The stories of Nandi from the Puranas combined with the modern scientific perspective help us understand the science of attention in meditation.
According to Hindu beliefs, Nandi is depicted as a bull. One can see the murti of Nandi in a seated position in Hindu temples looking towards Shiva. Most Shaivite temples have the figure of a humped white bull reclining on a raised platform and facing the entrance door of the shrine so that he may perpetually gaze on Shiva. It seems as though, the bull itself is sitting and taking darshan of Shiva with thorough devotion. Devotees taking darshan of Shiva look straight through the horns of the bull, Shrungadharshan(viewing from the gap between the horns of Nandi). Now let us explore the significance of this statue of Nandi the Bull. What meaning and message do this symbol of bull, Nandi convey to us?
Mythology conveys some underlying principles through symbolism. In this new age, we can understand the underlying principles of those stories based on contemplative neuroscience. The stories of Nandi are embedded in many of the Puranas. Through the stories of the Puranas, our Rishis wanted to convey the philosophy of life, for practical wellbeing, which is all-inclusive of body, mind and spirit.
Looking into the Puranic stories, we can assume that Nandi symbolizes awareness, alertness, with full receptivity. Before entering the temple or before we start our spiritual practice of meditation, we may choose to acquire the quality of Nandi. During meditation, when we sit like Nandi with alertness and attention, we are able to receive its benefits. The quality of Nandi is the essential preparedness needed for mental wellbeing.
There has been a growing need to understand the nature of attention and alertness. The rising cause of concern in today’s world is stress, depression and mental health. So, it is very much essential to understand the message which Nandi depicts in our day to day life from a scientific point of view.
Awareness is a part of our consciousness. Until we are aware of our thoughts, emotions, actions, we will not be able to be in charge of ourselves. The basic teachings of Sri Aurobindo are expressed in the following quotations that express the yogic view of the nature of consciousness.
Sri Aurobindo states:
Consciousness is made up of two elements, awareness of self and things and forces, and conscious-power.
Since awareness is an element inherent in consciousness, to attain the fullness of existence and being is to be fully aware of one’s being.
Work done in Jonathan Schooler’s lab shows that “stimulus-independent thought” also called mind wandering is the brain’s default mode network (DMN) in action. The DMN mainly consists of the anterior medial Prefrontal Cortex, Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC), and the posterior inferior parietal lobules. This network is implicated in supporting spontaneous thoughts and self-referential processing.
Although this is a great evolutionary achievement in brain development, as in the ability of the brain to be able to learn, plan actions and also reason with different points of view. But with this demand, we have to pay an emotional cost. The brain is always looking for information and trying to predict the future, it is part of the survival mechanism. Although this may be helpful in dodging predators and fighting starvation, it also has a tendency to spiral into anxiety and worry. Anxiety can mean different things to different people, but one commonality is the literal feeling of being wound up and tangled.
Many traditional philosophical practices from various parts of the world, teach us to train our minds to be “here in the present”, suggesting in some ways that the wandering mind could set a stage for distraction which can lead us away from the understanding of the Self.
Research from Amishi Jha’s lab describes the various ways in which attention can get highjacked and how multitasking in most cases can cause the attention to be stretched too thin. One way we can think about attention is to see it as sort of like a flashlight. So just like a flashlight, when directed in a darkened room, causes that part of our visual scenario to be processed better, in the same way, attention allows us to willfully direct our brains’ resources to particular things, whether it’s the external environment, or we can even direct that flashlight internally to memories or emotions if we’d like to.
The mind is ruled by the inputs from the senses. So, for being centred in a“calm soul” modality we have to turn inwards.
There are numerous methods for bringing about the change from the sense-dominated to the inner-centred awareness. These practices are discussed in the spiritual and psycho-spiritual literature from all around the world. Upanishads provide real insight into levels of consciousness that represent the internal shift from the ego-centred individual relying on the mind and the senses, to the divine-based awareness that transcends the ego-consciousness. This can be achieved by meditation. Attention is an inherent part of meditation.
Now let us try to extrapolate the concepts of attention from the six stories of Nandi in the Puranas. We have narrated here six puranic stories of Nandi with probable interpretations in the light of the science of attention. Puranas have used metaphorically symbols to explain concepts that may be inherent to our understanding of the truth.
Science has shown important characteristics about attention. It is possible that Nandi represented various facets of the attention processing system that form a major part of our sense of clarity and wellbeing. We are connecting six facets of attention with symbolic connections to the puranic stories.
The stories from the Puranas
Here is the first story from the Linga Purana that describes the birth of Nandi. Once upon a time, there was a sage named Shilada who lived in a hermitage and wished to have a child who was immortal in nature. To fulfil his wishes, he performed great penance to Shiva. He wanted to have a child who would be immortal and equal to Shiva in his capabilities. Shiva granted his wish and told him that he will have a child who will be his incarnation. As the sight of the childbirth bought great joy to Shilada, he named the boy Nandi (One who brings happiness or joy to life). Shilada then took the child to his hermitage, the moment the child entered the hermitage the body turned in to a human.
