A mysterious verse of a siddha
The siddha tirumUlar or sundarnAtha is supposed to have journeyed from Kashmir to the Tamil country to teach a distinctive flavor of the shaiva mantramArga, which is encapsulated in his famous but obscure tirumantiram. While the tirumantiram is widely known among the practicing brAhmaNa-s of the Tamil country it is not understood by most of them due to: 1) the saMdhyA bhAShA typical of tAntrika encodings; 2) its allusions to traditions from an expert insider viewpoint; 3) loss of the direct context of the sub-tradition to which tirumUlar belonged: a hybrid of the saiddhAntika and shrIkula doctrines [such a tendency is mentioned, albeit disapprovingly, by bhaTTa rAmakaNTha-II the Kashmirian saiddhAntika commentator of the mata~NgapArameshvara tantra].
The paNDita who had taught us elements of vaidika issues brought to our attention one of the few surviving verses of sundaranAtha in saMskR^ita. Apparently, it was recorded by the great kaula mantravAdin of chidambaram, maheshvarAnandanAtha, without any surviving explanation, at the directive of his female teacher who gave him the famous instruction in mahArAShTrI prAkR^ita. It displays the same enigmatic nature of some of the Tamil verses in the tirumantiram, which ironically a vaiShNava brought to our father’s attention.
The verse goes thus:
Ananda-tANDava-pure draviDasya gehe
chitraM vasiShTha-vanitA-samam AjyapAtram |
vidyul-lateva pari-nR^ityati tatra darvI
dhArAM vilokayati yoga-balena siddhaH ||
In the city of the joyous tANDava, in the Tamil’s home,
there is a beautiful ghee-cup like vasiShTha’s lady;
there a ladle dances around like the trace of lightning;
the stream [of ghee from it] the siddha see with his yoga power.
Certain elements can be interpreted in relatively straight forward way:
The city of the Ananda-tANDava is Chidambaram as is clearly mentioned in the chidambara mAhAtmya. This is also confirmed by the mention of the Tamil’s house – indicating it is indeed referring to the place in the Tamil country. Beyond this obvious part the rest of the verse requires a non-trivial explanation.
The beautiful ghee-cup that is likened to vasiShTha’s lady: why should a woman be likened to ghee cup? We suggest that vasiShTha’s wife arundhati is the name of Alcor (80 Ursae Majoris) the binary companion of Zeta Ursae Majoris (vasiShTha). This association is an old and undisputed one. The Adiparvan of the mahAbhArata states:
suvratA.api hi kalyANI sarva-loka-parishrutA |
arundhatI paryasha~Nkad vasiShTham R^iShi-sattamam ||
Even though arundhati was well-known in the world as being well-mannered and auspicious she had doubted vasiShTha, the great R^iShi.
vishuddha-bhAvam atyantaM sadA priyahite ratam |
saptarShi-madhyagaM vIram avamene cha taM munim ||
Though [vasiShTha was] of highest purity in conduct and and delighting in pleasing his wife, she insulted him, the muni who stood in the midst of the seven R^iShi-s.
apadhyAnena sA tena dhUmaaruNa-samaprabhA |
lakShyAlakShyA nAbhirUpA nimittam iva lakShyate || (“Critical” 1.224.27-29)
Due to her jealousy [towards vasiShTha] her luminosity became low (like smoke obscuring light) [Footnote 1]: sometimes visible and sometimes not, like and inauspicious omen [Footnote 2].
In Hindu tradition planets and stars have been called cups (typically soma cups) from which the gods and manes are supposed to drink [Footnote 3]. Hence, we suspect that vasiShTha’s lady in this verse is actually the star Alcor. But what is the ladle dancing around and the ghee dripping from it?. A distinct possibility is that it means the rest of Ursa Major (the constellation of the seven seers), which is shaped like a ladle and has been termed so in vaidika tradition (the heavenly chamasa, sruch or darvi). Indeed, such an allusion of Ursa Major as as darvi is found in the atharvaveda:
aditer hastAM srucham etAM dvitIyAM saptaR^iShayo bhUtakR^ito yAm akR^iNvan |
sA gAtrANi viduShy odanasya darvir vedyAm adhy enaM chinotu || AV-vulgate 11.1.24
aditi’s hand, this second ritual ladle, which the seven seers, the makers of beings, made; may that ladle, knowing the limbs of the rice-offering gather, it on the altar.
