Vishnuchittar was born to Mukunda Bhattar and Padumavalli in Srivilliputtur (less than 100 Km from Madurai) in the Pandya Kingdom. A date range given for his birth is the 8th-9th century CE. The boy developed a sense of devotion and service toward Mahavishnu from a very young age, and he thought of the best way he could serve his deity every day. His natural affinity for the Krishna avatar reminded him of a story of Sri Krishna who sought out Kamsa’s garland maker in Mathura and wore his garlands with joy. Vishnuchittar thereafter created a beautiful flower garden in Srivilliputtur, and would pick a variety of flowers from there to prepare garlands and offer it to Vatapatrasayee, the deity of the temple there. Vishnuchittar continued this practice for long and it is clear from the amazing incidents in his life that Bhagavan bestowed his grace upon this ardent devotee.
A main reference for this introduction to the life and work of Periyalvar is the book by Thiru M.P. Srinivasan .
During this time, Sree Vallabha Devan was the Pandya king who ruled from the capital city of Madurai. He was a great and dharmic ruler like so many Tamizh kings and leaders who built Tamil Nadu, the land of the Vedas. While doing a round of the city one night, the king chanced upon a person sleeping alone outside and woke him up. After learning that he was a Brahman who’d returned after bathing in the sacred waters of Mother Ganga, the king requested him to share a dharmic truth with him. The Brahman’s reply was a simple yet amazing Shloka that said:
“search what you want during the rainy season in the previous eight months, what is needed in the night during day-time, what is required in old age during youthful days, and what is essential for the other life, search in the life now.” .
The king was lost in thought especially about the direction given in the last part of a shloka that seamlessly blends the earthly cycles and spiritual realm to make that transcendental point so natural. The King’s adviser suggested he invite the dharmic scholars in his kingdom to find a convincing answer to the nature of ultimate reality; regarding paratvam, which could also answer the King’s question- ‘what effort do we put it today, in this world, to attain transcendental bliss’. The King agreed, and offered a purse of gold to any scholar in the land who could debate this issue and convincingly answer this question. Vishnuchittar was directed by the Srivilliputtur deity, Vatapatrasayee, to proceed to Madurai. Vishnuchittar was able to debate and explain to the august gathering present that indeed, Vishnu was the ultimate reality, ‘the indisputable truth that cannot be surpassed by any reality’; surrendering to the feet of Vishnu, the one who grants the Purusharthas would bring Moksha. He was able to substantiate his response on paratvam, and the story goes that the golden purse tied atop the pole bent down toward Vishnuchittar.
The king was overjoyed by the words of Vishnuchittar that eloquently reflected the teachings of Vedanta and answered the question that had confounded him, and hailed him as ’Bhattarpiraan’. As the seer was being taken in an open procession around the city on an elephant, he experienced a divine vision of Bhagavan Vishnu and Mahalakshmi atop Garuda. The devotee of Vishnu was overcome with love and affection for his deity and sang the twelve great verses of ‘Pallandu’, wishing for the welfare and well-being of the infinite divine for many, many years. After this amazing event, he became known as Periyalvar.
Periyalvar returned to Srivilliputtur, dedicated the gold purse to the temple, and continued his service of preparing flower garlands for his deity. He immersed himself within the Krishna avataram and composed his profound Thirumozhi. Baby Andal (Godai Devi) was found near the Tulasi plant in his garden, and Periyalvar brought her up as his daughter. Andal as an ardent devotee of Vishnu, continued the divine service of Periyalvar. She learned from her father’s teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta and soon became an accomplished scholar of dharma. She composed great works, and is revered as one of the twelve alvars. You can read more about Andal in this sublime essay.
It is said that Periyalvar spent his last mortal years in Thirumaliruncholai and at age 85 reached the lotus feet of his deity he had served from birth. This is a brief biography of the peerless Periyalvar. Let us remember the twelve alvars who dedicated their lives to dharma and brought the genuine message of love and peace to the common people through their shraddha and sadhana.
The Twelve Alvars
The divine songs of the twelve Alvars form the Nalayira Divya Prabandam. The songs of the Alvars and Nayanmars sung in the native language of Tamizh cut across all classes of the society to touch all people of Tamilnadu. Eventually the Bhakti movement of Hinduism spread all over India and profoundly influenced Indic thought. The Alvars and Nayanmars are a major reason for the unbroken dharmika beliefs of Tamizhs and the prosperity of தமிழ் மொழி itself, which continues to this day. It is simply not possible to fully understand Tamilnadu’s dynamics until one comprehends the depth of its diverse dharma traditions.
A brief review of two important works of Periyalvar is presented noting that this can only be a layperson understanding of the profound ideas they contain. The references and recommended reading at the end of the post may guide readers deeper into these sacred works.
ThiruPallandu comprise the opening verses of the sacred Divya Prabandam and has 12 pasurams, each of which end with the words ‘Pallandu Pallandu’ (many, many years). In Tamizh, the prefix ‘Thiru’ signifies the qualities of divinity, sacredness, and respect. The first Pasuram has two lines and the remaining have four lines each.
Embedded within these verses are the deepest truths of Vendanta. A remarkable aspect of these verses is that the devotee’s plea to Mahavishnu is not for himself, but for the welfare of the supreme deity Vishnu. And since Narayana is the One, ultimate reality as Periyalvar explained with Pramanas in the Pandyan capital city, as a layman reader we can understand this plea as one that is automatically for the welfare of everything within and without the cosmos.
The linked video provides brief English translations for each of the 12 verses. A simple translation of the first verse is given below.
“Formany years, many years, many thousands of years, many crores of hundred thousands more, The Gem-hued One with mighty shoulders that defeated wrestlers, may your blissful feet (entire form) be well protected and safe.”
Scholars say that just like the Pranavam/Omkaram is chanted before and after the Vedas are recited, so too is the Pallandu, whose depth and meaning is like the Omkaram, chanted before the Divya Prabandam. Vishnuchittar, ardent devotee of Sri Vishnu since childhood, and then a celebrated Vedic scholar after his discourse in the Pandya King’s court, became revered as Periyalvar after reciting the Pallandu. It can be asked how and why this pride of place is given to Vishnuchittar, who was not the first Alvar. Dharma scholars have responded and shed light on a truly remarkable quality of Periyalvar:
When mere mortals and Bhaktas appear before their deity, the request is usually for the all-powerful Bhagavan to protect them and guide them along the path of dharma. But Vishnuchittar asked not for his own protection or guidance, but instead, asked for the welfare of the all-powerful. He is concerned about the well-being of his lord and sings the Pallandu. The thought does not cross his mind, even for an instant, about his ‘status’ and ‘propriety’ and ‘rationality’ behind his request to protect the One who is the supreme protector! Scholar Pillailokaachaariyyar  explains this apparent paradox, noting that in the Jnana stage, the protector-protege state remains, and is transcended in the Prema stage where this relationship is reversed by the overflowing love and immeasurable affection of the devotee for the lord. Periyalvar is doing his Mangalaasaasanamto the lord, just as in the Ramayana, the noble Jatayu blesses the divine and all-powerful Sri Rama. The Srivaishnava tradition recognizes Jatayu as Periya Udaiyaar and likewise, Vishnuchittar became Periyalvar and the wise elders accept the Thirupallandu completely.
Scholars note that this Thirupallandu tradition can also be seen in the pasurams of Thiruppavai composed by Periyalvar’s daughter, the divine Andal. They also state that within the twelve pasurams of the Pallandu , the “essence of the Vedanta has been concisely rendered and the meanings of the Thirumantiram and Arthapanchakam are also provided succinctly.” There exists a long tradition of the musical rendering of the Pallandu, and as mentioned in the Thiruppavai, the singers were known as ‘Pallantisaippar’ . Bhakta-scholars who experienced the depth and beauty of the Thirupallandu wonder if there is any art comparable to this work and if there is anyone comparable to Periyalvar?
Periyalvar’s work has a total of 461 pasurams (473, when we include the Thirupallandu) celebrating the young Sri Krishna starting with his birth and continuing through his divine childhood pranks and events of his early youth. There are 43 Patikams each with 10 or 11 pasurams, with each Patikam considered a Thirumozhi. There is a total of 5 decads (sets of 10 Thirumozhi). In these verses, Periyalvar’s affection for little Krishna, avatar of Mahavishnu, knows no bounds and such is his goodness, such is the integrity of Periyalvar’s devotion that he transcends powerful worldly identities including ‘Jati’ and ‘gender’ to speak of his blissful experiences of the childhood of Krishna as his mother Yashodha, and as the gopikas who adore Krishna. When we listen to the verses, we do not hear Periyalvar the towering scholar and accomplished poet; we simply behold mother Yashodha in front of us bathing little Krishna, singing to Kannan, pleading with him, in awe of her boy, admonishing the divine child for his mischief. It is difficult to find a parallel to this, as another great devotee of Sri Krishna, the Bhakti poet-saint Surdas would later sing: “jo sukh Sur Amar-Muni duralabh, so nandabhamini paavai” – This joy that Yashodha experienced is so special and rare, it cannot be attained even by the Devatas and Munis.
A refocus on these contributions of Periyalvar and Andal would greatly benefit a world that is increasingly divided by gender and class wars and losing itself in a maze of identity-driven dualities.
The above ‘Manikkam Katti’ verse is part of a cradle song (தாலாட்டு பாடல்) sung by mother Yashodha as she puts Kannan to sleep in an ornate gem-lined golden cradle. She sings a lullaby to the divine baby ensconced within this small cradle while recalling his Vamana avatar whose strides measure the cosmos! .
The verses are full of genuine ‘Krishna-consciousness’ and those fortunate enough to listen to the Thirumozhi without distraction will surely experience bliss too. Such verses could only have emerged from the deepest realized experiences of Periyalvar, and like we saw with Kavichakravarthi Kamban and his Ramavataram before, the literary artistry does not come across as a separate material addition, but could only have poured out of Bhakti and Consciousness.
Two examples from the Thirumozhi are given below to bring out some interesting literary aspects of its poetry.
This above verse is focused on Krishna the cowherd who is grazing the cattle and wearing a traditional pendant made of peacock feathers. It is but one of the many verses that is at ease with the folk language, rural themes and traditions, which is very different from the western ‘ivory tower’ erudition that is intended for an academic audience. The verses often include common dialect, and in other places introduces Sanskrit words that are understood and used by Tamizhs. Scholars found several Tamizh words that have no direct English equivalent and have to be retained as is the English translation as Tamizh non-translatables. The commentators note the clear influence of folk literature that makes this work accessible to everyone.
The part-verse shown above is an example of the use of simile by Periyalvar. He transforms an everyday, common creature like a lizard into poetic delight. He compares the effortless compactness and firmness with which Kannan wears the sword on his waist to the grip of a lizard on the wall without any gap. ‘To be so is the lizard’s nature’ .
Scholars note that Periyalvar’s work is of the highest caliber in skill, imagination, emotion, and poetic expression. Beyond aesthetics, scholars have also explained how the verses reflect Vendantic concepts and Srivaishnava philosophy. They note that this ending pasuram below brings out a profound concept of Vishishtadvaita, where Periyalvar ultimately places himself in the lord who also resides within him.
What is presented here is a mere glimpse of the contributions of Periyalvar. Let us listen to the Thirupallandu and Thirumozhi and recall Periyalvar whose enlightened thoughts and steadfast Bhakti continue to guide generations of Tamizhs and dharmikas all over the world.
The book by Thiru M.P.Srinivasan can be purchased here.
References and Further Reading
Makers of Indian Literature Series. Periyalvar. M.P. Srinivasan. English translation by Padma Srinivasan. Sahitya Akademi. 2014.
Meaning of above pāsuram – “Dear girl, who is full of utsāha and dear to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, please come and join us. The eastern sky is light and it is dawn, the buffaloes are grazing on tender dewy grass. We and other gopī-s were on our way but have delayed our vratam and are here waiting for you, so that you too may join us. Please awake so that we can all sing of the greatness of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and when we approach Him, the One who destroyed the asura Keśi and the wrestlers of Kamsa’s court, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the God of Gods, will evince great interest in our welfare and through His dayā, will remove our deficiencies (so that we can attain mokṣa)”.
