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Home > Unfolding Consciousness > Spirituality & the Tamil Nation > Saiva Mystics
in Studies in Tamil Literature & History, 1930
Tirunavukkarasu - Appar Swamigal
Sundaramurti Swamigal Manikkavasagar Notes
[see also The Twelve Thirumrai and Mannikkavasagar's Thiruvasagam]
"...(the) mysticism of the South Indian Tamil saints and bhaktas can be broadly designated as devotional mysticism. Mysticism... is a state of religious feeling marked by supreme effort or efforts to attain direct communion with God. According to Goethe, 'it is the scholastic of the heart, the dialectic of feelings'. And mystic poetry is that kind of literature which contains a sacred and also a secret incomprehensible to the ordinary reader but well cognizable by the spiritually minded person. This may be material, namely, the matter it treats of is mystic, but the language may be clear, perspicuous and quite distinct. That means that it involves an altogether different meaning and significance realisable only by master minds. Or it may be formal. This kind deals not with matter but with manner. That is, the subject matter is quite comprehensible but is couched in mystical language. Mystical also means 'allegorical'; but all allegory is not mystic... To this last category belong the generally of all eighteen (Tamil) Siddhars.
Judged by the above standards, Tamil literature contains yet unfathomable treasures of ... wisdom and knowledge, born of great experience which are the melodious outbursts of highly spiritual souls in moments of supreme rapture. To this class belong.... the works of the four great teachers and preachers who go by the name of Saiva Samayacäryas - Tirugnana Sambandar, Apparswämigal, Sundaramürtinăyanăr and Mănikkavăsakar. The first three are the renowned authors of the collection of devotional songs and lyrics known as the Tevaram. These four great äcaryas had full conviction and faith in their own religion. They began a preaching crusade against the disintegrating influence and the destructionist spirit of the rival religious sects. The Samanas or the Jains and the followers of the Buddha were the chief objects of their attack. They denounced their doctrines, and condemned their preaching in public. It was they who firmly planted the banner of their faith in Tamil land, if not, in the whole of South India.
We will now deal briefly about these mystic writers - the great authors of the Tevaram. The Tëvaram is generally recognized as a text on mysticism though it occasionally lapses into newer elements and tendencies which cannot be characterized as mystical either in spirit or matter. Here a serious student comes across allegories of a higher order, viz., allegories which are mystical in character and extent.
Tirugnŕnasambandar entitled Dravida Sisu by Sankaräcărya occupies a prominent place among the distinguished Saiva Samayăcăryas.
The Legend: The town of Siyăli in Tanjore District is recorded by tradition as a Noah's Ark. When the whole world was submerged under a great deluge, this was the only spot which was not affected by the waters of the flood. Hence its well-known name Tonipuram (literally Boat city). Besides, other names are given to the same city. In this ancient town of Sivăli was born Tirugna-sambandar. He was a Brahmin by caste. When he was three years old, his father took him to the temple tank, placed him on the bank and went for a bath. Perhaps feeling lonely the child cried ‘mama’, ‘ papa’, when Lord Siva and His Consort appeared before him and consoled him, Pärvati giving him milk of wisdom. When his parent saw him thus drinking milk out of a golden bowl and questioned the child as to who gave it to him, the boy pointed to the distant temple, and sang in praise of the Lord.
Thenceforward he became a great and devout bhakta. It was the desire of the youngster to visit places sacred to the Lord Siva. His father yielded to his wishes and took him from one place to the other always carrying him on his shoulder. As befits a dvija, his upanayanam ceremony was performed. He then visited many a place of pilgrimage and established his reputation by miracles. In the course of his religious tour, he met Appar at Tiruvilimilalai near Măyavaram and helped to relieve the famine stricken people there. Both Swămijis then proceeded to Vedăranyam where an invitation came to them from the Păndyan Queen and Minister to visit their capital Madura, especially as the king was under the influence of the Samanas. Leaving Appar at Vëdăranyam, Sambandar repaired to Madura. With the connivance of the King, the Samanas set fire to the residence of Sambandar with no effect. When this was brought to the notice of the Swămiji, he cursed the Păndyan King to be attacked with burning fever. The Samanas tried all their resources to effect a cure, but with no success. At last the king prayed to Sambandar to relieve him of his fell disease, which he immediately did. Then an assembly by both Saivas and Samnas was convened to establish the superiority of either sect. After a number of tests in which the Samanas had an inglorious defeat, Saivism was accepted as the true religion by the king.
