Kampan: The Metaphysics of Reunion
"Can good fortune give rise to lunacy?" (pakkiyam perum pittum payakkumo , VI.37.26). This, according to Kampan, is Sita's response to Hanuman when he brings her the news of her deliverance. At first she is too moved to speak, and he is forced to ask why she is silent: is it because of an excess of joy, or does she doubt the messenger? She answers with the above question, followed by a beautiful set of verses in which she speaks of her inability to reward this messenger in any commensurate way. Note the important theme of silence because of a sensed inadequacy of language in the face of strong emotion. But Sita's first, rhetorical question might almost serve as a motto for the entire highly charged episode to come. Pillu , "lunacy," is not too strong a word for the confrontational experience awaiting her, especially after the hundreds of earlier verses in which the idyllic relations between the two figures of Rama and Sita have been set forth. It is almost as if the orderly progression of this story, so closely linked in Kampan to the examination and enactment of orthodox social ideals, had to proceed through a zone of "crazy" inversion before the end. We might also remember Kampan's own proclaimed identification with this same notion of lunacy in one of the introductory verses (avaiyatakkam ) to the Iramavataram , where, as is customary, he apologizes to the connoisseurs and great Tamil poets for his supposedly flawed or inferior work:
I would say something to those superior poets
who have properly studied the ways of Tamil:
who would study closely
the utterances of madmen, fools,
or of devotees?
The poet, by implication, has something of all three: he is, in his own eyes, a madman and an idiot and, above all, explaining all, a devotee. His devotion breaks out of any sane limit; moreover, much of Kampan's text will be devoted to exploring the operation and limitations of this same unruly, "mad" quality, based on flooding feeling, in the terrestrial career of his god.
Sita's question sounds a note that will continue to echo through the description of her ordeal. Let us see how Kampan chooses to present her situation. Here the setting, if not quite lunatic, is at least suitably lurid. Sita is brought before her husband as he stands, still, on the battlefield—so beloved of Tamil poets—where he has generously arranged a feast of corpses to assuage the hunger of the kites, vultures, and demons (paruntotu kalukum peyum , 55). Against this stark backdrop Sita gets her first glimpse, after so many months of separation, of her husband, with his dark body, mouth red as coral, his bow in his hand. The poet reminds us first of her earlier feelings, during the period of loss and captivity: this is the same flawless woman who had thought, "My body is polluted; my life's breath has gone; there is nothing I want any more" (57). These were suicidal thoughts, born of despair; yet now, as Sita stands before Rama, they are strangely echoed by the metaphor the poet summons to describe her state, a metaphor grounded in the notion that the physical body alone is always potentially impure and subject to the inherent confusions of sensory experience:
As when the false body
that has lost the breath of life
sees it, and reaches out
to steal it back again,
she touched the ground
as she unveiled her face.
By seeing Rama, she is reclaiming, "stealing back," the life that she lost. She expresses her feeling in a single verse:
Even if I must be born again,
or if I leave forever
the great suffering of being born;
if I forget,
or if I fall and die
in some other way,
still all is well
now that I have worshiped
She still has reason to be afraid—not only of rebirth and dying, but also, we might note, of forgetting—but at least this moment of reunion promises to relieve the cumulative burden of anxious anticipation and potential despair. The sight of her husband induces in Sita an illusion of closure and containment. Meanwhile, he sees her too, pregnantly described as "that queen of chastity" and also "like merciful dharma that had been separated from him" (60). This is essentially all we are given before Rama's tirade: having caught sight of her, he at once begins to abuse her, "like a snake raising its hood." Before we pursue this speech, though, let us notice the way Kampan has introduced the major metaphysical and psychological themes of this section in these three simple, hard-hitting verses.
Most salient is the image of life separated from and rejoining the body. Indeed, this image may be said to condense the entire issue of union and separation, so basic to Kampan's poem (as to all Tamil bhakti ). It is not by chance that Kampan opens the episode with just this simile: this moment that ends the period of separation also recalls, perhaps deliberately, the very instant of its beginning, its first intrusion into the hero's consciousness. When Rama races back to the hut in the forest where Laksmana has so reluctantly left Sita alone and finds it empty—for Ravana has meanwhile abducted her, as the audience well knows—he is compared to "the breath of life that has been separated from its containing body (kutu ) and has come in search of it, but cannot find it" (III.8.158). If we apply the metaphor literally, in both cases Rama is compared to the breath of life (uyir ), while Sita is like the body; in the forest, the uyir panics at the loss of its corporeal container, while in Lanka the body reaches out to recover its lost vital force (as Sita glimpses Rama). The separation that informs so large a part of the epic story is thus, metaphorically and also metaphysically, the shattering of a longed-for and necessary symbiosis on the level of the composition of the human individual. This symbiosis is not that of body and soul, inert matter and spiritual substance (and thus the temptation to allegoresis is easily resisted for the Iramavataram ); indeed, it is not truly dualistic at all. Rather, it reflects the interlocking relationship between two dynamic, equally living and substantial entities that together create a unity of perceived experience.
