Transcending Masculinities and Gendered Paradigms of Parenthood: Viṣnucitta’s Tirupallāndu and Periyālvār Tirumoḷi.

Abstract: Religious texts and ritual practices have been equal participants in creating cultural narratives that define the mosaic of a society, sometimes subversively so. These elements are alternately causative in the creation of the paradigm of emotion that locate the psyche of the people as a whole in the community. Hindu literature and liturgy have often been condemned for their hegemonic Brahminical renditions and patriarchal employment of ideation and language. The Āḷvār saints of ancient India recognised as spiritual agents of change have been credited with anthropomorphomising deities and thereby contributing to the Vedic religion’s cultural and political revival. However, Vaiṣṇava discourse has been monopolised by the dominant episteme of sakhyabhāva and vinayabhava that crystallised in medieval India relegating other gendered emotions. The performative poetry of 9th century Āḷvār saint Viṣnucitta-Tirupallānḍu and Periyāḷvar Tirumoli is a staunch claimant to an ungendered parental voice of adulation for Mahāvisnu and the infant Kṛṣṇathat challenges societal stereotypes and current scholarship on male positioning in ancient South Indian society.

Keywords: Viṣnucitta, Tiruppallāndu, Periyāḷvar Tirumoli, masculinities, parenthood, vatsalya, parental love, maternal love, construction of emotions, person narrative, public space

Religious scholarship post post-structuralist times have been strongly influenced by the role of language in shaping the modes in which society mediates and histories and the means by which the society validates itself culturally and socially. Subjective discourses have been incremental in cross examination how language has been an inclusive agent in shaping not just histories, but identities of the individual, the family and the state. These textual representations have naturally accrued over these histories and crafting twin paradigms of the personal on the political. It is negligent to assume the non existence of limitations imposed on the stereotyped male identity and parenthood that situates itself within the hegemonic paradigm of the Hindu Brahminical canon. These limitations and the voice it was into the male psyche thereby demanding a recourse is portrayed in the subversive poems of the 9th century Vaiṣṇava Āḷvār saint- Periyāḷvar . Socio-theogical construct having contributed in shaping identities and radical subjectivities lending into affective discourses. Would a man who is a product of these dynamics require anything short of a regimental de-construction of the self to contribute to a re-gendering of the emotion which he/she has been assumed void of? Does constructivism hold good in delineating mystic dimensions that steers clear of historical and cultural pretexts?

Ancient Hindu Masculinities and Textual Representation

Brahmanism and its liturgical texts have been castigated and for good reason by discerning laymen, commentators and scholars for its patriarchal practices and traditions. A large body of religious text and tropes that fall under the larger banner of Hinduism has been known to create a discourse partial to the male and especially to the twice-born Brahmin. Taken as a whole, the entire dialogue that composes of the complex mosaic of Hinduism is a collation of orthopraxic debates and arguments against the syncretic orthodoxy that was bound by gender and caste concerns amidst emotions like love, fear and veneration. Entire centuries have been caught up in this struggle between samprayas tussling with one another to outdo each other’s philosophical fundamentals.  However through time some texts have turned out to be earmarked as fundamental pieces of discourse prescribing its dictates over what constitutes and convention in an individual’s religious and material functions.

Men’s religious lives in Hinduism,  have been commonly marked by masculine  discourses of receiving spiritual endowments through fulfilling duties that have been sacramental delegated  to him mostly through four tropes- that of the eternally celibate and learned brahmacāri, The wandering ascetic coma the sage who presides over gurukulas, who imparts religious instructions and procreates for specific progeny alone and that of the duty-bound householder husband. They been always been viewed through the lens of conservatism and the core projection of man has been as the epitome of power and responsibility- physical, scriptural and karmic.

