What compels one to write poetry? It seems like poetry is driven by three fundamental but related aspects – an object of desire, a constraint (from getting to the object of desire), and an overwhelming emotion (due to the gap between the two).
On one hand, poets of the bygone era sing praises of the ruling king (object of desire) with a potential intent to get either fame or money (constraint or need) – the emotion may vary depending on the constraint and the relationship with the king (pride, greed, fear).
On the other hand, those who are spiritually inclined become poets when they sing the praises of their God (object of desire), driven by the need to be free of worldly bondage (constraint) – the emotion is typically elation (anandam), sorrow, or abject surrender / helplessness (saranaagathi).
Recent roadside romeos and cinematic poets tend to follow the same path, singing praises of the girl they love, driven by desperation in attaining her, and the emotions varying between sorrow or dejection (if the girl spurns him) or elation (if she accepts)!
While the paths that the poets take to express their emotions vary, the impact of the poem, regardless of how eloquently or simply it is written, is as strong as our personal resonance with the three factors above.
We will see two examples to explore this thought further – in all cases, the object of desire is God (although which God varies), the constraint being that of being attached to worldly aspects, and the overwhelming emotion is to be free of them in order to attain salvation. The verses that are reflective of this need for non-attachment are known as vairaagya (non-attachment) padas (songs).
One point to note before we delve into these songs – vairaagya padas generally sound very dismal – they heighten the futility of this human birth and extol the virtue of salvation. Taken literally, this might sound as if the songs promote self-destruction or taking one’s life in order to get something that is arguably unproven.
However, things are not always what they seem and as with most songs we have seen, the words are layered with multiple levels of meanings. These songs have to be taken in the context of the broader philosophy around them, which convey the exact opposite meaning. The broader philosophy is to accept and come to terms with the flaws in the human birth and thinking as is, realize that there are aspects in this universe that are bigger than what our minds can fathom, and instead focus on leveraging this birth to its fullest, flawed it may be, for the greater good of this universe (humanity and beyond).
Such realization came to these enlightened and talented human beings and as we attempt to understand the power of their words, we marvel at their foresight and wisdom and hope that it elevates us to a greater level of thinking and resolve (which also is denoted by the word vairaagyam, incidentally!)
First up is Thondaradippodi Azhwar, who we saw earlier. He says this in Thrumaalai (திருமாலை) – garland to the Lord.
மறம் சுவர் மதிள் எடுத்து மறுமைக்கே வெறுமை பூண்டு
புறம் சுவர் ஓட்டை மாடம் புரளும் போது அறிய மாட்டீர்
அறம் சுவராகி நின்ற அரங்கனார்க்கு ஆட்செய்யாதே
புறம் சுவர் கோலம் செய்து புள் கவ்வக் கிடக்கின்றீரே
maRam suvar madhiL eduthu maRumaikkE veRumai poondu
puRam suvar Ottai maadam puraLum pOdhu aRiya maatteer
aRam suvaraagi ninDRa aranganaarkku aatseiyaade
puRam suvar kOlam seidhu puL kavva kidakkinDReerE
Translation (based on this link)
The body (wall) that we have taken in this birth is due to accumulation of sins in past lives (otherwise, we wouldn’t have taken a birth in the first place). Such a body will tempt us to commit more sins to avoid salvation.
The wall is fragile and has holes (orifices) that can let sins come in and can cause it to crumble anytime.
You don’t realize this fragility of your body even if it bites the dust, unless you focus your mind on nArAyanA, who is righteousness / dharma personified (அறம் சுவர்).
Instead, you keep decorating this fragile wall and nourishing it, only for the vultures to eventually get to it and have a feast.
Taken out of context, this is seemingly uncharacteristic of an Azhwar, who normally extols the virtue of this birth which has been given in turn to sing praises of God. However, in the broader work, we do see that this is just a preface to that broader concept.
The sentiments, however, are very similar to those we have seen earlier by Siddhars. Let us look at a song from Pattinathar:
இருப்பது பொய் போவது மெய் என்று எண்ணி நெஞ்சே
ஒருத்தருக்கும் தீங்கினை உண்ணாதே – பருத்த தொந்தி
நம்மதென்று நாமிருப்ப – நாய் நரிகள் பேய் கழுகு
தம்மதென்று தாம் இருக்கும் தான்
iruppadu poi pOvadu mei endRu eNNi nenjE
orutharukkum theenginai uNNaadhe – parutha thondhi
nammadhendRu naam iruppa – naai narigaL pEi kazhugu
thammadhendRu thaam irukkum thaan
This life we are living is an illusion (we feel we are in control, but are not).
What is real is that we will all die one day.
Knowing this impermanence, do not do harm to anyone else.
We feed ourselves well and build our tummies, thinking we will live forever.
But the dogs, wolves, and vultures are eagerly waiting for the same!
You can see the striking similarities in the thought process behind both the songs, even though the God worshipped by each are different (Vishnu vs. Shiva), which goes to show further the commonality in the spiritualism behind the words.
PattinathAr also goes a step further and explains eloquently what we mentioned earlier – there is no correlation between the spiritual thinking behind the futility of life and the thought of taking one’s life (because one considers it to be futile).
Perhaps well aware of the potential for misunderstanding, PattinathAr states that one should be aware of this impermanence of this life and not be lured by the worldly desires to which it entices us, including loving it too much (to the point of potentially harming others in that process, for any material gain).