This was originally posted on my blog on 1st June, 2008.
Akhilandamma was one of Ramana Maharshi’s earliest devotees. This is how I summed up her association with Bhagavan in the introduction to her chapter in The Power of the Presence, part one:
Akhilandamma was born in 1871 in a small village called Desur, located about fifty kilometres northeast of Tiruvannamalai. Following a tradition that was still prevalent at the time, she was ‘married’ at the age of five. Such child brides usually lived with their parents till they reached puberty, at which point they would move to their husband’s home. However, since Akhilandamma’s husband died when she was only seven years old, she spent all her childhood and youth at her parents’ home. Under the social conditions that prevailed at the time, it was not possible for her to remarry, so when she grew up she decided to devote her life to serving sadhus. Though she was primarily attracted to Ramana Maharshi, she also served Seshadri Swami and Vitthoba, an eccentric saint who lived in Polur, about thirty kilometres north of Tiruvannamalai.
She first saw Bhagavan in 1896 while he was residing in the Arunachaleswara temple. On that occasion she saw the temple priest collecting the abhishekam milk from the Amman shrine and giving it to Bhagavan. This darshan did not make a great impression on her. It was not until 1903, when she visited Sri Bhagavan on the hill, that she first felt his power. From 1903 onwards she was a regular visitor. She invariably came for Bhagavan’s birthday celebration, for the Deepam festival and for Jnanasambandhar Guru puja. She frequently came at other times during the year. On each visit she would bring food for Bhagavan and his devotees.
When she stayed in her native village with her mother, many of Bhagavan’s devotees used to come and stay at her house. With the object of serving such devotees, Akhilandamma and Masthan Swami (whom she introduced to Bhagavan) established a math or centre there in 1914. Called Sri Ramanananda Mathalayam, it was the first ‘Ramana Centre’ to be established outside Tiruvannamalai. Many of Bhagavan’s early devotees such as Kunju Swami, Ramaswami Pillai, Madhava Swami and Ramanatha Brahmachari were taken there to recuperate from various illnesses they had contracted in Tiruvannamalai.
Kunju Swami, one of her cured patients, made this comment in the introduction to her biography: ‘I know that for the last forty years this lady has been engaging herself in serving food to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi and Mahan Seshadri Swami. Even from the days when Bhagavan was living at Skandashram, whenever any devotees there fell ill, it was her custom to take them to the math in her village and look after them. She would only send them back after curing their illness.’
There are two principal sources for information on Akhilandamma’s life: a Tamil biography written by Sadhu Om in 1960, and a Telugu account by Nageswara Rao. Nageswara Rao, who interviewed Akhilandamma himself, incorporated many of Sadhu Om’s stories in his own account, but also added incidents that Sadhu Om did not cover. The following story, from Nageswara Rao’s account, was published in the Arunachala Ramana magazine in 1982. It does not appear either in Sadhu Om’s account or in the ‘Power of the Presence’ chapter on Akhilandamma:
Whenever Ganapati Muni saw me coming, he would exclaim with delight, ‘Oh! Akhilandamma has come!’
Emboldened by this, his favourable disposition towards me, one day I asked Ganapati Muni in a plaintive tone, ‘I am utterly unlettered while you, I am told, are a Master of all the Vedas and the Upanishads. What is the way for me?’
The great scholar explained to me, with great respect and sweetness, ‘Akhilandamma, you are really blessed. You are feeding Bhagavan Ramana who is the very avatar of Kumara Swami. This is a sure sign of the Lord’s grace. Bear it in your mind and take heart. No austerities can give fruit by themselves. Remember this always: it is Iswara who is the dispenser of the fruit [of karma]. Sent by that Iswara himself, Sri Ramana has come down to earth. So what can please Iswara more than devoted service to Sri Ramana? When you recognise this secret, your fruit will increase all the more.’
I have already acquainted you with the fact that my family was very poor. We were always beset with economic difficulties. In addition to this, there arose, at one time, differences in the family. Unable to bear that affliction, I came before Bhagavan, cried, and broke down I tears.
