It is only fitting to begin this treatise with that timeless opening sloka of the first of the ten principal Upanishads, the Ishavasyam.
ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् । तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथाः मागृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ॥
The whole world, whatever there may be in it, is pervaded by Isha (Supreme Being to put it loosely; not to be confused with the Christian concept of God or Lord). (For this reason), enjoy whatever is given to you, do not covet the wealth or possessions of others.
This simple, terse yet all-encompassing verse informs a simple but profound truth which in many ways became both the basis and the subject of elaborate treatises in various Darshanas and Dharma Shastra corpuses including the Buddhist and Jain scriptures. It was a value held in the highest esteem for thousands of years and continues to be revered in small pockets of those who continue to live by Dharmic codes.
We can begin by looking at this verse which lists the components of the first anga (limb) of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga:
अहिंसासत्यास्तेय ब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहाः यमाः ||
Non-violence, Non-falsehood, Non-stealing, Non-cheating (celibacy, chastity), and Non-possessiveness are the five Yamas.
—Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.30
Aparigraha, the last component of Yama (Dos), the first Anga, is what we shall examine in the rest of this essay. When we break down the compound word Aparigraha, we get this:
A (No, non) + Parigraha (to amass, to seize, to covet, to possess) = Non-covetousness or non-possession. The scope of the word encompasses both the external and the inner “world,” so to say. In the context of the external world, it includes attachment to all worldly possessions like land, money, jewellery, gifts, etc. In the context of the inner world, it both means—but is not limited to—an attitude of non-possession of and an absence of attachment towards material possessions and rewards. It also implies cultivating a state of mind where one does the good or the right thing because it is good or the right thing to do without anticipating any reward or praise in return for doing so.
Aparigraha therefore aims at gradually reducing and finally eliminating ahanakara or ego, a key aspect embodied in all our Darshanas. A person that has fully cultivated aparigraha eventually comes to embody it, and releases himself/herself of the psychological states of fear and the need to always be in control, and ultimately enjoys that highest freedom: that which comes from leading a life unfettered by anxiety of any sort.
We can turn again to Patanjali who sums this up beautifully:
अपरिग्रहस्थैर्ये जन्मकथंतासंबोधः ॥३९॥
For a person who is constant in Aparigraha, a spiritual illumination of the how and the why of motives (for example, of human behaviour) and birth emerges. [Loose translation: mine]
—Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.39
Aparigraha also forms and has been recognized by all Dharma Shastra texts as a foundational and powerful motivator of Daana or charity. This shared cultural and civilizational consciousness is at work behind why even to this day we witness enormously wealthy people standing by the wayside at say the Vaishno Devi or other yatras and serving buttermilk or food to the pilgrims, erecting massive pandals, free rest houses and so on. In my readings, the Kannada writer-philosopher-scholar and multi-faceted genius, Devudu Narasimha Sastry has provided the finest exposition of Aparigraha in his three great novels, Maha Brahmana, Maha Kshatriya (to an extent) and Maha Darshana.
As with every principle, tenet, and ideal in Dharmic philosophies and traditions, they were not merely theoretical prescriptions but were lived and living, everyday realities embodied by real men and women—rishis and common people alike—throughout the ages until it became fashionable for Hindus themselves to deride, distort and vandalize Sanatana Dharma. In other words, in the true spirit of Sanatana Dharma, there was no disconnect between precept and practice. And in the same spirit, it is worth examining the lives, ideals and conduct of just two men who lived the ideal of aparigraha in chronological order.
The first is Swami Vedanta Desikan, that prolific poet, divine devotee, philosopher and the Guru of Gurus. Even the briefest of surveys of his life reveal two luminous qualities: it is a study in how to live one’s life to the fullest with single-minded focus on one’s chosen deity to the exclusion of even the most basic necessities and master-print on how one can acquire erudition in multiple areas.
