In December 2006,
the sound of firecrackers and megaphones disturbed ashramites so much
that being present in that hallowed spot seemed to be a mistake. The
woman in the room next to mine was a publisher’s wife from Germany, who
had come to visit Ramanasramam in memory of her husband who had been a
devotee of Ramana and whose works on Ramana were well known to the
Librarian. Yet within three days, in spite of commitment to theology and
her nostalgia for her first visit decades before, she left looking for a
quieter room. The previous nights neither of us had slept, having been
kept awake by a megaphone, where a piping child’s voice yelled
continuously for hours and hours;
“Pathu rua Pathu rua pathu rua!” a cry which never stopped.
“What are they saying?” she asked me the
next morning, looking haggard. She wanted to know if it was a political
“Ten rupees.” I said. “It’s the cost of a
packet of puffed rice and dates which the merchant wanted pilgrims to
buy before setting off on the pradakshina”.
On the third night, my patience having
worn thin, and fearing a nervous breakdown, I went downstairs at eleven
O’clock. The ashram compound was dark and silent, only one pilgrim was
returning from the circling of the hill.
“That noise! Can’t anyone do anything?”
“What to do?”
I went and accosted the merchant.
”Put that off!”
He nodded smilingly. He had not heard a word of what I had said. His ear was next to the megaphone.
“Is money the only mantra you have?” I yelled.
He still could not hear, and smilingly,
serenely pointed me to his assistant who was packing the dates and
“It’s illegal to have a megaphone in a residential street. I’ll call the police tomorrow.”
The word ‘police’ seemed to
penetrate, and he lowered the volume, so that he could hear me.
“I’m from Delhi, and megaphones are illegal, and you must switch it off!”
He smiled and nodded and agreed. It went off that night, and Beatrice was relieved,
“I was praying and praying that you would
go, since you know the language, and could speak to him!” she said in
the morning. For her it was a miracle of Ramana Maharshi, that I had
gone, coincidentally, just then to bellow at the merchant.
Next day however the megaphone was on
again, and consequently Beatrice found a room far away from the main
commercial road on which Ramana Asramam is now located. From being part
of a jungle to a road lined with gem shops, hippy clothes, junk and
fast-food, foreign currency-changing shops, ticket offices, internet
offices; it’s a very great change. The rustic road with its local shops
of bananas and tea and newspapers has now been replaced by the kitsch
and mélange of the post modern and the traditional.
And every day is a festival in this
ancient town, because every day is a holy day. Every day brings to
pilgrims, honours and rewards, both material and spiritual. And who can
be excluded? The numbers only increase. As a result there are problems
of discipline and order. Residents of the Ramana Asramam are forced to
become aggressive bouncers who keep the crowds at bay, using only their
eyes, linked arms or speech to keep the crowds from hurting each other
or damaging the shrines. Women who visit Ramana Asramam to meditate say
that young men in the crowds swirling outside at Deepam, the annual core
festival of Tiruvannamalai are lascivious and eager, and hands reach
out to touch women’s bodies. The swirling river of people is charged
with emotions which are very mortal.
A great deal of Durkheimian sociology is
about the size density and violence of the city, and how this affects
social interaction. At the Ramana Asramam, residents are able to cope
with the greatness of numbers by coping with their needs pragmatically.
5000 guests a year stay in asramam rooms, according to Dr Murthy who is
the keeper of ledgers and keys; he shows me by adding serial numbers in
the heavy visitor’s book. During festivals and Sundays, day-trippers
constantly float in and out, for a brief view of Maharshi’s Samadhi and
garden, by responding to their needs pragmatically. The bookshop remains
open all night, and the monks and householders looking after it never
sleep, it seems, for the throngs of people are so continuous. The cooks
are kept busy without a day’s break, and seemingly without any holidays,
in the service of Bhagavan.
