Vasishtha Ganapati Muni — An अवधानी avadhānī Par-excellence
Vasishtha Ganapati Muni (1878–1936) was the foremost disciple of Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He was a poet, a patriot, a Tantrika, a visionary, a Rishi, and in addition he was an अवधानी avadhānī par-excellence. What does the word अवधानी avadhānī mean? The word अवधानी avadhānī is a derivative of the Sanskrit word अवधान avadhāna which means “attention or concentration”. So, a person who concentrates and is attentive is known as अवधानी avadhānī. But the word अवधानी avadhānī was used specifically for the one who could simultaneously concentrate on several topics and answer questions related to various topics by creating extempore poetry. He possesses a very high power of concentration.
Let’s understand first what अवधान avadhāna is.
The अवधान avadhāna Tradition
Looking at the oral tradition of learning Vedas one comes to know that it was through this high power of concentration that ancient Indian sages were able to memorise all the Vedas and to have mastery over several disciplines. From this tradition branched forth several types of अवधान avadhāna or feats of concentration. Gradually, अवधान avadhāna developed as a literary activity or feat.
In this type of literary activity the अवधानी avadhānī exhibits the power of simultaneous and multiple concentration on different things or items belonging to literature. This first arose naturally in Sanskrit and later evolved in other Indian languages too. However, only Kannada and Telugu have maintained this heritage intact, while the latter has taken this scholarly literary feat to very great heights.
In an अवधान avadhāna performance the अवधानी avadhānī is asked different types of questions and given various tasks by a number of scholars. He must answer the questions, step by step, in four rounds, through extempore metrical compositions according to the specifications given by the questioners, without taking any help from any book or writing material. The whole show is an oral outpour. The number of scholars who ask the questions may be eight, hundred, or even a thousand. If the number is eight then the performance is called अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna or Eight-fold Concentration and the person is called अष्टावधानी aṣṭāvadhānī; if the number is hundred it is called शतावधान śatāvadhāna and in the case of a thousand it is called सहस्रावधान sahasrāvadhāna. While the अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna lasts for two hours, the शतावधान śatāvadhāna goes on for two days and the सहस्रावधान sahasrāvadhāna, takes all of 20 days. The scholars who ask questions to the अवधानी avadhānī are called पृच्छक-s pṛcchaka-s or questioners. Each पृच्छक pṛcchaka asks questions related to one particular theme.
अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna — The Eight-fold Concentration
Among the various types of अवधान avadhāna, the अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna is the most common and popular. Here, the अवधानी avadhānī has to confront eight scholars who ask questions on eight different themes. Composition of verses in an enigmatic way, such as by eliminating several vital letters or by using several chosen letters, or by the employment of unusual words; several types of verbal acrobatics; non-stop versification at a high speed; identifying and commenting on select verses from the vast body of classical literature; providing solutions to literary riddles without violating the rules of versification; playing chess; counting the irregular rings of a bell or the number of flowers thrown on the back; indulging in lively yaks of wit; participating in Sastric debates; mental arrangement of a cluster of cluttered letters into a meaningful verse, etc. are some of the distinctive items implemented in an अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna. These items are not fixed. They may vary from performance to performance.
In the usual अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna program the following are in practice:
निषिधाक्षरम् niṣidhākṣaram: In this item the questioner specifies a theme and a particular meter and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a poem according to his specifications. The essential condition is that the composition has to be made syllable by syllable. After each syllable is mentioned by the अवधानी avadhānī, the questioner tries to anticipate the word the अवधानी avadhānī has in his mind and prohibits the use of the next syllable. The अवधानी avadhānī has thus to find at each step an alternate possibility and compose the verse, while adhering to the topic and the meter given by the questioner.
समस्यापूरणम् samasyāpūraṇam: Here the questioner gives the last पाद pāda or quarter verse composed by him, which contains something ambiguous or contradictory in its meaning. The अवधानी avadhānī must compose the remaining three पाद-s pāda-s in the same meter, in such a way, that when the 4th पाद pāda is added the contradiction disappears and the verse takes an interesting meaning.
दत्तपदरचनम् dattapadaracanam: The questioner here specifies a meter and a topic and gives four unrelated words (which however must conform to the specified metre), and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a verse where each one of the four words is incorporated in each quarter.
वर्णनम् varṇanam: The questioner here gives the description of a particular subject or scene and asks the अवधानी avadhānī to compose a verse in a particular meter specified by him.
आशुरचनम् āśuracanam: The questioner here specifies a meter and a subject and the अवधानी avadhānī must compose an entire verse immediately, in one go conforming to the meter and the subject.
व्यस्ताक्षरकथनम् vyastākṣarakathanam: The questioner here interrupts the अवधानी avadhānī repeatedly and gives at random the serial numbers of syllables in a poem, which he has in his mind. The अवधानी avadhānī must remember and rearrange the syllables in the right order to find the poem.
घण्टावादनम् ghaṇṭāvādanam: A bell is rung at irregular intervals during the period of the अवधान avadhāna. The अवधानी avadhānī has to tell at the end of the performance how many times the bell was rung.
अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ: This questioner intervenes at any moment during the performance asking the अवधानी avadhānī all types of questions, humorous, absurd, deep, to divert his attention and break his concentration. The अवधानी avadhānī, on a priority has to reply to the अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ in an entertaining manner, before proceeding with the other questions. अप्रस्तुतप्रङ्गः aprastutapraṅgaḥ literally means irrelevant context or not suitable to time and subject.
