Mahatma and the Mahakavi

On this day, October the 2nd, we celebrate the birth anniversary of the Mahatma. This brings to us the memory of our past – the struggle we went through, the miseries we tolerated – for more than a century under British rule. The memory is impossible to bear when we think of the enormous suffering of our leaders – physically, mentally and morally – individuals who sacrificed their lives to set us free from slavery and ill- treatment. Today, we can perhaps console ourselves with the thought that their struggle and sacrifice were worth it, as it succeeded in opening up a new future for the present and future generations, enriching our lives and making India one among the Nations of the world. Was it not the same goal that our ancestors had striven for and accomplished in our glorious past?

In their human characteristics, the Mahatma and the Mahakavi were astonishingly similar. Determination and perseverance in the pursuit of accomplishing their goals – imagination, creativity, and clarity of mind – truth and loving-kindness – were the striking qualities of these two extra-ordinary personalities. As true patriots, their Vision of the country, their ability to foresee its future, and their optimistic view of human life were alike. Both visualized India as the Mother Shakti and Her people as the children of God. Both were devout Hindus and whose faith in God was unshakeable. Their perception of creation, life, and humanity were based on the Advaitic principles, that all beings are the forms of God and, therefore, equal. Their treatment of Harijans and their rejection of caste prejudice were based on this Advaitic ideal.

Neither Bharati the Mahakavi, one of the greatest poets in the world, nor Gandhi the Mahatma, the great soul and peerless leader, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize.

What could be the reasons for this oversight? Perhaps in those days, Bharati as a Tamil poet, was unrecognized by the world; perhaps the world did not know either the language of his poetry or India’s greatness at the time that she was still a subject nation. With few exceptions, Bharati’s poems were not translated into English or other European languages.

On the other hand, a poet like Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Bengal, did gain the world’s recognition and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in the year 1913. Tagore was well-known, not only in India, but also abroad. He had written a substantial volume of poetry, translated into English with the help of a powerful friend, W.B. Yeats. He traveled across continents on lecture tours, and, in fact, Bharati wrote about, and celebrated, Tagore’s remarkable trip to Japan.

Tagore lived a long life of 80 years; Bharati died when he was 39. Tagore was wealthy; Bharati lived in poverty for most of his life. While Bharati was totally involved in the Indian National Movement and lived all his life fighting for India’s freedom, Tagore, although he participated in the National Struggle, was largely involved in writing and traveling around the world, spreading India’s great culture.

The Mahatma had been nominated for the Nobel prize several times. In 1948, following his death, the Nobel Committee declined the award to the Mahatma on the ground that “there was no suitable living candidate that year.” Later, when the Committee awarded the Peace Prize in 1989 to the Dalai Lama, the members of the Committee expressed their regret for the omission of the Mahatma, and the Chairman said that the award was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Bharati and the Mahatma met once; it was an exceptional and memorable incident. Gandhiji visited Chennai and stayed in Rajaji’s house to discuss the Rowlett Committee’s Report. The Mahatma thought that the Report was not acceptable to any human being who had any self-respect. He wanted to take action against the Report, and sought to organise a nation-wide satyagraha (passive resistance) to oppose it.

The Meeting of the two is described by Va. Ra., (a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and Bharati) who was present when it happened:

[The] Mahatma was surrounded by a group of people . . . In this group, the elite personalities of Madras were present, such as Adi Narayana Chettiyar, Rangasamy Iyengar, Satyamurti, Rajaji, and Va. Ramasamy Iyengar.

Bharati came to Rajaji’s house to see the Mahatma. As soon as he entered, he went straight to Gandhiji where he was conducting the meeting. He asked him if he would be able to preside over a meeting at the Marina beach, where he was giving a lecture. Gandhiji turned around and consulted with his secretary Mahadev Desai as to the details of his program for that evening. It turned out that he was not free that evening, and he asked Bharati if he could postpone the meeting for another day. Bharati said that this would not be possible. He then “blessed” Gandhiji’s new Movement, and left the group.

Mahatma asked the group who the man was, and Rajaji answered, “He is a Tamil national poet.” Gandhiji remarked, “You should take good care of this man.”

Obviously, upon Bharati’s appearance, and witnessing his majestic behaviour, the Mahatma was immediately able to recognize the value of the Mahakavi and he was clearly concerned that it was important that he should be “taken care of.”

Why was Bharati not properly introduced to the Mahatma? The incident happened so quickly, and perhaps, there was not enough time. There was no other reason why Bharati should not have been introduced to the National leader.

For, Bharati was more than qualified to meet the Mahatma. First of all, he was a true Nationalist. He had attended the nationally organized Congress meetings in the North. All his life, he was a journalist and the editor of nationalist newspapers and magazines. Indeed, he was the first person to introduce “nationalism” to the people of Tamil Nadu. He had worked hard towards educating the people of the Tamil Land about the greatness of their own country and its age-long culture. He had taught them the value of freedom, and how it was important to live a life of dignity as an equal with all other human beings.

Why, then, was Bharati not included in the efforts of the Mahatma towards achieving their great, and shared, goal?

I am not seeking to awaken the old grievances at this time, after so many years. But, I think that Bharati’s intelligence and acuity in making political decisions could have helped the Mahatma, perhaps a great deal, if the “important” people would have given him the opportunity to meet the great leader.

The Mahatma’s insight, both spiritual and political, was true, in that Bharati was not exactly well taken care of in those days. It was not that people of his times did not recognize his value. On the contrary, India’s first Governor General Sri. C. Rajagopalachari was his friend; he had visited him at his house a couple of times, and enjoyed Bharati and Chellamma’s hospitality. He had read Bharati’s poetry, and commented on the man and his work in newspapers. Co-nationalists such as Sri Aurobindo, the great spiritualist and writer – V.V. Chidambaram Pillai, the Kappalottiya Tamizhan who launched a Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company against the British – G. Subramania Iyer, the founder and editor of the “Hindu” in Tamilnadu – V. Krishnasamy Iyer, a staunch Nationalist and leader of the “Moderate” party in Tamilnadu (Bharati belonged to the “extremist” party), and other patriots such as Subramania Siva, Surendranath Arya – all these individuals sought Bharati’s opinions and ideas on national matters. A few of the great leaders of the North, including his political Guru Bal Gangadhar Tilak – respected him. As a Nationalist and a poet, the Tamil-speaking public respected him enormously and loved his poetry and writings.

But, in spite of this wide recognition – why was he not in the front row along with the Mahatma and his circle?

As two Nationalists working towards one goal, there may have been a few natural differences between them in their approaches to unity and their methods of fighting the British. Indeed, Bharati was not always positive about the Mahatma’s methods in the Struggle. Some of the issues – such as voluntary submission, or the sacrifice of human lives at gunpoint and in the face of violence were difficult for him to accept. I am sure, that these methods were also difficult to accept for the Mahatma. But, in any case, these incidents happened in the history of the Freedom Movement. As a humanitarian, Bharati was anxious to avoid the loss of innocent lives. And Bharati examined and critiqued certain ideas of the Mahatma, including his approach to social issues such as widow re-marriage – Bharati elaborates on this in his own writing, providing statistical data to support his points.

At the same time, Bharati realized that, when a large scale “non-cooperation” movement is involved, mistakes can occur. As a result, the loss of human life was a possibility. Bharati was clear in his mind that Mahatma’s political scheme of satyagraha was an effective tool to use in this struggle; indeed, he came to believe that this was the only method that could be successful for the achievement of freedom for India. Applying this method carefully, it might be possible to protect human life and still be successful.

Bharati, sings of the glory of the Mahatma, who came to revive the down- trodden people of India who suffered under British rule. In his poem saluting the Mahatma, Mahatma Gandhi Panchagam (5 stanzas), Bharati compares him with the historical heroes of the Hindu scriptures: from the Ramayana War, Hanuman, who brought a medicinal herb from the Sanjivi mountains to alleviate the effects of the nagapasa and save the life of Lakshmana, the brother of Rama; and in the Bhagavatam, Krishna, who shielded the lives of people and cattle with the Govardhan giri (mountain), from lightning and thunder caused by the fury of Indra.

Bharati pays homage to Gandhi for creating a powerful strategy which was New and Simple, to treat the debilitating and cruel “disease” of foreign rule. He praises the Mahatma for introducing the basic principles of Advaita – the revelations of the Hindu thought that all beings are embodiments of God and, therefore, equal – into politics, which is filled with war, killing, and cruelty.

Bharati quotes Tagore in his poem Bharata Mata Navaratna Malai, “The Mahatma is the leader of the men of the world and he is the embodiment of dharma.”

He assured the people of India that they should follow the path shown by the Mahatma and be successful. He declared freedom and invited people to celebrate the victory: “Let us blow the conch to celebrate our success!”



Immortality (Sept. 11, 1921)

Just before his death, Bharati made a trip to Karungalpalayam near Erode. He had been invited to speak at the anniversary celebrations of the local library. The topic that he chose to address was a curious one: the possibilities of eternal life while living in this body. Following his trip, he wrote an article in Swadesamitran on August 4, 1921, describing his visit and transcribing parts of his speech on conquering death and gaining eternal life.

Death came to him within a month. Perhaps, being a great soul himself, he was unconsciously aware of what was going to happen to him. Perhaps he wanted to let the world know of his findings on the theory of immortality, and his new definition of the word.

The word “Immortal” means “living for ever (not mortal),” “divine,” “worthy of fame for all time,” “a person of enduring fame,” – says the dictionary. Bharati used such words as “Devan,”“Amaran,” “Amaranilai” to encompass a whole new concept, and one of unfathomable depth. It comprehends the timelessness and continuity of creation – the continuity of time which has neither beginning nor end – is essentially unchanging – and eternal in the widest sense of the word. It is more than what the dictionary specifies as eternal – that a person’s name and fame last forever.

Nor is Bharati’s concept in the immortality of Hindu thought, which is clearly explained in the Bhagavad Gita as the “eternal” existence of the soul (atman). In “Sankya Yoga,” Bhagvan says to Arjuna:

Atma lives for ever; it is indestructible; it is immeasurable. Even so, they say that its ‘forms’ have an ending.”(Ch. 2; slokam 18)

“It is not born, nor does it die at any time. . . when the body dies, it is not killed.”  (Ch. 2; slokam 20)      

“Like discarding old clothes and wearing new clothes, the atma discards worn-out bodies and takes new ‘forms.’ ” (Ch. 2; slokam 22)

But Bharati, in his Introduction to Bhagavad Gita, takes Sri Krishna’s advice, “the brave hero who treats joy and sorrow equally does not deserve to die,” (Ch. 2; slokam 15) and explains that the essence of the Gita is, “eternal life – to live eternally in the body like Markandeya.”

He further insists: “Immortality; this is the secret of the Vedas.”

Bharati was fascinated by the concept that the limitlessness of “time,” which is infinite, could be captured in the physical body of the human being. He thought it was possible to accomplish that possibility in human life. His in-depth studies of the Vedas and other religious scriptures – his associations with the Siddhas in Pondicherry – and the findings of the great scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose – made him believe in this theory, and he dedicated his life to investigating the possibilities of living forever in the physical body. These concerns preoccupied him throughout his life.

One day, Bharati heard a beggar walking in the street and singing a song:

“The breath that stays regular and constant in sleep, may turn its course and never come back”

Bharati’s immediate reaction was one of intense concern:

“If the body is so unreliable as this, how can anyone begin anything great in one’s life and complete it in one’s life-time? We must accomplish a great deal in life: we need to acquire knowledge – we need strength of heart – we need education, fame, and wealth. . . we need to live a happy life. We have great desires in our hearts. To fulfill them, we need to establish a strong foundation and build them over a period of time. . . But, we need to wait for the ripeness of time to do this. If the next minute is uncertain, what can we possibly achieve?” (Bharati’s Essay: “Amirdham Theduthal”)

In my mind, considering myself a relatively ignorant person, not knowing anything much about matters related to spirituality, the following question arises: Did my grandfather not know about the realities of life? Was he not aware of the inevitability of death? How could he have the idea of conquering death and becoming immortal in the body? Especially when he had seen his mother die when he was five, and his father die when he was fifteen, witnessed these deaths with his own eyes. He knew that our ancestors had lived and died, that their bodies were buried, that their ashes were dispersed throughout the soil. He knew that human history had proved that all living beings, human and non-human, were mortals. In Hindu thought, there is supposed to be a three-fold process of creation (beginning), protection (existence), and destruction (the end) of the world itself; three “eras” occupied a specific, pre-determined time frame, and all existed. An ending of all creation would inevitably happen at the end of kali yuga – on schedule.

