Sri Nellai Kannan is one of my favorite Tamil speakers and writer. Rarely one can find a combination of scholarship and presenting it for everyone to understand it. I am a great fan of him. One more interesting thing with Kannan is that the way he is straightforward and outspoken even on controversial issues, in which others might hesitate to share their opinion openly. But Kannan, with a clear conviction and clarity on his subject presents his view with authentic information—which rarely others can disagree with.
So when he speaks these days in Sun T.V. in the morning program (Suriya Vanakkam) on various topics, particularly related with Tamil, I never want to miss it. So with his usual eloquence and oratory skill, both yesterday (September 13th) and today (14th) spoke about ‘spirituality’ (aanmeeham). As I already said, he presented his view by quoting various Tamil songs from wide range of Tamil literature and I was amazed the way he could quote verbatim from all kinds of Tamil literature from memory. His scholarship on Kammaramayana and Kural is undisputed one.
Though I agreed with what all he said about the true mark of spirituality, yet I would like to have different opinion on few points. Of course all his advice to common people about the need of true spirituality are welcoming one. The way he could gently rebuke people about the need of realism in all their approach in bhakti and faith in god is in need all the time. For example, after quoting few Tamil poems of saints, he said that we need not go and even ask god anything, as She already knew what all our requirements are. ‘When we born, god already arranged who should be our father, mother, brother, relatives; what all our needs etc. So we need not go to the temple to ask god anything which She does not already provided. And even if was ask, god is not going to grants them as they are “not required in our life”’.
Well who can disagree with such a reality when it comes to god and Her relationship with Her own creation. However quoting the saints as the example and their poems as the guiding principle looks nothing but idealism to me. For example on September 14th continuing the same topic of true mark of spirituality, Kannan quoting several poems of siddhas (Sivavakiyar, Pattinattar etc.) clearly point out the vanity of idol worship and need of single minded devotion to god with a conscious bhakti with Her. But for me all saints are exception and their example cannot be followed by common people who have to struggle a lot in everyday life. In fact, these common people alone bore all the burden of the life for these saints to emerge and become exemplary one among the ordinary people.
These saints are ‘exception’ to the common people and aberration to the orthodoxy. That is why though people venerate them and glorify their teaching, yet rarely their example and teachings are remotely followed by common people amidst their struggle and need in mundane life.
The saints are exception to the common rule could be understood by the fact that except the name of few, who are often referred and quoted, most of the common people even don’t know most of them. Among the 63 Saiva saints, people will quote the famous four (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavasagar) and may be few more. Among the 12 Alvars few are well known like Andal and Periyazhavar. Of course this is not limited only with Hindus. Ask the common Christian to tell the name of all the 12 disciples of Muktinath (Jesus)? We know Prophet Mohammad, but even I don’t know the name of his wife and successor. I know one Ali, but I don’t know what his relationship with Prophet Mohammad is.
Does it mean that the life and teaching of saints need not be taken seriously? Of course we should take them seriously. But instead of criticizing people not living up to their level of maturity and achievement, we should rather encourage common people ‘not to give up’ even though such idealism will remain a distant reality in life. The life and teachings of the saints always encourage me when I feel discouraged and depressed. But all idealism that is carved out of their life and teaching, forgetting the defeats, failures and discouragement they faced to reach that stage will never help common people to have their life and teaching as a goal to be achieved one day. For me saints are good inspiration but not best model for common people to imitate.
Because all the saints never lived up to the ideal which we want to project from their teaching and life. For example, another important Saiva Saint who is also known as ‘friend of god’ (Tambiran Thozar) always ‘demanded’ not only the need for everyday life but even to lead a luxury life both for him and his wife:
13. நாகைக் காரோணர்
பண்மயத்த மொழிப்பரவை சங்கிலிக்கும்
எனக்கும் பற்றாய பெருமானே!
மற்று யாரை உடையேன்?
