Dec 3, 2012

Thirugnana Sambandar, the Impaler?

7th century Tamil Nadu, India. A little boy is born to pious Brahmin parents in the quaint little town of Sirkazhi. As the boy attains the age of three, he is taken to a nearby Shiva temple. While the father takes a dip in the temple’s pond, Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi appear in front of the boy. Before the father comes back to the son, they disappear and the little boy is left with drops of milk on his lips. When asked who fed him, the little finger points up towards the sky and the soft lips start singing a hymn praising the lord. Over the following years, the boy goes up to sing the most amazing hymns in Tamil that forms the Holy Book of Saivism (religion of the Shiva devotees). The little boy was none else than - one of the most renowned of the 63 Nayanmars - Thirugnana Sambandar. The lad who was fed by the Goddess herself!

15th Century Eastern Europe. The cruel of the cruelest King reigns over the country. The Ottoman Empire is being eroded away by this ruthless warrior. As tens of thousands of enemies' bodies get cruelly impaled in long and sharp arrows, the horrific image of this King spreads throughout Europe as a forest fire. He was none else than King Vlad III Dracula - the demonic warrior whose very thought and the bloody cruel punishments bring shrills and shivers to people up to this day!

Now, why are these two different people being juxtaposed? Do they share anything in common? What if they do? 

To understand the link here, readers should first clearly understand what "Impalement" is, and how it made Vlad Dracula stand out in history as the most horrific ruler. For the movie-buffs out there, impalement ("Kazhuvettram") is what Kamal Haasan (“Rangaraja Nambi”) gets as punishment for not practicing Saivism (worshipping Lord Shiva) in “Dasavatharam” movie. It's a kind of punishment where the body of a human is pierced from his bottom and pushed up through the body, to reach out through the head. (This being such a gory punishment is precisely the reason why the movie didn't show the way the punishment exactly works, but toned it down a bit). It was such a torturous execution method used in the early and medieval ages.

Now to the story that links everything up. It was the 6th century in ancient Tamil Nadu when the saint Thirugnana Sambandhar lived. It was a time when Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism coexisted in the land. However, oftentimes there were quarrels among these different groups, usually followed by persecution of the losing religious group. (Note that the Hindus were divided into Saivites and Vaishnavites, and the quarrels between them is yet another story!) The Pandya King called Koonpandiyan who ruled around the region of Madurai, was coaxed to convert to Jainism by the Jain monks in his country. This displeased the Queen and his ministers to a great extent, who were ardent worshippers of Shiva. After knowing about the young Saivite saint called Sambandar, they solicit his help to cure the king's recent illness and also to convert him back to Hinduism (Saivism). Sambandhar travels to Madurai and successfully cures the king's illness (that the Jains couldn’t) by singing a hymn and smearing holy ash on the king's arm. Unable to accept the defeat, the Jains set up a second test wherein the Jain literature palm leaves and the Saivaite palm leaves (of Sambandhar’s) are to be fed to fire, and whichever group defies the test of fire, wins. As the leaves are fed to fire, the Jain leaves are burnt to ashes, Sambandhar’s leaves are untouched. Unable to accept the defeat again, the Jains challenge Sambandhar for a final test - this time, a test of water. 

In the final test of water, palm leaves containing religious hymns from each side are dropped into the Vaigai River. While the Jain leaves drown and get washed away, Sambandhar’s leaves swim against the water currents. Sambandhar wins over the Jains in all the three tests. Amazed at Sambandhar’s feat, the king accepts to convert to Hinduism. What is more worthy to be highlighted here is that all the defeated Jains were impaled one by one, headed by the saint Thirugnana Sambandhar himself. A grand total of 8000 Jains were cruelly impaled on that gory day!

When the novelist Bram Stoker embarked on creating the world-famous horror novel, Dracula in 1897, he aptly named the protagonist with the name of the cruel warrior Dracula. King Dracula’s thousands of impalements speak of his horror. The same kinds of impalements have happened in the name of religion in our Sambandhar story as well! 

Now when I step into a Hindu temple and touch the feet of the 63 Nayanmar saints one by one - and when I reach Thirugnana Sambandhar - I would stop for a moment. To think.


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