Power of the Presence, Part Three

The Power of the Presence,
Part Three

Edited by David Godman


Paperback

340 pages

ISBN 0-9711371-2-9

Published in 2002 by David Godman

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THIS IS THE THIRD OF THREE volumes that comprise lengthy first-person accounts by devotees whose lives were transformed by Ramana Maharshi. The narratives span the entire fifty-four year era of Bhagavan's teaching career. Some of these accounts have only appeared previously in Indian language publications, some have never been published anywhere before, and some have been taken from books and journals that are hard to find outside India. Taken together these books reveal what it was like to live with and be moulded by one of the greatest spiritual teachers that India has ever produced.

Other volumes

Part One    Part Two

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Excerpt

The series concludes with accounts by or about the following devotees:

Mastan.

Mastan received the rare accolade of being described by Bhagavan as being in the most advanced state of any new devotee on the day he first met Sri Ramana at Virupaksha Cave. As he was pushing open the gate of Virupaksha Cave, before he had even set eyes on Sri Ramana, he went into a state of samadhi that lasted for hours.

Mastan came from the same village as Akhilandamma, and the two of them often visited Bhagavan together. Akhilandamma has provided a moving account of Mastan's final days when the female deity of the Tiruvannamalai temple appeared to come and collect Mastan at the moment of his death. Bhagavan himself ordered that he be buried with the full rites of a Saiva saint, an honour he only otherwise accorded to his mother and Lakshmi the cow.

Ramanatha Brahmachari.

Ramanatha Brahmachari was a young brahmin boy from Tiruvannamalai who fell in love with Sri Ramana Maharshi at an early age. He devoted all his life to serving both Bhagavan and his devotees.

He was a tireless worker, initially in the ashram kitchen, and later in the sadhu colony of Palakottu. He was always looking for an opportunity to serve his fellow devotees by either shopping for them or by cleaning their living quarters.

His immense devotion to Bhagavan led Sri Ramana to remark that he was only afraid of two devotees: Ramanatha Brahmachari and Mudaliar Patti. Both had so much love for him, he knew he would be unable to refuse any request that either of them made.

Echammal.

Echammal and Mudaliar Patti were both widows who devoted decades of their lives to serving food to Ramana Maharshi. Both of them took a vow early in their lives that they would not eat until they had personally served food to Sri Ramana, a promise they managed to maintain for about forty years.

Mudaliar Patti.

Lakshman Sarma was a lawyer and vedantic scholar who had the rare good fortune of receiving private lessons from Ramana Maharshi on the meaning of Ulladu Narpadu, his forty-verse poem  on the nature of reality. Lakshman Sarma preserved and transmitted this knowledge in a series of translations and commentaries. Sri Ramana personally taught him the rules of Tamil poetry to equip him for this job. He also checked Lakshman Sarma's translations so thoroughly, the author was forced to amend each translated verse innumerable times until Sri Ramana was satisfied that he had both understood and translated the teachings properly.

Lakshman Sarma.

Lakshman Sarma's writings include Maha Yoga, Revelation, a Tamil commentary on Ulladu Narpadu, and Sri Ramanaparavidyopanishad.

Krishna Bhikshu was a Telugu author and lawyer who wrote Sri Ramana Leela, one of the most authoritative accounts of Sri Ramana's life.  He was also a follower of Ganapati Muni.

Krishna Bhikshu.

Bhagavan made a point of saying, in the mid-1940s, that Krishna Bhikshu's biography was more reliable than others that were available in Tamil and Telugu because he had stayed with Bhagavan to revise and update his account over several successive editions.

He collected many stories of Bhagavan's life and of interactions between Sri Ramana and the devotees and visitors who came to see him. Many of these stories, originally recorded in Telugu, are narrated in this account.

Sampoornamma.

Shantammal.

Natesa Iyer.

Ramana Maharshi took a hands-on attitude to the food that was cooked and served in his ashram. He would get up in the early hours of the morning to chop the vegetables that would be used in that day's meals. He would select the recipes and supervise all aspects of the food preparation and cooking. The cooking was mostly done by a group of brahmin widows that included Sampoornamma and Shantammal. They were occasionally joined by some of the men, such as Natesa Iyer , Annamalai Swami  and Sundaram. All of them have moving tales to tell about their years of cooking under Bhagavan's direct supervision.

G. V. Subbaramayya.

G. V. Subbaramaya was a professor of English in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh. He was one of the few devotees whose child-like demeanour allowed him to move freely and easily with Bhagavan. Being proficient in Telugu, Sanskrit and English, he was asked by Bhagavan himself to make translations of ashram books. Sri Ramana supervised these jobs himself, making many revisions and suggestions to whatever Subbaramayya showed him.