Bhagavan, after remaining silent for some time, opened his mouth and kindly said, ‘Tesuramma [“Mother from Desur”, her village], you are under the impression that difficulties have come to you alone. This life is a blend of pain and pleasure. One should have no elation when there is pleasure, and no dejection when there is pain. Take my example. I came here at the age of seventeen. I had no mother or father here. I have spent my time in caves and under trees in sun, in showers, and in the cold. I begged alms to pacify my hunger. It is only nowadays that all of you have come here to minister to my needs.’
Still shedding tears, I said to Bhagavan in a begging tone of voice, ‘You, Bhagavan, are an incarnation, so you can bear all that. But what about a woman like me? I have no one but you to help me. You alone have to have compassion on me.’
These plaintive words moved Bhagavan, and his eyes became moist. After remaining grave and serious for a while, slowly and steadily these supreme words emerged from his mouth: ‘Hereafter, remember me whenever you face calamities.’
With these mighty words of grace ringing in my heart, I came out of the cave, followed by Ganapati Muni.
‘Akhilandamma!’ he cried with great elation. ‘Your virtue has ripened. Bhagavan has bestowed a rare boon on you. Never before have I seen Bhagavan bestowing a boon like this. And this boon is for future lives also. This day is one of extreme rejoicing for me, for the mighty power of conferring boons, till now hidden in Bhagavan, has now broken out for your sake. The hidden powers of a great and genuine Guru do not easily come out to work in the external world; they do so only for the sake of worthy disciples. The credit of drawing them out, pure lady, goes to you now.’
It was really a boon to me as my subsequent experience proved. When difficulties surrounded me like threatening clouds, when life itself became a dungeon, I would utter ‘Lord Ramana, my Lord Ramana,’ and call on his protection and help. Then, in a trice, the difficulties would disappear. However severe the calamity, because of Bhagavan’s protection, my mind would not get agitated.
Elsewhere in in Nageswara Rao’s account Akhilandamma recounts some of the incidents from Bhagavan’s early days on the hill when he was harassed by jealous sadhus. These have been well documented in other books, but Akhilandamma adds a few details that I have not seen elsewhere. Before I give her version of events, I should mention that many of these stories appeared in the first edition of Self Realization that came out around 1930. Bhagavan had not been shown the book prior to publication. When he saw all the stories about the hostile sadhus, he asked that they be removed from the next edition. He was not questioning the validity of the stories, he was, in characteristic fashion, trying to avoid causing offence to the people who had given him so much trouble. He apparently said that many of these sadhus were still alive and might be upset if they found their stories in print. Towards the end of his life Bhagavan said that the accounts could be republished because the sadhus had all passed away, and were therefore beyond taking offence. However, they were not included again until a few years ago when Sri Ramanasramam made a reprint of the first edition of Self Realization that included all the original incidents.
Here are Akhilandamma’s sadhu stories:
I found that Arunachala is the abode of sadhus, and that among these there are both good and evil ones. In truth, the evil far outnumber the good. Even Bhagavan Ramana had been severely molested by these devils of sadhus. Sri Ramana himself treated us time and again to those incidents, which he narrated to us as interesting anecdotes. Now I shall recall one or two of them which still linger in my memory.
Bhagavan would be surrounded by devotees and these would offer fruits to him – a glorious sight. But this became an eyesore to a sadhu from Kerala, who out of sheer envy, rolled down a big boulder against Bhagavan and Palaniswami, who were seated at a lower lever on the hill.
Palaniswami began to cry.
‘What’s the matter, Palani? What has happened?’ enquired Bhagavan.
Then Bhagavan discovered that the attack had badly cut one of his toes, and that it was bleeding.
‘Oh,’ said Bhagavan, ‘is it for this that you are crying?’
Bhagavan then took the flesh that was hanging from his toe, restored it to its original place, and stroked it a couple of times. How strange! By the next day it had become whole, without even leaving a scar.