This beautiful verse is one of thirty pāsuram-s (sacred verses) spontaneously sung by Āṇḍāḷ (Gōdai or Godādevi) as part of her composition, the Tiruppāvai, when she was eight years old. This pāsuram is a call from gopī-s who are in a state of enlightenment granted by Śrī Kṛṣṇa. They are enlightened as to what true bhakti is, which is above bodily desires. Āṇḍāḷ visualizes the gopī-s in that state of pure bhakti which is a prerequisite for attaining moksha. Āṇḍāḷ shows concern for all devotees and exhorts them to awaken and join her and these enlightened gopī-s in the vratam that will culminate in receiving jñāna and dayā of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Furthermore, as Ācārya-s have stated, the gopī Āṇḍāḷ awakens actually represents one of the enlightened Āḻvār-s; Āṇḍāḷ requests this Āḻvār to join the vratam and share his Vedic knowledge with other devotees so that they too can benefit. Āṇḍāḷ sang these sacred pāsuram-s as a spontaneous outpouring of her supreme bhakti which ultimately culminated in her attaining mukti. These sacred songs are rooted in the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s and Bhagavad Gīta with the knowledge of these is embedded in each pāsuram.
Artwork and Copyright by P.N. Srinivas
As Āṇḍāḷ has stated, her sacred songs and the practice of the accompanying vratam are sāttvik in nature and are meant for those who wish to acquire sāttvika guṇa-s. Āṇḍāḷ achieved mokṣa around the age of nine years when she merged and became one with the mūrti of Śrī Raṅganātar at the Śrī Raṅgam Temple. She is honored by women and men, girls and boys who continue to fulfill her vratam and seva. Āṇḍāḷ is extraordinary because she had a pure, innocent, and sāttvik mind. She was born with great bhakti for Śrī Kṛṣṇa, her pāsuram-s are a reflection of her pure sāttvika bhakti that she experienced as an 8 or 9-year-old child and wished to share with devotees. In studying Āṇḍāḷ and her life, it is important that adults do not impose their own speculations, viewpoints, limitations, or wishes onto the child Āṇḍāḷ’s sāttvik works. As Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself states, everyone is born with different guṇa-s and differing levels of bhakti; and Āṇḍāḷ by all accounts was an extraordinary child and bhakte operating at a higher level than the laukika world and higher than the limited view of even other devotees.
Āṇḍāḷ has achieved an exceptional and reverential status in the hearts of Indians and within Hinduism. Though her works are in Tamiḻ, Āṇḍāḷ crosses the barriers of gender, language, regions, cultures, and varṇa-s, and cuts across social and economic distinctions. Āṇḍāḷ is often erroneously described as a woman, she in fact was a young girl. This important detail is significant because it facilitates understanding of her pāsuram-s from the correct viewpoint and also because it is a fact that is obscured and misrepresented in academia, media, and the general public. As a child, Āṇḍāḷ spontaneously composed two major sacred works dedicated to Śrī Kṛṣṇa and she initiated a month long vratam during the month of Mārgaḻi (Mārgaśīriṣa). Her most important contribution is the seva she did by sharing her knowledge of Vedānta with everyone so that they may benefit. The two compositions, the Tiruppāvai consisting of thirty pāsuram-s, and the much larger sacred work, the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, consisting of one hundred forty-three pāsuram-s, became part of the Nālāyiram Divyaprabhandam which is the works of all the Āḻvār-s (including Āṇḍāḷ) and recited in all Śrī Vaiṣṇava temples, festivals, and pūja-s. Āḻvār-s belong to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, which embraces the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta darśaṇa in Hinduism. Significantly, the Āḻvār-s came from different varṇa-s and many were not Brahmin. There are twelve Āḻvār-s, Āṇḍāḷ being the only girl. Though she belongs to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, followers of other sampradāya-s also practice the vratam Āṇḍāḷ established and recite her pāsuram-s. Because of her exceptional life and contributions, Āṇḍāḷ is considered an avatāra of Bhūdevi tāyār and thus, in temples her mūrti is depicted as a grown woman, though Āṇḍāḷ was only 9 years old at the time she achieved mokṣa at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar.
Artwork and Copyright by Prakruti Prativadi
Though just a young child, Āṇḍāḷ commands both respect and adoration and she naturally attained a timelessness that few others possess. This status was not just accorded to her, she rightfully achieved this position through her ageless sacred compositions and through the example she set by living the principles illustrated in her pāsuram-s. Her life itself was a tapas, culminating in her gaining mukti from the eternal cycle of re-birth. Āṇḍāḷ was only around eight or nine years old when she finished her two sacred works: the Tiruppāvai and the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, and around the same age attained mokṣa at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar in the temple at Śrī Raṅgam. Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s have nothing to do with the “coming of age”, which is a mundane dumbing down of her incredible contribution; nor can their meanings be taken literally. As seen in the above pāsuram, the compositions contain much symbolism and are pointers to deeper Hindu metaphysics.
As Āṇḍāḷ herself has stated in the Tiruppāvai, her works are meant for those who wish to become more sāttvik and attain sāttvika guṇa-s; thus, rendering the rajasik and laukika interpretations of the Tiruppāvai and Nāciār Tirumoḻi fallacious and deceptive. Many people erroneously think Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are about worldly love, they often corrupt the meaning of Āṇḍāḷ’s compositions because they see it through their own limited worldly view. The pāsuram-s of the Nāciār Tirumoḻi and Tiruppāvai speak to an elevated state of consciousness; they were composed by a pure-hearted young child who was born with bhakti that was already far advanced of all others. It is difficult for the ordinary mind to really understand and experience her works, however, even to attempt an understanding of her compositions we must elevate our own state of consciousness and view Āṇḍāḷ and her works with the correct dṛiṣti. Arjuna could not experience the Viśvarūpa until Śrī Kṛṣṇa gave him divyadṛiṣti, the Paramātma can only be perceived through the antaścakṣu, and similarly, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s cannot be experienced without the sāttvika state of consciousness. One ultimate purpose permeates throughout her songs: the jīvātma striving to unite with the Paramātma thereby attaining mokṣa.
Āṇḍāḷ is accorded the position of Āḻvār among the Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s. The Tamiḻ non-translatable word Āḻvār does not have an equivalent in English and means “one who is immersed in (the Paramātma)”. Āḻvār does not mean ‘Saint’. Her pāsuram-s contain the complex sacred knowledge of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, and Bhagavad Gīta in a manner that is accessible and understandable to the lay person. Āṇḍāḷ embodied Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and the yoga-s of bhakti, jñāna, karma, and further practices like śaraṇāgati and prappati are embedded in them.
In this vratam lasting thirty days, Āṇḍāḷ envisioned her entire village of Śrī Villiputtur as Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s village of Nandagokula in the Dvāpara yuga, and the Vatapatraśāyi temple as Nanda’s house where Kṛṣṇa lived. Such was her bhakti and pure, idealistic mind. Each pāsuram of the Tiruppāvai is dedicated to one day of the vratam, and each pāsuram’s meaning encapsulates profound kernels of bhakti yoga and Vedānta that ultimately lead to the feet of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and mokṣa. Significantly, the pāsuram’s are encoded with poetic language and charming imagery, however that is not the real meaning that Āṇḍāḷ is conveying; she has encoded the pāsuram-s with deep knowledge that one accumulates over lifetimes of tapas. These pāsuram-s also contain picturesque imagery as Āṇḍāḷ gracefully weaves the bustling activity of every day village life into the pāsuram-s. These descriptions represent deeper Vedic principles. Āṇḍāḷ describes the activities of the unpretentious village folk, the men, women, girls, and boys going about their daily activities, and this serves as an important link to our samskṛti and cultural history. Āṇḍāḷ ‘s love of cows is evident in the pāsuram-s; many verses of the Tiruppāvai contain the most striking descriptions of the cherished and nurtured cows of the village and how they generously and bountifully give rich nourishing milk on their own. The cows are lovingly protected and taken care of by the people of the village; cows are an important part of the Hindu ethos and metaphysics, cows symbolize many sāttvik guṇa-s and are a personification of the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s. This reverence and affection for cows is natural and benign, however, this aspect of Hinduism too is a target for those driven by agendas of bigotry and hatred. Because these pāsuram-s are moving and beautiful, they have been described as poetry however, Āṇḍāḷ’s motivation was not to compose poetry but to share Vedic knowledge and inspire others to do kainkaryam through her songs. This point is significant, merely labeling Āṇḍāḷ’s works as poetry alone denies this visionary young girl her rightful place as a remarkable person and spiritual figure. One cannot comprehend Āṇḍāḷ through reading articles or books or as a mere observer, Āṇḍāḷ can only be understood through sādhanā and tapas under the guidance of a learned Ācārya. This write-up is a mere glancing introduction to Āṇḍāḷ.
Āṇḍāḷ from the natural innate lens:
Like many others, I cannot recall when I first learned of Āṇḍāḷ; just as one cannot recall being first aware of one’s mother, father, siblings, or grandparents. I’ve been aware of her from such a young age that she was simply a part of our family. As a child I thought Āṇḍāḷ lived somewhere nearby and eagerly looked forward to visiting her soon someday, a guaranteed certainty I never doubted – illustrating how seamlessly integrated Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s are in our daily lives and in our very identities – in a manner that is organic and unpretentiously genuine. Āṇḍāḷ cannot be understood through a worldly laukika viewpoint that even some Hindus employ, or by academic study, or by donning an outsider alien lens; nor can her pāsuram-s be viewed through 20th century lens of postmodernism or feminism. Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s are comprehended through an innate worldview that Āṇḍāḷ herself described and embodied. Over the years, one learns about her by learning her pāsuram-s and their complex beautiful meanings through the practice of the pūja-s and vratam she prescribed. As with any Hindu practice, and as reiterated by Ācārya-s, it is through sādhanā – the daily practice with śraddhā and bhakti of reciting and putting into practice the practical aspects of Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s, that one can gain insight and ātmānubhāva of Āṇḍāḷ and her compositions. And this was her dearest wish for the rest of us jīvātma-s, that like Āṇḍāḷ, we too would attain the Paramātma and her pāsuram-s would aid us in that ultimate liberation.
The most attractive characteristic of Āṇḍāḷ for me as a child, and for many Hindu children, is Āṇḍāḷ was a little girl, no more than eight years old when she started spontaneously singing her pāsuram-s to the Vatapatraśāyi (Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the form of an infant in yoga-nidra reclining on a Vatapatra leaf). Despite her extraordinary insight, I felt an instant sisterhood with Āṇḍāḷ, a young girl, like me, wearing tilakam, pāvāḍai, bangles, with dark black plaited hair adoring Śrī Kṛṣṇa and His activities, and practicing our everyday customs, gently nudging us to be something greater, to transcend this mundane world and our limited selves. I was amazed by her self-motivation and initiative to do seva and kainkaryam to Śrī Kṛṣṇa and to the ordinary people in her village on her own, selflessly. The details of her life, the happy imagery of her pāsuram-s, her genuine idealism, and all-involved concern for others to share the Vedic knowledge beyond her years instantly makes her a favorite role-model and an indelible part of Indian girlhood. And this is the most significant part of Āṇḍāḷ that is oftentimes completely missed by those who think they can dissect and analyze her through their own narrow viewpoint: Āṇḍāḷ is the essence and spirit of Indian girlhood- she is the quintessential Indian girl.
