Pappankulam is a small village near Tirunelveli, Tamilnadu, India which has some beautiful teples and beautiful stories associated with them. It is my own native place and I had recently gone there. The main Shiva temple (Arulmigu Vadakalainayaki Sametha Thiruvenkadar Temple) was once damaged; but it was renovated in 2017 and now it looks beautiful.
The village also has many other temples like Ramaswamy temple (Lord Rama), Sadai Udayar sastha temple, Palani Andavar temple, Muppidathi amman temple, Chandika devi amman temple, a temple for Ganesh etc. The temple myths seem to convey messages that glorify the village. They seem to indicate that this village gave a lot of importance to arts and crafts, wisdom and Vedas.
I am going to go into the details of the myths and explain the possible reasons that such myths were created in the first place. Because, myths are not historical incidents. But they are created to make a point, convey a message, give a theological narrative or a supernatural explanation for a real incident, to glorify a person or a place etc. So they may carry hidden historical explanations even though a story in itself may not be a faithful narrative of a historical event.
There are a couple of stories about Pappankulam which are related to Hindu Varna system. But I will use those stories to remove certain misconceptions about Indian Varna system. In fact, It is not really as worse as it is portrayed by some political parties in India.
This post will also help you to know about an important village in Tamil Nadu which gave so much importance to arts, knowledge and Vedic education. This is very obvious by the stories associated with this place.
Pappankulam – A Land Donated to a Brahmin
Let us first see why this village was named Pappankulam. There is an anecdote which is not a myth but likely to be historical.
Aditta Varma (or probably Aditya Varma) was a Pandiya king and was also a devotee of Shiva. He built many temples of Shiva and they were designed by a sculptor named Chaturvedi. Chaturvedi was probably his last name as it is a common last name among Brahmins which means ‘the knower of four Vedas’. It could also be just a nickname since his original name was forgotten.
Chaturvedi was an excellent sculptor with good mastery in his skills and a great sense of art. So the king Aditta Varma was very pleased by his work and donated some land. It was called Chaturvedi Mangalam (an old Sanskrit name for Pappankulam).
Chaturvedi later went through so many problems in his life. When consulting astrologers, it was found that Graha dosha was the reason. In Astrology, Graha Dosha is an instance of one celestial body afflicting another. Chaturvedi was advised to consecrate a Shiva Linga with Chandrakanta stone (moonstone or sodium potassium aluminium silicate) and build a huge temple with Navagrahas (nine grahas or celestial bodies in Indian Astrology). He was told that building such a temple will get rid of his problems.
Chaturvedi built a Shiva temple and also dug a pond near it. The temple is now beautifully renovated and known as Sri Vadakalainayaki Sametha Thiruvenkadar Temple, Pappankulam. The pond is called Kalkurichi pond. Once he built this temple, it is believed that his problems were solved.
Another version of the story says that the temple already existed before the time of Aditta Varman but the king prayed here to have progeny. He didn’t have children for a long time. But once he prayed in this temple, he was blessed with a child. So the king Aditta Varman expanded the temple with the help of sculptor Chaturvedi and also donated him some land. This information is available in the temple inscriptions.
The word ‘Pappan’ in Pappankulam is a distortion of the Tamil word ‘pArpAn’ (பார்ப்பான்) which means a Brahmin. ‘Kulam’ means pond. The village got this name possibly because all four Vedas were taught, recited in this village and because of the fact that Vedic culture flourished here.
Some people also give another explanation. The Tamil word ‘pApAngu’ means the young one of a bird. Since a lot of small birds constantly make noise in this pond, it was called by this name. But I really think that this explanation was forced. The first explanation about Pappankulam being the village of Brahmins and Vedas suits this village for many reasons.
Goddess Saraswati and the Curse of the sage Durvasa
In Hindu Myths, sage Durvasa is known for his short temper. But sage Durvasa was a real person, probably a self-realized jnani with a short temper.
This may sound strange because many people believe that something like self-realization or spiritual enlightenment would certainly make a person get rid of anger. But even a self-realized person retains certain vasanas and many other older habits according to his own karma or nature, so that he is able to interact with the world and society. So each enlightened person carries at least 1-2% of imperfections from his past, which do not cause anymore bondage. For Durvasa, anger was a tool and it is often referred to as sAtvika krodha, the anger arises from balance and compassion. Durvasa has composed Sri Tripura Mahimna Stotra: https://www.kamakotimandali.com/srividya/mahimnah.html
There is another story associated with Thiruvenkadar temple. One day, Durvasa was reciting Vedas but committed a small mistake by using a wrong letter or sound. Hearing this, Saraswati, the Goddess of arts and wisdom, started laughing.This angered Durvasa. So he cursed that Goddess Saraswati should go to earth and live for 64 years and teach all the 64 arts to humans. Because of that curse, both Goddess Saraswati and Brahma (her consort) came to earth, worshipped Tiruvenkadar of Pappankulam and lived there for 64 years, teaching arts and wisdom to people. Thamirabarani Mahatmyam has many stories associated with places near Tirunelveli, including the curse of Durvasa on Saraswati.
This story was probably created to explain the existence and growth of various fine arts in this village 500 years before. It is a theological narrative to explain how many people in this village learnt arts those days. The temple was a small stone temple during Kulasekara Maravarman’s reign (1268–1308 CE). The inscription in the temple says ‘ராஜசதுர்வேதி மங்கலத்தின் வடமேற்கே வேளார்குறிச்சியில் பகவதி விண்ணகர் ஆழ்வார்’ (Northwest to Raja Chaturvedi Mangalam, in Velarkurichi, Bhagavathi Vinnagar Azhwar.)
There is a small stage called Jeeva Kalaiarangam very close to the temple, where plays are conducted every year during the car festival. (When I was a school boy, I acted in a few of those plays myself, especially in comedy roles. Just in one play, I appeared in a court scene as a lawyer). A writer in our village writes these plays every year and they last for one hour.
Vada Kalai Nayagi – The Goddess of arts
The Shiva in the main temple is called Thiruvenkadar and his consort Shakti in this temple is called Vada Kalai Nayagi. Vada (vAdA) means ‘never fading’; ‘Kalai’ means ‘arts’; Nayaki means ‘Chief’. So the name Vada Kalai Nayagi literally means Goddess of arts. The temple is based on Karanagama.
