Lord Skanda-Murugan

Murugan Bhakti: A User's Manual

Part I

by Patrick Harrigan

Muruga bhakti enjoys growing global popularity in the 21st Century. And yet few, even among Tamils, truly understand or appreciate Muruga bhakti. In this article, an American bhakta explores the origins, history, typology, and applications of Muruga bhakti in terms of his own experiences since the early 1970's.

In August 2012, Malaysia hosted the First International Conference on Muruga Bhakti. Many of the articles presented at the conference are published on www.Murugan.org, including this article by Murugan.org editor Patrick Harrigan.

Murugan bhakti, or devotion towards Lord Murugan (Subrahmanya or Skanda Kumāra), is an ancient spiritual path that has continually developed new expressions from remote Sangam times up to the present day. Its popularity continues to grow even in the 21st Century, not only among Tamil speaking people but also among seekers of truth from all over the world. Indeed, in these times of rampant materialism and cynicism towards ancient religious traditions, the need has never been greater for a genuine unbiased appreciation of Murugan bhakti in principle and in practice. This article is an attempt to address that need.

My own story

Coming from an American family of European heritage, my siblings and I were not indoctrinated into any particular religious denomination. Rather, our parents encouraged us to make our own religious choices. This ultimately led me to journey to India and Ceylon (before it was renamed Sri Lanka), where I intended to become a Buddhist monk in the early 1970's.

Patrick Harrigan as a Buddhist upasaka in Ceylon, 1971
Patrick Harrigan as a Buddhist upasaka in Ceylon, 1971

However, my choice of journeying to Ceylon to follow my conventional notion of a spiritual life had unforeseen results. For as soon as I heard of Kathirkāmam or Kataragama, a jungle shrine sacred to the island's Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and indigenous Vedda folk alike, I knew that I had to visit and see this remarkable place for myself. It would change my life.

A friend, a visiting American Buddhist, accompanied me to Kataragama where we stayed in a traditional yogāśramam, bathed in the waters of the Manikka Gangai, and approached Lord Kataragama Skanda's modest shrine with our offering of fruits, flowers and incense.

Kataragama has a well established reputation as a place where wishes are granted. So every pilgrim comes with a wish or an unsolved problem: students may ask to pass their examinations; others ask for resolutions to family problems; many come seeking to be cured of disease; while others come here hoping to get employed abroad.

Hearing that all these pilgrims were making a wish in exchange for their simple offerings, I resolved that I too ought to ask for something; after all, I had come from farther away than anyone. All I could think of was to ask the Kataragama God to find work for me also, any work. Without knowing it, simply by imitating the intentions and ritual actions of others, I had set in motion an unforeseeable chain of events.

My American Buddhist friend also described a peculiar European hermit who had been residing in Ceylon for decades, whom my friend was planning to revisit. I decided to accompany him and meet this 'German Swami' of Jaffna. This was yet another fateful step for me, for after barely meeting him I would soon recognize German Swami Gauribāla as my spiritual guide.

German Swami Gauribāla
German Swami Gauribāla

Swami Gauribāla Giri, although a cultured European, was not at all like modern swamis who yearn to have followers. Swami had already lived for 35 years as a homeless recluse from Ceylon to the Himalayas, much of that time under the stern tutelage of his mentor, the renowned sage Yoga Swami of Nallūr, whose indelible stamp remained upon Swami Gauribāla and many other ardent followers.

German Swami routinely shooed, shocked, or otherwise chased would be disciples away, such that few could remain for more than a few days, or weeks, or sometimes minutes only. After a few trials, Swami allowed me to stay at his ashram 'Summāsthān'. Despite being thrown out again and again, I always came back for more, from that day until Swami passed away in 1984.

In this traditional setting, I served my teacher by tending the ashram, listening to his spontaneous discourses, studying, and accompanying him on daily walks. I was willingly submitting myself unwittingly to an age old discipline: the traditional guru-disciple relationship designed to hammer and crack the eggshell of the disciple's ego consisting of his or her hardened opinions, the likes and dislikes that also define and delimit him or her. And in the bargain, I also imbibed the spirit of bhakti and sevā or thoṇḍu ('service').

Like Yoga Swami before him, German Swami used to perform pāda yātrā from Jaffna to Kataragama, a two month walk barefoot, annually with only the barest essentials tied in a tiny bundle, starting from the late 1940's consecutively for 25 years until the early 1970's when I accompanied him. In fact, his first ashram was in Kataragama and only later did he shift to Jaffna where he built his ashram to be near the 'Annādana Murugan' of Selva Sannidhi Murugan Temple, where daily offerings of annādanam (cooked food offered to the Deity and His devotees) keep hundreds of poor devotees