Lord Skanda-Murugan

The Human Interface between Polytheism and Absolute Reality:

An inquiry based on the rhythmic beats of Tiruppukazh


kdv<qrf kadfDmf emyfpf epaRqf u]rfv<kqf:

tiRpfp<kzf YYMlmf oR ~yfv<


C.R. Krishnamurti 1 and P. Rathanaswami 2

'pfepaRqf yarfyarfvayfkf Ekdfpi{mf `pfepaRqf emyfpf epaRqf ka]fpT `biv< (tiRkfKbqf 423)


Among the several elements of organized human societies, language and religion appear to have exerted a profound influence on peace and equilibrium within the individual and harmony in the community. In recent years these same forces, instead of creating more disciplined societies, have created tension and chaos in different parts of the world. It may well be that, despite the best communicative tools at our disposal since the dawn of civilization, we are not communicating with each other effectively. This applies particularly to religious concepts which are difficult to be proved using techniques commonly employed in scientific investigations. The object of this paper is to study the interface between man, god(s) and the Absolute Reality as could be seen in the rhythmic beats of Tiruppukzh (tiRpfp<kzf) verses and other Tamil literary works.

The author of Tiruppukazh, Arunagiri Nathar (`R]kiri natrf) lived in the fifteenth century. He was a Tamil scholar par excellence (nabfkvi p<lvrf) and a great social reformer. He lived in sin most of his life as per his own account but, due to his repentance, succeeded in getting the grace of Murukan (MRk[f), the Tamil God. It is said that Murukan himself gave him the opening phrase of "MtfAttf tR" and asked him to write Tiruppukazh.

Being familiar with the obsession of Tamil people for heroic poems since the Sangam period and their fascination of literary niceties, he exploited these traits and composed 16,000 poems. Of these only about 1,330 verses are now available. His outpouring of devotion to Lord Murukan was depicted in almost every poem.

His literary style was aptly described by Zvelebil (1973) as follows: "several streams converge and merge in his work: the hymnal tradition of Saiva and Vaishnava bhakti, the reflective stream of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, the ancient inheritace of bardic poetry, both puram and akam". It has also been suggested that his self-portrayal as a bad person was an act he put on himself (tbfKbipfEpbfbmf) to emphasize the evils of prostitution.

In style he followed the footsteps of the woman-saint, Karaikal Ammiyar (kaArkfkalf `mfAmyarf)and the three doyens (Acv cmykf Krvrfkqf) of the Saivaite faction. He firmly believed that Tirugnana Sampanthar (tiR wa[cmfpnftrf) was an incarnation of Lord Murukan. In spite of his devotion to Siva and his younger son, Murukan, one of his literary objectives was to bridge the gap between the followers of Siva and Vishnu. For this purpose, he mentioned the close family ties between the two trinities in almost every poem in Tiruppukazh. His religious philosophy was that insight into the nature of Absolute Reality (emyfpfepaRqf) can be achieved only through intuitive experience (`{p>ti) rather than by following theological doctrines dogmatically.

To make his teaching of the bhakti (pkfti) tradition and Saiva Siddhantam (Acv citftanftmf) appealing to read, he incorporated the rhythmic beats of music as an integral component of his lyrics. By combining the santham (cnftmf) with religious concepts and a flowing literary style, he added a new dimension to religious teaching making it more appealing to read. Therefore it is not surprising that, even after 500 years, these songs are still sung in music concerts. It should be emphasized that his religious teachings were directed towards the common man and not merely the elites and specialists. The synthesis of literature, religion and music in these works presents a powerful teaching technique. The blend of mythological stories with philosophical and spiritual concepts takes away the seriousness normally associated with religious teaching.

One of the criticisms of the religions from the Indian subcontinent is the worshipping of many gods by the people in the region and the lack of a theological focus. This perception is indeed unfortunate, because Tamil literature contains several references wherein many through the centuries have emphasized repeatedly that there is only one Absolute Being.


