Archive for ‘Ramalingam Biography’

April 13, 2018

The Letters of Ramalingam (1)


A letter from Ramalingam dated April 25, 1865, addressed in his own handwriting to his long-time friend Irukkam Rathina Mudaliyaar in Chennai.

Fortunately, a collection of letters from Chidambaram Ramalingam (1823 – 1874) is available to us. It was included in the magisterial 12-volume edition of Ramalingam’s prose and poetry published by the pioneering teacher and scholar A. Balakrishna Pillai (1890 – 1960) in the years 1931 – 1958. A volume of Ramalingam’s letters, announcements, and instructions for the maintenance of the Sathiya Gnana Sabhai (Hall of  Truth-Knowledge) and the Sathiya Dharma Saalai (House of True Charity) was published by Balakrishna Pillai in 1932. In this thread of posts on Ramalingam’s letters, I will be providing English translations of excerpts from the letters originally published in this volume.

Ramalingam’s letters are succinct and eschew ostentatious or pretentious rhetoric. He uses the Tamil language in a literate and formal, but also humane and solicitous style. It is noteworthy that his letters characteristically begin with a mode of address which praises the virtues of the recipient and invokes the Deity (சிவம் or Sivam, the Supreme Being who is Pure Intelligence) to bestow long life and other blessings on the recipient.

In fact, Ramalingam always addressed his recipients with the blessing prefix “Siranjeevi” (Tamil: சிரஞ்சீவி) which means “long-living” or “long-lived”. In Tamil usage, it is prefixed to the names of males. For unmarried or married females, the blessing prefix is “saubhāgyavatī” (Tamil: சௌபாக்கியவதி) which means “recipient of good fortune”.

For instance, an early letter to Irukkam Rathina Mudaliyaar sent sometime in 1858 begins as follows:

To Siranjeevi Rathina Mudaliyaar who excels in virtues such as conduct in accordance with compassionate intelligence, may the grace of Sivam bestow on you long life and all forms of prosperity! I wish to hear from you frequently about good deeds and auspicious events in your life.”

Ramalingam goes on, in this letter, to inquire anxiously about the health of one Nayakkar, and asks Irukkam Rathina Mudaliyaar (IRM) to inform Nayakkar that he intends to definitely visit Chennai in two to four months time. He also asks IRM to exercise vigilance in his daily life. This emphasis on vigilance in matters of daily life is a recurrent theme in Ramalingam’s letters to his friends.

This early letter to IRM concludes as follows:

“Siranjeevi Namasivaya Pillai has gone there (Chennai) to pursue his education. You may ascertain regularly his progress in his studies. I wish to hear soon about the well-being of yourself and Nayakkar. My mind is anxious on account of this concern. Therefore, you must let me know.”

I think Namasivaya Pillai was a relative of Ramalingam. Notice Ramalingam’s concern about his relative’s progress in education. It is also touching to note Ramalingam’s frank avowal of anxiety concerning the well-being of IRM and Nayakkar. In many of his letters to his friends, Ramalingam confesses his anxiety about their well-being, particularly in the case of absence of communication from them, or on hearing that they were subject to some adversity. It testifies to his great compassion and humanity even in these years (he was in his mid-thirties) before his முத்தி or enlightenment and attainment of சித்தி or adepthood in his late forties .












March 3, 2014

A Rare Reminiscence On Ramalingam (2)

An old photograph of Sathiya Gnana Sabhai (Hall of Truth-Knowledge) in its original appearance

Note: TVM’s reminiscences are in block quotes. My comments and corrections are in italics.

In the year 1867, he founded a Society, under the name of “Sumarasa Veda Sanmarga Sungham,” which means a society based on the principle of Universal Brotherhood, and for the propagation of the true Vedic doctrine. I need hardly remark that these principles are identically those of the Theosophical Society.”

TVM’s claim that the principles of Suddha Sanmargam  are “identically those of the Theosophical Society” is a dubious one.

