Monthly Archives: October 2012

Chaturanga : a novella by Tagore Part One

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part One


Of  Tagore’s eight novels and four novellas, Chaturanga is perhaps among the least acknowledged and least translated. Chaturanga is virtually unknown outside of Bengal and the English-language readership, although it appeared in the immediate years following his most celebrated Geetanjali and his Nobel Prize. Tagore’s other novel Ghare Baire – Home and Abroad – (1916) – published soon after Chaturanga, in contrast, gained immense popularity.

Let’s talk about his Chaturanga.

The making of Chaturanga

RBT cropped

(Tagore 1905-6)

1.1. Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize – Diploma and Medal – from Lord Carmichael, the Governor of Bengal, on 9 January 1914, in presence of distinguished guests gathered at Governor’s  House, Calcutta.

Calcutta Belvedere, Calcutta. The Lieut Governor of Bengal's official residence - 1878

In the months thereafter, Tagore was rather pensive with apprehensions about the worsening political instability in Europe. Sadly, Tagore’s premonition of a major disaster came true with the declaration of war in Europe, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914. The Great War, which later was named the World War I, eventually struck the globe on 28 July 1914 and spread.

[The term ‘First World War’ was coined in September 1914 by the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, just as the European war spread to Asia and Africa.]

1.2. Tagore , in a restless frame of mind, then traveled to the regions of Allahabad and Buddha-Gaya. His poems of this period are dark and foreboding; both in form and content. While wandering about in quest of peace and understanding, he started crafting, with well pointed arguments and poetical expressions, a cycle of four stories of philosophical nature, exploring the inner world of man striving to realize Truth as it actually is. What he created was at once a philosophical investigation and a poignant love story caught between opposing worlds of ideas.

Its story is set against the background of conflicts between: reason and emotion; liberalism and orthodoxy; atheism and mysticism; spiritual aspiration and earthy passion.  The stories   also bring to question the paradoxes and ironies of life; the things perceived to be good but are not; unpopular rational views and irrational faiths that common people somehow love to cling on; self-seeking social superstitions and   annoyingly ridiculous customs.

But above all, they celebrate the nobility of woman’s Love and her emotional purity; and , the soaring aspirations of an earnest man seeking freedom,  striving to progress from form to formless, and to be rid of all attachments that bind human spirit. They also project, in a mellow glow, the purity of selfless Love and true friendship. These four esoteric stories of high technical merit were tied together, in to a quartet, under the title Chaturanga.

2.1. Chaturanga was initially serialized in four consecutive issues of Sabuj-Patra (November 1914 – February 1915-16) , a monthly literary magazine edited by Shri Pamathanath  (Pramatha)  Chaudhuri, doyen of the Bengali – literary journalism. The Sabuj Patra (meaning the Green Leaves , which  started on May 8, 1914 – the day after Tagore’s birthday) was the first voice of protest that spoke out against conventional beliefs and irrational thinking. Rabindranath Tagore had a high regard for Shri Chaudhuri ;and, acknowledged Sabuj Patra’s role in paving way for his literary activities to branch out in new directions. Sabuj Patra enabled Tagore, through his essays, stories and poems,   to express his reformist views on the state of the society and on the current political situations.


2.2. Chaturanga came to be  published in a book form during the year 1916 by the Indian Press of Allahabad, which also brought out collected works of Tagore , in Bengali , in ten volumes. Tagore seemed to have special affinity towards Chaturanga ; for, he himself , together with W W Pearson , translated it into English and gave it the title Broken Ties. The translated work was serialized as A Story in Four Chapters in the prestigious literary magazine the Modern Review during February-May, 1922.

The Broken Ties along with six other storiesIn the Night (Nishithey); The Fugitive Gold (Swamamriga); The Editor (Sampadak); Giribala (Manbhanjan); The Lost Jewels (Manihara) – together with a poem “Emancipation” (Parishodh), was published by Macmillan in London in the year 1925 under the collection of stories titled Broken Ties and other stories.

The Broken Ties was again reprinted without any changes in 1964 by Visva-Bharati under the title Boundless Sky.

broken ties

There are two other English translations of the Chaturanga quartet, as I know: one by Ashok Mitra (1963); and the other by Dr. Kaiser Haq (1993). There could be few others that I am not aware of. 

The Book

3.1. Chaturanga is rather short in length; running into just about 90 pages. The Book has been categorized as a novel, novella and as a long-short story, and kabya-upanyas (poem-novel) as well. Some say, it does not have a gradual building of a plot, development, unfolding and expansion that a traditional novel should have.

3.2. It is written in a style that is completely different from that of his earlier five novels; the last of which being Gora written about five years earlier (1910). His novels , earlier to Chaturanga, were elaborate, spanning many characters, attempting to explore their mutual relations, social interactions; analyzing their motivations, the impact they have on those around them as also on the society; and, picturing the myriad ways that the society reacts.

3.3. Chaturanga, in contrast, is terse, light and dramatic. Here, Tagore relied more on intimate conversations, half-spoken monologues and compelling situations, than on flow of events. The author’s preoccupation was with the intensity and turmoil of the personal world, than with the plot or its structure. He raises more questions than he answers.

4.1. The critics point out; Tagore’s technique underwent changes after the publication of his Gora (1910) followed by his tour to the United Kingdom and the United States during 1912-13. According to Prof Humayun Kabir, the French influence was clearly noticeable ‘as he moved from dominance of theme over plot; and simultaneously of mind over the heart’.

4.2. Chaturanga represents Tagore’s interesting experiment in crafting a novel by placing accent on the patterns of thoughts and feelings; on structuring of ideas and emotions; and, on highly stylized musical sounding literary language (Sadhu-bhasha). It is its innovative treatment of the subject; and its lyrical prose, elegantly phrased and constructed that provides the Book its rich texture, its varied tones and its ethereal quality. Here, Tagore achieves the fusion of poet and novelist. Tagore’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, remarks : that taken together, the four chapters are like a lyric – kabya-upanyas (poem-novel).  Ashok Mitra says its lyrical quality ‘gives the strangely agitated stormy world of Chaturanga a still point’.

Why was it not popular?

5.1. The Book – Chaturanga – could not achieve great popularity though the critics hailed it as ‘one of the greatest novellas in world literature, an exquisite work of art’ (Niharranjan Ray); ‘ a great work of art having something ethereal about its theme and something elfin about its character’ (Dr. SC Sengupta). Some critics  hailed  that Chaturanga ‘is undoubtedly one of the most complex novels of Tagore’ (Amitava Nag); ‘ is artistically more satisfying than Tagore’s longer and more celebrated novels; it more than makes up in intensity for what it lacks in detail, and is unique in the author’s oeuvre for its range of technical experiments’ (Dr. Kaiser Haq).

6.1. But, many say that Chaturanga makes a rather difficult reading; and, its characters are so ethereal and are far removed from the day-to-day life experiences of common people. And, that the average readers, normally, can scarcely identify with or relate to its main characters. That is to say; the book did not echo the common concerns; unlike , most of the successful Bengali novels of that period did.

6.2. As regards the language of the novel,  Tagore employed the formal Sadhu Bhasha with its rich ornamentation, lengthier verb endings and pronouns. Though the narration was compact and tight knit, it sounded more like poetry. And William Radice remarks : ‘Some its passages are poetically mysterious, hauling the reader down below the surface of realistic fiction into weird, intangible regions’. Kaiser Haq, one of its translators, remarked that at times   he found it difficult to appropriately render into English the import of certain culture-specific terms and stylized phrases.

6.3. Some critics have pointed out that, in a way of speaking, its narrative style was ahead of its times; and the readers were not yet equipped to appreciate its daring originality. They cite the instances of its rather abrupt transitions in plot; unexplained character-reversals, sudden flashes of compressed imagery and epigram. Kaiser Haq remarked that his task was particularly challenging because of the Book’s experimental qualities.

7.1. Though Tagore has made the human feelings the main material of the book, Chaturanga is clearly not a novel of social realism. Similarly, though the ideas in the book stem from a social context it does not address itself to the then current problems of the society. The book mainly serves as a vehicle for conveying philosophical ideas than social mimesis (‘imitation’ or ‘re-presentation’).

7.2. The time-less quality of its theme is both its strength and its weakness. The story is apparently set in the late 19th century at a time when Calcutta suffered a serious outbreak of plague; and, while it was about to turn in to a widespread epidemic (1898-1899).  Though the novel spans almost half a century of life and thought in Bengal, Chaturanga does not refer to the contemporary political situation. Obviously, Tagore was trying to address deeper concerns about human ethos and codes of existence relevant at all times. Here, he chose not to be restricted by the barriers that divide men and obscure their uniqueness.  His preoccupation was with the questions that haunt thinking persons in every generation. This classic element in Chaturanga lends itself to re-interpretations and reviews even long after it was written.

The Title


8.1. The relevance of the Book’s title – Chaturanga – is much discussed; and varied meanings have been read in to the term. Tagore , however, named his translation of it in to English as ‘Broken Ties’ perhaps suggesting that the theme of the Book was essentially seeking freedom from limitations of forms , attachments and their lingering  ties.

8.2. Chaturanga , in the old-Indian context, refers to the four arms of the traditional Indian army : the infantry, cavalry, charioteers and elephant-mounted troops. And, by extension, it can mean anything divided into four parts. Chaturanga is also the name of the complex mind-game (chess) where a player attempts to out-think, manoeuvre and ambush the opponent. As the scholar William Radice remarks:

Chaturanga evokes both the intellectualism and intense passion….Like a chess game played by grand-masters, Chaturanga is not initially easy to follow, but with careful reading and re-reading its deliberateness, the thought that has gone into every move, emerges clearly’.

8.3. The title has also been taken to imply the ‘four limbs’, ‘four parts’ or ‘quartet’ that make up the Book, as also the interplay between the four characters that the chapters are named after. There is also an observation which points out that though the story is centred on two friends and their involvement with two young women , there is no neat pairing of the couples. The novel actually revolves around two ‘triangles’.

Charur-ranga could also mean four colors of life

8.4. Another explanation is based in the theme-content of the book. It is said; rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life. But, each of those when it takes  the form of –  strict Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment –  is just a part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life. Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more.  If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility.

8.5. Ashok Mitra offers an interesting explanation. He suggests that Tagore had always had a fascination for structuring his songs, stories and novellas in ‘four-part’ components in terms of their ‘exposition, development, variation and recapitulation’. Ashok Mitra explains that Tagore ‘was deeply attached to this form, its varying rhythms and speeds; and used it repeatedly not only in his early stories but  also in the most powerful novella of his early fifties, Chaturanga. He returned to it with renewed power in his seventies in Malancha, Dui Bon and Char Adhyaya’.

The Plot

9.1. Chaturanga is set in Colonial Bengal during the twilight of the 19th century and the early years of   the 20th century. It was the time when western education and western ideas was taking grip over the young minds. Many were trying to accept west without rejecting the east or without condemning everything that was Indian. In the process the old customs, beliefs, ideas, practices, notions and institutions came in to scrutiny and question. The initial chapter of Chaturanga portrays, in a more matured form, the conflict between the reformist liberal attitudes and orthodoxy; and between modernity and the old world of traditions of the Bengali society.

9.2. Chaturanga is mainly the story of Sachish an English-educated bright and a very handsome young man; his reactions to the varied influences exerted on him; his strife to break free of all influences and attachments, and to move towards absolute freedom. His story is narrated by his friend, ardent admirer and follower Sribilash, another English-educated young person. The intellectual and the emotional dilemmas of Sachish are presented against the cross currents of religious and reformative movements that rocked the Hindu society in Bengal during the second half of the 19th century. The story unfolds the conflicts between western atheistic humanism and orthodoxy; between rationalism and devotional cults; between mysticism and harsh realities of life.

10.1. The story starts with the acquaintance of the narrator Sribilash with Sachish; and moves on to descriptions of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan and Sachish’s father Harimohan. Jagmohan, is a well educated staunch atheist, humanist and Utilitarian. He is a typical rationalist, the likes of whom enlivened Calcutta in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. Jagamohan rejects every social and religious norm and practice that lowers human dignity. He is willing to sacrifice his family ties and inheritance to be able to pursue his ideals of service to the underprivileged and the outcaste.

10.2. Sachish was brought up by Jagmohan as his virtual-son. Sachish imbibes the ideas and idealisms of his Uncle and follows him in every manner. Sachish’s friend Sribilash was a ‘believer’; and, initially was pained to know that Sachish was an atheist. And yet, in deference to his affection for Sachish he adopts his friend’s attitude.   Following that, Sribilash too comes under the influence of Jagmohan and turns agnostic.

10.3. Sachish scandalizes the family by offering to marry a young widow seduced and made pregnant by his cavalier brother. The young mother unable to face the shame and also the separation from her betrayer – lover commits suicide. This heart breaking incident is soon followed by a major tragedy. Sachish’s uncle Jagamohan – his friend, philosopher, guide and guardian- succumbs to plague while serving its poor victims.

11.1. Devastated by the twin disasters – a helpless woman’s suicide and the beloved uncle’s sudden death – Sachish is totally disoriented and becomes rudderless. The ground under his feet is totally swept away. He aimlessly wanders and eventually drifts in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult represented everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned. Now, Sachish had crossed over to a faith that was diametrically opposite to the views he professed while he was under his Uncle’s tutelage. Sachish turns in to an ardent and a fanatical devotee of religious Guru Swami Leelananda.  Following him, his friend Sribilash too joins the cult and becomes the Swami’s disciple.

11.2. While at the Ashram the two friends are attracted by a beautiful and vivacious young widow Damini who true to her name (lightening) is sparkling. Damini had been given away by her dying husband, along with all her property, to his guru Swami Leelananda. She is worldly, outgoing and bold. She has definite likes and dislikes. She is not afraid to hurl disturbing questions even at   Swami Leelananda that he cannot answer. He, for some reason, seems to be afraid of her. Damini questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without asking whether she agreed to be taken care of.

11.3. Damini falls passionately in love with Sachish, and is not afraid to express her physical desire; moans: ‘Oh, you stone, you stone, have mercy on me, have mercy and kill me outright!’ Sachish too falls intensely in love with the young widow – whom he calls ‘the artist of the art of Life’-   but is afraid either to face it fully or to acknowledge his love. He is at a loss how to respond or to react to her love.He wants her to keep away, but he wants her to be near too.

11.4. Sachish is thrown in to an abyss of doubt, confusion and indecision. He is much agitated and is unable to reciprocate Damini’s love. He comes to view Damini and her sexuality as a distraction enticing him away from his path of attaining True Freedom. Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him’.  Damini in the nobility of her heart resolves the situation; releases him from her love, and accepts him as her Guru.

Sachish disillusioned with the Swami and his faith becomes a recluse, takes up to contemplation and meditation in solitary places and furrows his own path.

11. 5. Damini agrees to Sribilash’s proposal and marries him. Sribilash returns to working-life; and the couple continue social service activities on the lines of Uncle Jagmohan’s ideals. After a few years of happy-married life Damini dies of an unknown pain in her chest, which she sustained in a cave while she desperately hankered for Sachish. Her last words to Sribilash were ‘May you be mine again in our next birth- (sadhmitila na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai) ’.


Supriya Chaudhuri writes  in ‘ Imagined Worlds – The Prose Fiction of Rabindranath Tagore

The idea of freedom is also at the core of Rabindranath’s experimental poetics in Chaturanga, a novel in four chapters serialized in Sabuj patra (Agrahayan–Phlgun 1321/November 1914–March 1915; published 1916).

Given these sequence of short stories that preceded them, the chapters – ‘Jythmashy’ (Uncle), ‘Shachish’, ‘Dmini’, and ‘Shribilas’ – might have read as separate stories; but the lives and destinies of the four main characters are linked together in a narrative that goes beyond, and even transgresses, the ordinary limits of domestic or social life.

The four-part structure is in tension with a deliberate triangulation of relationships in each section. Typically, three principal agents, closely tied to each other, contend over a single object of difference or desire: Jagamohan, Shachish, and Shribilas over Nanibala in the first section; Shachish, Shribilas, and Lilnanda over Damini in the second, third, and fourth sections.

Yet the novel is also a quest-narrative, with the fiery, brilliant Shachish, idolized by his friend Shribilas, as questing hero. Shachish’s first mentor is his upright, atheist uncle Jagamohan; after  Jagamohan’s death, he gravitates inexplicably to the Vaishnavite guru Swmi Lilananda; at the end, renouncing all mentors, he pursues his quest alone.

But we are also presented with an unsparing examination of the human capacity for self-delusion in the very act of self-surrender to an ideal or a cause: unlike the principled and compassionate Jagamohan, Shachish appears to be driven not so much by idealism or a spirit of self-sacrifice but by some compulsion of the ego.

 This is especially visible in his treatment of Damini, a young widow left to the care of Swami Lilananda. Resentful of her situation, bitterly distrustful of the swami and his circle of devotees, Damini is attracted to Shachish at the same time as she questions his punitive, self-destructive obsession with an abstract, undefined spiritual goal.

Unsurprisingly, it is the patient Shribilas who emerges as the most admirable of these three characters and is allowed, in the end, some modest human happiness.

Chaturanga’s scathing rejection of traditional Hindu family life is accompanied by transgressive alternatives. The atheist Jagamohan gives shelter to the raped and abandoned widow Nanibala and welcomes plague-stricken Muslims into his home, while Damini, made the ward of her husband’s guru Lilananda, forms unconventional alliances with Shachish and Shribilas, ultimately marrying the latter in defiance of his family.

In consequence, the novel too breaks free of the demands of social realism, offering, instead, an extraordinary examination of psychic life, especially the exemplary self-reliance of Jagamohan, the passionately ego-driven personal quest of Shachish, Damini’s desperate search for independence and personal fulfilment, and Shribilas’s commitment to care.

 A central concern, here as elsewhere in Tagore’s fiction, is the destructiveness of the male ego, especially in charismatic individuals who are convinced that all causes must give way to their solitary pursuit of an idea.

 Between the extremes of male abstraction and female self-absorption, we have the philanthropic Bihari in Chokher bali,  the patient Binay in Gora, the modest Shribilas, and a host of less-prominent female characters who offer the alternative of an ethic – even a philosophy – of care.

The experimental structure of Chaturanga  allows these alternatives to be clearly examined and judged


    Let’s discuss the four main characters

(Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish)

As also few other issues emanating from Chaturanga

in the next part

 Please click here for Part Two

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq Heinemann, 1993

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’ By   William Radice

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu  Biswas


Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim


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Tagore and Sarat Chandra

[The following may be treated as companion to my earlier post: Of poverty- literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee]

1. The renaissance period in the nineteenth century Bengal that followed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 witnessed a uniquely refined blend of dazzling intellectual brilliance fueled by western rationalism on one hand, and, on the other, of the outburst of art creations brought to life by the simple beauty and graceful expressions inspired by the traditional styles of ancient Indian murals.

The Bengali literary horizon, it was playfully said, was guarded by three celestial sentinels: Bankim Chandra (bent moon); Rabindra (regal sun); and, Sarat Chandra (autumn moon).

It was Bankim Chandra the creator of classics in chaste Bankimi-Shadhu-bhasha that ignited the fervor of nationalism in the hearts of his countrymen. The later writers of the period, taking his lead, brought into mainstream Bengali literature the fiery national issues and uncomfortable social practices, in  Cholito bhasha  the everyday – conversational language. 

A. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

bankim chandra chatterjee

2. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) – (1838-1894), the eldest of the trio, is regarded as the pioneer of literary renaissance of Bengal. He gave a new impetus to Bangla fiction by refining its prose, coining sparkling- fresh phrases and aesthetic expressions of great beauty. His was the sweetest voice that ever spoke prose. He revealed to the world a literary beauty, never known before. He was the forerunner of Bangla literature that flowered in the next century.

Bankim Chandra was also the first to popularize historical romances, as Walter Scott had earlier done in Scotland.  Both tried to bring to life the remarkable heroism and patriotism of the inhabitants; and, their struggles against the oppressor. Scott created his historical novels at a time when the traumatic events of the French Revolution had scattered his generation; and, brought forth a forced merger of Scots with the English.  Walter Scott made his mission to refresh Scots’ awareness of their nation’s past.

Bankim Chandra was a young man of nineteen, in the flush of youth, at the conclusion of the first war of Indian Independence in 1858. As the rest of the nation, he too was shocked at the failure of the revolution; and, found it hard to live with the ignominy of defeat and humiliation.

He set himself the task of understanding the problems of India’s political life; and, to come face-to-face with the causes for its predicament.  He, thus, began writing at a time when India was colonized by the British; when the wounds and horrors of the failed War of Independence of 1857 were still raw; and, when the ruthless British reprisal was terrorizing Indian people into abject submission.

Those were the days of strangling imperialism, tightened by the Queen’s Declaration; adding salt to the sore. There was also utter lawlessness, robbery, looting and plunder. The shame of helplessness had burnt deep into Indian soul. That naturally gave rise to a searing desire for nationalism and consolidation.

[Incidentally, it is said, when once Bankim Chandra called on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the latter punning on Bankim’s name teased him on the meaning of Bankim (Bent a Little). The sage playfully asked what was it that bent him. Chatterjee laughed aloud and replied that it was the kick from the Englishman’s shoe.]

3. Bankim Chandra was a superb story-teller, and a master of romance. No other writer in India, in all its regions, has enjoyed such spontaneous and universal acceptance as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Romantic idealism; its stunning beauty and intense passion; its heroic and enthralling vigor are the lifeblood of Bankim Chandra’s historical novels. Bankim Chandra delighted in reconstructing the earlier days of his country, as his imagination pictured them. Through his works, he yearned to arouse Indian people to rebel against their oppressor; to drag the sedate common people out of hopelessness and uncertainty; and, to instill in their hearts a new zeal.

Bankim Chandra learned to handle historical themes from Sir Walter  Scott. The historical romance had the added advantage of providing scope for the expression and encouragement of the young nationalism.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was also the first to write novels of domestic life and manners. With the reforming zeal, he introduced a new character into Bengali literature, the widow. Nowhere in the long and rich literature of the old period does a widow find any place. The abolition of suttee drew attention to her presence in society. She was unattached. With her, for the first time, a personal as distinct from a social relationship became possible between a man and a woman.

Punya Sloka Ray writes : Bankim Chandra depicts,in his Bishabriksha (The Poison Tree) and Krishnakanter Will (Krishnakanta’s Will), the evils that the marriage of widows may lead to . His men and women fail to work out their own fates, as members of the new society in the process of formation. They are caught in the coils of circumstance. The first widow, Kunda, commits suicide. The second is murdered. Bankim’s uncompromising conscience frequently forces an artificial solution. Both Bankim Chandra and Romesh Chandra belonged to the Bengal Renaissance, but their views on many subjects were diametrically opposed. Bankim Chandra did not go all the way with reformers like Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) and Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91); but, he did disapprove of polygamy; and in Indira makes it possible for an abducted wife to return to her husband and home.


3.1. Bankim Chandra raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary. Bankim Chandra’s immortal song Bande Mataram (Hail to the Mother), set to music by the young Rabindra Nath,  became India’s national song ; and , the voice of the Indian people fighting against colonial rule.

Bande Mataram expresses Bankim Chandra’s vision of the Mother India as goddess and of a woman as holy and venerable. His vision ignited the imagination of the whole of Bengal and rest of India.

[Please do not miss a most beautiful rendering of the Bande-mataram , in its full version to the accompaniment of a vast philharmonic orchestra. Please do watch.]

Bankim Chandra’s Sanyasins , in Anandamath , are fabulous characters rather like the heroes of Mahabharata. They did practice selfless militancy as a Dharma, echoing the ideal of Bhagavad-Gita. Dharma, here, meant Maitri brotherly bond with fellow-beings, togetherness; Dharma or Jeevana Dharma; and, not separateness. That, he said, is the essential quality of life. It is the way to honing perfection in human relations; by gently stepping aside ones egoistic tendencies; by bonding with ones fellow beings ;and, by discovering the fundamental unity of us all. It is the principle that holds us together and leads to the best welfare of all. Dharma is ‘the synthesis, the harmonized disposition’ of all faculties, vrittis.  In that sense, Dharma is the best form of civilization. 

Anandamath created, in its wake, a class of patriots who willingly vowed to sacrifice their life for the cause of Motherland. The women accepted the idea of their men renouncing their life and turning Sadhus, in service of Motherland. In the Bangla literature that followed , the patriotic  mother  at home came to be projected as Mother Goddess , arousing her sons, cultivating in them principles of morality and disciple;  and , preparing her sons (santan – band of warriors)  for the battle for liberation of Mother land. A widowed mother came to be looked upon as a symbol of purity, patience and selfless sacrifice. A household mother need not have to be militant; but , she had to be the  mother of heroes. 

Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru. They, following his ideal , regarded him as: the inspirer, a new spirit leading the nation towards resurgence and independence.

Anandamath continues to stimulate the ideal of nationalism, as India struggles to ‘westernize’ without losing its soul; to go hi-tech yet retain its unique gifts which she can bring to the troubled world. Bankim Chandra’s voice is still  resonant and alive.

3.2. Bankim staunchly opposed British rule and imposition of Western culture over Indian culture. Yet; he regarded the cultures of the West and East as mutually complimentary. He did encourage imbibing the healthy aspects of western heritage; and asserted that the ideals of East and West can be harmonized for the welfare of all humankind. He is believed to have said: ‘the day when the European science and mechanical skills healthily unite their forces with the philosophical idealism of India, then truly the man will become god’; ‘Preserving peoples identities, choices and integrity is a continual process; a challenge in which many voices struggle to speak for the spirit of the society’.

4. in the later part of his life, Bankim Chandra preached national regeneration , through religious revival. He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.

In the process , he produced: ‘Krishna Charitra’, ’Dharmatattva’ (Philosophy of Dharma), ‘Devatattva’ (Principle of Divinity) and a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita. Not many in world literature have excelled in both philosophy and art,  as Bankim Chandra has done.

4.1. Of his books of that genre, I have special regard for ‘Krishna Charitra’ a classic par excellence. It is a pioneering work where Krishna is subjected to pragmatic inquiry. Bankim Chandra strives to understand Krishna as a historic personand, as a rational human being; but, not as a fabrication of myths and legends.

5.1. Young Robindra  was an avid follower of Bankim’s novels, which were then serialized  in Bangadarshan :  “It was bad enough to have to wait till the next monthly number was out, but to be kept waiting further till my elders had done with it was simply intolerable.”

Tagore grew up as  Bankim Chandra’s literary disciple, owing much to the Master. When Tagore, in his initial years, came under severe attack by the critics for voluptuousness in his lyrics, it was Bankim that supported the young poet.

Towards his last days , Bankim Chandra named Rabindranath, just out of his teens, as his successor. The young protege accepted that with grateful appreciation.

The poet- scholar Romesh Chandra Dutt recalled a very touching incident, which , perhaps, took place soon after the publication of Tagore’s collection of poems Sandhya Sangit (the evening songs) in 1882. In this collection , Tagore had broken away from the classical mold; and, had  adopted the innovative romantic style . Romesh Chandra Dutt , recalling the incident, mentions that Bankim was the honored guest at a party hosted in connection with his (Romesh Chandra’s) eldest daughter’s wedding.

Young Tagore, who also attended the party, introduced himself to Bankim ;and , sat at his feet. Romesh, Chandra Dutt honoring Bankim Chandra offered him a flower garland. To the surprise of everyone present there, Bankim Chandra took off the garland and placed it around the neck of  young Tagore, saying: ‘this garland truly belongs to him (Navya yuger bhavya kavi – elegant poet of the new age) . I am the setting sun; and, he is the sun now rising. ‘ Romesh, have you read his Sandhya Sangit?’ Tagore, it is said, was overwhelmed by this act of kindness and the affection showered on him by the Master.

 [It appears; there is a background to this incident. It had to do with Bankim Babu’s attempt to lend a new sense of direction and identity to the Hindu religion. He did not seem to regard the Brahmo Samaj as the exact remedy. And, Rabindranath who was at that time the youthful Secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj did not quite appreciate Bankim Babu’s stand. Further, there was the moral question of relative merits and the interpretations of what is Truth (Sathya); and,  what is untruth (Mithya), over which the two held conflicting views.   In that context, the two entered into protracted arguments through the medium of the magazines. And, that, sadly, led to strained relations between the two great sons of Bengal.

Rabindranath, in his  My Reminiscences (Chapter 40), writes about that phase of his relation with Bankim Babu.

I was then coming out of the seclusion of my corner as my contributions to these controversies will show. Some of these were satirical verses, some farcical plays, others letters to newspapers. I thus came down into the arena from the regions of sentiment and began to spar in right earnest.

In the heat of the fight I happened to fall foul of Bankim Babu. The history of this remains recorded in the Prachar and Bharati of those days and need not be repeated here. At the close of this period of antagonism, Bankim Babu wrote me a letter which I have unfortunately lost. Had it been here the reader could have seen with what consummate generosity Bankim Babu had taken the sting out of that unfortunate episode.

Bankim Babu praising Rabindranath and graciously garlanding him at the wedding of Romesh Chandra’s daughter was seen as a symbolic gesture of putting an end to the differences between the two.]

5.2. Bankim Chandra through his magazine Bangadarshan, encouraged and provided opportunity for several young unknown writers to publish their writings. Tagore, who later came to edit Bangadarshan, wrote of Bankim Chandra:

Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands (sabyasachi – meaning ambidextrous). In one , he created literary works of excellence; and in the other he guided the young and aspiring authors .With one hand the ignited the light of literary enlightenment ; and with the other he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill conceived notions. Bankim Chandra alone took charge of creative writing and wholesome constructive literary criticism. He was the first Bengali of the modern period to give criticism the status and respect it commands today. For thirty years Bankim Chandra exercised a formative influence on Bengali literature.

Between 1872 and 1878 , Bankim Chandra wrote eight essays which have become modern classics. A stern moralist in his general attitude to life and the chief advocate of the new, nationalistic Hinduism that was developing) he did not import his didacticism into creative literature. On the contrary he declared that the object of poetry is not ethical instruction, but to attract man’s heart and mind so that they are stirred into a beneficial activity that enhances their awareness and effects their purification.


B. Rabindranath Tagore

RBT cropped

6.1. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in contrast to his predecessor belonged to the Brahmo Samaj ; and, to the most cultured and eclectic family in that circle. He , perhaps, was not quite familiar with ordinary Hindu life. Bankim Chandra and Tagore held slightly different attitudes towards Hindu Society and religion.

Punya Sloka Ray writes : The history of the Tagore family carries the amalgamation of diverse and often conflicting traditions a step farther. The Tagores were Pirali Brahmins, the epithet Pirali indicating that they had had connections with Muslims. Their heterodoxy enabled them to respond more effectively to the challenge of the times than others. Complaints against Tagore alleged that he was not sufficiently Hindu, that he was not sufficiently realistic and that his doctrines encouraged immorality.

[Many Bengali Brahmin families have extensive genealogical records called the Kulagrantha or Kulapanjikas. It is said; the Kulin-Brahmins of Bengal were earlier classified under different groups; such as:  Bandyopadhyaya (Shandilya-Gotra); Mukhopādhyāya (Bharadhwaja-Gotra); and, Chattopadhyaya (Kashyapa-Gotra). Later, a few Groups which forged connection with Turko-Persianate ruling class were designated as Pirali-Brahmins. Rabindranath Tagore, is said to have descended from the Pirali-Brahmin sect –

. ]

The family fortune was founded by the poet’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, a merchant who by trading with the British earned himself the sobriquet of prince. His son, Devendranath, became a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist sect founded by Ram Mohan Roy. The Brahmo Samaj repudiated idolatry. Its various branches took the lead in social and cultural progress, aiming at a synthesis between East and West. Devendranath was a man of profound spiritual vision. His home became a centre for the intelligentsia of 19th century Bengal.

Tagore by sasi kumar hesh 6.2. Rabindranath Tagore was a multifaceted splendor.  He combined in himself a poet, prose writer, composer, painter, essayist, philosopher, educationist, and a social reformer. But, it was as the poet that he gained universal recognition. He brought lyricism into Bengali poetry. His poems breathed freshness, an elegance and beauty which were hitherto unknown in Bengali literature. Tagore was admittedly a greater poet than a novelist; though as a writer of short stories he had hardly an equal.

Tagore’s real interests were romantic and social. These predominate in his thirteen novels. He quickly realized that he should begin where Bankim Chandra left off. Unlike the older writer, he was in full agreement with the progressive forces of the Reformation. Although his novel Chokher Bali. (Eyesore), 1903, bears a superficial resemblance to Bishabriksha (The Poison Tree), there is a fundamental difference in approach. The moral sentiment is less pronounced, although, of course, social considerations inevitably triumph. Binodini, the widow, goes to Benares, where she promises to engage in good works. Tagore gives the long drawn out love analysis sympathetic treatment. There is less preaching and no declamation.

The period of Tagore as a novelist lasts roughly from 1901 to 1916. Several of his later novels were written after that date but no major new development took place either in his style or subject matter. He had taken the novel a long way down the road to realism and Bankim’s idealism had been left far behind. But , Tagore’s world turned out to be an enchanted world after all. Whenever he writes about human life he seems, like Goldsmith, to pay it a compliment. His light handling works magic with his subjects. His work and attitude is pervaded with a gentle, tender humanism.

[ Please check here to read the Translation of Tagore’s Essays on the Aesthetics of Literature.]


7.1. Rabindranath was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 1913 ; gaining the distinction of becoming the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was also the year in which Sarat Chandra, at the insistence of friends, started contributing regularly stories to Bengali magazines in Calcutta.

Star of the Order of the Star of India 1861

And, in 1915 Rabindranath was awarded a knighthood by King George V as a  part of the commemoration of his Birthday Honours. And, it was only a year later i.e., in 1916, Sarat Chandra returned from Burma, with the hope of entering into literary circles.

That is to say, while Tagore was at the zenith of his literary career, Sarat Chandra was gingerly stepping into the small world of magazines ; and that too by proxy. By then Sarat Chandra was already about 37 years old, a rather late age for a debutante.


My connection with literature was severed soon after (I moved to Burma). I clean forgot having ever composed a single line in my life. I had a long stay abroad. I was quite in the dark about how modern Bengali literature had made great strides meanwhile with the poet (Rabindranath Tagore) as the key figure. I was never fortunate enough to come in close touch with the poet; nor was I privileged to come under his literary tutelage. I remained totally isolated.

When, unexpectedly, I was one day called upon to serve the cause of literature, I had already met the demands of youth and reached middle age. Fatigue had set in and enthusiasm had dwindled—I was well past the learning stage. I lived abroad, unknown and cut off from all. Nevertheless, I responded to the call; fear did not creep in at all in my mind.


C. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay


8.1. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) had more in common with Bankim Chandra. They both came from orthodox middle-class background; and, had similar attitudes towards Hindu religion and society. They both were fired by the zeal to cleanse and reform Hindu society. And, both were fiery patriots.

8.2. Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. Sarat Chandra’s impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions, and bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings. Yet, his criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society.

And, both shared a deep rooted respect for women. Bankim Chandra depicted women with great feeling and power; giving men much on which to reflect.  In his novel Krishnakanta’s will, Bankim wrote: “Woman is full of forgiveness, of compassion, of love; Woman is the crowning excellence of God’s creation …Woman is the light; and Man is shadow”

The poet –scholar Sri Chinmoy remarked :

‘We shall not be far from the truth if we hold that Bankim Chandra is the creator of an epoch and Sarat Chandra is the announcer of an epoch in Bengali literature. With his inquisitive mind, Sarat Chandra went deep into the heart of Bengal to discover both her tremendous sorrow and her stupendous joy’.

The themes in his early novels and their treatment are not much different from Bankim’s; but, their presentation, their locales are updated; the language, particularly of the conversations is easier and matter-of-fact.  The most marked departure from the Bankim Chandra tradition was his concern for the inner-life of his characters. Most of his novels are explorations of personal relationships; uncomfortable compromises between judgment and compassion; torturing conflict between instinct and ideals; and, problems of finding space between social consciousness and half-awakened personal instincts.

8.3. Later in his life, he fondly recalled how as a village lad , with almost no schooling , he was enthralled and captivated by Bankim Chandra’s classics. He wrote:

Now came the time for me to know about the works of Bankimchandra. I could not even imagine then that there could be anything greater beyond this in fiction. . I never even suspected that there could be any literature outside Bankimchandra. I read all his novels over and over again until I almost memorized them. Perhaps this was a drawback with me. Not that I have never followed the path of blind imitation. All such attempts have proved fruitless as literary compositions ; but as literary exercises they   provided  a  profitable  occupation  for  me  as I  can   feel  even  today.


D. Tagore and Sarat Chandra

9.1. Sarat Chandra and Rabindra present a splendid study in contrast, in many respects — in birth and pedigree; in taste and outlook;  in conviction and philosophy.

Rabindra was born into an illustrious family of considerable wealth, fame and cultural refinement; grew up in the heart of Calcutta when the Brahmo Samaj was enveloping its Bhadrolok elites; and when the literary renaissance ignited by Bankim Babu was just beginning to glow. Rabindranath was an ethereal being in an unending pursuit of unalloyed love and blemish -less beauty.

9.2. While Rabindra watched life and its common folks from a distance, Sarat Chandra was born into the very fire of poverty. He said:

“…My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit… I was brought up in a family where poetry or fiction was considered a euphemism for immorality and music was dubbed untouchable. My first introduction to Literature was through a veil of tears.”

Sarat Chandra , all his life, remained a restless wanderer; a tormented soul.

