Friday, October 16, 2009

Masters Who Wear Masks: 3. Pakkanar, the Pariah

Stories about Pakkanar, the legendary pariah saint of Kerala, were among the most beautiful stories I grew up listening to. Like Lai-Khur [] and many other masters, Pakkanar too lived wearing a mask all his life: a mask of ordinariness, and at times a mask of stupidity and ignorance, a mask of being limited by the caste and class that society had ascribed to him. In spite of these, though, at times he allowed the world glimpses of his spiritual wisdom and powers, and the stories are mostly about these moments.

The birth of Pakkanar is a legend in itself, part of one of the most popular legends of Kerala which every one born in Kerala hears as a child. In my case, it was from my father that I first heard the story as a child and then subsequently I read it as a teenager in Kottarattil Sankunni’s Aitihyamala [Garland of Legends], the collection of myths and legends about Kerala.

Pakkanar, the legend tells us, was the pariah son of the pariah woman who married the brahmana Vararuchi, one of the nine jewels in the court of Vikramaditya. The couple had twelve children, all abandoned at birth, each growing up belonging to a different caste, each becoming great in his or her own way, each giving birth to numerous legends. [For more details on this, please see my blog posting []

Eleven of the twelve children met once a year to observe the shraddha of their parents. They met at the home of the eldest of the twelve sons, Melattol Agnihotri [frequently spelt Melathol Agnihothri], a brahmana, each bringing an item of his or her own for the feast that was part of the shraddha rites. At the end of the rites, all sat together and had the feast in remembrance of their parents.

There are certain things that are acceptable in a shraddha feast, and certain things that are not. And in any case, many things have always been taboo for brahmanas as food, purity of diet being part of being a brahmana. Meat certainly was not an item of food for a brahmana – no kind of meat was.

However, Pakkanar made it a point to bring meat for the feast every year, which deeply disturbed Agnihotri’s brahmani wife and other high caste participants of the sacred Vedic rituals. The family knew of the great spiritual heights Pakkanar had climbed to and of his awesome powers. For this reason, Agnihotri’s wife did not say anything about Pakkanar’s sacrilege, nor did the others. She cooked whatever he brought and served it at the ritual feast, and the participants ate it.

While all meat was traditionally taboo to brahmanas, beef was something that no Hindu ate. To the Hindu mind, no greater sin existed than killing a cow or eating beef. However one year what Pakkanar brought was the severed teats of a cow, packed in a leaf. His intentions were clear, for the udder and the nipples are considered the most sacred parts of the cow.

What Pakkanar had done was the limit. Nothing could be more sacrileges than that! The antarjanam [brahmani] opened the packet and saw what was inside. Her whole face reddened with shock. The packet fell from her hands and a scream escaped her lips. Violent retching shook her whole body and she rushed outside the house. She needed to bring out everything in her stomach, such was her horror.

Eventually she managed to master herself. Coming back, she tied the cow’s teats back in the leaf and took the packet outside and digging a hole in the yard, buried it in it. Then she took a bath to ritually purify her and after that, proceeded with her cooking.

The ritual feast began and the ten brothers and one sister sat down together to eat. Under the antarjanam’s care, the dishes cooked with the items brought by each were served to all.

Pakkanar noticed that what he had brought was missing in what was being served. “Where is what I brought?” asked Pakkanar, turning to the antarjanam. She remained silent, her head bent, her eyes on the ground at her feet. She couldn’t tell a lie, nor could she tell the truth. And in any case, she couldn’t insult a man like Pakkanar, that too during the shraddha, however shocking what he had done was.

Seeing his wife remaining silent, Agnihotri repeated Pakkanar’s question. She continued to remain silent, and he grew insistent on knowing the truth. It was then that she told what had happened, beginning to shake all over remembering what she had seen when she opened the leaf packet.

Agnihotri became silent when he heard his wife’s words. He was confused, and did not know what to say. He knew it was wrong on the part of his wife to throw away what Pakkanar had brought for the feast – but a cow’s teats! He had never said a word about the meat that Pakkanar had been bringing year after year, but this was unimaginable.

In the middle of the complete silence that had fallen over the place, Pakkanar suggested, “Since you planted it in the yard, maybe it has sprouted by now. Why don’t you go and see?”

