Although my spirit has been constantly enriched, I am
only too aware that my physical body is now showing signs of exhaustion.
Supper is being served. I am not hungry. Iwould prefer
to retreat to my simple room, but I am being led to the dining area where, in
Indian-style, we sit in rows on the floor. This is followed by
arati, chanting and prayers. Someone points out an Englishwoman who has
just left everything to spend the rest of her life at this Ashram: she is over
70. The pull of the mystic East is not exclusively for the young.
Once again I have to brace myself for another early
morning start for Ramanasramam. At the last minute as I am leaving, I am called
back. A Spanish woman wants me to give a message to Juan in room 15: the message
— a bit vague: Padre está aquí...
This journey is yet another stopping-at-every-village-along-the-way
affair. Indian travel is full of surprises in that once you get telling people
you are on your way to an Ashram it can lead to deep, involved metaphysical
discussion. Nowhere else in the world can you be paying for your bus ticket
and being asked at the same time: Does your guru give you the inner light? I have
given up (for the time being) my train reservations, not because bus travel
is any more comfortable -- it may be quicker -- but because in the South the
buses are more reliable, more frequent.
Tiruvannamalai is finally in sight, rather the sacred
hill of Arunachala at the foot of which, crowded between many Ashrams, rests
the one named after one of the 20th centuary’s most revered sages: Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He was drawn
here in 1896 when he was hardly 17 and never left. He lived in caves but eventually
allowed his growing number of devotees to build him an Ashram at the foot of
the hill. So powerful was his magnetic presence, he became a legend in his life
time. Paul Brunton wrote about him in the 1930’s, and although it is now
over thirty years since Ramana left this physical world, that great charismatic,
mystic force constantly draws people from all over the world to this Ashram
— many of them had not even been born thirty years ago. And thirty years
ago I feel sure his Ashram was like himself, simple and compact. Now it is shining
and sprawling with concrete and marble. No matter, the spirit pervading the
entire place is extraordinary, vivid, magical.
I am given not only a private apartment in the compound
across the road from the Ashram, but a Mr. N. who is to look after me and see
that I Interview the “right” people. This makes me think there must
be some “not-so-right” people who may be Interviewable. But not
to worry, I know I will be Interviewing those whom I am meant to Interview,
with or without the blessings of the helpful management.
I deliver the message to Juan in room 15 and ask if
he is visiting the Ashram or is a permanent resident…it would be good
to have a Spanish Interview. But, no, he is going back to the Spanish island
where I used to live twenty years ago.
As Mr. N. will not have his approved list of candidates
ready until tomorrow, and as I have already looked round the Ashram and gazed
up at the sacred Arunachala, I am now listening to a young man explaining the
teachings of Bhagavan (for this is how Ramana’s
followers call him). A bus full of Scandinavian tourists has unloaded its captives
for a thirty-minute stop at the Ashram. The young man has been approached by
two middle-aged ladies: he is wearing white khadi, they are wearing expensive
machine-made reproductions of Indian hand-blocked fabrics. They want to photograph
him. He must be used to this. He tells them why he left the New York nightmare
for Bhagavan. The tourists snap away and
leave. I ask if he would care to tell me more. He says: Sure thing. We collect
his wife, and off we go to their apartment. Why wait till tomorrow? Tomorrow
may never come, at least not for these two unofficial selections.
Matthew: My wife and I both grew up in similar
circumstances; we came from upper middle class families and had the luxury of
college education, and are both college drop-outs. At 19 we were dissatisfied
with the life we were living, and the studies we were into were not meaningful
to us. We dropped out to avoid being hypocrites and to seek our education in
life. At that point we didn’t know what we wanted but we knew it was more
than earning money for bread and butter. We got involved in some social-political
groups — anything but turning inwards. We thought we could find peace
outside and by throwing ourselves into these movements. It was a step.
But after a couple of years we realized peace
was not to be found this way. We became interested in yoga and mysticism. We took yoga classes, heard lectures by Krishnamurti,
visited the Ramakrishna Centre and other places, but nothing clicked. One day
a friend brought us to Arunachala Ashram in New York, and as soon as we entered
we felt at home. Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi’s picture
which has attracted so many all over the world, also had a strong pull for us.
We didn’t know much about philosophy but the emphasis on the practices
struck home immediately. There were no lectures, debates or discussions —
Through a steady course of discipline our lives
became more and more in tune with a higher life, a more sattvic
life, and the deeper meaning of the spiritual life. Slowly the old life began
to wean away. A residential Ashram was then founded in Nova Scotia, Canada,
and we lived there for five years. In 1973 we were able to visit this Ashram
in India for two months.
Can you explain what
attracted you to Bhagavan’s teachings?
Matthew: The directness. It bypasses the external and the more esoteric and
occult things which didn’t attract us. Bhagavan’s teachings bring us straight
to the heart. It’s simple, direct, and with a little earnestness for practice,
anyone can experience this, the peace it gives.
Perhaps Joan can say
more about these teachings?
Joan: They consist of two ways: Bhagavan says either surrender to the
Divine, or ask — Who am I? They are both one path… you go to the
source of your being. By surrendering you surrender everything to that source,
and by enquiring — Who am I? You are enquiring into that source, who is
the I. Both paths are at the heart of every religion, that which everyone is
seeking through many names and directions. It is the Self, the Source. So whichever
path appeals to each person, that should be taken. Some by temperament are attracted
to self-enquiry; but it’s not a mantra: Who am I, who am I?… but
as each thought arises one doesn’t get involved with the thought but asks:
To whom does this thought arise? The surrender part is surrendering everything
that isn’t the I, then you become the I. It’s like two rivers going
to the same ocean.
