Sri Muruganar composed most of Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai, a work that praises Bhagavan in a series of long poems, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. ‘Upadesa Tiruvahaval’, the ninth poem of this sequence, is a single continuous verse of just under 200 lines in which Muruganar includes both the story of how he came to Bhagavan and many key teachings that Bhagavan gave him. ‘Ahaval’ is the Tamil metrical form in which the poem was written, so the title can be translated as ‘The Holy Ahaval of Teachings’.
The translation and the annotations are the work of Robert Butler, T. V. Venkatasubramanian and David Godman. The line numbers of the original poem appear above the translation and editorial comments are in italics.
Nowhere upon this earth, composed of continents that the oceans surround, was there anyone possessed of such a dark and deadly understanding as mine. I took the first prize, not even knowing my [real] Self. My wicked mind was stuffed full of habits baser than those of an ignorant beast, and thus I remained.
A mahatma took birth to nurture and cultivate the dignity of man. He has earned deep respect by his adherence to the truth and brings joy to all humanity. It is as if divine love had manifested in human form. He lends strength equally to the motherland [in its search for freedom] and to the individual in his quest for liberation. Such is his greatness. Those who hear the fair name of Gandhi turn in his direction in transports of great joy, prostrate and worship him.
Under the leadership of this great and worthy soul, many, many good people suffered indescribable agony for the sake of the motherland. Yet, though I was aware of this, in my foolishness, I did not renounce all my comforts and volunteer to help their cause. I did not realise that, amongst all the many spiritual disciplines that are worthy of practice, truthfulness is that which most benefits the soul. I spoke contrary to the thoughts I harboured within my mind and thus frittered away my ordained life to no good end. I showed my love solely with words but never knew the joy of offering love through my deeds. I hoarded suffering as if it were wealth, piling it up in the boat [that is the body]. Then, as I lay drifting on the sorrowful ocean of bitter birth, you drew me to you and bound me to your golden feet with the rope of divine grace whose nature is to bestow itself entirely without desire or intention. You watched over me, banishing my slumbers in the differentiated world brought about by maya.
As these introductory lines indicate, prior to coming to Bhagavan, Muruganar was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. In the first poem that Muruganar presented to Bhagavan, composed on his way to Ramanasramam in 1923, he even asked why Bhagavan was not working for the country in the way that Gandhi was. Though his respect for Gandhi continued, once Muruganar came to Bhagavan, he took a vow that he would only write about Bhagavan and his teachings.
However many despicable and disgraceful things I did, you tolerated and forgave them all, consoling me with your love. Though my conduct was baser than that of a dog, you did not reject me with contempt but like an attentive mother you showed me love, and like a father you counselled me with terse and pithy teachings. Alas, is it possible for a fool such as I to grasp in his mind and accurately convey in words those teachings, one who, lacking discrimination, regards as permanent those things that are impermanent, and thus wanders in dread, like a ghost, amongst them?
My Lord, cur that I was, none of my entreaties went in vain as you composed at my request many verses in various meters, according to classical rules, with such ease, as if you were playing a game. Moreover, to fulfil my wish you also composed a song called Atma Vidya Keerthanam [The Song of Self Knowledge]. Praise be to you!
The company of rishis [in the Dharuka forest] had become blind, like owls in the daylight, in the presence of the non-dual sun of true knowledge. With their inner eye of grace obscured, they followed the path shown by the dark ego [declaring that there was no God other than karma]. It was then that you appeared before them, destroyed their arrogance, and taught them how to know reality. These instructions that you gave them then, you later reiterated to us your devotees in the form of a series of explanatory verses [Upadesa Undiyar]. Praise be to you!
Not stopping at that, when I further asked you, ‘Please tell me how the bondage of birth and death may be severed for me, your devotee,’ you gave to us the divine work Ulladu Narpadu that clearly reveals the means by which the bond of the false ego may be severed and reality shine as the Self.
‘Desire itself is birth, and desire’s extinction is liberation, where bliss supreme surges ever unabated!’ Praise be to you who, as my Guru, came to rule my entire clan, and from whose mouth these words of grace flowered!
This is an idea that can be traced back to verse 361 of the Tirukkural, a work that Muruganar was particularly fond of: ‘Desire, they say, is the seed that engenders unceasing birth to all jivas at all times.’
Muruganar himself expanded on this idea in lines 242-43 of ‘Ramana Puranam’, the first poem of Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai: ‘…desire became the seed that engendered the never-ending succession of births, bringing into existence the great and evil tree that is the illusion of birth [and death].’
