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?
Today it was possible for me to have another morning conversation with Swami and just like the day before it was just the two of us, one on one.
I began by asking him whether it was correct to think that whatever happened in one’s life – positive or negative – was the grace of the guru and that if supposedly bad things came along you just had to accept them. His reply was something along the lines that I didn’t have to worry about all that. The main gist was just to be fully and firmly convinced that the power which was in Bhagavan is also inside each of us. It is very important to strongly believe this is so. If we do then there is no need for sadhana, the individual quest for enlightenment, as that is the responsibility of the guru. If the conviction that you and Ramana – Arunachala are one and the same is firmly embedded deep within the heart, there is nothing else you need to do. He will take care of it. It is beyond our control – way beyond – and lies within the remit of a higher power.
What we have to do is cultivate inner satsang, to commune with The Self which lies at the very core of our being. Pray to Bhagavan. Prayer is very important. Both on a spiritual and mundane level he will take care of our needs and as the relationship is very open he will take you exactly as you are, so you only need to be yourself with him. Pray to him for the solution to problems, leave it aside in terms of trying to fix the problem yourself, as you will only make things worse, so let go, it is not your job. You have gone as far as you can with it and if you persist in trying to find a solution it will only be the ego seeking to gratify its own needs. Leave it, pray to Bhagavan and let him sort it out.
These were some of the things Swami was saying to me.
Firmly believe that Arunachala is within you, it is not necessary to visualize it, although that might be OK, but it is more a belief – force – feeling – conviction which you must not under any circumstances let go of. There is absolutely no difference between us and Bhagavan, we are one and the same, we come from a single source and we are parts of the One Self which is everything.
So that was the main thing I needed to write down, the morning conversation between me and Swami, which actually lasted the best part of two hours all told. It ended with me touching my head on his feet, as in terms of bhakti practice towards or in relation to Bhagavan, Swami gave me information I just would not have found in books or at least not had it presented in the same way. It was useful, very useful indeed, maybe a bit too much to take in, as immediately after taking my leave of him I went up to the meditation hall to do some sitting but I found my head was so full of the stuff he had just been telling me that my concentration was pretty much shot to pieces.
Think the routine of today fell into the usual pattern.
5.30 woke and got up for meditation and where meditation on the early shift this morning was a bit of a struggle as I didn’t really have a brilliant night’s sleep, having woken up at one point from a shocking dream, body sweaty in the heat. I dreamt I had some kind of container – small and round with a button on it – which was attached to the side of my face. Initially I didn’t know what to make of this thing but I squeezed it and a jet of pus came out and shot across the room. I continued to squeeze it and more pus came out until I had pretty much squeezed this container thing dry but which was still firmly stuck to the side of my face. What the hell was I supposed to make of all that? Purification from meditation? Maybe, or maybe it was simply the fact I downloaded Monsters Exist by Orbital from Spotify the day before and played it the whole way through in the late, late evening.
So yes, anyway, it was a bit of a disturbed night then, which meant that when I woke up my energy levels were pretty low, not quite on the button, and as a consequence I struggled my way through that first sitting session. By 6.30 I was down for my steel cup of hot sweet coffee, then after that up to the meditation hall where Swami was performing the daily prayers and just like the day before they went on for the best part of 2 hours. It must require some fair degree of devotion and stamina for him to do this each and every day but he recites it all continuously and presumably it is word perfect. Incredible really, makes me think that in Tiruvannamalai life is lived by a significant number of people on a whole other level, where their reality is very much all to do with Bhagavan. Chanted Arunachala Siva just like the day before and of course sat at the back of the hall again, on my chair wearing a bright orange t-shirt and a loose fitting pair of linen trousers.
