There are fourteen works that comprise the Meykanda Sastras, the official texts of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. Eight of them (now known as Siddhanta Ashtakam, the Eight Works of Philosophy) were written by Umapati Sivam. He also composed many other works in both Tamil and Sanskrit. Many of his non-canonical works in Tamil focus on the lives of the Periyapuranam saints, the muvar – Jnanasambandhar, Appar and Sundaramurthi – and the Tevaram verses that were sung by them. He also composed Koyil Puranam, a Tamil history of the Chidambaram temple.
The following partial list of five of his Tamil works indicates just how much interest he had in the lives and songs of the old Tamil saints:
Sivakshetra Sivanamak Kalivenba: 300 couplets on the 274 pilgrimage sites visited by the muvar.
Tirttondarpuranasaram: an abbreviated and highly distilled version of the Periyapuranam.
Tevara Arulmuraittirattu: an anthology of ninety-nine Tevaram verses – sixty-three from Appar, twenty-six from Jnanasambandhar and ten from Sundaramurthi – with a commentary by Umapati Sivam that interprets these verses as primary texts of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy.
Sekkizhar Puranam: a biography of Sekkizhar, the author of the Periyapuranam. In this version, the Periyapuranam is composed in the courtyard of the Chidambaram Temple before being paraded through the streets of the town on the back of an elephant. At the conclusion of the parade, the whole work was read out, to great acclamation, before an assembly that included the king and the temple priests. It was customary for new works to be read before assemblies of learned people. One of Umapati Sivam’s works, Sankarpanirakaranam, was read before an assembly on a particular date (1235 A.D.) that was mentioned in the text. This has enabled scholars to fix Umapati Sivam’s life span in the fifty years between 1190 and 1240 A.D.
Tirumuraikanta Puranam: the story, in forty-five verses, of how the majority of the Tevaram poems, lost for centuries, were rediscovered in the Chidambaram temple.
Umapati Sivam’s version of how the Tevaram manuscripts came to be found is a key episode in the revival of interest in the poetry of the muvar. Since this story can also be used to illustrate Umapati Sivam’s attitude to the temple and its priesthood, it is worth retelling in full.
King Rajarajamannan of Chidambaram was deeply moved when he heard some of the Tevaram hymns being sung to Siva at the Tiruvarur Temple. On making enquiries he was told that only fragments of the original poems remained, and that even these were being sung in a haphazard way. The king prayed to Siva, requesting him to reveal the texts properly, in an organised manner. In response to the plea Siva arranged for a boy called Nampi to be born into a family of adisaiva brahmins. The king then came to know that this was the person who would retrieve the lost hymns of the Tevaram. After putting Nampi through several severe tests to ensure that he was qualified for his mission, the king commissioned him to retrieve the lost texts. When Nampi prayed to Ganapati, his ishta devata (personal deity), Siva revealed to him that the hymns were locked in a room behind the image of the dancing Siva in the Chidambaram Temple. Nampi informed the king, and together they went to the temple to retrieve them.
However, the worshippers and priests in the temple were initially reluctant to open the locked door. They said they would only agree if the muvar themselves were present. This was somewhat problematic since they had died centuries before.
The king did not give up. He organised a festival in which images of the muvar were carried through the streets surrounding the temple and then placed in front of Lord Nataraja. In the presence of the images of the muvar, the locked door behind Lord Nataraja spontaneously flew open, revealing a huge collection of palm-leaf manuscripts. Many of them had been destroyed by white ants, but a disembodied divine voice informed everyone present that the remaining texts were all that were necessary. Nampi set to work, organising the remaining texts into the structure of the Tirumurai (the twelve canonical works of Saivism) that still exists today. The first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, as arranged by Nampi, comprise the Tevaram: three by Jnanasambandhar, succeeded by three by Appar, which in turn are followed by one from Sundaramurthi.