(o[fEb KlMmf oRvE[ Etv{mf

 n[fEb niA[mi[f nm[ilfAl na]aEm) --- tiRmnftirmf 2066


(oR nammf Orf uRvmf o[fBmf ;lflabfK ~yirmf

 tiRnammf paF namf etqfEq]mf ekadfEdaEma)--- tiRvackmf


 (o[fB k]fGrf ulKkfK oR etyfvMmf

 o[fB k]fGrf ulKkfK uyiravTmf) --- tiRmnftirmf 2922.

 (ulki{kfK uyiRmaki ulKmayf ni[fbT Orarf                                                     ulki[ilf oRv[f '[fparf uRviA[ u]rarf 'lflamf)--- civ wa[ citftiyarf 1.2.21.

(`kr Mtl 'Ztfetlflamf ~ti

 pkv[f MtbfEb ulK)--- tiRkfKbqf 1.                                                                                  

Therefore the concept of one God and one Absolute Reality is not different from any other theological doctrine held by any other religion in the world. Differences do arise with respect to the following specific details:

A. What name should be given to the Absolute Reality?

B. What is the relation between the gods that people worship and the Absolute reality?

A. What name should be given to the Absolute Reality?

In Tamil Literature, the names given to the Absolute Reality are many: YMlpf epaRqf, MtbfepaRqf, emyfpf epaRqf, ~ti, kar][f, ;Abv[f, pti, pirmmf, p>r]mf, pir]vmf etc. If, as is universally believed, the Absolute Reality does not have a form or shape, is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient and cannot be described by words, then all references to it can at best be only a human representation of the divine. When sages and seers describe it, they can do so only in a language they are familiar with. The nomenclature would not alter or affect the characteristics of the Supreme Being.

For example, Kamban borrowed Valmiki's Ramayanam and wrote one of the outstanding epics in Tamil literature. One of the major changes he made was the elevation of Rama into Supreme Being (wa[cmfpnft[f, 1993). Having been hurt badly by Rama's arrow, Ravana ultimately realized that Rama was no ordinary mortal; he was neither Sivan nor Vishnu, but was the Absolute Reality

(YMl kar][f ).

(civE[a `lfl[f na[fMk[f `lfl[f tiRmalamf                           

`vE[a `lfl[f emyf vrmf 'lflamf `Dki[fba[f    

tvE[a '[f[i[f ecyfT MFkfKmf tr[f `lfl[f

;vE[a ta[f `vf Evt Mtlf kar][f '[fba[f)--- ;ramavtarmf

(;rav][f vAtpf pdlmf)134.        

For the Vaishnavaites, Narayanan is the Absolute Reality (~ti YMlmf). When a crocodile attacked the elephant, Gajendran (kEjnftir[f), he cried for help from Narayanan. This mythological story is narrated as follows in Tiruppukazh:

(mDvilf mt kri Mtlf '[ utviy vrt[f)--- tiRpfp<kzf (pkirniA[).

(mDvilf ~A[ ta[f YMlEm '[ OF vR Mrari) --- tiRpfp<kzf (KRtiEtali)

A similar reference to Narayanan (naray][f, vixf}) as the Absolute Reality was ascribed to the child, Prahalada (pirklat[f), who was stubbornly insisting that Narayanan was the Absolute Reality and not his own father, Hiranyan (;r]iy[f). Hiranyan asked his son, whether he could demonstrate Nayanan in a pillar nearby. When the child replied in the affirmative, Hiranyan madly rushed to destroy the pillar. Narayanan appeared as a lion-man (nrcimfm[f) and destroyed Hiranyan. Arunagiri Nathar narrates this incident where Narayanan was referred to as the omnipresent Lord (`kilMmf vazfva[ nayk[f ).