Then, how could Bharati sing,

“Oh, Yama, I consider you a slender blade of grass, just come close to my foot, I will push you a little”?(Bharati’s Poem: “Kalanukku uraitthal)

Yet Bharati, in his essay, “There is No Death for Man” (Manidarukku Maranamillai), notes that his convictions were totally agreed upon and approved by the scholars in the meeting at Karungalpalayam.

“I only know one thing . . . that is, men can live eternally without encountering death. . . I proved this theory with supporting evidence: the Vedas and Puranas, religious scriptures, European scientific findings, and from the conclusions of the great scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose.” (Bharati’s Essay: “Manidarukku Maranamillai,”

Of course, what gave him the conviction to say this, were the stories of Markandeya, Prahlada and the helpless elephant who was caught by the crocodile. And he had read the experiences of the Vedic rishis, Siddhas in Pondicherry, who were believed to be living deathlessly in forests, mountains and caves, especially Kullachamy, who showed him immortality (amara thanmai); and the new findings of the scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose.

Bharati raised an interesting question:

“It is possible to control the body; is it possible to control life (uyir)?”

He also provided an answer:

“Control the body; you could control life.

Control life; you could control the mind.

Control mind; you could control Shakti.”

He explained this further with an example:

“There is a cotton pillow in front of me.

It has got a shape – a standard ‘form’ (niyamam).

Shakti is keeping it in its form, protecting it from behind – without destruction.

The same pillow can be protected as long as the human race exists.

If the pillow is renewed every now and then, Shakti will remain in the

shape of the pillow.

If it is not renewed, its shape will change.

A dirty, torn, old pillow – remove the cotton from inside and put it in a new case; throw away the old case.

Now, the “form” is destroyed.

If the form is protected, Shakti will be living in the form.” [Bharati: Katchi, 2. Shakti (5)]

Bharati emphasizes here the importance of maintaining the body by which controlling the mind and capturing the soul (atma) in the body is possible. The temple of Shakti, the body – is destroyed only when it is not protected from the clasps of demons (asuras : ignorance, fear, sorrow, sickness, doubts, worries, ego etc).

In Bharati’s drama Viduthalai – the devas assemble together and discuss the problems of the mankind, and try to resolve them; the Brahma had ordained that this be done; the devastating situation on earth must be changed and the strings that tie the humanity be untangled.

The drama takes place in the Heavens, and the time of action is the end of kali yuga, and the characters are Indra, Vayu, Agni, Light (the Sun) and a few other powers.

The devas are determined to destroy demons and “free” humanity from their suffering. They decide: “let us find someone on earth and assign this task to him; we will give him our powers and he will deliver the humanity from danger and destruction.”

The divine powers found the “deserving” person named Vasupati on earth, in the land of Bharat, in the Pandya kingdom and was born in the Brahmin class, which was void of dharmas.

Vayu gave him “life” (uyir);

Indra gave him strength in mind;

The Sun gave him light in his intelligence. (Bharati: Katchi, 6. Viduthali)

The man was, Bharati!

He writes in his Journal of Thoughts, the “mantras on the plane of Self”:

“I am God, I am God, I am God. I am Immortal. The hours may pass, the days may roll, the seasons change, and the years die away, but I change not. I am firm, fixed, ever alive, ever real, ever happy. I do believe in all this, for I know all this to be true. I know myself to be Immortal, because I am God.”

“I shall not die. I have no Death. No, not even this body shall know death. How can my body die, when it knows no illness? How can it die, when it is ever recuperated, ever refreshed, ever quickened by the deathless Me? How can it die, when I am God? Do the Gods die? They do not.”

“And I am a Sada-Nishta (a mystic). Hence I cannot conceive of Death. I can only think of an endless joy, the joy of existence. And this joy is mine for ever and ever.” (Bharati’s English Writings: “Bharati’s Journal, Thoughts”)



The Legacy Continues . . .

It was 1920. Just about a year and a half earlier, Bharati had been released from the Cuddalore jail. He had been living in Pondicherry, a French territory, for 10 years or so – a life of seclusion and imprisonment – where all his efforts at running a magazine called “India,” in which he promoted his ideas of India’s freedom and sought to educate the British Government and public about India’s needs – were curtailed.

Longing for freedom, he suffered mental agony in the last years of his life in Pondicherry. He knew that, if he did return to British territory, he would be arrested and put in jail. But his agony finally reached a point when Bharati, in disregard of the probable consequences, simply decided that he had to leave Pondicherry and move back to British India.

And indeed, immediately upon his re-entry into British territory, Bharati was caught and imprisoned. This was how the poet of Freedom ended up in Cuddalore jail.

After twenty days, with the help of his friends, Bharati was released; he had signed an agreement with  the British that “in the future, he would not publish any of his works, without showing them to the Police Deputy Inspector General.”

Upon his release, Bharati went to Kadayam, the birthplace of his wife Chellamma. It was a beautiful place that well suited his poetic nature. But, as soon as he arrived there, he realized how much he had to do: first of all, his first duty was to work towards the freedom of India. And yet, his hands were tied; he had been compelled to sign that absurd contract with the British authorities. How was he going to accomplish his goal? Not only there was no possibility of publishing anything through the newspapers or journals, but he was also living in a small village which was far away from the activities of the nation. Most importantly, he had no means of publishing the works which he had written over the past decade in Pondicherry.

Bharati became restless: the creative products of those ten years of labour– the gems of his writings – were sitting in a trunk; they were going to waste without reaching the public. Bharati sorted out all of his works into 40 parts, and he thought that the solution might be to publish them in the form of small books. But, how could he publish them without money? He decided to write a letter to his friends, seeking their support in this important endeavour.

On June 28, 1920, almost exactly 94 years ago, Bharati sent a letter in the form of a circular to all his friends. It was written in English, and read as follows:

“All my manuscripts – the accumulated labour of my 12 years’ exile – have arrived here from Pondicherry. They are to be divided into 40 separate books; of each book I print 10,000 copies for the first edition. This work will cost me an initial outlay of Rs. 20,000. And, within one year, or at the most, two years from the date of publication, I shall certainly be able to get a net profit of a lac and a half rupees.

“Most of the works which I have now selected for publication are prose-stories, sensational and, at the same time, classical: very easy, lucid, clear, luminous and all but too popular in style and diction and, at the same time, chaste, pure, correct, epic and time-defying. The fact and (2) the ever-growing increase of Tamil-reading men, women and children in the Tamil land and the Tamil world overseas; (3) the historic necessity of my works for the uplift of the Tamil land which, again, is a sheer necessity of the inevitable, imminent and Heaven-ordained Revival of the East; (4) the novel and American-like improvements which I propose to make in the printing, binding and get-up of my editions-which, aided by the beautiful and suitable pictures illustrating the interesting events occurring in the stories, will make them a tremendous attraction to our public and such a wondrous surprise; (5) the comparatively low prices of my books; for I am going to sell my prose-works uniformly at eight annas a copy and my poems at, so far as possible, four annas a copy; and (6) my high reputation and unrivalled popularity in the Tamil-reading world due to my past publications – all these are bound, most evidently, to make my sales a prodigious success.

“Please send whatever you can, send as loan towards the printing expenses. I expect from you at least Rs. 100. Kindly induce at least twenty more of your friends to lend me similar and much larger sums, if possible.

“I shall give stamped ‘Pro’ notes for the sums I receive from you and your friends, paying the generous interest of 2% per month, in view of my large profits. Expecting very eagerly, your kind reply and scores of money orders from your side and praying to God to grant you a long and joyous life.

“I remain,

“Yours faithfully,

“C. Subramania Bharati”

A wise business planning indeed, well thought through from start to end; an honest, intelligent way to get his work done.

And yet, no one replied!

As my daughter Mira Sundara Rajan, reiterates in her article about her great-grandfather’s letter:

“. . . In this letter, Bharati argues that the publication of his works would respond to ‘the historic necessity … for the uplift of the Tamil land which … is a sheer necessity of the inevitable, imminent and Heaven-ordained Revival of the East.’ . . . He expected his “high reputation and unrivalled popularity in the Tamil-reading world “to generate a large volume of sales.”

Mira further explains what happened to Bharati’s project of publishing his books:

“Unfortunately, Bharati’s efforts to publish a definitive edition of his works did not bear fruit during his lifetime. After his death, the project was taken up by his widow, Chellamma. Chellamma published notices to the public in several Tamil magazines. In these notices, she stated that she was going to establish a printing press to publish Bharati’s works, and she sought the help of the public in her undertaking.

“Chellamma, with the help of her brother, established a publishing company called Bharati Ashramam in Madras. She advised the public that she intended to publish twelve books. The first volume appeared in January of 1922, and included ninety “National Poems,” patriotic songs in the cause of Indian independence and cultural revival. Chellamma wrote a preface to this volume. She expressed her ultimate intention to publish all of Bharati’s works, and to bequeath these publications to the people of Tamil Nadu as public property upon her death. Bharati Ashramam brought out five volumes. However, Chellamma’s personal commitments prevented her from fully realizing her goal of bringing out a complete edition of her husband’s works.

“In 1924, another publishing company, Bharati Prachuralayam, was formed by Bharati’s brother, C Viswanathan, his son-in-law, and one of his friends. While Chellamma retained the copyright in Bharati’s works, Bharati Prachuralayam went on to publish almost all of his writings. In 1931, the company purchased Bharati’s copyright from Chellamma for what can only be called the ‘astoundingly small sum’ of four thousand rupees.

“When two of the partners in the Bharati Prachuralayam eventually withdrew from the company, the copyright in Bharati’s works became the property of his brother. In 1949, the copyright was purchased from Viswanathan by the government of Madras. Interestingly, the government also paid Chellamma and Bharati’s two daughters five thousand rupees each at this time.

“The government began to publish Bharati’s works in 1950. It established a publishing committee to oversee publication. The committee was composed of the members of Bharati Prachuralayam, as well as two leading post-Bharati poets. This committee attempted to establish definitive texts based on Bharati’s manuscripts and earlier published versions of his works. Any doubts as to content were primarily resolved by incorporating suitable additions at the discretion of the most literary members of the committee.

“The copyright in Bharati’s works was made public by the government of Tamil Nadu state in 1954. From this time onwards, anyone in India was free to undertake publication of Bharati’s works. Members of the public were to enjoy complete freedom to publish. Subsequent publishers of Bharati would not be required to pay a copyright fee, or to submit their editions to the government or any other agency for approval.


“Over the past seventy-five years, numerous editions of Bharati’s poetry have appeared. His works have been translated extensively, and both his works and his own personality have been featured in a number of films. However, the expansion of public access to Bharati’s works has been matched by a decline in the quality of publication, from both technical and critical points of view. . . .

“The problems that have accumulated over the years in the publication of Bharati’s works include careless printing that incorporates both typographical and interpretative errors into the final texts; false attribution of the works of other poets to Bharati; inaccurate and inappropriate translations; misleading representations of the poet’s personality; and erroneous statements about his life and works. A simple example is the routine misspelling of Bharati’s name – strange when we consider that Bharati was quite particular about the way his name was written in Latin letters. . .”

This situation actually led Mira to become interested in authors’ rights for the first time. As a legal scholar, deeply disturbed by what has happened, she asks:

“How can such problems be resolved legally? Copyright law should provide a framework for regulating both the dissemination of literature and the integrity of literary works. The pursuit of one goal at the expense of the other – in this case, widespread dissemination and minimal concern about integrity – can only result in the impoverishment of cultural heritage as a whole.”

After 93 years, I now find myself in a situation that is very similar to my grandfather’s. While I am proud of my legacy, I am also concerned that this cultural heritage in the form of literary treasures is not being protected as it should be – not by myself, nor by the government or anyone else. But our intention is to do so. Just as we take steps to protect our monumental treasures, such as the Taj Mahal, the Ellora  caves or the Mahabalipuram temples – we should undoubtedly seek to protect and preserve Bharati-literature, and, if we possibly can, to maintain this literary inheritance without allowing deterioration of any kind.

The legacy – the name, the relationship, the property itself which became public in due course – continues. What my grandfather handed down to me – and, of course, to the world – is precious; it is extraordinary,  special – a gift that God has ordained that I, a little person, as his granddaughter should be given!