Vedanta Desikan lived a full 102 years and created innumerable disciples—indeed, according to reliable sources in the Sri Vaishnava tradition, the lineage of his disciples can be traced all the way up to the current day. He toured almost all of India—Ayodhya, Kashi, Mathura, Badari, Puri, Vrindavanam, Dwaraka, Triveni, Gaya down to the Malayala Desha. He wrote copiously—from Vedanta granthas to, vyakhya granthas to anushthana granthas (treatises on practice of rituals) to natakas (plays) to kavyas (poetry) to stotrams (devotional poems/verses) in Sanskrit and the Divya Prabandhams in Tamil. If this corpus of brilliant literature and poetry is on the one side, his Paaduka Sahasram (1008 verses on the sandals of the various forms of Vishnu) is in a league of its own. Devout Sri Vaishnavas to this day continue to do parayanam (loosely: devotional chanting) and believe that it helps them attain Moksha.
If this was not enough, Vedanta Desikan along with Pillai Lokacharya played a pivotal role in saving the main deities of the Srirangam temple from destruction at the hands of the barbaric Muslim invasion of Srirangam under the brutal Malik Kafur, the general of Alauddin Khilji. At great risk to his own life and that of his disciples, he managed to ensure the safety of the deities.
If all this is on one side, his personal character and conduct is a monument on its own. He lived a life of total renunciation, and begged for food accepting no gifts, riches or rewards, a fact that this elevating verse from his Vairagya Panchakam brings out:
न मे पित्रार्जितम् किन्चित् न मया किन्चिदार्जितम् |
अस्ति मे हस्तिशैलाग्रे वस्तु पैतामहम् धनम् ||
Neither has my father earned anything (for me) nor have I earned anything.
The only possession I have is that which my grandfather has earned, that which resides atop the Hasti hill, meaning Krishna.
The evocativeness of this sloka lies in the pun in पैतामहम्, meaning “grandfather.” According to law, a father’s wealth may or may not be bequeathed to his son. However, the grandfather’s (or ancestral) wealth automatically comes to the descendants. Now, पितामह also means “Brahma.” According to the legend surrounding the origins of the Hastagiri temple, it is said that after Brahma performed a great Yagna, Vishnu “emerged with brilliance of thousand Suns atop the Hasti hill and resided there permanently.” This then is the wealth that Vedanta Desikan refers to. The Hastagiri temple is more popularly known as the Varadharaja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram.
And so the story has it that one day Vedanta Desikan went around as usual from house to house for bhiksha, lost in meditation on his favourite deity. The lady of a house of a wealthy person out of a desire to help Vedanta Desikan mixed some precious stones with rice and put it in his bag. When Vedanta Desikan returned home, his wife saw the precious stones. Horrified, she exclaimed, “somebody has put worms with your bhiksha!” and promptly threw the gems away.
Anything I say beyond this will be superfluous.
From Vedanta Desikan, we turn to Karnataka to the ancestors of a little known litterateur named Sali Ramachandra Rao who passed away sometime in the 1970s. The prefix “Sali” comes from “Shaale” or “School.” His ancestors were schoolteachers somewhere in North Karnataka in the employ of the headman/landlord of the region named Desai. This episode also reveals the other side of the so-called evil-feudal-system discourse popularized by the Leftist discourse of India.
Ramachandra Rao’s ancestors led extraordinarily frugal, ascetic lives. They would visit the Desai’s granary and take only that amount of food grain that they actually required for the moment. They didn’t believe in storing much less hoarding anything beyond what their immediate needs demanded.
The Desai noticed this and said, “why do you take the trouble of coming here every day and taking only small amounts of food items? Let me know how much you need for a month (or whatever other duration), I’ll arrange it to be sent to your home.”
I’ll end this with the response the Desai received: “That’s very generous and kind of you. But you see, if I store these items in my house for any amount of time, I’ll need to take extra effort to ensure that they don’t get spoiled, I’ll need to buy other equipment to guard against rats, I’ll need to keep out insects, set aside unnecessary extra time and add avoidable worries.”
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