Saturday, May 3, 2008

Guhai Namasivaya

When I started this blog, I promised an occasional contribution about Arunachala. Here is the first.

Before I start on it I want to give a little background information, along with a story from Bhagavan. Ramaswami Pillai once asked Bhagavan about all the choices that were coming up in his life:

‘How can I tell if some prospective course of action that presents itself is something I have to do? There are so many things that I know will just waste my time and energy. How can I spot the activities that are essential and act on them?’

There is a Tamil belief that one’s destiny is a large invisible load that one carries on one’s head.

Bhagavan told Ramaswami Pillai: ‘Throw it off your head three times. If it is something that you have to do, it will jump back. If it jumps back three times, then you have to do it.’

I have my own ‘head-load’ destiny story, one that I have been dropping off my head for more than twenty years. It has jumped back on my head the requisite number of times, so now I have to do something about it.

In the mid-1980s, when I was still looking after the Ramanasramam library, I would often go to the Guhai Namasivaya Temple on the lower slopes of Arunachala and spend the night there. The first time I did this, I felt an immense peace, a natural bonding with both the mountain and the temple that was quite inexplicable. It felt like ‘home’, like a place I needed to come back to on a regular basis. Bhagavan had briefly lived there at the turn of the twentieth century. It was there that Sivaprakasam Pillai approached him and asked the questions that would later be incorporated in Who am I? Sivaprakasam Pillai asked the questions and Bhagavan wrote answers with his finger on the sand forecourt of Guhai Namasivaya Temple because he wasn’t speaking at that time. Later, when Bhagavan moved up to Virupaksha Cave, Keerai Patti moved into the mantapam at Guhai Namasivaya and lived there for several years. She did an elaborate puja to an image that had been carved on one of the pillars of the mantapam, and when I visited in the mid-eighties, the dark oil stain that marked the object of her veneration was still very much visible. A few years later the owner did a major renovation that, in my opinion, bordered on vandalism. The whole place – a gorgeous four-hundred-year-old cave-samadhi shrine inside a walled compound – was covered with concrete and the Keerai Patti oil stain whitewashed out of existence. Keerai Patti passed away in the early 1920s and was buried somewhere near the front wall of what is now the Morvi Compound in Ramanasramam. Later, if one is to believe all the accounts, she was reborn as Lakshmi the cow and attained liberation in her final birth.

As I became more attracted to the temple I did some research on Guhai Namasivaya, the saint who was buried there. He lived about four hundred years ago and had arrived at Arunachala in the company of Virupaksha Devar, the man who gave his name to Virupaksha Cave. Both of them had been devotees of a Virasaiva Guru in Sri Sailam who had sent them to Tiruvannamalai with instructions that they should meditate there. Guhai Namasivaya initially lived in the space at the bottom of one of the gopurams in the Arunachaleswara Temple, but after some time he moved a few hundred feet up the hill and took up residence in the cave that still bears his name. ‘Guhai’ in Tamil means ‘cave’ and ‘Namasivaya’ is the sacred five-syllable mantra beloved by all Saivas.

Guhai Namasivaya took the mountain of Arunachala to be his Guru and eventually gained enlightenment through its grace. At the time I was visiting his temple the received scholarly opinion was that he had only left one long poem of 100 verses (Arunagiri Antadi) along with about thirty-five other short verses. All of them praised the mountain in some way. I asked Robert Butler, who was working with me in the ashram library, to translate some of the verses for me. Fortunately, there was a Tamil book about him, published by the Saraswati Mahal Library, Tanjore, that contained a short Tamil biography, along with a prose rendering and commentary on Arunagiri Antadi. I learned from the biography that after Guhai Namasivaya had gained enlightenment through the power and grace of Arunachala, he resolved to compose a four-line verse every day as an offering to the mountain. Since his biography claimed that he lived to the age of 200, that meant a lot of verses had gone missing. One hundred and thirty-five seemed a meager extant haul from a man who, even during his lifetime, had a reputation for being a great saint.

Sometime in 1985 V. Ganesan asked me to find a manuscript about Tiruchuzhi, Bhagavan’s birth place, in the ashram archives. In those days all the ashram’s manuscripts were kept in a separate room underneath the library. I went along the shelf where it was supposed to be stored, pulling out manuscripts and notebooks one by one to see what was written on their covers. One faded old notebook stopped me dead in my tracks. It had the name ‘Guhai Namasivaya’ written in Tamil on the cover, and when I opened it, I saw, on its crumbly old yellowed pages, over five hundred verses in the venba style that I knew was Guhai Namasivaya’s trademark metre. I took it away with me to do some further investigation. It was a school exercise book in which the original verses had been written in pencil. Someone had later gone over most of the pencilled script to make the writing more legible.

