One with her god

Anjali Jhangiani
Sunday, 13 January 2019

In her presentation at a recent event in the city, professor Chitra Shreedharan from Fergusson College talked about the only female Alvar saint Andal, and the controversial poetry that defined her devotion

As a Tamilian, Chitra Shreedharan, faculty at the English department at Fergusson College, heard Andal’s songs at various religious functions. The only female Alvar saint’s words filled her with equal parts of curiosity and empowerment. Sharing her knowledge about Andal and her poetry, Shreedharan gave a presentation at an event series called ‘Between The Lines’ at Gyaan Adab Centre last week. 

As the audience gave her their full attention, she spoke of how the teenaged poet, believed to belong to the 8-9th century, successfully manages to raise many eyebrows even today through her work. “There are many theories around Andal — some say she was found near a Tulsi plant, some say it was Vishnuchittar (her father who is also referred to as the head of the temple in her work) that posed as her and wrote the poems, and some even say that she is a myth and didn’t actually exist,” said Shreedharan, pointing out that what really matters now are her words.
 
According to Hindu theologian-philosopher Ramanujan, she informed the audience, it was the shift from Sanskrit to their mother tongue that gave these poets of the Bhakti movement the liberty to express themselves freely. “Because of Sanskrit, a distance had crept in between the devotees and their god. But using their mother-tongue, they could now express their devotion in a more intimate form. They could afford to question, challenge or reprimand god. Somewhere down the line, god became their lover, their friend, a father, a son or even a daughter, what have you. The change of language resulted in the modification of the whole equation between the devotees and their god,” said she.
 
Complete surrender
When you talk of complete surrender, it involves the mind as much as the body. And the body, according to Andal, was so sacred that it was only fit to be offered to the almighty, not to be devoured by any other human being. The professor talks about how Andal expresses this idea in one of her poems where she compares human intercourse with the sacrificial offering made by Brahmins violated by jackals in a forest. “Devotion coupled with eroticism produces intense poetry, you can see the intensity in Nachiyar Tirumozhi. Though even today at religious gatherings, Andal’s verse is usually not performed because in those circles her work is still considered inappropriate. Open expression of her work is not completely digestible as far as religious minds are concerned. But when you look at it through a different lens, you probably won’t find any vulgarity in it,” she explained, adding, “Andal had no inhibitions about suppressing her sexuality, neither did she make any efforts to do so. You have to understand she was only 13-14 when she was writing such poetry, and worldly inhibition had not caught up with her till then. I believe that even if it would have, she would have rejected it. Uma Chakravarti (Indian historian) talks of how female poets like Andal, Akka Mahadevi (a prominent female poet from the 12th century who considered Shiva as her husband following the Madhurya form of devotion), the Avvaiyar (believed to be a female Tamil poet from the Sangam period), and Karaikal Ammaiyar (one of the three women amongst the 63 Nayanmars during the 6th century and a devotee of Lord Shiva) treated sexuality differently in their works. While Avvaiyar desexualised herself when she wrote, praying for premature old age so that she could move around freely, Karaikal Ammaiyar said, ‘I don’t need this beauty at all’ and she is still worshipped in that form. It was the fusing of shringar ras with bhakti ras that gave Andal the luxury to say the things she would not have otherwise.”

Setting her free
When you read Andal’s work, you can’t help but wonder if she got any flak for her work during her time. “Of course women poets had a lot of restrictions. But as far as her father was concerned, Vishnuchittar gave her all the freedom that was needed, and you find this out through her poetry. In Periya Thirumozhi, he gives a lot of information on how he brought up Andal. He knew that she had chosen a lonely path for herself when she wanted to give herself to the lord and not take a human companion. As her father, he was obviously concerned about her in that sense. But she has already isolated herself so much that he knew she was too far into it and he gave in,” she said. 

Legend has it that Andal would wear the garland before it was put on the deity in the temple. When Vishnuchittar found this out, he reprimanded her and told her not to do it. He then arranged for a fresh garland to be put on the deity. But Lord Vishnu appeared in his dreams and told him that he wants the same garland worn by the girl. What shaped Andal into becoming the figure she is known to be today, is the atmosphere of love, devotion and freedom in which she was brought up.

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