Ramalinga Swamy of the nineteenth Century was a mystic, revolutionary thinker and a reformer. His main contribution to the religious life of the Indian society is his concept of the True Path (Suddha Sanmarga). It is a way of life transcending the conventional patterns of religion. The basis of this new path was the ideal of compassion towards all beings (Jiva Karunyam) and oneness of the souls of all beings (Aanma-neya Orumaippaatu). Based on these spiritual values he condemned the evils of casteism and religious bigotry, since they are the main hindrances for the pure path he proposed.
It is interesting to note that Ramalinga was a contemporary of Ram Mohan Roy, Dayanandha Saraswati and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Unlike these men Ramalinga hails from the non-brahmin circle. Like Dayananda and Ramakrishna, Ramalinga had no English education. He was well versed in Tamil and the bulk of his writings is in verse form. He was not enjoying the sympathy and support of the public as in the case of Northern reformers. His name is not known very much outside Tamilnadu. His writings with the exception of a few poems are not available in European languages.
The life and work of Ramalinga has to be viewed within the framework of Tamil Saivism. The origin of Saivism could be traced back to the very early period of Indian history (c. 100 BC-200 AD). But it was in the sixth century that Saivism gained momentum in Tamilnadu which became so powerful to suppress the growth of Jainism and Buddhism. The great exponents of Saivism are Tirumular and Tirunavukarasar. In the later part of the history of Saivism the Siddhas had an important role to play. Their songs became popular among the masses. They protested against the traditional mode of worship and religious observances.
Ramalinga was born and brought up in Saiva tradition and was influenced by the lives and writings of the Saiva saints. He was conscious of the fact that he was in the line of the Saiva saints and Siddhas. He himself says: ‘My Lord, do I not belong to the illustrious line of your devotees who flourished in uninterrupted succession like the plantains’ (Hymns of Tiruvarutpaa).
Ramalinga met with severe opposition from the orthodox Saivites of his time. He was branded a heretic and he was called a pseudo-teacher of Saivism for his radical thinking and new teaching. He built a place of worship entirely different in structure from that of the Saiva temple and placed a light in the place of the idol. A careful study of his teachings would reveal his faithfulness to the fundamental doctrines of Saivism. The bulk of his poems and lyrics is in praise of Lord Siva. By showing the path of love and compassion he made Saivism accessible to the masses.
Life of Ramalinga
Ramalinga was born on fifth October 1823 at Marudhur, a place near Chidambaram. He himself says about the purpose of his birth: ‘it is to correct the people of the world whose heart is full of darkness and to gain for them admission in to the Sanmarga Sangam and thus make it possible for them to experience heaven here and now that God has sent me in this yuga, charged with his divine grace.’ (5485)
His father died when he was young and he was brought up by his elder brother Sabapathy Pillai. It is said that he had a vision of the Lord Muruga when he was nine years old. This incident had an abiding influence on Ramalinga and made him think of God as light. He desired the life of an ascetic from his young age and led a life of simplicity and humility. He undertook a pilgrimage on foot to visit important Shiva temples in Tamilnadu. In 1858, he came to Karunkulli at the age of thirty-five and stayed their for nine years. He wrote a number of lyrics during this period and preached to his disciples. He appealed to the people to give up meat eating. He did not wear Saffron colored clothes. He wore a white robe.
Convinced that a society should be set up for spreading his message of compassion to all living beings and the principles of his true path, he established in 1865 the Samarasa Sudha Sanmarga Sangam. Membership was open to all who had compassion towards living beings and who vowed to abstain from killing and flesh eating. No restrictions were imposed on the basis of cast, creed, religion or nationality. The main objectives of the Sangam are as follows:
- Teaching and practice of compassion to all beings
- Abolishing meat-eating, temple sacrifices and superstitious beliefs
- Casting away caste differences and bringing about unity among people of all creeds by making them realize that the oneness of all souls is love.
- Inculcation of the glorious life without death.
In 1866, he came to the village Vadalur and built a charity home with the help of his wealthy friends and named it Satya Dharma Sala. It was his strong conviction that physical poverty should be removed before making any attempt to feed people with the spiritual food. This Dharmasala is still functioning. He also started his centre to train children and he made arrangements for instruction to be given in Tamil, Sanskrit and English.
Ramalinga’s poems are written in Tamil and they reveal his mystical and revolutionary thinking. Tiruvarutpa contains about 7000 poems. The book is divided in to 6 parts. It includes the poems he wrote for inner circle. The first four sections consisting of 3028 verses were written during his early life in Madras (now Chennai) till 1858. The fifth section consisting of 237 verses was composed between 1858 and 1867. Up to this period he was attached to cultic worship and visited several temples like Cidambaram. The sixth section consisting of 2551 poems was written during the last seven years of his life (1867-74) – the most remarkable period of his life. During this period he was preoccupied with thoughts relating to siddhahood and he claims to have attained this stage in several verses.
