Guhai Nama Sivaya
Visitors to Virupaksha Cave, the place where Ramana Maharishi spent about fifteen years of his life, may have noticed a small walled compound a few hundred feet lower down the hill. This compound, which one enters through a small gopuramon the eastern side, contains a cave that was, several centuries ago, occupied for many years by a yogi called Guhai Namasivaya. The cave and the few buildings that surround it now bear his name.
Article contributed by David Godman
Guhai Namasivaya is known to have been born around the year AD 1548 in Karnataka to a pious Saiva couple. According to his somewhat hagiographical biography, his spiritual nature became evident at an early age: he was virtuous in his conduct, adept at his studies and evinced no attachment to worldly matters. Feeling a great longing to receive the grace of the Lord, he embarked at an early age upon a search that led him to Sivananda Desikar, a famous Guru who lived at Sri Sailam. He became a disciple of this Guru and began to serve him with fervent and selfless devotion.
Sivananda Desikar belonged to the Virasaiva sect. Since Guhai Namasivaya immersed himself in this tradition for many years, a brief account of the beliefs and practices of this sect will throw a little light on the kind of life he led as a young man.
The origin of Virasaivism, an offshoot of Saivism, can be traced back to the twelfth century. Its philosophy has grown out of the twenty-eight Saiva Agamas and the writings of its early exponents. Virasaivas are also known as Lingayats on account of the immense importance they attach to their conception of the term ‘Linga‘. For them, Linga is not merely a physical object, it is synonymous with chaitanya, or consciousness, and can be taken to be Siva himself. In their philosophy, the term Linga can be equated with the Parabrahman of the Upanishads, but it has other connotations as well. It is the cosmic principle that is the source of the universe and, in its physical form, it is the visible symbol of the consciousness that exists in all beings. In addition, and this is particularly interesting in view of the years Guhai Namasivaya spent at Arunachala, it is often conceived of as a mass of light or a column of blazing fire. Worship of the Linga in all its forms is central to Virasaivism.
The goal of Virasaivas is the attainment of oneness with Siva. To reach this exalted state, Virasaivas believe that one must submit to and serve a Guru who has already attained that oneness. Thus, in the Virasaiva tradition, the Guru is given immense importance, for it is he alone who can initiate the disciple, purify him, and lead him to unity with Siva.
For a devout Virasaiva, the spiritual path begins when he approaches a competent Guru and asks him for initiation. Usually, the Guru will first test him for a year to see how serious his spiritual inclinations are. When the Guru is satisfied that the disciple’s desire is genuine, he agrees to initiate him and accept him as a disciple. The initiation given by the Guru activates the power of Linga in the three bodies, the causal, the subtle and the gross, and removes some or all of the taints or imperfections that reside in each of the three bodies. Virasaivas believe that these taints, called mala, prevent the disciple from becoming established in Linga, the Supreme Siva-consciousness.
In the initiation ceremony the Guru first places his right palm on the head of the disciple, thereby awakening the supreme Self in the causal body in a form that is called Bhavalinga. Simultaneously, through his power, the Guru attempts to eliminate any impurities that dwell there. Next, the Guru whispers the great mantra ‘Nama Sivaya‘ in the right ear of the disciple. All Saivas hold this to be the best and most potent mantra. The act of whispering establishes in the subtle body a form or aspect of the Linga that is called Pranalinga. The power transmitted by this mantra initiation also cleanses the subtle body and removes some of its imperfections. Then, in what is perhaps the most significant part of the ritual, the disciple is given a physical Linga. Virasaivas believe the Linga is a great light in the innermost heart that can be brought out and shaped into a physical form by the Guru. In the final part of the rite, the Guru draws out the power of Linga from the heart of the devotee, establishes it in a physical Linga, which is called Ishtalinga, presents it to the disciple and commands him to worship it as if were Siva himself. The handing over of the Ishtalinga removes the taints that are attached to the physical body.
The Guru then commands the devotee to wear the Ishtalinga on his body at all times and to worship it three times a day. The Guru also tells him that the Linga must on no account be separated from the body since such a separation is equivalent of spiritual death. In the Virasaiva tradition, it is not permitted to worship Siva in any other form except that of the Istalinga or the Linga installed over one’s Guru’s samadhi. Virasaivas are therefore forbidden from worshipping forms of Siva that have been installed in temples.
