A Rare Reminiscence On Ramalingam (1)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

Although Ramalingam (1823 – 1874) was a contemporary of Ramakrishna (1836 – 1886) the famous Bengali mystic, he is hardly known outside the state of Tamilnadu, India, and educated circles among the Tamil-speaking peoples of the world.

Ramakrishna in spiritual ecstasy (photographed in 1879)

Ramakrishna had some articulate disciples, e.g., Vivekananda, who brought him and his teachings to the attention of the world at large. He also had disciples such as “M”, or Mahendranath Gupta, whose record of the conversations of Ramakrishna, the “Gospel of Ramakrishna“, is a classic in the genre of records of conversations with great figures.

In contrast, Ramalingam, despite his greater intellectual, moral, and spiritual stature, did not have anyone of the caliber of “M”, or Mahendranath Gupta, to persistently and faithfully record his observations, discourses, and conversations.

The radical originality of Ramalingam’s mature spiritual insights and moral values were beyond the ken of understanding of most of his contemporaries and even many of his close associates.

Indeed, some of his radical proposals, e.g., his proposal that we ought to train more animals, in just the way in which we train some domestic dogs, to refrain from hurting and killing other animals, his uncompromising stance on our moral obligation to practice vegetarianism, his view that plant life also deserves moral consideration, are beyond the range of moral sensibility and imagination of many of our own contemporary “ethical thinkers”!

It seems to me that most of his associates, including the long-standing ones, barely had an inkling of his greatness and originality as a radical Siddha or adept who rejected not only irrational social divisions and practices based on caste and religious sectarianism, but also the narrow structures of prevalent religious and philosophical thought.

Fortunately, we can yet have a glimpse of his stature on the basis of the great works he penned in Tamil:  மனு முறைகண்ட வாசகம் (Manu’s Norm of Justice) a great work of morals composed in ornate Tamil prose dealing with the ancient Chola King Manu’s dispensation of justice regardless of species membership, ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம் (The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings) an unfinished masterpiece on the ethics and spirituality of Suddha Sanmargam, அருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி அகவல் (Verses On The Immense Light of Compassion) one of the greatest classics of revelatory mystical poetry, and the tetralogy of சுத்த சன்மார்க்க விண்ணப்பம் (Petitions of Suddha Sanmargam), incomparably inspired short classics of spirituality in Tamil prose, and many volumes of poems and songs.

Perhaps, Ramalingam himself was responsible for this paucity of reliable first-hand accounts of his life, discourses, and conversations. He shunned publicity. He was uncompromising in discouraging the formation of a “cult of personality” around him. He prohibited many attempts to turn him into a popular or famous religious figure, e.g., he did not give permission to prefix the title of “Swami” to his name in the two volumes of his early devotional poetry published during his lifetime by some of his friends.

Therefore, it is remarkable that there is an authentic and published piece of reminiscence, albeit brief and inadequate, on Ramalingam, by one of his earliest students, தொழுவூர் வேலாயுத முதலியார் (Thozhuvoor Velayuda Mudaliar, 1832 – 1889). His reminiscence on Ramalingam was published in The Theosophist, Vol. III, No. 10, July, 1882.

T. Velayuda Mudaliar (TVM) was Second Tamil Pandit at the prestigious Presidency College in Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamilnadu, India. He was also a member of the Theosophical Society. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to place Ramalingam in the pantheon of the “Masters” of theosophical thought, he engages in some omissions and distortions of his teacher’s original and radical views.

TVM became a student of Ramalingam in 1849 when he was merely seventeen. Ramalingam himself was only twenty-six at that time, but he had already acquired a reputation as a lecturer and savant of Tamil letters. We should not forget that Ramalingam was a prodigy who had started composing poems and songs at the age of nine and had also delivered some eloquent discourses on Tamil Saiva literature in his teens.

TVM was associated with Ramalingam for twenty-five years,  from 1849 to 1874. Apparently, he was present when, according to his account of what transpired, Ramalingam entered a room in Siddhi Valagam, a cottage in the village of Mettukuppam near Vadalur, Tamilnadu, India, on January 30th, 1874, laid himself on a carpet on the floor, and asked those present to lock the door from the outside and wall up the only window, a small one, in the room. He was never to see Ramalingam again during his lifetime. 

TVM passed away in 1889, fifteen years after the disappearance of his teacher.

There is a funny story about their first meeting in 1849.

A friend of TVM’s father urged him to become a student of Ramalingam and learn the art of poetry. TVM, a teenager at that time, wanted to test Ramalingam’s proficiency in Tamil poetry. So, he composed a medley of verses closely resembling Sangam or classical Tamil poetry and asked Ramalingam for his judgment on the verses he claimed were composed by the Sangam or classical Tamil poets.

Ramalingam took one glance at the poems, laughed, and said that they were not the compositions of the Sangam or classical Tamil poets, but those of an upstart! TVM fell at Ramalingam’s feet and apologized. Ramalingam graciously brushed the whole thing aside and accepted TVM as his student.

Let us now take a look at TVM’s reminiscence on Ramalingam. His reminiscences are in block quotes. My comments and corrections are in italics.

From The Theosophist, Vol. III, No. 10, July, 1882, pp. 243-244:

STATEMENT OF THOLUVORE VELAYUDHAM MUDALIAR, SECOND TAMIL PANDIT OF THE PRESIDENCY COLLEGE, MADRAS.

To the Author of Hints on Esoteric Theosophy:

“Sir,—I beg to inform you that I was a Chela of the late “Arulprakasa Vallalare,” otherwise known as Chidambaram Ramalinga Pillai Avergal, the celebrated Yogi of Southern India. Having come to know that the English community, as well as some Hindus, entertained doubts as to the existence of the Mahatmas (adepts), and, as to the fact of the Theosophical Society having been formed under their special orders; and having heard, moreover, of your recent work, in which much pains are taken to present the evidence about these Mahatmas pro and con—I wish to make public certain facts in connection with my late revered Guru. My belief is, that they ought effectually to remove all such doubts, and prove that Theosophy is no empty delusion, nor the Society in question founded on an insecure basis.”

It is not clear why TVM is intent on offering his account of Ramalingam and his teachings as a form of supporting evidence for the doctrines of theosophy. Instead, he ought to have offered his account as an introduction to Suddha Sanmargam, the new revolutionary path and teaching of Ramalingam.

1.Let me premise with a brief description of the personality of and the doctrines taught by the above-mentioned ascetic, Ramalingam Pillai. He was born at Maruthur, Chidambaram Taluq, South Arcot, Madras Presidency. He came to live at Madras at an early period of his career, and dwelt there for a long time. At the age of nine, without any reading, Ramalingam is certified by eyewitnesses to have been able to recite the contents of the works of Agastia and other Munis equally respected by Dravidians and Aryans. In 1849, I became his disciple, and, though no one ever knew where he had been initiated, some years after, he gathered a number of disciples around him.”

TVM fails to mention the year in which Ramalingam was born. It was 1823.

Ramalingam lived in Chennai (formerly Madras) from 1825 to 1855, from the age of two to the age of thirty-two when he left Chennai for good.

TVM’s reference to Ramalingam’s caste, his use of “Pillai” as a caste suffix to the name “Ramalingam”, tells us that he did not really imbibe Ramalingam’s insistent prescription to transcend caste identity and division.  The available originals of Ramalingam’s letters, the earliest of them written in 1858, show that Ramalingam signed these letters with the name “Chidambaram Ramalingam” eschewing the conventional avowal of his “Pillai” caste.

It is rather odd that in this very reminiscence TVM himself also says of Ramalingam that “As he preached against caste, he was not very popular. But still people of all castes gathered in large numbers around him.”

It is also misleading to refer to Ramalingam as an “ascetic”. He was certainly very simple and abstemious in his habits, but he was not one of those typical Indian ascetics who lived in caves and engaged in self-mortification and torture of the body. 

It is noteworthy that he wrote a short work consisting of prescriptions to regulate daily life and conduct. This work clearly advocates moderation and the avoidance of extremes in matters of food, sleep, work, sex, etc., with a view to preserving the health of the body and extending its longevity.

