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A Fine Balance Between Tradition & Modernity: Life & Times of Sri Ramanuja Navalar (1831-1892)

Abstract

The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century can rightly be regarded as a period of significant events in the field of Tamil Literature, culture, politics and religion. The emergence of prominent personalities in each field made these changes possible. One among those personalities to be notified is Pudhuvai. Vilakshanakavi. A. V. Ramanuja Navalar Swamy. The current research paper brings a clear introduction to Swamy A. V. Ramanuja Navalar.

This paper is intended to explore the contemporary religious age of Sri Ramanuja Navalar and the biographical significance of his age. It also discusses the importance of his books like, “Paadmothara Purnam”, “Thirumuttathu Puranam”, “Thiruchithirakkooda Puranam”, “Sudharisana Giri Puranam” and the dimensions of the books like “Bala Samvadha Vina Vidai”, “Vairakkiya Sooryodayam” which is on religious propaganda and also glorifies the features of a book that is based on the life of women in Sri Vaishnavism entitled “Vainava Mangaiyar Vazhkaippadu” written in folklore. This article also seeks to compile the details of the disciples of Sri Ramanuja Navalar and especially about the blooming of holy idol worship done on Sri Ramanuja Navalar.

Introduction

In the history of Tamil Nadu, the 19th century is considered to be an important period in various disciplines like politics, sociology and religion. Famous personalities like K. Visagaperumalaiyar – a great Tamil Scholar, Ramalinga Adigalar, Mahavidwan Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Arumuga Navalar belong to this period. Another important Vaishnavate personality worth considering in their ranks is Puduvai Vilakshanakavi. A. V. Ramanuja Navalar. This article is drawn to exemplify the life and works of Ramanuja Navalar.

Historical Background

It is with the historical background of a study, the real conditions, complete explanations and detailed contexts emerge. We should analyse history in both positive and negative ways. Only by knowing the historical context one can absorb what has gone before and can refine what is to happen. Historian Francis Bacon rightly says “History is a discipline which makes men wise” (Natarasan, 2008, p. 13). According to his statement, the importance of his works can be explained only if we get a clear picture of Ramanuja Navalar’s period.

Europeans such as Portuguese, Dutch and British were engaged in religious propagation work in Tamil Nadu from the beginning of 16th century. The first printing press was established in Goa in 1517 AD, and in 1577 the very first Tamil book ‘Thambiran Vanakkam’ appeared for printing. Christian personalities like Robert-de-Nobili (1605-1656), Veeramamunivar (1680-1747) and Ziegenbalg (1663-1717) pioneered early Christian religious work in Tamil Nadu. Due to their work conversion was made in many indigenous Hindu Tamil families. As a result, Vedanayaga Shastri (1774-1864), Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai (1826-1889) and H. A. Krishna Pillai (1827-1900) who had Saiva or Vaishnava tradition with a Tamil background, began to publish Christian religious perspectives in Tamil poetry and prose form. It includes many texts that condemned Hindu religion. Apart from these, Christian educational institutes were established all over the country functioning as training institutes imparting Christian religious education along with school and college education.

Saiva and Vaishnava nobles began to react against these conversion activities. A number of books were composed during this period that provided responses to the Christian texts, with the task of creating knowledge and clarity on Hinduism. For instance, Coimbatore Vidhwan Kandaswamy Mudaliyar published a book called ‘Thiruporur Killai Vidu Thoodhu’ for the Saivites. Reacting to it, with the financial assistance of the Christian community of Coimbatore, Veeraswami Pillai, one of the above Catholic school teachers, also called as C. Saminatha Pillai wrote a rebuttal book called ‘Thirukoi Pillai Vidu Thoodhu’. Denying this Christian book, one of the Coimbatore Saiva Samajs, Venkataramana Dasar published a book entitled ‘Refutation of Tirukkoi Pillai Vidu Thoodhu @ Sisudhowdhiya Dhirana Chanda Marudham’. These books appeared during the period 1885 -1886.

Thus the foremost person involved in the preservation of Saivism was Arumuga Navalar. Like Arumuga Navalar, one of the most important representatives of Vaishnava religion is Puduvai Vilakshankavi. A. V. Ramanuja navalar. It is worth noting that Ramanuja Navalar has been at the forefront of propagating and strengthening his ideas rather than opposing others’.

