Today I have a story for you, a very well-known story from the Hindu scriptures. Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there lived an elephant called Gajendra. His name means ‘King of Elephants’ and he was indeed the king of his group of elephants. He lived happily in a wonderful garden called Rumak on the beautiful mountains of Trikuta (considered by some to to be in current day Sri Lanka and at Kapisthalam, Tamil Nadu by others). He was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. Everyday he would pick a lotus from a pond and lay it at the feet of Lord Vishnu at the temple. One such day, when he went to the pond as always, his foot was caught by a crocodile. Much as he struggled, he could not free himself. He struggled long and hard; some say that he struggled for a thousand years. Finally, he could struggle no more and surrendered himself to Lord Vishnu. When Lord Vishnu heard his pleas, he hurried to help and killed the crocodile with his Sudarshana Chakra. In his previous life, Gajendra had been King Indradymna of the Pandya dynasty, a great devotee of Vishnu. He had been cursed by Sage Agastya for some disrespect to him. Lord Vishnu freed Gajendra and blessed him with Moksha, a release from the cycle of birth and death, as he had finally given up his pride and surrendered himself to God.
What are the metaphoric lessons that we may take from this story? An elephant represents majesty, strength and wisdom; he is a gentle giant who is not drawn to violence. Gajendra in particular was a devout elephant. Yet he finds himself caught in a way where all his strength and abilities cannot rescue him. The crocodile is a creature of our nightmares, waiting in hiding to attack and maim. A creature from the underworld representing our base nature as well as the evil around us. Our lesson is that even the best amongst us may find ourselves caught in traps from which we cannot release ourselves unless we surrender ourselves to God. It is interesting that the crocodile-catching-a-leg story occurs in one other very inspiring story, that of Adi Shankaracharya. It was by adopting sanyasa (monkhood) that he could get the crocodile, who represents worldly desires which tie us to this earth, to release him.
My recounting of the story of Gajendra was inspired by the song Soundara Rajam Ashraye which I have been addicted to all this week. Written and composed by Muthuswami Dikshithar, it is set to the Raga Brindavani, also called Brindavana Saranga (The forest of elephants) by some (see footnote). There is a reference to Gajendra Moksham in the first line of the song and even the name of the raga evokes the thought of green and cool forests with dappled sunlight and rippling pools of water, humming with the presence of elephants all around. Like many other Carnatic Kritis, the song is a just a list of identifiers for Vishnu to whom this prayer is addressed (see footnote for lyrics and translation). The beauty of the song is in the raga and the melody. If you allow yourself the leisure of listening to a slow and elaborate rendition, divorcing your mind from your everyday concerns, it is as close to meditation as listening to music can be. After listening to at least ten different renditions, I go back to the one that I have always loved best, a 21 minute rendition by T.N.Seshagopalan. Ah the soothing pleasure of Brindavana Saranga weaving its magic into my soul!!
Language : Sanskrit
सौन्दरराजं आश्रये गज बृन्दावन सारङ्ग वरद राजम् (श्री )
नन्द नन्दन राजम् नागपत्तन राजम्
सुन्दरी रमा राजम् सुर विनुत महिराजम्
मन्दस्मित मुखाम्बुजं मन्दर धर कराम्बुजम्
नन्दकर नयनाम्बुजं सुन्दर तर पदाम्बुजम्
शंभर वैरी जनकं सन्नुत शुक शौनकम्
अम्बरीषादि विदितं अनादि गुरुगुह मुदितम्
अम्बुजासनादि नुतं अमरेशादि सन्नुतम्
अम्बुधि गर्व निग्रहं अनृत जड दुःखापहम्
कम्बु विडम्बन कण्ठं खण्डी कृत दश कण्ठं
तुम्बुरुनुत श्री कण्ठं दुरितापह वैकुण्ठं
saundara rAja mAshrayE gaja bRndAvana sAraHNga varada rAjam
nanda nandana rAjam nAga pattana rAjam
sundari ramA rAjam sura vinuta mahirAjam
mandasmita mukhAmbujam mandaradhara karAmbujam
nandakara nayanAmbujam sundaratara padAmbujam
shambara vairi janakam sannuta shuka shaunakam
ambarISAdi viditam anAdi guruguha muditam
ambujAsanAdi nutam amarEshAdi sannutam
ambudhi garva nigraham anRta jaDa duhkhApaham
kambu viDambana kaNTham khaNDIkRta dasha kaNTham
tumburu nuta shrIkaNTham duritApaha vaikuNTham
I seek refuge (AshrayE) in beautiful Lord (sowndara rAjam), the Lord (rAjam) who blessed (gave a boon to) the elephant (gaja) in the forest of elephants (brindAvana sAranga).