At one time there was another sadhu living in the same cave as Bhagavan. He would tell all the devotees who came to see Bhagavan that he himself was Bhagavan’s Guru, and he would gather into his own bag all the fruits and coins that had been offered to Bhagavan. This was too much for Palaniswami, who rebelled against the cheating sadhu.
The sadhu himself brought pressure on Bhagavan to drive out Palani, but Bhagavan paid no attention to his demands. The devil-sadhu, having been rebuffed by both Palaniswami and Bhagavan, became enraged and spat squarely on Bhagavan’s face. Even that did not affect Bhagavan’s silence or demeanour.
Later on a third sadhu appeared on the scene. He was foolish enough to offer to pass on his spiritual energy to Bhagavan. Bhagavan declined the sadhu’s offer, but despite this the sadhu put his hand on Bhagavan’s head to effect the transmission. The result? The foolish sadhu passed out and became unconsciousness.
Last in this list of stories is that of a sadhu from North India. Approaching Bhagavan, he said, ‘I have come at the command of God himself to initiate you with the mantra of Lord Dattatreya, so you must take it.’
Bhagavan, ever-resourceful, responded by saying, ‘Good! Let the same Lord God appear to me and direct me to take the mantra. Then I shall surely do it.’
Kunju Swami has reported, in The Power of the Presence, part two, that Bhagavan at one point decided to leave the east side of the hill, where Virupaksha Cave was located, and move to the vicinity of Pachiammana Koil in order to avoid these conflicts with the sadhus on the hill:
At the beginning of Sri Bhagavan’s stay in Virupaksha Cave some sadhus who had already established ashrams on the hill found many of the devotees who used to come to them beginning to go to Virupaksha Cave for Sri Bhagavan’s darshan. Fearing that this might result in a decline in their reputation, they started harassing Sri Bhagavan in several ways. Sri Bhagavan knew what they were doing, but out of compassion he felt that he should not retaliate and cause them any trouble and anxiety. Instead, he decided to leave the mountain and live in a nearby forest.
The attempt to leave failed because, on his way there, the head of Isanya Math more or less kidnapped him and forced him to stay in his math for a week. This story has been told in several books, so I won’t retell it here. When he left Isanya Math, Bhagavan returned to Virupaksha Cave. Here are some more stories about the aggressive sadhus Bhagavan encountered on the hill. Some of them add more details to Akhilandamma’s rather brief summary of events. The narrator this time is Kunju Swami.
A sadhu called Bhagavatar Swami lived near Sri Bhagavan and often tried to make trouble for him. This man would travel to North India, where he would impersonate Sri Bhagavan. Claiming to be Ramana Maharshi, he would collect money from credulous people. Once, after a long absence, he suddenly appeared before Sri Bhagavan with a long beard and wearing a very strange dress.
Looking very serious, he told Sri Bhagavan, ‘I am coming straight from the Himalayas. I had a dream in which the Lord appeared to me and commanded me, “Go back at once to Arunachala. My child Ramana is doing nothing. He is wasting his time. He should be taught some spiritual discipline. To start with, initiate him into this mantra.”
‘Then he gave me this mantra very secretly. Tomorrow I will come to initiate you. Have your bath and be ready.’
The next day Bhagavatar Swami came with great pomp and with all the materials needed for the initiation ceremony. Sri Bhagavan was again by himself. Bhagavatar began the ceremonies. At the appropriate moment he urged Sri Bhagavan to come forward and receive the mantra initiation. Sri Bhagavan was more amused than perturbed.
He smiled and said, ‘You have been told by the Lord in your dream to give mantra initiation to me. Let the same Lord appear to me in my dream and bid me to take the mantra initiation from you. And then we will see.’
Because Sri Bhagavan was often alone in Virupaksha Cave, it was fairly easy for mischief-makers to come there and cause some kind of trouble. Two more instances spring to mind.In South India there was once a sadhu who would crush green chillies and smear the paste all over his body. This he did several times a day. He was known as Milikai Siddhar, or Chilli Swami. Chilli paste is such hot stuff, even if one merely touches it with a finger, there is an immediate burning sensation. This swami who could smear green chilli paste all over his body without feeling any discomfort was naturally famous.