To make the task even more difficult, the अवधानी avadhānī has to compose the poems in four rounds, stanza by stanza. In each round he must remember the question asked earlier by the पृच्छक pṛcchaka and the stanzas already composed by him and continue from that point. Only for the आशुरचनम् āśuracanam he has to compose all the four lines at a stretch.
At the end the अवधानी avadhānī has to recite each श्लोक śloka composed by him in its entirety, serially, item by item, except for आशु āśu. This is called धारणा dhāraṇā.
Vasishtha Ganapati Muni — An अवधानी avadhānī
Vasishtha Ganapati Muni had performed excellent अष्टावधान-s aṣṭāvadhāna-s at many places in India, and he was highly respected for his ability to perform successfully this type of literary feats. Here are few examples to illustrate his excellence in this art.
आशुकाव्यरचनम् āśukāvyaracanam or composing poetry extempore is an important part of the अवधान avadhāna activity. The Muni was an unparalleled आशुकवि āśukavi. Once during the performance of an अवधान avadhāna at Madras he was asked to compose hundred verses in one hour (घण्टाशतकम् ghaṇṭāśatakam). The topic specified for this was the legendary story of Nala and Damayanti. The Muni started at such a speed that he composed twenty-five verses in six minutes. The appointed scribes who were to commit it to writing were not able to cope with the speed of the Muni. The entire assembly was wonderstruck. The president of the function was greatly delighted with this, and told the Muni to stop going further. He said, with this speed one could compose two hundred and fifty verses in one hour. So those twenty-five verses were enough to prove the Muni as a great आशुकवि āśukavi. There are many such examples of Muni’s extempore compositions.
व्यस्ताक्षरकथनम् vyastākṣarakathanam is another item in the अवधान avadhāna performance in which the person appointed for this item interrupts the अवधानी avadhānī repeatedly and gives at random the serial numbers of syllables in a poem, which he has in his mind. The अवधानी avadhānī must remember and rearrange the syllables in the right order to find the poem. Normally, the verse chosen for this should be in a metre comprising less number of syllables or it should be one quarter of a verse. In one performance the व्यस्ताक्षरी vyastākṣarī examiner chose a very difficult verse for the Muni. The verse was in a meter called स्रग्धरा sragdharā which contains twenty-one syllables in each of its quarters. So, all together there are eighty-four syllables in this meter. The full verse which was composed by the examiner himself was chosen for the Muni for व्यस्ताक्षरकथनम् vyastākṣarakathanam. The Muni had such a sharp memory and high power of concentration that finally, he not only could rearrange the letters of the verse given in a disorderly manner, but he astounded the assembly by saying the entire verse from the end to the beginning syllable by syllable, and also by reciting it in the usual way. The verse was:
अप्सां द्रप्सामलिप्सां चिरतरमचरं क्षीरमद्राक्षमिक्षुम्
द्राक्षां साक्षादजक्षं मधुरसमधयं द्रागविन्दं मरन्दम्।
मोचामाचाममन्यो मधुरिमगरिमा शङ्कराचार्यवाचाम्
आचान्तो हन्त किं तैरलमपि च सुधासारसीसारसीम्ना।।
apsāṃ drapsāmalipsāṃ cirataramacaraṃ kṣīramadrākṣamikṣum
drākṣāṃ sākṣādajakṣaṃ madhurasamadhayaṃ drāgavindaṃ marandam.
mocāmācāmamanyo madhurimagarimā śaṅkarācāryavācām
ācānto hanta kiṃ tairalamapi ca sudhāsārasīsārasīmnā..
It was a practice that at the end of the अवधान avadhāna performance the अवधानी avadhānī has to comment critically upon any famous verse. For this occasion the Muni chose this particular verse and started commenting elegantly upon this. He delighted the assembly by his flawless eloquence and made all thunderstruck by pointing out a series of mistakes in the verse. For details one can see वासिष्ठवैभवम् vāsiṣṭhavaibhavam by Kapali Sastry, chapter 11.
On one occasion a Sanskrit scholar asked the Muni to express his views on poetry in वसन्ततिलकम् vasantatilakam meter which has fourteen syllables in each of its quarters. He put the condition that the Muni should compose the verse as per specifications made by him. The Sanskrit scholar took a piece of chalk and drew a rectangle having fifty-six squares, since the meter in which the verse had to be composed demands to have fifty-six syllables. Then he started pointing out to the squares at random. On whichever square the scholar put his finger the Muni wrote down a letter there. In this manner all the squares were filled up spontaneously by the Muni. Finally, the complete verse expressing the Muni’s views on poetry was:
प्रीतिं ददाति विपुलां श्रियमातनोति
निर्माति नूनसमयं दुरितं धुनोति।
आर्द्रीकरोति हृदयान्यपि देवतानां
कस्मै शुभाय न भवेत् कविता विदोषा ॥
prītiṃ dadāti vipulāṃ śriyamātanoti
nirmāti nūnasamayaṃ duritaṃ dhunoti.
ārdrīkaroti hṛdayānyapi devatānāṃ
kasmai śubhāya na bhavet kavitā vidoṣā ..
Poetry, free from all demerits or blemishes, gives delight, grants enormous prosperity, creates a new era, removes all difficulties, and it even melts the hearts of the gods. To whom does it not prove good?
Although, the available examples of Muni’s अष्टावधान aṣṭāvadhāna performance are very few, yet these show his exceptional retentive memory, great power of concentration, ability to compose unblemished extempore poetry, spontaneous creativity, imagination, poetic ability and quick thinking, and prove him as a consummate scholar and literary genius.