In late 1992 Bill Clinton had been newly elected as president of the United States. He was the first president from the Democratic party in over 12 years and there was a general atmosphere of a "new beginning" in the country. Bhagawat, a life-long fan of national politics, was caught up in the enthusiasm and followed the most minute details of the political moment on AM news radio and the New York Times ("The Bible" as he often called it). It was a topic of nearly endless discussion. His enthusiasm found voice in a letter he wrote late that year to the president. "I would like to come to the White House," he explained, "and recite a few holy hymns, sacred songs, that it has been my life calling and highest aspiration to remember and sing." He envisioned a small gathering of the first-family and a few friends where he would recite Tulsidas poems and the Sri Lalita-sahasranam. His letter was full of praise for the president and the very flowery language that is typical from Bhagawat. He sent his letter off in high spirits. A month or so later a reply letter came from Vernon Jordan, the chief of staff of president Clinton. The administration had considered Bhagawat's proposal and would very much like to have him come to the White House. They would contact him shortly to arrange the details. This news virtually propelled Bhagawat into outer space. He talked about nothing else for weeks: when would be best to go? who would go along? what would be the seating arrangement?! In the end it never actually worked out and there was no White House visit. Perhaps this was because the administration was taking a low profile after early political debacles like the "hair force one" incident. We will never know, but all the same it was the type of thing Bhagawat is famous for. Bhagawat was a firehose of enthusiasm. An uninhibited torrent of "devotion, love and affection" poured from him and "soaked the land".
I first encountered Bhagawat in August of 1989 at the New York ashram on Yellowstone Blvd. where he was staying. (The ashram had just moved to Queens from the original location, 342 East 6th St. in Manhattan). That summer I was working at the Sri Rajarajeshwari Peetham's Hindu Heritage camp for children, about 150 miles east of New York city in the Pennsylvania countryside. As camp counselors, we would get one free day every week, and on one of those days I borrowed my friend Geeta's car and drove over to spend a day at the ashram in Queens. I remember that short visit very fondly; one of the most vivid memories is probably sitting around the kitchen table with Bhagawat and Dennis at night. We were eating kitchuri (mixed rice and dal that was a signature Bhagawat dish) and having a very friendly, warm conversation. It was the first of many, many hours that I would spend in the company of Bhagawat and is a memorable image of Bhagawat that many of us have: sitting around the kitchen table, holding court.
What kind of a friend Bhagawat would be was foreshadowed in an unusual way in 1990 when I visited Sri Ramanasramam during a one month vacation from college when I toured India. This was six months after my summer trip to the New York ashram. At Ramanasramam I spent a great deal of time talking to Professor N.R.Krishnamurti Iyer, then more than 90 years old and staying in the ashram. "You know Sri Bhagawat?!" he found out. He became very animated and starting telling me: "Bhagawat and I are in the same place, in the heart. It is like there is a screen and everything takes place on that screen and there is no distance between us on that screen." If you have heard Professor N.R.K. talk, you will know the general strain of the conversation. It was all a bit much for me to follow at the time! Then he told me. "I know Bhagawat. He is a great friend. Any problem you have, you go to him. Anything. Even if you have some problem financially. You go to Bhagawat." The years have proven that Bhagawat is indeed a great friend, though I don't think I ever had to ask for money!
We will remember Bhagawat in many ways, not least for his friendliness. With an almost fanatical zeal Bhagawat took up the task of trying to "spread a little friendliness" or give a "few kind words". At least a thousand times I heard him say: "C.C., coffee and conversation, that is my religion, sir." He was rarely in better form than when he was surrounded by friends at the kitchen table, with the telephone nearby!
The telephone was his instrument of choice for keeping in contact with friends and "touching the base". Until the early 90's he was using the old rotary dial phones. One day I bought him a push-button phone at the hardware store with speed dial and I think this was something of a revolution for him. Suddenly he could just push the button "Ramlal" and he would get Ambassador Ramlal. The telephone was his friend. In fact he even had a considerable collection of telephone amorphisms, sayings centered around the telephone and its proper usage. "D.D., delay is dangerous" (one should call right away) or "Keep the upper hand" (one should be the first to call). This latter one applied especially to birthdays which Bhagawat was very particular about remembering. I would often hear him say, "The phone works, sir". That, he explained, was a little of his "dry humour". And he claimed that he was single-handedly keeping AT&T in business. The image of Bhagawat with a telephone plastered to one ear is indelible. This was no doubt one of his happier positions.
