One of the great regrets of my life is the loss of a letter which I received in 1934. It was in reply to a rather hysterical missive I had despatched addressed ‘Personal and Private’ to Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai. This communication dealt with a serious, self-admitted weakness of mine which was my mother’s despair – a combustible temper which would explode at the slightest provocation. It was a bad time for me. I had just lost a father I had worshipped. I was twelve, going on thirteen and at once all had been said.
I desperately needed a confidante, an adviser, somebody preferably outside the family, and out of the blue the name of Ramana Maharshi came to me. His was the only name I had ever heard my father – a stubborn, intolerant sceptic – mention without any codicils. I decided, therefore, to write to the sage of Tiruvannamalai secretly. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, I finally sent off a letter asking the Maharshi directly to “please, I beg of you, help me with my temper problem.” Within a week I received a reply signed by the Sarvadhikari, informing me that my letter had been received and placed before the Maharshi and that his message to me was that if I myself made a constant and earnest effort to overcome my temper I would rid myself of it, and that he sent me his blessings.
My first reaction to that letter was one of astonishment at being treated like a grownup, since I had always been told what to do, guided, instructed, warned, but never challenged except on Sports Day. And here was this great Guru as good as telling me: “It is your temper, isn’t it? So, you yourself deal with it.” He had simply batted the ball back to my court in the nicest possible way by treating me as an individual in my own right. I rather liked that.
Ramana Maharshi entered my life again a year or so later when my sister took our whole family on a pilgrimage. The whole thing was going to take less than a week and we were to stay at Tiruvannamalai only for two days. But as it turned out we stayed at Ramanasramam for the whole week and I wept like a lost child when we had to leave. The visit to Ramanasramam was a shattering experience for me. I do believe I literally fell in love with Ramana Maharshi. I was in a daze, a trance, my tongue was gone, my mind was gone, I was in a state of dumbfounded ecstasy. This love which had been awakened was the kind which totally bypasses the physical and creates an awareness of a different kind of consciousness which can only be described as a mindless rapture, pure joy. It is an unlocated, pervasive state of being sparked off by some kind of recognition and it stays with you and you are never the same again.
We arrived at Tiruvannamalai just before dawn. After reaching the Ashram we bathed and had our breakfast, and then made our way to the Hall. My mother, brother and sister went ahead and quickly disappeared into the Hall. I hung back, unaccountably apprehensive. Then, as I at last composed myself and got to the door and looked in, I saw reclining on a sofa, a golden-brown figure with the most radiant countenance I had ever seen before or since and, as I stood there riveted to the spot, the Maharshi turned and looked at me. When I remember it even now, more than forty years later, tears come to my eyes as they did then. I stood there, God knows how long, just looking at that face. Then, as in a trance, I moved forward deliberately towards him and touched his feet. Fighting my way through the disapproving glances that followed, I then made my way to a place near the window. Once I was seated I let my tears flow. I remember I spent a good part of that morning wiping my eyes. They were not tears of grief nor were they tears of joy. Maybe they were for something which I saw in the Maharshi fleetingly and which I also want and shall forever seek. Yes, I cried for myself then and I still do it now.
Never before had I seen in a human countenance a more intense, inward life and yet one which remained so transparent and childlike. There was about him an irresistible and indefinable spiritual power which simply overwhelmed me. I was conscious of people sitting all around me but was totally incurious about them. After an hour or so of silence I suddenly felt like singing. Without hesitation or embarrassment, I lifted my 12 year-old voice in a rendition of Tyagaraja’s Vinanok koni Yunnanura, keeping time softly with my fingers on my knee. The audience sat still and unresponsive. The total lack of reaction to my performance, should in reason have embarrassed me, but I was away in a state of mind which recognised nobody except that reclining figure on the sofa. After a few minutes I threw myself with another gush of abandon into Thelisi Rama Chintana. As I began the anupallavi which exhorts the mind to stay still for a moment and realise the true essence of the name Rama, I saw the Maharshi turn his eyes upon me with that impersonal yet arresting look of his, and my heart soared and I thought: “I want to be here for ever and ever.”
For three hours every morning and every evening my vigil in the Hall continued for seven days. After the first day my family had, without any discussion, silently and unanimously changed our planned programme and requested and got extension of residence. I sat in my seat near the window still and thought-free, just gazing at the Maharshi. Occasionally somebody would ask a question and the Maharshi would turn and look at him, and you got the feeling that the question had been answered. Or somebody would ask for the meaning of a particular phrase in a Sanskrit or Tamil stanza, and the Maharshi would answer softly, briefly.
