You are here: Sri Vaishnava Home Page : Bhakti List : Archives : August 1999

SwAmi and dEvarir
Date: Fri Aug 20 1999 - 15:46:04 PDT

Dear Bhagavatas,

Please forgive me for writing about what is partially a personal
matter, but a recent occurrence among our small Sri Vaishnava
community here has prompted me to discuss some issues publicly.
Hopefully, we can all learn something in the process.

Usage of the term "swAmi" 

During the Tele-upanyasam of H.H. Azhagiya singhar on 9th May 99,
I enquired him whether he had received the copy of my 20 part
writeup eulogizing Prakritam Azhagiya singhar - sent to his camp
address earlier. (The AchArya has since acknowledged receipt and
conveyed his benediction through Sri Devanathan of AhObila Mutt,
Hyderabad). Several bhAgavatas were appreciative of this mentioning,
as they were previously unaware of the writeup and now were able
to learn more about the kalyANa-guNas of the Prakritam Azhagiya
Singar, with whom I have been in close personal contact for
many years.

However, after this upanyAsam, one Bhagavata, (who unfortuantely has 
preferred to remain anonymous), is reported to have observed: 

    Sri Anbil kept addressing Azhagiyasingar as "swAmi", "dEvarir" 
    etc. This is actually considered as an insult in our sampradAyam. 
    'Azhagiyasingar" is the way with which we must address HH Jeeyar 
    (OR at least Jeeyar/Jeeyar swAmi etc for those who can't pronounce 
    "Azhagiyasingar" properly. "swAmi", "dEvarir" etc. are used for vidvAns,
    bhAgavathAs in general. But, Azhagiyasingar is above such 
    vidvAns/bhAgavatAs for reasons we know. Thus one shouldn't insult 
    a matAtipati [sic] by such addressing. Of course, no one is doing this 
    intentionally. But, the standard maintained in our sampradAyam 
    must be known to others especially those who listen to the 
    upanyAsam on direct on-line connection.

I appreciate the depth of AchArya bhakti with which the said 
bhAgavata took umbrage at the expressions "SwAmi" and 'dEvarir." 
But is usage of expressions such as "SwAmi" and "dEvarir" for
Azhagiya Singar really an insult? This is the question I wish
to address.

Let me hasten to assure that my AchArya bhakti is second to none.
But, let's explore what "SwAmi" actually means.  In one of his kAlakshepams 
(in his PoorvAsramam), Azhagiya singhar himself explained the etymology 
of the word "swAmi" to bring home what a powerfully respectable word 
it is. 

He explained:

   The word "swAmi" is made up of "swam" meaning "property" and 
   "ami" meaning "Possessor" (i.e.,) the owner of the property.  
   And, that the word "swAmi" conveys the "sEshatvam" and 
   "dAsatvam" of the person addressing to the person addressed. 
In other words, the word expresses the *Lordship* or the 
*mastership* or the *ownership* of the addressee in relation to 
the status of the person addressing being the *servant* and the 
*property* of the * Lord - master - owner * - a property which could 
even be sold by the owner in terms of Periyalwar's statement 
"PesuvAr aDiyArgal yenthammai virkavum peruvArgal" (4.4.10)

In my humble opinion, there is perhaps no better word than "swAmi" 
which packs in itself the power and punch of all this significance 
especially when addressing an AchArya on one-to-one basis in the 
2nd person.

You will remember how Azhagiya singhar in his Tele-upanyasam 
On 1st August 99 made a point that in "*Unn* aDikkeezh amarndu 
pugunthEn", Nammalwar found it more effective to address the Lord 
in 2nd person than using a vague and nondescript 3rd person expression.

As everyone in our group knows, my relationship with Azhagiya singhar has been 
intimate, up, close and personal spanning well over 20 years: 

    - before as friend, philosopher and guide, 
    - during his Sannyasa Sweekaranam when he became 
      "Chinna Azhagiya singhar and 
    - thereafter, when he became mathAdhipathi as"Azhagiya singhar". 

