The advent of ‘Thai’, the auspicious Tamil month, heralds a new era of happiness and prosperity. This month is significant in many respects. On this day, also known as Makara Sankranti, the sun changes direction towards north (uttarayanam). It is on this day, the traditional Pongal festival is celebrated with immense enthusiasm. The word ‘pongal’ means ‘boiling over’ which means affluence and happiness over-flowing. There is a saying in Tamil, “When Thai month dawns, new gate-way to prosperity open up (Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum”).
When Pongal which symbolizes grandeur and gaiety passes over, there comes another occasion, ‘Thai Pusam’ which in contrast symbolises simplicity, austerity, humility and devotion. ‘Thaipusam’ is the occasion when the devotion of people towards the Lord they love and venerate reaches a crescendo. Just as Pongal, Murugan worship also constitutes an integral part of Tamil culture.
The word ‘Thai’ refers to the Tamil month and ‘Pusam’ refers to the star. According to popular belief, it was on the day of Thaipusam, Goddess Parvati presented Murugan the powerful Vel (lance) to vanquish the evil forces and establish the principles of Dharma (truth). Tamils claim special affinity towards Murugan and refer him as God of Tamils (Thamizh Kadavul). However, Murugan is adored and admired all over the land and even beyond. Skanda Puranam describes the origin, the object and the significance of Skanda’s manifestation.
Devotion towards Murugan finds eloquent expression on the occasion of Thai Pusam. Devotees consider Murugan, not as a god residing far ahead or beyond mountains, but as a friend, guide and philosopher; always by their side. When Thaipusam comes, the differences and diversities disappear and all are united by the spirit of devotion.
After observing strict austerities, they embark on the pilgrimage to Palani. Wearing a simple saffron coloured towel around their waist, forehead smeared with white sacred ash of vibhuti and the holy garland of rudraksha beads around their neck, they start trekking their way towards Palani. They walk miles and miles, barefoot, braving the inclement weather and denying them even basic food and shelter. Evidently, the names of the Lord, “Hara Haro Hara’, give them strength to march ahead. Some inflict pain on their body by piercing the Vel (lance) through their skin as a mark of sacrifice and also as a prayer that they should never take birth again with a body. Some carry kavadi, an arch like offering made of palm tree wood with decorations on all sides. While some chant the names of Murugan as Kanda, Kumara, Kadamba, Karttikeya, Karunakara and Kali Yuga Varada, others sing the glorious verses of Tiruppugazh.
Their joy knows no bound when they reach the Adivaram, the foot hill. After doing circumambulation (Giri Pradakshina) of the hill, they worship the shrine of Lord Ganesa and climb every step with heart full of devotion. The moment they stand in front of the deity, they forget their sorrows, their surroundings and even their very individuality. With their eyes focussing on the beauty of the Lord, ears hearing the sounds of ‘Hara haro Haro’ and heart full of devotion, they make their prayer in line with what Arunagirinathar said in Kandar Alamgaram:
He, whose Lotus Feet guide me to get a clear vision, whose names ‘Murugan’, ‘Murugan’ help me to speak the words of truth, whose twelve sacred shoulders give me support, whose grace helps me to walk through the path of death courageously, I worship Him, his lance, his peacock and rooster.
We see Murugan flanked by Devayanai at Tirupparamkundram, with his consorts, Valli and Devayanai at Tiruchendur and Tiruttani, as a youth at Tiru Avinangudi, as a matured old person in Pazhamudir Colai and as a teacher (guru) at Swami Malai. At Palani Hill, Murugan appears as his real Self, as a renounced saint, wearing just loin cloth and holding a danda (staff) on his hand.
A saint-poet has composed a song on Murugan in the following lines: “Murugan’s mother, Parvati, is the embodiment of power (sakti). Murugan’s father, Lord Siva, the King of Mount Kailasa, reigns supreme over the treasure and natural wealth of Himalayan region. Murugan’s father, Siva is also very close to Lord of Wealth, Kubera. Murugan has relations with Maha Vishnu and Maha Lakshmi who symbolise prosperity and wealth.
