Pathala Linga, the cellar-shrine where Bhagavan took shelter
LEAVING THE TEMPLE, Venkataraman wandered out
into the town. Someone called out to ask whether he
wanted his tuft removed.1 The question must have been inspired, for there was no outer sign that this Brahmin youth had renounced or intended to renounce the world. He immediately consented and was conducted to the Ayyankulam Tank where a number of barbers plied their trade. There he had his head completely shaved. Then, standing on the steps of the tank, he threw away his remaining money -- a little over three rupees. He never handled money again. He also threw away the packet of sweets which he was still holding. "Why give sweets to this block of a body?"
1 An orthodox caste-Hindu wears a small tuft of hair at the back of his head; removing it and shaving the head is a sign of renunciation.
He took off the sacred thread that is a sign of caste and threw it away, for he who renounces the world renounces not only home and property but caste also and all civil status.
So he returned to the temple, having completed the acts of renunciation. As he approached it he recollected that the Scriptures enjoin a bath after having one's hair cut, but he said to himself, "Why give this block of a body the luxury of a bath?" Immediately there was a short, sharp shower so that before entering the temple he had his bath.
He did not re-enter the inner shrine. There was no need.
Indeed, it was three years before he went there again. He took up his abode in the thousand-pillared hall, a raised stone platform, open on all sides, the roof supported by a forest of slender, sculptured pillars, and there sat immersed in the Bliss of Being. Day after day, day and night, he sat unmoving. He no longer needed the world; its shadow existence had no interest for him as he sat absorbed in the Real. For some weeks he continued so, scarcely moving, never speaking.
So began the second phase of his life after Self-realization.
During the first, the glory had been concealed and he had accepted the same conditions of life as previously, with the same obedience to teachers and elders; during the second he was turned inwards, completely ignoring the outer world; and this, as will be shown, merged gradually into the third, lasting for half a century, during which his radiance shone like the midday sun on all who approached him. However, these phases applied only to the outer manifestation of his state: he declared explicitly and a number of times that there was absolutely no change or development in his state of consciousness or spiritual experience.
1 A white cloth wound round the body from the waist down.
A sadhu known as Seshadri Swami, who had arrived at Tiruvannamalai a few years previously, took it on himself to look after the Brahmana Swami, as Venkataraman began to be called, so far as any looking after was needed. This was not altogether an advantage, because Seshadri Swami made the impression of being slightly deranged and thereby drew on himself the persecution of schoolboys. They now extended their attentions to his prot?g? whom they called `Little Seshadri'. They began throwing stones at him, partly out of boyish cruelty, partly because they were intrigued to see one not much older than themselves sitting like a statue and, as one of them put it later, wanted to find out whether he was real or not.
Seshadri Swami's attempts to keep them off were not very successful; they sometimes had the opposite effect. So the Brahmana Swami sought refuge in the Patala Lingam, an underground vault in the thousand-pillared hall, dark and dank, where the sun's rays never penetrate. It was seldom that any human being entered; only ants, vermin and mosquitoes flourished there. They preyed upon him until his thighs were covered with sores that ran blood and pus. To the end of his life the marks remained. The few weeks he spent there were a descent into hell, and yet, absorbed in the Bliss of Being, he was unmoved by the torment; it was unreal to him. A pious woman, Ratnammal, entered the vault to take him food and besought him to leave the place and come to her house, but he made no sign of having heard. She left a clean cloth, begging him to sit or lie on it or use it against the insect pests, but he did not touch it.
Afraid to enter the dark vault, the youthful tormentors threw stones at its entrance or broken pots that crashed and sent splinters flying. Seshadri Swami mounted guard but this only incited them the more. At noon one day a certain Venkatachala Mudali approached the thousand-pillared hall
and, indignant at seeing boys throwing stones in the temple precincts, seized a stick and drove them away. On coming back he saw Seshadri Swami emerging from the gloomy recesses of the hall. He was startled for a moment but quickly recovered and asked Seshadri Swami whether he was hurt. "No," he replied, "but go and look at the little Swami in there," and saying this he went away.
Astonished, Mudali descended the steps into the vault.
Coming from the bright daylight to the dark, he could see nothing at first; gradually, however, his eyes grew accustomed and he made out the form of the young Swami. Aghast at what he saw, he went and told a sadhu who was working in the nearby flower garden with a few disciples. They also came to look. The young Swami neither moved nor spoke and seemed oblivious of their presence, so they lifted him up bodily and carried him out. They set him down before a shrine of Lord Subramania without his showing any consciousness of what was happening.1
For about two months the Brahmana Swami stayed at the
Lord Subramania shrine. He would sit motionless in samadhi (absorption) and sometimes nourishment had to be put into his mouth as he paid no heed when it was offered him. For some weeks he did not even trouble to tie on a loincloth. He was looked after by a Mouni Swami (one who observes silence) who also lived at the shrine.
