What’s Your Name?
Telugu Original : Gurajada Appa Rao
English Translation: Naudury Murthy
We stayed with our childhood pal Sayanna Bhukta for three days. He studied Logic under the tutelage of Sastry garu. He had good grounding in literature as well, and penned poetry occasionally.
On the third day, the four of us were relaxing on the terrace of his house after dinner. Gentle breeze tossed between the cocoanut leaves. The skewed hill in front of us stood like a tall Shiva Lingam, breaking through the ambient darkness and touching the firmament. Its stupendous presence was so vaguely disarming and intimidating at the same time, emphasizing the insignificance of man before nature. The stars twinkled like celestial flowers offered to the gods. Our discussions delved into the past; and, to the times when our very place was populated with Buddhists. After a prolonged sequence of pleasant ideations, I posed a question to others what, in their opinion, those Buddhists might be doing on our soil those days.
“Why? Those oafs might be as disposed as we are now; maybe, even worse,” said Venkiah in his gruffy voice, snapping my chain of refined thoughts about Buddhists. I was so angry that I snapped back, “Why don’t you keep your great thoughts to yourself? Why do you disturb others’ sweet imaginations with your bitter thinking?”
Sastry garu interrupted, expressing a genuine doubt. “When it is widely accepted that Buddha is the tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, I wonder why these Saivaites worship him as Lord Shiva?”
Sayanna Bhukta took a pinch of snuff from his box, inhaled it deeply, and clearing the remains with his loin cloth, began, “There is a story behind it.”
Sastry garu likes anecdotes. So, pricking up his ears, he urged Bhukta to go on.
This is what he had narrated…
“The rivalry between the Saivites and Vaishnavites in our village is age-old. Sarabhayya, the chief priest who took to heals the other day, was the leader of the Saivite sect. Until the fateful day he removed the idol to offer it secretively to the Englishman, people of his sect believed that he was a veritable incarnation of Lord Nandikeswara (the Bull, vehicle of Lord Siva), and that he would graze in the fields in front of the temple during nights. His disciples, of course, had already started circulating a concocted story – that the Englishman was a devout Saivite in his previous life, and that was why he had asked for the idol; and, out of compassion for his devotee’s wish, Lord Shiva himself had commended Sarabhayya to remove the idol and present it to him. They were also saying that he leaped out of the Englishman’s tent bellowing, taking up his taurine incarnation. You should not be surprised to find him in a deep meditative posture atop some hillock, or temple tower someday; and, these people go with ceremonial parasols and bands to invite him back to the village. Later, goldsmith Veerayya (or Veeranaachari, to spare him any offence) might pen a composition in couplets, romanticizing the event and adding more spicy fiction to it. Their fame would reach out of the horizons.”
“Wow! What an inveterate faith! We don’t find such deep conviction even among scholars. How fortunate they y are!” said Sastry garu.
When Venkiah tried to add something, I discouraged him with a forefinger across my lips.
“Why do you restrain people from saying what they wish to say?” whined Venkiah. Again, I gestured him to remain silent.
Sayanna Bhukta continued…
“True! You don’t find such unwavering faith in scholars as you find in country folk. But this blind faith, sometimes, will lead to serious consequences. I am about to narrate one such incident.”
“That was precisely what I wanted to say, but he did not allow me,” Venkiah complained pointing an accusing finger at me.
“Why, of course! There is nothing in this world that you do not butt in to put your two pence worth about. That is enough. Keep quiet,” I said.
Bhukta took no notice of our verbal exchange, and went on…
“You already knew how Saivism struck root in these parts. So, I will spare you that. Sarabhayya being a riveting storyteller, the place acquired glory and grandeur during his priesthood days. People in the surrounding villages used to flock here to pray and offer their religious vows. They observed the carnivals on a grand scale. The weavers community here is Saivite, and rich. People of Jangampadu and Devara Peta followed the dictates of Sarabhayya to the letter.
