SHORTLY AFTER Sri Bhagavan's mother returned from her unsuccessful attempt to win him back to her in 1900, she
lost her eldest son. Two years later the youngest son, Nagasundaram, still only a lad of seventeen, went to Tiruvannamalai for the first time to see his Swami brother. So overcome was he that he embraced him and wept aloud; Sri Bhagavan sat silent, unmoved. The mother came once for a brief visit on her return from a pilgrimage to Benares. In 1914 she went on a pilgrimage to Venkataramanaswami Shrine at Tirupati and again stayed at Tiruvannamalai on her way back. This time she fell ill there and suffered severely for several weeks with symptoms of typhoid. Sri Bhagavan tended her with great solicitude. The verses he composed during her sickness are the only instance known of any prayer of his to influence the course of events.
Oh Lord! Hill of my refuge, who curest the ills of recurrent births, it is for Thee to cure my mother's fever.
Oh God who slayest death! Reveal Thy feet in the
Heart-Lotus of her who bore me to take refuge at Thy Lotus- Feet, and shield her from death. What is death if scrutinised?
Arunachala, Thou blazing fire of Knowledge! Enfold my mother in Thy Light and make her one with Thee. What need then for cremation?
Arunachala, Dispeller of illusion! Why dost Thou delay to dispel my mother's delirium? Is there any but Thee to watch as a Mother over one who has sought refuge in Thee and to rescue from the tyranny of karma?
Ostensibly a prayer for the mother to be saved from her fever, this was in reality a prayer to save her also from the vaster fever of illusion and gather her back into Oneness with the Self in Liberation from the delirium of life.
Needless to say, Alagammal recovered. She returned to
Manamadura, but after this prayer circumstances conspired to draw her back from the life of the world to that of the Ashram.
The family house at Tiruchuzhi had been sold to meet debts and pay necessary expenses. Her brother-in-law, Nelliappier, had died, leaving the family in none too easy circumstances. In 1915 the wife of her youngest son, Nagasundaram, died, leaving a young son who was adopted by his aunt Alamelu, now married. Alagammal began to feel that the only place left for her in her old age was with her Swami son. Early in 1916 she went to Tiruvannamalai.
At first she stayed for a few days with Echammal. Some of the devotees were against her staying with Sri Bhagavan, fearing that he might leave his abode in silent protest, as he had left home in 1896. However, there was a great difference, for now it was she who had renounced home, not he who was detained there. The majesty of Sri Bhagavan was so awe-inspiring that,
despite his gracious manner, when a question like this arose as to what he would wish none presumed to ask him directly. Even if any did he might sit unmoved, not replying, for he had no wishes. The wish for the mother's recovery expressed in his verses is something quite exceptional.
Soon after his mother came to stay with him, Sri Bhagavan moved from Virupaksha to Skandashram, a little higher up the hill and directly above Virupaksha. This is a much more spacious cave and was constructed for him to occupy. Finding a damp patch of rock there he rightly guessed that there must be a concealed spring. This was released by digging and yielded a perennial flow of water, enough for all Ashram needs, even for a small garden that was made in front of the Cave. The mother began to prepare meals, and so began a new epoch in Ashram life.
Wishing to draw her younger son also to the Ashram,
Alagammal sent a devotee to summon him there. He gave up the job he had at Tiruvengadu and went to live at Tiruvannamalai. At first he stayed in town, taking food at the house of some friend or other and daily visiting the Ashram. Before long he took the vow of renunciation and donned the ochre robe under the name of Niranjanananda Swami, although he was more often known familiarly as `Chinnaswami', the `Little Swami', through being the brother of the Swami. For a while he still went daily to beg his food in town, but then it seemed incongruous to the devotees that the Swami's own brother should go and beg when there was food for all at the Ashram and he was prevailed upon so settle there.
It was almost as though Sri Bhagavan had reverted to family life, the family having extended to embrace all his devotees; and indeed, he did sometimes refer to them as the family. It was the apparent incongruity of this that at first deterred both his mother and his brother from coming to live with him. Seshadri Swami once referred to it in his droll manner. A visitor who had stopped to see him wanted to continue up the hill to see Ramanaswami
and: "Yes," he said, "go and see. There is a householder up there. You will be given sugar cakes (laddus) there."
The point of Seshadri Swami's joke is that it has been usual to consider the state of a householder lower than that of a sadhu, since a sadhu can devote himself entirely to the quest, whereas a householder has worldly preoccupations to attend to. The very act of renouncing home and property is looked upon as a great step forward. Therefore many a devotee asked Sri Bhagavan whether he should make the renunciation. Sri Bhagavan always discouraged it. In the case given below he explained that renunciation is not a withdrawal but a widening of love.
