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The Ramayana in the Theology and Experience of the Srivaishnava Community

The Poetry of the Alvars and the Commentaries of Periyavaccan Pillai

Vasudha Narayanan
Department of Religion
University of Florida

[Originally appeared in the Journal of Vaisnava Studies, vol 2, no 4, Fall 1994.]

The Poetry of the alvars

Between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. several devotees of Visnu (alvars) who lived primarily in the area now called Tamilnadu, travelled all over the southern part of India, singing his praise. These poems were compiled into an anthology by the eleventh century A.D. and are known today as the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, or the "Sacred Collect of Four Thousand Verses". Since the eleventh century A.D., these songs has been considered to be "revealed" and have been venerated as the Tamil Veda by the Srivaisnavas. The Srivaisnava community saw (and continues to see) itself as inheriting the "dual vedanta"; i.e. the "Tamil Veda" of the alvars and the Sanskrit Vedanta which was interpreted by its most important acarya, Ramanuja (circa A.D. 1017-1137).

The Tamil poems of the twelve alvars reveal their love for Visnu in all his manifestations. The alvars are cognizant with the mythology of the Sanskrit epics and several puranas and also seem to have access to other traditions from which they draw stories. While Krishna figures prominently in their poems, it would be quite misleading to call it "Krishna bhakti". On the other hand, it has been noted by historians that while Rama is mentioned in early Tamil poems (1st to 5th century A.D.,) he does not seem to be very important. It is quite remarkable then that knowledge of the Ramayana as well as devotion to Rama became as widespread as it did by the time of the alvars.

What then is the significance of the Ramayana for the alvars? Given the paucity of references in earlier classical Tamil poetry, the awareness of the Ramayana story that the alvars seem to have, as well as the in depth knowledge of the various incidents is striking in itself. Even more important is the fact that they seem to have had access to another tradition, possibly oral ("Q"?), from which they drew stories. Secondly, we see (for the first time in Tamil literature) poets actually participating in the story of Rama by identifying themselves as and then talking in the guise of various characters in the epic. Rama is also the only character in alvar poetry to whom the poets sing from the viewpoint of another male; Kulacekara alvar puts himself in the place of Dasaratha grieving over the departure of Rama, and Tirumankai alvar actually identifies himself with the defeated raksasas of Lanka seeking Rama's protection and then sings through their voices. The alvars also do not show exclusive devotion to Rama or to Krishna and we must note its absence; both Rama and Krishna are portrayed as two of the several manifestations of Visnu. We also see that Rama is not excluded form the "parental" or erotic sentiments expressed by the alvars (usually Krishna is the focus of all this attention in later North Indian poetry We see a lullaby addressed to Rama and several of the alvars pine for Rama and for Krishna. More important, the figure of Rama is identified with the lord enshrined in a temple. the image itself is not in any way lesser than the incarnation; to the alvar, the enshrined image, Rama, Krishna or any of Visnu's manifestations seem to be equal. The whole lullaby of Kausalya for Rama, composed by Kulacekara alvar, is addressed to a generic form of Visnu in a temple at Tirukan(n)apuram.

References to the Ramayana in the poems of the alvars

We can see the alvars devotion to Rama manifested in two ways; through hundreds of allusions to Rama, and, through their participation in the story of Rama by singing through the voices of various characters in the Ramayana. In Tirumankai alvar's Periya Tirumoli alone (1180 verses, and constituting over a quarter of the entire corpus of alvar poetry), there are about 106 allusions to Rama or to incidents from the Ramayana. Apart from these allusions, we also have about six different "sets" of poems (about sixty three verses) where the words are spoken by the alvar in the guise of a character form the Ramayana.

