In one of the recent comments it was stated that Bhagavan was an avatar of Subrahmanya, the second son of Siva. This was a widely-held view in Bhagavan’s time, primarily because Ganapati Muni had confidently made this assertion in the eighteenth chapter of Sri Ramana Gita. Krishna Bhikshu, Bhagavan’s Telugu biographer, accepted this claim and devoted several pages of his book (Sri Ramana Leela, chapter 49) to a series of examples and arguments which he said demonstrated that the claim was a genuine one.
Ganapati Muni’s conviction that Bhagavan was an avatar of Subrahmanya arose from an incident that occurred in March 1908 when he was with Bhagavan at Pachiamman Koil, a temple of the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai. Early one morning he saw a bright light appear and touch Bhagavan’s forehead. The light enveloped Bhagavan, and within that glowing effulgence Ganapati Muni discerned six stars of different colours which eventually merged into a single light.
Subrahmanya was created from light that came out of Siva’s third eye. Siva gathered this light in his hands and passed it on to Vayu, the god of wind. The power of the light was too much for Vayu, so he gave it to Agni, the god of fire, who deposited it in the
A few years before Seshadri Swami had also come to the conclusion that Bhagavan was Subrahmanya, although there appears to be no record of how he came to that conclusion. Seshadri Swami identified himself with Parvati, Siva’s consort and decided that Bhagavan was ‘her’ son, Subrahmanya.
Proponents of the avatar theory have drawn up long lists of facts and coincidences to demonstrate the validity of their belief. For example, Bhagavan’s occasional references to Arunachala as his ‘father’ are taken to be proof that he must be one of Siva’s sons. For those who are interested, there is a list in chapter 49 of Sri Ramana Leela, and an even more exhaustive compilation in an article by Ra Ganapati that appeared in a 1984 edition of The Mountain Path.
Since the original claim can be traced back to Ganapati Muni’s vision, I should like to make a few comments about the nature of jnanis and visions. Bhagavan appeared on several occasions to devotees in forms that they desired. He had the power both to grant visions (see, for example ‘Bhagavan gives Rama darshan’ by T. K. Sundaresa Iyer) and to manifest in a different form. The following story is narrated by K. Vithoba Kamath:
I used to sit in the hall in the last row. One day an idea flashed that I should see Lord Krishna. I intently looked at Bhagavan and saw a dark cloud engulfing him and within that emerged the Lord. I was at my wit’s end. I thought it was a hallucination and a projection of my own mind. I wanted to try again. This time I thought of Gandhiji. Ramana was nowhere, but in his place there was Gandhiji. Being bewildered, I looked at Bhagavan. There! He was looking straight at me with a benign smile on his face. I felt highly blessed. (Arunachala’s Ramana, Vol. V, pp. 114-123)
The desire for a vision does not need to be expressed. If there is a hidden desire for one, then that may be enough for Bhagavan to appear in a different form. I think the following comments by Papaji explain this quite well:
The enlightened man, the jnani, does not do anything. He just sits quietly, like a mountain. He does not respond to your requests by doing anything, but if you go near him with a desire in your mind, there will be an automatic response. If you throw a rubber ball at a wall, it will bounce back. The angle and speed of the ball off the wall will depend on the angle and speed at which you throw it. The wall does not have to decide how to respond to the incoming ball. When you go into the presence of a jnani with desires in your mind, the appropriate response comes back automatically. You don’t even have to talk about them. If your mind is in the presence of a jnani, it will be flinging its desires at the wall of his enlightenment, and that wall will give you back what you desire or need. But if you go into the presence of a jnani without any thoughts or desires, what will be reflected back will be the state of thoughtlessness and desirelessness. In his presence you will be established in that state. This is the sannidhi, the presence of the jnani, at work. You don’t need to ask for anything. Just go near him. (Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, pp. 335-6)
My feeling is that the vision which appeared to Ganapati Muni in 1908 was triggered by his latent desire to see Bhagavan in the form of a God. It was not in itself an indication that Bhagavan was an avatar of Subrahmanya.
What did Bhagavan himself make of these claims? To some extent he encouraged their persistence by neither denying nor confirming them. He seemed happy to have some of his devotees believe that he was Subrahmanya, if that was good for their level of devotion, but he never actually endorsed their belief. When he was living at
Lawyer: People say that you are the incarnation of Lord Subramania.
