Of Mrityunjaya and Modern Hinduism – The Deathless And Unceasing Glory Of The Three-Eyed One

ॐ त्र्य॑म्बकं यजामहे सु॒गन्धिं॑ पुष्टि॒वर्ध॑नम् ।
उ॒र्वा॒रु॒कमि॑व॒ बन्ध॑नान् मृ॒त्योर्मुक्षीय॒ मा ऽमृता॑त् ।

Something which keeps coming up in various circles proximate to the ones we move in, is this idea that contemporary Hinduism, (post-)Puranic Hinduism, is somehow largely if not entirely distinct from Vedic Hinduism.

There are various reasons why people occasionally suggest to assert this – sometimes, it’s because they have made a genuinely intended surface-level examination of what we do and believe in the 21st century, and what was done just under four thousand years ago, and concluded that as the names and some of the appearances have changed a bit … so, too, therefore, has the actual substance.

Other times, it’s more malefically motivated – the effective charge being that because modern Hindus don’t usually look like the blond-haired blue-eyed SS Recruitment Poster But In Chariots of white supremacist propaganda, that therefore so, too, is the modern Hinduism ‘disqualified’ from holding the title of the continuation of ancient Indo-European living religion into the present day.

In either case, while there is some truth to the notion that there’s been some development, building upon, and considerable expansion in the religion over four millennia (and really … what exactly were you expecting over that span of time?); I have maintained that not only is the fundamental core the same, but at the heart of almost every latter-day concept worthy of value is some ancient root that is experiencing a more recent-visaged flourishing.

We could go through these at some length, and in the course of my work I have directly looked at a few of the more frequently cited areas that are occasionally brought up by the “anti-continuation” brigade. These include, in no particular order, the prominence of Durga and the broader Shakta theology (often because somebody is taking “MALE INVADING ARYANS AGAINST PEACEFUL MATRIARCHAL FORERUNNERS” silliness seriously) … which not only has direct scriptural precedency in RigVedic Hymnals, but strongly coterminous comparative expression in most other Indo-European mythoreligious complexes; the focus upon the fact that Hanuman is often depicted as a Monkey … which ignores, you know, a certain rather prominent RigVedic hymnal directly setting out the Striker/Thunderer as Monkey-Faced occurrence, the rather surprising Old Norse references to Thor as an “Ape”, and the entire easily observable swathe of further iconographic and theonymic parallels that are right there in plain sight; and, most peculiarly of all, the range of spurious attempted attacks against the Indo-European status of Lord Shiva – which, again, runs into quite an array of both scriptural evidence (“Shiva” as a designation for Rudra is rite there in the RigVeda) and iconographic, comparative mythographic etc. evidence to the contrary.

Now in terms of where I’m going with all of this … last week on Friday was #MahaShivRatri – the Great Night of Shiva. I was at my local Mandir, and I noted during the course of the evening’s ritual proceedings, the prominent recitation of a particular mantra.

That being the one which I have placed at the beginning of this piece – the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, the Great Death-Conquering Mantra.

Of course, it’s not only used in those particular ritualine contexts; it’s quite a frequently heard prayer used both by Shaivites and other Hindus for an array of instances and purposes. After ‘Aum Namah Shivaya’, it’s probably the most prominent Shaivite mantra.

Yet that’s just the thing. It’s incredibly important and pervasive today … and as it turns out, it also has significant ancient both precedency and potency.

Its earliest occurrence that we have record of, is within the RigVeda – Mandala VII, Hymn 59; often regarded as dedicated to the Maruts, although which I would contextualize somewhat further by noting that not only is Rudra Lord of the MarutaGana, but also that enumerated within the verses of this Hymn are the theonyms of several we would regard as being ‘facings’ of Him.

It occurs also, quite directly, and yet with some expansion and conscious, deliberate repetition in slightly altered formulation appended as well for emphasis, in the Third Book of the Shukla YajurVeda; seated within a passage that is clearly and unambiguously devoted to Lord Rudra [YV III.60].

