As I Saw Him - No.4
MY FIRST darshan of Bhagavan Sri Ramana was in January, 1921 at Skandashram, which is on the eastern slope of Arunachala and looks like the very heart of the majestic hill. It is a beautiful quiet spot with a few coconut and other trees and a perennial crystal-clear spring. Bhagavan was there as the very core of such natural beauty.
I saw in him something quite arresting which clearly distinguished him from all others I had seen. He seemed to live apart from the physical frame, quite detached from it. His look and smile had remarkable spiritual charm. When he spoke, the words seemed to come out of an abyss. One could see immaculate purity and non-attachment in him and his movements. I sensed something very refined, lofty and sacred about him. In his vicinity the mind's distractions weri overpowered by an austere and potent calmness and the unique bliss of peace was directly experienced. This I would call Ramana lahari, 'the blissful atmosphere of Ramana.' In this ecstasy of grace one loses one's sense of separate individuality and there remains something grand and all-pervading, all-devouring. This indeed is the spirit of Arunachala which swallows up the whole universe by its gracious effulgence.
There were about ten devotees living with him there, including his mother and younger brother. One of them was Vallimalai Murugar, who for a while every morning sang the Tamil songs of the Tirupugazh with great fervour. These well-known songs, the remarkable outpourings of the famous devotee, Sri Arunagirinatha, are songs in praise of Subrahmanya. When he sang, Bhagavan used to keep time (tala) by tapping with two small sticks on the two rings of an iron brazier of live coal kept in front of him. Fumes of incense spread out in rolls from the brazier, suffused with the subtle holy atmosphere of Bhagavan. While Bhagavan's hands were tapping at the brazier thus, his unfathomable look of grace gave one a glimpse of the Beyond in silence. It was an unforgettable experience.
There was also a devotee from Chidambaram, Subrahmanya Iyer, who often sang with great fervour Tiruvachagam, hymns in praise of Arunachala by Bhagavan, and songs in praise of Bhagavan also. One morning when he began a song with the refrain, "Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru Rayane," Bhagavan also joined in the singing. The devotee got amused and began to laugh at Bhagavan himself singing his own praise. He expressed his amusement and Bhagavan replied, "What is extraordinary about it? Why should one limit Ramana to a form of six feet? Is it not the all-pervading Divinity that you adore when you sing 'Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru?' Why should I not also join in the singing?" We all felt lifted to Bhagavan's standpoint.
The inmates of the Ashrama used to get up at dawn and sing some devotional songs in praise of Arunachala and Bhagavan Ramana before beginning their day's work. Niranjanananda Swami told Bhagavan that I could recite hymns in Sanskrit, and Bhagavan looked at me expectantly. Seeing that it was impossible to avoid it, I recited a few verses in Sanskrit. When I had finished, Bhagavan gently looked at me and said, "You have learned all this. Not so, my case. I knew nothing, had learned nothing before I came here. Some mysterious power took possession of me and effected a thorough transformation. Whoever knew then what was happening to me? Your father, who was intending in his boyhood to go to the Himalayas for tapas, has become the head of a big family. And I, who knew nothing and planned nothing, have been drawn and kept down here for good! When I left home (in my seventeenth year), I was like a speck swept on by a tremendous flood. I knew not my body or the world, whether it was day or night. It was difficult even to open my eyes - the eyelids seemed to be glued down. My body became a mere skeleton. Visitors pitied my plight as they were not aware how blissful I was. It was after years that I came across the term 'Brahman' when I happened to look into some books on Vedanta brought to me. Amused, I said to myself, 'Is this known as Brahman'!" One of the earliest devotees, Sivaprakasam Pillai, has referred to this at the beginning of his brief biography of Bhagavan in Tamil verse (known as Sri Ramana Charita Ahaval) as, "One who became a knower of Brahman without knowing even the term Brahman." Sivaprakasam Pillai used to sit in a corner in Bhagavan's presence, as the very embodiment of humility.