Bhagavan: That and all gods are only me. [laughter]
Lawyer: Perumal Swami has written in his diary that you are an avatara of Lord Subramania. [The lawyer then showed Bhagavan a verse in Perumal Swami’s diary.] This verse says that you are Subramania. Is the handwriting yours?
Bhagavan: The handwriting is mine but the idea was Perumal Swami’s. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 138)
In the verse Bhagavan composed he clearly identifies himself with Subrahmanya, but one should remember that he wrote this poem to please Perumal Swami, not to confirm this particular identity. The verse says:
The six-faced Lord who came on earth borne by Mother Azhagu and Sundaram in Tiruchuzhi in order to remove the defects of his devotees by saying ‘Fear not!’, who bears the twelve hands in order to bestow his own state by destroying the karmas of those seeking refuge at his feet, who, having subdued the five senses rides upon the peacock of the elevated mind-lotus, and who plays the game of throwing the spear which is the glance of jnana, he is indeed the Lord who blissfully abides as Arunamalai-Ramana.
The translation is taken from The Mountain Path, 1984, page 94. The six-faced Lord is Subrahmanya; Azhagu and Sundaram are Bhagavan’s parents; Tiruchuzhi is Bhagavan’s birth place; the twelve hands, the spear and the peacock are iconographical features of Subrahmanya.
With Bhagavan showing a willingness to help devotees in this way, it is not surprising that the ‘Subrahmanya-avatar’ theory persists to this day.
Ganapati Muni did not stop at claiming that Bhagavan was Subrahmanya. He also maintained that Bhagavan was an incarnation of Jnanasambandhar, the Tamil poet saint who lived around the sixth century AD. In Sri Ramana Gita, chapter eighteen, verse nineteen, he wrote:
Again, this boundless genius [Bhagavan] is another advent of the Master-poet, the twice born Tamil child [Jnanasambandhar] who, drinking in the breast-milk of the Mother of the Universe, sang in dancing tunes the praises of Siva.
Bhagavan narrated the story of Jnanasambandhar ‘drinking in the breast-milk of the Mother of the Universe’ in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, Letter 85,
Sambandha was born in an orthodox Brahmin family in the town of
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 here
once deign to grant His grace,
when lotus-dwelling Brahma
bowed down to Him in praise.
Verily, He it is that is our Lord!
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.
There are interesting parallels between Bhagavan’s life and the life of Jnanasambandhar. They were both born on Ardha Darsanam; both attained jnana early in their lives; both came to Arunachala and saw it for the first time at the Arayanainallur temple; more remarkable still, both had a vision of light there.
Bhagavan had a very high regard for Jnanasambandhar, as the following remarks by Devaraja Mudaliar indicate:
Bhagavan used sometimes to refer to Tevarams also as occasion arose in the course of conversation. He had reverence for all the three Tevaram saints and admiration for their songs. And yet I have observed that Bhagavan considered Tirujnanasambandhar the most powerful manifestation of God’s grace amongst these three famous saints. He pointed out that Sambandhar frequently referred to Tiruvannamalai. He has also remarked more than once about Sambandhar, ‘See with what confidence and authority he says that those who sing his songs will be saved. Is he not God’s son?’ (My Recollections of Bhagavan Sri Ramana, pp. 53-4)
However, despite having a deep appreciation of his life and poetry, Bhagavan never gave the slightest hint that he had a past life connection with him. Jnanasambandhar himself never claimed that he was an avatar of Subrahmanya. That particular connection was made centuries later when Arunagirinathar, a Tamil Murugan bhakta who lived in Tiruvannamalai, mentioned in one of his poems that Jnanasambandhar was an incarnation of Subrahmanya. The idea has persisted among Subrahmanya devotees, but one should remember that it was not made by Jnanasambandhar or any of his contemporaries: the first mention of it is in a poem written about 800 years after he died.
There is one other life that Ganapati Muni attributes to Bhagavan: that of Kumarila Bhatta, a scholar who was a contemporary of Adi-Sankaracharya. The claim is recorded in Sri Ramana Gita, chapter eighteen, verse sixteen. Here is the verse followed by Kapali Sastri’s commentary on it:
He [Bhagavan] is a reincarnation of [Kumarila] Bhatta, praised by assemblies of scholars, the author of Tantra Vartika, elixir of the Vedas, brilliant with various ingenious ideas; in this birth, however, he elucidates the teachings of Vedanta alone.
