LORD DANDAPANI OF KASHI
A common sloka chanted by devout pilgrims at Kashi runs as follows:
"I pray to Visvesvara, Mahavishnu, Dundi Ganapathi, Dandapani, Kalabhairava, Kashi kshetra, the Cave of Siva, river Ganga, Devi Bhavani and Manikarnika Ghat." All pilgrims reverentially offer worship at all temples and river ghats referred in this verse. Who is this Lord Dandapani included in the deities here? Kashi Khandam in Skanda Puranam has a chapter giving the story of Dandapani as narrated by Lord Subrahmanya to sage Agastya.
Ratnabhadra born in the race of Yakshas was a great devotee of Siva. His son was Purnabhadra. In due time he married a Yaksha girl Kanakakundala. They had a lot of wealth, power and comforts, but progeny eluded them. Purnabhadra knew that the stepping-stone to heaven, the ornament of Grihasthasrama, the only way of paying the debt due to Pitrus and the boat enabling one to cross the terrible ocean of samsara was the son. He was immersed in sorrow at not having a son. His wife Kanakakundala advised him to surrender in prayer to the omnipotent, compassionate Siva; Siva would surely fulfil their desire. She said: "It is Siva who blessed Vishnu with the power to protect the worlds and Brahma with the power of creation. Devotees of Siva are blessed with everything, even the eight great siddhis. Gods like Indra became the guardians of quarters with His grace. Sage Silada, who did not have progeny for long, ultimately was blessed with a son through the grace of Siva. Siva was pleased with the young boy's austerities and granted him the status of his vehicle, Nandikesvara. Siva came to the rescue of Svetaketu during his last moments of being dragged by Yama with his rope of Kala. Again it was Siva who blessed the young boy Upamanyu with the Milk Ocean when he pined for a glass of milk. Once the Asura Andhaka was reformed, Siva gave him the name of Bhringi and made him head of Sivaganas. Sage Dadhichi defeated Vishnu Himself in battle with the powers acquired through his deep devotion to Siva. Daksha became a Prajapati through Siva's grace. There is nothing which is beyond attainment through whole-hearted worship of Siva."
Purnabhadra became a staunch devotee of Siva; he resorted to music for his constant and one pointed prayer for getting a son. In due course he was blessed with a son, whom he named Harikesa. Even as a child, Harikesa, whose extraordinary radiance attracted everyone's attention, was deeply devoted to Siva. To call his friends he used only names of Siva like Chandrasekhara, Pasupati, Nilakantha, Pinaki, Mrutyunjaya etc. He used to make Lingam of sand, perform Pooja using beautiful flowers and offer sincere worship. His father's advice to acquire skills that would help him earn money fell on deaf ears; Harikesa was ever immersed in deep meditation of Siva. He quit home. Thinking of where to go, he remembered that Kashi is the sole refuge of those bound by the chains of Karma, those suffering from the effects of grave sins, those tossed about by fear of samsara and those abandoned by kith and kin. Kashi is known as Ananda kananam (forest of bliss), where Siva sports with his consort Parvati. It is also called Maha smasanam (great crematorium) because even the seeds of Karma get burnt in the fire that is Visvesvara. Kashi is also famed as Avimukta kshetra because Siva does not leave that place even during Pralaya, the great dissolution; the place continues through ages without change.
Harikesa reached Kashi. He was engaged in severe penance. An anthill grew around him. His body was reduced to mere skeleton. Life-breath sauntered slowly in and out of his frame. One day Siva appeared in that Ananda Kananam mounted on his bull along with Uma. The whole place exuded divine brilliance. Flowery creepers, fruit-laden trees, singing cuckoos, imposing lotus tanks, tumbling waterfalls, variety of animals all added to the ethereal beauty of the forest. Expounding on the greatness of Kashi, Siva said to Uma: "By my grace, there is no rebirth for those who die in this Ananda Kananam. I intone Taraka mantra in their ears during their last moments, bestow Brahmagnana on them and grant them salvation. Men, who doubt as to how by merely dying at Kashi one will attain moksha, partake of the sins of these dead persons. Men, who praise Kashi with faith in its bounty of removing the sins of those who die here, obtain all the punyas of these people. Uma! The way Moksha is easily attained here in this Avimukta kshetra Kashi in the Kali age is not possible in any other place. This is truth; this is truth." While speaking in this vein, Siva noticed Harikesa in tapas. Uma pleaded with Siva to grant boons to the ascetic Harikesa.
Siva touched Harikesa with his hands and woke him up. Harikesa opened his eyes and could not believe what he saw. Siva and Parvati were there along with Nandi to bless him. Expressing his bliss on experiencing the divine touch of Siva's lotus hands, Harikesa broke into rapturous hymns of praise of Siva. Siva blessed Harikesa with a number of boons totally unasked. "I give you the name of Dandapani and make you the guardian deity of Kashi. You will be the head of Sivaganas in this city. You will provide food to those who live in Kashi and grant them Gnana and finally moksha. During their last moments, you will decorate them like Siva – serpents around neck and hands; eye in forehead; cover of elephant skin; matted hair; crescent moon; vibhuti all over body etc. Devotees who come to Kashi will first worship you before paying their obeisance to me. Even those who are devoted to me, but are not devoted to you, will not get the chance of living in Kashi. Residing in the southern quarter of this city, you will protect devotees following dharma and mete out punishment to the evil minded. This weapon, Dandayudham has been given to you for this purpose." So saying, Siva vanished.
After recounting the above story Lord Subrahmanya told sage Agastya that he constantly thought of Dandapani. He taught him Dandapani Ashtakam, eight verses in praise of Dandapani.
"O Harikesa born in the lineage of Yakshas in the family of Ratnabhadra as the son of Purnabhadra! Grant me unobstructed life in Kashi for auspicious moksha."
"Dandapani of great intellect! Your father Purnabhadra the Yaksha is meritorious; mother Kanakakundala is also meritorious. Hence you were born as their son."
"Leader of Yakshas! Victory to you. Red eyed and courageous one! Victory to you. One with matted hair of red hue! Victory to you. Wielder of the Danda weapon! Victory to you."
"O Controller of Avimukta city (Kashi)! Ascetic of severe penance! Dandanayaka! One with fearful face! One who enjoys the kindness of Visvesvara! Victory to you."
"One who is pleasing to the virtuous and frightening to the terrible! One who is Kala (Death) to those who indulge in sins even in Kashi kshetra! One who enjoys the kindness of Mahakala (Siva)!"
"One who is the life breath of all people! King of Yakshas! Provider of food and bestower of Moksha on those who live in Kashi! One whose person dazzles in the brilliance of large gems! Victory to you."
"One who causes heavy and continuously rising delusions by using Sivaganas called Sambhranti and Udbhranti to those who lack in devotion! One who destroys the delusions of those who are devoted to you!"
"One who is expert in decorating people of Kashi (like Siva) in their last moments! Bestower of the wealth of Gnana! Victory to you. One who is bee in the lotus feet of Gowri! One who is skilled in bestowing moksha (on devotees)! Victory to you."
"(Lord Subrahmanya continues): O Maitravaruna (Agastya)! I chant every day three times (in morning, at noon and in evening) this Yaksharaja Ashtakam, which is meritorious and the cause of one's living in Kashi (Varanasi)."
"One who chants this Dandapani Ashtakam with faith and devotion will never face obstacles and enjoy the benefit of living in Kashi."
OM TAT SAT