I say this not to boast but to express my great fortune at my having
had such a connection; Azhagiya singhar has been gracious enough to
have written an introduction for me, which many of you have read before
on these lists.

Now, besides being my AchArya, he continues to be my "friend, philosopher and guide".

In all my personal conversations and communications with 
Azhagiya singhar, Poundarika puram Andavan and other mathAdhipatis., 
I have been using 'swAmi" and dEvarir" while addressing them. 

None of them had taken exception to this because -

* They know that when I use these words, I do so with full and 
complete understanding of their spirit and significance as per 
the above clarification of Azhagiya singhar.

* They know that the words were used with genuine feelings of 
'sEshatvam' and "dAsatvam" to the AachArya. 

* They also know that they were within the respectable 
norms and "standards maintained in our sampradAyam" and 

* They know that no 'disrespect' or 'insult' either intentional 
or unintentional was involved.

I am, however, thankful to the anonymous bhAgavata for the small mercy 
in conceding, "Of course, no one is doing this intentionally".

The objection by the aforesaid bhAgavata arises because, the 
word 'swAmi' has become another casualty like "aDiyEn." 
By constant overuse and abuse, it seems to have lost its spirit 
and charm and has been irreparably trivialized.

For example, it has so degenerated that we see devotees of 
"Ayyappa" greeting each other - "*sAmi* saranam'. 
Obviously, they do so without even knowing what they are saying!

Our psyche has been conditioned by the indiscriminate 
and mindless misuse of the word "swAmi" ad nauseam from
"Alpha swAmi" to "Omega swAmi" and everyone liberally ensconced 
in between like, for example, "pAmban "swAmi", "mouna swAmi" and 
even a "soraikkAi swAmi"- rendering it cheap, if not vulgar. 

Thus, it has been debased and desecrated so much so that 
we tend to underestimate the power of the word and think that 
it cannot be applied to ' madathipatis' but only to ordinary 
'' vidvAns" and "bhAgavatas in general."

If the word were taboo, why would our AchAryas call 
'swAmi Nammalwar," 'swAmi NAthamuni", 'swAmi Desikan" etc 
whenever they refer to them? 

Does it mean that they were no better than mill-of-the run 
'vidvAns' and commonplace 'bhAgavatas' and NOT AchAryas?

I respectfully submit that the usage of these terms
only expresses an obeisance to an AchArya (in this case my
genuine obeisance to *my* acharya).

Usage of the term dEvarir

"dEvarir" is a Tamil word derived from the Sanskrit "devaha" 
which means "God." "dEvarir" means "Oh! My God!"- In essence, 
all that the word ' swAmi ' connotes as explained above.

I quote a great authority on the use of the word:

"dEvarir being a Tamil word has no etymology I could think of. 
It is a respectful term, while speaking to elders or *AachAryA *
as you know"

For me, my AachArya is God incarnate. I believe that there can 
be no power-words comparable to "swAmi" and "dEvarir" 
especially while addressing an AachArya in the 2nd person on 
one-to-one basis. 

How incongruous would it have been if Arjuna had addressed Lord 
Krishna, the GeethAchAryan in the 3rd person as if he was 
referring to some odd and distant third person and not the Jagadguru, 
who was standing physically in front of him face to face and 
delivering ' the Song celestial?'

The use of the term "Azhagiya singhar" at every step, in season 
and out of season, in the "3rd person" smacks of distancing as if  
addressing some " 3rd person" and not the AachArya physically 
listening to you, and conversing with you - while 'swAmi" and 
" dEvarir" exude genuine humility and devotion and denote a 
closeness that is unique and satisfying to both the 
AachArya and the sishya. 

In this context, the individual opinion of the said bhAgavata becomes 
out of place.

That is why the form "Azhagiya singhar" was not used 
repeatedly - not because of any difficulty in 'pronouncing' it.'

My request to the anonymous bhAgavata and others who share his/her
opinions is this: please, do not impugn the motives or attitudes
of others, particularly when such criticisms are made from a dearth
of knowledge and experience.  If such criticism must be made, please
justify it with suitable pramANas.

Anbil Ramaswamy