One day, this sadhu’s disciple came to Sri Bhagavan and found him alone. Palaniswami and Perumal Swami had gone to town on business. The disciple told Sri Bhagavan that since his master had this chilli bath very frequently, he felt he must give a similar bath to Sri Bhagavan as well. Sri Bhagavan did not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. He just kept quiet. That was his invariable response when people came to pester him with silly suggestions. Taking Sri Bhagavan’s silence for consent, he prepared the chilli paste and quickly smeared it on every inch of Sri Bhagavan’s body.
This is how Sri Bhagavan described the experience: ‘What to do? He went on smearing the green chilli paste over my body. For the first few minutes my body felt severe burning sensations, but after a while the whole system felt cool. I actually liked it. It was so pleasant. There were no after effects, then or later.’
On yet another occasion when Palaniswami and Perumal Swami had gone to town, leaving Sri Bhagavan all alone, a few fierce-looking bairagis [wandering sadhus ] came to Virupaksha Cave. Finding Sri Bhagavan seated alone, they told him with great vehemence, ‘We have come straight from the Vindhya Hills. We had darshan of the great siddha there. He has commanded us to bring you over there. So, we are taking you along with us back to the Vindhyas, as ordered by the great siddha.’
Sri Bhagavan, as usual remained silent and unmoved. But the bairagis, as was their wont, starting behaving in a very noisy way. Some woodcutters who witnessed this drama went down the hill and told Perumal Swami about the wild-looking bairagis who were troubling Sri Bhagavan. Perumal Swami immediately came back, found out what they wanted and then went back to town. Returning some time later he brought with him a big vessel and tins of oil. He put them in front of the ruffians and started gathering firewood. Neither the bairagis nor Sri Bhagavan could make any sense of Perumal Swami’s strange behaviour. The former, of course, did not even know who Perumal Swami was.
When, curiosity getting the better of them, they enquired who he was and what he was up to, Perumal Swami put the big vessel on the fire and said, ‘I belong to the next village. I had a vision last night of the great siddha of the Vindhyas. He commanded me, “Go to Virupaksha Cave. You will find some bairagis there. They are siddhas too, having great powers. Pour boiling oil on them and they will be alive and untouched by the oil.” To my great surprise, when I came to this cave, as told by the siddha, you were all here. What a fool I was to doubt the holy words of the great siddha! Immediately I rushed to town and brought the vessel and the tins of oil. Would I not incur a curse if I disobey the siddha?’
When Perumal Swami went inside the cave to put his clothes there, the bairagis, thinking he was serious, took to their heels. Sri Bhagavan and Perumal Swami both had a big laugh as they watched them retreat down the hill.
Finally, two additional stories on the same theme from Rangan, one of Bhagavan’s school friends. These incidents, which also took place in the early years of the twentieth century, have been taken from Rangan’s account in part one of The Power of the Presence:
Bhagavan was often at the mercy of arrogant or misguided devotees because for a long time he insisted on accepting and consuming at least part of all the food offerings that were given to him. When Bhagavan was living in Skandashram, a devotee regularly used to give him balls of ganja [cannabis] leaves.
Bhagavan’s mother once told me, ‘On one occasion Bhagavan was given quite a lot of ganja to eat. If this had been served to any other person, it would surely have resulted in his death. Bhagavan sat up for the whole day with blood-red eyes.’
After hearing this I told the devotee not to give any more ganja to Bhagavan. I also asked Bhagavan not to accept it.
He responded by saying, ‘What can I do? I must accept whatever devotees offer.’
While I was talking to him I noticed that Bhagavan’s gums had receded very much.
‘You are younger than I,’ I said to him. ‘Why are your teeth as bad as they are?’
Bhagavan answered, ‘A person once gave me poison in order to test me. It did not kill me, but instead ate away all my gums.’
I sympathised with him by saying, ‘When Lord Siva swallowed halahala [poison], Mother Parvati was there to take care of him. She advised Siva to keep the poison in his throat and not let it go down into his stomach. You poor man! In your case you had no one like Parvati to advise you.’