Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Civavakkiyar's 'Abecedarium Naturae.'

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Civavakkiyar's 'Abecedarium Naturae.'

Article excerpt


No one who reads even a small fraction of Hindu religious literature can fail to notice how often and conspicuously sacred formulas, or mantras, appear in the texts of this vast corpus. Debates on the exact nature and purpose of mantras in religious discourse have taken place ever since the ancient ritualist Kautsa declared that 'mantras are meaningless' (anarthaka mantrah). Fueled by a variety of opinions from within Hindu tradition or introduced to it from outside, theories have burgeoned over time, and continue to be vigorously debated to the present day.(1) Here we study a medieval Tamil text, Civavakkiyam 'Aphorisms on Siva', to determine what role the pancaksara mantra plays in its theology and poetic structure.(2) Analysis suggests that the component letters of this mantra, along with a set of numerals associated with it, constitute an abecedarium naturae, or system of primordial signs that underlie and inform reality. The abecedarium forges a link between mind and matter by imposing its structure on both: it is consequently viewed as an esoteric theory that analyzes reality in terms of signs that correlate mind and matter.(3)

The poet of Civavakkiyam did not fashion the letters of the mantra into an abecedarium just to satisfy a philosophical curiosity about the nature of reality, but rather to answer a serious theological question about his estrangement from Siva in the world. The abecedarium is meant as a support (sadhana) to help secure his release from the bondage of the world and so to overcome his separation from Siva. Each letter of the abecedarium - equally, the mantra - stands both for a basic concept in the theology of Civavakkiyam and for a step that brings him closer to Siva. Some of these concepts, particularly that of bondage, differ markedly from their counterparts in orthodox Saiva Siddhanta and imply unorthodox modes of worship. When the poet - who is also a devotee - recites the mantra and thereby activates the abecedarium, he begins a semiotic process that seeks to reduce symbols to icons and icons to indices so that the arbitrary signs of human language are transformed into concrete, absolute emblems of divinity. Since in the theology of Civavakkiyam signs are ontologically prior to both mind and matter, the reduction of signs is accompanied by a parallel factoring of mind and matter into their elemental forms in the divine ground of reality. The mantrika (poet-devotee) thus seeks radically to overcome his estrangement from God by invoking the mantra and abecedarium to dissolve the world and its bonds into their foundation in this ground, and so to participate in Siva's divinity.

Section 1 sketches a background of Tamil Saivism, the tradition out of which Civavakkiyam emerged and against which it revolted. Certain features of orthodox Tamil Saivism, known as Saiva Siddhanta, are introduced in section 1.1, while in section 1.2 their reformulation in Siddha Siddhanta,(4) the theological system of Civavakkiyam, is discussed. Particular attention is paid to Civavakkiyam's revalorization of orthodox doctrines, particularly the doctrine of bondage: since the abecedarium establishes a correlation between certain realities and signs, it is important to understand what values Siddha Siddhanta ascribes to those realities in its doctrines. Section 2 then analyzes the poetic and semiotic functions of the abecedarium in Civavakkiyam, indicating how alliteration plays a role in both domains. At the end of this section, a brief comparison is made with two other abecedaria, one created by the Virasaiva saint Siddharama, the other by the savant John Wilkins. The central semiotic function of the abecedarium, that of reducing symbols to icons and icons to indices, is pursued in section 3.


A brief account of our text, its historical background, and its theological content is needed in order to make what is said about the abecedarium intelligible. …

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