Namasankeertanam at Pushpagiri

The Gitopadesam was over. The Kurukshetra war was over. The evil forces having been eliminated, the principles of Dharma have been restored. Krishna then called all devotees and said that the purpose for which he manifested on earth has been served and it was time for him to depart. Hearing these words, everyone present there became very upset. It was unimaginable to see Krishna, their friend philosopher and guide depart from their midst. Of all the people, it was Udhava who was most shaken. His eyes were moistened with tears. “Oh! Krishna, I cannot bear your separation. How can I remain without you”, he said. Consoling Udhava, Krishna said: “Please do not think that I am going away from you all. I will continue to be here. I will continue to be present wherever devotees sing my Nama Sangeertanam”.

Just as there are Musical Trinity like Saint Thyagaraja, Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Sri Shyama Sastrigal, there is trinity in Nama Sangeertanam too; Sri Bodendra Saraswati Swamigal, Sridhara Ayyaval and Sri Sadguru Swamigal. It was Bhagavan Nama Bhodendra Saraswati Swamigal, the 58th Acharya of Kanchi Math who pioneered the Nama Sangeertanam movement in the South. He was named as Purushothaman. How he happened to become the head of Kanchi Mutt is an interesting story. His father, Kesava used to visit Kanchi Math daily. One day he took his young son to the Mutt and introduced Purushothaman to Kanchi Acharya, Sri Athmabodendra Saraswati Swamigal. Then, Acharya asked Kesava: “What are you going to contribute for the Math”. “Whatever that you command, I am here to obey”, said Kesava. “Well, then give your son to the Math”, said Acharya. Kesava who was very devoted to his Guru readily obeyed and left his son, Purushothaman to the care of Kanchi Math and returned home. Purushotham received formal initiation to sainthood, ascended the Peetam in 1638 as Sri Bhodendra Saraswati Swamigal. It was Sri Bhodendra Swamigal, the 58th Acharya of Kanchi Mutt who pioneered the Namasankeertanam movement in South. Even while performing duties as the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, he highlighted the importance of Namasankeertanam.

While Sri Bhodendra Saraswati Swamigal sowed the seeds of Namasankeertanam tradition, Sridhara Venkatesa Dikshitar (1635–1720) nourished it and Sri Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal (1777-1817) helped it to grow further. Ayyaval, as he Dikshitar was known, was a great devotee of Lord Siva. Even when frogs created the sound ‘kar’ ‘kar’ during the rains, it appeared to him that the frogs were reciting the name of ‘Hara’ Hara’. He adopted ‘Unjavriti’, the practice of going to neighbouring houses by singing the songs in praise of God and seeking alms. His wife and mother also adopted the same approach to life and followed him wherever he went on pilgrimage.

He was contemporary to Sri Bodendra Swamigal. While Swamigal was returning after worshipping Lord Mahalinga at Thiruvidaimaruthur, he found Ayyaval just before him in all humility, humbleness and reverence. Setting aside the formalities of Acharya, Sri Bhodendra Swamigal embraced Ayyaval. Having seen many songs composed by Ayyaval on Lord Siva, Sri Bhodendra Swamigal asked whether Ayyaval was not interested in composing works on Rama. Ayyaval replied: “The very Lord Shiva on whom I compose my works is always reciting the glory of Lord Rama. When Lord Siva Himself is reciting the name of Rama at all times, you know the importance of the name of Rama.” Thereafter, they went to many temples together. Having satisfied that he has accomplished his mission of spreading the message of Nama Sangeertan, he longed for union with God. One day, he entered into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, pushed aside the priest who tried to stop him and embraced the Murti. Soon, the devotee got merged into the Lord. What appeared as two has become one (Advaita). Ayyaval made significant contribution in establishing the tradition of Dakshina Nama Sangeerthana Sampradaya in South. Several songs composed by him are rendered during the Nama Sangeerthanam session.

Sri Venkataraman, who later came to be known as Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal was born in Thiruvisanallur in Tanjore district. He led a simple happy life, dedicating himself to the cause of Namasankeertan. He always stressed the need to cultivate the quality of desire-lessness and contentment. The tradition of Unjavriti appealed to him very much. ‘Unjavriti’ is a practice where a group of devotees go round the neighbouring areas by singing songs and seeking alms. Though self-sufficient, they go out and beg, without any pride or prejudice. The practice makes them humble and contended. ‘Unjavriti’ signifies that one should do his duty, reduce his wants and adopt Vairagya or detachment. Sadguru Swamigal believed that even Lord Rama emphasized the importance of Unjavriti. When Lord Rama was taking leave of Kausalya before proceeding to forest, Kausalya asked: “Oh! Rama, when you are used to the comfort and luxury of palace-life, how can you lead a life in forest where even bare minimum needs not unavailable?” Rama replied: “He, who is contended and he who surrenders, would lead a life of fulfilment and happiness”. When devotees go out and beg for food from others, they become humble. By following the practice of Unjavriti, Sri Sadguru Swamigal lived a life of detachment, in line with Bhagavata Dharma. Unjavriti is the practice where a group of devotees go round the neighbouring areas by singing the songs in praise of God and seeking money or rice for a common cause. Though self-sufficient, they go out and beg, without any pride or prejudice. The practice makes them humble and contended.

