The Arunachala Puranam is a 16th century Tamil work that chronicles the principal divine stories associated with Arunachala. It belongs to a class of texts known as ‘sthala puranas’, puranas that bring together all the religious stories of a particular holy place. It was composed by Saiva Ellappa Navalar, although some sources attribute the work to Ellappa Nayinar, a contemporary of his who also composed many Tamil works.
The author has taken material from several sources including the Arunachala Mahatmyam and a lesser known Sanskrit text entitled Kodi Rudra Samhita. It also contains original material, such as a whole chapter on the quest of a famous Tiruvannamalai king (Vallalan the Third) for a son, something he achieved when Siva intervened on his behalf.
Robert Butler has been working on a translation of the whole text and hopes to have it completed in a few months’ time. His version will be published by Sri Ramanasramam in India, and will also be available as an ebook. I will give a notification here when it becomes available.
As a ‘preview of forthcoming attractions’ I am posting chapter two, minus verses 83-94 which comprise a rather dense disquisition on several obscure aspects of Hindu mythology. The story resumes with Brahma beginning his famous dispute with Vishnu. All the notes are by Robert.
The chapter is entitled ‘The Holy Mountain’.
79 & 80
‘My Father! Most gracious Nandi! You who are easily accessible to your devotees! My mind is overcome with joy on hearing of Arunai’s glory. Pray tell us now, O you who possess the great wealth which is to serve Kailash’s king, who is clad in the skin of a rutting elephant with its warring trunk, how in that great city Lord Siva manifested in the form of fire, how later that fire became a mountain, and how Mal [Vishnu] and Ayan [Brahma] suffered, seeking in vain, one the foot, the other the head of that mountain of fire, until the Lord afforded them his grace!’ To which Nandi replied:
Arunai is an ancient name of the town of Tiruvannamalai. It is also used to denote the mountain of Arunachala.
‘Were a man to entertain in his mind the thought of going to that holy place to commit the five heinous sins, the thought of that place would prevail and the succour of final liberation would be his. Such is the pronouncement of the holy Vedas. For those who sweetly sing its praises, what reward might be too hard to win?
‘In telling this there is profit, not only for you who listen but for myself also. Now I shall tell as best I may how he who uproots sorrow and joy equally [Siva] became, for the good of Mal and Ayan, a vast flame, growing upward till it pierced the very heavens, and then, how he took the form of the Bhoga Lingam [Enjoyment Lingam]....
‘[Brahma] The Lord of the Vedas, seated upon a lotus blossom, surveyed his work, and became consumed with pride, thinking, “All this world is my own creation”. Rising in fury, he confronted Hari [Vishnu] in his own city, intent on war with the one who wears a fair garland of tulsi leaves about which clouds of bees sweetly hum. Reviling him, he began to speak:
‘“It is I who made the seven upper and lower worlds, the seven clouds, seven oceans and seven principal mountains. Then, in order to create all living things according to their species, I brought forth out of my mind sons, the first of which was great Marichi.
At the time of the creation of the universe, Brahma first created ten sons, called Prajapatis, to help him with the work of creation, the first of whom was Marichi.
‘“The children of these sons of mine are the gods themselves with their priests, the Moon and Sun, the Sons of Danu, the Gandharvas, Kimpurusas, and Siddhas, the Chiefs of Siva’s Hosts, and with Indra at their head, the Guardians of the Eight Directions.
‘“Forget your claim that you are the Supreme Being in whom nothing is lacking, and that I am your ‘lotus-born’ son. Had I not created the world with my own hands, how might you then have been able to preserve it? How could a picture exist unless there were sound walls to paint it on?
‘“If you do not abandon in your heart your arrogant claim to be the guardian of all things, I will call into existence another to take on this work of preservation. Therefore submerge yourself in the chilly ocean and hide yourself there, before the hordes of my divine progeny come to dispatch you!
‘“Through incurring the displeasure of the wise sage Bhrigu, you entered upon a series of ten incarnations. Do you not comprehend? Just look how my hands have been defiled in the creation of those very forms!
