The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy | 1958 | 410,072 words

This page describes “arurar’s language of mythology” from the part dealing with Nampi Arurar (Sundarar) and Mythology, viz. Puranic stories and philosophy. The 7th-century Thevaram (or Tevaram) contains devotional poems sung in praise of Shiva. These hymns form an important part of the Tamil tradition of Shaivism

Chapter 1.1 - Arurar’s Language of Mythology


The Absolute Brahman, the Impersonal Godhead, is beyond words and thoughts. The Divine experience of the Saints, especially of the poetic Saints cannot lie hidden within the soul. It tries to find expression in words of their poems. The Absolute thus takes an incarnation in words. It becomes personal and concrete. Man from the earliest times must have felt the inexpressible Divine presence, and Mythology which is sometimes called the singing of the unconscious state, has developed all over the world. “Myth-form, according to modern criticism, is a complex of images or a story whether factual or fanciful taken to represent the deepest truths of life or simply regarded as specially significant for no clearly realised reason” and represents a unanimous common and perennial philosophy of man’s nature and destiny. The language of mythology, well known to the common man and exciting in him sublime emotions and great thoughts, lies before the Saints and Poets as the very raw material to be given a shape and form and significance by them. How else could they express the inexpressible? Impersonal and personal are not, therefore, kept separate in their poems and these poets of God, pass from one state to the other, to the great consternation of the modern critics.

One of the inscriptions of Champa says, “He is possessed of the powers of Anima, etc., yet He is devoted to austerities. He has burnt Madana and yet He is married. He is the unique Lord, yet He rides on the bull. His nature is beyond the domain of thought and speech; yet His image identical with the Universe is manifested by His form.” Even the distant islands have understood the true inwardness of the Indian conception of God and His worship.


The study of the Puranic stories, as referred to in Aruarar’s Tevaram, cannot be a study of their origins. Historically, this may show what mythological stories appealed to that age in general and the poet in particular. To go beyond this, in search of their origin and growth, will be futile, for, there are no materials available in Arurar’s poems for such a general study. It is however possible to refer to the particular version of the story he mentions, as compared to others, so as to point out the particular stage the story had reached in its historical march. The Tevaram poems are mainly lyrical outpourings of the heart of the poet, and the stories are referred to express the subjective experience. They have, therefore, to be related to the subjective experience of these stories by the poet. They have a significance to the author and it is this that has to be studied.

An incident or a scene, like a drunken bout, the solitary reaper, a mountain top suddenly raising up its hoary head whilst one rows the boat, the cock on a dung hill or the moon rising from the sea, is well impressed in the mind of a poet. They become symbols of the message of the subjective experience of the poet, without ceasing to be concrete and alive, poetic and graphic. So do the stories, the poets read or hear, become such symbols. It is from this point of view these stories have to be studied in Arurar.

How the great minds of the age looked upon these stories should also be known. The forms of Shiva described are many. The images are not fetishes. They are not idols but representations of ideals. What Dr. Coomaraswamy says of the Indian Art applies to Iconography as well: “Indian art at its best is never realistic but is based on abstractions or ideal forms—a tendency to naturalism is but rarely followed and is rather an expression of a mental conception than a realistic picture that is aimed at.” If hands and legs and wives of Shiva are spoken of, they ought not to be taken in the gross physical sense. Shiva is, according to these seers, beyond matter; therefore, there arises no question of flesh and blood and all their incidents. Nor, is there any question of sex, which, after all, is a physical phenomenon. Therefore, the Shaivites say, these are the forms of His Grace. Even as light and heat are found indivisible in fire, His bliss of Grace and His Spiritual essence of Jnana are indivisible from Him. Therefore, the Form is spiritual in its essence. The image is an imperfect realisation of the attempt at concrete visualisation. The matter is but the Grace of Shiva because the ancients found no other way of expressing it to be understood by the man in the street. This science of spiritual semantics has given rise to the Hindu Iconography. As an expression of art, these image forms have a universal appeal but the full significance cannot stand revealed completely to the amateur audience. Iconography and painting are related to Bharata Natya. The significance of the language of dance arises out of the tradition and convention of that art. It has to be learnt. In addition, in Iconography, one has to learn what the organs and weapons stand for.

