By Robert Butler, T. V. Venkatasubramanian and David Godman
In the seventh to ninth centuries AD there appeared in South India an upsurge of devotional fervour that completely transformed the religious inclinations and practices of the region. Vaishnava and Saiva bhaktas became infused with a religious spirit that emphasised ecstatic devotion to a personal deity rather than the more sober rites and rituals of vedic Brahmanism. It was both a populist Hindu revolt, since it expressed the people’s dissatisfaction with the hierarchies of caste, and a demonstration of contempt for the alien philosophies of Jainism and Buddhism, which had by then permeated large areas of South India.
The movement’s leaders were the various saints who toured the countryside singing songs in praise of their personal God. The language of these songs was deliberately simple, for they were intended to be sung by ordinary devotees, either alone or in groups. While it is true that the deities addressed were ones such as Vishnu and Siva, who were prominent components of the North Indian pantheon, the mode of expression and the philosophical content of the poems were unique, being an expression of the indigenous Tamil spirit and culture. This was the first of the great bhakti movements that were to invigorate the Hindu tradition throughout India in the succeeding centuries. It was so successful in transforming the hearts and minds of the South Indian population, one commentator has gone so far as to say that these poet-saints ‘sang Buddhism and Jainism out of South India’ (Hymns to the Dancing Siva, by Glen Yocum, 1982 ed., p. 40). Adi-Sankaracharya, who taught in South India in the ninth century, successfully vanquished the Jains and the Buddhists in philosophical debates, but at the grass-roots level it was the singing saints who reconverted the masses back to Hinduism.
The Saiva revival of this era owed much to four poet-saints who are often collectively referred to as ‘the four’ (Nalvar). Appar, the first to emerge, flourished from the end of the sixth century until the middle of the seventh. Tirujnanasambandhar, the next to appear, was a younger contemporary of his. They were followed by Sundaramurti (end of the seventh century until the beginning of the eighth) and Manikkavachagar, whom most people believe lived in the ninth century.
The spontaneous songs of these early Saiva saints were eventually collected and recorded in a series of books called the Tirumurais. The first seven (there are twelve in all) are devoted exclusively to the songs of Tirujnanasambandhar, Appar, and Sundaramurti, which are known as the Tevarams, while the eighth contains Manikkavachagar’s two extant works. These twelve Tirumurais, along with the later Meykanda Sastras, became the canonical works of the southern Saiva branch of Hinduism. This system of beliefs and practices is still the most prevalent form of religion in Tamil Nadu.
Though two of Manikkavachagar’s works survive and are both included in the Saiva canon, his justly deserved fame and reputation as being one of the foremost Tamil saints and poets rest almost exclusively on the eminence of the Tiruvachakam.
All devout Saivas are familiar with the major events of the saint’s life and most of them would be able to recognise or even repeat many of the verses that comprise the Tiruvachakam. In style it has much in common with the earlier Tevaram poetry of Appar, Jnanasambandhar and Sundaramurti, but there are also substantial differences. The Tiruvachakam is a very personal document, revealing far more about its author and his varying states of mind than the Tevarams do. It is also more philosophical. Manikkavachagar, being an educated brahmin, quite naturally used technical religious terms to describe his relationship with Siva and the problems he was encountering in his attempts to attain union with Him. This technical vocabulary was elaborated on some centuries later by the Saiva philosophers who formulated and codified the Saiva Siddhanta school of thought. The Tiruvachakam can therefore be viewed as a bridge or link in the development of South Indian religious thought: it is the continuation and the culmination of the bhakti tradition founded by the Tevaram authors, while at the same time it marks the beginning of the Siddhanta philosophical tradition that was to find its ultimate fruition several centuries later in the Meykanda Sastras.
The Tiruvachakam is, and has been for more than a thousand years, one of the most well- known and best-loved works of Tamil devotional literature. It is so highly regarded that extracts from it are chanted every day in many South Indian homes and temples. Portions of the Tiruvachakam were chanted regularly during the early days of Sri Ramanasramam, and on the evening that his mother died in 1922, Ramana Maharshi asked some of the assembled devotees to spend the night chanting the whole work. Kunju Swami, who was present on that occasion, has described what happened:
During the night Sri Bhagavan sat near the place where we had put the Mother’s body. Brahmachari Arunachala Swami and I sat with him. Brahmachari Arunachala Swami had originally been a cook in the big temple in town before he renounced the world and became a devotee of Sri Bhagavan. Sri Bhagavan then announced that the Tiruvachakam should be chanted. Sri Bhagavan and the devotees took it in turn to read from the book. While we were reading Sri Bhagavan corrected all the mistakes in our reading as and when we made them. In this way we went through the entire Tiruvachakam before 4 a.m. (The Power of the Presence, part two, p. 43)
There were several occasions on which Bhagavan expressed his high opinion of the Tiruvachakam. Viswanatha Swami has reported the following incident:
While Sri Bhagavan was living in Virupaksha Cave, devotees requested him to compose a hymn that could be sung when they went out for bhiksha. Sri Bhagavan said, ‘When there are so many excellent hymns such as the Tevarams and the Tiruvachakam, where is the need for a new one?’ (From Viswanatha Swami’s preface to Muruganar’s Aksharamanamalai Vritti Urai, p. i.)
Muruganar has also recorded Bhagavan’s opinion in three of his Padamalai verses:
Manikkavachagar’s Tiruvachakam expresses in words the exuberant, graceful experience of Sivam, which transcends speech.
Tiruvachakam is a work that deserves to be experienced. The meaning of its sweet verses is beyond intellectual knowledge.
The Tiruvachakam is a sea of divine honey expressing the God-experience that puts an end to the birth-misery of getting caught in the womb. (Padamalai, p. 355.)
Bhagavan’s appreciation was more than intellectual. When he read out portions of the text for the benefit of visitors, he was sometimes moved to tears by Manikkavachagar’s experiences and by his poetic expression of the divine love he felt for Siva:
At my request he [Bhagavan] recited certain lines from the composition of the saint Manikkavachagar where the author spoke of the condition of the soul melted in love; hardly had the Maharshi pronounced a few lines when there was a brilliance in his face. He who rarely expresses in any outward form his inner emotion could not restrain a few silent tears. A slanting ray of the morning sun from the hillside made the scene still more vivid. A peace that passeth all understanding pervaded the whole atmosphere. For more than an hour there was perfect silence. It looked as if one of the fresco paintings of Ajanta had come to life! (Golden Jubilee Souvenir, ‘The Vedantic Tradition in Sri Ramana Maharshi’, by Swami Siddheswarananda, 1995 ed., p. 44)
A similar incident took place on June 22nd, 1939, when Bhagavan announced that it was Manikkavachagar’s Guru puja or aradhana day. Having made the announcement, Bhagavan ‘sat in deep silence for so long that the sanctity of the occasion sank into our souls’. (Sri Ramana Reminiscences, by G. V. Subbaramayya, 1967 ed., p. 57)