The Cultural Significance of the Chakra in India’s national emblem

The oldest evidence for the use of the spoked wheel in India can be found in the Mesolithic cave paintings of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.

Several Indus valley seals with chakra designs have been found.

The Rig Vedic Indians not just rode chariots fitted with spoked wheels but also gave symbolic imagery to the wheel. They imagined the wheel as a part of the Sun’s chariot.

By virtue of its association with the fiery flaming disc in the sky, the chakra became symbolic of time and seasons, the Rtachakra, the wheel of time.

As the turner of the wheel and keeper of the cosmic order, kings and emperors became Chakravartins,

In Buddhism, the chakra became representative of Buddha’s teachings and the universal moral order. Emperor Ashoka used the chakra to propagate not just Buddha’s Dhamma but also to establish his eternal rule.

From the cart wheel in the Mirzapur cave art to the Ashoka chakra in our national flag and emblem, the chakra has covered a long journey and has conveyed Indian thought through the ages.

Watch the video for the whole story of the Chakra and the a song that best conveys the idea of India’s unity in diversity,

Eroticism in Bhakti: Understanding Andal’s Nachiyar Thirumozhi

Andal, the only female Alvar, is known for her two compositions – Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi.

While the central theme of Thiruppavai is devotion, her composition Nachiyar Thirumozhi brims with erotic passion for the divine. This kind of Madhurya Bhakti is rather unique to the Indian Bhakti tradition and the Alvars are believed to have pioneered literature based on Viraha Bhakti.

How do we understand Andal’s love?

This video attempts to explore what her expressions of desire and longing for her divine lover mean and what inspired her to compose these poems of love!

Andal: The Lover Saint

Andal was the only female to be counted among the 12 ardent devotees of Vishnu called the Alvars.

She is credited with two works that are hailed both for their expression of devotion as well as their erotic and literary beauty – Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi.

This video tells the story of Andal, her pining and longing to unite with her lover lord, and the final fulfillment of her desire. The video also includes rendering of some of Andal’s verses by a trained Carnatic vocalist.

Ardhanarishvara, the God who is both Man & Woman

Vikriti evam Prakriti‘ – The unnatural is indeed natural – The Rig Veda

Ancient Indians did not shy away from the gender fluidity seen in nature.

The idea of Ardhanari – the androgynous god – is also a reflection of their non-binary view of this world.

Click to know more about how the idea of Ardhanari was born, and how its symbolism has evolved with time.

How Buddha became the 9th avatar of Vishnu

Buddhism, as we all know, had its birth in India and emerged as an extremely popular religion across Asia in the first few centuries after Christ.

Buddhism rose as a faith that challenged the then prevailing Vedic religion. The Buddha is believed to have condemned several Vedic sacrifices and rituals that were practised in the regions of the Indian subcontinent (modern day Nepal and Bihar) where he lived and preached. More importantly, he rejected the Vedas and evolved his own universal philosophy. Not surprisingly, Buddha and his followers were censured severely as a heretic in several Vedic texts and scriptures.

Isn’t it strange then that the same Buddha, who challenged Hindu practices, was later absorbed into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu?

Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu at Dwaraka Tirumala temple, Andhra Pradesh

Research scholars offer various theories on us how and why it could have happened.

But before we get there, it is important to understand that neither the term Hinduism nor the Hindu way of life practised today, existed during the times of Buddha. The Hinduism that we practise today is the result of a long period of transition marked by the amalgamation of several religious and folk ideas, and influences of various traditions, practices and faiths including Buddhism.

I use the term ‘Hinduism’ here, to refer to the religion as it is understood today. On the other hand, the term ‘Buddhism’ here does not refer to the modern-day Buddhism or neo-Buddhism practised in India today.

How Buddha become a Hindu god

It so happened that when the great emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, Buddhism attained the status of the imperial religion and Buddha became its godhead.

Buddhist cannons were carved on rocks across the empire for the people to read and follow. This made Buddha central to Ashoka’s kingship. As Ashoka’s name (as found on his edicts) ‘Devanamapiya Piyadasi’ indicates, Ashoka wished to identify himself as the ‘Beloved of the Gods’, and that god was Buddha!

Or, in other words, Ashoka came to rule in the name of Buddha. Buddha’s ‘Dhamma’ became the royal diktat and his ‘Dhammachakra’ became part of the royal insignia. And, Buddhism became the dominant religion in Ashoka’s empire.

In the centuries that followed, Ashoka’s idea of ‘god-king’ gained huge popularity among Indian kings. With the emergence of Vaishnavism as a major religion around the 4-6th century AD under the Guptas who ruled large parts of northern India, Vishnu started to gradually replace Buddha as the godhead. In fact, many Gupta kings called themselves ‘Bhagavata Vaishnavas’.

