Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

flower picture

by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

Visit ProfVK's website.

Part XIV (ii): According to Shankara

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part IX Part X Part XI (i) Part XI (ii) Part XII Part XIII Part XIV (i)

In the 63rd verse of ShivAnandalahari, Shankara cites as his model devotee a legendary figure known by the name of Kannappar in the Tamil world. Kannappar was a hunter, untouched by any civilised behaviour either secular or religious. But somehow he got into his head that the stone lingam of Shiva, which he had seen in a jungle, was verily the God of the Universe and that to propitiate this lingam by offering flowers and eatables and to bathe the lingam with river water were the greatest acts of devotion pleasing to the Lord. Every day he used to visit the place where the lingam was seen and worship it in the manner he chose fit. His manner of worship was anything but refined. With his bow on his shoulder, one hand carrying some bilwa leaves, the other hand carrying some meat, which was his daily food, and a mouthful of the water of the Swarnamukhi river, he approached the Lord daily, cleared the place of all old flowers by his sandal-clad feet (the hunter was so na�ve that he did not know even the elementary culture of his religion which tabooed the wearing of sandals in the sannadhi of a temple deity), offered the bilwa leaves from his left hand, spat the mouthful of water on the lingam, as a token of ritual bathing, and offered the meat which he had not only brought but just then tasted to see whether it was edible.

This was going on for several days. The priest who was doing the daily worship to the lingam in the traditional manner noticed every day that whatever flowers he had offered the previous day had all been trampled upon and there was the further sacrilege of strewn meat in front of the Lord. The priest started secretly observing the goings-on and was furious to note the sacrilegious acts of the hunter at such a sacred spot as the precincts of the deity. Afraid to accost the hunter because of the latter's patently aggressive appearance, but at the same time very much worried, the priest prayed to the Lord to show him the way. The Lord appeared in his dream and told him not to underestimate the devotion of the hunter and he should observe the strange drama that would take place the next day. The next day at the appointed time the priest witnessed a scene which has now become history, enshrined as one of the greatest miracles sported by the Lord.

That takes us to the denouement of the Kannappar story and the hair-raising lIlA of the Lord. As usual the priest had decorated the formless Shiva-lingam as if it had a face. The two eyes, nose, mouth and ears had all been clearly marked. On that day the hunter was approaching the Lord with his strange (but usual) accompaniments - the bow on the shoulder, with a quiver of arrows on the back, the bilwa leaves in one hand and the meat (this day it was pork) in the other hand, both to be offered to the Lord in respectful obedience. As he was approaching the site, with his mouthful of the holy river water, he saw a horrible sight. From the right eye of the Lord, blood was trickling down the cheeks. The devotee was struck with pity and remorse. He threw away everything that he was carrying and tried to prevent the flow of blood from the deity's face by wiping it off. But it would not stop! He ran hither and thither to find some herbs from the forestry, brought some, applied them to the bleeding eye, but lo!, to no effect. He did not know what to do. At last the thought struck him. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth; let me pluck my eye and offer it to Him, thought the hunter, in all seriousness. He immediately pulled out one of his arrows, plucked one of his eyes with it and stuck it up at the place from where the blood was pouring out. And the bleeding stopped!

The hunter was enthralled. But his enthralment did not last even a few minutes, because another miracle happened. The other eye of the Lord, His left eye, now started bleeding! Here comes the historic response of the ideal bhakta. He decided to sacrifice his own other eye also for the Lord. Before he did this, his rational intelligence was alert enough to tell him that he would not be able to locate the position of the Lord's left eye, once he plucked his own remaining eye also. So he did a most wonderful thing. He placed his left foot on the Shiva Lingam and by the tip of his sandal-clad foot held on to the location of the Lord's left eye, when, lo and behold, the Lord appeared before him in person and there were rains of flowers from the heavens. The Lord not only appeared in person but extended His hand and prevented the devotee from executing his horrendous self-sacrifice. It was at this point the priest also came out from his place of hiding from where he had been watching the entire drama with great awe and wonder. The Lord blessed the hunter, gave him the sight of the lost eye, and announced to him that he would hereafter be known as Kannappar - meaning, the one who stuck his eye on the Lord's face - and after living his full life on Earth he would reach Eternal Bliss of mokSha at the Lord's feet.

Shankara refers to this episode in Verse 63 of his ShivAnandalahari and cites the hunter's devotion as the model of bhakti. What cannot bhakti do in its ecstasy?, asks Shankara. The remnants of the once-tasted meat becomes naivedya (eatable offering to the divine) for the Lord! The saliva-mixed water held in the mouth becomes holy water for the abhisheka (ritual bath) of the Lord! The sandalled foot which had travelled all over the dirt and filth of the forest becomes the indicator for locating the forehead of the Lord! Is this not the Ultimate of bhakti? Each of these is a sacrilege. But this devotee who had such an intense bhakti towards the Lord, in his ecstasy, moves from one impiety to another. Commentators who have written about this verse of Shankara have seen esoteric meanings in it, particularly in the gradations of the above three actions of Kannappar. His devotion is surely not an ordinary devotion. It is viSesha-bhakti (devotion special) or tIvra-bhakti ('tIvra' means intense, fervent, powerful) as opposed to the sAmAnya (= common-place) bhakti which is ritual ridden. Even this tIvra-bhakti, the commentators say, has three gradations as it does coming out of the first three lines of this four-line verse, each one describing one of the 'sacrileges' of Kannappar.

The first one is sAmAnya-tIvra-bhakti. He offers the meat to the Lord, but only after tasting a bit of it to see whether it tastes well. But here the assumption is the portion of the meat which is not yet tasted must be of the same quality as the one which has been tasted; it is only an inference and it could be wrong. To that extent the intensity of the bhakti is only ordinary.

At a higher level is the madhyama-tIvra-bhakti, that is, the bhakti of middle-level intensity, exemplified by Kannappar's act of spitting out the mouth-held river water on the Lord as if it was an abhisheka. The Lord is the bliss of Brahman and is represented by the word 'tat' in the Grand Pronouncement - tat tvam asi - which identifies the 'tat' representing Brahman and the 'tvam' representing the individual soul. The mouth-held water represents the bliss of the individual soul. Kannappar's spitting it out on the Lord esoterically signifies that the bliss of Brahman imprisoned in 'You' (tvam) is merged in the bliss of Brahman (the 'tat' of the Grand Pronouncement) represented by the Shiva-lingam here. But still at this level, the analysis goes on, the distinction between the 'You' and the 'That' remains.

In the highest level, which may be called the tIvra-tIvra-bhakti - bhakti of the highest order intensity - even this distinction of 'You' and 'That' vanishes. Man's greatest enemy is the ego. This is actually a superimposition by our ignorance on the Self which resides within. There are two kinds of this superimposition. One is the attachment to the lower self - technically called tAdAtmya-adhyAsa. The other is the attachment to everything that one calls 'mine' - this is called samsarga-adhyAsa. Both kinds of superimposition have to be eradicated in order to reach the identity of this individual soul with the paramAtmA. When Kannappar's bhakti takes him on to the stage where he places his sandal-clad foot on the forehead of the Lord, all distinctions of 'me' and 'mine' had vanished for him. Otherwise he would not have done what he did. This is ultimate experience of oneness with God. It is this stage, not experience, that is described as the goal of bhakti and j~nAna. That is why Shankara says this devotee is a model. It is not surprising that Kannappar is taken as one of the 63 Nayanmars.

Part XV

Return to Professor V Krishnamurthy main menu.

See ProfVK's website for many more articles.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012