In view of his strained relationship with the dikshitars, the priests of the temple, it is not surprising that they are portrayed in this story as being impediments to, rather than facilitators of, the rediscovery of the ancient Tamil scriptures. In some of his other works Umapati Sivam also makes a point of downplaying the importance of formal, ritual worship in a temple. Sataratnasangraha, for example, is a Sanskrit text by Umapati Sivam that contains extracts from the Saiva Siddhanta Agamas, the scriptures that codify all aspects of ritual worship. In his highly selective anthology Umapati Sivam carefully avoided all verses that stressed the centrality of temple worship. The same pattern can be discerned in Koyil Puranam, his retelling of the principal myths behind the founding of the Chidambaram Temple.
The central story of Arunachala is the contest in which Brahma and Vishnu unsuccessfully tried to discover the ends of the column of light that Siva had manifested as. In Chidambaram the primary narrative comprises the events leading up to the dance of Lord Nataraja, and the portrayal of the dance itself. As the dance unfolds in Umapati Sivam’s version, the priests are observers, not participants. They are not mediators or middle-men for the transmission of grace or power from Siva to His devotees.
Umapati Sivam describes in Koyil Puranam how Siva Himself became one of the 3,000 dikshitar priests of the temple when one went missing, thus indicating divine approval for the role the priests played in the management of the temple rituals. However, in describing the dance scene in Koyil Puranam, he makes it clear that he does not believe that the priests are essential intermediaries between devotees and Siva. When an interpretation and an analysis of the significance of the dance appears in the text, the words come from Umapati Sivam himself. He takes this task on himself, describing the dance and its significance in the terminology of Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, using key Saiva terms such as arul (grace), Pati (the Lord), pasu (the soul) and pasam (the bond or fetter). In several verses Umapati Sivam puts the philosophy of Saiva Siddhanta directly into the mouth of Siva as He gives out His teachings to the assembled multitude.
In structuring his narrative in this way Umapati Sivam is indicating that true knowledge of Siva – who He is and how He can be attained – comes not from the performers of rituals in the temple but from those teachers who have mastered and realised true knowledge of Siva.
This is not to be taken to mean that Umapati Sivam denigrated traditional forms of temple worship. His Koyil Puranam is a highly favourable account of the divine traditions of the temple. In addition to this work he also composed Kuncitanghristava, a Sanskrit text that gives a philosophical interpretation to the temple and the murti it contains. Its verses indicate that Umapati Sivam himself made donations to the running of the temple.
What Umapati Sivam seems to be pointing at in his writings about Chidambaram and its temple is a new hierarchy of methods by which Siva could be attained. In this new order, ritual worship was encouraged and approved of, but it was also stressed that true liberation could only come from intense personal devotion to Siva and the liberating grace that comes from an enlightened Guru.
This perspective harks back to the early days of Saivism when the muvar were expressing their passionate devotion to Siva through songs and through a personal one-on-one relationship with God. It also echoed the lives of the Periyapuranam saints who attained union with Him through divine love or through an unflinching commitment to His commands. The records indicate that though these saints participated reverentially in ritual worship, it was the intensity of their inner love for, and obedience to, Siva that eventually won them His grace.
When Umapati Sivam revived the Tevaram tradition through his many works on the writings and life of the early Tamil Saiva saints, he was aiming to restore the primacy of this simple but intense devotion to Siva.
The key elements of Umapati Sivam’s ideas – personal devotion to Siva, without necessarily worshipping Him in a temple, and the necessity of an enlightened Guru – are all brought together in the story of Pettan Samban, a pulaiyan (outcaste) who lived in Chidambaram at the same time as Umapati Sivam. As an outcaste, Samban was unable to visit the Chidambaram Temple. This, however, did not prevent him in any way from having great devotion to Lord Siva. Wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, his thoughts were always on Him.
As a reward for his devotion Lord Siva manifested before him in His full traditional form: bearing the trident, the battle axe, carrying a deer, and so on.
Samban went into ecstasy.