Ramanuja Navalar’s Education

Navalar was born in 1831 in a village called ‘Eppakkam’ near Dindivanam. His parents are Venkatarama Naidu – Alarmelmangai Ammal. He learned Tamil Grammar, Literature and Sanskrit texts from great scholars at a very young age and also taught Tamil, which is clearly depicted by the name ‘A. V. Ramanuja Ubaththiyayar’. So when the Tamil encyclopedia talks about him, it says “a good teacher who imparted what he has learned to others” (Encyclopedia, 1956, p, 111) through this we can spot his teaching work. As a result of authentic learning and expertise in teaching, he had the ability of composing poetry at a very young age. In 1863, in his first book “Purushartha Nirnayam” @ “Balasamvadha Vina Vidai” he wrote many poems.

He has also taught Tamil to Saivates. Famous personality of Pondicherry named M. A. Venkada Krishna Pillai, learned ‘Astaprapandam’ from him. Sayings such as, “Learner of Astaprapandam is a Semi-Scholar”, “Astaprapandam Katravan Arai Pandidhan”, “Astaprapandam Kastaprapandam’ shows the difficulty in learning the subject. His knowledge was proficient enough to teach such difficult work.

Ramanuja Navalar who excelled in worldly education also learned and expanded his religious knowledge. He has received the initiation of Sri Vaishnavism named ‘Pancha Samskaram’ from Thirukovalur Emperumanar Jeeyar Atheena Matathipathi. He also learned Sri Vaishnav religious texts and their specific features, meanings and also sacred Grantas from Sri Vanamamalai Paramahamsa Pattarpiran Jeeyar Swami. This knowledge laid a foundation for his later writings. Also, his musical compositions show that he was well trained in music too.

Citrilakkiyam

Prapandhas or Sillarai Prabandas known as ‘Citrilakkiyangal’ (Short narrative poems sung on The Gods and The Kings) began to flourish in the 12th century and reached its zenith in the 14th century, but seemed to be reduced in usage with the advent of modern poetry in the 20th century. During his period Navalar also composed various ‘Citrilakkiyangal’. He has written ‘Desikan Thirupathikam’, ‘Manavala Mamuni Thirupathikam’, ‘Sri Ethiraja Sadhagam’, ‘Perundevithayar Thirupathikam’, ‘Sri Varadaraja Perumal Malaai’, ‘Sri Varadaraja Perumal Pathiruppatthanthadi’, ‘Potri Thirupathikam’.

Keerthanais:

The Sanskrit word ‘Keerthi’ means fame. The word ‘Keertanai’ arose from this word. Singing in praise of God is called Keertanai. These hymns are meant to “praise and please the Lord with the rhythm of music, to express the innermost feelings of the heart to the Lord, and to describe the great deeds done by the Lord, with devotion” (Michael, 2018).

Although the musical tradition in Tamil Nadu has a long history, the form of Keerthanais with Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam form appeared in Telugu and came to Tamil around 15th century. Famous Tamil Keertanais are ‘Rama Nadaga Keerthanai’ by Seerkazhi Arunachala Kavirayar who lived in the 18th century and ‘Nandanar Charitra Keerthanai’ by Gopala Krishna Bharathiyar who lived in the 19th century. Ramanuja Navalar deserves to be included in the ranks of famous Tamil Keerthanai composers like Muthu Thandavar, Ganam Krishnaiyar, Chanbhagamannar and Muthuvelavar.

The act of singing five Keerthanais by selecting five ragas like five gems is known as ‘Pancha Rathinam’. Pancha Rathina Keerthanais of Thyagaraja, one of the greatest Carnatic music triads, are very famous in the world of music. Inspired by this, Navalar has composed musicals called ‘Azhwar Pancha Rathnam’. Apart from these, Traditional Vaishnava Keertanais composed by him have been published under the name ‘Bhagavannama Sankeerthanam’. The former professor of Annamalai University and the editor of Alaya Darisanam religious magazine, Mr. Gokulachari says that these songs are sung in the name of ‘Navalar Swamy Keerthanais’ in weekly Saturday bhajans and monthly Ekadasi (the eleventh day from the full moon day and no moon day of a month) by Vaishnav Devotees from various communities of Buvanagiri, Keerapalayam, Cuddalore and Pondicherry.

Keerthanais are based on classical music. They are not easy to sing for ordinary people except those who have trained in Carnatic music. But folk songs are not like that. It is easily accessible to the majority of people. In such a way, Ramanuja Navalar has written a book called ‘Sri Vaishnava Mangaiyar Vazhkaippadu’ in folklore which is easily accessible to ordinary people. This book is written as an appealing daughter to her mother, who does not know the glory of Vaishnavism and in response to that, the glory of Vaishnava religion is explained by the mother. The daily life of the Vaishnavites, the chastity of not worshiping other deities, the glory of the ritual called Pancha Samskaram, have been propagated through this book in the form of simple songs.