During his pilgrimage, Sri Sadguru Swamigal collected songs composed by various saints like Sri Thukkaraam, Sri Naamdev etc. in Maharashtra; Sri Purandaradas in Karnataka; Smt. Meerabai in Rajasthan; Sri Kabirdas, Sri Thulsias in Uttar Pradesh; Sri Jayadevar in Orissa, Sri Chaithanya Maha Prabhu in West Bengal; Sri Annamaacharyar, Sri Narayana Theerthar in Andhra and Sri Bodhendraal, Sri Sridhara Ayyavaal, Sri Sadhasiva Brahmendral, Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Gopalakrishna Bharathi etc. in Tamil Nadu. He collected all language songs, codified them and made it into a formalised system known as Dakshina Sampradaya Bhajan Paddhati (principles governing the conduct of Namasankeertan). This Paddhati is divided into three major categories: (1) Thodaya Mangalam followed by Guru and Dasar Keerthans, (2) Divya Nama Sangeertanam, Gopika Geetham and (3) Dolothsavam, each part containing slokas, songs and Namavalis. It is concluded with Mangala Arati. Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal has shown us the simple path of Nama Sangeertanam to reach the Lotus Feet of Rama. This system is accepted as the established and traditional method of Namasankeertanam. Great stalwarts like Sri Jnanananda Swamigal, Sri Pudukottai Gopalakrishna Bhagavatar, Brahmasri Sanjeevi Bhagavatar and their followers like Swami Harida Giri carried the tradition of Namasankeertanam forward with great dedication and devotion. The tradition of Namasankeertanam got firmly established with the advent of Bhagavathars like Sri Krishna Premi, Udayalur Dr. K. Kalyanarama Bhagavatar, Erode Rajamani Bhagavatar, Sri O.S. Sundar Bhagavatar and others. Many young Bhagavathars like Sri Sattanatha Bhagavathar and Sri Senkottai Hari also dedicated their life to spread the glory of Namasankeertanam. Since the devotees in general showed eagerness to listen to all the Bhagavathar one after another, the Bhajanotsavam pattern came into practice.

Now, when I am turning towards 77, I look back in nostalgia, the way I travelled all these years. If, after passing through a long road, I now stand with a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction, it is only because I have been able to acquire a great wealth called Nama Sangeertanam from Pushpagiri. It is the wealth about which Meera has sung: “I have got a treasure of diamond called Rama” (Payo Ji Maine Ram Ratan Dhan Payo). This also reminds me of the famous Telugu song “Sri Rama Neenamam emi ruchiraa” (Oh! Rama how sweet is your name!). It is Namasankeertan, the songs of Sri Rama, Sri Krishna and Muruga that gives me peace and happiness at this age and it is from Pushpagiri that I inherited such a great wealth.

Pushpagiri is the abode of Lord Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy. On Ramanavami day, Pushpagiri looks heaven on earth when Lord Rama, flanked by Sita, comes out in golden chariot and graces the devotees. The Ramanavami celebration at Pushpagiri is unique because it blends Tamil culture of chariot procession with Malayalam culture of elephants and Panchavadyam. All the residents of Pushpagiri are the blessed devotees of Lord Rama. It is very difficult to find here someone without the word ‘Raman’ attached to his name. There are many Venkataramans, Sitaramans, Kodanda Ramans, Pattabhi Ramans and Kalyanaramans here. Great classical singers assemble here during the spring festival ‘Vasanthotsavam’ and give us a sumptuous feast of Karnatic songs. Pushpagiri was blessed with everything but still there was need for a Vidwan to guide the devotees here to the traditional Paddhati pattern. That was in early 50s. It was then Sri Venkataraman (affectionately known as Venkuttu Mama) arrived on the scene. Originally hailing from Tanjore, the Kaveri belt, he came here to take up employment in Sitaram Mill. But Lord Sita Ramachandra gave him another assignment; the divine task of highlighting the glory of Namasankeertanam in Paddhati pattern. As already said, a Namasankeertanam Trinity was formed with Sri Bhodendra Swamigal, Sri Sridhara Ayyaval and Marudanallur Sadguru Swamigal in Tamil Nadu with Kaveri region as the centre and similarly, a Namasankeertanam Trinity also got established with Sri Venkuttu Mama, Sri Kunjalam Mama and Sri Gopala Bhagavatar in the central part of Kerala with Pushpagiri as the centre. The Divya Nama Bhajan which they conducted regularly at Thrissur and other locations became a major event in those days. I had the great privilege of attending those bhajans regularly in the 50s. It was Venkuttu Mama who kindled the light of Namasankeertanam in my heart, the light that is still shining brilliantly after many years; the light that prompted this article. Many luminaries joined the Nama Sangeertanam tradition then and special mention should be made to the dedication shown by Sri P. Ramaswami (father of Sri N.R. Parameswaran, Jt. Secretary, Kerala Brahmana Sabha), Sri Veembil Rajagopala Iyer, Dr Venkitta, Pushpagiri Hariharan etc. The Markazhi month bhajan was regularly conducted those days. Headed by Sri Anandan of Sri Balakrishna Sastrigal family, supported by youngsters like this writer, the team followed a fixed pattern. With shawls tied round their head, they started the early morning possession from Sri Siva temple in Punkunnam. After reciting the invocation song on Ganesa (Thandava Nitya Gowri, Gajanana), they slowly walked ahead, passed through Pushpagiri Agraharam and culminated at Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple. On the concluding day, there used to be a grand Unjavriti procession, followed by Namasankeertanam in the traditional pattern, devised by Sri Sadguru Swamigal.

