Sruthisagar Yamunan is a Journalist from Chennai. His name suggests Hindu heritage. He is writing for an audience which will contain many Tamil Hindus who have read the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam, or are otherwise familiar with its contents. Yet he writes of the Poet Saint Nakeeranar-
There is a popular story associated with Hindu god Shiva in the Tamil bhakti tradition.
I think this episode was not 'popular' but was highlighted by Tamil poets for a reason foundational to their craft. The question it raises is whether a poem is good if it answers a pressing need in a pleasing and prescriptive manner or whether it is good purely because of certain formal properties it may have. In other words, is poetry something 'natural' or is it 'artificial'?
A King is troubled by the question 'Is the scent of a woman's hair natural or artificial'? Though fitting in with the conventions of elite aesthetics, this is au fond a theological question re. the status of 'Shakti', the Goddess, who is also known as Prakriti (Nature). The orthodox answer is 'Shiva without Shakti is a corpse (Shava)'. The King, as though following Adam Smith's advise re. the proper manner to encourage virtue and the spirit of inquiry, announces that a large monetary prize will be awarded to the person who resolves this question. Lord Shiva helps a poor Brahmin by giving him a poem to recite which does in fact win the prize. But the Court Poet, Nakeerar, objects. He finds fault with the poem. The poor Brahmin is unable to give a fitting reply. He is deprived of the prize. Lord Shiva, angered that his own poem has been found fault with, arrives at the Court to dispute with the Wealthy Poet who remains adamant and is punished horribly for his hubris. However, the poet's devotion to Muruga- son of Shiva & Shakti- causes him to chant a hymn in the former's praise which has entered the canon. Thus, Divine Grace is granted to him enabling him to recover. The 'open' soteriological question, parallel to the 'open' aesthetic question previously mentioned is- did Grace operate so that Nakeerar's poem rose above artificiality?
In one sense, the question is silly. In another it is 'dialectical'. The nature of woman is such that the smell of her hair will always have a 'natural' as well as an 'artificial' component since women, at least when compared to men, are more capable of self-care and the attainment of attractive qualities and attributes.
Tamil popular theology has long been divided into a 'cat' and a 'monkey' faction on the question of whether Grace is a free gift or whether it requires some degree of effort or cooperation so as to be efficacious. The baby monkey, by its nature, has arms with which to cling to its Mother. The kitten, by its nature, lacks any such means of adhering to its protector. Thus the mother cat has to herself pick up her child so as to convey it to safety whereas the mother monkey knows her child will be able to hold on to her tightly enough.
Nakeerar was, by nature a poet, but he was also a devotee of Muruga. Was this part and parcel of his devotion to the Tamil language? Tamils like me would say- 'Yes. Such is the nature of the Tamil language.' Atheists may say, 'No. The arrow of causation flies in the opposite direction. It is because Tamil, by its nature, is beautiful that Tamils name God 'Muruga'. The Theists will then accuse the Atheists of being ignorant of Tamil etymology and of foolishly repeating a Theistic claim made by the popular journalist T.V Kalyanasundaram. The Atheist then threatens to send the Theist to bed without any supper. The Theist retaliates by saying 'Granny is being mean. I will run away to join Mother Theresa'. Anyway, that's what used to happen with me the last time I stayed in Madras half a century ago.
Yamunan is a young man. Still, he must have had a Granny or two. Furthermore he would be fluent in Tamil. Yet he completely mangles the story-
In order to test his devotee, the great poet Nakkeeranaar, Shiva assumed the guise of a bard and deliberately wrote a flawed poem to be presented to the king.
This is nonsense. Why would God write a flawed poem? Arguably, the Deity is incapable of doing any such thing. The problem here is what in Judaism is called the 'bat kol' question. Suppose a Voice from Heaven is heard during deliberations of the Sanhedrin. Does it have probative value? Perhaps. Can it form the basis of a judgment at variance with halacha? The answer is no. The same problem, under the 'rubric' of upashruti', arises in Hinduism though, since the Law is considered 'samskar', i.e. conventional merely, the opposite conclusion is arrived at. Exigent circumstances (apadh dharma) or even the strength of popular feeling make it advisable to pursue 'oikonomia', i.e. a discretionary and equitable course, rather than follow 'akribeia'- i.e. a narrow, juristic, protocol.
