Religious Genius: Nammāḻvār, Sri Vaishnava (Hindu) poet

Vasudha Narayanan
University of Florida

Many of us come to this project because of our scholarly connections with “religious” figures of various kinds from many cultures and many centuries: teachers, poets, theologians, preachers, gurus, saints, wali-s, pirs, sants, et al. We have heard their voices, felt their palpable, charismatic power over individuals and communities, think of them as extraordinary and exceptional in many ways, and we want to introduce them to a larger audience – and perhaps even to teach other. It is our restlessness on what we should call these personages, it is our concern that we ought to represent the different facets of their lives and personalities, as well as their significance to people who are deeply devoted to them, that makes us search for new categories or at least a vocabulary which makes sense at this point of time. Many of us have, at various times of our lives, expressed our frustrations with “Christo-centric” or “biblio-centric” traditions and terms which have at best formed a template for, and at worst, distorted the public visages of other religio-cultural traditions; I take this to be a traditional rite-of-passage in graduate school. And yet, in our need (and, perhaps, anxiety) to communicate, we continue to use words such as “religion,” “God,” or “saint” as short-hand terms, frequently with liberal use of scare quotes. Perhaps the holy grail (an ironic expression in this context) of finding language without baggage has something to do with our being here today.

We have had several rounds of discussion critiquing the term “Religious Genius” already, contesting the terms “religion,” and “genius.” And yet, despite some dissatisfaction, we have come back this week to populate this category, raiding the spiritual supermarkets, thoughtfully looking at labels and closely examining the “ingredients.” There have been some success stories—most from pop culture, but some academia—in past ventures of creating new terms and making them recognizable categories. Categories such as hippies, preppies, yuppies, punks, the “me-generation,” and geeks have been initially received with enthusiasm, been well-populated, but have eventually begun to lose their edge or their identity after being over-used. Obviously we are looking for a stable category with a longer shelf life than these terms.

In our discussion today, I would like to introduce you to Namm??v?r, a poet-saint who lived approximately around the 9th century CE, to consider the ways in which we may think of him as a religious genius. This paper will be a bit different from others in some ways in terms of method and the sources I will be using. We have a shared ethos here about what is “historical knowledge” and “reality,” and we also privilege certain forms of historical inquiry. Details which do not stand up to a certain form of modernist sensibility are filed under the categories of hagiography and myth. The criteria we have drawn up for a “religious genius” places some weight on praxis, ethics, and morality. So the very project is premised on what people call “western” modes of enquiry and characteristics which may be privileged by us as scholars today. Not much here on trances, possession, or miracles, for example; this is not a criticism; just an acknowledgment of our starting point. While I think there is material connected with Namm??v?r which fit the exemplary list of exemplary characteristics we have come up with thus far, there is also plenty of other stuff which I do not want to lose on the way in my anxiety to have him fit the “religious genius” mold.

We know very little about Namm??v?r and if we were to rely on “historical” biographies, we are out of the business right now. I will, therefore, be coming to this category in other ways: through his own words, that is, through his poems, second, some “hagiographies,” and finally, through rituals. We would probably not have any question (or, to use a colloquialism, an “beef” J ) over the first source, but certainly some would question the use of the second and third categories. Combined, these give us a picture of a person who is extraordinarily special in the Sri Vaishnava/ Hindu community of south India.

Namm??v?r composed four poems in Tamil and in later centuries, the Sri Vaishnava community considered these works as equivalent to the four Sanskrit Vedas, and specifically, the Tiruv?ymo?i (“Sacred word of mouth” or “Sacred Utterance”) to be equivalent to the S?ma Veda, the most important among Hindu scriptures. Even in a landscape of hyperbole and veneration, statements consistently equating a vernacular text, however special, with not just any Sanskrit work but the S?ma Veda itself, and regularly performing the Tiruv?ymo?i alongside Sanskrit Vedas in domestic and temple liturgies, and in temple, public, and domestic spaces, marks the poem and the author as having extraordinary significance.

