In the Tamil country the saint, unlike monarch or philosopher, is far from being a distant historical figure. He evokes rather, an immediate and spontaneous response. A Tamilian will speak with enthusiasm of the mystique of the innocent child saint Sambandar or the charisma of the impudent Sundarar who so frequently bargained with the Lord! So compelling indeed is the authority exercised by the saints that even recently, Saint Manikkavachakar Day was chosen for the release of a book on Saiva thought.
An initial study tour through the temples of South India apprised me of the fact that complete sets of icons of the saints were to be found in every major temple in the Tamil country, and I was struck by the depth of veneration accorded to these handsome and often ancient images. Apart from a brief section in Gopinatha Rao's volumes, books on art and iconography contained little material on the saints. Few studies have been published on the poems composed by the saints; even Zvelebil has devoted to their poetry only one chapter no doubt an invaluable one. In the Tamil Language there exists a proliferation of paperbacks narrating the lives of the saints, but little of real consequence. My interest was increasingly stimulated on finding that images in museums, even of the famous child saint Sambandar, were frequently misidentified. Further, a preliminary study of temple inscriptions so far ignored in this context disclosed frequent references to the images of the saints, to festivals held in their honour and to the recital of their poems. Perceiving a network of interacting relationships, it became clear to me that to understand the art forms in their totality and to appreciate the saints and the status accorded to them in the Tamil country, it would be necessary to study not only the biographical details of their lives, but the milieu in which they functioned and the poetry they composed. A coherent picture would emerge only if the strands of poetry and religious history are brought in no highlight a study of the mages of the saints bronze, stone and painted.
My survey of group after group of saints, found in the precincts of Tamil temples, made it apparent that many of the images were moulded according to a set pattern. The few and infrequent iconographic instructions available suggested to me a situation comparable to Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi who painted individualized "saints and saints and saints again", only to be chastised by the Prior who wanted a standard type and who ordered:
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
Rub all out, try at it a second time.
Artists in the Tamil country, however, did occasionally deviate from the norm. An image of Sundarar, standing in defiant attitude with arms crossed against his chest, reflects his impudent personality rather than his saintly soul.
I have freely utilized the legendary tales contained in hagiographic literature for my narrations of the lives of the saints. In this introduction to the saints of Tamil India, my prime concern has been an investigation of the cult that grew up around the saints, and which was instrumental in the production of images of the saints. The hagiographic stories, and a belief in the miraculous, played a major role in the evolution of this cult. For my purpose, then, it is irrelevant whether or not the miracle in which goddess Parvati gave a golden cup full of divine milk to child Sambandar, actually occurred. More pertinent is the fact that masses of devotees believed in it. Belief in the miracle led artists to portray the child saint holding an empty cup in one hand while his other hand pointed up towards the goddess. Belief in the miracle led the poet of the Saundaryalahiri, perhaps Sankara, to speak of Parvati having favoured the southern (dravida) child. And belief in this miracle led temples to commemorate the day on which Sambandar received his cup of divine milk. I trust that scholars of religion will understand my motivation in narrating miraculous events without the repeated use of the caveat that these are legendary tales, not to be confused with historical material.
My translations of selections of the saints have been included as an integral part of the books specifically to illuminate their philosophy and illustrate their mode of approach to the Godhead. Tamil, a language belonging to the way of life of the deep South, is far removed from English not only phonetically but also conceptually. In addition, one is dealing with the Middle Tamil of the sixth to tenth centuries with its somewhat stylized poetic simile and metaphor. One can hope to satisfy only by resorting to the judicious use of blank verse combined with English rhythm and poetic construction. I have attempted to strike a middle path between a free translation and a literal one. Adjectives have given me thought. Tamil adjectives lend themselves to grouping with their noun to form a medium-length phrase; rarely is this the case in English. The resultant sound of the original Tamil, with its special alliterative effects and its initial rhymes is impossible to reproduce in English. This hurdle can be overcome only by ignoring the special effect of words and attempting merely to transmit the spirit of the original. Rabindranath Tagore's comment that reading Bengali poetry in an English translation is about as satisfying as making love to a woman through the services of an intermediary, is indeed a warning to be heeded be every translator.