God Caught in Love
“My Lord! You are very great like a mountain, but you come within the handgrip called Love. You are a great king who enters in to the small hut called devotion. You are the (price-less) treasure that is caught in the net called Love… You are very great and unfathomable like an ocean, but you abide in the small pot called Love… You are the effulgent luster that abides even in a small atom. You are the almighty Siva who is the very incarnation of Love.’ (3269)
Life and Service for your Glory
“O, my father, this is my appeal. Please hear and grant it to me. I must love all living beings and serve them. I must traverse the length and breadth of the entire world and proclaim your glory and grace. I must wield the scepter of your gracious light, so that the true path of Sanmargam which occupies an ineffably supreme position, may flourish everywhere. You must also forgive me, if I commit any mistake, unaware, in my enthusiasm; and grant me that state of inseparable union with you, my Lord.” (4079)
Reverence for Life
“…Whenever I saw crops withering for want of rain, my heart did wither too. When I happened to see poor people exhausted and worn out due to starvation for days together, even after begging at every door with their hunger never satisfied, my heart throbbed fearfully obsessed by grief. When I came across people suffering for a long time from incurable and chronic diseases, I was agonized. When I met people spotlessly honorable but totally depressed on account of poverty, I also got depressed.” (3471)
Return to the Lord
“In castes, in philosophical dogmas, in the ceremonials of sectarian practices, in the noisy debates on Sastras, in the wars of Gotras–
Pinning your faith in these differences, distinctions and quarrels from times immemorial, you men and women of the world are restless and tossed about hither and thither…
The Lord… is now coming to open and in the broad daylight of our experience will play his unique game of glory and grace.
It is therefore time for you to turn this way. And I do call you all, men and women of the world, in the name of our Lord and Master, to your ineffable destiny of perfection.” (5566)
Ramalinga had been making plans for the building of a place of worship. He drew up the plan himself for the construction and gave it to his disciples to erect the structure. The building was completed in 1871 and was opened for worship. It was called the Hall of True Wisdom. It was designed in the shape of a full-blown lotus flower representing the human body, the temple of God. A mirror and an oil lamp were installed in the sanctuary. The darsan of light continues till today. On Taipusam day thousands of people crowd at Vadalur.
Opposition from Orthodox Saivites
The opposition came chiefly from the great heads of monasteries of Tiruvannamalai, Tiruvadudurai and Dharmapuram. In fact, they filed a suit against Ramalinga and dragged him to the court. Ramalinga defended himself and won the case. He was deeply wounded in heart, but then he invites his advisories to forget all hatred and join him. He noticed a growing tendency among his disciples to regard him as a demigod and he told them:
Please listen to me. I speak, prostrating myself at your feet. Only consider me as one among you. Worship only the God Almighty. Do not speak in the fashion of people who profess false religion and spoil your wisdom. (5452)
The undisciplined life of his followers and the disappointing behavior of the people to his teachings were most painful to him. In 1873, he ordered the true Hall of Wisdom building to be locked up and he spoke the following words to those who were around him:
You are not worthy to be members of the Sangam. You do not follow the principles of my teachings. It appears that you are determined not to be convinced by me. Before long some people from Russia and America and other foreign countries will come to this land and preach to you the same doctrine of universal love and brotherhood that I have all along preached to you. Then you will know and appreciate the great truths which I have been vainly trying to put before you. You will also find the brothers from the north doing many wonders in India. 
After closing the Hall, Ramalinga made his abode in a nearby village called Mettukkuppam. Soon he decided to get absorbed in Samadhi. On 30th January 1874 Ramalinga delivered his final discourse to his disciples and he said:
Friends, I opened a shop but there was none to purchase; so I have closed it. I will not be visible to your eyes for a certain period, although I will be universally present in the world. My imperishable body will enter into the bodies of all living beings. I will reappear again at the proper time after having preached my message in other countries. Till then take to the path of compassion for all living beings. Worship God in the form of light and attain salvation. 
Ramalinga went in to this room and he gave orders that the room be locked from outside. He had already told his disciples not to open the room and not to be disappointed as he would not be visible to their eyes. He also told them that if the government officers ordered the door to be opened, there was no need to fear, for by the grace of God nothing would be found in the room.