உண்மயத்த உமக்கு அடியேன் குறைதீர்க்க
வேண்டும், ஒளிமுத்தம், பூணாரம்
கண்மயத்த கத்தூரி, கமழ்ச் சாந்தும் வேண்டும்.(–சுந்தரர்.)
–வேங்கடம் முதல் குமரி வரை. தொ. மு. பாஸ்கரத்தொண்டைமான். சென்னை, நல்லறப் பதிப்பகம், 2009. ஆறு தொகுதிகள். ப. 141
Beloved lord both for me and (my wife) Paravai, whom else I have other than you. You have to remove the shortage of your bhakta. I need pearls, jewels, silk cloths , flowers, Kasturi and other scented items.—[T. M. Baskarat Thondaiman, Venkatam Mudal Kumari Varai [from Venkadam to Kumari], Chennai, Nallarappadippagam, 2009, 6 vols. Vol. 3. p. 141. Not only here but Sundarar asked so many times gold, paddy and other things from the Lord in different pilgrimage centers.
For me the my difference with Sri Kannan is not only about quoting the saints and their teaching but ‘not’ mentioning and quoting the life and teaching of other saints who asked god for various kinds of things in their life.
This topic on prayer has several dimensions and presenting one view won’t do justice to it and also meet our need. For example, Manikkavasagar says:
வேண்டத்தக்க தறிவோய்நீ வேண்டமுழுதுந் தருவோய்நீ
வேண்டும் அயன்மாற் கரியோய்நீ வேண்டி என்னைப் பணிகொண்டாய்
வேண்டி நீயா தருள்செய்தாய் யானும் அதுவே வேண்டினேன் அல்லால்
வேண்டும் பரிசொன் றுண்டென்னில் அதுவும் உன்றன் விருப்பன்றே.- குழைத்தப்பத்து, -6
–you know what my need is; you will provide what all I need; you are rare indeed for Brahma and Vishnu; you voluntarily called me for your service; voluntarily you gave me your grace; I too requested the same; if there is something I need, I will leave that too for your choice. (Kuzhaitapp pathu, 6).
Does this mean Manikkavasagar has more maturity than Sundarar as he often asked gold, paddy, jewel etc.? For me their life and songs presents various dimensions about our bhakti. For me while Mannikkavasagar had ‘dasabhava bhakti’ (servant) Sundarar had ‘sakhya bhava bhakti’ (friendship). Thankfully our tradition gives room for all kinds of bhakti known as navadhana1 bhakti (nine forms of bhakti). One need not have only one kind of bhakti all the time. Every human relationship has various dimensions. A father can be a friend, a friend remains always another brother, and wife has various roles (counselor, companion, servant, mother etc.) in her husband’s life. So we too can have different kinds of bhakti depending upon our need and mood. And for me ‘dasabhava and atmanivedanam’ (servant and total surrender) need not portray maturity and sakhya bhava and kanta bhava (friend and wife) bhaktis are on the process of maturity. Each bhakti is matured one in its own level the difference is only in its kind and not in degree.
For me prayer is not simply ‘demanding’ our need in life to god. It expresses more of our relationship. Of course god knows our need and She has already arranged them for our legitimate needs and sometimes serves some extra sweet—as the famous saying goes: god not only provides our daily bread but also provides extra slice of cake. So god knows what we need but She also enjoys when we ask for others things which we think need for us. If deciding our needs is god’s right, demanding (what we think we need) is also our right which god respects and accepts. So noting wrong is presenting a list to god about all our desires. It is like a child giving a list of things that she wants for her birth day and with the innocence of a child might expect her parents to give all those gifts. But her parent finally decides about the gift and they know how to convince her about not receiving other gifts. But this asking/demanding part is crucial for relationship between parents and child—god and bhakta.
