The marketing of two planets by Muthuswami Dikshitar

This is the second in a series in which I discuss compositions that seem (to me) to have counterintuitive choices of ragas given their subjects.

Entries for Angaraka and Brihaspati from ‘Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide’ by Roshen Dalal

Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Navagraha kritis on the nine ‘planets’ are well known. These are Suryamurte Namostute (Sun), Chandram Bhaja Manasa (Moon), Angarakam Ashryamyaham (Mars), Budham Ashryami (Mercury), Brihaspate Tarapate (Jupiter), Shri Shukra Bhagavantam (Venus), Shri Divakaratanujam (Saturn), Smaramyaham Sada Rahum (Rahu), Mahasuram Ketumaham (Ketu). There is a school of thought that insists the last two kritis on Rahu and Ketu were not composed by Dikshitar, but by some of his disciples. The first seven kritis are also known as the vaaram kritis, as each corresponds to the presiding deity (planet) of each of the seven days.

Of these kritis, two have caught my attention for a particular reason — Angarakam and Brihaspate which are set to the ragas Surutti and Atana respectively. In these songs, the the raga and subject seem utterly mismatched. And strikingly, if one were to switch the ragas, then the raga-subject combinations (Angaraka-Atana, Brihaspati-Surutti) make perfect sense. So why didn’t Dikshitar set Angarakam to Atana and Brihaspate to Surutti?

Of Calm and Mojo

Surutti to me is the raga of immediate and inescapable calm, with a delicate wistfulness. To get a sense of the raga, let’s turn to another great composer — Thyagaraja.

Here is a rendition of his Bhajana Parulakela by Ramnad Krishnan:

And a rendition of Gitartamu by the violinist T.N. Krishnan who was an absolute master of the raga:

The first word that comes to mind when I think of the raga Atana is mojo and second, courage. It always makes me sit up, my heart pumping faster, ready to take on the world and more. At one point, I actually used to listen to Atana before any important interview or meeting, just to get into a confident mental frame of mind. Staying with Thyagaraja, I get the feeling he did much the same! Consider two well-known kritis of his in the raga — Ilalo Pranatarti and Anupama gunambudi. In both songs we find Thyagaraja confronting deities in a highly agitated, almost frenzied state. He is in peak emotional blackmail mode, accusing them of utter neglect despite his devotion. It takes special courage to confront your God in such a manner, and he seems to have got this at least in part, from the stirring notes of Atana. Listen in:

Another famous song of Thyagaraja’s in the raga is Ela Nee Dayaradu. Thyagaraja is not as aggressively confrontational in this composition, with the emphasis on describing the various fine attributes of Rama, almost as a steady invocation; there is a definite emphasis on his courage and majesty. And the anchor line (pallavi) is the by now familiarly plaintive ‘Why do you not shower me with compassion. Now is not the time to become careless and forget about me.’ Here is K.V. Narayanaswamy’s rendition:

The Red One

Now consider the reputation of the Red Planet. Here is the entry for Angaraka in Roshen Dalal’s wonderful reference book ‘Hinduism — An Alphabetical Guide’:

Angaraka: A name of Mangala or the planet Mars, presided over by the god Karttikeya or Skanda. It is also known as Lohita and Vakra, and is described as having nine rays. According to the Puranas, it is located above the planet Shukra (Venus), at a distance of 200,000 yojanas. It is the first of the planets, and in some Puranas is said to have been a form of Virabhadra, the destroyer of Daksha’s sacrifice. A vrata (vow) in honour of this planet, brings health and prosperity.

From the same work, here is the entry for Mangala:

Mangala: One of the Navagraha or nine planets in Hindu mythology. Mangala represents the planet Mars, and according to some myths, was born from the god Shiva through a drop of his blood or sweat. According to other stories, Vishnu assumed the Varaha (boar) form to raise the earth (Bhudevi or Prithvi) which had been submerged under water by Hiranyaksha, and from their union Mangala was born. The deity is also identified with the god Karttikeya, but is depicted differently. His vehicle is a ram and he is red in colour, with four arms. According to the Puranas, his chariot has an octagonal shape and is drawn by eight ruby-red horses. Mangala is worshipped in temples, usually along with the other Navagraha. He is considered the protector of landed property.

Mangala also means auspicious. He is also known as Bhauma.