While the earliest compositions to Vishnu in the Tamil language are found in anthologies between the second and fifth centuries C.E., the body of literature that just focuses on devotion (bhakti) to Vishnu is from a slightly later period. The Tamil devotees who sang in praise of Vishnu were called ??v?rs. The word ??v?r is traditionally derived from the Tamil root al (“deep”), and the title “??v?r” was given to eleven men and one woman who are said to have been immersed deep in the love of Vishnu. The twelve ??v?rs probably lived between the seventh to the tenth centuries C.E. Many of them traveled from temple to temple singing in praise of Vishnu. The twenty four works of the ??v?rs are together about 4000 verses long, and they came to be known as the Nalayira Divya Prabandham or the Sacred Collect of Four Thousand Verses. The twelve ??v?rs form a special group– they appear as a collective in the earliest information we have about them and it has always been a closed group– like the category of Ivy League schools now. In other words, whoever created that category, populated it with these twelve poet saints, and then closed the gates.

The most famous work in the ??v?r poetry is, arguably, is the Tiruv?ymo?i, a poem of 1102 verses composed by ?a?hako?pa? or Namm??v?r. The Sri Vaishnava community considers one of the ??v?rs, ?a?hako?pa?, known affectionately as Namm??v?r or “Our ??v?r” to be a paradigmatic devotee. His icon is seen in many Vishnu temples in south India as well as in many temples in the diaspora, and his Tamil poems, considered by the Sri Vaishnava community of south India as “revealed” are recited in temples around the world alongside the Sanskrit Vedas.

Namm??v?r’s bhakti included ecstatic and ritual surrender to Vishnu who is conceptualized in many manifestations and in many incarnations (avat?ra) as well as “formless” and as beyond human thought. Namm??v?r also sang about Vishnu enshrined in many sacred places in India. The devotion is seen through the poet’s sustained meditation on his divine attributes, service to the deity and other devotees, and singing the glory and majesty of the divine name. Namm??v?r, in short, is a person to whom words like “mystic” and “saint” have been applied regularly.

Canonized as “scripture,” the Tiruv?ymo?i has been of seminal importance in the piety and liturgy of the Sri Vaishnava community of south India, and extraordinarily significant in the history of Hindu literature. It was the first “vernacular” work within the Hindu consciousness to be considered as “revealed” and as equivalent to a Veda; it was also the first work in a mother?tongue to be introduced as part of domestic and temple liturgy under the large Hindu umbrella. This is even more surprising when one learns that Namm??v?r, at least in the perception of later theologians, is considered to be a Ve??????a, that is, a member of a powerful land?owning community, but one that was considered from the brahminical standpoint as the “fourth class” of society, i.e., ?udra, and thus not eligible to study the Vedas. The devotion voiced in the poetry of Namm??v?r and other ??v?rs is said to be transmitted through the Bh?gavata Pur??a, the teacher Ramananda (circa 14th-15th centuries CE), as well as through Sanskrit hymns and oral traditions, and is said to appear in different forms in the teachings of Caitanya, Vallabha, Surdas, Kabir, and Guru Nanak.

Unlike the Sanskrit Vedas which could only be recited by male members of the upper castes, the Tiruv?ymo?i has been recited by men and women of all castes of Sri Vaishnava society. The Sri Vaishnava community which became well known after the tenth century reveres the twelve ??v?rs and a series of teachers (?c?ryas) beginning with N?thamuni (c. late 10th century). R?m?nuja (traditional dates: 1017-1137); the fifth ?c?rya is the best known teacher of this community and his philosophical interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras came to be known as Vi?i???dvaita Ved?nta. The ??v?r poetry has been commented upon over the centuries, orally, in writing, and through the performing arts.

Namm??v?r himself tells us very little about himself. Even the name Namm??v?r is of later origin; it was used by the community a few centuries after his lifetime. He refers to himself usually as M??an, Kari M?ran, (which leads to the supposition that his father’s name was Kari), or as Ca?ako?pa? (?a?hakopa in Sanskrit). He says he is from Kurukur and praises the town he is from in extravagant terms.

