How This Ancient Classic Describes Krishna Bhakti In Tamil Lands

How This Ancient Classic Describes Krishna Bhakti In Tamil Lands Krishna bhakti was and is an integral part of Tamil life
  • A section from the Silappathikaram shows that Krishna bhakti was and is an integral part of Tamil life. Here's how.

Silappathikaram is an ancient Hindu classic in Tamil. Written by Ilango Adigal around the third to fifth century CE, the work brings out the confluence of various spiritual traditions that existed in contemporary southern India. These get interwoven with the emotional and worldly life of a couple, Kannagi and Kovalan.

The work shows that worship of Vedic deities was integral to the southern Indian society. One such spiritual tradition is the worship of Vishnu.

The worship of Vishnu comes with the celebration of his avatars, of which the most glorious are Sri Rama and Sri Krishna.

Here we shall see how the worship of Sri Krishna is depicted in Silappathikaram – which goes beyond just depiction of the worship and brings out its spiritual purport and devotional core.

(Where not explicitly mentioned, here, a recent translation of Silappathikaram into English made by Sri. Partha Desikan has been used. The translation is eloquent and is in synch with the soul of Silappathikaram).

At a point in the epic, the couple, Kannagi and Kovalan, are shown to be staying in a settlement of cowherds while on their way to Madurai. There arise bad omen and the community matriarch decides to conduct a dance to ward off whatever bad tidings the omens hint at.

The dance, Kuravai Koothu, is in praise of Sri Krishna, his partner Nappinnai (identified with Niladevi and Najnajiti) and his brother Baladeva.

To wish evil away and make the animals happy, Let us sing and dance the Kuravai koothu, Which Kannan danced with fair Nappinnai, (Which forms a part of the lively plays That Kannan enacted with brother Balaraman And other cowherd lads at Aayarpaadi).

And there is a specific formation the girls of the settelement assume for this dance; even their places are assigned by the matriarch:

These girls were to form a ring of seven, representing the seven narambu notes, the sa ri (re) ga of the Tamil pann music, kural, thuttham, kaikkilai, uzhai, ili, Vilari and taaram, (which in fact was the first note in the conventional sense);

Apart from the positions, the characters are also assigned: Kural to Kannan, Ili to Baladeva and Thuttham to Kannan's beloved Nappinnai. A fresh garland of tulsi differentiated the girl playing Sri Krishna from others.

As the dance progresses, we see what Sri Krishna means to the people, cutting across the time of history yore and the space of India’s terrain. Here, in the depths of southern India, in a small hamlet, the girls sing of Sri Krishna's leela with the gopikas on the banks of Yamuna. But it happens here and now and comes alive in their hearts. To them, and to the spectators, Sri Krishna comes here for their girl – forgetting even Sri who resides in His own chest:

Now let us sing of the beauty and grace of the handsome prince on the shores of the Yamuna, as well as of Pinnai who went dancing with him.’ ‘This Pinnai’s waist is so delicate and narrow, one wonders whether it will snap in the air; when she moves, it falters so gracefully; do we talk about the handsome form of Maayavan with his unconcealed joy In having concealed her sari somewhere? Or do we enjoy the enchanted looks on the love filled face of delighted Pinnai reacting shyly to the myriad emotions felt by Maayavan on seeing her body bereft of her sari, which he has concealed?’
‘He has tricked her under the Yamuna’s waters, this Kannan; but she has stolen his heart! Shall we sing of the beauty of this girl or of Kannan who took possession both of her beauty and of her bangles?’
‘Having lost both her dress and her bangles, Pinnai hides her face with her hands; Is she more beautiful in her face half hidden? Or is his face sweeter when out of pity, It shows all kinds of loving emotions?’

Yamuna is no longer a distant river but a well known stream in the inner landscape of the cowherds. They are transported there. They are dancing verily with Krishna, the killer of Kamsa.

But the epic-writer also knowns that this hero is not merely a hero of the yore but the very transcendental God of all the Universes. The epic brings out the deep mystery of that, which is the true essence of all that exists, becoming part and parcel of the daily delights and pathos of a human society.

How you stirred up the entrails of the sea, using the northern mountain as churn And the Vaasuki serpent as churning rope, so long ago, my lord, blue as the sea! Did the hand that churned get nicely bound by Mother Yasoda’s rope, for mischief? How does your navel resemble a lotus? What magic is this, Maayavan’s Maya?

Here, one should note that the first half of what was done is a cosmic event. The Northern Mountain is also the Axis Mundi, the universal axis the ancients perceived through their observations of the motions of celestial bodies. Observations that come to us from the time of our ancestors, probably from the paleolithic periods. Vasuki is verily the cosmic serpent.

The churning of the ocean, according to many scholars of ancient lore, symbolises the precession of equinoxes. Here, we have a cosmic-Puranic event and it gets contrasted with a localised Puranic event – the very hands which did the churning of the Universe, they allow themselves to be tied up for the crime of stealing butter. This is the mystery of Avatarhood – the transcendent descending into the immanent – ‘What magic is this, Maayavan’s Maya?’

Then, come the next lines:

All the gods worship you as the Ultimate Infinite; You devoured the worlds without tangible appetite; was it the same mouth that ate the stolen butter? What Maya is this, my tulasi-garlanded Lord?

Again, the poet brings out the same Avataric paradox. In the first two lines he eats all the worlds. But it is with no appetite. In other mythologies, notably in Christian mythology, the destruction is because Biblical god is angry at his own creation. The anthropomorphic god with moralistic appetite destroys all the species, sparing only a pair in each. But in Hindu Puranas, the destruction is the withdrawal into the Divine and this happens not because of any appetite. It is part of the nature, the nature of the oscillating universe. Yet the same mouth into which the entire universe gets absorbed eats stolen butter in Gokulam – the village of the cowherds. - What Maya is this, my tulasi-garlanded Lord?

Actually, what Ilango Adigal brings out is a novel way of looking at Puranas. It is novel for us who have grown up with the staple diet of Sigmund Freud and Levi Strauss, James Frazer and Malinowski – cut off from our own traditional way of reading and understanding our Puranas. Otherwise, it is the traditional way.

Ilango Adigal points out the paradox that is at the root of the Avatar concept. He points out how this paradox actually becomes the core mystery that infuses the devotee with various possibilities. This infusion in turn becomes the womb of bhakti from which Hindu art flows out. The art in turn heightens the mystery for the viewers – they become part of the divine drama. They are no more spectators. They become the actors. They dance with Krishna – who is the cowherd lover and hero who slays the demons. He is also the foundational principle of the universe inner and outer as well as the functional archetypes that sustain and maintain all existence. In this paradox that connects the divine mystery of the inner and the outer universe, is the power of Puranas.

The Kuravai singing by the cowherds forms an important part of this great ancient Tamil epic. It shows how Tamil society, in its roots, has always been Dharmic and Vedic. In the history of Indian spiritual literature too, this particular section is an important one.

Unfortunately, these aspects have been lost to quite a few generations now. Thanks to the gentle yet soulful translation of the epic by Dr. Partha Desikan, who by profession is a scientist, we have the opportunity to take the epic to a larger audience across India. It will make a wider audience understand how Krishna bhakti is an integral part of Tamil life – verily part of our life-breath.

[Silappadikaaram: A Tale of three Cities Retold, Translation of the ancient work by Dr. Parthasarathy Desikan, Margabandhu Publications, 2007]

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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