'Da! Da! Da!': What the voice of thunder says

It argues that though there may have been nothing in the beginning, there is a Supersoul or Super-consciousness at work beyond the matter and energy that now exists.
Picture credits: Express photo
Picture credits: Express photo

With the thunder booming regularly during the ongoing monsoon, I would like to retell a favourite childhood story that left a big impression on me. Only later did I discover that it is a foundational Indian story from one of the oldest Indian books, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The name can be translated as ‘The Teachings of the Great Forest’.

Comprising six sections, the book is a collection of parables, thoughts, hymns and philosophical debates. This key book in Indian theology is said to have been authored around 700 BCE by the ancient lawgiver Rishi Yajnavalkya. Among other things, it speculates on the cause of Creation and attempts to define man’s place in the scheme of things, including a moral code to live by. It argues that though there may have been nothing in the beginning, there is a Supersoul or Super-consciousness at work beyond the matter and energy that now exists.

In the fifth section of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Rishi Yajnavalkya teaches his students about the nature of human duty through a story, popularly called ‘What the Thunder Says’:

Brahma the Creator, hailed as Prajapati, the All-Father, created three races. The celestials or devas, the humans or manushyas and the titans or asuras. They were made to respectively inhabit the three realms of the Universe—the celestial world called ‘Swarga’, the earth in the middle called ‘Prithvi’, and the netherworld called ‘Patal’.

Proud to exist and eager to please, yet not entirely sure about how to live, the three races decided to go together to the All-Father, and said, “Please instruct us.”

The All-Father accepted their greetings with a pleasant nod. But he looked them over with a critical eye before saying anything.

The celestials were light, airy beings bathed in light. They had named their realm ‘Indralok’, after their king Indra. It was a fair dominion in which they chased the lightning, played with the thunderclouds and rode the rain. They had everything that they could possibly want. They were free from hunger, thirst, pain and perspiration. The flower garlands they wore were ever-fresh and their feet did not touch the ground. They were not required to toil or work for anything and would never grow old and die. There was music and dance in their realm and golden goblets of mead, the honey drink. They were the Immortals to whom the ones below had to offer sacrifices so as to obtain their favour and cooperation.

The All-Father noted silently that the devas, particularly their leader Indra, had the beginnings of a crafty, libidinous look. They had plunged wholeheartedly into enjoyment and had a raffish, self-indulgent air.

He said to them, “This is my instruction to you: Da.” He said but that one word—Da.

“Have you understood what I said?” he asked.

“Yes, we understand, All-Father.”

“Well done. Then follow that teaching.”

He looked next at the earthlings. Unlike the celestials, they were an interdependent race. Their realm, Earth, was full of danger. They were exposed to the fury of the elements and to the shiftings and heavings of their physical terrain. Mountains rolled great boulders down on them, mighty rivers broke their banks and washed them away, wolves and tigers tore them apart and insects bit them, causing pain and disease. Sickness, old age and death claimed each one of them; no earthling could escape that. They had to work very hard to obtain the smallest ease or pleasure.

And although they were clearly interdependent, the earthlings had proved greedy. They wanted to grab everything and hoard everything, be it cows, land, gold or women. With each acquisition, they wanted more and more.

The All-Father shook his head slightly. A fine mess there. But what immense potential these puny earthlings possessed—they just didn’t know it. With observation, hard work and leaps of imagination, these disgraceful creatures had more creative power than even the celestials. And for all its perils, Earth was so astoundingly beautiful that even the celestials secretly coveted it.

“The devas have a certain…sameness,” thought the All-Father. “But my earthlings are wholly unpredictable except in their greed. It will be a pleasure to watch them grow and do new things, and find their better selves.”

Putting on a stern face, he said “Da” again. He then asked the earthlings, “Did you get my meaning?”

“Yes, All-Father,” they chorused. “Very well, follow that instruction,” he said.

He looked next at the titans, a large, lumbering race of giants. The asuras loved their realm, Patal, with its many treasures. Precious stones and minerals sparkled on its walls, silvery underground streams cooled the air, and great, iridescent serpents played with them. But the asuras did not know their own strength, and hurt the weak.

“They are capable of greatness but their fatal flaw is their temper, which makes them cruel. However, they too are an honourable race and keep the universe in balance. If only they were not so jealous of the confident celestials and the persistent earthlings,” thought the All-Father.

“Da” he said to the titans, and like the others, they also meekly answered that they had understood the meaning. “Go then and follow this instruction,” he said.

And this syllable was understood differently by each race, according to its nature, said Rishi Yajnavalkya.

The celestials understood “Da” as “Damyata”, meaning “Self-restraint”. The All-Father had told them to exercise self-control on their pleasure-loving natures and live up to the dignity of their position.

The earthlings understood “Da” as “Datta”, meaning “Give, be generous.” This was the only way that an interdependent race could survive and thrive—doing the right thing by its weak, its elderly and its destitute, and be mutually supportive to flourish.

The titans understood Da as “Dayadhvam”, meaning “Be merciful,” which teaching instructed them to curb their natural ferocity. Each race went away satisfied with the All-Father’s teaching.

When the thunder rolls “Da! Da! Da!” it echoes the voice of the All-Father, reminding us of our eternal watchwords.

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