Sankaranarayana Sastri, a scholar by nature and a lawyer by profession, was deeply absorbed in his studies at home. Normally no member of the house intervenes or disturbs him on such occasion. But that day, his attention was diverted when he felt someone had entered into his room. Looking up, he saw his daughter Maragatham standing by his side, looking uncharacteristically serious. Sastri was puzzled and asked her what the matter was. Maragatham replied not in words but with a song. The underlying meaning of the song was very striking. More than the song, it was the meaning that impressed Sastri. Being a scholar himself, Sastri understood it easily. ‘Only a realized person can compose a song of such eternal value’, he observed. When she finished singing, Sastri said: “Brilliantly composed and beautifully rendered. Tell me, when and where did you learn this song?” Sastri was taken aback when she replied: “Muruga appeared in my dream last night and graced me. The song came into my mind on its own”, she replied simply.
Maragatham’s song began with the words: “In the beginning, there was only one. It became two and then three and then many.” Sastri understood its meaning instantly. ‘One’ represented the eternal reality, Brahman; ‘two’ represented Siva and Vishnu; ‘three’ represented the addition of Brahma, the creator; and ‘many’ symbolized the different forms of God. The same meaning of ‘one’ becoming ‘many’ has been conveyed by Arunagirinathar in his song ‘Or Uruvakiya Tharaka..’.
Maragatham was born to Sankaranarayana Sastri and his wife Sitalakshmi on the 6th of September 1899 in Mylapore, Madras. She was named as Maragathavalli. The Tamil term ‘maragatham’ means emerald and Valli is the name of Lord Muruga’s consort. By naming her ‘Maragathavalli’, her parents hoped that she would be bright in knowledge and possess the qualities of love like Valli. Hailing from a family of scholars, Sastri expected his daughter to be educated. He engaged a private tutor for her. However, Maragatham did not show much interest in formal studies. Her mother Sitalakshmi had passed away early in her childhood and her father spent most of his time absorbed in his own.
In keeping with the social norms of the day, Sastri got Maragatham married to Narasimhan. He was honouring a commitment that his father had made to Narasimhan’s family a generation before. After her marriage, Maragatham visited her parental home regularly. Maragatham had grown up hearing the great tales of Muruga from her grandmother who was an ardent devotee of Tiruttani Muruga. Now, when she made a visit to her parental home, she remembered her younger days and asked her grandmother to tell her a story at bed time. Listening to the great acts of valour of Muruga, Maragatham fell fast asleep. That night Maragatham saw a dream. It was not a dream in the normal sense. It was a dream in which Muruga had given her a message. It was a dream that changed the course of her life. In the same way Muruga had repeatedly appeared in the dreams of Valli, the tribal girl, who became his consort, Muruga started coming to Maragathavalli in her dreams and captured her soul.
Maragatham explained her dream experience to her family members thus: “Muruga came in my dream. He took my hands into his and said, ‘I love you’. I felt he was taking possession of me. He blessed me like an Acharya initiating his disciple into sainthood. I felt I was completely in the hands of Tiruttani Muruga. It is His grace that has given me voice as a singer. He asked me to give him garlands, not made of jasmine or rose but of sweet Tamil verses. This is what Lord Ranganatha asked his devotee Andal to do and just as Tiruppavai started flowing from Andal, songs came spontaneously from me, hailing the glory of Muruga. I made no effort in their composition – I did not pause for even a second while lyrics and music flowed from within me – and I adorned the twelve broad shoulders of Muruga with my garland of songs. I realized that Muruga has entered into the deep recesses of my heart, taken a permanent seat there, and it was He who composed the songs for me.”
Maragatham rendered many songs, all instantly and, hearing them, her family was enthralled. Maragatham became an ardent devotee of Muruga, always singing songs glorifying the Lord. Although she lived in a world surrounded by her family and their material possessions, she remained detached from it all. Her physical body dutifully carried out the various services needed by her husband, children and relations, but her inner Self was absorbed in Muruga. She mingled with her loved ones and seemed apparently to be in the midst of samsara, but her heart always rested joyfully at the lotus feet of Lord Muruga. Around her neck she wore an emerald necklace, symbolic of her name, and she named it Muruga in symbolic aspiration to be one with the Lord.
