Friday, August 3, 2007

What's in a name...

Delving into the history of words can be real fun. Words in a language are relics of what a civilization has accumulated over the ages. The beauty of etymology can be seen with full grandeur in Sanskrit - words so condensed, each of them can be a magic hat from which we can take out stories. On top of this, we have those grammarians who split each word in the ways they like and attribute meanings they want.

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Sravanabelgola had never been in my 'Top-10' list of places to visit. I may have wished to visit the place some day. The reason behind this was the innate human admiration for colossal structures. The Gomateshwara statue there is undoubtedly large. Some say, after the Taliban demolished the Bamiyan Budhha statues in Afghanistan, this is the biggest monolithic statue in the world. I had the memories of seeing the "Mahamasthakabhisheka" on TV as a child. Another image associated with the shrine that lingered in my mind was a poster of Girish Karnad's play, 'Bali'- the huge feet covered in saffron.

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'Bhaaratham' was the name used to refer to the Indian subcontinent from ancient times. Indians considered the globe to be divided into 7 'dweeps' (islands). Of that, 'Bhaaratham' is the first country in Jambudweepam- "Bhaaratham Pradhamam Varsham". Some etymologists split the word to "Bhass" and "Ratham" and establish the meaning as "affinity to light". But usually, the origin is attributed to the king Bharatha who ruled the country. Here arises a problem- there is no dearth of king Bharathas in Indian history. The Adiparva of Mahabharatha says the name is after Bharatha, the son of Dushyantha and Shakunthala. He is said to have ruled the country for 27,000 years. Another Bharatha who makes a claim to the name, according to the Bhagavatha, is King Rishabha's son who is said to have ruled the country for 10 million years. Fortunately, a more famous Bharatha, Rama's brother from the Ramayana has been kept out of the scene.

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It was February, 2006. The Mahamasthakabhisheka was going on at Sravanabelgola, after a gap of 12 years. India's 'Who's Who'- the president, the prime minister, union ministers, leaders of national parties- were pouring into this town in Hassan district. The ceremony involved anointing the whole statue with water, panchaamrith, tender coconut water, sugarcane juice, milk, rice flour, turmeric and sandal pastes, herbal liquid, saffron, precious stones and gold and silver flowers. The budget was around 100 crores. Over 30 lakh devotees were expected to visit the place during the season. I was in Mysore at that time and felt it was the best time to visit the place. But, by the time I was able to do so, the Abhisheka had concluded. I was not particular about taking part in the rituals, though. It was a story that drew me to the place...

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The story of Rishabha (Rishabhadev or Rishabhanath, in some places) and Bharatha finds mention in the scriptures of both Hindus and Jains. In Vishnupurana, Rishabha is a mighty king and Bharatha was the eldest of his 100 sons. For Jains, Rishabhadev is the first of the 24 Thirthankaraas, their patron saints. Before attaining this holy position, he was a powerful and influential king. He had a second wife and a son in her- Bahubali. In Jainism, it's this Bahubali who is prominent. I would prefer to go by that version of the story.

Once an Apsara, heavenly nymph, Neelanjana was dancing in Rishabha's court. It so happened that her allocated time on earth ended sometime in the middle of the performance and she had to return to heaven. Lord Indra, so as not to put an abrupt end to the show, made an image of the nymph which continued the dance. Later on, when the king came to know about this, he began to ponder over the impermanence of life. He decided to resign from worldly affairs and go for 'tapas'. He distributed his kingdom among his 101 sons and made Bharatha, the eldest, the king.

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Sravanabelgola is a journey of nearly two hours by bus from Mysore. It was the pilgrimage season and the KSRTC ran buses at frequent intervals. It was a nice journey. The condition of the roads- neatly tarred, with borders marked and signposts in place - was not too surprising as it was the road taken by the most prominent people of India. The statue of Bahubali or Gomateshwara is situated atop a hill called Indragiri (also called Vindhyagiri). The 58 feet high structure is supposed to catch one's eye from a long distance, but all the scaffolds and podiums erected for the ceremony had covered it from view. We were told that devotees were still anointing the image, even though the ceremony had concluded a week back. For that too, the heavily priced tickets were sold out for the next few days.

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Bharatha proved to be a worthy successor to his father. With an array of sacred and deadly weapons in his royal armory, he went on to conquer the neighboring kingdoms. All the monarchs had to ultimately yield to his might and surrender their kingdoms. Still, returning home leading a victorious army, Bharatha felt that his victory was incomplete. His brothers were still ruling their own independent kingdoms. When he decided to wage war against them too, ninety nine of them made a surprising gesture- they gave up their kingdoms and joined their father in his tapas.
Only one brother refused to surrender- it was Bahubali who ruled Paudanapura. When Bharatha decided to lead his army to that kingdom, the elders suggested that it is better to avoid a war and bloodshed. They suggested a duel in three stages- "Drishti Yudhha" (Battle with Eyes), "Jala Yudhha"(Battle with Water) and "Malla Yudhha"(Wrestling)- to settle the dispute between the brothers.