This occurrence also links the conceptry thusly deployed to Shiva in a matrimonial context – or, rather, as a Deity able to assist in the finding of a spouse; which presumably aids in explaining the subsequent ‘echoing’ of the phraseology of YV III.60 as outlined above in a Hymnal of the AtharvaVeda (AV 14.1.17) pertaining to Marriage Rites. (Although it is perhaps interesting to note that the Deity explicitly cited in AV 14.1.17 is Aryaman – which is a nice instance of where #NAS analysis can come in decidedly handy, as we have already long known that Aryaman, too, is Odin : “Irmin” is closely linguistically and functionally related, as is the Irmin’s Way that is the celestial river or roadway of the Galaxy arcening through the Night’s Sky)

And on and on it goes down through the Ages and the ‘Puranic’ Hindu expressions which form the figurative, more overtly mythological garbing for much of our perception of Hinduism today.

तर्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम |
उर्वारुकमिवबन्धनान मर्त्योर्मुक्षीय माम्र्तात ||

Now as for what this august excerpt actually means … it is not entirely easy to succinctly render in English due to the symbolic connotations of some of the terms used. But we shall try.

Griffith, in his often unjustly maligned manuscript, phrases it thusly:

“Tryambaka we worship, sweet augmenter of prosperity.
As from its stem the cucumber, so may I be released from death, not reft of immortality.”

The visual idea is that the Devotee is being asked to be released from the hold of Death over him or her, in much the same manner that a cucumber or other fruit is separated from its stalk … but not rendered completely unattached and drifting off into nothingness, as the more figurative and supernal bond to The Undying, Immortality, is yet maintained.

This idea is quite strongly coterminous with one of the (many) traditional (Vedic) Hindu metaphors for the Power of Death held by certain Gods – that of the Noose of Varuna. The phrasing used for the bond of the stalk with the cucumber – ‘bandhanan’ – you can see how this resonates with the other sense in which ‘bond’ or ‘band’ is used in modern English, to mean a loop of material that binds one … in this case, to the hoped-to-be-avoided fate of an early, untimely Death.

Meanwhile, on the other ‘hand’ of the verbal equation, the invocation of the Power of the Amrit as the last word of the Mantra – the Immortality (‘A-‘ as oppositional prefix – in a similar manner to how this works in modern English; ‘-Mrtat’ being “Death”, and quite closely related to “Mort-“), to which one wishes to seek or remain connected to … recalls another ‘facing’ of Lord Shiva – Soma, the eponymous God closely aligned with the much-storied elixir so highly regarded by the Vedic Aryans [indeed, RV VII 59, is about an offering of Soma to the Maruts].

The virtues of which, in relation to this mythopoetic metasyllabry, I can hardly do better in extolling than Griffith’s translation of RV VIII 48 – “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. / Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? […]/ These glorious drops that give me freedom have I drunk. Closely they knit my joints as straps secure a car. / Let them protect my foot from slipping on the way: yea, let the drops I drink preserve me from disease. / Make me shine bright like fire produced by friction: give us a clearer sight and make us better. […]/ O Soma, King, prolong thou our existence as Sūrya makes the shining days grow longer. / […] Our maladies have lost their strength and vanished: they feared, and passed away into the darkness. / Soma hath risen in us, exceeding mighty, and we are come where men prolong existence. / Fathers, that Indu which our hearts have drunken, Immortal in himself, hath entered mortals. / So let us serve this Soma with oblation, and rest securely in his grace and favour.”

As you shall note, there is a pervasive theme of longevity, as secured via Divine Empowerment (the connection, the linkage, the relationship with the Immortal Divine), and manifested also as the provision of Freedom (i.e. the opposite of bondage) – including in the form of freedom from disease, or the malefic barbs of more mortal (in both senses of the term) opponents.

In this sense, it can clearly be seen how the ‘two hands’ of Rudra are referenced in the concluding line to the Mrityunjaya Mantra – both the Hand which is delivering of Death, especially to the Foeman, the unrighteous … and which is asked to be gentle and turned elsewhere via this verse; but also of the Hand which bestows the opposite – the Life, and Love, and Energy, and Vitality, and Glory to the pious Devotee, the righteous Rudra worshipper and others also justly deserving of same. [As I observed in the MahaShivRatri devotional article from earlier this year, the concept of the Devotee ‘shining’ is a prominent and recurrent Indo-European metaphor for Divine Blessing; as is the True Sight which can accompany it, along with True Speaking.]