Maragatham’s devotion and aspiration to unite with Lord Muruga were pure, and one day the Lord descended to grace her. Lord Muruga had come to Vallimalai, the land of Nambirajan, to see Valli. When Muruga came then, Sundaravalli, as Valli was known, was tending the millet fields. When Lord Muruga came now, Maragathavalli was in the hospital, having just given birth to a baby. While sitting in the hospital bed, with her baby nearby, Maragatham had a vision of Muruga and, at once, she began to sing songs in His praise. She was so involved in her songs that she did not hear her baby crying. The nurse heard it and asked Margatham to take care of the child, and when her parents-in-law heard about this from the nurse, they reprimanded Maragatham for neglecting her baby. The manuscripts of her compositions were taken away from her and locked in a trunk.
Maragatham started referring to Muruga as Aandi Pandaram, the saint who has renounced everything and lives entirely on the food offered by the public. This attitude of total renunciation, which inspired Maragatham, did not go well in a family whose members aspired for material prosperity. Despite the tension this attitude created, Maragatham went about her daily life, singing her songs and distancing herself from the material world, and bringing herself closer to the Lord.
Life went on for Maragatham. She had many children. She passed through moments of crisis. She witnessed the death of some. She went through difficult phases of life. In the midst of crisis, she remained calm, composed. Despite several distractions, her attention was always centred on Lord Muruga. She had only one grievance which she expressed in her song: “Oh! Lord Muruga! You appear now and disappear later. Why do I not experience you always?” Then, one day, Muruga came in her vision and said, “Oh foolish one, why do you search for me outside, when I reside deep inside your heart?”
Her life reached a turning point in the year 1948. She was climbing down the stairs when she slipped and fell. She sustained serious injuries and was admitted to the hospital. Her condition became critical and gradually she went into a coma. She briefly regained consciousness before lapsing into a coma again. She remained in this state, alternating between consciousness and unconsciousness, for about six months. Occasionally, when she regained consciousness, she would ask, “Who are you?” or “Who am I?”, recognising neither others nor herself. All the health indicators – her pulse rate, blood pressure and heart beat – signalled her end. But Maragatham proved it all wrong.
Just as Muruga is beyond beginning or end, (Anthadi Illa Iraivanukku), Maragatham proved that every end marks a beginning. It was not the end of Maragatham’s life, but the beginning of a new phase. She recovered fully and went about her life as a wife and mother. She resumed her devotional work of singing the glory of Muruga. As Arunagirinathar said in Kandar Anubhuti, she kept herself occupied with the work of singing the glory of Muruga – PaadumPaniyePaniyaiArulvai.
While Maragatham was in a coma, lying in hospital, someone from the family had opened the trunk in which her mother-in-law had kept all the song scripts. These manuscripts were sent to a great luminary, known as Thiruppugazh Sri Mani Iyer, who was camping at Tiruthani to attend the Step Festival (PadiVizha) there. After few days, they got a message from Sri Thiruppugazh Mani Iyer stating that he was very impressed with Maragatham’s compositions and he had initiated the process of publishing them. He also sent to her, as prasad, a photograph of Arunagirinathar.
Sometime in 1950, Maragatham went to Tiruvannamalai with some friends. By the time they reached the temple of Arunachala, it was 10 pm; too late for darshan. However, Maragatham and some of her friends managed to go inside, and after worshipping Arunachala, they reached the shrine of Unnamulai Amman. There, they saw a young boy beckoning them. The boy helped them to conduct the pujas and gave them prasad. When asked, he said his name was Dhandapani. The boy caught hold of Maragatham’s hands and led her to the shrine of Lord Muruga on the northern side, left her there and disappeared. It was exactly at this spot that Lord Muruga had graced his devotee Arunagirinathar with his darshan, which the poet saint affirmed in his song: “I have received the darshan at the northern side of the tower of Arunai temple” (Adalarunai Thiru Gopurathe Antha Vayilukku Vada Arukil Senru Kandu Konden). When some members of the group went to the temple next morning and enquired about the boy, the temple priests said that they knew of no such boy, and further, it was impossible for anyone to perform a puja at that time of night when the temple was closed.