Devotee: I am inclined to give up my job and remain always
with Sri Bhagavan.
Bhagavan: Bhagavan is always with you, in you. The Self in you
is Bhagavan. It is that you should realize.
D: But I feel the urge to give up all attachments and renounce
the world as a sannyasin.
B: Renunciation does not mean outward divestment of clothes
and so on or abandonment of home. True renunciation is the renunciation of desires, passions and attachments.
D: But single-minded devotion to God may not be possible
unless one leaves the world.
B: No; one who truly renounces actually merges in the world and
expands his love to embrace the whole world. It would be more correct to describe the attitude of the devotee as universal love than as abandoning home to don the ochre robe.
D: At home the bonds of affection are too strong.
B: He who renounces when he is not yet ripe for it only creates
D: Is not renunciation the supreme means of breaking attachments?
B: It may be so for one whose mind is already free from
entanglements. But you have not grasped the deeper
import of renunciation: great souls who have abandoned the life of the world have done so not out of aversion to family life but because of their large-hearted and all- embracing love for all mankind and all creatures.
D: The family ties will have to go some time so why shouldn't I
take the initiative and break them now so that my love can be equal to all?
B: When you really feel that equal love for all, when your heart has
so expanded as to embrace the whole of creation, you will certainly not feel like giving up this or that; you will simply drop off from secular life as a ripe fruit does from the branch of a tree. You will feel that the whole world is your home.
It is no wonder that such questions came frequently and that many were surprised at the answers they got, because Sri Bhagavan's attitude was contrary to the traditionally accepted point of view. Although the spiritual truths handed down through the ages never vary, the Masters do adapt the modes of training leading to realization of Truth to suit the changed conditions of the age. In the modern world there are many for whom renunciation or even full observance of orthodoxy is impossible. There are devotees who are businessmen, office workers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bound in one way or another to the life and manners of a modern city, and yet are seeking Liberation.
The explanation that Sri Bhagavan most frequently gave was that true renunciation is in the mind and is neither achieved by physical renunciation nor impeded by the lack of it.
"Why do you think that you are a householder? Similar thoughts that you are a sannyasin will haunt you even if you go out as one. Whether you continue in the household or renounce it and go to the jungle, it is your mind that haunts you. The ego is the source of thought. It creates the body and the world and it makes you think you are a householder. If you renounce you will only substitute the thought of renunciation for that of household and the environment of the jungle for that of the home. But the mental obstacles are always there for you. They even increase greatly in the new surroundings. It is no help to change the environment. The one obstacle is the mind and it must be overcome whether in the home or the jungle. If you can do it in the jungle why not in the home? Therefore why change the environment? Your efforts can be made even now, whatever be the environment."
He also explained that it is not the work done that is an obstacle to sadhana but only the attitude of mind in which it is done, and that it is possible to continue one's normal avocation, only without attachment. "The feeling `I work' is the obstacle," he said in Maharshi's Gospel; "ask yourself who works. Remember who you are. Then the work will not bind you. It will go on automatically." In Day by Day with Bhagavan by Devaraja Mudaliar a fuller explanation is recorded.
"It is possible to perform all the activities of life with detachment and regard only the Self as real. It is wrong to suppose that if one is fixed in the Self one's duties in life will not be properly performed. It is like an actor. He dresses and acts and even feels the part he is playing, but he knows really that he is not that character but someone else in real life. In the same way, why should the body- consciousness or the feeling `I-am-the-body' disturb you once you know for certain that you are not the body but the Self? Nothing that the body does should shake you from abidance in the Self. Such abidance will never interfere with the proper and effective discharge of whatever duties the body has, any more than the actor's being aware of his real status in life interferes with his acting a part on the stage."
Just as meditation or remembrance, whichever one calls it, does not impair the work done, so also work done does not impair meditation. Sri Bhagavan explained this clearly in a conversation with Paul Brunton.
B: The life of action need not be renounced. If you meditate for
an hour or two every day you can then carry on with your duties. If you meditate in the right manner, then the current of mind induced will continue to flow even in the midst of your work. It is as though there were two ways of expressing the same idea; the same line which you take in meditation will be expressed in your activities.
PB: What will be the result of doing that?
B: As you go on you will find that your attitude towards people,
events and objects will gradually change. Your actions will tend to follow your meditation of their own accord.
A man should surrender the personal selfishness which binds him to this world. Giving up the false self is the true renunciation.
PB: How is it possible to become selfless while leading a life of
B: There is no conflict between work and wisdom.
