Abstract: This is an excerpt from an unpublished book Children of Nature: Sacred Mantfestation and Popular Culture in Tiruvannamalai, which I wrote over ten years, from 1995 to 2006.
The work attempts to interlace questions of pilgrimage both in sociological terms as well as within questions of inter-religious dialogue. It also sets up the interweaving of narrative analyses with the experiential questions of being in the field. What constitutes the field is my central methodological problem. To this I contribute the personal interlacing of feminist methodology of the personal and the political, along with archival and published materials, as well as interviews. My personal diary, the diaries of others and the use of memoirs is the central pivot of this chapter. The social anthropologist is a participant, the questions objectively asked, become subjectively answered. Ramana Maharshi is very well known in India and abroad, as being the cerebral sage of India. Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugharn is believed to have been inspired by a meeting with Ramona. The website of the Ramanamaharshi Asrama in Tiruvannamalai is believed to have been hit many more than a million times.
Keywords: Ramana Maharshi, theosophical society, Ramanasrama, path to self-realisation, self transformation, feminist writers, consciousness, rejuvation of consciousness, Bhagavan
Somewhere, every anthropologist knows the futility of subjectivities, and yet we continue with our work! This embarrassment that we are tainted within our short term drives, which is recording events, emotions, words, and yet our subconscious carries with it a whole submerged iceberg of the epi-phenomena of events…we know of no way of handling this, except to write. The tsunami had just occurred, and yet our lives ran routinely on track. For someone who has chronicled the struggle of artisan fishers, from 1994 onwards, this was a horrifying moment personally. The detachment of the observer can never drown out the cries of dying people, and yet I understood what Fr James Stuart, a friend and chronicler of Swami Abhishiktananda once said laughingly to me. “You anthropologists are like shilling cultivators…slash, burn, hoe, reap, move on! And do you know what the word translator comes from? Tradiottore…which means betrayer or traitor.” He was in his 80s, and we understood each other perfectly.
I have no working notes for this trip to Ramanasrama, because it passed in a sunny haze of being safe in the shadow of the mountain — the calm glow of an unquestioning love, an unspoken love. I’ve been recording this for years now, and it shocks me that such a place exists which quietens all desire, and leaves the mind a calm and lambent pool of fulfillment. My children feel the same way, but they make no fuss about it, are never surprised… perhaps happiness is an unquestioned part of childhood. My eldest daughter Meera thanked me for bringing all of them to Ramanasrama, and then I realised she is now an adult, who can be startled by pleasure and happiness. When we got off the taxi at the Ramanasrama, it was only 1.30, since the driver got a cell phone request from a client at Doty, and he was desperate to get back to Bangalore and cater to the next business. So we reached in four hours, at suicidal speed, instead of 5 or 6 hours. I was nervous, because Doc had said “Come at 4 o’clock, otherwise you will be stranded with your luggage.” After that the three children trooped off to find food across the road, because I said when Doc said something he meant it, so we weren’t to look for him and ask for keys till 4 o’clock. They trooped off happily and came back a little disappointedly with small bananas and biscuits and khatta meetha mixture, which we contentedly polished off sitting on the cement ledge just adjacent to the old tree and the square where lepers and beggars are fed. Who should turn up, but Annamali, that small child who was seen last with snails for peacocks in August 2004. Of course he asked me for toffees and money, and received bananas and mixture for which he did cartwheels of happiness. (It turned out he was a boy — with his long hair and delicate features he still seemed like a boyish girl).
I was so tired, I lay down on the concrete platform, on my red and blue Naga shawl. A flock of pilgrims all in red have arrived from some mutt. They were journeying all over the South on a pilgrimage. Everyone was wearing red in various hues and shapes. They were like hibiscus gone on a rampage, but were clearly having a wonderful time. just as anthropologists and photographers see the world by inventing intellectual reasons, a lot of people in India just go on pilgrimage… I suddenly get up because there are cartloads of people getting out of L.Vans and going to the office. .
The Doctor has arrived. We speak perfect and short sentences to each -other, we are formal to a painful degree. I try to hide the happiness from my lace, I sign the guest register and say, “We have no idea about Brojo’s Whereabouts!” Part of me is nervous about the arrival of my nephews Zul and Brojo. They are subversive by nature, one never knows what they will do and say. But that’s true for the entire family…it can get quite taxing, because we always say what we mean, and we always mean what we say. The problem is that it can be quite eccentric and threatening sometimes. Doc asks me where we are sitting, and that as the rooms are ready, he will give us the keys. I fall asleep on my rug, and then Meera nudges me, and I wake up, looking short-sighted and vague. Doc is holding our keys. I run up to get them, and then my eyes fall on the most beautiful flower I have ever seen. It’s reddish pink, a deep thick colour, the petals are like satin and in the centre is a frond of the most amazing strands, which are hell bent on warring with one another. It is a water lily. I pick it up.
