Filters, Data Structures & Shankara’s Shatpadi

Unfolding the layers of this 6 verse poem

Sujatha R
7 min readMay 26, 2021

Imagine a little poem describing a gallery of events. And the word containers are chained like a linked list.. How cool would that be? Welcome to the brilliance of Shankaracharya's poetry.

With the software analogy of Filters, Data Structures, Stack, Dictionary etc, let us gauge the layers of depth in appreciating this tiny work. A little stretch exercise to our cognitive pipeline and welcome to the world of non linear expressions.

Filter Effects

An Instagram pic can seem immensely beautiful due to the magic of the filters. Poetry too can have several filters enhancing and ornamenting the message.

https://infinitediaries.net/cssgram-reacrete-instagram-filters-with-css/

The meaning of the verse itself is immensely beautiful and touching.. This is artha alankara. Prominent sounds repeating in a cascade of words is dwani alankara. Metaphors, symbolism and many other effects are seen in each verse of Shatpadi. Let us examine a few of these.

Vishnu Shatpadi, is a unique melange of Bhakthi and Advaitha. Like ‘shatpadi’ 6 legged bee hovering over the fragrance of lotus, Shankara’s 6 verse Vishnu Shatpadi hovers over the Supreme..

Verse 1

“avinayam apanaya viṣṇō.. Oh Vishnu.. Remove my avinaya and arrogance. May I tame my mind..
May Compassion expand in my heart.. bhūta dayāṃ vistāraya..
May I cross this ocean of samsaara.”

I loved this verse for the beautiful words and meaning. How true that we get arrogant easily.

Vinayam is modesty. The poet Bartruhari writes beautifully compares our arrogance with an intoxicated elephant.

When my knowledge was limited, I assumed that I was fully proficient. I was blinded by pride like an elephant in frenzy.

However, when I started learning in the company of the erudite and realized my shortcomings, the conceit of mine disappeared like fever

Shankara makes an earnest request to remove avinaya and expand bhuta daya compassion towards every one..

Verse 2

It is usual to start a poem taking blessings of the Lord’s feet. The focus is now on the feet of Vishnu and the Ganges gushing to wash it. The bee of Shankara chanting these verses is getting attracted to the fragrance of the Lord’s Lotus feet. There is promise of nectar.

“From Vishnu’s lotus feet is gushing the makaranda nectar of Ganges .. And the parimala fragrance of ‘sat chid ananda.. May I get blessed with this fragrance and nectar.”

Verse 3

“Oh lord.. I am nothing but a part of you.. A wave is a just a tiny part of the ocean. The ocean is not part of the wave.”

Verse 4: Linked List Effect

Let us take time in digging into this verse. A simple meaning would be..

“He who has lifted the Govardhana mountain to rescue his people..
He who was born as Indra’s brother in Vamaan avatar to help the devaas..
He who is friendly to the good people and not friendly to the evil rakshasas. He who has Sun and Moon as his eyes”

“And he who has seen you.. His fears are destroyed.”

Let us closely examine the phrases that make up this verse. Notice that the word ending a phrase becomes the beginning word for the next phrase. How clever.

uddhṛta naga
naga-bhid-anuja
danuja-kulā-(a)mitra
mitra-śaśi-dṛṣṭē
dṛṣṭē bhavati prabhavati
na bhavati kiṃ bhava-tiraskāraḥ

Well.. We do not see Govardhana, Indra and Vamana mention in these verses.. For the linked-list effect, alternate names have been used to get the freedom in linking. Let’s checkout.

na-ga is that which cannot move and a synonym for mountain. uddhṛta naga.. Vishnu lifting the mountain is a reminder of the Govardhana incident and a lesson for the arrogant Indra.

naga-bhid-anuja.. Let us decode this bit. Long time back, the mountains had wings. It was havoc to have the mountains flying and Indra the King of Gods comes to rescue and chops the wings of the mountains.. This incident is mentioned in Sundarakanda and Meghadootha. The wings turn into clouds and hence even today, there is a great kinship and bondage between the clouds and mountains.