We can assume that Guhai Namasivaya underwent this initiation ceremony since it is a compulsory rite of passage for all Virasaivas. He probably went through it quite early in his life, for it was not uncommon for eight-year-olds to be initiated in this way.
Sivananda Desikar, Guhai Namasivaya’s Guru, was an adept in a Virasaiva yoga system known as Siva Yoga. When Sivananada Desikar noticed what a mature disciple Guhai Namasivaya was, he initiated him into its practices. From then on, Guhai Namasivaya alternated his time between physical service to the Guru and the practice of Siva Yoga. In the course of time he too became an accomplished Siva yogi.
Siva Yoga emphasises dharana, dhyana and samadhi, the last three stages of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga system, but it gives them a Virasaiva turn by emphasising meditation on the three Lingas that the Guru has established in the three bodies. In the Siva Yoga system, worship of the Ishtalinga, the Linga given by the Guru to the disciple, is called dharana, or uninterrupted concentration; worship of the Pranalinga established in the subtle body is dhyana, or meditation; remembrance and awareness of the Bhavalinga in the causal body is called samadhi. According to Maggeya Mayideva, a Virasaiva saint, ‘samadhi is the action which includes both radiant worship and meditation on one’s own Linga‘.
The yoga practice is performed in the following way: ‘Setting Ishtalinga firmly in his left palm, restraining the traffic of his other limbs, restraining the movement of breath through breath control, or pranayama, controlling the modifications of the mind, focussing his physical eye on Ishtalinga, his inner eye on Pranalinga and his intuitional eye on Bhavalinga, being one with Linga and unifying the triple Linga into one – he lives his own Self.'(1)
The goal of the yoga is to find Siva in everything and to discover the fundamental root of that immanent Siva manifestation in one’s heart. Though Siva Yoga has a strong bhakti component, it must not be forgotten that it is also a variety of Kundalini Yoga. The Siva yogis aim to make contact with the power of the Lord. They believe that the contact finally takes place after the prana, rising through the sushumna, has passed through all the six chakras and moved on to the bramarandhra, located at the top of the head. Accomplished Siva yogis, at the time of their death, voluntarily send all their pranas out of their bodies through this brahmarandhra and merge into the all-pervading consciousness of Siva.
Guhai Namasivaya practised this system of yoga for many years. When he had thoroughly mastered it, Lord Mallikarjuna, the presiding deity of Sri Sailam, appeared to Guhai Namasivaya in a dream and commanded him to go to Arunachala and remain there as a Guru, giving teachings to mature disciples who approached him. When he related this dream to his Guru, Sivananada Desikar gave him his blessings and told him to carry out the order. Shortly afterwards, Guhai Namasivaya set out on horseback for Tiruvannamalai.
There is a tradition in Tiruvannamalai that Guhai Namasivaya was accompanied on his journey by Virupaksha Deva, the man who gave his name to Virupaksha Cave. Ramana Maharishi occasionally told his devotees that the two of them were Virasaivas who came from Karnataka to Tiruvannamalai at the same time. It is reported that both of them had served Sivananada Desikar for twelve years. Almost nothing is known about the life of Virupaksha Deva except that he lived in Virupaksha Cave for a long time, and that when he died there his body transformed itself into vibhuti (sacred ash). That vibhuti is still kept in the cave and puja is done to it every day.
On his journey to Tiruvannamalai Guhai Namasivaya came one evening to a village where a wedding was in progress. The head of the house where the wedding was taking place greeted him respectfully, invited him into the house, gave him the place of honour and performed puja to him. At the conclusion of the puja everyone present received some vibhuti from the hand of Guhai Namasivaya. Shortly afterwards, the house was completely destroyed by a fire. Some people, associating the fire with Guhai Namasivaya’s visit, poured scorn on him by saying, ‘The ash given by this yogi has turned the house itself into ash’.
Guhai Namasivaya was deeply hurt by this taunt, not personally, but because of the ridicule to which the Lord’s vibhuti had been subjected. He therefore meditated on Siva and through his grace was able to restore the house to its former unburnt state. Subsequently, those in the village who had formerly reviled him began to praise and worship him as if he were Siva himself. Guhai Namasivaya, perturbed by all the fuss his visit had caused, then took a vow that wherever he went in future, he would never again stay in any house.
