The Ramayana in the Theology and Experience of the Srivaishnava Community

The Poetry of the Alvars and the Commentaries of Periyavaccan Pillai

Vasudha Narayanan
Department of Religion
University of Florida

[Originally appeared in the Journal of Vaisnava Studies, vol 2, no 4, Fall 1994.]

The Poetry of the alvars

Between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. several devotees of Visnu (alvars) who lived primarily in the area now called Tamilnadu, travelled all over the southern part of India, singing his praise. These poems were compiled into an anthology by the eleventh century A.D. and are known today as the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, or the "Sacred Collect of Four Thousand Verses". Since the eleventh century A.D., these songs has been considered to be "revealed" and have been venerated as the Tamil Veda by the Srivaisnavas. The Srivaisnava community saw (and continues to see) itself as inheriting the "dual vedanta"; i.e. the "Tamil Veda" of the alvars and the Sanskrit Vedanta which was interpreted by its most important acarya, Ramanuja (circa A.D. 1017-1137).

The Tamil poems of the twelve alvars reveal their love for Visnu in all his manifestations. The alvars are cognizant with the mythology of the Sanskrit epics and several puranas and also seem to have access to other traditions from which they draw stories. While Krishna figures prominently in their poems, it would be quite misleading to call it "Krishna bhakti". On the other hand, it has been noted by historians that while Rama is mentioned in early Tamil poems (1st to 5th century A.D.,) he does not seem to be very important. It is quite remarkable then that knowledge of the Ramayana as well as devotion to Rama became as widespread as it did by the time of the alvars.

What then is the significance of the Ramayana for the alvars? Given the paucity of references in earlier classical Tamil poetry, the awareness of the Ramayana story that the alvars seem to have, as well as the in depth knowledge of the various incidents is striking in itself. Even more important is the fact that they seem to have had access to another tradition, possibly oral ("Q"?), from which they drew stories. Secondly, we see (for the first time in Tamil literature) poets actually participating in the story of Rama by identifying themselves as and then talking in the guise of various characters in the epic. Rama is also the only character in alvar poetry to whom the poets sing from the viewpoint of another male; Kulacekara alvar puts himself in the place of Dasaratha grieving over the departure of Rama, and Tirumankai alvar actually identifies himself with the defeated raksasas of Lanka seeking Rama's protection and then sings through their voices. The alvars also do not show exclusive devotion to Rama or to Krishna and we must note its absence; both Rama and Krishna are portrayed as two of the several manifestations of Visnu. We also see that Rama is not excluded form the "parental" or erotic sentiments expressed by the alvars (usually Krishna is the focus of all this attention in later North Indian poetry We see a lullaby addressed to Rama and several of the alvars pine for Rama and for Krishna. More important, the figure of Rama is identified with the lord enshrined in a temple. the image itself is not in any way lesser than the incarnation; to the alvar, the enshrined image, Rama, Krishna or any of Visnu's manifestations seem to be equal. The whole lullaby of Kausalya for Rama, composed by Kulacekara alvar, is addressed to a generic form of Visnu in a temple at Tirukan(n)apuram.

References to the Ramayana in the poems of the alvars

We can see the alvars devotion to Rama manifested in two ways; through hundreds of allusions to Rama, and, through their participation in the story of Rama by singing through the voices of various characters in the Ramayana. In Tirumankai alvar's Periya Tirumoli alone (1180 verses, and constituting over a quarter of the entire corpus of alvar poetry), there are about 106 allusions to Rama or to incidents from the Ramayana. Apart from these allusions, we also have about six different "sets" of poems (about sixty three verses) where the words are spoken by the alvar in the guise of a character form the Ramayana.

Of the hundreds of references to the story of Rama, the incident most frequently alluded to is the actual killing of Ravana and the destruction of Lanka. Thus in the Periya Tirumoli of Tirumankai alvar, out of approximately 106 references to Rama or to an incident from the Ramayana, over 51 deal with the killing of Ravana/destruction of Lanka. The alvars seem cognizant of all the main incidents of the Ramayana, and then some. The composite story closely resembles the Sanskrit Ramayana of Valmiki. We have references to the birth of Rama in Ayodhya, going forth with Visvamitra, killing of Tataka, protecting Visvamitra's sacrifice, breaking the bow and winning Sita, a (hunchback) poisoning Kaikeyi's mind, the exile, Rama departing with Laksmana and Sita, friendship with Suha, Dasaratha's grief, giving the sandals to Bharata, acquaintance with Agastya and getting a bow from him, dwelling in Citrakuta, anger against Kakasura and the crow seeking refuge, Surpanakha's nose being cut, the sighting of the magic deer, Sita's abduction, friendship with Sugriva and the killing of Vali, the chopping of seven trees, Hanuman being sent in search of Sita, anger at the sea king, the building of a bridge across the sea, Kumbhakarna's tendency to sleep, the killing of Ravana and the chopping of his shoulders, the sack of Lanka, the grief of Mandodari, the handing over of Lanka to Vibhisana, etc. Kulacekara alvar also mentions several incidents from the Uttara Ramayana.

In addition to being conversant with these incidents, the alvars also allude to a few other incidents that are not found in the Sanskrit Ramayana. I have been able to identify at least four such incidents, but there are several other places where there is a considerable amount of "poetic license" involved, either in fanciful imagination or in the format of the poems themselves.

The first of these incidents is referred to by Poykayalvar, Peyalvar, and Tirumalisai alvar, chronologically, the earliest alvars. Listen to two of the verses:
        As a babe, lying on the lap,
        of the four-faced one
                who established the precious vedas,
        "Seven heads plus three", thus the lord counted
        the heads of the wicked demon.
                The lord's feet are our refuge;
        A mighty fortress is he,
                who holds aloft the discus.
                                Munram Tiruvantati 77 & 78

        Long ago, as a baby,
                placed on (Brahma's) lap
        He counted on his toes
                the heads of that worthless demon.
        This child dwells,
                on Venkata, the beautiful hill...
                                Nanmukan Tiruvantati 44.
Evidently, the allusion is to Ravana who in disguise seeks a boon from Brahma; Visnu in the form of a baby, lies on Brahma's lap and tries to signal and warn Brahma that it is Ravana who stands in front of him, by pointing to his ten toes. Visnu was probably trying to warn Brahma against giving rash boons to Ravana but the alvar references do not make clear if Brahma got the point.
 
And then there is the story of the little squirrel helping Rama; Tirumalisai alvar says:
        I am not like the little squirrel, which
        as the monkeys shoved and heaved the mountains,
        so spontaneously dipped in the water; 
        (With its wet fur) it rolled on the sand,
        and ran back into the waves of the sea,
        Concentrating only on building the bridge.

        But my heart is hard as the trees.
                        I grieve that
        even my heart did not desire
                        to serve the lord of Rangam
                                        Tirumalai 27

When the monkeys were helping Rama build a bridge, a little squirrel climbed all over, rolled on the sand and dipped in the sea, trying to deposit the sand from his back into the water, and help in the construction of a bridge. The verse does not say this, but we know from oral tradition that Rama, delighted, picked up the squirrel and stroked it; and as every child who knows the story in Tamilnadu can tell you, one can still see the imprint of Rama's three fingers in the three lines that are obvious on the back of every self-respecting Indian squirrel.

When Hanuman is sent as a messenger to Sita, he relates several incidents to identify himself as an envoy of Rama. In Periyalvar's Tirumoli (3-10, 1 to 10), the poet talks in the guise of Hanuman who narrates several stories to Sita, to prove that he was sent by Rama. Hanuman mentions many incidents, and one mentioned in the second verse is not found in Valmiki's Ramayana.
        The testimony of Hanuman:
        O lady, beautiful as a garland 
                bursting with blossoming flowers
                grant me leave to bow at your feet.
        Graciously listen to my words.
        O lady, gentle as a fawn,
                with eyes like twin flowers,
                a perfect match for each other,
        Recognize my story:
                Once, during the night,
                when it was time for sweet experiences,
                taking a huge garland of jasmine flowers, 
                you bound (him), in your house.
        This is my proof.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-10-2
The final line is to urge Sita to believe in the veracity of the narrator.