Therefore, ours becomes a study of value or ideal rather than of origins. What Dr. Coomaraswamy says with reference to Shiva’s Dance may be generalised with reference to all forms or images of the Hindu God: “I do not mean to say that the most profound interpretation of Shiva’s dance was present in the minds of those who first danced in frantic and perhaps intoxicated energy in honour of the pre-Aryan hill-god afterwards merged in Shiva. A great motif in religion or art, any great symbol, becomes all things to all men; age after age, it yields to men such treasure as they find in their own hearts. Whatever be the origins of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the noblest image of activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.”

It is not as though there is any dead rigidity about this symbolic language of Atmavidya. It allowed sufficient fluidity for individual artist or poet to give expression to his transcendental vision. In our study of Arurar’s poems and the sculptures of this age, this truth is being very forcibly impressed on our minds.


But anyway, the letters of the alphabet have to be learnt for spelling out the words of this language. No attempt is made here to study exhaustively this variety of alphabet. That much which is necessary to substantiate the thesis here put forward alone is attempted. Tirumular, before Arurar, is the first bold spirit who calls them idiots, those who interpret the stories literally “Muppuram cerranan enparkal mutarkal” and he gives his mystic significance of Tripura as the resultant of the three ‘malas’. His interpretation of the dance and other forms are mentioned under their respective heads. Pattinnttar, perhaps coming after Arurar, explains the mystic significance of the forms. Therefore, it is the Tamilian tradition of the Age of Arurar we are referring to, as our thesis. Nor, is it opposed to the spiritual and social science and art of Temple worship which developed in the Tamil land of that age. The Agamas are the embodiments of this science. They have not become finalised in their present form, as is made clear by our study at every stage. But they may be taken to represent the growing tradition of the age of Arurar. Kamika Ayama is the most important one, from this point of view and it gives the significance of the weapons and other representations of the image of Shiva.


The Kamikagama in its first part, IV Patalam, describes the form of Sadasiva to be contemplated on by the worshipper. There is fluidity enough to suggest two different forms. The Agama proceeds to give meaning of the various organs and weapons described in these forms. As the form of Shiva is well known and is going to be described in the following pages with reference to various forms, the descriptions need not be repeated here. The crescent moon of pure white colour is the symbol of Shiva’s Omniscience. His ten hands are the ten points of the compass. The trident, with its three heads, represents the three gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas of Prakrti under His control. The hatchet represents His energy or Sakti. The sword is the symbol of His valour or omnipotence. Adamantine Vajra or the weapon of diamond represents His invincibility or the unbreakability of godhead. The fire in His hand represents the power of destruction, the power of illuminating the objects above Mahamaya, and the power of burning to ashes the fetters of Pasa. The serpent in His hand symbolises His law that rules everything. The noose in three strands represent the three fetters or pasasMaya, Karma and Anava. The bell He holds in His hand, through its sound, represents the Mantra form. The abhaya hasta represents His power of protecting all the Universe. The goad symbolises what is fit for enjoyment and what are so attained. It is these subtle aspects which are represented by these visible forms. Even as the potential heat, all pervasive in a log becomes potent in one concentrated point of friction, Shiva becomes potent in the image form.


From the point of view of Tamil tradition the poems of Pattinattar may be usefully studied:

This problem of the Puranas seems to have been agitating the mind of Pattinattar. He gives expression in his ‘Thiruvottiyur Orupa Orupatu’ to the mystic vision he had after such cogitation.

“The great world is a damsel wearing according to her nature the struggling sea as her garment over which shines the girdle of gems. The city of Orri is the clasping face of the girdle. Oh! Thou the Lord of this city! The flash of the lightning is the matlock of yours. The ever present firmament is the form of your crown. The lord of fire, the sun, and the cool moon—these three fires, form your eyes, on and around your forehead. The necklace of cool rays is the milky-way. The Akas, where reside the Devas, forms your beautiful body. The eight points of the compass are your sturdy shoulders. The black sea is your garment. The beautiful hip of yours is the earthly sphere. The serpents with the gems on their hoods of the nether world represent but the movement of your pair of feet. The wind running without any pause is your breath. All the untailing sounds are the words from your lips. The totality of the faultless jnana of all the wide spread eternal lives from that of Devas downwards is but your consciousness. In this crowded world, its nature, its sustenance, its involution and evolution are but the appearance of your activity. Its creation, its destruction and movement are but the natural opening and closing of your eyes, with many other characteristic forms like these. You the one became two in form and enjoyment, and three jnanas resulting in four kinds of birth, the five sense organs, the six religions or philosophies, the seven worlds, the eight forms and you grow beyond innumerable aeons and mix in every form becoming every one of those things. In this context, who has realised in one sweep, your form?”

