Note to readers:
With Ramanavami around the corner, when I was asked to write an article on Rama I was wondering what it was I could actually write without rehashing something that has already been written. I knew I would rely on the Carnatic musician’s vade mecum, the introductory thesis to The Spiritual Heritage of Thyagaraja – written by the one and only Dr. V. Raghavan.
By a very happy coincidence, I also happened to begin to read Dr. V. Raghavan’s ‘Studies on the Ramayana’ and I suddenly knew how I could structure this article on the Prince of Ayodhya and Tyagaraja’s Ishta Devata. This article is therefore an inspiration from these two outstanding books by Dr. Raghavan – brilliant scholar par excellence who continues to amaze, delight and inspire with his sheer genius, depth of thought and gift of writing.
Swami Sivananda in his magnum opus titled Sadhana says, “Bhakti is the slender silken thread of Prem or Love that binds the heart of a devotee to the Lotus Feet of the Lord. Bhakti is intense devotion and supreme attachment to God. It is the spontaneous outpouring of love towards God. It is pure, unselfish, Divine Love or Shuddha Prem. Bhakti is the sacred, higher emotion of sublime sentiments that unites the devotee with the Lord. It has to be experienced by the Bhaktas.”
Clearly Tyagaraja was the epitome of a quintessential bhakta and he truly personified all the tenets of Bhakti Yoga. And to this foremost of composers in Carnatic music, it was Rama who was the chosen deity, i.e. the ‘ishta devata’.
It is commonly agreed that of the two avatars of Vishnu i.e. Rama and Krishna, the Krishna avatar has greater ‘soulabhya’ i.e. Krishna is more easily accessible than Rama. Even Rajaji in his wonderfully written version of the Ramayana says so. The exploits of Devaki’s son across his entire life have caught the imagination of the teeming millions across India and the world, not to mention the countless re-tellings of the story of the Prince of Dwaraka.
However the Ramayana is a different matter. As Dr. Raghavan says in his Studies on the Ramayana, “True to a prophecy in the opening of the epic itself, that it will stand in all countries so long as mountains stand and rivers flow…
“There is not a single vernacular of India which has not got its own Ramayana. In his Rama, sage Valmiki depicted no mere national hero, but divinity that came in human form to redeem humanity; hence the Ramayana soon attained canonical authority as a gospel of devotion, bring up around minor Upanishads on the Rama-cult, spiritualized versions of the story and a mass of exegesis. Millions carry the redeeming name of Rama on their lips.”
With Rama as his Ishta Devata, Tyagaraja has described his Lord’s greatness in many beautifully couched terms in his numerous compositions. He has extolled first of all, the superlative qualities of the name – the Rama Nama, and then Rama’s majesty, his captivating beauty, his sweetness of speech, as an uttama purusha, his easy accessibility (saulabhya) and Rama as a lover of music. With Rama as the focus of this article, we will examine a few of the qualities of the scion of the Ikshvaku race.
- Rama Nama
All of us know that the name is everything. The name is the representation of the gunas – attributes of a person (the line in the Vishnu Sahasranama – yaani naamaani gaunaani offers corroboration). Of the Lord who is possessed of infinite excellences, the names are also infinite. And it is a matter of common experience, that when one keeps on repeating the name of a thing, one’s mind develops a love for and a gradual absorption in it. After all, that is the purpose of all the present-day worship and pujas and especially nitya karmic rituals like the prescribed Sandhyavandanam and the Gayatri Japa. Tyagaraja for his part says this in his charming and sedate composition Smaranesukham in the beautiful raga Janaranjani, that the constant listening to Rama Nama, establishes the form of that name in the heart and fills the heart with love.
rAma nAma SravaNamu valla
nAma rUpamE hRdayamu niNDi
prEma puTTa sEyaga lEdA
Even the Bhagavat Gita says that of all forms of Yajna, the Lord was of the form of Japa Yagna (yagnaanaam jayagnosmi).