Finding that I knew a bit of Sanskrit, Bhagavan asked me to take down a copy of Ramana Gita and give it to my father. I did so, and it was only after going through it that my father understood Bhagavan. Yet I myself had not studied its contents. It was at the end of 1922 that I happened to go through the thrilling verses in praise of Bhagavan Ramana and, profoundly moved, I made up my mind to return to Bhagavan for good. Thus, Sri Ramana Gita served to give direction to me in a critical period of my life when I was thinking of dedicating myself solely to the spiritual pursuit.
As it was impossible to get the permission of my father, I left home unknown to any and reached Tiruvannamalai on the evening of the 2nd of January, 1923. Hearing that Bhagavan had left Skandashram and was then living in a cottage adjoining his mother's samadhi on the southern side of Arunachala, I made my way straight to it, after meditating for a while at sunset time. Proceeding round the Hill, I reached the cottage where Bhagavan was then living. Entering it, I saw Bhagavan reclining peacefully on an elevated dais. As I bowed and stood before him, he asked me, "Did you take the permission of your parents to come over here?" I was caught, and I replied that he need not ask me about it since he had himself irresistibly attracted me to his feet. With a smile, Bhagavan advised me to inform my parents of my whereabouts so that they might be somewhat free from anxiety. I wrote to my father the next day and saw his letter to the Ashrama inquiring about me the day after.
There was a gathering of devotees there and I came to know that it was for the forty-third birthday celebration of Bhagavan the next day. So I learned that I had come to Bhagavan on the evening of the famous Arudra Darshanam day. Early next morning there was a gathering of devotees - they were sitting before Bhagavan. But my attention was particularly gripped by a radiant personality amidst the gathering. He was, I came to know, Kavyakantha Ganapati Sastri. At once I saw that he was not merely a sastri, a learned man, but a poet and a tapaswin. His broad forehead, bright eyes, aquiline nose, charming face and beard, and the melodious ring in his voice - all these proclaimed that he was a rishi to be ranked with the foremost of the Vedic Seers. There was authority, dignity and sweetness in his talk, and his eyes sparkled as he spoke. He recited the following verse (sloka) in praise of Bhagavan, which he had just then composed, and explained its import :
1/ It is effulgent Devi Uma sparkling in your eyes dispelling the ignorance of devotees;
2/ It is Lakshmi Devi, the consort of lotus-eyed Vishnu, alive in your lotus face;
3/ It is Para Vak Saraswati, the consort of Brahma, dancing in your talk.
4/ Great Seer, Ramana, the Teacher of the whole world,
5/ How can mortal man praise you adequately?
Those who have come in contact with Ganapati Muni would find this verse well-suited to describe him as well.
After the devotees who had gathered for the birthday celebration of Bhagavan left the Ashrama, I approached him with my problem: "How am I to rise above my present animal existence? My own efforts in that direction have proved futile and I am convinced that it is only a superior might that could transform me. And that is what has brought me here." Bhagavan replied with great compassion, "Yes, you are right. It is only on the awakening of a power mightier than the senses and the mind that these can be subdued. If you awaken and nurture the growth of that power within you, everything else will be conquered. One should sustain the current of meditation uninterrupted. Moderation in food and similar restraints will be helpful in maintaining the inner poise." It was this grace of Bhagavan that gave a start to my spiritual career. A new faith was kindled within me and I found in Bhagavan the strength and support to guide me forever.
Another day, questioned about the problem of brahmacharya, Bhagavan replied, "To live and move in Brahman is real brahmacharya; continence, of course, is very helpful and indispensable to achieve that end. But so long as you identify yourself with the body, you could never escape sex-thought and distraction. It is only when you realise that you are formless Pure Awareness that sex-distinction disappears for good and that is brahmacharya, effortless and spontaneous."
A week after I arrived, I got the permission of Bhagavan to live on madhukari, i.e., begged food. In that context, Bhagavan spoke as follows: "I have experience of it; I lived on such food during my stay at Pavalakkundru to avoid devotees bringing for me special rich food. It is altogether different from professional mendicancy. Here you feel yourself independent and indifferent to everything worldly. It has a purifying effect on the mind."
