‘“You who bestow the grace of true knowledge to dispel the defiling ignorance of those unable to bear the burden of their maggot-ridden physical forms! To dispel this base impurity, which could not be removed even were we to bathe each day in an entire ocean of water, we have sought refuge in you.
‘“You are our only hope; show us your compassion.” Even as the gods told their story to him who bears a third eye upon his forehead, the Lord already knew what had happened. Indeed, how could he fail to know, he who permeates all life forms as oil permeates a sesame seed?
‘To dispel the fear of all the trembling gods and rishis, to put an end to the conflict between holy Mal, who has a serpent for a sleeping couch, and Ayan, whose throne is a lotus blossom, and to ensure that all the worlds in their established order were preserved, avoiding destruction, he bent his divine will upon compassion, and, taking the form of an invincible mountain of fire, set off to restrain the two of them.
‘In the lowest of the subterranean realms the serpents who dwell there trailed about it like hanging tendrils, whilst its thick roots plunged down far below. Growing upwards through the earth, it expanded through all the realms of the gods, bursting through the lofty vault of lotus-born Brahma’s sphere. Going out beyond the universe’s enclosing shell, it traversed the furthest limit of the vast ethereal region, looking for all the world like a Mount Meru of pure fire.
‘Rushing out beyond all the worlds, far beyond the reach of those seven horses who draw the sun’s chariot as he spreads the rays of the dawn, dispelling the enveloping sapphire-like darkness, it shone out like a bright beacon set on high, so that all the oceans glowed blood red, as if the immeasurable submarine fire at the world’s end had spread abroad; the seven great mountains resembled naught so much as tiny sparks, which had showered down from its summit.
‘Seeing this fire extending to the limit of the heavens, lotus-born Brahma and flute-playing Krishna stood back in fear, unable to see its limit. For lest they possess the eye of true knowledge, could it be easy for those having only the flawed and defective physical eye to perceive our Lord?
‘Seeing that bright effulgence, beyond the eye’s power to measure, they were both much troubled. Both agreed that he who could reach the head or foot of this measureless apparition would be the greater of the two. “I shall know the foot of this mountain,” cried the great one who sleeps upon a hooded serpent, transforming himself into a boar. “And I shall traverse the heavens to find its summit,” cried Ayan, adopting the form of a swan and flying swiftly heavenward.
‘Swiftly taking flight, Ayan traversed a thousand leagues in a mere fraction of a second whilst in an instant Vishnu tunnelled down a thousand leagues into the earth which rests upon the serpent Adisheshan’s spotted hood. To comprehend what occurred, imagine the long bar of an irrigation machine, made of pure gold and studded with gems, with small pots attached at either end, one set with bright pearls, and the other with dark sapphires.
What is being described here may be an irrigation machine, consisting of a long beam, pivoting on top of a tall pillar, and known in English as a piccottah. These structures were quite imposing, as one can see from the following description of their use in North Arcot district in the early 20th century: ‘In the comparative treelessness of the landscape the picottahs stood out conspicuously, with two or three men plodding patiently on the swinging beam that works this primitive pump, alternately towards and away from the wooden pillar, some 15 or 20 feet high, on which it hinges, but always, in either direction, climbing upwards, for the picottah combines the characteristic features of the see-saw and tread-mill.’
‘Burrowing down beyond the earth, Hari entered the nether worlds, traversing each in turn. Passing through the city of Bhogavati, watched over by the demon Mahabali, he forged on, paying homage with hand and head to Hatakesvara, whose supreme effulgence the gods adore. In former times he had measured the three worlds, yet now, though he fathomed all seven lower worlds, he could not find its foot.
Mahabali was the asura tricked by Vishnu, in his incarnation as Vamana, a brahmin dwarf, out of his dominion over heaven and earth, and banished to dwell in the nether worlds. Hatakesvara is Siva’s form as Lord of the nether worlds. Another reference to Vishnu’s Vamana incarnation, in which he tricked Mahabali by growing so great that he covered heaven, earth and the lower worlds in two steps.
‘Those long pointed tusks, like the waxing moon, soon began became blunted, like the moon on the wane, and even as his enthusiasm for the task faltered, his hooves and finely-honed fangs grew ever thinner and weaker. After a thousand years of unimaginable suffering he turned to the Lord in praise, and setting aside his fatigue and exhaustion, returned through the seven nether worlds, emerging at last from an ocean of woes.
‘Seeking out that holy place where the First One had risen up in the form of a column of flame to put an end to their struggle, he realised with absolute certainty that lotus-born Brahma too could never reach its upper limit, and remained there paying homage over and over to Lord Siva, he who is far away and impossible to reach for those who have no faith, and about whose neck garlands of fresh flowers are draped, along with his very own eye.
The final line refers to the incident in which Vishnu, being short of a single flower to complete his worship of Siva, used one of his own eyes as the final offering.
‘Whilst all this was happening, he who had just now flown up in the form of a swan to seek that fiery mountain’s head, traversed full one thousand leagues in the twinkling of an eye.
