Athithi Ashram: First Days

Part of a short series of pieces on a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. The resident teacher of Athithi Ashram is Swami Hamsananda, with whom it is possible to sit and meditate each morning as well as engage in conversation about the life of Bhagavan, meditation, and the spiritual paths of bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (self-enquiry) in the form of asking the question – Who Am I?

Gates to Athithi Ashram

Flaked out last night after writing those notes above, being as it was the first night for me in Athithi Ashram. Noisy fan, too noisy for me to have it on during the night, too much damn rattlin’ in its fittin’ for me to rest easy, better to switch it off and lie back in the heat, lie there on my hard mattress with just a pair of boxer shorts on. Makes me think I’m gonna have to buy a desk fan if I want to keep cool, maybe an Usha, oldest makers of fans in India, and where a trip down the Big Bazaar Road in a rickshaw to splash out a couple of thousand rupees will do the trick for me. Just about got away with it last night but today already seems hotter so we’re just gonna have to see how it all pans out, I’ll make a decision after lunch time I think, as that is usually the crunchiest time of day as far as the heat goes. So what happened last night? Well I guess it must have been around 10 or so when I lay on my bed to listen to Blue Eyed Soul by Simply Red on Spotify and then the next thing I knew it was just gone 10.30. Crashed out in other words!

Think the first thing to say as I come to the end of my first full day in Tiruvannamalai this time around in the year 2020 is that it is all a bit lonely. Guess it sometimes feels like I am surrounded by people who all know each other whilst I don’t know anyone, solo traveller on the edges of whatever room he is in before disappearing again into the here an’ there. Got to keep my eye on the target in that regard, remember that the reason for my coming here was to strengthen my meditation and connection with Bhagavan. Nothing else! To get deflected from that intention is to miss the point somewhat, as the purpose of the trip was not come to sit around and have fantastic conversations, or make friends, but to deepen my meditation practice in regard to the teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, simple as that and I would be wise not to forget it, otherwise things get diluted and the mind goes astray, then all I’ll do is end up wandering around like another lost soul out in India.

Today was an early start, meditating by 5.15 am and more or less keeping it up until 6.30 when I left my room to walk down to the inner courtyard of the building in which the ashram dining hall was located, to pour myself some hot coffee into a small steel cup from a flask left on a bench which was for the use of ashram inmates at that time each morning.

Athithi Ashram Daily Schedule

After coffee I walked up to Ramanasramam but I didn’t linger there, primarily because the ashram shoe stand was not yet open and I was a bit paranoid over possibly losing my chappals, which were a nice pair of Habannas. I had to leave them lying on the ground along with all the other dusty piles of various kinds of footwear, where due to their new condition they stuck out somewhat. Now I don’t mind telling you I’d had a bad experience there in that regard a couple of years ago, when a 300 rupees pair I’d just recently bought were nicked from the pile I left them on. So this time I exited Ramanasramam after a quick walk in the early morning around the shrines and soon found myself at the Ramana Coffee and Fruit Juice Stand opposite the main gates where I had a large glass of coffee for 40 rupees and watched the world pass by me for 10 minutes or so whilst I sat by the roadside on a plastic chair.

Got back to my room at Athithi Ashram and read for a while before the bell went for breakfast in the ashram dining hall at 8.30. Yesterday after arriving in Tiruvannamalai and Athithi Ashram mid afternoon I had made my way up to the Ashram Book Depot in Ramanasramam in order to buy some reading material as I was in need of some new Ramana books. In that regard I picked up a couple –

The Silent Power – selections of writings from The Mountain Path and The Call Divine for 100 rupees.
Alagammal’s Journey – the story of the life Bhagavan’s mother, Alagammal, told by way of narrative for the first time, and which cost me 50 rupees.

and it was The Silent Power which I was now already getting into.

After eating, oh yes before that, I had a morning shower at around 8 am to wash away the heat of the night, anyway after eating it was back to my room for some reading of The Silent Power until around 9.30 when I went up to the ashram meditation hall for meditation. I guess I did this for around half an hour or so until I heard the voice of Swami Hamsananda talking in English on the balcony of the floor below which was where his quarters are located. I therefore wrapped up my meditation at 108 on the breath counts before going down to join the small group of people who were already there sitting with him.

Inner grounds of Aththi Ashram

It was great to see Swami again, to hear him speak about Bhagavan by way of words I found inspiring and then after that to sit with the group in silence on his balcony. This was definitely one of the things I had come back for, back to Tiruvannamalai, for some holy company and very enjoyable it was too. By the end of the morning satsang I was the only one of the group left and so I talked for a while with Swami before I took my leave of him and went back to my room. Guess by this point it must have been around 11.30 which gave me another hour or so before lunch and I spent this time reading The Silent Power, a book I was now really getting into by way of passages such as this one found in its very first chapter, Arunachala –

“In the lotus-shaped Heart of all, beginning with Vishnu, there shines as absolute Consciousness the Paramatman who is the same as Arunachala-Ramana. When the mind melts with love of Him and reaches the inmost recess of the Heart wherein He dwells as the beloved, the subtle eye of pure intellect opens and He reveals Himself as pure Consciousness.”