And finally, we also have a reference to Rama sharing a meal with Hanuman; apparently an exercise in his accessibility:
        He did not dismiss the great son of Wind
                as a monkey, as a beast,
                as a being from a different class.
        He held him in great esteem
        And with his love flowing greater than the sea,
        He said: The good that you have done for me
                is beyond recompense!
        (O Hanuman), my friend of soothing words
        I shall eat with you--immediately!
                                Periya Tirumoli 5-8-2

I have not been able to ascertain the origin of these stories. They are not in any of the Sanskrit epics or Puranas and we have to assume the existence of other works that are now not available, or of an oral tradition in the South from where the alvars have drawn these incidents. These seem to be complete incidents which can be quoted and are different from say, poetic imagination and rhetoric. We do find examples of the latter; Periyalvar in describing the greatness of the hill Govardhana (which Krishna lifts) alludes to the fame of Hanuman:
        Like the king of the serpents opening his many hoods
                and supporting the vast worlds on it,
        The five fingers of Damodara's hand opened
                like the petals of a flower
                and held aloft Govardhana.
        This is the hill where the monkeys carry their babies
                and sing in praise of Hanuman
                who caused such havoc in Lanka,
        and lull their little ones to sleep.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-5-7
Clearly the whole notion of monkeys on Govardhana singing lullabies in praise of Hanuman stems form the imagination of Periyalvar as does the whole picture of Krishna's fingers resembling the five hoods of serpent supporting the worlds.

A consideration of the poems located in the Ramayana milieu

In some very unusual sets of verses in the Sacred Collect, we hear the poet speaking in the voice of a character in the Ramayana. The common pattern in both North and South Indian devotion (and certainly one that we are more familiar with) is for the poet to identify himself/herself as a cowherd girl, or as a "heroine" in love with Visnu. In the literature of the alvars, we find a few poems spoken by a cowherd girl, but many more in which the poet identifies himself as a "heroine" seen in the early love poems in Tamil. In the songs of Periyalvar and Tirumankay alvar, we find several "maternal" poems in which the poet speaks in the guise of Yasoda. But there are about six sets of poems in the alvar literature (amounting to sixty three verses) where the poet speaks as a character in the Ramayana. Thirty three of these poems are seen the Perumal Tirumoli of Kulacekara alvar who according to the Srivaisnava tradition, was a great devotee of Rama. A popular story in the Srivaisnava hagiographical literature says that when the Ramayana was being narrated, Kulacekara, a king, was so overwhelmed by the thought of Rama going to war with his monkey-brigade, that he immediately ordered his troops to go march in aid of Rama. Kulacekara's poems are rather unique: he does not (as we may well imagine) speak in the words of Sita's love for Rama, but through the love of Rama's father and mother. In about eleven verses, he glorifies Visnu/Rama by praising his deeds and possessions in the context of a lullaby sung by Rama's mother Kausalya:
        The words of Kausalya:

        The other day,
        As a baby, on the banyan leaf,
                You swallowed the worlds.
        You killed Vali,
                and gave the kingdom to his brother;
        O dark gem of Kanapuram
                where the waves wash gems to the shore;
        O ruler of the city called Ali!
                O you who abide in Ayodhya!
        Ta le lo!
                                Perumal Tirumoli 8-7
The refrain of the song, "talelo" identifies this as a Tamil lullaby and it is somewhat unusual to see it addressed to Rama; it is usually Krishna who is seen as a baby by the alvars.

Kulacekara alvar then goes on to re-live the distress of Dasaratha when Rama departs to the forest. These verses do not parallel any other mystical verses that I know of in Tamil devotion; we usually encounter love in a feminine mode and witness the love of a mother or lover; but for the first time here, the father gets into the act.
        The words of Dasaratha:

        Without hearing him call me "Father" with pride and with love,
        Without clasping his chest adorned with gems to mine,
        Without embracing him, without smoothing his forehead,
        Without seeing his graceful gait, majestic like the elephant,
        Without seeing his face (glowing) like the lotus,
                I, wretched one,
                having lost my son, my lord,
                Still live.
                                Perumal Tirumoli 9-6.
The final set of verses in which Kulacekara alvar speaks of Rama is one which the Srivaisnavas have considered to be a miniature Ramayana in itself. The poet speaks here like Valmiki: he recounts the entire story of the Ramayana, including the exploits of Lava and Kusa, the sons of Rama, introduced in the Uttara kanda of (Valmiki's?) Ramayana. These verses are also different because the poet sings them to the lord enshrined in the city of Tillai Citrakutam (modern Cidambaram). To Kulacekhara alvar, the lord enshrined in this temple is Rama, the same Rama who was born in Ayodhya and then resided in Citrakuta during his forest sojourn:
        In the beautiful city of Ayodhya, encircled by towers,
        A flame that lit up all the worlds appeared in the Solar race,
        and gave life to all the heavens.
        This warrior, with dazzling eyes,
        Rama, dark as a cloud, the First one, my only lord
        is in Citrakuta, the City of Tillai.
                When is the day
                when my eyes behold him
                and rejoice?
                                Perumal Tirumoli 10-1.
Periyalvar, who usually writes in a Krishanaite milieu also has eleven verses in which he relives scenes form the Ramayana as Hanuman did when he was presenting his credentials to Sita in Asokavana. We have already quoted a verse from this set in the context of identifying stories "unique" to the alvar tradition.

Finally, we have some twenty verses in Tirumankai alvar's Periya Tirumoli which again are at least as unique as the verses sung by Dasaratha. The Periya Tirumoli songs are voiced not by any loved one of Rama who misses him or wants to place his or her love on record, but by a group of demon associates (raksasas) of Ravana, defeated in the battle at Lanka. These raksasas now seek protection and refuge:
        The dance of the raksasas:

                The other day, our king
                entered the forest of Dandaka,
                He abducted the perfect beauty,
                the chaste woman, and was ruined.
                We are not to blame,
                        Do not kill, O king of your clan!
                Our tribe has been ruined by a woman,
                You have given life to the gods.
                        And now we fear;
                        O son of Dasaratha,
                We beat our drums, We dance our surrender.


                Our Ravana,
                King with long red-gold hair,
                carried away a goddess called Sita;
                Look, he held her captive
                in that fragrant grove.
                        This was his undoing.
                Kumbha, and now Nikumbha
                        have fallen in war.
                Death comes in the form of a man,
                Do not slay us with you bow,
                        We fear,
                We beat our drums, we dance our surrender.
                                Periya Tirumoli 10-2-3 and 5
To the best of my knowledge I am not aware of any other devotee who speaks in the guise of a defeated raksasa. Besides the sentiments expressed, the poems are also literary curiosity; the refrain which seems to suggest a kind of dance in the face of defeat is not found elsewhere in Tamil literature.

