By P Venkatesh
The author visits the ashram of Ramana Maharishi at Thiruvannamalai and finds himself engulfed by the serenity and purity of the place
I knew him only as the ‘introspective master’ – the one who dwelled on the solitary thought “Who am I?” and arrived at the much-coveted answer. Much later, I understood him as the ‘Sage of Arunachala’ – the one who spent his lifetime at the feet of the holy hill Arunachala in the temple town of Thiruvannamalai. Finally, I got to see Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi under a whole new light.
It was the glorious light of the Karthika (a month in Tamil calendar from mid-November to mid-December) deepam festival in 2007. This was not only my first visit to Thiruvannamalai (a district in Tamil Nadu), but also my first stay at Sri Ramanasramam, or ashram. The moment I entered the ashram, the profound quietude caught me unawares. I was engulfed by the glaring presence of serenity that seemed enormously precious in front of the restlessness I had inherited from city life.
Before leaving Delhi, I had delved deep into the rich ocean of literature on Sri Ramana Maharishi, his life and his teachings. It was amazing to study how as a young boy, he was drawn to the Arunachala hill, the journey he undertook to reach the town of Thiruvannamalai, how he came to meditate in the underground Pathala Lingam shrine, his friendship with another renowned saint, Sri Seshadri Swamigal, and his subsequent spiritual guidance to his own mother. However, the knowledge I gained during my weeklong stay in this environment was much deeper and livelier than what I could have possibly gathered from a lifetime of reading.
The first thing that caught my attention was that the whole place resembled a mini-representation of the globe. Though there were men and women from all walks of life and of all ages, yet there was a uniformity and simplicity in their attire and behaviour. People from different states of India, as well as people from different countries, merged easily in this cosmic confluence of seekers of divine wisdom.
Devotees prostrating before the Sri Chakra Meru kept in the Matrubhuteswara shrine (dedicated to his mother), was always a pleasant sight. Whenever I happened to join other devotees in their slow and silent pradakshina (circumambulating) of Sri Ramana’s samadhi, I felt their admiration for their Bhagavan. It was even more riveting to observe the larger-than-life photo frames of Sri Ramana kept in the samadhi hall, and people meditating under the all-pervading vigil of their revered master.
There was one such black and white photograph of the maharishi on the wall of my own guestroom. His eyes in the photograph had magnetic charm. The more one looked at the eyes, the more one felt a sense of peace sprouting in the heart. Like most photos of holy sages, no matter where one sat or stood inside the room, the divine eyes seemed to be affixed only on you. Possibly, it was the grace of the holy hill itself that was flowing from his eyes. According to the Agasthiar Ashram situated in Thiruvannamalai, the view of the Arunachala hill from near the samadhi hall is known as ‘Eru pancha muka darshan’. It is the vision that redeems people and prevents them from sinning again. As Sri Ramana had said, “Thou dost root out the ego of those who meditate on thee in the heart, Oh Arunachala!”
This alchemy was happening within me as well. During the whole stay at the ashram, I kept my sandals locked up in my room. Perhaps, it was an outward expression of leaving my ego out of the way. Not just the footwear, but also the handy cellphone so indispensable to modern life was rendered useless in the self-reflective environment. No fiddling with the keys, playing timepass games, sending text messages or calling friends on a lark; the company of my own sweet self never felt better. Any display of wealth, pride or vanity also readily faded off my consciousness. It was a huge relief to feel the mask of false-self dropping off.
By good fortune I discovered a big board kept in a corner of the ashram that narrated how, at the ripe age of 16, Sri Ramana realised the Self owing to an overwhelming death experience. In his words, “…on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overcame me…I said to myself mentally – ‘Now death has come, what does it mean? What is dying?’…I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff…and imitated a corpse…I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed…But with the death of the body am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless spirit…From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self, focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on.”
This enlightened master’s grace even enabled some of his beloved to attain liberation; these were – Lakshmi the cow, Valli the deer, Jackie the dog and a crow. Small shrines have also been built within the ashram for them. I witnessed many micro-universes within the ashram – a large goshala (cow shelter) with many cows, two wells with abundance of fishes, five peacocks strolling around unpretentiously, a family of monkeys hanging around the open spaces, and a little cat ever playful near Sri Ramana’s samadhi. A 400-year-old ‘illupai’ tree near the entrance and several such ‘older-than-eternity’ trees also spread their grand canopy of shade over the entire area. It was evident why the flora and fauna in the ashram played such a pivotal role in preserving the sanctity of the place.
Another fascinating aspect was the annadhanam (food donation) activities at the ashram. The food was highly sattvic (a diet rich in purity as per ayurveda), served on banana leaves in traditional South Indian style. The large dining hall was filled to capacity as people sat on the ground during the meal times, and a sense of togetherness was felt in partaking of the food with the entire community. A particular tradition was observed where food was served first to animals, then to beggars and sadhus (ascetics), followed by visitors, ashram residents and finally to Bhagavan – in this order. This tradition instituted by Sri Ramana himself reflected the compassion and equanimity with which all living beings were treated.
What I cannot forget is the uphill trek to Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha Cave! Walking on the rocky path, I was intimate with the many marvels of the holy hill. Treasures lay for the human sight at every step, and I also picked up small pieces of rock on the way as collectibles. Ultimately, when I reached Skanda Ashram, where Sri Ramana’s mother had attained maha samadhi, I could sense the purity of the place; the dark interiors of the Skanda Ashram where devotees were rapt in contemplation, the gigantic banyan tree where the master had once meditated, and the crystal clear water flowing downstream amidst the rocks whose one sip soaked the tiredness of the trek. Virupaksha cave was equally awe-inspiring. This was the place where Sri Ramana once lived as a young swami. Again, I saw several devotees seated inside the cave, with their hearts and minds turned inwards to receive blessings from the divine soul of their master.
Surprisingly, Sri Ramana Maharishi did not have a human guru. He often said that his guru was the holy hill Arunachala itself. His love for the Lord manifest in the hill was so much that he had identified from different scriptures more than 2600 Sanskrit verses glorifying Lord Annamalayar (Shiva), and had assiduously written them down in his own handwriting. No wonder that girivalam, or circumambulating the hill, used to form an important part of his daily routine.
On the purnima (full moon night) of the Karthika deepam on November 24, 2007, I commenced my girivalam from the ashram and also concluded it here. I noticed that the small beacon lit in front of the samadhi hall was still burning. The beacon matched in splendour the Karthika deepam atop the hill, and was the cynosure of all eyes as visitors came and bowed before it. I instinctively recalled the account of how on the day of Sri Ramana’s maha samadhi on April 14, 1950, a small and bright meteor was seen merging with the holy hill by the people of the town. Though I secretly desired to witness such a spectacle, what I actually experienced during my short stay was intensely satisfying and beyond my expectations!
While leaving, I saw a fleeting glimpse of Lord Dakshinamurthy presiding in a small temple just outside the ashram. Renowned as the universal guru, Lord Dakshinamurthy (a south-facing form of Shiva) is known for transmitting his teachings in the pristine cloak of deep silence that astonishingly removes all the doubts of his pupils gathered under the banyan tree without a word being exchanged. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that Sri Ramana Maharishi’s unspoken but omnipresent grace too continues to guide seekers of the self from the tranquil environment of Sri Ramanasramam at Thiruvannamalai. Such is the loving embrace of his arms!
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