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12/1/2017 The Hindu : Compassion is the essence of his philosophy

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Friday, February 02, 2001

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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 1/4
12/1/2017 The Hindu : Compassion is the essence of his philosophy

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. 2/4
12/1/2017 The Hindu : Compassion is the essence of his philosophy

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 3/4
12/1/2017 The Hindu : Compassion is the essence of his philosophy

`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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