Wednesday 25 May 2022
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Kartika Purnima: Story Of Tripurantaka

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Purnima (full moon) that falls in the Kartika (कार्तिकः) masa of the Hindu calendar is considered to be a very auspicious occasion. It is also known as Tripurari Purnima, or Deva Diwali. While there are many legends and stories associated with this day, for example in vaishnava literature this is considered the day when Vrinda was born, or the Matsya Avarata incarnated, however the most important is the association of this particular day with a form of Lord Siva without whose blessings it is impossible to attain the greatest heights of spiritual growth.

In the Siva Purana we find the sage Sanatkumara telling Vyasa about a asura named Taraka, who had three sons, Viyunamali, Tarakaksha and Viryavana. After Skandha had killed Taraka, his three sons performed penances to propitiate Brahma. They were described as extremely powerful, self-controlled, of steady mind having great valor and animosity towards the gods. Rejecting all sorts of comforts, these three entered a cave inside the Meru mountains and plunged into great and complex penances. During summer season they surrounded themselves with fire until they became almost unconsciousness, during autumn they went without food while donating various kinds of food as charity to others; in winter they went on top of the mountain bare-bodied and engaged in furious practices. As the intensity of the winter increased, they went underwater to apply greater force into their sadhana. In this manner they first performed penances for a 100 years, and then another 1000 years with heads upside down.

Image result for tripurantaka shiva
A five headed Tripurantaka is seen pointing an arrow towards the Tripura (rightmost top corner) with the bow made of mount Meru, the serpent Vasuki is seen as its string. The four headed Brahma is seen as the charioteer. The moon and the Sun are depicted as the wheels of the chariot.

Eventually Brahma, the object of their askesis, was forced to appear before them and grant a boon. At first the three asuras asked for indestructibility in the hands of anyone or anything, but Brahma said this cannot be granted, because none other than Siva and Vishnu can be indestructible, rest everyone must perish, someday. Then the three asked the creator to build them three cities of gold, silver and iron, rich in wealth and impenetrably by gods. After a thousand years these cities will come together once during midday at the time of the Abhijit Nakshatra when the moon is in the constellation of Pushya ( γ, δ and θ Cancri), and dark clouds named Puskara and Avarta shower rains from the skies. Otherwise they will never join. At the moment if a like Siva, who has no specific enmity with them, fires a single arrow he may destroy them, else not. A rather unusual boon, but Brahma readily agreed to the idea and instructed Maya to build three such cities of gold, silver and iron and then placed them in the heaven, sky and earth.

The asuras populated the three cities and flourished with time. Moreover Maya protected the cities from enemies and thus they soon become almost invincible. Unable to defeat the asuras in the eternal battle that the gods wage against them, the devas led by Indra approached Vishnu and Siva for help. Both of them said there is nothing that the asuras have done so far which merit their destruction, let them first make a mistake. At this point, we find a divergence in the story depending on the text one reads. According to Vaishnava literature, Vishnu then created a man who tied his mouth in white cloth and preached a religion which was against the Vedas, and gave ahimsa as the ultimate goal of life, who soon converted the asuras from their vedic lifestyle. The other version of the story, which actually makes more sense, is that Narada went and convinced the three asura leaders that since they have already achieved so much, they might as well take over Kailasa – after all Siva is eternally in meditation and he would not care. Either way they made the mistake which would lead to their downfall.

Once Siva decided to destroy the cities, he called Vishwakarma to fashion a suitable chariot, bow and arrow. Brahma himself became the charioteer, Vishnu became the arrow, the great Vasuki became the bow-string. And then the great waited for a thousand years when the three cities would aligned themselves during the Abhijit Muhurta, and then fired his arrow which burned all the three puras – cities – to ash, thus earning the epithet Tripurantaka (destroyer of Tripura) for himself.

Some believe that the stories from the Puranas are more allegories of spiritual processes explained in the form of popular mythology which are easy to recall and have a grip over the consciousness. For mythology is not just random imagination, but captures and conveys powerful messages for generations to come. A right story can uplift and transform and sustain itself for ages. The cities made of gold, silver and iron can easily be taken as an allegory of the three gunas – satwa, raja and tama. All human beings have these three in them, albeit in varying proportions. When an individual learns the right use and application of these gunas and gets these three in an equilibrium, he is most likely to lead a successful life, achieving tremendous progress in almost any endeavor that he may choose to engage in. This is also one of the aims of Tantra and is not easy by any mean. From the placement of the three cities we can also infer that these three were linked to the world of the physical, vital and mental – known more traditionally as Bhur, Bhuva, Swar. However, true spiritual progress is beyond this play of the gunas, or these three worlds whose citizenry includes all animated life. That is why in the Gita we find Krshna exhorting Arjuna to reach the state of trigunatita – beyond the three gunas. But, like everything else, there is an ego attached to these three as they operate inside an individual and we are unlikely to shed them and go higher of our own unless pushed, and that is why Maya protects the three cities in the story. But when Shiva finally destroys the three, in one shot, the self-awareness of the individual is freed from these triple attributes and enters into the the spiritual zone above the head, known in Yogic literature as the Sahashrar.

No doubt this day is also referred to as Deva Deepawali – the festival of lights that the gods celebrate, because when a sadhaka enters into that rarest of rare psychological states depicted by the thousand-petaled overhead lotus, beyond the three gunas, he is effectively crossing the state of the humans consciousness and entering into the realm of the great cosmic gods, which of course is a matter of great jubilation! In Varanasi Deva is probably more famous than the normal Diwali with all the 84 ghats lines up with diyas.

Wishing all our readers a fantastic and auspicious Kartika Purnima.


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  1. The name of the Maya man created by Vishnu was Arihan. In the first attempt, nobody listened to Arihan’s teachings. Then Vishnu called Narada and asked him to endorse teachings of Arihan. Narada being a credible person, his words took a bent on the minds of rakshasas and have deviated from the Vedic way of living paving path for their own destruction.

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