FOR SEVERAL YEARS before the body's end, at least from
1947 onwards, the health of Sri Bhagavan had caused alarm.
Rheumatism had not only crippled his legs but attacked his back and shoulders also. Even apart from that, there was an impression of great weakness, although he himself refused to take notice of it. It was felt that he needed a more nutritious diet than the Ashram food, but he would not consent to take anything extra.
He was not yet seventy but looked much more aged. Not careworn, for there was absolutely no sign of care -- he had known none. Just aged and very frail. Why was it that one who had been vigorous and robust, who had known little sickness in life and no grief or care, should have aged so much beyond his years? He that taketh upon himself the sins of the world -- he who alleviates the karma of the devotees -- it was
only by himself drinking the poison churned up that Siva could save the world from destruction. Sri Shankara wrote: "Oh Sambhu,1 Lord of life! Thou bearest also the burden of Thy devotees' temporal life."
There were many signs, always inconspicuous, how, even physically, Sri Bhagavan bore the burden. A devotee, Krishnamurthi by name, has related in a Tamil journal issued by Janaki Ammal, a lady devotee, how he went and sat in the hall one day when he had a severe pain in the index finger. He told no one, but to his surprise, he saw Sri Bhagavan hold and rub the same finger on his own hand, and the pain disappeared. Many others have known similar relief.
For Sri Bhagavan life on earth was no treasure to be economised; it was indifferent to him how long it lasted. There was once a discussion in the hall as to how long he would live. Some quoted the astrologers as saying that he would live to be eighty; others either denied the accuracy of astrology or doubted its applicability to Sri Bhagavan who had no more karma to work out. He listened to the discussion, smiling but taking no part in it.
A newcomer, puzzled by this, asked, "What does Bhagavan think about it?" He did not reply but smiled approvingly when Devaraja Mudaliar replied for him, "Bhagavan does not think about it." The whole last year of his life was an illustration of this. The devotees grieved over the suffering and dreaded the threatened death; he did not.
Early in 1949 a small nodule appeared below the elbow of his left arm. It was not considered serious, but in February the Ashram doctor cut it out. Within a month it returned, larger and more painful, and this time it was recognised as a malignant tumour and caused general alarm. Towards the end of March
doctors came from Madras and operated. The wound did not heal up properly and the tumour soon began to grow again, larger and higher up.
Henceforth there was an air of tragedy and inevitability about the march of events. The orthodox medical men let it be known that they could not cure the tumour but could only operate and that it might return again, despite radium treatment and, if it did, would eventually prove fatal. Those of other schools believed that they could cure it and that operating would only bring it back in a worse form, as in fact happened, but they were not allowed to try in time.
When the tumour returned after the March operation the doctors suggested amputating the arm, but there is a tradition that the body of a Jnani should not be mutilated. Indeed, it should not be pierced with metal and even the operation had been a breach of tradition. Sri Bhagavan had submitted to that but he refused the amputation. "There is no cause for alarm. The body itself is a disease; let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? Simple dressing of the part is enough."
His saying "there is no cause for alarm" led to the hope that he would recover, despite the words that followed and despite the medical opinion; but for him death was no cause for alarm.
He also gave rise to hope by saying, "Everything will come right in due course." But in fact it was for us to perceive the rightness of what occurred; he never doubted it.
About this time he translated into Tamil verse a stanza from the Bhagavatam (Skanda XI, ch. 13, sloka 36), "Let the body, the result of fructifying karma, remain still or move about, live or die, the Sage who has realized the Self is not aware of it, just as one in a drunken stupor is not aware of his clothing."
Some time later he expounded a verse from the Yoga
Vasishtam: "The Jnani who has found himself as formless pure
Awareness is unaffected though the body be cleft with a sword. Sugarcandy does not lose its sweetness though broken or crushed."
