Wednesday, May 21, 2008


In my last post I mentioned that in Bhagavan’s day the daily Tamil parayana consisted not just of Bhagavan’s works and songs in praise of him; it also included devotional Tamil poetry that Bhagavan had personally selected. The list included all the Arunachala Tevaram verses that were composed by Appar, Jnanasambandhar and Sundaramurti. I am going to post one of the Jnansambandhar poems on Arunachala today, but before I do I should like to give some background information on the author and the spiritual movement to which he belonged.

About 1,500 years ago there was a spiritual revolution in South India. This is how I described it in an article (‘Bhagavan, Manikkavachagar and the Tiruvachakam’) I posted on my site a few years ago:

In the seventh to ninth centuries AD there appeared in South India an upsurge of devotional fervour that completely transformed the religious inclinations and practices of the region. Vaishnava and Saiva bhaktas became infused with a religious spirit that emphasised ecstatic devotion to a personal deity rather than the more sober rites and rituals of vedic Brahmanism. It was both a populist Hindu revolt, since it expressed the people’s dissatisfaction with the hierarchies of caste, and a demonstration of contempt for the alien philosophies of Jainism and Buddhism, which had by then permeated large areas of South India.

The movement’s leaders were the various saints who toured the countryside singing songs in praise of their personal God. The language of these songs was deliberately simple, for they were intended to be sung by ordinary devotees, either alone or in groups. While it is true that the deities addressed were ones such as Vishnu and Siva, who were prominent components of the North Indian pantheon, the mode of expression and the philosophical content of the poems were unique, being an expression of the indigenous Tamil spirit and culture. This was the first of the great bhakti movements that were to invigorate the Hindu tradition throughout India in the succeeding centuries. It was so successful in transforming the hearts and minds of the South Indian population, one commentator (Hymns to the Dancing Siva, by Glen Yocum, 1982 ed., p. 40) has gone so far as to say that these poet-saints ‘sang Buddhism and Jainism out of South India’.

The Saiva revival of this era owed much to four poet-saints who are often collectively referred to as ‘the four’ (Nalvar). Appar, the first to emerge, flourished from the end of the sixth century until the middle of the seventh. Jnanasambandhar, the next to appear, was a younger contemporary of his. They were followed by Sundaramurti (end of the seventh century until the beginning of the eighth) and Manikkavachagar, whom most people believe lived in the ninth century.

The spontaneous songs of these early Saiva saints were eventually collected and recorded in a series of books called the Tirumurais. The first seven (there are twelve in all) are devoted exclusively to the songs of Jnanasambandhar, Appar, and Sundaramurti, which are known as the Tevarams, while the eighth contains Manikkavachagar’s two extant works. These twelve Tirumurais, along with the later Meykanda Sastras, became the canonical works of the southern Saiva branch of Hinduism. This system of beliefs and practices is still the most prevalent form of religion in Tamil Nadu.

Jnanasambandhar and Appar both visited Arunachala, and both wrote poems in praise of it while they were here.

Jnanasambandhar was a child prodigy who obtained Siva’s grace in full measure while he was a three-year-old child. This is how Bhagavan described Janansambandhar’s pivotal encounter with Siva in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 30th January 1947:

[Jnana]Sambandha was born in an orthodox Brahmin family in the town of Sirkali, to Sivapada Hridayar and his wife Bhagawatiyar The parents named him Aludaya Pillayar. One day, when the boy was three years old, the father took him to Thiruttoni Appar Koil. While immersed in the tank for a bath, he began repeating the aghamarshana mantram. When the child could not see the father in the tank, it looked around with fear and grief. There was no trace of the father. It could not contain its grief and so wept aloud looking at the temple chariot saying, ‘Father! Mother!’ Parvati and Lord Siva appeared in the sky, seated on the sacred Bull and gave darshan to that little child. Siva directed Parvati to give the boy a golden cupful of her breast milk, the milk containing Siva Jnana [knowledge of Siva]. She did accordingly. The boy drank the milk and became free from sorrow, and the divine couple disappeared.

