If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine De Saint Exupery (Author – The Little Prince, Aviator)
In the last two posts, we saw how AndAL set a vision and an action plan for her followers and how she built up a following. In the last fifteen verses of ThiruppAvai, AndAL focuses on leading the way for her followers in achieving the vision she has set out. While her quest is spiritual in nature, she provides lessons for us on various characteristics of a great leader.
When a hero embarks on a quest, she typically faces various hurdles before reaching the goal. Some hurdles are more transformational and challenging than others. In most cases, there is an ‘entry’ challenge to test whether the hero is really serious about the quest and whether she has the perseverance to last the journey. In the 16th verse, AndAL and her group are faced with such an initial barrier in the form of the inner and outer temple guards.
Since the people (Krishna and others) are still sleeping, they stop her. Unfazed, she responds:
…ஆயர் சிறுமியரோமுக்கு அறை பறை
மாயன் மணி வண்ணன் நென்னலே வாய் நேர்ந்தான்
தூயோமாய் வந்தோம் துயில் எழப் பாடுவான்
வாயால் முன்னம் முன்னம் மாற்றாதே அம்மா…
We are cowmaidens of pure heart and intentions (தூயோமாய் வந்தோம்) and are here to wake Krishna up with our songs because he had promised us earlier (நென்னலே வாய் நேர்ந்தான்) that he is going to share with us the secrets for happiness (அறை பறை). So, please don’t deny us the entry and make him go back on his earlier promises (வாயால் முன்னம் முன்னம் மாற்றாதே).
AndAL – ever careful with her words – makes it more about Krishna than about her, thus forcing the hands of the guard to at least allow for an audience, lest they be considered as obstructive and bringing ill repute to Krishna!
Multi-dimensional approach (Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, and Social)
In the next verse, she wakes up three others in the household, in addition to Krishna: Nandagopan – Krishna’s father, Yashodha – his mother, Krishna himself, and Balarama – his brother, in that order. Innocuous as it may seem at first, they are tend to represent metaphorically the various dimensions one has to consider when making a case.
அம்பரமே தண்ணீரே சோறே அறம் செய்யும் எம்பெருமான்
Nandagopan – the father – is a metaphor for material or tactical needs. He is referred as the one providing shelter, water, and food in a righteous manner.
கொம்பனார்க்கு எல்லாம் கொழுந்தே குல விளக்கே எம்பெருமாட்டி
Yashodha – the mother – represents the emotional or personal needs. She is referred as the one who preserves the dignity of the clan.
ஓங்கி உலகு அளந்த உம்பர் கோமானே உறங்காது எழுந்திராய்
Krishna himself represents the infinite and the vastness of the challenge, requiring a spiritual resolve to overcome the immensity.
செம் பொற் கழலடிச் செல்வா பலதேவா உம்பியும் நீ
Balarama – the brother – represents the societal needs, and metaphorically asks for collective support in attaining the common goal.
When elaborating on the value proposition of a product or service, it is critical to make arguments that satisfy the immediate needs of the potential buyer, how it can provide personal satisfaction, and how it can benefit his stature in the organization (for making the right decision). If the dimensions are not weighed in properly within the proposition, it may either fail to meet the needs or be emotionally unappealing, potentially endangering the sale.
Art of cajoling and providing right tools
What if nobody is inside? What if they get upset on being woken up? In verses 18 through 20, AndAL convinces Nappinnai – the consort of Krishna who is by his side to help her in waking Krishna so he can bless her. It is an interesting choice of Krishna’s consort, as among others, Nappinnai (likened to Radha in northern India) is considered the embodiment of unconditional affection and love – something that aptly reflects AndAL’s mission, and also highlights the importance of ensuring that one select the appropriate influencers when aiming to achieve the desired target!
…கந்தம் கமழும் குழலி கடை திறவாய்…
…gandham kamazhum kuzhali kadai thiRavAi…
She knows that Nappinnai is inside because of the fragrance in the air that is unmistakably from her hair (reminds us of the classic argument in ThiruvilaiyAdal which was all about whether women’s hair is naturally fragrant or not!).
…செந்தாமரை கையால் சீரார் வளை ஒலிப்ப வந்து திறவாய் மகிழ்ந்து…
…senthAmarai kaiyAl seerAr vaLai olippa vandhu thiRavAi magizhndhu…
She also implores Nappinnai to not just open the door in annoyance, but to do so with bangles jingling in her hands (which happens when someone runs towards a door in eagerness) and heart full of happiness!
…எத்தனையேலும் பிரிவு ஆற்றகில்லாயால் தத்துவம் அன்று…
…ethanaiyElum pirivu AtRakkillaiyAl thathuvam andRu…
Worried that Nappinnai may be reluctant to do so, especially with Krishna resting on her, she points out that not helping someone who has come to her asking for assistance is against her nature and appeals to her morals!
