The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

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

This page describes “symbology of the skull in the mahavrata” 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

Symbology of the skull in the Mahavrata

[Note: for the context of this text, see chapter 3.8 section IV.2]


In the mahavrata, the skull adorns the head as a crest jewel and the garland of skulls is worn as the garland of beads. Arurar often refers to this idea of skulls forming ornaments—“Otutaiyan katana.”. ‘He has the skull as his ornament’. His ornament is the head or skull, “Ciram ennum kalanan.” He has a crest where fits in as an ornament a foulsmelling head, adorned by rushing kites—“Parani mutai talai kalan ena maruviya......muttiyinan”, He places the crest jewel of a head on his head, “Talaikkalan talaimel tarittank The garland of beads also comes in, “Talaikku-t talai malai aninta tenne”—‘Why have you adorned your head with the garland of beads of skulls’?


This ‘vrata’ is also called ‘Kapalika-vrata’ because of the skull held as a bowl and a cup. Was not Kapali, the term of abuse resented by Shiva—the very starting point of this feat? As such, this term becomes full with the meaning of this divine feat. It has become a beloved name of the Lord. Is there not a sect of Shaivites calling themselves Kapalikas? Arurar refers to Shiva as ‘Kapali’ and ‘Kapali’; “Muntam tarittir”, —‘You hold or adorn yourself with the skull or the head’.


The serpents also beautify the Lord on the occasion of this special feat. Arurar refers to the serpents and the skull both together, “Aravam parri......Kapalam cnti”? —‘He catches hold of the serpent and holds the skull’. This skull is that of Brahma and it is in this the begging has to be done. What is a punishment for others is a glory unto the Lord. There is no Law above Him but He Himself places Himself under the Law to prove its omnipotence. “Ayan ciram arin tatil palikontu amararukku arul velippatutlan”—‘He made His Grace manifest unto the Devas by begeing in the very skull of the head He had cut off from Brahma’. ‘He begs in the skull of the head of Brahma’—“Piraman talaiyir palikol’' The skull, under the circumstances explained above, may be a bowl for others: it is a jewel, a sign of divinity as far as the Lord is concerned because of His act of Grace. “Otiz vankalana un palikku ulalvane’'—‘He who roams about for the alms with the precious jewel of a skull’. It is not only “nankalan' but “talaikkalan”—the crest jewel. “Tamaraiyon talai kalana-k kamaram mun pati unpali kontulal paraman”™— ‘The great Lord who wanders about begging for alms with the skull of the Lord of lotus as the jewel of jewels’. In “Talai-k kalan”, there is a pun on the word ‘talai’; it means the head or skull and also the first or the chief ornament.


Unless Brahman was dead, there was no necessity for a penance. Arurar therefore suggests his death and implies Brahman coming to life, thanks to the Lord’s Grace—“Vintavar talaiydtu kaiyan” —‘He whose mark is the hand with the skull of the head of him who died’. Brahman becomes converted and performs puja or worship over-powered by this Grace of the Lord.

Tankamala-p poykai putai culntalakar talattil
tatankol perun koyil tanil takka vakaiyale
vankamala-t tayan munnal valipatu ceyya
makilntaruli irunta paran”.

‘It was a beautiful place surrounded by cool lotus ponds. Therein was the expansive great temple. Once upon a time, the Unborn (Brahma) of the great lotus worshipped Him in the proper way. He was pleased and stayed there out of His Grace aboundings. He is the supreme principle—‘Paran’. Fig. 2 in plate XCI in Rea’s Pallava Architecture probably refers to the worship of Parvati and Shiva by Brahma. To befit the worship by a Lord of knowledge and ceremonies, God is with Yogapattayam and rosary, though seated with Parvati. Brahma is sitting down.


