A couple of weeks ago T. V. Venkatasubramanian (he, Robert Butler and myself have been cooperating on Tamil translation projects for many years) was asked by someone at Sri Ramanasramam to hunt up the full details of a thorn bush that was given liberation many centuries ago by Umapati Sivam, a famous Tamil Guru and scholar. After checking all the Tamil texts he could find, he produced a few handwritten pages and asked me to go through them to improve the English and edit them in any way that would improve the presentation. As I read his story, I could feel my curiosity being more and more piqued. I found the narrative, and the main character in it, so fascinating and compelling, I did some research of my own and doubled the size of the article. The draft went backwards and forwards between us a few times until we were both satisfied with it.
Originally, we had planned to submit it to The Mountain Path, but all the extra details I had added made it rather long. In the end we decided to submit a shorter version to The Mountain Path, one that focused more on the thorn bush incident. We also agreed that the longer version, which contained a lot more background information, could be published here. I apologise in advance to those unfamiliar with Tamil religious traditions for the large number of technical terms, names and texts that appear. It’s hard to tell the story properly without them. However, I can promise you that once you have negotiated the first few paragraphs and begun the story of Umapati Sivam’s life, the story is much easier to read and digest.
Our article for The Mountain Path begins with the following introduction:
In a letter dated 21st July 1948, written three days after Bhagavan had certified that the cow Lakshmi had attained liberation, Suri Nagamma recorded an interesting story that arose out of this declaration of enlightenment by Bhagavan. She wrote:
One of the devotees who yesterday heard of the verse written by Bhagavan about the deliverance of Lakshmi approached him this morning and said, ‘Swami, we ourselves see that animals and birds are getting deliverance [moksha] in your presence; but is it not true that only human beings can get moksha?’
‘Why? It is stated that a mahapurusha [great saint] gave moksha to a thorn bush,’ said Bhagavan with a smile. The devotee eagerly asked who that great saint was and what was the story about the thorn bush, and Bhagavan then related [the] story.
The version Bhagavan narrated was a concise summary of the basic facts about the thorn bush, but it left out many interesting elements of the story, in particular those relating to Umapati Sivam, the key figure in the drama. There are several variations on the basic story. The one presented here has taken elements from several different sources and consolidated them into a single narrative.
In addition to Bhagavan’s account in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, accounts from the Pulavar Puranam (a 19th century anthology of Tamil saints’ biographies), Arulmigu Umapati Sivacharya Swamigilin Varalaru (a Tamil account of Umapati Sivam’s life published by Kumara Devar Madam) and Saiva Siddhanta with special reference to Sivaprakasam, by S. Gangadharan have also been utilised. The story also appears in the Chidambara Mahatmyam (The Greatness of Chidambaram), the sthala puranam of Chidambaram and Saiva Santanacharya Puranam.
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Jnanasambandhar, Appar, Sundaramurthi and Manikkavachagar are regarded as the acharyas (teachers) of the Saiva faith (samaya-acharyas). Collectively known as the ‘nalvar’ (the four), they each composed and sang devotional hymns in Tamil in praise of Siva. The songs of the first three are known collectively as ‘Tevaram’, whereas Manikkavachagar’s outpourings are contained in works entitled Tiruvachakam and Tirukkovaiyar. Several centuries later these primary texts (now part of the Saiva canon) were interpreted in a philosophical way, and the resulting philosophy became known as Saiva Siddhanta. Four teachers, known as the santana-acharyas, were primarily responsible for this later codification of the fundamental tenets of philosophical Saivism in South India. All of them belonged to one Guru-disciple lineage, the head and founder of which was Meykanda Sivam. He was followed by Arulnandi Sivam and Maraijnana Sambandha Sivam, who in turn was the Guru of Umapati Sivam, the last of these four acharyas.
Umapati Sivam was born into a brahmin family that belonged to the Tillai Muvayiravar, the group of three thousand brahmins who traditionally have the exclusive privilege of undertaking the priestly duties in the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple. They all come from the dikshitar community.
Umapati was a precocious child who soon mastered all the Tamil and Sanskrit texts, including the Vedas and Agamas. Following the family tradition, he eventually became one of the Sivacharyas (the priestly class) who performed all the acts of worship in the Chidambaram shrine. In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments the Chola king of the day bestowed on him special honours such as a pearl palanquin in which he was carried around. The honours also included a drum accompaniment as he went about his business, and a torch that was lit even during daylight hours. He was clearly a major figure in his city.
One hot summer day, after performing his duties at the Chidambaram Temple, Umapati Sivam was being carried through the streets of the town. His procession passed a veranda where Maraijnana Sambandhar, the third santana-acharya, was teaching his disciples. This was before Umapati Sivam became his disciple.
