There was once a great desire on the part of Sages in Naimisharanya forest to know which among the many Shiva kshetras on land was the greatest one. Earlier, this indeed was the question which bothered Sage Markandeya who however preferred to seek an answer from Nandikeswara.
“Deveswara, Ocean of Kindness!” said Markandeya, addressing Nandikeswara, “I am very anxious to know from your lips about the whereabouts and existence of a kshetra from which people in general derive from the smallest efforts or minimum discipline pure enlightenment that leads even the ignorant among them to salvation such as by wearing Rudrakshi and Bhasma or by just a single remembrance of Iswara. There is nothing that you do not know in all the three worlds, in all the Agamas and in all the Puranas – inside or outside. Please tell me which great kshetra harbours power potentiality for enlightening and salvaging salvation for the ignorant ones by mere living in such a place. Such a great place should be capable of offering redemption to those born in lower and mixed communities and even lower forms of existence”!
“Great devotee of Maheswara!” said Nandikeswara, “there is a place which can be an instrument of happiness for all living beings on earth as wished by you. Depending upon the karma of people, Maheswara himself has fixed the place and origins of their birth. You have served Maheswara with the sole aim of human welfare constantly in view. Or else, how could there ever be freedom from bondage for such multitudes of people even after many a millennium? From karmic knowledge of a low order, people go through the cyclical monotony of birth, death and rebirth without ever seeing the silver linings of happiness. How can one unfetter oneself from the shackles of embryonic life except by pure enlightenment”?
“Markandeya!” continued Nandikeswara, “ I have told you a lot about many kshetras reputed to have the sanctity of Maheswara’s pervasiveness and Maharshis’s presence. Some of the Maharshis have been living on the banks of sacred rivers like Ganges, Narmada, Godavari, Tunga Bhadra, Krishna, Kaveri and Shona. Some others have been living near the sea-shore. Some live on islands and some near the confluence of rivers. Those who die in the sacred place of Kashi will attain Rudra’s form. Kedara, a very sacred place, is reputed to redeem even rakshasas from sins. Badarikashrama is another sacred one known to fulfil devotees desires. Gaya and Prayag are places which can elevate departed souls by virtue of offerings made to such souls. In Srishaila, the Lord is known as Mallikarjuna and his consort Bhramaramba. It is in this place that Brahma offered worship for carrying out his creative mission bereft of impediments. Vyasa and several others worshipped Iswara in Kalahasti. In Kanchi, he was worshipped by Kamakshi the thapasvini and joined by her. Sri Rama installed Shiva as Ramanatheswara in Sethu – as remover of sins. Mahalakshmi had Vishnu as her Lord by virtue of her worship of Valmikeswara in a kshetra called Kamalaalaya. Kankadri is one in which Parameswara is being worshipped by Brahma and Vishnu even today.
In Gokarna, Parasurama, by performing puja to Shiva, got what transcended everything and he chose to spurn even heavenly comforts! Prabhaasa is another Shiva kshetra where the Lord conferred inexhaustible benefits and blessings on Krishna and Balarama. Sage Valmiki’s great poetic genius was attributable to his penance in the kshetra of Veerakoshta.In Avinash, the Lord manifested himself as Vrishabha-vahana to bless a devotee called Padikanta. Mahadeva’s presence and blessings are positively available even in kaliyuga in a place like Srisundara on river Vegavati. Kumbhakonam in the lunar month of Magha and Irayambaka on river Godavari are places of sanctity from which Lord Kumaraswamy gained power in early times to deal a death-blow to Tarakasura”.
“More than anything, Markandeya!” stressed Nandikeswara, “you know that Parameswara rendered the inimitable Yama powerless with his trident just to protect you in Kadambapuri from the clutches of death. I have told you all about the greatness of several Shiva temples. What else do you wish to know”?
Great one equal to all others!
“Nandikeswara!” appealed Markandeya to the repository of knowledge, “I am your unflinching disciple devoted to your greatness and kindness. Pray! tell me about the location of one kshetra which confers on one and all the benefits of all other kshetras. The place should be one conferring salvation on all beings by the singular act of remembrance. Great one! I am not alone in pressurizing you with this question. This big gathering of great Rishis assembled here in front of you is also equally keen on seeking an answer to the question. As the greatest among devotees of Shiva, as an expert in all the Vedas, as a traveller in all the worlds, as one who gave initiation to me and these Rishis and as the personification of Parameswara, Divine Mother and Kumaraswamy, please unravel this mystery to us”.
Nandikeswara was moved by the immortal Markandeya’s perseverance and humble prayers.
“Great among Sages! It is only to test your mind that I embarked on the greatness of other kshetras in so many words. Who else is more eligible than you to know the marvel of the greatest monument? Who is better devoted to Shiva dharma than one who attained immortality from certainty of early death? Who else but you could send Parameswara into a fit of rage in Yama’s presence? Who else but you has served me more? How can anyone else be dearer to me than you?”
The secret kshetra
“I shall now tell you about the secret kshetra enshrined in the sacred scriptures. Those interested in liberation must display eagerness in knowing it. Which Guru refuses to enthrall and enlighten the disciple who approaches him with absolute eagerness and keenness? I want you to evince permanent interest in the mystery shrouding Parameswara. Listen to me with patience”.
“In the Dravidian region of South India’’, revealed Nandikeswara, ‘there is the greatest place called Arunachala dearest to Chandrasekara. It is the abode of Shiva yogis. Arunachala is to this world what the heart is to the whole body. Shiva took the form of a mountain and settled himself as Arunachala. For all the Siddhas, Maharshis, Devathas, Vidyadharas, Yakshas, Gandharva, celestial damsels who reside there. Arunachala is none other than Parameswara himself and hence more significant than Mt.Kailas or Mt. Mandara. Even those in heaven desire to live there as they are aware that even worms attain salvation effortlessly. The trees of Arunachala are superior to Kalpa Vrikshas in heaven! The mountain is guarded and worshipped by Indra and other Dikdevatas everyday. The darshan of the thejasic peak equals the three-eyed form of Parameswara’.
“There is no sacred place like Arunachala” said Nandikeswara, “there is no better discipline than devotion. There is no better protection than that afforded by vibhuti. There is no happiness superior to detachment. There is no position superior to salvation. If other kshetras are abodes of Shiva, Arunachala is the absolute form of Shiva himself”.
Nandikeswara’s assertions on the greatness of Arunachala brought Markandeya to his knees; he offered prostrations in fulfilment.