Tirunavukkarasar – The Lord of Speech
One of the greatest Saivite saints, Tirunavukkarasar is credited with the reestablishment of Hinduism in South India following the rise of nastika traditions. Popularly known as Appar, he was one of the most prolific Tamil Saiva poets and a great exponent of Saiva Siddhanta, visiting hundreds of temples and composing hymns in honor of Shiva. Appar’s message of service to God and fellow humans has timeless appeal among the faithful, and his impact on the religious and social life of the Tamil people is remarkable.
Tirunavukkarasar was born in the 7th century, possibly in the year 610, in Thiruvamur near present day Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu which was under Pallava rule at the time. His parents, Pugazhanar and Mathiniyar, were peasants of the Vellalar caste and named him Marul Neekiyar, ‘remover of ignorance.’ He had an elder sister, Tilakavathi, who would have a great influence in the life of Marul Neekiyar, and who herself was a great devotee of Shiva. Marul Neekiyar would learn the Hindu scriptures at a very early age, mastering various branches of knowledge.
Marul Neekiyar’s parents died suddenly one after the other when he was still young, leaving him and his sister desolate orphans. Then Tilakavathi, who had been betrothed to a soldier in the Pallava army, received news that he had died in war, further sending the siblings into grief. Tilakavathi would never marry, devoting her life to the service of Shiva and to raising her brother. Her glorious devotion would be the subject of several hymns by Sekkhizar who compiled the Periya Puranam.
Appar as a Jain
Marul Neekiyar continued his studies and is said to have become aware of the illusory nature of the universe at a very early age, leading him to spend all his possessions on helping the poor and the destitute.
Realizing the impermanence of worldly life,
he performed several charities,
establishing his fame in the world
by generous endowments,
and, moved by compassion, set up
free feeding houses and water booths.
- Sekkizhar, Periya Puranam
It was at this time in India’s history that the nastika, or heterodox traditions, of Buddhism and Jainism were on the rise. These religions diverged in important ways from Hindu philosophy. While they shared several important concepts such as karma, dharma, and ahimsa, Buddhism and Jainism rejected the authority of the Vedas and were completely different in their conception of a Supreme Being from Hinduism. Attracted by their focus on non-violence, Marul Neekiyar became influenced by Jain teachings.
He looked around and came to realize
the impermanence of worldly life, and said to himself,
‘I shall not be a victim to this ephemeral life,’
and full of desire to learn the philosophy
and practices of other religions in the country,
he approached Jainism, whose chief tenet is non-killing.
- Sekkizhar, Periya Puranam
Believing Jain philosophy to be the true path to liberation from samsara, the cycle of life and death, Marul Neekiyar left his sister to join a Jain monastery in Patalipuram when he was around 25 years old. He would soon master the Jain scriptures and would rise to become head of the monastery. He was also named poet laureate of the Pallava Kingdom, whose ruler was a Jain. He was given the title Dharmasena to imply his wisdom and position within the Jain community. Dharmasena spent years engaging in debates with Saiva scholars, repeatedly disparaging his old Hindu religion, and promoting his new faith.
His desolate sister, meanwhile, had renounced the world and moved to Tiruvathikai where she engaged in serving the local temple. Tormented by her brother’s conversion to Jainism and rejection of Saiva Siddhanta, Tilakavathi prayed for Lord Shiva to bestow grace on her brother. Her prayers were answered when Dharmasena was afflicted by terrible stomach pains, which the Jain monks were unable to cure. Losing faith in the religion, Dharmasena returned to his sister and, prostrating before Lord Shiva, sang his first Tevaram hymn begging for the grace of God. He was cured instantly, once again embracing Hinduism, and a voice from the heavens is said to have bestowed on him the title Tirunavukkarasar, ‘lord of speech.’ Tirunavukkarasar was about 40 years old.
Tirunavukkarasar’s embrace of Hinduism caused uproar within the Jain community. Believing that his miraculous healing by Shiva will be perceived as a sign of weakness of their own religion, the Jain monks accused Tirunavukkarasar of blasphemy and of treachery against king and country. Going against their own tenets of non-violence, they wanted Tirunavukkarasar dead. When the soldiers sent to arrest him arrived at his home, Tirunavukkarasar famously replied,
Subject to any one We are not;
Death We do not fear;
In Hell, tortures We shall not endure;
tremble We do not;
Exult We shall; disease We do not know;
submit We will not;
joy eternal is Our lot; sorrow is not for Us;
Becoming irredeemable slave
unto Sankaran of the distinction
of being never a subject to any one,
unto that King who has a ring of genuine conch
pendant from one ear,
We have arrived at His twin rosy feet
which resemble freshly picked blossoms.
- Tirunavukkarasar, Tevaram
The Pallava king, Mahendravarman I, taking counsel with the Jain monks, sentenced him to death for treason, and repeated attempts were made to carry out the sentence. The Jains first threw him into a burning lime kiln, hoping that the heat of the flames will kill him. Fixing his mind on Lord Shiva and immersed in yoga, the heat of the kiln was transformed into a cool breeze, and Tirunavukkarasar emerged unhurt. Next, when they tried to poison him to death, the grace of Lord Shiva turned the poison into sweet nectar. Finally, Tirunavukkarasar was tied to a stone and dropped into the sea but the power of his prayers was such that the stone floated and bore him to the shores of a neighboring town.
