The Poetry of the Tamil Saints

Cutler, Normal Joel

      "The poems of the Tamil saints are expressions of the personal, devotional approach to the worship of god called bhakti. My purpose in this dissertation is to elucidate characteristic features of the saints' poems as a genre of Tamil poetry, and to investigate the consequences of their canonical status in Tamil tradition. I have chosen a sample which includes poems by some of the earliest Vaisnavite and Saivite poets as well as poems composed at the time when the Tamil bhakti movement reached its maturity. From the early period (c. sixth century A.D.) I have chosen works by the first three alvars (Poykai, Putam, Pey), and by the Saivite woman saint Karaikkalammaiyar. My sample of later poems (c. ninth century A.D.) is culled from works by Nammalvar, who in some ways is the most important Vaisnavite saint, and by Manikkavacakar, who is one of the four most highly revered Saivite saints.
     The dissertation is divided into three major sections. The first section, which deals with textual questions, is composed of three chapters. The subject of Chapter One is the continuities between the poems of the saints and classical Tamil poetry. Chapter Two is about formal affinities between devotional poems and folksongs. In Chapter Three I shift my focus from literary prototypes to the nature of the contact between poet and audience which is established in the bhakti poems. The second section, comprising Chapters Four and Five, is about the 'career' of the saints and their hymns. In Chapter Four I am mainly concerned with the contribution of the saints and their poems to the doctrines held by the Srivaisnava and Saiva Siddhanta sampradayas. The legacy of the saints and their poems, which I discuss in this chapter, includes hagiographies, references to the saints and their hymns in works of theology, and in the case of Vaisnavism, direct commentaries on the hymns. The subject of Chapter Five is the role of the saints and their poems in the ritual of major Vaisnavite and Saivite temples in Tamilnadu. The third section of the dissertation is an anthology of my translations of the Tamil bhakti poems. The arrangement of the translations under twenty motif headings is intended to demonstrate that poems from both Vaisnavite and Saivite traditions share a great deal on a thematic level. This anthology is not intended as a complete catalogue of the motifs which appear in the poems of the Tamil saints, nor is the scheme of twenty motifs I have used sacrosanct. Still, I believe that the scheme has a firm grounding in the poems and that it elucidates some of the preoccupations of their authors.
     In conclusion I attempt to show that the rhetorical structure of the Tamil bhakti poems is replicated in the theology and ritual of Tamil Vaisnavism and Saivism, and that the principal link between the poems and these traditional contexts is the saint-poet. In poetry the voice of the saint-narrator effects contact between the deity and an audience of devotees, and the importance of the saint as a medium for deity-devotee contact carries over into the domains of theology and ritual. In the figure of the saint we find the most important bond between the bhakti poems and the traditional contexts in which they have been a living force over the centuries. I also found that both text and context served as a meeting ground for classical Tamil and Sanskritic traditions. The interplay between these two cultural legacies is a secondary theme which runs throughout this study."