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Boat Symbolism In Hinduism

Often, in the teachings of Hindu saints and scriptures in Hinduism and in general idiom, life has been compared to a journey in a boat. And living is compared to rowing a boat. Through all the ups and downs of life, the boat of life sails past the rough or smooth waters of life, until one reaches the other shore—the Beyond, where there is neither birth nor death. That is how life is often described.

To understand it further, body and mind is the boat we use to travel in the waters called life. While travelling in a boat for a joy ride may be a pleasant experience that a tourist may look forward to, not always is boat ride a pleasant experience. There are storms and strong winds on the way. And one’s own resources are limited. One has to grapple with many unexpected situations. Called variously as bark, catamarans, trawlers, steamers, big and small ships, a boat is essentially a mode of transport, to travel through waters to reach one’s destination. Comparing the harshness of the boat ride to life’s difficult situations, Swami Vivekananda said, probably making a free translation of a Bengali devotional song,

Mother! In the sea of life my bark is sinking.
The whirlwind of illusion, the storm of attachment
is growing every moment.
My five oarsmen (senses) are foolish, and the
helmsman (mind) is weak.
My bearings are lost, my boat is sinking.
O Mother! Save me!

A more detailed version of this beautiful song can be had in the song which Sri Ramakrishna used to sing. One finds it in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna describing in poignant words:

Mother! Mother! My boat is sinking, here in the ocean of this world;
Fiercely the hurricane of delusion rages on every side!
Clumsy is my helmsman, the mind; stubborn my six oarsmen, the passions;
Into a pitiless wind I sailed my boat, and now it is sinking!
Split is the rudder of devotion; tattered is the sail of faith;
Into my boat the waters are pouring! Tell me, what shall I do?
For with my failing eyes, alas! nothing but darkness do I see.
Here in the waves I will swim,
O Mother, and cling to the raft of Thy name!

Of our boat of life mind is the helmsman— the person who steers the boat. A helmsman is one who maintains the course of a boat and carries out the order given by captain and communicates with others involved in navigation of the ship.

The song further says that ‘fiercely the hurricane of delusion rages on every side! Clumsy is my helmsman, the mind; stubborn my six oarsmen, the passions.’ The oarsmen are the people who row the boat using an oar—wooden or fiber pole with a flat edge. The ‘six oarsmen’ here refer to Arishadvarga— the six weaknesses that man has. These are kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (attachment), mada or ahankar (pride) and matsarya (jealousy). In Vedanta, these are also called six enemies for they are impediments in the path of seeking inner growth and freedom.

The Bhagavad Gita refers to senses as the whirlwind that can toss a boat and sink it. Sri Krishna says, Whichever of the wandering senses the mind follows, that one carries away his wisdom as the wind a ship on the sea. And, The turbulent senses, O son of Kunti, violently carry away the mind of even a wise man striving after perfection.

Source Vedanta Kesari – Editorial May 2015 - Excerpts