Even when a leader has built up a strong team, the morale of the team can wax and wane over time and during changes in team composition. A good leader should empathize with his followers and provide the right morale boosters where needed, be it showing faith (“I know you have it in you!”), giving a pep talk (“Let’s do this and have fun doing it!”), making course corrections (“I know you don’t compromise on quality…”), and to facilitate self-reflection (“Let’s take a step back…”).
…உக்கமும் தட்டொளியும் தந்து…
…ukkamum thattoLiyum thandhu…
This made us scratch our heads a bit. AndAL asks for a fan (உக்கம் = device which creates breeze – உகுதல்) and a mirror (தட்டொளி = தட்டு + ஒளி = plate that reflects light). Why? The rationale is that she wants Krishna to not just come out as a sleepyhead – unshaven and lazy, but someone who is smartly dressed – and she wants to do the same on their side as well! So, a mirror is important to make sure makeup is not too much and in a humid climate like southern India, fan is critical to ensure that there is no overt sweating!
Metaphorically, this can be taken as making sure that one has the right tool set to achieve one’s goals. You cannot ask a warrior to go to battle with a cotton swab, after all!
Marketing: AndAL and AIDA
Having now convinced Nappinnai to help her, AndAL finally speaks directly to Krishna in the next nine (21 – 29) verses. The approach has interesting parallels with a tried and tested marketing approach called AIDA – Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action – that has been effectively used to convince consumers to purchase products.
In our case, AndAL is effectively trying to convince Krishna to accept her love and devotion, when he might have several other devotees to choose.
…மாற்றார் உனக்கு வலி தொலைந்து உன் வாசற் கண்
ஆற்றாது வந்து உன் அடி பணியுமா போலே…
Like how your enemies surrender in your feet, so have we come to you.
While in some cases a jarring awakening maybe warranted, more often than not, the process of changing a paradigm should be gradual, to allow the person to buy in to the new idea and adopt it wholeheartedly. Stories are about in literature where when sages in deep trance were suddenly woken up by accident or intent, ended up either vaporizing the perpetrator or at least giving them with a big curse. So, AndAL takes care in waking up Krishna gradually to heed to her request.
…செங்கண் சிறுச் சிறிதே எம்மேல் விழியாவோ…
…கண் இரண்டும் கொண்டு எங்கள் மேல் நோக்குதியேல் எங்கள் மேல் சாபம் இழிந்து…
…open your eyes little by little and look at us so our sins can be removed…
Next AndAL shifts to a higher gear, asking Krishna to be rid of his slumber and bring on his dynamic personality and to focus his attention on them. She is careful however, to balance any hastiness in being dynamic by adding that he should also calmly and compassionately analyze her plan and not make any rash judgments!
…சீரிய சிங்கம் அறிவுற்றுத் தீ விழித்து
வேரி மயிர் பொங்க எப்பாடும் பேர்ந்து உதறி…
…யாம் வந்த காரியம் ஆராய்ந்து அருள்…
…like a majestic lion that bristles its mane and gives out a roar when it comes out of the den, please rise from your bed, get active, and listen to our plea with compassion…
Having raised awareness about her arrival and having woken him up, AndAL moves to the next phase of her plan – which is to pique his interest so as to provide his attention to the matter. She starts with a bit of a flattery – recapping his past achievements and how he has always been kind to his devotees.
…என்றென்றும் உன் சேவகமே ஏத்திப் பறை கொள்வான்
இன்று யாம் வந்தோம் இரங்கு…
…your devotees are forever in your service as you have been their protector and fulfilled their wishes, and so we have come here to sing your praises. Please bestow your grace on us…
She continues by concisely stating his glorious past from birth to current times, clarifying that she is well aware of his antecedents, valor, and benevolence and thus asks that she be of service to him and for him to provide appropriate wealth to her devotees so they can be happy.
…உன்னை அருத்தித்து வந்தோம் பறை தருதியாகில்
திருத்தக்க செல்வமும் சேவகமும்…
…we have come seeking your blessings. We will work for it by spreading your fame through songs. Please bless us with appropriate wealth so we are happy…
An interesting note here is the adjective திருத்தக்க, which can mean appropriate (திருத்த + தக்க) or wealth that stays by grace of Lakshmi (திரு + தக்க). In either case, she drives the point that excessive wealth can be destructive and hence asks for wealth that is appropriate enough for the person to bring happiness!
AndAL next moves to stating her wishes and hopefully convincing Krishna to be desirous of granting her wish. She provides a fairly interesting laundry list of what she wants.
…சங்கங்கள்…சாலப் பெரும் பறை…பல்லாண்டு இசைப்பார்…
…if you ask me for what I want (having now the desire to fulfill my wishes)… I want conchs, a big drum, musicians, a light, a flag, and and a tent / umbrella…
While seemingly odd, in the broader context of AndAL’s desire to spread the glory of Krishna through songs, the instruments that are used to raise awareness (conch), make announcements (drum), and singers make sense. Moreover, since her plans is to make rounds singing songs early in the morning, she asks for a good lamp and some shade to protect her people from morning dew, and also a distinct flag to make sure everyone can know her group and their purpose (you can see this act even now with tourist groups!).
