Sometimes, when we are lost in our worldly lives and cut off from Source, it takes a minor miracle — and in my case, many little miracles — to remind us that we are are never far away from Grace. Initially, I jotted down these incidents only for my private journal because I knew that in the years to come I would not believe this really happened the way it did. I decided to make this available publicly now because I remembered that I may accidentally be someone else’s reminder of Grace, just as others were accidentally a part of mine.
The first glimpse of Arunachala
To say that I made a trip to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai last month feels like a gross exaggeration – almost like stealing credit for something I didn’t do. It would be more accurate to say that I was pulled there – circumstances were created, alternatives were blocked, unexpected people appeared who helped – in such a way that I found myself in the holy mountain town of Tiruvannalamalai on a warm Saturday morning. And what happened next was even more incredible.
This was at the end of about two months of being cut off from my brother and mentor GD. Why do I get cut off from time to time? I don’t really know – some form of rebellion within stops me from picking up the phone and then the inertia of flowing with work and family drags me along: the routine of working, watching movies, reading, going to a mall on the weekend becomes all-consuming and all-numbing. A certain sadness wells within but it is buried in busyness, in reading or watching movies till I fall asleep, so that I don’t get a chance to think about my feelings. This coincides with a decline in spiritual practice too. As I have often seen in the past, disconnection from GD is only the outward manifestation of disconnection from my Self.
So this time, I had to be literally cornered into going to Ramanasramam. I was stuck during a weekend work trip to Chennai city with all my meetings cancelled for Saturday and all my attempts to create meetings failed due to various reasons. Further, I had to be in Chennai again on Sunday for a dear friend’s wedding, and the office indicated that it would be expensive for me to fly back from Mumbai to Chennai twice in a weekend. In fact, it was my CFO who suggested: why don’t I go to that Tiruvannamalai place a few hours from Chennai that I keep talking about? I had not considered the possibility until then…
On Friday night, at a party, Indian actor Kamal Hassan’s 60th Birthday party, I bumped into an estranged colleague to whom I mentioned the possibility of visiting Tiruvannamalai the following day. It turned out his wife’s family owned a college in that very town. He instantly arranged a car and driver for me to travel there and back the next morning.
So the following morning, I drove some two hundred kilometers from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai with no hotel booking. I would have ideally preferred to stay in an ashram, but those rooms were booked up months in advance. So we stopped near a small temple with upstanding trishuls near the gate, to ask for directions to the best-rated hotel. When we found it, the hotel was all booked. So was the second, third, fourth and fifth option and two ashrams. The manager at the fifth option curtly told me all hotels for two kilometers around Tiruvannamalai were full for the weekend, almost accusing me of being foolish enough to arrive on a Saturday without a booking. I was a bit concerned – what was happening? Had I made a mistake in coming? Finally, I stopped at an internet cafe that listed rental rooms amongst its diverse services. The man suggested I try Sheshadri Ashram, then seeing my plight, he considered a business proposition: he told me to check a room on the first floor of his half-completed building and if I wanted, I could have it for a night. It was the only finished room in a construction site, not very pleasant, but it was near the ashram. I said I would take it — and went off to buy a new padlock.
As the car returned to the main Ashram road where the shops were, I suggested to the driver to take us to the Sheshadri Ashram just next door to Ramanasramam. I walked into the office gingerly, and the unsmiling boy who was at the desk looked at me suspiciously — my heavy desert boots, my raw denim jeans and open khakee shirt over a dark green t-shirt was more suited for a party than an ashram. He asked for ID and finally confirmed he had one single room available! He gave me the key to see it before paying, though by that point, I would have accepted a bed in the temple courtyard if it was offered.
When I went out of the gate to tell the driver the good news I realized we were exactly behind the spot where we had been first “lost” – outside the temple with upstanding trishuls – and had began our fruitless search for hotels. Had we just asked for a room instead of directions there – we would have found this best option, better than any hotel, at a fraction of the price. My room was Rs 400 ($6) for an A/C room with two beds. I was really getting proof again and again that I was being taken care of. I sent my driver with Rs. 50 to the Internet Cafe owner as a thank-you, and to tell him I was not taking his room, and moved my luggage to Room 77 at the Sheshadri Ashram.
An added bonus of the Seshadri Ashram was that they had a canteen which served excellent vegetarian food. I wolfed down a delicious late lunch and lay down in my room. I thought back to the events of the day, and I began to cry. I felt it must be Ramana’s Grace that had worked so many miracles to bring me here.
The room where Ramana gave his final darshan
At the Ramanasramam, I first visited the samadhi room where Ramana gave his final darshan before his passing on April 14, 1950. The room is kept exactly as it was in those days with only a fresh bedsheet on the bed where he lay in pain with cancer, yet not willing to turn anyone away who wanted his darshan till his final breath. Tears began to quietly flow down my cheeks once again.
