Sunday 3 June 2007

3. THE JOURNEY

Arunachala as seen from the railway bridge mentioned by Bhagavan, where the Big Temple appears in line with the Mountain Peak

VENKATARAMAN'S changed mode of life caused friction.

Schoolwork was more neglected than ever and, even though it was not now for games but for prayer and meditation, his uncle and elder brother became increasingly critical of what seemed to them an unpractical attitude. From their point of view, Venkataraman was simply the adolescent son of a middle class family who should pull his weight and equip himself to earn money and help the others.

The crisis came on August 29th, some two months after the Awakening. Venkataraman had been given an exercise in Bain's English Grammar to copy out three times for not learning it. It was the forenoon and he was sitting upstairs in the same

room with his elder brother. He had copied it out twice and was about to do so for the third time when the futility of it struck him so forcibly that he pushed the papers away and, sitting cross- legged, abandoned himself to meditation.1

Annoyed at the sight, Nagaswami remarked caustically,

"What use is all this to such a one?" The meaning was obvious: that one who wished to live like a sadhu had no right to enjoy the amenities of home life. Venkataraman recognised the truth of the remark and, with that ruthless acceptance of truth (or justice, which is applied truth) that characterised him, he rose to his feet to leave the house there and then and go forth, renouncing everything. For him that meant Tiruvannamalai and the holy hill, Arunachala.

However, he knew that it was necessary to use guile, because authority is very strong in a Hindu household and his uncle and brother would not let him go if they knew. So he said he had to go back to school to attend a special class on electricity.

Unconsciously providing him with funds for the journey, his brother said, "Then take five rupees from the box downstairs and pay my college fees on the way."

It was no spiritual blindness in Venkataraman's family that prevented them from recognising his attainment. Nobody did. The glory, the power, the divinity of his state was still concealed. A school friend, Ranga Aiyar, visiting him some years later at Tiruvannamalai, was so struck with awe that he fell prostrate at

his feet, but now he also saw only the Venkataraman he knew. He asked later why this was and Sri Bhagavan replied merely that none of them perceived the change.

1 The word `meditation' may be misleading as this normally implies thought and reflection. Its use by Sri Bhagavan has already been remarked upon. It may be added here that he used it for samadhi [?], for which there is no exact English equivalent but which means rather thought-free contemplation or immersion in the Spirit. He also used it to mean the effort to attain samadhi [?] by Self-enquiry, which is not so much thought as the shutting off of thought.

Ranga Aiyar also asked, "Why did you not tell at least me that you were leaving home?"

And he replied: "How could I? I myself did not know." Venkataraman's aunt was downstairs. She gave him the five rupees and served him a meal, which he ate hastily. There was an atlas there and he opened it and found that the nearest station it gave to Tiruvannamalai was at Tindivanam. Actually, a branch line had already been constructed to Tiruvannamalai, but the atlas was an old one and did not show it. Estimating that three rupees would be enough for the journey, he took only so much. He wrote a letter to his brother to allay anxiety and discourage pursuit and left the remaining two rupees with it. The letter ran:

"I have set out in quest of my Father in accordance with his command. It is on a virtuous enterprise that this has embarked, therefore let none grieve over this act and let no money be spent in search of this. Your college fees have not been paid. Two rupees are enclosed herewith."

This whole incident illustrates Sri Bhagavan's saying that his soul, loosened from its anchorage to the body, was still seeking permanent anchorage in the Self with which he had realized his Oneness. The subterfuge about the electricity class, harmless though it was, would not have been possible later. Neither would the idea of a quest, for he who has found does not seek. When devotees fell at his feet he was One with the Father and no longer in search of the Father. The letter itself illustrates the transition from the love and devotion of duality to the blissful serenity of Oneness. It begins with the duality of `I' and `my Father' and the statement of a command and a quest; but then in the second sentence it no longer refers to its writer as `I' but as `this'. And at the end when the time came to sign, he realized that there was no ego and therefore no name to sign and ended with a dash in place of a signature. Never again did he write a letter and never again did he sign a name, though he twice wrote what his name had been. Once also, years later, a Chinese visitor to the Ashram was given a copy of Sri Bhagavan's book Who Am I? and, in the courteous but persistent way of the Chinese, pressed Sri Bhagavan to sign it. Sri Bhagavan finally took it and wrote in it the Sanskrit symbol for OM, the sacred monosyllable representing the Primordial Sound underlying all creation.

Venkataraman took three rupees and left the remaining two. It is significant that he took no more than was necessary for the journey to Tiruvannamalai.

It was about noon when he left home. The station was half a mile away and he walked fast because the train was due to leave at twelve. However, late though he was, the train had not yet arrived when he reached the station. There was a table of fares and he looked up the third-class fare to Tindivanam and found it to be two rupees and thirteen annas. He bought a ticket, leaving himself three annas change. Had he looked a few lines lower down he would have seen the name Tiruvannamalai and that the fare to it was exactly three rupees. The events of the journey are symbolical of the arduous journey an aspirant (sadhaka [?]) makes to his goal: first there was the favour of Providence in granting the money and allowing the train to be caught, although he started out late; then the provision made was exactly what was needed to reach the destination but the heedlessness of the traveller lengthened the journey and caused hardships and adventures on the way.

Venkataraman sat silent among the passengers, lost in the exultation of his quest. Several stations passed thus. A white- bearded Maulvi [1] who had been enlarging on the lives and teachings of the Saints turned to him:

"And where are you going, Swami?" "To Tiruvannamalai." "So am I," replied the Maulvi. "What! To Tiruvannamalai?" "Not exactly but to the next station." "What is the next station?" "Tirukoilur." Then, suspecting his mistake, Venkataraman exclaimed in surprise: "What! You mean the train goes to Tiruvannamalai?"