During Vedic times, masculinity by itself was defined not in position to from femininity what was realised in feminine term s with “qualities of courage, fearlessness, beauty, education, fame and victory, essentially traits of the ideal man, […] described in terms of Lakshmi, a goddess” (Sitambar qtd. In Kannabiran and Kannabiran, 16). Hinduism until almost the 1st century BC had maintained a societal  fabric the sustained a gender balance wherein the woman contributed in a more egalitarian score with her male counterparts in private and public space (Ramusack 103, Earnest and O’Conner 52). The earliest account of the expectations of a man (and woman) has been codified in the Dharmasatras and Smṛitis. Hinduism’s highest altar- the Manusmriti minces no words as it specifies the ethical obligations expected out of man:

Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence……….. ..……………………………..even weak husbands (must) strive to guard theri wives. (Chapter IX)

The extent of the effect of Brahminical texts Manusmriti on the society of the time is still contested as the extent to which they can be considered as representative of the times. what can be ascertained to is the existing documentation on contributions by men and women in public space be it in terms of donations for discourse, the twin representation of active public presence, shows large disparity, which lends adequate credibility to the assumption that whether the Brahminical texts were instrumental or representative in nature, they can be considered as operative texts for our understanding of the society. These include texts, written mostly by men for a male audience hold authentic representation of their patronising expectations out of men and women and their roles in the society.

The control exhibited by these texts in prescribing individualistic behaviours to certain people depending on their gender, caste and class, while simultaneously granting liberative licences to certain other sections of society is worthy of examination. In doing so they define the spaces of performative engagement accorded to these sections thereby creating ideological constructs out of these prescriptions. These texts were hence organic components of society that both informed and reformed simultaneously. With Manu’s codes (200 BC- 100 BC) and the extant Grhyasutras prescribing liminal boundaries for women and exclusive privileges and anticipations out of men, gender in Hindu society came to be distinctly fissured along binaries. On one hand women were expected to maintain a household, support her husband physically, psychologically and emotionally and be an active facilitator for the spiritual practices thereby granting herself sacramental gain through him and on the other hand, women who were expected to live up to the image of the ideal heroic male as the prime protector and provider, with their emotional states been relegated except in situations of romantic parodies.

Pre-Āḷvār representations of infant/toddler Kṛṣṇa and Yaśȯda

One of the earliest mention and textual of presentation of Kṛṣṇa in Vrindāvan is seen in the Harivamṣa Purāna which dates no later than 2nd century B.C. In a picturesque third person narrative, the god Kṛṣṇa is conceived in a suggestively mischievous infant form along with Yaśȯda whose mothering instincts are projected through maternal imagery.

One day, Yaśȯda who was fond of her son, left the child sleeping under a cart and went to the river Yamuna

Kṛṣṇa started playing by throwing his hands and legs into the air. He cried in a sweet voice, shaking his legs up.

With one leg, Kṛṣṇa kicked the cart and it overturned. Then he started crying for milk.

Meanwhile, Yaśȯda returned after bathing. She was afraid. She was anxious to breast feed her child like Surabhi (mother cow).

She saw that the crat was overturned without any wind. Crying aloud, she quickly picked up the child.

She did not understand how the cart was overturned. She was afraid, but she was pleased and wished good for the child. (Harivamsa, Visnuparva, Chapter 6)

These mark the earliest mention of Kṛṣṇa,  the child and associated maternal instincts that enveloped Yaśȯda as she sensed her child in danger. Kṛṣṇa the infant is further made endearing with the choice of descriptives attributed to his playfulness and the suggested method of pretentious innocence. The Bhāgavata Purāna due to its extant smṛti nature had undergone considerable recension and is dated just over the Āḷvār phase, around the 9th or 10th century AD. Hence the highly amorphous representations of the child Kṛṣṇa that is found in the Bhāgavata falls out of the scope of our study and the text needs to be seen as one that may have borrowed from the Āḷvār as.

