A small temple town which at first sight looks like any other small temple town in India, Thiruvannamalai is a tirtha sthala at the foothills of the Arunachala Mountain. As one slowly makes way to the Annamalai temple and around the holy mountain, deep truths and deeper understandings are said to be revealed about the place in the inner world, as well as the outer world. A closer look at the city reveals that Thiruvannamalai is a place where seekers from all over the world come for one purpose : enlightenment. Thiruvannamalai has seen an unbroken lineage of enlightened masters over the centuries, which continues till today. The caves of Arunachala have been the cradle for nurturing enlightened souls over the decades. Any visit to Thiruvannamalai is incomplete without the sacred Girivelam or walk around the mountain. It is in these caves where Bhagvan Ramana Maharshi lived and enlightened thousands of people. His ashram exists in the town even today, run by his disciples.
Lord Shiva is the presiding deity of the town and is said to reside in the place in three forms – the Arunchala mountain, the shiva linga in the Annamalai temple, and as a living incarnation or enlightened master. Nithyananda hails from the revered lineage of enlightened masters of this divine land, following Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, Sri Seshadri Swamigal and Yogi Ramsuratkumar. He is respected as the currently presiding living incarnation.
According to legend, there was once an argument between Lord Brahma, the Creator, and Lord Vishnu, the Sustainer, as to which of them was the greater. (Brahma and Vishnu are two of the three Gods who constitute the Trinity of the Hindu pantheon of divinity.) They were unable to resolve the dispute so they took their argument to Shiva, the Rejuvenator (the third member of this Divine Trinity). Shiva appeared before them in his Vishwaroopa – His Cosmic form – as an endless shaft of light. The two ends of the shaft that were his head and feet could not be seen. He said ‘whoever can find either of my ends is the greater of the two of you.’
Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up towards Shiva’s head, and Vishnu went downwards as a boar, burrowing into the earth to find Shiva’s feet. They searched for many yugas (ages). After much effort, Vishnu realized that he could not find Shiva’s feet surrendered his ego to Shiva, asking Him to forgive his arrogance. Shiva blessed him for his honesty.
Brahma, however, could not accept his failure. On his way up, he saw a flower (screwpine or taazham poo in Tamil) falling down and asked the flower where it was coming from. The flower said it had fallen from behind Shiva’s ear. Brahma asked, ‘How long have you been traveling?’ The flower replied, ‘I have been falling for four ages (lifetimes) of Brahma!’ Brahma realized he had no hopes of finding Shiva’s head, but he still did not want to accept his failure. Brahma decided that he would tell Shiva a lie about finding this flower on his ear and asked the flower to bear witness that he had brought it down from Shiva’s head.
Returning to Shiva, who again assumed his normal form, Brahma announced that he had seen Shiva’s head and had brought back this flower as his witness. Shiva instantly knew what had happened and was angry at the lie told to him. He punished Brahma saying, ‘For the lie that you have uttered, you will be never again be worshipped by the people.’ He punished the screwpine flower saying, ‘You will never ever be used as an offering to me in worship.’ To this day, there are no major temples dedicated to Brahma; and the screwpine flower is never offered to Shiva in worship. Brahma realized his mistake and sought Shiva’s forgiveness. Both Vishnu and Brahma requested Shiva to retain his form as that shaft of light to bless the Universe. At their request, Shiva in that form of Divine Light became Arunachala, the glowing mountain, and also assumed the form of the Shiva linga (a dome shaped deity that symbolizes Shiva) called Arunachaleshwara, at the temple in Tiruvannamalai.