Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Beautiful Concept of Rnas

Three or four days ago, I received a mail from a friend of mine asking me when the rnas [debts, often transcribed as rinas] which were originally three got increased into five. It is this that got me thinking about rnas.

The ancient Indian concept of rnas is truly beautiful. It said each human being is born on the earth with certain rnas and were bound to repay those rnas during his life time. The philosophy behind rnas is that we are indebted to the world we live in for the things we enjoy in the world, to the people who lived before us for many other things, and to our parents for our body and life itself.

This is an extension of the basic Indian philosophy that what makes life meaningful in the world is not the claims we have from it, but our responsibilities towards it. When everyone claims his right but none bothers about his responsibilities, no one gets anything. Whereas, when everyone fulfils his responsibilities, everyone gets all he needs. A philosophy based not on taking, but on giving. It is the duty of the parents to give to their children, of the children to give to their parents; it is the duty of the wife to give to the husband and the husband to give to the wife; it is the duty of the teacher to give to his students, of the students to give to their teacher; it is the duty of the subjects to give to the king, of the king to give to the subjects; and so on. The other becomes the centre of your life, rather than you. Everything is done based on others-centredness rather than self-centredness.

Those who accuse that Indian culture does not have a sense of charity should understand this. Indian culture does have a sense of charity – dana, charity, is considered one of the greatest human virtues by Indian culture. There is immense stress on charity. But our culture stresses on indebtedness more than it stresses on charity because in charity there is a feeling that the giver is superior to the receiver. There is the possibility that the giver’s ego becomes stronger through the act of giving – which is against the very soul of Indian culture. Everything in Indian culture is so designed that it leads to the elimination of th ego.

Our culture will not approve of gifting a chair worth five thousand rupees to someone and spending twenty thousand or more on the function organised to give it and on PR work.which makes the whole world know of it. Nor will it approve of what we see in certain places of worship – the pratishtha in the temple is hardly visible – all around it are small things donated by ‘devotees’ on which in big letters are written the names of not only the donors, but also of the persons in whose names the donation is made. Like a wall clock right behind the pratishtha, on which or under which in huge letters are these names. The tradition is that the left hand should not know what the right hand gives.

So Indian culture insists that in charity the giver should feel he is smaller than the receiver and that the receiver is blessing him by receiving from him, by giving him the opportunity to do charity. This is the reason why we give dakshina after charity. No dana is complete without dakshina. Dakshina is the ‘thank you’ that the giver gives the receiver. And before dana, the receiver is received formally, he is offered a seat with respect and his feet are washed, and on occasions, ritual worship is offered to him.

[Of course, all this is speaking from the standpoint of the giver. From the standpoint of the receiver, he should be grateful to the giver for giving him. Krtaghnata – ingratitude is is invariably treated as one of the worst possible sins.]

In spite of all this, there is still the danger that charity might corrupt the giver through ego development, for we are all human beings. For that reason the culture lays stress on debts – rnas. For the danger of the giver feeling superior to the receiver is not there with rnas. You are paying back what they have given you – you are not giving anything of your own. What you are giving back originally belonged to those to whom you are giving it back – that is why it is called a debt. And you become free from debt when they receive it.

Rnas are not mere cultural concepts, but the reality of life. We are indebted to the world in which we live in a million ways – for everything physical we take from it. We are indebted to the people of the past for the culture and civilization they have created – particularly to the makers of culture and civilization. And we are indebted to our parents and grandparents and ancestors for all our biological inheritance.

The rnas were originally three: deva rna, rishi rna, and pitr rna – debt to the gods of the different phenomena of the world like the sun and the moon and the rain and the air; debt to the seers of the past, the makers of culture and civilization, the creators of knowledge; the wise men, the teachers; and debt to the manes.

So deeply were these debts felt that the culture asked us to be grateful to every god and every sage and every ancestor. When one performed tarpana [literally, pleasing], which was a ritual of remembrance and gratitude to the manes, the ritual was performed so systematically that it left no possibility of forgetting any one we are indebted to.

One thing I like particularly about tarpana is that, even though our society is predominantly patriarchal, no distinction is made between one’s ancestors on the mother’s side and on the father’s side.

The tarpana began with a sankalpa, vow, made by the performer after he had ritually purified himself. Part of the Sanskrit mantra chanted at this time said: deva-rshi-pitr-prītyartham deva-rshi-pitr-tarpanam yathāshakti karishye – I perform as best as I can this tarpana of the gods, seers and manes in order to please the gods, seers and manes.

As one began the tarpana, one chanted: brahmādayah surāh sarve rshayah kashyapādayah āgacchantu mahābhagā brahmāndodaravartinah. May the great gods beginning with Brahma and the great seers beginning with Kashyapa, living in the heart of creation come here.” As offerings were made, mantras were chanted, which meant ‘May Brahma be pleased! May Vishnu be pleased! May Rudra be pleased! May Prajapati be pleased! May the gods be pleased! May the goddesses be pleased! May the Vasus be pleased! May the many Rudras be pleased! May the Adityas be pleased! May Rudra be pleased!...” [Om brahma trpyatām. Om vishnuh trpyatām!...]

