This part is taken from Various Stories & Tales in “Spiritual Stories” as Told by Ramana Maharshi
One of the devotees who had heard of the verses written by Bhagavan about the deliverance of Lakshmi, the cow, approached Him and said, “Swami, we ourselves see that animals and birds are getting deliverance in your presence; but is it not true that only human beings can get moksha?”
“Why? It is stated that a 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.
In Chidambaram, thre was a jnani by the name of Umapathi Sivacharya. He was a poet and also a pandit. As he was in a transcendental state of spirituality (athita sthithi), he did not pay much attention to the usual brahminical practices. Hence, the dikshitars 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 village or even visiting the temple. He therefore lived in a small hut built on a raised ground outside the village. A low caste man called Pethan Samban used to supply him with all that he required and also helped him in a general way. As things went on like this, one day, when Pethan was carrying on his head a bundle of firewood to the hut, Iswara Himself met him on the way in the guise of the dikshitar in charge of the temple. He wrote a verse on a palmyra leaf and 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 into the order of sannyasa, though he belonged to the lowest caste. In due course he gave nayana diksha (transmission of Power through the eyes) to Pethan, immediately after which Pethan merged 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 had for this initiation. They complained to the king that Sivacharya had burnt Pethan to death for some mistake, he 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 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. Out of regard for the king, when Arathi (waving of lights) was offered to Lord Nataraja, it was found that on either side of the Lord there 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 village with due honours.