Kañci Varadarāja in Vedānta Deśikan’s Poetry

Photograph of the main shrine and the back gopura from the south-west corner of the Varadaraja Perumal Temple at Kanchipuram, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections: Madras, 1896–98. British Library

Kañci is one of those “beloved places” (ukantaruḷiaṉilaṅkaḷ) of the South Indian landscape where God loves to stay, preferring it to his heavenly abode. In the Āḻvārs’ poetry there is the common conceit of God loving to dwell in the earthly shrine hearing “sweet Tamil songs” sung in his praise.

Verse 9 from Vedānta Deśikan’s Tamil Meyviratamanmiyam — a richly figured sthalapurāṇa in several Tamil meters to the Lord of the Elephant Hill (Hastigiri), Varadarāja Perumāḷ at Kañci — is characteristic of the layering of various incarnations of Viṣṇu blending into a single entity: first we have Rāma, then the child-god Kriṣṇa, and then, in a funneling motion, an evocation of place and specific temple archāvataram (God in the form of a deity in a temple, here, Varadarāja Perumāḷ at Kañci).

The hero who felled in one cluster
the ten heads of the well-armed demon
with an arrow let loose
from the lovely graceful bow
fitted for the exalted field of battle;
our great father
who ate the sweet butter spread
on the surface of brimming jars
fit for churning:
he is here,
on Elephant Hill,
that cuts to the root more cleanly
than his Discus —
that mere ornament —
the sins of the devotees!

Vendānta Deśikan also composed the Sanskrit praise of Lord Varadarāja at Kañci, the Varadarājapañcāśat, which combines the rich mythic associations of this form of Viṣṇu with the beauty of the temple icon.

Seated Viṣṇu Depicted as King of Boon Bestowers (Varadarāja) 14th century Tamil Nadu, Harvard Art Museums

In his introductory stanza to another Tamil poem to Varadarāja, the Aṭaikkalappattu (“Twelve Stanzas on Surrender”), Deśika rings the themes of bhakti and prapatti, devotional practice and grace more directly, alluding to a famous episode of the Rāmāyaṇa:

I did not find him by treading the hard path
of bhakti and the other yogas. But after
running madly in every direction

I surrendered myself
to the merciful Lord of Elephant Hill in Kañci —
best among the seven cities
that grant liberation —

I fell exhausted, like the crow at Rama’s feet!

The crow in the verse, a trope for the surrendering lover of God, is one of a troupe of demon devotees that populate the Purāṇas and bhakti poems. In this particular scene from the Rāmāyaṇa, the crow, which was really the son of Indra, attacked Sīta one day while Rāma was asleep, pecking at her breasts until they bled. The blood fell on Rama, waking him, and before he obliterated it with his divine weapon, the crow fell at his feet and surrendered to him, pleading for protection.

This, Desika the poet implies, is the real unworthiness (akiñcanatvam) of those who have no other recourse but sheer surrender (presumably including someone as august as himself) — those who are unable to make any claim of ritual preparation or worthy “gesture” to the beloved. Imbedded in the poem is a voice that downplays the poet’s own theological scruples.
The above glosses merely hint at the theological richness of Desika’s verses.

Taken from Steven P. Hopkins. (2007). “Sanskrit From Tamil Nadu: At Play In The Forests Of The Lord: The Gopalavimshati Of Vedantadeshika”. Krishna: A Sourcebook and Singing The Body Of God: The Hymns Of Vedāntadeśika In Their South Indian Tradition also by Steven P. Hopkins.

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