Rama, Krishna and the lord enshrined in a Temple

One of the more prominent features in the hymns of the alvars is that exclusive devotion to either Rama or Krishna is not seen. Rama is identified with the lord enshrined in a place as well as with several other incarnations. The same Kulacekara who talks in the guise of Kausalya and Dasaratha, also sings as Devaki who missed Krishna's childhood completely and as a cow-herd girl complaining of Krishna's lies. He praises Rama, Krishna, and several other incarnations, but we must notice that only Rama and Krishna are addressed in a 'mythic situation' (i.e. spoken to by a character in the story). Kulacekara sings of the lord of Venkatam, and other sacred places and identifies the lord enshrined in Tillai Citrakutam as Rama. Kausalya's entire lullaby is addressed to Rama who is then identified as the lord at Tirukanapuram, and then as the lord of the town called Ali and the king of Ayodhya (Perumal Tirumoli 9-6; see p. 7). Periyalvar whose songs in the first part of Periyalvar Tirumoli depict an intense love for Krishna, goes on to speak the words of Rama's messenger to Sita, Hanuman. The switching between Rama and Krishna is sharply seen in one set of verses written by Periyalvar; the verses are the kind of folk songs sung while girls play a game resembling badminton and the songs alternately praise Rama and Krishna, almost resembling the ball tossed from side to side, with each team singing the glory of one manifestation. The concluding verse, bearing the 'signature' of the poet is particularly telling and shows the equality of Rama and Krishna in the mind of the poet; he has sung equally of both of them, at least in that particular set.
                Those who recite these five songs plus five,
                composed in pure Tamil by Visnucittan
                        of the Southern New Town,
                In praise of the Nanda's son and Kakustha,
                        (the songs of the glowing girls,
                         flying in their game)
                will obtain everything that they desire.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-9-11
It would be quite misleading then, to ask if the alvars were devotees of Krishna or of Rama. Exclusive preference is not indicated; rather we encounter a situation where the lord enshrined in a temple is held to be extremely important and this local deity is then identified as Visnu and all his manifestations. Consider the following verse sung by Periyalvar to the lord enshrined in the temple at Srirangam:
                This is the temple of he who became
                the divine fish, tortoise, boar, lion and the dwarf.
                He became Rama in three forms, he became Kanna
                and as Kalki he will end (these worlds).
                This is Srirangam where the swan and its mate
                swing on the lotus blossoms and embrace on flowery beds,
                and revel in the red pollen strewn around the river.
                                Periyalvar Tirumoli 4-9-9
The verse makes it quite clear that the lord of Srirangam is the same one who is seen in the ten manifestations. We also have a list of the ten 'official' incarnations, with the 'Rama of the three forms' clearly indicating Parasurama, Rama and Balarama. Krishna (Kanna) obviously is one of these ten incarnations. In this connection, we must also note a significance of the Srirangam temple to the Rama avatara. The traditional history of Srirangam connects the manifestation of the deity in the temple to Vibhisana. Vibhisana wanted to take an image of Rama to Lanka; Rama did not want to refuse his devotee, but really did not want to reside in Lanka which had caused so much of grief to Sita. So through a series of events, he made sure that his 'image' i.e., a reclining Visnu got fixed and established in Srirangam itself en route to Lanka. The alvars seem to be aware of some form of this legend. Periyalvar refers to the Srirangam temple as the place where the lord reclines and 'directs his flower like eyes towards the fortified city of Lanka, for the sake of Vibhisana...' (Periyalvar Tirumoli 4-9-2). Tontaratipoti alvar talks specifically of Visnu reclining with his back to the North and facing Lanka to the South, an axis in which we normally do not find the deity in a temple (Tirumalai 19). He reinforces this theme in his other work Tirupalliyellucci ("The Waking Up of the Lord from the Bed"; a panegyric usually addressed to a king and which becomes a popular ritual associated with the temple at Tirupati in later centuries). In this work, Tontaratipoti alvar sings a song of praise to the lord at the Srirangam temple; he addresses him as "the king of Ayodhya" and as "the bull among the Celestials who, with his bow, ruined the whole clan of people at Lanka" (verse 4). In the next verse, he describes the temple at Srirangam as the place where the "king of Lanka serves the Lord." We can also keep in mind that this was the alvar who spoke of the squirrel helping Rama to build the bridge and he seems to have knowledge of various legends and stories that become characteristic of the Tamil versions of the Ramayana.

While we can say that the alvars devotion includes devotion to Rama and to Krishna and that one is not rejected in favour of another, we may note the difference in the temper of the poems addressed to Rama and to Krishna. We do find 'parental' poems addressed to both, but there are definitely more addressed to Krishna. The erotic poems are addressed to Krishna primarily, but perhaps what is significant is that Rama is not completely absent for the scene. The difference in erotic sentiments roused by the two incarnations seems to be one of degree, rather than being only present in the case of Krishna and completely absent in for Rama. We must also keep in mind that the poets wrote erotic verses to the deity enshrined in a temple and then addressed this god as Rama and as Krishna, so the matter is slightly more complicated than just talking of the incarnations by themselves. Let us consider two poems written by the same poet: Nammalvar, a poet who is considered to be the most important alvar by the Srivaisnava community. In the first poem Nammalvar talks in the guise of a 'heroine' pining for Kakustha (Rama) and in the second, (which is overtly erotic), he speaks in the guise of a cowherd girl talking to Krishna:
                The words of the girl pining for Rama:

                My heart, even you are not on my side!
                        The long night
                        stretches out like an aeon
                        without the break of dawn.
                If my Kakustha
                        with his shining, angry bow
                        does not come
                I shall kill myself,
                        --I don't know how.
                        I've been born as a woman
                        sinner that I am.
                Even the sun does not rise;
                        He hides his face,
                        refusing to see such grief.
                                Tiruvaymoli 5-4-3 and 4, line 1.

                The words of the cowherd girl:

                You were gone the whole day,
                grazing cows, Kanna!
                Your sweet words burn my soul.
                Evening tramples like a rogue elephant,
                and the fragrance of the jasmine buds,
                unleashing my desires, blows on me.
                Embrace my beautiful breasts
                with the fragrance of the wild jasmine
                on your radiant chest.
                Give me the nectar of your mouth,
                Adorn my lowly head
                with your jewelled lotus hands.
                                Tiruvaymoli 10-3-5
In both poems the dramatic background is different from the poet's normal sphere of action. In the poem where Nammalvar confesses 'her' love for Rama, he speaks in the role of a 'heroine', a frozen character from early Tamil poetry, but in the second poem we see him talking like a cowherd girl. We must note however, that some of the early Tamil literary conventions that are seen in Cankam poetry are present in these poems. Both verses portray a situation where the lover is or has been absent; a situation that is called mullai ("jasmine") in early Tamil works and which represents the state of 'separation' in Cankam poetry. This is one of five basic situations in love which was represented by a particular landscape, flower, time of day etc.. Separation is always portrayed as occurring at night or the evening and the jasmine flower invariably symbolizes this situation of love. In this connection, we may recall a verse that we quoted earlier: Hanuman describing a particular incident to Sita in Asokavana, mentions that she had bound her husband playfully with a garland of jasmine flowers. Sita is obviously in Lanka, separated from Rama. The mention of jasmine flowers will reinforce in the minds of the Tamil audience, the grief of separation that Sita feels. The alvars are sensitive to the associative structure of the early Tamil love situations and landscape representations and use these in their recounting of the Ramayana story.

There are not too many verses where Nammalvar talks in the guise of a cowherd girl; in fact in about 1102 verses of his Tiruvaymoli only thirty three are addressed to Krishna directly in this mode. The eroticism in these cases however seems more intense than in the rest of the poem and erotic frustration occurs more often in the case of Krishna than with Rama. On the other hand, we see verses which describe Rama's urge to protect or even direct requests for protection from Rama. Earlier, we noted the poems spoken by the raksasas; Nammalvar talks about the protection afforded by Rama even to the inanimate objects of Ayodhya:
                In this earth born from the creator,
                should we learn of anyone but Rama?
                Starting with the blades of grass, and every ant.
                and everything else, without exception,
                        he raised
                everyone and everything that lived and moved
                and everything that stood motionless
                        in that wonderful city of Ayodhya,
                        to the highest state.
                                Tiruvaymoli 7-5-1.
The dignity and valor of Rama are spoken of more than his childhood or teasing behavior; on the other hand the alvars rejoice in both Krishna's childhood and his bravery; nowhere is it more clear than in the lullabies. Consider the lullaby of Yasoda for Krishna and the lullaby of Kausalya for Rama:
                Yasoda's Lullaby:

                A colorful little cradle of hammered gold,
                studded with gems and intertwined with diamonds
                Brahma brought with love for you,

                My little dwarf Talelo
                O lord who paced the worlds, Talelo.
                        Periyalvar Tirumoli 1-3-1.