9.3. Saratchandra later said:

“It is true that my irregular life has caused me much pain and loss. But this was more than compensated for by the people I met. They taught me that man was not simply a bundle of faults, sin and wickedness. They gave me a glimpse of the real man behind all this wickedness and sin. Let not my writings insult this real man!”

9.4. While Rabindra was a superb poet, a creator of sublime poetry and a sage like mystic, Sarat Chandra could never be a poet. He was a die-hard skeptic and social rebel. Their views on fight for freedom differed significantly. But, both shared boundless love for the Motherland and a great humanism. And above all, they shared admirable mutual respect and regard.

10.1. Sarat Chandra was also much influenced by Rabindra who was senior to him by about 16 years. Rabindra had been writing poetry since he was eight years of age; and, had published his collection of verses, while he was barely sixteen. In contrast, Sarat’s formal entry into the field of Literature was rather late after he had’ already met the demands of youth and reached middle age’.

“My contact with the journal ‘Banga-Darshan’ inaugurated a new era for me. Rabindranath’s Chokher Bali began to be serialized in this journal (in 1902 when Sarat was about 26). The language and style were of a new order, and I felt very happy. I never even dreamt that an author could delineate reality so picturesquely. After such a long time, I had the taste of realistic literature. The saying ‘the more you read, the wiser you become’ is not true. I have not the language to express my gratitude to that great master who gave me an invaluable treasure in those few pages.”

10.2.   As regards his life away in Burma, he wrote:

 “In that foreign land I had with me some of the poet’s books —in prose and verse. And in my heart I had profound regard and faith. In those days I read and re-read those very books. I never pondered over such high subjects as what were their rhythm and diction, and what Art was, how it was to be defined, and whether there had been any flaws anywhere according to the standard. All this I considered redundant. What I cherished was just the deep-rooted conviction that a more comprehensive creation was unthinkable.

During that period I was not even aware of the Bengali literature’s progress wrought by the achievements of the ‘Biswakabi’. I had not had the good fortune of acquaintance with him, nor had I the fortune of having lessons in literature from him. This is the truth. But I have been an ‘Ekalabya’ (A disciple in absentia). I even carried his stories, poems and other publications abroad. I read those books several times, but I could not pick up his mastery in the majesty of his language and expressions. I had the deep conviction in mind that there could not be any creation more complete than this. I strongly feel that his works became my literary stock-in-trade”.

11.1 Even later in his life , after he was established as a writer of great merit in Bengali Literature, Sarat Chandra did try to adopt Rabindra’s Gora (which, he said , read more than twenty times) into his biggest novel Grihadaha (Home Burnt-1919).

Similarly, Sarat Chandra’s novels Chandrakantha  and  Charitraheen are said to run parallel to Rabindranath Tagore’s story Tyag and his Novel Chokher Bali.

[ Punya Sloka Ray , in his  review of Bengali literature writes : Sarat Chandra is primarily a story-teller. His books describe the sorrows and joys of men and women. They do not provide any solution for their grievances. He wrote about rural Bengal in the tradition created by Tagore in his early short stories. In his work the social problem is seen in the light of individualism. He had a romantic strain which made his books immensely popular.]


11.2. Sarat Chandra had earlier tried the Gora-theme – or rather the mirror image of it – in his   ‘Bamuner Meye’ (Brahmin’s daughter) – (1916) , in which the female protagonist Sandhya believed she was born to a Brahmin; and, could therefore dominate the relationship with the foreign-returned Arun (now technically a mlechcha) . Eventually, she discovers to her horror, that she was in fact a Barber’s daughter.

11.3. Again, it was Tagore in his Chokher Bali who first portrayed the plight of the child widow (Binodini) and sympathized with her yearning for a married life.  Sarat Chandra picked up the theme of ‘forbidden love’ and developed it with subtle and skilful artistry, capturing the heart of Bengal and the world. Tagore spoke of Sarat Chandra’s efforts with much admiration:

“Saratchandra focused his attention into the depths of human heart—of happiness and sorrow, at meetings and partings; he presented us an unexpected picture of artistry and nuance. The proof of this is the never ending pleasure of the Bengalis in his writings. With no other writer have they felt such deep inner satisfaction as with Saratchandra. Others have won more fame by their meritorious works, but few have attained such mastery over the hearts of his readers.”.. “He has imparted a new power to our language…and achieved the best reward of a novelist: he has completely won the hearts of Bengali readers.” (March 1935)

11.4. I think, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he drew upon his own life-experiences, as in Srikanta (1917-18), Palli Samaj (1916), Biraj Bahu (1914)and Charitrahhin (1917). All those works were written just as he burst upon on the Bengali Literary field ; and, was gaining reputation as the a powerful writer with a heart . Yet, in the later years, he kept returning , again and again, to the disturbing theme of caste and to the stringent criticism of its evils. He was driven by the anxiety and desperation to cleanse the Indian social system of that evil.

[Palli Samaj (Village Society), in which the village community, riddled with superstition and ignorance, triumphs over the enlightened and emancipated individual, was written in 1916. In Bamuner Meye (The Brahmin Girl), 1920, he shows the harm done by blind observance of custom. In Charitraheen, 1917, the wife’s sweetheart takes her away by force, fails to win her consent, and restores her to her husband.]

12.1. Sarat Chandra often remarked that he walked into the mainstream Bengali Literature by ‘accident’. He had no serious intentions of becoming a professional writer of fictions. Several years before he began writing, Sarat Chandra had left Bengal and was employed in the Rangoon Secretariat. He had outwardly no touch with Bengali literature; and , none in Bengal or elsewhere was aware of his existence.

He wrote in his articleMy Life’:

I wrote short stories when I was barely seventeen. But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood. A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant.

When almost hopeless, some of them suddenly remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write, for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly—perhaps only to put them off till I had returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their  letters and  telegrams  compelled me  at last  to think seriously  about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Yamuna. This became at once extremely popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps I am the only fortunate writer who   has not had to struggle.

12.2. It all started when his story ‘The Child of Bindu’ appeared in the monthly magazine Jamuna. He contributed the story under the name Anila Devi (his elder sister). The story captured the imagination of the Bengali readers. And, as the installments continued, the public interest also grew with it. ‘The Child of Bindu’ was followed by ‘Charitraheen’ , half of which was published in Jamuna ; but , not completed*. That was replaced by Baradidi (The Eldest Sister) , which was very well received. The readers were captivated by the powerful characters, lucid depiction, clarity in thought and humanism at its heart. His readers were attracted by the manner he created the climax of each installment. In another serial ‘Pandit Moshae’ , the climax was so well concealed that the readers fell into a debate among themselves whether  or not  Kusum was a widow; while some others argued that she was not even married.

12.3. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines. He was one of the few authors of those times that earned his living by his pen. He  never was  rich; and, yet he did not go after money. Sri Chinmoy recounts of an event when Deshabandhu Chitta Ranjan Das asked him to contribute a story to his journal Narayan. Sarat Chandra complied; and, sent for publication his story ‘Swami’. Chitta Ranjan Das was immensely pleased by the story. He sent Sarat Chandra a blank cheque, with a covering letter saying that he was not in a position to put a price on such a wonderful story; and , Sarat Chandra could fill in his own figure. Sarat Chandra did eventually drew only a hundred rupees.

[*The magazine editor was forced to take off Charitraheen as some subscribers threatened to withdraw if the immoral tale was not stopped forthwith. They were shocked by its love-theme which seemed to disregard and insult the conventions and morals of a civil society. The author had chosen to depict a love-episode between an educated young man from a middle-class family and a maid servant in a boarding house where the young man was lodged. No respectable Bengali writer, they said, would dare portray the character of a ‘low-class’ woman in such favorable light.

Though many readers viewed Savitri, a maid servant of a mess, as a fallen woman, Sarat Chandra regarded her as a symbol of self-less love, unaffected by its consequences. In his letter dated 13 May 1913 to Upendranath Gangopadhyay, he compared the character of Savitri to diamond: “You have seen Savitri as the maid servant of the mess. But, you have mistaken the diamond for a glass-piece. If only you had that eye… if they (readers of the magazine) had understood which priceless diamond comes up from which coal mine, they would not let slip that diamond.”

And again, years later, in a letter to Radharani Devi, Sarat Chandra compared true love to diamond. “True love does not come in the life of all men. If this rare thing comes in one’s life and if one can recognize it, then his life achieves success. You know many ignorant people throw a rare diamond, mistaking it for a glass piece. True love is tested in sacrifice.]

12.4. The stories took everyone by storm. Almost everyone assumed the author of the stories must be none other than Rabindranath, writing under a pen name. Who else could wield his pen with such great felicity, they all wondered. Rabindranath, however, kept denying he had anything to do with it. He was getting rather tired of persistent queries, and was frankly bewildered , wondering who in Bengal could be such a powerful writer.

Once the real author emerged out of the shadows , he became an instant celebrity and a household name in Bengal and in all of India.

Years later, perhaps after passing away of Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath wrote in the special supplement of the ‘Bharatbarsha’:

“The emergence of Saratchandra in the arena of Bengali literature was a sudden occurrence. He was not long in passing from obscurity to fame. At that time, because of pressure of work and difference in age, I remained aloof. Left Calcutta…and in the meanwhile Sarat had reached the acme of his career.  I never got the opportunity to meet   Sarat at close quarters which I count as a personal loss. Not that we did not meet or talk. But real fervour could not develop. If, instead of being confined to formal meetings and exchanges, our fellowship had ripened into genuine understanding, it would have been much better.”


13.1. At a time when Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore held sway over all aspects of Bengali literature with his many – splendored genius, the sudden emergence of a new dazzling talent was something for the literary world to behold. Sarat Chandra had touched the nerve center of the Bengali middle class families. He put in front of them the examples from their own social and family milieu; but, in his own way of thinking; and, in his unique style of analysis couched in sparkling-fresh spoken Bengali prose. Even the rural Bengal clasped him to its chest , since he brought to life, as no one else did, the vivid pictures of life in the villages, with its petty jealousies and ignorance, superstitions and absurdities (as in Pallisamaj ). Sarat Chandra belonged to both the facets of the society; but, dealt with their maladjustments with sympathy and humanism , in a manner that was never done before.

sarat chandra2

13.2. Sarat Chandra succeeded in projecting the ethos, the aches and pains of the world around him from a progressive point of view. He did that while being a part of the mainstream , without cutting himself off from its social and cultural heritage. Saratchandra did not, of course , provide solutions to the problems raised by him; did not solve the riddle of  Sesh Prasna the unanswered questions . Saratchandra said with candor: “In my works I have given no solutions, but posed only the problems ….. I hope new writers will treat these problems with greater poignancy and clarity and, give them real direction and solutions,”

13.3. Shri Dilip Kumar Roy the noted poet, singer and philosopher recounts Sarat Chandra saying:  

‘There are, in each of us, two ever-warring elements – judgment and compassion. They represent two opposing viewpoints; hence, they cannot but clash…. Man drifts away in diverse directions in the cross-currents of life — how and why, nobody knows for certain…I have witnessed , even among fallen women, strange nobility or unthinkable generosity. On the other hand, I have come across instances of abominable meanness and incredible small mindedness among members of polished circles. I have often shuddered; but, believe me, I have not succeeded till now in describing the real nature of Man.’

14.1. Some say that apart from Sarat Chandra’s genius and his flame like imagination, the other key to his spontaneous acceptance and popularity could perhaps be the timing of his advent on the literary and social scene of then Bengal.

The early years of the twentieth century were a period of transition through which the whole of Indian society was passing through. This was particularly true in the case of the  Bengal region , which was then passing through a transitional stage of decaying feudalism and incipient industrialization. It  was also  engaged in a struggle between the old and the new; decadent traditional and modern; rural and urban; caste rigidity and liberal social customs; religious fanaticism and rationalism.

The feudal exploitation; Zamindars’ tyranny;  visible caste-division; child marriage; prohibition of widow’s right to remarry; decaying extended family ; and, losing the traditional person-to-person relationship, were some of the striking features of the cultural milieu  the then  Bengal region.

Further, the new middle class was just emerging out of the sprawling shadows of joint families that were about to disintegrate. The newly (western) educated middle class was leaving age-old hereditary professions; and, was adopting new ones in different spheres of life. They were heading towards ‘freedom’, which meant escape from joint family-responsibilities.

The accepted social and religious values were brought into close scrutiny. The well settled-educated-middle class found in the Brahmo Samaj fresh interpretations that accorded respect to an individual’s thinking. That, at times, brought into debate the traditional Hindu beliefs and the rationale of the emerging Brahmo Samaj.

14. 2. Sarat Chandra captured with great imagination and understanding , the unrest and anxieties that a transition always brings in its wake. He refrained from value judgment. His appraisal on social norm was only a suggestive message; and , never an agenda. His sketches on the social canvas had just that subtle reformist touches. He wrote with great restraint and understanding about the inadequacies and contradictions of the old and new ways of living; and, the imbalance in the lopsided  fight of  the disadvantaged against  the powerful .

[Take for instance, the short story Mahesh, in which Sarat Chandra presents a perceptive reality – the socio-economic deprivation as well as the exploitation of the poor. In a way, Mahesh epitomizes the state of the rural Bengal societies in the early part of the twentieth century under colonial rule. The story shows the abyss in which the hapless poor find themselves trapped. In fact, they do not even know how and why they are unwittingly caught into troubles. It effectively depicts how the marginalized are oppressed by powerful; and also their courage to defy it rather valiantly.

The story Mahesh presents how Gophur Mian and his  daughter Amina;  and his bull Mahesh , which eventually is killed , all suffered; but, did not gave up till the end. The relations of the characters  here, transcend the bonds of caste, creed and religion; and, extends beyond to include the livestock as well. Mahesh  fights till his death; and, humanity somehow survives even in most inhumane circumstances. The point is, they might not have succeeded in defeating the oppressive system; but, they did have the courage to question it; subvert it; and, to refuse to give in. Thus, at the end there is no rescue; no escape. And yet, there remains a flickering hope for a future.

The story

A poor peasant Gophur had a pet bull Mahesh. Both are old; and, Mahesh after eight seasons of ploughing can no longer work in the field. It was difficult for Gophur to feed himself and his daughter Amina. One day , while Gophur was returning home, empty handed, found the hungry Mahesh eating  away the last stock of grain and a part of the dry paddy grass covering the house roof. Overpowered by anger he beat his pet Bull who died on the spot. Next morning, Gophur left his house along with his daughter to a small town seeking  a job at the jute mill there, which  he had earlier refused to accept, despite his poverty that drove him to  near starvation.

The death of Mahesh is also symbolic. Till the time Mahesh was alive Gophur persistently rejected the idea of working in Jute Mills. He believed that it cannot save woman’s honor and one’s religion. But after Mahesh’s death he accepts the work which, in a way, symbolizes the  death of  his  ideals.

Now, a bigger fight awaits Gophur in Phulber, the jute-mill, a place of no religion and no honor for women. Perhaps, that would be Amina’s turn to fight on beside Gophur.

Please check here for an analytical study of  Mahesh  by Mrinal Sarkar]

14.3. His women characters, in particular, placed in the very cauldron of life were the obvious victims of such agonizing conflicts; and, they endured the pain, suffering and humiliation it brought upon , with a sense of rare dignity and honesty.

[ All the three authors showed remarkable sensitivity in the creation of their leading women characters. And, yet, there is a marked difference in the social, cultural and economic status of the women characters depicted by each of them.

Bankim Chandra’s women have strength of character, personality, courage. Tagore’s women have charm, intelligence, dignity.  Sarat Chandra introduces the scorned, oppressed and fallen, holding a passionate brief for them. He points up their good qualities, underlines their humanity, and reveals the strength of spirit which enables them to survive indignity and humiliation.

For instance; even in the social novels of Bamkim Chandra, the leading ladies, generally, come from wealthy or upper-middle class; are well educated; intelligent ; and, are very beautiful. In fact, Bamkim Chandra, in his Rajmohan’s Wife, devotes a whole lyrical passage to describe the beauty of Matangini. Many of his heroines are modeled after the leading characters in classical Sanskrit drama (say, Malathi-madhava and Shakuntalam) or Shakespearian plays.

The women in Sarat Chandra’s novel generally come from middle-class or economically weaker class, living in precarious conditions trying to make a living; and, some are deeply hurt too. Many of his leading ladies are ‘fallen women’; but,    blessed with tranquil poise, having an aura of saintliness and a bleeding- heart ever willing to endure pain for the sake of that elusive love. Almost all of his novels are set in the times when the whole of Bengal society was passing through transition: from feudalism to urbanization; rural to industrialization; and form colonialism to nationalism .That was also the time when the rationale of religion and its practices were questioned; when Brahmo Samaj was attempting to synthesize a rational approach to religion; and, the questions about equal rights for women and widow re-marriage were passionately debated. Generally, it was the vibrant and restless period of confrontation between the old and the new; between the decadent and the liberal; the dogmatic and the  rational.

And, as regards Tagore’s characterization of women, it falls somewhere in between the two. His women characters generally come from upper middle-class; and, are intelligent and educated. Their problems are not so much related to survival in a harsh society , as to loneliness and sense of neglect and dejection in love. They also endure pain from complications arising out of the extended family-situations. At the social and cultural level, his women are active, rebelling against unjust attitude towards women in the male dominated conservative society. The questions of nationalism and participation of women in the freedom struggles also figure prominently.

All the three authors show enormous regard for women; are sympathetic to their struggles, and especially towards the plight of the young widows. The approach of the three towards widow remarriage is also graded.

In Bamkim Chandra’s novels, some women take a defiant stand against social injustice and inequality ; and, even try to defy the society. But, somehow, they all end their lives in unhappiness (Kundanandini in Bishabriksha; Shaibalini in Chandrasekhar and Rohini in Krishnakanter Uil). Even in his Debi Chaudhrani which glorifies the heroism and the independent spirit of a courageous woman, Prafulla the rebellious, at the end, returns to her husband’s family and his other wives.

On the question of widow-re-marriage, Bamkim says:  the right to remarry was given to the widows only to be “taken away in the name of chastity and morality”. The widows in his novels do not , of course, marry again.

In Tagore’s novels, the leading women die rather young and childless. The motherly aspect of women is not much depicted. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini of Chokher Bali) do not actually get married, though they could have. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies young and child-less.

In the novels of Sarat Chandra, the young widows and their problems are much discussed. He did show compassion for the fallen women and toward those who forsook their families, not because they wanted to, but because it was foisted on them by the male-dominated society. And, at the same time, he juxtaposed their steadfastness in love with hypocrisy and ugliness of the society. For instance ; look at  his characterization in delineating the characters of Tagar Bostabi (Shrikanta, Part 2); Kamini Bariuli (Charitrahin), Mokshoda (Charitrahin) ; and, so on.

The question of widows marrying again is also debated in several ways. But, I am not sure if any of those  young widows  married again. Sarat Chandra did not also offer a solution. The question of widow-re-marriage was left hanging.

Though Sarat Chandra tried to delineate his women characters, project and fuel their inherent desire to get out of the deep rut into which they were stuck, he  could not go beyond the social strictures  hoisted on women.

Even the ‘awaken’ women (jagrat-mahila) who dared to question and protest against the injustices heaped on women, eventually, somehow, fade out; and, sadly, do not succeed in becoming ‘free-women’. Take for instance; Achala of Grihadaha or Rama of Pallisamaj or even the intellectual Kamal of Shesh Prashna, though they all were eloquent on the question of equal-status of women in a free and a fair society , they  could not become free women.

This was particularly true of his Sesha Prashna . The theme and narration of Shesh Prashna are riddled with uncertainties. One of the major difficulties that its reader encounters is the rather vague, hesitant and half-hearted  nature of the novel, both in terms of its theme and the future of its characters; all are left hanging and unresolved. 

In response to a  letter from a female correspondent , pointing out the rather unsatisfactory  treatment of the problems of ‘un-free‘ women and the unresolved conclusion of the Shesh Prashna  (The Final Question, 1931), Saratchandra remarked  that his purpose in scripting the novel was not to reform the  society; but,  as a writer, to  depict and highlight  of human problems.  And, he can offer no quick remedies to the problems confronting the lives of individuals and the human society, as a whole.

[For more on Shesh Prashna, please read Dr.Supriya Chaudhury‘s (Jadavpur University, Kolkata) Introduction/ Afterword: Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, The Final Question, 2001]

Sarat Chandra’s stand, in general, was that he did not  intend to be a social reformer; and, as a novelist he depicted human problems as they existed in the context  of the then social situations . That echoed the oft-quoted words of the French novelist who wrote under the pen-name Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle-1783 –1842), belonging to the Realist School: the novel is a mirror walking down the street; and, if it reflects the mud and the puddles, it is not the fault of the mirror’. From Stendhal onward, the French writers became  increasingly concerned with making the novel , as realistic slice of life as possible, both in form and content.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Indian literature, during the post Sarat Chandra period.

During the thirties these desultory trends were gathered into a comprehensive attitude which Sudhindranath Dutta (1901-1960) describes and defines in the first issue of the quarterly, Parichaya, which became a powerful and formative influence under his editorship. He says: “The task of the poet is to integrate the disordered and fragmentary experience of everyday into a supreme realization…; to integrate the fragmented lives of all around him and place them in the flowing stream of life; to absorb the particular consciousness of his time into the eternal and essential consciousness. Success in this great undertaking is not achieved through the cultivation of an ascetic aversion to the world.” ]

14.4. Sarat Chandra said ‘the subject-matter and theme of my literary creation are not wide and extensive; but, narrow and limited. Nevertheless, it remains my claim that I have not divested them of truth, by giving them colorful touches of unreality’.

14.5. His experiences reinforced his liberal outlook on life. He believed that ‘the physical chastity of woman is not a social convention; it is her own training and discipline. If this discipline were to exist even in the unmarried, the security of society will not be affected… Love is greater than the body and the individual nobler than society… I do not grieve for the death of man; I grieve only for the death of humanism in man.’

In a short story titled ‘Sati’, while writing on Narir Mulya (value of woman), it is said, he tried to lend a special meaning to the term ‘Sati’. According to Sarat Chandra, ‘Sati’ does not merely imply chastity; it is , indeed,  something else, as well. He says, ‘to remain sexually chaste is regarded here as a criterion for judging human character. But everyone knows, it is next to impossible to adhere to chastity throughout one’s life. This concept passed down through generation after generation has bound men and women to the cruel social strictures and tugs at them’.

Here, in this story, Sarat Chandra mocked at the concept of chastity that the society imposed upon woman ; and , how it shattered conjugal life.

[During the time of the Buddha, the earliest Buddhist Order of Nuns did not place a premium  on the state of virginity of the women entering the Sangha. A vast number of its inmates had been mothers and wives; and, a few had been courtesans. The Master himself was once a husband and father.This again was an assertion of the Buddha that the road to enlightenment is not blocked by the state of the body and its condition.]


Sri Chinmoy says: ‘Sarat Chandra’s works tell us that he had the profoundest respect not for the men of vast learning or wealth, but for the men of virtue. He was terribly hurt by the fact that the present society is under the subjugation of the so-called men of learning, and tortured by the men wallowing in the pleasures of riches. His heart was ready to tolerate everything save and except hypocrisy. His life was an illustration of his teaching’


E. Interactions

Tagore, a sketch by Rothenstein flip

15.1. Sarat Chandra the newcomer, it was said, stayed at a safe-distance from the burning sun of the Tagore-genius. The autumn moon, they said , was not dimmed by the regal sun. All of that was merely to say that Sarat Chandra was not overshadowed by Tagore. He was a more popular story-teller than either Bankim Chandra or Tagore.

15.2. It must be said to the credit of the Great Sage Tagore that he acknowledged Sarat Chandra’s merit, appreciated and accepted him with open heart. Sri Chinmoy recalls how the great poet in humor and cheer remarked , in his letter of  Baishak 3, 1333 (1926), addressed to Dilipkumar Ray, wrote: “Many deem Sarat a better novelist than me. In story-writing many people place Sarat above me; but, that does not affect me. For even the greatest censor cannot deny my superiority over him in poetry.”

Sarat Chandra too in all earnestness revered Tagore as Kabisamrat – the sovereign poet. In another context,  Sarat Chandra regretted that he longed to be poet; but, his restlessness does not let him be a poet.

15. 3. Rabindranath had much affection for Saratchandra. In 1932, writing Punascha at Santiniketan, he wrote a poem Sadharan Meye. It is now a famous poem. Some lines of it are:

I am a girl of a common household,
You wouldn’t recognize me,
Sarat Babu, I’ve read your latest — 
‘Garland of wilted flowers’.

Your heroine, Elokesi,
At the age of thirty five
Competed with one of twenty five.
Indeed you are great;
you made the former win.

 I beseech you, Sarat Babu, write a story
Of an ordinary homely girl,
A hapless one who has to contend from afar
With six or seven most extraordinary ones — 
Like seven charioteers.

I know it well, misfortune is my lot ;
I have lost the fight.
But, of whom you write,
Let her win, for my sake,
Reading which one’s heart will swell.
May your pen be twice blessed.

16.1. Sarat Chandra was fifteen years younger than Rabindranath; but, died three years earlier to the poet’s demise. Despite their differences on certain issues concerning literary, non-literary and political matters, they shared a common bond ; mutual regard; and affection  . Each held the other in great esteem.

Sarat Chandra regarded Mahakavi Veda-Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, as the greatest writer of India. And, he reckoned Rabindranath Tagore as the next best, the second greatest.  He called him as his Guru and the Literary-guide. In his listing, Valmiki and Kalidasa followed thereafter.

On the occasion of the celebrations of the seventieth birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, in December 1931, Sarat Chandra submitting his salutation to Guru Dev, the Great Master, wrote:

We never cease to wonder, when we look at you… We all have received a lot from this world; but, we have also given it back a lot through you. O Sovereign Poet! Kabisamrat! We salute you on this auspicious day. We bow again and again to the Supreme expression of your beatitude. You are the wonder of wonders:  Kabiguru, tomar prati cahiya amader vismayer sima nai

[ Please also read an extremely well composed Forward written by Sri  Ramananda Chatterjee to the Golden Book of Tagore – A homage  to Rabindranath Tagore – from India and the world – in celebration of his seventieth birthday]

Tagore seventieth birthday

A few months before the death overtook him, while replying to the facilitation on his 62nd birthday broadcast over the Calcutta station of the All India Radio in September 1937 , Sarat Chandra  paid his tribute to the Great Poet Maha-kabi Rabindranath , saying :

As I step into my sixty-second year , before seeking the blessings of other elders, I wish to submit my Pranams to my Gurudeva, Rabindranath Tagore, who is now lying ill  . His blessings have been the guiding light and protection of my entire literary efforts. These are the priceless treasures that every writer would cherish to gain. On this day, I again seek the blessings of the Kabi-Guru, the greatest poet of our age.

Yes; there was genuine love and regard between the two greats; but, that did not mean they had no differences at all.  They did have their differences. But that was on basic attitudes towards certain issues; and never on personal matters or prejudices. For instance; Sarat Chandra , in the later part of his career, drifted away from his natural moorings and strayed into barren intellectual debates (Sesha Prashna) and violence, preaching sedation (Pather Daabhi). Tagore did not approve of Sarat Chandra advocating violence. In fact, the British Government proscribed Pather Daabhi  under 99 (A) of IPC ; and, was about to charge Sarat Chandra for sedition under Section 124 (a) of IPC. In that context, Tagore advised Sarat Chandra that the anger against the foreigner was a distraction, drawing his attention away from the more useful programs benefiting the people we love. He added , that by focusing all their attention on the enemy the nationalists were inadvertently or covertly assisting the British. That would amount to offering the British our admiration. (Feb 10, 1927- Tagore, Selected Letters – 347).

Rabindranath and Saratchandra

16.2. On the eve of Saratchandra’s fifty-third birth anniversary, Rabindranath blessed him saying:

Let your powerful pen clear the path of progress; and, I bless you wishing your long life…. You have conquered the heart of your country by your genius; and, thus earned the right to fathom its very depths. Your pen has touched the chord of the Bengali psyche in newer and deeper sensibilities of laughter and tears

Saratchandra acknowledging Rabindranath’s blessing, revered it as the ‘greatest reward’ he ever received. He in his letter (of Asvin 29) responded saying :

I accept with a deep sense of gratitude and honor this gift from someone whose minutest charity is a prized treasure for any writer.


Again, on the eve of the 57th birthday celebration of Sarat Chandra on 15th Sept 1933 (2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY) organized at the Calcutta Town Hall, Tagore greeted him with  a beautifully well written letter full of love and admiration for his achievements.

He advised his junior that a writer must continually keep reinventing himself; else , like a faded photograph he would in time blur and become indistinct…When men render homage to a writer who has passed the middle years of his life, they not only gratefully acknowledge what they have received in the past; but , also express hopes for what is yet to come. Joyfully, they say , this man has more to yield…This is the significance of our felicitations of Sarat Chandra today.

16.3. The last three paragraphs of the letter are truly remarkable for the benediction, love and regard that Tagore showered on Sarat Chandra.  Surely, Sarat Chandra could not have asked for more. It was his greatest Blessing; and, the fulfillment of his life.

“I would have specially prided myself in today’s felicitations had I been able to say that he was entirely my discovery; but, he needed no formal letter of introduction. Today , every Bengali home, spontaneously greets him with praise. Not alone in the field of letters—on the stage, on the screen—the Bengali’s eagerness to come close in contact with his genius ever increases.   He has evoked,   through   his words,   the   agony   of the   Bengali   heart.

In the world of literary activity, the creator ranks much higher than the critic; for, it is the all-encompassing vision of the imagination, not the analytical sharpness of the intellect that reveals always the true greatness of literature. As a poet, I now come forward to garland this creator, this man of vision,  this Saratchandra.

May he live a hundred years to enrich Bengali literature; may he impart to his readers the wisdom that brings with it real knowledge of man; may he reveal human nature clearly with its faults and its virtues, with its good and its bad; and, may he enshrine through the clear limpid melody of his words—not isolated incidents that surprise or instruct—but the eternal experience   of the  human   mind “.

16.4. Sri Aurobindo said: “As for Bengal, we have had Bankim; and, still have Tagore and Saratchandra. That is an achievement enough for a single century.”

16.5. In his last days when he was asked to write his autobiography, he said with characteristic straightforwardness, “I cannot write my autobiography. I am neither that truthful nor that courageous.” And on one occasion when Rabindranath Tagore also made a similar suggestion, Sarat laughed aloud and replied: “Gurudev ! Had I known I would become such a famous man, I would have lived a different sort of life.

17.1. Sarat Chandra died of cancer on 16th January 1938, at Park Nursing Home, in Calcutta, just as the whole of Bengal was preparing to celebrate the birth centenary of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterjee the pioneer of the re-awakened Bengal and one who helped us realize  and sing  with enormous pride the glory of  Mother India in  Love  and reverence . What a wonderful hundred-years it had been for Bengal and India..!!!

Sarat Chandra’s untimely death was a great loss for thousands of his countrymen. They felt it as a personal loss. And Tagore, too, was one of those. But the way he consoled his bereaved countrymen was sincere and very touching.

On learning of Sarat Chandra’s death on 16 January 1938, Rabindranath Tagore said:

I am profoundly grieved , along with the rest of  my countrymen, over the sad demise of the most beloved and popular writer of the modern age , who portrayed with great sensitivity and understanding of the agonies and ecstasies in the life of the common people of Bengal. His ability to delve deep into the heart of every type of character was his unique genius.

And , ten days later, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in a poem:

He who has his place carved
In the heart of love,
Death’s law can give us no sense of his loss.
He who has been taken away
From the bosom of the earth
Has been held in the heart of his country.


17.2. In the seer-words of Sri Aurobindo: Sarat Chandra was blessed with large intelligence, an acute sense of observation of men and things, and a heart full of sympathy for the sorrowful and the suffering . Sarat Chandra with the fineness of his mind was too sensitive to be quite at ease with the world. He was perhaps also too clear-sighted.

“What is stamped on Sarat Chandra’s photograph, everywhere, is a large intelligence, an acute and accurate observation of men and things, and a heart full of sympathy for sorrow and suffering. Too sensitive to be quite at ease with the world, and also perhaps too clear-sighted. Much fineness of mind and refinement of the vital nature.”

17.3 Sarat Chandra was fond of Tagore’s poem Sahjahan; and quoted it quite often. He perhaps found in it  a reflection of all those  who create works of Art  .


18.1. And, this was how Sarat Chandra wished to be remembered:

…I do not aspire after immortality, for like many other things in life the human mind is subject to change. So what looks important today may appear insignificant some other day, and small wonder. Even if, in the long run, the major portion of my literary attainment is submerged under the neglect of unborn generations, I shall have no regrets. It remains my only hope that if there is an element of truth anywhere in it that much will survive as my contribution defying the ravages of time. It matters little if it is not abundantly rich; it is in order to pay my homage to the Muse with that humble offering that I have sacrificed my life-long labour. This heartening reflection will illumine my hour of departure at the end of the day and fill me with the assurance  that  I  am a blessed  being  who  has  not lived  in  vain.


References and sources:

1. Sarat Chandra by Sri Chinmoy

2. Preface to Srikanta by E.J. Thompson

3. Letter to Saratchandra from Rabindranath Tagore

4.My Life by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay

5.Sarat Chandra : an evaluation by GV Subbaya

6.Sarat Chandra Chatterjee by Abani Nath Roy

Images are taken from internet


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Of poverty – literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee

sarat chandra2

One of my friends wrote lucidly about poverty displayed in arts and cinema. He said, “I find nothing wrong in the approach”. He also referred to the colossus of Indian cinema ,  Satyajit Ray ; and , his Apu trilogy.

There appears to be a stubborn bond between art, artists and poverty. In some cases , the artist might seek it,  because poverty is the great reality; but, in most other cases poverty is the only reality that artist is familiar with. Who can forget Van Gogh who was driven to insanity by punishing poverty, cruel neglect and suffocating loneliness? Somehow, a view has gained ground that the artist is given to sense more keenly than others only while placed in the cauldron of poverty, prison, or illness. Rainer Rilke said; one cannot be a good poet unless one loves poverty, indifference and wretchedness. Accordingly, his world-view became uniquely skewed.  And, in Rilke’s view the city of Paris was not the belle époque, capital steeped in luxury and eroticism; but, it was indeed a city of abysmal, dehumanizing misery, of the faceless and the dispossessed, and of the aged, sick, and dying. It was the capital of fear, poverty, and death.

According to Rilke , the passion in human nature chooses “the one precious thing” ; and, urges him to pay for it through poverty, conflict, deprivation, and endurance of anger from rejected divinities. As if to prove him right, Dostoevsky, Kafka and others of the tribe lived their miserable life in ignominy and penury while producing masterpieces. Strangely, an artist who gains success and affluence would be seen as one who has lost his authenticity; and, he would live the rest of his life on borrowed glory.

And, W.H. Auden, in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, with  special reference to Pieter Breughel’s famous landscape painting Icarus, writes about the relation between the miseries of life and  the  European painters, the Masters: “About suffering they were never wrong; the Old Masters: How well they understood Its human position; how it takes place… They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course..”

Whenever a debate about poverty and literature comes up, I cannot help thinking about Charles Dickens and our own Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.

Dickens portrayed the urban poverty, deprivation and the wretchedness it brought, especially, upon the slum – children of the Victorian society. No other author of that era presented a more realistic and “humanized” face of poverty. He created some of English literature’s most memorable characters. Some People might mock Dickens’s style; but no one, I feel, has been able to capture such variety of human nature. His characters are all amazing, so vivid that by the time he reaches the end of the novel, the reader comes to know them on a personal level.


Dickens’s was a study in abuse of power. Dickens’ novels criticize the injustices of his time; but, are indeed dedicated to the suffering poor everywhere. He pictures , poignantly, their starving, rumbling stomachs, bare feet, cold lives, empty staring eyes and the fear lurking behind them. He says, it is all because the mighty ones snatch away their rights; and, refuse to help them. His novels, at a later time, succeed in bringing about some reforms in social conditions and criminal laws of England; and  above all ,  some change in the attitudes towards the poor.



This article is mainly about Sarat Babu ; that is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) – (15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938) . He is one of my favorite writers, in any language. His portrayal of poverty was lot more understanding and sensitive. His characters carried around them their poverty with a great sense of dignity. They never were ashamed of their poverty; instead, they seemed to feed on the misery mounting on them; and, eventually  succeeded in climbing  out of the heap , with composure and dignity.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee experienced Poverty  rather very intimately.

He did not have to obtain his material from research. It was his encounters with life as a country lad and youth that provided him the inspiration, ingredients and story-lines for his life-like characters placed in rural family settings. All his stories are about the depictions of the various shades of the characters; the characters with  their flaws ; the characters that had their imperfections celebrated by the author, rather than brushed under the carpet. Sarat Chandra molded them in his own inimitable style. The distinctive features and the essence of purpose that he added rendered them larger than life. That is the reason   his stories have gained such universal appeal.

His real heroes are not those under the limelight; but, are those in the corners, the shadows of life. They are the ordinary men and women placed within their limited confines battling extraordinary situations with courage and conviction; but, finally emerge out of the ordeal with composure and dignity though a bit bruised and looking tired. He seemed to believe: One’s true test is in one’s daily life; and, in one’s reliability and integrity as a human being.

Most of his stories relate to rural life and society. Sarat Chatterjee is at his best when he draws from his experience ; and, writes about women from poverty stricken rural Bengal who hold on to their values even while placed in the very caldron of life. He had a deep affection and respect for Bengali women. Some of his women characters stand out; they are the dominant personalities , without in any way losing their femininity.


