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 Mystic

K. Ramakotiswara Rau


“The Darsanas–systems of philosophy–are many, but God is one,” proclaimed Vemana. And God pervades all things, inanimate as well as animate. He is not far away, for His is the light that dwells in the hearts of all. Through prayer and meditation, through righteous living and kindliness, you will finally realise that, in essence, He and you are one. The state of blessedness extolled in the Gita and the Upanishads, as the goal of all spiritual striving, was a matter of personal experience to Vemana, and he spoke of it to the common people in impromptu verse, at once simple and charged with power. But it was after prolonged suffering and struggle that this peasant-poet of medieval Andhra achieved the peace which passeth understanding.

Born in the neighbourhood of the mountain-fortress of Kondavidu in the present district of Guntur towards the end of the sixteenth century, Vemana was brought up in comparative comfort. There is little evidence to support the claim that he belonged to the Reddy royal family that ruled from Kondavidu. But his father was a prosperous landowner who cultivated broad acres and possessed flocks of sheep and cattle. Vemana seems to have acquired the learning which was within the reach of the well-to-do middle class families of the time. He was familiar with the Puranas as rendered into Telugu, and with the music of devotional hymns and songs. He was not a scholar in the technical sense, wedded to tradition and sastraic lore. But the power of observation and the wisdom that comes of contact with men and affairs, were his in abundant measure. To these was added the gift of lucid and even biting expression. Warm-hearted and generous by nature, he gathered round him friends of his own age and became subject to the temptations which surround the gay youth of all lands. He was particularly sensitive to the charms of women, though it is not necessary for us to believe all the stories of riotous living related of him. But this life of excitement brought on a sense of weariness and disillusion. He soon settled down domestic life, with wife and children, and the petty cares of a householder.

Even thus, he was not happy. His was a restless spirit, seeking release from the bonds of convention. The life of the people around him was one of dull complacence. The temples and the priests were there, to administer to the spiritual needs of the rich as well as the lowly. Siva and Vishnu were the Deities who claimed the allegiance of the people. There was rivalry between the worshippers of these Deities, but no violent conflict. There were some attempts to found a new cult, that of Hari-Hara, preaching that Siva and Vishnu are indeed the same. The temple festivals and processions, with dance and music, appealed to the aesthetic sense of people of all castes. It was an age of contentment with things as they were, in life, society and politics. The country was broken up into petty chieftainships. The noblemen lived in luxury, fighting occasional battles, and patronising poetry and the arts. The poets travelled from one court to another, displayed their skill, and acquired rewards in the shape of land and

Vemana could have lived like the rest of his contemporaries, or taken service under some chieftain to achieve the limited ambition of a rural hero. He believed in marriage as an institution that made for happiness. “If the wife is virtuous and the sons well-behaved,” says he, “why should a man seek another Heaven!” And again, “He who deserts his wife, and runs after lewd women, is like the fool who neglects a fertile field and picks up weeds.” Living a life of contentment, one should bestow in charity. “The gift of food to the hungry is the greatest of all gifts, for it is eaten as if it were offered to the Lord.” All this is excellent, if life could run smooth. For Vemana, however, it did not run smooth. There was domestic discord, due to lack of wealth, and due also to Vemana’s changing moods. According to him, “Indigence is a consuming flame; it ruins one’s self and those near to him. If money is earned somehow and brought home, the wife is pleased. But if there is some slight difficulty, she gives no end of trouble. And the sons find fault with you.” Whether it was discontent bred by domestic unhappiness which finally decided Vemana to renounce home and family, is a matter of speculation. In any case, it could not have been the sole reason. All discontented holders do not become wanderers on earth. There was some overpowering inner urge that led Vemana to choose the life of a Yogi.

The hunger of the soul is vastly more agonising than all hungers. Once the mind is turned from the pleasures of the senses and begins the quest after the Eternal and the climate, no peace is possible till man establishes contact with the Light of all lights. Everyone has to tread the path with bleeding feet, periods of quiet contemplation alternating with long stretches of painful effort Vemana sought the help of Gurus, and he found some among the wandering Siva-yogis of the Vira-Saiva cult who offered to guide him through the disciplines of the Hata-yoga. But they were more intent on the turning of baser metals into gold through the process of alchemy, and diverted Vemana for a time from the other pursuit–the greater alchemy which transmutes the human into the Divine, through the unselfish seeking of spiritual truth. And when they trained him in Hata-yoga, the Siddhis like distant vision and distant hearing became temptations which obscured the goal of liberation and union with the Divine. How Vemana achieved the supreme condition of the Raja-yogi, is a secret known only to himself. His verses contain indications of certain steps on the way to realisation, but he definitely advised his hearers not to indulge in yogic practices which might mislead the aspirant. Speaking of asanas, he says, “the yoga which consists in the planning of the asanas and the twisting and torturing of the body is a trifle less valuable than the feats of the wrestler.” Possibly, he was speaking after the manner of one whom Vemana himself describes in a verse as “ceasing to care for the raft, after crossing the stream and reaching the other shore.” But long centuries before Vemana, Prince Siddhartha on attaining liberation admonished his disciples against those rigorous exercises which were part of his own discipline in the early stages. Since the mind is the real obstacle to spiritual progress, since it always wanders and leads the senses astray, the mind must be brought under control. The seeker has to become ‘mind-less’–a–manaska. Vemana perceived this, and set great store by the practice of contemplation, and the destruction of the illusion of the separated self. This is as near to a conception of Vemana’s achievement as any layman can get.

