The classic Indian epics such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas refer to many exotic tribes, describing them as superhuman or subhuman. Narrations about these tribes are often mixed with mythology and fables. These includeGandharvas, Yakshas, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, Rakshasas, Nagas, Suparnas, Vanaras, Vidyadharas, Valikilyas, Pisachas, Devas (within them Vasus, Rudras, Maruts, and Adityas) and Asuras (within them Danavas, Daityas and Kalakeyas.)
These exotic tribes may not have interacted frequently with the mainstream .The knowledge of them was perhaps very limited, which may have spurred the invention of fables and myths about them.
In the Indian mythology the exotic tribes were non-human or in some cases super human, living in distant planets .They were endowed exotic capabilities, that include
1. The ability to appear and disappear at will
2. The ability to fly in air
3. The knowledge of flying-craft (vimana)
4. The ability to change shape at will
5. The ability to read the mind of people
6. The knowledge about other inhabited places like the Earth
7. The ability to influence natural forces
In any case, these tribes had a profound influence on the myths, fables, culture and arts of Indian through the ages.
Among them, the Vidyadharas belong to a category of beings known as Upadevas, or almost-Devas. They appear frequently in the epic and folk lore .Vidyadharas-as semi divine beings are very often depicted in Indian art and sculptor. Their fascinating figures are quite popular. They are usually seen on either side of the images of deities (Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina) and on the walls of temples.
By Shilpi Shri Siddalinga Swamy of Mysore
The treatment of Vidhyadharas in our lore is however not uniform. Their treatment in the Puranas, epics and literature, could be said to be three – fold.
In the Puranas:
Shrimad Bhagavatha describes the Bhuvarloka – the level of semi-demigods where the Carana, Vidyadhara, Kinnara, Kimpurusa etc reside. “Below Rahu by 10,000 yojanas [80,000 miles] are the planets known as Siddhaloka, Caranaloka and Vidyadhara-loka.” (SB 5.24.4). “Beneath Vidyadhara-loka, Caranaloka and Siddhaloka, in the sky called antariksha, are the places of enjoyment for the Yaksas, Raksasas, Pisacas, ghosts and so on. Antariksha extends as far as the wind blows and the clouds float in the sky. Above this there is no more air.” (SB 5.24.5)
A vidhyadhara cursed to live on earth tells Krishna “I am the well-known Vidyadhara named Sudarsana. I was very opulent and beautiful, and I used to wander freely in all directions in myVimana. Once I saw some homely sages of the lineage of Angira Muni. Proud of my beauty, I ridiculed them, and because of my sin they made me assume this lowly form.”
In another instance, Citraketu, the King of the Vidyadharas traveled by his Vimana, round the world. He visited hundreds of people in several places and was praised by the sages. He stayed on the heights of Kulâcalendra [Mount Meru].
In Mahabharata and Ramayana:
When Bhimasena went in search of the Saugadhika in the Himavath , by ascending the Gandhamadana mountain , he saw hillocks , thronged with Vidyadharas, inhabited on all sides by foresters and Kinnaras and Kimpurushas, and Gandharvas (3-144,157) .On the summits of the mountain were seen amorous Kimpurushas with their paramours, mutually attached unto each other; as also many Gandharvas and Apsaras clad in white silk vestments; and lovely-looking Vidyadharas, wearing garlands; and mighty Nagas, and Suparnas, and Uragas, and others. (3,158)
In Valmiki Ramayana – Sundara Kanda… When Hanuman leaps on the Himavath in search of theSanjivani
“Vidhyadharas who lived there, became afraid and flew away with their women folk, leaving behind their golden jugs of wine in the liquor house, gold vases, a varieties of sauces that can be licked, eatables, various meats, skins of oxen and swords with golden hilts.
The intoxicated Vidyadharas with garlands around their neck decked with red flower garlands and smeared with sandal paste, with reddened eyes, and with lotus shaped eyes, obtained the sky. Vidyadhara women wearing necklaces, anklets, armlets and bangles stood in the sky with surprise and with smiles along with their loved ones. Vidyadharas and great sages stood in the sky in a group, showing their great prowess and viewed the mountain.”
“This Hanuman, who is equal to a mountain, who is the son of Vayu, and who has great speed, wants to cross the ocean which is abode to crocodiles. Hanuma has decided to perform an impossible task for the sake of Rama and Vanaras and wants to obtain the other side of ocean which is hard to obtain.” Vidyadharas thus listened to the words of those great people and looked at the incomparable Hanuma, best among Vanaras, standing on the mountain. “
Hanuma went, like Garuda, in the sky served by clouds (or streams of water), served also by birds,…served in various ways by excellent courageous groups of Vidyadharas.