This news spread everywhere, the local police reported it to the higher authorities. J. H. Garstin, the then collector of South Arcot District had made an enquiry. But he did not open the room. Ramalinga is said to have granted visions to several of his disciples during that period. Two years later it was opened by his devotee who had a vision of him. Ramalinga stated in his final discourse that he would reappear again at the proper time, after having preached his message to other countries. Some believe that Ramalinga was born in previous birth as Tayumanavar and so on.
The Mission and Message of Ramalinga
Ramalinga is a Bhakta and a Siddha. He believes that the Lord has granted him unique place in the galaxy of the Saivite Saints as well as the Siddhars.
“… You placed me my Lord
At the very centre
In the assembly of your saints –
As a deity indeed am treated by you
Who dance in the Hall of Wisdom” (4800)
Ramalinga speaks about his first hand experience of God. He follows the patterns set by his predecessors.
It is my firm belief that
The words I speak are in fact
The words of the Lord.
This is the opportune time
To meet the Lord who is to come-
The divine dancer-
And attain gifts he bestows graciously.
The Sacred hall dancer
Has become my own self;
He is not ‘he’ anymore,
Nor am I ‘I’ any longer.
The words I speak are
The words of my Lord who speaks through me.
They are not my own!” (5502, 5503)
Ramalinga would not tolerate dead bodies cremated. He believed in raising of the dead bodies back to life. Strangely enough he speaks of the resurrection of the bodies and the coming of the Lord. He seems to have borrowed these concepts from Christianity and Islam. Ooranatigal acknowledges the fact that these ideas are new to the Saivites. Ramalinga’s argument against the practice of burning the dead are interesting although not convincing.
“This body of ours is God given.
It is a crime
To cremate the same.
Although I warn you
You continue to cremate.
The blessed day is at hand
When the Siddha-Lord
Will raise all who are dead.
Won’t you understand this
And see the reason why
The good people always buried their dead?
You are like cows that are blind!” (5608)
In a few verses he emphasizes that raising the dead is an eschatological phenomenon which is linked up with the coming of the Lord. The following words are worth noting. He speaks to his doubting and perturbed mind by way of confirming the hope he cherished in his heart:
“Do not be afraid my heart!
This is the time for the Father to come.
Do not doubt it anymore.
Keep on proclaiming this truth to the people of the world.
Your words will not become null and void
I swear on my God.
It is certain that we will raise the dead
Rejoicing in the state of the great gracious form of light
While being praised by all the inhabitants
Of this world, the heaven and the beyond!
Do not be afraid my heart!” (4875)
In another verse he says that it will be the Father who on his coming to the world, will raise the dead rather than himself.
“Reach this place quickly
You people of the world.
The invitation I make is true indeed;
Don’t take that to be a false one.
This is the opportune time
For the all-powerful Siddha-Lord to come
To exhibit his great powers
By making the aged renew their youth
And by raising the dead to life.
If you accept the invitation
You will be much benefited”. (5583)
The Spirituality of Ramalinga
He prescribes the new-found path laying emphasis on four points.
- The limitations of the scriptures and the sastras
- Rising above Caste, Creed and Sectarianism
- Following the True Path – Sanmargam
- Showing Compassion for all living beings
The Limitations of Scriptures and Sastras
He is chiefly concerned with popularizing his conviction that the Lord’s dancing place is not confined to a particular geographical location somewhere, but the Lord dances everywhere, in the dance-hall of our consciousness (cid-ambaram) and in all five elements. Dance is symbol of divine presence in the Saiva vocabulary. Hence his criticism of those who absolutize human construction of socio-politico-religious structures.
You have shown me
The path of Vedas ad Agamas:
The paths prescribed
By the Puranas and Itihasas;
And hereby the “limitations” implicit in them,
You have made me understand the truth
By your direct instruction (3767)
Sectarianism based on Caste and Creed
Ramalinga says that he was taught by the Lord that sectarian groups and their activities are childish affairs. He was brought up in his early days as a staunch Saivite and he had become radical particularly during the last seven years of his life. He rebukes those who would engage themselves in vain disputes and controversies relating to the superiority of their sects over the others.
“Professing various faiths
You expound the false Sastras
And shout saying:
‘He is our God’ ‘He is our God’
But you fail to see that God is one.
You are wiser indeed than those blind men
Who touched the elephant and disputed!
When this body composed of five elements perishes
What will you do?
You do not know the means
To make the perishable body imperishable.
This is the time for the coming of my beloved Father.
Salvation for you has come now.
Receive the same and rejoice”. (5570)
Ramalinga says that he was taught by the Lord of dance that the all the gods of the Hindu pantheon and the founders of religion have their own limitations and they are mere children compared to the One Lord who is gracious light.
