The Hindu poet saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar describes herself as a demon, accompanying the god Siva as he dances in the cremation grounds. She is believed to be the first to write devotional poetry to Siva in the Tamil language and is considered the first of the sixty-three Tamil poet-saints. Written in the sixth or seventh century, her beautiful poetry presents the path of love and services that brings liberation. In Siva’s Demon Devotee, Elaine Craddock Provides a historical, literary, and ethnographic exploration of Karaikkal Ammaiyar and her work. An annotated translation of the poet-saint’s 143 verses is included along with an introduction to the Tamil literary tradition. Craddock’s analysis of this poetry in its ancient context and of narrative tradition that developed around the life of Karaikkal Ammaiyar centuries later reveals cultural tensions concerning women’s women roles and the devotional path.
Elaine Craddock is Professor of Religion at Southwestern University George Town, Texas (U.S.A). She has contributed several articles to leadings journals around the world.
Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the "Mother from Karaikkal," was probably the first poet to write hymns to the god Siva in Tamil, in approximately the mid-sixth century, when the boundaries between Siva's devotees and competing groups were just starting to be articulated in a self- conscious way. Speaking to god in one's mother tongue, rather than Sanskrit, was pivotal to the triumph of Hindu devotionalism over the religions of Jainism and Buddhism that reached the apex of their popularity in South India during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Tamil Saiva tradition considers Karaikkal Ammaiyar the author of four works of poetry. Her powerful poetry is what Indira Peterson calls a "rhetoric of immediacy," as it speaks to a particular community defining itself in a context of competing religious allegiances (1999, 165). Along with the hymns of the later saints, her 143 poems envision a world where devotees can dwell in perpetual bliss with Siva, ridicules those who cannot see that Siva is the only truth, and points to the sophisticated philosophy that would be systematized as Saiva Siddhanta centuries later.
In the southernmost Indian state of Tamilnadu, Saiva Siddhanta developed over many centuries to become the dominant philosophical, theological, and ritual system associated with the god Siva. The tradition was systematized between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries but draws its devotional perspectives from the stories and hymns of the nayaumars, or "leaders," the sixty-three devotees of Siva who were canonized as saints in Cekkilar's twelfth-century hagiography, the Periya Puranam. Seven of these saints wrote poems to Siva between the sixth and ninth centuries. Along with the Alvars who sang to Visnu, these poets were part of the bhakti or devotional movements that began in South India and spread the emotional worship of a personal god throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The devotional movements contained elements of social as well as religious reform, protesting Brahmanical orthodoxy along with the heterodox faiths of Buddhism and Jainism, But this revivalist Hinduism was rooted in the temple, which depended on royal patronage. So, although the devotional ideology undercut caste and gender hierarchies in principle, in practical terms the patriarchal boundaries remained. Statistically, women are not very visible among the Tamil devotional movements: Antal is the only woman Vaisnava saint, and out of the sixty-three Saiva nayanmars, only three are women (Ramaswamy 1997, 120-121). However, the life and poetry of Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the only woman poet among the nayaumars, reveals a fascinating portrait of the localization of a pan-Indian god and the potential space for women in this emerging tradition.
I first became acquainted with Karaikkal Ammaiyar many years ago when I saw Cola bronze images of her in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Metropolitan Museum of New York. I was immediately attracted to her: Her beautiful face wore an expression of pure bliss; her mouth was open, singing her praises for Siva, her Lord. Her enraptured face seemed profoundly at odds with her skeletal, vaguely demonic form. Her striking image led me to read her poetry, and to discover that she indeed had a demon or pey form, in which she lived with Siva in the cremation ground. As I investigated Karaikkal Ammaiyar's life and work, it became clear that there is a continuing tension between the twelfth-century image of her created by Cekkilar and standardized in the ensuing centuries-that of a devoted wife whose love for Siva finally disrupts her domestic life-and the image she presents of herself in her poetry, a pey happily singing in the cremation ground, enraptured by Siva's dance. It turns out that the way I became acquainted with Karaikkal Ammaiyar is a common pattern even in South India, where most people know at least the outline of her story. Worshipers at temples to Siva in Tamilnadu see her image among the sixty-three saints recognized by the Saiva tradition. But not many people are acquainted with her poetry. The divergence between her poetry and her popular life story will be examined in detail in the following chapters.
A Brief Synopsis of Her Story
Chapter 3 explores the story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar in detail, but here I provide a brief synopsis of her story:
Karaikkal Ammaiyar was born in the sixth century into a well- to-do trading family in the coastal town of Karaikkal and originally named Punitavati. She was a faithful wife to a rich merchant, as well as an ardent devotee of Siva. One day her husband brought home two mangoes for his midday meal. But before the meal Punitavati gave a Saiva holy man who came to the door for alms one of the mangoes and some rice. When her husband ate his meal and asked for the second mango, Punitavati prayed to Siva for help; another mango appeared, which she served to her husband. This one was so much more delicious than the first, her husband was suspicious and asked his wife where she'd gotten it. She reluctantly told him, but he doubted her story and asked her to repeat the miracle in his presence. Again Punitavati prayed to Siva, and another mango appeared; her husband was terrified of her power and fled to another city without releasing her from her wifely duties.
Punitavati continued to keep up his house and her appearance in anticipation of his return, but eventually her parents found out where he was living with his second wife and daughter. When Punitavati learned that her husband didn't want her as a wife anymore, she begged Siva to take away the beauty she no longer needed and give her a demon form. He granted her wish; she then made a pilgrim- age to the Himalayas, walking on her hands so as not to defile god's heavenly abode with her feet. Siva was so moved by her devotion he called her “Ammai" or mother, and allowed her to perpetually witness his dance at Tiruvalankatu, where she lived as his adoring servant.
The ascetic path she embodies and praises in her poetry forms a critique of her previous life as a devoted wife. The beautiful Cola bronzes I saw, along with many other images I have seen since, convey the bliss of Karaikkal Ammaiyar's devotion to God, but soften the fierce, demonic form she took when she renounced the world to meditate on Siva. She is a bridge between the ancient Tamil world, in which ghosts and demons and fierce goddesses inhabited the forests, and the formalization of the devotional tradition that became dominant in the centuries after she lived and composed her poetry. As the Sanskritic god Siva became localized in Tamilnadu, the fierce female beings integral to the local tradition lost their place of power. Although Karaikkal Ammaiyar's poetry portrays a woman who forged her own spiritual path in opposition to cultural norms, her story reveals continuing cultural ambivalence concerning women's renunciation of the domestic life." In the temple dedicated to her in her birthplace, Karaikkal, her image is that of an auspicious married woman, and the annual mango festival celebrates her marriage and her devotion to Siva in the domestic realm. At the temple of Tiruvalankatu, where she watched Siva dance and where she is said to have' achieved liberation, she has only relatively recently become part of the temple's annual festival.
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