A Mark of Respect


Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

“Old is gold” says the adage. Youngsters feel that this must have been coined by a person well past his seventies, who felt as much at home with the present environment as a fish on land. It is true that elderly people do have nostalgic thoughts about the days past and dream of their return. It would interest you to know that the pastime, of glorifying yesteryears and denouncing modern times and especially the present day youth (for their irreverence, impertinence, disobedience, etc.), is as old as the hills. We hear that several centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Plato passed similar comments about the youth of those days.

Coming back to old and gold, Mahakavi Kalidasa adopts a more balanced approach and remarks that not everything old is good, ipso facto, nor everything new bad, per se. It is however a fact that many good customs of olden days have all but disappeared now. It is about one of these that we are about to see in this piece.

What do we do when an elderly gentleman or Bhagavata drops in on us?

We welcome him warmly, offer him a seat and then prostrate before him, seeking his blessings and thankful that he has blessed us with his presence at our home. Time was, when boys used to perform Sandhyavandanam and then, as a routine, fall at the feet of their parents every day. Girls too did this in the evenings, after the lamp at Perumal Sannidhi was lit. This hoary practice was not confined to evenings, but was observed in the mornings too. Married women prostrated before their husbands and in-laws everyday. Needless to say, students paid obeisance this way to their teachers, before commencement and after conclusion of studies, both religious and secular. And, of course, everyone prostrated before the Lord at His temples and at home, every day and several times a day. This is what we used to do. Now, however, the practice of prostrating before elders is on its way out, observed more in the breach than in observance, and mostly reserved for special occasions like marriage or upanayanam, if at all then.

Leaving aside the blame game, why should we at all prostrate before elders? Is there any scriptural authority for this, or is it one more archaic practice, which we have developed over the ages and continue to perform, regardless of its relevance? Shall we see what the great Aapasthamba Maharshi has to say on the subject?

At the arrival of elders, the life spirit and faculties (Indriyas) of younger people automatically rise up and try to leave the body. By putting the body down in front of elders and performing a prostration, the younger person restores the spirit and indriyas to their respective positions in the body, says Aapasthamba—

“Oordhvam praanaa: hi utkraamanti yoona: sthavira aayati
Pratyutthaana abhivaadanaabhyaam puna: taan pratipadyate”

What this means in effect is that if we do not accord appropriate respect to elders by prostrating before them, our faculties would lose their efficiency much before the scheduled time. What Aapasthamba says in a negative fashion is reiterated by the venerated Manu in the following words worth their weight in gold—

“Abhivaadana seelasya nityam vriddha upasevina:
Chatvaari tasya vardhante hi aayu: pragyaa yaso balam”

One who prostrates before elders daily is so blessed that his lifespan, memory, fame and strength are multiplied four-fold, declares Manu categorically.

However, the real why of this prostration is explained by the Ahirbudhnya Samhita. By falling at the feet of an elder, the younger person acknowledges the former’s greatness and his own comparative smallness, says the Samhita—

“Nantru nantavya bhaavoyam na prayojana poorvaka:
Neecha ucchayo: svabhaava: ayam nantru nantavyataatmaka:”

Extolling the glory of those who have performed Veda adhyayanam, the Shruti tells us that we should pay obeisance to them daily, falling at their feet in reverence—“tasmaat Brahmanebhyo Veda vidbhyo dive dive namaskuryaat”. And another deity we are supposed to propitiate daily with “namaskaaram” is Agni. Every day, morning and evening, after performing Samidhaadaanam or Oupaasanam, all dvijaas should prostrate before Agni.

