A Unique Cosmogonic Narrative

I love to read the cosmologies of different cultures, certainly the Buddhist ones come to mind but in researching the Dharma Thakur cult their own offering is marvelously represented in the liturgical text, Śūnya Purāṇa. It is presented here in its entirety for our archives. Notice perhaps the best portrayal of the Primordial Void wherein dwells the Unborn Lord, Ullūka the owl, (Dharma’s mount—he is a sort of all-seeing Wisdom-Eye), the cosmic-tortoise (seen in many diverse and indigenous cultures), as well as the birth of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Later we shall also investigate the significance of Mantric Speech.

In the beginning there was nothing,—neither any linear mark, nor any form, nor any colour, nor any trace of; there was neither the sun nor the moon, nor the day nor the night. There was neither water, nor earth, nor the sky, nor the mountains. The universe was not,—neither was anything mobile or immobile, nor were the temples, nor the gods in them,—there were only all-pervading darkness and haze (dhundhukāra)—and in the infinite vacuum the Lord alone was moving in the great void having nothing but void as His support. And in his absolute loneliness the Lord was thinking of creating something, and out of the great vacuum there came out the vital air of the Lord, from which came inhalation and exhalation; from these again proceeded great compassion and from that all the principles of illusion. Then there came out a bubble of water on which the Lord made his seat, but the bubble could not withstand the pressure of the Lord and burst into pieces leaving the Lord once more in the vacuum. Then the Lord sat fixed in the vacuum and in and through his compassion another personality of the name of Nirañjana came out of him. The latter, however, had no hands and legs,—neither had he any father and mother, nor was he born of the seed and the ovum, nor had he any other companion in the great void. This Niranjana or Dharma then sat on the seat of compassion and passed full fourteen ages in the meditation on the Great (bambha-jāna).

After fourteen ages of meditation Nirañjana yawned and from his high breath came out the bird (Owl) Ullūka. The bird began to flee away from the Lord who was calling it from behind; but Ullūka got tired in the infinite void and came back to the Lord. The Lord then took compassion on Ullūka and made his seat on the back of the bird and once more passed fourteen years in meditation.

In the meantime Ullūka became much fatigued with hunger and thirst and asked for some drink from the Lord. The Lord gave a little quantity of fluid from his mouth to the bird to drink. Ullūka drank the fluid, but some portion of it fell outside in the void and water came out of it, and both the Lord and his mount were floating on water. But in the heaving water both of them were being tossed roughly and a feather dropped from the body of the bird and the feather became a swan. The Lord then proposed to have some rest on the back of the swan, and the latter agreed, and the Lord once more passed several ages on the back of the swan. But the swan also got tired and flew away in the void leaving the Lord in water. The Lord then touched water with his lotus-like hand, whereby a tortoise came to being, and the Lord passed several ages in meditation on its back. The tortoise also got tired and flew away leaving the Lord and Ullūka on water.

Ullūka then advised the Lord to create the world in water. With the instructions of Ullūka the Lord cast off on water his golden sacred-thread, which instantaneously became the serpent Vasuki of thousand fangs. Then the Lord accumulated a little quantity of dusty substance from his nail and placed it in the form of the world on the head of the serpent Vasuki. The Lord then went out with Ullūka to visit the world and the world was increasing with the speed of the Lord. By roaming about in the world the Lord became tired and began to perspire and from the sweat of his body was produced the Adya-Sakti (the primordial energy). The Lord built a house for her and placed her there and after creating the river Ballukā engaged himself in meditation once more for fourteen ages.

In the meantime ĀdyāŚakti grew young and from her youthful desires proceeded forth Kama (Cupid) who was sent by Ādyā to the Lord. Kama went to the Lord, aimed his arrow at him and the Lord was disturbed. The Lord came to know everything from Ullūka and put Kāma in an earthen pot and Kāma became transformed into poison. Ādyā, after some time, became unable to bear the burden of her youth and attempted to commit suicide by swallowing the contents of the earthen pot; but to her astonishment she became pregnant thereby.