We have given the references to the skull where it is specifically stated, it is Brahma’s skull. But there are other references where the skull is mentioned as a bowl without describing it as Brahma’s: “Talai kai enti” —‘Holding the skull in tRs hand’; ‘Talai ankai enti”—‘Holding the skull in the palm of the hand’; “Talai-yitai-ar pali” —‘The rare alms received into the skull’. But in commenting on the Apastamba Sutra quoted above, Haradatta writes: “Purusasya sird yasya kasyacit mrtasya sirah”—‘The head it is that of the murderous one or of any dead man’. Therefore any head is sufficient. We have referred there what other heads are there to the Pantaranka dance on the ashes. This is after the destruction of the Universe when everything remains involved in Him as if for rest; God wears the dead bones and the skulls and dances. This is expressed by Manikkavacakar: ‘What is this my dear Lady, look there He wears nerves and bones and loves the skeleton placed on His shoulders! Hark, you, to this, how this skeleton came! At the time of destruction He adorns Himself with these two so that they may in Him abide by their time; i.e., in Him they will be made alive after rest’. This refers to the stage of evolution. Appar also has an explanation: ‘The great ocean submerges (everything within it). There is the deluge. Brahman goes and dies submerged corpse of this dead man. the hue of the blue sea. the Lord of the skeleton, the ocean may recede’—in the great dark ocean. There is the There is also the corpse of the Lord of The Lord carries them all and becomes Our Lord plays on the good vina so that the ocean may recede’—

Perunkatal muti-p piralayan kontu piramanumpoy
Irunkatal muti irakkum irantan kaleparamum
Karunkatal vannan kaleparamum kontu kankalaray
Varunkatal milanin remmirai nalvinai vacikkume

The Kapala dance is in one sense the dance of involution. There the skull is not that of Brahman alone.

In the light of these explanations the references to skulls in plural may be understood. It will be clear that Arurar, who has confessed that he is expressing only what Appar and Campantar had expressed, believes, in the same explanation.


Irantar talaiyir palikotal”,—“Receiving alms in the skulls of the dead persons’. If Shiva is the Lord of involution or destruction as it is called, kapala is the emblem of this destruction; it is the capital of his trials of Divinity and it is His great penance bearing up with this for the sake of their future salvation—bearing the cross for others: ‘'Cettavartam talaiyir palikolvate celvam nkul attavam avatu arintomer ‘If receiving the alms when begging in the skulls of the dead persons is His wealth and if we had known that this is His penance (we would not have come to serve Him)’. On the surface, there is a humorous vein, but underneath this lies all the message of this form: in this sense, the skulls of the dead ones—dead, long long ago—decayed and deteriorated. It is “patutalai” ‘dead head’. The skull is spoken of as deteriorated and giving way in some part—“Katuvay-t talai”, or, ‘‘Oruvayt talai” The skull is a broken one and it is dried up into white colour though the old flesh is all there—“Unar utai ventalai”. This dried up white skull smells the carcass—“Mu tai nariya ventalai”. It is a dried up head—“Unankai talai”. Because of the dried up flesh still on the whole skull, the kites rush on and surround it—“Parar ventalai”, “Parani ventalai The skull is white because it is dried up and therefore whenever a skull is described, white one, it has to be imagined a dried up one. In the skull the teeth will be all intact and then it looks like grinning, so much so, the poet describes it as “Naku ventalai”. This is the first stage. The teeth fall away due to deterioration: “Pallayar ventalai”—‘the white skull from which the teeth get loosened’. This is the second stage. The teeth are then completely fallen—“Pallai yukka patu talai”, — ‘the dead head from which the teeth had fallen away’; “Pallil vellai-t talai” —‘the white skull with no teeth’.


That the skull is taken from the cremation ground (representing the involution) is made graphic by a few suggestions. The kites rush on the skull. The fox burrows down and removes the corpse, feasts on it and throws away the skull and the bones. “Nari arum cutalai naku ventalai kontavane” —‘You, who had got hold of the grinning white skull from the cremation ground which is full of foxes’; “Nari kanritta eccil vellai-p patu talaiye purintan” —‘One who loves only the decayed white skull spat out and thrown out by the fox’. Since this is a reading adopted here, a word is necessary about this reading. Some editors read this passage as, “Naniyir koi a tzi talaiye pur in tan ari kanritta eccil vel-lai-p patutalai”—having, atutalaiye as the opening word of the third line, the reading ari is adopted so that there may be the required alliteration. “Naniyir kol atutal” makes no sense. “Naniyir koi natutal”—‘He planted the bow on the bow-string’ is therefore better. If the line thus begins in alliteration will require ‘nari’ and not ‘ari’.

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