Athithi Ashram: Later Days

Final 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 Virupaksha Cave

So yesterday 18/2 finally saw me make the climb up the hill to Virupaksha Cave. Been to Skandasramam a couple of times before – more than a couple in fact – but so far never made it to Virupaksha. This was a trip I had been planning to do but I had been too locked into my daily morning routine at Athithi Ashram to so far make it happen. Yesterday was different however in that there was no 6.30 cup of sweet coffee in the ashram and no climb up the stairs to the meditation hall to join Swami Hamsananda for morning prayers. Instead I left the ashram at around 6.30 and headed for the Ramana Coffee & Juice Stand on the main road outside Ramanasramam where I had a glass of coffee for 40 rupees which was a little on the sweet side as they really ladled in the sugar, but then I guess I was a bit slow off the mark in tellin’ them when to stop.

After I’d drunk my glass of coffee I was ready for the walk up Arunachala which meant first crossing the main road and walking through the grounds of Ramanasramam so as to go through the gate at the back and take the path to Skandasramam and Virupaksha Cave which lay beyond. I put my New Balance trainers on after I’d got to the other side of the ashram and immediately saw a couple with a child, Russians by the sound of them, who were walking barefoot and then seriously wondered if I shouldn’t also be doing the same. Something made me keep my shoes on – laziness, reluctance, ignorance – but as I passed them and began the initial steep ascent it bugged me that I wasn’t doing the walk quite right, as Arunachala to the faithful is a temple in itself and in a temple you always walk barefoot.

So yes there I was, feeling bad for not goin’ barefoot like a pilgrim would, but I guess my pair of New Balance trainers felt so damn comfy and gave me so much spring that I couldn’t take them off. Funny thing is they were the same pair of New Balances I had used last year when I did the Giri Pradikshina – the walk around the holy hill – where again the vast majority of people doing the circuit with me on that night of the full moon, were walkin’ barefoot. Just like last year there was no intention on my part to cause offence, I’d just assumed it was done in shoes, simple ignorance more like, something which if truth be told I have in abundance. Well anyway, soon I was poundin’ up the path with my New Balances on and leaving those barefoot possible Russians with their little kid standin’ in the dust trails behind me.

Arunachaleswarara Temple as seen from Arunachala

As I continued my fast pace I passed one or two people already coming back down – all of them barefoot – the sight of which now caused feelings of irritation and embarrassment to rise up within me. Why had I not thought it through properly and realised that goin’ barefoot was obviously the correct thing to do? About halfway up the hill and after passing one or two more people who were also without footwear, I sat down on a rock and took my shoes off so as to join the crowd – barefoot trampin’ up the holy hill – as I simply couldn’t take it anymore. There was that little voice naggin’ away inside my head the whole damn time sayin’ “Are you really so unable to do the right thing?” Of course it would mean I would have to carry my shoes, whilst everyone else would have left theirs at the bottom of the hill, but I guess it was better late than never and worth putting up with the inconvenience. Somewhat inevitably, I soon found the barefoot walkin’ really rather pleasant at that time of day, still relatively early morning of course, with the ground not hot at all. Another thing about taking my shoes off was that I had to walk slower, be more careful, as a twisted ankle was not what I wanted, but with the slower pace came the realisation that this was obviously how it should be done. Wearing shoes and walking fast made it look as if going up the holy hill was just a race, another thing to be conquered, which needless to say was not the right attitude at all.

Time to reflect then, on the reason I was making the climb, which of course was to go and meditate in the cave where the great sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi had stayed for the first 17 years of the 20th century, the years 1900 – 1917 to be exact. To meditate in the Virupaksha Cave over on the other side of the hill, on the same the path to Skandasramam but further along, where Skandasramam was the cave he had stayed in from 1917 – 1922 after those seventeen years in Virupaksha. So yes, belatedly, I had done the right thing and on those upper levels of the walk I was finally walking as I should have done right from the start – barefoot shufflin’ – and enjoying the views of Tiruvannamalai and the Arunachaleshwar Temple in the hazy plains below, all looking rather tremendous, casting up visions before me of ancient South India in all its glory.

