Translated by T. V. Venkatasubramanian,
Robert Butler and David Godman
Edited by David Godman
76 pages (main text 55 pages plus a 21-page introduction)
SORUPANANDA was a powerful Tamil Guru who lived several centuries ago. His ability to silence the minds of his visitors was praised on several occasions by Ramana Maharshi. Though his chief disciple, Tattuvaraya, wrote prolifically, Sorupananda himself only wrote one small work: Sorupa Saram. Sri Ramana thought so highly of this work, he included it on a list of six must-read books that he gave to Annamalai Swami in the 1930s.
The text itself comprises 102 Tamil verses in which Sorupananda uncompromisingly declares his own enlightenment and then attempts to answer questions on the implications of being in this state.
The original Tamil text has been out of print for decades, and it is unlikely to be reprinted again. We have therefore included both the original Tamil verses and an English translation of them in this new edition of the work. There is also a twenty-page introduction by David Godman that details all the known biographical information about both Sorupananda and Tattuvaraya, and the Guru-disciple relationship that existed between them.
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Sorupananda was a powerful Tamil Guru who lived several centuries ago. His ability to silence the minds of his visitors was praised on several occasions by Ramana Maharshi. Though his chief disciple, Tattuvaraya, wrote prolifically, Sorupananda himself only wrote one small work: Sorupa Saram. Sri Ramana thought so highly of this work, he included it on a list of six must-read books that he gave to Annamalai Swami in the 1930s. The text itself comprises 102 Tamil verses in which Sorupananda uncompromisingly declares his own enlightenment and then attempts to answer questions on the implications of being in this state. The original Tamil text has been out of print for decades, and it is unlikely to be reprinted again. We have therefore included both the original Tamil verses and an English translation of them in this new edition of the work. There is also a twenty-page introduction by David Godman that details all the known biographical information about both Sorupananda and Tattuvaraya, and the Guru-disciple relationship that existed between them.
This is the first part of the introduction that appears in Sorupa Saram. It chronicles the traditional accounts of the relationship between Sorupananda and his disciple Tattuvaraya.
SORUPANANDA (also known as Swarupananda when his name is spelt in the Sanskrit way) was a Tamil saint and Guru who lived in Virama Nagar, a Tamil holy site, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. He lived with Tattuvarayar, the son of his brother. The two of them had studied the sastras, and both were fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil. However, an understanding dawned upon them that the profit to be gained from this limited academic knowledge, however praiseworthy, did not have the power to grant them the fruit of freedom from birth. After coming to the conclusion that only jnana, true knowledge, would give them that result, they decided that it would be a lack of judgement on their part if they continued to devote their time and energy to acquiring more scriptural knowledge. Not wanting to waste a human birth, which they believed was hard to attain, on goals that could only give benefits during their current lives, they decided to search for a realised Sadguru who would free them both from the cycle of birth and death.
In one of the traditional accounts of their lives it is stated that both Sorupananda and Tattuvaraya had done tapas in their previous lives, without realising the Self. In this version of the events of the lives it was the momentum of this past activity that manifested in their subsequent births as a desire to perform self-enquiry and to find a living Guru who could reveal the Self to them.
Acting on this impulse, they searched for a Guru together in many different places, but their quest was unsuccessful. Initially, they were both disheartened by their failure, but then it occurred to them that their chances of success might increase if they split up and searched independently in different directions.
Before they went their separate ways to continue their quest, they came to the following agreement: ‘Whichever of us is first to obtain the fortune of a true Guru's darshan, that one shall assume the position of Guru to the other.’
Sorupananda travelled to the south and Tattuvaraya to the north.
When Sorupananda reached the outskirts of the town of Govattam, located on the banks of the Kaveri River, he was overcome by bliss. His hands spontaneously formed a gesture of salutation above his head and tears flowed down his cheeks.
He thought to himself, ‘There must be a jnana Guru staying in this place’.
Sorupananda did a pradakshina of the whole town as a gesture of respect before entering the main streets to make enquiries about the powerful Guru he felt must be residing there.
Inside the town he was told that there was a reclusive holy man, Sivaprakasa Swami, who lived near the river in a grove of bushes and rarely ventured out. He had made himself a simple hut out of river rushes and avoided contact with people.
