Ramana Maharshi Ashram – Who am I?
After the drama and craziness of Varanasi, it worked perfectly that the next place on my “bucket list, was Ramanashram in a little town called Tiruvanamalai in Southern India. Say “Tiru – van- ama-lye ” and you got it!
Sri Ramana Maharshi is one of India’s greatest and most revered latter day Saints. He was born in 1879 and died, or “left his body” as the spiritually aware say, in 1950. He first came to my attention some time ago when I read a fantastic book written in 1932 called “A Search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton.
Brunton was an English journalist who was, to put it mildly, sceptical of the stories and claims of the gurus, sages and saints of India that they possessed an ancient wisdom and the secrets of the universe and in some cases could perform miracles or amazing feats such as stopping the breath and even the heart for prolonged periods. And indeed he did meet men who could do just that and Mr Brunton being a journalist wanted proof so he took medical doctors with him as witnesses. He also met some charlatans and fakes who performed “tricks” for fame or fortune but eventually his searching led him to Arunachala and to Ramana Maharshi.
His account of that meeting and stay at the ashram and how it changed his life forever is fascinating and moving. One of my favourite books ever! After that Ramana began sort of popping into my life or consciousness, particularly last year in Kerala so I was very excited and curious to be there.
We had applied to stay in the ashram some months ago. It is entirely free and we were lucky enough to be granted 3 nights.
On our arrival we were directed to the office, to wait quietly, barefoot, on a row of plastic chairs where a very distinguished looking, stern man, with the most powerful presence I have ever felt filled in forms and directed us to our accommodation
I was expecting basic and my expectations were amply rewarded!
The room contained a narrow bed as hard as a breeze block with two large checked tea towels for sheets and a thin brick-hard pillow (my pink feather pillow is earning its inclusion on this trip!) There was also a small table, a heavy wooden chair and a framed picture of Ramana dominating the room. The bathroom had a toilet and sink and the shower was a waist high tap, a bucket and a jug. No towels, no loo paper or soap.
We had arrived late after our long journey so dropped our stuff and went directly to the dining hall for dinner. Oh my! Here was a surprise. Three times a day an orderly queue forms and hands are washed in the long stone trough outside the building.
We file in and take our place in neat rows sitting cross legged on the concrete floor in front of a large palm leaf which is our plate, and a tin water beaker. There is very little conversation. Then from the kitchen come huge shiny metal buckets and a ladle full of rice is plopped onto your leaf, followed by a spoonful of vegetable curry and a little blob of spicy pickles. I watched with interest as the Indian devotees stirred and patted and formed neat little balls of food with just their right hand and with great dexterity flicked it into their mouth. I managed the ball forming part which wasn’t easy considering the food was piping hot, but the flicking is an art learned in childhood and I discovered that its a long way from floor to mouth without a spoon or napkin!
There was of course, no choice except eat it or don’t so I surprised myself by eating curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As much as I love India I am not a curry fan but when in Rome (or Tiruvannamalai)…..besides, meditating is hungry work!
And so began a sort of love affair with Ramana and his ashram. There is very little to actually do and yet the days and evenings were full. We walked through the grounds, dappled in sunlight for our early breakfast, monkeys played on the paths and there were lots of beautiful peacocks . One morning very early I saw a rare, pure white peacock perched on top of the Samahdi of Ramana’s mother. Each morning there was a puja, these are chanted prayers called the Vedas, various rituals and offerings of milk, water, fire and flowers, which took place in the great hall where Ramana is buried. I loved it, it was soothing, mesmerising almost and I followed the ritual of circumnavigating the shrine, just walking around and around it, sometimes for up to an hour, the samadhi being symbolic of the Universe as the stupas in Bodhgaya and Sarnath are. There are a great many similarities in Buddhism and Hinduism so perhaps that’s why I felt comfortable and very happy at the ashram.
I was a little bit self conscious doing this at first but it felt natural quite quickly and it became a sort of walking meditation where thoughts were suspended and when I tired I would perch for a while in one of the windows or alcoves and just watch the procession of very interesting looking people as they walked round and round. Or I happily gazed at the handsome and very hunky young priest performing the Ancient Hindu rituals. I wasn’t bored for a moment!
