Sri Mattapalli Naatham Pranathosmi Nithyam Namaha
Chapter 17 : The Vedangas : Chandas - The feet of the Vedas
Chandas, which is one of the six limbs of the Vedas, is regarded as the feet of the Veda Purusha. 'Chandas' has another meaning. It refers to the Vedas themselves. Lord Krishna refers to the Vedas as leaves of the tree of creation.
Here I am going to deal with 'Chandas' in a different sense meaning 'metric composition.'
Rig Veda and Saama Veda are wholly in verses. Although Yajus has mantras in prose, they come interspersed with verses. Vedas being mostly in verse-form (Chandas), also came to be known as Chandas.
If we want a coat, the tailor takes our measurements. He cuts and stitches the cloth accordingly. If measurements are not taken, the coat may not fit. Likewise, if our thoughts are to be expressed in poetry, if the thoughts are to assume the image of poetry, and clothed in verse-form, it must have proper measurements. Like a coat being so many inches long and broad, a verse has to have a specified 'metre' and number of letters in it, to obtain a good fit. Chandas lays down the rules for this. It defines the boundaries of metrical composition -into metre, rhyme, etc. The important and authoritative book on the subject is the 'Chandas Sutra' by Pingala.
As mentioned already the organ which is regarded as the feet of the Veda Purusha is Chandas. Those who have been initiated into Mantra Japa, touch their head, when the name.of the Rishi is mentioned, touch their nose when its Chandas or metre is named, and touch the heart when the name of the Devata or the presiding deity of the mantra is mentioned.
All the Veda mantras in the form of poetry are 'Chandas'. The others, i.e. those which are not part of Vedas are called 'Slokas'. Prose is called 'Gadya' and Chandas is called 'Padya' in Sanskrit. In English it is poetry. Thus, not only is Vedic poetry called 'Chandas' but 'Chandas' also refers to the metre or rhyme of any poetic expression which are all rhythmic. Of these metres, anushtup is the one which is extensively used. The slokas of the Puraanas and Valmiki Ramayana are all in this Anushtup metre. Chandas is thus synonymous with rhyme also.
There are rules as to how many paadas or quartrets or steps are to be in each Vrtta or Stanza and how many letters are to be in each paadaa or line. There is a Chandas called Aarya which has also to take into account the short and long sounds. In this Chandas, the word 'Raama' is not reckoned as having two maatras only, viz., 'Raa' and 'ma'. 'Raa' is the long sound and counted as two maatras, 'ma' which is short as one, total three.
There is another method of calculation for other Vrittas where the long and short sounds are not differentiated and, in each stanza, the number of words in a paada are kept constant.
Paada or foot
I called Chandas as such being the feet (paada) of the Veda Purusha. The foot is called paada or pada in Sanskrit. Also in English, the reckoning is in terms of 'feet' in a stanza. The metres in English also stipulate how many letters should there be in each foot. The foot, which denotes the end of the leg, also denotes the unit of division of a stanza. Thus, the foot or pada (or its equivalent) is a common expression in many languages having the same meaning. It is indeed heartening to find, in any field, an example showing a similarity common to all mankind. In a mantra or in a sloka, a paada is a quarter portion of it. In the human anatomy, the organ called 'leg' is indeed one fourth part. Half the body is upto the hip; of the remaining half below, each of the two legs is one quarter adding upto half.
A Veda mantra or even a non-Vedic sloka is generally a quartet. In most cases, these are split into four, using an equal number of letters or equal number of maatras for each paada. Where one paada is not equal to another paada, it is called Vishama. Vishama is actually Vi-sama which means not equal or same.
If all the paadas are different in length, it is said to be in "Vishama Vrtta".
Every alternate paada being dissimilar " is called "Ardha Sama Vrtta" . That is, there will be a difference in the number of letters between the first and the se- cond paada as well as between the third and the fourth paada. The second and the fourth Paada will be of equal number of syllables.
However, in most cases the paadas will be equal in length. For example, let us take the most commonly known prayer -sloka: "Suklaambaradharam Vishnum / Sasi Varnam Chaturbhujam / Prasanna Vadanam Dhyaayet / Sarva Vighnopasaantaye': Let us take the four paadas in it. First, "Suklaambaradhaam Vishnum'; second, "Sasi Varnam Chaturbhujam'; third, "Prasanna Vadanam Dhyaayet" and fourth. ~'Sarva Vighnopasaantaye': If counted, each paada will have only eight syllables -not the letters in English but the syllables in Sanskrit :
For counting the aksharas or syllables only vowels and consonants with vowels imposed thereon are to be taken into account. Pure consonants should be ignored. Only then will the above add up rightly to eight.
