• Prathik Murali

Śrī, separation and seduction – the mediator in Śrīvacanabhūṣaṇam

In the post Rāmānuja world of śrivaiṣṇavism, eulogia in Sanskrit and commentaries in Maṇipravāl̤a on the Nālāyira tivya pirapantam became established literary modes of theological expositions. With the advent of the 13th Century, the śrivaiṣṇava literary world started to produce independent Maṇipravāl̤a doctrinal works under the name of Rahasyas. During the second half of the 13th Century, Vaṭakku tiruvītip pil̤l̤ai’s two sons became the most prominent śrivaiṣṇava theologians. Pil̤l̤ai lokācāryār (1205-1311), the elder son composed 18 doctrinal treatises named Aṣṭātacarahasyakirantaṅkal̤. These included texts that expounded the meanings of the three secret mantras (tirumantraṃ, dvayaṃ, caramaślokaṃ), delineation of the three tatvas etc., in addition to his magnum opus titled śrīvacanabhūṣaṇam.

The position of Lakṣmī in the theological framework of śrivaiṣṇavism is one of the major reasons of the schism that exists within the sect. The position of Pil̤l̤ai Lokācāryār, furthered by the illustrious commentator on his texts, Maṇavāl̤a Māmuṉikal̤ (1370–1450) accepts her as the mediator between the soul and God. Though she wields no autonomy to pardon a soul, her subservience pleases her husband, while her maternal instincts protect the soul. By her distinctive position, she is uniquely qualified to be the intercessor. The theological functions of the divinities are hence inextricably linked to the gender of the performer. The contrast between the male god performing the role of a strict fatherly figure and the female being a motherly mediator is extolled extensively, thus making gender norms and roles the carriers to ideate positions of divinities within the theological framework.

The commentary on the 6th sūtra of śrīvacanabhūṣaṇam asserts that the masculinity of God necessitates a mediator as the harshness that results from his masculinity makes him reckon ten sins as ten sins and no less and render strict punishments. This prevents souls from approaching him, necessitating a mediator who is Lakṣmī. (puṃsatva prayuktamāṉa kāṭhinyattoṭe kuṟṟaṅkal̤ai pattum pattāka kaṇakkiṭṭu krūrataṇṭaṅkal̤ai paṇṇukaiyāle). Such mediation is not envisioned as an optional step towards salvation, but as imperative to the process owing to the gendered notion of God being masculine and unhesitant to punish cruelly.

Identifying three prerequisite qualities to perform the function of mediation, sūtra 7 reads; “puruṣakāramāmpotu krupaiyum pāratantryamum ananyārhatvamum veṇum” “For mediation; mercy, complete dependence and existence for none other are prerequisites”

Her intolerance to the sufferings of the soul emanates from her innate mercy which is even superior to the mercy of God. While God’s mercy is conditioned by his unconstrainted autonomy, thus capable of doing both favour and disfavour, it is Lakṣmī’s mercy which is untainted by any degree of autonomy as she is completely dependent on her consort without a shred of independence. Such dependence hence Suo motu leads to her nature of existence; whose purpose is none other than to please God. Since her sole purpose of existence is at his disposal, he casts no doubt on her intentions of mediation.

The composers of rahasyagranthas frequently theorise anecdotal narrations from epics, especially the Rāmāyaṇa to validate their theological stands. The trait-triad listed in the above sutra are substantiated using the three hiatuses of Sītā in the Rāmāyaṇa.