When I got to Skandasramam there were a few people sitting on the steps waiting for the cave to open, but of course I wasn’t going there this time around but on to Virupaksha. This meant that I asked the oldish Indian man hanging around there, and whom I’d seen outside the cave at Skandasramam the previous year, if it was correct that I should carry on the path in order to reach Virupaksha. Somehow I’d just assumed he was an attendant and part of the ashram team who looked after Skandasramam, but on reflection I now know he wasn’t. He told me that yes I should carry on, but that on the way – if I wanted – he could show me another cave, a secret cave which Ramana Maharshi used to go when things got too busy at Skandasramam. It was funny to hear him say that as I had never read anything about there being another cave which Ramana Maharshi had used, it was quite possible however that the books didn’t contain everything about the life of Bhagavan, but then again why would he ever want to escape those who were around him? Guess I was just caught a bit off guard and the man was quite persistent, so before I knew it he was taking me off the main track to show me this supposedly secret cave. This would have all been well and good if it wasn’t for the fact that once off track the going soon got a lot tougher and tricky. All of a sudden walkin’ barefoot didn’t seem such a good idea at all, as the many little twists and turns with sharp edges meant the ground beneath my feet was killing me.

Monkeys on the way to Virupaksha Cave

The man was soon quite some distance ahead of me and I noticed that he was wearing a nice pair of chappals – no holy scruples for him about walking with no shoes – and it was a real struggle for me to keep up with him. For the first time that morning I was feeling a bit sweaty and it was as much as I could do to keep him in sight as he scrambled along like a wily mountain fox. Maybe the cave was also not so secret after all as there were painted arrows on the rocks indicating the way. It slowly began to dawn on me that I might have been handed a sucker punch, fallen for the 3 card trick and would soon be about to get diddled. Sure enough by the time I eventually stumbled up to this supposedly secret cave I saw that it was little more that a hole under an overhanging rock, around which some concrete walls had been crudely erected, with ledges inside the hole on which to sit. This was clearly not a place Ramana Maharshi would ever have visited, but the man told me that I could go inside and meditate there for 10 – 15 mins before returning to the main path and heading on to Virupaksha Cave.

It was clear from the look in his eyes that the man thought his job was now over and that a little bit in the way of recompense for showing me this secret place would not go amiss. I pulled out some rupees from my pocket and gave him 20 but unfortunately amongst the notes were some hundreds and it was one of those he was more interested in. When I handed him the 20 he shook his head and made a gesture with his hand whilst repeating the words “Hundred, hundred”. It was ridiculous really, to give this guy 100 rupees for what was probably a little under 10 minutes work – work furthermore which had at the end of it a bogus destination – but under the circumstances I was caught at a weak point, a tender spot, as my feet were fizzin’ from that little bit of twisty path negotiation, so I handed over a 100 just to get him out of the way. It was also clearly the case that this guy didn’t work for Ramanasramam at all – for they had ownership and control of both Skandasramam and Virupaksha Cave, staffing them accordingly – and that he just hung around outside the entrance all day waiting to catch the unwary. Well, it just so happened that on this occasion the person he’d caught was me, it was my turn to get done by that sucker punch and maybe it was the price I had to pay for initially walkin’ up the hill when my speedy pair of New Balance trainers were still firmly on my feet. Ridiculous connection? Yeah, possibly, but that was how I explained it to myself and I have to say it fitted well at the time, so who knows?

Once the man had disappeared, and he did so pretty quickly, no doubt momentarily happier before his hungry misery once again descended, I sat in the cave for what was only a couple of minutes. The energy of the place was precisely zero when it came to any kind of spiritual vibe. There were a couple of small photos of Ramana Maharshi and a larger colour photograph of the contemporary Indian guru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Hugging Ama, who was very popular throughout the world. Guess it must have been the case that some people thought the place was special but it wasn’t, it was a con job simple as that, and on this particular morning it was my turn to be the one who was conned. I waited there a few minutes more until the man was out of sight before getting out of the hole and stumbling back along that twisty track until it joined the main path to go on to Virupaksha Cave.

Colourful houses of Tiruvannamalai

Funnily enough by the time I got close to the entrance of Virupaksha Cave I saw the young Russian couple who had been there outside the back of Ramanasramam at the start of my climb. I could only think they must have had pretty tough feet as they had made up a lot of ground on me in order to get where they were. Think they were also smoking a joint as something was being passed surreptitiously between them. Whether they were Russian or not is of course something I don’t 100% know, but wherever they were from the guy was speaking quite harshly in his native tongue – whether at her, his child or himself I have no idea – but the tone of his voice ensured that I didn’t want to find out either, so I carried on past them. At the entrance to the cave there is a big Archaeological Survey of India sign – just as at Skandasramam – informing people that it is a sight of cultural significance and that certain codes of conduct were expected from any visitors. There was one other person waiting outside for the gates to open, and soon a few more after I arrived, but strangely enough not the Russian couple who were suddenly nowhere to be seen and which later made me wonder why they’d made the climb at all. They’d simply disappeared! At 8.15 the gates were opened by someone who was obviously part of the ashram team, no hungry look in his eyes just mindful silence, as he beckoned those of us who were waiting to go inside and where it was immediately apparent to me that this was a special place.

