Posted in India, Religion

The story of Nandanar

‘Caste did not exist in early India’, many today like to affirm. Then I remember the story of Nandanar, who is known because of his devotion to the god Shiva. There were  many others who lived along with him, unknown, and unsung.

Nandanar’s  exact date is not known, but he probably lived in the seventh or eighth century. The story of Nandanar and his devotion appears in the Periya Puranam of Sekkilar [12th century],  which is the Tamil account of the sixty-three Nayanar [Shaivite] saints. Nandanar’s story  was made famous by Gopalakrishna Bharati in his Nandanar-Charitra. In the nineteenth century this was sung in every village in Tamil Nadu.  Gopalakrishna’s version, which  added a few details to that of Sekkilar, is given below.

Nandanar was born in village Merkattadhanur (now Melanallur) in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu in  a low caste (Dalit) family.  He worked as a bonded labourer for a land owner of the Vedhiyar caste. As an untouchable,  Nandanar was not permitted to enter the village temple, but yearned to visit it, and used to play the yazh (an instrument) and sing devotional songs from some distance away.  He desired to go to Tiruppungur to worship the deity Shivaloganathaswami in the temple there, and one day managed to reach  there.  He stood outside the temple and attempted to look at the linga within, but a large image of Nandi blocked his view. It is said that at Shiva’s command, the Nandi moved a few feet to the right, so that Nandanar could view the linga.  Returning to his village, filled with joy,  Nandanar was determined to go to Tillai (Chidambaram). Everyday he would say, ‘I will go tomorrow’, and thus he earned the name Tiru Nalai Povar, ‘one who will go tomorrow’, and is still known by that name.  Finally he approached his Vedhiyar landlord for permission, who told him to worship the gods of his own caste. His own community members too, told him to leave the high caste gods alone. Nandanar did not give up. Once again he asked the landlord, who said he would permit him if he transplanted  paddy in 40 velis of land (250 acres) in one day, an impossible task. By the grace of Shiva this was done, and Nandanar set off for Chidambaram. Here too he could not enter the temple, but it is said that the Lord appeared to him and to the temple dikshitars (priests) in a dream and said that after purification by a ‘fire bath” he would be permitted to enter. The dikshitars built a Vedic fire which he entered, and is said to have emerged from it with a tuft of hair and sacred thread, like a brahmana. He then entered the temple and merged with Lord Nataraja.

Historians believe that Nandanar was actually burnt to death and never entered Tillai, but today his image is in leading Shaivite temples along with those of the other Nayanars.  He has been praised by Ramalinga Swami, Narayana guru, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Sivananda, and several others, and is perhaps the most well-known of the Nayanars. In 1910 Swami Sahajananda established the Nandanar School and Nandanar Matha  at Chidambaram in his memory.

 

 

Posted in India, Philosophy

Two philosophers of modern India–alternative narratives

 

India has a vast philosophical tradition that continued into the twenty-first  century, providing an alternative to formal religion. Among the twentieth-century philosophers who broke new ground,  were two Krishnamurtis, Jiddu Krishnamurti and U.G. Krishnamurti, both of whom had connections with the Theosophical Society. In their early years both were mentored by the controversial,  but brilliant Theosophist, Charles W. Leadbeater.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Jiddu Krishnamurti  was born on 11th May 1895 at Madanapalle, a small town in present Andhra Pradesh. His mother died when he was young, and after retiring from government service, his father volunteered to work for the Theosophical Society and moved to its headquarters at Adyar, Chennai (Madras). At this time the Theosophists were searching for a ‘vehicle’ that is, a pure being, into which the Messiah would incarnate. Leadbeater noticed Krishnamurti,  around fourteen years old, who most considered somewhat vague and dull, standing on the beach. He saw a wonderful aura around him and identified  him as the coming Messiah, the World Teacher. Krishna and his younger brother Nitya were adopted by the Society, and  trained by Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Their father at first agreed to this, but later fought a case to get them back. However, he lost. Krishnamurti was declared the Messiah, replacing a boy who had been chosen earlier.