Praise be to you who declared: ‘Cling firmly to That which clings to nothing, so that a firm attachment [to That] ensues.’
This particular upadesa from Bhagavan was recorded in a more expanded form in Padamalai, p. 78:
123 Hold onto the path of holding onto the one who has no attachments. By holding onto this path of holding on, you rid yourself of [those attachments] that hold you to the world.
124 By holding tightly to the one who has no attachments, your attachment to the non-Self will go away. When that [attachment to the non-Self] has gone, holding on tightly to the one who has no attachments will also cease, and all attachments will come to an end.
Praise be to you who merged me into consciousness’ expanse with these golden words: ‘Apart from you there is no world; those co-dependent entities, God and the jiva, both are not! Accordingly you are yourself the undivided reality!’
Praise be to you who stated: ‘The world, the jiva and God, whilst apparently existing, are simply thought forms, nothing more!’
Muruganar revised this poem after its first publication and the current version in the Tamil edition of Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai is not the final draft. In Sri Ramana Jnana Bodham, volume nine, p. 373, Muruganar wrote that lines seventy-five to ninety-eight of the published work should be replaced by the following lines. Since Muruganar asked that they be inserted at this point, we have numbered them 75a-101a to distinguish them from the lines that are printed in Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai.
‘The place where ullal [thought] arises and subsides is ullam [the Heart].’ Thus you gave out the meaning of ullam. Praise be to you!
These two lines and the lines that follow are an expansion on and an explanation of the first invocatory verse of Ulladu Narpadu. Since this verse is an extensive play on the Tamil syllable ‘ul’, which is the root form of a verb meaning ‘to be’, the original Tamil words that contain this syllable have been retained.
This is what Prof. K. Swaminathan wrote about this invocatory verse:
The first stanza, woven out of pure Tamil words, is an emphatic assertion of the oneness of being, awareness and the Heart. It dwells lovingly on the Tamil root ul common to being, thinking, heart and inner space, all associated with indivisible oneness and wholeness. The verb ul (to be) which admits of no past or future tense, is repeated eight times, the word ullam (the heart) thrice, ullu (to think) thrice, and unarvu (feeling) twice; thus the venba as a whole, through sound, suggestion and explicit statement, pulls the mind inward to the very heart of being-awareness. (Ramana Maharshi, K. Swaminathan, p. 91)
You declared: ‘Since ulladu [reality] exists in ullam [the Heart] ulladu [reality] itself may be said to be ullam [the Heart].’ Praise be to you!
Ulladu, translated here as ‘reality’, is a combination of the syllables ‘ulla’ meaning ‘is’ and ‘adu’ meaning ‘that’. A more literal translation would therefore be ‘that-which- is’. Ulladu Narpadu (‘narpadu’ means ‘forty’) could therefore be literally translated as ‘Forty [on] That-which-is’.
You also declared: ‘As the experience “nam ullam” [“we are”] exists [there], it can be termed ullam [the Heart].’
In addition to meaning ‘the Heart’, ullam is also the first person plural form of the verb ‘to be’ – ‘we are’. Muruganar has commented on this combination of meanings in an explanatory note he wrote on verse 966 of Guru Vachaka Kovai:
The one reality, Atma-swarupa, exists and shines in the Heart, one without a second. Appearing as if it is many, it shines as ‘I-I’ in every individual being, who seem to be many because of upadhis [limiting ideas and associations]. Therefore, the plural term ullam [meaning] ‘we are’ is appropriate. Because the Heart is the place for the existing and shining of the Atma-swarupa, in Tamil the Heart is known as ullam. The word ullam here gives both meanings simultaneously. (Padamalai, p. 31)
Though, in modern Tamil, the ‘am’ suffix in ullam indicates the first person plural (‘we are’), in older Tamil ullam could also be taken to be the singular form, ‘am’ or ‘I am’. Thus ullam, serendipitously, can be taken to be both ‘I am’ and ‘the Heart’. Sadhu Om made this connection in his comment on verse 712 of Guru Vachaka Kovai: ‘Since the Tamil word “ullam”, which means “Heart”, also means “am” – the shining of the Reality, “I” – the Reality is called by the name “ullam”.’
You declared: ‘Ullaporul [that which exists], which gets the name ‘ullam’, is not a thought form.’ Praise be to you!
Here is a transliteration of the first benedictory verse, split into its component words, followed by an English translation. The ‘ul’ syllables have been highlighted in bold:
ulladu aladu ulla unarvu ulladu o
ullaporul ullal ara ullatte ullataal – ullam enum
ullaporul ullal evan ullatte ullapadi
ullade ullal unar
Could there be a being-consciousness existing apart from that which [eternally] is? Since that reality exists in the Heart, free of thought, who could meditate upon that reality, called the Heart? Know that to remain within the Heart, as it is, is truly to meditate [upon the Heart].
The ‘ul’ sounds listed here are pronounced with the tongue bent back, with the underside of its tip touching the top of the palate, not the back of the teeth. This gives the sound a strong nasal component. When the verse is chanted, the repeated nasal ‘ul’ sounds punctuate the verse as a leitmotiv, repeatedly emphasising its principal theme that being is both the fundamental nature of the Self and the means by which it can be experienced.
With its elegant play on the syllable ‘ul’ and its strict metrical form, the first invocatory verse is now widely regarded as being a literary tour de force. The following appreciative comments, recorded by Kunju Swami, come from a distinguished Tamil scholar:
Once, while going on a pilgrimage, I [Kunju Swami] visited various maths before ending up at Peraiyur Santhalinga Math. At that time Veerasubbia Swamigal was resting there because he was not well. When I went and had his darshan, he made kind enquiries about the welfare of Sri Bhagavan and the ashram in general. He also looked into the notebook I had with me. Seeing in it the verses of Ulladu Narpadu written beautifully by Sri Bhagavan himself, he asked me to read them out to him. He appreciated the first benedictory verse so much, he asked me to read it three times.
After the third reading he remarked, ‘This is a very profound verse. Not only that, all the elegant features of prosody are in it. Until now I was under the impression that your swami was an adept only in “keeping still”, but now I discover that he is also a superb writer of fine poetry. The venba is itself a difficult metre that few poets dare attempt. Bhagavan has composed all forty-two verses in this metre and used them to convey the most abstruse philosophical ideas. Crowning them all, though, is this first invocatory verse.’ (The Power of the Presence, part two, 78-79)
You declared: ‘Consciousness of reality and consciousness of the things around us do not exist apart from that reality.’ Praise be to you!
‘Therefore, the place where everything exists is the Heart.’ This you declared. Praise be to you!
You declared: ‘Since those who have [truly] seen see nothing other than their own Self, thinking [of something other than the Self] is inconsistent [with that state].’ Praise be to you!
You declared: ‘Unless one reaches the throne of the Heart, it is impossible to see the brilliant light of reality.’ Praise be to you!
You declared, ‘If one dives within and reaches the place of its arising, thought, which is of the nature of the individual self, will cease to be’. Praise be to you!
Therefore, individual selves, who have no other form than thought, can only imagine with the false mind the reality that is free from thought forms, but they cannot think of it as it really is. Just as reality dwells within the Heart, free from thought forms, when the individual self dwells, in the same way, within the Heart, free from thought forms, that is meditation on reality. Thus did you explain it to us. Praise be to you!
The next section comes from Sri Ramana Jnana Bodham, volume 9, p. 306. Muruganar wrote these lines (which we have numbered ‘insert 1-16’) after the original poem had been published in Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai. He left a note in his papers that stated they should be included at this point in the poem. While the preceding section records an explanation of the teachings expounded in the invocatory verse of Ulladu Narpadu, these new lines take up the subject matter of the second invocatory verse.
The verse itself says:
Those people who have a deep fear of death will, for their protection, take refuge at the holy feet of Lord Siva, he who is without both birth and death. In thus taking refuge [in Him] they suffered their own death. For them, in this deathless state, will the thought of death remain?
‘Only those whose minds are extremely shaken by the fear of death are fit to undertake the path of crossing [the ocean of samsara]. They are the ripe and competent persons.’ Out of love you declared this to me, my Father.
Those who cling as their supreme refuge to the feet, girt with warrior’s anklets, of the Lord who is beyond birth and death, who chastised even the god of death for the sake of his devotee [Markandeya], will, as the fruit of that clinging, be brought under his power. Their inner attachment, consisting of the ego, will be destroyed, along with all the other attachments which depend on the ego. The seed of the ego will not be able to sprout within them as before. They will become absorbed in the Heart, and will abide as the truth of their own Self. It is inconsistent for the thought of death to arise in those whose ego is dead. Thus did you declare. Praise be to you!
Thus, declaring ‘That is the state of immortality,’ did you graciously impart in words this ambrosial teaching to the soul of myself, your devotee. Praise be to you!