Swami Viswanatha

As I Saw Him

by Swami Viswanatha

MY FIRST darshan of Bhagavan Sri Ramana was in January, 1921 at Skandashram, which is on the eastern slope of Arunachala and looks like the very heart of the majestic hill. It is a beautiful quiet spot with a few coconut and other trees and a perennial crystal-clear spring. Bhagavan was there as the very core of such natural beauty.

I saw in him something quite arresting which clearly distinguished him from all others I had seen. He seemed to live apart from the physical frame, quite detached from it. His look and smile had remarkable spiritual charm. When he spoke, the words seemed to come out of an abyss. One could see immaculate purity and non-attachment in him and his movements. I sensed something very refined, lofty and sacred about him. In his vicinity the mind's distractions weri overpowered by an austere and potent calmness and the unique bliss of peace was directly experienced. This I would call Ramana lahari, 'the blissful atmosphere of Ramana.' In this ecstasy of grace one loses one's sense of separate individuality and there remains something grand and all-pervading, all-devouring. This indeed is the spirit of Arunachala which swallows up the whole universe by its gracious effulgence.

There were about ten devotees living with him there, including his mother and younger brother. One of them was Vallimalai Murugar, who for a while every morning sang the Tamil songs of the Tirupugazh with great fervour. These well-known songs, the remarkable outpourings of the famous devotee, Sri Arunagirinatha, are songs in praise of Subrahmanya. When he sang, Bhagavan used to keep time (tala) by tapping with two small sticks on the two rings of an iron brazier of live coal kept in front of him. Fumes of incense spread out in rolls from the brazier, suffused with the subtle holy atmosphere of Bhagavan. While Bhagavan's hands were tapping at the brazier thus, his unfathomable look of grace gave one a glimpse of the Beyond in silence. It was an unforgettable experience.

There was also a devotee from Chidambaram, Subrahmanya Iyer, who often sang with great fervour Tiruvachagam, hymns in praise of Arunachala by Bhagavan, and songs in praise of Bhagavan also. One morning when he began a song with the refrain, "Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru Rayane," Bhagavan also joined in the singing. The devotee got amused and began to laugh at Bhagavan himself singing his own praise. He expressed his amusement and Bhagavan replied, "What is extraordinary about it? Why should one limit Ramana to a form of six feet? Is it not the all-pervading Divinity that you adore when you sing 'Ramana Satguru, Ramana Satguru?' Why should I not also join in the singing?" We all felt lifted to Bhagavan's standpoint.

The inmates of the Ashrama used to get up at dawn and sing some devotional songs in praise of Arunachala and Bhagavan Ramana before beginning their day's work. Niranjanananda Swami told Bhagavan that I could recite hymns in Sanskrit, and Bhagavan looked at me expectantly. Seeing that it was impossible to avoid it, I recited a few verses in Sanskrit. When I had finished, Bhagavan gently looked at me and said, "You have learned all this. Not so, my case. I knew nothing, had learned nothing before I came here. Some mysterious power took possession of me and effected a thorough transformation. Whoever knew then what was happening to me? Your father, who was intending in his boyhood to go to the Himalayas for tapas, has become the head of a big family. And I, who knew nothing and planned nothing, have been drawn and kept down here for good! When I left home (in my seventeenth year), I was like a speck swept on by a tremendous flood. I knew not my body or the world, whether it was day or night. It was difficult even to open my eyes - the eyelids seemed to be glued down. My body became a mere skeleton. Visitors pitied my plight as they were not aware how blissful I was. It was after years that I came across the term 'Brahman' when I happened to look into some books on Vedanta brought to me. Amused, I said to myself, 'Is this known as Brahman'!" One of the earliest devotees, Sivaprakasam Pillai, has referred to this at the beginning of his brief biography of Bhagavan in Tamil verse (known as Sri Ramana Charita Ahaval) as, "One who became a knower of Brahman without knowing even the term Brahman." Sivaprakasam Pillai used to sit in a corner in Bhagavan's presence, as the very embodiment of humility.

Finding that I knew a bit of Sanskrit, Bhagavan asked me to take down a copy of Ramana Gita and give it to my father. I did so, and it was only after going through it that my father understood Bhagavan. Yet I myself had not studied its contents. It was at the end of 1922 that I happened to go through the thrilling verses in praise of Bhagavan Ramana and, profoundly moved, I made up my mind to return to Bhagavan for good. Thus, Sri Ramana Gita served to give direction to me in a critical period of my life when I was thinking of dedicating myself solely to the spiritual pursuit.

As it was impossible to get the permission of my father, I left home unknown to any and reached Tiruvannamalai on the evening of the 2nd of January, 1923. Hearing that Bhagavan had left Skandashram and was then living in a cottage adjoining his mother's samadhi on the southern side of Arunachala, I made my way straight to it, after meditating for a while at sunset time. Proceeding round the Hill, I reached the cottage where Bhagavan was then living. Entering it, I saw Bhagavan reclining peacefully on an elevated dais. As I bowed and stood before him, he asked me, "Did you take the permission of your parents to come over here?" I was caught, and I replied that he need not ask me about it since he had himself irresistibly attracted me to his feet. With a smile, Bhagavan advised me to inform my parents of my whereabouts so that they might be somewhat free from anxiety. I wrote to my father the next day and saw his letter to the Ashrama inquiring about me the day after.

