(1) The invocatory verse is addressed to Ganesh whose
vahana or vehicle is the rat.
(2) A reference to Siva dancing as Nataraja in
(3) The principal puranic story about Arunachala features a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu over which of them is the greater. Siva witnessed their dispute and decided to teach them a lesson in humility. He appeared before them in the form of an infinitely long column of light (some versions say fire) and announced that whichever of the two could find the end of this column could call himself the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed downwards to find the bottom end, while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew upward in search of the top. Neither extremity was found even though the two gods spent thousands of years trying. Both returned unsuccessful, finally conceding that Siva was greater than either of them. Vishnu then requested Siva to manifest in a form that was less dazzling to the eyes so that devotees through the ages could have
darshan of his form. Siva obliged by condensing himself into the mountain of Arunachala. Thus, for devotees of Arunachala, the mountain is not merely a symbol of Siva or the place where he resides, it is Siva himself, manifesting in a physical form.
(4) Siva wears as a diadem on his head the crescent of the fifth-day moon. According to
Sri Siva Tattva, a Saiva Siddhanta text, 'The moon is soma, the sacrificial offering. Placed near the fiery third eye, the crescent moon shows the power of creation coexistent with that of destruction'.
There is a puranic story in which Siva appeared before some
rishis in the guise of a beggar. Through his power he caused the
rishi's wives to fall in love with him. The rishis, angered by his behaviour, decided to kill him. They dug a pit, out of which emerged a tiger. Siva killed it and wore its skin. Later snakes came out of the pit, but they had no effect on Siva. He wound them around his body and used them as ornaments. Because of this incident Siva is almost always depicted as having at least one poisonous snake wrapped around his body.
(5) Meaning, those who have strenuously pursued liberation either for a long time, or with some degree of success. Ramana Maharshi often cited this line when he spoke of the magnetic power of the mountain.
(6) One of Vishnu's avataras was as Narasimha, a half-man and half-lion form. Narasimha disembowelled the demon Hiranyakasipu, who had harassed the gods. After the demon had been killed, Narasimha was still full of anger and threatened to annihilate the whole universe. Siva appeared in the form of Simbul (in Sanskrit he is known as Sarabha), an eight-legged flying creature. This 'bird' dug its claws into Narasimha, lifted him off the ground and killed him. Siva subsequently wore the skin of Narasimha as an item of clothing.
(7) A reference to the story Markandeya, a sixteen-year-old who, with Siva's help, managed to avoid his predestined death.
Mrikanda, Markandeya's father had prayed to Siva to get a son. Siva appeared before him and said, 'Do you desire to have a virtuous, wise and pious son who will only live to be sixteen, or a dull-witted, evil-natured son who will live for a long
Mrikanda opted for the short-lived son, who turned out to be a child-sage. On the day of his appointed death, Yama came to collect him. Markandeya cried out to Siva for help and embraced the idol of Siva that he usually meditated on. Yama threw his rope and lassooed the idol as well as Markandeya. This angered Siva, who came roaring down from the heavens, after which he killed Yama with a single blow of his foot. Siva then gave Markandeya a boon that he could be sixteen forever, and thus avoid death, and he also restored Yama's life.
(8) About a thousand years ago, when the king of Madurai conscripted everyone in his city to help to shore up the dams on the Vaigai River when it was about to overflow its banks, Siva took the form of a coolie and did the work that had been allocated to an old woman devotee. She paid him in sweet rice cakes.
(9) One of the four principal Tamil Saiva poet-saints whose devotional outpourings now constitute the earliest portions of the Saiva scriptural canon.
(10) The elephant was Gajasura, a demon who could not control his sensory indulgences. Siva pierced him with his trident. As he was dying, Gajasura asked Siva for a boon, and Siva agreed. The boon was that Siva should wear Gajasura's flayed hide as an ornament.
(11) In Arunachala Mahatmyam and Arunachala Puranam, Parvati, known locally as Unnamulai, unites with Siva to such an extent that each shares the other's form. Unnamulai means, 'She whose breasts have never been suckled'. Traditionally, Siva and Unnamulai appear as a half-male and half-female figure, the left side being Unnamulai and the right side Siva. In this merged or unified state Unnamulai becomes Siva's
sakti, the divine energy which brings into existence all manifestation. Iconographical representations of their combined form, which is known as Ardhanariswara, show a half-male and half-female body, with the dividing line being the vertical axis running down the middle of the body. Parvati (Unnamulai) earned the right to this union by performing intense
tapas over two lifetimes, the first as Sati, and the second as
(12) After a long period of animosity the devas and the
asuras agreed to cooperate to churn the ocean of milk to obtain amrita, the elixir of immortality. At some point during the churning a burning mass of poison appeared whose fumes began to asphyxiate the whole world. At Brahma's request Siva swallowed the poison and held it in his throat. This poison left a blue mark on Siva's throat, earning him one of his many titles - Nilakantha, which means 'blue-throated'.
The two normal eyes of Siva represent the sun and the moon. The third, in the centre of the forehead, symbolises fire. The eyes together represent the three sources of light that illumine the earth, space and the sky. Through his three eyes Siva can see past, present and future, an accomplishment which, as Guhai Namasivaya points out in verse 28, enables him to transcend time. The central eye is the eye of higher perception. Normally it is directed inwards, but when it is turned outwards, it burns all that appears before it.
(13) Na, Ma Si Va Ya, making Nama
Sivaya, which means 'obeisance to Siva'.
(14) A reference to Siva as the infinitely long column of light who penetrated all the heavenly and subterranean worlds.
(15) Seen from a distance, the profile of the mountain is triangular.
Robert Butler learned classical Tamil during a stay at Ramanasramam in the 1980s. He is currently
working on translations of Kuruntogai verses, Tamil love poetry written about 2,000 years ago. Samples of his work can be found at: