(First published in The Mountain Path, 2000, pp. 179-87.)
Sri Bhagavan's mother attained Self-realisation in her dying moments on the evening of 19th May, 1922. The devotees, after some deliberations, decided that her body should be buried, rather than cremated, since that was the accepted procedure for women saints. They realised that it would be necessary to select a burial site at the foot of the hill, rather than on the hill itself, since the Arunachaleswara Temple authorities, who administered the part of the hill on which Skandashram had been built, would not allow any bodies to be buried on the mountain itself. Their logic was that since the mountain itself was a Siva
lingam, it would be an act of desecration to inter a dead body on it. There was another temple rule, which was also strictly enforced, that forbade the worship of any images on the hill. This meant that even if the devotees had secretly buried the body on the hill, they would not have been permitted to raise a shrine over it and perform ritual worship there. In the 1930s Bhagavan revealed, in a deposition about the ownership of Arunachala, that the temple authorities had reminded him of one of these rules shortly after his mother had died:
On the hill there was one Saraswati Swami. That swami advertised that he wanted to perform ritual worship before an image of Lord Subramanian on the hill. The temple authorities objected and stopped it. In an official notice they said that the hill itself is
Linga swarupa, and that to do ritual worship of another image on it, and to celebrate festivals there, is against the tradition of the
sastras. On another occasion, when my mother attained samadhi, they raised a precautionary objection that her
samadhi should not be on the hill; they feared that we might build her
samadhi on the hill itself. On this occasion also their objection was that the hill is
Bhagavan concurred with this attitude by saying, a little later in his deposition, 'There is an ancient tradition that this hill is
Linga swarupa; that is to say, this hill itself is God. This tradition is not to be found anywhere else. That is the cause of the glory of this place.'
Because of these rules and traditions it was decided, on the evening the Mother died, that her body should be buried at the foot of the hill on the southern side of Arunachala. This location was selected because it was a traditional site for the burial of
sadhus. It seems that Bhagavan initially wanted the body to be buried secretly and without ostentatious ceremonies. In later years he told T. P. Ramachandra Iyer that he had instructed the devotees to 'take the body in the dark without making any noise and without anyone knowing about it. Make a pit in no-man's land. Bury it quickly and come back before dawn.'
Since it would have been extremely difficult to carry the body down the hill in the middle of the night, the plan was never carried out. Instead, the devotees sat around the body until about 4 a.m., chanting verses from the
Tiruvachakam. The burial party eventually left with the body just before dawn, at about 5 a.m.
The site that was initially selected for the samadhi was rather close to the road. Sri Ramakrishna Iyer, a devotee who was also the village munsif, suggested that it be relocated nearer the hill. He pointed out that if the burial site was well away from the road, it would be very convenient to construct a temple over it in later years. His suggestion was accepted and a large
samadhi pit was dug according to the rules in the Tirumantiram that had been laid down for the burial of
I asked Kunju Swami, who was present at Skandashram when the Mother died, why no one had attempted to carry out Bhagavan's original instructions. He replied:
It wasn't possible to get some of the things done in the middle of the night. Mother died late in the evening. Afterwards, there was a lot of work to do and many things to arrange. We needed to get the permission of the village munsif and also the permission of the Bavaji
Math, which owned the land on which the
samadhi pit was dug. These people were not available in the middle of the night. I didn't get the feeling that Bhagavan was serious about the hasty burial because he kept most of us at Skandashram and initiated a chanting of the
Tiruvachakam that lasted almost the whole night. Mother's body did not leave Skandashram until shortly before dawn.
We wanted to do it properly. There is a tradition that if you bury a
jnani's body in ordinary earth, that will be bad for any nearby town. It is equally bad if you burn it. In the Mother's case a special deep pit was made, lined with stones. In Tirumular's
Tirumantiram it says that a jnani's body must be buried in a pit lined with stones. We followed this rule, but I don't thing that we followed all the other traditional rules because we were not aware of some of them at the time.