Having drunk the milk of jnana, and feeling quite satisfied and happy, Sambandha sat on the tank bund with milk dribbling from the corners of his mouth. When the father came out from his bath, he saw the boy’s condition and angrily asked, flourishing a cane, ‘Who gave you milk? Can you drink milk given by strangers? Tell me who that person is or I will beat you.’ Sambandha immediately replied by singing ten Tamil verses beginning with:

He has an ear-jewel in one ear.

He rides upon the bull.

The crescent moon, pure and white,

upon His crown He wears,

and His body with ashes

from the burning ground He smears.

He is the thief who stole my heart!

He dwells in Biramapuram,

whose glory is that He did there

once deign to grant His grace,

when lotus-dwelling Brahma

bowed down to Him in praise.

Verily, He it is that is our Lord!

(Tevaram 1, poem 1 verse 1)

It was clear from the verses that the people who gave milk to the child were no other than Parvathi and Lord Siva. People gathered round. From that day onwards, the boy’s poetic flow began to run unimpeded.

At three years old the boy had become an enlightened saint. In subsequent years he toured the Tamil region singing the praises of Siva wherever he went. Bhagavan has described how he acquired his name:

In this connection a devotee asked Bhagavan one day, ‘Sambandha’s original name was Aludaya Pillayar wasn’t it? When did he get the other name “Jnana Sambandhamurthy” and why?’ Bhagavan replied, ‘As soon as he drank the milk given by the Goddess, Jnana Sambandha [contact with knowledge], was established for him, and he got the name Jnana Sambandhamurthy Nayanar. That means, he became a jnani without the usual relationship of Guru and disciple. Hence, people all over the neighbourhood began to call him by that name from that day onwards. That is the reason.’ (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 1st February, 1947)

When Bhagavan lived on the hill many devotees believed that Bhagavan was a reincarnation or avatar of Jnansambandhar. In the following quotation Akhilandamma explains the reasoning behind this supposition:

It is well known that many of the devotees who had darshan of Bhagavan Sri Ramana during his early days at Arunachala adored him as Jnanasambandhar himself. That sage also attained Self-realisation in his youth. Those who ponder over the two lives will discover many other similarities between the two. Bhagavan himself frequently praised the jnana of Jnanasambandhar. The birthday of both of them is Ardha Darsanam, both were strongly drawn to Arunachala, and both reached it by the same route. On the way to Arunachala both halted at the Arayanainallur temple. The sceptre of jnana that Jnanasambandhar wielded till his sixteenth year was taken over by Bhagavan, also in his sixteenth year. The similarities between the two are very striking. Because of this, when the Guru puja of Jnanasambandhar was celebrated every year at Sri Ramanasramam, I always used to go there, have Bhagavan’s darshan and offer bhiksha. (The Power of the Presence, part one pp. 89-90)

The idea that Bhagavan was or had been Jnanasambandar originated with Ganapati Muni, who claimed, in chapter eighteen of Sri Ramana Gita, that Bhagavan had been, successively, Subrahmanya, the son of Siva, Kumarila Bhatta, a contemporary of Sankaracharya, and Jnanasambandhar. Bhagavan himself never confirmed any of this. In Day by Day with Bhagavan (1st February, 1946, afternoon) he noted that all these stories had originated with Ganapati Muni:

Mr. G. Subba Rao read from Ramana Lila [the Telugu biography of Bhagavan] that Sankaracharya had told one of his disciples that Bhagavan was the third avatar of Subrahmanya, the first one having been Kumarila Bhattar and the second Jnana Sambandhar, and asked Bhagavan to whom it was Sankaracharya said so, Bhagavan did not know. But he said that Sankaracharya must be the one before the last, i.e., the third back from the present one. Bhagavan also added, ‘That Sankaracharya came and met me at Skandasramam. He must have been repeating what he heard. It is only Naina [Ganapati Muni] that started it. None said so before.’

