Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bhiksha in Tiruvannamalai

A few days ago the following quotation was posted on the current Open Thread, along with a request for explanations of some of the ideas and incidents it contained:

But such moods were only momentary, and he [Bhagavan] could switch to his wonted geniality the next instant. Once Sri T. P. R. and I decided to ask Sri Bhagavan for an explanation of the sixth stanza of Arunachala Ashtakam, and went to the hall after Sri Bhagavan returned from his usual walk on the Hill. In the meanwhile something moved us. Sri Muruganar prostrated before Sri Bhagavan and went out on his usual round for begging food from the town. We had just then ground in the mortar jack fruit for a sweet dish for the midday meal, and Sri Muruganar had given some donation for bhiksha since it was his mother’s death anniversary. He was not there to taste the dish and we were sorry. The fact that he was going out after giving something for bhiksha in honour of his mother was brought to the notice of Sri Bhagavan. Instantly there was a change in the face of Bhagavan. He knew that Sri Muruganar was not a favourite with the Ashram management. ‘Who is to invite him to stay for meals? Chinnaswamy does not like him. He is the master here,’ said Bhagavan. (Surpassing Love and Grace pp. 103-4)

What this story does not make fully clear is that Muruganar went out for bhiksha (went to beg food for himself) after supplying the ashram with enough money to give all the devotees lunch in the dining room. This practice of donating money to feed devotees was known as ‘giving a bhiksha’. Reading this passage again made me think of the begging sadhu tradition and in particular of how Bhagavan honoured and even occasionally recommended it as a way of life.

In Padamalai, page 324, verse 46, Muruganar recorded the following remarks of Bhagavan:

Cure the disease of hunger with the medicine of food obtained through begging and live without any desire in your mind.

This particular piece of advice should not be taken as being applicable to everyone. Several of Bhagavan’s devotees, including Muruganar himself, used to beg for their food in Tiruvannamalai. However, Bhagavan never insisted that everyone should adopt this particular lifestyle. In the following story Bhagavan is making it clear to Annamalai Swami that he did not want him to go begging for his food. The background to this story is that Annamalai Swami was receiving financial support from Major Chadwick, and was dependent on it to feed himself. Chinnaswami ordered him to stop, but Chadwick was reluctant to do so. This is how Annamalai Swami described what happened next:

I [Annamalai Swami] thought, ‘Instead of depending on anyone else, I will go for bhiksha in town’.
Since this would bring about a major change in my lifestyle, I knew that I had to first get Bhagavan’s permission. He had previously told me not to beg for anything but I thought that he might now give me permission in order to save Chadwick from further embarrassment. One evening, while I was sitting in the hill, I explained the situation to Bhagavan and sought his permission to go for bhiksha. Bhagavan remained silent for about fifteen minutes. At the end of that period I stood up to leave. I knew that Bhagavan’s long silence indicated that he was not going to give me permission. Unexpectedly, Bhagavan told me to sit down again.
'You have sat for so long,’ he said. ‘Why are you standing now?’
I sat down again. A few minutes later Arumugam, the man who had helped me to build my room and to clear Bhagavan’s path, came into the hall. I noticed that he had left a big bag of rice outside the door.
When I asked him, ‘What is this rice for?’ he replied, ‘I brought it for you. I suddenly felt an urge to give you something.’
The timely appearance of Arumugam was Bhagavan’s answer to my request: I should not ask anyone for anything. I should depend on what devotees voluntarily gave me. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, 2nd ed. p. 207)

In some cases, Bhagavan would encourage devotees to beg for food as an exercise in humility and self-sufficiency, while with others (Annamalai Swami, for example) he would ask them to live on whatever arrived unasked. What he would never do was give permission to householders with family and employment responsibilities to renounce the world and become sannyasis who lived on begged food or divine providence. In these cases he was unvaryingly insistent that they should remain with their families, earn money to feed themselves in the traditional way, and do sadhana in whatever free time was available.

I should like now to return to the first quotation I gave about Muruganar going out to beg his lunch after paying for everyone else to eat in the ashram.

Muruganar himself, with Bhagavan’s permission and blessing, used to beg his food on the streets of Tiruvannamalai. He never took formal sannyasa, since he knew that Bhagavan disapproved of his devotees taking that step, but he did live the life of a begging sannyasin for many decades. When he first came to Tiruvannamalai in 1923, he was a householder, a schoolmaster, and a member of a prestigious committee that was producing the definitive Tamil dictionary. Bhagavan made such a deep impression on him, he wanted immediately to renounce the world and become a sadhu. At this time his mother was still alive and in need of his support, so he delayed his decision until she passed away a few years later. Then, in a dramatic gesture, he sold off all his possessions, gave the money to Ramanasramam, and decided to live on begged food. He continued with this lifestyle right until the end of his life. When he moved into Ramanasramam for the last years of his life, he rarely ate with the other guests and devotees in the ashram dining room. Instead, he would go to the ashram’s kitchen door and ‘beg’ food there. Food would be put in his container, or sometimes just in a cloth, and he would take it way to eat elsewhere.

I happened to be sitting with Sadhu Om in the early 1980s when he told a story about going begging with Muruganar in the early 1950s. At that time there were several court cases pending, the outcome of which would determine who managed or owned Sri Ramanasramam. Various competing parties were issuing subpoenas, asking devotees to testify on their behalf. Sadhu Om and Muruganar decided to stay out of the disputes by disappearing and by living as begging sadhus in the Tanjore area, the region that Sadhu Om originally came from. While he was narrating this story Sadhu Om laughed and said that while Muruganar could follow this lifestyle quite easily and without any worries, he, Sadhu Om, would always spend the morning wondering whether he was going to eat that day.

‘Being dependent on begged food,’ he said, ‘is a good test of how detached and mentally quiet you really are. It’s easy to be peaceful and happy while you are meditating if you know that there is a good meal to follow, but if that certainty is not there, then the thought of food and its availability is quite likely to keep recurring while you meditate. In my case my chief thought every morning was “Am I going to eat today?”’