The practice of rendering Namasankeertanam in the traditional pattern devised by Sri Sadguru Swamigal and also the practice of early morning Margazhi Bhajan procession could not be continued at Pushpagiri with as much participation and precision as before. However, the seeds planted by the Bhagavathars before were lying in latent form looking for an opportunity to bloom.

By residing in Coimbatore, I used to attend Namasangeertanam wherever it is held. My joy knew no bounds when Pushpagiri also adopted the Bhajanotsavam pattern and great Bhagavatars from east started arriving at Thrissur. I felt as if the river Kaveri has changed direction towards west to immerse the residents of Thrissur in the nectar of Namasankeertan. With the initiatives taken by devotees like Sri T.S. Venkataraman and supported by Kerala Brahmana Sabha, the Namasankeertanam tradition which was built earlier got revived. Noted personalities like Sri T.S. Pattabhi Raman and Sri T.S. Kalyana Raman gave their whole-hearted support to the venture. Now, when Onam Utsavam subsides, the residents of Pushpagiri look for another great Utsavam, the Bhajanotsam, which transcends them to a new world of devotion and bliss. Pushpagiri can take pride that almost all Bhagavathars came here and continue to come here to conduct Namasankeertanam. After visiting the temple of Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy, Sri Erode Rajamani told this writer: “I find a divine vibration here. The prosperity and affluence Pushpagiri witnesses are due to the devotion of the people here and the grace of Lord Sri Ramachandra.”

Apart from Bhajanmotsavam, Saastha Preeti is another grand occasion when the divine Bhajan songs are heard at the temple of Sri Sita Ramaswami. It is heartening to note that Sri Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar of Sri Hari Bhajan Sangham is carrying the tradition of Namasankeertanam with able support from Sri Sankararaman, Sri Harihara Subramanian and Ganapathi Hariharan. Sri Manjapra Mohan, supported by Thrissur Sri Harihara Subramanian on Mridamgam, keeps the audience thrilled by his soulful rendering. Incidentally, I belong to Thiruppugazh Bhajan Group at Coimbatore and this group was invited to perform Thiruppugazh bhajan at Sri Sita Ramachandra Swami Temple. It was a different experience for me to come to my own place, as part of an outside group

Though we have grown higher and higher in terms of material progress, it seems we have not made much headway in the field of spiritual progress. The qualities of humbleness, compassion, toleration and the spirit of service which were witnessed earlier are disappearing now. A saint, who was doing the discourse, quoted Srimad Bhagavam): “When Kaliyuga comes, there will be no peace and harmony in house. Institutions aimed at service would turn out to be institutions aimed at business. Wicked people would dominate noble people. Earlier, a Brahmin was identified as one who followed the principles of Sanatana Dharma and adhered to his Nitya Karmanushtana but today, the sacred thread which hangs around his shoulder, neglected, remains as his only identification mark. There will be draught, heavy rain and flood. People would fight for water. In short, all moral, cultural and religious values would take a back-seat. “On hearing these horrifying predictions, a devotee stood up and asked the saint: “Swamiji, you speak of all negative factors. Don’t you have anything good to say about Kaliyuga?” Swamiji smiled and said: “Yes, my dear, there is one good thing to say about Kali Yuga. It is only in Kali Yuga, a devotee can attain perfection and qualify himself to reach God by the simple means of Namasankeertan. While in other ages like Treta Yuga and Dwapara Yuga, one has to follow the strenuous path of meditation, penance and sacrifice, in Kaliyuga, merely by participating in Nama Sangeertanam, a devotee would be liberated from the ocean of Samsara. (Srimad Bhagavatam (12.2.2)”.