That this prostration is an age-old practice adopted by wise men and women, is brought out time and again in the great Epic. When Brahma arrives at Sri Valmiki’s ashramam, he is welcomed by the Maharshi with a reverential pranaamam—“Pranamya vidhivat cha enam prishtvaa chaivaapi anaamayam”. When Dasaratha enters the Yagyashaala for performing Asvamedha Yagam, he prostrates before his Kula Guru Vasishtta and obtains his blessings—“Abhivaadya Vasishttam cha nyaayata: pratipoojya cha”. After finishing their morning Sandhyavandam and other rituals, Sri Rama and Lakshmana perform obeisance and Abhivaadanam to Visvamitra—

“Krita aahnikou mahaa veerou Visvamitram tapodhanam
Abhivaadya abhi samhrishtou gamanaaya upatasthatu:”

Here is Sri Rama prostrating before His father and uttering abhivaadanam—

“Sa praanjali: abhipretya pranata: pitu: antike
Naama: svam sraavayan Rama: vavande charanou pitu:”

And Rama doesn’t wait for His father to get near, when He sees the Chakravartthi coming at a distance—He prostrates then and there—

“dadarsa pitaram dooraat pranipatya kritaanjali:”. (This is an object lesson to us, when we see the Lord on the streets, during Utsavams—we should not stay stationary, waiting for Emperuman to draw near, but should go towards Him, prostrating all the time.) Sri Rama performs Abhivaadanam to His mother too—“tathaa saniyamaameva sa: abhigamya abhivaadya cha”. When we want to get something done by others, the best way is to fall at their feet. This is demonstrated by Lakshmana, when he seeks to accompany his elder brother to the forest—“Sa: bhraatu: charanou ghaadam nipeedya Raghunandana:”. Reaching the abode of Maharshi Bharadvaja, the first thing Rama does is to prostrate before the sage along with Sita and Lakshmana—“Rama: Soumitrinaa saardham Seetayaa cha abhyavaadayat”. There are thus any number of occasions for prostration in Srimad Ramayanam—so much so that you find the characters constantly at it, apparently awaiting an opportunity for the same.

Prostration is prescribed especially in the case of students wishing to imbibe spiritual wisdom from learned teachers. We have this on very good authority—the Lord Himself says so in the Gita—

“Tat viddhi pranipaatena pariprasnena sevayaa
upadekshyanti te gnaanam Gnaanina: tattva darsina:”

Are there any specific rules for performing such prostration? Are there persons who should and should not be accorded such reverence? The late Sri Melpaakkam Nrisimhacharya Swami, doyen of Dharma Shastra adhikaaris, lays down the following criteria, to be observed while prostrating before others.

Immediately after Sandhyavandam in the morning, one should fall at the feet of one’s Acharya, from whom one derived wisdom, and prostrate before others thereafter. The term “Acharya” refers to those who have imparted to us Vedas, Vedaangaas, Mantras, etc., and includes one’s parents. These “others” include Brahmins, even if they are younger to one. In such a case, however, these younger Brahmins should return the respect accorded to them, by performing Pratipranaamam. The Smriti Ratnaakaram tells us that one should prostrate before one’s parents, elders and Acharyas, those who are elder to one by three years and other Bhagavatas-

“Evam sandhyaam upastthaaya pitarou agrajaan guroon
Trivarsha poorvaan sishttanscha paarsvastthaan abhivaadayet”

Such namaskaaram performed regularly after the three Sandhyavandanams enhances one’s lifespan, intellect, fame and might, says the Saccharitra Sudhaanidhi—

“Saayam praatascha vriddhaanaam kurvaanasya abhivaadanam
Aayu: praggyaa balam keerti: pravardhante dine dine”

Even if the opposite party is an eminent Bhagavata, we should not prostrate before him, if he is holding in his hand a Samit, Flowers, Tulasi, Darbham, Agni, Water, Sand, Food or Akshata. Only after these are kept aside in a clean place should we fall at his feet. Similarly, one should not perform namaskaaram to those engaged in Vaidika karmas like Japam, Homam, etc., and to those who are eating or sleeping, says the Dharma Saaram—

“Samit Pushpa Kusha Agni Ambu Mrit Anna Akshata paanika:
Japam Homam cha kurvaana: na abhivaadya: tathaa dvija:”

Similarly, those engaged in bathing, cleaning their teeth, excretion, those who have applied oil to their bodies preparatory to bathing and people who are lying down, should not be prostrated to. If either of the parties to the Pranamam has contracted “teettu” or Aasoucham, then too no prostration should be done. Similarly, Shastras forbid prostration before pregnant, menstruating and just-delivered women. We are also told that while in a temple, we can fall at only the Lord’s tiruvadi and at none other. Further, prostration in a temple should be performed only at the Dhvajastambam.