Also, the Goddess is depicted to show 32 expressions (Samudrika Lakshana) in a single sculpture and that is considered to be very special, showing the unique skill of the sculptor.
The Confluence of Ramanathi and Kadana nathi rivers – A Confluence of Tamil and Sanskrit
Pappankulam is the place where two small rivers, Ramanathi and Kadana nathi (Gadananadhi or Gatananadhi) meet and merge with each other. Both rivers have an interesting story.
Ramanathi is said to have originated from a drop from the Kamandalu (an oblong water pot) of sage Agastya. Kadana nathi is said to have originated from the water that sage Atri obtained as a loan from river Ganges.
Again, while thinking about the reasons for these myths, they seem to indicate something that is unique about Pappankulam. Sage Agastya is associated with Tamil language and it is believed that Agastya came up with the Tamil grammar for the very first time. (Agastya is also a Rig Vedic rishi). Atri is associated with Gangetic plain and Vedas. It is where Vedic civilization and Sanskrit education thrived. So this story was probably created to explain that just like Ramanathi and Kadana nathi meet here, Tamil and Sanskrit also meet here.
This makes a lot of sense. Since the village got its name because of Bramins and Vedic recitations, it was certainly a place where Sanskrit met Tamil. Today we have both Brahmin priests who chant in Sanskrit and Tamil odhuvar priests who take care of certain temples; they recite Tamil hymns from Tevaram.
It is also important to note that there are mountains with the name of both Agastya (Agastya hills) and Atri (Athri malai) just a few miles away from Pappankulam. Devotees can trek both these mountains after getting permission from the forest department. People believe that sage Atri had an ashram in Athiri malai and created Kadana nathi for his disciple Shri Korakkanathar.
Threefold Classification: Thiruvenkadu (Uttarapuri), Madurai (Madhyapuri) and Pappankulam (Dakshinapuri)
People also say that the temple town Thiruvenkadu is considered as Uttarapuri or northern town, Madurai is considered as Madhya puri (the town in the middle) and Pappankulam is considered as Dakshina puri or the one in the south. The suffix ‘puri’ is usually used at the end of the names of many towns and villages.
I was wondering why there is such a classification and what is common between these three places. I am just writing what seems to be obvious.
Thiruvenkadu is a village located near Sirkazhi, Nagapattinam. Thiruvenkadu means “white forest’. This village has a famous Shiva temple called Swetharanyeswarar Temple. The name of Shiva in Pappankulam is Thiruvenkadar, which is the literal Tamil meaning of Swetharanyeswarar. So, it may be said that the temple in Pappankulam was based on the original temple in Thiruvenkadu.
There are many stories which are associated with Thiruvenkadu and this is one of them (from Wiki):
“Achyutha Kalappalar, a local chieftain was childless. His guru Sivacharya analyzed his horoscope and read out an ancient palm leaf manuscript. It had the verse of Sambandar, one of the major Saivite saints Nayanars. Chieftain was advised to pray at Venkadu to be blessed with a progeny. He prayed at the place along with his wife and was blessed with a boy. The boy later went on to write Sivagnana Bodham.”
Sivagnana Bodham is considered to be the best Tamil text in Saiva Siddhanta. The author of Sivagnana Bodham is Meykandar, who is shown as the blessed boy in the above story. This superior Tamil text of spiritual wisdom is associated with Thiruvenkadu. Just like that, Madurai is a place associated with three Tamil sangams and the huge body of Tamil literature associated with it. So, the only thing that is common for all the three places is their association with wisdom, literature and knowledge.
Based on that, it is likely that Pappankulam is listed as one of the three places because of its association with wisdom and knowledge.
Association of Pappankulam temple with Budha (Mercury)
Budha (Mercury) is one of the nine grahas in Indian astrology. The main temple of Budha in Tamil Nadu is actually Swetharanyeswarar Temple in Thiruvenkadu near Sirkazhi, Nagapattinam, where there is an image of Budha. But Budha is said to have also worshipped here in Pappankulam too.
Budha is said to be a graha related to wisdom and intellect. According to astrology, Budha dosha, a malefic effect of this graha is believed to cause nervous and mental issues and poor academic performance. Budha as a person is also considered as superior among jnanis or self-realized people.
Since Budha is associated with intellect and wisdom, it is reasonable to assume that association of Budha with Pappankulam temple is to show the association of wisdom with the village.
Pazhani Andavar temple, Pappankulam
There is a temple called Palani Andavar (or Pazhani Andavar temple) very close to Thiruvenkadar temple. The word ‘Pazhani’ here refers to the hill temple for Murugan in Palani, Tamilnadu. The temple for Skanda or Murugan in Pappankulam has the same name as the deity of temple in Palani hills.
I am quoting the temple legend of Palani murugan temple from Wiki:
“According to Hindu mythology, “Sage Narada once visited the celestial court of Lord Shiva at Mount Kailash to present to Him a fruit, the gyana-pazham (literally, the fruit of wisom), that held in it the elixir of wisdom. Upon Lord Shiva expressing his intention of dividing the fruit between his two sons, Ganesha and Muruga, the sage counselled against cutting it. He decided to award it to whomever of his two sons first circled the world thrice.
Accepting the challenge, Lord Murugan started his journey around the globe on his mount peacock. However, Ganesha, who surmised that the world was no more than his parents Shiva and Shakti combined, circumambulated them”.Pleased with their son’s discernment, Lord Shiva awarded the fruit to Lord Ganesha. When Murugan returned, he was furious to learn that his efforts had been in vain. He left Kailash and took up his abode in Palani hills in South India. It is believed that Murugan felt the need to get matured from boyhood and hence chose to remain as a hermit and discarded all his robes and ornaments. He went into meditation to know about himself”.
