Glory of Gayatri Mantra and Upakarma in colour lithographs of British India
V SUNDARAM I.A.S.
Shravan Poornima is celebrated as AVANI AVITTAM in Southern India, especially in Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and in certain parts of Orissa. This day is also called as 'Upakarma' and is considered a very important day for the Brahmin society. On this day, Brahmins change the sacred thread, called the yagnopavitam while chanting mantras. This change signifies atonement for sins done in the past. Putting on a new thread signifies a promise made to self today for a better conduct in the future. The main ritual of the day is 'Upakarma', which is also referred to as Shravani. It is believed that Lord Hayagriva, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, brought back the Vedas, which were stolen by demons, to Lord Brahma. This day is celebrated as RAKHI PURNIMA in Northern and Western India.
Avani is the Tamil month and Avittam (Dhanishta) is one of the 27 Nakshatras or stars. Chingam is the equivalent Malayalam month. On the Avani Avittam day, Brahmins after a holy dip, change the sacred thread and wear a new holy thread. This ritual is known as Upakarma, which means beginning. The sacred thread is referred as 'Poonool,' 'Yagnopavita' or 'Janeyu.' The ritual also symbolizes the permission to study the Vedas.
On the day of 'Upakarma', every devotee puts on a new Yagnopavitam after following a prescribed sacred procedure. Yagnopavitam has three threads, each consisting of three strands. These threads represent:
* Goddess Gayatri (Goddess of mind),
* Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of word) and
* Goddess Savitri (Goddess of deed).
The most important religious feature connected with 'Avani Avittam Day' is the chanting of 'GAYATRI MANTRA'. 'Gayatri' contains in itself the spirit and energy of all the Vedic Mantras. Indeed it imparts power to other mantras. Without Gayatri-Japa, the chanting of all other Mantras would be futile. We find hypnotism useful in many ways and we talk of 'Hypnotic Power'. 'Gayatri' is the hypnotic means of liberating ourselves from worldly existence as well as of controlling our desire and realising the goal of our birth. We must keep blowing on the spark that is the 'Gayatri' and must take up 'Gayatri-Japa' as a vrta. As Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam rightly concluded: "The spark will not be extinguished if we do not take to unsastric ways of life and if we do not make our body unchaste."
The 'Gayatri Mantra' in full, repeated mystically, runs as follows:
BHARGO DEVASYA DHIMAHI
DHIYO YO NAH PRACHODAYAT
The meaning of Gayatri Mantra can be summarised as follows: We meditate (Dhimahi) on the Spiritual Effulgence (Bhargas) of that Adorable Supreme Divine Reality (Varenyam Devasya), the Source or Projector (Savitr) of the three phenomenal world planes the gross or physical (Bhuh), the subtle or psychical (Bhuvah), and the potential or causal (Suvah) both macrocosmically (externally) and microcosmically (internally). May that Supreme Divine Being (Tat) stimulate (Prachodayat) our (Nah) intelligence (Dhiyah), so that we may realise the Supreme Truth.
The traditional saying in Sanskrit is Gayantam traayate yasmaat Gayatri'tyadhiyate. This means Whoever sings 'Gayatri' is protected. Sings is not used here in the sense of singing a song. It means intoning or chanting the 'Gayatri Mantra' with concentration and devotion. While speaking about 'Gayatri Mantra', the Vedas use these words: Gaayatrim Chandasaam Maata. 'Chandas' means the Vedas. So, 'Gayatri' is the Mother of all Vedic Mantras and the Vedas themselves proclaim this truth with authority. It has 24 aksharas (letters or syllables) and three feet, each foot of eight syllables. This is why the 'Gayatri Mantra' is also called 'Tripada Gayatri'. Each foot is the essence of a Veda. Thus, 'Gayatri' is the essence of the Rgveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda. The Atharvaveda has its own 'Gayatri'. 'Gayatri-Japa' is essential to all rites performed according to the Sastras.
N Rajagopalan, a great musicologist and Sanskrit scholar rightly observes: "'Gayatri Maata' is the source of all Vedas and Mantras and is appropriately hailed as Mother. SHE is worshipped by chanting in mornings and at noon as 'Savitri Devata', and in evenings as 'Saraswati Devata'." It is said that the Mantra originated from the effulgent face of the Lord Narayana when He thought of creating the world. This gives the cue to the most primordial origin of the 'Gayatri Mantra', its prime timing and its high relevance. This is made clear by Lord Krishna in Bhagwad Gita (Chapter X verse 36), wherein He candidly asserts that In metres I am 'Gayatri'. 'Gayatri' is thus the pith and essence of the first three Vedas.
'Gayatri Mantra', when chanted with faith, devotion, dedication and sincerity, confers energy, health, valour, intellectual eminence and glamour to the individual. Sins are wiped off bringing in light into a life of darkness. It is well known that Sage Viswamitra secured unexcelled valour and eminence only by worshipping 'Gayatri Devata'. Sage Valmiki used one of the letters of the 'Gayatri Mantra' at the commencement of each of the successive thousand slokhas. Dr S Radhakrishnan extolled the significance of 'Gayatri Mantra' when he said: "Meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant Sun. May He inspire our intelligence!"