We left our footwear – those of us who had any – in an allotted space and then walked under the shaded veranda full of plants and into the small outer building attached to the outside of the cave, which was really just a small room where the attendant must have lived, then through this room into the cave itself. It was not what I was expecting, much bigger than the cave at Skandasramam for a start, and very dark with just a single oil lamp burning in front of a shrine to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. There was floor space on which to sit and also ledges build into the rounded walls which meant that the cave could accommodate quite a few people. I carefully made my way to one of those ledges, sat up on it and made myself comfortable. It has been quite a long while since I have been able to sit cross legged on the floor which means in situations such as this it is best if I sit with my back against the wall, my legs pulled and arms resting on my knees. By way of sitting like this I usually find – if the circumstances are right – that I can still meditate in relative comfort without too much seeping in by way of bodily distraction. This was what I did now and boy did I soon find that the circumstances were right, as that energy current needed to sustain full concentrated meditation kicked in almost straight away and I soon found myself in a bliss like state. All the hassles of getting up the hill by way of feeling like an ignorant prick, and with the odd little detour thrown in for good measure, had been well worth it. There I was, now meditating in the cave where Ramana Maharshi had lived for 17 years of his very holy life back at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Colourful houses of Tiruvannamalai

More people were soon in the cave as well but the silence was powerful and the sitting was wonderful. Once I’d done a 108 count on the in breath and the out breath I moved off the ledge and onto the floor to do another round, so as to make the most of my opportunity at being in this sacred spot. In this second 108 round I had a feeling, vision, whatever you might wish to call it, of being bathed in a column of light that felt extremely ancient, almost as old as the very core of the Earth itself. It was a wonderful experience and it later made me ponder the information Swami Hamsananda had given me about Arunachala being on the Earth’s axis, because if you think about it the oldest parts of the Earth would be on its axis, as surely that was where everything else would have accumulated from. Well, something to think about, something to chew, but the basic fact of the matter was at that particular moment in time I felt like there was an incredible power to the cave which, whilst I might have hoped to find there, had not really expected to.

After the second 108 I had been in the cave for the best part of an hour and as far as my sittin’ position was concerned – back against the wall – I was done, so I made my way slowly out of that wonderful place called the Virupaksha Cave, blessed by sanctity of the guru Ramana Maharshi and Arunachala. There was a ledge under the veranda outside so I went and sat on that, where I soon fell once again into meditation. The silence of the setting, the early morning sun shining on all the beautiful plants on the ground in front of me, meant there was more bliss to come and another 108 round was therefore done under those circumstances whilst accompanied by feelings of great joy. Once outside the gates to the cave after I had finished meditating on the veranda, I felt it was now OK to put my shoes on again and carry on down the path back into Tiruvannamalai. The upper reaches of the hill – the primary points leading up to Skandasramam and then beyond and down to Virupaksha, had indeed been done barefoot – but now, going back down on the lower slopes and into town so as to complete the circuit, it felt OK to be wearing shoes – plenty of people I noticed were doing so – so for a punk like me it was good enough as well.

Talking with Swami about my walk to Virupaksha and the power of the cave later that morning back on his balcony in Athithi Ashram he once again mentioned how Arunachala is believed to be on the axis of the world and that as far as land on Earth goes it is one of the most ancient parts.

Backstreets of Tiruvannamalai

Swami also told me that before he came to Tiruvannamalai over 40 years ago he had worked in Bangalore, in a branch of a bank from Maharastra and where he had befriended a Tamil colleague who was lonely working in Bangalore as he only spoke Tamil and not the local language of Kannada. He told me the two of them would go and watch Tamil movies together, not because Swami was into Tamil films as they tended to be noisy, chaotic and very long, but more because his colleague loved them and insisted on Swami coming along to keep him company. Swami said that since from a young age he had always loved meditation he used to go with his Tamil colleague and use the opportunity to sit in the dark of the cinema hall and meditate whilst his colleague enjoyed the film. Years later when the two of them met again in Bangalore, after Swami had re-located to Tiruvannamalai, his ex-colleague told him that for some reason since that period of his life when they went to see films together, he always kept the seat to the left of him, the seat where Swami sat, empty in remembrance his presence, as if he was still there with him.