While the samadhi pit was being dug, the Mother's body was seated under a big peepul tree on the bank of the Pali Tirtham. So many devotees came from town to pay their last respects that a large area of cactus and shrub had to be cleared to accommodate them. After
abhishekam had been done to the body, it was taken to the place of burial. Kunju Swami has described what happened next:
Sacred ash and sacred grasses were put inside the samadhi and the Mother's body was lowered into it. Sri Bhagavan and others each put in a handful of
vibhuti and camphor. It was then covered with a stone slab on the top of which was placed a Siva
lingam. The lingam was then worshipped in the traditional manner. At twelve noon all of us left for Palakottu. Bhagavan walked very slowly while the
nadaswaram played on his instrument with great enthusiasm. The distance from the
samadhi to Palakottu is not much more than a hundred yards, but it took the procession an hour to cover the distance. It was a beautiful scene as the musician played on his instrument with great gusto, looking to Bhagavan who was setting the slow pace at the head of the procession and slightly swaying in time to the rhythm on the
From that day on, puja was performed daily at the shrine. On the tenth day after the Mother's liberation a special
puja was done, about a thousand people were fed, and the
mokshadeepam, the light of liberation, was lit at the shrine. Thereafter, Bhagavan's brother, Chinnaswami, undertook the job of maintaining the
samadhi and doing daily puja there.
Bhagavan continued to live at Skandashram but Chinnaswami and Dandapani Swami decided that they would live full-time near the Mother's
samadhi. They erected a coconut-leaf hut over the shrine and built another hut nearby that they used as a kitchen. Rice, dhal and other provisions were brought down daily from Skandashram. These were converted into meals for the
sadhus and into food offerings for the daily puja. Sometimes, when no food was available, Chinnaswami had to go begging in town to acquire the provisions for the daily
At this stage of the ashram's development, food was often in short supply. The items of food that devotees contributed were stored in Vasudeva Sastry's house in Tiruvannamalai. Each day he would send enough provisions to Skandashram for a meal to be cooked there. As some of these provisions were taken to the Mother's
samadhi, the sadhus who lived at Skandashram occasionally did not have enough food to eat. Vasudeva Sastry felt that there were insufficient resources to maintain two establishments, one at Skandashram and the other at the Mother's
samadhi. Since some of the other devotees felt the same way, he sent a note to Ramanatha Brahmachari, who was living at Skandashram, which read, 'Devotees give not to Vasudeva but to Vaasudeva'. Since Vasudeva was the parent of Vaasudeva, the note implied that the devotees wanted their donations to go to Bhagavan and not to the institution that was beginning to grow up around the Mother's
When Ramanatha Brahmachari showed the note to Bhagavan, Bhagavan expressed his approval of the activities that were going on at the Mother's
samadhi by saying, 'How could there be Vaasudeva without Vasudeva?'
When this remark was conveyed to Vasudeva Sastry, he abandoned his opposition to the diversion of food.
Shortly afterwards, Bhagavan left Skandashram for good and went to live in the hut that had been built over the Mother's
samadhi. In later years he would say that it had been the 'divine will' that had prompted him to move down the hill and take up residence in his mother's shrine.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was the divine will that prevented him from leaving the shrine to go back to Skandashram, for he once told Devaraja Mudaliar, 'After Mother's death I used to come down now and then to the
samadhi and return to Skandashram. One day, about six months after Mother's death, I went there on one such visit and after sitting there for some time, wanted to get up and go back. However, something told me that I should not go back but stay on there. It was as if my legs refused to get up. And I stayed on. That is how the
asramam began. Who knew then that all this would grow up?'(2)
Bhagavan added further sanctity to the Mother's
samadhi by living in the small building that had been erected over it for a period of 5½ years. He only moved out of it in 1928 when the devotees constructed the old hall on an adjacent piece of land.
In the mid-1920s Bhagavan himself decided that a more substantial building was needed to house the Mother's
samadhi. He decided to utilise some badly baked bricks that had been abandoned by some brick makers who had set up a temporary kiln near the ashram. Some devotees in town were called in to help move the bricks. One night they formed a human chain, with Bhagavan as one of the links, and transferred all the bricks one by one to the ashram. The following day a mud-and-brick wall was constructed around the
samadhi. Bhagavan himself did all the work on the inside of the wall while a professional mason worked on the outside. The 'temple' was completed by erecting a thatched roof on top of the wall. This construction, the forerunner of the temple that now stands on the same site, remained unchanged for more than ten years.
