THE SPIRITUAL VALUE OF MANIKKA VACAGAR'S TIRUVACAGAM.*
[* A paper read before the annual conference of the "Saiva Sabha" of Palamcotta, 1912 – Ed. S. D.]
"Love great men; love, venerate and bow down in submission before them. Does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him?" These words of Carlyle come to my mind when I think of the great sage that sang the supremely beautiful lyrics of the Tiru Vacagam. Manikka Vacagar is among the greatest of our saints who renounced the pomp and pageantry of the world to walk humbly with God. No work is held in higher veneration by the Tamils than Manikka Vacagar's "Sacred Song." There are few words in Tamil devotional literature that can compare with – certainly none that excel – the Tiru Vacagam in light and grace, in earnestness and sweetness, in lofty feeling and fervid piety, in passionate longing for spiritual peace and purity, and in the uplifting faith in divine grace in which the human soul, tossed about on the stormy billows of intellectual and moral puzzles, finds a safe haven of rest. The music of Manikka Vacagar's melting lyrics and their glowing faith and fervor have for centuries continued to thrill with rapturous emotion the teeming millions of the Tamil country, whose story of spiritual growth, of spiritual struggle and spiritual triumph, has been permanently influenced by them. To the Tamil, Manikka Vacagar has always been the saint whose words are sweetest honey capable of quenching the thirst of their yearning souls, or 'whose utterances are precious rubies' forming a treasure-house full of accents of the Holy Ghost. The song of hope and love and redeeming grace is a rich heritage to humanity in whatever language it may be written; and a study, however short or imperfect of such a song immeasurably adds to our worth and wisdom. It is a living light-fountain which it is good and profitable to be near even for a short while.
The central incident of Manikka Vacagar's life is his sudden conversion to the service of God, while he was in the prime of youth and in the plentitude of temporal power. Everybody knows the story of his sudden passage from darkness into light. He is commissioned by his sovereign to purchase a stud of horses for royal use, and it is in that trip his conversion take place at Tiru-Perum-turai. As the cavalcade with the youthful prime minister at the head, draws near the town, the chant of the sacred Saiva Agamas rises in solemn strains from a neighboring grove, and the youth involuntarily feels himself attracted to the spot whence the mystic music proceeds. From that instant his secular life is over. He beholds with self-forgetting rapture a mystic Guru seated at the foot of a spreading Kuruntha (Atalantia Missionis), bedecked with rosaries of scarlet eleocarpus beads, smeared with holy ashes, and surrounded by an intently devout host of disciples. The crisis has come, and the youthful minister of state becomes the lowliest among God's own. He is initiated, and becomes from that moment "one in feeling, soul, power and faculty with the Infinite Eternal." In almost every one of the hymns of the Tiru-Vacagam, Manikka Vacagar alludes to this great crisis is his life: but I shall give here only one passionate outburst as an illustration. It is perhaps one of his earliest songs, and it contains a very touching appeal for Sivan's redeeming grace, which had first manifested itself to him at Perunturai under the Kuruntham's flowery shade:-
"In Perun-Turai girt with ordered stately groves, 'neath
The Kuruntham's flowery shade,
I call to mind Thy glories all, and pondering yearn, and
as my mighty lord Thee oft invoke.
Ascetic rare! When I Thy servant, craving call, struggling
Amid the billowy sea,
In grace declare the fitting path to reach Kailas, and bid
Me come"!* (xxix. 10)
[* The translations employed in this paper are mainly taken from Dr. G. U. Pope's well known Edition of the Tiru Vacagam.]
- an appeal which we know was fully answered both literally for his physical body and spiritually for his soul. Thus we witness him rapturously exclaiming in one of his later songs:-
"In senses' power, sure cause of death, I erewhile wildered lay,
Oft wrapt through realms of boundless space then plunged in dismal helss!
He gave perception clear, made me all bliss – made me his own!
I've Tillai† seen that holds the Gem, which endless rapture yields"! (xxxi.1)
[† Chidambaram, the foremost Saiva Shrine in South India.]
