Monday, January 18, 2010

Avudai Akka - The 18th Century woman Vedatin Saint

Call it a spirit of rebellion or a desperation for Self-realisation, but for a young fourteen year old, born to a conservative Tamil family, in the 18th Century and married and widowed even before her first menstrual onset, Avudai Akka of Chengottai, proved much ahead of her times, when she broke the lakshman rekha of the boundary wall placed by her family and the society she lived in, and rushed to the feet of her Master, the famous scholar of those times, Tiruvisainallur Shridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal, who belonged to the tradition of namasankirtan. The scholar was on his way to Travancore to offer puja on shivratri, when passing by the village he encountered Avudai Akka, weeping for her liberation at his feet. 

To the disgust and shock of the people at the agraharam, Akka, left the safety of her home to follow her Master to a secluded mandapam near the river, to be initiated in the path of a Vedantin. In the words of the writer – “As he passed Akka’s house, where the threshold was neither swept clean nor decorated with the customary kolam because of the inauspicious presence of the child-widow, his legs became transfixed. He stood there singing the name of God. Akka flew out of the house like an arrow leaving the bow of a deft archer, fell weeping at his feet and begging him to save her from her fate as a widow”.

Needless to say, this sight and the later disappearance to the mandapam closed the gates of the agraharam forever to Akka. But to her good luck, she had a Guru who saw through her and did not only lift her from her state of a miserable life of a widow, in a traditional Tamil family, but gave her the Upanishadic mahavakya which released her soul from the terrestrial bondage of life and death and the horrors of a social order bent on annihilating the very spirit of a woman, with its regressive rules and regulations cast upon women, more so a widow.

Avudai Akkal of Chengottai, was a realized woman Vedantin in the 18th century, whose life is known only through her songs and the Tamil works of Swami Nityanand Giri, who translated some of her songs, as well as the prolific Tamil writer, Gomathi Rajankam. The present English article published in Mountain Path, by Dr Kanchana Natarajan, is part of the oncoming book on the songs of Akka, translated from Tamil to English for the first time.

Avudai Akkal spent her life as a gyani by the side of the Kaveri singing songs of the Divine using language that was common, colloquial language. Her deft reference to daily activities and connecting them to give a deeper understanding of Vedantic notions and realities made her a household name. Even today, in many parts of Tamil Nadu, women sing her songs even as they go about their daily chores of cooking, bathing etc, not to mention, the popularity it enjoys in the “menstruating room” wherever, there is one, where women lock themselves up for all four days of their monthly menstrual circle. The songs although created in the 18th century ridicule men and expose their hypocrisy. Hence, even in the songs of a gyani the pathetic double-faced reality of the male society around is exposed. Savour this:

“Oh men! You lament ecchil-ecchil* But there is no place without ecchil, Paraparame
The forms of Gods are ecchil,
The honey is the ecchil of the bee
And is not all nourishing mother’s milk also ecchil

The ecchil of the fish is in the holy waters
the holy Brahmins who dive into rivers are ecchil
Are not pecked fruits the ecchil of parrots, Paraparame
The ecchil of the insect bores and blights the coconut
The excreta of little cats is everywhere, and I know
That space too is covered by ecchil, Paraparame.
The nadam is ecchil, the bindu is ecchil
the four Vedas of the Brahmins are ecchil
Is not the tongue that chants the Vedas ecchil, Paraparame?
The macrocosm and the microcosm, the worlds
are all withdrawn into ecchil.
Do dogmatic, frenzied religious men now even dare
To open their mouths to complain, Paraparame?
While this mouth and body are ecchil
Simply washing their feet every now and then
How will they be cleansed, Paraparame?
Only the Lord, the Truth is not ecchil
Because that Light can never ne expressed
through language, Paraparame.”
  • Ecchil is pollution caused by saliva, anything that is defiled by the contact of the mouth, the refusal of food, left-over, excrement, urine, semen, the residue of sacrificial oblations of pounded rice offered in pots etc.