It’s hard to explain what it really feels like to take part in rituals like these, so strange and exotic they seem at first. At the start one is playing follow my leader and so I watched as at the end of the puja, the devotees reverently passed their cupped hands through the flame of the fire which had been offered to the Gods during the ceremony, then they passed the smoke over their face, took a dab of ash and the vermillion powder on a finger and anointed their forehead. Soon I joined in, it was beautiful and I felt blessed. It was touching too that as people crowded round to do this, the Indian devotees would often step aside and motion to me and other westerners to go ahead of them. They are so generous and inclusive, it was lovely to feel so accepted.
In the smaller hall next door was the meditation room where Ramana lived and slept on a day bed so that he would be available 24 hours a day. It is still exactly as it was then. Now there is a large portrait of him propped where he lay.
The energy this room carries is palpable and beautiful and made meditation very easy. I loved it in there, sitting on the floor on my pink fluffy pillow! And so the day passed, peacefully and gracefully, watching, contemplating, reflecting, serene.
In the early afternoon there is the feeding of the poor in the entrance courtyard. I don’t know how many people are fed each day but Tiru, as it is called for short, is full of sadhus in their orange dhotis and there are so many desperately poor people everywhere In India. They lined up, skinny and patient and of indeterminate age, their faces lined and leathery from the burning sun, the temperature was nearing 40 degrees at this time of day, and each was given a substantial meal into their shiny little steel pail which seems to be the only possession most of them have. Some didn’t even have that so they ate from leaves. The food is paid for from donations and Ramana would not eat himself until the poor and the holy men were fed, and would often serve them himself.
Each evening back in the large hall after the afternoon prayers there was a wonderful ritual. All the men sat on one side of the great hall and the women on the other, mostly Indian women around me in their jewel coloured saris but many westerners too from everywhere in the world, and for an hour the men and women sing a sort of love song back and forth to each other. It’s a love song in praise of God and Ramana and the mountain Arunachala which name seemed to be at the end of each short verse….. Arun- achala, Arun- achala……I loved this part of the day best and longed to know the words so I could join in.
It came time to leave but the only thing we wanted to leave were our rock hard beds so we changed our plans and moved to a lovely near-by hotel called Sparza with a pool, hot shower and soft mattresses and each day we took a rickshaw down the road back to the ashram to meditate, sit in the great hall or the library and be there for the love songs.
One morning we climbed the sacred mountain to meditate in the cave where Ramana lived for the first 17 years after he was “realised” spontaneously as a boy 16 years old. This tiny dark space carried his aura somehow…… More holy than the grandest temple or cathedral. I felt that God was listening to my prayers in there.
We stopped on our way to another cave to watch a man carving little stone “mountains” engraved with OM (the first sound of the Universe) from actual rock from the mountain, and to buy water from a young mother who had the most enchanting little girl with a great big smile and a personality to match!
Every precious moment is etched into my memory and not least the friends we made. Kussem, the beautiful Indian lady who opened her heart to me and shared her wisdom and Marilyn and Sol with whom we formed a mutual admiration society, discussed weighty matters of philosophy, shared insights and laughed till we cried!
One evening we went with them to the Dreaming Tree Cafe on a rooftop, ate delicious organic food, a lovely big salad for me and chocolate brownies, heaven! We listened to live music from a hippy guy with dreadlocks who at the end of his set suddenly swung into singing Shalom Aleichem which was bizarre to say the least but huge fun. And please God forgive me for this but the song and our clap along-ing delivered to us a very whacky lady from Nooo York who drawled in a strong, ‘Funny Girl’ Brooklyn accent that she was a psychic medium and that she had “been with” Ramana , she meant in the biblical sense, in several of her previous lives! She earned herself a nickname from us which is perhaps best not repeated here!
I haven’t told you much about Ramana Maharshi himself but I know now for sure he was one of the great enlightened ones and I was deeply moved to go to his beloved mountain and to stay where he lived all his life. He taught self enquiry and to focus during meditation on the question “Who am I?” and through the insights that come from that and going ever deeper with the same question, comes the realisation that we are not the body (as I re-realised on the burning ghat of Varanasi), nor are we the collection of thoughts that we call our mind…… But I will leave you there to your own self enquiry!
And so our scheduled 3 days turned into a beautiful peaceful week. Another item ticked off my bucket list. Another dream come true. Some deep realisations, a little more wisdom, precious memories and new friends who will become old friends one day.
Arunachala… You are as magical as Mr Brunton told of in his book. I will return.