24 April 2009

Saints and Devotees

In connection with the last post about the Subramany Temple at Tiruvannamalai which I recently visited; though Arunachala is primarily regarded as a Shiva Sthalam, this place has also been the home of saints who were devotees of other Gods. One of the most famous of these saints is Arunagirinathar, a Murugan bhakta who lived at the foot of Arunachala in the fourteenth century.

"Arunagirinathar was born in Tiruvannamalai and spent the greater part of his life there. He was reputed to be the son of a courtesan called Muttammai. As he grew up he found the company of courtesans so attractive, he spent most of his time in their houses. When his mother died, all the properties he inherited from her were squandered to pay for his lust. Arunagirinathar had a sister, Adi, who was very fond of him. Taking advantage of her affection, Arunagirinathar persuaded her to part with her jewels and all her other possessions so that he could continue to indulge his appetite for the local courtesans.

He continued with this way of life for many years. As he became older, his body became diseased and the better class of courtesan began to jeer at him and avoided his company. The major turning point in his life occurred when he had spent all his sister’s money. Not knowing that she was destitute, he approached her again in the hope of getting another hand-out. His sister, who had nothing left except the clothes she was wearing, told him that her funds were exhausted. Since she still loved her brother, and since she still wanted to be of assistance to him she offered him her own body, saying, 'If your lust is so insatiable, you can use my body for your sexual satisfaction'.

These words deeply affected and shamed Arunagirinathar. He mentally reviewed the wasted years of his life and came to the conclusion that he had been committing crimes against God. As his sense of shame deepened, he decided to commit suicide by jumping off one of the gopurams in the Arunachaleswarar Temple. He climbed the tower, but before he was able to jump, Lord Murugan manifested before him and held him back. In some versions of the story, Arunagirinathar actually jumped and Murugan had to catch him before he died on the paving stones below.

Murugan embraced him. Then, with his vel, (the spear that he always carries) he wrote a mantra on Arunagirinathar’s tongue, gave him a japa mala and commanded him to sing songs in praise of him. Arunagirinathar was initially hesitant, claiming that he had no knowledge of Tamil prosody, but when Murugan encouraged him by giving him the first line of a song, Arunagirinathar found that he could effortlessly compose and sing the remainder. Murugan disappeared, leaving Arunagirinathar a totally transformed man. His diseases vanished and he became an ecstatic bhakta whose devotion manifested as a stream of new songs, all in praise of Murugan, his deliverer. He toured the town of Tiruvannamalai, composing and singing songs as he went.

Later on, he travelled throughout India, still singing his songs, and visited many of the country’s famous pilgrimage centres. Traditional accounts say that he composed more than 16,000 songs in praise of Murugan. Most of them have been lost, but more than 1,300 of the surviving ones have been collected together in a work called Tiruppugazh (The Glory of God), which has now become one of the classics of Tamil devotional literature." To read more click on this link.

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