When I inherited my legacy, I also inherited a few of his own problems – maybe of a different kind, yet similar. Just as Bharati had problems in publishing his Works, for certain reasons, I also encountered problems in the publishing industry, for certain other reasons!

My grandfather had to face the British Empire. And, as a result, he had to face poverty and oppression throughout his life.

In my grandmother’s case, the poverty continued . . . After the demise of her young husband, a still  younger woman of thirty two, with the responsibility of a daughter who had to be married – living in a village which was oppressive – Chellamma was left alone to live her life without any concrete help. She had no education, and no experience in the publishing industry. It was amazing that she had a great and profound understanding of Bharati’s poetry, and nothing short of a miracle that she managed to publish some part of Bharati’s editions successfully after his death!

In the second generation came Bharati’s daughters. His elder daughter, Thangammal, herself became a writer, and published, among other works, a number of articles and books where she wrote about her father and her experiences with him. She spoke to the Tamil public, in India, and attracted huge crowds who came to listen to her in Malaysia and Singapore; his younger daughter Sakuntala, wrote a memoir on her father and spoke to tamil audiences as well.

In the third generation, his granddaughter, myself, undertook, for the first time, scholarly research on his Works, wrote a number of books on his life and poetry, taught Tamil and Bharati literature in various universities around the world, and travelled to many countries to speak about Bharati, his life and literature, to large audiences.

In the fourth generation, a study of Bharati’s English Writings has been undertaken by his great-granddaughter, my daughter, Mira Sundara Rajan; this book (co-edited by myself) is waiting to be published at the desk of an eminent publisher; and a book of translation of Bharati’s poems into English is on her agenda. Mira has been speaking to international audiences about her great-grandfather for the past decade or so.

Now, my goal is to produce STANDARD, DEFINITIVE editions of Bharati’s works. All of Bharati’s poetry is divided into 4 volumes, and my goal, based on my grandfather’s own plan, is to produce:

–       a high quality work that will be the basis for future publications to conform to,

–       publications that will show Bharati’s Works as true “classics,”

–       publications that would be totally error-free, authentic, authoritative,

–       editions that are based on recognized principles of the author’s moral rights, and,

–       books that are reasonably priced, so that the general public will be able to have easy access  to     Bharati-literature.

In the past ten years or so, as far as publishing goes, I encountered great difficulty in accomplishing these goals. There was no cooperation whatsoever from the publishing industry in India. The legacy continued – from my grandfather to myself – in trying to publish his Writings, the cultural and literary treasure of India, challenges were everywhere.

But now, the time has come!

With the advent of modern technology, I am almost ready to publish the four volumes of Bharati’s poetry: 1. Desiyam, 2. Deivam-Thathuvam, 3. Kannan Pattu, Panchali Sabatham, Kuyil Pattu, 4. Bharati’s Autobiographical and other poems of Love, Nature, Vazhtthu and Katchi – all at the same time, followed by his prose-works. With the click of a button, the public can have access to these books via the most modern providers of literature online.

I will let you know as soon as these books are ready to order. There have been innumerable inquiries on my blog as to the availability of Bharati’s works… for which I am delighted to offer this reply, which I could not offer before. I firmly believe that the intervention of my grandfather, and his own determination to see his Works published, after nearly a century, will now make the inevitable possible, and a wonderful reality!

S. Vijaya Bharati




Bharati, the “Romantic /Mystic”

 “Moonru Kaadal”

I have always been fascinated by my grandfather’s poem “Moonru Kaadal” (“The Three Loves”)   – from a young age, even before I started reading Bharati for my PhD at Annamalai University in Chidambaram.

My admiration of the poem originated from listening to my mother singing this song beautifully, in her melodious voice, exactly the way that her father had sung it and taught it to her. Bharati himself composed the music for the song: three ragas for the three parts of the poem – the first part, his love for Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge in raga Saraswati Manohari, the second, his love for Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth in Sriragam, and the third, his love for Kaali in Punnagavarali. Clearly, he set the first two ragas bearing the names of the Goddesses with a specific purpose in mind.  Punnagavarali, the last one, was quite exceptional, bringing in the depth of his unusual experience with Kaali. When my mother sang, as a young, musically inclined person, I would be melting to hear her singing with great intensity of emotion and wonderment in her voice.

I simply couldn’t explain what it was that attracted me to this poem. I didn’t have enough life experience or experience reading poetry to understand. Even later, after I had read and studied Bharati, I still couldn’t understand the magical hold of the poem on me. I was unable to sort out the emotions I felt or understand what the poem conveyed.

The poem is autobiographical; it elucidates how Bharati’s personality developed at various stages in his life. As a young boy, he fell in love with Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge; as he grew older he developed a passionate love for Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. He was absorbed totally with his first love – thinking and dreaming about her all day and all night – until he was twenty-two, an age that could be full of imagination and dreams of a special kind. At this stage, he again fell in love with another beautiful maiden called Lakshmi; he was fascinated by the beauty and richness of the wealth around him.

The poem starts with the phrase “at a young age” (pillai pirayatile). This reminds me of an anecdote that my mother wrote in her book “Pillai Pirayatile” (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal), about her experiences with her father at a young age. She narrates:

“A friend who came to visit Bharati casually asked him, “What would be your age?”

Bharati replied, “I am five years old.”

The friend was shocked, but somehow collected himself and asked, “Are you forty -five or so?”

Bharati repeated that he was “five years old.”

The friend’s face expressed surprise. At that time, Chellamma was passing by; Bharati pointed to her and said, “I am five years old; and she is two and a half years old.”

The friend decided to change his line of inquiry. He asked, “What do you think my age would be?”

Without hesitation Bharati replied, “You would be seventy-five years old.”

The friend was under thirty years old, and he was annoyed to hear Bharati’s assessment.

But, finally, Bharati explained: “Dear brother, don’t be annoyed. At the age of twenty=two, you are wearing heavy, thick glasses – one for reading, and one for normal seeing; your back refuses to sit without leaning on a support; your legs are unsteady when you walk.  With all these debilities, one would think that you are seventy- five.”

The friend was ashamed. After a while, he said, “You are right. I have been noticing that you move around happily like a five year old; your wife is running around to serve you. I am so amazed to see you both. I will also try to be like a child.”

Bharati laughed and said, “You must understand that when I said one should be like a child, I didn’t mean that you should drink mother’s milk or cry like a child. What I meant was that you should develop the heart of a child – a mind that is uncluttered and happy, and rid of all the debris associated with adulthood.”

Thangammal concluded by saying that she understood what her father meant: one would have to have determination and practice in order to maintain a young mind. She could never forget the days that she spent with her father; those were the best days of her life.

As a young boy, Bharati played joyfully in the streets of Ettayapuram, in spite of his father’s “order” that he should pay attention to his school work. Indeed, in his autobiography, “Kanavu” (“Dream”), Bharati laments that he could not enjoy childhood as much as he would have liked to; while the other boys were running around in the streets, swimming in the river and pools, and climbing  the trees,  he was unable to participate in their activities. His father insisted that he should not “waste” his time with the other boys.

But soon, Bharati realized that something was happening to him: a sudden awakening of the youth blossoming within him, he found himself in love with a beautiful maiden. The experience was totally new, unique, captivating, and wonderful for him!

The maiden was none other than Saraswati herself – she who sits on the white lotus flower with a veena in her hands – the Goddess Herself, whose face emanates wisdom.

“She stood at the corner of the street holding yedu[1] in her hands and reading a verse. When I eagerly approached her, she spoke words of wisdom and made me happy. When I said, “Let us make love,” she disappeared with a smile flashing at the corner of her eyes.

“While I was sitting on the steps of the manadapam by the river enjoying the Southern breeze, she brought me a poem. With my heart overflowing with joy, I accepted it and asked her to marry me; with a smile on her lips, she disappeared yet again.”

An unquenchable desire burning in his soul, the poet became dysfunctional –  thinking about her all day, and dreaming about her all night.

At the age of twenty-two, the poet encountered another experience similar to the one that he had had before:

“A beautiful damsel came and stood in front of me in the garden; looking at her luminous face, I lost myself entirely. She said that her name was Chentiru; since then, I have been haunted with the desire to embrace her to my heart’s content.

“She smiled at me, and the whole day became bright and happy.

As she stood before me and looked at me, I felt dizzy with intoxication. And, for some reason, she would find fault with me, ignore and leave me; my heart would be broken into pieces.

“She would reappear in forest ways, in mountains, and in waterfalls; in the countryside, in towns with bright buildings.

She would be seen in hunters, heroes and kings.

And I would be the happiest to see her in all things that are beautiful around me.”

In these two experiences, the poet encountered what was “romantic” in the true sense of the word. They were “new, unique, captivating and wonderful” –  the divine descended to earth to participate in the poet’s life, and to fulfill the aspirations of his heart and mind. The deities who would normally be on a pedestal to be worshipped by men became the beloveds of the poet who enriched his life, enabling him to perceive the Truth and Beauty of creation before his very eyes.

Bharati’s unusual experiences with the deities appear to me to be “romantic,” in the true sense of the term. As such, they may be compared with the experiences of the “Romantic” poets of the West. The lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the poems of Shelley and Keats, expressed a new perspective on life and Nature which stood distinct from earlier classics. They portrayed an idealistic view of nature and the workings of the human heart, overflowing with spontaneity, great power, and inspiration. Visionary experiences of love, too, appear in the poems of the Romantics,  though in a different cultural context.

Romanticism was an idealistic movement; and one of the fundamental ideals that it represented was the importance of human individuality.  The foundation of Romanticism is the true development of the individual nature, which depends on the thinking, culture, country, and forms of artistic expression available to any given individual. The expression of the Romantic spirit varied greatly among individual poets. For example, the Romantic experience of Wordsworth was different from that of Shelley or Keats, while still sharing some essential commonalities of spirit. Wordsworth’s poetry depicted a romantic vision of Nature; the “free spirit” was predominant in Shelley’s poetry, while Keats was exquisitely devoted to Beauty and (for him, the same thing) Truth.

In Bharati’s case, his genius longed passionately for freedom – freedom of the human spirit and everything needed for its glorious fulfilment, of life and of creation. He called himself “Shelley-Dasan” (his pen name) to express his admiration for Shelley; at the same time, like Keats, he also pursued Truth and Beauty as ideals of creation. Bharati was a true Romantic in the sense that he introduced the perfume of Romanticism into the age-long Tamil tradition, and was followed in this path by a new generation of artists and poets inspired by him. His ultimate goal was to build an ideal society, a place where equality and freedom could exist in all aspects of life.

He was a revolutionary, in the true sense of the word. His perception of the world and creation was based on love – an advaitic principle – and freedom of the spirit – whether that meant national freedom, philosophical ideals, or social issues such as womens’ freedom, caste, religious differences, language, arts, and literature.

In nationalism, for example, his vision of India as the Bharata-land virtually amounted to a divinely revealed vision. Bharata-Shakti was the Goddess Parvati Herself, the daughter of Himavan, the wife of Shiva, and the sister of Mahavishnu. Yet, his vision was new – the Shakti that he saw had thirty crores of faces animated with one “life”– she had sixty crores of arms with which she performed dharmas (arangal nadathuval) – she spoke eighteen languages with one common ideal – and she displayed the contrasting characteristics of Parvati and Kali – loving and compassionate on the one hand, and inexorably destructive of evil on the other.

Romantic love, a focus of both individuality and idealism, has a special place in the spirit of Romanticism.

Looking at Bharati from this point of view, Romanticism, as expressed in his poetry, differs greatly from the age-long Tamil tradition.

The Sangam poets (600 BCE to 300 CE) divided life into two basic themes – love and heroism (agam and puram). These two concepts were split into many divisions, according to the varied landscapes and life-styles of the people. They wrote about love and heroism in the minutest detail, representing their attitudes towards these ideals, and how they perceived human experience. All Sangam poetry was “Classic,” in the sense that it was written under specific constraints regarding form, content, imagination, ideas, and even emotions.

The Alwars, the Vaishnava Saint-poets of the 6th to 9th centuries AD, come next in the history of Tamil literature. For the Alwars, the pursuit of God through the most intense emotional commitment was the goal. The Alwars “pursued, embraced, sang with . . . exultant passion of [the] intimate realization” of God, the Lover. “It would seem as if this passionate human symbol were the natural culminating point for the mounting flame of the soul’s devotion.” The poetry of Nammalwar and Andal, the modern poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali), and the 14th century love songs of Mira Bai express this devotion, “sung out by the rapt heart of a woman to the heart of the universe.”

