This chapter is taken from The Silent Power – Selections from The Mountain Path and The Call Divine
Dilipkumar Roy and myself reached Tiruvannamalai at about 7 p.m., 17th February 1949 after a tiresome and dusty journey. Our discerning hostess, a Parsi lady, was rightly more concerned about our having the darshan of Bhagavan, as the Maharshi is universally called there, and consequently we promptly went to the prayer hall.
To our pleasant surprise we found Tiruvannamalai a substantial town with good roads, and electric lighting. The Ashram is one and a half miles beyond the town, just at the foot of the beautiful Arunachala Hill, so sacred and so powerfully evoked in some of the wonderful verses written by the Maharshi years ago. The prayer hall is a nice, clean, fair sized building which could perhaps accommodate 100 to 150 people without difficulty. We went into the hall, but either by habit or by some sort of inhibition or training, we did not prostrate ourselves in the traditional fashion. We only made a deep bow and took our seats. The critical eye noticed the scrupulous cleanliness of the hall, the intensely devout mien of the people and the utter simplicity and grandeur of the entire atmosphere.
Bhagavan himself, lean, of medium height, wheat complexioned, was reclining on a sofa surrounded by a low, folding wooden barrier to keep the fervent worshippers from touching his body. It is on this sofa that the Maharshi spends his time either sitting or reclining whether by day or by night. Close to the couch is an incense burner, which is going on all the time. There is one more burner with incense sticks at the foot of the couch. The purifying fumes are always rising in the air. Sometimes the Maharshi himself is stocking the burner and putting in more and more incense in the bowl. Just on the side of the couch is a high stool with a time piece, a table lamp and a few bottles of medicine. In front of the sofa is a small book case with a few books in English and in Tamil, principally of the Maharshi’s own writing. I counted five wall calendars hung at the odd corners including one containing a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru.
People were squatting cross legged, some with eyes shut, some eagerly looking at Bhagavan, but all absolutely silent. People were coming in and going out after doing the prostration. All this homage left the Maharshi untouched, or was it only my illusion, for those wonderful eyes seemed to take in everything even though they had a faraway, distant look.
Prayers from the Upanishads were being recited by three young disciples. I felt the magnificent rhythm of the Sanskrit language more powerfully than I have ever felt it before. I immediately realized how the great mantras and the verses of the Vedas and the Upanishads must have sounded in a bygone age at the morning and evening prayers in forest hermitages. The recitation was wonderful, the intonation accomplished and egoless. One was immediately hushed to devout silence. The prayers were wound up with the invocation to Bhagavan Ramana himself.
How is one to describe the atmosphere? have referred to the trifles because though they attracted my attention on the first evening, they ceased to have any significance the very next morning. All that I felt was, that I was face to face with a Reality which transcended all that I had dreamt of him. Here was a great sage whose darshan was undoubtedly a privilege. I instinctively felt that here was India at its highest, for here was the deepest realization of the Reality transcending all mundane factors and bringing peace which passes all understanding. Let me, however, get along with trifles, for even they may have some usefulness.
At 7.30 p.m. was the evening meal and some thirty to forty people sat down to a simple meal, irrespective of race or rank, with the Maharshi occupying a corner. Rice and curry are served, some pulses and sometimes little vegetable delicacies on a plantain leaf. The Maharshi is the most careful diner of all, for he leaves no particle of surplus food on his platter. Food is served to all servants and masters by the very people who render service to the Maharshi, the same who look after the Ashram and who chant those wonderful verses from the Vedas and the Upanishads at the morning and evening prayers. Here was truly the hermitage of a saint where nothing mattered but an unceasing effort to know and feel the eternal Brahman.
The Maharshi finishes his meal quietly and slowly, but the diners leave the hall as they please, and so far as the Maharshi’s presence for the day is concerned, it is all over with the completion of the evening meal. There is a radio set in a corner of the prayer hall. The Maharshi is interested in everything including the feeding of monkeys, peacocks and squirrels.
After the meal we left the Ashram to go to our accommodation across the road. There are some charming little cottages, which have been built by the people who have been regularly coming to have the darshan of Bhagavan and with some luck one can have one of these cottages. However, the creature comforts to which we were used no longer mattered.
We were in a world totally different from the one we had left behind. The values were also different and all that was important now was to get up in time for the morning prayers at 4 a.m.
It is difficult to reproduce the atmosphere of the morning prayers. The lights are still on. The Maharshi is holding his hands over the incense burner, the disciples chant the Vedic prayer in a firm and resonant voice. The stately rhythm of these prayers creates an amazing atmosphere of peace and sanctity. For more than forty minutes the recital continues in an unbroken melody and at the conclusion, a few verses are recited in adoration of Bhagavan himself.
The prayers over, there is an hour to get ready for the morning coffee. The low lying Arunachala Hill looks singularly beautiful in the light of the dawn and one is aware of that harmony between man and nature which is so essential to balanced life. As one strolls out of the Ashram one is aware that Tiruvannamalai is a town of sacred memories, of temples small and big, and of graveyards dedicated to the memories of the departed. There are shrines, some modest and some more pretentious, built all around the Hill, but the greatest monument of them all is the superb temple of Arunachalam.
It was interesting to learn that the custom of burial was and still is not uncommon among certain classes of people in the south. Unfortunately however, the memorial stones are scattered on the periphery of the town and are in a state of complete neglect, as is also the case with some beautiful mandapams and temples of all sizes. It could not have been the decline of the devout spirit so much as the weakening and disintegration of economic life which, once so prosperous as to have built the great edifices, is now no longer able even to afford their maintenance. The people are poor because perhaps they have not been able to keep pace with the march of time. In the whole of Tiruvannamalai the living centre is the modest Ashram of Bhagavan, for here the spiritual lamp stays burning, capable of igniting the fires in the hearts of those who are still wanting or are prepared to receive the illumination.
It was fortunate that the next day of our halt at the Ashram was the sacred day of Maha Shivaratri. Very early in the morning crowds of people were on the march around the sacred Hill of Arunachalam and in the Ashram itself worship was continuous for all the twenty four hours. The great temple of Arunachalam was illuminated but the resources of the people were far too attenuated to permit adequate lighting. One day when the people of India are again strong and economically prosperous these temples will perhaps, be revived into centres of inspiration and light, and their vast mandapams might be restored to their proper use and status.
We attended the evening prayers on the eve of our departure. There could be no farewell, for Bhagavan’s presence would never be forgotten. We bade mental farewell to the Ashram for we were going to leave for Pondicherry early next morning. As we were about to leave, a friend said that we could not possibly leave the Ashram without taking the permission of Bhagavan and saying goodbye to him. We therefore repaired to the Ashram to intimate our departure to Bhagavan just as he was going out of the dining hall. We felt like young children going to their elders for a blessing. Our reward, however, was immense, for Bhagavan vouchsafed to us a penetrating glance of immeasurable beatitude which, even now, is one of the most abiding memories of a sacred pilgrimage. It is astonishing how Bhagavan’s presence and his usual, apparently humdrum activities cast such a magic spell over all those who were blessed to come near him.