Geeta Bhatt

The Meaning of Sri Ramanasramam

By Geeta Bhatt

Geeta Bhatt, a devotee from New York City, interweaves the story of many pilgrims with her own, revealing the true meaning of Sri Ramanasramam and how the Maharshi continues to guide and bless seekers from the world over.

THIS PAST FEBRUARY I stayed at Sri Ramanasramam for a total of ten days. Not a significant time in the larger scheme of things, but significant in the sense of what happens there, or more importantly, afterwards.

My past visits to the abode of the Maharshi were filled with memorable events. Every minute of the stay was filled with observable occurrences, but this time, why wasn't I feeling anything? In fact, I was acutely aware, on the physical level, of all the noise, the crowds and the routine of life at the ashramam. I sat in the Old Hall, observed the pujas to Bhagavan's shrine, listened to the Vedas, to the Tamil parayana, walked around in the Matrubhuteshwara Temple and did the giripradakshina on Mahasivaratri night. But I couldn't understand why all these activities lacked the emotional intensity that I had always experienced and now expected!

I walked around the ashramam with an inner ease and calm, but that I attributed to the familiarity of the surroundings and to the knowledge that I was accepted as an integral part of the larger Ramana family. Outwardly it appeared as if the number of visitors to the ashramam had increased tenfold since the last time I was there. There were bus loads of school children on field trips, villagers on pilgrimage, western tourists on 'check out all the ashrams' route, Hindu pilgrims, the curious and those filled with wanderlust. Why did it feel to me that there were more of these than the sincere seekers? And then it happened ....

After dinner when I was walking towards the main gate there was a total blackout. All the lights went out. Not wanting to walk in the dark, I sat down in the little room used for leaving foot wear. A young lady was sitting there, and a little later an older woman joined us. We began to talk, and as the conversation progressed the real purpose of my visit started to take shape. The young woman said she was from England and of Portuguese descent. This was her second visit to India and now she had found what she was looking for - BHAGAVAN. She said, "I am probably the first Portuguese to come here. I haven't heard of any other Portuguese ever coming to Bhagavan." I told her that for the last few months I was searching for the copy of the book * In Days of Great Peace, by Mouni Sadhu, a Portuguese devotee and a sadhaka, who had written this most amazing book of his sadhana under Bhagavan's watchful gaze. This book had made a profound impression on me. On my second visit to Sri Ramanasramam I read his account and was deeply moved and touched by his writing. In fact there is only one copy of his book in the library and that for "reference only". The young woman, whose name I never got, was overwhelmed by this information and said, "It's strange that I should meet you."

The older German woman, whose name is Ilse, then started to tell us that she visited the Master in the mid 1940s and had been coming to the Ashramm since then. Being of Jewish descent, she had fled Nazi Germany and was teaching in India. After hearing of Bhagavan she travelled by train to Tiruvannamalai and then took a bullock cart to the Ashramm. She said, "I was wearing a frock, and was dirty from the long journey. I felt that I should wash and change into more appropriate attire before going to see the sage. I was standing at the door of the Old Hall (that is the southern door that is now closed and leads into the Samadhi Hall) when someone urged me to go to him right away. I walked in and stood in front of the sofa, when He made the gentlest of gestures, inviting me to sit down. That is when everything disappeared. There was no sofa, no hall, no Maharshi, no me. The thought came 'There is no floor. Where can I sit?' I don't know how long I stood there, but eventually I did sit down."

In all my later conversations with Ilse, she talked about the all-pervading peace in the Ashramm of those days; she talked about the beauty and Grace of those eyes. She kept trying to describe to me Bhagavan's complexion, which she thought was most unusual: "He was light skinned, lighter than some Europeans when they have lived in the East for a long time." She fumbled for the right words, looked at my hands, her own hands and kept saying, "It was lighter than mine, it wasn't like yours, it was light. It was like... was like..." and then words failed her. Was it golden, was it a translucent quality that she was looking for? Hearing her speak I kept wondering how one describes Divine Manifestation in human terms? Yes, the form was human, but was it human? Didn't Bhagavan himself once say to a boyhood friend, "Yes, this is not the same body" when it was observed that Venkatramana's skin was rough when they were young and now it had an unusual softness to it.

I don't know what she had witnessed, but this devotee left me feeling like I saw Bhagavan in the flesh. By sharing her memory of those moments, she transported me to His physical presence. Thank you, Ilse, for giving me a glimpse of that moment, that PRESENCE!

