Why Vairamuthu Gets It Wrong About Aandal
By undermining the spiritual grandeur of Aandal, Vairamuthu has only revealed his shallow understanding of Tamil social history.
It is critical to understand why Aandal is being targeted this way by those posing as intellectuals.
One of the favourite strategies of the Dravidianist and Marxist ‘writers’ in Tamil Nadu, has been writing speculative fictions on the history of venerated Hindu seers. These speculative forays are invariably negative, deeply distortionary, seldom based on robust historic scholarship and rooted in Marxist or Dravidiainist Hinduphobia but passed off under the garb of artistic licence. A circuitous process of ‘mainstreaming’ then ensues.
These works of speculative fiction is lent credence by non-Tamil academics belonging to the entrenched establishment, as the 'source material' for 'alternative' reading of history. In the next step the academics get copiously quoted by home-bred Dravidianists and Marxists as 'proof' for the distorted depiction of Hindu saints.
Recently, a Kollywood screen-writer, without an iota of respect for well-established historical facts, made a brazen claim that the epic Periya Puranam the devotional poetic narrative on the histories of the 63 Nayanmars and quintessentially Hindu responses to movements of social stagnation, was influenced by Christian stories of saints. Not to be outdone, a noted Kollywood lyricist Vairamuthu went event a step further. Rumoured to be striving for a 'Gnanapeeth' award, the influential lyricist chose the Tamil month of Markazhi to distort and degrade Aandal - one of the greatest of the Tamil poetesses and definitely one of the greatest of the mystic poetesses of humanity.
In a copybook Dravidianist rhetorical style that places very little premium on scholarship, he claimed the period in which Aandal lived was the period when Tamil society was making a transition from dharma-based society to theistic society. This typical Dravidianist fantasy, of an earlier materialistic, proto-atheistic Tamil society prior to the Bhakthi movement, has been repeatedly falsified by countless poems in the Sangham literature.
For example Vairamuthu belabours a distinction between deivam and kadavul. He regards the latter as something spiritually lower in hierarchy than the former. Then he goes on to announce that Krishna was originally a deivam and later turned into a kadavul or godhead. He implies the 'Maal' (Thirumaal) worship in ancient Tamil literature was something similar to ancestral worship as against the worship of kadavul which he implies as the worship of the Unknown. However Sangham literature like Paripadal which were composed before the so-called Bhakthi movement of the seventh century clearly show a spiritual vision of Thirumaal - which is very Vedic. Paripadal sings of Vishnu-Thirumaal thus:
Your presence is in the banyan tree with its fiery flames of prop roots which germinate and also give shade and also in the Kadamba tree; it is in the centre of the islets one finds in the good rivers; in the hills where the wind is still and in many other places similar - in every such place (where one can feel the sacredness) You are. And You are with names many and paths whatever have You as their destiny. You are in the harmony that pervades the hands of Your devotees folded in worship. You are their servant and You protect the actualizing of their endeavors.Paripadal 4:66-73
Kadavul, which the lyric-writer of Kollywood passes for as 'unknowable' or something that could be known only by a chosen few, comes out in Sangham literature as a divine principle that manifests in the sacred spaces of day to day life.
According to various Sangham poets, the kadavul principle manifests itself in various places and varied objects including the junctions of roads, in the forests, in the base of the trees and in trees like neem, in the mountains, in the water bodies, in the royal drums etc.
What is even more damaging to the spurious speculation of Vairamuthu and the general thesis of the Dravidianists is the Sangham poet, when describing the boundaries of his cultural matrix, speaks of Himalayas as where kadavul is centred. Here the words ‘Himalayas where the Gods are centred’ seems to have a pan-Indic usage as centuries later Kalidasa (4th to 5th century CE) uses the same imagery for Himalayas ‘Devatatma Himalaya’.
After suggesting such baseless binaries in a fantasy laden ancient Tamil culture, Vairamuthu reduces the spiritual grandeur of Aandal to fallacious reading limited by his shallow understanding of Tamil social history. Imagining to climb the intellectual high pedestal, the Kollywood lyricist claims that the women of seventh and eighth century were considered as mere object in the household and were locked in the house.
Then he pictures Aandal as an exceptional voice of liberation of women. He blames the traditional Sri Vaishnava commentary as ‘not doing justice’ to Aandal. Then he claims that though Periyazhvar, a Brahmin by birth, was the foster father of Aandal her caste was unknown and hence she was not accepted in the society. Along with this ‘fact’ he asks his audience to listen to another 'fact’, that in those days the society and the state had sanctioned dedicating women to temples.
So the conclusion, Vairamuthu arrives is that her poetry should be seen as a kind of protest poetry against such social phenomena. Apparently as a clinching proof, the lyricist provides a sentence from 'Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent Protest and Reform' (Ed. Subhash Chandra Malik) published by Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1978. Interestingly, the lyricist mentions the book as having published by ‘Indiana University of America.’
A cursory search on Google reveals that the book itself was very much an Indian publication and was not published by any American university but by Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The last time I checked, Shimla is very much in India, Himachal Pradesh and not in Indiana, United States.
It is critical to understand why Aandal is being targeted this way by anti-Hindu and Hindu-phobic rhetoricians posing as intellectuals.
