Saturday musings on three Indian ideas

Rohit Dhankar

[I wrote this piece in April 2012. Today saw a Facebook post quoting one of the three ideas discussed here. That reminded me of this, so am posting here.]

A friend seems to be thinking about “what might be the Indian canon” in context of Putin’s call for 100 book Russian canon. The first thought that came to my mind was that ‘Putin himself seems to be a close approximation to Russian loose cannon’! But I am prone to get into useless and time wasting pursuits on Saturday and Sunday mornings when in Bangalore. This happened to be such a morning and immediately three Sanskrit-rot-learnt phrases came to my mind:

  1. “Aa no bhadraah kratavo yantu vishvatah” [Rigveda 1-89-I] translated by numerous web sites as “let noble thoughts come to us from every side”.
  2. “Sa vidya ya vimuktaya” translated as “that is vidya (knowledge) which liberates”.
  3. “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” translated as “the whole world is family”

Noble ideals indeed, indicating a universalism with direct implication that we should cherish all knowledge with open mind and may be that is our Canon. But as soon as I arrived at this point my ‘shakki’ (skeptical) Indian mind got ticking and I remembered some attempts at getting to the sources of these noble-vachanams and their meaning in their original context. My attempts have not been very successful in the past and whenever they were the ‘original’ (does any one know or can reconstruct such a thing?) idea seemed to vary in a very significant manner from what is attempted to be conveyed through quoting them today. This ‘shakki mijaz’ (skeptical temper) got me into my Saturday-morning-time-wasting-pursuit.

Aa no bhadraah

Since there is no ready library at hand I chanted aloud the mantra ‘Googal-sharnam-gachchhaami’. As soon as I clicked on ‘enter’ button of my computer after typing ‘aa no bhadraah” in the search bar the Googal-deva blessed me with thousands of results all prominently displaying ‘aa no bhadraah’ in blue. All these sites happily gave the quarter verse “aa no bhadraah kratavo yantu vishvatah”, faithfully translated it as “let noble thoughts come to us from every side” or some close variant and confidently declared that Rig Veda proclaims this wisdom. None sited chapter and verse. After wasting about 20 minutes I remembered Bhavan’s Journal which always has this motto on its third page. Though after my daughter got admission in Bhavan’s Vidyashram Jaipur about 19 years back I regularly get this esteemed journal twice a month and my Jaipur home is littered with those issues; I had no copy at Bangalore on this Saturday morning. So again “Googal sharanam….” and quickly found out that this is part of the 1st verse of 89th sukta of 1st Mandala of the great Rig Veda. Fortunately I already had down loaded Griffith’s translation of Rig Veda, and also Pandit Jaideva Sharma’s Hindi translation of the same. I also have the Sanskrit text without any translation that gave me the full verse as:

aa no bhadrah

Griffith translates it as “[m]ay powers auspicious come to us from every side, never deceived, unhindered, and victorious, That the Gods ever may be with us for our gain, our guardians day by day unceasing in their care”. It seems it is the ‘powers auspicious’ rather than ‘noble thoughts’ that are welcomed from every side. This seems to be an invocation to the guardian gods, rather then to noble thoughts. Of course it is a beautiful hymn with ten verses that invokes gods for prosperity, long life, sons and sons of sons, health and happy life. Any bit of Rig Veda can tell you that these Vedic Aryans loved life and knew how to enjoy it. But as per Griffith no mention of noble thoughts being welcomed from all sides in that hymn; that is, if you are not into unbridled interpretative mood.

But then Griffith was a ‘mlachchhya’. So I decided to consult our own Pandit Jaidev Sharma. This is what Pandit ji has to say:

aa no bhadrah-2

All that Pandit ji does is substitute ‘powers auspicious’ for devas with ‘uttam purushas’ and tells us that such purushas are not to be slain. (Why the issue of slaying pops up here? May be some other time.) Rest he seem to be close enough to agree with that ‘mlachchhya’ Griffith. Thus it seems that to welcome noble thoughts by means of this hymn one has to traverse the interpretative path of ‘deva-purusha-thought’. I also looked at several other translations. No one mentioned noble thoughts. A deeper study and some arguments are required, bald assertions do not seem to be enough here. And thus goes the first noble ideal.

