Ramalinga Swamigal

Raamalinga Swaami - (1823-1874) Also known as Jothi Ramalinga Swamy and Vallalar Ramalingar, he was a Tamil saint of Vadalur, considered one of the greatest Tamil poets of the 19th century, and also a great revolutionary. He was born to Ramiah Pillai and his sixth wife Chinnamai, who lived in Marudur in South Arcot district, a village 15 km north-west of Chidambaram. By a quirk of fate Ramayyah Pillai's 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 (later he said of the experience:"No sooner was the light perceived than happiness prevailed on me.'').

In 1824, the very next month, Ramiah Pillai passed away. His sudden death forced a helpless Chinnamai to shift to the residence of her eldest son Sabhapati and his wife Parvathi at Chennai. 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. He renounced the world at 13. 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 (it is said he could turn water into oil), but he made an indelible mark in the religious history of India when he came out openly against its caste system and the negative impact it had on society. 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.

To support his notions of equality and service, he planned to open a school and to publish a journal with the help of a Muslim called Kadar Sahib. Both of these attempts failed due to opposition in many forms, most notably a defamation suit filed by Arumuga Navalar and the condemnation of his teachings as `Marutpa'. However, Ramalingar prevailed, and continued his works, opening a temple at Vadalur on January 25, 1872, called the "Sathya Gnana Sabha" (Hall of True Knowledge), and ensuring it was entirely secular - no offerings of fruits or flowers could be made, and no blessings were given. It was open to people of all castes except those who ate meat, who were only allowed to worship from the outside. Worship guidelines, however, were strict and written as dictates issued July 18, 1872, and therefore invited disobedience, forcing Swami to close the temple in 1873.

As a musician and poet, he composed 5818 poems breathing universal love and peace, compiled into 6 TirumuraigaL, which are all available today as a single book called "Tiruarutpa" (tiru-arut-pa, holy book of grace). Another work of his is the "Manumurai KanDa Vaasagam" describing the life of Manu Needhi COlan. He also wrote "Jeeva Karunya Ozhukkam." His AruTpaa songs are sung in concerts and now at least 25 songs (in Tiru AruTpaa Isai Maalai) are given with swara-taaLa notation. Taayagi tantaiyumai (hamsadwani), idu nalla tarunam (shankaraabharaNam), varuvar azhaitu vadi (bEgaDa) and some of his more popular songs. Some of his songs were set to music by Calcutta KS Krishnamurthy.

Ramalingar raised the flag of Brotherhood on his one room residence `Siddhi Vilakam' in Mettukupam on October 22. He gave his last and most famous lecture, entreating his audience to undertake a spiritual quest and look into the "nature of the powers that lie beyond us and move us," and asking them to meditate on the lighted lamp from his room, which he placed outside.

He disappear at 51 on January 30, 1874, locking himself up in a room and telling his followers not to open it. He said that even if they did open it they would find nothing. His seclusion spurred many rumors, and the Government finally forced the doors open in May. The room was empty, with no clues. The Madras District Gazetteer published by the South Arcot District in 1906 records his disappearance.

His religion was Universal Brotherhood and his mantras `Jivakarunyam' (compassion to all living beings) and `Thaniperumkarunai (supreme compassion). But his words were most unforgettable: ``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.'' Many men of his Shaivite religion didn't accept this doctrine, but Tozhuvur Velaayuda Mudaliyaar closely followed him and Raamalingar Pani Manram now continues his preachings. Every year on Thai- poosam, Ramalingar societies across South India (pani manDrams) commemorate his life.

Ramalinga swamy