Lord Skanda-Murugan

Murugan Bhakti: A User's Manual

Part III

by Patrick Harrigan

Muruga bhakti enjoys growing global popularity in the 21st Century. And yet few, even among Tamils, truly understand or appreciate Muruga bhakti. In this article, an American bhakta explores the origins, history, typology, and applications of Muruga bhakti in terms of his own experiences since the early 1970's.

From 9-12 August 2012, Malaysia hosts the 2012 International Conference on Muruga Bhakti. This is Part 3 of conference participant Patrick Harrigan's contribution, an 'Introduction to Murugan Bhakti'.

The Bhāvas

Bhavas or attitudes are vital in bhakti yoga
Bhāvas or attitudes play a vital role in bhakti yoga.
Tamil achāryas influenced the practice of bhakti across all of India.

Since bhakti is grounded in human emotions, bhaktas have long recognized different emotional attitudes, termed bhāvas. Traditional literature speaks of five different bhakti bhāvas (moods or feelings) which are essentially different attitudes that one takes to express devotion to one’s iṣṭa-devatā according to one’s individual temperament.

The bhāvas find application in Vaiṣṇāva, Śaiva, Śākta, and Kaumāra theology, where they are enumerated in a hierarchy of emotional intimacy and intensity. These are: śānta bhāva or a calm and peaceful love for God; dāsya bhāva or the attitude of a servant to his or her master; sakhya bhāva or the attitude of a friend; vātsalya bhāva or the attitude of a mother towards her child; and madhura bhāva or the attitude of a person towards his/her lover.

In Murugan bhakti, for instance, one typically starts out in śānta bhāva where Lord Murugan seems like a remotely looming figure whom one definitely does not wish to disturb, so one steps around Him on tip toes, as it were. As one realizes the extent of His greatness, and one’s own relative insignificance, one naturally comes to regard Him as one’s Superior and oneself as His servant.

With greater familiarity, however, one realizes that Lord Murugan is not only one’s supreme commander, but one’s closest and dearest friend at the same time. We do not know how to approach to Him, yet He knows ways of revealing Himself to be closer to us than we previously could have imagined.

Bāla Murugan
Bāla Murugan

Those who can relate to Him as the child-god Bāla Murugan are blessed. Tamil mothers may see Bāla Murugan in their children, and often name their boy children after Him. Because women have a greater emotional aptitude and capacity, it seems that the highest levels of bhakti yoga are especially intended for them. This is especially true of madhurya bhāva where the bhakta may experience by turns either an intense mood of separation from the Beloved, or ecstatic union while maintaining a degree of separateness in order to enjoy the bliss of love play between them.

The bhāvas may be practiced in succession, or alternately according to the opportunities presented in one’s daily practice, or one may settle upon one bhāva and cultivate it exclusively. Even dhyānam, or quiescent contemplation of Lord Murugan and His mysteries, is made to be firm and illuminating by incorporating the bhāvas, since the heart is inexorably drawn to explore one’s current bhāva, whatever it may be—and even the highest and most intimate bhāva never remains static for long.

This brings us back to the question of how Murugan bhakti plays out in my own sādhana.

Applied bhakti

Central to Murugan bhakti or Kaumāram is the desire or curiosity to know more and more about Murugan: who He is, the patterns or profile of His personality, and the ways of interacting with Him. One should never entertain the conceit that one already knows Lord Murugan, or that the ancient sacred poems and songs have already described Him completely. And aspirants should resolutely discard the notion that Lord Murugan is unreal, or so distant, or so great, or so mysterious, that one can never actually experience His grace in this lifetime.

This much said, the proper attitude is to set aside any misgivings about oneself, including any sense of unworthiness or inability, and stride forward using whatever natural abilities that one may possess. One may not know much Tamil, or Sanskrit, or English for that matter. But remain undaunted and learn one word, one concept, one rule at a time. For in yoga there is no wasted effort—everything contributes to the unfolding of one sublime state succeeding another.

In my case, I started out as a young foreigner living in Ceylon, who felt spiritually and intellectually attracted at first to Buddha Dharma. Belief in, let alone devotion towards, a mischievous yet benevolent pan-Indian deity, was not a part of my family heritage. So I had to approach Him thoughtfully or intuitively at first, rather than emotionally.

The author with Swami Gauribāla in 1983
The author with Swami Gauribāla in 1983
The author, Madurai, November 1987
The author, Madurai, November 1987
The author on Pāda Yātrā, July 2007
The author on Pāda Yātrā, July 2007

As long as my teacher Swami Gauribāla lived, my attention was devoted to understanding and following the teachings or upadeśa that he had passed to me from his guru. Like me, he had a scholastic temperament. His bhakti was guru bhakti towards Yoga Swami, with another bhakti directed towards his Ammā, the Great Goddess, for Swami Gauribāla was a Śākta through and through.

The Kataragama Pāda Yātrā  of 1972, a nearly three month immersion among mature Muruga bhaktars, planted in me the seeds of Muruga bhakti that would sprout years later only when I resumed walking the Pāda Yātrā annually for nineteen consecutive years from 1988 onwards. The unbroken association with veteran swāmis and swāmi ammās, visiting one sacred site after another for two months culminating in the indescribable experience of the fortnight long Kataragama festival, undoubtedly fixed my mind and heart upon the Lord of Kataragama.

But what about the other nine or ten months of the year, when I was not on yātrā? At Swami Gauribāla’s behest, I had spent years in South Asian language studies at three American universities, ostensibly to prepare myself to conduct field research into initiatic traditions associated with Kataragama. Armed on the one hand with a traditional initiation to Kataragama, and on the other hand with a postgraduate education in modern Indology, I proceeded to investigate Kataragama from a uniquely hybrid perspective spanning East and West.

To me this meant that I should not look down upon Muruga bhaktars and their traditions as the elements of a “belief system” of superstitious villagers, but rather look up to them all, including and above all the indigenous Vedars, as the custodians of age old traditional knowledge. Most especially, if they consider something to be real and significant, then I too should do the same if I wish to test and confirm their worldview.

This meant that, in stark contrast to modern western sociologists and other researchers, I resolved that first I would approach the Kataragama god, in whom Sri Lankans fervently believe, explain to Him what I wished to do, and ask for His kind permission before proceeding to question His devotees about their activities and their relationship to Him.

Incidentally, it was this attitude and methodology, which I had vocally professed and defended, that got me so thoroughly out of favor with my doctoral committee at the University of California-Berkeley that they finally and unceremoniously banished me from their Department in 1989 with no recourse to appeal. Ironically for them, I accepted this reversal as a green light from Lord Kataragama to return and conduct research unimpeded by disbelieving professors.

This initial phase of my research illustrates the śānta bhāva of treating the deity with respect even when the relationship with the deity is marked by quietude, distance, and even doubtfulness. Later, when I realized that the Kataragama God had actually granted me the job that I had asked for on my very first visit, my attitude changed to one of dāsya bhāva. Kataragama Skanda was now my Boss—and I had better do the job right, whatever the job was.