When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement erupted in the 1980s, a group of influential and powerful historians came up with an extraordinary claim that contemporary Ayodhya was not the Ayodhya of Shri Ram. They also asserted that Ram bhakti itself was a relatively recent phenomenon.
Cultural and literary evidence however, proved otherwise. Ayodhya had always been a source of great spiritual inspiration — not only north of Vindyas but also to its south, including even the southernmost parts of India.
Shri Ram, for southern India, was not only the hero of the Ramayan; earliest Tamil traditions sang of him as god incarnate himself. He was not just divine, he was Vishnu.
The Silappadikaram speaks of Ram and Krishna as avatars of Vishnu. “If one had not heard the glories of Shri Ram who walked the forests with His younger brother and then destroyed Lanka, what use are those ears! If you had not heard the glory of that Vishnu what use are your ears?” the poet asks with conviction, through the characters of cowherds. This was more than 1,700 years ago.
Nammazhwar belonged to the eighth century. Even as a child, he spent his days in silent contemplation of Vishnu, sitting under a tamarind tree. Mathurakavi, who would later became an azhwar himself, lived nearby. Mathurakavi was born in a Brahmin family and was well versed in the Vedas and Upanishads. Younger of the two, Nammazhwar was born in a community of farmers and his father was a local chieftain but of the fourth varna.
Nammazhwar was relatively unknown at the time, as people typically didn’t pay attention to someone who remained silent and motionless.
Meanwhile, Mathurakavi embarked on a pilgrimage across India. Legend has it that during his visit to Ayodhya, he observed a celestial light in the sky, guiding him southwards. Following this divine light, he eventually reached the tamarind tree where 16-year-old Nammazhwar was seated.
Rest, as they say, is the spiritual history of India.
Mathurakavi understood at once that he was standing before a great spiritual personality. He asked a question that looked trivial, even meaningless, but was profoundly mystical.
Nammazhwar spoke for the first time and responded to Mathurakavi Azhwar’s question with a spiritually profound one-liner, leading the latter to dedicate himself to Nammazhwar’s service. This marked the onset of the Vaishnava Bhakti renaissance, and Nammazhwar’s hymns formed the foundation for Ramanuja’s Sri Vaishnava Siddhanta.
In the Sri Vaishnava tradition, there are 12 azhwars, with Nammazhwar considered the one possessing all limbs and the other azhwars as his limbs. Mathurakavi Azhwar is regarded as Nammazhwar’s feet, but when Ramanuja worshipped at Nammazhwar’s shrine centuries later, he requested to be considered the feet of Nammazhwar himself.
Though considering the caste of azhwars is discouraged, for the sake of addressing prevailing narratives, let’s explore the implications. Nammazhwar, born in the fourth varna, had two Brahmin seers, well-versed in Vedas and Upanishads and separated by two centuries, yearning to be his sacred feet. The spiritual values embedded in this remain relevant today.
When the Ramanuja order evolved in southern India, India had already started facing Islamist incursions. It would not be long before Malik Kafur would enter this region of the country and plunder many temples, including Chidambaram and Sri Rangam.
Sri Rangam faced additional attacks and massacres. In a single day, 12,000 bhaktas were killed in the temple. A team of devotees, led by Pillai Lokacharya, took the lord’s murti. The team included members from all castes, including the renowned Villancholai Pillai, who belonged to what would today be classified as a Scheduled Castes community. They moved the murti through various places, eventually relocating it to Tirupati.
In time, Vijayanagara prince Kampanna Udaiyar, along with his general Gopanna, defeated the occupying forces and reinstated the deity at Sri Rangam. This marked a significant event in the history of Hindu resistance and resurgence. At the root of this achievement was the inclusive bhakti marga crafted by Ramanuja, uniting diverse communities into a Dharmic supra-community.
As the Vijayanagara Empire formed a protective barrier against Islamist invasions, southern India became a sanctuary for Sanatana Dharma to thrive, with temples standing proudly and art forms flourishing. Meanwhile, northern India faced a fresh wave of invasions and attacks.
At this point what Ramanuja did for southern India had to be done for northern India.
This task was taken up by Ramananda. While traditions offer diverse perspectives, what becomes evident across narratives is that he came from the lineage of the Sri Vaishnava order itself, and was a disciple of Raghavananda.
The Bhavishya Purana, which can be regarded as one of the records of contemporary history, narrates that Ramananda was in Ayodhya with a mission. His goal was to facilitate the return of Hindus forcibly converted to Islam, seeking to return to their ancestral faith.
This effort faced opposition from orthodox elements, leading to the formation of the Ramanandi sect, as per the Purana. Bhakta Mala, a collection of life histories of Bhakti saints from the Ramanandi sect, asserts that Shri Ram himself was the first master of this sampradaya.
Thus, both Ramanuja and Ramananda had their ultimate initiation from Ayodhya. Ramananda through his mission, and Ramanuja, through the celestial light that guided Mathurakavi Azhwar.
The history of that city goes beyond inscriptions and archaeological trenches. It goes to the very heart of India.
Is it any wonder that the present era of Hindu ‘Renaissance’ started from the same Ayodhya?
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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