“The lands under the possession of Vaishnavite sect of this village was a grant to the presiding deity towards expenses for conducting daily services. Some two-hundred years ago, the local ruler awarded this grant to the ancestors of Rangacharyulu. Ever since, their lineage has been the managing trustees. Employing two or three priests on a monthly salary, Rangacharyulu has been organizing the daily services to the deity without interruption. Rangacharyulu is a nice gentleman. And, Sastry garu, you are already aware of his scholarship in Sanskrit literature. He is also a reputed authority on ‘Dravida Veda (Naalaayira Divya Prabhandham)’. His son Krishnamacharyulu is a cultured man, but not of much material success. In fact, it is Krishnamacharyulu’s wife Nancharamma who brought the good name to the family. Both her parents were great scholars in Sanskrit and Telugu, and she acquired great proficiency in both the languages from them. It is common knowledge that nobody could render Puranas as melodiously and emotively as her. She has matching appearance and character. She has one son and one daughter. It is believed that she oversees the temple affairs herself.”
“Is it a fact or fiction?” Venkiah asked.
“She and my wife often exchange house visits and I am repeating what my wife has said about her. As regards to her sweet rendering of Puranas, I heard it with my own ears. If you are interested in listening to her, you may stay back for tomorrow.
“This was the state of affairs as far as the Vaishnava temple was concerned. Neither Rangacharyulu nor Krishnamacharyulu ever participated in religious rivalry between the Saivite and the Vaishnavite sects. Satani (Chattada) Manavallayya is the champion of the Vaishnavite sect in the village. If you can recall, it was him you hear in the early hours of every morning, rendering prayers at the top of his voice in praise of Lord Vishnu. It is rumored that, one day towards dawn, on the outskirts of the village, he happened to come across the Collector on horseback. In his excitement and eagerness to please the officer, our man started reciting verses at a high pitch in his usual manner. But, looking at his burly figure, copper pole and saffron flag, and the Urdhva Pundra (vertical chalk marks on his forehead ) the horse was flustered. The Collector was angry and levied him a fine of five rupees. Of course, Manavallayya refuted that it was all a lie, and said, instead, the Collector was pleased and had asked him to recite some more verses and rewarded him five rupees with which he bought the new alms bowl.
“You don’t find Vaishnavites as united as the Saivaites. All adherents of Vaishnavism in the village were disciples of Manavallayya. But none of them regarded him as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu or any of his retinue. ‘When Sarabhayya claims he is an incarnation of Nandikeshwara, why can’t I be an incarnation of Garuda Alwar? If not a total incarnation of Lord Garuda, couldn’t have I been born with the smallest of the small shade of his claw? If I could keep Sarabhayya in check, isn’t it only because of the tartness of the claws of Lord Garuda that lies in me,’ Manavallayya used to grieve in front of people.
“When it came to the notice of Rangacharylu he gave him a thorough dressing down once.
“‘These brahmins are neither highly knowledgeable nor totally ignorant. Haven’t untouchables become Alwars in Vaishnavism on the strength of their deep devotion? Then, why can’t I, who have been holding the flag of Lord Rama gracefully all these years and arresting the spread of Saivism in the village, be the humblest incarnation of Garuda Alwar’s talon, if not Garuda Alwar himself? When his talons had grown longer and been clipped, they fell scattered all around, and got embodied in devotees like me to arrest the growth and spread of other faiths? After all, how could they lie waste? No, they could not,’ reasoned Manavallayya.”
“Oh! What a stupidity! How utterly arrogant! These ignoramuses fancy themselves as divine incarnations! Shouldn’t their heads break to pieces for harboring such unholy ideas?” exclaimed Sastry garu.
“Sastry garu! If these were the same good olden days, these people might verily have become divine incarnations. And, you and I might have been worshipping them, erecting temples for them. Isn’t Buddha one such personality?” intruded Venkiah.
