Ninda-stuti: Trash-talking God

Looking at the various religious traditions of the world, devotion takes a staggering number of musical and literary forms, such as the qawwali music sung at Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, the gospel music of African-American churches, mantras chanted at a Buddhist temple, and the boisterous Vodou-Catholic rara parades of Haiti. Hindus express devotion (bhakti, in Sanskrit) through a variety of ways, from intricate, philosophical Sanskrit poetry to simple bhajans sung by children and adults alike.

The tone of devotional music and poetry is often one of emotional, self-deprecating adoration: “Oh God, Lord of the universe, you are so great! I am a sinner in your eyes, but you are an ocean of compassion! Please bestow your blessings upon me!” However, even within Hinduism alone, there are many more dimensions to bhakti. For example, in South Indian poetry, bhakti has historically taken on the character of shringara (erotic love). Another unique form through which bhakti has been expressed in South India is that of ninda-stuti: basically, trash-talking God.

What is ninda-stuti?

The Sanskrit word ninda means “abuse, blame.” Stuti is a general term for devotional literary compositions, but literally means “adulation, praise.” Putting these two together, we get what William Jackson calls a “song of praise by way of sarcasm” (Jackson 367).

Madhu Khanna writes, “It is commonly understood that a ninda-stuti is a form of shlesha-kavya, literary composition laden with double entendre. This form of address is ultimately looked upon as a form of dvesha- bhakti, devotion expressed through hatred and enmity.

Such forms of dialogue are well known in the epics and in the Bhagavata Purana. In the Mahabharata, Shishupala and Dantavaktra recite a ninda-stuti to Krishna. In the Bhagavata, Kamsa, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha, and in the Ramayana, Ravana and Kumbhakarna don the roles of god-haters.

The [idea] is that it is the god in question who empowers them with such hatred, it is god who creates these situations through his power of maya [illusion] to put such characters in a quandary and finally it is god alone who releases them and frees them from bondage to the immoral and evil traits of their character” (Khanna 205).

Ninda-stutis aren’t just found in epics, though. Their “familiarity and humorous disrespect” lend themselves naturally to performances of music, drama, and dance (Jackson 367). Quite a few ninda-stutis are presented in performances of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance. The Tamil composers Muthu Thandavar (16th century), Papavinasa Mudaliar, and Marimutha Pillai (both early 18th century) were especially known for their ninda-stutis. An online Carnatic radio station notes that “these compositions are seen as passionate outbursts of the devotee, who takes liberties with [the] Lord because of the special relationship between them. Even though the [lyrics appear] to criticise the deity, the songs are an expression of affection, with the composer treating the deity addressed as an equal” (emphasis mine).

I want to emphasize that last phrase: the composers of ninda-stutis are addressing their chosen deity as an equal, and I think this is a really unique and fascinating way of imagining a relationship to the divine. It’s important that William Jackson reminds us that this attitude is not totally unique to Hinduism: “there are also examples of this complaining to the deity going back to the Old Testament: Job XVI 6-17 and XXI, 1-6.” (Jackson 367). However, I would argue that most religious traditions, including many Hindu traditions, have not fostered this attitude to the extent that we see occurring in ninda-stutis. In this post, I want to highlight three examples of ninda-stuti, all composed in different languages and addressed to different deities.

Mocking Shiva in Tamil: Nadamadi thirindha

Our first encounter with ninda-stuti is a padam composed by Papavinasa Mudaliar, a Carnatic composer who lived in Tamil Nadu in the early 18th century. This song is addressed to the god Shiva in the form of Nataraja, “lord of dance”:

Shiva’s dance has inspired a great deal of Hindu poetry and music (some of which I’ve written about before), and his classical pose as Nataraja—four arms, dancing in a circle of fire, dreadlocks unraveled—has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Hinduism worldwide. In this composition, Papavinasa Mudaliar takes aim at this iconic pose, sarcastically asking Shiva why his left leg is always raised: Has it become paralyzed? Did he sprain it? Did he stub his toe on a doorstep? The composer makes reference to the Chidambaram temple, where Nataraja is worshiped, as well as to a number of popular myths of Shiva, some of which I’ve tried to explain.

“Nadamadi Thirindha” is set in the popular raga Kambhoji and is in khanda chapu (five-beat cycle). Below is a Bharatanatyam performance of this padam (the recording begins with the anupallavi, or second section: diDamdEvum…), and a translation of the lyrics. I love the way the dancer portrays Shiva hobbling around hitting his foot on a doorstep! You can also listen to a vocal rendition by T. M. Krishna here.

Also, if you know Tamil and have suggestions for a more accurate translation, please let me know; I can read and write the script, but I don’t know the language at all.

naDamADi t-tirinda umakkiDadukAl udavAmal
muDamAnadEn enDRu sholluvIrayyA

Oh my Lord who wanders around dancing, please tell me: why has your left leg become crippled and useless?

diDamEvum tillainagar maruvu pErAnanda
shaDai virittADinavA dEvA ciRsabhai aRiya (naDamADi…)

Oh Lord who blissfully danced in Chidambaram with such vigor that your dreadlocks came undone! (Please tell…) so that everyone in the chit sabha* can understand.

