Lives of Indian Saints

  • By Swami Sivananda
  • August 2001
Saints of South India

The saints included in this chapter are Thiruvalluvar, Kanak Das, Nilakantha Dikhitar, Purandara Das, Thayumanavar, Yogi Mukund Rai, Paramahamsa Tailang Swami, Pattinathu Pillayar, Tyagaraja, Nandanar, Bhadrachalam Ramdas, Vilwamangal, Yogi Vemana, Jaya Deva, Vidayanya, Appayya Dikshitar, Sadasiva Brahman, Appayyacharya, Potana. I have covered Thiruvalluvar, Tyagaraja and Nandanar.


About two thousand years ago there flourished in Mylapore, Madras, a born Siddha and a born poet by name Valluvar or, as he more commonly known, ‘Thiruvalluvar’, which only means, ‘the devotee of the Valluva caste’ Valluvas are Pariahs (now called Harijans) and their vocation was proclaiming the orders of the king by beat of drum. There is a tradition that Thiruvalluvar was the son of one Bhagavan, a Brahmin, and Adi, a Pariah woman he had married.

Thiruvalluvar was born at Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas. He is regarded as an Avatara of Brahma. His wife Vasuki was a chaste and devoted lady, an ideal wife, who never disobeyed the orders of her husband, but always carried them out implicitly. Thiruvalluvar showed people that a person could lead the life of a Grihastha or householder, and at the same time, lead a divine life or a life of purity and sanctity. He showed people that there was no necessity to leave the family and become a Sannyasin to lead a divine life of purity and sanctity. All his wife sayings and teachings are now in book form and known as ‘Thirukkural’ in a couplet form. Here are some of them:

Just as the alphabet ‘A’ is the beginning of all letters, so also, God is the beginning for this universe. Learn the Shastras completely and then act according to their injunctions. The Anicha flower will fade by smelling, but guests are more sensitive if the hosts turn their faces a bit.

Death is like sleeping in the burial ground;
Birth is like waking in the morning.

These couplets are 1,330 in number. They contain the essence of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the six Darshanas. Thirukkural is regarded as a universal Bible. It is another Gita Koran or Zend Avesta.

Some aspirants repaired to Thiruvalluvar and enquired: “O sage, which Ashrama of life is better-Grihastha or Sannyasa? Thiruvalluvar did not give any answer. He simply kept quiet. He wanted to teach them the glory of Grihastha Ashrama by example.

Thiruvalluvar was taking cold rice in the morning. He said to his wife: “Vasuki, the rice is very hot. Bring a fan to cool it”. Thiruvalluvar’s wife was drawing water from the well when Thiruvalluvar called her. She at once left the rope and ran to him with a fan to cool the rice. She did not say to her husband: “How can the cold rice be hot? Why do you want a fan now?” She simply obeyed his commands. The vessel that contained water was hanging half-way in the well unsupported on account of her Pativrata Dharma Shakti. The aspirants noticed this phenomenon and the noble conduct of Vasuki and were simply struck with amazement.

About midday, on another occasion, Valluvar called his wife and said, “Bring a lamp immediately, O Vasuki! I am stitching the cloth. I cannot see the eye of the needle. I cannot pass the thread properly”. Vasuki did not say to her husband: “It is broad daylight now. Why do you want a lamp? You can see the eye of the needle clearly”. But she implicitly obeyed his word. The aspirants were much inspired by the ideal life of sage Thiruvalluvar and the exalted conduct of Vasuki. They did not speak a word to the saint. They took leave of the saint and quietly left the place with profound satisfaction. They were deeply impressed by the practical and exemplary life led by Thiruvalluvar and Vasuki. They learnt the lesson that of life of an ideal householder was in no way inferior to that of an ideal Sannyasin who was treading the path of Nivritti and austerity in the Himalayan caves and that each was great in its own place, time and circumstances.