Sorupananda assumed that this must be the Guru whose power he had felt as he approached the town.
Not wanting to intrude on Sivaprakasa Swami’s privacy by approaching him directly, he stood some distance away from the hut and called out in a loud voice, ‘Save me from the ocean of birth and death by giving me jnana upadesa [teachings and initiation into jnana]!’
Sivaprakasa Swami realised immediately that an extremely mature person was calling on him for help.
He emerged from his hiding place and addressed Sorupananda: ‘Appa [a term of endearment and respect]! I have been staying in this place for a long time, waiting for you to come to me.’
Sivaprakasa Swami then gave the jnana upadesa that had been requested and shortly afterwards Sorupananda fell into a deep samadhi.
Since there is no record of Sorupananda doing any sadhana, it is generally presumed that he realised the Self shortly after his first meeting with Sivaprakasa Swami.
There are several different versions of Sorupananda’s and Tattuvaraya’s lives. Ramana Maharshi summarised the events that occur in one of the variant accounts in the following way:
Both Tattuvarayar and Sorupananda decided to go in search of a Sadguru in two different directions. Before they started they came to an understanding. Whoever finds a Sadguru first should show him to the other. However much Tattuvarayar searched, he could not find a Sadguru. Swarupananda, who was the uncle of Tattuvarayar, was naturally an older man. He went about for some time, got tired, and rested in one place. Feeling he could no longer go about in search, he prayed to the Lord, ‘O Iswara, I can no longer move about. So you yourself should send me a Sadguru.’ Having placed the burden on the Lord, he sat down in silence. By God’s grace a Sadguru came there by himself and gave him tattva upadesa [instruction for Self-realisation]. (Letters from and Recollections of Sri Ramanasramam, Suri Nagamma, 8th April 1948, pp. 21-2)
Sorupananda's name is spelt 'Swarupananda' in Ramanasramam publications while Tattuvaraya's name appears in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi as 'Tatvaroyar' and 'Tatva Rayar'.
Meanwhile, Tattuvaraya had given up his own search for a Guru. He decided instead to hunt for Sorupananda to see if he had had any better luck. There is no record of where the two of them eventually met, but when they did, Sorupananda became Tattuvaraya’s Guru in accordance with the agreement they had earlier made.
Tattuvaraya realised the Self quickly and effortlessly in the presence of Sorupananda. The opening lines of Paduturai, one of his major works, reveal just how speedily the event took place:
The feet [of Sorupananda], they are the ones that, through grace, and assuming a divine form, arose and came into this fertile world to enlighten me in the time it takes for a black gram seed to roll over. (Tiruvadai Malai, lines 1-3)
Black gram is the dhal that is one of the two principal ingredients of iddlies and dosa. It is 2–3 mm across and slightly asymmetrical, rather than spherical. This property led Tattuvaraya to write, in another verse, that Sorupananda granted him liberation in the time it took for ‘a [black] gram seed to wobble and turn over onto its side’. (Nanmanimalai verse 10)
Tattuvaraya attributed this near-instantaneous enlightenment wholly to the power and grace of his Guru, rather than to any intrinsic merit, maturity or worthiness:
It is possible to stop the wind. It is possible to flex stone. But what can be done with our furious mind? How marvellous is our Guru, he who granted that this mind should be totally transformed into the Self! My tongue, repeat this without ever forgetting.
When my Lord, who took me over by bestowing his lotus feet, glances with his look of grace, the darkness in the heart vanishes. All the things become completely clear and transform into Sivam. All the sastras are seen to point towards reality.
Most glorious Lord, if you hadn’t looked upon me with your eye of divine grace, [and illuminated me] with the light that shines as the flourishing world, as many, as jnana, and as one, where would be the mind with which I enquired, and where would I, your devotee, be?
To destroy me, you gave me one look in which there was no looking. You uprooted the ignorance of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. You brought to an end all the future births of this cruel one. O Lord, am I fit for the grace that you bestowed on me? (Venba Antadi, vv. 12, 14, 60, 69.)
Tattuvaraya realised the Self very quickly through the grace and power of his Guru Sorupananda. This led him to state, somewhat hyperbolically, in some of his writings that Sorupananda, unlike the gods, bestowed instant liberation on everyone who came into his presence.
