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.


Maneesha said...

"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."

O the first read, I found this cute on part of Bhagavan... as in trying to hide from Chinnaswami like a kid. On second read however, I felt how limitless was His Grace on devotees that have completely surrendered to Him and that Bhagavan only completely supported Muruganar.

Ramana! nI VAzhi!

Ravi said...

Bhiksha as a sadhana to develop Humility is part and parcel of Tradition.All Brahmin boys,as soon as they are invested with sacred thread,when they become dwija,the twice born are expected to go for Bhiksha-often the Mother is the one who offers Bhiksha first,followed by other women.Sri Ramakrishna as boy Gadhadar,as soon as he was invested with sacred thread,accepted Bhiksha first from Dhani,the low caste woman(as he had promised to her as a boy of six).The Brahmachari(the boy invested with the sacred thread)had to accept this sort of Bhiksha and cook it himself and eat.This develops Humility and self sufficiency at the same time.The Sanyasi is not supposed to cook;he is to support himself with what comes;he does not do it for Humility,etc but simply to support his physical needs.The Householder in offering this Bhiksha definitely earns the Blessings of the Great one.This is how the society as a whole was intertwined-all designed to be interdependant and elevating.
Master TGN had this observation on sri bhagavan's begging-it seems that sri Bhagavan had said--"there is not a street in Arunachala where I have not begged!".A curse ran in the family where Sri Bhagavan was born that one in a generation would go abegging as a Sadhu-the story goes that once a Sadhu was refused food by one of Sri Bhagavan's forefathers,and he cursed that one in a generation would go abegging like he did.This came true and in Sri Bhagavan's case,he became the one who despite his fondness for Good food and Games,etc became the sadhu.
Master TGN used to say that Sri Bhagavan completely erased the prarabda of this curse by going abegging in the streets of Tiruvannamalai and subsequently putting a stop!

Anonymous said...

Please don't write about Brahmin boys and twice born and then mention low cast women. Seriously we're in 2010 and the Buddha was already awake to this unnecessary discrimination in society way back then!

Subramanian. R said...

Once some nice aviyal [with kanji]
was prepared in the Asramam and everyone was sitting in the dining
hall, enquiring amongst themselves
whether this man had come and that
man had come for eating aviyal.
Bhagavan Ramana said: You are all
asking about everyone. Did anybody
think of Muruganar? He then told
Shantammal [?] to take a cup of aviyal and give it to Muruganar.
Shantammal acted promptly and with
a cup of aviyal on hand rushed
towards the road calling Shambamurty, Shambamurty. She finally caught Muruganar at Sri
Dakshinamurty Shrine and gave him
aviyal. Murugnar was excited, "Is it Bhagavan who had asked you to give me this?.." He gulped the aviyal and wiped his hands on the towel and said: "Why further bhiksha today?".. He did not go
for bhiksha that day.

Saappadunnai sarnthu unavaai yan
shantamai poven arunachala!

Anonymous said...

With Jnana, Bhagavan had coolly faced the demanding and troubling daily life with harmony and peace devoid of any complaints. Thanks for an inspiring and moving post on the bhiksha tradition.

Sankar Ganesh.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a lot of the practises of the Mimamsa were to grind the Tamas or Rajo-tamas and eventually lead the individual to Vedanta. But history proves that this system was very rudimentary and for centuries and millineums lead to an ingrained consciousness that accepted it's indignity, it's helplessness as somehow fateful stupor.I am not saying it was one way.A lot of Brahmins, consciously or otherwise felt it a burden that the goal of Brahman was fated on them while inwardly the vagaries of the samsara enticed them.They too ended up in a stupor unable to break away untill the modern world arrived with the British i.e atleast 3000 years of the mill stone on their necks having been reduced to an indignified and unsavoury eye on the Dakshina plate all along.Many of the bolder ones who were never supposed to hoard for the next day ended up with agraharams and many such gifts from the karma fearful.Brahman was loooong forgotten in all this.The very goal of Brahman is anti-Brahman.