It was mentioned that Muruganar offered funds to feed devotees on the death anniversary of his mother. He was very attached to his mother and her memory, so much so that two of his major works (Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai and Guru Vachaka Kovai) are dedicated to her. When a visitor offered money to feed all the people in the ashram, that person would, of course, be invited to eat as well. The donor was also usually allowed to bring or invite some guests. This system is still in place today. It was therefore a major breach of protocol to offer money to feed the devotees in the ashram, and then not be invited to eat with them. Chinnaswami had had several run-ins with Muruganar and had tried to exclude him from the ashram at one point. I don’t know the exact details of all these disputes, but I do know that Chinnaswami disapproved of Muruganar having his works on Bhagavan printed privately, and not by the ashram. During Bhagavan’s lifetime all of Muruganar’s books were published with funds raised by Ramanapadananda (see for more details of this arrangement).

When Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai was first published, Chinnaswami tried to ban it from the ashram because it had been privately printed. In response, all the devotees put brown paper covers on the book, wrote ‘Tiruvachakam’ on the covers, and had communal readings in the hall. Even Bhagavan joined in by following the readings with his brown-paper-covered edition of the book. Chinnaswami thought all along that they were having readings from the Tiruvachakam.

The tradition of offering provisions or cash to the ashram to feed devotees on specific occasions was a long-established one. Here is Kunju Swami’s account of how it worked in the early days of Sri Ramanasramam, just after Bhagavan had moved down the hill from Skandashram:

After we had finished breakfast, Sadiappa Chettiar visited us. He lived in town and had just visited the Draupadi Amman temple, of which he was a trustee. When he learned that Sri Bhagavan had come down from Skandashram, he immediately went home, loaded into a cart all the provisions necessary for a day’s cooking and came with it to the Mother’s samadhi. He told Sri Bhagavan that his elderly sister was unable to climb the hill, adding that she was feeling unhappy because she could not have his darshan. He begged Sri Bhagavan to accept a bhiksha at the samadhi itself in the company of his sister and some other people who would soon arrive. Sri Bhagavan felt unable to refuse, so he accepted the request. Some time later when Ramakrishna Swami, who was Sri Bhagavan’s attendant at the time, discovered that Sri Bhagavan had not returned to Skandashram, he came down the hill with some clothes for Sri Bhagavan. Other devotees from Skandashram followed him and the bhiksha that day was a great success. The news that Sri Bhagavan had come down the hill and had a bhiksha soon spread in the town. Nayana, who usually came to see Sri Bhagavan at Skandashram, came to the samadhi along with many other devotees. The festivities lasted all day. When night came Sri Bhagavan and his devotees decided to sleep near the Mother’s samadhi because it was too dark to return to Skandashram. Early the next morning another devotee unexpectedly arrived with provisions and offered another bhiksha to Sri Bhagavan, so Sri Bhagavan was forced to spend yet another day at the samadhi. On each of the succeeding days devotees arranged bhikshas at the samadhi. Sri Bhagavan continued to stay there because he could not say ‘no’ to any of their loving entreaties. (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 48-49)
In those days if a devotee came from another town to Tiruvannamalai, he would offer bhiksha to Sri Bhagavan. At that time five rupees was enough to feed us all. The number of people staying in the ashram was not high, and the prices of various commodities were favourable. The devotee who offered the bhiksha would generally want to go round the hill with Sri Bhagavan the same evening. Sri Bhagavan always agreed to this. All of us would start and walk very slowly, meditating and chanting on the way. By the time we had completed the pradakshina and returned to the ashram, morning would often have dawned. We never used to feel tired because we were immersed in the joy of having accompanied Sri Bhagavan around the hill. We devotees, who had walked all night, were able to take time off for a short nap in the afternoon, but Sri Bhagavan could never get any rest during the day because devotees would be continuously coming to see him. Usually, each afternoon another devotee would come, offer a bhiksha and ask that Sri Bhagavan accompany him around the hill that night. Sri Bhagavan would agree even if he had had no sleep the night before. He would indicate by a gesture that we should not tell the person concerned about his having gone around the hill the previous night. There were occasions when we could not sleep for two or three days because of continuous bhikshas, but for youngsters like us it was all great fun…
When he was asked how the lack of sleep for three successive nights affected him, he replied, ‘What is sleep? It means resting the mind. But it is only if you have a mind that you need to rest it. However, to be awake all night will naturally bring eye strain and eye ache. But if you close the eyes and remain quiet for some time, the eye strain will go. That is all that is needed. So, where is the problem?’ (The Power of the Presence part two, pp. 51-52)

In his early years at Arunachala, Bhagavan himself often went for bhiksha, or received bhiksha from the temple. This is his account of his first meal in Tiruvannamalai:

‘There used to be in Gopura Subrahmanyeswara Temple, a Mowna Swami (a silent sadhu). One morning when I was going about the Thousand-Pillar-Mandapam, he came with a friend. He was a Mowna Swami and so was I. There was no talk; no greetings. It was soon mid-day. He made signs to his friend to mean: “I do not know who this boy is, but he appears to be tired; please get some food and give him it.” Accordingly they brought some. It was boiled rice. Each grain was sized. There was sour water underneath. There was a bit of pickle to go with it. That was the first bhiksha given to me by Sri Arunachaleswara. Actually there is not an iota of pleasure in what I eat now. All the meals and sweets (pancha bhakshya paramanna) are nothing compared to that food,’ said Bhagavan.

‘Was it on the very first day of Sri Bhagavan’s arrival in that place?’ someone asked.

‘No, no, the next day. Taking it as the first bhiksha given me by Ishwara, I ate that rice and pickle and drank the water given me. That happiness I can never forget,’ remarked Sri Bhagavan.

‘I believe there is some other story about Sri Bhagavan going to the town for the first time for bhiksha,’ said one devotee.

‘Yes, there used to be one lady devotee. She very often used to bring me some food or other. One day she arranged a feast for all the sadhus and pressed me to dine along with them. I signed her to say that I would not do so and that I would be going out begging. I had either to sit and eat with them all or go out for bhiksha. Yes, it was God’s will, I thought, and started out for bhiksha. That lady had doubts as to whether I would go out for bhiksha or join the feast. She sent a man behind me. As there was no escape I went to a house in the street to the left of the temple and standing in front of it, clapped my hands.