In 1911 the Order of the Star in the East was founded, with Krishnamurti at the head. In his private letters Krishnamurti indicated that he was not very happy with his role as Messiah, but gradually began to believe it. He led the Order of the Star for some time, and had some mystical experiences, but then grew disenchanted with Theosophy. The Theosophists believed in a mystical hierarchy of beings, at the head of which was the Mahachohan. These beings lived in the astral world, but Krishnamurti had been taught how to visit them, and believed in their reality. In 1929, Nitya, his younger brother was seriously ill. Krishna received this news when he was on a ship, and visited the Mahachohan in his astral body, who assured him that Nitya would recover. However, Nitya died a few days later. It was a turning point for Krishnamurti, who lost all faith in the mystical hierarchy.  Soon after this, on August 2, 1929, the opening day of the annual Order of the Star of the East meeting at Ommen, Holland, Krishnamurti dissolved the Order. Three thousand members of the Order were gathered them, but Krishnamurti told them he was no longer their guru. They would have to seek their own path.

On that day he said, ‘ I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.’

Krishnamurti continued to develop his own philosophy over the years, gave talks all over the world, and developed a large following.  Krishnamurti Foundations were set up in England, USA, and India  to disseminate his teachings, and schools were opened to try to bring about a new type of human being. Krishnamurti spoke about the ‘religious mind’ that comes into being in silence, and of ‘freedom from the known’ when conditioned thought has ended.

In 1980, he summed up his own teaching beginning with  the following words, ‘The core of Krishnamurti’s teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said: “Truth is a pathless land”. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.’

He ended by saying, ‘Total negation is the essence of the positive. When there is negation of all those things that thought has brought about psychologically, only then is there love, which is compassion and intelligence.’ Krishnamurti died on 17th February 1986, but the Foundations and schools still exist. The collected works of his talks and writings amount to hundreds of volumes. His non-sectarian philosophy  appeals mainly to the educated elite, and though the roots of his  philosophy have been traced to both  Vedanta and Buddhism, he had not read any traditional texts.

U.G Krishnamurti

Uppaluri Gopala Krishnamurti, popularly known as ‘UG’, was born on 9 July 1918 in the town of Masulipatnam in present Andhra Pradesh. His early years were spent in the nearby town of Gudivade. UG’s mother died when he was only seven days old, and he came under the care of his grandfather, T.G. Krishnamurti, who was a Theosophist, though he also retained his orthodox Brahmana culture. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, UG tried several spiritual techniques, and  engaged in self-enquiry, rejecting traditional beliefs. He joined the Theosophical Society, and In 1941 he even worked for some time in C.W. Leadbeater’s library at Adyar, but was disappointed that Leadbeater did not sufficiently recognise his  potential. UG  began lecturing for the Theosophical Society, and his talks were well received. Like J. Krishnamurti, he left the Society after a few years. Despite the similarities, he seemed in constant rivalry with J. Krishnamurti, whom he met frequently in early days. UG married in 1943, and had three children, though his marriage later broke up.  In 1967, he had a transformatory experience, in which he felt he died, and was reborn a different person.

UG did not give formal lectures or write books, but has a number of disciples, some of whom have recorded their conversations and dialogues. He said  that each person should be their own teacher, and that no guru is required. His biographer, Mahesh Bhatt says of him: ‘UG shuns religious persons, ridicules social reformers, condemns saints, speaks with disgust about sadhakas (spiritual aspirants), detests the chanting of the Vedas or the recitation of the Upanishads and is full of rage when one speaks of Shankara or the Buddha’.

U.G. died in March 2007.Though he did not acknowledge it, such rejection is similar to the Buddhist concept of negation. Through the rejection of all tradition, the mind drops its conditioning, and reaches a state of freedom.

In today’s India, these and other philosophers deserve to be better known. They differ from traditional gurus who often reformulate old statements, and instead provide fresh and different ways of looking at the world.

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