But Buddhism was still a significant force to be reckoned with for the constantly evolving Hinduism that had its roots in the Vedic religion. Buddha could not be just cast away!

What probably happened thereafter is best expressed using the popular adage, “if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Buddha began to be gradually assimilated into the Hindu pantheon, and by the 13th century AD, when Buddhism had all but died out in India, Buddha’s assimilation into the Hindu pantheon as an avatar of Vishnu was complete!

Proof of Buddha’s entry into the Hindu pantheon can be found in various Puranas that were composed during the period from 3rd -13th century AD, of which at least four puranas mention Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Apart from textual references, we also find Buddha counted among the Dashavatars in the relief works of the famous Srirangam and Airavatesvara temples of Tamil Nadu and the Channakesava temple of Karnataka, to name a few.

Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu in the Channakesava temple, Somanathapura, Karnataka

Although textual and epigraphic evidences suggest that Buddha was included into the Vaishnava pantheon, it appears doubtful if he was accepted on par with the other avatars. For example, according to Vishnu Purana, Buddha was actually born to mislead the asuras and steer them away from the truth (through his teachings?)! Whereas, some Dashavatara lists exclude Buddha, and include Balarama instead.

Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu in a Persian painting

But this is not to say that Buddhist ideas were rejected in toto by the Hindus. There was significant exchange of ideas between the two opposing faiths. In fact, it is argued by some that the Upanishadic thoughts, especially relating to Advaita Vedanta, have borrowed several ideas from Buddhism.

This process of gradual assimilation of Buddhist ideas into Hinduism reached the point of culmination with Buddha being accepted as a Hindu god.

But, why an avatar of Vishnu?

The answer to the question why Buddha came to be identified with Vishnu and not any other deity can be found in Vaishnava theology and mythology.

The Vaishnaivites perceive Vishnu as an all-pervading transcendental phenomenon, similar to the Upanishadic idea of an all-encompassing ‘Brahman’. But the transcendental, immeasurable Vishnu becomes accessible to man when he descends to the earth in various forms or incarnations called avataras.

This idea of Vishnu taking various forms (to fight evil) enabled the process of assimilation of various indigenous deities and cults into the Vaishnava fold, including the Buddha.

Stunning similarities between Vaishnavism and Buddhism

Apart from the basic structure of Vaishnavism that facilitated Buddha’s entry into its fold, the stunning similarities we find in their mythology and iconography also probably assisted the process of assimilation.

For example, an idea comparable to the Vaishnava belief that when evil ascends, Vishnu descends to the earth in order to re-establish ‘Dharma’ can be found in Buddhist scriptures and theology too.

Also, in Buddhist mythology, we find a story that is strikingly similar to the Vamana/Trivikrama avatar of Vishnu, where ‘Buddha covers 6,800,000 yojanas in three strides from the earth to the Devaloka’.

Ananthashayana Vishnu and the Reclining Buddha

Not to forget, the uncanny resemblance in the iconography of Buddha and Vishnu – be it in Buddha’s Dharmachakra and Vishnu’s Sudarshana Chakra or in the posture of the Ananthashayana Vishnu and the Sleeping Buddha.

Buddha’s Dharmachakra and Vishnu’s Sudarshanachakra

The story of Buddhism in India is, in some ways, also the story of the all-embracing Hinduism. The inclusive nature of Hinduism and its tolerance and acceptance of diverse (and often, opposing) ideas and ideologies is the reason why it continues to survive and flourish as the world’s most ancient way of life!

Key resource: The Buddhist Vishnu: Religious Transformation, Politics and Culture – John C Holt

Onam, the Untold Story

Onam is typically celebrated for 10 days beginning the first day of the Malayalam month of Chingam. Onam is actually short for Thiruvonam, the nakshatra or the star associated with Vishnu.

In popular mythology, onam marks the annual return of Mahabali to pay a visit to his beloved subjects on earth from the underworld, where he was pushed into by Lord Vishnu.

According to the Bhagavata Purana, which narrates one version of the story, the asuras, led by King Mahabali, had conquered the three worlds, having driven out the devas from the heavens. Bali, the asura king then started to perform an ashwamedha yagna or a horse sacrifice to consolidate his sovereignity.

Meanwhile, Aditi, Indra’s mother, who was upset over her son losing out to Mahabali, prayed to Vishnu. Hearing her prayers, Vishnu took birth from her womb to help her son Indra reclaim his position as the lord of the heavens.

Taking the form of a dwarf brahmin, Vishnu arrived at the horse sacrifice, where Mahabali was making generous donations to all the needy Brahmins. The story goes that the puny Vamana asked the king for land that could be measured in three paces of his foot.

