By David Godman
(No ISBN number)
Published by Annamalai Swami Ashram, Palakottu, Sri Ramanasramam P.O., Tiruvannamalai 606603, India
AN ABSORBING ACCOUNT of the trials and tribulations of Annamalai Swami’s life with Bhagavan. Annamalai Swami spent many years supervising building work at Ramanashram under Bhagavan's direct supervision. This is a classic Milarepa-like tale of unwavering commitment to the Guru and his words. Many previously unpublished dialogues with Bhagavan are included, and the book also contains teaching dialogues that took place between Annamalai Swami and his own devotees in the late 1980s.
For delivery outside India, you can order directly from this website. The book will be posted from India. Please expect a mailing time of 10 to 14 days. The cost of shipping was raised recently as a result of increases to airmail postal rates in India.
Shipping and handling: US$0 per copy
This book and all of David Godman’s English-language books can be purchased from the Avadhuta Foundation in Colorado. This is a quicker option for customers in the US. However, if you order from Avadhuta and have a non-US address, the airmail costs will be very high. This is the fault of the US postal service, not Avadhuta. If you live outside the US and India and want to order books by David Godman online, it will be much cheaper to order them from this site with the “Add to Cart” button above. Postal charges are more reasonable in India, but delivery can take up to a month.
The Avadhuta Foundation also sells a large number of titles from Ramanasramam. Since Ramanasramam no longer ships books from India to foreign customers, this is a good alternative for non-Indian customers.
For delivery in India, you can order from Zen Publications in Mumbai.
This is an extract from the first chapter of Living by the Words of Bhagavan. The words in roman are Annamalai Swami's. The explanations of philosophical or cultural topics that appear as paragraphs in italics are my editorial comments:
Sometime in 1928, when I was twenty-one years old, a wandering sadhu passed through the village. He gave me a copy of Upadesa Undiyar that contained a photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi. As soon as I saw that photo, I had the feeling that this was my Guru. Simultaneously, an intense desire arose within me to go and see him.
Upadesa Undiyar is a thirty-verse philosophical poem written by Ramana Maharshi in Tamil. It was first published in 1927, about a year before Annamalai Swami got to see it. Upadesa Saram is Sri Ramana’s Sanskrit rendering of the same work. Some of the English translations which appear under the title Upadesa Saram are actually translations of Upadesa Undiyar, the original Tamil work.
That night I had a dream in which I saw Ramana Maharshi walking from the lower slopes of Arunachala to the old hall. At the threshold of the old hall he washed his feet with the water that was in his water pot. I came near him, prostrated at his feet, and then went into a kind of swoon because the shock of having darshan was too much for me. As I was lying on the ground with my mouth open, Bhagavan poured water from his pot into my mouth. I remember repeating the words ‘Mahadeva, Mahadeva’ [one of the names of Siva] as the water was being poured in. Bhagavan gazed at me for a few seconds before turning to go into the hall.
The terms ‘hall’ and ‘old hall’ refer to the building in which Sri Ramana lived and taught between 1928 and the late 1940s. Bhagavan is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Lord’. Most devotees addressed Sri Ramana as ‘Bhagavan’. They would also use this title when they referred to him in the third person.
When I woke the next morning I decided that I should go immediately to Bhagavan and have his darshan. After informing my parents that I was planning to leave the village, I went to the Bhajan Math to say goodbye to all the people there. Several of them began to cry because they had a strong suspicion that I would not return. I asked for their permission to leave, received it, and left the village that evening. I never went back. Some of the devotees, realising that I had no funds to support myself, collected some money and gave it to me as a parting present.
I had decided to walk twenty-five miles to a nearby town called Ullunderpettai because I had heard that there was a train from there to Tiruvannamalai, the town where Ramana Maharshi lived. However, before I began my journey, a convoy of twelve bullock carts passed through the village on their way to Ullunderpettai. The devotees in the village talked to one of the cart drivers and arranged for me to get a ride in his cart. The journey took all night but I was much too excited to sleep. I spent the entire night sitting in the cart, thinking about Bhagavan.