I have utilized a Sanskrit system of transliteration for proper names. I am well aware for instance, that the unique Tamil alphabetical system requires "Campantar" rather than "Sambandar". However, after seeing the written word "Campantar", the Tamil specialist alone would pronounce it correctly as "Sambandar". Since the book is intended for a wider audience than those already in the field of Tamil studies, I have stayed with the Sanskritized version and I hope that the Tamil scholars will understand my motivation. In an attempt to simplify proper names, I have resorted to the use of hyphens. I have found, for instance, that none but a Tamilian attempts to pronounce Vadakkalathur, famous today for its recently discovered Kalyana-Sundara bronzes; if hyphenated as Vadak-alathur, it becomes easier to read as well as to pronounce. In general, I have avoided the use of diacritical marks.
Five summers ago, animated discussions at the home of Frank and Dori Neustatter in Los Angeles, set me onto the path of the saints. Since then, many have helped me along my quest. A depth of gratitude goes to my Tamil pundit, Vidwan M. Viswanathan of the Bangalore Tamil Sangam who patiently inducted me into the intricacies Middle Tamil, and to my mother Shankari Rama lyer who steered me along in my understanding of the subtleties and nuances of the poetry of the saints. Barbara Stoler-Miller, Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, New York, who read many of my translations and gave me valuable hints on the treatment of blank verse deserves my special thanks, as does Dr Pratapaditya Pal of the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art for his overall encouragement. Dr R. Nagaswamy of the Tamilnadu States Department of Archaeology was kind enough to share with me his detailed knowledge of the location of significant temple bronzes, while easy access to these images was rendered possible due to the facilities extended to me by the commissioner for Hindu Religious Endowments, Finally, I must express my gratitude to the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University, for awarding me a Senior Mellon Fellowship which enabled me to complete work on this book.
One of the most interesting facets of Hinduism in the Tamil Speaking region of South India is the emphasis given to worship of saints who dedicated their lives either to the god Siva or to the god Vishnu. The most sacred religious literature of the Tamils consists largely of the hymns composed by these saints who lived between the sixth and tenth centuries of our era. Just as most Christians in the Western world are able to join in singing the twenty-third psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd", similarly Tamils of South India are familiar with the hymns of these saints which are regularly chanted in the temples. Icons of the complete group of saints sixty-three in the case of Siva and twelve in the case of Vishnu are invariably placed in the hall that surrounds the sanctum sanctorum in every major temple in the Tamil country (Pls. 1-2). The ritual worship offered to these icons, which are often of remarkable artistic beauty, attests to the great prominence given to these holy persons.
The Tamil saints referred to themselves as slaves (adiyar or tondar) and they were indeed the slaves of the Lord. As used in an European context, the word "saint" is equally applicable to the holy men of South India. Certainly, they conform to the definition of a saint as "a person believed to be connected in a special manner with what is viewed as sacred reality such as God, gods and goddesses, spiritual powers, mythical realms and other aspects of the sacred and holy," Over the centuries, in different parts of the world, religious personages of different types have been recognized as saints, and in general their influence over believers has been considerable. Between AD 500-900 in India, large numbers of such holy persons accepted by popular acclaim as saints, made their home in the verdant plains of the Tamil country watered by the sacred river, Kaveri.
Whether in fact all seventy-five of the Tamil saints are historical figures is a question to which no definite answer is available. Certainly, the historicity of the twenty saints who have left us poetical works is indisputable and their poems often contain allusions to contemporary events which give us clues to their dates. Whether hagiographic literature gives us genuine facts of the live of all but the most famous figures is also a matter of considerable uncertainty. One has but to consider the gradual and cumulative process by which hagiography generally takes shape to realize the manner in which stories may and do develop. The hagiographer, writing centuries after the death of saints and faced with scanty material, often had to invent their stories. This was one area in which incidents and situations from better-known lives, as also from a general body of religious myth and legend, could happily be borrowed and inserted into the lives of the minor saints. A fascinating record of such a process is given to us by a ninth-century Italian biographer, Agnellus of Ravenna, who was given the task of writing the lives of all the bishops of Ravenna of the past eight hundred years:
Where I could not uncover a story or determine what kind of life they had led, either from the most aged or from inscriptions or from any other source to avoid a blank place in my list of holy pontiffs in their due order
I have with the assistance of God through your prayers invented a life for them. And I believe that no deception is involved; for they were chaste and almsgiving preachers and procures of men's souls for God.
