Shenkottai Sri Avudai Akkal, a remarkable eighteenth-century woman saint from Tamil Nadu, was a self-realised advaitin who sang passionately about the ecstasy of spiritual union with the Absolute.
A desolate and stigmatised Brahmin child-widow, she was initiated into Vedanta by the great master Tiruvisainallur Shridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal. Her songs, a radical elision of the metaphysical sublime and personal devotion, are narrated through existential tropes sourced from daily life, and also offer a powerful critique of the oppressive orthodox socio-religious practices of that period.
Composed in simple, colloquial Tamil, and bringing hope and solace to women in general and widows in particular for ahnost three centuries, these songs by Avudai Akkal were preserved within the oral tradition by Brahmin women of Tirunellveli district who sang them on all occasions. The songs were documented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and have appeared in many Tamil publications. They appear in English translation for the first time in this book. Each song is accompanied by annotations and themed essays.
Kanchana Natarajan teaches Indian Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi.
This translation project is the most important and personally compelling work I have undertaken in my academic career of over three decades. The project has involved the presence and assistance of many people, as well as various institutions that provided support. I take the opportunity here to thank them.
In the summer of 2000 I happened to discover, purely by chance, an old copy of a Tamil text, a compilation of the Vedantic songs of Avudai Akkal, in the library of the Divine Life Society, Shivananda Ashram (Rishikesh) where I occasionally teach a short course on Advaita. I randomly selected the fragile volume from a shelf, and as soon as my eye fell on the pages I was overwhelmed by intense shock and wonder that remain undiminished to this very day. I had no idea at that time that the thinking and words of this extraordinary and (to me) unknown eighteenth-century woman jnani would exert such a deep and powerful fascination over me.
There was little biographical data in that text, or any other in the library, about this unique vedantin, a child-widow from Shenkottai village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, who was initiated into Vedanta by the south Indian saint Shridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal and subsequently achieved Self-realization. Nor can biographical information be gleaned from the songs of Avudai Akkal (whom I refer to as 'Akka' in my work). The songs, however, make repeated reference to the transformative central incident in her life-the encounter with her guru Ayyawal. In song after song she offers exultant praise to her spiritual master for liberating her from samsara. Her powerful advaitic metaphors present the abstract metaphysics of Vedanta as well as existential/social critique in simple, colloquial Tamil. The songs were sung by generations of Brahmin women as they performed the ceaseless tasks of domestic labour-thus Akka's compositions were passed on from mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, etc. For over two centuries, this informal, intimate 'domestic' mode was the primary circuit of dissemination.
Akka's compositions thus remained within the oral tradition, archived only in the memory of those who sang them and those who heard them, till the later part of the twentieth century when the songs were first collected and textually compiled by dedicated researchers who travelled from village to village in Akka's home district in search of these rare pearls of Advaita. In 2002, a well-produced new edition of the text was published by Sri Gnanananda Niketan, edited by Swami Nityananda Giri of Thapovanam Ashram in Tirukovilur. Shenkottai Shri Avudai Akkal Padal Tirattu contained many songs and annotations not included in the first compilation. This fresh rendition is the sourcebook for my translations of Akka's songs from Tamil into English.
I am profoundly indebted to the incomparable Vedanta teachers from whom I have been privileged to 'hear' the exposition of Vedanta: Swami Krishnananda Saraswati, Swami Vimalananda Saraswati and Swami Padmanabhananda Saraswati of Shivananda Ashram; Swami Hamsananda Saraswati, the renowned avadhuta sannyasin living on the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh; and Swami Prabuddhananada, whose brilliant discourses on classical Advaita texts continue to systematically deepen and strengthen my own grasp of the spiritual principles. Swami Nityananda Giri of Gnanananda Thapovanam, a remarkable scholar of Vedanta, Sanskrit and Tamil, has been a great inspiration to me, and I sought his guidance with regard to the complexities of translation as well as the philosophical and classical references in Akka's songs. I offer Swamiji reverent thanks for his textual suggestions, for hosting me at Thapovanam during my fieldwork, and for putting me in touch with various people who proved to be useful sources for my research.
