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The Ramayana in the Theology and Experience of the Srivaishnava Community

Periyavaccan Pillai, "The Emperor among Commentators."

In the eleventh century A.D., Natamuni, who is considered to be the first preceptor (acarya) of the Srivaisnava community, apparently collected all the songs of the alvars and instituted their singing in major temples of South India. The fifth and the most important acarya of the Srivaisnava community was Ramanuja and according to the hagiographical tradition, he learnt the poems of the alvars from specific teachers. He later went to the sacred town of Tirupati to learn the Ramayana over the period of one year form his uncle Tirumalai Nampi. According to tradition, he commissioned his cousin Pillan to write the first commentary on the most important work of the alvars: Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli.

Periyavaccan Pillai in the thirteenth century was the first person who wrote a commentary on all the works of the alvars. As mentioned earlier, he was devoted to Rama and the Ramayana figures prominently in his writings. Apart from his commentaries on all the works of the alvars, he also compiled a short work called "Pacurappati Ramayanam," ("Ramayana according the verses of the alvars") which presents a composite version of the whole Ramayana story out of phrases and lines used by the alvars. Periyavaccan Pillai rather cleverly, strings together about 235 phrases from the alvar poetry and creates an entirely new work. He also wrote a special commentary in manipravala (a mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit, with both Tamil and Sanskrit proof texts) on his favorite (and what he considers to be theologically important) verses from Valmiki's Ramayana.

Apart from these works directly focussed on the Ramayana, he also introduces quotations and allusions to the epic wherever possible. Thus even while commenting on the Tiruppavai of Antal -- a poem set in the Krishnaite milieu -- Periyavaccan Pillai still sees it fit to quote extensively from the Ramayana to make his points. In the commentary on the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai quotes from the Ramayana and alludes to various incidents from it while elucidating twenty nine of the thirty verses in the poem; only the last signature verse does not come in for elaboration with some choice quote from the commentator's favorite text. In all, just about half the Sanskrit proof texts that the commentator uses are from the Ramayana; a no mean feat, when one remembers that the entire poem is addressed to Krishna.

Let me quote two incidents to illustrate Periyavaccan Pillai's style in his Tiruppavai commentary. The poem itself is addressed to Krishna. Remember that in all the thirty verses the poet herself refers to Rama only twice -- and indirectly at that -- and once alludes to the sleep of Kumbhakarna. And yet the commentator goes out of his way to draw 'relevant' episodes from the epic to make his point. In the first instance the reference to the Ramayana is almost trivial and made in passing, but the allusion is typical of Periyavaccan Pillai's style. Verse 21 of the Tiruppaval mentions that Krishna's village has 'big cows'; the commentator says: "These cows grow at the mere touch of Krishna, like Sri Satrunjaya." Satrunjaya was Rama's elephant; (the "Sri" is added as an honorific) and apparently the elephant flourished in Rama's care. We may note that this reference reflects the personal preference of Periyavaccan Pillai; a commentary on the Tiruppavai written immediately after his, and one which in fact is twice as long as the earlier one does not include this choice reference to Rama's elephant.

The second example is slightly more complicated, but again the commentator cannot resist quoting from the Ramayana. The name Kesava is interpreted as the killer of the demon Kesi, but Periyavaccan Pillai's association is with Rama's killing the demon Kara and the reaction of Sita after victory.

While many of the allusions to the Ramayana are not central to Periyavaccan Pillai's argument, we must note that there are other significant ways in which he uses the epic to illustrate some important and characteristic themes of Srivaisnava theology. These include (a) his using of paradigmatic characters from the Ramayana as models for the human soul in its relationship with the lord, (b) the difference in attitudes towards Rama and Krishna and (c) the glorification of the arca or image in a temple and seeing its association with Rama.

The Paradigms:

Periyavaccan Pillai uses the characters of the Ramayana as paradigms for the human soul and Sita, Laksmana and Vibhisana figure prominently in this list. Sita plays two roles; on one level, she serves as a model for the human soul and on the other, she is the mediator (Skt. purusakara) between the soul and the lord and so is considered to be the very embodiment of mercy in contradistinction to the lord's justice. Laksmana and Vibhisana serve as models for service and we also encounter some examples of how we are not supposed to act: Ravana, Surpanaka etc. serve as negative role-models in the specific acts of approaching the lord without a mediator.