Pilgrims have now started celebrating
their personal functions and commemorations of their own birthdays and
anniversaries by coming to the asramam and asking for special favourite
foods to be cooked. It has the appurtenances now of an industrial
kitchen, and to cope with the crowds sometimes the priests help the
servers. They have to run with heavy buckets of rice, sambhar,
vegetables, rasam, buttermilk payasam and an entire convoy of pilgrims,
300-500 people on festival days and on weekends, are fed in twenty
minutes, before the “second batch” is called in. The “second batch”
consists of Ramana office staff and workers, and the atmosphere is
easier and colloquial. There is a general camaraderie, food is sometimes
short, and buttermilk watery, but the workers eat heartily with
conversation and laughter and an unselfconscious joy in the everydayness
of their routine obligations and duties. While asramam guests are fed
on washed banana leaves, workers and residents have stainless steel
plates (ever silver is the local name for these plates) and only if they
are not entirely integrated as wage workers are they given banana leaf
or stitched leaf plates. Service vs. wage work is a very sharp divider.
Those who serve in the asramam often come from wealthy households,
bringing their capital with them as donations to the asramam.
To have given everything to the asramam
is a sign of one’s privileged standing. They have left their homes
because of being called by Ramana (revelation, dream, prayer,
indescribable longing to be near his Samadhi) or requested to serve by
the trustees. To join the Ramanasramam as a devoted server, one must
show a predilection for silence, hard work and self-abnegation. Men who
have families, foreground Ashram duties before conjugal, filial or
parental loyalties. Ramana made no distinction between householders and
renunciants and the tradition of friendship and solidarity continues.
Lay monks may sometimes change leaves and marry, husbands and wives may
on the other hand, turn celibate and so on. Tradition and time are
inter-linked in traditional ways. If a renunciant still feels passion,
inflamed by glance or gesture, if a mutual lust still burns between
pathfinders, these are “skins to be shed.”
Ramana is well known for having said that
inhibitions by themselves were hypocritical and he once said, “It’s
better to do it, than think about it too much.” Therefore even if
passion blows a person apart for a while, “these are just vasanas,
fleeting emotions, which should be disregarded while remaining constant
to the chosen path.”
C.S. Lewis talks
of the common fantasies of the human minds, where God and Nature meet.
“That spearhead of the Supernatural which I call my reason
links up with all my natural contents – my sensations, emotion and the
like – so completely that I call the mixture by the single word ‘me.’
Again, there is what I have called the unsymmetrical character of the
frontier relationship. Where the physical state of the brain dominated
my thinking, it produces only disorder.” (Lewis 1984: 35)
What Lewis means is that it is perfectly
natural to want, to aspire to cosmic fullness, to say with the psalmist
“In thy presence is the Fullness of God.” Spontaneity, originality and
action is what Lewis associates with Nature, Space and Time which lie
beyond the individual, everything is interconnected, thus the denial of
free will is a corollary because “a total series of events” provide
symmetry to the Universe. We are thus only part and parcel of Nature.
Even our atomization is part of a myriad such episodes. Naturalism thus,
for Lewis is democratic in its aspect.
“…for the naturalist one thing is as good as another, in
the sense that they are all equally dependent on the total system of
things. Indeed each of them is only the way in which the character of
the total system exhibits itself at a particular point in space and
time.” (Lewis 1984:11)
Non-dualism has place for the
Supernaturalists who believe in a point of origin, of departure, of
existence from which all things proceed. For the supernaturalist who is
monarchical in his disposition,
“The one basic Thing has caused all the
other things to be. It exists on its own - they exist because it exists.
They will cease to exist if it ever ceases to maintain them in
existence; they will be altered if it ever alters them.” (ibid 11)
The paradox of hierarchy between the
mountain and the manifestations is a literary one. In non-dualism there
are no good thoughts or bad thoughts, only thoughts. There are no good
events or terrible events, only events. The sadhaka attempts to attain
the light which is beyond all thoughts, all events. These are people who
are permitted to renounce the world and so become its ornaments. Some
find it as karma-yogis transcending therefore the dualism of thought and
For a sociologist what is not difficult to imagine are the routines, and
the symmetry arising from these. The everyday tasks are set out and are
immediately comprehensible. Times of meditation, community prayer,
chanting, meals, work, social interaction and silence, all of these are
exact. Yet the clock time of the factory does not approximate the rhythm
of ashram life. As numbers increase, there is a strain to conform to
the ethos of service and the velocity of demands. Each visitor feels he
or she is unique, looks forward to comfort, quiet and aesthetic
pleasure. Learning the roots of detachment is linked to various other
tasks which includes conformity to the values of the asramam – the
penultimate rules are silence, meditation and work.
