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Sarasvati Tirthayatra of Sri Balarama (Haigh M, 2011)

Sarasvati Tirthayatra of Sri Balarama (Haigh M, 2011)

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Published by: Srini Kalyanaraman on May 04, 2014
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Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati
a of Shri Balar
 Itihas Darpan
 Research Journal of Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana
, ABISY (New Delhi, ISSN: 0974-3065), vol. 16 (2), October: pp. 179-193. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Interpreting the Sarasvati
 of Shri Balar
Prof. Martin J. Haigh
Dept. of Anthropology & Geography, School of Social Sciences and Law (SSL), Gipsy Lane Campus, Headington, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, OX3 0BP. England, U.K. Phone: (+044)-1865-483785. Email: mhaigh@brookes.ac.uk
: Shri Balar
ma’s Sarasvati River pilgrimage from the
 is examined as an archetype for modern Hindu pilgrimage. Exploration of contexts suggests that Shri Balar
ma enacts His journey in His role Adiguru, the original teacher, and as Ananta-shesha, the eternal servant and support for Shri Vishnu. The Goddess Sarasvati, the patron of education and scholarship, appeared on Earth as a river with a mission to wash away sins. The Sarasvati, which is the river most frequently eulogised by the Rig Veda as a mighty stream, and which is by association is the river of knowledge, culture and learning, was largely lost even in the times of the Mahabharata, although modern scholars believe its waters still flow to Prayaga through the Yamuna. However, Shri Balar
ma’s Holy Brahmins had sufficient spiritual vision to be able to detect its route. In Vedic understanding, Shri Balar
 was not a pilgrimage in the modern sense but a
, a travelling ritual that took its Brahmin
’s self as the sacrifice. Analysis of the blessings offered by each of the Tirthas shows that the majority concern the satisfaction of individual Earthly desires, some concern social duties and some concern matters of Narrow Religion and mythology. However, there is also a kernel of blessings that directly concern spiritual purification and liberation. These themes confirm the
’s true status as prototype for the modern pilgrimage, with all of the diversity of goals and meanings that such journeys involve.
. Ananta-shesha, Balar
ma, Chaitanya,
, Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada,
 Madhya Lila
, Sarasvati,
This explores Shri Balar
ma’s iconic
along the Sarasvati River as depicted in the
 as a spiritual entity. It is based on Ganguli’s translation
 and the analyses of Alf Hiltebeitel (2001)
, which pertain to its deeper layers of Vedic ritual (
), it is guided by the work of Rana P.B. Singh
 and it acknowledges the encyclopaedic studies of Kalyanaraman
. Shri Balar
ma’s holy journey along the Sarasvati River may be explored from many perspectives, which include its role in and significance in the thematic development of the
 story-line. However, this paper explores the
 as a prototype for the modern Hindu pilgrimage, recognising its modern iconic status in this respect. Among many alternative academic perspectives, it may be argued that a historian might explore the
 Mahabharata’s Tirthayatraparva
 in terms of its historical accuracy and social context, often through a political lens
; an Indologist might study narrative, precedence, structure, cadence and imagery with an eye to understanding the thinking at the time of a text’s creation
; while, equally, another might deconstruct the text in an attempt to link it to the concepts of environmental history or archaeology
. However, a pilgrim seeks only a spiritual meaning and message. As Rana P.B. Singh
 summarises, pilgrimage should be viewed as: “a spiritual
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra…
 Itihas Darpan
, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
180 quest — a guiding force unifying divinity and humanity; it is a search for wholeness. Ultimately the wholeness of landscape and its sacred and symbolic geography creates a ‘faithscape’ that encompasses sacred place, sacred time, sacred meanings, and sacred rituals and embodies both symbolic and tangible psyche elements in an attempt to realise humankind’s identity in the cosmos. The act of pilgrimage, including the journey, activities, and experiences of companionship, is itself a ritual with has transformative value, a reinterpretation of the idea of “experience”. In this case, this pilgrimage perspective is more exotic because it emerges from the furthest fringes of Hindu tradition; from the margins of that world religion chimera that is the global legacy of Hindu missionaries such as Svami Vivekananda and Shrila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada. In brief, its aim is to explore the message contained within the
, especially within its contexts and the blessings gifted by each of the
 and to show how these serve the three layers or consciousness – body, mind and soul – or, more romantically, the layers implied by the
Gayatri Mantra
, and
First, it’s worth reflecting upon the three chief protagonists in the
 narrative. The first two are: Shri Balar
ma, the brother of Shri Krishna, and the River (and Goddess) Sarasvati. The third is the
 itself, which contains the
 within its narratives at several levels
. In the
, Shri Balar
ma is a relatively minor player. When the
 praises the glories of Shri Balar
ma, His
 is not mentioned. However, later, He is eulogised as the God who went on a pilgrimage. The
 Narasimha Upapurana
 is not alone in including Him in its list of key Vishnu avatars (incarnations). In the
 Bhagavata Purana
, at His naming ceremony, sage Garga calls Him
, because He delights through his virtues,
, because of his strength, and Shankarsana, because he attracts unity. The worshipful Shri Balar
ma is the elder brother of Shri Krishna, an expansion of the Supreme and one of the four Vyuha
 the incarnation of His eternal servant, Ananta-shesha, the thousand-hooded cosmic serpent who supports the Universe and who, in the
 and many icons, provides the bed on which Maha-Vishnu sleeps during
, when the cosmos dissolves into primal waters between world ages
. Bigger
 suggests that Shri Balar
ma, as Shri Krishna’s elder brother, originally, had the role of representing a straightforward
, which Shri Krishna so often gently adjusts to his own aims. He also thinks that the two accounts of his birth, as a white hair from Shri Vishnu, and as incarnation of Ananta-shesha are later developments. Hence, the late
 Narasimha Purana
, which grants a relatively minor role to Shri Krishna, emphasises Shri Balar
ma as the white and shining principle, while Shri Krishna is the dark principle, of Shri Vishnu’ energy, in which they merge once their work is done. Another late text, the
Garga Samhita
 Balabhadra Kanda
, which is narrated by the Kauvara Duryodhana, details His advent and worship by the serpents in the lower worlds. It also notes and that the Gopis involved in His own Rasa Lila dances, which are also described in the
 Bhagavata Purana
 (10.65.18), were reincarnations of the snake wives
. In a similar vein, it has been suggested that, because of his white skin, red eyes, and blue-black clothing, Shri Balar
ma represents the three
, and since he is also associated with alcohol and a certain lack of diplomacy, he is linked with both the material principle and tamasic delusion
. A similar argument attaches to his representation as an incarnation of Ananta-shesha, the cosmic serpent, as in the
Padma Purana
 (6.229.38-39), where he is seen as time (
), the all-destroying form of Shri Vishnu
 hence the link to destructive behaviour patterns
. In icons, he is often portrayed with serpent hoods, carrying a glass of wine and with a palm leaf on his golden standard
. Bigger
 also asserts that, despite the plough that his icons carry, nothing supports the widespread idea that he was originally an agricultural deity. Possibly, however, this misses the point that these last two associations imply. It has been pointed out that Nagas, snakes, are notable for their absence in the older parts of the
, notably the
 Rig Veda
, which may suggest that snake cults were not important to people, who were, like Shri Krishna Gopala, pastoralists. Snakes are not a great problem for those who tend herds of cattle but they are a real nuisance for those who live sedentary lives, have houses with dark corners, and who tend the gardens or fields where snakes may lurk. In less nomadic
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra…
 Itihas Darpan
, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
181 times, snake cults became very important. Indeed, coping with snakes provides the outer motif for the
. Shri Shri Krishna Gopala and Balar
ma in the Vrindavan Lilas are worshiped as deities of the everyday people, deities of everyday lives, and deities separated from the awe and reverence reserved for Kings and great Priests of the temple, which is why these texts are so treasured. Shri Krishna tends the herds while Shri Balar
ma carries His ‘plough’ (
) perhaps, less as a weapon than as a symbol of the other half of agrarian society. Among his other symbols is the ‘wooden grinding pestle’ (
. Most of the above is, of course, sharply contradicted by both the
 and by modern Vaishnava theology. This viewpoint is represented by Table 1, which contains verses from the
, which also links Shri Balar
ma with the Avadhut Nityananda Prabhu, Shri Chaitanya’s chief associate
. In modern Vaishnavism, Shri Balar
ma begins as Ananta-shesha
 an expansion of Shri Krishna’s creative energy and His eternal servant, whose service includes furnishing the spiritual world, and whose role is to act as
, the merciful original teacher and protector of devotees. As the original teacher, His pilgrimage, therefore, has special significance.
Table 1.
 Status and role of Shri Balar
ma as explained to Sanatana Gosvami by Shri Chaitanya (
Shri Chaitanya-charitamrita Madhya Lila,
 20.255: “Lord Sankarsana is Lord Balar
ma. Being the predominator of the creative energy He creates both the material and the spiritual world”.
 20.256: “Lord Balar
ma is the cause of both the material and the spiritual creation. He is the predominating deity of egotism and by the will of Krishna and the power of the spiritual energy. He creates the spiritual world which consists of the planet Goloka Vrindavana and the Vaikuntha planets”.
 20.257: “Although there is no question of creation as far as the spiritual world is concerned the spiritual world is nonetheless manifested by the supreme will of Sankarsana. The spiritual world is the abode of the pastimes of the eternal spiritual energy".
 20.258: “Gokula the supreme abode and planet appears like a lotus flower that has a thousand petals. The whorl of that lotus is the abode of the Supreme Lord Krishna. This lotus-shaped supreme abode is created by the will of Lord Ananta”. (Verse from the
 Brahma Samhita
 (5.2), see also the
 Brahma Samhita
 (5.47), Ananta-shesha is another name for the serpent couch upon which Maha-Vishnu rests and it means eternal servant
 20.262: “Balar
ma and Krishna are the original efficient and material causes of the material world. As Maha-Vishnu and the material energy, They enter into the material elements and create the diversities by multi-energies. Thus, They are the cause of all causes” (verse spoken by Uddhava in the
 Bhagavata Purana
Sarasvati Goddess and Rivers
ma of unfading glory sang this verse in the midst of the Brahmanas: ‘Where else is such happiness as that in a residence by the Sarasvati? Where also such merits as those in a residence by the Sarasvati? Men have departed for heaven having approached the Sarasvati! All should ever remember the Sarasvati! Sarasvati is the most sacred of rivers! Sarasvati always bestows the greatest happiness on men! Men after approaching the Sarasvati will not have to grieve for their sins either here or hereafter!’” The
Shalyaparva, Tirthayatraparva
, 9.54). In the
, Shri Balar
ma, following in the footsteps of Bhishma, chooses to make his pilgrimage along the River Sarasvati, rather than the Ganga or Yamuna, and the first question is why? In this text, he does not make the all–India journey described in the
 Bhagavata Purana
. However, the
 Rig Veda
 features the Sarasvati in scores of verses and She is the only river to whom the

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