Slokas like this, which have four paadas to a stanza with each paada having eight syllables are said to be in Anushtup Chandas.
The story of the birth of the poetic Chandas
Unlike in the Vedas, where the pitch of the sounds is raised or lowered to produce tonal variations or Swara there is no such method with Kaavya (Poetry) or other slokas. The Anushtup metre of the Vedas with variations in pitch was first adopted by Valmiki but without the variations. He did not do it deliberately or by design. He happened to see a hunter killing one out of a pair of birds. Then his great compassion towards the bereaved bird which saw its mate fall dead became transformed into intense ,anger towards the hunter. He then cursed the hunter thus :
Maanishaada pratisthaam twamagamah Saaswateessa-maah Yatkrounchamithunaadekamavadheeh Kaamamohitam
"0 hunter, may you not fare well at any time; you who have killed one out of the pair of Krounchas who were happily engaged in love:' Without the slightest intention, his curse, which was the result of his great anger, became so worded and got formed. The Sage Valmiki then repented for his emotional outburst and thought deeply over it. Then suddenly an idea struck him. He was a saint who was gifted with divine vision (Gnaana Drshti). He realised that his curse was composed in Anushtup metre with four paadas and each paada having eight syllables. Just as the emotions surfaced without his knowledge, the well-set poetic composition in the form of a curse was also not of his deliberate making. He was amazed. He realised that his curse had another meaning to it. What he said to the hunter as a curse could well sustain the meaning: "0 Lord of Lakshmi, it will bring you eternal glory for having killed the male of a happy couple, who lost his head completely in lust:' This stanza in verse thus fitted Sri Rama, the Avatar of Vishnu perfectly. Rama took Avatar in order to kill the lustful Ravana. Though happily married to Mandodari Ravana was a slave of lust and passions and sought other women. Valmiki saw the divine hand in this incident of the verse which spontaneously burst forth from him. He was assured by Lord Brahma, the creator Himself, and he began to compose the Ramayana in the same Anushtup metre.
It is from here that a sloka without Vedic Swara (tonal variations) took birth. He rejoiced in the fact that he had fortuitously obtained the means of propagating high truths which people could conveniently commit to memory and remember. As the first ever poetic composition of the world the story of Rama was unfolded by him in incomparable beauty in the Anushtup metre. Ramayana is, therefore, called Adi-Kavya or the first poetic composition.
Prose is liable to be forgotten, difficult to commit to memory. Poetry is easy to remember as it is bound by metre. That is why in early days, most things were expressed in verse. When printing was invented, it became unnecessary to retain everything in one's memory, as they could well be recorded in books and so the prose form developed. But, as a vehicle of expression, poetry is more picturesque and has more vigour and beauty.
The birth of Ramayana was solely due to the divine grace in that the poetic expression (chandas) was unwittingly created. This set the pattern for the writing of other stotras (hymns in praise) puraanas, mythology, and kaavyas (poems) in the form of slokas -verse form.
Some types of metre
Indra Vajra, Upendra Vajra, Sragdhara etc. are some of the many metres used in stotras and kaavyas. Some are very complicated and can be composed only by those who are learned.
I said that 'Anushtup' was the name of the metre where a paada had eight syllables. If there are nine syllables it is called 'Brihatee' . Where there are ten letters to a paada it is called 'Pangti' . 'Trishtup' metre contains eleven syllables to a paada. Jagati contains twelve and so on. Thus, there are metres containing as many as twenty-six syllables to a paada as in the metre called Udkrti in the pattern called Bhujanga Vijrmbhitam . Any metre beyond 26 syllables to a paada is called Dandakam .There are many types here too.
The names of some metres are beautiful, appropriate and infused with poetic grace. The letters in a certain metre go leaping like a tiger at play. This is cal)ed Sardoola Vikreeditam. Saardoola is tiger. Vikreedita is play. This contains nine- teen letters to a paada and is a type of Ati Dhriti metre or fast tempo. Within each paada the syllables are split into two groups of twelve and seven. The metre which sounds like a creeping snake is called Bhujanga Prayatam. Bhujanga is snake. This is one of the types of 'Jagati' metre which has twelve letters to a paada. Under the rules, normally it is necessary for the twelve syllables to be equally split into six and six. For e.g. (Ma-yoo-raa-dhi-roo dham. Ma ha-vaakya goo-dham).
