Sorupananda (also known as Swarupananda when his name is spelt in the Sanskrit way) was a Tamil saint and Guru who lived in Virama Nagar, a Tamil holy site, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. He lived with Tattuvarayar, the son of his brother. The two of them had studied the sastras, and both were fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil. However, an understanding dawned upon them that the profit to be gained from this limited academic knowledge, however praiseworthy, did not have the power to grant them the fruit of freedom from birth. After coming to the conclusion that only jnana, true knowledge, would give them that result, they decided that it would be a lack of judgement on their part if they continued to devote their time and energy to acquiring more scriptural knowledge. Not wanting to waste a human birth, which they believed was hard to attain, on goals that could only give benefits during their current lives, they decided to search for a realised Sadguru who would free them both from the cycle of birth and death.
In one of the traditional accounts of their lives it is stated that both Sorupananda and Tattuvaraya had done tapas in their previous lives, without realising the Self. In this version of the events of the lives it was the momentum of this past activity that manifested in their subsequent births as a desire to perform self-enquiry and to find a living Guru who could reveal the Self to them.
Acting on this impulse, they searched for a Guru together in many different places, but their quest was unsuccessful. Initially, they were both disheartened by their failure, but then it occurred to them that their chances of success might increase if they split up and searched independently in different directions.
Before they went their separate ways to continue their quest, they came to the following agreement: ‘Whichever of us is first to obtain the fortune of a true Guru’s darshan, that one shall assume the position of Guru to the other.’
Sorupananda travelled to the south and Tattuvaraya to the north.
When Sorupananda reached the outskirts of the town of Govattam, located on the banks of the Kaveri River, he was overcome by bliss. His hands spontaneously formed a gesture of salutation above his head and tears flowed down his cheeks.
He thought to himself, ‘There must be a jnana Guru staying in this place’.
Sorupananda did a pradakshina of the whole town as a gesture of respect before entering the main streets to make enquiries about the powerful Guru he felt must be residing there.
Inside the town he was told that there was a reclusive holy man, Sivaprakasa Swami, who lived near the river in a grove of bushes and rarely ventured out. He had made himself a simple hut out of river rushes and avoided contact with people.
Sorupananda assumed that this must be the Guru whose power he had felt as he approached the town.
Not wanting to intrude on Sivaprakasa Swami’s privacy by approaching him directly, he stood some distance away from the hut and called out in a loud voice, ‘Save me from the ocean of birth and death by giving me jnana upadesa [teachings and initiation into jnana]!’
Sivaprakasa Swami realised immediately that an extremely mature person was calling on him for help.
He emerged from his hiding place and addressed Sorupananda: ‘Appa [an term of endearment and respect]! I have been staying in this place for a long time, waiting for you to come to me.’
Sivaprakasa Swami then gave the jnana upadesa that had been requested and shortly afterwards Sorupananda fell into a deep samadhi.
Since there is no record of Sorupananda doing any sadhana, it is generally presumed that he realised the Self shortly after his first meeting with Sivaprakasa Swami.
There are several different versions of Sorupananda’s and Tattuvaraya’s lives. Ramana Maharshi summarised the events that occur in one of the variant accounts in the following way:
Both Tattuvarayar and Sorupananda decided to go in search of a Sadguru in two different directions. Before they started they came to an understanding. Whoever finds a Sadguru first should show him to the other. However much Tattuvarayar searched, he could not find a Sadguru. Swarupananda, who was the uncle of Tattuvarayar, was naturally an older man. He went about for some time, got tired, and rested in one place. Feeling he could no longer go about in search, he prayed to the Lord, ‘O Iswara, I can no longer move about. So you yourself should send me a Sadguru.’ Having placed the burden on the Lord, he sat down in silence. By God’s grace a Sadguru came there by himself and gave him tattva upadesa [instruction for Self-realisation.] (Letters from and Recollections of Sri Ramanasramam, 8th.April 1948, pp. 21-2)
Meanwhile, Tattuvaraya had given up his own search for a Guru. He decided instead to hunt for Sorupananda to see if he had had any better luck. There is no record of where the two of them eventually met, but when they did, Sorupananda became Tattuvaraya’s Guru in accordance with the agreement they had earlier made.