‘“Do not insult me by saying that I am the one who was born from the lotus blossom in your navel! Formerly, you sprang into being from a pillar. Are we to say that that pillar was your father? Or that it was your mother? Speak! When a bright red flame is kindled, it can consume the bamboo stem that gave it life, can you not see?”
‘These words of Brahma entered his ears, burning into him like a well-honed weapon, heated upon the fire. Smoke issued from the mouth of Vishnu as he smiled bitterly, paused briefly in thought, then rebutted him in the following manner:
‘“You quite forget the manner in which you came to be. You overlook the fact that my navel is your own mother! Perhaps you spoke these words like a small child who believes that his father will be indulgent towards his misdeeds. However, this lack of respect is something I will not tolerate.
‘“When they held me in contempt, I slew both the raging Madhu and the elephant-like Kaitabha, even though they were my own children. After committing such a heinous sin, can a son remain a son? For who would hesitate to cut out the canker in his own body?
Madhu and Kaitabha were two asuras born from the ear wax of Lord Vishnu, and eventually slain by him on account of their arrogance.
‘“When the divine madman, Lord Siva, tore off one of your heads and cast it aside, were you not powerless to restore it, and make it your own again? What kind of Supreme Being are you? Is this the kind of power that will enable you to call into being this world which rests upon the hooded serpent Adisheshan’s head?
‘“Incarnating in the form of a fish, I recovered the entire corpus of the Vedas. Those wily sons of Danu, I defeated and put to death. Even so, I am loath to slay you, just as one who has planted a tree [that turns out to be] poisonous might be loath to cut it down. However, it would be no great task for me to do so.”
‘So many angry words flew back and forth from one to the other, as they angrily smacked each other’s shoulders with the flat of their hands. Rising up, they leapt down into the world of men, shrinking themselves down, then rising up tall again, shooting dense streams of fire and sparks from their narrowed eyes.
‘Mountains were ground into dust. The cosmic shell exploded into fragments. Many, many suns with their hot rays, and suns with their cool beams were blotted out. Even the serpent Adisheshan writhed in pain, unable to bear the weight upon his head. The [unblinking] gods themselves blinked, thinking that the end of a world age must be at hand.
‘The stars in their constellations and the massed clouds fell from the sky like falling leaves, as the dust rose up and the tormented world fell into total disorder. Bhagirathi and all the lesser rivers ran dry and the Elephants of the Eight Directions bellowed in terror.
‘Now they tossed each other up in the air and fell down again, only to charge at each other once more, bending towards one another to exchange their barbed retorts. Now they traded blows and grabbed at each others’ clothing, whirling hither and thither like a thousand tornadoes. It was as if ruddy evening and black night were spinning round, one alternating with the other.
Brahma’s body colour is red, like the evening, and Vishnu’s, black, like night.
‘All creatures that crawled, hopped or walked took to the air and flew. Anything that stood was toppled. Trees of all the manifold species were snapped off and destroyed. Thick blackness enveloped everything. Mount Meru itself trembled, as the seven oceans turned to mud.
‘At the height of all this destruction, the gods went in fear to Indra, but before they could explain what had happened, Indra himself recounted to them all the troubles he had himself endured, after which he asked them the reason for their visit, to which they replied in detail:
‘“Brahma and Vishnu together are waging a mighty battle upon the earth. For our salvation we have no other recourse; we must go and pay homage to Lord Siva, the creator of us all.”
‘On receiving the assent of their king, the hosts of heaven went to pay homage at the pure lotus-like feet of the Supreme Lord, saying, “You who share your form with the Maiden Divine! We beg you to end the suffering being wrought by the trickster Mal and Ayan. For who is there to help young children upon this earth, if not their own mother?
‘“To escape the darkness of birth and death, which follow one upon the other on this earth like a rolling cartwheel, we have sought refuge in you, so that we may realise the final truth, and seeking the shelter of your feet, may bathe in the boundless sea of your grace.