That did not stop the likes of Valmiki, Tukaram, Namdev, Kabir, Lingayats, Nammalvar, Surdas, Ravidasia and so on.

Any system on it's own cannot be said to be good or bad but only by how well is it followed and every system has a life time.

No wonder India is often referred to as the Big elephant.

Bhagawan despite being on a huge and a very high pedestal missed a very great opportunity to highlight that social change was here and now.'Change yourself' is impractical for the man in samsara.For a man in samsara change is more social than individual .Bhagawan refused to play this.For the society it is more of Vivekanandas and Vidyasagars that matter because the very goal of God is a negation of Life and a lot of people want to play this Life.

Our filthy roads, drainages, pollution, mosquitoes, dire poverty, great inequality, the fakeness of endless corruption in a karma bhoomi, dharma bhoomi, veda desa; the rotten socio-cultural entrapments and what not.

Let's bring back Vivekanandas and Vidyasagars.Samaaja eva Madhava. 'All is Well' is the talk of a dead 'I' and will lead us to no where. This is also a very good way to kill the ego and is the most relevant and productive to more than 99% of the seekers of today.Budha, Sankara, Chaitanya, Ramakrishna, Shirdi Sai or Ramana all were right but their focus was different.That focus was relevant to the place and time.

The foucs of today is Samaja eva Madhava and Ramana is behind the gates of Ahsrams and in caves.I do not mean an idealist Samaja but atleast a bare bone system that does n't slip into the barbarian colonies.This I guess is very survivalist and minimalist ideal.Hence the case for all it's worth and urgency.

Anonymous said...

Add this....
What I meant is bring out the Kitchen worker Ramana, Compassionate Ramana, Forgiving Ramana and push the Advaita Ramana,Self-Enquiry Ramana under the mattress for now.

Anonymous said...

David thanks for the article. While we understand the importance of living a life free of desire as stressed by Bhagawan, allow me to differ on the conclusion that he was '...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 don't think this would be a correct interpretation of Bhagwan's views in the strict sense. Bhagwan implored people that their mind could be fixed on their sadhana even when performing other duties in the world. So the notion of 'free time' does not apply. He certainly did not relegate sadhana to a secondary role or a hobby as the statement implies. Unfortunately, a lot of people find this interpretation to be convenient and get entangled in various activities even when complaining they don't have any spare time for sadhana.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous, 'You say Ramana missed out on an opportunity'. I certainly have no time for Brahmins and twice born and then low cast women. Nevertheless Ramana's life was a wonderful example of equal vision. He would often jump off the couch if he saw a poor person linger shyly in the background and come to their aid and ask what they wanted. His stamp of recognition that the unassuming Mastan had reached the highest spiritual level. Ramana's many years of working side by side with the women in the kitchen in hot, difficult conditions.
His wisdom in dealing with meddlesome devotees and a hard, uncompromising ashram manager.
Ramana Maharshi was not a social reformer. The Maharshi's perfection is there for all to see.
He was the embodiment of that.

David Godman said...


While Bhagavan taught that one should try to maintain awareness of the Self at all times, he also recognised that this was not possible or practical for most people. This is the advice he gave to Sivaprakasam Pillai in 'Sri Ramanopadesam':

‘While staying at home, at all times when one is free from work, centre the mind that runs and wanders, hold it and train it in the incomparable enquiry “Who am I?”’ The blemishless Ramana said this to me, but what am I, a dog, actually doing?'

This is taken from The Power of the Presence, part one, page 56. The idea is corroborated by another quotation from Bhagavan that appears as a footnote to this verse:

‘Destruction of mind alone is tapas. This alone is one’s duty. One who is doing his own work will not pay attention to anyone else’s work. One should never give room for swerving from the thought of the Self. However many duties one may have, at all the other times not meant for performing duties, one must perform only self-enquiry. While standing, sitting and taking food one can do vichara, can one not? If the mind happens to forget the enquiry “Who am I?” because of vasanas, when it remembers the enquiry, it should try not to lose hold of the enquiry again.’