Bhakti incursions into Hindu discourse

As much as men in sub continental and histories found it impossible to shun the domestic constructs around her, based on her biological and reproductive functions, men found it as nearly futile an exercise to mediate and counter the sheer absence of a discourse sans the hegemonic, gender and caste Brahminical narrative attributed to them. Reactions against Vedic Brahmanism could be seen in the mass populist conversion and counter-narrative that sprung up in Jain and Buddhist transactions where, several men and women defended their right to define their own space. It was only when Saiva and Vaiṣṇava saints of the likes of Sundarar, Appar, Tirujnānasambandhār and others brought down the reclusive stance of Brahmin doctrines, coupled with the religion appropriating and incorporating folk and Saktist forms into their pantheon like Kali, Skanda and Ganapati (Krishnamurthy 92) that Hinduism began to experience collateral revival and resurgence.  in the process, through the trope of bhakti, that relegated that active aggrandizements, these men of religion brought in newer means of access to the lord, often defying classical literary and proper not performative practices as the threw a no holds attitude of open access to worshipping the deity through a process of humanising motifs and practices.

Tirupallānḍu: A testimony to Vişpucitta’s protective instincts.

The story behind the making of the Tirupallānḍu is a highly evocative and telling narrative. Legend has it that the Pandyan King Vallabhahad called upon scholars from all over the kingdom to engage in polemical encounters in order to realize the meaning of the Vedas and the real nature of the Supreme. Periyalavr who had always considered kayikakainkaryam (physical performance of ritual offering) above Vedic knowledge was the one blessed by Mahăvişnu and he could impress the audience with a simple yet lucid rendering finally

concluding that Mahãvişnu was the supreme truth. Truly moved, after having conferred the title of Bhattarpirän on him, the king takes him mounted on the royal elephant through the city and legend has it that Mahavişnu along with the divine consort Mahalakșmi mounted on Garuda appeared into vision to the entire peoples, naysayers and all. The sight of the lord is said to have inspired the verses immediately in Periyāḷvar and he proceeds on an immediate rendering chanting “Pallāṇḍu, Pallāṇḍu Pallāyirattānḍu Palakȯḍi Nūrāyiram”(1.1.1), that is, “Many years, many years, many thousands of years and many hundred thousand more”.

In the verses that follow, Vişnucitta embarks on a powerful and spontaneous articulation of verses that stand out for their narrative of concern and protectiveness for the lord. Just as the verses are deeply venerative and deific of the glories of Vishnu, they evince an even more vivid portrait of the extent of genuine fear, anxiety and love that Viṣnucitta harbours towards his beloved deity, worrying for his longevity due to his having made himself visible to mere mortals like himself arid hoping to negate any consequential ill-effect through the continuous refrain of wishing that his lord live on for several thousand more years. In doing so, he exhibits a thoroughly humanized and parental love for the lord unparalleled in the history of religious panegyric. His rendition suggests his innate desire to ward off the evil eye that could befall his lord and this is emulative of what is typically referenced as motherly instincts and concern for her child. Vaiṣṇava theologians and commenters are thereby unanimous in according the status of Periyāḷvar to Viṣnucitta since he is the long Āḷvār to have feared for the lord’s safety and his longevity in matronly fashion while simultaneously singing glories of his heroism and revering the beauty of the sight in the skies.

Periyāḷvar ‘s highly evocative and spontaneous articulation of his emotions at the moment and his public exhbition of the paternal instinct of protectiveness thereby legetimising the various vicissitudes of love add a dimension which was hitherto unacknowledged in public speech that was also turned the precursor to later stages of bhakti poetry down the centuries. Devotion, which had until the immediate post-Vedic times been mostly concerned with praying for material gains in terms of protection from nature’s forces or glorification of the deity with aim of propitiation is subverted at Periyāḷvar’s address shifting from the receiving end of the chain of devotion and instead initiates a discourse of appreciation in truly subjectified fashion.