[In order to convince the devas] Brahma, lacking the power to make them experience directly the state of being, held the red-hot iron in his hand and declared, ‘This is the ultimate reality declared by the Vedas. There is nothing else other than this. I swear to it.’ Siva as Dakshinamurti declared, ‘In all the worlds, only the four are fit; they alone are mature for tattva jnana.’ Lord [Krishna], holding the discus, had to repeat eighteen times to ignorant Arjuna, who was seated on the wheeled chariot. But here in this world [my Guru] Sorupananda bestows jnana on all as palpably as the gem on one’s palm. (Tiruvadi Malai, lines 117-126.)
Some of these incidents may need a little explanation. The Brahma Gita is the source of the story mentioned at the beginning of the verse. This text was translated from Sanskrit into Tamil by Tattuvaraya himself. His version of the relevant verses, taken from chapter five, is as follows:
96 The four-faced One [Brahma], he who creates all the worlds and is their Lord, said, ‘You [gods] who love me well, listen! Since it is I who declare to you that this is the meaning of the arcane Vedas, this is the reality beyond compare. If you are in any doubt, I will have the iron heated till it is red hot and hold it in my golden hands to prove myself free of any falsehood.’
97 He who sits upon the lotus blossom [Brahma] said, ‘[Gods, you who are] loving devotees [of Lord Siva], listen! The meaning of the Vedas, as I have explained it, is just so. There is nothing further. In order that you should be convinced of this in your minds, I have sworn a threefold oath, holding onto the feet of Lord [Siva].
Holding a red-hot iron in one’s hand was ancient trial-by-ordeal way of affirming the truth. If the flesh of the hand did not burn, then the statement uttered was deemed to be true.
Tattuvaraya made the claim in the Tiruvadi Malai lines that his Guru was more powerful and more capable of granting enlightenment than the trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu in the form of Krishna, and Siva. Elaborating on this theme, Tattuvaraya stated that Siva, appearing as Dakshinamurti, only managed to enlighten the four sages (Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara and Sanatsujata); Brahma had to resort to holding a red-hot iron and taking an oath to persuade his deva followers that his teachings were true; whereas Krishna, despite giving out the extensive teachings that are recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, wasn’t able to enlighten even Arjuna. Though this is a somewhat harsh assessment, the inability of Krishna to enlighten Arjuna through his Bhagavad Gita teachings was mentioned by Bhagavan himself:
Likewise, Arjuna, though he told Sri Krishna in the Gita ‘Delusion is destroyed and knowledge is imbibed,’ confesses later that he has forgotten the Lord’s teaching and requests Him to repeat it. Sri Krishna’s reiteration in reply is the Uttara Gita. (Sri Ramana Reminiscences, p. 52. )
While all this might sound slightly blasphemous, it is a long and well-established position in Saivism that, when it comes to enlightening devotees, the human Guru is more effective and has more power than the gods themselves.
THOUGH TATTUVARAYA knew that it was the immense power of his Guru that had granted him liberation, he was at a loss to understand why that power had ultimately singled him out as a worthy recipient of its liberating grace. In one of his long verses he ruminated on the mysterious nature of prarabdha – why events had unfolded the way they did in various narratives of the gods – before chronicling the circumstances of his own liberation in a stirring peroration:
When [even] the gods despair; when those who investigate the paths of every religion become confused and grow weary; when even they fail to reach the goal, they who perform great and arduous tapas, immersing themselves in water in winter, standing in the midst of fire in summer, and foregoing food, so that they experience the height of suffering, I do not know what it was [that bestowed jnana upon me]. Was it through the very greatness of the noble-minded one [Sorupananda]? Or through the nature of his compassion? Or was it the effect of his own [absolute] freedom [to choose me]? I was the lowest of the low, knowing nothing other than the objects of sense. I was lost, limited to this foul body of eight hands span, filled with putrid flesh. But he bade me ‘Come, come,’ granting me his grace by looking upon me with his lotus eyes. When he spoke that single word, placing his noble hands upon my head and crowning it with his immaculate noble feet, my eye of jnana opened. [Prior to this] I was without the eye [of jnana], suffering through births and deaths for countless ages. [But] when he commanded me ‘See!’, then, for me, there was no fate; there was no karma; there was no fiery-eyed death. All the world of differentiated forms became simply a manifestation of Sorupananda. (Nanmanimalai, v. 37, lines 28-50.)
