Sacred Texts  Hinduism  Index  Previous  Next 

Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints, by F. Kingsbury and G.P. Phillips, [1921], at

p. 1


(A)—The Hymns and their Significance

THE voice of chanting and song, to the accompaniment of unfamiliar instruments, floats out over the high wall of the temple in the coolness of the evening or the dawn, making the Western passer-by wonder what it is that is being chanted and sung. If only he had a Hindu hymn-book he thinks he could learn from it the spirit of Hinduism as well as a non-Christian could learn Christianity from Christian hymns. For the Tamil country at any rate there is such a hymnbook, and our present aim is to give enough specimens from it for readers to know what the hymns are like. Englishmen are wanting to understand India more than they ever wanted before, for their debt to India is heavy. Indians are wanting more than ever before to know the wonderful past of their own country, and the wonder of it is all bound up with its religion. At such a time these hymns are worth looking into, for they are being sung in temples and homes throughout the Tamil country, and Tamil is the mother-tongue of more than eighteen millions of people. For pious Śaivites they equal in authority the Sanskrit Vedas; the mere learning of them by rote is held to be a virtue, and devout. Tamil parents compel their children to memorize them in much the same way as Christian parents make their children learn the Psalms.

p. 2

The hymns here given are specimens from the Dēvāram and the Tiruvāchakam. The Dēvāram is the first of the collections of works held as canonical by Tamil Śaivites. Its hymns were composed between six and eight hundred A.D. by the three authors of whom this book gives some account, and the whole was put together in one collection of 797 stanzas by Nambi Āṇḍār Nambi about 1000 A.D. The Tiruvāchakam, or Sacred Utterance, was written by one author, Māṇikya Vāchaka (Tamilized as Māṇikka Vāsahar) at a date so far unsettled that scholars are still divided on the question whether it preceded or followed the Dēvāram, though most scholars place it in the ninth, or early in the tenth, century. Whenever it was written, it stands even higher than the Dēvāram in the affections of Tamil people.

Out of an immense number of hymns we have tried to select those which are most representative, those which are favourites, and those which contain the most striking thoughts. But it is amazingly difficult to give a fair or adequate idea of them in an English rendering. They are essentially songs, intended to be sung to Indian tunes, in metres which no English metre can represent. Much of their charm depends upon assonance, upon plays upon words, upon close knitting of word with word, upon intricacy of metre and rhyme, almost as much as upon the substance. We can only claim a fair degree of accuracy in our renderings, apologizing to the lovers of Tamil poetry for the plainness and poverty of our representation of so rich and varied an original. All our translations are new, and nearly all of those from the Dēvāram represent verses which have never before been done

p. 3

into English. One of the translators of this book learned as Śaivite child to love these hymns, and therefore is the authority in matters of interpretation, the Englishman being responsible for the form. We shall be quite satisfied if our translations serve to call attention to the poems, and are some day replaced by worthier renderings.

We have tried to reduce introductory matter to a minimum, only giving such information as is necessary to enable readers to understand the hymns and the allusions in them. But it is entirely necessary to say something about the worship of Śiva, and to give a few words of biography of each of the four authors from whose work this book contains extracts.

(B)—The Worship of Śiva

1. Its history previous to these poems.

The word Śiva occurs even in the Rig Veda, but there it is only in conjunction with Rudra. The joining together of these names provokes conjectures as to whether we have here an amalgamation of two earlier deities, an Aryan and a Dravidian, but these need not detain us here, since clearly even at this early date Śiva was an Aryan deity, identical with Rudra the storm-god, and father of the Maruts, storm-gods themselves. Rudra is a handsome god; he uses his thunderbolts chiefly for punishing evil-doers, and is on the whole a kindly being. The name Śiva means auspicious,' and must not be confused with the Tamil word for 'red,' although as it happens Rudra-Śiva was a red being,

p. 4

In the period of the Purāṇas, we find that Śiva, instead of being one of a multitude of nature-deities, has risen to be one of the great triad, Brahmā, Vishṇu, and Śiva, who are far above all gods. How the change has come about we have not yet the means of discovering. The function has changed as much as the person, Śiva being now the destroyer as Brahmā is the creator and Vishṇu the preserver. The process of reduction in the number of the superior deities goes further, and Brahmā falls practically into the background, leaving only Vishṇu and Śiva as supreme beings for the worship of the people of India. By the time Hinduism penetrated southwards into the Tamil country, probably somewhere about 500 B.C., it had two main forms, the worship of Vishṇu and the worship of Śiva, the two being not too sharply disconnected. The Tamil Hindu believed in the existence of both, but held his own god, whether Śiva or Vishṇu, to be supreme. Hinduism seemed to be Firmly established, but was dangerously shaken when the Jains and Buddhists spread over South India. Then came for the Vaishṇavites the teachers known as the Āl̤vārs, while Śaivism was defended by the poets of whose work this book gives specimens. Hinduism was saved, but it existed henceforth in two distinct forms, Vaishṇavism and Śaivism, separated by a wider gulf than in earlier days.

