As the jasmine flower is a jewel amongst the offerings to Bhagavan Shiva; similarly, Atukuri Molla is a jewel amongst the poets of the Telugu language.
There are few today, who have heard of her or her Ramayana, but her story and her work present several unique characteristics of Sanatana Dharma.
But in keeping with the tradition of Sanatana Dharma, let’s first start with a story before we explore the unique qualities of Atukuri Molla & her Ramayan.
Born in Gopavaram, Andhra Pradesh, her father, Atukuri Kesana Setty, a devotee of Bhagavan Shiva, named her for the very same jasmine flower that is dear to Shiva Ji. A pious devotee from a young age, she eschewed married life and became a Brahmacharini upon the recommendation of her father’s Guru. Once, whilst meditating with complete focus, she had a vision of Shri Rama, who asked her to compose her own Ramayana. She began work right away, and produced a beautiful Ramayana, that people from the neighbouring villages would come and listen to, which later came to be known as the Molla Ramayana.
Soon word spread to the court of King Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara empire, one of the great kings of the age, and he too wished to hear the Ramayana of Molla. Thus, Molla came to the capital and sang her Ramayana for the king, a master of poetry himself and his 8 great poets, whose skill in poetry was so great they were praised as being like elephants that could hold up the world. All were wonderstruck. To test her knowledge, she was challenged to produce a poem without any time on an incident where Bhagavan Vishnu saved an elephant who was his devotee, but with a humble and sincere prayer to Shri Rama, she sang a glorious poem that defeated those who questioned her knowledge. She was then venerated as a great poet and lived the rest of her life in the presence of Bhagavan Shiva in the temple town of Srisailam.
Now, much like the three eyes of Bhagavan Shiva, there are three unique aspects to both Atukuri Molla and her Ramayana:
Firstly, her birth. She was a woman, born in a family of potters. Furthermore, her family was Veera Saiva, belonging to an egalitarian tradition of Shiva worship started by Basavanna, a devotee of Shiva from Karnataka. This distinguishes her, as unlike many other poets of her time, she belonged to one of the ‘lower’ castes/ marginalised communities. Her devotion to Bhagavan Shiva is without question, as she opens her Ramayana with an invocation to Bhagavan Shiva, breaking the convention of the time, which was to open epic poems with praise of the king who patronised the poet. However, interestingly she does not restrict her Ramayana’s focus to stereotypically female topics or feel uncomfortable discussing the stereotypically masculine, with the longest section of her work being devoted to describing the war between Rama and Ravana in exquisite detail.
Secondly, like Ardhanareeshwara decorated with both the crescent moon and the Ganga in their matted locks, the simplicity of her character and the simple Telugu she writes in serve as ornamentations to her Ramayana. In the opening of her Ramayana, she claims not to know the rules of grammar of Telugu or Sanskrit, and in her humility, claims to know all she does through the Kripa of Bhagavan Shiva enshrined in her place of birth. Equally, when she was asked by the court poets of King Krishnadevaraya why she wrote her Ramayana in simple Telugu, she replied that the epic should be written in simple language, as using incomprehensible language would be pointless. It seems like the jasmine flower, whose beauty lies in its simplicity, so does the poetry of Atukuri Molla.
Thirdly, her Ramayana is special for its focus on Shri Rama, her one-pointedness in her praise of Shri Ram is so great in fact that to an extent she can even be said to not praise other personalities like Lakshmana or Hanuman to the same extent as other Ramayana-s do. It is also of note that in keeping with her avoidance of praising mortal kings in the beginning invocation, Atukuri Molla also essentially says that praising lesser kings when one could praise Shri Ram, the best of all kings, would be like choosing bitter ginger over sweet jaggery.
Whilst the life and poetry of Atukuri Molla are spectacular of their own accord, it is of particular note as we see three qualities of Sanatana Dharma shining forth.