The mountains are afraid of Indra. Hence he is called naga-bhid. Infact Indra has so many names like vasava, sahasra akshi, purandara.. Indra, the King of Gods is hardly referred to as Indra in works of poetry. Ravana in Shiva Tandava calls him Sahasra akshi. Tyagaraja often refers to him as Vasava. There are many stories and events due to which Indra has got these titles. Where do we find this listing?

Sanskrit has this amazing thesaurus-like repository called Amarakosha. Poets have used the freedom of caching and using the right names. If interested, hear Dr. Gauri Mahulikar narrate the Amarakosha listing the names for Indra.

naga-bhid-anuja refers to the Vamana avatar episode. When the asuras become powerful, Goddess Aditi prays for protection and Vishnu is born as younger brother to Indra and hence vishnu is called here as naga-bhid-anuja

Alright, we have seen 2 phrases so far.. uddhṛta naga & naga-bhid-anuja. The protection to people by lifting the mountain and protection to the Gods by taking Vaamana avataara.

danuja-kulā-(a)mitra: Unfriendly to the kula of bad people
mitra-śaśi-dṛṣṭē: His vision is like sun(mitra) and moon. Burning bad people and protecting good people.

dṛṣṭē bhavati prabhavati: And when you (bhavati) see and grace
na bhavati kiṃ.. bhava-tiraskāraḥ: shall there not be (bhavati).. destruction of bhava samsaara?

In summary.. Lord.. You take care of your people. With your grace, this bhava sagara shall be dissolved..

Well, to get this linked list effect and link multiple stories.. it needed us to visit Amara kosha and supporting stories. Poets have this vast working space in them. We will briefly visit the other verses.

Verse 5

“Starting from Matsya avataara, you took various incarnations to protect this world. Oh Lord.. Please protect me from the fear of Samsaara.”

Verse 6

“O Damodara.. You were tied by a rope to your belly. You are a belt of fine qualities yourself. O lotus faced Govinda.. You are the Mandara mountain churning the ocean of worldly life. Please remove fear from me”

dara apanayam.. remove fear from me..

In this verse, there is a streak of repeating sounds n da ra like the chyme of bells.. Interestingly, ‘dara’ means fear..

dāmōdara guṇamandira sundara-vadaravinda gōvinda
bhava-jaladhi-mathana-mandara parama daram-apanaya tvaṃ mē ॥ 6 ॥

Signoff Verse

And again 6 words of beautiful summary..
I take refuge in the feet of the compassionate Narayana.
nārāyaṇa karuṇāmaya śaraṇaṃ karavāṇi tāvakau caraṇau

May this ‘shatpadi’ always be residing in my mind and my lotus like mouth. (May I always be chanting the Glory of the Lord)
iti ṣaṭpadī madīyē..vadanasarōjē sadā vasatu

When I came across this chant, a few words here and there, the sound effects and the music of the chant caught my attention. Little did I know there was so much of unfolding to discover greater depths.

From what I have seen in Shankaracharya’s compositions, these kind of extreme ornamentation and layers is present more in the Saundarya, Madurya and Bhakthi kind of compositions like Saundarya Lahari, Kanakadhara Stotram. Those who understand and listen perhaps have their left right cores firing in action.. With the left side busy parsing and and understanding and the right side enjoying the aesthetics and Bhakthi.

I hope you were able to appreciate some layers of depth and are inspired to discover more of such Gems. May the Bumble Bee in you be busy in sublime buzz and bliss..

REFERENCES

  1. CHANT: https://youtu.be/KACioeyVp-o
  2. Soulful talk by Swami Tejomayananda
  3. Lyrics: https://vignanam.org/samskritam/vishnu-shatpadi.html
  4. Meaning: http://reveredhinduism.blogspot.com/2016/06/vishnu-shatpadi-stotram.html
  5. Dr Gauri giving out synonyms for Indra from Amarakosha

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Sujatha R

I write.. I weave.. I walk.. कवयामि.. वयामि.. यामि.. Musings on Music, Linguistics & Patterns