Periyāḷvar Tirumoli: A tribute to Viṣnucitta aspiring towards an

engendered parenthood

The initial pasurams of the Tirumoli open with a third person narrative that suggests a vicarious extrinsic encounter of Kṛṣṇa-Yaśȯda that Viṣnucittais privileged to encounter: “She washed her child in a bathtub gently stretching his arms and legs” (1.2.6). Shortly enough he switches to a first person narrative living through the identity of Yaśȯda and living through the ecstasies of seeing the infant Kṛṣṇa and his leelas:

Lay him in the cradle, and he kicks like it would break;

Take him to the waist and he clings like a wrench;

Hold him in the front and he trounces the belly.

I can bear it no more, ladies, Ladies I am exhausted. (1.2.10)

He alternates between twin personas of Yaśȯda and the gopis as he sings, ” Here is the darling child which nectar-sweet Devaki gave to the coiffured dame Yaśȯda/ See the innocent child grab his foot and suck his toe!“ (1.3.2). In a deeply sensitized “motherly” tone of intense adoration and reverie, Viṣnucitta in Yaśȯda’s persona, calls upon the ladies to be spectators of the physical beauty of Kṛṣṇa, he who in his innocence “grabs his foot and suck(s) his toe”, whose ten little toes resemble “pearls, garnets and diamonds set in gold”, who wears silver anklets and a waist lace studded with corals and pearls, who pretends fear when his mother caught him red-handed stealing butter from every single pot. (11.1- 1.3.20) He draws their attention to his perfect waist, his “beautiful neck”, “red berry lips“, his “thighs“, “balls” and “brows” and entreats of the ladies to watch Kṛṣṇa being bathed and pampered, while simultaneously narrating his heroic exploits over the various dangers that befell him as a child (Ibid). The poet follows this up with Tālāttu or a lullaby of infinite beauty, with the refrain “Talelo” pacifying a crying lord just as another would do her child – with infinite patience and uttering endearments of affection, he praises the achievements of the child. In Ambuli Paruvamor ” Calling to the Moon”, he anthromorphizes and entreats the ”tender moon” to pay attention to the melodious blabber and “coos and calls” to earn the grace of the lord of Venkatam by appearing from behind the clouds (l.4- 1.5). He spares no threat in informing the moon that if he undermines the child god for his size, his state would be that of Mahabali and warns him that he had better come down willingly to please the lord. In Senkirai (Crawling on all Fours), he implores the child to dance for the sake of his another, maidens and other onlookers and in doing so speaks in terms of pure affection of a mother who hangs on to the tiny pleasures of seeing her child grow. Chappani (Teaching the child to clap), Talar Nadai (Toddling songs), Puram Pulkutal (Embracing from Behind), Ammam (Giving suck to the child) and in consequent stanzas, Viṣnucitta weaves an entire world of Kṛṣṇa from Yaśȯda’s perspective — protecting, weaning, cuddling, admiring, letting go at times only to call back, celebrating his achievements, enjoying his flute and so on, all elaborated in most delectable choice of language conveying his total identification with Yaśȯda’s identity (1.6-3.6). From 3.7-3.8, Viṣnucitta takes on the persona of a mother wailing at the loss of her very beautiful and only daughter to Narayana and openly wonders if her hand would be accepted in marriage by Kṛṣṇa and his mother Yaśȯda.’

Periyāḷvar for the first time in the history of Indian literature, sets into motion the first wheels of the genre that later came to be later called Pillai Tamil in the 12th century AD. In the genre, the poet embraces the role of an affectionate mother and imagines his protagonist, godly, heroic or human, to be a child and sings paying loving tribute to the individual. With the Bhāgavata Purāna that showcases the finest expression of love for Kṛṣṇa through all stages of life having been accorded a dating beyond the Āḷvār period, it s obvious that it was Periyāḷvar’s verses that created a significant dialogue of deep love around infant Kṛṣṇa for the first time.