After this, Sambandar set out on pilgrimage and visited many places preaching and singing and working miracles until he came back to his native home. There he responded to the wishes of his father and consented to get himself married in the old Vedic style. But at the very early age of sixteen the revered Swămiji became one with the Holy of Holies. This ăcărya is generally taken to have flourished in the first half of the seventh century. To the same period belongs Appar Swamigal who was a contemporary of Sambandar. While the latter’s collection of hymns forms the first three Holy books (Tirumurai), Appar’s are the next three Holy books of the Thevaram. (1) The compiler of the Tëvairam is Nambi Andär Nambi.(2)
His Mysticism: Sambandar praises the little town of Tönipuram by twelve different names. For every name he sings one stanza, each one of these stanzas consisting of the same lines repeated four times. The ordinary reader who sees only the surface is apt to think that this repetition is but for the sake of greater emphasis and nothing more. But it should be understood that the whole thing is pitched in a high key and the repetition has a mystic force and hidden meaning and produces a wonderfully powerful effect.(3)
The four lines of each stanza which admit of different interpretations would not produce the intended effect, (4) namely, to bring out the full force and significance, if rendered in any other medium than the ancient Tamil language, and hence would not be of much interest to the common reader. Under these circumstances we refrain from any elaborate exposition of these stanzas. But it may be noted here that the language is mystic or as stated at the outset, mysticism here is of the formal kind.
Date of Sambandar: After ably refuting the hypothesis of Dr. Caldwell (5)and of Nelson (6)as to the age of Sambandar, the late P. Sundaram Pillai proves that the saint must have lived before the celebrated Sańkarăcărya and concludes that Sambandar could not have lived in any period later than the early years of the seventh century after Christ.(7) That Sambandar is a contemporary of Appar and Siruttondar, otherwise known as Parańjotiyar, is evident from the legend in the Periyapuranam. We know Paranjötiyar was the Commander-in-chief of the Pallava King Narasimha Varnian I who distinguished himself against the Chălukyas. (8) According to inscriptional evidence, Narasimhavarman I succeeded Măhęndravarman I in A.D. 630 and continued his rule to A.D. 660. (9) Thus the age of Sambandar must be looked for sometime in the middle of the seventh century A.D.
Tirunavukkarasu - Appar Swamigal
The Legend: - Contemporary with Sambandar, and Vëlăla by caste, Appar was born in the village of Tiruvămür near Panrutti Railway Station. He had a sister by name Tilakavati. When young it was resolved to get her married to the commander of the chieftain Pallavarăya. Unfortunately before marriage the valiant commander died heroically in the field of action. The parents of Tilakavati also had in the meantime died and Tilakavati resolved to lead a life of celibacy and be of help to her brother, the future Appar Swămiji.
Meanwhile Appar got into contact with the Samayas of the place and became a convert to their faith. This pained his sister very much. She prayed night and day to Lord Siva that her brother might be brought back from the Samaya fold. The prayer was heard and the Lord struck Appar with a fell disease which was found incurable by the Samayas who left him helpless. Then he thought of his sister and betook himself to his residence. She prayed to the Lord to relieve him of his pain. Soon he was himself. Unshakable faith in Saivism re-dawned in his mind.
