THE TEACHINGS OF ST. VAGISA.*
[* This exceedingly instructive contribution from the pen of Mr. P. Ramanathan, K.C., C.M.G., appears as 'Foreword' to a florilegium of St. Vagisa's Psalms with a sketch of his life and philosophy, compiled by the late Mr. Balasubrahmanya Mudaliyar, M.A., and Mr. J. M. Nallasvami Pillai, B.A., B.L., a review of which will appear in a subsequent issue of this Journal. – Ed. L.T.]
The two decades of hymns offered in this paper by the learned Translator1, [1
Mr. P. Ramanathan refers to the work mentioned in the previous note. – Ed. L.T.] for the consideration of those who take an active interest in spiritual life, are in the purest of Tamil, terse and sweet beyond measure, in every way worthy of the great Apostle's mission to the Tamils as "the kind of sacred (Tamil) diction" (Tirunavukkarasu). His sayings, like those of Tiru Valluva Nayanar, show how the deepest spiritual truths may be expressed in simple Tamil without the aid of Sanskrit words.
Man's reclamation from the way of sorrow, called shortly in Sanskrit pravritti margam and in full duhkha pravritti margam, is the theme of both the hymns. Our saint calls it நடலை வாழ்வு (nadalai valvu), and desires to impress on those who have ears to hear that the scope of the Karma Kandam (work section) of the Vedas and Agamas is little understood by even the learned, and that it is of vital importance for every Karmadhikari to know the intent with which the Lord designed His great Karma Chakram. If the works known as yajna, dana and tapas are done with mind intent on the worldly rewards or bodily happiness with which they are usually associated as cause and effect, the doer of such works will abide in pravritti margam for the gratification of his wishes, donning and doffing bodies without number, and undergoing all the pains and penalties of repeated births and deaths. But if the doer enters upon those works with mind divorced from their material rewards, or with mind intent on God only as the protector and redeemer of the soul, - the framer of the universe and the ordainer of the works, - the doer will abide in nivritti margam, that is, duhkha nivritti margam, drawing nearer and nearer to God, and be at last like Him, pure spirit, devoid of all sorrow, immaculate and eternal.
The average Karmadhikari is a dchavan, who thinks his body and his mind are himself, and who therefore believes that the joys and sorrows of which he is conscious are his very own, are forms of himself. He knows nothing of the spirit (atma) in the body, or the happiness germane to the spirit. To this corporeal man, the sensuous enjoyments of this world and of svarga loka are indispensable. His cravings for them being great, he would labor for them at any cost, and undertake every rite or ceremony prescribed, in the hope of gratifying them. The perishability of worldly happiness and its constant liability to wane and change wholly into sorrow do not strike him at all, or if they do occasionally, he soon forgets it all and works afresh for the same kind of bitter-sweet, misnamed happiness.
In the Bhagavad Gita (ii. 43-45), the Bhagavan cautioned prince Arjuna against the mistakes of the short-sighted Karmaadhikari as follows: "Ignorant men who rejoice in the words of the Karma Kanda of the Vedas – who declare that there is nothing more valuable for men than works of worship, donation and austerity – who have set their hearts upon the attainment of sensuous enjoyments and lordly powers by such works – and who think that Svarga is the highest happiness, - quote flowery words from the Karma Kanda enjoining different kinds of works and praising the superior births ordained as the reward of such works. But, Arjuna, since the Karma Kanda is concerned with objects evolved from the fleeting phases of mind and matter (prakriti-gunas), you should forsake such objects and the dual conditions of the mind known as pleasure and pain. You should be established on what is unchangeable and true."
This school of Vedic interpreters, whom the Bhagavan condemns for their belief that Svarga is the highest goal of life and must be labored for by the practice of yajnam, danam and tapas, are referred to in the Purva Mimamsa as Karmathah, which, Panini says, means Karmasurah, apt workers for sensuous happiness.
The wise Karmadhikari is he who does his yajnam, danam and tapas, for their own sakes, and not through love of the sensuous enjoyable things that come of such works; or he who does such works through love of God and in grateful acknowledgement of His beneficent care.