(a) Sita: Model for a Human Soul and Divine Mediator

Periyavaccan Pillai was one of the first Srivaisnava theologians to emphasize the analogy between Sita and the human soul. This feature of his writings was later elaborated by Pillai Lokacarya and Manavala Mamunikal in their works and became characteristic of the Tenkalai (q.v. "Southern Culture") branch of Srivaisnava theology. The other branch of the Srivaisnava community, the Vatakalais, whose principal theologian is Vedanta Desika (born A.D. 1268) thinks of Sita as Sri or the consort of Visnu. For Desika, she is not quite a paradigm of a human being, but really in the same category as Visnu himself. While Sita is both a mediator and a model of a human soul for Periyavaccan Pillai and later Tenkalai theologians, for Desika, she is the ultimate mediator and in fact, (almost) equal to Visnu himself [*].

While Periyavaccan Pillai draws the analogy between Sita and the human being many times, the points that he emphasizes are relatively simple. Like Sita, we should wait for the lord to rescue us and not embark on any self-reliant way of salvation; it would not become our role as a dependent being totally owned by God. Sita waited for Rama to save her; she told Hanuman that it would befit Rama the descendent of Kakustha to destroy his enemies and rescue her (Sundara Kanda, 39-300; quoted by Periyavaccan Pillai while commenting on Tiruppavai, v. 9). Similarly, we should wait for the lord's grace. Periyavaccan Pillai also summarizes the comparison between Sita and a person who seeks liberation in his work called "The Necklace of Rubies" (Manikkamalai):

While the analogy between the human soul and Sita is stressed, we must note that she has another role to play in the scheme of salvation. Sita is also the supreme mediator (purusakara) and without her intervention, a soul cannot be forgiven. Again Periyavaccan Pillai uses the Ramayana as his proof text:

Even while commenting on the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai emphasizes this point. The girls singing the poem seek Nappinai, the consort of Krishna, as their mediator, and our commentator of course seizes the opportunity to bring in the Ramayana:

In the Srivaisnava understanding, Sugriva, Guha, Vibhisana and Laksmana approached Rama either directly or indirectly through Sita (Sugriva had found the jewels that she had discarded and Vibhisana had spoken on her behalf to Ravana; in the Ayodhya Kanda when Rama asked Laksmana to stay behind in Ayodhya, Laksmana grasped Rama's feet but addressed his plea to Sita. On the other hand, Surpanakha and Ravana had ignored one member in the pair and were destroyed. Similarly, we have to go through a mediator, preferably two, according to Periyavaccan Pillai: the acarya and Sri. The acarya may be compared in the Ramayana story to Sita's father Janaka; it is he who hands over Sita to Rama and therefore, Periyavaccan Pillai describes him as "the mediator to the mediator." However, while a mediator is highly recommended, he/she is not absolutely necessary in the scheme of salvation for Desika.

Sita's mercy and kindness is quite incredible; Periyavaccan Pillai remarks (again, while commenting on the Tiruppavai) that even in solitude, even while she was alone with Rama, she never bore tales about the demon-women who taunted her. Periyavaccan Pillai, like Vedanta Desika, celebrates her words to Hanuman after the war. Replying to Hanuman's request to harm the demon women, Sita says in her usual mild manner: "The notable ones (arya) should show mercy (karuna) to sinners, to good people and to those who are wont to kill. Is there any one here without sin, or without fault, O monkey?" (Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, 116-44). Periyavaccan Pillai notices that she considers the suggestion to be rather silly; she has called Hanuman "monkey" (Skt: plavangama) which, as far as monkey-terminology goes, is not very respectable. The commentator elucidates the word 'monkey' thus: "Sita says that she has seen his animal-qualities, that which is innate to his class of beings"; he then adds "usually she addresses Hanuman as 'the best among monkeys' (vanarottama); here she calls him a mere monkey (plavangama)."