The depth of love and devotion of the human soul longing to become one with the Great Soul, is expressed in the legends of the Gopikas as depicted in Bhagavatam. The expression seems “Romantic.” But in the context of Indian tradition, this “love” may be classified as bhakti, devotion, rather than “romantic.” In perceiving and approaching God, it is never entirely possible to transcend the distance between the human and the divine. The Alwars’ relationship with God – their admiration, devotion and wonderment at God’s qualities (gunas) – experienced by them from the angle of the beloved – is simply not as close as it would be in a romantic experience.

Bharati’s approach is quite different from the Alwars’. His experiences with the Goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi  in “Moonru Kaadal” – and, indeed, his approach to Krishna as the Lover and the Beloved in his Kannan-Love Songs – are the most intimate and close imaginable. The Poet’s love affairs with Saraswati and Lakshmi are “aesthetic,” “imaginative,” “emotional,” and “visionary.” The prevailing sense of “wonder” and “mystery” in the heart of the poet was typically Romantic.

But, to return to Bharati’s poem, the third experience that the poet encountered, and described in “Moonru Kaadhal,” was quite different from his  previous experiences with Saraswati and Lakshmi.

One night, a “Black Beauty” appeared before the poet. Intoxicated by the very idea that this was another young woman like the other two, the poet approached her with great excitement.

But, ah! The Poet was in for a surprise. This “Black Beauty” was not a maiden as he had imagined; she was someone else altogether. She was the Mother of the universe, Adi Parashakti Devi – who permeates Nature (prakriti) and moves the world around day and night with her finger!

At this juncture, I have to say that words don’t come to me easily to describe the Poet’s experience. This is far from my imagination, my reach, or my intellectual capacity. But … I will try…

It is clear, at least, that this experience of Bharati’s was a “mystical” experience, and far beyond the range of normal human experience. This experience could not have been attained by imagination, intellect or any other inner faculties of the human soul. It was simply given – received as a direct communication from above. It was deeply religious, and so intimate that it could not be sorted out or explained in words.

A mystical experience such as this does not ordinarily happen to any human being. First of all, the person would have to be deserving, and would have to be ready, equipped, and mature, in order to discern the vision. Just as Lord Krishna chose Arjuna to reveal his Visvarupa (the infinitesimal aspects of the Great Soul) – the poet was chosen to have the dharsan of Mahashakti.

This vision of Shakti and Her benevolence would enrich the human soul with wisdom. The Poet’s mind would be clear; he would be able to capture the whole world in his hands; all good things and the treasures of the world would come to him without asking, as a matter of course!

If the first two experiences described in Bharati’s poem could be called “Romantic,” this last one surely deserves to be described as “Mystical.” And here, Bharati resembles the mystic poets and devotees of the West – William Blake, who saw the soul of his dead brother “ascend heavenward clapping its hands for joy” – Henry Vaughan, who speaks of the “deep but dazzling darkness” in God. But Bharati is something very special – a Poet who combines the Romantic and Mystical into a single poetic vision. As such, he is an expansion of the marvelous Indian culture that preceded him – a brilliant synthesis of historical currents into a single mighty channel.

[1] A thick leaf from the palm tree, dried and cut-out, which was used to write on with a sharp tip, centuries ago.

“Andal, the Vaishnava Poetess” – Essay from Bharati’s English Writings



“Om Namo Narayanaya” – September 11, 1921

Today, the 11th of September 2013, is the death anniversary of C. Subramania Bharati (1882-1921). It is a religious observance in our custom to celebrate the death anniversary of our ancestors. I would like to dedicate to my grandfather, the last chapter from my book Amaran Kathai, a biographical novel about his life, as a tribute to his memory. I believe that nothing could be more appropriate than offering him my appreciation in this way.

Amaran Kathai is a novel based on Bharati’s life, and presented against the historical background of the Indian Freedom Movement, which he helped to ignite in South India. I would say that the novel is actually more of a biography than a novel, in the sense that it is more factual than imaginary. Most of the important events in Bharati’s life that are described in this novel – political, social, and personal –are factual, recounted with a touch of the imagination of the artist.

The genesis of this novel is an interesting story. Having written short biographical works on Bharati before, I wanted to write a truly detailed biography of this extraordinary man who was a Mahakavi, and also a personality of dazzling colours – a nationalist, hero, historical figure, revolutionary, social reformer, humanitarian, mystic, and above all, visionary who “saw” the future of India and the world. But I realized that it would not be an easy task; it would be challenging to portray such a personality in the usual form of a biography, which has certain inherent limitations. I was afraid that a mere narration of the incidents in the life of the poet, or a descriptive elaboration of his social background and the historical events of his times, might not be enough to understand the extent of his genius or his greatness as a poet. I was concerned that a traditional biography might end up as a kind of news reporting, purely informative, rather than portraying a complete picture of the poet’s personality.

I therefore decided not to pursue the idea of writing a biography in the traditional sense, but, instead, to write a novel about his life. I thought that, in a novel, I would be able to bring out all the different shades of his multifarious genius – the different aspects of his personality – his craftsmanship as a poet, his longing for freedom as a nationalist, his emotional force as a revolutionary, the depth of his faith and devotion as a bhakta, his love and compassion as a humanitarian, and his visionary insights as a gnani.

The Chapter in Amaran Kathai that I am posting today narrates the last day of Bharati’s life in his physical body. As my mother, Thangammal, recalled, “In those days, he was always thinking of Narayana and was always chanting Narayana namam (name).” He wrote his last poem, “Om Namo Narayanaya,” at this time, which reveals his disposition or state of mind in his last days. Both the poem and the last chapter from Amaran Kathai are attached to this Article (see links).

In this final chapter, I have incorporated Bharati’s poem “Om Namo Narayanaya,” a few excerpts from his writings (“Katchi”), and the fascinating story of the demon king Hiranya and his young son Prahalada. The poem is written as a dialogue, a samvadham, that occurred between the father and the son. Hiranya threatens his little son with unimaginable cruelties, but Prahlada, in return, answers only, “Om Namo Narayanaya.”

“What would you do if I killed you,” roared Hiranya;
“Om Namo Narayanaya, Om Namo Narayanaya,” said the little boy (siruvan).

“I will topple you down from the top of the mountain,” said Hiranya;
“Om Namo Narayanaya, Om Namo Narayanaya,” said the little boy.

“I will thrust you into the mouth of the whale, in the midst
of the frigid ocean,” said Hiranya;
“Om Namo Narayanaya, Om Namo Narayanaya,” said the little boy.

“I will break you apart at the hip and eat you, said the evildoer.
“Om Namo Narayanaya, Om Namo Narayanaya” said the little boy.

The two contrasting characters – the violent, tumultuous, stormy, fierce, raging, wild Hiranya stands in striking contrast to the calm, peaceful, fearless young bhakta. The difference accentuates the intensity of their confrontation. The repetition of the single phrase “Om Namo Narayanaya” highlights the fearlessness of the young boy and his unshakable faith in God.

Finally, Hiranya points to a stone pillar in front of him, and demands of his son, “Show me your Narayana in this pillar.” Prahlada answers, “Narayana exists in this pillar, and he also exists in the tiny twig of a tree.” Hiranya, becoming fierce with violent anger, kicks the pillar with his foot. To his astonishment, Narasimha, one of the ten avataras of Mahavishnu in the ferocious form of the Human-Lion, springs out and tears the evil king into two pieces.

In the explanatory remarks at the start of this Chapter, I have analyzed how an extraordinary event from history could appear to be happening at the present time. Was it just the imagination of the poet in his heightened state of mind? I do not believe so. I believe that these unusual occurrences were real, not imaginary, and that they were actually experienced by the poet.

I translate, below, my introductory remarks to the chapter. These passages are from Bharati’s own translation and commentary on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras:

In his commentary, Bharati uses a few musical terms to explain certain phenomena of creation that the human mind cannot grasp. He wants to emphasize, perhaps, that, in the vastness of creation, the limited human mind and physical senses are incapable of perceiving the wonders of nature to their full extent.

The musical term that Bharati uses to illustrate the levels of the human mind is Sthayi (range). There is also the order with which the human mind functions – the ascending and the descending: in musical language, Arohanam is ascending notes (swarams: s r g m p d n) and Avarohanam is descending notes (swarams: s n d p m g r).

“The phenomena of creation are infinite. . . .

“The Ocean of Sound: the limitless, unthinkable, unending range of variations of sound are infinite. From the sound of the young parrot’s cry to the sound of the moon colliding and collapsing onto the earth – the noise of the wind blowing on doomsday – the roaring of the planets crashing into the Sun and disintegrating into powder – if we can imagine such things happening – of all this varied range of sounds, the human ear can hear only seven Sthayis (the theory and calculation of Jagdish Chandra Bose).

“The Ocean of light:  in the limitless, unthinkable, unending range of light – humans can only accede to seven Sthayis. What man discerns as dark, the owl perceives as light. In the matter of ‘light,’ the owl has familiarity with the ‘lower’ ranges whereas the eagle is able to access the ‘higher’ ranges. The eagle has the power to look directly at the sun.

“Similarly, the ‘Subconscious’ (chaitanya) is made up of infinite ranges of which the human mind, in its usual state, can only reach two or three ranges. Even within these ranges – in its ascending and descending Sthayis – in its various combinations of Swaras – in the variations of Ragas – it is possible to achieve strange and amazing experiences. A few men are able to reach even eight or nine Sthayis, and we call them mahatmas and avataras.

“For those who have ascended a few steps in yoga siddhi, the lower part of the subconscious world opens up and reveals ‘visionary’ sights and wondrous experiences. As the torrent of the river Ganga flows from the originating mountaintops, gushing over the earth, and descending to the nether world (padalam), the wonders of the upper levels of Chaitanya pass through the normal consciousness and descend into the lower Chaitanya, creating unimaginable and wondrous experiences – as the fire that lies in a dormant state below the surface of the earth, climbs up through the mountains and bursts out through the summits – in great men (mahans), the wonders that were dormant in the lower levels of their own subconscious minds, emerge on occasion and create visions or experiences which would ordinarily seem impossible.

“These visions are clearer than the dreams that occur when we are asleep. They are as ‘real’ as the little parrot’s cry, or the owl’s experience of the ‘light’ of ‘darkness,’ or the eagle’s experience of the brilliance of the sun.”

Arya Dharsanam

“Oh, what a dream!

The dream happened in my conscious state,

when my eyes were wide awake”

Despite Bharati’s renown as a poet, his involvement in Hindu philosophical studies remains little known.  His poetry is deeply rooted in Hinduism and in its philosophical principles.  He studied the Vedas and undertook painstaking research to explore these sources of Indian thought.  He not only studied the Hindu scriptures, but he also read the scriptures of other religions, such as the Bible and the Koran.  In fact, his philosophical and spiritual research was among the most significant influences on the development of his poetic personality.

The significance of the word Arya is generally misunderstood and interpreted in the context of Bharati’s writings. An unbiased and objective look at Bharati’s writings, to explore where and how he uses the term Arya, clearly shows the poet’s scholarship in the Sanskrit language, his wide reading of both Tamil and Sanskrit literatures, and his understanding of history and culture.  The word occurs in so many expressions, and is so richly endowed with myriads of  meanings, that it may have to be understood according to its particular context. To Bharati, the meaning that the word Arya conveys is “highly esteemed, respectable, honourable and noble,” whether it is of a nation, or man.  He definitely does not mean Brahmana, probably one of the original races which immigrated to the Tamil land, from the North.

Arya dharsanam, the poem that is available at this link, occurred in what the poet calls his “conscious” dream.  In normal dream, when the dreamer is asleep and in an “unconscious” state, the sub-conscious mind enters into diverse realms of experience and imagination, and interprets them in any which way it pleases, bringing various things and sights into contact, relating the most unrelated objects, and creating a “story” of its own.  The human mind, in its conscious state, is unable to grasp the inner meaning of these stories.  Even the study of the mind’s workings can hardly decipher these stories, or provide explanations for the occurrence of the dreams.

A poet’s “conscious” dream is, perhaps, the poet’s “vision,” where the poet’s eyes and all his inner faculties are “wide open,” and he willingly, purposefully brings the story of his imagination to mind.  It may not be possible to explain what exactly a poet’s “vision” is.  But I am conjecturing, in this case, that the preoccupations of  the poet’s mind rose to the surface of consciousness, and created a “screen” of vision in which he could see a wonderful “drama” taking place. As Bharati describes in his poem, characters who play in this “drama” of consciousness are the leaders of two great religions, the Buddha and Krishna, and a heroic warrior, Arjuna.  It took place under a banyan tree, and on the plains of a field of battle.