Thalapuranas

Thalapuranas cannot be considered as a book that only talks about the mythological history of a temple. It has its own place in Tamil literature. V. Subramaniam reports “Our temples are places where the arts are nurtured by people. Thalapuranas are a type of literature that is based on temples and have given science, technology, and artistic purpose to religious life” (S. V. Subramaniam, 1995).

V. R. Madhavan describes the special features of these Talapuranas as follows: “Talapurana praises the Lord of the temple. These types of mythological books are named based on the name of the place and mentions the glory of the place, the glory of the Moorti, the pride of the Theertha and tells the history of the people who gained fame by worshiping the Lord of the place. The main purpose of these books is to highlight the good morals that the people should be disciplined and to explain the evil actions that should be avoided. These books make people of every town feel proud of their native and country and lead them to live with self-confidence” (Dr. V. R. Madhavan, 1995, p, 27).

Various Thalapuranas appeared in Tamil from the 16th century to the 19th century. Koyil Puranam, written by Umapati Shivam, was the very first Thalapurana book to appear in Tamil. Most of these were composed in Sanskrit and are translated into Tamil. Instead of translating the entire Sanskrit texts, these Thalapurana authors recreated them into traditional Tamil poetry form.

Ramanuja Navalar has composed three Thalapuranas. ‘Thirumutathu Puranam’, which tells the history of the Srimushnam temple, ‘Sri Sudarisanagiri Puranam’, which argues the famous Saivate shrine Thiruvannamalai as a Vaishnava temple and ‘Tiruchithirakoodathu Puranam’, talks about Thiruchithirakoodam which is one among the 108 Divyadesas within the Chidambaram temple complex. These are the Thlapuranic texts composed by him. Apart from these three Thalapuranas, he also translated ‘Sri Padmottara Puranam’ from Sanskrit into Tamil.

Vidwan K. Vengadasamy Reddiyar said that the Padmottara Purana was staged in 1870 at Kanchi Vaikuntanatha Perumal temple (K. Vengadaswamy Reddiyar, 1958, p, 8). ‘Thirumutathu Puranam’ and ‘Tiruchithirakoodathu Puranam’ are staged at Valayamadavi, Vedanaranaya Perumal temple in the year 1884. Sudharisanagiri Purana was staged in Thirukkovalur temple in 1885” (Encyclopedia, 1956, p, 111). Chitrakudapuranam consists of 61 parts and 2030 verses. The Sudarisagiri Purana consists of 32 parts and 1068 verses. Padmottara Purana consists of 4123 verses.

Prose Texts

As it is not possible to use certain Tamil letters with specific symbols (like கா,கி,கீ,கே,கூ,கெ,கே,கை,கோ,கோ,கௌ) in the palm leaf manuscripts, only the formula and verse forms exist in Tamil Nadu since ancient times. And there were also some commentary texts among these ancient texts. Though these commentary texts were in prose form their major role is only to explain the verse texts, so these commentaries can’t be considered as typical prose texts. The advent of the printing press changed this situation. Approximately from the 16th century, prose form came to existence in Tamil literature. Ka. Na. Su. particularly says that, “the experimental period to use prose style in various forms occurred in the 19th Century”.(Subramanyam, 2018)

The use of this text was considered a very important propaganda tool in the religious field. “Only after the arrival of the printing press, the religious truths were published in the form of books and magazines and before that the messages were shared orally” (A. M. Paramasivanandham, 1978, p, 132). Thus Navalar also published the truths of Vaishnavism in the form of prose texts. Some of his prose texts are ‘Sri Vaishnava Tattuvam’, ‘Vairakiya Suryodayam’, ‘Sri Choorna Villakam’, ‘Aridhooshana Kapolacha Bedigai’, ‘Chachampradaya Darala Maligai’. Among these books, ‘Vairakiya Suryodayam’ is considered as the best one. (K. Vengadaswamy Reddiyar, 1958, p, 17). This book is the essence of many Vaishnava religious books written by the ancestors.

Another type of prose text that expounds religious truths is in a question-and-answer format. Thus, ‘Balasamvada Vina Vidai’ composed by Navalar is a work worth mentioning. This work can rightly be compared with Arumuga Navalar’s ‘Saiva Vina Vidai’, a Saivite scholar of the period in which Ramanuja Navalar lived. The book has also been translated into Telugu.

Vaishnava Services

After the arrival of the printing press, the entire scenario changed. Most of the palm leaf manuscripts and the traditional contents stored in the memory were converted into paper form. In that way, Nalayira Divya Prabandham, which was taught and learned orally from time to time and was preserved only by a few, was printed in the 19th century. It happened only by the efforts of people who felt the need of changing times. Thus Mudichur Appavu Mudaliar’s edition, which is considered to be one of the pioneer editions of Divya Prabandham, published in 1865. Ramanuja Navalar was of the opinion that learning Nalayara Divya Prabandham should be spread according to the times and has greatly supported the publication of this edition.