During the course of our conversation I mentioned to Swami that my visits to Tiruvannamalai were always quite brief, a week at a time at the most, and that I was conscious I was not really part of the scene by way of living there for months or even years on end. In reply to me Swami gave the example of a honey bee who flew in from afar to take the nectar from the flower, whilst all the little creatures underneath that same flower and who are there all the time, remained oblivious to what it contained. Needless to say this answer of Swami’s made me feel pretty good, even if it might have been the case he wasn’t specifically referring to me as that honey bee, but then again you never know!

In regard to meditation I mentioned to Swami that in Tiruvannamalai when things were going well with my sitting the current felt strong and that when it was not there it was just as well not to meditate. Swami in reply said that to have acceptance of another power directing things was important, and that yes indeed it was sometimes more appropriate not to meditate. This energy current might have had something to do with the power of the place, that things either positive or negative could be seen in greater clarity, as if by way of consequence your decision was almost made for you. For Swami this was all connected to Arunachala which tapped into an ancient energy and whereas for sure the ultimate Arunachala lay within the heart of each and every human being, it was also true that staying within its vicinity and attuning oneself to its magnetism was a source of great power, even if we couldn’t fully understand what that power actually was. All of this seemed about right to me – understanding often lies beyond words and formulation – it is simply a feeling in the body which has the wisdom to differentiate between right and wrong without the mind’s interference. It led us onto a conversation about the people who came to Tiruvannamalai and the fact that possibly for many of them meditation might not be the most appropriate thing to do, that often what they needed was just a good friend instead, someone to talk to and to stay with, in a peaceful environment.

Athithi Ashram dining hall and kitchens

Later that afternoon, after my walk up to the Virupaksha Cave and my talk with Swami Hansananda, I went up to Ramanasramam and its temples for the last time. On the way in I slipped the man who sat at the shoe stand 100 rupees for looking after my various pieces of dusty footwear throughout the course of the week. It was something – the money, not the shoes – which I think he was pretty happy about and I told him I would be off tomorrow, on my way outta town an’ on the road to Bangalore. Needless to say once inside the ashram I dropped in on the Ashram Book Depot for one last time and where I bought the following –

For Those With Little Dust: Selected Writings of Arthur Osborne – by Arthur Osborne, editor of The Mountain Path containing editorials, articles and poems. 120 rupees.

1 x Bhagavan photo for 15 rupees.

The temples had come to fascinate me, not only the shrine walking, which I have done for a few years now, ever since my first trip in 2012, but also the chanting of the Vedas and the actions of the Brahmin priests as they washed the Siva lingam and prepared the Ramana Maharshi samadhi shrine by way of decorating it with flowers, lighting incense, chanting prayers and incantations, ringing bells, sprinkling consecrated water and lighting lamps of camphor. Then at the end of it all there was the drawing back of the Om syllable purple curtain to reveal the shrine, the singing of sacred songs or the recitation of mantras by people whose voices made a such beautiful sound, all of it adding a high degree of mystical resonance to what is already a pretty powerful scene. Yes, this year is the first time I have paid attention in detail to any of that, to have had it as part of my day, when at 5 O ‘ Clock each afternoon it is time for me to be in the main temple to witness what was going on there, and I have to say it has been rather special. Not sure if I would have been able to keep it up for weeks on end, but just to have had a blast of it for the course of this week has been pretty awesome. There are some older Brahmin priests there who spend the majority of their lives within the ashram temples, tending the shrines in the old temple and the ones in the new, the Ramana Maharshi samadhi shrine, the Siva lingam and the Nandi bull; performing countless prayers and ceremonies before all of them. It would be fascinating for me to get to know how they saw the world because they spent so much of their time in such a unique environment, but that is something I am most likely never going to be able to find out, unless I come back one day fully conversant in Tamil and bold enough to ask them the right questions.

Rangoli outside Athithi Ashram

Once the ritual and performance of the main temple is over, there is then the switching across to the old temple for me, a place which is emptier but no less steeped in atmosphere and significance. The last few days have seem me folding my hands in supplication to the statue of Ganapati in one of its corners, as Ganapati has significance for me as the Remover of Obstacles in regard to the subtle yogic body, where his secret abode lies deep in the heart of muladhara chakra. No need to mention how important this base chakra is within the context of kundalini, suffice to say it is where this ancient power lies dormant until awakened, and then once awakened it is sent straight up the sushumna channel  to rest upon ajna. When the kundalini shakti is on ajna the Third Eye is opened for the meditator, and then there is no looking back, the game has changed, and the journey to the abode of bliss has become possible. So yes, Ganapati the Lord most definitely gets my folded hands in supplication each time I am there in the temple walking towards him.