The man of the world to whom till then the sensual pleasures of life had remained irresistible, who had wandered through life plunged in desire of women's charms and absorbed in other worldly enjoyments, suddenly by the grace of the Master attains freedom from sensual thraldom, and he becomes a Jivan Mukta. Mark the gladness and surprise with which Manikka Vacagar sings of his deliverance from the bonds of sensual passion, immediately after his conversion at Perunturai.
"I gave no fitting gift, which lavish hand
Of full-blown flowers, nor bowed with reverence meet.
He grace conferred lest I should tread the paths
Of grief, with mind bewildered by soft dames
With fragrant bosoms fair. He came to save,
And showed to me His golden jewelled feet!
As King in presence manifest He stood;
This matchless miracle I feel not, I"! (xi.1.2).
He forthwith casts off his rich garments and adornments and puts on the lowly habiliments of the ascetic and smears himself with holy-ashes, which as Jnanasambhanda tells us in his Tiru-Nirru-Padigam symbolize deliverance from desire. He wakes
"From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set
Clear and soft in new light and new life."
It is a fundamental doctrine of the Saiva Siddhanta that our life is a probation, a period of preparation for ultimate communion and fellowship with the Supreme. Our life is a gracious appointment of Siva for the emancipation of the human soul. As the Sivajnanabodam teaches us, the Lord is immanent in all souls and works in them through His gracious energy, and as the moon, day by day dispels little by little the persisting darkness, so the Lord, who abides with the soul from eternity, little by little as the soul matures, destroys its sense-evils by His love, and when we really need Him and are prepared to be guided by Him. Himself appears in the form of a guru. This is one of the central doctrines of the Saiva Siddhanta, viz, that Siva appears in human guise as a spiritual teacher to teach and save from the cycle of metempsychosis those that have become ripe to receive His teaching and guidance. Over and over again we are told in the Tiru-Vacagam that the gracious Lord did so appear for the spiritual liberation of Manikka Vacagar; and in his Arputha Pattu (the Wonder decad) he has given expression to his first glad surprise at the vision of the guru. The ecstatic cry of the sage in that lyric" "This miracle of grace I know not, I!" does not indicate that his soul had not matured when he was vouchsafed the gracious vision of the Divine Teacher. As the Sivajnanabodam explains, 'when the soul realizes that heaven and earth and everything else are transient and renounces all, will not the incomparable Lord come as a Wonder transcending all human faculties, and afterwards appear to the soul as the inseparable light of its own spiritual intelligence?' The flood of light of the morning sun bursts upon us in the tropical regions even before we have realized that day has dawned. Even so the Lord, who shines in the soul, graciously floods us with spiritual light before we are conscious that a change is coming. It is of supreme importance to note that according to the Saiva Siddhanta the Divine spirit of energy is the active agent in the redemptive process of the soul. The Lord Himself must begin the process; the soul cannot take any step in the path of freedom from bondage. As the Sivajnanabodam says: 'The Lord who by reason of a soul's good deeds has been an indwelling Spirit teaching him, appears now in the guise of a Guru and instructs him telling him that he is an emperor's son living in the midst of savages – the five senses; and then the soul understanding its true nature leaves these savages and unites with the sacred foot of the Lord inseparably. The illustration of the emperor's son, who ignorant of his parentage has grown among savages, being reclaimed by the father and raised to the dignity and status that is his due, very appropriately describes the soul's release from sensuousness by God's redeeming grace. The direct operation of Divine Grace in the redemption of our life is among the cardinal teachings of the Tiru Vacagam. The Supreme Being whom Manikka Vacagar praises in these lyrics is not an abstraction, but a living God having personal relationship with His universe, a God of abundant grace and unbounded love, merciful and forgiving, and redeeming the saint and the sinner from the cycle of births and deaths. Indeed Pati is the Saiva Siddhanta is always considered as related to Pasu, and not as an impersonal abstract entity; and, as beautifully expressed in Sivaprakasam, 'as the hidden milk of the cow flows in streams at the mere thought of the calf, so the Lord in the abundance of His love appears everywhere to His devotees and bestows His Grace upon them