In Ullunderpettai I shared my food with the cart drivers before boarding the train for Tiruvannamalai. I had originally intended to go straight there, but when one of the passengers informed me that the Sankaracharya was camping near one of the towns on the train route, I decided to see him first and get his blessings. I got down at Tirukoilur [fifteen miles south of Tiruvannamalai] and made my way to Pudupalayam, the village where the Sankaracharya was staying. I found the Sankaracharya, did namaskaram to him and told him that I had had his darshan in Vepur.
A namaskaram is either a prostration or a gesture of respect in which one puts the palms of one’s hands together with the thumbs on the breastbone. Whenever the term occurs in this book it is used in the former sense.
The Sankaracharya gazed at me for a few seconds. Then, with a smile of recognition he said, ‘Yes, I remember you’.
‘I am on my way to see Ramana Bhagavan,’ I told him. ‘Please give me your blessings.’ The Sankaracharya seemed very pleased to hear the news. ‘Very good!’ he exclaimed.
He turned to one of his attendants and asked him to give me some food. After I had finished eating, the Sankaracharya put some vibhuti on a plate and put his palm on it to bless it. He then put half a coconut and eleven silver coins on the plate and presented it to me. I took the money, the vibhuti and the coconut before returning the plate to him.
Feeling that I had now got the blessings which I had sought, I prostrated to him, left the village, and continued my journey to Tiruvannamalai. On my arrival in Tiruvannamalai I was told that there was another great saint there called Seshadri Swami and that it would be very auspicious if I could have his darshan before proceeding to Sri Ramanasramam, the ashram where Ramana Maharshi lived.
Seshadri Swami, like Ramana Maharshi, came to Arunachala in his youth and stayed there till his death. In his wanderings around the town of Tiruvannamalai he generally behaved in such an eccentric way, many people thought he was mad. However, he redeemed himself in the eyes of the local people by having an astonishing array of supernatural powers which he openly flaunted. Though some of his power was used in traditional ways such as performing miraculous cures, he was more inclined to display it in a bizarre and unpredictable fashion. For example, he would sometimes vandalise shops in the Tiruvannamalai bazaar as an act of blessing. Shop owners welcomed his destructive behaviour because they had found from experience that the damage would be more than paid for in the weeks that followed by either a vast increase in profits or by the repayment of long-forgotten loans.
When Ramana Maharshi came to Tiruvannamalai in 1896, Seshadri Swami was one of the first people to recognise his greatness. He tried to protect Bhagavan from unwanted disturbances and sometimes referred to him as his younger brother.
Bhagavan held Seshadri Swami in high esteem. After Annamalai Swami had told Bhagavan about his meeting with Seshadri Swami (which is described in the next few paragraphs of Annamalai Swami’s account) Bhagavan commented, ‘There is not a single place in this town that has not been visited by Seshadri Swami, but he was never caught in maya [illusion]’.
Seshadri Swami died in January 1929, a few months after Annamalai Swami arrived in Tiruvannamalai. His samadhi, which still attracts large crowds, is about 400 metres from Sri Ramanasramam.
In his account of their meeting Annamalai Swami mentions that he met Seshadri Swami in a mandapam. A mandapam is a Hindu architectural structure, usually a hall supported by stone pillars. A mandapam always has a roof but the sides are generally open.
Seshadri Swami did not stay in any particular place but I soon managed to locate him in a mandapam which was near the main temple. He was easy to find because there was a crowd of about 40-50 people outside the mandapam waiting for him to come out. He had apparently locked himself in. When I peeped in through one of the windows I saw him continuously circling one of the pillars inside. After doing this for about ten minutes, he came outside, sat on a rock, and crossed his legs. I had brought a laddu [a large spherical sweet] which I wanted to give him but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Seshadri Swami must have sensed my indecision because he looked at me and indicated by a gesture that I should place the laddu on the ground in front of him.