A parallel situation may well have occurred in the Tamil hagiographic process, specially in the case of the lesser-known saints. Our purpose in this book is not, however, to establish the true lives of the Tamil saints. We are interested rather in the cult that grew up around them, a cult in which the hagiographic stories certainly played a significant role. For this reason, we have thought it fit to draw, although with caution, upon hagiology whenever it seems to contribute towards understanding the Tamil saints. We have explored their poetry, too, in an attempt to interpret their lives and philosophies.
The veneration of saints and sadhus, the worship of godmen and gurus has been a leitmotiv in the religious and social life of India from very early times. In few other civilizations has the self-realized teacher of flesh and blood been accorded quite such an exalted place and been so universally adored. However, in no region other than the Tamil country of South India, did such a prolific and intense cult of the saints develop.
The phenomenal rise of this community of saints in the sixth century has been explained by various socio-historic factors. Since many of the saints belonged to the lower castes, their emergence has been said to represent a rebellion against the strictly codified Indian caste system. This explanation conveniently ignores the fact that some of the most prominent saints belonged to the highest ranks of the Brahmin priesthood. Another explanation of the rise of the saints in the Tamil country speaks of the need for Hinduism to overcome the oppressive Jain and Buddhist faiths imposed upon a reluctant populace by their rulers. Such an explanation too does not give the entire picture.
The truth of the matter lies much deeper, and requires a closer look at the milieu in which the saints lived and an analysis of the functions they fulfilled. In the Tamil country, as in most other parts of the world, the saints performed miracles, and it was felt that to visit a holy man was to go to the source of power. Crowds congregated around the saint and followed him; drawn initially by his personal magnetism, later they were converted to his faith. It was child Sambandar's happy innocence, Sundarar's youthful impudence or Manikkavachakar's delirious ecstasy which attracted the crowds whose only desire was to be in the presence of such saints, to reach out to them, hear them sing, perhaps speak to them, or merely enjoy their holy presence. Their conversion to the worship of Siva, the god of the saint cited above, was a later stage of development.
A distinctive feature of the Tamil saints is that they do not fall into the general categorization of holy men as "lone hermits". They were neither "lone", nor were they "hermits" in any sense of the term. The saints of South India were part of a community of saints. Several of them were contemporaries who walked together they toured the country, sang of their faith, performed miracles and attracted followers. There was among them a sense of belonging together and serving the same cause. They were not hermits who sought the wilderness to live a life of penance. Nor did they put forward "death to the world" as a panacea for sin or as an answer to the human predicament. In fact the poems of the Tamil saints repeatedly stress the inefficacy of penance, involving fasting and bodily mortification; deep love and genuine surrender are necessary to reach the lotus feet of the Lord.
A unique characteristic of the Tamil saints is that the majority of them lived is society, acknowledging the normal bonds of family life. Most of them were married, and one-the famous Sundarar had two wives. Marriage was not renounced upon becoming a slave of the Lord and joining a community of holy men. These saints appealed to each individual to realize that the greatest yoga and the deepest sanctity could combine with marriage and the joys of life. Is not Lord Siva himself always accompanied by his beautiful consort Parvati? The Tamil saints walked the path of love. That path required the love of god above all else, but not the denial of other love. The Tamil saints regarded their entire lives as a holy ritual in which marriage, too, regarded as a sacrament, took its rightful place. The love of parent for child was also regarded as part of dharma the holy laws by which life is to be lived. But no love should be possessive, and when human love, becoming "attachment", clashed with the love of god, it should be renounced. Renunciation, per se, was never the theme of the Tamil saints.
But its very nature, the Indian environment did not provoke clashes between saints and priests. Religion in India has never been organized as it was in the Western world in the form of the Church. The Indian temple is a place with a holy atmosphere where worship is offered to god several times a day, and where people, if they wish, may congregate and join in the worship. The general rule, however, is private worship in homes. The few clashes that did occur between saints and priests may be traced to the Hindu caste system. In general, however, controversies rarely rose since the saints never exhorted the people to refrain from the practice of temple rituals.