The hagiographies describing his life were written after the acceptance of the Tiruv?ymo?i as the Veda, the beginning of a commentarial tradition on the poem, and its inclusion in home and temple liturgies. It is probable, that like all other Sri Vaishnava literature, these hagiographies are based on earlier oral traditions, but it is still puzzling how little we know of his life. While the later biographies give more details (in fact, the more removed in time from the person, the more the detail) the basic construction of his early life remains the same, with minor variations. The following discussion is derived from three works of comparatively later date: The Splendor of Succession of Teachers (late thirteenth century), and The Glory of the ??v?rs, composed by Va?iva?akiya Nampi T?car. (c.14th-15th centuries CE)

Namm??v?r was born in the month of Vaikasi (May 15th to June 14th) in Tirukurukur (southern Tamilnadu), and the entire town rejoiced at his birth. But soon, his mother Utayanankai was filled with bewilderment, for the child refused to open his eyes, or open his mouth, either to cry or to drink milk from the mother’s breast. Eventually, the parents took the child to the temple. The child who was hitherto motionless, started to crawl around the temple. He then found a tamarind tree??said to be the incarnation of the serpent Ananta (“without-end;” the paradigmatic servant of Vishnu) and crawled under it. There, to everyone’s amazement, with his fingers turned around in a teaching symbol, he went into a meditative trance. He sat in a “lotus position,” a yogic stance and seemed oblivious to the world. (The Glory of the ??v?rs, verse 870.) Meanwhile, Maturakavi ??v?r, another ??v?r, who had undertaken a pilgrimage in northern India. saw a brilliant light in the south. He followed it and it eventually led him to Tirukkurukur where he approached Namm??v?r. Having tested Namm??v?r with a question and being satisfied with the answer, he became his disciple, and Namm??v?r began to recite four poems, which eventually, the Sri Vaishnava community considered to be equivalent to the four Vedas.

The Tiruv?ymo?i–the longest of Namm??v?r’s poems (1102 verses)– is an intensely personal and passionate description of the poet’s love, his agony at being separated from Vishnu, his crying out to see and serve him and finally, a triumphant union with him. In the Tiruv?ymo?i itself, Namm??v?r makes a startling claim that Vishnu used him as an instrument and sang the entire Tiruv?ymo?i through him:

What can I say of the lord
who lifted me up for all time,
and made me himself, every day?
My radiant one, the first one,
my lord, speaks of himself,
through me, in sweet Tamil.

What can I say of him
who unites with my sweet life today?
He makes my words, the sweet words I say,
seem as if they were mine,
[but] the wondrous one praises himself
through his own words.
The Primary one of the three [divine] forms
says my words ahead of me.

Entering my tongue first,
he made clear to me that,
yes, he was the primeval one.
Would I ever forget
the father who, through my mouth
spoke about himself
to the foremost, pure devotees
in fine sweet verse?

Tiruv?ymo?i 7.9.1 to 3

In this entire set of verses, and in some later ones (TVM 10.7.2), Namm??v?r claims that Vishnu spoke through him. There is no reference to the suffering that he hear about when he perceives himself as being separated from Vishnu, and the longing expressed in other sets of poems; here, and now, the supreme being has united with him and speaks through him. The commentators understand this to mean that Vishnu has spoken the entire Tiruv?ymo?i through Namm??v?r, not just the verses where the poet speaks through the ecstatic words of union.