                Kausalya's Lullaby:

                You created all the worlds on the lotus flower,
                You bent your bow and split the broad breast of Tataka
                        O dark gem of Kanapuram,
                You grant the desires of all who see you.
                O ruler of all the eight directions,
                        O descendent of Raghu,
                        Ta le lo
                                Perumal Tirumoli 8-2
Yasoda, in this and in other verses constantly reminds the listeners that Krishna is a baby; Kausalya sings of Rama's exploits. Despite the tone of these verses however, the alvars never let one forget that the incarnation as Rama was an exercise in the lord's accessibility and compassion; he did not have to undergo all that he did while on earth (Tiruvaymoli 7-5-2); He trekked the forests followed by Sita; and yet, this is the lord whose feet are revered by the immortal beings (Periya Tirumoli 11-5-1). One may say that the incarnation of Rama stands midpoint between the lord's remoteness in his other incarnations and his rather remarkable camaraderie as Krishna.

Part 2

Periyavaccan Pillai, "The Emperor among Commentators."

In the eleventh century A.D., Natamuni, who is considered to be the first preceptor (acarya) of the Srivaisnava community, apparently collected all the songs of the alvars and instituted their singing in major temples of South India. The fifth and the most important acarya of the Srivaisnava community was Ramanuja and according to the hagiographical tradition, he learnt the poems of the alvars from specific teachers. He later went to the sacred town of Tirupati to learn the Ramayana over the period of one year form his uncle Tirumalai Nampi. According to tradition, he commissioned his cousin Pillan to write the first commentary on the most important work of the alvars: Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli.

Periyavaccan Pillai in the thirteenth century was the first person who wrote a commentary on all the works of the alvars. As mentioned earlier, he was devoted to Rama and the Ramayana figures prominently in his writings. Apart from his commentaries on all the works of the alvars, he also compiled a short work called "Pacurappati Ramayanam," ("Ramayana according the verses of the alvars") which presents a composite version of the whole Ramayana story out of phrases and lines used by the alvars. Periyavaccan Pillai rather cleverly, strings together about 235 phrases from the alvar poetry and creates an entirely new work. He also wrote a special commentary in manipravala (a mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit, with both Tamil and Sanskrit proof texts) on his favorite (and what he considers to be theologically important) verses from Valmiki's Ramayana.

Apart from these works directly focussed on the Ramayana, he also introduces quotations and allusions to the epic wherever possible. Thus even while commenting on the Tiruppavai of Antal -- a poem set in the Krishnaite milieu -- Periyavaccan Pillai still sees it fit to quote extensively from the Ramayana to make his points. In the commentary on the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai quotes from the Ramayana and alludes to various incidents from it while elucidating twenty nine of the thirty verses in the poem; only the last signature verse does not come in for elaboration with some choice quote from the commentator's favorite text. In all, just about half the Sanskrit proof texts that the commentator uses are from the Ramayana; a no mean feat, when one remembers that the entire poem is addressed to Krishna.

Let me quote two incidents to illustrate Periyavaccan Pillai's style in his Tiruppavai commentary. The poem itself is addressed to Krishna. Remember that in all the thirty verses the poet herself refers to Rama only twice -- and indirectly at that -- and once alludes to the sleep of Kumbhakarna. And yet the commentator goes out of his way to draw 'relevant' episodes from the epic to make his point. In the first instance the reference to the Ramayana is almost trivial and made in passing, but the allusion is typical of Periyavaccan Pillai's style. Verse 21 of the Tiruppaval mentions that Krishna's village has 'big cows'; the commentator says: "These cows grow at the mere touch of Krishna, like Sri Satrunjaya." Satrunjaya was Rama's elephant; (the "Sri" is added as an honorific) and apparently the elephant flourished in Rama's care. We may note that this reference reflects the personal preference of Periyavaccan Pillai; a commentary on the Tiruppavai written immediately after his, and one which in fact is twice as long as the earlier one does not include this choice reference to Rama's elephant.

The second example is slightly more complicated, but again the commentator cannot resist quoting from the Ramayana.

    Antal's call to her friend:
    "Lady, you slumber even as we sing of Kesava..." -- Tiruppavai, v.7

    Commentary:
    "Kesava"...He kills our enemies...the lord is called Kesava because, he, filled with love for his devotee incarnated as Krishna and killed Kesi which was tormenting people. We thought that you would upon hearing of his victory, rise and embrace him even as (it is said in the Ramayana) "Sita embraced her husband..." (Ramayana, Aranya Kanda 30-39). That is, after he killed (the demon) Kara, the Holy daughter of King Janaka embraced the Son of the Emperor.

The name Kesava is interpreted as the killer of the demon Kesi, but Periyavaccan Pillai's association is with Rama's killing the demon Kara and the reaction of Sita after victory.

While many of the allusions to the Ramayana are not central to Periyavaccan Pillai's argument, we must note that there are other significant ways in which he uses the epic to illustrate some important and characteristic themes of Srivaisnava theology. These include (a) his using of paradigmatic characters from the Ramayana as models for the human soul in its relationship with the lord, (b) the difference in attitudes towards Rama and Krishna and (c) the glorification of the arca or image in a temple and seeing its association with Rama.

The Paradigms:

Periyavaccan Pillai uses the characters of the Ramayana as paradigms for the human soul and Sita, Laksmana and Vibhisana figure prominently in this list. Sita plays two roles; on one level, she serves as a model for the human soul and on the other, she is the mediator (Skt. purusakara) between the soul and the lord and so is considered to be the very embodiment of mercy in contradistinction to the lord's justice. Laksmana and Vibhisana serve as models for service and we also encounter some examples of how we are not supposed to act: Ravana, Surpanaka etc. serve as negative role-models in the specific acts of approaching the lord without a mediator.

(a) Sita: Model for a Human Soul and Divine Mediator

Periyavaccan Pillai was one of the first Srivaisnava theologians to emphasize the analogy between Sita and the human soul. This feature of his writings was later elaborated by Pillai Lokacarya and Manavala Mamunikal in their works and became characteristic of the Tenkalai (q.v. "Southern Culture") branch of Srivaisnava theology. The other branch of the Srivaisnava community, the Vatakalais, whose principal theologian is Vedanta Desika (born A.D. 1268) thinks of Sita as Sri or the consort of Visnu. For Desika, she is not quite a paradigm of a human being, but really in the same category as Visnu himself. While Sita is both a mediator and a model of a human soul for Periyavaccan Pillai and later Tenkalai theologians, for Desika, she is the ultimate mediator and in fact, (almost) equal to Visnu himself [*].

While Periyavaccan Pillai draws the analogy between Sita and the human being many times, the points that he emphasizes are relatively simple. Like Sita, we should wait for the lord to rescue us and not embark on any self-reliant way of salvation; it would not become our role as a dependent being totally owned by God. Sita waited for Rama to save her; she told Hanuman that it would befit Rama the descendent of Kakustha to destroy his enemies and rescue her (Sundara Kanda, 39-300; quoted by Periyavaccan Pillai while commenting on Tiruppavai, v. 9). Similarly, we should wait for the lord's grace. Periyavaccan Pillai also summarizes the comparison between Sita and a person who seeks liberation in his work called "The Necklace of Rubies" (Manikkamalai):

    Pillai questioned Nanjiyar: "Who are the companions in this life for all those who seek liberation? How do they pass time?"

    Nanjiyar replied: "The mumuksu is not from a separate class of society nor is it a separate stage in life. Anyone who wishes to be liberated is called a 'mumuksu' or one who seeks liberation. and he gets companionship and entertainment after death. Only a person who hankers after this life seeks companionship and entertainment here. While our lady (Sita) was in Lanka she did not have any companionship, so too, the mumuksu has no companions here. For the person who seeks liberation and one in whom intelligence has arisen, this world is like Lanka to Sita.

    As hateful as Asokavana to Sita, so too is his body to the mumuksu.

    Just as (the bewitching demon) Marica appeared before her (like a golden fawn), so too do the desirable objects of this world appear to the mumuksu.

    Just as Ravana appeared before Sita, so too does this life appear to the mumuksu.

    Just as the demon women taunt her, so too do the children and friends of the mumuksu taunt him.