The name Rama is a synthesis of the essence of the Naryana Astakshari and the Siva Panchakshari, its two letters being extracted from the two Mantras. And because Rama Nama is dealt with in the greatest of details in the Upanishads that Tyagaraja describes that Name as:
vEda varNanIyamau nAmamutO (Evarikai – Devamanohari)
sAramau nAmadhEyamunu (Talachinantane – Mukhari)
Rama, it is well-known, was an incarnation of God. According to Tyagaraja’s cult of Rama-bhakti, the very word ‘Rama’ meant the Para-Brahmam. In the extremely popular Telisi Ramachintana in Poornachandrika, the bard of Tiruvaiyyaru states emphatically that the word Rama means Para Brahmam (in the first charanam)
When Vasistha gave the name Rama to Dasaratha’s first son, Kalidasa says that the Guru was prompted to do so because of the charming personality of Rama; and the poet immediately adds that the name became the foremost auspicious thing of the work. Tyagaraja for his part says that the name chosen was as charming as the person: Ramabhirama Ramniyanama (Darbar).
- Rama Rajya
As the Ramayana says, Rama ruled as a king in the Northern India, both over the land and in the hearts of men as Raja Ramachandra. He still continues to do so! Tyagaraja beautifully describes this in his fairly popular and evocative Mukhari kriti:
kArubAru sEyuvAru galarE nIvale sAkEta nagarini
UrivAru dESa janulu vara munul-uppongucunu bhAvukulayyE
nelaku mUDu vAnalakhila vidyala nErpu kaligi dIrghAyuvu kaligi
calamu garva rahitulugA lEdA sAdhu tyAgarAja vinuta rAma
“Rama! Has there been anybody who has reigned over Ayodhya like you, protecting the subjects and securing the happiness and prosperity of the urban and the country fold and the Rishis? Your subjects had the three rains, they were learned in all arts and lores and learnings, lived long, and were above all, free from deceit and arrogance.”
- Rama – Superior to the Trimurtis
Two beautiful examples where Tyagaraja emphasizes that Rama is superior to the Trinity. In the very well-known Nata pancharatna kriti Jaganandakaraka, in the seventh charanam (Omkaara…) he speaks of Rama as being of the form of Siva, Brahma and Kesava (Purahara-sarojabhava-kesava-dirupa).
The Remarkable Paramatmudu – Vaagadheeswari
Perhaps the best expressiveness comes in the wonderfully majestic vivadi raga kriti Paramatmudu, which is wholly devoted to the immanence of Rama as Paramatman.
“Know all well how Paramatma shines in glory in everything, in Hari, Hara, Devas, human beings, the innumerable worlds, species of creations, the five elements, mountains and trees. “
The bard adds that the Lord is in the good as well as in the bad, Sagunamulo vigunamulo satatamu.
As a musician, I have often wondered why Tyagaraja chose to set this kriti resonating with such a powerful theme, in the offbeat raga Vagadheeswari. Paramatmudu is supposed to be one of Tyagaraja’s last creations; by that time he had begun to identify himself so much with his Ishta Devata Rama that he saw Rama in everything around him – both living and non-living beings.
That being so, why did Tyagaraja choose Vaagadheeswari of all ragas? Why not an ‘easier’ or a more well-known Todi or a Shankarabharanam? The 34th melakarta raga Vaagadheeswari has vivadi notes in the first half of its structure with the shatsruti rishabha and the antara gandhara. The Madhyama is always sung as a long flat note (my Guru Shri TRS would insist that it should never be oscillated even the slightest bit, for then immediately the danger of treading into the territories of the better known and popular Harikambhoji would loom large!) while the dhaivata and the nishada are chatusruti and kaisiki respectively. It can be interpreted that the “non-vivaditwa” portion of P D N S effectively balances the “vivaditwa“ portion of S R G M. Hence Vaagadheeswari as a raga, is about the achievement of beauty by balancing the consonant with the dissonant (vivadi).
It can be seen and experienced in our current walks of life that all calamities of individuals and of nations are due to the inability of the individual or the leader of thought and life to strike the balance between Dharma or Righteousness on the one hand, and Artha and Kaama – material advancement and emotional gratification on the other. When Righteousness ceases to be the rule of life and when the only motive force of action on the part of person becomes either Artha or Kama, then crisis occurs. This was clearly the undoing of Ravana, who secured immense power, physical and spiritual by penances and sacrifices, and used it ultimately to terrorize the universe and to gratify his lust. So vicious was his pursuit of Artha (material prosperity and power) and equally vicious was his pursuit to satisfy his lust (Kama), that the Rakshasa was completely unbalanced due to his abject moral degradation, and laying hands on Sita was the last straw which was to be his final undoing.
