The unknown mahApaNDitA

When we heard from MM of her great exploits we immediately felt a kinship with her at three levels. This kinship we refer to does not merely arise from the fact that she was our co-ethnic but from something much more viscerally embedded in the psyche. Her secular tale is known to a few people, though even that is largely forgotten by most of her own co-ethnics, let alone the larger mass of brAhmaNa-s or more generally followers of the dharma. But what MM told us was her hagiography that remained with us, much like the question: was 1857 a futile endeavor? It is that hagiography we seek to record.

It was a community whose moorings had been shaken by the incubus of the English rule, and the death and short life spans that characterized the land in the first half of the 1900s – reeking with a strong sense of foreboding of the growing age of the kali. Her struggling family supported by a widowed mother drawing off ancestral possessions was no different. Even as a kid she was distinct from the remaining women – some what unconventional, more like the men of the community. She expressed a rather “blasphemous” view before the age of five of wanting to learn the shruti. This of course was no, but she persisted with it hanging about in the vicinity of the pAThashAlA and acquiring its knowledge in the secret. On the other side she insisted on going to a secular school to acquire western education and the AMgalika bhASha. Reluctantly her family indulged this fancy of hers. Once in the secular school her brahminical intellect towered even over the males of her class. Here natural facility with the devabhAShA caught her brAhmaNa teacher’s attention, who started giving her additional lessons. He introduced her to the common fare – kAvya, alaMkAra and the like through which she breezed without much difficulty. But what surprised him was her independent study of the agnipurANa around the age of 13. He was surprised by her ability to expand from pratIka the various vaidika mantra-s in the vidhAna. It abraded against the conventions of the age and he tried to dissuade her from dabbling from any such stuff and instead spend her energy in the bhAgavata purANa, as would be fit for a woman. She calmly showed how she had already studied the bhAgavata and was familiar with some intricacies that were not apparent to the regular bhakti-oriented reader. At this point it suddenly struck him that he was dealing with someone who might even be beyond his capabilities and informed her family that they should pay close attention to her eccentricity – especially certain points she had noted in the agni purANa and the bhAgavata. Her brother intuitively suspected that a learned vaikhAnasa paNDita from mannArguDi he knew might be able to evaluate her. This vaikhAnasa, while a hereditary archaka, had considerable knowledge of various tAntrika lore and also Tamil literature. Their meeting was tense, the vaikhAnasa realized that he was coming face-to-face with a girl who was already familiar with certain rahasya-s of different mantra mArga-s. But he feared breaking conventions, and suggested that she concentrate on acquiring skills to be a good wife and that such mantra-s could back-fire without appropriate dIkSha. Nevertheless, he taught her some Tamil lore that considerably helped her in her secular studies. In the mean time her achievements in secular education showed similar penetration. So her family took the rather drastic move of letting her continue on to higher secular studies by moving to the city of Chennai (which as some would know were well informed by her facility in the devabhAShA and its literature).

During her secular studies in the city of Chennai, she earned some additional income by writing some journalistic material in Tamil. Via these she came in contact with a shUdra mantravAdinI from the chera country who gave her kaula dIkSha to the three-syllabled tripurashekhara mantra and introduced her to a great sarvAdhikArI kaula practitioner of the Madhurai school. With him she rather rapidly progressed through realms of the mantra-shAstra that few had scaled, acquiring pA~ncharAtrika, saiddhAntika, vAma, various bhUta and bhairava traditions. At the same time in Chennai she became the pupil of two famous paNDita-s who are renowned for their work to this date. With them she earned a high secular degree and also initiated academic studies on the history of the tantra-s. The first person to do this in a modern sense as far I know. She made some remarkable investigations regarding the early pA~ncharAtrika and saiddhAntika activities in the Tamil country and noted for the first time the connections between them and the developing bauddha mantra-shAstra. We also realized that she also anticipated some observations that we made regarding the early connections between vaikhAnasa-s and kaumAra-s in South India. She suggested that at the ancient heart of Kanchi there was a dyad of temples kumArakoTTam and the urakaM that were built under vaikhAnasa tradition to kArttikeya and viShNu. This was followed historically by a saiddhAntika shaiva temple and a nAstikAlaya shortly there after. Then there was a pA~ncharAtrika temple, but she astutely noted that the preexisting vaikhAnasa archaka-s took over the worship in the pA~ncharAtrika devAlaya. Then finally the kaula shrine of kAmakoTI, the pinnacle of shrIvidyA in the south, was built. While she had performed secular studies of great merit, her kaula practice with its nocturnal visits to the cemetery and secret offerings (indeed she made some observations on kuNDagola that were rather prescient for the age – it struck me that she had a scientific spirit as she showed in her secular life) was outted. She faced a degree of ostracism from many making her secular existence somewhat difficult.

She was sought by a turuShka who was facing abhichAra and she successfully saved him with her pratikriya. The turuShka paid her a handsome sum for her services on account of which she could continue her independent existence. She also defeated some mlechCha-s in arguments who were trying to convert Hindus to the pretamata. The chera mantravAdinI sought her help in a difficult mantra contest with a powerful rival. While successfully helping the cherA, she is said to have been struck by a mysterious dhUmAvatI prayoga; others said it was influenza and yet others blamed her poor food. Her condition defied diagnosis and treatment of Hindu as well as western physicians and she was incapacitated from doing any prayoga herself. She died shortly thereafter at a young age. Her crumbling notebooks in a neat hand record a tale of a towering all-round intellectual who was well beyond her times and way beyond most of her own people – but nothing more aptly illustrates that unseen undercurrent of deeply knowledgeable, scholastic mantra tradition that exists or existed in bhArata.

This entry was posted in Life. Bookmark the permalink.