A major trope in the Tiruv?ymo?i is that of food; and the acts of eating, and being eaten, spiritually. When Namm??v?r speaks about his total union with Vishnu, in many verses he refers to it as his “eating” and containing the deity and as Vishnu “swallowing” him. This recalls to mind two famous stories from Hindu texts called the Pur??as— Vishnu, in his incarnation as Krishna steals and eats butter—and also steals the hearts of the young cowherd girls. In the Tiruv?ymo?i, Vishnu from the local temple comes in stealth, steals and eats the life of the poet. This is the accessible mode of the deity. In the majestic, “supreme” mode, Vishnu is depicted as swallowing the universe at the end of various cycles of time and bringing it out again to create the universe again, cycle after cycle, lasting trillions and trillions of years. The eating and swallowing images, therefore, are charged with notions of both cosmic union (the universe as one with the inner soul and the Inner Controller) as well as erotic, sexual union, when experienced and expressed through the human body not the same type of erotic sexual union that you can watch on Indian TubeV but a more spiritual one.

In what ways can we think of Namm??v?r as a religious genius? Using the template we have worked with as a frame, we can see how Namm??v?r speaks to the Sri Vaishnava community, the larger Hindu communities in many parts of the world, human beings who seek to enjoy and perhaps even partially appropriate such “sacred utterances,” as well as to us who seek to populate the category of “religious genius” with extraordinary people from the last two millennia. I will use his words, the perceptions of the community he has inspired, as well as the rituals to show how we may see him as an exemplar of the many characteristics we consider to mark a “religious genius.”

I should also say at the outset that I consider these characteristics as a Venn diagram—most of the figures we are looking at exemplify many, though not necessarily all of them. But to say that some of the figures we are discussing this week are not religious geniuses because they do not have any one of the characteristics we have come up with, I would argue, is to impoverish our collective human experiences.

I regret that your first encounter with Nammalvar is through my translation. The sound of the poems is part of Namm??v?r’s genius—the Sri Vaishnavas experience the Tiruv?ymo?i primarily in an aural mode, through recitation, and at times through the sights of traditional ritual specialists performing it in a temple. The rhymes, the alliteration, the meters, and weaving of words come together with piety, power, and passion, and concepts like the ineffable nature of Brahman spoken of in the Upanishads are woven seamlessly with the personal encounters with the deity to create and communicate a new theology. Yes, some of these themes are there in the Sanskrit Puranas—but the master chef, Namm??v?r, uses fresh, organic ingredients to create a delicious new dish.

Perhaps one could say that the whole Tiruv?ymo?i is about love. And yet, there is no really comfortable word in Tamil which has the many-faceted ramifications of “love.” The Tamil word anpu is not used much; k?tal –romantic, sometimes erotic, love is used every now and then. I prefer to use the Sanskrit word bhakti to speak about Namm??v?r’s devotion. This, of course, is manifested in many ways, including a longing for Vishnu. In roughly about a fourth of the Tiruv?ymo?i verses, he speaks through the persona of a woman, in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs. Sometimes, it is in the voice of a young girl (called “heroine” in classical Tamil poetry) who is longing for her beloved; sometimes, it is the voice of the mother or a friend of this heroine, commenting on the passion of this young girl:

The lament of the young girl:

My friend:
Bigger than this dense earth
And the seven seas
Higher than the skies
Is my love (k?tal ) for the one
Who has the color of the ocean

Where do I go from here?
I can’t stand the soft bells, the gentle breeze,
the dark water?lily, darkness that conquers day,
dulcet notes, jasmines, the refreshing air.
The Lord, my beguiling one,
who creates, bores through,
swallows, and spews this earth,
who measures here and beyond,
does not come.
Why should I live?

Tiruv?ymo?i 7.3.8 and 9.9.2

Namm??v?r imagines himself to be a cowherd girl pining for Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu:

You’re unfair, Kanna, you’re unfair!
When you make love and embrace my full breasts,
a tidal wave of pleasure, unchecked by our union,
rises to the firmament, and soars beyond,
making my wits drown in the flood.
And then it recedes like a dream.
My passion permeates my inner life
and throbs in every cell of my body?
my soul cannot bear this burden.
If I am to be separated from you.
Every time you go to graze the cows,
I die.

I shall die if you go to graze the cows,
for my soul is ablaze with the fire of my breath,
I have no companion:
I shall not live to see your dark body dance.
When you leave me, the day never ends,
my twin eyes, shaped like kayal fish,
swim in tears that never end.
Born as cowherd girls in a herder clan,
a humble state,
Our loneliness is death.

