The divine stories associated with Arunachala have been chronicled in some detail in the Arunachala Mahatmyam (The Greatness of Arunachala), A Sanskrit text that appear in the Skanda Purana. However, it is not the only source for the legends and traditions that are associated with the mountain of Arunachala. A few hundred years later the Tamil poet Saiva Ellappa Navalar composed the Arunachala Puranam, a text that includes the principle events that are detailed in the Arunachala Mahatmayam as well as adding new stories that are not to be found in the original Sanskrit work. There is, for example, a chapter about King Valallan of Tiruvannamalai, a medieval emperor whose love for Siva compelled Siva to appear before him and grant him the boon of getting a son.
The Arunachala Puranam belongs to a category of texts that are collectively known as ‘Sthala puranams’. All the major pilgrimage centres of Tamil Nadu have them, and it is thought that they came into existence as early guide books which encouraged pilgrims to visit by extolling all the miraculous events that had taken place there.
Robert Butler has translated the entire text and annotated it with informative linguistic and cultural notes. It is available from the Sri Ramanasramam Book Depot, and also on this site.
Here is an excerpt that gives a flavour of the original poem. It is taken from chapter two. The subject is the famous dispute between Brahman and Vishnu which was resolved when Siva appeared, manifested as a column of fire or light, and invited the two quarreling gods to prove who was the greater by finding either the top or the bottom of the column. The chapter is called ‘The Holy Mountain’ and all the notes are by Robert.
79 & 80
‘My Father! Most gracious Nandi! You who are easily accessible to your devotees! My mind is overcome with joy on hearing of Arunai’s glory. Pray tell us now, O you who possess the great wealth which is to serve Kailash’s king, who is clad in the skin of a rutting elephant with its warring trunk, how in that great city Lord Siva manifested in the form of fire, how later that fire became a mountain, and how Mal [Vishnu] and Ayan [Brahma] suffered, seeking in vain, one the foot, the other the head of that mountain of fire, until the Lord afforded them his grace!’ To which Nandi replied:
Arunai is an ancient name of the town of Tiruvannamalai. It is also used to denote the mountain of Arunachala.
‘Were a man to entertain in his mind the thought of going to that holy place to commit the five heinous sins, the thought of that place would prevail and the succour of final liberation would be his. Such is the pronouncement of the holy Vedas. For those who sweetly sing its praises, what reward might be too hard to win?
‘In telling this there is profit, not only for you who listen but for myself also. Now I shall tell as best I may how he who uproots sorrow and joy equally [Siva] became, for the good of Mal and Ayan, a vast flame, growing upward till it pierced the very heavens, and then, how he took the form of the Bhoga Lingam [Enjoyment Lingam] ….
‘[Brahma] The Lord of the Vedas, seated upon a lotus blossom, surveyed his work, and became consumed with pride, thinking, “All this world is my own creation”. Rising in fury, he confronted Hari [Vishnu] in his own city, intent on war with the one who wears a fair garland of tulsi leaves about which clouds of bees sweetly hum. Reviling him, he began to speak:
‘“It is I who made the seven upper and lower worlds, the seven clouds, seven oceans and seven principal mountains. Then, in order to create all living things according to their species, I brought forth out of my mind sons, the first of which was great Marichi.
At the time of the creation of the universe, Brahma first created ten sons, called Prajapatis, to help him with the work of creation, the first of whom was Marichi.
‘“The children of these sons of mine are the gods themselves with their priests, the Moon and Sun, the Sons of Danu, the Gandharvas, Kimpurusas, and Siddhas, the Chiefs of Siva’s Hosts, and with Indra at their head, the Guardians of the Eight Directions.
‘“Forget your claim that you are the Supreme Being in whom nothing is lacking, and that I am your ‘lotus-born’ son. Had I not created the world with my own hands, how might you then have been able to preserve it? How could a picture exist unless there were sound walls to paint it on?
‘“If you do not abandon in your heart your arrogant claim to be the guardian of all things, I will call into existence another to take on this work of preservation. Therefore submerge yourself in the chilly ocean and hide yourself there, before the hordes of my divine progeny come to dispatch you!
‘“Through incurring the displeasure of the wise sage Bhrigu, you entered upon a series of ten incarnations. Do you not comprehend? Just look how my hands have been defiled in the creation of those very forms!
‘“Do not insult me by saying that I am the one who was born from the lotus blossom in your navel! Formerly, you sprang into being from a pillar. Are we to say that that pillar was your father? Or that it was your mother? Speak! When a bright red flame is kindled, it can consume the bamboo stem that gave it life, can you not see?”
‘These words of Brahma entered his ears, burning into him like a well-honed weapon, heated upon the fire. Smoke issued from the mouth of Vishnu as he smiled bitterly, paused briefly in thought, then rebutted him in the following manner:
‘“You quite forget the manner in which you came to be. You overlook the fact that my navel is your own mother! Perhaps you spoke these words like a small child who believes that his father will be indulgent towards his misdeeds. However, this lack of respect is something I will not tolerate.
‘“When they held me in contempt, I slew both the raging Madhu and the elephant-like Kaitabha, even though they were my own children. After committing such a heinous sin, can a son remain a son? For who would hesitate to cut out the canker in his own body?
Madhu and Kaitabha were two asuras born from the ear wax of Lord Vishnu, and eventually slain by him on account of their arrogance.
‘“When the divine madman, Lord Siva, tore off one of your heads and cast it aside, were you not powerless to restore it, and make it your own again? What kind of Supreme Being are you? Is this the kind of power that will enable you to call into being this world which rests upon the hooded serpent Adisheshan’s head?
‘“Incarnating in the form of a fish, I recovered the entire corpus of the Vedas. Those wily sons of Danu, I defeated and put to death. Even so, I am loath to slay you, just as one who has planted a tree [that turns out to be] poisonous might be loath to cut it down. However, it would be no great task for me to do so.”
‘So many angry words flew back and forth from one to the other, as they angrily smacked each other’s shoulders with the flat of their hands. Rising up, they leapt down into the world of men, shrinking themselves down, then rising up tall again, shooting dense streams of fire and sparks from their narrowed eyes.
‘Mountains were ground into dust. The cosmic shell exploded into fragments. Many, many suns with their hot rays, and suns with their cool beams were blotted out. Even the serpent Adisheshan writhed in pain, unable to bear the weight upon his head. The [unblinking] gods themselves blinked, thinking that the end of a world age must be at hand.
‘The stars in their constellations and the massed clouds fell from the sky like falling leaves, as the dust rose up and the tormented world fell into total disorder. Bhagirathi and all the lesser rivers ran dry and the Elephants of the Eight Directions bellowed in terror.
‘Now they tossed each other up in the air and fell down again, only to charge at each other once more, bending towards one another to exchange their barbed retorts. Now they traded blows and grabbed at each others’ clothing, whirling hither and thither like a thousand tornadoes. It was as if ruddy evening and black night were spinning round, one alternating with the other.
Brahma’s body colour is red, like the evening, and Vishnu’s, black, like night.
‘All creatures that crawled, hopped or walked took to the air and flew. Anything that stood was toppled. Trees of all the manifold species were snapped off and destroyed. Thick blackness enveloped everything. Mount Meru itself trembled, as the seven oceans turned to mud.
‘At the height of all this destruction, the gods went in fear to Indra, but before they could explain what had happened, Indra himself recounted to them all the troubles he had himself endured, after which he asked them the reason for their visit, to which they replied in detail:
‘“Brahma and Vishnu together are waging a mighty battle upon the earth. For our salvation we have no other recourse; we must go and pay homage to Lord Siva, the creator of us all.”
‘On receiving the assent of their king, the hosts of heaven went to pay homage at the pure lotus-like feet of the Supreme Lord, saying, “You who share your form with the Maiden Divine! We beg you to end the suffering being wrought by the trickster Mal and Ayan. For who is there to help young children upon this earth, if not their own mother?
‘“To escape the darkness of birth and death, which follow one upon the other on this earth like a rolling cartwheel, we have sought refuge in you, so that we may realise the final truth, and seeking the shelter of your feet, may bathe in the boundless sea of your grace.