“At the age of nine, without any reading, Ramalingam is certified by eyewitnesses to have been able to recite the contents of the works of Agastia and other Munis equally respected by Dravidians and Aryans.”

Ramalingam was certainly a child prodigy and self-taught to a remarkable extent. Given his aversion to formal education and rote learning even in his childhood, his command of Tamil and his precocious knowledge of Tamil literature remains something of a mystery.

Equally mysterious is his early command of Sanskrit expressions and their apposite use in some of his Tamil poems, songs, and prose works. This also shows that he was not a Tamil purist, contrary to the attempts of  later Tamil purists to claim him as a forerunner of their ill-conceived movement.

Perhaps, even as a boy, Ramalingam had the opportunity to listen to, understand, and absorb the content of conversations his elder brother Sabhapathi and his teacher Kanchipuram Sabhapathi Mudaliar had with other Tamil scholars and Sanskrit pundits. 

Agastya (Tamil:  அகத்தியர், 700 BCE),  the foremost of the Tamil Siddhas, is considered the “father” of the Tamil literary tradition and the author of the earliest work on Tamil grammar, the Agathiyam. Numerous ancient Tamil works on medicine, alchemy, and astrology are attributed to him.

Agastya

Although in his boyhood and youth, Ramalingam looked up to Sambandar, a seventh century (CE) Saiva saint and poet as his model and teacher, he did not have any formal initiation from any living teacher of his time and did not belong to any religious tradition or lineage by way of an initiation from a Guru. He is, therefore, unique in the annals of Indian mysticism.

It is, however, noteworthy that in his magnum opus Arutperumjothi Agaval, Ramalingam praises Arutperumjothi as the supreme Guru or teacher who taught him all he needed to know despite a lack of formal education, study and recitation of “sacred scriptures”, etc.

2.He was a great Alchemist.” 

Ramalingam’s interest in alchemical experiments is evident in a letter (dated May 3, 1868) he wrote, at age 45, to his boyhood friend Irukkam Rathina Mudaliar who was living in Chennai. In this letter, the only one of its kind, Ramalingam asks his friend to send him implements for polishing gold and silver pieces and scales for weighing them.

Since Ramalingam was averse to carrying or keeping money or other valuables with him, this unusual request was probably made in the interest of his alchemical experiments. It must, however, be noted here that other than declaring that the path of Suddha Sanmargam leads to the acquisition of powers to bring about different forms of alchemical transformation, Ramalingam did not reveal any further information about his alchemical experiments and their outcomes in any of his writings.

3. “He had a strange faculty about him, witnessed very often, of changing a carnivorous person into a vegetarian; a mere glance from him seemed enough to destroy the desire for animal food.”

TVM’s claim that Ramalingam had a “strange faculty” or power to bring about in others an aversion to eating animal flesh and a preference to partake vegetarian food is not surprising in light of Ramalingam’s uncompromising commitment to vegetarianism.

In fact, Ramalingam acknowledged in some of his verses that it was Arutperumjothi who revealed to him that those who consume animal flesh and thereby encourage the slaughter of animals do not belong to the Sangha or Order of Suddha Sanmargam. It is a central principle of Suddha Sanmargam that we must consume only food produced or obtained without intentionally causing any avoidable destruction of plant and animal life.

In his great essay on “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings”, Ramalingam advocates a vegetarian diet which does not involve the destruction of plant life. He also points out that the harvesting of many fruits and vegetables does not involve the destruction of the plant or tree yielding those vegetables or fruits. Milk and products based on it are also permissible to the practitioners of Suddha Sanmargam on the condition that the cows or goats yielding the milk are treated compassionately.

It is also noteworthy that at the top of the entrance to the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or the “Hall of Truth-Knowledge” he designed and helped to build in 1871, Ramalingam had  posted an edict prohibiting those indulging in the killing of sentient beings and the consumption of meat from entering the inner premises of the Hall. However, they were still permitted to remain in the outer area of the Hall and contemplate Arutperumjothi if they wished to do so.

Only Those Who Have Refrained from Meat and Murder Should Enter!” (Ramalingam’s edict in the entrance to the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge”, Est. 1871)

4. “He had also the wonderful faculty of reading other men’s minds.”