Four months after my arrival at Arunachala, my parents came there to have darshan of Bhagavan and take me back home. Though they did not succeed in this latter intention, they were somehow consoled by Bhagavan before they returned. He told them, "If it were possible to wean one from a course one had taken with all one's heart and soul, parents might, as a matter of duty, try it if it was a wrong course that one had taken; the problem did not arise, if the course taken was intrinsically good." My father was a cousin of Bhagavan four or five years older than he and knew him very well as Venkataraman before he left home for Tiruvannamalai. Though he had heard from others about Bhagavan's spiritual greatness and had also gone through his teaching in Sri Ramana Gita and verses in praise of him by his scholar-poet disciple, Ganapati Muni, he was not sure what his reaction would be on seeing Bhagavan. He decided to go to him with an open mind and see for himself what he was. But the moment he sighted him in the stone mantapa (on the other side of the Ashrama), he was overpowered by a sense of genuine veneration, fell at his feet in adoration and said, "There is nothing of the Venkataraman whom I knew very well in what I see in front of me!" And Bhagavan replied with a smile, "It is long since that fellow disappeared once for all!"
My father then explained that he did not visit him so long because he had not enough of dispassion and non-attachment to approach him. Bhagavan replied, "Is that so? You seem to be obsessed by the delusion that you are going to achieve it in some distant future. But, if you recognise your real nature, the Self, to what is it attached? Dispassion is our very nature."
As the Ashrama cottage was being repaired, Bhagavan stayed in the huge stone mantapa on the other side of the road during day time and devotees had darshan of him there. Bhagavan used to dine with others under the shade of a huge mango tree within the Ashrama premises. The cool, clear water of the Ashrama well was kept in big pots at the foot of the tree. We enjoyed the shade of the tree and the grace of Bhagavan which, like a cool breeze, blew off man's torments.
As advised by Bhagavan, I engaged myself in non-stop japa, day and night, except during hours of sleep. And I studied Sri Ramana Gita in the immediate presence of Bhagavan, drinking in the import of every sloka in it. Bhagavan explained to me his own Hymn in Praise of Arunachala. Even during his morning and evening walks I used to follow him, hearing his explanations of his inspired words. Early one morning there was no one else near Bhagavan and he suggested that we both might go round Arunachala and return before others could notice his absence and begin to search for him. He took me by the forest-path and suggested that Sankara's Hymn in Praise of Dakshinamurti might be taken up for discussion on the way. And within three hours we reached Pandava Thirtham on the slopes of Arunachala, a little to the east of the Ashrama, where he used to bathe on a few former occasions.
I shall not pretend that I understood everything that Bhagavan said in explaining the import of the hymn, but there was the spiritual exhilaration of his company in solitude and that was enough for me.
Those who had the good fortune to enter into the company of Swami Viswanatha will ever remember their contact with him. He was an all-renouncing sadhu, a living embodiment of humility, simplicity and deep spiritual experience. On one occasion when requested by an earnest New York devotee to narrate some of his reminiscences of Sri Bhagavan, he began by saying, "Sri Bhagavan has given me the experience that he is none other than my Self. He is not external to me."
And without the slightest pretense or air of scholarship, his knowledge of Tamil and Sanskrit was profound. His proficiency in English was also precise. Bhagavan valued his keen insight in literary matters and encouraged him. He has many translations and works to his credit and the litany of 108 Names of Bhagavan, daily recited before the Maharshi's samadhi (grave), was composed by him.
He was a friend and mentor to all devotees coming to Sri Ramanasramam. His austere silence, his genial smile, his love and care for all, especially the disabled and poor, and his fatherly guidance will always be remembered - remembered and missed.
The following letter sent to Arunachala Ashrama in New York, less than two months before his demise, is a testimony to his total absorption in the Supreme Self that Arunachala Ramana was for him.
Dear Arunachala Bhakta Bhagawata and fellow devotees at New York and Nova Scotia, I am in receipt of Sri Bhagawat's letter of the 31st of July and Dennis Hartel's letter of August 4th with the good wishes of Yogamayaji, Bhaskar, Joan, Evelyn, Darlene, Margo, Matthew and all of you.
