This will be a series of posts on Jnanappana (Njānappana / Njanappana / ജ്ഞാനപ്പാന) – The Fountain of Divine Wisdom – which is considered as the Bhagavad Gita of Malayalees, the people of the Southern State of India, Kerala.
Before I go into the details, my heartfelt thanks and salutations to the following people for their great works and inspiring me in this series of posts on Jnanappana:
– K.R.Neelakandan Nambeesan who wrote “Tatva Deepika” – one of the most comprehensive interpretation of Njanappana
– P. R. Ramachander for his English translation of Njanappana
– P. Leela for her beautiful rendition of Njanappana which I grew up listening to…
– Guruvayur Temple, Kerala, for all the resources on their website on the topic
Jnanappana, ‘The Song of Divine Wisdom’ or ‘The Fountain of Divine Wisdom’ – was written by Poonthanam Namboodiri who lived in the 16th century in Angadipuram Town, near Perinthalmanna, in today’s Malappuram district, Kerala. There are about 12 temples situated in this small town, and very aptly, the town is known as the “Temple town”. Poonthanam, an ardent devotee of Guruvayurappan (Lord Vishnu in Guruvayur temple in Kerala), is not his real name. Poonthanam is the name of the Brahmin family he was born to (Poonthanam Illam – A traditional house in Kerala built according to Vastu Shastra – Sanskrit word for the Science of Architecture). His real name must have been lost or forgotten in antiquity.
There are various stories about Poonthanam’s enlightenment and many of his Bhakti (devotional) literary works that followed. One of the more prominent stories is the following:
Poonthanam was married at an early age, however, the couple had no children ever after their long married life. He prayed to Lord Guruvayurappan by reciting “Santhana Gopalam” (set of mantras addressed to Lord Vishnu, the creator, to bless the couple with a child. It is advised that this mantra is to be chanted 108 times for 108 consecutive days, either in the morning or in the evening, visualizing Bala Gopala – Lord Krishna as an infant – the baby Krishna) and a son was born to them. Overjoyed by this blessing, the couple called for an elaborate celebration. Everyone known to the family was invited.
The mother put the child to sleep in one of the rooms where she had also hung clothes to dry. She was busy preparing for the celebration and went on to attend to the guests.
One of the guests, seeing the clothes hanging in the room, hung her towel without realizing that the towel was covering the child’s face. Few other guests too followed and hung their towels on top of the previous one, none of them noticing that the towels were put on the sleeping child in the room. The child gradually suffocated to death.
Hearing the death of his child just before the Annaprasanam ceremony began (ceremony to mark the infant’s first intake of food other than breast milk), heartbroken Poonthanam sought refuge at Lord Guruvayurappan temple and started praying to his beloved god. Lord Guruvayurappan eventually appears to the grief-stricken Poonthanam in the form of a child lying on his lap. Poonthanam started worshipping Lord Krishna as his own son and was enlightened.
Later on, Poonthanam notes in his Njanappana,
“ഉണ്ണിക്കൃഷ്ണൻ മനസ്സിൽ കളിക്കുമ്പോൾ
ഉണ്ണികൾ മറ്റു വേണമോ മക്കളായി”
[Unnikkrishnan manassil kalikkumbol
Unnikal mattu venamo makkalaayi]
When Lord Krishna himself dances in my heart, why do I need any other children…
He spent rest of his life in the temple chanting Bhagavatam. Later on, he composed Njanappana with the help of Lord Krishna himself, taking the essence from Bhagavatam, the vedas and the puranas.
Njanappana was written in simple Malayalam, making it one of the earliest noted literary works in Kerala. It is a ‘darshanika kaavyam’ (philosophical poem) written as a prayer in praise of Lord Krishna. Poonthanam didn’t know Sanskrit and it is believed that, Krishna himself was very fond of Poonthanam’s poems written in simple Malayalam. It was Poonthanam’s unwavering devotion that drew Lord Krishna closer to him and it is believed that, the God appeared to him several times throughout his life, as a child – the Bala Gopala (Baby Krishna)!
[pullquote]When Lord Krishna himself dances in my heart, why do I need any other children…[/pullquote]
Poonthanam Namboodiri, the poet-saint, was a prominent figure in the Bhakti Cult movement in Kerala during his time. He has written numerous stotras (hymns) in Malayalam in praise of Lord Kirshna in addition to Njanappana, which have inspired the Bhakti movement in Malayalam, such as Ghanasangham, Anandanrittam and Noottettu Hari. Njanappana was his masterpiece which has 360 lines of verses. The poet, deeply touched by human beings’ sorry plight in this age of Kali (Kali Yuga), extols the virtues of Jnana (wisdom) and urge them to follow the path of Jnana and to forsake the transient and ephemeral aspects of worldly life through his poem.
In the following series of posts, you will see verses from Njanappana in Malayalam, then it’s transliteration in English, followed by its meaning in italics. I have also added comments and thoughts to each verses.
Please pardon me for any errors or misinterpretation that may happen on my part.
Like any other Sanatana Dharmic scriptures, Poonthanam too begins Njanappana by praising the Guru:
മംഗളാചരണം (Mangalācharanam – Salutation / Prayer)
“ഗുരുനാഥൻ തുണ ചെയ്ക സന്തദം
തിരുനാമങ്ങൾ നാവിന്മേൽ എപ്പോഴും
നര ജന്മം സഫലമാക്കീടുവാൻ”
[Gurunaadhan thuna chaika santhatham
thirunaamangal naavinmel eppozhum
nara janmam saphalamaakkiduvaan]
May the guru bless us to have the holy names of God on the tip of our tongue forever,
and to chant those auspicious names always, so as to make this human life meaningful and to fulfill the purpose of life.
