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?


Subramanian. R said...

Dear David,

It is quite pleasing to note your
proposed English rendering of Guhai
Namasivaya's poems. I am still
searching for the last mentioned works in your post. I went to T'malai for 10th to 12th Aradhanai
function and there one morning, I went to Dr. Sambandhan a Tamil bookshop owner, at the Eastern Towers of Big Temple. To my ill-luck, I could not meet him since he was away from town. The
book on Tamil original verses brought by Sri Ramanasramam, in
2003, is an excellent publication and they also confirm that the Asramam Archives do not have the Sonagiri Maalai Venba. You should be aware of all the Archives stocks. I shall continue my search, with Bhagavan in my heart. Normally 642 verses are
chanted everyday as part of Siva puja by devotees and the verse giving this information is said to have been composed by Bhagavan.
I am once again expressing my happiness to your proposal to bring out English translation with special comments.

David Godman said...

Thanks for your continuing efforts.

The figure of 642 comes from the verse that Bhagavan may have composed. It appears the end of the manuscript we are working from. That number includes the 100 verses of Sonagiri Malai, which are not in the notebook (or anywhere else). That is why I mentioned that we were translating about 550 verses: 542, plus some invocatory verses which may not be by Guhai Namsivaya.

If you know anyone who chants these missing verses every day, please ask him or her to write them down for us.

Anonymous said...

I tried searching on google. Google comes up with this link about Velaiya Tesikar (not Velaiyar Swamigal), mentioning that he did indeed compose 'Namasivaya Lilai':

It says that he was born in Kancheepuram. Maybe the Sankara Mutt there would have more information on him?

Losing M. Mind said...

"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."

I was reading in Day by Day a devotee asking Maharshi about why he begged for grace in the Arunachala verses, and he just smiled knowingly. But then a few minutes later said that they were written in 1914-1915, while his Realization took place a while before that. I thought kind of humorously admitting to feigning needing to beg for grace. A little mischevious. So in that section of Day by Day, he was explicitly acknowledging this.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of something I read somewhere the other day. A
child was asked "how do you know if someone loves you?" to which
(s)he responded,

"I know by the way they say my name."

Subramanian. R said...

The Tamil tradition is that even
the self realized person cries in
his songs that he is wasting his time and he has not attained the goal. Saint Manikkavachagar (who
according to Bhagavan has realized
even in his first song) says much
later in his Tiruvachakam: "I do not know how to attain You, how to attain Your home. I do not know the path. However, as a blind cow goes behind another cow (with eyes
clear), which makes sound Ammaa... (that is merely by going behind the realized persons, without oneself) knowing path, I shall attain You.

Losing M. Mind said...

But I wonder if it's just a Tamil style, or something inherent in Realization. Because the ego has been made nothing, right? So, the sage has humbled themselves to the point that there is nothing left of themselves, so it almost makes sense that there would be utter self-deprecation. I guess, I'm wondering, is it necessarily completely insincere? Or just a tool of instruction? Or maybe a statement of total worship of the state they now know themselves to be. But on the other hand, there was something kind of mischevious in taht quote in Day by Day.

Ravi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ravi said...

"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."

This is not just a Tradition;still less this is something that is limited only to Tamil Language.
All Great Devotees(Jnanis)have expressed this,including Sri Ramakrishna.
There is simply no problem in accepting it as an expression of utter dependency of the soul on God.
There is no need to Rationalize this as 'Feigning'-No Sage said-'I am a Realized Being;I am only pretending to be helpless'.The 'idea' of 'Feigning' is much more rooted in Ego than the feeling of'helplessness'.
In fact Akshara Mana Maalai is the Only Great outpouring that even Sri Bhagavan did not 'interpret' and instead advised seekers to approach it according to their understanding.


Anonymous said...

What is thought?

This is something I'd like to propose to every psychiatrist. I had one fellow tell me he had a drug for every thought. But he didn't know the definition of thought. So he didn't know the definition of sanity.

What is mind? What are its limits, its dimensions?

What are we implying when we say, "I think"?

Is thought a possession, or an obsession?

Does a man think, or is he a thought?
Richard Rose

VS said...

Nice to see your dedication and focus on the teachings of Ramana Maharshi.


Ania said...

This is nice blog and post