Textual Exegesis

One need not wonder how speakers can do it when they give long religious discourses, either as an exclamation or a question. The Puranas (along with many other scriptures) are huge in size, but even by taking one word or incident, the speakers can talk for several hours. Like MEGA-TV serials that run for several years, some religious discourses run for several episodes.

So this morning (23-10-15), as per my regular sadhana, I was listening to ‘Nalamtarum Narayaneeam’ (the Narayaneeyam which bestows welfare; in Podigai TV) by Sri. Thamal Ramakrishnan. I was amazed at the way he can infer so many new meanings into the Narayaneeya by Narayana Bhattar which he composed at Guruvayur.

For example, this morning he explained the word ‘varada’ in the tenth sloka of the third dasaka (chapter) of Narayaneeam. He said that the word ‘varadha’ not only shows that Guruvayur Narayanan is the bestower of boons to His bhaktas, but considering the way Bhattar uses the same word three times in this sloka, we can also assume or speculate that he is also mentioning the three great Sri Vaishnava centres of Tiruppadi, Kanchi and Sri Rangam. According to Ramakrishnan, Bhattar rarely repeated the same word again and again in one solka. But the way he uses the same word ‘Varadha’ three times in this particular sloka, we can assume that he also take us to those three important Sri Vaishnava centres, particularly Kanchi Varadan.

Similarly the way he can stretch the meaning even to the steps of the temple tanks or the step before the sanctuaries is also very interesting. For example, the 24 steps of the temple tank Guruvayur depict the 24 syllables of the Gayatri mantra. The steps in the Varadharaja temple in Kanchi also have their own explanation. The first ten steps depict the ten avatars of Vishnu, etc. When the number won’t co-operate, he splits the steps further. For example, as the Varadharajan temple has more than 20 steps, the first 10 are the 10 avatars, the next 8 could be the ashtakshara mantra (Om namo Narayanaya, an eight syllable mantra), and 3 steps could be three gunas or three Vedas, etc.

He does this not only to the steps but even explaining so many things related to the temple and various things related to the deities, like ornaments, thread, etc. Anything with six could be the six darshanas, 3 could be three Vedas or gunas. If it is 4, it could include the fourth Veda (atharvana); 8 is the ashtakshara mantra; 12 could be the 12 Vaishnavite Azhvars (saints), and so on and so forth. This is not limited to the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya. Every Indian sampradaya has their own holy numbers including the Christians (7, 12, 40 and 72).1

After this, when Dr. Anandapadbanacharya continued his discourse on ‘Ramanuja Vaibhavam’ (the glory of Ramanuja, Podigai 6.45 to 7.00 am), has to take a delicate path in uplifting his sectarian affiliation and not offending the followers of other faiths. For example, when Ramanuja went to visit the Puri Jaganath temple, as per his habit, he wanted to bring some reforms in the temple rituals (which he already began at Sri Rangam). But the traditional priests of Puri Jaganath temple did not like it. So they plotted to remove Ramanuja from Puri.

But Jaganath had a different plan. Since he wanted to allow the tradition to continue in the Puri temple, seeing that uniformity was neither possible nor good, he took Ramanuja while he was sleeping to another place. So when Ramanuja woke up, he was surprised that he was not in Puri, but also felt very sad that he was not in a holy Vaishnava centre.

In order to do his daily rituals and sadhana he had to worship in a Vishnu temple. But the local temple belonged to Shiva, which he could not worship. As usual, Narayana asked Ramanuja to go to the temple and to look carefully. After reaching the temple, Ramanuja asked the priests to further clean the sanctuary more clearly. (Don’t ask how the Shaivite priests didn’t cleared the sanctum before.)

When he saw who was there, he fell before the deity and began to worship. But others were surprised as he had fallen prostrate before Sivalinga. But knowing that he could not and would not worship Shiva, they asked him what he was doing. Ramanuja pointed to the deity and said it was not a linga but actually Kurma (tortoise) that they had been worshipping. As per his habit, he constructed other parts of the temple and made it a Vaishnavite centre.

We understand the delicate balance the preset day acharyas like Sri Anandapadbana have to undergo. They cannot openly proclaim that by removing the linga, Ramanuja converted it into a Vaishnavite temple. At the same time they cannot compromise with their sectarian affiliation and zeal to protect its orthodoxy. But converting a temple belonging to one sampradaya to another is part of our religious history and we need not hesitate to accept it. For example, most archaeologists and religious historians insist the present Badrinath temple was actually a Jaina or Buddha sanctuary that Sri Adi Sankara converted into a Vaishnavite centre and installed Nambudiri Brahmins from his native place (present day Kerala) as the priests.

Of course any open confession of such fact will be attacked by the liberals and others who want to promote a harmonious and unified Hinduism without sectarian conflict. But our present day demands cannot easily change the past historical reality so easily. Instead of explaining away easily, we need to confess that there was a past reality and history, but we need to move ahead to the needs and demands of the present where such sectarian extremism won’t work anymore.

Whatever might be the past and present reality about the religious history of India, we have to appreciate the way the present day speakers do their exegesis both of the text and tradition to accommodate both liberal and orthodox views simultaneously.

