The music world recently (on 4th May, 2017) celebrated the 250th birth anniversary of the Saint of carnatic music Sathguru Thyagaraja Swami. Year-long concerts were organized by several groups to mark the great year and as the actual date drew closer there was intense musical activity across the globe. Newspapers were not left behind and in particular The Hindu also ran a series of articles related to the saint composer. It was indeed a thrilling time for the connoisseurs as also the common man of music. Several of us need just a pretext to discuss and listen to a Thyagaraja Kriti and as pretexts go, this 250th birth anniversary served as the biggest by far. While we basked in the devotional, musical aspects of the kritis and reflected upon the deeper spiritual meanings as also the human values embedded in them I did hear a few discordant notes here and there about the poor opinion that Sathguru had towards women and the bias he had towards caste. A famed carnatic singer also alluded to the same.
The argument was based on citing out of context of some kritis like the one from the pancha ratna duDukugala nannEdora koduku brOchura. The curious may look at this link and refer to svara sAhityam 6 teliyani naTa-viTa kSudrulu vanitalu and svara sAhityam 9 mAnava tanu durlabham in which he talks about being modaTi kulajuDu - born in the first clan - arguably a Brahmin. These two lines are the ones that the critics always use to tell the story of how the saint was against women and lower castes!! Nothing can be farther from truth than this.
This begs the question, why did the saint then deify Sabari, the woman born in the lower caste? In the rAgam mukHAri, he composed entani nE varnintu sabari bhAgyamu - how should I describe the good fortune of Sabari? He talks highly of Ahalya, the woman with alleged infidelity towards her husband in many kritis. He often pleads with the Lord to bless him like He blessed these women from the rAmAyaNa. This argument is likely enough to seal the myopic views of the critics regarding the attitude of the saint towards women. But let us not stop here. Let us go a bit deeper into understanding the work of the saint.
The saint was primarily on a spiritual journey. For his journey he chose the music as the vehicle. The goal of spiritual journey is moksha or nirvAna or liberation. With this in mind he kept his vehicle in good shape by constantly practicing music. And this vehicle seemed to have a life of sorts. So it had to be fed. He fed it the name of srIrAmA. So while the vehicle was thus fed well and kept in good shape, it made the journey a great pleasure (Ananda) and automatically reached the goal. It not only reached, on the way it gave great joy to several other chariots as well and enabled (and still enabling) them to reach the goal.
Unraveling the above metaphor we find the saint's work to be holistic package of devotion, music and spirituality. These three aspects are deeply interwoven and provide the promised nourishment only when taken in totality. The mistake that the learned men seem to commit is that they tend to treat the different aspects in isolation. Reductionism and compartmentalism are hallmarks of our times and this is what often leads to commenting out of context.
As the saint kept the goal of liberation in front of him, he constantly discussed with his mind what are the obstacles and enablers to reach his goal. Hence the repeated use of o manasA in almost every kriti of his. He saw it from a social angle (in fact there is no other angle to see this). He commented on the ways of the world that obstruct in the journey. One such he said is women. But he also said what kind of women. He talked about the types of women who are engaged in dancing or resorted to flesh trade. Such women caused an obstacle to others as they are viewed by others with tinted lens of lust. I am very sure no woman would ever want to be seen only thus, in this era or in the eras gone by. The lust in his opinion was not as detrimental to the object of it as it was to the one who harbored it. We do see the fallout of such attitude towards women in today's world also. Therefore every criticism of this object of lust is actually a warning for the pursuer of it.
Now it is not as if women don't journey on spiritual path and are not entitled for liberation. They too can be subjects of such an attitude towards men in which case it obstructs their path. Therefore the mention of woman itself is a sort of figure of speech.
In the spiritual plane, woman is equivalent to prakrithi (or nature) which attains fulfilment when combined with purusha. This needs to be understood beyond all gender stereotypes. In many ways swayed by women or exploiting them is equivalent to exploiting nature for selfish gains. Again I don't need to belabor the point of how exploitation of nature is causing widespread problems in the globe. This may appear farfetched but do think about it from a spiritual angle, the one from which Sathguru Thayagaraja Swami viewed life (as is eminently evident from his other kritis). Exploitation of women at the personal level brings disharmony in the personal conduct, family and when practiced widely brings ruin to the society. Exploitation of the woman that nature is brings disaster to our lives. Both are as true today as they were during Thayagaraja's times or even before that. Those are eternal principles that obstruct liberation.
Again he compassionately defines what is mOksha in the sAramati kriti mokshamu kalada. In this he questions if liberation is ever attainable for one who is not liberated while living. In other words, he categorically says liberation is not something attained during death after living a life on earth. It is living like a liberated soul even while being on earth - in harmony and happiness. As we discussed music being his chosen vehicle, he goes on to say steadfast and honest pursuit of music gives you that harmony and happiness.
Those that call him being against women should also note he was no great fan of men either!!! That is men who displayed all the insignia of being spiritual but really acted out of tune to the guise they have put on. He was against men who for the sake of fulfilling their wants indulged in flattery of the rich. he criticized men who fell for the sensuous.
In summary it means he spared nobody who was hypocritical and professed to be on path of liberation but indulged in actions quite opposite to that. Through his work he called for single pointed devotion to the Lord. At the face of it, he eulogized srIrAmA with a bow and was deeply into mythology. But a closer look at kritis like endhundi vedalithivo in darbAr clearly tell us that Sathguru thought of srIrAmA as the eternal divine principle. He liked The Ultimate with the name srIrAmA.
Therefore in my opinion before commenting on isolated aspects of Sathguru's works one needs to weigh their thoughts on the touchstone of rAmabhakthi (devotion to Lord rAmA) and the ultimate goal of life as visualized by the saint. Those with the goal of filling up a column or air time should steer clear of it no matter how tempting the thought of playing to the (current day) gallery is.