One of the devotees who yesterday heard of the verse written by Bhagavan about the deliverance of Lakshmi approached him this morning and said, “Swami, we ourselves see that animals and birds are getting deliverance (moksha) in your presence, but is it not true that only human beings can get moksha?”
“Why? It is stated that a Mahapurusha (great saint) gave moksha to a thorn bush,” said Bhagavan with a smile. The devotee eagerly asked who that great saint was and what was the story about the thorn bush, and Bhagavan then related this story:
“In Chidambaram, there was a Jnani by the name of Umapathi Sivacharya. He was a poet and also a pandit. As he was in an extraordinary state of spirituality, (athita sthithi), he did not pay much attention to the usual Brahminical practices. Hence, the pandits of the place became angry with him, especially since he was a learned man and knew all the precepts of the Hindu religion. They forbade him from living in the town or even visiting the temple. He therefore lived in a small hut built on a raised ground outside the town. A low caste man called Pethan Samban used to supply him with all that he required and also help him in a general way. As things went on like this, one day, when that Pethan was carrying on his head a bundle of firewood to the hut of the Dikshita, Ishwara Himself met him on the way in the guise of the Dikshita in charge of the temple, wrote a verse on a palmyra leaf, gave it to him telling him that it was to be handed over to Umapathi Sivacharya and then disappeared.
“Pethan gave that verse to Sivacharya, who, on opening it, found in the first line itself the words, ‘Adiyarkkadiyen chitrambalavanan’ (the servant of the devotees, the Lord of Chidambaram). Immediately, he was overwhelmed with devotion and a thrill passed through his body as he read the letter. The gist of the verse was: ‘A note from Chidambaranathan — the servant of the devotees — to the person who has set up a new establishment, namely Sivacharya. It is your duty to give initiation to this Pethan Samban regardless of caste and to the surprise of all people.’
“He read the letter and was overwhelmed with joy. In obedience to the orders of the Lord, he initiated Pethan, though he belonged to the lowest caste and in due course he gave nayana diksha (transmission of power through the eyes) to Pethan. Immediately after which Pethan vanished into holy light. Sivacharya himself was immensely surprised at this occurrence and only then understood the wisdom of Pethan.”
“Enemies of Sivacharya noticed the sacrificial offerings and other things he was having for his initiation and complained to the Government that Sivacharya had burnt Pethan to death for some mistake the Pethan might have committed. When the king came there with his retinue to enquire into the complaint, Sivacharya showed the verse of Lord Nataraja and said that he gave initiation to Pethan and that Pethan vanished thereafter in the form of a divine light (Jyoti). The king was surprised and asked Sivacharya if he could likewise give initiation and moksha to the thorn bush nearby. ‘Yes. What doubt is there?’ said Sivacharya.
“Accordingly he gave nayana diksha to that thorn bush and that too immediately disappeared in Pure Light (Jyoti).
“The king was still more astonished at that and said, ‘This looks like some black magic. You said this note had been written by Lord Nataraja. Let us go and ask Him.’ Sivacharya pointed out that there was a ban on his entering the temple. The king said that would not matter as he himself was accompanying Sivacharya. Accordingly they started for the temple together. Hearing all this, all the people — the pundits, the common people curious about the whole thing and the enemies of Sivacharya who were sure he would be duly punished — flocked to the temple to see the strange sight. The two entered the temple, and out of regard for the king, arati (waving of lights) was offered to Lord Nataraja. It was then found that on either side of the Lord stood Pethan and the thorn bush. The pundits were surprised and, out of fear and remorse, fell at the feet of Sivacharya, requesting him to pardon them for all their faults. They subsequently brought him back into the town with due honours. This story is found in Chidambara Mahatmyam.”
~ ‘Letters from Sri Ramanasramam’, Letter 196 (21st July, 1948).