This happend in the summer of 1932. I was working in those days with a group of young men in the slums of Bangalore under the leadership of Brahmachari Ramachandra. He suggested that I should visit Sri Ramana Maharshi on my way back from Madurai. I had been to my village in Madurai district for a brief visit and I was returning to Bangalore to resume my work in the Gandhi School run by the Deena Seva Sangh.
Tiruvannamalai, the abode of the Maharshi, was not on my regular route, so I had to go to Villupuram and change trains. Tiruvannamalai is a midway station on the Villupuram-Katpadi line. I got down at Tiruvannamalai station and went to the famous Arunachaleswara Temple.
To my surprise I found there a sannyasi spinning on the charkha in one of the mandapams within the precincts of the temple. I stood in front of him for a considerably long time. Spinning was common in those days. Anyone who was politically conscious spun either with a charkha or with takli. But for one who has renounced the joys and sorrows of the world in favour of God realization to be spinning was something beyond my comprehension. Further, this sannyasi dressed in khadi gerua cloth was using a pedal-charkha. And that was why I stood in front of him in great amazement. Later on I came to know that this sannyasi was one of the disciples of the Maharshi.
After a while I made enquiry about Ramanashram. This institution solely built around the Maharshi was not as famous then as it grew to be in the forties and thereafter. I was shown the way. I walked along the road under the shadow of the hill Arunachalam.
I reached the Ashram and met the person in charge of arrangements. He showed me a place where I could keep my things and stay. After the necessary formalities – and they were simple enough – I entered the hall in which the Maharshi was seated on a sofa. In another corner of the hall there was a cupboard on top of which I saw an eighteen-inch-high statue of Mahatma Gandhi (with a khadi yarn garland). I sat in front of the Maharshi along with several others. Some of the devotees were seated in ardha-padmasana in meditation. A few were reading silently some religious literature. The Maharshi himself was in samadhi. Some were reciting slokas in a soft melodious tone. On the whole the atmosphere was an elevating one.
I sat in silence for hours together. When it was time for the night meal all the devotees got up and walked towards the adjoining dining hall. I also went with them. The hall was divided by a cloth curtain. On the other side of the curtain some of the orthodox devotees sat for their meal. On this side were all the non-orthodox. The Maharshi sat in a place visible to one and all, for he did not differentiate between one or another. This was a great lesson to me. After the meal some of us went back to the hall and sat there. Occasionally the Maharshi would say something which was not quite audible and the scribe sitting by his side would write it down. I decided to sleep in the hall as some others did. I could not sleep because I was inquisitive to know what the Maharshi would do. He got up from the sofa at 3 o’clock in the morning and walked towards the tank. After ablutions he had a dip in the pond. He changed his khadi kaupeenam (loincloth) and washing the used one, let it dry outside. After doing all this, he walked back into the hall and sat as usual on the sofa. Sometimes he reclined on the sofa and dozed off. Early in the morning the Maharshi got up, went into the kitchen and joined the group that was cutting vegetables. He supervised the breakfast and ate with the visitors and Ashramites.
During the daytime there was a stream of visitors who went near the Maharshi and prostrated before him. Sometimes he opened his eyes and blessed them with a smile. Occasionally he spoke a few words. When the daily newspaper arrived it was placed near him. He glanced through the pages and put it aside. Most of the time his eyes remained half closed. There was a calm peace in the whole environment that surpassed all understanding. I sat silently watching and enjoying the holy presence of the Maharshi. After spending a full three days like this, I wanted to take leave of the Maharshi and go to Bangalore. I was waiting for an opportunity.
The Maharshi opened his eyes. I got up and prostrated before him and requested him to clear a doubt of mine. He showed his willingness by a broad smile. Taking courage I posed the following problem: “The Maharshi by his example directs his followers to keep quiet, but Mahatma Gandhi whose statue is here, by his own example, goads everyone to be continuously active. I am puzzled as to whom to follow.” The Maharshi’s face broadened with an unparalleled smile. He asked, “Who told you that I am sitting quiet?” I replied in all humility that I had seen it with my own eyes. He said, “Why do you think that what you are seeing with your physical eyes is the truth?” I had no answer for this question.
Once again I repeated the question as to whom to follow. Then he enquired about what I was doing. I gave him an idea of the slum-settlement work in Bangalore and told him how we were intensively engaged in Harijan uplift and prohibition work. He blessed the work and asked me to continue it in the manner in which Mahatma Gandhi wanted such work done, i.e., with great devotion and detachment. I was given a set of Ashram publications to be used by the workers. I asked the Maharshi for his autograph. He did not agree but he wanted the sarvadhikari who was standing near by to write my name. When I gave him my name without initial, he asked for my father’s name. The Maharshi immediately said, “How can Arunachalam have a father?” and he laughed. I stood in his presence how long I don’t know. When I regained my consciousness, took leave of him and left for Bangalore.
In 1951-52, I was in the USA. On my tour of the Southern States I came in touch with a group of whites who were deeply involved in the desegregation movement. They did not differentiate between one or another, whether black or white. I found in the study of the leader of this group a photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi whom he had never seen. He revealed that it was Maharshi’s teaching that was a driving force in all his activities undertaken for bringing about equality between the two races – the Whites and the Coloured. He evinced a deep interest in the Maharshi’s mode of self-enquiry for self-realization. Now I understood the true import of the Gita teaching: “He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men; he is a yogi who has accomplished all action.”