How does anyone who wants to trace the life and career of that most remarkable Jew, Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee, later made out to be the inaugurator of Christianity by the indefatigably single-minded Paul, go about his task?
It depends. Depends of course on who the intending author is, to whom he is directing his work and the Jesus he aims to portray.
If the author was a literalist, one who believed in the sanctity and inviolability of every word of scripture, he would perhaps refrain from embarking on the hazardous venture and be content with elucidating the texts or expatiating upon them.
A historian in his quest for the historical Christ would try to sift out of the Gospels and other contemporary sources, data with which he could perhaps structure the real Jesus.
A person who belongs to what is called the Social Gospel school, with scholars like Harnack, Bousset and Wrede, would look at Jesus as an ethical reformer and the kingdom he sought to establish on earth as the rule of God in the lives of people now and here.
But for the champions of a thorough-going eschatology like Albert Schweitzer and for the apocalyptics , Jesus was foremost the transcendent Messiah, the mystical Christ concerned primarily with the imminent end of the world rather than with moral values and social ethics, his ethical teaching being only an ‘interim’ ethic, a temporary way of living before the world was destroyed and the Kingdom of God was established on earth.
But whoever the author may be, the primary sources for writing a life of Jesus are the Gospels. And what does he find there, not one but four lives! ‘Gospel’ accounts set down at least 30 to 40 years after the crucifixion, and after Paul had embarked on his ‘missionary’ cause with extraordinary zeal. Accounts which, therefore are overlaid with doctrinal incrustations (and good news interpretations). Accounts which are far from being journalistic reports of a contemporary happening.
Any percipient reader is impressed by the similarity of the first three gospels and the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the fourth. But along with the similarities in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are called synoptic because of the same reason, there are divergences, even inconsistencies which are no less compelling. Divergences in account, and differences in style, tenor and emphasis.
A psychological inconsistency in the nature of Jesus is shown, for instance, between Mark’s and Matthew’s description of the injunction of Jesus to his newly selected disciples to go to the nations and preach the gospel. In Mark there is the bare statement, ‘‘And whatsoever place shall not receive you, and they hear you not, shake off the dust that is under your feet for your testimony unto them’’. Here, evidently, the attitude to be assumed by the disciples towards those heedless of their preaching is one of quiet rebuke, devoid of bitterness and anger. But when Matthew describes the same situation he puts blistering invective into the mouth of Jesus. He adds the terrible words, ‘‘Verily, I say into you, it shall be more tolerable for thelandofSodomandGomorrahin the day of judgment than for that city’’.
‘Mark’ was most probably writing for Gentiles (non Jews) – his Jesus is more of a Jewish mendicant prophet (though the circuitous routes he makes Jesus take show up his lack of knowledge of Palestinian geography). ‘Matthew’, most probably a Jew, wrote for the Jews to convince them that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Matthew’s Jesus is an austere, relentless Hebraic reformer haloed by a supernatural nimbus. Luke was a Gentile, wrote for the Gentiles. In Luke’s Gospel – the most beautiful book ever written, according to the French savant Ernest Renan – we see a broad humanitarianism which shows Jesus as kind and tender.
In John’s gospel one is in a different world. One is struck by the difference in language, concept, viewpoint. The Synoptics place the ministry of Jesus in Galilee ; the fourth gospel places it inJerusalem. It shows no interest in chronology. In the Johannine gospel the personality of Jesus described by the Synoptics dissolves in the glow of neoplatonic metaphysics. This gospel proclaims in its preamble that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’’. .
What is this new term, the ‘Word’ (logos), a term nowhere found in Jewish or Jesuan scripture, wholly foreign to the vernacular of Palestine, a word which emits the smell of Egypt, and of the musty halls of Alexandria – fountainhead of neo-platonic philosophy? It is John’s attempt to win a Hellenistic constituency for an incipient religion. (This, together with Paul’s earlier asseverations would constitute the embryonic formulations of a new dogma). (And it is with this declaration of the Word of God becoming flesh as Jesus Christ that Kannadasan too opens. That’s the message that needs to be gotten to the populace. The covenant that God made for making all mankind into his sheep!)
One has to traditionally preface any poetic endeavour with the traditional apologetic preface declaring unequalness to the task. Kannadasan makes it in style with a winding 14-seer (metrical foot) verse —
Bhoomiyil Tharukkal, Shedi Kodiyodum
Pullinai Thogai Yeduthaenaa?
Thangamendreduthu Palavagai Nagaigal
Thattanaan Nalla Thattanaa?