Siva then asked him ‘What do you want?’ to which Samban replied, ‘My Lord, I crave only liberation. I want nothing else.’
On hearing these words, Lord Siva wrote a verse on a palm leaf and gave it to Samban. It said:
This is a note given to the person at Kotravan Kudi [Math, i.e. Umapati Sivam] by the One dwelling at Chitrambalam, He who is easily accessible to devotees. It is My command in this world that you give diksha [initiation] to Pettan Samban in such a way that the sense of difference is eliminated in him; bestow liberation on him.
Chitrambalam, the space of consciousness, is one of the names associated with the temple of Chidambaram.
After passing the note to Samban, Lord Siva asked him to hand it over to Umapati Sivam at the Kotravan Kudi Math. Samban, though, hesitated to approach Umapati Sivam directly because he was of such a low caste. He decided instead on a more indirect approach, one which he hoped would eventually bring him to Umapati Sivam’s attention. Each day he secretly took a bundle of firewood and placed it in the acharya’s math, taking care to ensure that no one noticed him doing it. Samban was already delivering a bundle of firewood to the Chidambaram Temple each day, an offering that pleased Siva so much, He rewarded him for this service by giving him two gold coins every day.
The disciples of Umapati Sivam collected and used the wood offering without ever finding out who the donor was. No one ever made enquiries about where the wood was coming from.
Since this roundabout way of gaining Umapati Sivam’s attention had not produced any results, Siva Himself decided to intervene because He wanted His note to be delivered. One day He made it rain so heavily, there was flooding, as a result of which it was not possible for Samban to make his daily delivery of firewood. That day there was no firewood available in the math, and this caused the cooking to be greatly delayed. When Umapati Sivam asked why the cooking had been so delayed, he was told that the mysterious firewood delivery had not appeared that day. This was the first time that he came to hear that his math had been using firewood secretly delivered each day by an anonymous donor. Curious about the person who was anonymously giving wood, he asked his devotees to intercept the next delivery and bring the donor to him.
This order gave Samban the opportunity he had been waiting for. When he was taken the next day into Umapati Sivam’s presence, after making his usual delivery, he fell at his feet and handed over the note that had been written by Lord Siva. As soon as Umapati Sivam started reading the note, he went into an ecstasy. He followed Siva’s instructions to him and gave Samban nayana diksha, initiation through the eyes. Samban was such an advanced devotee, as soon as he was caught in the gaze of Umapati Sivam, he turned into light, merged in chidakasa (the space of consciousness) and physically disappeared. On seeing this, Umapati Sivam and his devotees were wonderstruck both by the event and by the maturity of Samban.
When Samban did not return home, his wife came to the math to make enquiries about his whereabouts. Not surprisingly, after she had been told he had attained liberation and physically vanished, she refused to believe it. She went to the king and complained that Umapati Sivam had killed her husband for failing to supply the math with firewood the previous day. The king responded by sending a deputation to ascertain the facts of the case. They returned to the king with the story that Umapati Sivam had told them: of the firewood donor bringing the note from Siva, getting nayana diksha, vanishing, and merging with the chidakasa. The king was astonished by this narrative, so much so that he decided to visit the math himself to get the story first-hand. He arrived shortly afterwards with a large entourage and asked Umapati Sivam to tell him directly what had happened.
When the king heard the story again, he refused to believe that the events described had actually occurred. However, he gave a chance to Umapati Sivam to prove his assertions by challenging him to grant liberation to someone else while the king was present as a witness.
Umapati Sivam responded by saying, ‘This state can only be bestowed on a mature devotee’.
He looked around to see if anyone present was in a sufficiently advanced state, but none of them had the qualifications he was looking for. However, as he was scanning the area for a suitable candidate, he noticed a thorn bush that had grown by consuming the abhisheka tirtha, the water that had drained from the lingam that Umapati Sivam had been worshipping every day. Seeing its mature state, he bestowed nayana disksha on it in the same way that he had with Samban. The result was the same. The bush turned to light, merged in the chidakasa, and physically disappeared.