In complete contrast, the hero of the Ramayana as introduced to us by Valmiki is one who has controlled himself, a self-possessed man. Who else will be able to kill Ravana, put down the vices for which that demoniac character stood, resuscitate Dharma and place before us the ideal of enjoying the Artha and Kama within the bounds of Dharma?
Rama is described as someone who is in complete harmony with righteousness and the person with the perfect balance of the purusharthas – Dharma, Artha and Kama. To Rama, Dharma was supreme and for anyone to whom Dharma is the pinnacle, then everything else falls into place automatically achieving the balance, equanimity and equilibrium.
When one listens to Vaagadheeswari, this equilibrium is palpable and almost tactile. Set to 2-kalai Adi Tala, the kriti Paramatmudu’s pace is sedate and unhurried and there is the prevalence of an atmosphere of calmness. Being the extraordinary creative genius and visionary that Tyagaraja was, one is compelled to think that setting this beautiful sahitya to Vaagadheeswari was definitely not a matter of chance – it must have been a carefully and purposefully thought-out process. This marvelous kriti is truly a crest-jewel in the corpus of Tyagaraja’s creations.
- Rama – Beauty, Sweetness of Speech & Soulabhya
The Ramayana says, there was something in the very look of Rama that infused confidence in those who saw him. He was always in an unruffled and calm temperament. Composure and pleasing looks may come to men occasionally, but they were permanent features of Rama. With regards to infusing confidence, Rama and Lakshmana were espied wandering about in the forests by Sugriva and Hanuman. Hanuman was sent by Sugriva to find out who the two unknown men were, simply dressed as forest dwellers, yet possessing a royally resplendent aura. As soon as Hanuman came into the presence of Rama and Lakshmana , he is said to have been possessed with a feeling of extraordinary confidence and clarity. So much so that Hanuman is said to have thrown all caution to the winds and stated frankly to the two noble princes about Sugriva and himself!
Rama’s beauty has been described by Tyagaraja in innumerable kritis. He tells Rama, “You are my Ishta Daiva” – it is the surpassing beauty of this Syamasundara that made him prefer Rama as his chosen deity. In his Intanuchu varnimpa (Gundakriya) he adds that even Brahma, Indra and other gods cannot describe the beauty of your benign look, your charming face, surpassing the moon in splendour.
In his Suddha Desi kriti Endukaugalintura, Tyagaraja as the devotee is actually presented with an over-choice – the all-comprehensive beauty of Rama leaves him bewildered. He is unable to concentrate on any one aspect simply because he cannot make up his mind as to what aspect he likes best since each is equally fascinating! “Every portion of your body, O Rama is captivating. Which portion shall I embrace? Your speech alone is speech, your lilt alone is lilt and your brilliance alone is brilliance.”
The quality of Rama’s speech, Tyagaraja mentions quite frequently – two well-known examples are ‘Mridu Subhasha’ in Rama ni samaanam evaru (Kharaharapriya) and in the Arabhi pancharatna kriti sAdhinchenE. Perhaps the best example of Rama’s sweetness of speech is when Tyagaraja exclaims that it surpasses sugar-candy in sweetness! Set in the beautiful Swarantara Raga Navarasa Kannada,
paluku kaNDa cakkeranu kErunE paNatulAra jUDarE
The quality of easy accessibility of Rama, Saulabhya is to be seen in many a passage in the Ramayana. After the war with Ravana was over, all the monkeys were anxious to have a glimpse of him and he is said to have said not to keep anyone away. He called the monkeys ‘his own’. Such saulabhya came naturally to Rama, a fact which Tyagaraja echoes as ‘sarva samudu’ in his Harikambhoji kriti Undedi Ramudu.
We will conclude this article with what Dr. Raghavan says in his Introductory Thesis of The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja:
“The matchless prowess, chastity and truth of words – One arrow, one woman and one word, – these three, the essence of Rama’s personality, are given to us in the song, Oka mata (Harikambhoji):
oka mATa oka bANamu, oka patnI vratuDE manasA
oka cittamu-galavADE, oka nADunu maravakavE
It is for these that not only Tyagaraja but none amongst us could ever forget Sri Rama. Not for Tyagaraja alone, but for the whole country is Rama the prop of its life – “Naa Jivaadhaara”.