I am also quoting my interpretation of the same story, as I have written in my post ‘3-level meditation’:
“First of all, Shiva and Shakthi represent two things: Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is the pure witness; the consciousness without any attributes including actions or qualities. Prakriti is everything that is witnessed by Purusha. Prakrithi includes everything that is witnessed in your conscious experience: the external world and its internal representation consisting of thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes, intellect, ego, memories etc. Essentially Purusha and Prakriti are inseparable, just like fire and heat are inseparable. So this union of Purusha and Prakriti constitutes absolute reality or what we call as God.
Realizing this absolute truth in one’s experience is Jnana or self-realization. Usually, self-realization is compared to a fruit, since it represents the fruit of spiritual sadhana. You will see the word ‘Phala’ used in many Buddhist texts as a synonym for enlightenment. There is even sutta in Buddhist canon called samannaphala sutta, which means the fruit of asceticism.
There are always two kinds of people in the world. People who realize that the truth is very close because it is inside them and people who search for the truth outside. The story of Ganesha and Skanda competing for Jnanapalam (fruit of wisdom) has a striking similarity to this concept. Ganesha realizes that the truth is within, so he immediately gets the fruit by reaching the Shivasakthi which is very close to him. On the other hand, Skanda goes around the world and realizes that he did not get jnana in spite of going around the world. (this is illustrated by the story that Skanda could not get the fruit). So finally he realizes his folly and takes Sannyas. He sits in one place and goes within to find the truth.”
The presence of a temple whose deity is associated with the fruit of wisdom again reinforces the fact that the village Pappankulam is associated with wisdom, especially, spiritual wisdom that is realized through self-realization.
The Beliefs and Uniqueness About Pappankulam Thiruvenkadar Temple
- For rainfall, people do Tara homam. People say that the result is instantaneous. It is also said that an eagle makes rounds on the sky during the homa.
- Legends say that Chola and Pandya kings worshipped Saneeswaran (Shani) and were able to win battles. It is a general belief that by worshipping Saneeswaran here, one can win his enemies.
- The linga is made with Chandrakanta stone (moonstone). People used to believe that this stone gets its coolness from the moon and also keeps the room cool. People believe that this stone is good for meditation and calmness. Chandrakanta stone is worn as a gem and popularly known as lover’s gem as people believe that it helps them to find true love. Moon is linked to the mind; so this gem stone is linked to both emotional balance and intellect.
- Inside the temple, there is a shrine of a siddhar who attained moksha. The details about him are not available. Every full moon day, there is a special puja in this shrine. Some believe that it might be Thiruvenkadar who was popularly known as Pattinathar. (There have been three people by the same name).
- The statue of Skanda or Murugan with his consorts is made of a single stone.
- In the shrine of Guru bhagawan, a snake is sculpted under his feet. It is believed that people can get rid of Raghu Kethu dosha by worshipping Guru bhagawan here.
- The lingam appears bigger if seen from the flagpost (kodimaram) and smaller if viewed from the mandapam near sanctum sanctorum. This is something unique about the architecture of the temple.
- Since Budha was believed to have worshipped here and since he is thought of having the power to remove the malefic effects caused by other planets in astrology, people believe that by worshipping him one can get rid of all graha doshas.
- The abhishekam (bathing of the deity) water is believed to possess medicinal qualities. People attribute this to Chandrakanta stone.
- Sthala Vriksha (the monumental and holy tree) of this temple is night-flowering Jasmine.
- The theertham (holy water available in the pond nearby) is called Brahma theertham.
- There is a snake depicted separately at the feet of Dhakshinamoorthy. This is something unusual as the snake is usually just drawn in the other temples. The snake represents Kundalini.
- People who have problems in getting married visit this place during the Tamil months of Adi and Ani (roughly from the middle of June to middle of August), take bath in the place where the two rivers merge (called irandathu mukku or the corner of two rivers), and worship Thiruvenkadar with oil lamp. They believe that this gets rid of the problem.
Association of Lord Rama and killing Shambuka
Ramayana is an epic based on wisdom king model (Dharmaraja) whereas Mahabharata is based on a warrior king model (Chakravartin). In Ramayana, Rama is shown as a king who protects Dharma, the right way of life, during his reign. Here we need to remember one thing (which I will elaborate on later); the norms of those days were different. And the society was also a lot different.
In Pappankulam, there is a beautiful temple of Rama known as Ramaswamy temple. According to temple inscriptions, it was built before 12th century AD by Pandiya king Maravarman I.
It is not surprising that Rama, an icon of wisdom, has a temple here. But the temple is also associated with one of the most controversial episodes of Ramayana, the killing of Shambuka by Rama.
In Uttarakanda (Final chapter or Ramayana), sargas 73-76 narrate the story of Shambuka. Shambuka was a Shudra (lower caste) ascetic who was slain by Rama for attempting to do a penance. Rama considered this penance of Shambuka as the act in violation of dharma as he believed that the negative consequences or karma, resulting from this act, caused the death of a Brahmin’s son in his kingdom.
Uttarakhanda is not usually considered as written by Valmiki, the original author of Ramayana. It is usually seen as a later addition. But this episode is seen as controversial and often used to criticize Ramayana as a whole, as promoting caste based discrimination. There are some problems with such a conclusion. To understand, we need to see how the whole Varna system (the system of four varnas including Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) evolved and how it was seen in Ancient India.
History of Varnas
There is already a hypothesis called Trifunctional hypothesis, according to which three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen) existed in prehistoric Indo-European societies. This was something which naturally happened.
Even in Ancient China, there were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders) forming a fourfold classification. So, there has been a natural division of society based on what people did.
Vedic civilization also initially had these threefold divisions. Brahmins (priests, writers, poets, teachers and intellectual pillar of the society), Kshatriyas (king and the army), and Vaishyas (merchants and farmers). There was no fourth varna.
Among the three varnas, there was no strict birth based division. But it was natural for the son to follow the father’s occupation. A teacher was someone who initiated the people from all three classes to Vedic study, which not only included studying hymns and rituals, but also included studying etymology, prosody, astrology, phonetics and grammar. And certainly, it should have included basic education like basic Mathematics, Geometry, knowledge about various plants and their uses etc. Because, this was the only form of study until there was a university in Taxila. But that was a place for scholars and elites, not common people.