This greatly put out the Samayas, who reported to their king at Patalipuram how Appar had cheated them and left their camp unknowingly. The king sent for him and subjected him to all sorts of cruel tortures, feeding him with poison and slaking him in a lime kiln, and placing him before a mad elephant, and throwing him into the sea. But out of all of these he emerged unscathed. The king became surprised and found out the truth of the Saiva faith. He himself became a convert. Appar carried the message of his faith throughout the Tamil Nädu, cultivated Sambandar’s acquaintance, and carried on the propagandist work sometimes in collaboration with him and sometimes single-handed. Thus he visited many places of pilgrimage, built several outhouses, matas, then and there, and at last attained his salvation in the village of Pümpugalur about four miles to the east of Nannilam Railway Station.(10)
The Miracle of reviving’ to life Appudiyadikal's dead son: Appar was so widely known and so much revered that a certain Brahman Appudiyadlikal by name, in the village of Tińgalür in Tanjore District, who had never seen him nor known him personally, named his sons, daughters, servants, and even the animals which he reared, after this well-known saint Tirunavukkarasu, which literally means 'supreme in speech'.
It happened that Apparswămi came to Tingalur in the course of his religious tour. He inquired where he could get hospitality. This Brahman’s name was mentioned and he went to his house. As he was clothed in the garb of a Sannyăsin and as it is one of the duties enjoined on the Hindu householders to entertain such ascetics in a spirit of utmost reverence and worship, Appüdi welcomed with great pleasure the Swami who, it must be noted, was not a Brahman. All his sons, daughters, servants and even the domestic animals were introduced to him one by one as Tirunavukkarasu Nos. I, II and III and so on. The Swami was so struck at this that he asked the Brahman why he had named them thus. He answered that it was out of love and reverence to the great Appar Samayăcarya who had done and suffered so much for Saivism little knowing that the Sannyăsin standing before him was no other than the revered Swămiji himself. When the latter mentioned that he was the personage whom he had thus revered and loved, his eyes were filled with rapturous and joyous tears, for he could not contain himself. A dinner in his honour was soon arranged.
Meanwhile his eldest son who had gone to fetch some plantain leaves from the backyard was bitten by a big cobra and died of blood-poison instantaneously. Having kept the dead body hidden in a corner, the Brahman did not inform this to the Swami lest he should decline to dine on account of the pollution in the house. All the arrangements over, leaves were spread and the Swami was served. The Swami expressed a wish that all his children should dine with him. All the Tirunăvukkarasus excepting No.1 came. The Swami missing the eldest enquired after him. The man could no more hide. He dared not speak an untruth before the great saint. So he gave out what had happened. The body was brought at his command before him and the Swami burst into melodious prayers to the Lord Siva in ten successive verses, the first giving the one element of His body limbs and ornaments, the second the two of His, the third the three of His and so on, until the tenth describing on the ten elements. To the inexplicable wonderment of the poor Brahman and his family, the boy showed signs of life returning to him. He soon opened his eyes, sat up and was quite alive. This incident is found in the Tevaram in the Visantirta Padikam. (11)
Mystic Interpretation: T he mystical interpretation that is usually given is that there are ten stages by which the poison gets ultimately into the head, and only slowly and by degrees could this poison be removed from the system. For every stage one stanza was sung and the peculiar kind of chanting added a mysterious and magnetic force with the consequence that the effects of the poison were removed and the boy was revived. This is still considered as a powerful mantra for healing the poisonous bite of the serpent.
Date of Appar: Appar was a contemporary of Tirugnanasambandar. That he flourished in the first half of the seventh century A.D. is evident from the fact that he was a contemporary of Gunabhara, known to history as Mahendravarman I who ruled from A.D. 6oo to 630.(12) According to K.S. Srinivăsa Pillai, the probable date of his conversion to the Saiva faith from the Jaina may be before A.D. 6I3-4.(13) Perhaps Appar belonged to the latter half of the sixth century and continued to the seventh century. (14)
The Legend: In the village of Tirunavalur, now known as Tirunämanallur, about eleven miles west of Panrutti Railway Station, was born the saint Sundaramurti. He belonged to the Brahman caste. The chieftain of that place, who was Narasingha Munaiyar, took a fancy for the child and brought him up in his place with the permission of his parents. When he came of marriageable age, the father Sadaiyanar selected for him the daughter of one Sadańkavi Sivacari of Puttăr. The wedding day came on and the ceremonies were proceeding, when the Lord Siva appeared in an old man’s guise and laid a ban on the marriage as he claimed Sundara to be his bond slave and as such could not marry without his previous permission, according to the bond executed by the boy’s grandfather, and that he therefore objected to the marriage. The bond was denied, and the boy in a fit of rage seized it and tore it to pieces. The old man insisted on his claim and they all repaired to the assembly of the learned men of Nallur to have the matter properly adjudicated. The members were satisfied with the veracity of the bond, and adjudged Sundara as a hereditary bondsman to the old man. Sundara went along with the old man who entered the temple and suddenly disappeared proving to all that he was no other than the Lord enshrined in the temple.