The key sentence here is: 'However many duties one may have, at all the other times not meant for performing duties, one must perform only self-enquiry.'

There is a recognition here that duty comes first, that it requires one's full attention, and that enquiry can be done whenever the mind is not required for everyday activities.

Soorya said...

What I meant is bring out the Kitchen worker Ramana, Compassionate Ramana, Forgiving Ramana and push the Advaita Ramana,Self-Enquiry Ramana under the mattress for now.

Why is to so hard to realize that the Kitchen worker Ramana, Compassionate Ramana, Forgiving Ramana etc are all the natural outcome of the Advaita Ramana or the Self-Enquiry Ramana ?
If one is ill equipped to understand Bhagavan's way of advocating Jnana, that doesnt mean one should be as foolish to say Self Enquiry is no match for Samaaja eva Madhava path. There arent many who can understand or follow the path of service without the thought "I am the doer". Hence Bhagavan out of his compassion for the deluded souls who suffer due to the misery of the ego, pointed out "Self Enquiry" which is the shortest route home, for he knew very well how this thought of doing good to the society would in itself bring about more bondage. The efficacy of the path cannot be explained and is wellknown to all those who were pulled to His feet by Him.

Anonymous said...

David I also felt this to be the correct representation of Bhagwan's view on sadhana. As you mentioned, he says "However many duties one may have, at all the other times not meant for performing duties, one must perform only self-enquiry." In other words, one must do sadhana at all times except for essential duties. This was the reason I was uncomfortable with the unqualified usage of "free time" for doing sadhana (as opposed to say 'all times when free of duties'). Free time by itself conveys a different meaning and reduces sadhana to the level of recreational activities like watching tv in one's spare time.

s. said...

salutations to all:
soorya: to each his/her own path. if you are drawn to 'service', fine, but there is no meaning in prescribing it to others and deeming that to be the way to interpret bhagavAn. isn't it? all said & done, one could always argue that bhagavAn did what he did because of realisation, and not the other way around. there can always be people who may have no inclinations to do 'service' but still may be sincere in their search :-)

anonymous: (there are too many anonymous' in the blog - it might be better to add a brief identification, which is pretty easy in the blog - to 'identify' this way might be more humble than anonymity!). anyhow, mr. anonymous said [This was the reason I was uncomfortable with the unqualified usage of "free time" for doing sadhana (as opposed to say 'all times when free of duties').]
pardon me for asking: have you come to a state where you do 'self-enquiry' all the time when you aren't engaged in your duties? :-)

Subramanian. R said...

No doubt we need Vivekanandas
and Rajaram Mohan Rais. But Bhagavan
Ramana is essential since He hit the
bull's eye. You call it Heart, Atma
or Arunachala. It makes no difference. Once when some old
villager came and told Bhagavan
about his problems and sufferings.
Bhagavan Ramana said: "You see whether these problems are there
in your sleep?" The villager did not reply anything, however he had
the satisfaction of reporting his
travails to Bhagavan. Kavyakanta
came there and said: Bhagavan!
You have told him about Atma Vichara, when he was telling about his family problems. What will he understand? If he had come to me,
I would have given him something
like Siva, Siva mantra. Bhagavan
Ramana said: "I can tell him only
what I know. Whoever wants to tell
something else that they know, let
them tell that to him."

Ramana and Vivekananda are not to
be compared at all. What India
needs is based on the conviction of each one.

Soorya said...