Now, who was a Shudra? One who was not initiated into Vedic study. So initially, the following were Shudras:
- All people, from the time they were born until they were initiated into Vedic study were Shudras. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.
- Tribes who were following a tradition different from Vedic religion. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.
- Tribes who deviated from Vedic traditions and hence the people born now are no longer initiated into Vedic studies. Since they are not initiated yet, they are Shudras.
When we are looking at the cultures in a huge landmass over a time period of more than 3500 years, we need to keep the following things in mind.
The meaning of the word changes many times throughout history. Customs and rules also change throughout history. We tend to think of a static homogeneous system when we think of Varna system. But that is not really the case. Even the meanings of the words like Brahmins and Shudras have had different meanings and connotations during different times of the history.
Until Kuru kingdom was formed, there were no strict rules in the society. From Michael Witzel, we know that initiation into Vedic studies was open to anyone. This was very true in the early Rig Vedic period. So anyone, regardless of what tribe they belonged to, what language they spoke at home, what food they ate were initiated into Vedic study. This was the time the whole Rig Vedic samhitas were not yet compiled into one collection.
At this point, basically, if a person makes a living through a means that is not natural to his Varna, he is doing something that he is not qualified for. The real intention behind formulation of various rules for various Varna was that a person should do the work which suits his personality, ability, other genetic traits, conditioning and nurture etc. This rule will apply even right now. If your friends say you look like a bodybuilder but you are looking for a high-paying job in a company for a post that you don’t qualify for, the confusion is obvious. But it is true that some of the rules that existed then were very cruel.
Once the Kuru Kingdom was established, things began to change gradually. Because of getting patronage and money, it was very easy for traditional priests to do a good job and prove their worth. So it was not usual for someone to change their varna. Slowly, Shudras became a fourth caste who should serve other three classes. And Varnas became birth based, even though it was not strictly and universally followed. You can find evidence for it in Vedas themselves:
yathemāṁ vācaṁ kalyāṇīṁ avadāni janebhyaḥ | brahma rājanyābhyāṁ śūdrāya caryāya ca svayāya caraṇāya ca ||
Just as I have revealed this salutary auspicious teachings to all humans, so should you. I have revealed the Vedic truth to brahmins, kshatriyas, sudras and Aryas, to personal servants and to the lowest of servants (araṇāya) also. (Sukla Yajur Veda 26:2)
It also looks like there was a discussion. Some say Shudras should not be initiated; and some say that they should. In this context, there are certainly talking about a strictly birth-based four-fold varna system. But the fact that there was a discussion indicates that the rules were relaxed, even though some took advantage of it to show their prejudice.
vidyate caturthasya varṇasya agnyādheyam ityeke
Some say that all four varnas are eligible to consecrate the 3 sacred fires (Bhāradvāja śrauta sutra 5:2.8.)
Markandeya Purana says that Shudras can perform Yajnas or fire sacrifice:
dānaṁ yajño’tha śuśrūṣā dvijātināṁ tridhā mayā |
vyākhyātaḥ śūdra dharmo’pi jīvikā kāru-karmajā |
tadvad dvijāti śuśrūṣā poṣaṇam kraya vikrayaiḥ |
The religious duties of a Shudra are works of charity and the performing of yajñas and serving others. They earn a living from being artisans, tradesmen, craftsmen etc. from service professions, from nurturing and from selling and buying. (Markaṇḍeya Purāṇa 25:7-8)
Prejudice is natural in human beings, and to get rid of that one has to develop a certain clarity; to get read of it completely, one has to walk on the spiritual path and attain atma jnana or self-realization. But it can be kept in check and channeled properly. One can bring more awareness to it.
Among any two groups, the problem of ‘we’ vs ‘you all’ is bound to occur at some point of time. When a person associates his self-image to the whole group he belongs to, the notion that the other ‘group’ is inferior can very easily arise. Today, we see the same prejudice and hatred taking place in the name of caste, religion, language, nationalities, races etc.
At any point of time, a society has all kinds of people with different personalities, character, intentions, mental purity etc. So, it is very safe to assume that in any culture, some kind of prejudice would have resulted in oppression and hatred of the ‘other’ group. But how can anyone get an entire picture of the situation at any point of time in the ancient past? So, it would be a mistake to consider that Varna system was a rigid division that existed throughout the entire subcontinent, throughout the whole past.
The episode of Rama and Shambukha
Let us come to Rama’s situation in the story of Ramayana. He hears that someone who is not initiated into how to do rituals and penance is doing a penance and it resulted in the cause of a Brahmin’s death.
Rama approaches the Shudra ascetic, And here is what Valmiki Ramayana says:
“On this that Prince approached the one who had given himself up to rigorous practices and said “Blessed art thou, O Ascetic, who art faithful to thy vows ! From what caste art thou sprung, O Thou who hast grown old in mortification and who art established in heroism. I am interested in this matter, I, Rama, the son of Dasaratha. What purpose hast thou in view? Is it heaven or some other object? What boon dost thou seek by means of this hard penance? I wish to know what thou desire in performing these austerities, oh Ascetic. May prosperity attend thee! Art thou a brahmin ? Art thou an invincible Kshatriya? Art thou a Vaishya, one of the third caste or art thou a Shudra? Answer me truthfully!” Then the ascetic, who was hanging head downwards, thus questioned by Rama, revealed his origin to that Prince born of Dasaratha, the foremost of kings, and the reason why he was practicing penance. Hearing the words of Rama of imperishable exploits, that ascetic, his head still hanging downwards, answered “O Rama, I was born of a Shudra alliance and I am performing this rigorous penance in order to acquire the status of a God in this body. I am not telling a lie, O Rama, I wish to attain the Celestial Region. Know that I am a Shudra and my name is Shambuka.” As he was yet speaking, Raghava, drawing his brilliant and stainless sword from its scabbard, cut off his head.”
— The Ramayana of Valmiki: Translated by Hari Prasad Shastri p1585
Rama is a person who doesn’t seem to be too sensitive about the divisions of Varna and certainly he doesn’t seem to exhibit any prejudice. We see that throughout Ramayana. We see his loving interaction with Shabari, an old Shudra woman. And here he is facing a situation.