From the temple of Arunachala, Maragatham and her friends proceeded to Ramanasramam. While entering the Ashram, Maragatham felt as if she was entering her own house. She saw Maharshi reclined in the hall, his grace radiating everywhere. Seeing him, she felt she was looking at her own Self. She prostrated before Bhagavan, and his gaze fell on her when she rose. Very few people got this blessing that emanated from his benign eyes, and Maragatham knew that Bhagavan was initiating her to sainthood by means of his eyes ( nayanadiksha). She went through a divine experience. A brilliant light passed through her which eliminated all her ignorance and elevated her to the state of realization. She now got the answer to the question that was bothering her all along: ‘Who am I?’ She realized that the Self in her is the expression of the eternal reality, the Parabrahman.
But the most amazing moment was yet to come. Maharshi asked her, “Have you met Dhandapani?” Maragatham stood motionless for a moment. How could Bhagavan know of her experience at Arunachaleswarar temple the evening before? From the bunch of grapes Maragatham brought, Bhagavan took one and put it in his mouth, saying “This body likes these grapes,” indicating, by his action, his recognition of the presence of divinity in her. Later, when Ramana Maharshi became very seriously ill, Maragatham went once more to Ramanasramam, on 12th April 1950. There was a steady stream of devotees eager to have darshan of Bhagavan and, in view of the heavy rush, only one minute was earmarked for everyone. Maragatham waited her turn, with Bhagavan’s photo on her hand. When she reached Bhagavan, she did not know where to put down the photo, and Bhagavan himself took it from her to enable her to do proper pranam to him. He smiled and gave her back the photo as mark of his blessing. Maragatham offered her obeisance once more and left.
Two days later, the world heard the news that Bhagavan had attained mahasamadhi. Maragatham remained in a state of truth, awareness and bliss – sat chit ananda; the experience which she documented under the title Jiva Brahma Aikyam (‘The Unity of Jiva and Brahman’). Maragatham gave the manuscript to Chengalvaraya Pillai, who went through it thoroughly and passed it on to Muruganar, an ardent devotee of Bhagavan Ramana. Impressed by Maragatham’s interpretation of the state of samadhi, Muruganar asked Chengalvarayan to publish it, but unfortunately, the manuscript got destroyed.
Maragatham had a further encounter with Bhagavan Ramana on the 28th August 1951. She walked into the courtyard of her house and saw him sitting on the platform, holding Dandapani’s hand. He said, “Are you afraid of me because you think I am a ghost? Come close to me; I am Ramana. I have come to talk to you, just as you desired when you met me last time”. He then explained the secrets of Vedanta; about the subtle body, the gross body and the five koshas. He gave her Jnana and then initiated her into the Gayatri Mantra. Being a woman, she felt hesitant to recite the holiest Gayatri Mantra, but Maharshi made her repeat it along with him. Most of his upadesa, however, was transmitted to her through his piercing look. Once again she prostrated before Sri Ramana and tried to touch his feet, but could not do so. Ramana Maharshi laughed and told her that her gross body could not feel his subtle body. He blessed her by placing his hands on her head. She said that she could experience Maharshi touching her.
A song burst forth from her lips, describing how she had climbed six steps and seen the light of Arunachala (Annamalai Jyoti). She had gone further and merged into that nothingness. When her relatives wanted more explanation of her experience, she could not say anything. She did not think about it deeply because when she thought about it she lost consciousness of this world. Later on, however, through the grace of Bhagavan Ramana, she wrote a number of songs called Shashti malai, giving a description of all the six states of consciousness.
Once she visited Srisailam along with her friends, and there, quite by chance, she met her mentor, Thiruppugazh Sri Mani Iyer. Telling Maragatham that the time and place were right for him to give her upadesa, he initiated her to the state of sainthood. Many days later, Mani Iyer came to Maragatham’s house to conduct a bhajan. She expressed her joy at having been blessed with upadesa by him in Srisalam. To her surprise, Mani Iyer told her that he had not been in Srisailam, and she realized that it was Lord Muruga himself who had appeared as her Guru. Maragatham now remembered the lines from Kandar Anubhuti “Come as my Guru, Oh Lord and grace me” (Guruvai Varuvai Arulvai Guhane).
Biographers who studied her life history in depth have come across some intriguing facts. They did some research into the time, in 1948, when she was in hospital in a coma. Her recovery was remarkable and very unusual, despite all the signs and symptoms pointing to a hopeless prognosis. Her subsequent behavioural pattern also showed that Maragatham was a changed person. Her biographers concluded that someone else was in her body. The biographers stumbled upon a unique character named Ramakrishna, a Telugu Brahmin by birth and, by linking certain events in his life with Maragatham, they concluded that Ramakrishna resided in Maragatham’s body.
