If you think that the use and popularity of grey characters in movies and literature is a recent phenomenon, you have to think again. It may well have its first inception back in the vedic ages.
Even though not many in number, in India there are temples dedicated to Ravana. In many versions of Ramayana, Rama sends Lakshmana to go to Ravana and learn from him the basic lessons of life before he dies. Even in Valmiki Ramayana he is depicted as a mahajnani – a person with immense knowledge. After all, his father was none other than Maharishi Vishraba.
If we trace Ravanas’ back story past a few lifetimes, we see that he was someone very close to Rama. In his abode in Baikuntha, Lord Vishnu has two gatekeepers – Jaya and Vijaya. As part of their natural duty once they stop a group of Rishis from entering the abode of their master who was taking rest. But this does not go down well with the Rishis who curse the gatekeepers to lose their high pedestal in Baikuntha and take birth as mortals in the earth. Later on when Lord Vishnu interferes their punishment is commuted to three lifetimes.
Lord Vishnu also takes this opportunity to do his Leela. First they take birth as Hiranya brothers in Satya Yuga and become the reason for Vishnu’s Nrusingha Avatar. In Treta Yuga they take birth as Ravana and Kumbhakarna and become the reason for Lord Vishunu’s Rama avatar. In Dwapara Yuga they are born as Dantavakra and Shishupala who are killed by Lord Krishna only to regain their position in the Vaikuntha to stay close to Lord Vishnu. Thus Jaya and Vijaya play their part in the Leela of Lord Vishnu.
These stories highlight two important thoughts of Hindu philosophy. The ancient seers realised and emphasised the inter-connectedness and the oneness of the existence. According to them the individual consciousness is not different or separate from the universal consciousness. To say it in layman’s term you are not separate from God. Actually the vedantic concept of God is quite different from the concept of God in other religions. According to vedanta, which is the foundation of Hindu philosophy, there is no God which is different from you. There is no God who is sitting out there either to punish you or redeem your sin. Tatwamasi – thou are that.
Take the example of the wave and the ocean. Sometimes the waves seem to be different from the ocean. In fact at the surface level each wave has a temporary existence, but deep down they are not different from the ocean.
The symbol of Natraj and his cosmic dance is another beautiful illustration. The dance and the dancer are not different. The universal consciousness is the dancer and we are all his dance.
The second aspect that the above stories highlight is the concept of Leela. The cosmic dance of Natraj is also a kind of Leela. The stories connected with Rama are often called as Rama Leela. Same way, we have Krishna Leela. The purpose of God’s avatar is to do Leela. Gods come down to play. The whole universe is nothing but the play and display of consciousness. Inside the subatomic particles waves carry on their dance. Sometimes they go here, sometimes they go there. Sometimes they are visible, sometimes they are not visible. It is amazing as to how close vedanta can be to the concepts of modern physicists. No wonder, Albert Einstein was familiar with Vedanta and many other concepts of Indian philosophy.
In an earlier blogpost also I have illustrated the connection of Advaita Vedanta to the story of Diti and Aditi and the birth of Gods and Demons as depicted in our epics. Thus, many of the stories in our epics are based on the concepts of Indian philosophy which has its roots in Vedanta. By the way, Vedanta is another name for the collection of Upanishads.
Upanishads are the foundations of Indian philosophy. Today they number more than 200, but twelve of them are known as the principal Upanishad. They are known as Vedanta because these were found at the end of the Vedas. When the Vedas were classified and compiled the texts of each of the four Vedas included one or more of the twelve principal Upanishads. This is interesting because in principle and essence, Vedas and Upanishads are the opposites of each other. But embracing the opposite and making it part of oneself has been the culture of India since time immemorial.
Even the hardcore Hindus don’t seem to have the right idea about the contents of the vedas. Often I come across social media posts where the circulator demands that ‘vedas should be part of school curriculum’. They don’t know what actually are the vedas or what is there in vedas that should be included in school syllabus.
Vedas together with Brahmanas contains hymns and other details with regard to the conduct of puja, yajna and other religious rituals. Vedas are part of karma kanda and upanishads are part of jnana kanda. Karma kanda is the domain of the priests who conduct various religious rituals and sanskaras.
Ancient Indian knowledge was also divided as parā vidya and aparā vidya. Parā means the other side. The Hindi word paar comes from this word. Parā vidya is knowledge that takes you to the other side, from the material world to the spiritual world. Aparā is knowledge that helps you imrpove in this world. Vedic hymns are prayers for prosperity in this world. So Vedas are part of aparā vidya while Upanishads are part of parā vidya.
The messages of our epics contain both parā and aparā vidya. The epics have many layers and elements. They seek to illustrate the mystic truths of vedanta. They have historical elements, they have ethical elements, social elements, elements of individual dharma and so on. Those who interpret the epics only from one angle are like the proverbial blind men of ‘The Elephant and The Blind men’ story.
Is any of your friends named as pāramitā? I hope that now you understand the meaning of her name. What more, once you understand the concept of parā and aparā, you can better appreciate this popular oldie.
PS : This is the alphabet V post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.
All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.