Poonthanam and his ‘Song of Wisdom’

Jnanapana is a devotional Malayalam poem which directly translates to ‘song of wisdom’ or ‘the fountain of divine wisdom’. It is written by Poonthanam, a 16th century bhakti poet who lived in keezhattur in Kerala. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, who is considered to be the preserver of life from the Hindu pantheon of gods. Poonthanam was particularly devoted to Vishnu in the form of ‘Guruvayurappa’ (the lord and the presiding deity of the Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur, Kerala.)

According to the legends, Poonthanam and his wife were devoid of any children even after years of trying. The couple was desperate for a child and prayed to the deity in Guruvayur to bless them with an offspring. The couple was elated when they were soon able to bear a boy child. But it so happened that on the day of the celebration of the child’s first birthday, an unfortunate accident occurred. The child had been accidentally buried under a pile of clothes put up by the guests who came to attend the child’s birthday celebrations. Tormented by grief upon the loss of their only child, Poonthanam sought refuge in the Guruvayur Temple to seek penance.

As the legend goes, it is said that Lord Vishnu himself appeared in front of the ardently praying devotee in the form of a young child and blessed the poet-saint with his divine godly graces. Since then, Poonthanam spent his life meditating in the halls of Guruvayur and was devoted to the god like a father to a son. Later, when he wrote Jnanapana, poonthanam says “When Lord Krishna himself dances in my heart, why do I need any other children…” That’s the intensity with which poonthanam adored Krishna and it’s a very powerful and touching statement.

Unlike the other contemporary poet-saints of his time who were well-versed in Sanskrit, Poonthanam wrote most of his poems in very simple verses of Malayalam. This is the reason why ‘Jnanapana’ became popular, as it was easily understandable to the common folks. In fact, when a fellow poet named Melpattur (Who is the author of the reputed devotional song ‘Narayaneeyam’) criticised him for the same, it is said that Krishna himself appeared before him and said “I prefer Poonthanam’s ‘bhakthi’ (devotion) over Melpattur’s ‘vibhakthi’ (scholarly knowledge/input).

Jnanappana is Poonthanam’s magnum opus with over 360 verses of lines. The poet, deeply touched by human beings’ sorry plight in this age of Kali (Kali Yuga), extols the virtues of Jnana (wisdom) and urges them to follow the path of Jnana and to forsake the transient and ephemeral aspects of worldly life through his poem. It is highly philosophical and inquires about the deeper meaning of life and human existence in this world. Yet, the localized language helped the common folks to sing and celebrate this ‘song of wisdom’ for generations to come.

Some of the most philosophical and thought-evoking lines from the poem is as follows:

   If God wishes, the people we see now or are with us now, may disappear or be dead in the next moment. Or if HE wishes, in few days a healthy man may be paraded to his funeral pyre.


       If God wishes, the king living in a palace (malika) today may lose everything and end up carrying a dirty bag on his shoulders and walk around homeless.