Viswadhabhi Rama Vinura Vema1: The Social and Political in Vemana’s Thought
Vemana has been immensely popular for his compositions in the Teluguspeaking parts of this country. Anyone who is a literate has been exposed to the wisdom of Vemana available in the form of Sataka. It is through various institutions and modes like the family, school through its Telugu primers, and in the larger society through oral cultural forms, popular recitation and the Telugu cinema that Vemana has become a part of Telugu common-sense - his influence without any exaggeration could be said to have crossed the formal barriers of literacy. What has been the reason for the immense reception, reputation and recitation of Vemana in everyday life in Telugu country that could perhaps be compared only with the popularity of Kabir and Tulsi in the Hindi-speaking India? This raises the question of his relevance to the everyday life, aspirations and vision of life of the vast sections of the population that cuts across caste, class, community and regional markers.
This essay seeks to reflect on the thoughts, agony, irony and humour of Vemana that has continued to excite and enchant popular mind over the past several centuries. The magical spell of Vemana could be read as a demonstration of the universal and the ideal in his thought that transcended the limits of time and space.
Vemana is one of the great thinkers in India’s long oral tradition. His compositions were spontaneous renderings. It is only in the subsequent period that these compositions were given a written form on the talapatra (palm leaves) leaves and handed over to the subsequent generations. This raises a crucial question of their authorial authenticity for the transition from oral to written form has in all likelihood been intervened deliberately or otherwise, out of admiration or mischief through additions in the later period through imitations both in form and substance. This is clear from the fact that Vemana scholars during the last century or so have invariably reflected on the issue of ‘tampering’ and sought to discover the authentic Vemana compositions through meticulous literary scrutiny by focusing on the form and content of the verses.
Despite the above literary textual hassles, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that for those who are interested in the social and political ideas in their intricate and complex relation with the ethical in Vemana, the effort to capture his social vision through his critique, quite often unsparing and trenchant, of the social and political actuality and the forces defending the status quo would be worth its while.
There is a certain ambiguity about Vemana’s life. The only evidence, that is literary referential and circumstantial, that the Vemana scholars could find reliable are the references within his compositions. It has been a standard practice for the literary giants in Telugu to dedicate their work to a king or noble as a measure of gratitude to the patronage bestowed on them. In the case of Vemana, that was not possible for leading the life of a wanderermendicant and depending for alms, for the ordinary people he rendered his impromptu compositions depending on the place and time and in response to the problems at hand or even the doubts and questions raised by his audience. It is clear from the work of CP Brown2, who took great interest and put immense effort in a systematic collection of Vemana’s verses, that Vemana continued to be celebrated in the oral popular cultural memory in certain parts of the Telugu country especially Rayalaseema region. As an evidence of the huge following for him in Rayalaseema, we find not only Vemana cult but also mathas spreading his ideas and message.
There is a general agreement among Vemana scholars that he lived in the 17th century and travelled in the Rayalaseema region and its vicinity. Though there is a well orchestrated belief that he was born in a royal family and led an irresponsible and carefree life indulging himself in all sorts of activities that were seen as socially unacceptable. His life is said to have taken a sudden turn whereupon he abandoned all luxuries and took to the life of a mendicant. But from the intimate knowledge of the rural life and especially that of the farmers’ travails which would not simply be accessible to somebody from a higher social status it is fair to suggest that most likely he was born in a kapu peasant family.3
It is interesting to note that the view of life and the political and ethical critique of the conditions that popular folk found themselves in that emerges from Vemana’s oeuvre is structurally related to the absence of a legitimate and popularly acceptable and self-accountable authority. Most of the 16th century history of south India and of course the later period as well was replete with regular wars, small and big and the resultant burden of financing the war and violence and uncertainty on peoples’ lives. The fatal reference is obviously to the 1565, Talikota battle in which the Vijayanagara king Alayaraja faced defeat at the hands of the Bahmanis to which the fall of the Vijayanagara empire is traced to. What is pertinent to note is that the fall of a centralized political authority based on certain principles of governance had not been replaced by another equally credible authority. There are large areas where the triumphant Bahmanis could not put their command in place. The Rayalaseema region in the post-Vijayanagara period witnessed the assertion of the local palegars, the vassal chiefs, and paved the way for anarchy and internecine conflicts among the local chieftains resulting in tremendous misery to the people. Though the palegar system has evolved over a period of time but being part of and owing allegiance to the Vijayanagara rulers, they were obliged to maintain some discipline and order. With the central control had gone with the decline of the empire, the palegars left to themselves unleashed violence of bizarre proportions and resorted to coercive extractions pushing the peasantry and other rural folks into distress.
