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Why shankh (conch) is so important in Hindu consciousness

From stories of how Krishna’s Panchajanya who strike terror in the enemy’s heart to its recent mention at the Indian Science Congress for its curative and meditative properties, the conch occupies an important place in collective Hindu consciousness.

art and culture Updated: Jan 17, 2016 16:56 IST
Renuka Narayanan
The conch was featured in the Indian Science Congress last week for its ‘meditative and soothing effect’ on the human mind.
The conch was featured in the Indian Science Congress last week for its ‘meditative and soothing effect’ on the human mind. (IStock)

The shankh or conch is a lovely thing, isn’t it? Many people have one in the devghar or enjoy conch imagery like Parvati described as ‘kambu-kanthya’ (‘with her throat as smooth as a conch’) in the 18th-century song ‘Jambupathe’ about Shiva as water. This majestic song was composed in Sanskrit and set in Raag Yamunakalyani or Yaman by the saintly Muthuswami Dikshitar, who spent many years in Kashi and took this beautiful raag back south; as to which, we know its cadences well in many great songs, like ‘Mausam hai ashiqana’ from Pakeezah and Farida Khanum’s ‘Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo’.

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Anyhow, it was startling to find last week that the conch was featured in a science congress for its ‘meditative and soothing effect’ on the human mind. It can be, I’m sure, if blown softly, but I have quite another impression. Having grown up in a mainstream Hindu household, I feel “as Hindu” as, say, the recently discovered shivlings carved on the granite boulders on the Shamala riverbed in north Karnataka. The conch as I know it is a symbol of beauty as much for being a natural work of art as for its association with Sri Krishna. Its sound is supposed to strike terror in the enemy’s heart. It says so in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1. BG 1:15 goes, “panchajanyam hrisikeso devadattam dhananjayah/poundram dadhmau maha-sankham bhima-karma vrukodharaha”, meaning ‘Sri Krishna (Hrishikesh) blew his great war-conch, the Panchajanya; Arjuna (Dhananjay) blew his, the Devadatta, and Bhima the ‘Wolf-Bellied’ blew his, the Poundram,” the sound of which caused the wicked Kauravas to quake in fear.

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The story of Sri Krishna’s conch has universal values embedded in a tale of high adventure. To recall some of it, after he was reunited with his royal parents at Mathura, Krishna was sent to catch up on his education. He was sent to the then best boarding school in north India for the sons of the ruling elite, Rishi Sandipani’s gurukul at Avantika (Ujjain). Krishna discovered his teacher’s deepest sorrow — he pined for his son, who had been kidnapped by pirates and probably sold into slavery. Krishna traced the demonic kidnapper Panchajana, fought him and retrieved the boy. He “ground Panchajana’s bones” to fashion a conch that he called Panchajanya, ‘Of Panchajana’. It was a battle memento for the newly schooled young warrior.

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The conch has stayed symbolic for 21st-century people, signifying the old assertion that good shall prevail over evil. It is one more beautiful cultural object. Outside an aarti or puja, it is usually blown in civil society in a play, a dance or to culturally mark a commencement (its sound is hair-raising). In sum, the conch belongs in our shared cultural events, in ceremonies and in poems like the girl saint Andal’s 9th-century ‘Address to the Conch’.

Do let it stay thrillingly in those spaces and let’s take hardcore science practically forward; say, by funding medical research for desperately required low-cost treatment. That would truly fulfil the message of the conch and make good prevail.