A Life of thinking globally, acting locally, and seeking peace internally.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thunder and Lightning

I totally miss being in class at ETS and having a reason to read Hindu theological writings. I was searching my mail for something recently and found a story about thunder and lightning from the Upanishads that I love.

Some background on the Upanishads: Since the Upanishads form the concluding portion of the Vedas, they were called Vedanta or "the end of Vedas." However, the term Vedanta now refers to a school of philosophy based on the Upanishads. There are 108 generally accepted Upanishads, but according to different sources, the number varies upto 200. The oldest of these works dates back to 600 BC. They contain a freedom of thought unknown in any of the earlier works, except the Rig-Veda. The Upanishads are more universal and can be read by all. And these are the ten principal Upanishads:
  • The Aitareya Upanishad of the Rig-Veda.
  • The Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Katha and Taittiriya Upanishads of the Yajur Veda.
  • The Chandogya and Kena Upanishads of the Sama Veda.
  • The Prasna, Mundaka, and Mandukya Upanishads of the Atharva Veda.
It is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that a typically value-based story appears: 'What the Thunder Says'. Prajapati, or Brahma, the All-Father, having created the three races of gods, men and demons, appointed each to their own realm - heaven, earth and the netherworld. All three begged him for advice to live by. So, to each race, Prajapati gave counsel.

When the world was still young and the newly created beings—the Divas, the Asuras and the Manusas—were groping to understand their place in the world, they all meditated for true knowledge from their creator Prajapati.

After a long time had passed, the Divas went to Prajapati and asked for His wisdom. "Lord, please tell us what we should live by."

Prajapati looked kindly at the Divas, who were endowed with great character and who had God-like intentions, but He simply uttered a single letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, "da."

The Divas pondered over what they had heard until Prajapati gently asked them, "Divas, do you understand the meaning of what I said?"

The Divas stated, "Yes, Lord, we understand. 'Da' stands for Damyata—control. You want us to live a life of restraint."

Prajapati said, "Yes, you have understood it. Be self-controlled."

Next, the Manusas, who were humans, went to Prajapati and reverentially asked for His wisdom. "Lord, please tell us what we should live by."

For a few minutes Prajapati observed the Manusas, who had great intellect and passion but who were weak in body and petty in their dealings with others. He again pronounced the same letter of the alphabet, "da." Prajapati paused, allowing them time to reflect over His answer. Then he asked them, "Manusas, do you understand what I said?"

The humans grasped the meaning quickly. "Yes, Lord, we fully perceive what you said. 'Da' symbolizes Datta—give. We should be generous. There is great joy in sharing."

Prajapati was pleased with their answer, "You have understood. Go and live accordingly."

Lastly, the Asuras went to Prajapati and asked him for His wisdom. Although the Asuras were created in darkness, they were still His children. Prajapati looked at them carefully. The Asuras were strong in body and in their determinations. They were the rivals of the Divas. But once again Prajapati stated only "da."

The Asuras mused over what they had heard until Prajapati inquired, "Asuras, do you understand what I said?"

The Asuras clearly discerned the message of Prajapati. "Lord, when you said 'da' you meant Dayadhyam— compassion. You want us to be compassionate."

Prajapati smiled, "Yes, you have understood it. Live a life of compassion for others."

Prajapati rose up and vanished in the clouds in the midst of a loud thunder—"da," "da," "da." And the three races repeated, "damyata," "datta," "dayadham," and went their separate ways. The divine message is often repeated by the clouds as they thunder, "da," "da," "da," as if to remind all beings of the lesson learned by the three races at the very beginning of their journey—be self-controlled, be generous, be compassionate.

Prajapati did not instill wisdom, nor did He offer to show the right path. Prajapati accepted the three different interpretations of His message because the Divas, Manusas, and Asuras recognized their own frailties and interpreted His Message accordingly. One can perceive wisdom only at a level of one's cognizance and consciousness

* Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Book Five, V.ii.

If you like music: MS Subbalakshmi sang Maitreem Bhajata, which includes the three Da's at the UN in 1966 - listen to her here:
or watch her here:

If you like poetry: TS Elliot's Wastland includes reference to this story and ends with these words:
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

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