The Tamil saints humanized the figure of a distant godhead, a need specially felt in the case of Siva, a god who had thus far remained impersonal, being worshipped only in the symbolic form of the linga. The saints sang of Siva as "He who rides the bull", "He who has Parvati for consort", "He who carries Ganga in his locks", "He whose form glows with ashes", as "The divine dance", or "The enchanting mendicant". From being a mere symbol, Siva was transformed into a vital and colourful personality. The "distant" godhead applied to Siva in a literal way, too since his home in mount Kailasa in the Himalayas, hundreds of miles away from the country of the Tamils. His consort Parvati is the daughter of the Himalayan Mountains, while his other love, the river Ganga, originates in the Himalayan glaciers. The Tamil saints took this distant Siva and located him in every town, village and temple in the lush plains of South India. Through their songs they gave to Siva "a local habitation and a name", by singing of how Siva loved each southern site and chose to reside there. The saints who sang of god Vishnu, did not need to humanize their godhead, since Vishnu was always worshipped as a personal god, clothed in the forms of his many and varying avatars.
There are certain significant differences between the attitude towards saints and sainthood in Europe and in the South of India differences intrinsic to the religions concerned. In the Christian milieu, saints were looked upon as intercessors between God and man, and they prayed for the needs or legitimate desires of those who came to them for this purpose. Intercession not being inherent in the Hindu approach, the Tamil saints never had such a role to play. Official canonization, sanctioned in the West after much investigation, was a concept unknown to India. The Christian Church occasionally did not accept saints for as much as two centuries following their death, as with Thomas Aquinas, while in India saints were recognized and given holy status even during their lifetime.
Finally, the preoccupation with tombs and relics, central to a cult of saints in the Western world, did not exist in the context of the Tamil saints. None of the Tamil saints is believed to have died a normal mortal death: rather legends relate that when the time came to discard the body, they disappeared into a mysterious effulgence. The temple at which this happened was, of course, considered a specially holy one and the date remembered and celebrated. Even if one were to discount this legendary disappearance, relics and tombs still have little significance in a Hindu setting in which ashes alone are left over from the funeral pyre and these are traditionally immersed in the holy rivers. The ashes of the Tamil saints would have been immersed in the sacred waters of the river Kaveri which yearly floods the paddy fields of the Tamil country, and would have mingled with the soil of the land they so dearly loved.
Towns closely associated with the lives of particular saints generally contain independent shrines in his or her honour. Thus the town of Tiruvadigai, the site of Appar's conversion, has a shrine within its Siva temple containing images of the saint and his sister Tilakavati who was in large measure responsible for changing the course of his life. The Siva temple at Avudaiyar koil, associated with major events in the life of the saint Manikkavachakar, contains more than one stone portrait of the saint, as also a separate shrine containing a bronze image, while wall paintings depict episodes from his life. The Vishnu temple at Tirumangai's birthplace, and the town where he spent his last days, contain shrines with bronze images of the saint. In addition to such special shrines honouring a specific saint, every Tamil temple, Saiva or Vaishnava, contains images of complete groups of sixty-three or twelve saints; the ritual worship and the homage paid to these images testifies to be prominence of a cult of saints in the Tamil country.
About the Book:
In the Tamil country of south India, during the last millennium, a powerful cult of saints, has been in existence. These saints referred to themselves as adiyar or tondar, both words meaning "slaves" - of the Lord. Although the south Indian saints are lesser known than those of northern India, or of Europe, they are in a manner more significant. For the sacred canon of south India, both of Saivites and Vaishnavas, consists of the poems composed by these saints. Their hymns are chanted daily in the southern temples, and often sung in homes and at festivals.
In the field of art too, the saints of south India occupy a unique position. Images of the complete group of saints, sixty-three Nayanmars in the case of Siva and twelve Alvars in the case of Vishnu, are to be seen in every temple in the Tamil country. Placed beside the shrine of the god, the saints are anointed, clothed and worshipped, being an integral part of temple rituals.
To view the art forms in their totality and to appreciate the saints and the status accorded to them in the Tamil country, the author introduces their biographical details, the milieu in which they functioned, and includes selected translation of their poems. A complete picture emerges when the strands of poetry and religious history are brought into highlight a study of the art.
This is not simply a book about the images of the saints, but one that will appeal to students of religion and literature. This original and exciting book is of relevance for the history of ideas.
About the Author:
Vidya Dehejia, is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Author M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Prior to her arrival at the Smithsonian, Dr. Dehejia was Associate Professor in the Department of Art, History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York. Her numerous publications on the art of India include Indian Art (1997), Discourse in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India, (1997), Art of the Imperial Cholas (1990), and Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition (1986). Dr. Dehejia has curated several exhibitions, with accompanying catalogues including Devi: The Great Goddess and India through the Lens, Photography 1840 - 1911. She is currently working on an exhibition catalogue titled The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India.
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