There was a curse on Venkataraman's family — in truth, it was a blessing — that one out of every generation should turn out to be a mendicant. This curse was administered by a wandering ascetic who, it is said, begged alms at the house of one of Venkataraman's forbears, and was refused. A paternal uncle of Sundaram Aiyar's became a sannyasin; so did Sundaram Aiyar's elder brother. Now, it was the turn of Venkataraman, although no one could have foreseen that the curse would work out in this manner. Dispassion found lodging in Venkataraman's heart, and he became a parivrajaka. It was an epic journey that Venkataraman made from Madurai to Tiruvannamalai. About noon he left his uncle's house. He walked to the railway station which was half a mile way. Fortunately the train was running late that day; otherwise he would have missed it. He looked up the table of fares and came to know that the third-class fare to Tindivanam was two rupees and thirteen annas. He bought a ticket and kept with him the balance of three annas. Had he known that there was a rail-track to Tiruvannamalai itself, and had he consulted the table of fares, he would have found that the fare was exactly three rupees. When the train arrived, he boarded it quietly and took his seat. A Maulvi, also travelling, entered into conversation with Venkataraman. From him Venkataraman learnt that there was a train service to Tiruvannamalai, and that one need not go to Tindivanam, but could change trains at Viluppuram. This was a useful piece of information. It was dusk when the train reached Tiruchirappalli. Venkataraman was hungry; he bought two country pears for half an anna; and strangely enough even with the first bite his hunger was appeased. About three o'clock in the morning the train arrived at Viluppuram. Venkataraman got off there with the intention of completing the rest of the journey to Tiruvannamalai on foot. At daybreak, he went into the town and was looking out for the signpost to Tiruvannamalai. He saw a signboard reading 'Mambalappattu' but did not know then that Mambalappattu was a place en route to Tiruvannamalai. Before making further efforts to find out which road he should take, he wanted to refresh himself, as he was tired and hungry. He went up to a hotel and asked for food. He had to wait till noon for the food to be ready. After eating his meal, he proffered two annas in payment. The hotel proprietor asked him how much money he had. When told by Venkataraman that he had only two and a half annas, he declined to accept payment. It was from him that Venkataraman came to know that Mambalappattu was a place on the way to Tiruvannamalai. Venkataraman went back to Viluppuram station and bought a ticket to Mambalappattu for which the money he had was just enough.
It was sometime in the afternoon when Venkataraman arrived at Mambalappattu by train. From there he set out on foot for Tiruvannamalai. He walked about ten miles, and it was late in the evening. There was the temple of Arayaninallur nearby, built on a large rock. He went there, waited for the doors to be opened, entered and sat down in the pillared hall. He had a vision there — a vision of brilliant light enveloping the entire place. It was no physical light. It shone for some time and then disappeared. Venkataraman continued sitting in a mood of deep meditation, till he was roused by the temple priests who were wanting to lock the doors and go to another temple three quarters of a mile away at Kilur for service. Venkataraman followed them, and while inside the temple he got lost in samadhi again. After finishing their duties the priests woke him up, but would not give him any food. The temple drummer who had been watching the rude behaviour of the priests implored them to hand over his share of the temple food to the strange youth. When Venkataraman asked for some drinking water, he was directed to a Sastri’s house, which was at some distance. While in that house he fainted and fell down. A few minutes later he rallied round and saw a small crowd looking at him curiously. He drank the water, ate some food, and lay down and slept.
Next morning he woke up. It was the 31st of August 1896, the Gokulastami day, the day of Sri Krishna’s birth. Venkataraman resumed his journey and walked for quite a while. He felt tired and hungry. So he wished for some food first, and then he would go to Tiruvannamalai by train, if that was possible. The thought occurred to him that he could dispose of the pair of gold earrings he was wearing and raise the money that was required. But how was this to be accomplished? He went and stood outside a house, which happened to belong to one Muthukrishna Bhagavatar. He asked the Bhagavatar for food and was directed to the housewife. The good lady was pleased to receive the young sadhu and feed him on the auspicious day of Sri Krishna’s birth. After the meal, Venkataraman went to the Bhagavatar again and told him that he wanted to pledge his earrings for four rupees in order that he may complete his pilgrimage. The rings were worth about twenty rupees, but Venkataraman had no need for that much money. The Bhagavatar examined the ear-rings, gave Venkataraman the money he had asked for, took down the youth’s address, wrote out his own on a piece of paper for him, and told him that he could redeem the rings at any time. Venkataraman had his lunch at the Bhagavatar's house. The pious lady gave him a packet of sweets that she had prepared for Gokulastami. Venkataraman took leave of the couple, tore up the address the Bhagavatar had given him — for he had no intention of redeeming the earrings — and went to the railway station. As there was no train till the next morning, he spent the night there.
