Sacred Songs on Thiruvannamalai
By Guhai Namasivaya
(Translated by Robert Butler)
Article contributed by David Godman
I have taken this poem from an unpublished collection of Tamil verses by Guhai Namasivaya that I found in the mid-1980s. Since they are all in the venba metre, they may be some of the verses that Guhai Namasivaya was composing every day as an offering to Arunachala. The title translates as A Garland for Arunagiri. Arunagiri, meaning ‘Red Mountain’, is one of the Tamil names of Arunachala.
In composing this garland in praise of Mount Arunagiri
Who dwells in the world as a column of fire,
Sought in vain by the swan and the boar,(1)
We invoke the protection of Lord Ganapati,(2)
The child who leads the elephant hordes,
In whom all good qualities are embodied.
Holy Mount Aruna whom the world reveres,
Through your grace you have brought wisdom
Into the heart of a fool such as I
So that in the flawless glory
Of your musk-drenched holy foot
My spirit might be seeped.
Lord Arunagiri, dispeller of our actions’ fruit,
Never have I performed an act deeming it righteous
Nor refrained from one realising its wrongness,
Without you to inspire and guide my every move.
Often will the holy feet
Of tank-girt southern Arunachala’s King
Enter my sinner’s heart;
A life-giving support upon my lonely journey,
They will fulfil my every aspiration.
With foot and eye
You trampled and burned Yama and Kama.(3)
And now my thoughts have no fit object,
Noble Lord Arunachala,
But your own two feet.
Were I to perform countless evil deeds
That bind the soul,
Those bonds could not grip and hold me,
For I have beheld the lotus foot of Aruna’s Lord
Whose glory Mal and lotus-born Brahma sing.(4)
Dispeller of the wicked deeds
Of those who meditate upon you!
Bridegroom of the gods! When will it be
That my sensual desires are cut away,
And I reach and dwell at your golden foot?
Speak, my Lord? When will it be?
I am a worthless wretch who never yearned
For the bliss of pure consciousness,
Never contemplated in his heart of hearts
That supreme and arduous path.
What way could there be for one such as I
To slough off the burden of former deeds?
What way to praise your golden foot
And wear it as an ornament?
You whose flowery foot unfolds victorious
In our hearts, Aruna’s eternal Lord!
In an instant the powerful residues of former deeds (5)
And the soul’s threefold impurity (6)
Will all be reduced to ash
If only we fix our minds upon
The bejewelled lotus of the foot.
You who hold dominion over the minds
Of those who love you!
Wise Lord of Arunachala!
King whose liberality is unfailing!
Although I have paid heed to those
Who, desirous of gaining your holy foot,
Have established it within their hearts,
Alone and destitute I cannot cleanse the stain
From my own sinful heart.
Lord of Arunachala, who conquered my heart
On a day so hard to describe!
For a dog such as I it is equally fitting
Whether you thrust away from you
Or gather up and protect
This head that I have laid at your feet.
Lord of Arunachala, provider of sustenance!
Will there be further births
Upon this wide earth
For those who praise you,
Even if they are not free of the effects of former deeds,
Of their mind’s wandering and other distinctions?
If they have not abandoned the sense of self?
My heart, we have attained to the knowledge
Of Arunachala’s King whom we revere and praise
So that we may worship him in his temple
And glorify him time and time again.
Rejoicing, we have put to flight and banished
All our evil ways.
Since you are my Master
And I am one of your herd,
Divine Lord of Arunachala,
If there is any fault with that herd (7)
The responsibility lies with the Master alone.
If you do not guard me from evil,
It is not I but you alone
The world will blame!
Lord Sankara, dwelling upon Aruna’s Mount,
You who never come near the hearts of the deceitful!
For a wretch such as I
Who has not sought the supreme state
Nor laid aside secular works
Nor enshrined a holy teacher in his heart of stone,
What recourse can there be?
My spirit, what cause is there for distress
Now that you have spoken the name
Of him who knows no equal?
Now that, grasping their meaning,
You have uttered aloud the five holy letters (8)
Of Arunachala’s Lord, the eternal one
Who in former times knew the demon’s heart
And punished him?(9)
Our inner eye will blossom, my heart of stone!
As for the worlds that lotus-borne Brahma fashions,(10)
It will be in our power to create them all,
If only we think upon and praise the two feet
Of Arunachala’s Lord,
Of him who tore out the great tooth of the sun,(11)
Whom none can approach!
Though we learn to drink the bitter sap of plants
And water choked with dead leaves,
Though we learn to eat in the morning only,
Can anything be gained
Other than what is freely granted
By our Lord and God of Arunachala,
From whose lofty trident
A flower garland hangs?
If you ask a fool which is greater,
Impurity or the power of Arunachala’s Lord,
He will be convinced that the answer is impurity.
However, the Lord will know those true devotees
Whose minds have grasped the supreme,
And he will enter and dwell within their hearts,
However subtle the impurity.
King whose adornments are manifold!
Transcender of time, in whose brow
An eye is set!(12)
My own Father whose throat darkened
As the tide of poison rose!(13)
Will the day come
That I break free
From the round of births?