"A strange passenger, you!" rejoined the Maulvi. "And where did you buy a ticket to?"

"To Tindivanam." "Oh dear! There is no need to go so far at all. We get out at Villupuram Junction and change there for Tiruvannamalai and Tirukoilur."

Providence having given him the needed information, Venkataraman sank once more into the bliss of samadhi [?] (absorption). By sunset the train had reached Trichinopoly (now called Tiruchirapalli) and he began to feel hungry, so he spent half an anna on two country pears, that is the huge, woody variety that grow in the hills of South India. To his surprise his appetite was sated almost at the first bite though up till then he had always eaten heartily. He continued in a blissful state of waking sleep until the train reached Villupuram at three o'clock in the morning.

He remained at the station till daybreak and then wandered out into the town to look for the road to Tiruvannamalai, deciding to walk the rest of the way. However, the name was not to be found on any signpost and he did not like to ask. Feeling tired and hungry after walking about, he entered a hotel and asked for food. The hotel-keeper told him the meal would be ready only at noon so he sat down to wait and immediately lapsed into meditation. The meal came and, after eating it, he proffered two annas in payment, but the hotel-keeper must have been struck by this fine-looking Brahmin youth with long hair and gold earrings sitting there like a sadhu. He asked how much money Venkataraman had and, on hearing that he had only two and a half annas all told, refused to accept payment. He also explained that Mambalapattu, a name that Venkataraman had seen on a signpost, was on the way to Tiruvannamalai. Venkataraman thereupon returned to the station and bought a ticket to Mambalapattu, which was as far as his remaining annas would take him.

1 Muslim pandit or theologian.

He reached Mambalapattu in the afternoon and from there set out to walk. By nightfall he had gone ten miles. Before him was the temple of Arayaninallur built on a large rock. The long walk, most of it in the heat of the day, had tired him and he sat down by the temple to rest. Shortly after, someone came along and opened it for the temple priest and others to make puja. Venkataraman entered and sat down in the pillared hall, the only part that was not yet quite dark. He immediately beheld a brilliant light pervading the whole temple. Thinking it must be an emanation from the image of the God in the inner sanctuary, he went to look but found that it was not. Nor was it any physical light. It disappeared and he sat down again in meditation.

He was soon disturbed by the cook calling out that it was time to lock up the temple as the puja was finished. Thereupon he approached the priest and asked if they had anything for him to eat but was told there was nothing. He then asked to be allowed to stay there till morning but that was also refused.

The pujaris (worshippers) said they were going to Kilur, about three-quarters of a mile away, to perform puja at the temple there as well and that after that he might get something to eat, so he accompanied them. As soon as they entered the temple he was again plunged in the blissful absorption called samadhi [?]. It was nine o'clock by the time the puja was finished and they sat down to supper. Again Venkataraman asked. It seemed at first that there would be nothing for him, but the temple drummer had been impressed by his appearance and devout manner and gave him his share. He wanted water to drink with it and, holding his leaf-plate with rice, was shown the way to the house of a sastri (pandit) nearby who would give him water. While standing in front of the house, waiting for it, he stumbled on a few paces and then collapsed in sleep or faint. A few minutes later he came round to find a small crowd looking on curiously. He drank the water, gathered up and ate some of the rice he had spilled, and then lay down on the ground and slept.

Next morning, Monday, August 31st, was Gokulashtami, the birth anniversary of Sri Krishna and one of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar. Tiruvannamalai was still twenty miles distant. Venkataraman walked about for some time looking for the road to it and again began to feel tired and hungry. Like most Brahmins at a time when ancient customs still held more sway than they do today, he wore gold earrings, and in his case they were set with rubies. He took them off in order to raise money on them and finish the journey by train, but the question was, where and with whom? He stopped at random at a house which turned out to belong to one Muthukrishna Bhagavatar and asked for food. The housewife must have been deeply impressed by the appearance at her door of a Brahmin youth of beautiful countenance and shining eyes on the day of Krishna's birth; she gave him a large

cold meal and although, as in the train two days ago, his appetite disappeared after the first mouthful, she stood over him in true motherly fashion and made him finish it.

1 A name for Siva.

There remained the question of the earrings. They must be worth some twenty rupees but he only wanted a loan of four on them to cover any more expenses he might have on his way. To avoid arousing suspicion he gave the pretext that he was on a pilgrimage and his luggage had got lost, leaving him destitute. Muthukrishna Bhagavatar examined the earrings and, judging them to be genuine, advanced the four rupees. However, he insisted on taking the youth's address and giving his own so that they could be redeemed at any time. The good couple kept him with them till noon and then gave him lunch and packed up for him a parcel of sweets that had been prepared for puja to Sri Krishna but not yet offered.

As soon as he left the house he tore up the address, having no intention of ever redeeming the earrings. Finding that there was no train to Tiruvannamalai till next morning, he slept the night at the station. No man can end his journey till the allotted time. It was the morning of September 1st, 1896, three days after leaving home, when he arrived at Tiruvannamalai station.

With quick steps, his heart throbbing with joy, he hastened straight to the great Temple. In mute sign of welcome, the gates of the three high compound walls and all the doors, even that of the inner shrine, stood open. There was no one else inside, so he entered the inner shrine alone and stood overcome before his Father Arunachaleswar.1 There, in the bliss of Union, was the quest achieved and the journey ended.

1 Iswara manifested as Arunachala.


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