Professor David R. Werner
23 March 2015
From the Eyes of a Shadow
My great grandmother, Dr. Kamala Vytilingam, was the first female cardiologist in India, where she is known as “the mother of cardiology”. She was a divorcee of the 1930s. She was a working single mother. She helped found hospitals and medical programs in India. She taught as a professor and lectured at John Hopkins, during segregation. She once said with pride, as a child, that she wanted to be “a teacher for doctors”. She was my father’s grandmother and godmother.
Her husband would sing to her as she studied, “One can control the angry tiger in the forest, quench the hunger of the wild beast, but no one can control the mind of a human being.” These words are reminiscent of our common ancestor, Thayumanavar.
I am a direct descendant of Thayumanavar, an 18th century Tamil poet and Hindu saint. He was a spiritual giant and perhaps is one of the most beloved of the Hindu saints. He was, also, a philosopher, and the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy is attributed to him. He wrote many hymns, in Tamil. Thayumanavar’s key teaching is to discipline the mind, control desires and meditate peacefully.
Growing up, I often questioned the ideas of Darkness and Light. I, often, tried to come to terms with Love. I loved to write and my dad would often tell me that there was a poet I should read, if I would just ask him who it was. I only asked him about the poet when I was 24, in 2013, when I was taking a poetry class at UCLA Extension. He then told me about Thayumanavar.
Thayumanavar was basically a Renaissance man. He was a poet, philosopher, saint, and politician. My father and his family line belongs to the poet-saint caste, so I was not surprised that we were related to a poet-saint. My great grandmother had also quoted Thayumanavar quite a few times in the works my sister and I read on her. It was clear he was an integral part of my family history.
Thayumanavar is quoted as saying, “It is easy to control an elephant, catch hold of the tiger’s tail, grab the snake and dance, dictate the angels, transmigrate into another body, walk on water or sit on the sea; but it is more difficult to control the mind and remain quiet.” He, also, strikingly said, “See everything through Love, says my teacher. But in my ignorance I probed through my intelligence. What I saw was only darkness and in that darkness I did not see even myself.”
I ended up showcasing his poetry for the class project that winter. I read two of his poems, and that was enough. I was devastated. I have yet to properly read his works. However, when I first heard of him it made me pause. His quote on silencing the mind and attempting to see things clearly hit me quite hard. For the majority of my life I have been writing. In fact, I do not remember a time that I did not write. I had often struggled with concepts of love, light, and darkness, attempting to reason with them. Yet there was Thayumanavar already understanding and providing me with my answers. It was odd realizing this: that I was searching through the eyes of knowledge and coming up with darkness but that it was okay. I was not the first one to make that mistake.
And yet it hurt to know this: that all my questions had been asked before and were already answered. That everything I had to say had already been written. That I was just someone down the line who had yet to read my ancestor’s great works. It was a hard day. No. It was worse than that. No words can properly describe that moment when I opened my eyes and ears and saw that I was merely an echo of someone from a distant past. Someone I never cared to know. I was just his whisper. A doppelganger even, as I was not even searching in the right way. I did not know there was a wrong way.
My father once, quite recently, called me his mini-Thayumanavar. I do not know if he meant it or if it was just said flippantly. It meant a lot to me. I hope to live up to this great man I have only heard of. He was said to have been so peaceful in meditation that his gardeners thought he was dead, he was in such a deep meditative state, that they threw him in a pyre for the excess vegetation, and, thus, accidentally burned him to death. He was at such a place of peace that he did not cry out, nor did he make a sound. This is one of the legends of how my ancestor, the saint, the godhead perished. This is the story of how I carried on the torch in my own way.
Now, a few years have passed, and I still find it difficult to come to terms with my ancestor’s greatness. I feel like a shadow of him. As if I am not really a person; just a remembrance of him. However, as I grow and age, I feel like I am coming into my own and this story I have been told will have no end, but a new beginning with me.
This myth of discovery is manifold. First, and foremost, it is the story of how I became a writer recognized by my father. Therefore, I would call it my very own version of the hero journey that Joseph Campbell expounds upon in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are two heroes in this story, though. In this case, I am the heroine tasked with living up to my ancestor’s greatness and my great-grandmother’s legacy. This is then the story of my maturation into womanhood. My very own myth of maturation. The mentor I was seeking came in two shapes: first, that of my great-grandmother, and second, that of my ancestor, Thayumanavar. My great-grandmother, Kamala, serves as the template for the mind or body, rather. While, Thayumanavar serves as the template of the spirit or psyche. Through stories of Kamala I learn all the traits required to be an ardent worker and steadfast, upstanding woman. Through stories of Thayumanavar I learn about the qualities of the saint or rather the one who steps away and outside of the world and turns his back away from it, to become one with it.
The second hero could be construed to be Thayumanavar, himself. In this case, it would be quite easy to see him following the tropes of the hero journey Joseph Campbell describes. I have not detailed the entire life of my ancestor as those of Hindu religious beliefs detail it, nor will I examine it here. This was not the story I grew up with, therefore not the myth of the man I yearned to follow. However, his triumph over the realm of man is still complete in the story I was told. He has lost his humanity and become one with the world, so much so that his own gardeners mistake him for the tree. He has reached such a state of nirvana, so deep was his meditation, that even as they burned him, he made no sound. This is truly the return of the hero to his proper realm: that of the universe.
Yet, let me assume, that I am the hero of this tale. My ancestor’s knowledge of the metaphysical realm, i.e. his seeming innate understanding of the nature of things, is the boon which I hope to gain on my quest. My great-grandmother, Kamala, holds the key to this treasure, as it is through her that I have learnt the most about him (through her published writings and my father’s recollections of her stories). My father is the bearer of gifts. He holds within himself a treasure trove of stories, filled to the brim with secrets I have never thought to ask for. He is, also, my companion on this adventure. He is just as interested as I am to know the myth and the man that was our common ancestor, Thayumanavar.
The myth-making aspect of this story is the ultimate, enduring search for truth of the world that generation after generation of my family has sought out, each in its own way. Thayumanavar sought out the truth of the world through ultimately a life of introspection and silence, above all else. Kamala sought out the truth of the world through giving back to it and delving deeper into it through her work as a cardiologist and teacher. My father has chosen the same approach, more or less, as my great-grandmother, though he keeps up his love of music and writing, to this day. I, myself, am soon going to have to choose the path I will follow.
I believe that there are some questions that our ancestors asked that are seemingly hardwired into our genes, our very DNA, and so we cannot help but ask the same questions, as well. Thayumanavar asked questions about Love and how best to understand the world, as I often ask now, too. His answers seem like they could be mine, as well. Does this make me any less of a person? Does this make my life any less that of the hero journey? I think not.
Thayumanavar is my spirit-guide on this journey, though he often seems like the end goal, too. As a different, and independent person I must remember: no two hero journeys are exactly the same, though they all follow the same basic path. My journey and its culmination will take me deeper into the abyss and hopefully further the teachings of my family as a whole.