Thaaythamizh Aasai vaanytha Noolpatru
Thandhadhaal Thunindhu Vittaenaa…?
I have tried to fathom the heaving oceans (of Biblical literature) ; have I been successful? Or have I listed the grass along with the trees and the plants? (Have in the same spoken of the sublime and the trivial?). Given this gold in my hands, am I goldsmith enough to fashion ornaments of beauty? Or has my love for mother Tamil and composing works in it made me rash (to try my hand at writing this poem?)
After that where does one begin? Matthew begins, somewhat inappropriately with a list of Jesus’s forefathers right up to Abraham, 42 generation back in phalanges of fourteen (some numerology there). Luke goes back to Adam himself (77 generations – I am basing myself onSt. Augustine’s arithmetic– I don’t have either a taste or knack for such ‘sums’!) . One would be justified about not bothering about such geneaologies of Jesus who was supposed to have been born by immaculate conception and was only the ‘supposed son of Joseph’.
Then where does one begin? At the beginning, of course. Beginning of whom, what, which? Of the world itself, if you can! In the Beginning was the Word, says John, at the beginning of his gospel. This statement, which is rather extraneous to the life of Jesus (if considered without dogmatic trappings) is the note on which even Kannadasan begins. But why need a Kaavya, a poetical work, be coloured by this doctrinal assertion even at its start? Behind the answer to that question lies the story of how the ‘Yesu Kaaviyam’ got to be written at all.
Kalaikkaveri, a Christian cultural organization affiliated to the Catholice Diocese of Tiruchi , hoped to get the then poet laureate of Tamil Nadu, Kannadasan to pen a major poetic work on Jesus Christ. (Apart from the fact that he was the most famous poet in Tamil Nadu then, he was perhaps nearing the climax of his career. It might even prove an evangelical coup of sorts because his famous essays championing Hinduism (‘Arthamulla Indhu Madham’) written a few years earlier might seem passe and Christ might seem his crowning glory. Who knows? To a poet battling ill-health, declining fortunes in the film world and the repercussions of a third marriage, a work on Christ might prove the turning point. After all, he had once used Arokkiyasami as a pen name. (The hope of ‘redemption’ fructified through Kannadasan’s daughter Vishali, who became a Catholic in 2010).
The sponsors of the work succeeded in shunting Kannadasan away fromMadras(as it was called then) to the cool ambience of Kutralam. The poet is said to have worked eight hours a day for 15 days to complete the work (part of the work was also done in Tiruchi). Considering that he was in indifferent health, it was a tremendous effort on the part of the poet (and perhaps also on the part of his sponsors).
The manner in which the poem was written was something like this. The sponsors would read out passages from the Gospels which they wanted set forth in imaginative verse and explain their meaning. Kannadasan would assimilate the stuff, somewhat like giving ear to the situations for writing film lyrics. He would then come up with his verses, which were promptly written down. It is obvious that this method restricts the scope of the poet. The passages of the gospels that he must versify are decided for him. Obviously Kannadasan’s sponsors weren’t in search of a great poet’s imaginative fancies. They wanted the portions that they had selected for various evangelical purposes rendered in poetic Tamil. Having them penned by Kannadasan would surely make many Tamils read them. Their purpose would be served. But would that redound to the glory or poetic imagination of Kannadasan? The sponsors were obviously passing value judgments on the gospel passages by choosing those of their liking. This explains the choice of John even at the outset.
It is evident from the Synoptic gospels that the manner of Jesus’s final entry intoJerusalemand cleansing of the temple was the last straw for the Jewish priesthood and invited immediate retaliation. This important event occurs towards the end of Jesus’s career but John, who shows no consideration for chronology puts it at the beginning of his narration. Kannadasan does so too, losing the chance of building up the tension towards a final confrontation. The sponsors preference for John had played spoilsport.
Matthew uses the proof text method and tries to prove that the Old Testament prophets had predicted the events in the life of Jesus. Its absurdity is seen in Matthew 2: 14, 15. ‘‘When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypthave I called my son’’. The quotation is from Hosea 11:1 where the prophet in the eighthth century BC is referring to the exodus of the Jews under Moses in 1225 BC. This is twisted by Matthew into the prediction of the birth of Jesus, an event that occurs many many centuries hence. (Matthew is straining himself in this manner to appeal to the Jews to accept Jesus). But these verses are translated verbatim by Kannadasan. Whom are we to blame, Kannadasan or his Kalaikkaveri sponsors?
Despite such forays and a plethora of lost poetic chances, and considering that his poetic vision is blighted by dogmatic blinkers, Kannadasan comes up with bright verses here and there. His presentation of the parables is evocative.