But Nakkeeranaar stopped the king from awarding the poem a promised prize, attracting Shiva’s ire. During their confrontation in the king’s court, Shiva opened his third eye as a warning that Nakkeeranaar was finding fault with the work of god.
The background is that the poet had denied that the consort of his own tutelary deity had hair emitting a natural scent. In other words, he was denying that 'Prakriti', Nature, had an essence of its own- at least for Poets. But the effect of this denial is to downgrade the status of Poetry and deny its univocity with Beauty and with Nature.
Moreover, in Nakeerar's time, it conflicted with the reigning school of aesthetics- more particularly for Saivites- viz. that of Abhinavagupta. What follows is a mimesis of the central claim of this school. The poet is burnt up without the chance to transmit (sampritti) his 'voice'. But, though lacking a son, he is saved by his hymn to God's son!
Yamunan writes as though Nakeerar was correct to insist that poetry is formalistic shite of a sterile, wholly mannerist, type. God has a low opinion of poetry- including Theistic hymns glorifying Grace as the only means of Salvation. So God tests the Poet, and, presumably, rewards him for sticking to his insistence that even God's own poem is shite, indeed it is worse shite, than shite lucubrations of an entirely artificial type, precisely because God's poem has utility. It isn't wholly artificial in its methods and its ends.
No doubt, Yamunan thinks Job, in the Bible, when tested by God, said- 'Only wealth matters. Though currently deprived of the same by acts of God, God does not matter at all. I am resolved to set up a Ponzi scheme. Getting rich by fair means or foul is the only thing which counts. Talk of the Divine is wasted breath.'
Despite the threat of being burnt to ashes by Shiva’s third eye, the poet remained steadfast in his judgement of the poem. This story was dramatised in Sivaji Ganesan’s film Tiruvilaiyadal, in which the poet character famously says: “Netrikann tirappinum, kuttram kuttrame.” A wrong is a wrong even if Shiva opens his third eye.
A sin is a sin even if you die committing it and thus have no chance to expiate it. The question is, will Nakeerar be condemned to eternal torment? Is 'Shiva's third eye' merely Death and Annihilation? The answer- for 'artificial reason' (as Lord Coke described English Law) or 'Samsara'- is yes. But not so for natural justice.
Why has Yamunan written such nonsense? Why bring in a God with a third eye if all you are saying is 'rules are rules'? There are two possible explanations. The natural one is that Yamunan is an ignorant cretin. He thinks of Sivaji Ganesan as a DMK mouthpiece. Why should a poor Brahmin win a prize simply because he is poor? Rules are Rules, I say. Aesthetic affirmative action, even such as is brought about by the direct Agency of the Almighty, is simply wrong. Equity can go hang. Mind it kindly.
The artificial explanation is that Yamunan is very artfully saying the opposite of what Scroll.in stands for while still getting paid for writing the sort of illiterate anti-Modi shite which is that smear-sheet's stock in trade.
Yamunan compares the hubris of Nakeerar (which arose out of a defective grasp of the dominant aesthetic theory) to the imbecility of Prashant Bhushan. Just as Nakerranaar had first to be punished to find his poetic Voice, Bhushan should be punished to relearn what Public Interest Litigation should be about.
This episode seem to be reflected in the contempt of court proceedings initiated by the Supreme Court against lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Despite the court finding him guilty of contempt and the threat of a possible jail term hanging over his head, Bhushan has stuck to his principles and defended his criticism of the court.