Thus, the breakdown of the semblance of order, phenomenal extractions, and resultant lawlessness and violence in everyday life and search for an order, norm and an ethical framework governing this was the concern that gets an expression in Vemana’s compositions and gets across as a sane message of the sage.
Subalterneity of Vemana
The popularity of Vemana’s compositions is evident from the fact that they can be easily recited even by the illiterate rural folk. Their popularity is largely because of the easy access to them due to the usage of everyday language, access to oral rendition and conveyance of complex messages in simple commonsense terms.
Further, the popular reception could also be attributed to the form of expression apart from the language. Unlike the Brahminical poet who usually assumes the role of a preacher by placing himself on a higher pedestal, Vemana’s position rejects and transcends the hierarchy and assumes a common if not equal status to that of his audience. In other words, Vemana does not privilege himself vis-à-vis his audience consisting of his disciples and admirers by addressing them from a superior position of a guru or a saint. All his compositions end with ‘Viswadhabhi Rama vinura Vema’ (meaning ‘Listen, O Vemana, dear to the Lord of All’4) which signifies that Vemana is addressing himself with a view to seek the removal of his ignorance. In these compositions, he emerges as a seeker of self-enlightenment rather than as somebody eager to enlighten others. This humbleness seems to have endeared him to masses. What further reinforced his popularity was his attire consisting of a simple piece of loin cloth which symbolized his redemption of the worldly desires, longings and material possessions. Furthermore, the evidence of the popularity of Vemana can be seen in the additions that were made to his oeuvre. Though this is not unique to Vemana but in terms of the sheer magnitude of imitation, perhaps Vemana is incomparable.5 For the literary historians of Vemana the problem of identifying and separating the ‘imitation verses’ has posed such a major challenge that they had to spend a lot of their time to fix the problem.
Contrary to the popular reception of Vemana in his time and subsequently among the plebian classes as evident in the place of his renditions in popular collective memory passed on over generations and efforts by his admirers to commit them to writing on the palm leaves, the onset of modernity under the conditions of colonialism seems to have had an offset regarding the perception of Vemana. It is no exaggeration to suggest that one of the effects of colonial modernity is the formation and crystallization of new identities in Indian society. The foremost among them is caste identity formation and the ensuing competition and conflicts premised on it. What is significant to note is that caste which had a fuzzy thing-in-itself existence6 in the pre-colonial India has come to assume a clear form of stratification, and with population census it evolved into a category of enumeration and therefore emerged into a predominant marker of identity formation. The result of this is the formation of caste associations and emergence of caste movements demanding self-respect, justice and equality. This social polarization marked by caste has its reflection in the reception of Vemana.