Lunch was at 12.30 and by 1 or just gone, I was back in my room again after slowly walking around the ashram grounds to aid the digestion of the food I’d eaten, pure sattvic vegetarian food which was both delicious and tasty. Once in my room I lay down on my bed and rested by way of playing Blue Eyed Soul on my headphones which, whilst being a pretty good album is far from a classic and will not get to the point where it gets played on heavy rotation. It’s OK though, very well produced, but in places a bit too soft. After an hour’s rest I went for my afternoon sitting session up in the meditation hall and where the place was empty, although I had a mini false start by way of the fact there were one or two mosquitoes zizzin’ around, which meant I had to make a quick dash back to my room in order to spray myself with some repellent. It was either that or get bitten on my arms and feet whilst trying to sit there and meditate, and I most definitely did not want that, no matter how much I might have pretended to myself I was a world class yogi. Certainly was the case there were mosquitoes in the ashram, even in the daytime, and I think that might have had something to do with the fact there were a large number of green plants within its grounds which must have attracted them.

Tall green plants in the Athithi Ashram inner courtyard

Energy was good for my afternoon sit and after going down for a sweet tea at 3.30 I should have gone back and carried on, as indeed that was what I had intended to do, but somehow I got distracted by a conversation over tea with another ashram inmate and found myself walking up to Ramanasramam instead. Think this was a mistake as my time would have been better employed carrying on with the sitting as it was so peaceful in the meditation hall and my energy had been good. It meant that I lingered a bit too long around the main temples of Ramanasramam because I got there too early, as if I was looking at ways of just killing a bit of time, which was not a good situation to find myself in because when I’m in Tiruvannamalai all of my time there should be considered precious. The lesson for me to learn from all that is simply not to repeat the same mistake tomorrow, to carry on with the afternoon meditation for a bit longer and get up to the temples at the right time.

Returned to my room from the temples of Ramanasramam at something like 6.15 and by 6.45 I was in the meditation hall for another session which saw me take a wrap on a 108 before calling it quits and doing some shrine walking because at one end of the hall was an attractive shrine with a large framed photograph of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi and around which it was possible to walk. That is about as far as it has gone for me on my first full day back in Tiruvannamalai as I sit here now writing these notes in my room. Guess the point is that things are not necessarily meant to be easy when in an ashram but as long as I maintain a good level of health things should be OK, with a few wrong turns along the way being acceptable as long as they don’t take me too far off track.

Second full day in the ashram and my schedule went something like this.

Up at 5.12 after sleepin’ thru’ the night heat, quick freshen up and then meditation in my room for what must have been the best part of an hour, taking me up to 6.30 when I went down to get a cup of coffee from the flask, this time putting a teaspoon of sugar in so as to sweeten it up. It was after the coffee, which I drank outside whilst strolling the paths of the ashram compound, that I heard the voice of Swami coming from the meditation hall so I got my cushion and went up there.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi shrine in the Athithi Ashram meditation hall

Swami Hamsananda was performing prayers in front of the shrine to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi and so I sat myself down, closed my eyes and meditated on the sound of his voice. Later I was to discover that each morning Swami recited the 108 verses of Bhagavan’s Arunachala Akshara Manamalai and other prayers. At the end of each verse of Arunachala Akshara Manamalai everyone else in the hall chanted out the refrain –

Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!

The prayers went on for quite a long time, pretty much taking me right up to breakfast. I was conscious of the fact that I was sitting on a chair in the hall which was too far forward. When I first entered there were only a couple of other people in the hall besides Swami and one of those was the orange robed sannyasin observing mouna who I sat next to at meal times in the dining hall. He must have had bad knees as well because like me he never attempted to sit down on the floor. At the time it seemed natural enough to sit where I was, but as the prayers went on and more people came in the hall, they all sat behind me which made me feel somewhat self-conscious and exposed, being close to the front and on my own, but by that point I was pretty much stuck to the same position so I just had to sit there and maintain my form.