Dear readers! Such ladies sit enthroned in the hearts of their husbands. No doubt they are hard to find, because such women never advertise themselves; but there must be many in our land of Rishis and sages; and unless we maintain such a high level of moral purity, we will all be going down in these days of modern civilization and scientific advancement. If the husbands of the present day behave like Thiruvalluvar, the wives will say, "My“husband has become senseless. He wants to fan the rice when it is so cold! He wants a light when there is broad sunlight”. The wives will rebuke their husbands and fight with them.

That house wherein the wife serves the husband with sincere devotion and observes Pativrata Dharma is heaven on earth. They house wherein the wife fights with the husband and disobeys his orders is a veritable hell on earth. Ladies who practice Pativrata Dharma need not go to temples. They need not practice any Vrata or penance. Service to the husband becomes worship. They can realise God through service to their husbands. Husbands also should be ideal persons with noble qualities. Husbands are the Gurus for their wives. The wives need not get any initiation from any Acharya. Glory to such exalted ladies who practice Pativrata Dharma!


Tyagaraja Swami was a South Indian Telugu Brahmin. He was the son of Rama Brahman. Panchapakesan and Ramanathan were his brothers. Tyagaraja had only a daughter, named Seethalakshmi, who had a son Tyagaraja, named after the grandfather.

Tyagaraja Swami was a great musician-saint of South India. He was the father of South Indian music. He was a devotee of Lord Rama. Most of his devotional songs are in praise of Lord Rama. They are highly inspiring and soul elevating.

Tyagaraja Swami is said to have composed twenty-four thousand Kirtans or songs in praise of Lord Rama. Most of his songs are in Telugu and a few are in Sanskrit. Only about five hundred of his songs are sung by the songsters of the present day. When devotional songs are sung with piety and devotion, they at once elevate the soul to magnanimous spiritual heights and melt the mind in the Lord and lead to communion and Bhava Samadhi.

Tyagaraja used to sing in the temple of Ambal at Thiruvaiyaru and worship the Devi before he proceeded for his daily Bhiksha. He adopted the Uncha Vritti profession and lived on Bhiksha, though he was well known throughout South India and many Maharajas were willing to have him as the Durbar singer.

Tyagaraja Swami was a superman. He had direct Darshan of Lord Rama on several occasions. The Vigrahams or the idols that he worshipped were thrown into the river. Tyagaraja received directions in the dream from Lord Rama and located the exact spot in the river where the Vigrahams lay buried underneath the sand, after one year.

The then Raja of Pudukkottai once tested the merits of the songsters in a strange way. He placed an unlit lamp amongst them. He challenged the experts to light the lamp with a song only without using a match or any other means. Tyagaraja Swami meditated upon Narada for a while, sang the Raga Jyotisvarupini, and the lamp lighted of itself. All were struck with wonder.

Tyagaraja Swami restored to life a person who was accidentally drowned in a temple well while returning from a pilgrimage to Tirupathi. He had the knowledge of the correct day and hour of the passing away of his soul form the physical body. Divine Rishi Narada gave him the book named Swararnavam for propagating high-class music.

Tyagaraja never cared for wealth or position in society. He was humble. He courted poverty. Once, king Saraboji, the Raja of Thanjavur, sent a message to Tyagaraja. The messenger said, “Kindly compose a song or two in praise of the Raja and he will give you ten acres of land and a bag full of gold”. Tyagaraja replied, “Why should I use my music for flattering Rajas who lead a vicious life? Fie upon that cursed gold which goads people to indulge in vices and run after sensual enjoyments”. He sang a song in Kalyani, “Nidhi Chala Sukhama”. The meaning of the song is: “Which gives greater happiness-gold or worship of lord Rama? O soul! Speak the truth. Which is sweeter and more delicious-milk, butter and curd or the essence of the mectar of meditation and Bhajana of Rama? Which is more conducive to health - a dip in the Ganga of serenity of mind or in the muddy well of corruption? Which of the two is better-praise of a rich man who is puffed up with vanity or a song in praise of the all-merciful, omnipotent Lord?” The messenger did not speak a word. He left the place silently.