Tattuvaraya realised the Self quickly and effortlessly in the presence of Sorupananda. The opening lines of Paduturai, one of his major works, reveal just how speedily the event took place:
The feet [of Sorupananda], they are the ones that, through grace, and assuming a divine form, arose and came into this fertile world to enlighten me in the time it takes for a black gram seed to roll over. (Tiruvadai Malai, lines 1-3)
Black gram is the dhal that is one of the two principal ingredients of iddlies and dosa. It is 2-3 mm across and slightly asymmetrical, rather than spherical. This property led Tattuvaraya to write, in another verse, that Sorupananda granted him liberation in the time it took for ‘a [black] gram seed to wobble and turn over onto its side’. (Nanmanimalai verse 10)
Tattuvaraya attributed this near-instantaneous enlightenment wholly to the power and grace of his Guru, rather than to any intrinsic merit, maturity or worthiness:
It is possible to stop the wind. It is possible to flex stone. But what can be done with our furious mind? How marvellous is our Guru, he who granted that this mind should be totally transformed into the Self! My tongue, repeat this without ever forgetting.
When my Lord, who took me over by bestowing his lotus feet, glances with his look of grace, the darkness in the heart vanishes. All the things become completely clear and transform into Sivam. All the sastras are seen to point towards reality.
Most glorious Lord, if you hadn’t looked upon me with your eye of divine grace, [and illuminated me] with the light that shines as the flourishing world, as many, as jnana, and as one, where would be the mind with which I enquired, and where would I, your devotee, be?
To destroy me, you gave me one look in which there was no looking. You uprooted the ignorance of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. You brought to an end all the future births of this cruel one. O Lord, am I fit for the grace that you bestowed on me? (Venba Antadi, vv. 12, 14, 60, 69)
Tattuvaraya realised the Self very quickly through the grace and power of his Guru Sorupananda. This led him to state, somewhat hyperbolically, in some of his writings that Sorupananda, unlike the gods, bestowed instant liberation on everyone who came into his presence.
In order to convince the devas] Brahma, lacking the power to make them experience directly the state of being, held the red-hot iron in his hand and declared, ‘This is the ultimate reality declared by the Vedas. There is nothing else other than this. I swear to it.’ Siva as Dakshinamurti declared, ‘In all the worlds, only the four are fit; they alone are mature for tattva jnana.’ Lord [Krishna], holding the discus, had to repeat eighteen times to ignorant Arjuna, who was seated on the wheeled chariot. But here in this world [my Guru] Sorupananda bestows jnana on all as palpably as the gem on one’s palm. (Tiruvadi Malai lines 117-126)
Some of these incidents may need a little explanation. The Brahma Gita is the source of the story mentioned at the beginning of the verse. This text was translated from Sanskrit into Tamil by Tattuvaraya himself. His version of the relevant verses, taken from chapter five, is as follows:
The four-faced One [Brahma], he who creates all the worlds and is their Lord, said, ‘You [gods] who love me well, listen! Since it is I who declare to you that this is the meaning of the arcane Vedas, this is the reality beyond compare. If you are in any doubt, I will have the iron heated till it is red hot and hold it in my golden hands to prove myself free of any falsehood.’
He who sits upon the lotus blossom [Brahma] said, ‘[Gods, you who are] loving devotees [of Lord Siva], listen! The meaning of the Vedas, as I have explained it, is just so. There is nothing further. In order that you should be convinced of this in your minds, I have sworn a threefold oath, holding onto the feet of Lord [Siva].
Holding a red-hot iron in one’s hand was ancient trial-by-ordeal way of affirming the truth. If the flesh of the hand did not burn, then the statement uttered was deemed to be true.
‘Eighteen times’ refers to the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita.
Tattuvaraya made the claim in the Tiruvadi Malai lines that his Guru was more powerful and more capable of granting enlightenment than the trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu in the form of Krishna, and Siva. Elaborating on this theme, Tattuvaraya stated that Siva, appearing as Dakshinamurti, only managed to enlighten the four sages (Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara and Sanatsujata); Brahma had to resort to holding a red-hot iron and taking an oath to persuade his deva followers that his teachings were true; whereas Krishna, despite giving out the extensive teachings that are recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, wasn’t able to enlighten even Arjuna. Though this is a somewhat harsh assessment, the inability of Krishna to enlighten Arjuna through his Bhagavad Gita teachings was mentioned by Bhagavan himself:
Likewise, Arjuna, though he told Sri Krishna in the Gita ‘Delusion is destroyed and knowledge is imbibed,’ confesses later that he has forgotten the Lord’s teaching and requests Him to repeat it. Sri Krishna’s reiteration in reply is the Uttara Gita. (Sri Ramana Reminiscences, p. 52)
While all this might sound slightly blasphemous, it is a long and well-established position in Saivism that, when it comes to enlightening devotees, the human Guru is more effective and has more power than the gods themselves.
