If I may summarise this wonderful poem: Bhagavan did not advise devotees to ‘do’ anything to accomplish personal, spiritual or social goals; instead he advocated the removal of the false ‘I am the doer’ idea, thereby allowing the Self to shine in all its glory. There is a frequently-quoted passage in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk 363, where Bhagavan gives out the essence of this key tenet of his teachings:
Your duty is to be: and not to be this or that. ‘I AM that I AM’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in ‘BE STILL’. What does ‘stillness’ mean? It means ‘destroy yourself’. Because any form or shape is the cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’.
A devotee’s primary obligation is to abide as the Self. Engaging in activities aimed at changing the world or society covers up this Self by reinforcing the mistaken notion that there is a person in a body who needs to accomplish certain goals. One’s true duty, said Bhagavan, is to abide in stillness as the Self:
Swadharma [one’s own duty] is abidance in the pure Self only. All other [perceived] duties are worthless.
The state of abiding as swarupa, which is the pure and vast true consciousness, is an obligation that should be firmly observed by all the beings in the world. (Padamalai, p. 299, verses 16 and 13)
Bhagavan: Destruction of mind alone is tapas. This alone is one’s duty. (The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 56)
Bhagavan and Gandhi
The initial questions that prompted this essay on Bhagavan’s attitude to politics specifically asked about Gandhi and Bhagavan’s attitude to the Independence struggle that was the key political issue in India for the last few decades of Bhagavan’s life. Before I address this topic I shall recount how Gandhi’s efforts to see Bhagavan were thwarted. The following narrative comes from Living by the Words of Bhagavan, pages 96-98 of the current edition. The final five paragraphs only appeared on page 103 of the first edition. The text in roman is narrated by Annamalai Swami. The comments in italics, which appeared in the book, are mine:
In the 1930s Mahatma Gandhi came to Tiruvannamalai to make a political speech. Since the organisers had selected a piece of open ground about 400 yards from the ashram as the location for the event, many people in the ashram had hopes that the Mahatma would also pay a call on Bhagavan. When the day of the speech came, I, along with many other devotees, waited at the ashram gate in the hope of catching a glimpse of Gandhi as he drove past. When he finally passed us, he was very easy to spot because he was being driven to the meeting in an open car. Rajagopalachari, a leading Congress politician who had organised this South Indian speaking tour, was sitting next to Gandhi in the car.
As the car was moving very slowly, I ran alongside it and saluted Gandhi by putting my palms together above my head. To my astonishment and delight Gandhi returned my greeting by making the same gesture. The car stopped for a few moments near the ashram gate but it started again when Rajagopalachari gestured to the driver that he should drive on and not enter the ashram.
Rajagopalachari later became chief minister of the Madras Presidency, a region that included most of South India. After Independence he became the first Indian to hold the office of Governor-general.
One of the ashram’s residents, T. K. Sundaresa Iyer, went to the meeting and presented Gandhi with two books: Aksharamanamalai and Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai. As he was presenting the books he quoted a verse from Aksharamanamalai:
O Arunachala! Gem of awareness, shining in all creatures low or high, destroy the meanness in my heart.
Gandhi auctioned the books and gave the proceeds to a harijan welfare fund.
Aksharamanamalai is a long poem by Bhagavan in praise of Arunachala. Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai, written by Muruganar, is a collection of poems which praise Bhagavan.
After the meeting was over I went to the hall and told Bhagavan the story of how Gandhi had greeted me on the road. I also mentioned that Rajagopalachari had made the driver go straight to the meeting, thus denying Gandhi a chance to make a brief visit to the ashram. Bhagavan replied with a very interesting comment.
‘Gandhi would like to come here but Rajagopalachari was worried about the consequences. Because he knows that Gandhi is an advanced soul, he fears that he might go into samadhi here and forget all about politics. That is why he gestured to the driver to drive on.’
