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Tirumangai Alwar and the Brahmins

From: Nutech (
Date: Tue Jan 14 1997 - 14:11:44 PST

Dear Bhagavatas,
Mr. Murali's  reference  to my suggestion that probably there might be
an alternateive interpretation for the words " Mazhisai Vandha Jothi"
with regards the incident at Perumpuliyur has triggered some
passionate debate. 

Since he had gone public, I feeel reluctantly compelled to offer my

The matter could have been taken up by private mail to avoid such back
and forth exchanges which do no good to any of us. Even now, I would
request members to settle such controversial topics by private mail,
lest we should be seen as washing dirty linen in public. Thanks.
Anbil Ramaswamy

Ms, Nagu Satyan has referred to my earlier posting on Tirumazhisai
No doubt, I wrote therein-

" A few Brahmins were reciting Vedas. On seeing him, they stopped their
recitation since Veda was not to be recited in the presence of a person
belonging to the fourth caste. The Alwar understood and was about to
leave when the Brahmins started their recitation. They did not remember
at what point they had left the recitation. The Alwar broke open a paddy
seed with his fingernail to indicate the exact context which had a
reference to the paddy seed. The Brahmins realized the greatness of the
Alwar and begged to be excused"

It was nowhere suggested in the above passage that the Brahmins showed
any disrespect to the Alwar. They were just observing scrupulously the
Sastric injunctions. The Alwar also never took it as a disrespect. On
the other hand, he infact, respected it as a norm in consonance with the
Sastras. That is why, even though the Alwar knew the passage himself
(being a Nityasuri and Amsam of Chakrattalwar), he did not spell it out
but indicated by splitting the paddy seed with his fingernail.

This is also indicated in the Vyakhyanam for Andal’s Tiruppavai verse-9
" Thoo Mani Maadathu"in the line "Oomaiyo, Anri Sevido Ananthalo" which
is regarded as indirectly referring to Tirumazhisai Alwar.

The incident even as reported above reveals the greatness of the
Brahmins no less than that of the Alwar, since neither disrespected the

This shows that both the Brahmins and the Alwar had mutual respect to
each other and both respected the Sastric injunctions equally. And, it
is we (removed as we are from the incident by over several centuries)
who doggedly debate who disrespected whom and call names!.

It was after posting the above article, when I was musing over Swami
Desika’s use of the  words ‘Mazhisai Vandha Jothi" that it occured to me
that after all, there may be an alternative interpretation for the
incident - not with a view to " deny the obvious facts of history nor
for explaining  or rationalizing them away" as presumed by Mr. Mani.

I was agreeably surprised to find the same Vyaakhyaanam by Vangeepuram
Swami (Vide page 31 of Desika Prabhandam, also published by Lifco) on
the Pasuram " Poigaimuni" etc in which he explains why Swami Desika used
specific adjectives to various Alwars (eg) "Thooya Kulasekaran’, "Namm
Paananaathan", "Mazhisai Vandha Jothi", "Thunbatra Mathurakavi" etc.

Let us consider the situation dispassionately:When there are alternative
interpretations, it is gentlemanly to give the benefit of doubt, (since
we are not privy to the actual facts of the case). But, how are we to do
even this? How are we competent to sit in jugement over an eon old norm?

Mr. Mani observes " On the authority of this work, it is demonstrably
clear that the Brahmins discriminated against Tirumazhisai Alwar purely
because they saw him as a Sudra… It is unlikely that this particular set
of brahmins would ever see past the mere body and external appearance of
the Alwar anyhow"

The poor old brahmins did not have the foresight to foresee that several
milleniums later, there would be born out somewhere there someone
farsighted enough to look over their shoulders , with no more laudable
objective than denigrating them as ‘unadmirable people’. If  only they
had known this, perhaps, they would have behaved better !.

Mr. Mani refers to "Divya Suri Charitram’ of some "Garuda Vahana
Panditha" as ‘ one of the oldest’  and ‘best respected’ hagiographies of
the Alwars.

The Panditha could not have been a contemporary of the Alwar in the
ancient era. According to Katapayadi Samkhya, Nammalwar is believed to
have been born on the 43rd day of the commencement of Kaliyuga say in
3102 BC, the three Mudhal Alwars much earlier and Tirumazhisai Alwar 
and Mathurakavi Alwar sometime in between. Thus, the Panditha’s work
cannot be considered ‘one of the oldest’.

Again, if it were ‘best respected’, our Acharyas would certainly have
quoted extensively from the work. Obviously, it is one of the less known
Sanskrit works that mushroomed in the medieval  period like the
"Vemabhoopala Charitram". Thus, it cannot be ‘best respected’ as made
out. Perhaps, it is not even qualified for ‘quoting’ as ‘scripture’!

