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An introduction to Auvaiyar’s Vinayagar Agaval

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The Vinayagar Agaval (‘Song of Vinayaga’) is a stunning example of Tamil sacred poetry. It is thought to be the greatest poem of the Chola era poet Auvaiyar, written shortly before her death.

The Chola dynasty, which emerged around the ninth century, went on to rule most of South India for the next four hundred years. The Cholas presided over an important renaissance in Tamil literature, art and architecture, particularly temple construction.

The name Auvaiyar has been given to a number of important female poets, of whom three in particular stand out as literary giants. Whereas Auviayar I lived in or around the early 1st century CE, it was Auvaiyar II of the medieval Chola period who wrote the Vinayakar Agaval. Auviayar II gained recognition in her life time as a court poet of the Chola monarch and as sometimes a peace envoy between warring states.

Among the Tamils of Sri Lanka Auvaiyar II is best known for her children’s poems, which take the form of proverbs and instructions in ethics, and which are taught almost universally in kindergarten and primary schools in present day Tamil Nadu and Tamil Eelam.
Nevertheless, it is her less widely taught ode to Vinayaga , that stands out as one of the most important poems of classical Tamil. The Vinayakar Agaval remains one of the simplest and most accessible sacred poems in the vast collection of ancient Tamil literature and is hence chosen for our introduction to this subject.

“Agaval” is a form of blank verse, close to speech, but often lost in translation is the natural succinctness and rhythm of the Tamil language. Auvaiyar’s poem is a journey through the Tamil devotional tradition known as “Bhakti”. It begins with contemplation of the external form of the God and continues as an exposition of ancient Hindu spiritual belief and practice.

Auvaiyar follows the “Saivite” tradition of Hinduism, centred around the God Shiva, which is most popular in the Dravidian cultures of Southern India and Tamil Eelam. By contrast, the Vaishnavite tradition, following Vishnu (and his incarnations as Krishna, Rama etc) are popular in Northern India. There are also some sects that follow principally Durga (the mother).

And so, in keeping with traditions of Saivite sacred poetry the Vinayagar Agaval begins with contemplation of the jewelled feet of the god:

Cool, fragrant lotus feet
with anklets tinkling sweet,

The feet are a symbol of grace. One may see this poetic tradition of praising the feet also with the 7th century Sivapuranam, which emphasises throughout that the presence of the God is felt on earth through the imprints of his feet. Without beginning with the earthly shadow or foot print of the God one may not aspire to understand his totality.

Yet even in the first few lines, the philosophical references of Auvaiyar’s exposition are often lost in the translation from Tamil to English.

seeta kalabhach chentaamarai poovum
paathai chilambum pala isai paada

“cool earth (sandal paste), red lotus feet” is seen as a reference to the Muladhara or “Earth Chakra”, Vinayagar’s abode within the human body. Vinayagar is considered to sit at the gate of the Earth (Muladhara) Chakra, protecting us from the lower worlds beneath, represented by the lower chakras, the Hindu equivalent of hell. For a description of the Chakras, please refer to the section “Mystic References in the Agaval”.

“anklets, which sing many notes” is seen as a reference to the concept of the primal sound or vibration of the universe, which precedes the material world, and which is also embodied in Vinayagar. And so one sees that Auvaiyar’s poem is a many layered experience of philosophical concepts brought to life via devotional poetry.

The Vinayagar Agaval swiftly moves beyond contemplation of the feet to adoration of the face and body of the God.

gold girdle, flower-soft garment
setting off the comely hips,
pot-belly and big, heavy tusk,
elephant-face with the bright red mark,

The story of how Ganesha acquired his elephant face is one of the staples of Tamil children’s fables. It is so well known that we have omitted it here. The elephant symbolises strength and intelligence, the white elephant being a symbol of purity and luck. The birth of a white elephant was said to bring a period of plenitude and abundance for a whole nation.

