Hymns for the Drowning Poems for Visnu (Vishnu) by Nammalvar

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Item Code: IDJ401
Author: A. K. Ramanujan
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 1993
ISBN: 9780144000104
Pages: 194
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.6 X 4.9"
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About the Book

Nammalvar, also known as Maran and Catakopan, was born into a peasant caste (vellala) and lived from AD 880 to 930. Although his dates have not been conclusively established, legend has it that he was born in Tirukurukur (today's Alvartirunakari in Tamil Nadu) into a princely family and lived for only thirty-five years.

Tradition recognizes twelve alvars (saint-poets devoted to Visnu) between the sixth and the ninth centuries in South India, of whom Nammalvar is the best known. He composed four works, of which the 1, 102 verses of Tiruvaymoli and the most important.

The fame and importance of Nammalvar was such that soon after his death his images were installed in South Indian Visnu temples and revered as the very feet of God.

A. K. Ramanujan was an award-winning translator and poet whose translations, poetry, and essays have been widely published and anthologized. He was William E. Colvin Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Linguistics, and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His works included: Speaking of Siva, The Interior Landscape and Folktales From India.

A. K. Ramanujan died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four.


The poems in this book are some of the earliest religious poems about Visnu, or Tirumal, the Dark One. The author is an alvar, "[one] immersed in god"; the root verb al means "to immerse, to dive; to sink, to be lowered, to be deep." The title Hymns for the Drawing plays on the meanings of such an immersion for poet and reader.

Tradition recognizes twelve alvars, saints-poets devoted to Visnu. Between the sixth and the ninth century, in the Tamil-speaking region of South India, these devotees of Visnu and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva (nayanmar), changed and revitalized Hinduism, and checked the spread of Buddhism and Jainism while absorbing some of the features of these rivals. The saint-poets wandered all over the Tamil countryside, inspiring and converting kings, brahmans, and peasants, affirming in poetry the holiness of hundreds of Tamil places dedicated to Visnu or Siva. Their pilgrimages, their legends, and their hymns (which they sang by the thousand) literally mapped a sacred geography of the Tamil regions and fashioned a communal self-image that cut across class and caste. They composed the most important early bhakti (devotional) texts in any Indian language. The two rival movements, despite differences in myth and ritual, created and shared a special idiom, a stock of attitudes and themes, and a common heritage alive to this day. A new generation of scholars has become interested in the alvars during the last ten years, by very little of the poetry is available in translation.

The author of the poems in this book had several names, for example, Maran and Catakopan, but he was best known as Nammalvar, "our own alvar." He is considered the greatest of the twelve alvars. Anyone who reads his poems can see why: the poems are at once philosophic and poetic, direct in feeling yet intricate in design, single-minded yet various in mood-wondering, mischievous, tender, joyous, subtly probing, often touching despair but never staying with it. He composed four works, of which the 1, 102 verses of Tiruvaymoli ("holy word of mouth", "word of holy mouth"- "god-spell," if you wish), are the most important. Very early, the Tiruvaymoli was hailed as "The ocean of Tamil Veda in which the Upanisads of the thousand branches flow together."

According to historians, Nammalvar born into a peasant caste (vellala) and lived from approximately A. D. 880 to 930. Some would date him a century earlier. Although the facts are hazy, the legends are vivid and worth retelling. According to these latter, he lived for only 35 years, he was born in Tirukurukur (today's Alvartirunakari, in Tamil Nadu), into a princely family in answer to their penance and prayers. When he was born, the overjoyed mother gave him her breast but the child would have nothing of it. He uttered no sound, sat if seated, lay if laid down, seemed both deaf and mute. The distressed parents left the child at the feet of a local Visnu idol. Once there, he got to his feet, walked to a great tamarind tree, entered a hollow in it and sat like a yogi in a lotus posture, with his eyes shut and turned inward.