On the morning of the 1st of September, 1896, he boarded the train to Tiruvannamalai. The travel took only a short time. Alighting from the train, he hastened to the great temple of Arunacalesvara. All the gates stood open — even the doors of the inner shrine. The temple was then empty of all people — even the priests. Venkataraman entered the sanctum sanctorum, and as he stood before his Father Arunacalesvara he experienced great ecstasy and unspeakable joy. The epic journey had ended. The ship had come safely to port.
The rest of what we regard as Ramana's life — this is how we shall call him hereafter — was spent in Tiruvannamalai. Ramana was not formally initiated into sannyasa. As he came out of the temple and was walking along the streets of the town, someone called out and asked whether he wanted his tuft removed. He consented readily, and was conducted to the Ayyankulam tank where a barber shaved his head. Then he stood on the steps of the tank and threw away into the water his remaining money. He also discarded the packet of sweets given by the Bhagavatar's wife. The next to go was the sacred thread he was wearing. As he was returning to the temple he was just wondering why he should give his body the luxury of a bath, when there was a downpour which drenched him.
The first place of Ramana's residence in Tiruvannamalai was the great temple. For a few weeks he remained in the thousand-pillared hall. But he was troubled by urchins who pelted stones at him as he sat in meditation. He shifted himself to obscure corners and even to an underground vault known as Patala-lingam. Undisturbed, he would spend several days in deep absorption. Without moving, he sat in samadhi, not being aware of even the bites of vermin and pests. But the mischievous boys soon discovered the retreat and indulged in their pastime of throwing potsherds at the young Swami. There was at the time in Tiruvannamalai a senior Swami by the name of Seshadri. Those who did not know him took him for a madman. He sometimes stood guard over the young Swami and drove away the urchins. At long last, he was removed from the pit by devotees without his being aware of it and deposited in the vicinity of a shrine of Subrahmanya. From then on, someone or the other took care of Ramana. The seat of residence had to be changed frequently. Gardens, groves, shrines — these were chosen to keep the Swami. The Swami himself never spoke. Not that he took any vow of silence; he had no inclination to talk. At times texts like Vasistham and Kaivalyanavanitam used to be read out to him. A little less than six months after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai Ramana shifted his residence to a shrine called Gurumurtam at the earnest request of its keeper, a Tambiranswami. As days passed and as Ramana's fame spread, increasing numbers of pilgrims and sight-seers came to visit him. After about a year's stay at Gurumurtam, the Swami — locally he was known as Brahmana-swami — moved to a neighbouring mango orchard. It was here that one of his uncles, Nelliyappa Aiyar traced him out. Nelliyappa Aiyar was a second-grade pleader at Manamadurai. Having learnt from a friend that Venkataraman was then a revered Sadhu at Tiruvannamalai, he went there to see him. He tried his best to take Ramana along with him to Manamadurai. But the young sage would not respond. He did not show any sign of interest in the visitor. So, Nelliyappa Aiyar went back disappointed to Manamadurai. However, he conveyed the news to Alagammal, Ramana's mother.
The mother went to Tiruvannamalai accompanied by her eldest son. Ramana was then living at Pavalakkunru, one of the eastern spurs of Arunachala. With tears in her eyes Alagammal entreated Ramana to go back with her. But, for the sage there was no going back. Nothing moved him — not even the wailings and weepings of his mother. He kept silent, giving no reply. A devotee who had been observing the mother’s struggle for several days requested Ramana to write out at least what he had to say. The sage wrote on a piece of paper quite in an impersonal way thus : "In accordance with the prarabdha of each, the One whose function it is to ordain makes each to act. What will not happen will never happen, whatever effort one may put forth. And what will happen will not fail to happen, however much one may seek to prevent it. This is certain. The part of wisdom therefore is to stay quiet."
Disappointed and with a heavy heart, the mother went back to Manamadurai. Sometime after this event Ramana went up the Arunachala hill, and started living in a cave called Virupaksa after a saint who dwelt and was buried there. Here also the crowds came, and among them were a few earnest seekers. These latter would put questions to him regarding spiritual experience or bring sacred books for having certain points explained. Ramana sometimes wrote out his answers and explanations. One of the books brought to him was Sankara's Vivekachudamani which later he rendered into Tamil prose. There were also simple unlettered folk that came to him for solace and spiritual guidance. One of them was Echammal who having lost her husband, son, and daughter, was disconsolate till the Fates guided her to Ramana's presence. She made it a point to visit the Swami every day and took upon herself the task of bringing food for him as well as for those who lived with him.