And finally, again from the same book, the relevant portion of the entry for Virabhadra:

Virabhadra: A form of the god Shiva. Virabhadra is an emanation of Shiva described in the Mahabharata and Puranas. In most accounts Virabhadra was created to destroy Daksha’s sacrifice, but sometimes he was used by Shiva to destroy certain aspects of Vishnu, or various Asuras. The descriptions of Virbhadra vary , but in general he has a terrifying or fearful form. According to the Mahabharata, Virabhadra emerged from the mouth of Shiva, and the same is said in the Vayu Purana. In this Purana he is said to be a divine being with a thousand eyes, a thousand feet, weiding a thousand clubs, a thousand shafts, bow and a battle-axe, decorated with a crescent with four heads, huge tusks, and as large as a fig tree, glowing like a thousand suns, endowed with wisdom, power, self-knowledge, and all other virtues. Devi, as Rudrakali, accompanied him to destroy Daksha’s sacrifice. According to the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Shiva struck his matted hair on the ground, and from this Virabhadra and Bhadrakali were born. After destroying Daksha’s sacrifice, Virabhadra began to destroy the Devas and the whole world. Then Shiva appeared to him and made him a planet (griha) called Angaraka (or Angarakshaka), and said he would be worshipped for health, wealth and a long life. Thus he was pacified, and shone in the sky.

Clearly there is a very strong element of the martial, which is accentuated by the heavy iconographic use of the color red, always associated with a certain fieriness and aggression. His vehicle, the ram, is also noted for its somewhat irritable and aggressive posture. The history of the deity as Virabhadra is dripping, literally, with blood and suggests a certain potential volatility lying just beneath the now calmer deportment (perhaps in a way that the deep gorges and many volcanic craters on the surface of Mars are indicative of a more active past). And he is also now associated with auspiciousness and health.

This is how Dikshitar has characterized the planet in the song Angarakam Ashramyaham (source: Todd McComb’s website transcription of notes of an LP recording by S. Ramanathan):

I take refuge again in Angaraka, the divine Mandara tree to the humble dependent devotees, the presiding deity of Tuesday, and the son of Earth.

Who is the Lord of the cherished houses of Mesa and Vrischika, with red limbs, who wears the red dress and is the bearer of the sword and trident. The auspicious one, with beautiful neck, with lovely feet, bestower of auspiciousness, riding on the Goat, and whose higher aspis is in Makara rasi.

Who is worshipped by Gods and demons, one with the face beaming and smiling, bestower of landed wealth and brotherhood, with red eyes, protector of the afflicted, worshipped in the holy Vaidisvaran temple, and favored by the hosts of the Gods and Guruguha. Who is the friend of Surya, Chandra and Brhaspati, shining with his good wife, and his hands on his knees, having four arms, and who is quite extraordinary.

Knowing what you know of the planet deity, would you have picked Surutti or Atana as your raga of choice to embody his spirit? I would certainly have chosen Atana.

But here is the composition, in Surutti and in the voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi.

And a beautiful, leisurely, almost plain version on the veena by Kalpakam Swaminathan (the mridangam volume is so low it almost sounds unaccompanied). The piece starts at 18.26:

And a rendering from Balamuralikrishna. This is the album that made me fall in love with the Navagraha krithis. He is beautifully accompanied by veena and flute. I often wish the veena and flute were used more as accompanying instruments rather than the ubiquitous violin.

The Guru

Now let’s turn to deity Brihaspati (Jupiter). Roshen Dalal’s reference book on Hinduism has five different entries / definitions of Brihaspati. Here are the two most relevant:

(2) In later times Brihaspati was identified with the planet of the same name, equated with Jupiter, and became the lord of the planet. He is thus one of the Navagraha or nine planets and is represented in temples on Navagraha panels. The Agni Purana states his images should be consecrated while adorned with a necklace of rudraksha beads. Brihaspati’s chariot is called Nitighosha, and is drawn by eight pale horses. In early reliefs Brihaspati was two-handed, sometimes holding a rosary and a water-pot. In modern temples and art, he is depcited dressed in yellow, and seated on a lotus, or in his chariot. He has four arms and holds a mace, a rosary and a sphere or water-pot. As Jupiter, Brihaspati is the lord of Brihaspativara or Thursday. However, myths and legends of him are not the same as those of the Western Jupiter.