In Sanskrit literature:
The Katha- sarith -Sagara, is a famous 11th century collection of Indian legends, fairy tales and folk tales written by Somadeva who said his source was the text of Gunadhya’s Brihat Katha in Paisachidialect. The principle tale is the adventures of Naravahanadatta, son of the legendary king Udayana and his final attainment of Madanamanjarika as his wife and the land of the Vidyadharas as his kingdom. A large number of tales are built into this central story to make it the largest collection of Indian tales. The Kathasaritsagara deals not so much with concrete historical events but with problems and processes of life. The characters in the main story relate stories of other characters who in turn relate others’ stories and so on, like a stack. No story ends in separation or death. Here, all journeys really end in fulfillment of love .
Here, the Vidhyadharas are beings known as Upadevas, or almost-Devas who live in a realm of their own, in the Himalayan region. The Vidhyadharas, here, can fly through the air, change their appearance at will and are generally amorous and musically gifted. The vidyadharas and humans deal with each other, and many humans married Vidhyadhara damsels. The Vidyadharas are essentially neutral – they cooperate with the universal hierarchy, but they neither favor nor oppose the human race.
In other Sanskrit works too , the Vidyadharas are bearers of wisdom and resemble humans in most aspects except that they are all beautiful to look at and can change forms at will. They mingle with humans and intermarry. Vidyadharas are mentioned also in the Buddhist and Jain tales .The play,Nagananda by King Sri Harsha (606 – 648 C.E.) is based on the legend of the Vidyadharas. The scene of the play is the semi-divine regions of Vidhyadhara loka and Siddha loka. The hero of the play is Jimutavahana, Prince of the Vidyadharas, who on the Malaya Mountain meets and marries the Siddha princess Malayavati, a votary of Gauri (Shiva’s wife).The Siddhas are the inhabitants of the subtle world Siddhaloka and are born with mystic powers. They walk and travel in space; they can be perceived to be present, but they cannot be seen.
Nagananda, inspired by Buddhism, is one of the best Sanskrit dramas in five acts dealing with the popular story of Jimutavahana’s self-sacrifice to save the Nagas.The story depicts how prince Jimutavahana offers his body to stop serpents being consumed daily by Garuda the leader of the birds; and how he succeeds in converting Garuda to the principle of ahimsa, abstention from causing injury to living beings. A unique characteristic of this drama is the invocation to lord Buddha in theNaandi verse (considered one of the best examples of the dramatic compositions); and the concluding benedictory stanza to Gauri, the Hindu Goddess. It is also the only Buddhist play to survive in its original form.
Towards the end of the play, the Goddess Gauri restores Jimuthavahana to life , blesses and crowns him as the Emperor of the Vidhyadharas; and sprinkles him with the waters of the nearby Manasa Lake. As nobles of the Vidhyadharas carry gifts of many jewels, gems and the chowries of yak’s tail, white as the autumn moon; Gauri gifts Jimuthavahana with the golden wheel ,the four-white tusked elephant and finally the most beautiful maiden , Malayavathi.
[ According to Bharata the compiler of Natyasastra, the playwright experiences a certain emotion, which then is expressed on the stage by the performers through words, music, gestures and actions. The portrayal of emotions is termed bhavas. The Rasa, in contrast, is the emotional response the bhavas inspire in the spectator. Rasa thus is an aesthetically transformed experience enjoyed by the spectator.
While rasas are created by bhavas, the bhavas by themselves carry no meaning in the absence of Rasa (Nahi rasadyate kashid_apyarthah pravattate). Their forms and manifestations are defined by the rasa.
The great scholar and visionary Abhinavagupta(11th century) in his Abhinavabharati , a commentary on Natyasastra, argues that a play could be a judicious mix of several rasas, but should be dominated by one single rasa that defines the tone and texture of the play. He cites Nagananda of Sri Harsha; and, explains though the play had to deal with the horrific killing of the hapless Nagas; it underplays scenes of violence, and radiates the message of peaceful coexistence and compassion towards all beings. It is that aesthetic experience of peace and compassion towards the fellow beings which the spectator carries home.]
The description of the Malaya hill in Nagananda, mentions sandalwood trees , elephants, the ocean waves , pearls , banana plants and leaves etc. As per tradition, sage Agasthya lived in Malaya hill and Krishna’s elder brother Balarama visited him there. It is said to have seven peaks. Further, in Valmiki Ramayana , Kishkinda khanda , it is mentioned that “When Vali repulsed the buffalo-shaped demon Dundubhi towards Malaya mountain, then that buffalo entered the cave of Mt. Malaya, and Vali entered therein wishing to kill that buffalo. [4-46-3, 4].
In “Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s Travels to the Holy Places” , it is recorded after leaving Sri Ranga, Caitanya Mahaprabhu reached Rsabha-parvata, … Panagadi, Camtapura, Sri Vaikuntha, Malaya-parvata and Kanya-kumari.
The Malaya hills therefore, by all accounts, might refer to the ranges in the peninsular region of India stretching south from SriShailam, in the southern end of the Western Ghats.