(b) Laksmana, Bharata and Vibhisana: Service to the Lord

Periyavaccan Pillai sees the concept of service to the lord as being extolled in the Ramayana. He describes kaimkarya or 'loving service' thus: Service to the lord is interpreted as the wealth of a human being. While commenting on a phrase "the sister of a wealthy man" -- a reference to a young girl in the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai seizes the opportunity to tell us that real wealth is kaimkarya or loving service to the Krishna. But of course, our commentator follows it up with his favorite quotation from the Ramayana: "Laksmana had the goddess of wealth" ("laksmanolaksmi sampannna" Bala kanda, 18-29) and says: "He had the Srivaisnava fortune" (srivaisnava sri). Service to the lord reinforces the deep and everlasting relationship between the lord and the human being; this is real wealth. Periyavaccan Pillai to underline this idea, quotes from the Ramayana in the context of describing the wealth of the young girls who seek a relationship with Krishna at Gokula (Antal's Tiruppavai v. 1): Elsewhere Periyavaccan Pillai quotes the same Ramayana verses (mentioned above) and says "this is the wealth of service (dasya sri), the wealth of loving service (kaimkarya sri)." He also notes that while both Laksman and Bharata were ideal devotees and had similar relationships to the lord, in terms of one's ardor, being in Laksmana's position is more fulfilling to us than serving him like Bharata. Bharata served him in absentia; but Laksmana was constantly in the lord's presence, serving him in every possible way: One cannot leave the notion of service without at least briefly mentioning another theme so familiar in Srivaisnava theology: service to the devotees of Visnu is recommended perhaps even more strongly than service to the Lord himself. Periyavaccan Pillai, while commenting on a verse from the Ramayana which describes Satrughna quotes an interpretation that he attributes to the Srivaisnava preceptor Ramanuja: "Satrughnalvan, in order to be favored by the lord, looked up to no one else but Sri Bharata, who himself, looked up only to Rama." We may note that it is a characteristic of Periyavaccan Pillai's style to record the several interpretations that may have been given to any verse prior to his time and that have been handed down by oral tradition; he occasionally quotes Ramanuja, the most famous of Srivaisnava acaryas even though Ramanuja himself never wrote any commentary on the alvar hymns or even quoted from them in his Sanskrit writings. Elsewhere, again on the theme of service and Laksmana, Periyavaccan Pillai quotes Ramanuja:

(c) Humility and Deference to tradition: Bharata

Bharata is said to embody the characteristic of a true Srivaisnava ("vaisnavatva laksanam"); Periyavaccan Pillai says that he assumes the sins of others as his own. Even if people accuse us of having a blemish that we do not, it is the characteristic of a Vaisnava not to contradict the accuser. Bharata represents this trait more than anyone else. Bharata also never transgressed tradition; Periyavaccan Pillai says: "while fully qualified to be crowned king of Ayodhya, he nevertheless said, 'I shall never do something that has not been done in this family so far.'"

Rama and Krishna: Vive la difference!

Despite his personal preference for the Ramayana and his irrepressible tendency to quote from it, Periyavaccan Pillai faithfully records the opinions and attitudes of the Srivaisnavas of his time. He conveys to us the Srivaisnava enjoyment of the Rama and Krishna avataras and the feeling that in Krishna we see the ultimate in divine accessibility and playfulness. He says that in the Rama avatara, 'we celebrate the lord being (enjoyed and) attained by the devotees (sesa); in the Krishna avatara we celebrate the lord attaining his devotees.' While describing the cowherd village of Ayppati (Gokula), Periyavaccan Pillai contrasts it with Ayodhya: He continues the discussion at a different place, again contrasting the might of Rama and the vulnerability of Krishna: Elsewhere, Periyavaccan Pillai gets on a topic that he particularly enjoys: contrasting the sensitivity of Rama and the cavalier treatment that Krishna accords to the girls who pledge their devotion to him: Periyavaccan Pillai's contemporary and associate Vatakku Tiruviti Pillai sums up the 'enjoyable' difference between Rama and Krishna that the community perceives. He comments: "Our refuge in the Rama avatara is his truth; our refuge in the Krishna avatara is his lies." Periyavaccan Pillai frequently quotes a line from the Ramayana: "Rama conquers the worlds because he speaks the truth." Rama bent himself backwards to keep his word--to his father, to the rishis of the forest, to Bharata, to Sita (that he would be faithful to her), and to all his other devotees. On the other hand, Krishna almost perfected the art of lying. As a child he swore that he had never stolen butter, as an adolescent he lied shamelessly to the cowherd girls and even when he helped Arjuna in the Mahabharata war and had vowed that he would not bear any arms, he reneged and acted in a manner that led to the killing of Jayadratha. As Krishna, he lies for the enjoyment of his devotees, to cause them exquisite agony in separation and to protect them in times of war. As both Rama and as Krishna, however, the devotees are first priority; the difference is in style as far as the Srivaisnavas are concerned and it is this difference that is celebrated.

As the alvars did earlier, Periyavaccan Pillai identifies Rama with the lord enshrined in a temple. In this connection we get to know of his ideas on the arcavatara, or the incarnation as a worshippable 'image' in the temple. He notes that Kulacekara alvar sings the entire story of the Ramayana to the lord in Tillai Citrakutam (Perumal Tirumoli 10-1 to 10) and while commenting on one of these verses says: It is very clear from these passages that Rama is the lord enshrined at Tillai Cirtrakutam; this is an exercise in the lord's saulabhya or accessibility, and that he abides here permanently, so as to erase the misery of those who feel the pain of not being born at the same time as he at Ayodhya.

