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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 levels. 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 poetry. 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 thought.