Our Swămiji’s joy knew no bounds. From that day he became an ardent devotee of the Siva cult and wandered from place to place. In the course of his tour he came to Tiruvarfur temple where he met Paravaiyar, a virgin devotee of the Lord, and took her to wife and lived happily with her. Then he went on to a number of other places sacred to Siva, working miracles here and there. One such place was Tiruvorriyur, north of Madras, where he met another female devotee Sangiliyar, whom also he married after promising to live with her for a fixed period. But as he forsook her before this period, he lost the sight of his eyes which, however, he regained through the grace of God.
Sundara became a friend of the Cëra king - Ceraman Perumăl Năyanăr, who invited him to his place and duly honoured him. While he was in his capital Magodai, otherwise known as Koduńkólür (modern Cranganore), the term of his stay in this world became ended ; and he began to proceed to Kailăsa, there to join the Lord and abide with Him forever. This was noticed by Cëramăn who also prayed to follow him arid was permitted. His hymns form the seventh Tirzimurai of the Tëvaram. The age at which he attained salvation is said to be thirty-two.(15)
The date of Sundaramurti: According to the tradition transmitted by the Periyapuranam, Sundaramurti was a contemporary of Céramăn Perurnăl. Again the legend contained in the Tiruviaiyadal of Parańjötimunivar bears out that the Pandiyan king who reigned during that time was Varaguna. But the difficulty arises from the fact that there are two kings by that name.(16) The king Varaguna whose name occurs in the Aivarmalai record must have ascended the throne in A.D. 862-3, and must have been the grandson of Varaguna Mahărăja.(17) According to Mr. Srinivăsa Pillai, Sundaramurti died in A.D. 825 which is also reckoned to be the last year of the rule of Ceraman Perumăl. (18) If this assumption is correct, Sundaramurti must have been a contemporary of Varaguna Mahăräja. According to Professor JouveauDubreuil (19) the Păndyan king Varaguna Maharaja led an invasion into the Pallava kingdom in the reign of Dantivarman. Dantivarman’s rule seems to have extended to fifty-one years, commencing roughly at 775 A.D.
It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Sundaramurti lived in the latter half of the eighth century and the first quarter of the ninth century. According to M. Raghava Ayyangar, Sundaramürti was a contemporary of Räjasimha Pallava and hence must have flourished in the first quarter of the eighth century. (20) According to K. S. Rămaswămi Săstri, Cëramăn Perumăl was the royal patron of the saint, and his death marks the beginning of the Kollam era. The Kollam era began on the 15th August, A.D. 825. Hence Sundara belonged to the beginning of the ninth century A.D. (21)
Date: The life of this South Indian saint who bears a favourable comparison with St. Augustine, St. Paul, and St. Francis of Assisi and other learned saints of the West, is to be traced from poetical legends which have grown around that notable figure. It is even difficult to definitely assign to him a particular period, but still it is reasonable to fix it as the ninth century A.D. Lassen’s theory of the sixth century and Pope’s theory of the seventh or eighth century are not supported by authentic evidences. Prof. K. A. Nilakanta Săstri is of opinion that the Varaguna mentioned by the Saint is not the two Varagunas available to history but the Varaguna of legend about whom we are to know anything yet, and he concludes that Mănikkavăsakar must have preceded the Tëvăram Trio.(22)
K. S. Srinivăsa Pillai (23) and S. Anavarata Vinăyakam Pillai arrive at the conclusion that he lived after the Tevaram Trio. K. G. Sčsa Ayyar discusses at length this problem and fixes the age in the latter half of the fourth century. It is contended that by the term Poyadimai-illata-pulavar Sundara refers to Mănikkavăsakar. Again the reference by Appar to the legend of purchasing horses for royal use and their transformation to jackals is adduced.(24) Against this it is pointed out that there are unmistakable references to Sambandar and Sundaramărti (25) in the Tiruvasagam.