In his Arutperumjothi Agaval, Ramalingam does make a claim to the possession of numerous “occult powers” or “Siddhis” bestowed on him by Arutperumjothi. Thought-reading is certainly among the minor “occult powers” or “Siddhis”. So, it is not surprising to have TVM’s testimony that Ramalingam had “the wonderful faculty of reading other men’s minds.”

5.In the year 1855, he left Madras for Chidambaram, and thence to Vadulur and Karingooli (sic), where he remained a number of years. Many a time, during his stay there, he used to leave his followers, disappearing to go no one knew whither, and remaining absent for more or less prolonged periods of time.”

Chidambaram is a famous Saiva temple city near the east coast of Tamilnadu, India.

Sacred Tank and Pagoda at “Chillambaran” (sic), India, 1870

Vadalur, a small town in Cuddalore district, state of Tamilnadu, India, is the location of Ramalingam’s architectural masterpiece, the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai, or “Hall of Truth-Knowledge“. Ramalingam designed and guided the construction of this unique building without any formal training in architecture or construction:

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

Vadalur is also the location of the “House of True Charity”, a “soup kitchen” built at Ramalingam’s behest and designed to feed the hungry poor with vegetarian meals. It has been doing so since its inception in 1867.

“Karingooli” (sic) or Karungkuzhi (the Tamil name “Karungkuzhi” literally means “Black Hole” and the symbolic contrast it provides to Ramalingam’s Illuminationism is striking!) is a small town about three miles from Vadalur in the coastal district of Cuddalore, Tamilnadu, India.

Ramalingam lived in Karungkuzhi for nine years (1858 – 1867) in a room in the house of a merchant devotee, Venkata Reddy. Reddy had met Ramalingam in Chidambaram and was deeply impressed by his character. He had then invited Ramalingam to stay in his house in Karungkuzhi.

On perceiving Reddy’s sincerity and depth of feeling, Ramalingam accepted his invitation. However, he still continued to periodically leave Karungkuzhi and visit Chidambaram and other celebrated temple towns in the region.

He left Karunguzhi for good in 1867 and moved to Vadalur to reside in the “Sathiya Dharma Salai” or “Abode of True Charity”, the “soup kitchen” he had helped to build with financial contributions from his friends and members of the local community.

The surviving letters of Ramalingam show that on many occasions he responded to entreaties by his associates to visit them, or to visit him, by stating that he was away on some important task and would become available to them after a specified time.

Even as a boy growing up in Chennai, Ramalingam would often wander off to visit the great temples in the city and its suburbs. He probably did the same thing in his later years in the Vadalur area to avoid the crowds of people who came to see him with a desire to witness a display of his “siddhis”.

This is consistent with his love of solitude, the vast and varied expanses of nature, and the many illustrious Saiva temples in the region in which he lived. There are verses in the Arutperumjothi Agaval celebrating oceans, lakes, mountains, groves, etc., and the grandeur of Arutperumjothi’s power in bringing about their existence. The coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal in eastern Tamilnadu were not far from his residence in the Vadalur area and were probably among his favorite haunts.

6. “His habits were excessively abstemious. He was known to hardly ever take any rest. A strict vegetarian, he ate but once in two or three days, and was then satisfied with a few mouthfuls of rice. But when fasting for a period of two or three months at a time, he literally ate nothing, living merely on warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it.”

This is extraordinary! Our medical doctors and scientists should take note! Here is a man who was “known to hardly ever take rest”, but was extremely abstemious in his habits of eating, and sometimes subsisted merely on “warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it”!

Note that TVM again draws our attention to Ramalingam’s uncompromising vegetarianism. What a contrast Ramalingam provides to our numerous “religious leaders” and “moral thinkers” whose entrails have become veritable processing plants of animal body parts!

It is important to note again in this context that Ramalingam did not advocate fasting or asceticism. In almost all of his letters to his friends, associates, and former students, he solicitously insisted that they take proper care of their bodies by means of regulation of food, sleep, work, and sex.

He advocated moderation because, for a vast majority of people, both excess and abstinence undermined the health, vitality, and longevity of the body, a precious instrument for attaining enlightenment and liberation. I have already pointed out that he also composed a short work of prescriptions for the regulation of daily life based on the principle of moderation in food, sleep, work, and sex.

Ramalingam’s own condition was unique, and, by his own testimony, the result of transformations wrought in his body, mind, and soul by the compassionate and omnipotent action of Arutperumjothi. Hence, it would be foolish to merely imitate him in matters of food, sleep, etc., without benefit of those transformations.

On the path of Suddha Sanmargam, practitioners must consistently follow his principle of avoidance of excess of indulgence and abstinence or deprivation in relation to the basic bodily needs. 

TVM mentions Ramalingam’s use of “warm water with a little sugar dissolved in it.” Ramalingam prescribed the use of hot or warm water at all times for purposes of drinking, preparation of food and medicine, and bathing. He held the view that water was maximally beneficial in its well-boiled state or condition. Needless to say, his prescription accords well with our scientific knowledge of the reality of water-borne germs and parasites and many of the fatal diseases caused by them.

7. “In personal appearance, Ramalingam was a moderately tall, spare man—so spare, indeed, as to virtually appear a skeleton—yet withal a strong man, erect in stature, and walking very rapidly; with a face of a clear brown complexion, a straight, thin nose, very large fiery eyes, and with a look of constant sorrow on his face.”

An artist’s rendering of Ramalingam’s appearance. However, it must be noted, in accordance with TVM’s reminiscence, that Ramalingam wore footwear and emphasized the importance of doing so.

Again, it is extraordinary that there was a fount of energy and strength in Ramalingam belied by his spare or thin body, “so spare, indeed, as to virtually appear a skeleton”. Perhaps, the source of this fount of energy and strength was not his physical body, but his radiant subtle body. Indeed, this idea receives an affirmation in one of the verses at the beginning of his great work Arutperumjothi Agaval:

ஊக்கமு முணர்ச்சியு மொளிதரு

மாக்கையும ஆக்கமு மருளிய

வருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

Vitality, intensity of perception and feeling,

a radiant body,

the inner wealth of powers of accomplishment,

bestowed on me,

by

Arutperumjothi!”  (Agaval 13-14, Trans.Thill Raghu)

TVM’s reference to Ramalingam’s “very large fiery eyes” is interesting. Certainly, those large eyes must have communicated the fire of spiritual and moral intensity in Ramalingam. His eyes may have looked into the very depths of the suffering of sentient beings and the heights of transcendence.

TVM has already mentioned Ramalingam’s strange power of suppressing, by a mere look, a person’s desire to consume animal flesh. It is worth recalling here a relevant verse in the Arutperumjothi Agaval:

கதிர்நல மென்னிரு கண்களிற் கொடுத்தே
அதிசய மியற்றெனு மருட்பெருஞ் ஜோதி.

A luminescence,

beautiful and benign,

enabling the extraordinary,

imparted to my eyes,

by

Arutperumjothi!”  (AGAVAL 273 – 274, Trans. Thill Raghu)

What about TVM’s reference to “a look of constant sorrow” on Ramalingam’s face? What sense can we make of this feature of Ramalingam’s visage?

If we consider the pre-illumination or pre-enlightenment phase of Ramalingam’s life, then this feature of “a look of constant sorrow” probably and primarily expressed his intense longing for union with the ultimate being and his sorrow at not having attained this union. There is a great deal of evidence for this interpretation in the poems of his early and middle period.

However, we should also consider the autobiographical poems in which Ramalingam speaks of his suffering at the sight of withering plants, animals taken to the slaughterhouse, and the hungry poor. Certainly, his “look of constant sorrow” also stems from his all-embracing empathy and compassion for sentient beings undergoing harm and suffering.

Why would this “look of constant sorrow” remain in his visage after his enlightenment and liberation?

This is not personal sorrow, but a sorrow stemming from compassion for those still enmeshed in ignorance and the ensuing sufferings they are bound to undergo in endless cycles of birth and death expended in pursuit of the fulfillment of egocentric desires.

I will continue with TVM’s reminiscence on Ramalingam in the next post.

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