Overwhelmed in devotion, Muthamma, a pious lady of Tiruvannamalai, prayed that she should be blessed with a child who would excel not only in her devotion but also in knowledge. It was sometime in 15th century and the God she prayed was Lord Arunachala. The Lord heard her prayer and blessed her with a son. The son, named after the mountain of Tiruvannamalai, as Arunagiri, rose as high as the mountain in his vision and devotion.
Even from his young age, Arunagiri was spiritually inclined. He studied Vedanta, the philosophy in general, Sidhanta, the philosophy in particular, Itihas and Purana. The Saiva Sidhantam propounded by Sidhars like Tirumular made an enormous impact on him. He realized that the body is the temple where God resides. Lord Siva shines as the Atma Linga within. Perhaps, the body has not functioned in accordance with the divinity within and he decided to discard the body and merge himself with the God. He then went up the temple tower and fell from there. But rather than falling in the hard surface of the ground Arunagiri found himself in the strong hands of a savior. “Why have you saved me?” Arunagiri asked the saviour. “You are born not to die but to live and sing”, the saviour replied. “Your body has many better uses. You are the chosen one to sing the glory of Lord Muruga. Render the songs that would liberate devotees from bondages and uplift them to real happiness,” said the saviour.
Soon, Arunagiri realized that the saviour was none other than Lord Muruga. He saw in his vision, Muruga standing majestically, the sparkling Vel in his hands and the beautiful peacock nearby. It was as if thousand suns were rising simultaneously, radiating brilliant rays of grace. Arunagiri stood still for a while, unable to believe his eyes. He folded his hands before the Lord and sought His blessings. Arunagiri realized that Muruga has come before him not as a God to dispense favours but as a Guru to impart Jnana. The Lord then initiated his disciple to saint-hood, gave him the advice and blessed him to carry on his divine mission. By the prompting of Muruga, Arunagirinathar rendered his first song ‘Muthai Tharu’ that turned out to be an outstanding verse of devotion. The experience has transformed him as a realized sage. At the command of God, Arunagirinathar went to Vayalur and stood there in meditation. It is believed that the Lord has come to his vision again and set out the task before him. “Sing about me, about my Vel (lance), about my peacock (Mayil) about Seval (rooster), about Vayalur and about my various other abodes”. It is indeed a rare honour to be able to sing Thy glory”, Arunagiri said and prostrated before Vayalur Muruga in total surrender. After getting blessings from Ganapati at Vayalur, Arunagiri did his second song expressing his happiness. “Oh Lord, you have given me the privilege of singing your glory (Thiruppugazh). You have also graced me the talent and skill to compose thy verses. I would never forget this grace bestowed on me.” (“Thiruppugazh Viruppamodu Seppana Enakkarulgai Maravene”). Lord of Vayalur was always at his heart and Arunagiri made pointed reference to Vayaluran in most of his songs.
Having got a new vision, he embarked on a long pilgrimage. He took it as his life’s mission to visit temples, highlight the glory of God in the sacred verses of Thiruppugazh. He visited over 200 temples which included the six sacred abodes of Muruga (Aaru Padai Veedu), other holy temples in southern region, the distant Kasi in North and Kadirkamam in Sri Lanka. As he stood in front of the deities, the devotion in him came out spontaneously and he expressed it beautifully in his songs. At every temple visited, he composed Thiruppugazh, set in the most pleasing Chandam style. Arunagirinathar’s Thiruppugazh is unique for the Chandam style in which it is composed. Chandam means composing the words in a specified length of meter, conforming to beats or rhythm (Thala). Varying rhythms are in-built into the songs in such a way that every verse is amenable to different form of time-measure. It is a form of versification, where music flows in harmony with concordant notes of Thala, where length or meter conforms to the beats or rhythm. It is a harmonious blend of words and Thala, creating a congenial and pleasing fluency for the singer and the listener. By limiting every word to a time measure, it paves the way for an orderly rendering of music.
Thiruppugazh is not only an expression of devotion but also a gate-way to Jnana, the real knowledge. In Kandar Anubhuti, the saint says: “Oh Lord, you have eliminated the false notion of ‘I’, the ego, in me and made me realize that the real ‘I’ in me is the same as you” (Yan agiya ennai vizhungi verum thanai nilai ninrathu tharparame”… Anubhuti 28). In his Swamymalai song, Arunagirinathar prays: “Grace me the knowledge that you are not different from me” (Naveru paa manatha). The saint implies that the Self (Atman) that shines in one is the same that shines in others. In the song rendered at Tiruchendur (Iyalisayil..) Arunagirinathar says: “Oh Lord, open my inner eyes so that I will be able to see you within me”. In “Perutha Vasana Vakuppu’ which shines as the crowning glory of all Arunagiri’s works, he says: “The Mahavakya symbolizes the state where all thoughts that arise from mind and all actions that arise from body are controlled, where the illusory world of forms and images subside, where silence alone prevails resulting in peace and bliss. Thus we find glimpses from Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavatam in Arunagiri’s Thiruppugazh. As an Adwaitin, he did not believe in any difference. He saw Muruga as another form of Siva and as related to Lord Vishnu. He saw all Gods having different forms as manifestation of one reality, the Brahman. He gave the message that God is not anywhere outside but within.
Arunagirinathar came with a mission, to inculcate the spirit of Bhakti and kindle the light of knowledge. He never wanted to hurt the feelings of the people by pointing out their faults. He therefore took upon himself the imperfections of the people and said: “I did not study scriptures; I did not recite the name of Palani Andavar” (Padikkinrilai Pazhani Thiru namam…Kandar Alamgaram 75). In the song done at Teerthamalai, he says: “My mind does not get melt on hearing the song or its meaning. Even on seeing the impending arrival of Yama, the Lord of Death, I never knew the value of devotion”. (Paattil urugilai, kettum urugilai).
Great sages and saints have lauded Thiruppugazh for the spirit of devotion it kindles, for the light of Jnana it radiates, for the excellence in its composition, for the beauty in its description and for the music by which it conveys the message. Saint Thayumanavar said: “Oh! Arunagiri, who else can compose a word of truth as beautifully as you” (Ayya Arunagiriyappa, Unnaipol Meyyana Or Sol Vilambinar Yar”?). There were many others who adopted Thiruppugazh as their way of life like Sri Pamban Swamigal, Krupananda Variyar, and Vannasarapam Dhandapani Swamigal. There are many others in recent times who followed Thiruppugazh way of life with great dedication like the legend Sri A.S. Subramanian, known as Thiruppugazh Thatha, Sri Ki Va Jagannathan, Editor of Kalaimagal, Sri Muthuswamy Iyer, who established Adiyar Thirukootta Thiruppani Manram at Chennai, to mention few.
Among the galaxy of devotional poets, Arunagirinatha Swamigal shines like a brilliant star. While saints like Thayumanavar and Pamban Swamigal appreciated the depth, the range and the underlying message, the scholars appreciated the richness of the content and the poetic excellence and musicians appreciated the chandam, the meter and the rhyme of the composition. Perhaps, never before, literature, devotion and music blended so ideally as in Thiruppugazh.