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The Periya Puranam is a classical Tamil scripture that describes the lives of 63 Saivite saints. Down through the centuries it has had immense influence over the devotional tradition of Saivism in South India.
Towards the end of 1895, Venkataraman, later known as Sri Ramana Maharshi, found at home a copy of the Periya Puranam. He picked it up and, being the first religious book he had ever read, was transported to a hitherto unknown sphere of existence. Waves of admiration, awe, reverence, sympathy and emulation swept over his soul in succession.
It was not long after this that the boy Venkataraman, fully absorbed in the effulgence of the Self, made his way to Arunachala. Throughout the next fifty-four years of his life, the Sage of Arunachala, never tired of recalling the stories of these saints and reciting their inspired poetry with deep emotion.
The Periya Puraanam is the song describing the lives of sixty-three Saivite saints of the ancient Tamil land sung by a poet-saint himself. The importance of Periya Puraanam in the glorious advent of our Master, Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi cannot be over emphasized, for is He not Himself the Lord and the Bhakta? In the source biography of Bhagavan, Self-Realization, we read: "Towards the end of 1895 (perhaps a few months after hearing about Arunachalam from a relation) he found at home a copy of the Periya Puraanam which his uncle had borrowed. This was the first religious book that he went through apart from his class lessons and it interested him greatly
It transported him to a different world
As he read on, surprise, admiration, awe, reverence, sympathy and emulation swept over his soul in succession...but when the book had been quickly read through and laid aside, the new impulses and ideals disappeared leaving him as he was before that study." (Ch. 4).
Then again after the death experience in 1896, there was a big change. "In the first place I lost what little interest I had in my outward relationship with friends, kinsmen or studies. In my dealings with them I developed humility, meekness and indifference
The old personality that resented and asserted itself had disappeared
I preferred to be left to myself
Often I would sit alone by my myself especially in a posture suitable for meditation, close my eyes and lose myself in the spirit, current or force (Avesham)
All preference and avoidance in the matter of food had gone. All food given to me, tasty or tasteless, good or rotten, I would swallow with indifference to its taste, smell or quality
.One of the new feature was related to the temple of Meenakshi
Formerly I would go there with friends, see the images, put on sacred ashes and sacred vermilion on the forehead and return home without any perceptible emotion
Now I would almost go every evening to the temple. I would go alone and stand before Siva or Meenakshi or Nataraja or the sixty-three saints for long periods. I would feel waves of emotion overcome me. The former hold on the body had been given up and my spirit therefore longed to have a fresh hold
This ws God's (Isvara's) play with the individual spirit. I would stand before, all, the Omniscient and Omnipotent, and occasionally pray for the descent of his grace upon me so that my devotion would increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three saints
" (Ch. 5).
There are twelve devotional (stottiram) and fourteen dialectical (saattiram) canons in the Saiva tradition of the Tamils. The devotional stotra canons are well known collectively as Panniru Tirumurai of which the Periya Puraanam is the twelfth. A Puraanam is that which treats aspects of the past in such a manner that they are revealed to be eternally new and valid in the present. Sekkizhar's Periya Puraanam (the Big Puraana) is only 4253 verses long. Yet it is called so for reasons which are not difficult to understand:
(i) The poet named it Tiruthondar Puraanam (Legend of the Holy Servitors). He narrates very briefly the lives of the servitors of Siva and calls every one of them a Puraanam. Thus one has Sundaramurthy Naayanaar Puraanam, Kannappa Naayanaar Puraanam, Tirumula Naayanaar Puraanam and so on. The whole work may therefore be regarded as a 'big' Puraanam, being a Puraanam of Puraanams.
(ii) The lives of the individual saints often form very short chapters. One may wonder how these could be each called a Puraanam. But these are saints, Jivanmukta, who had no sense of ego, of 'me' and 'mine', but were solely surrendered in their devotion and would not even care for their own personal liberation. Given the choice between an umbrella and footwear, one readily chooses the latter before setting out on a midsummer noon's walk on a burning tar road. The heat reflected from the road is much more than the direct heat of the sun on our heads. So also the grace of Siva is more potent when received through his servitors (Naayanmaars) than directly from Himself. The Periya Puraanam is therefore 'big' in the sense of being very important as it deals with the lives of such servitors.
(iii) The Puraanam deals individually with sixty-three saints and collectively with nine others making in all seventy-two. While it is popularly felt that this Puraanam refers only to the saints of Tamil Naadu, the nine collections which the poet describes include e.g., 'poets freed from error', those who serve 'Bhaktas', 'those who ever sing the praise of the Supreme', 'those who remain ever in touch with the Divine Body (the Self)', 'those beyond (man-made categories of caste, creed, nation, time etc.)', 'those who have attained the feet (the Basis)' and so on. This shows the vast sweep of the Puraanam and its catholicity.
