In the South of India, Deepavali is associated with killing of narakAsura , son of varAha and bhUmi dEvi. It is celebrated on krishna chaturdashi, i.e., on 14th of dark fortnight rather than on amAvasi.

NarakAsura:  The story of his birth & deeds:

During varAha avatara of Vishnu,  bhUmi dEvi gave birth to a son who later on became narakAsura.  At his birth nArada  prophesied  that the boy would  become a great powerful king, protecting rishis and dharma provided he kept away from away from weapons.   If he did touch a weapon he would turn from dharma to adharma – he would become an asura. As all mothers, a distressed bhUmi dEvi asked varAha boon of long life for her son.   Lord assured bhUmi dEvi that narakAsura will die at her hands and that no one else will be able to kill him.

narakAsura in initial years was unusually good and kind to all those around him. In obedience to his mother’s command, narakAsura would not touch any weapon.  However, this was an intolerable situation for bANAsura, who had heard of the prophesy. Devising a stratagem, he asked two asuras to assume a form of cow & a brahmin with cow being driven off by asuras and  the brahmin lamenting. At first narakAsura tried to reason with the demons without success. At the urging of the “brahmin”, he takes up a weapon lying nearby and promptly kills the asuras. With the shedding of blood shed and with a weapon in hand, his persona takes a change. In a story worthy of Mario Puzo he turns from good to evil so much so his very name means hell (naraka) .    Path to hell is always paved with good intentions so they say.

Nothing was sacrosanct for him. Whatever he saw, he needed to possess it.  Oppression was rife, the  good were persecuted.    Distinction between the sacred and profane, the honor due to gods and ancestors were forgotten. The great expectations that had come invested in this son of divine parents is utterly lost.  The king of prAg-jyotisha-pura – City of First Light  – son of divine parents – vishNu and bhUmi – turns utter evil.

Naraka's kingdom

Krishna attacking prAg-jyotisha-pura

Frustrated Indra appeals to Krishna. satyabhAma who is distressed and angered about reports of maltreatment of women decides to go with krSNa to prAg-jyotisha-pura.   This is a city guarded by tall mountains, fire, sweeping winds, weapons and finally by two headed fierce General named mura who is always asleep in the river around the Fort.  He and his ten sons are charged with protection of the Fort.  Awakened by the sound of  krSNa’s conch, mura and his sons fights krSNa but are killed. In the ensuring battle with naraka, when krSNa lies down to rest pretending to be tired, satyabhAma continues the warfare on krSNA’s behalf.  satyabhAma succeeds in killing narakAsura. While dying, narakAsura realizes the enormity of his sins and he prays that people do not mourn his death, but celebrate  it by wearing new clothes and lighting diyas (deepa) which is now celebrated as Deepavali.

 Oh those confused Hindu rishis and brahmins – they wrote some absolutely ridiculous story you say. The son of so called divine beings – vishNu & bhUmi – becomes a demon. What more proof you need than this is just heathen garbage or devil worship?  Is this really so?  Are mythological stories meant to entertain and writers just showing of their imagination


Who is narakAsura? It is our own self,  We are of divine parentage – born of this earth and divine father.  We are the kings of prAg-jyotisha-pura (City of First Light) or at least that is our potential.  Yet the City that we are kings of is naraka (hell)’s kingdom.  Mura means encompassing, it also means dullness.   Gen. Mura is an all encompassing dull mind and is father to 10 sons –  the senses.   This mind is dull as it is fully immersed in the river of the world and doesn’t realize is true stength.    Mura’s famed trident are  gunas with which the world moves i.e. sattva, rajas & tamas.  Mura being two headed – could have lead naraka to immortality while being  rooted in this world.  When woken up by Sruti and Shastras as symbolized by a blast from pAnchajanya conch – the whole of our essence is to resist due to inherent vasanas.    narakAsura’s death at the hands of satyabhAma – who is regarded as an incarnation of bhUmi dEvi –  is to signify that all karmas have to be exhausted on this earth.  Death at the hands of Divinity is – a grace, a benediction – for it delivers the being – whoever or whatever the being it may be –  from the repeated cycles of birth and death.

Our emancipation from evil and from the entrapment of mind and senses is the story of narakAsura and of Deepavali. Today when we light the spiritual lamps and enjoy the divine presence of Lord, let us understand the story, its symbolism and significance.