    Just as the demon-women called 'One-eyed' and the 'One-eared' were to Sita, so are the ego and sense of 'I- ness' to the mumuksu.

    Just as Sri Vibhisana alvan and his daughter were (her friends) so too are the other Srivaisnavas the friends of the mumuksu.

    (As sweet to hear) as the various qualities of Rama described by Hanuman to Sita, so too are the 'Graciously Spoken Words' of the alvars, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to the person who seeks liberation.

    As (precious as) the sacred ring given to her is the sacred mantra given to the mumuksu by the acarya.

    Sita thinks of the jewelled hand that wore the ring and remembers (Rama's) shoulders that she embraced so often and then thought of his whole body. She forgets that she is alone in Lanka and thinks that she is in the same bed as her lord. Similarly, the mumuksu thinks of the sacred mantra, the protectorship and ownership of the lord signified by the first syllable of the sacred mantra....etc. and thus by contemplating the mantra, the does not heed this life, but lives with a clear mind in this blemished world.

    Like Sita passing time in Lanka, the mumuksu passes time in this world...(some words missing in the manuscript)

    While the rest of Lanka ate and slept, Sita did not eat or sleep and was like an innocent fawn among a hundred million red dogs. She thought of the strong brave shoulders of her lord...so too the mumuksu says 'the day I do not eat is not the day that I am hungry; the day that I do not even think of the name 'Narana' is the day that I starve...' (Periyalvar Tirumoli 5-1-6) and 'When is the day when my lord will call me?' (Tiruvaymoli)"

While the analogy between the human soul and Sita is stressed, we must note that she has another role to play in the scheme of salvation. Sita is also the supreme mediator (purusakara) and without her intervention, a soul cannot be forgiven. Again Periyavaccan Pillai uses the Ramayana as his proof text:

    When a soul grasps the lord, it should first go through the acarya and the Supreme Mother. We see this truth in the cases of "The Younger Lord" (this is the Srivaisnava title for Laksmana), Sri Vibhisana, Sri Guha, and the king Sugriva.

Even while commenting on the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai emphasizes this point. The girls singing the poem seek Nappinai, the consort of Krishna, as their mediator, and our commentator of course seizes the opportunity to bring in the Ramayana:

    The girls wake up Nappinai who is their mediator; if she is the mediator, their cause will be successful. We see this in the cases of Kaka (sura), Vibhisan etc.. Surpanaka who did not heed Sita and approached (Rama) directly was ruined; so too was Ravana who did not heed Rama and grasped Sita directly; only if both are approached can we prosper, like Vibhisana alvan.

In the Srivaisnava understanding, Sugriva, Guha, Vibhisana and Laksmana approached Rama either directly or indirectly through Sita (Sugriva had found the jewels that she had discarded and Vibhisana had spoken on her behalf to Ravana; in the Ayodhya Kanda when Rama asked Laksmana to stay behind in Ayodhya, Laksmana grasped Rama's feet but addressed his plea to Sita. On the other hand, Surpanakha and Ravana had ignored one member in the pair and were destroyed. Similarly, we have to go through a mediator, preferably two, according to Periyavaccan Pillai: the acarya and Sri. The acarya may be compared in the Ramayana story to Sita's father Janaka; it is he who hands over Sita to Rama and therefore, Periyavaccan Pillai describes him as "the mediator to the mediator." However, while a mediator is highly recommended, he/she is not absolutely necessary in the scheme of salvation for Desika.

Sita's mercy and kindness is quite incredible; Periyavaccan Pillai remarks (again, while commenting on the Tiruppavai) that even in solitude, even while she was alone with Rama, she never bore tales about the demon-women who taunted her. Periyavaccan Pillai, like Vedanta Desika, celebrates her words to Hanuman after the war. Replying to Hanuman's request to harm the demon women, Sita says in her usual mild manner: "The notable ones (arya) should show mercy (karuna) to sinners, to good people and to those who are wont to kill. Is there any one here without sin, or without fault, O monkey?" (Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, 116-44). Periyavaccan Pillai notices that she considers the suggestion to be rather silly; she has called Hanuman "monkey" (Skt: plavangama) which, as far as monkey-terminology goes, is not very respectable. The commentator elucidates the word 'monkey' thus: "Sita says that she has seen his animal-qualities, that which is innate to his class of beings"; he then adds "usually she addresses Hanuman as 'the best among monkeys' (vanarottama); here she calls him a mere monkey (plavangama)."

(b) Laksmana, Bharata and Vibhisana: Service to the Lord

Periyavaccan Pillai sees the concept of service to the lord as being extolled in the Ramayana. He describes kaimkarya or 'loving service' thus:

    We must lie at his feet like his wooden sandals, keep them like a garland of flowers on our heads, go with him like the Younger lord (Laksmana) and bear (his sandals; his decision) on our heads like Bharata. This is the height of dependence; whatever causes his sacred face to bloom, is called loving service (kaimkarya).

Service to the lord is interpreted as the wealth of a human being. While commenting on a phrase "the sister of a wealthy man" -- a reference to a young girl in the Tiruppavai, Periyavaccan Pillai seizes the opportunity to tell us that real wealth is kaimkarya or loving service to the Krishna. But of course, our commentator follows it up with his favorite quotation from the Ramayana: "Laksmana had the goddess of wealth" ("laksmanolaksmi sampannna" Bala kanda, 18-29) and says: "He had the Srivaisnava fortune" (srivaisnava sri). Service to the lord reinforces the deep and everlasting relationship between the lord and the human being; this is real wealth. Periyavaccan Pillai to underline this idea, quotes from the Ramayana in the context of describing the wealth of the young girls who seek a relationship with Krishna at Gokula (Antal's Tiruppavai v. 1):

    The everlasting wealth for our souls is the connection with the lord. The younger lord (Laksmana) who renounced his princely life and followed the lord empty handed, was described as "Laksmana had the Goddess of wealth" (lakmanolaksmi sampanna -- Bala kanda, 18-29). Vibhisana who while at Ravana's palace decided to come the place where Rama was, said "I and my happiness are now yours." (Yuddha Kanda, 19-5); and yet this Vibhisana alvan who was in the sky is described as "the fortunate Vibhisana who took to the air" (Yuddha Kanda, 16-17) ...

Elsewhere Periyavaccan Pillai quotes the same Ramayana verses (mentioned above) and says "this is the wealth of service (dasya sri), the wealth of loving service (kaimkarya sri)." He also notes that while both Laksman and Bharata were ideal devotees and had similar relationships to the lord, in terms of one's ardor, being in Laksmana's position is more fulfilling to us than serving him like Bharata. Bharata served him in absentia; but Laksmana was constantly in the lord's presence, serving him in every possible way:

    The petition of Antal and the cowherd girls to Krishna: "We shall serve only you" (Tiruppavai v. 29) ...

    Commentary: While both of them had the right relationship with you, we want to serve you like (Laksmana), we do not want to be like Bharata who was separated from you.

One cannot leave the notion of service without at least briefly mentioning another theme so familiar in Srivaisnava theology: service to the devotees of Visnu is recommended perhaps even more strongly than service to the Lord himself. Periyavaccan Pillai, while commenting on a verse from the Ramayana which describes Satrughna quotes an interpretation that he attributes to the Srivaisnava preceptor Ramanuja: "Satrughnalvan, in order to be favored by the lord, looked up to no one else but Sri Bharata, who himself, looked up only to Rama." We may note that it is a characteristic of Periyavaccan Pillai's style to record the several interpretations that may have been given to any verse prior to his time and that have been handed down by oral tradition; he occasionally quotes Ramanuja, the most famous of Srivaisnava acaryas even though Ramanuja himself never wrote any commentary on the alvar hymns or even quoted from them in his Sanskrit writings. Elsewhere, again on the theme of service and Laksmana, Periyavaccan Pillai quotes Ramanuja:

    The lullaby of Kausalya
    "O you who went into the forest as everyone and everything followed you!" -- Perumal Tirumoli 8-6.