Subbaramayya surrendered completely to Bhagavan and entrusted the well being of all his family to Sri Ramana. In this account he narrates several incidents that demonstrate how Bhagavan looked after the affairs of those who had the faith and the ability to hand over all their worldly problems and concerns to him.

Lakshmi and Bhagavan.

Lakshmi the cow was brought to Bhagavan as a calf in the 1920s. Her love and devotion to Bhagavan soon became apparent. She remained at the ashram for almost twenty years and produced innumerable calves, many of which were born on  Bhagavan's birthday. She and Bhagavan had a teleptahic communication that enabled Sri Ramana to be aware of her day-to-day needs. He went out of his way to ensure that her housing and food requirements were always meticulously attended to.

When she passed away in 1948, Bhagavan declared that she had been fully liberated. He even composed a verse to that effect that is now inscribed on her samadhi shrine. The only other devotee whose liberation was publicly confirmed by Bhagavan was his own mother.

Wolter Keers.

Wolter Keers was a Dutch devotee who came to Tiruvannamalai in the final year of of Sri Ramana's life. His account of his encounters and experiences with Sri Ramana display a strong hunger to have Bhagavan reveal the truth of who he really was.

In later years Wolter Keers became a well-known spiritual teacher in Europe, travelling widely and teaching in several languages.

The account that begins on the next page is from the chapter about Ramanatha Brahmachari.

Ramanatha Brahmachari first encountered Bhagavan in 1912, when Bhagavan was staying in Virupaksha Cave. At that time Ramanatha Brahmachari was a student in the Veda Patasala in Tiruvannamalai. He had a strong yearning for God, so when he heard good reports about the swami who was living on the hill, he went to Virupaksha Cave to see him. It was a defining moment in the life of Ramanatha Brahmachari because one look from Bhagavan stopped his mind and captured his heart.

Ramanatha Brahmachari began to spend all his free time with Bhagavan. Though he was extremely poor, he refused the free meals that were available in the patasala. Instead, he would beg for his food in the streets of Tiruvannamalai because this gave him the freedom to leave the patasala as soon as the lessons were over. He took advantage of this arrangement by running up the hill to see Bhagavan whenever school finished.

Around 1920 he caught bubonic plague while he was staying with Bhagavan at Skandashram. Bhagavan insisted on staying with him and looking after him. Kunju Swami has described what happened:

Annamalai Swami [an attendant of Bhagavan who died just before Kunju Swami saw Bhagavan for the first time] was not the only devotee to get bubonic plague. On the day I arrived another devotee, Ramanatha Brahmachari, was in great pain because his plague boil had just burst. I learned later that about a week before my arrival [in 1920], when the disease had just begun to affect him, Sri Bhagavan had asked Ramanatha Brahmachari to stay at Skandashram while he went round the hill with Perumal Swami, Rangaswami Iyengar and a few others. On the way, while they were resting for a short while at Pachaiamman Temple, Perumal Swami and Rangaswami Iyengar informed Sri Bhagavan of a plan they had thought of earlier.

‘As Ramanatha Brahmachari is afflicted with a contagious disease,’ they said, ‘we should all stay here at Pachaiamman Temple. We can take him food and look after him from here.’

Sri Bhagavan, who was compassion incarnate, was upset by their meanness.

‘What a wonderful suggestion! He came to me while he was still a young boy. He is totally dependent on us. Is it proper for us to leave him alone in this condition and come to stay here? If you are afraid, you can all stay here. I will go and stay with him. When you bring food for him, you can bring me some as well.’

When the devotees heard this they remained silent, fearing to pursue the matter any more.

Ramanatha Brahmachari gave up his family and a potential career to be with Bhagavan, and Bhagavan responded by taking full responsibility for him. This is brought out in a story that is told by the descendents of T. S. Rajagopala Iyer:

Bhagavan noticed one morning that Ramanatha Brahmachari was not eating his morning iddlies.

He asked him, ‘Why are you not eating today?’

He answered, ‘Today I have to perform ceremonies for my ancestors. On days such as these one should fast.’

Bhagavan responded by saying, ‘Now you have come to me you need not perform these ceremonies any longer. Eat your breakfast. In fact, eat two extra iddlies. You are not bound by these rituals any more.’

Rajagopala Iyer heard about this conversation and he too began to ignore such anniversaries. One of his relatives came to Bhagavan and complained that he was no longer willing to participate in these functions.