Krishna Bhikshu, the author of Sri Ramana Lila, kept the idea alive by devoting a whole chapter in his biography to this topic.

In Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 1st February, 1947, Suri Nagamma asked Bhagavan about an incident in Jnanasambandhar’s life, and Bhagavan responded by telling the story of how Jnanasambandhar came to Arunachala:

I [Suri Nagamma] said, ‘Bhagavan too [as well as Jnanasambandhar] acquired knowledge, without the aid of a Guru in human form.’

‘Yes! yes! That is why Krishnayya [Krishna Bhikshu] brought out so many points of similarities between Sambandha and myself,’ said Bhagavan.

‘In Sri Ramana Lila it is stated, that while Sambandha was coming to Tiruvannamalai the forest tribes robbed him of his possessions. He was a man of wisdom and knowledge. What property had he?’ I asked.

‘Oh! that! He followed the path of devotion, didn’t he? Therefore he had golden bells and a pearl palanquin and other symbols of that nature according to the injunctions of Ishwara. He had also a Mutt (an establishment) and all that a Mutt requires,’ said Bhagavan.

‘Is that so? When did he get all those?’ I asked.

Bhagavan replied with a voice full of emotion, ‘From the time when he acquired the name of Jnana Sambandha, that is, even from his childhood, he used to sing with uninterrupted poetic flow and go on pilgrimage. He first visited a holy place called Thirukolakka, went into the temple there, sang verses in praise of the Lord, beating time with his little hands. God appreciated it and gave him a pair of golden bells for beating time. From that day onwards the golden bells were in his hands whatever he sang and wherever he went. Thereafter he visited Chidambaram and other holy places and then went to a pilgrim centre called Maranpadi. There were no trains in those days. The presiding deity in that place observed this little boy visiting holy places on foot. So His heart melted with pity, and He created a pearl palanquin, a pearl umbrella and other accompaniments bedecked with pearls suitable for sannyasis, left them in the temple, appeared to the Brahmin priests there and to Sambandha in their dreams and told the Brahmins, “Give them to Sambandha with proper honours,” and told Sambandha, “The Brahmins will give you all these: take them”. As they were gifts from Gods he could not refuse them. So Sambandha accepted with reverential salutations by doing pradakshina etc. and then got into the palanquin. From that time onwards, he used to go about in that palanquin wherever he went. Gradually some staff gathered around him and a Mutt was established. But whenever he approached a holy place, he used to alight from the palanquin as soon as he saw the gopura (tower) of the shrine and from there onwards, he travelled on foot until he entered the place. He came here on foot from Tirukoilur as the peak of Arunagiri [Arunachala] is visible from there.’

A Tamil devotee said that that visit was not clearly mentioned in Periapuranam to which Bhagavan replied as follows:

‘No. It is not in Periapuranam. But it is stated in Upamanyu’s Sivabhaktivilasam in Sanskrit. Sambandha worshipped Virateswara in Arakandanallur and won the god’s favour with his verses and then he worshipped Athulyanatheswara in the same way. From there he beheld the peak of Arunagiri and sang verses out of excess of joy and installed an image of Arunachaleswara in the same spot. While he was seated there on a mandapam, God Arunachaleswara appeared to him first in the shape of a Jyoti (light) and then in the shape of an old Brahmin. Sambandha did not know who that old Brahmin was. The Brahmin had in his hand a flower basket. Unaccountably, Sambandha’s mind was attracted towards that Brahmin like a magnet.

‘He at once asked him with folded hands, “Where do you come from?”

‘“I have just come from Arunachalam. My village is here, nearby,” replied the Brahmin.

‘Sambandha asked him in surprise, “Arunachala! But how long ago did you come here?”

‘The Brahmin replied indifferently, “How long ago? Daily I come here in the morning to gather flowers to make a garland for Lord Arunachala and return there by the afternoon.”

‘Sambandha was surprised and said, “Is that so? But they said it is very far from here?”

‘The old Brahmin said, “Who told you so? You can reach there in one stride. What is there great in it?”