Doc says “I will send a boy to help you with the suitcases.” But that awful feminist slant surfaces, and the four of us women are struggling with our suitcases, with me yelling “We’ll manage!” All so untidy, and at odds and ends, and we have as usual far too many things. There is one suitcase whose zip has snapped…it fell down from the porter’s load at the beginning of our journey. It could not be repaired and it’s still with us. In it are all the clothes that we wore when setting out from Delhi: so many woollens and coats and scarves, it amazes us, for now we are in a land where the sun shines bright and hot. Doc watches us impassively. I have to choose between the red flower and my rug, and I choose my rug…but Sandhya picks up the flower and puts it in one of the bags. A youth has appeared with a bicycle, and has strapped one of the suitcases on a bicycle. Meera carries the other…but then she gets irritable with the weight, and flounces off faster than the rest of us, and we go down the main road, looking like we don’t have a man to control and govern us… unruly women, the bane of all societies everywhere.
We’re so tired, the room seems like heaven, cool and with two beds, on which the three girls cram…and I as usual have a bath and wash clothes…then lie on the ground on a rug. Then we go down to tea, and Meera makes awful faces, because you can smell the milk, and we all laugh at her expressions. I think it’s also because Meera’s fetish for a clear light brew with very little milk and sugar is something that we have over the years got used to. The usual thing follows, that is we let the Asrama take over us…the lovely sense of being taken care of, of being loved without reason…it’s the aura of the mountain and the cultural logic of Ramana’s own personality, which is sharply tended, sharply because indiscipline is not welcome. The calm of theAsrama, the quiet of others’ meditation…these are valuable things, and protected against everything else.
The surge of the tsunami follows us everywhere. It had happened when we were in Bangalore with my sister’s family. We are never ever free of it’s shadow. Yet theAsrama protects one from every possible upheaval…from sorrow and tomorrow, and that is why one longs to return: What was Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain about? It was about a sanatorium where the heated up and the despised go for a while, and the young man tormented by his desire finds good company with a Jesuit. Here too, one knows that everyone who is here, is here because they have been in crises. So many of the books written on Ramana are unashamed accounts of great love for the Sage, descriptions of his life, of friendship and love that blazons the pages…what shame is there in loving? That’s the interesting thing about Ramana’s life and his work…we have no veils to hide the quality of our feelings when we are on the mountain, yet we are asked to don these veils, so that the light on our faces will not dim our recognition of routine tasks. Those routine tasks must continue, and we become known by the work we do. Mine is, I fear, only to appear and look around and be startled by the Annamalais, and particularly Ananachala…clouds, plants, creatures which inhabit these green hills and sudden shadows. The rest is locked in history and the sameness of things which is what mythology is about.
Whenever I read the chronicles of devotees, I’m startled by the tactile nature of these records. A. Devaraja Mudaliar describes how Skandasrama was built. The entry is for 9.12. 1945.
Bhagavan said that the old disciple Kandaswami was anxious to build a separate Asrama for Bhagavan. He inspected various places on the hill and in the forests to select a site, and finally suggested the present Skandasrama site and then Bhagavan also approved of it. There upon Kandaswami began converting what was a thick forest of prickly pear on the mountain slope. The result of his labours unaided by any at the time is the Asrama we see now. He added, “You cannot imagine the site it was originally. Kandaswami worked with almost superhuman effort, achieved by his own hands what even four people together could not have done. He removed all the prickly pear, reduced ‘stone and boulder to level ground, created a garden and raised the Asrama. We got four coconut trees for planting. To plant them properly Kandaswami dug huge square pits about ten feet deep. That would give you an idea of the amount of labour he put into the work he took on hand. He was a strong, well-built man. (Mudaliar 2002: 66)
Publishing As Creation of Community: The Narratives of Three Women Writers
Stuart Blackburn has shown how much print has affected the cultures and traditions of South India. As he sees it, following the pioneering work of Natalie Zemon Davis and others, ‘books are cultural objects, and readers are `textual communities’ and ‘consumers of popular culture’ (Blackburn 2003:7). The Ramanasrama has a strong publishing history, where the President of the asrama is publisher, and authors augment through interpretation or memoirs the story of Bhagavan, friends and devotees. There is a circular structure at work, reading these works and remembering them, present day circumstances are re-established within previous wisdom.
One of the most revered devotees is T.R. Kanakammal. Her Cherished Memories have been read over and over again. One of the startling themes of her work is that of companionship. She handles the friendship between men in the community (it was truly a fraternity, with women allowed to be present as witnesses) with a grace and laughter that is truly startling. One of her most common themes is Murgunar’s friendship with Ramana. Murgunar was a brilliant and eminent Tamil poet, who was introduced to the Maharshi by his father-in-law. He was a school teacher who caught the train to Tiruvannamalai at every possible opportunity, but because of the illness of his mother he could not shift to the asrama. His devotion was such that he had eyes only for Ramana, and his wife would complain to the Sage of her husband’s neglect of her. Kanakammal, who was a close associate of the poet writes of him,
Murgunar was one of the greatest Tamil poets of this century. In fact, Thanigaimani Sengalvaraaya Pillai said that Murgunar is to be considered an equal to any of the Tamil poets of the Sangam Era (the period, a few thousand years ago, which is acknowledged as the Golden Age of Tamil poetry). Murgunar’s extraordinary poetic gifts became apparent while he was still very young. After his meeting with Rhagavan, his entire personality underwent a change. Not only did the pattern of his external life change; his spiritual awakening is also to be attributed to his meeting with Bhagavan. (Kanakammal 2002:142)
After his mother’s death, Murgunar came to live at the asrama. His devotion was so palpable, that Maharshi was often amused by it. He would listen to the Master, and swallow him with his eyes, with his mouth falling open. He wanted so much to eat from Bhagavan’s leftover leaf (the plate from which Bhagavan had eaten) that he wrote the following verse,
Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Universe is very good at chanting all the four Vedas; but when it comes to fashioning suitable dwellings for all the souls entering the world, He is obviously incompetent. Let us consider my case. I have the body of a man. Maybe, my actions in previous lives had entitled me to a human body. But the soul that resides in this body is undoubtedly that of a dog. That is why I have developed the desire to eat from your used plate. O Noble Ramana! I prostrate myself at your feet and beg you to grant me Real Knowledge. ( Kanakammal 2002: 142)
Ramana Maharshi found his adulation amusing and was at some trouble to communicate how important detachment was for non-dualism. But for fifty years, from 1923 to 1973, Murgunar devoted himself to Ramanasrama singing the joy of having found the Lord. “His Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai contains 1,851 poems in praise of Bhagavan”. (Kanakammal 2002: 129) He was also the author of numerous other works. While he forgot his food, his belongings, even his conjugal responsibilities, his friendship with Bhagavan remained one of the lasting testimonies of a truly startling relationship between two erudite men. It verged on the simple and the surreal.
