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, Poet of The Common Man

K. Bhimasankaram


We know little of the lives of the great men of our past. Except during the last few decades, we have not had in our language2 the arts of biography, auto-biography and history. But human curiosity being irrepressible, legend was always ready to take up the task of biography and history. About every man of some distinction stories were put into circulation, some credible but not necessarily true, and some altogether incredible; and the strong instinct for hero-worship united with the love of the miraculous to induce people to feed on these stories with relish.

Thus, of the life of Vemana, the Telugu poet, the subject of my talk this evening, little or nothing that is authentic is known, Here and there in his work, unless the verses themselves are to be rejected as not his, he has interspersed a few references to himself and they contain all the information that we have about him.

A verse of his runs as follows:

“The village is Kondaveedu, and the residence the first house in the western street ofMooga Chintapalli. As to my caste, what shall I say? I am of the frowzy Reddy caste!”

Another verse attributed to him describes him as residing at Katarupalli, a village towards the east of Kadiri, a town in the present district of Anantapur; there the visitor is shown what is said to be the tomb of Vemana, and some of the residents of that village claim to be his descendants. But there is some reason to doubt whether this tomb contains the remains of the poet. The Vemana of Katarupalli would seem to be a different Vemana, known as Tunga Vemana. And so this verse is, perhaps, not the poet’s own.

There are one or two other verses in which the poet describes himself, but they mention no facts of his life.

Even as to the age to which he belongs there has been some controversy, and the best informed scholarship would place him in the 15th century. Although we are lacking in authentic information, we have a large body of legend which has naturally grown around his name. There is a tradition that he belonged to an aristocratic family. According to another widely accepted tradition, he is described as a Mahayogi, and as having wandered about the country, naked, preaching his message. I must confess my inability to credit this. It does not seem to be in character with Vemana as known by his writings. He was, indeed, a great man, and might have gone about preaching; but it seems to me he was hardly likely to have been an ascetic. He has himself heaped ridicule on the role of a Sanyasi. In one of his verses, he says:

“While tramps without means of subsistence go forth posing as yogis, fools greet them with salutations!”

Not merely that. He seems to have been imbued with a keen desire for the good things of life. As to Tagore, deliverance does not seem to him to have been in renunciation. For has not Vemana sung thus?

“He who does not desire the things of the earth does not desire salvation either!”

He seems to me indeed to have visited all the booths in Vanity Fair. The tradition of his having been a digambara yogi does not appeal to me.

Although the facts of his outer life that we know are few, there is available to us a considerable body of his work, which, properly understood, would throw light upon his inner life. To be sure, not all the nearly five thousand verses attributed to him by tradition could have been his composition. Some of them are manifestly spurious. Some others are to be treated as of exceedingly doubtful authenticity. It is not unlikely that a few of them are the production of other versifiers of the same name, while a good number would seem to be either imitations or parodies. It would not be a difficult task for a versifier with a grievance to compose a verse in the name of Vemana in which he could expose a person or a community he disliked to contempt or ridicule. He could thus at once conceal his malice and obtain distinction for his own composition.

The form of verse that Vemana generally adopted is a simple one. His style is free from artifice, and his diction simple. His lines are short, crisp and aphoristic. Consequently, memorable as they are, their very adaptability for common currency would much facilitate counterfeit coinage. A poetaster could produce, without much effort, a plausible imitation of his unadorned phrase; and, with some effort, even reproduce something like the nerve of his line. I should hesitate, therefore, to accept as his some of the verses generally attributed to him. Such of these verses as could not have been his seem to me to embody the stale sententiousness of the wiseacres or (if I may use the expression of an English reviewer) the trite “commonplacency” of the professional moralist.

In the third decade of the last century, that great benefactor of Telugu literature, C. P. Brown, made a collection of the verses of Vemana, and would seem to have taken about nearly 700 of them as genuine. Other scholars too have been at work since his day. But I cannot help feeling that a canon of his work still remains to be established by careful and critical scholarship. It will have to be based upon a close study of his diction, his manner and his characteristic modes of thought. Of course, allowance will have to made for contradictions or inconsistencies that might have been due to the evolution of his personality or the development of his ideas.

Now, let me say this. I do not think of Vemana even as a great poet. He has written great Verse, it is true; but I should hardly call it poetry. It is simple, but not sensuous or passionate, judged by the standards of Milton’s definition of ‘poetry’. Judged by another standard, it may instruct and delight, but it does not move. He is not in the tradition of the great triumvirate of Telugu literature. I regard him as a satirist and moralist: but his role was pre-eminently that of a satirist. He was the gadfly of his age. He inveigbs against hypocrisy of every kind. He burns with indignation against the wrongs that men in high places commit–whether they occupy such places by virtue of caste, wealth, social or political status. His satire is scathing; his wit scintillating; and his criticism is touched not infrequently with flashes of humour. There is in him, it cannot be denied, an occasional touch of vulgarity, even perhaps of obscenity. There is, too, although this is rarer, a tone of violence, nay, of brutality, but there is no bitterness or venom in his criticism. He is not a cynic. Nor is he mere carper and fault-finder. He has a positive message. He was for a caste-less non-sectarian Hinduism, and preached the gospel of universal brotherhood. Charity, large heartedness, tolerance, humility, self-criticism, forgiveness were among the virtues that he glorified in his verse. While exposing the hollowness and heartlessness of caste, rank and wealth, he preached the democratic doctrine that an individual is to be judged by his own worth. He was an iconoclast; and, in religious, social and moral matters, he insisted upon a transvaluation of values.

