Arunachala Pradakshina – the sacred mountain path

A seeker describes her experience of giri pradakshina or circumambulation  of the sacred Arunachala Mountain in Thiruvannamalai and how it has been a  catalyst  for her spiritual growth

I remain fixed, whereas innumerable universes becoming concepts in my mind, rotate within me. This meditation is the highest circuit (pradakshina).

-Ramana Maharishi, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharishi

January 26, 2017. 4 am: A surreal dawn with a tantalizing nip in the air, the indigo blue sky studded with stars that look like crushed diamonds, footfalls on the tarred road that snakes itself around the Shri Arunachala mountain path, the rhythmic rise and fall of our breaths, sylvan sublime serenity of the canopied forests, the eternal stillness punctuated by the silent swish of a bird in flight, the wayward flight path of a bat, the screech of a spotted owlet, the sentient strong silent presence of the Arunachala Mountain on my right to which I was tethered.

Image source: www.inner-quest.org

My first 14 km circumambulation or giri pradakshina (also known as giri valam in Tamil) of the sacred mountain Arunachala, was a sacred journey that transformed my life in ways I could hardly fathom (then and even now). Shri Guru Rohit Arya, my spiritual guru, says, “Arunachala is the most  spiritually powerful spot on earth, where Consciousness first dawned. I am always grateful to Arunachala and Nataraja as they  permit me to stand in the place where wisdom flows from Source.

According to an old Tamil proverb, “To see Chidambaram, to be born at Tiruvarur, to die at Banaras or even to think of Arunachala is to be assured of Liberation.” Shri Ramana Maharishi referred to Arunachala (Aruna: Red, bright like Fire; achala: mountain) as the “spiritual heart of the world.” It is interesting to note that the Fire here does not refer to the physical fire but the Fire of Wisdom or jnanagni.

I first heard of Bhagavan Shri Ramana Maharishi and the Arunachala Mountain from my maternal grandfather Sri V. Srinivasa Iyengar, among the earliest followers of the seer and sage. He enthralled me with anecdotes of his numerous visits to the ashram, the giri pradakshina, the impacts of Shri Ramana  Maharishi on his followers and even meeting Paul Brunton at Thiruvannamalai, the temple town 120 miles south west of Chennai.

Image source: shaivam.org

My mother and grandmother often accompanied him on his visits to Ramanashramam, which for many years, was a weekend getaway for the entire family!  My mother recalls taking the train from Madras to Villupuram and then boarding another train to Thiruvannamalai town. During a visit, Shri Ramana Maharishi was walking in the ashram premises. My mother, then just five years old, kept prostrating herself on the seer’s path.

Amused by her devout piety, he smiled and gently prodded her on the spine with his walking stick.

He asked her in Tamil . “Enna di vennum unakku?”  [What do you want, little girl?].

The several people around him chorused, “What would she want? She only needs your Grace!”

They then went up to my grandmother and said that  she was indeed blessed to have such a daughter who was personally blessed by Bhagavan (as Shri Ramana Maharishi was also addressed) himself.

My septuagenarian mother says she can still feel Shri Ramana Maharishi’s walking stick on her spine whenever she recalls the incident. She also says it has been a talisman  that has always protected her.

My grandfather regularly read The Mountain Path, the quarterly publication of the Sri Ramanashramam. For some strange reason, I was attracted to the silhouette of the sacred mountain Arunachala on the cover of the magazine. I suppose the stirrings of some connection with the sacred mountain was sown then. However, I had to wait for nearly five decades before those incipient stirrings began to crystallize into a deeper connect with Arunachala.

Thiruvannamalai is scalloped on all sides by the Arunachala Mountain (also known as  Annamalai Hills). The Shiva purana, one of the 18 Puranas, narrates a story  of  a contest between Brahma  and Vishnu regarding who was superior. Shiva therefore appeared before them as a pillar of Light (Jyothi sthambam) and challenged them to find the Source. Whoever succeeded, would be declared superior. Brahma, taking on the form of a swan (Hamsa), flew skywards to trace the Source.

Vishnu, on the form of a boar (Varaha), plunged downwards to trace the source. This incident, described as lingodhbava is depicted in  most Shiva temples. Neither Brahma nor Vishnu succeeded in their endeavour. While Vishnu acceded defeat, Brahma lied that he had found the Source and hence was cursed by Shiva to remain without a temple dedicated to him on earth.  In this story, Brahma symbolizes the ego; Vishnu , the intellect; and Shiva, the Spirit.

However, as the Light was too dazzling, Shiva decided to manifest Himself as Arunachala.

“As the moon derives its light from the sun, so other holy places shall derive their sanctity from Arunachala. This is the only place where I have taken this form for the benefit of those who wish to worship me and obtain illumination. Arunachala is OM itself. I will appear on the summit of this hill every year at Karthigai (a festival of lights in mid-November-mid December) in the form of a peace-giving beacon,” he said.

Arunachala, the  sacred mountain,  looms 3000 feet skywards with distinctive  conical apex. Arunachala is a metaphor for  a seeker on the Path— only  when you are  grounded deeply can you soar upwards. Arunachala,  is regarded as a lingam or aniconic  form of Shiva Himself.