In truth, of course, the ‘two hands’ are really ‘one’ – as can be seen when we look at the metaphor depicted in that Soma hymnal line around the ‘maladies’ which might beset the Devotee being terrified into fleeing off into the surrounding dark. Exactly what we would expect from the Great Terrifying Lord – Rudra Ghora – Who is also well regarded as the presider over the herbal and other medicinal wisdom in order to secure more conventional healing in quite an array of other RigVedic and subsequent scriptural materials [as I covered in a previous piece upon this, linking to the more Western-familiar conceptry around Hermes/Mercury and the Rod of Asclepius].

And also, as applies the Hand of dealing to those more human would-be ill-bestowers toward us, what can be seen when it comes to other verses, including from the RigVedic Marut hymnal from whence the Tryambakam [‘Three-Eyed’ Lord] Mantra we also call Mrityunjaya initially comes; pertaining to the striking down with great vengeance and furious Ugra, those who would attempt to poison and do us harm. As RV VII 59 puts it – “Maruts, the man whose wrath is hard to master, he who would slay us ere we think, O Vasus, / May he be tangled in the toils of mischief; smite ye him down with your most flaming weapon./ O Maruts, ye consuming Gods, enjoy this offering brought for you,/ To help us, ye who slay the foe.”

Although to work our way back up the Mantra from this terminal point, it is not only in the Destructive yet also Protective Hands that we can see the pervasive presence of Shiva.

Some interpretations of the last line emphasize, in confluence with the Power of True Seeing connoted with the Three Eyed epithet at the start, that what is intended by the liberation from death but not immortality – is the empowerment to see past what is false, illusory, transient … but not to lose sight of what is true, real, permanent.

This is, indeed, a common, powerful, and resonant mytheme within Hindu scripture, occurring most prominently within the Pavamana Mantras so famed from the Upanishads – “From falsehood lead me to truth, / From darkness lead me to the light, / From death lead me to immortality.” Which should also be familiar to fans of The Matrix, as the Sanskrit original [from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad] is sung in ‘Neodammerung’ – “Asato ma Sad gamaya / Tamaso ma Jyotir gamaya / Mrtyor Mamrtam gamaya”. The other Upanishadic lines referenced in Neodammerung are also of capacious relevancy; but more upon those some other time, perhaps.

The notion of the Cucumber or mature fruit, also accords with Lord Shiva’s role in the life of the pious Devotee. It is possible to interpret ‘Pustivardhanam’ in the more conventional and direct sense as the Bestower of Prosperity (which, again, is commensurate with verses elsewhere pertaining to Shiva … including, as briefly mentioned in my recent MahaShivRatri devotional article, via the liberation of wealth from its previous bearers through the judicious application of armed force); however, it is also possible to interpret the term as referring to the Power of Shiva to facilitate the spiritual growth, the growth in perspective, piety and insight, the maturation of a person – which is part of what affords the liberation from Varuna’s Noose (which particularly afflicts the sinful) in the first place.

Or, in other words, for the ‘fruit’ to be separated from the stalk or branch it has grown upon (and there is a further Shiva as World-Tree metaphor that is somewhat present in Vedic scripture, as well), it must ripen. Which goes rather well with the well-attested role of Shiva in ‘looking after’, as I have put it elsewhere, those who still have some way to go upon the road to enlightenment.

Now, there is further exegesis that can be done upon the Shaivite Theonym with which the Mrityunjaya Mantra is incepted, yet I think we shall save that for another time.

The point I am making is quite a simple one. This single, two-lined Mantra – it is found initially in our texts in the older books of the RigVeda, dating from somewhere between three and a half to four thousand years prior to the present; and re-occurring, or consciously echoing, in subsequent scriptural materials ever since.

The Deity, and the conceptry, referenced within it are similarly temporally pervasive; stretching in an unbroken line, perhaps not unlike an infinite spear-shaft or Axis Mundi [but, then, I repeat myself as applies the relevant mythological element] from the Mists [‘Neb’] which preceded it unto the Present and on into the Future. That undiscovered country.

In both cases, we can regard the MrityunJaya Mantra as forming a hypostasis for a far broader and densely interwoven tapestry of mythoreligious elements. Similarly repeated, resounding, roaring, recurrent, all the way from the far-distant Vedic Aryan past to the Modern Age.

Even, as it turns out, on the Edge of the World down here in Patala-Loka, one February Night in Auckland 2020.

Aum tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sughandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam |
urvārukamivabandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya māmṛtāt ||

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