Not feeling the loneliness suffered by the lowly ones,
and the grief of one parted from a friend,
Govinda, you seek the company of those cows in the pen
abandoning us to be like ascetics.
Thinking of your soothing words
that flow from your lying lips,
lips as sweet as ripened fruit,
floods of sweetness, the quintessence of soft nectar,
deluge my mind, sinner that I am, and then burn my soul!

You were gone the whole day,
grazing cows Kanna!
Your soothing words burn my soul.
evening tramples like a rogue elephant
and the fragrance of jasmine buds,
loosening my bonds, blows upon me.
Embrace my beautiful breasts
with the fragrance of the wild jasmine
upon your radiant chest.

Give me the nectar of your mouth,
and with your jewelled lotus hands.

Tiruv?ymo?i 10.3.1?5

Namm??v?r’s devotion to the deity pours out in his devotion to/ love of the devotees of Vishnu and he seeks to serve all those who serve Vishnu. This is a typical verse:

Serving the Servants of Vishnu:

Age after age, and in every age
may it come to pass,
that I have as my rulers,
the servants of the servants,
of the servants,
of the inseparable servants of the lord??
May I, a lonely person,
have the good fortune
of being in the clan of those
who serve these servants.

Tiruv?ymo?i 8.8.10

Namm??v?r’s surrender to Vishnu is considered to be a model, worthy of imitation by everyone. These verses are recited in Sri Vaishnava Vishnu/ Venkateswara temples all over the world; one can hear it on Saturdays if one goes to the Ashland temple just outside Boston:

….Unmatched in fame,
owner of the three worlds!
My ruler!
Lord of the sacred Venkata
desired by incomparable sages
and immortals
I, your servant, who am without shelter,
sat at your feet and took refuge with you. 6.10.10

In this verse, the phrase, “took refuge with you,” is understood in Tamil to be synonymous with surrender. This is repeated several times; there is a sense of letting go, of total reliance on the supreme being:

Whether you end my sorrow or not,
I’ve no other support.
when my body goes limp and life falters,
you then must will that I do not weaken
my grip on your feet.

Tiruv?ymo?i 5.8.8

Freedom from greed seems to be a somewhat weak phrase when we use it in Namm??v?r’s context. He advocates a more holistic sense of detachment. There is nothing but Vishnu, the all pervasive one, and so there is nothing worth holding on to in this life.

Leave it all
and having left it,
leave your life with the Lord
who owns heaven.

Less than a lightning flash
are bodies inhabited by lives.
Just think on this
for a moment.

Pull out by the roots
these things called
“you” and yours.”
Reach God.
There’s nothing more complete.

Tiruv?ymo?i 1.2.1 to1.2.3

And of course, Namm?lv?r, as can be expected always has an expanded sense of awareness. I interpret this as a sense of awareness of what he experiences as reality, as his connection with the cosmos. Searching for a cosmic union, he thinks of the supreme being as beyond words, beyond thought:

The ineffable nature of the Supreme Being:

Beyond the reach of the inner mind, freed of filth,
full blown and rising upward,
beyond the grasp of sense organs,
He is pure bliss and knowledge!
There is none like him
in the past, present, and future.
He is my life!
There is none higher than he.

He has this, and not that,
precious but elusive to the mind.
The earth and the firmament are his;
He is with form, the formless one.
In the midst of the senses, he is not of them.
Unending, he pervades.
We have attained him who has bliss.

Becoming all things
spread on open space, fire,
wind, water, and earth,
He is diffused through them all.
Hidden, he pervades,
like life in a body.
The radiant scripture [speaks)
of the divine one who ate all this.

Beyond the range of the divine ones’ intelligence,
He, the first one of the skies and everything thereon,
Cause of the creator, most Supreme One, ate them all!
He indwells; as Siva and as Brahma,
He burnt the triple cities, he enlightened the immortals,
He destroys, and then creates the worlds.