Once, Meenakshi Ammal, Murgunar’s wife who loved Ramana equally, complained that her husband never noticed her. At this Ramana asked her to substitute Murgunar’s name for his own when she sang her usual hymn of praise in the hall.
Meenakshi Amoral was a simple soul, and her faith in Bhagavan was total. So she agreed to do exactly as Bhagavan said, even though she had no idea why he should want her to do it. Now the verses selected by Bhagavan were very well suited to the occasion because they presented the picture of a love-lorn lady chiding her lover for his cruel neglect. In these verses, Murgunar portrays himself as a love-lorn lady and entreats Bhagavan to favour him with his grace. To be precise, the lady describes the happy times she had shared with her Lord, and the promises that he had made to her. ….Each of the verses ends with the phrase, “Ramana Mayavan” (the term mayavan can be translated as the “great deluder”). The lady is accusing her lover of misleading her with false promises. Yet, her language is far from abusive. In fact her words are full of affection and reflect the remembered joy of happier times. Each of the poems in this section is exquisite in the beauty of expression and the delicacy of feeling. (Kanakammal 2002 : 149)
Murgunar entered the hall, heard his wife singing. He presumed that she was referring to Lord Murugan,
Bhagavan glanced at him with eyes full of mischief. Then he directed a look of approval and encouragement at Meenakshi Animal. This repeated substitution of “Muruga Mayavan” for “Ramana Mayavan” now appeared highly significant to Murgunar. He was finally convinced that Bhagavan was deliberately teasing him, using Meenakshi Ammal as an innocent, yet effective agent? Murgunar fled the room, but Bhagavan stopped him, saying “Hey? Why are you leaving the hall now? Is it not because she sang about her ‘Muruga Mayavan’? Well, does that mean that whenever somebody sings about `Ramana Mayavan’, I should immediately walk out of the hall?”
On another occasion, Meenakshi Ammal, did not stretch out her hand for prasadam, hoping her husband would notice her, but he merely passed her by. She complained to Bhagavan who again laughingly mediated between the couple. (Kanakammal 2002 : 150, 151)
One of the most amusing accounts that Kanakammal gives us is of urgunar being asked to officiate at pujas. He was a perfectionist, but then, he started to mumble to himself,
“I wonder how others manage to recite the mantras, ring the bell with one hand, and keep up the circular motion of the Arati plate with the other hand, all at the same time? It requires such perfect synchronisation of activities! I suppose it is a gift that other people possess. I can never master this art!” (157). Bhagavan started to tease him, and Murgunar said he could not possibly continue with this ritual duty. So Bhagavan said, “That is good. Now you have granted liberation to puja!”(158)
When Bhagavan’s teasing became too much to bear, Murgunar woul retaliate in verse. Once he was helping Maharshi to clean the greens for cooking. The Master began to describe the various medicinal qualities of herbs.
“Murgunar was fascinated by Bhagavan’s words and completely forgot the work on hand. Bhagavan finished his portion of the job and with the intention of stacking all the greens together, and gathering all the roots into one single heap, he looked at Murgunar’s work spot and remarked, “Look at him! He is really very smart! Murgunar, your skill in chopping greens is as striking as your success in running a household!” (Murgunar’s extraordinary ‘domestic skills’ are, of course, well known to all of us!) Bhagavan’s remark jolted Murgunar out of his trance like state. He looked down at his handiwork. The few stalks he had managed to chop were lying scattered all over the place. The roots were in an even messier state, lying like wounded soldiers on a battlefield! Then he looked at Bhagavan’s portion of the work and saw the chopped greens piled up neatly in one place, with the roots in a separate pile! Not a scrap had been wasted; nothing was out of place. Murgunar was quite ashamed of himself. He could think of only one form of retaliation.” (Kanakammal 2002: 160)
Murgunar wrote a poem which Bhagavan summarised to the devotee gathered there,
In reply to my remarks, he has written this poem. The gist of the poem is, “O Ramana! You are an extraordinarily efficient person. Why don’t you marry an equally efficient young lady and set up house? Why should you be wandering around as a mendicant in loin cloth, begging food when you could so easily have set up an ideal household?” (Kanakammal 2002: 160)
What Kannakamal brings to our attention is the joy and laughter between equals, the first text of non-dualism. If hierarchy is to be established it may appear in many ways, in many nuances. What Murgunar established in another work was the significance of words, of hymns, and the unashamed expression of love for the Master. I turn now to another narrative, which is Monica Bose’s Hill of Fire (2002). In this very exquisitely crafted book we find the uses of biography in the telling of history. These are indeed hagiographies, but they are neither canonical nor apocryphal. They are memoirs of lives lived in proximity to the Master. I have used the same methodology in an earlier work, The Christians of Kerala (OUP 1993) where 1 have argued that one can understand the Christ better by looking at those who were close to him, or in a related fashion one can understand canonical rituals better if one can examine the paraphernalia of rituals and cults associated with satellite figures. There are many who were close to Bhagavan. Since he refused to take disciples, it was understood that they were seekers and that self realisation was so close at hand, each individual only had to accept the nature of being. What was that state of mind that allowed one to ask in the first place “Who am I?” What was the concomitant state that allowed one to accept Maharshi ‘s teaching culminating in sahaja or happiness in being what one was? In the life of Suzanne Curtil Sen, or Sujatha Sen, as she came to be known, we shall find some disturbing revelations about the nature of the quest and the suffering therein. It seemed almost a truism that those who suffered, found Bhagavan. It is in this context that his teaching of prarabdh karma (leading to birth) and destiny may be interlinked.
Suzanne Curtil was born on 13 December 1896 to a Parisian called Jeanne Curtil and Gabriel Sursock who came from a banking family in Beirut. She grew up to be an acclaimed dancer, a Theosophist and a trained medical doctor. Her granddaughter wrote of her in a biography called Hill of Fire,
Whilst a student at the medical faculty of the Sorbonne, Suzanne seems to have been quite a firebrand, siding with the anti-vivisectionist students who protested often and vociferously against the appallingly cruel experiments and demonstrations that were carried out on live animals in the classroom. She became something of a feminist, too, after seeing how some of the authorities were prejudiced against women wanting to enter medicine, and were not above failing them to keep them out, Once her studies were over she would retain a combative attitude towards unfair treatment whomsoever it was directed against: women, the poor, or people of a different race. ( Bose 2002 : 24)
During this time she joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical society, which was a sub-society, for those who believed that they would, through the path of spirituality, come in contact with a great Master. Following five years of apprenticeship, she went to India. She became friends with George Arundale and Rukmini Devi, who gave her the support she needed. While she listened to Jiddu Krishnamurti, her spiritual path took her onwards to Theravada Buddhism.
Suzanne met Sri Jinwansaswami, sometimes called Prince-Priest because of his aristocratic descent, but generally known as the Swamiji, on 30 December 1925, when he came to inaugurate the small Buddhist temple the construction of which had just been completed in the compound of the Theosophical Society. He was a Maha thera, a High Priest of the Theravada or Southern Buddhist Church, who had received the higher ordination from the Head of the famous Abhinawarama Temple in Wakaduwa kalutara in Ceylon. (Bose 2002 : 42)
Suzanne felt that she had met a realised being, and in turn the Swamiji felt that
Suzanne could be a nun, or in fact a priestess.
This was a very bold idea because no woman had entered the Theravada Order in Ceylon for over eight hundred years. However, the Swamiji hoped to persuade the Chief High Priests there to admit her since, as a medical doctor, she had proved she possessed qualities of intellect and character atleast equal to a man. (Bose 2002 : 43)
The Swamiji believed that if Suzanne were to join the order as a nun, since she was a European, many doors in the colonial hierarchy would perhaps open for Theravada Buddhism. It would also prove to the world what the Swami liked to preach: that there was no discrimination of caste, race or sex in the Buddhist religion. This dream was realised, and her going forth (pabbaja) ceremony was performed where she renounced objects of sense, but also the very thought of sensuality (45). She was given the name of Sujata after the woman who gave the Buddha milk and rice, which revived him and set him on the final stage of Buddhahood (47). Suzanne went on to Tibet.
After Phari-Jung, they traversed still more desolate country. A tropical sun shone in the deep blue sky but at altitudes nearing 4,600 metres, the cold. was intense. By afternoon, strong winds arose making the cold still hard to bear. Suzanne, inadequately clad and equipped for such conditions, tried to keep warm by stuffing paper in her boots and between the body and her clothes. They passed mountains which were so steep that it was a wonder how the monasteries perched on their slopes were not swept away by the onslaughts of the wind and rain. Suzanne visited a monastery that was inaccessible to outsiders for nine months of the year. She would report that within the limits of those lonely eyries the monk far from suffering any sense of isolation enjoyed the widest communion` possible (71).
In Tibet she discovered communities of nuns. The size of the religious communities varied greatly, from small groups of four or five women living in isolated retreats to highly organised, well-known convents of three hundred nuns or more. There were also women ascetics who led a Yogi’s life alone in mountain caves or forests, and there were itinerant nuns who fearlessly trod the lonely and dangerous pilgrim paths. With the flexibility characteristic of the Buddhist religion, another alternative was countenanced, especially in southern Tibet. This was for the priestesses to be married women who lived in convents and performed the religious ceremonies for the community that were usually the function of priests, while their husbands stayed at home and cultivated the land; an arrangement that was said to work well. (Bose 2002: 72)
Suzanne never reached Lhasa because she fell very ill. She returned via Sikkim to India. In Egmore maternity hospital where she enrolled to take an obstetrics course she met Dr Ranjit Sen, an Anglicised soldier, who courted and married her.