On reaching Tiruvannamalai he stuck to his vow and lived in public halls, temple flower gardens and occasionally in the surrounding forest. He devoted himself to the practice of Siva Yoga and became so accomplished in it that he was able to spend long periods in samadhi, immersed in his inner Linga. Each day he visited the entrance of the Arunachaleswara Temple but went no further because, as a Virasaiva, he was prohibited from worshipping there. It seems that Guhai Namasivaya either had a desire to worship in the temple, or felt that he would benefit by doing so, for each day he would gesture with his hands in the direction of the shrine and to say to himself, ‘Are you well without worshipping him?’
There was a sadhu called Sivakkira Yogi who noticed that Guhai Namasivaya never went through the temple entrance, but merely made strange gestures there. He interpreted this strange behaviour as deliberate irreverence and decided to punish him by striking him on the back with his cane. Guhai Namasivaya made no attempt to retaliate, nor did he even reproach his attacker. He merely composed an extempore venba verse in Tamil to the effect that the Lord had struck him in order to drive out his evil propensities. When Sivakkira Yogi saw Guhai Namasivaya responding in such a humble way, he immediately realised that he had failed to recognise the latter’s greatness.
After this incident Guhai Namasivaya began to feel that it would be appropriate for him to enter the temple and worship there. While he was contemplating this breach with tradition, his Guru, Sivananda Desikar, unexpectedly appeared, surrounded by a retinue of his devotees. Guhai Namasivaya greeted him with great love and devotion. In return, Sivananda Desikar spoke to him in a friendly and intimate way. Then to Guhai Namsivaya’s surprise, his Guru entered the temple with his disciples, walked straight to the inner sanctum and began to worship Siva there. Guhai Namasivaya, who had accompanied his Guru into the temple, followed his Guru’s example. He threw himself full-length on the ground and, filled with ecstasy, mentally worshipped the image of Siva that was enshrined there. When he stood up he could see no sign either of his Guru or his fellow disciples, but when he looked at the Linga he had been worshipping, he saw only the form of his Guru. Spontaneously, the following verse came to his lips:
Lord Arunagiri! Form of true knowledge! Guru to whom I call out ‘Om Namasivaya!’ Do not scorn me as one who is devoid of Love for you, who is a liar and without self-respect, who is mentally immature and deficient in intelligence, but take me to yourself and be my Lord!(2)
Guhai Namasivaya, realising that the appearance of his Guru had been the play of the Lord, interpreted his vision to mean that he now had permission to enter the temple and worship there. In Virasaivism, the authority of the Guru is paramount. If the Guru sanctions a practice, it immediately becomes acceptable even if it contravenes traditional rules and regulations.
After this incident Guhai Namasivaya decided to take up residence in the entrance to the temple. Each day he was there, he composed a verse in praise of Arunachala-Siva and put together a flower garland. He would then offer both of them to the Linga of Lord Siva in the inner shrine. He described his actives in the following verse:
Many times have I wreathed him with flower garlands and adored him with song garlands. My tongue has sung a thousand melodies in praise of him. To see him, the Lord Sonachala [Arunachala], famed all over the earth, I, worthless as I am, need a thousand eyes.(3)
During this period of his life Guhai Namasivaya supported himself by begging for his food and seemed quite content with his spartan existence: ‘To beg for food and eat it, and to come here and sleep at the sacred portals – this alone is my happiness.'(4)
After he had lived like this for some time, Lord Siva appeared in one of his dreams and commanded him: ‘Remain in a cave on the slopes of our mountain and carry on your yoga practice there.’
Guhai Namasivaya accepted the order and moved into a cave on the lower slopes of the eastern side of the hill. He spent the remainder of his life in this cave and thus acquired the title ‘Guhai’, which is the Tamil word for cave.
