We can evade taxes but can we do about death? Many of us have seen death from close quarters in our lives and those who have not, are most definitely aware of the idea. But imagine when the earliest humans experienced the death of someone around them. They would have seen one of their own people fall down, never to get up again. Their recognition of the phenomenon of death would have suddenly given them a definition for life. Until that time, there was nothing to delineate life. With the cognition of the phenomenon of death, suddenly there arose the awareness of a life-span. Existence was not eternal. It ended abruptly at a certain point, which was nearly impossible to predict.
It is no surprise then to see that some of the oldest poems of humans are dedicated to freedom from death, escape from old age, and liberation from disease. The seers of the Rigveda Samhita recite beautiful verses that are soaked in fervent prayers for a long life –
May the wind blow us a healing balm
bringing joy to our hearts
May he prolong our lives!
The Vedic seers constantly express their desire to see a hundred autumns (śaradaḥ śatam), or in other words, to live a hundred years, which they thought was the stipulated life-span for humans (see RVS 1.89.9). Here is a typical verse –
That lustrous eye of the sky was
established by the gods for the welfare of all
May we see that sun rise for a hundred autumns!
May we live for a hundred autumns!
They were aware of the inevitability of death. That was an enemy that could not be conquered. At best, they could delay their defeat. They worshipped various nature deities, praying for prolonging their lives. They hoped that they wouldn’t die before completing the full course of their life on earth (RVS 2.28.5). They also expressed their wish to be saved from the inevitable evil of death, which was lurking round the corner –
O Agni, don’t destroy our ancient friendship
You are wise, you know everything!
Like light engulfs the sky, old age impairs the body
Protect me from that impending evil
Among the several remarkable poems found in the Rigveda about this longing for immortality, perhaps the most popular is what has come to be known as the Mahamrityunjaya mantra – the great prayer for victory over death. Composed by the seer Vasishta, this mantra is set to the Anushtup poetic meter, with four lines and eight syllables per line:
सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम् |
मृत्योर्मुक्षीय मामृतात् ||
(Rigveda Samhita 7.59.12)
Let us now take a look at what each word in this mantra means:
त्र्यम्बकम् = one who pervades the three worlds, the three-eyed one (a reference to Rudra)
यजामहे = we worship, we adore, we invoke
सुगन्धिम् = the fragrant one
पुष्टिवर्धनम् = one who nourishes, one who strengthens
उर्वारुकम् = musk melon
इव = like
बन्धनात् = from captivity, from bondage
मृत्योः = from death
मुक्षीय = let him grant freedom
मा = not
अमृतात् = from immortality
(An astute observer will find that the third line has nine syllables instead of eight: उ-र्वा-रु-क-मि-व-ब-न्ध-नान्; it is not surprising to find such inconsistencies in the poems of the Vedas. Unlike the works of classical Sanskrit, the Vedic poems are somewhat lax about the rules of prosody).
Let us try to arrange this in the form of a sentence. We worship (यजामहे) the fragrant one (सुगन्धिम्), the lord of the three worlds (त्र्यम्बकम्) who nourishes and strengthens us (पुष्टिवर्धनम्). Like a ripe musk melon falls from its stalk (उर्वारुकमिव), let him grant us freedom (मुक्षीय) from the binding (बन्धनात्) of death (मृत्योः) but not (मा) from immortality (अमृतात्).
A simple English translation would give us:
We worship the lord of the universe
He, the fragrant one, nourishes us
Let him free us, like a ripe melon from its stalk,
from the bonds of death, but not of immortality!
This is a prayer to Rudra, the lord of the three worlds and the deity who destroys the existing for ushering in the new. He is an embodiment of time, which ages everyone and everything. He is fragrant because of his noble deeds. He nourishes us by granting us strength. This is a prayer to him to release us from the bindings of death when the time comes. Just like a melon falls down from the stalk when it’s ripe, let Rudra disconnect the cord that binds us to the material world and grant us immortality.
In the Puranas, there are many stories about the origin of this mantra and also about its propagation. Some sources attribute this mantra to the seer Markandeya. The deity Rudra of the Vedas later metamorphosed into Shiva, the three-eyed god and husband of Parvati. The Shiva Purana mentions this mantra was granted by lord Shiva for the sake of nourishment and protection of those who recite it.
It is interesting to note that the Vedic seers prayed not just for a long life but also for a good quality life –
May those who live remain separate from the dead!
May our prayers to the gods today yield blessings!
Let us go forth laughing and dancing
Let us live a longer and better life!
The grand irony about death is that though we know it may come at any instant, we rarely think about it when we are busy with our life. This is perhaps why the Yaksha in the enchanted lake asks, “What is the greatest wonder?” and Yudhistira responds, “Day after day, countless creatures travel to the abode of death, yet those that remain have a desire to be immortal. What can be a greater wonder than that?”
Call of the Vedas by Abinash Chandra Bose (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1970)
Rigvedasamhita (in 36 volumes) edited by H. P. Venkata Rao (Mysore: Sri Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamala, 1948-62)
This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.