‘Having heard that, Sambandha became anxious to visit Arunachala and asked, “If so, can I walk there?”

‘The old man replied, “Ah! If an aged man like myself goes there and comes here daily, can’t a youth like you do it? What are you saying?”

‘With great eagerness Sambandha asked, “Sir, if that is so, please take me also along with you,” and started at once with all his entourage.

‘The Brahmin was going in advance and the party was following behind. Suddenly the Brahmin disappeared. As the party was looking here and there, in confusion, a group of hunters surrounded them, and robbed them of the palanquin, umbrella, golden bells and all the pearls and other valuable articles, their provisions and even the clothes they were wearing. They were left with only their loin cloths. They did not know the way; it was very hot and there was no shelter, and all were hungry as it was time for taking food. What could they do?

‘Then Sambandha prayed to God. “Oh! Lord, why am I being tested like this? I don’t care what happens to me, but why should these followers of mine be put to this hard test?”

‘On hearing those prayers, God appeared in his real form and said, “My son, these hunters too are my Pramatha Ganas (personal attendants). They deprived you of all your possessions as it is best to proceed to the worship of Lord Arunachala without any show or pomp. All your belongings will be restored to you as soon as you reach there. It is noon time now. You may enjoy the feast and then proceed further.” So saying he disappeared.

‘At once, a big tent appeared on a level space nearby. Some Brahmins came out of the tent and invited Sambandha and his party to their tent, entertained them to a feast with delicious dishes of various kinds and with chandanam (sandal paste) and thambulam (betel leaves). Sambandha who was all along entertaining others, was himself entertained by the Lord Himself.

‘After they had rested for a while, one of the Brahmins in the tent got up and said, “Sir, shall we proceed to Arunagiri?”

‘Sambandha was extremely happy and accompanied the Brahmin along with his followers. But as soon as they set out on their journey, the tent together with the people in it disappeared. While Sambandha was feeling astonished at those strange happenings, the guide who had been leading them to Arunachala disappeared as soon as they arrived there. Suddenly, the tent along with the people in it and the hunters who had robbed them previously appeared from all sides and restored to Sambandha all his belongings which they had robbed previously, and vanished. With tears of joy, Sambandha praised the Lord for His great kindness, stayed there for some days, worshipped Him with flowers of verses and then proceeded on his journey. Out of His affection for Sambandha, who was serving Him with reverence, God Himself, it would appear, invited him to this hill.’

So saying, Bhagavan assumed silence, with his heart filled with devotion and with his voice trembling with emotion.

Finally, here, as promised, is one of the poems (Tirumurai 1, decad 10) that Jnansambandhar sang about Arunachala. It has been translated by T. V. Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself. The earlier verse (Tevaram 1.1.1), inserted in Bhagavan’s story of how Jnansambandhar became enlightened, is also one of our translations. We translated all the Tevaram verses about Arunachala a couple of years ago. I have been planning to use them in two long articles that will include all Bhagavan’s statements on the Tevaram writers and their works, but I put it off because I had too many other things to attend to. I hope to get back to it later this year. I have included a few explanatory notes in italics after some of the verses.


The karma of those who worship the One,

the mountain who dwells with Unnamulai

and who took on a woman’s form,

will unfailingly be destroyed.

He is Lord Annamalai,

where many mountain torrents resound,

like children’s prattle or muffled drums,

their water glistening with precious gems

that in profusion lie upon His slopes.

Unnamulai is the Tamil name for the consort of Siva in Tiruvannamalai. It can be translated as ‘she of the unsuckled breast’. Annamalai is the most common modern Tamil name for Arunachala. It means ‘unreachable’ or ‘unapproachable mountain’, a reference to the puranic story in which Vishnu and Brahma failed to find the end of the infinite column of light that Siva had manifested as to teach them a lesson in humility.


The karma of those who contemplate His roseate feet,

adorned by anklets with pendants

shaped like beautiful mango leaves,

will be no more.

