In Tiruvadavur in the Pandya kingdom there lived a pious Brahmin. He and his dutiful wife, due to merit earned in past lives, got a worthy son whom they named Vadavurar, after the native place.
As the child grew, his wisdom increased as well. Soon he had mastered all the scriptures. He also shone as the embodiment of all virtues and won the love and esteem of all. Even learned Pundits and saints were attracted by his personality and wisdom. The king of Madura, Arimardana Pandyan, heard of Vadavurar’s qualities and discovered that he was an all-rounder and was proficient in administration also. The king made him his Prime Minister. Even here Vadavurar shone with extraordinary brilliance and won the title of Tennavan Paramarayar.
As days passed, however, dispassion grew in Vadavurar’s heart. He had realised the unreality of the world. To him everything was painful: birth, disease, death, rebirth, etc. He wanted to enjoy the eternal bliss of Sivanandam. Even while he was administering the affairs of the state, his mind was fixed on the Lotus Feet of the Lord. He would invite learned men and discuss with them the intricate points in the Vedas. Soon, he realised that a Guru was necessary for real spiritual progress. He longed to meet the real Guru. Whenever he went out on duty, he also searched for his Guru.
One day, while the king was holding his Court, the head of his cavalry entered and informed him that the cavalry needed immediate replenishment, as age, death and sickness had greatly depleted its strength. The king immediately ordered the purchase of good horses. The task of buying good horses from the right place was entrusted to Vadavurar. He was extremely happy, as he was sure that he would find his real Guru, during that tour. It was a God-sent opportunity for him. He offered sincere prayer to Lord Somasundarar in His temple and, besmearing His holy ash on his body and with His name on his lips, Vadavurar started on the errand of buying horses, with enough money. He reached Tiru Perunturai.
Lord Siva, Who is the Indweller of all hearts and so knew Vadavurar’s mental condition, had decided to take him to the divine fold. In the guise of a Brahmin and with a copy of the book Siva Jnana Bodam in his hand, the Brahmin was seated under a Kurunta tree near the temple at Tiru Perunturai. He was surrounded by others (the celestial servants in disguise). Vadavurar entered the temple and stood motionless before the Lord, in intense prayer. He shed tears of God-love. Then he went round the temple. Near the tree he heard the holy vibrations of the Lord’s Name (Hara, Hara) which melted his heart. The Brahmin’s magnetic personality attracted him. With overflowing love and devotion, Vadavurar ran to the Brahmin, as a calf to its mother, after a long separation: and he fell at the Brahmin’s feet.
By His grace, Vadavurar was able to recognise him as his real Guru. Holding his feet with his hands Vadavurar prayed: ‘Oh Lord, kindly accept me as your slave and bless me.’ The Lord was waiting for this! He cast a graceful glance on Vadavurar. This at once removed all his sins and purified his heart. Then the Lord initiated him into the divine mysteries of Siva Jnana. This very initiation entranced him. He tasted the divine bliss and was self-forgetfully absorbed in it. Then Vadavurar regained his consciousness and again fell at the Guru’s feet. He prayed: ‘Oh Lord, Who has come to initiate me into the divine mysteries! Oh Lord Who has captivated me by a mere look! Oh Lord Who has melted my mind! Oh Lord Who has made me surrender all wealth, body, mind and soul! Oh my Jewel! Oh Wealth Imperishable! Oh Ocean of Bliss! Oh Nectar of Immortality! Prostrations unto You!’ Singing His glories thus, Vadavurar removed all his belongings and offered all at the Feet of the Guru. He had become a Sanyasi. Smearing his body with sacred ashes, fixing his mind on the lotus feet of the Guru, Vadavurar plunged into deep meditation. When he awoke from this meditation, he was filled with an eagerness to sing the glories of the Lord. With love as the string and his nectarine words as the gems, he made a garland and offered it at the Guru’s feet. The Lord was highly pleased with it, and called him ‘Manickavachagar’ since the hymns sung by him were like gems in wisdom. The Lord asked him to stay on at that place, and disappeared.
Separation from the Lord and Guru, made Manickavachakar suffer intense pain and anguish. Soon, he consoled himself and lived in the remembrance of the Lord and Guru. The king’s servants who had accompanied Vadavurar thought that he had forgotten the mission, and, so, after waiting for a few days, gently reminded him. Manickavachagar sent them back to the king with the message that the horses would reach Madura within one month. When he heard of what had happened to Vadavurar, the king was angry: but, waited patiently for a month.
At Tiruperunturai, Manickavachagar was devoted to the Lord, forgetting the king and the mission: and he spent the money he had brought, in the construction of a temple. After waiting for a month, the king sent him an angry note reminding him that one should be as alert in dealing with the king as one would be when dealing with a cobra, and asking him to appear before the king at once. Manickavachagar was upset. He went to the temple. He prayed for the Lord’s protection. Moved by his sincere prayer, the Lord appeared in his dream that night in the same form of the Guru who initiated him and said: ‘Oh noble soul, fear not. I myself will bring the best horses to Madura. You can go in advance. Tell the king that the horses will arrive there on Avani Moolam.’ The Lord disappeared after placing a very costly diamond in his hands.