(3) Brihaspati is also a rishi or sage. In the later Vedas he is known as a purohita or priest, who awakens the gods with Agni or fire. In the Mahabharata and Puranas, Brihaspati, one of the sons of Angiras, is the teacher of the Devas. According to one passage in the Mahabharata, from his wife Shubha, Angiras had one son, Brihaspati, and seven daughters. According to another section in the same text, Brihaspati was the first of Angirasa’s eight sons who were called Varunas. He is said to be the brother of Samvarta and Utathya.

In some texts, he is the son of Agni. His wife, Tara, was very beautiful, and fell in love with Chrandra, the moon, and Budha (Mercury) was born to them. A war took place over this, and finally Tara returned to Brihaspati. According to the Mahabharata, Brihaspati, from his wife Tara, had six sons and one daughter. The sons were all personification of fire, and his daughter was Svaha, also known as Manyuti. His sons’ sons were also personifications of fire, while Svaha had three sons, among whom was Uktha. Uktha created the powerful Panchajanya, another personification of fire, who created other beings. Brihaspati was also the father of the rishi Bharadvaja, through the wife of Utathya.

Another story describes how Brihaspati once impersonated Shukra, the teacher of the asuras, and taught the asuras for ten years. One of Brihaspati’s sons was Kacha, with whom Shukra’s daughter Devayani fell in love.

Brihaspati was known by other names, including Jiva (the living); Dhishasana (the intelligent); Animisha-acharya (the unblinking acharya).

And finally, here is a translation of Dikshitar’s composition Brihaspate Tarapate (source: Todd McComb’s website transcription of notes of an LP recording by S. Ramanathan):

Salutations Brhaspati! Lord of Tara, one who is born of Brahma.

Oh omnipresent one, Oh Lord of great strength, Lord of speech, Lord of lovely Dhanus and Mina, whose form is adored by Indra and the other Gods, and who is the great intellectual honored by divinities like Madhava.

Oh most esteemed teacher of the Gods, wielder of the thunderbolt, of auspicious markings, teacher of the three worlds, one who is not affected by old age and the like, unexcitable, father of Kacha, the divine Kalpataru for those who take refuge in Him, who is a delight to Shiva and Guruguha, and the bestower of offspring, kin to the distressed, the manifester of the four phases of speech, an ocean of compassion. Who is devoid of all illness, the author of smrti, uncontrolled, the Lord of the Universe, the untarnished one, who delights in the worlds and is the bestower of vigor.

Brihaspati’s overriding identity seems to be of a wise Guru — think ‘Guruvaar(a)’ for Thursday. He is unflappable, a mentor and guide to the Gods themselves. I would think that Surutti would suit him well. But instead he is cloaked in the vigorous Atana by Dikshitar. Here is Balamuralikrishna again from the same album:

And Kalpakam Swaminathan’s veena rendition (beginning at 43:16):

And finally, a rendition by Sanjay Subrahmanyam:

The Rounding of Planets

Of course, as counterintuitive his raga choices seem to me, Diskhitar seems to have made them work beautifully. I’d like to think that he made the raga choices very consciously, in an effort to ‘round out’ the personalities of Angaraka and Brihaspati, making them more accessible to us. The point of these songs after all was for daily worship of the deities — one song for each day.

If Angaraka seems intimidating because of his fiery, red-bodied martial vigour, Brihaspati intimidates by being a figure of such distant reverence and unfathomable wisdom — not just a teacher, but a teacher to the Gods. And so the fiery, unapproachable red-bodied deity is softened with the balm of Surutti. Perhaps an Atana-infused Angaraka would have made him simply too intimidating for us mere mortals. And yet his treatment of the raga in the composition (especially evident in the brisk rendition by M.S. Subbulakshmi) is such that it does not in any way diminish from the raw power of the deity.

And the unflappable, scholarly Guru to the Gods is brought to life and animated by Atana, making Brihaspati too more relatable to us. Perhaps Surutti would have relegated our already distant relationship with the already unflappable Brihaspati to the point of irredeemable inertness. And yet, Diskhitar has deployed Atana in the cause of Brihaspati with such mastery that the deity retains the unflappable, wise calm that he is associated with. It is not drowned out by the agitation that is sometimes associated with the raga. Rather, the innate poise of Brihaspati born of mastery, which may have been mistaken for dispassionate nonchalance, is elevated and imbued with undeniable, charming majesty.

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Vishnu Vasudev

Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.