Ramaneshra guru Ramaneshra guru (pause)
Ramaneshra guru Ramana ye
After breakfast at 8.30 I went back to my room and filled the plastic bucket in my bathroom full of water for my morning shower. This I did after a session on the can with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as my reading material, like it has been pretty much every day since arriving in India on this particular trip. Just reading a couple of pages of it here and there, with the here and there usually being when I’m on the toilet, apparently it is the Booker of Bookers but I don’t quite know why as I just can’t seem to fully get into it. Guess it was around 9.35 – 9.40 when I left my room, both freshly showered and toileted, to make my way up to Swami’s veranda where I had the conversation with him which began this account of my day’s activities. Oh yes, as well as our chat, I also gave Swami a box of Red Crystal incense which I’d brought along with me from the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, just in case the chance arose for me to offer it to him and it so happened this morning that it did. So, after that previously mentioned post-Swami talk meditation, it was getting on for lunch time which as usual was at 12.30.
For an hour or so after lunch I think the thing which everyone does, if they have the chance, is take a rest, have a nap, and it is what I have also been doing, as mentioned yesterday when I crashed right out. This time it was a different story, as although I lay down to rest, I was not really sleepy at all. I more or less forced myself to do so in order that I would hopefully face minimum disturbance or drowsiness when it came to going up to the meditation hall at 2 pm for my afternoon sitting session. Predictably enough things didn’t quite work out that way, as during my first sit in the meditation hall that afternoon I was more or less on the ropes, not in terms of sleepiness, more by way of diffused energy which made even sitting in the chair on my meditation cushion pretty uncomfortable. It happens from time to time – I don’t know why – like energy has gone out of sync or something, but whatever it is, it makes concentration difficult.
Therefore it was no surprise that I spent quite a bit of time doing circuits round the Ramana Maharshi shrine in the hall by way of walking meditation and then when I’d done that I didn’t go back to meditation but read the book I’d brought along with me – The Silent Power – which just kept getting better and better.
All this took me up to 3.30 when it was time to go down for a cup of sweet tea and just like a day or two ago it was that little blast of sweetness which seemed to make all the difference. On returning to the meditation hall that energy diffusion had gone away which meant I was able to sit and meditate with full focus. Sat for an hour, knockin’ out a 216 in the process, and could have carried on because the energy was locked tight now and the flow pretty good, but I had to stop as it was getting to that time of day when I walked out of the ashram to head up to Ramanasramam and its temples.
So the temples yesterday took pretty much the same form as the day before and the day before that. There was the shrine walkin’ as the Veda Parayana was being chanted by the boys from the Veda Patasala in front of the samadhi shrine, and then there was the witnessing of the shrine preparation and decoration performed by the head Brahmin priests. Whilst the chanting is going on one of the priests cleans, anoints, decorates the Siva lingam on the samadhi shrine, substances used including milk and water. Shrine walkin’ has a little bit of an art to it as there are often lots of people, so avoiding rough edged bodily contact can be a challenge, maybe not a challenge like climbing the north face of the Eiger or anything like that, but nevertheless one has to be mindful. People inevitably walk at a different pace, some fast some slow, and there are things which have to be negotiated as roadblocks are common, people crossing your path is common too, so awareness is needed to keep the walkin’ flow going in a smooth manner. Think I manage it pretty well and often I fall into a half trance like state after about 20 mins or so of doing the circuits. It is usually the first chance I have had to be mobile during the course of the day, as my time prior to that has been spent in Athithi Ashram either taking satsang with Swami or sitting in the meditation hall.
The Brahmins at the samadhi shrine decorate the Ramana Maharshi statue with flowers, sprinkle consecrated water and light incense sticks and oil lamps, then they draw the Om syllable curtain in front of the shrine before pulling it back to reveal the shrine in all its decorated completeness. It is ritual, it is an art and every moment seems filled with significance, tapping into a system of religious practices which are at least 1,000 years old. Once the curtain has been pulled back it might be that someone in the crowd of people around the shrine will sing a devotional song, something which is beautiful to hear and at this point I stand there with my eyes closed whilst drinking deep the sacred atmosphere of the samadhi shrine to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. After a sacred flame is brought from the shrine by one of the Brahmin priests and left for people to pass their hands over and touch their foreheads, along with the kum kum and vibhuti powders which people take a pinch of and press upon their brow chakras, I head away from the main temple and into the old temple so as to continue with my shrine walkin’.
The last couple of days has seen me fold my hands in supplication to the Ganapati shrine in one of the corners of the old temple, a statue which also has a stick of incense burning in front of it and where its sweet scent spirals upward. Ganapati of course has significance because the root chakra, the muladhara chakra, is the secret abode of Lord Ganapati, Remover of Obstacles and the location where kundalini lies as a three and half coiled serpent waiting to be awakened. If kundalini is awakened it is then possible to send it up the central yogic channel of the subtle body called sushumna and to let it rest on the ajna chakra, location of the Third Eye. Since I contemplate upon this a lot back in London it is only right, only appropriate, since I now have the opportunity, that I should make salutations to a statue of Ganapati located in one of the most holy places in India. I would be crazy not to right? The shrine walking in the old temple takes me up to around 6.30 – 6.40 at which point I am more or less done for the day and so I collect my chappals, head out of the gates of Ramanasramam and walk across the road for a fresh coconut.
Today saw me wake up at something like 5.26, which meant after a quick splash of water over my face I was able to get down to it as far as the sitting was concerned by just gone 5.30. Good rest last night, no strange dreams of pus barrels exploding from outta the side of my face for a start, which meant concentration and energy flow were good right from the beginning. So many sounds coming in from outside my room at that time of day; motorbikes, rickshaws, people, birds, dogs and calls to prayer from the mosques, all of which add up to feeling that I’m in a unique place and situation. Down to the inner courtyard at 6.30 for my cup of sweet coffee it was then time for me to go up and sit in the meditation hall where once again Swami Hamsananda led the morning prayers.
Ramaneshra guru Ramaneshra guru (pause)
Ramaneshra guru Ramana ye
Swami performs this – to the best of my knowledge – each and every day. There were only three of us in the hall this morning in addition to Swami, but that doesn’t stop him from being any less meticulous. Think of it, Swami’s karma is to love his guru Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, to build an ashram dedicated to following Bhagavan’s teachings, to have a meditation hall which has a fully operational Ramana Maharshi shrine, and all in the place where Ramana spent virtually his entire life after self-realization, the temple town of Tiruvannamalai at the feet of holy Mount Arunachala. How amazing is that? The ashram is all low key really, but it is very much a living entity day in day out and because of that it is beautiful. This morning saw me chanting again, just two of us chanting besides Swami, whilst the other person in the hall was the orange robed sannyasin in mouna who never says a word. Compared to yesterday the prayers and recitations seemed to go a lot quicker and the chanting was easier as well, ebbs and flows I guess when it comes to chanting and prayers, where no two days are the same, just like in meditation.
My routine this morning was slightly different in that after breakfast I took a walk to a local travel agent – Tiru Travels – to book a ticket on the Shatabdi Express from Bangalore to Mysore for 20/2 which is in 3 days time. Not only that, I also needed to sort out a taxi from Tiruvannamalai to Bangalore on 19/2 for which I had previously been quoted a price of 4300 rupees for a city drop. Indeed it would be a city drop as I had booked a room for the night in Highgates Hotel on Church Street right in the middle of town and running parallel to MG Road. By the time I got to the agent’s office the young man behind the desk told me I would have to come back at 10.30 as he was not able to do the bookings for me because his elder brother looked after all of that and he wasn’t there at the moment. That’s the kind of thing which happens in India – main man out of station, albeit temporarily, so nuthin’ doin’ – which meant I had no choice but to just nod my head and walk back to the ashram empty handed, even though what I really wanted to say at that precise moment in time was “Well, why the fuck are you bothering to open then?” Guess it was no big deal, but I doubted I would go out again for 10.30 as I would be in satsang, so I would go later on, after lunch at 12.30. That seemed like a plan, as it would not disturb my ashram schedule.
Coming back down from my room in the ashram with my meditation cushion in hand I saw Swami Hamsananda close to the entrance gates, sitting on a stone ledge and flicking through his mobile phone. This meant I went straight up to the meditation hall rather than linger on his balcony as he was clearly not going to be there just yet. I would do a short meditation session in the hall and then if I heard his voice below I would go down and join the satsang with whoever else might be there. This indeed was what happened after about 40 mins or so, when I went and joined Swami who was there with just one other person. Guess I just went for it, barging in possibly on someone else’s time with him, just don’t know, but whatever it was that had been going on soon changed with me on the scene. This because when I’d sat down on one of the chairs on the balcony, the conversation stopped and Swami went into meditation. This was what I wanted, a teaching beyond words, so I settled myself and focused on my breath. It felt like this was a silent teaching of great potency, the most direct form of teaching there is, and of course central to everything which was Ramana Maharshi. I soon found myself in a state of bliss, really feeling the force of Swami in the silence which enveloped the three of us sitting on his balcony. This was the time for me to once and for all establish a firm intention to hold fast to the fact that the same Self power which was in Ramana Maharshi and which is in Swami, is also in me. It has to maintained – that surety, conviction – and reinforced many, many times. When I felt my mind was wandering I pulled it back again and again to focus on this central point, that the same power, the same energy, is within me and all that is needed is to build up a relationship with it, commune with it through inner satsang. It is like constructing a mountain of belief from within the very core of my being which lies beyond words and far from the madness of the thought realm, a place of inner peace which if found means there is no need for practice, no need for sadhana, as all that is taken care of by the blissful state you find yourself in.
Guess the meditation lasted the best part of 2 hours and really it was incredible, where once again I had that uncanny feeling of sitting on the edge of something immense, filled with light and beyond the physical world. Was this sensation coming from Swami, from the holy hill of Arunachala or from the both of them? It was something for me to think about, something to ponder, but just like Bhagavan says, the best method to progress in the quest is to seek out the company of the wise and for me Swami Hamsananda is such a person. It is amazing when meditation goes like that, as if the energy current built up by those sitting is on full charge, sure you can wander a little bit off track by way of thoughts, but the power of concentration is such that it soon pulls you back, pulls you back big time to get on point. It is like a divine play when things lead you that way even if I know that when it comes to bein’ good I’m little more than a peddler of metal hawks which scratch sawdust. But here all is good, all is auspicious, and like I said before it feels like I am standing on the edge of an immensely positive light, on the border of an incredible city teeming with life. Useless conjecture? Who knows? The delusional fantasy of a man about to come back down to earth and hit the ground in a most mightily big way? Not sure, maybe! But what I don’t have any doubt about is that it is up to me to carry that bliss along with me, I have seen it clearly, felt it fully, and know very well that it is now just a question of being firm in the belief that there is no way Bhagavan would ever let me down as long as I to follow the direction he shows people to go, but of course it is not quite like that because really, there is nowhere to go, no place to travel apart from the very ground we stand upon. Talking with Swami yesterday was fantastic, but meditating at his feet was mind blowing. Hope I never lose sight of it, although I know of course I am in a special place sanctified by the presence of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi who was there not too long ago in space and time .
After my meditation with Swami in the morning, yesterday afternoon took the form of a post lunch nap before I went up to the meditation hall around 2.15. Predictably enough it was a bit of a struggle, even though I’d laid down on my bed for at least 20 mins to get some rest. Just hadn’t done the trick as it was back to the land of head nod and the battle to stay awake, been there countless times before whilst in India, so it really was no great surprise. Think I might have got up to a 189 or something, but it was like wading through mud. At a certain point I had to do a bit of shrine walkin’ then quietly read some more of The Silent Power because continuing to try and meditate was too much for me. After my 3.30 cup of sweet tea I went back up to the hall but didn’t bother to meditate, just carried on reading instead, which under the circumstances felt like it was good enough. Truth is the meditation hall is a nice place to be and I try to never lose sight of the fact that it is in an ashram located at the foot of Arunachala.
Got up to Ramanasramam earlier than usual, just gone 4 instead of just after 5. Main reason was that at 4.30 each afternoon there is a reading from one of the works either by or about Bhagavan which takes place in a small room to the side of the main temple and where its doors are open for people to sit outside and listen. As yet I had not been to go to one of those readings on this particular trip so today was the day to do it. Inevitably before going there I popped into the Ashram Book Depot and got myself another couple of books, this time in the form of –
My Reminiscences – by N. Balarama Reddy, which is the memoir of one of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s oldest and closest disciples costing 60 rupees.