The lines that immediately precede this extract discuss destiny, karma and death, and mention a claim that it is impossible to destroy them. Tattuvaraya then disagrees, citing his Guru Sorupananda’s statement: ‘We have routed good and evil deeds in this world; we have destroyed the power of destiny; we have escaped the jaws of Yama [death].’ (Nanmanimalai v. 37, line 24-26.)
In the portion of the verse cited here Tattuvaraya emphatically backs up this claim by saying that when his own eye of jnana was opened through the look and touch of his Guru, ‘for me, there was no fate; there was no karma; there was no fiery-eyed death. All the world of differentiated forms became simply a manifestation of Sorupananda.’
There are other verses which reaffirm Tattuvaraya’s statement that after he had been liberated by Sorupananda he knew nothing other than the swarupa which had taken the form of Sorupananda to enlighten him:
All that appears is only the swarupa of Sorupan[anda]. Where are the firm earth, water and fire? Where is air? Where is the ether? Where is the mind, which is delusion? Where indeed is the great maya? Where is ‘I’?
[In greatness] there is no one equal to Sorupan. Of this there is no doubt. Similarly, there is no one equal to me [in smallness]. I did not know the difference between the two of us when, in the past, I took the form of the fleshy body nor later when he had transformed me into himself by placing his honey-like lotus feet [on my head]. Now I am incapable of knowing anything. (Nanmanimalai, vv. 38, 39.)
Let some say that the Supreme is Siva. Let some say that the Supreme is Brahma or Vishnu. Let some say that Sakti and Sivam are Supreme. Let some say that it is with form. Let some say that it is formless. But we have come to know that all forms are only our Guru. (Venba Antadi, v. 8.)
Tattuvaraya wrote of the consequences of his realisation in a poem entitled ‘Pangikku Uraittal’ (Paduturai, v. 64), which can be translated as ‘The Lady Telling her Maid’. The second of the five verses, which speaks of the simple, ascetic life he subsequently led, was mentioned with approval by Bhagavan in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 648:
1Our reward was that every word we heard or said was nada [divine sound].
Our reward was to have ‘remaining still’ [summa iruttal] as our profession.
Our reward was to enter the company of virtuous devotees.
My dear companion, this is the life bestowed by our Guru.
2Our reward was to have the bare ground as our bed.
Our reward was to accept alms in the palms of our hands.
Our reward was to wear a loincloth as our clothing.
My dear companion, for us there is nothing lacking.
Bhagavan’s comment on this verse was:
I had no cloth spread on the floor in earlier days. I used to sit on the floor and lie on the ground. That is freedom. The sofa is a bondage. It is a gaol for me. I am not allowed to sit where and how I please. Is it not bondage? One must be free to do as one pleases, and should not be served by others.
‘No want’ is the greatest bliss. It can be realised only by experience. Even an emperor is no match for a man with no want. The emperor has got vassals under him. But the other man is not aware of anyone beside the Self. Which is better?
The poem continues:
3Our reward was to be reviled by all.
Our reward was that fear of this world, and of the next, died away.
Our reward was to be crowned by the lotus feet of the Virtuous One [the Guru].
My dear companion, this is the life bestowed by our Guru.
4Our reward was the pre-eminent wealth that is freedom from desire.
Our reward was that the disease called ‘desire’ was torn out by the roots.
Our reward was the love in which we melted, crying, ‘Lord!’
Ah, my dear companion, tell me, what tapas did I perform for this?
There is an indirect reference in the first line to Tirukkural 363: ‘There is no pre-eminent wealth in this world like freedom from desire. Even in the next, there is nothing to compare to it.’
The final verse says:
5Our reward was to wear the garment that never wears out.
Our reward was to possess as ‘I’ the one who is present everywhere.
Our reward was to have [our] false devotion become the true.
My dear companion, this is the life bestowed by our benevolent Guru.
‘The garment that never wears out’ is chid-akasa, the space of consciousness.
After his realisation Tattuvaraya subsequently spent much of his time absorbed in the Self. Sorupananda knew that his disciple had a great talent for composing Tamil verses and wanted him to utilise it. However, to bring him out of his samadhi and to set him on the literary path, he knew he had to coax him out of his near-perpetual samadhi state. This is how the story unfolds in the traditional version of Tattuvaraya’s life. The biographical details that follow are all taken from an introduction to a 1953 edition of Tattuvaraya’s Paduturai, published by Chidambaram Ko. Chita. Madalayam. They appear on pages 8-16.
Sorupananda thought, ‘This Tattuvaraya is highly accomplished in composing verses in Tamil. Through him, we should get some sastras composed for the benefit of the world.’It is prohibited to have an oil bath on amavasya. This breach with custom was sufficient to bring Tattuvaraya out of his Self-absorption. He spontaneously uttered ‘Am…’, presumably as a prelude to saying that it was amavasya, but then he stopped because he realised that it would be improper of him to criticise any action his Guru chose to perform. This gave Sorupananda the opportunity he was looking for:
He indicated his will through hints for a long time, but as Tattuvaraya was in nishta [Self-absorption] all the time, he could not act on the suggestions.
Sorupananda eventually decided to accomplish his objective by following a different course of action. Pretending that he wanted to have an oil bath on a new-moon day, he turned to his attendant and asked, ‘Bring oil’.
Tattuvaraya, who was standing nearby, knew that it was amavasya [new-moon day]. He began to speak by saying ‘Am…’ and then stopped.
As soon as he heard Tattuvaraya speak, Sorupananda pretended to be angry with him.
He said, ‘Can there be any prohibitions for me, I who am abiding beyond time, having transcended all the sankalpas that take the form of dos and don’ts? Do not stand before me! Leave my presence!’
Tattuvaraya thought to himself, ‘Because of my misdeed of prescribing a prohibition for my Guru, who shines as the undivided fullness of being-consciousness-bliss, it is no longer proper for me to remain in this body. There can be no atonement other than drowning myself in the sea.’
With these thoughts in his mind, he walked backwards while still facing his Guru, shedding torrents of tears at the thought of having to leave his presence.
Other versions of this story make it clear that Tattuvaraya walked backwards away from his Guru’s presence because he felt that it was improper to turn his back on his Guru. Though it is not clear in this particular retelling, he apparently walked backwards until he reached the shore of the sea where he intended to drown himself. The narrative continues:
Through the compassion he felt for other beings and through the power of the Self-experience that possessed him, he began to compose verses as he was walking [backwards towards the ocean]. These were the eighteen works he composed in praise of both his Guru and his Paramaguru [Sivaprakasa Swami]. These were noted down by some of Sorupananda’s other disciples.
As he continued to sing these eighteen works, the disciples who were following him took down what he said, [conveyed the verses to] Sorupananda, and read them in his presence.
Sorupananda pretended not to be interested: ‘Just as a woman with hair combs and ties it, this one with a mouth is composing and sending these verses.’
Another version of Tattuvaraya’s life states that Sorupananda had sent disciples to write down the verses that Tattuvaraya was composing, so his lack of interest should not be taken to be genuine. It was all part of a ruse to get his disciple to begin his literary career.
Meanwhile, Tattuvaraya was pining and lamenting: ‘Alas, I have become unfit to have the darshan of my Guru. Henceforth, in which birth will I have his darshan?’
Like a child prevented from seeing its mother, he was weeping so much, his whole face became swollen. At this point he was singing ‘Tiruvadimalai’ from Paduturai. He was close to the edge of the sea and was about to die.
When the disciples went to Sorupananda and updated him about these events, he [relented and] said, ‘Ask the ‘Guruvukku Veengi’ [the one whose obsessive desire for his Guru is making him ill] to come here’.
When Tattuvaraya heard about this, he was completely freed from his bodily suffering, and he also regained the power to walk [forwards].