(`RmAb N\ElaTmf Evtiy[f

 ;r]iy YRpa nEma '[

 `rikri naray]a '[ oR pal[f

 `v[f 'v[f ~tarmf "T '[

 ;t[f uqfqE[a OT '[

 `kilMmf vazfva[ nayk[f '[ "ki) --- tiRpfp<kzf (;RKAz).

In the Saivaite tradition, Sivan has been acclaimed to be the Absolute Reality. In Thevaram (Etvarmf) and Tiruvasakam (tiRvackmf) there are several passages that refer to Sivan as the Absolute Reality.

(YMlmf ~kiy YYMvrfkfKmf YMrftftiAy

kal[f ~kiy kalbfKmf kalA[) --- tiRnav<kfkrcrf EtvartftiRMAb 5-57-5.

 (YMvrf ~y Mtlfvrf MAbyaEl

 Etvrf 'lflamf v]gfKmf tiRpfp<[fPrf)--- cmfpnftrf EtvartftiRMAb 1-27-2.

(emyfEy u[f epa[f `Fkqf k]fD '[fB vID ubfEb[f

 uyfy '[f uqfqtfT Ogfkarmf ~yf ni[fb)--- tiRvackmf (civp<ra]mf) 32-33.

(M[f[aA[ YMvrfkfKmf MbfBmf ~yf MbfBkfKmf

pi[f[aA[pf piwfwkA[pf Ep}mf)--- tiRvackmf (tiRvmfmaA[) 19.

(`RvEma uRvaYRpmf ~[Eta `[fbini[fb

 uRvMmf YM[fBmf eca[f[ oRv{kfKqfqvaEm) --- civwa[ citftiyarf 38.

Recognizing the inadequacy of language per se to describe the Absolute Reality, the five-lettered word, (_nfetZtfT), Sivayanama (civaynm) was coined. As far as Arunagiri Nathar was concerned, Murukan and Sivan were inseparable and both are considered synonymous. The six lettered word, Saravanabava (crv]pv) is the phrase he used to describe Murukan as the Absolute Being.

Further reference to the Absolute Being as AUM (Omf) denotes the pinnacle of human effort to refer to the Absolute Being. In this case the sounds emanating from within the human body have been combined to represent what cannot be precisely defined.

(Oem{mf Ogfkartf TqfEq eyaRemazi

 Oem{mf Ogfkartf TqfEq y<RvR

 Oem{mf Ogfkartf TqfEq plEptmf

 Oem{mf Ogfkarmf o]fMtfti citftiEy) --- tiRmnftirmf 2627.

(Oem{mf OerZtf Tqfni[fb OAcEpalf)--- tiRmnftirmf 2781.

An example of Arunagiri Nathar's literary genius can be illustrated by the phraseology he used to describe how Murukan explained the meaning of AUM (Omf) to Sivan and how it can be expanded into the five-lettered nmcivay (_nfetZtfT).


 (Orf 'ZtftiEl ~B 'ZtfAt OTvitft epRmaEq) --- tiRpfp<kzf


The word AUM (Omf) is formed by when the three letters, `, u and m are combined in the script form (vinfT). When the same word, AUM (Omf)is pronounced, it comes out as sound with two single syllables (natmf). When the script form and the vocal form combine together to represent the Absolute Reality, it becomes the five-lettered, pwfcadfcrmf (_nfetZtfT).

The first line of the Tiruppukazh poem, (nat vinfT klati nEmanm) puts the above concept in a nut shell. In several stanzas the teaching of the concepts of Pranavam (pir]vmf)to Sivan by Murukan has been mentioned.

To Arunagiri Nathar, Murukan is an embodiment of the Sivan himself and hence he considered both Sivan and Murukan as the Absolute Reality. The following Tiruppukazh poem illustrates the genesis of the five-lettered word, pwfcadfcrmf (civaynm), its specific reference to the Absolute Reality (p>r]mf), how even the wicked SUran (Vr[f) got God's blessings once he got rid of his arrogance (~]vmlmf) and how one can discern the truth through wisdom (`biv<, wa[mf).

