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The Making of the Saranagati Song

Ramaswami Iyer

Native to Manavasi Village of Trichy District, in 1907 Ramaswami Iyer was transferred to Villupuram just 60 kms from Tiruvannamalai. Now that he was near Bhagavan, he set off for Tiruvannamalai one day during the Kartigai Deepam Festival with a view to meet Bhagavan for the first time.

Having for a long time suffered sleepless nights caused by chronic dyspepsia and agitation of the bowel, unable to digest normal food, Ramaswami Iyer’s life had been ‘hell on earth with no peace of mind’. So when at last he found Bhagavan at Virupaksha Cave, the poor man cried out in desperation: “I am suffering from a number of ills and diseases. Pray, have mercy on me!” Bhagavan simply said, “I am neither a doctor nor a magician. What can I do or say?” Then waving his hand in a casual manner, Bhagavan said, “Go home with the courage that nothing will affect you”.

Ramaswami Iyer saw in this gesture a ray of hope and took Bhagavan’s words to heart. Deeply impressed by Arunachala, he made up his mind to shift to Tiruvannamalai. For the time being, however, he would have to make short journeys from Villupuram to Tiruvannamalai by train.

Beggar at Station

One day as he approached Tiruvannamalai Station, he decided to seek out Seshadri Swami whom he had only heard about. As he got down from the train, a feisty, brawny beggar approached him for a coin but the visitor angrily refused him saying that he could not encourage lazy, able-bodied men who were perfectly capable of working to take up a life of begging. He then set about the town searching for Seshadri Swami. When somebody pointed him out, Ramaswami Iyer was bewildered and dismayed to see that Seshadri Swami was none other than the very beggar on whom he had hurled abuses just an hour earlier. Demurely, he approached the Swami with apologies but could immediately see the Swami was not bothered by such things. After settling down in Tiruvannamalai, Seshadri showed Ramaswami Iyer great kindness and regularly took him to visit Bhagavan. Hope in Bhagavan

Once settled in Tiruvannamalai, Ramaswami Iyer visited Bhagavan as often as possible. His physical ailments continued unabated and Bhagavan, it seemed, was his only hope of deliverance.

One day Ramaswami Iyer found Bhagavan sitting alone in front of Virupaksha Cave: “Swami! Jesus and other great souls have come down to earth to save sinners. Have I any hope?’’ When Bhagavan heard this cry of distress coming forth from the depths of the heart, it appeared as though he too was shaken. Bhagavan moved close to the man and said tenderly, “There is hope. Yes. There is hope.”

First Song

After this incident, though still in despair, Ramaswami Iyer found himself composing a song, the first in hislife. It came of its own. Never having been a poet, when he sang the song to Bhagavan, Bhagavan gave him tips in prosody. And thus began Ramaswami’s song-writing which would last up till Bhagavan’s Mahanirvana.

In the Dewy Grass

One festival day Echammal brought tiffin up to Virupaksha. Ramaswami Iyer sat dejectedly as Bhagavan and the others made ready to eat the special food befitting a feast day. He excused himself saying that the rich food would not suit his weak stomach. But when he turned in Bhagavan’s direction, the latter beckoned him to join them and Ramaswami Iyer felt an irresistible pull. When he was served like the others with all the dishes, Bhagavan ordered him, saying “Eat!” At that moment Ramaswami Iyer lost all fear and ate his fill. He did not neglect any of the dishes, even the richest. For one who theretofore would have had no hope of sleeping after violating his strict dietary regimen, it was nothing short of a miracle when he discovered that he slept soundly that whole night at Virupaksha Cave. When he awoke at day-break, he felt ‘fresh like a flower in the dewy grass’. It was then that he knew, beyond any doubt, that his disease had left him once for all.

Promotions from Bhagavan

Meanwhile Ramaswami Iyer’s superior at work continually ridiculed him about his monthly salary of Rs. 150 per month. “Why so much?” the superior would probe tauntingly. When Bhagavan heard about it, he said, “How would he feel if you got Rs. 200?” The next Government gazette brought news of Ramaswami Iyer’s promotion and salary increase to Rs. 200.

Departing from Bhagavan

Later when Ramaswami Iyer was transferred to Shiyali, he left Tiruvannamalai weeping at the thought of being separated from Bhagavan. The distance was intolerable and Ramaswami Iyer made up his mind to leave his family and take sannyasa to be with Bhagavan. But Bhagavan would hear nothing of it.

Dowries and Such

Ramaswami Iyer continued his trips to Tiruvannamalai to see Bhagavan. Once at Skandasramam with his eldest daughter, Bhagavan asked why he had not yet gotten her married. “I would like to but I don’t have the money for a dowry, nor even enough for the marriage ceremony. Echammal happened to be there and hearing the discussion, suggested one Nilakantha, a school teacher known to her. Bhagavan endorsed the idea. When Ramaswami Iyer went down the hill to catch the evening train, he passed Echammal’s house en route and found Nilakantha’s father there. Even before Ramaswami Iyer could make his proposal, the boy’s father volunteered to take the girl as his daughter-in-law.

Once back in Shiyali, as Ramaswami Iyer worried how to raise money for the ceremony, a neighbour just opposite him came over. “I hear your daughter’s marriage is to take place. But where will you find the money?” When Ramaswami Iyer could give no satisfactory answer, the neighbour admonished him, “Could you not have asked me? Would I not have given it cheerfully?” He then gave Ramaswami Iyer a thousand rupees and the marriage was duly performed.

Messengers from Bhagavan

One day years later after Ramaswami Iyer had been transferred to Berhampore, Orissa, several boils appeared on his leg. Besieged with pain day and night, he could hardly walk but only meditated on Arunachala. No treatment whatsoever proved of any use. But one day a knock came at the door. “Who’s there?” he asked. “Arunachalam!” was the reply. With great surprise, Ramaswami Iyer found two Brahmins standing at the door. Forthwith he fell at their feet. “We are coming from Arunachala on pilgrimage to Kasi. Bhagavan asked us to get down here and meet you.”

When the two ‘messengers of Bhagavan’ saw his state, they rifled through their bags and took out herbs of tamarind and fragrant gum powders. Once applied to the affected areas, within twenty hours the boils were gone. It was then that Ramaswami Iyer understood the fullness of Bhagavan’s grace; it was then that he understood what Bhagavan meant by complete surrender; it was then that he found words and notes pouring forth from within him, forming themselves into a hymn of devotion that would later be sung by devotees everywhere, known by all as the “Saranagati Song”.*

Adapted from the Ashram literature. See “Bhagavan on the Hill: Experiences of Sri Ramaswami Iyer”, The Call Divine, vol. 14, July, 1966, pp. 595-601.