This unity of body and life-force has, in Kampan, several associated characteristics and implications that are invoked at points throughout the lramavataram when this recurrent metaphor breaks through the text. It is, first of all, a unity based on flux, resistant to stasis and stable definition. The fluid quality that pervades the relation of life to body is nowhere clearer than in the introductory canto to the poem as a whole, the Arruppatalam or "Chapter on the River." This opening replaces the entire Ramayana frame story as given in Valmiki; in its stead, we have a striking description of water flooding own from the Himalayas, violently jumbling together the elements of hitherto distinct landscapes:
Turning forest into slope,
field into wilderness,
seashore into fertile land,
the reckless waters
roared on like the pasts
that hurry close on the heels
The rushing water is translated into the register of rushing lives (with their burdens of past deeds and memories), a metaphoric conjunction that becomes even more powerful as the description reaches its climax:
Like a life filling
a variety of bodies,
the river flowed on.
Uyir again, the vital breath that moves endlessly through one body after another, always seeks but then separates from these partial vessels. The life-force clearly enjoys an ontological superiority of sorts—it is the "false body" that reclaims its lost uyir in the verse describing Sita's glimpse of Rama—yet this animating power can never dispense with embodiment, even as it can never be entirely contained by it. This is the second characteristic to be stressed, one directly relevant to Sita's situation in Lanka: the unity of life and body is always unfinished. No final integration is called for; the restless flux has no teleology beyond its own process. The body that reclaims its uyii , as we are told Sita wishes to do, will doubtless lose it again. Sita's emerging confrontation with Rama thus fits naturally into the underlying metaphysics of flux, in which separation is no less necessary than union. A jarring narrative episode inherited from Valmiki is integrated into a conceptual constellation specific to the Tamil literary and philosophical universe. The prevalent Tamil bhakti characterization of the relation between god and his human devotee as troubled, even tormented, also fits this pattern, and it is thus not surprising that in Kampan, too, one "regains" Rama only to be immediately rejected by him.
But the potential for union is also crucial to this set of images, especially insofar as it includes the dimension of loving emotion. Thus when Rama and Sita first catch sight of one another in Mithila, before they are married, they become
one breath of life
in two different bodies.
When the two lovers separated
from their bed on the dark sea
found each other again,
was there need for words?
Uyir is unitary, even as it flows in and out of an endlessly fragmented series of distinct bodies; when two embodied beings feel love for one another, they experience this underlying unity of the life-force. In the case of Rama and Sita, there is also a mythic dimension, evident in this passage, hovering somewhere in the background of awareness—for the two lovers are Visnu and Laksmi, who have become separated from one another and from their proper cosmic setting, the serpent-couch floating upon the "dark sea" of milk. They find one another again, in moving silence, when Rama and Sita fall in love.
And having found one another, they then proceed to lose each other, to experience at great length the impatient longings and confusions inherent in separation, ultimately to confront one another again, in our scene at Lanka. We begin to see why this meeting must have something of the quality of the uyir's unstable meeting with the body. Dynamic flux, instability, emotional excess and imbalance, the flooding of memory, the mingling of past and present, an inner experience of potential unity, the hesitations of language— this is the range of associations that Kampan calls up at the outset of Sita's ordeal. Schematically stated, this episode is made to embrace three forms of movement along a thematic continuum: an oscillation between separation and union, on the most fundamental experiential and metaphysical level; an interplay of speech and eloquent silence, on the external linguistic level; and an unfolding tension between forgetting or lack of feeling and memory or intuitive understanding, on the cognitive and epistemic level. The opening verses already bring these issues to the fore.
Now comes Rama's speech, which is even more cruel to Sita, and more outspoken, than in Valmiki's text:
You took pleasure in food,
you didn't die
for all your disgrace
in the great palace of the devious demon.
You stayed there, submissive,
wholly without fear.
What thought has brought you here?
Did you imagine that I
could want you ?
Kampan's male heroes have the somewhat unpleasant habit, at difficult moments, of blaming their women for not dying (thus Dasaratha to Kaikeyi, II.3.222). Rama will return to this theme, as he does to the oral obsession with which the whole diatribe begins:
You abandoned us.
All this while, you have been relishing
the flesh of living beings,
sweeter than ambrosia,
and happily drinking strong liquor.
So you tell me: what proper feasts
are in store for me now?
