“Chant the name of Govinda, for when the end is near, mere rules of grammar and prosody will not protect you” said Adi Sankara, in the opening lines of his work bhaja gOvindam.
From time immemorial, the concept of direct communion with Godhead has held universal appeal. The Bhakti movement strengthened the belief. During the times of the great saints such as Kabir, Nanak, Tulsidas, Meera and Surdas, congregations began to grow in strength. These men and women of God eschewed the high flown Sanskrit of the priests and began singing in everyday language. The gathering received the teachings of the savants in rapt attention and in complete bliss would begin singing of the glory of God, to the accompaniment of simple music instruments such as the EktAra, the cipla and the dhOlak.
Having gained ground in North India, bhajans made their way south with the arrival of the Mahrattas at Tanjore in 1676 AD. The entertainers who followed the rulers, from their native land were soon to find great fan following among the general public of the region. Language was not a deterrent, for bhajans involved the repetition of certain simple tenets and names of God, set in simple music that a chorus could sing. Over time, language barriers also vanished for bhajans came to be composed in southern languages too.
The Tanjore region became the bhajana tradition’s stronghold with the arrival of the bhajana sampradAya trinity, namely Sadguru Swamin, Bhodendral and Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval. The trio existed between 1684 and 1817 AD. Ayyaval who was the senior most is considered the father of the Bhajan tradition in South India. Born in Tiruvisanallur, Tanjore District, Ayyaval was a contemporary of King Shahaji I (ruled 1684-1712). He firmly believed in nAma siddhAnta, the principle of chanting God’s name and composed several simple songs for congregational singing. The test of his devotion came on a day when he had invited several Brahmins to his house in connection with certain rites to please his ancestors. As the ceremony was to commence, a starving person of a lower caste appeared at Ayyaval’s doorway and moved by his plight, Ayyaval offered him the food meant for the Brahmins. This angered the priests who refused to partake of food in his house unless he had purified himself by bathing in the Ganges, which of course was several thousand kilometers away. Ayyaval proceeded to the well at the back of his house and composed a hymn in praise of the great river. The waters of the Ganges flooded his well, enabling him to teach the Brahmins a lesson in equality of all before the Supreme. Ayyaval is commemorated till date at Tiruvisanallur, where the bhajana tradition is maintained.
Bhodendra Swamigal was the 59th pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Pitham. He was a close friend and contemporary of Ayyaval. Bhodendral firmly believed in the efficacy of chanting rAma nAma as the answer to all ills. He was thus referred to as bhagavan nAma bhOdEndra. Bhodendral laid down the rules and methods of conducting bhajana. It is said that once a Brahmin lady while returning from Benares was forcibly abducted by a Muslim and had to cohabit with him for sometime. When she returned to Tanjore, her husband refused to accept her. The matter was referred to Bhodendral who asked her to utter the name of Rama and singing of him, to plunge into the waters of a lake. When she did so, a divine voice proclaimed her innocence. Bhodendra Swamigal is commemorated at his Samadhi in Govindapuram.
The youngest of this Trinity was Venkatarama Sadguru Swamin who hailing from Tiruvisanallur, set up the bhajana tradition at Marudanallur. Struck dumb while a child, he was blessed with speech by Bodhendra Swamigal. He later traveled far and wide bringing many into his fold. This included King Sarabhoji. Sadguru Swamin included in his repertoire several aShTapadis of Jayadeva and the Tarangas of Narayana Teertha. He introduced the usage of the tambura to keep shruti during the singing sessions. He is commemorated at Marudanallur where the Radha Kalyana Utsavam is held every year. It was at the Marudanallur Mutt that Papanasam Sivan got the inspiration for holding bhajan sessions, which he continued from 1921 every year till his demise in 1973, at the Mylapore Kapaliswarar Temple.
Over the years, bhajan has come to embrace a variety of deities. It is in fact the great unifying force for it includes everyone from the learned to the laity. Today it is most evident among the worshippers of Sai Baba, for the only form of worship that He asks for is the bhajan. It is simple in its appeal and emotional in content, thereby making it an effective method to communicate with God.