According to  Saivite tradition,  Arunachala Shiva manifested Himself in various forms in the epochal phases in Hindu dharma—Agni (fire) during  Krita yugamanikkam (emerald) during Treta yuga; pon (gold) during Dwapara yuga and rock during Kali yuga.  Adi Shankara, in his Shiva sahasranamam or the  1008 names of Shiva described him as giripradakshninapriya or  someone who loves the circumambulation around Arunachala mountain!

Giri pradakshina  is  the  ancient yogic practice  of circumambulating around a  mountain  that is regarded as  punya bhoomi or  standing on a scared space. Also known as parikrama, other well known sacred mountain circumambulations include  the Kailash parikrama,  and Govardhan parikrama.

In the Siddha spiritual  tradition of Tamil  Nadu, even the Sun and the Moon do a pradakshina around the Arunachala Mountain and do not rise directly above it. The Siddhas also believe that one must  be invited or called to the giri pradakshina around Arunachala. In other words, only if a person is karmically entitled, is this possible. The Siddha tradition also believes that the Arunachala Mountain is studded with millions of sukshma jyoti lingams (subtle  lingams) and this together with the presence of millions of highly evolved beings around the mountain make this a Shakti-soaked experience.

The Arunachala (Aruna: Syn/Red; achala: immovable or mountain)  giripradakshina  (also known as Giri valam in Tamil) is an ancient yogic practice that is part of the siddha tradition in Tamil Nadu.  Etymologically,   the Sanskrit word pradakshina could mean giver of boons (prada); destroyer of karma (kshi)  and giver of knowledge (na). Hence an Arunchala giripradakshina  yokes both the material and spiritual realms.  It not only grants desires but also liberates spiritually by burning lifetimes of accumulated karma. The circumambulation is believed to loosen, cauterize and burn away karmic baggage.

As I embarked on my first giri pradakshina, I affirmed a sankalpa or intent. I surrendered myself entirely to the experience and the Grace. We, the members of Arya Yoga Sangha, led by Shri Guru Rohit Arya,  began at 4 pm  and the four-hour endeavour was deeply meditative as I soaked in the sensorial experiencer.

I recalled the words of Shri Ramana Maharishi who insisted that the giri pradakshina must be done slowly and purposefully; one step at a time. He even famously  advised that the gait of a person on the path must  be as measured as that of a  “queen in the ninth month of pregnancy!”

In another conversation, Shri Devaraja Mudaliar, a well-known disciple of Shri Ramana, once  persistently asked him  about the benefits of giri valam.

Shri Ramana Maharishi replied, “ Why are you so concerned with all these questions about the efficacy of going round the hill? Whatever you may or may not get, you will at least have the benefit of physical exercise!”

There  are two mountain pathways around Arunachala—the outer, which is commonly used, and the inner pathway  that cuts across the countryside at the foot of the mountain. The outer pathway snakes around the  mountain and  winds across the ashta (eight)  lingams placed octagonally in various direction at the base of the mountain. These eight lingmas—Indra lingam, Agni lingam, Yama lingam, Niruthi lingam, Varuna lingam, Vayu lingam, Kubera lingam and Ishanya lingam—are believed to have been established by the respective devatas and confer blessings and boons on the ardent seeker.

In retrospect, I realize that  my giripradakshina, a  seemingly uneventful event,  was a spiritual catalyst as I was on the threshold of   decisive phase of my life.  An unanticipated personal tragedy  just three months later, was one such karmic event.  It resulted in a complete relearning of the ways in which I reengage with myself; the world; people and relationships. As a regular practitioner of a kriya process known as the Eight Spiritual Breaths (ESB), the dual sadhana—the ESB and the giri pradakshina  have propelled my journey along the spiritual path.

V. Ganesan, spiritual guru, author and grandnephew of Bhagavan Shri Ramana Maharishi, makes profound observations on the irresistible magnetic appeal of Arunachala on  a true seeker. According to him, Arunachala  is a metaphor for the human mind which is  still; like an ocean without waves or ripples; doubt-free;  anchored in one’s own being and  a state of aliveness. Literally, Arunachala is a mountain.  However, it is  also a metaphor for a steady, still mind anchored in one’s Being.

“Arunachala is  a powerful spiritual magnet. A magnet attracts only iron filings; not copper! To be attracted by Arunachala means there is no escape! Arunachala is not  just a mountain!  Its real meaning is the absence of movement of the mind (achala—no movement). Whenever you keep the mind non moving,  it  is Arunachala. Even if you don’t physically come here [to Arunachala], if you turn your mind within, you are in Arunachala! As always, the entrance is not the house! You need to be in Arunachala always!”

My first giri pradakshina around Arunachala  has also been a ‘dwija’ or born-again moment and my rite of spiritual passage. Since then I’ve ceased to surprise by the way my life unfolds; although it never ceases to amaze me. Before my second giri pradakshina in January 2018, I glimpsed a mountain which seemed to surface repeatedly in my meditation. After the pradakshina, I’ve experienced a strange sense of anchoring and groundedness; an incredible lightness of being.

At Arunachala, the borders and boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical; the sacred and the secular; the seen and the unseen; the tangible and the intangible  blur and disappear until nothing remains but Oneness.

Like Dhanvantri, The Divine Physician, Arunachala,  the Sacred compassionate  Mountain,  has helped to heal me karmically—to suture, cauterize and anastomose my being which has been hemorrhaging with grief after  a tragic event in my life.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us; the old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.”

My spiritual moulting has just begun.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.