PB: Do you mean that one can continue all the old activities, in
one's profession, for instance, and at the same time get Enlightenment?
B: Why not? But in that case one will not think that it is the old
personality which is doing the work because one's consciousness will gradually become transformed until it enters in That which is beyond the little self.
Many were puzzled at first by the injunction to work with detachment and wondered whether their work really could be carried on efficiently in such a way. And yet they had before them the example of Sri Bhagavan himself, for whatever he did was
meticulously accurate, whether correcting proofs or binding a book, whether preparing food or cutting and polishing a coconut- shell spoon. And in fact, even before the I-am-the-doer illusion has been dissipated, an aloof attitude to work does not impair but enhance efficiency, so long as it is combined with conscientiousness, for it does not imply indifference to the quality of the work done but only non-intrusion of ego into it; and it is the intrusion of ego that causes both friction and inefficiency. If all people were to perform their work simply because it is their work, without vanity or self-interest, exploitation would cease, effort would be rightly directed, co-ordination would replace rivalry, and most of the world's problems would be solved. That the efficiency of the work done would not suffer is apparent if one remembers that the ages of faith in every religion have produced the most exquisite art, whether in Gothic, cathedral or in mosque, whether Hindu sculpture or Taoist painting, by artists who regarded themselves as instruments and preferred to remain anonymous. Examples can be drawn from other professions also. A doctor works more efficiently when he is unemotional and indeed, for this reason, often prefers not to treat his own family. A financier works more coolly and efficiently where his own interests are not at stake. Even in games, fortune favours one who is unconcerned.
The injunction to continue home life sometimes led to the objection that Sri Bhagavan himself had left his home. To this he would answer curtly that every man acts according to his prarabdha (destiny). However, it does call for consideration that the full outer normality and participation in the daily routine of life which Sri Bhagavan exemplified so perfectly in later years and which he enjoined upon his followers was not possible for himself immediately after the Awakening at his uncle's house at Madura. The answer is that what had become possible for Sri Bhagavan he, by his Grace, makes possible for those who follow him.
To return to the mother: it was a severe training that she received. Often enough Sri Bhagavan would ignore her, not answering when she spoke, although he took notice of others. If she complained he would say, "All women are my mothers, not you only." One is reminded of Christ's saying when he was told that his mother and brothers were standing at the edge of the crowd, waiting to speak to him, "Whoever does the will of my Father Who is in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." At first Sri Bhagavan's mother would often weep with vexation but gradually understanding developed in her. The feeling of superiority in being the mother of the Swami fell away, the sense of ego was weakened and she devoted herself to the service of the devotees.
Even now, he would still make fun of her orthodox scruples.
If her sari happened to touch a non-Brahmin he would exclaim in mock consternation: "Look! Purity is gone! Religion is gone!" The Ashram food was strictly vegetarian, but Alagammal, like some very devout Brahmins, went still further and considered some vegetables also unsattvic1 (impure), and Sri Bhagavan would say mockingly: "Mind that onion! It is a great obstacle to Moksha (Deliverance)!"
It should be said here that Sri Bhagavan did not disapprove of orthodoxy in general. In this case there was excessive attachment to the forms of orthodoxy and that was what he attacked. In general he laid stress on the importance of sattvic (pure) food. He did not often give any injunctions at all concerning outer activity; his usual method was to sow the spiritual seed in the heart and leave it to shape the outer life as it grew. The injunctions came from within. One Western devotee was an out-and-out meat-eater when he arrived, looking upon meat as the real substance of a meal as well as the most tasty
part, and, with no word spoken on the subject, the time came when he felt an aversion to the very idea of eating meat.
It should be explained in parenthesis, for non-Hindu readers, that the practice of vegetarianism is not only out of disinclination to take life or eat flesh, though that is one reason for it; it is also because unsattvic food (which includes some kinds of vegetables as well as meat) tends to increase animal passions and impede spiritual effort.
There were other ways also in which the mother was made to realize that he who had been born her son was a Divine Incarnation. Once as she sat before him he disappeared and she saw instead a lingam (column) of pure light. Thinking this to mean that he had discarded his human form, she burst into tears, but soon the lingam vanished and he reappeared as before. On another occasion she saw him garlanded and surrounded with serpents like the conventional representations of Siva. She cried to him: "Send them away! I am frightened of them!"
After this she begged him to appear to her henceforth only in his human form. The purpose of the visions had been served; she had realized that the form she knew and loved as her son was as illusory as any other he might assume.
In 1920 the health of the mother began to fail. She was able to work less in the service of the Ashram and was obliged to rest more. During her illness Sri Bhagavan attended on her constantly, often sitting up at night with her. In silence and meditation her understanding matured.
