You are here: Sri Vaishnava Home Page : Bhakti List : Archives : October 1997

Article from "The Hindu"
Date: Fri Oct 03 1997 - 09:51:59 PDT

Cadambi Sriram
10/03/97 12:51 PM
An article on ''Abhiti-stava"  from "The Hindu"  by M.K.Sudarshan ( a
former member of this mailing list).

                             [THE HINDU]

                      Friday, October 03, 1997
                       SECTION: Entertainment

            Section Index | Previous Story | Next Story |

            Well ahead of his times

            Date: 03-10-1997 :: Pg: 34 :: Col: d

            Swami Vedanta Desikan's ``Abhiti-stava'' is a poetic
            analysis of the modern psychology of fear. An insight
            into the timeless work.

            Swami Vedanta Desikan has written copiously on the
            subject of human ``fear and fearlessness''. His
            references to this most primal of human emotion are
            strewn in almost all his rahasya, stotra, gadya, kavya
            or vyakhyana works.

            In principal Sanskrit stotra works (for which Swami
            Desikan is remembered) like the ``Abhiti-stava,''
            ``Daya-satakam'' and ``Ashta- bhujashtakam,'' the
            poet-philosopher-polymath seems to have approached the
            subject of human `fear' in an amazingly 20th- century
            manner. Modern practice and methods in clinical
            psychiatry or psycho-analysis seem to distinctly echo
            between the lines of religious poetry that this great
            Sri Vaishnava ``acharya'' of the 13th-century wrote.

            Swami Desikan's allusions to fear in his stotra, the
            ``Abhiti- stavam,'' carry muted tones of autobiography.
            On reading the hymn after more than 700 years since
            composed, one senses he is describing the emotion out of
            first-hand, intimate knowledge of raw, palpable human

            When the Muslim cohorts of Malik Kafur, the general
            representing Alauddin Khilji in South India, attacked
            the temple-town of Srirangam around 1327 A.D. the
            Vaishnavas there and religious leaders like Pillai
            Lokachariar and Swami Desikan were forced to flee
            Srirangam taking with them the priceless treasures and
            symbols of Vaishnavism.

            While the former fled with the idol of Lord Ranganatha,
            Swami Desikan - at the time in his late fifties - fled
            alongwith a band of followers with the ``sruta
            prakasika,'' the hallowed philosophical treatise on Sri
            Ramanujacharya's ``Sri-Bhashya.''

            Unfortunately, barely had Swami Desikan and his band
            crossed the outskirts of Srirangam when a stray
            contingent of the invading Muslim army discovered them.
            History notes that Swami Desikan himself narrowly
            escaped being killed.

            Several decades thereafter, having stared death in its
            face and known ``fear,'' Swami Desikan lived the life of
            a near-exile in a village, Satyakaalam, what is now in
            Karnataka and close to Melkote. During that time he
            confronted `fear' of a different sort - the fear of
            individual futility, personal ineffectiveness and of
            ``cosmic loneliness.'' Here, Swami Desikan spent years
            in solitude, contemplation and deep meditation of Sri
            Lakshmi Hayagriva. Although the Swami had not formally
            embraced sanyasa, he lived a great part of his life away
            from family and close social bonds.

            He longed for Srirangam and wished that the Sri
            Vaishnava faith be restored to its pre-eminent status.
            He longed for the faith to be rejuvenated with the
            robustness and vigour of its founders - Nathamuni,
            Yamuna and Ramanuja.

            One gets an extremely clear glimpse of the history of
            those times, and Swami Desikan's own state of mind, on
            reading ``Abhiti-stava,'' wherein he invokes the
            awesome, terrible wrath of Lord Ranganatha and directs
            it towards the enemies of the faith.

            Swami Desikan blends a therapist's scientific viewpoint
            with the whole theology of the school of Vedantic
            thought called `Sri Ramanuja siddhantam.'

            The poetic hymn is a many-splendoured classic in other
            respects as well: it is an epigram of Visishtadvaitic
            truths; an easy handbook of reference for the theme of
            ``saranagathi'' containing, as it does, a variant each
            for the famous three ``charama shlokas'' (of Krishna,
            Ram and Sita) it is a snap-shot account of a slice of
            the history of Srirangam around the 13/14th century A.D.

            In Verse 13 of the ``Abhiti-stava'' the swami states the
            stark fact that ``fear'' is the most deep-seated of
            human behavioural drives. A man is born with it, lives
            with it and goes to the grave with it. Swami Desikan in
            this verse squarely faces up to the question of ``fear''
            being a basic driver of all human behaviour.

            In stating the nature of the problem in such a blunt and
            bland way, he seems to have anticipated, over seven
            centuries ago, a methodology which is today followed in
            modern psychiatric practice.

            In Verse 12 the swami examines the nature and cause of
            the problem of fear and observes that ``happiness
            derived from the pettiness of the world (materialism)
            and from wife, sons, relations, neighbours, servants and
            the like (social and familial props) is evanescent. We
            sense the echo of the above sentiment resonating in the
            methodology of contemporary psychiatric practice.

            After the patient has learnt to squarely face up to his
            problem, to trust the therapist and to openly seek his
            help, the former is encouraged by the latter to
            carefully examine and dissect the conditions of his
            station in life.

            He is gently prodded by the therapist into deeply and
            honestly (often brutally) analysing, one by one, his
            relationships with everything living or material that
            populates his life.

            Swami Desikan captures this ``regressive'' phase of the
            patient, too, in Verse 10 of the ``Abhiti-stava'' where
            he notes, ``Oh, Prabho (Lord), your instructions and
            prescriptions to me are bitter-medicine. You ask me to
            do things now which are totally alien to my nature. I am
            so accustomed now to my wanted and degenerate life-style
            of many years that I am allured by and drawn easily to
            the same old ways. I feel I am much like a fish that
            finds it hard to resist devouring the bait hanging at
            the end of a deadly hook-and-line.''

            In the next phase of the patient's recovery, clinical
            psychiatry explains, he is evolving into a new robust
            person. He has conquered fear, trauma and self-doubt.
            But intermittenty, the therapist perceives, the patient
            is plagued by an irrational anxiety: that, for some
            reason or the other, he may lose the support of the
            therapist; and that he may again become unprotected and
            vulnerable to the old illnesses.

            In Verse 17 of the `Abhiti-stava,' Swami Desikan
            accurately captures feelings of post-recovery ``angst''.

            In the post-cure period a patient is known by modern
            practitioners of psycho-therapy to transform himself
            into a completely new person. He develops a new
            self-image after plumbing the depths of his being in
            search of powers of regeneration, creativity and

            The totally transformed person is aware of a
            ``well-spring of creative power'' within him and is
            known to exult over the fact that he feels truly ``
            liberated'' and hence needs nothing else in life but to
            be able to stay constantly in touch with some strange
            source of power felt ``deep within.''

            These sentiments are expressed in Verse 7 and in several
            of Swami Desikan's other Sanskrit hymns too, and most
            notably in Verse 100 of the Daya Satakam, where he
            beseeches Daya-devi (the Goddess of Compassion) to
            bestow on him ``nothing else in life but the experiences
            of the truly liberated one.''

            Thus, on careful literary analysis, one can indeed say
            that Swami Desikan, over 700 years ago, revealed through
            his religious poetry an extremely scientific and
            amazingly 20th-century-line approach to the portrayal of
            a mental affliction known today in the parlance of
            clinical psychiatry as ``fear-and-anxiety syndrome.''

            M. K. SUDARSHAN