Like a few of his peers and contemporaries, Periyāḷvar adopts varied female persona, but unlike them and the later Vaiṣṇavas, his veneration is mostly with maternal empathy or as a generic devotee. In Periyāḷvar verse is an evident attempt to liberate himself from the constructs circumscribed on him by the society that was remiss of narratives of paternal instincts within the male. In the process he offers us a gendered version of vatsala that was until then considered monopoly of female space in terms of both accountability and attribution in male discourse and thereby topples the normative models on paternity that existed in society then and endures to this day. The caring father in him thus challenges society, the gendered Brahminical narratives and even his own biological role as demarcated, designated and delegated to him by theosophy and convention.

Select sightings of Vātsalya Bhakti in Hindu Liturgy:

While vātsalya in Sanskrit refers to the love felt by a mother cow for her vatsa or calf, in Vedic patronymics, vatsa has been variously interpreted employed in referential to a son (Srinivasan 263) and in theBhāgavata, Yaśȯda is seen referring to Kṛṣṇa as vatsa. In the Mahabharata we come across Sankutala’s conversation with Dusyanta:

What happiness is greater than what the father feeleth when the son running towards him, even though his body be covered with dust, claspeth his limbs? […] The touch of soft sandal paste, of women, of (cool) water is not so agreeable as the touch of one’s own infant son locked in one’s embrace. […]There is nothing in the world more agreeable to the touch than the embrace of one’s son. (Mahabharata LXXIV)

It is evident that the father’s role here is that of a passive seeker of pleasure in the son’s infancies and his contribution in the act of bringing up the child is minimal. There is minimal attribution of softer emotions, and nominal involvement of participatory emotions subjected by the father towards the child. In later discourses, the Vātsalya rasa has largely been contextualized by male authored female discourses. As much as Vātsalya translates into parental love, the domain of parental love that warrants the employment of softer emotions has been constantly attributed to maternal instincts. Rupa Goswami in his Bhakti RasämritaSindhu writes thus about Vātsalya:

When rati (with deep friendship and possessiveness) is found in three types of devotees—recipients of mercy, friends and elders—it becomes priti-rati, sakhya-rati and vātsalya-rati, respectively. Those persons whose rati identifies them as superiors to the Lord are known aspujya, worthy of respect or elders. Their rati, which gives mercy to Kṛṣṇa, is called vātsalya or vatsala. In this rati, there is protecting ga, blessing Him, kissing Him and touching (2.5.23, 2.5.33, p.327)

NammĀḷvār in his Tiruvaymoli writes: ”My lord swallowed the Earth and slept as a child floating on a fig leaf in the deluge waters. The servant of his servant is my master” (NBD, 3.7.10). However, when Periychan Pillai comments on the pasuram, he ascribes several more qualities onto it.

This verse says that the supreme goal is to be the slave of any SriVaiṣṇava who is captivated and enthralled by the Lord’s innumerable auspicious qualities like motherly love (vātsalya), gracious condescension (sauśīlya), compassion (kārunya), beauty (saundarya), fragrance (saugandhya), tenderness (saukumärya), and youthfulness (yauvana) (emphasis mine, qtd. in Carman 93)

The fact that Pillar ascribed maternal love onto the commentary further validates how the language of parental love automatically subscribed to maternal love in the Vaiṣṇava consciousness with time. The later cults of Visnu that followed like the Vallabha cult and the Gaudiya Vaiṣṇavasampradya focused much on mādhuryabhāva and the sakhyabhāva just as much as the former advocated the truth in the play of Visnu or his līlā and the child manifestations as well.

Patriarchal religious discourse in India has often served to relegate male reception to female stereotypes. It has also been causative in marginalizing male voices that sought for boundaries beyond the normative. In Periyāḷvar , for the first time in theo-sociological constructs we find an uncommon male voice from the fringes that seeks to adore divinity in terms of deep endearment or vātsalya and yet lacks tools beyond what existent paradigms have accorded him. What is apparent here is the manifestation of a distinct gap between the male devotee and his infant/ toddler deity where there existed no linguistic or social medium nor any psychological template for him to mimic or adopt into crafting his affectionate veneration for the form of Kr. na. This lack of trope whereby to transcend the gap thereby giving expression to the paternal love in Viṣnucitta is evinced in his appropriating the idiom of maternal love that has epitomised vātsalyabhāva through history.

