Scientific Inquisitiveness and Holistic Vision in the Poems of Subramania Bharati (Part 1)

Subramania Bharathi was born on 11th December 1882 in Ettayapuram Jameen to Sri.  Chinnasami Iyer and Smt. Lakshmi Ammal. His birth name was Subramanian. When he was eleven years old, impressed by his poetic prowess, scholars in Ettayapuram awarded him the title ‘Bharathi.’ Bharathi was a multi-faceted personality. He is widely acclaimed for his patriotic poems and articles that ignited the minds of the Indian people, uplifting the spirit of the freedom movement against the British Empire. He was not only a great poet, writer, critic, and freedom-fighter but also had an up-to-date knowledge of what was happening in his time in various fields. In an era when science, and particularly modern technology, was still in its infancy—and during a period of intellectual slavery in India brought about by the British rule—Bharathi had some interesting ideas and useful suggestions to offer. The focus of this essay is Bharathi’s scientific inquisitiveness and his holistic vision for India. While we celebrate Bharathi’s inspirational writings, we should never forget that he is one of the luminaries in a long line of great poets and philosophers of India; and often, we find that the lines between poetry and philosophy blur in our tradition. Bharathi’s writings are closely aligned to the six-thousand-year-old unbroken tradition of Sanātana-dharma. He echoes several ideas of the ancients but presents it in a unique way, based on his understanding of the world and his calibre of expression, which is why we are still interested in his work. In science, as we have seen in many familiar cases, a seed of a robust thought is sufficient for progress. Ideas of science oftentimes have their roots in works of poetry and other arts.[1]  While Bharathi was exposed to traditional Vedic and Vedāntic wisdom on the one hand and ideas of modern science on the other, we must remember that he was neither a mystic nor a scientist; he was a poet with a holistic vision who was able to transcend the boundaries between art and science.

Recordings of Scientific Events

Halley’s Comet brushed past the earth with its tail on 19th May 1910. When spectroscopic analysis found the toxic gas Cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s Comet, people panicked and bought gas masks, quack “anti-comet” pills, and “anti-comet” umbrellas. When a large section of the Western world saw this as a sign of impending doom, it is surprising how Bharathi saw this to be a cause of many marvels. Bharathi composed The Comet (சாதாரண வருஷத்துத் தூமகேது) in March 1910. He says: “You range over countless millions of yojanas[2] They say your endless tail is wrought of gas, the softness of which is indeed peerless. They say that your tail touches the earth too and you fare forthwith no harm to the poor The wise talk of your myriad marvels!”[3] After putting forward so many questions, he concludes: “It is a rule with you to appear once in a cycle of seventy-five years This time you will cause many marvels, they say. I ask of you, if this be true or false.”[4] Indeed, Halley’s Comet appears once every seventy-five years, on average. It will next appear in the night sky in the year 2061. It orbits the sun every seventy-five or seventy-six years, so this is the time between appearances. Bharathi has written a poem on Sirius (திசை)[5] —the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major—on 3rd April 1909: “In one moment, light travels, the scholars say, nineteen thousand katam[6]; such is its speed; It is indeed difficult to comprehend it. The sun’s light reaches us in eight minutes. Westerners speak of a star called Sirius; it is reckoned that its rays, travelling at the same speed take three years to reach this mandala, the earth; If so, is it easy for thought to fix its distance? Oh men, hear this! This star among the innumerable stars, it is said, is nearest to the earth – a mere millet. Again there is a star whose rays take three thousand light years to reach the earth. Know that the human insects with manifold pains devised but defective instruments to discover these (stars). And there are billions and billions of stars far, far away That cannot be spotted through these tools at all. The bird of intellect that soars, returns fatigued The dictum that the expansive directions are boundless exceeds sense-perception; it’s beyond the mind’s comprehension. Endless indeed is the vastness of the directions!” Whether one day mankind would be able to devise instruments that could span the entire universe remains to be seen.

