Saturday, March 20, 2010

Periya Vachan Pillai: The Lord is accessible and friendly to His creatures (Saulabhyam, Saushilyam)

In the last several posts, we have seen about the immense potency and glory of the Supreme God, Narayana. His greatness is clearly evident from the fact that He is (1) The Supreme Cause and Creator who dwells both within and beyond the realm of the created universes. (2) The ultimate controller who has at His mercy every being from Lord Brahma to a blade of grass. This can make one wonder: can we, the powerless beings inhabiting a tiny planet in this universe ever approach Him with love, knowing His greatness? If the Lord be compared to the sun, are we not like fireflies? What would happen to a firefly if it approaches the sun? Won't it get burned to ashes?

In response to the above, our timeless Vedic Sanatana Dharma and our Acharyas say the following: The truth is that Lord Vasudeva is very merciful, compassionate, and gentle to His creatures, if we approach Him with true devotional reverence and love. He cares for each one of us like a mother is concerned with the well-being of every child of hers. In order that He is approachable to us, He takes various pleasing forms that facilitate reverential worship and adoration on our part. He is not like the blazing sun to His devotees, though He is omnipotent. He appears in this world in the form of adorable avatAr-s like Rama and Krishna, to bless His devotees. Even for those like us, who did not have the good fortune to live in those ancient times when we could see the Lord in the form of Rama and Krishna directly, He takes various forms as arcA-mUrtis (temple deities) -- forms such as Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam, Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati, Lord Jagannath of Puri, Lord of Udupi, Lord of Dwaraka etc. His quality of being easily accessible in those forms to His creatures is known as saulabhyam, and His willingness to manifest Himself "as one among us" is known as saushIlyam.

In a previous post, we discussed about Azhwars and their works -- the ancient Tamil poet-saints who rendered the hard-to-understand Sanskrit Vedas in simple Tamil as the Divya Prabandha. Sri Periya Vachan Pillai (periya-vAccAn-piLLai) is a great Acharya who belonged to the Ramanuja school. His greatest gift to humanity are his commentaries on the Divya Prabandha, the Tamil Veda. Since we are going to begin this new chapter on the Lord's saulabhyam and saushIlyam, we begin with the following invocation to Acharya Periya Vachan Pillai:
shriimatkRSNasamAhvAya namo yAmunasUnave
yatkaTAkSaikalakSyANAM sUlpaH shriidharaH sadA

"Salutations to Sri Periya Vachan Pillai, the son of yAmuna, and to whose followers (those who are the target of his grace), Lord Sridhara is easily obtained."

Swami Nammazhwar is one of the greatest among Azhwars. He is counted as the fifth of the twelve Azhwars. Another appellation of him in Tamil goes as "vEdam tamizh seyda mARan" (the one who translated the Vedas in Tamil). This is because Nammazhwar's four works, tiruviruttam, tiruvAsiriyam, periya-tiruvandAdi, and tiruvAimozhi are compared to the four Vedas -- Rig, Yajur, Atharva, and
Sama. All these four works are hymnal in nature, and have the nature of overwhelming the sincere reader with emotional outpourings of bhakti (devotion) and love for the Lord, while at the same time explaining complex philosophical concepts.

Nammazhwar was also a great devotee of the Lord, and showed particular involvement in the Lord's avatAr as Krishna. He has said in his works: "for me, Lord Krishna alone is food, water, and everything" ("uNNum sORu, parugum nIr, tinnum veRRilai ellAm kaNNan"). Swami Ramanujacharya's Srivaishnava tradition, to this day, revere Swami Nammazhwar as "kRSNa-tRSNA-tattvam", which means one who always had "tRSNA" (thirst) for "kRSNa" (Lord Krishna). Sri U. Ve. Velukkudi Krishnan Swami, a great modern-day orator who gives discourses on Vedic Sanatana Dharma says thus in his Tamil discourse on "Eight and Nine types of Devotion" [1] --

"If one were asked to draw a picture of Lord Krishna, one knows how to do it. However, if one were asked to draw a picture of Krishna Bhakti (Devotion to Lord Krishna) how would one do it? The answer is very simple -- draw a picture of Nammazhwar, for he is not just a person with devotion, he is devotion personified."