Transcendence, Immanence and Pantheism

There is generally a misunderstanding of the concept of transcendence and immanence in Hinduism which is reflected in its practices quite extensively. Some people assert that Hinduism is not a religion because it exalts “created” (i.e., world) to the position of God or that it makes God out of everything.  While generally Abrahamic faiths emphasize Transcendence, whereas Hinduism emphasizes both Transcendence and Immanence.


Transcendence in religion means going beyond or something completely outside this world while Immanence recognizes the concept of Divine within (this Universe). In transcendence, God is thought as something beyond this universe while in Immanence which says that God permeates everything. Transcendence of the God in Hinduism is established by stories of वामन (vAmana), and Immanence is established by story of प्रह्लाद (prahlAda).


Pantheism however says that the material world i.e., the visible world is identical with God. What is the difference then between Immanence and Pantheism? Perhaps an example will clarify this better: A fish within the water will have water all around it and within it too; Water within that fish is Immanence while water outside the body of fish is transcendence. Thus, Pantheism is a subset of the super-set called Immanence


Where is the scriptural proof प्रमाण (pramANa) for this Transcendence & Immanence of God? Let us go to Purusha Sukta. The first rk says: सहस्रशीर्षा पुरुषः सहस्राक्षः सहस्रपात् ।स भूमिं विश्वतो वृत्वात्यतिष्ठद्दशाङुलम् ॥१॥ (sahasraSiRSa puruSah, sahasrAksha sahasrapat; sa bhUmim vishvato vrtva atya tishTha dazAngulam) – thousand head, thousand eyes and thousand legged Being covered/enveloped/permeated this universe and extended 10 fingers beyond it. (Read thousand as infinite). SunThus in the first Rk itself Veda establishes the Transcendence and Immanence of God. The Veda continues: एतावानस्य महिमातो ज्यायाँश्च पूरुषः ।पादोऽस्य विश्वा भूतानि त्रिपादस्यामृतं दिवि ॥३॥ (etAvan asya maHima ato jyayag~mzaca pUruSah; pAdo asya vizva bhUtani tripAdasyAm amrtam divi) – All this is His glory (i.e., the manifest world). But He is greater than this entire visible world. A quarter of Him is the manifest Universe while three-quarters of Him rests in divine immortality.


How is this philosophy reflected in the religious lives of ordinary Hindus? When “Superstitious Hindus” turn every stone, every tree, every animal or humans (Saints, Sufis etc), it is not they are acting out of “ignorance” or “superstition”; It is they recognize the immanence & transcendence of God within. When they perform “avAhan” (invitation/invocation) ceremony before every worship they invite the transcendent Brahman to appear as immanent Brahman to receive the worship in the idol they revere. Puja done, the Brahman/God is requested to revert himself to the Universal Transcendent Being that He is. The object/idol of worship afterwards becomes profane again. This is reflected in the joyful visarjan processions every year after Ganesha chaturthi or Durga puja


I have been often told by many Muslims that worship of sacred images or “idol” worship has not been sanctioned by Vedas and on the contrary it is to be positively eschewed as per Vedic dictum. This was the view of Swami Dayananda, the founder of Arya Samaj, and has been picked-up and argued by Dr. Zakir Naik and his followers. However, Vedas do not speak about such prohibition at all. It is true that Vedic mode of prayer and worship would have been offering sacrifices. I think worship of sacred images arrived with Buddhism. However, it is not the same as saying Vedas prohibit it or is contrary to Vedic dharma.

2. Hindu hermeneutics has never questioned the efficacy of worship of sacred images. On the contrary in Srivaishnava  theology, sacred images are regarded as archa avataras i.e. that god takes avatara for the sake of receiving worship and blessing his devotees. Long before Srivaishnava formalized its theology, there have been innumerable stories of devotees worshipping images. These have been based on tenets of Agamic shastras which prescribe the method, construction of temples, consecration of sacred images and ritual worship.

3. Purusha Sukta says that “The Purusha (the Supreme Being) has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet. He has enveloped this world from all sides and has (even) transcended it by ten angulas or inches (sahasra shirsha purushah sahasrAksha sahasrapAt sa bhumim vishvato vritva atyatishthad dhashangulam)”. There are many such Upanishadic vakya talking about transcendence and immanence of Brahman. Brahman immanent in all objects while being transcendent too. Thus whether you worship a material object presuming it to be a Brahman, you are already in touch with Brahman. As the famed elephant simile has it, whether it is the trunk or tail feet or the stomach that you touch, it is still Brahman. It is impossible for an embodied jiva not to think in terms of images, be it material or immaterial images. When we say that God is formless but merciful, beneficent etc. we by anthropomorphizing the Formless Attributeless God create a mental image. How is adoring this {mental} image different from adoring material icons?

