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Compassion is the essence of his philosophy


Ramalinga Vallalar made an indelible mark on the religious history of India when he came out openly against its caste system. LAKSHMI DEVNATH traces the saint's life and his spiritual journey.

``WHOEVER FEELS not the least difference, considers every life as their own...'' ``All those who take a life and eat flesh are not our near and dear kin.'' ``The money which I had, often I threw it into wells.'' These words of Saint Ramalingam were the kernel of his life's teaching. A tall skeletal physique which belied both his physical and mental strength, he was indeed a revolutionary thinker. His messages, which were mostly in the form of poems, were collectively called the `Tiru-Arut-Pa' (holy book of grace). These 5,818 poems apart from other things convey the non-parochial, egalitarian outlook of this secular saint who lived in South India between 1823 and 1874. But Ramalinga Swami was first and foremost a savant of compassion. His religion was Universal Brotherhood and his mantras `Jivakarunyam' (compassion to all living beings) and `Thaniperumkarunai (supreme compassion).

Ramiah Pillai and his sixth wife Chinnamai lived in Marudur, a village 15 km north-west of Chidambaram. By a quirk of fate his first five wives had died childless and in quick succession. Chinnamai however, was blessed with five children. The youngest child was called Ramalingam. Chroniclers record miraculous happenings before and after the birth of this child.

When the child was five months old, his parents took him to the Chidambaram temple. It is said that this infant laughed aloud when the priest offered the traditional `Deepa aradhana' to the Lord. This apparently routine visit to the temple thus offered him his first spiritual experience as well.

Sometime at a later date Ramalingam, was to record this experience in the following words: ``No sooner was the light perceived than happiness prevailed on me.'' It is significant that as he matured spiritually he consistently and decisively advocated the worship of God in the form of `Arutperumjyothi' or ``effulgent light of grace.'' Ramiah Pillai however, did not live to see his son's glory. He passed away the very next month. His sudden death forced a helpless Chinnamai to shift to the residence of her eldest son Sabhapati and his wife Parvathi at Chennai. This was in the year 1824.

When Ramalingam was five years old, Sabhapati, in a true patriarchal manner decided to formally educate his youngest sibling. The young child however demonstrated a deep disinclination towards formal education preferring trips to the local Kandasamy temple instead. This invited the wrath of his brother who was convinced that the child was on a self- destructive path.

As a punitive measure, he forbade his wife from giving Ramalingam his daily meal. His compassionate sister-in-law, however, surreptitiously fed him food and gently prevailed upon him to pursue his studies seriously at home. Ramalingam relented on the condition that he be given a separate room of his own. Now, in the solitary confines of this room, he set up a mirror and in front of it a small, lighted lamp. With these as aids he relentlessly meditated and this was the beginning of the spiritual journey of the young boy. The first reward came in the form of a vision of Lord Muruga. In the saint's own words ``The beauty endowed divine faces six, the illustrious shoulders twelve.'' But the miraculous portion in this whole episode lay in the high levels of erudition which, Ramalingam attained without any formal tutoring whatsoever. The outside world was also soon to be a witness to it.

Sabhapati was a learned scholar and `upanyasaka' (one who tells religious stories). It so happened that once Ramalingam had to substitute for his brother at an `upanyasam' session. His brilliant exposition and uninterrupted flow of words while enunciating a verse from the `Periyapuranam' elated and amazed the onlookers. Audiences everywhere preferred this `substitute' to the original and his brother also graciously acknowledged the mental and spiritual superiority of his brother.Ramalingam himself expresses his gratitude to the Divine when he says ``Effulgent flame of grace that lit in me intelligence to know untaught.'' As he made quantum leaps in his spiritual journey he progressed from being a devout Saiva to worshipping the formless.

Totally averse to money, he was later on to shun food and even sleep. Surprisingly he remained fit in form. A hurdle on his chosen path came in the form of a forced marriage to his sister's daughter. It is said that the bridegroom spent the nuptial night reading the `Tiruvachakam.' Nothing more is known about his wife.

Along this noble journey Ramalingam acquired certain extraordinary powers, but he made an indelible mark in the religious history of India when he came out openly against its illogical caste system and the negative impact it had on society. He believed that in the eyes of God there could be no inequality among human beings and all distinctions were but man-made. In an attempt to redress the situation he established the `Samarasa Suddha Sanmarga Satya Sangam' in 1865, which means `Society for pure truth in universal self-hood'.

He had also by this time shifted to a place called Karunguzhi from Chennai. His next step in establishing a practical approach to religion was the setting up of a free eating house called `The Sathya Dharma Salai' in a place called Vadalur in 1867, where all could eat without any distinctions whatsoever. Ramalinga Vallalar (generous) as he gradually came to be known because of his munificent nature, balked at the very idea of non-vegetarianism and abhorred it as an assault on his philosophy of non-violence.

In one of his poems he says ``When I see men feeding on the coarse and vicious food of meat, it is ever-recurring grief to me.'' It is significant that the land on which this eating house was built was donated by a few landowners. The registered document is available for inspection even today and the service of providing free food also continues to this day.

As other expressions of his philosophy of equality, he planned to start a school and to publish a journal which, was notably to be brought out with the help of a Muslim called Kadar Sahib. Unfortunately, both these attempts proved abortive. Ramalingar also did not tread an obstacle free path in his attempts to broad base the tenets of his religion.

Opposition to his teachings came in various forms, the most famous being the defamation suit field on him by Arumuga Navalar and the condemnation of his teachings as `Marutpa'. Ultimately it was the triumph of truth and the `Vallalar' carried on his mission undeterred by these minor challenges.

The final assertion of his deep spiritual realisations was a temple which he opened at Vadalur on January 25, 1872. He called it the `The Sathya Gnana Sabhai' or the Hall of True Knowledge. Both in its construction and functioning he eschewed anything with even a remotely religious connotation.

Inside the temple no offerings in the form of fruits or flowers could be made and conversely no signs of benediction were also given. The temple was open to all castes, creeds and cults except meat- eaters who were however, permitted to worship from the outside. The Swami however, prescribed strict rules of worship which were to be uncompromisingly adhered to.

This was in the form of written `diktats' issued on July 18, 1872. But over a period of time he found more of disobedience than obedience in the observation of these rules. A deeply pained Ramalingar closed down the `temple' in 1873.

On October 22, Ramalingar hoisted the flag of Brotherhood atop his one room residence called `Siddhi Vilakam' at Mettukupam. It was at this juncture that he delivered, what was to be his last and most famous discourse. He exhorted people to devote their time to spiritual enquiry, which would lead them to probe into the ``nature of the powers that lie beyond us and move us... He then removed the lighted lamp from his room and placed it outside and advised his followers to meditate.

Ramalingar's earthly existence came to an end on January 30, 1874, not in the familiar manner of death, but in what was apparently a smooth merger with the Divine Being. He locked himself up in a room and instructed his followers in words which have been recorded that they were not to open in under any circumstance and that even if they did they would find nothing.

The passing away of Ramalingar created a stir and gave birth to a lot of rumours forcing the Government to act. In May, at the behest of the authorities the room was forced open, only to be found empty. There was nothing suspicious to be found. The Madras District Gazetteer published by the South Arcot District in 1906 records his disappearance.

This path-breaking philosopher was an unalloyed humanitarian who placed supreme importance on human rights in the path to the divine. This he professed consistently in both his prose and poetical writings and in the dictates which he constantly issued to his followers.

On every `Thai- poosam' Ramalingar pani mandrams' (societies established in the service of Ramalingar's mission) in different parts of South India organise programmes in memory of this great soul.

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