A portrait of Krishna Bhakti

The Lord's avatar as Krishna is best-known for His approachability and gentleness, as He sported with the common village folk during His time as a child growing up in Gokul and Nandagram. It is therefore appropriate that our first look at the Lord's saulabhyam and saushIlyam should be from the words of none other than Nammazhwar. After contemplating on the lotus feet of the Azhwar, let us have a look at the following Thiruvaimozhi verse:

"pattuDai aDiyavarkku eLiyavan piRargaLukku ariya
vittagan malarmagan virumbum nam arumperal aDigaL
mattaRu kaDaiveNNey kaLavinil uraliDai AppuNDu
ettiRam uralinODu iNaindirundu Engiya eLivE."
"பத்துடை யடியவர்க் கெளியவன் பிரர்களுக் கரிய
வித்தகன் மலர்மகள் விரும்பும்நம் அரும்பெற லடிகள் 
மத்தறுகடைவெண்ணெய் களவினி லுரலிடை யாப்புண்டு
எத்திற முரலினோ டிணைந்திருந் தேங்கிய எளிவே."
(Thiruvaimozhi 1.3.1)


"He (the Lord) is easily accessible to those who are devoted to Him, (but) is virtually inaccessible to others who are not devoted. He is truly amazing. He is liked by Mother Lakshmi who has the lotus as her birth-place, and is very hard to reach. Yet it is the same Lord who let himself be punished for stealing butter, by letting Himself be tied to a mortar. Moreover, He stayed tied to the mortar as if helpless. He is indeed easy to approach and attainable for His servants!"

We have to understand the above verse from Acharya Periya Vachan Pillai's own words. The Acharya has written a very elaborate commentary on Nammazhwar's Thiruvaimozhi, known as irupattinAlAyirap-paDi in the maNipravALa style of Tamil. Going through Periya Vachan Pillai's commentary to the verse quoted above (Thiruvaimozhi 1.3.1) is a great pleasure for the devotee. Let us simply follow and analyze the following extracts from the same: [2]
"முதற்பாட்டில் சௌலப்யத்தை உபதேசிக்கைக்காக அவதாரங்களை அனுசந்தித்தவர், தொடங்கின உபதேசத்தை மறந்து கிருஷ்ணாவதாரத்தில் நவநீதசௌர்யத்ரத்திலே தாமகப்பட்டு அழுந்துகிறார்."

"Having forgotten that he took up the subject of the Lord's avatars to illustrate his gentle and approachable nature, Swami Nammazhwar immerses himself in the Lord's divine sportive act involving the stealing of butter, during his avatar as Krishna."

Lord Krishna's avatar is well-known to the world. The Lord blessed Devaki and Vasudeva by being born as their son inside the prison of the city of Mathura. He was the darling of His foster parents Yashodha and Nandagopa. He spent His childhood as a mischievous lad and mingled with common village folk. Lord Krishna used to steal butter and curd stored in the houses of cowherd folk, and the womenfolk used to complain to Yashodha about His mischief. Once Yashodha was extremely fed-up with all the complaints and decided to tie up Lord Krishna to a mortar (grinding stone) as a punishment for His mischief.

The Lord has performed many miraculous deeds as a child, but also let Himself be chastised by His foster parents for His mischief. However, there is no doubt that the village folk, in their hearts, used to love every part of their experience with little Krishna. Though He is the omnipotent creator and Lord of the entire Cosmos, He disguised Himself to bless the village folk in whose eyes He was just an adorable child.

Let us continue further with what Nammazhwar is saying in the Thiruvaimozhi verse: "The Lord is easily accessible to those who are devoted to Him." Does that mean only to those who worship Him by meditation, chanting, etc? Nay, says Periya Vachan Pillai:
"பக்தி சப்தத்தால் இங்கு பரபக்த்யாதிகளைச் சொல்லுகிரதன்று; பக்தியுபக்ரமமான அத்வேஷமாத்ரத்தைச் சொல்கிறது. தாழ்ந்தாரக்கு முகங்கோடுக்குமென்கிற குணப்ரகரமாகையாலே (உடை) இம்மாத்ரத்தைக்  கனக்க உடைமையாகச் சொல்லுகிறது. 'விண்ணுளாரிலுஞ் சீரியர்' என்று இங்கே பகவதனுபவம் பண்ணுவாரை அவ்வருகாக நினைத்திருக்கும் பகவதபிப்ராயத்தாலே. (அடியவர்) - இதுவும் பகவதபிப்ராயத்தாலே. ஆனுகூல்ய லேசம் குவாலாயிருக்கை."

