Outpourings of a saint-poet

Print edition : July 29, 2005

THIRUVASAGAM, the first Indian literary work to be made into a symphonic oratorio, is a collection of Tamil hymns composed by the Saivite saint-sage-poet Manickavasagar, whose dates are approximately fixed between the seventh and ninth centuries A.D.

Reverend G.U. Pope (1820-1908), who was in India in the second half of the 19th century as a British missionary working in the field of education, translated Thiruvasagam into English. (There is a 2002 edition published by the Asian Educational Services, New Delhi.) In his preface to the translation, first published in 1900 with elaborate notes on the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy and commentaries, he observed: "The 51 poems [of Manickavasagar] ... are recited daily in all the great Saiva temples of South India, are on everyone's lips, and are as dear to the hearts of vast multitudes of excellent people there, as the Psalms of David are to Jews and Christians."

Explaining the significance of Thiruvasagam, which he rendered into English as "sacred utterances" of Manickavasagar (`He whose utterances are rubies"), Pope said: "The sacred mystic poetry of a people reveals their character and aspirations more truly than even their secular legends and ballads; for sacred hymns are continually sung by the devout of all ages and both sexes; and all classes of the community are saturated with their influence."

Pope wrote: "The history of this remarkable man [Manickavasagar] is involved in considerable obscurity; but, although we can only discern the dimmest outline of his figure amid the mists of South Indian poetical tradition, it is quite certain he actually existed; that these legends, interesting in themselves, have a considerable foundation in fact; and that this sage was the first in the long and every way remarkable series of devotees of Sivan [Siva], who engaged in the arduous work of recovering the south of India from the Buddhists and Jains."

According to legend, Manickavasagar was born at Thiruvathavoor near Madurai in a Brahmin (Amattiya) family. He completed learning religious works and the agamas of the Saivite order very early in life. Impressed by his intellect, the Pandya king Arimarttanar employed him as his prime minister. Although he was a loyal aide to the king and a "brilliant courtier" enjoying all the luxuries attached to his honoured position, his mind was always immersed in sacred writings on the Saivite faith. His soul was filled with an infinite pity for the sufferings of the people who, he felt, passed through the cycle of births and deaths only to suffer remediless woes.

His soul longed for Siva and "he yearned to meet a guru who (so does Siva reveal Himself) would teach him the... way of release". So, it was not surprising that even when he was sent by the king to purchase horses for the kingdom, his mind continued its search for the guru. He did meet the guru (Siva), as the legends go, on the way. Manickavasagar spent all the king's money on the guru's disciples and assistants. Learning of this, the king brought him back. According to the legends, when the king ordered punishment to be meted out to Manickavasagar, Siva intervened on behalf of his devotee and performed some miracles. Ultimately, Siva ordained that Manickavasagar should visit temples, sing songs and spread the Saivism, the legends say.

Manickavasagar's poems, Pope wrote, "have touched for generations the hearts of the vast majority of the Tamil-speaking people". He held that Manickavasagar succeeded to a great extent in reviving Saivism, "which seems to have been then almost extinct". He also attributed to his time the beginning of the construction of "that vast multitude of Saiva shrines that constitute a peculiar feature of the Tamil country".

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