Sarat Chandra had a great admiration for the fortitude of the poor and respect for their undemonstrative courage. In his acceptance speech delivered on 2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY (15th Sep 1933) at a gathering organized at the Calcutta Town Hall to celebrate his 57th birthday, Sarat Babu acknowledged his debt to the poor and the  depraved:

My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I’m forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice and to the endlessly hassled, distressed (weighed down by life) and helpless people who don’t even have a moment to think that: despite having everything, they have right to nothing. 

They made me start to speak. They inspired me to take up their case and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustice to these people, unfair intolerable indiscriminate justice. It’s true that springs do come to this world for some – full of beauty and wealth – with its sweet smelling breeze perfumed with newly bloomed flowers and spiced with cuckoo’s song, but such good things remained well outside the sphere where my sight remained imprisoned. This poverty abounds in my writings.


Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (nickname Nyadha) was born in Devanandapore – a village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, on 15th September 1876 (31 Bhadra 1283 Bengali Samvat). He came from a poor family. He was the second of the seven children of Matilal Chatterjee and Bhubanmohini Devi.  Sarat had an elder sister (Anila Devi) ; four younger brothers (two of whom died in their infancy); and, one younger sister (Sushila Devi). His two younger brothers, who survived were : Prabhas Chandra and Prakash Chandra .

sarat chandra birth place Devanandapur

Sarat Candra – birth place-Debanandapore

His father was a restless dreamer; and, for all purposes epitomized failure in one’s life. He had passed matriculation examination; and, by the standards then prevailing, he was considered as a fairly well educated person. But, he had no steady job or income. Since Matilal was unable to make two ends meet, the family was forced to shift to Bhagalpur, in Bihar, to be taken care by Bhubanmohini’s parent (Kedarnath Gangopadhyay), much to her discomfort.  Therefore, while the rest of the family lived in Bhagalpur with Bhubanmohini’s parents, Matilal, for a time, was employed  elsewhere in Bihar.

Bhubanmohini, a person endowed with a great sense of self-respect, and sacrifice for the well-being of her children, had a great impact on the  mind and the outlook of young Sarat. In most of his stories and Novels, it is the female characters that dominate the scene. And, almost all his leading ladies, particularly the mothers, are invariably,  self-sacrificing, in one way or the other; but, without rancor.

Because of the semi-nomadic nature of his father’s life ; and, his ever stringent financial situation, Sarat had to change schools frequently. And, his education was also incomplete. 

When Sarat was five years of age, Matilal admitted the boy to a Parish Scholar’s School in Devanandpur, where he studied for two or three years. Later, while he was in Bhagalpur, Sarat’s uncle enrolled him at the local Durga Charan Boys School.

In 1887, Sarat Chandra was admitted to Bhagalpur District School.  And, in 1889, when Matilal again lost his job, he returned to Devanandpur with his family; and, Sarat was forced to leave the District School at Bhagalpur.

Sarat was later admitted to the Hooghly Branch Government School near Devanandpur. But, due to the stringent condition of Matilal, Sarat could not pay the school fees; and, had to again discontinue his education.  The family had to return to Bhagalpur in 1893.

After Matilal returned to Bhagalpur, Sarat secured admission to the Tejarnarayan Jubilee Collegiate School. In 1894, Sarat, at the age of eighteen , passed the Entrance Examination (equivalent to the present SSC examination) in the Second Division.  He also completed his FA (present intermediate/PUC ) course.

During this period, Sarat managed to earn some money as tuition fee, by teaching his grandfather’s two sons Surendranath and Girindranath.

Despite this, Sarat could not appear for the University examination; for he was unable to raise twenty rupees required to be paid as the examination fees.

 In his own words:

My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit and his keen interest in literature. The first made me a tramp and sent me out tramping the whole of India quite early, and the second made me a dreamer all my life.

Father was a great scholar, and he had tried his hand at stories and novels, dramas and poems, in short every branch of literature, but never could finish anything. I have not his work now – somehow it got lost; but I remember poring over that incompleteness. Over again in my childhood, and many a night I kept awake regretting their incompleteness, and thinking what might have been their conclusion if finished. Probably this led to my writing short stories when I was barely seventeen.


Just a year after he passed his entrance examination (1894), his mother Bhubanmohini Devi died in 1895, when Sarat was nineteen years of age. With the passing away of his mother and discontinuance of his studies, Sarat became rather rudderless and a sort of drifter. For a short time he worked at Banaili Estate in Bhagalpur. But he did not stay in Bhagalpur for long, as Sarat’s father deemed it un reasonable to stay at the in-laws’s place even after the death of his wife. He could not also go back to his own house  in  his native village Debanandapur; because , he had already sold it for a mere Rs.225 to repay a debt. The family had to stay  at a rented  house in the low-cost  area of Kanjarpalli  in Debanandapur.

Young Sarat was very sensitive and fragile. He left home following a disagreement with his father. Forced to earn his livelihood, Sarat started working early in his life. In 1900 Sarat found work in Banaili Estate in Bihar; and , later in Santhal district settlement as an assistant to the Settlement Officer. He disliked both the jobs; and, gave them up. Alone, unhappy and indifferent, Sarat lost sense of direction. Dejected and aimless he wandered aimlessly around graveyards at dead of night. Later, for a while, he joined a group of Naga Sadhus and drifted to  Muzaffarpur (1902).  He returned home on learning of his father’s demise. His father, Matilal died  in 1902, by which time Sarat was about twenty-six years of age.

On completing his father’s last rites he left Bhagalpur. Before that, he left his two younger brothers in charge of the relatives; and, his sister under the care of the landlady in whose house Matilal’s family had been a tenant. He then left for Calcutta in search of a job and a future. While in Calcutta, for a short time, Sarat worked at a few temporary jobs and later secured a job as a translator for a Hindi paper book on a monthly salary of Rs.30. He then worked as a translator at the Calcutta High Court.

After he lost both his parents, Sarat Chandra left Bengal, in 1903, to live with his uncle Aghornath Chattopadyaya  in Rangoon; and, to find a job there. He often referred to Burma as the karma-sthan of the middle class Bengalis (Bengal being the janma-sthan). 

Sarat left Calcutta for Rangoon, Burma, in January 1903, just in time before a severe plague broke out there. But, sadly , Aghornath died of pneumonia soon after, that is in January 1905. His family traveled back to Calcutta to get Aghornath’s  daughter married there. And, Sarat, rendered destitute and insecure, was on the streets again.

After he served a number of temporary jobs, he secured a permanent job in the Accounts Department of Burma Railway. Thereafter, from April 1906 to April 1916, until his return to Calcutta from Burma, Sarat worked in the Public Accounts Office of the Government.


As regards his literary activities, his earliest creations were two short stories Kakbasha and Kashinath (later expanded into a novel) published during 1894 in the handwritten magazine (Chaya, meaning shadow) while he was studying in Entrance class at Tejnarayan Jubilee College, Bhagalpur. But, it was only in September 1917, when Sarat was forty-one years of age; the revised and enlarged version  of Kashinath  came to be  formally published in book-form.

It is said; following the death of his mother (1895) Sarat moved to Khanjanpur (a suburb in Bhagalpur), where he came in close contact with a number of people. And, one of the close associates of Sarat since his Bhagalpur days was Anupama (who later changed her name to Nirupama Devi – author of the Annapurnaar Mandir) . She was the widowed younger sister of Bibhutibhushan Bhatta; and, she used to contribute poems to their magazine Chaya

Nirupama Devi is said to have tacitly influenced Sarat as a writer and as a person, even during the later stages of his life. But, in the last years of her life, Nirupama Devi stayed at Brindaban , ‘ as did many women of the middle-class families in the yesteryears of Bengal.’

Another friend of  Sarat , of  those days , was  Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju) . The lovable character Indranath (of the story Mahesh) is said to have been patterned after  Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju). Sarat Chandra mentions elsewhere that in a way he  liked his character Indranath.

Referring to writings of his early years, he later said:

But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood.

In 1903, on the eve of his departure to Rangoon in search of a job, he at the instance of his uncle Girindrandranath , sent a short story Mandir for the Kuntaleen literary competition. He submitted the story under name of Surendranath Ganguly, another uncle. From among about one hundred fifty short stories that entered the competition, Mandir was adjudged the best for the year in 1904. The fact that Sri Jaladhar Sen , the veteran editor of the  বসুমতী (Basumati) magazine, (elected twice as the Vice President of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad), was the adjudicator , enhanced  the prestige of the award. 

_Jaladhar_Sen2 bangiya parishad

Mandir published in the name of Surendranath was the first ever printed story by Sarat Chandra. For some reason, Sarat Chandra continued to send his stories in someone else’s name. He contributed stories regularly to the Jamuna magazine in three different names – in his own name and in the name of Anila Devi (his elder sister) and Anupama (his childhood friend).

[Later in his life Sarat Chandra recalled with gratitude, the help and patronage he received from Jaladhar Sen. In 1932, Sarat presided over  a function to facilitate Jaladhar Sen , held in Rammohan Library.]

The magazine Jamuna played an important role in setting his literary career on course. According to Sarat Chandra, Jamuna was the catalyst in reviving his literary career whilst he was in Burma. He said:

A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant. When almost hopeless, some of them remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly – perhaps only to put them off till I returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Jamuna. This became at once popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps, I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle.

Sarat chandra in 1911-1914

The years he spent in Burma (1903-1916) turned out to be a significant phase in Sarat Chandra’s life. It not merely spurred his literary activity but also established him as a leading creative writer. This period also witnessed changes in his personal life too.

His first wife Shanti Devi Chakravarthy  , whom he married in 1906 , died of plague in 1908 along with their one year old son. To fill the void in his life, he turned to books; read voraciously on sociology, history, philosophy and psychology etc. He also dabbled in Homeopathy; opened a primary school; and , formed a singing group. In 1909 , he suffered a major health problem ; and, had to cut down his studies . He then took to painting.

After a couple of years, while he was in Rangoon, he is said to have married  the second time in 1910; and, his bride was Mokshada Adhikari an adolescent widow. He renamed her Hiranmoyee. This marriage lasted for more than twenty-five years, until the death of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee  in 1938. They had no children.

It is said; Sarat Chandra and Hiranmayee Debi were devoted to each other; and she had a sobering influence on his life. She diligently and lovingly steadied and regulated his ways of living and thinking; inspiring and enabling him to pursue his literary career. The Biographers of Sarat Chandra have observed that it was only after his marriage with Hiranmayee Devi, Sarat could find his bearing as a writer; and , all his major literary works followed thereafter. Sarat Chandra,  it is said, held Hiranmayee Debi in high esteem all his life. It is believed; a few female characters in his Novels are modeled after her.

By the time he returned to Calcutta (1916), his stories and novels were being serialized in most leading Bengali magazines; and, his popularity was soaring.  

It was only after his return to Calcutta from Rangoon in April 1916 , Sarat Chandra was able to produce his major works : Srikanta ; Charitraheen; Datta; Grihadaha; Denapauna; Pather Dabhi ; Sesh Prashna; Bipradas; and a volume of essays under the title Swadesh-O-Sahitya , apart from several other stories etc.


By about 1916, when Sarat was about forty years of age, he gained some sort of recognition as a writer of merit, who could earn One hundred rupees a month from his writings.

He started contributing to the monthly Bharati; and, thereafter to Jamuna, edited by Phanindranath Pal. It was from here that Sarat Chandra’s literary career began to flourish. The story Badadidi published in Bharati during 1907 created a stir in Bengali literary world. This was followed by other popular writings, such as: the stories Ramer-Sumati and Bojha; and, the essay Narir Lekha published in Jamuna.

The Badadidi was later published by Phanindranath Pal , in book-form, during 1913. The other famous works of Sarat Chandra – Chandrakantha; Charitraheen; and the essay Narir Maulya – were also published by Phanindranath Pal.

Later, Sarat was contracted to a well-known publishing House M/S. Gurudas Chatterjee and Sons, (with which Sarat’s childhood friend Pramathanath Bhattacharya was associated), which had just started bringing out a Bengali monthly periodical Bharatbarsha.

The Bharatbarsha indeed played a very important role in establishing Sarat Chandra as the most popular writer of Bengal.

Sarat Chandra Chatterjee was perhaps one among the rarest who, in those days, made a living through his writings.


Sarat Chandra’s literary career was comparatively not very long. When his first book was published in 1913, Sarat Chandra was past thirty-seven years of age; rather late for commencing a literary career. And, he died in 1935, before he completed the sixty-second year of his life. During that period of 22 years, spanning from 1913 to 1935, Sarat Chandra wrote about 36 books; and, most of which were not longer than 200 pages.

He wrote about the evils of society; social superstitions and oppression. And in his later works , he wrote about the patriotic and rebellious spirit of his times. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines –just as in the case of Charles Dickens. Both were prompted by the sheer need to earn a living , by pen. But, while Dickens specialized in creating a great number of wonderful and fascinating characters, Sarat Chandra focused on crafting intriguing situations, depicting conflicts between conservatism and social change; superstitions and rebellion;  and, between the pure and the profane.

sarat chandra

It was neither the volume of his writing; nor the length of his literary career that distinguished Sarat Chandra; and earned him great fame and ever enduring popularity.

What then was the secret of Sarat Chandra’s success? This was decoded by none other than the most eminent Rabindranath Tagore, who himself, at that time, was at the peak of his literary career. While explaining the enigma of Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, during October 1936 by which time Sarat Chandra was also established as the premier literary figure of Bengal, said in a felicitation address:

Sarat Chandra’s vision has delved deep into the mysteries of the heart of the Bengalis. He has portrayed so vividly the variegated creation made up of happiness and grief; union and separation; as to enable Bengalis to see themselves. The proof of this, we see in the inexhaustible pleasure imparted by that creation.

The Bengalis have never been so sincerely happy with the writing of anyone else as they have been with Sarat Chandra’s writing.

He portrayed the middle class Bengali life with all its virtues and blemishes. He laid bare its blind prejudices, superstitions, selfishness and even cruelty; along with its ingrained strength and resilience to accept suffering; and, to live in poverty with a sense of dignity. He pointed out the universal element that binds all human beings together; and, the need to act; and to step beyond the narrow prejudices that divide the society.

No doubt, other writers have received praise; but, none could gain that universal hospitality in the heart of the common men and women as he has done. This surely is not a startled admiration; but, is a pure guileless love.. His words touch the tenderest spots in the life of the Bengalis.


The two towering personalities of Bengali literature – Bankimchandra Chattopadyaya and Rabindranath Tagore – had a lasting and pervasive influence on the literary career of Sarat Chandra. In fact, for a considerable period of time he was under their influence; and, followed their themes and their presentations in his early writings. For instance, it is said; the early part of Sarat Chandra’s Devdas resembles much to Bankimchandra’s Chandrasekhar; and, his essay Kshudrer Gaurab was patterned after Bankimchandra’s Kamalakanter Daftar.

Similarly, Sarat Chandra’s novels Chandrakantha and Charitraheen are said to run parallel to Rabindranath Tagore’s story Tyag and his Novel Chokher Bali.


But , in particular, Sarat seemed to be more attached to Bankimchandra. Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings clearly show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. His impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions; and, bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings.

His criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society. His novels such as Devdas (written in 1901, published 1917), Parinita (1914), Biraj Bau (1914) and Palli Samaj (1916) belong to this phase. The themes and their treatment are not much different from Bankim’s; but, their presentation, their locales are updated; the language, particularly of the conversations,  is easier and matter-of-fact.

In his stories, the women , in particular, step out of the system with agony, passion and intensity to cleanse the guilt ridden system. There is a burning desire to blow away the old cobwebs; and, to usher in a new order, a new dispensation. Their restraint; and the clarity of thought and speech are remarkable. That is the reason his stories retain their freshness, even nearly a century after they were written. Many read over and over , weeping and laughing with his characters.

[His Devdas appears to be an exception. 

After the death of his wife in 1895, Sarat’s father moved to Khanjanpur (a suburb in Bhagalpore). There, Sarat came in close contact with a number of people who would play a significant role in his literary career. Notable were Anupama (later changed her name to Nirupama Devi – author of the Annapurnaar Mandir) and her brother Bibhutibhushan Bhatta and Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju). Incidentally, Raju is said to be the model for Indranath character in his masterpiece Srikanto.  

During this period, Sarat was influenced by the then popular romantic English novels by Ellen Wood (better known as Mrs. Henry Wood) and Marie Corelli. His short stories or novels like Abhimaan, Bojha, Anupamar-Prem, Sukumarer Balyakatha, Bardidi, Chandranath, Debdas, Pashan and Abhimaan were written during this period. The last mentioned, Abhiman, was said to be based on East Lynne by Ellen Wood. And, Pashan followed the theme of the then spectacularly popular English novel Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli. His Debdas belonged to this romantic era.

It is believed that Sarat Chandra  completed writing his long-story or novel, Debdas somewhere around 1901, when he was about 25 years young or a little earlier.  And, it does not seem to have been written when Sarat was a teenager of 17 or so. In any case, Debdas was his early work — written some time before he left for Rangoon in his mid-twenties,  in search of a livelihood.

His Debdas, basically a love-story, differs from his later works both in the story-line and the depiction of its characters.

It is said; Sarat Chandra did not like what he had written; and, he did not want it to be published. He didn’t approve the negative and the escapist streak in Debdas.

But, while Sarat Chandra was in Rangoon, his friend Pramathanath Bhattacharya persuaded Sarat to allow him to publish Debdas. Vishnu Prabhakar, a biographer of Sarat Chandra (Awaara Maseeha,1973), mentions of a letter that Sarat wrote to his friend Pramathanath during 1913: “Don’t give Devdas to them. Don’t even think of it. It was written in a drunken state. I am ashamed of the book now. It is immoral… “.

Nevertheless the book got published four years after his letter to Pramathanath. And, it was initially serialised in the Bharatbarsha. Following which, it was published by GCS as a book on 30th June, 1917 (Asharh of [B] 1324).

When he had eventually agreed to publish the story, reluctantly, in 1917 (sixteen years after it was written), Sarat Chandra begged the readers to have pity and forgive Debdas.

And yet, Debdas enjoyed unprecedented popularity first in Bengali, later in a number of other Indian languages as well.

The literary critics point out that – ‘Devdas – a romanticised despair of youth sunk in inaction and defeatism – is marked by an unevenness that may be attributed to the fact that it was an apprentice work. Terseness alternates with verbiage, objectivity with sentiment. The racy childhood chapters are delightful; but after that the novel begins to get bogged down by maudlin attempts to evoke sympathy for a weak-willed and self-obsessed hero.’

Debdas was translated to Gujarati in 1925 by Brajlal Thakkar. And Naresh Mitra made a silent film of it in 1928. Pramathesh Chandra Barua’s Bengali film Debdas was released on 3rd March 1935, with himself as Debdas and Jamuna Barua as Parvathi. And, on 21st September 1936, Devadas was made in Hindi with the legendary KL Saigal as Devdas and Jamuna Barua as Parvathi. And, the rest, as they say, is history.

On the question : why  have Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works been a  favorite with Indian filmmakers, please read an analysis made by Ms.  Shoma A Chatterji.

For more please check]

sarat_chandra_chattopadhay_midnapore (1)

1st row from left : Himangsu Roy , Gour Hari Mitra ;2nd row from left : Friend of Sarat Chandra, Bijoy Krishna Khan, Sarat Chandra, Khitish Chandra Dutta, Manmatha Nath Das ; 3rd row from left : Tinkori Sen, Binoy Dasgupta, Chandra Sekhar Dutta, Sudhamoy Bandopadhay,  Hemchandra Kanungo, Bibhuti Bhusan Das, Sibomoy Bandopadhay, Shantimoy Bandhopadhay 

Towards the latter half of his life , Sarat Chandra wrote Pather Dabi (1926) spun around a revolutionary movement, inspired by Bengal, operating in Burma and in Far East. The Novel Pather Dabhi was banned by the British Government, on the grounds that it questioned the continuance of British rule in India;  and tried to incite rebellion by resorting to violence.

His last complete novel Shesh Prashna (1931) was crafted around a slender theme , inflated by ethereal talks on problems of love and marriage; and , of the individual and of the society. These were almost ‘intellectual’ monologues.

But, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he wrote, with understanding, of women, their sufferings, their often unspoken loves, their need for affection and their desperation for emancipation. His portrayal, particularly, of strong-willed women of rural Bengal defying the convention;  also of women rooted in their sense of values ; and , those who set a benchmark for other characters , to be judged by the reader, stand out as authentic. His women are admirable for their courage, tolerance and devotion in their love for their husbands, lovers or children. These stories also picture husbands who do not know or do not care to express love for their beloved ones. Somehow, the women in his stories never attain happiness in their personal lives.

Just to cite an example; his Srikanto quartet (1917, 1918, 1927, 1933), encompassing lives of many women, is a remarkable study in the conflicts between the individual and the social perception of purity and profanity; and , between rebellion and timid submission to orthodoxy. For instance; take a hurried glimpse at the thumbnail sketch of a few characters in Srikanto.

Rajlakshmi, Srikanta’s lover, in order to erase her past (of fallen woman) ; and, to reform her present (her relationship outside the marital state with Srikanta) goes through a series of purity rituals. She is a sort of benchmark to other characters.

In the first book of the Quartet, Annadadidi, a very properly brought up middle class woman, revolts against propriety; and , runs away with a Muslim snake charmer. She suffers not because of her socially unacceptable love; but because, the husband she chose was unworthy of such love.

In the second part, Abhoya, deserted by her husband, breaks out of her social environment, to live in sin with a man she accepted.

In the third, Sunanda, a scholar, rebels against the poverty imposed upon the peasant by the land tenure system.

In the last book, Kamal Lata has walked out on her people and joined a Vaishnava sect based on surrender and devotion.

Sarat Chandra refuses to be judgmental. His critique on social norm was only a message and never an agenda.  He lets his characters to speak for themselves; and, lets the reader to form her/his own opinion of the purity concept in the Hindu Society. He tried to heighten the social awareness; and , to ignite revolt against the oppressive social cults, which debased and degraded humanity.


Sarat chandra signature

Sarat Chandra, while talking about his method of crafting a Novel , once said :

My approach to writing is somewhat different from that of the other authors. I start with identifying the main characters; listing them numerically; and, outlining each ones specific nature , outlook, ways of behavior and speech. I have no special difficulty in commencing the narration of a story or in delineating the characteristics of the principal women and men in the story-line.  I try to delineate the compulsions behind the behaviour of every character.  Such compulsions take different forms at different times. Later, I go over again and again, polishing the narration and diction.

Sarat Chandra regarded Mahakavi Veda-Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, as the greatest writer of India. And, he reckoned Rabindranath Tagore as the next best, the second greatest.  He called him as his Guru and the Literary-guide. In his listing, Valmiki and Kalidasa followed thereafter.


Among the Novels of Sarat Chandra, Srikanta is generally lauded as the most popular. But, Sarat Chandra regarded Grihadaha as his best Novel. Dr. Subodh Chandra Sen Gupta, in his work Sarat Chandra: Man and Artist (Sahitya Academy, 1975) , attempts to rationalize  why it was so . According to Dr. Sen Gupta:

Grihadaha is Sarat Chandra’s most perfect achievement in fiction. It is flawless in its construction; its style is a unique combination of simplicity and richness; and, in its heroine Achala, there is an attempt to un-fathom the mysterious depths of the human heart; at revealing the contradictions and intricacies of love. Sarat Chandra can analyze and portray stirring emotional conflicts minutely; and with sympathy and understanding he gradually unfolds the agonizing drama that takes place within a woman’s heart. He tried to discover the essential integrity which sustains a person through the entire vicissitudes one’s life.  Here, Sarat Chandra surpasses all his other endeavors and achievements. Thus, Grihadaha is indeed, one of the greatest Novels of the world.


After returning from Burma, Sarat Chandra stayed for 11 years in Baje Shibpur, Howrah.

sarat cahandrs baje shibpore

Thereafter, in 1923, he made a house in the village of Panitras or Samtaber village (Deulti, Howrah) on the bank of the river Rupnaraya.

sarat chjandra samtaber

It was here at Samta, Sarat  spent the later twelve years of his life with his wife Hiranmoyee Devi ; as a novelist; and, as a busy politician. His Burmese-style house is known as SaratChandraKuthi or  Sharat Smriti Mandir . It is said;  his younger brother , Prabhas Chandra, who had entered Belur Math with the name Swami Vedananda, also lived here  for some time , till his sudden death in October 1926 (Kartik 10,1333).

  Sarat chandra house,Saratchandra plaque


Commencing with 1921, and for the next fifteen years till 1936, which is almost until his last days, Sarat was associated with politics. He participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement launched under the leadership of Gandhi in 1921. He also unsuccessfully contested an election for a seat in State legislature.

[Later, Sarat Chandra, somehow, lost faith in Gandhi’s Charkha Movement; and, apologized to Rabindranath Tagore (in his letter of 9 May, 1922) for having disagreed with him earlier.

And , at the same time, both Tagore and Sarat Chandra did not support Gandhi’s idea of boycotting educational institutions, recalling the inadequacies of national education in the Swadeshi period.

Tagore wrote disapprovingly in 1921

To one and all he simply says: Spin and weave; spin and weave. Is this the call: “Let all seekers after truth come from all sides?” Is this the call of the New Age to new creation? 

When nature called to the bee to take refuge in the narrow life of the hive, millions of bees responded to it for the sake of efficiency, and accepted the loss of sex in consequence. But this sacrifice by way of self-atrophy led to the opposite of freedom.

Any country, the people of which, can agree to become neuters for the sake of some temptation, or command, carries within itself its own prison-house.]


Sarat Chandra was engaged with other activities as well. For instance; he was the president of the Howrah branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; he was the paper-setter in Bengali literature for B.A. examination conducted by  the Calcutta University .

He also enjoyed a fair share of success in the academic field ; and, was rewarded with the Jagattarini Gold medal in 1923 by the Calcutta University , in recognition of his achievements in the field of Bengali literature.

And, later during 1936 the Dacca University conferred on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature.

sarat Chandra Dacca 1936


After living in the house in the village of Panitras for nearly twelve years ( 1923-1935) , Sarat Chandra  built another house in Calcutta; and, sometime in early 1935,  Sarat Chandra moved into his new home with his family , which included his wife;  his younger brother Prakash Chandra along with his wife and two children ; and, the retinue of domestic staff.  

His health had started deteriorating even while he was in Rangoon, caused mainly due to his reckless way of living. But it became worse after he moved to Calcutta. 

His Calcutta years, from 1935 to 1938, the last three years of his life , were not happy. His writing had slowed down almost to a halt; there were numerous distractions that unsettled his composure; and, most of all, his health had broken down due to multiple complications such as  the chronic hemorrhoid, failure of kidney, lever ; and related ailments.

During 1937, Sarat Chandra was often ill. On the advice of the doctor, he returned to Calcutta after spending three to four months in Deoghar to recover his health. At this time, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, which had spread to his stomach.

Sarat Chandra was first admitted to a European Nursing Home on the Suburban Hospital Road in South Calcutta; and, later to the Park Nursing Home located at Victoria Terrace No. 4. He underwent surgery on 12 January 1938.

Four days later, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay breathed his last in Calcutta at 10 .10 AM on 16 January 1938 (2 Magh 1344). He was then 61 years and 4 months old.

His end came just as the whole of Bengal was beginning to celebrate the birth centenary  of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterjee  . With that,  Bengal and India lost one of its most gifted sons, a tortured soul and one who loved his country and its people from the core of his being.

About ten days later, Guru Rabindranath Tagore paid  heartfelt tribute to one of the remarkable sons of India.

Yahar amar sthan premer asane / ksati tar kasti nai mrtyur sasane / Deser matir theke nila yare hari / Deser hrday tare rakhiyache bari  //

Death cannot harm one whose place is secured forever by Love.He may be lost to the land. But, he has it’s reassuring affection.


Sarat Chandra did not write his autobiography because he said he “lacked the courage and the truthfulness to tell his true story”.

Yet; I reckon, Sarat  projected himself , to an extent, as Srikanta. “As I sit down to tell my story in this fading afternoon of my wandering life, I am flooded with memories.”

Thus begins Sarat Chandra’s lyrical novel Srikanto. Its protagonist Srikanta – just as Sarat Chandra – was an aimless drifter, a socially conscious passive spectator, who reminisces on the years gone by; subjecting  himself to analysis. Srikanta too , as a young man,  had traveled to Burma seeking  new experiences; came in close contact with a couple of rebellious women; wandered on; and, finally resigned himself to life, breaking free of the social values he grew up with.

sarat chandra chatterji

I gratefully acknowledge the material from the Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Complete Works of Sarat Chandra), Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Calcutta, 1993. And, from the introduction to Srikanto Part I published by Oxford University Press, London 1922.


Poverty is a smoldering fire in the belly and in the heart. It drives one to reach out, to explore and at times to explode. But when the heat is too much to bear, it could reduce one to ashes which any can trample upon with impunity. It takes great courage to be poor and to live with dignity.


[A brief Note on the photographs posted on this page:

On reading this blog, Dr.   Subroto Roy of Kolkata had sent me a Note that the picture of Sarat Chandra (please click for an enlarged view) , which I posted at the bottom of the article was a part of a photograph taken in 1927 when Sarat Chandra visited Dr. Sobrato Roy’s great-grand father Surendranath Roy. The sofa on which the two sit, he says, is still in use at his home; and indeed if you are in Kolkata some day, you are welcome to view and even sit on the sofa.

Dr. Roy also mentioned that the iconic picture of Sarat Chandra, posted at the top of this article, is from a photograph taken at Bourne & Shepherd Photographers of Calcutta ,  at the instance of Shri Manindra Nath Roy.

sarat2 He added that Sarat Chandra habitually wore long unkempt hair; and, Smt Nirmala Debi (wife of Shri Manindra Nath Roy) combed his hair neatly before the photograph was taken.

According to Dr. Roy, Sarat Chandra/s Pather Dabi is perhaps dedicated to Smt Nirmala Debi.

Dr. Roy also asked me to view and to reproduce on my page, a hand-written note sent by Sarat Chandra (1931) to Manindra Nath Roy (Dr. Subroto Roy’s grand-father). I am told, the Note is about transport of a table (or writing-desk?) by rail. There is also Note (1925 diary entry in English) by Manindra Nath that mentions of  his travel to Shibpur and Sarat’s  visit for  breakfast.  And, they then visit “Ram Mohan Library” . These Notes , thus , provide  a glimpse of the relationship that existed  between Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Manindra Nath Roy.

There is another letter (in 1919) addressed  to Manindra Nath by  Sudhindranath Tagore (son of Rabindranath’s elder brother), which refers  to the literary journal Bichitra ; enquires  about  Sarat.

Please click on the pictures for a larger view.

For details : Please visit Dr. Roy’s pages :

Please also read Tagore and Sarat Chandra


Other references and sources

Subhash Chandra Sarker “Sarat Chandra Chatterjee: The Great Humanist.” Indian Literature, vol. 20, no. 1, 1977, pp. 49–77. JSTOR.

Illustrations are from Internet


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Why do the children have to suffer so horribly?

[This, in some way, is related to my earlier post Fate and Human Endeavour]

1.1. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final but incomplete novel the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov , the argumentative intellectual among the three brothers,  is highly disturbed by the apparent senseless suffering in the world. Ivan proclaims that he rejects the world that God has created , because it is built on a foundation of suffering; especially the suffering of the innocent children. In an impassioned speech he tells his brother Alexei (a.k.a. Alyosha) that nothing can justify the suffering of innocent children; nothing can console it; nothing can compensate for it; and, nothing can restore a sense of order and purpose in the world in the face of a child’s suffering. What good any theology can do for children who are suffering, he demands.

To deny the reality of a child’s suffering ;and, pretend to justify that in the name of religion and ethics , he bursts out, is nothing but piling up falsehood, ignominy and perhaps worse. It is cruel to the suffering child.

Ivan then says, “Listen! If everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer. I would rather remain with my un-avenged suffering, and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. The whole of  truth or harmony is not worth such a price. If I am an honest man, out of love of humanity, I must give my ticket back. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return His ticket.”(The Brothers Karamazov; Part Two; Book V; Chapter 4; Rebellion)


1.2. Why do we suffer? Why do innocent children have to suffer so horribly? It is a question that assails every parent bringing up a handicapped child. I found a resounding echo of that question and of Ivan’s outburst in Arun Shourie’s book ‘Does He know a mother’s heart?’ (Harper and Collins India;  2011).

I could, in some way, relate to both.

2.1. Shourie’s book is a probing and an honest outpouring of a father, straight from his heart, in humility and out of immense love for his 34 year old son Aditya, suffering from cerebral palsy. Aditya ‘cannot stand or use his right arm; his vision is impaired ; and, he speaks haltingly. He has the mind of a child’. Looking after him has been a major preoccupation for Shourie and his wife Anita, for past thirty-four years. Life has neither been easy nor kind to them, with each day bringing up new complications- including Anita Shourie’s own painful bout with Parkinson’s disease. Now in his 70th year, Arun Shourie is at a loss, as he faces questions that have no answers, such   as: “Who will lift Adit out of bed as I weaken with age?” and “Who will look after him when we are gone?”

2.2. It is a moving and an intensely personal book written as a mature and a reflective father mellowing in age and sorrow attempts to  grapple grief, anguish and anger while he is bewildered by ‘Why’ of all unjust suffering. In his suffering he is lonely and helpless, as are most of the parents saddled with handicapped, autistic and such other children.

3.1. To start with, Shourie, just as Ivan, relentlessly indignant, questions god’s ways. Why does He subject children to such sufferings? Why does god make someone perfect while some are inflicted with imperfections? Aren’t we all equal in his eyes as we are told to believe? Isn’t his love for all the same? Then why are some discriminated… He is angry how a kind, benevolent and all-knowing God could allow innocents to be in agony.

3.2. Pain is a universal equalizer. It grinds down all to the irreducible; to their minimum. Shourie goes through range of emotions before he arrives at a rational approach to manage the reality of all life: the suffering. He goes beyond fate and faith; and accepts the reality of suffering; discards the ‘props’ ; learns to take the child  upon himself  without passing him on to a god or a Guru;  or without hiding behind a theoretical abstraction about suffering as handed down by someone else.”Suffering is real. Anything that dismisses it as ‘Maya’ or unreal is to mock at the pain of the other.” He shares his experiences; and urges all such parents to realize and give expression to the power of selfless love that is within them. He dedicates the book to the suffering mothers of the Special Children. He also lists out suggestions to manage such children.


4.1. Arun Shourie goes beyond “Why me?” crosses over to “Why?” and looks for explanations to human suffering as offered by numerous religious texts and the sages. His search for answers to these question forms the bulk of the book (I wish he employed the services of a good editor). First; Shourie examines the texts of the Semitic religions, comparatively and in the light of modern knowledge. Then he focuses on the explanations given by religious thinkers of modern India, like Gandhi, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharishi and J Krishnamurti. Next he puts to scrutiny the classical explanations for the cause of misery; of karmic beliefs; of notions of illusion and unreality of the suffering. Further, he investigates metaphysical props such as god, fate and god-men. He also talks of the sheer desperation that drives the parents to irrational occult practices imposed by the Babas.  He then analyzes s the numerous alternatives that emerged.

4.2. As regards the god, he finds that god is a complex idea; each a product of its culture. The concept of God has changed over the centuries as human needs and knowledge too has changed. He finds all those notions do not provide adequate answers to the problems of suffering in life . He is disappointed at the explanation that a child’s suffering is in some way related to the  whole process of  problem-solving that is happening in a totality of the whole universe. “No cosmic purpose is served by our suffering or that of those dear to us. Just as no cosmic purpose is served by our being born or by our dying and that for the simple reason that there is no cosmic purpose”…. “We have no clue, hence god comes in as a filler of a mysterious unknown”…  “On the simple elementary fact, which the religion tries to hang on to god, that concept does not stand to examination.”

4.3. He is dismayed at the oft repeated logic of prarabda karma adduced to justify suffering: “Your child suffers for sins committed in a past life”; “and your child will enjoy great joy in his next life for the pain in this”.  If someone tells the mother “Your child suffers for your sins”, it is insensitive ; and, it is an insult to motherhood. No mother can be asked to prove she ‘loves’ her child. He cries out “Does He know a mother’s heart?

According to him “The explanations that scriptures proffer for the occurrence of pain and suffering do not stand up to the slightest examination”. And, “Suffering refutes religions.”

4.4. When a distressed mother seeks the help of a Swamiji or a Baba it is an act of desperation, more in hope than in faith. These are truly most agonizing experiences for the mother, as the hopes raised by the Baba soon crash down when nothing good happens to child. The pain, disappointment and helplessness grow many folds. Another is the anger and frustration that builds up nearing the point of explosion. It is the mother who suffers most. Is there a threshold for her pain? How much and how long can she bear the pain and sorrow?

The most noticeable feature of faith deposited in a Baba is that very few questions are allowed. Any question, no matter how reasonable or incisive, is dismissed with a simple “God’s ways are inscrutable” or “Our minds aren’t evolved enough to understand His higher purpose” or “All will be made clear at the End of Days”.

5.1. In a way of speaking, relying only on divine intervention, begging, beseeching  the Swamis and Babas to cure the child ; and, to relive the child  of painful suffering , basically mean  handing over our burden and our responsibility to someone else; and, expecting them to solve our problems. We surrender all decision-making, our attitudes to life and to suffering to Babas and others.  And, they are more than eager to act like pack leaders or like life-guards at the beach perched on high stools throwing instructions to a drowning person. Such help does not always work. Should we rest our hopes on a phantom reed?

5.2. Gods and god men are facilitators who aid our own introspection and internal growth. They are, at best, the props. Unless we learn to discard the props, strive to stand on our own and to fight our own battles there is no reasonable way out of the distress. Let’s stop doing things by proxy.

