Ayton made it a point always to attend and lead this annual festival, but one year he found himself stranded by floods on the southern side of the River Pennar just before the beginning of the festival. Knowing that he was expected to be at Arunachala to start the chariot on its journey, he called out to his mount: “Horse, I must see Tata and I must also get the Deepam festival started. Think of Tata and cross the river!’ Without a moment’s delay or hesitation, the horse leaped into the raging torrent of water and effortlessly waded to the other side. None of the other people who were stranded dared to follow for they were all convinced that it would be suicidal to enter the surging waters.
At the moment when Ayton put his faith in Tata and leaped into the water, Isanya Desikar opened his eyes after a long meditation and stretched out his hand in a southerly direction. When one of his disciples asked what he was doing, he replied, ‘If someone falls into a river, should we not save him?’
Ayton arrived safely and took Isanya Desikar’s blessings to start the festival. When the news of Ayton’s spectacular river crossing and Isanya Desikar’s role in it spread among the Deepam crowds, many of them came to the north-eastern side of the hill to see the man who had been responsible for the miracle. The guardian tigers had to withdraw for several days until the crowds subsided. Several of the new visitors turned out to be mature seekers who were looking for guidance from a Guru. Isanya Desikar accepted some as disciples, had a small thatched shed built to accommodate them and gave instruction by writing a guide to liberation entitled Jnana Kattalai.
In 1829, when Isanya Desikar was seventy-nine years old, he realised that death would soon come to him. He foresaw the time and date of his passing and wrote the information on a palm leaf that he then concealed under his seat. On the 26th day of the Tamil month of Margazhi he told his oldest disciple somewhat cryptically, ‘Lord Nataraja is going to the thousand-pillared mantapam. We too should go there.’ Then he sat in meditation, facing north, with a slight smile on his face. Muthuswami Udaiyar, realising that his master was about to give up his body, asked him, ‘What now will be the fate of us devotees?’
Isanya Desikar replied, ‘Has not your family already ripened as a bunch?’ and promptly abandoned his body. His devotees chose a samadhi site under a bilva tree nearby because they recollected that Isanya Desikar had occasionally stood there and gazed lovingly at the mountain. When the palm leaf that predicted his death was found shortly after his burial, the devotees had one last proof of their master’s powers.
Garland of Hymns to Arunachala
Isanya Desikar’s Garland of Hymns to Arunachala is a collection of verses on various spiritual themes. After the traditional invocation ato Ganesh, he begins by praising Arunachala as the Guru who freed him from spiritual bondage. Soon, though, he moves into a long section in which, following Tamil poetic tradition, he outlines all his faults and pleads for grace to transcend them. Midway through the poem he switches to a shorter metre and again begins to thank Arunachala for his liberation. Next, he moves into a teaching mode and reels off many verses that praise Siva, propound advaita philosophy, and offer hints on spiritual practice. The last section, from which I have selected only four verses, is a long serious of couplets that either praise Arunachala-Siva or, more frequently, seek His grace.
The translation is based on an unpublished rendering by Dr T. N. Pranatharthi Haran, to whom I give acknowledgements and thanks. Editorial comments and explanations are in italics after some of the verses.
Afraid of the foe called ‘death’, I approached Arunachaleswara. Since now is the time to get rid of all troubles by his grace, I will start to praise the Lord with Tamil songs. Let us worship the feet of the elephant-faced God for the accomplishment of this task.
Arunachaleswara, or ‘Lord Arunachala’ is the name of the presiding deity in the Tiruvannamalai Temple. It is also a synonym for the mountain itself. Unnamulai (meaning ‘She whose breasts have never been suckled’, is the Tamil name of Siva’s consort in the temple.
Unapproachable to Brahma and Vishnu, you are the one who encompasses the whole universe. Your devotees, ascertaining that you were grace incarnate in the form of fire, praise your greatness. Taking you as my Guru, I call you ‘Lord Arunagiri’.
Like a piece of straw being blown about in a cyclone, I was caught up and tricked by maya. Out of ignorance I mistook maya to be real and was held in bondage by it until you released me and bound me to your feet. O blissful supreme Guru! Father! The Eternal! Consort of Unnamulai residing in Annamalai! How you play with your devotees! In silence you gave my upadesa, rendering me speechless at your feet.
Upadesa means ‘teaching’. Usually it implies the teaching given by a guru to a disciple.
O Father! The Eternal! Unnamulai’s husband living in Annamalai! If you keep quiet, to whom will this slave report? Caught by the devil called ‘mind’ and frightened by the five elements, to me this false world appears to be real and fights with me. The cloud of lust kills without killing. Emaciated by karma, I have fallen into the well of the sharp, spear-like eyes of the ladies. Everyone abuses me. Should I go down like this? Since you have created me, protect this poor man.
O Father! The Eternal! Consort of Unnamulai who resides in Arunai! When the mind, the five elements and the five senses combine, a false knowledge within the intellect makes the world appear to be real. This is nothing but a magic trick. The mind is wounded when it combines with lust, but still it wallows in the mud of desire. Is there no way to fight and be victorious over these wicked thieves? I believe that you are the Supreme God. So, grace me and remove my difficulties. O Lord, I have surrendered to you. Please protect me.
Arunai is an old name for Arunachala, and also for the town of Tiruvannamalai.
O Father, Eternity itself! Husband of Unnamulai residing in Arunai! The great maya is like a mango tree, and the five elements are the seeds that scatter from its fruits. Growing aimlessly, they develop into a forest of lust, anger, and so on. All souls live in this forest, wandering aimlessly, thinking that they are the senses. The evil spirits known as sankalpas [intentions] get together and shout aloud that there is no God, and they cry ‘It’s real!’, ‘It’s not real!’ Since this is the situation, bestow on me the proper grace to reach you.
I do not know when you will bless me with the state of mauna, or when I will become the eternal pure knowledge, full of the light that is unborn. I do not properly learn the path to freedom from the liberated ones, nor do I do service to them. Instead, I go round the world as if in bondage, dumb, like a blind man, caught in the birth-cycle created by maya. How I have suffered! Protect me with your radiant jnana.
O Father! The Eternal! Husband of Mother Unnamulai residing in Arunai! Like a lame man who cannot reach out for wild honey, I am unable to realise your greatness. You are the plenitude, the knowledge and bliss attained by yoga. Bondage, actions, illusion and desires expand from one to a hundred, and then to a thousand. If one of them leaves, the others pull me down. I believe in you alone. Kindly tell me on which day I will receive the direct experience that is flawless, supportless, and the unbroken whole. Raise me up from the eight-limbed yogic states to the sovereign state of true Siva-jnana.
O Father! The Eternal! Consort of Mother Unnamulai residing in Arunai! What can I say? Though it is known that all things will pass away, the mind still regards them as real. Ignorance fights with me. This mind, joining hands with the intellect and the ego, goes astray and ends up wandering in the forest, weeping and wailing. How can I overcome the mind? Blissful plenitude! Eternal grace! Clearly show me the truth or entrust me to the hands of your devotees.
O Supreme Bliss! Eternal Plenitude! Teacher of Nama Sivaya! You who cannot be approached by the Agamas, the Puranas, the Itihasas and the Vedas! Father! Eternal One! The husband of Mother Unnamulai who resides in Arunai! Please instruct me about the supreme state: the single, infinite state that is full of silence, in which the flood of the unified taste of peace prevails, where the body and all enjoyments are blissfully forgotten, where true knowledge shines like the sun. This is the yogic state that is called ‘Being still’.
The Puranas are the books that primarily contain the stories and myths surrounding the major Hindu deities. The itihasas are the large epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Eternal One! Consort of Unnamulai residing in Arunai! Without knowing the Self, I played with the body through the senses, the breath and the mind. I thought that I was born and that I will die. I considered my parents, women, the world and all its enjoyments to be real. But then you possessed me and made me join the select band of your devotees. You made me realise the complete knowledge that has neither birth nor death and let me enjoy the simple essence of remaining as the Self. O Father, thank you so much!
The five sheaths, the three bodies, the five elements, the ten organs, the four karanas, the soul, etc., together constitute birth and death. But all this is only a trick. Before you they fade away like darkness before the sun. Am I different from your own real nature? What then is happiness and sorrow, what are the karmas I have done? O my possessor, the Golden Hill! Embodiment of grace, plenitude itself! The Self in all souls! Sonachala [Red Hill], you have entered me.
The five sheaths, called kosas, cover and hide the Self. According to Yoga philosophy the ego functions in the world through these five sheaths. They are: (1) annamaya kosa, ‘the sheath of food’, meaning the physical body. (2) pranamaya kosa, ‘the sheath of prana’. Prana is the life-force (sometimes called the ‘vital breath’) that animates and sustains the body. It is intimately connected with breathing. (3) manomaya kosa, ‘the sheath of the mind’. (4) vijnanamaya kosa, ‘the sheath of the intellect’. This is the so-called ‘higher mind’ that calculates and judges the information stored in and collected by the lower mind and comes to appropriate conclusions. (5) anandamaya kosa, ‘the sheath of bliss’. This is the experience of the ego when it is not associated with the mind or the body.
The three bodies are the physical (sthula sarira), the subtle (sukshma sarira) and the causal (karana sarira). The physical body is the first kosa, the subtle body is made up of kosas two, three and four; the causal body, the state of the ego during sleep, is the fifth kosa.
The ten organs refer to the five karmendriyas and the five jnanendriyas, the faculties through which one moves, feels and senses. The four ‘inner organs (antahkaranas) are mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), memory (chitta) and ego (ahankara).
Self of all souls on earth! Lord of the Red Hill! Not knowing how I came, without having knowledge of even the sun and the moon, of day and night, I became a plaything of fate. By not thinking of you till now I became egotistical in many ways. Tell me, what is the body? What is the soul? What is ‘in’ and ‘out’? Other than you I have nowhere else to go. As complete bliss you have entered into me. Will you now possess me like the scent in a flower and merge me with your devotees?
You have entered into me but somehow the world still appears to me to be real. On this earth you are complete bliss, the Self of all souls. Bondage in the form of birth and death has crept in without my knowledge. If I analyse, I discover that it is nothing but the mind. The Vedas proclaim that all this is a function of the mind, but still I remain ignorant. Bhakti is flooding. Lord of the Red Hill! Make me understand this by your grace.
Like the scent in a flower, like the taste in honey, blissfully you have entered into me. Self of all souls! Lord of the Red Hill! Immanently you pervade the whole world, manifesting as the sky, the wind, fire, water, earth, the moon, the sun and the individual soul. You are the soul, the ‘you’ and the ‘I’. Up till now I have considered the world, which is only a mirage-like appearance, to be real. Who am I? What is this body? What is it that speaks ‘I’? What are all these relationships that appear as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘women’? Tell me!
Lord of the Red Hill! Self of the souls! You have entered me! I do not know how to worship devotedly with flowers, as prescribed by the Agamas. Nor do I now how to dance, how to worship with folded hands, how to go round the temple, or recite hymns. I do not know how to serve those among your devotees who are liberated. I have failed to get instructions from them on how to get release from bondage. Up until now I have wasted my days by mixing with ignorant people. Please reveal to me the eternal truth of your own Self.
There are twenty-eight Saiva Agamas. Saivas give them ultimate authority on all matters relating to ritual worship.
‘How to worship with folded hands’ means with palms together, either in front of the chest or over the head.