This flashlight kind of attention allows us to select and direct our brain’s computational resources to a smaller subset of the information. It allows us to focus on the task at hand, on memory or sights and sounds without an emotional reaction or judgement. Our attention is powerful as it determines the moment to moment experience of our life and in many ways results in the creation of our reality. These practices have been beneficial in stress reduction, decreasing unpleasantness and improving our attention pathways. This could also lead to sustained joy and happiness.
So, the Nandi story connection with Shilada and the birth of Nandi, who brought joy is due to the determination in penance.
Shilada raised the child with great care and affection. By the age of five, Nandi became well versed with the Vedas and holy scriptures. One day on the order of Shiva, sages Maitreya and Varuna came to visit Shilada’s hermitage to meet the child. While leaving the sages blessed the child. The visiting sages casually mentioned that the child’s brilliance would be immortal but not his life. Listening to those words, Shilada trembled and started to cry about his child’s life. Nandi came to Sage Shilada and asked about his distress. The sage explained his agony on knowing that Nandi’s life was short-lived.
Sage Shilada’s attention was easily sucked up by the disturbing thoughts of Nandi’s death. His attentive processes were hijacked by the predictions about Nandi’s life. Attention is limited and is connected to working memory. This working memory is what allows us to focus on certain information. It is like remembering the new password or the security code for a new account. Since working memory is essential for attention, it is important to not let our attention get sucked up by too many distractions. During meditative practices, where sustained attention on an anchoring object such as one’s breath is executed, we are able to detect the distracters such as task-irrelevant thought. Upon detection, we are able to redirect our attention back to the anchoring object. This process suppresses the DMN during meditation. This practise trains us to keep our attention in the present moment and increases our ability to maintain an awareness of what’s happening in the mind.
Nandi told to his father not to worry and calmed himself down by focusing his attention and performed penance to Shiva. The seven-year-old Nandi started to meditate with great determination. Shiva was delighted by Nandi’s devotion. He appeared before him and said, ‘O Nandi, I am pleased with your penance, I am here now, tell me what is your desire?’ Seeing Shiva, Nandi prostrated at His feet. Then Shiva told Nandi to not let his attention get distracted by the fear of death. He blessed Nandi and made him the head of all the Ganas(attendants of God Shiva). On remembering his Ganas, countless numbers appeared before Nandi and bowed to him. Shiva said Nandi is my son and he will be called Nandikeshwara – the Lord of joy from now onwards.
The other interpretation is that when we put our attention to a specific object, with a quality, we gradually absorb that quality in us and thus become one. So Nandi with his wholehearted attention to Shiva acquires the quality of Ishwara and thus becomes Nandikeshwara.
At that auspicious moment, Shiva granted several boons to Nandi. Nandi accepted all the boons but refused to take the form similar to Shiva. Shiva accepted the wish and granted another boon telling Nandi could take any form he wished at any time.
This is why Nandi appears as multiple forms in the Puranas– 1) As head of the Ganas, 2) as a fish, 3) as a sage, 4) as a bull and 5) as bull playing the Mridangam (The mridangam is a percussion instrument of ancient origin in Carnatic music. A related instrument is the Kendang, played in Maritime Southeast Asia) at feet of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance (“Nataraja”—nata meaning dance or performance, and raja meaning king or lord). Nandi as bull playing the musical instrument – as sound helps us focus our attention. Think of the ringing of the bell helps us to focus on the sound and builds attention.
Nandeeshwara became a great devotee and the guardian in the abode of Shiva. In the Bhagavata Purana, there are detailed descriptions of the grand Yagna that was attended by celestial lords, divine sages, gods, and deities. Shiva was also present. Daksha, the son of Brahma arrived on the scene of the grand yagna. Everyone except Shiva rose up to pay respect to Prajapati Daksha. Daksha took this as a deliberate affront of him and ridiculed Shiva in public.
Nandi was angered by the insult of Shiva and pleaded with Daksha to gain composure. Nandi being a devotee and guardian in the abode of Shiva could not tolerate the insults. Nandi closed his two ears and in rapt attention started chanting Shiva Shiva. So before we react to an outward stimulus we should be in control of ourselves. We should direct our attention inwards i.e. Shiva, to not to be distracted by outside influence and keep one’s calm.
In the Vishnu Purana, when the Devas and Asuras were churning the palasamudra (ocean of milk) to get the divine nectar or elixir out of it, A deadly poison (halahala) emerged out. All the devas and asuras started panicking and became nervous and anxious. Lord Shiva consumed the poison and stored it in his throat, which made the throat appear blue. Hence the name Neelakantha for Shiva (the one with Bluethroat).