Sa vidya …

Then I looked for “sa vidya…”. This again turned out to be a quarter part of shloka in Vishnu Purana (1.19.41) the full shloka goes:

“tat-karma yan-na bhandaaya saa vidhyaa yaa vimuktaye;

aayaa saayaa param karma vidyaa-anyaa shilpa naipu Nam.

This is in the context of a dialogue between  Daitya King Harinyakashapu and his rebel Vishnu-bhakta son Prahalad. There is a long description of various kinds of attempts made by Harinyakashyapu’s minions on Prahalad’s life. When all such attempts failed, as Vishnu protected him, Prahlad goes to his Guru who was appointed by his father (the same Harinyakashyapu) to teach Prahalad governance (perhaps Raajneeti). The guru teaches all that he knows and takes Prahlad to his father for examination. Harinyakashyapu asks him “to repeat what he had learned; how a king should conduct himself towards friends or foes; what measures he should adopt at the three periods (of advance, retrogression, or stagnation); how he should treat his councillors, his ministers, the officers of his government and of his household, his emissaries, his subjects, those of doubtful allegiance, and his foes; with whom should he contract alliance; with whom engage in war; what sort of fortress he should construct; how forest and mountain tribes should be reduced; how internal grievances should be rooted out: all this…”

Prahlad replies that he has learnt all this but does not approve of it, as he has neither enemies nor friends as all that is there in the world is Vishnu alone. And this, that all that there is is Vishnu alone, is the only vidya worth learning as this is liberating and all other vidya is just contemptible cleverness of an artist. “That is active duty (karma), which is not for our bondage; that is knowledge, which is for our liberation: all other duty is good only unto weariness; all other knowledge is only the cleverness of an artist”. He makes it plain that the only liberating, and therefore true, vidya is brahmn-vidya that recognises only one existence, that is Vishnu. Rest—be that raajaniti, mathematics, science, or whatsoever, is just cleverness and not worth paying any attention to.

Many universities and institutions in India, (University of Hyderabad and Banasthali Vidyapeeth are examples) have ‘sa vidya ya vimiktaye’ as their motto. This is none of my business to decide if they want to declare all that they teach—sciences, social sciences, professional courses, etc.—as worthless cleverness and not fit to waste time upon. What the full verse in its context in Vishnu Purana says is certainly that. So much for ‘sa vidya…..’ then.

Vasudhaiva kutumbkam

Now we can look at ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’. Google-deva provided me with three identifiable references. One of them occurs in a spiritual context, Maha-upanishad VI-72; the other two in what is considered books of worldly wisdom, namely Panchatantra and Hitopadesha. According to Wikipedia the reference is Panchatantra 5.3.37, and Hitopadesha 1.3.71.

Again I spent a considerable time in finding an edition of Panchatantra which gives Sanskrit as well as Hindi or English translation. I found a Hindi translation by Pandit Jwala Prasad Mishra, Head of Pandit Kamashwar Pathashala, Moradabad. It was published by Khemraj Shri Krishnadas at Shri Venkateshwar Steem Press, Bombay in 1910. Could not find any good searchable Hitopaedesha edition so am not sure about that reference.

Lets first look at the ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ as in the Maha-upanishad. The full verse in the edition I could get goes as follows:

Ayam badhurayam neti ganana laghuchetasaaam,

Udaarcharitaanaam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam. (Mahopanishad VI-71)

In the English translation I have access to the verses are mixes up (it’s not very good), the relevant lines are translated as “Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.” It looks close enough. Mahaupanishat starts with a brief description of creation—how everything emerged out of Narayana—and then quickly gets into how jivatma can attain moksha. Adhyaya 6 continues with the discourse from previous adhyayas and proclaims that “Giving up the deeply felt and seductive glamour, consisting in imagination, of empirical life, you remain what you (really) are; O sinless one! Sportively roam the world” (VI-1). It is true that the invocation is so powerful and lofty that even a jeevatma as mired in the mratyalok as myself could not remain unaffected and spontaneously admires the loftiness of though and imagination. I think this is worth one’s while to have a test of this magnanimous vision:

