In Praise of the Teacher: the Guru Ashtakam

Students honoring their teachers at a Guru Purnima function in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Source
This past weekend, many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in the Indian subcontinent and around the world celebrated the festival of Guru Purnima. In the book Memory and Hope, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan writes:

“The Hindu calendar, in fact, sets aside a special day each year, Guru Purnima, for remembering one’s religious teacher. It is an occasion for visiting the teacher, expressing gratitude and honoring him with gifts. It is a time also for the renewal of one’s commitment to the wisdom received from the guru.

Guru Purnima, although holding special meaning for the religious teacher, is extended in meaning to include teachers of all subjects. Remembering our indebtedness to teachers is meant to awaken our own generosity to share knowledge with other and to support those who seek and impart wisdom.”

The Guru Ashtakam (“Eight Verses for the Guru”) is a poem attributed to the eighth-century Hindu philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara, who is credited with a number of other Sanskrit texts and devotional compositions. This composition emphasizes the importance of one’s guru in the spiritual journey. Without devotion to one’s teacher, all of one’s achievements, knowledge, and possessions are essentially useless, the text tells us.

Of course, this text suffers from some limitations and caveats that we have to acknowledge today. As with many of Adi Shankara’s other compositions, the Guru Ashtakam is clearly addressed to an upper-caste man. In the third stanza, Adi Shankara mentions that a student may have knowledge of the Vedas and Vedic disciplines. However, at the time of the Guru Ashtakam’s composition (and even today, to an extent), lower-caste men and women would simply not have access to those scriptures. Additionally, in the text, one’s wife is placed in the same category as one’s wealth and fame. Finally, although Adi Shankara exhorts us to be fully focused and devoted to the guru’s feet, we have to remember that today many so-called gurus are shamelessly using religion and spirituality for the purpose of generating personal wealth and exploiting their followers. We shouldn’t let blind devotion cloud our judgment and critical thinking.

To me, the main take-away of the Guru Ashtakam isn’t blind, unquestioning devotion to a guru. Although it emphasizes the importance of the guru, it also outlines the most essential qualities of a student: humility and gratitude. To me, this is what Guru Purnima is all about. After all, as Dr. Rambachan writes, “If we forget that we are receivers [of knowledge], we will not be generous givers.”

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The doomsday fisherman

One of my goals for this summer was to post more frequently, and to get rid of the thirty-some incomplete posts I have lying around in my drafts folder. With only a week left before I go back to college… I guess that was more of a long-term goal. Anyway, in this post I just want to share an eerie and fascinating Sanskrit poem I came across a few weeks ago.

This poem belongs to a genre of Sanskrit poetry called subhashita. In Sanskrit, the prefix su means “good” and bhāshita means “spoken”, so subhashita literally means “well-spoken”. Subhashitas are typically short poems of just two or four lines following a specific meter. Subhashitas have been composed on a wide variety of subjects, but what distinguishes all of them is their brevity, wittiness and creativity.

Before getting to the poem, though, we need a little context. This subhashita makes reference to a number of Hindu religious figures, mainly the dashavataras: ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu incarnates when evil is on the rise in the universe and dharma is in danger. It’s believed that so far, he’s incarnated nine times, with the tenth avatar to come near the end of this world.

Without getting too much into the details, here are Vishnu’s ten incarnations:

  1. Matsya, a fish
  2. Kurma. a turtle
  3. Varaha, a boar
  4. Narasimha, half-man, half-lion
  5. Vamana (also called Trivikrama), a Brahmin dwarf
  6. Parshurama, a pretty violent Brahmin
  7. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic
  8. Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities
  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
  10. Kalki, the doomsday savior-to-come

It’s also common to see the Buddha replaced in this list by Balarama (brother of Krishna), especially in south India.

Painting of the dashavataras in the traditional Kalamkari style from Andhra Pradesh. Top row (left to right): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana. Bottom row: Parshurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna, Kalki.