Before proceeding further, an objection that has been sometimes raised against the Siddhanta teaching on the manifestation of the Divine Teacher may be noticed briefly. The manifestation to Manikka Vacagar was personal to him, but not for the word generally. The manifestation that Saivism teaches is not alleged to have any basis in world-history. Though Saiva sacred literature instances various manifestations for the special redemption of individual souls, a historical manifestation which has universal reality or validity is not taught; and this is regarded as a defect. Whether the Saiva Siddhanta, even if it did not definitely teach the incarnation of a universal Divine Teacher, is for that reason defective, is a matter on which there may be an honest difference of opinion. Obviously all souls cannot be at the same stage of evolution; and the universe can develop harmoniously only if each soul progressed along the path marked out by the law of its life. Karma and God's energy are the two agents at work in the development of the soul. Karma is determined by Svabhava. From Svabhava originate the three-fold gunas, which give rise to Karmas. Karmas spring entirely from the gunas of Prakriti says the Bagavat Gita, and these gunas we bring with us at our birth. Each souls is placed in surroundings conditioned by its Karma, and is, by the indwelling Divine energy, given opportunities of approaching its goal. It is, hence almost a necessity of thought to hold that all souls cannot reach at the same time the exact stage of preparation for the reception of the light of Divine wisdom from the same Divine Teacher. Hence the explanation for the familiar three-fold classification of souls into Sakalar, Pralayakalar, and Vijnanakalar, a classification corresponding more or less to Paul's classification into carnal, psychical, and spiritual.
The young sage after he meets his Guru forgets the mission on which he had been sent; and for the misuse of the money originally intended for the purchase of horses for the royal stables, the king causes him to be seized and cast into prison. Has it not been said that he who soweth in tears shall reap in joy? The ethical significance of pain or suffering in the perfection of our higher nature cannot be overestimated.
"Put pain from out the world, what room were left
For thanks to God, for love to man?"
writes Browning; and Manikka Vacagar's suffering in prison while on the one hand illustrating the action of Nemesis, also helped, as it was ordained to help, Manikka Vacagar's fuller realization of that Divine grace that was fast ripening the life of his soul, so that it might soon merge itself completely in a life of universal love, or in the phraseology of the Siva Siddhanta, attain Siva Anubhava and live in Advaita relation with the Lord. From his prison the saint sends forth pathetic prayers to the great God that had manifested Himself to him at Tiru Perunturai; and tradition declares that some of the laments then uttered are preserved in his 'Weariness of Life' and his 'Supplication'. The ruling ideas of these decads are worthy of note in this connection. The young sage unable to endure his anguish and suffering cries out,
"I die not yet! Severed from Thee what pleasure can I take?
In grace vouchsafe to bid me, 'This do thou!." (xxxiii-6).
He feels that the Lord of Perunturai is withholding His saving grace from him; and he pathetically asks.
"Balm of my soul! Is it meet Thy servant suffer pain?" – (xxiii 8).
Is it meet that Sivan's slave should languish like an alien and weep aloud as one forsaken by the Lord? And if he appeal will the merciful Father withhold His grace and allow His suffering servant to droop, all forlorn, like a withered tree? The sage, therefore, sends forth melting prayers from his prison,
"Mingling with Thy true saints, that day in speech less joy I stood;
Next day with dawning daylight trouble came, and there abode.
I pine to seek, O Master mine! the gleam of fadeless bliss;
Distressed! I stand, in grace to me, Thy slave, let love abound! " (xxxii-1).
I have already emphasized the important truth that the God of Saivam is not an abstract Being, standing apart from and unrelated to His universe. It is one of the fundamental truths of Saivism that God is Love. 'Without grace there is no Sivam' declares Sivajnana Siddhi. 'The ignorant think that love and Sivam are twain,' says Tirumular. 'To the eyes of His saints the Lord is seen to be one with His grace, just as the sun and its light appear as one to the eye,' says Meykanda Devar. The Tiru-vacagam refers to Him over and over again as
"Sea of grace, Lord of boundless grace, Flood of grace,
Sun of grace, Temple of grace, Wealth of Grace,
Abode od grace, Ocean of grace."
