As he tried to read the first stanza he was confounded and filled with dismay at the repeated use of the word ulladu, which seemed too closely packed. The pure language, embodying the essence of absolute reality, would drive even pundits of Tamil prosody to despair.
In a comment on this post Subramanian noted that an expert on Bhagavan stumbled over the words of this verse when she tried to read them out at a public event.
At first glance it is a difficult verse even for those who know good Tamil, but it is, at the same time, one of the purest and most elegant expressions of Bhagavan’s teachings.
Muruganar commented on this verse in ‘Upadesa Tiruvahaval’, one of the poems that makes up Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai. A full translation of this poem can be found at http://www.davidgodman.org/rteach/Tiruvahaval.pdf. I am posting extracts from this translation today because I love this particular verse and always enjoy sharing some of its subtleties with other devotees.
The lines in roman are from ‘Upadesa Tiruvahaval’; the material in italics is commentary. The translation was done by T. V. Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself, and most of the additional comments are mine.
These two ‘Upadesa Tiruvahaval’ lines and the lines that follow are an expansion on and an explanation of the first invocatory verse of Ulladu Narpadu. Since this verse is an extensive play on the Tamil syllable ‘ul’, which is the root form of a verb meaning ‘to be’, the original Tamil words that contain this syllable have been retained.
This is what Prof. K. Swaminathan wrote about this invocatory verse:
The first stanza, woven out of pure Tamil words, is an emphatic assertion of the oneness of being, awareness and the Heart. It dwells lovingly on the Tamil root ul common to being, thinking, heart and inner space, all associated with indivisible oneness and wholeness. The verb ul (to be) which admits of no past or future tense, is repeated eight times, the word ullam (the heart) thrice, ullu (to think) thrice, and unarvu (feeling) twice; thus the venba as a whole, through sound, suggestion and explicit statement, pulls the mind inward to the very heart of being-awareness. (Ramana Maharshi, K. Swaminathan, p. 91)
You declared: ‘Since ulladu [reality] exists in ullam [the Heart] ulladu [reality] itself may be said to be ullam [the Heart].’ Praise be to you!
Ulladu, translated here as ‘reality’, is a combination of the syllables ‘ulla’ meaning ‘is’ and ‘adu’ meaning ‘that’. A more literal translation would therefore be ‘that-which-is’. Ulladu Narpadu (‘narpadu’ means ‘forty’) could therefore be literally translated as ‘Forty [on] That-which-is’.
You also declared: ‘As the experience “nam ullam” [“we are”] exists [there], it can be termed ullam [the Heart].’
In addition to meaning ‘the Heart’, ullam is also the first person plural form of the verb ‘to be’ – ‘we are’. Muruganar has commented on this combination of meanings in an explanatory note he wrote on verse 966 of Guru Vachaka Kovai:
The one reality, Atma-swarupa, exists and shines in the Heart, one without a second. Appearing as if it is many, it shines as ‘I-I’ in every individual being, who seem to be many because of upadhis [limiting ideas and associations]. Therefore, the plural term ullam [meaning] ‘we are’ is appropriate. Because the Heart is the place for the existing and shining of the Atma-swarupa, in Tamil the Heart is known as ullam. The word ullam here gives both meanings simultaneously. (Padamalai, p. 31)
Though, in modern Tamil, the ‘am’ suffix in ullam indicates the first person plural (‘we are’), in older Tamil ullam could also be taken to be the singular form, ‘am’ or ‘I am’. Thus ullam, serendipitously, can be taken to be both ‘I am’ and ‘the Heart’. Sadhu Om made this connection in his comment on verse 712 of Guru Vachaka Kovai: ‘Since the Tamil word “ullam”, which means “Heart”, also means “am” – the shining of the Reality, “I” – the Reality is called by the name “ullam”.’ (Guru Vachaka Kovai, tr. Sadhu Om, p. 221)
You declared: ‘Ullaporul [that which exists], which gets the name ‘ullam’, is not a thought form.’ Praise be to you!
Here is a transliteration of the first benedictory verse, split into its component words, followed by an English translation. The ‘ul’ syllables have been highlighted in bold:
ulladu aladu ulla unarvu ulladu o
ullaporul ullal ara ullatte ullataal – ullam enum
ullaporul ullal evan ullatte ullapadi
ullade ullal unar
Could there be a being-consciousness existing apart from that which [eternally] is? Since that reality exists in the Heart, free of thought, who could meditate upon that reality, called the Heart? Know that to remain within the Heart, as it is, is truly to meditate [upon the Heart].
The ‘ul’ sounds listed here are pronounced with the tongue bent back, with the underside of its tip touching the top of the palate, not the back of the teeth. This gives the sound a strong nasal component. When the verse is chanted, the repeated nasal ‘ul’ sounds punctuate the verse as a leitmotiv, repeatedly emphasising its principal theme that being is both the fundamental nature of the Self and the means by which it can be experienced.
With its elegant play on the syllable ‘ul’ and its strict metrical form, the first invocatory verse is now widely regarded as being a literary tour de force. The following appreciative comments, recorded by Kunju Swami, come from a distinguished Tamil scholar:
Once, while going on a pilgrimage, I [Kunju Swami] visited various maths before ending up at Peraiyur Santhalinga Math. At that time Veerasubbia Swamigal was resting there because he was not well. When I went and had his darshan, he made kind enquiries about the welfare of Sri Bhagavan and the ashram in general. He also looked into the notebook I had with me. Seeing in it the verses of Ulladu Narpadu written beautifully by Sri Bhagavan himself, he asked me to read them out to him. He appreciated the first benedictory verse so much, he asked me to read it three times.
After the third reading he remarked, ‘This is a very profound verse. Not only that, all the elegant features of prosody are in it. Until now I was under the impression that your swami was an adept only in “keeping still”, but now I discover that he is also a superb writer of fine poetry. The venba is itself a difficult metre that few poets dare attempt. Bhagavan has composed all forty-two verses in this metre and used them to convey the most abstruse philosophical ideas. Crowing them all, though, is this first invocatory verse.’ (The Power of the Presence, part two, 78-79)
You declared: ‘Consciousness of reality and consciousness of the things around us do not exist apart from that reality.’ Praise be to you!
‘Therefore, the place where everything exists is the Heart.’ This you declared. Praise be to you!
You declared: ‘Since those who have [truly] seen see nothing other than their own Self, thinking [of something other than the Self] is inconsistent [with that state].’ Praise be to you!
You declared: ‘Unless one reaches the throne of the Heart, it is impossible to see the brilliant light of reality.’ Praise be to you!
You declared, ‘If one dives within and reaches the place of its arising, thought, which is of the nature of the individual self, will cease to be’. Praise be to you!
Therefore, individual selves, who have no other form than thought, can only imagine with the false mind the reality that is free from thought forms, but they cannot think of it as it really is. Just as reality dwells within the Heart, free from thought forms, when the individual self dwells, in the same way, within the Heart, free from thought forms, that is meditation on reality. Thus did you explain it to us. Praise be to you!