As per Pil̤l̤ai Lokācāryār, the primary impetus of the Rāmāyaṇa is to show the greatness of the woman who was incarcerated; Śrī, who was then incarnate as Sītā (ciṟaiyiruntaval̤eṟṟam cŏllukiṟatu). The three prerequisite qualities of mediation are perceived to be exhibited by Sītā through the three hiatuses in the epic narrative. The first separation (muṟpaṭap pirintatu) from her beloved was to Laṅkā through the pretence of Rāvaṇa to reveal her mercy. She was merciful even to the ogres whose torments were earlier unbearable. She wished that even they be pardoned. It is noteworthy that the tone of Maṇavāl̤a Māmuṉikal̤’s commentary reflects an agency attributable to Sītā. She had arranged a pretence to separate herself from pĕrumāl̤ in order to reveal her mercy (pratamam pĕrumāl̤aippirintu laṅkaikku ĕḻuntarul̤iṟṟu).

The second disunion (naṭuviṟ pirintatu) from Rāmā was at Ayodhyā as a pregnant woman, when banished by him into the forests. When Lakṣmaṇa reveals to her the true intentions of his brother was not to provide her a vacation to the woods but to be separated from her, she laments through Vālmīkī’s verses that she would rather prefer to end herself in the waters of the Gaṅgā, but she chooses not to do so. This reveals the presence of agency, wherein the choice of ending herself was available to her, but to survive for the pure will of her husband was her conscious decision, owing to role of being in complete dependence (pāratantryam). The commentator highlights the role ascribed by the society to a wife; that of subservience which was the guiding factor for her choice to submit to the wishes of her husband and not exercise an independent decision in any matter. Quoting Sītā’s words from the epic; “The husband is as a God to the woman, he is her family, and her spiritual preceptor, therefore, even at the price of her life, she must seek to please her lord”, the commentary strengthens the argument that societal roles guide theological positions of divinities.

The third disjuncture (anantaram pirintatu) is at the instance of the sacrifice performed by Rāmā, wherein Sītā is asked to prove her innocence again to the public eye. Her pledges are quoted by the commentator, which reveal that she has ever remained faithful only to her husband. She departs on a throne after the proving her piety and this third separation is to prove that her existence is for none other than him (ananyārhatvam).

The reason for the choice of separation as the thematic carrier of her qualities is answered neither by the text nor by the commentaries, hence a discussion on it would be appropriate. The deliberate choice adds scaffolding to the construction of Lakṣmī’s theological complexity. In union, Lakṣmī has no say in the affairs of her conduct and the masculinity of Nārāyaṇa commands her obedience. While in separation, though granted with an agency of choice, she reveals her position of being innately merciful and with unblemished subservience. The complexity achieved by her strītva (lady-ness), which anticipates subservience combined with the special position of being the consort to God grants her the unique position of being the mediator between the soul and the divine.

The function of mediation is performed by Lakṣmī through advice to both parties. When such advice fails, her mercy eliminates the ills of the soul, while her beauty seduces God to be merciful on the soul. Māmuṉikal̤’s commentary on Lokācāryār’s phrase “īṣvaraṉai aḻakāle tiruttum” reveals a heavily gendered notion of her mediation function. While advising him that it is his duty to pardon the soul, her innuendos such as rolling of eyes and slackening of her garment tresses seduce him into a trap of being unable to transgress her words. The feminine’s ability to utlise her physicality to seduce and the masculine’s inability to escape it add an appeal of emotion of to an otherwise mundane theological construct of ideas. Thus, the function of mediation mandates that it be performed only by Lakṣmī and none other as she is uniquely endowed innately with all the prerequisites of being the intercessor. The gender of the divinities in conjunct with the social constructs of gender norms in mundane medieval society are utilised by the professors of the faith to effectively shape the transcendental identities and functions of divinities in śrivaiṣṇavism.


Bibliography:

Mumme, Patricia Y. The Śrīvaiṣṇava Theological Dispute Maṇavāḷamāmuni and Vedānta Deśika. Bangalore: Navbharath Enterprises, 2009. Print.

P.B., Annangaracharya, ed. śrīmadvaravaramunīndra Granthamālā. Vol. 1. Kanchi: P.B.Annangaracharya, 1966. Print.

Shastri, Hari Prasad, trans. The Ramayana of Valmiki. London: Shanti Sadan, 1952. Print.


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