Understanding Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s requires an understanding of Āṇḍāḷ’s life story (the term hagiography does not apply to Āṇḍāḷ and should be eschewed). Āṇḍāḷ lived before Śrī Rāmānujācarya, probably in the 7th or 8th century, though some scholars place the date to several millennia prior. The village of Villiputtur (later named Śrī Villiputtur after Āṇḍāḷ) near Madurai, Tamil Nadu has an ancient and beautiful temple of the Vatapatraśāyi Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Viṣṇu Citta (Peri Āḻvār) was a devout and learned man who lived in Villiputtur and served the temple every day. Viṣṇu Citta is also an Āḻvār and has composed sacred works; during his lifetime he did seva in the temple. One day while digging in the tulasī garden, he found a baby girl and decided to raise her as his own daughter and named her Gōdai (Kōdai or Godādevi), this child would later be known as Āṇḍāḷ. Viṣṇu Citta noted the remarkable similarity of this child with Sita, who was also found in this manner; thus indicating that Āṇḍāḷ was no ordinary child; Āṇḍāḷ is known as ayonije – one who is not born of a womb. The tulasī garden where Gōdai was found still exists today in Śrī Villiputtur. Viṣṇu Citta thought of himself as the personification of Yaśoda and the child Gōdai as Kṛṣṇa, and in this manner, he embodied the Vātsalyabhakti toward the child. He showered her with affection and imparted the knowledge of Vedānta to her and lovingly raised her. Thus, Gōdai grew into a little girl all the while imbibing the knowledge of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, the Bhagavad Gīta, purāṇa-s, and śāstra-s from her father Viṣṇu Citta. She listened with rapt attention to the stories of Śrī Kṛṣṇa; and the precocious child Gōdai would draw pictures of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, his āyudha-s, and episodes from Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s life on the floor and walls of her home. As Gōdai grew she was immersed in the bhakti for Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
Viṣṇu Citta finds baby Āṇḍāḷ in the tulasī garden
A famous incident in Āṇḍāḷ’s life revolves around the mālai (flower garland) that Śrī Viṣṇu Citta would send to the temple every day to be adorned on the Vatapatraśāyi at that temple. Flowers are first offered to the Deity before anyone else can wear them, but unbeknownst to Viṣṇu Citta, Gōdai, with her innocent enthusiastic bhakti, would first wear the mālai meant for the Vatapatraśāyi before it was sent to the temple, thus Āṇḍāḷ is referred to as “Śūdikoḍuta Śuḍarkoḍi Nāciār” or the ‘the girl who offered the garland after having worn it’. However, one day, Viṣṇu Citta noticed a strand of hair in the mālai; he was dismayed and told his daughter that the garland must never be worn before it was offered to the Vatapatraśāyi. Later, Viṣṇu Citta had a vision in which the Vatapatraśāyi tells him that only the garland worn and then offered by Gōdai will be accepted. And thus, from then on Gōdai was known as Āṇḍāḷ – ‘the girl who ruled over the Lord’. This charming incident from Āṇḍāḷ’s life illustrates the remarkably oneness Āṇḍāḷ felt with Paramātma even as a young child, and is parallel to Śabari offering fruits, after having tasted them, to Śrī Rama in the Ramayana. Furthermore, this episode is not an example of mundane disobedience or rebellion as some revisionist historians and feminists zealously claim. Rather, the incident of Āṇḍāḷ wearing the garland illuminates several subtleties of Vedānta, one is that the Paramātma accepts the offerings of bhakta-s when these are made with śraddhā, love, and pure bhakti; secondly, Āṇḍāḷ so identified herself with Śrī Kṛṣṇa that, when she wore the garland it was as if she was garlanding Śrī Kṛṣṇa Himself. Remarkably, this event lives on even to this day and is re-embodied in the custom of sending the garland that adorned Āṇḍāḷ in the Śrī Villiputtur Āṇḍāḷ Temple to the Tirupati Tirumala Temple, to adorn Śrī Venkaṭeśvara during the grand Brahmotsavam festivities. Additionally, during the month of Citra Pournami, the garland that adorned the Āṇḍāḷ mūrti in Śrī Villiputtur is sent to the Aḻagar Kōvil during Garuḍotsavam. These are not mere robotic rituals, they personify the union of the jīvātma and the Paramātma which Āṇḍāḷ embodied and shared with others and thus, she is honored today by bhakta-s re-embodying her experience and sharing it with other devotees in the manner she herself wished.
Āṇḍāḷ and the garland (Picture from author’s collection)
Starting at the young age of 8 years (per some scholars she was 5 years old), Āṇḍāḷ composed and sang sacred verses called pāsuram-s, which were replete with references to the Bhāgavataṃ, Bhagavad Gīta and directly refers to the knowledge in the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s. These pāsuram-s of the Tiruppāvai talk of urging everyone (jīvātma-s) not to waste this precious life and to orient themselves to attain the Paramātma. The pāsuram-s are artistic and poetic. The Nāciār Tirumoḻi, which is a much longer work, also contains this knowledge wherein Āṇḍāḷ embodies the stages of bhakti that a serious sādhaka experiences, which finally culminate in attaining the Paramātma. In the Nāciār Tirumoḻi, Āṇḍāḷ, using much symbolism and imagery, expresses she does not want the body attained in this birth to be wasted in worldly materialistic and laukika pursuits but dedicates this birth to attain mokṣa. Here Āṇḍāḷ puts herself in the place of a bhakta and describes each stage of their tapas.
The Nāciār Tirumoḻi is a grand sacred opus, which is lyrical, mystical, and illuminating. Within it is the Vāraṇam Āyiram, a section describing a mystic vision of Āṇḍāḷ. In this vision, Āṇḍāḷ details how her jīvātma was united with the Paramātma, symbolized as a Vedic wedding. However, this does not mean that Āṇḍāḷ envisioned herself married to Śrī Raṅganātar as is often misinterpreted, and this vision should not be mistaken for a worldly marriage ceremony which would initiate the gṛhastāśrama. The vision described in the Vāraṇam Āyiram is of Āṇḍāḷ attaining mukti and her ātmā attaining the Paramātma; mokṣa is often symbolized in Hinduism as a marriage of the jīvātma and Paramātma. Incidentally, the Vāraṇam Āyiram is recited in the wedding ceremonies today as well, however the mystical ceremony Āṇḍāḷ describes is of her attaining mokṣa. The metaphor of mokṣa in Āṇḍāḷ’s vision in which she (jīvātma) is ‘married’ to Śrī Raṅganātar (Paramātma) is misconstrued as a worldly marriage especially by those donning the laukika or western lens. There is no doubt that the Vāraṇam Āyiram is really the final attainment of mukti by Āṇḍāḷ, who has achieved through her pūrvajanma puṇyakarma, a state of enlightenment which is required to qualify for mokṣa in this birth. This final attainment is often metaphorically described as marriage in other Hindu works as well, especially with respect to bhakti yoga.
Though her pāsuram-s contain abstract and difficult to understand Vedantic knowledge, Āṇḍāḷ encapsulates this knowledge in these pāsuram-s that are accessible to the lay person who sincerely wants to understand them. However, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s cannot be interpreted by those who do not have a firm rooted ātmānubhāva and technical understanding of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s and Bhagavad Gīta. One can only understand the pāsuram-s through an in-depth and consistent study guided by an Ācārya. Her contribution is, her pāsuram-s allow us to put into practice this Vedic knowledge and she shared this wisdom because of her infinite karuṅā (compassion) to her fellow beings so that they too might benefit from this knowledge and attain mukti. Indeed, this impetus propelled Āṇḍāḷ to compose these pāsuram-s – as a seva, a truly unselfish magnanimous act, in which she wanted to share her experience and knowledge with everyone regardless of their status in society and regardless of their gender.
In her young life, Āṇḍāḷ did attain the object of her tapas, with Viṣṇu Citta’s blessings, she arrived at the Śrī Raṅgam temple and stepped into the sannidhi of Śrī Raṅganātar and she disappeared, merging into the mūrti – thus attaining mukti; she was only 9 years old at that time. Āṇḍāḷ’s life story is remarkable due to her simplicity, her magnanimous seva for others, and her one-pointed tapas.
For more than 1200 years, Āṇḍāḷ has been honored by both men and women alike, she is considered an avatāra of Bhūdevi, the mūrti of Āṇḍāḷ as Bhūdevi adorns every single Śrī Vaiṣṇava temple including the temples of her hometown Śrī Villiputtur and in Śrī Raṅgam, and pūja is done to her per the śāstra-s. Śrī Rāmānujācarya, the acharya of the Viśiṣṭādvaita sampradāya followed by Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s, had great reverence for her and established that her pāsuram-s should be sung in the Śāttamurai and all major pūja-s. Indeed, all the major Ācārya-s have revered Āṇḍāḷ and her pāsuram-s.
Āṇḍāḷ’s life is one in which she seeks, without pause, mokṣa and for her ātmā to unite with Śrī Kṛṣṇa (Paramātma) during her life to break the cycle of birth and death. Āṇḍāḷ’s most significant contribution is the access she gave of the knowledge of the śṛti-s to everyone, and the example she herself embodied by showing us that these must be shared with others who have śraddhā, bhakti and who are willing to follow the procedures of this sādhanā without injecting their own selfish agendas or motives. Āṇḍāḷ followed the spirit of “eka: svādu na bhunjita”, which means – do not enjoy something by yourself alone. So Āṇḍāḷ’s motivation was to share the joy of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s anugraha, and to let others also partake of that joy. She did this to help people overcome the sufferings of samsāra and ego and the bondage of karma. Her pāsuram-s are steeped in sattva and are for those people who want to be more sāttvik. In her pāsuram-s, she also describes different kinds of bhakta-s and their experiences. These pāsuram-s are not just capricious musings or self-centered thoughts of a young ‘woman’ as feminists and revisionists seek to make them.
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s and vratam are not only limited to bhakti, her pāsuram-s are an in-depth exploration of para–bhakti, prappati, para–jñāna, paramā–bhakti and śaraṇāgati.
The 14th century scholar and Ācārya Śrī Prativādi Bhayankaram Aṇṇa has traced and identified the Vedic sources and references to smṛti in the Tiruppāvai and the Nāciār Tirumoḻi.
As the great Jīyar and Ācārya Śrī Manavāḷa Māmuni states about Āṇḍāḷ: – “emakkāga anṛō ingu Āṇḍāḷ avadarittāḷ” which means “She was born to rid us of the misery of the infinite cycle of birth and death – our trudging through the cycle of samsāra.
The great scholar and Ācārya Śrī Vedānta Desikar has composed the Godā Stuti, extolling the greatness of Āṇḍāḷ.
Śrī Rāmānujācarya himself completed a particular kainkaryam (nūrtada, which was mentioned in the Nāciār Tirumoḻi) that Āṇḍāḷ wanted to have done in the Śrī Raṅgam temple.
Śrī Vaiṣṇava Sampradaya and the Significance of Mahālakṣmi
The “bhakti movement” is an unfortunate moniker that only serves to gloss over the profound darśaṇa-s that espouse bhakti yoga as their primary method to mokṣa. The same is true for the term “Vaiṣṇava” which actually comprises of differing sampradāya-s that are all rooted in the śṛti-s but each have their own technical practices and approaches. Bracketing them all under the inelegant terms “bhakti movement” or simply “Vaiṣṇava” is reductionist and contributes to distortions of these rich sampradāya-s. For instance, the four so-called Vaiṣṇava sampradāya-s actually espouse different darśaṇa-s: Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s accept the view of Viśiṣṭādvaita, whereas followers of Madhvācārya, Vallabhācārya and Nimbārka adopt Dvaita, Śuddhādvaita, and Dvaitādvaita respectively. The point here is not that these are divergent, in fact they are all rooted in the Veda-s and Upaniṣad-s, but their unique methods and views should be appreciated and understood, thus preventing misrepresentation and erroneous interpretations. Surprisingly, the moniker ‘bhakti cult’ still sees use, a pejorative characterization first used by Indologists and still employed among some Indians and those adopting the western lens today.
Viśiṣṭādvaita (Viśiṣṭa Advaita – qualified non-dualism) has ancient origins in the Upaniṣad-s and was systematized and organized by Śrī Rāmānujācarya (1017CE -1137CE). Viśiṣṭādvaita has the Veda-s as its authority and reflects the metaphysics of the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, itihāsa-s and purāṇa-s. Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s are concentrated mainly in southern India in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, but there are followers spread across northern India and many in the global Hindu diaspora as well.
As mentioned, Āṇḍāḷ belongs to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya and her pāsuram-s indeed refer to many of the principles of the darśaṇa (view) of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. For instance, in the Tiruppāvai, Āṇḍāḷ metaphorically refers to the five manifestations of Brahman: para, vyūha, vibhava, antaryāmin, and arca.