Of the hundreds of references to the story of Rama, the incident most frequently alluded to is the actual killing of Ravana and the destruction of Lanka. Thus in the Periya Tirumoli of Tirumankai alvar, out of approximately 106 references to Rama or to an incident from the Ramayana, over 51 deal with the killing of Ravana/destruction of Lanka. The alvars seem cognizant of all the main incidents of the Ramayana, and then some. The composite story closely resembles the Sanskrit Ramayana of Valmiki. We have references to the birth of Rama in Ayodhya, going forth with Visvamitra, killing of Tataka, protecting Visvamitra's sacrifice, breaking the bow and winning Sita, a (hunchback) poisoning Kaikeyi's mind, the exile, Rama departing with Laksmana and Sita, friendship with Suha, Dasaratha's grief, giving the sandals to Bharata, acquaintance with Agastya and getting a bow from him, dwelling in Citrakuta, anger against Kakasura and the crow seeking refuge, Surpanakha's nose being cut, the sighting of the magic deer, Sita's abduction, friendship with Sugriva and the killing of Vali, the chopping of seven trees, Hanuman being sent in search of Sita, anger at the sea king, the building of a bridge across the sea, Kumbhakarna's tendency to sleep, the killing of Ravana and the chopping of his shoulders, the sack of Lanka, the grief of Mandodari, the handing over of Lanka to Vibhisana, etc. Kulacekara alvar also mentions several incidents from the Uttara Ramayana.

In addition to being conversant with these incidents, the alvars also allude to a few other incidents that are not found in the Sanskrit Ramayana. I have been able to identify at least four such incidents, but there are several other places where there is a considerable amount of "poetic license" involved, either in fanciful imagination or in the format of the poems themselves.

The first of these incidents is referred to by Poykayalvar, Peyalvar, and Tirumalisai alvar, chronologically, the earliest alvars. Listen to two of the verses:
        As a babe, lying on the lap,
        of the four-faced one
                who established the precious vedas,
        "Seven heads plus three", thus the lord counted
        the heads of the wicked demon.
                The lord's feet are our refuge;
        A mighty fortress is he,
                who holds aloft the discus.
                                Munram Tiruvantati 77 & 78

        Long ago, as a baby,
                placed on (Brahma's) lap
        He counted on his toes
                the heads of that worthless demon.
        This child dwells,
                on Venkata, the beautiful hill...
                                Nanmukan Tiruvantati 44.

Evidently, the allusion is to Ravana who in disguise seeks a boon from Brahma; Visnu in the form of a baby, lies on Brahma's lap and tries to signal and warn Brahma that it is Ravana who stands in front of him, by pointing to his ten toes. Visnu was probably trying to warn Brahma against giving rash boons to Ravana but the alvar references do not make clear if Brahma got the point.

And then there is the story of the little squirrel helping Rama; Tirumalisai alvar says:
        I am not like the little squirrel, which
        as the monkeys shoved and heaved the mountains,
        so spontaneously dipped in the water; 
        (With its wet fur) it rolled on the sand,
        and ran back into the waves of the sea,
        Concentrating only on building the bridge.

        But my heart is hard as the trees.
                        I grieve that
        even my heart did not desire
                        to serve the lord of Rangam
                                        Tirumalai 27

When the monkeys were helping Rama build a bridge, a little squirrel climbed all over, rolled on the sand and dipped in the sea, trying to deposit the sand from his back into the water, and help in the construction of a bridge. The verse does not say this, but we know from oral tradition that Rama, delighted, picked up the squirrel and stroked it; and as every child who knows the story in Tamilnadu can tell you, one can still see the imprint of Rama's three fingers in the three lines that are obvious on the back of every self-respecting Indian squirrel.

When Hanuman is sent as a messenger to Sita, he relates several incidents to identify himself as an envoy of Rama. In Periyalvar's Tirumoli (3-10, 1 to 10), the poet talks in the guise of Hanuman who narrates several stories to Sita, to prove that he was sent by Rama. Hanuman mentions many incidents, and one mentioned in the second verse is not found in Valmiki's Ramayana.
        The testimony of Hanuman:
        O lady, beautiful as a garland 
                bursting with blossoming flowers
                grant me leave to bow at your feet.
        Graciously listen to my words.
        O lady, gentle as a fawn,
                with eyes like twin flowers,
                a perfect match for each other,
        Recognize my story:
                Once, during the night,
                when it was time for sweet experiences,
                taking a huge garland of jasmine flowers, 
                you bound (him), in your house.
        This is my proof.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-10-2
The final line is to urge Sita to believe in the veracity of the narrator.