Malayavathi was a Siddha princess. The term Siddha originally denoted one of the eighteen categories of celestial beings. These beings of semi-divine status were said to be pure and dwelling between the earth and the heaven. Later they became associated with a class of more adept human beings, yogis. Sage Agasthya is credited with introducing Siddha cult to the south. The Siddhas who worship Shiva have been particularly strong in Southern India from the early ages.They are also adepts in Tantra and alchemy. The Siddha cult is still revered and practiced in South India.
Above all , Shankachuda , the hapless Naga cries out “After hastily paying my respects at the shrine of Gokarna , on the ocean’s shore , I again come to this slaughter-house of the Nagas.”
Malayavathi, therefore, might have been a southern princess who married a Vidyadhara Emperor-to be, from the Himalayan region.
Finally, as regards the Nagas, it is said that Nagas were a group of people spread throughout India during the period of Mahabharata. Their original abode could be the Airavata region in the far north, near the Iravati River (Ravi). As per Mahabharata, Nagas and Suparnas were two races having kinship. Kadru was the mother of the Naga race (1-16,122). Sister of Kadru viz. Vinata was the mother of Suparnas .The Suparnas headed by Garuda were formerly servants of the Nagas. With the help of Devas, Garuda ended that slavery; and later Suparnas became enemies of the Nagas (3,159).
Mahabharata also mentions that the territory of Suparnas, the enemies of Nagas ,was close to Hiranyapura the city of the Daityas and Danavas. Suparnas were described thus:-“By their acts they may be said to belong to the Kshatriya order, but they are all without any compassion as they mercilessly slay the Nagas, their kinsmen. They never attain to spiritual enlightenment in consequence of their hatred towards their relatives. However, the race of Suparnas is much regarded in consequence of the favor that is shown to it by Vishnu, the younger brother of Deva king Indra. All Suparnas dwell in only a single province of the region containing the cities of Patalam and Hiranyapura (5,101).
Naga race was almost exterminated by Janamejaya, the Kuru king, who conducted the massacre of Nagas at Takshasila. That massacre was stopped by Astika, a Brahmin whose mother was a Naga (Vasuki’s sister Jaratkaru). The city named after Takshaka, viz Takshasila (Taxila) to the west of the river Vitasta (Jhelum) was the abode of Naga Takshaka.
Nagas had kingdoms also in Nagaland and Andhra Pradesh. Arjuna’s wife Uloopi was a Naga princess in the line of Kauravya belonging to the race of Airavata, the original Nagas. Uloopi’s former husband was slain by a Suparna. She was childless. A son named Iravat was born to Arjuna and Uloopi. But Uloopi’s brother hated Arjuna since he destroyed the Nagas dwelling in Khandava forest ;and therefore abandoned Uloopi and his son. Iravat grew in the territory of Nagas, protected by his mother. Later when Arjuna visited the Deva region to the northeast of the Naga territories, Arjuna accepted him as his beloved son, and asked him to render assistance in battle at Kurukshetra. Iravat participated in the War with cavalry force driven by Naga warriors. He was slain by the Rakshasa Alamvusa, the son of Risyasringa (6, 91).
Some scholars opine that a tribe called Suparna (to which Garuda belonged) was the archrival of the Nagas. The Suparnas were probably falcon rising or falcon worshipping tribes
In any event, Jimuthavahana brought about peace and reconciliation between the Nagas and Suparnas. He succeeded in convincing the Suparnas the futility of perusing the hostilities and inflicting needless harm on other living beings.
Having discussed the academic aspects let me throw in a dampener.There is another way to look at the whole issue . Nagananada is work of fiction based on a fable. The locations of the play Vidhyadhara-loka and siddha-loka might just be names; the locations could have been anywhere else too. Similarly the characters in the play could have been anyone else and not necessarily Vidhyadharas or Nagas. It is also possible the names of places and the charectars were random selections.There is no need to read too much nto them . Just look at the more important things .The more important factors are the story line, its technique and the message of love, nobility and non-violence. These are in abundance in the play. Therefore, the play would still be of great significance, even if one ignores the context of the locale and the origin of its characters.
Let us however go along with the locale, characters and the spirit as portrayed in the play.
The first half of the play is permeated with gentle romance; the Siddha princess from South marries a Vidyadhara Emperor of the Himalayan region. The later half is about nobility, sacrifice and peaceful coexistence. The Buddha is the moving spirit behind Jimuthavahana’s efforts to bring about peace between two warring tribes; and the Goddess Gauri blesses his success. The Nagananda aptly commences with a salutation to the Buddha and ends with a benediction to Goddess Gauri. What more can anyone ask…
By Shilpi Shri Siddalinga Swamy of Mysore
Note: This was attempted , initially , as a response to a blog posted by
nagananda — tracing harshavardhana’s play geographically
Paintings of Vidhyadhara and Garuda
By Shilpi Shri Siddalinga Swamy of Mysore