Though he was astounded by the event he had witnessed, the king was still not convinced. He felt that he had witnessed some sort of black magic, rather than an act of liberation.
The king announced, ‘You claim that Lord Nataraja gave you a palm-leaf note. Let us go and seek clarification on this matter from Lord Nataraja Himself.’
Everyone then adjourned to the temple to see what Lord Natarajan had to say on the matter.
A puja was offered, and as the lighted camphor was being waved before Lord Nataraja, both Samban and the thorn bush were seen to manifest on either side of Him. On seeing this confirmation of the story in the temple itself, all those present realised the greatness of Umapati Sivam and sought his forgiveness. The king even granted some land to Samban’s widow so that she could live out her days in comfort.
The story of the thorn bush and Samban manifesting on either side of Siva comes from Bhagavan’s account in Letters from Sri Ramanasramam. There is an alternative version of the ending in which a rishi appears out of the thorn bush, just before it disappeared, to say that he had been cursed to be born in the bush because of misdemeanours in a previous life. In both versions the thorn bush is liberated.
It is interesting to note in passing here that Bhagavan himself fully accepted that plants had the capacity to realise the Self. In Sri Ramana Reminiscences, p. 61, G. V. Subbaramayya records Bhagavan as saying that there might be exceptional cases of even animals and plants attaining Self-realisation. This was recorded before Lakshmi’s liberation.
The liberation of Samban by Umapati Sivam illustrates an important tenet of Saiva Siddhanta, one that Umapati Sivam himself most definitely agreed with. Samban asked Siva for liberation. Instead of giving it to him, Siva sent him to Umapati Sivam. Saiva Siddhanta teaches that the human Guru is essential for liberation in most cases, even going so far as to say that the Guru can liberate certain categories of devotees that Siva Himself cannot.
In the Saiva Siddhanta tradition there are three impurities – anava (ego), karma and maya (illusion) – that prevent devotees from attaining the ultimate goal, oneness with the consciousness of Siva. Those who have all three impurities (malas) need a human Guru to realise Sivam, consciousness of Siva. Those devotees who are only afflicted by anava and karma can reach Sivam by having Siva appear before them in a physical form. Many of the devotees from the Periyapuranam would come into this category. Those in the third category, whose only mala is anava, can get enlightenment through the power of the Self within, without needing either a human Guru or the darshan of an external God. Bhagavan would be a good example of someone who became enlightened through the power of the Self alone. Since devotees who fall into the second and third category are quite rare, it is an accepted tenet of Saiva Siddhanta that in the matter of liberation from bondage, in most cases the Guru’s power exceeds that of Siva Himself.
Sadhu Natanananda summarised this tradition in verses 2-8 of his poem Atma Gita:
O mind! It is the established tradition that, though he [Brahman] is pure consciousness, he appears as a human being to remove the ignorance of devotees. God appearing, assuming the form of the Guru, and becoming the redeemer of his devotees, is not something new. The fact that the Lord appeared in disguise in many forms to bestow grace on the Nayanmars [the sixty-three saints in the Periyapuranam] is well known to the world. Other than by coming as a Guru, it is very difficult for Mahesa [the great Lord, Siva] to bestow the liberation that ends the misery of birth. The state of Siva that comes only through the eye of jnana [jnana drishti] is very difficult to attain without the Guru’s glance of grace. (Sri Ramana Darsanam, by Sadhu Natanananda, p. 118.)
Muruganar also subscribed to the Saiva Siddhanta view on this point. In an essay entitled ‘Sri Ramana’ that appeared in appendix six of volume nine of Sri Ramana Jnana Bodham, he wrote about Bhagavan not needing an external Guru in the following words: ‘As a result of tapas performed in the past, only a little of the anava impurity was left over, and this was as thin as the wing of a fly.’