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Spirituality & the Tamil Nation >The Vision of Civam in Tamil Caivam -
at Kolam - a Mirror of Tamil Culture
The Encyclopaedia of Religions, volume 14, uses the expression "Tamil Religions" as a title for an article, running to about eight pages (1). The term "Tamil Religions" denotes the religious traditions and practices of Tamil-speaking people.
Even though the bulk of the Tamil population still lives in the Far South of India, some millions now live in other countries, scattered throughout different parts of the globe. Many emigrant Tamilas retain elements of a cultural, linguistic, and religious tradition that predates the Christian era and have experienced a complex interaction of influences from Dravidian, Sanskrit, and non-Vedic sources. The religious life of the Tamil civilisation of Cankam times produced no evidence of significant mythological or philosophical speculation nor of any sense of transcendence in a bifurcated universe. Rather, it was characterised by a fundamental veneration of land and a sense of the celebration of individual life. It embodied an aura of sacral immanence, sensing the sacred in the vegetation, fertility, and colour of the land.
Into this milieu there immigrated a growing number of Jain and Buddhist communities and an increasing influx of Brahmins. The politics and literature of Tamil country were influenced by Jain and Buddhist savants, up to the end of the sixth century AD. The dominant mood of religion in Tamil country gradually became Jain and Buddhist. The first significant feature of the Hindu age in Tamil India was the rise of devotional poetry (Tamil patti, Sanskrit bhakti) in Tamil from the seventh to the ninth centuries. Poets who were followers of Civan and of Tirumal (Vishnu) popularised these two deities throughout Tamil country. The religion propagated by the patti poets used epic and Puranic mythology selectively and gave it a locus in Tamil India.
Tamil patti reflected many strands of religion at once. While it incorporated certain aspects of Jain and Buddhist values (as for examples, a sense of community among devotees; hospitality to fellow devotees; and the possibility of spiritual attainment irrespective of social or economic backgrounds), it directly confronted these heterodoxies with a vigorous theism; an affirmation of the phenomenal world as God's creation; and the importance of the devotional experience and of pilgrimage to the deity's special places.
This patti movement reaffirmed elements of early Tamil religious perspectives: the emphasis on celebration, ecstasy, even possession by the god; the importance of the individual in religious experience; and the affirmation of the land and its special places. At the same time, Tamil patti illustrated the importance of some elements of post-Vedic orthodox, Sanskrit Hindu religion: the fully developed theism and mythology of the epics and Puranas, the adoption of temple oriented ritual centred on worship of images, increased emphasis on liberation as the ultimate aim in religion, etc.
The centrepiece of Tamil patti remained the personality of the god and his relationship with individual human beings. The god's exploits were recited selectively; as, for example, Civan's awesome and terror inspiring character, or Tirumal's miracle working one, were invoked.
Yet at the same time, his grace (arul), love (anpu) and wooing of devotees was variously portrayed. The devotee, for his part, learned to attain the god's grace. There was competition between Caivam, "Saivism" and Vainavam, "Vaishnavism" within the Hindu fold but of these two forms, Caivam had relatively more royal patronage for many centuries, and has continued to be the more popular religion among the Tamilar. There were many Caiva sects in India at least from the beginning of the Christian era and some of these sects were active in Tamilakam, "Tamilland", contemporaneously with the Caiva patti movement.
The origin of Tamil Caiva patti movement, marked by the production of Tamil devotional poetry, can be dated from the sixth century AD. But the Caiva tradition gives authoritative status to three Nayanmar, "saint-lords", Appar, Campantar and Cuntarar, muvar mutalikal, "the Three Masters", the authors of Tevaram, "garland to god". Appar and Campantar belong to the seventh century AD and Cuntarar appears to belong to early ninth century AD.
The verse form, handled by these "Three Masters", is patikam, "decad", usually ten verses, occasionally eleven, and rarely twelve. When these poems were recovered and classified by Nampiyantar Nampi in the eleventh century, as the first seven caivattirumurai, "Caiva canons", Campantar's decads become the first three, Appar's become the next three and Cuntarar's the seventh. Each of the seven sacred canons has one hundred or more decads. The Tamil Caiva tradition considers the seven sacred canons as the Tamil vetam, "Veda". All later developments in Tamil Caivam can be traced to these Tamil hymns.
Even though Tamil Caivam made selective use of Sanskrit Caiva mythology, extensive localisation seems to have preceded even the time of the first two "Masters". Caiva temples appeared in different parts of the Tamil country, even though most of them - almost three-quarters - were concentrated along the fertile banks of Kaviri river, in the Cola kingdom. The number of temples on the southern bank is as high as a ratio of two to one to the number of temples on the northern bank (2). The local image and the local shrine assumed a lot of importance and hence, pilgrimage to different shrines of Civan became necessary.
The "Three Masters" composed at least a decad each for each of the important Caiva shrines, they visited. Of the 276 shrines so celebrated, only six were located beyond the northern frontier of the Tamil country, one in Andhra Pradesh, one in the Tulu region in Karnataka, and four on the Himalayas (3).
According to hagiographic tradition, only Appar undertook an unsuccessful pilgrimage to Mount Kailasa on the Himalayas, supposed to be the abode of Civan, while Cuntarar undertook his last journey to that site, on an elephant, sent by Civan. All the "Three Masters" composed decads on Mount Kailasa. It was only Campantar, a proud Vedic Brahmin, who celebrated all the six shrines in the North. Tirupparuppatam (źrisailam, źriparvatam) in Andhra Pradesh was also celebrated by all the three saint-lords in their hymns, while Kokarnam in Karnataka was celebrated by the two early saint-lords. Kaci (Varanaci/Benares) in Uttar Pradesh did not attract their attention.
Even before the seventh century, much of Caiva mythology was localised around various Civan temples on the banks of Kaviri and Ten Pennai in Tamilakam. Eight of the heroic episodes of Caiva mythology - the decapitation of Piraman (Brahma) at Kantiyur, the impaling of Antakan (Andhaka) in Kovalur, the burning of the Triple City at Atikai, the destruction of Takkan's (Dakża's) sacrifice at Pariyalur, the war with Calantaran (Jalandhara) at Virkuti, the skinning of the elephant-demon Kacacuran (Gajasura) at Valuvur, the burning of Kama (Kama) at Kurukkai and the slaying of Iyaman (Yama) at Katavur were presumed to have occurred in Tamilakam. Each of these shrines was referred to as virattam (a shortened form of virattanam = vira sthana in Sanskrit) and collectively, they were referred to as atta virattanam, "eight heroic sites".
Besides these eight stories, the dancing Civan, as Atavallan (nataraja), took pride of place at Citamparam, even though also celebrated at other shrines, such as at Tiruvalankatu, a location glorified by Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the female pioneer of Caiva Tamil devotional poetry.
Civan's manifestation as a pillar of fire, whose top and bottom remained unfathomable to Piraman and Tirumal respectively, took place at Tiruvannamalai. The demon Iravanan (Ravana), who was crushed by Civan when the latter arrogantly lifted up Mount Kailayam (Kailasa), but who was rewarded later, when he became a repentant devotee, was recognised to hail from Ilankai (Lanka), from where two Caiva temples were also celebrated in hymns by the saint-lords. A few popular mythic stories were not localised, however. Civan's drinking the fearful alakala (halahala) poison which coloured his neck dark and earned him the karai mitaru (nilakanta), "blue neck". Civan's masquerade as vetan (kirata), "hunter" and his contest with the epic hero Ariccunan (Arjuna), and the myth of Civan's entry into the Pine Forest, were very popular myths in the Tevaram, but were not localised.
The Caiva saint-lords also presume upon their audience's familiarity with basic iconic features of this deity: his three eyes, eight arms, reddish hue smeared with white burnt ash, his long matted hair adorned with serpents, the crescent moon, and the river Kankai (his second wife); his androgynous form (half-male, with the goddess inhabiting the left half of his body); his array of weapons and other items held in his hands; the bull on which he rides. These basic iconic features are sometimes combined with elements from mythic tales. Looking at them from the Caiva portrayal of the Absolute, there is a tension in the synthesis, and Cuntarar seems to be acutely aware of it. One of the distinctive characteristics of his poetry is its probing nature.
Cuntarar (4) has one hundred decads and 1026 stanzas in the seventh sacred canon (5). The decad has to be treated as a whole for some purposes, while the stanza count could also be useful in some other way. Some of the decads do not treat some of the iconic features. Some decads refer to the same feature in many stanzas.
This paper will be in three parts. The first part will look into the relative importance given by Cuntarar to different iconic attributes in his extant devotional poetry as a whole. The second part will look for the same into the thirteen decads, described by David Shulman, as the most powerful of his poems (6). Civan first makes Cuntarar totally blind when he fails to honour a solemn promise to Cankili, his second wife, enacted in the form of an oath to Civan. Later the god restores one eye to him. Up to the period when both his eyes are restored, Cuntarar is very bitter and especially harsh with Civan. The third part will deal with Cuntarar's probing questions regarding Civan's iconology.