Not sure from your comment if you understood that I was replying to Anonymous's comment when he mentioned that Self Enquiry is not the need of the hour, but it is 'service' or rather national reform.Most of the time the idea of service comes as an "I" who needs to help a suffering world separate from itself. Bhagavan discouraged it also because this idea stems from the thought that the world is apart and external from one and hence is perpetuating ignorance in the unripe souls. His words "The world is in you, you are not in the world" and "Correcting oneself is correcting the world" point to His highest vantage point of Jnana. Not everyone can understand Jnana path.
Swami Vivekananda prescribed Karma yoga to the Tamasic Indians, he himself mentioned that to reach Sattva one needs to first pass through Rajas(activity).But it is a different matter if his message to work unattached without care for results or thoughts of "I" and "mine" are actually being understood - maybe by a very number of people. Swamiji was way more than a social reformer, he was such a multi-faceted personality that it will take another Vivekananda to understand him - as he himself mentioned.
I am not disinclined to service, but I dont want the "I" popping it's head with an air of importance/vanity on account of that :-). In the end this "I"(the ego) is the villain who has to be slain.

s. said...

salutations to all:
soorya: my apologies. it was only after you indicated that you were merely responding to some 'anonymous' that i understood. thanks :-)

david: a request - there are simply too many folks out there posting as 'Anonymous' thereby creating a bit of a confusion. isn't it possible for you to "disable" the 'anonymous option? if not, kindly insist on people using some kind of an identifier (and hope they stick to it and not chicken out!). thanks.

Anonymous said...

Never show a righteously driven reformer your best
side; it will but anger and inflame him. He will disrupt
your peace even more. There is no wrestling to
satisfaction with one who knows whats best for you.
All voices in consciousness who call-you-out
and challenge the purity of your natural
sight, are bogus.

Anonymous said...

My teacher, Achaan Chah used to wander around the monastery at times and
talk to people and just say, "Are you suffering much today?" And if you
said, "Yes," he said, "Oh, you must be quite attached," and kind of chuckle
and go along. There wasn't much more to say. You come to see that you
don't own this body because it changes by itself, that you rent this house;
you get it for a little while, and you can honor it and feed it and walk
it, and jog it if you want, but it's not yours to possess. You can begin to
see, in fact, that none of these things are possessible because the nature
of life is nonpossession. You're an accountant in the firm -- you get to
count it for awhile and that's all.

Jack Kornfield

Soorya said...

No worries :-)

Anonymous said...

To be frank, the number of replies here reflects the state of out going mind of your self. See how the topic on Bhiksha moves on to something absolutely different.

This just one nice way, the mind has devices to hold on to. Spiritual Hangover.

This too is non-abidance.

Gautham said...

s. said...

david: a request - there are simply too many folks out there posting as 'Anonymous' thereby creating a bit of a confusion. isn't it possible for you to "disable" the 'anonymous option?

What we really need is a utility like Disqus ( which allows reply to a specific comment (and further, replies to that reply-comment) to be shown right below the comment by way of a tree structure--somewhat similar to the directory structure on Windows explorer.

I am not sure if Disqus integration is possible if this is a free blogspot account.

If someone has used Disqus with Wordpress or Blogspot, please let us know. Maybe Sri Godman can consider using the utility.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anonymous responders should be discouraged. Infact, we must begin to respond to ourselves. We give too much importance to names and bodies. Why not we leave things as they are.

We are unable to function without names and forms.

We should start responding to ourselves. Infact, each one of us do not even respond to others. They are merely responding to themselves.

I like to remain anonymous.

s. said...

salutations to all:
anonymous said [We give too much importance to names and bodies... They are merely responding to themselves.]

laughed out loud :-). the only reason it was suggested is for transactional simplicity. nonetheless since you said it, let me respond - perhaps, it's precisely because one is wedded to one's name & form that one makes an 'effort' to remain 'anonymous'; in the 'so-called anonymity', there is far greater manifestation of pride than the identification that one is currently with. after all, those who seek to be 'anonymous' haven't gone beyond the identification of name & form you talk of. the word is not the thing :-)

people who are entirely convinced that they are writing and responding to 'themselves' alone, should logically refrain from imposing this burden of writing on a public blog. why inconvenience 'others' when all that there is is only 'themselves'? :-)

Anonymous said...