Here is the eager and compassionate father welcoming his prodigal son –
Yeppoadhu Varuvaay Endrenni Erundhene
ILaithaaye Enmagane, Kanmaniye, Thene
Thappaana Pillaiyalla, Edhuvum Sollaadhe
Sandharppam Seidha Sadhi Varuvaay Ippoadhe!
The poignance of the situation, the love of the father, the generosity with which he takes back an errant vagabond of a son and the eagerness to let bygones be bygones are writ large on every word and turn of phrase.
Even as the disciple Peter asks how many times he should bear with the transgressions of a brother – is it seven times as the scriptures say – Jesus asks him to forgive a brother seventy times seven, perhaps meaning forever. Kannadasan gives a rhythmic beauty and succinctness of expression to this lovely ethical pearl.
Ennudai Sodharar Kutram Seidhal
Ennudane Aiyya – Naan
Ethanai Murai Thaan Kutram Poruppadhu
Ezhu Murai Thaanaa –
Endroaru Seedar Yesuvai Kaetka
Yesubiraan Aange –Ada
Yezhu Ezhubadhu Ethanai Muraiyum
Endroaru Kadhai Sonnaar..
Though scholars break their heads trying to figure out the identity of the ‘son of man’ Jesus frequently refers to, there is poetry in the foxes having their holes and the birds having their nests but the ‘son of man’ having no place to rest his head upon! Whoever this ‘son of man’ is, and especially if he’s Jesus he has our sympathy. Kannadasan puts his power of poetic paraphrase to effective use—
Kaaduraiyum Kulla Neri Vaazha Idam Undu
Koodadaiyum Vinnparavai Sera Idam Undu
Odugira Maanadhiyum Kooda Kadal Undu
Paadu Padum Devamagan Oya Idam Yedhu?
This has the unerring effectiveness that ends with, Kadaisi Varai Yaaro? These verses surely have the lilt and catchiness of lyrical songs.
A great part of the poem is in the somewhat colourless Agaval metre, which gives limited scope for poetic turns of phrase. It shows that Kannadasan has taken the line of least resistance in the face of a strenuous task. The overworking of the akaval form reduces the impact of his poetic expression. It’s also possible that he needed the flexibility of this metre to stick to the doctrinal points that his sponsors dictated. He knew quite well that he could not present a Jesus of his imagination ; he had to write on the dotted line for the powers that be to accept his work. (It obviously found acceptance. Kalaikkaveri has gone on to sell three lakh copies of Yesu Kaaviyam, and has grown from an arts organization into a college of the arts – the aim being the inculturation route to convert to Christianity).
Kannadasan’s work is not cast in the mould, say of a Kamba Ramayana or Villi Bharatham, classic Tamil renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. These Tamil works were written by great poets who were not smothered by any religious diktat. They were just their natural selves. Kannadasan has to stick to a certain religious view of Jesus. Only the turn of phrase and the choice of metre is his. Otherwise it is only versification of chosen Gospel parts making up a Jesus story. That there are four gospels shows there are four views which are different despite similarities. And what is Kannadasan’s story, his poetic line. Well, it is the line of his masters, it is the approach of his sponsors.
When Bharati rendered part of the Mahabharata story as ‘Panchaali Sabatham’ he had the aim of reaching out to ordinary Tamils. Apart from this we hear him loud and clear making Panchaali a symbol of Bharata Mata. Bharati lives because he expressed his soul through his work. Did Kannadasan express himself in Yesu Kaaviyam? Do we know what he thinks of the revolutionary rabbi ofNazareth? Has he pared it down to the human story of a man who sounds one moment as if the world was just about to end and another moment as playing a pastoral flute of indescribable loveliness. OUP has a Poets’ Jesus which transfigures the Nazarene in a myriad hues. What hue is he in Yesu Kaaviyam? That of Kannadasan? Not at all. The man who poured out his soul in rapture to the lord of Brindavan, beseeching the bamboo to sing paens to the Purushottama, is on assignment here and as a professional poet he won’t let down those who hired him. What we have here a Jesus made to order.
(I wrote this review of Yesu Kaaviyam for theMadrasedition of the Indian Express dated Oct. 3, 1982. It was quite a task to re-type the story from a musty 30-year-old newspaper cutting. I couldn’t help rewriting some paragraphs and bring it up to date.
Let no one think that I am trying to run down Kannadasan. I have empathy for the poet and feel him living in me. Kannadasan was a true poet and can take criticism. Ditto for Jesus. I love the man as he is.).