4. You may ask, is not Brahman immaterial, spiritual? How does then worshipping a material object lead to Brahman?  Images in Hinduism also involve a great amount of symbolism, which I shall not go into here.  Worship of sacred images is a upadhi, i.e., means to attaining an end. When we worship a sacred image, it is to concentrate on that image with single pointed devotion. This single point concentration of mind leads to dharana, dhyana and samadhi. And in samadhi there is that absolute oneness – with no second at all. As Ramakrishna Paramahamsa puts its we realize that this Creation is nothing but a play of One all pervading undivided pure conspicuousness. The division of jeeva, Brahman and this Universe are seen as manifestations of One. It is this realization of oneness that is important and not mere doctrinal assertions.

5. Muslims regard Qur’an as the Holy Word and would not tolerate desecration such as tearing, stomping or any such blasphemous acts. Christians regard bread and wine as having transformed into body and blood of Christ (Read about Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation of the Eucharist). During worship of sacred images in Hinduism, the divine is invoked and requested to take his presence within the image, to receive the worship and bless the devotees. Thereafter, the divine is requested to “go back” to his own “abode”. It is not a man-made image that Hindus bow down and worship but to all-pervading gracious God which invoked every time. It is by the grace of Almighty that he condescends to descend into images. A simile for this is like a father playing with his children – when the child wants he becomes a horse and carries him on his back. But then neither does father cease being a father nor the child a child. Both are aware of the status, yet both enjoy the roles that the play.

Thoughts on Swati Tirunal’s composition – Gopalaka Pahimam Anisham

Sri Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (April 16, 1813 – December 27, 1846) was the Maharaja of the state of Travancore. He reigned under the regency of his mother Maharani Gowri Lakshmi Bayi from 1813 till 1815 and then under the regency of his aunt Maharani Gowri Parvati Bayi till 1829. In 1829 he turned major and assumed full powers and ruled  as Maharaja of Travancore until his death in 1846. He was a patron of music and was a great musician himself. He has written around  400 compositions in Carnatic and Hindustani music. Swathi Thirunal was fluent in a number of languages including Malayalam, Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Hindustani,  Tamil, and English.  His composition Gopala Pahimam Anisham is being discussed here.  A beautiful rendering of this song by Yesudas may be heard here 

This particular song abounds not only in music & rhythm, but also in श्लेष – श्लेष  is one of the काव्य-अलङ्कार.  Apart from this the song also describes various kalyana guNas. 

What are kalyana guNas or the excellent qualities of the Lord are:

 ज्ञान Gnana (true and perfect knowledge), 2) बल bala (ability to support the whole Universe), 3) ऐश्वर्य Aishwarya  (incomparable wealth and ruler ship of the Universe), 4) vIryam वीर्य (untiring virility), 5) शक्ति Sakthi  (power to act without extraneous help) and 6) तेजस् Tejas (unmatched radiance), [such six qualities].

The other qualities of the Lord are: सौशील्य  Sousheelya (good moral qualities), वात्सल्य Vatsalya  (tender & solicitous affection),  मार्दव mArdava  (softness of heart), Arjava आर्जव  (Honesty), सौहार्द  Souhardha   (compassion although literally it means good heart), साम्य Samya (equinamity), कारुण्य kArunya (Merciful), माधुर्य  mAdhurya (sweetness),  गाम्भीर्य gAmbhIrya (majesty and nobility), औदार्य audhArya  (giving out liberally), चातुर्य  cAthurya (skillfulness), स्तैर्य sthairya   (determined to stay on chosen course), धैर्य  dhairya (undaunted courage), शौर्य showrya ( ablility to fight alone), पराक्रम parakrama (winning the battles effortlessly), कृतज्त्वम् (gratitude even for smallest of offerings or “help” made by devotees).

Gopala Krishna

Gopala Krishna

पल्लवी or the first line: 

गोपालक पाहिमाम् अनिशं तव पदरतमयि 

O गोपाल=Gopala, Krishna माम् =me पाहि =protect अनिशं= always.  तव = your पद = word, feet,a line or stanza रतमयि = full of delight  go=cow,  knowledge, earth, senses, cow; पालक = protector, guardian, nourisher ruler

Gopalaka protect me always; you feet is delight.  (alternative meanings are) also that your verses are delight or your name itself is a delight.  This stanza addresses Krishna, as  Supreme God who protects knowledge (Hayagriva), earth (varaha/narayana), and is also the Lord of senses = as Hrishikesha (Lord of senses).  What is celebrated here is Gnana ज्ञान Vatsalya  वात्सल्य and  Madhurya माधुर्य guNas of the Lord.