Significance of Śrī
Of special note, is the status of Mahālakṣmi (Śrī) in Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya in which She holds a special and critical position. Nārāyaṇa and Lakṣmi are one inseparable entity and thus referred to as Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, which means Nārāyaṇa who is always with Śrī. Āṇḍāḷ’s works refer to the significance of Śrī extensively. Mahālakṣmi dwells permanently in Nārāyaṇa’s vakśasthaḷam (chest). This imagery embodies the significant role Lakṣmi has in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya. Mahālakṣmi is the puruṣākāra i.e. it is only through Mahālakṣmi’s karuṅā and through Her as facilitator between the jīva-s and Nārāyaṇa that the jīvātma can attain mokṣa. Thus, Mahālakṣmi manifests supreme compassion, is the Universal Mother, and the anugrahaśakti of Nārāyaṇa. Mahālakṣmi has three aṃśa-s or manifestations: as Śrīdevi She is the kriyā śakti, as Bhūdevi She is the viṣva śakti, and Nīlādevi She is the icchā śakti. Śrīdevi, Bhūdevi and Nīlādevi are not merely the ‘wives’ or ‘consorts’ of Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, but are inseparable śakti-s. It is an unfortunate tendency of many Hindus to transform our Deities into solely domestic mundane laukika entities, resulting in the loss of understanding their true Vedic spiritual meaning.
The term bhakti has become ubiquitous, often used out of context, and misapplied. Bhakti does not mean devotion or love; the term bhakti seems to have become a catch-all word in describing any type of prayer or worship in Hinduism, especially as interpreted through the non-Dharmic lens. As Āṇḍāḷ’s has illustrated in her works, there are accompanying stages of bhakti that are analyzed by the Ācārya-s. In order to practice bhakti, one must be qualified and must practice the aṣṭāṅga yoga-s. The Viśiṣṭādvaita interpretation and practice of bhakti yoga is complex, vast, and esoteric and beyond the scope of this article. Per Viśiṣṭādvaita, jñāna – karma – bhakti is the natural order of the yoga-s of a sādhaka’s evolution. Therefore, we see that bhakti is not a practice devoid of jñāna and karma. The path to mokṣa per Viśiṣṭādvaita is fivefold:
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s refer to these stages of bhakti. A practitioner of bhakti yoga also must observe the following:
viveka (purity and discrimination between right and wrong),
vimoka (inner detachment)
abhyāsa (unceasing sādhanā of the presence of the Paramātma as the indwelling Self)
kriyā (seva to others)
kalyāṇa (practice of right conduct)
anavasāda (cheerfulness in life, freedom from complaining and dejection)
anuddharṣa (not exulting about one’s virtues or achievements)
Most importantly, in these stages, the practitioner seeks to transcend their ego and obliterate it by becoming one with the Paramātma. One’s petty personal viewpoints and egotistic whims are naturally transcended as the jīvātma attains the supreme Self.
It is disconcerting to note the complete and utter dumbing-down of bhakti. Bhakti is not a catch-all phrase for ‘spiritual’ and a basic free-for-all in which one can do whatever one wants without any basic knowledge or adherence to rituals and the procedures laid down by the Ācārya-s. Bhakti is distorted by non-practitioners as a bizarre amalgamation of indistinct terms like devotion, love, and the vagaries of the individual.
There are erroneous assertions that parallels exist between bhakti yoga and ‘devotion’ that is practiced in Abrahamic religions. However, there is no real similarity here because bhakti does not mean devotion and the Śrī Vaiṣṇava ideas of prapatti and śaraṇāgati are non-existent in Abrahamic systems. Furthermore, bhakti is a sādhanā in which one acquires ātmānubhāva, and has stages that takes the bhakta toward the union with Paramātma. Bhakti is not an exchange system wherein one gets salvation in return. The reward of bhakti is bhakti itself – being immersed and losing oneself in the Paramātma, which might result in mokṣa. Mokṣa does not mean salvation. And bhakti does not require dogmatic doctrinal belief in order to gain mokṣa. Bhakti yoga intrinsically believes in an all-pervading Brahman present in every single living and non-living entity, a direct contradiction of the dogmas of the Abrahamic systems.
The Appropriation and revisionism of Āṇḍāḷ
The girls and women who love Āṇḍāḷ, venerate her, honor Āṇḍāḷ as she was in her own words, and have been engaged in their enduring practices now find themselves in a bizarre scenario wherein they are in the crosshairs of Indologists, history revisionists, and feminists. Even the benign and inspiring Āṇḍāḷ is now a target. It is quite impossible to understand Āṇḍāḷ without having performed the sacred vratam she initiated. Conducting pūja-s and observing vratam-s in Hinduism are a form of embodied knowing by which one gains a comprehensive understanding that transcends the emotional and intellectual levels. And performing the vratam every year brings new knowledge and insights of Āṇḍāḷ to the practitioner; it is indeed a life-long journey and sādhanā. However, feminists and postmodernists seek to impose their narrow lens and essentially want to erase Āṇḍāḷ as she was and, in her place, create a new entity who docilely reflects their ideology and agenda. This is not mere speculation, feminists admit that their wish is to remove Āṇḍāḷ from the Dharmika worldview and reinterpret and ‘re-imagine’ Āṇḍāḷ and her works in solely their own worldview. When one reads feminist’s interpretations of Āṇḍāḷ, one cannot help but notice that there is much anger and violence in their language. Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s have kept alive Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s and her legacy for over 1200 years, but feminists, who have only ‘discovered’ Āṇḍāḷ in the last decade or so, truculently accuse Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s of appropriating Āṇḍāḷ. The feminist attack on Āṇḍāḷ and Śrī Vaiṣṇava-s cannot just be laughed away or ignored as this echo chamber has not subsided. Some feminists have gone so far as to advocate changing the types of pūja-s done to Āṇḍāḷ and limiting Hindu devotees’ right to honor Āṇḍāḷ and her works as they have been for centuries.
The re-writing of Āṇḍāḷ’s story by feminists entails re-interpretations, speculative assertions, and also outright blatant falsehoods about Āṇḍāḷ, her life history, and the pūja-s conducted to honor her. For instance, Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s often refer to her detachment from her physical body she obtained in this birth and that her only goal in this life was to attain Śrī Kṛṣṇa. These beautiful pāsuram-s are deliberately distorted by feminists who falsely claim that Āṇḍāḷ was preoccupied with her own body and that her object was physical and material. Materializing the compositions of Āṇḍāḷ is an attempt to muddle and eventually completely distort the motivations of this great girl-Āḻvār. Āṇḍāḷ has stated her motivations herself in her compositions, however feminists seek to dis-empower Āṇḍāḷ and put her life’s work firmly in the realm of materialism. In effect, they seek to reduce Āṇḍāḷ to a mere instrument and seek to make her into a weapon against the very devotees who revere her. Āṇḍāḷ sought mukti of this physical world and of the bondages of the body, yet the postmodernist and feminist seek to imprison her in their mundane worldly lens. It is noteworthy that in the revisionism of Āṇḍāḷ, feminists have even sought the help of western male revisionist historians who are outsiders to the tradition and who do not even know Tamiḻ; this crosses the borders of irony into the realm of outright satire. The question arises: How can a male westerner, or for that matter a female westerner, with no knowledge of the language and a non-practitioner, understand the experiences of an Indian girl? How can a male or female westerner understand Indian girlhood, its experiences, joys, challenges, living its customs, traditions, and way of life? Śrī Vaiṣṇava women and girls are the main protectors of Āṇḍāḷ, through more than a millennium, these women have preserved, revered, and loved this little girl who shared her divine knowledge, but now feminists seek to bypass and relegate these women bhakta-s.
One of the most trenchant criticisms of Feminism even within academia is that it represents, for more than five decades since Feminism’s genesis as a movement in the 1960s, only the viewpoint of the white North American and European woman, leaving out the viewpoints of the rest of world’s women, especially indigenous women. Thus, it seems that feminists now are scrambling to make up for that critique by appropriating and, in many cases, fabricating accounts of Indian female historical figures.
Feminists claim to fight the hegemony of traditionally male-dominated societies and be the champions of women. Ironically however, there is a hegemony within feminism itself; non-western feminists themselves have objected to what they call ‘imperial feminism’ wherein so-called third world cultures are asymmetrically demonized by western feminists. Furthermore, non-western feminists in academia have pointed out that western feminists stereotype native cultures as more oppressive than western culture. Thus, it seems that it is Feminism which requires reform from its own oppressive one-sided theories and pigeonholes which stereotypically portray and trivialize women of other cultures. The demonization of native cultures by western feminists and their followers in India has become the norm and unfortunately, this hegemony of western feminism is espoused by most Indian feminists. Nowhere is this more evident in the speculative and misleading discourses of Hindu religious figures who are revered and whose memory and customs are kept alive by Hindu women themselves. In seeking to force-fit Āṇḍāḷ into the imperial feminist framework, Indian feminists do what they claim to fight against – they belittle and diminish the voice of native Hindu women and their experiences.
Āṇḍāḷ is a powerful unifying symbol for Hindus; she is an embodiment of Indian girlhood. Āṇḍāḷ is a powerful presence in the Indian psyche, so much so that feminists understand that the appropriation of Āṇḍāḷ into their worldview will strengthen their agenda. It warrants notice that many of these appropriators do not know Tamiḻ; and cannot understand the more complex older poetic Tamiḻ that these pāsuram-s are in.
Though some have claimed that there are parallels between Āṇḍāḷ’s sacred songs and those of some Abrahamic poets, this is actually not the case because Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are firmly rooted in the Veda-s which reflect that Brahman and the jīva-s are without beginning or end, are unchangeable, are present everywhere, and the jīva-s can be in union with Brahman; these concepts are not available in the Abrahamic systems. These fundamental differences are glossed over by revisionists who seek to assimilate Āṇḍāḷ’s works into the Abrahamic one.
Bharatanatyam and Āṇḍāḷ
Āṇḍāḷ’s pāsuram-s are frequently embodied through Carnatic music and Indian classical dances such as Bharatanāṭyaṃ. This is due to the fact that Bharatanāṭyaṃ itself is an embodiment of Hindu metaphysics. The embodiment of Āṇḍāḷ and her works should be celebrated and nurtured within the Bharatanāṭyaṃ community. However, some feminist elitist dancers lament that Āṇḍāḷ is now being danced by everyone, thus making her pāsuram-s more widely known to the general Indian population, especially in southern India. This is rather strange, after all if one loves and admires something, one wants to share it with the world, not keep it in an inaccessible rarified circle. Just as Āṇḍāḷ wanted to share that glories and beauty of Śrī Raṅganāta with everyone, one who truly admires Āṇḍāḷ would want to share her with the world and not imprison her within the confines of a narrow point of view of feminism or postmodernism. Dancing the pāsuram-s of Āṇḍāḷ is a form of embodied knowing; the act of dancing her pāsuram-s with śraddhā is itself a pūja, a manifestation of bhakti. One can experience some of what Āṇḍāḷ herself speaks of through the dancing of her sacred works and can transcend and elevate one’s limited ego-centric state to something greater.
Āṇḍāḷ, a child with a purest heart is the epitome of pure sāttvikabhakti; her contributions are due to the unique characteristics she possesses. She represents Indian girlhood and speaks to that experience like few others can. Āṇḍāḷ, a young girl of 8 or 9 years whose manas was pure and sāttvik, was determined to attain mukti and finally did so at the feet of Śrī Raṅganātar in Śrī Raṅgam. Any interpretations of her pāsuram-s that are contrary to the sāttvika meaning are mere projections of the adults who want to impose their own laukika view onto this young girl’s extraordinary sacred works. As stated, reading about Āṇḍāḷ brings no understanding of her works and this post is only a cursory glimpse of Āṇḍāḷ. The Tiruppāvai, Nāciār Tirumoḻi, and Āṇḍāḷ can only be understood only through śraddhā, bhakti, and tapas guided by a qualified Ācārya. Āṇḍāḷ’s deep compassion for others and wish to share her knowledge are qualities that endears her to generations of Hindus for more than a millennium. Her works stand apart and hold a special place in sacred literature. Understanding and indeed experiencing Āṇḍāḷ’s sacred pāsuram-s requires śraddhā and a special dṛiṣti, just as Arjuna was granted a divine vision to see the Viṣvarūpa, and requires steady and unceasingly study and sādhanā. Anyone, literally anybody, could write about ‘coming of age’ as it is a common laukika experience that happens to everyone, this is not exceptional. Feminists and others even within the Hindu population erroneously characterize Āṇḍāḷ, her works, and seek to erase her individuality and exceptionalism by falsely mapping her songs to a ‘coming of age’. However, Āṇḍāḷ transcends this mundane world, she does not want to waste this birth, she seeks a divine union of jīvātma and Paramātma, that experience that supersedes all worldly experiences and is rare, unique, and requires a special state of consciousness. This is why Āṇḍāḷ has endured for over 1200 years and will for millennia to come.