"Nammazhwar is not using the term 'devotion' in the sense of ritual worship and deep heartfelt reverence/adoration. In this context, the simple act of resolving to not be antagonistic to the Lord is being meant. That simple resolution alone is the first step towards reaching sublime devotion. This is said in order to highlight that the Lord graces with compassion even people who are in the lowest strata. Thus, 'devotion' here means being full of non-animosity to the Lord."

Sri Periya Vachan Pillai then goes on: "The Lord offers Himself and nothing else, as a gift to those who are thus friendly to Him. Did He not speak to the monkey-king Sugriva, thus: 'Oh Sugriva! Of what use is rescuing Sita, if you suffer the slightest harm because of this quest of mine?' and showed His willingness to even abandon His beloved consort Lakshmi, who is ever at His service, for that monkey-king who was His acquaintance only for a few days? Did He not serve as a lowly messenger to the five Pandavas? Did He not serve as a lowly charioteer to Arjuna?"

Does this mean that the Lord offers Himself as a servant to even those who are antagonistic to Him such as Ravana, Kamsa, etc? Not at all, says the Acharya: "In dealing with Ravana etc., He does not let Himself be humbled." The Acharya then proceeds to say:

"(வித்தகன்) விஸ்மயநீயன். யசோதைக்கு பவ்யனாயிருக்கிற இருக்கிற இருப்பிலே யமளார்ஜுனர்க்கு அனபிபவனீயனாயிருக்கை."

"He is astonishing. Even as he was bound by Yashodha, He showed to Yamala and Arjuna that He cannot be overpowered."

The Acharya, Sri Periya Vachan Pillai, recalls here an amazing incident involving little Lord Krishna. We saw above that Lord Krishna let Himself be punished by mother Yashodha for mischief. He was thus tied to a kind of grinding stone. Lord Krishna then slowly dragged the mortar along and went out of the residence of Nandagopa. He went in between two trees (named "Yamala" and "Arjuna") and the mortar got stuck in the gap. With great force, He continued to drag the mortar snapping up and uprooting the two trees. The Lord did this willingly, in order to redeem Nalakuvara and Manigriva who were cursed into taking the two trees as their bodily forms. Nalakuvara and Manigriva were the sons of Kubera who were cursed into this pitiable state by none other than sage Narada. The sage had also promised that the Supreme Lord alone will be able to relieve them from this plight. Fully aware of this, Lord Krishna uprooted the two trees with the mortar tied to His waist. Having thus been liberated by the Lord Himself, and fully aware that He alone was that little Krishna, they offered their obeisances to Him and returned to their abode. Thus the little Krishna showed that He was both (1) accessible and gentle to those like Yashodha who love Him, as well as (2) He has supreme transcendental miraculous powers that is capable of redeeming anyone from any sin. It is none other than Him who can display these two apparently contradictory facets in one go! Thus He is truly amazing and astonishing, says Sri Periya Vachan Pillai.

The Acharya then says: "The Azhwar is saying that the Lord is none other than the beloved of Mother Lakshmi who is praised in the Vedas as 'the Queen to all beings'. This shows His unparalleled greatness, and He shines with lordliness and compassion. Having thus described His glory, Sri Nammazhwar then tries to explain His gentleness and approachability by starting with His Krishna avatar, but ends up recollecting, enjoying, and swooning in the Lord's divine playful act of stealing butter." He details this further:

"அவாப்தஸமஸ்தகாமன் தனக்கு ஒரு குறையுண்டாய், அது நேர்கொடு நேர் கிடவாமையாலே களவிலேயிழிந்து, அது தலைக்கட்டப்பெறாதே, வாயது கையதாக அகப்பட்டு, கட்டுண்டு, அடியுண்டு நிற்கும் நிலையைச் சொல்லுகிறது"

"This Lord, who does not have anything unfulfilled, who is complete and content by His divine nature as the Lord of all, the owner of the entire universe, does something diametrically opposite to it in this divine pastime. He gets into the business of stealing freshly-churned butter. Not only that, He (deliberately) pathetically fails in this act and gets caught red-handed. He then lets himself be tied with a rope and beaten up by Yashodha. This state of the Lord is described (by the Azhwar)."