(nkrmf ;R patmf ~ki mkrmf vyibaki marfp<

 nD cikrmaki vaya vkrmaki

nti MF ycarmaki uty tiR Em[iyaki

 nmcivy maAmyaki 'Zta[

`kr ukr "trf Om ckr u]rfva[ Vr[f

 `bivilf `biva[ p>r]Mmf ~Kmf

`tA[ `FEy{mf Oti ;ty kml ~Alyaki

 mRv<mf `vta[ Eptmf `RqfvaEy) --- tiRpfp<kzf (nkrmiR).

The letter n, in nmcivay represents the two feet; the letter m, the stomach; the letter ci, the heart; the letter v, the mouth; the letter y, the head of Sivan. Together they constitute the pwfcadfcrmf. The letters `, u, and m constitute AUM (Omf), which represents Pranavam (pir]vmf). After SUran got rid of his arrogance (~]v mlmf) his ignorance disappeared and he was able to appreciate the meaning of AUM, the Absolute Reality. Arunagiri Nathar seeks Murukan's grace to bless him with similar wisdom.

B. What is the relation between the gods that people worship and the Absolute reality?

In addition to the difficulties in the nomenclature of the Absolute Reality, the second problem is the one that is confronted by ordinary people. This pertains to how one can interact with such an abstract concept and represents a region where mythology and religion overlap. It is probable that mythological stories were originally developed to provide concrete examples of the good, bad and improbable. At least the puranic gods (p<ra]kf kdv<qrf) and goddesses give a starting point for a prospective student to concentrate and meditate before he or she can develop insights about the unknown. The numerous Gods mentioned in the Indian context have served this purpose with the succinct understanding that, in spite of the names used and the puranic stories around them, there is a Supreme Being far above our level of comprehension.

According to Arunagiri Nathar the Supreme Being exists in three forms, uR, `R, uRvR. The question whether Murukan did have the form described by Arunagiri Nathar is not important. What is important is this concept helps one to surrender one's ego so that one can make further progress in the spiritual field.

(nat vinfT klati nEma nm) --- tiRpfp<kzf (natvinfT).

(uRvayf `Rvayf uqtayf ;ltayf

 mRvayf mlrayf m]iyayf oqiyayf

kRvayf uyirayf ktiyayf vitiyayf

KRvayf vRvayf `Rqfvayf KkE[) --- knftrf `{p>ti 51.

[Translation: Karthikeyan, 1972.

With form and formless, what is not and what is,

Flower and fragrance, gem and radiance,

Body and soul, Salvation and rules of righteousness,

O Lord Who comes as all and as Guru! O Guha! Bestow Thy Grace.]

(`biv< tiREm[i o[fB u]rfnfT u[f

`R] cr] `rvinftmf '[fB `AdEvE[a) --- tiRpfp<kzf (KAkyilf)

(etaAlv< ;la epaRqf ;Rqf p<kakf kzlf

Vda nada :EdbaEt CzlfEvE[a)--- tiRpfp<kzf (pRtiyayf).

(CRti evK Mk p<ra] EkaFkqf

 criAy kirAy mk Eyak Emakikqf

 Trit pr cmy Ept vatikqf '[fBmf OF

 etadr u]r `ritay T\riy

 epaRAq`}ki)--- tiRpfp<kzf (CRtievK).

(`v[f ;v[f uv[f ud[f `vqf ;vqf uvqf `T ;T uT '{mf ~B `bfB `R uR ozitR uR uAdyT pti tmiy{mf u]rfEvE[a tvenbi) --- tiRpfp<kzf (Etar]k[k).

(p>r] p<v[ kar]) --- tiRpfp<kzf (Etar]k[k).

(cbf c[k Kmar vfRtfti `bfp<t civayPkfK Orf

 cbfKR viEnat citfr myilf vIra) --- tiRpfp<kzf (nbfK]M).