This is both funny and clever

TA - Thinkers Anonymous
It started out innocently enough. I began to think
at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably
though, one thought led to another, and soon
I was more than just a social thinker I began
to think alone - "to relax," I told myself - but I
knew it wasn't true. Thinking became more and
more important to me, and finally I was thinking
all the time. I began to think on the job. I knew
that thinking and employment don't mix, but I
couldn't stop myself. I began to avoid friends at
lunchtime so I could read Thoreau and Kafka.
I would return to the office dizzied and confused,
asking, "What is it exactly we are doing here?"
Things weren't going so great at home either. One
evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife
about the meaning of life. She spent that night at
her mother's. I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker.
One day the boss called me in. He said, " I like you,
and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become
a real problem. If you don't stop thinking on the job, you'll
have to find another job." This gave me a lot to think about.

I came home early after my conversation with the boss.
"Honey," I confessed, "I've been thinking..." "I know you've
been thinking," she said, "and I want a divorce!" "But,
Honey, surely it's not that serious." "It is serious," she
said, lower lip aquiver. "You think as much as college
professors, and college professors don't make any
money, so if you keep on thinking we won't have any
money!" "That's a faulty syllogism," I said impatiently,
and she began to cry. I'd had enough. "I'm going to
the library," I snarled as I stomped out the door. I headed
for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche. I roared
into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors...
they didn't open. The library was closed. As I sank to
the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering
for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye. "Friend, is heavy
thinking ruining your life?" it asked. You probably
recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinkers
Anonymous poster. Which is why I am what I am today:
a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting. At
each meeting we watch a non educational video; last
week it was "Porky's." Then we share experiences about
how we avoided thinking since the last meeting. I still have
my job, and things are a lot better at home. Life just
seemed... easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped

Anonymous said...

(why inconvenience 'others' when all that there is is only 'themselves'? :-) )

You are my mind, I am your mind. I am you, you am I - Thank myself who is yourself! for now am gone... I just passed by here...

food for mind.

i restrain. leave it as it is.

Simon said...

Maurice Frydman's sanyas is also referred to on this page:

Titus said...

The Maurice Frydman story never grows old! Thanks!

@David, are you still working on the Frydman book? Can you tell us when it's likely to be published?

Titus said...

Thanks for the article on's fascinating!

David Godman said...

Fascinating, but it repeats inaccurate information that has been published elsewhere. Frydman, for example, was born in Warsaw in 1901, not Krackow in 1894. Much of the information in this article comes from material published by Apa Pant in his writings on Maurice. Unfortunately, I have discovered that some of the things he wrote about Maurice are probably not true. Maybe he too was simply passing on stories that he had heard elsewhere. The story of Maurice's period as a Christian monk is highly improbable. The only known source of this is Apa Pant's writings. Most of Maurice's life prior to his arrival in India can be accounted for, with documentary evidence to back it up. I haven't found any period in his early life when this monastery period might have taken place.

Titus said...

How's the Frydman book coming along? It would be nice to read a fresh, accurate account of Frydman's life.

David Godman said...


It is still a long way from being completed. I still need to do a lot more research before I make a proper book out of the material I have.

Fidarose Isha said...

I will copy paste, what Anonymous has said. There cannot be any concept of free time. One can do a kind of work, while keeping its mind focused on Sadhana.

David thanks for the article. While we understand the importance of living a life free of desire as stressed by Bhagawan, allow me to differ on the conclusion that he was '...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 don't think this would be a correct interpretation of Bhagwan's views in the strict sense. Bhagwan implored people that their mind could be fixed on their sadhana even when performing other duties in the world. So the notion of 'free time' does not apply. He certainly did not relegate sadhana to a secondary role or a hobby as the statement implies. Unfortunately, a lot of people find this interpretation to be convenient and get entangled in various activities even when complaining they don't have any spare time for sadhana.

Fidarose Isha said...

David, this is just some amazing work from you. I am sure, for generations together, people will benefit, from your hardwork and devotion.

shiba said...

Hello, Mr.David Godman.

I am now translating a article of Narayana Iyer in "Surpassing love and Grace". I can't understand the meaning of this sentence-"In the meanwhile something moved us."
And I am not sure of the procedure of events in the ashram.

1. Sri Bhagavan returned from his usual walk on the Hill.

2.We (narayana Iyer too?) 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.

3.Sri Muruganar prostrated before Sri Bhagavan and went out on his usual round for begging food from the town.

4.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.

5.Natesa ask Sri Bhagavan for an explanation of the sixth stanza of Arunachala Ashtakam.(before midday meal?)

And did Bhagavan blame Chinnaswamy or ashram members for not stop Muruganar to go out for begging food?

I am very glad if you answer my questions.

David Godman said...

I don't have that version of the story, but this is the sequence of events that Narayana Iyer himself wrote:

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 in 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 a bhiksha in honour of his mother was taken 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 has to invite him to stay for meals? Chinnaswamy does not like him. He is the master here.’

There was tension in the atmosphere. T. P. R. and I whispered to each other that we would choose some other time for the closed our books. Sri Bhagavan saw us doing so and asked us what the matter was. We told him what we had come for.

Instantly Sri Bhagavan said, ‘Why not now?’ and started explaining. It was wonderful! Every sentence started a mighty current. It didn’t stop there. Wave after wave of the same exposition came to us for a day or two more whenever we sat before him.

I think the sentence 'in the meanwhile something moved us' means that something happened that prevented us from continuing with our plan. I agree that it is a very unclear sentence.

shiba said...

Thank you very much for your quick reply.

The version of "Surpassing love and Grace" is almost same as that you quoted.

I understand the sentence'in the meanwhile something moved us' means " something happened that prevented us from continuing with our plan" and is a very unclear sentence .

The sequence of events is still unclear for me. And I feel Bhagavan objected against ashram members not inviting Muruganar to take midday meal in fear of chinnaswamy. Or Did he only object against chinnaswamy's behaviour as a master?

David Godman said...

It would have been Chinnaswami who decided not to invite Murugarar since he was the one who decided who could and could not in the dining room.

The sequence of events was as follows:

Narayana Iyer goes to Bhagavan to get an explanation of a verse.

Bhagavan, meanwhile, hears that Murugnar has been excluded from the dining room, despite paying for all the food that day, and expresses his annoyance.

Narayana Iyer decides not to approach Bhagavan for an explanation since it doesn't seem to be an appropriate time.

Bhagavan spots his hesitation, encourages him to ask his question, and gives an explanation.

shiba said...

>It would have been Chinnaswami who decided not to invite Murugarar since he was the one who decided who could and could not in the dining room.

I see. Then Bhagavan's words might be toward only Chinnnaswami.

About sequence of events, I can understand the sequence that you wrote. But I don't see when midday meal was eaten. If midday meal was not finished when the fact that Muruganar was not invited was informed to Bhagavan, calling back Muruganar to ashram might be possible... But this is trivial question. I tend to be meticulous about details.

Thank you very much for your kind answer.

Shrini said...

Hi David,
I try to avoid taking the lunch there whenever I do not stay in the Ashram Guest house as I feel I am trespassing.
Last time I was in Ramanashram, I was not staying there as a guest. just before the arathi, on asking my fried from Tiruvannamalai whether I need to ask the office for permission to have lunch at the Ashram, he replied that it may not be required, but is advisable. I was not comfortable doing it, instead I was walking out and noticed the Biksha being given at the entrance. I joined the queue and had the food sitting near the Iluppai tree. It was very satisfying. I want to have this biksha whenever I visit Ramanashram. I do not find many "non sanyasi" devotees taking the Biksha. Does the Ashram object to others partaking the biksha ? (though I do not think so).. Will help if you have any comment on this..

David Godman said...

There are a fixed number of portions available. Sadhus are served first. After they have received their food, the remaining portions are served to anyone who stands in line for it.