He is Lord Annamalai,

where a male monkey plucks a sweet mango fruit

and the branch, as it springs back,

lashes the pure black rain clouds,

scattering a fine drizzle over the rocky landscape

so that the wild bulls and cows

seek the shelter of His wooded groves.


For those who worship the roseate feet

that destroyed the might of the Lord of Death,

there will be praise indeed!

He is Lord Annamalai,

whose broad slopes are covered by wooded groves

over which clouds laden with raindrops crawl,

where the fan-tailed peacock dwells with his mate,

and whose forest floor is liberally strewn with pearls

shed by the ripe bamboo.

In a well-known puranic incident Siva killed Yama, the god of death, with a single blow of his foot.


The home of the feet of Lord Siva,

girt with tinkling anklets,

is Annamalai itself.

He wanders the whole world with Brahma’s skull,

white and hairless, as a begging bowl,

eating only what is offered as alms,

and rides upon a bull,

His venerable russet locks crowned

by the young white crescent moon.

Originally Brahma hade five heads, but when he spoke disrespectfully to Siva, Siva removed one of them and used its skull as a begging bowl.


Is it fitting that He,

paying no heed to the serpent that creeps

and the Ganga that flows within His matted locks,

should hold in His embrace Uma,

she whose tresses are soft

and redolent of kuravam?

He is Lord Annamalai,

where, with a sound of drums,

white torrents roar,

sweeping along in their flood

white kadambu and cilai trees

and pearls and gems in profusion.

The commentators on this verse say that the ‘Is it fitting?’ query means that Siva should not be embracing Uma while the goddess Ganga and the snake are watching.


Those whose minds melt,

praising His holy feet,

where torrents rise in spate,

will not be touched

by the manifold afflictions.

He is Lord Annamalai

of the fragrant matted locks;

He who dared to drink the poison

from the milky ocean,

over which the crescent moon arose;

He who wears the holy ash,

and whose throat grew black

as He drank that poisonous draught.

As the devas and the asuras were churning to Ocean of Milk to obtain the nectar of immortality, one of the first things to emerge was some deadly poison. Siva drank it to save the world from its lethal effects, but it caused his throat to go blue (the verse says ‘black’). Neelakantha, ‘Blue-throated’, is one of the many names or epithets of Siva.


The home of the Lord is Annamalai

[where,] as swarms of buzzing insects sing,

He dwells with her whose eyes

are laced with fine red veins.

He dances upon the fires of the burning grounds

where black-footed ghouls tear out and eat

the entrails of corpses,

and where grinning white skulls roll about,

kicked by jackals as they play.

Having eyes ‘laced with fine red veins’ is a traditional way of describing a woman’s beauty in old Tamil poetry.

In some traditions Siva is depicted as an ‘outsider’, someone who is beyond the pale of normal civilised society. The ‘dweller in the cremation grounds’ is one such depiction. For some devotees Siva’s decision to live on the cremation ground symbolises his supremacy over the cycle of birth and death.

The Mahabharata (13.128.13-15) describes Siva’s cremation-ground abode in very similar terms: ‘covered with hair and bones, full of skulls and heads, thick with vultures and jackals, covered with a hundred funeral pyres, un unclean place covered with flesh, resounding with the cries of jackals.’


Annamalai is truly the home of Him

whose ways are a mystery to the world,

who crushed Ravana to a pulp,

who wears as His dress

a sleek and shiny tiger pelt,

who seized a rutting elephant by the head

when it frightened Uma with its trumpeting,

and, all in play, flayed it

till its flesh showed white.

‘crushed Ravana to a pulp’. Following his conquest of Lanka, Ravana encountered Lord Siva at his abode in Kailash. Ravana attempted to uproot and move the mountain. Siva, annoyed by Ravana's arrogance, pressed his little toe on Kailash, pinning him firmly and painfully. The earth is said to have quaked at Ravana's cry of pain when the mountain was pinned on him. The word Ravana means ‘[he] of the terrifying roar’. Siva eventually released him and Ravana later became his devotee.