अनुपल्लवी or the 2nd line

nata pada pallava

nata pada pallava

पाप विमोचन पविधरादि नत पद पल्लव


meaning:  पाप=sins विमोचन=delivering पवि=fire, speech, thunderbolt, rim of wheel, arrow पवि+धर+आदि = पविधरादि; ie. Agni, Indra, Brahma, Shiva, Arjuna, Abhimanyu, Sahadeva etc नत = bowed (to)/ bent/ curved ; पद= feet पल्लव=bud or like a tender leaf i.e., tender.

Your tender  feet, which delivers from sin, is bowed to by Agni, Indra, Brahma, Shiva, Kumara Arjuna, Abhimanyu, Sahadeva & others

चरणम् 1 (stanza 1 of concluding verses)

साधुकथित म्रदशन सरोषभीत मात्रु वीक्षित भूधर

 जलनिधिमुख बहुविध भुवन जाल ललित मुखाम्बुज


साधु=good (people) कथित= said or reported (to your mother) मृद्+अशन=mud+eat स+रोष+भीत = She [with] anger & fear मात्रु = mother वीक्षित = saw भूधर earth or the number 7 जलनिधि=oceans; मुख = mouth, face  बहु=many विध=kinds भुवन=worlds जाल=net ललित=charming मुख=face अम्बुज=lotus (from अम्बु+ज अम्बु=water ज =born.

Some good people reported to your mother that you ate mud.  When she angrily asked you to open your mouth and Yashodha saw in  your mouth oceans and the seven worlds and many other Universes; When she was terrifed of this sight  she again saw your charming lotus face once again.  A question that will arise is why should Lord show his mother such a terrifying sight?  Amongst kalyana gunas is Arajavattvam (truthfulness, honesty, being straightforward).  In response to his mother’s question, the Lord revealed true nature – i.e., he carries within himself the Universes and that he transcends the Universe.  However seeing that his mother is terrified Bhagvan, exhibiting his true kArunya  and displayed that माधुर्य mAdhurya guNa of his and she could see his sweet face once again.

चरणम् 2  (stanza 2 of concluding verses)

सारसभव मदहर सतीर्थ्य दीन भूसुरार्पित पारारहित 

धनचय निरूपम पतगराजरथ कमलावर


सारसभव=Brahma मद=pride हर=destroy सतीर्थ्य= co-student refers to sudAma भूसुरार्पित = भु + सुर + अर्पित earth+god = Brahmin अर्पित = offered धन+चय = heaps of wealth निरूपम= incomparable पतगराजरथ=पतग + राज+ रथ= bird+king+chariot = patagaraja = Garuda ratha =chariot; कमला+ वर=lakshmi’s +groom

You destroyed the pride of  Brahma.  Even though you ride up high in the heavens upon Garuda, but  to a (poor) co-student who offered pounded rice you offered him untold wealth, Husband of Lakshmi. The reference is here to Sudama offering Lord some rice flakes.   Here the lord not only demonstrated his audharya औदार्य (giving out liberally) but also displayed the कृतज्त्वम् (gratitude) even for the smallest and the insignificant acts of offering that he received.

चरणम् 3 (stanza 3 of concluding verses)

सारसरस सुवचन सरोजनाभ लोकानयक भूरि करुण

तनुजित मनसिज भुजगराजशयन मुरशासन


सारस रस  = you are the essence of essence; सुवचन= good word सरोजनाभ=one who has lotus growing out of navel ; लोकानयक = leader of this world भूरि=full  करुण=compassion तनुजित= winning bodies (a philosophical concept which I will explain later) मनसिज= born of heat i.e., kamadeva भुजगराजशयन = भुजग राज शयन= snake+king+sleep i.e., he who sleep on king of snakes i.e., vishnu मुरशासन = He who punishes (kills) mura (mura = dullness hence there is a adversarial relationship with Gopala – i.e., He who nourishes wisdom)

Meaning:  You are essence of essence.  The Lord as antaryami is being described here.  You are the good word and leader of this world.  You win bodies and minds with compassion.  You sleep upon sesha and lotus grows out of your navel; You punished Mura the general of Narakasura.  Mura also means dullness. Shashana = punisher Hence this use of this word in conjunction with Gopalaka indicates an adversarial relationship with the dullness of intellect.