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A flight of over 600 steps cut in granite rock lead to the 470 feet high summit of Vindhyagiri. The temporary roofs covering the stairs were a great relief from the sun. We were part of a long queue of people going up. To our right, there was an equally long queue of people going down after the darsan. The space in between was occupied by nude saints and men carrying devotees on stretchers. Lean men were carrying people many times their weight up the steep slope swiftly. What they charged was surprisingly meager, almost one tenth of what it would have been in, say, a pilgrim spot in Kerala! The police and volunteers were having a tough time controlling the crowd. There was a separate queue leading the devotees to the raised platform above the colossus' head to perform the 'abhisheka'.

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Bahubali defeated his elder brother in "Drishti Yudhha" and "Jala Yudhha" with ease. Then in the final contest of wrestling too, he became victorious. Bharatha couldn't accept his entire possession slipping from his hands. He took his sacred chakra and whirled it towards Bahubali. To everyone's surprise, the chakra reached him and instead of hurting him, went round him and stopped. Bharatha bent his head completely vanquished. At that moment, with the whole empire at his feet, Bahubali began to reflect- how Bharatha, the great son of a great father came down to a position of attempting to kill his brother for a kingdom. Suddenly he felt all these were meaningless. He felt weary of the worldly life.

Bahubali asked Bharatha to keep the kingdom. He had decided to give up everything and perform tapas. Bharatha was taken aback by the sudden change in his younger brother. He was full of remorse. He begged Bahubali to stay back and rule the kingdom. But the latter was unmoved. He went to the forest, gave up even his clothing and started meditation.

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At last, we found ourselves before the huge shrine. After being bathed thoroughly, it didn't show the wear and tear of 1000 odd years. Amidst the crowd, we didn't get enough time to stay and appreciate the beauty of the sculpture. I felt that a festival season is never the right time to visit a place of this kind. If your aims are something apart from religious, you will be disappointed. The experience can never be a personal one- you just blend into the large crowd. Still the moments spent in front of the mammoth structure will be something I'll cherish forever. I felt proud and humbled at the same time- Proud because it is yet another creation of man, humbled at the greatness of the person who won such a splendid tribute from his successors.

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Despite performing severe Tapas with great sincerity, Bahubali didn't achieve 'Kevala Jnana' or enlightenment. Everyone wondered why. Bharatha too was worried about his brother and consulted elders. They explained that Bahubali was suffering from the sorrow that the land on which he is standing belongs to his brother. He was feeling he was still attached to this world. Bharatha went to the forest and told his brother, "The whole world belongs to you. Still why are you worried about the little ground beneath your feet? Please discard that feeling." These words convinced Bahubali. Soon he attained enlightenment.

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The statue at Sravanabelagola depicts the moment Bahubali attained renunciation. The face has a contemplative expression with a faint smile depicting 'inward bliss and sympathy for the suffering world'. The shoulders of the image are very broad and waist small. Below knee, the legs are short and thick. In spite of these morphological flaws, the statue looks majestic. Of course it's not the 'Indian David'. Bahubali's nudity represents not masculine beauty, but complete renunciation. The legs are surrounded by anthills from which serpents emerge. A creeper twines itself around the arms and legs. The pedestal resembles an open lotus. All this gives the impression of man being in complete harmony with nature.

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Why do I feel Bahubali's brother holds the rightful claim to India's name? Because the name stands as a testimonial to one of the greatest sacrifices ever made. Bahubali had become the ruler of this country. Only after he gave up his fortune did Bharatha come into the picture, and we became 'Bharatheeya' instead of 'Bahubaleeya'. Again, what Bahubali did is 'sacrifice' for others. For him, it was recognizing the worthlessness of his possessions and moving towards higher goals.

If we look at Indian history, we can see many such incidents later too. Chandragupta Maurya had an empire which covered almost the entire subcontinent. Yet he renounced his kingdom and became a Jain monk. Incidentally, he spent his last days in Chandragiri, the hill close to Vindhyagiri which has the Bahubali statue. Samraat Ashoka too joined this lineage and adopted Buddhism. A fact to be noticed is that all these people had this realization after the greatest victories in their lives. After attaining the most precious worldly possessions, they understood its worthlessness.

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An interesting thought came to my mind as we were in the premises of the colossus- If one party was ready to give up, could we have prevented the partition? Then I thought of another possibility - What if Bahubali had decided to stay and rule? Perhaps a Pakistan would have formed then itself!!!

The word 'Bahubali' means 'one with strong hands'. But it's not the strength of his hands that made him immortal. Ashoka was one of the most valiant fighters ever. But 'Chandashoka' (evil Ashoka) would never have become 'Ashoka the Great'. In India, greatness was more related to greatness of character, greatness of soul- "Mahatma". In Ramayana, Rama tells Lakshmana, "Conquering the whole world is not great enough if you are not able to conquer your self". Bahubali had realised this. He gave up an empire to achieve greater things. Like the stone edicts that proclaim the glory of Ashoka, the colossus at Sravanabelagola lauds this great victory.

[Thoolika- August 2007]

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