VI-62. ‘There flourishes but the non-dual Power that is the supreme Self through and through; it sportively builds up the universe with (factors) born of (both) duality and non-duality. VI-63. ‘He who resorts to the status beyond all objects, who is through and through the Spirit that is perfect, who is neither agitated, nor complacent, never suffers in this empirical life. VI-64. ‘Who performs the actions that fall to his lot, ever viewing foe and friend alike, who is liberated from both likes and dislikes is neither sad nor hopeful. VI-65. ‘Who utters what pleases all; speaks pleasantly when asked; and who is conversant with the thoughts of all beings never suffers in this empirical life. VI-66. ‘Resorting to the primeval vision (of Reality) marked by the renunciation of all objects and Self-established, fearlessly roam the world, as a (veritable) Jivanmukta. VI-67. ‘Inwardly shedding all cravings, free from attachment, rid of a(all) latent impressions, (but) externally conforming to established patterns of conduct, fearlessly roam the world. VI-68. ‘Externally simulating enthusiastic activity, but, at heart, free from it all, apparently an agent (but) really a non-agent, roam the world with a purified understanding. VI-69. ‘Renouncing egoism, with an apparent reason, shining like the sky, untarnished, roam the world with a purified understanding. VI-70. ‘Elevated, clean of conduct, conforming to established norms of conduct, free from all inner clinging, leading, as it were, an empirical life. VI-71. ‘Resorting to the inner Spirit of renunciation, apparently he acts to achieve (some) aim (or other). VI-71 Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. ‘For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family. VI-72-73(a) Resort to the status free from all considerations of empirical life, beyond old age and death, who are all mental constructions are extinguished and where no attachments finds lodgement. VI-73(b). ‘This is the status of Brahman, absolutely pure, beyond all cravings and sufferings. VI-74(a). ‘Equipped thus and roaming (the earth), one is not vanquished by crisis. VI-74(b)-75. ‘By the prop of detachment and excellences like magnanimity, lift up your mind yourself perseveringly in order to enjoy the fruit of Brahmic freedom. Through detachment, it achieves perfection along the path of negation (of the object).”

Here it seems the quote “vasudhaiuva kutumbakam” is close enough to the sense in which it is mostly mentioned. However, one must remember the “udaarachaaritaanaam tu”, it is for the magnanimous of character, and it is an exhortation in the context of liberation, becoming jeevanamukta. One wonders whether the upanishad-rishi meant it for a common biped roaming the earth today that is totally enmeshed in the empirical world.

The same verse, with a slight variation, occurs in Panchatantra 5.4.38 (Wikipedia gives reference as 5.3.37; but the edition I could find has it at 5.4.38). This comes in the context of a story of four ‘brahamin-putrah’ (what else!); all four poor as Mosque-rats (this analogy is mine, not of Vishnu Sharma’s!), three ‘shastraparangatah parantu buddhirahitah’ (well versed in the shastas but devoid of intellect, as usually is the case) and the fourth ‘buddhiman, kevalam shastraprangamukhah’ (intelligent but uninterested in shastras, may be an effect of possessing intellect!). They decided, as most Brahmins do, that the vidya without wealth is of no use and so started on a journey to earn wealth though their vidya. To cut the long story short, on the way one of them said that since the wealth will be earned with vidya and Subuddhi (the fourth intelligent fellow but with no learning) has no vidya so they will not share their wealth with him and two of the shastraparaangataah trio asked him to leave them and go back to his village. The Third shastraparaangataah however happened to be of a different opinion and said: we have played together since our childhood, so do not say such things, we shall all have equal claim on what we earn. Then he gave two arguments in support of his contention. Both are interesting, one:

Three ideas-1






Rough English translation: “what use is that wealth which can be used only by one like a vadhu and cannot be used by wayfarers like a prostitute”. That shows an attitude to wealth (Lakshami) and I hope not to vadhu and women; I want to say nothing of vaishya here. However the analogy seems to be in bad test to a modern earthly creature, to say the least.