A few days later, when Gandhi was in Madras, [Bhagavan’s attendant] Krishnaswami went to see him and managed to get an interview with him. When he introduced himself to Gandhi as a resident of Sri Ramanasramam, Gandhi remarked, ‘I would love to come and see Bhagavan but I don’t know when the time will come’.
One or two of Bhagavan’s devotees who attended Gandhi’s meeting have reported that Gandhi did make a serious attempt to visit Bhagavan. He cut his speech, which was originally scheduled for ten minutes, to about five minutes in the hope of using the extra time to make a quick visit to the ashram. However, Rajagopalachari, who had a longstanding dislike of Bhagavan, dissuaded him from making the visit. After a few minutes’ discussion, during which Rajagopalachari made it quite clear that he was completely opposed to the visit, Gandhi backed down and allowed himself to be driven to the next meeting.
Rajagopalachari openly expressed his disapproval of Bhagavan. When one of Bhagavan’s devotees, Amritanatha Yatendra, once paid a call on Gandhi, Gandhi made a few polite enquiries about Bhagavan.
Rajagopalachari, who was also present, turned to Nehru, the future Prime Minister, and said, ‘What is the point in sitting in a cave in a kaupina [loincloth] when the country has so many problems and Gandhi is being put in jail for struggling for independence?’
Gandhi turned to him and put his finger to his lips to indicate that he should not criticise in this way.
Although Gandhi continued to express an interest in seeing Bhagavan, he never came to Tiruvannamalai again.
In the 1980s I talked to Prof. K. Swaminathan about Gandhi’s attempt to come to Ramanasramam. Prof. Swaminathan was a friend of both Bhagavan and Gandhi and for many years he was the chief editor of Gandhi’s Collected Works. He said that several people had tried to get Gandhi to come to see Bhagavan, but all of them had failed. Prof. Swaminathan himself made his own attempt in 1947, a few months before India became independent.
When Prof. Swaminathan offered to take Gandhi to see Bhagavan, Gandhi said that he would be happy to come if Prof. Swaminathan could arrange for him to take the first batch of harijans (outcastes) into the Arunachaleswara Temple in Tiruvannamalai. In those days harijans were not allowed into the temple. The Congress Party had already committed itself to a law that would prevent temples from refusing entry to harijans, so it was only a matter of time before they were allowed in. Prof. Swaminathan spoke to a trustee of the temple and said that Gandhi would be willing to come for a visit if he could accompany the first batch of harijans into the temple.
The man Prof. Swaminathan spoke to said, ‘We will not allow outcastes into the temple one day before we are legally compelled to do so’.
The proposed visit was cancelled and Gandhi never had another opportunity to visit.
Other attempts to persuade Gandhi to come to Tiruvannamalai were mentioned in Day by Day with Bhagavan, 27th January, 1946:
K. also told Bhagavan, ‘Some of our friends wished to suggest to Mahatma Gandhi that he should visit our Asramam. But when they consulted Mr. O. P. Ramaswami Reddi, he said; “Here none of us has any access to Mahatma Gandhi. Rajaji alone has influence”.’ [Rajaji was the politician who had already prevented Gandhi from entering Ramanasramam on his only visit to Tiruvannamalai.] Bhagavan thereupon said, ‘He [Gandhi] won’t be allowed to come to such places’. About a week ago, Bhagavan was mentioning that once the Mahatma came to this place, was near the cattle fair site (a furlong or less from our Asramam), finished his business there in less time than the time fixed for it, collected a purse and left the place. Dr T. N. K. also brought news that the Mahatma told people that he was frequently thinking of Bhagavan and had great reverence for him. Bhagavan said, ‘Yes. Yes. That may be so. Whenever anybody tells him he has no peace of mind, he packs them off here, telling them, “Go and stay at Ramanasramam for a time”.’