The next time Rajagopala Iyer came to the ashram, Bhagavan asked him why he was not participating in these family rituals.

‘Because you told Ramanatha Brahmachari that they were no longer necessary,’ he replied.

‘His case is different,’ responded Bhagavan. ‘He has given up everything to be with me. What have you given up?’

Bhagavan generally did not approve of householders who decided to give up their family responsibilities. When Bhagavan said that Ramanatha Brahmachari had ‘given up everything’ he may have been indicating that he had also given up his mind. One who is in such a state is no longer obliged to perform traditional rites and rituals.

Ramanatha Brahmachari was a great believer in service, not merely to the Guru but also to the Guru’s devotees. He helped with the kitchen work at Skandashram, and when Bhagavan moved to Ramanasramam, at the foot of the hill, he continued to make himself available to all devotees who required assistance.

Sri V. Ganesan has described some of his activities in the early years at the foot of the hill:

After Mother’s samadhi Bhagavan moved to the present ashram. Ramanatha Brahmachari continued his services. He would surprise everyone with the tireless energy that lay in his tiny frame. Of his own accord he would clean the premises and do all sorts of odd jobs for the residents. His self-appointed task was to wait for the arrival of the 8.30 evening train and keep the food warm after he and others had taken dinner. If any visitors arrived, he would feed them lovingly, and then provide each with a small log to serve as a pillow and a leaf mat to sleep on. His dedication to service had to be seen to be believed. He would get up even in the midst of sound sleep if someone nearby murmured a requirement of hot water at night…

He was in the habit of liberally using the word 'Andavane' [meaning Lord] while talking. He would even call others ‘Andavane’. Thus people started addressing him as ‘Andavane’.

He spun the charka [spinning wheel] regularly. Yes, Ramanatha Brahmachari was a staunch Gandhian! Once he took a dhoti woven from his yarn, met Mahatma Gandhi and presented it to him. When he returned he related all this with a broad smile to those in the ashram. He also started a parallel twenty-one-day fast along with the Mahatma, but was dissuaded by Kunju Swami and others from continuing after three days.

It was a strange sight to see Andavane returning from town every day. In his right hand he would clutch a tattered umbrella, while his left hand would be holding a vessel containing food. Sometimes he would also carry a thermos flask (a luxury enjoyed only by the aristocracy in those days) containing hot coffee for Bhagavan. It was sent by an ardent devotee in town. That was not all. As he was not in the habit of using a bag, he would fold his dhoti at the knees and stuff into its rear and sides vegetables brought from the market. With the dhoti bulging and drooping at the knees, he would waddle forward, slowly raising each foot. And with each slender foot would rise a relic of a sandal, gargantuan in thickness, with several layers of patchwork. Andavane’s reluctance to part with his archaic pair of sandals often provoked teasing but he would fondly cling to them.

When the calf Lakshmi was brought to Bhagavan in 1926, along with her mother, by Arunachalam Pillai, Sri Bhagavan tried to dissuade Pillai from leaving the pair in the ashram as there was no one to take care of them.

At the crucial moment it was Ramanatha Brahmachari who declared without hesitation, ‘I will look after them!’

For three months he tended to their needs, after which someone in the town came forward to keep them on behalf of the ashram. Ramanatha therefore played an important part in cow Lakshmi attaching herself to Bhagavan.

In the late 1980s I spoke to Annamalai Swami about Ramanatha Brahmachari since they had been neighbours together in Palakottu for several years. This is what he said:

Ramanatha Brahmachari first came to Bhagavan in the days when Bhagavan was living in Virupaksha Cave. He had a very distinctive appearance because he was very short, wore thick glasses, and always covered his body with a large amount of vibhuti. In the Virupaksha Cave days he used to go for bhiksha in town. He would bring whatever food he had managed to beg to Virupaksha Cave, serve it to Bhagavan, and afterwards eat whatever remained.

One day, as he was bringing some food to Bhagavan, he met his father on the hill. He found him sitting outside Guhai Namasivaya Temple about halfway between the town and Virupaksha Cave. His father said that he was very hungry and asked for some of the food that his son had begged.

Ramanatha Brahmachari, thinking that it would be improper and disrespectful to feed anyone, even his own father, before Bhagavan had received his share, told his father, ‘Come with me to Bhagavan. We can share the food there.’

His father, who had no interest in Bhagavan, refused to come. He asked his son to give him some food and then leave, but Ramanatha Brahmachari refused.

Bhagavan had been observing all this from Virupaksha Cave. When Ramanatha Brahmachari finally arrived there, Bhagavan told him, ‘I will not take any of your food unless you first serve your father’.

Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Guhai Namasivaya Temple, but instead of following Bhagavan’s instructions he again asked his father to come and eat with Bhagavan at Virupaksha Cave. When his father, for the second time, refused to come, Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Virupaksha Cave without giving him any food.

Bhagavan told him, this time more firmly, ‘I will only eat if you feed your father first. Go and feed him.’

This time Ramanatha obeyed the order, fed his father and returned to Virupaksha Cave with the remaining food. I mention this story only because it shows how great his devotion to Bhagavan was and how little he cared about anything else, including his own family.

Ramanatha Brahmachari used to feed Bhagavan with such love and devotion, Bhagavan felt he had been captured by his love. That is why Bhagavan said on one occasion, ‘I am only afraid of two devotees, Ramanatha Brahmachari and Mudaliar Patti’.

It was not physical fear, it was more a feeling of helplessness. If a devotee has a strong, burning love for his Guru, the Guru is compelled to do anything that the devotee asks. Bhagavan always felt apprehensive whenever Ramanatha Brahmachari appeared because he knew he would not be able to resist any of his requests. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa once expressed the same idea when he said: ‘When you have attained ecstatic love, you have found the rope to tie God with.’

A few years after the ashram moved to the foot of the hill, Chinnaswami and Ramanatha Brahmachari had some sort of quarrel. I don’t know what it was all about but the end result was that Ramanatha Brahmachari was banned from eating or sleeping in the ashram. An advocate in town, Neelakanta Sastri, came to his rescue by volunteering to feed him.

He told Ramanatha Brahmachari, ‘Don’t worry about your food. From now on you can come to my house every day. I have photos of Bhagavan and Vinayaka. If you do a daily puja to both of these pictures, I will give you breakfast and lunch in my house. You can also take whatever is left over from lunch in a tiffin carrier to eat as your evening meal.’

After his exclusion from the ashram Ramanatha Brahmachari built himself a tiny hut in Palakottu. He had been attracted to some of Gandhi’s ideas even while Bhagavan was still living on the hill. In addition to spinning cotton, a must for all Gandhians in those days, he had a great attraction to the idea of service. When he moved to Palakottu he performed seva [service] by cleaning the huts of all the sadhus who lived there and by doing all their shopping for them. Before he went to town he would ask all the sadhus in Palakottu if they needed anything. Invariably he would return with whatever had been requested. Because of all these activities Kunju Swami gave him the nickname ‘Palakottu Sarvadhikari’ [The Supreme Ruler of Palakottu].

Ramanatha Brahmachari was willing to do anything for the Palakottu sadhus. Some people took advantage of this by giving him trivial or unpleasant tasks to complete but he never complained. I remember one occasion when somebody in Palakottu asked him to go to town and read all the posters that had been pasted to the walls. He was supposed to come back with a report on the details of each poster. Ramanatha Brahmachari did this job in the same spirit that he did all his other jobs: joyfully and with love. He wasn’t in the least offended that his helpfulness and generosity were being abused. Since he had no ego that could take offence, he could carry out futile jobs such as these in a spirit of service, without being irritated by the motives of the people who were wasting his time. Because of his strange appearance and because of his odd character and personality traits, many people ridiculed him and teased him. Most of these people were misled by his eccentric appearance and idiosyncratic activities to such an extent they couldn’t see the love that bound him to Bhagavan and Bhagavan to him.

Bhagavan gave him his grace when he was still a teenaged boy, and Ramanatha Brahmachari repaid this with lifelong service to both Bhagavan and his devotees. In performing all his tasks with humbleness and joy, and in serving Bhagavan with great love and devotion, he was an outstanding example of what a good devotee ought to be.

Since Ramanatha Brahmachari was an ardent Gandhian, when Mahatma Gandhi announced that he intended to make and collect salt illegally, as a protest against British rule, Ramanatha Brahmachari decided that he should follow his example. At the time, the British rulers of India levied a tax on salt. Gandhi’s idea was to take thousands of his followers to a beach in western India where sea water was commercially evaporated. The demonstrators would then manufacture and collect untaxed salt there as a gesture of collective defiance to British rule. The British were informed in advance, so there was a strong possibility that the salt march would end violently. Gandhians in other parts of India, who could not make the long trip to Gujarat, were encouraged to have their own local protests. Ramanatha Brahmachari joined a South Indian salt march that was led by Rajagopalachari, a leading Congress politician. The destination was Vedaranyam, a southern coastal town.

When Ramanatha Brahmachari informed Bhagavan that he wanted to go on this march, Bhagavan laughed and remarked, ‘The police will be afraid of you. They will run away when they see you.’