The Legend: During the epoch when King Arimarttanan was ruling at Madura, Mănikkavăsakar was born in a place called Tiruvădavur. He was a Brahman by caste and grew up to be a promising young man of parts. The king appointed him as his minister. A devout student of the Agamas, this young minister was in quest of a teacher who would initiate him into the mysteries of the Agama literature.
Once it happened thus. The king, whose cavalry arm was deficient, was told of horses landed for sale at his port town by a merchant from Arabia, and he deputed his minister to buy them for him. On the way he met a Saiva saint, the Lord Siva himself with his attendants, and became a convert to His Grace and remained there as His disciple, spending all the king’s money in building a temple there. On hearing this, the king ordered him to return to the court immediately. He returned accordingly, permitted by the Lord who promised to send the horses on a fixed date. The minister was suspected of embezzlement and imprisoned. The Lord converted the jackals of the forest into horses and drove them before His Majesty. He became well pleased and also satisfied, and released the minister from bondage.
But at night the horses all turned into jackals and ran away. This highly enraged the king who inflicted on his minister further tortures and punishment. But soon coming to know of his real innocence and true devotion, the king repented and reinstated Mănikkavasakar in his place and thenceforward held him in high respect. But the sweets of office had no longer any charm to our saint and his longing for the Sacred Presence deepened. He took a pilgrimage to Cidambaram, and by a miracle vanquished the Buddhists, and soon became one with the Lord.(26) From this it would appear that this sage lived in an age of decaying Buddhism and rising Saivism.
His chief works are the Tiruvasagam and the Tirukkovai. (27) Of these the Tiruvasagam seems to tell an autobiographical tale of the different stages of his spiritual life and experience which ultimately enabled him to attain enjoyment ineffable and eternal. It is a torrential outflow of ardent religious feelings and emotions in rapturous songs and melodies. This work may be regarded as a convenient handbook on mystical theology. It is the spontaneous outpouring of his ecstatic feelings, under the stress of strenuous spiritual impulses. Among the accredited devotional works in the same tongue it takes the foremost rank.
The other equally remarkable work of his is the Tirukkovai. Superficial readers devoid of true spiritual acumen are apt to treat this supreme mystic work as an ordinary text of love-poetry. True, what is known in Sanskrit as the Srngararasa seems at first sight to predominate the whole poem. But it must be remembered that it is only a thin veil covering grand and beautiful religious truths and conceptions.
It would not be out of place here to give the sum and substance of the story contained in this poem as a layman finds it. A lover accidentally meets a maid in some solitary mountain glade, is enamoured of her, approaches her and both become fast attached to each other by the silken bonds of love. Then they marry in public and settle down to the life of householders.
Shortly after, one business or other necessitates the husband’s absence in foreign countries for a shorter or longer period according to the nature of the business. Both feel the separation keenly, and look forward rather very eagerly to the day when both of them should meet for an indissoluble union as it were. But the grief of the forlorn wife in her solitary home ever thinking of her absent lord, daily becomes more and more unbearable, and she breaks forth in piteous wail, expressive of the various phases of her grief. It is this grief of the lonely wife yearning to join her husband in warm, indissoluble embrace that allegorizes the earnest efforts of the individual soul seeking re-union with the Universal Soul.
Such a simple theme as this need not require a Mănikkavăsakar to expound and illustrate it. So there is an altogether different interpretation that should be read into this supreme work. The story goes that this gifted Acărya, during his pilgrimage from one place to another, came to Cidambaram, one of the holy places of Southern India, stood before the shrine of the Lord Natarăja, and sang these verses. And the Lord, it is said, himself took them down in his own hand to show his appreciation of this poem and the deep devotion by which it was inspired.