‘The lady of the house saw me and, as she had already heard of me, recognised me and called me in, “Come in, my son, come in.” She fed me sumptuously saying, “My boy, I have lost a son. When I see you, you seem just like him. Do come daily like this, my boy.” I subsequently learnt that her name was Muthamma,’ said Bhagavan. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, letter 16, ‘The First Bhiksha’, pp. 23-24)

A shorter account of this first meal was also narrated by Bhagavan in Day by Day with Bhagavan, 10th October 1946. Bhagavan never verbally asked for food when he went out begging. He would just stop in front of a door and clap his hands. This is how he described his method to G. V. Subbaramayya:

One night Sri Bhagavan graciously enquired about my son-in-law’s health which had been causing anxiety for some months. After hearing my tale of domestic cares and worries, Sri Bhagavan looked me full in the face with utmost sympathy and spoke in melting tones: ‘Why can’t you be like me? You know how I was when I arrived in Tiruvannamalai. There was a time when I went round the town begging for food. In those days I was observing silence. So I would pass down the street halting for a moment in front of a house and gently clap my hands. If there was no response, I would pass on. Whatever food was thus got by me and other associates, we would mix into one mass and take a morsel each. That we ate only once a day. Now you see what changes have come outwardly, what buildings have been raised and how the ashram has grown all-round. But I am ever the same. Only the sun rises and the sun sets. To me there seems no other change. So through all the vicissitudes of good and evil, you be like me and whenever you are prone to depression and melancholy, you remember me.’ These gracious words of Sri Bhagavan have been with me ever since and protect me as a talisman against all the ills of life. (Sri Ramana Reminiscences p. 95)

Bhaavan mentioned earlier that the first person to give him bhiksha was a woman called Muthamma. Her husband’s name was Chinna Gurukal. Bhagavan mentions her in the next account in which he explained that, after an initial shyness, he really enjoyed begging on the streets of Tiruvannamalai:

He [Bhagavan] said: ‘You cannot conceive of the majesty and dignity I felt while so begging. The first day, when I begged from Gurukal’s wife, I felt bashful about it as a result of habits of upbringing, but after that there was absolutely no feeling of abasement. I felt like a king and more than a king. I have sometimes received stale gruel at some house and taken it without salt or any other flavouring, in the open street, before great pandits and other important men who used to come and prostrate themselves before me at my asramam, then wiped my hands on my head and passed on supremely happy and in a state of mind in which even emperors were mere straw in my sight. You can’t imagine it. It is because there is such a path that we find tales in history of kings giving up their thrones and taking to this path.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 30th May 1946)

Bhagavan wiping his hands on his head indicates that he went begging without even having a vessel to collect his food in. He expanded on this, and on the benefits of begging for food, in the following ‘Letter from Ramanasramam’, which is entitled ‘Karathala Bhiksha [Alms in the Palms]’

Another person said, ‘Is it because of that [receiving begged food in the hands] that Ganapathi Muni praised you saying “Karathamarasena supatravata”?’

Bhagavan replied ‘Yes. When you have hands, why all these things? It used to be an exhilarating experience in those days. When I was going out for bhiksha, I used to take the alms in the palms of my hands and go along the street eating it. When the eating was over, I used to go on licking my hands. I never used to care for anything. I used to feel shy to ask anyone for anything. Hence that karathala bhiksha (alms in the palms) used to be very interesting. There used to be big pundits this side and that; sometimes big government officials also used to be there. What did I care who was there? It would be humiliating for a poor man to go out for bhiksha, but for one who has conquered the ego and become an advaitin, it is a great elevation of the mind. At that time, he would not care if an emperor came there. In that way, when I went out for bhiksha and clapped my hands, people used to say “Swami is come,” and give me bhiksha with fear and devotion. Those who did not know me used to say, “You are strong and sturdy. Instead of going out like this as a beggar, why don’t you go out to work as a cooly?” I used to feel amused. But I was a Mouna (silent) Swami and did not speak. I used to laugh and go away feeling that it was usual for ordinary people to talk like that. The more they talked like that the more exhilarated I felt. That was great fun.

‘In Vasishtam, there is a story about Bhagiratha before he brought Ganges down to the earth. He was an emperor but the empire seemed to him a great obstacle to atmajignasa (self-enquiry). In accordance with the advice of his Guru, and on the pretext of a yagna (sacrifice), he gave away all his wealth and other possessions. No one would, however, take the empire. So he invited the neighbouring king who was an enemy and who was waiting for a suitable opportunity to snatch it away and gifted away the empire to him. The only thing that remained to be done was to leave the country. He left at midnight in disguise, lay in hiding during day time in other countries so as not to be recognised and went about begging alms at night. Ultimately, he felt confident that his mind had matured sufficiently to be free from egoism. Then he decided to go to his native place and there went out begging in all the streets. As he was not recognised by anybody, he went one day to the palace itself. The watchman recognised him, made obeisance and informed the then king about it, shivering with fear. The king came in a great hurry and requested him (Bhagiratha) to accept the kingdom back, but Bhagiratha did not agree. “Will you give me alms or not?” he asked. As there was no other alternative, they gave him alms and he went away highly pleased. Subsequently he became the king of some other country for some reason and when the king of his own country passed away, he ruled that country also at the special request of the people. That story is given in detail in Vasishtam. The kingdom which earlier appeared to him to be a burden did not trouble him later when he became a jnani. All that I want to say is, how do others know about the happiness of bhiksha? There is nothing great about begging or eating food from a leaf which is thrown out after taking food from it. If an emperor goes out begging, there is greatness in that bhiksha. Nowadays, bhiksha here [at Ramanasramam] means that you must have vada and payasam (pudding). In some months, there will be several such things. Even for padapuja (worshipping of the feet) money is demanded. Unless the stipulated money is tendered before hand, they refuse to take upastaranam (a spoonful of water taken with a prayer before beginning to take food). The unique significance of karathala bhiksha has now degenerated to this extent,’ said Bhagavan.