    Paraparame Title of the song. It is addressed to Paraparam, the Absolute Being, that transcends the duality of both param (Supreme) and Aparam(non-supreme)

About the writer of the article: Dr Kanchana Natarajan teaches Indian Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Delhi University. She is presently Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, translating the songs of Avudai Akkal from Tamil to English. If any reader is in possession of Akka’s songs or essays, you may contact her at:
Published in: Mountain Path
Volume 47, No 1, January – March 2010
Price: Rs 30
Pleases address enquiries & remittance to:
Sri Ramanasrmam, Tiruvannamalai
Tamil Nadu – 606 603
Tel: 91-4175 – 237200 Mobile: 91-9244937292 (add 0 before 9244937292 if you are calling from anywhere in India outside Tamil Nadu)
Fax: 91-4175 – 237491

Photo credit:
Artist's impression: Ramana Ashram
Mandapam, Present day Chengottai: V Chithra

The Hindu:


Durgasankar Mandal said...

I feel the word should have been paramaparam.

Param + Aparam = paramaparam
Parah + Aparam = parohparam
Para+ aparam = Paraparam

Para = beyond
Param = supreme

But wonderful verse it is. Reminds me of Ramakrishna's saying, "The Vedas and Upanishadas have become Utchhistha. Only the Param Bramhan hasn't, since none is able to depict IT." It can be expressed only by a series of negatives... neti neti. manobuddhaahnkara chittani naham, na cha shrotra jihbhve na cha ghrana netre... I am not the mind, neither am I am ego nor the intellect, I am not the hearing, neither am I the taste, nor the smell or the seeing...

Julia Dutta said...

Hi Durga,

The scholar, writer of the article, Dr Kanchana Natarajan is better equipped to answer that input from your end. Do keep watch over your comment - she may come and address it anytime. Yes, the poem is wonderful. I like the similarity you have drawn too :)))

Thank you Durga!


Amrita said...

Glad that Akka was saved from the trauma of being and child widow.

Her song is indeed remarkable.

Julia Dutta said...

Hi Amrita,
Indeed it is a meaningful song. Thanks for reading :)))

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Durgasankar Mandal said...

Julia, there are a good many anonymous blokes trying to spam your blog. You may want to prevent them from doing so - by configuring in Blog SETTINGS section --> COMMENTS tab "who can comment" Registered Users - includes OpenID

Julia Dutta said...

Thanks Durga! Why should anyone try to spam my blog? But I will follow your idea.


Durgasankar Mandal said...

I really don't know the reason why they are. But here is one:

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Julia Dutta said...

Thanks Durga,
What a saving grace you are! I have just deleted the comment. How utterly disgusting that such things can happen. You are such a good friend :)))


Pagan said...

Nice blog. I need to come back. So much to read here. - up↑take

Kanchana Natarajan said...

it is para-aparam meaning the highest truth encompassing both this phenomenal and noumenal
or it coiuld mean parat param the highest truth, Tayumanavar the contemporary of Akka has sung the famous paraparakkani in Tamil

Julia Dutta said...

Thank you Kanchana, for taking time off from your heavy schedule to visit here and respond to Durga's original input. I hope he will re-visit to read it.

Dr Kanchana Natarajan will not be answering questions on a regular basis, here, or on her blog. She is Fellow at IIAS, Shimla, working on the book, first ever in English on the Tamil Saint.


sudha said...

I am in sengottah now. I read about Avudai Akka and her poems in tamil. I am so glad to visit your blog.
I am unable to view the pictures. Will u pl kindly do the needful?

Julia Dutta said...

Hi Sudha,

The pictures are taken away by Blogger. But the Good News is that Dr Kanchana Natarajan's book on this saint, will be released by Zubaan Books this year or early next year so do keep your self informed by visiting the Zubaan website and checing out the release dates.

thanks for visiting!

Ayatekshana said...

Does the book 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Avudai Akkal' also have the Tamizh verses alongside the translation ?

Julia Dutta said...

It is the first time all English. The Tamil is not there, I think but please watch this space for Dr Natarajan to respond to your question, at a later time.
Thank you!

Kanchana Natarajan said...

The songs of Akka are published in Tamil with the title "Shenkottai Sri Avudai Akkal Padalgal" by Jnanananda Niketan Tirukkoyilur TN, my translation is from that book.