We have read in history books as scanty biographies about Tamil poets, who renounced everything and took a deep devotion to Lord Shiva as in the case of the 63 Saiva saints, or Lord Narayana as in the case of 12 Azhwar saints.
Throughout history, there have been a number of remarkable poets who did similar feats like Manikavasagar, Thayumanavar, and, more recently, Vallalar. They have given us copious amounts of Tamil poetry with deeply felt devotion to their chosen deities, and have blessed us with literature of the highest calibre.
In all of this, there is ever so little doubt about the historical accuracy as many of these saint poets have often begged for food, and Lord Shiva or Lord Narayana — as the case maybe —often intervened to help them to navigate some tough situations that they had to face.
However, in our generation — within the last 100 years — a poet saint lived amongst us with relatively low visibility outside of his immediate circle of co-devotees. He managed to compose nearly 30,000 Tamil verses — or roughly 120,000 lines — a singular feat that is remarkable both for its depth as well as its breadth. The name of this illustrious poet-saint is Mugavapuri Muruganar.
To put this in perspective, one of the most prolific poets in Tamil literature, poet Kambar, composed the famous Kamba Ramayana — an epic originally written in Sanskrit by Valmki.
Although historians still debate to draw a definitive conclusion to place Kambar’s time period accurately, the general consensus has emerged as around 950 AD to 1,300 AD as his period. Kambar’s inspiration created roughly 11,000 verses or 45,000 lines — arguably one of the largest bodies of poetic work by any Tamil poet known until Muruganar’s poetry came into existence.
For context, in the early 1900s there was a resurgence of modern Tamil poetry, most popularly led by nationalistic and devotional poems written and published by Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathiyar. Bharathidasan, who changed his name after being impressed by Bharathiyar’s poetic abilities as ‘his slave’, and others just began emerging. Tamil scholar U Ve Swaminatha Iyer had just published many old manuscripts that were hidden away for centuries.
Other Tamil giants like M Raghava Iyengar, R Raghava Iyengar, Chidambaranatha Muadaliar of Tenkasi, Sathasiva Iyer of Ceylon, P S Subrahmanya Sastry and others were making a big and scholarly impact to popularise and modernise Tamil by attracting and developing students of Tamil. Combined with national fervour led by Mahatma Gandhi, the Tamil language was also being rediscovered by poets of that generation.
During a Marina Beach meeting led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1918 at the height of the home rule movement, Bharathiyar’s speech in praise of the movement and his famous Gandhi Panchakam garnered headlines for many days following that convention.
In 1917, just a year before the publication of the above remarkable verse, a relatively unknown poet composed the following benediction on Gandhi, which equally gained popularity and declared the arrival of Gandhi as the leader of our country. Many Tamilians to this day wouldn’t know of this Tamil poet who lived in seclusion and led a majestic life of simplicity at the feet of his spiritual master.
தானந் தழைத்திடுமே தன்மஞ் செழித்திடுமே
ஞானம் பழுத்திடுமே ஞானமெலாம் ஊனமிலாச்
சாந்தி யுபதேசித்த சன்மார்க்க சற்குருவாம்
காந்தி நன்னெறி நடக்குங்கால்
Translation: Riches and benevolence will grow, Dharma will sustain, wisdom will mature, our disabilities will end through wisdom of peace — all of this will happen if the great ideals of our Satguru Gandhi’s righteous path takes hold.
Relative obscurity of this poet’s name didn’t stop the popularity of this verse among the masses of Tamilans then. This poem was composed by none other than Muruganar in 1917.
Muruganar was born in 1893 in Ramanathapuram and was called with a pet name of Sambamurthi by his parents. His formal name was C K Subramania Iyer. Muruganar changed his name to Mugavapuri Murugan sometime around 1915 from his original name of Ramananathapuram Subramaniam. Mugavapuri is the Tamil name for Ramanathapuram, and Murugan is the Tamil equivalent for Lord Subramania.
When Muruganar grew up in Ramanathapuram, he attended the Christian Mission School. He subsequently went to Madurai to pass his matriculation before returning to his hometown. He had shown an extraordinary interest in Tamil, most notably in old literature like Thirukkural. One of the members of the royal family of Ramanathapuram began learning Thirukkural from Muruganar.
The royal family had very deep devotion for Tamil language, and they provided patronage to several Tamil pundits. Two poets, incidentally with the same names, were court poets of the royal family.
The elder of the two was Maha Vidwan R Raghava Iyengar of Pudukottai. His cousin, roughly seven years younger to him, was named Maha Vidwan Rao Sahib Mu Raghava Iyengar, who was also a court musician at that time. The younger Mu Raghava Iyengar did extensive research in Sanga (old) Tamil literature, especially in Tolkappiyam (the first grammar book of Tamil) and the works of Azhwars. They both had a very great regard for Muruganar from his young age, impressed by his devotion and talent in Tamil.
Muruganar was a Tamil scholar, a renowned poet, and a patriot. His unassuming manners and deep mastery in Tamil prosody gained respect from Tamil scholars of that generation. Muruganar worked as a Tamil schoolteacher in Madras until 1926. Among other things, Muruganar was a part of the Tamil Lexicon Committee serving alongside U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, and Rau Bhagadur R Raghava Iyengar.
He married Meenakshi Ammal, and his father-in-law, Dandapani Swami, had taken a deep devotion to a young ascetic living in Thiruvannamalai, one of the renowned spiritual centres in South India. Once, Dandapani Swami visited his daughter and son-in-law and happened to show two books to them — one prose and one poetry.