We also need to make note of one more character (the main character of the poem, actually). Bhairava is the scariest form through which the god Shiva is worshiped. The name literally means “terrible, frightful” in Sanskrit (he’s also called Kalabhairava, “frightful time”). I’ve written previously about an 8th-century Sanskrit poem on Bhairava, so take a look if you’re interested. Bhairava is often depicted as a black-skinned beggar surrounded by dogs (which sadly don’t get much love in Hinduism). Also, his begging bowl is the skull of the creator god, Brahma. Cheery, right?

Finally, I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of Hindu cosmology, but I’ll just say that Hindu mythology looks at time on a very, very large scale. According to the Puranas (composed mostly during the first millennium AD), the universe goes through cycles of creation, dissolution, and rebirth, existing during the day of Brahma (whose day lasts 4.32 billion human years), and in dissolution during Brahma’s night (also 4.32 billion years long). After a hundred years of Brahma (over 300 trillion years!), Shiva steps in and destroys everything, including Brahma. After another hundred years of Brahma, Brahma is reborn and the process repeats infinitely. So, if you’re still with me, this poem is set at the end of a kalpa: one day of Brahma.

Finally, the poem! This subhashita comes from page 21 of an online copy of the Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (meaning “Treasury of Subhashita-Gems”) a collection of over ten thousand subhashitas that was published in 1952. The author and date of composition aren’t given; however, if anyone is interested and finds out, please let me know. Here it is:

Continue reading “The doomsday fisherman”

Some more poetry about Shiva

Having a blog makes it really easy to procrastinate on midterms.

Kalabhairava is the most fearsome aspect of Shiva; the form in which Shiva is truly “the Destroyer”. In Sanskrit, kala means “black” and bhairava means “terrible, frightful”. I guess you could say Kalabhairava is equivalent to Kali: the fiercest form of the Goddess. Because of his fearsome qualities, Kalabhairava is worshiped as the protector of the city of Varanasi, as well as the grama-devata (village deity) in some villages in parts of South India.

The Kalabhairava ashtakam (eight-verse hymn) is said to have been written by the great Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara (788-820 AD). Even though it worships a frankly terrifying aspect of God, has a sentimental value for me. I remember watching this YouTube video when I was in fifth or sixth grade (yes, this is what I did back then… and now…), looking up the lyrics, and memorizing it. I think this is one of the first Hindu chants I memorized. I’d say there are less literary flourishes in this hymn than in the Shiva Tandava Stotram, but this is still a powerful work of devotional poetry:

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The poetry of the Shiva Tandava Stotram

How many various dances of Shiva are known to His worshipers I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy. Whatever the origins of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.

— Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva

One of the most famous Hindu images is that of Nataraja — the god Shiva as Lord of Dance. Shiva’s cosmic dance is said to create the universe, preserve it, and finally destroy it so it can be created once again. The iconography of Nataraja is deeply symbolic, representing the panchakritya (five actions) performed by Shiva: creation, preservation, destruction, illusion, and release.

Personally, I find the image of Nataraja really powerful, and I love that Hinduism expresses God’s powers of creation. preservation, and destruction through dance. Shiva’s dance has inspired Hindu art and literature throughout history, and one of the most beautiful examples is the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a devotional poem about Shiva’s tandava, the dance which brings about the destruction of the universe.

This poem is said to have been recited by Ravana, who, in the Indian epic the Ramayana, was the demon king of Lanka and (despite being a demon) a great devotee of Shiva. Ravana was rather arrogant, and to show off his strength to Shiva, Ravana managed to lift Mount Kailash, the mountain on which Shiva is believed to reside. However, by just pressing his big toe down, Shiva brought Mount Kailash back to the ground, crushing Ravana’s fingers in the process and showing him the futility of his arrogance. To appease Shiva, Ravana sang the following poem, describing Shiva’s awe-inspiring tandava.

I don’t know its actual origins, but nevertheless this is a great example of Hindu devotional poetry, and it’s full of techniques like alliteration and onomatopoeia. It really has to be heard in order to be fully appreciated:

Continue reading “The poetry of the Shiva Tandava Stotram”