Literary Devices Employed by Bharathiar

Hyperboles are exaggerated statements or claims that are not meant to be taken literally. Bharathi resorts to hyperbole when he suggests the following in his poem Yoga Siddhi (யோக சித்தி), written in December 1913: “To make gravel into glittering gems and copper base into solid gold and also to transmute with ease blades of grass into paddy stalks and lowly swines into lordly lions and mere sand into sugar sweet – Grant me the virtue true!”[7] In the first two lines of this poem, he speaks about alchemy; this coincides with the publication of The Journal of the Alchemical Society (1913-15). Alchemy failed as it was based on a misunderstanding of basic chemistry and physics. Whereas Bharathi merely uses this as a hyperbole, a scientist like Sir Issac Newton wrote several pages on alchemy through the course of his life. This was mostly because of Newton’s interest in material science. At that time, chemistry was still in its infancy and there wasn’t a clear-cut distinction between science, superstition, and pseudo-science.  Indeed, with the modern understanding of Nuclear Physics, one might be able to convert lead to gold but the return would not be worth the investment!  Bharathi has also emphasized in Yoga Siddhi that we should create more new skills in order to prosper.
Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night

Characterization is a literary device used by poets to portray a character and to build on its image. In his வசன கவிதை (poems in the form of dialogues) titled Perceptions, in a song on the wind (see காற்று in வசன கவிதை) Bharathi has done this successfully. He uses the direct characterization, personifying “breath” as Kandan (the hero) and “life” as Valliammai (the heroine). The story begins with the representation of two ropes—one big and the other small—as a man and his wife, viz. Kandan and Valliammai. They live in complete harmony. Bharathi as the poet himself enters the scene and strikes a conversation with them. Kandan replies to him nonchalantly. When Bharathi departs from the scene for a brief moment and returns back and enquires about Valliammai, Kandan now appears before him as the Wind God and says that she is no more. Kandan then goes on to describe how prāṇa (‘life breath,’ ‘vital force’) sustains life. In other episodes of the song, Bharathi describes wind in the form of a hurricane, a thunder storm, and a desert storm. He discusses the role of wind as a life-giver, as a life-destroyer, and yet how it is beyond destruction. He then describes the omnipresent nature of the wind in trees, flowers, ants, and all beings. Bharathi further goes on to say that even if mountain air is good and sea breeze is medicinal, it is we humans who pollute the air. He also seems to have offered the solution to combat the issue here – “Plant more trees!” He goes on to worship the Wind God in the form of prāṇa (in-breath), apāna (out-breath), udāna (upward breath), samāna (balancing breath), and vyāna (diffusing breath). After worshipping the Wind as the life force, he talks of the innumerable creatures present there, the tiniest of the tiny creatures present inside all creatures and the endless, the seemingly infinite nature of the macrocosm as well as the microcosm. Not only that, he also suggests the possible existence of life in other worlds. In Perceptions (see இரண்டாங் கிளை: புகழ் under ஞாயிறு in வசன கவிதை), under a section titled A Paean of Praise, he has composed poems on the sun. In this poem he captures how the planets are formed from the sun and how they receive light from the sun: “Oh Sun! All those who look at thy face get thy light and become bright: Earth, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune Hundreds of Heavenly Houses, at the touch of thy brilliant beams twinkle joyously. As sparks flying from a fire-ball These planets burst out of the Sun, some say. The thief of time embraced them and they lost much of their fiery brightness. They did not lose their light altogether. They only became less bright, for there is nothing without light Darkness itself is but light, infinitesimal.” He talks about how these planets circumambulate around the sun and explains the sun’s gravitational pull on the planets in this manner: “How they whirl about in their own orbits without transgressing the limits. They never pass beyond or cross the line of his power.” When he says, “Whatever his hand touches comes alive