The Tiruvaymoli (sacred utterance or sacred truth) is a grand 1102-verse poem, composed in the ninth century by Sathakopan-Nammalvar, the greatest of the alvar poets. Ingeniously weaving a garland of words-where each beginning is also an ending-the poet traces his cyclical quest for union with the supreme lord, Visnu. In this magnificent translation, Archana Venkatesan transports the flavour and cadences of Tamil into English, capturing the different voices and range of emotions through which the poet expresses his enduring desire for release. The scholarly introduction illuminates the poem’s kaleidoscopic brilliance and the traditions of devotional religiosity it inspired.
Archana Venkatesan has produced a very fine, subtle and sensitive translation of Sathakopan's Tiruvaymoli. It will surely be for years to come the go-to translation of Tiruvaymoli for those who want to read the songs in English, get a feel for the text as a whole and for its underlying cultural, spiritual and theological depths. It stands very nicely alongside her translation of Sathakopan's Tiruviruttam, and her earlier rendering of Antal’s Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli, and confirms her status as today's best translator of the Tamil Vaisnava religious classics. As was the case with those earlier works, this is a simple translation that is nonetheless wonderfully informed by the great commentarial tradition: the annotations are remarkable, helpful without being wordy, simply inviting readers who want more to go deeper; the appendices give new readers much of what they need to get started. With great sensitivity she has also included Madurakavi's Kanninun ciru tampu, verses in praise of Sathakopan by his first disciple; these are verses that any reader might be advised to read at the beginning and end of study. Archana also has written an informative and comprehensive introduction, and there is little that I can or need to add to it. So the reader will permit me to use this space, at her kind invitation, to add to the joyful moment of the appearance of this translation just a few recollections of my life with Tiruvaymoli.
I first encountered these one hundred songs when A.K. Ramanujan was finishing his lovely Hymns for the Drowning and I was a new graduate student in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Only a year into my study of Tamil, I was honoured to proofread the galleys for him. Over the next months, he then read with me some of the verses, and we dipped ever so slightly into the commentaries, which greatly interested me, him much less. Raman loved the verses, each on its own, as if Tiruvaymoli was a cankam anthology of mysterious solitary gems. He found a common ground with such gems, selecting a few to carry over, alive, into his incomparable English. I was fascinated by the poetry as a garland adorning the lord and the community, but also, from the start, by Tiruvaymoli's significance as a canon of scripture, extended in commentary and the words of many teachers. I most warmly remember reading with Raman verse VIII.8.3:
He is unique among those rich in understanding, but by his grace I placed him in my understanding to hold him there, But even that is by his sweet grace, and so he made me realize that all understanding and life and body and the infinite too are mere nothing, And for understanding beyond all that, he ended up as me, himself myself.
I found that this verse marked a path for an advaita distinguished by love, in the tradition of Ramanuja: non-dualism as an event culminating a love relationship. Surprisingly, the commentators read this ,verse along with the famed 'That Thou Art' (tat tvam asi) of the Chandogya Upanisad . It was on this fascinating meeting between Tamil devotion and Vedanta that I wrote my first article related to Tiruvaymoli, which appeared in 1983 in Sriramanujavani, a small journal in Madras.
After being introduced to Tiruvaymoli by Raman, in the middle and late 1980s, I kept reading and translating the songs, first of all as a way of improving my Tamil! Norman Cutler and I joked that insofar as I was a Tamil scholar at all, I'd be more at home at ninth-century Tiruvehkatam than on the streets of today's Chennai. But while improving my beginner's Tamil little by little, I was also caught by songs, drawn into the world of Tiruvaymoli, which replicates in small form an entire religious universe.
Not every translator, even a pretty good one, knows what it means to translate a single verse, a line, a clause, a sentence. Archana knows. A verse may live in her, or she in it, for weeks or months or even years before she lets it go, usually unwillingly. A thousand-some-verse work like Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli thus demands huge blocks of time, maybe an infinity of time. At some point the translation pauses long enough to go to press. The echo chamber in the true translator's head goes on with its business, night and day.
The Tiruvaymoli is commensurate with Archana's passion and her talent. She's the best translator from Tamil in this generation, because she knows what it means. It's not about satisfaction, an unreachable goal. You have this perfect verse, a miracle of sound and flow and texture and, after all the above, meaning; and you know for sure that only 3 per cent of that will go into English. So you wake up in the middle of the night hoping to extend the number to, say, 3.5 per cent. That would be a huge achievement. After that, the verse keeps coming back at you, at odd times, when you're least expecting it, and then you want to cut out one more syllable, thus reaching towards 3.6. Only someone with Archana's stamina has a chance to make this happen.
She has, I think, an aversion to punctuation. The line breaks are meant to suffice in suggesting a pause in the syntactic flow. This method, a reasonable one, demands a certain kind of listening on the part of the reader. I recommend reading the English out loud. Nammalvar, in particular, deserves the aural dimension, in Tamil, of course, but also in Archana's English.