He is the dear son (nandana) of Nanda, He is the ruler (rAjam) of Nagapattanam. He is the Lord (rAjam) of the beautiful Rama (name of Lakshmi). He is great (mahi) Lord (rAjam) praised (vinuta) by the divinities (sura).
He has a gently smiling (mandasmita) lotus-like (ambujam) face (mukha), in his lotus-like (ambujam) hands (kara) he holds (dhara) the Mandara mountain, his lotus-like (ambujam) eyes (nayana) give delight (nandana kara), and he has even more beautiful (sundaratara) lotus-like (ambujam) feet (pada).
He is the father (janakam) of the enemy (vairI) of Shiva (shambhara) [alludes to Madana]. He is worshipped (sannuta) by Shuka and Shaunaka. He is understood (viditam) by sages such as Ambarishi. He is the eternet (anAdi) joy (muditam) of Guruguha (signature of Dikshithar).
He is worshipped (nutam) by the Lotus-seated one (ambujAsanA) [refers to Lakshmi? or Brahma?) etc (Adi). He is praised (sannutam) by Indra (amarEsha) etc (Adi). He subjugated (nigraham) the pride (garva) of the ocean (ambudhi). He removes (apaham) the sorrow (dukha) arising from falsehood (anrta) and stupidity (jada).
His neck (kanTam) is like (vidambana) a conch (kambu). He tore into pieces (khandIkrta) the ten-necked one (dasha kanTam) [alludes to Ravana]. He is worshipped (nutam) by Tumburu (a greet seer and singer). He is the destroyer (apaha) of sins (durita). He resides (implied) in VaikunTam (Vishnu’s heaven).
There is quite a bit of confusion about this raga. There are two raga names one comes across, Brindavani and Brindavana Saranga. Muthuswami Dikshithar composed in the version he called Brindavani but is now referred to as Brindavana Saranga. This version has only very minimal or no use of the kakali nishada (N3). The other version has liberal use of both kakali nishada (N3) and kaisika nishada (N2) and is called Brindavani currently. In fact, it is easier to see them as two versions of the same raga. As a totally untutored listener, I confess that I cannot tell them apart! I am logging this song under Brindavana Saranga but if listeners who are better educated than me find that it has generous use of N3, then please let me know, I shall log it under Brindavani.
Aarohanam (Ascending) : S R2 M1 P N2 (or N3 depending on source) S
Avarohanam (Descending) : S’ N2 P M1 R2 G2 R2 S
It is a janya raga, derived from Kharaharapriya which is 22nd on the Melakarta scale.
A gentle and emotionally appealing raga, it is used mainly for minor compositions and bhajans. Rangapura Vihara and Soundara Rajam Ashraye by Muthuswami Dikshithar and Kaliyuga Varadan by Periyasami Tooran are the compositions most Carnatic music listeners would be familiar with.
Note : The 12 notes in the octave are named as below. Please note that C is used as Sa for the sake of simplicity as the scale is relative in Carnatic Music. Also note that the scales paint only a superficial picture of the raga as the gamakas(ornamentations) are a very important part of a raga.