‘“You who bestow the grace of true knowledge to dispel the defiling ignorance of those unable to bear the burden of their maggot-ridden physical forms! To dispel this base impurity, which could not be removed even were we to bathe each day in an entire ocean of water, we have sought refuge in you.
‘“You are our only hope; show us your compassion.” Even as the gods told their story to him who bears a third eye upon his forehead, the Lord already knew what had happened. Indeed, how could he fail to know, he who permeates all life forms as oil permeates a sesame seed?
‘To dispel the fear of all the trembling gods and rishis, to put an end to the conflict between holy Mal, who has a serpent for a sleeping couch, and Ayan, whose throne is a lotus blossom, and to ensure that all the worlds in their established order were preserved, avoiding destruction, he bent his divine will upon compassion, and, taking the form of an invincible mountain of fire, set off to restrain the two of them.
‘In the lowest of the subterranean realms the serpents who dwell there trailed about it like hanging tendrils, whilst its thick roots plunged down far below. Growing upwards through the earth, it expanded through all the realms of the gods, bursting through the lofty vault of lotus-born Brahma’s sphere. Going out beyond the universe’s enclosing shell, it traversed the furthest limit of the vast ethereal region, looking for all the world like a Mount Meru of pure fire.
‘Rushing out beyond all the worlds, far beyond the reach of those seven horses who draw the sun’s chariot as he spreads the rays of the dawn, dispelling the enveloping sapphire-like darkness, it shone out like a bright beacon set on high, so that all the oceans glowed blood red, as if the immeasurable submarine fire at the world’s end had spread abroad; the seven great mountains resembled naught so much as tiny sparks, which had showered down from its summit.
‘Seeing this fire extending to the limit of the heavens, lotus-born Brahma and flute-playing Krishna stood back in fear, unable to see its limit. For lest they possess the eye of true knowledge, could it be easy for those having only the flawed and defective physical eye to perceive our Lord?
‘Seeing that bright effulgence, beyond the eye’s power to measure, they were both much troubled. Both agreed that he who could reach the head or foot of this measureless apparition would be the greater of the two. “I shall know the foot of this mountain,” cried the great one who sleeps upon a hooded serpent, transforming himself into a boar. “And I shall traverse the heavens to find its summit,” cried Ayan, adopting the form of a swan and flying swiftly heavenward.
‘Swiftly taking flight, Ayan traversed a thousand leagues in a mere fraction of a second whilst in an instant Vishnu tunnelled down a thousand leagues into the earth which rests upon the serpent Adisheshan’s spotted hood. To comprehend what occurred, imagine the long bar of an irrigation machine, made of pure gold and studded with gems, with small pots attached at either end, one set with bright pearls, and the other with dark sapphires.
What is being described here may be an irrigation machine, consisting of a long beam, pivoting on top of a tall pillar, and known in English as a piccottah. These structures were quite imposing, as one can see from the following description of their use in North Arcot district in the early 20th century: ‘In the comparative treelessness of the landscape the picottahs stood out conspicuously, with two or three men plodding patiently on the swinging beam that works this primitive pump, alternately towards and away from the wooden pillar, some 15 or 20 feet high, on which it hinges, but always, in either direction, climbing upwards, for the picottah combines the characteristic features of the see-saw and tread-mill.’
‘Burrowing down beyond the earth, Hari entered the nether worlds, traversing each in turn. Passing through the city of Bhogavati, watched over by the demon Mahabali, he forged on, paying homage with hand and head to Hatakesvara, whose supreme effulgence the gods adore. In former times he had measured the three worlds, yet now, though he fathomed all seven lower worlds, he could not find its foot.
Hatakesvara is Siva’s form as Lord of the nether worlds.
Another reference to Vishnu’s Vamana incarnation, in which he tricked Mahabali by growing so great that he covered heaven, earth and the lower worlds in two steps.