Civan's Iconic Features in Cuntarar's Poetry
In Cuntarar's vision of Civan, the most striking aspect seems to be Civan riding a bull. 110 stanzas in 67 decads refer to Civan riding a bull. Besides having the bull as a vehicle, he has also a bull banner in 7 stanzas, each occurring in a decad. Snakes, which are sometimes referred to as serpents or cobras, occur in 104 stanzas in 63 decads. A snake is commonly referred to as coiling round Civan's neck. It also serves as a belt around his loincloth, sits on his matted hair and coils around his arm. The word snake occurs in the singular as well as in the plural. The presence of many snakes on various parts of Civan's body is occasionally mentioned. The Ariyarar (harihara) "Vishnu-Siva" form in which Tirumal and Civan occupy half of one body, is referred to in one place only. Civan is accompanied by Umai (Uma), his consort. 63 stanzas in 35 decads mention that they appear together. Civan also appears as ardhanarisvara, "half-female and half-male". 93 stanzas in 64 decads appear to be referring to this form distinctively, in contrast to the form where Civan accompanies Umai (Uma) (7).
Civan appears like the head of a family. Kanapati (Ganapati), the lord of hosts, has been identified as his son even in the poems of Appar and Campantar. Then in two stanzas (8) Cuntarar has a vision of him as a head of a family. The comaskantar (somaskanda) form in which Civan appears with Umai and Murukan was popular during the Pallava period. Murukan appears to be a Tamil god who was later syncretised with Skanda of Sanskrit tradition. Of the 14 stanzas which mention this god, seven seem to refer distinctively to Tamil (9) elements, like the name Murukan, Valli as his consort and his conquering Curan, who is terror personified as King of demons.
Civan's catai, "matted hair", is very frequently mentioned, as seen in 92 stanzas of 55 decads. The matted hair is distinguished by the pirai, "crescent moon", which itself is interpreted as his graceful action, enabling it to wax and wane cyclically without dying. This feature is mentioned in 86 stanzas of 58 decads. The matted hair is also the location for the mythical Kankai (Ganga), interpreted as another graceful action to save the world from flooding. This is mentioned in 62 stanzas of 47 decads. "Ganga", a noun denoting feminine gender in Sanskrit, is personified occasionally as a woman and at times referred to in poetry explicitly as Civan's second wife.
Civan's body is revealed to be of reddish hue, compared to corals and fire in some places. 26 stanzas in 21 decads refer to this colour. His hair is also said to be of reddish hue in one instance. The distinguishing mark of Civan is his wearing of three lines of sacred ashes in his forehead, but many verses refer also to the smearing of his whole body with sacred ashes. This is said to indicate that Civan is the only Ultimate, when everything else suffers destruction and is reduced to ashes. 63 stanzas in 45 decads refer to his wearing of sacred ashes. The second distinguishing mark of Civan is his having three eyes, one additional eye in his forehead, to indicate his all-knowing attribute. 29 stanzas in 24 decads refer to this feature. Another distinguishing mark of Civan is his blue neck, referred to as nilakanta, "blue-throat". He is said to have swallowed dangerous poison to save living beings everywhere at the request of the helpless celestials. 71 stanzas in 52 decads refer to this mark.
Civan wears ear-rings. 27 stanzas in 23 decads refer to ear-rings. He wears only a loincloth, which is mentioned in 5 stanzas. He is mentioned as wearing tiger skin in 17 stanzas in 16 decads. The loincloth and tiger skin are sometimes mentioned together in about 10 stanzas in 8 decads. He is said to be wearing elephant skin in 52 stanzas in 40 decads. The deer skin as a dress is mentioned in only two stanzas, while lion skin is mentioned in a solitary instance. Possibly because two mythological stories are available to account for Civan wearing elephant skin, the elephant skin dress appears predominant. His kalal, "anklets", are mentioned in 28 stanzas in 22 decads. According to Tamil tradition, only heroes wear kalal.
Civan has eight arms, mentioned in 12 stanzas, each in a different decad. One of the arms carries Brahma's skull as an alms bowl. Civan is occasionally mentioned as wearing a garland of skulls. This is interpreted as a sign that Civan alone conquers death and survives when every other living being dies. Altogether there are 42 stanzas in 33 decads which mention the skull. 17 stanzas, each in a different decad, mention his holding a spotted deer or fawn (fig. 03). His special weapon is an axe which he carries in his right hand. 30 stanzas in 25 decads mention the axe. A trident, another of his identifiable weapons, is mentioned in 14 stanzas. One of his hands carries fire. 13 stanzas refer to fire in his hand while one stanza refers to fire in his hair. His club and his drum are mentioned in one stanza each.
