In the period of Guhai Namasivaya's life when he was living on the hill, he began to attract and teach disciples. The most eminent and well known of these disciples was a man who later became known as Guru Namasivaya.
         There are no details available of the early part of their relationship, for even the most detailed accounts of his life begin at a point where Guru Namasivaya is manifesting siddhis (supernatural powers) and nearing the day of his spiritual liberation. When the story begins both Namasivayas are living together on the hill. Guhai Namasivaya is lying in his hammock, his favourite resting place, absorbed in the Self. Guru Namasivaya is nearby, doing service to him. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Guru Namasivaya bursts out laughing.


On Arunachala looking westwards

'Namasivaya,' asked his Guru, 'What wonder did you see that made you laugh?'
         The disciple first responded by reminding his Guru of their relationship. 'When I offered you my body, my possessions and my soul, you, my Lord, accepted them all, having a wish to take over this slave.' Then he went on to explain what had caused him such amusement.
         'At Tiruvarur [a temple town located a long way from Tiruvannamalai] Tyagaraja Swami [a local deity] was being taken in procession through the streets. Many women dancers, so skilled that they cannot be equalled by apsaras [dancers from the heavenly realms], were accompanying it and dancing. One of these women stumbled and fell. All those who were standing there laughed. I too laughed. That is all. There was nothing else.'
        This same ability manifested sometime later when Guhai Namasivaya noticed that his disciple had just rubbed the cloth he wore around his shoulders in a strange way.  'For what reason did you rub it?' he asked.
         The disciple answered, 'The Golden Dancing Hall at Chidambaram was screened with a black screen. The wick of a ghee lamp was burning nearby. A mouse took the burning wick, dragged it along, causing a curtain to catch fire. Those who were present vigorously smothered the burning curtain. Swami, I too rubbed my cloth so that the curtain would not burn any more.'
         Guhai Namasivaya knew from these incidents and from his own direct knowledge that his disciple had reached an advanced stage of his sadhana, but he also knew that siddhis such as those just described are no real indication of spiritual progress. He therefore decided to test his disciple's level of devotion. He vomited, caught the vomit in his begging bowl, and then ordered his disciple to dispose of it in a place where it would not come into contact with human feet. This disciple's love for his Guru was so great, he took the vomit to be prasad and secretly ate it.
         Guhai Namasivaya affected not to know what his disciple had done. Later, he asked him ingenuously, 'Appa Namasivaya, did you leave it in a place where feet could not touch it?'
           The disciple bowed his head and confirmed that he had taken it to be prasad. 'I have kept it in a place where it ought to be kept,' he answered.
         Seeing the powers his disciple was developing, and noting the extent of his devotion, Guhai Namasivaya thought to himself, 'Day by day my disciple's knowledge is increasing. He should not be kept here any more. Let me test him one more time, and then I can send him to a place that will be appropriate for him.'
         Guhai Namasivaya, an accomplished extempore poet, then composed the first two lines of a venba verse and chanted them to his disciple:
The fruiting banyan provides fruit for the birds, The bamboo when it matures is not without its use…
Then, addressing his disciple, he said, 'Appa Namasivaya', you can complete the remainder of this venba for me'.
         The disciple immediately realised that he was being tested. He examined the words of his Guru and decided that the banyan tree signified Guhai Namasivaya and that the bamboo was a reference to himself. The fruit of the banyan was therefore the grace of the Guru that was made available to all devotees who came to him. Extending the analogy, the disciple found that the second line contained what were, for him, ominous words. It seemed to be saying, 'Since you have attained spiritual maturity, you too can be useful to devotees who seek the grace of the Guru'. Namasivaya was very much attached to the physical form of his Guru and wanted only to stay with him and serve him. The idea of abandoning this simple and satisfying relationship did not appeal to him. However, being a fully surrendered devotee, he felt no inclination to dispute the words and decision of his Guru. So, when Guhai Namasivaya asked him to complete the verse, he merely replied, 'Swami, the disciple should not bandy words with the Guru. This is not proper conduct for the disciple.'
