It is Jan,2020. Desikan’s family is celebrating a wedding, with a thanksgiving Thirumanjana for Lord Narasimha, at Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Chennai. At the prompting of his grandfather, his grandson Ramanujan breaks into Purusha Suktham chanting. Immediately, an Archaka, attached to the temple, asks the boy to ‘shut up’. “You cannot recite this Vadakalai (Northerners) Sampradaya slokas in this Thenkalai (Southerners) temple”. Desigan politely intervened that the small boy was only praying. Another elder Archaka butts in, “Go advise those in Thiruvalluvar Veeraraghava or Kanchi Varadar temples. They never allow Thenkalai Sampradaya recitations. Why should we yield and oblige”. Desigan was stunned into silence. He was shocked but not surprised that a young boy was being tutored all the wrong things, in a rich legacy left behind by Masters who were timeless giants. But he was speechless for he was helpless.
Cut to Feb,2020. Manavalan’s family in the sanctum sanctorum of Vaidya Veeraraghava Perumal, at Thiruvellore. The lead Archaka asked young Vedavalli to sing a Pasuram. She broke into Thirokolur Penpillai Rahasyam. Within seconds the Archaka interjected and said, “Kuzhandai, This is Thenkalai Sampradaya Pasuram. It does not belong here. Please sing a Vadakalai Sampradaya song, if you know. Otherwise, you can move on”, Stunning, yet not surprising again, to Manavalan’s family. The girl did not know why the Archaka who asked her to sing, stopped her. She was silenced from querying, by her panicking mother. Manavalan’s family let it pass like Desikan’s. All of us seem to be letting it pass and for too long.
Yet, it was quite hypocritically amusing for both families to see the Archaka teams happily partaking in the Sanmaanms offered, with respect and devotion. It made no difference to receive the ‘offerings’ from the Vadakalai Sampradaya at Triplicane or from the Thenkalai family at Thiruvellore. Commerce trumped all differences. Nothing strange, for it was nothing new. It was as old as the hills, as they say, though terribly upsetting and unnerving, when it is all meant to be in the service of the Lord. Which Lord and Masters’ were these entities serving or imbibing? Is this the rich tradition and legacy left behind by Ramanujars, Vedantha Desigars and Manavala Mamunis? If that is what the Masters would have wanted, is there not something and everything radically wrong with the construct put on their teachings. What are the Pontiffs of the respective sects doing? Do their writ not run to rein these men in? Or they are also into it, legitimising these divisive tendencies which has percolated and permeated so deep over nearly two centuries now, that they need to settle their disputes and scores before a court of law? Are their religious heads incapable of rising above to sort out the’ honest differences of opinion’ as history records these as?
Even to those of us, not theologians or scholars, it is extremely disappointing, dismaying, frustrating and anguishing that ‘honest differences in opinion’, counted at 18 (Ashta Dasa Bedas), have triggered the pygmies among these fanatics in the respective clans, to keep escalating it, to a mundane/material level to courts of law, for resolution, making a mockery of the highest philosophy of their Masters. What is the philosophical underpinning that is driving the ‘rivals’ yearning for the same Saranagathi (surrender) path? Nothing .
It has all boiled down to- as Sujatha @ Rangarajan, the felicitous and prolific Tamil author, put it in his inimitable, impish style, “If the Acharyas, the clans revere, were around, they would be pained, as to what has come of their ‘honest differences of opinion’. Even as the two clans are marrying into each others’ families, the ‘differences’ have now mutated and morphed into mere symbolism of ‘wearing the forehead mark’, ‘serving meals’ or ‘sashtanga namaskaram number’. So profound the differences have come to be!”
Despite no scholarship in theology, it makes easy perception and understanding to agree with a mischievous friend, “Dei, it is all so simple. Humans have descended to become animals. While Vadakalayars are Monkeys, the Thenkalayars are Cats.” It is no funny statement. There is, in reality, a profound philosophical construct in the attributions made. The destination in life beyond is one. The Lord’s feet. While the Thenkalayars espouse that it is for Lord to catch you by the neck – as a mother cat (Marjari in Sanskrit) would her newborn- Vadakalays believe that – like a monkey (Markati in Sanskrit), the devotee needs to cling to the mother’s bosom- to be carried to Lord’s abode.
What pray one sees a serious a difference of opinion, to become a law and order problem on Which Thiruman to display on the Temple Elephant or whether Sanskrit Prabandham should go first or the Tamil one take pride of place. The kind of ‘civil disputes’ these characters have taken to the courts of law, unto the Privy Council/Supreme Court (mind boggling, to say the least), do not seem to have come to a close yet.
It may be appropriate to capture the historicity of this dispute from a verdict of 9th Sept, 1976 vintage.R. Thathadesika Thathachariar … vs K.V. Alagia Manavala Jeerswamy (Madras High Court). “It would not be out of place to give a short history of this 150 years war of the namams. A short account of the temple, the worship of Vishnu in Southern India and of the rituals and ceremonies in Vaishnavite temples are found in the decision of the Privy Council in Pedda Jiyyangarlu Varlu v. Venkatacharlu (1947-1 Mad LJ 159): (AIR 1947 PC 53). The earliest scriptures, dating from 2500 years ago, are the Sanskrit Vedas of hymns, held gacred by all Hindus. Very much later, Prabandhams consisting of 4000 compositions in the Tamil language were compiled by Al-wars who were Vaishnava devotees in Southern India. Subsequently, the Acharyas or learned Brahmins acted as religious preceptors. Of these, the most famous was Ramanuja, who flourished between 1017 and 1137 A. D., Vedanta Desikar who flourished between 1268 and 1369 A. D., and Manavala Mahamuni who lived between 1370 and 1443 A. D. These Acharyas composed a number of Sanskrit verses in praise of the Deity called Sthothra Patams. The Prabandhams being earlier in origin became part of the ritual of the Vaishnavite temple services and later the Sthothra Patams were also recited on special occasions.
Differences arose among Vaishnavites by about the 14th century as to the form of worship. One section followed Vedanta Desikar and they specialised in the study and exposition of the Sanskrit Vedas and regarded the Alwars and the Prabandhams as entitled to less reverence. They became known as Vadagalais or followers of the Northern cult. The other section, the followers of Manavala Mahamuni, specialised in the study and exposition of the Tamil Prabandhams of the Alwars, and became known as Thengalais or the followers of the Southern cult. There are several Vaishnavite temples in which the Vadagalai cult prevails, while in others, the Thengalai cult prevails. While generally the services are the same in both classes of temples, there are certain features which distinguish Vadagalai and Thengalai rituals.” The High Court was not finished yet. A fascinating tale that needs re telling for sanity to dawn? (Continued)
(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan- Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)