Kerala’s Krishna Bhakti – the Classical and Vernacular
T.K. Venkatasubramanian
PUNTANAM AND MELPATTUR: TWO MEASURES OF BHAKTI by Vijay Nambisan Penguin, 2011, 95 pp., 150
January 2010, volume 34, No 1

The first millennium bc saw the develop ment of the brahmanical traditions of ritual adherence to varnashrama-dharma and the ideology of renunciation. From about 500 bc there was a growth of sectarian worship of particular deities which resulted in devotional worship. Performing puja is a way of expression of love or devotion (bhakti) to a deity in some form. Bhakti to a personal God (Bhagavan) or Goddess (Bhagavati) became an all pervasive movement. This growth of Hindu theism and devotionalism is reflected in the Sanskrit narrative traditions as well as in devotional poetry of vernacular languages.

Krishna was a deity of the Yadava clan, who probably became fused with the deity Vasudeva. The historicity of Krishna is impossible to assess from sources in which hagiography and history are inextricably bound together. However, historicity of Krishna is inevitable for the tradition and the Vaishnavites believe that he was a historical personage. By the fourth century ad, the Bhagavata tradition of Vasudeva-Krishna absorbs the Krishna-Gopala concept also. The cult of Narayana is another ingredient which gets fused with the evolving Bhagavata tradition.

Over a period of time, Vishnu and his various incarnations become identified with each other. Rama and Krishna came to be favoured above others by devotees of Vaishnava traditions.

Vijay Nambisan, a marundan malayali has brought Melpattur’s Narayaneeyam and Puntanam’s Jnana-Paana to a new audience through elegant verse translations in English under the Penguin classics series. The link poem by Mahakavi Vallathol records:
The Malayalam poet’s grief
You (Lord Krishna) must relieve,
Your malady can have no other cure but that
To learning indeed Bhattathri has a claim;
The burning faith of Puntanam is dearer far.

The translator’s apology is really significant. He is right in his observation about Tamil and Malayalam being digglosal. To be literate is not the same as educated is the meaning of digglosia. Nambisan explores the dynamics of Malayali culture by selecting Jnana-paana, the first original modern poem in Malayalam and Narayaneeyam, the last great hurrah of classical Sanskrit as touch stones of Krishna faith (bhakti) in Kerala with Vallathol linking the two to highlight the story of the Sankritist scorning the vernacular poet and the attitude of elitism to regional literature.

Till about 9th century ad Kerala was almost a part of Tamilakam and the language of the region was Tamil known as Koduntamil. Malayalam originated as an offshoot and came under the influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit when the brahmins and brahminism became a dominant element in Kerala society and culture. Ninth to twelfth centuries witnessed a curious mixture of Tamil and Sanskrit known as Manipravalam. This new language (style) served as the vehicle of literary expression after 11th century ad. Vesikatantram, the work in Manipravalam is well known, and it embodied the advice given by a mother to her daughter on the art of enticement. Champus and Sandesakavyas of the 13th and 14th centuries are considered as two distinct forms of poetic expression of Malayalam language. Niranam poets and Cherusseri followed. By the 15th and 16th centuries Malayalam had almost liberated itself from the influence of Tamil and at the same time assimilated in full the influence of Sanskrit. While the early champus thrived as the theme of the Devadasis of the day, the medieval champus drew their themes from the Puranas and were written in imitiation of Sanskrit champus in all respects.

The Bhakti cult found its supreme literary expression in Malayalam in the works of Ezhuthachan and Puntanam. Adyatma Ramayanam and Mahabharatam of Ezhuthachan are even today the greatest classics in Malayalam and the author is hailed as the father of Malayalam language›. It is interesting to note that Ezhuthachan was from a low-caste Nayar family, but mastered both Sanskrit sastras and Tamil classics. He not only gave Malayalam literature its transcreations but also revived the bhakti tradition.

Puntanam and Melpattur were both Nambudiris, contemporaries, bhaktas and poets. Sanskrit learning was a must to Nambudiris. Puntanam could never attain scholarship to write in Sanskrit and chose Malayalam. He poured out his bhakti in his native language. His Srikrishna Karnamrutam and Santanagopalam are not as well known today as Jnana-paana is. This work is also considered as a foundation-stone of Malayalam literature. The acceptance of Malayalam as Kerala’s language owes something to the story that Lord Krishna himself told Melpattur that Puntanam’s bhakti was dearer to God than Melpattur’s Vibhakti (Erudition). The translator is right when he says that the poems should not be read as expressions of Bhakti movement, but as expressions of individual bhaktas.

Puntanam makes it clear that he is no scholar and there is no need for scholarship (line 25) to understand his poem. He emphasizes Karma (good and bad deeds) (line 34), and the chain of Karma alone holds the world together. There is an element of nobody to somebody and somebody to nobody argument in his verses when he says an elephant dies to be born as an ant and vice-versa, or a mouse dies to be reborn as a cat. He anticipates the future centuries in extolling Bharatam and the greatness of our land. Ridiculing the brahman seems to be a favourite theme with all bhaktas (line 249). Learning and knowledge has been ridiculed thus. (A donkey carries, though unable to smell, a load of saffron on its back to sell). Puntanam’s bhakti is a great leveller of social inequalities arising out of caste distinction. Low born or brahmin as his looks confirm, unless he is born with a tongue (Malayalam here!!) of all the countless names which praise the Lord, if he utters one word (Narayana/ Guruvayurappa/Krishna) everyday, the Lord is within his reach. Puntanam prays to the Lord for his benediction on his song which makes Jnana-paana an expression of the vernacular measure of Krishna bhakti repetition. This slim volume is recommended to all those who are interested in the dynamics of Malayali culture and the paradox of the classical and the vernacular in Kerala literary traditions.