The first discovery I made was that the pencil handwriting was Bhagavan’s. This made the notebook even more interesting and valuable. I did some research and eventually pieced together the story of the book. In 1901, when Bhagavan was staying at Guhai Namasivaya Temple, there were still palm-leaf manuscripts in existence that contained unpublished verses by Guhai Namasivaya. The priest had shown them to Bhagavan, and Bhagavan had decided to copy them into this notebook. The original palm-leaf manuscripts were lost several decades ago when the owner gave them to a man who had promised to get them published. The man and the leaves disappeared and neither has since resurfaced. That left Bhagavan’s notebook as the only repository for most of Guhai Namasivaya’s written works.

I had the verses copied and arranged for some of them to be translated. There is an article on my site, in the Arunachala saints section, that contains these translations that were done in the 1980s, along with a long article in which I summarised all the known events of Guhai Namsivaya’s life. The work was never finished because I was diverted into other activities.

In early 1993 I went to Lucknow to see Papaji on what I thought would be a brief visit. I had been invited there because Papaji wanted me to write more about his life. He had appreciated the brief biographical chapter that eventually appeared in Papaji Interviews, and he wanted me to expand on it. That work took almost four years, and during that period I only returned to Tiruvannamalai once. When it became clear to me that I would not be returning for a long time, I sent my ashram room key back with a woman who was returning to Tiruvannamalai. I asked her to go through a trunk I kept in my room and hand over all the ashram books and manuscripts that were in it to the ashram office. There were several library books there, and a few manuscripts from the archives that I had been working on in my room.

When I returned to Tiruvannamalai at the end of 1997, I went through this trunk and found that the Guhai Namasivaya manuscript was still there. Everything else had been returned, but this one item had refused to leave me. It jumped back on my head and told me that we still had some pending business.

When I showed the manuscript to Venkatasubramanian, I was not surprised to see how excited he was. Guhai Namasivaya is one of the most famous Arunachala saints, and here, in Bhagavan’s own handwriting, was a book that quadrupled the number of his verses that were known to exist. He persuaded Ramanasramam to print these verses and volunteered to do the editing and restoration himself. I say ‘restoration’ because the person who had written over the original in ink had made many mistakes. The original pencil marks had been obliterated by ink strokes that were not part of the original text at all. Fortunately, Bhagavan had used a soft and stubby pencil, one that needed a little pressure to make a mark. This meant that there was often a small but discernible indent in the paper that could be used to reconstruct the original text. By holding the paper up at various angles in front of a 1,000 watt lamp, Venkatasubramanian was able to extract all of the original text, letter by letter. There are still a few verses that appear to make no sense at all, but these mistakes probably date from the last time the palm-leaf manuscripts were copied. The Tamil edition was published by Ramanasramam a few years ago.

About a year and a half ago Venkatasubramanian, Robert and myself agreed that we would bring out an English edition of all the verses. We began the work but found that we didn’t have enough time to do both Guru Vachaka Kovai and Guhai Namasivaya. Robert was also deeply engaged with his own Sri Ramana Guru Prasadam project. We threw it off our heads one last time and all agreed that we would all get back to it when our current projects were finished. Robert is about to send Sri Ramana Guru Prasadam for printing, while I think I am less than two weeks away from sending Guru Vachaka Kovai to the press. At some point in the next few months we will all sit down and complete our work on this project.

I have already written far more than I intended to in this preamble. I will come back to the story of Guhai Namasivaya and his poems on another day. For now, I will just select a few of his verses that particularly appeal to me. The translations are far from final, and we may decide to change them a little as the work progresses. I have added a few brief notes of my own in italics after some of the verses, mostly to explain some of the names. The numbers are from Bhagavan’s notebook.


Through what tapas performed in what birth
I have come in this birth to reside in this great city of Arunai,
I know not!
The Goddess and God
who dwell in the thoughts of devotees who praise Them
remain merged together within my eyes.

Arunai was the name of Tiruvannamalai several centuries ago.


My heart!
All that happens in this world
is the grace of the Lord of Arunagiri.
Saying otherwise is wrong.
When someone uses his skill
to attach strings to a puppet
and makes it dance,
tell me, do the strings have any power of their own?

'Arunagiri’ means ‘Red Mountain’. It is one of the many names of Arunachala.


Those who come here, thinking
of the great and eternally famous town of Arunai,
are kept here by Uma
within the holy presence of Annamalaiyar,
who bestows liberation on them.
What sport is this for God and Goddess!

Annamalaiyar denotes the deity in the Arunachaleswara Temple in Tiruvannamalai, and by extension the Lord of the Mountain as well. Uma is his consort.


Those who have a stony heart,
who are excessive sinners,
who every day in this world commit uncountable sins,
if they would only once utter the name ‘Annamalai’,
the very name of birth,
which comes like a flood,
will depart.

‘Annamalai’ is a Tamil name of Arunachala. It means ‘unreachable mountain’ or ‘unapproachable mountain’. It is a reference to the primary story of Arunachala in which Brahma and Vishnu failed to find the end of the column of light or fire that Siva manifested as in order to teach them humility. The name is now incorporated in the town’s name ‘Tiruvannamalai’. ‘Tiru’ is an honorific prefix.


Today Sonesan, who comes upon a bull,
understanding the state of my mind,
slowly entered unseen into my heart.
I have now known the thief!
It is not possible to reveal this
to everyone in the land,
but only to those who have known it within.

Sonesan (The Red Lord) is the thief who stole Guhai Namasivaya’s mind. Recognising his maturity, Sonesan stealthily entered his heart and removed his mind from within.


The boon for my eyes
is seeing Your red lotus feet.
The boon for my tongue
is singing Your classical Tamil verses
in their prescribed tunes.
Lord of Arunai,
You are the King of Heaven
and everywhere else!
This indeed is the boon for this devotee’s mind.


I have now seen the ancient reality
not seen in former times
by Brahma and Vishnu.
I prostrate to it and praise it.
My ancient karmas!
Leave immediately, all of you!
I now have the courage to scatter
all the troubles you created.


Heart of mine!
If we have the grace of the eyes
of the King of Sonagiri
on whom the moon resides,
and who bestows the space [of jnana],
how then will it matter to us
whether all the people of this world
respect us a little or a lot?


For those who listen to the sound of the conch,
blown in the presence of the Lord of Annamalai,
which is surrounded by thousands of Ganga-like rivers,
the sins within their impure minds will perish.
For those who seek it again and again
it will yield liberation.


The Lord of Sonagiri,
who holds a deer in His hand,
is the wielder of grace.
This is the result of becoming His devotee:
we have taken up a begging bowl;
we will never again fall into the evil of birth;
death will be no more;
we do not desire even the state of ruling a country as a king;
we have attained liberation.


Those who do not meditate
with their hearts melting towards Sankara of Arunagiri,
how will it matter if they display matted locks?
What if their head has gone grey?
How will it matter if they thoroughly research many books?
And if they avoid wearing clothes – so what?

‘Sankara’ denotes Siva.


Though they may engage
in great and hard-to-perform tapas,
though they wander endlessly all over the world,
wearing themselves out,
will there be salvation for those
who do not see in their hearts
the Holy Being of Sonagiri
who wears hooded cobras as His ornament?


I, a sinner whose heart does not melt,
never worship You.
Nor do I meditate on Your divine form in my heart.
I never lovingly chant Your name.
On what day will I attain salvation?


Existing as the medicine,
Annamalai will destroy the taint of sins
that remain hidden in the hearts of devotees
who continuously and unfailingly repeat
the Five-Syllabled Mantra
with the belief, ‘This is our refuge’.


Those who reach and circumambulate
the divine temple of the Lord of holy Arunai
will never enter the way of the womb.
They will not speak of the twin karmas.
They will remain instead in close proximity
to the One who wears a garland
of luxuriant kondrai blossoms.


If we are prospering,
then the whole country will be our relatives and friends,
but if we become destitute,
not even a single person will come to enquire about us.
However, the intimate relationship I have
with the Lord of Arunai, who is praised in all times
by the transcended ones, will exist for me forever.


Though excellent sacred places,
possessing great glory,
may exist in all the four directions,
will they equal Annamalai?
Having enquired into the matter,
it will be found that a thousand sinful deeds,
performed unintentionally here,
will be reduced to one,
just as one meritorious deed
will be multiplied a thousandfold.


Priceless Ruby Hill!
Medicine Mountain!
For You who, by revealing Your twin feet
to this feeble-minded dog,
transformed me into agitation-free supreme bliss,
my offering is my verses.


You who ride the prancing bull!
Jnani Arunagiri!
You who have the crescent moon
upon Your matted locks!
In the very moment You came
and dwelt in my heart
the twin karmas and the great illusion of birth perished.


Arvind Lal said...

Hi. What a marvellous story. Thank you for putting it up.