My heart, if we are chastised
By the good Lord of Arunachala
So that the evil in us is driven out,
Is it to do us harm?
Does the washerman feel any anger
When he beats clothing on a stone
To remove the dirt?(14)
Ever worshipping him and praising him
With melting hearts
And performing sweet service,
His devotees will behold
The two feet of Aruna’s Lord
Who bears the chill moon in his locks.(15)
Swiftly they will hasten
Towards their final liberation.
I shall sell my worldly goods,
Bring gifts to a suitable place,
Set them out and make offerings;
Such is the service I now offer you.
Why do you remain thus,
Lord of Arunachala
Without any belief in me?
You who are ever mindful
Of those who in their hearts
Trust you alone and no other!
Formerly you were known as the Lord
Who watches over those
Who seek his protection.
But what now, my Lord of Arunachala?
Our Master and Lord of Arunachala,
If we do not trust in
The fair lotus of your foot,
If we do not recite the five syllables
Of your noble and holy name
And smear out bodies with the sacred ash that purifies,(16)
to cross the powerful,
Never-ceasing torrent of births
Will be difficult indeed.
You who slew the lion-god Vishnu
Who himself had slain
The huge and warlike demon Hiranya!(17)
Great Lord of Arunachala,
Who swallowed the poison as it arose!
Who is there who could know your form?
There are worthless tongues:
The bell has one,
As does a pair of scales.(18)
There are the evil tongues
Of the unrighteous.
Tell me, Arunachala’s King,
Is not the noble tongue
That praises your five-lettered name
The only one that knows true sweetness?
There is no general who would dare
To lead his army into battle
Against those who revere the foot
Of our Lord of Arunachala
Whose glory is known through the learned Vedas
And numerous other related works,
Our leader who rides a prancing bull.
Yama knows his foot,
Vishnu, his savage spear and battle axe.(19)
Brahma knows his intent,
Parvati his physical form.
Who can know the form of Arunachala’s Lord?
Why those great tomes?
And why the six religious systems?(20)
Why this talk of austerities,
And why these thoughts of fasting
When desire’s eternal onslaught
Can be quelled by Aruna’a Lord,
For whom my heart possesses
The greatest desire of all?
You may intone the scriptures;
You may know all there is to know
About the world as it exists
From its beginning to its final end.
But what of that?
Those who have no love
For Mount Aruna’s flawless Teacher,
Whose justice ever prevails,
Will remain in bondage,
Condemned in this world and the next.
Unless it is so ordained
By our Lord of Arunachala,
Who creates the universe in its entirety
And then draws it back into himself,
The fevered mind, though it suffer
A hundred thousand painful thoughts,
Will not be one atom better,
Or for that matter, one atom worse.
Taking birth as plant and animal,
Those who have not paid homage
To the foot of the perfect one,
The Lord of Arunachala
Whom even the conquering Kama failed to subdue,
Will wander ceaselessly upon the earth.
Photo of Arunachala, courtesy Dev Gogoi
(1) The principal puranic story about Arunachala features a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu over which of them is the greater. Siva witnessed their dispute and decided to teach them a lesson in humility. He appeared before them in the form of an infinitely long column of light (some versions say fire) and announced that whichever of the two could find the end of this column could call himself the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed downwards to find the bottom end, while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew upward in search of the top. Neither extremity was found even though the two Gods spent thousands of years trying. Both returned unsuccessful, finally conceding that Siva was greater than either of them. Vishnu then requested Siva to manifest in a form that was less dazzling to the eyes so that devotees through the ages could have darshan of his form. Siva obliged by condensing himself into the form of Arunachala. Thus, for devotees of Arunachala, the mountain is not merely a symbol of Siva or the place where he resides, it is Siva himself, manifesting in a physical form
(2) This is the benedictory verse. So, following poetic tradition, Guhai Namasivaya invokes the blessings of the elephant-headed God, Ganapati, the deity of auspicious beginnings.
(3) Sankara is one of the names of Siva.
Yama is the Hindu god of death. The reference to trampling him comes from the story of Markandeya.
Mrikanda, Markandeya’s father had prayed to Siva to get a son. Siva appeared before him and said, ‘Do you desire to have a virtuous, wise and pious son who will only live to be sixteen, or a dull-witted, evil-natured son who will live for a long time.’
Mrikanda opted for the short-lived son, who turned out to be a child-sage. On the day of his appointed death, Yama came to collect him. Markandeya cried out to Siva for help and embraced the idol of Siva that he usually meditated on. Yama threw his rope and lassooed the idol as well as Markandeya. This angered Siva, who came roaring down from the heavens, after which he killed Yama with a single blow of his foot. Siva then gave Markandeya a boon that he could be sixteen forever, and thus avoid death, and he also restored Yama’s life.
Kama, the God of love, was sent to Siva by Brahma in an attempt to make Siva fall in love with Parvati and marry her. Brahma had foreseen that only an offspring of the two could defeat a demon called Taraka who was threatening the gods. When Kama aimed an arrow of love at Siva’s heart, Siva, who was in samadhi, opened his third eye, which had been focused inside, and burned Kama to ashes with a single look. Siva eventually brought into being Subramania, without any outside intervention, it was he who finally conquered and destroyed Taraka.