Copyright: 2018 Prakruti Prativadi. All rights reserved.
About the Author:
Prakruti Prativadi, an aerospace engineer, is an award-winning author, Bharatanatyam dancer, and researcher. She is the author of ‘Rasas in Bharatanāṭyaṃ’http://hyperurl.co/nbg0nq which is based on her research of the Nāṭyaśāstra and other treatises.
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Varadachari, K.C. Aspects of Bhakti. Mysore: University of Mysore. 1956.
Swami Harshananda. The Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math. 2009.
Upanyāsam-s of H.H. Sri Sri Sri Tridandi Sriman Narayana Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji, 2013 -2016.
Consultation with H.H. Sri Sri Sri Tridandi Sriman Narayana Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji July-August, 2018.
Rangachari, K. Śrī Vaiṣṇava Brahmans. Delhi: Gian Publishing House. 1986.
Kaplan, Caren et. al. (Editors). Between Woman and Nation, Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. London and Durham: Duke University Press
I should prefer to hear "Hari tum haro" spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by others - Mahatma Gandhi
Popularly known as ‘M.S’ or ‘MS Amma’, M. S. Subbulakshmi is not only one of the greatest exponents of an ancient vocal music tradition of India that can be traced back to the Samaveda, she is also a Bhakti saint of the modern area. Hers was an unselfish life completely devoted to Sangeetam, dharma, and danam. The divinity in her music transcended man-made limitations to touch the atmas of listeners all over the world.
M.S. Subbulakshmi was born on September 16, 1916 to Subramania Iyer, a Tamizh Brahman, and Shanmukavadivu Ammal, an immensely talented music artist hailing from the sacred Devadasi tradition of temple dancers and musicians. Her initials are derived from the ancient Tamizh city of Madurai where she was born, and her mother Shanmukavadivu. Her musical journey began at home and her mother was her first guru. She learned to sing and play musical instruments, and her amazing skill level was achieved not by mastering the formal music sheets employed in the west, but through the distinct traditional Indian method of ’embodied learning’ from Guru to Sishya. As MS recalls “My earliest interest in music was focused on the raga. I would try to reproduce the pipers as well as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming along with the veena.” Her approach to music practice and training was like that of a Yogi. She was a child prodigy who received the blessings and instant admiration of virtually every leading Carnatic vocalist of that era who heard her sing. Her first song recorded at age 10 was in Tamizh, devoted to Lord Muruga, with her mother accompanying her on the Veena.
Her first public performance the same year at her Madurai school included a Marathi song. She never looked back and went from strength to strength, her god-given voice and talent enthralling audiences eveywhere, transcending language barriers.
In the 1930s she met Thyagaraja Sadasivam, a freedom fighter and artist who co-founded the famous patriotic Tamizh weekly Kalki. Sadasivam, the son of Tyagarajan and Mangalam Iyer, was deeply influenced by the Indian freedom movement, especially ‘Lal-Bal-Pal’ and Sri Aurobindo. MS shared the dharmic and patriotic views of Sadasivam, and the two were married in 1940. By all accounts, her husband played a positive role in her successful career, a fact that MS recalled when she was awarded the Bharat Ratna.
MS was a devotee of Kanchi Mahaswamigal and most of her royalties and earnings from music were given to charity. She had great concern for the people around her, enquiring about their health and their family, and graciously donating the amount received for her concert to any good cause that needed financial support. Humility was her adornment. Once her husband Sri Sadasivam quoted that she did not know how many ciphers followed number 1 for one lakh! If a child asked her casually to sing a song for him/her, she would sing without any hesitation.
MS Subbulakshmi’s concerts all over India and around the world brought the sacred music of Carnatic to audiences that had heard mostly Hindustani classical from Indian musicians before. Some notable overseas concerts include:
Festival of Arts in Edinburgh (1963)
US fund-raising tour for the Flushing temple in NYC and the Pittsburgh temple (1977)
Carnegie Hall, New York City (1977)
Festival of India in London (1982) and Moscow (1988)
She started her movie career in 1938 with Sevasadanam, and acted in some memorable movies based on dharmic themes, including Sankuntalai and Savitri, where she played Narada Muni, which helped fund the nationalist magazine Kalki. She reserved the best for her last role in, and as the Bhakti saint Meera in Tamizh in 1945 (and later, in Hindi).
"In the Bombay Studio where the Meera score was recorded:, it was the same story. Artists who came for other recordings would stop by and become rapt listeners. A thin newcomer, two long plaits dangling behind, refused to record her song after the M.S. session." "Not now, not after that!" She went on to become a legend in her own right as Lata Mangeshkar, while continuing to remain a devoted M.S. fan" - Frontline (2004).
In 1963, the famous Venkatesha Suprabatam album was released, and this was soon followed by her famous concert in the UN. Her sublime rendering of Vishnu Sahasranamam and Bhaja Govindam were released as albums in 1970. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasathanam began broadcasting her Venkateshwara Suprabhatam in 1975 forever uniting the sacred verse with her voice. The Annamacharya Pancharatna Album (Telugu) was released in 1980. She gave innumerable charity concerts with the proceeds going to noble causes. Her last concert was in June 1997 and she never sang in public after her husband passed away later that year. Her selfless service to India, her Bhakti, and adherence to dharma without expecting anything in return, elevated her to the position of a saint in the eyes of many. She left her physical body on December 11, 2004, but her nishkama karma will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.
Achievements and Notable Awards
Asthana Vidwaan of Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam
Bharat Ratna (1998, first musician to receive this award)
Padma Bhushan (1954), Padma Vibhushan (1975)
Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1956)
Ravindra Bharathi Cultural Academy’s Award (1967)
Isai Periaringar Virudhu, by Tamil Isai Sangam (1970)
Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy (1974)
Desikottama, Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan (1981)
Kalidas Samman, Government of Madhya Pradesh (1988)
Swaralaya Puraskar (1997)
MS started and ended the daily cycle of activities in Southern India. Her Kaatrinile Varum Geetam is the earliest song in my memory, in a mother’s comforting voice as her child sleepily dozed off into the night, to wake up the next morning to Kowsalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe.. from her Venkatesa Suprabatam. MS Amma thus became an integral part of many Indian families in this endless cycle of night and day.
MS Subbulakshmi was universally recognized by admirers and critics alike as an outstanding singer of Carnatic music and devotional songs. She was noted for her precision in pronunciation; a crispness not only in Sanskrit, but any language in which she sung. While the aesthetic heights, Shruti Suddham, diction, and effortless genius of her singing have been explained by Carnatic aficionados and music connoseiurs, the sacredness and divinity in her songs can be experienced by everyone. What do I care of technical excellence when the bhava and depth of her Bhajans shreds through all my carefully acquired layers of false projections and reconnects to the divine latent within? For me, to hear MS Subbulakshmi sing is to feel a stirring sense of bhakti, but the voice i hear within me belongs to my mother.
"What is this almost transcendental quality behind the unfailing rapture? ... Many would attribute it to the Indian Bhakti tradition of poetry and song to which the singer belonged...The Bhakti polarities of seeking and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfilment are realised in their verses." -Frontline (2004)
*** Adi Sankara’s Bhaja Govindam ***
In the 1940s, MS retraced the journey of Meera before she enacted that role in one of the greatest Indian motion pictures ever made. When she sang in the praise of Giridhara Gopala, the listeners were thrilled, be they king, prime minister, or commoner. Those who heard MS Subbulakshmi sing in praise of Krishna during this pilgrimage regarded her as the reincarnation of Meerabai. I visited Chittorgarh earlier this year to pay humble tribute to the heroic Indian women and men who resisted the tyranny of invaders and conquered even death in that process. There is also a mandir of Meera, who, through her Bhakti, defeated the tyranny of ego and secular materialism that invades our sacred realm.
MS sang there too. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy recorded the events that transpired that day: “Among the ruins a single structure stands unscathed, its loveliness undimmed. This is the Krishna shrine built by the Rana of Chittor for Meerabai, to grant her request during the (happy) days of their married life before he turned against her. When Subbulakshmi sat in the Lord’s sanctum and sang the songs of Meera, every one of us had the same thought: Meerabai had sung the same songs from the same spot in rapturous devotion! M.S. shed tears as she sang. Everyone had moist eyes. Most remarkable was the sight of the old, half blind temple priest, going off into a sudden trance, clapping his hands in rhythm to Meera’s songs.”
Thus when she was young, MS was already a living saint in the minds of many in Northern and Southern India. And that is a most simple and natural Indian way to ‘sainthood’, not by marketing and institutional certification post-mortem. Her mystical, youthful beauty as princess Meera was akin to a ‘Kovil Silai’, and captured on-camera by Ellis Dungan. She made famous the blue Kanchipuram saree, which became popular as ‘MS blue’.
Her fame spread far and wide after concerts all over the world. When she sang Maitreem Bhajata composed by Kanchi Mahaswamigal, at the United Nations during the height of the cold war in 1966, she shared Hinduism’s ancient and universal message of mutual respect and harmony with a global audience – perhaps the most powerful, sincere, and profound anti-war and dharmic message ever put to verse and sung on a global modern stage. When she sings Kurai Ondrum Illai.. composed by Rajaji: I have no regrets, O Lord Venkateshwara, even if you are in a place where my mortal eyes cannot reach…, the divinity and Bhava simultaneously overwhelms and comforts the Rasika.
The power of her singing is such, we feel that additional accompaniment or harmonies only detract from the pure, integral unity of the sacred song. This unity, which is a salient feature of Indic traditions, is a reason how a simple Tamizh girl from Madurai could authentically and confidently re-enact Meera of Rajasthan.
She was not acting like Meera. She was Meera reincarnated who bridged the north-south divide fabricated by colonialism. Questions like “Why are you making this film in the Madrasi language? Why not in Hindi?” quickly dissolved into admiration and wonder. The quintessential Tamizh song ‘Kaatrinile‘ in that movie, which is deeply embedded in the hearts of millions of Tamizhs is inspired by bhajans from Bengal.
The Bhakti movement that originated in the Tamizh land several centuries ago and reached Rajasthan and all other parts of India came back to Tamil Nadu via ‘Meera’. That was her last movie, and what a way to sign off the big screen. MS aged gracefully, her beauty undiminished, carrying herself with a charm and poise that only a true Yogi and Sattvic lifestyle can achieve. When MS finished her concerts, large sections of the audience, young and old, did their namaskarams to her, recognizing an enlightened atma – the youthful saint who became MS Amma.
**Documentary on MS**
"Every citizen of this great land is a Ratna." - MS Subbulakshmi
No factual basis for either of the 19th century theories: Aryan theory of Max Mueller, and Dravidian theory of the Bishop Robert Caldwell.
Hindu, as well as some Buddhist and Jain concepts were embedded into Tamizh thought since the earliest of times. All three dharmic thought systems exhibit an integral unity .
Several great Tamizh scholars and literary giants throughout history have celebrated the common origin of Tamizh and Sanskrit in Shiva.
There exists a long and continuous history of Tamizh literature, dance, and music (Muthamizh).
We start with a brief discussion motivated by feedback for Part-1.