As this drama unfolded, Bharati was found himself in the midst of a forest where there was a golden little hill surrounded by little pools (sunai) and a pond.  The light of the round moon was shining in the sky.  On the hill, there was a banyan tree (aala maram), under which, the Buddha was seated.  His face was shining with wisdom, emitting brilliant light and illuminating all around him.

And, what a wonder! The Buddha’s light disappeared and a sudden darkness extended over the place!

On the top of the hill, there was a battlefield, the kurukshetra in which there was a chariot and horses.  Bharati was wonderstruck to see a magnificent person who was seated in the front of the chariot.  The charioteer was magnificent – beautiful as the love-God Kaman (Manmadan), blue in colour, his eyes overflowing with benevolence, in valour like Bhima (one of the Pandava brothers), holding a discus (tihiri) in his hand which would rouse fear in the hearts of evildoers.  He realised then that he looked upon Kannan, Lord Krishna, the mountain of wisdom (gnana malai).

The battlefield was crowded with horses, elephants and chariots, in the midst of which stood Arjuna in front of Krishna, with distressed heart.  What a figure! It was surprising to Bharati that he appeared to be fatigued! The great warrior, the hero of Mahabharata

Bharati listened to the conversation between the two warriors:

Arjuna, his heart burdened with distress, said to Krishna: “I do not want success in this war; even if I die, I will not touch the Kauravas.  Would I kill my own relatives? What would be the sovereignty of the kingdom to me after losing all my relatives?”

A smile appeared in the beautiful face of Lord Krishna.  He said: “Do not talk like “ignorant” men who blabber the truths of wisdom.  Do not lose your vitality like a wilted flower.  Take your Gandipam (bow and arrow) and destroy the Kauravas, the crowd of evildoers.”

At this juncture, “the first and foremost scripture in the gnana shastras,” originated; “the highest literature in the line of the kavyas” was created.

Bharati translated the Bhagavat Gita into Tamil and wrote a detailed introduction to it.

Mahatma Gandhi gave his blessings to Bharati’s translation, as he felt that the Gita was essential reading for each and every Tamilian (click here to view).  The former Governor-General of India, Sri C. Rajagopalachari, wrote an introduction to a collection of Bharati’s prose works, which included his “Introduction to the Bhagavat Gita”  (Bharati Prachuralayam, 1940) (click here to view).  Bharati’s translation may be considered the best that has ever been made into Tamil. Its language and style is unique and in a few places, it is poetic and original.

Bharati was impressed by the Bhagavat Gita for many reasons:

First of all, the Bhagavat Gita  was written to explain the principles of the Vedas, and, as such, it was what Bharati understood as the “culmination” of the Vedas.  For this reason, it becomes the gnana shastra, leading man to immortality.

Bharati studied the Vedas with Sri Aurobindo, a nationalist who ultimately became a seer and philosopher, who was Bharati’s great and esteemed friend in Pondicherry. Both men were learned scholars in the Sanskrit language, and were capable of deciphering the more than two and a half millennia-old Hindu scriptures. They undertook research on the vedas and wrote in detail about their findings.

Secondly, Bharati was fascinated by the dramatic opening of the battle of Kurukshetra, where Lord Krishna, driving a chariot in the midst of the feuding Pandava and Kaurava clans, taught Arjuna the essence of the Vedas. Bharati’s philosopy is based on the principles of the Vedas, and the Bhagavat Gita explains this in a dramatic context.  This drama introduces two great personalities – the great soul Krishna, the incarnation of Mahavishnu, and a human being, Arjuna, an embodiment of Indian culture. Krishna is paramatma, and Arjuna, the kshatriya king, is jivatma; Duryodanas are impious, evil spirits, (kama krodhas) that are the root cause of ignorance, sorrows, worries, doubts, laziness, and forgetfulness.

As a poet, Bharati enjoys the mantras of the Vedic sages and calls them “the poetry of the Vedic rishis” (vedarishikalin kavithai).  These mantras from the Rig Veda describe the constant battle of the devas (immortals) with the asuras (demons). Bharati’s poetry in Tamil (Agni Sthomam) which describes Agni and the sacrifice (yaga/velvi) that the rishis perform at the altar, is a dramatic masterpiece.The sacrificial fire in which the sages pour ghee roars towards the sky, and drives the asuras, the evil spirits, to far away forests – as Milton’s Satan and his allies burn unforgettably in hellfire.  The never-ending battle of the devas and asuras is an allegory of the human spirit struggling to fight against evil – sorrows, worries, fear, and ignorance.

Thirdly, the  Bhagavat Gita is one of the three treasures of Hindu dharma – the other two being the Upanishads, and the Vedanta sutras. Sankara, Ramanujacharya, and Madvacharya  who established three religions, wrote interpretations of the Bhagavat Gita, and established the place of the scripture as one of the foundations of the Hindu religion.  Bharati was impressed that the great religious leaders proclaimed the Bhagavat Gita a foundation of the Hindu religion.

Fourthly, Bhagavat Gita is one of the treasures of Indian thought and represents thousands of years of culture – a culture of great aspirations and spirituality.

Finally, and most importantly, the Bhagavat Gita preaches the goal of Immortality, which was also Bharati’s goal, and, indeed, his religion.

Bharati’s poem, “Arya Dharsanam,” touches the essence of the Bhagavat Gita, simply, in four stanzas. In his “Introduction to the Bhagavat Gita,” Bharati offers a detailed discussion of what the scripture preaches in its eighteen chapters. He examines the various theories that inform the study of the Gita among Hindus and others, and clarifies their doubts and fears about the doctrine of the great scripture.

In the wide spectrum of Bharati’s personality, his experiences with the two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism played an important part as he determined his own philosophy of life. In the past the two religions had engaged in a frightful battle in the Tamil land. Hinduism succeeded, not only by maintaining its own principles and ideals, but also, by adopting certain aspects of the other religion that appealed to the South Indian public.  While Bharati was attracted by the ideals of equality (sarva jana samatvam) and love (jiva karunnyam), proclaimed by the Buddhist religion, he was totally against the pursuit of asceticism, promoted by Buddhism as a way of life. He appreciated the great personality of the Buddha, and his principles of humanitarianism and service, spreading these ideas throughout India.  That is probably the very reason why Bharati’s  dharsanam of the Buddha takes place in this poem.

“At the awakening of India from its long slumber, the first figure, the light that appeared in  Bharati’s vision, was Krishna” (Introduction to Kannan Pattu, 2nd edition – V.V.S. Iyer).  Bharati wrote two poems on Krishna. In these, he pleaded to Krishna, the king of the Aryas, who created the great Bharatam (“Sri Krishna Sthotram”) to bestow success and fame on the people of India (“Krishnan Midhu Sthuti”).

Bharati is fascinated by Arjuna, the other character who appears in this dream. Arjuna was a hero of the great epic, the Mahabharata; although Dharmaputra was the eldest of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna was the leading figure in all respects.  He was a friend of Krishna; in his song “Kannan –My Friend,” Bharati transforms himself into Arjuna and talks about his experiences with Krishna, as a friend.  Krishna practically led Arjuna through life, helping him at difficult times – most importantly, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.  Krishna became Arjuna’s charioteer – preached the Bhagavat Gita to him at a time when he found himself confused and distressed – gave him the eyes of wisdom (gnana), as Arjuna was the deserving and qualified personality – showed him his visvarupa, the dazzling atma of the Lord Himself.

Bharati yearns to be like Arjuna – the beautiful, strong, heroic personality, above all, a gnani.  He sings to the Mother, “She would make me like my brother (annan), Arjuna” (“Kannan-En Thai” – Bharati).

Bharati explores the Bhagavat Gita from all angles: to him the great Hindu scripture is “moksha shastra, bhakti shastra, karma shastra, yoga shastra, amrutha shastra and gnana shastra.”

Immortality is Bharati’s goal in life, and he believes that Bhagavat Gita shows the path to this goal.  He believes that the Bhagavat Gita reflects the conviction of the Vedic  rishi, in the purusha sukta of the Rig Veda, which he interprets as follows: “You are God.  All your deeds are God’s deeds. Once you realize this fact, it will be ignorant to bind yourself with chains of illusion, that you are the one who does everything.  Therefore, surrender all you do to God and do your work dispassionately.”

The last four stanzas of Bharati’s “Arya Dharsanam” distil the essence of the Bhagavat Gita, which elucidates the vision of the Vedic rishis in eighteen chapters.

A Circle of Friends, Part II – V.V.S. Iyer

Thangammal, Bharati’s elder daughter, introduces V. V. S. Iyer in an article on Bharati’s family and friends:

“In those days, the name Bharati meant Subramania Bharati, and Iyer meant V.V.S. Iyer.  Although he was born in a Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu, a Rajaputra’s blood was running in his veins.  With a strong physique and unwavering mind, he opposed British rule in India.  He followed in the lineage of the ancient rishis.  He was a hero throughout his life and even in death.”

In many respects, Bharati and Iyer resembled each other. First and foremost, they were both Nationalists; they loved India and were determined to fight for the Freedom of their country from British rule.

In fact, the Indian Congress, fighting against British rule in India, was split into two parties, the “Extremists” and the “Moderates.”  There were great leaders like Dadabai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Firosshaw Mehta on the “Moderate” side, and  Lajpat Roy, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bibin Chandra Pal, Shri Aurobindo on the “Extremist” side. In the South, there was V. Krishnaswamy Iyer, a “Moderate” who printed Bharati’s three first national songs, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, Subramania Siva, G. Subramania Iyer, and Surendranath Arya, as well as Bharati himself, as “Extremist” members of the Congress party.

The goal of both parties was “Freedom.”

Even within each of these two groups, there were many differences of opinion. For example, both Bharati and Iyer belonged to the Extremist faction of the Indian Congress; but their approaches to securing India’s freedom from the hands of the British were rather different.  Bharati’s personality was fiery. As an “Extremist,” he was impatient to obtain freedom.  He was passionate, not only about achieving national freedom, but also, in the pursuit of his personal goals in life – establishing Kruta Yuga, an era of happiness, free from hunger and inequality.  His approach was that this goal had to be achieved “immediately” and “right now!”

As far as the Nation was concerned,  Iyer’s desire, too, was for immediate freedom; but the method that he espoused was different from Bharati’s, and aggressive. He was prepared to pursue this goal by any means, any means at all, even adopting violence.

Bharati, on the other hand, did not advocate or promote violence.  Ahimsa (non-violence) was his dharma, and “love thine enemy” (“pagaivanuk karulvai”) was his message to the world.

“Think lovingly of the tiger that comes to eat you, O my good heart,

It is the form of Parasakti. Salute Her there!”

As an advaitic philosopher, all beings, living and inanimate, were forms of Parasakti in Bharati’s eyes.  He writes that “the crow and the sparrow” belonged to his “class”; the vast ocean and the mountains were part of his community.

Bharati’s approach to the national struggle was to “educate” the Indian public about the importance of freedom and self-government, and to talk to the British about India, her people and culture, explaining India’s stature and position, and analyzing the current situation under British rule.  Writing was his instrument, which, in his hands, was more powerful and effective than violence.

Iyer studied in London to become a Barrister-at-Law.  While there, he became involved in India’s Freedom Movement.   He was greatly influenced by Savarkar, an Indian Revolutionist.  His association with him  at the “India House” in London, may have contributed to his “militant” attitude towards India’s Freedom.

When Iyer returned to India, he worked with a “terrorist” group, guiding them in an  aggressive fight against British rule.  He was a hero in that sense, and he believed that by adopting this method, India could achieve Freedom in the immediate future.

While Iyer was studying in London, he was a reporter for India magazine, published from Pondicherry and edited by Bharati.  At times, the reports written by Iyer were not agreeable to Bharati, and he would write a comment objecting to the “aggressive” views of the reporter.   For example, Iyer covered a terrible fire accident at a cotton mill in Glasgow, commenting: “This incident occurred to avenge a British act – the hanging of the Revolutionist Madan Lal Dhingra, and the refusal to allow his body to be burnt by Hindu methods (achara). It is the anger of the Fire God, Agni, which has destroyed the cotton mill.”

Although Bharati printed this information in India, he wrote in his own editorial that he “did not agree with the views of the London reporter.”