And finally, we also have a reference to Rama sharing a meal with Hanuman; apparently an exercise in his accessibility:
        He did not dismiss the great son of Wind
                as a monkey, as a beast,
                as a being from a different class.
        He held him in great esteem
        And with his love flowing greater than the sea,
        He said: The good that you have done for me
                is beyond recompense!
        (O Hanuman), my friend of soothing words
        I shall eat with you--immediately!
                                Periya Tirumoli 5-8-2

I have not been able to ascertain the origin of these stories. They are not in any of the Sanskrit epics or Puranas and we have to assume the existence of other works that are now not available, or of an oral tradition in the South from where the alvars have drawn these incidents. These seem to be complete incidents which can be quoted and are different from say, poetic imagination and rhetoric. We do find examples of the latter; Periyalvar in describing the greatness of the hill Govardhana (which Krishna lifts) alludes to the fame of Hanuman:
        Like the king of the serpents opening his many hoods
                and supporting the vast worlds on it,
        The five fingers of Damodara's hand opened
                like the petals of a flower
                and held aloft Govardhana.
        This is the hill where the monkeys carry their babies
                and sing in praise of Hanuman
                who caused such havoc in Lanka,
        and lull their little ones to sleep.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-5-7
Clearly the whole notion of monkeys on Govardhana singing lullabies in praise of Hanuman stems form the imagination of Periyalvar as does the whole picture of Krishna's fingers resembling the five hoods of serpent supporting the worlds.

A consideration of the poems located in the Ramayana milieu

In some very unusual sets of verses in the Sacred Collect, we hear the poet speaking in the voice of a character in the Ramayana. The common pattern in both North and South Indian devotion (and certainly one that we are more familiar with) is for the poet to identify himself/herself as a cowherd girl, or as a "heroine" in love with Visnu. In the literature of the alvars, we find a few poems spoken by a cowherd girl, but many more in which the poet identifies himself as a "heroine" seen in the early love poems in Tamil. In the songs of Periyalvar and Tirumankay alvar, we find several "maternal" poems in which the poet speaks in the guise of Yasoda. But there are about six sets of poems in the alvar literature (amounting to sixty three verses) where the poet speaks as a character in the Ramayana. Thirty three of these poems are seen the Perumal Tirumoli of Kulacekara alvar who according to the Srivaisnava tradition, was a great devotee of Rama. A popular story in the Srivaisnava hagiographical literature says that when the Ramayana was being narrated, Kulacekara, a king, was so overwhelmed by the thought of Rama going to war with his monkey-brigade, that he immediately ordered his troops to go march in aid of Rama. Kulacekara's poems are rather unique: he does not (as we may well imagine) speak in the words of Sita's love for Rama, but through the love of Rama's father and mother. In about eleven verses, he glorifies Visnu/Rama by praising his deeds and possessions in the context of a lullaby sung by Rama's mother Kausalya:
        The words of Kausalya:

        The other day,
        As a baby, on the banyan leaf,
                You swallowed the worlds.
        You killed Vali,
                and gave the kingdom to his brother;
        O dark gem of Kanapuram
                where the waves wash gems to the shore;
        O ruler of the city called Ali!
                O you who abide in Ayodhya!
        Ta le lo!
                                Perumal Tirumoli 8-7
The refrain of the song, "talelo" identifies this as a Tamil lullaby and it is somewhat unusual to see it addressed to Rama; it is usually Krishna who is seen as a baby by the alvars.

Kulacekara alvar then goes on to re-live the distress of Dasaratha when Rama departs to the forest. These verses do not parallel any other mystical verses that I know of in Tamil devotion; we usually encounter love in a feminine mode and witness the love of a mother or lover; but for the first time here, the father gets into the act.
        The words of Dasaratha:

