By Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy, former Head, Department of Ancient History & Archaeology, University of Mysore
Ancient South India and Tamil Nadu in particular had the good fortune of giving birth to many illustrious Shaiva and Vaishnava saints who were also social reformers.
There lived a couple Pugalanar and Madiniyar in a small village called Thiruvamur situated in South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. They had a daughter Thilakavatiyar and a son Marulnikkiyar. The latter became famous as Thirunavukkarasu. Thilakavatiyar was married to Kalippagainayanar. He was also Shaiva saint. He fought for the sake of his king but unfortunately died in the battle. Unable to bear this suffering, Thilakavatiyar wanted to end her life. But to give guidance to her brother Marulnikkiyar, Thilakavatiyar decided to live and not to end her life. This proved a great boon to Marulnikkiyar.
At that time Jainism was popular not only among the royalty but also among masses. Many people embraced that faith and even Marulnikkiyar. But Thilakavatiyar remained a Shaiva devotee and wanted her brother too to follow Shaiva faith but she did not compel him. Thilakavatiyar went to a Shaiva temple and took active part in temple activities at Thiruvadiaivirapattanam. She hoped that one day her brother would come back to the Shaiva faith. She prayed for a miracle.
Marulnikkiyar was afflicted with some disease which could not be cured by local doctors. At this time, as if Lord Shiva heard Thilakavtiyar’s prayer, a miracle happened. Marulnikkiyar, who had assumed the new Jaina name Dharmasena, informed his sister of his ailment and requested her to cure him.
Thilakavatiyar asked him to have patience and also faith in the remedy she is going to suggest. The pain of the illness was horrible and unbearable and Thirunavukkarasu was prepared to surrender to any god of any faith or pantheon. His only concern was to get cured from the disease.
Thilakavatiyar gave a word of solace to her brother and said that good days have already arrived and asked him to have faith. She taught him the mantra referred to as Shiva Panchakshari (Namah Shivaya) and he repeated this with all devotion. He smeared his body with Vibhuthi, the sacred ash, a symbol of Shaivism. Then he went around the Shiva temple and worshipped Lord Shiva with devotion, not thinking of anything else.
The Lord took pity on him as he was satisfied by his sincere devotion. Shiva gave him a special gift of composing poems, praising the Lord. As soon as this happened, he sang a poem to atone for the sin of undermining the Lord, as a symbol of repentance. By the time he completed singing the first poem, the unbearable affliction from which he was suffering from vanished instantaneously. Then the Lord suggested that hereafter he will be known by the new name Thirunavukkarasu, roughly meaning the king of divine speech. He became famous by that name and posterity does not even remember his old names, Marulnikkiyar and Dharmasena. This is also symbolic of the change in his attitude towards spiritualism.
From then on, Thirunavukkarasu became a great devotee of Shiva. He always carried a hoe which is generally used to loosening the soil or scrapping the weeds. Again this is symbolic of our mind being loosened meaning that we make way for good thoughts. We also have lot of predetermined ideas in the form of weeds and these weeds also should be weeded out or destroyed so that spiritual ideas can make an entry into our lives.
But people Jain faith looked Thirunavukkarasu with suspicion and carried false accusations against him. They went to the Pallava King Mahendravarman who was ruling at Kanchipuram and requested him to punish this saint for revolting against royalty. The King believed this and sent his soldiers to bring Thirunavukkarasu to Kanchipuram. But the saint said that he was not a slave of the king and he was only a slave of the Almighty.
The soldiers threatened that he would be put to death for disrespecting the order of the King. The saint went to Kanchi where the king tried to kill him. He was put in a lime kiln. But nothing happened to him. He began singing poems in praise of Lord Shiva. He was made to swallow poison but nothing happened to him. Then King ordered his royal elephant to trample him, but nothing happened. Then they threw him into the sea tying a stone to his body. The saint wrote the mantraomnamasshivaya and the stone began to float. King Mahendravarman later requested the saint that he be pardoned and requested for his blessings.
Then the saint went on a pilgrimage to Shaiva Kshetras including Chidambaram. He visited many Shaiva temples including Kashi. Thirunavukkarasu was past eighty years and prayed to Shiva to permit him to cast off his body. Thirunavukkarasu is said to have composed 4,900 verses but only 312 are now available.
Thirunavukkarasu has become immortal by his conduct, devotion to Shiva and by his compositions. Let us study at least some of them and be blessed.