Even when warned by his guru Shukracharya that the dwarf was none other than Mahavishnu in disguise, Mahabali decided to go ahead and grant the Brahmin’s wishes. But once Mahabali agreed to gift him three paces of land, it is said Vamana the dwarf grew into a giant of cosmic proportions and took gigantic strides to measure the earth and the heavens with his two steps, asked Mahabali where he could keep his third and last step. As there was no place left in the Universe for Vishnu to measure his third pace of land, the defeated Mahabali surrendered by offering the god his own head. 

From this point, the story differs slightly across versions, of which there are many. According to one version, Vishnu kept his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him into the netherworld, which he was asked to rule thereafter. In another version, Vishnu does not push him into the netherworld, but rather asks him to reside and rule it and promises him that he would get to be Indra in another yuga.

The Bhagavatha Purana says that, despite being a virtuous king, Mahabali was punished because power and pursuit of material wealth had corrupted him and destroyed his humility. In his arrogance, he had even overlooked his guru’s advice to grant the Brahmin dwarf the gift he demanded, knowing very well the midget was none other than Lord Vishnu.     

Now, many of you may be aware of the story.

But, how does the Mahabali-Vamana avatar myth actually connect to the onam festival?

Surprisingly, not all textual versions mention the request by Bali to visit his land and his favourite subjects every year. The bit about Mahabali coming up to the earth every year, appears rather to be a folk extension to a Puranic story.

And Onam, that celebrates the return of Bali to the earth, is essentially a folk festival that celebrates the completion of paddy harvest. On this occasion, the just and egalitarian rule of Bali is remembered in the Malayalam folk songs that are sung to welcome the king.

Apart from the performance of folk arts and sports such as the kathakali and the famous boat race, other folk motifs include the use of pyramid-shaped four-sided blocks made of clay called Onathappan, that are used to symbolically represent a local deity named Thrikkakara appan or Vamana Vishnu. According to some, these pyramidical clay blocks represent Mahabali or Maveli as he is fondly referred to by the locals. This an-iconic representation of the gods definitely points to very ancient folk customs.

Interestingly, the celebration of bali is not restricted to Kerala. King Bali is remembered and hailed in several parts of western and southern India on the fourth day of Diwali as Balipadyami or Balipratipada, marking the end of the summer harvest. In fact, the farmers of Maharashtra pray every year for the return of the fair and just rule of King Bali.

So, in a sense, the annual return of Bali to earth, from the nether land seems to suggest a symbolic association with the fecundity of the land that is renewed every year after the monsoons, when the Onam festival falls.

How modern narratives interpret the myth…

In modern narratives, the mass popularity of the legendary Asura king punished rather unduly by Vamana Vishnu, has led the story to be interpreted as a conflict between two different cultures, where an Aryan tribe, represented by their god, established supremacy over Bali, the just and fair king of a non-Aryan tribe.

This version is in sync with other subaltern narratives where the Asuras have been understood to be the oppressed class with the Devas being envisioned as the upper caste oppressors.

Moreover, the vamana story, also comes across as a sort of a prequel to the story of Parashurama, another avatar of Vishnu, who, despite being a Brahmin, took to arms to end the tyranny of the Kshatriyas or the ruling class. According to a legend that links both these stories, the entire western coast of India, is believed to have been retrieved from the sea by Parashurama with his axe, to relocate the Brahmin community.  And Onam celebrates the creation of Kerala by the sage.

In this myth, the relocation of Brahmins by Parashurama could have involved the displacement of the existing residents of the Western coast, probably pushing them south. The movement of people further down (south) is possibly reflected in the story of Bali who is pushed down (into the earth) by a Brahmin.

While these stories do seem to hint at conflicts over land leading to possible displacement of some groups of people, author Nandita Krishnan, in her work, Book of Vishnu has proposed a completely different interpretation of the myth.

She points out that the vamana avatar story has its seed in the RigVeda and the Shatapatha Brahmana, a Vedic ritual text. In these texts, Vishnu was considered an aspect of the Sun and counted among the 12 adityas or solar deities.

The sun takes three strides across the sky through the day – appearing at the horizon at sunrise, touching the zenith at noon and disappearing below the horizon at sunset. Similarly Vishnu in his Vamana avatar has been shown to take three strides across the universe, covering the earth, heavens and the underworld.

Nandita suggests that Onam celebration is a symbolic representation of the harvest which is welcomed with a thanksgiving offering ‘bali’, after the passage of a hot summer as depicted by the solar deity, Vishnu. So, just like Pongal or Baisakhi, Onam marks the celebration of the harvest, which was made possible by the Sun, to whom mahabali or a great offering is made.

Now, that’s an interesting possibility!