Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Vemana: The People’s Poet

Peddada Ramaswami



By Peddada Ramaswami, M.A.

“THERE exists among the masses of the people a vast underground sea of belief totally unconnected with temporal sources of power. From this sea, occasionally, strange waters work their way to the surface. The great poets are such springs and they articulate the feelings of the masses in opposition to orthodox doctrines and vested interests.”

Vemana is such a poet among the Telugus. The details of his personal history are shrouded in mystery, and the task of ascertaining them with any degree of accuracy is rendered most difficult by a large amount of legend, interpolation, and imitation. It seems to be fairly certain that he lived at one or the other end of the 17th century, that he lived probably in what is now narrowly miscalled Royalaseema, that he was a scion of a decadent feudal Reddy dynasty, and that early in life he had sample opportunities of acquiring cultural contacts with pandits and poets who flocked around the men of power and wealth. It seems to have been fairly certain also that like most young men of decadent ruling families, he fell a victim to youthful lust and avarice, that after a short while he had his inevitable disillusionment, and that thereafter a deep hunger that no material thing could satisfy took possession of his soul, and urged him on, till he visited several men renowned for spiritual power and insight, studied several systems of philosophy and religion, hoping to find therein a real and helpful clue to the attainment of salvation. This long and arduous quest did not at all satisfy the longing of his soul and at last, in sheer disgust, he abandoned all sects, forsook all gurus. All his journeys were turned within; they became inward pilgrimages, and he found in the resources of his own spirit what he could not find in his outward ramblings. All his futile experiments in religion, whatever might have been their positive achievements, were serviceable to him, for they opened his eyes to the dangers attendant along the path of religious quest and questioning, and once for all made him realise the futility and the worse than futility of all external rites and ceremonies. After this, it is no wonder, he took to fierce denunciation of external rituals, of sacred scriptures, of priestly classes, of mere physical disciplines, as not only unavailing for purposes of spiritual illumination but as dangerously misleading to the earnest seeker after salvation. And just as he hurls his denunciations with an intensity of scorn, so does he assert the positive truths of his own finding with an equal intensity of conviction. It need hardly be said that, not being a profound scholar or a systematic student, he did not develop a connected system of doctrine and discipline. It is perhaps not wrong to presume that, as and when the occasion arose, he threw forth, minted from the flaming furnace of his burning spiritual experience, sharp and striking truths, some critical, some satirical, some mystical, some practical, but all arresting by their directness of vision and statement. The original expression is in the language spoken by the average Telugu masses; there are no profound learned expressions, there are not any linked combination of words, called Samasams. But employing the simple forceful language of everyday usage, he strikes out astonishing truths with precision and with persuasiveness; we see how in his hands the simple language has been forged into an instrument of forceful expression, his poetry itself in fact being a unique achievement of expression unparalleled in the range of Telugu literature, revealing the potentialities of ordinary spoken Telugu as a vehicle for the expression of lofty ideas and of uplifting sentiments. It is a significant thing that so earnest a soul and so profound a scholar as Mr. Brown of the I.C.S. taking to the study of Telugu a century ago and enquiring for works popular among people and composed in a style easily comprehended by a foreigner, first came across the verses of Vemana, carried on a certain amount of research and published a translation of a selection of them. The book is at once a monument of the scholarly devotion of Mr. Brown and an indication also that Vemana strikes an unprejudiced person as a typically Telugu poet. As we read his verses, we are struck with the directness of Vemana’s vision, with his power of penetration, with his scorching indignation at cant and untruth, with his fiery denunciation of futile externals in religion, but we are also attracted by the sweet and charming manner in which he directly lays hand on the central core of truth. Directness of vision leads to force of expression, as reality of experience imparts a convincing character to it, It is refreshing to find that Vemana does not exhaust himself in satirical outbursts, but that very often he hits off wholesome truths of religious practice, pregnant observations on the character of home-life, on the unavailing nature of outward ceremony, on the healing character of forgiveness, on the individual human spirit as a supreme Shekinah of the Divine; myths like the sanctity of books or of Avatars are punctured with little pinpricks and illuminating truths are shot out with astonishing simplicity of both experience and expression.

