(Parts of this article were first published in The Mountain Path, 1992, pp. 13-22)
In the account of Guhai Namasivaya's life that I gave
on this site it was mentioned that in the period of his life when he was living on the hill, he began to attract disciples and teach them. The most eminent and well known of these disciples was a man who later became known as Guru Namasivaya.
There is no available information about the early part of their relationship, for even the most detailed accounts of his life begin at a point where Guru Namasivaya is manifesting
siddhis (supernatural powers) and nearing the day of his spiritual liberation.
As the story begins both Namasivayas are living together on the hill. Guhai Namasivaya is lying in his hammock, his favourite resting place, absorbed in the Self. Guru Namasivaya is nearby, doing service to him. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Guru Namasivaya bursts out laughing.
'Namasivaya,' asked his Guru, 'What wonder did you see that made you laugh?'
The disciple first responded by reminding his Guru of their relationship.
'When I offered you my body, my possessions and my soul, you, my Lord, accepted them all, having a wish to take over this slave.'
Then he went on to explain what had caused him such amusement.
'At Tiruvarur [a temple town located a long way from Tiruvannamalai] Tyagaraja Swami [a local deity] was being taken in procession through the streets. Many women dancers, so skilled that they cannot be equalled by
apsaras [dancers from the heavenly realms], were accompanying it and dancing. One of these women stumbled and fell. All those who were standing there laughed. I too laughed. That is all. There was nothing else.'
This same ability manifested sometime later when Guhai Namasivaya noticed that his disciple had just rubbed the cloth he wore around his shoulders in a strange way.
'For what reason did you rub it?' he asked.
The disciple answered, 'The Golden Dancing Hall at Chidambaram was screened with a black screen. The wick of a ghee lamp was burning nearby. A mouse took the burning wick, dragged it along, causing a curtain to catch fire. Those who were present vigorously smothered the burning curtain. Swami, I too rubbed my cloth so that the curtain would not burn any more.'
Guhai Namasivaya knew from these incidents and from his own direct knowledge that his disciple had reached an advanced stage of his
sadhana, but he also knew that siddhis such as those just described are no real indication of spiritual progress. He therefore decided to test his disciple's level of devotion. He vomited, caught the vomit in his begging bowl, and then ordered his disciple to dispose of it in a place where it would not come into contact with human feet. This disciple's love for his Guru was so great, he took the vomit to be
prasad and secretly ate it.
Guhai Namasivaya affected not to know what his disciple had done. Later, he asked him ingenuously, 'Appa Namasivaya, did you leave it in a place where feet could not touch it?'
The disciple bowed his head and confirmed that he had taken it to be
prasad. 'I have kept it in a place where it ought to be kept,' he answered.
Seeing the powers his disciple was developing, and noting the extent of his devotion, Guhai Namasivaya thought to himself, 'Day by day my disciple's knowledge is increasing. He should not be kept here any more. Let me test him one more time, and then I can send him to a place that will be appropriate for him.'
Guhai Namasivaya, an accomplished extempore poet, then composed the first two lines of a
venba verse and chanted them to his disciple:
The fruiting banyan provides fruit for the birds,
The bamboo when it matures is not without its use…
Then, addressing his disciple, he said, 'Appa
Namasivaya(1), you can complete the remainder of this
venba for me'.
The disciple immediately realised that he was being tested. He examined the words of his Guru and decided that the banyan tree signified Guhai Namasivaya and that the bamboo was a reference to himself. The fruit of the banyan was therefore the grace of the Guru that was made available to all devotees who came to him. Extending the analogy, the disciple found that the second line contained what were, for him, ominous words. It seemed to be saying, 'Since you have attained spiritual maturity, you too can be useful to devotees who seek the grace of the Guru'. Namasivaya was very much attached to the physical form of his Guru and wanted only to stay with him and serve him. The idea of abandoning this simple and satisfying relationship did not appeal to him. However, being a fully surrendered devotee, he felt no inclination to dispute the words and decision of his Guru.
So, when Guhai Namasivaya asked him to complete the verse, he merely replied, 'Swami, the disciple should not bandy words with the Guru. This is not proper conduct for the disciple.'
Guhai Namasivaya then gave him the freedom to express his own views by saying, 'Son, since you are knowledge itself, you may speak'.
The disciple then expressed this fear of being sent away by completing the verse in the following way:
My Lord Namasivaya, would you consent to keep company with one who refrains from performing great and wondrous deeds?
The disciple realised that his display of siddhis and his extreme devotion in swallowing the vomit had triggered Guhai Namasivaya's test. His answer therefore took the form of a simple plea: 'If I stop manifesting
siddhis and refrain from exaggerated acts of devotion, will you permit me to continue staying with you?'
Guhai Namasivaya was delighted with the way that his disciple handled the test.
He climbed down from his hammock and exclaimed, 'Appa! Pupil of my two eyes! Only today did you attain true knowledge! What a wonder! Who will ever get a disciple like you? From today you may use the title ''Guru Namasivayamurti''.'
His pleasure, though, did not cause him to change his decision to send his disciple away. Embracing his disciple he continued, 'Two elephants should not be tied to the same post. This is a
bhoga kshetra [see the explanation given below]. There is a divine
kshetra [holy place] called Chidambaram where Ambalanavar, [the God] who removes ignorance and grants true knowledge, has graciously manifested. You have some renovation and endowment work at that place. So, go and live there.'
Bhoga means enjoyment or pleasure and is generally associated with physical or sensory indulgence. A
kshetra is a holy place. So, a bhoga kshetra can be literally translated as 'a holy place for the enjoyment of physical pleasure'. Since this is a strange and inappropriate designation for a sacred site such as Arunachala, one should look for alternative translations and explanations.
One possibility is that Guhai Namasivaya is referring to one of three
avattai - modes of being of the deity:
1. ilayam, in which only the divine knowledge is manifest.
2. bhogam, in which knowledge and action are equally
3. adikaram, in which action predominates.
If one follows this explanation, one can interpret Guhai Namasivaya's comments to mean that Arunachala is one of the places where Siva became involved in the world, performing
lilas as well as bestowing grace and liberation, whereas Chidambaram is a
kshetra where Siva's energy is concentrated solely on the granting of divine knowledge. This interpretation does not imply that one place is superior to the other. It merely notes that Siva chooses to function in a different way in Chidambaram. At first glance this explanation looks plausible, particularly since Guhai Namasivaya contrasts the
bhoga kshetra of Arunachala with the 'divine kshetra' of Chidambaram. However, closer scrutiny reveals a major problem: Siva has repeatedly manifested at Chidambaram for the benefit of his devotees there, so that would make it, like Arunachala, a
An alternative explanation can be found in
Day by Day with Bhagavan (6th December, 1945). Devaraja Mudaliar asked Bhagavan about one of the verses from
Arunachala Mahatmyam that Bhagavan had translated into Tamil. At the end of the verse Arunachala-Siva, speaking of Himself, says, 'Know that within me caves shine, surging with many enjoyments
[bhoga]'. The following dialogue ensued:
I asked Bhagavan whether the cave mentioned in it is inside God or inside the mountain (which of course is also said to be God). Bhagavan replied, 'Of course, in the context, it means the cave is inside the hill and that there in the cave are all enjoyments'. Bhagavan added, 'The stanza says you are to believe that inside this hill there is a cave and that all enjoyments are to be found there'. I also asked Bhagavan, 'I have read somewhere that this place is called
bhoga kshetra. I wonder what is meant thereby?' Bhagavan replied, 'Yes, it is so. But what does it mean? If thinking of this
kshetra can itself give mukti, what wonder if this place can give all other enjoyments one may desire.'
Going back to the story, it will be remembered that Guhai Namasivaya had instructed his disciple to go and live in Chidambaram. Guhai Namasivaya still felt that, if he pleaded his case, he would be allowed to stay.
He told his Guru, 'This slave will remain here, having the Guru's
darshan. He will not go to another place but will remain with the feet of the Guru. Moreover, this slave cannot go on living without having daily
darshan of the Guru.'
Guhai Namasivaya was unmoved. 'Go to Chidambaram,' he ordered, 'and have
darshan of the Golden Dancing Hall [the shrine in which Siva in the form of Lord Nataraja resides]. If the Lord there gives you
darshan even as I do myself, stay there. If not, come back here.'
Accepting the promise that the divine darshan would not be cut off, the disciple finally admitted defeat.
'This is good advice,' he said, 'I will follow it.'
Then, having accepted the decision, he composed the following song in praise of his Guru:
O Namasivaya! You destroy the subtle bonds of birth through your words and through your meditations, through your glance and through your touch, and through your compassion which gladdens our hearts! You attained liberation through the fourth leg of the chair.
The cryptic last line is an allusion to turiya, the fourth state that underlies the other three states of waking, dreaming and sleeping.
Guhai Namasivaya attained liberation by abiding permanently in this fourth state.
Guhai Namasivaya, feeling that delay would serve no useful purpose, responded to the song by saying, 'You can start right now'.
Guru Namasivaya began to walk towards Chidambaram and by the time night fell he had covered about ten miles. Desiring a place to rest, he sat down under a tree and spent three hours absorbed in the Self. Then, becoming aware that he was hungry, he composed a
venba verse that he addressed to Unnamulai, the consort of Siva in the Arunachaleswara Temple:
You who are the dearest to the heart of Lord Annamalai!
Your servant whose every thought is in praise of you!
At the moment when Guhai Namasivaya was composing this verse, there was some sweet rice resting on a golden plate in the temple. It had been offered to Lord Annamalai as
naivedyam (food offering), and the priest who had officiated had inadvertently forgotten to take the plate home with him when he had locked up the temple for the night. When Unnamulai heard Guru Namasivaya's prayer, she took the plate of rice to him and then returned to the temple.
At daybreak the priests opened the temple and looked for the golden plate. After searching fruitlessly for some time, the priests and the people of the town became convinced that the plate must have been stolen by a thief, although they could not understand how he had got into and out of the temple. No
pujas were performed for eight hours, for everyone was engaged in a search for the missing plate.
At the end of that period a brahmin boy went into a trance, became possessed by a spirit and announced, 'Guru Namasivaya is under a banyan tree on his way to Chidambaram. Mother took food for him. The plate is lying there. Go and fetch it.'
The plate was eventually found there and returned to its rightful place in the temple.
Guru Namasivaya got up the next morning, completed his morning ablutions and walked eastwards, praising his Guru. His next stop was at a holy place called Rishi Vandanam. In this
kshetra Siva and Parvati remain united as Ardhanari, an androgynous half-male and half-female form. This deity had been worshipped in ancient times by the king of the
rishis, Agastya Mamunivar.
Guru Namasivaya took a bath there in a holy tank called Aiyayiram
Kondam,(3) completed his puja, and then with a purity of body, speech and mind, worshipped the Lord of that place and had his
darshan. Afterwards, he went back to the banks of the holy tank and became absorbed in the
Self.(4) Some time later, when the pangs of hunger came, he composed the following verse to the Divine Mother:
Can a child starve as long as its mother lives?
Is it just that I should languish
as long as you are here on this earth?
You whom all the hosts of heaven praise!
You whose shoulders are slender like bamboo!
And whose earrings are of heavenly pearls!
I beg you, bring me rice!
When the Mother heard this song, she came and asked, 'My son, when I am united with the Lord here, is it proper for you to sing to me as a separate entity? Now sing me another song in which I am united with him.'
Guru Namasivaya obliged by composing and singing the following song:
You whose earrings are of heavenly pearls,
You who are one with Lord Siva,
whose throat is like a dark cloud pierced by lightning!
Mother, you who shine brighter than gold!
You who rise up, mountain-like in my stony heart!
I beg you, bring me rice!
As soon as he had completed the singing of this verse, the Mother brought food to him. Guru Namasivaya ate it, resumed his journey, and soon reached another famous pilgrimage centre, Vriddhachalam. He had a bath in the River Manimuttar, had
darshan of Lord Siva and Parvati in the form of Lord Pazhamalainathar and the Goddess Periyanayaki, returned to the bank of the tank and became absorbed in the Self. When hunger again affected him, he composed a verse and addressed it to Periyanayaki, the local name of the Goddess, who is traditionally depicted as an old woman:
Elderly Lady, you who are known as Periyanayaki,
abounding in goodness!
Elderly Lady, you who ever abide at the side of Lord Siva!
Elderly Lady, you whose body is dark blue!
Elderly Lady of the mountain, you who stand before me,
I beg you, bring me rice!
As soon as he had uttered this verse, the Mother appeared as an elderly woman with a walking stick and said to Guru Namasivaya, 'What is this, my son? Is it good to sing of me with your tongue, repeatedly calling me ''Elderly Lady''? Can an old woman walk? Can she fetch water? Can she bring you food?'
Guru Namasivaya responded by saying, 'Mother, at Balakasi [young Kasi] you are Balambika [young Ambika]. This is Vriddhakasi [old Kasi]. Here you are Periyanayaki [old woman]. Your Lord is also Pazhamalainathar [the old mountain Lord]. That is why I sang of you in that way.'
The Mother replied, 'That may be so, but now sing of me as a young woman'.
Guru Namasivaya responded by saying, 'If I do, I will be singing of two different Mothers'.
'If that is so, then let it be,' answered Periyanayaki. 'But please sing of me as a young person.'
Guru Namasivaya then composed another verse:
You who dwell upon a mountain
girded by the River Manimuttar,
You at whose feet devotees fall in praise!
You who dwell at Lord Siva's side!
You whose ever-youthful breasts
are adorned by a jewelled necklace!
I beg you, bring me rice!
As he was concluding the verse, Mother, in the form of Balambika [the young form of Parvati], brought food to him. After eating it he continued his walk and eventually reached a town called Bhuvanagiri. From this place his final destination, Chidambaram, could be seen in the distance. When Guru Namasivaya first sighted the four
gopurams (temple towers) of the Chidambaram Temple from Bhuvanagiri, he spontaneously composed a verse that expressed the great joy that the sight of them had brought to him:
At the mere sight of these four gopurams
all my sins have vanished
like cotton drifting into a flame.
What then will be the desert,
O Lord of Tillai's Hall,(5)of those who cast their eyes
upon the divine redness of your feet,
girt with tinkling anklets?
He was singing this song as he reached Chidambaram. On his arrival he took a bath in the Siva Ganga Tank in the main temple, after which he composed yet another song in praise of the holy Mother:
Those who see the holy bath of Mother Sivakami,
as voices versed in ancient Tamil swell in praise,
will see the effects of all their deeds destroyed.
And those who gather this water in their hands
will be plundered of all their actions' evil fruit!
Sivakami, meaning 'The lady who desires or who is desired by Siva', is the name of the female deity in the Chidambaram Temple. She is the silent witness to Lord Nataraja's dance in the inner sanctum. The reference to the 'holy bath of Sivakami' and the purifying effect of bathing in this tank may be an allusion to one of the main Chidambaram myths.
Before the creation of the shrine of Lord Nataraja there was a temple dedicated to Kali in the Tillai forest. When Siva first began His
anandatandava, his dance of bliss, in Chidambaram, Kali was filled with pride and challenged the Lord to a dance contest. Siva wished to eliminate her arrogance so he laid down the following terms: whoever won would become Lord of Tillai; whoever lost had to leave his or her shrine. While the gods and sages watched, Kali and Siva began to dance. When Siva performed a difficult manoeuvre called
urdhva tandava - one leg thrust vertically towards the sky - Kali conceded defeat because she was unable to execute that particular step. After acknowledging her defeat she was forced to leave her shrine in the heart of the Tillai forest and relocate herself outside the boundary of the town. In order to remove the pride that led her to challenge Siva, Kali bathed in the temple tank and afterwards worshipped Siva. Her fierce form disappeared and she acquired a gentler demeanour, along with a new title, 'The Great Goddess who possesses the Tillai forest'.
In this verse Guru Namasivaya seems to be saying that just as Kali expiated her sins by bathing in the tank, all others who follow her example will have their future karmas wiped out.
The site of the dance contest is sometimes identified as the Nritta Sabha inside the main temple. It now features an eight-armed image of Siva performing the
urdhva tandava, the posture that defeated Kali.
(1) Appa means 'father' in Tamil. It is commonly used as a polite but endearing form of address to an adult male.
(2) When Guru Namasivaya asks the Goddess to bring him rice in this and subsequent verses, he is actually just asking for food. Since rice is the predominant component in all South Indian meals, it has become a synonym for food in general.
(3) Literally, 'he who holds 5,000', a reference to the large size of the tank.
(4) This account is primarily derived from a Tamil anthology of writings on Arunachala entitled
Arunachala Puranam (1934 ed., pp. 55-74). Most of the biographical narrative and all of the poems that appear here are a direct translation from this text. The periodic explanations and interpretations are my own.
The anonymous author of the original Tamil story frequently states that Guru Namasivaya went into or became absorbed in
nishta. Generally this means abiding undisturbed in the Self in a state in which one is not aware of anything other than the Self. However, the various contexts in which the term appears seem to indicate that the author is describing a
samadhi state or a yogic trance in which Guru Namasivaya becomes aware of facts or events of which he had no knowledge in his ordinary waking state. I have, accordingly, occasionally translated
nishta as 'yogic trance'.
(5) Tillai, the ancient name for Chidambaram, is the Tamil name for a tree
(excoecaria agallocha) which is common in that area. It also refers to the forest of Tillai trees that originally surrounded the town. The 'Lord of Tillai's Hall' is Nataraja, the presiding deity at