After breakfast – oh, by the way the prayers were great – I went to the Swami’s balcony to sit there with him again for morning satsang. There were a couple of other people already there but one of them left soon after. When Swami appeared from his quarters and sat down there was no talking, only meditation, and it was a strong, powerful sit which probably lasted the best part of 2 hours. No doubt about it, this was what I had come here for; to sit with Swami and receive his silent instruction. At times there was loads going on in my mind, all the usual suspects crawling out of the woodwork and parading themselves before me – thoughts, emotions, projections, memories – but the main point was the energy was good, great even, and just to be in Swami’s presence was all I needed in order to see what was what, how particular courses of action were bound to lead to things going astray if one wasn’t careful, and that to stay sensible was the only way to receive the guru’s blessings. That was the job which we had to do, simple as that really, behaviour has to be of a certain standard otherwise suffering is sure to follow.

Sign outside Athithi Ashram for Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram

Think the meditation was also empowered by the prayers from earlier on, in that it really came home to me we were sitting at the foot of Arunachala and that as holy mountains go it is really quite incredible, where deep within its depths lies a pretty big cosmic magnet. That is why there are so many people in Tiruvannamalai from all over the world. One uncanny sensation I felt during the course of the meditation was that I was sitting on the edge of an invisible city filled to the brim with the most powerful light imaginable and which was home to countless beings. The light of the spirit maybe! Yes, feelings like that really brought home to me that I was in a special place and with Swami’s feet in the corner of my meditative vision when sitting on his balcony, I knew I was in the presence of a master. Think I was in a blissful state, I mean it was hard going for sure at times because we sat for so long, but the energy within held firm and apart from effort, which is always necessary, there really was no sense of struggle and no going off track.

Lunch was at 12.30 and afterwards I rested for an hour or so back in my room, downloading from Spotify an album by the name of No Geography by The Chemical Brothers, which I have to say sounded like the best thing they’ve come up with in ages. By 2.15 – 2.30 I was back in the meditation hall as I thought I had rested enough after my morning exertions, but I think I might have miscalculated with regard to that as my meditation was tough going, very tough as a matter of fact. After 30 mins or so of battling head nod, an oh so familiar scenario for me in the heat of India, I had to break it up with a bit of shrine walking and then after that some reading which also very nearly sent me to sleep. Going down for a tea at 3.30 in the inner courtyard of the front building revived me somewhat, so that I was able to go back up to the meditation hall and knock out a solid session of 189 in breath and out breath observation which I concluded at something like 4.40. Funny really, the first afternoon session was like wading through mud, but after a break of just 10 mins or so with a little sweet refreshment thrown in for good measure, I was back on the case and felt the same energy run through me as what had been there in the morning when sitting on Swami’s balcony. It is so unpredictable; you might think you’re falling off the edge of a cliff but then before you know it you’re climbing right back up again.

Athithi Ashram meditation hall

So, first to finish off yesterday. After my afternoon meditation it was back to Ramanasramam by 4.55, where I first popped into the Ashram Book Depot, something I have done more than once or twice over the years, and ended up buying some books from there which I think already brings this year’s total to five. This time the three I purchased were –

Uniqueness of Sri Bhagavan – K. Subrahmanian’s writings, which are the fruit of a lifetime’s association with and dedication to Bhagavan Ramana and which cost 50 rupees.

My Life at Sri Ramanasramam – Suri Nagamma. Like her earlier Letters from Ramanasramam this is a narration of events as they unfolded around Sri Bhagavan at the Old Hall in the 1940s, a book costing 80 rupees.

Sri Ramana: The Sage of Arunagiri – first published in 1942 this is an introduction to the life and teachings of a living sage residing on the Holy Arunachala Mountain. 50 rupees.

My time in Ramanasramam after the visit to the Book Depot was spent mainly shrine walkin’, letting go of the energy built up from quite a few hours sitting during the course of another hot day down in South India. After drinking a 30 rupee  coconut at the stand outside the ashram on the opposite side of the road, a stand run by an Indian woman who looked like she would not take any shit from anyone, I headed off to walk the streets for a while. Time in other words for me to walk through the enclave known as Ramana Nagar where there are many ashrams, hotels, guest houses and other such places in which to stay.

After going back to my room for 5 mins on the way, primarily to drop off my books and a recently purchased bottle of water, I then went down to the Yogi Ramsuratkumar Ashram in order to hear the evening chanting in the main hall but this time there was no chanting going on, instead there was a talk being given under a marquee in the grounds outside, so I just walked around the main hall for a little while before once again going back to my room to read The Silent Power before the 8 O’ Clock ashram bell was rung for dinner.

Rangoli patterns outside the gates of Athithi Ashram

Woke up later today. 5.40 instead of 5.10 which meant I just had time for a straight 108 meditation before heading down for my early morning coffee at 6.30. After that I was once again off to prayers in the ashram meditation hall as performed by Swami Hamsananda. I guess all told it must have taken the best part of 1 hr 40 mins and this time when I entered the hall I made sure I sat towards the back, unlike the day before when I had found myself somewhat exposed by inadvertently placing myself at the front. This time I was much more relaxed, even to the point where I joined in the chanting refrain of  the Arunachala Akshara Manamalai which of course goes –

Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!