The British Government issued a warrant for Iyer’s arrest, alleging his involvement in Madan Lal Dhingra’s activities.  Iyer, disguised as a “wanderer” (pakkiri) escaped to Pondicherry, where he met fellow-patriots Bharati and Shri Aurobindo,  and continued his revolutionary activities.

Bharati and Iyer became close friends.  Both were intellectuals, interested in Indian culture, religion, literature, and arts.

Iyer was fascinated by Bharati’s writings.  He wrote an Introduction to the Second Edition of Bharati’s Kannan Pattu,  in which he appreciates Bharati’s poetry as gems, “each word worth a lakh” (akshara laksham).

Bharati visited Iyer quite often. Thangammal writes in her book, “Whenever Bharati wrote something new, he would first read it to his wife, Chellamma (and the children), and then he would read it to his friends, particulalry Iyer; he wouldn’t be satisfied otherwise.” (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal (Articles), ed. S. Vijaya Bharati.)

Iyer was a writer himself, a literary critic and a pioneer of the short story form in Tamil. He translated the Tirukkural into English and wrote a book on the Kamba Ramayanam.

The families of Bharati and Iyer became friends, as well. Thangammal says, “When my father visited Iyer, he would take the children with him; I had an opportunity to listen to the short stories that Iyer read to Bharati and would become immersed in them.”  Thangammal had a close association with Iyer’s family, and later, Thangammal and Iyer’s son, Dr. V.V.S. Krishanamurti, became good friends. And Thangammal, herself, became a remarkable short story writer. (Thangammal Bharati Padaippugal)

My mother wrote a funny anecdote about Krishnamurti:

“On one occasion, when Bharati visited Iyer, Bharati sang a song he wrote on Shakti (“Shakti Shakti Shakti enru sollu”).  The young boy was listening attentively and was emotionally affected by the words and music of the song. He asked Bharati whether he might be allowed to sing it.  When permitted, he sang, “Katthi Katthi Katthi enru sollu.”

Both Iyer and Bharati laughed, and Bharati said, “The boy is born in a heroic family, and he therefore sings Katthi (sword) instead of Shakti.”

In fact, at that young age, the boy could not pronounce “sha” but instead, pronounced the syllable “ka”!

I attach a beautiful narration of Iyer’s adventurous and tragic journey to the top of the podigai mountain, written by my mother, Thangammal; please click here. Iyer went in search of the source of the river Tamravaruni (Papanasam) with his friends and his young daughter Subatra…

A Circle of Friends, Part I – Bharati dasan

Bharati had a number of friends in Pondicherry.  They admired him and helped him. There were some whose company simply delighted the poet. A few helped him at difficult times, providing support, and a few others made important contributions to the growth of his personality.  There can be no doubt that the realisation of the self came to Bharati through his many relationships with friends, disciples, and relatives. At the same time, Bharati’s influence on those around him was profound, and the force of his writing and personality helped to unleash a Renaissance in Tamil literature. Bharati belongs to the category of Renaissance thinkers and poets, a special group of great individuals who are products of unique historical forces that appear rarely in civilizations. In Bharati’s case, the tremendous call of the National Movement and the fight for Indian independence catalyzed his growth, and transformed him into one of these leaders of human thought.

Some of his friends became characters in Bharati’s writings.  He gave them nick-names, which were partly truthful and partly humorous.

Vilakkennai Chettiar (Sabapati Chettiar), the owner of the house where Bharati lived was a loving, compassionate man; smooth as castor oil (“vilakkennai”), he would never ask Bharati for payment of the rent. He would drop by with the intention of collecting it, but he was satisfied to listen to Bharati singing a song and invariably left without asking for money.  There were “Vellachu” (jaggery piece) Krishnasamy Chettiar, “Elikkunju” (mouse) Arumugam Chettiar, “Valluru” (kite) Naicker, “Brahmaraya Iyer (Professor Subramania Iyer) to mention a few.

Among his close friends, Bharati was fortunate to count Sri Aurobindo, with whom he conducted research on the Vedas. Bharati enjoyed the company of V.V.S. Iyer, a great critic and writer; of the siddhas who lived in Pondicherry, such as Kullachami and Govindasamy, the Swamy from Jaffna; of his own disciples, such as Kanaga Subburathinam (Bharati dasan), Va. Ra. (Va. Ramasamy Iyengar,) Kuvalai Kannan; and a great many other, loyal friends.

In her book Bharatiyar Charithiram, Chellamma writes, “There were about 35 disciples (sishya kodikal) in the house.  . . . Each one was different in his own particular way.”

Among these remarkable friends, a special place was held by the fellow-poet whose love for Bharati and devotion to him were so immense that he adopted “Bharati dasan” as his own pen name.  This follows the poetic tradition of Kalidasa, and of Bharati himself, who once assumed the pen name “Shelley dasan.”

With Bharati DasanIn the picture above, I am seated across from Bharati dasan.  Also present were my aunt, Shakuntala Bharati, Bharati’s younger daughter,  R.A. Padmanabhan, and Bharati’s disciple, Kanakalingam.

The meeting of Bharati dasan with Bharati was an interesting one.  Bharati dasan gives an elaborate account of the incident in his own book:

Venu Naicker (kottadi vathiar), a disciple and friend of Bharati, was getting married, and Bharati was invited to the wedding.  A musical performance had been arranged for 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the wedding reception.  About 30 people, friends and relatives of Venu Naicker, were gathered under the canopy (pandal) at the reception.  Subburthinam, who later came to be known as Bharati dasan, had agreed to sing.

Subburathinam was sitting in the front row, and he turned around to look at the people at the gathering.  There were a few familiar faces, and among them he recognized a man that he had seen before, somewhere in Pondicherry.   The person he saw was very attractive,  with a fair complexion, beautiful and majestic features, and  eyes of great depth that seemed to be filled with love – an appearance that was so divine, he looked like a painting! Indeed, Subburathinam thought to himself that the person was the very picture of Paramasivam (Lord Shiva) as painted by the celebrated artist, Ravivarma.

The performance started and Subburathinam began to sing: Vira Suthandiram, and the audience was listening with great enjoyment.  When he finished the song, Venu Naicker asked him to sing a few more songs.  When Subburathinam started again with Thonru nigazhnda danaithum, many members of the audience began to turn their heads to look at the Ravivarma Paramasivam, who was present there.

When the concert was over, Venu came to Subburathinam and took him to the person. Venu asked Subburathinam, “Do you know this man?”

Before Subburathinam answered, Bharati turned directly to Subburathinam, and asked, “Have you studied Tamil?”

“A little,” he responded.

To which, Bharati remarked, “You sing with emotion.”

At this point, Venu turned to Subburathinam and said, “This is the person who wrote all of the poems you just sang.  His name is Subramania Bharati.”

Subburathinam’s face turned pale, and, as the Tamil expression goes, became exactly like the face of “a monkey who has eaten ginger.”  He was overwhelmed by shame, fear, and happiness.  Everything became a blur.

As Bharati turned to leave, he asked Venu, “Why have you not brought this man to our house?”

Subburathinam was excited by this invitation and filled with overpowering joy.

The relationship that began thus developed into the most important relationship of Subburathinam’s life. Subburathinam was fascinated by Bharati and became an ardent follower. His decision to change his name to “Bharati dasan” signified his affection for Bharati as a person and poet.  Subburathinam became immersed in Bharati’s poetry, and involved in his life. The members of Bharati’s family came to see him as one of their own.

Thangammal, Bharati’s elder daughter, remembers a poem that Bharati dasan wrote early  in his career, which she published among her own writings. This poem , which remained unpublished in Bharati dasan’s collections of poetry shows that, in his early years, Bharati dasan was totally absorbed in Bharati’s poetry. He believed in Bharati’s way of life, his revolutionary ideals, and his principles.  Bharati dasan considered Bharati his guru, and respected him enormously, not only for his poetry, but also, as an exceptional person.

You can read this poem by clicking here. It  shows how passionate was Bharati dasan’s love of his country, as well as his belief in appealing to Parashakti.  The influence of Bharati is apparent in the style of writing, in the words that Bharati dasan used, and in the nationalistic fervour and emotional heights that the poem reaches – undoubtedly inspired by Bharati.

In fact, the foundation for Bharati dasan’s entire development was laid by his association with Bharati. Bharati was a passionate believer in equality, and constantly argued for justice on behalf of the disempowered groups in Indian society – notably, women and the disadvantaged castes, as well as for the equality of Indians with other citizens of the world. Bharati dasan was originally involved in the Indian Independence Movement, opposing the British and French governments in India, and consigned to time in prison by the French government, for his pro-Freedom views. He later became involved in post-Independence revolutionary movements, joining the Dravidar Kazhagam, founded by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, whose original goal was to eradicate the evils of the caste system. The ideas behind the movement were equality and self-respect, ideals that Bharati stood for throughout all his life and writings.

Bharati was a Universal poet, in the sense that his poetry encompassed everything in nature. He wrote about the animate and inanimate objects of the universe – the sun, the moon and the stars – the sky, the wind, the fire, the earth and the waters – the mountains, the rivers, are all part of his life. He had a deep relationship with all the objects of creation.  Because of this, his poetry belonged to all three times, the past, the present, and the future. His poetry was preoccupied with truth, in a cosmic sense, which is the essence of life.

As illustrated by Bharati, the characteristics of a Universal mind, I think, are faith in God ,who created the universe, and Love, by which the Universe functions.

Bharati was a Renaissance poet who revived our culture,  and shaped and styled the Tamil language and literature.  Like Shakespeare, there was no subject matter that he left untouched, or failed to deal with in his writings.

Bharati was a Revolutionary whose goal was to completely remodel society, and give it new lustre.  Through the power of his creative imagination and insight, he was able to uproot the age-long ideas and thinking of society and completely change the direction of its future.  Over time, society at large was influenced by this great personality.

Bharati dasan was totally absorbed in Bharati, in his poetry first of all, and in his revolutionary ideas and principles at large.  In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Dasan’s personality had been developed in the foot-steps of Bharati, of course, had been shaped by Bharati’s poetry, 

Bharati dasan’s literary works have earned a place in the canon of Tamil literature alongside Bharati.  He wrote on various themes – from political and social, to purely literary, and on the Tamil language.  He wrote plays, short stories, essays, and film scripts.

My personal recollections of Bharati dasan remain among my most treasured memories.

In fact, I was first introduced to Bharati dasan as a teenager, by my aunt, Shakuntala. She  took me with her to Pondicherry to attend a Bharati vizha (celebration), organized by Bharati dasan.  I can’t exactly remember the year now.  On the day preceding the celebration, I met the poet.  At that time, I had already read and enjoyed Bharati dasan’s poetry before and used to sing a few of his poems at home.

When we met, I sat down respectfully in front of the poet, and suddenly he asked me to sing a song.  I started singing Bharati dasan’s song Thunbam nergaiyil, which had been beautifully sung in a movie.  Bharati dasan was deeply affected.  He then asked me to sing a Bharati song, which I did – the poem starting vendumadi eppodhum viduthalai.

The following day, at the grand vizha, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were gathered. The poet  asked me to sing Thunbam nergaiyil as the first order of business, to inaugurate the event. I was deeply touched by the love he showed towards myself, and towards my aunt Shakuntala, as the members of Bharati’s family.

Talking about Love, I have a firm belief that Love is, in fact, the underlying quality of a poetic personality and without love, poetry cannot be created.

This, I arrived at, after studying Bharati a lot, and reading some major poetry in English literature under the guidance of my late husband (a professor of English).

In the light of these reflections, how startling and wondrous it is to note that Bharati dasan was an Atheist. Apparently, during an Atheists’ Conference in Chennai, he signed a document bearing the words, “I am an undying atheist.”

An Atheist does not believe in the existence of God. On the other hand, Bharati was an impassioned devotee of Parashakthi. From what I have read in Bharati, I understand that a person who has faith in God believes in his Creation, and Love is the essence and theme that unites all of God’s Creation. Any expression of hatred towards other human beings cannot be part of the flow of Creation, or meaningful to life.

I expressed my theory earlier about Love as the underlying quality of a poetic personality, and without love, poetry cannot be created.  I have no question in my mind about the validity of my conviction.

Bharati dasan was a believer in goodness as opposed to evil, a supporter of justice as opposed to injustice, and  undoubtedly a worshipper of Love a divine quality that permeated his heart and soul.  Perhaps, he denied “God” as expressed in religion, an imagined figure and form. Regardless of whatever “label’ he applied to himself, the fact that he believed in goodness, justice, and love makes him easily recognizable,  just like his guru, as a devotee of truth.

