Śiva as Mṛtyuñjaya, the Conquerer of Death

An extremely rare representation of Śiva as Mṛtyuñjaya, the destroyer of death and disease, from 12th century Bengal (Pāla era). He is shown in a deep meditative state in his yogic form. The Uttarakāmikāgama (one of the Śaivāgamas) dictates that he must be represented in a tranquil state with three eyes, six arms, and matted dreadlocks (jaṭāmukuṭa) adorned with the crescent moon. He holds a rosary and a water vessel, and his two missing hands would have held his trident (triśūla) and a skull bowl (kapāla), completing the ritually ordained iconography. A garland of skulls hangs below his legs and He is flanked by female attendants bearing fly-whisks and the hybrid kinnāra and kinnari, who provide music. Celestial garland bearers hover above him. His throne is a lotus pedestal with a makara-finial throne back. His devotee the bull kneels at lower left; the donor figure, at lower right. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lord Śiva is called “the Conqueror of Death” and the Mahāmṛtyuñjaya Mantra or Rudra Mantra is used for the propitiation of Śiva for the conquest of Death. It found in the Ṛg Veda (VII.59.12), Yajur Veda, Atharva veda and in the Taittarīya Upaniṣad. It is also called the Mṛta-Sanjīvini mantra because it is a component of the “life-restoring” practice given to the primordial sage Śukrāchārya after he had completed an exhausting period of austerity. It is first seen as the final verse of VII.59 of the Rg Veda, attributed to Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi, in the anuṣṭubh meter and is dedicated to “Tryambaka,” an epithet of Rudra. The Sākamedha rite, the last of the four-monthly rituals described in middle Vedic texts, which is referred to elsewhere in the VIIth Mandala, ends with an oblation to Rudra Tryambaka. The mantra is as follows:

ॐ त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम् ।
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान्मृत्योर्मुक्षीय मामृतात् ॥

Transliteration:

om tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ puṣṭi-vardhanam
urvārukam iva bandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya māmṛtāt

Translation by H. H. Wilson:

“We worship Tryambaka, whose fame is fragrant, the augmenter of increase; may I be liberated from death, and, like the urvāruka from its stalk, but not to immortality; let us worship Trayambaka, whose fame is fragrant, the augmenter of increase; may I be liberated from death like the urvāruka from its stalk, but not unto immortality.”

Stephanie Jamison’s translation:

“We sacrifice to Tryambaka the fragrant, increaser of prosperity.
Like a cucumber from its stem, might I be freed from death, not from
deathlessness.”

Explanation: We worship the three-eyed one, Lord Śiva, who is fragrant and nourishes all beings; may He liberate us from death, and the cycle of birth and death, but not grant immortality, much like the small yellow cucumber which gradually separates itself from its creeper as it ripens.

त्र्यम्बकं = one who has three eyes
यजामहे = we worship
सुगन्धिं = one who is of celestial fragrance; divya gandhopetam; prasāritapuṇya kīrtim, whose fame of virtue is spread; in like manner as the fragrance of a tree full in flower sheds sweetness, so spreads the fragrance of holy actions
पुष्टिवर्धनम् = one who augments prosperity
उर्वारुकमिव = as an urvaaruka (or karkaṭi, a species of cucumber which is generally small and yellow which, when ripe, detaches by itself from its stalk)
बन्धनात् = from bondage (of worldly attachments)
मृत्योर्मुक्षीय = liberate us from death
मा = not; अमृतात् = immortality

The mantra seeks to ask Śiva not for immortality, but for liberation from death which is inevitable for one and all and ultimately, from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. May we be granted a natural, timely and peaceful death that detaches us from the bondage of the material world, like the cucumber that slowly and naturally seperates itself from its creeper after ripening.

The Śiva Purāṇa speaks of the magnificent power of the mantra.

Śukra tells Dadhīca:

“We worship the three-eyed lord Śiva, the lord of the three worlds, the father of the three spheres, the lord of the three guṇas.

Lord Śiva is the essence, the fragrance of the three tattvas, three fires, of every thing that is trichotomised, of the three worlds, of the three arms and of the trinity. He is the nourisher. In all living beings, everywhere, in the three guṇas, in the creation, in the sense-organs, in the devas and Gaṇas, he is the essence as the fragrance in a flower. He is the lord of devas.

O excellent brahmin of good rites, He is called the nourisher because it is from Him the supreme Puruṣa and the Prakṛti, the different tattvas from Mahat to the different Indriyas, Viṣṇu, Brahmā, the sages, Indra and the devas derive their nourishment. Worship that immortal Śiva with sacred rites, penance, study of the Vedas, yogic practices, meditation, observance of truth and other means. You will be freed from the noose of Yama. The lord is the cause of both bondage and salvation. This Mṛtasañjīvanī mantra is the most excellent of all. Repeat these mantras regularly remembering Śiva with devotion. After japa, homa and recitation of the mantras observe fast, but you can drink water day and night. If the meditation is conducted in the presence of Śiva there is no fear of death from anywhere. Nyāsa and other ritualistic rites shall be observed. Śiva shall be worshipped and propitiated duly. I worship the three-eyed Lord Śiva, the conqueror of death who is accompanied by (Pārvatī); who pours water on his head from two vessels held in his lotus-like hands, by means of the other pair of hands; who has placed the two hands with the pots on the lap; who usually holds in his hands the rudrākṣa garland and a deer and whose body is rendered cool and wet by the nectar exuding from the moon worn on the head.”

References:

  1. Rig Veda Sanhita by H. H. Wilson
  2. The Rigveda_ The Earliest Religious Poetry of India Stephanie Jamison
  3. Siva Purana by J. L. Sastri

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