Seshadri Swami had obviously been chewing betel nut for some time. A mixture of the red juice and his saliva was dribbling out of his mouth, soaking his beard, and dripping onto the ground.
Betel is a hard, dark-red nut. Its juice is supposed to aid digestion. It is often eaten along with a lime-coated green leaf. In this combination it is known as ‘pan’.
Seshadri Swami picked up my laddu, smeared it with the saliva-and-betel juice that was staining his beard, and threw it onto the nearby road. As it broke on the ground, the crowd raced towards it and collected the pieces as prasad. I also managed to collect and eat a piece.
Anything which is offered to a deity or a holy man becomes prasad when it is returned to the donor or distributed to the public. Food is the most common form of prasad.
A group of local people appeared to be angry with Seshadri Swami. He silenced them by tossing some stones in their direction. These stones, instead of following a normal trajectory, bobbed and danced around their heads like butterflies. The men he had thrown the stones at got afraid and ran away. They clearly didn’t want to tangle with a man who possessed supernatural powers of this kind.
When I went back and stood before Seshadri Swami again, he started to shout at me in a very abusive way.
‘This fool came to Tiruvannamalai! Stupid man! What did he come here for?’
He carried on in this vein for some time, implying that I was wasting my time coming to Tiruvannamalai. I thought that I must have committed a great sin to have a great saint insult me like this. I started to cry because I thought that I had been cursed.
Eventually a man called Manikka Swami, who was Seshadri Swami’s attendant, came up to me and consoled me by saying, ‘Your trip to Tiruvannamalai will be successful. You will get whatever you have come for. This is Seshadri Swami’s way of blessing you. When he abuses people like this he is really blessing them.’
Manikka Swami then took me to a hotel which was owned by a devotee of Seshadri Swami.
He told the owner, ‘Seshadri Swami has just showered his blessings on this man. Please give him a free meal.’
I was not feeling particularly hungry, but when the owner insisted I sat down and ate some of his food. When I had eaten enough to satisfy him, I got up and walked the remaining distance to Sri Ramanasramam.
I arrived there at about 1 p.m. As I approached the hall, part of the dream I had had in my village repeated itself in real life. I saw Bhagavan walk down the hill, cross the ashram and pause outside the hall while he washed his feet with water from his kamandalu [water pot]. Then he went inside. I sprinkled some of this water on my head, drank a little, and then went inside to meet him. Bhagavan was sitting on his couch while an attendant called Madhava Swami dried his feet with a cloth. Madhava Swami went out a few minutes later, leaving Bhagavan and me alone in the hall. I had bought a small packet of dried grapes and some sugar candy to give him. I placed them on a small table that was next to Bhagavan’s sofa and prostrated to him. When I stood up I saw that Bhagavan was eating a little of my offering. As I watched him swallow, the thought came to me that my offering was going directly into Siva’s stomach.
I sat down and Bhagavan gazed at me in silence for about 10-15 minutes. There was a great feeling of physical relief and relaxation while Bhagavan was looking at me. I felt a wonderful coolness pervade my body. It was like immersing myself in a cool pool after being outside in the hot sun.
I asked for permission to stay and this was readily granted. A small hut was given to me and for the first week I stayed there as a guest of the ashram. During those first few days I either gathered flowers for the ashram’s pujas or just sat with Bhagavan in his hall.
As the days passed I became more and more convinced that Bhagavan was my Guru. Feeling a strong urge to settle down in the ashram, I asked Chinnaswami, Bhagavan’s younger brother, if I could work in the ashram. Chinnaswami granted my request and said that I could serve as Bhagavan’s attendant. At that time Madhava Swami was doing the job by himself.
Chinnaswami told me, ‘Madhava Swami is the only attendant at the moment. Whenever he goes out of the hall or goes for a rest you should stay with Bhagavan and attend to all his needs.’
About ten days after my arrival I asked Bhagavan, ‘How to avoid misery?’
This was the first spiritual question I ever asked him.