The revered Acharya Sri Periya Vachan Pillai explains further. The gist I provide in English should be self-explanatory:

"(உரலினோடிணைந்திருந்து) உரல் மூச்சுவிடிலும் தான் மூச்சுவிடாதே அசிதவ்யாவ்ருத்தனாயிருந்தபடி (எங்கியவெளிவு) இந்த சுத்தனைக் கள்ளனென்று கட்டினால் பொறுக்கமாட்டாதே அழத்தொடங்குமே! அவள் "வாய்வாய்" என்றால் ஏறிட்ட த்வனி இழியவிடமாட்டாதே பயப்பட்டு நிற்கும். (எளிவு) சௌலப்யம். (எத்திறம்) இதென்னபடி! "यतो वाचो निवर्तन्ते" என்று வேதம் மீண்ட பரத்வத்தை எல்லைக்காணலாம்; இந்த சௌலப்யம் தரை காணவொண்ணாதாயிருந்ததீ! என்கிறார்."

"Nammazhwar says that the Lord remained tied to the mortar in such a manner that, if the mortar had a life of its own, it would weep being unable to see the Purest One letting Himself be called a 'thief' and be punished like this! He was obedient to Yashodha, and (act as if He) was trembled by her command. What to say of this great act that shows His approachable nature! The Vedic scriptures say thus about His lordly potency: 'Failing to reach Him, speech and thought turn back'[3]. It may even be possible to find a limit to His omnipotence, but it is certainly impossible to find a limit to His approachability and friendliness!"

Let us again offer our obeisances to the lotus feet of Nammazhwar, Sri Periya Vachan Pillai, and Supreme Lord Krishna.
(to be continued)


In addition to providing immense pleasure and awe to devotees, the sportive pastimes of Lord Krishna - His residence in the community of cowherds and His butter-stealing act, also convey a deep philosophical meaning. This is confirmed by the Vedas themselves. The Brahmabindu Upanishad (a.k.a. Amritabindu Upanishad) has been quoted by Sri Adi Shankara and other great Acharyas of the past. At the end of this Upanishad, we find the following statement [4]:
19. Of the cows of different colors, milk is of one color only. The wise man regards essential nature of the individual soul unto the milk, and the different beings as the cows.
20. Quite concealed in all beings dwells the Supreme Lord in His essential nature, as butter in milk; ever churn, O aspirant, with the mind as the churning rod!
21. With the churning rope of knowledge, one should see the Supreme Lord, just like fire is churned with a wooden rod. 'My Supersoul is that indivisible, immutable, and tranquil Brahman', so it is said.
22. In Whom reside all beings, and Who resides in all beings by virtue of His being the giver of grace to all – My Supersoul is that vAsudeva, the Supreme Being.
It may be recalled that "Vasudeva (vAsudeva)" is one of the names of Lord Krishna. It is then clear that "stealing the butter" conveys the idea that we, the individual souls, belong to the Lord and are His property. The Lord Himself will come and rescue our souls from the mire of materialistic life, like He stole the butter from the pots.

  • for providing the invocatory verse on Sri Periya Vachan Pillai.
  • and Sri Vaishnava Sri for the free download of Thiruvaimozhi and its various commentaries.
  • Humanity is permanently indebted to two great Vedic Srivaishnava scholars of the twentieth century: Puttur Sri U. Ve. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, and Kanchi Sri P. B. Annangaracharya Swamy. I used only their Tamil commentaries, available for free download here.
  • We are also indebted to Sri U. Ve. Velukkudi Krishnan Swami for his wonderful discourses on Bhakti and Sanatana Dharma that he has been giving in various branches of the media (TV, Internet, the Music Store, etc.). This article is greatly inspired by Swami's discourse on Bhakti.

[1] This quote is from Sri U. Ve. Velukkudi Krishnan Swami's Tamil discourse titled "Ashta Vidha Bhakti - Nava Vidha Bhakti" series in his "Bhakti" audio CD. The mp3 audio CD can be purchased from here or here.

[2] The transcription given here is different from that of the original document downloadable for free here, as the latter uses Tamil Grantha characters not available in universal fonts.

[3] Taittiriya Upanishad, II.iv.1

[4] Translation courtesy: Sri Vishnu Chitta Vijayam, Sri U. Ve. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Vol. 1 Part 2. The verses quoted from the Brahmabindu (Amritabindu) Upanishad can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Web Analytics