Devotees of Arunachala are well aware of Giri Pradakshina but what is Atma Pradakshina? To find out let us go back to a certain day in May 1946 when Bhagavan was still present physically in the ashram. On that day, Sundaresa Iyer, a devotee who used to bring food for Bhagavan came and bowed before him. Bhagavan asked him, “Did you go around the hill by way of pradakshina ?” “No, said the devotee.” To this Bhagavan said, “last night when people were going out for giri pradakshina because of the moonlight, he also started to go. But he felt he could not complete the round. When they were starting out after telling me, he went around me quickly. When I asked him why he did so, he said, I am afraid I cannot go round the hill. So I have gone around Bhagavan.” “Go round yourself. That will be Atma pradakshina”, so saying Bhagavan began laughing.
Here Bhagavan narrated a relevant story: “Once upon a time, Lord Shiva wanted to teach a lesson to his son Subramanya who fancied himself to be a great sage; so Lord Shiva sat on the top of Mount Kailasam with Parvathi, holding a wonderful fruit in his hand. Seeing the fruit, both the sons of Lord Shiva, Ganesh and Subramanya each asked their father Shiva to give it to him. To this Shiva said that he would give the fruit to whoever of them got back first after going round the whole world. With confidence and pride that he would win the race, Subramanya started immediately riding on his favorite mount, the peacock and began going at a fast pace, frequently looking behind to assure himself that his elder brother Ganesh was not following. What could poor Ganesh do, with his huge belly? His mount was after all a mouse. So he thought it was no good competing with Subramania in the race around the world, and instead went around his parents Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi, bowed before them and claimed the reward. When they asked him to justify his action he replied, “All the worlds are contained within you; so if I go around you, it is as good as going round the whole world.” Pleased with his reply, Shiva gave him the fruit and Ganesh started eating it with pleasure.
In full confidence that he would be the winner, Subramanya completed his world tour very fast and flew back to Kailash to claim his reward, the fruit from Shiva. To his consternation he found Ganesh sitting there and calmly eating it. Enraged he shouted and asked how that could be, it was unfair and he never saw Ganesh going around before him. So Lord Shiva patiently explained to Subramanya what had happened and how Ganesh came to claim the reward. After hearing this, Subramanya felt ashamed and and realised how full of vanity and pride he was. He bowed humbly before his parents and asked to be pardoned. That is the story.
The significance of this tale is that the ego which goes round like a whirlwind must get destroyed, and must get absorbed in Atma. That is the meaning of Atma Pradakshina” finished Bhagavan.