‘Piercing even the universe’s outer shell and leaving it far below, he rose on upward, travelling for a thousand years. And though he traversed ten millions of leagues on his search, still there was no end to that column of fire.
‘His feathers fell away and his impetus began to fail. Overwhelmed with suffering his sighs grew long, and as his woes increased and his sense of isolation grew, the Vedas’ Lord began to mull over certain things in his mind:
‘“Will great Mal reach the foot, and then return? Or will he give up his quest midway and come back, unable to reach it?” Thus did his anguished mood swing back and forth, as his thoughts ran away with him, like wax over a flame.
‘“I did not realise that this could only be Lord Siva himself,” he reflected. “By confronting Hari I have forfeited his friendship also. Ever since I have been drowning in this ocean of sorrows. Is this due to my own stupidity? Or perhaps it is the fruit of former misdeeds?
‘“Thus far have I travelled, still unable to discover its upper limit. If I were to lie about it, there would be no other verbal evidence to support me,” he sobbed sorrowfully. Just then he noticed a screwpine flower falling towards him.
‘He hardly had time to think where it could have come from before it reached him, and he caught it in his hand. “Let me go at once,” it said with a heartfelt sigh, since it was a faded flower which had fallen from the crown of our sovereign Lord.
‘“Fair screwpine flower,” said Brahma, “whence have you come, and on what errand?” “I have slipped and fallen from the flower-wreathed head of the Primal Lord, whose measure neither the Veda’s Lord nor Narayana can know,” said the flower.
‘“Since slipping from that head, which is graced by a bright garland of kondrai flowers, I have been falling for forty thousand years. Agree to my request, and let me go.” However Brahma, dismissing any hope of seeing our Father, began to speak:
‘“Screwpine flower, dear companion! Be my friend and help me escape the torment of any further wandering. Other than you, there is no one whom I can trust with my life. I am no stranger, nor am I really a swan.
‘“My name is Brahma. I and Vishnu set our minds on revealing the extent of this wondrous object. Off he went burrowing into the earth, whilst I, for my sins, sought and failed to reach its holy summit.
‘“Well, that’s the top and bottom of it, so to speak. Why dwell any further upon the matter? Due to your auspicious arrival, what I was thinking about has come to pass. You must speak to him who measured the earth in three strides and tell him that I, Brahma, adopting the form a swan, reached Lord Siva’s head.
Vamana (Vishnu) tricked Mahabali by requesting three steps of land on which to live. The request was granted. Vamana covered the whole of the earth, the heavens and the underworld in his first two steps. Seeing that there was nowhere else to place the foot for the third step, Mahabali offered his own head as a stepping place, thus gaining immortality and dominion over the nether regions.
The story is also referred to in verse 124.
‘“Do not call this deceit and despise me. It is permissible to tell the greatest falsehoods in order to save the lives of those who suffer. These are not unworthy words which one should fear to speak. Those who prize their friends will agree even to drink poison for their sake.
The idea in the last sentence is taken from Tirukural, verse 550.
‘“Screwpine flower, you who live upon the head of him whose forehead bears a third eye! There is no need to give this any further thought,” he said, and the screwpine flower assented and went along with him. Dropping swiftly down from the heavens, he came into the presence of Lord Vishnu, he whose strides measured the earth.
‘“Bearer of Lakshmi, hear the exploits which brought me here! Travelling a hundred thousand leagues in a mere instant, I perceived the head of the Primal Lord, and returned,” he claimed, and the screwpine flower attested that it was so.
‘At that precise moment, the mountain of fire exploded. The gods and rakshasas fainted away at the sound of the detonation. The elephants of the eight directions vomited blood, believing that the sun itself had melted. Then in the midst of that scene, eclipsing the ruddy glow in the sky, making even the beautiful flower of the murukku tree look soiled, the Three-Eyed One rose up, his radiant red form all covered in white ash, with a smile on his lips like the one he wore when he burned up the three cites of the asuras.
‘“Lotus-born Brahma, you have spoken out of sheer arrogance. A fine thing indeed!” said the Lord, and began to laugh, whereupon this world and all the worlds beyond trembled and grew dim. The radiance of all the heavenly bodies faded. Clouds disappeared from the sky. All that was fair and beautiful perished, and all that was worthless flourished and grew. The eight directions were twisted from their stations, and vast forests of trees were blackened, scorched and burned.
‘The gods were fearful, thinking, “Ayan has been destroyed!” and poured down a vast rain of flowers, as if the earth had been dug hollow. But joy blossomed in the heart of tall Mal as the black stain of arrogance departed from lotus-borne Brahma.
‘Realisation dawned upon fair-eyed Mal. He sang and offered up prayers. He danced in a transport of joy, running hither and thither. Becoming a worthy devotee of the immeasurable First One, he wondered to himself what boon he might ask of Lord Siva.
‘Seeing how the heart of Hari melted with devotion for him, the Lord graciously granted him many a boon. Then, turning to Brahma, he commanded, “You who dwell upon a fragrant lotus-blossom, all your temples and all worship of you will vanish from this earth”.