Men of deep intuitive insight perceive and perceive rightly, the highly spiritual meaning underlying this story. The Lord was the eternal object of his love, and Mănikkavăsakar himself, a lover from the earliest days of his life. But by some accident, he has been long separated from the object of his love. He feels this separation intensely, realizes this well, and yearns for an indissoluble, inviolable, and irrevocable union or oneness with God. (28) The usual practice with other mystic poets is just the opposite. In other words, the Lord is generally invoked as lover and the devotee as the object of love.
The opening stanza of this valuable work, entitled 'nur sirappu' apparently written by an ardent admirer (29) of this great saint, which I cannot help quoting, furnishes a gist in four lines of the various aspects in which persons of different kinds of temperaments would view it.
‘When speaking of this, the Brahmans will say this is the essence of the Vedas: the Yagins, that of the Agamas: libidinous persons, that it is a treatise on erotics: the logicians, a work on dialectics, etc.’
Thus, the Tirukkovai will be found to be a splendid example of the purely material kind of mystic poetry.
1.For fuller details see Periya Puranam of Sekkilar, Tirunana Sambandamurti Nayanar Puranam
2. For a critical study of Nambi Andar Nambi, see Samasundara Desikar's
3.Tirumurai I, Padikam 127, p. 266.
4. Ibid., p. 267. The Tevvaram, ed. by K. Sadăsiva Chettiar and published by the Saiva Siddhănta Works Publishing Society, Madras, 1927.
5. Comparative Dravidian Grammar, Intro., pp. 137-43.
6. District Manual, pt. iii, pp. 54-70.
7. See his article 'Some Milestones in the History of Tamil literature or The Age of Tirugnanasambandar,’ Tamilian Ant. Society Series No 3.
8.‘See Siruttondar Purapam (Periyapurănam), esp. st. 6.
9. Ep. Ind., vol. vi, p. 11; S.I.I., vol. i, p. 152. See also R. Gopalan’s Pallavas of Kanchi, p. 97 and f; ; K. A. Nilakanta Sästri.— The Panndyan Kingdom, pp. 53-4. Contra K. S. Ramaswami Săstri Saiva Samayaacaryas, p. 59 Mr. Săstriar assigns middle of the sixth century A.D.. Cf. K. R. Subrahmanian, Origin of Saivism, pp. 64-8.
10.See Tirunavukkuarasunäyanär Puranam (Periya-Puranam).
11. Tirumurai IV, Padikam 18, p. 41, Tëväram (Tirumurai 4 to 6), ed. by K. Sadäsiva Chettiar, Saiva Siddhänta Works (1928).
12. See the Pallavas of Kanchii, p. 88.
13. Tamil varalaru vol ii. p. 63.
14. See K. S. Ramaswami Sastri, Saiva Samayacaryas, p. 47.
15. See for full particulars: Periyapuranam, Taduttakkonda Puranam and also Eyarkon kalikkamanayanar Puranam
16.See for the genealogy and identification, the Pandyan Kingdom, p.41 ff.
17. ibid., p. 45
18. Tamil Varalaru II, pp. 72 - 3
19. The Pallavas, p. 77.
20. See note on pp. 135-6 of Alvarkalanilai.
21. Saivavasamayăcaryas, p. 75. See also K.R. Subrabmanian, Origin of Saivism, pp. 68 - 9.
22. The Pandyan Kingdom, pp. 66-7.
23. Tamil Varalaru vol. ii, pp. 77-125. Tamil Perumakkal Varalaru, p. 74 ff.
24. See the Tamilian Antiquary. See in the same journal T. Ponnambalam Pjllai’s article ‘Mănikkavasakar and Christians of Malabar.’
25. Also see K. S. Rămaswämi Sastri, Saivavasamayăcaryas, pp. 12-27. His conclusion is that the saint belonged to the fourth or fifth century A.D. (Vasanta Book Depot, Madras), 1927.
26. Vide Tirtuvadaradigal by Kadavul-Mämunivar, Jaffna ed. (1897). See also Introduction of G. U. Pope’s edition of the Tiruvasagam, pp. xvii—xxxii.
27. Published by Sendilvëlu Mudaliar, Madras
28. See TirukkovaiycIr Unmai ed. by Swăminätha Panditar
29. Arumuga Navalar