*Waking Up Lord Vishnu:  A Debate in the Indian Supreme Court

A vast majority of TV viewers and others following news websites would have been astounded to have learnt that the learned judges of the Indian Supreme Court spent over an hour today listening to two lawyers spar on the question of whether the Sanskrit shlokas from the hymn, Venkatesa Suprabhatam, can be recited to wake up Lord Vishnu at the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram (or, as it is otherwise known, Trivandrum).

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.  Photo:  PTI.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Photo: PTI.

This is the same temple whose secret chambers were directed by the Court to be opened in June 2011, and where the authorities discovered a massive hoard of Roman coins, idols made of pure gold and studded with diamonds and rubies, and tons of jewelry, together estimated in value at $18 billion to $180 billion (depending on the market price of rare coins and antiques).

Treasure from the Underground Vault at Padmanabhaswamy Temple.  Source:  Rediff.com

Treasure from the Underground Vault at Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Source: Rediff.com

Gopuram of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple as seen from the street.

Gopuram of Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple as seen from the street.

Interesting as that find was, the present news item presents equally rich possibilities to the imagination.  One can be certain that this news item will fill some in the Indian educated middle-class with outrage:  those who are resolutely secular and similarly devout believers will, predictably, object that such matters of faith (recondite faith, one might say in this case) should never come under the jurisdiction of the courts.   The rationalists will be hyper-ventilating, fuming at the idiocy and superstition of the Hindus, mumbling that it is precisely these maddening events which explain why India continues to be a developing nation.  And one can be quite certain that there will be others in the Indian middle-class who will be amused and will simultaneously deplore the fact that the highest court of the land has to squander its valuable time on such frivolous matters.  It’s not as if India is bereft of weighty problems, from the “cultural cleansing” that has been promised by the country’s Culture Minister to the immense and catastrophic destruction of communities and landscapes as a consequence of climate change.  As colonial officials were fond of saying, the Hindu readily, indeed constitutionally, by the very nature of his being, falls into obscurantism.

The verses in question are not to be taken lightly:  they are an established part of the spiritual and ritual literature of Vaishnavas, and their popularity may be gauged from the fact that M S Subbalaxmi’s rendering of the Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam alone has more than three million views on youTube.  Vishnu is being implored to wake up as the sun begins to rise:  the flowers are opening up their petals, the goddesses—Saraswati, Parvati, Indrani—stand with their hands folded in prayer, eager to cast an eye upon Lord Vishnu, and the great sages (maharishis) forge ahead in their attempt to get a glimpse of the Lord.  Celestials and all living beings are equally desirous of obtaining the Lord’s darshan (literally, sight; blessings).

Vishnu in Anantha Sayana pose

Vishnu in Anantha Sayana pose

Vishnu as Anantha Sayana

Vishnu as Anantha Sayana

Why the recital of the shlokas should give rise to dispute can only be understood if one is aware that the principal idol that is installed in the temple features Vishnu in the Anantha Sayanam pose, one of the nine postures in which the Lord is found in eternal yogic sleep on the serpent Adishesha.  As argued by advocate K K Venugopal, who represents the Royal family of Travancore, for whom Sri Padmanabhaswamy is the tutelary deity, Vishnu is in eternal yogic sleep and thus cannot, and must not, be woken up from his deep slumber.  Venugopal further submitted that the recitation of the Suprabhatam at Tirumala, where Vishnu is installed in the form of Venkatachalapathy, is appropriate since here the idol is in a standing position.  Speaking as amicus curiae, Gopal Subramanium took the opposite stance; according to NDTV news, he “argued that Suprabhatam is being recited in the temple and since stanzas of the shlokas mention Lord Padmanabhaswamy it must continue.”

As the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court (wisely) noted, “How [the] Lord is awakened and by what song is a matter of faith.  We would not like to go into this.  Let the Chief Tantri (priest) decide.”  The secularists will likely find some relief at this pronouncement, even if they are unhappy that the court’s time should have been wasted when there are urgent problems calling for the court’s attention.  But what, really, are the pressing issues that call for the court’s attention, and how attentive has the country been in any case to the Supreme Court’s rulings?  If one were inclined to take even a remotely sympathetic view of this matter, one might perhaps shrug one’s shoulders and look upon the entire event as furnishing some comic relief from the daily digest of news in India that revolves around instigation to communal violence, politically inspired assassinations, the molestation of women, the denigration of Dalits, the intolerable levels of pollution, and the various shenanigans of those who have style themselves the defenders of Hindus.  It’s pleasant, indeed, to be reminded that Vishnu needs no alarm clock to wake up, and that where one is accustomed to hear of babies being serenaded to sleep, that the Lord is partial to opening his eyelids to the accompaniment of music and chants.

No, I daresay that one can go much further and suggest that something is perhaps right rather than wrong in the Republic of India if the highest court of the land must contend once in a while with what are apparently frivolities.  Whatever one may say of India, and of the putrid stench with which it is increasingly being filled—by a culture of consumption in the middle classes unhindered by any notion of the social good, by a culture of violence where rage is directed at those who do not conform to the present ruling elites’ idea of “Hindu culture” and “Indian values”, and by the rapid evisceration of social mores and the norms of civility which once set the parameters of social engagement—it is perhaps one of the country’s redeeming features that not everything has yet been surrendered to the cult of efficiency and the tyranny of Taylorism.  There is still room for play in this culture; there is still the possibility that Time does not make slaves of everyone.  India has long been a land of storytelling and the Supreme Court’s leisurely attentiveness to esoteric matters about Vishnu’s sleep suggests that we have not yet lost our appetite for stories and parables.  Vishnu, at least, should be pleased that the secular socialist Republic of India still makes time to discuss what is pleasing to him and likely to stir him from sleep.  How else will we have another avatar to deliver us from the wicked, the stupid, and the ignorant?

(Also published in slightly modified form as “Should Lord Vishnu be woken up with Suprabhatham? A welcome debate in Supreme Court”, at Scroll.in on 11 October 2015)

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