If you say he exists, he does;
his forms are these forms.
If you say he does not,
his formlessness
is of these non-forms.
If he has the qualities
of existence and non-existence,
he is in two states.
He who pervades is without end.

TVM 1.1. 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9

Namm??v?r’s union with Vishnu, a union which he thinks is the ultimate one happens here in the last verses. He says he will never let his love go. In the last set of verses on the Tiruv?ymo?i, Namm??v?r speaks about being totally united with Vishnu and exults in this union– with a total negation of ego:

If you abandon me,
letting me stray outside your hold,
To whom can I turn?
What can I call mine?
What is it I call “I?”
Like red?hot iron drinking water
You drank my life to exhaustion,[1] and became nectar that never?ends for me.

Tiruv?ymo?i 10.10.5

Becoming nectar that never ends for me,
you dwelt in my soul, within my life,
and ate them as if you could not have your fill.
What more can you eat?…..

Tiruv?ymo?i 10.10.6

The Tiruv?ymo?i ends with this sense of union, but the story does not stop there. Namm??v?r declares emphatically that it is the “destiny of those who dwell on earth to enter Heaven.” Namm??v?r lives, as biographies and rituals attest, with us living beings, because of his compassion; and in the perception of the Sri Vaishnavas who participate in the ritual of his liberation, he helps mediate and get all beings liberation. In a fifteenth century biography, The Glory of the Alvars (GA; Alvarka? Vaipavam), the author says that Namm??v?r, with his sense organs controlled, goes around the Lord and praises him (GA 296); the Lord embraces Namm??v?r, saying, “you are my life”; Sri-Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu embraces Namm??v?r. According to this biography, singing the Sama Veda songs, Namm??v?r is said to attain the feet of the Lord:

Inseparable, like water
sprinkled on a red-hot iron,
he attained [and became inseparable] from the lustrous feet of the Lord.
Just as the flash from a lightning bolt
separates and joins with it again
the flame of Ca?ako?pan rejoined
the original [light]….

(GA verses 300-301)

While the biographies contain hints of his continued presence among his disciples — which is seen in their accounts of how Maturakavi Alvar (Namm??v?r’s disciple), by the grace of Vishnu, got an image of Namm??v?r, and established the recitation of the poet’s works — in temple rituals, Namm??v?r is portrayed as returning to the community after reaching liberation. This ritual is a climax to a ten day festival called the “ten [sets of poems recited at] nights,” when the Tiruv?ymo?i is recited alongside Sanskrit Vedas, then interpreted through dance and verbal commentaries. I spend some time on this today because it is indicative of Nammalvar’s position in the community, a symbol of his love and compassion for all human beings. This ritual articulates Nammalvar’s remaining in this world, bodhisattva like, one could say, to help all beings get mok?a.

The final emancipation of Namm??v?r is enacted on the tenth and last day of the recitation when the last twenty verses are recited. In Tiruv?ymo?i 10.9.1 to 11, Namm??v?r speaks of the ascent of Sri Vaishnava devotees to heaven and being greeted by the servants of the Lord. On this day, Namm??v?r’s image is not dressed in the usual silk clothes and gold orna­ments. Rather, he comes attired in simple white garments, a garland of tulasi leaves (leaves sacred to Vishnu and a sign of sanctity) and and twelve “n?mams” (the Sri Vaishnava sectarian marks) painted on his body, along with royal paraphernalia. In the large Srirangam temple, an image of Vishnu–perceived to be the deity himself– is brought from the innermost shrine into the thou­sand?pillar hall– which is said to resemble heaven. The final drama takes place here.

The verses of 10.9 and 10.10 — the last twenty in the entire Tiruv?ymo?i are recited twice for emphasis. In some temples the image of Namm??v?r is carefully carried by the temple priests and they slowly circumam­bulate the deity. At the end of these ten verses, Namm??v?r is made to bow before the Lord and curtains are drawn, hiding the Lord and the saint from the devotees. The priests cover Namm??v?r with tulasi leaves, leaves that are sacred to Vishnu; five minutes later as the curtains are drawn apart, the priest waves a radiant flame and the audience can only see a mound of tulasi leaves which cover the image of the saint. The covering of Namm??v?r with leaves indicates his liberation from his human body, and a final liberation from the cycle of life and death.