The electricity was restored, and we parted company. The next day I saw Ilse again, but the young Portuguese devotee had moved on.

On another evening while in the Dining Hall, the person next to me asked "Do you speak English?" Leonor Cunha, as I got to know her name later, had just gotten off the bus. This was her first visit to Southern India and to Sri Ramanasramam. During the next few days, we sat in front of the bookstore, walked in and around the ashramam, and she shared her feelings and doubts with me. Leonor's spiritual quest had brought her to North India once before, and she was familiar with Sai Baba and some other sages, but nothing satisfied her yearning. Only a few days back she had read the Portuguese translation of Arthur Osborne's book and then boarded a flight for Madras, leaving behind her husband and children. From the airport she took a cab to the city bus stop and boarded a bus that dropped her at the ashramam gate. She said, "This feels like home." The need to meet and seek out other living gurus was quickly leaving her. In fact, a visit to another teacher in town, at the insistence of some other visitor, left her feeling uncomfortable. She wanted to know if it was right to decline to go to other places and teachers when asked to by fellow pilgrims. Her face betrayed the intense emotion she was feeling, and I felt privileged to witness the outpouring of Bhagavan's Grace on this sadhaka for whom all desires to be some place else were dropping away. He had chosen her; she had arrived.

A young Filipino-American from the U. S. West Coast also shared his story with me. He said he migrated to the West Coast as a teenager from the Philippines with his parents. He related the painful years he experienced in high school where he was teased for being different. He was drawn towards the martial arts, and the New Age movement. Visiting a bookstore he saw Bhagavan's face on a book cover. He said, "I went home, but couldn't get that face out of my memory. It haunted me and I even started to see His face in my sleep! I had to go back to the bookstore and buy that book. Once I read it, there was no turning back. I had to come HOME, I had to come to HIM." Saying this he turned towards the Samadhi Hall. There were tears in his eyes. I thanked him for sharing his story with me. He looked at me for a long time, and said, "I knew you would understand," and we parted.

A lady of Irish descent who lives in London comes to the ashramam every winter for three months. She loves everything about India. One morning after completing the inner pradakshina, we were sitting and taking breakfast in town when she started to tell me how she came to Bhagavan.

"I am not the sentimental type," she said, "but I have been drawn to matters spiritual for a long time. In London some friends introduced me to Hinduism, and after some months of bhajans and pujas, I had had enough. Then I came on a sight-seeing tour of South India. We visited every temple and palace. By the time we reached Tiruvannamalai I had seen it all, heard it all. I was up to here (indicating over her head) with it, and was no longer interested. That evening we were to visit Sri Ramanasramam. I came reluctantly, because one more lecture on Advaita, one more puja and I was ready to throw up.

"We walked into the Samadhi Hall, and the life-size picture of Bhagavan was in front of me. I saw nothing but those eyes... that face. I knew that was the face of GOD. That is it, this is my story."

A bright smiling face, a face full of life and love, is how I will always remember her.

There were many more that I spoke to, or observed. There was the young girl from Australia, the woman from Texas, the couple from Bangalore and the young woman from Japan that I got to know. All seekers, all drawn to the abode of the Sage of Arunachala, all on their own inner journeys, guided by the Maharshi. All individuals, but still part of the larger crowd of humanity that daily visits the ashramam. Only on reflection it is becoming clearer to me what the real purpose is of the crowd and activities at Sri Ramanasramam. At times we see only the throngs and the crowd, we hear the traffic, the peacocks and monkeys, and miss the Silence and Grace that guides the sincere seekers. Even during Bhagavan's time the guidance and grace worked unnoticed and unhindered by the outer activities of daily living. Today, it seems the crowds are there to hide the individual, mass pujas are a cover for the individual surrender. The magic of the Maharshi goes on unobserved by the casual visitor. For those not yet devoured by Arunachala, Sri Ramanasramam is just another overcrowded holy place, once an abode of a Sage and nothing more. But for those who sing

Abandoning the outer world, with mind and breath controlled, to meditate on Thee within, the Yogi sees Thy Light, O Arunachala! and finds his delight in Thee.

there are no crowds, no noise, no distraction, JUST THE PEACE AND PRESENCE.

Because you give precedence to worldly things, God appears to have receded to the background. If you give up all else and seek Him alone, He alone will remain as the I, the Self. "Sadhana and Grace,"

- Maharshi's Gospel

This is from THE MAHARSHI News Letter