This account by T. V. Venkatasubramanian and David Godman originally appeard in The Mountain Path.
Kumaradeva, a Karnataka king who renounced his throne to attain liberation, was part of a distinguished lineage of Gurus who lived and taught in South India in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to his hagiography (Kumaradeva Sastra Kovai, by P. Arumugam Mudaliar) Kumaradeva had spent his penultimate incarnation in Mallikarjuna, nowadays known as Sri Sailam, in Andhra Pradesh. In that life he was performing nishkama tapas – rigorous and selfless meditation – and directing it towards Lord Siva. He had a companion, another sadhu who was performing tapas alongside him.
Siva became aware of this anonymous sadhu’s strenuous efforts and decided to manifest before him to offer assistance.
‘Devotee, what boon do you want?’ he enquired.
The sadhu had been harbouring a request in his mind, but when he opened his mouth to speak, something completely different came out.
The details of the unplanned request are not known, but they were bad enough to cause great anger in Siva, who cursed him with the following words: ‘May you become a jatamuni [a kind of demon with long matted hair]!’
This was a not a curse for some future life; the transformation was immediate.
Shocked by this sudden turn of events, the devotee prostrated at Siva’s feet and pleaded with him.
‘I made a mistake by not asking for what I really desired. Supreme Being! What can I do now? When can I be released from this curse?’
Siva gave him the following prescription: ‘Go to Vriddhachalam [a town near Chidambaram] and live there on the branches of the mature bodhi tree that is growing on the bank on the Manimutta River. The devotee who has been performing tapas next to you will, in his next life, be born as a king in the Karnataka region. After ruling there for a brief period, he will develop a distaste for worldly life that will lead him to Peraiyur Santalinga Swami. He will attain liberation through the grace of this swami. His Guru will then instruct him to go to Vriddhachalam where he will stay under the same bodhi tree in which you will be living as a jatamuni. If you prostrate to him and beg him to release you, you will be freed from your curse.’
This is a Youtube video of the temple town of Vriddhachalam, with the River Manimutta flowing in the foreground.
‘When will he attain liberation?’ asked the jatamuni.
Siva replied, ‘He has already taken five consecutive pure incarnations. In each one he performed intense nishkama tapas and directed it towards me. This is his sixth pure birth. In his next life he will attain liberation.’
Saying, ‘This is my good fortune,’ the jatamuni took leave of Siva, went to Vriddhachalam, took up residence in the tree specified by Siva, and waited for the time when he would be released from his curse.
The destinies ordained by Siva then began to unfold. The devotee who had been doing tapas with the jatamuni took a new birth as Kumaradeva in the Karnataka region. He ruled there as a king for a short period of time before taking sannyasa. After his renunciation, he asked his former chief minister to send a message to Peraiyur Santalinga Swami that gave details of his history, his renunciation, and his desire to see him. Then, without waiting for an answer, he went there in person and fell at the Guru’s feet.
Santalinga Swami wanted to test the maturity of Kumaradeva.
He looked at his kaiettu tambiran, a scribe-disciple who always stood near the Guru in order to write down important teachings, and said, ‘Appa [a term of endearment], this person looks like a king. He is not fit for this path. Ask him to go home and rule his kingdom again.’
The scribe was a mature man who could see or intuit that eighteen distinct marks that are said to appear only in those true devotees who have intense and extreme maturity were all manifesting in this former king. Since he did not want to disobey his Guru or reveal this information to Kumaradeva, he contrived to pass on the information to Santalinga Swami in sign language.
Santalinga Swami was aware of all this himself. Softening his stance a little, he turned to the tambiran and said, ‘Tell him to go outside and cut grass for my bullocks’.
Kumaradeva was given a sickle, along with a rope to tie the cut grass with, and was dispatched to the nearby fields where he joined a group of pallars (members of an agricultural caste) who were already engaged in cutting grass.
Kumaradeva held a bunch of grass in his left hand and attempted to cut it near the ground with his sickle. However, being completely inexperienced, he only succeeded in inflicting a severe wound on the hand that was holding the grass. Instead of getting upset about the gaping wound, he got angry with his right hand for being so incompetent.
The pallars, who had been observing the strange and unskilled behaviour of the new grass cutter, approached him and asked him who he was.
‘Oh, I am just a worker who has been asked to cut grass to feed the bullocks that pull Santalinga Swami’s cart’.
The pallars were not convinced. His incompetence at one of the most basic agricultural tasks, combined with his aristocratic bearing, led them to believe that he might be a king. Realising that he was incapable of accomplishing the simple task that had been assigned to him, they took pity on him, cut the grass that was required, and tied it with the rope that Kumaradava had been given. They then lifted it up and placed it on his head so he could walk off with it. Unaccustomed to bearing heavy loads, Kumaradeva’s head buckled under the weight. Realising that Kumaradeva did not have the necessary neck muscles to carry the grass to its destination, the pallars carried it to the math and placed it outside the door.
On the two succeeding days Kumaradeva was again sent out to cut grass for Santalinga Swami’s bullocks, and each time the pallars cut the grass for him and delivered it to the math. On the third day the worker who was carrying Kumaradeva’s load for him met the tambiran who had conveyed Santalinga Swami’s original orders. He told him about the strange new worker who couldn’t either cut or carry grass and who had slashed his hand on his first attempt. The tambiran reported these developments to Santalinga Swami.
Santalinga Swami decided that he would test Kumaradeva a little more. He came outside and got angry with him, just to see how he would react. Kumaradeva became a little frightened when Santalinga Swami verbally attacked him, but other than retreating a little and standing some distance away, he displayed no reaction to the assault.
That night Santalinga Swami called his tambiran and said, ‘Pack two separate cooked-rice parcels for myself and Kumaradeva. Hang them on opposite ends of a pole and give the pole to Kumaradeva. Then ask him to accompany me with it.’
They set off together, with Santalinga Swami walking in front of Kumaradeva.
After travelling for some time Santalinga Swami turned round and rebuked him, shouting ‘Why are you delaying?’
Kumaradeva replied fearfully, ‘On one side the acchu lingam [axis lingam] is tugging me, and on the other side the gana yuddham are pulling.’
In this highly cryptic pronouncement the acchu lingam represents the Self while the gana yuddham (the hordes of warring warriors) represent the outward moving senses who are always trying to take attention away from the Self.
This enigmatic but profound reply sent Santalinga Swami into a state of ecstasy. He sat down on the bank of a nearby tank with Kumaradeva and asked him to mix the rice from the two packages. Kumaradeva obeyed the command and then served Santalinga Swami, treating the rice as naivedya (sanctified food offered to a deity). When Santalinga Swami had indicated that he had received enough, Kumaradeva took some himself, treating his portion as prasad.
The two of them spoke together before Santalinga Swami decided it was time to return to the math.
This meeting was a turning point in their outward relationship. Kumaradeva began to perform sadhana under the supervision of Santalinga Swami and soon realised the Self through his Guru’s grace.
Since Siva had ordained that the enlightened Kumaradeva would one day travel to Vriddhachalam to release the jatamuni from his curse, Santalinga Swami turned to him one day, addressed him as ‘Maharaja,’ and ordered him to visit that town.
Kumaradeva took leave of his Guru and began to travel there on foot. As he was walking through a forest near Chinnasalem, Pazhamalainathar [Lord Siva residing at Vriddhachalam] appeared in the form of a brahmin. Knowing that Kumaradeva was walking towards his town, he set up a wayside stall that served free drinking water to travellers.
As Kumaradeva approached, the brahmin addressed him saying, ‘You seem to be exhausted. Drinking water is available here. Drink as much as you want and quench your thirst.’
Kumaradeva accepted the brahmin’s offer before continuing with his journey to Vriddhachalam.
The long walk exhausted him. When he finally arrived at his destination, he decided to rest under the shade of the large bodhi tree that was growing by the side of the River Manimutta. Within minutes of sitting down he fell into a deep and blissful sleep.
Periyanayaki [the goddess presiding at Vriddhachalam] came to know of his arrival. She took some milk that had been kept for her abhishekam and came in the form of a brahmin woman to where Kumaradeva was sleeping. She sat down next to him, placed Kumaradeva’s head on her lap, and fed him with the milk she had brought.
Kumaradeva woke up, saw the woman, and asked who she was.
She replied, ‘Kumaradeva, I am Periyanayaki. Come and stay forever in my place and live happily here.’
Then she mysteriously vanished into thin air.
This incident left Kumaradeva wondering, ‘Mother, what can I possibly give you in return for this grace?’
Within minutes he was lost in ecstasy.
The jatamuni, who had been staying on the branches of the bodhi tree, observed all this and thought that the person he had been waiting for had finally arrived. He climbed down the tree, took the form of a brahmin, and fell at the feet of Kumaradeva with great humility.
‘Who are you?’ enquired Kumaradeva.
‘I am a jatamuni.’
‘Why have you come to see me?’ enquired Kumaradeva.
The jatamuni then narrated the story of how the two of them had once been sadhus together, and how Siva had cursed him to remain as a jatamuni in the bodhi tree until Kumaradeva came there to release him.
When the story had been concluded, Kumaradeva carried out Siva’s wishes and released the jatamuni from the curse.
Kumaradeva remained in Vriddhachalam since his Guru had asked him to be there. Some accounts say that he used the shade of this bodhi tree as his base.
One day Periyanayaki appeared to him again and requested him to compose some jnana sastras [scriptures on true knowledge]. Kumaradeva doubted that he had the capacity.
He replied, ‘Though I am your slave, I am not able to do this’.
Periyanayaki told him, ‘I myself will abide in your tongue and complete the sastras’.