“O! Lord of Orri City! Saying, that along with the lady residing on the left you have two bodies, that you performed the dance in the midnight, that you adorned yourself with the tiger’s skin along with bones, that you have practised the life of wandering beggary, that you have become formless and formfuli that you are the four-faced (Brahma), and the Great (Tirumal), the beloved of the lady of Beauty and Riches, that you are one that exists, that you are one that does not exist, that you are one that does not grow tired, that you are tired, old and vanquished, that you are the beginning, that you are the Lord of Asoka (the Jain), that you are the ancient shining under the Bodhi (Buddha) and so on and so forth in a similar vein, according to the measure of their knowledge confused by the plurality of established books—men are thus at variance with each other. Seeing the characteristics of theirs, unto those who suffer like this, you become as they think and your form is like the colour of the crystal assuming the hue of whatever thing is placed underneath it.”

“O! Great One, that is the unique One of the world of form! There is nothing else amongst these varied shapes. Whatever it be, if it exists here, that is but a part of yourself. Therefore, conspiring for destroying the suffering of the world of ancient waters by setting fire—the cracking and resounding fire—to the onrushing three fortreses, cutting and letting away the head of the Lord of sacrifice, crushing down the shoulders of the Ruler of the huge skies, depriving the eminent lord of the Vedas of one face, looking at Cupid (Manmatha) of the floral arrows to reduce him to ashes, pressing down powerless, the Raksasa (Ravana) with the beautiful toe, attacking with an ideal the Lord of Death to bring about his intancy—all these feats of valour beginning from these are but acts of yours, all crowding about you in the very place where you stand. These, therefore, who had seen that there is nothing besides yourself speak of this truth. Will these who have realised this significant truth, instead of taking it as an ordinary routine, include it amongst your praises?”

“The eternal lives or souls—from the Lord of flower (Brahman) downwards—that Lord of flower grown eminent because of his knowledge of the principle—the eternal lives who move in the bodies with the help of dark ignorance are differentiated in various ways, by form, by knowledge, by eminence, by humility, by riches, by power and by the variety of activities. They are never separated from their karmas. In this multiplicity of their disagreement, their behaviour, like the white waves from the well established ocean, rising from yourself and becoming one with you, evolving and involving, appearing and disappearing, lying in union with you and standing separated from you, but explains you. O’ Thou Lord of ceaseless ancient fame! The chief of the form that never grows old! If at all, those who have received your Grace may know this, can others understand this bewildering puzzle, there in you?”

“The words of no confusion are but yourself. Yet, what conspiracy they confounded, know not your varied form! The mind is your abode and yet what stealth it is, that you disappear from there leaving that blotted. You are the doer of all the acts performed in this world and yet what wonderful nearness or magic of your atomicity that the results of these acts never come near you. There they worship you for the sake of the happiness of society or the whole humanity and yet what a wonderful beauty that there you become the sea of bliss in their minds! You are the nearest of the near unto those who approach you out of love unto you. This conspiracy, this stealth, this magic, this beauty of nearness are the daily bone-melting characteristic features of yours. Therefore, O, that Lord of Orri, of the pure moon of the ruddy thick matJock, of great tapas and well established extensive fame! We have realised that this body of flesh does melt and disappear away unto those who had seen you.”

“Your adorning yourself with the pure moon on the top of your matlock for establishing the fact, ‘I am the knowledge of the pure path’; your riding on the bull which is but the form of ‘Aram’ or Dharma or Virtue, proclaims the truth, ‘I am the all pervasive Lord’. You stand as He, She, It and this explains the principle, ‘I am the common basis of all’. That you are the three eyed is a symbol for the truth, ‘The three fires lie within me in sacrifice’. Your carrying the young one of the deer of the Vedas proclaims the truth, ‘I am their Lord of sound’. Your holang the trident of one handle and three blades states there the fact, ‘The great ones are but myself’. The fact of the eight forms signifies, ‘I am clearly the only truth in this world’. Your standing clearly, as the earth, water, fire, wind and the high akas, and as the Lord of the ancient but undying fame and as the Lord of the army of good Bhutas, is for making the world realise the truth. All your nature and forms from these downwards, clearly express your evergrowng greatness. The suicidal men (tarkolimantar) realise this not, and whirl, caught within the power of the word and meaning, born out of themselves. Their chiefs, the lords of the six activities, never cease to recite in you Orri, O, Lord of Orri’. You consider all this as the activities of chilaren and sit smiling till they turn towards you!”

These poems of Pattinattar clearly explain the philosophy of the Puranas as understood by the great men of the Pallava Age, for Pattinattar also belongs to the Pallava period though coming much later than Arurar.


In the age of the Pallavas, the Tamil Land became the seat of Sanskrit learning. The inscriptions came to be written in Prakrit first and later on in Sanskrit. The great scholars from the Tamil land went to the North, like Din Naga and Dhamma Pala and even to distant China, like the founder of Zen Buddhism. Sanskrit was the lingua franca of India, and Pallava kings, like Mahendra Varman, were great scholars of Sanskrit. Inscriptions began with philosophical truths and king Rajasimha prided himself on his knowledge of Shaiva Siddhanta—a knowledge which went to the Eastern islands as well. It is but natural that the Puranas should become popular among the ordinary men. In addition to these stories, folk tales and traditions relating to the various places of worship also grew up. These tales became stories circulating among the masses.

The literature of this age as distinguished from the literature of the Cankam age is characterised by its wealth of references to the Puranic and other mythological stories. In making their popular appeal, the Tevaram hymns cannot but take cognizance of this common new heritage of the times. They have perforce to speak this language and it will be surprising to note that if these references are left out, there may not be much remaining. They cannot escape the climate of the times, nor is this a calamity. The Cankam works were for the few. Tevaram is for the many. Every age offers the material, the raw material for the arts. The poet shapes out of it his beautiful poetry. It is the art form that is important—not the material which after all concerns the scientific technique of manipulating the material. Even if the stories are discredited all the glory to the poet who has created out of it, the representation of the Absolute, delivering the message of his inner vision.


It is for this purpose that an attempt has been made to explain the mystic language of the Puranas as understood by Arurar and his age. The elaborate quotations from Pattinattar must convince all doubting ‘Thamasis’. This question of their significance has been a live problem in the minds of great thinkers of that age and their conclusions and explanations are indeed illuminating. Without these, a sympathetic study of the poems and the sculptures of the age is not easily possible for the modern mind stuck up into the mire of expressionism, cubism and realism.

For understanding the significance of these poems we have to go to the Puranas. As it happens all the world over, here also we have various versions. The poems of Arurar will tell us which version or versions had appealed to his mind.

There are also the sculptures of the Pallava Age representing the various forms. The Agamas give what are now considered to be rules for making these image forms. Though these rules are now considered obligatory, our study shows that to start with they were only recommendatory. Here also we have varied rules. A comparison of the sculptures and the rules of the Agamas leads us to this conclusion.

A word should be said about these Agamic rules and the representations of the image forms in the Temples.


It is clear that the forms mentioned, from one point of view, represent various episodes of one and the same story starting with Brahma’s haughty dispute, if we leave out of account the variant forms of the stories. These episodes were either painted on the wall or done in stucco. Later on, they came to be represented as bas-relief work on the panels of walls. Lastly came the images of these forms in stone and in metal. But, this is from the point of view of history of Shaivism in South India; in North India, the images were older forms of worship. Patanjali in his Mahabhasya speaks of Pranarta and not Linga. Varahamihira refers to the installation of Sambhuvigraha. It is true, certain forms are by the Agamas of the South, prescribed possibly referring to the conditions prevailing in a later age, for particular kinds of worship: for instance Pdsupata murti for daily worship or nitydtsava; Aghara form for attaining success against enemy kings; but, there are also rules prohibiting worship of certain forms in images, for instance the Raudra Pdsupata murti.