The Apostle of God, graciously sent into the land of the Tamils some two thousand years ago, asked his contemporaries, as he still asks their remote descendants, நடலை வாழ்வு கொண்டு என் செய்தீர் – what have ye gained by persisting in pravritti margam – the way that is steeped in heart-aches, notwithstanding all its pomp and gloss, throughout the trilokas named bhu, svar and naraka. In another hymn he confesses that in the days of the flesh – when its cravings were strong – he did many a dark deed in ignorance - கொடுமைபல செய்தனன், நான் அறியேன், - but that he clung day and night to God, Whom he had not before set high above all things in his heart, and obtained, as the result of his unflinching love and humility, the grace of the Lord, which freed his body from its long-standing ailments, and his spirit from corruption. Proclaiming his transcendent state of Jivan-mukti (spiritual freedom), in the psalm beginning with நாமார்க்கும் குடியல்லோம், நமனை அஞ்சோம், நரகத்தில் இடர்ப்படோம், he asks in one of the hymns before us, "are you not tired of the painful pleasures of the sense-ridden mind? Do you nor know the testimony of the Vedas that pravrittti margam leads unto death, and back again unto birth and death, with all their fears, fatigues and sorrows? நடலை வாழ்வு ………..நாணிலீர், சுடலை சேர்வது சொற் ப்ரமாணம்." Therefore the prudent man, buddhiman, should turn from this way of sorrow and love God above all. He should cling to God unceasingly in whatever line of duty he may be engaged and appeal for grace. Then will God admit him to the way of freedom from sorrow – duhkha nivritti margam.
Hence the first song in the first decade of hymns here printed: மாசில் வீணையும் மாலை மதியமும், etc: the grace of God is as pacifying as the soft music of the vina, or the tender moon in the evening sky etc. The second stanza is , all learning and wisdom are for doing reverence unto God. The third, the worldly-minded will not hear the words of Sanctified Sages regarding the entanglements and dangers of pravritti margam. The fourth, pravritti margam is useless, for it is full of disguised sorrow and draws man farther and farther away from God. The fifth: in that way, man worships God and the devas out of regard for sensuous enjoyments. The sixth: Vedic texts, temples and other symbols, point to a different path, - nivritti margam – which the mind in bondage to sensuous enjoyments cannot appreciate. The seventh: God should be worshipped out of pure love, as the great benefactor who gave us the instruments of knowledge, speech and action for escape from destructive desires. The eighth: such desires are hard to conquer without the grace of God, for even me, who had abandoned the attractions of women, the mind at times tries to allure. The ninth: God rescues from the onslaughts of sensuous desires those whose hearts melt for Him. The tenth: He reveals Himself to those who love Him. The tenth: He reveals Himself to those who love Him above all things, when the [churn of the] heart is moved hard by [the staff of] love rolled on the cord of pure intelligence.
The second decade of hymns opens with the teaching that they who would be free from sin and corruption should think of God deeply and continuously and with joy and that then He would be at one with them and grant them His grace. The second stanza is, freedom from sin and corruption is to those only who see Him in all things, and not to those who see Him only in particular places. The third: Freedom from sin and corruption is to those only who believe that the omnipresent and all-powerful Lord is their best friend, and not to those who are learned in, or learning, the Sastras, nor to those who give freely, nor to those who utter the eleven mantras. The fourth: spiritual freedom is to those only who meditate upon the omnipresent all-powerful Lord, and not to those who merely chant the Vedas, or hear the Sastras expounded, or learn the Dharma-Sastras and Vedangas. The fifth: spiritual freedom is to those only who crave for atonement with the omnipresent and all-powerful Lord, and not to those who bathe at dawn, nor to those who have at all times striven to be just, nor to those who make daily offerings to the Devas. The sixth: the blissful state of spiritual freedom is to those only who know the Lord to be boundless-in-love-and-light (ஞானன்) and not to those who roam in search of holy shrines, nor to those who practice severe austerities, nor to those who abstain from meat. The seventh: no gain of spiritual freedom is there to those who display the robes and other insignia of yogis and sannyasis, or to those who mortify the flesh: that gain is only to those who glorify Him as the Being who vibrates throughout the universe and in every soul. The eighth: spiritual freedom is only to those who feel that the omnipresent and all-powerful Lord is unchanging and eternal, and not to those who desire in myriads of sacred waters brings no real happiness, without love of God. And the tenth: nor any other work of austerity, without devotion to the Lord of al power.
It remains only to add that the untiring efforts of my beloved friend, Sriman Nallasvami Pillai, amidst judicial duties, to smoothen the way of those who would learn of பக்தி நெறி (way of love) and முக்தி நெறி (way of spiritual freedom), prove that he is a true minister of God. For reminding us frequently of our true Father and our only Help, and so bringing us again and again to heart-felt worship of all that is Highest and Best, he deserves our unstinting gratitude.