Boundless grace towards all souls is one of Sivan's eight essential attributes, as His name Sankaran imports. And so, if Manikkavacagar implored for grace the great Nilakantha – the Supreme Deity who that the universe might live, ate, in His abundant love, the fiery poison, - would his cry remain unneeded? His cry is heard, and in response Sivan is said to have performed a lila or miracle, which both saved Manikkavacagar and established his sanctity as a Saiva saint for ever. The possibility of miracles is often confidently denied by certain classes of thinkers' but in refutation of that position I shall refer to the opinions of two very eminent thinkers, one representing the domain of material science, and the other of speculative metaphysics. Professor Huxley declares that nobody can presume to say what the order of nature must be. He writes: "If a dead man did come to life, the fact would be evidence, not that any law of nature had been violated, but that these laws even when they express the results of a very long and uniform experience, are necessarily based on incomplete knowledge, and are to be held only on grounds of more or less justifiable expectation." Lotze writes: "The whole course of nature becomes intelligible only by supposing the co-working of God, who alone carries forward the reciprocal action of the different paths of the world. But that view which admits a life of God which is not benumbed in an unchangeable sameness, will be able to understand his eternal co-working as a variable quantity, the transforming influence of which comes forth at particular moments and attests that the course of nature is not shut up within itself. And this being the case, the complete conditioning causes of the miracle will be found in God and nature together, and in that external action and reaction between them which perhaps, although not ordered simply according to general laws, is not void of regulative principles. This vital, as opposed to a mechanical, constitution of nature, together with the conception of nature as not complete in itself – as if it were dissevered from the Divine energy – shows how a miracle may take place without any disturbance elsewhere of the constancy of nature, all whose forces are affected sympathetically, with the consequence that its orderly movement goes on unhindered." As regards the specific miracle that the Lord in sport performed for the release of Manikka Vacagar, there are ever so many references to it in the Tiruvacagam which tend to show that it was really an incident in our Sage's life, and that he sincerely believed that it was so, and that it is neither an allegory nor a conscious fraud on the part of the immortal signer of the Tiruvacagam.
With his release from prison, Manikka Vacagar also attains freedom from sense impurity. In his Tiru Ammanai he invites us to sing with him the illimitable bliss given by the all-glorious Lord of Perunturai who to lose our bonds rode one charger, the expression employed (Bandha) being a felicitous double extender signifying both confinement in prison and the bonds of existence. Realizing the world to be phenomenal he renounces it, and with the mendicant's staff and the mendicant's bowl, enters for ever the cool shade of Divine wisdom, and in the consciousness of Primal Love which
"Fills infinitude wholly, nor leaves up nor down
One spot for the creature to stand in."
he becomes the humble slave of the Lord and seeks communion with the God-head, completely surrendering himself in action, desire and knowledge to the Supreme. How passionately he longed for the Grace of the Lord before the consummation was attained! Here is one of his earlier utterances.
" I dread not any birth. To death what should I owe! Nor do I crave
Even heaven itself to gain. No power to rule this earth do I esteem
O Sivan, crowned with cassia-flowers that sweets distil; Our Master great!
Our only Lord! I fainting cry: 'When comes the day I find Thy grace?" (v-12).
Before the redeeming Grace of the Lord, what terror can birth or death and what value can earth or heaven possess? Without question he accepts the ascetic life, whatever may be its privations and trials. He exclaims:-
" I want not bliss of Indra, Vishnu, Brahma; though my house and home
Be ruined, friendship form I none save with mine own; though hell's abyss
I enter, I unmurmuring go, if grace Divine appoint my lot;
O King! no other God save Thee I ponder, our transcendent Good!" (v-2).
He seizes 'the raft of the five letters' that he may cross the sea of birth and reach in safety the boundless fertile shore beyond. Of the redemptive power of the Panchakshara Mahamantra it is unnecessary to say much here. Perhaps it is good to call attention to Saint Appar's well-known lines to illustrate its supreme efficacy.
When to a granite pillar fastened
Thou art thrown into the sea,
'Namasivaya' is the surest
Buoy that will afloat keep thee.
This is no mere sentiment; for that great sage tells us elsewhere that it is based on the facts of his own personal history.
When bound to granite, I was thrust
By heretics vile into the sea,
My tongue the saving name expressed
Of Hara great and I was free.