Azhvars are an interesting, unique and very important socio-spiritual phenomenon in the history of India. Usually dated from around 5th to 9th or even 10th century CE, they created the spiritual and philosophical substratum over which Sri Ramanuja formulated his Sri Vaishnavism. Alzhvars contained in their high poetry all the possibilities for individual liberty and social emancipation. It is not an accident that the Sri Vaishnavism of Sri Ramanuja rooted in the sacred literature of azhvars later gave birth to various spiritual social movements in North India including Kabir Panth, a tradition that served as an ideological milieu which subsequently inspired personalities like Dr Ambedkar.
Out of 12 alzhvars, the only female is Aandal. Her poetry combines the poetry of nature, body and spirit. There is aesthetics of highest order combined with deepest expression of bridal mysticism almost unparalleled in the world literature. Naturally, anti-Hindu and Hindu-phobic colonial-evangelical-Marxist scholarship had for the past two centuries tried to demonise and deconstruct her in every way possible - from calling her poetry just eroticism to using the outdated frameworks of Freud and Marx.
Coming back to the specific claims, how much of this is true? The marriage of a girl to the deity as in the case of Aandal is, as can be very well seen by her own poetry, very much a mystical experience. During her times, the institution of so-called devadasi was not there. It was during the Chola time that the devadasi system got institutionalised. Historian Upinder Singh in her book on the history of ancient and medieval India, writes:
Leslie Orr’s study shows that the ‘temple women’ of the Chola period were very different from the devadasis of the 20th century. ... The modern devadasi phenomenon is marked by hereditary transmission, professional skill, and temple dedication. None of these were operative in the case of the temple women of the Chola period. These women were neither temple dancers nor prostitutes. They were not married to the God, nor is there any indication that their sexual activity was exploited or confined to the temple context. Their history in the Chola period cannot be seen as a story of degeneration or decline - in fact their position got strengthened and well established over time.A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 2008
In fact, the bridal mysticism itself can be traced to Vedic literature itself. And it also created gender fluidity, a phenomenon that is very important in later day understanding of gender minority rights and issues.
Prof Vijaya Ramaswamy Professor of ancient Indian history at JNU points this out this Vedic roots of Aandal’s bridal mysticism:
The use of the metaphor of a mystic marriage in describing the close bond between divine and human appears to be as old as the Rig Veda where one finds lines such as: “My thoughts touch you, powerful Indra, even as loving wives embrace their husbands. And again: ‘As wives embrace their own husbands, even so they embrace the faultless and generous Indra for support.’ In the Bhagavata movement of south India, besides Namma-zhwar, Manikkavachagar, the tenth-century Saivite saint, is the best example of a ‘male bride’ mystic.Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality in South India,1997
Incidentally, the book of Prof Ramaswamy was also published by Indian Institute of Advanced Study , right here in the state of Himachal Pradesh and not in Indiana, USA.
So why did Prof Subhash Chandra Malik make such an authoritative assertion of a historically wrong statement on Aandal being a devadasi. This lie is rooted in a 1960 short story penned by Daniel Selvaraj, a Marxist writer belonging to Communist Party of India. In this he had ‘re-read’ Aandal as being born in devadasi lineage.
The story described Aandal as a devadasi and she assuming spiritual 'penance' to escape the predatory attempts of then Pandya king Sri Vallabha. Periyazhvar too was depicted in the short story as a person who enjoyed the sexual favours of devadasis. The story also implied that Aandal could have been the child born out of such relations. Incidentally, in Sri Vaishnava tradition, Periyazhvar, Aandal and Sri Vallabha Pandya are all held in veneration for more than 1,000 years.
The short story was a deliberate propagandist account that intentionally falsified history. As stated earlier devadasis were not part of the temple institutions in Tamil provinces prior to 9th century. However, what is interesting is that this propagandist distortion of history had reached the ivory towers of academia and had gained a life of its own.
In 2012, the short story collection that included the story that falsified Aandal's history was sneaked into the Tamil curriculum for BA and BSc students of Manonmanian Sundranar University, Tirunelveli. “The book was published by New Century Book House, a leftist publishing house. This is another example of how the cabal of leftist authors - the left wing publishing houses and their own professors inside the curriculum committee in university function in hand in glove manner - using the government educational institutions for indoctrinating the students,” says advocate Visu who was then in Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and coordinated the protests against the inclusion of this story in the curriculum.
“We did not ask for the ban of the book or did not even question the right of the author to falsify history for his propaganda “, he pointed out, “But we questioned how a propagandist literature that falsifies history was included in the curriculum for students at an impressionable age.” With such clear-headed and timely protests the short story was removed from the collection and NCBH reprinted the short story collection without that story demeaning Aandal.
“It is a feeling of deja vu !” says Visu, an advocate in the district court of Nagercoil, when asked about what ongoing controversy over Vairamuthu’s speech on Aandal. "They would never cease their raids on our cultural and spiritual heritage.
These attempts, almost akin to Gaznavi - Malik Kafur raids on our cultural and literary monuments, should be protected by us with vigilance and intelligence. But tell me, why call a known Hindu baiting lyricist for a function on Aandal? That is the original sin,” he says.
One has to agree.
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