In the 19th century, Christian missionaries worked in spreading Christianity. The so-called Hindu reform movements like Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj emerged to counter it. But these samajs were also unknowingly influenced by Christian principles. For instance, idol worship, which is one of the fundamentals of Hindu religion, was not accepted by these reformers. Thus this creates a situation in which the traditional Vedic followers had to give appropriate objections to these. When many temple festivals were interrupted due to the propaganda of these so-called reform movements, Navalar went there and gave many discourses and made the people’s minds re-engage with Vedic norms and organized the festivals that were interrupted.”

Navalar filed a case in Chennai Presidency Magistrate Court against the book ‘Pancharatra Matha Bedigai or Saiva Choolamani’ written by a great Saivite scholar named Somasundara Nayakar, which insulted Vaishnava deities, Azhvars and Navalar for propagating Sri Vaishnavism. At the end, Navalar won the case and Somasundara Nayakar paid a fine of one hundred rupees as per the court order and apologized. This event took place in 1890.

Supporters of Ramanuja Navalar

Ponnarangam Pillai, who lived in Puduvai supported and sponsored Ramanuja Navalar. To show his gratitude, he has sung about Ponnarangam Pillai in the verses of the book ‘Sri Pathmothara Puranam’, which was brought out by his support. Similarly, at the request of Kurinjik Kollai Murugapillai, ‘Thirumuttathup Puranam’ was staged in Valayamadevi with his support. Ramanuja Navalar also mentions this in ‘Thirumuttathup Puranam’.

Admirers of Ramanuja Navalar

Contemporaries of Ramanuja Navalar and well versed scholars in both Vaishnavism and Tamil such as Komalapuram Rajagopala Pillai, Thirisapuram Govinda Pillai, Pallikondan Pillai and notable Saivate and Tamil Scholars like Visagap Perumallaiyar, Astavadhanam Sababadhi Mudaliyar also praised Navalar and wrote about the special features of his writings.

Disciples of Ramanuja Navalar

Author of various Vaishnavism books, such as Sri Vaishnava Questionnaire and a scholar who traveled all over Tamil Nadu for delivering Vaishnav discourses named Bhuvanagiri. Azhagiya Manavala Yaegangi Swamigal is the chief disciple of Ramanuja Navalar. He is the great father of Panditha Vidwan B. R. Purusothama Naidu who translated the Manipravala text ‘Eedu’ into Tamil.

Like him many disciples were enlightened with Sri Vaishnavism by Ramanuja Navalar.

Idol worship and Navalar Sabai

Ramanuja Navalar, who performed various Vaishnava work, attained salvation in 1892. After his time, his disciples installed his holy idol in the places such as Coyampalli, Kolar Gold field and in his birthplace Ekambakkam.

In 1925, a Vaishnavate centre for discussion was formed in the name of Ramanuja Navalar at Panruti. On behalf of the centre, they conduct Vaishnava conferences every year and are publishing books in promoting Vaishnavism.

Conclusion

Ramanuja Navalar, who appeared in the nineteenth century, has carried out various works related to the Vaishnava religion. Even after his time, some of his books were printed and published. But those books are not available nowadays.

The history of Sri Ramanuja Navalar needs to be written in detail. His books should be digitalized and preserved. His books which were written in the nineteenth century Tamil style should be simplified and modernized according to the modern Tamil and also should be translated in various languages. These are the ways to make virtues to make Ramanuja Navalar alive.

In Ramanuja Navalar we see a rare blend of modernity and orthodoxy. He made use of all the modern tools such as the printing press and even modern genres such as catechisms to uphold his orthodox religious views. Such men played a cardinal role in reviving the Ramanuja Vaishnava tradition in Tamilnadu.

References

Michael, D. (2018). Bakthi in Christian Keerthanai. Chanlaks. International Journal of Research.

Encyclopedia. (1956). Tamil Developmental Organisation (p. 111).

Madhavan, V. R. (1995). Introduction. S. V. Subramanyan. Pavai Publications (p. 27).

Natarajan, A. K. (2008). Arumuga Navalar. World Tamil Research Centre (p. 13).

Paramasivanandham, A. M. (1978). Tamil Prose Development of the 19th Century. Tamil Kalai Publications (p. 132).

Reddiar, Venkataswamy. (1958). A brief history of Puduvai. Vilakshanakavi. A. V. Ramanuja Navalar (pp. 8,13,14,17).

Subramanyam, Ka. Na. (2018). Tamizhil Vasana Nadai.

https://www.azhisi.in/2018/11/blog-post_8.html?m=1

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