Suzanne let herself be persuaded. Perhaps she wanted to prove to herself that she was capable of loving, and in her eyes he had all the qualities that made it possible for her to love (Bose 2002: 75).
Alas, having led a monk’s life she had no idea he was an accomplished philanderer, who could not understand why Suzanne resented these liaisons or as humiliated by them. She returned to her Buddhist preoccupations.
Adding to her sense of disappointment was that she had not been able to start her medical work since the military authorities had turned down her request for permission to start a charitable dispensary. Nor had she succeeded in starting a new Buddhist centre. In fact her work for the Dharma had been reduced to writing a few letters to prospective donors. The situation had become unbearable for her, yet she did not tell Ranjit that she wanted to leave him. Instead, she asked him to release her so that she might go and fulfil her mission of service to humanity to which she had long ago dedicated herself. Ranjit reluctantly accepted that reason and agreed to let her go. (Bose 2002 : 75)
Suzanne went back to a more purist Buddhist practice, and also returned he stage as a dancer. It was 1936, and she brought to the stage in Brighton, dramatic and dance enactments of her experiences in Tibet. Fourteen such secular and sacred dances were performed (85). Yet, there were major differences now, with her patron Jinararadasa. It was at this juncture in her life, when she felt baffled, distressed and uncertain as to what to do next, that she came across a newspaper article about Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi…. Suzanne felt a great desire to go and see him, and so, accompanied by two European ladies from the Theosophical Society who also wished to visit him, she set off for Tiruvannamalai on a day in December 1936.
It is Sujata Sen who by her wilfulness brought about dramatic changes in the attitude of Asrama administration to women. She who had fought for equality all her life, flatly refused to believe that she would be sent away at dusk from the presence of Ramana Maharshi because she was a woman.
The two ladies from the Theosophical Society who had come to Tiruvannamalai with Suzanne returned to Adyar after a couple of days. Like several other Theosophists who visited the Maharshi, they were disappointed by his attitude towards altruistic service. They believed that it was through service to others that one developed one’s Divine potential. The Maharshi, however, did not teach that service was to be deliberately used as a means of Self- Realisation, but rather that Self—realisation was to be sought so as to be able to render the greatest service to others”. (112)
Suzanne stayed for a decade at the asrama, but fell victim to rumour and gossip, and further longed for initiation from Ramana, which he refused to give. On 20 December 1945 she came to the asrama to take her leave of the Maharshi. Sorrowfully, she told him that she was going away. The Maharshi did not reply. But then something very strange and wonderful happened for she saw the Maharshi as Dakshinamurti, the Divine Inner Guru who teaches the unutterable truth in the silence of the Spirit. As she would write, “When I was talking to him his appearance changed and I thought that Dakshinamurti was sitting before me. In the silence I heard, ‘There is no separation, for all gurus are one. They are the indwelling Self of everyone. I shall ever remain as the Jewel shining in the lotus of your heart,’ (134). She went to Anandasrama, on the Canara coast, and stayed there till Ranjit Sen turned up in her life again. She thought they could practise medicine in the villages of South India together. Monica Bose writes,
He had not yet made up his Mind how and where to spend the years of his retirement. My mother suggested that he stay on in India and that they practice medicine there together….My father told her that he had to attend to various matters in Europe, but that he would return by the end of the year. In the event, he never did return. He settled happily in Menton in the south of France, and would remain there for twenty-seven years until his death in 1974, a popular and respected resident of that little town. (Bose 2002: 138)
Sujata Sen would return to Ramanasrama, believing that the isolation d hardship of the path that Arunachala offered would be her refuge.
Monica Bose writes “There were people – I was one of them — who found happiness and peace with the Maharshi, For Suzanne, the experience of being with the Maharshi was like going through the fire” (141). Coincidentally, I have personally exactly the same feeling at Ramanasrama, as Monica did, but my friend Joelle Mazet who is a teacher of ballet in Paris, speaks of labour and silence and love as the path that she has experienced at Ramanasrama for decades.
Let me now turn to my third descriptive narrative, which describes the experience of Ramanasrama and encountering Ramana Maharshi through the songs of Mahalakshmi Suryanandan. Her songs set to ragas have been extolled congregational worship by many including The Hindu of May 21, 1996. The author of these songs is now in her 80s, and is still invited by the asnama to sing her compositions on every birth commemoration of Ramana Maharshi. She was 5 years old when she first came to visit at Ramanasrama. Her father K. Swaminathan was a loyal devotee, and also a staunch Gandhian as many Ramana devotees very naturally were.
