DURING OUR STAY in Calcutta we usually spent the summer holidays at Tiruvannamalai. The journey itself consumed a week, there and back, leaving only about a month to stay there, sometimes less, and at the hottest time of the year; but it was worth it. We appreciated every day of it. Even though the meditation can be continued in any place, there is a vibrant peace at Tiruvannamalai that is immensely invigorating. One holiday we spent at Kalimpong in the Himalayas, but the atmosphere was empty and flaccid in comparison. We visited Shantiniketan in West Bengal, where Tagore had lived and where he founded his university, but felt no living presence.
Altogether we have travelled little and seen few swamis or holy places. As long as the children were at school in the hills we naturally used to spend the hot season with them; and later, when I was working, we were drawn nearly every holiday to Tiruvannamalai. In any case, we had little impetus to travel or explore. After Bhagavan, who else is there to see? We began to feel the same also about Arunachala.
Not that visits to holy men and holy places are deprecated. They can undoubtedly be beneficial; although, as I said before, the visitor should keep his wits about him and judge carefully whether everything is as holy as it is reputed to be. Only for one who has come under the influence of Bhagavan — indeed, for one who has the right guru — it becomes unnecessary. We met the Dalai Lama when he came as a state guest to Calcutta in 1956. A Bengali publisher had persuaded me to write a simple life of Buddha to be used as a school or college reader. Since the Dalai Lama’s visit occurred just when it was finished, we had the idea of asking him to write a brief foreword for it. I was glad that we did, because this gave us the opportunity to meet him, and I found him a person of great beauty. Beneath his charm of manner he made an impression of real power and integrity. We were granted a private interview. He was gracious and interested to know what path we were following. We were not able to explain very successfully, but I presented him with a copy of Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge and also left a copy of the little book on Buddha with him. Next day the interpreter gave it back, telling us that it had been read in translation to the Dalai Lama, who had approved of it and written a short foreword stamped with his official seal.
I collected a foreword from the Panchen Lama also, but in him I felt no spiritual presence at all — just a young man in an important position. As soon as I said that the Dalai Lama had written a foreword he said that he would too.
I met the Dalai Lama again in Madras in 1960, when he was touring south India, no longer as a ruling monarch but as a refugee. He looked reduced and rather pathetic, but his charm of manner remained, and there was the same impression of integrity.
Incidentally, the publisher failed to get the Board of Education of any of the states in India to prescribe the book on Buddha for their schools or colleges, despite the foreword, so from a worldly point of view nothing came of the enterprise. I decided that it was not appropriate for me to waste my time and energy on mercenary writing.
Once when we were in Madras, Swami Ramdas came there and visited the house of a friend. My wife went to see him, but I did not. He made a good impression, genial, openhearted, but not the majesty of Bhagavan. He was a simple, childlike person who saw the potential beauty in every one, saw every one as a manifestation of God; and he himself was permanently imbued with the Grace of God. He had many ardent followers, some of them devotees of Bhagavan. One of them, a friend of ours, asked him some years after Bhagavan’s death, why he did not stay at Tiruvannamalai, and he replied: “Would you put a candle in the same room with the flaming sun?” I corresponded with him over a sentence in his book World is God (an account of his 1954 world tour) which read like a denial that Bhagavan had disciples, and he explained that he had not intended it to have that meaning; he quite realized that we were Bhagavan’s disciples, and indeed owed his illumination to the Grace of Bhagavan. He had meant only that Bhagavan did not give formal initiation. Later he was kind enough to write a foreword to The Incredible Sai Baba for me.
Anandamayi Ma, a famous woman saint of north India, came to Tiruvannamalai a few years after Bhagavan left the body, but we were away in the hills at the time and missed seeing her. She prostrated herself before his tomb, saying: “He
is the ocean and we are the rivers that run into it.”
During the summer holidays of 1957 I was working on Buddhism and Christianity in the Light of Hinduism at Tiruvannamalai and was much impressed by the division of aspirants in the early Buddhist texts into ‘non-returners’, ‘once- returners’, ‘twice-returners’ and so forth, according to whether this was the last incarnation that would be necessary or whether one or more re-births would be needed to complete the karma and attain Nirvana. I saw a resemblance to my going back into the world to earn a living and then being drawn home again to Tiruvannamalai, and I found myself frequently repeating: ‘May I be a once-returner’ in this sense of returning only one more year to Calcutta and then coming to Tiruvannamalai for good, to settle down there. It was only in this sense that I used the phrase, for I should never have willingly considered returning for another incarnation. Indeed, once during an illness in Madras, my vital force seemed to be sinking right down and the last thought that remained in my mind was: ‘Let me go or stay, but let me not come back!’ Actually, the idea of coming back, the idea that there is any ego to come back and be born again, is a sinking to the exoteric level; it is the same error that I referred to in chapter eight, of ascribing a temporary existence to the unreal and forgetting that ‘there is no existence of the unreal and no non-existence of the Real’.
This was not the prayer that I uttered. Indeed, after coming to Bhagavan I never prayed for anything, except sometimes for greater energy and determination on the quest — and that prayer is part of the quest itself. Not that there is anything against prayer in the sense of request. If a man makes physical and mental efforts to attain his desires it is only sensible to make spiritual efforts also. But the man who follows the direct path of Self-enquiry is striving to dissolve the ego that has the desires, so how can he at the same time pray to gratify them? It would be contradictory, going against his own efforts, however high or unselfish the desires may seem to be. He simply lets things come as they will, asking to whom it is that they come.
Even the path of devotion and submission leaves no place for prayer in the sense of petition if it is as wholehearted as Bhagavan demanded. Asking is not submitting. If one is totally submitted to the Will of God, the only prayer that remains is ‘Thy Will be done’. And since one knows that God’s Will is always done, whether one prays for it or not, even that becomes redundant. All one can say is: “I surrender my self to You; do as You like with it.” And beyond even that comes the attitude: “There is nothing to surrender. All this is Yours. I surrender only the false idea I had that it was mine.” But, as with art and literature, it is a question of what is the alternative. If the alternative is reliance on the ego, or on chance or worldly influence or other people, then prayer is better. It is only fair to add that there are plenty of devotees of Bhagavan who do pray to him and that their prayers are answered.
My frequent repetition ‘May I be a once-returner’ certainly came very near to being a prayer, even though it was not formally so, and was not so intended. When we got back to Calcutta I had the constant feeling that our stay there was not for long, though it was impossible to envisage how the change could come about. Then, less than a month before the next summer holiday, it was as though Bhagavan picked up the kaleidoscope and shook it and all the pieces fell into shape. Adam got a place at a university, with a grant to cover his expenses; Frania passed her Senior Cambridge and left school, deciding that she did not want to go on to college; my health deteriorated, making professional life more difficult; the school paid me a bonus as well as my provident fund; it was arranged that several newspapers would send to me at Tiruvannamalai books for review — suddenly retirement had become possible.
My whole professional life had been unsatisfactory, with frequent changes and insecurity, which was but a natural repercussion of my rejection of security and status when at Oxford; and yet I was now enabled to retire at 51, when many more successful men, in the worldly sense of success, had years of professional work still before them.
In April 1958 we packed up and left Calcutta for good. We thought we knew hardly any one there, but our compartment was full of flowers when the train pulled out, and there was a farewell crowd on the platform. That was on the 12th April; when we drew up in Madras on the morning of the 14th we found the station beflagged and a festive air everywhere, as though in greeting; and we were told that April 14th was Tamil New Year’s Day. We stayed with friends and spent the night in Madras, leaving on the evening of the 15th and arriving early next morning in Tiruvannamalai. At the ashram also we found festivity, as though for our arrival. It turned out that the anniversary of Bhagavan’s leaving the body (originally on 14th April but varying with the phases of the moon, like the Western Easter) fell on the 16th that year. In such ways we were made to see that the homecoming was auspicious. When people began to ask, as usual, how soon we had to go back, we were able to answer, “Not at all.”
At last we had come home. No place had been our home before this. We had been spiritual wayfarers, and this state had been reflected in a nomadic life on earth. Gdynia, Bangkok, Madras, Calcutta, all seemed mere temporary camping places; in none of them had we struck roots and felt at home. Even our previous stay at Tiruvannamalai had had a temporary atmosphere about it, partly from the knowledge that we should have to go out into the world again to a professional life, and partly because of the difficulty of finding permanent accommodation before our own house was built, so that we had three abodes in less than three years. We had had a close family life, but now two of our children were gone out into the world and the third was soon to follow. We had made a few friends, formed no attachments: for the wayfarer there can only be companionship with fellow pilgrims upon the path, and they are few.
Retirement did not mean a life of hobbies and gentle pottering, but only of a more complete dedication, more constant effort. Indeed, it is dangerous for one on the quest to retire from life in the world too early. If the mind is not yet capable of holding daylong to the quest, it is better for it to have some surface activity such as professional work; failing this, it will find relief in trivialities, day-dreaming, imagination or erudition or fall into some false kind of half-sleep, half-trance; in some way its keenness will be impaired. Bhagavan was gracious to us. My wife was able to divide the day between housework and meditation, while I found occupation in my book reviewing and in editing the Collected Works and The Teachings. Gradually, as such occupations dwindled, isolated days began to appear, or even a whole week, when there was no outer activity for the mind and I found it possible most of the time to remain poised in the current of awareness, conscious of outer things but with the mind almost inactive, neither fretting at its inactivity nor plunging into trivialities or forced activity. Nevertheless it was a constant effort at first and was very tiring.
Apart from our own sadhana or spiritual efforts, we found in another way also that it was good that we should be here — so many visitors come to Tiruvannamalai, many of them for the first time, from many different countries, and they expect to find a few people resident here who can tell them about Bhagavan and explain his teaching. Many made friends with us or stayed with us here. They wrote about their desire to return. Even when that was not possible, the visit often marked a stage on their path.
About two years after my retirement I began for the first time to see my whole past life quite objectively, as though it concerned some other person or some previous incarnation. Not only that, but it took form in my mind, word for word, just as I would tell it to some one if the need arose, and going right back to infancy. This was an asset on the quest, revealing much that had hitherto remained obscure; nevertheless it began to occupy my mind so much as to interfere with meditation. Was I to go back on my determination to write no more books? There it was, already written in my head; and it was not the sort of book on some subject which I had renounced. It was, though not in the sense I had envisaged, a book about the quest itself. I repeatedly turned away from it, but it did not disappear from my mind. (Then I remembered what Bhagavan had said about one of the Five Hymns to Arunachala, that the words of the beginning of it rose up before him and, even though he dismissed them, saying ‘What have I to do with these words?’, they kept coming back till he wrote them down). Was it a book that had to get written? In order to see, I wrote out the first chapter, scarcely stopping to think, just word for word, as it was in my mind. Immediately my thoughts left that period of my life, not even coming back to it, but concentrating on the next. So I wrote out the next too, and thus chapter-by-chapter till I had written the whole book, which I thought was here ended. (I must admit, though, that I afterwards worked for nearly a year on its revision and amplification.) Still the question of publication remained — whether it was legitimate to inflict my personal life on others. I worked on it for a couple of years more, cutting out here and adding there, until what finally remained was indeed a story of the quest. And by that time I had discovered that the book was not ended but had further chapters.