Ramalingam: A Life Without Death (1)

An artist’s rendering of Ramalingam’s appearance. However, it must be noted that Ramalingam wore footwear and emphasized the importance of doing so.
The “Abode of True Charity” (est. 1867, Vadalur, Tamilnadu, India), which provides free food for the hungry to this day, is on the left. The remarkable and original “Hall of Truth-Knowledge” (est.1871, Vadalur, Tamilnadu, India), a place of contemplation and worship of ARUTPERUMJOTHI, designed by Ramalingam without the benefit of any training in architecture, is on the right.

In this thread, I intend to make a series of posts on Ramalingam and his ascent to an immortal life and consciousness.

Chidambaram Ramalingam was born on October 5, 1823, at the hamlet of Maruthur, in the district of Cuddalore, and in the state of Tamilnadu, South India, to a pious Tamilian couple, Ramayya Pillai and Chinnamai. Ramayya Pillai was a school teacher. Ramalingam was their fifth and last child.

When he was five months old, they took Ramalingam to the great temple city of Chidambaram, Tamilnadu.

F. Swain, View of the Pagoda of Chelimbaram (sic), c. 1762

The temple (est. 12th century CE) in Chidambaram is the only one in which the Hindu deity Siva is represented anthropomorphically in the form of Nataraja (“Lord of Dance”) or the performer of the “cosmic dance”, the dance of the creation, regulation, and dissolution of the cosmos.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/Shiva_Nataraja_Mus%C3%A9e_Guimet_25971.jpg

There is a sacred place to the left of the sanctum sanctorum in the Chidambaram temple. This is the “Chidambara Rahasyam”, or “The Secret of Chidambaram”, and contains golden Bilva leaves, symbolizing the presence of Siva and Parvati, covered by a curtain. The Tamil Śaiva saint  Mānikkavācakar is said to have disappeared here in a blaze of light in the 9th century, CE.

The infant Ramalingam uttered a cry of delight and laughed when the curtain was drawn to the side. Instead of seeing the wall behind the curtain, he had a vision of the transcendent space in which all things have their origin! In a poem composed in his thirties, Ramalingam vividly recollected and celebrated this incident of his infancy.

In 1824, in Ramalingam’s infancy, the father, Ramayya Pillai, passed away. In 1825, the family headed by the elder brother Sabapathi Pillai relocated to the bustling city of Chennai, Tamilnadu, South India.

Ramalingam was a child prodigy. He was precociously inclined to devotional poetry. As a boy, he was drawn to the hymns of the Tamil Śaiva saints and showed a special fondness for Mānikkavācakar’s classic of devotional poetry, the Tiruvācakam, and the poems of Sambandar (7th century CE). At the age of nine, Ramalingam himself began to compose devotional poems on one of the chief deities of the Tamils, the ever-youthful Lord Muruga who is also the patron god of the Tamil poets.

His elder brother Sabapathi Pillai, a Tamil scholar who made a living by giving religious discourses, entrusted Ramalingam to the care of a well-known teacher, Kanchipuram Sabapathi Mudaliar (1792 – 1871), for purposes of his formal education, but Ramalingam, despite his precocious facility in the Tamil language, showed little interest in formal school studies and a complete indifference to rote learning of texts and scriptures.

In a poem composed later in his life, Ramalingam dismissed academic education, including, as a means of livelihood, the formal study of religious scriptures such as the Vedas, Āgamas, and Purāṇas, as “education merely for the marketplace”, or education merely for monetary gain in the marketplace, and urged the pursuit of the true education which leads to the conquest of death.

“The merchant has brought his ware safely ashore from far-away countries, and is counting his money. At this moment, his dangerous trip now a thing of the past, he is caught by Death.” (Hans Holbein the Younger: The Dance Of Death)

“As the sun sets, Death drags the Bishop away.” (Hans Holbein the Younger: The Dance of Death)

Sabapathi was disappointed and angry at Ramalingam’s indifference to academic study, and, having failed to persuade him to take his formal education seriously, resorted to the drastic punishment of expelling the boy from his house, and instructed his wife not to provide food should he visit the house surreptitiously.

This was Ramalingam’s earliest experience of suffering from hunger, a form of suffering he later classified as the worst form of pain and harm a sentient being can undergo. Indeed, the alleviation of the starvation, the suffering from acute hunger, of those who have failed to obtain food by their own efforts, is the moral act par excellence, the highest form of compassion, in the ethics of Suddha Sanmargam.

Sabapathi’s wife, Parvathi, was compassionate enough to unobtrusively feed Ramalingam whenever he visited the house desperately hungry. At her urging, Ramalingam agreed to pursue his studies, but on the condition that a separate room in the house was given to him for that purpose. Sabapathi eventually yielded to his wife’s entreaties on behalf of Ramalingam and a small room upstairs was given to him for his studies.

However, Ramalingam did not use his room for drab studies designed to fulfill the qualifications for a citizenship of the marketplace. Instead, he began to compose poems and songs in praise of the deities (primarily, Siva and Murugan) of the great temples he used to visit in the vicinity of Chennai in his frequent wanderings away from home. He also asked for and installed a lamp and a mirror in his room and began to worship the light reflected in the mirror as a symbol of ultimate reality.

It is remarkable that this conception and worship of ultimate reality in the form of JOTHI, or LIGHT, which Ramalingam embraced even as a boy, is exactly the one he was to prescribe decades later, in the maturity of his spiritual enlightenment, as the required form of contemplation and worship at the sublime “Hall of Truth-Knowledge” he designed, without benefit of any training in architecture, and established in Vadalur, Tamilnadu, in 1871. It should be noted that this remarkable building has no images or idols of any Hindu deity in its interior or exterior.  It is certainly not recognizable as a typical Hindu temple or place of worship.

Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge”, Est. 1871

This contemplation of ultimate reality in the form of JOTHI, or LIGHT, was also the practice he recommended to those who were with him shortly before his entry into a room in a house in the hamlet of Metukuppam near Vadalur, Tamilnadu, on January 30, 1874, and his subsequent mysterious disappearance from the ken of mortals.

All this suggests a striking continuity in the development of his understanding of ultimate reality. In his own account of some of his experiences in boyhood and youth, provided in his great tetralogy of “Petitions of Suddha Sanmargam“, Ramalingam praises ARUTPERUMJOTHI for guiding him away from the false paths based on anthropomorphic, mythological conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality, and setting him on the path of true theism even in his boyhood.

The fact that his early devotional poetry invoked the deities of some of the great temples of Tamilnadu is best explained in terms of his adherence, in these early stages, to the traditions of Tamil devotional poetry, and, particularly, the traditions of Tamil Śaiva poetry. It does not imply that he seriously espoused any anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality even in these early stages of spiritual development.

(to be continued)

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