K. Swaminathan was invited by the Government of India to edit the Collected Works of Mahanna Gandhi, which he proceeded to do in the decades after his retirement. His wife was perturbed that in spite of a long and dedicated work life, he had to start a monumental new work which would displace them from Chennai where they were so happy. They had to start life again in Delhi but reminded his wife that when he was a young boy, Gandhiji had come to Chennai. He was a volunteer who had been deputized to take Gandhi from place to place. He asked Gandhi to let him join him, but Gandhi said. ‘I’ll call you after’
Now that he was old, he saw this as a fulfillment of the promise that Gandhi had made to him so long ago. Often he was ill and asthma troubled him I his life, but he always told his wife, ‘I won’t die yet I still have the index to go’
He worked with a very dedicated team of writers and translators and editors all of whom called him Appa (Father). Maggie (as Mahalakshmi is called by her friends) said that his greatest asset was that he had a lot of able sons who assisted him, and one of them was her husband Suryanandan. Swaminathan’s eagerness to be with Ramana Maharshi is recorded in many places, and at any given opportunity he would rush to Tiruvannamalai.
So his three daughters, o whom Maggie is the eldest, were constantly, in their childhood, finishing their homework as fast as they could in order to rush to Tiruvannamali. Mahalakshmi and her husband Suryanandan have a house facing Arunachala directly across the street from Ramanasrama. They speak of K. Swaminathan with joy. He was 93 years old when he died and the legacy he left for Maggie was a love for Ramana and Gandhi.
During the years of the freedom struggle, K. Swaminathan and his wife and three daughters would spin together as a family. Each had a charkha. These were available at the Gandhi bhandar, and every nationalist family had them. She said K.S. was not very good at spinning, but the girls were. When each had a sufficient amount of counts the weaver would make saris for them. She showed me the saris her sister Dr Dharma Chatterjee and she had made as young girls Suryanandan remembers his father-in-law K. Swaminathan with great pride an protectiveness. There is in old age, a startling physical similarity between K. Swaminathan and Suryanandan. Maggie says that their marriage was arranged between their families who were known to one another. K. Natesan, the compiler of the poems of Kavya Ganapathi, was Suryanandan’s sister’s husband. When Maggie was very young and her marriage was being arranged, one of the suitors was a wealthy young man, who asked her, ‘Who on earth is this naked fakir on your walls?’ She was so disturbed, since she had been brought up to revere Mahatma Gandhi and adore Ramana. She refused to be in the house after that for any prospective suitor. She prayed to Bhagavan, ‘If at all I must marry let be to someone who loves Bhagavan like my father does’. Her prayer was answered and Mahalakshmi and Suryanandan live at the foot of the mountain, in a lovely house, with a pretty garden. Her earliest memory of seeing Raman was that she thought he was Lord Rama himself.
Out of her many songs, I shall present only one called The Story of Ramana
O brothers and sister,
Come running hither,
Let us sing Ramana’s story
Let us become like Ramana.
In the holy town of Tinichuzhi
Under the sacred star punarvasu
Was born Venkatarman.
To father Sundaram Iyer
And mother Azhagammal
The boy grew up fast,
Charming all who saw him,
Greatly interested in sports he was,
Running, jumping, swimming,
Always surrounded by friends,
Happy times they had together,
Deeply would he sleep at night
Nothing could shake him awake.
When he was studying in Dindigul
Suddenly his father passed away.
He made the move then to Madurai
To continue his schooling there.
He was in class ten then
But studies did not hold his interest.
To discover what death meant
He acted dead and gained realisation.
In Madurai to the temple he would go
To pay obeisance to goddess Meenakshi
To the sixty-three Saiva saints, too,
Asking that he become like them.
One day, there came a guest,
“I am from Tiruvannamalai.”
He said. Hearing this, Venkataraman was overjoyed
And longed to go to that holy place.
He left a letter for his brother,
And set out for Annamalai.
In Ariyainallur, when he arrived,
He saw a wondrous, luminous light.
On Krishna’s birthday, he reached Kizhur.
The Brahmin’s wife thought he was Krishna in person.
She gave him the Prasad meant for Krishna,
And the boy Krishna appeased his hunger.
No money in hand, tired of walking,
He pledged the rings on his ears.
Four rupees he got in exchange
And went on his journey by train.
Early in the morning he reached Annamalai,
Swiftly he went into the temple.
He stood praying to Lord Annamalai,
“Father Annamalai, I have come to you.”
On the banks of Ayyankulam,
He discarded all that he had,
Tore away his dhoti, shaved his head,
Girt in a loin-cloth he remained.
Fully drenched in pouring rain,
In ecstasy he entered the temple,
Sat in the Hall of Thousand Pillars,
And was immersed in deep meditation.
As little boys threw stones at him,
He sought refuge in the padala lingam
It was the mahan Seshadri
Who took care of the young ascetic.
In Gurumurtham where he went next,
Surrounded he was by devotees.
His mother Azhagammal, in distress,
Approached him later in Pavazhakundru.
She requested the silent swami to speak,
And asked him to return home with her.
Wrote the silent sage on paper,
“What has been ordained will take place.”
Sadly his mother returned home.
While in Virupaksha cave the swami took residence,
There came Ganapathi Muni to see him,
Fell at his feet, cleared of his worries.
“O, my countrymen, know you this,
He is Bhagavan Maharshi Ramana,” the muni proclaimed.
When to Skandsramam Ramana moved,
His compassionate mother returned to his side.
His younger brother Nagaswaini joined him,
Assumed the name Niranjananda,
Took over the running of the Asramam,
And the mother cooked for the devotees.
The happy mother suddenly fell ill,
The Maharshi released her from repeated births,
Her Samadhi was at the foot of the hill,
Where arose the temple of Matrubhuteswara.