Did Sri Bhagavan really suffer? He said to one devotee: "They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity!" And to one of the attendants he said, "Where is pain if there is no mind?" And yet he showed normal physical reactions and normal sensitivity to heat and cold, and a devotee, S.S. Cohen, records him as having said years earlier, "If the hand of the Jnani were cut with a knife there would be pain as with anyone else but because his mind is in bliss he does not feel the pain as acutely as others do." It is not that the body of the Jnani does not suffer injury but that he does not identify himself with the body. The doctors and some of the attendants were convinced that there was pain and that, in the later stages, it was excruciating. Indeed, the doctors were amazed at Sri Bhagavan's indifference to pain, at his complete unconcern, even during an operation.
The question of his suffering, like the question of our karma, exists only from the point of view of duality; from his point of view, the point of view of Advaita, neither had any reality. It was with this meaning that he said more than once to devotees, "I am only ill if you think I am; if you think I am well I shall be well." So long as a devotee believed in the reality of his own body and its suffering, so long, for him, the body of the Master was real and suffered also.
For a week or two after the March operation a village herbalist was allowed to try his treatment, but it brought no cure: Sri Bhagavan said to another aspirant who was passed over, "I hope you don't mind when you have taken so much trouble with your medicines." It was never any thought of his own condition, only consideration for those who wished to treat him and loyalty to whatever doctor was in charge. Occasionally he protested at the amount of attention bestowed on his body.
Several times when there seemed to be an improvement he declared that he wanted no more treatment.
The tumour, diagnosed now as a sarcoma, sapped his little remaining vitality; and yet even as he weakened his face grew gentler, more gracious, more radiantly beautiful. At times his beauty was almost painful to behold.
The arm was heavy and inflamed and the tumour growing. Occasionally he would admit "there is pain" but he would never say "I have pain." In August a third operation was carried out and the wound treated with radium in the hope of destroying the affected tissues and preventing the return of the tumour. The same afternoon, a few hours after the operation, Sri Bhagavan was so gracious as to sit on the veranda of the dispensary where it had been performed, so that the devotees could file past and have darshan . One could see that he was exhausted but there was no sign of suffering in his face. I had come for the day from Madras, and as I stood before him the radiance of his smile was such that even exhaustion ceased to be visible. At noon next day he returned to the hall so as not to inconvenience other patients by occupying the dispensary.
There was also a deeper sense of inevitability, far beyond the medical: that Sri Bhagavan knew what was appropriate and sought to give us strength to endure his body's death. Indeed, this long, painful sickness came to appear as a means of preparing us for the inevitable parting which many had first felt they would not be able to endure. Kitty, who was at a boarding school in the hills, was told about it in a letter and wrote back, "I am so very sorry to hear about it, but Bhagavan knows what is best for us." Her letter was shown to him and his face was radiant with pleasure as he commended her wisdom for saying, "What is best for us", not "What is best for him".
He had immense compassion for those who grieved over the suffering and he sought to appease their grief, not the easy way by removing the suffering and postponing death for a few more years, but the fundamental way by making them realize that the body was not Bhagavan. "They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away -- where can he go, and how?"
For some weeks after the August operation there seemed to be an improvement, but in November the tumour appeared again, higher up the arm, near the shoulder. In December the fourth and last operation was carried out. The wound from this never healed. The doctors admitted now that they could do no more. The case was hopeless, and if the tumour returned again they could only administer palliatives.
Jayanthi fell on January 5th, 1950. Sorrowful crowds
gathered for this his seventieth birthday, which most now felt to be his last. He gave darshan and listened to many new songs composed in his praise. Some he read through. The temple elephant from town came and bowed down before him and touched feet with its trunk. A Rani from North India was allowed to take a motion picture of the scene. There was festivity but with an underlying sadness of apprehension.
Many felt already that it was a matter of weeks or days.
Now that the case had been pronounced hopeless Sri Bhagavan was asked to say himself what treatment should be tried. He said: "Have I ever asked for any treatment? It is you who want this and that for me, so it is for you to agree about it among yourselves. If I were asked I should always say, as I have said from the beginning, that no treatment is necessary. Let things take their course."
Only after this homeopathy was tried and then ayurveda, but it was too late.
Sri Bhagavan kept to his normal daily routine until it became physically impossible. He took his morning bath an hour before sunrise, sat up to give darshan at fixed hours, morning and evening, went through the Ashram correspondence and supervised the printing of Ashram publications, often making suggestions. After January he became too weak to sit in the hall and give darshan . A small bathroom with an ante-room had been constructed across the drive just east of the hall and towards the end he remained there. There was a narrow little veranda outside where his couch was put and right up to the end the devotees whom his sickness had drawn in their hundreds to Tiruvannamalai still had darshan . He would let nothing interrupt this so long as it was still possible. The devotees would sit morning and afternoon on the hall veranda facing him. Later, when he had grown too weak for that, they would file past the open door of his room, morning and evening. One day his condition caused alarm and the darshan was stopped, but as soon as he was able to take notice he expressed displeasure and ordered it to be resumed.
A group of devotees daily chanted prayers and devotional songs for his recovery. He was asked about their efficacy and replied, smiling, "It is certainly desirable to be engaged in good activities; let them continue."
The tumour returned just above the unhealed wound. It was up near the shoulder now and the whole system was poisoned, so that severe anaemia set in. The doctors said the pain must be terrible. He could take scarcely any nourishment. Occasionally he was heard to moan in his sleep but he gave no other sign of pain. From time to time the doctors came from Madras to see him and he was courteous and hospitable as ever. Right up to the end his first question was whether they had received food, whether they were well looked after.
His sense of humour also remained. He would joke about the tumour as though it was something that did not concern him. A woman, in her grief, beat her head against a pillar near the room and he looked surprised and then said, "Oh, I thought she was trying to break a coconut."
Speaking to the attendants and to T.N. Krishnaswami, doctor and devotee, he explained: "The body is like a banana- leaf on which all kinds of delicious food have been served. After we have eaten the food from it do we take the leaf and preserve it? Do we not throw it away now that it has served its purpose?"
On another occasion he said to the attendants: "Who is to carry this load of a body even after it needs assistance in everything? Do you expect me to carry this load that it would take four men to carry?"
And to some of the devotees: "Suppose you go to a firewood depot and buy a bundle of firewood and engage a coolie to carry it to your house. As you walk along with him he will be anxiously looking forward to his destination so that he can throw off his burden and get relief. In the same way the Jnani is anxious to throw off his mortal body." And then he corrected the explanation: "This exposition is all right as far as it goes, but strictly speaking even this is not quite accurate. The Jnani is not even anxious to shed his body; he is indifferent alike to the existence or non existence of the body, being almost unaware of it."
Once, unasked, he defined Moksha (Liberation) to one of the attendants. "Do you know what Moksha is? Getting rid of non-existent misery and attaining the Bliss which is always there, that is Moksha ."
It was hard to give up hope that even if the doctors failed he might still put aside the sickness by his own power. A devotee begged him to give but a single thought to the desirability of getting well, as this would have been enough, but he replied, almost scornfully, "Who could have such a thought!"
And to others who asked him simply to will his recovery he said, "Who is there to will this?" The `other', the individual that could oppose the course of destiny, no longer existed in him; it was the `non-existent misery' that he had got rid of.
Some of the devotees made it a plea for their own welfare.
"What is to become of us without Bhagavan? We are too weak to look after ourselves; we depend on his Grace for everything." And he replied, "You attach too much importance to the body," clearly implying that the end of his body would not interrupt the Grace and guidance.
In the same vein he said: "They say that I am dying but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here."
Mrs. Taleyarkhan, a Parsi devotee, besought him:
"Bhagavan! Give this sickness to me instead. Let me bear it!" And he replied, "And who gave it to me?"
Then who gave it to him? Was it not the poison of our karma?
A Swedish sadhu had a dream in which the afflicted arm opened and he saw there the head of a woman with grey hair dishevelled. This was interpreted to mean that it was the karma of his mother that he assumed when he gave her Moksha , but others saw the woman to signify all mankind or Maya itself.
On Thursday, April 13th, a doctor brought Sri Bhagavan a palliative to relieve the congestion in the lungs but he refused it. "It is not necessary; everything will come right within two days."