A systematic attempt to collect Vemana’s compositions and make them accessible to wider sections of the literati was made in the 19th century by the British scholars of Vemana. The foremost among them are CP Brown and Campbell. Brown’s collection of Vemana’s verses was published by Madras College in 1829. As it was later recounted by Brown himself of the 500 copies printed, 50 were given to Brown and remaining 450 copies were never distributed instead were discovered a decade later dumped in a corner of the college library. This was because of the Brahmin teachers of the college who abhorred Vemana’s trenchant criticism of Brahmins and their doings. Needless to state that the traditional literati class which was overwhelmingly Brahmin dominated was the first to avail the avenues of modernity and access the opportunities of modern education opened up by the colonial state. Their presence in the Madras College was seen as the cause of the disinterest in and neglect of Vemana as evident in the deliberate non-distribution of Brown’s volume. Further, as Brown himself noted his admiration for Vemana earned him the reputation of being a Hindu hater.7 The attitude of the Brahmin literati is summed up decades later by RM Macdonald, the Director of Education, Madras in 1866.8
Every true believer in Hindooism regards him (Vemana) with much the same feelings as an evangelical curate looks on Colenso. This feeling was very apparent when Vemana was first made a textbook in government schools. Both teachers and pupils did all they could to evade the order. In some instances the introduction of it into the classes, for which it was prescribed, was postponed under various pretenses. In others, the teachers took on themselves to omit certain verses in the ground that they contained profane attacks on their religion. Brahmins, in particular, most cordially detest this author, and in support of their view often point with triumphant scorn to the vulgarity of his style and the libertine character of his matter. Thus in the early decades of the 19th century the reception to Vemana varied from deliberate avoidance to manipulation and ‘conspiracy of silence’9 to selective censorship through deletion of verses that were dismissive and critical of Brahminism and rituals.
This, scenario started changing with the emergence of the non-Brahmin movement in south India. By the latter half of 19th century with the emergence and gradual elaboration of an educated class from the lower castes largely due to the efforts of the Christian missionaries and also owing to the increasing access to the government schools in the British presidency that Vemana was found to be enchanting as his ideas were closer to their cause. A definite effort to study Vemana in a serious scholarly manner in an academic setting was initiated by CR Reddy as the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University, Vishakapatnam, at the turn of 20th century.10
Forms of Presentation
The discourse of Vemana was conducted in the form of verses. In most of these verses the point of reference is the social experience which is stamped with authenticity that goes beyond doubt and refutation. It is the obviousness of the premise that renders the criticism reasonable and therefore acceptable. The verses are composed in a metre known as ataveladi the literary composition consisting of four lines.11 The last line invariably is the self-referential refrain ‘Viswadabhirama Vinura Vema’. As stated earlier, this self-addressed ending is meant to remove the inadequacy in terms of awareness and knowledge of the issue addressed. In other words, it gives an impression that each verse is meant to be a step towards self-awareness and enlightenment.
Vemana’s method of communication and the way of conveying the message is interesting and unique. Vemana makes use of irony and sarcasm as the dominant mode of engagement. This is despite the seriousness of the issues and themes engaged with and the dominant and powerful forces dealt with. Vemana tends not only to be irreverent but even ruthless in his critique. There is a certain adoration and admiration in the rural society towards a mendicant for he is seen to have renounced material world of pleasures and overcome attachments that ordinary folks find difficult to. This bestows certain privileges on to the persona of the ascetic for he is seen as someone who has transcended desires, selfishness and therefore no ulterior motives can be attributed to him – to his sayings and doings. In other words, his thoughts and actions are seen as reflecting purity and truth. The common folks, powerless and bereft of initiative look upon somebody who is bold and courageous and generous to give voice to their cause and concerns as a hero. It would be interesting to examine the proposition that when criticism assumes individual expression in the absence of the conditions for a collective action it tends to take the form of sarcasm and irony. For the purpose it serves is to raise questions about the legitimacy of the system rather than to effectively replace it which needs to wait for preparation. The critique such a person makes also becomes acceptable even when the criticism goes against the popular beliefs and faith as in the case of Vemana.
The central problem of Vemana’s social and political thought is concerned with the relations of power, dominance and subordination that precludes human empathy and lets the continuance of subjugation of and cruelty towards the vast majority of people. It is only by transforming this situation that it is possible to create a humane society. Vemana’s ideas thus can be figured out as centered around three cardinal issues though his compositions can be seen addressing much larger gamut of issues. They are: one, the Brahminical ideological frame, ritual practices; two, dominant castes and powerful classes; and, three, political and power structure that can loosely be considered as an equivalent of the state in the modern terminology.
Critique of Brahminical Ritualism and Caste Dominance
There is a tendency to render Vemana as a moralist. Thus Vemana’s ideas are presented as a mere expression of a sense of moral indignation at the worldly vices and as a result the causes and effects get individualized. But it is in fact a misrepresentation of Vemana’s thoughts and practices, for his verses provide a deeper insight into the social and structural basis of the problem and its ideological and symbolic manifestation. For Vemana, the root of the problem is in the caste system – the high and low implicit in it. Further, he quite rightly identifies that the hierarchy ordained by caste is determined by ‘janma’ (birth) not ‘guna’ (character or attributes). He pins down Brahminism and its puerile and meaningless ritualism as the root cause of the problems therefore deserve to be lampooned.
and shout meaningless Vedas
like mad dogs
What fruit but a sore throat?12
saying they will initiate a boy,
and babble some chants,
as crows drink wash -water
Sneering at the Brahmin he seeks to debunk his learning
they shall also obtain wisdom worthily.
When faith and wisdom are expired,
a man becomes a Brahmin, twice born.
What hath he who has attained to do with learning14.
The exploitation of the ignorant but hard working labouring castes by the parasitical Brahmins is commented upon as follows:
in feeding Brahmins,
You should not be poor then
if you feed dogs,
for the same Siva
resides in both15
The wastage that happens due to the Brahminical practices of untouchability and ritual purity-pollution is critiqued by highlighting the value of food. It is the shortage of food and all-pervasive poverty that makes Vemana compare food with the Trimurthis:
throw them away ignorant of their nature.
Food and drink are in truth Hari, Hara and Brahma indefilable by touch.
They defile him alone who calls them defiled.16
Critique of Dominant Castes
After the Brahmins, the next dominant and exploitative community is the greedy business caste. The Komatis, the traditional business caste in Telugu regions, are the one who buy the produce from the farmers and sell commodities to the people. They are also the main source of credit in times of need. More often than not they become the target of the villagers for their greed. But they are so indispensable to the village society that the latter cannot do without them and also cannot keep mum because of the suffering caused by their greed. This is the reason why they become the target of ridicule, spiced with contempt. They become vulnerable to collective scorn and mockery, especially on account of their greed, because despite being wealthy they have no political power to react. This popular abhorrence can be seen echoing in Vemana’s critique of this caste and its occupation.
mountains and torrents,
a search in the ocean,
and the phases of the moon
for the man whose word
is not pure17
In one of the compositions Vemana scorns at the Komatis for their appetite for interest which is the main source of their wealth:
that gives interest–he suffers the pains of hell.
They will give you a penny or a farthing
but nothing respectable.18
Views on Subaltern castes
Vemana’s view of the subaltern productive and service castes is contrastive. Their social usefulness and value is highlighted by comparing with the parasitical character of the socially high castes. When Vemana turns his attention to the ritually lower but socially necessary skills of the occupational castes, his critique of the ritual Brahmin gets sharper. The customary shaving of one’s head as a purification ritual on certain occasions and in some pilgrimages is considered sacred but the barber who executes it, is considered impure and his caste is treated as untouchable. In the following verse, Vemana questions the rationality of Brahminical rituals by focusing on their contradictory, meaningless and asymmetrical character. As evident in the following verse, Vemana is drawing our attention to the paradoxical position of a barber who is required to perform tonsure which is an important Brahminical ritual but at the same time gets treated as an untouchable.
his assuring left hand
on your head,
in his mirror,
and makes you
How can the barber
Vemana’s critique of caste is contrastive and double-edged. If the parasitical caste of Brahmins engaging in meaningless and socially unproductive rituals are rewarded with a high position then how in contrast the productive laboring castes have been treated and subjected to disrespect and humiliation despite the socially necessary labour of a paraiah.
you plunge into water
the paraiah burns your body
The filth that touched you then–
where did it go now?20
Vemana’s critique is not just bitter as usually perceived. In his revolutionary vision, persuasion has a significant place as the following verse shows:
again and again?
Aren’t his flesh and blood
the same as yours?
What is the caste of Him
who moves in him?21
Thus, the very concept of caste as a form of social arrangement based on hierarchical ritual status is questioned and the valuable socially necessary skilled labour of the lower castes is highlighted. What is notable is the possibility of drawing a distinction in Vemana between the treatment of caste as a ritual system and the idea of caste as a structure of productive occupations. Vemana is not opposed to the latter but firmly rejects the former. Caste as a ritual system weakens the very social fabric and human solidarity. Contrarily, caste as division of labour could be the basis of a harmonious society, where the feeling of brotherhood based on a sense of equality is possible. This could be inferred from the following verse:
were born together
aren’t they all brothers? 22
Thus, the clue to the creation of humanized society based on harmony and justice lies in the abolition of caste – interestingly food, with which the restrictions and prohibitions on its sharing has been an important signifier of caste separation and ritual hierarchy is identified and assigned the role of a unifier.
to all men in the world
in one dish;
feed them together
Place your hand
on their heads
and persuade them23
Critique of State and Politics
Vemana was unsparingly critical of the rulers. As noted earlier the post-Vijayanagara period had witnessed the rise of small princely states and feudatory palegars as the rulers controlling small principalities. The ensuing period had witnessed internecine conflicts due to the greed and also petty egoism of these worthies. This had needless to say caused tremendous misery and hardship to the vast majority of the population. This formed the background for Vemana’s views on royalty. There could be seen a regular reference to the following three characteristics in these rulers: cowardice, cruelty and ignorance.24 By implication, the negation of them should form the attributes of a good ruler.
Vemana suggests that the prime duty of a king is to protect not just the territory but its people from external aggression and equally from the greed of the powerful people within the rajya. Instead, he found the recklessness among most of the rulers that they not only threw caution to winds but also were ignorant of the duties of a king.
the world composed (mingled) of earth and sky.
How is it then that man assumes
the name of (Lord of Earth) king?25
For Vemana the ruler has to be an enlightened one. He must have the knowledge of the duties and responsibilities of a ruler. Vemana prescribes certain qualities in a ruler in the following verse.
(gentleness, liberality, also the unison of discrimination, punishment)
giving, secrecy, resolution, wealth and readiness—
by these, the unparalleled man is king26
He further asserts,
who foresees what shall happen, who undertakes upright conduct,
who surpasses mortality, who respects every creed–
this man shall shine as royal saint.27
For Vemana, “Truth is the chief grace of kings”28. In contrast, and in actuality, power is seen as a license to do whatever one’s fancy dictates.
The farmers’ immediate and regular everyday experience with the state is in the persona of Curnam (or karnam) in the village. Curnam is the official of the state who is bestowed with the responsibility of looking after the revenue administration: collecting the revenue and maintaining the revenue records. Considerable number of Vemana’s compositions deal with the importance of Curnam and the need for balanced relations between him and the farmers.
The hatred of the curnam is a grief to the farmer
The farmer and the curnam are to each other
like the pots on a yoke.29
Curnam (kranam) is one who is knowledgeable about the availability of land, its quality and its productivity and also the one who has the authority to decide the due shares of the government and the farmer, is advised caution in his relations with the farmers. If there were to emerge any disharmony, often because of greed or power of the curnam, then what happens is not good for both.
their dwelling become unstable as a paper kite.
If the curnam despises the farmer,
the curnam surely becomes a mere appendage.30
Vemana’s persistence with the theme of curnam-farmer relations is a vindication of its social and political importance, as the following composition demonstrates:
the curnam obtains good property and power.
If he despises them, evil shall not fail of reaching him,
the village being deserted.31
Boundary disputes are a common cause of village conflicts as they go to the extent of resulting in murders. Vemana was fully aware of their dangerous portents and hence advises that they cannot be treated merely administratively but must be settled with the involvement of the wise elderly farmers.
without timidity walk on the track of his feet,
and let the good and chief men
who know the fact also walk it.32
The above discussion shows that there is a sufficient attention in Vemana’s thought to the administrative system and the nature of issues that need to be addressed especially in relation to the agrarian life as farming was the chief means of livelihood at that time.
From the above critique, one could derive a subaltern perspective on the question of ruler and power. This is not a fancied view drawn either from scriptures or from an ivory tower. Vemana’s view draws its moral strength from the hard facts of practical life, existential pathos of ordinary people living their day-to-day life and their hopes and expectations for a better world. Thus Vemana’s views go contrary to the dominant official vantage point and provide or could be construed as one that gives a perspective ‘from below’.
In this view, the ruler must embody knowledge of his duties, the social and political conditions of people in his state, valour to keep the enemies under check, a sense of moral equanimity and self-control is advised so that different sections of the society feel that they have been treated fairly and justly.
It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that Vemana’s vision makes a distinction between the temporal and religious or secular and spiritual. His critique of religion and the practice of meanness perpetuated in the name of religion, his critique of the caste system and Brahminical ritualism, dominant castes and occupational groups in social sreatification his detest of the treatment meted to the lower castes in a sense, present him as a precursor of Jyotibha Phule and the anti-Brahmin movement of the later centuries. What is significant to note is that Vemana’s vision and critique is not anchored to any external prime mover such as the colonial modernity. It is an internal critique of Indian society emanating from within the pre-colonial India untouched by modernity and therefore an authentic precursor of the later critiques of caste that were shaped by influences and resources accessed from outside, especially provided by colonial modernity.
Vemana thus is a critic of the caste system and the ritualistic religion in the pre-modern India. Vemana provides an internal critique of a premodern society when there were no comparable counter examples to draw upon. Colonialism provided a modernist alternative to subsequent social critics to look up to the counter instances. The study of Vemana provides a methodological anchor that counters the dominant orientalist view that traditional and Eastern societies are inherently inadequate to generate change as they lack in internal dynamics. In this sense, Vemana stands as a unique personality who drew from the internal moral and intellectual resources of the subaltern communities to build a vision of a casteless, ritual-free, and a just Begumpura-like future society.
Notes and References
- It could be rendered as ‘thus spake Vemana.’ CP Brown translated it as ‘Listen, O Vemana, dear to the Lord of All.’ See footnote iv, for further details.
- Brown, The Verses of Vemana, Asian Educational Services, Delhi, 2003.
- Brown also suggests this. See, Brown, The Verses of Vemana, Asian Educational Services, Delhi, 2003.
For a detailed discussion on the debate on Vemana’s life see N Gopi, Prajakavi Vemana, Vishalandra Publishing House, Hyderabad, 2000, Chapter 2.
- This is the rendition attributed to Brown. For a discussion on the various interpretations of this invocation, see, Gopi, Prajakavi Vemana, Vishalandra Publishing House, Hyderabad, 2000, pp. 232–235.
- R Ananthakrishna Sarma, Vemana, Vemana Foundation, Hyderabad, 2010, p. 8.
- For Sudipto Kaviraj’s distinction between the traditional ‘fuzzy’ identities from modern enumerated ones, see the essay, ‘Religion, politics, and modernity’ in his The Enchantment of Democracy and India, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011.
- Bangore, Vemana-CR Reddy, Vemana Foundation, Hyderabad, 2014, p. 36.
- Quoted in Bangore, Vemana-CR Reddy, Vemana Foundation, Hyderabad, 2014, p. 38.
- VR Narla refered to in Bangore, Vemana-CR Reddy, Vemana Foundation, Hyderabad, 2014, p. 36.
- A comprehensive of view of this can be obtained from Bangore, Vemana-CR Reddy, Vemana Foundation, Hyderabad, 2014.
- Gopi, Prajakavi Vemana, Vishalandra Publishing House, Hyderabad, 2000.
- JSRL Narayana Moorthy and Elliot Roberts translated Selected Verses of Vemana, Sahitya Academi, New Delhi, 1995, p. 78 (hereafter referred to as Moorthy and Roberts (1995)).
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 74.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Translated from the Telugu by C.P. Brown. Verse 408.
Accessed on 22nd February 2017 from http://sacred-texts.com/hin/vov/index.htm.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 74.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 422.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 75.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 421.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 76.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 75.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995), p. 8.
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995).
- Moorthy and Roberts (1995).
- N Gopi, Prajakavi Vemana, Vishalandra Publishing House, Hyderabad, 2000, p. 112.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 498.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 517.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 518.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 519.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 539.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 540.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 541.
- Verses of Vemana (1829) Verse 736.