Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Guhai Namasivaya book: an update

A few days ago Maneesha asked for a progress report on a claim I made two years ago on this blog that I was working on an English translation of Guhai Namasivaya’s verses and hoped to bring them out in book form.

Guhai Namasivaya was a poet-saint who lived on Arunachala about 400 years ago. An account of his life can be found on my site at:

The story of how I discovered many new verses by this saint can be found here:

I posted a brief reply to Maneesha, but I suspect that many people who visit this blog didn’t read it. My traffic counter tells me most people don’t bother to read the comments’ sections. So, to bring these people up to date, here is a brief summary of where we are.

T. V. Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself resumed work on our translations several months ago. We have now completed at least a first draft of all the 550 verses that are extant. We have revised and corrected about half of them. I am in the process of annotating many of the verses since they are full of references to puranic stories, the lives of Tamil saints, and historical incidents. We have decided to include a biography of Guru Namasivaya, Guhai Namasivaya’s principal devotee, along with a translation of Annamalai Venba, Guru Namasivaya’s 100-verse poem on Arunachala. If all goes well, I anticipate that the book should be ready for the press by the end of the year. Readers who know Tamil can purchase the Sri Ramanasramam publication, arranged and edited by T. V. Venkatasubramanian, that contains all the poems of Guhai Namasivaya we are translating.

It has been reported that Guhai Namsivaya composed a verse every day on Arunachala. This activity was mentioned by his disciple, Guru Namasivaya, in verse seven of his poem, Annamalai Venba:

Mountain to whom Guhai Namasivaya,
performer of great austerities,
makes obeisance, daily adorning Him
with a garland of one venba verse.
Mountain who abides in the blissful hearts
of those who have transcended the waves of desire and all the rest:

Bhagavan referred to this tradition in a conversation that was recorded by Suri Nagamma in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 22nd February, 1947:

It seems Guhai Namasivaya Swamy one day decided to compose at the rate of one venba per day. That would be about 360 verses in a year. He composed a number of verses accordingly, some had been lost and the remaining verses were printed by his devotees. Quite a number of them are available now.

Though Bhagavan stated that ‘Quite a number of them are available now,’ far more have perished over time. The colophon to the manuscript we have been working with states that Guhai Namasivaya wrote 36,000 verses. Less than six hundred remain.

I am going to post some more of the verses here but before I do I need to comment on a peculiarity of Tamil devotional literature. Many Tamil saints alternate between sentiments that speak of their realisation and statements in which they bemoan their faults and their lack of devotion. The verses in which they beg for forgiveness or grace seem to indicate an unenlightened perspective, but it should be remembered that there is a long tradition in Tamil devotional poetry of enlightened saints feigning unenlightenment and asking for God’s help to move them out of that state. Bhagavan, in Aksharamanamalai, written more than fifteen years after his realisation, followed this tradition by alternating between verses that proclaimed his union with Arunachala and verses in which he lamented his separation and asked for grace. He did say once that the poem was written from a devotee’s perspective, but it is still true that the changes of perspective in the work echo the poems of many great Tamil saints. Jnanasambandhar, Appar, Sundaramurti and Manikkavachagar all followed this same alternating pattern. Bhagavan, though, did not accept their complaints at face value. He pointed out on a few occasions that all the four indicated that they had realised the Self in the very first verse of their works (see Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 306).

Here is a selection of the verses. The explanatory notes in italics that appear after some of the verses are mine.


‘Transcendental Light none can know!
You became a mass of flame
as Vishnu and Brahma searched for its feet and head!’
Those who do not speak in this way
in adoration of You,
what divine favour can they gain
by writing and studying books
on the many arts and sciences?


By plucking flowers and lovingly offering
a fair and holy garland to our Lord Arunesar,
liberation is ours.
Sir! Even if we ask for wages for eating sugarcane,
what need is there to ask for wages
to eat the sugarcane of liberation?

‘Arunesar’ refers to the Lord or God of Arunai, the old name of Tiruvannamalai.

‘Asking for wages to eat sugarcane’ is a Tamil saying. It is used in situations when someone who is doing something very pleasurable, and which he would ordinarily do for free, receives payment as well.

‘Sir’ is a general address to people hearing these words. It is not addressed to anyone in particular.

One implication of the verse is that experiencing liberation is easier than biting and eating sugarcane.


For the devotees of Annamalai’s Lord,
He who is sweet to those who love Him,
bliss will flourish eternally within their hearts.
Will there be for them upon this earth
a single day of suffering?


When death comes, separating me from You,
deranging my thoughts, obliterating my consciousness,
ending the close communion that I,
Your devotee, have with You, Annamalai,
only if You come running to me at that time
will there be salvation for me.


Annamalai, You who foster virtue
by granting us Your love!
Grant me Your compassion
so that the suffering that besets me
will be removed.
Joyfully grant to me, dog that I am,
whatever I ask for, at once,
without bidding me, ‘Later’.


Annamalai, You who have neither beginning nor end!
Father who chops off my births!
The ear that has heard Your holy name
will assuredly never again hear the name
a mother gives to the fruit of her womb.

Those who have heard the holy name will never have to be reborn and hear a new name, given to them by their future mother.


By immersing myself in the flood of Your grace
I have, with inner certitude,
fully attained the highest distinction.
I have crossed [the sea of birth].
I have gained salvation’s reward.
Arunai’s Lord! I now no longer fear Yama
or lotus-dwelling Brahma,
both of whom opposed You,
You who wear the ocean’s poison at Your throat!

Since Yama denotes death and Brahma birth, Guhai Namasivaya is saying here that having gained salvation, he no longer has to worry about death and rebirth.


Heart! Can you not just remain
uttering ‘Annamalai! Brahmin Lord!’
Has your vision been darkened?
Why do you abandon the jnana
you have thoroughly mastered
to seek out the company of fools,
hankering after worldly knowledge
that is hollow and empty?


Remaining as the Five Holy Letters
as the Sadguru,
as the lingam I wear upon my body,
You exist as the consciousness
that is merged in my heart.
And yet my mind does not abandon its deceitful ways.
It does not cherish You in its thoughts,
Sonachala, and experience bliss supreme.

Sonachala, meaning 'Red Mountain', is one of the many names of Arunachala.

Virasaivas always wear a small lingam which is given to them in an initiation ceremony by their Guru. Guhai Namasivaya was brought up in the Vairasaiva tradition. In the one known image of Guhai Namasivaya, a sculpted bas-relief in the mantapam next to his samadhi shrine, he is clearly seen to be wearing his lingam.


Even those who, as Indra,
wearing a glittering crown,
rule the unimaginable celestial world,
cannot be compared as if they were equal
to those who have become slaves to Lord Arunagiri,
to whom it is delightful to be enslaved.


Arunesar! When You revealed to me
Your holy, compassion-filled form,
in the lingam within Arunai’s holy of holies,
I grasped and held the feet of the Guru
as the true reality.
I will approach Brahma and Yama no more.

There may be a reference here to the incident in which Guhai Namasivaya had a vision of his Guru in the Arunachaleswara Temple.

Brahma and Yama again refer to birth and death.


My heart! For all those who think ‘Annamalai!’
the boon of liberation will bear perfect fruit.
Such is the [power of the] abode of the Lord
who cannot be reached by the devas,
who was not known by the quarrelsome Vishnu and Brahma,
he who sits on a beautiful golden lotus.


If, at the time of death, you,
rejoicing in your mind,
worship Him with a deep longing,
calling out ‘Arunesar!’
He will surely come, accompanied by Lady Uma,
and will grant you the boon
of dwelling at the feet of Siva,
never to be separated from Him.


Comely Lord of Arunai!
You who, to Your devotees,
ever show unfailing compassion!
If You would only resolve in Your mind
to vouchsafe to me Your grace,
so that I, Your devotee,
might cease to move from birth to death
in this unbecoming fashion,
would those births not end?


If we consider Guru and God, they are one.
Some say that the Lord
bears no comparison to the Guru,
but, my heart of stone, through seeing the Guru
our problems can be solved,
whilst to see God is extremely difficult,
though it may be possible.


After we have worshipped the King of the Gods,
He who bears the Five Holy Letters as His name,
and who rules Sonagiri,
the place of abundant fame,
we shall no longer value in the least,
either with our tongue or in our mind,
the state of being the Creator or the Sustainer,
nor the life lived among the five celestial trees.

The five holy letters, or syllables, are na ma si va ya. Taken together, they comprise the most sacred mantra of all Saivas: ‘Nama Sivaya’, obeisance to Siva.

Sonagiri, meaning ‘Red Hill’ or ‘Red Mountain’ is one of the many names of Arunachala.

The creator and the sustainer are Brahma and Vishnu. The ‘life lived among the five celestial trees’ is the one lived by Indra, the ruler of Deva Loka.


You always grant me everything I desire and ask for.
My heart will remain always with You.
That is certain.
Immaculate One,
You who commendably sheltered the River Ganga
in Your tall and noble matted locks!
Henceforth, what business of mine
remains for anyone else to do?


Obtain upadesa and generally invoke Him
by uttering the name of Father Arunagiri.
Win salvation.
In that place this alone is tapas
for all those who remain steadfast,
believing, ‘This [Arunagiri] is indeed the reality’.

* * *

When I began this post I stated that I was doing it as an update. While this is true, I do have an ulterior motive. Though our work on this project is well advanced, we have failed, despite extensive enquiries, to locate copies of two of the principal texts that deal with Guhai Namasivaya’s life and poetry. It will be a most unsatisfactory state of affairs if we have to bring out our book without having had access to these works. So, in the hope that a stray reader might be able to help us, this is what we need:

There is a 100-verse poem entitled Sonagiri Malai that is listed as a work of Guhai Namasivaya in the manuscript we are working from. The poem is also mentioned as a known work of Guhai Namasivaya in K. V. Zvelibil’s enyclopaedic Lexicon of Tamil Literature. In another of his books (Tamil Literature, footnote, page 243) Zvelibil claims to have seen a copy, but he does not say where he saw it. We are assuming that the work only exists in palm-leaf manuscript form. Does anyone reading this know where a copy of this poem might be obtained?

The second text is a verse biography of Guhai Namasivaya entitled Guhai Namasivaya Leelai, composed by Velaiyer Swamigal, a seventeenth century writer who lived in Kanchipuram. He and his two brothers jointly authored the Kalatti Puranam, the sthala puranam of Kalahasti. I suspect that Guhai Namasivaya Leelai is the original source of all the known stories about Guhai Namasivaya. It is referred to in many accounts of Guhai Namasivaya’s life, but no direct citations from the text are given. It is possible that the work no longer exists. If we could get hold of a copy, it might resolve some of the many inconsistent and contradictory biographical details that we have come across.

And, as an afterthought, does anyone know anything about a disciple of Guhai Namasivaya called Arumuga Swamigal?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Paul Brunton's Background

In the last few days there have been a few comments about Paul Brunton and the role he played in disseminating Bhagavan’s teachings. This discussion prompted me to have another look at a long academic paper – ‘Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi’ – that was published online a few years ago. Its author was Dr J. Glenn Friesen, a Canadian scholar, and the link can be found here:

Dr Friesen investigated and summarised all that is known about Brunton’s life before he came to see Bhagavan. It is a commendable piece of research. I suspect that very few readers here will have come across even a fraction of the incidents and stories that are collected there. However, Dr Friesen was not merely interested in uncovering the facts of Brunton’s life. He wanted, in addition, to demonstrate how Brunton’s ideas and terminology had influenced Bhagavan’s own teachings. The position that Dr Friesen takes is that Bhagavan did not derive the vocabulary and style of his teachings from his own experience but from the books he read and from the devotees he encountered during his teaching career. This central idea is laid out in another long paper he wrote entitled: ‘Ramana Maharshi: Hindu and non-Hindu Interpretations of a Jivanmukta.’ This can also be found online. The link is:

I concluded my previous post with a quotation from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (talk no 189) in which Bhagavan specifically stated that his teachings derived from his own experience of the Self, and not from reading the words of philosophers such as Sankara. I will repeat it again here:

Mr M. Oliver Lacombe, a middle-aged Frenchman who was on a visit to India, being delegated by the Institute of Indian Civilisation of the University of Paris, came here from French India. Among others he had desired to meet Maharshi; he came and stayed here about three hours. He had read, in the Sanskrit original, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the Sutras with commentaries by Sri Sankara and Ramanuja.

He asked: Is Maharshi’s teaching the same as Sankara’s?

Bhagavan: Maharshi’s teaching is only an expression of his own experience and realisation. Others find that it tallies with Sri Sankara’s.

Devotee: Quite so. Can it be put in other ways to express the same realisation?

Bhagavan: A realised person will use his own language.

No space in Dr Friesen’s paper was devoted to discussing the possibility that Bhagavan’s own comments on the source of his teachings might have been true. Last year I had a brief email exchange with Dr Friesen in which I asked him why he had not even considered that Bhagavan’s words came from the Self. His response was to say that such a position would be unscholarly.

Dr Friesen does seem to accept that Bhagavan realised the Self, but he does not accept that such an experience was the source of everything he said and wrote. He goes to extraordinary lengths in these two papers to track down and isolate all the influences that Bhagavan was subjected to during his life, before going on to posit that these external factors determined Bhagavan’s teaching style, his vocabulary, and even to some extent his world view.

I confess that I went through these two papers, over 200 pages in total, with a mounting feeling of amazement. I am used to talking to people whose ignorance of Bhagavan and his teachings come from unfamiliarity with the texts on his life and teachings. In this case, though, I was encountering a sophisticated academic mind that had thoroughly immersed itself in the Bhagavan literature, thought about it, analysed it, and then come to a conclusion that, to me, was utterly bizarre and completely unsustainable.

Don’t let my negative comments put you off reading these papers. There is a lot of information on Bhagavan in them that may be new to people here. Caveat emptor, though.

Dr Friesen was a scholar and student of Swami Abhishiktananda, the French monk who stayed with Bhagavan in the late 1940s and who, in the years that followed, wrote many books about Christianity and Hinduism. Dr Friesen speaks about Swami Abhishiktananda’s life and summarises his own ideas on Bhagavan in the following interview:

If any of you have the energy to go through all these sources and then wish to comment on them, feel free to post your comments here.