Swatmasukhi: A Commentary of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Ulladu Narpadu – by Sri Ramanacharanatirtha Nochur Ventakaraman. A most comprehensive guide for the seeker of Atmavichara and 120 rupees.
Seems like I just can’t help it, there are always books in the Depot which I want to read and I know that once I leave Tiruvannamalai there will not be much chance of finding them anywhere else, not unless I want to dive into the waters of online ordering from India, which even with time delay factors spun into the equation is never going to be anywhere near as cheap as buying the books on the spot. So this is what I tend to do, buy lots of books from the Ashram Book Depot on each visit, going back loaded down with them as a consequence.
After the daily reading – at which there were more than one or two people looking a bit spaced out from the heat – it was shrine walkin’ time again which as usual was accompanied by the Veda Patasala boys chanting the Vedas, sitting in rows facing each other in front of the samadhi shrine whilst the Brahmin priests decorated that shrine and washed the Siva lingam with consecrated milk and water. As I walked I was listening to the chanting of the boys, which when up close to them you realise is loud, very loud indeed, and I was also flicking an eye across at the shrine every now and then as I weaved in and out of the other walkers going around it. People were sometimes fast sometimes slow and when they were slow it meant looking for those little gaps so that I could push on through at my own pace. How much faith there is in my mind – how much devotion – is open to question, maybe the shrine walkin’ is more like exercise for me, a chance to shake off the energy static from all the sittin’, I just don’t know. Anyway I just keep on doing it until the chanting stops and when it does I stand by the barrier of the shrine as the Patasala boys get up and chant some more of the Vedas, now standing before it they prostrate to the samadhi shrine before walking around it and out of the temple. At this point there is one of the two Brahmin priests remaining who is busy attending to the shrine, decorating it carefully with garlands of flowers, lighting incense in front of it, sprinkling water on it whilst continually chanting prayers. Then he stands in front of the shrine ringing a bell, whilst a rack of smaller bells to side of the shrine is rung by a temple attendant, and then it is as if the main temple is filled with the sound of bells which as an experience for the observer is really quite powerful. By now the purple curtain with an Om syllable in front of the shrine has been drawn, only to pulled back a few minutes later in a dramatic scene of shrine revelation, where the seated statue figure of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi is fully garlanded and decorated.
Before this happens the head priest, a huge Tamil Brahmin, comes out of the old temple to involve himself in the preparation of the sacred camphor flame and powders of grey vibhuti and vermilion kum kum heaped on a tray. Before he does this however, he always makes what appear to be critical comments aimed at the other Brahmin priest who has been working on the main shrine since the Patasala boys departed, in fact he was working whilst they were there also, primarily on the Siva lingam. It seems that possibly the two priests don’t get on as there appears to be no love lost between them, but what do I know? They are speaking a language I don’t understand – Tamil – so whatever it is they say to each other by way of words is something I don’t really have any clue about. Once the curtain is drawn back and before the camphor flame is brought out of the shrine area for people to pass their hands over and wave over their heads and faces, there is another song sung by someone close to the shrine railings. As usual it is a devotional song, or rather on this occasion it was a mantra – Om Nama Shivaya – which I find very pleasant to listen to as I close my eyes and drink in the scared atmosphere its recitation generates throughout the whole of the temple, as religion and ritual merge once more in what seems like a perfect blend.
When this part of the proceedings comes to an end in the main temple, and I may or may not have crowded around the flame to place some vibhuti on my forehead, I walk into the adjoining old temple and do some circuits around the shrine to the Mother in there, each time folding by hands in prayer when I approach and pass the Ganapati statue in one of its corners. There is still chanting going on in the main temple, the Tamil Parayana chanted by devotees who are sat in rows in the main hall, sometimes a great number of them, and which is nice to hear as I walk on the large stone slabs on the floor of the old temple, a space which is a lot emptier than the main temple but no less potent in terms of atmosphere. My shrine walking in the old temple goes on from 6 – 6.30 then not long after that I head out of the doors and make my way out of the ashram, first to collect my chappals from the shoe stand and then to walk across the road and drink a nice fresh coconut.
Yesterday it just so happened that I walked into town or at least walked to the edge of town and my reason for doing so was in order to withdraw some cash from an ICICI Bank ATM. This I did, but it was not without a hiccup or two on the way. The first thing was that the door to the ATM booth was incredibly stiff and in my struggles to yank it open I somehow managed to set off an alarm, and I think the reason for this was that I was pulling on the door instead of pushing it. There was an incredibly loud high pitched sound which made me panic, thinking that a bunch of Tiruvannamalai cops were suddenly going to appear from out of nowhere to see just what the fuck was going on. Thankfully the alarm switched itself off after a minute or so but it was a bit of a freak out to say the least. Hellish loud that alarm was and when I’d finally pushed the door hard enough for the booth to open the fucking thing went off again, only this time I was now inside. Bit of a tester that one I have to say! On top of all the alarm ringing was the fact that when I inserted my card into the ATM I soon found the procedure for money withdrawals had changed from last year.
Previously the way ICICI Bank ATMs worked was you put your card into the strip reader and then pulled it out again. Only when you had done this did you punch in your PIN and chose the cash withdrawal request on the menu. Different system to how it was back in the UK, but it doesn’t matter because this year things have changed as now the card is supposed to stay in the slot during the course of the whole transaction. Slight problem was that I didn’t know this was how it now worked, so when I tried to pull my card out from the slot the machine wouldn’t let me. Freaked me out big time as I thought the ATM had grabbed my card because of the alarm going off and that I would not be able to retrieve it without there being a whole load of complication. Thankfully a message soon appeared on screen telling me not to remove my card until the whole transaction was processed. Wished they’d told me that before, because it sure would have saved me a bit of aggravation, but I guess the important thing is that I got there in the end and soon had the machine pumping out those notes, all to the tune of 10,000 rupees which would do very nicely thank you. Only hope there aren’t going to be any hassles when I use an ICICI Bank ATM next time around, but I guess I’ll find out about that pretty soon as I’ll be in Bangalore tomorrow and there is an ICICI ATM on Residency Road which I’ll have a try on.
Actually the reason for withdrawing 10,000 IR is because I intend to make a donation to Athithi Ashram as they run various charity projects, ones such as feeding sadhus, providing medical care for sadhus and also caring for cows. Dunno, just felt I had to make some kind of contribution towards those things as it has been pretty damn cheap for me to stay in the ashram, 800 IR a day to be exact, a price which includes three meals and a couple of hot drinks, along with my own room. I feel I have got so much out of my visit by way of my conversations and meditations with Swami Hamsananda during his morning satsangs, along with being able to use the meditation hall pretty much any time I have wanted to, always having the place to myself. Fair is fair then. It feels like it is a good thing to do and money well spent as I can see how the ashram is run and as far as I can work out it all seems good to me. Certainly would be the case that I would not be able to do a better job myself, no way, wouldn’t even have a clue where to start. It is an ashram which is engaged with the world on a daily basis, not some awe inspiring artifice making millions of bucks or anything like that. Just a fully functioning operation providing a service to whoever might turn up (provided they have made a booking of course) from pretty much anywhere in the world.
So after sorting out the cash at the ATM I walked back and had another coconut from my favourite seller, the one opposite the main gates to Ramanasramam. Felt like I needed one and I have to say the coconut water slid down nicely after what I had just gone through with that damn bloody ATM. By the time I got back to my room it was time to speak to Dawa Dolkar on the phone and then for writing things up in my notebook before heading down to dinner. After I’d eaten I took another 20 mins walk through the back streets of that part of town, the usual dark places, something which I have been doing pretty much every evening, possibly buying a bottle of water along the way, before getting back to the ashram by 8.45 and returning once again to my room.