Conclusion: Mediating Masculinities of Power

Post- feminist iterations of fatherhood succeed in foregrounding masculinity in more than just metrosexual or unilateral paradigms while still maintaining the central template of masochism at some ends. The newly found expression of the pacifist feminist approach thus acknowledges the distinct possibility of a sensitive fatherhood hitherto neglected, denied and unattended by an academic and social discourse that politicized the certainty of masculinism under the pressing need of maintaining a society affected by cultural than human narratives. Brahmincial discourses have also been hegemonic in historically locating men’s lives as monochromatic imprints signifying power, arrogance, polygamous instincts and warrior narratives.

Hence, it is essential to briefly examine Paiyalavar’s from a vantage point where as Seidler says, we ”tend to identify men with the masculinities that they are often struggling with or attempting to distance themselves from” and that we need to ensure that we “do not lock men into relationships of power both with women and with each other, without creating spaces…”(70). In Periyāḷvar ’s mystic state of pure consciousness, where he journeyed on self-charted territory, drawing up and transacting on Yaśȯda’s persona, he succeeded in creating his own space, breaking away from society’s expectations of male patterns of behaviour. He thus reaches out to the female principle within him, whereby the

characteristics of the sexes, and the human impulses expressed by men and women are not rigidly assigned [..,], liberates the individual from the confines of the appropriate, away from

sexual polarization and the prison of gender l ] individual roles and the o odes of personal behaviour can be freely chosen […], the importance of feminine principle, not as ’other’, but as necessary to wholeness… (qtd. in Bernard 46)

is recognized as part of a holistic androgynous identity. His breaking off from the stereotype is negotiated through an initiated attempt on his part to move away from the essential framework of public representation of devotion to that of a domestic personalized domain of cultural miscibility. In the process he succeeds in foregrounding the image of the father who strains to gain representation, acknowledgement and a consequent image identification through the projection of the sensitivity in him. In the process, Viṣnucitta succeeds not only in layering the identity of fatherhood, but also recuperates the fractured image of male parenthood that has existed since centuries

Viṣnucitta thus succeeds in being a precursor to identifying with the ungendered states of pure consciousness or Brahman. He initiates the process of opening up Brahminical discourse into ”a broader view of manhood than the limited roles portrayed by super masculine icons” (Matterson 345) be it a deity, king, hero of literature or male living by hegemonic prescriptions and such broader views transact a “new receptivity” (Ibid). Such a broadening of vision thus helps even those men who are invested in traditional masculinities to absorb feminine symbols and motifs into the narrative of the personal sacred that raises his and the society’s levels of awareness and reciprocity.

However, Viṣnucitta’s discourse of vātsalya went relegated under the stream of newer dominant Vaiṣṇava discourses and this invisibility of a sympathetic paternal discourse amidst the patriarchal power paradigms contributed in its own minor ways in creating a uni-dimensional vision of the Hindu male that has been as mutative on male performance as delimiting. Ferniiust discourse that tends to reduce male selfhood to realms to hegemonic power tussles thereby denying them access to personal and emotional explorations added to the misogynist sheen and it is the post-feminist accommodation towards the family that opens up a wider vista of tools to examine historical narratives in fresher perspectives. Periyāḷvar though, succeeded in wading against the stream of unidirectoral conjecture in the 9th century and succeeded in dislodging the normative perception of the male principle as also that of paternity as etched in mainstream Brahminical discourses and in the process succeeded in being among the first male mystics in the history of Hindusim to embrace the true principle of androgyny and humanity.


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UMA UNNIKRISHNAN. Is Research Scholar at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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Is Research Scholar at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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