His Views on Ego and Rituals
Like most other saints and sages, Thyagaraja Swami tells us that it is primarily the mind that one must tame so that its full potential raises one ultimately to a Supra-personal level. In every one of us, both God and the devil reside – the devil is the “ego”, self-centeredness, selfishness, etc. As Schopenhauer said, “If you are looking for God outside yourself, you are wasting your time and attempting the impossible. And, Jalaluddin Rumi says that if one wanted to see the devil one has only to look at a mirror.” Therefore, to conquer the mind and to direct it inwards is the purpose of most rituals. For example, upavasa or fasting was prescribed to learn to resist the temptation of apparently unbearable hunger; ekantha or solitude was prescribed to train the mind to resist descending to subhuman emotions, through avoiding the company of “paamara chelimi” – the ignorant and the wicked – and, “vana vaasa (reside in the forest) ” was prescribed for the same reason; for strengthening of the mind and to train us in detachment from desires and bondage.
While speaking of rituals meant for our progress, Thyagaraja Swami also emphasizes that if these rituals become just a matter of routine, without aiming at the purpose for which they are meant, we will be no better than the goat that lives merely on the leaves or a highway robber who lives in caves or, the monkey which lives in forests and eats fruits. Living in a forest alone or in seclusion does not make us a saint or a sage. These telling examples are from the kriti, “Balamu Kulamu” (Saveri). In this kriti, he further points out that mere rituals are purposeless, however meticulously performed they may be. Devotion and earnestness are the sine qua non of the path to salvation.
There are also other illustrations in his kritis, some even humorous. (1) “Neeta kaaki meenu munuga niratha mudaya snanama” – the crow and the fish bathe in the water very early, but does that mean that it is taking udaya snanamu? (2) The kokku (Stork or the Crane) closes its eyes and stands near the water for hours. Does this mean that it is in meditation? Thus, it is not empty rituals alone that are important but, more importantly, devotion, sincerity, and humility behind the performance of a ritual.
Another important precept of the Swami is that egotism and selfishness form the curtain inside us, preventing realization and godliness. Here, I may refer to the anecdote on his visit to Thirumala. The usual practice in Thirumala, as most of us know, requires that the Sannadhi is closed at specific hours. At this time, public “darshan” is not allowed. It is said that when the Saint visited Thirumala hills to have darshan of the Lord, Thyagaraja, notwithstanding his advanced age and infirmity, climbed the hills fairly quickly. This, it is said, created a feeling of self-satisfaction and pride in him. When he got to the Sannadhi, he found to his disappointment and frustration, that the curtain denied him the darshan of Lord Venkateshwara. He immediately realized that what he wanted to see as a vigraha in front of him was not outside him but within him that he failed to see mentally and spiritually because of vanity and pride. Harikatha storytellers say that when Thyagaraja Swami sang the Gowlipanthu kriti, “Theratheeyakaradha”, the curtain fell; thus allowing him full darshan of the Lord. However, a study of the text of the kriti will show that the curtain he refers to is not the one that stood between him and the vigraha of the Lord, but his own feeling of “I”, “me” and “mine”.
Stories are also told that Thyagaraja lamenting the loss of his idols of Sri Rama, asking where have you gone hiding in the song “Endu Dakkinado” (Thodi); and, in another episode, singing “Mundhu venuka” (Darbar) when his palanquin was waylaid in the Nagalapuram forest by the robbers, on his way back from Kovur. Here again, a study of the text will show that the song has other meanings than those reading them. Thyagaraja pleads to Rama to come soon and save him from bondage and misery and not necessarily save him from the robbers.
Dr. R. Krishnaswamy
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