Akshay Patra: Redefining Our Patra of Values
Stories are the bearer of the culture and values of a society. They are entertaining as well as enlightening at the same time. Since ancient times, folklore has been an effective pedagogy and is still being explored as a vital learning medium. The story of granting Akshay Patra (अक्षय पात्र) by Lord Surya to Dharmaraj Yudhishthira (धर्मराजयुधिष्ठिर) is one such narrative that subtly communicates one of the fantastic human values.
After Pandavas had lost everything in the dice game which Yudhishthira played with shakuni on behalf of Duryodhana, the Pandavas were left with nothing. Per the game conditions, Pandavas were banished to the jungle for thirteen years—twelve years of forest-dwelling and the last year of staying in disguise.
When Yudhisthira and other Pandavas (पांडव), along with Draupadi (द्रौपदी), started for the forest, many citizens and Brahmans started following them to show their love and respect for Pandavas. After some time, the ordinary citizens stopped following them and bid their beloved king and his family farewell with heavy hearts. However, several Brahmins and their families followed Pandavas the next day and night.
Yudhisthira stopped and addressed them respectfully and requested them to return to the kingdom. He told them that since he had lost everything to the Kauravas, he had no resources to feed the Brahmans, the Dharma of a Kshatriya. Brahman's adamant about not leaving the righteous Pandavas alone assured Yudhisthira that they require space in his heart and he should not bother to feed them. The Brahmanas said they would take care of themselves.
Already accused of causing this difficulty for his brothers and Draupadi, Yudhisthira broke down under the weight of the guilt of his helplessness towards Brahman's suffering.
Abandoning Brahmans was immoral for the Pandavas, and patronising learned Brahmanas was one of the revered values of that time.
One of the enlightened Brahman, Rishi Saunaka, approached helpless and desperate Yudhisthira and suggested that he consult Rishi Dhaumya. Rishi Saunaka assured Yudhisthira that Rishi Dhaumya would invariably provide a solution.
Yudhishthira sought the advice of his spiritual Guru (preceptor), Rishi Dhaumya (ऋषिधौम्य), to find a way to solve this problem. Rishi Dhaumya contemplated and suggested to Yudhisthira that he must worship the source of all life in this world, the supreme source and sustainer of all the food in this world; 'the Sun God' (सूर्य देव).
Standing in waters of pure Ganga and sustaining only on air, Yudhisthira underwent deep penance to please Sun God. Pleased by the Pursuit and worship of Yudhisthira, Sun God appeared before Yudhisthira and bestowed him with a copper vessel -Akshay Patra (अक्षय पात्र), which would be the source of inexhaustible food for each day. However, there was a condition to the usage of Akshay Patra. Each day after Draupadi had taken her meal, the food would be exhausted for that day. Thus, the Sun God granted him this boon that the Akshay (inexhaustible) Patra (vessel) would take care of their stay in the jungle and blessed him to regain his kingdom after completing the 14th year.
Having been granted this boon by Lord Surya, Yudhisthira was at peace and cared for the learned Brahmans and other visitors in the jungle. Every day the Brahmans and other visitors were fed, and then the four Pandava brothers, followed by Yudhisthira and Draupadi, would consume food.
As trials and tribulations are part of human life, same for a king or a beggar, Yudhisthira and other Pandavas soon faced a challenging situation arising from Duryodhana's deceitfulness.
Threatened by Pandavas and not being at peace even after sending them to the jungle, Duryodhana convinced Rishi Durvasa (ऋषि दुर्वासा) to visit Pandavas in the forest. He planned Rishi Durvasa's trip such that they would reach towards the end of the day. Duryodhana was well aware that Pandavas and Panchali (another name for Draupadi) might be unable to welcome and feed Rishi Durvasa since Akshay Patra is limited for each day until Draupadi consumes the food. So as planned by Duryodhan, Rishi Durvasa and his disciples visited Pandavas in the jungle. By the time sage, Durvasa reached Pandava's abode in the forest, it was late, and the Pandavas, Brahmans and visitors had finished their meal, followed by Draupadi. Akshay Patra was exhausted for the day.
Sage Durvasa was famous for his mystic powers as well as his temper. When Rishi Durvasa and his disciples arrived, Pandavas welcomed them with complete humility and requested them to freshen up in the nearby river. Durvasa and his disciples proceeded towards the river. Meanwhile, Yudhisthira and Panchali were under immense anxiety at the prospect of sinning of not being able to feed the Sage and the fear of the ensuing wrath of Rishi Durvasa.