Cow’s teats do not sprout, of course. But such was Pakkanar’s presence that the antarjanam went to the place where she had buried the horrid packet. What she saw there was a new creeper she had never seen before – never seen there, and never seen anywhere else.

The vines grew thick everywhere, climbing one over the other, climbing over all nearby shrubs. And there was a green vegetable growing on the vines, hundreds and hundreds of it, a vegetable she had never seen before, a vegetable shaped like the teats of a cow.

Unable to believe her eyes, perspiring, confused, the antarjanam rushed back and told Pakkanar what had happened. Pakkanar was cool, as though nothing more than the most ordinary had happened. “Why don’t you pluck the vegetables and make a curry of it? I am sure you can cook and serve that to all?”

And that is what the antarjanam did.

The vegetable thus born of the teats of a cow, says the legend, is koval, or kovakka [kundru in Hindi]. Shaped like the teats of a cow, kovakka is a vegetable widely used all over India. The vegetable is a part of shraddha feasts offered in Kerala till today.

Pakkanar was not encouraging or even condoning the killing of animals, for food or for other reasons. His lesson was about what we consider sacred and profane, shubha and ashubha, about what we consider good and bad. Everything in the universe is permeated by God, and there is nothing but God in the universe, say the Upanishads: ishavasyam idam sarvam. Everything is equally sacred for the wise man who has eyes to see.

To the Indian culture, the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is an important fact–at one level things are either sacred or profane. But at the same time, from the beginning of Indian culture, at a still higher level, everything is sacred since there really exists nothing in which the Divine is not present, there is nothing that is not the Divine.

I once had an interesting experience. Many years ago, an American professor of mine asked me for a prayer from Sanskrit to be used at the beginning of a training programme he was shortly to conduct. I selected a few mantras from the Shatarudriya [Rudra Ahhyaya or simply Rudra] and on his request translated them for him. When he heard my translation, he was shocked to learn that the Shatarudriya addresses God using such terms as the chief of thieves [stenanam pataye namo namah], the deceiving and the elusive one [vanchate parivanchate] and so on, along with other appellations for God of the kind he was used to.

It is central to Indian culture and philosophy that everything is sacred and good and bad are good and bad only at a lower level. From the standpoint of true wisdom, nothing is impure.

This is true not only philosophically and spiritually, but also at a social level. As the Gita puts it: “vidyavinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini shuni chaiva svapake cha, panditah samadarshinah.” “The wise look upon the educated brahmana endowed with humility, the cow, the elephant, the dog and the dog-eater, all with the same attitude.”

God is in everything, God is everything. “Prostrations to Thee who art in the form of the artisans who make arrows and bows; prostrations to Thee who art the hunters and the huntsmen; prostrations to Thee who art the hounds and the keepers of hounds,” says the Shatarudriya. To the Shatarudriya, the carpenters and chariot-makers; potters and blacksmiths; fowlers and fishermen and everyone and everything else in the universe is God.”

The creation and the created are not different since the creator created the universe from himself.

One of the strangest mysteries about Indian culture is that the very same people who chanted the Shatarudriya ritually every day insisted that if even the shadow an outcast fell on them, they became impure and had to regain their purity through purificatory rites – at least a ritual bath.

Such was the spiritual heights to which Pakkanar had climbed that for him everything we ate was the same. In fact, for him, the eater, the eaten and eating, were all the same. And he wanted at least those who were closest to him, who he felt had the potential to realize this, learn this – if not the common masses who might not be ready for such knowledge, to whom such knowledge could be dangerous.


Another beautiful legend about Pakkanar speaks about his encounter with a group of brahmanas who were on their way to Kashi, the holiest of holy places. Pakkanar met them on the way and after greeting them as was appropriate for a pariah to greet brahmanas, asked them politely where they were going. When they said they were going to Kashi, Pakkanar said, “Could your lordships do me a favour? Could you take this stick along and give it a dip in the Ganga too?”

“Why do want the stick to be given a dip in the Ganga?” asked the brahmanas. It was indeed a strange request.

Pakkanar said he would tell them when they brought the stick back.

They took the stick with them, perhaps prompted more by the strangeness of the request and the audacity of the man who had made that request.

