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Re: Madhurakavi Alvar

From: Mani Varadarajan (
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 

	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",


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.