The last ten verses are now recited the chanting of the last verse of the Tiruv?ymo?i is followed with the very first verse of the whole poem, thus coming full circle. The reason for this is in the format of the poem itself; it is composed in the form of an ant?ti (“end?beginning”) with the last word of the first verse being the first words of the next one and so on. Thus, the last words of the last verse, is also the first words of the first verse of the Tiruv?ymo?i. The linking together of the verses is clear when one recites or hears the poem and the last verse leads one back to the first verse, forming an garland of words for the Lord.

A representative of the Sri Vaishnava community then goes up and requests the Lord for Namm??v?r. The Lord’s reply – formulaic words spoken through a priest thunders forth: “We give him back to you.” The request and its affirmation are repeated three times, at which point the saint and the deity are covered with a curtain again. The tulasi leaves are removed and Namm??v?r is returned to humanity as the audience and the araiyars recite the poem composed by Maturakavi Alvar, the disciple of Namm??v?r. Sri Vaishnavas believe that the Lord took up Namm??v?r with his earthly body into heaven, but Namm??v?r returns to be the teacher of human ­beings.[2] S. Venk­ataraman says:

“On the eleventh day, Namm??v?r ascends in his [earthly] body to heaven, is one with the Lord, but tells him ‘I do not want heaven, I only want to live on earth’ and comes back to the world. This is done in the c???u­mu?ai [concluding] rituals.” (Italics added).

While achieving salvation, Namm??v?r remains as an indispen­sable link between human beings and the Lord. Liberated from mortal life, he is yet one with the living people, drawing them to the feet of the Lord, where he abides. Through his presence and by the sacred words that he spoke ?? words that are considered divine, yet spoken in a human voice (tiru v?y mo?i) ?? he binds the devotee to the Lord and becomes the person in whom the divine and the human realms intersect

Namm??v?r, then, is most special for the Sri Vaishnava community because he is at home both in heaven an on earth, mediating the two, according to the Sri Vaishnava world view. While his poems and early biographies show him as having attained his goal and reached heaven, the rituals depict his coming back to earth and through his words and his presence in his image, he guides and leads other human beings to salvation, almost like a bodhisattva.

According to the Sri Vaishnavas, he resides inseparably at the feet of the Lord, and in temples, the sacred feet of the Lord which are engraved in a silver crown are called ?a?h?ri, another name of Namm??v?r. This crown is laid briefly on devotees heads and the lord’s grace is ritually given to the worshipper. By being at the intersection of the Lords feet and the devotee’s head, Namm??v?r is seen as mediating divine grace to the human being, and present as a savior in the Sri Vaishnava community.

While Namm??v?r embodies many of the characteristics we agreed upon, there are some that I am unclear about— notions of purity and “expansiveness” of heart. The notion of purity is very complicated in the Hindu traditions– there are many kinds of physical and ritual purity. While this is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when one thinks of Namm??v?r, one could say that his immersion in Vishnu clothes him with a sense of purity; in fact, Vishnu is hailed as “pavitr?n?m pavitram yo ma?gal?n?m ca ma?galam”– the purest of the pure and the most auspicious of the auspicious. But the emphasis on some of the characteristics may not be as strong as others. Namm??v?r, for instance, never speaks about any discipline he follows; one can discern from his poems that there is almost a spontaneous, uncontrollable flow of love and words. One can see in him the totality of demand and the power of intuition; but intention seems to come and go.