The shrine of the Goddess Uma in the temple was daily washed down with a mixture of milk, water, turmeric powder, sugar, bananas and other ingredients, and the Mouni used to take a tumbler of this strange concoction to the young Swami daily. He gulped it down, indifferent to the flavour, and it was
all the nourishment he received. After sometime the temple priest noticed this and gave orders that pure milk should be supplied to the Mouni henceforth to be given to the Brahmana Swami.
1 The Patala Lingam has been renovated in view of the sanctity it has acquired as the scene of tapas of Sri Bhagavan. It is well kept now and lit with electric light, and portraits of Sri Bhagavan have been installed.
After a few weeks the Brahmana Swami moved out to the temple garden, full of tall oleander bushes, some of them ten or twelve feet high. Here also he would sit immersed in bliss (samadhi ). He even moved about in trance, for on waking to the world he would sometimes find himself under a different bush with no recollection of how he got there. He went next to the hall of the temple vehicles on which the images are taken in procession on holy days. Here also he would sometimes wake to the world to find his body in a different place, having avoided the various obstacles on the way without injury, though unaware.
After this he sat for sometime under a tree alongside the road that runs round the temple precincts within its outer wall and is used for temple processions. He remained for sometime here and at the Mangai Pillayar shrine. Annually large crowds of pilgrims throng to Tiruvannamalai for the festival of Kartikai, falling in November or December, when a beacon is lit on the summit of Arunachala in token of Siva's appearance as a pillar of light described in Chapter Six, and this year many came to gaze on the young Swami or prostrate themselves before him. It was at this time that the first regular devotee became attached to him. Uddandi Nayinar had engaged in spiritual studies but had not found peace therefrom. Seeing the young Swami immersed in perpetual samadhi and apparently oblivious of the body, he felt that here was realization and that through him he would find peace. It made him happy to serve the Swami but there was little he could do. He kept away the crowds of sightseers and stopped the persecution by the boys. Much of his time he spent reciting Tamil works expounding the supreme doctrine of Advaita (Non- duality). His great hope was to receive upadesa , spiritual instruction,
from the Swami, but the Swami never spoke to him and he himself did not presume to speak first and intrude on his silence.
About this time, one Annamalai Tambiran passed by the young Swami's tree. He was so impressed by his serene beauty as he sat there in solitude, untouched by care and thought, that he fell on his face before him and thereafter went daily to bow down to him. He was a sadhu who used to walk through the town with a few companions, singing devotional songs. With the alms received he fed the poor and made puja at the tomb of his Adhina Guru (the founder of the line of his Gurus) outside the town.
After sometime it occurred to him that the young Swami would be less disturbed at Gurumurtam, as this shrine had come to be called, and also, as it was now the cool season, would be more sheltered. He hesitated to suggest it and talked the matter over first with Nayinar, since neither of them had ever spoken to the Swami. Finally he mustered up courage to make the suggestion. The Swami consented and in February 1897, less than half a year after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai, went with him to Gurumurtam.
There was no change in his mode of life when he arrived there. The floor of the shrine was infested with ants but the Swami seemed oblivious to their crawling over him and biting. After some time a stool was placed in one corner for him to sit on and its legs immersed in water to keep them away, but even then he leaned back against the wall and so made a bridge for them. From constant sitting there his back made a permanent imprint on the wall.
Pilgrims and sightseers began to throng to Gurumurtam and many would prostrate themselves before the Swami, some with prayers for boons and some out of pure reverence. The crowd became such that it was necessary to erect a bamboo palisade round his seat so as to prevent them at least from touching him.
At first Tambiran supplied the little food that was necessary out of that offered at the shrine of his Guru, but before long he left Tiruvannamalai. He told Nayinar that he would be back in a week but as things turned out he was away for more than a year. A few weeks later Nayinar also had to leave to go to his math (private temple or shrine) and the Swami was left without an attendant. There was no difficulty over food -- in fact there were several devotees by now who wished to supply food regularly. The more pressing need was to keep away the crowds of sightseers and visitors.