Everyone says that this Shudra ascetic needs to be slain; that seems to be the public consensus according to the norms of the day. He is not qualified, uninitiated but his penance was believed to be the cause of the death of a son of a Brahmin, the person who initiates many people. And here he says that he does this penance to attain the status of Gods. Those days, it should have sounded pretty much like, “I don’t have a driving license and I am drunk but I am on my way to participate in a car race now”. You hear this from a guy after you have heard from someone that he had been the cause of the death of someone’s son.
Penance is done for the welfare of the society. An unqualified and uninitiated person doing a penance for attaining the status of God while already being accused of having caused a Brahmin’’s death posed a threat to the society. And everyone asks to kill him. As a responsible king, Rama killed Shambuka. Looking at it from a modern lens, it may sound too cruel; but the past is past. Whoever wrote this story has just reflected the norms of the days when it was put into composition.
But personally, I don’t take epics as history, They might have been inspired by multiple stories and traditional lores; some of them may be true; some of them may be a mixture of two different stories. The fact that people had the liberty to compose different versions for stories like Ramayana indicates that they didn’t take the epics as faithful historical narratives as we do today.
Ramayana has a spiritual meaning though. It symbolizes our consciousness getting kidnapped by the three malas: anava, karma and maya. Or it could indicate our senses getting kidnapped by the root ignorance or avidya. An entire text called Adhyatma Ramayana was written to allegorically interpret the story of Hindu epic Ramayana in the Advaita Vedanta framework.
But the story of Shambuka does teach one thing, which became hidden because of time. One should follow his svadharma, or make a living that suits his personality traits, abilities, interests and experience. Shambuka’s story also teaches about the quick justice that happens to an offence in the state that was believed to have caused a serious consequence. But one shouldn’t interpret this as a careless justice given without proper investigation. At least, the author of this part of the story wants us to understand that it was an emergency, according to their norms and situation.
In Pappankulam, the story of the temple goes like this. According to the temple myth, when Rama wanted to kill Shambuka, he was hiding somewhere nearby the Kadana nathi river. Rama stood on a rock here to locate him. It was the spot where the rivers Ramanathi and Kadana nathi meet. It is said that Shiva appeared as a light near Madavarvilagam and helped Rama to locate Shambuka. Rama is also said to have done Sandhya Vandhanam there. So the rock is called Sandhya rock or Sandhya parai. It has an inscription of a chakra and a footstep. It is believed to be the footstep of Rama, according to the temple myth. After killing Shambuka, Rama is believed to have taken shelter under a tamarind tree, which is the same as the location of Ramaswamy temple in Pappankulam. The killing of Shambuka is believed to have taken place in Sambankulam near Sivasailam.
Chandika Devi Amman temple in Pappankulam, Parashurama and Tripura Rahasya
On the way to Kadana nathi river, there is another temple for mother Goddess Shakti or Parvati. The temple is called Chandika Devi Amman and usually referred to as Sendika Devi Amman by locals. Many people name their daughters as Sendika (my father’s elder brother’s daughter is one of them). I couldn’t find anything much about the existence of Chandika devi amman temples in other parts of Tirunelveli district. But I am assuming they should exist as small temples, as there are stories associated with Chandika and Parashurama.
“Parashurama (Sanskrit: परशुराम, IAST: Paraśurāma, lit. Rama with an axe) is the sixth avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Born as a Brahmin , Parashurama carried traits of a Kshatriya and is often regarded as a Brahma Warrior. He carried a number of traits, which included aggression, warfare and valor; also, serenity, prudence and patience. Like other incarnations of Vishnu, he was foretold to appear at a time when overwhelming evil prevailed on the earth.The Kshatriya class, with weapons and power, had begun to abuse their power, take what belonged to others by force and tyrannize people. Parashurama corrects the cosmic equilibrium by destroying these Kshatriya warriors. Bhumihars claim that their ancestors were Brahmins who were set up to take the place of the Kshatriyas slain by Parashurama. (Bhumihars are a Hindu caste mainly found in Bihar (including the Mithila region), the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal.).”
There is a legend associated with Chandika worship. Whenever we talk about any myth or legend, we need to understand that it need not be historical. Parashurama is generally associated with Northern India and his birthplace is believed to be on top of the Janapav hills in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He is also associated with many temple consecrations in south India, including the Sabarimala temple and Kanyakumari temple.
But was Parashurama really a historical person? He was probably a Brahmin who stood up against the oppression of kings and helped with consecration of many temples. Parushurama might have been a real name or just a nickname. But it is usual for people to attribute myths about the person they liked and admired. People also attribute the work of the descendants of an important person to the person himself. It is also usual for disciples to compose a work and name their own guru as the author. So, even with careful and critical analysis of various sources, confirming historicity of an incident is very challenging.
The myth associated with the worship of Chandika goes like this. Guru Dattatreya preached the essence of Advaita Vedanta to Parashurama in Gandhamadana Parvatha hills, Rameshwaram. He went over the three states of consciousness which are waking, sleeping and dreaming and explained that the consciousness that witnesses these three states is more real than what is being witnessed. It can be understood well with the screen and movie metaphor popularized by Ramana Maharshi. This consciousness is personified as Chandika, who rules over all three states as if they are three cities or Tripuras. So she is also known as Tripura Sundari.
Later, Parashurama is said to have lived in Pothigai hills in Tirunelveli and did a spiritual practice on Chandika for 12 years. He imparted this truth to his disciple Haritayana. Haritayana compiled the teachings as Tripura Rahasya.
There are no temple myths associated with Chandika Devi amman temple in Pappankulam. It is a very small temple. But the form of Chandika is used in a lot of myths and famous texts.
Chandika or Chandi appears in Markandeya Purana, in the section known as Chandi or The Devi Mahatmya. This is what she says about herself:
“I resemble in form Brahman;
From me emanates the world
Which has the Spirit of Prakriti and Purusha;
I am empty and not empty;
I am delight and non-delight;
I am knowledge and ignorance;
I am Brahman and not Brahman!”
