Meditation, Detachment and Greening Arunachala
By Susan Viswanathan


When I first visited ‘Thiru’, as it is called by frequent visitors to the town, it was a “small” town. Now it has burgeoned by the influx of pilgrims (5000 visit the temple every day, according to the local chemist who has a shop next to the Arunachala Temple )  and  the numbers multiply geometrically as the years pass. It seems to have become the hub of priestly and commercial activities. Television has contributed much to the missionising appeal of Saivism. The descriptions of market, temple and pilgrims remain fairly constant in the anthropological literature whether it be Christian, Muslim or Hindu.  Religion and Commerce, with the possible yeast of politics, makes a town what it is. In Tiruvannamalai, there is faith, but fortunately no communalism.
         To me as a theoretician of dialogue between religions, non-dualism is the answer to varieties of discord which we see as everyday occurrences in a globalised world. Non-dualism is the space in which everyday pluralism surfaces. It is an existential quality, which allows the myriad nature of the world to be ever present. As individuals we enter a space of communitas and this involves both respect and sharing.
      On the other hand, technological imperatives (such as the megaphone) can be very rude interruptions in the quiet and sacred spaces that Nature allots us, and which is confirmed by cultural or theological formulae. Tiruvannamalai, eleven years after my first visit in 1996, provides such a sense of shock and rupture. Trucks bringing agricultural produce and other merchandise, buses bringing pilgrims by the hundreds veer through a traditional street with enormous noise in its wake. The Gods during carnival time are taken around in tractors which spew the most horrible smoke. The pollution levels, because of diesel and firecrackers during festival occasions has to be seen to be believed.
         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 speech.
         “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 puffed rice.
      “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 action.
        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 things.” (ibid)
“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 God for;
“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.”
(ibid 104)
           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.
          Thomas Merton 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 1980:42)
        “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 method.
     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.”