Living only under trees, eating food out of their palms, disregarding even the Goddess of Wealth like an old rag, fortunate indeed are those dressed in a cod-piece. (Letter from Sri Ramanasramam, letter 123, pp. 209-10)

Bhagavan’s views on the joys of bhiksha in Tiruvannamalai echo those of an earlier Arunachala saint, Guhai Namasivaya. Four hundred years ago Guhai Namasivaya collected and lived on prasad from the Arunachaleswara Temple. His attitude to this meager fare was remarkably similar to Bhagavan’s.

The sumptuous meals comprising many curries,
ghee, milk, sweet fruits, honey and rice,
though eaten by those who consume food,
are not true meals.
The only true food is the unsalted gruel,
taken in the divine presence of Sonesar [the Lord of Arunachala],
the Lord who kept in His matted locks
the holy river that cascaded from the heavens.

This is verse 376 of the Ramanasramam edition of his Arunachala venbas. Verse 459 expresses similar sentiments, but it is not original. It is taken verbatim from the works of Pattinathar, a Tamil saint of an earlier era:

To worship continuously the One
who wears the poisonous serpent as His ornament,
to live in harmony with His wishes,
to go for bhiksha, eat it,
and come to the temple entrance to sleep,
this is happiness indeed!

I think that Guhai Namasivaya included it in his works since he too used go for bhiksha, before retiring to the sheltered area beneath the temple gopurams. This was before he moved up the hill to the cave which gave him his name.

There is another interesting biographical parallel between Bhagavan and Guhai Namasivaya: both briefly lived on tirumanjanam from the Unnamulai shrine in the temple. The word tirumanjanam denotes the liquid mixture that has been used to worship and bathe a temple image. Typically tirumanjanam might consist of components such as water, milk, coconut milk, pureed fruit, and so on. After the mixture has drained away from the image, it is often consumed by devotees as prasad.

Bhagavan lived on tirumanjanam from Unnamulai’s shrine for a short time in the 1896 when he was staying in the Arunachaleswarar Temple. B. V. Narasimha Swami mentioned this in Self-Realisation, pp. 49-50:

Mouna Swami used to give him the milk which flowed out of Goddess Uma’s shrine. This was not pure milk but a curious mixture of milk, water, turmeric powder, sugar, plantains and sundry other articles; and the Brahmana Swami [Bhagavan] would gulp it down with indifference.

The temple priest who noticed it one day was greatly pained and ordered that the pure milk poured over the Goddess and collected immediately should, without any admixture, henceforth be sent daily through the Mouna Swami in order that he might give part of it to Brahmana Swami.

I suspect that Bhagavan, mostly absorbed in the intense inner bliss of the Self, was largely indifferent to the tirumanjanam. Guhai Namasivaya, though, in verses 421 and 422, treated it as the nectar of the gods:

The tirumanjanam of the First Lady of this vast world,
the One whose breasts remain ever young,
the Mother of the town of Arunai,
will dispel cruel birth, will produce prosperity,
and will remove all the sorrows of one’s heart.

The waters in which Mother Unnamulai has bathed
will bestow [a good] state both here and in the hereafter.
With a pure mind, take it in the cupped palm of your hand.
While you consume it, regard it as precious.
Gain redemption.

Though Bhagavan was happy to roam the streets of Tiruvannamalai, begging for food, he refused to accept invitations to eat in private houses. The head of Isanya Math once physically picked him up, put him on a bullock cart, took him home and fed him. Bhagavan most certainly would not have gone with him if he had merely issued an invitation. The only other devotee who managed to get him into a building and feed him was the grandfather of T. P. Ramachandra Iyer, the ashram’s lawyer. This is how Bhagavan narrated the event while Ramachandra Iyer was in the hall:

On an auspicious day in the early thirties a visitor arranged for a bhiksha to be given to Sri Bhagavan and all those present at the ashram. While we were talking about the forthcoming meal in the hall, Bhagavan suddenly recalled two early occasions when he was offered a bhiksha.

‘After leaving Madurai for good [in 1896] I only ate food in private houses on two occasions. One of them was when I ate at the home of Muthukrishna Bhagavathar of Tirukkoilur while I was still travelling to Tiruvannamalai.’

Then, turning to me, he observed, ‘The other occasion was at your grandfather’s. That was the only house I ever ate in after coming to Tiruvannamalai.’

I was delighted to hear of the good fortune my grandfather had had in serving Sri Bhagavan in this way. I asked Bhagavan how this came about and he graciously described the event, vividly recapturing the occasion for me.

‘After I came to this town, I had bhiksha in your house, eating from a leaf plate. Your grandfather, a devotee of Siva, was there. He was tall, had a stout frame, and was adorned impressively with a garland of rudraksha and other beads. Every day he would unfailingly visit the temple of Arunachaleswara and return only after having darshan. In those days [1896] I used to live near the temple of Subramaniam. Every day your grandfather would sit before me for a while without saying anything. Then he would rise and go away. I was a young boy keeping silence. He was an elderly person who also kept silent while he was with me, though he used to watch me all the time. He was well known in the town, and people of consequence used to be his guests. Do you know what happened? One day, some official arrived at his house and arrangements were made for a feast. That day also, as usual, after going into the temple and having darshan, he came to me and sat down. The thought came to him that he should take me that day to his house and give me a bhiksha.

‘As soon as he rose to return home, he abandoned his customary silence and said to me, “Hum, hum, get up! Get up! We will go to my home, have bhiksha and come back.”

‘What to do? I was not used to speaking, so I made negative signs, shaking my head and hands, signifying that it was not necessary. He did not listen to me or heed me. He was determined to take me that day and offer bhiksha. What could I do? He was big and strong whereas I was small and slight in comparison.

‘He repeated his demand: “Hum, hum, get up! Get up! You are just a youth. Leave yoga and tapas for a while. We shall go to my home, eat bhiksha and return.”