Before the recitation of the 108 verses of the Arunachala Akshara Manamalai thereis another prayer which has the following refrain chanted by the people in the hall after Swami –

Ramaneshra guru Ramaneshra guru (pause)
Ramaneshra guru Ramana ye

and which is repeated four times. Think it must have been the first time in a long while that I have done such a thing as chanting, but I enjoyed doing so and also listening to Swami Hamsananda, all of which was a surprise as usually it is not my bag, solo meditator being the name of the game for me. I think I just enjoyed observing the gracefulness and devotion of Swami if truth be told, I could have watched him all day as he went about his devotional activities in front of the shrine to Bhagavan. It really is a great set up that Swami has at Athithi Ashram. He loves Bhagavan – thinks he is the perfect guru – and he has had the karma to found an ashram at the foot of Arunachala which is filled with serenity and peace. People visit from all over the world and he welcomes everyone. Not only that, it is clear he loves meditation and this morning I had a chance to have a conversation with him about it after breakfast.

Guess in many ways it was the usual question for me – how to generate the faith and devotion in order for love and surrender to manifest. Swami replied by way of saying something which I thought was very interesting; that it will come when I need it to, faith and devotion are already there, they don’t have to be found anew. Somehow his answer made perfect sense to me and it was as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, think it even helped to clear a lingering headache which I have had these last few days, one of those ones I get in India from time to time, where I think it has gone away but actually it hasn’t. But this time it looks like it has! Swami also mentioned the importance of praying to Bhagavan, that if you pray sincerely he will answer those prayers. Think I’m still working on that one! But no, really, the answer Swami gave me opened me up a little, made me see that it was not a question of finding something, more like uncovering.

Rangoli pattern on the ground outside Athithi Ashram

After he talked with me we lapsed into silence and then the meditation began. During the course of our sitting together I could see Swami’s feet out of the corner of my eye, where at times I had the impulse to reach out and touch them. It is possibly the consequence of being in the company of the wise. Bhagavan always states that by far the most effective way of strengthening your practice is to seek out holy beings, merely by being in their presence can be a tremendous help. I can now say through my own experience I wholeheartedly agree, as when I sit with Swami the energy current in my meditation is far more charged, far more alive than when I sit on my own. Not that I don’t get that feeling when solo, because to a certain extent I do, but with Swami there is no doubt at all that it is much, much stronger, so draws me into a bubble of bliss as a consequence. This current, this circuit, is flowing as it should be with no leaks, no weak points to break the flow, and it is very noticeable how much the charge is there when sitting with Swami. Guess at the end of the day I’m power packin’; this is what I have to take back with me, I have store it and use it as wisely as I can before once I again find myself far away from Swami and Arunachala, although ultimately they are never away from me, not at all.

I left the presence of Swami at just gone noon and went back to my room where by chance a message came through from Dawa Dolkar and which resulted in us having a chat for 15 mins or so in which it was very nice catching up with how things were going back out west in the settlement. After lunch I went back to my room where after reading just a couple of pages of The Silent Power I felt a bit sleepy so laid down on my bed and almost immediately crashed out for what must have been the best part of an hour. Most unusual for me to sleep in the middle of the day, a snooze yes, but a full on crash almost never! Anyway today it happened and maybe it was effect of my talk and meditation with Swami, yes could very well have been that which did it.

Once I woke up I got myself together to go back up to the meditation hall and where the energy from this morning still remained. Not as intense maybe but still pretty good, with no drowsiness or breaks in the flow manifesting to any great degree. After an hour or so I went down for my 3.30 cup of sweet tea and where I sat and chatted with another ashram inmate for 10 mins or so before the mosquitoes forced us to retreat from the inner courtyard as that was where their pesky presence was continuous. Back in the meditation hall I had another sitting session in which I was still feeling pretty fresh, but by 5 I was once again in Ramanasramam, this time resisting the temptation to go into the Book Depot and heading instead for my shrine walkin’ whilst the Veda Parayana was being chanted by the boys from the ashram Veda Patasala. I was still in the temples by the time the Tamil Parayana had begun at just after 6 pm, eventually making my way out of Ramanasramam at something like 6.40 when I collected my chappals from the shoe stand before walking across the main road outside the ashram gates in order to have another coconut. Got to say that drinking down a fresh 40 rupee coconut really seems to fit the bill after a good session of shrine walkin’; fits the bill quite nicely! Once the coconut was done it was then time for another 20 – 25 mins session of street walking around the area of Ramana Nagar before getting back to my room in Athithi Ashram by 7.15.

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