Ramana Maharshi never believed that
idleness was the path to spiritual experience. Meditation was a part of
everyday life, and while some were set apart for this the risks were
always elaborated. “Discount all visions as distractions” was Maharshi’s
primary advice to novitiates to continued meditation. These were in
fact seen to be “disturbances.” There is no reason for those of us who
have particularly stress full lives in war torn cities to believe that
meditation will not lead to calm lives, and the ability to carry out our
duties whatever these are.
Those who are familiar with the annual
ritual of Arunachala, the lighting of the Deepam will find in C.S.
Lewis’ poem published as frontispiece in his book “Miracles” (Lewis
1984) some archetypical allusions.
Among the hills a meteorite
Lies huge, and moss has overgrown
And wind and rain with touches light
Made soft, the contours of the stone...
Nor is it strange these wanderers
Find in her lap their fitting place...
All that is Earth has once been sky
Down from the sun of old she came,
Or from some star that traveled by
Too close to his entangling flame...
Maharshi always said of Nature that
manifested or unmanifested, we as human beings, shared in the essence of
the largeness of its existence. Much of how we read Nature is in the
animistic terms of poetry and love. Durkheim read this in the metaphors
of power magnetism, current, force, all of which he saw as common to
Religion, Magic and Science. In the post-modern world, the boundaries
between these are again blurred.
To understand Nature in terms of the
mystery is part of the quest for solitude whether it is in Religion or
Science. Love is part of this quest. Thomas Merton writes,
“Identification by love leads to knowledge, recognition, intimate and
obscure but vested with an inexpressible certainty known only in
contemplation.” (Merton 1975: 68)
This search for solitude is represented in the unity of the self.
“To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly
traveling from one geographical possibility to another. A man becomes a
solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external
surrounding, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude, and
sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment,
solitude is not potential – it is actual.” (ibid 79)
He goes on to say that a “merely
subjective and inward solitude, the fruit of an effort at
interiorisation” would not be enough. It has to be a “communion in
something greater than the world” as great as Being itself, in order
that in its deep peace we may find God.” (ibid 83)
While writing his many books, Thomas Merton recognizes, as Asramamites
do, that words are an obstacle. “We put words between ourselves and
“The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke
screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In
solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet
we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a
matter for terror nor for shame. It is clothed in the friendly
communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our
words have attempted to classify to control and even to despise
(because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence
teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled
it.” (ibid 83, 84)
In silence, it is a larger reality that
confronts us, which words cannot encompass. For Merton, work and
creation is unity, bringing about a total peace.
“Now contemplation no longer needs to be a special “state”
that removes one from the ordinary things going around for God
penetrates all. One does not have to think of giving an account of
oneself to anyone but Him.” (ibid 85)
This silence is not absolute or final. It
requires “a continual crying in the night, a repeated bending over the
abyss.” It is according to Merton a continual searching for god.
Merton cautions against the loudness or
our entreaties which is “an emotional noise.’ Pride he says counterfeits
“Pride imitates the silence of God, it is a forced
immobility. The silence of pride is the silence of death. Pride is
afraid to go out of itself, for fear of losing what it has produced with
itself.” (ibid 87)
Sometimes the egoism of the self imposes
silences on everyone, so that the sole voice may be heard. When there is
no focus on being alone, but solitude is seen as a continuous state, it
does not interrupt work.
“The solitary is necessarily a man who does what he wants
to do. In fact he has nothing else to do. That is why his vocation is
both dangerous and despised.”
He compares the two predominant and
oppositional loves that exist, the carnal and the spiritual, by saying
that the first is the “darkness and peace of the flesh.” (ibid
112) while the other is found only by the path of our spiritual
activity. For Ramana Maharshi, the holy sage of Tiruvannamalai, this
opposition is dualism, and that is why the Aradhaneshwara form as
Arunachala becomes the site of abstract and mystical poetry.
But Merton recognizes that the true
solitary is one who seeks, and would presume any attempt to distract him
or her from this path as futile. And yet, when we create the material
conditions of that solitude, we stand the chance of losing it.
One of the problems of populism is the
ability of people to believe that the space they occupy belongs to them.
Much of the questions raised by Social Anthropology is about how we
look at Trusteeship. The definitive nature of the organization of space
is a legal question, which is in the purview of the Forest Department,
the Archaeological Survey, Municipal Offices and so on.
How increased numbers of pilgrims affects
the town has already been mentioned. In the ashram, monastic life is
continually under threat. Dr Murthy tells me he keeps out people with
money who want to use the ashram as a holiday resort, people who are
eager to meet friends and relatives for festive occasions like New Year.
This is complicated by the fact that each language group has a new year
quite different from others complicating festive and ritual life;
thirty percent of Asramam visitors are for instance Telugus who have now
built their own imposing guest house, just across the road, facing
Arunachala, since Asramam cannot accommodate their number and the
frequency of their visits and their desire for long duration.
writes that we must be careful not to reduce monasteries to a:
“purely common-sense machinery of rules and official
decisions in which there are only token sacrifices and formal worship,
and in which there is no longer anything predictable except the day
–to-day detail of trivial and absolutely necessary frustration.”
While being concerned with every one’s
problems, the trustees are careful to keep at bay those sentiments which
destroy discipline, specifically adulation and other forms of gluttony.
There is the excerpt in Merton’s work from the writing of Barry McLaughlin,
“Yet one of the surest signs of the resolution of the
identity crisis is an increased capacity for being alive, for being
responsible for oneself. The gradual process that will end in perfect
identity involves an awareness of the fact that there are decisions in
life and aspects of life’s struggle that a person must face alone…And as
a person in this formative isolation becomes more able to appreciate
the moods and feelings of others, he also becomes more able to have
meaningful relationships with them.” (Mclaughlin cited in Merton
“Togetherness” and “Herdism” according to
Merton is not what community is about. To love, one must respect the
other; one must comprehend the need for solitude. To incorporate, to
merge, to present the ideas of ‘family’ ‘brethren’ or ‘community’ as
ways to integrate the solitary who has his/her own path is a common
Yet Merton has a fear of those who take
to monasteries the “emptiness and angst” of depersonalization and angst.
There can be politics, tension, marginalization. He says,
“I would like to suggest one area where we can hope for
good results and that is monastic’s work. Work that is productive,
purely organized, and remains in contact with nature, work that is truly
physical and manual, outdoor work, work that is properly learned and
well done, work that is managed and taught on a human and monastic
level, and not carried out like factory type drudgery or office routines
– such work can do much to help.”
Merton contrasts what he calls normal
life with the life of solitude. “Normal” life is about comfort,
reassurance and diversion.
“If we fulfill the role imposed on us by others, we will
be rewarded by approval. These roles impose definite limitations, but in
return for accepting the limitations we enjoy the consolations of
companionship, of understanding support and so on. We are made to feel
that “we belong” and are therefore “all right.” What the seeker of
solitude does is to renounce these; the monk is someone who wanted to
look into something else.” (ibid 100)
The comfort and joy of married life,
conversations and friendship with others, a place in the City and
commerce all these are given up.
“The monk is a man who in one way or other pushes to the
very frontier of human experience and strives to go beyond, to find out
what transcends the ordinary life of existence.” (ibid 101)
Aware that man is somehow sustained by a
deep mystery of silence, of incomprehensibility of God’s will and God’s
love – the monk feels that he is personally called to live in more
intimate communication with that mystery. And he also feels that if he
does not respond to this summons, he cannot be happy, because he cannot
be fully happy with himself. (ibid 101) It is this, which Ramana
Maharshi called “sahaja”, whether for the monastic or the householder,
and where I would conclude with Merton that detachment is the lot of the
social scientist as much as the mystic, and that we must be careful
that our techniques do not lock us in. (Merton 1980:103)
Excerpt from, “The Children of Nature: The Life and Legacy of Ramana Maharshi, Roli, Delhi 2010, by Susan Viswanathan.”