Three gods were then born to Ādyā, viz., Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Just after their birth all the three went out for penance and meditation, and the Lord also went to test them in the form of a corpse floating on water. Brahma could not recognise the Lord in disguise, Vishnu also could not recognize him ; it was only Shiva, who could recognize the Lord. The Lord became pleased with Shiva, and granted him three eyes (for all the three brothers were born blind). Subsequently at the request of Shiva the other two brothers, viz., Brahma and Vishnu also received eye-sight with the sprinkling of the fluid from the mouth of the Lord. All the three brothers then went back to Ādyā, where they were entrusted by the Lord with the task of creation. Ādyā-sakti was asked to be the wife of Shiva and to help him in the work of creation. Thus after entrusting the whole task of creation, preservation and destruction to the triad the Lord once more went to the void and remained forever seated on his mount Ullūka. (ibid, pg.359-362)

Ullūka, or the Owl, appears in many culture’s Wisdom stories, like in Ancient Greece where it also became a symbol of protection; it always protected Athena’s “blindside,” showing her the other half of the truth to give her a unified vision of important events. Let us now consider the importance of Mantric-Speech in the Dharma Thakur cult.

According to Fabrizio Ferrari in his paper, The Uselessness of Translation in the Bengali Dharma-pūjā, The Shift from Ritual Texts to Living Cult, mantras within the realm of the ritual language of the Dharma Thakur cult do not so much have any special semantic significance, but rather the nature of ritual “sound” itself and the influence it has over the devotees:

On the basis of my translation of Sunya Purana and interviews with Dharma-pandits, I analyze some of the mantras still used and their significance; I investigate why neither priests nor devotees care about knowing their meaning, why a translation is not felt to be necessary and what ‘the word’ represents in Dharma ritualism.

In Dharma cult, mantric speech is of paramount importance, yet its role has undergone structural and semantic modifications because of a different anthropological environment. The word has developed different values and meanings according to the ritual. Invocations (bandanās) uttered by the priest and collective loud calls (nāmḍāks), both in Bengali, are meant to attract the attention of the deity and to awaken him. [Thus] Dharma-pūjā emphasizes sound and loudness because its main purpose is to attract the deity and keep him involved.

The peculiar linguistic situation of the Dharma cult involves a twofold confusion: the fact that all of the mantras uttered on the occasion of the ritual are inaccessible to devotees and the quite common occurrence in which the same formulae have lost significance for the performers themselves.

He states that even the Dharma priests, who come from a low-class background, “are traditionally excluded from that knowledge called baidik (from the Sanskrit vaidik: Vedic)”. Hence this is more of a Dravidic verses a *Vedic endeavor. The words uttered have no real significance in and of themselves, but rather serve to point to something “other.” The same could be said for most of the Dharani’s found within Sutra Literature. You see, the mystery of the apparent meaningless sounds produced have almost a magical effect on the ones performing them, as well as to those who it’s directed. Yea, they are oftentimes majestically created by Devas for the purpose of protection and overcoming obstacles. It’s the language of the Dakini’s themselves and need to remain so, minus any attempt to translate their meaning. The word ‘dharani’ means complete or universal upholding. A dharani completely encompasses the meanings and powers of whatever it is associated with, so reciting it is a powerful practice. For example, a dharani may be associated with a Bodhisattva. If you uphold that dharani, your practice is an expression of the merit, virtue and attainment of that Bodhisattva. In the same way, a dharani associated with a Buddha is an expression of the merit and virtue, practice and power of that Buddha. The following dharani for example is found within the Lankavatara Sutra:

Tutte, tutte—vutte, vutte—patte, patte—katte, katte—amale, amale—vimale, vimale—nime, nime—hime, hime—vame, vame—kale, kale, kale, kale—atte, matte—vatte, tutte—jnette, sputte—katte, katte—latte, patte—dime dime—cale, cale—pace, pace—badhe, bandhe—ance, mance—dutare, dutare—patare, patare—arkke, arkke—sarkke, sarkke—cakre, cakre—dime, dime—hime, hime—tu tu tu tu–du du du du –ru ru ru ru –phu phu phu phu –svaha.

This form can and does ward off all evil influences of demons.

*Dharma is not connected to the word (vāc) in the Vedic sense. Vedism, like the major revealed religions, stresses the creative aspect of the word which embodies the divine power of the godhead. Similar concepts can be found in the Neoplatonic theory of logos, the creative Word of both the Pentateuch and the Christian Bible and in the Koranic kūn (Be!). [Sandra Robinson, Death and Revivification in the Dharma Mangali, from Studies in Literature, Society and History, M. Davies (ed.), East Lansing, Michigan: Asian Studies Center, 75-84]

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