Bhagawat was certainly not restricted to the telephone though. He would just as eagerly jump into the car to go visit somebody. There were innumerable times when a load of us would pile into somebody's car and take a drive out to visit some friend somewhere. Roy and Elizabeth Colonna in upstate New York or P.E.Narasimhan and family in Boston or Ambassador Ramlal Bhutani and his son and family in Philadelphia. How many others? Even in the late 90's when Bhagawat was weaker and could barely walk, he decided he was going to get on the Amtrak train and make a trip to Michigan to visit some friends there, the Adiseshans. This is 600 miles away! He was very keen on "the human touch". You will have to look a long and hard to find someone with an open heart like Bhagawat and such a warmth and kindness for a friend.
Bhagawat was also well known for his sharp tongue. If you spent any significant time around him you were bound to get a lashing. He was well aware of this himself and attributed it to something astrological. "I have the tongue of the Scorpion (his birth constellation)," he would say. At times like these he was quite frankly almost unbearable. You would feel as though you were being scalded in a hot fire, and naturally this put some of people off. This is unfortunate because I know for a fact that Bhagawat did not hold grudges. If you gave him one kind word he would completely forget everything. It was more a question of attitude. I found that no matter what mood he was in, if you approached Bhagawat with a friendly, sincere attitude he was always ready with a quick smile and a laugh. One could say that Bhagawat was a complicated personality and at times hard to get along with, but above all he was a devoted friend with a heart of gold.
"Devotion" is a word that best fits Bhagawat. Devotion to friends, and complete devotion to God. In fact you can't even think of Bhakta Bhagawat without thinking of devotion. This is the characteristic that marks his life. We saw this flood of devotion perhaps most clearly when Bhagawat sat in front of his "old friend and mentor", the Hermes 3000 Swiss typewriter. It was then that a flood of devotion came pouring out in the form of letters or statements. All of us who have read those 'manuscripts' will remember the reverence and intense yearning. Over the years Bhagawat generated millions of such pages; probably nobody has read them all. Whenever he got the energy and enthusiasm he would be at the typewriter "doing puja". "It is hard to get me started talking," he would say, "but once you do, I *cannot* be stopped!" He would sometimes shower and eat breakfast and then go to work at the Hermes 3000. Other times you could see him late into the night, typing away, making his "prayers and petitions". Half the time he wouldn't be typing at all. He would become overwhelmed and sit back, hands resting on the keys, with his eyes closed.
Bhagawat was of course all devotion for Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. "All that is left for me to do is follow the simple teaching of Sri Bhagavan of Who am I? Whence am I?" he wrote on every other page of the manuscripts. Bhagawat's later years were focused on that practice and experience. I would often see him seated for hours in the shrine room at the ashram completely absorbed. As time went on it seemed he spent more and more time in that state of inwardness. Certainly Bhagawat was aging, and age took its toll and make him less able to move around. But more than that, I think the inward pull became overwhelming and Bhagawat found himself more and more in a state of quiet.
That awareness developed slowly and naturally in Bhagawat, and his later years where given over most to that inward quest. When talking about spiritual practice Bhagawat would often say "dhira, dhira" ..."slowly, slowly". It does not come "all on a sudden". "You start in kindergarten. You do not get a Ph.D. right away. You have to learn the ABCs first." He often talked about watching the breath. "Even just five minutes. Just watch the breath." And what we would refer to as 'meditation', he would often call just 'rest'. I found that the things that Bhagawat had to say in this regard were very straightforward and very helpful. We would often go for walks in the neighborhood around the ashram (this was part of a concerted effort to help Bhagawat get a little more exercise). During our walks he would invariably stop and turn to me and earnestly explain for a minute some point about spiritual practice and life. He was full of insights. "WORK is a four letter word," he would say. He said that this is what he would tell the 'hippies' who flooded the ashram in the late 60's. "Cut your hair and get a job," was the often-unwelcome advice he had for them. Hard work and struggle was certainly one thing he believed in. "Tasmat sarvesu kalesu mam anusmara yuddhya ca": "Therefore at all times remember me and fight" (Bhagavat Gita, VIII:7). Bhagawat was full of great advice like this. I would call him a sort of "elder statesman of the Divine" and the chance to be around him was our good fortune.
Bhagawat had a great reverence for the Mother Goddess, Sri Lalita, another point that comes over clearly in the manuscripts. Every Friday in the New York ashram he played a recording of the three-hour long puja that is done at the Mother shrine in Sri Ramanasramam. He would sit quietly during the puja. In the late 90's under the auspices of Sri Ramanasramam, the ashram in New York received a Sri Chakra, the metal mandala pattern associated with the Divine Mother. Bhagawat had a great reverence for this Sri Chakra. One of his only requests on passing away was that his body be placed before the Sri Chakra after he died. This was done.
