The veena in Buddhist stories


By Satyajith Andradi

The veena has dominated the Hindu psyche from Vedic times to the present day. It is associated with important personages of the Hinduism such as Shiva one of three manifestations of the Supreme God (Trimurthi), king Ravana the legendary ruler of Lanka and a strong devotee of Shiva, the divine sage Narada, and above all Sarasvati the Goddess of Learning and Wisdom. In Hindu iconography, the Sarasvati is depicted playing the veena. In Hindu traditions, the Veena has been venerated as the divine queen of musical instruments. Interestingly, the Veena also features prominently in Buddhist narratives directly associated with the Buddha. Some stories contained in the Sona Sutta, the Sakkapanna Sutta, and the Guttila Jatakaya are examples.

The Veena and the Middle Path

A monk by the name Sona engaged in extremely strenuous meditations to achieve Enlightenment. In the process, he had subjected his body to tremendous pain. Nonetheless, Sona was unable to achieve the desired result Enlightenment. The venerable Sona got increasingly frustrated and seriously contemplated giving up his rigourous meditations; he thought of leaving the monkhood and returning to his former well-to-do lay life and engaging in meritorious deeds, which he thought, would help him to achieve Enlightenment. The Buddha came to know the monks thoughts. He visited the venerable Sona, who was an accomplished Veena player before becoming a monk, and posed a few questions on the veena and veena playing. Sona, when the strings of your veena were very tightly tuned, was it possible to play the veena well? asked the Buddha. No, my Lord. replied the monk. Sona, when the strings of your veena were very loosely tuned, was it possible to play the veena well? enquired the Buddha.No, my Lord replied monk.Sona, when the strings of the veena are neither too tightly nor too loosely tuned, but are tuned in a balanced manner, could the veena be played well? asked the Buddha. Certainly, my Lord replied the venerable Sona. Likewise, efforts, which are extremely strenuous or lax, do not bring about the desired Enlightenment. Achieve Enlightenment by making a well balanced effort advised the Buddha. The venerable Sona followed the Buddhas advise and soon attained Arahantship Enlightenment.

The above story lays emphasis on the Middle Path, which is a seminal concept of Buddhism. The story is contained in the Sona Sutta of the Anguttara Niyaka of the Sutta Pitaka of the Tripitaka. The Tripitaka was written in the Pali language in Aluvihara in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC during the reign of king Valagambahu.

The Celestial Veena Player and the Insight on Harmony

Sakra, the king of gods, wished to meet the Buddha and have his spiritual doubts cleared. As the Buddha was meditating in a cave at that time, he was reluctant to disturb the Buddha with his immediate presence. Therefore he requested Panchasika, the celestial musician, to first meet the Buddha and obtain His consent for the meeting with Sakra. Agreeing to undertake the mission, Panchasika went to the cave to meet the Buddha, carrying his veena named Beluvapandu. He sat besides the Buddha and began to play the veena and sing a song in praise of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sanga and his Beloved. Once he had finished his musical performance, the Buddha said: Panchakisa, the notes of your veena are in harmony with the notes of your song; the notes of your song are in harmony with the notes of your veena; Your veena tones do not exceed the your vocal tones, and your vocal tones do not exceed your veena tones and asked: Panchasika, when did you create this song? Panchasika answered the Buddha and arranged for the subsequent meeting of the Buddha and Sakra.

The above story gives a glimpse of Buddhas insights on Harmony, as well as His tact and patience as great teacher. The narrative is contained in the Sakkapanna Sutta of the Deegha Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka of the Tripitaka. Panchasikas musical performance is elaborately retold in Sinhala by Gurulugomi in the section titled Deva Damanaya (Subduing the gods) of his celebrated literary masterpiece, Amavatura. The Amavatura was written during the Polonnaruwa period in the late 12th or early 13th century.

The Veena Contest and the case of Ingratitude

The Buddha, in one of His previous births as the Bodhisatva, became the foremost musician of the day. His name was Guttila. He was the court musician to Brahmadatta, king of Benares. Guttila was the greatest Veena player of his time. A young musician called Musila came to Guttila to learn the art of veena playing. Guttila, the Bodhisatva, taught everything that that he knew about veena playing to his pupil. At the completion of his studies, Musila informed his guru the desire to become a musician in the royal court of king Brahmadatta. Guttila conveyed to the king his pupils wishes. The king, out of great respect for Guttila agreed to employ Musila as a court musician at a salary that was half of Guttilas salary. Musila was not agreeable to the salary. As he knew everything that Guttila knew about veena playing, he insisted on receiving a remuneration equal to that of Guttilas. The king agreed to this proposition, provided Musila proved that he is the equal of his teacher at a public veena competition between teacher and pupil. Musila accepted the kings condition, and a competition between Guttila and Musila was arranged to find out the veracity of Musilas claim of being Guttilas equal.

At that time Guttila was an old man. He feared suffering the terrible humiliation of losing to Musila, his erstwhile pupil. In deep agony, he went to the forest hoping to end his life. As he was wandering about, Sakra, king of the gods, spoke to him, and promised to ensure his victory at the veena contest. Accepting Sakras word, Guttila went home and appeared at the grand public contest. The competition started in the presence of the king and the public. At the beginning both teacher and pupil played the veena equally well. However, as the performance went on, Sakra intervened and ensured Guttilas victory. Musila was driven out of the place and beaten to death by the angry people for challenging their revered veena maestro Guttila and also for his utter ingratitude to his teacher. According to story, it was Devadatta- Buddhas disciple turned detractor, who was born as Musila - the ungrateful pupil, in a previous birth.

The above story teaches the importance of gratitude and the dire consequence of ingratitude. It is useful to note that, according to Buddhist traditions, the first lesson the Buddha taught the world after attaining Buddhahood was the need to be grateful: The Buddha, as a mark of gratitude to the Bo Tree which helped him in achieving Enlightenment, spent the second week of Buddhahood continuously gazing at it, without blinking his eyes.

The story of Guttila and Musila is contained in the Guttila Jatakaya of the Jatakatta Katha, a collection of Jataka stories written in Pali in Sri Lanka around the 6th century AD. The story is retold in Sinhala in the Guttila Jatakaya of the Pansiya Panas Jataka Potha (The Book of Five Hundred and Fifty Jatakas) composed in the late 13th or early 14th century during the Kurunegala period. The Sinhala classic, Guttila Kavyaya, composed by the venerable Vettewe in the early 15th century during the Kotte period, is based on this story.

The Veena in Buddhist Stories

The narratives relating to the veena found in Buddhist stories convey important Buddhists principles and values such as the Middle Path, Harmony, and Gratitude. Needless to say, the potent imagery of the veena and veena playing provided powerful means of expressing these seminal thoughts. Further, the narratives reflect the high musical culture that existed in India in ancient times, which gave the veena pride of place. Certainly, the Veena has been an integral and inseparable part of the Buddhist psyche throughout the ages.

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