Sorupa Saram (also known as Swarupa Saram when it is spelt in the Sanskrit way) is a Tamil advaitic work that was composed by Sorupananda, a distinguished Tamil saint and Guru who lived near Virai, a Tamil town, probably around the end of the sixteenth century. He is associated historically with Tattvarayar, an eminent scholar who was also his sister’s son. The following biographical information about them has been taken from a Tamil introduction to
Sorupananda and Tattvarayar were fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil, and both were learned in all the
sastras. However, the true realisation dawned upon them that the profit to be gained from this limited knowledge, however praiseworthy, did not have the power to grant freedom from birth in the way that true knowledge does. They realised that it showed a lack of judgement on their part to devote their time any longer to the acquisition of this limited knowledge, which confers advantages in this life only. By doing so, they would waste a human birth, something that is very hard to attain. Since they were both overcome by a desire to free themselves from worldly attachments, they devoted themselves to the task of seeking out a
Sadguru who could bestow jnana.
Having made this resolution, the two of them, before leaving their dwelling-place, made an agreement with one another: ‘Whichever of us is first to obtain the fortune of a Guru’s
darshan, he shall assume the position of Guru to the other.’
They then set out on a pilgrimage, Sorupananda to the South, and Tattvarayar to the North. Upon the banks of the Kaveri, in a holy place called Govattam, Sorupananda had a miraculous experience in which he attained a tranquillity of mind that had thus far eluded him.
‘This occurrence is due to the presence here of some great
mahatma,’ he decided.
Upon consulting the learned people in that place, he discovered that a great being called Sri Sivaprakasa Swami dwelt there in a patch of rushes, immersed in perpetual
samadhi. However, he ascertained that on a few occasions he had been known to come outside in the morning time.
Going immediately to the holy presence of that Sadguru, he waited until Sivaprakasa Swami emerged from his state of absorption and came outside. Making obeisance in the proper manner, he beseeched him to accept him as his devotee. When he had received the Guru’s grace, Sorupananda waited for Tattvarayar’s return.
Tattvarayar had travelled to the North, but he had not obtained the
darshan of any Guru. When he lost all hope of doing so, he gave up his search and returned to the South. On his way, he had the good fortune to meet Sorupananda, who by that time had realised the Self. Tattvarayar then received the grace of his uncle.
Whilst Sorupananda and Tattvarayar were peacefully dwelling in this way as Guru and disciple, Sorupananda one day ordered that oil be brought for an oil bath. Since that day was
amavasai [new moon], the disciple was acutely aware of the sastraic injunction that an oil bath was forbidden on the day of the ancestors.
‘But today is amavasai,’ he said.
On hearing this, Sorupananda said: ‘What have all the prohibitions of the
sastras to do with sadhus? Although you have dwelt in my presence for many days, you remain unable to free yourself from the constraints of the
sastras. Is there really any advantage in your remaining here any longer?’
Thus, by means of this question and answer, he confirmed his suspicion that for Tattvarayar birth was not yet at an end. Tattvarayar was shocked by these compassionate words from his Guru. Realising that he had not yet succeeded in eliminating his
vasanas, he was filled with remorse.
He came to the following decision: ‘Rather than remaining here and besmirching the holy presence of my Guru, it would be better to drown this sinful block beneath the ocean.’
Then, realising that it was forbidden to turn one’s back on the Guru, he retired, slowly moving backwards.
When Tattvarayar was departing in this way, meditating on his Guru, the devotees who were accompanying him took down the gems of truth that came out of his lips as his divine utterances and submitted them to Sorupanandar. These words were published in
jnana texts that are revered even today.
When Sorupananda saw these works he was astonished by their profundity. Realising in his heart that such a sea of learning did not deserve to drown in the watery ocean, he commanded Tattvarayar to return to his presence.
As soon as Tattvarayar returned Sorupananda said to him: ‘These difficult works, useful as they are to yourself, will not easily benefit the world as a whole. Compose, therefore, a simple work that everyone may understand and win salvation from.’
After giving this command, Sorupananda went off to eat. In accordance with his Guru’s wishes Tattvarayar composed and completed
Cacivanna Bodham while his Guru was still eating. This work became part of the
Ramana Maharshi was particularly fond of the next development in the story. This is how he narrated the story. The extract is from
Day by Day with Bhagavan, 21st November 1945:
Tattvarayar composed a bharani [a kind of poetical composition in Tamil] in honour of his Guru, Sorupananda, and convened an assembly of learned pandits to hear the work and assess its value. The pandits raised the objection that a
bharani was only composed in honour of great heroes capable of killing a thousand elephants, and that it was not in order to compose such a work in honour of an ascetic. Thereupon the author said, ‘Let us all go to my Guru and we shall have this matter settled there’. They went to the Guru and, after all had taken their seats, the author told his Guru the purpose of their coming there. The Guru sat silent and all the others also remained in
mauna. The whole day passed, night came, and some more days and nights, and yet all sat there silently, no thought at all occurring to any of them and nobody thinking or asking why they had come there. After three or four days like this, the Guru moved his mind a bit and thereupon the assembly regained their thought activity. They then declared, ‘Conquering a thousand elephants is nothing beside this Guru’s power to conquer the rutting elephants of all our egos put together. So certainly he deserves the
bharani in his honour!’
Though Tattvaraya was the author of many verses (most of which have disappeared) Sorupananda himself only wrote one poem. This was
Sorupa Saram, a distillation of his advaitic experience. This work was highly regarded by Ramana Maharshi. When he gave Annamalai Swami a list of six books to read, he included
Sorupa Saram on a list that also included Kaivalya Navaneetam, Ribhu
Gita, Ashtavakra Gita, Ellam Ondre, and Yoga Vasishta. This recommendation puts the text in very distinguished company.
This is the first-ever English translation of Sorupa
Saram. It has been translated by Dr T. V. Venkatasubramanian and Robert Butler and edited by David Godman. The verses themselves are by Sorupananda and the interpolated questions, answers and comments are by a later, unknown commentator. However, these additional remarks have always been associated with the work and they are now regarded as being an integral part of it.