Another important point which Sri Kannan told after quoting Pattinattar is lack of single minded devotion—at least in our worship and puja time:
கையொன்று செய்ய விழியொன்று நாடக் கருத் தொன்றெண்ணப்
பொய்யொன்று வஞ்சக நாவொன்று பேசப் புலால்கமழும்
மெய்யொன்று சாரச்செவியொன்று கேட்க விரும்புமியான்
செய்கின்ற பூசையெவ் வாறுகொள் வாய்வினை தீர்த்தவனே.–பொது , 4.
–hand doing one thing (by throwing flowers), eyes seeking another; mind thinking different one; my tongue tell lie (as it is not chanting the mantra or singing the bhajan with sincere devotion, the mantra and bhajans that I sing is nothing but a lie—is the interpretation given by Kannan); and the body seek another (pleasure) and the ear desires to listen different thing, how you will accept my puja (oh god) the one who has removed my karmas.—Pattinathar.
But for me this is also idealism. Because our mind (rather brain) is multifunctional. When we do a thing it has the capacity to pay attention and think other things simultaneously. And I don’t think god is going to upset with us for such a puja. God accepts us with all our limitation. She never expects a perfect bhakta. She knows our limitation and struggle. She will be happy that we could still worship Her in spite of our lack of concentration and single minded devotion to Her. Except those who has perfected all the eight steps of Patanjali yoga, others cannot say that they can do a thing with single minded devotion in which mind (brain) won’t be active on other activities.2 I don’t say because I failed in this sadhana (spiritual discipline). But this is the reality which we need to accept and continue to do our part sincerely and faithfully.
When we sit and talk with other close members in our immediate family, we know that while we talk or they listen they have other thoughts in their mind (brain). But this is not going to irritate us or affect our relationship. Of course in any serious discussion not paying attention and deliberately showing our indifference (as a mark of our disagreement or anger) will irritate others. But in normal life, in all our activities, conversation, listening and watching etc. our mind (brain) is going to pay attention to other things. Interestingly if we note, Kannan while looking at the camera and talk will sometimes will look others who are not visible to us. This does not mean he is not paying attention to his talk. While concentrating on his talk, he can pay attention to other activities going around him. The same is when we do our puja. So quoting from the poems of saints, who themselves never reached this perfection, we can remind others about need of more concentration is such sadhanas, but criticizing such worship as false is not going to help people to change their practice. Of course those who listens such talk are not going to stop their puja but knowing the limitation of all, even that of the speaker will carry on their routine as usual. Interestingly Pattinathar in this song condemns his own puja and not others. This poems is more of a confession than any criticism on others puja.
Every idealism is important one as it will inspire others and motivate them to overcome shortcomings. But it is not going to bring radical change in a set pattern of life immediately. So the life of the saints and their teaching may inspire us but they will never become our model—as they are not part of our everyday life and its need.
See further on my article on Prayer.
Dayanand Bharati. Gurukulam.
September 14, 2012.
- …[In] Bhaagavatapuraana (Pandit Pustakalaya, Kasi, 1969),… we come across as many as nineteen different classification of bhakti, ranging from a threefold devotion to a thirty-six fold devotion, although a ninefold devotion [Bhaagavatapuraana, VII.5.23; XI.6.9] comprising sravanam (hearing) (XI.6.9), kiirtanam (changing) (XII.3.52), smarnam (remembering) (XII.12.54), Paadasevanam (service at Bhagavaan’s feet), arcanam (offering worship), vandanam (praising) (XI.27.9), Daasyam (servitude and humility), sakhyam (friendship), (p.173) aatmanivedaman (self-surrendered) (XI.29.34), is more frequently recognised and recommended….— Vijay Nath, Puraanas and Acculturation: A Historico-Anthropological Perspective, Munshirma Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2001, pp.173-4
- …In Patanjali’s tradition it is said that when the mind is held immobile for the space of twelve restrained and elongated breaths the state of dharana may be said to being. Dharana is the first stage of concentration in Patanjali’s tradition. Dhyana, meditation, and samadhi, trance, are more demanding….—— Thomas McEvilley, Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, (2002), First Indian Edition, 2008. p. 180