2. The portrait of Śiva and its interpretation.

Śiva as imagined by his worshippers has a human form, usually with one but occasionally with five or six heads. He has three eyes, the right one being really the sun, the left eye the moon, and the one in the middle of his forehead fire, His reddish hair is

p. 5

matted in the ascetic way, and on it is the crescent moon, the Ganges, and one or more cobras, while wreathed about it is a garland of konḍai (Cassia) flowers. He has four arms, though occasional representations show eight, but one body and two legs. Commonly he is seated on a grey-coloured bull. In colour he is reddish, but his body is smeared over with white sacred ash. He holds in his hands various things such as a battle-axe, a deer, fire, a trident, a bow. Round his neck, which is dark, hangs a long necklace, the beads of which are skulls. At his waist he wears sometimes an elephant's hide, sometimes a tiger-skin, sometimes only a very scanty loin-cloth. Generally his consort, Umā, is at his left side, but sometimes he is pictured as half man and half woman, the right half (Śiva) being pink-coloured, and the left half (Umā) green or black. Śiva's abode is said to be on Mount Kailāsa in the Himālayas, but among his special haunts is the burning-ground, where bodies are cremated. One of the favourite manifestations of Śiva is that as Naṭarāja, the dancer in the great hall at Chidambaram, of which we give a picture (see frontispiece). Here Śiva has one face, four arms, and two legs, performing a spirited dance. His right foot rests on a demon named Muyalahan. He is sometimes represented as dancing along with Kāḷī, not the Kāḷī who in North India is identified with Umā, but a she-devil feared in the South.

Doubtless each of these features in the manifestation of Śiva has its history, but that is unknown at present. The legends give fanciful explanations of most of them. The tiger's skin and the elephant's hide, for instance, are those which Śiva stripped from the wild animals sent against him by the magic of his

p. 6

enemies the ṛishis of Darukāvana. But it is of more interest to find the religious ideas which these things suggest to a thoughtful Śaivite devotee to-day. The hides remind him that Śiva has all power, and all opposition to him is vain. That right foot of Naṭarāja set on Muyalahan means that God crushes down all evil. Those skulls in his necklace are the skulls of successive Brahmās, each of whom died after a life lasting many ages. This is a way of saying that while other gods at last come to their end, Śiva is eternal and unchanging. Śiva's dance suggests how easily, and how rhythmically, he performs his five functions of making, preserving, destroying, judging and purifying. And his dance in the burning-ground may sometimes carry the message that God becomes most real to men in the solemn hour when they part from their dead.

3. Four common legends and their meaning.

Of the many legends concerning Śiva four are so frequently alluded to in our poems that they should be told here, to avoid repeated explanatory notes.

1. Brahmā and Vishṇu once saw a pillar of fire that seemed to grow from the depths of the earth and to pierce beyond the highest heavens. They longed to learn its depth and height, and agreed that Brahmā should become a swan to fly to the pillar's top, and Vishṇu a boar to dig to its root. The swan flew up to the sky, but never reached the pillar's summit. The boar dug through the earth with his tusk, but never found where the pillar began. Brahmā and Vishṇu perforce acknowledged their limitations and prayed to the pillar, whereupon Śiva revealed himself, for the pillar was a form he had assumed. Not even the greatest and

p. 7

wisest of creatures can by their searching find out God. But to the humble-hearted He reveals Himself.

2. Rāvaṇa, the ten-headed giant king of Ceylon, while on his conquering progress through many realms, came to the North of India and saw Kailāsa the silver mountain. Coveting its beauty he determined to uproot and transplant it to his own island. With his ten heads and twenty arms he tried to lift it from the earth, and Kailāsa shook. All the hosts of heaven, and even Irma., were terrified by what seemed to them an awful earthquake. But Śiva simply set his big toe upon the mountain, and lo, Rāvaṇa found himself being crushed to death. Repenting of his folly, Rāvaṇa prayed for mercy, and Śiva not only forgave him but even gave him fresh boons. For God pardons sinners who repent, and gives them blessings which before they did not know.

3. Three Asuras, or supernatural beings, once by doing penance obtained from Śiva three castles, one of gold, one of silver, and one of iron. These castles could fly at the owners' desire, and settle down on towns and villages, destroying many lives. In course of time the Asuras became very proud and ignored Śiva. Determining to punish them, Śiva mounted a chariot whose wheels were the sun and moon and whose scat was the earth. Brahmā was his charioteer, the four Vedas the horses, Mount Meru his bow, the ancient serpent Ādiśesha his bow-string, and Vishṇu his arrow. At sight of these preparations the gods became conceited, thinking that Śiva could not destroy his enemies without them. Śiva knowing their thoughts simply laughed, and at that laugh the three castles were on the instant reduced to ashes.

p. 8

Those who forget God in their pride must be punished. When those whom God uses as his instruments begin to think themselves indispensable to him, he shews that his purposes can be fulfilled without them.

4. The gods once began to churn the ocean in the hope of obtaining divine nectar. The mountain Mandāra was their churning-stick, the primeval tortoise the pivot on which the stick rested and turned, and the serpent Vāsuki was the churning-rope. As they churned, at first, great and splendid things came up. But suddenly something black rose up and darkened the whole universe. It was a mass of poison, deadly alike to gods and men. In terror of destruction, the gods and demons called on Śiva. He came, drank the poison, and saved them all. That which was enough to destroy the universe could only stain his throat with a bluish colour. That is why Śiva is often called the "poison-necked" or "blue-throated" god. There is a link here, small but real, with the Christian teaching of God as ready to suffer for the sake of humbler beings.

Next: Sambandar And His Hymns