Bhagavan replied, ‘Know and always hold on to the Self. Disregard the body and the mind. To identify with them is misery. Dive deep into the Heart, the source of being and peace, and establish yourself there.’
I then asked him how I could attain Self-realisation and he gave me a similar answer: ‘If you give up identifying with the body and meditate on the Self, which you already are, you can attain Self-realisation.’
As I was pondering on these remarks Bhagavan surprised me by saying, ‘I was waiting for you. I was wondering when you would come.’
As a newcomer I was still too afraid of him to follow this up by asking him how he knew, or how long he had been waiting. However, I was delighted to hear him speak like this because it seemed to indicate that it was my destiny to stay with him.
A few days later I asked another question: ‘Scientists have invented and produced aircraft which can travel at great speeds in the sky. Why do you not make and give us a spiritual aircraft in which we can quickly and easily cross over the sea of samsara?’
Samsara is the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death through different incarnations. It can also be taken to mean worldly illusion or entanglement in worldly affairs.
‘The path of self-enquiry,’ replied Bhagavan, ‘is the aircraft you need. It is direct, fast and easy to use. You are already travelling very quickly towards realisation. It is only because of your mind that it seems that there is no movement. In the old days, when people first rode on trains, some of them believed that the trees and the countryside were moving and that the train was standing still. It is the same with you now. Your mind is making you believe that you are not moving towards Self-realisation.’
Philosophically, Bhagavan’s teachings belong to an Indian school of thought which is known as Advaita Vedanta. (He himself, though, would say that his teachings came from his own experience, rather than from anything he had heard or read.) Bhagavan and other advaita teachers teach that the Self (Atman) or Brahman is the only existing reality and that all phenomena are indivisible manifestations or appearances within it. The ultimate aim of life, according to Bhagavan and other advaita teachers, is to transcend the illusion that one is an individual person who functions through a body and a mind in a world of separate, interacting objects. Once this has been achieved, one becomes aware of what one really is: immanent, formless consciousness. This final state of awareness, which is known as Self-realisation, can be achieved, in Bhagavan’s view, by practising a technique he called self-enquiry.
This technique needs to be explained in some detail since it is mentioned several times in Annamalai Swami’s narrative. The following explanation summarises both the practice and theory behind it. It is taken from No Mind – I am the Self, pp. 1-15.
It was Sri Ramana’s basic thesis that the individual self is nothing more than a thought or an idea. He said that this thought, which he called the ‘I’-thought, originates from a place called the Heart-centre, which he located on the right side of the chest in the human body. From there the ‘I’-thought rises up to the brain and identifies itself with the body: ‘I am this body.’ It then creates the illusion that there is a mind or an individual self which inhabits the body and which controls all its thoughts and actions. The ‘I’-thought accomplishes this by identifying itself with all the thoughts and perceptions that go on in the body. For example, ‘I’ (that is, the ‘I’-thought) am doing this, ‘I’ am thinking this, ‘I’ am feeling happy, etc. Thus, the idea that one is an individual person is generated and sustained by the ‘I’-thought and by its habit of constantly attaching itself to all the thoughts that arise. Sri Ramana maintained that one could reverse this process by depriving the ‘I’-thought of all the thoughts and perceptions that it normally identifies with. Sri Ramana taught that this ‘I’-thought is actually an unreal entity, and that it only appears to exist when it identifies itself with other thoughts. He said that if one can break the connection between the ‘I’-thought and the thoughts it identifies with, then the ‘I’-thought itself will subside and finally disappear. Sri Ramana suggested that this could be done by holding onto the ‘I’-thought, that is, the inner feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ and excluding all other thoughts. As an aid to keeping one’s attention on this inner feeling of ‘I’, he recommended that one should constantly question oneself ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this “I” come from?’ He said that if one can keep one’s attention on this inner feeling of ‘I’, and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the ‘I’-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre.
