The Mullai forest and the divinity of nature in medieval Indian literature
Hymn to Visnu
by: Kirantaiyar (c. 500)
Yours is the luster
Of the great blue sapphire,
Your eyes, a pair of famed lotuses.
The truth of your word
Certain as the returning day.
If one looks for your patience
It’s there, magnificent, wide as earth
A sky of raincloud
The Hindu God Visnu is the all-pervading preserver and protector of all creation. In the early period of Tamil, Hinduism seems to have been the dominant creed (Kabir, p 27). The Tamil poet Kirantaiyar wrote this spiritual hymn to Visnu, using the akam (love) poetry syntax and conventions. In this post, we’ll explore the divinity of nature in Indian literature and compare and contrast the philosophy with the Christian philosophy.
The Tamil landscape was classified in ancient times as belonging to five distinct kinds: namely mountains (kuinji), forest (mullai), agricultural (marudam), coastal (neytai), and desert (palai) (Kabir p 28). Each region had a presiding deity. Time and place and native elements are distinguished from human feelings and experience, but when used together they create the whole universe of the poem. The time and place and natural elements in the poem are used metaphorically to show the feelings of the humans. The metaphors are implicit, meaning the Tamil potems did not typically use terms of comparison, but let the symbolism be understood through the poetic language that all of the poets shared.
The mullai forest and its presiding deity, Visnu, symbolize the deep reverence that the Indian cultures have for nature in all of its forms, and the way they see all nature as interconnected and divine. The word mullai refers to jasmine, specifically a jasmine vine that grows in the forest. The jasmine bears white flowers, symboling purity and chastity, and the flowers open in the evening, giving off a beautiful, pervasive scents. The mullai vine wraps around trees for support, and especially likes the support of the mango tree. When well supported, the jasmine vines coil toward the heavens. The mullai forest also signifies the rainy season, as the jasmine blooms then. As Karantaiyar said, Visnu’s “grace, a sky of raincloud, fulfilling everyone” (Ramanujan, 223) symbolizes the care that a great rain shower gives to all natural things, quenching their thirst.
The mullai forest in the poetic conventions represents patient waiting between lovers and felicity in marriage. The forest is sacred, and though couples were often separated in mullai poems, they waited for each other in chastity, treasuring their marriage and fidelity. The mullai forest symbolizes both the spiritual purity of a devoted married couple, and the divine love of Visnu for all of nature. The forest setting encompasses the internal universe of the couple, and correlates to the entire external universe.
The following poem by Peyanar Ainkurunuru is a typical mullai poem showing domestic felicity and its metaphors (such as jasmine and rain). (Ramanuham, page 85).
Like the red flame
in the bowl
of a bedstead lamp
she lights up his house,
his jasmine country
jeweled by small towns
all sorts of flower
raised by sounding rains
and she, the mother of his little son.
Notice that the landscape metaphors appear in the inset. According to Ramanujan, “an inset is a correlation of the landscapes and their contents….to the human scene…it integrates the different elements of the poem and shapes its message.” (Ramanujan 246)
The “oldest Tamil work on grammar, poetics” (Ramanujan 231) was the Tolkappiyam. The Tolkappiyam considers all native elements, especially all animate beings, as part of a continuous series graded by degrees of sentience (Ramanujan 239). Stones and water have no sentience. Beings with one sense (touch) were grass, trees, and creepers. Snails and shellfish could also taste, to termites and ants were added the ability to smell; crabs, lobsters, beetles and bees could also see; birds, beasts, and uncultured people could also hear; and cultured humans and deities had all six senses (touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing, and mind). All beings were used in Tamil poetry, and all beings, regardless of their degree of sentience, contained the spark of divinity.
Let’s contrast the prevailing Christian philosophy on nature and divinity. We see in Genesis that God created all things. In Genesis, Book 1, verse 1, the opening verses offer us an image of the Creator, who separated light from darkness, sky from water, and water from land. He then created seed-bearing plants and trees, the sun and the moon, the living creatures in the water and the birds in the sky. Then he made wild animals. Finally, he made man, in his own image, telling man to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground….I give you every seed bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:1, various verses).
The story in Genesis was the basis for the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths, and offers each religion a vision of a single deity, and man created in His image. Man was to offer dominion over the landscape and the natural life. Man was an exalted form of being, who was to rule and use the rest of the natural world. Man “owned” the earth. Ownership might signify a care-taking responsibility, but it could also signify a consumerist view, that man is the consumer, and the rest of nature the consumed.
A common preoccupation of medieval Christians that impacted their view of the natural world – man’s soul is considered timeless, and earthly existence is only temporary. As the environment on earth is temporary, why care for it? A heavenly paradise trumps an earthly one.
Ramanuhan, A.K. Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, Columbia University Press: New York, 1985. Print.
Kabir, Humayun, The Plough and the Stars: Stories from Tamilnad, Asia Publishing House, New York. 1963.
The Tamil philosophy maintains that all natural elements, particularly animate beings, are divine. The Christian worldview specifies that man is the only divine creation, and devalues earthly life in favor of eternal life. In the medieval time period, which philosophy might lead to better care of our natural environment and other animate beings?