    Commentary: When asked "Did everyone go with him to the forest? Isn't it said that they merely accompanied him for a short while and then went back?", Emperumanar (Ramanuja) said: "Laksmana who said 'I shall serve you at all times..' (Ayodhya Kanda, 31-25) went with Rama. Since he served in all possible ways, we say that 'everyone followed Rama'..."

(c) Humility and Deference to tradition: Bharata

Bharata is said to embody the characteristic of a true Srivaisnava ("vaisnavatva laksanam"); Periyavaccan Pillai says that he assumes the sins of others as his own. Even if people accuse us of having a blemish that we do not, it is the characteristic of a Vaisnava not to contradict the accuser. Bharata represents this trait more than anyone else. Bharata also never transgressed tradition; Periyavaccan Pillai says: "while fully qualified to be crowned king of Ayodhya, he nevertheless said, 'I shall never do something that has not been done in this family so far.'"

Rama and Krishna: Vive la difference!

Despite his personal preference for the Ramayana and his irrepressible tendency to quote from it, Periyavaccan Pillai faithfully records the opinions and attitudes of the Srivaisnavas of his time. He conveys to us the Srivaisnava enjoyment of the Rama and Krishna avataras and the feeling that in Krishna we see the ultimate in divine accessibility and playfulness. He says that in the Rama avatara, 'we celebrate the lord being (enjoyed and) attained by the devotees (sesa); in the Krishna avatara we celebrate the lord attaining his devotees.' While describing the cowherd village of Ayppati (Gokula), Periyavaccan Pillai contrasts it with Ayodhya:

    "Ayppati":...This place is not like the sacred city of Ayodhya where Vashishta, the foremost among orthoprax people flourishes; cow-herd girls who do not even know the difference between the right hand and left hand live here. This is not a city which appreciates the lord's good qualities; this place lauds the pranks and mischief of Krishna.

He continues the discussion at a different place, again contrasting the might of Rama and the vulnerability of Krishna:

    ...we have to invoke blessings on him more here (as Krishna), than as Rama. In his incarnation as Rama, his father was a mighty ruler, his city was Ayodhya, his priest was Vasishtha who was a master of mantras, the boys, skilful; they were all filled with good qualities. And here: his parents were mild cowherds, his a cowherd slum, his enemies, Kamsa, etc, demons abounded in Brndavana, if the older brother relaxes his surveillance for a minute, he falls into (a lake) with a snake, Putana etc. are of no help--and so there is no other protection except to sing a benediction for him...

Elsewhere, Periyavaccan Pillai gets on a topic that he particularly enjoys: contrasting the sensitivity of Rama and the cavalier treatment that Krishna accords to the girls who pledge their devotion to him:

    They sing here about the Sacred Son of the Emperor (i.e. Rama) who is a refuge for those born as girls, unlike Krishna who causes them such grief...Rama is not like Krishna who is always causing distress to the girls; he has taken the vow of being faithful to one woman. He is not like Krishna who makes the girls writhe and who shows no compassion Rama sheds tears even for his enemies...So the cowherd girls say...let us not sing of Kanna who torments us so...we shall sing of the Sacred Son of the Emperor so as to get some comfort for our throats that have become parched and cracked from the heat of separation caused by Krishna...

Periyavaccan Pillai's contemporary and associate Vatakku Tiruviti Pillai sums up the 'enjoyable' difference between Rama and Krishna that the community perceives. He comments: "Our refuge in the Rama avatara is his truth; our refuge in the Krishna avatara is his lies." Periyavaccan Pillai frequently quotes a line from the Ramayana: "Rama conquers the worlds because he speaks the truth." Rama bent himself backwards to keep his word--to his father, to the rishis of the forest, to Bharata, to Sita (that he would be faithful to her), and to all his other devotees. On the other hand, Krishna almost perfected the art of lying. As a child he swore that he had never stolen butter, as an adolescent he lied shamelessly to the cowherd girls and even when he helped Arjuna in the Mahabharata war and had vowed that he would not bear any arms, he reneged and acted in a manner that led to the killing of Jayadratha. As Krishna, he lies for the enjoyment of his devotees, to cause them exquisite agony in separation and to protect them in times of war. As both Rama and as Krishna, however, the devotees are first priority; the difference is in style as far as the Srivaisnavas are concerned and it is this difference that is celebrated.

As the alvars did earlier, Periyavaccan Pillai identifies Rama with the lord enshrined in a temple. In this connection we get to know of his ideas on the arcavatara, or the incarnation as a worshippable 'image' in the temple. He notes that Kulacekara alvar sings the entire story of the Ramayana to the lord in Tillai Citrakutam (Perumal Tirumoli 10-1 to 10) and while commenting on one of these verses says:

    ...so as to bring to an end the misery of all those who regret that they were not born at the same time as Rama, he, to help all people of later times, comes close and resides in the City of Tillai, at the Sacred Citrakutam...

    For all people who could not see him at Citrakuta, where he resided after giving his sandals to Bharata, to reign instead of him, he lives in the Sacred Citrakutam (here). Now all people who lived after him can enjoy him for all times here and not fee miserable.

    Even though he (finally) separated from Laksmana who was like his very soul, he, so as to end the misery of people who could not see him because they were born after him, stays permanently at Sacred Citrakutam. We who know of this accessibility (saulabhya), can never again feel miserable, thinking that we cannot 'experience' the lord...

It is very clear from these passages that Rama is the lord enshrined at Tillai Cirtrakutam; this is an exercise in the lord's saulabhya or accessibility, and that he abides here permanently, so as to erase the misery of those who feel the pain of not being born at the same time as he at Ayodhya.

Periyavaccan Pillai also seems to know quite well which temples were traditionally considered to be Rama temples. The temple at Tirukannapuram, as the name suggest ("Kanna" being the favorite Tamil name for Krishna) honored Krishna but Kulacekara alvar had sung all ten verses of the lullaby to Rama there, when he had assumed the role of Kausalya. Periyavaccan Pillai notes this:

    He sings, not about Sri Krishna who graciously stands at Tirukannapuram that is surrounded by huge terraces, but about the Sacred Son of the Emperor...

Notice that the commentator does not attempt to explain why the poet sang Rama songs in a place whose very name is associated with Krishna. Theologically, the arca, Rama and Krishna all seem to be the same. The lord's purity is contagious and even the associated place becomes pure and holy by his presence; Periyavaccan Pillai says about Tirukannapuram that its purity is not 'accidental' like the river Ganga; because it is continuously associated with the lord who is so accessible, it has a purity that exceeds the river Ganga.

Periyavaccan Pillai also participates in the temple rituals prevalent during his time. He comments on a line from Antal's Tiruppavai which shows his awareness and sensitivity to the temple culture around him, and which at the same time shows his deep involvement with the Ramayana:

    The request of the girls to Krishna:
    Walk before us, here in your palace... -- Tiruppavai v. 23

    Commentary: As Sita praised the lord, Rama left with Sumantra. "He went forth like a lion coming out of its den in the mountain and saw Laksmana who was standing with folded hands outside." (Ayodhya Kanda, 16-26). Grant that we should see you (walk) like that. The lord's graceful gait resembles the 'four kinds of walking'. That is, it has the might of a bull, the majesty of an elephant, the litheness of a tiger and the dignity of a lion. We can see all this in the fascinating gait of Namperumal.

Namperumal ("our lord") is the Srivaisnava name for the movable icon at Srirangam; during particular rituals, the people carrying Namperumal imitate the gait of these animals to convey to the viewers the grace that is said to be innate in his stride. In this comment, we see Krishna's stride being compared to Rama's which is then compared to the rituals at Srirangam, bringing to focus the immediate cultic milieu in which Periyavaccan Pillai participated.