Main point of my farewell talk with Swami Hamsananda this morning was that it is most important to have the firm conviction that the only reality is The Self. This must be attempted to be carried with one at all times. Alongside this there must be a conviction of equal strength that the only power to save you from your vasanas is the Higher Power of the guru. Bhakti! In relation to this, to meditation, it is important to fully realise your relationship with the guru and the job you have to do. This means that it is not for you to attempt to eradicate your vasanas as that is simply impossible, the job is too much, that is the responsibility of the guru instead. It is the guru’s sadhana to clear away your vasanas by way of bestowing the guru’s grace, which in turn will lead to the inner satsang of there being no sadhana necessary on the part of the sadhaka. Again there must be the firm conviction, trust and certainty that the guru will do the job. All you have to do is carry this belief firmly with you at all times, to be patient and to continue doing the things necessary in your life to live it to a good standard.

To leave the vasanas alone is a wiser course of action than attempting to tackle them head on. It is only the ego talking by way of saying “I want to get enlightened!” which is a fantasy as there is no enlightenment to get. Why is this so? Because as the only living reality, the perfection of The Self is shining at all times, which of course means right here right now in this very moment. Vasanas are illusory, they simply do not exist. To get involved in them only leads to a never ending cycle for which there is no resolution. In our practise they constantly arise because their vehicle is the mind, so it is only by ignoring the mind, starving it of oxygen, that you will be able to lessen the influence of the vasanas. Up to a point you can do this – a bit like clearing the ground – until the guru takes over and does the rest. Swami also mentioned that as well as personal vasanas there are also which might be termed collective vasanas, wider ones – such things as worrying about war, or say at present, worrying about Coronavirus – all these bigger issues must also be dismissed as they are part of far larger cycles at play and they are not the concern of the individual.

Bench and seat in Athithi Ashram dining hall overlooking the inner courtyard

Clearly then, these methods belong to the path of bhakti, when by the dual method of praying to the guru, invoking the guru through prayer in order to receive the grace of the guru and also by surrender, you are laying your fate at the feet of the guru with the firm conviction that the guru will do his or her job, of that there has to be 100% certainty. It is like when you need some wiring done in your house you call an electrician and when the electrician is there you simply have full trust in the fact that the electrician will do the job properly. It is the same with the guru, only in the guru’s realm we are dealing with things which we cannot see as they are inner rather than outer, however that does not mean in any way that they do not exist. So this is the way of bhakti as told to me by Swami Hamsananda.

However as Swami pointed out, you may also use the path of questioning, the path of enquiry – jnana marga – in meditation as well, continually asking the question “Who Am I?” Not only within your meditation but at all times of the day and in whatever activities you do. There is the possibility then to mix both bhakti and jnana, that is permissible. Swami also said that yes it was OK for me to invoke his help as guru, as well as of course invoking the help of Bhagavan. The point emphasised by him repeatedly was to have the firm conviction that the guru will do his or her job as that side of the bargain is their responsibility and not yours. What you have to do is live tidy, clear the ground, and also have patience. The example Swami gave me was that if he was making a meal for a number of people they would not all be able to get served by him at once, some would have to come before others, that is just the way things are, so be patient.

To recap then, and this is probably all that Swamiji told me in our parting conversation –

Firm conviction in the power of the guru. Vasanas are illusory but do not try to get rid of them as that is the sadhana of the guru, it is the guru’s job. To keep questioning “Who Am I?” whenever possible, ideally at all times. To meditate for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, as that would be enough to carry you through all activities of the day. Do not follow thoughts in meditation, starve the mind of oxygen by not engaging with them. To regard Swami as guru and to invoke his grace is permissible. To think “I will get enlightened!” is wrong, first it is the voice of the ego and second it is an incorrect statement as the fact of the matter is that you already are. Remember that ultimately the guru cannot do the job for you, he or she can bestow grace upon you, the sanctity of presence, but they cannot give you what you already have!!!


Residential blocks of Athithi Ashram as seen from street level

What else can I say? Not much more, this has been my experience this year in Tiruvannamalai, where for the last week I have stayed in Swami Hamsananda’s Athithi Ashram. Sure it has been tough at times, as ashrams are not hotels, but there is no doubt that if the effort is made and a coherent structure to your day is put in place the rewards can be significant, because in terms of meditation Arunachala is like no other place I have been to Earth.

Ramaneshra guru Ramaneshra guru (pause)
Ramaneshra guru Ramana ye

Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!
Arunachala Siva!

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