The Word (Om),
The Vedas’ Author,
The Being in Heaven,
His perfect feet, the succor of golden hue,
If you worship with joined palms,
Even if you are thrown into the sea,
Tied to a stone column,
The best succor,
Namachivaya turns out to be.
- Tirunavukkarasar, Tevaram
Witnessing these miracles, the Pallava king realized his folly and begged forgiveness for having subjected one who clearly had the grace of God to such cruel punishments. Mahendravarman I embraced Hinduism and built a great Shiva temple at Tiruvathikai to commemorate the event. Tirunavukkarasar then embarked on a life of utter devotion to Shiva, visiting various shrines around Tamil Nadu and singing the praises of Lord Shiva.
Meeting of Two Hindu Saints
One of his pilgrimages took Tirunavukkarasar to Chidambaram, one of the most famous shrines dedicated to Shiva. He composed many of his hymns at Chidambaram, inspired by the power of the temple, home of Nataraja, Lord of Dance. At Chidambaram, word reached him that the child saint Tirugnanasambandhar was in nearby Sirkazhi, and Tirunavukkarasar proceeded at once to meet him. What ensued was once of the most remarkable meetings of the two greatest Tamil Saiva saints, said to have occurred around the year 650. Upon reaching Sirkazhi, where Tirugnanasambandhar was waiting to greet him, Tirunavukkarasar prostrated at the feet of the much younger saint. This prompted Tirugnanasambandhar to lift him up and called him ‘Appar,’ father, as a sign of respect. The name Appar would remain a popular title for Tirunavukkarasar throughout his life. Tirugnanasambandhar then also fell at Appar’s feet, and this exchange would become a model of conduct for future devotees.
The two wise Saiva saints travelled together for a time, visiting Shiva temples along the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu and composing many hymns. The songs they composed, along with that of Sundaramurthy Swamigal, would form the great Tamil compendium of poetry known as Tevaram. They would soon follow their own paths, but would meet again in their pilgrimages. The influence of Tirunavukkarasar and Tirugnanasambandhar in reaffirming Saiva Siddhanta in India in the face of the rise of Jainism and Buddhism was undeniable. Their poetry and example were instrumental in promoting the bhakti movement that is an integral part of Saiva Siddhanta. It was indeed to face this threat to Hinduism that saw the rise of a great number of Saiva saints during that period of time, and among them, Tirunavukkarasar and Tirugnanasambandhar were unsurpassed.
Miracles of Appar
Appar is credited with many miracles that happened during his travels around the Tamil country. He, along with Tirugnanansambandhar, are said to have prayed for and alleviate a raging famine that had ruined Tiruvilimalai. Appar is also said to have reopened a temple in Vedaranyam that had shut itself due to the growth of adharma in the world. He is also accredited with reconverting a Shiva temple that Jains had taken over.
On one of his journeys, Appar came to Tingalur, where a devout Brahmin named Appudi Adigal had built feeding houses, wells, water tanks and sheds, and named them all after Tirunavukkarasar. He was greatly elated by Appar’s visit and invited the great sage to dine at his house. While they were conversing at his house, Appudi Adigal’s son went to cut banana leafs to serve the food on. A poisonous snake that was on the banana tree bit him, killing the boy instantly. Fearing that Appar would not eat at their home if he found out of the boy’s death, Appudi Adigal and his wife hid the body. Appar, who learned of the incident through divine intuition, was overcome with grief for the family and prayed for the grace of Lord Shiva. Shiva answered his prayers and the lifeless body of the child came back to life.
Author of the Tevaram
Appar is known today for having authored a significant portion of the collection of Tamil poems known as Tevaram. The Tevaram songs are part of temple liturgy in south India to this day and form the canon of the Saiva Siddhanta tradition. Appar is said to have sung no less than 313 hymns, most of which comprose ten to twelve verses. There may have been many more verses that have been lost to antiquity. Appar composed most of his hymns spontaneously at the various temples he visited, inspired by the innate power of the shrines and overcome by the splendor of God.
The songs of Appar form three volumes of the seven volume Tevaram compendium, and are acknowledged for their simplicity, lucidity and musical quality as well as for containing the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. Appar, a master of the Tamil language, was able to capture the deep philosophy of Hinduism in short, simple hymns, allowing the masses to participate actively in the worship of God. The Sanskrit scriptures of Hinduism were known and read only by the priestly classes, but the Tevaram and other popular Tamil works were available to a much larger audience.
Message of Appar
Tirunavukkarasar exemplified a life of service to God. He declared that ‘my duty is to serve and rest content.’ He is popularly represented holding a hoe in his hand which he used to clean the grounds of the many temples that he visited on his travels. Cleaning the weeds and grass on the temple compounds was both a way to accentuate his message of service as well as to set an example of humility for other devotees.
The Saiva Siddhanta tradition, considers temples to be Lord Shiva Himself, and the worship of God is an indispensable part of religious life. It is for this very reason that Tamil Nadu abounds with shrines, and the practice of bhakti, or devotion, was promoted assertively by Appar and the other Nayanmars. Appar is said to have visited no fewer than 125 temples during the last forty years of his life following his conversion back to Hinduism, worshipping Shiva with song and service.
Appar continued his travels to the end of his life. He finally achieved samadhi at the advanced age of 81 near Pukalur, probably in the year 691. His life, which straddled most of the 7th century, was pivotal in reestablishing Saiva Siddhanta and promoting the bhakti movement.