        Without hearing him call me "Father" with pride and with love,
        Without clasping his chest adorned with gems to mine,
        Without embracing him, without smoothing his forehead,
        Without seeing his graceful gait, majestic like the elephant,
        Without seeing his face (glowing) like the lotus,
                I, wretched one,
                having lost my son, my lord,
                Still live.
                                Perumal Tirumoli 9-6.
The final set of verses in which Kulacekara alvar speaks of Rama is one which the Srivaisnavas have considered to be a miniature Ramayana in itself. The poet speaks here like Valmiki: he recounts the entire story of the Ramayana, including the exploits of Lava and Kusa, the sons of Rama, introduced in the Uttara kanda of (Valmiki's?) Ramayana. These verses are also different because the poet sings them to the lord enshrined in the city of Tillai Citrakutam (modern Cidambaram). To Kulacekhara alvar, the lord enshrined in this temple is Rama, the same Rama who was born in Ayodhya and then resided in Citrakuta during his forest sojourn:
        In the beautiful city of Ayodhya, encircled by towers,
        A flame that lit up all the worlds appeared in the Solar race,
        and gave life to all the heavens.
        This warrior, with dazzling eyes,
        Rama, dark as a cloud, the First one, my only lord
        is in Citrakuta, the City of Tillai.
                When is the day
                when my eyes behold him
                and rejoice?
                                Perumal Tirumoli 10-1.
Periyalvar, who usually writes in a Krishanaite milieu also has eleven verses in which he relives scenes form the Ramayana as Hanuman did when he was presenting his credentials to Sita in Asokavana. We have already quoted a verse from this set in the context of identifying stories "unique" to the alvar tradition.

Finally, we have some twenty verses in Tirumankai alvar's Periya Tirumoli which again are at least as unique as the verses sung by Dasaratha. The Periya Tirumoli songs are voiced not by any loved one of Rama who misses him or wants to place his or her love on record, but by a group of demon associates (raksasas) of Ravana, defeated in the battle at Lanka. These raksasas now seek protection and refuge:
        The dance of the raksasas:

                The other day, our king
                entered the forest of Dandaka,
                He abducted the perfect beauty,
                the chaste woman, and was ruined.
                We are not to blame,
                        Do not kill, O king of your clan!
                Our tribe has been ruined by a woman,
                You have given life to the gods.
                        And now we fear;
                        O son of Dasaratha,
                We beat our drums, We dance our surrender.

                Our Ravana,
                King with long red-gold hair,
                carried away a goddess called Sita;
                Look, he held her captive
                in that fragrant grove.
                        This was his undoing.
                Kumbha, and now Nikumbha
                        have fallen in war.
                Death comes in the form of a man,
                Do not slay us with you bow,
                        We fear,
                We beat our drums, we dance our surrender.
                                Periya Tirumoli 10-2-3 and 5
To the best of my knowledge I am not aware of any other devotee who speaks in the guise of a defeated raksasa. Besides the sentiments expressed, the poems are also literary curiosity; the refrain which seems to suggest a kind of dance in the face of defeat is not found elsewhere in Tamil literature.