Mundane as these requests may sound, it also showcases that she wants what’s needed to achieve her goals – nothing more, nothing less.
…யாம் பெறும் சம்மானம் நாடு புகழும் பரிசினால்…
…thus if we receive what we have desired from you, we will be praised by the world and will be happy…
Having stated her needs to Krishna on what she wants to meet her objective, she finally ends by stating that if she and her group receives what they requested, they will be blessed and will end their fast.
Having been fairly bold in stating what she wants, she ends with humility.
…அறிவு ஒன்றும் இல்லாத ஆய்க் குலத்து…
…அறியாத பிள்ளைகளோம் அன்பினால் உந்தன்னை
சிறு பேர் அழைத்தனவும் சீறி அருளாதே
இறைவா நீ தாராய் பறை…
…we are but ignorant cow-maidens who don’t know the ways of the world. If we have said something out of love for you that’s not appropriate, please don’t get upset and fulfill our wishes…
…இற்றைப் பறை கொள்வான் அன்று காண் கோவிந்தா
எற்றைக்கும் ஏழ் ஏழ் பிறவிக்கும் உன் தன்னோடு
உற்றோமே ஆவோம் உனக்கே நாம் ஆட்செய்வோம்…
…மற்றை நம் காமங்கள் மாற்று…
Having asked for gifts the whole time, AndAL puts a twist at the end and essentially says that she is not there really for the gifts but rather to have his grace forever, which matters more than any materialistic item and just wants the opportunity to serve – essentially that the journey to leadership is more valuable than getting somewhere.
She further emphasizes this by asking Krishna to get rid of every other desire except serving him so she can remain focused on that one activity, ending her garland of poems.
The last verse of ThiruppAvai is a classic example of Indian literature and a lesson by itself in presentation. After a long session, it is critical to briefly summarize the key points to improve stickiness and to provide some biographical details for any follow-ups. AndAL does this and much more in the last verse. Let’s break it down:
First she makes a point that what she is proposing is not vaporware and has been tried and tested.
வங்கக் கடல் கடைந்த மாதவனை கேசவனை
திங்கள் திருமுகத்து சேய் இழையார் சென்று இறைஞ்சி
அங்கு அப்பறை கொண்ட…
vangak kadal kadaindha mAdhavanai kEsavanai
thingal thirumugathu sEi izhaiyAr sendru iRainji
angu appaRai koNda
The beautiful maidens have gotten their heart’s desire having performed the fast as prescribed and thus receiving the grace of Krishna.
Credentials / Contact Info
Then she provides her details, establishing her credentials and her antecedents.
…ஆற்றை அணி புதுவை பைங்கமல தண் தெரியல் பட்டர் பிரான் கோதை…
…AtRai aNi pudhuvai painkamala thaN theriyal bhattar pirAn gOdhai sonna…
This is the work of Godha – the daughter of the Bhattar (பெரியாழவார் – periyAzwAr) from SrivilliputhUr.
Next steps and anticipated benefits
Lastly she mentions the next steps / actions to take and the benefits one can expect to achieve as a result. She also throws in details of the format of the actions and assumptions made around the benefit statement.
…சங்க தமிழ் மாலை முப்பதும் தப்பாமே
இங்கு இப்பரிசு உரைப்பார்…
…sanga thamizh maalai muppadhum thappAmE ingu ipparisu uraippAr…
For those who recite these 30 verses without any errors (and with the right intentions)…
…ஈ இரண்டு மால் வரை தோள் செங்கண் திருமுகத்து செல்வ திருமாலால்
எங்கும் திருவருள் பெற்று இன்புறுவர் எம்பாவாய்
…E irandu maal varai thoL senkaN thirumugathu selva thirumAlAl
engum thiruvaruL petRu inbuRuvar empAvAi.
…will be blessed with happiness through Krishna’s grace.
Notes on interpretation
Thiruppaavai is considered a profound mystical work by scholars. Though small in number of verses, each verse and each word has been analyzed in depth for its layered meaning. The words, the structure of the scenes, the choice of the names of Krishna used in different places, and the repeated use of certain words are done with explicit purpose making this joy to read over and over again and still be surprised!
ThiruppAvai is also a lesson to literary aspirants to not be simply satisfied with an outward interpretation of the verses or to review history with the lens of what’s acceptable in current times, which has been described anywhere from just bhakti to veiled eroticism, but to take time to contextualize the poetry through various interpretations and forming a more holistic understanding that respects the underlying poetry.
While we have obviously taken a few liberties in our interpretation, we have aimed to stay true to the core message, as propounded by scholars and if there is an error or deviation, we will gladly make amends.
Sources and Inspirations