In the 1930s Sri Ramanashram began to develop and expand. The cowshed, the dining room and the kitchen, the storeroom, the
patasala, the old office and the bookstore were all built in a burst of activity between 1929 and 1938. At the end of this period the only remaining large, uncompleted project was a plan to build a proper stone temple over the Mother's
samadhi. Since the construction of such a temple would be enormously expensive, many devotees were opposed to the plan on the grounds that it would be a white elephant that the ashram could ill afford. At Bhagavan's sixtieth birthday celebrations, which took place in January 1939, there was a long debate between those devotees who wanted a big temple and those who thought that the ashram's funds would be better invested in building more accommodation for visitors. The anti-temple group also wanted to acquire large tracts of land on which the ashram's food could be grown. Bhagavan remained aloof from the debate and no one at that time really knew what his own views on the subject were.
Although Bhagavan delegated most day-to-day management decisions to Chinnaswami, the ashram manager, he exercised a strict control over all the ashram's building projects. It was Bhagavan alone who decided when buildings should be constructed, where they should be built, on what scale they should be constructed, and even who should be put in charge of building them. He personally drew up the plans for many of the large buildings that now exist in the ashram, and he refused even to look at alternative plans and blueprints that had been drawn up by professional engineers and architects. It was clear, therefore, that no action could be taken until Bhagavan himself gave the word.
Throughout the 1930s Annamalai Swami had been supervising all the major building projects in the ashram. Each day he would receive his instructions directly from Bhagavan, and each evening he would go back to Bhagavan to tell him how much had been completed and how much still remained to be done. Chinnaswami therefore decided that Annamalai Swami was the best person to find out what Bhagavan's intentions really were.
He approached him and said, 'Bhagavan always tells his buildings plans directly to you. Please ask him what we should do about the Mother's Temple. Ask him whether we should build it simply or on a large scale.'
When Annamalai Swami conveyed the query to Bhagavan, Bhagavan finally disclosed his decision: 'If it is constructed well, and on a large scale, I shall be happy.'
Chinnaswami, who had been in doubt about Bhagavan's intentions, was delighted because he had been wanting to build a big temple over his mother's
samadhi for many years. He immediately began to make preparations for the construction.
Since it was not ordinary building work, a qualified outsider had to be brought in. After careful consideration, the whole project was entrusted to Vaidyantha Sthapati, an expert in temple architecture and engineering. He brought with him many accomplished stone-masons who had had a lot of experience in temple construction.
When the project started, the ashram only had enough money to pay for a small portion of the work. Bhagavan knew that funds were in short supply but he made it clear that he wanted the temple to be financed out of unsolicited donations. He repeatedly told Chinnaswami and all the other devotees that they should never ask for funds on the ashram's behalf. Chinnaswami, however, felt that the temple could not be built without an aggressive fund-raising drive, so he went against Bhagavan's wishes and made several attempts to raise money. One typical effort, which was followed by a typical Bhagavan response, was described by T. P. Ramachandra Iyer in
There was once a shortage of funds while the temple was being built. Money was needed immediately. At that time a man called Chaganlal Yogi came from Bombay for the first time. On seeing him Chinnaswami suggested to me: 'We need Rs 50,000 for the temple. So why don't the three of us go to Jamnalal Bajaj for the money and bring it? Introduce Chaganlal Yogi to me so that we can start.'
Chaganlal Yogi felt that the proposal was unacceptable. But because he was a newcomer and was feeling rather shy, he felt that he had no alternative but to accept. Chinnaswami made all the arrangements for his luggage but before we could depart we had first to cross the hurdle of telling Bhagavan about our mission. Chinnaswami never came before Bhagavan to speak; he always used to send a messenger if information had to be passed on to Bhagavan. On this occasion he selected me and asked me to tell Bhagavan about our journey.
'How can I tell Bhagavan such a thing?' I asked. 'You come with me.'