Earlier you spoke of
the practice. What does it involve?
Matthew: Joan has explained the teachings — well — we practice them
by stilling the mind and turning it towards its source.
Joan: It hasn’t to be done at a set time because
the enquiry and surrender has to be constant.
It’s a way of life?
Joan: Yes! Of course, we have a morning and evening meditation practice which
helps to sustain the enquiry during the day. It’s a necessary discipline.
Matthew: Bhagavan never put emphasis on outward
life but specified two things necessary for sadhaks. One was sattvic
food; the other, satsang.
This he applied to householders as well as sadhus
— there was no separation.
But I seem to remember
the high castes would sit apart from the lower
castes in the dining room.
Matthew: That’s true. The reason was not that Bhagavan wanted caste-ism… he didn’t want
people to use him as an excuse to break their own rules. He said if you dine
with lower caste people at home, by all means dine
with them here; but don’t say everything here is free then go home and
dine exclusively amongst your own. That was his reasoning. As far as brahmacharya
goes, he said: It means living in Brahman. So if one lives in Brahman — God — and finds
happiness one won’t look outside for other sources of happiness. His path
is natural and suited to modern times.
But as it’s an
exclusive way of life, how did you adapt? Did you find it hard at the beginning?
Matthew: It’s not easy, but we found it easier as no external forms are
necessary; the orthodox traditions imposed by many religions are absent. It’s
a direct path… you have to deal with your own self. That’s the best
How did you spend your
day in the Canadian Ashram?
Matthew: At 5.30 they recite the Sri
Lalita Sahasranamam Stotram; it’s a litany to the Divine Mother. We listen
to the Veda Parayana and have silence. In the afternoon we have the Veda Parayana
for forty minutes. Then at 7, chanting, recitation from scriptures, readings
of Bhagavan’s teachings, and prasad
is distributed. Everyday is the same. People can’t meditate all day so
they have jobs, and there’s plenty to do at the Ashram farm. Joan cooked
for everyone; I worked outside, part-time.
The Ashram was supported
Matthew: Yes. And there’s no proselytizing.
When did you first want
to come to live in India?
Matthew: After five years in Nova Scotia we returned to New York City with the
purpose of saving money to come here. The director of the center, Arunachala
Bhakta Bhagawat, had an idea to publish a pictorial biography of Bhagavan, and that job fell on our shoulders
as Joan is a graphic artist and I was in the photographic line. The book has
taken four years work, but we hope to see it through the press at Madras within
a few months.(1)
With such an important
commission, how did you find the conditions here for such specialized work?
Joan: It has been wonderful from the beginning. We feel we are serving Bhagavan, so we try to balance the work
with the practices. The work is very concentrated… but we feel Bhagavan is working through us. We work
in the mornings, do our practice in the afternoons, then go on the Hill.
You actually walk all
Joan: No. Behind the Ashram is a path up the Hill. In the evenings, many of
us do this — to walk around the Hill takes four hours. It’s a sacred
place, so one gets benefit.
How did all this start,
do you know?
Matthew: Geologists some years ago were interested in testing samples from this
part of the country. They took samples back to Europe and found Arunachala the
oldest they had tested on earth. Arunachala is mentioned in the Puranas; and
the worship of Shiva
started here. The story goes that Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about which of them
was greater. Lord Shiva
appeared before them as a pillar of light, and told them whoever can find the
end of the column is the greater. Vishnu took the form of a boar and dived
downward towards the bottom while Brahma took the form of a swan and flew
up. They traveled in both directions but there was no end in sight. Brahma, as he was travelling upwards,
saw a flower falling. He thought: I will deceive Vishnu by bringing this flower back and
say I have been to the top to get it. This is what he did. But Vishnu, addressing Lord Shiva,
said: Lord, I cannot find your beginning or end — you are limitless! Shiva,
seeing that Brahma was conceited, cursed him saying
no one will worship him.
The story is symbolical and represents the intellect
which cannot gauge the infinite; if it gets puffed up and takes the form of
Brahma, it ultimately becomes humiliated.
If it takes the form of Vishnu and submits to the guru or the Divine, it is then able to
see the Truth. So Arunachala is considered the earliest manifestation of Shiva.
His light was so dazzling that the devas who were worshipping him said: Oh,
Lord, we cannot look at you like this; could you not take a concrete form? He
took the form of the hill of Arunachala, so that’s why this hill is considered
to be Lord Shiva.
Bhagavan said that Kailash is the abode
but Arunachala is Shiva
I know that once Bhagavan came here he never left. But
what brought him here in the first place?
Joan: When he was 16 he had an incredible death experience which although it
lasted for only half an hour transformed him into a sage. He left his home to
come here. In a verse he wrote later he said from the age of innocence, Arunachala
had shown within his mind. From his birth there was a connection with this sacred
Do you also plan never
Joan: We have no plans. To us Bhagavan is everything, so to be away
from his Ashram or disciples would be difficult. But there are the centers in
America. We came to Bhagavan when we were 19. We are both
30 now and know nothing else. It doesn’t matter where we are as long as
we are with him and doing our practice.
A last question. What
do you have as the aim of life?
Matthew: To be fully absorbed in our own selves. Bhagavan is no ordinary guru — he’s a satguru.
It’s like falling into the jaws of a tiger; one can’t escape. So
once one has come to a satguru,
it’s enough to follow the teachings and tread the path. When one looks
at the world one sees how fortunate one is to be drawn away from it and given
the chance of a new life. We go on with faith and trust in the satguru.
Everything depends on him.
Today the Greenblatts head a publishing house in America, Inner Directions.
It specializes in books on Indian saints and related topics.