But the images of the gods are constructed upon deeper symbolic significance. The God Ganesha (Vinayagar) is considered the personification of the material universe, which is contained in his belly. “The universe in all of varied and magnificent manifestations is nothing other than the body of this cheerful and portly God” says Subramuniya Swami in his book on Ganesha. And we will see later in the poem a play upon the material universe as the womb of the God.

five hands, the goad, the noose,
blue body dwelling in the heart,
pendulous jaws, four mighty shoulders,
three eyes and the three required marks,
two ears, the gold crown gleaming,
the breast aglow with the triple thread,
O Being, bright and beautiful!
Wish-yielding elephant, born of the
Master of Mystery in Mount Kailasa,

When the Agaval refers to the five hands of Vinayaka, this includes the four hands and the elephant’s trunk, which is curved to form the sacred symbol Aum (see also the section Physical Symbolism of the Body of Ganesha) The motion of the hands also has symbolic significance, representing the creation, preservation, destruction of the world and two further states of hidden grace and revelation.

Vinayaka as the God most closely connected to (or containing) the universe is bountiful, the “wish yielding elephant”, who bestows success and abundance and averts obstacles and calamities. Vinayaka is customarily invoked at the beginning of new enterprise and for guidance in wordly matters. Mount Kailasa is of course the home of Siva, refered to here, as the master of mystery.

But Auvaiyar now moves away from contemplation of external form and the material universe into her metaphysical journey.

mouse-rider, fond of the three famed fruits,
desiring to make me yours this instant,
you like a mother have appeared before me
and cut the delusion of unending births.

In Hindu theology as in Buddhism, the goal of the sequence of birth and deaths is to merge with God. And so above, Ganesha who holds the universe in his womb, cuts the umbilical cord that binds the soul of the poetess to the material world, and frees her up to gain union with him.

It is worth noting that the Hindu Gods do not strictly have gender, encompassing both the male and female principles. There is a female version of Vinayaka in the scriptures and so Auvaiyar’s reference to the mother is not the radical departure from tradition that it has sometimes been made out to be.

You have come and entered my heart,
imprinting clear the five prime letters,
set foot in the world in the form of a guru,
declared the final truth is this, gladly,
graciously shown the way of life unfading.

Auvaiyar restates the general belief in Saivite Hinduism, that Vinayagar, the God of wisdom and all beginnings is also the foremost teacher on the spiritual path.

With that unfailing weapon, your glance,
you have put an end to my heinous sins,

The glance of the God is also called Darshan (or grace). In the bhakti tradition there is much emphasis on physical sight: the presence of a sacred person or idol is considered to be purifying. So Auvaiyar says that the mere glance of Vinayaka purifies her of sin

poured in my ear uncloying precepts,
laid bare for me the clarity
of ever-fresh awareness,
sweetly given me your sweet grace
for firm control of the senses five,
taught how to still the organs of action;
snapped my two-fold karma and dispelled
my darkness, giving, out of grace,
a place for me in all four states;
dissolved the illusion of triple filth,
taught me how to shut the five
sense gates of the nine-door temple,
fixed me firm in the six yogic centers,

The “clarity of ever-fresh awareness” refers to the state of pure awareness that is the objective of meditation. Auvaiyar describes the process of meditation as the shutting of the five senses, and the awakening of the chakras. The nine door temple is the human body, which is considered to have nine apertures (eyes, ears etc).

The four states are waking, sleep, dream and turiya (or pure consciousness gained in meditation). The ‘triple filth’ or triple impurities are described in the 500 AD work, Thirumantiram, as egoism, illusion and karma.
It is the wheel of Karma which ties Auvaiyar to this world and this is now snapped, freeing her. The two fold Karma refers to the classification of Karma in Hindu scripture as on the one hand Karma of all the accumulated past, and on the other the Karma that is manufactured instantaneously in the process of living, and which will manifest as future lives. Alternatively the Karmas are classified as those which are begun or undertaken (arabdha) and those which are latent, in seed form to appear later (anarabdha).
The six yogic centres are the Chakras, there being six which are above the Muladhara, which represent the higher states of consciousness, the Muladhara or abode of Vinayaga being the dividing point between the higher and lower worlds. In Hindu mysticism, heaven and hell are hence states of consciousness.
stilled my speech, taught me
the writ of ida and pingala,
shown me at last the head of sushumna.
To the tongue of the serpent that sinks and soars
you have brought the force sustaining the three
bright spheres of sun, moon and fire --
the mantra unspoken asleep in the snake --
and explicitly uttered it;
imparted the skill of raising by breath
the raging flame of muladhara;