*the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple

tirunIRai c-cumandIrO, neruppAna mEnitanil
shItattinAl migunda vAdaguNamO
orumaiyuDan mArkaNDarkku udaviyAy marali vizha
udaikka shuLukkERi uNDa guNamO
paravaitanil teruvAshaRpaDi iDaRiTRO, endan
pApamO, en shivanE, mUvarkkum mudalvarenDRu (naDamADi…)

Did your leg become crippled and useless because you carried too much vibhuti (sacred ash)?

Did it become numb when your fiery warm body came in contact with the freezing waters of the Ganga?* 

Did you sprain it when you came to the aid of your devotee Markandeya by kicking Yama, god of death, to the ground?

Did you hit your foot on the doorstep when you went as a messenger to Paravai Naachiyar’s house? (Shiva aided the Tamil saint Sundarar by going as a messenger twice to the house of Paravai Naachiyar, a devadasi with whom Sundarar had fallen in love)

Or, dear Shiva, supreme among the trinity, is it because I committed some sin? (Please tell…)

dhananjeya mahipanuDan shamaril aDipaTTu vizha
shandilE muDi pishagi nondaduvO?
inam purium dArukA vanamengum tirindadil
muLLERuNDadO shollum – muRindaduvO
kanakasabhaitanil naTanam kaNDOrgaL adishayikka
kaNNeNDRuNDadO shollum
viNNavarkkum mudalvan enDRu

Did you dislocate a joint in your foot when you took a beating and fell down while battling the great hero Arjuna? (refers to an episode that occurs in the Mahabharata epic)

Or, tell me: did a thorn pierce your foot while you were roaming the pine forest, testing the sages gathered there?

Did it get sprained when those watching your dance in the kanaka sabha* cast the evil eye? Oh lord of even the gods, tell me…

*another hall in the Chidambaram temple

bhakti sheyyum periyOrgaL pApanAshamAgum
paramapadam iduvenDRu tUkki ninDRaduvO
shakti shivakAmavalli tanpAdam nOgumenDRE
taraiyil aDivaikka tayangi ninDRaduvO
satyalOka adhipati tALattiRkERpa naTam
tAngiyE oru kAlait tUkki ninDRaduvO

Does you keep it raised as a way to tell us that by taking refuge at your feet, you destroy our sins?

Do you hesitate to place your foot on the floor to avoid hurting your consort, the beautiful Shakti? (As Ardhanarishvara, Shiva occupies the right half of the body and Shakti occupies the left half.)

Or… do you simply keep it raised as part of your dance?

A Marathi warning: Pandhariche bhoot mothe

This next example, an abhang in Marathi, has a bit of a darker mood. It was written by Tukaram, a seventeenth-century poet-saint who came from a lower-caste shudra background and was associated with the Varkari bhakti movement, popular in what are now the Indian states of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka. Tukaram was a devotee of Vithoba, (also called Vitthala and Panduranga), a deity popular in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh who is generally seen as a form of Vishnu.

Vithoba’s main temple is in the town of Pandharpur, also called Pandhari. In this composition, Tukaram warns his audience not to visit the temple town, because there’s a huge bhoot (ghost/evil spirit) who lives there. He claims that because of this spiritPandharpur is so dangerous that whoever goes there doesn’t return. In the final lines of the song, Tukaram reveals that he himself went to Pandharpur, and he too didn’t come back… because he had achieved liberation, thanks to the spirit, who is in fact the god Vithoba.

The duo Ranjani and Gayatri (they’re sisters) are two of the most talented Carnatic vocalists today, and they have also become known for their renditions of Marathi abhangs in the concluding portions of their concerts. Here’s Ranjani and Gayatri’s haunting yet lively rendition of Tukaram’s ninda-stuti in the Hindustani raga Chandrakauns (which, by the way, is such a beautiful word… Chandrakauns). Below is a translation of the lyrics; I’ve included the original Marathi text as well, because I’m not that familiar with the language.

पंढरीचे भूत मोठे
आल्या गेल्या झडपी वाटे
panDharIchE bhUt moThe
AlyA gElyA ZaDapI vATE

There’s a huge spirit/ghost who lives in Pandharpur,
and it possesses whoever comes and goes there.

बहु खेचरीच रान
बघ हे वेडे होय मन
bahu khEcharIca rAn
bagh hE vEDE hoy man

The forests around Pandharpur are dangerous;
You’ll lose your mind in them.

जाऊ नका कोणी, तिथे जाऊ नका कोणी
जे गेले, नाही आले परतोनी
zAU nakA koNI, tithE zAU nakA koNI
jE gElE, nAhI AlE paratonI

Don’t go! Don’t go there!
Those who went there never came back!

तुका पंढरीसी गेला
पुन्हा जन्मा नाही आला
tukA panDharIsI gElA
punhA janmA nAhI AlA

Tukaram went to Pandharpur,
And he was released from the cycle of rebirth. (i.e. achieved moksha, liberation)

Scolding Rama in Telugu: Adigi sukhamu

This final ninda-stuti was composed in Telugu by Tyagaraja, arguably the most popular composer of Carnatic music (and, as I recently found out, a contemporary of Beethoven! How crazy is that?). As with most of his other compositions, this kriti is in Telugu, and is addressed to the god Rama. In this song, Tyagaraja sarcastically asks Rama, “Have you ever given anyone happiness?”

As his evidence, Tyagaraja draws upon the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and various other myths about the gods Rama, Krishna, and Vishnu (who are all related, in the sense that Rama and Krishna are incarnations of Vishnu). He points out that Rama’s wife Sita just wanted a happy, peaceful life, but after Rama was exiled, Sita had to go live in the forest with him (where she was later kidnapped by a demon, but that’s besides the point…) Vishnu’s devotee, the divine sage Narada, wanted to understand Vishnu’s power of maya (illusion), but in order to do so he had to take birth as a human and go through many, many struggles. Devaki prayed for a son, and she gave birth to Krishna; but immediately afterwards, baby Krishna had to be taken away and placed under the foster care of Yashoda. And so on. By the end of the song, you may find yourself agreeing with Tyagaraja; God’s antics seem to make everyone’s lives only more stressful.

Below is a rendition of this song by the Carnatic vocalist Sripada Pinakapani, followed by a translation of the lyrics. This kriti is in the raga Madhyamavati, and is set to misra chapu (seven-beat cycle).

aDigi sukhamu-levvar-anubhavinciri-rA?
AdimUlamA rAma!

O Rama, primordial lord! What did you give them?
The happiness they asked for?

saDalani pApa-timira-kOTi-sUrya!
sArvabhauma! sArasAksha! sadguNa! ninnu…

Like the sun, you are said to dispel the darkness of innumerable sins. You are praised as the handsome lord of all, the possessor of good qualities. Yet, who has attained happiness by asking anything of you?

Ashrayinci varam-aDigina sIta,
aDavi bOnAyE!
Ashara-haraNa rakkasi-ishTam-aDuga,
appuDE mUkku pOyE! O rAma! ninnu…

Addressed to Rama:

Your wife Sita took refuge in you and merely wished for a good life,
but she had to go to the forest, thanks to you.
When the demoness Surpanakha expressed her desire for you,
she ended up losing her nose.

vAsiga nArada-mauni varam-aDuga,
Ashinci durvAsulaD-annam-aDuga,
appuDE mandamAyE! O rAma! ninnu…

Addressed to Vishnu:

Your devotee Narada sought true understanding of your [Vishnu’s] creation,
but he was instead turned into a woman.
The sage Durvasa wanted food,
but then lost his appetite.

sutuni vEDuga jUDa dEvaki yaDuga,
yaShOda sUDanAyE!
satulElla rati-bhiksham-aDuga
vArivAri patula vIDanAyE! O rAma! ninnu…

Addressed to Krishna:

Devaki asked for a son,
but Yashoda got one instead.
The gopis (cowherd girls) begged for love,
and they had to leave their husbands for you.

nIkE daya-buTTi brOtuvo? brOvavO?
nI guTTu bayalAyE! sAkEta dhAma!
srI tyAgarAjanuta! svAmi!
eti mAyA? O rama! ninnu…

Who knows if you’ll protect me or not?
Your secret’s out. Why keep up this illusion?
Tyagaraja sings to you.

Just one more…

Ok, this isn’t a musical example but I couldn’t resist adding it to this list. The fifteenth-century Tamil poet Kalamegham was known for his witty shlesha poetry and ninda-stutis. Here’s one addressed to the god Muruga (also called Kartikeya, Skanda, Shanmukha…) in which the poet makes fun of the god’s family: his father Shiva, his mother Parvati, his brother Ganesha, and his uncle Vishnu (seen as Parvati’s brother, and referred to in this poem as Krishna):

appan irandUNNi; attAL malaiNeeli;
oppaRiya mAman uRitiruDu; chappaikkAl
aNNan peruvayiRan; ARumugaththAnukku iNgu
eNNum perumai ivai

Dad is a beggar, Mom is a mountain gypsy;
Your “peerless” uncle is a thief of butter;
You have a short-legged, pot-bellied brother; Oh six-faced one (Muruga),
These honors are what you’re famous for.



10 thoughts on “Ninda-stuti: Trash-talking God”

  1. Loved this post of yours! I found your blog when I was searching for the ninda stuti you posted on Lord Muruga. If you have any reference/recording/dance on that, I would really appreciate having a link.
    I had never heard of the ninda-stuti you posted on Lord Rama. I loved listening to it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @nikhil, absolutely loved this post – at so many levels. Much like the previous commenter, I found this while searching ninda stuti – for a project @chitrasri is working on – about how often entrepreneurs are questioned and even mocked as having lost it for their crazy ideas – so Ghanam Krishna Ayyar’s padam “Ethai Kandu Nee” is an excellent example of Ninda Stuti that conveys this sentiment. Thanks for this detailed post and being a sucker for tamil poetry was overjoyed by the numerous references/links. Keep up the good work!

      Liked by 1 person

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