What about Sanyaasis? What are the rules governing their prostrations and those of others to them? All of us know that the normal rule is that we should fall at the feet of Tridandi Sanyaasis with reverence, the moment we see them. However, what about a great soul, a householder (Grihasttha), who has wide knowledge of Shruti and Shastras, has performed Yagas and Yagyas and is of unblemished conduct? Does he too have to prostrate before a Sanyasi, though the latter might be much less accomplished? And what about elders, who come across an ascetic much younger to them in age? Does the rule hold good then too?

The answer is a big YES—a householder or Brahmachari should invariably pay obeisance to a Sanyasi, irrespective of whether the latter is much less endowed or qualified than the former. The Sanyasi’s avocation and Ashrama are so exalted that all other accomplishments like wisdom, age, etc., cease to matter. One should always abide by this injunction to prostrate before Yatis, to the accompaniment of the Ashtaakshara Mantra. Failure to do so makes us impure, which can be cured by fasting, says the Smriti Sangraham—

“Devata pratimaam drishtvaa Yatim chaapi tridandinam
Namaskaaram akurvaana: upavaasena shuddhyati”

By the same token, a Sanyasi should never prostrate before a Grihasttha, whatever be the latter’s competence. However, what about two Sanyasis? Being on an equal footing as far as Ashrama is concerned, should they prostrate before each other mutually? Seniority among Sanyasis is reckoned by the length of their renunciation. A person who has been a Sanyasi for long, takes precedence over another, whose tenure in asceticism is shorter, even though the latter might be older. Thus, the Sanyasi who is a junior in the Sanyasa Ashramam should prostrate before another who is his senior, provided the latter adheres to the strict disciplines of his calling.

When our Acharya and his own Acharya are together, we should first pay obeisance to the latter (the Praachaarya) first, as it would please our own Acharya.

Coming back to Grihastthas, one should not fall at the feet of one’s son, disciple, maternal grandson or son-in-law. Similarly, even if one’s uncle (father’s younger brother, mother’s younger brother) or father-in-law is younger to one, then too Pranaamam is not called for.

The elder brother is equated with one’s father—“Jyeshtta bhraataa pitru sama:”. However, what should one do if the elder brother’s wife is younger to one? Shastras tell us that women should be considered as old as their husbands—“Pati vayasa: striya:”. Hence, since she occupies a higher position almost equal to one’s mother, even if the elder brother’s wife is younger to one, she is entitled to a prostration. Sri Lakshmana’s conduct is a model for us in this regard.

Thus, though the general rule is that one Srivaishnava seeing another should immediately prostrate before the other (“Vaishnavo Vaishnavam drishtvaa dandavat pranamet bhuvi”), it appears to be governed by the aforesaid additional rules. Incidentally, when two Vaishnavas perform a mutual prostration, the Lord appears in between, say the Shastras.

A word here about ‘Abhivaadanam”. Prostration is complete only when accompanied by Abhivaadanam. After falling at the feet of the elder, one should touch the elder’s feet with palms crossed at the wrists—so that the right palm touches the elder’s right foot and the left palm, the left foot. While doing so, the person performing the Pranaamam recites the names of the Maharshis–the distant ancestors to whose Gotram and Pravaram he belongs, as also his Veda and his own given name. This serves not only as an introduction to the other person, but also affords us an opportunity to remember our Maharshis reverentially.

When he hears such an Abhivaadanam, the elder should bless the prostrator and should intone the last vowel in his (that of the person paying obeisance) name elongated to the extent of three “Maatras”. This is known as “Pratyabhivaadanam”. One who does not know this doesn’t deserve to be prostrated to, say the Shastras—

“Yo na vetti abhivaadasya vipra: pratyabhivaadanam
na abhivaadya: sa vidushaa yathaa shoodra: tathaiva cha”

What happens when there is a congregation of elders, not one person to whom you could easily prostrate to and recite abhivaadanam, but several of them? We can fall at their feet, but not perform abhivaadanam to any particular worthy, we are told.