I agree with Mr. Mani when he  observes that " in the PAST, some
Srivaishnavas have indeed committed grave Bhagavata Apacharam and have
generally been unadmirable
people.There is no need to deny the obvious FACTS OF HISTORY by
explaining or rationalizing them away" 

In this context, the words "PAST" and "FACTS OF HISTORY" need
elucidation. The Past itself can be considered in terms of eras-

The Kumbakonam Vasis of the Narada Samvadam in the Stala Purana as
wonderfully brought out by Sampath Rangarajan, belong to Thretha Yuga.
The period of the Alwar stretches back to Dvapara Yuga as per the
Katapayadi Samkhya mentioned earlier.  Both belong to the Prehistoric
period. The earliest historical period recognized by historians is only
from the Indus valley civilization.

"This particular set of  brahmins" whom Mr. Mani accuses  were perhaps
observing the Sastras in letter and spirit. When they spotted a
‘foreigner’- "DESAANTRI", they might have stopped reciting, not
necessarily  "purely because they saw him as a Sudra" as imagined by Mr.

We have plethora of evidence to show that in those days of pristine
yore, persons of other varnas were highly revered by brahmins WITHOUT
ABDICATING the Sastric stipulations.

When I had been to Philadelphia a while ago, I tried to post an article
in the Bhakti digest in connection with the Tirunakshatram of Tirumangai
Alwar. As the e. mail address there was not subscribed to the list, the
Computer flashed that message with a note ‘Returned undelivered’. Even
in a group like ours one who has not subscribed and is outside the pale
of the chosen group cannot post an article. This cannot be cited as
disrespect or discrimination. The journalistic ethics (if any) and the
internet practices require some disciplines, exclusions and restrictions
which have to be honoured. The case of the Brahmins was no different. In
those days, they were precluded by Sastras from reciting the holy Vedas
in the presence of one whose antecedents they did not know. Observing
the norms THEN cannot NOW be put down as disrespectful or

Mr. Mani himself, has marshalled cases of Tiruppaan Alwar, Mathurakavi
etc in this context. It is true that though one is born in a caste (due
to past Karma), it is not birth alone that entitles one to belong to
that caste. It is the conduct, character and
intellectual evolution that would fit in one into his caste. Great
Rishis worshipped by high caste Brahmins have been born in lower castes
(eg) Vasishta, Vyasa, Parasara, Vidhura, Nammalwar. These go to show
that the so called high caste brahmins of THOSE DAYS acknowledged the
intellectual and spiritual authority of these giants and respected them.

Even so, none of these giants ever claimed Brahmanatvam. On the other
hand, we see Viswamitra taking enormous pains to be called a "Brahma
Rishi". If it were not for the fact that the‘Brahmins by nature were
indeed pure and venerable", why would he do that?

"A temple cow" says Swami Desika, "however holy it might be, remains a
cow in its present life". Remaining a cow does not detract from its
holiness. On the other hand, the cow is venerated ‘for being a cow’.

Our lack of understanding and perspective stems from the social mileu of
the times when the events occured- which we from such a distant period
of time are unable to comprehend, much less appreciate. It is difficult
for people of one age to judge the customs and moral mores of another
age, so far removed from their own times. It requires a good amount of
imagination, and flexibility of mind even to understand and THEN to
assess the merits and defects of systems with which we are not familiar.

For example, let us take the conversation between Rama and Bharata,
otherwise known as Rama Gita:

Bharata comes to the forest to plead with his elder brother, Rama to
return and take over the reigns of Ayodhya that rightly belonged to him
by virtue of the law of primogeniture. He advances several arguments
which Rama is not able to refute. But, finally Rama explodes a bombshell
saying " It was our parents'  wish that I  be banished for 14 years. How
can we transgress this wish?" Matha Pitubhyaam uktoham,Katham Anyath
Samachare? (Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya kaanda (104-22)  On hearing this,
Bharata becomes speechless and had nothing further to plead against.
This was  because implicit obedience to the parents was the accepted
inalienable norm of behavior for children and even the thought of
disregarding would never cross the minds of children in the Ramayana

Times have changed so much now that even consideration,  let alone, 
respect for elders and parents have become not only  non- existent but
also that  positive insult and elder abuse if not injury have become the
hallmark of the pseudo culture of modern society. In this background,
the very essence of  the debate culminating  on the note of obedience to
the wish of parents cannot  be countenanced or digested now. The
redeeming feature, however, is that today's youths also get old much
sooner than they imagine and would realize their folly  when their own
progenies pay them back in their own coin by a repeat performance
towards them.

We cannot, however, blame the present day youths for this erosion. The
elders of today both in India and more so in the West have lost touch
with the Scriptures and are as unexposed to standards of rectitude as
the youngsters themselves and have thus forfeited their right to be
heard and respected. If the elders could at least strive to familiarize
themselves with the salutary morals contained in our scriptures and try
to live up to them,  modern youths will not lose faith in them and will
surely endeavour to follow their example.

Popular misconceptions come to be accepted as gospel truth when repeated
much too often - a strategy adopted by Hitler’s misinformation minister,
Goebelles. (eg) 

Sabari, the devout lady is said to have bitten the fruits and if found
tasty saved the saliva tainted remnants (Echil) for Rama. In Valmiki
Ramayana, there is no evidence in support of this. She was pious enough
to know that it would be an Apacharam to offer Echil to Rama.. The
correct position as explained in Kalakshepams of our Acharyas is that
she would pluck just one fruit from each one of the trees. If it tasted
good, she would leave in tact  the other fruits in the same trees for
offering to Rama. But, the popular notion repeated ‘ad nauseum’ is that
she offered her Echil to Rama and this has got deeply ingrained due to
constant repetition.

Same is the case of Tirumazhisai Alwar’s encounter with the Brahmins.
Everyone including the Panditha, Alkondavalli, down to Pouranikas of
today keep on repeating the absurd interpretation so much that people
refuse to believe that there could be an alternative interpretation.

With the progress of Kaliyuga, there has been a steady degeneration in 
values. Brahmins by slowly giving up their SVADHARMA and ANUSHTANA
forfeited their Brahmanatvam and the esteem of Society.

As indicated in my article on Varnasrama Dharma, according to Sastras,
there are umpteen circumstances in which a Brahmin could forfeit his
Brahmanatvam for which special purificatory rituals have been
presecribed. These rituals were honoured more in their breach than in
observance !.Yet, such Brahmins OF THIS PERIOD still clung on to notions
of  supramacism and ethnic superiority without any justification !

This is the period when Bhagavad Ramanuja appeared on the scene and gave
a shock treatment by some dramatic, unconventional  and revolutionary
exercises to bring home to what absurd lengths, SOME of the Brahmins had
stooped. Tirukkachi Nambi incident is one such.

The popular belief based on much too frequent repetition by people who
have not looked deeper is that Ramanuja broadcast to the rabble the
Moola Mantram from the temple tower of Tirukkoshtiyur.

The correct position, as explained by our Acharyas in Kalakshepams is
that he DID NOT give out the ACTUAL MANTRA. All that he announced was he
had obtained access to a Mantra that will lead to Moksham- being
easiest, surest and shortest way to Moksham and exhorted HIS FOLLOWERS
to take recourse to it in the APPROPRIATE manner. 

Again, it was not for all and sundry that he ‘revealed’ anything. By the
time of this episode, Ramanuja had such a huge following and it was HIS
OWN SISHYAS who thronged in front of the temple. In the absence of a
Public Address System, he climbed the ramparts of the temple and
addressed HIS OWN SRIVAISHNAVA SISHYAS and NOT to Tom, Dick and Harry as
made out by some.

A tale bearer carried a rumour to the Guru that Ramanuja was
transgressing his command. The Guru came on the scene to enquire if it
was true. Ramanuja replied that EVEN IF he had revealed (which, in fact,
he did not) he alone would go to eternal perdition while all others
would be saved. Thereupon, the Guru embraced him - calling him

If Ramanuja had acted against Sastra, certainly Swami Desika would have
referred to it and explained the situation. Even if he had acted against
Sastra, as some make out, it should be taken only as an exception which
Ramanuja alone is entitled to do in his specific circumstances and an
exception cannot be made a general rule for us to adopt.

The faulty story has become so deep rooted that even Pouranikas do the
rounds routinely in the ‘ popular mode’ without worthwhile study at the
feet of a qualified Acharya.The Tirumazhisai Alwar’s encounter with the
Brahmins is also one such. 

I plead guilty that  I also did much the same thing regarding
Tirumazhisai Alwar incident until I got to the bottom of the matter
through Vangipuram Swami and consultation with my Acharya.

The clevage started in the HISTORICAL PAST got further aggravated during
the RECENT  PAST when everyone became a pawn in the ‘ Divide and Rule’
game of the Muslim and the British rulers.

Mr. Mani’s remarks more appropriately fit in the Brahmins of this later
period. It is indeed tragic that even after 50 years of independence,we
seem to ‘forever caught in this rut’- as Mr. Mani rightly points out.

By way of personal experience, even as late as 50 years ago, as a
College student ,I have seen Panchamas in our village carrying their
chappals in their hands and walking barefoot at the sight of a Brahmin
passing by at a distance !. This, indeed, was atrocious and my youthful
mind rebelled and revolted against this indignity as much as Mr. Mani’s
mind is now troubled.

Mr. Sudarsan has quoted Alkondavalli Govindacharya (Indological Research
Institute, Bombay) who also refers to the Varna basis for the incident.
All we can say is that the gentleman (with due respects to his
erudition) is, perhaps,no exception to the ‘Research mindset’ approach. 

More often, than not, in the name of research, AT LEAST SOME of  the so
called researchers indulge in distorting facts to give their thesis an
air of novelty to gain their doctorate ! When this is not possible, they
meekly adopt the non-controversial ‘Safe mode’ of falling in line with
the popular notions. He has also obviously adopted the ‘Safe mode’
method following the conventional interpretation of ‘discrimination’.

Research, if done for enriching one’s spiritual knowledge is
commendable. But, a laborious effort to dig into some odd and forlorn
work, only to discredit and prove Swami Desika, Vangeepuram Swami and
our Acharyas wrong besides abusing the holy brahmins of yore smacks of a
‘holier than thou’ attitude and does not redound to anybody’s credit.

In a later post, Mr. Mani has posed some searching queries and dished
out some advice for our benefit.

He asks-" At least be consistent if you claim to follow the Sastras.
Will  ALL OF YOU stop chanting the Purusha Sukta and other Vedic texts
the next time a Sudra enters your presence?"

Reply: As stated earlier, MOST OF US have lost our Brahmanatvam, the
question of reciting or stopping with or without the presence of a Sudra
does not arise.

He proceeds- " One of us has said ‘ Brahmins  by virtue of their nature
are pure’. I wonder if that makes all Non-brahmin Bhagavatas impure. If
so, I would rather have that impurity than the purity of the Brahmins"

Reply: The Brahmins of the Alwar’s time were indeed pure It is Lord
Krishna (and NOT one of us) who says that Brahmins are by nature pure.
Perhaps,  the Lord was referring to the Brahmins of his time (which
includes the Brahmins in quetion). As for us, we have no choice and
perhaps no need to acquire impurity afresh NOW as if we have any purity
(in the Satraic sense) still left in us !

He observes- " If one’s Anushtanam forces one to treat the Bhagavatas
without the courtesy they deserve, that Anushtanam and that part of
Sastras is ‘Tyajyam’- to be abandoned"

Reply: Neither the Brahmins of the Alwar’s time nor do we advocate any
discourtesy to anyone on grounds of caste.  Swami Desika and successive
Acharyas of our Guru Parampara have very categorically advised against
decrying anyone on grounds of Caste.It is such sweeping statements
against a whole community that amount to an Apacharam to Swami Desika,
Vangeepuram Swami, Our Acharyas  and genuine Srivaishnavas who are now
trying to come to the mainstream.

He finally gives a sterling  advice-" In other words, investigating and
discriminating on the basis of Jati of Bhagavatas is like examining
one’s own mother’s womb to see if it is pure.

Reply: I do agree but this seems to apply to Mr. Mani himself who is
doing shadow boxing against a non existent enemy. In vilifying the 
Brahmins of Alwar’s time and discrediting the interpretation of  Swami
Desika, Vangeepuram Swami and Acharyas he seems to indulge precisely in
what he seeks to condemn in others.

The position today, as far as I see, is that Srivaishnavas are genuinely
desirous of returning to the mainstream in an honest attempt to learn
and understand from each other our Sastras in a better light at the same
time avoiding the indiscretions indulged in by SOME in the RECENT PAST.
The Bhakti group and the Swami Desika Satsangam forum themselves are
ample proof of this. It cannot be claimed that we have achieved
perfection in either. But, I believe, a beginning has been made.

What is required now is for us to do some introspection and soul
searching, try to understand the rationale and determine wher relaxation
of Sastric observance stops and where repugnance starts in our
interaction in society.

Instead of doing this, if we indulge in mudslinging of people of a
bygone age(separated in terms of centuries, if not milleniums) by
generalizations, we will be guilty of Bhagavata Apacharam to the
Bhagavatas of yore, Swami Desika, Vangeepuram Swami and our own Acharyas
who were and are against discrimination of any sort. 

Let us remember that such Apacharam will not go unrequited.

Let us drop such subjects in future and concentrate on things more
Edifying. Elevating, Ennobling and Educative.

I would earnestly implore that, if felt necessary to have further
clarifications, they may be best sought through private mail- thus
sparing the bandwidth in the internet and avoiding our exposing
ourselves before those who would like to bash genuine Srivaishnavas.

Anbil Ramaswamy