Rama, Krishna and the lord enshrined in a Temple

One of the more prominent features in the hymns of the alvars is that exclusive devotion to either Rama or Krishna is not seen. Rama is identified with the lord enshrined in a place as well as with several other incarnations. The same Kulacekara who talks in the guise of Kausalya and Dasaratha, also sings as Devaki who missed Krishna's childhood completely and as a cow-herd girl complaining of Krishna's lies. He praises Rama, Krishna, and several other incarnations, but we must notice that only Rama and Krishna are addressed in a 'mythic situation' (i.e. spoken to by a character in the story). Kulacekara sings of the lord of Venkatam, and other sacred places and identifies the lord enshrined in Tillai Citrakutam as Rama. Kausalya's entire lullaby is addressed to Rama who is then identified as the lord at Tirukanapuram, and then as the lord of the town called Ali and the king of Ayodhya (Perumal Tirumoli 9-6; see p. 7). Periyalvar whose songs in the first part of Periyalvar Tirumoli depict an intense love for Krishna, goes on to speak the words of Rama's messenger to Sita, Hanuman. The switching between Rama and Krishna is sharply seen in one set of verses written by Periyalvar; the verses are the kind of folk songs sung while girls play a game resembling badminton and the songs alternately praise Rama and Krishna, almost resembling the ball tossed from side to side, with each team singing the glory of one manifestation. The concluding verse, bearing the 'signature' of the poet is particularly telling and shows the equality of Rama and Krishna in the mind of the poet; he has sung equally of both of them, at least in that particular set.
                Those who recite these five songs plus five,
                composed in pure Tamil by Visnucittan
                        of the Southern New Town,
                In praise of the Nanda's son and Kakustha,
                        (the songs of the glowing girls,
                         flying in their game)
                will obtain everything that they desire.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-9-11
It would be quite misleading then, to ask if the alvars were devotees of Krishna or of Rama. Exclusive preference is not indicated; rather we encounter a situation where the lord enshrined in a temple is held to be extremely important and this local deity is then identified as Visnu and all his manifestations. Consider the following verse sung by Periyalvar to the lord enshrined in the temple at Srirangam:
                This is the temple of he who became
                the divine fish, tortoise, boar, lion and the dwarf.
                He became Rama in three forms, he became Kanna
                and as Kalki he will end (these worlds).
                This is Srirangam where the swan and its mate
                swing on the lotus blossoms and embrace on flowery beds,
                and revel in the red pollen strewn around the river.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 4-9-9
The verse makes it quite clear that the lord of Srirangam is the same one who is seen in the ten manifestations. We also have a list of the ten 'official' incarnations, with the 'Rama of the three forms' clearly indicating Parasurama, Rama and Balarama. Krishna (Kanna) obviously is one of these ten incarnations. In this connection, we must also note a significance of the Srirangam temple to the Rama avatara. The traditional history of Srirangam connects the manifestation of the deity in the temple to Vibhisana. Vibhisana wanted to take an image of Rama to Lanka; Rama did not want to refuse his devotee, but really did not want to reside in Lanka which had caused so much of grief to Sita. So through a series of events, he made sure that his 'image' i.e., a reclining Visnu got fixed and established in Srirangam itself en route to Lanka. The alvars seem to be aware of some form of this legend. Periyalvar refers to the Srirangam temple as the place where the lord reclines and 'directs his flower like eyes towards the fortified city of Lanka, for the sake of Vibhisana...' (Periyalvar Tirumoli 4-9-2). Tontaratipoti alvar talks specifically of Visnu reclining with his back to the North and facing Lanka to the South, an axis in which we normally do not find the deity in a temple (Tirumalai 19). He reinforces this theme in his other work Tirupalliyellucci ("The Waking Up of the Lord from the Bed"; a panegyric usually addressed to a king and which becomes a popular ritual associated with the temple at Tirupati in later centuries). In this work, Tontaratipoti alvar sings a song of praise to the lord at the Srirangam temple; he addresses him as "the king of Ayodhya" and as "the bull among the Celestials who, with his bow, ruined the whole clan of people at Lanka" (verse 4). In the next verse, he describes the temple at Srirangam as the place where the "king of Lanka serves the Lord." We can also keep in mind that this was the alvar who spoke of the squirrel helping Rama to build the bridge and he seems to have knowledge of various legends and stories that become characteristic of the Tamil versions of the Ramayana.

While we can say that the alvars devotion includes devotion to Rama and to Krishna and that one is not rejected in favour of another, we may note the difference in the temper of the poems addressed to Rama and to Krishna. We do find 'parental' poems addressed to both, but there are definitely more addressed to Krishna. The erotic poems are addressed to Krishna primarily, but perhaps what is significant is that Rama is not completely absent for the scene. The difference in erotic sentiments roused by the two incarnations seems to be one of degree, rather than being only present in the case of Krishna and completely absent in for Rama. We must also keep in mind that the poets wrote erotic verses to the deity enshrined in a temple and then addressed this god as Rama and as Krishna, so the matter is slightly more complicated than just talking of the incarnations by themselves. Let us consider two poems written by the same poet: Nammalvar, a poet who is considered to be the most important alvar by the Srivaisnava community. In the first poem Nammalvar talks in the guise of a 'heroine' pining for Kakustha (Rama) and in the second, (which is overtly erotic), he speaks in the guise of a cowherd girl talking to Krishna:
                The words of the girl pining for Rama:

                My heart, even you are not on my side!
                        The long night
                        stretches out like an aeon
                        without the break of dawn.
                If my Kakustha
                        with his shining, angry bow
                        does not come
                I shall kill myself,
                        --I don't know how.
                        I've been born as a woman
                        sinner that I am.
                Even the sun does not rise;
                        He hides his face,
                        refusing to see such grief.
                                Tiruvaymoli 5-4-3 and 4, line 1.