In a verse which sums up his experience, he says: “With the aid of the wondrous axe of discrimination (viveka), cut down the forest of ignorance (avidya); take in your hand the great lamp of intelligence and have a vision of Moksha–salvation.” This discrimination is akin to the gift of the fabled swan which separates water from milk. That is why the illumined soul is known as parama-hamsa, the supreme swan. The unenlightened man, says Vemana, is like the peacock which knows not the difference between water and milk. Through such simple examples, and in language which mirrored the idom of the common man, Vemana tried to convey his wisdom to the eager crowds that gathered, round him in his wanderings.

He did not treat light-heartedly the sincere devotion of men to a personal God, as revealed in incarnation. Devotion is of great value, for it purifies the heart and enables man to develop sympathy and gentleness. But such devotion is only a step to God-vision. So long as you believe that God is different from yourself, you have not achieved the highest bliss. After great searching, you will find the Brahman seated in the lotus of your heart. And truth to tell, He is also searching for you all the time. The same thought lay behind Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”
“Veduka veduka doraku Vedanta-vedyundu
vedakuvani thanu vedaku,hundu,
veduka nerchinatti veravarlu galaroko
viswadabhirama vinura Vema

The third line is a cry of despair, for it indicates Vemana’s regret that those who know how to seek God are so few!

But Vemana was not merely a philosopher preaching of union with God. He was a poet who mastered the secret of appealing direct to the human heart. He chose the simplest of metres-Ata Veladi-and made it the vehicle for the utterance of the deepest truths of life. Every verse of his is like a living flame, bright with the wisdom born of experience, but scorching in its sarcasm. The right type of Guru is so rare and the number of false ones so large, “If in your mad anxiety, you enter every cave to seek a Guru, you will indeed attain liberation, but how? In the cave is some cruel beast which devours you and liberates!” Sometimes there is a play of humour which pleases without the usual sting. The child Krishna went about stealing milk from the co-ttages of~ the cowherds. Vemana asks: “Why should he who made his bed in the ocean of milk, care for the milk of the cowherds?” And he answers it himself: “The wealth of another is always sweet.” What a laugh he must have raised! But the laugh did not make the divine child any less lovable. So too about Rama: “Without a thought as to whether a golden deer can ever exist, the son of Dasaratha left his wife. How could a person without intelligence be a God!” That is Vemana’s simple question to simple folk. Possibly, if someone elss had put the question to him, he might have answered that God came into incarnation as man, and so he must act like a man! Nor did Vemana spare Siva. Here is a verse: “Through the fire of his eye, he burnt up Kama, and then for the satisfaction of Kama he wedded Gauri. The bonds of Karma bind one and all.” If even the Gods are caught up in the wheel of Karma, how about common men? “The men of caste and of good family, the men who are proud of their learning–all of them are slaves to the possessor of gold,” says Vemana. The destruction of worldly desires is a necessary prelude to the higher life. Renunciation becomes possible, according to Vemana, through the guidance of a worthy Guru. He will help you to break all bonds, including that of the Karma accumulated by you. In another context, he says: “To all men on earth I proclaim, that there is one way of perceiving the Lord. With mind undistracted, look on Him with intense vision.”

Thus we come to the control of the mind and the destruction of desires. So felt the saint Thyagaraja too, when he sang that there is no need for Mantras and ritual if the mind is under control. Vemana was a rebel against the restrictions of caste. He did not believe in the worship of images or in pilgrimages to distant shrines. He had a burning hatred of cant and the trappings of superstition. He was an exponent of what might be called Protestant Hinduism,–Hinduism stripped of its rites and dogmas, its creeds and conventions. Like Basaveswara and Sarvajna of Karnataka, or Kabir and Dadu of the North, he approached the masses of men with the message of simple and kindly living and the unselfish pursuit of the life of the spirit. He was frequently bitter and intolerant, and made enemies of those who could have profited from his teaching if conveyed in gentler terms. He knew the value of tolerance and declared in a famous verse: “You must listen to what anyone says. And having listened, you ought not to be in a hurry to decide, without proper reflection. He who can distinguish between the true and the false is indeed the wise one.” This verse, curiously enough, is found in the collections of Vemana’s verses as well as in the century of verse known as “Sumati Satakam.”

Vemana lived to a good old age, wandered over the greater part of South India, and gathered many friends and some enemies. But, to him, friend and foe were alike. He had no personal axe to grind. His only axe was that of Viveka with which he hewed down the forest of ignorance, as described in a verse already quoted. His followers believed that he entered a cave and disappeared from the sight of men. Through storm and struggle, he found peace in middle age, and sought most earnestly to make others tread the path to that peace. Andhra Desa and Telugu people who speak the language of Vemana are richer because of the legacy he left. But that legacy is to all earnest souls who seek the Truth. 1

1 By courtesy of All India Radio, Madras.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: