WHEN THE DEVOTEES followed Sri Bhagavan down to the Mother's samadhi at the foot of the Hill in December
1922 there was only a single thatched shed for Ashram. Through the ensuing years the numbers grew, donations came in and regular Ashram premises were erected -- the hall where Sri Bhagavan sat, the office and bookshop, the dining hall and kitchen, the cowshed, the post office, the dispensary, the guest-room for male visitors (really not a room but a large dormitory for such as wished to stay some days at the Ashram), a couple of small bungalows for guests who made a longer stay -- all single-storey buildings whitewashed on the outside in Indian fashion.
Immediately to the west of the Ashram is a large square tank with stone steps leading down to the water from all four
sides. South of the Ashram the bus road from Tiruvannamalai to Bangalore runs east and west, the road which bifurcates farther west and swings round to circle the Hill. As one stands on the road, facing northwards, one sees, across a small culvert, a wooden arch painted black with the name `Sri Ramanasramam'1 in gold lettering. No gate, just an open approach. 2 The fronds of coconut palms screen the Ashram buildings and beyond them, imminent, majestic, rises the Hill.
Nor was it only the Ashram itself that was built. Across the road the Maharaja of Morvi endowed a guest house for visiting rajahs. A colony of cottages and bungalows sprang up, built by the householder devotees. Immediately west of the Ashram, between the tank and the Hill, sadhus made a colony at Palakottu, living in caves or huts among the trees. In the Ashram itself such as were drawn more to action than meditation lived a life of service in the office, the garden, the bookstall, the kitchen, one department or other, counting themselves blessed to be near Sri Bhagavan, to see him pass, perhaps occasionally to be noticed, to be spoken to by him.
All this building and planning and the handling of money required an Ashram management because Sri Bhagavan would do none of these things. Therefore his brother, Niranjanananda Swami, became the Sarvardhikari or Ruler of the Ashram. Regulations grew up governing Ashram life. Some of them were irksome to the devotees; however, if any felt tempted to protest or revolt the attitude of Sri Bhagavan restrained them, for he submitted to every rule and upheld authority, not so much perhaps, on the particular issue at stake as on the general ground that orders should be obeyed. There was significance in this, as in all he did.
2 This has now changed.
He was enjoining a path that is to be followed not in isolation but in the conditions of the world in this kaliyuga, this spiritually dark age, and if he urged his followers to remember the Self while submitting to conditions that might not be congenial, he himself set the example by conforming to all the Ashram rules. Moreover, he disapproved of people turning aside from the purpose for which they had approached him to engage in disputes of management. He said, "People walk up the drive to the Ashram in search of Deliverance and then get caught up in Ashram politics and forget what they came for." If such matters were their concern they need not have come to Tiruvannamalai for them.
There were occasional outbursts of opposition and discontent, and one cannot say that they were altogether unjustified on the actual merits of the case, but Sri Bhagavan did not countenance them. Once a group of devotees, business and professional men from Madras, came in a specially chartered bus to demand the total removal of the Ashram management and the institution of a new system. They trooped into the hall and sat down before Sri Bhagavan. He sat silent, his face hard, aloof, eternal as rock. They grew uneasy before him, glanced at one another, shuffled and not one of them presumed to speak. Finally they left the hall and returned to Madras as they had come. Only then Sri Bhagavan was told what their errand had been, and he said: "I wonder what they come here for. Do they come to reform themselves or to reform the Ashram?"
At the same time -- another lesson that had to be observed -- if any rule appeared not merely irksome but unjust he would not submit to it, just as he did not submit to the levy of a fee at Virupaksha Cave. Even then, his method was seldom actually to protest but rather to draw attention to the injustice by his behaviour. There was a time when meals were already served in the Ashram dining hall but it was not found possible to provide proper coffee for all, so those of less consequence, who ate farthest away
at the end of the hall, were given water. Sri Bhagavan noticed -- he always noticed everything -- and said, "Give me water too." After that he drank water and never accepted coffee again.
Once when he was already advanced in age and his knees stiff and deformed with rheumatism, a party of Europeans came; one lady among them, being unaccustomed to sit cross-legged, leaned against the wall and stretched her legs out in front of her. An attendant, perhaps not realizing how painful it is to sit cross- legged for one not used to it, told her not to sit like that. The poor lady flushed with embarrassment and drew in her legs. Sri Bhagavan immediately sat upright and cross-legged. Despite the pain in his knees he continued so and when the devotees asked him not to, he said: "If that is the rule I must obey it as well as anyone else. If it is disrespectful to stretch out one's feet I am being disrespectful to every person in the hall." The attendant had already left the hall but was brought back and asked the lady to sit as was most convenient. Even then it was difficult to persuade Sri Bhagavan to relax.
In the early years criticism was sometimes encountered.
Western devotees in particular were subject to missionary onslaughts. One enthusiast even entered the hall and launched his rhetoric at Sri Bhagavan himself. Sri Bhagavan did not reply, but Major Chadwick's voice booming out a challenge from the back of the hall to the speaker's interpretation of Christianity, so disconcerted him that he gave up the attempt. Even in later years Catholic priests continued to come, to show interest and reverence and then to throw out some doubt in a way that made one wonder whether their hearts were open or whether their purpose was not merely proselytism and misrepresentation.
A Muslim came once to argue, but there must have been sincerity behind his challenge because Sri Bhagavan answered it patiently.
"Has God a form?" he asked. "Who says God has a form?" Sri Bhagavan retorted. The questioner persisted, "If God is formless is it not wrong to ascribe to Him the form of an idol and worship Him in it?"