Atavallan, the dancing form of Civan, has always been popular in South Indian Caivam. Karaikkalammaiyar, the pioneer of Tamil Caiva devotional poetry in the sixth century AD, worships the dancing Civan at Tiruvalankatu, "Sacred Banyan Forest", and begs him for the boon of remaining a perpetual spectator of his dance. Citamparam, the temple par excellence of the Tamil Caivas, is presided over by Civan in his form as Nataraja. Appar expresses his ecstasy at the vision of the dancing god of Citamparam in as many as eight decads. He is willing to be born again after death (sacrificing bliss), as a human being, just to witness this dance (10). Cuntarar refers to Civan's dance in 66 stanzas in 46 decads. Muyalakan, the demon on whose body Civan places his foot during his dance, is mentioned just in one place only (fig. 01).
Civan appears like a Brahmin in some places. He wears a sacred thread on his shoulder, like the twice-born. 14 stanzas, each in a decad, refer to the sacred thread. Chanting the Vedas or studying the Vedas and/or the Vedangas is mentioned in 18 stanzas, each in a decad.
Civan appears to Cuntarar in his form as Tatcinamurtti (dakżinamurti ) where he sits facing south under a banyan tree and teaches four disciples. He is generally mentioned as teaching the Vedas or the esoteric truth. Cuntarar refers to this form in 13 stanzas. What is distinctive here seems to be Cuntarar mentioning the teaching of aram, "dharma", in six (11) out of those ten verses. When one considers Cuntarar's frequent references to Civan begging for alms as well, it appears as if Civan's image approximates more and more to Buddhist and Jain monks, who sit under the bo tree and the asoka tree respectively, teach dharma to their disciples, and live by collecting alms.
Civan's Iconic Features in Cuntarar's Poems
David Shulman, as already noted, has listed the following 13 decads as the most powerful among Cuntarar's poems: 3, 37, 52, 54, 61, 70, 74, 83, 85, 89, 95, and 96.
Cuntarar complains that he is very unfairly treated by Civan, when the latter blinds him. According to him, Civan also has two wives, by the personification of the Ganga, as a female goddess. So he expects the god to show understanding of his predicament when he opts for two wives, and not to punish him. In 6 stanzas of 4 decads, he refers to the Ganga as Civan's second wife. The god appears in his half-male, half-female form in 10 stanzas in 7 decads. Uma is present along with Civan in 11 stanzas in 4 decads. Their sons are not mentioned in these poems.
The matted hair is mentioned in 11 stanzas of 8 decads. The crescent moon on the matted hair appears in 8 stanzas of 6 decads. His three eyes appear in 5 stanzas of 4 decads. His dark throat has become a symbol of compassion and so Cuntarar, appealing for compassion from the god, alludes to it in 9 stanzas in 5 decads. His smearing of ashes is referred to in 6 stanzas of 5 decads. His eight arms are referred to in 2 stanzas. His axe appears in 3 stanzas while his trident appears only in one stanza.
The skull is found in 3 stanzas. His ear rings are noted in 4 stanzas of 3 decads. Snakes are found in 5 stanzas in 3 decads. The god wearing the elephant skin and the tiger skin is mentioned in 3 stanzas, each. There are 3 references to anklets.
The god is frequently seen with his bull vehicle, as in 9 stanzas of 7 decads. The banyan shade is mentioned in one place only. The dancing god appears in 6 stanzas of 5 decads.
Cuntarar's Probing Questions
About 20 decads, forming one-fifth of his available poems,
contain many questions (12). Some
questions are addressed to Civan while others are to
his devotees. In a few cases, they are to both. Some questions serve
as refrains in each stanza of a decad. Questions like, " Why are you
here alone in the wilderness?", " Why do you stay here?" are
directed to Civan at Ktikkarai
and Murukanpunti respectively (13).
Questions like, "Will he take us too?" are directed to
Civan's devotees at Arur
(14). There are many other
questions like, " How can I remain apart from my lord?", "Can I not
serve him? Can I desert him?", "Who else is as close to me?", "When
can I worship?" and some others, from
Arur, Nitur, Avatuturai, Kanapper and other places
respectively which could be directed to both (15).
They could also be interpreted as Cuntarar speaking to himself. Of
these 20 decads, only two, 54 and 70,are included within his most
powerful 13 poems.
The decad 33 has 24 questions, the largest number in any single patikam. This decad does not mention any shrine, even though tradition ascribes it to Arur. Cuntarar signs most of his decads with his name Aruran, the name of the god from that shrine. His first wife was from that locality and he made it the centre of his activities for most of his life as a Caiva saint-lord. The questions are framed in the manner of an incredulous layman asking Caiva mystics to confirm whether Civan's different attributes are correct. The translation of stanza 7 is an illustration (16):
who think of him
and praise him any way you like:
does he hold a trident in his hand?