I have already stated that his style is free from pedantry. His diction is simple; there is nothing ‘poetic’ about it in the derogatory sense; it is colloquial but yet incisive, pungent sometimes, but all the time muscular with the vernacular vigour of spoken Telugu, and sparkless now and again with the glow of regional idiom. He often captivates you with an unusual simile, and charms you with a bright epigram. The meaaning of his verse is plain, and call be grasped as it is read or heard recited, although the wisdom of his thought may require to be pondered over. In this quality of perfect clarity, he stands distinguished and apart from most Telugu poets whose highly Sanskritised locutions can hardly be understood by the layman without the assistance of pundits. He is thus, in sense and style, essentially the poet of the common man to whom he addressed his message. He was tireless in his attempt to jolt men out of their pathetic unquestioning submission to superstition and convention, while he castigated the presumptions of the pedant and the pharisee. The most striking quality of his work, however, in my opinion, is its modernity. His message of universal brother hood and non-violence is one which the best spirits of the world today are trying to propagate. Take this verse for instance:

“Place one single plate before all people who inhabit the earth; make them eat side by side; and let caste be buried. Put your hand on their head and initiate them into the true Belief.”

He has also preached the gospel of non-violence:

“When any enemy deserving of death falls into your hands do him no harm but only good, and ask him to go away: that is death to him!”

Now, I will illustrate briefly from his verse some of his most characteristic attitudes. The following verse illustrates his non-sectarianism:

“The bhakthasof Siva have mingled with the dust; and so also those of Vishnu. Why should there be any dispute? What is the difference between one god and another?”

He despises idolatry and sings,

“Does an idol of stone want coloured clothes, temples, towers and honours? Does god desire food and clothing?”

He did not hold that merit was to be earned by visiting holy places, as is witnessed by this verse:

“A man of no faith will not become a devotee by going to Thirumalai; nor does a pig become an elephant by visiting Banaras; nor does a dog become a lion by dipping in the Godavari!”

With mordant wit he exposes his disbelief in astrology:

“When the Brahmins assemble, pronounce their mantramsand properly join the bride and the bridegroom in wedlock at an auspicious muhurtham, how does it happen that the girl is widowed?”

In his zeal for the one true god, his irreverence extended to the deities of Hindu mythology. About Rama, he asks:

“Without even doubting whether there can be on earth a golden deer, Rama left his wife to pursue the golden deer. Howcan he be a god who had so little intelligence?”

Again he says:

“When he should have made the ocean dry with an arrow of fire, why did Rama carry hills to build a bridge across it? He must have lost his godlyworth after living for a time in the forest!”

He lashed the pretensions of caste superiority in the following words:

“Can the application of white ashes conceal the smell of a wine pot? Can the sacred thread over one’s shoulder make one twice-born?”

“The devasof the earth say, ‘We are pure, we are learned in the scriptures’, and so scorn those who are uncultured. In truth, the poor man of the lowest caste is better than the men who vaunt thus!”

The uncomprehending recital of the Vedas was denounced by him in the following words:

“Mere recital of the Vedas will not dispel the anxieties of the aspirant. He must have experience. Darkness is not conquered by a mere painted flame!

(By the way, this affords an excellent example of his power to make a simile.)

Hypocrisy he lambasts thus:

“Even if he had read all that is to be read, even if he be a keen debater, no hypocrite will attain salvation. His meditations are like those of the dog on the dung-hill!”

I have a feeling that, generally speaking, he was inclined to place more emphasis on sanity than on saintliness; a message which in my opinion we need even today. He pleaded for a balanced outlook and would seem to reprehend too much other-worldliness:

“If he knows You, he does not know himself; if he knows himself, he does not know You. Oh, God, when will he get to know both himself and You?”

He preaches charity in these words:

“If you consider your possessions as your own, only fools will be at one with you. That only is yours which you have bestowed on others; the rest does not belong to you. He who gives a handful of food to the needy goes straight to heaven.”

Before I conclude, I would like to say a word about what I consider a fatuous and deplorable attempt made in some quarters to lure the text of Vemana’s limpid verses to extort trite theological dogmas or casuistical formulae from them. One is reminded in this context of what Alexander Pope has said in his note appended to his translation of the Iliad, to which reference was recently made by Professor Geoffrey Tillotson, There, pope speaks of the passion of some commentators

“to discover New Meanings in an Author whom they will cause to appear mysterious purely for the pleasure of being thought to unravel him…..If they can but find Word which has once been strain’d by some dark Writer to signify anything different from its usual acceptation, it is frequent with them to apply it constantly to that uncommon Meaning, whenever they meet it in a clear Writer….”

Vemana was not a man of so little wit as to try to hide the light of his simple thoughts under a bushel, It is futile to try to read esoteric meanings into his plain-spoken words, Indeed, the attempt seems to me a sacrilege.

1 By Courtesy of the All India Radio
2 Telugu.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: