Ten Saints of India; T.M.P. Mahadevan

It is not easy to write about the saints. All good things are rare and difficult; but because of the rarity and difficulty one ought not to turn away from seeking the good.

Those are the first lines of Ten Saints of India, a Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan publication by T.M.P. Mahadevan, edited by KM Munshi and RR Diwakar. These opening lines somehow set the stage for me to read through the entire book, which isn’t a very large book. It has very simple biographies of ten saints:

  • Tirujñāna Saṁbandhar
  • Tirunāvukkaraśu
  • Sundaramūrti
  • Māṇikkavācakar
  • Nammāḷvār
  • Āṇḍāl
  • Śaṅkara
  • Rāmānuja
  • Sri Rāmakrisṇa
  • Ramaṇa Maharshi

IMG_4183 - Version 2There isn’t much in the book by way of understanding the deeper philosophies of these saints – but serves as a good introduction to the life of the saints and perhaps a good account of how they achieved sainthood. There’s no pontification of religion or philosophy; just an objective view of how these saints’ lives came into being. That perhaps is the hallmark of a good book that talks of the lives of great persons. By virtue of the original writer, 9 of the 10 saints are from south India, and are essentially of the Śhaiva or the Vaiṣṇava cults (some may take objection to the use of the word ‘cult’; I am just using what’s written in the book.) In between however, strewn along the reading path, are certain gems.

The saint’s approach to reality is said to be more emotional, whereas that of a sage is regarded as more intellectual. […] In India, the saints have been known for their sagely qualities and the sages for their saintly qualities.

I even discovered a new word: Thaumaturgy. The language of the book is very simple, however, and reads like a hot knife through butter. In the beginning of the chapter on Tirunāvukkaraśu, the author starts with:

Genuine conversion does not consist in a formal change from one religion to another, but in an inner transformation involving spiritual exaltation; in fact, it is that which effects a change over from unsaintly ways of life to saintliness.

To read about the life of these saints comes as a breath of fresh air, as we are surrounded by an overtly cynical and skeptical society that reflectively feeds on outrage. To peek into the life that is undisturbed by the things that consume our waking moment is almost wondrous. The book will not make you want to go right into Saṁnyāsa. It’s not a guidebook to living your life; just short biographies of ten mortals who touched divinity. Excessive literalism causes corruption of ideas, and that finds mention in the chapter for Mānikkavācakar:

Bridal mysticism has its unique value as well as its peculiar dangers. The devotee who is an expert in this type of mysticism considers himself or herself to be the bride of God. This is an attitude adopted not only by women-saints but also by men-saints. In fact, according to the philosophy behind this attitude, God is the only Male, and all the souls are His consorts. This is what the allegory of Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs implies. Nārada in his Bhakti-sūtra commends the bhakti of the milkmaids of Brindāvan as the highest type of devotion. In the Hindu scriptures the bliss of the divine communion is likened to conjugal happiness.

The danger the lurks in all such imagery is literalness in understanding it. In some of the Hindu sects, the interpretation became so literal that it led to mal-practices. But bridal mysticism in its pure form is as lofty as loftiness can be. It stands for an undivided loyalty and exclusive devotion to the Lord, and an intense longing for union with Him.

Further chapters expound how Advaita evolved, how it came to be experienced by saints, to a small extent. As I have mentioned before, this is not the book that explores any ideas in great detail, but is a wonderful place to stoke curiosity, and seek other scripts to satisfy the curiosity.

On a separate note, I believe this book is out of print, so if you want to get your hands on it, you will have to reach out to your parents or grandparents – or BVB although I could not find this book in their catalogue either. I fortunately inherited this book, which unfortunately is in quite a bad shape.

But knowledge doesn’t limit itself to a few places, does it?

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