From all the aforesaid, it is clear that prostrate we must—but how many times do we do this? Once, twice or many times? Sri Ramanuja tells us in Sri Vaikuntta Gadyam that the liberated soul, upon reaching Sri Vaikunttam, pays obeisance repeatedly to Emperuman, falling at His lotus feet time and again—“Pranamya, utthaaya utthaaya, puna: puna: pranamya”. However, in view of there being different views on the subject, one must do as one’s Acharya instructs and as per one’s elders’ advice.

More than anything else, the Pranaamam appears to be an indispensable part of Saranagati. If we need proof of this, we only have to look into the Saranagati Shastram (Srimad Ramayanam). When Lakshmana performs Saranagati to the Divine Duo seeking the opportunity of kainkaryam during the Lord’s jungle sojourn, he falls at the feet of Rama and holds His feet tight—

“Sa bhraatu: charanou gaadam nipeedya Raghunandana:
Sitam uvaacha atiyasaa: Raghavam cha mahaavratam”

When Bharata performs Saranagati seeking Rama’s return to Ayodhya, he prostrates before Rama in sincere prayer—

“Evam uktvaa mahaa baahu: sabaashpa: Kaikayee suta:
Ramasya shirasaa paadou jagraaha vidhivat puna:”

When Vibhishana performs his famous Saranagati, he falls unreservedly at Rama’s feet, along with his fellow Rakshasas—

“Sa tu Ramasya dharmaatmaa nipapaata Vibheeshana:
Paadayo: sharana anveshee chaturbhi: saha rakshasai:”

Thus Pranaamam or Prostration appears to be a sine qua non of Saranagati. Apart from the folded palms, what better outward gesture could there be of Absolute Surrender, than a humble prostration!

Acharyas speak about a type of Pranamam known as “Sukruta Pranamam”. The mind must be full of devotion to the Lord, prompting a desire to prostrate to Him. The palms must be folded in the classic pose of obeisance. And all the eight specific parts of the body must touch the ground, to the accompaniment of the aforesaid mental state. This is what is known as “Sukruta Pranamam”. The glory of such a Pranamam is enshrined in the following sloka—

“Ekopi Krishne Sukruta Pranama: shata Asvamedha avabhrutena tulya:
Sata Asvamedhee puna: eti janma, Krishna pranamee na punarbhavaaya”

One single Sukruta Pranamam is equal to performance of a hundred Asvamedha Yagas. The important difference, however, is that one who performs a hundred glorious Asvamedha Yagas does enjoy unimaginable pleasures in Svarga lokam, but has to ultimately come back to earth after the Punyam is exhausted. The performer of Sukruta Pranamam to Krishna, however, enjoys boundless bliss in the Lord’s company, never to return to the mundane morass. From the description of its fruits, it is clear that this Sukruta Pranamam is nothing but Saranagati, for, nothing else is capable of conferring on us the ultimate award of Moksham.

Shastras point out that prostration, before those who deserve the same, is not optional—it is mandatory. One who refrains from doing it is inviting trouble: he or she is likely to be visited by famine, fear and untimely death. Conversely, the same fate awaits those who prostrate before ineligible persons, says the Dharmasaaram—

“Apoojyaa yatra poojyante poojyaa yatra apamaanitaa:
Tatra treeni vivardhante durbiksham maranam bhayam”

Pranamam should always be done “Saashttaangam”, that is, in such a way that eight parts of the body touch the ground. Regrettably, the North Indian practice of bending down and just touching the foot of an elder, is fast catching up in the South too. We see too at our own homes, the unseemly sight of children either remaining seated unconcernedly or merely calling out a “hello”, when elders visit our homes. If peace and prosperity, internal and external, are to return to our homes, if conflict and controversy are to be banished therefrom, if materialism and Mammon-worship are to be replaced by spirituality, then it is imperative that we should inculcate in ourselves and our children, the healthy habit of paying obeisance to elders, Acharyas, Bhaagavatas and to Bhagavan, through frequent Pranamams.

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore


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