have,
perhaps, "discovered"; but the poet says that Reality-- "the Road" -- cannot
be apprehended by us before our own death (passing the "Door of Darkness
through") because the dead never, alas, return to give us an account of it !!

But in contrast to the Persian poetry, Swami Desikan in the
"gOpAla-vimshati" says just the opposite !! In this life here and now, he
says, he fully and clearly PERCEIVES Reality ....that spirit called
"karUNa" flesh and blood ...a dark, complexioned little cherub
....roving the dense woods of Brindavan... with its bewitching form and
luscious, red lips pressed to a lute.... and which promises him daily of ...
of liberation... ".  


If one can understand this singular facet of Swami Desikan's poetry, dear
"bhAgavatOttamA-s", if one can hear, even faintly, those "vEdic" echoes of a
distant Reality his words resonate with, then one ceases to be a
"lay-reader"! One instead becomes, instantly, a SriVaishnava-"rasika",
whatever be one's birth, education or calling  !

It is a SriVaishnava who truly understands, in his guts, that Swami
Desikan's poems, indeed, emphasise that Supreme Beauty and Supreme Truth is
NOTHING if not Supremely Liberating !

And that a God Who is All Beauty and All Truth is NOTHING, too, if not All
Affection and All Kindness !

It is necessary to bear all the above thoughts in mind, dear
"bhAgavatOttamA-s", if we must truly appreciate the marvel that Swami
Desikan's 2 hymns on "garUda" are ; and, of course, along the way we will
return to Sri.Mukkur Swami's story, too !

Let's proceed first to actually study the 4 verses I had referred to earlier
from the "panchAshat" and the "dandakam".
Next post.

srimathe srivan satagopa sri narayana yathindra mahadesikaya namaha