Bhatta was the one who wrote the work famous as Tantra Vartika which served as the life breath of the Veda, making it resplendent with a variety of wonderful rational cogent arguments. By composing such a mature work serving as a crown to the science of Dharma Mimamsa, he disarmed and vanquished the Buddhists who were practising a religion founded outside the pale of the Veda. That is why the attribute ‘the life-breath of the Veda’ is employed to describe the work…
His [Kumarila Bhatta’s] work became virtually the life breath, the sustenance of the vedic religion. And so he has been applauded by the world of learned men. Ramana is He in another guise. Kumarila, a staunch believer in karma, was a Mimamsaka who broke to pieces other religions. On the other hand, the Maharshi is a jnanin, a person of knowledge getting the same relish in all religions. That is why it is said that his guise is one enquiring into the words of Vedanta. The purport is that Bhagavan Ramana is another form of Kumarila, now enquiring into the meaning of Vedanta. (Ramana Gita, tr. Sankaranarayanan, Sri Ramanasramam 1998 ed. p. 225)
Kumarila Bhatta was a scholar from
As he was about to be hurled to his death he called out, ‘If the Vedas are true, let me be saved!’
He survived the fall without sustaining any serious injury except that he was blinded in one eye by a stone. This was attributed to his doubting that the Vedas were true. Instead of saying ‘If the Vedas are true…’ he should have said ‘As the Vedas are true…’.
He escaped from the Buddhists, settled down in
However, some time later, overcome with guilt that he had both deceived his Buddhist guru and expressed a slight doubt about the truthfulness of the Vedas, he decided to commit suicide as an act of atonement. His chosen method was self-immolation. He placed himself on top of a pile of paddy husk and was on the point of igniting it when Adi-sankaracharya appeared and asked him to debate his ideas. Kumarila Bhatta refused, saying that he had already taken the decision to give up his life to atone for his sins. Instead of debating with Adi-sankaracharya, Kumarila Bhatta recommended that he visit one of his own students, Mandana Mishra, and have the desired debate with him instead. Adi-sankaracharya took the advice, debated the student and defeated him, but before he went there he accepted Kumarila Bhatta’s final request that he chant the Taraka mantra as the flames consumed his body.
I have to confess that I find Kumarila Bhatta to be a very odd candidate for a previous life of Ramana Maharshi. I can understand how Ganapati Muni took Bhagavan to be an avatar of Subrahmanya after his 1908 vision. I can also understand why he also identified him with Jnanasambandhar because of the similarities in their lives and the belief, started by Arunagirinathar, that Jnanasambandhar was an incarnation of Subrahmanya. However, the assertion that he was also Kumarila Bhatta seems to have no published facts or evidence to support it. There is also a chronology problem. This is how Krishna Bhikshu explained the various births of Bhagavan:
As Kumarila he established the supremacy of the karma marga, as Jnanasambandhar, he brought bhakti marga close to the people, and as Ramana he showed that the purpose of life was to abide in the Self and to stay in the sahaja state by the jnana marga. Truly wonderful! (Sri Ramana Leela, p. 314)
The problem with this sequence is that Jnanasambandhar lived about two hundred years before Kumarila Bhatta, who was supposedly the first of the three human incarnations of Subrahmanya. Modern scholars have concluded that Adi-Sankaracharya lived around the eighth century. Some traditional scholars who base their conclusions on genealogies of the Sankaracharyas that have been preserved by the Sankaracharya maths have claimed that Adi-sankaracharya lived over a thousand years earlier, but this contention brings up some glaring anachronisms such as Adi-Sankaracharya commenting on texts that had not even been written when he was alive.
What did Bhagavan make of all this? This is what he had to say on the subject when he was asked in 1946:
Mr G. Subba Rao read from Ramana Lila that Sankaracharya had told one of his disciples that Bhagavan was the third avatar of Subrahmanya, the first one having been Kumarila Bhatta 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.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 1st February, 1946, afternoon)
The problem of the chronology of the various incarnations was also raised in a discussion that Suri Nagamma recorded:
On the 7th of this month [January 1947] Dr T. N. Krishnaswamy, a devotee of Bhagavan, celebrated the Jayanthi of Sri Ramana in
While the devotees in the Asramam were searching for these references, Bhagavan himself said, ‘Nayana [Ganapati Muni] said that Skanda (Lord Subramanya) was born first as Bhattapada, then as Sambandha (Thirujnanasambandhar), and in the third birth as Ramana. The appellation, “dravida sisuhu” used by Sri Sankara in Soundarya Lahari refers to Sambandha, doesn’t it? Therefore Sambandha must have existed prior to Bhattapada who was a contemporary of Sankara. Nayana said that Sambandha was of a later date than Bhattapada. One is not consistent with the other; which of the above versions is the authority for the aforesaid lecturer’s statement is not yet known.’