‘Those long pointed tusks, like the waxing moon, soon began became blunted, like the moon on the wane, and even as his enthusiasm for the task faltered, his hooves and finely-honed fangs grew ever thinner and weaker. After a thousand years of unimaginable suffering he turned to the Lord in praise, and setting aside his fatigue and exhaustion, returned through the seven nether worlds, emerging at last from an ocean of woes.
‘Seeking out that holy place where the First One had risen up in the form of a column of flame to put an end to their struggle, he realised with absolute certainty that lotus-born Brahma too could never reach its upper limit, and remained there paying homage over and over to Lord Siva, he who is far away and impossible to reach for those who have no faith, and about whose neck garlands of fresh flowers are draped, along with his very own eye.
The final line refers to the incident in which Vishnu, being short of a single flower to complete his worship of Siva, used one of his own eyes as the final offering.
‘Whilst all this was happening, he who had just now flown up in the form of a swan to seek that fiery mountain’s head, traversed full one thousand leagues in the twinkling of an eye.
‘Piercing even the universe’s outer shell and leaving it far below, he rose on upward, travelling for a thousand years. And though he traversed ten millions of leagues on his search, still there was no end to that column of fire.
‘His feathers fell away and his impetus began to fail. Overwhelmed with suffering his sighs grew long, and as his woes increased and his sense of isolation grew, the Vedas’ Lord began to mull over certain things in his mind:
‘“Will great Mal reach the foot, and then return? Or will he give up his quest midway and come back, unable to reach it?” Thus did his anguished mood swing back and forth, as his thoughts ran away with him, like wax over a flame.
‘“I did not realise that this could only be Lord Siva himself,” he reflected. “By confronting Hari I have forfeited his friendship also. Ever since I have been drowning in this ocean of sorrows. Is this due to my own stupidity? Or perhaps it is the fruit of former misdeeds?
‘“Thus far have I travelled, still unable to discover its upper limit. If I were to lie about it, there would be no other verbal evidence to support me,” he sobbed sorrowfully. Just then he noticed a screwpine flower falling towards him.
‘He hardly had time to think where it could have come from before it reached him, and he caught it in his hand. “Let me go at once,” it said with a heartfelt sigh, since it was a faded flower which had fallen from the crown of our sovereign Lord.
‘“Fair screwpine flower,” said Brahma, “whence have you come, and on what errand?” “I have slipped and fallen from the flower-wreathed head of the Primal Lord, whose measure neither the Veda’s Lord nor Narayana can know,” said the flower.
‘“Since slipping from that head, which is graced by a bright garland of kondrai flowers, I have been falling for forty thousand years. Agree to my request, and let me go.” However Brahma, dismissing any hope of seeing our Father, began to speak:
‘“Screwpine flower, dear companion! Be my friend and help me escape the torment of any further wandering. Other than you, there is no one whom I can trust with my life. I am no stranger, nor am I really a swan.
‘“My name is Brahma. I and Vishnu set our minds on revealing the extent of this wondrous object. Off he went burrowing into the earth, whilst I, for my sins, sought and failed to reach its holy summit.
‘“Well, that’s the top and bottom of it, so to speak. Why dwell any further upon the matter? Due to your auspicious arrival, what I was thinking about has come to pass. You must speak to him who measured the earth in three strides and tell him that I, Brahma, adopting the form a swan, reached Lord Siva’s head.
Vamana (Vishnu) tricked Mahabali by requesting three steps of land on which to live. The request was granted. Vamana covered the whole of the earth, the heavens and the underworld in his first two steps. Seeing that there was nowhere else to place the foot for the third step, Mahabali offered his own head as a stepping place, thus gaining immortality and dominion over the nether regions.
The story is also referred to in verse 124.
‘“Do not call this deceit and despise me. It is permissible to tell the greatest falsehoods in order to save the lives of those who suffer. These are not unworthy words which one should fear to speak. Those who prize their friends will agree even to drink poison for their sake.
The idea in the last sentence is taken from Tirukural, verse 550.