In the stanza above the poetess explains further her experience of the physical yoga tradition, which is first mentioned in the circa 3000 year old Rig Veda texts. She refers to the energy centres of the body and energy rivers (“Nadis”) such as the Ida and Pingala. She talks of wakening the “Kundalini” energy source, which is symbolised as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. The rising of the Kundalini, its “sinking and soaring”, achieved through meditation and physical yoga, signifies spiritual awakening. For an explanation of the Nadis and the Kundalini, please refer to the section entitled “Mystical reference in the Agaval”.
The “skill of raising by breath” is the art of Pranayama, the yoga discipline of breath control. Pranayama is complementary to the much more commonly practiced physical yoga of Asanas (or postures). Again, Pranayama is considered to be an important technique for awakening the Kundalini.
explained the secret of immortality,
the sun's movement and the charm
of the moon; the water lily's friend,
the sixteen states of the prasada mantra;
revealed to me in thoughtful wisdom
the six-faced form and the meanings four;
disclosed to me the subtle body
and the eight separate modes of being;
the orifice of Brahman opened,
giving me miraculous powers,
by your sweet grace, and mukti, too;
revealed my Self to me and by your grace
swept away accumulated karma,
stilled my mind in tranquil calm
beyond speech and thought;
clarified my intellect, plunged me
in bliss which is the common ground
of light and darkness.

The lines above reiterate concepts from previous verses, but include references from earlier and older works from the Tantra and Saiva Siddhanta.
In Saivite beliefs, spiritual awakening, leads to immortality and miraculous powers The term Siddhanta is also connected to the term “Siddhi”, meaning miraculous gifts and so the Siddhanta is the discipline of awakening these gifts.
Hence the eight modes are thought to be the eight Siddhis or miraculous powers gained through the awakening of the Kundalini as described in the Tirumantiram text dated circa 500 AD. (See also Mystical concepts in the Agaval).
We should note that Auvaiyar throughout uses the language of “gift” as opposed to that which is acquired or earned. Wisdom, clarity, bliss, eternal life: these are all gifts of the God
Auvaiyar’s poem remains in essence devotional, born out of her experience of the divine. And so the poem continues:
Boundless beatitude you have given me,
ended all affliction, shown the way of grace:
Siva eternal at the core of sound,
Siva linga within the heart,
atom within atom, vast beyond all vastness,
sweetness hid in the hardened node.
You have steadied me clear in human form
all besmeared with holy ashes;
added me to the congregation
of your servants true and trusty;
made me experience in my heart
the inmost meaning of the five letters;
restored my real state to me;
and rule me now, O Master of Wisdom,
Vinayaka. Your feet alone,
O Master of Wisdom, Vinayaka, your feet alone, are my sole refuge.

Like all great poems, the Agaval speaks to us on many levels. Written at the culmination of her life, this, Auvaiyar’s last work, speaks to us of an old woman’s readiness for death. Yet it speaks with gratitude and wonder of the poetess’s journey through life, seen as a gift from the God, testifying to the completeness of the poetess’s human experience. Simultaneously it celebrates a new birth, her emergence from the womb of the God who holds the material universe in his belly. She speaks explicitly of her new immortality, of her experience of her real state, of Siva within the eternal sound, of bliss at the boundary of darkness and light. Although the individual may die, the soul having merged with the cosmos does not. Interleaved within the poem is the presence of Vinayaka, the breath taking God of new beginnings.

Unlike the ancient greek gods of Homer, the Tamil gods never act wilfully or arbitrarily, nor have they human failings. They are instead embodiments of their divine principles. Ganesha is hence the embodiment of wisdom, the foremost teacher on the path of life. It is inconceivable that he acts in any other way than this mandate, because he is not separate from it.

The Vinayagar Agaval stands comparison with the best traditions of sacred poetry anywhere. Yet it is quintessentially Tamil. There is no concept of guilt or retribution or of the power imbalance between man and God.

While the Agaval remains deeply instructive of ancient Hindu philosophy, it is above all a celebration of beauty and love; a richly enunciated vision of the astonishing beauty of the ancient Tamil Gods, who remain endearingly human while simultaneously containing within themselves the micro and macrocosms of the cosmos, or in Auvaiyar’s own words: “being, bright and beautiful, atom within atom, vast beyond all vastness”

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