In the early days, Bhagawat also wanted to start reciting the Sri Lalita-sahasranam, the 1000 names of the Divine Mother. As this is considered a very sacred text and not something to be taken lightly, he wrote to the head of the Shankaracharya math in Sringeri, the equivalent of the Pope in Vatican City (if such a thing can be said to exist in India), and asked for permission to recite the Lalita-sahasranam. The head of the Shankaracharya ashram responded that it was an excellent thing to do and gave his blessing. Bhagawat took up these recitations and did them daily and whenever the mood came over him. Often when we would set out for a journey in the car, he would start reciting the Sri Lalita-sahasranam. Many of us have taken up this practice as well; at the ashram it is recited every morning for example. I can hardly describe what a special blessing the Sri Lalita-sahasranam has been. It is a very deep fountain of coolness and love. This recitation practice was inspired by Bhagawat and his deep reverence for the Divine Mother. He was often fond of reminding me of my path in this direction: I began by working at the summer camp attached to the Rajarajeshwari peetham, a center devoted to the Divine Mother (in fact 'Rajarajeshwari' is one of the names that can be found in the Sri Lalita-sahasranam). "The Mother drew you there. Is that a small thing?" he would tell me.
Bhagawat had a very long life and I saw only the last decade of it. But he let us know where he came from. "I am a simple villager, sir" you would often hear him say. That was maybe a bit of an exaggeration for someone who not only learned to read and write but went to college, taught college and worked at the UN! Actually you could say he passed the hardest test of all: he survived the Bihari village. He would often say that people in the village are not interested in anything like education. They just want to get married and make lots of babies. This type of attitude was difficult for the likes of Bhagawat but somehow he made it through. Certainly one of the powerful beneficial forces in those days was Mahatma Gandhi. The "Mighty Mahatma" had a great influence over Bhagawat as a young man. Bhagawat became something of a fiery revolutionary for the independence of India from British rule. Gandhi's message of peace, purity and devotion were always with him.
Another thing that dated back to Bhagawat's early days was the Ramayana, the great work of Tulsidas, which Bhagawat first learned to read and recite under the guidance of a remarkably literate village teacher. Till his last day the Ramayana was never far from his side and if you borrowed a copy from him you would find it all dog-eared and marked up from the hundreds of times he had read it and marked some passage or other. Many times at the New York ashrama, a group of us would sit down, Bhagawat would recite the Avadhi (that language of Tulsidas' verses) and one or the other of us would read the English translation. This was a favorite past time. In 1993 there was a continuous one-day Ramayana reading at the Sri Lakshmi temple in Framingham, Massachusetts and several of us traveled up for that. If Bhagawat went to visit a friend he would often carry a stack of books along. Perhaps he would want to recite something. One of those books would invariably be the Ramayana. "Tulsidas broke the pen," he always said. That is, he wrote the finest piece of poetry and nothing else even need be written!
Bhagawat always had a dream in front of him. In the early days it was the dream to come to America. In 1947 he accomplished that dream and eventually came to live most of his life in New York City, "Indra puri" as he called it, the "city of power". In his later years the dream was to see a temple, a temple in the heart of New York on Fifth avenue. He was dreaming of a real building, bricks and mortar, and would even at times walk up and down Fifth avenue imagining which lot it would be on. He wrote about "unfurling Sri Bhagavan's banner of Self-Inquiry from the topmost tower of the Fifth avenue temple".
In a sense that temple has already been built in New York city. Arunachala Ashram is profoundly influential for many people and has proven a great resource for sincere devotees. The origins of the ashram can be traced back to the mid-1960's when Bhagawat would use a room in the American Buddhist Academy on the upper west side of Manhattan to hold weekly sessions of recitations and meditations. Soon after that of course the ashram took a permanent presence in a storefront on East 6th street and then ashram in Nova Scotia, Canada was started. Many people have found solace and a quiet place in the ashram and its beneficial influence cannot be overstated. We must attribute the origins of the ashram to Bhagawat, though he saw himself as the 'humble servant' carrying out the works of Sri Bhagavan. His unflagging persistence, devotion and dedication were instrumental in establishing the ashram. His dream has been fulfilled.
On the day that Bhagawat passed away I was returning to live in New York after an absence of nearly three years in Europe. I arrived with my suitcases at the steps of the ashram and I saw Ramachandra, Bhagawat's grandson at the front door. "Baba died," he told me. Then a moment later the undertakers walked out the door carrying the stretcher with the body in a black plastic wrap. After the initial surprise, I felt in some sense very fortunate to be there to witness the passing of this great friend. We know what state Bhagawat is in now. Everyone has their own path in that. Bhagawat's path was a very bright, colorful and unforgettable one.