‘wears as his dress a sleek and shiny tiger pelt’. This refers to an incident in the Tarakam forest where Siva confronted a group of rishis. The rishis were all following the ritualistic practices of Mimamsa. Siva went there, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman, and Adiseshan, the snake. Siva initially caused the rishis to have a violent quarrel among themselves, but later their anger was directed against Siva, whom they attempted to destroy by means of magical incantations. They created a fierce tiger out of a sacrificial fire and made it attack Siva. Unperturbed and still smiling, he caught hold of it and with the nail of his little finger he stripped off its skin and wrapped it around himself like a silk cloth.

‘rutting elephant’. Gajasura was an elephant demon who had obtained a boon that made him virtually invincible. When he began misusing his powers, devotees called on Siva for help. In a violent battle Siva killed Gajasura by piercing his hide with his trident. As Siva held Gajasura aloft on the end of his trident, Gajasura sang Siva’s praises and asked for a boon. When Siva granted his wish, Gajasura requested that after his death Siva should wear his hide.


He is the Lord of Annamalai

who appeared as a column of fire,

infinite in length,

both to him of deathless fame,

the Lord of the Vedas

who dwells upon an upraised lotus blossom,

and to him whose body is dark like the ocean.

He is the slayer of the demon who masqueraded

as a fruiting wood-apple tree.

He is the consort of Uma,

She of the firm breasts and sweet smile.

His feet alone are our sanctuary.

The ninth verse of all Jnansambandhar’s poems always includes a reference to the column of fire that Siva manifested as, the column that he later condenses into the form of Arunachala. Since no other Siva story is mentioned in every one of his poems, this indicates the importance and centrality of the column of fire story to Saivas of this era. Brahma and Vishnu, who failed to find the ends of the column of fire, are respectively referred to here as ‘the Lord of the Vedas who dwells upon an upraised lotus blossom’, and ‘him whose body is dark like the ocean’.


Heed not the words of those mere novices

who stand sweating and soiled,

tormenting themselves in the midday sun,

or of those who hide their chest,

covering it with clothing of bark!

To take refuge at the anklet-girt feet of Lord Annamalai,

He who wields a keen and shining battle-axe,

is the only proper course.

The tenth verse of all Jnanasambandhar always contains rude and insulting remarks about either Jains or Buddhists or both. These were the competing religions of the era, and Jnanasambandhar makes a point of ridiculing them in every one of his poems.


It is tapas indeed to honour the feet

of those who are deeply versed in this Tamil hymn

by Jnanasambandhar of cool Sikazhi,

where kuyils sing,

hopping from branch to branch.

It was sung in praise of Annamalai,

He who shot an arrow

that destroyed the three fortress cities,

and upon whose broad slopes

the sun shrinks from shining

his bright hot rays.

When, during a long war between the deva and asura realms, it looked as if the devas were about to lose, the devas appealed to Siva for help. The three cities of the asuras were protected by a boon that said they could only be destroyed if all three of them could be shot with a single arrow. Siva manifested and accomplished this feat. The destruction of the three cities with a single arrow is often used as a metaphor for the way Siva, through his power and grace, can destroy the triputis (knower, knowing and known and seer, seeing and seen) or the three states of waking, dreaming and sleep.

In Arunachala Puranam (‘Aaditi Aarukam’) there is an incident in which the sun god Surya rides over Arunachala, thinking it to be an ordinary mountain. There is a great explosion on top of the hill that causes Surya to lose the power to emanate rays of sunshine. Brahma, who was doing pradakshina of Arunachala at the time, advised Surya to do the same in order to propitiate Siva. When Surya followed the advice, Siva appeared to him, mounted on a bull, and restored his power.


Anonymous said...

"Those whose minds melt,

praising His holy feet,

where torrents rise in spate,

will not be touched

by the manifold afflictions."

Thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

"Those whose minds melt,

praising His holy feet,

where torrents rise in spate,

will not be touched

by the manifold afflictions."

Thanks for this post!