In the period of Arurar, the images had not come into existence. Therefore, in addition to the panels described, there must have been paintings. Traces of painting are found at Mamallapuram and Kailasanatha temple. The panels themselves suggest that they succeeded the paintings and stucco work on brick and mortar of the previous age. The descriptions given in the Silpasastras and the Agamas themselves show that they are intended for paintings, and colouring of the stucco. In the Lingodbhava form, according to Amsumadbhedagama, Shiva is to be red, Visnu black, and Brahma golden yellow. Candrasekhara, according to Silparatna, is white or red like the Sun, or yellow like gold; his throat is blue. According to Karanagama, Nrtta murti, Kankala murti and Daksina murti are white, whilst other forms are coral red. According to Rupamandana in the Umamahesvara form, Shiva is coral red. The Agamas decorate Kama in the Kamari form with golden ornaments and He is golden yellow. In the Gajaha form, He is deep red; in the Kalari form He is coral red according to Amsumadbhedagama. According to Kamikagama, Yama is clothed in red garments with red eyes, red hair, moustaches and brows. Amsumadbhedagama makes Tripur antaka red. Kamikagama makes Sarabhesa a golden bird with red eyes. Bhairavas are, according to the various forms, described by Visnudharmottara, ram-cloud coloured, yellow, white, blue, smoke-coloured or red. Aghara murti is according to Karanagama dark, draped in red clothes, and adorned with red flowers and red jewels. Lalitopakhyana makes Mahakala and Mahakali black, with red eyes and black coat. Candesa, according to Amsumadbhedagama is golden yellow. According to Sritattva nidhi, in the Cakradana form, Visnu is black with yellow garments. In the Vignesvara anugraha murti form, Shiva is black. Kiratarjuna murti is red. In the Nataraja form, the jatas are brownish red, according to Uttara Kamikagama, whilst Nataraja is milky white. In the Kankala murti form, Shiva is white, with red upper garment and pearl white teeth. In the Ardhanarisvara form, the left half is either black or parrot green, whilst the right half is red. In the Harihara form, Shiva-half is snow white and the Visnu-half green or blue. In the Kalyanasundara form Shiva is red and Parvati dark, Visnu black and Brahma red. In the Rsabharudha murti, Shiva is red, clothed in red garments.

These references clearly apply to paintings and painted in stucco works. Gopinatha Rao quotes from a work whose name is not known but found at the end of the manuscript copy of Silparatna. The quotation begins with the words, “Mahadevam pravaksyami yatha lekhyasya bhittisu”—‘I shall describe the form of Mahadeva as painted on walls’. This leaves no doubt that these contemplate, paintings on the walls or on stucco works. The panel-sculpture, therefore, reminds us of these paintings. As the images have not come into existence till very late in the history of temples, the references in the Agamas, some of which at least, must be as old as Tevaram and Tirumantiram, could not be to the images. But this does not deny that, as the names of the Patalams in the Uttara Kamikagama show, the Agamic rules as they stand are for the establishment and consecration (Pratistha). The suggestion is that though the Agamas may be very ancient, these terms like Pratistha and other details are of a later date.


If this line of argument has any force, the rules given about these forms are as descriptives as the references in Tevaram. It is true in some cases the measurements and proportions of the figures in relation to each other are given. But, if our arguments have any weight, these so called rules describe, rather than prescribe any one standard form. The varieties of description in some cases going up to eight—e.g. Tripurantaka form—only proves this point.


In an introduction to a book on the Astasta Vigrahamala or Shiva Parakkiramam in Tamili by Ikkani Rathinavelu Mudaliar, one editor of the Agamas, K. Shunmukhasundara Mudaliar writes as follows: “These forms are referred to in the Vedas as forms of meditation; in the Agamas as forms of worship for the salvation of Bhakta and in the Puranas and stories describing those who were thus saved.”