("k[f `Enk[f ;Abv[f `F vazfk) --- tiRvackmf (civp<ra]mf)5.

It is also pertinent to discuss the God-Absolute Reality relationship from a social perspective. Arunagiri Nathar was unambiguous in considering Murukan as the Absolute Reality. Further he did not conceal his contempt at the claims of warring religious factions for gaining religious supremacy.

 (KtBmf MA[ `biv< ekaD ptbi 'tirf ktbi miK

 KMtmf ;D pr cmymf oR EkaF

 KRdrf etri `riyT oR epaRqf etriy nikzf m[T

 ekaFy ;R viA[ '{mf `qB Epak) --- tiRpfp<kzf (KtBMA[).


These factors do have relevance to the enormous problems confronted by religious reformers in modern India. Despite the high level discussions on the nature of Absolute Reality, the religious aspirations of millions of people belonging to the lower cadre of religious hierarchy have not been addressed. Literally there are several country gods and goddess that serve as family deities (Kletyfvmf) and do cater to the spiritual needs of rural people giving them faith and hope. In this case, the perceived difference between the gods they worship and the Absolute Reality disappears completely.

The Saiva and Vishnu canons have set the precedence that even those belonging to the lowest castes could be accepted in the list of Nayanmars (nay[fmarfkqf) and Alwars (~zfvarfkqf). In his Tiruppukazh, Arunagiri Nathar has referred to the marriage of Murukan and the lowly hunter girl, Valli (Kb mkqf vqfqi) in several poems to stress the equanimity of the Absolute Reality. The preoccupation of elites with the understanding of spiritual concepts has relegated the needs of these people to the periphery. It is indeed possible to make use of such mythological links to bring in the lower caste people into the main stream of religious groups. The gods or goddess, in whom they have profound faith, are the closest they will ever come in the pursuit of knowledge of the Supreme Being.

The duty of the elites is not to confound them with abstract thinking but to improve their understanding in ways they could comprehend. In the matter of religious awakening, the famous p<bna{\B lines of k]iy[f p>gfK[fb[f (epriEyaAr viytftLmf ;lEm, cibiEyaAr ;kzftlf `t[i{mf ;lEm) appear appropriate.

Despite the fact that people of Tamil origin worship God in many forms, the underlying principle that they all refer to the Supreme Being is clearly understood. This has been adequately substantiated in Tamil literature, especially in Tiruppukazh. At least the format and language used are such that ordinary people can understand and relate to. Based on Arunagiri Nathar's viewpoints on Absolute Reality (YMlpf epaRqf) discussed above, it appears that the theological differences among religions and between sects within the same religion may not be as great as to warrant the extent of animosity that prevails among the followers today. Perhaps the conclusion of Dr. Radhakrishnan (1994) that "the Absolute is the pre-cosmic nature of God, and God is the Absolute from the cosmic point of view" deserves introspection.

1 Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. Canada.

2 Scientist, Abgenix Biopharma Inc., Burnaby, B.C.


We wish to acknowledge with gratitude the kind donation of four volumes of Tiruppukazh by Dr. Va.Su. Chengalvarayan from Dr. and Mrs. Venkateswaran and Dr. G.V. Srinivasan. The meanings of poems and the commentaries in these books have greatly enhanced our understanding of the subject matter.


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kiRpa[nftvariyarf 1997. tiRpfp<kzf viriv<Ar. 1 -- 3 etaKti. va[ti ptipfpkmf, ec[fA[ 17.

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tiRpfp<kzf. 1986. va[ti ptipfpkmf. ec[fA[ 17.

tiRvackmf. 1982. Cvami citfpva[nftrf. ! ramkiRxf] tEpav[mf, tiRpfprayftfTAb.

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"Tamil Traditions on Subrahmanya­-Murugan: Introduction" by Kamil Zvelebil
Research articles from International Conferences on Skanda-Murukan