In the meditation hall, the bells were clanging. I sat through a beautiful Sanskrit chanting and later, an arati of Tamil songs sung in his praise. It was marvellous to see so many people of all shapes, sizes and nationalities circumambulating his shrine in the meditation hall all through the prayers. The sounds would resonate in my ears for a long time. At the end, I walked towards the pooja tray along with everyone else, where we took in the light of the flame and put the tilak paste and the vermillion dots on our foreheads.
One of the highlights of visiting Ramanasramam for any devotee is the high-energy Arunachala mountain upon which it is situated. The last time I had come with GD, five years before, we had done the inner pradakshina, a four-hour circumambulation upon the mountain after which we felt refreshed enough to go for an evening walk.
This time, I wondered if I would be able to do the inner pradakshina. I had heard the inner pradakshina had been stopped due to increasing forest fires, and I knew that the outer pradakshina – circumambulation on the road around the mountain – could take upto a day to complete, so I didn’t think I had time. Yet I knew if I didn’t go on the mountain, my trip would feel incomplete. As I fell asleep, I decided to leave it to Bhagavan – who had taken of everything so perfectly till now.
The following morning, after a quick breakfast and bath, I headed back to the ashram. I sat in meditation – practising Self-Enquiry as taught by Ramana Maharishi. During meditation, after such a palpable presence of Ramana during this trip, I felt comfortable asking Ramana for guidance. I got a clear voice within which told me to listen to GD, he was like a living Ramana in my life.
After an hour, I began to feel pulled to walk towards the hill. As I wandered towards the back side of the Ashram, I found a narrow gate I didn’t know existed. It said this was the route to Skandashram, the cave up the mountain where Ramana stayed for seven years. I walked barefoot up the mountain path and kept walking and walking – it turned out to be almost two kilometers high. As I walked, I began to realize that this was the plan Bhagavan had for me – a perfect journey for me into the mountain!
My heart gladdened with every step. Though my breath was rapid, I didn’t feel tired. On the contrary, I felt energised. I was on the mountain again, as I had dreamed of for so many years since my first visit with GD five years before. Walking on the very stones that Ramana himself had walked, and going to the cave where he had sat in meditation!
Skandashram (Pic Courtesy: Meath Conlan)
Skandashram had a small patio and a green stone frame for a door with a tiny meditation room within with mats laid out, further inside was a photo of Ramana at the age when he stayed here, sitting in meditation with a flame before it. I sat down on the mat and lost myself in self-enquiry again, as if in a solid block of Silence.
When I walked back down the stony mountain path, on a lonely stretch, a large monkey came up to me hungry for some treats from my bag. There was no fear, just a mutual understanding. There was a bottle of butter-milk in my cloth bag which he sunk his teeth into as if to indicate that is what he wanted. I removed it, and offered it to him. He took it in both hands and scampered away.
A few meters down, still practising self-enquiry, I became acutely alert to the radio noise of the mind within, and in noticing it, it suddenly quietened down. I began to walk slowly, noticing everything in great detail now – sounds, colors, smells and the sensations below my feet were vivid and alive and all one.
A little lower down the path, I noticed a tiny dung beetle, pushing a ball of excreta twice his size across the path. I wondered if that was me too, struggling to hold together the pointless endeavours of my life. I watched him for a while, literally almost crushed under the weight of his shit but unwilling to let go. And I remembered the cryptic message I had got in meditation the evening before: “What is pointless is pointless, there is no more or less in it.”
As I walked below, it struck me that the loudest voice in my head was that part of me which was trying to make everything silent. I saw the irony of the situation – the class monitor who was trying to silence the class was the noisiest voice in the class! Alone in the mountain path, I began to laugh to myself. The walk changed to become loose-limbed and relaxed. I sensed this was the final fruit of this trip. Even the doer of the meditation dropped away.
As I walked smilingly, I passed a white peahen in the clearing a few feet away from me. It was marvellously beautiful – like an apparition almost unreal stepping gingerly in the dappled sunlit glade. I stood transfixed.
The white peahen I saw at the end of my journey
For me, this unplanned pilgrimage was a powerful reminder that even when you have forgotten your guru, He has not forgotten you. Even when you move away, you are taken care of. And even when the only remaining link is a tiny flickering flame of longing in your heart, it is enough.
As we drove back to Chennai on Sunday evening, I SMSed my mentor GD after almost two months: ‘Thank you for giving me the space to behave like an idiot sometimes. I love you.’ He replied ‘Ditto’. After a minute came another SMS from him: ‘The ditto was only for the last line.’
I realized I hadn’t laughed like this for many months.