This represents the orthodox view. But those who have followed the growth of the Shaivite temples from the times of Mahendra Varma I, will easily see that this cannot be correct. The Linga alone was found in the temples, to start with; it alone received the worship. The paintings and panel-sculptures might have been there; but they could not have assumed such importance as to receive any worship; even now the paintings in the temples receive no worship except in the Citra Sabha in Tirukkurralam. The next land-mark occurs in the reign of Rajasimha, when he introduced the panel containing the Somaskanda murta, behind the Linga form of worship, inside the Garbagrha or Sanctum Sanctorum which till then contained no personal form. After this introduction, the worship performed to the Linga became also a worship performed to this personal form. Probably Rajasimha thought that in addition to the Linga, a mere symbol, some more visualisation was necessary. It must be noted in passing that the form of Tyagaraja of the sacred temple of Thiruvarur, is only the form of Somaskanda form. The question is, which was earlier, in places like Thiruvarur and Chidambaram, the Linga or the metal image. The term Mulattana used with reference to the place of the Linga both at Chidambaram and Thiruvarur is significant. By the time of Rajaraja the Great, the inscriptions give detailed descriptions of the images of various forms, which once started as literary descriptions, paintings on the walls and panel sculptures and whichever on their way to be conventionalized.


Even before the temples in stone started on their development, the paintings of these forms should have been there in the old temples built of bricks. Representation of Puranic episodes in painting is as- old as Paripatal. Nappannanar sings of the devotees going up the steps of Tirupparankuntam Temple of Muruka, pointing out and explaining them in the hall of painting.

“This cat is Indra; this lady is Akalikai (Ahalya); this man is Kavutaman (Gautama) who returned; this is the stone form she assumed, thanks to his anger.”

Intiran pucai ivalaka likaiyivan
Cenra Kavutaman cinanura-k kalluru
Onriya patiyiten ruraicei vorum
Inna palpala eluttunilai mantapam
Tunnunar cuttavum cuttari vuruttavum
Nervarai viriyarai viyalita-t tilaikka-c
Copana nilaiyatu tuniparan kunrattu

Maan marukan mata marunku.”

Some of the temples must have become famous because of the particular representation of Shiva’s form they contained. As hinted already Atta Virattanams must have become famous that way. It was also found that more than one place became famous in connection with one and the same feat of Shiva like the flaying of the elephant, probably because of the painting of that feat in more than one place. When Arurar sings, “Kallal nilar kil oru nal kantatum Katampur-k karakkoyilin mun kantatum allal virakonrilam”—‘We have no tact or way except that we saw you under the shadow of the ‘KallaV tree (perhaps of Kaccur) we saw you in front of the apsidal temple of Katampur’—this reference is probably to paintings.


The heroic feats of Shiva or Shiva Parakramas were thus enumerated as eight. Silpasastra enumerates sixteen forms of Shiva: Sukhasana, Vaivahika, Umasahita, Vrsarudha, Tripurantaka, Nataraja, Candrasekhara, Ardhanari, Harihara, Candesvara, Kamari, Kaninesa, Daksinamurti, Bhikshatana, Sadasiva and Lingodbhava. Mayamata speaks of Umaskanda instead of Umashita, of Candesanugraha instead of Candesa and of Mukhalinga instead of Sadasiva—possibly because of the greater prominence given to Somaskanda murta in the age and place of birth of Mayamata.

Karanagama enumerates twenty-five sportive incarnations (lila-murtis) of Shiva. They are as follows:

  1. Nataraja,
  2. Candrasekahara,
  3. Umamahesa,
  4. Rsabharudha,
  5. Kalyanasundara,
  6. Bhikshatana,
  7. Kamari,
  8. Kalari,
  9. Tripurari,
  10. Jalandharari,
  11. Matankari,
  12. Virabhadra,
  13. Hariyardha,
  14. Ardhanari,
  15. Kirata,
  16. Kankala,
  17. Candesanugraha,
  18. Nilakantha,
  19. Cakraprada,
  20. Gajamukhanugraha,
  21. Somaskanda,
  22. Ekapada,
  23. Sukhasana,
  24. Daksinamurti,
  25. Lingodhbhava,

In Skanda Purana, Kesi muni enumerates sixty-four forms. Later Mr. Ikkani Ratpavelu Mudaliar has collected the stories and pictorial representations of these forms, from the references to works in Sanskrit and Tamil in his valuable contribution of a book “Shiva Parakkiramam” in Tamil. Thus it is clear the number seems to have been growing.

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