Tuesday 10 July 2007
The Fire of Devotion
KARAIKAL AMMAIYAR WAS a great devotee of Lord Siva and a poetess, many of whose verses are still preserved. She was the wife of a rich merchant of Karaikal, whose name was Paramadattan (meaning ‘one endowed with heavenly gifts’). Her own name was Punithavathiyar (meaning ‘the pure one’). She was very devout, and especially eager to entertain all devotees of Lord Siva that came to her door. One day her husband received from some persons who had come to him on business a present of two mangoes of a very superior variety which he sent home to his wife. Soon afterwards, a holy devotee came to her house as a mendicant. Since she had no cooked food ready to offer him except some boiled rice, she gave him one of the aforesaid mangoes along with the rice.
At noon her husband returned and after having his meal ate the remaining mango. It pleased him so much that he said to his wife, “There were two, bring me the other.” She went away in dismay, but remembering that the Lord to whose servant she had given the fruit, never deserts those who serve Him, she offered a mental prayer, and straightaway found a mango in her hand, which she took to her husband. Being a divine gift, it was of incomparable sweetness, so he asked her, “Where did you obtain this?”
She hesitated at first to reveal the wonder that had taken place on her behalf, but thinking that she ought to hide nothing from her husband, she told him everything. He gave no credence to her words, but roughly replied, “If that is so, get me another like it.” She went away and said in her heart to God, “If You do not give me one more fruit, my word will have no weight!” Immediately she found another fruit in her hand. She brought this fruit to her husband but as soon as he took it, it disappeared. Wondering at this strange happening, he concluded that his wife must be a divine being and therefore decided that he should no longer live with her. However, he revealed this decision to no one.
One day he quietly hired a ship on which he placed a great deal of his wealth, and then on an auspicious day, worshipped the god of the sea. With sailors and a skilful captain, he set sail for another country where, by trading his merchandise he accumulated a fortune. After some time he returned and came to another city in the Pandiyan kingdom, where he married a merchant’s daughter and lived in great luxury. A daughter was born to him, whom he named Punithavathi after his first wife, with whom he had feared to remain but for whom he retained great reverence.
After a while, his return and prosperity became known to his friends in Karaikal, who resolved to compel him to receive again his first wife, their kinswoman, whom he had deserted. They accordingly proceeded to his new residence, carrying with them in a litter his saintly spouse, Karaikal Ammaiyar. When he heard that she had arrived and was halting in a grove outside the town, he was seized with great awe. He proceeded with his second wife and daughter to where, she was camping – surrounded by her relatives. He prostrated before her with profoundest reverence, saying, “Your slave is happy here and prosperous through your blessings. To my daughter I have given your sacred name, and I constantly adore you as my tutelary goddess!” Poor Punithavathiyar was utterly confounded by this salutation and worship, and so took refuge among her relatives, who all asked with wonder, “Why is this madman worshipping his own wife?” To this Paramadattan replied, “I myself saw her work a miracle, so I know that she is no daughter of the human race, but a divine being. Therefore I have separated myself from her, and I worship her as my tutelary deity and have dedicated my daughter to her”. Hearing this, Punithavathiyar pondered over it and prayed within herself to Siva, the Supreme Lord, saying, “O Lord, this is my husband’s belief. So take away from me the beauty that I have till now cherished only for his sake. Remove from me this burden of flesh, and give to me the form and features of those who always attend on Thee, and praise Thee.”
Immediately, by the grace of God, her flesh dried up and she became a skeleton, becoming one of Siva’s hosts whom the earth and the heaven hold in reverence. Then the gods sent down a rain of flowers, heavenly minstrels resounded, and her relatives paid obeisance to her and departed in awe. Having thus assumed the form of a skeleton, she lived in the wild jungle of Alankadu, and through the inspiration of God she sang several sacred poems, which are sung even to this day. After some time there came upon her an irresistible desire to see the sacred Mount Kailas, so with great speed she travelled northwards till she arrived at the foot of the Mountain. Considering that it was not right to tread on the Holy Mountain by foot, she began to climb it with her feet in the air and with only her head touching the ground.
The goddess Uma, Siva’s consort, saw her ascending in this manner and said to Her Lord, “Who is this that approaches in this strange fashion, a gaunt skeleton sustained only by the power of love?” Lord Siva replied, “She is Karaikal Ammaiyar, and she has obtained this form by her prayers.” When She drew near, He addressed her with words of love, calling her ‘Amma’ (Mother), a name which she bears ever since. As soon as she heard the word she fell at His feet and exclaimed, “Father!” Siva then said to her, “What boon do you wish to ask from me?” She replied, “O Lord, grant undying love and infinite blessedness to me, Your slave. I would be glad never to be born on earth again, but If I must be so born, grant me at least that I may never, in any form or at any time forget You, my Lord; and when You perform Your sacred mystic dance, may I stand in rapture at Your feet and sing Your praise”.
The Lord replied, “In Alankadu you shall see my dance, and with rapture you shall sing.” Then the holy Karaikal Ammaiyar returned to Alankadu, still covering the distance on her head, and there she beheld the Lord’s sacred dance, and sang her renowned lyrics in His praise.
Karaikal Ammaiyar’s devotional hymns form sixth part of Thirumurai.