The Heroine of Bharati’s Poetry – Chellamma Part II

When Chellamma died, C. Rajagopalachari, (Rajaji), then the Governor General of India, wrote a letter of condolence to my mother, Thangammal Bharati:

“At a time when the whole nation is celebrating Bharati’s birthday, your letter conveying the sad news arrived.  She fed me one day in Puduchery – me and R.V. Krishnayyar.  When the meal was done, Bharati danced and danced (kudithu kudithu) and dancing, sang a song too for us.  Look, what a very fortunate woman she was! How many women in this country have such a celebrated husband? There is no grief in reaching the feet of Narayana.”

As Rajaji said, Chellamma was truly a bhagyavati. How many women in this country would have had such a celebrated husband?

 Perhaps, Kasturba, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, also had the good fortune to live with a celebrated husband  and enjoy an extraordinary life with him! And yet,the lives of these two women were not “enjoyable” in the normal way – normal in the sense that they lived a “comfortable,” and “happy” life with no worries, enjoying their status as the wives of “celebrated” husbands.

 No – the life that Kasturba and Chellamma lived could not be called an “ordinary” life.  Both the women encountered enormous difficulties, in both their personal and social lives.  Their lives were full of hardships, and they suffered unimaginable mental anguish. As both the Mahatma and the Mahakavi were dedicated to the freedom struggle and social reforms, these women had to bear the consequences of their actions, and, married to idealists, the subjects of their husbands’ extraordinary “experiments with truth,” in Gandhi’s own phrase.  At times, the two women had to tolerate their husbands’ extraordinary behaviour, even at its most demanding and apparently irrational, at home.

As their lives became “public,” it was a struggle for both women.  They not only had to deal with the British government, but also had to deal with the resistance and, indeed, antagonism, of the members of their own society.  In Chellamma’s case, her experience was probably more difficult: she belonged to the oppressive Brahmin caste, came from a relatively poor background, and was herself restricted by the backward environment and thinking of the people of the village from which she came. She therefore had little or no support from the general public of her, and Bharati’s, times.

And there was an important difference between the lives of the two women.  Chellamma  was the wife of a Poet.   This was a blessing! But, what kind of life fell to the lot of Challemma as the wife of a Mahakavi?

She married him at the age of seven when he was fifteen and still in school. She came from a south Indian middle-class Brahmin family, their financial status bordering on the affluent, and the social status certainly in the upper rungs of society in the village of Kadayam.  As a young girl, Chellamma enjoyed life as a passing spectacle of religious and social festivals, entertainment of musical and theatrical events, and the numerous celebrations in a large joint family, of birthdays of children, upanayanams, weddings and more weddings, and even the passing of the old, a cause for sadness, nevertheless full of ritual-bound celebration.

The young Bharati visited Smt. Nivedita Devi, the disciple of Swami Vivekananda, on his way back from attending the meeting of the Indian Congress in Calcutta.  This experience proved to have inexplicable and extraordinary dimensions for Bharati, in which Nivedita revealed to him the sampurna rupa of the Bharata Shakti and taught Bharati the meaning of true service to the Nation.  Chellamma describes this meeting in her path breaking biography of her husband, Bharatiar Charithiram. As Chellamma relates, Sister Nivedita asked Bharati why he had not brought his wife to the Congress and he apparently answered, “We do not usually bring our wives to meetings; moreover, of what use would it have been to bring her to the Indian Congress”? Nivedita explained to Bharati the greatness of women and the importance of recognizing that women are free beings, like men, and that woman should be  treated as the equal of man.

At that very moment, Bharati’s vision of a “New Woman” (pudumai penn) was born in his poet’s heart.  And who else could this new woman be, but his own wife, the embodiment and personification of his pudumai penn? In this sense, Chellamma became Bharati’s goddess.  Chellamma was immediately aware of the profound change that had happened in Bharati.

“The wife who loves is Shakti and immortality is attained through her,”

was Bharati’s conviction, and Chellamma knew in her heart that her husband was undertaking something new and wonderful, and felt the imminence of freedom, not only for the country, but for the women of India. “Nalla kalam varuhuthu!”

In those days, Chellamma and her household were well-provided for. Bharati was settled in Madras and worked as a sub-editor of Swadesamitran magazine.  But, alas, this situation was not to endure. Chellamma’s financial comfort and security were ultimately destroyed when Bharati’s nationalist engagement was to have extreme consequences. In order to continue his struggle for an independent India, Bharati  was forced to leave British India for the French territory of Pondicherry..

 Thus began a life of privation and severe financial hardship.  How Bharati related to this situation has been widely written about – it is largely speculation! It is reasonable to agree – because we really do not understand what makes a poet a poet – that Bharati’s mind moved continuously on an  ecstatic plane, and he took little notice of the practical demands of a household of a wife and two daughters.  Accordingly, it became Chellamma’s sole responsibility to manage the household, and to feed and clothe the family– the start of a struggle that would not end until her death in 1955.

 Chellamma talked about her life with her poet husband on All India Radio, Tiruchy:

 “It seems that poetry is the property of a poet; it is true that he lives in his own world of poetry. But, unfortunately it is his wife who has to find food for the family! Once my husband entered into his poetic mode, even a sage could not be compared to him.  But, could the wife also be in the nishta and not worry about the household? What am I to do if the poet who worships his wife as his “queen of love,” (kaadali Rani) does not realize that he must also feed her? Can the bird which soars in the vast blue sky on the wings of imagination be compelled to live an ordinary life, in the dark house of the earth?

It is acceptable for the poet to live his own life, with his  strange habits, idiosyncrasies, and idealistic attitudes; but who would think that the wife would want to live a life of worry?”

Chellamma was totally dedicated to Bharati.  Her husband was a god to her.  She had absolute faith in her husband’s beliefs, values and principles  She respected him so much that she followed his principles verbatim, not only in their life together, but also, after her husband’s death, and until her own death.

In due course over her life with Bharati, as the thread that binds jasmine flowers together acquires the fragrance of the flowers, she became a “fragrant flower” herself.   She divested herself completely of the old attitudes she had acquired from a young age, and had developed the true qualities of Bharati’s ideal woman.  And later, she came to see the outside world from her husband’s perspective.   The freedom that he envisioned, for women and for everyone, became her own life’s goal.  From the time of her husband’s death, Chellamma lived her life with extraordinary courage, and maintained an unshakable faith in God.  She acquired the ability to execute the important things that mattered in life, and she impressed upon the minds of the children of the family, including myself, her unwavering focus on the higher and finer things in life.

She became the embodiment of Bharati’s poetry– the embodiment of her husband’s ideal woman – and the embodiment of our best cultural values: love, sacrifice, courage, valour, faith in God and Truth, and an attitude of optimism towards life. 

The biographers of  James Joyce talk about the “great poverty” in which the great  writer lived towards the end of his life.  What “great poverty” meant to the author of Ulysses, in 20th-century Britain, is hard to estimate from this distance in time.  Although I lived with my grandmother until I turned 17, I have very little comprehension of what it was to be a “have-not.”  My grandmother certainly would have been incapable of thinking in those terms. How does one reconcile the life of great poverty and material deprivation with the privilege of living the life of the mind and the spirit?

 In “great poverty,” Chellamma Bharati lived and died, and attained immortality!

My grandmother brought me up and made me the person I am today.  I have seen her handling all kinds of situations in life: the happy occasions, the sorrowful moments, unimaginable sufferings, society’s differential treatment, injustice – to name only a few.  She surpassed all of these “rasas,” the manifestations of Parashakti’s, through faith in God, and with her husband’s guidance!

 A few words about Chellamma’s final days and hours.

It was 1955.  I had returned to Kadayam, my grandmother’s birth place, from Tirunelveli, where I was studying, after completing my exams at College.  I was surprised at the state in which I found my grandmother.  As I came in, she embraced me and said that she had been “waiting” for me to come back home; apparently she had advised my mother not to disturb me at College by communicating to me that my grandmother was unwell.

Over the next week or so she became worse, and finally fell into an unconscious state.  The doctor advised us that “the time had come”.  Shakuntala, Bharati’s younger daughter, had now arrived at her mother’s bedside from a distant land, and a couple of our friends had come as well.  The village house was my grandmother’s own house, and it was quite large and comfortable.  She was surrounded by her daughters, grandchildren, and friends, but she was in a coma, unable to recognize the people around her. 

But, at length, we were wonderstruck to hear, once again, the sound of my grandmother’s gentle voice.  From the bed of the unconscious woman, we could hear her singing two lines from my grandfather’s poem, Kannan-en-Arasan (Kannan my King):

 “I came as his servant, to sweep the floor and the porch.

He made me his minister, who was worthy of the country’s praise.”

The poem continues:

 “I came to serve, to earn my daily bread,

He gave me with wealth unequalled.

I was bereft of learning and wisdom,

He made me understand the subtleties of the Vedas.”

This singing, in Bharati’s original melody, continued a few times.  We were shocked and surprised to hear her murmuring these lines repeatedly.

Obviously, these lines from Bharati’s Kannan Pattu must have affected Chellamma deeply.They related to her own experience.  She only murmured the first two lines, but the other four lines continue the feeling of the first two.  She relates her own feelings about herself in comparison with the great person – that she was fortunate to have him as a life-mate, and that by this association, he made her “wealthy” of riches that were impossible for her even to think of.

What was happening to her? What was she thinking in her “unconscious” state? Were the memories submerged in her subconscious mind coming out to the surface at this time of departure from the world? Was she meeting with her husband again, and talking to him about herself? Did she want to thank him for the life – an enriched, ennobled, and worthwhile life – that he provided for her, as she was leaving the world?

Complete silence reigned for a time.  Then again, she continued,

“Tirumal came and fully occupied my heart”.

(I have recorded the lines that she sang; to listen, click here.)

Yes, it was Bharati himself who was fully occupying her heart all those years; he was the companion who guided her throughout her life; he was the guru who gave her clarity of mind; he was the magician who removed all the meaningless tangles of her heart and made it strong and fearless!

I asked Dr. Bradley Vines, Ph. D. a cognitive neuroscientist,  if he could help me to understand what was happening during Chellamma’s extraordinary, spectacular, final moments in this world. In response to my questions,  he provided the following commentary:

 “The incident of Chellamma’s singing from the depths of a coma presents a remarkable case that, to my knowledge, is unique in history.  However, this profound event exemplifies principles of cognitive neuroscience that are common to us all.  By considering the way the brain functions, we may gain insight into how and why it was that Chellamma sang the poetry of her late husband, after losing consciousness, with her final breaths.

Singing is a complex behavior that involves the coordination of a number of different areas of the brain.  To sing, we must engage motor systems that control the movement of vocal muscles, access memories that encode melody and words, and process the sound of our own voice to make adjustments over time.  Seen in this light, singing is a miraculous phenomenon on its own, let alone the act of singing in a state of coma.  But, from a neuroscientific perspective, it is the very richness of singing, in terms of the recruitment of a wealth of neural resources, that makes such a deep and lasting impression on the mind.

Both music and poetry facilitate human memory.  Taken together, music and poetry form an ideal mnemonic device.  Through the ages, people have used combinations of music and poetry to remember lengthy narratives, as in bards’ epic tales, or to grasp important information, as in the case of the oral tradition of ayurvedic medicine.  This is because music, with its melodic contours and rhythm, is rich with salient features that are ideal for the brain to encode.  Poetry, similarly, offers a variety of handholds for the mind to grip, like metric structure and patterns of rhyme.  Furthermore, music and poetry both engage systems of the brain that are associated with emotion and reward.  Research has shown that experiences that are associated with strong emotions become more deeply engrained in memory and are easier to recall.  It is for these reasons that the neural networks reinforced by music and poetry are so robust.

Chellamma had sung Bharati’s poetry throughout her life, and she was deeply moved by the words of her husband’s song. It is therefore understandable that the music would be deeply engrained in her memory.  Science, potentially, could even explain the fact that she sang the words of her husband’s poetry from a special state of awareness so far removed from day-to-day consciousness that she was unresponsive even to her most beloved family and friends.  What transcends the current reach of neuroscientific explanation, however, is Chellamma’s personal experience.  Neuroimaging tools provide insight into the associations between brain activity and behavior, but they cannot give us access to the very experience that the human brain makes possible.  For now, we can only imagine what Chellamma’s experience may have been as her final consciousness in this life became completely filled with poetry.”