Ramakrishna’s life in Pinnavasal in Tamil Nadu was one of meditation and austerities. His aim was to attain spiritual perfection. He was married to Lakshmi, a devout woman ever willing to serve her husband, but Ramakrishna kept her at a distance, asking her leave whenever she came near him. Though Lakshmi nursed a grievance deep in her heart, she never showed it and took his behaviour in her stride. In his eagerness to attain the ultimate end of spiritualism, Ramakrishna travelled to Rishikesh and met Swami Sivananda, but the Swamiji turned down his request for initiation into sannyasa.
Undeterred, Ramakrishna adopted sainthood by mentally accepting the Paramaguru Sadasiva Brahmendra whose samadhi is at Nerur near Karur, as his Guru (manaseeka guru) and proceeded on his spiritual path. But something was holding him back; he could not reach his desired spiritual destination. On consulting his Guru, Sri Sadasiva Brahmendra, he was told that he still carried the consequence of his karma (karmavinai), and the guru suggested a way out of his predicament. Ramakrishna had gained siddha power from his tapas, and decided to use it to enter into the body of a mature devotee in order to attain his spiritual end. Sometime in the 1943, Ramakrishna went into a state of samadhi– the state of body-lessness – and went in search of a person who was purified by devotion and whose life had come near to its end. Maragatham’s biographers and both Maragatham’s and Ramakrishna’s close companions believe that Ramakrishna’s soul hovered for five years and ultimately entered into Maragatham’s body in 1948. The question that naturally arises is how, by entering into the body of another person, Ramakrishna was able to free himself from the consequences of sufferings he had inflicted on his wife. It is possible that, by entering into the body of a person of pure soul, like Maragatham, he gained Jnana and attained self-realization. Once the Self is realized, the question of karma loses its relevance. All scriptures are unanimous in their view that attainment of atma Jnana that leads to realization is possible only when devotion matures. Ramakrishna must have found that Maragatham’s body was the ideal vessel from which to gain Jnana.
Once Ramakrishna had taken residence in Maragatham’s body, she began to exhibit character traits that were never hers. Her devotion to Muruga was still steadfast and continued to manifest in her songs; her interest in visiting places like Tiruvannamalai and her participation in Thiruppugazh bhajans were also natural; but the eagerness to go to Srisailam, to see Ramana Maharshi and to visit Sivananda Ashram were evidence of the presence of Ramakrishna. Indeed the priest at AavudiyarKoil, where Ramakrishna had performed austerities for many years, greeted Maragatham as if she was Ramakrishna, when she visited that place.
Ramakrishna’s traits began to manifest in the person of Maragatham one after another, but as those close to her observed, her devotion for Lord Muruga remained constant. As usual, Muruga often came into her dream and guided her. Once, Muruga came in her vision and said, “This body of yours is a temple where a great saint will visit. Continue your path of devotion and I bless you to sing again”. Maragatham surrendered herself to Muruga and continued her mission of singing his glory. Most of the time, she remained quiet and silent, in keeping with the hymn of Kandar Anubhuti that praises the state of stillness (summa iru). Simultaneously, Ramakrishna’s personality began to become apparent, prompting Maragatham, who has been treading the path of devotion all along, to focus now on the path of Jnana.
In 1954, Maragatham went to Rishikesh and met Swami Shivanandh, and requested him to accept her as a sannyasini. Since Maragatham was a grihasta, a married woman with a family, Swami Sivananda was reluctant to initiate her. Ramakrishna (in her) asserted himself, and she persisted in her request. Finally Swami Sivananda agreed that she could continue to lead a family life and yet remain detached from it as a true sannyasini. Maragatham recounts her experience: “That day I was half insane, knowing and yet not knowing my whereabouts, and struggling like a ship caught in a storm. I came to Sivananda Ashram. Swami Sivananda gave me the refuge (abhaya) and removed all my fears and obstacles. Calling me to his side, he gave me the mantra diksha. This was the seed of knowledge gracefully implanted in the ground of my heart by the Guru. Well-nourished and watered, it sprouted like a blooming lotus. On the 3rd March 1954, a protective fence was put on it by way of sannyasa, and I was sent back to live in the material world as a sannyasini. The plant flowered on the household fence from 1954 to 1968, yielding the fruit [of grace]. If it had continued to stay there, the raw fruit might have dried up, withered and fallen away without ripening. Hence on 4th July 1968 it was removed to the Vaishnavi temple near Madras to be under the protective care of the Devi. It started to ripen there. If the fruit was left on the tree, it could have been eaten away by crows, sparrows or squirrels, when ripened, and got lost. Mother Vaishnavi Devi wanted to give the fruit, when it ripened, to Gurudev Bhagavan himself, who had planted the seed. The fruit came into the hands of Swami Chidananda, Gurudev’s beloved successor, so that he could offer the ripe fruit at the right time to the right hand.”