The mountain soon became the main focus of his sadhana. To understand how this came about, it will be instructive to compare certain aspects of Virasaivism, particularly the teachings on the nature of Linga, with the spiritual traditions that are associated with Arunachala. The Virasaivas conceive of Linga, in its unmanifest form, as a blazing mass or column of light in the heart of each devotee. At the time of initiation, the Guru draws out this power, installs it in a physical form, the Ishtalinga, and instructs the disciple to worship it as if it were Siva himself. In the case of Arunachala, Siva initially appeared as a dazzling, limitless column of light and then later transformed himself into the physical Linga of Aruanchala. As Ramana Maharishi remarked on several occasions, the hill is not the abode of Siva or a symbolic representation of him, it is, like the Ishtalinga of Virasaivas, Siva manifesting in a Linga-shaped form. This is what he had to say to someone who enquired which portion of the hill was the holiest and most sacred:
The whole hill is sacred. It is Siva himself. Just as we identify ourselves with a body, so Siva has chosen to identify himself with the hill. Arunachala is pure wisdom in the form of a hill. It is out of compassion for those who seek him that he has chosen to reveal himself in the form of a hill visible to the eye.(5)
There is a tradition in Tiruvannamalai that the Lingam in the Arunachaleswara Temple and the mountain Lingam of Arunachala are one and the same. Thus, when Sivananda Desikar manifested and superimposed his image on the temple Lingam, Guhai Namasivaya, who had been worshipping that image, received the message that his Guru and Arunachala were identical. This understanding is mentioned in the verse he immediately composed. Furthermore, realising that the vision had authorised him to regard Arunachala as his Guru, he began to worship the Mountain as a Guru Linga. He described this new relationship and the effect it had on him in the following verse:
Taking into my heart as my Guru the Red Mountain Lord [Arunachala], who now stands formless before me, I have put to flight the unutterable arrogance of my good and evil deeds, my soul’s indissoluble threefold impurity and my unparalleled accumulation of karma.(6)
In Virasaivism it is the Guru’s job to cleanse the devotee of the threefold impurities that cling to the three bodies. This process would have been initiated by Guhai Namasivaya’s human Guru, but as the above verse clearly states, it was Arunachala-Siva who completed the job.
By channelling his devotional fervour towards the mountain, he was able to generate a level of love that he had never experienced from worshipping his Ishtalinga and practising Siva Yoga:
Except for the ineffable Lord Annamalai and His consort Unnamulai, who sits at his Lordship’s side, I have known no other gods. Or, if I have known them, I have never cherished them in my heart of hearts. Monarch who dwells as the Red Mountain! When I lauded you as the Supreme One, worshipping and praising you with melting heart, when I sought you with hands clasped and with tears running down from my eyes, you granted me my boon, according to my desire. O King of compassion! I find nothing which I can adequately offer in return.(7)
The boon he sought was nothing less than freedom from the cycle of birth and death:
My heart! By praising the bounteous one who drives away the effects of evil deeds that torment perpetually the hearts of those in whose mind there is attachment, we have received our boon. We have received the fruit that is proper for this human birth: we have ceased to be reborn.(8)
In one of his other verses he indicates indirectly that he obtained this boon by thinking continuously and lovingly of the Red Mountain Lord:
Those who desire the boons of fame, long life and children, all praise the Red Mountain Lord. For those who praise him continually, incapable of forgetting him even when asleep, there is no further rebirth.(9)
Guhai Namasivaya makes no mention in his verses of the Siva Yoga that he had perfected in his early life. He may have given it up sometime after his arrival in Tiruvannamalai for he frequently asserts in his poetry that devotion to Siva and complete surrender to him are quite sufficient to attain liberation. His own devotional practices were simple and direct. We know, for example from the writings of his best-known disciple, Guru Namasivaya, that Guhai Namasivaya composed a four-line verse each day in praise of Arunachala: ‘Mountain to which Guhai Namasivaya, performer of immensely great austerities, makes obeisance, daily adorning him with a garland of one venba verse.'(10)
He had begun the practice while he was still living in the temple entrance, and he seems to have continued it when he moved into the cave on the hill. He must have composed thousands of verses in praise of the mountain, but very few of them have been preserved. Only two of his poems have been published Arunagiri Antadi (100 verses) and Tiruvarunai Tanivenba (36 verses). A few other stray verses of his can be found in quotations in the writings of other people, but it would seem that the bulk of his poetic output has been irretrievably lost.(11)
Although he was born in Karanataka and spoke Kannada as his mother tongue, he thoroughly mastered the Tamil language. His principal extant poem, Arunagiri Antadi is often used as a text in Tamil schools to illustrate the intricacies of the venba metre. Ramana Maharshi remarked on several occasions that this metre was reputed to be the most difficult form to compose in; and Ganapati Muni, a superb extempore poet, once confessed that the venba metre was so difficult, he was unable to utilise it. Dandapani Swami, a famous 19th century poet and scholar, felt that Guhai Namasivaya’s poetry was so good it could only have been composed as a result of divine inspiration. In his verse biography of Guhai Namasivaya he wrote: ‘Although learned in no language other than Kannada, my Lord Siva caused him to compose venba verses of an excellence that only the most eminent of Tamil poets could equal. He could not have done it had he relied on his own inspiration alone.'(12)
In addition to composing verse, Guhai Namasivaya also performed pradakshina of the mountain and repeated the great mantra of Saivism, Nama Sivaya. In several of his verses he encourages other people to take up these practices and, in addition, to think continuously of Arunachala.