The Pulavar Puranam, an anthology of the biographies of Tamil poet-saints, reports in verse thirteen of the Tattuvaraya chapter that he was already neck-deep in the sea when Sorupananda summoned him to return. The story continues:
He [Tattuvaraya] told the disciples [who had arrived with the message], ‘Sorupananda, the repository of grace and compassion, has ordered even me, a great offender, to return’.
Experiencing supreme bliss, he sang some more portions of Paduturai, and then returned to the presence of the Guru. He stood there, shedding tears, in ecstasy, singing the praises of his Guru.
Sorupananda merely said, ‘Iru’.
Iru is the imperative of a verb that means both ‘Be’ and ‘Stay’. In choosing this word Sorupananda was ordering him both to remain physically with him and also to continue to abide in the state of being.
Tattuvaraya lived happily there, serving his Guru.
Sorupananda went through the works that Tattuvaraya had composed and was delighted with their depth of meaning and the grandeur of their vocabulary. However, he made no sign of the joy he felt.
Then he thought to himself, ‘These sastras will be useful only for the learned and not for others’.
He told Tattuvaraya, ‘Son, you have sung all these sastras for your own benefit, but not for the benefit of the people of the world’.
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the cooks who informed Sorupananda, ‘Swami, you should come to have your food’.
When Sorupananda went for his meal, Tattuvaraya, who was left alone, pondered over the words of his Guru. Concurring with his remarks, he composed Sasivanna Bodham before Sorupananda had returned from eating his meal. He placed it at the feet of his Guru [when Sorupananda reappeared] and prostrated. Sorupananda was delighted at the simplicity of its style and the speed with which Tattuvaraya composed poetry.
The next development of the story revolves around an incident that Ramana Maharshi mentioned or retold on several occasions:
Tattuvaraya composed some Vedanta sastras, but was mostly in samadhi. Around that time some Virasaivas, who were on a pilgrimage, along with some pandits, came before Tattuvaraya, who was sitting in the presence of Sorupananda.
[They read the bharani and complained:] ‘A bharani is [only] sung about great heroes who have killed a thousand male elephants on the battlefield. How is it that you have composed this [kind of poem] on your Guru who has not heard of or known heroic valour even in his dreams?’
To this Tattuvaraya replied, ‘As our Guru kills the ego-elephants of disciples, I sang in this way’.
They responded, ‘The ego-elephant that you mention is not visible to the eye, so it is not proper [to compose in this way]. However, even to kill one ego-elephant would take many, many days. How did he manage to kill the egos of 1,000 disciples simultaneously?’
Tattuvaraya, thinking that they should be shown through a demonstration, resumed his samadhi state, without replying to them.
Under the power and influence of Sorupananda all the pandits who came remained in paripurnam [had the full experience of the Self] for three days, without knowing either night or day. On the fourth day Tattuvaraya opened his eyes. All the pandits arose and prostrated to both Tattuvaraya and Sorupananda.
They said, ‘It was because of our ignorance that we objected. The power of your [Sorupananda’s] presence is such that even if 10,000 disciples happen to come, it [the presence] has the ability to mature them all simultaneously.’
Then they composed their own verses in praise of the bharani and departed.
This is Bhagavan’s slightly different version of the same story. As with other incidents from the lives of Sorupananda and Tattuvaraya, the differences can be ascribed to separate and slightly divergent accounts of their lives:
Tattuvaraya composed a bharani in honour of his Guru Sorupananda and convened an assembly of learned pandits to hear the work and assess its value. The pandits raised the objection that a bharani was only composed in honour of great heroes capable of killing a thousand elephants, and that it was not in order to compose such a work in honour of an ascetic. Thereupon the author said, ‘Let us all go to my Guru and we shall have this matter settled there’. They went to the Guru and, after all had taken their seats, the author told his Guru the purpose of their coming there. The Guru sat silent and all the others also remained in mauna. The whole day passed, night came, and some more days and nights, and yet all sat there silently, no thought at all occurring to any of them and nobody thinking or asking why they had come there. After three or four days like this, the Guru moved his mind a bit and thereupon the assembly regained their thought activity. They then declared, ‘Conquering a thousand elephants is nothing beside this Guru’s power to conquer the rutting elephants of all our egos put together. So certainly he deserves the bharani in his honour!’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 21st November 1945)
There is a very similar retelling of the bharani incident in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 262.