Just over ten years ago, on April 10th, 2000, the founder of Sri Arunachala Ashrama, Arunachala Bhakta Bhagawata, merged in the bliss of Arunachala-Ramana and became free from the bondage of human existence. Though no longer among us, I do not believe that he is ever far in thought from those of us who were privileged to know such a unique soul during the formative years of young adult life.
I think if any of us who knew Bhagawata well were asked what word first comes to mind on thinking of him, the word would have to be "friend". Friendship was Bhagawata's first and last gift. There was no time of day that Bhagawata would not run to the aid of a friend, and he would spare no amount of time or energy to offer consolation, encouragement and good cheer. The atmosphere of friendship in the Ashram was one in which Bhagawata, in his unique, humble and often humorous way, conveyed to us the gifts of his company and wisdom.
First and foremost, Bhagawata taught us about abhyasa - spiritual practice. He would compare spiritual practice to 'digging ditches', saying it must be done with the same discipline and determination, and must be given the top priority in our lives. The regular nightly practice that began at 7 p.m. which combined recitations and Sanskrit chants followed by a period of silence and a reading from Sri Bhagavan's teachings, was the cauldron in which we one-pointedly sought, time and again, to take the mind to its source. After the silence, Sri Bhagavan's words would enter and take root in our hearts! There is no doubt that the cumulative effect of our regular and repeated practice was such that on uttering the very first syllables of the evening recitation we would be carried deep within!
The mornings became time for the sweet and sublime recitation of Sri Lalita Sahasranam, followed by silence and, once again, contemplation of a reading from Sri Bhagavan's words. One cannot overestimate the power of this litany to still the mind and diminish one's sense of doership in the succeeding hours.
Thus, the translation of ideas on meditation from theory to intense, one-pointed practice and direct experience was, I would have to say, the primary, priceless treasure offered us by Bhagawat's influence. It was he who sat and showed us how to chant and follow the sound of a mantra to the heart; how to still the mind; how to practice Self-Enquiry. It was he who created the setting in which the patient daily practice would bring about the flowering of peace. The setting was a tiny storefront meditation center on East 6th Street in Manhattan that contained the universe.
It always amazed me how Bhagawata seemed to have whatever quotation of Sri Bhagavan that was needed or appropriate at his fingertips. In addition, he had many homely wisdom stories from Indian village life in his repertoire. Bhagawata also had some classic sayings of his own which he repeated so often, and all of these stories and sayings became engraved in the hearts of us all. At the time, we used to joke that we could recall them by number and dispense with their narration, having heard them so often. In reality, they became such a part of us that they continue to guide all of our decisions in matters great and small to the present day.
Bhagawata used to humorously call himself 'the doorman and doormat' of Sri Arunachala Ashrama. He placed great emphasis on 'the personal touch' and wanted all people to be greeted with a warm welcome. His typical telephone greeting was an exuberant: "Sri Arunachala Ashrama! Namaskar! Namaskar! Namaskar!" Now that Sri Arunachala Ashrama has so grown in size, scope and outreach, I think that 'the personal touch' emphasized by Bhagawata is more important than ever!
Among the personal qualities to be desired in a friend or devotee, Bhagawata valued and esteemed an open heart over and above any other qualification. 'Coffee, Company and Conversation' were his gold standard, and he would typically ask, "Can you you have 5 minutes of "CCC" with the person?"
Bhagawata also believed in the importance of work, and he eschewed distinctions between the sacred and secular. In this connection, he was fond of proclaiming his love of 'four letter words', and he had a whole list which he would reel off with relish to demonstrate his point. In fact, 'work' was one of his favorite 'four-letter words', along with 'pray', 'soup', and a host of others which he would gleefully count off on his fingers.
One of my own first perception shifts, on meeting Bhagawata, was when I discovered that I had ceased to think of God as something to be 'believed in', or not. Concept had become reality.
Bhagawata used to say that, though penniless, he could pay lavish tribute with his words, which in reality he did in the countless pages of the prayer manuscript which he wrote, day after day. Seated at his beloved Hermes 3000 typewriter, Bhagawata would pour forth his devotion to Bhagavan in words, or simply sit at the keys in silence. Today, when one reads even a page of this prayer manuscript, one can have a glimpse of his state of mind and the extraordinary flow of grace that he enjoyed. Bhagawata intended his writings to be a gift to his friends and, indeed, they are.Hence, it is appropriate that 10 years after his passing and almost 40 years after first meeting our most unforgettable friend that we pay tribute to him in our own meager words. I can imagine Bhagawata in a heaven of friends, seated at his beloved Hermes 3000 in the clouds, singing the songs of Tulsi Das and eating celestial mangos. But truthfully one need not think at all, for the primary gift of our beloved founder to us was the gift of silence...