Be they of lowly birth, without the advantage of learning, unable to practise the virtue of liberality, it is of no account. Those who perform pradakshina of holy Aruna, the Supreme, submit to his rule and become his devotee, will excel even amongst the most excellent. Recite the five-lettered name of the First One, the Red Mountain Lord, and meditate upon it. Thus will the straight path, the steadfast condition and the marks of true knowledge become manifest to you. Your every wish will be granted, and fulfilment will be yours. Taking a necklace of rudraksha beads, whose nature is suited to solitude, recite the five letters [Na ma Si va ya] with full voice, one by one, mindful of their meaning. Thus, earnestly seeking the feet of Lord Sonagiri [Arunachala], whose ornament is the snake, we shall obtain the boon of freedom from death for all eternity. My heart! Fix your thoughts on the Red Mountain Teacher, who, if you believe in his grace and praise him daily, will take hold of you, desirous of your good, saying, ‘Behold, I am here!’ If you think of him in this way, all the painful effects of your actions will subside and go away.(13)
There is a famous story concerning Guhai Namasivaya that seems to show that although he had great devotion to Arunachala, he was still capable of displaying bursts of extreme anger. One day, according to this story, he took pity on a poor man whose only goat had been killed by a snake just before it was about to give birth. Guhai Namasivaya asked the man to leave the goat’s body with him and to collect it the next day. When the man returned to pick up the corpse, he found that not only had the goat been restored to life, it had also given birth to two kids. As news of this miracle spread around the town, some boys from the local weaving community decided to play a joke on him. One boy, pretending to be dead, was carried into the presence of Guhai Namasivaya by his friends. The boys claimed that their friend had died of a snake bite and asked the saint to restore him to life. Guhai Namasivaya, who could see that they were merely making fun of him, cursed them with such vehemence that the boy who was pretending to be dead actually did die. Then Guhai Namasivaya cursed the whole weaving community, saying that they would never prosper or flourish in Tiruvannamalai again. The curse took effect: all the weavers were forced to leave town or take up other occupations because none of them could make a living by weaving in Tiruvannamalai. In the years that followed, all attempts to re-establish weaving businesses in the town failed.
Guhai Namasivaya made better use of his power and his anger on another occasion, with equally devastating results. A barbarian chieftan called Agittu once invaded and looted the town. He murdered many of the inhabitants, abducted a large number of the town’s young women and, in an act of deliberate desecration, he set up camp in one of the temple courtyards and roasted an ox there. When news of this reached Guhai Namasivaya, he became angry and rebuked Lord Arunachaleswara in the following manner:
Lord Sonesan! Are your three eyes, including the eye on your forehead, fast asleep? Has someone stolen away the battle-axe and trident you wield? Haven’t you any self-respect? Shall all your devotees be abandoned to an accursed death?(14)
Arunachaleswara accepted the justness of the complaint and, for the sake of Guhai Namasivaya, decided to intervene in the matter. That night the Lord appeared to Agittu in a dream in the form of a sadhu and struck him on the back with his stick. Agittu woke up immediately and noticed that on the spot where he had been beaten there was a rash that soon grew and developed into a large, swollen abscess. He consulted some of the elders of the town, recounting his dream to them. They all advised him that he could only save his life by leaving the temple. Agittu, not wanting any further punishment, abandoned the temple to the pujaris and the town’s devotees who cleared up his mess and reconsecrated the holy shrine. However, Agittu could not escape the wrath of Guhai Namasivaya and Lord Arunachaleswara. His abscess grew and worms appeared in it, which gnawed away at his healthy flesh. All remedies failed, including one horrific experiment in which he applied foetuses, taken from pregnant women he had slaughtered for the purpose, to the wound. When he eventually died in great agony, his death was celebrated throughout Tiruvannamalai. The local people anointed themselves with oil, put on new clothes, ate a special meal and danced in exaltation.
When Guhai Namasivaya reached 100 years of age, the thought occurred to him: ‘The span allotted to man by Brahma is 100 years. That is enough for this worldly life.’ He had his disciples prepared a samadhi pit for him, intending to enter it and give up his life there. But, as he was lowering himself into the crypt, Lord Siva spoke to him, ordering him to stay a further 100 years on earth. His resigned response to the Lord’s intervention is recorded in one of his verses:
To me, a devotee of blissful Lord Arunagiri, who is kinder to me than any mother or wise father, it matters little whether he ordains that I should die, or that I should suffer on in this delusive body, in spite of my 100 years.(15)
One hundred years later he had another samadhi pit prepared in the cave that now bears his name. Before lowering himself into it, he composed his final two verses:
I will no longer bear this delusive body, which is the dwelling place of all the 360 diseases known to our science. Lord Arunesan, who wears in his locks the holy waters and the waning moon! May you wipe out at once this birth for the sake of your solitary devotee. We have found refuge at the feet of our father, Lord Sonagiri. We have crossed the threefold waters of our final birth. Behold! No longer do we bow down to the lotus-born Brahma, the creator, nor to Yama [the god of death] who rides the powerful buffalo.(16)
The only known image of Guhai Namasivaya. It comes from a granite, bas-relief that is located in the rear of a mantapam that
After saying these words, he descended into the samadhi pit and seated himself in the full-lotus position. Then, utilising a practice he had mastered during his days as a Siva yogi, he gave up his life by sending the pranas out of his body via the bramarandhra at the top of his head. His disciples erected a Linga on the spot and instituted worship of it. Daily puja has been conducted there right down to the present day.
Samadhi of Guhai Namasivaya
Thus ended the life of a great Arunachala bhakta. His long stay on the mountain had taught him the simple truth that those who surrender lovingly and completely to the Red Mountain Lord have all their sins and karma washed away:
I have perceived the means of dissolving away all the manifold maladies that beset my life and crush me down. I have taken into my heart the lotus feet of the Red Mountain Lord. What then do I lack? For those who are without love for the Red Mountain Lord, who cleaves away falsehood and subjects us to his rule, will it be of any benefit to mortify the body? Whether he brings ruin upon our heads, or whether he lifts us up through his grace, repeat the name of Lord Sonesan and believe in his word.(17)
(1) The Virasaivite Saints – A Study – by H. Thipperudra Swamy p. 255.
(2) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, v. 11.
(3) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, v. 30.
(4) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, v. 35.
(5) Ramana Pictorial Souvenir, p. 7.
(6) Arunagiri Antadi, v. 85.
(7) Arunagiri Antadi , vv. 87 and 8.
(8) Arunagiri Antadi, v. 13.
(9) Arunagiri Antadi, v. 27.
(10) Annamalai Venba, v. 7.
(11) When I wrote this paragraph in the late 1980s, the information it contains was the accepted scholarly view. I subsequently discovered more than 300 verses that were previously thought to be lost. Some of these verses appear elsewhere on this site. See Arunagiri Malai for more details.
(12) Pulavar Puranam, ‘Guhai Namasivayar Sarukkam’, v. 14.
(13) Arunagiri Antadi, vv. 26, 53, 42, 22.
(14) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, v. 25.
(15) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, v. 33.
(16) Tiruvarunai Tanivenba, vv. 20, 18.
(17) Arunagiri Antadi, vv. 67, 89, 40.
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