6.1. That veers Shourie towards the Buddha. Our Teacher recognized suffering the way it is, as the reality of life. He asked each one to formulate his attitude and to work out his salvation without relying on props or merely looking for explanations. “There is no use looking for explanations to suffering. Instead, attend , on priority, to the problem at hand, as if you are attending to a man whose hair is on fire  or to the one who is shot with a poisoned arrow”… “Whether the world is finite or infinite or both; whether the Tathagata survives after death or not , these are matters of speculation …there is birth, there is aging, there is death, there is sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair .These are the realities.  They have to be dealt with….” And there is a way of dealing with that. The only way is to accept it and deal with it rationally.

When the Buddha finally says ’workout your salvation with diligence’ he places the responsibility on us alone, relying on our effort and our experiences.


7.1. Viktor Frankie, a survivor of Nazi death camps, believed that ‘the last of human freedoms’ is the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances; to choose one’s own way. It is not the freedom from conditions; it is the freedom to take an attitude towards the conditions. This he calls it as ‘the last of the human freedom’. And there were always choices to make.

Taking a cue from that, Shourie says “Everyone struck a blow will find his own ways to cope – if it works then each of them is valid”.

7.2. When we see the helplessness of our child we are filled with anger, bitterness and lot other emotions questioning the very sense of our existence. Then, observe those emotions that swell up just as an outsider who looks at an object. That will help you to look at things as they are.

8.1. The child is as much a victim of circumstances as are his/her parents.  The everyday pains, aches and suffering surround both. But, so are the moments of joy and laughter. The helpless child laughs, loves and loves to be loved. Let not the parents’ unhappiness dampen the spirit of the little one battling the affliction.  Do the chores that have to be done, in good cheer. Thank him for letting you help.

8.2. Most emphatically what is needed is not pity, and not even sympathy. Empathy is the word – not feeling sorry for; not even feeling for. But getting into the skin and feeling like what the child must feel. It is hard to attain that  except by the mother  who ‘Loves –till it hurts’. It is said; ‘If you want to be truly selfish,   do help (love) someone who cannot do anything in return’.

8.3. Learn to look at the suffering and also at the child as a sort of teacher who taught you patience, non-attachment and above all to love unselfishly. We need to look at the situation afresh. Stop asking “why this has happened to me?”  But ask “how do we put the lessons we learnt to work for us as also for others?” It is extracting a purpose from debris. Do whatever has to be done, promptly, without postponing. Perseverance is as relevant as reflection.

8.4. The suffering of a helpless child forces us to subordinate our interests and our  pursuits to his needs. It teaches us to empathize others suffering. It might possibly lead to the path of service, in even the smallest way possible, contributing whatever skills or resources we have. Perhaps, pain is a sort of megaphone that awakens humanity in man.

The issues raised in the book concerns almost all who suffered ‘a blow’. One may agree with or sharply refute the book. Regardless of that, his conclusions offer a perspective to the problem of pain; and to the realization of the power of love.

Shourie lists the lessons he learnt in the light of his experiences.

8.5. Shourie’s outlook is life-affirming. He states that he found the strength to equip himself “to take the first step towards dealing with the suffering that we have to confront…. the illness is beyond our reach, but the quality of love we pour into the child and to his service, the extent to which we reach out to serve the one we love dearly ,  is in our control… the circumstance remains but what fills our mind now is not the circumstance, it is the thing that we have to do for the one dear to us”.



Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, General Interest


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Fate and Human Endeavour

I recently read some posts which presented in ingenious ways their take on irrational and rational  faiths and beliefs. The term rational–faith seemed rather confronting, with the two contradictions placed face to face, as if one was challenging the other.  In that context, the fate and its inevitable part in human life were also mulled over. And, I found the posts interesting. I reckon there is a bit more to fate and its related issue: the human endeavor; hence this post.

What is fate?

1.1. It is common experience that most of the things that happen in one’s life result from one’s efforts or in the process of trying to do something. One is naturally gratified to see ones endeavors crowned with success, either immediately or after a passage of time. And, the persons who succeed,deservedly, congratulate themselves over their efforts. 

However, there are also occasions, though seldom, when things seem to just happen, almost on their own accord. And at times , things seem to happen despite oneself. Such a rare happening could either be a delightful surprise or be a cause for  agonizing distress.

1.2. When a person is happy; when life is easy and pleasant; when things are flowing like milk and honey; or, when one is overwhelmed in joy from a windfall, then it is the good-fortune or Luck that smiles on him/her. When you or your dear one is suddenly cured of an ailment, it is then a miracle. When you just escaped an accident that could have grievously injured you or could even have killed you, it is then providence or divine intervention. You thank god profusely for his mercy.  You also come to accept providence as the divine will, the super-natural entity or will that governs all events in the universe.

1.3. There also comes a time when ones effort does not bring forth fruits as expected; or, the things that started well begin to show signs of going weary. And it is worse when your project slides into an abject wreck, for no fault of yours. Nothing seems to reasonably explain your failures. The disappointments, sufferings and sorrow that follow are then blamed on fate.

2.1. Thus, a windfall or bright fortune is good luck. But, Fate  has come to  be understood as  one that is  inseparably linked to prolonged or acute suffering, undeserved punishment , reverses in life, unexpected losses , humiliation, poverty, disease , loss , death of near and dear ones etc. It is especially agonizing when the suffering is undeserved and unjust.

What should one conclude when such acute loss or sorrow is brought about by no apparent fault of hers/ his; and, when failures are not rationally linked to any agent or any action?  It is his Fate, he laments.

2.2. Fate serves as a gap-filler to fill the vacuum in his understanding of the world around him when other visible or rational explanations fail. The concept is reinforced further, in a negative way, at the sight of an evil person enjoying happiness and good things in life, while a righteous one suffers eking out a miserable existence. Since neither the comfort nor the misery – undeserved in either case – can be explained in a rational way, they are routinely blamed on the inevitable play of the fate.

3.1. Having said that, what one calls Fate is not an objective reality. It cannot be perceived by human senses. Some call it a creation of human imagination ; or, at best, is a default-inference. One could even say that man invented fate by re-ordering his moral world , so that he could ascribe to it whatever that did not fit into its paradigm. It may also have been born of man’s refusal to accept the idea that life is wholly irrational; and, out of his pet-belief that there is an unknown area beyond all that is known, which would explain life and its mystique.

In a way of speaking, it might not be wrong to call fate a projection of man’s fears and helplessness in the face of strange, untoward, unexpected, undeserved occurrences for which he is wholly not-responsible and is unprepared; and, for which he has no explanation. It is something towards which he feels is driven, going by his hard experiences in the world.

3. 2. Fate, by its very concept, is thus, irrational. One could lament that Fate is blind; it gives solace but not light; and, never  guidance. Yet, one cannot entirely deny the unknown and the unpredictable elements of life.  Man, therefore, calls fate : a capricious phantom.  And yet, a brave person manfully challenges this caprice, unwilling to surrender to its whims, to deflect its moves through precaution, valor, and various other brave and crafty ways. That is the crux of life.

[Please do read :Why do the children have to suffer so horribly?]

Fate in Indian ethos

4.1. Surprisingly, the concept and the belief in fate is a late entry into the Indian ethos. None of the four Samhitas, the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas or the Upanishads speaks of fate. In Rig Veda, particularly, prayers are addressed to benevolent gods who are gently or fervently persuaded to grant fertility in crops and cattle, to bless with plenty of sons and wealth. There is a joyous optimism looking forward with hope to be truly alive over a ‘span-of hundred – sharad ritus’, the best of the seasons. These texts do not have trace of fatalism.

But, the concept of fate and fatalism gained prominence much later in the Epics and the Puranas. We shall talk a bit more of that in the paragraphs to follow.

4.2. The first philosopher to formally propound the theory of fatalism (Niyati-vada) was Makkhali Gosala, an early contemporary of the Buddha. Some say; he was called Gosala because he was born in a cow-shed. Panini the Grammarian (around 5th century BCE) described him as Maskarin (maskara-maskariṇau veṇu-parivrājakayoḥPS_6,1.154 – a mendicant who carries a bamboo staff).  

Makkhali Gosala was a follower of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankara,    in the Nigantha Nataputta Order of Jainism. Gosala too was a naked ascetic. Due to differences with the main Jaina Sangha, Makkhali Gosala left the Order; and , founded his own sect: the Ajivika.

[ Dr. Benimadhab Barua (A History of pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy) says, Ajivikas cannot be entirely identified with naked recluse/ascetics. They were, in general, independent and self-respecting individuals who had following among the Jains as also Buddhists. The Ajivika thesis, in main, according to him, is that the universe is a purposive order where everything is assigned its place and function (niyati).The law of change is universal and all beings are capable of transformation; and most attain perfection in due time. The man’s life has to pass through eight stages of development at each of which physical growth proceeds along with the development of senses, moral and spiritual faculties. And, finally leading to purity of mind; purging it of all impurities that have stained it.

Thus Dr. Barua’s rendition varies from the popular versions of the Ajivika-beliefs.

Dr. Barua gives some biographic details of Gosala that are not mentioned by others: The Jain sources mention his name as Maskarin – one who carries a staff; also known as Ekadandin.  Maskarin preceded Mahavira by sixteen years. His actual name was Gosala Mankhaliputta – son of Mankhali and Bhaddha; and was born at Saravana near Savastthi. His father Mankhali derived his name from the profession he followed – a dealer in pictures. Gosala followed his father’s profession until he turned a monk.]

4.3. Prof A L Basham writes (The Wonder that was India):

No scriptures of the Ajivikas have come down to us, and the little we know about them has to be reconstructed from the polemic literature of Buddhism and Jainism. The sect was certainly atheistic;  and its main feature was strict determinism.

The usual doctrine of karma taught that though a man’s present condition was determined by his past actions he could influence his destiny, in this life and the future, by choosing the right course of conduct.

This the Ajivikas denied. They asserted that the whole universe was conditioned and determined to the smallest detail by an impersonal cosmic principle, Niyati, or destiny. It was impossible to influence the course of transmigration in any way.

All that have breath, all that are born, all that have life, are without power, strength or virtue, but are developed by destiny, chance and nature, and experience joy and sorrow in the six classes £of existence There are … 8,400,000 great aeons (Maha-kappa), through which fool and wise alike must take their course and make an end of sorrow. There is no question of  bringing unripe karma to fruition, nor of exhausting karma already ripened, by virtuous conduct, by vows, by penance, or by chastity. That cannot be done. Samsara is measured as with a bushel, with its joy and sorrow and its appointed end. It can neither be lessened nor increased, nor is there any excess or deficiency of it. Just as a ball of string will, when thrown, unwind to its full length, so fool and wise alike will take their course, and make an end of sorrow.”


4.4. Ajivika sect was perhaps the first to put forward fatalism as being absolute and final. It embraced the concept of fate rather too tightly ; and, affirmed fate as the ultimate reality in human life. It believed: ‘there is no such thing as human endeavor, human strength or determination; all things are pre-determined’.

His parent body, the Jainas , did not however quite approve of Gosala’s theory; and , promptly labelled it ‘ajnana-vada’, the doctrine of ignorance.

4.5. Gosala seems to say you are free to take the first step; but as soon as you take it, you are bound by the outcome of your act and have lost your freedom of choice.

For instance; let’s say you are about to plant a sapling. As long as you have not done it, almost all options are open to you. But, once you decide on your choice, its outcome is also determined.  If you plant a mango tree, then you reap only mangos; and , no other fruit. In other words, you can act, but its outcome is predestined.

[This sounds very similar to Prof. Cassius .J. Keyser’s concept of Logical Fate which essentially means that from premises consequences follow. Choices differ . . . and when we have made it, we are at once bound by a destiny of consequences   beyond our will to control or to modify (See his Mathematical Philosophy). ]

5.1. Makkhali Gosala had declared :

“There is neither cause nor basis for sins of human beings (ahetukavada). None of the deeds of man can affect his future births. All beings, all that have breath, all that are born, all that have life, are without power, strength, or virtue; but, are developed by destiny, chance and nature. All existence is unalterably fixed (niyata). Suffering and happiness, therefore, do not depend on any cause or effect; but, are pre-determined by niyati (fate). And, niyati being adrsta is unseen and preordained . Suffering and happiness, therefore, do not depend on any cause or effect ”.

5.2. The Buddha totally disliked the fatalistic theory ; called its promoter Gosala as the most dangerous of the heretic teachers; and, remarked  :

“Just as the hair blanket is  the meanest of all woven garments , even so, of all the teachings of nagga-samanas (naked recluse) that of Makkhali is the meanest” (Majjhima  Nikaya :1:513).

5.3. The reason that the Buddha summarily dismissed the fatalism of Gosala was perhaps because, it rendered human life utterly irresponsible; robbing it of accountability for man’s evil or even good deeds. Gosala had said , man was not responsible for his deeds, as he was under the control of fate.  Further, Gosala had discounted the role of Karman in life as also in life-after-life of all beings; but , had  asked all men and women to put faith in fate. Gosala had thus attacked the very foundation of the Buddha’s fundamental theory of the chain of cause-and- effect, where the effect is produced by a cause through modifications. The Buddhist law of causation – Pratītyasamutpāda – was the basis of every other doctrine in Buddhism including rebirth, karma, samsara, dukkha etc.

[But , the later forms of Buddhism could not keep out the element of fate. For instance, a Jataka tale (No.257 Gamanichanda) makes out that chance predominates and takes over the course of human life as the agent of fate. And in another Jataka (No.538 Mugapakka)   a king chased by ill-luck for long period says “I know not where I go, the fate watching never sleeps”.]

Karman and rebirth

6.1. But what is Karman? Simply put, it is action, any action, good, bad or indifferent which involves a moral decision. But, occasionally, unwitting action – good or bad – also counts for Karman. It is the belief that ‘as a man decides, he acts; and, as he acts , he reaps the fruits of action  ‘.

6.2. It was much later that rebirth came to be associated with Karman: a man was born and lived according to what he did in his life on earth. This association had many facets.

Initially, the rebirth had reference only to the future. But, with Karman , it became a two-ended proposition: a man’s past Karman determines his present station; and, his present station determines how he will fare in the future. It also meant that Karman took time to mature and to yield its results. This time gap (karma-pari-paka) was compared to the interval between sowing and harvesting; or between administering medicine and regaining health.

6.3. Karman in association with rebirth was , largely , an assumption (just as many of these concepts) ; and , was not proved by any of the valid means of knowledge or the methods of cognition (Pramana). But, Karman seemed to offer an explanation to the illogical inequalities and relative-injustices that one comes across in the world. That made it easy to explain the fact that certain persons , though thoroughly undeserving,  occupy higher positions in the social hierarchy, enjoy the power and all the benefits that come with their status because of their Karman in their past births.

7. 1. But, these elucidations seemed to have a limited range, as they   did not adequately explain all events in human life. It was pointed out that similar actions do not always produce similar results. And, it did not explain the vast range of variations that occur even among the fortunate ones, who are better placed in life.

Further, it was argued,   how could an individuals’ Karman explain a natural calamity like famine, epidemic, accidents, disasters etc involving mass-deaths. Does it mean that all those victims had identical Karman which matured at precisely the same instant?

7.2. It was then put forward that   there had to be another factor which influenced human life , in tandem with Karman and rebirth. That unknown factor came to be accepted as the Fate. It was brought in as a powerful agent to reinforce ; and, to strengthen the Karman-theory. The apparent injustices were ascribed to fate, whose mystique could neither be remedied,  nor unveiled.

Thus, along with Karman and rebirth, fate became the third factor in controlling human existence, life and destiny.

Fate and religion

8.1. All religions, cultures and sects have element of fatalism, in some form or other. A faith in an unknown force which controls human destiny is at the base of most religions and mythologies. Elaborate tales are spun to drive home the conviction that a mystery surrounds human existence; and, it will never be fully revealed.

8.2. Most systems seek to see the God or  gods and fate as distinct powers. In some theologies, the God is seen playing  (Daiva Leela)with the fate , the grief and joys of his creatures; in some others , gods are subservient to fate; and , in few others, the gods and fate together exercise power over human destiny. In some cases, the fate , in one or other names, occupies a key position in the pantheon.

For instance; Fate is also equated with Time, kaala: ‘if kaala is adverse and angry, how, then, shall we escape? ..!’. Time , in human life , runs along a single direction; and , it rushes towards death. Hence , Time becomes synonymous with death. And, death becomes an essential constituent of fate, which terminates the course of  life.

8.3. In the Vedic religion, which has a fluid pantheon, where new gods come and old gods fade away , rather quietly, Karman, rebirth and fate continued to play a role. The fate, here, is both dependent and independent of Karman, as it was deemed possible for an individual to exercise his free-will in order to correct himself ; and , to improve his future prospects.

8.4. In monotheism where nothing can happen without the will of God, the God will necessarily have to assume the role of fate too. Otherwise, if its follower believes in destiny as determined by fate, then there would be no room left for God, as the dispenser of destiny. Conversely, the fate , in effect, will necessarily have to be deemed as the will of god. 

9.1. The things get bit more complicated when you put together the fate, the Karman, the grace of god and the human effort.

If one strongly believes in fate and its role in determining human destiny, then Karman becomes redundant. If ,on the other hand, one subscribes to the faith  and belief  that it is the Law of  Karman , which governs human life and its future , then fate has no place in such a  scheme of things. And, if one has immense faith in God , who in his infinite grace, over rides Karman and fate; then they together are rendered ineffective. In which case, total submission to god’s grace is the ultimate panacea for all worldly ills.

The diversity of the views regarding the relative merits of Karman, fate, divine favor and personal effort represent or depend upon the different anchors of human faith. Most theologies seek to reconcile these factors.

[Unfortunately, the theory of Karman got horribly tangled with ‘fate’; and , got confused for fatality; particularly when one grew feeble and was disinclined to do ones best. It became an excuse for inertia and timidity; and, it turned into a cry of despair, lacking hope.]

9.2. As regards human endeavor, one can never discount its efficacy in life. It is after all the man who decides the attitudes to adopt at varying times as he battles with life. It is also his decision to discard all or any of those approaches, or to relay on his own effort and judgment. Life has no meaning and is not worth living when human endeavor is not valued. Therefore, in day-to-day life, human endowed runs alongside some sort of faith.

Fate in Epics and Puranas

10.1. It is in the Epics and the Puranas that fate seems to take the center stage.

In the Ramayana and Mahabharata Epics, several situations are so crafted as if to bring human endeavor face-to-face with fate. In the many incidents narrated in the epics, fate does not act directly;  but it takes subtler methods of clouding the victim’s wits. Sometimes, fate acts as a living human enemy, hurting the unsuspecting victims.

10.2. There are homilies that acknowledge the supremacy of fate as that which cannot be grasped by thought; and, as that which is not destroyed in creatures”(Ram: 2.20:20). 

There are also remarkably brave statements which applaud human effort (purusakara or purusha-prayatna) ; and , decry dependence on fate as ‘false-games that people play and delude themselves ‘ : “when he  cleaves to fate without conducting himself like a man, he  labours in vain like a woman with an impotent husband (Mbh: 8:6:20)”; and, that “Low men given to indulgence of the passions blame the fate for their own evil deeds ” (Mbh: 8:67:1).

11.1. The principle characters of the Epics – Sri Rama and Yudhistira – lament and blame their miseries on fate: Who can fight against fate?”(Ram – 4:22:20); ”The man to whom fate allots defeat, it robs him of his intellect first and then he begins to see things in a reverse order. Fate robs him of vision, falling like an eye of fire on him” (Mbh: 2.73:8; 3:295:1).

But what is more important here is that the heroes of the Epics, despite their miseries and delusions, do not give up;  but , keep on fighting resolutely  till the end.

11.2. But, it is the relatively minor characters that stand up for human endeavour ; and, refuse to accept the verdict of fate. For instance; Lakshmana argues with his   dejected brother : “why an able bodied man with his faculties intact should accept unjust verdicts of fate without protest?”.

His argument has a subtle point : when success is achieved by ones brave efforts, people tend to ascribe it to fate and destiny. That is unfair, according Lakshmana, as it robs the brave man of his well deserved glory. To Lakshmana, it is cowardly to submit to fate, to suffer injustice without protest, while it is possible to do so, and then blame the fate for his misery (Ram: Kishkinda Kanda).

11.3. Karna the tragic hero of Mahabharata though a Kshatriya by birth was not aware of his origin, because he grew up as a charioteer’s son. When others jeered him of his low extract, Karna retorted  : “A charioteer or a charioteer’s son, whoever I may be, my birth was decreed by fate; but, I am the master of my valour”. Here was an instance of a proud self-confident person , who undertakes tasks and performs with faith in Purushakara.

11.4. The great battle of Mahabharata was, in one sense, a battle between fate and human effort. The warriors on either side knew well that victory was essentially uncertain; and, their own life was highly threatened . Yet, heroic men fought with great courage. Every warrior, mighty and small,  had realized that meek acceptance of fate meant negating the glory of his manhood. Yet, each one was also prepared to conditionally accept his fate as a venture into an unknown zone riddled with startling events. And, regardless of the outcome, each fighter , even the ordinary one, was determined to battle courageously, more manfully and to fight against the mightier odds, if only to redeem his  pride and that  of his clan.

11.5. Mahabharata has some great statements on fate and human endeavour :

“Whatever the enterprising man ever does, he must do it fearlessly; and , the success however depends on fate (yasmād abhāvī bhāvī vā bhaved artho naraṃ prati aprāptau tasya vā prāptau na kaś cid vyathate budhaḥ – Mbh: 8:1.47)” ;

“as a lamp grows weak as the oil runs out, so the fate grows weak when the fruits of action are exhausted” (tasyādya karmaṇaḥ karṇaḥ phalaṃ prāpsyati dāruṇam – Mbh: 8:5:32).

12.1. Puranas were written mainly to glorify the powers, the splendor and supremacy of their principal gods or goddesses. They urge the devotee to surrender to the will and mercy of gods and goddesses. But, at the same time, they call upon men not to give up their efforts: “Some wise men call fate as the false hope that feeble cling to. For the powerful men, no fate is ever noticed. The heroic and the feeble take recourse to effort and fate respectively “(Devi Bhagavata: 5:12:28-30); and, “the wise hold that prowess is the best. Even an adverse fate can be overcome by the prowess of those of good conduct who are ever active and dedicated” (Matsya Purana).

Here, the emphasis is laid on human effort, without which even fate is powerless to achieve anything. Here , cleaving of fate is not condemned; but, doing so and abandoning personal effort is.

12.2. The Puranas tried to reconcile fate and human effort. There are several statements that emphasize that one should always be active in ones prescribed field of activity. And , that only the people without prowess talk of fate;  many alas do not realize that it is primarily their effort (purusha-prayatna) that paves way for their salvation. They emphasize the importance of self-initiative. The Puranas and its legends assured that human effort (purushakara) blessed by fate would surely bear fruit, in due time.


Stoics – Fatalism –Freewill

13.1. Some of the Stoics believed in fatalism; but, none believed in complete Freewill.  Throughout the history of philosophy, there has been a long debate; and, that, perhaps, will never be settled. 

Freedom, they said, is relative and not an absolute. They argued; in a material universe,  in which everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, how could we possibly have free will?

Surely, if everything is governed by cause and effect, we are too. Everything we do — and our future ahead of us — is governed by causes that are out of our control. In fact, do we even have control over anything?

The Stoics believed that God was in all of nature. If God is in all of nature, then nature must be determined, there can be no room for “free will” in a universe that is all God ; because God is perfection.

The universe may seem flawed to us, but we have only a partial understanding of it; because, we are but a fragment of the whole. As a fragment of the whole, we simply could not stand apart from the universe to be free of the causal connections that make it up.

The problem with free will is that it is logically incoherent. To have full control of your destiny, you would have to be the cause of yourself.


The basis of Stoicism is to not take things for granted; but, to contemplate the very nature of our being

The ultimate lesson of Stoicism is this: to live a fulfilling life is to ask yourself difficult questions about what it is to be a human being. The Stoics prized reason above everything else; and, reason requires discipline.

According to Stoicism , knowing yourself and your place in the world will  enable  you to live up to the values that you set for yourself.


13.2. Chrysippus of Soli, head of the Athenian Stoic school in around 230 B.C. E, was probably the most famous Stoic in the distant past.  All his writings are lost. All that we know of his work is through the later writers like Cicero.

Chrysippus is credited with creating a philosophical system of Stoicism, as we understand it. And, it had three equally important parts: logic, ethics and physics.

Further, there are three broad positions in regard to  the human agency in a universe of causes and effects:

Fate or Determinism: is the belief that free will is impossible. The hardest determinists would argue that your life — every action and thought — has been mapped out since the beginning of time.

Free will:  is the idea that we have free will. We can make choices in our lives that are influenced by, but not determined by, the external universe. Such Libertarianism would hold that we are wholly responsible for our actions.

Compatibility:  takes for granted the idea that we live in a deterministic universe of cause and effect. However, it tries to reconcile an idea of human free will with the acceptance of determinism (Fate). Compatibility can be thought of as “soft determinism”.


The renowned philosopher Marcus Aurelius eminently summed up the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred

Everything that happens happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.

[The Stoics believed that all events are predetermined; and , that you have either no control or very little control over circumstances. Everything is fated.]

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

[You may not be able to change the course of events, but you do, however, have control over your own thoughts and emotions.

The difference between the Stoic and the common man is in this example; the common man prays that he is spared of misfortune; the Stoic prays that he can find the strength to accept misfortune.]

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

[Since everything, according to the Stoics, is determined — “everything that happens happens as it should” — you could not do anything about the obstacles you may face. Instead the mind can only find an opportunity in the obstacle because the mind is all that we truly have control over.]

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

[The universe is perfect and true, but we are but one fragment of the whole so therefore cannot fully know that perfection and truth. ]

…the infallible man does not exist.

[Since there are only perspectives that are more or less true (and never fully true), there can be no definitive judgment.]

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.

[ Good conduct emanates from good character.]

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.

[Since ethics lie in virtuous character, ones  conduct depends on ones thought and reason.]

What we do in life ripples in eternity.

[We are a part of the universe and what we do in our lives is part of that eternity.]

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts


Chrysippus, the philosopher, made a distinction between internal (mental) and external (physical) causes. To illustrate his point, he used the visual metaphor of the cylinder. If we push a cylinder on a flat surface it will roll forward. Our push was one necessary cause to get the cylinder rolling.

However, the cylinder’s shape — an intrinsic property — is what was sufficient to make it roll. If you pushed a cube, it would not roll, because it’s not in a cube’s nature to roll.


He then offered a complicated human situation. Let’s say I offer a bribe to a prison guard to get a friend out of jail.

My wad of cash is necessary for the guard taking the bribe — it is an external cause — but it is not a sufficient cause for the bribe to happen. What is sufficient for the successful bribe is the prison guard’s lax moral judgement.

Like the shape of the cylinder allows it to roll, the guard has to have an internal cause to take that decision. Chrysippus describes such decisions as “primary” causes for our actions.

Whether or not the guard takes the bribe is “up to him”’; but, it’s not a free choice. The guard’s choice is determined by his own internal make-up.

His “character”, which creates his dispositions, is again determined by a combination of his complex internal and external causes .

Because of the involvement of both the internal and external factors, the Stoics hold that our actions primarily belong to us, who are, in essence, the combination of both .

Thus, our actions are determined by a complex set of external and internal causes.  


The Stoics avoid using the word “free-will” in the context of fate.

Chrysippus’ idea of “will” or “character” is determined by various degrees of “freedom; but it is more or less determined. We are more or less responsible for our actions; but, never entirely responsible.

The degree of freedom we have (and therefore responsibility) in a given situation depends upon two things: how narrow the choice permitted to us is; and , how cultivated our faculty for judgement is. The Stoics paid a lot of attention to the latter.


13.3. Freedom, they said, is rational self-sufficiency. The desire for material wealth, sex, fame and luxury is impinged upon us by extraneous causes – we are, by necessity ,dissatisfied when we desire.

Desire can be hard to fight. It is a “passion” that will inevitably rise up within us, but always remember that you have control over your emotions. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations:

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.”


13.4. In effect, the Stoics argue that the more rational you are, the freer you are. The rational choice is easy; because, there is only one choice: the necessary choice.

Freedom is, therefore, a double-bind: freedom is choice; but, to be truly free , we should avoid choice. Our reason would dismiss desire as unnecessary to live in virtue and as freely as possible.

There’s not much choice in not wanting; but, wanting is not something that a rational person would choose.

But, the lesser you want; freer you are. This must seem absurd. Being free is surely about choice, after all. But there are different senses of freedom.

It is a paradox.


Fate and Human endeavor

14.1. It can be seen that absolute dependence on fate and the absolute reliance on human endeavor are projected as two extreme positions. It would however be prudent to recognize the limits of both; which is to say, one is powerless without the other or that where the one ends the other begins. Human endeavour, for instance, is the very act of living ; and, life has no meaning when human endeavour is not valued. Therefore, in day-to-day life, human endower runs alongside some sort of faith. But, one has also to recognize that even the most sophisticated of all human endeavors – let’s say launching of a space shuttle – involves and is subject to an element of unknown and unpredictable. You might assign that unpredictability in life whatever name you choose.

14.2. Shri DSamapath , elsewhere, remarked that in situations where one is faced with extremes there always are other possibilities open for resolving the conflicts. Those options might range from the middle path to the simultaneity of all possibilities. These, he calls as the metaphors of thought. Such multi-pointed approach would, naturally, take into account not merely the whole of a ‘metaphor’ but also its specific variations. It is in that context that the Vedic religion re-worked on the theory of Karman; and, rendered it more dynamic , by providing for the freedom of individual will, enabling him to correct the errors and to improve upon his good-performance. That was  meant to convince  that the outcome of one’s past action is not always beyond control or beyond modification,  provided there is a strong will to so.

14.3. Shri DSampath’s observation also implies that there could be as many approaches or attitudes to life as there are individuals. I agree with him. It appears to me that amidst all those options, what is important is to retain a  sense of balance in life recognizing the limits of each of the factors that play an effective role in the different contexts  of the varied spheres of human life.

As Uddalaka Aruni counsels his son, one has to understand life through reason grasped in faith: ‘śraddhatsva somyeti; Have faith, my dear’ (Ch. Up. 6.12.2). … What that faith is at the very core of each being.

To sum up:

Haman initiative and endeavor is highly essential in life; without that, life would collapse on itself. But, that does not say everything. At almost all levels , even at its most sophisticated and highest level , human effort involves and is subject to elements of unknown and unpredictable; you may assign them any name/s . Which suggests that human freedom is  just operational; but, it is not absolute freedom.

Roger Sperry (1913-1994) a psycho biologist (neuro-psychologist and neuro-biologist) who won the Nobel Prize for his split-brain research) explained free will as follows

What one wants of free will is not to be totally freed from causation, but rather, to have the kind of control that allows one to determine one’s own actions according to one’s own wishes, one’s own judgment, perspective, cognitive aims, emotional desires and other mental inclinations.

We are free to select our assumptions. But to exercise this freedom, man must first realize that he is thus free. There could be as many assumptions and beliefs as there are individuals. Fate, god or such others could also be one of those beliefs. If one has firm conviction in ones belief and strives towards that, then ‘That’ would become the reality for him , in due time.  And that is his faith, the very core of his being.

Leaving aside remarkable sages and saints, it appears to me, for the men and women of the world,  it is important to retain a sense of balance ; and, to understand life through reason grasped in faith, as said.



Posted by on October 9, 2012 in General Interest, Speculation


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Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin

I have heard that Upanishad Brahmendra was one of the teachers of Saint Tyagaraja; and also that he wrote commentaries on Upanishads. I am unable to find information about him, his life etc. Can you please post something on him? Namaskar. Vasudev-anand

Sri Upanishad Brahmendra 


1.1. Yes, as you mentioned, not many details of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra’s life are known; and, I reckon there are no major biographies either.  I have also not seen a picture or a sketch of the Yogin. [I read somewhere of an old   sketch on the Mutt walls in Kachipuram where he is depicted in a kaupina. But, I have not seen the Mutt or the sketch].  I understand that the Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, way back in the fifties published The Life and works of Upanishad Brahman written by the well known scholar Dr. V Raghavan; but, that does not seem to be available now, either in print or on the net. However, I came across a brief paragraph about Sri Upanishad Brahman in Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao’s Tantra of Sri Chakra, besides some references to the sage in other works. The following is based on those bits of information.

It is said; the Sri Rama Yantra (resembling Sri Chakra) carved on a Saligrama is worshiped in the Mutt. 

upanishad brahmendra muttrama yantra

I wish someone more knowledgeable responds, presenting a fuller picture.

Adishtanam of Sri Upanishad Brahman.jpg

Adistanam of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra

2.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin or Upanishad Brahmendra Saraswati or Upanishad Brahmam a scholar of great merit and a sanyasin, renowned for his unprecedented performance of producing commentaries on all the 108 Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad, was one of the savants of the eighteenth century. He is reckoned along with Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra (1653? -1753) the renowned Avadhuta, the author of Atma Vidya Vilasa and other Advaita texts and also the composer of sublime kirtans, songs in celebration of various deities; as also with Bhaskararaya Makhin (between 1690 and 1795) the celebrated commentator of Bhavanopanishad a revered text of the Sri Vidya tradition . The Karnataka Music Trinity: Saint Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Sri Mutthuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835) and Sri Shyama Sastry (1762 – 1827) too were contemporaries of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra. What was more remarkable was that all those giants lived, at one time, in and around the Cauvery delta, say within a radius of about a hundred miles.

Early Life

3.1. As regards his early life, it is said that his initial name was Sivarama. He was the son of Sivakamesvara (Sadashiva) Avadhani and Lakshmi Devi of Vadhulasa gotra. His father was a learned scholar who intended to comment on all the Upanishads but, for some reason, could not achieve his ambition. Later in his life, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra towards the end of his vyakhya commentary on Mukthiko-panishad mentioned that he as a dutiful son was trying to fulfil his father’s ambition; and all his works were a tribute to his departed father.

Sivakamesvara Avadhani is said to have hailed from Brahmapuram on the banks of the river Palar.

3. 2. There is no definite information about his date of birth or death. In any event, Sri Upanishad Brahman lived a very long (nearly one hundred years) and a very active and fruitful life. Some biographies of Sri Thyagaraja mention that Sri Upanishad Brahman was younger to Rama-Brahman (father of Sri Thyagaraja) by about twenty-five years; and elder to Sri Thyagaraja by about twenty years. When Sri Thyagaraja last met Sri Upanishad Brahman at Kanchipuram , on his way to Tirumala-Tirupathi, in the year 1839, the former was about seventy-two years of age; which meant that Sri  Upanishad Brahman was at that time about ninety-two years old. By putting together these bits of information one can surmise that Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was born around the year 1747.

3.3. By about the age of twenty-five, Sivarama was initiated into Sanyasa by his guru Sri Vasudevendra Sarasvati and assigned the name: Ramacandrendra Sarasvati. Under the Dasanami order of sanyasins, the Sarasvati sampradaya has two branches: Ananda – Sarasvati and Indra- Sarasvati. Ramacandrendra Sarasvati belonged to the latter order. And, all the sanyasins of the Kanchi-Kamakoti Peeta belong to the Indra-Sarasvati order.

At Thanjavur

4.1. Soon after his initiation into Sanyas, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati wandered for some time as Parivrajaka (wandering monk); and then settled in Thanjavur  which then was the cultural capital of South India , because of the encouragement and patronage extended to  arts and culture  by its  Maratha kings. During his stay at Thanjavur, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati devoted himself to propagation of Upanishad ideals and philosophies. His discourses on Vedas, Upanishads and Ramayana were well attended and highly appreciated. Around this time, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati launched his monumental and almost life-long project of writing commentaries on all the Advaita oriented Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad.  His involvement in this task was so complete he came to be recognized and respected as Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin or Sri Upanishad Brahman.  His original Sanyas-ashrama name virtually faded into background.

Tanjore_Nayak_Kingdom4.2. The year 1779-80 was a restless and politically uncertain period in the state of Thanjavur. The British East India Company which had been scheming since 1749 to take over the State of Thanjavur finally succeeded. And, in October 1799 the East India Company assumed absolute sovereignty of the State by deposing Raja Serfoji II. The deposed Raja bereft of power and purse was allowed to retain only the capital and a small tract of surrounding villages.

4.3. With the loss of royal patronage and support, most artists and intellectuals migrated out of Thanjavur and drifted into other cities and states in search of livelihood. Upanishad Brahman too did not stay long thereafter in Thanjavur; but went on a pilgrimage to North India. On his return, say, towards the end of the year 1780, he settled down in Kanchipuram and established his own mutt at a place then known as Agasthya-ashrama .The Mutt  later came to be known as Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Mattha. Sri Upanishad Brahman resumed his work on the commentaries.

Philosophical works

5.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was a prolific writer who produced several scholarly works based in Advaita philosophy in addition to commentaries on Bhagavad-Gita and Brahma Sutras.

[please click here for Brahma Sutra Bhashya Siddantha Sangraha edited by  Pandit Sri  V Krishnamacharya ; Adyar Library, 1949]

Apart from those texts , his independent works include: treatise (vritti), study of the origin, nature and validity of knowledge (Paribhasha), advices to aspirants (updaesha), minor dissertations explaining the basic concepts (prakaranas), hymns (stotra) addressed to various divinities, and songs(Divya nama samkirtanam). On the subject of Bhakthi and reciting the name and glory of the Lord he wrote treaties extolling the virtues of their practice (Nama-siddantha). He is said to have evolved the method of contemplation on the Pranava   (AUM), its esoteric quality of sound (pranava-nada).

