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The Tamil Veda of a Sudra Saint (part 1)

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani)
Date: Mon Feb 06 1995 - 01:15:48 PST

I will periodically mail excerpts from a paper by Dr. Friedhelm
Hardy, entitled "The Tamil Veda of a Sudra Saint: The Srivaisnava
Interpretation of Nammalvar".  Dr. Hardy has done extensive work
on the poetry and milieu of the Alvars and later Srivaisnava
tradition. I have found his work enlightening, and I think the
net will as well.  This paper on Nammalvar, the greatest of
Alvars and a great Tamil poet, should be interesting at many

To facilitate easy reading, I will post excerpts of only 50-100
lines each.  If you miss any of the postings, please ask me and
I'll mail you a copy.  This is the first of many postings.

The paper can be found in _Contributions_to_South_Asian_Studies_, 
v. 1., Gopal Krishna, editor, Oxford University Press, 1979.

[Readers of Usenet will see parallel postings approximately a
 day after I mail them out to the bhakti mailing list.]



The present study will investigate the significance of a
particularly powerful symbol which occurs in the Srivaisnava
tradition, figuring as a catalyst of socio-religious tension and
as motivation for its solution in terms of the initial quotation
from the Gita [ix.32].  This symbol evolved out of the
interpretatation which the Srivaisnavas imposed upon a specific
historical person, CaTakOpan (usually called Nammalvar), and his

This important fountainhead of the Vaisnava movement in the South
composed four collections of songs and poems in Tamil, claiming
that these are the `revelation' of Visnu himself and expressing
in them a novel form of bhakti.  Moreover, later hagiographers
regarded him unanimously as a Sudra while at the same time he was
included in the guru-parampara of Ramanuja.  The major problems
which all this presented in terms of Hindu `orthodoxy' and also
in terms of other strands within the Srivaisnava tradition are
apparent.  Nevertheless, the motivational power of the symbol
which resulted from the solution of these problems has remained
operative over a millenium.

The emphasis of the present paper will be on the evolution of
the symbol itself, which means, on the history of the
interpretation of Nammalvar; thus reference to the concrete
social reality, the application of the symbol, will be made only
to the extent necessary to illustrate the interaction of the
religious symbol with social practice.  The source-material is
extensive, but the selective picture which is presented in the
following will, I hope, provide a representative impression.  

The Srivaisnava interpretation of the Alvar can fairly naturally
be differentiated into three separate strands.  I have called the
first one `saampradaayika'; it represents the official or
normative line of interpretation.  I have subdivided it further
into three sections.  First, I trace in outline the hagiographic
developments which produced a `life of Nammalvar' (along with an
iconographic type); secondly, I turn to various mythological
conceptions which place this `life' in a larger context; finally,
the systematic discussion of various Acaryas will be considered.
The second strand contains material of popular and local
inspiration; both in idiom and content it differs considerably
from the `official' version.  Thirdly, an approach exploiting the
technique of Sanskrit kaavya poetic style will be illustrated.

By spreading the analysis out over such a variegated range of
source-material, insight will be gained not only in the
multi-level mechanism of resolving socio-religious conflicts in
the South Indian Hindu tradition, but also into the process of
`myth-making' around a historical person and a temple complex.
Incidentally, this study will reveal poetic imagination and
association of symbols to be an undercurrent also of theological