The Greatest among the Immersed

S Raghavan introduces us to the work of Nammalwar one of the earliest and most respected Bhakti poets of India.

S Raghavan introduces us to the work of Nammalwar one of the earliest and most respected Bhakti poets of India.

Tamil tradition recognizes 12 Alwars-saint-poets and devotees of Vishnu. The word alwar means “one who is immersed" (in god, presumably). They lived between the sixth and ninth centuries in the Tamil speaking region of South India. Alwars and Nayanmars (who were devotees of Shiva) revitalized Tamil society. These saintpoets wandered all over the Tamil countryside inspiring thousands and thousands of people. Their legends and hymns survive class and caste.

They composed the most important early bhakti (devotional) texts in Tamil. Together the Alwars and Nayanmars created a special idiom in Indian thought, and their heritage is revered to this day. Nammalwar, literally translated as “our own alwar”, is among the most respected Alwars. He was a vellala (a peasant caste) by birth and is believed to have completed his phenomenal work during a short lifetime from 880 A.D. to 930. This was after the fall of the Pallava empire and during the rule of Aditya Chola and Parantaka Chola who were laying the foundations of the Chola empire. He was born in present day Tirunelveli district to a local chieftain. In his childhood, he was sometimes mistaken to be dumb because he was a person of few words. This gave him the name Maran, ‘different from the ordinary.’

His verses have a high poetic quality and at the same time carry rich philosophic content. They exhibit intense feeling and emotion and are also intricately composed. Nammalwar wrote his poems with a single-minded purpose; yet his poems displayed various moods. Nathamuni, around the 10th century, gathered and ordered the compositions of the 12 Alwars and arranged them. This compilation was called “The Four Thousand Divine Compositions” (Nalayira Divyaprabandham).

These were deemed to be equal to the four Vedas. To this day, the singers of these Tamil hymns lead temple processions, walking in front of the deity, with those reciting the Vedas following. Nammalwar composed four works, of which the 1,102 verses of the Tiruvaymoli (“holy word of mouth”) are the most important. The well known author A.K. Ramanujan points out that the Tiruvaymoli was hailed as “the ocean of Tamil Veda in which the Upanishads of the thousand branches fl ow together.” It is said that Tiruvaymozhi among all the works of the Alwars, attracted the maximum number of commentaries from scholars. Among the many brilliant commentators was Ramanuja, the great philosopher who advocated a qualified monism or monism with a difference (vishishta-advaita). These poems have also been the forebearers of later traditions of Vaishnava poetry, as late as Chaitanya in 16th century Bengal.

A story illustrates the rich philosophic content of Nammalwar’s verses within a religious shell. Madhura Kavi, a great scholar and poet, was sceptical of the silent saint when he heard about Nammalwar. When he met the young saint, the poet asked him a classic question of Vedanta, “If what is subtle is born in the world of mortals, on what will it subsist and how will it live here?” The answer completely floored him. “It will be hidden in the world, subsisting on what chance brings.” This answer contains many subtle layers of inference and insight within it. It is worth noting here that the religious saint was not at a loss to answer a complex philosophic query. This contrasts with the intolerance demonstrated many a time, wherein an intellectual enquiry about the unknown is rejected outright. Nammalwar taught the Arthapanchakam (meaningful five principles). These are the nature of the soul, the glory of Vishnu, the goal of life, the means to attain the goal and the obstacles to be overcome in doing that. He had an interesting interpretation of the nature of the Absolute or Paramatman, holding that it is at once transcendent as well as immanent in all beings in their Inner Selves and easily accessible to all. In many ways this was pioneering theology, and formed the basis for the vishishta-advaita of Ramanuja later.

The original verses of Nammalwar are arranged in tens, which are in turn arranged in hundreds, following a long Tamil tradition. Within this grouping single verses have a substance of their own; they are quoted and recited as complete poems. Each group of ten is unified by meter, theme and diction. Every unit of ten poems is closed by an eleventh, in which the poet gives his signature verse and addresses his audience directly. Also there is a fl owing continuity in the verses. Every poem begins with the last unit of the previous one. All the thousand and odd poems in Tiruvaymozhi are linked this way.

The Alwars propagated that all men are equal before god. They had scant respect for Kings and empires. Nammalwar expresses this beautifully in the following verse:
My lord of a thousand names
Gives and gives
The fame of his giving
Crosses all boundaries
I cannot praise anyone else
Cannot say to some paltry thing
Of this world:
“Your hand is bounteous as the rain
your shoulders are strong as the
I cannot tell such barefaced lies

(Translated by A.K Ramanujan, Nammalwar: Hymns for the Drowning)

The original Tamil verse parodies the conventional phrases of praise offered to Kings in classical Tamil odes. According to the bhaktas, all the symbols of a king become god’s symbols.

Another verse reiterates this position and serves a warning to Kings that they are mere human beings.
Who rule the earth all alone
For long years
Will one day hobble
On legs bitten by black dogs
And beg from a broken pot
In this very life
With the whole world watching:
Don’t tarry then
Think of the lord’s feet
And live

Nammalwar, took an uncompromising stand against the division of society into castes:
The four castes
Uphold all clans;
Go down, far down
To the lowliest outcastes
Of outcastes:
If they are the intimate henchmen
Of our lord
With the wheel in his right hand,
His body dark as blue sapphire,
Then even the slaves of their slaves
Are our masters.

The social hierarchy has suddenly changed! It is no longer ordered by birth, but by men’s relation to god.

So, here we have a new kind of poet, a poet who fl outs convention, a poet who insists that anyone can be a bhakta if charged with the right fervour, for it is actually the god who sings through the bhakta. The bhakta of a new type is not a worldrenouncing sanyasi. He is a people’s poet. He is no court poet, so he will refuse to praise the king. After his death, Nammalwar’s images were installed in South Indian Vishnu temples. They are revered as the very feet of god. Even today, worshippers receive a touch of the special crown that represents Vishnu’s feet and Nammalwar; it is called Satagopan (destroyer of evil) after one of Nammalwar’s many names. But beyond the images and symbols, the message of the Alwars — the immersed ones — for the revitalization of society still stands strong.

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