This was a poet who changed the nature of a poetic line in Tamil. He invented a form of syntax that is at once light, intelligible at first or second hearing, and dense with suggestion, much of it derived from the combinations of syllables that he was able to imagine into being. Later Tamil poets, such as Kampan, the author of the Tamil Ramayana, probably two centuries or more after Nammalvar, learnt the poetic art from listening to the Tiruvaymoii. Kampan, too, was capable of producing that specific density of lightness. It comes with a very rich emotional texture, so much so that many of the verses in this volume, like verses of Kampan or Tirumankaiyalvar, can easily generate tears in a good reader. Just after the tears comes a cognitive moment, when the reader finds herself amazed at what the poet has just said.
The art of reading this translation has a lot to do with the intrinsic texture of the decad form, and not only on the printed page. Decads of this text are still recited in what is called viruttam performance. The singer-today often a professional Carnatic musician, like Sikkil Gurucharan or Aruna Sairam or T.M. Krishna-takes up a phrase, sings it, then begins to play with it, sometimes turning the syntax upside down, or paring it down to two or three syllables, or shifting scale or register. She or he has the liberty to repeat a phrase as many times as is necessary in order to let the listener fully understand its unique beauty and its placement within the sentence or the verse as a whole. Viruttam recitation of an entire decad takes time, because it allows the listener to hear, perhaps unconsciously, the patterns of aural and semantic coherence that are the true life of all ten verses. The singer helps bind them together, thereby also highlighting particular themes or twinges of feeling. The listener has a part to play in this creative process-even in English. Archana makes it relatively easy: she is sensitive to the integrity of the decad. Try reading all ten verses aloud, as slowly as possible. Try singing them in viruttam style.
I had the privilege of seeing early drafts of some of these poems. Often at dawn, still sleepy, after peering closely at the Tamil, I would respond with queries or hints or even suggestions. Then there would be some days of watching those early-morning question marks bounce back and forth across the oceans that separate California from Jerusalem. Often I was surprised at the next versions. Sometimes I thought it was the delicious Madras street Tamil that Archana knew from childhood that infused her translations with a natural south Indian musicality and at the same time made her keep honing and rehearing them, in the viruttam mode. Street Tamil, strange to say, is continuous with Nammalvar's style. Not everyone can hear it.
Sometime in the ninth century, a man about whom we know little, composed an extraordinary Tamil poem, which came to be known as the Tiruvaymoli (Sacred Utterance/Sacred Truth). It appeared during a tumultuous period in the Tamil-speaking regions of peninsular southern India, where emergent ecstatic devotionalism (bhakti) challenged the well-established religious traditions of Buddhism and Jainism. This is not a key preoccupation of the text though it refutes as well as accepts into its world view alternative religious traditions, be they Buddhist, Jain or Saiva. Even with this occasionally capacious vision, the text's own commitments are decidedly and irrefutably Vaishava. The poet, who calls himself Maran-Sathakopan, is Visnu's devotee, and if we take his claims in the Tiruvaymoli seriously, descended from a long line of Vaisnavas. Visnu, transcendent and omnipotent, is the poet's sole refuge, and his only goal is to exist in eternal service to him, in a state of unbreakable, uninterrupted union. The poem's subject is the relationship between god (Visnu) and the devotee (the poet), which is characterized by brief moments of blissful union and protracted periods of desolate separation.
The Tiruvaymoli's 1102 verses are divided into ten books of a hundred verses called Pattu (Ten); each Pattu consists of ten decads, referred to as a Tiruvaymoli or Tirumoli. Each (except one) Tiruvaymoli is composed of ten individual verses termed a pasuram, with a concluding eleventh benedictory meta-verse, which is a phala-sruti. Thus, the above pasuram, VII.1.6, refers to the sixth verse in the first decad of the Seventh Hundred of the text, or more simply, verse 668. The Tiruvaymoli is held together by the antati, a form of interlinked verses that the poet, SathaKopan, favoured. The antati (end to beginning) uses strategies such as syllabic play, homonyms and repetition to ensure that every pasuram, every Tiruvaymoli, every Pattu in the poem, is woven together to produce an endless, infinite garland of words, where every beginning is also an ending, and vice versa. Traditionally though, the poem does start somewhere-with a contemplation of the ineffability of god-and it ends somewhere-with the poet achieving the highest state. The poem signals these thematic orientations with the word uyar (high) that opens and concludes it.
The poem's circular structure suits the iterative nature of the poet's quest, allowing for the possibility of an infinite number of entry points that trace the oscillation between union and separation, between bliss and melancholy, between wisdom and ignorance. The text's striking and distinctive structural flexibility is not without discipline, bound as it is by the interlinked antati and the thematic unity of individual decads. If one is reading the text from any beginning to any end-say from V.4.1-we are obliged to read the decads in sequence, until we reach V.3.11. If one seeks to read just a single decad within the Tiruvaymoli, one must start with the Ten's first verse and read until its eleventh verse-V.4.1 through V.4.11-to maintain its thematic integrity. Despite the stringent boundaries that antati and theme impose on the text, there is a way to disassemble it to create new meanings; tracing the use of particular words, epithets or myths across the text is an obvious approach.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Children’s Books (95)
Brahma Sutras (87)
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