Meanwhile, in North India, Maturakavi, a pilgrim poet and scholar, was wandering near the Ganges; suddenly he saw a light in the southern sky. He watched it or three days and followed it all the way to Kurukur, where, having led him to the silent child in the tamarind hollow, it vanished. Maturakavi tried in vain to wake the yogi by clapping his hands and dashing stones on the temple walls. Finally, he went to the hole in the tree and asked, "Master, if the subtle [spirit] is embodied in the gross [matter], what will it eat, where will it rest?" The yogi at once replied: "That it will eat, and there it will rest" Maturakavi realized at once that God was what, the Master ate, and God was what he lived in. With that exchange, master and disciple found each other; the master broke his life-long silence and poured forth more than a thousand hymns to Visnu. The thousand magnificent hymns, each beginning with the last word of the previous one, were one continuous poem an icon or the endless, ever-changing forms of the Lord.

Such was Nammalvar's fame and importance that, soon after his death, images of him were installed in South Indian Visnu temples, and revered as the very feet of God. In these temples today very worshiper's head receives the touch of a special crown that represents Visnu's feet and our alvar; it is named catakopam after him. He is called the "first lord of our lineage." He is the ". Body," the other saints are the "limbs." His poems have been chanted in temple services and processions since the eleventh century. Indeed. At the Srirankam temple a special ten-day festival is devoted to his work: a professional reciter (with the title araiyar, "King"), dressed in ritual finery, sings and enacts the hymns for the listening image of Lord Visnu.

A certain Natamuni (10th century?) gathered and ordered the compositions of the twelve Vaisnava saints and arranged for their recitation. According to tradition, he heard visitors from Nammalvar's birthplace of Kurukur recite ten stanzas, and he saw that they were only ten out of a thousand. So he went to Kurukur, worshiped Visnu, and meditated as a yogi, but he failed to invoke the poet or receive the poems. Then he recited 12,000 times Maturakavi's praise-poems about his master, Nammalvar. Both Maturakavi and Nammalvar appeared to him in a vision and gave him a knowledge of the alvar's four works. Some accounts say, he received all of the four thousand in this way. His grandson Yamuna (10th -11th century), celebrated in Sanskrit the "impeccable [Tamil] scriptures" collected by Natamuni. It is significant that both grandfather and grandson were priests at the Srirankam temple. Through them and through Ramanuja (11th - 12th century), a non-Sanskritic,, non-brahmanical religious literature (Nammalvar was a sudra saint) became central to brahman orthodoxy. Inscriptions as early as the 11th century mention endowments of land for the maintenance of reciters for the alvars' hymns.

Natamuni thus became the first link between the saints-poets and the Visnu temples, between text and ritual; he was the first of a long line of teachers (acaryas) who formed the theology and the institutions of the "Sri Vaisnava" sect.

His compilation was called "The our Thousand Divine Compositions" (Nalayira Divyaprabandham), shortened to the "our Thousand" (Nalayiram) or the "Divine Composition" (Divyaprabandham). Orthodox Sri Vaisnavas deemed the Four Thousand equal to the four Vedas. Sanskrit and Tamil, the Vedas and the, our Thousand, were integrated in their domestic and temple services. The singers of the Tamil hymns led the temple processions, walked before the god; and the Vedas followed behind.

These texts are not merely the living scripture of an important sect; they have attracted many subtle and brilliant commentators. The four Thousand, particularly Nammalvar' s thousand verses in the Tiruvaymoli, and the commentaries stand at the head of a philosophic genealogy of all Vaisnava ideas, culminating in Ramanuja's qualified monism or monism-with-a-difference (visistadvaita). As poems, they are the forebears of later traditions of Vaisnava poetry, reaching as far as Caitanya in 16th-century Bengal and Tagore in our own time. Characteristic pan-Indian themes find some of their first and finest expressions in the poetry of alvars-themes such as the Lord's creation as play (lila), Visnu's incarnations, Krsna's childhood, Lord and devotee as lover and beloved, to name only a few. A number of these themes and their relation to Hinduism at large and explored in the Afterword.

This book contains eighty-three poems; seventy-six of them are selected from the Tiruvaymoli, and seven, love-poems in the classical style, from the Tiruviruttam. My arrangement is as much a part of the "translation" as my verse. The original verses are arranged in tens, which are in turn arranged (by the compilers) in hundreds, following a long Tamil tradition. Yet single verses have an existence of their own; they are quoted and recited as complete poems. Each group of ten is united by meter, theme, and diction, but the transition from each group to the next is not always clear; commentators over various schemes. I have taken the liberty of oaring one of my own that, I think, also reflects the tradition. In doing so, I have sometimes brought together similar-looking poems from different parts of the original anthology, keeping in mind, and often playing on, an overarching rhythm of themes.