5.2. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra yogin’s    fame rests mainly on the monumental sets of commentaries he wrote on all the 108 Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad. He was the first scholar in the Advaita tradition to have provided commentaries on all those listed Upanishads.

[A short explanation appears necessary here. It is not as if there are only 108 Upanishads. The exact number of Upanishads is not known; there are as many Upanishads as one can list. According to some, there are more than 360 Upanishads which include the major and the minor ones; the ancient and the not so ancient; some well known and some hardly known. Even Bhagavad-Gita is listed as an Upanishad, as it is regarded the essence of all Upanishads. Srimad Ananda-thirtha (Sri Madhwacharya) quotes from Brahma tattva and Vishnu Upanishad which now are hardly known.

As per tradition, about thirteen Upanishads are considered major Upanishads; and they represent the core of the Upanishad wisdom. They are of doubtless antiquity and constitute the first tier of the prasthana-traya (the set of three principal texts), the foundations of the Vedic heritage; the other two tiers being the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita. Sri Shankara commented on ten of those major Upanishads (Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Taittireeya, Aithreya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Mundaka and Mandukya); and cited the other three (Kaushitaki, Svethavatara and Jabaala) as being authoritative.

Over the centuries, varieties of texts gave themselves (or were tagged) the suffix-Upanishad – to their title. That was perhaps meant to provide those texts a halo of authority and an elevated position in the hierarchy of traditional texts. The thoughts in most of such texts were neither fresh nor universal. Many of those texts were theistic and sectarian in their approach; and were, therefore, classified according to their affiliations, such as Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shaktha etc. All such Upanishads are enumerated in the Charana-vyuha section of Atharva Veda, to which they are affiliated. That section itself has a supplementary character about it.

Mukthiko-panishad itself a  minor Upanishad of recent origin , affiliated to Shukla-Yajur Veda, lists 13 major Upanishads , 94 minor  Upanishads and lists itself as the 108th Upanishad.  In the Muktikopanishad , Lord Sri Rama , as the Supreme Brahman, imparts to his disciple Hanuman the essence (Brahmavidya) of the Upanishads (Vedanta) and their nature .  Towards the end, Sri Rama says : I am the visible form of the pure and changeless Brahman. Meditate upon Me to attain Jivanmukthi. ]

5.3. At the end of his gloss on Muktikopanishad , Sri Upanishad Brahmendra mentions that he completed the huge  task in the year Prajothpatti , Dhanrus masa (Margasirasa) , Ekadasi , Asvini , Tuesday (According to some , this works out to    17 – December – 1751 . But, I am , however, not very sure. Sorry).

Sri Upanishad Brahmendra’s commentaries are considered authoritative, and are therefore held in high esteem in the Advaita tradition. It is said he harmonizes (samanvaya) the different shades of Advaita doctrines spread across various texts; and weaves them together into a philosophical framework consistent with the spirit of Upanishads, Brahma sutra, and that of Sri Sankara.

5.4. As a precaution against the possible unauthorized insertions into his texts, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra took care to mention at the end of each of his works the number of stanzas it contained. The total numbers of such stanzas, it is said, add up to about 45,000.A very impressive and valuable contribution to Advaita School.

Manuscripts of his commentaries and his other works are now said to be preserved in the Adyar Library. And, all his commentaries were published by the Adyar Library, Madras during the period 1920-1953.

Association with music

6.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was well versed in music. Although an Advaitin by conviction, he was intensely devoted to Sri Rama, his Ishta-devatha. He followed the Divya nama-samkirtana, the Bhajana form in worship of Sri Rama. He is credited with number of Bhajana-samkirtanas, devotional songs set to music, singing the glory of the Lord.

6.2. He explained Divyanama-samkirtana, the recitation of the sacred name of the chosen deity (Istadevata) as Upaya the means for attaining the ultimate (Upeya) the Brahman. Then, Sri Rama just as the symbol (pratika) Om, according to him, would no longer be a nama of a rupa (form) but will be the very essence of the supreme divinity. Thus, Divya-nama or nama-chit (name –consciousness) is the means (sadhana) and also the end (sadhya). He asserts that the quote “Om eti ekaksharam Brahma” (Bhagavad-Gita: 8.13) gives expression to the identity of the symbol or the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin explained these concepts in his work Upeya -nama – viveka where he attempts to synchronize Advaita with Bhakthi.

6.3. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was an integral part of the tradition that was in vogue during those times when the sanyasins based in Advaita ideology also cultivated Bhakthi (devotion) and Sangitha (music). Apart from Upanishad Brahmendra the two other Advaita-sanyasins  – Sri Narayana Thirtha and Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra  – excelled in practice of Nada-vidya as a part of their Sadhana. This was followed by Sri Tyagaraja who had a great affinity towards Upanishad Brahmendra. Sri Tyagaraja too, like his ideal, lovingly adorned Sri Rama in hundreds of his songs; and he too later in his life took to sanyasa – bringing together devotion, music and knowledge of self (jnanavairagya). They all asserted that Bhakthi was the means (sadhana) to realize the goal (sadhya) of attaining unity with God or Brahman.

6.4. Besides this , there arose, in the Cauvery delta , a movement – Bhajana Sampradaya – that firmly believed in the power of the sacred name (Namasiddantha).It asserted the faith that recital of the holy name in loving devotion and giving expression to that through soulful music (nama samkirtana) was the most potent means for liberation. The movement cut across the distinctions of caste (varna) and the stages of life (ashrama). It brought into its fold householders, men, women and children of all sections of the society. Sri Sridhar Venkatesha Ayyaval, Sri Bhodendra Sarasvathi and Sri Bashyam Gopala Krishna Sastry renowned as the triumvirate of Bhajana tradition were the prominent leaders of the congregational devotion (Bhajana mandali) practices. They were followed by Sri Venkataramana – Sadgurusvami who strengthened and gave a form to the Bhakthi and Bhajana-paddathi movement.

Influence on Sri Tyagaraja and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar

7.1. The influence of Sri Upanishad Brahman on Sri Tyagaraja and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar was significant. Sri Upanishad Brahman and Sri Tyagaraja shared the intense fervour of devotion to their Ista-devatha Sri Rama and to his nama-samkirtana, singing the glory of the Lord. Sri Upanishad Brahman and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar shared the principles of Advaita philosophy, the use of its terms in their songs and the adoption of classic Sanskrit as the language of their music.

7.2. While he was living in Thanjavur (prior to 1780), he (then known as Ramacandrendra Sarasvati) used to conduct discourses on Ramayana and also lead chorus-singing of the devotional songs he composed in praise of Sri Rama. It is said, the boy Thyagaraja who was in his early teens, say of ten-twelve years, used to attend, along with his father (Ramabrahmam), the musical discourses and Bhajans conducted by the Sanyasin. (Thiruvayaru where the Ramabrahmam family lived is just 13 Km from Thanjavur).

7.3. The musicologists and experts opine that the traces of Ramacandrendra Sarasvati‘s influence can be found in the Divya-nama-samkirtana songs composed by Sri Thyagaraja. They point out the similarities in the structure of songs and in the word-play (pada-jaala) employed by Sri Thyagaraja and his inspiration, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati. (e.g.,Kanakambara; Kanakavasana; Celakanaka; Hatakacela;Bhaktha-chandana; Sakalonnata; Rajavandya; Sitamanohara; Rajivaksha; Ranabhima; Jitakama; Navanitasa; Sara-sarastara; Mruduvacana; Niramayanga;  Nadapradipa; Nadasadhana; etc.

Further it is said; Sri Tyagaraja’s songs: Dhyaname varamaine; Gangasnaname; and Kotinadula which emphasize that the real snana and thirtha (the bath and the holy waters of the pilgrimage) are verily in the contemplation on the name of the Lord and not in the rivers , were inspired by Sri Upanishad Brahmendra‘s Tarangas in his Sri Rama Taranga . It is also mentioned that this work of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was in turn influenced by the songs in most enchanting opera Krishna-Leela-Tarangini of Sri Narayana Thirtha (1650 -1745).

7.4. As regards Sri Mutthuswamy Dikshitar, he too met Sri Upanishad Brahmendra. After about seven years of stay and study at Varanasi, Sri Dikshitar on his way back home to Thiruvarur, stayed for some time with Sri Upanishad Brahmendra in his mutt at Kanchipuram. This is said to have taken place in the year 1809 when Sri Dikshitar was about thirty-four years of age; and Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was about sixty-two.  During his stay, Sri Dikshitar set to music Rama Ashtapadhi a collection of stanzas composed by Sri Upanishad Brahmendra adoring the glory of Sri Rama. This musical composition is, sadly, lost now.

Dr.V. Raghavan observes that some of the expressions of Advaita-nature used by Upanishad Brahmendra are echoed in Dikshitar’s compositions . For instance ; Avidyakarya; Mayakarya; Vikalebara-kaivalya ; and Bhutabhautika etc. Similarly, he points out that certain  phrases used by Dikshitar resemble those of Upanishad Brahmendra:Bhava-roga-vaidya(Bhava-rug-vaidya);and, Ramaniya-hrudayavidita (Ramaniya-hrid-vibhava).

Association with Sri Thyagaraja

8.1. When Sri Upanishad Brahmendra and Sri Thyagaraja first met in Thanjavur just prior to 1780, the Sanyasin was a young man of thirty-three years and his admirer was a lad of thirteen. They did not meet again for a very long time. When they met again at Kanchipuram in 1839, after a lapse of nearly sixty years, both had grown into old men; Upanishad Brahmendra was in ripe old age at ninety-two and Thyagaraja too was old, he was seventy-two.

8.2. How this meeting came about is described in fair detail in a weblog page titled manaku teliyani mana tyAgarAju, meaning our Thyagaraja that we do not know. The article is basically about Sri Thyagaraja and references to meeting with Sri Upanishad Brahmendra are incidental to the narration. The article in Telugu language is written in Roman script; and, it makes a very tedious reading. I wish an English translation too was posted.

9.1. It is mentioned that one Kovvur Sundaresa Mudaliyar a wealthy merchant and a Dubash (interpreter as also one who acted as steward, banker and general agent) of the British East India Company at Madras, called on Sri Upanishad Brahmendra at Kanchipuram in order to pay his respects. During the course of their conversation Sundaresa Mudaliyar learnt that the Swamin was well acquainted with Ramabrahmam (father of Thyagaraja). He then went on to describe in laudatory terms the musical genius of Sri Thyagaraja. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra too had heard of the sublime music of Sri Thyagaraja. His conversation with Sundaresa Mudaliyar revived old memories and he longed to see the boy he knew, now grown into a musical celebrity. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra, at the instance of Sundaresa Mudaliyar, decided to send an invitation asking Thyagaraja to visit him at Kanchipuram.

9.2. In his letter, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra mentioned that though he was very desirous of listening to Thyagaraja’s divine music he was unable to visit Thiruvayaru as he was in no position to travel long distances because of his ’extreme age’. And, he said, he would appreciate if Thyagaraja could visit him at Kanchipuram and let him have the pleasure of listening to sublime music. The letter “Sri-mukham’ (a formal communication bearing the official seal and insignia of the Mutt) was sent to Sri Thyagaraja through Thanjavur Rama Rao who was acting as a sort of manager and caretaker of Thyagaraja after the demise of his (Sri Thyagaraja) wife Kamalamba. [It is said; that srimukham along with some of Thyagaraja’s compositions, in his own writing on palm leaf, are preserved in the Saurastra Sabha at Madurai.]

10.1. The invitation from Sri Upanishad Brahmendra threw Sri Thyagaraja into a dilemma. He could not refuse the invitation from one whom he considered almost a guru (guru-samana) and a very senior person; but, at the same time he was most unwilling to leave his home and his daily worship (Rama-panchayatana) of his beloved deity Sri Rama. He was restless for a couple of days. It is said, it was during these stressful days that Sri Thyagaraja sang the kriti in Todi Raga “koti nadula danushkoti lo undaga, etiki tirugadave O manasaa’; meaning when millions of rivers are merged in danushkoti (the ocean) why do you wander aimlessly, Oh my mind. However, after his disciples assured and promised to conduct regularly the daily puja of his deity Sri Rama, without fail, Sri Thyagaraja agreed to make the trip.

10.2. According to the travel plans arranged and finalized by the Manager Thanjavur Rama Rao, Sri Thyagaraja  and party would first visit Sri Rangam; then on to Kanchipuram to call on  the sage Sri Upanishad Brahmendra honouring  his invitation ; and from there to Tirupthi-Tirumala to have the darshan of Lord Venkateshwara . The return journey would be via Madras, Tiruvattiyur and Lalgudi. Each of those places is a celebrated centre of pilgrimage.

10.3. In the summer of 1839 when Sri Thyagaraja was seventy-two years of age, he departed from Thiruvayaru after attending to the seven-day Chaitra-maasa Saptastana Utsavam celebrations at Panchanadeeswara (Shiva) temple. The travel party included about twenty disciples; and during most of the journey Thyagaraja was carried in a palanquin.

temple 3

Meeting with Sri Thyagaraja

11.1. After worshipping Lord Sri Raganatha at Sri Rangam, the party reached Kanchipuram when the Dolothsavam of the Lord Varadaraja swami was in progress. Sri Thyagaraja was delighted; and in ecstasy he burst forth into the song ‘Varadaraja Ninnukori vacchiti’ (Swarabooshani).

11.2. When they first met (c. 1780) in Thanjavur, Sri  Upanishad Brahmendra, youth of thirty-three was in the prime of life; and Sri Thyagaraja a lad of twelve was  just on the threshold of life. And, when they met again at Kanchipuram (1839) after about sixty years, both had grown into ripe old sages glowing with mellow joy; Sri Upanishad Brahmendra   was about 92 and Sri Thyagaraja was about 72.During those long years both walked the path of life with singular devotion in pursuit of their aspirations and ideals. Both achieved success substantially. The meeting at Kanchipuram was between two blessed and enriched persons sharing mutual regard and admiration.

11.3. Sri Upanishad Brahman was greatly delighted by the musical excellence and pure devotion of Sri Thyagaraja. He enjoyed every moment of Thyagaraja’s stay with him; and is said to have remarked it was worth waiting almost a lifetime for enjoying the delight (raga –sudha) of Sri Thyagaraja’s music. The travel party after a stay of about two weeks at the Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Ashram left for Tirupathi by way of Walajapet where Sri Thyagaraja’s disciple Venkataramana Bhagavatar was waiting anxiously to receive his Guru.

11.4. This was the only elaborate tour that Sri Thyagaraja took in all his life; and, Tirupathi was the farthest place in North that he reached. The trip which basically was undertaken to honour the invitation extended by his guru-samana Sri Upanishad Brahmendra turned out a great success; and musically highly productive. It was a blessing and a boon to Karnataka – music. It gave birth to series o compositions, kriti-groups popularly called kshetra-kritis. They are musical gems; remarkable for their soulful music, inspired rich lyrics and complex structure. The music lovers are in eternal debt to Sri Upanishad Brahmendra and the creator of sublime music Sri Thyagaraja.

Kshetra kirtanas

12.4. At each of the places and temples he visited, Sri Thyagaraja composed inspired kritis singing the glory of its presiding deities: Varadaraja (Sri Rangam); Kamakshi (Kanchipuram); Venkateshwara (Tirupathi); Kovur (Sundareshwara); Lalgudi (Saptharisheeswar and Srimathi). For details : please check Kshetra Kirtanas.

12.5. It was a tradition in those days for the musical composers of merit to compose and sing songs in honour of the presiding deities whenever they visited a prominent temple-town. Such compositions were classified as Kshetra kirtanas. Sri Thyagaraja followed that sampradaya the time honoured practice. Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar too followed this practice. He, in addition, built into his kritis brief references to the temple, its architecture, its rituals and its deity. Amidst these details he skilfully wove the name of the raga (raga mudra) and his own Mudra, signature. All these were structured into well-knit short kritis of grand music glowing with tranquil joy.

rose reflection


References and sources

The Tantra of Sri Chakra

By Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Manaku teliyani mana tyAgarAju – 4

Kshetra Kirtanas

Full text of T_T_D_ monthly bulletin vol viii


Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Music


Tags: , , , ,

The other migrations


1.1. It is said; the Vedic region broadly comprised three areas:  Ila the western regions, Bharathi the tracts of the alluvial plains of the Ganga and Jamuna do-ab, and the third region being of course the Sindhu or the Sarasvati.

1.2. There is a view which asserts that ’Ila’, in fact, refers to the Land’s End  of the Sothern India the parts of which were rescued from the Great Flood  of  the very distant past. It also mentions about the migration of people from the lands threatened by flood waters towards safe upper reaches and to regions in the North. The ancient texts such as Shatapatha Brahmana and the Puranas as also the ancient Tamil texts seem to support that view. Let’s talk of Ila of the South.

Yayathi and sons

2.1. Yayathi the legendry king of the Vedic people is said to have had two wives: Devayani the daughter of Shukrachaya of the Bhrigu clan; and Sharmishta the daughter of Vrisha Parvan, the King of Asuras in the south west (Gujarat area) bordering the central region ruled by Yayathi. Vrisha Parvan too was a follower of the Bhrigus.

Devayani had earlier fallen in love, desperately, with Kaccha the son of Brihaspathi of the Angirasa clan. But her love was rejected.

2.2. Turvasha and Yadu were sons of Yayathi (an Angirasa) by Devayani of the Bhrigus; while Anu, Druhyu and Puru were his sons by Sharmishta of the Asuras.

2.3. Yayathi’s story indicates that the five great lines of Vedic rulers were born of an alliance of Deva and Asura kings, the followers of Angirasa and Bhrigu seers. Yayathi’s marriage with the Bhrigu women was perhaps an attempt to bring together the two rival clans.

2.4. According to Vishnu Purana (4.10.17-18) the king Yayathi divided his kingdom among his five sons . To Turvasha he gave the south-east; to Druhayu the west; to Yadu the south and west in the Narmada –Godavari region; to Anu the north; and to Puru the centre. Purus ruled as the Supreme king of all earth.

dhanāśā jīvitāśā ca jīryato ‘pi na jīryataḥ // ViP_4,10.17 //
pūrṇaṃ varṣasahasraṃ me viṣayāsaktacetasaḥ /
tathāpy anudinaṃ tṛṣṇā mamaiteṣv eva jāyate // ViP_4,10.18 //

2.5. In the lineage of the Puranas, the Purus and Yadus rule famously, for long years, as the prominent kings of Chandra-vamsha, the lunar dynasty. The descendents of Puru and Yadu branched into Pauravas and Yadavas, respectively. Dushyanata followed by his son Bharata was the pioneer of the Puru clan in which line descended the Kuru and Pandava princes. While, Krishna son of Yadava prince Vasudeva was the culmination of the Yadu clan.

The west and the south combine

3.1. Turvasha and Yadu, the two sons of Devayani of the Bhrigus were said to be twins; and were particularly close. The kings of the Dravida region were the descendents of Turvasha, while the kings of the island of Sri Lanka were Yadus. The regions ruled by the two clans stretched from the upper regions of the Narmada to the end of Southern land mass which perhaps extended   beyond the present-day Sri Lanka. The entire region was ruled practically as one kingdom, because the ruling families in the South had very friendly relations with the Yadus of the Narmada region in the west. All were in the line of the Bhrigus.

3.2. The later legends mention of the sizable presence of the Asuras- Yadus – Brighus in the Narmada and Godavari region. It is said that Lavana, a Yadu and a disciple of the Brighus controlled that region. Lavana was related to Ravana who was a Yadu; a militant Yadu just as Kamsa of Mathura in the much later era. The followers of Lavana (including Ravana’s sister) roamed freely in the region. It was from this area that Ravana abducted Sita.

The Deluge and after


4.1. The Shatapatha Brahmana (I.8.1.1) describes the floods that swept the lands of the Vedic people, the rescue of the lands from the advancing floods; and of moving people and animals threatened by waters to the upper regions in the North. The other Vedic texts too carry similar legends of floods and the rescue. The later Puranas   and Srimad Bhagavatam turned the great event associated with the rescue from the floods into the legend of Matsya-Avatara of Vishnu, his emergence as a Fish, the first of his ten principal incarnations.

manave ha vai prātaḥ | avanegyamudakamājahruryathedam
pāṇibhyāmavanejanāyāharantyevaṃ tasyāvanenijānasya matsyaḥ pāṇī āpede (I.8.1)


4.2.The Shatapatha Brahmana (I.8.1.5) says that a little fish (a shaphari crap fish)  asked a  king to save its life while he was performing his early morning- austerities  standing in the river : and it kept growing bigger and bigger. The fish also informed the King of a huge flood which would soon hit and sweep away his land. The King thereafter built a huge boat to rescue his people, nine types of seeds, and animals in order to repopulate the earth. Accordingly, the king was taken to a Northern Mountain, where all were saved from the flood.

tamevam bhṛtvā samudram abhyavajahāra | sa yatithīṃ tatsamām paridideṣa tatithīṃ samāṃ  nāva mupakalpyopāsāṃ cakre sa augha utthite nāva-māpede taṃ sa matsya
upanyā pupluve tasya śṛṅge nāva pāśam pratimumoca tenaitam uttara
atidudrāva 1.8.1.[5]

[H.S. Bellamy in his Moons, Myths and Men, estimates that altogether there are over 500 Flood legends worldwide. Ancient civilizations such as – China, Babylonia, Wales, Russia, India, America, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Sumatra, Peru, and Polynesia- each has its own version of a giant flood].


5.1. The common features of most (not all) of the Indian legends of the Great Flood are: The king who rescued the land and its people from the encroaching flood waters was Satyavrata of Bhrigu clan, perhaps a king in line of Yadu or Turvasha. He ruled in the Southern region — Dravida Desha. When the little fish jumped into his palms holding water as offering to gods, the king Satyavrata was standing in the waters of the river Kritamala flowing down from Malaya Hills .

Bhagavata Purana (8.24.12-13) also mentions that a fish jumped into the palms of King Satyavrata  of Dravida Desha (Dravieśvara), holding water – Satyavrato añjaligatā saha toyena Bhārata.

Tasyā añjalyudake kācic chaphary ekā abhyapadyata / Satyavrato añjaligatā saha toyena bhārata / utsasarja  nadītoye śapharī Dravieśvara BhP_08.24.012-13

After he built the boat, Satyavrata sailed north, away from the floods, and he rescued humans, nine types of animals and plants by taking them to safety in the regions of north and west.

Ila is the name of Satyavrata’s daughter; she is described as Maitra-Varuni (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 6. 4.28) suggesting she descended from the line of the Bhrigus.  Ila is also the name of the land the parts of which were rescued from the flood waters.

athāsya mātaram abhimantrayate — ilāsi maitrāvaruṇī vīre vīram ajījanat |
sā tvaṃ vīravatī bhava yāsmān vīravato ‘karad iti 

boat rescue

5.2. The Malaya hills mentioned in the legends refer to the ranges in the peninsular region of India stretching south from Sri Sailam to the southern end of the Western Ghats, which could be the border areas between the Nilgiri Hills and the Anaimalai Hills. An account of the pilgrimages undertaken by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) mentions: “The Lord next visited the places known as Pandya-Desa, Tamraparni…, Panangudi, Carntapura, Sri Vaikuntha, Malaya-parvata and Kanya-kumari”.  As regards the Kritamala River, it is believed to be the Vaigai River or its tributary. The river Kritamala is mentioned in Mahabharata in the context of Balarama’s pilgrimage: “After the Setubandha (Ramesvaram) Lord Halayudha then visited the Krtamala and Tamraparni (of the Tirunelveli district) rivers and the great Malaya Mountains”. Kritamala is also mentioned in the travel accounts of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Satyavrata might have therefore been a Yadu king of the Pandya country.

The king Satyavrata later became the progenitor of this eon: Vaivasvata Manu. He then was described as being in the line of the Vivasvan, an Aditya, a solar deity. Here too, Ila is his daughter.

The Rig Veda (I.31.11) mentions that Ila  , the daughter of Manu was the first teacher to the sons of mortals. She is associated as a River, and also with Agni.

tvām agne prathamam āyum āyave devā akṛṇvan nahuasya viśpatim | Iām akṛṇvan manuasya śāsanīm pitur yat putro mamakasya jāyate || RV_1.031.11||

5.3. All these suggest that king Satyavrata came from the South (Draviḍeśvaraḥ). And, the lands and people rescued from the deluge were part of a large landmass called Ila or Ilavar or Ilam named after the daughter of king Satyavrata who became Vaivasvata Manu. The people rescued from Southern waters were moved to north and west. And, the Vedas existed before and after the deluge.

The Land of Ila

6 . 1. That fuels the argument that ancient Ila – mandalam ‘The Land of Ila’ lay to the South, and its Vedic- tradition of the Aryans was rescued by the efforts its king and his people. And thereafter   , following a great migration, it rejoined the Vedic culture on the banks of the Saraswati River and flourished afresh. Since the rescue was by means of a huge boat that could sail over turbulent waters, the rescued population of the South could have reached the Saraswati basin by setting sail from a port situated along the west coast, nearer to the Pandya country. That possibility seems to give wings to the view that some of the early Vedic people in the Sindhu valley were migrants from Ila of the South; and that an early form of Dravidian language was one of the languages of the Indus people. Scholars assert that the Dravida influence was certainly present in north-western India by around the middle of the second millennium BC.

Shri Bhadriraju   Krishnamurti in his ‘The Dravidian Languages  Cambridge University Press, 2003 ; mentions that the Rig Vedic society consisted several different ethnic components who all participated in the same cultural life; and that the Rig Vedic Sanskrit had several borrowed-terms from the Dravidian e.g. ulukhala (mortar); kunda (pit); khala (threshing floor); kana (one eyed); and mayura (peacock).

dravidian languages

Dravidian languages

6.2. A Russian Indologist, Nikita Gurov, claims that there were as many as eighty words of Dravidian origin in the Rig-Veda, ‘occurring in 146 hymns of the first, tenth and the other mandalas , e.g. RV 1.33.3, vaila (sthana-) -open space : wayal– open space , sunlight ; RV. 10.15, kiyambu –a water plant; RV 1.144, vril – finger: RV 1. 8.40, vilu- stronghold; witu – house, abode, camp; sira – plough; and kanuka –gift. Gurov also cites some proper names, namuci, kıkata, paramaganda; and suggests these could be of Dravidian origin.

6.3. The legends of Ila thus help to bind together the Vedic tales and the tales from the old Tamil texts.

The ancient Tamil legends

7.1. The ancient Tamil texts recall legends of a sunken kingdom that lay to the South-East of India. This land was known as Kumari Kandam ‘The Virgin Landmass’ or Ilam; and it included other parts of the now visible lands of Sri Lanka. That could be quite possible, since in the scale of geological time, the mountain ranges in the south-central Sri Lanka are regarded the oldest in the world. The geologists believe that these mountains existed while the Himalayan regions were still under water.

The Silappadhikaram, one of the Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature   said to have been written in first few centuries BCE, states that the ‘cruel sea’ took the Pandiyan land that lay between the rivers Pahruli and the mountainous banks of the Kumari.

Adiyarkkunallar, a 12th-century commentator on the Silappadhikaram, explains that there was once a land to the south of the present-day Kanyakumari, which stretched for 700 kavatam from the Pahruli River in the north to the Kumari River in the south. the precise modern equivalent of a kavatam is not known. The speculations about the extent of the lands devoured by the ocean range from 6-7,000 square miles;  or  a smaller area .



7.2. The deluge and its consequences caused large movements of people towards the upper regions in the north and to west. Early Tamil texts  mention that the present-day Madurai came up as  the new capital in remembrance of the old  capital Ten-Madurai sunken underwater (the ruins of Ten-Madurai are supposed to be lying under water in the region of the Great and Little Bases in the Indian Ocean off the south eastern coast of Sri Lanka).

7.3. Even several centuries after its  surrounding lands submerged under the sea , the author of The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (dated around the first century) names the island of Sri Lanka as  Palaisimoondus  , which actually meant Palaya –ila- mandalam, meaning the old-land – of Ilam.

(please see the map or  click here for an enlarged version).


[ After a deadly tsunami hit the coast of Mahabalipuram on 26 December 2004; and, uncovered some stone remains of a structure , the BBC, on 11 February 2005 , reported that the Archaeologists  believe these could be the remains of an ancient port city that flourished off the coast in southern India, housing the famous 1200-year-old rock-hewn temple.]

Sage Agastya


8.1. The sage Agastya a revered seer of the South was the brother of sage Vasistha. The two are described as Bhrigus and carried the name Maitra-varuni; say like, Agastya Maithravaruni. The Puranas describe them as born out of water (children of Varuna), perhaps to suggest that the brothers escaped the flood waters and sailed out of it.

The brothers helped in controlling the floods and in rescuing the people. Thereafter Vasistha sailed back north along with the rescued people, while his brother Agastya stayed in the South. He then settled down at an ashram in the lower regions of   Western Ghats.

Vasistha seemed to have enjoyed his voyage back home and recalls the happy days on board the ship:

“Boarding the ship, when Varuna and I entered the mid-ocean and floated with other vessels on water we indeed very much enjoyed the delightful rocking of the ship “(RV 7. 88. 3-4).

 ā yad ruhāva varuṇaś ca nāvam pra yat samudram īrayāva madhyam |
 adhi yad apāṃ snubhiś carāva pra preṅkha īṅkhayāvahai śubhe kam |7,088.03|
vasiṣṭhaṃ ha varuṇo nāvy ādhād ṛṣiṃ cakāra svapā mahobhiḥ |
 stotāraṃ vipraḥ sudinatve ahnāṃ yān nu dyāvas tatanan yād uṣāsaḥ |7,088.04|

8.2. Agastya seems to have been a remarkable sage. He is described as ‘born small, not more than a span in length”; nonetheless he travelled from north to south along with eighteen groups of disciples chartering a new land route to South; and for that feat, he was accorded the epithet Vindhya-kuta, the one who tamed the Vindhyas . Until then, the chain of the Vindhya mountains,  though by no means as impressive as the Himalayas, formed  a formidable  barrier between the North and the peninsula . And, the people were forced to use mainly the rivers or the coast to move about within the sub-continent. There were of course no regular roads during those times; and travel by land routes was very hazardous. The position remained so until about late 19th century.

[The Sea route

sea route

I reckon even the people of Harappa used the river or canal transport wherever expedient. With Himalayas being a vast stretch of high mountains, horribly cold and inhospitable, India’s trade and contacts with other countries had to be mainly through the sea routes, particularly through the ports along its west coast. Even during the earliest periods, it is said, the Brigus who dwelt in the Indus and the lower Narmada valley were great navigators, expert mariners, and enterprising tradesmen who controlled the trade between India and the peoples to its west, such as the Assyrians.

[As Prof. AL Basham  mentions in his monumental work – The Wonder That Was India- :

The importance of the mountains to India is not so much in the isolation which they give her, as in the fact that they are the source of her two great rivers. The clouds drifting northwards and west¬ wards in the rainy season discharge the last of their moisture on the high peaks, whence, fed by ever-melting snow, innumerable streams flow southward, to meet in the great river systems of the Indus and the Ganges. On their way they pass through small and fertile plateaux, such as the valleys of Kashmir and Nepal, to debouch on the great plain…

The roads were dangerous to the merchant-caravans. Many of the trade routes linking centers of civilization passed through dense jungle, and over hills where wild tribes dwelt. ..The great rivers were used to carry both goods and passengers in vessels  large and small. Chief of these was the Ganges, the artery of the Great Plain, but the Indus and the rivers of the Deccan were also important as trade routes.


The chief ports of ancient India were on the West Coast—Bhrgukaccha, Supara, not far from the modern Bombay, and Patala, on the Indus delta. Hence coastal shipping plied to the South and to Ceylon, and westwards to the Persian Gulf and the RedSea until, in the 1st century a.d., seamen took to using the monsoon winds to sail straight across the Indian Ocean to the ports of South India. In the East the Ganges Basin was served by the river port of Campa, from which ships sailed down the Ganges and coasted to the South and Ceylon.

The merchants and seamen of Roman Egypt knew India well, and there survives a remarkable seaman’s guide, compiled in Greek by an anonymous author towards the end of the 1st century a.d.. The Periplus of the Erylhrean Sea. From the Periplus, Ptolemy’s Geography, of the following century, and the early Tamil poems which look back to this period, we learn much of the trade of the Tamil lands. Here many flourishing ports are mentioned, the three chief being Muziris (Ancient Greek: Μουζιρίς, Malayalam: Muciri or Muciripattanam possibly identical with the medieval Muyirikode) , in the Cera country (Malabar), Korkai, in the land of the Panclyas, not far from the modern Tuticorin, and Kavirippattinam, the chief port of the Cola country, at the mouth of the Kaviri.

 In the early centuries of the Christian era maritime trade became most vigorous, especially with the West, where the Roman Empire demanded the luxuries of the East in great quantities. With the fall of the Roman Empire the trade with the West declined somewhat, though it was maintained by the Arabs, and improved gradually with the rising material standards of medieval Europe. Before the time of the Guptas contact was made by sea between South India and China, and as trade with the West declined that with China increased, the Chinese demand for Indian spices, jewels, perfumes, and other luxury commodities continuing down to the present day]


The ancient Indian naval ships protected trade and carried troops to war zones. Kautilya (c. 4th century BCE) in his Arthashastra mentions the protection of the kingdom’s shipping and destruction of those threatening it, such as pirate ships (himsrika). However, while Kautilya devotes many pages on to how to fight on land and on wartime espionage and siege warfare, he is completely silent on naval warfare. While the army and forts are part of the seven constituents (saptanga) of a king’s sovereignty, without which he could not call himself king, the navy is not. The navy created by Chandragupta Maurya (321 BCE – 297 BCE) thus most likely performed these coast guard functions in keeping with Kautilya’s views.

In the Mauryan Empire where the 30-member war office was made up of six boards, the first board looked after shipping and was headed by the navadhyaksha (Superintendent of Ships). The navadhyaksha is tasked by the Arthashastra with examining accounts related to navigation and maintaining security over different kinds of water bodies. He is not given any direct military role. No naval battle fought by the kingdom of Magadha (6th century BCE – 4th century BCE), the Mauryas, or any other succeeding dynasty like the Guptas (3rd century CE – 6th century CE), has as yet come to light. Neither do the contemporary works elaborate on or discuss in detail the naval aspect of warfare.

The main aim was thus to protect maritime trade, merchant ships, port towns, and shipping in general. Any naval operation, whenever carried out, would have been very small-scale and on inland rivers rather than the high seas, since the maritime trade of most of these kingdoms was through rivers. The navy, when created by a dynasty based in the landlocked northern or eastern parts of India, does not seem to have been used aggressively or for conquest. In case of the Guptas and later dynasties, ships did exist as part of the army, but their use was much limited and not as extensive as the land forces. They were mostly used to conquer islands, as has been presumed for the campaign of the Gupta emperor Samudragupta (335 CE – 380 CE), or for fighting seafaring peoples as the Satavahanas (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE) did. 

In the western, southern, and (coastal) eastern parts of India, the situation was markedly different. Being situated on the sea coast, the dynasties there relied heavily on maritime trade and the sea and built navies that were used in war. To them, the navy was an essential part of the military establishment along with the land forces. It was in these parts and the adjacent high seas that ancient India saw most of its naval warfare in practice. The most compelling reason was the capture of the highly lucrative foreign trade of the enemy; it was necessary to destroy the navy that protected it. Combined with land warfare, war on the sea became a prerequisite for defeating the seafaring enemy.

The dynasties which had well-developed navies were:

    • Mauryas (4th century BCE – 2nd century BCE)
    • Pallavas (3rd century CE – 9th century CE)
    • Cholas (4th century BCE – 13th century CE)
    • Early Cheras (3rd century CE – 9th century CE)
    • Later Cheras or Kulashekharas (9th century CE – 12th century CE)
    • Chalukyas of Vatapi (6th century CE – 8th century CE)
    • Palas (8th century CE – 12th century CE) 

Western coast  

Local dynasties like the Mauryas of Konkan maintained a navy as well as coastal forts. The navy of the Early Cheras was developed to protect trade as most of the ports involved in international trade, particularly with Rome, fell under Chera territory. This fleet was extensively used in fighting foreign (exact identity unknown) pirates and against the rival kings supporting them. The Later Cheras or the Kulashekhara dynasty continued this naval tradition. Their war fleet was stationed near Kandalur Salai (modern-day Valiasala, Kerala state). Port towns, such as Vizhinjam (present-day Vizhinjam, Kerala state), were also heavily fortified. The Vatapi Chalukyas maintained a vast fleet that was used to transport thousands of troops to the war zones on land.

Southern & south-eastern coast

The Cholas, in time, became ancient India’s leading naval power. Beginning with Raja Raja I (985 CE – 1014 CE) who triumphed over the fleet of the Kulashekhara king Bhaskara Ravivarman I (962 CE – 1019 CE), successive Chola kings destroyed the Kulashekhara fleet off Kandalur Salai, conquered islands such as Lakshadweep (part of India) and the Maldives, and sent overseas expeditions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

The existence of the navy did not always help either. Despite being the prime maritime power, the Cholas were beaten many times on land by land-based powers such as the Rashtrakutas (8th century CE – 10th century CE) and the Kalyani (Western) Chalukyas (10th century CE – 12th century CE). As these powers existed outside the Chola naval zone of influence and operation, the navy could not be used against them and thus could not help in avenging or preventing the disastrous losses on land.     