(iv) The Tamil Bhagavata and other Puraanas were all based on the Sanskrit Puraanas. The Sanskrit Agastya Bhakta Vilasam, and Upamanyu Bhakta Vilasam however were based on the Periya Puraanam of Sekkizhar.
(v) Sekkizhar was not the first to sing about these saints. The divine child Nambi Aroorar, a contemporary of the Chozha king Abhayakulasekara, received education in all arts from Lord Ganesa Himself. In the course of his education, the Lord revealed to the child the location of the palm-leaf manuscripts containing the first seven of the devotional canons. These seven Tirumurais, feared to have been lost, contained the songs of the Saints Sambandhar, Appar and Sundarar, the 'Trinity' among the Naayanmaars. In addition Lord Vinayaka also revealed to the child Nambi, the details of the lives of many renowned devotees of Lord Siva. The poem composed by Nambi Aroorar on the Lives, is called Thiruthondar Tira Antadi.
Sundarar, one of the Trinity, had himself composed a short poem on the Lives which is called Tiruthondattohai, He was inspired to sing his songs only after Lord Siva gave him the lead with the word 'Pitta!' (Mad Fellow!). Thus one may have it that the Tiruthondattohai too was a direct communication from the Divine, as the Tiruthondar Antadi.
Sekkizhar, a contemporary of the Chozha king Anapaya, had composed the Periya Puraanam, basing it on the two earlier works. He visited the various holy places associated with the saints and gathered many details and legends. He was thus able to compose a considerably larger poem on the Lives than did his predecessors. He was however able to derive poetic inspiration only after Lord Siva gave him the lead with the word 'Ulahelaam
' (All of Creation).
Is it any wonder that the Lives, which were divinely inspired on three occasions, should be regarded as the Big Puraanam?
There are two important points to be borne in mind when going through Periya Puraanam, if sadhakas are to derive the intended benefit of chitta shuddhi, purification of one's mind.
(i) The Puraanam narrates the various ways, some of them extreme, in which the devotion of the saints flowed. The cases of Kannappar, Meipporul, Enathi, Arivattayar, Murthi, Tirukkurippu Thondar and some others are examples of the extent to which these saints were ready to inflict injury or even death upon themselves in order to honour their own words, during their service to Siva or His Bhaktas.
While these many be readily appreciated, the cases wherein a saint inflicts injury on another in order to honour a commitment of service to a Siva Bhakta are more subtle and should be pondered upon in faith.
Examples of these are: Sirutthondar who had to kill his son; Iyarpahai who gifted away his wife to a Siva Bhakta and even slaughtered all the relatives who offered resistance to this; Eripattar who made mince-meat of an elephant and five guards; Manakkancharar who disfigured his only daughter on the eve of her marriage to please a Siva Bhakta who fancied her long tresses; and Chandeswarar who could not bear to see a cow being ill-treated but was enraged enough to axe his own father's legs when the latter obstructed his puja to the Siva Linga. They teach us of a hierarchy of worldly and social values, where anything and everything is finally rejected as dispensable if it comes in the way of one's chosen mode of devotion to the Supreme. The ideal are like Siva Ganas, and perform the function of dare-devil security guards of Siva and his Bhaktas. Viranmindar stands out in this respect. The personal bodyguard does not hesitate to prevent his master from doing something or going somewhere fraught with danger to his master's safety. Viranmindar placed the Siva Bhaktas so highly that he reprimanded not only Sundarar as outcast (when Sundarar went past the Bhaktas, ignoring them on his way to worship the Lord at Tiruvaroor) but also the Lord Himself for having so long shown undue favours to an undeserving Sundarar.
(ii) In describing the lives of some saints, the Puraanam comes down rather heavily on Jainism. This should be seen in the proper historical perspective when Hinduism was on the verge of being wiped out in the South by Jainism through royal patronage. While the experience of the Ultimate Silence, by the Jain or the Hindu, or any other sage, must be identical, it is nevertheless an awesome fact that the passage of time pits their followers against one another. In this process even fundamental ideals could be lost sight of! Thus we find the monks of a non-violent Jainism (in the tales of Appar, Sambandhar and Murthi Naayanaar for example) whole-heartedly practicing violence and torture with the utmost cunning in order to get the better of the Saivite saints. The Puraanam's ridicule of the monks should therefore be understood in the midst of the dastardly persecution of non-violent Saivites by misguided monks. Such were the postures valid and necessary then. But no more.
There are very few translations of this great work available in English. Sri Ramanasramam is indeed happy to bring out this translation by Sri R. Rangachari which appeared as a serial in the daily The Indian Express. The newspaper's daily column of 'RR' on religious topics is popular even today. We are sure that the devotees welcome this publication by the Ashram. We pray that Sir Bhagavan may make us fit to receive His Grace so that our devotion "may increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three Nayanmaar Saints."
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