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Birds of a feather

From: sadagopan iyengar (
Date: Wed Oct 17 2001 - 21:07:32 PDT

Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika yatindra
Mahadesikaya Nama:

                                 Birds of a Feather

Though this is a piece about birds, this is not for
the birds. And we are concerned here about not a
single bird, but two—twin birds- and not different
birds at that, but similar ones- birds of a feather,
so to say. The sight and sound of a couple of birds
perched on a tree set adiyen on a ride on the hobby
horse, and the train of thought stumbled upon a few
instances of significant bird couples, finding a place
in the Vedas, itihasas ,etc.

   Let us start our ornithological journey with the
Mundakopanishad. Some portions of this timeless and
uncreated body of knowledge are deeply allegorical,
and call for lucid interpretations, which our
poorvacharyas have attempted with remarkable success. 
 One such mantra, dealing with two birds, in an
explicit espousal of the Visihtadvaitic doctrine,,puts
 in the proper perspective the roles of the individual
soul, the All-powerful Lord, and that of the
non-sentient body.
  “  DvA suparNA sayujA sakhAyA samAnam vriksham
  Tayo:anya:pippalam svAdu atti, anasnan
In an exquisite allegory, this mantra describes two
birds of beautiful plumage/feathers, equal in
enjoyment, bound in eternal friendship, residing in
the same tree from time immemorial. One of the birds  
feasts on the fruits of the tree, while the other
shining bird eats not and just looks on.

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about
this mantra, which can at best be dubbed as a
description of a picture-postcard scenario. However, a
closer look reveals a wealth of meaning. The tree
described in the mantra refers to the non-sentient
body. This particular tree is immobilized by the
surrounding soil of samsArA, and the roots represent
the accumulated   baggage of rights and wrongs,
collectively called “Karma”.      One of the birds
having the tree as its abode, is the jeevatma.
Elsewhere in the Upanishads, the individual soul is
described to be one of boundless beauty and bliss-
hence the reference here to a bird of beautiful
plumage.  The jeevatma is bound in an interminable
cycle of births and deaths, and passes through each
life enjoying the fruits of its good deeds (puNya) and
suffering from the bad ones (papa). The pleasures of
this world are indeed exquisite for those who are
unaware of the eternal bliss that the Lord can bestow,
and hence the mantra describes the fruits of the tree
to be tasty (svAdu). These fruits represent “Karma

The other bird in the tree, the non-eating spectator,
is the Paramatma. The Lord, in His infinite mercy,
resides along with the jeevatma (as his inner dweller)
in the perishable body, filled with blood, bones and
refuse (“oonidai  suvar vaitthu, enbu thooN nAtti,
urOmam vEyndu onbadu vAsal tAnudai kurambai”).
However, He does not partake of the ephemeral, mundane
pleasures, and remains untouched and untainted by
Karma. His innumerable, auspicious attributes make Him
as different from the jeevatma as day is from night.
Thus the mantra says He ‘shines”. The Visishtadvaitins
could not ask for a better pramANam for their
doctrine, as the mantra clearly enunciates the
concepts of “chit” or jeevatma, “achit” or the
non-sentient matter, and “Easwara” or the Lord, and
also delineates their roles of “BhOkta”, “BhOgyam” and
“PrEritAra:” respectively.  By bestowing the
non-eating bird with a glow or shine, the mantra
refutes the Advaitic concept of “nirguNa Brahmam”.

 Moving on, we find another instance of twin birds
associated with the great epic, Srimad Ramayana .But
for these birds, the “Adi KavyA” would not have seen
the light of day.
  Two birds, a male and a female (“ love birds”, as
one might call them), perched on their tree-top home,
were immune to the world, deep in conjugal bliss. They
were so wrapped up in each other, that they failed to
see their natural enemy, the hunter, approaching. His
keen eyes, scanning the trees, found what they were
seeking, and with a single arrow, he felled the male
bird, which plunged to the ground, and after a brief
and valiant struggle with the inevitable, gave up its
life. In the space of just a moment, the male bird,
which was in the throes of delight, was rudely
snatched away from its companion and pushed into the
jaws of death. Grief envelops the female bird, which
flies around in circles above its fallen friend, its
happiness of moments before suddenly transformed into
bottomless sorrow.
            Sage Valmiki was a silent and helpless
spectator of this heart-rending scene. A large measure
of the bird’s grief descended upon the Maharishi, and
his heart brimmed with pity at her plight. This in
turn converted itself into righteous anger at the
perpetrator of the dastardly act, and despite himself,
the Muni flung a curse at the hunter. To his surprise,
however, the curse took the form of a beautiful
couplet, set to a lilting meter, with absolutely no
effort on his part .The “shOka” of the great soul
found expression as a “shlOka”, and was the precursor
of the great epic, characterised by “samAsa sandhi
yOgam, sama madhurOpanatArtha vAkya baddham”, etc. And
here is that shlOkA which issued forth from the sage’s
lips, propelled by his grieving heart-

“MA nishAda pratishtAm tvam agama:sAsvati:samA:
  yat krouncha mithunAt Ekam avadhee:kAma mOhitam”.
“Oh, Hunter! Thou hast separated forever two birds
bound in love, by taking the life of one. This act of
cruelty will earn thou a lasting bad name.”

We now come to another pair of birds, of the same
parentage, which Swami Desikan describes with telling
effect in Srimad  Rahasyatrasaram. However, unlike the
birds considered earlier, these two are diametrically
opposite in word and deed. When a stranger approaches
one of the birds, it says, “Welcome! Please be seated.
I am indeed blessed to have your company” and such
other pleasing words to this effect.
 The other bird, encountering the same stranger,
reacts violently with cries of “Catch him and kill him
or skin him alive” etc.
The stranger is   puzzled by the ocean of difference
in the demeanour of the two birds, though they are
blood brothers. Noting his confusion, the first bird
 “MatApi EkA pitApi EkA mama tasya cha pakshiNa:
  aham munibhi: aneeta: sa cha aneetO gavAsanai:
 aham muneenAm vacha:shruNOmi, gavAsanAnAm sa
pratyaksham Etat bhavatApi dhrishtam,samsargajA dOsha
guNA bhavanti.”

Says the good bird,” We are brothers, born of the same
mother and father. However, we got separated in
childhood. I was brought up by rishis , while my
unfortunate brother fell into the hands of lowly
cow-eaters.  I grew up listening to the pious words of
rishis, while he was listening day-in and day-out to
the words of cow-eaters. Now you understand why my
words are pleasing, and his, repelling.  Thus, one’s
behavioural patterns are moulded by the company one

How true! Due to its association with Sri AndAl, her
parrot cries “Govinda, Govinda”. Even if She were to
punish the bird by starving it, it still calls out
“Trivikrama, Vamana” etc. 
“Koottil irundu KiLi eppOdum Govinda Govinda endru
 oottakkodAdu seruppan Agil UlagalandAn endru uyara

When we hear something unbelievable, we often say,
“Tell it to the birds “, meaning thereby that birds
are credulous simpletons, incapable of distinguishing
between right and wrong. Considering the nature of the
birds described above, wouldn’t you revise your
opinion about our feathered friends?
  Srimate Sri LakshmiNrsimha divya paduka sevaka
Srivansatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya
                       -dasan, sadagopan.

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