The flower desires only him The leaves, in his divine beauty attain yogic beatitude!” he uses imagery to describe the process of photosynthesis. He further goes on to explain the processes of evaporation and precipitation in the same song. To be continued. The author would like to express her thanks to ‘Padma Shri’ Dr. Y S Rajan for his constant encouragement, valuable inputs, and insightful feedback in putting together this essay in spite of his busy schedules. She would like to express her thanks to Śatāvadhani Dr. R Ganesh and Dr. Prasad Bapat for their detailed review and astute feedback. Edited by Hari Ravikumar. The author would like thank Dr. G. Venkataraman for sending across the original Tamil text of the poem ‘Sirius’ from Dr. T N Ramachandran’s (TNR) book archives.
  1. Bharati Patalkal. Ed. T N Ramachandran (Sekkizhar Adi-p-podi). Thanjavur: Tamil University, 1989.
  2. மகாகவி பாரதியார் கவிதைகள், நியூ செஞ்சிரி புக் ஹவுஸ் (பி) லிட்.
  3. Kalam, A P J Abdul; Rajan, Y S. The Scientific Indian: A Twenty-First Century Guide to the World Around Us. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011.
  4. Hawking, Stephen. The Theory of Everything. New Delhi: Jaico Publishing House, 2007.
[1] A recent example is the study that shows how Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night mirrors natural turbulence down to mathematical precision. See the paper Turbulent luminance in impassioned van Gogh paintings here: [2] Yojana is a measure of distance; different traditional texts give different values for it. A popular value ascribed to a yojana is thirteen kilometers. [3] எண்ணில் பல கோடி யோசனை யெல்லை எண்ணிலா மென்மை இயன்றதோர் வாயுவால் புனைந்த நின்னொடுவால் போவதென் கின்றார். மண்ணகத் தினையும் வால்கொடு தீண்டி ஏழையர்க் கேதும் இடர்செயா தேநீ போதி யென்கின்றார்; புதுமைகள் ஆயிரம் நினைக்குறித் தறிஞர் நிகழ்த்துகின் றனரால்.… [4] …ஆண்டோர் எழுபத் தைந்தினில் ஒரு முறை மண்ணைநீ அணுகும் வழக்கினை யாயினும் இம்முறை வரவினால் எண்ணிலாப் புதுமைகள் விளையு மென்கின்றார்; மெய்யோ, பொய்யோ?... [5]  திசை ஒருநொடிப் பொழுதி லோர்பத் தொன்பதா யிரமாங் காதம் வருதிற லுடைத்தாஞ் சோதிக் கதிரென வகுப்ப ரான்றோர் கருதவு மரிய தம்ம! கதிருடை விரைவு மஃது பருதியி னின்றோ ரெட்டு விநாடியிற் பரவு மீங்கே. உண்டொரு வான்மீ னஃதை யூணர்கள் ஸிரிய ஸென்ப கண்டவம் மீனின் முன்னை விரைவொடு கதிர்தா னிந்த மண்டலத் தெய்த மூவாண் டாமென மதிப்ப ராயின் எண்டரற் கெளிதோ அம்மீன் எத்தனை தொலைய தென்றே. கேட்டிரோ நரர்காள், வானிற் கிடக்குமெண் ணரிய மீனிற் காட்டிய வதுதான் பூமிக் கடுகினுக் கணித்தா மென்பர் மீட்டுமோ ராண்டு மூவா யிரத்தினில் விரைந்தோர் மீனின் ஓட்டிய கதிர்தா னிங்ஙன் உற்றிடுந் தகைத்து முண்டே! மானுடக் கிருமி கோடி வருத்தத்தாற் பயின்று கண்ட ஊனுறு கருவி யாலிஃ துணர்ந்ததென் றுணரு வீரால். தானுமிக் கருவி காணத் தகாப்பெருந் தொலைய வாகு மீனுள கோடி கோடி மேற்பல கோடி யென்பர். அறிவெனும் புள்ளு மெய்த்தங் கயர்வொடு மீளுங் கண்டீர் செறியுமித் திசைதா னெல்லை யிலதெனச் செப்பு மாற்றம் பொறிதவிர்ந் துரைத்த லன்றிப் பொருளிதென் றுளத்தி னுள்ளே குறிதரக் கொள்ள லாமோ? கொஞ்சமோ திசையின் வெள்ளம். All editors of Bharathi’s works seem to have lost sight of this poem. This poem is only available in the book compiled by Srini Viswanathan. The translation and first reference of this appears only in the anthology published by Tamil University, Thanjavur, edited by Dr. T N Ramachandran. The author would like to mention a special note of thanks to Dr. G. Venkataraman SASTRA University for sending this poem across from Dr. T N Ramachandran’s (TNR) book archives. [6] A measure of distance; possibly equal to sixteen kilometers. The speed of light had been determined to a fair degree of accuracy even in the 18th century (see the work of James Bradley on stellar aberration) so it is not surprising that Bharathi knew this constant. [7]   …கல்லை வயிரமணி யாக்கல்-செம்பைக் கட்டித் தங்கமெனச் செய்தல்-வெறும் புல்லை நெல்லெனப் புரிதல்-பன்றிப் போத்தைச் சிங்கவே றாக்கல்-மண்ணை வெல்லத் தினிப்புவரச் செய்தல்-என விந்தை தோன்றிட இந்நாட்டை-நான் தொல்லை தீர்ந்துயர்வு கல்வி-வெற்றி சூழும் வீரமறி வாண்மை…



Sripriya Srinivasan is a Computer Science Engineer with a deep interest in literature, philosophy, science, and translation. She has translated two books into Tamil: Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam and Dr. Y. S. Rajan’s'Scientific Indian' (as கலாமின் இந்தியக் கனவுகள்) as well as 'The New Bhagavad-Gita' by Koti Sreekrishna and Hari Ravikumar (as பகவத்கீதை தற்காலத் தமிழில்). Tamil being her mother tongue, she hopes to contribute to its literature.

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