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The Tamil Veda of a Sudra Saint (part 2)

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani)
Date: Thu Feb 09 1995 - 01:08:05 PST

This the second of several 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

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.

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



Nammalvar referred to himself as "naaTaN" and "vaLa-naaTaN"....
Various inscriptions, dating from the 11th to 13th century AD,
document the activites of the periya- or vaLa- naaTu, provincial
agricultural assemblies.  One such organization mentions in an
inscription at the Trivikrama PerumaaL temple in TirukkOvalUr
(one of the 108 divya-deSams of the Srivaisnavas) that they had a
Bhoomi vigraha consecrated and were making a special endowment
for it.  Clearly concerned not only with secular but also with
religious matters, this assembly introduces itself as:

    We, the members of the citramEzhi periya-naaTu, who are 
    the children of the glorious earth-goddess and have been
    born into all four varNas, have studied and understood
    the fine Tamil and Sanskrit...

Thus affairs like those of a temple are dealt with by an
institution which consists of twice-born and sudras and which
prides itself on the fact that its members are conversant with
both the cultures of the North and the South.  By including
sudras it transcends the division of "sabha" and "oor" on the
village level.  The smaller organization called "naaTu" has been
described as `comprising various ethnic groupings whose social
and cultural interactions constituted a microregion'.  It is
precisely this social and cultural interaction of all four varnas
in religious matters which is denoted by the symbol whose
evolution will be traced below.


[Note: The rest of the paper refers frequently to the
Tiruvaymozhi, Nammalvar's greatest composition --- over 
1000 verses of intense bhakti and philosophy.]

Of the songs themselves, three are of particular interest here:
Tiruvaymozhi 4.10; 3.7; and 7.9.  The first of these songs is
dedicated to the temple in Tirukkurugoor; apart from mentioning
the two names by which Visnu in that temple is referred to in
later works, viz., `aadippiraaN' (primordial lord) and `polintu
niNRa piraaN' (the lord who abounds in splendour), it concerns
itself with proclaiming Visnu's superiority over other gods.


Tiruvaymozhi 3.7 sings the praise of the true devotees of Visnu.
The poet sets up a new scale of values which supersedes the
(Sanskritic) varNa system. In verse 9 he says:

    Our masters are those who serve the servants of the
    enlightened ones who [have realized with clarity] that
    they are the slaves of Visnu, although they may be [like]
    CaNDaalas [even in the eyes] of CaNDaalas, not possessing
    any respectability (nalam) whatsoever and being below any 
    of the four jaatis which are the basis for a noble lineage

Of particular interest in this verse is the metaphorical 
master --- servant/slave symbolism of bhakti which replaces the
varNa system.  Tiruvaymozhi 7.9 shows how the Alvar understood
his own activity as a poet:

    What can I say about him ... who speaks inside me, himself
    singing his own praise with my words, which arranging for
    the sweet stanzas to be spoken by me in his words...?

    The Most High makes me sing sweet verses about himself, 
    having taken me over [as his instrument] because of my lack
    of talent to compose by myself fine poems, after seeing his

Thus the Alvar feels `inspired' and impelled to compose his poems
by the experience of Visnu's beauty, and in fact regards himself
merely as an instrument for Visnu's own activity of revealing
himself to all men.

----------- FOOTNOTES & ADDENDA ----------------	

1. CaTakOpaN: This is the name he himself used; among 
Srivaisnavas he is much more frequently referred to by the 
honorific title `Nammalvar', viz., `our saintly lord'.


The life-story of CaTakOpaN (1) which evolved in Srivaisnava
circles derives its essential themes from his works, ... a few
old 'taniyan' and 'muktaka' verses, and perhaps some locally
evolved traditions. But it appears to me that the legends are not
derived from any oral traditions of strictly historical value.
What we are dealing with is almost from the beginning of the
hagiographic developments a `vaibhavam', a legendary account of
the marvels and miracles in the life of a supernatural being.

The locality of Nammalvar is evident from the srutiphalas
[verses which conclude individual songs]: the temple town
Kurugoor on the pank of the Porunal (Skt. taamraparNI) --- today
Alvartirunagari in the Tirunelveli District. ... The poet refers
to himself as CaTakOpaN (this appears later sanskritized as
SaThakopa, SaThaari, SaThaarati, SaThavairI, etc.), CaTakOpaN
MaaRaN, MaaRaN CaTakOpaN, MaaRaN, and finally as Kaari MaaraN
CaTakOpaN.  He describes himself as Vazhuti nATaN and VaLuti vaLa
nATaN, nakaraaN, kON, and also as turaivan.  The interpretation
of these names and titles is difficult and complex, but certain
points seem clear.  `MaaRaN' and `CaTakOpaN' are personal names
of the author (note that one is Tamil and the other Sanskrit),
which `Kaari' ought to be his father's name.  The titles suggest
that he was a `chieftain' (turaivan) or `leader' (kON), an
`official' (nakarAN), and a dignitary in organizations in and
around Kurugoor.  Once he mentions that `his chest is adorned by
a garland of makizh flowers', which gave rise to the Sankrit name