It was not long before another regular attendant came. A
Malayali sadhu named Palaniswami was devoting his life to the worship of God Vinayaka. He lived in great austerity, eating only one meal a day and that merely the food that had been offered to the God in puja, without even salt for seasoning. A friend of his, Srinivasa Iyer by name, said to him one day: "Why do you spend your life with this stone Swami? There is a young Swami in flesh and blood at Gurumurtam. He is steeped in tapas (austerity) like the young Dhruva in the Puranas. If you go and serve him and attach yourself to him your life will attain its purpose."
About the same time others also told him about the young
Swami and that he had no attendant and what a blessing it would be to serve him. Accordingly he went to Gurumurtam to see. He was stirred to the depths at the very sight of the Swami. For sometime longer he continued his worship at the Vinayaka temple out of a sense of duty, but his heart was with the living Swami and before long his devotion to him became all absorbing. He consecrated the rest of his life to his service, remaining his attendant for twenty-one years.
There was little enough that he could do. He received food offerings from the devotees but all that the Swami would accept was a single cup of food at noon each day, the remainder being
returned to the givers as prasadam (Grace in form of a gift). If he needed to go into town for any purpose -- usually to get some spiritual or devotional book from a friend -- he would lock up the shrine and on his return would find the Swami in the same position as he left him.
The Swami's body was utterly neglected. He ignored it completely. It was unwashed; his hair had grown again and was thick and matted; his finger-nails had grown long and curled over. Some took this to be a sign of great age and whispered that he had preserved his youth of body by yogic powers. Actually, his body was weakened to the limits of endurance. When he needed to go out he had barely the strength to rise. He would raise himself up a few inches and then sink back again, weak and dizzy, and would have to try several times before he could rise to his feet. On one such occasion he reached the door and was holding on to it with both hands when he perceived that Palaniswami was supporting him. Always averse to receiving help, he asked, "Why are you holding me?" and Palaniswami replied: "Swami was going to fall and I supported him to prevent him falling."
One who has attained Union with the Divine is sometimes worshipped in the same manner as a temple idol, with burning camphor, sandal-paste, flowers, libation and chanting. When Tambiran was at Gurumurtam he decided to worship the Swami in this way. The first day, the Swami was taken by surprise and he succeeded in his purpose, but the next day when Tambiran brought in his daily cup of food he saw written on the wall above the Swami with charcoal the words, in Tamil, "This is service enough for this," meaning that food was all that should be offered to this body.
It came as a surprise to his devotees that the Swami had mundane education and could read and write. One of them decided to utilise the fact to find out where he came from and
what his name had been. He was an elderly man, Venkatarama Iyer by name, head accountant at the Taluq Office in town. He used to come every morning and sit for a while in meditation in the presence of the Swami before going to his work. A vow of silence is respected and from his not speaking it was presumed that the Swami had taken such a vow, but one who does not speak occasionally writes messages, and now that he knew the Swami could write, Venkatarama Iyer was insistent. He placed before him a sheet of paper and a pencil on one of the books that Palaniswami had brought there and besought him to write his name and place of origin.
The Swami made no response to his pleading until at last he declared that he would neither eat nor go to his office until he received the information he desired. Then he wrote in English, `Venkataraman, Tiruchuzhi'. His knowing English came as a further surprise, but Venkatarama Iyer was puzzled by the name `Tiruchuzhi' in English transliteration, especially by the `zh'.
The Swami therefore took the book on which the paper had rested to see whether it was in Tamil so that he could point out the letter that is commonly transliterated as `zh', a letter midway between `r' and `l' in sound. Finding it to be the Periapuranam, the book which had had so profound an effect on him before the spiritual awakening, he looked up the passage where Tiruchuzhi is mentioned as a town honoured in song by Sundaramurti Swami and showed it to Venkatarama Iyer.
In May 1898, after a little more than a year at Gurumurtam, the Swami moved to a neighbouring mango orchard. Its owner, Venkatarama Naicker, proposed the change to Palaniswami as the orchard could be locked and would afford more privacy. The Swami and Palaniswami each occupied a watchman's shelter there, and the owner gave the gardener strict instructions that nobody was to be admitted without Palaniswami's permission.
He stayed here about six months and it was here that he began to accumulate the vast erudition he later possessed. Characteristically, it was not from any desire for learning but purely to help a devotee. Palaniswami used to bring works of spiritual philosophy to study but the only ones he had access to were in Tamil, a language of which he knew very little, so that it caused him immense labour. Seeing him struggling in this way, the Swami picked up the books, read them through and gave him a brief synopsis of their essential teaching. His prior spiritual experience enabled him to understand at a glance what was expounded and his wonderful memory retained it when read, so that he became erudite almost without effort. In the same way, he later picked up Sanskrit, Telugu and Malayalam by reading books brought to him in these languages and answering questions in them.