‘So saying, he took my arm, linked it into his, and made me get up and follow him. I was led to his house, which was near the temple chariot. It was a very spacious house with verandas on both sides. In between there was a big open courtyard with an edifice to goddess Tulasi in the centre. He made me take the most important place on the northern veranda. Then he spread a leaf larger than all the others and served me himself. It was only after I had finished eating that he ate his own meal. That was the only occasion I entered a house in this town. In those days, because I never had a bath, the body would be smelling. No one would come close to me. In spite of all that, your grandfather used to come unfailingly and sit with me. In this town, so many people would come, see me and go. But he alone realised that though I was a young boy, what was in this [body] was a Fullness.’ (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 150-52)

Bhagavan continued to beg for his food on a regular basis until he moved up to Virupaksha Cave around 1900. However, when Palaniswami became his attendant in the late 1890s, he often did the begging for both of them. For a short period in the 1890s Bhagavan reasserted his independence and informed Palaniswami that he wanted to beg for his own food again. The following incidents come from this period:

‘After I left Gurumurtham, I stayed for some time in the Arunagirinatha Temple opposite to the Ayyankulam tank. During that period, I went one night to the Agraharam for alms and I called at Krishna Iyer’s house. He was playing cards at the time, seated on a mat with three others and before a candle. When I clapped my hands they were startled. Krishna Iyer felt ashamed, hurriedly removed all the paraphernalia of the cards, mixed some rice and gave me alms. At that time I did not know who they were. After [Gambiram] Seshayya [the compiler of Self-Enquiry] came here, he told me that Krishna Iyer was his brother. It seems his brother felt highly repentant for sitting there playing cards when the Swami came and thereafter completely stopped card playing.’

Questioner: So, Bhagavan used to go out to collect alms personally while staying in Arunagiri Temple?

Bhagavan: Yes. I used to go out every night. I went to the Arunagirinatha Temple in the month of August or September 1898.

‘As soon as I went there to stay, I told Palaniswami that I would go my way and he should go his and sent him away. But although he came back the same evening, I myself went out for alms. At times I used to go even during daytime. At night people used to wait for me outside, with lanterns, to give me alms. Seshayya’s brother also used to wait similarly for my arrival. I was there for about a month only. As it was near the Agraharam the crowds of people waiting to see me began to grow. With a view to avoiding all the rows incidental to crowds, I went up the hill to stay. In those days, going out for alms used to be an exhilarating experience. I used to accept two or three handfuls of food at each place and eat. By the time I had thus eaten at three or four houses my belly would be full and I used to return home.’

Questioner: Perhaps the other householders used to feel disappointed at your not visiting their houses.

Bhagavan: Yes. That is so. That is why the next day I used to go to the other side of the Agraharam. I do not think ultimately I left out even one house in that Agraharam.

Questioner: How blessed those householders must be! (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, letter 61 ‘Bhiksha in Agraharam’, pp. 356-7)

Bhagavan’s high state was probably not known to many of the people he begged from. Indeed, as he mentioned earlier, some of the people whose houses he went to told him to go away and get a job since he was still young and healthy. I occasionally wonder if there are still mahatmas roaming the streets of Tiruvannamalai, unknown to the people they are begging food from. Bhagavan was once asked if a local tradition were true: that there were always seven jnanis in Tiruvannamalai. Bhagavan did not discount the possibility, but he did point out that if there were, it would be impossible to identify who these people might be since only a jnani could tell who else was a jnani. He even indicated that some of them might be beggars. Here is an interesting exchange on this topic between Bhagavan and Rangan, his childhood friend:

It is often said that only a jnani can recognise other jnanis. Bhagavan seemed to concur with this statement when he narrated an incident that had happened to him during his early years at Tiruvannamalai.
I had asked him, ‘When was the first time you took food from a sudra [a member of the lowest caste]?’ and he had replied that it had happened on his second day in Tiruvannamalai. This answer triggered off a memory of another early incident. He told me that while he was once sitting on the veranda of a choultry [guesthouse for pilgrims] in Tiruvannamalai, some mahatmas [great souls] had come along and thrust some food into his mouth. Bhagavan noticed that there were many sudras sitting nearby, but he could see that they thought that the mahatmas were just ordinary ascetics. (The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 18)

Bhagavan could see who these people were, but the people around him could not.

On the big festival days Bhagavan would make a point of going to the ashram gate and supervising the distribution of food to the poor people and sannyasins who were always fed in large numbers on these occasions. They were given their food before the devotees were served theirs in the dining room. Bhagavan sometimes hinted that great beings occasionally showed up for bhiksha on these special days. By personally supervising the distribution of food to them, he ensured that they all got to see him, pay their respects, and receive prasad in the form of food. Santhammal, one of the ashram cooks, once had a vivid dream that supported this idea:

During the Kartikai festival beggars from all over South India would collect at Tiruvannamalai in vast crowds, and they would flock to the ashram for an assured meal. Once they became so unruly, the attendants refused to serve them. The matter was discussed among workers and it was decided to abandon the distribution of food to beggars. That night I had a dream: Bhagavan’s hall was full of devotees. On the sofa appeared a small creature which grew and grew and became a huge bright red horse. The horse went round the hall, sniffing at each devotee in turn. I was afraid he would come near me, but the horse went to Bhagavan, licked him all over the body, and disappeared. Bhagavan called me near and asked me not to be afraid. A divine perfume emanated from him.

He said, ‘Don’t think it is an ordinary horse. As soon as the flags are hoisted at Arunachaleswara Temple for the Kartikai festival, gods come down to partake in the celebrations. They join the crowd and some mix with the beggars at the ashram gate. So, never stop feeding beggars and sadhus at festivals.’

I told the dream to Chinnaswami, and that day he ordered seven measures of rice to be cooked for the beggars. (Ramana Smrti, ‘Eternal Bhagavan’, by Santammal)

When Bhagavan moved up the hill to Virupaksha Cave, he no longer went out to beg for food himself. Instead, devotees would go out once a day, beg food for the whole community, and bring back whatever they received to Bhagavan. This was supplemented by any food that devotees such as Echammal and Mudaliar Patti chose to donate directly by bringing it to the cave. Bhagavan would mix all the offerings together and distribute them to all the people who were present. Ramanasramam was essentially a community of begging sadhus right up till the time that Bhagavan’s mother arrived in 1914 and began the ashram’s first kitchen.

The food obtained through these means was not always tasty, but Bhagavan seemed to enjoy this austere way of living. In the next account he told the devotees in the hall what happened when food was in short supply:

‘When I was in Virupaksha Cave, Sundaresa Iyer used to go out into the town for bhiksha and bring us food. At times, there used to be no curry or chutney. People to eat were many while the food obtained was limited. What were we to do? I used to mix it into a paste and pour hot water over it to make it like gruel, and then give a glassful to each, and take one myself. Sometimes we all used to feel that it would be better if we had at least some salt to mix with it. But where was the money to buy salt? We should have had to ask someone for it. If once we begin to ask for salt, we would feel like asking for dhal, and when we ask for dhal, we would feel like asking for payasam, and so on. So we felt that we should not ask for anything, and swallowed the gruel as it was. We used to feel extremely happy over such diet. As the food was sattvic, without spices of any kind, and there was not even salt in it, not only was it healthy for this body, but there was also great peace for the mind.’…

Not only do we not give up salt, but we always feel that chillies also are necessary for taste. That is how we have our rules and regulations about our eating habits. Great souls eat to live and serve the world, while we live to eat. That is the difference. If we eat to live, there is no need to think of taste. If we live to eat, the tastes are limitless. And for this purpose, we undergo ever so many trials and tribulations. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, letter 63 ‘Contentment’, 19th August 1946, pp. 84-5)

When there were very few devotees at Virupaksha Cave, a choultry (a guest house for pilgrims) in town agreed to supply food, but when the numbers increased, the manager of the choultry began to hint that there were too many mouths to feed. Perumal Swami decided that henceforth the devotees should rely only on begged food and not trouble the choultry any more. Kunju Swami narrates what happened next:

In later years, when additional devotees started staying with Sri Bhagavan in Virupaksha Cave, the food obtained from the sadhu’s choultry was found to be insufficient for everyone. The devotees then decided that they would get their food by begging in town. Each day they would go to town in the late afternoon to beg for and collect food. Later that day, they dined on the bhiksha food back at Virupaksha Cave and any leftovers were used the next morning. Instead of waiting in front of each house and asking for food, which is the traditional way that religious mendicants beg in India, the devotees would walk along each street singing Akshara Malai Vigraha Amasadeeswara, a hymn composed by Adi-Sankara. It was only necessary to beg in the evenings because the food eaten at midday was brought by Echammal, Mudaliar Patti, Kannakammal and others.

When the householders in town heard this Sankara song being sung, they would know that the group was Sri Bhagavan’s devotees. They would then come out of their houses and offer clean, fresh food. However, some local sadhus from the town came to hear about this routine. They started singing the same song and began collecting the ashram’s food before Sri Bhagavan’s devotees had even got to town. Only when Sri Bhagavan’s devotees came singing for bhiksha did the householders realise that they had been deceived by the other sadhus.

Palaniswami, Perumal Swami and some others went and told Sri Bhagavan that if he composed some other songs for their use while going for bhiksha, it would put an end to the problem caused by the other sadhus. They also told him that such songs would help those who offered bhiksha to identify the group. Acting on their suggestion and request, Sri Bhagavan composed Aksharamanamalai, a Tamil poem of 108 verses in praise of Arunachala. The devotees then began to sing it regularly when they went into town for bhiksha. (The Power of the Presence, part two, p. 21)

Bhagavan himself once told devotees how the ashram’s begging party would go about its business:

Bhagavan proceeded to describe how Perumalswami and Kandaswami used to blow in concert on the conch and how when Bhagavan was in Virupaksha Cave, Perumalswami, Kandaswami and Palaniswami used to go about begging in the streets for food and bring it up the hill and all there used to share it. Before Perumalswami joined them, Palaniswami and Ayyaswami and Kandaswami would go to a chattram [choultry] and the manigar [manager] would give food for all. But when Perumalswami also joined, the manigar began questioning why an addition was necessary. Thereupon Perumalswami laid down they should no longer go to the chattram or be at the mercy of the manigar, but would go and beg in the town. Accordingly, a party of four or more would leave the cave on this errand. When leaving the cave, they would blow a long blast on their conches. This was an announcement to the town’s people that Bhagavan’s party had left the cave on their begging mission. The party would give another blast when they reached the foot of the hill. A third call would be sounded at the entrance to the street. All the residents of the street would be ready with their offerings and the party would march along the street singing some Sivanamavali and collecting the offerings. The food collected was ample, it seems, for all who gathered near Bhagavan and all the monkeys, etc.

Marital Garland of Letters [Aksharamanamalai] was specially composed for use by the begging party.

Bhagavan humorously added, ‘Marital Garland of Letters fed us for many years’. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 9th December 1945, morning)

The communal begging expeditions stopped during the Skandashram era when several devotees arranged a different way of supplying the ashram’s food needs. Kunju Swami has described how this came about:

After Bhagavan moved to Skandashram a devotee called K. R. Venkatasubramania Iyer came from Calcutta. He was a prosperous man and he wanted to be of service to the ashram. He consulted Gambiram Seshayyar, who was then responsible for running the ashram’s affairs. Seshayyar mentioned that the ashram was already receiving a few cash donations in addition to the food supplied by Echammal, Mudaliar Patti, Kannamal and a few other devotees. Gambiram Seshayyar told Venkatasubramania Iyer that if the ashram could be sure of receiving an additional Rs 40 per month, it would pay for all their food expenses and eliminate the need of going for bhiksha. Venkatasubramania Iyer agreed to send Rs 60 every month and gave the first installment on the spot. From then onwards, Gambhiram Seshayyar, who lived in town, daily sent to Skandashram one day’s supply of provisions such as rice, dhal and oil in a box that came to be known as ‘the post box’. In those days, all the provisions and foodstuffs received during the day would be used immediately. Nothing would be retained for use the next day. It was for this reason that Gambiram Seshayyar only ever sent one day’s supply of food. (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 37-8)

Though this arrangement meant that the ashram no longer needed to send out a begging party each day, some devotees continued to beg individually for their food. Kunju Swami has described how his friend Ramakrishna Swami tried to take up this lifestyle:

Sri Bhagavan often used to say that going for bhiksha was good for sadhana, that it would destroy the ego and remove the I-am-the-body idea. During the early days of our stay at Sri Ramanasramam, Ramakrishna Swami wanted to live on bhiksha. After taking Sri Bhagavan’s permission, he stayed at Virupaksha Cave and went each day to town for bhiksha.

As he walked along the street, he would shout ‘Bhiksha! Bhiksha!’ Because his call was strident, like the shouts of a hawker, some of the local boys made fun of him by asking, ‘How many bhikshas for a paisa?’

Following Sri Bhagavan’s advice that he should go to a different street every day, he begged in several different streets on two or three successive days.

On the fourth day he went down a new street and shouted ‘Bhiksha! Bhiksha!’ in the usual way. A devotee called Lakshmi Amma, who lived in that street, recognised him as an ashramite and insisted on his having bhiksha in her house. She took him inside, washed his feet, put down a leaf-plate and served food on it. She then asked him to recite the Siva Puranam [the introductory portion of the Tiruvachakam]. As he did not know that particular work, he just sat there without saying anything. When Lakshmi Amma realised that he didn’t know what to do, she herself repeated the Siva Puranam and also a song from the Periyapuranam. She waved lighted camphor before him, prostrated to him and requested him to eat. Ramakrishna Swami felt ashamed and regretted his ignorance of what appeared to be a traditional ceremony for begging sadhus. Feeling that his attempts at going for bhiksha were not enough, he returned to the ashram.

When Sri Bhagavan came to hear this story he laughed and said, ‘What to do? If one goes for bhiksha because of poverty one will have to go grovelling and with some hesitation. But what is he [Ramakrishna Swami]? Does he not have money of his own? Does he not have enough to buy food? After all, he only went for bhiksha for the sake of following a tradition. That is why he shouted “Bhiksha!” in such a majestic and dignified manner. At the time when I went out for bhiksha, I too would go in a dignified manner, and with indifference. It is something that comes naturally to one.’

Then he added, ‘Those who are begging sadhus should know the Siva Puranam and songs from the Periyapuranam. When one goes for bhiksha, or when one goes to eat in a math, one should recite both of these works before taking food. In North India the works are different. There, before eating, one must recite the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita and the Siva Mahimna Stotra, but here in the South it is not necessary for everyone to know them.’

After hearing Sri Bhagavan say this, I learned the Siva Puranam, some songs from Periyapuranam, some verses from the Bhagavad Gita and a few other songs. If there was any function in any math or ashram, Sri Bhagavan would ask me to go and attend as the ashram’s representative. With a confidence born out of knowing the tradition, I would happily go. (The Power of the Presence, part two, pp. 58-59)

I first read this account in the 1980s. When I went to see Kunju Swami a few days later, I asked him to talk about his days as a begging sadhu. He surprised me by saying that he had never gone out begging himself since he had always been given funds to support himself.

Another devotee who enjoyed begging for food was Mastan. He had become a begging sadhu even before he came to Bhagavan.

I [Mastan] came under the spell of bhakti before the age of twenty. During the Muharram festival I would put on the garb of a pandaram [a Saiva monk], smear vibhuti on myself, carry a begging bowl and roam around. (The Power of the Presence, part three, p. 22)

He stuck to this lifestyle after he came under Bhagavan’s influence. This is how Akhilandamma described his activities:

Mastan and I would come to Arunachala from our village to have the pleasure of serving Bhagavan. Mastan, a weaver, belonged to our village, but he did not stick to his craft. A man of whims, he would suddenly suspend his weaving and go to live with Bhagavan for months on end. During this time he would keep his body and soul together on alms that he begged. (The Power of the Presence, part three, pp. 26-7)

Viswanatha Swami also spoke about Mastan’s begging lifestyle, and the joy he seemed to derive from it:

In those days [the 1920s] some of Bhagavan’s devotees used to travel on foot to nearby towns such as Polur and Desur. We used to undertake these trips to visit devotees who lived in those areas. Bhagavan always gave us his permission before we undertook any of these trips. The members of the group would vary from trip to trip but we could usually count on devotees such as Ramaswami Pillai, ‘Nondi’ Srinivasa Iyer, Ramanatha Brahmachari and Ranga Rao to be enthusiastic about these adventures. I also went on many of these trips. Some of our expeditions would be to Cuddalore or Vellore, but most of them would be to locations in the Polur and Chengam areas.

When we travelled we would never stay in houses. When night came we would shelter in mantapams or caves. Sometimes we would just sleep under trees. We would beg for our food on the way. Sometimes people would give us provisions for a meal. If that happened we would stop and cook. If we received cooked food in our bowls, we would share it out equally among all the members of our group. Although we had a lot of fun, we were also aware that we were sadhus on a pilgrimage. As we walked we would chant scriptural works or meditate in silence.

On some of these trips Mastan would somehow find out in advance where we were going. We would arrive at a town, Polur for example, and find him waiting for us. Once he had discovered our whereabouts, he would make us sit while he went out begging for us. We didn’t want to be served in this way, but Mastan was very insistent. He told us on these occasions that he was the ‘devotee of devotees’, a role and a title that he took on himself.

He would say, ‘I want to serve the devotees of Bhagavan. You must stay here while I find food for you.’

Mastan would generally return with a huge amount of food, far more than we could possibly eat. After we had eaten as much as we could, we would share the leftovers with any local people who lived nearby. If we were living in caves or other out-of-the-way places, we would give the leftovers to monkeys.