The end came in 1922 on the festival of Bahula Navami, which fell that year on May 19th. Sri Bhagavan and a few others waited on her the whole day without eating. About sunset a meal was prepared and Sri Bhagavan asked the others to go and eat, but he himself did not. In the evening a group of devotees sat chanting the Vedas beside her while others invoked the name of Ram. For more than two hours she lay there, her chest heaving
and her breath coming in loud gasps, and all this while Sri Bhagavan sat beside her, his right hand on her heart and his left on her head. This time there was no question of prolonging life but only of quieting the mind so that death could be Mahasamadhi , absorption in the Self.
At eight o'clock in the evening she was finally released from the body. Sri Bhagavan immediately rose, quite cheerful. "Now we can eat," he said; "come along, there is no pollution."
There was deep meaning in this. A Hindu death entails ritualistic pollution calling for purificatory rites, but this had not been a death but a reabsorption. There was no disembodied soul but perfect Union with the Self and therefore no purificatory rites were needed. Some days later Sri Bhagavan confirmed this: when someone referred to the passing away of the mother he corrected him curtly, "She did not pass away, she was absorbed."
Describing the process afterwards, he said: "Innate tendencies and the subtle memory of past experiences leading to future possibilities became very active. Scene after scene rolled before her in the subtle consciousness, the outer senses having already gone. The soul was passing through a series of experiences, thus avoiding the need for rebirth and making possible Union with the Spirit. The soul was at last disrobed of the subtle sheaths before it reached the final Destination, the Supreme Peace of Liberation from which there is no return to ignorance."
Potent as was the aid given by Sri Bhagavan, it was the saintliness of Alagammal, her previous renunciation of pride and attachment, that enabled her to benefit by it. He said later: "Yes, in her case it was a success; on a previous occasion I did the same for Palaniswami when the end was approaching, but it was a failure. He opened his eyes and passed away." He added, however, that it was not a complete failure in the case of Palaniswami, for although the ego was not reabsorbed in the Self, the manner of its going was such as to indicate a good rebirth.
Often when devotees suffered bereavement Sri Bhagavan reminded them that it is only the body that dies and only the I-am-the-body illusion that makes death seem a tragedy. Now, at the time of his own bereavement, he showed no grief whatever. The whole night he and the devotees sat up singing devotional songs. This indifference to his mother's physical death is the real commentary on his prayer at the time of her previous sickness.
The question arose of the disposal of the body. There was the testimony of Bhagavan himself that she had been absorbed into the Self and not remained to be reborn to the illusion of ego, but some doubt was felt whether the body of a woman Saint should be given burial instead of being cremated. Then it was recalled that in 1917 this very point had formed part of a series of questions put to Sri Bhagavan by Ganapati Sastri and his party and that he had answered affirmatively. "Since Jnana (Knowledge) and Mukti (Deliverance) do not differ with the difference of sex, the body of a woman Saint also need not be burnt. Her body also is the abode of God."
In the case of her leaving the Ashram as in that of her joining it, none presumed to ask Sri Bhagavan himself for a decision, nor did he pronounce one. It seems not to have occurred to them that the answer had been given in his prayer of 1914: "Enfold my Mother in Thy Light and make her One with Thee! What need then for cremation?"
Sri Bhagavan stood silently looking on without participating. The body of the mother was interred at the foot of the hill at the southern point, between the Palitirtham Tank and the Dakshinamurti Mantapam (shrine). Relatives and friends arrived for the ceremony and large crowds came from the town. Sacred ashes, camphor, incense, were thrown into the pit around the body before it was filled up. A stone tomb was constructed and on it was installed a sacred lingam brought from Benares.
Later a temple was raised on the spot, finally completed in 1949 and known as Matrubhuteswara Temple, the Temple of God Manifested as the Mother.
As the coming of the mother had marked an epoch in
Ashram life, so also did her departure. Instead of being checked, the development increased. There were devotees who felt that, as Shakti or Creative Energy, her presence was more potent now than before. On one occasion Sri Bhagavan said: "Where has she gone? She is here."
Niranjanananda Swami took up his residence at the foot of the hill near the samadhi in a thatched building that was raised there. Sri Bhagavan remained at Skandashram but almost every day he would come down the hillside to the samadhi , about half an hour's walk away. Then one day, about six months later, he went out for a walk and, as he was walking, felt a powerful impulse to go down to the samadhi and remain there. When he did not return the devotees followed him there and thus was founded Sri Ramanashram. "It was not of my own volition that I moved from Skandashram," he said later, "something brought me here and I obeyed. It was not my decision but the Divine Will."