Material Benefits of Studying the Unity Inherent in Indian Language Systems
Eminent Indic scholar Dr. Srinivas Tilak remarked in his comment on Part-1 that the word ‘kalacharam‘ appears to be rooted in Sanskrit. Indeed, Lt. Col. KTSV Sarma’s English translation of the talk in Tamizh given by the seer of Kanchi Kamakoti peetham on culture  notes:
“‘Kala’ in Sanskrit, ‘Kalvi’ in Tamil, ‘Culture’ in English, ‘Cole’ in French, have a common root meaning. Since it is a matter concerning all humanity, it has a similar sounding word, with a similar meaning too. ‘Kala’, means something that keeps growing, like ‘chandra kalai’ for the crescent moon. Similarly ‘kalai’ or art gives sustained growth to the mind. There is no end to this growing. Even the Goddess of learning, ‘Saraswathi’, says, ‘Learnt is a handful, while not yet learnt is as big as the world’. So she keeps at it. The word in Tamil, ‘kalacharam’, is of recent origin. “Panbu’ and ‘Panpadu’, are the earlier words, bringing in a connotation of delicate subtility of expression” [emphases mine].
‘Kalacharam’ is a relatively new and useful Tamizh term for an ancient and living cultural framework. In an increasingly interconnected world, there is often a global and diverse audience for content generated in any one place. The accurate and automated translation of such content becomes quite important. Words that have an intuitively identifiable common root-meaning tend to become more popular among the available synonyms. To produce intelligent auto-translated content, methods from NLP (natural language processing), machine learning, computational linguistics, etc. may be employed. In terms of the data, models, and algorithms required in this context, the content, structure, and the inherent unity of the ancient, diverse, and living language systems of India are likely to become a prime candidate for knowledge mining. The multi-lingual scholars of India can play a leading role in the development of these new technologies, and should control the adhikara as well as the intellectual property generated from such research.
Let us start by examining the nature of the overlap between Tamizh and Sanskrit.
We mention three points about the oft-quoted ‘just 45%’ Sanskrit in Tamizh.
a. Let us examine where same or equivalent words for Sanskrit are used. Only a brief, preliminary exploration is presented here noting that this topic is beyond the scope of this current blog and more suitable for research by scholars:
We can see the Tamizh and Sanskritshare important Indic non-translatables (herein denoted as “keywords” for brevity) , for which no equivalent word exists in English. Indian languages either use the Sanskrit keyword as is, or a readily available regional equivalent is employed. Many European languages that claim affinity to Sanskrit neither possess nor such keywords or equivalents. Examples of such sacred keywords include:
atma (anma, uyir*)
The words in parentheses, when provided, refer to the Tamizh equivalent available, based on a high-level review of the Thirukkural  and Sangam literature . Tamizh also has equivalent terms for the four purusharthas of Hinduism that encompass the material and sacred realm . Today, ‘Om’ has a speacial UTF-8 character: ॐ in Sanskrit, and ௐ in Tamizh. As alluded to in the previous section, Sanskrit-rooted synonyms are conveniently employed so that listeners or readers from other regions of India or the world can follow along. For example, terms such as dharma and atma are part of common Tamizh usage today (Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha referred to her acquittal in a recent court case as ‘a victory for dharma‘).
A heuristic rule to detect Indic civilizational unity within a language is as follows: Any language that has an unbroken tradition of using a sacred keyword (or its own equivalent), is likely to have co-existed in mutual respect with Sanskrit as well as all other languages that share this property.
b. The intersection between Muthamizh and Sanskrit is significantly higher since these language systems have a strong overlap in terms of the interconnected art, verse, music and dance. Consequently, it is not surprising that the resultant cultural frameworks, Kalacharam and Sanskriti mirror each other. Siddha and Ayurveda, for example, are distinct knowledge systems within these frameworks that are not separate but rooted in dharma, and have the same fundamental operating principles.
c. We can better understand the full depth and the different dimensions of the unity between Muthamizh and Sanskrit as integral knowledge systems by comparing the content in the Natya Shastra and Silapathikaram. This comparison itself has raised some questions among scholars, which we address next.
Questions, Claims, Counter-Claims, Implications
A most ancient and influential work on Kalacharam is the Silapathikaram. Similarly, the Natya Shastra, arguably the most important work of Sanskriti in terms of direct mass impact, is accepted by many as having originated in Kashmir. The Natya Shastra is hailed as a fifth Veda, while the Silapathikaram reenacts the life in ancient Tamil Nadu (Tamizhakam) and serves as a valuable living aid and resource for Tamizhs to this day. What do we expect to find where we compare these monumental works? and what are the implications?
IF we find negligible coherence between Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra, then the following separatistclaims may gain some credence:
Sanskriti and Kalacharam were two independently existing cultural frameworks since ancient times.
Southern India had its own traditions of literature, music, and dance that may be exclusive andseparate from its counterparts north of the Vindhyas.
On the other hand, if we find a strong consonance, then the following observations are validated:
The cultural frameworks of Sanskriti and Kalacharam are inextricably linked since ancient times. We find the reflection of one in the other.
Southern India had its own distinct and inclusive tradition of literature, music, and dance, which coexisted with similar traditions in regions as far away as Kashmir.
Sanskrit and Tamizh thrived in mutual respect. They nourished one another, while retaining and celebrating their own distinctiveness.
Further repudiation of Max Mueller’s Aryan, and Bishop Caldwell’s Dravidian theory.
This comparative analysis is made easier by referring to the scholarly works of Michel Danino , and Dr. R. Nagaswamy, as presented in his lecture , and tabulating the uncovered facts. However, even if we demonstrate this unity, an unresolved issue may linger. Since both languages are ancient, as we mentioned in part-1, did Natya Shastra influence Silapathikaram, or was it the other way around? Separatist scholars have begun to posit a southern-Indian origin and a redefinition for ‘Bharata’ and reject a ‘Sanskrit basis’ for Sangam works. How do we deal with such developments? Do these ‘counter-claims’ weaken the thesis of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity?
For clarity, we have divided the original question of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity into two sub-questions, which we label as ‘easy’ and ‘hard’, as shown below.
The Easy and Hard Question of Tamizh-Sanskrit Unity
Easy question: Is there a deep (integral) unity between Sanskrit and Tamizh?
We denote this question as ‘easy’ because a systematic review of the evidence and data already available is sufficient for a layman to obtain an unambiguous answer.
Hard question: Did Natya Shastra and Sanskrit influence Silapathikaram and Tamizh (in direction and chronology)?
This is an interesting question for scholars having a multidisciplinary knowledge of Itihasa, dharma, art, history, etc. The work of Michel Danino  and the presentation by Dr. Nagaswamy of his findings  provide clear clues, and we will cover this topic in a future post.
The remainder of this post is organized as follows.
We tabulate the facts obtained from the analysis of Michel Danino and R. Nagaswamy.
We apply these results to answer the easy question of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity
Natya Shastra – Tolkappiyam – Silapathikaram
To gain an appreciation and understanding for Natya Shastra, we refer the reader to the scholarly and detailed introduction at our mother site, Indic Cultural Portal . A key takeaway is that Natya Shastra is not restricted to dance, but is first and foremost an integral scientific treatise ondramaturgy, which by design and motive, is for the benefit of all people, transcending Varna, Jati, region, language, gender, education level, etc.. Bharata is unequivocal in his goal that this is an inclusive work that is accessible to all. He appears to have succeeded too; its impressions can be traced from India through South East Asia, indicating that it is one of the most influential works in world history.
Ilango Adigal’s Silapathikaram is considered one of the five great Tamizh epics. Here, Dr. Nagaswamy  provides compelling evidence that shows this work is best recognized as a dance-drama of exquisite quality, depicting the lifestyle of the Tamizhs during the Sangam era. There were two prior Tamizh texts, the Agattiyam and the Bharatam (the Tamizh version of Bharata’s work) which were not available in their original form at that time. Therefore, a primary Tamizh reference for Ilango was Tolkappiyar’s Tolkappiyam and this was taken as the basis. Consequently, a comparative study of these works of Bharata, Tolkappiyar, and Ilango is required to obtain a full picture. Toward this, we return to our favorite Rishi, Agastya.
The Deep Influence of Agastya on Muthamizh
The influence of Agastya and his lineage on Muthamizh is deep. We introduced Rishi Agastya in part-1. We now briefly summarize some points in the lecture by Dr. Nagaswamy .
Itihasa mentions Agastya’s relocation to Southern India after crossing the Vindhya mountains, bringing along with him several families of rulers and chieftains to Podhiya malai in Kanyakumari district. We also have evidence from recorded history.
Copper plate inscriptions at Velvikudi, Sinnamanur, Srivaramangalam, etc.  of Pandyan kings inform us that Agastya crowned them as the rulers of Madurai (which mirrors Mathura of Northern India) and taught them Tamizh and Sanskrit. Pallava records at Kuram and other places mention Agastya’s slaying of the wicked Asura Vatapi . In general, the presence of copious Tamizh and Sanskrit epigraphy indicates that both languages thrived in Tamil Nadu since ancient times without mutual tension. According to 10th century commentators, the characteristic division in Tamizh Sangam works of dance into aham and puram was done by Agastya. Tolkappiyar is revered as a disciple of Agastya (i.e., a Rishi from Agastya lineage). English references typically refer to Tolkappiyam as the first grammar of Tamizh, but this does not imply some one-dimensional ‘Wren and Martin” equivalent! The Tolkappiyam is an integral treatise on Tamizh Kalacharam. These commentators also mention that in the Purattinai (non-Sringara) division of the Porul Adhikaram portion of Tolkappiyam, there are a number of dance forms, some of which are said to be have been taught by Agastya (or his lineage). Seyyul (verse) employed in Tolkappiyam and Silapathikaram, which is almost Sanskrit Chandas, was given to us by Agastya. The Silapathikaram itself recounts the story of Agastya being received by Indra during the Indra Vizha. This beautiful story is given in Part-1, and explains how dance and music came down to the material world from their celestial origin.
Michel Danino on Tolkappiyam
From Michel Danino’s essay on early Tamizh culture , in the section of Sangam literature, we learn about the Tolkappiyam:
“… Its content, says N. Raghunathan, shows that “the great literature of Sanskrit and the work of its grammarians and rhetoricians were well known and provided stimulus to creative writers in Tamil...”
“adopts the entire Rasatheory as worked out in the Natya Shastra of Bharata“
same eight forms of marriage found in the Dharmashastras.
recognizes the same four divisions as the ‘chatur varna’
recognizes Vedic mantras as ‘the exalted expression of great sages’
four-fold division of land (with a fifth representing the intersecting region), where each material division is associated with an expression from the poetic domain while ultimately being rooted in the transcendental realm. We can see that the deities venerated in other parts of India are already a part of Tamizh culture.
The area intersecting these four types were ‘desert’ lands (paalai): separation, Korravai (Durga)
“Such a synthesis is quite typical of the Hindu temperament and cannot be the result of an overnight or superficial influence ; it is also as remote as possible from the separateness we are told is at the root of so-called “Dravidian culture.”
Summary of Dr. R. Nagaswamy’s Findings
I have attempted to summarize Dr. Nagaswamy’s presentation in this video lecture to the best of my ability . Errors in transmission, if any, are entirely mine. What is given below is an incomplete list of the presented evidence. Other scholars too have presented their analysis on this topic.
Tolkappiyam and Natya Shastra
In porul adhikaram, we have two divisions: agattinai (emphasis on inbam or kama), and purattinai (focused on the other three purusharthas).
Tolkappiyam also mentions ‘ahapaattu’ and ‘purapaattu’ (Paattu = song). These are meant to be songs used for dance performed by Paanar and viraliyar (dancers and musicians).
At the end of agattinai, Tolkappiyar refers to nadaka vazakku and ulakkiyal vazhakku. This maps exactly to natya dharmi and loka dharmi of Natya Shastra.
Tolkappiyam consists of long poems, up to to 500 lines some times. Can it be compatible with dance? India has a long tradition of reciting and enacting long poems, for e.g., the Chakiyar Kuthu in Kerala performed with the help of Mudras. In fact, the whole of Sangam poetry that is divided into aham and puram is based on a dance tradition.
As far as the purattinai division of Porul adhikaram, if we examine the commentaries, we observe that a major part of what is said is also meant for song.