T.?.P. Mahadevan (1911-1983), a well-known professor of philosophy in Madras University wrote a book, Ten Saints of India in 1961, which includes Namm??v?r.[3] After discussing many kinds of saints– those who show devotion (bhaktas), those who seek the divine through wisdom, the ones who work with selfless action, Mahadevan says,

“the term ‘saint’ will cover then, all these types of spiritual genius: jñ?nis like ?uka, bhaktas like N?rada, raja yogis like Vi?v?mitra, and karma yogis like Janaka. These, however, are not exclusive types… All of them had wisdom, devotion, self-control and the spirit of service.”[4]

Mahadevan (who–and here is a piece of trivia– was a spiritual advisor to the Greek Royal family) interestingly enough, uses the term “spiritual genius” to describe his saints and I can’t say that the Christo-centric terminology cramped his style in anyway. However, our post-modern sensibilities –amongst other things–makes us hesitate about use these terms and we are continuing to discuss how one can define and interpret “religious genius.” If one were writing about the characteristics of just Indian/ Hindu “saints,” or “religious genius-es”) one could arguably come up with a different set of criteria. TMP Mahadevan, writing in 1961, thinks it is important to note that “they come from all strata of society; (Mahadevan 2) and that unconventional behavior is common: “When the spirit of god has taken possession of one,” he says, “one does not very much care for the conventions of the world” (Mahadevan 2). “God-love” he says is frequently mistaken for madness.” And then there are miracles. Mahadevan lists as characteristics of “saintliness,” wisdom, complete satisfaction in the “Self,” not being depressed by pain or elated by pleasure, freedom from passin ssuch as love, hate, and fear, control of senses, “remains awake in the Self” has no longings and is free from egotism. Further, the saint is “he who has gone beyond the three gu?as, “honor and dishonour are the same to him” he remains unaffected by the phenomena of change and mutation (Mahadevan 7-8).

This is yet another check list– and there are, as Alon has noted, several such lists. Namm??v?r, I would submit is a religious genius, if ever there was one. But perhaps the most notable way in which most of the people whom we label today as “Hindu” and will soon call “religious geniuses” is in their paradoxically being perceived as both a devotee and a deity and / or a divine being simultaneously. This is a huge topic in itself and all that I want to do at this point is to draw your attention to this conundrum. It may not fit notions of holy people in other traditions but I do not want to marginalize this very important issue. If I had to generalize–and even essentialize – I would say many people we may end up referring to as religious geniuses in India are sometimes seen as human beings who have ascended to become divine and/or the divine being who has descended to earth and taken on a human garb. Nammalvar, the devotee, gets mok?a; but the same texts also see him as an incarnation of a specific manifestation of Vishnu himself.

I leave you with two verses that are emblematic of this religious genius:

You became
water, land, fire,
time, the soaring sky.
The radiance
of the sun and the moon.
You became the destroyer and the creator.
Hold aloft your discus and conch[5] And visit me, a sinner, some day.
Heaven and earth
will rejoice.

Tiruv?ymo?i 6.9.1

Who is my companion? frightened,
I search, sinking like a ship,
In a stormy sea of life and death.
Radiant and glorious,
bearing aloft his discus and conch,
He comes and becomes one
even with me, his servant.

Tiruv?ymo?i 5.1.9

[1] The Tamil words being ambiguous, the line could read:
…like red?hot iron sucking water,
I drank you, my life, to exhaustion.

[2] Araiyar Cevai, p. 84.

[3] Although this book is purportedly about “India,” Dr Mahadevan’s south Indian antecedents come out in his choice of the ten saints. They are the south Indian Tamil/ Saiva poet-saints, Tirujnana Sambandhar, Tirunavakkarasu, Sundaramurti, and Manikkavachakar; the Tamil/Vai??ava poet-saints Nammalvar and Andal; the Vedanta philosophers, Sankara and Ramanuja, as well as Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi. It is interesting that even Meera did not make this list in a book published by the celebrated Bhavan’s Book University/ Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, located in Bombay, and whose founder was a Gujarati.

[4] TMP Mahadevan, Ten Saints of India Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1961, 4.

[5] The discus and conch are emblems of Vishnu and in narratives, he uses them to destroy the forces of evil. The devotees see them as a sign of protection.