Although Bhagavan, for reasons I have already outlined, did not encourage devotees to get involved in goal-oriented political programmes, such as the campaign for Independence, he had great respect for Gandhi. He said on several occasions that Gandhi had surrendered to the Self, and that the Self was working through him. When Rajendra Prasad, a leading Congress politician came to Ramanasramam and asked Bhagavan for a message to take back to Gandhi, Bhagavan replied, ‘Adhyatma sakti [the primordial power of the Self] is working within him and leading him on. That is enough. What more is necessary?’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 505)
Those on the path of karma yoga – union with God through the performance of good deeds – have as their goal nishkama karma, the performance of selfless activities that are done in a spirit of surrender to the divine. In this state there are no motives for action and no specific goals being strived for. Work is done because the power of the Self is impelling one to do it, not because there is a preset target (such as Independence) to be attained. Bhagavan tried to explain this to some Congress workers who obviously had a more goal-oriented agenda:
Some Congressmen handed over the following questions to Maharshi:
1. How long is India destined to suffer bondage?
2. Have not the sons of India made enough sacrifice for her liberation?
3. Will India get freedom during Mahatma Gandhi’s lifetime?
The above questions were not answered categorically. Sri Bhagavan simply remarked:
Gandhiji has surrendered himself to the Divine and works accordingly with no self-interest. He does not concern himself with the results but accepts them as they turn up. That must be the attitude of national workers.
Question: Will the work be crowned with success?
Bhagavan: This question arises because the questioner has not surrendered himself.
Question: Should we not then think of and work for the welfare of the country?
Bhagavan: First take care of yourself and the rest will naturally follow.
Question: I am not speaking individually but for the country.
Bhagavan: First surrender and see. The doubts arise because of the absence of surrender. Acquire strength by surrender and then your surroundings will be found to have improved to the degree of strength acquired by you.
Question: Should we not know if our actions will be worthwhile?
Bhagavan: Follow the example of Gandhiji in the work for the national cause. ‘Surrender’ is the word. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 521)
Similar answers were given to another group of Congress workers who quizzed him on the topic of independence from British rule:
Question: Is the desire for swaraj [self-rule, independence] right?
Bhagavan: Such desire no doubt begins with self-interest. Yet practical work for the goal gradually widens the outlook so that the individual becomes merged in the country. Such merging of the individuality is desirable and the related karma is nishkama (unselfish).
Question: If swaraj is gained after a long struggle and terrible sacrifices, is not the person justified in being pleased with the result and elated by it?
Bhagavan: He must have in the course of his work surrendered himself to the Higher Power whose Might must be kept in mind and never lost sight of. How then can he be elated? He should not even care for the result of his actions. Then alone the karma becomes unselfish.
Question: How can unerring rectitude be ensured for the worker?
Bhagavan: If he has surrendered himself to God or to Guru, the Power to which he had surrendered will take him on the right course. The worker need no longer concern himself about the rectitude or otherwise of the course. The doubt will arise only if he fails to obey the Master in all details. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 502)
Bhagavan’s approval of Gandhi’s state and his consequent lack of ‘motivation’ was clearly brought out in his comments on two paragraphs that Gandhi had written in The Harijan about a trip he took to Rajkot:
‘How mysterious are the ways of God! This journey to Rajkot is a wonder even to me. Why am I going, whither am I going? What for? I have thought nothing about these things. And if God guides me, what should I think, why should I think? Even thought may be an obstacle in the way of His guidance.
‘The fact is, it takes no effort to stop thinking. The thoughts do not come. Indeed there is no vacuum – but I mean to say that there is no thought about the mission.’
Sri Bhagavan remarked how true the words were and emphasised each statement in the extract. Then he cited Thayumanavar in support of the state which is free from thoughts:
Bliss will arise if you remain still.
Why, little sir, this involvement still
with yoga, whose nature is delusion?
Will [this bliss] arise
through your own objective knowledge?
You need not reply, you who are addicted to ‘doing’!
You little baby, you!
The state in which you are not,
that is nishta [Self-abidance].
But, even in that state,
do you not remain?
You whose mouth is silent,
do not be perplexed!