The poet, in this opening verse tells us that the only way to have a meaningful life and to attain moksha is to always chant the auspicious names of God – the path of Bhakti Yoga. This is exactly what Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita:
ye tu sarvāṇi karmāṇi
mayi sannyasya mat-parāḥ
māṁ dhyāyanta upāsate
teṣām ahaṁ samuddhartā
bhavāmi na cirāt pārtha
mayy eva mana ādhatsva
mayi buddhiṁ niveśaya
nivasiṣyasi mayy eva
ata ūrdhvaṁ na saṁśayaḥ
But those who worship Me, giving up all their activities and be devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, having ﬁxed their minds upon Me, O son of Pṛthā (Arjuna) – for them, I am the swift deliverer from the cycle of birth and death.
Just ﬁx your mind upon Me and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, without a doubt. – (Gita 12.7 and 12.8)
Poonthanam understands that it is not an easy task to achieve, to always remember God, as we, human beings, are easily swayed by greed and material aspects of life, forgetting our eternal purpose. Thus he is seeking for his guru’s blessings to have the strength and perseverance. Poonthanam considers Lord Guruvayurappan as his guru. In the word “Gurunaadhan”, “guru” means the one who removes darkness and brings light / knowledge into our life (Gu – darkness, Ru – remover) and “naadhan” is the one who protects, the saviour.
ഇന്നിക്കണ്ട തടിക്കു വിനാശവു
[Innale yolam enthannu arinjeela,
Ini naleyum enthannu atrinjeela,
Ini kanda thadikku vinasamum,
Inna nearm enatharenjeela]
We do not know what happened until yesterday,
nor do we know what will happen tomorrow.
We do not know what will happen to our body in the next moment,
nor do we know when it will perish.
The poet is describing how transient and ephemeral our life and our physical body are. He does not mean “innale” simply as “yesterday” which is the literal meaning of the word, but also our past lives. Similarly, he does not mean “nale” as just “tomorrow”, but many more future lives to come. We have no clue about what has happened in our previous lives, and we do not know what is going to happen in the next moment, let alone in the distant future. We do not know if we are going to be born in this world again or going to attain Moksha, the supreme bliss, in this life itself? The poet is persuading us to realize the uncertainties in our life, indirectly telling us, ‘why are you still stuck up in the past or worried about the future when you have no control over neither of that?’
Through this verse, the poet is advising us to embrace the present moment, as we have no control over our past or the future, but only the present – the Now!
[pullquote]Die to the past every moment. You don’t need it. Only refer to it when it is absolutely relevant to the present. Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being. Feel your presence.[/pullquote]
കണ്ടു കണ്ടങ്ങിരിക്കും ജനങ്ങളെ
കണ്ടില്ലെന്നു വരുത്തുന്നതും ഭവാൻ
രണ്ടുനാലു ദിനം കൊണ്ടൊരുത്തനെ
തണ്ടിലേറ്റി നടത്തുന്നതും ഭവാൻ
തോളിൽ മാറാപ്പു കേറ്റുന്നതും ഭവാൻ
[Kandu kandangirikkum janangale,
Kandilennu varuthunnathum Bhavan
Randu nalu dinam kodangoruthane,
Thandiletti naduthannathum bhavan
Malika mugalileriya mannante,
Tholil marappu kettunnathum Bhavan]
If God wishes, the people we see now or are with us now, may disappear or be dead in the next moment. Or if HE wishes, in few days a healthy man may be paraded to his funeral pyre.
If God wishes, the king living in a palace (malika) today may lose everything and end up carrying a dirty bag on his shoulders and walk around homeless.
The poet is asserting how fragile and ephemeral human life is. He says, those people who have always been through our life may disappear in the next moment. A healthy man could die all of a sudden. Someone you spoke to just a few moments ago may be dead the next moment. The king or a rich man could lose all his wealth and his people overnight and end up homeless and begging for food. We have no control over any of these things.
The word “mannan” means king. It could also mean an ignorant or an illiterate person. He is advising us that, when we have money and power, we must also have the wisdom to lead a dharmic life. And to never forget that, we came to this world alone and we cannot bring anything that we have accumulated over time with us when we are dead. He says, it is all God who decides whether you remain rich or poor, alive or dead.
He is asking us to realize the transient nature of our life and advising us to live a dharmic life – a life based on truth, honesty and good karmas. The poet is advising us to understand this ever-changing life that nothing in our life that we perceive as ours – money, power, people and all other material benefits – are not permanent. They are all maya – an illusion.
We must know that our present life is the product of our past life karmas. If we do not create good karmas in this life, we will end up in the never ending cycle of birth and death and sufferings.
There are numerous stories in the epics to show what Poonthanam says here. The demon king, Ravana, the powerful king of the three worlds, a great scholar, maestro of Veena, who Lord Rama once addressed as the “Maha Brahman” – the great Brahman – for his intelligence and knowledge, finally lost his money, people, and even his life in the war, because of his cruelty, greed and not living according to dharma.
Where as, Kuchela (Sudama), born in a poor family, having no money to even feed his children, blessed by Lord Krishna becomes rich overnight and start living in a palace from his small hut. We have many such stories in our real life too.
Even the poet, Poonthanam, lost his child as he was preparing for a grand celebration of his child’s Annaprasanam ceremony (ceremony to mark the infant’s first intake of food other than breast milk). Such is our life, full of uncertainties.
The poet is telling us that, all we have is the present moment. Stop worrying about our past or the future, none of that is in our control.
“Die to the past every moment. You don’t need it. Only refer to it when it is absolutely relevant to the present. Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being. Feel your presence.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
You can listen to Jnanappana sung by P. Leela here:
to be continued…