“You have drawn an analogy between a washer man’s brook and the unfathomable ocean,” dismissed Sastry garu.
“Venkiah, can’t you remain quiet without passing some remark or the other for everything?” I complained.
“The Naidu’s of this village are rich. Sarathi Naidu is the richest of them all. His brother-in-law Raminaidu is the Village Munsif. He is a first-rate cheat, glutton and a boozer. If the village boasts of the largest arrack distillery in the taluk, you could imagine the kind of its reputation.
“About four years before the incident I am about to narrate had happened, one Ayyangar (an ordained Vaishnava Acharya) from south visited the village and initiated Sarathi Naidu and other community leaders to Vaishnavism by performing Panchasamskaram. Village Munsif Raminaidu appropriated Pulihora (Tamarind rice) and Chakkera Pongali, the two offerings to the deity, almost simultaneously with Vaishnavism. His allegiance to both remains unflinching to this day. Sarathi Naidu faithfully performed special worship and offered oblations in plenty to Lord Rama on every Dwadasi (the twelfth day of each lunar fortnight). That was a great festive time for Raminaidu.
“All the Naidu’s converting to Vaishnavism, and their not showing up at Shiva temple, disconcerted Sarabhayya no little. Deliberating for long, he implemented a well thought out plan.
“About that time, some Saiva Acharyas from Hyderabad arrived here during the course of their routine wandering around the country. Two months later, one Saiva Acharya and his entourage descended on the village like a whirlwind, with traditional fanfare. Every midnight, they performed elaborate rituals to Lord Shiva. The village resonated with the tolling of bells, blowing of conches, and the beating of kettledrums. The ballyhoo resonated through those black-stone knolls. The village folk got both intimidated and enchanted simultaneously. The buzz and hubbub enticed people to Saivism and slowly, Naidu’s started becoming proselytes one by one. On the tenth day of his arrival, the Saiva Acharya made elaborate plans for a public demonstration of fire-walk. To convert Sarathi Naidu back to Saivism was his chief intent behind that show. Sarathi Naidu was already wavering between the two faiths, with a slight tilt towards Saivism. The Acharya and Sarabhayya were confident that, once Sarathi Naidu witnessed devotees walking fearlessly over the burning coals, he would convert to Saivism, and with him all the Naidu folk.
“Keeping that in mind, all important people of Saivite sect went to Sarathi Naidu’s residence with great fanfare, showered encomiums on him, and invited him to witness the event. Perhaps, ‘insisted’ would be more appropriate than ‘invited’.
“When this matter was brought to the attention of Rangacharyulu, his response was rather indifferent: If the Lord Rama willed it, so it would be! What can really stall the conversion of a Vaishnavite to Saivism? Besides, did you not hear that Lord Shiva himself would chant the sacred mantra to salvation in the ears of the people who die in Varanasi? Same way, won’t Lord Rama give salvation to a Saivite in the present life in his next? So long as people could absolutely surrender themselves to God, there is salvation for them irrespective of their faith; being a Vaishnavite gives no exception.’ The community was not amused with his disinterested reply.
“‘This Brahmin is least biased towards Vaishnavism. Unless I take the initiative, this will jeopardize the power and reputation of Vaishnavism in the village,’ thought Manavallayya insolently. He called out for a meeting of the community under the peepul tree opposite to Rama temple on the very night hours before Saivites’ planned fire walk. Weavers and Naidu’s from the Vaishnavite sect gathered in large numbers. The top leaders among them trickled in one by one, after tasting a scruple of arrack stealthily. Leaning against the stone bench under the Peepul tree and resting his chin on his handstick, Manavallayya began: ‘Devout servants of Lord Rama! You might have already noticed that, coming under the magic spell of Saivite Acharya, some of our Naidu’s descended to the gloomy hell of Saivism deserting the royal path of Vaishnavism to heaven. The Saiva Acharya is now desperate to bamboozle our beloved friend and peerless Vaishnavite Sarathi Naidu and convert him to Saivism. And if he should witness their awful gimmicks, I am afraid, it is as good as we lost him. So, I appeal to all of you to think how we could prevent this and establish the supremacy of Lord Maha Vishnu. I strongly feel that we should come up with a strategy to thwart his visit to that place.’