Surprised at these words which were meant to throw everyone off his guard, I said, ‘Why so much discussion about it? We may ask Bhagavan himself. Doesn’t Bhagavan know who He is? Even if He does not tell us now, there is His own reply to the song asking, “Who is Ramana?” written by Amritanatha Yatindra while Bhagavan was dwelling on the Hill.’
Bhagavan replied, ‘Yes-yes!’ with the smile of approval on His face.’ He waited for a while, and then said, ‘Amritanatha is a peculiar person. He is very interested in all matters. When I was on the Hill he used to come now and then, and stay with me. One day I went somewhere. By the time I returned, he had composed a verse in Malayalam, asking “Who is Ramana?” left it there and went out. I wondered what was written on the paper, so I looked at it and found out. By the time he returned I [had] composed another verse in reply, in Malayalam, wrote it down below his verse and put the paper back. He liked to attribute supernatural powers to me. He did so when he wrote my biography in Malayalam. Nayana had it read out to him, and after hearing it, tore it off, saying, “Enough! Enough!” That was the reason for his posing this question also. He wanted to attribute some supernatural powers to me, as “Hari” or “Yathi” or “Vararuchi” or “Isa Guru”. I replied in the manner stated in the verse. What could they do? They could not answer. A Telugu translation of those verses is available, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, there is. Isn’t Bhagavan’s own version enough for us to establish that Bhagavan is Paramatma himself?’ I said.
Bhagavan smiled, and lapsed into mouna. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 29th January 1947)
Amritanatha Yati posed the following question in a verse: ‘Who is this Ramana in the Arunachala cave, who is renowned as the treasure of compassion? Is he Hari [Vishnu] Sivaguru [Subrahmanya], Yativara [Siva] or Vararuchi [the principal scholar at the court of King Vikramaditya]? I am desirous of knowing the Guru’s mahima [greatness].’ This is Bhagavan’s reply, taken from Collected Works, page 142:
In the recesses of the lotus-shaped hearts of all, beginning with Vishnu, there shines as absolute consciousness the Paramatman, who is the same as Arunachala Ramana. When the mind melts with love of him and reaches the inmost recess of the Heart wherein he dwells as the beloved, the subtle eye of pure intellect opens and he reveals himself as pure consciousness.
It is clear from this reply and all the other recorded responses on the same topic that Bhagavan was not interested in endorsing any of the past-life suggestions that were made to him, nor was he willing to offer any alternatives. I am sure he knew who he was last time around, but he kept this knowledge to himself and never gave the slightest hint of who he might have been.
I once asked Papaji if he could recollect having any association with Bhagavan in an earlier life. I asked because Papaji sometimes spoke about a remarkable incident in which he saw all his past lives while he was sitting on the banks of the
With all this past-life knowledge he surprised me by saying, ‘I must have had some connection with him. How else could I have gone to him and taken him as my Master? But I have no idea where and when that connection was.’
I also asked Saradamma once if Lakshmana Swamy had ever told her who Ramana Maharshi had been in his previous lives. She responded by giving a mischievous smile and putting her index finger to her lips. I took this to mean that it was a secret that neither she nor Lakshmana Swamy was willing to divulge. Lakshmana Swamy had had recollections of previous lives – one as a yogi, one as a raja and one as a Christian priest – but I never heard him speak of any incident that revealed a connection with Bhagavan.
I don’t find Ganapati Muni’s claims to be very plausible, and I have not an iota of reliable evidence to support any alternative claims. However, I won’t let that stop me from playing my own guessing game about whom Bhagavan might have been last time around. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that visions indicate the state of mind of the person who is seeing them and as such are not reliable indicators of who Bhagavan might have been. I would take a different approach and look at the samskaras that Bhagavan manifested and extrapolate them backwards to see what kind of person he was in his past life, and what interests he had.