That night he bade his attendants go and sleep or meditate and leave him alone.
On Friday the doctors and attendants knew it was the last day. In the morning he again bade them go and meditate. About noon, when liquid food was brought for him, he asked the time, punctual as ever, but then added, "But henceforth time doesn't matter."
Delicately expressing recognition of their long years of service, he said to the attendants, "The English have a word `thanks' but we only say santosham (I am pleased)."
In the morning the long crowd filed past the open doorway silent with grief and apprehension, and again between four and five in the evening. The disease-racked body they saw there was shrunken, the ribs protruding, the skin blackened, it was a pitiable vestige of pain. And yet at some time during these last few days each devotee received a direct, luminous, penetrating look of recognition which he felt as a parting infusion of Grace.
After darshan that evening the devotees did not disperse to their homes. Apprehension held them there. At about sunset Sri Bhagavan told the attendants to sit him up. They knew already that every movement, every touch was painful, but he told them not to worry about that. He sat with one of the attendants supporting his head. A doctor began to give him oxygen but with a wave of his right hand he motioned him away. There were about a dozen persons in the small room, doctors and attendants.
Two of the attendants were fanning him, and the devotees outside gazed spell-bound at the moving fans through the window, a sign that there was still a living body to fan. A reporter of a large American magazine moved about restlessly, uneasy at having been impressed despite himself and determined not to write his story till he got away from Tiruvannamalai to conditions that he considered normal. With him was a French press-photographer.
Unexpectedly, a group of devotees sitting on the veranda outside the hall began singing `Arunachala-Siva' (Aksharanamanamalai). On hearing it, Sri Bhagavan's eyes opened and shone. He gave a brief smile of indescribable tenderness. From the outer edges of his eyes tears of bliss rolled down. One more deep breath, and no more. There was no struggle, no spasm, no other sign of death: only that the next breath did not come.
For a few moments people stood bewildered. The singing continued. The French press-photographer came up to me and asked at what precise minute it had happened. Resenting it as journalistic callousness, I replied brusquely that I did not know, and then I suddenly recalled Sri Bhagavan's unfailing courtesy and answered precisely that it was 8.47. He said, and I could hear now that he was excited, that he had been pacing the road outside and at that very moment an enormous star had trailed slowly across the sky. Many had seen it, even as far away as Madras, and felt what it portended. It passed to the north-east towards the peak of Arunachala.
After the first numbness there was a wild burst of grief.
The body was carried out on to the veranda in a sitting posture. Men and women crowded up to the veranda railing to see. A woman fainted. Others sobbed aloud.
The body was placed garlanded upon a couch in the hall and the devotees thronged there and sat around it. One had expected the face to be rocklike in samadhi , but found it instead so marked by pain that it gripped one's heart. Only gradually during the night did the air of mysterious composure return to it.
All that night devotees sat in the large hall and townsfolk passed through in awed silence. Processions streamed from the town and back singing `Arunachala-Siva'. Some of the devotees in the hall sang songs of praise and grief; others sat silent. What was most noticeable was not the grief but the calm beneath it, for they were men and women deprived of him whose Grace had been the very meaning of their life. Already that first night and much more during the days that followed, it became clear how vital had been his words: "I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here." The word `here' does not imply any limitation but rather that the Self is, that there is no going, no
changing, for That which is Universal. Nevertheless, as devotees felt the inner Presence of Bhagavan and as they felt the continued Divine Presence at Tiruvannamalai, they began to regard it as a promise full of love and solicitude.
During the night of vigil a decision had to be taken as to the burial. It had been thought that the body might be interred in the new hall, but many devotees opposed the idea. They felt that the hall was, in a sense, an adjunct to the temple and would make the shrine of Sri Bhagavan seem subordinate to that of the Mother, reversing the true order of things. Next day, by general agreement, a pit was dug and the body interred with divine honours in the space between the old hall and the temple. The crowd, packed tight, looked on in silent grief. No more the beloved face, no more the sound of his voice; henceforth the lingam of polished black stone, the symbol of Siva, over the samadhi was the outer sign, and inwardly his footprints in the heart.