Ships & crew

The ancient Indians had a good knowledge of the materials, varieties, and properties of wood which went into the making the different classes of ships. The Yuktikalpataru written by King Bhoja (c. 1010 CE – 1055 CE) of Malwa is the only ancient Indian work dealing in detail with the subject of shipping. It mentions a kind of vessel called agramandira, which had its cabins towards the prows and was thus seen as being suitable for naval warfare (rane kale ghanatyaye). One such ship is depicted in the Ajanta paintings (Cave II). It is a seagoing vessel with high stem and stern and has three oblong sails attached to three masts and ports. Steering-oars hang in sockets or rowlocks on the side, with an oar behind.

Ships were single, double, or triple-masted. The mast was known as naudandaka. The shipbuilding harbours were known as navataksheni. Ships were both large and sturdy, equipped with up to a hundred oars, as they had to carry thousands of troops across many nautical miles.

In the Arthashastra there is a mention of large boats (mahanavah) provided with a captain (sasaka), a steersman (niyamaka), and servants to hold the sickle and the ropes and to pour out water. It is quite possible that the same terminology would have been used for naval ships too. The naval ships would have had a number of oarsmen depending on the size of the vessel and warriors who went into combat.

Naval battles    

No direct references are available as to how naval battles were actually fought. Based on whatever little evidence is available, as well as patterns of land warfare and ancient Indian warfare in general, some assumptions can be made. It is likely that the ships or boats carried warriors who were equipped with the standard-issue weapons of the period, swords, javelins, maces, and spears. Archers would have been heavily involved in the fighting, shooting fire arrows. The Ramayana mentions men waiting in 500 ships displaying full sail to obstruct the enemy’s passage.

As soon as the enemy ships or boats came in range, soldiers of both the sides could engage in hand-to-hand combat and attempt to jump onto the enemy vessel in order to kill the enemy, destroy their ship, and then return (if still alive) to their own. The main aim was to destroy the enemy ships, as contemporary authors make no reference to capture, unlike in the case of enemy forts and elephants. This destruction was accomplished by breaking the ships or setting fire to them. There is no mention of war engines, but it is likely that some kind of contraption would be on-board to pelt stones on the enemy ships so as to break them. At the first battle of Kandalur Salai, Raja Raja I Chola is expressly mentioned as killing the Kulashekhara or Chera warriors, splitting in two a naval vessel belonging to their king and destroying a number of boats (or ships).


Naval developments on the west coast continued well into the medieval and colonial periods, with the dynasties there giving a tough time to their enemies, including the Portuguese and the Dutch. The arrival of the British and their virtually unquestioned naval superiority led the Indian powers to concentrate on fighting on land. The decline of the indigenous Indian navy was then complete. The naval traditions built over time and especially in the ancient period, however, continued to influence the development of the navy undertaken by independent India. The biggest contribution of the ancient Indians was that they created an unbroken seafaring tradition. Though seen as being secondary to the land forces, the various navies in ancient India did leave a mark and leave on naval warfare.

[Source; I gratefully acknowledge the source: Naval Warfare in Ancient India by Dr. Avantika Lal ]

satavahana ship

Satavahana ship

The Archaeologists state that based on terracotta tablets and a graffito on a potsherd secured from Mohenjo-Daro, Harappans were the builders of large ships and their maritime trade extended up to Mesopotamia during third millennium BCE. From the terracotta models and the engraved seals unearthed, five types of sailing vessels have been identified. It is also said; the Harappans had built tide-docks for berthing and servicing ships at the port town of Lothal.

There are also abundant references in ancient Indian literature, including Rig-Veda, Baudhayana Dharmasastram, Manava-dharma-sastra, Kautaliya’s Arthasastra, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jataka tales in Pali, and in the Sangam works of the ancient Tamils about the maritime activity of the Indian people in ancient times for domestic, trade and naval war.

The celebrated Grammarian Panini (about sixth century BCE) in his Astadhyayi refers to various types of river crafts and ships during his , such as  utsagna, udupa, udyata, utputa, pitaka etc. A large boat was called Udavahana or Udakavahana. He mentions about cargo transport (dvaipya) form a nearby island and about large (dvaipa or dvaipaka) vessels coming in from mid-ocean. Panini makes brief mention of the ferry changes, cargoes, marine trade etc of his days.

ancient Indian ship

There is also abundant material on ship building in ancient India

A  Sanskrit work of the post-Gupta period Yukti-Kalpa-Tatru, a compilation ascribed to one Bhoja Narapati (King Bhoja ?) provides amazing details about the Indian shipping and ship-building of the ancient period. It deals with the characteristics of  different types of wood that are best suited for construction of ships . (For more, please do read the paper produced by Dr. Mamata Chaudhuryof  Indian National Science Academy)

Under three broad categories, Bhoja mentions the details of about twenty-seven types of vessels. The River-going ships are treated as Samanya (general) and ocean going ships are treated as Visesa (special).   The three classes of ships described by Bhoja were: Sarva-mandira, a peace-time , large cargo  vessel meant for goods , animals and common people ; Madhya- mandira with a covered deck or living quarters in the middle to provide shelter from sun and rain; and, Agra-mandira  , a large vessel with the living room located in front or at the top of the vessel, meant   for distant voyages and carrying up to   about seven hundred passengers. The commentators mention that the largest vessel measured about 276 ft. X 36 ft. X 27 ft. weighing roughly 2,300 tons.

The treatise also gives elaborate directions for decorating and furnishing the ships with a view to making them comfortable for passengers. Also mentioned are details about the internal seating and accommodation to be provided on the ships.

Three classes of ships are distinguished according to their length and the position of cabins. The ships having cabins extending from one end of the deck to the other are called Sarva-mandira vessels.

These ships were recommended for the transport of royal treasure and horses. The next are the Madhya-marnandira vessels which have cabins only in the middle part of their deck. These vessels are recommended for pleasure trips.

 And finally there is a category of Agra-mandira vessels, these ships were used mainly in warfare.

 ( _)

Please also read : Indian Shipping, a history of the sea-borne trade and maritime activity of the Indians from the earliest times.djvu/71



Further, because of the established trade route in the western sea, the Yadu people used the Harappan port cities such as Lothal or Dholavira in Gujarat and Kutch to trade with Sri Lanka. That trade went back to the third millennium BC. Therefore, migration of large number of people from Pandya Desha in south India to the Sind – Gujarat region, after the great deluge, does not seem improbable.

ancient Indian ship2

During the times of the recorded history, the Indian direct trade in textiles, minerals, gems, perfumes and spices   with Egypt and Rome could flourish because the sea routes from Maziris (Pattanam?)  along the Malabar Coast as also the monsoon trade (Hippalus) winds helped avoiding the middlemen, the Arabs. I believe the Greek/Egypt trade with India and the Roman one that followed thereafter came as a culmination of the relations that existed between India and the West several centuries prior to Christian era.

 Dr. Casson, a specialist in ancient maritime history, mentions that historical records refer to ships in the India trade being among the largest of the time. According to Dr. Casson, they could have been as long as 180 feet and capable of carrying 1,000 tons of cargo. Such ships had stout hulls and caught the wind with a huge square sail on a stubby mainmast. The researchers said the ships might have been built in India and were probably crewed by Indians.

The trade on the eastern side somehow came about much later; and was confined to the islands of near east and China . It maintained contacts with Cambodia (Kambuja); Java (Chavakam or Yava dwipa);Sumatra; Borneo; and, Socotra (Sukhadhara)

But   Japan being mostly insular having a culture of its own remained a distant proposition; India had very limited direct contact with Japan.

Pandya desha to Fareast sea route ]

As regards the naval battles , on the east coast facing the Bay of Bengal maritime activities led to colonizing expeditions to Southeast Asia. The navies of the South Indian powers were geared towards launching invasions in Sri Lanka, separated from India by the Palk Straits. The warships were used in battles which, compared to land battles, remained low in proportion.

ancient Indian ship3


Now, coming back to the very ancient Vedic period: 

8.3. Agastya too had a role in controlling the flood waters. That was turned into a legend of his drinking up the ocean (Pitabdhi . He also perhaps devised ways to divert the Cauvery River to Chola-mandalam. or Samudra-chuluka)

Bali – Vamana legend

bali vamana

9.1. There is also a talk of another migration at a later era. It relates to the migration of the Brighus – the Yadus from the Saraswathi and Narmada regions to far south and to Sri Lanka. And, that has to do with the Bali – Vamana legend.

9.2. The Mahabali – Vamana episode is at times explained in the context of Brighu- Angirasa rivalry. Maha-Bali (aka Indrasena) the son of Virochana and the grandson of the legendry devote-prince Prahlada, was an Asura. Shukra the son of Brighu was his preceptor. The king Mahabali, whose preceptors were the Brighus, ruled and controlled vast area called Brighu Desha or Brighu Kakshya – the domain of the Brighu (Brighu kaccha – Baruch) that covered the west, the north-west and the south west of the Indus. He performed a sacrifice on the southern banks of the Narmada situated in Brighu Kakshya.

9.3. Vamana represents the arrival of Angirasas into the kingdom of Mahabali. Vamana the son of sage Kashyapa, in the linage of the Angirasa, initially asked the king for a small piece of land for their settlement; and the king consented to his request despite warning from his priest (Shukra).  The Bhargava Shukra seemed to be aware of the designs of the Angirasas. The Kashyapas, starting from their small settlement, spread throughout the kingdom of Mahabali and eventually overthrew him from his kingship. The story of Vamana, perhaps, signifies the transfer of power from the Asura kings and their Brighu priests to the Devas and their Angirasa priests.

9.4. The Brighus and Yadus who earlier formed the majority in the Bhrigu country were now overwhelmed by the fresh immigrants. They were thereafter resettled – through sea route – by Bhargava Rama (in the linage of the Brighus) along the western coast and in what is now Kerala. The resettled Brighus carried to their lands the legend of their beloved King Mahabali and also the Krishna cult.

[Some of these are views; may not necessarily be verifiable facts. Chronology and ordering the events in sequences is the other issue.]

lotus white

References and Sources

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on October 8, 2012 in General Interest, Speculation


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Navaratri Dolls (Gombe) Display from Mysore

Saptha Matrikas and Devi

The arrangement and display of colourful dolls (gombe) is very much a part of the festivity and celebration of Navaratri in the Mysore region. The children take great delight in dressing up the dolls and in innovating new themes each year.

Since Navaratri is primarily the celebration of Mother’s Glory, her images are prominently displayed. Here is a most delightful collection of traditional deities –Saptha Matrika, a set of seven aspects of Devi, comprising: Brahmi; Chandika; Indrani; Kaumari; Maheshwari; Varahi and Vaishnavi. Please also see the Devi Mantapa and the silver idol of the Devi meant for daily worship. I trust you will enjoy the Gombe display on screen.

[ I gratefully acknowledge the delightful source of the Gombe-s, the Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysore.

Shri R.G. Singh writes : 

I am delighted to see these pictures of ‘Bombe Mane 2008’ here. It was in 2008 that we at Ramsons Kala Pratishtana had put up this Sapta Matrika display at the Bombe Mane exhibition at Pratima Gallery, in front of Zoo, Mysore. I am also delighted with the positive response to our display. You can read more about Bomabe Mane at ]


Brahmi                                                                               Chandika

Indrani                                                                              Kaumari

Maheshwari                                                                       Varahi

Vaishnavi                                                        Devi silver idol for daily worship

Gombe Mane2

Mysore jaganmohan palace

Mysore Dussera sepia

mysore procession cropped

Mysore Dusserah 1890

MYSORE DUSSEHRA  Ca. 1900 (Painting by Alfred Bastien ,Academy of Brussels) 

Mysore palace222

All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Devi, General Interest, Saptamatrka


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Kashi the city of lights

During the past couple of weeks I read some richly illustrated posts on Varanasi, as it appears today; and as they experienced it. That stirred in me some memories of Varanasi of old, the ancient city where a great numbers ‘lived and passed by throughout the ages”.

I thought I could talk a bit of Varanasi in the lore and legends of ancient India; and of the Varanasi of the time of the Buddha, where he first taught and wandered.

It is city of light; the City of delight ; the abode of Visveswara; the city of the well of knowledge – Jnanavapi ; the City of purity, where the Mother Ganga purifies all who surrender to her in love and reverence;  the City of Maha-smashana the ultimate end of all; and, above all, it is home of the graceful and loving Mother Annapurna.


deepavali lamps

Ancient city

1.1. As it has often been said; Kashi is without doubt the oldest inhabited city in the world. It never stopped being a living city for over three thousand years. Mark Twain who visited India in the last decade of the nineteenth century said Kashi is “Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The old texts call the city Avimukta, the city that never was abandoned despite invasions, repeated ravages and bigoted violence. Kashi has reigned over the upheavals of time; and, has never stopped being a lively and animated town.

1.2. Kashi is the holy city not only for the Hindus but also for the Buddhists, the Jains and the Sikhs. Sri Guru Nanak is said to have visited the Holy City two times around 1502 and 1506. It has also long been a major center of education, of philosophical debates, of dialectics; and, of   traditional medicine (Ayurveda), yoga and astrology.

1.3. As Alain Danielou says:

“Kashi the city of refinement and beauty was the spiritual and cultural capital of ancient India. It had always been a sacred city, a centre of learning (jnana puri), of art and pleasures, the heart of Indian civilization, whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity”.

[A Geo-exploration study conducted by IIT-Kharagpurusing GPS, one of the latest tech tools – indicates that Varanasi (particularly, the Gomati Sangam area ) has been a continuous human settlement since the days of the Indus Valley Civilization, around 6000 years ago..]

The ancient city has always been at the centre of Indian consciousness. Kashi has a distinct individuality, which it developed over the ages since the hoary past. Its history, culture and people; its temples and tirthas, mathas and institutions; its scholars, some of them the best in the country; its festivals; its literature, music, painting and culture; its silk trade and craft; and, its typical inhabitants: sadhus, courtesans, pundits, musicians, artists, weavers, wrestlers, pandas, babus, thugs and gundas are archetypal of its cultural milieu; and , are uniquely Indian.

Dr. Meenakshi Jain writes

Varanasi Hoysala King

2.1. Prof. D Sampath elsewhere remarked “Benares has a very strong geo-physical significance…it is one of the navels of earth”. That seems to be supported by R.E. Wilkinson who in Temple India observes that the holy city of Varanasi lies in the arc of Capricorn. According to Wilkinson : “The Capricorn sign’s 30 degrees begin at 60/61 degrees the Capricorn east and continue to the mouth of the Ganges. Its alignment identifies India and   Varanasi as the point of the clearest spiritual vision.

“It is the one point”, said the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, “where the psychic law can and must reign, and the time has come for that to occur.”

India Capricorn India Capricorn2

[There are interesting varied sets of Tantric interpretations of Kasi’s geography. According to one such mystic geography of Kasi, Manikarnika the Smashana is, truly, symbolic of intrinsic death of the ascetic when his Prana soars up the Shushumna attaining the final release.

Kasi is sometimes identified with the Ajna-chakra, the mystic centre between the nose and the eyebrows.

But as a city, it is also identified with the subtle body as a whole. According to this identification, the central vein of Kasi’s mystical body terminates at the cremation ground, equating it with the highest centre of the anatomy.   It is said; “The Rivers Asi and Varua at the extremities of the city, and a third river (invisible) which flows through the centre, represent the three main veins of the yogic body-respectively with the Ida, Pingala and Shushumna “. ]

2.2.Sri Kailasanatha Sukula’s Mirror of Kashi (Kashi Darpana) is said to be the historical map of Varanasi, printed in 1876 at the press named Vidyodaya.  According to Sri Kailasanatha Sukula, the map is a representation of the sacred topography of Varanasi, based on puranic textual sources , such as Linga, Siva, Nandi, Skanda, Ganesha and Agni Puranas.

Varanasi Mirror of Kasi

2.3. It is no wonder that a massive literature, in all Indian languages, has grown around the city over the ages. Many myths and legends have gathered round  the luminous Kashi or the vibrant Varanasi; celebrating its sacredness as the abode of the recluse Shiva and of the gracious Mother Annapurna who guides the aspirant striving to attain knowledge (jnana) and detachment (vairagya).


City of contradictions

3.1. Kashi is a city of contradictions. It is Anandavana the grove of happiness as also Rudravasa or Maha-shmashana the great cremation ground. The cycle of life and death is nowhere more pronounced than in Kashi; for , this is the ‘City of Good Death’ to where people come to die, to rid themselves of the cycle of birth and death. The fires of cremation burn here ceaselessly; and, Lord Shiva whispers the sacred verse of liberation to the departing.

3.2. In this city of blazing summers and chilling winters, the contradictions hit you in the face; the sublime and the sordid coexist. Varanasi continues to be the holiest city ; and yet,  a crass cult of greed thrives and holds sway , as the priests fleece you and the touts sell you custom-made doses of phony spiritualism. Its tight net of dark alleys and lanes hold the depths of human despair , depravity and vulgarity; where fake sadhus and tricksters lay in wait for the gullible. The sight of countless old widows abandoned or driven away by their families, helplessly loitering the narrow lanes , waiting for death to relieve them of pain and humiliation of what is called life , is truly wretched.

3.3. The contradictions are so evident and yet too close.  Just a thin line separates the spiritual from the sham; sanctity from the profane; faith from deceit; purity from filth; and, culture from grotesque.

Yet, some manage to find an inexplicable charm in this strange blend of the sublime and the profane. It is said; in Kashi you reach what you walk for; and , you find what you seek.


City of lights

4.1. Kashi was the ancient name of the kingdom; one of the sixteen Maha-janapadas of ancient India. It was also the name of its chief city, which was also called as Varanasi or Baranasi.  Since the arrival of the British in India , the city has also come to be known as Banaras or Benares.

4.2. The name Kashi is derived from the root kash meaning light (kashate pra-kashate iti kashihi). Kashi , literally means the city of lights. It is said; as one sails up the river Ganga at night, the city with myriad temples, mansions (prasada) and palaces glows like festival of lights.

Right from the ancient times, Kashi was reckoned among the seven primer sacred cities (Saptapuri) that granted liberation (moksadayikah). Its name also suggests that Kashi was the ‘luminous’ or pre-eminent of all the seven great and holy cities of ancient India: Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi (Varanasi), Kanchi, Avanthika (Ujjain), Puri, and Dvaravathi (Dwaraka) .

Ayodhya Mathura Maya Kashi Kanchi Avantika | Puri Dvaravati chaiva saptaita moksadayikah ||

4.3. Some scholars opine that Kashi is in fact a later name; its earlier name being Varanavati. Through the ages, the city had various other names such as: Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya; besides Kashi and Varanasi. But in most legends and lore , the city is celebrated as the holy city of Kashi or Varanasi.



5.1. Kashi is Varanasi ; because, the city included the land bound between two rivers the Varana and the Asi. The Varana is a rivulet, which rises to the north of Prayaga (Allahabad) ; and, has a course of about hundred miles; while Asi  a mere brook , which , as Ether says,  is now reduced to a lamentable nullah. The Varana joins the Ganga at the north of the city, while the Asi joins the Ganga at its south. The distance between these two confluences is around 2.5 kosas (One Kosa is about 1 ½ miles; making 2.5 kosa to about 3.75 miles); and, the round trip is known as Pancha-koshi –yatra (about 7.5 miles). The great city of Kashi lies on a higher ground at the confluence of three rivers, metaphorically a trident.

[But it is difficult to ascertain the original topography of Varanasi because the city’s current location may not exactly be the same as the one described in the old texts].

On the bulge of the river bend

6.1. The city of Kashi is situated on the convex side of the river , presenting a semi-lunar phase; and, at a considerable height than the opposite shore. When the river-face of the city is viewed from the breadth of the Ganga or from the low – opposite bank, the city appears as if it is mounted on a pedestal of immense flights of the Ghats lined along the margin of a beautifully formed bay. Because of its elevated location, the city, to an extent, is protected from the ravages of floods and the deluge that the Ganga occasionally causes.

Manasara, an ancient text of Shilpa-sahstra, recommends that if a town has to be located along a river bank, it should then be at a height sloping towards the east or north (praganutham uttara natham samam va bhumi); and, it should be situated on the convex side of the river bend. The text mentions Varanasi as a classic example that satisfies this norm; the other instance being the ancient city of Madurai along the convex side of the Vaigai.

View of the city from the expanse of the Ganga

7.1. The city of Kashi is clustered with temples and magnificent mansions; yet,  more than anything else, it was the view of the city from the expanse of the Ganga, the delightful panorama of the Varanasi riverfront that enchanted the hearts of countless travelers and pilgrims over the centuries. Many of them have left behind delightful pictures – in words and sketches- of their impressions.

Hiuen Tsang who visited India in the first half of the seventh century was impressed by the temples of the holy city of Varanasi (Po-la-na-ssu) “several stories high and richly adorned with sculptured decoration” standing at the edge of the waters “set in thickly wooded parks and surrounded by pools of clear water”.

Most British officials were properly shocked by the “impurity and extravagance” of the superstitious reverence of the Hindus for all sorts of idols”. They gave, in their letters to family and friends back home, the  graphic descriptions of “hosts of hideous beggars, cripples, and hunchbacks, assembled here (who) torment you with their lamentable cries; and, will not leave you until they have extorted a few coppers.”


The British artists – sketches and paintings

But ; it was the British artists , who were enchanted by the riverfront , which they described as : “one of the loveliest sky-lines in the world”,  which no painter could wish to miss. Apart from that, the British, especially the families, who habitually traveled from Calcutta to Allahabad by boat, enjoyed halting at Benares , in the midway.

There was indeed a busy traffic on the Ganga.

Diwali in Benares  from 'Le Tour du Monde 1874

An engraving from 'Le Tour du Monde', 1861

The view from the river front was enchanting.The families, on their way, would spend an afternoon in Benares, wandering through its streets.

Ghat at Benares

Benares Brahma Ghat 1832

It was said : Benares was certainly the most interesting and most remarkable city of Hindostan over which the British have any authority.  The British artists found the city quite  exhilarating.

For instance; the great photographer  Richard Lannoy , who  made several visits to Varanasi, went  into raptures in his description of the city :

“On climbing the Ghats and entering the crowded Banaras streets,” he goes on, “one is assailed by the bewildering variety o the scene, no much as that in the simultaneous assault of the senses, it seems that colours have sound, and sounds colour…Though the crowds wander old men who have come to the sacred city to die, men resembling Father Christmas or King Lear, while on who carried the trident of Siva looked like Neptune. Once I saw what seemed to be a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and Dante, while Nebuchadnezzar wandered by, quietly reciting some Sanskrit verse.”

Benares street scene

William Hodges, the first British professional landscape artist to visit India during 1780 to 1783, not only made several drawings of Varanasi , but also left a vivid account of what he saw. Varanasi, Hodges wrote:

“city is built on the North side of the river, which is here very broad, and the banks of which are very high from the water, its appearance is extremely beautiful; the great variety of the buildings strikes the eye, and the whole view is much Improved by innumerable flights of stone steps, which are either entrances into the several temples, or to the houses. Several Hindoo temples greatly embellish the banks of the river, and are all ascended to by Gauts, or flights of steps. Many other public and private buildings possess also considerable magnificence. Several of these I have painted, and some on a large scale, such as I conceived the subject demanded”.

benaras 1795

Lieutenant-Colonel C.R. Forrest, a highly talented amateur landscape artist , visited Varanasi early in the nineteenth century; and, was enthralled by what he saw.  Varanasi, he wrote:

“ one of the most ancient cities of India, ranks among the principal cities of the world. It is situated on the left bank of the Ganges, here a noble stream; and its extent along the bank of that river is full five miles; its breadth inland being in proportion. Built upon a rising ground, sloping gradually upwards from the water’s brink, its buildings appear very lofty, when seen from the boats in passing it. .. .Indeed the whole face of the city towards the river is one continued line of ghauts, which are the exclusive ornaments of Benares”.

Benares By Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ramus Forrest - 1824

[The painting depicting two temple towers leaning into the river waters  was made by  Lt-Col. Forrest perhaps during 1834. The artist William Daniell Writing in The Oriental Annual, 1834, explained :

“One of the most extraordinary objects to be witnessed at Benares and which is generally one of great curiosity to the stranger, is a pagoda standing in the river, there is nothing to connect it with the shore. The whole foundation is submerged, and two of the towers have declined so much out of the perpendicular as to form an acute angle with liquid plain beneath them….It has been surmised, and with probability, that this temple was originally erected upon the bank of the river, which then offered a firm and unsuspected foundation; but that, in consequence of the continual pressure of the stream, the bank had given way all round the building, which, on about of the depth and solidarity of the foundation, stood firm while the waters surrounded it, thought the towers had been partially dislodged by the shock. Or it may be that even the foundation sank is some degree with the bank, thus projecting the two towers out of the direct perpendicular, and giving them the very extraordinary position which they now retain.”

There is another painting of the leaning pagoda by Captain Robert Elliot. He  was  in  the Royal Navy as a Topographical Draughtsman, from 1822 to 1824; and, made a series of sketches, which were later published , in parts,  by Fisher & Co., during 1830-3. 

Benares Captain Elliot ]


Emma Roberts visited India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her articles and books about her Indian travels are highly interesting and informative. Her description, in flowery language, of the panorama of Varanasi from the river is particularly engaging.

“The views of Benares from the river”, she writes, “are exceedingly fine, offering an infinite and untiring variety of scenery, of which the effect is greatly heightened by the number of trees, whose luxuriant foliage intermingles with the parapets and buttresses of the adjacent buildings. In dropping down the stream in a boat, an almost endless succession of interesting objects is presented to the eye. .. The view of Benares from the ever-shining river must be considered the most beautiful and imposing”.

She also speaks of :

“numerous birds of the brightest and most resplendent plumage, flocks of every variety of the pigeon and the dove common to the plains, blue jays, yellow-breasted sparrows, and whole battalion of ring-necked parquets, with their brilliant feathers gleaming like emeralds in the sun, as they skim along soaring far above the mango trees which bear their nets, yet seldom overtopping the crowning pinnacle of the minaret, whence the spectator surveys the singular and beautiful objects revealed to his admiring gaze”.  

The British artist Edward Lear, who visited Varanasi in December 1873, too was struck by the plentiful birds he came across in the city, and noted in his journal: “The pretty myna birds are numerous everywhere; pigeons by 10,000,000.”

Benares December 1873.

Louis Rousselet, a Frenchman who arrived in Bombay in July 1864; and spent about six years travelling widely in India, provides a delightful description of the Dashashvamedha Ghat. In his India and its Native Princes  (Chapter LVI –page 564), he wrote :

The Ghat is situated at the Western extremity of the large bend, which the Ganges makes at this point, so that we look in it at a glance, the whole view of the town, standing in tiers like an amphitheater on the right side of the stream. The situation occupied by Benares has often been compared to that of Naples; and, the comparison is not without some accuracy. The bed of the stream, in fact, which is half a mile in width forms a sort of calm blue-bay, in which the picturesque facade of the City ranged along its banks is reflected like Crescent.

We entered an elegant Gondola; and, soon were gliding gently in front of the City, gazing on the long succession of the admirable pictures unfolding themselves before us.

Benares by night

Seen at a little distance from the river, the Ghats of the Dasashvamedh forms a picture no painter could wish to heighten by a single touch . Its large flights of steps crowded by small temples with their bristling spires have for their background, on the one side, the stately masses of a group of palaces surrounding the crest of the plateau ; and, on the other the plain and elegant facade of the Man Mundir , the great observatory of Benares, erected by the celebrated Jey Singh of Jeypore.

Benares window at Man Mandir


And, Lord Valentia , who traveled extensively all over India at the beginning of the nineteenth century,  wrote:

“The River forms here a very fine sweep of about four miles in length. On the external side of the curve, which is constantly the most elevated, is situated the holy city of Benares. It is covered with buildings to the water’s edge, and the opposite shore being, as usual, extremely level, the whole may be beheld at once   …. Innumerable pagodas of every sizes and shape occupy the bank, and even have encroached on the river, uniformly built of stone, and of the most solid workmanship, they are able to resist the torrents, which in the rainy season beat against them. Several are painted, others gilded, and some remain of the colour of the stone.… The contrast between these elevated masses of solid masonry and the light domes of the pagodas, in singular and pleasing are the trees occasionally overhand the walls”.


Please do read Varanasi Vista (Early Views of the Holy City)-Travellers’ Accounts by Sri Jagmohan Mahajan has written extensively on British landscape artists in India as also on Ganga.

Please do not miss a  very rare book : Kashi: The City Illustrious or Benares by  Edwin Greaves (1909)


Kashi in Scriptures, epics and puranas

Rig Veda

8.1. In early Vedic literature, Kashi does not figure either as a center of pilgrimage or as a center of learning. Rig Veda does not often mention the Ganga; and,  it does not also refer directly to Kashi. That might be because they were outside the geography of the Rig Veda, which , basically, was the land of seven waters (saptha sindhavaha).

However, Katyayana in his Veda-Anukramanika (a sort of Vedic glossary), mentions a hymn (RV.10.179.2) composed by a certain Bharatha who attributed the hymn to his ancestor Pratardana King of Kashi (Pratardanaha kasirajah – प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः) ; the son or the descendant of Divodasa (Divodasithe king of Kashi (Kashi-raja: 10.179.2.).

[There is however a dissenting view on the identity of Pratardana and Divodasa. Yet, the reference in the Anukramanika is taken to suggest that the early Bharata kings of the Rig Veda were descendants of the Kings of Kashi.]

The Sukta No. 179 having three verses in the Tenth Mandala of Rig Veda invoking Indra, is jointly ascribed to the three sons of Madhavi (daughter of the legendary monarch Yayati) : the first is Sibi the son of Ushinara (prathamo ushinarah Sibihi – शिबिरौशीनरः); the second Pratardana King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha- प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः); and, the third Vasumanasa son of Rauhidasva (thrithiyasha Rauhidashwo Vasumana rishihi – वसुमना रौहिदश्वः) . In this Sukta, Haryasva   is named as Rauhidasva.

Here, Pratardhana, son of Divodasa from Madhavi, is described as: the King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha)

 [ Mantra Rig 10.179.001 ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.002  ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.003 ]

Atharva Veda

9.1. The earliest reference to the people of Kashi appears in the Pippalada-samhita of Atharva Veda. It is said they were closely connected with the people of Kosala and Videha.

9.2. The Atharva Veda (4.7.1-2) mentions that the waters of the river Varanavati had the magical power to cure the effects of poison: “May this water from Varanavati ward off the poison”.

vār idam vārayātai Varaṇāvatyām adhi | tatrā amṛtasyā-siktaṃ tenā te vāraye viṣam || AVŚ_4,7.1 || arasaṃ prācyaṃ viṣam arasaṃ yad udīcyam |athedam adharācyaṃ karambheṇa vi kalpate ||AVŚ_4,7.2 ||

Based on this reference, the scholars surmise that Kashi is the later name of the town which was known as Varanavati.

Brahmanas and Sutras

10.1. There are numerous references to Kashi in the Brahmanas . For instance; Shatapatha Brahmana (Sa Brh. 13. mentions the defeat of Dhrtarastra the king of Kashi at the hands of a Bharata king Satanika son of Satrajita. Satanika is then said to have taken the ritual horses from the defeated king and performed the Govinata Yajna. Thereafter the King of Kashi (Kasya) again performed the Yajna (Sa.Br.13. 5. 4. 21).

govinatena śatānīkaḥ sātrājita īje kāśyasyā śvamādāya tato haitardavāk kāśayo’gnīnnā-dadhata āttasomapīthāḥ sma iti vadantaḥ AV. 13.5.4.[19]

tadetad gāthayā abhigītam śatānīkaḥ samantāsu medhyaṃ sātrājito hayam ādatta yajñaṃ kāśīnām bharataḥ satvatāmiveti – AV.13.5.4.[21]

10.2. The Sankhayana Srauta Sutra mentions Kasya, the king of Kashi and Jala Jatukarnya (i.e. Jala son of Jaatukarni) , who became the king’s purohita after performing a Yajna for ten nights (yajña.upavītī.iti.jātūkarṇyaḥ – 3.16.14). That Sutra mentions that one person (Jala Jatukarnya) functioned as the purohita for the kings of three kingdoms: Kashi, Kosala and Videha.

Bahudayana Sutra mentions Kashi and Videha being in close proximity.  But, Gopatha Brahmana says Kashi and Kosala were close ; and , calls the two kingdoms by the compound name Kasi-Kausalya (kāśi-kauśaleṣu śālvamatsyeṣu – GBr_1,2.10 )GBr_1,2.10 )

Bharatavarsha crop


11.1. But in the Upanishads, it is the kingdoms of Kashi and Videha which provide the main backdrop for the philosophical discussions. The Brhadaranyaka (Ajātaśatruṃ kāśyaṃ-brahma te bravāṇītiBrh.U. 2.1.1) ; Kaushitaki (Kush. 4.1) Upanishads report, in detail, the debates held in the courts of Ajathashatru Kashya, the king of Kashi ; and Janaka Videha the king of Videha. The Upanishads mention Kashi-Videha as being close; while the Buddhist texts describe the close connection between Kashi and Kosala.

11.2. During the time of the Upanishads, the city of Kashi was yet to acquire the esteem of being the holiest of the holy cities. But, Kashi , over a period,  gained the glorious reputation of being a center of learning, of culture; and of refinement , although it never rose to the power of an empire or of a major state.

For a long time, however, Taxashila was a more famous center of learning than Kashi. Kings of Kashi used to send their sons to far-off Taxashila. And, many of the teachers of Kashi that figure in the Jatakas were the past-students of the Taxashila. In the course of time, however, they could attract scholars from far and wide , to Kasi (Ja. Nos. 480 and 438)

Even in the Jivaka Sutta (Madhyamanikaya), Jīvaka Komārabhacca (Sanskrit: Jīvaka Kumārabhṛta), the personal physician and a close disciple of the Buddha, had his medical education and training in the city of Taxashila under the well-known teacher Disapamok Achariya. There, he studied medicine diligently for seven years, before he settled down at Rājagṛha, the capital of the Magadha Kingdom , during 6th century BCE. 

But, by about the 7th century BCE., Kashi  had developed into probably the most famous center of education in Eastern India. And in the later times, with the imperial patronage under Asoka, the Sarnath monastery on the outskirts of Kashi must have become a famous-center of learning. It went on continuously prospering; and, in the 7th century A.D., it possessed resplendent and beautiful buildings , with tiers of balconies and rows of halls.

Unlike the neighboring Nalanda, Kashi does not seem to have organised any public educational institution. Its learned scholars continued to teach individually in the traditional manner. Their fame, however, was gradually reaching to all the corners of India. Scholars and philosophers from other parts of India traveled to city to get their new theories recognized and published. In the 11th century A.D. Kashi and Kashmir were the most famous centers of learning in India.


12.1. According to the Upanishads, the ancient city is said to have been located on the banks of the river Varanavati. The kingdoms of Kashi and Videha were closely connected, as was natural in view of their geographical position. The compound name Kashi-Videha occurs in Kausitaki and Brhadaranyaka Upanishads (kāśye, vaideho vā videhānāṃ vā rājā – BrhUp 3,8.2)

12.2. Videha was situated to the north of Kashi , across the Ganga. The kingdom of Videha corresponded to the present-day Tirhut with Mithila as its capital. The high esteem of the kingdom was due to its sage-king Janaka. Videha was situated to the east of Kosala the Sadanira (Gandaka) serving as the common border for the two; and, it was bound on the east by the Kaushitiki.

[According to the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, during the age of Janaka, besides Videha, there were nine states of considerable importance, viz: 1. Gandhara (north-west part of Punjab and the adjoining western areas); 2. Kekaya (region to the west of Gandhara); 3. Madra (Sialkot area); 4. Usinara (central Punjab); 5. Matsya (former state of Jaipur); 6. Kuru (western UP and Haryana); 7. Panchala (from the Himalayan region extending south) ; 8. Kashi (Kashi – Lucknow region) and   9. Kosala (state of Oudh)]


Kashi in Epics


13.1. Kashi was a famous kingdom in the age of the Ramayana. It is said; Sumitra the wife of King Dasharatha was a princess hailing from Kashi. In the Adi-kanda Vasistha asked Sumantra the minister to invite many pious kings including the king of Kashi (tataḥ sumantram āhūya vasiṣṭho vākyam abravīt – 12th sarga). And, in Kishkinda-kanda (46th sarga), Sugreeva the king of Vanaras instructs Vinata leader of a monkey brigade to search for Sita in the regions of Kashi (adṛṣṭvā Vinataḥ sītām ājagāma mahābalaḥ uttarāṃ tu diśaṃ sarvāṃ – 4.046.008)


14.1. Kashi figures more prominently in Mahabharata. And yet, it is not described as the holiest city or the most preferred place to give up one’s life. Mahabharata narrates the story of four generations of the kings of Kashi (Haryyashwa, Sudeva, Divodasa and Pratardana) who ruled and fought series of battles with Haihayas of the neighboring Vatsas (with its capital at Kausambi – the Kosam Ruins of the present day) to retain possession of the city of Kashi (MB. Book 5, Chapter 117; Book 12, Chapter 233).

Divodasa, the great king (mahāvīryo mahīpālaḥ kāśīnām īśvaraḥ prabhuḥ Divodāsa – MBh.05,115.001) is said to have built (or re-built) the city of Kashi or Varanasi (kāśīśo Divodāsas tu vijñāya vīryaṃ teṣāṃ mahātmanām Vārāṇasīṃ mahātejā nirmameMBh. 13,031.016) which became richly populated and soon developed in to a great trading center.

His son Pratardana from Madhavi (Mādhavī janayām āsa putram ekaṃ Pratardanam) seems to have been successful in finally beating back the Haihayas who then moved to the Narmada region.