He was not a man of many words. His long years of practised detachment from people made him laconic in speech. His knowledge of classical Tamil religious literature was considerable; he could himself compose verses and he did. His enlightenment had not been directed by a Guru but had come from his own Self-consciousness. It was all there lighting him up from inside and his most effective form of communication was intra-personal through the sense of sight and the medium of silence. He was a very human being, who laughed and joked occasionally, but he could suddenly plunge deep into himself while sitting in a hall full of people and rest in that stillness of spirit, which as he himself said, was being in God.
One afternoon somebody showed Maharshi some verses written on paper. Maharshi read them, made a brief comment, and then clarified it by narrating a story from Yoga Vasishtam. I listened – and felt that I could understand the words that were being spoken though I really could not have grasped their meaning. I wondered in retrospect years later when I myself read that book, at the delightful ease and simplicity with which the Maharshi had narrated that story, going straight to the spirit like an aimed arrow, and then lapsing into what I can only describe as a speaking silence. In those eloquent silences that punctuated his brief remarks, one seemed to feel unspoken thought flowing around the room touching and drawing everybody into its illuminating course. That was a strange experience to me, that in the presence of Maharshi, speech seemed redundant. I was totally and blissfully satisfied just being in his presence.
That whole week we spent in the Ashram. I practically did nothing else but sit in that Hall. We attended the Vedic recitals at dawn of the students of the Ashram Patasala. My brother and I watched every morning the Maharshi’s gangly walk up and down the hill and I remember, on one memorable occasion, the gentle sage himself smilingly stood still for a couple of minutes as he saw my brother adjusting his camera. I had never before spent so many days talking so little, just sitting around so much, or so lost in a single-minded pursuit of the Maharshi. The evening we finally left, my brother and I kept coming back to look at the Maharshi “Just one more time” as he sat in the enclosed veranda beside the hall having a light oil massage. I finally said: “We will go only after he turns his head and looks at us once more.” After a minute or two the Maharshi turned full face towards us and looked at us and without a word we turned and walked away.
I shall not claim that my whole life was transformed after this meeting. No. I went back to school and then to college, got married, set up house, had children, started a journalistic career of mine own. My grihasthasramam became my main preoccupation. But my visit to Ramanasramam had done something to me. It had left a mark on my mind and heart. The picture of the Ashram and of the Maharshi was always in my mind like the background curtain of a stage. Whenever I was tired or dispirited or perplexed the wish to go to Ramanasramam would possess me like a hunger. Even when I was so busy that I did not know whether I was coming or going a sudden look at a picture of the Maharshi hanging on the wall would momentarily root me to the spot and my mind would suddenly go blank.
I did go to Ramanasramam a fortnight before death claimed the Maharshi’s frail human body. Because of the vast crowds which had come to visit him, the Ashram authorities had made special arrangements for everybody to get darshan of the white-haired smiling figure who sat on an easy-chair on the veranda of the room in which he later breathed his last. For a brief moment I stood below and looked up at that benign countenance, the eyes so bright and serene, and knew it was the last time I was looking at the living Maharshi.
I went to the Ashram again some years later. As usual, as soon as I passed through the Ashram gates, its peace closed around me and emptied my mind. I sat on a veranda where I had only to turn my head to the left to see the mountain and bring my eyes back to the samadhi to see in my mind the Maharshi sitting on his sofa. I sat there the whole of that day doing nothing, not reading, not writing, not eating, not thinking, not remembering, not wondering why it was so quiet or where everybody was, and the voice of a young lad who came running through the gate screaming: “Nehru has passed away” was just an incidental sound. During all those hours I never for a moment wanted to be anywhere else or doing anything else.
Whenever I feel I want to go away somewhere, away from home, family, friends, book, mistakes, fears, sorrows, my mind automatically turns to Ramanasramam. And my body follows. I make the journey to Tiruvannmalai, walk into the Ashram, enter the Hall, and I am “home” and totally at peace.
Every human being has really only one Guru like one mother. Some are fortunate enough to meet their Gurus, some pass them by, like ships in the night. I stumbled upon mine when I was twelve. I now stand alone in myself. In a sense I am twelve-going-on thirteen all over again, standing on another threshold, remembering, waiting.