Is the burning-ground his haunt?
Is his throat stained black?
Does he bind a cruel serpent
around his waist?
Does he ride the bull?
Is he that ascetic
from door to door,
who is master over us? (336)
a tiger's skin bound to your waist,
you burned the enemies' cities in anger
and, on that same day, you had mercy on the Three.
You took joy in slaying the Subduer;
Taking a handsome form,
with a skull in your hand,
you wander from house to house-
but why, O why,
lord of Venkatu surrounded by sea? (52)
படங்கொள் நாகஞ் சென்னி சேர்த்திப்
Why do you bear the Ganga in your long hair?
Why do you wear tiger-skin, with a belt of angry snake?
Why do you have snake as an ornament while dancing?
Why do you crown your hair with the crescent?
Why do you smear your body with ash?
With an elephant at your call, why do you ride the bull?
With the Mountain-Woman joined to you, why do you crown with Ganga?
Why do you dance in the cremation ground at night?
Why do you beg alms with a dead man's skull?
(1) F. W. Clothey, "Tamil Religions", The Encyclopaedia of Religions 14, Editor-in-Chief Mircea Eliade, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 260- 268.
(2) Tevaram, Etudes et Glossarie Tamouls III, T. V. Gopal Iyer, Publications du Drpartement D'Indologie 68.3, Pondichery: Institut Français, 1991, pp. 188-201.
(3) Tevaram...,III, p. 201.
(4) The name Cuntarar seems to belong to later tradition. Nampi Aruran appears to be the original name. Cuntarar himself appears to be fond of Aruran, as can be found out from his benedictory stanzas. Aruran is the name of Civan of Arur. Appar had made that shrine famous by composing 21 decads on it. Cuntarar, hailing from the same region as Appar, could have had the name of that deity as his personal name, even though he was born at Navalur, quite far away.
(5) Cuntarar's Tevaram is arranged in two different patterns: pan murai (musical mode pattern) and tala murai (shrines pattern). Nampiyantar Nampi, the original compiler of the eleventh century AD, is mentioned as having followed the pan murai. The editions quoted in this study also follow the pan murai. For an example of the tala murai edition, see: Cuntaramurtticuvamikal Tevaram Sri Vaikuntam: Tiruppanantal Kacimatam, 1958.
(6) D. Shulman, Songs of the Harsh Devotee. The Tevaram of Cuntaramurttinnanar, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1990, p. xxxi.
(7) The vision of Civan in both of these forms number 156 instances. Even as recently as 1976, many Christians found it shocking when what they considered as two separate and utterly distinct categories as divine and feminine were collapsed together in M Stone, When God was a Woman (1976). See I. Koppedrayer, "Siva Worship as a Means of Knowing", Studies in South Indian History and Culture, Prof. V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar Centenary Volume, Edited by R.Nagaswamy, Chennai: V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar Centenary Committee, 1997.
(8) Tevaram...II, 5-2; 46-9. (The preceding number denotes the number of the decad and the following number denotes the number of the stanza in that decad in this and the following notes).
(9) Shulman, Songs of the Harsh Devoteee..., 18-6; 38- 5,8; 59-10; 64-6; 68-7 and 83-5.
(10) Tevaram, volume II, 1985, IV. Tirumurai, 81 patikam, 4952 Verse, p. 80.
(11) Shulman, Songs of the Harsh Devotee..., 28-3; 41-3; 55-7; 65-6; 68-7 and 99-2.
(12) Ibid., patikam 4, 6, 9, 32, 33, 36, 43, 46, 49, 51, 54, 56, 57, 59, 68, 70, 73, 83, 84, and 99.
(13) Ibid., patikam 32, 49.
(14) Ibid., patikam 73.
(15) Ibid., patikam 51, 56, 70, 84.
(16) The translations by Shulman in Shulman, The Songs of the Harsh Devotee, are so good that I have not made any attempt to modify them in this paper.
(17) A. Veluppillai, "A Negative Evaluation of Non-Buddhist Indian Religions in the Manimekalai", A Buddhist Woman's Path to Enlightenment, Proceedings of a Workshop on the Tamil Narrative Manimekalai, Edited by Peter Schalk, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Historia Religionum 13, Uppsala: AUU, 1997, pp. 223-240.
(18) From R. Nagaswamy, Masterpieces of Early South Indian Bronzes, New Delhi: National Museum, 1983), fig. 6. By courtesy of R. Nagaswamy.
(19) From Nagaswamy, Masterpieces..., fig. 26. By courtesy of R. Nagaswamy.