Notes on Vemana’s Verses

Family in Modern India

Today we live in a very different world compared to the one our grandparents lived in or even our parents. Neither is the society the same nor are the social conditions. No longer are the Telugu people confined to Andhra. They have spread far and wide, brought laurels to their native land, left indelible impressions on the country they reside in.

Has Telugu Taken A Back Step?

English has emerged the medium of communication and instrument of wealth. In the process, the Telugu language has been relegated to the background and has lost its pristine glory. So has the joint family system and with it the access to the timeless wisdom of the grandparents.

The dissemination of culture from grandparent to grandchild has also broken down. No longer are there bedtime stories of bygone era or the bittersweet verses of Vemana or Sumati or the multitude of terse Telugu proverbs to guide, discipline, chastise or instruct. The fragrance of Telugu is almost outdated, out of fashion. It is as if speaking Telugu is a sign of being illiterate. And reading Telugu is a task more demanding than reading Latin or Greek.

It is against this grim background that the Pride of Telugu, the Greatest Son of Andhra, Yogi Vemana, is besought to give a clarion call to the son of the soil to return to the native wisdom and with it to the native tongue.

Who then is Yogi Vemana?

Yogi Vemana is one of the greatest spiritual sons of India. Single-handedly he fought one of the bitterest wars in the history of mankind, one fiercer than the World War, fiercer than the Kalinga or darker than the Kurukshetra: the war against hypocrisy and for human dignity. For this he used the invincible weapons of truth and non-violence.

Abbe, J.A.Dubois and C.P. Brown

He is the diadem of the Telugu people. He is second to none in the matter of reforming his own people. True to the Telugu tradition, he was not recognized by his people but by a French Abbe, J.A.Dubois and later by an Englishman C.P. Brown. Had it not been for these two benefactors, the brilliant utterances Yogi Vemana would not have seen the light so early.

Yogi Vemana’s life is shrouded with legends. It is almost impossible to talk about his life without the searchlight of a myth. The dialect he sung his verses in gives us the clue that he belonged to Rayalseema. In one his verses he says:

Ooru kondaveedu  uniki paschimaveedi
Mooga chintapalle modati illu
Yeddi reddy kulamademani cheppudu
Visawadhabirama vinura vema.

This gives us the general idea of his place of birth and his caste. But the year of his birth is still a matter of contention. Some historians place him around 15th century. Others say he belonged to the 16th century, some others to the 17th and still some to the 18th. Whatever be his place of birth or the time of birth, Vemana is a man for all places and for all times.

Vemana’s Journey to Realization

Vemana, it is believed, is the younger brother of Racha Vema Reddy. He is a motherless child, and is pampered by his sister-in-law, Narasamamba, and his brother. In time, the young Vemana frequents the Devadasis. He soon becomes ‘a notorious rake. He sleeps with scores of strumpets and finally gets infatuated to one of them.’ Vemana’s sister-in-law steps in and breaks the spell of obsession. Vemana realizes the meaninglessness of mundane pleasures and takes to the life of renunciation. Thus starts his voyage of self-discovery. Once the realization dawns on him, he sets out to guide his erring brothers and sisters to the path of truth. He does this an unnerving force and unerring humour. He strikes with one hand and tickles with the other.

Vemana’s Telugu Prosody

Vemana wrote in the simplest metre of the Telugu prosody: Ataveladi – the dancing damsel. Yet in his hands the usually reluctant girl danced so splendidly that the audience were spellbound. She entertained both the peasant and the pundit alike. Her performance has only mellowed with time. Even after more that three centuries her steps continue to enthral the multitudes of truth seekers.

How I Wrote the Commentary of Vemana’s Verses

It is to present the spirit of Vemana’s verses in all its universality that I have turned to the great men of all times and climes and have sat at their feet at all odd hours trying to acquaint myself with Vemana the man, the myth and the mystic, trying to understand the world of meaning that is contained in the capsule of his verse. I have not met these masters in person but in the spirit of their writings. And I owe all the commentary to them. They have guided me, inspired me to divine the meaning of these verses.

My Thanks to…

I thank my elderly friend, critic and author K.V. Purneswara Rao for readily reading the entire work at one stretch, for his frank criticism, for mending my meandering muse and for his enlightening observations on Vemana. I am thankful to the foreword written by him.

I also owe a lot to my father, Komarraju  Lakshmana Rao, who incidentally happens to be the grandson of the great literary historian of the same name late K. V. Lakshmana Rao, for throwing enough light on areas unknown to me and for spending all his time assisting me to get closer to the right shade of meaning.

My grateful thanks to my wife, Anuradha, very much well versed in Telugu, for her invaluable help in selecting and explaining the meaning of the 108 verses and preparing the entire framework of the commentary.

My thanks to Smt. Renu Lakshmi and Venu Lakshmi for deeming me fit to undertake a task so colossal as this.

I am thankful to Narendar. Without his unremitting labour, untiring efforts and unceasing inspiration this work would not have taken shape. The entire credit for introducing Vemana to the new generation of Telugu youngsters in the USA goes to him What I have done is to translate his wonderful vision about Vemana in particular and his abiding love for Indian culture in general.

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