The Tree of Knowledge
Arunachala: The Hill of Wisdom
Each of the spiritual centres of India has its own character and its own line of tradition. Among them all it is Tiruvannamalai (Arunachala) that represents the most direct, the most formless and the least ritualistic of paths, the path of self-enquiry, whose gateway is silent initiation. This is expressed in the old Tamil saying: “To see Chidambaram, to be born at Tiruvarur, to die at Banaras or even to think of Arunachala is to be assured of liberation.” “Even to think of” because in the case of the direct path physical contact is not necessary. Hence, it was no accident that Sri Ramana Maharshi made Tiruvannamalai and its sacred Arunachala Mountain his home. When Sri Ramana Maharshi attained self-realization through a swift, spontaneous act of self-enquiry while yet a lad of 16, he left home and set out as a sadhu for Arunachala. He remained there for the duration of his life. At the time of his passing away, more than 50 years after his arrival, a bright star was seen moving slowly across the sky and sinking behind the peak of the holy mountain. This was a clear indication not only of his devotion to Arunachala but also his Oneness with it. Through his compositions, his sayings and his life the importance of Arunachala as a spiritual centre has once again risen to eminence. The Maharshi called Arunachala the spiritual Heart of the world. Aruna, which means ‘red, bright like fire’, does not signify the mere fire that gives off heat. Rather, it is Jnanagni, the Fire of Wisdom, which is neither hot nor cold. Achala signifies hill. Thus, Arunachala means the ‘Hill of Wisdom’.
Tiruvannamalai, at the foot of Arunachala, is a town of medium size, 120 miles southwest of Chennai, an ancient village with a large and splendid temple. Certain yearly festivals draw large crowds of pilgrims to Tiruvannamalai from all over South India. This is especially so at Karthigai (known also as Deepam), which usually falls in November. On this occasion a beacon light of clarified butter (ghee) is lit at nightfall on the summit of the mountain. At the Ashram itself, of course, the greatest festivals are the anniversaries of the birth and passing away of the Maharshi (Jayanti and Aradhana), which fall respectively at the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Although associated with the most simple and direct spiritual path, Tiruvannamalai is not the most famous of India’s holy places, for the direct path can never be the most popular. It is more austere than some other paths and hence it is perhaps rather for the intrepid few than for the many. Indeed, the method of self-enquiry had almost gone out of fashion in recent centuries. It was the Maharshi who revived it, gave it a new directness, simplicity and universality and made it accessible to all seekers through his grace and guidance.
There is a Puranic story about the origin of the hill. Once Vishnu and Brahma fell to disputing which of them was the greater. Their quarrel brought chaos on earth, so the Devas approached Siva and besought him to settle the dispute. Siva thereupon manifested himself as a column of light from which a voice issued declaring that whoever could find its upper or lower end was the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed down into the earth to find the base, while Brahma took the form of a swan and soared upwards to seek its summit. Vishnu failed to reach the base of the column but “beginning to see within himself the Supreme Light which dwells in the hearts of all, he became lost in meditation, oblivious to the physical body and even unaware of himself, the one who sought”. Brahma saw the flower of an alse plant falling through the air and, thinking to win by deception, returned with it and declared he had plucked it from the summit.
Vishnu admitted his failure and turned to the Lord in praise and prayer: “You are self-knowledge. You are OM. You are the beginning and the middle and the end of everything. You are everything and illuminate everything.” He was pronounced great while Brahma was exposed and confessed his fault.
In this legend, Vishnu represents the mind and Brahma the intellect, while Siva is Atma, the spirit.
The story continues that, because the lingam or column of light was too dazzling to behold, Siva manifested himself instead as the Arunachala Hill, declaring: “As the moon derives its light from the sun, so other holy places shall derive their sanctity from Arunachala. This is the only place where I have taken this form for the benefit of those who wish to worship me and obtain illumination. Arunachala is OM itself. I will appear on the summit of this hill every year at Kartigai in the form of a peace-giving beacon.” This refers not only to the sanctity of Arunachala itself but also to the pre-eminence of the doctrine of Advaita and the path of self-enquiry of which Arunachala is the centre. One can understand this meaning in Sri Bhagavan’s saying, “In the end everyone must come to Arunachala.”
The circumambulation of Arunachala (Giripradakshina) has been prescribed as a panacea for all the ills of life. The Maharshi encouraged all of his devotees to make the nine-mile circuit, even those who were infirm, knowing for certain that the spiritual benefits of giripradakshina far outweighed any physical hardships. He said, “The greatness of this giripradakshina has been described at length in Arunachala Puranam. Lord Nandikesa asked Sadasiva about its greatness and Sadasiva narrated as follows: “To go round this hill is good. The word ‘pradakshina’ has a typical meaning. The letter ‘Pra’ stands for the removal of all kinds of sin; ‘da’ stands for the fulfillment of desires; ‘kshi’ stands for freedom from future births; ‘na’ stands for the granting of deliverance through jnana. One should go round either in mouna (silence) or dhyana (meditation) or japa (repetition of Lord’s name) or bhajan (singing praises) and thereby think of God all the time. One should walk slowly like a woman who is in the ninth month of pregnancy.”
Another day while describing its benefits, the Maharshi was recorded to have said, “Really, it is difficult to describe the pleasure and the happiness one gets by this pradakshina. The body gets tired, the sense organs lose their strength and all the activities of the body become absorbed within. It is possible thus to forget oneself and get into a state of meditation. As one continues to walk, the body automatically gets harmonized as in the asana state. The body therefore becomes improved in health. Besides this, there are several varieties of medicinal herbs on the hill. The air that passes over those herbs is good for the lungs.
These days it is a common sight to see hundreds thousands of pilgrims piously treading the pradakshina route on purnima, the full moon night, and there are also a good number of devotees that make the circuit daily. The Maharshi often walked around the hill taking a whole day, several days or sometimes even a week. This came to an end in 1926 when he felt that the attention he attracted while doing pradakshina inconvenienced others. But of the early days of his wanderings he has said that there was not a single spot on the hill where he had not set his foot. The Maharshi’s “Five Hymns to Arunachala” are the ecstatic outpourings from the spiritual heart of a fully illumined sage united forever with his beloved, Arunachala. There is immense inspiration and guidance on the path in each and every stanza of these poems.
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