 Some of the facts that Dr. Vines points out in his analysis are surprising to me.  First of all, I had not realized that Chellamma’s experience might be a “unique”  incident, and not an ordinary occurrence in a human life.

I would explain further that the person we are talking about was not an ordinary person.  Chellamma’s experiences with her husband – as a poet and as a unique personality – must have been so powerful that they created “unusual” emotions and processes in her brain.  These strong powerful and unique emotions, associated with her experiences with her husband, must have been deeply ingrained in her memory until they were recalled at the very end of her life.

 Dr. Vines talks about how music and poetry are  structures that support memory and cognition, helping us to remember lengthy narratives and epic tales, and to grasp important information. In our country, it is true that the “oral tradition,” was perhaps the only method by which lengthy narratives, epic tales, and poetry were traditionally taught.  Dr. Vines also talks about the means by which both communicate, music by “melodic contours and rhythm and poetry by “metric structures and patterns of rhyme” which are appealing to the human brain. Both music and poetry provide “footholds” for the brain to remember. The arts of music and poetry are so powerful that they engage systems that not only remember the facts of a given incident, but also maintain the experience that it is associated with – the emotions and feelings.

 Dr. Vines points out that Chellamma’s brain must have been functioning in a “special state of awareness,” as she was removed from her normal, conscious state.  I understand the limits of modern science, when he says that “the neuroimaging tools provide insight into the associations between brain activity and behavior, but they cannot give us access to the very experience that the human brain makes possible.”

Where science stops, philosophy may step in. If this is the case, I do have a philosophical explanation for what happened, whether or not it can ever be proven by science!

In death, or in a coma,, the functioning of the brain ultimately stops completely and the awareness of the outside world becomes nil.  At this stage, the brain shuts down all its activities and becomes a vegetable, a “nothing.”  It is a wonder – no matter how deeply her memories were ingrained into her brain – that Chellamma remembered and murmured two lines of Bharati’s poetry clearly, and the one last line (I don’t know where it was from) which so beautifully expressed her state of mind at the end of her life.

My theory is, that as the brain shuts down its day-to-day activities, there still remains the soul which, as the Gita says, is immortal and can,  never be affected by the five elements (see Bharati’s Tamil translation of the Bhagavat Gita)– the glowing ember, which existed in “this body” all these years and witnessed the activities of life in “this body.”

Perhaps, this was the final expression of Chellamma’s soul before leaving its bodily existence – to become reunited with her husband’s soul!

Chellamma, The Heroine of Bharati’s Poetry – Part I

Bharati & Chellamma

Poets through the ages have written about love, and Bharati, a Romantic poet and a true Renaissance man, was no exception. Love occupies a central place in all of his poetry. Romantic love was especially celebrated by him in wonderful poems that he wrote for his own beloved. In the West, Petrarch had his Laura, Dante his Beatrice, Shakespeare had the “Dark Lady” of his sonnets; and Indian literature and mythology (puranangal) is full of romantic tales, including the amorous adventures of heroes and gods. Like these other poets, Bharati, too, found



poetic inspiration in the person of his own wife, Chellamma. But, tragically, through the alteration – dare I say mutilation – of Bharati’s poems, the record of their relationship has been, at least partially, erased from history. In particular, his three poems, entitled Chellamma Pattu, were re-titled Kannamma Pattu for publication after Bharati’s death. Chellamma was thus deprived of the only of thing of value that she had from her husband, and the only thing that she apparently ever desired of him as a legacy: immortality through his poetry. How was Chellamma so cruelly dispossessed of her treasure, and why? And how can we now restore her to the place of honour that Bharati freely chose to accord to her through his magical words?

Bharati’s elder daughter Thangammal writes: “When people heard the news that the poems written by Bharati about my mother were included under  Kannan Pattu, they wanted to know ‘which poems they were.’  They are “Ninnaiye rati enru,” “Peetathil erikkondal,” and “Engal Kannamma nagai pudurojappu.” Our father wrote Chellamma on these poems, and not Kannamma.  We do know that when the poems were published, my uncle Appathurai Iyer, Chellamma’s elder brother, changed the name from Chellamma to Kannamma; perhaps, he thought that his sister’s name was not ‘sophisticated’ enough to be worthy of publication.”

Bharati’s younger daughter Shakuntala writes: “My father wrote a few love songs.  In these songs, the name Chellamma was written, and not Kannamma.  My father never even thought about any other woman, except his wife Chellamma.  He said that he wrote his love poems just for his wife.  When these poems were published, the name was changed to Kannamma; the name was taken from Bharati’s Kannan songs, Kannamma as the ‘beloved.'”

After Bharati’s premature demise, Chellamma was left on her own with Shakuntala, who was yet to be married.  Chellamma, as a young woman of 32 in that far from progressive era,  faced great pressure from her community, and from society at large. She had no formal education, little life experience, and no experience with journalism or publishing.  Nevertheless, she had a great ambition after Bharati’s death: to publish her husband’s works. Chellamma’s elder brother, Appathurai, took it upon himself to help her in this project and, more generally, to help her to continue with life and plan her future after her husband’s demise.

People should be aware of the intensity of Chellamma’s struggle to get Bharati’s works published, in spite of her disadvantages in life, and in defiance of the immense obstacles that she faced after her husband’s death.  She had no support of any kind, not from the Government or any other source, at that time. Only the love of the general public for Bharati’s poems sustained her. In response, she announced that it was her intention to bequeath the copyright in Bharati’s works to the public, after her death.

Chellamma created a publishing house called Bharati Ashramam and started publishing Bharati’s poetry.  In this endeavour, she was assisted by Appathurai.

Appathurai, too, was a nationalist who abandoned his employment to enter into political life.  He supported Bharati in his national activities. He, himself, was a great speaker, and had some journalistic experience.  When Bharati first entered into the freedom struggle, he apparently told Appathurai that, “[I]t is customary that the deep-sea diver who plunges deep into the ocean in the pursuit of pearls (muthukkuli) entrusts his brother-in-law to take care of his wife in his absence; so am I entrusting you to take care of Chellamma.” Appathurai was deeply involved in Chellamma’s publishing endeavour, and he was totally responsible for  administering the financial, printing, and practical side of publishing Bharati’s works.

The process surrounding the editing and publishing of Bharati’s works in these early years remains somewhat obscure to me. I don’t fully understand who was involved in selecting the poems, organizing and editing them, undertaking responsibility for any changes that were made, and publishing them.  Chellamma brought out 2 volumes of Bharati’s poetry. The first volume consisted of 90 poems,  which included the poems that Bharati himself had published during his lifetime (in the books Swadesa Githangal, Janma Boomi, Nattu Pattu and Mada Manivachagam), most of them national poems, and a few new poems from manuscript versions.  The second volume comprised 80 poems which included poems from the first volume, while some new poems also appeared.  The three poems about Chellamma were NOT included in either of these volumes.

At this point, C. Viswanatha Iyer, Bharati’s half-brother (the son of Bharati’s father, Chinnasamy, and his second wife, Valliammal) bought the copyright of Bharati’s works from Chellamma for a small sum. He created a new publishing house, called Bharati Prachuralayam, and began to publish Bharati’s poetry. He was initially joined in his efforts by Harihara Sharma, a distant relative of Bharati, and K. Natarajan, Shakuntala’s husband (she had married by then), but they eventually dropped out of the business. C. Viswanatha Iyer became the sole owner of Bharati Prachuralayam.

The three Chellamma poems appear for the first time in the Prachuralayam edition, and here, Chellamma’s name has already been removed and replaced by “Kannamma.”  As Bharati’s daughters observed, in the excerpts from their works noted above, the name change was  probably made by Chellamma’s brother Appathurai Iyer, and must have been approved and published by C. Viswanatha Iyer.

What were the reasons behind this radical change? As noted above, Thangammal thought that Chellamma’s name was removed because it was  “unsophisticated” (“nagariga kuraivu”).  But I am not sure that this is true. Most likely, there were other forces at work. Appathurai may not have wanted to include “personal” and “intimate” matters in Bharati’s poetry. Perhaps he did not want his sister’s personal life to be openly known to the public. But, why not? Is it shameful that a poet describes his wife’s beauty in detail and shows his appreciation of her? Were there other reasons that he wanted to draw a veil of secrecy over his sister’s relationship with Bharati using the name Kannamma as, in Dante’s words, “a screen for the truth”? Why did he decide to print the poems at all?

Whatever the reason, the pity of it is, that people still do not know that Bharati wrote about his wife. The public has been led to believe that these three poems, in particular, belong to the idealized “Kannamma,”  as in his other “Kannan” songs.  Chellamma was deprived of the signal and hard-won honour of appearing in her rightful place, as the heroine of his poems.

Bharati elevates Chellamma on the pedestal of his heart and worships her.  He is fascinated by his wife’s physical beauty, and writes:

“her laugh is like the full blown rose,

her eyes are blue like indra neelam,

her face is a lotus flower,

her forehead the early-morning sun (bala suryan).

“Her beauty is a lightning-bolt.

Her eye-brows are the bow of the god of love [Manmadan],

Thick and dark is her hair, like a snake that covers the moon,

Her nose is the sesame flower.

“A fountain of ever-lasting happiness is in her words.

Nectar is her mouth and lips,

Her musical voice sounds like Saraswati’s veena,

Her divine bearing and movement invoke the beautiful arambai and ayirani.

“You are Rati, the goddess of love .  .  .  I surrender myself to you.

As the sage Suka saw Lord Shiva in all things surrounding him,

I see you in everything.”

“Gold is her colour, lightning her bearing – the immortal maiden is Nappinnai, Kannan’s beloved.”

“The mere thought of her golden body is sweet as nectar

She is queen among women

Her beauty is magnificent

She is the pupil of my eye

She is the rati of my love

Her words are sweet as music

Her lips are a fount of nectar.

He talks about Chellamma’s love as something that purifies his mind, which is muddled, confused, and bewildered, and makes it the abode of immortality, a peaceful and happy place to live on earth.

“She is the enchanting woman who enters into my heart which is crowded with bushes, thorns, and shrubs – a forest of thoughts, and unruly imagination – and transforms it to an abode of happiness – which the devas eagerly seek and where they long to live!”

“She is the Goddess Lakshmi who became one with Kannan, enthroned within his heart,

She is Parvati, the feminine half of Shiva’s own body, (Ardhanareswarer) who is worshipped by the devas.”

“In the twilight of the evening, when the crimson sunset faded and the moon’s honeyed light was spreading throughout the sky, my beloved came upstairs; with a smile on her lips, she captured the moon out of the corner of her eyes! She sang in her veena-like voice:

“The universe entire is a form of Para Shakti!

We will light the lamp of wisdom

In the temple of love,

And worship her for ever!”

These poems fundamentally affirm Bharati’s nature as a Romantic poet, in the sense that he longed for an idealistic life and society, based on love, a new era which he called kruta yugam. He aspired for immortality, not only spiritually but also physically, and he describes that state in his Chellamma poems as a condition of perpetual happiness and peace, made possible by her.

For Bharati, once again, love is the all-pervading force that unites all lives – the animate and inanimate – and the poet is blessed with the capacity to experience this fundamental principle of life. And his poetry is the expression of his vision of this great truth, love.  Bharati called this power Shakti.

Bharati writes in an English article, “Rasa – The Key-Word of Indian Culture,” that  “Rasa is the form of Shakti, the feminine aspect of the Supreme Being.  For God is two-fold – Being and Energy, Masculine and Feminine, Absolute and Relative, Purusha and Shakti. In the unity of these two aspects, Existence becomes.  And in the manifestations of Shakti, Existence moves and acts.”

He explains this further in another article: “Indian devotion has especially seized upon the most intimate human relations and made them stepping stones to realize the superhuman.  God the guru, God the master, God the friend, God the mother, God the child, God the self, each of these experiences – for to us these are more than mere ideas – it has carried to its extreme possibilities.”

For Bharati, human relations are the forms of Shakti, and they are stepping stones to the realization of God.

Bharati writes:

“The loving wife is Shakti herself, and the state of godliness is attained through her…

“She is the daughter of Kali, she is the abode of Power (Shakti Nilayam), and she is the heroine of the poet’s home! She transforms the meaningless events of everyday life – the empty grind of incidents which destroy the human spirit like thorns that grow in the barren desert – into my life’s fruitful experiences.  She gives life to what is  lifeless, shines light  on what is dark,  and beautifies each occurrence in my life – making it meaningful.”

Manai thalaivikku vazhtthu”!