Similarly, when offerings were made to the sages the mantras chanted included: “May Kashyapa be pleased with this! May Atri be pleased with this! May Vasishtha be pleased with this! May Vishwamitra be pleased with this! May Gautama be pleased with this! May Bharadwaja be pleased with this! May Jamadagni be pleased with this! May Angira be pleased with this! May Kutsa be pleased with this! May Bhrgu be pleased with this!” These are the most important rishis.

As one came to the tarpana to the manes, one invoked all one’s fathers in all one’s births – mama sarvajanmeshu pitarah trpyantām. Next one invoked all the fathers of those fathers and their fathers– pitāmahāh prapitāmahāh – and then moving on to the mother’s side, one made offerings to all one’s mothers in all one’s previous births – mama sarvajanmeshu mātarah trpyantām. Offerings were then made to the mothers of the fathers [pitāmahyah], their mothers [prapitāmahyah], wives in different births [patnyah], husbands [patayah], sons [putrāh], daughters [kanyāh], one’s people in general [ātmajanāh], and everyone that one can imagine, which included the gurus, gurupatnis, fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters, friends, disciples, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren… Finally the ritual ends with prayers for the welfare of the whole world.

This indebtedness one felt was never felt as a burden that bent one’s back, but more as a sense of gratitude that elevated one’s spirits. One never feels, for instance, burdened by the gratitude to one’s father or mother – it is the happiest of gratitudes.


How many rnas are a person born with? Well, truth is that each one of us is born indebted to the whole existence. However, originally, three rnas were recognised: the debts to the gods, the seers and the manes. Manu thus mentions three rnas as when he says: maharshi-pitr-devānām gatvā anrnyam [Having freed oneself from the debts to the gods, the sages and the manes - Manu 4.257] and rnāni trīni apākrtya [having paid back the three debts - Manu 6.35].

However, eventually the rnas were recognised as five: the debts to the bhutas [elements or all living beings in general] and human beings added to the list. This growing of the list could have risen from a confusion with the five yajnas [sacrifices] that Manu prescribes – to the gods, to the sages, to the manes, to the bhutas and to other human beings. From five yajnas to five debts it is only a small step. Particularly since the yajnas were rituals of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Alternatively, it is possible that the concept of rnas kept evolving over time. In fact, I would like believe this is how it happened. As time passed, we became conscious of more things and people to which we were indebted. And the list of rnas grew.

Interestingly, one Sanskrit verse, the source of which I am not sure, mentions four debts: rnaiś caturbhih samyuktā jāyante mānavā bhuvi – people are born on earth with four debts. The Vishnu Samhita has six debts mentioned: devatā-pitr-bandhūnāmrshi-bhūta-nrnām tathā rnī-syāt adhīnaś ca varnādir janma-mātratah. Which means that the debts one inherits at birth are to the gods, to the manes, to friends and relatives, to the sages, to the bhutas and to other human beings.


I follow hardly any rituals in my own life. And yet I find the concept of rnas and the rituals associated with them beautiful. They are important for cultural reasons. And even if they are not important for cultural reasons, they are important for environmental reasons.

The concept that our physical and cultural words are our inheritance from the past and we are to pass these on to our next generation not in an impoverished condition but more enriched than we received it, is a beautiful one. Our world that is threatened with extinction because of man’s insatiable greed, power hunger, aggression and thoughtlessness needs such beautiful concepts for humanity’s, and the world’s, very survival.

Also, I do not mean everything that we culturally inherit is healthy. There are aspects of culture that need to be rejected because they are evil – as the Upanishad seers rejected aspects of Vedic culture that had by their time become meaningless, as Krishna rejected in the Gita many practices that had become meaningless by his time, as Vidya Sagar and Gandhi rejected many aspects of our culture that had by their time become positively evil. A Sanskrit saying says: purānamityeva na sādhu sarvam – everything is not good just because it is ancient.

One last thing. What is important is not that you perform the rituals – rituals do matter, I agree. They do have a symbolic value and are powerful tools of communication, particularly with the unconscious mind and the preverbal brain. But it is the way you live 24x7 that really matters. We should be able to sustain this attitude throughout the day, seven days a week. Without that a ritual becomes just that – a ritual and nothing more.

One happy thing that has been happening for a while now is that industry and business, corporate houses, have been taking these debts and yajnas seriously. True, they do not perform them as rituals, thank God, but social and environmental responsibilities are things taken seriously today by the business and industrial world. One of the criteria by which corporate houses are judged is to what extent they are committed to their social and environmental responsibilities. What are these responsibilities if not bhuta rna and manushya rna being paid back, bhuta yajna and manushya yajna being performed?

The name does not matter; what counts is the act.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for the wonderful way you have explained this.