There was a gathering of devotees there and I came to know that it was for the forty-third birthday celebration of Bhagavan the next day. So I learned that I had come to Bhagavan on the evening of the famous Arudra Darshanam day. Early next morning there was a gathering of devotees - they were sitting before Bhagavan. But my attention was particularly gripped by a radiant personality amidst the gathering. He was, I came to know, Kavyakantha Ganapati Sastri. At once I saw that he was not merely a sastri, a learned man, but a poet and a tapaswin. His broad forehead, bright eyes, aquiline nose, charming face and beard, and the melodious ring in his voice - all these proclaimed that he was a rishi to be ranked with the foremost of the Vedic Seers. There was authority, dignity and sweetness in his talk, and his eyes sparkled as he spoke. He recited the following verse (sloka) in praise of Bhagavan, which he had just then composed, and explained its import :

1) It is effulgent Devi Uma sparkling in your eyes dispelling the ignorance of devotees;

2) It is Lakshmi Devi, the consort of lotus-eyed Vishnu, alive in your lotus face;

3) It is Para Vak Saraswati, the consort of Brahma, dancing in your talk.

4) Great Seer, Ramana, the Teacher of the whole world,

5) How can mortal man praise you adequately?

Those who have come in contact with Ganapati Muni would find this verse well-suited to describe him as well.

After the devotees who had gathered for the birthday celebration of Bhagavan left the Ashrama, I approached him with my problem: "How am I to rise above my present animal existence? My own efforts in that direction have proved futile and I am convinced that it is only a superior might that could transform me. And that is what has brought me here." Bhagavan replied with great compassion, "Yes, you are right. It is only on the awakening of a power mightier than the senses and the mind that these can be subdued. If you awaken and nurture the growth of that power within you, everything else will be conquered. One should sustain the current of meditation uninterrupted. Moderation in food and similar restraints will be helpful in maintaining the inner poise." It was this grace of Bhagavan that gave a start to my spiritual career. A new faith was kindled within me and I found in Bhagavan the strength and support to guide me forever.

Another day, questioned about the problem of brahmacharya, Bhagavan replied, "To live and move in Brahman is real brahmacharya; continence, of course, is very helpful and indispensable to achieve that end. But so long as you identify yourself with the body, you could never escape sex-thought and distraction. It is only when you realise that you are formless Pure Awareness that sex-distinction disappears for good and that is brahmacharya, effortless and spontaneous."

A week after I arrived, I got the permission of Bhagavan to live on madhukari, i.e., begged food. In that context, Bhagavan spoke as follows: "I have experience of it; I lived on such food during my stay at Pavalakkundru to avoid devotees bringing for me special rich food. It is altogether different from professional mendicancy. Here you feel yourself independent and indifferent to everything worldly. It has a purifying effect on the mind."

Four months after my arrival at Arunachala, my parents came there to have darshan of Bhagavan and take me back home. Though they did not succeed in this latter intention, they were somehow consoled by Bhagavan before they returned. He told them, "If it were possible to wean one from a course one had taken with all one's heart and soul, parents might, as a matter of duty, try it if it was a wrong course that one had taken; the problem did not arise, if the course taken was intrinsically good." My father was a cousin of Bhagavan four or five years older than he and knew him very well as Venkataraman before he left home for Tiruvannamalai. Though he had heard from others about Bhagavan's spiritual greatness and had also gone through his teaching in Sri Ramana Gita and verses in praise of him by his scholar-poet disciple, Ganapati Muni, he was not sure what his reaction would be on seeing Bhagavan. He decided to go to him with an open mind and see for himself what he was. But the moment he sighted him in the stone mantapa (on the other side of the Ashrama), he was overpowered by a sense of genuine veneration, fell at his feet in adoration and said, "There is nothing of the Venkataraman whom I knew very well in what I see in front of me!" And Bhagavan replied with a smile, "It is long since that fellow disappeared once for all!"

My father then explained that he did not visit him so long because he had not enough of dispassion and non-attachment to approach him. Bhagavan replied, "Is that so? You seem to be obsessed by the delusion that you are going to achieve it in some distant future. But, if you recognise your real nature, the Self, to what is it attached? Dispassion is our very nature."

As the Ashrama cottage was being repaired, Bhagavan stayed in the huge stone mantapa on the other side of the road during day time and devotees had darshan of him there. Bhagavan used to dine with others under the shade of a huge mango tree within the Ashrama premises. The cool, clear water of the Ashrama well was kept in big pots at the foot of the tree. We enjoyed the shade of the tree and the grace of Bhagavan which, like a cool breeze, blew off man's torments.

As advised by Bhagavan, I engaged myself in non-stop japa, day and night, except during hours of sleep. And I studied Sri Ramana Gita in the immediate presence of Bhagavan, drinking in the import of every sloka in it. Bhagavan explained to me his own Hymn in Praise of Arunachala. Even during his morning and evening walks I used to follow him, hearing his explanations of his inspired words. Early one morning there was no one else near Bhagavan and he suggested that we both might go round Arunachala and return before others could notice his absence and begin to search for him. He took me by the forest-path and suggested that Sankara's Hymn in Praise of Dakshinamurti might be taken up for discussion on the way. And within three hours we reached Pandava Thirtham on the slopes of Arunachala, a little to the east of the Ashrama, where he used to bathe on a few former occasions.

I shall not pretend that I understood everything that Bhagavan said in explaining the import of the hymn, but there was the spiritual exhilaration of his company in solitude and that was enough for me.