Mei paattu of Tolkappiyam is about bhava. This is mentioned by all the commentators. For example, Ilamburanar mentions that when the kings are witnessing a dance, these bhavas are brought into use. The definition of bhava is given in the Natya Shastra. ‘Mei’ represents the inner/facial feeling. We observe a 1:1 mapping with the Natya Shastra chapter on bhava.
Tolkappiyam mentions 8 Rasas, and so do Natya Shastra and Silapathikaram (the Shanta rasa is not included until 9th century CE).
Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra
Aham and Puram: The content in Sangam works are divided into two groups: aham and puram. This coincides with the Natya Shastra division of dance styles of Lasya/Sukumara (feminine/soft) and Tandava (vigorous).
aham is focused on Sringara (related to kama), and the puram on the other purusharthas (artha and dharma, with moksha implicit).
The Puhar and Madurai Kandam are associated with aham, and the Vanji Kandam with puram.
Similarly, the Sangam poems are classified as ‘aha paattu’, and ‘pura paattu’, and were meant to be sung and danced.
The two dancing styles mentioned in the Natya Shastra: Margi (classical) and Desi (regional) are mirrored in Silapathikaram as the ‘iru vahai koothu’ of aariyam, and tamizh, respectively. This is a critical feature to note and we analyze this commonality in depth at the end of this post.
Nritta Karana (dance movements): The Nritta Karanas are 108 in number, same as Natya Shastra. In general, the technical terminologies employed in the two works are the same, or an equivalent is mentioned.
Vritti (theme): We have three Kandams (cantos) corresponding to the three great places of Tamizhakam: Puhar, Madurai, Vanji. A Katturai (note) at the end of each canto mentions a specific Vritti for each Kandam. To understand the meaning of each Katturai, we have to refer to the Natya Shastra.
Arbhati (wealth / violence). Recall the Tamizh word ‘Arbhattam’
Pindi: This is not a native Tamizh word. Silapathikaram uses the term ‘Pindi-Bandha’ which can be understood once we refer to the Natya Shastra.
Hasta: Silapathikaram mentions the ‘Tozhil kai’ and ‘ezhiyirkai’. Natya Shastra has the exact Sanskrit equivalent: Karma Hasta and Nritta Hasta.
Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra share the same number and equivalents for:
Rasa and corresponding Bhava (8). Also present in Tolkappiyam.
Vritti and Pravritti (4)
Swara (7) and Atodya, the types of musical instruments (4)
Purusharthas have their equivalent Tamizh terms provided in parentheses:
Applied Dramaturgy: In the Katturai at the end of the Silapathikaram, we find mention of the geographical area where the drama is enacted: ‘from Venkatam to Kumari’, i.e., Southern India. Next, Ilango mentions Ezuthu, Sol, and Porul, the same three divisions also employed in Tolkappiyam. The words of the Silapathikaram story are put into verse (Seyyul), which has to be put to tala, which is then adapted to music, and in turn synchronized with dance, etc. The aim is to use this dance-drama to depict the life of the tamil people as if (in Ilango’s own words) “it is reflecting a huge mountain thru a small mirror“. Dr. Nagasway quotes the 13th century CE commentator Adiyarkunallar and has no doubt that “Silapathikaram is not a literary text to be read, but a Nadaga Kappiyam”
The conclusion in (5) is stunning in that it elevates the importance and scope of the Silapathikaram to a pan-India/global level: It is perhaps the earliest dance drama outside the Sanskrit/Prakritic system. To fully understand how Natya Shastra is applied in reality, scholars have to study the Silapathikaram.
Twelve topics in Natya Shastra are mirrored in Silapathikaram. Equivalents are given in parentheses, else the Sanskrit term is used as is.
Bhava (Mei paadu)
Four-fold division of land in Tolkappiyam and Silapathikaram along with the deities of the Vedic tradition also worshiped in other parts of India
hills (kurinji), forest(mullai), coastal (neythal), cultivated or settled lands(marutam)
The four deities associated with this division are Mayon (Maya/Krishna), Ceyon (Subramanya), Vendan (Indra), Varunan (Varuna).
The division of terrain in this manner can also be found in the Vedas; for example, in the Sri Rudram Chamakam in the Yajurveda:
"Ashma cha me mrittikacha me giraya scha me parvata scha Me sikata scha me vanaspataya scha me ..."
This division was adapted into the Natya Shastra, which partitions the performing stage into four areas:
Parvata, Vana, Sagara, Nagara
The intermediate mixture of lands: paalai (desert, Durga).
Indra, an important Vedic Deity: The first public dance by Madhavi is in the Indra Vizha. In Natya Shastra too, the first dance was performed in the ‘Indra dhwaja maha’ or Indra’s festival.
In a particular sequence of events, Ilango introduces six or more dance situations that are also mentioned in Natya Shastra, which are adopted by dancing girls to attract and win back the ‘person of interest’ when he his upset.
Dr. Nagaswamy states that unless we understand how the Natya Shastra has been put to brilliant use in the Silapathikaram, we cannot fully understand and appreciate this great Sangam work.
Answer to Easy Question on Tamizh-Sanskrit Unity
The wealth of evidence from Itihasa, archaeological and material evidence, the presence and use of sacred Indic non-translatables, deep commonalities between Sangam-era works and Natya Shastra, is sufficient to unambiguously affirm the existence of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity since the earliest known time in recorded history, as well as in Itihasa. This conclusion remains valid regardless of the speculative claims of separatist scholars that its music and dance tradition came before and influenced Natya Shastra, or indeed, claims by other scholars in the opposite direction. This is because:
1. All the material evidence, factual commonalities, Vedic, and sacred links between Natya Shastra and Tolkappiyam/Silapathikaram that are mentioned here have no dependency on who was the “first” to come up with those concepts and ideas.
2. From the perspective of the easy question, it does not matter whether Natya traveled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, or from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The simple fact is that the Natya traditions in the south is reflected in other parts of India since ancient times. As an analogy, tomorrow, if we find out that it was not Newton but some person from China who first arrived at the law of gravity, it does not invalidate the fact of gravitational force!
Next, we examine the various dimensions of this unity.
The nature of this unity
When the facts presented in the comparative study of Sangam works and Natya Shastra is combined with the archaeological and material evidence in Part-1, the material (artistic, linguistic, cultural) unity of Muthamizh and Sanskrit is firmly established.
Furthermore, we see from Itihasa that through Shiva (who is the original Yogi as well as Nataraja) and Agastya, Tamizh and Sanskrit emerged from the same sacred sound that has no beginning or end. Thus the sacred and dharmic unity of Tamizh-Sanskrit is also evident.
The material and sacred were never considered separate, non-intersecting domains in both language systems. Tamizh, Sanskrit, and their music and dance traditions flow smoothly from the same sacred origin to the material world unhindered. The most influential treatises in both systems encourage the pursuit of the purusharthas that teaches mankind to prosper, progress, and ultimately transcend the material domain.The integral nature of the Kalacharam-Sanskriti unity is transparent.
The nature of this unity was celebrated in Itihasa, and as well as by illustrious Tamizh saints, scholars, and poets over centuries. Arguably, no other language pair in India can claim to have a deeper, more sacred, and ancient bond.
It is worth re-examining the ‘just 45% commonality’ statement given these findings. The influence and contributions of Tamizh Kalacharam and Southern India toward Sanskriti is immense. Michel Danino notes:
“As regards the fundamental contributions of the South to temple architecture, music, dance and to the spread of Hindu culture to other South Asian countries, they are too well known to be repeated here. Besides, the region played a crucial role in preserving many important Sanskrit texts (a few Vedic recensions, Bhasa’s dramas, the Arthashastra for instance) better than the North was able to do, and even today some of India’s best Vedic scholars are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As Swami Vivekananda put it, “The South had been the repository of Vedic learning.”
In other words, what is loosely called Hinduism would not be what it is without the South. To use the proverbial but apt image, the outflow from the Tamil land was a major tributary to the great river of Indian culture“.
How was this unity preserved?
Was this relationship one of equals or asymmetric?
Mutual respect, which is a bi-directional form of respect, is necessary to preserve this unity across thousands of years. Superior-inferior asymmetry in any relationship is a recipe for early break-up. We will show that ‘mutual respect’ is explicitly hardwired into the Natya Shastra, and that this is also reflected in the content of the Sangam work. The Natya Shastra’s remarkable introduction ofMargi (classical) and Desi (regional)styles of Natya freed up artistic pursuit, eliminating any ‘Shastric claim’ to superiority by any one tradition. Every region, group, and individual was encouraged to promote their own verse, music and dance tradition, and to innovate in their own language. Silapathikaram too embodies this democratic principle and mirrors this via ‘Aariyam’ and ‘Tamizh’ dance styles, simultaneously respecting inter-regional diversity, and encouraging intra-regional variations and innovations within its own sphere of influence. This liberation of verse, meter, music, and dance, appears to have resulted in an open architecture . Dr. Nagaswamy rightly notes that “Sanskrit never stood against any other language, but only encouraged them. Never in history do we have any conflict“.
Remnants of this unified dance-drama tradition are still visible in Indian pop-culture via its feature films. The inter-connected verse-tala-music-dance Natya, however dilute it may be today, remains an key ingredient of all Indian language movies, including Tamizh and Hindi, and exhibits significant regional diversity. Furthermore, this pan-Indian feature is not present in movies from other parts of the world, and is most appreciated by audiences in India. As mentioned in our culture page, Tamizh feature films initially arose from stage performances (Natya/Nadakam) of stories from Itihasas and Puranas. We may be able to trace this feature embedded within Indian feature films back to the Silapathikaram and the Natya Shastra.
Clearly, Natya is a powerful Indic non-translatable that has united India and helped preserve the distinctiveness of Indian art, language, and culture.
 Being Different: And Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins, India. 2011.
 History and Culture of Tamil Nadu – vol 1, Chitra Madhavan. DK Printworld, 2013.
Thanks to n.r.i.pathi for reviewing this work, and his useful suggestions.
*Some authors view ‘uyir’ in the Thirukkural as a context-sensitive equivalent of ‘atma’. Thanks to Sri Raj Kashyap for pointing out that generally, anma (from atma) is used, and ‘uyir’ refers to ‘jiva’ or ‘prana’.
Tamizh and Sanskrit are two of India’s most ancient living languages. Some claim that no more than 45% of today’s Tamizh is Sanskrit. From an alternative and equally narrow perspective, this could also mean, assuming ‘equality’, that 45% of Sanskrit is Tamizh. But the truth is that just as Shiva and Shakti are inseparable and have no independent existence of their own, Tamizh and Sanskrit are jewels that reflect each other. If a seeker who only knew Tamizh dived deep into the most profound thoughts expressed by Tamizhs over millennia, he is likely to uncover similar insights that another person would obtain through Sanskrit. This no coincidence. The languages and cultures of India are distinct and inclusive but not separate or exclusive. They are rooted in what is recognized today as an ‘integral unity‘  that produces India’s ‘unity in diversity’. Indian languages are not just about reading and writing. This is but one dimension. They are better represented as integral knowledge systems because their design allow us to understand nature in different ways that going beyond textual information download. It is important for every Indian-origin parent to teach their child their mother tongue. ‘Amma’ is not the same as ‘mom’ or ‘mummy’. Tamizh appears to possess an open architecture that is characteristic of dharmic thought systems and this is a topic for further research by traditional scholars. Rather than ‘holistic’, such Indic systems are more accurately characterized as ‘holographic’, with each component of the system reflecting other components . The cultural framework associated with the integral knowledge system representing Sanskrit is Sanskriti, and its Tamizh counterpart, we denote as ‘Kalacharam’.
Let us understand this starting from scratch, keeping in mind a line from a recent Tamil movie: English is but a language, it does not necessarily represent knowledge!
Reversing the Gaze on Lutyens
To get an idea of the level of understanding about India that exists among the English speaking elite (click here for தமிழ்), we present excerpts from a recent bestseller  that discusses a conversation in the Lutyens (You can buy this book here).
“…The artist, meanwhile, is talking with the academics about her recent exhibition on mass graves. They purr in appreciation and on the spot issue her an invitation to come and speak at a conference they are organizing on ‘Fragments of Nationhood: Notes on a Country That Is Not a Country’….
…. ‘This is an interesting theme. In fact, one would think from reading several Indian scholars – though I must confess I read only English and not any of the other languages – that the idea of India itself is a creation.’ ‘Exactly right,’ says the younger of the academics, her smug face cracking to reveal a smile.
The Indians reverse the gaze:
….‘The idea that only the Westphalian model of nation state is valid is yet another example of Western intellectual arrogance. There are civilizational states too, which have evolved into modern nation states.’ He pushes his chair back, and with no regard for the fine sensibilities at hand, the chair screeches rudely. ‘The idea of Bharata, Bharatavarsha, is extremely old. And since its spatial contours have been recorded in text after text, it seems strange that strategies which were clearly meant to aid a colonial regime continue to find academic echo. Excuse me’…
…. ‘I am going to give you one example. There is a text in Sanskrit, called the Natyashastra. It is an ancient encyclopaedic work on dramaturgy. Some compare it to Aristotle’s Poetics but that’s plain silly, because the English translation of the Poetics is about thirty pages while the Natyashastra is immense. About thirty-six chapters averaging eighty to hundred verses each. It’s very elaborate. Anyway, what I want to say is that the Natyashastra is by no means a religious text. It concerns arts and aesthetics. Chapter 14 of the Natyashastra concerns regional variations in performance. There are all the different parts of India mentioned in it – it could be adapted to a Doordarshan programme talking about our unity in diversity in a blink, you know. And this is but one example. Anyway, enjoy your dinner,’ I say. ‘We must be off.’”
Indeed, a civilizational bond unites Bharata in a sacred, as well as the material sense since times immemorial, and this has been documented in our history and culture pages. In fact, this unity is perhaps the deepest kind of coherence the world has seen. One of the best examples of the output that arose from, and promoted such a consonance is the Natya Shastra, whose author, Bharata, and its foremost commentator, Abhinava Gupta, are mentioned as hailing from Kashmir. A strong validation of the strength and reach of this civilizational coherence would be a demonstration of its ability to transcend the ultimate ‘tyranny of distance’ in India – between Kashmir and Kanyakumari, and show that Tamizh and Sanskrit, two languages that seem furthest apart to so many Indians today, are rooted in this very same unity.
In fact, we hope to go beyond this and argue that Tamizh and Sanskrit share a bond that is deeper and longer than other Indian languages.
Bharatam and Agattiyam
The book excerpts in the previous section mention Natya Shastra and its regional variations and the enormous scope and range of this amazing work. The Sanskrit work of Natya Shastra, which was created well before the common era, is credited to Bharata Muni. A most ancient Tamizh work that is available is the Tolkappiyamby Tolkappiyar. The 13th century commentator Adiyaarkunallar mentions that there were two major Tamizh works before Tolkappiyam: Agattiyam and Bharatam, but were no longer available in their original form. The former refers to the work of Bharata Muni, and the latter represents the main body of work of Agastya Rishi . Interestingly, some contemporary Tamizh authors speculate in the opposite direction, namely, Natya Shastra came from the south, and theorize their own interpretation of Bharata. The focus of this article is not on some self-defeating linguistic crab race. Rather, we are trying to better understand the reasons for a consonance in the deep and sacred thoughts expressed in Tamizh and Sanskrit. Toward this, we start at the very beginning with Sage Agastya.
Agastya and the origins of Tamizh
Rishi Agastya is mentioned by the Mahakavi, Subramaniya Bharati in his poem on Tamizh Thaai (‘Mother Tamil’, around 1919). Here Tamizh is revered as the daughter of Shiva , and a peer of Sanskrit, and Agastya delights in the knowledge of Tamizh. An ancient belief of the Tamizhs was that Sanskrit and Tamizh come from the same source – the sounds emanating from different sides of Shiva’s Damru (drum). The knowledge of Sanskrit went to Paanini (the ‘Siva Sutras’), and Tamizh to Agastya. Note that Shiva is one who has neither beginning nor end. Therefore, Tamizh and Sanskrit being rooted in Shiva, have no independent existence. Since there was no ‘other’, the question of one language ‘dominating’ the other was moot and both languages co-existed in mutual respect. Let us examine some more significant mentions. Prior to Bharathiyaar, let us study the greatest ever Tamizh work, the Ramavataram, which is the Tamizh version of the Ramayana by the poet Kambar (circa 12th century CE). In the Aranya Kandam , we learn about the prowess of Agastya, and the beauty and profundity of Tamizh, which was given to Agastya by Shiva himself. From the epic about an avatar of Vishnu, we learn that Tamizh contains within it the knowledge of Shiva.
If we go further back, it appears that Paranjothi (the commander-in-chief of Pallava king Narasimhavarman (7th century CE), and one of the greatest Tamizh rulers ever) who became a great saint and authored the Thiruvilayadal Puranam, mentioned these points too . Furthermore, the great Kalidasa (between 1st to 4th century CE) alludes to Agastya Rishi in Southern India in his Sanskrit work Raghuvamsam . Similarly, the dance and music traditions of the Tamizhs are also quite ancient.
The Origins of Music and Dance and its connection to Tamizh and Kalacharam
Agastya also gave music and dance to the Tamizhs. Here is a beautiful story of how this happened :
Agastya was received by Indra, the king of Devalokam, to join in a celebration (‘Indra Vizha‘) after the defeat of Vritra. Urvasi, the celestial dancer who was giving a performance caught a glimpse of Indra’s son Jayanta in the audience. In that moment, she fell in love with him. Narada Muni duly obliged by playing a off note on his Veena, causing Urvasi to lose her step. Agastya, being the master of dance and music (recall he was instructed by Shiva, who is also Nataraja) considered this an insult. He cursed Urvasi to be born on earth. Narada Muni’s Veena too came down to earth. Some say that Jayanta too was cursed to be born on earth, and Madhavi (the danseuse in Ilango Adigal‘s Silapathikaram) was the daughter of the mortal Jayanta and Urvashi. Dr. R. Nagaswamy mentions that a special school for music and dance in Southern India was created by Agastya following the concepts set forth by Bharata . When we enter the time frame of recorded history, Dr. Nagaswamy notes a continuous development of dance since 1st century CE in Tamil Nadu.
It is said that the celestial dancers Urvasi and Rambha personify dance, and music, respectively. It is apparent that since ancient times, Tamizhs viewed, without any tension, the material-transactional world as being seamlessly integrated with the sacred-transcendental. In recent times, the great 20th century mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, attributed his astonishing mathematical insights to the Goddess Namagiri. Thus, Tamizh, like Sanskrit, was always rooted in this unity that is integral in nature. There is no dichotomy of independent existences for sacred and secular domains whose conflicts have to be reconciled to synthesize a solidarity, which is more emblematic of western thought systems .
Why do we bring up dance and music when we talk about language?
Tamizh is not merely text and literature, but is recognized as ‘Muthamizh’ that consists of Iyal, Isai, and Naatiyam, i.e., the trinity of literature, music, and dance. Muthamizh denotes the integral knowledge system we mentioned earlier. Beyond the ability to parse texts and obtain book knowledge, India gives prime importance to embodied knowing, where knowledge of both the material and the transcendental realm can be gained by direct personal experience. Indian music and dance also serve this purpose. However, these elements of Muthamizh cannot be fully mastered by treating them as independently existing subjects. In our culture page, we highlighted the inter-connectedness of Indian art, literature, science, economics, etc., which arises naturally from the Indic view of an interdependent cosmos. The ever growing accumulation of knowledge and wisdom via textual, oral, and embodied learning possible via Muthamizh gives us kalacharam, the distinct cultural framework of the Tamizhs.
A quick recap of what we have studied so far: we recognized the dharma civilizational origins of Tamizh, its dance and music, and its Kalacharam. Furthermore, its ancient ties to Sanskrit is recognized in itihasa and has been reaffirmed by distinguished Tamizh commentators over two millennium. Why then are so many of today’s Indians, including Tamizhs, unaware of such facts? In order to learn the reasons, we annotate and briefly discuss some fact-driven conclusions presented by Michel Danino in his essay . Please refer to the linked article for complete details.
How did we forget this?
Demagoguery- a key reason for contemporary ignorance of basic facts
“…. First, despite all evidence to the contrary, they still insist on the Aryan invasion theory in its most violent version, turning most North Indians and upper-caste Indians into descendants of the invading Aryans who overran the indigenous Dravidians, and Sanskrit into a deadly rival of Tamil. Consequently, they assert that Tamil is more ancient than Sanskrit, and civilization in the South older than in the North. Thus recently, Tamil Nadu’s Education minister decried in the State Assembly those who go “to the extent of saying that Dravidian civilization is part of Hinduism” and declared, “The Dravidian civilization is older than the Aryan.” It is not uncommon to hear even good Tamil scholars utter such claims. ”
Note that the Aryan/Dravidian racial dichotomy is a relatively new creation that was introduced during the British occupation. This was a period of unimaginable despair. India was being looted using a brutal centralized system of taxation, and simultaneously, its decentralized education and socio-economic systems were being systematically uprooted. Traditional livelihoods were lost and people were forced to compete for food, resources, and jobs. In such an atmosphere, it became relatively easy to sow the seeds of doubt, tension, and discord.
It is worthwhile to briefly diverge here to mention that those who actually put their lives on the line and fought against the British uncovered this truth early. Although the video clip showing the climax of the 1959 movie ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman‘ is less famous than some other scenes in this film, it assumes importance in the contemporary context. It contains a brief but stirring reversal of the gaze upon the predatory colonial mindset, followed by an exhortation to unite against them and to not fall prey to their divisive agenda.
Here, Kattabomman urges his countrymen to not turn sepoy and serve the occupier. He implores even those who betrayed him: the colonial masters who are here today will be gone tomorrow; do not live your life based on their words, for we, who are born in this same soil, have to live with each other in dignity long after they’re gone.
Hard scientific proof via archaeology and material evidence
“… Now, it so happens that archaeological findings in Tamil Nadu, though scanty, are nevertheless decisive. Indeed, we now have a broad convergence between literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence…. Therefore the good minister’s assertion as to the greater ancientness of the “Dravidian civilization” finds no support on the ground..”
“In order to test his second assertion that that civilization is outside Hinduism, or the common claim that so-called “Dravidian culture” is wholly separate from so-called “Aryan” culture, let us take an unbiased look at the cultural backdrop of early Tamil society and try to make out some of its mainstays..”
.…All in all, the material evidence, though still meagre, makes it clear that Hindu concepts and cults were already integrated in the society of the early historic period of Tamil Nadu side by side with Buddhist and Jain elements. More excavations, for which there is great scope, are certain to confirm this, especially if they concentrate on ancient places of worship, as at Gudimallam…” [emphasis mine]
After presenting archaeological and material evidence of the Indian civilizational roots of Tamizh culture, Danino proceeds to discuss the literary evidence in the Sangam literature. Part-2 of this article is focused on this subject. Before we proceed, let us summarize what we have covered so far to set up the concluding part of this study.
Summary and Conclusions
To the best of our knowledge, there is no factual basis for either of the 19th century theories: the Aryan theory of Max Mueller, and the Dravidian theory of the Catholic Bishop, Robert Caldwell that was postulated a few years later. There is no mention of either in prior texts or itihasa, in Tamizh or Sanskrit.
Consequently, the argument of whether ‘Aryan’ preceded or succeeded ‘Dravidian’ is speculative at best and resides in the domain of conjecture.
Hindu, as well as some Buddhist and Jain concepts (all of them dharmic thought systems) were deeply integrated into Tamizh thought since the earliest of times.
Some of the greatest Tamizh scholars and literary figures throughout history recognized the origin of Tamizh and Sanskrit from the same source. These languages are anchored in dharma. Tamizh receives high praise in the Ramayana, which also exemplifies a Shiva-Vishnu harmony.
Ancient tamizh thought is rooted in a unity that seamlessly integrates the material/transactional with the spiritual/sacred. There is no dichotomy from an Indic perspective.
There exists a long and continuous history of Tamizh literature, dance, and music that are revered as Muthamizh. The resultant cultural framework is Kalacharam that is both ancient and living, mirroring Sanskriti.