The basis for Chandi worship is found in Devi Bhagavatam and Devi Mahatmya. The Goddess is also understood as a combined force of Maha Saraswati, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Kali. The Chandi worship might have originated in West Bengal and might have been popularized by Parashurama (or one of his descendants) in the South. Parashurama is understood as someone who created or developed the iconography of Chandika in south Tamil Nadu.
Chandika, Maheshwari and Skandamata are associated with the 5th day of navaratri. Chandika also refers to a 7 year old girl. Chandi is depicted as a very angry Goddess.
Sankara Narayanan and Gomathi Amman temple, Pappankulam
On the way to Kadana nathi, there is a small Shiva temple in the Agraharam street called Sankara Narayanan and Gomathi Amman temple. This temple is not in a good condition and needs renovation.
The original Sankara Narayanan Gomathi amman temple is in Sankarankovil, Tirunelveli district. The temple is associated with religious tolerance between Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The myth about Gomathi Amman is there to explain that Shiva and Vishnu are different names of one Supreme divinity.
As Rig Veda says, the truth is one but called by various names by wise people (Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti – Rig Veda 1.164.46). This also applies to names like Allah and Yahweh. Gomathi amman can be taken as an embodiment of religious tolerance, who preaches the truth about the essential oneness of various paths.
I ended up writing about Gomathi amman in the past which was a result of some amazing coincidences that I witnessed. I have written about such coincidences in the following posts:
Sadaiudayar Sastha Temple, Pappankulam
Sadaiudayar Sastha is our family deity. Shasta means a teacher or a guru. Just like there are various forms of Shiva, there are various forms of Shasta too and one of them is Sadaiudayar.
Again, I would like to remind the readers here that names like Shasta, Shiva, Vishnu etc are different names for one divinity and each of these names may highlight a particular aspect of divinity more than the others.
Sastha is the personification of a divine teacher. When you consider Almighty or the Supreme reality as a divine teacher or if you are attracted to the image of a teacher more than anything else, then you can choose one of these forms for worship: Sastha, Skanda guru, Dakshinamurthy.
The true form of worship involves surrender and love, as shown in Bhagavad Gita; but which form you are devoted to doesn’t matter at all, as long as you feel more emotionally connected with your chosen form. The devotion purifies the mind and prepares the ground for self-realization.
Just like there are eight forms of Lakshmi called Ashtalakshmi, there are eight forms of Sastha too. I have elaborated on the etymology of the word Lakshmi and the eight forms of Lakshmi here: 3-Level Meditation
Let us now see about Ashta Sasthas:
Adhi Maha Sastha – Similar to Adhilakshmi or Mahalakshmi, he represents the highest wealth of a human being which is self-realization or Atma jnana. Adhi Maha Sastha is depicted with two consorts: Poorna and Pushkala. Poorna means fullness; Pushkala means abundance or an absence of any sense of lack. This actually means that self-realization changes the way you experience your life in such a way that you feel full and complete and do not sense that anything lacks when it comes to your ultimate well being. Adhi Maha Sastha is more popular in villages of South; Sadaiudayar Sastha is just one form of Adhi Maha Sastha.
Dharma sastha: Dharma sastha is someone who takes care of Dharma or cosmic order. Dharma dictates the way of life that contributes to the well being of oneself and the other. The concept of avatar is closely linked to Dharma. So an avatar of Sastha should be considered as a human representation of Dharma sastha.
Manikandan, who is popularly worshipped as Ayyappan is considered as an avatar of Dharma sastha. This doesn’t mean that Almighty took the form of a person. Almighty is always Avyakta or impersonal; but it is that which manifests as everything. Manikandan was a human prince who practiced celibacy; but once his time is over, he has merged himself with the Almighty; it is explained by saying he merged with Dharma sastha. So the distinction between Manikandan and Sastha is the same as the distinction between Krishna and Vishnu.
This is the reason why I have written earlier that the banning of women’s entry to Ayyappa temple in SabariMala is not at all necessary. Read this post for details: Entry of Women to Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple -A Detailed Look at Sabarimala’s History and the Recent Supreme Court Verdict
Just like there is Bhagavad Gita for Krishna, there is Boothanatha Geeta (or Bhutanatha Gita) for Manikandan. It is a very rare text. You can read a short commentary on it here: Bhoothanatha Geetha – The Song of Ayyappa
Gnana Sastha: He is the lord of wisdom. He is depicted as sitting under a banyan tree just like Dhakshinamoorthy. He also holds a Manikka Veena instrument just like Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom. Please note that the same icons have been reused for the iconography of Sastha. He exclusively represents the part of a teacher or a guru. He can be compared to Vidya Lakshmi among Ashta Lakshmis.
Kalyana Varadha Sastha: He is a symbol of marriage and auspiciousness. Can be compared to Vijaya Lakshmi. He is also depicted with his two consorts.
Gajaarooda Sastha: He is the annihilator of enemies. Just like Gajalakshmi who represents royal power.
Sammohana Sastha: Represents conjugal bliss and harmony and depicted with Poorna and Pushkala.
Santhana Prapthi Sastha: Symbol of progeny, just like Santanalakshmi. He has a consort Prabhavati who holds Manikka Veena and also a child Satyagan. He is also called Brahma Sastha.
Veda Sastha: He represents Vedas and the knowledge they give. He is also called ‘Simharooda Sastha’ (the one who rides a lion).
Veera Sastha: Similar to Dhairya Lakshmi, he represents courage and valour. This form of Sastha is mentioned in ‘Adi Sankara Vicharitham’ which has Adi Sankara worshipping Veera Sastha in a place called Kudhiran.(Between Trichur and Palghat).
Building a complete Ashta Sastha Temple at Veppampattu, Salem was a dream of Guruswami Viswanatha Sarma, who was ordained by Paramacharya. But this project is not complete yet and Villivakkam Sree Viswanatha Sharma Ashta Sastha Temple Trust is currently looking for financial assistance.
I can see a similarity between this Ashta Sastha project of Guruswami Viswanatha Sarma and Skandasramam project which was completed by H. H. Swami Santhananda Saraswati Avadhoota Swamigal. Skandasramam is also about Skanda guru, the form of divine guru like Sastha (Gnana Sastha, in particular). Both are in Salem, Tamil Nadu. I have opened up regarding some amazing coincidences in a video regarding this, and this video is available on the page about 3-level meditation.