The city of Kashi resplendent as a second Amaravati  of Indra, was then described as located on the north bank of the Ganga and to the south bank of the river Gomathl (gaṅgāyā uttare kūle vaprānte rājasattama gomatyā  dakṣiṇe  caiva śakrasyev Amarāvatīm MBh. 13. 031.018). 

As per the other details scattered  over many Texts, one can surmise that :  To the direct north of Kashi of was one of the Nishada kingdoms on the banks of Gomati river. Further North was Eastern Kosala ;and, then Central Kosala, which had its capital as Ayodhya. To the south was the Hiranyavaha river . To the west were the southern parts of Vatsa kingdom, including Kausambhi (capital of Vatsa). Maghada and Rajagriha were located west of Kasi. To the northwest was Bharga kingdom and the northern part of Vatsa. To the Northeast was the kingdom of Gopalkasha and southern Malla. To the southwest was Chitrakuta mountain and to the southeast was the kingdom of Suparsava and a Matsya territory

[It is likely, Kashi was then a part of Southern Central Kosala kingdom. And, it appears the site of a city known as Kashi or Varanasi shifted over the centuries. It is difficult to ascertain the topography of the original Varanasi; and, the city’s current location may not exactly be the same as the one described in the old texts].

14.2. And of course, the three luckless sisters Amba, Ambika and Ambalika  (the daughters of Hotravahan, the king of the Srinjaya tribe of Panchala) abducted by Bhishma for his sickly younger brother  Vichitravlrya  were the princesses of Kashi.

14.3. Numerous other references to Kashi occur in the Mahabharata. They refer either to the events in the lives of the kings or to the kingdom of Kashi. However, there are no specific allusions to indicate Kashi being exclusively a holy-center.

It is said; Vapushtama , the wife of Janamejaya, the eldest son of the Kuru King Parikshit, was the daughter of Suvarnavarman, the king of Kasi (Mbh. 1, Chapter 44). And, Sunanda, the daughter of Sarvasena, the king of Kasi, was married to Bharatha, son of Sakuntala and Puru King Dushyanta . They had a son named Bhumanyu- (Mbh.1, Chapter 95). 

Tuladhara Sage_Jajali

There are , however,  stories of its sages and other wise men  who were commoners such as Tuladhara a very pious and well-informed merchant dealing in perfumes, oils, musk, lac and dye etc.

 It is remarkable that Tulādhāra being a shopkeeper should impart instructions to a sage . It is said; sage Jājali , who had performed severe austerities had turned highly conceited . He was therefore advised by his teacher to approach  the merchant Tulādhāra , living in Kashi,  for enlightenment.  Jājali , accordingly, approached Tulādhāra  seeking  clarifications on the true nature of Dharma ( Mahabharata,  Śhāntiparva Chapters 255 and 256 ).

The gist of Tulādhāra’s  discourse was : One should earn one’s livelihood causing least injury to other beings; one  should  cultivate equanimous temperament  and be a friend of all;  one  should  strive to be free  from fear and prejudices; practice detachment and  self-control ; and, one should  try to understand the true nature of Dharma  and practice it with a clear uncluttered mind.


Kashi in the Puranas

5.1. The age of Puranas introduced into the Vedic religion many concepts that were not in the Samhita and the Brahmana texts. Those ideas and concepts have since taken a firm hold on the Indian ethos. These include faith in: a personal god or goddess (Ista-devata); family deities (Griha-devata or Kula-devata) who had to be propitiated on specified days in the prescribed manner; vows (vrata); and pilgrimages etc. In the process , legends were developed for each major pilgrimage-center, proclaiming its holiness and its pre-eminence over the rest; and also detailing the merits to be gained by devotedly worshiping its presiding deities.

It is in this context that in the related Puranas, Kashi gets fully established as the holiest city; as the abode of Kashi Vishwanatha; as one of the twelve revered jyothi-lingas of Lord Shiva; as the home of ever graceful and loving Mother Annapurna; as the kshetra-thirtha where goddess Ganga in her loving kindness washes away the sins of all who seek refuge in her;  and,  as the most sacred place presided over by Shiva who grants release from the cycle of births and deaths.

Kashi-kshetra  located along the banks of the holy river Ganga (Tirtha) came to be recognized and revered as  one among the seven primer Sacred cities (Saptapuri) that granted liberation (moksadayikah):  Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi (Varanasi), Kanchi, Avanthika (Ujjain), Puri, and Dvaravathi (Dwaraka) .

Ayodhya Mathura Maya Kashi Kanchi Avantika | Puri Dvaravati chaiva saptaita moksadayikah ||

It is believed; most of the Puranas were developed during the Golden-age of the Guptas (330-550 CE). It was a period of revivalism, transformation and vitality. During which the Vaishnava traditions, the cults of Skanda, Surya and local guardian deities flowered. The temples of such deities came up in Kashi. And, legends were woven around  Shiva, the Ganga and the Ghats.

15.2. Since the time of the Buddha, Kashi is   the pilgrim center for the Buddhists. It is also the birthplace of Parshvanatha the twenty-third Jain Thirthankara. Kasi is also associated with Guru Nanak hence a holy place for the Sikhs. Each of these religions have, in a way, their own set of puranas.


Kashi in the Buddhist tradition

City of Kasi and its people

16.1. The Buddhist texts mention that Baranasi city extended over  twelve Yojanas (say about 84 miles): (dvadasa yojanikam sakala Baranasi nagaram: — Sambhava Jataka) whereas Mithila and Indapatta were each only seven Yojanas in extent .The Jatakas mention that the resplendent city of Kasi was called by many names, such as:Surundhana, Sudassana, Brahmavaddhana, Puspavati, Ramma and Molini .

In the Chinese texts Kasi is transcribed as Ti-miao meaning ‘reed-sprouts’. That perhaps follows from the derivation of the name Kasi from Kasa  meaning  kusa grass.

16.2. The Jataka stories mention Varanasi as a great city of abundance; of seven gems; of wealth and prosperity , extending over twelve yojanas (a yojana at the time of the Buddha perhaps meant seven or eight miles). The city extended about four miles along the banks of the river, descending into steep brink. Down the brink , were the flights of steps (Ghats) , where the pilgrims bathed and the dead were cremated.

16.3. Several Jatakas recite the superiority of Kasi over other cities of India; and , speak highly of its prosperity, opulence and intellectual wealth. A later Jataka also remarks that Risi-gana (sadhus) were unwilling to go to Kasi ; because, the people there questioned too much, perhaps Suggesting that the people of Kasi were either argumentative or knowledgeable. (Brahmadatta Jataka- 336).

17.1. The stories in the Jatakas indicate that the people of Kasi were generally of charitable nature ; and , they habitually offered alms to the poor, the wayward and the beggars. They also devotedly fed the hermits and wandering ascetics.

17.2. It appears from the Jatakas that Kasi was ruled with justice and equity; and, the king’s officials were honest. Not many cases or disputes came before the king’s courts.  There was a belief current among the people of Kasi that when king rules with justice and equity, all things in nature retain their true character.  But, when the king is unjust, all things lose their true nature. Oil, honey, molasses and the like, and even the wild fruits would lose their sweetness and flavor.

17.3. The king occasionally wandered about the town at night, in disguise, to learn people’s true opinion of his rule.

Despite attempts of good governance, the kingdom was not free from crimes. There were instances of organized highway robbery and housebreaking , which were taken up as a family profession.

18.1. The Jatakas also narrate delightful stories of cheats and tricksters who took advantage of the gullible. The Jatakas tell stories of Kasi’s carpenters who promised to make a bed or a chair or a house and took large advances ; but, deliberately failed to do the job. When pursued by the annoyed clients , the carpenters would just flee to another town.

There is also a story of a physician Cakkhupala , who deliberately blinded his patient in one eye when she cheated him of his fee.

18.2. The people of Kasi were prone to superstitions, just as the people of any other city. A king of Kasi paid 1000 kahapanas to learn a mantra that would reveal to him the evil thoughts of people. There were also persons who would predict whether the sword one bought was lucky or otherwise. Slaughter of deer, swine and other animals for making offering to goblins was in vogue in Kasi.

18.3. There was a time-honored drinking festival,  in which people got drunk and fought; and, sometimes suffered broken limbs, cracked skulls or torn ears.

18.4. The Jatakas recount some unusual professions; as that of a carpenter who got rich by making mechanical wooden birds to guard the crops. There was also a gardener who could make sweet mangoes bitter and bitter mangoes sweet.

18.5. Jatakas also tell the stories of those who followed traditional professions like farmers; corn dealers; hunters; snake charmers; elephant trainers skilled in managing elephants; horse dealers who imported horses ‘swift-as-the-wind’ from the Sind region; carpenters; stone cutters or experts in working stone-quarrying and shaping stones; ivory workers who had their own market place; rich merchants trading in costly wares by sometimes taking out long  business trips;  small traders  hawking their wares or corn on back of donkeys  or by bullock carts; and there were, of course,  the gallant warriors.

19.1. Even in those distant days , the city was noted for its fine silks and brocades, for its handicrafts , such as brass-ware, ivory goods, glass bangles and wooden toy etc.

The Jatakas often mention of  Kasika-vastra or Kasiyani – exquisite fabrics of silk worked with gold laces. The Majjima Nikaya also refers to Varanaseyyaka (Varanasi textiles) of radiant colors of red, yellow and blue used for wrapping the mortal remains of the Buddha after he attained Maha-pari-nirvana.

19.2. Kasi had close relations with the distant Takshasila about two thousand Kms  away to its west. Ardent Students from Kasi went to the Universities of Takshasila , seeking higher learning in scriptures, medicine, archery and other subjects. The traders of both the cities had, of course, close business relations.


Kingdom of Kasi

20.1. Anguttara Nikaya mentions Kasi as one of the sixteen Maha-janapadas [Solasa Mahajanapada :

1.Kasi; 2.Kosala; 3.Anga ;4.Magadha; 5.Vajji; 6.Malla; 7.Chetia (Chedi); 8.Vatsa (Vamsa); 9.Kuru; 10.Panchala; 11.Maccha (Matsya); 12.Surasena; 13.Assaka; 14.Avanti; 15.Gandhara; and , 16.Kambhoja].

The little kingdom of Kashi was surrounded by Kosala on its North; Magadha on its East;  and,  Vatsa on its West.

20.2. The Mahavagga mentions that Kasi was a great realm in former times. During the seventh century BCE; Kasi was perhaps reckoned as one of the more powerful among the sixteen Maha-janapadas. The Kingdom of Kasi was said to be three hundred Yojanas in extent (Jataka no.391).

21.1. On the political arena; the Jatakas narrate rivalry of Kosala, Anga and Magadha to take possession of Kasi. There was a long struggle among them for gaining  supremacy.  It is said; all these monarchs aspired for the pride of being the foremost among all the kings (sabba-rajunam aggaraja) ; and, for the esteem and glory of ruling over all of India (sakala-Jambudtpa).  All the surrounding monarchs contended for possession of Kasi. And, Kasi was, most of times, forced to fight to defend itself. But, Kasi’s strongest rivalry was with its neighbor Kosala . Kasi, in the mean time, also caused the downfall of Videha, the neighbor on its north.

Kosala , situated on the banks of the Sarayu (roughly corresponding to the erstwhile state of Oudh) , was bound by the Sadanria (Gandaka) on the East; the Panchala country on the West;  by the Saprika or Syandika (sai) river on the South; and, by the hills on the North. The kingdom was later divided into North and South Kosala; with the Sarayu demarcating the two. The cities of Savatti and Ayodhya were the capitals.

21.2. The flourishing period of many of the sixteen Maha-janapadas ended in or about the sixth century BCE. The history of the succeeding period is the story of the absorption of small states into powerful kingdoms; and, ultimately merging into one big empire, namely, the empire of Magadha.  Kasi was perhaps the first to fall.

21.3. The Mahavagga and the Jatakas refer to bitter struggles that took place between Kasi and her neighbors; especially, Kosala. Kasi seemed to have been successful at first; but later,  it gave in to Kosala. Initially , the King Brihadratha of Kasi had conquered Kosala; but later, he lost to the king of Kosala.

Eventually, Kasi was overpowered by Kamsa, the king of Kosala earning him the title ‘Baranasiggaho’– the conqueror of Baranasi-which he added to the string of his titles (Seyya Jataka and Tesakuna Jataka).  

During the time of the Buddha, Kosala was an important kingdom ; and , Kasi was a part of the Kosala. But later, both Kasi and Kosala were   absorbed into the powerful Magadha kingdom. The Mahavagga mentions that Magadha king Bimbisara’s dominions embraced 80,000 townships; the overseers (Gamikas) of which used to meet in a great assembly.

22.1. During the time of the Kosala King Mahakosala (sixth century B.C. E), Kasi was part of the Kosala kingdom. When the King Mahakosala gave his daughter Kosala Devi in marriage to Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, he gifted his daughter the village of Kasi yielding revenue of a hundred thousand Karsapana to take care of her ‘bath and perfume expenses’ (Ilarita Mata Jataka No. 239; Vaddhaki Sukara Jataka No. 283). It is said;  Ajatasatru ascended to the throne after murdering his father Bimbisara; and, thereafter the heartbroken queen Kosala Devi died of loneliness  , pining for her departed husband.

22.2. Even after the death of his mother Kosala Devi, Ajatasatru continued to enjoy the revenues from the Kasi village , which had been gifted to her for ‘bath money’. Ajatasatru’s ‘impertinence’ deeply disturbed Pasenadi who by then had succeeded his father Mahakosala as the king of Kosala. He was determined that an unrighteous person (Ajatasatru) who murdered his father, should not undeservedly collect and enjoy, as if  by right , the revenues from a village gifted to his widowed mother (Kosala Devi). Pasenadi and Ajatasatru (uncle and nephew) thereafter fought seesaw battles, with no clear winner.

23.1. During the time of the Buddha, Pasenadi had gained control of Kasi ; and,  was hailed as the King of Kasi-Kosala.  In the Lohichcha Sutta, the Buddha inquires a person named Lohichcha: “Now what think you Lohichcha? Is not king Pasenadi of Kosala in possession of Kasi and Kosala?” Lohichcha replies “Yes; that is so Gotama”. The Mahavagga (17. 195) mentions that a brother of Pasenadi was appointed   to administer Kasi.

23.2. The conquest of Kasi by Kamsa (king of Kosala) might have taken place just prior to the rise of Buddhism. That is because;  Angutta Nikaya remarks that the memory of Kasi as an independent kingdom was still fresh in the minds of its people during the Buddha’s time; and , the people sometimes seemed to forget that their king was somewhere else.


Kasi in the life of the Buddha


24.1. Kasi played a very important role in the life of the Buddha. It was on the outskirts of Kasi that the Buddha delivered his First Discourse (pathama desana) , introducing the essence of his teachings. It marked a watershed in the Buddha’s life. It was at Kasi that Gautama the Buddha emerged as The Revered Teacher (Bhagava), as the Blessed One (Araha) and as the perfectly enlightened One (Sammaa -Sambuddha).

25.1.After he realized the futility of extreme austerities and self-mortification; and,  after his fellow seekers dissented and departed, Gotama retired into the forests of Uruvala in the Maghada country;  and , engaged himself in his Sadhana.

25.2. On the full moon night in the month of Vesaka – the sixth month; on one of those nights he spent under the Bodhi tree, he understood the sorrows of earthly existence; and , of the supreme peace, unaffected by earthly attachments. He said to him, “My emancipation is won… Done what is to be done. There is nothing beyond this ” (katam karniyam naa param itthattaya) .

25.3. For several days, he wandered among the woods, enveloped in peace and tranquility. He enjoyed his quiet serene days and lonely walks in the forest. He wished the idyllic life would last forever. He pondered whether he should share with others his newfound wisdom , which helps in seeing things clearly, as they are. He wondered whether anyone would be interested or would appreciate his findings, He debated in himself; there might still be those not entirely blinded by the worldly dirt. He thought of his teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta (son of Rama) both “wise, intelligent and learned; and of nature scarcely tainted “; and, said to himself they would quickly comprehend the knowledge he had just gained. Then, he sadly realized that Uddaka son of Rama had just passed away; and, Alara Kalama died about seven days ago. Then,  the thought came to him of his erstwhile fellow Samanas, those who left him to pursue their ways. He decided to talk to his fellow seekers; and, share with them the new wisdom. (Majjhima Nikaya; Sutta 26)

25.4. He journeyed from place to place from Gaya; and, at length reached the holy city of Varanasi, after nearly seven weeks, covering by foot a distance of about 144 miles. On his way, a monk named Upaka inquired Gautama where he was headed to, “To set in to motion the wheel of Dhamma (Dhamma Chakkam pavattetum)” ,he replied , “I proceed to Varanasi”.

25.5. He reached Kasi after crossing the Ganga. There at Varanasi , he learnt the five ascetics (Kondanna, Vappa, Mahanama, Assaji, and Bhadda) whom he knew before , were at Isipathana or Isipatana (Rishipattana – where the ascetics live; now called Saranath), on the nearby outer area of the city. He found them in Isipatana at the garden Migadaaya (Deer park) , where the deer roamed without fear. They were surprised to see him . They greeted him pleasantly “Look, who comes here; our friend (avuso) Gotama”; and, offered him seat and water for ablution. They were highly impressed by Gotama’s majestic, pure and serene demeanor. They wondered whether he had achieved uttari manusa dhamma, the super human state.

The Buddha then informed the five ascetics , he had done what had to be done. He had attained That. He asked them to listen to his findings : “I teach about suffering ; and, the way to end it”.

25.6. They listened to him in all earnestness. What he spoke to those five ascetics (Pancavaggiya bhikkhus) later gained renown as one of the greatest and most important discourses in religious history. It was the Buddha’s first teaching (Pathama desana), the celebrated Dhamma-cakka-pavattana Sutta, the discourse that set in motion the wheels of Dhamma. At the end of his talk, the Buddha emerged as the Great Teacher. He came to be revered as Bhagava (the Blessed One).

Buddha sadhanamala

25.7. The Buddha spoke to the five ascetics at the garden of Migadaaya, where the deer roamed unmolested and in peace, located in Isipatana , near the holy city of Kasi, in the evening of the full moon day in the month of Asalhi – the eighth month (Ashada-July). He spoke in simple Magadhi , the language his listeners understood well. The discourse was brief, with short, simple and precise statements. There were no definitions and no explanations. It was a direct, sincere talk. It was a simple and a straight rendering of how Samana Gotama transformed into the Buddha. He spoke from his experience; narrated his unfolding; his findings;  explained the four truths and the three aspects of each; and, the middle path (majjhiama patipada)

26.1. It was at Isipatana , Migadaya,  that the Buddha delivered many significant sermons that established his doctrine. Later in his life, the Buddha visited Kasi many times; went out for alms on its streets. He met and talked to whole cross-section of its people:  kings, queens, noblemen, merchants, bankers, householders, women, youth, the poor, the homeless, the ascetics, the believers and non believers. The Jatakas narrate stories woven around the lives of those impacted by the Buddha’s message.


[Later, by about the tenth century the Risi-patana (Saranath) area, sadly, became a den of Kapalikas, Aghories and the Buddhist Vajrayana tantric cults practicing weird tantric – vamachara (left-handed) rituals, which scared away common people. By the time of the Gahadvala kings (eleventh century),  the weird sects of tantrics had grown so powerful that they attacked and beat back king Chandradeva (Ca. 1089–1103),  who tried to enforce  on them some order, discipline and code of  social conduct.

During the latter half of 12th century Saranath was ransacked by Turkish Muslims. It was in ruins until it was re-discovered by British in 1835-6.]


Destruction of the Temples

27.1. During the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries the city, its temples and its people fell victims to series of attacks and atrocities inflicted by the Muslim rulers.

[ Please click here for the general order issued by Aurangzeb for destruction of temples]

But, somehow, the city found strength in itself to survive; and , to rebuild after each attack.The glorious Kashi as of the Puranas that existed till 12th century had almost vanished by 17th century.  But, the city was not defaced or totally defeated.   I have to mention here the repeated destruction of the Sri Vishvanatha temple and of the final obliteration of the Kritti-vasesvara and Bindu-Madhava temples.

27.2. During the year 1194,  Kutbuddin AIbak of the slave-dynaty,  plundered the city and destroyed the ancient temple of Sri Vishvanatha, said to have been built during the reign of the King Vinaya Gupta (505-508 AD). Aibak, it is said, carried away about 1,400 camel loads of wealth from Kashi. Later, Razzia Sultana (1236 -1240) raised the Bibi Razziya mosque over the site of the temple destroyed by Aibak , using the pillars rescued from the ruins.

Again, during the thirteenth century a temple of Sri Vishvanatha was erected by the local Hindus, near the adjoining Avimuktesvara temle. This temple too was destroyed , but  partially ,  by the Sharqi kings of Jaunpur (1436-1458). Sikandar Lodi, however, completed the job during 1490 , by destroying it entirely.

About, ninety years thereafter , mainly through the efforts of  Raja Todarmal and a scholar Narayana Bhatta (1514-1595) , a temple  of Sri Vishvanatha  was erected on the site of the one destroyed by Lodi.

But again during 1669 CE, Aurangzeb destroyed this temple; and,  built a Mosque in its place. But, he spared its hind portion, perhaps as a sign of warning. He built on the destroyed portion of the temple what is now known as the Jnanavapi mosque. The remains of the erstwhile temple can be seen in the foundation, the columns and at the rear part of the mosque.

[Please click here to view the Firman Issued by Aurangzeb in August 1669 for destruction of the Vishwanath temple (Maasiri Alamgiri, 88) preserved as Exhibit 11 at the Bikanir Musem , Rajasthan]


Jnanavapi Mosque sketched as Temple of Vishveshvur in 1834 by James Prinsep.


Gyan Vapi 1863

Photo was taken by a UK photographer Samuel Bourne between 1863-1870. Under the picture it is written “Gyan Vapi or well of knowledge, Banaras“. Hanuman ji’s statue, bell and pillars carving is visible in the picture


Dr. Meenakshi Jain , in her very well researched book Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, writes :

While temples were destroyed on a considerable scale, also noteworthy were the repeated endeavors to reconstruct them. In each instance of rebirth, the temple retained its original name, even though there was a visible downsizing in its scale and grandeur. The Keshava temple at Mathura, the Vishwanath temple at Kashi, the Somnath temple in Saurashtra, the Rama mandir at Ayodhya were among the shrines continually restored, well after Hindus had lost all semblance of political power. The Bindu Madhava, the most important Vishnu temple in Varanasi, was demolished in 1669 and a mosque constructed in its place. The temple now bearing the name Bindu Madhava is a modest structure in the shadow of the mosque, but continues the traditions associated with the site. Intriguingly, mosques built on temple sites often retained the sacred names —Bijamandal mosque, Lat masjid, Atala masjid, Gyanvapi mosque, and not to forget, masjid-i- janamsthan.

Varanasi Gyanvapi



In 1742, the Maratha ruler Malhar Rao Holkar planned to demolish the mosque and reconstruct Vishweshwar temple at the site. However, his plan did not materialize, mainly because of intervention by the Nawabs of Oudh (Lucknow) , who controlled the territory. Around 1750, the Maharaja of Jaipur commissioned a survey of the land around the site, with the objective of purchasing land to rebuild the Kashi Vishwanath temple. However, his plan to rebuild the temple also did not succeed.

Ahilyabai Holkar

Again , in 1780,  that is  almost a little over a hundred years after its destruction by Aurangazeb, Malhar Rao’s daughter-in-law Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, (formally : Shrimant Akhand Soubhagyavati Devi Shri Ahilyabai Sahib Holkar) – (31 May 1725 – 13 August 1795) – the  Queen of the Marathas, ruled the Malwa kingdom with its capital at Indore , caused the construction of the present temple , adjacent to the mosque. Rajamatha Ahilyabai  undertook the task out of her personal wealth ; without recourse to the State fundsThis is the Sri Vishvanatha temple that now stands in Kashi; and, the one which is in active worship. The reconstruction of the temple also marked the revival of the native spirit.   Besides, Rani Ahilyabai , renowned for her benevolence, used her personal funds for the reconstruction and restoration of numerous temples spread across India.


Plan_Of_The_Ancient_Temple_Of_Vishveshvur_by_James_Prinsep_1832 varanasi visvesvara temple elevation

Plan and the elevation of the Ancient Temple of Vishveshvur, by James Prinsep

In 1828, Baiza Bai (1784-1863) , widow of the Maratha ruler Daulat Rao Scindhia of Gwalior; and, who ruled from 1798 to 1833  (renowned as the Banker-Warrior Queen),  built a low-roofed colonnade with over 40 pillars in the Gyan Vapi precinct. In 1830, she also built a temple close to the south turret of the Sindhia Ghat, one of the grandest Ghats on the riverfront. During 1833-1840 , the boundary of Gyanvapi Well, the Ghats and other nearby temples were constructed.

Many noble families from various ancestral kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent contributed towards the maintenance of the temple. In 1841, the Bhosales of Nagpur donated silver to the temple. And, in 1859, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab , donated one  tonne of gold for plating the temple’s dome.

Benares temple worshippers

27.3. The series of destruction during 1658-59 as ordered by Aurangzeb, of the Krittivasesvara temple and the destruction in 1673 of Veni Bindumadhav temple which stood at the highest spot in Kashi, and erecting mosques on the site of destroyed temples, was the gravest wound inflicted on Kashi. It has not healed even today. The events leading to the destruction form the subplot of Shri SL Bhyrappa’s well written historical novel Avarana , in Kannada language.

27.2. The only available description of the ancient temple of Bindu Madhava dedicated to Vishnu then standing on the Panchganga Ghat  comes from   the travel accounts of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, (1605-1689) the celebrated French jeweller and traveller. He travelled extensively round the country in the middle of the seventeenth century. His travelogue is particularly valuable because it is the only account left behind by a foreign traveler of the ancient temple of Bindu Madhava before it was destroyed in 1673. He visited the temple on 12 – 13 December 1665. The mosque constructed on the site has dominated the riverfront ever since.

Varanasi Bindu Madhava temple

The following is an extract from Varanasi Vista by Jagmohan Mahajan.

The building, Tavernier says,

“is in the figure of a cross having its four arms equal. In the middle a lofty dome rises like a kind of tower with many sides terminating in point, and at the end each arm of cross another tower rises, which can be ascended from outside. Before reaching the top there are many niches and several balconies, which project to intercept the fresh air: and all over the tower there are rudely executed figures in relief of various kinds of animals. Under this great doe, and exactly in the middle of the pagoda, there is an altar like a table, of 7 to 8 feet in length and 5 to 6 wide, with two steps in front, which serve as footstool, and this footstool is covered with a beautiful tapestry, sometimes of silk and sometimes of gold and silk, according to the solemnity of the rite which is being celebrated. The altar is covered with gold and silver brocade, or some beautiful painted cloth. From outside the pagoda this altar faces you with the idols upon it; for the women and girls must salute it from the outside, as, save only those of a certain tribe, they are ant allowed to enter the pagoda. Among the idols on the great altar one stand 5 to 6 feet in height; neither the arms, legs, nor trunk are seen only the head and neck being visible; all the remainder of the body, down to the altar, is covered by a robe which increases in width below. Sometimes on its neck there is a rich chain of gold, rubies, pearls, or emeralds. This idol has been made in honor and after the likeness of Bainmadou [Bindu Madhav], formerly a great and holy personage among them, whose name they often have on their lips. On the right site of the altar there is also the figure of an animal, or rather of a chimera, seeing that it represents in part an elephant, in part a horse, and in part a mule. It is of massive gold, and is called Garou [Garuda], no person being allowed to approach it but the Brahmans.”

[ Please click here for the report sent to Aurangzeb after the destruction of Bindu Madhav temple : Exhibit No. 27]


Kashi and the British

28.1. The British who travelled in India extensively during the last quarter of the eighteenth century provided an excellent exposure to Kashi . The west became aware of the wonder of the east, mainly through the narratives of their visits to Varanasi, providing varied, detailed and delightful as also fanciful descriptions of life in the city. They were especially struck by the splendid panorama of the Varanasi riverfront, the picturesque Ghats with   flights of broad stone steps leading down to the great river swarming with people performing their daily prayers.

28.2. Those who truly immortalized the fabulous riverfront of Kashi were the landscape artists , most of them poor; but, valiant. They  had set out into an unknown world in pursuit of the cult of the “picturesque” and the exotic. Their sketches gave the outside world, and , in fact, even to the Indians themselves, the first visual impressions of the spectacular Varanasi Ghats, as also of the magnificent monuments and scenic beauties in India.

Kashi By Edwin Greaves

Varanasi By Edwin Greaves 1850 C

(Please click here for many more drawings)


James Prinsep

29.1. I cannot resist mentioning here James Prinsep (20 August 1799 – 22 April 1840) who in his short life spent ten of his most productive years in India and contributed to Kashi more than anyone else did in the past several centuries.

James Prinsep was a Fellow of the Royal Society ; and, in fact, the youngest to be elected a Fellow of that body. He was a many sided genius : Assayer, Architect, Engineer, Linguist, Epigraphist, Artist, Demographer, Cartographer, Urban Planner and many other things rolled into one. Prinsep is credited with deciphering the Brahmi and Kharoshti edicts of Asoka and Kanishka; bringing to light the names of the old emperors.

James Princep2James Princep

29.2. The twenty year old James Prinsep arrived in Calcutta, together with his younger brother who had got a commission in the East India Company’s Bengal Army. James commenced service in the Calcutta Mint as an assistant to the Assay Master, Horace Hayman Wilson,  an eminent Sanskrit scholar and also the Secretary of the Asiatic Society.

Calcutta New Mint by Thomas Prinsep c.1829

30.1. In less than a year thereafter James Prinsep was posted to Benares , as the Assay Master.

James Prinsep fell in love with the city of Kasi, where he arrived in 1820 and where he was to spend the next ten years of his short life. Apart from taking charge of the construction of the Mint building, James surveyed and produced a detailed map of the city by the end of 1821. He later had the map (29 x 19 inches) lithographed in 1825, at his own expense. For long years it remained an outstandingly accurate map of the old city.

Varanasi -Kashi Map James Princep

30.2. Along with the map, he also produced a comprehensive directory of the various Ghats, Temples, open spaces, important buildings; and also a list of pundits specialized in each branch of learning. Sadly, his directory is unpublished ; and, is now said to be in the archives of the Royal Asiatic Society.

30.3. Following the city map and the directory, Prinsep took up ,during 1826, the census of the city , which was particularly difficult for a city that depended on floating population.

30.4. Then   in the beginning of 1825, Prinsep commenced the work of providing the old city with a reliable drainage system, a much needed amenity for a pilgrim city. He successfully completed the project in a matter of 19 months. Prinsep’s drainage system with a few extensions and new outfalls, serves the city to this day.

30.5. Prinsep then went on to design and build a bridge, the Karam Nasha Bridge, over a waterway across the city.

30.6. He also took up the restoration of the Gyaan Vaapi mosque or Aurangzeb’s mosque, built originally in about 1675. It is said; Prinsep dismissed the mosque as an architectural atrocity , but for its soaring minarets.

Varanasi Gyan vapi well

30.7. He achieved all these in just a matter of ten years, before he turned thirty. He , in the meantime , improved his Sanskrit and astronomy. And, he set up a printing press, the Benares Literary Society as also an observatory. He caused compilation of a meteorological profile of the city, using instruments acquired with his personal money.

31.1.  Essays on Indian Antiquities, Historic, Numismatic, and Palaeographic, a collection of Essays written by James Prinsep was brought out in Two Volumes by John Murray , Albemarle Street, London during 1858

Please also check the 1833 Number of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal , edited by James Prinsep. 

One of his other endearing contributions to the city is his Benares Illustrated published in 1831 with 35 plates. Two further volumes of 13 and 10 plates respectively were issued in 1832 and 1833. These volumes were reprinted in India during 1996 and after. The following are just a couple of his Benares drawings.

James Prinsep eclips of the moon 25 Nov 1825


Preacher Expounding The Poorans. In The Temple of AnnaPoorna, Benares. Lithograph by Prinsep (1835)

32.1 After spending about a  decade in Benares, James Prinsep came back to Calcutta. He completed a project, started by his brother, in building a canal to connect the distributaries of the River Ganga near the delta, in order to make them navigable.

Thereafter, he returned to England; and, died in 1840.

A year after Prinsep’s demise, the work was started, in 1841, on the construction of a new Gaht or a landing space, with  a flight of stone steps leading to the river , along the banks of the HooghlyRiver in Calcutta. This was meant to replace the old and dilapidated Chandpal Ghat.

The new Ghat, located between the Water Gate and St. George’s Gate of Fort William beside the Hooghly River, was designed by W. Fitzgerald; and, was completed in 1843.

This Ghat was named as the Prinsep Ghat; and dedicated to James Prinsep, in honour and recognition of the services he rendered to Varanasi, Calcutta and to India.

The Princep Ghat was considered to be one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in Calcutta; and, one among the grandest gateways leading to a river. 

Calcutta Princep's Ghaut, Calcutta - 1851

calcutta prisep ghaut

The Princep Ghat bears a resemblance to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, though on a much smaller scale. The monument is built on 6 sets of Ionian columns holding a 40 feet roof painted in white; and, presents a grand view from a distance.

The Prinsep Ghat was, for a long time, used as the principal point of embarkment and disembarkment for the distinguished visitors to the city of Calcutta. For instance; in 1875, when Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and the eldest son of Queen Victoria visited Calcutta, he was welcomed at the Princep Ghat. Later in 1905, when Prince of Wales (later King George V) and in 1911, the British royal family visited India, the Prinsep Ghat was the witness to all those visits and events.


33.1. James Prinsep died soon after he turned forty. But, the details of his last days are unclear. Some say; Prinsep overworked himself to death.

William Prinsep , the brother of James Prinsep was a noted artist , in his own right. Please click here , for replica of his art works. 

[Rajah Ram Mohan Roy came to Britain in 1833, to petition the government to ensure the practice of sati remained illegal.  He decided to come and visit Lant Carpenter (father of Mary Carpenter) in Bristol.  Sadly, Raja Ram Mohan Roy died of meningitis on 27 September 1833, in Sophia Haldimand’s home at 31 Belgrave Square. And, was originally buried on 18 October 1833, in the grounds of Stapleton Grove, where he had been staying.

His body was placed in its wooden and lead coffin in a deep brick-built vault, over seven feet underground. A large plot on that Ceremonial Way was  bought by William Carr and William Prinsep,  as they realized that the original burial place of the Raja was not appropriate.

Two years after this, Dwarkanath Tagore helped pay for the Chattri (a small but splendid Mantap, in Indian style) that is raised above this vault.

The mausoleum – Chattri (literally meaning umbrella) – was designed by the artist William Prinsep , the elder brother of James Prinsep, to honour the remains of Raja Rammahun Roy Bahadoor, known as the father of modern India; and, the first Indian to be buried in Britain, in 1833.

Although the Raja’s died in 1833, he was moved to his final resting place on the 29th May 1843. 

Rajah Rammohun Roy | Arnos Vale ]


Kashi today

34.1. The problems of today’s Kashi, as anywhere else, are human callousness and lack of reverence for life; but, they somehow look more pronounced here. You witness here , more than what you would normally put up with,  pollution, squalor, ignorance, dirt, deceit and wretchedness. How much and how long can the beleaguered Ganga Maa wash the unrepentant sins of the countless multitudes who pollute her each day …!!

kashi today

Devi Yantra by Pieter Weltevrede

Varanasi project

Varanasi renovated 6

I posted this article several years back. And, till about the end of the year 2021, the temple complex at Kashi looked the same as did for the past few centuries.

But, then a most remarkable transformation has come about.

 During 2019, the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project was conceived to ease the access between the temple and the sacred Ganga, creating a wider space to prevent overcrowding.

The first phase of the Project has since been completed.

Sri Viswanath Dham, dazzling with bright pink stones of Chunar, has been completed in 21 months. Apart from pink stones, Viswanath Dham, shining with seven types of stones including Milky Marble and Baleshwar, stands as an icon of nationalism, radiating spiritual aura.

There has been a complete revamp of the temple complex, which was earlier an extremely congested area; surrounded by buildings on three sides. The temple complex has now been massively expanded — from 3,500 sq ft to 5 lakh sq ft.

Built over 5.5 lakh square feet, the corridor has decongested the temple complex. The temple, now has a 20-foot-wide corridor connecting its Mandir Chowk to the Holy Ganga’s Lalita Ghat, offering direct view of the temple from the Ghat.

Just before the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the corridor culminates in a big, majestic square, which can hold 50,000 to 75,000 devotees; while the sanctum sanctorum will now be able to accommodate 5,000 people. A 80 feet long and 40 feet wide Parikrama path has also been designed.

Devotees will now be able to see Sri Vishwanath Darbar and the continuous stream of Ganga , from Ganga View Gallery

Statues of Adi Shankaracharya and Maharani Ahilyabai are also installed.

This is a most extraordinary Vishwanath Dham, in deed.

The newly constructed corridor was inaugurated by India’s Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi on December 13, 2021.

The Rudraksh Convention Centre, designed like a Shivalinga, with a seating of 1,200 people, with 108 Rudrakshas on its facade, is another major highlight

During the renovation, more than 40 ruined, centuries-old temples were found and rebuilt, including the Gangeshwar Mahadev temple, the Manokameshwar Mahadev temple, the Jauvinayak temple, and the Shri Kumbha Mahadev temple.

Harvard University professor Diana L Eck, the author of Banaras, City of Light (Alfred K Knopf; 1982), who was a student at Banaras Hindu University in the late ’60s, says,

 “There are hundreds of temples, large and small, some are inside homes… on the wayside. And none is neglected. It is this density of the sacred that is especially important. In elevating the Kashi Vishvanath Temple to the supreme position and imagining that the Ganga should be visible from the corridor, the plan creates a fiction that has never been part of the history of Kashi.”