I am reminded of a small couplet (in Tamil): Nama rupam poyyada, Nadadangalum sattada; which means: "Name and form is false, the whole universe is nothing but one Existence." The latter half of the verse means: "Delay not; hold on to it."
All well here. Ganesan has returned from his trip to Calcutta and other places. What is there to write and communicate? Sankara says in his Sarva-vedanta-siddhanta-sara-sangraha which I studied in my teens: "Silence, Silence, and again Silence; Silence, Silence and nothing more." Silence is where jnana and bhakti meet. There can't be any talk in profound jnana or bhakti.
Yet, Sankara has written so many commentaries and composed so many original works and hymns in praise of all dieties, to draw to the center various persons in various stages of spiritual development. Dakshinamurti taught in silence; Sankara condescended to help through reasoning as well; and Ramana is Dakshinamurti and Sankara in one form. He is Arunachala in human form. Words are inadequate to describe him. Those who are fortunate to enter into the Spirit of Arunachala by Divine Grace are saved, i.e., they no longer exist as individuals. They are once for all lost in Bhagavan. To be lost is to be saved.
After all this, how am I to sign my name?
Love to all of you.
Sri Ramanasramam, 30 August 1979
(The Pull of Arunachala)
The following article was submitted at our request by Eric Ford. Eric is a physics student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. It is often refreshing to read of how a young seeker of Truth traverses the world in search of light and then makes the discovery which fully satisfies his longing, setting him on the royal road to perfection.
IN THINKING ABOUT my trip to India, and ultimately Ramanasramam, I wonder when my journey really began. Two years ago, while I was even still in high school, the idea of going was beginning to take form. In a more subtle - but undeniably real - way, though, all of life was leading to that adventure, that experience.
Throughout my journey a tangible force guided me, drove me. And yet Its workings were obscured to me; I did not see where It was leading me. Before I left the States, and even as I travelled through India, I was not aware of the true nature of my wanderings. Someone once asked me, "Why are you going to India?" And I found I had no answer. Why I was going seemed a mystery. The opportunity had presented itself; what could I do but seize it? I knew not Him who guides, nor to where I was being guided, nor even that I was being guided at all. My journey, it seems, was all about finding that out. Now, months later, the purpose of the journey seems so clear. It was just this: to experience Ramanasramam. By no will of my own I was led there. All happened as ordained by the One higher than this mind. All was the blessings of Bhagavan. Perhaps this is the most striking feature of my journey: I started out not knowing what I was doing or where I was going but in the end was led to the place where I needed to go. In the beginning, visiting India had nothing to do with going to Tiruvannamalai. I had reserved a plane ticket before I even knew Ramanasramam existed. But as the day of departure came closer I came to know of Bhagavan. From that time forward I began to know more and more, and gradually Ramanasramam became my unswerving goal. In the end it was apparent that my trip to India and my trip to Arunachala were one and the same.
December 25, 1989 found me in Bombay, a few thousand kilometers from where I was supposed to be - New Delhi - but well on my way nevertheless. My journey had begun.
I travelled quite a bit before eventually coming to stay at Ramanasramam - each stop offering a new lesson bearing me on to the goal.
First on the itinerary was New Delhi; then it was on to Hardwar and Rishikesh. There I spent a few days visiting various places and one day took a bath in the (cold) Ganga.
Soon enough I was on my way to Benares. I stayed there almost a week and gradually developed a great affinity for the place. It was when I was there, I believe, that I really began to understand where my trip was taking me.
"6 January 1990 - I realised yesterday that at one level my trip here only serves to satiate the senses (like it does for my fellow tourists). I saw a sign that said: 'The best and most beautiful things cannot be seen or even touched but must be felt with the heart.' I have become dissatisfied with the sensory aspect of my journey. The trip meets ends that I don't have any need of. But in another sense, my search is for more than just a new and exotic sense experience. It is a search for things that can be felt with the heart. It's a search for my soul. That's what India has to offer. That's why I want to get to Ramanasramam now."
And on to Ramanasramam it was. After a short stay in Calcutta, a few long train rides, and seven days, I was there.
