South Indian Vaishnava Poetry
| Sri Aurobindo published these essays
on Andal and Nammalwar, two of the "alwars" or Vaishnava devotional
poets of Tamil Nadu, in the Arya in May and July 1915. In the same issues
he published translations of some of their poems, which he executed with
the help of the Tamil poet Subramanya
Bharati. (external link to an article on that poet, 14 Kb - also
here a page of TamilNation as a starting page, most in Tamil)
The translations are published in SABCL, volume 8.
The Vaishnava Poetess
Preoccupied from the earliest times with divine knowledge and religious aspiration the Indian mind has turned all forms of human life and emotion and all the phenomena of the universe into symbols and means by which the embodied soul may strive after and grasp the Supreme. Indian devotion has especially seized upon the most intimate human relations and made them stepping-stones to the supra-human. God the Guru, God the Master, God the Friend, God the Mother, God the Child, God the Self, each of these experiences - for to us they are more than merely ideas, - it has carried to its extreme possibilities. But none of them has it pursued, embraced, sung with a more exultant passion of intimate realisation than the yearning for God the Lover, God the Beloved. It would seem as if this passionate human symbol were the natural culminating-point for the mounting flame of the soul's devotion: for it is found wherever that devotion has entered into the most secret shrine of the inner temple. We meet it in Islamic poetry; certain experiences of the Christian mystics repeat the forms and images with which we are familiar in the East, but usually with a certain timorousness foreign to the Eastern temperament. For the devotee who has once had this intense experience it is that which admits to the most profound and hidden mystery of the universe; for him the heart has the key of the last secret. The work of a great Bengali poet [= Rabindranath Tagore] has recently reintroduced this idea to the European mind, which has so much lost the memory of its old religious traditions as to welcome and wonder at it as a novel form of mystic self-expression. On the contrary it is ancient enough, like all things natural and eternal in the human soul. In Bengal a whole period of national poetry has been dominated by this single strain and it has inspired a religion and a philosophy. And in the Vaishnavism of the far South, in the songs of the Tamil Alwars we find it again in another form, giving a powerful and original turn to the images of our old classic poetry; for there it has been sung out by the rapt heart of a woman to the Heart of the Universe. The Tamil word, Alwar, means one who has drowned, lost himself in the sea of the divine being. Among these canonised saints of Southern Vaishnavism ranks Vishnuchitta, Yogin and poet, of Villipattan in the land of the Pandyas. He is termed Perialwar, the great Alwar. A tradition, which we need not believe, places him in the ninety-eighth year of the Kaliyuga. But these divine singers are ancient enough, since they precede the great saint and philosopher Ramanuja whose personality and teaching were the last flower of the long-growing Vaishnava tradition. Since his time Southern Vaishnavism has been a fixed creed and a system rather than a creator of new spiritual greatnesses.
The poetess Andal was the foster-daughter of Vishnuchitta, found by him, it is said, a new-born child under the sacred tulsi-plant. We know little of Andal except what we can gather from a few legends, some of them richly beautiful and symbolic. Most of Vishnuchitta's poems have the infancy and boyhood of Krishna for their subject. Andal, brought up in that atmosphere, cast into the mould of her life what her foster-father had sung in inspired hymns. Her own poetry - we may suppose that she passed early into the Light towards which she yearned, for it is small in bulk, - is entirely occupied with her passion for the divine Being. It is said that she went through a symbolic marriage with Sri Ranganatha, Vishnu in his temple at Srirangam, and disappeared into the image of her Lord. This tradition probably conceals some actual fact, for Andal's marriage with the Lord is still celebrated annually with considerable pomp and ceremony.
The Supreme Vaishnava Saint and Poet
Maran, renowned as Nammalwar (Our Saint) among the Vaishnavas and the greatest of their saints and poets, was born in a small town called Kuruhur, in the southernmost region of the Tamil country - Tiru-nel-veli (Tinnevelly). His father, Kari, was a petty prince who paid tribute to the Pandyan King of Madura. We have no means of ascertaining the date of the Alwar's birth, as the traditional account is untrustworthy and full of inconsistencies. We are told that the infant was mute for several years after his birth. Nammalwar renounced the world early in life and spent his time singing and meditating on God under the shade of a tamarind tree by the side of the village temple. It was under this tree that he was first seen by his disciple, the Alwar Madhura-kavi, - for the latter also is numbered among the great Twelve, lost in the sea of Divine Love. Tradition says that while Madhura-kavi was wandering in North India as a pilgrim, one night a strange light appeared to him in the sky and travelled towards the South. Doubtful at first what significance this phenomenon might have for him, its repetition during three consecutive nights convinced him that it was a divine summons and where this luminous sign led he must follow. Night after night he journeyed southwards till the guiding light came to Kuruhur and there disappeared. Learning of Nammalwar's spiritual greatness he thought that it was to him that the light had been leading him. But when he came to him, he found him absorbed in deep meditation with his eyes fast closed and although he waited for hours the Samadhi did not break until he took up a large stone and struck it against the ground violently. At the noise Nammalwar opened his eyes, but still remained silent. Madhura-kavi then put to him the following enigmatical question, If the little one (the soul) is born into the dead thing (Matter) [The form of the question reminds one of Epictetus' definition of man, Thou art a little soul carrying about a corpse. Some of our readers may be familiar with Swinburne's adaptation of the saying, A little soul for a little bears up the corpse which is man.] what will the little one eat and where will the little one lie? to which Nammalwar replied in an equally enigmatic style, That will it eat and there will it lie. Subsequently Nammalwar permitted his disciple to live with him and it was Madhura-kavi who wrote down his songs as they were composed. Nammalwar died in his thirty-fifth year, but he has achieved so great a reputation that the Vaishnavas account him an incarnation of Vishnu himself, while others are only the mace, discus, conch etc. of the Deity. From the philosophical and spiritual point of view, his poetry ranks among the highest in Tamil literature. But in point of literary excellence, there is a great inequality; for while some songs touch the level of the loftiest world-poets, others, even though rich in rhythm and expression, fall much below the poet's capacity. In his great work known as the Tiru-vay-moli (the Sacred Utterance) which contains more than a thousand stanzas, he has touched all the phases of the life divine and given expression to all forms of spiritual experience. The pure and passionless Reason, the direct perception in the high solar realm of Truth itself, the ecstatic and sometimes poignant love that leaps into being at the vision of the Beauty of God's face, the final Triumph where unity is achieved and I and my Father are one - all these are uttered in his simple and flowing lines with a strength that is full of tenderness and truth. The lines which we translate below are a fair specimen of the great Alwar's poetry; [Sri Aurobindo's translation of Nammalwar's Hymn of the Golden Age appears in SABCL, volume 8] but it has suffered considerably in the translation, - indeed the genius of the Tamil tongue hardly permits of an effective rendering, so utterly divergent is it from that of the English language.
in SABCL, volume 17 "The Hour of God and Other Writings"
published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Pondicherry
diffusion by SABDA