‘“Screwpine flower, you who live upon the head of him whose forehead bears a third eye! There is no need to give this any further thought,” he said, and the screwpine flower assented and went along with him. Dropping swiftly down from the heavens, he came into the presence of Lord Vishnu, he whose strides measured the earth.
‘“Bearer of Lakshmi, hear the exploits which brought me here! Travelling a hundred thousand leagues in a mere instant, I perceived the head of the Primal Lord, and returned,” he claimed, and the screwpine flower attested that it was so.
‘At that precise moment, the mountain of fire exploded. The gods and rakshasas fainted away at the sound of the detonation. The elephants of the eight directions vomited blood, believing that the sun itself had melted. Then in the midst of that scene, eclipsing the ruddy glow in the sky, making even the beautiful flower of the murukku tree look soiled, the Three-Eyed One rose up, his radiant red form all covered in white ash, with a smile on his lips like the one he wore when he burned up the three cites of the asuras.
‘“Lotus-born Brahma, you have spoken out of sheer arrogance. A fine thing indeed!” said the Lord, and began to laugh, whereupon this world and all the worlds beyond trembled and grew dim. The radiance of all the heavenly bodies faded. Clouds disappeared from the sky. All that was fair and beautiful perished, and all that was worthless flourished and grew. The eight directions were twisted from their stations, and vast forests of trees were blackened, scorched and burned.
‘The gods were fearful, thinking, “Ayan has been destroyed!” and poured down a vast rain of flowers, as if the earth had been dug hollow. But joy blossomed in the heart of tall Mal as the black stain of arrogance departed from lotus-borne Brahma.
‘Realisation dawned upon fair-eyed Mal. He sang and offered up prayers. He danced in a transport of joy, running hither and thither. Becoming a worthy devotee of the immeasurable First One, he wondered to himself what boon he might ask of Lord Siva.
‘Seeing how the heart of Hari melted with devotion for him, the Lord graciously granted him many a boon. Then, turning to Brahma, he commanded, “You who dwell upon a fragrant lotus-blossom, all your temples and all worship of you will vanish from this earth”.
‘“Screwpine flower, for joining Brahma in this deception, I shall never touch you again.” Thus did he decree. Brahma himself, distraught on observing the depths of the Lord’s fury, fell at his feet, prostrating his body upon the ground and offering praises.
‘“You whose form is like fire, smeared with white ashes! Since my soul has been foully shrouded by the loathsome cloak of anava malam, I wander helpless here. How am I, a mean wretch, of any significance? Fair One! Heaven’s infinite sphere! You who are the four Vedas, and more than that, the Vedas’ ultimate import! Peerless First One! Let your anger against me cease! Let it cease!
Anava malam is the principle of egoity inherent in the unenlightened soul or jiva, which prevents it from recognising that God alone is the source of all its actions.
‘“If the seven oceans, into which all the earth’s waters flow, were mixed together and heated up, would there be any other water to cool them down? And if your anger remains at such a pitch, how will life here be able to survive? You who in former times drank the poison from the Milk Ocean! Let your anger against me cease! Let it cease!
‘“Lotus-born Brahma, be no longer afraid! That puja performed by brahmins upon the earth will henceforth be your puja. And you may continue to ordain the seven worlds which are supported upon golden Mount Meru.” Such was the decree of that gracious Ocean of Compassion, who swallowed the poison from the conch-strewn sea.
‘“Since I have granted you both such boons in this holy place, may it flourish, to a distance of three yojanas [about 30 km] all around, as the pure and sacred dwelling place of divine knowledge. This great column of flame, assuming a lesser form, shall become a mountain with the power to grant boons. That mountain, which unfailingly confers the bliss of glorious final liberation, shall be known as Arunaipuri.
‘“I ended the suffering of Indra and the other gods the moment that, in their affliction, they turned their thoughts to me. Therefore I shall abolish the suffering of birth and death for those who fix their thoughts on this holy place. This mountain and this sthala shall possess the quality of being indestructible, even at the universe’s ending, and the winds from it shall blow in all directions bringing final liberation to all beings, animate or inanimate.