For instance, association with those who embody or practice the spiritual virtues of dedication to the pursuit of realizing ultimate reality, sincerity in speech, compassion, etc., is indispensable on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, but, in contrast to Theosophy,  Suddha Sanmargam has no pantheon and cult of the “Masters”, or dependence on the “Masters” to bring about one’s enlightenment.

Ramalingam was not part of any “lineage” of Gurus and did not start one. He did not anoint anyone as his disciple to continue a lineage. He rejected the role of the “Guru” or “Master” which many of his associates eagerly sought to impose on him.  He dissuaded his associates from focusing on him and encouraged them to concentrate on the practice of Suddha Sanmargam and the realization of ARUTPERUMJOTHI.

Ramalingam recommended rigorous spiritual inquiry and practice, either individually and/or in a group or community, but he never advocated that a seeker must find a “Guru” or “Master”, an intermediary, human or divine, in order to attain  unitive experience and realization of the ultimate reality ARUTPERUMJOTHI. Rather, on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, the ultimate and supreme being, Arutperumjothi, is itself the Guru or teacher nonpareil.

Ramalingam had no “Guru” other than ARUTPERUMJOTHI. It is noteworthy that there are sixteen exquisite verses in his magum opus Agaval which celebrate ARUTPERUMJOTHI’s role as his supreme Guru or teacher. I will discuss these verses in a future post.

“In the year 1867, he founded a Society, under the name of “Sumarasa Veda Sanmarga Sungham,” which means a society based on the principle of Universal Brotherhood, and for the propagation of the true Vedic doctrine”.

It is important to note that TVM fails to mention that Ramalingam changed the name of the spiritual path and Order he founded in 1867 to better reflect its principles and goals.

Initially, it had the name “Samarasa Veda Sanmarga Sangam” (Tamil: சமரச வேத சன்மார்க சங்கம்) and included the word “Veda” signifying, in this context, knowledge or realization of  two central facets of  Samarasam (Tamil:சமரசம்), unity and harmony.

Ramalingam later adopted the name “Samarasa Suddha Sanmarga Sangam” (சமரச சுத்த சன்மார்க சங்கம்).  As we shall see later, this change of name and the removal of “Veda” from it  is deeply significant.

The ideal of Samarasam (சமரசம்) held a central place in the visionary philosophy of the great  17th century (some unreliable accounts place him in the 18th century) Tamil mystic and poet Thayumanavar (தாயுமானவர், 1602 – 1662).

A Poem Of Thayumanavar (17th century Tamil mystic and poet)
Eternal, pure, groundless, death-and-birth free, pervasive, ever immaculate, distant, near, enveloping effulgence of void, the support of all, the fullness of bliss, the consciousness-form beyond thought and speech, That which thus stood, the expanse vast that generates bliss, let us contemplate.”

Thayumanavar’s ideal of Samarasam, the realization of unity and harmony underlying apparent diversity and conflict of doctrines on the nature of ultimate reality, was his solution to the philosophical conflict between the Vedanta, i.e., primarily the non-dualist (advaita) approach, and the theistic Tamil Saiva Siddhanta schools of thought, and, generally, religious conflict based on doctrinal differences on the nature of ultimate reality.

Thayumanavar implemented his solution in terms of a remarkable integration of  the approaches of Vedanta and the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta (Vedanta Siddhanta Samarasam) to the nature of  ultimate reality and its relation to the self.

Thayumanavar’s project of integration was not merely an intellectual and obscurantist “dialectical” exercise a la Hegel, but the expression of  a deep and comprehensive experience and realization of the truth that the facets of ultimate reality exclusively emphasized by (Advaita) Vedanta and Saiva Siddhanta are complementary facets of one reality.

In contrast, Ramalingam’s ideal of Samarasam is a state of unity and harmony based on the transcendence of the conflicting doctrines, ideals, and values rather than any form of synthesis and integration of those doctrines, ideals, and values. In its moral dimension, it also includes a sense of unity and kinship with all sentient beings regardless of their differences and diverse mutual relations.

In other words, the conflict engendered by the relevant doctrinal or theological propositions “A” and “Not A”, in this context, is not resolved by synthesis, but dissolved by transcending and relinquishing adherence to them.

The transcendence of partial, exclusive, and conflicting  standpoints which constitutes the ideal of Samarasam in Suddha Sanmargam is the attainment of a level of consciousness in which there is no partial, fragmentary, and incomplete understanding of ultimate reality and its relation to the world. Therefore, there is no attempt to “synthesize” the diverse and conflicting partial and fragmented forms of understanding and expression of the nature of ultimate reality.

Since the division and conflict of doctrines, ideals, and values is a function of partial, fragmentary, and incomplete understanding of ultimate reality and its relation to the world,  detachment or the withdrawal of any form of adherence to such doctrines, ideals, and values, e.g., the prevalent religions and their theologies, is a sine qua non of attaining the ideal of Samarasam in Suddha Sanmargam.

Hence, on the path of Suddha Sanmargam, no importance is accorded to the synthesis and integration of the conflicting partial, fragmentary, and incomplete doctrines, values, and ideals.

I think that Ramalingam removed the word “Veda” from the earlier name of his society because of its inveterate association with the Vedic tradition of India, a tradition rooted in the four Vedas or “sacred scriptures”, Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Veda.

Ramalingam never had any allegiance to this Vedic tradition. He had rejected it even in the early stages of his spiritual quest. His total rejection of the caste system implies a complete rejection of Vedic justifications of the caste system.

There are many verses in his Agaval which declare that Arutperumjothi is beyond the range of the conjectures of the Vedas and Agamas. In his later writings and discourses, Ramalingam firmly advised against following the false dogmas, rituals, and divisive social codes of the Vedas and Agamas.

Ramalingam’s central reason for his rejection of the Vedas and Agamas pertains to the fact that their extant corpus is vitiated by an admixture of truths and falsehoods and obscurantism. He acknowledged that there were glimpses, in the vast corpus of the Vedas and Agamas, of the true way to the realization of ultimate reality, but that these rare glimpses are marred by partial understanding, distortions, perversions, and obscurity of language.

The term “Sanmargam” (சன்மார்க்கம்,  caṉ-mārkkam) also requires clarification. It is the path of wisdom culminating in enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood. The prefix “Suddham” (Tamil:சுத்தம்) means “pure” and also “complete or whole”.

Hence, Suddha Sanmargam is the pure and complete path of wisdom leading to enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood.

The great Tamil classic of yoga, the Thirumandiram (800 CE), gives us a description of the path of Sanmargam in eleven verses (1477 – 1487)  in its fifth book or “tantra”.

However, we must bear in mind that the path of Sanmargam described in this work is not necessarily identical to the path of Suddha Sanmargam (pure Sanmargam) envisaged by Ramalingam.

The Thirumandiram contains nine “tantras” or “books”. According to the fifth book or “tantra”:

1. Sanmargam leads to the transcendence of the ego and the conquest of death.

2. Sanmargam is the path of wisdom concerning the Light of ultimate reality which constitutes the goal  of all scriptures in the Vedic and Agamic traditions.

3. Sanmargam is a universal path to enlightenment, liberation, and adepthood.

4.  The dedicated and worshipful contemplation of the Guru is an essential element of the path of Sanmargam. (According to Ramalingam, it is Arutperumjothi who is the ultimate Guru on the path of Suddha Sanmargam.)

5. Sanmargam gives us the clarity of vision and enlightenment necessary for liberation.

6. Sanmargam leads to the attainment of the “Supreme Grace-Bliss”.

7. Sanmargam leads to the removal of impurities of consciousness and attainment of silence (of mind), bliss, and oneness with the ultimate being.

8. Sanmargam leads to insight into the nature of the self, its structure of bondage, its fetters of karma and the consequent variety of its states and conditions,  the nature of primordial matter, the consciousness which permeates the core of matter, and the innumerable mutations or transformations in the universe.

I will continue with my commentary on TVM’s reminiscences in my next post.

October 16, 2013

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:


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.


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,


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,


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.

January 12, 2013

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.

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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