(2) The five duties of the Iyengars

Inevitably, the ’16-’18 ’flu pandemic made its way to the small village of Bellur, in Karnataka State, South India. There lived a small community of Brahmins, all bearing the name of ‘Iyengar’, an Anglicized version of a Tamil/Kannada name originally meaning ‘the people entrusted with the “pancha samskara” or “five duties”’. Although members of the Iyengar community were far from wealthy, the five tasks they had been charged with gave them esteem and made them socially prominent.

The Iyengars were traditionally Vaishnavites and Vedantists. They were followers of Vishnu, the second deity in the Hindu Trinity; and they were also followers of the Vedanta philosophy, one of the six classical ‘darsanas’ or ‘visionings’ of India. These are based on the Vedas and the Upanishads, traditional religious and philosophical texts. More specifically, the Iyengars followed the Visisthadvaita or ‘qualified non-difference’ personalized philosophy of Spirit so brilliantly codified by Ramanuja. It declares that there exists an Ultimate Reality which is in Itself the source of all things, and which is also the foundation for the existence of all things. This Ultimate Reality is the ‘in-dweller’ in all things no matter how diverse, and no matter whether they be animate or inanimate. This being so, it is the duty of all beings to seek ‘moksha’, the final liberating communion with that Most Gracious, All-Loving and All-Powerful Supreme Being. The way to that moksha is through complete self-surrender, allied to a ceaseless and loving meditation upon that Supreme.

So that all beings might ultimately attain moksha the Iyengars, as a community, are charged with these five tasks:

  1. thapa samskara
    where a disciple’s right and left arms are ritualistically embossed with the sankara or conch, and the sudarshana chakra or discus respectively. Vishnu, the god of preservation, holds a conch which represents space and also the life that emerges from the life-giving waters. He also wields the sudarshana chakra which is created from the energies of the trinity of deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Since Vishnu supports all beings, and all things are composed of Him, when He releases His sudarshana chakra it remains constantly within His power, flies to exactly the point intended, decomposes that object back to its essential ingredients—which is Himself—and then returns back to Him. So also, the ritualistic embossing of the conch and the discus upon the arms of a disciple signifies the acceptance of the fact that Vishnu pervades all, is the origin of all, and that to Him all things will ultimately return.
  2. pundra samskara
    which is full knowledge of the 12 places in the body in which Narayana, another name for Vishnu as the Supreme Lord, resides. These are also the 12 places in which He can be readily saluted by any who care to study their body. These 12 locations are: the forehead; the right, the middle and the left sides of the neck; the chest; the right and the left arms; the right, the middle and the left sides of the lower abdomen; and finally, the upper and the lower parts of the back.
  3. nama samskara
    is where the disciple places the epithet ‘dasa’ at the end of his or her name to signify that he or she has become, and forever will be, a servant of Narayana. The Lord’s earnest servant Ramanuja proclaimed the name of God with such intensity, fervour and devotion that all beings were led to understand more clearly the eternal truths contained in the Vedas and Upanishads. All disciples should seek to emulate Ramanuja. The reception of the dasa name helps to inculcate this devout and reverential attitude.
  4. mantra samskara
    which is the regular repetition of the three great secrets of existence. This is achieved by the constant chanting or recitation of three important mantras. These are:
    1. ‘aum namo Narayanaya’
      which is the ashtakshara or eight-syllabled mantra of Lord Narayana. It is also known as the ‘mula’ or ‘root’ mantra and means ‘aum praises to Narayana’. Chanting it releases all beings from bondage.
    2. the dvaya mantra
      which is two lines long and says ‘Sriman Narayanaya charanau saranam prapadye; Srimate Narayanaya namah’. This is also often called the ‘mantra ratna’ or ‘jewel amongst mantras’ and means ‘I seek refuge at the feet of Sriman Narayana; My salutations to Sriman Narayana’.
    3. the charama sloka
      the third great secret or mantra, and possibly the most often-quoted verse in the Bhagavad Gita or Song of God, India’s most popular religious text. In the last chapter, in verse XVIII:66, Krishna says ‘sarvadharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja; aham tva sarva papebhyo moksa yisyami ma sucah’ meaning ‘Having given up all religious injunctions, surrender yourself fully to Me. Be not afraid for I will release you from all sins’.
  5. yajna samskara
    or the dedication duty which is a promise to learn and then to undertake the proper ways of worshipping Narayana. There are both external forms requiring ritualistic observances and duties; and internal forms requiring a correct inner attitude along with suitable prayers and mediations.

These are the five accepted duties of an Iyengar, having both gross and subtle, and external and internal forms.