Although [in that state] you are gone,
you are no longer there,
yet you did not go.
You are eternally present.
Do not suffer in vain.
Experience bliss all the time!
Though I have listened unceasingly to the scriptures
that one and all declare,
‘To be still is bliss, is very bliss,’
I lack, alas, true understanding,
and I failed even to heed
the teachings of my Lord, Mauna Guru.
Through this stupidity
I wandered in maya’s cruel forest.
Woe is me, for this is my fated destiny.
Bhagavan’s comments and the two paragraphs by Gandhi can be found in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 646. The three Thayumanavar verses (Udal Poyyuravu, verses 52 and 53, and Payappuli, verse 36) also appear there, but the translations I have used here are by T. V. Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself. They have been taken from an article on Thayumanavar and Bhagavan that can be found here.
Two days later Gandhi’s statements were again discussed in the hall:
Question: Is not what Gandhiji describes, the state in which thoughts themselves become foreign?
Bhagavan: Yes. It is only after the rise of the ‘I’ thought that all other thoughts arise. The world is seen after you have felt ‘I am’. The ‘I-thought’ and all other thoughts had vanished for him.
Question: Then the body-sense must be absent in that state.
Bhagavan: The body-sense also is a thought whereas he describes the state in which ‘thoughts do not come’.
Question: He also says, ‘It takes no effort to stop thinking’.
Bhagavan: Of course no effort is necessary to stop thoughts whereas one is necessary for bringing about thoughts….
Question: Gandhiji adhered to satya [truth] so long and won realisation of the Self.
Bhagavan: What is satya except the Self? Satya is that which is made up of sat. Again sat is nothing but the Self. So Gandhiji’s satya is only the Self. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no 647)
The path of selfless activity, aimed at the betterment of the world, is one that appeals to many spiritually-inclined political activists. However, Bhagavan rarely encouraged it except in the cases of those who, for various reasons, found themselves unattracted to the other spiritual paths of jnana, bhakti and yoga.
Bhagavan: An examination of the ephemeral nature of external phenomena leads to vairagya. Hence enquiry (vichara) is the first and foremost step to be taken. When vichara continues automatically, it results in a contempt for wealth, fame, ease, pleasure, etc. The ‘I’ thought becomes clearer for inspection. The source of ‘I’ is the Heart – the final goal. If, however, the aspirant is not temperamentally suited to Vichara Marga (to the introspective analytical method), he must develop bhakti (devotion) to an ideal – may be God, Guru, humanity in general, ethical laws, or even the idea of beauty. When one of these takes possession of the individual, other attachments grow weaker, i.e., dispassion (vairagya) develops. Attachment for the ideal simultaneously grows and finally holds the field. Thus ekagrata (concentration) grows simultaneously and imperceptibly – with or without visions and direct aids.
In the absence of enquiry and devotion, the natural sedative pranayama (breath regulation) may be tried. This is known as Yoga Marga. If life is imperilled the whole interest centres round the one point, the saving of life. If the breath is held the mind cannot afford to (and does not) jump at its pets – external objects. Thus there is rest for the mind so long as the breath is held. All attention being turned on breath or its regulation, other interests are lost. Again, passions are attended with irregular breathing, whereas calm and happiness are attended with slow and regular breathing. Paroxysm of joy is in fact as painful as one of pain, and both are accompanied by ruffled breaths. Real peace is happiness. Pleasures do not form happiness. The mind improves by practice and becomes finer just as the razor’s edge is sharpened by stropping. The mind is then better able to tackle internal or external problems. If an aspirant be unsuited temperamentally for the first two methods and circumstantially (on account of age) for the third method, he must try the Karma Marga (doing good deeds, for example, social service). His nobler instincts become more evident and he derives impersonal pleasure. His smaller self is less assertive and has a chance of expanding its good side. The man becomes duly equipped for one of the three aforesaid paths. His intuition may also develop directly by this single method. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 27)