A nice inversion: Sita is held responsible for having "abandoned us." The kidnapping has become irrelevant, and the focus is on her hedonistic delight in the carnivorous cuisine of Lanka. Can a wife so corrupted ever serve the fastidious Rama another meal? (South Indian vegetarian values have by this point superseded any dim memories of Rama's habitual Ksatriya diet of game!) To make things crystal clear, Rama also informs her, as he does in Valmiki's version, of the real reason for his campaign:
It was not to save you
that I dammed the sea,
cut off at the root
these demons with their gleaming weapons,
and overcame their enmity:
it was to redeem myself from error
that I came here, to Lanka.
Pilai , "error," is also a lack or deficiency, or some more serious mistake, even a crime. Rama speaks with the hero's egoistic concern for his own honor, and without intentionally implying that he is now enacting a mistake of greater magnitude than any previously connected with his story. His attack gathers force, becoming more and more personal and unfair: Sita was, after all, born not in a family distinguished by goodness but, like a worm (kitam pol ), from the soil (65; here Kampan has lifted a theme from Sita's speech in Valmiki, intensified it, and placed it in Rama's mouth). It is no wonder, then, that
high birth, the power
known as chastity,
clarity and splendor
all have perished by the mere birth
of a single creature such as you,
like the fame of a king
who gives no gifts.
Sita has become the total antithesis to the exemplary figure Rama had always recognized in her. Her survival alone is enough to impeach her: wellborn women in her situation would have embarked on a regimen of rigorous
austerities; and if disgrace (pali ) came, they would wipe it out by wiping out their lives (67). (Again, the male complaint at his wife's refusal to disappear.) Now Rama can conclude (again rendering Valmiki's formulation more extreme):
What is the point of talking?
Your conduct has destroyed forever
The thing to do
is to die—
or, if you won't do that,
then go somewhere,
The demand for death is Kampan's innovation, to be seized upon at once by Sita. But this verse also introduces, for the first time in this episode, the important concept of unarvu, the intuitive, felt understanding that is the normal medium of connection between individuals and, across existential levels, between human beings and the god. It is this form of communicative understanding that Rama claims Sita has destroyed through her conduct; her survival is beyond his unarvu , and she should therefore die or disappear. We shall soon see how Sita takes up this important statement and develops it in crucial and suggestive ways.
So far we notice an impressive exacerbation of the bitterness inherent in Rama's speech as set out in Valmiki. Rama lashes out at Sita with horrific accusations, ridicules her miraculous birth, and even tells her she should die. This extreme heightening of tone continues into Sita's reply, as we shall see. But before she begins to speak, her inner state is summed up in another graphic metaphor:
Like a deer
on the point of death,
tortured by terrible thirst
in the middle of a desert
thick with kites,
who sees a lake
just beyond reach,
she grieved at the barrier
that rose before her.
Perhaps most striking here is Kampan's use of imagery drawn from classical Tamil love poetry, the akam or "inner" division structured around conventionalized landscapes with their associated emotional states. A Tamil reader immediately identifies this verse as a palai or wilderness poem caring up a sense of traumatic separation. The image of the predatory kite, which helps to specify the landscape, also points to something in the dramatic situation—
no doubt something in Rama's menacing attitude and conduct. Sita's inner reality is indeed a palai experience at this moment: she has entered a wilderness zone of rejection and loss. This suggestive use of the classical conventions is a constant element in Kampan's art. Seen in relation to the central story of Rama and Sita's common fate, the entire lramavataram might well appear as an extended love poem in the bhakli mode. Like earlier Tamil bhakti poets, Kampan conflates heroic or panegyric themes (puram ) with akam or "interior" elements, largely subordinating the former to the latter in nonexplicit ways. But in Kampan the narrative follows the prescribed structure of the Sanskrit epic, with the result that the classical love situations of Tamil poetry—premarital courtship and stolen union, the several forms of separation and longing, as well as later quarreling and conflict—are now scattered somewhat unpredictably, without orderly sequence, throughout the text. They emerge from time to time, usually with very powerful implications: thus Rama's crossing of the wilderness as a young man recalls palai themes; premarital passion, kalavu , is suggested in Mithila; Sita, pining in Lanka, appears as the impatient heroine of the neytal coastal landscape; and here the palai atmosphere is again present at the moment of reunion. In itself, this is instructive, for palai , the landscape of separation at its most severe, embodies that aspect of the love experience felt to inhere in all others, including union. Love, even in union, is largely predicated on the sense of separateness and separation. We can see how appropriate this classical element is to the underlying metaphysics of Sita's encounter with Rama—an encounter structured around rejection—and we observe the delicate and calculated artistry of the poet who, following Nammalvar and other Vaisnava bhakli poets in Tamil, turns the ancient conventions to his devotional purpose.