At that spot, stayed Guru Ramana.
Ramana Asramam grew around it.
Rare and great poet Murgunar and bhaktas
From world-over thronged the place.
Ramana is the personification of ahimsa,
Squirrels, monkeys, peacock, played about
Cows and dogs and cats, too,
Some have samadhis in the Asrama.
Singing the Akshara Manamalai,
Ramana, with his devotees, went round the hill.
He composed Ulladu Narpadu
And Upadesa Undhiyar too.
Playfully, he wrote the appalam song.
Sang that Self-knowledge is simple indeed.
Enquire deeply into “who am IT’
That is the path of self-realisation.
A growth was noticed on the Master’s hand
Alas! The doctors pronounced sarcoma.
“It is the false body that is destroyed,
The atman lives forever,” Ramana consoled.
To the strains of Arunachal Siva sung by devotees,
A brilliant light emanating
Mingled with the Annamalai hill.
Ramana became Arunachal Siva himself
Arunachala Siva Ramana, namo, namo!
Arunachala Siva Ramana, nomo, namo!
Arunachala Siva Raman, namo, namo!
The poem describes every detail of Bhagavan’s life. What is interesting is the weave of the verses where each stanza communicates biography and faith. Yet, what Mahalakshmi’s life communicates is the survival of the narrative as an embodiment of faith. Stories are told for a purpose, chroniclers appear because so much of life is really a description in words.
A lot of the functions of words, I have argued consistently is to create community. But community also implies a sense of well-being, of feeling at home in the world, even if the avowed sentiment is to transcend the world! There is a pragmatic quality to Asramaites which is heart warming for outsiders to witness and the anthropologist is always the outsider. No amount of camouflage can take away the quality of duty which is the return to the University, and to the discipline which demands that objectivity prevail. And yet, as Joseph Brodsky writes, shadows change the way we look at sculptures, or the expressions we read in those empty bronze eyes. The tragedy of writing history according to him is that it is a one way street:
It is a one-way affair, and you recognise it’s Platonic nature in this city instantly. The closer you get to the object of your desire, the more marble or bronze it gets, as the natives’ fabled profiles scatter around like animated coins escaped from some broken terra-cotta jar. It is as though here time puts, between bedsheets and mattress, its own carbon paper — since time mints as much as it types. (Brodsky 1994: 47)
The historian’s anguish is that he did not inhabit ‘that’ past, and yet, for the anthropologist, nostalgia serves well as an essential tool for recording, comparison and analyses.
In this context it is interesting for me to look at the work of Gaston Bachelard who lives in two worlds simultaneously as a laboratory scientist and as a humanist. Bachelard argues that the cosmos is domesticated not just by our dwellings, but also the words that writers use to describe these dwellings, and this includes gardens and seasons, so perhaps logically even the absence of these. In marked contrast to Corbussier’s world, Bachelard recreates for us, how cosmos and microcosm intertwine through a process of intertextuality, through a process of invention and memory, by loving and living. This world that Bachelard describes, is a collage of many poets and novelists, writing in the French language, and the universality of emotions is made manifest through the act of translation.
Ramanasrama can only be understood in the domain and metaphor of nature. It is the hinterland of the Annamalais that gives it the scenic splendour of the mornings which are associated with Brahma, a time of meditation and quiet, and the redness of the sunrise turns the mountain into the aura of Aruna or the glow of dawn. With the day’s heat it would become tejolingam. The grandeur of heat transforms pilgrimage into a suffering, which however is often and quite startlingly, made glad and comforting with the rustling of leaves in the garden, and the falling of rain, as the hill is now green and cool with a band of new and young trees.
A lot of the procedures of house keeping is what asrama life is about, the transformation of the wild and the virile to the calm of a domestic aura. It seems paradoxical that this should happen, but the symbol of Shiva and Shakti in union is always brought to mind. So also the love of Ramana’s mother Azhagammal for her husband and for the transformation of Ramana into Vishnu as the keeper of peacocks. It is because Ramana is desired by men and women equally, that the androgyny of work actually proceeds. Cooking, cleaning, dusting, polishing, shopping for provisions are all as much male dominions as they could very well be women’s. Because it is a monastery open to householders, the axes of work begins to diversify. It is the routines of the householder as manager and both householders and monastics as workers (there being indeed a thin line that divides them) that this androgyny begins to surface. Work means to worship and to belong! Visitors often long to contribute their labour, but may do so only with permission from the workers and trustees.
