This Chapter is taken From The Book ”Guru Ramana Memories and Notes” Part-I Retrospect by S.S.Cohen
Thus began the pilgrim’s Vanaprastha; its spirit slowly crept into his hungry soul. For the body the new life was hard, the change very drastic. A redeeming feature was that in Ramanashram, unlike in other Ashrams, there were no compulsions of any kind; no programme to be followed, no meetings, study-classes or bhajan to be attended, so that the body was spared the additional strain of having to rise at an early hour every morning, or be in a certain place at a certain inconvenient time, and so on. Bhagavan was the most liberal of Gurus in that at no time did he consider the need to frame rules and regulations to control the lives of his disciples; nor did he believe in a common, enforced discipline, for he himself had attained the highest without them, and had discovered the self-evident truth, illustrated by his own experience, that at the right time Realisation surges up from within by a free impulse, like the budding and blossoming of a flower.
While it is true that not all seekers are as ripe as Bhagavan was, when the flood of Realisation suddenly inundated him in his seventeenth year and, thus, need a discipline to transform the desultory life of the world, to which they are accustomed, into that of self-controlled yogis, yet the discipline that is imposed from without can neither bear the desired fruits nor endure. The discipline which is not known to fail is the one which is self-imposed, constitutionally determined, and readily applied by an inner urge of the awakened intellect. Hence Bhagavan left his disciples completely free to mould their lives as best they could. This physical freedom considerably helped me to tide over the first few difficult months of my new existence.
The whole month of February 1936 I lived in the Ashram in a completely bare room with a sand-covered floor and palm leaves for walls and roof. In March I started constructing a small hut for my residence in the neighbourhood of the Ashram, as the next chapter will relate. No sooner was it ready than I moved to it. I hardly stayed in it in the daytime: my mind was wholly fixed on the Master. So I spent my days and a part of my nights in the Hall, where he lived and slept.
There I quietly sat and listened to the visitors’ talks with him and to his answers, which were sometimes translated into English, particularly if the questioner was a foreigner or a north Indian – not always. His answers were fresh and sweet. His influence was all pervasive in his silence not less than in his speech. To me in the beginning this was all the more perceptible in the contrast it offered to the hustle and bustle of the life on which I had just turned my back – to the wasted energy, the false values, the foolish expectations from ideals which are in themselves hollow reeds, the dreary intercourse with people with whom one has very little in common; to the social rules which have been laid down by many generations of selfishness, convention and superstitions, not to speak of the mess of politics, of rank and wealth, and the bitter jealousy and hatred they breed in the minds of men. It is small wonder therefore that Bhagavan appears to the serious- minded as a beacon light in an otherwise impenetrable darkness, and a haven of peace.
Bhagavan was then enjoying the sound, robust health of middle age, and could very well afford to be available at almost all hours of the day to devotees. The years 1936-1938 were very blissful, indeed, to us, when we could gather round his couch and speak to him as intimately as to a beloved father; tell him all our troubles and show him our letters without let or hindrance. After 8 p.m. when the hall contained only the local residents, we sat round him for a ‘family chat’ till about 10 o’clock. Then he related to us stories from the Puranas or the lives of Saints, yielding to transportations of emotions when he depicted scenes of great bhakti, or great human tragedies, to which he was sensitive to the extreme. Then he shed tears which he vainly attempted to conceal. Some stories are memorable like the following one. Kabir was a great bhakta (devotee) and lived in or near Benares some centuries ago. Although he had siddhis (psychic powers), he earned his livelihood by weaving. One day, when he was working on his looms, a disciple entered in great excitement and said: “Sir, there is a juggler outside here who is attracting large crowds by making his stick stand in the air”, etc. Thereupon Kabir, who like all true saints, discouraged the display of jugglery, wanting to shame the man, rushed out with a big ball of thread in hand. Seeing the long bamboo standing in the air, he threw up the ball of thread, which went up and up unwinding till the whole thread stood stiff in mid-air, and to a far greater height than the juggler’s stick, without any support whatever. The people, including the juggler himself, were stunned in amazement, and Sri Bhagavan’s eyes acted the amazement, while his hand stood high above his head in the position of that of Kabir when he threw up the ball.
