Sacramento, CA. As Holy Week and Easter approach, I will continue my (wildly popular!) series of reflections on my Tamil love course, with some reflections from a Christian perspective on the poetry of the 9th century south Indian Hindu saint, Shatakopan. He is one of the alvars, like Tirumalisai Piran and Antal, and with respect and affection is called “Nammalvar,” “our poet saint.” In class we are now reading his Tiruvaymoli (“Holy Word of Mouth”), a work that is 1103 verses long, comprised of 100 songs. It is a beautiful text, rich in philosophy, ascetical and moral ideals, praise for favored temples, and, as with Antal, songs in the voice of the young woman seeking her beloved — gone missing, somewhat like the beloved of the Song of Songs. In myriad ways, the songs praise God as Nammalvar knows his God, as Narayana (Visnu, Krsna).
There is much to write on this text, but here for example is just one verse, that sheds some light on the kind of sensitivity we would be blessed to bring into Holy Week. While it is true that the Triduum is in a strict sense incomparable, it is also true that we receive these simple and beautiful truths in light of our own experience, what we have lived, read, thought, seen. Tiruvaymoli, which I have studied on and off for 30 years, is part of me as I approach Holy Week. My students are finding it fascinating, and perhaps some of you may also find a verse such as the following something to ponder:
Accessible to those at His feet with devotion, for others puzzling and hard to find,
the lady on the lotus delights in His feet so hard for us to attain.
He stole the churned butter, at the waist was tightly bound
with a rope to a mortar — what is this! such lamentable vulnerability! (I.3.1)
Earlier songs reflected on divine transcendence, Narayana’s elusiveness even with respect to language and thought: Narayana is what we say, and more than we can say, other than what we say. In this verse, Nammalvar turns to the theme of accessibility, how close Narayana is to those who love, and at what cost Narayana loves. Devotion is the key to this access, since Narayana does not give people what they seek until they are truly open, turned to God, with deep devotion — as if ready to throw themselves down at his feet. Those who hold back must wait, faced with puzzles and conundrums, not knowing what God is, or where. Hope lies in the fact that that the “lady in the lotus” — the Goddess Sri Laksmi — is ever with Narayana, the two inseparable. She is the mother, and elsewhere in Tiruvaymoli Nammalvar indicates that she is a mediator, who makes it easy to reach Narayana.
The cryptic reference to the churning of the butter evokes a well known incident in the mythology of Krsna: as a small child, he was prone to tricks and naughty behavior, even if through each prank some portion of the divine plan is achieved. Here, Krsna has put his hand into the butter churn and taken a gob of butter to eat; his mother, frustrated with the behavior of this two-year-old, ties him to the large mortar stone (something like putting him in a playpen, or in a halter).
Perhaps not the model of child care for today, but hardly a violent act or moment of great suffering. But in his meditation on what Narayana is like — transcendent, sovereign, condescending, and now entirely vulnerable, accessible — Nammalvar is struck by the sudden transition — the great Narayana now in the state of a little boy roped by his mother to a stone. The traditional reading by the commentators is that the last words — “what is this! such lamentable vulnerability!” — are the alvar’s own reaction, deep and unanticipated, to the scene he himself has evoked. By that tradition, he falls into a trance and remains there for six months. The commentator Pillan says, “Recognizing this divine accessibility, that Krsna was actually tied to a mortar, the saint is enraptured by the great, even overwhelming vulnerability of the Lord. He asked, ‘Was it not enough that He should be born in the same form as His devotees, so that He would be accessible to them? Was it necessary that He also in this astounding way be tied to the mortar?’”
The point of the verse then is that the poet was so attentive in his meditation, and so attuned to the mysteries of God, that he could be touched to the core by this new realization that God, who is great, could suddenly become the small and vulnerable child. The alvar is so deeply moved by what this insight into Narayana that even his work of composing songs of praise ceases for six months.
For us it can be the same, as we approach Holy Week: how sensitive are we to the spectacle of Christ’s passion and death? We know the Gospel accounts, we know the doctrines of our God who empties himself and becomes human, “even to death on the cross.” So we can ask, Do the scenes we see touch our hearts, even to the point where we might be distressed, grieving, even faint? While the Passion and the episode of the baby Krsna may seem worlds apart, pondering Nammalvar’s verse for a while may help us to be a little more vulnerable to what Christ as done for us, unexpectedly, at the hour of his Passion. And finally, for your own reflection, here is another verse, without comment:
By nature abiding as light, radiant, griefless splendor,
the lord endured afflictions and made his divine state enter this world;
appearing in human birth with its abundant griefs,
he came to be seen by our eyes, excellent, griefless Krishna, who astonishes us:
when I sing his praises, I have no sorrow. (III.6.1)
I am curious whether these verses, and the earlier ones in this series, make sense to the reader who doesn't have background in the study of Hinduism in south India. Questions welcome!