For feminist writers, androgyny is not hermaphroditism, it is the integration of anima and animus in the most creative Jungian fashion. All the dusting, polishing and cleaning which goes on endlessly in the Ramanasrama is about fulfilling and maintaining the asrama as both home and museum. Bachelard writes:
The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being, beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions! And so, when a poet rubs a piece of furniture — even vicariously — when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object, he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household, (Bachelard 1969:67) (Bachelard then quotes from Henri Bosco’s Le jardin d’Hyacinthe) The soft wax entered into the polished substance under the pressure of hands and the effective warmth of a woolen cloth. Slowly the tray took on a dull luster. It was as though the radiance induced by magnetic rubbing emanated from the hundred year old sapwood, from the very heart of the dead tree, and spread gradually, in the form of light, over the tray. The old fingers possessed of every virtue, the broad palm, drew from the solid block with its inanimate fibers, the latent powers of life itself. This was creation of an object, a real act of faith, taking place before my enchanted eyes. (cited in Bachelard 1969:68)
Either characteristic of the labours of housewife or of servant, the descriptions of this alternate consciousness, is about the ‘wax’ civilisation, which Bachelard argues, men usually know very little about. If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside…
It is interesting that Bhagavan’s mother, Azhagammal’s spirit of cooking and cleaning are so archetypical of asrama life, and that Bhagavan extolled these virtues to the greatest extent. Bachelard quotes Bosco’s work again to underline the spiritual imagery underlying servitude. “Indeed figures from this land appeared to her familiarly, however commonplace the work she was doing, without in the least seeming to dream, she washed, dusted and swept in the company of angels. (Bachelard 1969 : 68)
He then suggests that we do not psychoanalyse these motifs.” We should need, then, purer “reagents” than those of psychoanalysis to determine the “composition” of a poetic image. The fine determinations required by poetry bring us into the field of micro-chemistry, and a reagent that had been adulterated by the ready-made interpretations of a psychoanalyst could cloud the solution. No phenomenologist re-living Supervielle’s invitation to the mountains to come in through the window would see in it a sexual monstrosity. This is rather the poetic phenomenon of pure liberation, of absolute sublimation. The image is no longer under the domination of things, nor is it subject to the pressures of the unconscious. It floats and soars, immense, in the free atmosphere of a great poem. Through the poet’s window the house converses about immensity with the world. And as metaphysicians would say, it too, the house of men, opens its doors to the world. (68)
This world of polishing and maintaining is for Bachelard where women’s work and the tasks of creativity converge, where poets are born, and where mysticism flourishes. He quotes Rilke to prove his point,
Politeness tinged with mischief was my reaction to the friendliness of these objects, which seemed happy to be so well treated, so meticulously renovated. And even today, I must confess that, while everything about me grew brighter and the immense black surface of my work table which dominated its surroundings…became newly aware, somehow, of the size of the room, reflecting it more and more clearly: pale gray and almost square…well, yes, I felt moved, as though something were happening, something to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul: I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent. (Bachelard 1969:70)
Rilke’s memoir cited above is about polishing his piano as a child, which releases then other memories of cleaning… whether by obligation or force in childhood, the nostalgia which an act brings about is for Bachelard the significant point,
The nostalgia for work that emanates from this fragment by Rilke, or realising that this is an accumulation of psychological documents from different mental ages, since to the joy of helping his mother is added the glory of being one of the great of the earth, washing the feet of the poor. The whole thing is a complex of sentiments, with its association of politeness and mischief, of humility and action (Bachelard 1969 : 71). For Bachelard, the nest, the chrysalis, the garment, are all examples of dwelling places.
For Ramana the body is the site of consciousness. We inhabit our body in the manner that the universe inhabits itself in us. We are consciousness, and when we realise this we share in the natural bliss of the universe. For those who are practitioners this is not a dream or an abstraction, it is the reality that they constantly try to achieve. Bachelard draws us to the practice of rhythm analyses, rather than psychoanalyses, to understand such images, where the rhythms of the universe echo in the finer rhythms of human sensibility. In this scheme alternating daydreams cease to be rivals. To sleep well we do not need to sleep in a large room, and to work well we do not have to work in a den. But to dream of a poem, then write it, we need both. It is the creative psyche that benefits from rhythmanalysis. (Bachelard 1969: 65)
Ramanasrama provides these networks of communication, sleep, food and work, to those who are claimants of a legacy…from Ramana Maharshi they learn that the fabric of life consists of being in the world and making sense of it. This practical wisdom is what had made it the finest point of equilibrium, which allowed even rich men and women to live without a shirt upon their back an find happiness in the routines of ritual and hospitality. But the world is an anvil and new shapes are hammered by the day. In the name of development, new metaphors come into existence, and those who are suspected to be lotus eaters are always besieged with enquiry about the life they have chosen away from the crowds. Around such magnetic personas the crowds begin to circle and isolation is no longer a possibility. In the protection of a chosen norm, aggressiveness and egoism may become natural protective skins, and the house indeed gives way to rules, regulations and museumisation. But Ramana’s spirit pervades, and there is no discrimination as to who may worship at the shrines of Ramanasrama.
The archives is the most treasured of the asrama’s new developments. Its architecture and aesthetics is typical of the best scientific imagination. Everything is carefully guarded and monitored. The airconditioning plant is itself as big as Vuupaksha cave. Television screens monitor all coming and going. The objects of veneration which were once Ramana’s belongings are guarded under glass. Kanakamal writes that once Bhagavan said to Venkataratnam,
You said that the garland was huge, you said so much about the intricate patterns on the flower umbrella, you said the carriage was drawn by bulls and you even described the garlands around the bulls’ necks. But you have not talked about Arunachala at all! That is why I asked. Maybe you feel that it is not necessary to talk about Him. After all, He is always the same, is He not? Perhaps that is why you did not mention Him at all! (Kanakkamal 2002:170)
This then is the crux of the problem, whether it is biographies of Ramanamaharshi and Arunachala, such as the one I write as a collage of other work, using the concept of refraction and light as other writers have, or museums and loving mementos: that risk of objectification is the paradox of faith, where the laughter of Ramana is an anchor that always brings us back to earth.
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