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From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_be.com)
Date: Mon Apr 28 1997 - 09:32:56 PDT
[I sent this on Friday, but it somehow did not get posted.] Dear Bhaktas, Thanks to Dileepan's timely post, we have been discussing Madhurakavi Alvar's cryptic first question to Nammalvar. Madhurakavi, having been drawn away by a light in the night sky from his piligramage in North India to Thiru KurugUr (present Alvar Thirunagari, Thirunelveli district), ended up at the temple of Adi Natha PerumaaL, not very far from his own birthplace of ThirukOLUr. As he made his way around the temple, he spotted a strange sight -- a young boy, hardly more than 16 years of age, sitting as if in deep contemplation in the hollow of an immense tamarind tree. Struck with amusement and wonder at the statuesque image in front of him, with eyes closed and apparently oblivious to the world around him, Madhurakavi decided to test if the boy was even alive, let alone capable of speaking or hearing. So he took a large stone and dropped it on the ground near the tree so as to produce a loud thud. Awakened from his contemplation, the boy opened his eyes and cast his calm glance on Madhurakavi, but still did not say a word. Madhurakavi wondered if the boy was indeed incapable of speech, so to induce him to speak, posed him this question: seththathtin vayiRRil siRiyadhu piRandhaal, eththai thinRu, engE kidakkum? If a small something were born in the womb of what is dead, what would it eat, and where would it rest? Hearing this riddle, the young boy, who was none other than our saint Nammalvar, immediately replied in as cryptic a fashion aththai thinRu, angE kidakkum! It eats that itself, and it rests there itself! In my last post, I mentioned that there are two ways to to understand this answer. Madhurakavi perhaps intended a double meaning by his question -- seeing a small boy sitting quietly in the hollow of an immense tamarind tree, he may have jokingly wondered aloud how this young boy could subsist for so long and sleep there itself. His real question, however, is a very philosophical one: when the immaterial individual self, as subtle a thing as can exist, is born in this dead clothing called a body, how does it thrive and where does it rest? To those who are familiar with Nammalvar's intense attachment to the Lord, an obvious way to understand the saint's answer is that God alone is his sustenance, God alone his rest, so he eats only That and rests only There. But it appears that Nammalvar's answer is far more philosophical than this facial interpretation. "It eats that itself" means that the individual self enjoys the body and experiences pleasures and pains derived from its association with the body. "It rests there" means that this self, caught in the cycle of pleasure and pain through association with the body, is bound within it, incapable of escaping therefrom. We are forever indebted to Madhurakavi Alvar; but for his strange, irreverent question to a strange boy, we perhaps would not have received the four divine poems of Nammalvar which form the heart of the Divya Prabandham. Even if our saint had awakened to consciousness and sung his poems aloud, without a disciple like Madhurakavi no one would have transcribed them for posterity It is fitting that we remember the great yet indirect and nearly accidental contribution of this unique Alvar. anban thannai adaindha vargak ellaam anban then kurugoor nagar nambikku anbanaay madhurakavi sonna sol nambuvaar padi vaikundham kaaN minE To those who seek refuge, Madhurakavi, as a friend, has this to say: Seek refuge in the lord of KurugUr, For believe me, Vaikuntha is here! -- kaNNi nuN siruththaambu 10 [the Short Knotted String, Madhurakavi's sole composition, in praise of "KurugUr Nambi", Nammalvar] Mani P.S. A trip to Alvar Thirunagari is highly recommended. The tamarind tree in which Nammalvar sat is still there, right next to the temple. For a tamarind tree, it is immense, and large parts of it are petrified, but it still bears fruit and we are free to take these as prasaadam. Sometime after the Alvar's passing, perhaps in the time of Nathamuni or later, a shrine to Nammalvar was built next to the Adi Natha PerumaaL temple such that the tamarind tree rises above it. I am not one to be generally carried away by "touchy-feely" types of things, but I can truly attest to the serenity of atmosphere when sitting near that tree. Undoubtedly it is because Nammalvar is very near and dear to my heart, and because the temple was not crowded (and indeed almost never is). But realizing that I was walking on the very same spot where Madhurakavi Alvar and Nammalvar had exchanged their first words was incredibly thrilling. At that moment, Nammalvar ("kurugUr sadagOpan") and Madhurakavi were no longer remote, ancient personalities who lived in the 7th or 8th century -- they were real figures whose presence I experienced in my own way on that day.