At this challenging moment, Panchali turns to Lord Krishna for help. Lord Krishna appeared before Panchali and asked her to feed whatever was left in the Patra as he was hungry. With a perplexed look, Panchali showed the Akshay Patra to Lord Krishna. Lord found one piece of rice stuck at the bottom of the vessel and ate that. At that moment, Durvasa, his disciples and the whole universe felt satiated with no appetite. They went back from the river without visiting Pandavas.
There are various beliefs about the day when Akshay Patra was given by Lord Surya and the day Lord Krishna ate from the Patra. Some believe that the day when Lord Krishna ate from the Patra, satiating the hunger of the universe, was the day of Akshay Tritya, whereas others believe that the day Lord Surya gave the Akshay Patra to Yudhisthira was the auspicious day of Akshay Tritya.
Akshay Tritya has various other significant events associated with it. According to a few scriptures, it is the day when Parashuram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was born, and the day marked the beginning of Treta Yuga (त्रेता युग). Some believe that Goddess Ganga descended on Earth from heaven on this day. People also offer prayers to Goddess Annapoorna (अन्नपूर्णा), the deity of food and nourishment on Akshay Tritya. In Jainism, the festival of "Varsi tapa" (वर्षीतप) is celebrated on this day to pay homage to Rishabhdev – the first Tirthankara who ended his one-year asceticism by drinking sugarcane juice.
It's also believed by many that, on the day of Akshaya Tritiya, Kubera (कुबेर)– the Banker in Heaven, was granted enormous wealth by worshipping Lord Shiva and was made the custodian of prosperity and wealth along with Goddess Lakshmi.
Yet another story is associated with Lord Krishna and his old childhood friend Sudama. It's believed that Sudama visited Lord Krishna after several years on the day of Akshay Tritiya. Sudama was extremely poor and had nothing to eat. At his wife's suggestion, he visited Lord Krishna looking for some help. He carried a small portion of puffed rice as a gift for Lord Krishna. Sudama was ashamed of taking a small amount of puffed rice to a friend who was a king and so didn't offer him. But Lord Krishna noticed the bag and asked for it, and ate. Sudama, overwhelmed by Krishna's love and respect, did not ask him for help and returned. When he reached his hut, he saw a house full of riches instead. So this is the day when one selflessly offers to others, and Lord returns in abundance. Akshay Tritiya inspires us to engage in Dana, charity, for its intrinsic value and not for any end.
The story of Akshay Parta emphasises the virtue of selfless charity for those in need and their dependents. Though himself in a difficult situation, yudhisthira was still concerned not for his needs but for Brahmans who depended on him. One selflessly offers to others, and Lord returns in abundance. The story shows us that if we selflessly help others, God gives us back in abundance, as Lord Surya granted Yudhisthira Akshay Patra with the blessing that he will get back his kingdom after the exile.
Daan or charity is the most effective virtue to bring down the disharmony arising from inequality, exploitation (of people and ecology) and natural calamities. It has been eulogised in numerous Indian scriptures and institutionalised in almost all the religions that originated on Indian soil. Since the ancient past, four types of Daan have been mentioned in multiple texts and contexts; Anna Daan (अन्न दान - charity of food), Aushadh Daan (औषधदान - charity of medicines/health), Gyaan Daan ( ज्ञान दान- charity of knowledge/skill) and Abhay Daan ( अभय दान - charity of freedom from any fear/ insecurity).
The story of Akshaya Patra inspires us to revisit and redefine these charities in the contemporary world to keep human values alive and reinstitutionalise Daan or charity in our social, professional and religious lives.
We must awaken our social conscience and define our own Akasya Patra. This is the best way to repay our Manusya rin ( मनुष्य ऋण - debt towards fellow human beings). We must try to make our Akshay Patra inexhaustible with not only food (material things) but everything that makes us more humane; a limitless supply of love, compassion, cooperation, forgiveness, knowledge and much more.
This doha from Ramcharitamanas, beautifully sums up the importance of Charity or Daan in the current time:
प्रगट चारि पद धर्म के कलिल महुँ एक प्रधान।
जेन केन बिधि दीन्हें दान करइ कल्यान।।
(Dharm -धर्म has four tenets, सत्य -truth, दया - compassion, तप - austerity/meditation, दान - charity. And in kalyug ( कलियुग), it is a charity -daan in any form that gives merits and purification).