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The Identity of "Hri" in the Purusha Sukta

(This article is a response to a few reader comments that asked to clarify who the "Hri" referred to in the Purusha Sukta is referring to -- bhUdevi or pArvati? Contributed by our Sri Vaishnava friend, Shri Narayanan)

The purusha sukta contains the mantra,

“hrIsca tE lakshmisca patnyou”

The simple meaning of this mantra is – Bhu Devi (Hri), Lakshmi Devi and Nila Devi (denoted by the second ca) are your wives.

Some ill-informed people interpret Hri as Parvati and Lakshmi as Ganga to derive their own biased interpretation. This interpretation is invalid because:

  1. Hri is not a name of pArvati as per conventional sAstra. Such an appellation is invoked in tantra and other margas which are not vedic and hence, one cannot foist such an interpretation on vedic sAstra.
  2. Ganga is not the wife of Shiva. She resides in his head and is the sister of his wife, pArvati. In mahAbhArata, it is mentioned she married Shantanu, so the idea of Shiva’s wife marrying someone else is quite unthinkable and culminates in an offence against this deva himself. 
  3. Note that there are two “ca” kArams in the mantra. The second “ca” actually denotes a third patni, who is so shy that even her name is not mentioned directly. It is only srI mahA Vishnu who has three patnis – SrI, bhU and nilA devi. This nilA devi is mentioned in harivamsha and even the saivite scholar appayya dikshitar quotes it in his commentary on swami vedAnta desikan’s yAdavAbhyUdayam, thus accepting the existence of nilA devi. 

Now, to the meaning of “Hri”. In general terms, “Hri” means modesty. But we know that all dharma patnis, be it Saraswati, Parvati etc are modest. If so, how can we specifically say Hri is Bhu Devi.
There are two pramAnAs. 

PramAnam number 1, modesty here refers not just to chastity, but to patience (kshama) and coyness. And the sAstra only refers to Bhu Devi in these terms exquisitely and particularly. The pramAnAs are:

mahAnArAyaNa Upanishad, Mantra 30 says – “Vasundara (a name of Bhu Devi), you bear the trampling of horses and chariots and the strides of MahAvishnu. I bear you with reverence on my head; protect me always.

The gunam of patience is in its extreme form only with Bhu Devi. She, despite being our mother bears our footsteps, chariots and horses. She bears all the burden of the asurAs on her. While we are unable to avoid our foot-steps, all we can do is salute this extreme act of patience, manifested as kshama, synonymous to Hri and salute you by bearing you on our heads.

In the case of Vishnu, he not only takes strides on you, which is a pleasure to you, but will lift you up in his arms as conveyed by the following mantra.

mahAnArAyaNa Upanishad, mantra 31 says – “You were lifted up by Krishna with his hundred arms, in the form of varAhA. You are well known as Bhoomi, Dhenu, Dharani and the supporter of the worlds.

The word “Krishna” means one who gives pleasure to Mother Earth. This is the gunam of modesty. SrI varAha purAnA reveals that when varAha lifted Bhumi Devi high up after vanquishing HiranyAksha, she hid her face because she was quite shy and overcome at being exposed to everyone from so high a position, after her recent captivity. 

This coyness is also referred to by the name “HrI”, which means modesty. In contrast, srI Lakshmi devi boldly chose her husband Vishnu from among the devas during the churning of the ocean. 

Note that this does not mean Bhu Devi is better than Lakshmi Devi. It only shows two different and equally admirable traits in two mothers, the spouses of Vishnu.

(One can look up the Sanskrit verses for these in the dravida paTa of the mahAnArAyaNopanishad. It is too cumbersome to paste the Sanskrit here).

Thus, Hri refers to Bhu Devi. Now, we come to pramAnam number two which seals this interpretation. We have two different paTas of the Purusha Sukta. One paTa says “HrIsca te lakshmIsca patnyou” and the other paTa says “srIsca te lakshmIsca patnyou”.

The venerable commentators from ancient times have accepted both versions as authentic and accordingly, they say that Hri and Sri are synonyms for the same person in that particular mantra. And we come across the following verse in vAlmiki rAmAyaNa – “rAmasya dakshinE pArshvE praDa shri: samvasthithA| savyE tu shri: vishAlAkshI” – Here, only Bhu Devi is referred to as shrI. Furthermore, in the vedic mantra, “tvAmihOpaghyE shrI:” is interpreted by commentators to refer to Bhu Devi.

Thus Bhu Devi is also known as SrI and in the mantra “srIsca tE lakshmisca patnyou” and consequently in “hrisca tE lakshmisca patnyou” where Hri and Sri are synonyms, both these terms denote Bhu Devi only, praising her modesty and patience.

This is as per the vishishtadvaita vyAkhyAna of srI ranga rAmAnuja muni.