It need hardly be said that, when dealing with a poet like Vemana, translation is impossible, because the man’s ideas are set on fire with passion and thereby acquire an air of high conviction, and the poet himself becomes a champion for the directness of personal experience and vision. He utters, his scorching protests against all staleness and strategy in religion and from his habit of original thought, and from the heights of one who has his head in the clouds, he hits off, he dashes forth, he pours out, he spreads around, illumination in many an epigram. Sometimes he is fantastic, but at other times he is furious. Often he seems devastating, on occasions he becomes illuminative. With such a poet, explanation and translation make for staleness; but we have to give an idea of some at least of the poet’s observations on life and things. He speaks of tenacity of purpose and single-mindedness of devotion. He says that where grace and goodness combine in the wife, there is no heaven higher than a home. He points out that forgiveness is the noblest vengeance; he ridicules the idiosyncrasies of the reputed incarnations of God in the Hindu pantheon. Sometimes in a tone of divine flippancy he cries out like the man who said that if, at the time of creation, God had consulted him, he might have given him some useful hints; and on occasions he again dashes forth brilliant truths like that of the essential identity of the human spirit and divine spirit, or that God-knowledge is the only true knowledge.

As already indicated Vemana represents the triumph of simple spoken Telugu as against the high-flown Sanskritised diction of the pandit and the scholarly poet; it is equally true that he represents the triumph of the common man with natural longings and unrepressed desires as against the artificial reparations of sacerdotal religion. It is true likewise also that he represents the truth of natural religion as against artificial religiosity. One cannot help feeling that in spite of a good deal of disillusionment, Vemana perhaps had some lingering obscure belief which sometimes speak through his verses. But the wonder is that coming so early as three centuries ago, he had shaken off the soul-destroying bondage of so much formalism, so much superstition and so much of fussiness. One cannot help regretting that he had wasted time in a good deal of ethical drudgery, of tantric mummery and of alchemic jugglery. But the wonder is, that despite all these, passing through and transcending all these, he could attain a loftiness of vision, and intensity of conviction, a directness of expression and a forcefulness of persuasion that may well be the envy of the more erudite among poets. Leaving aside Tikkana, the typical exponent, on the scholarly side, of the genius of the Telugus, if I were asked to pick out the name of another among the ranks of people’s poets who stands out typically as an exponent of the genius of the Telugu man, I would unhesitatingly point out Vemana. He is unquestionably the most oft-quoted poet in Telugu, and one would not be guilty of exaggeration in saying that there is hardly any Telugu man who cannot repeat from memory at least a few of the verses of Vemana. His humour is not of that variety which, is akin to humanity. It is not, for instance, like the humour of Srinadha who can raise a smile but leave no sting behind. He is the unrivalled master of Ata-veladi metre as Tikkana is of Kandam, and has made of it a magnificent medium for the pithy and pregnant expression of significant truth. In fact his acknowledged supremacy therein makes others almost despair of anywhere approaching him. Meaning and metre are completely fused that the resulting product is a haunting melody which accounts for and explains his undying popularity. Vemana, like the author of Vasucharitra, stands through the centuries as an indubitable testimony to the truth that talent of the supreme type elicits for itself the whole-hearted some of admiring generations, irrespective of the caste and community affiliations of the poet. A little more reverent study of Vemana by the Telugus today would be a healthy antidote to the ill-conceived communalism, the incurable sacerdotalism the devastating externalism of the present day Andhra life.

But to my mind Vemana is great, more as reformer than as poet; alone among the poets he is the stout-hearted protestant crying against all the evils of an external revelation and a specific incarnation, and pleading for directness of approach and a reality of experience as immeasurably superior to all the fussiness that now passes for religion. He tears to pieces so much of cant and self-deception that passes under the name of religion and philosophy; his fierce denunciations are truely Carlylean in the intensity of their wrath and his mystic assertions are those which only a seer can have the courage to assert. He is, in fact, a Kavi among Yogis and a Yogi among Kavis. He illustrates the grand truth which Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his lyrics expresses when he sings:

“Thy words are simpler, My Master, than theirs who talk of thee.”

He shows that where paths are many and confusing, and guiding voices become bewildering, the native human spirit, by the light of its own longings and the light of its own questing, is sure to find out God, because, after all, God and man are sure to find each other out as surely as the magnet and the iron, despite all the obscurations that priests and churches have thrown along the path of spiritual quest.

1 By courtesy of All India Radio, Madras.

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