India is a land of underlying cultural unity amidst apparent diversity. The following table brings out the fact that different nomenclatures are used in different parts of India to refer to the Upanayanam (Initiation) ceremony and the 'Yagnopavitam' (the sacred thread):
Avani Avittam or Upakarma in South India is celebrated as Raksha Bandhan (the bond of protection in Hindi) or Rakhi (in Devanagari) in different parts of India. It is a Hindu festival and also a Sikh festival, which celebrates the noble and abiding relationship between brothers and sisters. The festival is marked by the tying of a Rakhi, or holy thread by the sister on the wrist of her brother. The brother in return offers a gift to his sister and vows to look after her. The Rakhi may also be tied on other special occasions to show solidarity and kinship (not necessarily only among brothers and sisters), as was done during the days of India's independence movement.
When I contacted, Prof Hetukar Jha, a great Scholar of Sanskrit and former Head of the Department of Sociology of Patna University, an author of renown told me 'In north India most of the Brahmins are Yajur Vedis and only a miniscule are followers of Rig Veda and Sama Veda and a majority of the latter belong to Sandilya Gotra. Practically all followers of Yajur Veda are of the Madyamika Shakha who observe rituals of Vachaspayee Samhita. None of these Brahmins observe the annual ritual of changing the sacred thread. However, in Northern India, the practice of changing the sacred thread by those performing the rites, at the commencement of all important religious rituals or funeral rites when it is worn on the reverse, are observed chanting the same Mantras as in the South.'
Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the bedrock of a real civilization. Social history constitutes one of its best forms. At bottom, the fascination of history is imaginative. Our imagination longs to see in life and blood our ancestors as they really were going about their daily business and daily pleasure. Carlyle (1795-1881) declared with aplomb that the smallest real fact about the past of man which any antiquarian or historical researcher could unearth was more poetical than P B Shelley (1792-1822) or more romantic than Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). I am often enthralled by the mystery of Time, by the mutability of all things, by the succession of the Ages and generations. As Carlyle puts it: "The mysterious River of Existence rushes on, a new Billow thereof has arrived, and lashes wildly as ever round the old embankments, but the former Billow with its loud, and eddyings, WHERE IS IT? WHERE? "
As a lover of antiquarian books, journals and newspapers, I recently came across a book printed in England in 1851 titled 'THE SUNDHYA OR THE DAILY PRAYERS OF THE BRAHMINS', ILLUSTRATED IN A SERIES OF ORIGINAL DRAWINGS FROM NATURE, DEMONSTRATING THEIR ATTITUDES AND DIFFERENT SIGNS AND FIGURES PERFORMED BY THEM DURING THE CEREMONIES OF THEIR MORNING DEVOTIONS AND LIKEWISE THEIR POOJAS TOGETHER WITH A DESCRIPTIVE TEXT ANNEXED TO EACH PLATE AND THE PRAYERS FROM THE SANSKRIT TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH'. In this great and inspiring book, there are 24 Plates of Colour Drawings done by a lady artist called Mrs S C Belnos. These drawings (lithographs) were done during the period from 1845 to 1850.The frontispiece on cover page of this very rare book above relates to a religious scene on a boat berthed on Triveni at Allahabad. Our nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of what that incomparable patriot and freedom fighter Vir Savarkar (1883-1966) described as the First War of Indian Independence of 1857 in 2007. It is interesting to note that this book on 'Sundhya Vandana' was printed in 1851, 6 years before the First War of Indian Independence in 1857. When this book was printed in England, Lord Dalhousie (1812-1860) was the Governor General of India. I am presenting below 13 colour drawings-Lithographs from this book.
I derive my Himalayan inspiration to write about the glory of 'Gayatri Mantra' from the following everlasting words of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950): 'I write not for the orthodox, nor for those who have discovered a new orthodoxy, Samaj or Panth, nor for the unbeliever. I write for those who acknowledge reason but do not identify reason with Western Materialism; who are sceptics but not unbelievers; who, admitting the claims of modern thought, still believe in India, her mission, her gospel, her immortal life and her eternal rebirth.'
SIGNS OF GAYATRI
FIRST PRAYER TO GURU
INVOCATION OF LORD GANESHA
CHANTING OF GAYATRI MANTRA IN THE GANGA RIVER
ARGHYAM WITH RICE WATER ETC.
Printmaking as an art form emerged in India in the last decade of the 19th century. However, printing, in which lie the origins of contemporary printmaking, came to India in 1556, about a hundred years after Gutenberg's Bible. Calcutta, the capital of British India, was the hub of printing and publishing in colonial times. The printed picture, in the form of the book illustration, developed in early 19th century British India. European printmakers in 18th century India remained entirely disconnected from mainstream, indigenous printing activity since they had little or nothing in common with Indian culture and tradition. Their prints depicted exotic Indian landscapes that tended to appeal mainly to the colonial European sensibility. After 1820, the English East India Company invited several British painters and artists to visit India and do colour drawings of different aspects of British India---its religion, its literature, its culture and above all its people in all parts of India. It is thrilling, fascinating and highly instructive to see the cultural panorama of the Indian sub-continent unfolding under the scrutiny of intelligent foreign observers and painters in British India in the 19th century, bequething to us all the wealth of information on every aspect of Indian life, the memorable East-West encounter and above all the extraordinary nature of the adventures and confrontations of this historic association.