After her return to Manamadurai, Alagammal lost her eldest son. Two years later, her youngest son, Nagasundaram paid a brief visit to Tiruvannamalai. She herself went there once on her return from a pilgrimage to Varanasi, and again during a visit to Tirupati. On this occasion she fell ill and suffered for several weeks with symptoms of typhoid. Ramana showed great solicitude in nursing and restoring her to health. He even composed a hymn in Tamil beseeching Lord Arunachala to cure her of her disease. The first verse of the hymn runs as follows: 'Oh Medicine in the form of a Hill that arose to cure the disease of all the births that come in succession like waves! Oh Lord! It is Thy duty to save my mother who regards Thy feet alone as her refuge, by curing her fever.' He also prayed that his mother should be granted the vision divine and be weaned from worldliness. It is needless to say that both the prayers were answered. Alagammal recovered, and went back to Manamadurai.
But not long after she returned to Tiruvannamalai; a little later followed her youngest son, Nagasundaram who had in the meanwhile lost his wife leaving a son. It was in the beginning of 1916 that the mother came, resolved to spend the rest of her life with Ramana. Soon after his mother's arrival, Ramana moved from Virupaksa to Skandasramam, a little higher up the hill. The mother received training in intense spiritual life. She donned the ochre robe, and took charge of the Ashrama kitchen. Nagasundaram too became a sannyasin, assuming the name Niranjanananda. Among Ramana's devotees he came to be popularly known as Chinnaswami (the younger Swami). In 1920 the mother grew weak in health and ailments incidental to old age came to her. Ramana tended her with care and affection, and spent even sleepless nights sitting up with her. The end came on May 1922, which was the Bahulanawami day, in the month of Vaisakha. The mother's body was taken down the hill to be interred. The spot chosen was at the southernmost point between Palitirtham Tank and the Daksinamurti Mantapam. While the ceremonies were being performed, Ramana himself stood silently looking on. Niranjanananda Swami took his residence near the tomb. Ramana who continued to remain at Skandasramam visited the tomb every day. After about six months he came to stay there, as he said later on, not out of his own volition but in obedience to the Divine Will. Thus was founded the Ramanasramam. A temple was raised over the tomb and was consecrated in 1949. As the years rolled by the Ashrama grew steadily, and people not only from India but from every continent of the world came to see the sage and receive help from him in their spiritual pursuits.
In 1903 there came to Tiruvannamalai a great Samskrit scholar and savant, Sastri known also as Ganapati Muni because of the austerities he had been observing. He had the title Kavyakantha (one who had poetry in his throat), and his disciples addressed him as nayana (father). He was a specialist in the worship of the Divine Mother. He visited Ramana in the Virupaksa cave quite a few times. Once in 1907, he was assailed by doubts regarding his own spiritual practices. He went up the hill, saw Ramana sitting alone in the cave, and expressed himself thus : "All that has to be read I have read; even Vedanta sastra I have fully understood; I have done japa to my heart's content; yet I have not up to this time understood what tapas is. Therefore I have sought refuge at your feet. Pray enlighten me as to the nature of tapas." Ramana replied, now speaking, "If one watches whence the notion 'I' arises, the mind gets absorbed there; that is tapas. When a mantra is repeated, if one watches whence that mantra sound arises, the mind gets absorbed there; that is tapas." To the scholar this came as a revelation; he felt the grace of the sage enveloping him. It was he who proclaimed Ramana to be Maharshi and Bhagavan. He composed hymns in Samskrit in praise of the sage, and also wrote the Ramana-Gita explaining his teachings.
Ramana's first Western devotee was F.H.Humphrys. He came to India in 1911 to take up a post in the Police service at Vellore. Given to the practice of occultism, he was in search of a Mahatma. He was introduced to Ganapati Sastri by his Telugu tutor; and Sastri took him to Ramana. The Englishman was greatly impressed. Writing about his first visit to the sage in the International Psychic Gazette, he said : 'On reaching the cave we sat before him, at his feet, and said nothing. We sat thus for a long time and I felt lifted out of myself. For half an hour I looked into the Maharshi's eyes, which never changed their expression of deep contemplation.... The Maharshi is a man beyond description in his expression of dignity, gentleness, self-control and calm strength of conviction.' Humphry's ideas of spirituality changed for the better as a result of his contact with Ramana. He repeated his visits to the sage. He recorded his impressions in his letters to a friend in England which were published in the Gazette mentioned above. In one of them he wrote, 'You can imagine nothing more beautiful than his smile.' And again, 'It is strange what a change it makes in one to have been in his Presence!'