The Village as a Temple – A Unique Feature of Pappankulam
There is a unique feature of the part of the land in Pappankulam where all the above mentioned temples are present. The whole piece of land somehow resembles a temple in itself in which Sastha is the mulavar or the primary deity.
Whenever you look at a Sankalpa mantra in the Puja Vidhi (rules of worship) for any deity, you will notice that the worship of Ganesh and Durga Parameshwari comes first.
Here are two lines from Ayyappa Puja Vidhi (Harihara Putra Puja Vidhi):
शबरिगिरीशाभिन्न पूर्णा पुष्कलाम्बा समेत श्री हरिहरपुत्र पूजां करिष्ये ॥ (द्विः) आदौ महागणपति , श्री दुर्गा परमेश्वरी पूजनं च करिष्ये ॥
These two lines in Sanskrit say, “I am going to perform Puja for the one who lives in Sabari giri, or Harihara putra (Ayyappa) who is with Poorna and Pushkala. First, I will perform Puja for Maha Ganapathi and Durga Parameshwari.”
When you enter Pappankulam village through its western bus stop, you will soon be greeted by a Ganapathi temple under a banyan tree and a small Muppidathi temple on the two sides of the same street in the same location. (Just next to Ganapathi temple is the home of my father’s elder brother and I stayed there for one year when I was 15 years old.).
Mupidathi is the third of eight forms of Kali. Pidari means head. It became pidaari and then pidaathi. Temple myths in Tirunelveli district say that 8 Kalis after coming from Kailash went to Podhigai hills and started gracing devotees in various temples in place near Tirunelveli. These 8 Kalis are the forms of one divinity which is the same as Chandika, Tripura Sundari or Durga Parameshwari.
So, when you step inside Pappankulam to visit Sastha temple, you are greeted by Ganesh and Durga Parameshwari at the entrance of the long street that leads to Sastha temple and Kadana nathi.There is a pond nearby, just like there is a pond near all the temples. After you walk for five to ten minutes, you reach the cross roads where you take left to visit Tiruvenkadar temple and Palani andavar temple (for Skanda); then take right to visit Ramaswamy temple. Then you proceed to visit both Chandika temple and Shankara Narayanan Gomathi temple. Finally, when you are about to reach the river, where you visit the mulavar which is Sastha. After having a darshan of Sastha, you reach the river bank of Kadana nathi, where you can proceed to visit the confluence of two rivers. This symbolizes the disappearance of duality and realization of oneness.
My Own Experiences in Pappankulam
From June 1999 to April 2000, I spent my days in this village as I was studying in my 10th standard. This is the village where my father was born; my grandfather Shanmugam who is well known as Pappaiah Pillai in the whole village had passed away sometime during 1992. I was named after him. I had never spent much time here except coming for holidays and staying for four or five days. But during that one year, I lived here and enjoyed the beauty of rural life.
During those days, Thiruvenkadar temple was damaged. The place looked like a haunted place. The area around the temple was used as an open toilet by locals. The place was filled with thorny bushes, and pigs which were feeding on human excreta. I used to sit in the entrance of this Shiva temple for hours in loneliness, composing poems, thinking about stuff, meditating etc.
During the annual holidays that year, I wrote two Tamil poems in classical Tamil meters, one for Shiva and one for Goddess Saraswati. Here are the links:
Poem about Shiva: சிவசக்தி அகவல் – A Tamil Poem About Lord Shiva with English Translation
Poem about Saraswati: நாமகள் அந்தாதி
I also composed a short hymn, a Venpa (Tamil metra) on Thiruvenkadar and Vada Kalai Nayagi.
But those days I didn’t know anything about the temple myths; I didn’t know that Goddess Saraswati was associated with that very temple which was my ground of contemplative thought, creative writing etc. I only knew about the story regarding Durvasa’s curse on Saraswati last month, February 2020. I visited Pappankulam for the death of my father’s elder brother, who I personally see as my own father and that is when I became curious about this village. So, my composing a poem about Saraswati was a pure coincidence.
I now see all this as a miracle.
Conclusion – What do Vedas teach and who is a Brahmin?
Whenever you study a scriptural canon or a spiritual/religious movement, it is important to try and understand the original intentions for such a tradition to come into existence. We should also pay attention to how ideas evolved. We should learn to see things from multiple perspectives. The story of blind men and the elephant comes to mind. You can read this post for more clarity on this: Logic And Spiritual Enlightenment – An Overview of Anekantavada, Saptabhangivada (Seven Valued Logic) and Syadvada of Jainism
The word ‘Veda’ literally means knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge:
- Knowledge that deals with practical things (this includes all kinds of practical knowledge: knowing which is the closest restaurant from your home to knowing the technical details of building an aircraft).
- Self-knowledge or knowing yourself, which is completely realized at self-realization or Atma Jnana. Upanishads deal with this subject.
Now the scope of Vedas includes both kinds of knowledge. No, I am not saying that knowledge about quantum mechanics or general relativity is found in the four Vedas which are in Sanskrit. But I am saying that the modern scientific knowledge which deals with such topics are also essentially a part of Vedas (or simply put, the body of knowledge we have so far as humanity). So that is what Vedas actually mean.
The four Vedas of Sanskrit deal with a lot of subjects. At the first glance, it may seem like Vedas are mostly talking about some complicated rituals which are no longer practiced. But why did they do those rituals in the first place? They tried to find explanations for what was happening in nature and human life, and they tried to manipulate it according to whatever they knew and understand. We are still doing it! Scientific community does exactly that!
Now, if we take this approach and ask ‘why’ questions instead of ‘what’ questions, you can understand many things.
First we need to understand that early Vedic religion did not have concepts like Atma jnana, Mokha, Samsara or Karma. These concepts were influenced by Sramana traditions . It is not that Vedic and Sramana traditions were two different traditions which did not overlap. While Vedic tradition is a tradition that was collectively followed by a social group, Sramanas were independent ascetics who had certain teachings and followings. So, a Sramana could be a Vedic rishi who gave up the rituals and became an ascetic, after being taught by someone else, who is also an ascetic.