This, according to Sri Ramana, is as much as the devotee can do by himself. When the devotee has freed his mind of all thoughts except the ‘I’-thought, the power of the Self pulls the ‘I’-thought back into the Heart-centre and eventually destroys it so completely that it never rises again. This is the moment of Self-realisation. When this happens, the mind and the individual self (both of which Sri Ramana equated with the ‘I’-thought) are destroyed for ever. Only the Atman or the Self then remains.
The following practical advice was written by Bhagavan himself in the 1920s. Taken from Be As You Are (1992 ed., p. 56) it encapsulates his basic teachings on the subject. All new visitors were encouraged to read the essay (entitled Who am I?) that this extract is taken from. It was published as a pamphlet and Bhagavan encouraged the manager of the ashram to sell it cheaply in many languages so that all new people could have an affordable and authoritative summary of his practical teachings.
The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’, destroying all other thoughts, will itself be finally destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre. If other thoughts arise one should, without attempting to complete them, enquire, ‘To whom did they rise?’ What does it matter how many thoughts rise? At the very moment that each thought rises, if one vigilantly enquires, ‘To whom did this rise?’, it will be known ‘To me’. If one then enquires ‘Who am I?’, the mind will turn back to its source and the thought which had risen will also subside. By repeatedly practising thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.
In the years that followed I had many other spiritual talks with Bhagavan but his basic message never changed. It was always, ‘Do self-enquiry, stop identifying with the body and try to be aware of the Self which is your real nature’.
Prior to these early conversations I had been spending several hours each day performing elaborate pujas and anushtanas.
When I asked Bhagavan if I should continue with them he replied, ‘You need not do any of these pujas any more. If you practise self-enquiry, that alone will be enough.’
My duties as an attendant were fairly simple and I soon learned what to do. When devotees brought offerings I had to return some of them as prasad. I also had to ensure that the men sat on one side of the hall and the women on the other. When Bhagavan went out, one attendant would go with him while the other stayed behind to clean the hall. We had to keep the cloths that were on his sofa clean; we had to wash his clothes; in the early morning we had to heat water for his bath; and if he went for any walks during the day, one of us would always accompany him.
Bhagavan’s clothes consisted of kaupinas and dhotis. For most of the time he only ever wore a kaupina, a strip of cloth which covers the genitals and the centre of the buttocks. It was held in place by another strip of cloth which was tied around his waist. Occasionally, when it was cold, he would wrap a dhoti around himself. Dhotis are strips of cloth which are usually worn like skirts. Bhagavan preferred to tie his in such a way that it extended from his armpits to his thighs.
When he arrived in Tiruvannamalai in 1896, Bhagavan threw away all his personal possessions, including his clothes. He never wore normal clothes again.
Bhagavan would usually go for a short walk about three times a day. Sometimes he would go to Palakottu, an area adjacent to Sri Ramanasramam where some of his devotees lived, and sometimes he would walk on the lower slopes of Arunachala. He had stopped going for giri pradakshina in 1926, but he still occasionally went for a long walk.
Walking around a person or an object in a clockwise direction as an act of veneration or worship is called pradakshina. Giri means hill or mountain. In this context giri pradakshina means walking around the mountain of Arunachala. There is an eight-mile road around the base of the mountain. Thousands of devotees regularly use this route to perform giri pradakshina.
I remember going with him twice to the Samudram Lake, which is about a mile to the south-west of the ashram. We went once when it overflowed and once when the nearby pumping station was opened. I also once accompanied him to the forest near Kattu Siva Ashram, about two miles from the ashram. On that occasion Ganapati Muni came with us because Bhagavan wanted to show him a special tree which grew there. For that particular trip we slipped out of the ashram while everyone was having his after-lunch sleep. If we had been spotted, everyone in the ashram would have tried to come with us. Bhagavan always enjoyed his walks. He used to say that if he didn’t walk on the hill at least once a day, his legs would get stiff and painful.