Here the darvi (ladle) is described as being made [up of] by the seven seers, i.e. the 7 stars of the Ursa Major.
In another place the atharvaveda describes the seven seers constituting the ritual ladle (chamasa) that contains within it the glory of all types:
tiryag bilash chamasa Urdhva-budhnas tasmin yasho nihitaM vishvarUpam |
tad Asata R^iShayaH sapta sAkaM ye asya gopA mahato babhUvuH || AV-vulgate 10.8.9
A ritual ladle with slanting opening and bottom-side up, in it is placed glory of all forms; there sit the seven seers all together; these have become the guardians of the great one.
Interestingly, this mantra comes, along with several other such riddle-mantras, in the mysterious riddle or brahmodaya sUkta of the atharvaveda, which has a tone similar to the siddha’s riddle-speech. A version of this again offered by the bR^ihadAraNyaka upaniShad of the shukla yajurveda and expanded further offering a clue for what the siddha meant:
tad eSha shloko bhavati –
Regarding this there is the following verse:
arvAgbilash chamasa Urdhva-budhnas tasmin yasho nihitaM vishvarUpam |
tasyAsata R^iShayaH sapta tIre vAg aShTamI brahmaNA saMvidAna|| iti |
“There is a ritual vessel which has its mouth below and bottom-side up. In it is placed glory of all forms [shaMkarAcharya clarifies: “yathA somash chamase” as soma in the chamasa vessel]; on its rim sit the seven seers; and speech, the eight is speech apprehending the brahman”
arvAgbilash chamasa Urdhvabudhna iti | idaM tach Chira eSha hy arvAgbilash chamasa UrdhvabudhnaH |
“There is a ritual vessel which has its mouth below and bottom-side up”: is this head, for it is a vessel which has its mouth below and with bottom-side up.
tasmin yasho nihitaM vishvarUpam iti | prANA vai yasho vishvarUpam | prANAn etad Aha |
“In it is placed glory of all forms”: the life functions (prANa-s) are indeed the manifold glory. Hence, this statement means the life functions.
tasyAsata R^iShayaH sapta tIra iti |prANA vA R^iShayaH | prANAN etad Aha |
“On its rim sit the seven seers”: the seers are indeed the life functions; this statement means the life functions i.e. the 7 prANa-s.
vAg aShTamI brahmaNA saMvidAneti | vAg ghy aShTamI brahmaNA saMvitte || BU-kANva 2.2.3
“the eighth is speech apprehending the brahman”: speech indeed is the eight which perceives the brahman.
From the version in the atharvaveda it is clear the external Ursa Major is being meant with the term tiryagbilaH being proper for the constellation. The bhR^ihadAraNyaka has made a few adjustments to suit the internalization of the external visualization of the constellation via homologizing with bodily functions. The speech here is the one which results in mantra-s being articulated and mantra-s are from the beginning of Vedic tradition seen as an embodiment of the “brahman power”. So speech is seen as being in constant apprehension of the brahman.
Coming back to the siddha’s verse we propose that it uses a similar set of metaphors as these Vedic mantra-s. Thus, we sum up the interpretation of the verse:
● The siddha first locates himself in the Tamil country in Chidambaram – here he specifies the location of his sAdhana.
● Next he uses the metaphor of vasiShTha’s lady (arundhati) to give a clue regarding how his next metaphor must be interpreted.
● Then he talks of the ladle and gives a further hint that it dances around and tracing a path like a lighting streak (indicating it is a luminous object).
● Finally, he states that the ghee-stream from this ladle is perceived by the siddha by means of his yogic powers. We suggest that as in the upaniShad the siddha has internalized the celestial ladle, Ursa Major. This ladle is now in his internal sky that in that in the tAntrika parlance is the chidAkAsha. The stream of ghee pouring from this ladle is consistent with a well-known metaphor of the stream of nectar which the tAntrika drinks during the performance of khecharI or from his head as he meditates of on a deity in the head or the conjunction of the deities in the sahasrAra chakra in the cranial crown (in the kaula traditions). Hence, it appears that as in the upaniShad, the internalized ladle is situated in the head and pours the ghee-stream which is equivalent to the amR^ita-sravaNa of the yogin.