Periyavaccan Pillai also seems to know quite well which temples were traditionally considered to be Rama temples. The temple at Tirukannapuram, as the name suggest ("Kanna" being the favorite Tamil name for Krishna) honored Krishna but Kulacekara alvar had sung all ten verses of the lullaby to Rama there, when he had assumed the role of Kausalya. Periyavaccan Pillai notes this: Notice that the commentator does not attempt to explain why the poet sang Rama songs in a place whose very name is associated with Krishna. Theologically, the arca, Rama and Krishna all seem to be the same. The lord's purity is contagious and even the associated place becomes pure and holy by his presence; Periyavaccan Pillai says about Tirukannapuram that its purity is not 'accidental' like the river Ganga; because it is continuously associated with the lord who is so accessible, it has a purity that exceeds the river Ganga.

Periyavaccan Pillai also participates in the temple rituals prevalent during his time. He comments on a line from Antal's Tiruppavai which shows his awareness and sensitivity to the temple culture around him, and which at the same time shows his deep involvement with the Ramayana: Namperumal ("our lord") is the Srivaisnava name for the movable icon at Srirangam; during particular rituals, the people carrying Namperumal imitate the gait of these animals to convey to the viewers the grace that is said to be innate in his stride. In this comment, we see Krishna's stride being compared to Rama's which is then compared to the rituals at Srirangam, bringing to focus the immediate cultic milieu in which Periyavaccan Pillai participated.

The poet and the philosopher experience the Ramayana in different ways. The alvars had both alluded to and participated in the Ramayana--some more intensely than others. In later North Indian bhakti we see devotees playing a character in Krishnaite myths; in the alvar poetry, we see this occurring both for the Rama and Krishna stories. More important, Rama and Krishna are seen to be none other than the lord enshrined in the nearest temple. This focus on a temple has to be emphasized before we talk of an abstract Rama-bhakti or Krishna bhakti and the alvar devotion has to be studied in the context of a local shrine. The Ramayana itself is understood against the background of South Indian conventions and the associative structure of the five landscapes found in Cankam poetry. The jasmine garland that Sita bound Rama with is more than a vignette that is not found in Valmiki's Ramayana; the flower is the controlling metaphor of the dramatic situation that Hanuman/Periyalvar are participating in: separation between Sita and Rama. The audience, by secondary participation, feels the separation between Periyalvar and the lord.

Periyavaccan Pillai is a theologian. He understands the stories as allegories, not merely as depicting the dramatic situation between the mystic and the lord but as relevant to the human predicament. Sita is the human soul, Lanka is like this life, worldly objects are as captivating and dangerous as Marica the golden deer. Notice that Periyavaccan Pillai clearly spells out the stories as relevant to every human being; in this he goes further than the experience of the audience which listens to the works of the alvars. The audience sees the separation between Sita and Rama, or Dasaratha and Rama as pertaining to the mystic and the lord; but in periyavaccan Pillai's prose, the analogies are systematically worked out and the resuce of Sita from Lanka becomes a paradigmatic situation applicable to every human being. The role of Sita is expanded to fit everyone in the audience; we move from being intellectual voyeurs of the alvar/god, Sita/Rama separation directly into the stage itself. We are Sita, Dasaratha or the companions of Antal. And the lord of the stage, fittingly enough for Periyavaccan Pillai is Ranganatha (Sanskrit: ranga, stage; natha, lord), the presiding deity at Srirangam--the focus of Periyavaccan Pillai's daily worship and the center of the Srivaisnava world. Periyavaccan Pillai takes us with him as he experiences the several dimensions of Vaisnava bhakti: we become the young companions of Antal emulating the cow-herd girls who wish to see Krishna walk towards them; and that situation reminds him of Sita watching Rama stride like a young lion. But more important: "We can see all this is the fascinating gait of Namperumal." When we watch Ranganatha being carried by people who simulate the stride of a tiger or a lion, we share an experience with Antal, the cowherd girls and Sita--and Periyavaccan Pillai. The Lord of the Stage acts as a link between the theoretical analogy of Sita and the human soul, and the actual participation of the human being in the story of Rama or Antal. Rama rescues Sita in the Ramayana; this act is enacted everytime a devotee is drawn to Srirangam ("the auspicious stage") and becomes a participant in the drama.

[*] The theology of these two views of Sita / Sri is actually very complex. Sita is considered consort and supreme mediator by both schools of Srivaisnavas. It is her ontological status about which they differ. -- Mani. [Back]

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