As he fed us Mastan would make one persistent request: ‘Please tell me some stories about the glory of our Master. Tell me everything he has said during the time I was not with him. To me, every word Bhagavan speaks is holy. The words that come out of his holy mouth are so powerful, merely listening to them can give liberation to ripe souls.’ (The Power of the Presence, part three, pp. 34-5)

Ramanatha Brahmachari also begged independently in his early years with Bhagavan. This is Annamalai Swami’s description of an event that took place in the first decade of the last century:

Ramanatha Brahmachari first came to Bhagavan in the days when Bhagavan was living in Virupaksha Cave. He had a very distinctive appearance because he was very short, wore thick glasses, and always covered his body with a large amount of vibhuti. In the Virupaksha days he used to go for bhiksha in town. He would bring whatever food he had managed to beg to Virupaksha Cave, serve it to Bhagavan, and then afterwards eat whatever remained.

One day, as he was bringing some food to Bhagavan, he met his father on the hill. He was sitting outside Guhai Namasivaya Temple, which is about halfway between the town and Virupaksha Cave. His father said that he was very hungry and asked for some of the food which his son had begged.

Ramanatha Brahmachari, thinking that it would be improper and disrespectful to feed anyone, even his own father, before Bhagavan had received his share, told his father, ‘Come with me to Bhagavan. We can share the food there.’

His father, who had no interest in Bhagavan, refused to come. He asked his son to give him some food and then leave, but Ramanatha Brahmachari refused.

Bhagavan had been observing all this from Virupaksha Cave. When Ramanatha Brahmachari finally arrived there, Bhagavan told him, ‘I will not take any of your food unless you first serve your father’.

Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Guhai Namasivaya Temple, but instead of following Bhagavan’s instructions he again asked his father to come and eat with Bhagavan at Virupaksha Cave. When his father, for the second time, refused to come, Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Virupaksha Cave without giving him any food.

Bhagavan again told him, this time more firmly, ‘I will only eat if you feed your father first. Go and feed him.’

This time Ramanatha obeyed the order, fed his father and returned to Virupaksha Cave with the remaining food. I mention this story only because it shows how great his devotion to Bhagavan was and how little he cared about anything else, including his own family. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, 2nd ed. p. 106)

So far as I am aware, only one foreign devotee, Maurice Frydman, went out for bhiksha. In the mid-30s he asked Bhagavan to initiate him into sannyasa, and Bhagavan, as usual, refused. Frydman obtained the initiation elsewhere and adopted the name ‘Bharatananda’, ‘the bliss of India’. At the time he was running a large electrical factory in Bangalore on behalf of the Maharaja of Mysore. Instead of renouncing his worldly responsibilities, he continued with his job, turning up each day in orange robes. Each evening, though, he would go out to beg for his food, often from the houses of the workers he was supervising during the day. He refused to touch his large salary, even though the maharaja continued to pay it into his account. When he finally left the job to reorganise the princely state of Aundh with the raja’s son, Apa Pant – a project that was sponsored by Mahatma Gandhi – he closed the account and divided the money equally between all the workers in the factory.

Neither the maharaja nor the dewan (the chief minister) was happy with the way that Frydman was conducting himself. He had been headhunted in Paris to spearhead a modernisation programme in Mysore State. Having their factory manager turn up for work in orange robes seemed to them to present a regressive rather than a progressive image of the state. When Frydman refused to give up begging, the dewan negotiated a compromise because he valued Frydman’s engineering and organisational skills. Under the new arrangement Frydman could continue to beg, but not from the houses of his own workers. The dewan believed, probably rightly, that being dependent on his own workers for food would diminish his capacity to maintain discipline in the factory. The other concession that the dewan extracted was on the matter of dress.

He told Frydman, ‘We hired you to be the modern face of our regeneration programme. We send important visitors to your factory with the idea of impressing them with what a modern and forward-looking state we are. And what do they find? A man in orange robes running the place. This is not the image we want to present. Since you are representing us to the outside world, if we send an important visitor to see you, you will have to represent our interests and aims by wearing a suit for the occasion. What you wear on other occasions is your own business.’

Frydman accepted the logic of this and agreed to dress more appropriately when visitors came.

During my ongoing research on Frydman I found an interview in Polish in which he said that his urge to adopt sannyasa came from an old samskara. He said that he had been a Buddhist monk in a previous incarnation, and that he had had an irresistible urge to wear orange and beg in his current life. He said that Bhagavan had opposed his decision to take sannyasa, and that he had been right in doing so. Frydman eventually gave up wearing orange, since he felt that it had become a hindrance rather than a help to his activities and sadhana.

As I mentioned earlier, although Bhagavan approved a begging lifestyle for some of his devotees, he never gave permission for any of them to be formally initiated into sannyasa. Kunju Swami, Sadhu Natanananda and Papaji all asked Bhagavan to initiate them, and all were refused. Kunju Swami went to Rishikesh, took initiation there and came back with a new name.

When he announced it to Bhagavan, Bhagavan laughed and said, ‘I will carry on calling you Kunju Swami’. The new name was never used.

Sadhu Natanananda tried to get Bhagavan to bless his orange robes when he decided to take sannyasa, but Bhagavan refused to touch them when they were placed before him. Sadhu Natanananda ignored this hint, took sannyasa somewhere else, but later regretted it. Some time later he returned to Ramanasramam, offered his orange robes to Bhagavan and reverted to his former lifestyle. Papaji merely went back to work in Chennai and dropped the whole idea. Maurice Frydman delayed giving up his orange robes for many years since he felt that giving them up would attract unfavourable comments in some quarters, but in the end, he too bowed to the inevitable.

I will conclude this post on bhiksha in Tiruvannamalai with a story that came to my attention a few months ago. A sadhu in the Arunachaleswara Temple who was begging for money there, rather than for food, passed away last year. Before he died, he went to a lawyer and put all the proceeds from his begging, which had accumulated over the years, into a trust fund which was to be utilised to provide food for the remaining beggars in the temple. I am not sure that Bhagavan would approve of sadhus hoarding large amounts of cash from their begging activities, but I am sure he would give a wry smile if he heard what the money was now being used for. Does anyone know about this? I do hope it’s a true story and not just a rumour.