He had understood the retort to mean, "Nobody says God has a form." But it meant exactly what it said and was now amplified, "Let God alone; tell me first whether you have a form."
"Of course I have a form, as you can see, but I am not God." "Are you then the physical body made of flesh and bones and blood and nicely dressed?"
"Yes, that must be so; I am aware of my existence in this bodily form."
"You call yourself that body because now you are aware of your body, but are you that body? Can it be yourself in deep sleep when you are quite unaware of its existence?"
"Yes, I must have remained in the same bodily form even in deep sleep because I am aware of it until I fall asleep, and as soon as I wake I see that I am just as I was when I went to sleep."
"And when death occurs?" The questioner stopped and thought a minute, "Well, then
I am considered dead and the body is buried."
"But you said your body is yourself. When it is being taken away to be buried why doesn't it protest and say: `No! no! don't take me away! This property I have acquired, these clothes I am wearing, these children I have begotten, they are all mine, I must remain with them'!"
The visitor then confessed that he had wrongly identified himself with the body and said, "I am the life in the body, not the body in itself."
Then Sri Bhagavan explained to him: "Till now you seriously considered yourself to be the body and to have a form. That is the primal ignorance which is the root cause of all trouble. Until that ignorance is got rid of, until you know your formless
nature, it is mere pedantry to argue about God and whether He has a form or is formless or whether it is right to worship God in the form of an idol when He is really formless. Until one sees the formless Self one cannot truly worship the formless God."
Sometimes the answers given were terse and cryptic, sometimes full and explanatory, but always adapted to the questioner and always marvellously apt. A naked fakir came once and stayed for about a week, sitting with his right arm held permanently aloft. He did not come into the hall himself but sent in the question, "What will my future be?"
"Tell him his future will be as his present is," was the reply.
Not only did it rebuke this interest in the future, but it reminded him that his present activity, sincere or insincere, was creating his future state.
A visitor made a display of knowledge, rehearsing the different paths presented by various masters and quoting from Western philosophers. "One says one thing and one another," he concluded. "Which of you is right? Which way should I go?"
Sri Bhagavan remained silent, but the visitor persisted in his question, "Please tell me which way I should go."
As Sri Bhagavan rose to leave the hall he replied curtly,
"Go the way you came."
The visitor complained to the devotees that the answer was unhelpful, and they pointed out its profounder implications: that the only way is to return to one's Source, to go back whence one came. At the same time, it was just the reply he deserved.
Sundaresa Aiyar, a devotee already referred to, heard that he was to be transferred to another town and complained in his grief: "Forty years I have been with Bhagavan and now I am to be sent away. What shall I do away from Bhagavan?"
"How long have you been with Bhagavan?" he was asked. "Forty years."
Then, turning to the devotees, Sri Bhagavan said, "Here is someone who has been listening to my teaching for forty years and now says he is going somewhere away from Bhagavan!" Thus did he draw attention to his universal presence. Nevertheless, the transfer was cancelled.
Year after year the little hall remained the centre of the devotees and the focus of all those the world over who could not be physically present. To a superficial observer it might seem that little was happening, but really the activity was tremendous.
Through the years the routine of life changed a little; also more routine, more restrictions, grew up with the gradual weakening of Bhagavan's physical form. Until the frailty of age set in there were no set hours for approaching him. He was accessible at all times, day and night. Even when he slept he would not have the hall doors closed lest any who needed him might be shut out. Often he himself would talk to a group of devotees far into the night. Some of them, like Sundaresa Aiyar, were householders with work to do next day, and they found that after a night spent thus with Sri Bhagavan they felt no fatigue next day from loss of sleep.
In the actual round of daily life at the Ashram there was orderliness and punctuality because this was a part of that acceptance of the conditions of life which Sri Bhagavan exemplified and enjoined. So also, everything was clean and tidy and in its right place.
There was a time when he used to rise very often at about three or four in the morning and spend an hour or two peeling and cutting up vegetables or making leaf-plates (before banana leaves began to be grown at the Ashram and used for eating on). In this, as in everything, devotees would gather round and help, for the pleasure of being near him. Sometimes he would take a hand with the actual cooking. He gave instructions that the vegetable peelings were not to be thrown away but given to the
cattle. Nothing was to be wasted. One day he found that, despite his instructions, they had been thrown away, and he never joined in the kitchen work again.
Already in 1926 he gave up making giri pradakshina (circuit of the Hill). The crowds were becoming so large as to be unmanageable; none were willing to remain in the Ashram when he went, but all wished to accompany him. Moreover, visitors might come for darshan -- for his Presence -- while he was away and return disappointed at not finding him there. On more than one occasion he indicated that giving darshan was, so to speak, his task in life and that he must be accessible to all who came. He mentioned this as one of the reasons for remaining at the foot of the Hill instead of returning to Skandashram, which is less easily accessible. Not only did he give up making pradakshina , but he never absented himself from the Ashram for any reason at all, except for a short walk morning and evening. Even his giving up work in the kitchen was probably due largely to the need to be accessible to all the devotees, since only a few could join him in such work. When he was urged to make a tour of the holy places of India one of the reasons he gave for refusing was that devotees might come to the Ashram and not find him there. And during his last sickness he insisted to the very end that all who came should have darshan .
Volumes could be filled with the experiences of devotees during these years and the instructions and expositions they received. However, it is not the purpose of this book to give an exhaustive account, but rather a general picture of the life and teaching of Sri Bhagavan.