Bhagavan only slept about four to five hours every day. This meant long working hours for the attendants because one of us had to be on duty all the time he was awake. He never slept after lunch, whereas most of his devotees did. Bhagavan would often utilise this quiet time of the day to feed all the ashram’s animals or to tour the ashram in order to inspect any building works that were in progress.
Bhagavan would generally go to sleep at about 10 p.m. but he would usually wake up at about 1 a.m. and go out to urinate. When he returned he would often sit for half an hour or an hour before going back to sleep again. Then, sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., he would wake up and go to the kitchen to cut vegetables.
These night-time toilet trips became something of a ritual for both Bhagavan and the attendants. When he woke up, the attendant had to take Bhagavan’s kamandalu, fill it with hot water, and give it to him. The water was heated on a kumutti [charcoal brazier] which was always kept by the side of Bhagavan’s couch. The attendant then had to give Bhagavan his stick and his torch, hold the door open for him, and follow him out into the night. Bhagavan usually went to a place where Muruganar’s samadhi [grave and shrine] is now located because we had no proper toilets in those days. When he returned, the attendant had to clean Bhagavan’s feet with a cloth.
Bhagavan would never wake his attendants up. It was their duty to be awake and ready at 1 a.m. One morning I failed to wake up because I had had a dream in which I woke up at 1 a.m. and performed all the duties I have just described. At the end of my dream I went back to sleep, satisfied that I had done my work. I was woken up sometime later by Bhagavan returning alone to the hall. I apologised for oversleeping and told Bhagavan that I had dreamt about doing all the usual services for him and had then gone back to sleep.
Bhagavan laughed and said, ‘The services you did for the dream swami are for me only’.
When I first came to the ashram there were still some leopards in the area. They rarely came into the ashram but at night they often frequented the place where Bhagavan used to urinate. I remember him meeting one on one of his nocturnal trips. He was not the least bit afraid. He just looked at the leopard and said, ‘Poda! [Go away!]’. And the leopard just walked away.
Soon after I came I was given a new name by Bhagavan. My original name had been Sellaperumal. One day Bhagavan casually mentioned that I reminded him of a man called Annamalai Swami who had been his attendant at Skandashram. He started to use this name as a nickname for me. When the devotees heard this, they all followed suit and within a few days my new identity was firmly established.
Bhagavan lived at Skandashram, on the eastern slopes of Arunachala, from 1916-22. Annamalai Swami died there during a plague outbreak in 1922.
When I had been an attendant for about two weeks the Collector from Vellore [the senior-most civil servant from the local district headquarters] came to have Bhagavan’s darshan. He was called Ranganathan and he brought a large plate of sweets as an offering to Bhagavan. Bhagavan asked me to distribute the sweets to everyone in the ashram, including those who were not then present in the hall. While I was distributing the sweets to the people outside the hall, I went to a place where no one could see me and secretly helped myself to about double the quantity that I was serving to everyone else. When the distribution was completed, I went back to the hall and put the plate underneath Bhagavan’s sofa.
Bhagavan looked at me and said, ‘Did you take twice as much as everyone else?’
I was shocked because I was sure that no one had seen me do it.
‘I took it when no one was looking. How does Bhagavan know?’
Bhagavan made no answer. This incident made me realise that it is impossible to hide anything from Bhagavan. From that time on I automatically assumed that Bhagavan always knew what I was doing. This new knowledge made me more alert and more attentive to my work because I didn’t want to commit any similar mistakes again.
It was also the attendants’ job to protect Bhagavan from eccentric or misguided devotees. I remember one incident of this kind very clearly. A boy about twenty years of age appeared in the hall wearing only a loincloth. After announcing to everyone that he also was jnani, he went and sat on the sofa next to Bhagavan. Bhagavan made no comment about this, but very soon afterwards he got up and went out of the hall. While he was away I took the opportunity to eject this impostor. All of us in the hall were annoyed by his arrogance and his presumption, and I must admit that I handled him rather roughly while I was throwing him out. I also forbade him from coming into the hall again. When peace had been finally restored Bhagavan came back into the hall and resumed his usual position on the sofa.
