History & Culture

Social activist, Vedic scholar

Scholar and literrateur: OMC   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

OMC Narayanan Nambudirippad's (OMC) ‘Bhashyabashyam'(1984) is a modern interpretation of the long Vedic tradition of the Nambudiris. In eight volumes, each devoted to one ashtaka of the Rigveda, OMC gives first, the text of the Rigveda, the 1,017 hymns, 1,0472 verses in different Vedic metres; second, the 14th CE Sayana's commentary on each verse and third, OMC's own commentary, often valuable day-to-day folklore about various stanzas. Dominic Chacko Kizhakkemuri (D.C.Books) first published OMC's ‘Bhashabhashyam' (1995) at considerable financial sacrifice.

There is nothing like it in any other language of India. ‘Bhashyabashyam' was OMC's labour of love in the last years of his life: he was already 64 when he embarked on the project in 1974, finishing it in seven years and seeing it through the press and publication by 1985.

True, he had tried simultaneously his hand at a shorter version of it, with his ‘Vedarazmikal' (1976). However, ‘Bhashyabashyam' may well be the first appearance of the complete Rigveda in print in Malayalam, the different Veda Samhitas having remained strictly in oral traditions till recently. Thus the complete and reliable Rigveda text, the first edition even carrying the accent marks to mark the three registers – ‘udata,' ‘anudatta' and ‘svartia' – of the Vedic sound system, is now available to Malayalam readers, breaking the earlier barrier between the oral tradition and literacy.

The ‘Sayanabhasya'

Previously, the Rigveda was a closed book to many; an aspiring student could only hope to hear it from a person reciting it, with all the traditional taboos making it well nigh impossible. We have now the printed text before us along with the resources listed above, opening up new vistas for readers, lay as well as scholarly.

Easily the most inestimable resource of the ‘Balabhasyam' is the ‘Sayanabhasya.' Sayana and his equally gifted brother Madhava served various Sangama kings (1336-1485) of the Vijayanagara empire. When the brothers were not attending to the business of the state, they were supervising several “graduate students,” as Professor Witzel of Harvard has it, to distil the existing knowledge of the Vedic traditions of their time. Whereas Sayana's ‘bhaashya' is from an Yajurvedic perspective, OMC's commentary is from that of the Rigveda, how the text ordered the everyday lives of its adherents.

OMC adds to Sayana's commentary significantly, and he does so in two different ways. First, he attempts to look at Sayana through modern glasses, rational and scientific. Second, he appends throughout the work specific praxises of the Nambudiri Rigveda tradition, which predate Sayana.

OMC gives us a commentary from a Rigvedic perspective.

Consider the following list, compiled at random from hundreds, following the mandala-sukta-rk citation:

i) 50.1-13. The most important of the Saurya (to Surya) Suktas, providing remedy for heart diseases and a skin disorder known as ‘vivarnyam.'

ii) 2. 43. 1-3. Recited at ‘nishkramanam,' exiting through door; leaving home; departing for marriage; entering home; generally marking passage from unmarked space to marked space.

iii) 6. 47. 18. On the occasion of the wedding, the groom gives the bride's parents a mirror with this verse.

This is Rigveda as it shaped the daily and commonplace lives of the Nambudiris, almost as folklore. It touches upon the original spirit and temper of the Rigveda as it ordered the lives of a people, not necessarily restricted to religious or sectarian ends. OMC's wife, Uma Antharjanam, also played an important role in the making of the ‘Balabhasyam.'

OMC was also a crusader for social reform within his community. His foray into social activism began as a Gandhian in 1932, as an undergraduate at the Victoria College, Palakkad.

He translated Gandhiji's Pattambi speech. More importantly, he was one of the trio, along with V.T. (Bhattatirippad) and EMS, that turned the Nambudiri social system upside down through the Yogakshema movement, bringing to an end certain obscurantist marriage customs among the Nambudiris.

He presided over the annual Yogkshema conference twice, the Antharjanam Samajam taking shape under Parvati Nenminimangalam during his tenure as president, in 1944-45.

A scholar and ardent buff of Kathakali, he wrote an aatakatha on Christ's life (‘Snapaka Yohanan'). He worked with Vallathol in the Kalâmandalam to bring about a renaissance of that art form, his family continuing its patronage of Kathakali and providing the aegis for Adoor Gopalakrishnan's film and video presentations of the dance drama.

OMC was a torchbearer who left his imprints in the literary, cultural and social spheres.

(T.P. Mahadevan is in the faculty of the English department at Howard University in Washington D.C. He has written extensively on Brahmin migrations to South India, linking these movements to the arrival of Vedism and the two Sanskrit epics in the peninsula. thennilapuram.mahadevan@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:19:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Social-activist-Vedic-scholar/article16343146.ece

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