Chinnaswami did not even have the courage for that so we had to collect some other people. We all went to Bhagavan while he was having a rest alone in the afternoon. We stood before him for some time but he didn't even look at us. His gaze was fixed elsewhere.
Each of us wanted one of the others to speak. Finally, Mouniswami told him what we wanted. For a long time Bhagavan made no response, but eventually he spoke: 'I have told you not to beg in my name. Now I am telling you again. Be satisfied with what you have. What is to happen will happen.
'If you now go and ask for money, will not the donors ask you whether you have my agreement or not, and whether I gave you permission for this? What do you intend to tell them if they ask questions like this?'
Chaganlal Yogi had got the excuse he was looking for. He told Bhagavan, 'Unless we tell them that you consented to this, none of them will given even a paisa.'
What more could they do? They slipped out one by one, and Chinnaswami's journey was cancelled.
After this incident Bhagavan remarked, 'Did the construction of all these buildings occur because of my begging? It all happened in the way it was destined to happen. Nothing happens purely as a result of anyone's own efforts.'
Bhagavan's attitude to the construction work, and to the financing of it, is also brought out in the following stories which were narrated to me by Annamalai Swami:
Because all the stone masons who were working on the temple were paid on a daily basis, I was asked to supervise some of them to ensure that the ashram got value for money. Although I knew nothing about temple construction, I had had enough experience of supervising workers to see that the stone-masons were deliberately working very slowly. Since they were classified as skilled workers, they were getting a very high daily wage for doing very little. It seemed to me that they were deliberately taking about three days to do one day's work. I told them that they were cheating the ashram, and I tried to persuade them to work more honestly, but they refused to change their ways.
One of them told me, 'All you people are eating and sleeping here for nothing. Why are you troubling us about work? It is no loss to you if we work slowly.'
After a few unsuccessful attempts to get them to work, I reported the matter to Bhagavan.
I told him, 'The temple workers are working very slowly. In the evening Chinnaswami pays them whatever I have written on the wages list. I don't like to waste the ashram's money on dishonest workers, but I have no authority to dismiss them. If I write each day that they must be paid for work that they have not done, am I not also cheating the ashram?'
Bhagavan replied, 'Don't worry about this matter. If they cheat like this and get money that they have not earned out of the ashram, this money will not stay with them. Ultimately they will find that their only possessions are their hammers and chisels. The wages that they have received dishonestly will go to waste. They cannot cheat Bhagavan, they can only cheat themselves.'
Then, after pausing for a while, he added, 'We should not worry about the financial aspect of the work because God will supply all the money that we need.'
As usual, Bhagavan's faith was justified. The temple put a severe strain on the ashram's finances but we always managed to keep the work going. On some days the ashram had to depend on donations received during the day to pay the wages in the evening. At the start of the day we would hire workers, even though we knew that we had no money to pay them. During the day donations would arrive in various ways and by evening there would always be enough to pay the workers.'
Bhagavan made daily visits to the temple to watch the progress of the construction and to inspect the quality of the workmanship. If any of the work was not up to standard, he would call attention to it and request that the necessary improvements be made. On one visit, for example, he pointed out that there was too much space between the flagstones around the
garbhagraha (the inner shrine), and on another occasion he requested that some cracks in the wall be property pointed with cement. Bhagavan occasionally initiated jobs himself. For example, when the walls of the
garbhagraha had been completed, Bhagavan decided that the name of the temple should be inscribed on the front wall. Annamalai Swami, who was asked to help with this work, told me how it was done:
If one looks over the entrance to the garbhagraha one can see two elephants carved out of stone. Under their feet is a carved stone scroll. The full name of the temple,
'Mathrubuteswaralayam', meaning 'the temple of God in the form of the Mother', is carved in stone on this scroll. Bhagavan himself wrote out this name for me in big Sanksrit letters. His idea was that I should make a stencil and then paint the letters on the scroll. Later, one of the
sthapatis would carve out the name by chiselling out the area covered by the painted letters.
I sat in Bhagavan's presence in the hall, carefully cutting out the name. I kept all my attention on the work because I knew that I would not be able to get away with even the smallest of mistakes. Bhagavan was watching me all the time I was working. At about 3 p.m. Bhagavan used to go out of the hall to urinate. At that time, on that day, he stood up and started to move towards the door. Everyone in the hall, except for me, stood up. I was in the middle of cutting out a letter; but I didn't want to risk spoiling it by taking my scissors away from the paper.
I heard a man muttering behind me, 'Bhagavan has stood up but this man has no respect. He is still sitting on the floor. He hasn't even stopped working.'
Bhagavan must have also heard this man because he seemed to change his mind about going outside. Instead, he came and sat next to me on the floor. He put his hand on my shoulder and watched intently as I finished cutting out that letter. Then, without bothering to take his expected trip outside, he got up and sat on his couch again. After that there were no more complaints about my disrespect.
When the cutting was over, I painted the letters on the scroll under the elephants' feet. As I was working there, the chief
sthapati tried to stop me.
He called up to me: 'Stop doing that! I am the only man who is competent to write letters like that. How can you do these things properly?'
Bhagavan came to my rescue again. He had been standing nearby, watching me paint the letters. He silenced the
sthapati by saying, 'He did not do it on his own authority. I myself told him to do it.'
The construction of the temple, which was concluded at the beginning of 1949, took approximately ten years. When it was finished the temple complex included a large stone hall that was originally intended to replace the old hall that Bhagavan had lived in since 1928. A large stone sofa was installed there for him to sit on, but when it came time to make the move, Bhagavan clearly indicated that he didn't want to either sit or live there. When he was first shown where his new sofa would be located, he complained that if he sat there, the monkeys and squirrels would not longer have access to him. And later, when a sculptor was carving a stone statue of him, he deflected a request that he move into the new hall by saying, 'Why don't you get the stone Swami to sit on the stone sofa?' He was finally persuaded to sit in the new hall, but even after the move he still continued to complain. After some time in his new residence he noticed a group of villagers trying to summon up courage to come in and see him. On that occasion he protested that the hall had been built on such a grandiose scale, poor people who wanted
darshan would be too intimated by the size and grandeur of the building to enter it. Bhagavan eventually stayed in the new hall for about six months. The remaining few months of his life were spent in the
Although the main purpose of the Mother's Temple and the adjoining new hall was to provide an appropriate structure over the
samadhi of the Mother, Chinnaswami had long nurtured an idea that Bhagavan's
samadhi could also be incorporated into it. It seems that he had a plan to inter Bhagavan's body in a shrine that would be slightly to the north of the new hall. Chinnaswami had planned to make a large doorway in the northern wall that would connect the new hall with this shrine. In his
reminiscences (3) K. K. Nambiar related the story of how Chinnaswami asked him to build a portion of the northern veranda of the new hall in such a way that it could be easily dismantled and replaced by an additional
samadhi shrine. Chinnaswami tried to get Bhagavan's approval for this scheme. He sent a plan to Bhagavan that gave details of a large doorway in the northern wall of the new hall, but Bhagavan rejected it and sent back a reply that the wall should remain as it was. It would seem from these incidents that although Bhagavan fully supported the construction of the Mother's Temple, he had no inclination either to live or be buried in any part of it.
The kumbhabhishekam ceremony for the Mother's Temple, which was performed in March 1949, was a fitting climax to the years of effort that had been expended in its construction. The ceremonies, which lasted for four days, were attended by tens of thousands of people from all over India. On the final day alone, over 15,000 people were fed in the ashram. So many visitors came that extra trains were laid on from Madras and Madurai. For four days a shuttle service of buses ferried visitors to and from the train station, and the local Post Office had to be temporarily upgraded and expanded for a week to handle all the extra business. Two hundred priests, under the supervision of the Sankaracharya of Puri, carried out the rituals, while Bhagavan himself empowered the Sri Chakra that was to be worshipped in the main shrine. The temple had come a long way from the coconut-leaf hut of 1922.
Bhagavan himself summed up the rapid development of both the temple and the ashram when he remarked to T. P. Ramachandra Iyer, 'I suggested that the body be buried silently before dawn. But things happened the way they had to happen. See how many constructions have now come up on the site where a body was silently buried!'