Ramanatha Brahmachari went on the march and managed to avoid being arrested. In fact, he was completely ignored by all the police. On his return he presented Bhagavan with some of the salt he had made and collected.

When ashram workers left to go on trips such as these they were expected to get permission from the ashram manager. In this particular case Chinnaswami refused to allow Ramanatha Brahmachari leave to join the protest. Since he was determined to contribute to this protest march, Ramanatha Brahmachari left without getting the requisite permission. When he returned, Chinnaswami refused to allow him to resume his work in the ashram. This meant that Ramanatha Brahmachari had to make alternative arrangements for his food and accommodation since only visiting devotees and full-time ashram workers were allowed to eat and sleep in the ashram.

Ramanatha Brahmachari’s relationship with Chinnaswami had already been strained by an incident that had taken place a few years earlier. Chinnaswami had asked Ramanatha Brahmachari to stop spinning thread, saying that it would damage his already weak eyesight. Ramanatha Brahmachari refused. Somehow, this seemingly innocuous conversation degenerated into a violent quarrel in which Chinnaswami started rolling the diminutive figure of Ramanatha Brahmachari along the ground. Kunju Swami intervened when it looked as if Chinnaswami was about to roll Ramanatha Brahmachari down some stone steps.

Chinnaswami, in an attempt to enforce his authority, shouted, ‘Do you know who I am?’

Ramanatha Brahmachari replied meekly, ‘If we knew that, we wouldn’t be in this quarrel’.

When Ramanatha Brahmachari spun cotton thread, some of his output was given to Mastan, a weaver-devotee of Bhagavan who lived in Desur, a village about forty miles from Tiruvannamalai. Mastan would use this thread to make the cloth that was used for Bhagavan’s kaupinas (loincloths), the only clothing he ever wore. Mastan also made towels for him out of the same thread.

The next account comes from Kunju Swami, who was one of Ramanatha Brahmachari’s neighbours in Palakottu in the 1930s and 40s.

One of the devotees who joined us in Palakottu was Ramanatha Brahmachari. He was the boy, mentioned earlier, whom Sri Bhagavan had looked after when the former had had bubonic plague. Ramanatha Brahmachari was a tireless worker, and in addition to being a devotee of Sri Bhagavan, he was also a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

Of his own accord he would clean all our huts in Palakottu. In the evening he would prepare the wicks, pour oil and light the lamps. He was always looking for odd jobs to do.

In those days we were all quite young and thought we were great ascetics. We would not bother to sweep our rooms in Palakottu, or care to light the lamps. If there was no fuel, we might even skip our meals. But Ramanatha Brahmachari would take care of all these chores whether we asked him to or not.

Once, when we were all sitting in front of Sri Bhagavan, a letter was received from Ekanatha Rao. He had made enquiries about ‘the sarvadhikari of Palakottu’.

When Sri Bhagavan read that, he enquired, ‘Who is this? I don’t know anything about this.’

I got up and nervously pointed to Ramanatha Brahmachari. ‘We call him the sarvadhikari ['Supreme Ruler,'] of Palakottu. He buys our things, cleans our lamps, and sweeps our floors. So we call him the “Palakottu Sarvadhikari”.’

Sri Bhagavan said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this? With a sarvadhikari like this, everyone should be happy.’

Ramanatha Brahmachari got up very shyly and said, ‘I don’t know, Bhagavan. They gave me that name as a joke.’

‘What is funny about it?’ asked Sri Bhagavan. ‘It is a good name.’

Ramanatha Brahmachari was a simple man who had no time for spiritual or philosophical abstractions. He was content with his own experiences and with the service that he offered Bhagavan and his devotees. This is brought out in the following story.

Once, when Ramanatha Brahmachari was ill, T. S. Rajagopala Iyer took him to Madras for treatment. They stayed at the home of T. S. Rajagopala Iyer’s brother, who was a great Sanskrit pandit and a professor of Sanskrit in a well-known college. The professor gave them a lengthy discourse on spiritual matters, quoting profusely from various texts. Ramanatha Brahmachari initially listened calmly and patiently to the lecture, even though he could tell that the professor was saying many things that contradicted Bhagavan’s teachings.

Finally, when there was a small pause in the discourse, Ramanatha Brahmachari quoted part of verse thirty-five of Bhagavan’s Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham: ‘What is all this for? They are like a gramaphone. Tell me, Lord of Arunachala, what else are they?’

After making this statement, he got up and left, and the professor’s lecture came to an abrupt halt.