The second argument is the famous ‘vasudhaiva…’:

Three ideas-2





There is a small variation in the verse, in place of “Ayam bandhurayam neti” in Mahopanishat, the Panchatantra says “ayam nijah paro veti”. But the meaning is more or less the same; however, Panchatantra is talking of this principle in the day to day mundane world and not in the context of moksha, thus it may be more meaningful to mratya-loka-baddh-pranis like all of us. It seems the third idea is quoted in more or less the same sense as it originally occurs.

In this non-serious-Saturday research I found an interesting dig at the Vishnu and Lakshmi which shows that ancient Hindus were not above a little jest with their revered gods. In the third story of fifth part in Panchatantra there is a section on being brave and active, which says that to earn wealth one has to work hard and be bold. And then to make a point that lazy people are unlikely to keep their wealth the author takes the ‘chanchala’ character of Lakshim and propensity of Vishnu to keep reclining on his Shesha-shaiya.

Three ideas-3





Rough translation: “why the wife of Vishnu who sleeps four months (in a year) situating himself in waters should not be chanchala (flirtatious)”. So poor Vishnu’s laziness is to be blamed for Lakshmi being ‘chanchala’!

It seems that the two of the three aphorisms that came to my mind spontaneously as examples of ancient Indian open-mindedness (obviously socialisation at work here) can not stand the scrutiny if their meaning if their original context is taken into consideration. ‘aa no bhadrah…’ seems to be saying something very different from what people claim, and ‘sa vidya…..’ seems to deride the very learning that modern users of that verse want to emphasise through this quote. The third one, ‘vasudhaiva…’ seems to fare relatively better. As it seems to be in use for making a spiritual as well as mundane worldly-wise point since ancient times. However, one has to remember that the four characters in Panchatantra are all brahmins and old friends. Whether the benevolent thought expressed in there crosses the varna/caste boundaries and is extended to strangers is not clear from the example; particularly as Panchatantra makes most of its points in very context specific situations.

Here, however, an important question arises: why should one stick to the original context specific meaning of such ideas when interpreting them in the modern times? Why can such ideas not serve as the starting point and then grow with the culture and gain depth and greater significance? We all know that ideas do show such historical progression and are interpreted and reinterpreted with changing times. So can not one take ‘aa no bhadrah…’ as welcoming all noble thoughts even if originally it was an invocation to gods? Perhaps, one can do that, one can interpret the idea in the sense it is quoted these days if one wants to claim that the culture has moved to greater openness and towards more universalism. But the point remains that such an interpretation, to be honest, either has to build argument to show that the original meaning was as it is being claimed now; or one has to show historically that the original idea was critiqued and a progressive analysis has brought it to mean what is claimed today. It can not be taken for granted without any analysis, quoting out of context is not development of an idea, nor it constitutes an argument; it remains just a false claim.

The second issue I must clarify here is that this little piece is not an attempt to show that all ancient quotations fall in the same miss-quotation category. This piece is confined only to these three ideas and no general point is being made here. There could be hundreds of very beautiful ideas in Indian literature as there are in literature of any other culture. All that is being said here is that we need to trace them and try to understand their context before feeling very happy about them. And that may be a general point worth keeping in mind when attempting to construct canons!


3 Responses to Saturday musings on three Indian ideas

  1. Pankaj Sharan says:

    I liked this post. I came across this blog via Google search because I was looking for the meaning of ‘aa no bhadrah..’ (like you). I too had heard the ‘good thoughts..’ version, but my copy of Radhakrishnan and Moore (A sourcebook in Indian Philosophy) gives Griffith’s translation. The word ‘kritavo’ is closer to ‘deeds’ than thoughts. How it becomes ‘powers’ to Griffith I do not know. Anyway, thanks! (I have been a professor of Physics, recently retired from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)
    Pankaj Sharan


    • rdhankar says:

      Thanks for your comments Pankaj ji. Very few people have noticed this post. or actually any of my other posts. 🙂


  2. Anonymous says:

    Too good , wel analysed , Gratitude .Pranam


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