Brahmas, Rudras, Narayanas and Indras
Together with the founders of faiths
Like Arhat and Buddha
Form only a small group of children,
who have emerged from celestial spheres
and obtained only a little light of grace
and moved about here and there
on heaven and earth
tasting the honey that was available.
Know this through the gracious Light.
Thus you taught me, my Guru, the Dancer King. (4178)
Sanmarga, the True Path
Ramalinga’s whole message is summarized in Suddha Sanmarga which is claimed to be the path that destroys death. So he appeals to people to follow this path, worshipping the Lord in the form of love and compassion. Speaking to his Lord he says:
You told me my Lord
That the reality explained by
Vedanta, Siddhanta and other antas
Could be known only in the state of
Suddha Siva Sanmarga
Through great light of grace
And by any means. (4179)
It is an important concept in Saivism, already emphasized by Tirumular. Very often in Tamilnadu the word saivam in ordinary language means vegetarianism. But B. Natarajan observes it is what Buddha called compassion and Christ described as love. Ramalinga explains the necessity and purpose of Jivakarunyam in his treatise on the subject with the following words:
“The purpose of Observance of love towards all beings is to remove suffering that results from hunger and killing of living beings. It should be realized that God has manifested himself in nature, in the very bodies of the living beings. When they are found to be destroyed, we should, out of compassion (Jivakarunyam) give them food and thus make those temples of the Lord shine forth in splendor.
From the earliest times and wherever the human spirit has emerged in conscious recognition of the reality of God, the mystical element has appeared in explicit form as the inner heart, the kernel of religious sensitivity. In all religions of the world – East or West- union with God, the blissful awareness of the ultimately Real, as in the case of Buddhism, has figured as the goal of spiritual development. The mystical anthropology is based on the belief and the experience that all human beings are united in a common nature, so that the assumption and transformation of that nature in the one Instance involves the totality in virtue of human solidarity. But the actual divinization of humankind is communicated to each person by actual development – the explicitation of that divine potential by deliberate conformation to the primary Instantiation, the Christ, however he is known. This is what Raimon Panikkar is trying to articulate in his book, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, (1964, 1981)  which is further developed in his later work The Fullness of Man. A Christophany (Orbis, 2004, ISPCK, 2006)
The mystic who has embarked upon the dangerous path into the wilderness of the spirit, must return to the social realm which he/she took leave of. For the truth of his/her quest must be tested and confirmed at the point from which it was launched. There can be no authentic union with God which does not promote a further union of human persons. Mysticism is a social project. The mystic who returns to the world that has produced him/her becomes the prophet in action attempting to translate the solitary vision of illumined compassion into collective fact. The mystic seeks out the most oppressed and forgotten members of the society. Only when there is hope for the wretched of the earth, is there hope for all. 
Karl Rahner, a well-known Christian theologian of the 20th century, once remarked that the future Christian must be a mystic or he ceases to be a Christian. That means, that without this dimension, there will be no Christianity at all. This is true of all us. In other words, mysticism is not restricted to the a few privileged ones who had extraordinary state of consciousness and adventures as in the past. The mysticism of tomorrow will be ordinary, in the sense that our everyday life will continue to be the field and school, the realm of the actual in which alone our latent mystical aptitudes can become realized. This is what Panikkar is trying to present in his book The Blessed Simplicity. (1982)
Such mystics like Ramalinga remain in history always as pointers or foot-prints of a divine mystery. They do not disappear after their physical death. They remain as reminders to humanity of a larger wisdom tradition crossing the historical and geographical boundaries. They are symbols of divine/human mystery and act as proof for the profound truth, infusing confidence in us.
It also highlights an important fact of life that any reformer/missionary has to face conflicts and oppositions from fellow human beings, who will block the spiritual transformation. That is the history of all mystics/missionaries of love. Their language is not intelligible to others and their life-style looks incongruous with the rest of the society and they are pushed to the periphery of society. But they come back in some form or other as avataras in another period of time and in another part of the world. The process of struggle will go on, since we are subject to the human contingencies, but the coming of the divine Kingdom will not be thwarted by human manipulations, since it is a divine project and not a human achievement. Every mystic comes into the world with the message: The Kingdom of God is at hand. You can recognize it, only if you are converted at heart.
 Quoted by Dayanadan Francis, The Mission and Message of Ramalinga Swamy, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1990, p.17
 Ibid, p. 17
 “Economic Vision of Ramalinga”, in the Centenary Souvenir of the Sangam, 1965, p.89
 Quoted by Dayanandan Francis, p.71
 Richard Woods, Mysterion. An Approach to Mystical Spirituality, The Thomas More Press, Chicago, 1981, p. 360
 Richard Woods, p.363