It was not that all good people went to the Ashrama. Sometimes bad ones turned up also — even bad sadhus. Twice in the year 1924, thieves broke into the Ashrama in quest of loot. On the second of these occasions they even beat the Maharshi, finding that there was very little for them to take. When one of the devotees sought the sage's permission to punish the thieves, the sage forbade him, saying: "They have their dharma, we have ours. It is for us to bear and forbear. Let us not interfere with them." When one of the thieves gave him a blow on the left thigh, he told him: "If you are not satisfied you can strike the other leg also." After the thieves had left, a devotee enquired about the beating. The sage remarked, "I also have received some puja," punning on the word which means 'worship' but is also used to mean 'blows'.
The spirit of harmlessness that permeated the sage and his environs made even animals and birds make friends with him. He showed them the same consideration that he did to the humans that went to him. When he referred to any of them, he used the form 'he' or 'she' and not 'it'. Birds and squirrels built their nests around him. Cows, dogs and monkeys found asylum in the Ashrama. All of them behaved intelligently — especially the cow Laksmi. He knew their ways quite intimately. He would see to it that they were fed properly and well. And, when any of them died, the body would be buried with due ceremony.
The life in the Ashrama flowed on smoothly. With the passage of time more and more visitors came — some of them for a short stay and others for longer periods. The dimensions of the Ashrama increased, and new features and departments were added — a home for the cattle, a school for the study of the Vedas, a department for publication, and the Mother's temple with regular worship, etc. Ramana sat most of the time in the hall that had been constructed for the purpose, as witness to all that happened around him. It was not that he was not active. He would stitch leaf-plates, dress vegetables, read proofs received from the press, look into newspapers and books, suggest lines of reply to letters received, etc. yet it was quite evident that he was apart from everything. There were numerous invitations for him to undertake tours. But he never moved out of Tiruvannamalai, and in the later years, out of the Ashrama. Most of the time, every day, people sat before him. They sat mostly in silence. Sometimes some of them asked questions; and sometimes he answered them. It was a great experience to sit before him and to look at his beaming eyes. Many did experience time coming to a stop and a stillness and peace beyond description.
The golden jubilee of Ramana's advent into Tiruvannamalai was celebrated in 1946. In 1947 his health began to fail. He was not yet seventy, but looked much older. Towards the end of 1948 a small nodule appeared below the elbow of his left arm. As it grew in size, the doctor in charge of the Ashrama dispensary cut it out. But in a month's time it reappeared. Surgeons from Madras were called, and they operated. The wound did not heal, and the tumor came again. On further examination it was diagnosed that the affection was a case of sarcoma. The doctors suggested amputating the arm above the affected part. Ramana replied with a smile : "There is no need for alarm. The body is itself a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? Simple dressing of the affected part will do." Two more operations had to be performed, but the tumor appeared again. Indigenous systems of medicine were tried; and homeopathy too. The disease did not yield itself to treatment. The sage was quite unconcerned, and was supremely indifferent to suffering. He sat as a spectator watching the disease waste away the body. But his eyes shone as bright as ever; and his grace flowed towards all beings. Crowds came in large numbers. Ramana insisted that they be allowed to have his darsana. Devotees profoundly wished that the sage should cure his body through an exercise of supernormal powers. Some of them imagined that they themselves had had the benefit of these powers which they attributed to Ramana. Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over the suffering, and he sought to comfort them by reminding them of the truth that Bhagavan was not the body: "They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away — where can he go, and how?" The end came on the 14th of April, 1950. That evening the sage gave darsana to the devotees that came. All that were present in the Ashrama knew that the end was nearing. They sat singing Ramana's hymn to Arunachala with the refrain Arunachala-Siva. The sage asked his attendants to make him sit up. He opened his luminous and gracious eyes for a brief while; there was a smile; a tear of bliss trickled down from the outer corner of his eye; and at 8:47 the breathing stopped. There was no struggle, no spasm, none of the signs of death. At that very moment, a comet moved slowly across the sky, reached the summit, of the holy hill, Arunachala, and disappeared behind it.
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