Singing the Baby Jesus - in South India
Cambridge, MA. I promised in my previous entry on the baby Jesus seen through Hindu eyes that I would return again this week to the theme of the newborn Christ seen and contemplated in light of insights drawn from the Indian (Hindu) context. As I mentioned there, we do not in some absolute sense “need” the insights of other traditions, but neither do we need to avoid or resist such learning; it is a gift. So here is a second example.
South India is blessed with an abundance of lovely poetry, in the Tamil language. Tamil, though unfamiliar to many, is a language with a 2000+ year history, and which is spoken even today by over 60 million people in south India, and by a total of over 66 million worldwide. (Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu are related to Tamil.) The poetry we find in Tamil is exquisite. In my 2005 book, Divine Mother, Blessed Mother (Oxford University Press) I translated some nineteenth century verses from a Christian hymn, the Matararacamman Antati ("Linked Verses in Praise of the Queen of all Women") in praise of the Virgin Mary as the queen of Mylapore, the old city within current way Madras. The verses are in the style of old Tamil religious poetry, set in four lines, each verse ending with a word that in meaning or sound is linked to the first word of the next verse. It is hard to see a progression in such verses, which seem rather to offer a series of meditations around and about a single theme.
For example, these verses from this old Tamil text praise both Mary and her child:
"O mother, virgin in Mylapore where swans flock, / you remember fondly how the child in the womb of that other gracious lady [Elizabeth] / looked with love on the creator in your womb and worshipped him; / the greatness of such devotees can hardly be understood even by the host of those above. (41)
"She is the throne of the infinite threefold reality, a fine garden, and / she once gave milk to this incomparable lovely child who was crying; / she is the virgin in good Mylapore: / we don’t think clearly but still she is gracious toward us, / she ends the dullness of our minds. (60)
"With her foot she defeated and destroyed the snake, and then / on the bright mountain she bore as human one of the highest, radiant Three; / when the immortals, shepherds, and everyone else worshipped, / she rejoiced; / now she dwells in Mylapore, / so write her in the cave of your heart, worship her. (67)
"In my confusion / I did not submit myself to the mind of our guides, / I did not think of approaching your son / right here in your lovely arms, / I did not realize I would burn head to foot in hell fires — / so now rule me, / here in Mylapore surrounded by ocean waves where flowering trees sway in the wind, / O sweet word, O Mary." (77)
For a second example of the use of the poetic styles of Tamil south India, I draw on a book entitled Extraordinary Child: Poems from a South Indian Devotional Genre (University of Hawaii, 1997) by Paula Richman, professor at Oberlin College and this past semester visiting scholar at CSWR. Drawing on the very human tendency to delight in babies and small children, the genre of “pillai-tamil” (Tamil verses on the child) praise in stylized ways the divine child, one or another deity praised in his or her childhood. Here for instance is part of a poem praising the Goddess Minakshi with her child the divine Murukan:
"From the corners of your black ocean-like eyes, / whose shapeliness surpasses your fish-shaped earrings, / you pour ambrosia, / casting clear waves of compassion. / You lay the divine child, / who set fire to the white waves, / on your small, fair, round, swaying ankles. / You bathe him, / kiss the top of his head, / apply fragrant oils to his hair / and put on holy ash." (p. 105)
A chapter entitled “One Poet’s Baby Jesus” offers a study and translation of the Iyesupiran Pillaitamil (The Tamil verses on the Lord Jesus as a Child), published in the 1980s by Arul Cellatturai (a Hindu, I think). He sought to use this beautiful Tamil style to speak of Jesus in a way that all — Hindu, Christian and Muslim — could appreciate; he saw, Richman tells us, that these child-poems would also be easily acceptable in the Christian context, where other Hindu images of God would not be easily accepted. And, he saw, everyone can relate to a baby. I cannot reproduce much of his poetry (in Richman’s wonderful translation) here, but a sample will give you a feel for it:
"Source of knowledge, / who encompasses all these things, / making people look to the sky in wonder, / to my rejoicing heart, come. / practice balancing on your toddling feet, / like honey-dripping lotus petals. / son of the loving God, come." (p. 164)
In another section, the baby Jesus is like the moon that waxes and wanes, comes and goes, illumined with the higher light (of the Father), and so the poet addresses the moon:
"Since you receive light from another source, / since you rise high in the sky / while many people watch, / since you receive life again / even though your body dies, / since you remove the darkness of the world / with your light.. / and since the hero of my poem, / the Lord born of a virgin / who is conceived through the Holy Spirit, / is like you, / Moon in the beautiful sky, / you should quickly agree / to play jouously and happily / with the one who is entwined with Tamil poetry, / flowing like a waterfall." (p. 168)
And in another poem, to the moon:
"Is there any relish equal to the pleasure / of touching his radiant, shining body / treasured in the minds of the pure ones? / With the child of the Lord who gives eternal life, / come to play. / With the son of God, / seated at the right side of gracious God, / Moon, come to play." (p. 176)
Reasons of space – and copyright — prevent me from quoting any more here from either source, but I think you get the idea: in the south Indian context, the reality and affective presence of the child, linked with the beauties of the Tamil language, opened the way to meditations on the baby Jesus and his mother that are both devout and tender. On one level, the feelings of Christmas may seem off-putting, the child too cute, the sentiments too sweet; but the idea is a good one, to find a way into devotion through a deep human feeling, love and delight in a child.
So check out Paula Richman’s book and mine, if you wish, for further study. Or, if you wish, think as you sing some of the familiar carols - e.g., Away in a Manger and What Child Is This?. You may wish to comment by giving us some reference to the best poems and carols of Christmas.