I was very happy to have found such a great Guru as Bhagavan. As soon as I saw him I felt that I was looking at God Himself. However, initially, I was not very impressed either by the ashram or by the devotees who had gathered around him. The management seemed to be very autocratic and most of the devotees didn’t seem to have much interest in the spiritual life. So far as I could see, they were primarily interested in gossiping. These early impressions disturbed me.
I thought to myself: ‘Bhagavan is very great. But if I live in the company of these people, I may lose the devotion that I already have.’
I came to the conclusion that it would not be spiritually beneficial for me to associate with people who didn’t seem to have much devotion. I know now that this was a very arrogant attitude, but those were my true feelings at the time. These thoughts disturbed me so much that for three or four nights I was unable to sleep. I finally came to the conclusion that I would keep Bhagavan as my Guru but live somewhere else. I remember thinking: ‘I will go and do meditation on the Self somewhere else.
Without having the distracting friendship of any human beings, I will go to an unknown place and meditate on God. I will go for bhiksha [beg for food] and lead a solitary life.’
About three weeks after I first came to the ashram, I left to take up my new life. I told no one, not even Bhagavan, about my decision. I left at 1 a.m. on a full-moon night and started to walk towards town. I went straight through the town, past Easanya Math [a monastic institution on the north-east side of Tiruvannamalai] and started walking towards Polur. I had no particular destination in mind; I just wanted to get away from the ashram. I spent the whole night walking and reached Polur [twenty miles north of Tiruvannamalai] just after dawn. The walk had made me very hungry so I decided to go for bhiksha in the town. It was not a great success. I begged at about 500 different houses but no one gave me any food. One man told me that I should go back to Tiruvannamalai while another man, who was serving a meal when I approached him, shouted at me, telling me to go away. Eventually, I gave up and walked to the outskirts of the town. I found a well in a field and spent about half an hour standing in it, with the water up to my neck, hoping that the coldness of the water would take my hunger pains away. It didn’t work. Then I made my way to the samadhi [shrine] of Vitthoba and sat there for a while.
Vitthoba was an eccentric saint, rather like Seshadri Swami, who lived in Polur in the first decades of this century. He died a few years before Annamalai Swami went there.
I finally got something to eat when an old lady came to do puja.
She looked at me and said, ‘It seems as if you are very hungry. Your eyes are starting to sink into your face. I don’t have much myself but I can give you some ragi [millet] gruel.’
As she was saying this she gave me about one and a half tumblers of the ragi gruel to drink. It didn’t do much for my hunger pangs but I was still very happy to receive it. The long walk and the lack of food had made me very tired. As I sat there I began to question the wisdom of leaving Bhagavan. It was clear that things had not turned out in the way that I had expected. This indicated to me that the decision might not have been correct. I formulated a plan that I thought would test whether my decision had been correct or not. I took a large handful of flowers, placed them on the samadhi of Vitthoba and started to remove them two at a time. I had decided in advance that if there were an odd number of flowers I would return to Bhagavan. If there were an even number I would carry on with my original plan. When the result indicated that I should go back to Bhagavan, I immediately accepted the decision and started walking towards Tiruvannamalai.
Once I had accepted that my prarabdha [destiny] was to stay with Bhagavan, my luck began to change. As I was walking into town, a hotel owner invited me into his hotel and gave me a free meal and some money. He even prostrated to me. I had decided to return to Tiruvannamalai by train because I wanted to get back to Bhagavan as soon as possible, but before I could reach the station some more people invited me into their house and asked me to eat. I ate a little food there and then excused myself on the grounds that I had just eaten a big meal. I had decided to try to travel without a ticket, wrongly assuming that the money I had been given would not be enough for the journey. My good luck continued on the train. Halfway to Tiruvannamalai a ticket inspector came to inspect all the tickets. I seemed to be invisible to him, for I was the only person in the carriage who was not asked to produce a ticket.