A excursus on vasiShTha and arundhatI:
In addition to the two stars vasiShTha and arundhatI forming one of widest binaries [Footnote 4] there is the notorious non-associated star Sidus Ludoviciana which forms a triangle with them. But its magnitude is 7.6 and beyond typical naked eye visibility. However, there have been reports of seeing up to magnitude 8 in the darkest of sites. Perhaps in the darkest premodern skies mag 8 could have been attainable and Sidus Ludoviciana sighted – a fitting feat for a siddha’s eyesight – the yoga-chakShu indeed! There is Mizar B the closer optical binary companion of Mizar at magnitude ~4. But then this is too close to resolve with naked eye at 15 arcseconds (human eye resolves ~2 arcminutes). The period of the vasiShTha-arundhati binary would be too long to have been observed during human existence to date: currently estimated at approximately 750,000 years. The Mizar A-B system is estimated at approximately few thousands of years but then it should not have been visible to premodern viewers. Yet, mysteriously, the mahAbharata makes an allusion, though entirely anachronistic, of arundhati’s motion relative to vasiShTha:
yA chaiShA vishrutA rAjaMs trailokye sAdhu-saMmatA |
arundhatI tayApy eSha vasiShThaH pR^iShThataH kR^itaH ||
She, O king, who is well-known in the three worlds and respected by the good, even that arundhatI has made vasiShTha stand to her rear!
Interesting as this is, it might not necessarily imply knowledge of the revolution of arundhati and vasiShTha – alternative explanations could be the change in brightness of arundhati [Footnote 1] or an ancient memory of a time when due to precession of the earth’s axis arundhati might risen before vasiShTha. In any case it is anachronistic in the context of the many unconnected omens narrated at the beginning of the great war.
Footnote 1: We were for long puzzled by this legend and wondered if it meant that at some point in the historical past Alcor underwent a loss of brightness. Interestingly, in 2001 a paper was published Polcaro and Viotti in which they suggested that the Sumerian/Babylonian records suggest that Alcor was probably brighter than what it is now around 2000 BCE, perhaps being as bright as Mizar itself. Their main reason to suggest this is because the Sumerian/Babylonian records place Alcor as a separate constellation apart from the rest of the core Ursa Major, which is termed the constellation of the great wain. So they reason that the Sumerians might have done this only if Alcor was much brighter then. The Hindu legend is, to our knowledge, the most explicit reference to Alcor having become fainter in human memory. Another point of interest is the connection between Alcor and the so called lost Pleiad in multiple traditions. In several traditions there is the legend of one of the 7 Pleiades being lost and the number becoming 6. Of these, in Mongol, Greek and Hindu tradition there is the legend that the lost one was/became Alcor. In Mongol tradition the 7 stars of Ursa Major are considered 7 thieves who kidnapped one of the 7 maidens, the lost Pleiad, and kept her with them, where she is the Cold star, Huitung Ot. This raises the question if this connection is merely a consequence of numerology and shape (Pleiades and Ursa Major) or it the variability of Alcor and the lost Pleiad happened roughly around the same time.
Footnote 2: In Shinto omenlogy too there is an inauspicious omen associated with the non-visibility of Alcor: If a person fails to see Alcor, he is said to die by the end of that year. Given the presence of a portent in both the Indian and Japanese world it is conceivable that there was some omen associated with star going back to prehistoric times.
Footnote 3: Interestingly, the Canadian Miqmak tribe also has a legend which takes Alcor to be a vessel.
Footnote 4: The widest double (more correctly triple) known to date is Fomalhaut the brightest star in Pisces Austrinus. This system in addition to the widely separated companions which were only recently discovered also has an exoplanet and a ring around Fomalhaut A. Fomalhaut B is the variable star TW Piscis Austrini which is a BY Draconis variable varying due to large star spots and rotation.