Marabin Mainthan Muthiah writes of the rich life and work of Sage Agastya, who enriched a range of disciplines including martial arts, Siddha medicine, Tamil grammar and mysticism.
Calendar art has come to play a big role in preserving and propagating our spirituality and heritage. Thanks to it, you can walk into any remote place in the country and people living there easily identify gods of the Hindu pantheon. Curiously, though, Indian gods and goddesses lived action-packed lives; our yogis, saints and seers are always pictured merely sitting in a cave or under a tree – a complete antithesis to the rich lives the former led. Agastya is one such example.
Siddha tradition pioneer
Agastya was one of the great saptarishis, among the seven direct disciples of Shiva, and believed to be from south India. Having spent years making himself worthy of Shiva’s personal tutelage, and having received his grace and instruction for several more years, Agastya returned to South India on Shiva’s instructions, to carry spiritual knowledge to those parts. Agastya was very short in height, but led a long and eventful life. Some accounts say he lived for 4,800 years, while others say 400 years. Either way, he lived a long, fulfilled life and accomplished a great deal.
Agastya is a great exponent of the Tamil language and is considered a lodestar of Tamil grammar. He is regarded as the father of south Indian mysticism and related fields which deeply explore both spirit and matter. He was far ahead of his time in his approach and views.
Take for instance, the Siddha tradition that was widely prevalent in Tamil Nadu. While Ayurveda is positioned as a system of holistic wellbeing per se, Siddha is primarily a school of mysticism, of which health and wellbeing are by-products. However today it tends to be seen as only a healing system backed by academic learning though there are deeper dimensions to it.
According to siddhars, each individual can and must experience Shiva within himself and all wellbeing flows from this experience. So the emphasis is not on rituals, or scriptures but meditation and experience. So, the siddhars gain mastery over the usage of herbs and minerals not from learning, but out of their inner experience.
Their understanding of the panchabhutas or five elements and the legendary alchemical prowess, unsurpassed even by other Indian equivalents like rasa vaidya, is only an offshoot of this experience.
Siddhars believe that through mastering the usage of herbs you can shape your own destiny irrespective of caste, creed, illnesses or physical and mental disabilities inherited by birth. Agastya’s usage of Tamil language produced some of the finest Tamil poetry of all times, and following in his footsteps, many siddhars chose effusive verses to express even the mundane.
Hence, you will find many instances where even descriptions of herbs and minerals present on a particular hill or mountain and the instructions on their usage, are sung in exquisite verse.
Martial art exponent
Agastya was the foremost exponent of the martial art Kalaripayattu, still practised in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kalari is taught as a complete science with instruction on human anatomy, physiology including chikitsa or medicine specialising in handling injuries.
It teaches both prayogam or disabling an opponent, and upasamanam or the release and revival of the person disabled through prayogam. Kalari techniques are so subtle and spiritual that masters have found the practice, a good preparation of body and mind to experience higher states of consciousness. Agastya’s contribution to Kalari is so valued, that students of Kalari in Kerala, study the Tamil language to access the original Tamil treatise written by him.
Telepathy & teleportation
The sage is also credited with having created a whole system of health and wellbeing based solely on the usage of mantras and through occult practices. Siddhars, it seems, were adept in telepathy, teleportation and transmigration. They always travelled to a major temple to attain samadhi. Many temples in Tamil Nadu are alive and vibrant even today perhaps because of these energies.
Was Agastya passive and inert? Doesn’t seem so, considering how action-packed his life was. Even if we were to discount much of what we know today of Agastya as distorted or exaggerated; it is still grossly unjust to stereotype such yogis, saints and seers as mostly passive and inert.