Phase 2 of the project moves to the other end – the riverside – and will feature a massive jetty station, and 82 sandstone steps leading from the ghat to the corridor entrance. There will also be escalators and a ramp for easy access. Once this phase is complete, devotees can, purportedly like in ancient times, take a dip in the river, and carry holy water to the temple.

It is said; in the second phase, the sewage treatment plant in front of Lalita Ghat will be relocated. And, new facilities will be created for Manikarnika Ghat.


Varanasi renovated 1

Varanasi renovated 4

Varanasi renovated 3

Varanasi renovated 5


Sources and References

Ancient Indian tribes by Bimala Churn Law, 1926

Political History Of ancient India By Hemchandra Raychaudhuri,  1923
Varanasi Vistas (Early view of the Holy City) By Jagmohan Mahajan
Benares Illustrated in a series of Drawings by James Prinsep
Luminous Kashi to Vibrant Varanasi by Chandramouli

Posted by on October 8, 2012 in General Interest, Kashi -Varanasi


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Sri Gayatri – Part Two

Continued from Part One

 The Mantra and Its Import

The mantra

32.1. As mentioned earlier; Gayatri is a mantra dedicated to Savitr. It originally occurs as the tenth rik in the sixty-second Sukta of the third mandala of Rig-Veda Samhita (RV: 3.62.10).It is repeated in several other texts. The metrical form, chhandas, of the mantra is Gayatri. In accordance with the characteristic requirement  of the Gayatri – chhandas, the mantra is composed of  twenty-four letters, akshara or matra (Gayatri chaturvimsatyakshara); arranged in three lines (tripaada); each paada having eight letters (ashta-aksharatmaka-paada).

32.2. The pada-patha (sequential rendering) of the mantra reads: tat- savituh- varenyam – bhargah – devasya – dhimahi – dhiyah – yah – na – prachodayath.

32.3. The anvaya, the order of the words in the mantra to elicit its meaning, is usually thus : (yah) who; (nah) our; (dhiyah) intellect; (prachodayath) inspires; (tat*) that; (devasya) radiant; (savituh) Savitr; (varenyam) most adorable; (bhargah) effulgence; (dhimahi) we meditate upon.

[* The suggestive term tat may refer either to Savitr or to his bhargah (excellence). The extended meaning of the term is Brahman (as in tat tvam asi).]

The literal meaning of the mantra would be: “We contemplate on the most adorable brilliance of Savitr who inspires our intellect”.

There are, of course, countless mystical interpretations of the mantra.

Extended form of Gayatri

33.1. The mantra, as above, revealed to Rishi Visvamitra and appearing in the Rig-Veda Samhita (RV: 3.62.10) is known as Visvamitra-Gayatri. Its extended form begins with the line comprising the Pranava (Om) and three Vyahrti-s (bhu, bhuvah and suvah). Both the forms of Gayatri are recited and contemplated upon during the Sandhya prayers. The extended form is preferred during the performance of Havana-s

33.2. The extended form of Gayatri, thus, has four lines. It is said; Gayatri mantra is four-footed (chatuspaada) when Pranava (Om) accompanies it. However, when Pranava is omitted it is only three-footed (Chatuspaada Gayatri pranavenavena saha; pranavam vina tripaada). This statement is based on the faith that the syllable Om encompasses all the Vyahrti-s; or, rather, the Vyahrti-s are extensions of Pranava Om.

Turiya paada

34.1. There is another stream of discussion on the fourth line (Turiya paada) of Gayatri in Brihadaranya Upanishad (5.14.7). The fourth line, it is said, occurs following the traditional three lines of Gayatri mantra of twenty-four syllables.  The text says that while the first three lines can be grasped by reason, the fourth line, which is mystical in its import, can be comprehended only through intuition. The Upanishad adores the fourth line as ‘Namaste turiyaaya darshataya padaaya’.

tasyā upasthānam | gāyatry asy ekapadī dvipadī tripadī catuṣpadi | apad asi |
na hi padyase | namas te turīyāya darśatāya padāya parorajase | asāv ado mā prāpad iti ||| BrhUp_5,14.7 ||

34.2. This fourth paada is said to be hidden (darshatasya) or un-manifest (apad); and, is beyond intellect.  It represents Savitr as the Purusha, shining as the very core or as the essence of the solar orb (mandala-antargata-purusha), who is the inner-being (antaryamin), the heart of all beings (sarva-jivatma).

34.3. This Turiya paada which reads ‘paro rajas ya tapati’ (the pada-pata of which is: ‘Parah- rajase- asau – adhah – maa – praapta – iti’) is, by itself, considered a maha-mantra. Its Rishi is Vimala; its chhandas is Turiya; its Devata is Paramatma; and, its objective (viniyoga) is liberation (moksha).

Asya sree darshatasya Gayatri-turiya paada-maha- mantrasya; Vimala Rishihi; Turiya chhandaha/Paramatma Devata; Moksha viniyogaha //

Literally, the mantra appears to refer to that un-shadowed effulgence (consciousness) beyond the three gunas (paro rajasa) that illumines (tapati) all existence. There are, of course, numerous other interpretations depending on the inclination of each School.

35.1. The Turiya paada, it is said, explains the preceding three paadas (paada traya) of the Gayatri mantra, in terms of triads’. It says: Hey Gayatri, your first line (eka padi) represents three realms (tri lokya); your second line (dvitiyena paadena) the three streams of knowledge (tri-vidya-rupena); and, your third line (trutiyena paadena) the vital currents (prana).

The Gayatri of three paadas rests (prathisitha) on the fourth paada (turiya paada), which is established in Satya, the Truth. This (Satya) is the real Savitr, for it is the essence (satva) of all beings and material objects – with form (murta) and without form (a-murta) – turīya-padā-aśrayaṃ satyaṃ bale pratiṣṭhitam /.

saiṣā gāyatry etasmiṁs turīye darśate pade parorajasi pratiṣṭhitā, tad vai tat satye pratiṣṭhitam; cakṣur vai satyam, cakṣur hi vai satyam; tasmād yad idānīṁ dvau vivadamānāv eyātām aham adarśam, aham aśurauṣam iti. ya evaṁ brūyāt; aham adarśam iti, tasmā eva śraddadhyāma. tad vai tat satyaṁ bale pratiṣṭhitam; prāṇo vai balam; tat prāṇe pratiṣṭhitam; tasmād āhuḥ: balaṁ satyād ogīya iti. evaṁ veṣā gāyatry adhyātmaṁ. pratiṣṭhitā sā haisā gayāṁs tatre; prāṇā vai gahāḥ; tat prānāṁs tatre; tad yad gayāṁs tatre, tasmād gāyatrī nāma. sa yām evāmūṁ sāvitrīm anvāha, eṣaiva sā. sa yasmā anvāha, tasya prānāṁs trāyate.

Here, the commentators explain that tri lokya refers to three realms (bhu, bhuvah and suvah); tri-vidya to three Vedas (Rig, Yajus and Sama); and the vital currents (prana, apana and vyana). They all rest on Turiya paada which indeed is Satya (Absolute Truth), beyond conditioned – existence.

35.2. It is also said; the eight letters [paro (2), rajas (2), ya (1), pra– tapa iti (3)] of the subtle and mystical fourth-line (Turiya-paada) of Gayatri in association with Pranava (Om) as the ninth letter (navakshara vai) forms the first half of the Yajna (purvardha vai yajnasya Gayatri – Satapatha Brahmana:

śiro vai yajñasyātithyaṃ navākṣarā vai gāyatryaṣṭau / tāni yānyanvāha praṇavo navamaḥ pūrvārdho vai yajñasya gāyatrī pūrvārdhe eṣa / yajñasya tasmānnavakapālaḥ puroḍāśo bhavati   –  3.4.1.[15]

35.3. Thus, the Turiya paada the fourth-line (chaturbhi paadaih) by itself (ekame) is worthy of meditation in silence (upasate), as it represents the Purusha. Turiya, it is said, represents the highest state beyond the three gunas (paro rajas) and beyond the three known states of consciousness (waking, dreaming and deep sleep). Turiya paada is not for chanting; but ,it is for contemplation  in silence.

36.1. The mantra starting with words: ‘paro rajase….’ is accorded great significance in the Sri Vidya tradition. It is identified with the beeja Hrim, which is equivalent to Pranava Om. And; it represents pure consciousness, which is not inert (paro rajase), at ‘the end of silence’.

36.2. Further, Tripura-tapini-Upanishad which deals with the basic concepts and symbolisms of Sri Vidya, provides, among other things, the  tantric interpretations to Chatush-paada Gayatri, the Gayatri of four lines, composed of thirty-two syllables (Tt.Up : 1.2 to 1.8). 

The text compares the Turiya paada the fourth line (paro rajase sāvadom) with the fifteen-lettered Panchadasi mantra of Sri Vidya- pañcadaśākṣaraṃ traipuraṃ . The Panchadasi mantra is implicit or hidden (just as Turiya paada); and, it becomes explicit or manifest when the sixteenth (sodasha) letter Srim is added to it. Srim is Mother-Goddess’s own form.

36.3. The text interprets the Turiya Paada by relating it to the principle of Shiva: the illumination (prakasha); the pure consciousness (Shiva) latent as Paramatman (akshara) in the space of one’s heart (akshare parame vyoman). It is drawn out (vimarsa) when it is associated with the shakthi of Mother –goddess Gayatri.

ityekaṃ parabrahma rūpaṃ sarva bhūtā adhivāsaṃ turīyaṃ / jānīte so’kṣare parame vyoman yadhivasati ।

37.1. There is another interpretation. The commentaries on Sri Lalitha Sahasranama mention that the nama-s 583-585 refer to three types of Vidya-s: Atma Vidya (583); Maha Vidya (584); and, Sri Vidya (585).

ātmavidyā mahāvidyā śrīvidyā kāmasevitā । śrīṣoḍaśākṣarī vidyā trikūṭā kāmakoṭikā ॥ 118॥

In this context; it is said, Turiya Gayatri is also Atma Vidya. And, the Devi manifests in the form of Turiya Gayatri; and, also as the eight-lettered ‘atma-ashtakshara- vidya’ of the Sri Vidya tradition (om- hrim-hamsaha -soham-svaha).


Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri

38.1. Gayatri is a Universal mantra. It is said; each one has to understand and experience it in her/his own way. The aspirants are advised to create her/his own rendering of the essence of the mantra, as each perceives it. Of the mantras of such genre the one that comes to mind quickly is the celebrated Gayatri created by Sri Aurobindo.

38.2. Sri Aurobindo gave his own Gayatri mantra of twenty-four syllables:

Tat savitur varam rūpam jyotiḥ parasya dhīmahi yannaḥ satyena dīpayet

Let us meditate on the most auspicious  form of Savitri , on the Light of the Supreme which shall illumine us with the Truth.

38.3. It is said; Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri is addressed to Savitri, daughter of the Sun ‘as Satya (the Truth), the pure consciousness”, “the power of inspired speech which brings the illumination of the supreme Truth’. Savitri is the symbol of dawn, the Truth that comes from the Sun. Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri Mantra meditates upon the auspicious form of the Sun, the Light that illumines us with the Truth.

38.4. The scholar Shri R.Y. Deshpande explains that Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri Mantra is slightly different from the traditional Gayatri Mantra given to us by Rishi Visvamitra, which seeks illumination of our intuition and of our intellect.

In Sri Aurobindo’s mantra, the emphasis is on the auspicious form – varam rupam. It invokes Gayatri in her most auspicious form to come and reside in us, amongst us, within us. This is the difference between the two: – the first invokes a spiritual perception; the second invokes her as a form in us. The coming down of that Grace is the birth of Savitri.

Om and the Vyahrti-s

39.1. Gayatri mantra as given by Rishi Visvamitra is extended by fusing it with a line opening with the Pranava Om followed by the three Vyahrtis (bhu, bhuvah and suvah). Both the forms of Gayatri are recited and contemplated upon during the Sandhya prayers. The extended form is preferred during the performance of havana-s.

The concept of Vyahrtis, it is said, was derived from Taittriya Upanishad; and, it is important by itself. 

The Pranava Om always recited at the beginning and the end of the mantra is not just a sound or symbol. It is verily the Bija from which Gayatri emanates. Gayatri which is Savitri adores Pranava as Brahman (Brahma Swaroopam) encompassing all existence.

We shall briefly talk about Pranava and the Vyahrtis.

Pranava Om

40.1. Pranava – Om – enjoys unrivalled pre-eminence in the Indian traditions. It is hailed as the Moola-mantra (the root of all mantras), Akshara (The Letter) or Ekakshara (the single syllable). It is the auspicious sound of initiation (diksha).Every recitation, every prayer and every worship-action is preceded by utterance of Om. The study of the Vedas commences with the sound of Om; and, the student says to himself, fondly, ‘with this I shall attain Brahman’ (Taittiriya Upanishad-1.8.1). Om is the most comprehensive universal sound-symbol (udgita). Aitareya Brahmana (2.5.7) explains Om as the unity of three matras: ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ma’ (akaara-ukaara-makaara).

ōmiti brahma. ōmitīdaō sarvam. ōmityētad-anukṛtirha sma vā apyōśrāvayētyā-śrāvayanti. ōmiti sāmāni gāyanti. ōōśōmiti śastrāṇi śaōsanti   . ōmityadhvaryuḥ pratigaraṅ pratigṛṇāti. ōmiti brahma prasauti. ōmityagni-hōtram-anujānāti. ōmiti brāhmaṇaḥ pravakṣyannāha brahmōpāpnavānīti. brahmaiva-ōpāpnōti৷৷1.8.1৷৷

40.2. Sri Gauda-Paada in his celebrated Karika on Mandukya Upanishad expands on that and avers ‘AUM represents manifest and un-manifest aspects of Brahman’. It is the single syllable that symbolizes and embodies Brahman, the Absolute Reality. It is the Pranava that which pervades all existence; and it is our very life breath. Sri Gauda-Paada explains; Vaisvanara in waking state is A, the first part of AUM. Teijasa in dream state is U, the second part of AUM. And, Prajna in deep sleep is M, the third part of AUM, concluding the sounds of the earlier two parts. The Syllable AUM in its entirety stands for the fourth state – Turiya – one beyond the phenomenal existence, supremely blissful and non-dual. It is the source of all existence. AUM represents Ultimate Reality.AUM is thus verily the Self itself. Meditate on AUM as the Self.

40.3. Taittiriya Aranyaka (10.33) also declares ‘Omkara is indeed the very representation of Brahman’ (Om ityekaksharam Brahma); and the sum and substance of all the Vedas. And, all manifestations and expressions are rooted in Om (tad yatha). All the texts, therefore, advice the aspirants to meditate on Omkara.

Omi tyekÀksaram brahma | agnirdevatÀ brahma ityÀrsam | gÀyatram chandam paramÀtmam sarÂpam | sÀyujyam viniyogam [[10-33-1]

40.4. For the purpose of meditation, Omkara is itself regarded a mantra. Its Rishi is Prajapathi; its chhandas is Gayatri; and its Devata is Paramatma. The purpose of meditation (viniyoga) is liberation (vimukthi – phala – siddhidam).

Om and Gayatri

41.1. As regards the Pranava at the commencement of Gayatri, the two are intimately related. The traditional view is that the Pranava, Vyahrti-s and the Gayatri form an integral unit. Taittiriya Aranyaka (2.11.1-8) confirms that scriptural recitation always begins with the chanting of the syllable Om, followed by the three Vyahrtis and the Gayatri verse (as in RV 3.62.10).

aksare parame vyoman nyasmindeva adhi visve niseduryastanna veda kimaca karisyati ya ittavidusta ime samasata iti trineva prayunkta  bhur bhuvas svarityahai tadvai vacas satyam yadeva vacas satyam tatprayunkatha savitrÁm gÀyatram  triranvaha paccho’rdh arcarso’navanam savita sriyah prasavita sriyameva pnotyatho prajnatayaiva pratipada chandamsi pratipadyate |[2-11-1-15]|

41.2. Srimad Anandatheertha (Sri Madhwacharya) explains in his Rg-bhasya that the import of the Pranava is expanded in the Vyahrti-s and the meaning of the Vyahrti-s is elaborated in the Gayatri.

41.3. It is said; even if Vyahrti-s are omitted, for some reason, the Pranava should always precede the Gayatri. Pranava is indeed the Bija of Gayatri-mantra. The Gayatri-japa, which is the most important sequence of the Sandhya, should invariably include both the Pranava (Om) and the Vyahrti-s (bhu, bhuvah and suvah) [Pranava vyahrtiyutam gayatrim vai japet tatah].

41.4. Maitrayani Upanishad (prapāṭhaka 6- 2) says: Gayatri with Vyahrtis; and Pranava with Vyahrtis are but two names of Brahman that is light. Worship (upaasita) Brahman using Om (Omithyaksharena), Vyahrtis (vyahrityabhi) and Savitri (Savitra che iti). That (tat) Brahman is one with Om – upāsito Omityeta tad akṣareṇa vyāhṛtibhiḥ sāvitryā ceti .


42.1. The Pranava Om in the first line of Gayatri is followed by three utterances   BhuBhuvah and Suvah, which are termed as Vyahrti-s. The term Vyahrti (or Vyahara) literally means well articulated speech or a considered statement. They are also taken as syllables of mystical significance. Vyahriti is also understood as that which sheds light on our knowledge of the universe (Visheshenh Aahritih sarva viraat praahlaanam prakash-karanah vyahriti iti).

42.2. There are several myths associated with the origin of the Vyahrtis. There are also variations in the explanations provided in some Upanishads and their associated texts. For instance:

: – Chandogya Upanishad (2.23.2-3) states that Prajapathi who is the embodiment of Truth meditated upon all existence (lokan abhyatapat). Out of his contemplation arose three Vedas (trayi vidya). From out of the Vedas that he meditated upon, there emerged (sampra savant) these syllables (etani aksharani): bhubhuvah and suvah.

As Prajapathi contemplated further (tani abhyatapat), the syllable Om (Omkara samprasravat) emerged from these (vyahtri-s). He then realized that Om permeates every form of speech (omkara sarva vac samtrnna), just as the network of veins (sankuna) is spread over the entire leaf (sarvani parnanai). Prajapathi exclaimed ‘Verily all this is Om! Verily all this is Om! ‘ (Omkara eva idam sarvam; Omkara eva idam sarvam)’.

: – Chandogya Upanishad at another place (4.27.1-3) states: Prajapathi contemplated upon all worlds (lokan abhyatapat); and extracted their essence (rasam pravrhat): fire from the earth (agnim prithivyah); air from the intermediate-space   (vayum antariksat); and Aditya (sun) from the space beyond (adityam divah).

As he contemplated on the three deities, he derived from their essence (rasam pravrhat): Rg (Rig-Veda) from Agni (agneh rcah); Yajus from Vayu (vayoh yajumsi); and Sama from Aditya (samani adityat).

Prajapathi further contemplated on the three Vedas (tryim vidyam)   and extracted their essence: Bhu from Rig-Veda (bhu iti rgbhyah), Bhuvah from Yajur Veda (bhuvah iti yajurbhyah) and Suvah from Sama Veda (suvah iti samabhyah).

: – Taittiriya Brahmana (2.2.42) offers a different explanation. It mentions that Prajapathi at the end of his meditation uttered Bhu; and the earth come into existence (sa bhur iti vyaharat, sa bhumim asrjata).He then uttered Bhuvah; and this brought forth the mid-region (a bhuvah iti vyaharat, antariksham asrjata).And, finally Prajapathi exclaimed Suvah; and, the upper realm got formed (sasuvah iti vyaharat, sa divam asrjata). Thus the three Vyahrtis (utterances) correspond to these realms (eta vai vyahrtya ime lokah).

: – Maitrayani Upanishad (6.6) expands on that and relates the Vyahrti-s to Purusha, the Cosmic Being. And, it says: at the beginning, the existence was inarticulate. Then, after deep contemplation Prajapathi uttered: BhuBhuvah and Suvah. That threefold utterance   formed the gross body of Purusha: Bhu his feet (bhu paadah); Bhuvah is his navel (nabhir bhuvah); and Suvah is his head (suvaritya shiroh). And, Aditya (sun) became his eyes (Aditya chakshu).

43.1. Thus, initially, in these texts, Vyahrti-s are presented as utterances of mystical significance that stand for regions, realms or worlds (lokah) – (eta vai vyahrtaya ime lokahTB . Bhuh is earth; Bhuvah is mid-region; and, Suvah is the upper region. The Taittiriya Upanishad explains the three terms as: bhuh – ayamlokah (this world here in front of us); bhuvah – antariksham (the mid region); and suvah –asau lokah (the world beyond).

44.1. It is explained that in these references Bhu etc do not mean material earth etc. But, they symbolically suggest the principles associated with earth, atmosphere and space beyond. For instance:

:- The first Vyahrti Bhu is explained as that from which objects spring up or take birth or take shape (bhavatah kvipi bhur iti rupam) or that in which all beings reside (bhavanti asyam bhutani).

: – Similarly, the second Vyahrti Bhuvah signifies that principle which maintains all objects and beings (bhavayati sthapayati visvam iti). It is said; Bhuvah symbolizes the mid-region (antariksha) which provides space for existence and maintenance of the first Vyahrti Bhu,  the earth (bhavaty asmin jagat). It also illumines the world of earth (prakashayati visvam) .  The later text Parasara Smrti mentions that the Vyahrti Bhuvah signifies that which produces, maintains all things till their destruction; and that which again produces them.

: – And, the third Vyahrti Suvah, the upper realm is that which provides light, warmth, coolness and life to the two other lower regions: Bhuvah (mid-region) and Bhu (earth). Suvah signifies that which is truly adorable or sought after in all earnestness (sushtu varaniyatvat suvah); and it is pure knowledge. It also symbolizes the ideal state of bliss, Ananada; the greatest blessing.

45.1. But, in the later texts and commentaries, the Vyahrti-s were interpreted as or identified with almost everything that could be tied into a set – of – three. Following that, the Vyahrti-s came to be associated with a wide-range (almost endless sets) of meanings and interpretations. I have, at the end of this paragraph listed just a few of those, in the appended table.

45.2. The more significant ones are those that attempt to relate each of the three Vyahrti-s to : the Matra-s of the Pranava (A-U-M); three Vedas; Vedic gods – Agni, Vayu and Aditya ; three realms (loka); three vital energies (prana, apana and vyana); three modes of powers or expressions (iccha, kriya and jnana); trinity of Brahma , Vishnu and Shiva; three existential factors as set out in the Samkhya (PradhanaPurusha and Kaala); three chakras of Yoga (muladharavishuddha and sahasrara);  and, the three aspects of Brahman (Sat, Chit and Ananada) etc.

No. Factor


Bhu Bhuvah  Suvah
1 Loka (realm) Prithvi Antariksha Dyur-loka
2 Veda Rig-Veda Yajur-veda Sama-Veda
3 Matras of Pranava a-kaara u-kaara m-kaara
4 Devatha of the realm Agni Vayu Aditya
5 Sources of Energy Prana Agni Surya
6 Aspect of Brahman Sat Chit Ananda
7 Chakras Muladhara Vishuddha Sahasrara
8 Vital energies Prana Apana Vyana
9 Trinity Brahma Vishnu Rudra
10 Powers Iccha-shakti Kriya-shakti Jnana-shakti
11 Elemental factor Pradhana Purusha Kaala
12 Levels of identity Buddhi Manas Ahamkara
13 Guna Satva Rajas Tamas
 14 Colour Pita Shukla Krishna
15 Time (Kaala) Past Present Future
16 Worship-fires at home Garhapathya Dakshina Ahavaniya

Vyahrti-s and Gayatri

46.1. The three Vyahrti-s gain a special significance in their association with the Gayatri mantra. The traditional view is that the Pranava (Om), the Vyahrti-s and the Gayatri mantra are of identical nature. Sri Madhwacharya in his Rg-bhashya states that the Vyahrti- s BhuBhuvah and Suvah denote virtues associated with Brahman, such as: completeness (purna); absolute supremacy (niradhika-sreshthah); and, unique bliss (ananda). He also explains that the import of the Pranava is expanded in the Vyahrti-s; and the meaning of the Vyahrti-s is made clear in Gayatri.

46.2. It is said; the Vyahrti-s bring out the aspects of Brahman that could be meditated upon. The contemplation on Vyahrti-s is also the contemplation on the aspects of Pranava, which leads to release (moksha). Through that, one attains svarajya the state of independence beyond bondage (apnoti svarajyam).

46.3. The other significant association of the Vyahrti-s with the Gayatri is their representation as the three subtle planes of existence (loka); or regions of experience; or as three states or levels of consciousness experienced during meditation on Gayatri.

Fourth Vyahrti – Mahah

47.1. The Vyahrti-s: BhuBhuvah and Suvah are together known as Maha-Vyahrti-s. Because, they are the fundamental realms (loka), universally accepted and integrated into Gayatri mantra. They are also the Vyahrti-s mentioned in the older texts.

47.2. Taittiriya Upanishad (Shiksha valli: 1-7) mentions ‘BhuBhuvah and Suvah are the three Vyahrti-s’ (bhur bhuva suvariti va etaastritayo vyahrutaya). And, says, in addition, that the son of Rishi Mahachamas had the knowledge of the fourth Vyahrti called Mahah (chaturthim mahachamasya pravadayate).This is the adorable loka (maha pujayam), higher than Suvah; the loka of Aditya, the antaryamin who ennobles (mahat) all the worlds. Mahah is Aditya (mahah iti adityah), one who nourishes life everywhere; and one who is adored by those who aspire for liberation.

47.3. Taittiriya Upanishad further states: These are the four Vyahrti-s. And, everything in this existence is fourfold. One who understands, through meditation, the four states in the four planes of existence, knows Brahman (ta yo Veda sa brahma). Everyone loves such a knower. And, the gods bring him offerings (sarvesmai deva balim avahanti). Prachinayogya (descendent of sage Prachinayoga) was initiated into this meditation.

47.4. The passage goes on to describe Mahah: as Chandra who supports all plant-life and celestial bodies (sarvani jyotishee maheeyante); as Brahma who presides over Yajna (brahmanavava sarve Veda maheeyante); and as Anna that nourishes all the vital forces (annena vava sarve prana maheeyante).  It declares ‘Mahah is Atman; Mahah is Brahman that pervades everything (maha iti tad brahma)’.

Other Vyahrti-s

48.1. As said earlier; BhuBhuvah and Suvah are the fundamental (Maha) Vyahrti-s; and Mahah is the fourth one. In addition, three other Vyahrti-s are mentioned : janah,  tapah and satyam, bringing the total to seven Vyahrti-s .  Janahtapah  and  satyam,  in the ascending order, are placed above Suvah . These Vyahrti-s, referred to as loka-s, are also understood as the levels of consciousness.

48.2. The concept of loka-s or realms arranged in ascending (urdhva) and descending (adho) order with reference to the position of the earth (Bhu) at the middle (madhya) emanates from the imagery of the structured world (Bhuvana) as envisioned by the ancients. The seven lower (adho) loka-s placed below the earth (Bhuloka) are: atala, vitala, sutala, tala-tala, maha-tala, rasatala and patala the lowest loka. The seven upper (urdhva) loka-s positioned above the earth, in ascending order, are: bhuvarloka, svarloka, maharloka, janaloka, tapoloka and satyaloka the highest loka.


49.1. Symbolically, the Bhu (earth) is deemed to represent the physical (bodily) consciousness, the basic needs; while the below (adho) loka-s represent the lower levels of consciousness.

49.2. As regards the upper realms (urdhva loka), the six upper realms are said to symbolically represent , in that order :

(i) emotions , desire for approval or love;

(ii) intellect , logic and reasoning ;

(iii) subtle energies of spirit ;

 (iv) psychic realm, listening and observing in stillness ;

(v) intuition, direct experience of reality of Self;


(vi)  unbound , non-dual consciousness.


These levels are , in a similar manner, associated with the chakras, the energy centres or seats of consciousness in human body.

49.3. It is also said, janah represents the realm from which akasha and other elements originate (jana janane; karturyasun); tapah is the realm from which all thoughts arise (tapah alochane) representing knowledge and enlightenment; and satyam is eternal, immutable in space or time. Satyam is the highest bliss and the liberating knowledge.

49.4. And , there is a faith that the desirable objects that aid ones progress arise from these seven lokas or planes, of existence, which the Vyahrti-s represent. The presiding deities of the planes of existence are called upon to guide us to the Truth that liberates.

The seven Vyahrti-s and Om

50.1. Though each of the seven Vyahrti-s represents a distinct loka or a level of consciousness their utterance is always preceded by the Pranava Om, the symbol of supreme reality. The tradition regards each Vyahrti as a mantra in its own right.

: – The Rishis of the seven Vyahrti-s are, in order, Atri, Brighu, Kutsa, Vashista, Gautama, Kashyapa and Angirasa.

: – The Devata-s of the mantras are: Agni Vayu, Arka (Surya, Aditya), Vagisha (Brihaspathi), Varuna, Indra and Visvedevah.

: – And, the metrical forms, the chhandas, of these Vyahrti-s are Gayatri, Ushnik, Anushtup, Brhati, Pankti, Trishtup, and Jagati.

: – As regards the Pranava mantra that precedes each Vyahrti, Brahma is the Rishi, Gayatri is its chhandas, and Paramatma is its Devata. And, moksha, liberation is its viniyoga, the objective (mokshado viniyogah).

50.2. All the Vyahrti-s emanate from Pranava Om. The contemplation on Vyahrti-s is intended to secure (viniyogamoksha, liberation. The mantra – Om âpo jyotih rasomritam brahma bhûr bhuvas suvar Om – pays tribute to the all- comprehensive nature of Om : “Om, the water, the light, the very essence in which we exist, the Absolute, the physical world, the astral realm, the mental realm, all are indeed Om”.

50.3. Prapancha Sara a tantric text graphically describes the intimate relation between the Pranava and the Vyahrti-s. It explains; the first matra of the Pranava (akaara) is the first of the Vyahrti-s (Bhu).The second matra of the Pranava (u-kaara) is the second Vyahrti (Bhuh); and the third matra of the Pranava (ma-kaara) is the third of the Vyahrti-s (Suvah).The Bindu (.) which is the ardha (half)-matra is the Vyahrti Mahah; and the nada the sound of the Pranava is the fifth Vyahrti Janah. The Shakthi or the energy of the Pranava is the sixth Vyahrti Tapah; while the sublime peace (shanthi) of Pranava is the seventh Vyahrti Satyam.

50.4. Another text describes the Vyahrti-s as the limbs of the Cosmic-person (Virat-purusha), where Bhu is his feet; Bhuvah the knees; Suvah the loins; Mahah the navel; Janah the heart; Tapah the throat; and Satya the midpoint of his forehead.

Elongated Gayatri

51.1. The seven Vyahrti-s each accompanied by Om are followed by the three lines of the traditional 24-syllable Gayatri mantra; giving rise to the longer version of Gayatri. The mantra concludes with an invocation to the Goddess of light praying to illuminate our path as we progress towards higher consciousness.

51.2. The longer version of Gayatri is usually invoked during Pranayama preceding meditation on Gayatri.

51.3. The Vyahrti-s bring out the aspects of Brahman that are suitable for contemplation: Om is purna, the perfect; Bhu is nitya, the eternal; Bhuh is shristi-karta the creator; Suvah is svatantra, the unbound; Mahah is mahaniya, the adorable; Janah is aja beginning-less; Tapah is jnana-prakasha, the light of knowledge; and Satyam is niyama the true order that prevails in the Universe.

Mantra’s import

52.1. The mantra acquires different shades of meaning in accordance with the interpretations assigned to each of its terms. Though the Gayatri mantra is generally taken to mean: ‘may that Savitr inspire our intellect’, there is, however, no universally accepted translation of it in English. Each has to delve deep into her/himself, understand it in her/his own way; and realize her/his own Gayatri through reasoning grasped in faith. As sage Uddalaka counsels ‘śraddhatsva somyeti; have faith, my dear’ (Ch. Up. 6.12.2).

52.2. The mantra is said to belong to the Devata Savitr; hence its original name is Savitri. But, the mantra is not directly addressed to Devata Savitr. The Savitr, here, is verily the Purusha, the Brahman, the supreme and absolute spirit settled in the hearts of all beings.

52.3. The discussion on the meaning, significance and symbolisms of the mantra is one thing; the diligent practice of its contemplation is quite another. As Sri Shankara says, the efficacy of the Gayatri is in its meditation –practice (abhyasa) and in the realization of its true nature (tasmad Gayatri evam prakaropasya).


53.2. The Dhyana –slokas and the mantras invoking Gayatri Devata (Gayatri Avahaana), preparatory to reciting (japa) her mantra and meditating upon her form are the principal sources for Gayatri-iconography. Through these verses, recited with great reverence and devotion, the worshipper awakens and enlivens the potent Goddess residing in her/ his heart-cave. In the purity of her/his thought, word and deed, the worshipper   visualizes Gayatri Devata in her various auspicious forms, with the aid of verses recited with great earnestness.

54.1. Gayatri is said to manifest her shakthi in three forms, as: Gayatri in the morning (pratah-savana); Savitri in the midday (madyanh savana) and Sarasvathi in the evening (saayam savana) – [Aitareya Brahmana-13.25]. But, it is also said; Gayatri herself represents all three savana-s (Gayatri vai sarvani savanani). Her individual forms are named ‘vyasti’; while her integrated form is ‘samasti’.

54.2. She is the sum or the aggregate (samasti svarupini) of all that is divine (Sarvadevata Svarupini; Sarvamantra Svarupini). As Gayatri in the morning she is Bramha svarupini; as Savitri in the mid-day is Rudra svarupini; and as Sarasvathi in the evening is Vishnu svarupini.


54.3. Mahanirvana Tantra (56-60) provides a slightly different version of her manifestations. And, it asks the Sadhaka :

“In the morning meditate upon Her ( Devi Gayatri)  in Her Brahmi form, as a Maiden of ruddy hue, with a pure smile, with two hands, holding a gourd full of holy water, garlanded with crystal beads, clad in the skin of a black antelope, seated on a Swan (56). At midday meditate upon Devi Gayatri in Her Vaishnavi form, of the colour of pure gold, youthful, with full and rising breasts, situated in the Solar disc, with four hands holding the conch-shell, discus, mace, and lotus, seated on Garuda, garlanded with wild-flowers (57-58). In the evening meditate upon Devi Gayatri as Maheshwari of a white colour, clad in white raiment, old and long past her youth, with three eyes, beneficent, propitious, and seated on a Bull, holding in her lotus-like hands a noose, a trident, a lance, and a skull (59-60) 

[Mahanirvana Tantra -Translated by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe)-1913].

Gayatri Yantra

55.1. The following are some of the verses recited more commonly, adoring Gayatri Devata.

pratar dhyayami gayatrim, ravimandala-madhyagam
rg-vedam uccarayantim raktavarnam kumarikam
akshamalakaram brahmadevatyam hamsavahanam’ 

In the morning, I meditate upon Gayatri- young and glowing; red in complexion; wearing garland of rosaries; and riding a swan. She is reciting Rig-Veda. Gayatri who is of the form   of Brahma is settled in the solar orb.

madhyandine tu savitrim ravimandalamadhyagam
yajur-vedam vyaharantim svetam sulakaram sivam
yuvatim rudradevatyam dhyayami vrshavahanam’ 

At noon she is Savitri. She is auspicious looking young person, well adorned in white garments. She is engaged in Yajur Veda. I meditate upon Savitri of the form of God Rudra, riding a bull and settled in the solar orb.

sayam sarasvatim syamam ravimandalamdhyagam
sama-vedam vyaharantim cakrayudhadharam subham
dhyayami vishnudevatyam vrddham garudavahanam

In the evening, she is Sarasvathi. She is auspicious looking mature person; and is in the form of Vishnu dark in complexion, holding Chakra and riding Garuda. She is reciting Sama Veda. I meditate upon Sarasvathi settled in the solar orb.



Mukta-vidruma – hema-nila-dhavala-chayair mukhair-tryakshnaih,
Yuktam indu-nibadha-ratna-makutam tatvarthavarnatmikam
Gayatrim varadabhayankusa-kasam subhram-kapalam gadam
Sankham chakram atha aravindayugalam hastair vahantim bhaje

I meditate upon the Goddess Gayatri of five faces tinged with shades of pearl, coral, gold, sapphire, and white. Each of her heads is adorned with three eyes and crescent moon upon her diamond studded crown. She is seated on a lotus. She is endowed with ten arms. She holds in her six hands: the goad, the whip, the white skull, the mace, the conch and the discus; as also two lotuses in two other hands. With the other hands she gestures protection (abhaya mudra) and granting blessings (varada mudra).She is the very embodiment of mystic utterances of great philosophical import.

As regards the symbolisms associated with the iconographic features of Gayatri Devata, her five heads are variously interpreted as : five vital energies, pancha prana (prana, apana,  vyana, udana and samana ) ; five fundamental elements , pancha tattva (earth, water, air, fire and sky ) ; the five parts of Gayatri mantra – (i) Om ; (ii) Bhu, Bhuvah , Suvah; (iii) tat savitur varenyam; (iv) Bhargo devasya;  and,  (v) dhimahi.

Gayatri painting

References and Sources

Rgveda Darshana –vol 3- Gayatri mantra By Prof.SK.Ramachandra Rao

Vaidika Sahitya Charitre By Dr.NS Anantharangachar

Rg Vedic Suktas –Gayatri and others By Swami Amritananda

All pictures are from internet


Posted by on October 7, 2012 in Devi, Gayatri


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