The poet and the philosopher experience the Ramayana in different ways. The alvars had both alluded to and participated in the Ramayana--some more intensely than others. In later North Indian bhakti we see devotees playing a character in Krishnaite myths; in the alvar poetry, we see this occurring both for the Rama and Krishna stories. More important, Rama and Krishna are seen to be none other than the lord enshrined in the nearest temple. This focus on a temple has to be emphasized before we talk of an abstract Rama-bhakti or Krishna bhakti and the alvar devotion has to be studied in the context of a local shrine. The Ramayana itself is understood against the background of South Indian conventions and the associative structure of the five landscapes found in Cankam poetry. The jasmine garland that Sita bound Rama with is more than a vignette that is not found in Valmiki's Ramayana; the flower is the controlling metaphor of the dramatic situation that Hanuman/Periyalvar are participating in: separation between Sita and Rama. The audience, by secondary participation, feels the separation between Periyalvar and the lord.

Periyavaccan Pillai is a theologian. He understands the stories as allegories, not merely as depicting the dramatic situation between the mystic and the lord but as relevant to the human predicament. Sita is the human soul, Lanka is like this life, worldly objects are as captivating and dangerous as Marica the golden deer. Notice that Periyavaccan Pillai clearly spells out the stories as relevant to every human being; in this he goes further than the experience of the audience which listens to the works of the alvars. The audience sees the separation between Sita and Rama, or Dasaratha and Rama as pertaining to the mystic and the lord; but in periyavaccan Pillai's prose, the analogies are systematically worked out and the resuce of Sita from Lanka becomes a paradigmatic situation applicable to every human being. The role of Sita is expanded to fit everyone in the audience; we move from being intellectual voyeurs of the alvar/god, Sita/Rama separation directly into the stage itself. We are Sita, Dasaratha or the companions of Antal. And the lord of the stage, fittingly enough for Periyavaccan Pillai is Ranganatha (Sanskrit: ranga, stage; natha, lord), the presiding deity at Srirangam--the focus of Periyavaccan Pillai's daily worship and the center of the Srivaisnava world. Periyavaccan Pillai takes us with him as he experiences the several dimensions of Vaisnava bhakti: we become the young companions of Antal emulating the cow-herd girls who wish to see Krishna walk towards them; and that situation reminds him of Sita watching Rama stride like a young lion. But more important: "We can see all this is the fascinating gait of Namperumal." When we watch Ranganatha being carried by people who simulate the stride of a tiger or a lion, we share an experience with Antal, the cowherd girls and Sita--and Periyavaccan Pillai. The Lord of the Stage acts as a link between the theoretical analogy of Sita and the human soul, and the actual participation of the human being in the story of Rama or Antal. Rama rescues Sita in the Ramayana; this act is enacted everytime a devotee is drawn to Srirangam ("the auspicious stage") and becomes a participant in the drama.

A Postscript

The alvars and Periyavaccan Pillai manifest one facet of the Srivaisnava community's continuing experience and enjoyment of the Ramayana. Rama bhakti can be studied in the works of Kurattalvan, a contemporary and close associate of Ramanuja in the twelfth century A.D. One of his Sanskrit stavas, the Ati manusa stava portrays his reflections on the very human nature of the Rama and Krishna avataras. Vedanta Desika, a brilliant theologian of the thirteenth century wrote a long poem in praise of Rama's valor; his Raghuvira gadyam (also known as the Mahavira gadyam) is chanted by many Vatakalai Srivaisnavas everyday; it has been popular enough to be issued as a record by one of the leading singers of classical Carnatic music. Desika has also used the Ramayana extensively in his interpretation of key Srivaisnava themes, especially in his understanding of the sacrament of prapatti.

In terms of popular piety, one may point out the Srivaisnava theologians have and continue to hold that their most celebrated preceptor, Ramanuja was an incarnation of Adisesa, and therefore of Laksmana, the brother of Rama. Devotion to Hanuman is also an integral part of the Srivaisnava experience; the phenomenal growth of a Srivaisnava temple at Madras which is primarily dedicated to Hanuman is just one aspect of this devotion and reflects a major Srivaisnava concept: service to the devotee of the lord is better than direct service to the lord himself. One may note that in this particular temple the shrine to Rama, Sita and Laksmana is to the side; it is Hanuman who is honored daily with ritual offerings of garlands made of a spicy doughnut shaped snack called vatai.

There are also the ever popular harikathas or oral performances of the Ramayana in major Srivaisnava temples; usually they last about two weeks. When the narrator reaches certain 'auspicious' points in the story -- the wedding of Rama and Sita or their coronation, the audience celebrates the events with suitable propriety and a cast of thousands. We can also see the Srivaisnavas (rather optimistically) use chosen verses from the Ramayana as texts to be read everyday as petitions for the occurrence of the events fervently wished for -- marriages in the family, career advancement etc. These chosen verses are printed in books ("Karya siddhi Ramayanam", "to obtain desired goals") for the convenience of the reader.

Still on the popular front, the myth of Rama's protective instinct is perpetuated at the Srivaisnava temple at Madurantakam, a village about fifty miles from Madras city. Here, the icon of Rama is called "Rama who protected the lake" (erikatta Ramar); a name given to him by Srivaisnavas after he appeared before a British Collector by the name of Lionel Price (19th century). Rama, it is said, appeared along with Laksmana and Sita before the skeptical British gentleman during a storm and then prevented a dam from breaking. The whole village was saved from a possible flood. Lionel Price had promised that he would build a shrine for Sita if the village was spared from the flood; he gratefully fulfilled his promise, and even today we see the inscription to this effect on the portals of the Sita's shrine. This story has become part of the Madurantakam sthala purana now.

One may continue at length, discussing these and other manifestations of the Srivaisnava involvement with the Ramayana. But this paper has grown, just as Hanuman's tail did in Lanka. In the Tamil version of the Ramayana, it is said that when Ravana order Hanuman's tail to be set on fire, the servants tried to bind up the tail with long pieces of cloth dipped in flammable substances. But Hanuman's tail refers to anything that seems interminably long. This paper has grown from about ten pages which was the original estimated length; and it seems to keep growing.

Notes and References

  1. I have used the standard International system of transliteration for Sanskrit words and the Madras Lexicon style for the Tamil words and phrases. Names like Rama, Sita and Krishna have been spelt in the form familiar to a western audience. All translations in this paper are mine.

  2. The works of the twelve alvars are not arranged chronologically in the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. The Periya Tirumoli of Tirumankai alvar forms the second thousand and the Tiruvaymoli of Nammalvar is usually the fourth thousand in the anthology.

  3. Recently, Friedhelm Hardy in Viraha Bhakti has characterized the corpus of the alvar poems as an expression of Krishna bhakti and uses the word ``Krsnaism'' to denote theology of the alvars. This is definitely not the case, as the alvars consider Krishna to be an important but only one of the incarnations of Visnu. For further details, see Narayanan, ``Hindu Devotional Literature: The Tamil Connection'' (forthcoming) Religious Studies Review January 1985.

  4. Mangala Murugesan, Sangam Age, Madras, Thendral Pathippakam: 1982, p. 254. For a discussion on this topic see Champakalaksmi, Vaisnava Iconography in the Tamil Country, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981, pp. 44-45 and 117-118. She notes that "inscriptional evidence...comes only from a record of about the seventh-eighth centuries A.D. and definite evolution of a Rama cult dates from the tenth century A.D....as the earliest sculptural representations belong to about the first half of the tenth century A.D. However, Rama occupies a place of great honour in the hymns of the...Alvars of the seventh-ninth centuries A.D." (p. 117).

  5. See Periyalvar Tirumoli 4-9-9 (translated, p. 11). Tirumankayalvar also talks about the ten incarnations of Visnu, Periya Tirumoli 8-8-10.

  6. On the other hand, Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli which is about 1102 verses has only 39 references to Rama. Periyalvar refers to Rama or Ramayana incidents about 29 times; Antal, three times in the Tiruppavai and 6 times in her Nacciyar Tirumoli; Poykayalvar times in the Mutal Tiruvantati, Putatalvar 5 times in Irantam Tiruvantati, Peyalvar 2 times in Munram Tiruvantati and Tirumalicaialvar times in Tiruccanta Viruttam. These are approximate figures and came up when I prepared a concordance to the Ramayana incidents in alvar literature while working on the paper. I have not checked the literature a second time to fill in gaps. Each verse is taken as one reference even though we sometimes get more than one allusion in a single verse.