‘When the Lord had finished speaking, that pillar of fire shrank and became a mountain. When holy Mal and Ayan saw how it shone out spreading its beautiful rays far and wide, they made obeisance to the Lord and said, “It is not possible for the gods and ourselves to approach and gaze upon its brilliance. Let it be a simple mountain, concealing within itself all those countless fiery rays.”
‘“Immaculate Lord, conceal this beauteous light and make of it a mountain like all others,” cried He whose vehicle is a swan, and He whose vehicle is Garuda. Whereupon the Lord made of it a mountain like all others. And when those two devotees said, “May you gracefully grant that each day a bright light be seen upon its summit,” the Lord in his compassion spoke these words:
‘“In the month of Karttikai when the moon is in the constellation of Kritika I shall mount a bright beacon upon the summit of that mountain. They who see that most excellent light will endure and prosper upon the earth, free of disease and hunger. The obstacles confronting kings and great ascetics will be removed. We shall grant the boon of liberation to the kin of those who have praised or gazed up it down to the twenty first generation.
‘“This mountain shall have the power to cure the affliction of birth and death. Therefore one of its names shall be ‘Medicine Mountain’. Since it is red in colour, ‘Red Mountain’ will also be one of its names. For those upon the earth who recite its name but once, it will be as if they had pronounced the five holy syllables, [Namasivaya], thirty million times.” On hearing the pronouncement of the Lord whose throat is black with poison, Brahma and Vishnu were filled with joy. Bowing down to him, they began to speak:
‘“Red Mountain Lord, except for the rains that fall from the sky, who will be able to approach you and bathe you with water? Who, apart from the starry constellations, will be able to place about your holy neck a garland of pearls? You whose throat poison adorns, who will there be to show a bright lamp before you, other than the Sun with his rays? Accordingly we beseech you to manifest yourself in the form of a lingam at the foot of that mountain, that we may make obeisance and perform puja to you.”
‘“Then such shall I become. May you worship according to the precepts of the Kamika Agama,” said the Lord, withdrawing into the mountain. And so a Siva lingam manifested there, whose praises are sung in every land. Seeing this, they bowed down in worship, pouring down a dense rain of flowers, and dancing for joy in transports of bliss. Then they summoned Mayan who saw to the construction of gopurams, halls, and great walls, without equal anywhere.
Mayan is one of the Danavas, who served the devas and asuras as their architect and builder.
‘He built a rich and deathless city, with three hundred and sixty holy tanks, and made it beautiful. In its wells flowed the heavenly river whose waters never fail, and in its groves grew the celestial trees of Svarga. Gods and rishis in unending succession took birth there, and the courtesans of heaven incarnated there as dancing girls with eyes as black as the poison halahala.
‘Rising in the morning and bathing, Brahma and Vishnu put on clothing of bark, matted their reddened hair, covered their bodies in holy ash, put on necklaces of rudraksha beads and performed Siva puja, with ritual bathing, much sandalwood paste and garlands of flowers. Then they performed pradakshina of Annamalai, devotedly praising him until fourteen thousand years had passed, whereupon they assumed their divine forms once more.
‘Once its construction was complete, holy Arunai’s city became so desirable that even the Lord’s affection for Mount Kailash faded away. Since here was a mountain of pure gold, of what value was a mountain of silver only? The seven holy sites with Kasi at their head, whose glory is widely praised, and the golden realm of the gods all lost their allure, just as the stars lose their radiance as the pure rays of the Sun appear.
‘Though it is hard indeed to tell of the qualities of a mountain whose measure even Brahma and Vishnu could not know, I have tried in a small way to describe it insofar as my knowledge permits. Is there anything further I might need to speak of?’ said Nandi. At that, the rishi Markandeya, feeling greatly honoured, bowed down in worship and said, ‘May you show us your grace and recount to us the tale of how Uma appeared from the [Himalaya] mountain and merged with the left side of Lord Siva as his consort’. Whereupon Nandi began to speak…