What really gets my goat is how anyone could be so heartless as to overwrite Sri Bhagavan's beautiful handwriting with his own. Surely, if the idea was to preserve the text, it could have been copied out separately. I hope there are no other similar priceless manuscripts, mutilated or lost by such "mindless" behaviour.

David Godman said...

The person may not have known it was Bhagavan's handwriting. Still, as you remarked, if he was going to go to the trouble of writing out the whole work again, he should have started on a fresh sheet of paper.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the new blog. I'd really appreciate it if you would post a reference/more context for the "put it away three times" story. I have often wondered about the same question, and this seems to be an authoritative answer. Besides, I remember reading in "Be as you are" that Bhagavan once refused to tell someone what exactly to do when confronted with such choice, in the sense that one should take responsibility as long as one feels one is the chooser/doer. Thanks again!

David Godman said...

I have just checked all the published sources I have, but it doesn't show up in any of them. I called a couple of friends who have been here for decades. They had both heard the story, and each had heard it from a different person. I think it is one of those stories that goes from devotee to devotee, without ever getting written down.

I used to visit Ramaswami Pillai in the 1980s and talk about his early years in the ashram at Skandashram and the current ashram. He had an endless supply of anecdotes, and it's possible he told me this story then. If he did, though, I can't remember the circumstances.

I think Bhagavan was speaking from experience here. He has gone on record as saying that he tried to run away three times before accepting that it was his destiny to stay in Tiruvannamalai and be a teacher.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this precious nugget. Indeed, it does look like one of those things that have probably not been documented In fact, when I saw the number three, I was reminded of what I read in your book on Annamalai Swami: That Bhagavan *thrice* said ' your karmas are finished ' to him. This also seems to indicate it was Bhagavan's experience.

One more thing I figured out from your blog is that a few things which were troublesome to me (e.g., 'full force of personality' in the death experience) are more a product of the translation or the writing style! Like Sri Bhagavan said, 'Who can hope to summarize it in words?' :)

Maneesha said...


Remember this? When do you intend to take this up?

David Godman said...

I am not sure what you mean by 'taking it up'. If you mean bringing out a book of Guhai Namasivaya's verses in English, then I am very much working on it.

Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself have been translating all the verses over the last few months. We have completed most of them, apart from a few which are rather cryptic. Now we are mostly doing corrections and notes.

I don't know when the book will come out, but I would guess sometime within the next twelve months. I will probably start posting some of the verses here, once we have finalised them.

Meanwhile, I want to put it out that we are still looking for a work entitled Sonagiri Malai that was composed by Guhai Namasivaya. I think it has only ever existed in palm-leaf manuscript form, but we have been unable to locate a copy anywhere. Kamal Zvelebil in his Lexicon of Tamil Literature mentions that he had seen a copy, and Bhagavan also mentioned it, saying that it was a hundred-verse poem.

We are also looking for a work entitled Guhai Namasivaya Leelai, a biography of Guhai Namasivaya by Velaiyer Swamigal. He was one of three brothers who jointly composed the Kalatti Puranam, the sthala puranam of Kalahasti. He died around 1700. This is proving to be even more elusive than Sonagiri Malai since I have yet to come across anyone in any book who claims to have seen it or read it.

So, if there is anyone out there who knows where manuscript copies of these two works can be seen and copied, please get in touch with me. If they don't manifest in the next few months, we will have to publish the book without them.

David Godman said...

Preview of forthcoming attractions...

Here are three of Guhai Namasivaya's verses for you:

King of Arunai who has, bound to His left side,
the daughter of the mountain!
Using Your divine name as a boat
I crossed the limitless and ferocious ocean of birth.
Reaching the shore,
I beheld it as Your feet.

What if the clouds conceal themselves?
What if Mount Meru shakes?
What if the ocean dries up and ceases to exist?
For us, the Great Lord of Arunai exists,
He who flourishes with enduring fame.
Irrespective of what comes and what goes,
How does it matter to us?

Even if, in this life, one rules the vast world,
or even rules the world of the celestials,
which has everlasting glory,
will there be any bliss for those who do not worship,
praise and meditate on the emperor of Sonagiri
who wears the fragment of the moon?

Maneesha said...

Yes, David. That was what I meant.

Looks like we will be treated with one more divine book! :) Thanks David!
"What if the clouds conceal themselves?
What if Mount Meru shakes?
What if the ocean dries up and ceases to exist?
For us, the Great Lord of Arunai exists,
He who flourishes with enduring fame.
Irrespective of what comes and what goes,
How does it matter to us?"


I hope you do get whatever info you are looking for! Our wishes are with you! More than that, His Grace is anyway on you! :)