Grass, shrub, worm, tree, have I been.
As cur, bird, and snake, the world have I seen.
Stone, human, goblin, good and ugly,
Demon strong, life mobile, saintly, and godly:
I’ve been born in such forms on this sturdy earth
I am tired, oh Lord, of all this birth.
Truly seeing your golden feet indeed
I have been this day totally freed!
These lines are from Manikkaváchakar’s Sivapuránam. This is the opening section of his Tiruváchakam. This work is regarded as a most profound and heart-felt articulation of Saiva-siddhántam, the powerful Tamil school of spiritual awakening that sees the ultimate source of redemption in the divine grace (arul) that is bestowed on an individual, often via a guru. The work is a blend of moving music, pure poetry, and experienced philosophy. It is the outpouring of the heart of one who has known the genuine mystical mode. The poet has experienced the high of divine vision, and felt the pang of being away from it.
Mánikkaváchakar was an infant prodigy who was summoned to become prime minister of the realm when still quite young. It is said that when he was sent on a mission to negotiate the purchase of horses for the king’s stable, he was distracted by the sound of invocations. Drawn to its source, he saw a sage seated under a tree, and from him he received grace. He began to utter blessed words in bhakti verse. Eventually he came to be called Mánikkaváchakar by which we know him today> The name means one who speaks with gem-like words.
Note here not simply the idea of evolution from lower to higher species, and even beyond to Homo sapiens, but even the transformation of inanimate (stones) into the animate. There is also the recurring theme in Indic thought that ultimate liberation is when one has transcended the constraining cycle of birth-death-rebirth.
This verse is sometimes sung as a simple piece. Some years ago, it was my privilege to listen to the great M.S. Subbalakshmi sing it at a conference held at Madras University, keeping the audience spell-bound, and making me misty-eyed as I heard her moving rendition of it.
February 10, 2011