Conversations, especially those about political and spiritual subtleties among people, with my father have been most intriguing sources of orthogonal perspective. I never avoid any such conversation with my father owing to inimical notions prevalent today. One such conversation I recently had was about Bammera Pothana and political importance of his work. This post is a result of that very informative conversation.
Bammera Potana (1450 – 1510) is one of the most important figrues in Telugu Literature. His most important work, respected as the best ever work by a telugu poet, is Andhra Maha Bhagavatam. It is telugu translation of the great work Bhagavatam by Vyasa Maharshi. Bhagavatam was the result of Maharshi Vyasa’s vision to allow people to understand Dharma. As a side note, this has been the hallmark of the Maharshis we have had as the backbone of Hindu culture. All Maharshis known to us today spent all their energies trying to explain us exactly what Dharma is. This was in an attempt to allow common Hindu to live a Dharmic life.
Maharshi Vyasa’s work is an attempt to explain Krishna leelas and Dharma behind Krishna’s actions. This particular work of Vyasa in itself is a very important political work. It is generally referred to as a devotional work, mainly based on Bhakti as a foundation of spiritual life. However, there have been many observations on Bhagavatam which summarized it as “a literary blend of emotional aspects of Bhakti and Advaita Philosophy”. Wikipedia says that it also has references to Tamil Alvar saints. Thus, Bhagavatam definitely was not just a work on Krishna but a consummation of ideas of Dharma established in various parts of Jambu Dweepam (All land south of Himalayan was referred to by our Rishis as Jambu Dweepam). In fact, it wouldnt be an overstatement to say that Bhagavatam might have influenced (among other such works) Adi Sanakaracharya to propose Advaita as a way of life.
15th century was the time when Bahmadi Sultanate was at its peak. It was also a time when the divide in the subcontinent just entered a multi-dimensional domain. While till then the divide was in between Hindu, Bouddha and Jaina paramparas, the entry of new religions like Zoroastrianism which tried to blend itself in to Hindu culture and Islam which asserted lethal force in the name of jihad opened a new threat to Hindu society. To add to the wounds, Hindu society was itself divided between Vaishnavaite-Saivaite paramparas. It would be pertinent to say that every time Hindu society faced an external or internal threat, a great saint was born to bring back Advaita in to Hindu lifestyle and thus strengthened the unity and integrity of Hindu society. Such a work always led to a few more centuries of determined fight to protect Hindu ideals against evangelist and extremist forces. In 8th century AD (or is it 6th Cenury BC – thats for some other day), it was Adi Sankaracharya. In 15th century it was Bammera Pothana.
Pothana belonged to the village Bammera near today’s Warangal. He was born in a niyogi savaite brahmin family. He was a farmer by occupation. So what is the motivation for a farmer from a staunch saivaite family to translate Bhagavatam, basically a work dedicated to Krishna – a vishnu avatar – in to telugu? Most common explanation is that he is extremely devotional in his attitude. Learned people suggest that his work might have been nothing but the result of a deep devotion but there is a very important question they need to answer.
Srinadha was brother in law of Pothana. Srinadha‘s work was splendid and extra-ordinary. Yet it is not as famous as Pothana‘s work. Srinadha wrote most of his work in praise of Padma Nayaka king of Rachakonda, Sarvajana Singha Bhoopaala. Most of the works at that time were either dedications to the courtesans of the Kings or Shaivaite or Vaishnavaite deities but the general direction of the works of this time were not embedded with Advaitha philosophy. So, why did Pothana choose to translate Bhagavatam?
Note: It is my duty to point out here that I am unaware of any work during 14-15th century directly describing omniscience and omnipresence of a singular life force which extends and exists everywhere and in everything in the cosmos. If such a work does exist, then it could be said that Pothana was inspired by that work or its derivatives, if any. For now, I will continue with my assumption that Advaita was not the most popular spiritual philosophy behind literary works during that time.
It is thus important to look at the big picture behind Pothana’s work, which affected all the telugu speaking people. I think the work was a call to come back to the core principle of a united Hindu society. It is also important here to note that the linguistic divide in southern parts of India was not prominent. In fact it would be fair to say that linguistic divide never existed. Linguistic divide in India was brought about by some idiotic decisions taken post independence. This, I can vouch for, because Thyagaraja was born in Tamilnadu but was from a telugu speaking family. All his keertanas are in telugu but are famous across the nation.
If Bammera Pothana was trying to integrate Saivaite-Vaishnavaite paramaparas in the south, Kabir Das worked on Hindu-Muslim divide. Yes, Kabir Das was a 15th century phakir.
One might then ask “are you saying Pothana’s work was only of political importance?”. My reply would be that Pothana’s work, while spiritual at its core, acted as a great unifying force and combined with Srinadha’s life, Pothana remains as a great lesson to humanity that oneness of God and devotee, personal salutation to the infinitive divine are ultimate riches that one can have in a life time.
Thus Pothana’s work not only filled spiritual thirst, but also helped build society level integrity. Combined with Srinadha’s work, Pothana’s work also gave individual a great lesson on Advaitha philosophy. This extra-ordinary three fold advantage helped in rooting out divisive ideologies and brought back Advaitha in to individual life style. To say that Pothana’s work was only spiritual is clearly an understatement.
Ever time, a threatening divide erupted in Hindu society, be it because of internal or external forces, a great person emerged to re-unite the Hindu society and Advaita was used as the unifying philosophy. Contemporary Hindu society is again seeing such divide. We are yet to find a Pothana or a Sankaracharya to re-unite the society.