Firstly, it’s egalitarianism: when one understands a core philosophical principle of Sanatana Dharma, that every living being is distinct from their body and mind, and beyond every material conception of their life, and eternally special owing to their connection to the indwelling divine, then how can there be discrimination! As mentioned, Atukuri Molla’s tradition of Shiva worship in a manner characteristic of devotional traditions in Sanatana Dharma, was completely egalitarian, believing there to be no difference between man or woman or between classes. And her life serves as proof that spirituality and the divine do not discriminate between living beings on this basis.
Secondly, its accessibility: making spirituality accessible to everyone has always been at the heart of Sanatana Dharma, with the first Ramayan written by Valmiki being written for this same purpose, making the eternal wisdom of the Vedas understandable to all, through describing the life of Shri Ram, the very embodiment of that wisdom. Similarly, Molla’s Ramayana, written in the Telugu of the masses, affirms that the divine life and pastimes of Shri Rama are for everyone. Something, celebrated by all Hindus in a variety of ways, from the annual Ram Leela, plays to the songs of Shri Rama written in every language.
Thirdly its internal harmony: it did not matter that Atukuri Molla was born in a Saiva family, she still sang the Ramayana, a story of an avatar of Vishnu. This harmony between spiritual traditions too is central to Sanatana Dharma, from the unifying Smarta system of Adi Shankara venerating all the Devas as one, to the topmost place of respect Vaishnava traditions give Bhagavan Shiva as the best amongst Vaishnavas – Sanatana Dharma at its core promotes respect, love & affection between all beings no matter their beliefs.
But at the heart of it all, we see one paragon of virtue, who is the exemplar of Sanatana Dharma and the hero of the Molla Ramayan, that personality is Shri Rama. In him, we see all the aforementioned qualities.
Shri Rama, who in ancient times, chose Valmiki to write the first Ramayana despite Valmiki being someone outcast by society, who then again in the past few centuries called upon Atukuri Molla, a woman of lower social status, to tell his story so that all could know him.
Shri Rama, who made himself accessible to all, provided multifold paths of spirituality, from the righteous conduct required by Karma Yoga to the intellectual realisation of the abstract divine of Jnana Yoga, to the personal affectionate love of Bhakti Yoga.
Shri Rama, the source of divine bliss and tranquility that all spiritual aspirants ultimately seek, the best amongst men, who ruled Ayodhya in a manner so perfect that we still aspire to recreate the tranquility, stability, and harmony of Rama Rajya, the rule of Shri Rama.
Consider the following quote from the Molla Ramayana:
‘సుడికొని రాము పాదములు సోకిన ధూళి వహించి రాయి యే
ర్పడనొక కాంతయయ్యెనట పన్నుగ నీతని పాదరేణు వి
య్యెడవడి నోడసోక నది యెట్లగునోయని సంశయాత్ముడై
కడిగె గుహుండు రాముపదకంజ యుగంబు భయంబుపెంపునన్!’
‘By virtue of taking upon itself some particles of dust from
The feet of Shri Rama, a stone has become a beautiful woman;
Wondering what a thing his boat would become when touched
By it then, Guha washed Shri Rama’s feet clean, fearing within!’
The verse refers to an incident in the Ramayan whereupon Shri Ram’s feet touched a stone a woman called Ahalya, who had been cursed to live in the form of that very stone, was liberated from her curse and became a woman once more. Although here, upon considering the transformative power of Shri Rama, Guha is rather humourously concerned about what will happen to his boat, one can’t help but wonder what sort of transformation can occur within us if we try to remember and emulate the life of Shri Rama.
Ultimately, it is that Shri Rama, the ocean of compassion, who does not discriminate against anyone, the central personality of the Molla Ramayana, who we worship this Diwali.
May his ever-smiling face continue to look upon all of us with love as we strive to live according to the ethical principles of Sanatana Dharma that he established & exemplified.
Jai Shri Ram & Deepavali Subhakankshalu!
Written by Imperial Hindu Society