While Shiva was consuming the poison, a little amount of it spilt on the ground. Nandikeeswara immediately consumed it, to everyone’s dismay and surprise. During the emotional chaos caused by the spillover of the deadly poison, the meditative practices of Nandikeeswara allowed him to restore his attention to being in the present moment. He was able to regulate his emotions and relate to them differently by decreasing the tendency of his mind to emotionally wander and do the most important task on hand (to clean up the poison spillover from Shiva’s mouth)
In Tamil Thiruvilaiyadal Puranas, there is mention of another story in which Nandi is incarnated as a fish. In this story, Parvati, Shiva’s consort, incarnated as a fisher-woman. Shiva who lived in Kailasa wanted to be united with his beloved wife. Nandi took the form of a large fish and started to trouble the people in the fishing village. The head fisherman of the village announced that “one who could capture the large fish would marry his daughter Parvati.”
Later, Shiva took the form of a fisherman and captured the giant fish and married Parvati.
In this story, Nandi seems to be a medium of bringing the awareness of the consciousness (Shiva) together with energy (Parvati). Our consciousness has two aspects: Awareness and the Energy Inherent in it. The awareness is the light that reveals the contents of our inner and outer world and the energy expresses itself through the faculties and instruments of our consciousness. For a total and effective action, both these aspects of consciousness have to be fully developed.
We know that attention is essential for establishing strong connections. Attention not only in the personal space but also directed towards other people with whom we communicate. Nandi symbolizes the path of paying attention that is directed while showing interest, care and love for others.
After learning the divine knowledge from Shiva and Parvati, Nandikeeswara evolved to become a Guru. Nandikeeswara taught the knowledge to his eight disciples. These eight disciples were responsible to spread the wisdom in eight directions.
Tirumular and Patanjali are some of his famous disciples. Tamil Siddha Yogi Tirumula’s work Tirumantiram – 3000 verses are part of the “ Panniru Tirumurai” and is part of the 12-century philosophy.
Patanjali is the compiler of the Yoga Sutra – a major work on the philosophical aspects of mind and consciousness. In recent years, the yoga sutras have become quite popular for the practice of yoga and the philosophical basis of the yoga movement that helps in harmonizing mind and body and spirit. Yoga is an ancient practice. The teachings of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga are part of the rigorous system of inner contemplation and meditative practices that one needs to be conscious of in order to achieve inner harmony. As Nandi evolved to become a Guru, it indicates that we mortals can also evolve into a better version of ourselves by training our faculties as attention is also trainable. It is possible that intense contemplative practices can protect the mind from its own biological damaging habits: mind wandering, rumination, catastrophizing. These damaging habits can significantly cause stress and impede the fountain of joy.
Shrungadarshan is described in Sekkizhar’s Periya Purana, which deals with the travels of Nandanar. Nandanar was a devout Shiva devotee. His ambition was to visit the temple of Chidambaram. Nandanar used to tell everyone that he would visit “Chidambaram tomorrow” (Thiru Nalai Poven). He was telling this over a period of time to everyone, and he came to be known as “Thiru Nali Povar”. On the way to Chidambaram, he stopped at Tirupungur, to have a darshan of Shiva. He was not able to have a view of Shiva as Nandi was blocking the view. On hearing the devotion of Nandanar, Shiva asked Nandi to move his head to the side to facilitate him to have a clear view of his devotee. Shiva’s instructions to Nandi have been immortalized in “Sattru Vilagi Irum Pillai” song. This story shows the relationship between attention and meta-awareness. Meta-awareness helps in decentering and focusing thoughts as mental events. These are helpful in shifting the experiential perspective onto the experience rather than the experiencer. Every time we realize we are thinking and get caught up in mind wandering, meta-awareness plays a key role in monitoring our attention and its effect and hereby creating a gap. Data shows that when people are really focused on what they are doing, and their minds are not wandering, they actually feel better about themselves. This is evidenced in the prescribed darshan of Shiva by the procedure called “Shrungadarshan”(viewing from the gap between the horns of Nandi). This can be seen in the “viewing from the gap” as in creating the gap.
The interpretations of the Puranic stories of Nandi are an effort to depict some of the tenets of attention. Attention is the main component of awareness. These practices can decrease mind-wandering while improving clarity and well-being. Some of the fundamentals of the science of attention can be extrapolated to our meditative practices, which help us to be centred in a calm soul thus enhancing our wellbeing. With this practice, we can also decrease the mental fogginess while protecting our working memory that comes with ageing.
To attain the fullness of being and existence is to attain not only the full awareness and the full force of one’s being but also its full delight, which is the highest consummation of psychological well-being.
To quote Sri Aurobindo:
Lastly, to be fully is to have the full delight of being. To become complete in being, in the consciousness of being, in force of being, in the delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living.
Nandi means joy or delight. Thus, our sincere effort is to connect the Puranic stories with the science of attention to ultimately realize the delight of being.
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