The next morning, Manickavachagar took leave of the Lord of Perunturai and donning his ministerial robes started for Madura. He bowed before the king and gave him the diamond. He explained: ‘Your Majesty, I have already purchased the horses for the entire money I had taken. I was waiting for an auspicious day on which to bring the horses here. Avani Moolam is an auspicious day. In the meantime, as commanded by Your Majesty, I have returned. The horses will reach here on the auspicious day.’ The king apologised to him for the rash note he had sent. Manickavachagar built a big stable for the horses.
His relatives, apprehensive of the real state of Manickavachagar’s mind, appealed to him to look after them and not to renounce the world. He laughed and said: ‘Oh friends, the day the Lord initiated me. I have offered everything at His Feet. I have now no relatives except the Lord and His devotees. I have no connection with this body, even. My only attachment is with the Lord Who is the remover of all our sins and bestower of Immortal Bliss. Birth is painful. Death is painful. Everything that is not connected with the Lord is painful. I do not worry about anything in the world now. I will beg happily with my palm as my begging bowl and appease my hunger with the food that is received by chance. When the earth is ready to give me shelter, why should I resort to a special dwelling place? The perfume I smear my body with is the sacred ash. My only belonging is the garland of Rudraksha which destroys the sins of many births. Oh friends, when I am under His protection, why should I fear anybody?’
With his thought fixed on the Lord, Manickavachagar was expecting the auspicious day. In the meantime, one of the ministers had told the king that in truth Manickavachagar had spent all the money in the construction of temples and that Manickavachagar’s statement was false. The king’s suspicion increased. He sent some messengers to Perunturai to see whether the horses were really there. They returned with a negative reply. Only two days remained now. The king did not get any information about the horses. So, he ordered his soldiers to torture Manickavachagar and get the money back. They informed Manickavachagar of all that had happened in the Court. He kept quiet. They tormented him, according to the king’s orders. He bore everything, fixing his mind on the Lord. The Lord Himself bore all the torture, and the Bhakta was relieved. The soldiers could not understand the secret of his endurance. They tortured him further! He prayed to the Lord. The Lord heard His Bhakta’s prayer and wanted to play His Lila. He willed that all the jackals of the place should assume the form of horses. He also sent His celestial servants to act as horsemen. He Himself assumed the form of a trader in horses. He reached Madura. The dust raised by the gallopping horses filled the sky. The people were wonderstruck to see the fine horses. That day was Avani Moolam. The thought that he had unnecessarily tortured Manickavachagar pained the king’s heart. He at once released him and apologised to him. Both of them went to the place where the horses had been stationed. The king was happy to see the good quality of the horses. The merchant was also very handsome. Manickavachagar knew that it was the Lord Himself and so mentally prostrated to Him. The king’s servants led the horses to the stable.
Day passed into night. In accordance with the Lord’s will, the horses assumed their original form of jackals, broke the reins and fled from the stable, howling. Some of them injured even the real horses. A few old jackals remained in the stable. The next morning, the horsemen did not find any of the horses and there were only a few old jackals in the stable. They immediately reported the matter to the king. The king got terribly angry with Manickavachagar who, he thought, had deceived him by magic. The king’s soldiers again began to torture him and Manickavachagar prayed to the Lord for His help. At once the Lord caused a heavy flood in the river Vaigai. There was panic everywhere in the town. The people could not understand the cause of this untimely flood. The soldiers who were guarding Manickavachagar also fled. He went to the temple. He worshipped Lord Somasundarar and was completely absorbed in meditation. The king was puzzled. He wanted to save the city from destruction. So, he ordered everyone in the city to bring one basketful of mud and throw it on the bank of the river to stem the flood. Everyone, except an old woman by name Vandi, did so. She sold Pittu (a sweetmeat) and eked out her livelihood. She was so much devoted to Lord Somasundarar that she would daily offer it to Him first and then sell it. She was in distress.
She prayed to the Lord for help. Lord Siva, out of His compassion, appeared as a labourer before the old woman and offered his services in return for a handful of Pittu. With a dirty cloth around his waist and a basket on his head, he would sing and dance and then put the mud on the bank of the river. He ate her kind offering and threw the mud with such force that it caused new breaches! For some time he would sit idle and again sing and dance. The king’s servants found the breach not closed where the Lord was working and reported the matter to the king. The king who personally supervised the work, noticed the idleness of the labourer, and hit him with a stick. The Lord threw the mud on the breach and it was closed. The blow, however, was felt by all beings in the whole universe. The king at once understood that it was all the Lord’s Lila. He recognised the greatness of Manickavachagar. At that time, he heard an invisible voice: ‘Oh king, your entire wealth was spent on Me and My Bhaktas. By this act Manickavachagar earned for you great merit. Instead of being grateful to him, you have tortured him. The jackals turning into horses, and this sudden flood, were all Lilas performed by Me for the sake of My devotee. At least now open your eyes and learn a lesson for your future.’