On another occasion Bhagavan recited from memory a poem of a Vaishnava Saint, in which occurred the words “Fold me in thy embrace, O Lord,” when the arms of Bhagavan joined in a circle round the vacant air before him, and his eyes shone with devotional ardour, while his voice shook with stifled sobs which did not escape our notice. It was fascinating to see him acting the parts he related, and be in such exhilarated moods as these.
Some disciples and his attendants used to sleep on the floor of the hall at night. Bhagavan’s sleep was very light: he woke every now and then, and almost always he found an attendant nearby fully awake to say a few words to, and slept again. Once or twice he would go out for a few minutes, and, by 5 a.m., when the Veda chanters came from the township, they found him fully awake and chatting in a soft, subdued voice. Now the parayanam would get started and go on for a little less than an hour, during which everybody abstained from talking, and Bhagavan often sat cross-legged and completely indrawn. Then he went out for bath, breakfast, and a little stroll on the hill, and returned at about 7.30, when visitors and devotees began trickling in – men, women and children – till they filled the hall by about 9 a.m. This morning hour of the parayanam was the best time of the day for meditation: the congregation was small, women and children were absent, the weather cool, and the mind had not yet completely emerged to run its usual riot. Over and above this Bhagavan then shone in the stillness of his samadhi, which permeated the hall and the meditation of the disciples. But unfortunately I could not keep up this attendance, nor could I benefit by it even when present, for my mind remained in the fog of somnolence. Being a life-long bad sleeper I never succeeded in making the requisite six-hour sleep before six in the morning. Another tendency which I could not completely overcome was intolerance to noise, of which the hall was seldom free. Apart from the free access
to it by all and sundry there was also the freedom of singing, which at times took one by surprise at a moment when the hall was plunged in silence and the atmosphere conducive to meditation. All of a sudden a soprano voice rose from somewhere in the hall intoning some hymn or other, or reciting some shloka in a South-Indian language, to be succeeded by a tenor or another soprano, often the latter, in competition with a male of the species, till Bhagavan went out at his usual hours. These were: 9.45 for a few minutes, 11 o’clock for luncheon, followed by the midday stroll in Palakottu, evening 4-45 on the hill, preceding the evening Veda parayanam, and 7 o’clock for dinner. The best I could do then was to remain in a semi-contemplative or reflective mood, reserving my serious meditation to the quiet solitude of my own room. Major Chadwick, the only other foreign resident then, who had preceded me to Ramanashram by exactly three months, used to wonder how I could meditate in my room at all. I reciprocated by myself wondering how he could seriously concentrate amidst so much disturbance in the hall. Even in as small a matter as this, it will be observed, individual idiosyncrasies are apparent. These lonely hours I snatched from the time when Bhagavan was out.
Every second morning I went all alone for pradakshina – an eight mile non-stop trek round Arunachala hill – which took me almost exactly three hours to accomplish. This had its own special benefit. At that early hour I generally was in a walking-meditation mood, particularly as I expressly made a habit of it. The benefit of regularity in the practice of sadhana is here fully borne out. Another factor to a successful pradakshina and, to me, the greatest, was the determination at the very start not to retrospect – not to look back upon the past – throughout the three-hour trek. I might look this side or that, but would never allow memory to ruin my calmness. Each time I caught memory sneaking in, I immediately brought my attention to the rhythm of my footfalls till the mind regained its restful state. The partial fatigue experienced in the latter half of the journey automatically induced this mental rest without much effort. Somehow this practice worked marvellously well with me.
Speaking of retrospection, sadhakas must be warned against the tricks of memory, of which nothing is more harmful, nothing more destructive to the peace of mind which is necessary for a successful sadhana. It cannot be too often recommended to them to forbear looking into the past with its trials and errors, acts of omission and commission, regrets, fear, passion, love and hatred, personal tragedies, etc. Everything is dust, everything transitory, including the seemingly indissoluble human ties, more so wealth and fame, and, thus, not worth a moment’s regret. Nothing is changeless and lasting but the natural state of the pure being.
Another disturbance in the hall was caused by the distribution of the offerings on the spot, be they mangoes, raisins, sugar-candy, dates, or merely puffed rice.The moment one came, it went immediately round, after having been first touched and tasted by Bhagavan, so that he who happened to be then plunged in meditation for an hour or so, on opening the eyes sometimes found bits of edibles near his feet or in his lap, awaiting his pleasure. This custom was wisely stopped in 1938, when all the offerings were collected and distributed in the dining hall at meal times, or among guests who could not eat the usual food.