"14 January 1990 - I have arrived. I'm here! Here where Bhagavan lived (and I think still does in a non-physical way). This place is very special. I feel comfortable. It's as if this is home in a way. Perhaps the best part, now it seems, is that I'll be staying for quite some time here. That is, until the end of my trip."
I guess the important part of my story is all over. I had arrived; what more could be said? Nevertheless, I am compelled to tag some feeble words to my two-week stay there.
Many striking things happened at Ramanasramam. The experiences of each person must come according to what stage he is in. For me, my mind was constantly turned inward. This was very important and produced many benefits.
"23 January 1990 - The past ten days have been almost like a continuous meditation. Just being here puts me in a state where I feel full with quietness. The whole day is one long quest. Hour after hour I'll spend quieting my mind and searching for the source of the 'I'."
Shortly after arriving I met up with Dennis. He was staying at Ramanasramam for three or four months, some of which overlapped my stay there. Having him there was very helpful.
Much of the first week I spent reading about Bhagavan's life and visiting many of the places I read about: Arunachaleswara temple, Gurumurtam, places on the hill, etc.
Soon I began to meet some of the various devotees, a few of whom were alive in Bhagavan's time. This was very special indeed and I consider it to be a momentous blessing.
"Darshan of the matured jnani constitutes the acme of purification of baths taken in sacred waters, divine worship, mantra-japa, spiritual austerities, charitable acts, and devotional worship of Lord Siva Himself. To find and gain access to the sacred presence of such a jnani is the luckiest of opportunities that one could ever obtain in this world.
— Ribhu Gita Ch. 19 v.11
— translated by Professor N.R. Krishnamoorti Aiyer in
The Essence of the Ribhu Gita, No. 33, p. 10"
About a week after arriving I went on the famed trek around Arunachala.
"19 January 1990 - I just finished Giri Pradakshina. I started out after breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and went around arriving back here at 11:00 a.m. I walked mostly barefoot, although I did put on sandals for some of the stretch along the dirt road part. My feet are not happy, but I am."
My stay at Ramanasramam continued and gradually drew to a close. Soon I would be leaving.
"25 January 1990 - I climbed Arunachala today. It's so big! I didn't realize the height of the peak - it's a half-mile up. Parts of it were quite steep but the trail was easy to follow. I knew I was getting near the top when I started seeing broken coconut shells (left overs from Deepam festivals). The top is all black from the soot of many deepam lightings, and oily from the coconuts of many puja offerings. Looking down I could see all of Tiruvannamalai and also Adi Annamalai as well as the pradakshina road and the gopurams of the temple here at Ramanasramam ... Well, tomorrow I take leave of this place."
Everything was arranged so that when it was time for me to leave Ramanasramam, I was prepared to do so. I had really come to feel, beyond just words, that Arunachala is not a place in South India. It is always and everywhere, and there is no coming or going.
Having been led to Ramanasramam and emboldened by my stay there, I am ready to continue my sadhana - now in another part of the world.
These days, I continue on and on. There is no stopping, no turning away, anymore. I plug along until the very end; until the real journey is over and there is no one left to write any stories; until He completely absorbs me.
Maganlal L. Bhatt, 82, quietly passed away on Tuesday, July 16th at his son's home in Parlin, New Jersey.
M. L. Bhatt was a self-made man, born in Babra, Gujarat. He travelled extensively throughout India in different business capacities. While in Bombay in 1946 he joined the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Sri Ramana Maharshi and it was then that the seed of 'Ramana' was planted in him. It slowly grew until 1952 when his devotion to his Guru and God blossomed and became all-consuming.
He raised four children (Chhaya, Maya, Geeta, and Virat), all of whom have followed his righteous example and become devotees of Bhagavan.
During his last years, whenever he was questioned about Bhagavan, he would invariably begin speaking with enthusiasm, but soon his voice would quiver, tears would flow and he would assume silence. His devotion transcended words. Throughout his final days he suffered much. When asked he would reply, "Yes, the body is in pain. I am not."
