Nammaazhwaar, also known as Nammalwar or Nammalvar, is one of Tamil’s most beloved bhakti poets, not simply for the profound religious emotion that pervades his poems but also for his sublime use of language. Like so many other bhakti poets, Nammaazhwaar spoke to an individual rather than to a class of people and we respond to him as we might to a friend or a teacher.
Vasantha Surya’s new translation of 110 verses from the Thiruvaimozhi brings much to the larger enterprise of translating Nammaazhwaar into English. Earlier translators include A.K. Ramanujan, whose “Hymns for the Drowning” drew international attention to these poems of ecstatic devotion.
Nammaazhwaar has also been translated by P.L. Sundaram and, occasionally, by David Shulman. Each translator brings different styles and persuasions to their work, some austere and stark, others more baroque in their interpretations of words and emotions.
So does Vasantha Surya, whose voice as a translator is inflected not only by a skilled navigation of the rigours of language but also by her own emotional response to the poems.
Nammaazhwaar was one of 12 Tamil Alwars or Alvars, who, between the fifth and the tenth centuries, sang of their beloved Vishnu in ecstatic poems that remain an essential part of the Tamil devotional practice and performance repertoire.
During the same early medieval period, the Nayannar (or Nayanmar) poet-saints were creating a similar tradition of ecstasy and devotion centred around Siva. Typically, both the Vaishnava and the Saiva poets drew from the highly developed and sophisticated Tamil aesthetics that had been schematised in the Sangam period, adding devotion to the poetic landscape of emotions which was hitherto so steeped in love and heroism.
Thus, Nammaazhwaar stands at the culmination of almost a millennium of continuous literary compositions in Tamil, compositions of the highest order of complexity and beauty.
Vasantha Surya provides a larger and very necessary context for Nammaazhwaar’s life and work in her Introduction. She reminds us that both Vaishnava and Saiva Hinduism (whatever their antagonisms with each other might have been) were also confronting the established presence of Buddhism and Jainism in the southern and coastal regions of the subcontinent.
In the 10 centuries that separated the lives of the Tamil poet-saints and those of Mahavira and Gautama, the heterodox ideas the latter teachers espoused had spread and found their way into and around previously held religious beliefs.
The dominance of the Vedic priestly class was on the wane, the complex rituals of Vedism had become simplified and often sublimated into abstractions. It was the age of kings and warriors, the search for the truth lay within the individual, even the gods had changed their personalities and functions.
Bhakti poets were speaking to people who were not as strictly bound in social and occupational hierarchies as before, and whose ontologies and languages of religious expression were in flux. Under their influence and persuasion, mythologies were still being composed, epics were being widened and deepened, fresh poetic imaginations were emerging, and new stories were being told.
We refer to the men (and the far fewer women included in the canon) who made the new poetry that spoke to the different ways of relating to the divine as poet-saints. Their words made them poets, their experiences made them mystics. And to each of them, we bequeath moments of transcendence—at birth or at death or when they themselves inhabit an epiphanic event.
And so, the historical Nammaazhwaar’s life is also touched by the divine. As a child, he never suckled nor ate, he lived in silence for 16 years in the hollow of a neem tree in a temple compound. Another Alwar saint, Madhurakavi, intuited the embodied presence of a great teacher. His search led him to the tree. He addressed the young man there, known locally as Satkopan, with a riddle. The young man replied with a cryptic answer and then broke into a stream of verse.
The verses became the Thiruvaimozhi, now structured as a text of 1,100 quatrains. Forever after, Satkopan was Nammaazhwaar, “our person who has plunged (into the divine)”. 19 years after this outpouring, at the age of 35, Nammaazhwaar vanished into the tree in which he had lived.
“Great poets who sing the finest poetry,/those who’ve been made to sing/of you, by you,/this may not be. But it’s to me you’ve come today./Apt upon my tongue/have you begotten/mighty poems!/Through me you sing/of your Self/my lord of Vaikuntha.” (7.9.6)
Nammaazhwaar speaks often of being not the composer but the vessel into which the poems he recited fell. The central paradox of bhakti—that your beloved god fills you and yet you are separated from him—occupies Nammaazhwaar as much as it does so many other bhakti poets across sectarian and linguistic lines. Vishnu, although often incarnate, is all pervasive, omnipresent and the only Truth, the highest reality which lies behind and gives meaning to everything. There is ecstasy in knowing Vishnu and loving him and being filled by him but there is also the despair of not being with him always.
When he is incarnate, beautiful Vishnu is adorned with garlands of words in Nammaazhwaar’s verses. They speak of his great deeds, his miraculous works in his 10 incarnations (of which Varaha, Vamana, and Krishna are favourites). They tell us of his dwelling places, they revel in his sweet scent of basil and in the enchantment of his body, as blue as sapphire.
Surya points out that Nammaazhwaar prefers Vishnu’s local names and epithets to Sanskrit ones, choosing to address him, for example, as Perumal or Appan. Also, that he names places and shrines in the Tamil country.
This locality, the desha rather than the marga, the Little rather than the Great tradition, is precisely the node at which bhakti’s spiritual and social revolution took shape. It brought the gods close, made them friends, lovers, parents, neighbours; it created an eternal game of hide and seek where the divine is alternately lost and found.
“Kannaa, Lord!/Dark jewel of the gods, sweet deathlessness./I feel you close to me./Yet, I can’t touch you./Between us is this body that you have put me in./With a cruel rope of deeds long past/you have bound me fast./To hide that gash that’s deep within/you’ve wrapped me tightly in this skin,/and set me down in the world outside.” (5.1.5).
Vasantha Surya suggests that bhakti, the devotion that leads to abject surrender and utter helplessness, springs from adbhuta, the feeling of being struck by wonder as defined in classical aesthetic theory.
The German theologian, Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, speaks of the heart of the mystical experience in much the same way. The human individual is confronted with the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery of the divine. Otto adds the phrase et fascinans, telling us that this mystery is compelling, it is irresistible to the one who feels/sees it, no matter what religious tradition they speak from, no matter who their god is.
We can see that overwhelming fascination, both adbhuta and mysterium tremendum, in so many of Nammaazhwaar’s poems: we sense that he is overwhelmed. But it is our good fortune that instead of becoming speechless with wonder, he is exalted in emotion and language, both of which define his poetry. He shares the ecstasy of union and the agony of separation which exist together in this condition of loving god before and above all else.
Their own god
Although Nammaazhwaar composed some verses in which he is disdainful towards those who do not see that Vishnu is the highest reality, the god of all gods, it is clear that neither he nor other bhakti poets make any kind of sustained polemic against other religious practices and beliefs. Typically, from poets such as Kabir, Nanak, Tukaram, and others, we hear that while the divine has many names and many manifestations, we must see beyond these to the one, undifferentiated reality that animates us all. The journey to that realisation belongs not to a community or a sect, but to the individual alone.
“Everyone has their own way of knowing/their own god, among so many ways./Each will reach the feet of their own god,/their flawless lord./Everyone is on a road that’s theirs alone/towards a destiny that’s all/their own.”(1.1.5)
The times we live in have shown us that the tender inclusions, the generous love of and for god that bhakti offers have long been forgotten. What remains is a mindless, often performative devotion that could not be further from what overflows in the songs of the poets who have seen god.
This is an entirely opportune time to renew our acquaintance with the saints, to hear their words and sing their songs anew.
Perhaps we will catch a glimmer of the truth they proclaim with such certainty and learn to live with respect, if not love, for those around us.
Arshia Sattar is a scholar, writer, and translator who works with the myths and storytelling traditions of South Asia.