A similar thing happened at the end of the journey. When I paused in front of the ticket collector on the station platform he said, ‘You have already given your ticket. Go! You are holding the others up!’
Thus, by Bhagavan’s grace, I escaped on both occasions. I walked the remaining distance to the ashram. On my arrival I went straight to Bhagavan, prostrated before him, and told him everything that had happened. Bhagavan then confirmed that it was my destiny to stay at Ramanasramam.
Looking at me he said, ‘You have work to do here. If you try to leave without doing the jobs that are destined for you, where can you go?’
After saying this Bhagavan looked at me intently for a period of about fifteen minutes. As he was looking at me I heard a verse repeating itself inside me. It was so loud and clear it felt as if someone had implanted a radio there. I had not come across this verse before. I only discovered later that it was one of the verses from Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham [one of Bhagavan’s philosophical poems which deals with the nature of reality]. The verse says:
The supreme state which is praised and which is attained here in this life by clear self-enquiry, which rises in the Heart when association with a sadhu is gained, is impossible to attain by listening to preachers, by studying and learning the meaning of the scriptures, by virtuous deeds, or by any other means.
Although the word ‘sadhu’ generally refers to someone who is pursuing a spiritual career full-time, in this context it means someone who has realised the Self.
The meaning was very clear: staying near Bhagavan would be more beneficial for me than doing sadhana alone in some other place.
At the end of the fifteen minutes I did namaskaram to Bhagavan and said, ‘I will do whatever work you order me to do, but please also give me moksha [liberation]. I do not want to become a slave to maya [illusion].’
Bhagavan made no reply but I was not perturbed by his silence. Somehow, the mere asking of the question had made my mind peaceful. Bhagavan then asked me to go and eat some food. I replied that I was not hungry because I had recently eaten.
I added: ‘I don’t want food. All I want is moksha, freedom from sorrow.’
This time Bhagavan looked at me, nodded, and said, ‘Yes, yes’.
This verse from Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham on the greatness of association with Self-realised beings is one of five on the subject which Bhagavan incorporated in the poem. He discovered the original Sanskrit verses on a piece of paper which had been used to wrap some sweets. He liked the ideas they conveyed so much he translated them into Tamil himself and put them at the beginning of Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham. The other four verses are as follows:
By satsang [association with reality or, more commonly, with realised beings] the association with the objects of the world will be removed. When that worldly association is removed, the attachments or tendencies of the mind will be destroyed. Those who are devoid of mental attachment will perish in that which is motionless. Thus they attain jivan mukti [liberation while still alive in the body]. Cherish their association.
If one gains association with sadhus, of what use are all the religious observances? When the excellent cool southern breeze itself is blowing, what is the use of holding a hand-fan?
Heat will be removed by the cool moon, poverty by the celestial wish-fulfilling tree, and sin by the Ganges. But know that all these, beginning with heat, will be removed merely by having the darshan [sight] of incomparable sadhus.
Sacred bathing places, which are composed of water, and images of deities, which are made of stone and earth, cannot be comparable to those great souls [mahatmas]. Ah, what a wonder! The bathing places and deities bestow purity of mind after countless days, whereas such purity is instantly bestowed upon people as soon as sadhus see them with their eyes.
Several years after this incident Annamalai Swami asked Bhagavan about one of these verses:
We know where the moon is, and we know where the Ganges is, but where is this wish-fulfilling tree?’
‘If I tell you where it is,’ replied Bhagavan, ‘will you be able to leave it?’
I was puzzled by this peculiar answer but I didn’t pursue the matter. A few minutes later I opened a copy of Yoga Vasishta which was lying next to Bhagavan. On the first page I looked at I found a verse which said, ‘The jnani is the wish-fulfilling tree’. I immediately understood Bhagavan’s strange answer to my question. Before I had a chance to tell Bhagavan about this, he looked at me and smiled. He seemed to know that I had found the right answer. I told Bhagavan about the verse but he made no comment. He just carried on smiling at me.