But Nakeerar had the wrong principles! It is one thing to say- 'women, nowadays, are using all sorts of perfumes to make their hair smell nice'- some elderly misogynists, whose mothers passed away and who have never known a woman's love since then, may nod their heads in sour agreement- but it is quite another thing to say that the Platonic archetype of the smell of the hair of the consort of the Poet's Tutelary Deity is artificial, not natural. Why? The meaning is 'Poetry is merely something ceremonial and formal which is not pleasing in itself. It is wholly divorced from aesthetic philosophy. It attracts none but dullards.' Even if this statement is true, it is folly for a professional poet- as opposed to amateur poetaster- to make it. You are shitting where you eat. Bhushan says Judges are corrupt, unprincipled and in league with the ruling party to destroy democracy. This may be true. But if it is true, Public Interest Litigation is a farce. Those who indulge in it are either attention seekers or getting paid to do so- perhaps by foreign NGOs who have an interest in pretending that India is not under the Rule of Law. It is a terra nullis. Foreign Governments are not obliged to respect India's sovereignty. It has no abiding place in the comity of Nations.
The contempt case had been initiated suo motu by the court in July over two tweets that Bhushan had issued about the functioning of the judiciary and recent chief justices. Last week, the court found him guilty and was meeting on Tuesday to decide what punishment he should be awarded.
However, the proceedings showed that Bhushan’s principled stand has put the court in a difficult position. Whatever the outcome of the case, Bhushan will come out of it with his reputation burnished.
No. If he goes to prison and his right of audience is suspended, then a nuisance will be curbed. If he doesn't, then his reputation, like that of the Bench, will be tarnished. Clearly, he and his ilk can do nothing because the Bench is corrupt- thus there is no point paying lawyers, just bribe Judges already!- but, equally clearly, the Bench want to advertise its corruption. Judges won't punish you for naming names and quoting 'the going rate' for a particular type of case. Why? You are providing them with free advertising! The Judges are very angry at the lawyers who say 'No. The Judges are learned and incorruptible. They can only be swayed by legal arguments of an erudite and subtle kind. Thus I deserve a lot of money for fighting your case.' A professional prostitute would be equally incensed at men who say- 'that lady is not interested in gaining paying customers. Impecunious people are welcome to seek to seduce her. Indeed, she is hanging around on the street corner in the hope that horny beggars will waste her time by chatting her up.'
If the Bench won't punish Bhushan as they punished Justice Karnan then the supposition gains currency that the Judges are envious of the princely sums commanded by the advocates who appear before them. They want it to be widely known that they can be bought more cheaply. They look upon Bhushan as their benefactor. Indeed, the outcome of the case is that Bhushan has gained a lot of publicity in return for paying a one Rupee fine. The Bench, it seems, is grateful for having its insensate avarice and infinite corruptibility widely advertised by a fine upstanding officer of the Court who has been shouting- 'Judges are prostitutes! Just pay them already rather than bother chatting them up!'- for decades.
The story of Nakeeraranaar shows how the humbling of hubris can open the path to Divine Grace and true excellence. That of Bhushan, so far, is the spectacle of hubris unchecked turning into a habitus of imbecility. Why did we ever think this silly fellow could be part of the solution, not part of the problem?
I don't know whether Yamunan is a natural cretin or whether he has artfully disguised himself as one. But the same could be said about so many of those we used to revere in youth. Amartya Sen may be a careerist- i.e. an artificial cretin. But Amit Bhaduri, surely, was a natural cretin. But that's why Sen could do so much more harm.
Yamunan is young. He will adapt with the times. Sooner or later Indian Journalism will revive. Who knows? Yamunan may attain the brief, but kairotic, celebrity of an M.J Akbar or P. Sainath. But, to do so, he must further deracinate himself. Tamils writing in English must pretend they know nothing of Tamil literary culture. Why? If you don't, people may suspect you are a closet Hindu, reading Puranas and going on pilgrimage to Palani. Far safer to pretend to have read Gramsci in the original, not Buttigieg's translation. I may mention that I am wholly ignorant of Tamil and spent all my time in the Mezzogiorno reading Quaderni del carcere. Since I didn't bother to learn Italian, my Italian sojourn was intellectually very fruitful.