The constant influx of visitors was of some help in that it afforded the much-needed relaxation to an otherwise tense life. Secondly the peculiar problems which visitors brought with them were a useful study – study of the human mind and the endless ills to which it is subject. The problems of the mind and the conditions which give rise to them are infinitely more numerous than the variety which the physical universe presents to the human senses. Moreover, watching the masterly ways Bhagavan tackled these problems was sadhana in itself. Rationality was the very essence of his arguments. Whilst the ultimate answer to all the questions was always the same, namely, “Find out who you are,” he first met every questioner on his own ground, and then slowly steered him round to the source of all problems – the Self – the realisation of which he held to be the universal panacea. Psychologists deal only with the working of the mind, but Bhagavan goes to the source, the mind or Self itself. It was a wonder that all visitors were agreeably impressed by him, sometimes even without comprehending the drift of his ideas. People take siddhis as the sure sign of Perfection, but few understand the subtle influence of the truly Perfect person, who, without the deliberate use of miracles, works out the transformation of the people who come into contact with him, more so the genuine disciples, whom he actually turns into muktas, or well on the way to mukti, of which external siddhis are totally incapable. Many of those who have had the inestimable privilege of a long stay with Bhagavan bear witness to the blessedness which his mere presence conferred on them. This is the highest and truest siddhi which always accompanies Jnana (knowledge of the Self or Supreme Perfection).
When the audience shrank, the Master at times became humorously autobiographical about his early school and home life, or about his many experiences on the hill with sadhus, devotees, etc. One of the stories was about a “miracle” he had once performed in Skandashram, when his mother one day, leaving him inside a room in deep samadhi, bolted him in from outside and went to the town, and, on her return, to her great surprise, found him seated under a tree in the garden outside, and the door still bolted, as she had left it. She was so impressed by this “miracle” that she told it to everyone she met. The truth was, Bhagavan said, that he had unbolted the two door-shutters from inside and then re-bolted them, as before, from outside, from sheer habit.
Again and again the Master spoke of his early life in the big Arunachaleshwara temple in the first year of his escape to Tiruvannamalai (1896). Whilst urchins troubled him, educated adults had much respect for him, although he was then still in his teens. Pious men used to seek his company almost daily on the steps of Subramanya’s shrine. Two lawyers, in particular, were assiduous in this respect. On a certain Hindu festival day they prepared a grand dinner and came to take him to it, but his immovable silence indicated his refusal of their invitation. There was no alternative for them but to use force, which they did by joining hands and bodily lifting him, till he agreed to walk with them. Bhagavan said that that was the only house in Tiruvannamalai where he ate once. Another time he was also bodily carried and bundled into a waiting cart and fed, but that was not in a private house but in Ishanya Mutt – an Ashram-like institution for sannyasis of a special caste in the northern end of the town.
Then there came a break in my life at Tiruvannamalai. By the end of 1938 I felt I must go away for a while, as the next chapter will narrate: not to part company with my sadhana, but, on the contrary, to prevent it from degenerating into a colourless, monotonous routine, which I feared might wreck, or dry up the perennial inspirations which are necessary
for continued efforts. So I planned a leisurely tour in South India. I visited temples and stayed in holy places for long or short durations, as the spiritual moods took me. Everywhere I was well received. No temple closed its doors in my face anywhere, as it was done to non-Hindus. Wherever I went Bhagavan’s name acted like a charm, particularly as I had adopted the Indian dress from the beginning (1936), lived in Brahmin streets, and ate Brahmin food, which was pure vegetarian. I even for the time discarded the wearing of footwear, bathed in Hindu bathing-tanks, and attended evening temple worship with the smearing of ashes on my arms and forehead. This proved of much benefit at that stage of my sadhana. In the end of 1939 I found myself landed in Anandashram in Kanhangad, on the north Kerala coast, of which Swami Ramdas was the presiding deity. I had planned to stay there for a few weeks, but somehow I lingered for more than eight months.
Anandashram is very beautifully situated. To the east stretches a small range of sloping hillocks, almost evergreen from the torrential rains that fall there in both the monsoon seasons. To the west a plain gently slopes for almost four miles down to the sea, across fields sparsely strewn with villagers’ huts, coconut groves, and tobacco plantations, in between which is wedged a thin strip of the township, which is very much smaller than Tiruvannamalai. Being far from the public road the Ashram enjoys a natural, quiet and sweet, idyllic simplicity, which made it a congenial retreat at that time for me. So, I liked the place and stayed on, and did my work in my own way. Even the peculiar atmosphere of this Ashram suited me in my then moods. After a short while I began to distinguish the psychical difference between it and Ramanashram, I was greatly amused when I detected the way
Ramdas was affecting me. It enhanced the boyish tendencies which had been at times causing me much inconvenience, and which I had been trying to curb – the loquacity, the hastiness in action, the quickness of temper, the extreme sensitiveness to sound, the bouts of paralysing shyness, etc. I had spent fifteen years (since 1925) in comparative loneliness and silence, but Anandashram drew me out to the spontaneity of my adolescence for a good part of the time I was there.
For in Ramdas’s presence the heart expanded with joy, reminiscent of Krishna’s leela in Brindavan. Joy permeated everything: the hills, the grazing cattle, the faces round one, and the very air one breathed – all were joy-inspiring, all Ramdas’s RAM. In the spiritual life of some devotees what counts most is genuine bhakti, irrespective of labels and nomenclature, and Anandashram was, no doubt, surcharged with it, but it was a bhakti which was nurtured by joy. Joy and love oozed out of every pore of Ramdas’s being and infected his neighbourhood.
When I returned to my ashram in July 1940, the Second World War had already broken out, and darkness had fallen on the hearts and minds of men. Bombs had dropped on Warsaw like rain. Poland and Czechoslovakia had been subdued. Many millions of innocent men, women, and children, had been driven to concentration camps for a dread purpose. The Maginot Line had cracked and crumbled, and Paris had fallen to the mighty army of the invader.
I had expected to see some marks of this widespread devastation on the life of Ramanashram, but on arrival I found none whatever, except, to my surprise, a doubled rate of flow of devotees. The only other physical change I observed was in the Master’s body, which started showing signs of age, which had compelled the management to curtail the attendance hours at night. At midday the doors of the hall were closed for two hours for his siesta – the first time in the history of the Ashram. At first Bhagavan demurred but soon he grew resigned to the situation, seeing that it had some justification.
The stream of visitors continued to increase, so that soon afterwards sitting accommodation and easy access to the Master on personal matters became difficult. In fact under the new rules, letters and articles written by devotees were made first to pass the censorship of the office before they could be shown to him, which was not without reasons. One or two devotees, taking advantage of the Master’s compassionate nature, took to write to him letters running to several pages in very small hand on petty, often imaginary, difficulties in their spiritual practice, on which he strained his eyes for one or two hours. He was too scrupulous to let a single word go unread, which encouraged them to write still longer letters and daily too, imagining their epistles to be of great interest to Bhagavan till the management found it imperative to clamp down a ban on all correspondence to be shown or written to him.
A year or two later a colony of devotees, with families for the most parts, sprang up round the Ashram. As Bhagavan’s body grew weaker, his power to influence and attract increased, so that the tide of settlers and visitors continued steadily to rise and included world-famed philosophers, scholars, politicians, ministers, provincial governors, generals, foreign diplomats, members of foreign missions. They all came, whether in war or peace, in rain or shine. The tide swelled and swelled and reached its zenith in 1950, the last year of his earthly life. Till the last the Master continued to instruct. In the whole history of the Ashram there has never been a bar to the seeking of spiritual guidance orally from him, except in the very last year when he was seriously laid up and the visitors of their own accord desisted from troubling him.
As time passed and the Master’s state of mind and ideas took firm root in me, I ceased to ask questions, or to intercept him in his walks outside the Ashram grounds, as I used to do in the first six months of what I call my Vanaprastha life; for by then all my spiritual questions – call them problems, if you like – had resolved themselves in various ways. The final conclusion to which I came in the end of these six months I reported it one day to Bhagavan. He showed his gracious approval by a gesture of finality with his hand and said: “So much lies in your power, the rest must be left entirely to the Guru, who is the ocean of Grace and Mercy seated in the heart, as the seeker’s own Self.”