Muruganar read both those books and was completely convinced that a mere human could not have written those types of words found in those books. Those two books were: Who Am I, and Akshara Mana Malai — both attributed to the sage of Arunachala, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Moved by this, Muruganar set out on a trip to Arunachalam, also known as Thiruvannamalai, in 1923. Their first meeting was remarkable. As a custom, devotees who visited jnanis brought something with them as a mark of respect. In case of Muruganar, he composed a verse on Ramana Maharishi in the style of one of the Saiva saints, Manikavasagar, whose collected works were called Thiruvasagam (sacred words on god).
Bhagavan Sri Ramana, upon reading the verse, commented that if Muruganar continued to compose in the same vein, he could compose a treatise like Thiruvasagam. Although humbled by this statement, Muruganar took that as a sign from his satguru.
Though he never got initiated formally as a Hindu monk, Muruganar swerved all his possessions and attachments, including his wife. His only care and attachment was his mother, who passed away in 1926.
In 1926, still in his 30s, Muruganar resigned his job in Madras, and permanently shifted to Thiruvannamalai to live in proximity to his guru, Bhagavan Sri Ramana. Ever since, his new life began. He resolved to compose only the subject of SrI Bhagavan and never he would worship or pray to another god. Until his death in 1973, he lived as a mendicant. He would rather be known as a devotee of Bhagavan Sri Ramana than any other title or recognition.
Since he came to Bhagavan Sri Ramana’s proximity, he poured over every ounce of his inner attention on Bhagavan and he was blessed with Sri Bhagavan’s grace. His first publication of verses came under the title of Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai in 1933 containing 1851 Tamil verses (well over 14,000 lines) in praise of Bhagavan Sri Ramana.
He further went on to compose 26,000 plus verses singularly praising Sri Bhagavan. In many places, he would say, “why would I contemplate praising anybody but you, O, Ramana, you are the embodiment of Sat Chit Ananda”.
Muruganar’s literary wisdom is parallel to that of the best poets in Tamil Bhakti literature. Bhagavan Sri Ramana made subtle references about this in more than one place. Muruganar composed thousands and thousands of Tamil verses. His only subject in all of these verses was Sri Bhagavan. We are blessed to have many thousands of these verses.
However, we have also lost thousands of such verses for those verses were not created for merely others’ readership. Muruganar didn’t bother to preserve them in some cases. They were simply written. There was no reason. If there was any reason for any of those verses to be written, it was solely due to Sri Bhagavan, or more precisely the inner Sri Bhagavan residing in Muruganar’s heart lotus.
Muruganar had a very deep and firm conviction that he didn’t write any of these verses on Bhagavan. He realised that these verses were written by Bhagavan on Bhagavan through Muruganar. Muruganar, he believed, was merely an instrument acting on his inner Bhagavan’s will.
To illustrate his devotion, there is an excellent incident that we got to know through a biography on Muruganar written by T R Kannakammal.
Muruganar decided to go on begging to earn his food because he believed that it would destroy his ego. That meant that there were many days he could just be fasting for he wouldn’t be able to go for a round of begging. On one such occasion, when Muruganar went on a fast because he didn’t beg, it happened to be Maha Shivaratri. Muruganar didn’t realise that day was Shivaratri.
Next day, when Bhagavan Sri Ramana went for giri pradakshina (a 14 km of circumambulation around Arunachala Hill), Muruganar also joined him. Because of his continued fast from the prior day, Muruganar was very tired. Realising Muruganar’s tiredness Bhagavan said, “Did you go on a Shivaratri fasting yesterday? Come along, let us go to the ashram kitchen to partake food”.
Bhagavan thus invited Muruganar to partake food at the ashram’s kitchen. Muruganar composed a verse on this incident, given below:
“திருநாட் சிவராத் திரியெனத் தெரியாது
ஒருநாள் பட்டினி யிட்டெனை மறுநாள்
விசர்புற வலம்புரி வித்துஅரு ணந்தனைப்
பசிப்பதம் அறிந்துஊண் பரிந்தளிப் பித்தும்”
Meaning: I didn’t realise that it was Shivaratri. He made me fast on that day. Next day, he made me go to giri pradakshina. Realising my hunger, he fed me food. His compassion is infinite.
Kannakammal noted that Muruganar would break into tears whenever he spoke of this incident. He would just melt and couldn’t speak further just remembering Bhagavan’s compassion towards him.
Scriptures declare that fasting on a Shivaratri day is supposed to bring great divine grace from Shiva. In Muruganar’s case the fast, although was unintended, brought him the greatest boon of receiving Bhagavan’s compassion and assurance that Bhagavan does look after his devotees.
In an article published in The Mountain Path in October 1973, Prof K Swaminathan said:
To sing His (Bhagavan’s) praises, to practice His presence and to explain His teachings the poet uses words, which whether richly sensuous or austerely intellectual, are invariably appropriate, while his repertory of metrical forms is astounding in its vastness, flexibility and power. Like some great temple complex, with its shrines and towers, its tanks and groves, the immense output of this poet constitutes a massive and worthy literary monument to the Master, whose mighty message Sri Muruganar manages to covey, because he is himself a consummate and humble scholar, manipulating with unerring tact and taste the inexhaustible resources of an ancient and still living language unsurpassed in the range, depth and continuity of its devotional and metaphysical poetry (sic).
Prof K Swaminathan very aptly summarised a rare historical occurrence. No other culture, religion, land, or language had ever seen anything like what happened with Muruganar. No other person had sung more than 30,000 verses on his or her living guru to the exclusion of everything else.
Muruganar, although had renounced all forms of material life and lived totally devoid of any material possessions, had erected the biggest and the most invincible monument to his guru and deity, Bhagavan Sri Ramana, through his unconditional surrender and expansive imagination.
He let his own master do the work of composing these verses. This is the greatest form of surrender, wisdom, devotion and yoga. This is what exactly Bhagavan Krishna asked Arjuna to do.
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