We see two phases in Maragatham’s life, the first half entirely devoted to Muruga where she attained immortality by uniting with Muruga (jiva brahma aikyam) and the second half which she gave to Ramakrishna to fulfil his allotted destiny (Self-realisation) by gaining Jnana from Swami Sivananda.
The foreword that she wrote for her biography gives us a better insight into her experience: “He [Muruga] took permanent residence inside my heart and his presence was felt whether I was awake or asleep. It is so from the time he entered my being in 1908 till this day, the Lord guarding me like the eyelids protecting the eyeball. He has shown me that he exists in all forms, that he is present in all names, and that he alone appears as father and mother, as uncle and aunt, as lover and the beloved, and as children and relations. I found the one Supreme reflected as many, like the one sun reflected as many in the waves of the ocean. My mind became calm and undisturbed, reflecting the Lord’s presence, as the placid lake reflecting the full moon.”
There are certain similarities between Arunagirinathar and Maragatham. Lord Muruga appeared before Arunagirinathar and blessed him with the knowledge, talent and skill to compose songs, and he composed his immortal work, Thiruppugazh, elaborating the glory of Lord Muruga. Similarly, Muruga appeared to Maragatham and transformed her into a gifted composer and singer. Both had the vision of Muruga at almost the same spot at Tiruvannamalai. Arunagirinathar shed his body and took the form of a bird to bring a rare flower for curing a disease of the king, Prabhuda Deva Raja. Maragatham too shed her body for some time but returned to it later in order to continue her divine mission of singing the glory of Muruga.”
After living in Rishikesh, Maragatham returned to Madras at the age of eighty-nine and passed away peacefully in her family home in November 1990. Maragatham’s divine calling is evidenced by the fact that she received the initiation of the same mantra from six gurus – from Lord Subramanya himself at the age of nine; from the KanchiParamacharya; at Srisailam from Tiruppugazh Sri Mani Iyer (though Mani Iyer never went to Srisailam at that time); from Sri Ramana Maharshi; from Bhogar in Palani (the presiding Siddha of the holy shrine); and from Swami Sivananda, who initiated her into sannyasa.
Going through the life of Maragatham, two points emerge. One, she received advice (upadesa) from a number of saints. Is it advisable to have more than one Guru and, if so, whose advice would one follow and which saint one would adopt as a guru? Sage Dattatreya, the legendary avadhoot said to King Yadu, “My bliss and contentment are the fruits of Self-realisation. I have gained necessary wisdom from the whole creation, through 24 gurus. They are earth, air, sky, fire, sun, pigeon, python, sea, moth, elephant, ant, pingala, playful boy and so on. How can a playful boy be a guru? Young boys do not nurse grudges nor have prejudices against anyone. They do not know what is their own, or what belongs to others. Their happiness springs from their own selves, their innate creativity, and they do not need any external objects or conditions to be happy. I realized that the sage of perfect enlightenment is also such. A playful boy thus happened to be my fifteenth guru. Therefore, one can attain Jnana from wherever it comes.” The second point that strikes us is whether it would be justifiable for Ramakrishna to occupy the body of a devout woman. Actually, the Self is the reflection of Brahman, the eternal reality. The Self in me is the same as the Self in others. They are all one. If at all we have to receive a message from this story, it is this: Maragatham was an embodiment of devotion. Ramakrishna was an embodiment of Jnana. It is when devotion merges with Jnana that one is able to realize his Supreme Self. Bhagavan Ramana said, “Bhakti is Jnanamaata” (Bhakti gives birth to Jnana).
- “Maragatham – The Extra ordinary story of a Modern Saint” by this author appeared in Mountain Path July – September 2013.