Sivaprakasam Pillai was one of the intellectuals among the devotees. He had taken philosophy at the university and had already pondered over the mysteries of Being. In 1900 he was appointed to a post in the Revenue Department in South Arcot District. Two years later his work took him to Tiruvannamalai and he heard of the young Swami on the Hill. He was captivated at the very first visit and became a devotee. He put fourteen questions and, since the Swami was still maintaining silence, both questions and answers were in writing. The answer to the first question was written by the Swami on a slate and immediately copied out by Sivaprakasam Pillai. The other thirteen were written out later from memory but checked by Sri Bhagavan before being published.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Swami, who am I? And how is salvation to be attained?
Bhagavan: By incessant inward enquiry ‘Who am I?’ you will know yourself and thereby attain salvation.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Who am I?
Bhagavan: The real I or Self is not the body, nor any of the five senses, nor the sense-objects, nor the organs of action, nor the prana (breath or vital force), nor the mind, nor even the deep sleep state where there is no cognisance of these.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: If I am none of these what else am I?
Bhagavan: After rejecting each of these and saying ‘this I am not’, that which alone remains is the ‘I’, and that is Consciousness.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: What is the nature of that Consciousness?
Bhagavan: It is Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss) in which there is not even the slightest trace of the I-thought. This is also called Mouna (Silence) or Atma (Self). That is the only thing that is. If the trinity of world, ego and God are considered as separate entities they are mere illusions like the appearance of silver in mother of pearl. God, ego and world are really Siva swarupa (the Form of Siva) or Atma swarupa (the form of the Spirit).
Sivaprakasam Pillai:How are we to realize that Real?
Bhagavan: When the things seen disappear the true nature of the seer or subject appears.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Is it not possible to realize That while still seeing external things?
Bhagavan: No, because the seer and the seen are like the rope and the appearance of a serpent therein. Until you get rid of the appearance of a serpent you cannot see that what exists is only the rope.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: When will external objects vanish?
Bhagavan: If the mind, which is the cause of all thoughts and activities, vanishes, external objects will also vanish.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: What is the nature of the mind?
Bhagavan: The mind is only thoughts. It is a form of energy. It manifests itself as the world. When the mind sinks into the Self then the Self is realized; when the mind issues forth the world appears and the Self is not realized.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: How will the mind vanish?
Bhagavan: Only through the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ Though this enquiry also is a mental operation, it destroys all mental operations, including itself, just as the stick with which the funeral pyre is stirred is itself reduced to ashes after the pyre and corpses have been burnt. Only then comes Realization of the Self. The I-thought is destroyed, breath and the other signs of vitality subside. The ego and the prana (breath or vital force) have a common source. Whatever you do, do without egoism, that is without the feeling ‘I am doing this’. When a man reaches that state even his own wife will appear to him as the Universal Mother. True Bhakti (devotion) is surrender of the ego to the Self.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Are there no other ways of destroying the mind?
Bhagavan: There is no other adequate method except Self-enquiry. If the mind is lulled by other means it stays quiet for a little while and then springs up again and resumes its former activity.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: But when will all the instincts and tendencies (vasanas), such as that to self-preservation, be subdued in us?
Bhagavan: The more you withdraw into the Self, the more these tendencies wither, and finally they drop off.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Is it really possible to root out all these tendencies that have soaked into our minds through many births?
Bhagavan: Never yield room in your mind for such doubts, but dive into the Self with firm resolve. If the mind is constantly directed to the Self by this enquiry it is eventually dissolved and transformed into the Self. When you feel any doubt do not try to elucidate it but to know who it is to whom the doubt occurs.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: How long should one go on with this enquiry?
Bhagavan: As long as there is the least trace of tendencies in your mind to cause thoughts. So long as the enemy occupy a citadel they will keep on making sorties. If you kill each one as he comes out, the citadel will fall to you in the end. Similarly, each time a thought rears its head crush it with this enquiry. To crush out all thoughts at their source is called vairagya (dispassion). So vichara (Selfenquiry) continues to be necessary until the Self is realized. What is required is continuous and uninterrupted remembrance of the Self.
Sivaprakasam Pillai: Is not this world and what takes place therein the result of God’s will? And if so why should God will thus?
Bhagavan: God has no purpose. He is not bound by any action. The world’s activities cannot affect Him. Take the analogy of the sun. The sun rises without desire, purpose or effort, but as soon as it rises numerous activities take place on earth: the lens placed in its rays produces fire in its focus, the lotus bud opens, water evaporates, and every living creature enters upon activity, maintains it, and finally drops it. But the sun is not affected by any such activity, as it merely acts according to its nature, by fixed laws, without any purpose, and is only a witness. So it is with God. Or take the analogy of space or ether. Earth, water, fire and air are all in it and have their modifications in it, yet none of these affects ether or space. It is the same with God. God has no desire or purpose in His acts of creation, maintenance destruction, withdrawal and salvation to which beings are subjected. As the beings reap the fruit of their actions in accordance with His laws, the responsibility is theirs, not God’s. God is not bound by any actions.
Sri Bhagavan’s saying that the true nature of him who sees appears only when the things seen disappear is not to be taken literally as stipulating unawareness of the physical world. That would be a state of formless trance or nirvikalpa samadhi; what is meant is that they cease to appear real and are seen as mere forms assumed by the Self. This is made clear by the example of the rope and the serpent that follows. It is a traditional example, used also by Sri Shankara. A man sees a coiled rope in the dusk and mistakes it for a serpent and is therefore frightened. When day dawns he sees that it was only a rope and that his fear was groundless. The Reality of Being is the rope, the illusion of a serpent that frightened him is the objective world.
The statement that to crush out thoughts at their source is vairagya also requires elucidation. The meaning of vairagya is dispassion, detachment, equanimity. Sivaprakasam Pillai’s question as to when the instincts and latent tendencies in a man could be subdued shows that it was vairagya that he felt the need to strive after. Sri Bhagavan was, in effect, telling him that vichara or Self-enquiry is the shortest road to vairagya. Passion and attachment are in the mind; therefore when the mind is controlled they are subdued, and that is vairagya.
These answers were later expanded and arranged in book form as ‘Who Am I?’ perhaps the most widely appreciated prose exposition by Sri Bhagavan.
By 1910 Sivaprakasam Pillai already found government service irksome and an impediment to sadhana or spiritual quest. He was sufficiently well-to-do to lead the life of a householder without earning, so he resigned from service. Three years later he was faced with the real decision, whether his resignation meant withdrawal from the life of the world or whether he was merely renouncing what was irksome and retaining what was pleasant. His wife died and he had to decide whether to marry again or to take up the life of a sadhu. He was still barely middle aged and there was a girl he was strongly attracted to. But then the question of money also arose if he was to marry again and to set up a new household.
He shrank at first from asking Sri Bhagavan about such matters, perhaps realising in his heart what the reply would be; so he tried to obtain an answer in another way. He wrote out four questions on a piece of paper.
- What am I to do to escape all sorrows and cares on earth?
- Shall I get married to the girl I am thinking of?
- If not, why not?
- If the marriage is to come off, how is the necessary money to be raised?
With this he proceeded to a temple of Vighneswara, the aspect of God to which he had been wont to pray from childhood. He placed the paper before the idol and kept vigil all night, praying that the answer might appear written on the paper or that he might receive some sign or vision.
Nothing happened and he had now no other recourse but to approach the Swami. He went to Virupaksha Cave but still shrank from putting the questions. Day after day he postponed doing so. Even though Sri Bhagavan never encouraged anyone to renounce home life, that did not mean that he would encourage one whom destiny itself had set free to go back deliberately for a second dose. Sivaprakasam Pillai gradually felt the answer borne in upon him from the sight of the Swami’s own life in its serene purity, utterly indifferent to women, utterly unconcerned about money. The date he had fixed for his departure arrived with the questions still unasked. There were many people about that day, so that even if he had still wished to put his questions he could not without making them public. He sat gazing on the Swami, and as he gazed he suddenly beheld a halo of dazzling light about his head and a golden child emerging from his head and then re-entering. Was it a living reply that the progeny is not of the flesh but of the Spirit? A flood of ecstasy came over him. The strain of his long period of doubt and indecision was broken and he sobbed in pure relief.
It is an illustration of the great normality that prevailed around Sri Bhagavan that when Sivaprakasam Pillai told the other devotees what had happened some of them laughed or were incredulous and some suspected that he had taken a drug. Although many instances of visions and unusual occurrences could be culled, they would be spread out very thinly over the fifty and more years of Sri Bhagavan’s manifestation among us.
Overcome with joy, Sivaprakasam Pillai gave up all thought of leaving that day. The next evening, as he sat before Sri Bhagavan, he again had a vision. This time Bhagavan’s body shone like the morning sun and round him a halo as of full moons. Then again he saw the entire body covered with sacred ashes and the eyes glowing with compassion. Again two days later he had a vision, this time as though the body of Sri Bhagavan was of pure crystal. He was overwhelmed and feared to leave lest the joy surging in his heart should cease. Eventually he returned to his village, the unasked questions answered. He spent the rest of his life in celibacy and austerity. All these experiences he described in a Tamil poem. He also wrote other poems in praise of Sri Bhagavan, some of which are still sung by the devotees.