Db. 23-10-15



  1. The following points from McEvilley will help us to understand the prominence of number in religion:
    Many Hind numbers involve 108 (e.g., 1/4×432) in various decimal expansions, e.g., the 10,800 stanzas in the RgVeda and the 10,800 bricks in the Hindu fire altar.  The numbers have multiple readings built into them.  The number 108 , for example, is ¼ of 432; 10,800=30×360. The Satapatha Brahmana (X.4.3.14-20) says the total number of “ordinary” (lokamprna) bricks in a soma sacrifice arrangement of altars is 10,800 and that the altars in such an arrangement are to be surrounded by 360 enclosing stones.  To establish a cosmic correspondence, the SatapathaBrahmana (X.4.4.2) also says that the stars in the sky are 10,8000,000 (i.e., 1000x360x30)…. Similarly the Satapatha Brahmana says the RgVeda has 432,000 syllables, but the number does not match the text as we have it.  Again Mesopotamian numerology seems to have been imposed on a system that originally lacked it.  The believer is left with the consolation of thinking that “the number 432,000 is the ideal number of syllables,” and the missing syllables are in a sense really there but “unmanifest.” { Charles H. Kahn, The Astronomical Code of the Rg Veda, New Delhi: AdityaPrakashan, 1994. pp. 93, 91.} —Thomas McEvilley, Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Delhi, MotilalBanarsidass Publishers, (2002), First Indian Edition, 2008. p. 77

…In Babylonian religious thought the gods are represented by numbers. The number 1 represented the High God. The god of music, Enki, was represented by the number 40 which, in the sexagesimal system, means 40/60, that is 2/3, or the musical perfect fifth—the same ratio applied to the winter solstice (the New year)….—ibid. p. 87

…But seven seems to have been especially enshrined in astronomy somewhat later, when Sumerian astronomers focused on the fact that there are seven planets visible to the eye.  Due to this astronomical significance, the number seven came to signify totality: The whole cosmos was made up of seven levels. The seven-leveled ziggurat (Entemenanki at Babylon) signified ascent through the cosmos, made up of the seven planetary levels; the related idea of the seven levels of hell—which is both Sumerian and Indian—keeps the universe numerically symmetrical.  The sacredness of (p.88) the number seven worldwide is “of Mesopotamian origin,” {MirceaEliade, Shamanism, Bollingen Series 76 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 274} and it occurs frequently, indeed in almost chaotic profusion, in the sacred literature of the Indian sects.

The Vratya ascetic of the AtharvaVeda is said to have seven pranas (breaths in the upper body), seven apanas (breaths in the lower body), and seven vyanas (breaths pervading the whole body) (AV XV 15.1.2.).  The RgVedic rishis, or wise men, are seven in number (as are the seven sages of archaic Greece) … This ancient number of totality yields the seven cakras; the seven breaths; the seven heavens and seven hells of the yogic cosmology; {See Shashi BusanDasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1976), p. 237} the seven steps of the Buddha, which represent the ascending of the seven planetary levels—that is, the surveying of the universe as a whole (M. {Majjhima Nikaaya} II. 123); the seven heads of the cobra hoods of Paarsva, Buddha, and others; the fact that Indra is called “killer of the seven”; the seven rishis; and so on.—ibid. pp. 88-89

The number 108 is also present throughout Indian religious literature, as, for example, the 108 pieces in which Sati’s body is torn in the Saiva myth, the tradition that there are 108 Upanisads, and so on. This number, too, comes from the Sumerian king list or an associated source; it derives from Precessional arithmetic as the fourth part of 432, and from sexagesimal arithmetic as the product of 3 and 36.

The number seventy-two, as in the 72,000 naadis, or channels, of the occult physiology of India, as mentioned, for example, in the Dhyanabindu Upanisad, also derives from Sumer. It both occurs in the king lists and arises in the sexagesimal arithmetic, where it represents 6 x 12, and in the mixed sexagesimal-Precessional arithmetic, where it is 432 divided by 6.  Astronomically, it is the number of years that the Precessional movement takes to traverse one degree.—ibid. p.89

The number 84 is common in Indian sacred numerology, occurring in a dizzying array of instances.  The tirthankara before Parsva, for example, is said to have died 840,000 years before Mahavira’s nirvana.  According to the Mahabharata (I.1098) Mount Meru is 84,000 yojanas high.  Tantras and Puranas mention 84 lacs of rebirth.  The Buddhadharma is traditionally said to be divided into either 84 or 84,000 branches.  When Maitreya, the future Buddha, renounces the world, it is said that he will be attended by 84,000 followers.  The SkandhaPurana describes 84 Siva lingas.  The Nath tradition records 84 siddhas.  Yogic  and tantric texts refer to the chief asanas, or yogic postures, as 84, or 84 million.  And so on.—ibid. p. 139

What has not been remarked upon is the fact that 84 is another of the distinctive Sumerian numbers.  In the Sumerian king lists 840 appears repeatedly, along with 420, as regnum lengths … Egypt and Mesopotamia of course influenced each other greatly, and by the Late Bronze Age their traditions moved out into the surrounding world in conflated and eclectic mixtures.—ibid. p. 140