Seeing Umapati Sivam proceed in such pomp down the street, Maraijnana Sambandhar declared loudly, ‘Look! There is a person who is blind during the day, riding around in dead wood.’
The ‘blind during the day’ remark was a reference to the lit torch which was always part of his entourage.
Umapati Sivam was a highly mature soul who was in search of a jnana Guru. Instead of being offended by the criticism, he heard these words and took them to be jnana upadesa, instructions on jnana from a qualified teacher. When he looked through the window of his palanquin at the person who had uttered this stinging critique, he saw, in the place of Maraijnana Sambandhar, Lord Nataraja Himself.
Umapati immediately alighted from the palanquin, ran up to Maraijnana Sambandhar, and fell at his feet. While Umapati Sivam was still lying on the ground, Maraijnana Sambandhar ran away at a great speed. Umapati Sivam took up the chase, following him like a shadow, but since it was the height of summer, both of them soon became exhausted. They stopped and collapsed onto the veranda of a house in a street where all the inhabitants belonged to the senkundar (weaving) community. Maraijnana Sambandhar begged for food there, but all the owner of the house could offer was a bowl of the starchy liquid that was used to size the threads that were woven there. Maraijnana Sambandhar nevertheless accepted the offering and began to drink it. Some of the mixture flowed down his forearm and dripped off his elbow. Umapati Sivam happily consumed these drips as Guru ucchistam, food left over after the Guru has finished eating.
When the brahmins of the Chidambaram Temple came to know that a member of their exclusive group had taken food dripping from the body of Maraijnana Sambandhar, they excommunicated him and banned him from entering the temple. The caste of Maraijnana Sambandhar is not known, but since the initial offering had come from a low-caste weaver, that in itself was sufficient grounds for excluding Umapati Sivam from his priestly duties in the temple.
Umapati Sivam was unconcerned. He continued to be a disciple of Maraijnana Sambandhar, and eventually attained jnana. Later on, he established his own math (monastic centre) on the outskirts of Chidambaram in a place called Kotravan Kudi.
The ban proved to be a temporary one. At the beginning of the annual festival in the town, the temple priests attempted to raise a flag to mark the commencement of the festivities. However, when they attempted to do so, they could not get the flag to move up the pole.
After attempting unsuccessfully many times to hoist the flag properly, a disembodied voice was heard which said, ‘If you bring Umapati Sivam here, he will be able to raise the flag for you’.
The priests went to Umapati Sivam and requested him to come and raise the flag for them. He agreed, but when he arrived at the temple, instead of attempting to raise the flag manually, he stood beside the flag pole and sang four verses. As soon as he began to sing, the flag spontaneously began to move up the pole. By the time he had finished the fourth verse, the flag had reached the top of the flagpole. These four verses, known as Kodikkavi (The Flag Verses) now form part of the Saiva Siddhanta canon.
At the end of the ceremony Umapati Sivam called all the senkundars (the weavers) and told them, ‘You are the ones who gave food to my Guru and assuaged both his thirst and his hunger. By this act you also enabled me to consume the Guru’s ucchistam. Therefore, out of gratitude, I am going to honour your community by issuing a proclamation that from now on your community will have the exclusive privilege of offering the cloth that is used in the flag-hoisting ceremony.’
It is interesting to note that this tradition is followed not only in the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram, but in most other Siva temples, including the Arunachaleswarar Temple in Tiruvannamalai.
There is no accepted biography of Umapati Sivam. Though he himself wrote about the lives of many Saiva saints, no one took the trouble to record systematically the events of his own remarkable life. This resulted in there being different and contradictory versions of several key events. One such discrepancy concerns the circumstances under which he was allowed to return to the Chidambaram Temple. S. Gangadharan, a writer and lecturer on Saiva Siddhanta, has recorded an interesting and possibly alternative version of events in his introduction to Saiva Siddhanta with Special Reference to Sivaprakasam.
When Umapati Sivam had been prevented from entering the temple and performing puja, he decided to do puja mentally in his own math. That day, when a priest went to do puja to one of the temple lingams, he discovered that it was no longer there. Siva then manifested as a disembodied voice and instructed the priests to allow Umapati Sivam back into the temple to perform rituals.
Both stories could be true. If so, it would seem that the story of the disappearing lingam came first. There is no specific indication in the flag-hoisting story that this is the first time he was allowed to return to the temple.
It is not known whether Umapati Sivam resumed his career as a temple priest since there are no further stories about his performing service in the temple. What is known, though, is that, based in his own math on the outskirts of the town, he became a prolific author, writing many works on Saiva Siddhanta, Saiva saints, and the history of Saivism.