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Kerala's Krishna Bhakti - the Classical and Vernacular

T.K. Venkatasubramanian

Translated by Vijay Nambisan
Penguin, 2009, pp. 95, RS.150.00


The first millennium bc saw the develop ment of the brahmanical traditions of ritual adherence to varnashrama-dharma and the ideology of renunciation. From about 500 bc there was a growth of sectarian worship of particular deities which resulted in devotional worship. Performing puja is a way of expression of love or devotion (bhakti) to a deity in some form. Bhakti to a personal God (Bhagavan) or Goddess (Bhagavati) became an all pervasive movement. This growth of Hindu theism and devotionalism is reflected in the Sanskrit narrative traditions as well as in devotional poetry of vernacular languages. Krishna was a deity of the Yadava clan, who probably became fused with the deity Vasudeva. The historicity of Krishna is impossible to assess from sources in which hagiography and history are inextricably bound together. However, historicity of Krishna is inevitable for the tradition and the Vaishnavites believe that he was a historical personage. By the fourth century ad, the Bhagavata tradition of Vasudeva-Krishna absorbs the Krishna-Gopala concept also. The cult of Narayana is another ingredient which gets fused with the evolving Bhagavata tradition. Over a period of time, Vishnu and his various incarnations become identified with each other. Rama and Krishna came to be favoured above others by devotees of Vaishnava traditions. Vijay Nambisan, a marundan malayali has brought Melpattur’s Narayaneeyam and Puntanam’s Jnana-Paana to a new audience through elegant verse translations in English under the Penguin classics series. The link poem by Mahakavi Vallathol records: The Malayalam poet’s grief You (Lord Krishna) must relieve, Your malady can have no other cure but that To learning indeed Bhattathri has a claim; The burning faith of Puntanam is dearer far. The translator’s apology is really significant. He is right in his observation about Tamil and Malayalam being digglosal. To be literate is not the same as educated is the meaning of digglosia. Nambisan explores the dynamics of Malayali culture by selecting Jnana-paana, the first original modern poem in Malayalam and Narayaneeyam, the last great hurrah of classical Sanskrit as touch stones of Krishna faith (bhakti) in Kerala with Vallathol linking the two to highlight the story of the Sankritist scorning the vernacular poet and the attitude of elitism to regional literature. Till about 9th century ad Kerala was almost a part of Tamilakam and the language of the region was Tamil known as Koduntamil. Malayalam originated as an offshoot and came ...

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