When his last moments approached, Geeta and Virat were sitting on the floor at his bedside; his gracious and pious wife, Indira, was quietly sitting by his side. At 8:45 a.m. Indira saw a sudden flash of lightning. Looking up at the window she noticed it was a clear and sunny day. Looking back down at her lifelong partner, she saw his breath had ceased that very moment. Maganlal Bhatt was absorbed into the light of Arunachala, the Self.
Films from Sri Ramanasramam
FROM 1935 we move on to the latter part of 1938, where in the film we first see Bhagavan sprightly traversing his beloved Arunachala. In his left hand he carries a kamandalu, while his right hand lightly works a walking stick. His towel covers the front part of the body from his chest down to below his koupina. The towel is not tied but rather tucked under his armpits and held there by keeping the upper part of his arms close to his body. Although his back is not seen, we can assume it is not covered.
The President of Sri Ramanasramam, Sri T. N. Venkataraman, remembers this film to be taken by Jayadevlal Dave in the year 1938. A clue to a more precise date of the filming can be construed by the presence of Guy Hague, an American mining engineer. In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk number 594, dated December 15, 1938, there is mention of "...Mr. Hague, the American mining engineer who is here as a temporary resident for the last two months." Thus we can infer the filming was done in October, November or December of '38. Bhagavan was clean-shaven in the film, and it is well known that he was shaved every month on Purnima (full moon). In 1938 Purnima fell on October 9, November 7, and December 7. So, if the Talks statement ("...resident for the last two months") is correct, then the month of October can be disqualified. Let us take it that this film was shot in November or December 1938. With the help of Sri Ramanasramam's guest register we, in all likelihood, could pinpoint the date exactly.
In the film Bhagavan appears cheerful while walking on the hill northwest of the Ashrama. He is followed by T. K. Sundaresa Iyer, Guy Hague (in shorts, white shirt, sandals and cane, with a safari-like hat under his right arm), Krishnaswami (an attendant), someone from the filming group (evident from the camera paraphernalia dangling from his arm), and Annamalai Swami, who later joins the group.
Annamalai Swami was a long-time resident of the Ashrama and labored hard constructing many of the present well-built Ashrama buildings. We find a number of references to him in Talks and other Ashrama books. Surprisingly, fifty-three years after this film was shot, the attendant Krishnaswami and Annamalai Swami are still residing at the foot of the Holy Hill, just west of the Ashrama in Palakottu. The ideals and teachings imbibed from their long association with the Maharshi have remained intact and they both have been living an austere and simple life all these decades.
T. K. Sundaresa Iyer is seen walking directly behind Bhagavan, and at one point we see him leaning his torso to the right, gesturing with his hands and speaking to Bhagavan in a very humble, imploring manner. Bhagavan seems to be responding to him, although he never turns his head when replying.
Guy Hague is said to have stayed at Ramanasramam for two-and-a-half years. It seems he was called back to America with the onset of World War II. There is much speculation that he was the inspiration behind the leading character in Somerset Maugham's novel, The Razor's Edge. The similarities are many. Also, there are many similarities between Bhagavan and the Indian Yogi presented by the author in the same novel. Maugham visited the Maharshi and evidence reveals he was duly impressed.
Finally, the group, having made its way to the north entrance of the Ashrama, walks down the stairs and over to the front of the Old Hall, where a large, cushioned chair has been placed outside. Bhagavan sits on the chair, wipes the perspiration from his brow with his towel, while Krishnaswami cleans his feet with another towel. He is given a cup of water to drink, which he does in typical South Indian style. Meanwhile, Madhava Swami (another attendant) picks up a fan and begins fanning Bhagavan. Bhagavan lifts his feet up on the chair, turns to the camera and gives a broad, gracious smile. Right after that, Krishnaswami relieves Madhava of fanning, but Bhagavan soon comments, gestures with both hands, and gives a quick shake of the head. The message seems clear: stop fanning. Krishnaswami continues and the scene closes.
All of what has just been described comprises only one minute and fifteen seconds of film. Although brief, it is relevant footage, being one of only two short reels existing from the 1930s. The Maharshi was then nearing his fifty-ninth birthday.