For instance, I have cycles of love poems alternating with philosophic and other hymns, as in the original text. Such cycles and epicycles, with returning voices, roles, and places, are part of the "interinanimation" of these poems. I have placed ten poems on the works of Visnu (his incarnations, etc.) at the beginning-for they weave into the allusive network of the other poems. My arrangement also enacts the progression: from wonder at the Lord's works, his play, his contrariety, to the experience of loving him and missing him, of watching other (one's friends, one's daughters) love him and suffer over him, to moods of questioning and despair, and on to an experience of being devoured, possessed, taken over, till the very poems that speak of him are of his own speaking.

To translate is to "carry across"; "metaphor" has the same root-meaning. Translations are transpositions; and some elements of the original cannot be transposed at all. For instance, one can often convey a sense of the original rhythm but not the language-bound meter; one can mimic levels of diction, even the word play, but not the actual sound of the words, Items are more difficult to translate than relations, textures more difficult than structure, words more difficult than phrasing, linear order more difficult than syntax, lines more difficult than pattern. Yet poetry is made at all those levels-and so is translation. The ideals is still Dryden's, "a kind of drawing after the life"; "…to steer betwixt the two extremes of paraphrase and literal translation; to keep as near my author as I could, without losing all his graces, the most eminent of which are in the beauty of his words; and those words, I must add, are always figurative…taking all the materials of this divine author, I have endeavoured to make [him] speak such English as he would himself have spoken…in this present age."

When two languages are as startlingly different from each other as modern English and medieval Tamil, one despairs. For instance, the "left-branching" syntax of Tamil is most often a reverse mirror image of the possible English. Medieval Tamil is written with no punctuation and no spaces between words; it has neither articles nor prepositions, and the words are "agglutinative," layered with suffixes. Moreover, the syntax is a dense embedding of clause within clause. I translate unit by syntactic unit and try to recreate the way the thus seems to occupy more visual space on the page than the adjective-packed, participle-crowded Tamil original. The "sound-look," the syntax, the presence or absence of punctuation, and the sequential design are part of the effort to bring the Tamil poems faithfully to an English reader. The Notes and the Afterword are aimed at translating the reader towards the poems. I have consulted various texts and commentaries in learning to read these poems. Chief among these are: the ten volumes of Annankaracariyar and the ten of Purushottama Naidu. I have used the standard Tamil Lexicon system to transliterate Tamil words.

Many years ago, John Carman urged me to translate the alvars. In 1976, in the subzero sun of a Minnesota winter, I read and reread the Tiruvaymoli with care, and these ancient poems came alive for me. My thanks are due to John Carman of Harvard, and to my friends at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, -especially to Bardwell Smith, Eleanor Zelliott, and James Fisher.

Keith Harrison, poet and translator, read an entire earlier draft: his friendship has changed not only these poems. I also with to thank Friedhelm Hardy, Vasudha Narayanan, Ronald Inden, James Lindholm, Wendy O'Flaherty, David Grene, Norman Cutler, Chirantan Kulasreshtha, and my wife Molly or criticism laced with kindness.

Back of the Book

Tradition recognizes twelve alvars, saint-poets devoted to Visnu, who lived between the sixth and ninth century in the Tamil-speaking region of south India. These devotees of Visnu and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva (nayanmar), changed and revitalized Hinduism and their deotional hymns addressed to Visnu are among the earliest bhakti (devotional) texts in any Indian language.

In this selection from Nammalvar's works, the translations like the originals reflect the alternations of philosophic hymns and love poems, through recurring voices, roles and places. they also enact a progression-from wonder at the Lord's works, to the experience of loving him and watching others love him, to moods of questioning and despair and finally to the experience of being devoured and possessed by him.


The Paradigm3
The Works of Visnu-I4
My "Quite Contrary" Lord14
The Lord at Play17
Love Poems: The Playboy22
Love Poems: The Dark One33
Waxing and Waning37
Love Poems: You Too?44
The Works of Visnu-II47
Love's Messengers52
Idiots, Monists, and Others54
No More Kings58
Love Poems: our Returning Voices61
My Lord, My Cannibal67
Love Poems: A Case of Possession70
The Takeover76
Notes to the Poems87
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