For several months following my discovery of the text, I continued to informally translate Akka's songs into English, for my own benefit and to share with interested friends and colleagues. In 2008, I applied for and was awarded a two-year fellowship by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (HAS), Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), for the project of systematically translating a selection of Akka's work. I thank Professor Ashok Vohra, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Delhi University, for encouraging me to undertake my translation project, and for facilitating my being granted two years' official leave from my university teaching duties. I thank Professor Peter D'Souza, current Director of HAS, for supporting my research; I also thank the HAS administrative and library staff for their courteous assistance. It has been an extraordinary privilege to work in such a beautiful and historic location in the serene atmosphere of the Himalayas.
The has fellowship enabled me to carry out extensive fieldwork in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in 2009 and 2010. Swami Gurukripananda, a senior renunciate originally from Tirunelveli district and now a resident of Shivananda Ashram
1. Describing the Indescribable
I began translating Avudai Akkal's songs from Tamil into English about five years ago, initially for my own pleasure and learning, and then formally through a two-year fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. Though I have immersed myself in this material in the process of translating it and researching its context, I remain as stunned by its power today as I was upon first encountering it. My increasing familiarity with the text over time has not diminished my awe at Akka's exalted spirituality and metaphorical genius-each time I read these compositions, they are as fresh and vital. I consider myself truly fortunate in that this translation project enables the harmonious dovetailing of my profession (teaching Indian philosophy), my academic/research interests (aspects of Indian philosophy, particularly Vedanta), my cultural and linguistic roots (Tamil), and my personal orientation towards Vedanta.
It would be easy to describe the joy I experienced daily as I worked on the translations and the essays that accompany some of them. It is difficult, however, to describe my approach to the work as a scholar. From the very beginning of this project, I had to negotiate the difficulty of applying theoretical analysis, both Indian and Western, to my research. Theory, with its reliance on empirical categories and classifications, is for the most part unable, from my point of view, to absorb or contain the fundamentals of Vedanta, which calls for the subsuming and dissolution of all categories and posits a unitive vision of what we perceive as jagat /world. Since Vedanta is entirely oriented towards the experience of Self-realisation, a state that transcends all structures of logic and language, any effort to translate works that have this as their central theme will inevitably be caught and occasionally paralyzed-in the struggle to find suitable articulation for what is actually beyond all discourse.
The Self-realized sages Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa both chose the same metaphor: they maintain that the state of Self-realization, the annihilation of ego, the extinction of individual self, is like plunging a doll made of salt into the ocean-dissolution is complete, no one and nothing returns; therefore it is impossible to narrate what was undergone. Yet in order to bring their experience to their disciples, as far as this was indeed possible, both sages used poetic forms as effective modes of teaching. The mostly unschooled Sri Ramakrishna firmly maintained that book-learning and textual exegesis was in most cases an obstacle between the devotee and the recommended direct experience of Self-realization; yet he consistently nurtured as his close disciples highly educated men of brilliant intellect, as well as the unlettered. Sri Ramana translated various Vedanta scriptures, wrote commentarial notes on classical advaitic texts (such asVivekachudamani attributed to Shankaracharya) and composed spiritual verses himself, and yet also held that true knowledge (atma-jnana)could be attained through sustained enquiry (vichara) on the nature of the Self; he offered as a strategy available to all, the learned and the unlettered equally, the tool of the single, simple question: "Who am I?"