  7. Poykayalvar also refers to this incident:
    		Can the immortals know him?
    			Well let that be--
    		My good heart, even we can know,
    		the valor of him, who counted on his feet,
    		all the heads of that wicked demon.
    		The demon who bowed before the god
    			who dwells on the lotus flower.
    				Mutal Tiruvantati 45.

  8. The word 'eating' can be taken in two ways: the twelfth century commentator, following oral tradition, interprets as eating food; but a twentieth century commentator, following oral tradition, interprets it as the intimate relationship between the lord and the devotee for which the word 'eating' is used as an euphemism. For a detailed discussion, see Chapter XI "Looking behind the Commentary, 'Swallowing' a Metaphor in the Poem" in Carman and Narayanan: The Tamil Veda: Pillan's Interpretation of the Tiruvaymoli, (University of Chicago Press: 1989).

  9. The Ramayana is the setting in the following verses:
    • Periyalvar Tirumoli 3-10-1 to 10; Periyalvar speaks as Hanuman.
    • Perumal Tirumoli 8-1 to 11, 9-1 to 11, and 10-1 to 11. Kulacekara alvar takes on the role of Kausalya, Dasaratha and Valmiki.
    • Perumal Tirumoli 10-2-1 to 10 and 10-3-1 to 10.

    Total number of verses: 63.

  10. Arayirappati Guruparamparaprabhavam, ed. S. Krisnaswami Ayyangar, Tirucci: Puttur Agraharam, 1975, pp. 35-36.

  11. The refrain in this set of verses as well as in the one immediately following seem to indicate a kind of dance done by the people defeated in battle. The refrain in this case resembles the beating of drums, but the exact meaning is not known. The words are tatam ponkatam ponko and have no clear translation. The meaning is debated by modern theologians and they normally do not paraphrase it. The word 'ponko' may come from ponkutal which indicates 'flourishing' and 'overflowing', so they may perhaps be wishing good fortune to the victors. This however is highly speculative. No other piece with this refrain is extant today and hence one is unable to compare them. I have translated it as 'we beat our drums, we dance our surrender' using some of the ideas and meanings given by the commentators.

  12. For a discussion on this game, see Ate, 'Periyalvar's "Tirumoli"--a Bala Krsna Text from the Devotional Period in Tamil Literature.' Doctoral dissertation; University of Wisconsin, 1978; pp. 395-398.
One may also note that this set of verses marks the transition in the whole work from poems which express devotion to Krishna to poems addressed to Rama and other manifestations of Visnu. Periyalvar singing about Rama in every alternate verse in the 3-9 decad indicates that he is making a self-conscious transition from Krishna bhakti to other themes.

  • Early Tamil love poetry was frequently voiced through 'a heroine', the 'heroine's mother', 'foster mother' or her friend. For a complete list see Ramanujan, The Interior Landscape, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974, pp.

  • The cankam poems dealing with romantic or heroic poems refer to five basic situations. These situations correspond in poetry to five landscape settings (tina), birds, flowers, times, etc.. The five basic settings of love are union, waiting for a beloved, hardship in separation, the patient waiting of a wife, and anger at a lover's real or imagined infidelity. These correspond to the mountainous, sea-side, arid, pastoral and agricultural landscapes.

  • While Nammalvar has about two hundred and fifty three verses in which he speaks in the guise of a heroine/girl-friend/foster mother from old Tamil poetry, only in eleven verses does he directly speak like a cow-herd girl. In twenty two other verses, we know from the signature line at the end of the set that he speaks like a cow-herd girl, but the verses themselves do not make this very clear.

  • "The little dwarf" and the reference in the following line is a reference to Visnu's incarnation as Vamana and then rising to the gigantic proportions of Trivikrama who covers the entire universe in three paces.

  • Guruparamparaprabhavam pp. 208-214.

  • Periyavaccan Pillai's "Muvayirappati" (3000) commentary on the Tiruppavai; ie. the commentary is in 3000 patis, or units of 32 characters in the Grantha script. My copy is edited by P. B. Annangaracarya, Kanci: 1974 (henceforth 3000); the reference is in page 127.

  • 3000, p. 55.

  • For further discussion, see Narayanan "The Goddess Sri: Blossoming Lotus and breast Jewel of Visnu" in The Divine Consort ed. Hawley and Wulff, pp.

  • The sacred mantra here is called the tirumantra in Srivaisnava parlance and is given to an initiate at the time of his prapatti or surrender, by his acarya.

  • Periyavaccan Pillai, Manikkamalai, ed. S. Krishnaswami Ayyangar, Tirucci: Puttur Agraharam, n.d.p. 4.

  • Ibid., p. 6. It is believed that Vibhisana, Guha Laksmana and Sugriva approached Rama directly or indirectly through the mediation of Sita.

  • A reference to an incident narrated in the Sundara Kandam of the Ramayana. Sita and Rama were in Citrakuta when a little crow attacked Sita; Rama angrily sent the all powerful weapon, the brahmastra after it. Not finding refuge in all three worlds, the crow finally sought refuge with Rama himself, in the presence of Sita. Sundara Kanda, 38-33.

  • 3000, commentary on Tiruppavai v. 17, pp. 103-104.

  • Periyavaccan Pillai, Sri Ramayana Tanislokam, part 1, ed. S. Krishnaswami Ayyangar, Tirucci: Puttur Agraharam, n.d.; comment on Ayodhya Kanda 31-2; p. 93.

  • ibid.; comment on Bala Kanda, 17-26; p. 48.

  • Vedanta Desika, Rahasya Traya Saram ed. Sri Navanitam Sri Ramadesikacaryar, Kumbakonam: Oppiliyappan Sanniti. 1970 p. .

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 2, p. 25.

  • Sri Ramayana Tanislokam, pp. 542-543.

  • Periyavaccan Pillai, Paranta Rahasyam in Manikkamalai, p. 41.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 12, p. 74.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai, v. 1, p. 11.

  • Sri Ramayana Tanislokam, part 2, p. 500.

  • 3000 commentary on v. 29, p. 195.

  • For a brief but good discussion on this theme, see Ramanujan, Hymns for the Drowning, Princeton: 1981, pp. 143-144; for translations of poems, pp. 26-27.

  • Sri Ramayana Tanislokam, pp. 61-62.

  • Periyavaccan Pillai, Perumal tirumoli vyakyanam, ed. Sri K. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Tirucci: Puttur Agraharam, nd.d p. 123.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 15, p. 87.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 2, pp. 24-25.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 1, p. 7.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 1, p. 11.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 24, pp. 147-148.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 12, pp. 75-76.

  • Vatakku Tiruviti Pillai, Itu-Muppattarayirappati commentary on Tiruvaymoli 2-1-6.

  • Ayodhya kanda 12-29; Periyavaccan Pillai quotes it several times; for instance, he quotes it while commenting on Perumal Tirumoli 10-1; 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 21.

  • Perumal Tirumoli vyakyanam pp. 145, 151 and 158.

  • Actually the shrine despite the name of the temple, is dedicated to Visnu who is known today as Sauriraja Perumal; it is an interesting temple where one of the consorts of the lord is considered to be a fisherwoman. For further details see L. V. Gopalan, Sri Vaishnava Divya Desams, Madras: Visistadvaita Pracharini Sabha, 1972, pp. 18-19.

  • Perumal Tirumoli vyakyanam p. 128.

  • ibid. p. 120.

  • 3000 commentary on Tiruppavai v. 23, p. 139.

  • I have discussed this in my dissertation "The Srivaisnava understanding of Bhakti and Prapatti: The alvars to Vedanta Desika", University of Bombay, 1978, ch. 5.

  • The Anjaneya temple is located on Royapettah High Road, Mylapore, Madras.

  • On the Madurantakam story, see L. V. Gopalan, Sri Vaisnava Divya Desams, p. 108.