“As people looked into one another, at a loss for ideas. Ramanujayya stood up and said: Why rack our brains? Why not we perform the very thing they are planning to do? If Lord Shiva, himself is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, could be so powerful, shouldn’t Lord Vishnu be thousands of times more powerful? My humble suggestion is that Manavallayya, a veritable incarnation of the Garuda Alwar, should walk over the coals holding his Copper poll and the saffron flag reciting Naalaayiram. To make the supremacy of our faith obvious to the world, I will prepare in no time a much larger fire pit than theirs under this very tree. I don’t think any true Vaishnavite will disagree with me.
“Nobody noticed in the darkness how Manavallayya’s jaw dropped gaping in shock, as his plan has boomeranged on himself. As one by one supported the idea, he was gripped with cold fear for life. Thinking for a while, he said, ‘Dear elder and younger brothers! Devout devotees of Lord Rama! I know Ramanujayya is reproaching me for my stupid claim as an incarnation of Garuda Alwar, and I confess I deserve it. When that Sarabhayya arrogantly proclaimed himself an incarnation of Lord Shiva’s holy bull, out of my devotion to Vaishnavism I felt obliged to claim myself an incarnation of Garuda Alwar. Else, with a body heavy as mine, how could I ever dream of being a Garuda Alwar? If it is obvious to a fool like me, is it not obvious to more intelligent people like you? To be frank, with such a feather-weight body like an eagle, Ramanujayya is the real incarnation of Garuda Alwar. Let him walk over the coals. If I were to step into the fire pit, I would sink into it vertically and die. Since he is such a featherweight, he will fly across the coals. Brothers! Think what is fair!’ Ramanujayya slipped through the crowd and disappeared unnoticed after Manavallayya turned tables on him.
“Raminaidu became suddenly alert, and asked Manavallayya, ‘Do you think our Lord Sri Rama really has magical powers? Say yes, or no? If yes, cut out all this nonsense and walk over the coals.’
“His words boxed Manavallayya on his face and his head reeled. Even if he intended to slip out like Ramanujayya secretly through the crowd, he was not a teeny-weeny insect like an ant or a mosquito. He weighed nearly five hundred pounds. ‘God! If only you could make me your Garuda Alwar just for a fraction of a second, I would fly to some safe far off place for dear life,’ Manavallayya offered secret prayers.
“‘Say yes! Why do you keep mum?’ Raminaidu insisted, ‘every morning before dawn you wake us all up singing so many graces and charms of Lord Rama at the height of your voice. You sing them all just to grab grain and greens from us or the God has any real powers?’.
“Heaving a heavy desperate sigh and praying Sri Ramanuja within, Manavallayya had said, ‘Look, Raminaidu! We are friends from childhood. As a representative of the government, you wield the power of Munsif. You could discern between what is proper and what is not. Do you think that I should imitate the same heinous practices of Sarabhayya to uphold the supremacy of Vaishnavism? ‘Earth, Ether, Water, Fire and Air’ are five elements said scholars. A true Vaishnavite’s supreme duty is to uphold the primacy of the ‘Earth’, that is, he has to walk only on earth. A Vaishnavite should not set foot on any element other than this Earth. And in case of great exigency, a fraction less holy alternative is jumping into ‘Water’. But, to walk over the Fire is the worst of them all. If you have any doubts about the power of our God, follow me to Sitammakundam (Sita’s Pond). I will jump into it. Then, you can realize my power,’ he tried to reason him out.
Nauduri Murthy is a Managing Director by profession and a poet and a passionate translator. He translated hundreds of poems from Telugu to English and vice versa.