         Guhai Namasivaya then gave him the freedom to express his own views by saying, 'Son, since you are knowledge itself, you may speak'.
         The disciple then expressed this fear of being sent away by completing the verse in the following way: 
My Lord Namasivaya, would you consent to keep company with one who refrains from performing great and wondrous deeds?
The disciple realised that his display of siddhis and his extreme devotion in swallowing the vomit had triggered Guhai Namasivaya's test. His answer therefore took the form of a simple plea: 'If I stop manifesting siddhis and refrain from exaggerated acts of devotion, will you permit me to continue staying with you?'
         Guhai Namasivaya was delighted with the way that his disciple handled the test. He climbed down from his hammock and exclaimed, 'Appa! Pupil of my two eyes! Only today did you attain true knowledge! What a wonder! Who will ever get a disciple like you? From today you may use the title ''Guru Namasivayamurti'''.
         His pleasure, though, did not cause him to change his decision to send his disciple away. Embracing his disciple he continued, 'Two elephants should not be tied to the same post. This is a bhoga kshetra. There is a divine kshetra [holy place] called Chidambaram where Ambalanavar, [the God] who removes ignorance and grants true knowledge, has graciously manifested. You have some renovation and endowment work at that place. So, go and live there.'
         Bhoga means enjoyment or pleasure and is generally associated with physical or sensory indulgence. A kshetra is a holy place. So, a bhoga kshetra can be literally translated as 'a holy place for the enjoyment of physical pleasure'. Since this is a strange and inappropriate designation for a sacred site such as Arunachala, one should look for alternative translations and explanations.
         One possibility is that Guhai Namasivaya is referring to one of three avattai - modes of being of the deity:
1. ilayam, in which only the divine knowledge is manifest.
2. bhogam, in which knowledge and action are equally balanced.
3. adikaram, in which action predominates.
If one follows this explanation, one can interpret Guhai Namasivaya's comments to mean that Arunachala is one of the places where Siva became involved in the world, performing lilas as well as bestowing grace and liberation, whereas Chidambaram is a kshetra where Siva's energy is concentrated solely on the granting of divine knowledge. This interpretation does not imply that one place is superior to the other. It merely notes that Siva chooses to function in a different way in Chidambaram. At first glance this explanation looks plausible, particularly since Guhai Namasivaya contrasts the bhoga kshetra of Arunachala with the 'divine kshetra' of Chidambaram. However, closer scrutiny reveals a major problem: Siva has repeatedly manifested at Chidambaram for the benefit of his devotees there, so that would make it, like Arunachala, a bhoga kshetra.
         An alternative explanation can be found in Day by Day with Bhagavan (6th December, 1945). Devaraja Mudaliar asked Bhagavan about one of the verses from Arunachala Mahatmyam that Bhagavan had translated into Tamil. At the end of the verse Arunachala-Siva, speaking of Himself, says, 'Know that within me caves shine, surging with many enjoyments [bhoga]'. The following dialogue ensued: 
I asked Bhagavan whether the cave mentioned in it is inside God or inside the mountain (which of course is also said to be God). Bhagavan replied, 'Of course, in the context, it means the cave is inside the hill and that there in the cave are all enjoyments'. Bhagavan added, 'The stanza says you are to believe that inside this hill there is a cave and that all enjoyments are to be found there'. I also asked Bhagavan, 'I have read somewhere that this place is called bhoga kshetra. I wonder what is meant thereby?' Bhagavan replied, 'Yes, it is so. But what does it mean? If thinking of this kshetra can itself give mukti, what wonder if this place can give all other enjoyments one may desire.'
Going back to the story, it will be remembered that Guhai Namasivaya had instructed his disciple to go and live in Chidambaram. Guhai Namasivaya still felt that, if he pleaded his case, he would be allowed to stay. He told his Guru, 'This slave will remain here, having the Guru's darshan. He will not go to another place but will remain with the feet of the Guru. Moreover, this slave cannot go on living without having daily darshan of the Guru.'
         Guhai Namasivaya was unmoved. 'Go to Chidambaram,' he ordered, 'and have darshan of the Golden Dancing Hall [the shrine in which Siva in the form of Lord Nataraja resides]. If the Lord there gives you darshan even as I do myself, stay there. If not, come back here.'


Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram


       The disciple finally accepted defeat. After saying, 'This is good advice,' he said, 'I will follow it', he composed the following song in praise of his Guru:
O Namasivaya! You destroy the subtle bonds of birth through your words and through your meditations, through your glance and through your touch, and through your compassion which gladdens our hearts! You attained liberation through [abiding in] the fourth leg of the chair.
The cryptic last line is an allusion to turiya, the fourth state that underlies the other three states of waking, dreaming and sleeping. Guhai Namasivaya, feeling that delay would solve no useful purpose, responded to the song by saying, 'You can start right now'.
         Guru Namasivaya began to walk towards Chidambaram and by the time night fell he had covered about ten miles. Desiring a place to rest, he sat down under a tree and spent three hours absorbed in the Self. Then, becoming aware that he was hungry, he composed a venba verse that he addressed to Unnamulai, the consort of Siva in the Arunachaleswara Temple:
You who are the dearest to the heart of Lord Annamalai! Holy Mother Unnamulai! Bring forth rice, from every household to feed your servant whose every thought is in praise of you!
         At the moment when Guhai Namasivaya was composing this verse, there was some sweet rice (sarkarai pongal) resting on a golden plate. It had been offered to Lord Annamalai as naivedyam, or food offering, and the priest who had officiated had inadvertently forgotten to take the plate home with him when he had locked up the temple for the night. When Unnamulai heard Guru Namasivaya's prayer, she took the plate of rice to him and then returned to the temple.
         At daybreak the priests opened the temple and looked for the golden plate. After searching fruitlessly for some time, the priests and the people of the town became convinced that the plate must have been stolen by a thief, although they could not understand how he had got into and out of the temple. No pujas were performed for eight hours, for everyone was engaged in a search for the missing plate. At the end of that period a brahmin boy went into a trance, became possessed by a spirit and announced, 'Guru Namasivaya is under a banyan tree on his way to Chidambaram. Mother took food for him. The plate is lying there. Go and fetch it.' The plate was duly found there and returned to its rightful place in the temple.
         Guru Namasivaya's walk to Chidambaram was filled with many other adventures. When he finally had his first sight of the Chidambaram temple, at Bhuvanagiri, he was so deeply moved he spontaneously composed and sang the following poem:
At the mere sight of these four gopurams all my sins have vanished like cotton drifting into a flame. What then will be the desert, O Lord of Tillai's Hall, [1] of those who cast their eyes upon the divine redness of your feet, girt with tinkling anklets?
On reaching Chidambaram he took a bath in the Siva Ganga Tank in the main temple, and then walked into the main shrine to have Lord Nataraja's darshan. As he gazed at the deity, instead of seeing the usual dancing image, he saw in the inner shrine the form of his beloved Guru, Guhai Namasivaya. This manifestation of grace gave him the understanding that Siva Himself had manifested at Arunachala in the form of his Guru in order to teach him and grant him liberation. These sentiments welled up within him and burst out in the form of a song of praise and gratitude:
Lord of the Golden Hall! King of Heaven! You who grant to those who praise and worship you whatever it is they most desire, be they spiritual adepts or mere children! How was it that you came to dwell on holy Annamalai in the from of my Guru, [Guhai] Namasivaya, to place your twin feet upon the head of such a wretched devotee as I, is something that my understanding cannot compass.
One account of his life written in verse, describes this manifestation of his Guru, Guhai Namasivaya, in the following way:
The Lord whose golden image resides in that place Appeared to him in the form of a loving Sadguru. Awakening from a swoon, he pondered deeply to himself, 'What ill can befall me if I remain here in this place?' His realisation deepened until it encompassed all of creation. [2]
  It will be remembered that Guhai Namasivaya had told Guru Namasivaya that if the latter did not have darshan of his, Guhai's, form at Chidambaram, he could return to Arunachala. The manifestation therefore meant that Guru Namasivaya had to stay in Chidambaram and attend to the renovation work that Guhai Namasivaya had given him. This he did with great success for Siva Himself manifested to him and enabled him to repair the temple and create endowment funds for the maintenance of the buildings and the worship of the deity.
         During his stay in Chidambaram he composed hundreds of verses, many of which have survived. One of his biographers, writing about this period, noted: 'No poem did he write but it sang the praises of his Guru, and no lesser deity filled his thoughts, only Lord Siva.' [3]
         This is certainly true of his most famous poem, Annamalai Venba, [4] which extols Siva in the form of Arunachala and repeatedly praises the greatness of his Guru, whom he considered to be Arunachala-Siva in human form. Going through the verses, one can easily visualise him sitting in Chidambaram, dutifully carrying out his Guru's orders, but secretly dreaming of Arunachala-Siva, Guhai Namasivaya, his Guru, and the blessed period of his life when he had the constant company of both.

[First published in The Mountain Path]



[1] Tillai is an old name for Chidambaram

[2] Pulavar Puranam, ch.21, v.3. Most of the other facts in this article have been taken from a Tamil prose biography of his life which can be found in Arunachala Puranam, 1934 ed., pp. 55-74

[3] Pulavar Puranam, ch.21, v.2.

[4] Annamalai is one of the many Tamil names for Arunachala. It means 'unreachable or unapproachable mountain'. A venba verse is a Tamil metrical. Each verse as four lines, three the same length and the fourth slightly shorter.