The Sivajnanabodham explains that the Panchakshara is enjoined as the way to purification of the soul, because the soul retains through its ancient habits, a hankering after its sense-knowledge, just as the worm that has been habitually feeding on the bitter bark of the margosa tree, returns to it even after tasting the sugarcane; and this hankering or tendency may be destroyed by the repetition of the holy mantra. The idea involved is that the soul acquires the nature of that which it contemplates continually. By the help of the formula, the soul is enabled gradually to attain the Advaita relation with the Lord, and to reflect with increasing fullness, God' s life in which it is enabled to share. For God is the life of life and the soul of soul; and the soul is bright with life or is immersed in darkness according as the Divine Light is given or withheld. "Are there not in this world, things which are dark in the darkness and kindle into brightness in the light?" asks Umapati Sivacharya in his Tiru Arul-Payan. The eye, the crystal and akasa are mentioned as illustrations of such objects; and so too is the soul. That it may share effectively in the bliss of God's life of love, it has to keep in sight the ideal constantly, and, as far as it may try to identify itself with the ideal which is its goal. To the end, the devotee has to achieve self-effacement by offering up his body, senses, thoughts and feelings to God, that ultimately his individual, finite life may merge in the Universal, Infinite Life, in the realization of Siva Anubhava or Divine beatitude. When he has attained that stage, he has become a truly liberated soul, which finds its happiness in fulfilling God's own life of loving activity. We read in Siva-Jnana-Siddhi: "The freed soul feels: all my deeds are your commandments; You stand within me You make me do and You do. No deeds are mine, they are yours;" and the hymns of the Tiru Vacagam show that is how Manikka Vacagar came to feel in time. The Tiru-Vacagam is a veritable Pilgrim's Progress, describing the passage of the puzzled soul of our sage from the alluring bondage of the flesh to final emancipation, by Divine Grace, from embodiment. The young soul that behold in amazement the gracious Guru when he first quickened it with the breath of true wisdom and exclaimed:
"The wonder this! Say is there aught like this?
He made me servant of His loving saints;
Dispelled my fear, ambrosia pouring forth, He came,
And while my soul dissolved, in love made me His own!" (v-29).
and after the first flesh of joy, felt itself almost weighted with heavy despair when it had to confront the obstinate questionings that that wisdom raised and cried in plaintive tones when the Divine Lord would in His Grace call it back to Him:
"Bridegroom of Her with fawn-like eyes! Our King;
If Thou hast caused me Thine abiding glory to forget;
If Thou hast thrust me out in fleshly form to dwell;
If Thou hast caused Thy slave to wander here forlorn;
Knowing Thy servant's ignorance, O gracious King!
When comes the day that Thou Thyself wilt show Thy grace?
Ah! When, I cry, when wilt Thou call me back to Thee?" (xxxiii-4).
realizes the supreme beauty of the Lord's service and forgets itself in its rapture, and gathering strength and sustenance from its unshaken confidence in Immortal Love, feels that in every detail of its life, God is the motive force:
"The tongue itself that cries to Thee – all other powers
Of my whole being that cry out – all are Thyself!
Thou art my way of strength! The trembling thrill that runs
Through me is Thee! Thyself the whole of ill and weal!
None other here." (xxxiii-5).
marches steadfastly onward despising all worldly pomp and glory and all earthly ties and attachments, and intent on reaching the Divine feet which alone form everlasting treasure, yearns, as the cow yearns for its calf, for the cool and comforting shade of the Holy Feet of the Lord:
"Nor friends nor kin I seek, no city I desire, no name I crave;
No learned ones I seek, and henceforth lessons to be conned suffice;
Thou Dancer in Kurralam* dwelling blissful! Thy resounding feet
I'll seek, that as the cow yearns for its calf, my longing soul may melt." (xxxix-3).
[* Commonly spelt Courtalam, one of the most famous Saiva shrines in South India. The Courtalam Falls attract large numbers of people every year and it is three miles from the Railway station Tenkasi.]
And at last in the fullness and intensity of its self-negating love for the Divine Master, actually reaches His Blessed Feet which alone in Truth can afford it the heaven of rest from its pilgrimage:
"Glory I ask not, nor desire I wealth, not earth or heaven I crave;
I seek no birth or death; those that desire not Sivam never more
I touch. I've reached the foot of sacred Perun-turai's King,
And crowned myself! I go not forth!