A person of realization need not claim or adopt the discursive mode of textuality or teaching. In Advaita, realisation of non-dual Reality ispurna, fullness; it is krtakrtya (the condition where all that is to be attained is already attained), and therefore needs no further linguistic or other expression. Additionally, the knower of the Self, beyond spatial and temporal categories, leaves no trace of the path once taken: when ego is extinguished, there is neither doer nor deed, neither path nor goal-all that remains is silence and samadhi. However, many realised individuals take upon themselves the task of awakening those in the slumber of ego-constructed delusions. Such action is undertaken out of the compassion born from enlightenment. This is aptly expressed by Sri Ramakrishna:
[ ... ] with great effort men dig a well for drinking water, using spades and baskets. After the digging is over, some throw the spades and other implements into the well, not needing them anymore. But some put them away near the well, so that others may use them. Some eat mangoes secretly and remove all traces of them by wiping their mouths with a towel. But some share the fruit with others. There are sages who, even after attaining knowledge, work to help others ... "
This mode of perfected, constant compassion is markedly different from the erratic and conditional wish to disseminate the Truth that is displayed in the state of ignorance. The sharing mode could assume the form of generating analytical commentary on the 'sacred texts', an act through which the tradition of learning and understanding the Truth is preserved for future generations. This exacting textuality, sanctioned by teachers, may easily confine the parameters and interpretations of texts to what has been legitimated by scriptural 'authority'. However, this tradition also accommodates sub-commentaries, thereby scrutinizing and flexibly extending the discourse through carefully chartered methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies and sophisticated polemics manifested in philosophical debates and counter-arguments. This rigorous schema is directed towards instilling the prescribed tradition of scholarship in the mind of the student, thus reinforcing the dominant canon and ensuring its preservation.
In contrast to such hegemony, Akka as the ecstatic knower of the Self describes in many songs the bliss of the direct experience of Oneness and union with the Supreme; when, as she so exquisitely sums up in her composition Paraparakkanni, the world itself slips off "like a toy from the hand of a sleeping child". She completely rejects arid, rigid scholasticism and consciously chooses to develop her songs in the oral tradition-spontaneous, vibrant, lyrical and easily accessible to women, who sang these compositions, individually and collectively, while doing their household chores. She also denounces social and religious hypocrisy through stinging social critique, and song after song admonishes people for their claustrophobic stupor, ignorance and blind adherence to unjust systems. Akka also tries to break down the belief held by women, particularly widows, that they are forever fated to an oppressed existence-she creates unforgettable and extraordinarily subversive frames for her articulation of advaitic truths, drawing many of her radical metaphors from women's daily lives and work. For over two hundred years, Akka's songs were sung, circulated and preserved for posterity by women, especially widows, who gained immense solace, comfort and knowledge from the lyrical compositions, and from the awareness that the sage herself had undergone the grim life of a child-widow prior to initiation by her guru.
Akka's poems are public songs that address Tamil women as a community. They are simple, direct, uncompromising, intense and profound. They are composed in simple spoken Tamil, carrying the advaitic message of sarvatmabhava, (Oneness of Being) and the eternal bliss of moksha/finalliberation. Anyone familiar with even colloquial Tamil can access these powerful utterances. Her song Vedanta Pallu was published as early as 1896 by Sarada Vilasa Publication in Tamil Nadu. In 1910, further attempts were made to publish her work. In 1953, a major effort was made by A. Venkatarama Sastri to personally collect some songs from widows of Shenkottai (Akka's birthplace in Tirunelveli district) and print them. Many more extant songs were later collected by the dedicated researcher Gomathi Rajankam who sporadically published them in Tamil spiritual journals such as Shankarakripa and Sri Ramakrishna Vijayam.
II. Knowledge Traditions
I have translated Akka's padalgal (songs), and interpreted the tropes and rhetorical devices by which she critiques, subverts, inverts and overturns theological and metaphysical categories in order to express the Absolute which, in actuality, cannot be fixed or comprehended through the known structures of language and image. Yet, as both author and reader acknowledge, these ideological and symbolic frames are the only resources available to, us for the articulation of a state that is fundamentally beyond articulation.
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