Ritualistic Vedic Tradition and Sramana Tradition
Let me quote from a part of a post I wrote which is ‘Hinduism and Dharma’. It differentiates the concepts of early Vedic tradition from Sramana tradition:
- “In Vedic religion, sacrifice is God, and it is more powerful than devas and humans. In fact, sacrifice or yajna created this world. So sacrifice is applied as a metaphor for many others things: birth, sex, burning a body in funeral pyre are all sacrifices.
- Devas attained immortality and went to heaven because of sacrifice. There is a story that says that when devas went to heaven, they destroyed all knowledge about sacrifice so that humans do not have access to them. But Rishis received that knowledge as revelation and gave it to mankind.
- Devas are not omnipotent. They depend on humans because they are pleased with oblations that we offer on fire. We also depend on them for rainfall, health, cattle, longevity, heaven etc. It is a mutual dependency. It is sacrifice which is omnipotent and that includes the hymns, melodies and the actual ritual.
- Each man is indebted when he was born. He owes to devas, Rishis and ancestors who are already living in heaven. So he has three debts. To clear the debt, he has to do these: a) To clear the debt to Rishis, he has to be initiated to study under a teacher and go through Vedic study. b) To clear the debts of Devas, he has to offer oblations five times a day and also offer seasonal rites. c) He has to give birth to a son to clear the debts that he owes to his ancestors. Progeny increases the glory of his ancestors in heaven. Also, a man is reborn as his son and thus attains immortality through son in the earth. At the same time, he also attains immortality in heaven after death.
- The wife and the son are two important people in Vedic religion. You are not qualified to offer oblations unless you are married, because you have to do them with wife. It is said that a wife completes a man by giving him the qualifications to do the rites.
So, you have to live a life as a house holder if you want to live according to Vedic injunction, as per Brahmanism. But when cities developed in North Eastern India, new ideas arose: the doctrine of samsara, karma, rebirth and moksha. People who were talking about these new concepts were wandering ascetics called sramanas. Many liberal Brahmins in the cities accepted these new ideas and tried to interpret them within Brahmanic religion which later led to asrama system. But Brahmins in villages were too orthodox and couldn’t accept these concepts because these parivrajakas or sramanas were not allowed to get married.
But slowly these ideas got absorbed in Brahmanism giving rise to Upanishads and the doctrine of Vedanta. Slowly, various folk religions, Shiva, Krishna, Vasudeva, Narayana cults got absorbed into Vedic religion and temple worship also became popular. Vedic popularity was replaced by agamas and puranas. It developed dharma as we know today.
But the heart of Dharma lies in purusharthas: Dharma, artha, Kama, and moksha. It places Moksha as the final goal whereas Vedic religion considered heaven as the final goal.
If you think about it, Brahmanism is life positive. Even though Sramana traditions were life negative, they actually offered a way out of psychological suffering while living. By taking the medititative aspects of Sramana traditions and combining it with life positive aspects of a house holder’s life, Bhagavad Gita came up with a complete path to moksha.”
The Essential message of Vedas
Based on what he have seen above, here is the gist of the message in Vedas:
When you look at the sun, the moon and stars, the changing seasons etc, everything seems to follow a Law. They also seem to contribute something to us humans. When Vedic people applied the same logic to human life, they concluded that humans should also follow a Law and give something back to the society and nature. We receive help from many sources; so we are obligated and indebted to all such sources and we have to fulfill that obligation.
So what is the Law that humans should adhere to? This basically asks the question, “How should you live your life so everyone including yourself can live a happy and peaceful life?”
According to the consensus that we have so far, a human being should strive for righteousness (Dharma), wealth and education (Artha), pleasures needed to meet one’s psychological and emotional needs (Kama) and the ultimate liberation that one attains through self-realization (Moksha). There are various means to attain the first three and in the modern days we don’t have much to take from religious and spiritual texts regarding the first three goals of human life..
But there is an enormous wisdom in the world literature that discusses the fourth goal which is liberation from all the psychological bondage and suffering, while living. The knowledge about it is obscured and distorted because of various issues: changing meanings of words, meanings lost because of translation, meanings misunderstood because of poor articulation or usage of confusing words, lack of people who are capable enough to impart this knowledge to others etc. A part of my work is to make sure that all that wisdom is made available in my blogs and books.
Who is a Brahmin?
So, who is a Brahmin? In practical life, a Brahmin is none other than anyone who excels in intelligence, knowledge and virtue than others (and not just anyone who is from a particular caste).. If a person is intelligent, ethical and knows enough about essential stuff, he is a Brahmin. He should be given preference in roles like teaching, writing, scientific research, spiritual research etc. When a person who is not competent enough takes the role of a Brahmin (by becoming a teacher, a law maker etc), that will create a huge problem in the society. In fact, the intellectual gap between a stupid teacher and a brilliant student can mess up a lot of things. I will write a different article explaining in detail about how huge ‘intellectual gap or difference’ can lead to a major social issue.
I will give you a clue. Try convincing a typical right wing online troll about anything; try talking to him with logic. He would reply with either ad hominem or whataboutery. There are people who have a hard time understanding simple things but are completely convinced that they are intellectually better than others. When these people take up important positions in the society, it will lead to social disorder, poverty, unemployment, riots, chaos etc. It is exactly what is happening in India today.
This is exactly what Gita says as ‘Varna Samkara’ or the mixture of Varnas (Gita 1.43). In the earlier days, a quick shortcut to prevent Varna Samkara was to follow a birth based Varna system. But today’s society is very complicated. Varna Samkara in the modern context can be interpreted as a confusion in determining the roles and qualifications of people. To resolve that confusion, everyone should work on finding their own uniqueness and choose a way of living that suits one’s personality, abilities, interests etc. In other words, everyone should follow their own svadharma.
There is also a deeper meaning for the word Brahmin. A knower of Brahman or a self-realized person is the one who is truly a Brahmin. He is Brahmavid, one who knows what Brahman is, in his experience.
People who are caught up in the modern concept of religions, religious divisions etfc may have a hard time in being open to many things written here. If you do, then go through these posts: