Music

Eight-letter mantra Annamayya glorified

M.S. Subbulakshmi.

M.S. Subbulakshmi.  

‘Sriman Narayana,’ sung by M.S. Subbulakshmi, transported rasikas to a higher plane

It was an evening of vocal music, back in the early 1990s, at the Music Academy, Chennai. The concert had begun and I entered the venue with the then President of Republic of Hungary and sat in the front row. The vocalist on stage was none other than M. S. Subbulakshmi, who had just commenced singing the well-known kriti, ‘Sriman Narayana’ of Annamacharya. Since I was assisting the Honorary Consul of Hungary in Chennai, Mr. M. A. Alagappan, I accompanied the President to the concert of this celebrated musician for him to experience the beauty of Indian classical music.

As she sang with her eyes closed, he looked at her in amazement. Half of the audience sat with their eyes closed too, immersed in the beauty of MS Amma’s singing. Her uttering of the ‘Sree Narayana Namam’ thrice in the beginning still echoes in my ears. After the concert, the President desired to meet MS Amma to express his appreciation and to get a doubt cleared. I told him that it would be better for him to call on her next morning at her residence than meeting her amidst the crowd of rasikas. The next day when we met her, the President asked MS Amma why she had closed her eyes while singing that song.

As usual, she smiled and replied that she was singing the name of the Lord, which was a mantra in itself as per the tradition and the moment she closed her eyes the Lord of the mantra, Narayana, would appear blissfully in her mental eye and that makes her forget everything around her and elevates the divine power of the song and her singing.

The President understood the significance of her explanation as he himself was moved by the rendition. She further said that the Narayana Namam is known as Ashtakshara Mantra, made of eight letters (syllables?), which transport the singer as well as the listener to a higher plane. She explained in a simple language this particular song lists eight times the lotus flower, which is compared to the Lord’s face and eyes byAnnamacharya.

The composition proves Annamacharya’s supremacy as a Vaggeyakara as he uses eight times the word ‘Kamala’ (lotus) — Kamala Sati (husband of Lakshmi), Mukha Kamala (Lotus faced), Kamalahita (tendering Lotus), Kamalapriya (lover of lotus), Kamalekshana (lotus-eyed), Kamalasanahita Garuda Gamana (lotus posed while coming on Garuda vahana), Kamalanaabha (lotus in the navel), and Padhakamalame (lotus feet).

He also justifies the usage of the word ‘Sriman.’ Lakshmi or Kamala resides in Him forever and that is why He is called as Sriman.

Kamban reference

This interaction with MS Amma reminded me later about the importance of eight-letter (ettezuthu) mantra mentioned by the 15th century saint-poet Annamacharya with that of two songs of my favourite poet Kamban in his Ramayana in the 9th century and the influence of Azhwars also on Annamayya. A mantra is divinity encased within a sound, just as the splitting of an atom manifests the tremendous forces latent in it. Thirumangai Azhwar lists the benefits occurring on recitation of this eight-letter mantra, which are also eightfold in his Periya Thirumozhi Pasuram:

‘Kulam tharum, Selvam thanthidum, Aadiyar paduthuar aayina ellam Nilam tharam seyyum, Neel Visumbarulum, Arulodu perunilam alikkum, Valam tharum, Matrum thanthidum, Petra Thaayinum aayina seyyum... Nalam Tharum sollai naan kandu konden Narayana ennum Naamam,” (956). Thirumangai Azhwar assures this nama will give exalted status by being born into a noble clan, grants life of wealth, rages to ground all the travails devotees face, grants grace of the Lord, bestows earthly favours with benign grace, strength to retain all these, all other good things left out, and love that exceeds a mother’s and says he has found out that this one beneficial mantra as the Narayana namam.

Kamban also lists different benefits through Prahlada about the Ashtaakshara Mantra:

“Kaman Yaavaiyum tharuvathum, appatham kadanthar Sema Veedu uraseivathum, senthazhal mukantha

Oma velviyin urupatham uyppathum, oruvan Naamam annathu kel Namo Narayanaaya” (6230).

Kamban enumerates that ashtaksharam will grant all that you wish for — will put you further in protected mukthi lokha and bestow the benefits that occur out of all yagnas. In the next one (6231), he envisages that all the living things in this earth (lokha) and that of Brahma are functioning because the mantra is in the innermost layer of their self. According to Kamban and Annamayya, a mantra is a sacred utterance, a numinous sound, a syllable or group of words which will have psychological and spiritual powers.

At the time of Kamban and Annamayya, scientists did not have much knowledge about an atom or the very word itself was unknown. But Kamban in the ninth century says through a reply given by Prahladha to Hiranya that God was everywhere:

“Saninum ulan; Or thanmai anuvinai Sathakuritta

Koninum Ulan; mameruk kunrinum Ulan; inninra

Thuninum Ulan” (6312)

Supreme soul

In ‘Sriman Narayana,’ Annamayya says that Narayana is paramatma and also paramanurupa. He is the supreme soul beyond and also who has the shape of an atom or one who gives substance to an atom.

Annamayya was the first and the earliest known composer of Indian classical music known as Sankirtanams. Though he is said to have composed 32,000 sankirtanams before his demise at the age of 95, only 12,000 are now available. One such composition is ‘Sriman Narayana’. Annamayya has also written explanatory notes for a few Telugu literature and authored two books. He is the trendsetter in bhajanai tradition and said to be the first systematic composer, whose songs consisted of Pallavi, Anupallavi and Saranam.

It is said that composer Purandardasa visiting Tirupati called on Annamayya in appreciation of his contributions to music composition. Annamayya’s lyrics are known for their simplicity, the rhyme and the rhythm. All these elevated him to an Acharya status and he was, thus called as Annamacharya. It is also an eight syllable name in Tamil – Ashtakshara Annamacharya! His name will be revered on Earth as long as the name of Narayana is recited, since he was the earliest known musician to highlight the Ashtakshara Narayana Mantra as the greatest treasure.

(Cover illustration by Keshav is on the use of the word ‘Kamala’)

The writer is secretary, Karaikudi Kamban Kazhagam

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 12:29:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/eight-letter-mantra-annamayya-glorified/article27148401.ece

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