The strongest and most obvious samskara was his love of Arunachala. In the first verse of Arunachala Ashtakam he wrote, ‘From knowledgeless early childhood Arunachala was shining in my mind as that which is most great’. That is to say, before he had the capacity even to think rationally, he instinctively knew that Arunachala represented or constituted the Supreme. Next, since he realised the Self with the minimum amount of effort and practice, that would indicate that he was a highly mature soul who had almost reached the goal of liberation in his previous birth. One other talent or interest is worth noting. He had an aptitude for Tamil literature while he was still a young boy. Though he never did much work at school, he was apparently correcting his Tamil literature teacher when he was only thirteen. These three characteristics – an immense love for Arunachala, spiritual maturity and a talent for Tamil poetry – would seem to me to indicate that Bhagavan had a recent life as an Arunachala saint who either appreciated Tamil poetry or who had a talent for composing it. And, it goes without saying, it has to be someone who died before Bhagavan was born.
Before I review the limited options on this I want to relate an interesting incident that took place a few years ago at
There is one other candidate I would add to my list: Isanya Jnana Desikar. He was also a Tiruvannamalai saint who fell in love with Arunachala and wrote verses in praise of it. He was born in 1750 and passed away in 1829 in Tiruvannamalai. For those who are interested, the following two links are to articles on my site that give a lot more information about this saint’s life and poetry.
I think I would put him slightly ahead of all the other candidates I have offered so far because his poems contain not just praise of Arunachala but also teachings that are highly reminiscent of Bhagavan’s own. The references in his Garland of Hymns to Arunachala to ‘being still’ to ‘Who am I?’, and to ‘finding the source of the “I”’ are highly unusual in Saiva saints who normally focus on devotional pleas and sentiments.
As I have said before, I have not the slightest shred of evidence to back up my views on this subject, so please take what I have said as just a little entertaining speculation. I will conclude with a few of Isanya Jnana Desikar’s verses. All of them are addressing Arunachala. As you read them, ask yourself, ‘Who does this remind me of?’
O Supreme Bliss! Eternal Plenitude! Teacher of Nama Sivaya! You who cannot be approached by the Agamas, the Puranas, the Itihasas and the Vedas! Father! Eternal One! [Arunachaleswara!] the husband of Mother Unnamulai who resides in Arunai! Please instruct me about the supreme state: the single, infinite state that is full of silence, in which the flood of the unified taste of peace prevails, where the body and all enjoyments are blissfully forgotten, where true knowledge shines like the sun. This is the yogic state that is called ‘Being still’.
[Unnamulai is the local name for the consort of Siva in Tiruvannamalai. Arunai is an ancient name for Tiruvannamalai.]
Eternal One! Consort of Unnamulai residing in Arunai! Without knowing the Self, I played with the body through the senses, the breath and the mind. I thought that I was born and that I will die. I considered my parents, women, the world and all its enjoyments to be real. But then you possessed me and made me join the select band of your devotees. You made me realise the complete knowledge that has neither birth nor death and let me enjoy the simple essence of remaining as the Self. O Father, thank you so much!
Like the scent in a flower, like the taste in honey, blissfully you have entered into me. Self of all souls! Lord of the Red Hill! Immanently you pervade the whole world, manifesting as the sky, the wind, fire, water, earth, the moon, the sun and the individual soul. You are the soul, the ‘you’ and the ‘I’. Up till now I have considered the world, which is only a mirage-like appearance, to be real. Who am I? What is this body? What is it that speaks ‘I’? What are all these relationships that appear as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘women’? Tell me!
Self of all souls on earth, existing beyond the mind, you are the plenitude of bliss! Lord of the Red Hill! You have entered me! Standing as the light through which the eye sees, you show me your form. From you arise, in the ear, songs, melodies, poetry and other sounds. The taste of earth on the tongue, the scent of a flower in the nose, the wind in the ear, the bite of a mosquito on the skin – all proclaim and announce you. Since you make me feel everything, from where, then, arises the sense or feeling of ‘I’?
Lord of the Red Hill! As complete bliss you have become the Self of all souls and entered me. Will you please tell me how the following pairs came into existence: the beginning and the end, men and gods, the arts and the Vedas, mother and father? What is this strong, binding karma? What pleasures and pains does the body undergo in heaven and hell? And what is it that remains beyond all this as ‘I’? Is it fair for you, the omnipresent one, to fail me? You are the first, the head of all others, so please show me your grace.
It is sheer delight to speak of Lord Aruna, the Light who is both beginningless and endless, unbroken, infinite space. It is sheer delight to say that Lord Aruna, the Light, is the source giving light to the sun, the moon, and fire. At the moment when one realises the Self by diving within, you become the face on the mirror. O personification of grace! What else needs to be known other than You who are omnipresent and who possess all?