                The words of the cowherd girl:

                You were gone the whole day,
                grazing cows, Kanna!
                Your sweet words burn my soul.
                Evening tramples like a rogue elephant,
                and the fragrance of the jasmine buds,
                unleashing my desires, blows on me.
                Embrace my beautiful breasts
                with the fragrance of the wild jasmine
                on your radiant chest.
                Give me the nectar of your mouth,
                Adorn my lowly head
                with your jewelled lotus hands.
                                Tiruvaymoli 10-3-5
In both poems the dramatic background is different from the poet's normal sphere of action. In the poem where Nammalvar confesses 'her' love for Rama, he speaks in the role of a 'heroine', a frozen character from early Tamil poetry, but in the second poem we see him talking like a cowherd girl. We must note however, that some of the early Tamil literary conventions that are seen in Cankam poetry are present in these poems. Both verses portray a situation where the lover is or has been absent; a situation that is called mullai ("jasmine") in early Tamil works and which represents the state of 'separation' in Cankam poetry. This is one of five basic situations in love which was represented by a particular landscape, flower, time of day etc.. Separation is always portrayed as occurring at night or the evening and the jasmine flower invariably symbolizes this situation of love. In this connection, we may recall a verse that we quoted earlier: Hanuman describing a particular incident to Sita in Asokavana, mentions that she had bound her husband playfully with a garland of jasmine flowers. Sita is obviously in Lanka, separated from Rama. The mention of jasmine flowers will reinforce in the minds of the Tamil audience, the grief of separation that Sita feels. The alvars are sensitive to the associative structure of the early Tamil love situations and landscape representations and use these in their recounting of the Ramayana story.

There are not too many verses where Nammalvar talks in the guise of a cowherd girl; in fact in about 1102 verses of his Tiruvaymoli only thirty three are addressed to Krishna directly in this mode. The eroticism in these cases however seems more intense than in the rest of the poem and erotic frustration occurs more often in the case of Krishna than with Rama. On the other hand, we see verses which describe Rama's urge to protect or even direct requests for protection from Rama. Earlier, we noted the poems spoken by the raksasas; Nammalvar talks about the protection afforded by Rama even to the inanimate objects of Ayodhya:
                In this earth born from the creator,
                should we learn of anyone but Rama?
                Starting with the blades of grass, and every ant.
                and everything else, without exception,
                        he raised
                everyone and everything that lived and moved
                and everything that stood motionless
                        in that wonderful city of Ayodhya,
                        to the highest state.
                                Tiruvaymoli 7-5-1.
The dignity and valor of Rama are spoken of more than his childhood or teasing behavior; on the other hand the alvars rejoice in both Krishna's childhood and his bravery; nowhere is it more clear than in the lullabies. Consider the lullaby of Yasoda for Krishna and the lullaby of Kausalya for Rama:
                Yasoda's Lullaby:

                A colorful little cradle of hammered gold,
                studded with gems and intertwined with diamonds
                Brahma brought with love for you,

                My little dwarf Talelo
                O lord who paced the worlds, Talelo.
                        Periyalvar Tirumoli 1-3-1.

                Kausalya's Lullaby:

                You created all the worlds on the lotus flower,
                You bent your bow and split the broad breast of Tataka
                        O dark gem of Kanapuram,
                You grant the desires of all who see you.
                O ruler of all the eight directions,
                        O descendent of Raghu,
                        Ta le lo
                                Perumal Tirumoli 8-2
Yasoda, in this and in other verses constantly reminds the listeners that Krishna is a baby; Kausalya sings of Rama's exploits. Despite the tone of these verses however, the alvars never let one forget that the incarnation as Rama was an exercise in the lord's accessibility and compassion; he did not have to undergo all that he did while on earth (Tiruvaymoli 7-5-2); He trekked the forests followed by Sita; and yet, this is the lord whose feet are revered by the immortal beings (Periya Tirumoli 11-5-1). One may say that the incarnation of Rama stands midpoint between the lord's remoteness in his other incarnations and his rather remarkable camaraderie as Krishna.

The Ramayana in the Srivaishnava Experience:


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