(1) The invocatory verse, as is usual with all invocations of this kind, is addressed to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is the son of Siva.
(2) One of Vishnu's avataras was as Narasimha, a half-man and half-lion form. Narasimha disembowelled the demon Hiranyakasipu, who had harassed the gods. After the demon had been killed, Narasimha was still full of anger and threatened to annihilate the whole universe. Siva appeared in the form of Simbul (in Sanskrit he is known as Sarabha), an eight-legged flying creature. This
'bird' attacked Narasimha, lifted him off the ground and killed him. Siva subsequently wore the skin of Narasimha as an item of clothing.
(3) Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu and the goddess of prosperity. This portion of the verse is saying that Ganesh grants success and wisdom and also brings about worldly wealth.
(4) Aruna means 'red' and achala is Sanskrit for
'mountain'. There are also other names for Arunachala that can be translated as
(5) The black cloud is one of the epithets of Vishnu. He is traditionally held to be black or dark blue in colour. Brahma originated from a lotus that appeared in Vishnu's navel.
The principal puranic story about Arunachala features a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu over which of them is the greater. Siva witnessed their dispute and decided to teach them a lesson in humility. He appeared before them in the form of an infinitely long column of light (some versions say fire) and announced that whichever of the two could find the end of this column could call himself the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed downwards to find the bottom end, while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew upward in search of the top. Neither extremity was found even though the two gods spent thousands of years trying. Both returned unsuccessful, finally conceding that Siva was greater than either of them. Vishnu then requested Siva to manifest in a form that was less dazzling to the eyes so that devotees through the ages could have
darshan of his form. Siva obliged by condensing himself into the mountain of Arunachala. Thus, for devotees of Arunachala, the mountain is not merely a symbol of Siva or the place where he resides, it is Siva himself, manifesting in a physical form.
(6) After a long period of animosity the
devas and the asuras, the inabitants of the spirit realms, agreed to cooperate to churn the ocean of milk to obtain
amrita, the elixir of immortality. At some point during the churning a burning mass of poison appeared whose fumes began to asphyxiate the whole world. At Brahma's request Siva swallowed the poison
(hala, or halahala) and held it in his throat. This poison left a blue mark on Siva's throat, earning him one of his many titles
- Nilakantha, which means
(7) Kama, the god of lust, was employed by Indra to make Siva fall in love with Parvati. When he fired one of his arrows from his sugarcane bow at Siva's heart, Siva responded by burning him to ashes with a ray that was emitted from his third eye.
(9) Annamalai, the Tamil name for Arunachala can be translated as
'unreachable or unapproachable mountain,' probably a reference to the story in which Brahma and Vishnu were unable to find the limits of Siva's column of light.
(10) Daksha was the father of Sati, who was the wife and consort of Siva in the birth before she became Parvati. In that birth she was also known as Uma. Brahma thought that the business of creation could not proceed properly unless Siva married, so he persuaded Daksha to have a daughter who would attract Siva by the power of her yogic
tapas. The mother-goddess of the universe took the form of Sati and promised that she would go through with this arrangement, but added that if Daksha ever showed her a lack of respect, she would abandon her side of the bargain.
Sati won Siva by the power of her love and asceticism and they were eventually married. Many years later Daksha organised a sacrifice to which he invited all the gods except Siva. Some versions of the story say that Siva did not show Daksha proper respect at an earlier sacrifice, so was not invited again. Another explanation was that Daksha disliked Siva for his wild lifestyle and for the fact that he had once severed one of Brahma's heads, and still carried the skull around with him. Brahma was Daksha's father.
Sati went alone to the sacrifice and discovered that no portion of the offerings had been allocated to Siva. Daksha treated her very disrespectfully, saying that she should not have come to the sacrifice at all. Sati reminded him of the condition of her incarnation
- that she would end it if Daksha ever treated her badly. Sati then sat down and self-immolated, burning her body to ashes in a yogic fire that she manifested inside herself.
When Siva heard the news, he vowed revenge. He tore out a clump of his hair and threw it against a mountain, where it turned into Virabhadra and Mahakali. Virabhadra was ordered by Siva to go to the sacrifice and take revenge. He went there with a great army, killed Daksha and many others present, and evicted all the gods who had come to attend. Daksha's head was thrown in to the sacrificial fire. Finally, Virabhadra placed a severed goat's head on the body of Daksha and reanimated it.
Sati reincarnated as Parvati and eventually, after a period of extreme
tapas, married Siva again and became united with his physical form.
(11) Siva is always depicted with the Ganges emerging from his head. The Ganges is the embodiment of the goddess Ganga who agreed to flow on earth to wash away the sins of people who bathed in her. Starting in heaven, she flows down to earth, where the force of her waters is initially absorbed by Siva's head. It is said that the earth could not otherwise bear the full impact of the descent.
(12) Siva once severed one of Brahma's five heads for an act of sexual impropriety, leaving him with four. After the event, Siva threaded the skull on his necklace. There is an alternative version of the story in which Siva severed the head because Brahma was arrogantly proclaiming that he was the supreme deity. In this version Brahma curses Siva, saying that he has to keep the skull in his hands and use it as a begging bowl.
(13) The two normal eyes of Siva represent the sun and the moon. The third, in the centre of the forehead, symbolises fire. The eyes together represent the three sources of light that illumine the earth, space and the sky. Through his three eyes Siva can see past, present and future, an accomplishment which, as Guhai Namasivaya points out elsewhere, enables him to transcend time. The central eye is the eye of higher perception. Normally it is directed inwards, but when it is turned outwards, it burns all that appears before it.
(14) 'The four Vedas' is occasionally used as an epithet of Brahma. When this phrase occurs in the context of not being able to reach Siva, it is a reference to the attempts of Brahma and Vishnu to find the end of Siva's column of light.
(15) The three devotees are Tirunavukkarasar (also known affectionately as
'Appar'), Sundaramurti and Jnanasambandar. Miraculous things happened to all three of them when they sang songs to Siva.
Appar was originally a Jain, but when he converted to Saivism he attracted the ire of the local king and his Jain supporters. Appar was sentenced to death and put into a burning lime kiln for seven days. He sang songs in praise of Siva for the whole week and escaped unburned. Next, the Jains tried to poison him, but Siva turned the poison into nectar. In the third attempt at execution Appar was tied to the ground while an elephant was ordered to trample him to death. As a result of a song Appar sang to Siva, the elephant approached and prostrated to him. Finally, the king ordered Appar to be tied to a huge rock and thrown into the sea. This is the story alluded to in the verse. The rock floated and took Appar away to safety in a neighbouring kingdom.
The crocodile miracle comes from the story of Sundaramurti. Two brahmin boys went for a bathe in a tank. One was eaten by a crocodile and one escaped. Sundaramurti came to the town and heard two different sounds coming from two houses. In one (the house of the boy who had escaped) there were the ritual sounds of a brahmin boy being invested with his sacred thread. From the other house, only sounds of waling could be heard. Sundaramurti made enquiries and found out what had happened. He sang a song to Siva, asking him to bring the boy back to life. Siva went into the crocodile's stomach and reconstituted the boy. Yama, the god of death, released his soul and the crocodile vomited him up. Sundaramurti then performed the thread ceremony of the boy.
The third story is about Sivanesan and his daughter Poompavai. The father thought that Jnanasambandhar would be a suitable husband for his daughter and mentally offered her to him. Poompavai, though, was bitten by a snake and died. Sivanesan offered a large sum of money to anyone who could resurrect his daughter, but no one came forward. The body was cremated and the ashes were put into a pot. Every day Sivanesan decorated the pot with flowers and thought of Jnanasambandhar. Sivenesan eventually went to meet Jnanasambandar, who had already heard about Poompavai and the pot from another source. Jnanasambandhar sang a song to Siva, asking him to restore the girl to life. Poompavai came back as a twelve-year-old girl. Sivanesan asked Jnanasambandar to marry her, but Jnanasambandhar declined, saying that when Sivanesan had offered the girl to him, that was in her previous form in her old body. In her new form, said Jnanasambandhar, he would only regard her as his daughter.
All three stories can be found in the Periyapuranam, the 1000-year-old anthology of the lives of sixty-three Saiva saints.
(16) According to one of Hinduism's creation myths, the universe began with Mahavishnu lying on a banyan leaf in the shape of a baby. Vishnu then began to think,
'Who am I? Who created me?' In response to these queries the Supreme
Sakti (the female divine energy) manifested in a personified form and explained the process to him. The
trimurtis (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva) would be responsible respectively for the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the universe each time it came into existence. Brahma, Vishnu was told, would appear from a lotus that would manifest in Vishnu's navel.
Hindu cosmology is cyclical. The universe periodically comes into being and then withdraws into nothingness again. The periodic disappearance of the universe is known as
pralaya, or cosmic dissolution. Even the gods are dissolved at the time of
pralaya. The universe has manifested innumerable times, and each time it has appeared a new set of
trimurtis has regulated its functioning.
The Siva that Guhai Namasivaya is speaking of here is the transcendent Absolute, not one of the perishable
trimurtis. From this position of transcendence Siva can witness millions of the other gods being born and dying without aging himself. This transcendent Siva is not subject to dissolution at the time of
(17) Except for the last line, these are the same miracles that were explained in footnote fifteen. The additional story concerns Jnanasambandhar.
While he was visiting Tiruvothur he met a devotee who told him,
'I have planted many palmyra trees in my garden, but all of them turned out to be male trees, and they are not yielding fruit. The Jains are mocking me for this.'
Jnanasambandhar went to the local temple and sand a song that mentioned the devotee's plight. All the tree turned into females and gave fruits. Some of the previously mocking Jains were so impressed, the converted to Saivism.
(18) Vishnu was once performing a sahasranama to Siva's feet. In this form of worship one chants the thousand names of the deity, making an offering as each name is chanted. When Vishnu reached 999, he ran out of flowers. Not wanting the puja to be spoiled, he gave one of his eyes as the final offering.
(19) Uma is one of the many names of Parvati, the consort of Siva.
In Arunachala Mahatmyam and Arunachala
Puranam, Uma, known locally as Unnamulai, unites with Siva to such an extent that each shares the other's form. Unnamulai means,
'She whose breasts have never been suckled'. Traditionally, Siva and Unnamulai appear as a half-male and half-female figure, the left side being Unnamulai and the right side Siva. In this merged or unified state Unnamulai becomes Siva's
sakti, the divine energy which brings into existence all manifestation. Iconographical representations of their combined form, which is known as Ardhanariswara, show a half-male and half-female body, with the dividing line being the vertical axis running down the middle of the body. Uma (Unnamulai) earned the right to this union by performing intense
tapas over two lifetimes, the first as Sati, and the second as Parvati.
Robert Butler learned classical Tamil during a stay at Ramanasramam in the 1980s. He is currently
working on translations of Kuruntogai verses, Tamil love poetry written about 2,000 years ago. Samples of his work can be found at: