The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. One of the benefits of blogging regularly for America is that I can write what I want, including pieces under somewhat arcane headings such as the one above, a continuation of my series on my seminar this semester on devotional poetry in the south Indian Tamil language.
     While I do not expect thousands of hits and comments for such pieces, I do imagine that there is a real audience for deeper, more specific interreligious reflections, and that a Jesuit magazine is a perfect venue to support such learning. And so, I continue my reports on my “Tamil love” course by introducing you to Tirumalisai Piran — the (holy) lord of (holy) Malisai, a small town near modern day Chennai. This saint from the 8th century or so was one of the twelve alvar poet saints who composed songs in devotion to Visnu as supreme lord. He composed two works, the 120-verse Tiru Chanda Viruttam (the holy composition in the chanda meter), and the Nan Muhan Tiruvantati (a 96-verse song beginning with reference to the creator deity Brahma, often presented as having four-faces).
     In the Tiru Chanda Viruttam, Tirumalisai Piran reflects in sequence on a series of themes (illustrated by verses in my unpublished translation):
     1) God as source of the world and immanent in it, “You exist all five that cohere as earth, / all four settled in the waters, all three on fire, the two in the subtle winds, / as one, the self of the etherial space, self of all else, too — / who can understand You whose form is the essence of every thing?” (1)
     2) God as present in great mythic deeds, “You became the light that crossed over the heavens, / the form of radiant knowledge, Lord, destroyer of evils, / You fill the place beyond even the hymns, power beyond measure, / You became the dwarf who came begging,  / Your nature is out of this world — who can comprehend You?” (27) and, “After making the earth, You dug it up, You measured it,  / You ate it and put it forth again, You measured off the salt-ocean, / You lay upon it, and once You churned it — thus You are,  / O wondrous one, Your broad arms hold all those weapons,  / You hurled the weapon that drove down into Death’s domain  / the demons great Mali and proud Mali too.” (28)
     3) God present in holy places, as in the great temple at Srirangam: “You were husband to the woman of the earth, mistress fragrant in blossoms, / in marriage You clasped the shoulders of the cowherd’s daughter, / and now You have deigned to let my mind rest at Your feet —  / Your body like a lotus — aren’t You among the lotuses / that grow by Rangam in the shining river?” (55)
     4) God is present in all we think and say, “When we speak, You are the continuity, the whole meaning of all we say, / You speak, and You are the light that appears but cannot be put into words — / so when You speak to make things be, / if in accord with Your making those who come should speak,  / can they speak concisely Your qualities?” (11)
     5) God present in the hearts of persons devoted to him regardless of social status: “I wasn’t born in any of the four castes, I’m not learned in the four arts, / I haven’t conquered the five senses, I am stuck among their objects — / but, O pure one, my Lord, I have no attachment but to Your splendid feet.” (90) and, “After many unvaried births, now You have come and changed me, / cloud-colored giver of life,  / Your abiding light dazzles me inside You inside me — / and so, my soul, destroy all movements, gain release — joy unending.” (120)
     The trajectory of the Tiru Chanda Viruttam is toward  a conversion of heart and mind, in surrender to the Lord. A glimpse of the culmination of the spiritual life in union with God is given in the other work by Tirumalisai Piran, the Nan Muhan Tiruvantati: “Now and tomorrow and even this very minute, / Your grace abides as my portion, and surely, / I do not exist without You, but see, Narayana,  / without me You are not.” (7)
     Such texts are worth our meditation, because they are deep and spiritual, and because they enable us to think about the beliefs of our own tradition — Christian or other — in light of this faithful witness in south India. Reflection on other religions can be rather staid and predictable if we just think about them from afar; reading a text such as the Tiru Chanda Viruttam with care deepens the learning, gives us new challenges and possibilities that are far more rewarding.
     I will stop here. If you would like to see a few more verses, just leave a comment indicating this, with your email address. In a few weeks, I will tell you more about other authors and their writings that come into my course on Tamil love.

Comments

Mary Keator | 2/14/2010 - 10:43am
Please continue.  marymagdala@verizon.net
PJ Johnston | 2/13/2010 - 1:37pm
Hi Prof. Clooney!  I would of course be interested also.  prjohnst@fastmail.fm
Beth Cioffoletti | 2/13/2010 - 10:39am
I would like to see more verses, Fr. Cloony.  This reads very much like Rumi to me, and it occurs to me that this love song to God is universal, an insight inherent within our humanity that crosses religious boundaries.  Email: shoofoolatte@gmail.com