Apart from the wealth that he has inherited from his parents’ side, Murugan is married to the daughter of Devendra who is the head of all the three worlds. Yet, Murugan distanced himself from all the affluence and abundance and chosen to remain as a yogi, holding a Jnana Danda (staff of knowledge). He has renounced everything that bound him to the external world and remained as a yogi, ever in a state of meditation and enlightenment.
When Dandapani appears before us as a yogi who has renounced all his relations and possessions, how can we approach Him with a mind full of desires? The message Lord Dandapani gives by setting an example by himself is this: “This body is just a medium, use it as a means to elevate yourself. Drive away all thoughts generated by the mind. Discard the ego that stands on your way. Deny the comforts and luxuries of the world around. When you come out of all wrong notions and illusions, you cease to be the mere individual and become your real Self, not different from Murugan. This is the state Arunagirinathar portrays in the second verse of Kandar Anubhuti “Ellamara Ennai Izhantha Nalam, Sollai Murugan Suraboopathiye”.
How to attain this state? It is not essential to do away with our possessions or relations. It is not necessary to run away from our duties. All that we have to do is to live this life, be a part of it and yet mentally detach ourselves from all material attractions. What is needed is to cultivate the quality of ‘vairagya’. Vairagya (renunciation) means a state where there is no desire, no passion and no attachment. Only one who has renounced his desires, discarded his lust and dedicated his life to walk the path of truth can reach and realize Palani Dandapani. The auspicious Thaipusam is the ideal occasion for this realization.
Many saints like Kachiappa Sivachariyar, Nakkeerar, Kumaraguruparar, Pamban Swamigal, Vannacharapam Dandapani Swamigal, Pakazhi Koothar, Mambazha Kavirayar, and Tiru Murugan Krupananda Variyar have sung the glory of Lord Murugan in magnificent verses. Adi Sankara described Murugan as the reflection of Eternal Reality, the Brahman. This is clear from another name of Murugan, ‘Subrahmanya’. The word ‘Su’ means sacred and ‘Brahmanya’ means the eternal reality, Brahman.
In his Subrahmanya Bhujangam, Adi Sankara says: “He, who is mounted on the beautiful peacock, who represents the Mahavakyas of the Upanishad, whose infinite beauty captures the heart of devotees, who is worshipped by devas and all devotees on earth, the son of Mahadeva, the Protector, I worship him with reverence.”
It was Arunagirinathar who described the splendour and glory of Murugan in beautiful verses called ‘Thiruppugazh’. As a mark of initiating him to saint-hood, Lord Murugan gave him the sacred chain of beads at Tiru Avinangudi. Arunagirinathar describes this in his song ‘Apakara Nindhaipattu…’ “Oh Lord of Tiru Avinangudi, you have come as my guru and given me the sacred chain of beads (Jabamalai Thanda Sadguru Natha)”
What is true devotion? According to Arunagirinathar, a true devotee is one who is:
detached from the world (1)
steady in his vision (2)
keeps singing the glory of God for ever (3)
discards desires like he flings his hand from fire (4)
yearns to overcome the tides of life and death and reach the shore of immortality (5)
does not differentiate between ‘You’ and ‘I’ (6)
comes out of the domain of mind, ego, body and all false identifications. (7)
So long as the devotion is pure and springs from the profundities of heart, and so long the mind, body and intellect are in harmony with heart, one need not go anywhere in search of Murugan. Murugan would come, seeking him, to grace him and elevate him to the level of Murugan Himself. (8) Valli is the exemplary devotee whom God eagerly sought and reached. This is the rare case of devotion where Valli offered herself to God. When she gave herself to Murugan and surrendered, Murugan came to her, seized her and the two have become one. Scholars and pundits described this merger as Valli Sanmargam, where the difference of ‘You’ and ’I’ ceased and the reality of Murugan alone remained.
Ulaka Pasu Pasa thondam (Thiruppugazh)
Madhi Nilai Kedamal (Ulaka Pasu Pasa…Thiruppugazh)
Pathiyal Yanunai Palakalum, pathiye ma Thiruppugazh paadi
Patrick Harrigan, M.A. is the publisher of Murugan Bhakti websites including: | Murugan.org | Kataragama.org | PadaYatra.org | Palani.org | Tiruchendur.org --and other websites devoted to Skanda-Murukan, the multi-faceted pan-Indian deity of love, war, the Tamil language and the gnostic mysteries.