The Soundarya Lahari of Sri Adi Sankaracharya is in the Sikarini metre. Here each pada has seventeen syllables (Adyashti is the general name of metres with seventeen syllables to a pada). If the seventeen letters are split into six and eleven, it is called 'Sikharini'. In Sragdharaa, another metre, there is a resonant flow of sounds, as though the sounds are crammed in the mouth and rush out like flood waters. Here, the twenty-one syllables of each paada are split into three with seven letters in each group. Sankaracharya's descriptive hymns on Iswara and Vishnu called 'Keshaadi paada' and 'Paadaadi kesa' stotras are in this metre.
Indra Vajra which I mentioned earlier is one type of the 'Trishtup' metre with eleven syllables in a paada. Upendra Vajra also has eleven syllables to a paada but split differently. Both these, when mixed, form the upajaati metre in which Kalidasa begins his 'Kumara Sambhavam'.
These metres pertain to the post-Vedic poetry and hymns. The metres which appear in the Vedas are : Gaayatri, Ushnik, Anushtup, Brihati, Pankti, Trishtup, Jagati, etc.
The metre in which the King of Mantras -the Gaayatri Maha Mantra -is composed is named after the mantra itself as "Gaayatri Chandas".
Generally, a mantra is named after the Devata to whom it pertains. 'Siva Panchaakshari', 'Narayana Ashtaakshari', 'Rama Trayodasi', are the names of some mantras which combine the name of the Devata with the number of syllables in the mantra. The Devata for Gaayatri mantra is Savita. GaayatrI is only the name of the metre. But the mantra has baen named after its metre as Gaayatri mantra. Just as sound and swara have divine powers, it would seem that similar is the case with the metre and its composition.
I said earlier that four quarters (feet) make one mantra or sloka and therefore, whether it is a mantra or a sloka, it must have four paadas. But, contrary to this general rule, Gaayatri has only three paadas. Gaayatri is the name of the metre with three paadas with eight syllables in each pada, making a total of twenty-four syllables or Aksharas. Since it has three paadas, it is called 'Tripaada Gaayatri'. There are other types of Gaayatri also. The first mantra of the Rig Veda starting with 'Agni Meelay' is set in the Gaayatri metre.
In some poetic hymns, the 24-syllable Gaayatri metre is split into four paadas with six letters in each.
Each paada with seven syllables -making a total of twenty- eight syllables is called 'Ushnik'.
The advantages of metres
When a mantra has taken form,"Siksha ( Another Vedanga ) ensures its correct pronunciation in the proper pitch and tone. But to ensure that the form of the mantra is correct, the 'Chandas' is necessary. The form of the mantra cannot go wrong, because it is not composed as a result'of the laboured effort of any sage but they are the result of the flash of divine grace revealed to the sages in meditation.
When we are learning a Veda Sukta or mantra, what helps us to make sure that it is in its original form, is the Chandas. If, on counting, the syllables in a mantra are not correct, then we can determine the correct version from those who know.
But, apart from mantras, which came into being by themselves, the poets who labour with poetic compositions are solely guided by the metre in translating their thoughts in words in the form of slokas. What the beat of time is to music, chandas is to slokas. Because it is brought within a framework, it gets a predetermined shape or form. It is also easy to memorise if set to metre.
Chandas alone ensures that the original form of the Vedic text is kept absolutely intact, without adding or substracting even one syllable. It is only proper that no liberties are taken with the Vedic sounds. Even a small plus or minus is bound to disturb their spiritual content.
The feet of the Veda represent the nose of the mantra
Each mantra is dedicated to a Devata. Therefore, each mantra has a presiding deity. There is a chandas especially for it and there is a rishi who gave it to the world. The rishi who brought it to the knowledge of the world is the rishi of the mantra. When one touches his head on repeating the name of the rishi, before starting the mantra, it is symbolically placing the feet of the sage on one's head as a mark of reverence, because the mantras were made available to us only through the sages.
When we mention the Chandas of a mantra we touch the nose with our finger. The mantra's sole guardian is the chandas. It is the nature of its life-breath. Hence we touch the nose which controls the life-breath. There can be no life without breath. Similarly for mantras, Chandas is the breath. However, if Veda as a whole is personified, Siksha is its nose and Chandas its feet.
Just as we stand on our legs, the Veda Purusha stands on chandas. We cannot stand up without legs, The body of the Vedas rests on the Chandas which are in the nature of feet.
- SrImate rAmAnujAya namaH -