In the meantime, Manickavachagar had reached the temple and was absorbed in meditation. He, too, felt the blow that the king gave the Lord. He got up from meditation. The king was in search of him. On the way he learnt that the old woman had been taken to the Lord’s Abode in a celestial car. He came to the temple in Tiru Alavai and prostrated before Manickavachagar. He requested Manickavachagar to accept the rulership of the kingdom. The saint refused this offer but asked to be permitted to go to Perunturai. Both of them came to Madura and worshipped the Lord. Manickavachagar then left for Perunturai. The king also renounced everything soon after this and reached the Lord’s Abode.
At Perunturai, Manickavachagar sang highly inspiring songs and prayed that he should see the Lord in the form of the Guru, as He appeared at first. The Lord fulfilled his wish. He asked him to go to Chidambaram. On the way he visited many shrines. In every shrine, unless the Lord appeared in the original form of the Guru, he would not be satisfied. At Tiru Uttarakosha Mangai, he wept bitterly when he did not see Him as the Guru. The Lord had to accede to his wish! By stages he reached Chidambaram and rolled on the holy ground. He stayed in a garden near the temple and sang the famous Tiruvachagam. The people of Tillai heard the songs and enjoyed its bliss.
In Ezha Nadu (Ceylon) there was an ascetic who was constantly repeating ‘Long Live Ponnambalam’. The king of the place could not understand this, as he was a Buddhist, and had called the ascetic to him. The ascetic went to the palace and sat down in front of the king with the same words! Upon being asked by the king to explain the meaning, the ascetic said: ‘Oh king, Ponnambalam is a sacred place in the Chola kingdom. This place is also called Chidambaram. Here the Formless God takes a Form, of Nataraja, the divine dancer, for the welfare of the world. The object of His dance is to free the souls from the fetters of Maya. Inside the temple there is a tank called Siva Jnana Ganga tank. In this tank Hiranyavarman, the son of Manu, took his bath and got his leprosy cured. Those who take a bath in this sacred tank and then worship Lord Nataraja are purified of all sins. For them there will be no more birth. They will attain Eternal Bliss.’
The Buddhist Guru who heard all this questioned: ‘Oh king, how can there be a God other than Lord Buddha? I will myself go to Chidambaram and defeat the Saivite in argument and convert the temple into a Buddhist shrine.’ So saying he left for Tillai. The king also accompanied him, with his dumb daughter.
The Saivites sent a message to the Chola king asking him to arrange a debate with the Buddhists when the latter had arrived at Chidambaram. The day prior to the appointed day, the Brahmins prayed to Lord Nataraja for success in the debate. That night the Lord appeared in their dream and said: ‘Approach Vadavurar and request him to oppose the Buddhist Guru in argument’. The next morning, the Brahmins approached Vadavurar who readily agreed. He went to the temple, worshipped the Lord, and entered the hall of the debate. He did not like to see the face of the Buddhists: so, he sat behind a curtain. The Buddhists opened the debate. Manickavachagar explained the principles of Saivism. The Buddhists could not offer counter-arguments. They went on repeating their arguments! Manickavachagar prayed to the Lord for help. At His instance, Devi Sarasvathi withdrew Her grace from the Buddhists, and they became dumb. The Buddhists were defeated in argument.
The Buddhist king understood Manickavachagar’s greatness. He said: ‘You have made my teacher and all his disciples dumb. If you can make my dumb daughter speak, I and my subjects will embrace Saivism.’ Manickavachagar asked him to bring his daughter. He prayed to the Lord for His help and then asked the girl to give proper answer to the questions put by the Buddhist Guru on Lord Siva. The dumb daughter not only began to speak but gave fitting answers to those questions. They were all wonder-struck at this miracle. The king and the Buddhists recognised the superiority of Saivism and embraced it. Manickavachagar restored speech to the Buddhists also.
One day Lord Siva desired to hear Tiruvachagam from the lips of Manickavachagar and bestow Moksha on him. He went to Manickavachagar in the disguise of a Brahmin. Manickavachagar welcomed the guest with respect and enquired of his needs. Lord Siva told Manickavachagar: ‘I want to hear Tiruvachagam from your own holy lips. I shall write it down, so that I can learn it and with its help free myself from the shackles of Samsara.’ Manickavachagar recited the Tiruvachagam. The Brahmin (Lord Siva) wrote it down on palm leaves. Then he suddenly disappeared! At once Manickavachagar knew that the Brahmin was the Lord Himself. He felt terrible anguish for not having recognised Him.
The Lord wanted to immortalise Manickavachagar and to spread his glory. So, He kept these songs on the step of Panchakshara of the Chit Sabha. The Brahmins of Tillai were surprised to see them lying there. They opened the leaves and read the contents. In the end it was written ‘Manickavachagar repeated this, Tiru Chitrambalam wrote this.’ The Brahmins wanted to know the meaning of these verses: so they showed this to Manickavachagar who took them to the temple, and, pointing out to the image of Lord Siva, said: ‘This Tillai Nataraja is the purport of these stanzas.’ He at once merged himself at the Feet of Lord Nataraja. (From the book “Sixty-Three Nayanar Saints” by Sri Swami Sivananda)