(4) In the Mahabharata and some of the Puranas Brahma is born form a lotus that sprang from the navel of Vishnu. Mal is one of the Tamil names of Vishnu.
(5) This is the sanchita karma, the accumulated karma of former births that still remains to be experienced.
(6) Saiva Siddhanta postulates three fundamental entities – God (Pati), the aggregate of all the souls in the world (pasu) and pasa, that which binds the soul to worldliness. Pasa is also known as malam or impurity and it has three components: (1) Anava – ignorance or egotism that is attached to the soul (2) Maya – the ever-changing matter which makes up manifestation, or the seed from which it arises (3) Karma – the actions that the soul engages in via the body and the mind. These bring about retributive consequences for the performer of those acts: pleasant consequences for the good activities, and unpleasant for the bad.
(7) In Saiva Siddhanta the Lord is called Pati. The word for the totality of souls which he looks after is pasu. Literally, this means ‘cattle’. Guhai Namasivaya is saying here that full responsibility for the herd of souls lies with Siva, and not with the individual people.
(8) Na, Ma, Si, Va, and Ya, which together comprise Nama Sivaya, which means ‘Obeisance to Siva’. This is the most sacred and powerful mantra for Saivas.
(9) A somewhat vague reference. I would guess it refers to Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.
(10) Among the gods, Brahma’s principal function is the creation of the world.
(11) Siva once cut off one of Brahma’s five heads to punish him for the arrogance of believing that he was the supreme deity. Brahma then cursed him, saying that he would always have to beg for his food, using the skull as a begging bowl. This made Siva very angry, so he went on the rampage, killing thousands of devas in the process. At one point Surya, the sun god, confronted him and tried to make him stop. Siva hit him in the face and knocked out all his teeth. When Siva’s anger had subsided, he restored them all.
(12) The two normal eyes of Siva represent the sun and the moon. The third, in the centre of the forehead, symbolises fire. The eyes together represent the three sources of light that illumine the earth, space and the sky. Through his three eyes Siva can see past, present and future, an accomplishment which, as Guhai Namasivaya points out, enables him to transcend time. The central eye is the eye of higher perception. Normally it is directed inwards, but when it is turned outwards, it burns all that appears before it.
(13) The devas and the asuras were once churning the ocean of milk, hoping to get from it amrita, the elixir of immortality. At one point a burning mass of poison came out, emanating poisonous fumes. When Brahma requested Siva to help, he responded by swallowing the poison. Though the poison did not harm him, it left a blue mark on his throat. From that time on, one of his names has been Nilakantha, meaning ‘Blue-throated’.
When poets address Arunachala Siva, they are not merely conceiving of him in the limited role of the God who appeared there as a consequence of the Brahma-Vishnu dispute. He is, for them, the same Siva who swallowed the poison and who starred in countless other mythic encounters.
(14) Bhagavan was probably commenting on this verse in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 447: ‘Sri Bhagavan said that a saint Namah Sivaya who was formerly living in Arunachala must have undergone considerable difficulties. For he has sung a song saying, ”God proves the devotee by means of severe ordeals. A washerman beats the cloth on a slab, not to tear it, but only to remove the dirt.”’
(15) Siva wears as a diadem on his head the crescent of the fifth-day moon. According to Sri Siva Tattva, a Saiva Siddhanta text, ‘The moon is soma, the sacrificial offering. Placed near the fiery third eye, the crescent moon shows the power of creation coexistent with that of destruction.’
(16) Sacred ash (vibhuti) is revered in all schools of Saivism. In Virasaivism, the tradition in which Guhai Namasivaya was brought up, eight varanas, or aids to spiritual life, are spoken of. Several of them are alluded to in this and other verses. The varanas are: (1) obedience to a qualified Guru (2) worship of the Lingam (3) reverence for the jangama, the Virasaiva monks (4) the wearing of rudraksha beads (5) the use of vibhuti (6) taking prasad from the Guru (7) purification through water that has washed the Guru’s feet (8) repetition of the sacred five syllables: ‘Nama Sivaya‘.
(17) One of Vishnu’s avataras was as Narasimha, a half-man and half-lion form. Narasimha disembowelled the demon Hiranyakasipu, who had harassed the gods. After the demon had been killed, Narasimha was still full of anger and threatened to annihilate the whole universe. Siva appeared in the form of Simbul (in Sanskrit he is known as Sarabha), an eight-legged flying creature. This ‘bird’ dug its claws into Narasimha, lifted him off the ground and killed him. Siva subsequently wore the skin of Narasimha as an item of clothing.
(18) This is a play on the Tamil word naa, which can means a tongue, the pointer on a pair of scales and the clapper in a bell.
(19) I don’t know the reference here. Though Vishnu and Siva are often portrayed as competing gods, they do not, so far as I am aware, ever use their weapons on each other.
(20) The six major cults of Hinduism (shanmata), codified and sanctioned by Adi Sankaracharya are the worship of (1) Siva (2) Vishnu (3) Devi or Sakti (4) Ganapati (5) Kumara (6) Surya, the sun.
To order David Godman’s books-