I know no going hence again!" (xxxiv-7).
Mark the exultation at reaching, and the determination not to leave the Holy feet of Siva. When Manikka Vacagar sang in ecstasy those melodious strain, his self-abnegating love had so far developed, that his soul might be said to have almost realized itself, and that it was on the very verge of liberation. For united with the sacred Feet of God, the soul shines out perfect, purified through love and wisdom. The ineffable happiness of the union cannot be better described than in Saint Appar's supremely beautiful words of which the following lines are a faint echo:
Gladdening like the advancing spring-tide;
Cooling like a tank where bees
Drunk with newly-gathered honey
Hum midst over hanging trees;
Like the evening moon, delightful;
Like the faultless Vina, sweet;
Like the zephyr soft refreshing
Are my Father Isan's feet.
After attaining this stage, the spiritual pilgrim in soon at the farthest end of the path. Emancipated from embodiment and redeemed from sin, he enters the golden Temple to live in conclusive bliss in the full and conscious enjoyment of his Father's presence, enters the Home of joy where the Supreme Lord in abundant love, keeps up through eternity the rhythmic dance of cosmic life, that he too may cooperate for a great world purpose. Thereafter, he is no one's vassal and he fears none, not even death. The grace of the Lord has destroyed the impurity of his soul and made him pure bliss. He has reached the goal and has become one of the blest hierarchy of liberated souls whose happiness consists in helping the fulfilment of God's purpose. This is how he sings of his realization of the self:
"This day in Thy mercy unto me Thou didst drive
away the darkness, and stand as the Rising Sun:
Of this, thy way of rising – there being naught
else but Thou – I thought without thought.
I drew nearer and nearer to Thee, wearing away
atom by atom, till I was one with Thee,
O Siva, dweller in the great Holy Shrine,
Though are not aught in the Universe; naught is there save Thou.
Who can know Thee." (xxii-7).
That is the story of Manikka Vacagar as told in the Tiru Vacagam; and in his songs, so sweet with the nectar of devotion and so redolent of the certitude of Divine Grace, the mission of his life to his countrymen is enshrined. The hymns of the Tiru Vacagam are songs of faith and grace and love and immortality, of spiritual struggle and spiritual triumph – themes that are of the highest significance to all mankind. They are songs that have for their theme, the sacred personality of man, his infinite relations to God, and to life, to duty and to destiny. Perhaps our Western friends will say that there is a strange combination of high spirituality and gross idolatry in the lyrics. That is the feeling of even Dr Pope who had spent a whole life-time in understanding and appreciating the thoughts and feelings of the Tamil people regarding the highest matters, their conception and solutions of the great problem of God, the soul, humanity, nature, evil, suffering and redemption. As for our so-called idolatry, we should really be pardoned if we refuse to believe that our symbology has been properly understood by the West. The precise import of our symbolical expressions may not so naturally become patent to people in the West as to us; and for this, the settled convictions of ages that the East and the West have each inherited, are mainly responsible. Some of the sublimest ideas which the West regards as emphatically beyond the sphere of argument and of the cold intellect, the orthodox Hindu fails to appreciate, however much he may have been influenced by Western philosophy and culture; even as Dr Pope, with all his love and sympathy for the Saiva religion, finds it not altogether easy to realize in the symbol of Nataraja the idea of the true Guru who brings us redemption, the Divine preceptor who teaches that maya should be suppressed, that the world should become subject to us and not we to the world, that the Atman is far beyond the reach of the mind that is swayed by fleeting desires, that Ahankara should be destroyed and that man should strive to elevate himself to the region of pure unconditioned consciousness, free from passion and deception and to deserve the equability, the bliss, the light and the truth that really form the self. The foreigner thinks all this is fanciful; we, however, hold it as a living faith. We must have our differences, for otherwise, thought would cease. Nevertheless, both the East and the West, however different the symbols of their religious systems may be, must be prepared to recognise that all systems have their truths which lie deeper than 'full fathoms five' in human nature and are essentially and fundamentally the same for all men and for all time. It is only by such recognition that the brotherhood of man will be established, and the kingdom of God maintained on earth; and for this consummation let us devoutly pray.
K. G. S.