When one of the brahmanas dipped the stick in the Ganga in Kashi, somehow he lost hold of it and the stick disappeared into the river. The brahmanas were all upset about what happened, but they finished their ritual baths in the Ganga and after visiting a few other holy places en route, eventually came back. Pakkanar went to them and after greeting them in due reverence, enquired about his stick. Did they give it a bath in the Ganga? Have they brought it back?

They told him they were sorry but they lost the stick.

“Where did your lordships lose it?” asked Pakkanar.

“In the Ganga, in Kashi,” they answered.

“Oh, that’s no problem, then,” said Pakkanar with a smile. With that he went to the dirty pond that was close by and made a request to it, “Please, may I have my stick back?”

Legend says that the stick immediately rose up from the pond to the amazement of the brahmanas and Pakkanar picked it up.

The brahmanas then realized that Pakkanar was giving them a valuable lesson: every pond in the world is Mother Ganga herself, and all water is as sacred as the water of the Ganga.

Speaking of visits to teerthas, holy places, which is what the brahmanas were doing in Pakkanar’s story, the Maitreyi Upanishad says: “teerthabhranti adhamadhama” – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage centre to another is worse than the worst kind of sadhana. Pakkanar, like the Upanishad , rejects all paths to the Supreme that are less than the straightest one.

Here are a couple of other quotations related to ritualistic sadhana from Maitreyi Upanishad:

‘Deho devalayah proktah, sa jeevah kevalah shivah.
tyajed ajnananirmalyam, sohambhavena poojayet.”

“This body is spoken of as the temple, and the inhabitant of the body is none other than Shiva himself. Cast away yesterday’s garlands [nirmalya] of ignorance and worship him – with the bhava [attitude] that ‘I am He.’”

“Mrta mohamayi mata jato bodhamayah sutah
sutakadvayasampraptau katham sandhyam upasmahe
hridakashe cidadityah sada bhasati bhasati
nastameti na codeti katham sandhyam upasmahe.”

“Dead is my mother called delusion and a son has been born to me, called knowledge. How can I perform the sandhyas when I am in sootaka twice over? In the sky of my heart the sun of consciousness keeps shining and shining. It neither rises in the morning nor sets in the evening. How can I then perform the sandhyas?”

Sootaka is a period of ritual impurity following a birth or death in the family, when Vedic rituals are should not be performed. Sandhyas are performed in the morning and the evening.

Pakkanar would wholeheartedly agree with what the Upanishad says. And it is the experiences and sayings of such sages as Pakkanar that validate the sayings of the scriptures. So long as we do not have our own experience of the truth, which alone is the ultimate proof of their teachings.


Here is another legend about Pakkanar my father told me when I was a child.

Like other pariahs, Pakkanar too lived by making winnowing baskets and other household utensils from bamboo and selling these door to door. Every time he and his wife finished making ten winnowing baskets, Pakkanar took them to the village. He would give the bunch of winnows for them to see in the first house and then ask a high price for the winnows. They would naturally refuse to pay his absurd price, and he would refuse to lower it and say angrily, “Well, in that case, return all my nine winnows.”

People would laugh within themselves at his mistake – he had given them ten, and he was now asking for all the nine of them back. They would quietly keep one winnow back and return nine.

Pakkanar repeated his performance in the next house. He had nine winnows now. At the end of the bargain, he would angrily ask for all his eight winnowing baskets back, which is what they would give him back. This went on until there was just one winnow left.

In the last house he will sell it for the normal price. Pakkanar and his wife were content to live on what they earned from that one winnowing basket.

Stupid, some of us would be tempted to say, especially the profit-conscious ones. But that is how Pakkanar was, and that is how many saints are, particularly the ‘eccentric’ ones. Pakkanar’s ways would not make sense to the normal, rational ones among us. But the fact of the matter is that he produced more than he needed, and lived on the minimum that he needed.

Pakkanar was practicing what Islam calls zakat. Only he was far more generous than Islam’s minimum requirement of one-sixth of your produce. And it was definitely not to those who were poorer than himself that he was giving away the products of his work. Or maybe the people who were cheating the man they thought was a stupid pariah, were really poorer than him.

That stupidity was Pakkanar’s mask. That and the limitations imposed on him by his caste that he decided to submit to. He did come out from behind his mask occasionally, as we saw, like other masters who hid themselves behind masks.

If he hadn’t, most of us would have never heard of his existence.


To be continued...

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