Though Tattuvaraya knew that it was the immense power of his Guru that had granted him liberation, he was at a loss to understand why that power had ultimately singled him out as a worthy recipient of its liberating grace. In one of his long verses he ruminated on the mysterious nature of prarabdha – why events had unfolded the way they did in various narratives of the gods – before chronicling the circumstances of his own liberation in a stirring peroration:
When [even] the gods despair; when those who investigate the paths of every religion become confused and grow weary; when even they fail to reach the goal, they who perform great and arduous tapas, immersing themselves in water in winter, standing in the midst of fire in summer, and foregoing food, so that they experience the height of suffering, I do not know what it was [that bestowed jnana upon me]. Was it through the very greatness of the noble-minded one [Sorupananda]? Or through the nature of his compassion? Or was it the effect of his own [absolute] freedom [to choose me]? I was the lowest of the low, knowing nothing other than the objects of sense. I was lost, limited to this foul body of eight hands span, filled with putrid flesh. But he bade me ‘Come, come,’ granting me his grace by looking upon me with his lotus eyes. When he spoke that single word, placing his noble hands upon my head and crowning it with his immaculate noble feet, my eye of jnana opened. [Prior to this] I was without the eye [of jnana], suffering through births and deaths for countless ages. [But] when he commanded me ‘See!’, then, for me, there was no fate; there was no karma; there was no fiery-eyed death. All the world of differentiated forms became simply a manifestation of Sorupananda. (Nanmanimalai, v. 37, lines 28-50)
The lines that immediately precede this extract discuss destiny, karma and death, and mention a claim that it is impossible to destroy them. Tattuvaraya then disagrees, citing his Guru Sorupananda’s statement: ‘We have routed good and evil deeds in this world; we have destroyed the power of destiny; we have escaped the jaws of Yama [death].’ (Nanmanimalai v. 37, line 24-26)
In the portion of the verse cited here Tattuvaraya emphatically backs up this claim by saying that when his own eye of jnana was opened through the look and touch of his Guru, ‘for me, there was no fate; there was no karma; there was no fiery-eyed death. All the world of differentiated forms became simply a manifestation of Sorupananda.’
There are other verses which reaffirm Tattuvaraya’s statement that after he had been liberated by Sorupananda he knew nothing other than the swarupa which had taken the form of Sorupananda to enlighten him:
All that appears is only the swarupa of Sorupan[anda]. Where are the firm earth, water and fire? Where is air? Where is the ether? Where is the mind, which is delusion? Where indeed is the great maya? Where is ‘I’?
[In greatness] there is no one equal to Sorupan. Of this there is no doubt. Similarly, there is no one equal to me [in smallness]. I did not know the difference between the two of us when, in the past, I took the form of the fleshy body nor later when he had transformed me into himself by placing his honey-like lotus feet [on my head]. Now I am incapable of knowing anything. (Nanmanimalai, vv. 38, 39)
Let some say that the Supreme is Siva. Let some say that the Supreme is Brahma or Vishnu. Let some say that Sakti and Sivam are Supreme. Let some say that it is with form. Let some say that it is formless. But we have come to know that all forms are only our Guru. (Venba Antadi, v. 8)
Tattuvaraya wrote of the consequences of his realisation in a poem entitled ‘Pangikku Uraittal’ (Paduturai, v. 64), which can be translated as ‘The Lady Telling her Maid’. The second of the five verses, which speaks of the simple, ascetic life he subsequently led, was mentioned with approval by Bhagavan in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 648:
Our reward was that every word we heard or said was nada [divine sound].
Our reward was to have ‘remaining still’ [summa iruttal] as our profession.
Our reward was to enter the company of virtuous devotees.
My dear companion, this is the life bestowed by our Guru.
Our reward was to have the bare ground as our bed.
Our reward was to accept alms in the palms of our hands.
Our reward was to wear a loincloth as our clothing.
My dear companion, for us there is nothing lacking.
Bhagavan’s comment on this verse was:
I had no cloth spread on the floor in earlier days. I used to sit on the floor and lie on the ground. That is freedom. The sofa is a bondage. It is a gaol for me. I am not allowed to sit where and how I please. Is it not bondage? One must be free to do as one pleases, and should not be served by others.
‘No want’ is the greatest bliss. It can be realised only by experience. Even an emperor is no match for a man with no want. The emperor has got vassals under him. But the other man is not aware of anyone beside the Self. Which is better?
The poem continues:
Our reward was to be reviled by all.
Our reward was that fear of this world, and of the next, died away.
Our reward was to be crowned by the lotus feet of the Virtuous One [the Guru].
My dear companion, this is the life bestowed by our Guru.
Our reward was the pre-eminent wealth that is freedom from desire.
Our reward was that the disease called ‘desire’ was torn out by the roots.
Our reward was the love in which we melted, crying, ‘Lord!’
Ah, my dear companion, tell me, what tapas did I perform for this?
There is an indirect reference in the first line to Tirukkural 363: ‘There is no pre-eminent wealth in this world like freedom from desire. Even in the next, there is nothing to compare to it.’