The then Maharaja of sent a messenger to fetch Tyagaraja at any cost. The messenger tempted Tyagaraja that the Maharaja would give him much wealth and a good position. Tyagaraja replied, “I regard wealth as an obstacle to man’s progress. It does not contribute any happiness to man. On the contrary, it brings all sorts of miseries. Only fools run after money”. He then explained to the messenger the meaning of his song “Padavi Ni Sadbhakti” in Sakalabhairavi Raga: “That state of mind which places implicit faith in Rama is the real position in life. There are many who can repeat all the Vedas, Shastras and Upanishads like a parrot, but who do not live in the spirit of their teachings. Can such persons be regarded as having attained the real position? There are many persons who possess a mountain of wealth, a number of wives and children, and who enjoy the friendship of Maharajas. Can they be considered to have attained the real position? Can a person who holds a so-called good status in society, but who leads a life of evil passions and dire ignorance, be regarded as having attained the real position? No, no. Only that man who has implicit faith in Rama, who meditates on the Lord, and who has obtained His grace has attained the real position”. The messenger went away quietly.

What a magnanimous soul was Tyagaraja! He spurned riches and position. The wealth of the three worlds is mere straw for a man who enjoys the wealth and bliss of God-realization. The state of such exalted souls is beyond description.

Tyagaraja Swami’s Samadhi is at Thiruvaiyaru on the banks of the Cauvery, about seven miles from the town of Thanjavur. All the songsters of South India assemble there and celebrate his anniversary with great joy every year in the month of January. In 1942 January, his 95th anniversary was celebrated.

Glory to Tyagaraja Swami whose songs instill devotion, joy and happiness in the heart of the hearers.


Nandanar belonged to the depressed class of South India. He was a Pariah saint. He was an embodiment of humility, patience and sincerity. He was a great devotee of Lord Nataraja of Chidabaram. Chidambaram is known as the Southern Kashi. It has a big temple. ‘Nataraja’ is another name for Lord Siva who is worshipped in this temple. If you remain in Chidambaram for some time, your sins will be destroyed. This is a popular belief.

Nandanar was serving a Brahmin in the cultivation of lands. When Nandanar asked his master for permission to go to Chidambaram for Darshan of lord Siva, the arrogant Brahmin landlord abused him and said, “You low-caste Pariah! You want to worship the Deity of the Brahmins! Go and worship the ghosts, the Bhutas- your family deities”. Nandanar was a great devotee of Lord Nataraja. He was always praying with devotion. On the incessant request of Nandanar, the Brahmin landlord told him: “yes you can go to Chidambaram, if you finish planting paddy in 250 acres of the farm in time”. Nandanar was in great despair. He wanted to attend the yearly festival at Chidambaram. He had to finish the work within two days. He cursed himself and prayed the whole night for Lord Nataraja’s grace and guidance. Lord Nataraja did a miracle to help His Bhakta. The next morning, the entire plot of land of 250 acres was green with paddy plants, with ears just shooting up. The Brahmin was quite astonished. He thought that Nandanar must be a great devotee. He immediately allowed him to go to Chidambaram.

Nandanar was thus able to go to Chidambaram. Here he had to face another trouble. The Brahmin temple priests, the Dikshitars, would not allow Nandanar to enter the temple as he was of low birth. Lord Nataraja appeared to them in their dream and said, “O priests, perform all the necessary purificatory ceremonies for Nandanar. He is My great devotee. Allow him to worship Me inside the temple”.

The Brahmins performed the ceremonies accordingly and allowed Nandanar to enter the inner shrine. Nandanar went into the inner shrine and worshipped Nataraja and was in the height of divine ecstasy. A dazzling, effulgent light was seen Nandanar disappeared. He was nowhere to be seen. He became one with Lord Nataraja.

God makes no difference between a high-caste Brahmin and a low-caste Pariah. What He wants is sincere devotion. Nandanar was more dear to Him than the Brahmin temple-priests. In the realm of Bhakti, there is no distinction of caste, creed or colour. He who has devotion is dear to the Lord.

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