Bhagavan’s seat in the dining room, neither in the brahmin nor the non-brahmin sections, was an outer symbolic indication that his realisation had placed him beyond the restrictions of caste and asrama rules. In an amusing and instructive incident narrated by Krishna Bhikshu, Bhagavan once stated in the dining room that he was in effect an atiasrama because he no longer had the feeling that he was either a brahmin or a non-brahmin.
During the lifetime of Sri Bhagavan there was a screen across the dining hall separating the brahmins from the others. Bhagavan himself sat against the wall at right angles to both and in view of both. This is important to remember for the incident that follows. This screen implied an interdict on inter-dining between brahmins and non-brahmins. One day a relative of Bhagavan [and therefore a brahmin] demanded to eat among the non-brahmins but the Sarvadhikari [the ashram manager] would not allow it. They were disputing about it when Bhagavan came on the scene and asked what was the matter.
‘He says that he has no caste,’ the Sarvadhikari told him. ‘That all are equal in the presence of Bhagavan and that he is simply a human being and not bound by the shackles of caste, creed, clime or colour.’
‘Oh, is that so?’ Bhagavan said, looking surprised. ‘Then in that case you are wrong to insist that he should eat with the brahmins.’
But then, turning to his cousin, Bhagavan remarked, ‘But you too are wrong. These people here feel that they are non-brahmins. You have no caste feeling. So how can you sit among them? There is only one person here who has the feeling of being neither brahmin nor non-brahmin, and that is myself. So,’ calling the attendant, ‘place a leaf plate for him by my side; let him sit with me.’ The young man was shocked by the implication of this proposal and immediately took his place at the brahmin side. (The Mountain Path, 1965, p. 217)
Bhagavan’s attitude to caste rules in the dining room was discussed in the columns of The Mountain Path in the 1960s (see 1967, p. 259 and pp. 348-9; 1968, p. 88) by Arthur Osborne, Prof. K. Swaminathan and Devaraja Mudaliar. Prof. Swaminathan strongly disagreed with Arthur Osborne’s view that Bhagavan expected visitors to the ashram to adhere to whatever social or religious rules they observed at home.
The disagreements about Bhagavan’s real views on caste and asrama regulations have probably arisen because Bhagavan himself refused to endorse any of the conflicting views on the subject. In Day by Day, for example, we have the following exchange:
Another visitor asked Bhagavan if it was not necessary that the varnasrama [caste and asrama] difference should go if the nation was to progress.
Bhagavan: ‘How can one say whether it is necessary or not necessary? I never say anything on such subjects. People often come and ask me for my opinion of varnasrama. If I say anything they will go at once and publish in the papers, “So and so is also of such and such an opinion”.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 2.1.1946)
Although Bhagavan declined to air his views on the subject (assuming of course that he had any!) it is clear from his actions that he often turned a blind eye when devotees violated caste rules, and occasionally he even encouraged them to do so. In an early issue of The Mountain Path there is a comment by T. K. Sundaresa Iyer that places these attitudes in their proper perspective:
Bhagavan was above formal orthodoxy or unorthodoxy. Whatever he did was orthodox because he did it, since he was higher than Manu and was himself the source of orthodoxy. People who failed to see that were putting the letter above the spirit. (The Mountain Path, 1965, p. 136)
The same idea is expressed in v. 96 of a Tamil work entitled Swarupa Saram:
The jnani has become one, tranquil and pure. To him ether and the rest [of the five elements] are the form of the Self. Whatever actions such a one has given up become prohibited actions. Whatever he undertakes becomes proper action.
One can extend this line of logic a little further by saying that if devotees took part in an activity, such as listening to the chanting of the Vedas, which was sanctioned by Bhagavan, then, since Bhagavan is the source of orthodoxy, such activities become orthodox, rather than a violation of the rules.
Being free from the necessity to adhere to varnasrama rules is only one aspect of atiasrama. For Bhagavan, the term denoted a transcendental experience of the Self, not just a licence to ignore rules and regulations. This dimension of atiasrama is well brought out in another sequence of verses from the Suta Samhita:
14 & 15 One who realises the paratattvam [the supreme reality] which is different from the body and the senses, which is omniscient, self-luminous, and full of bliss and happiness – that person is atiasrama.
16 One who knows the mahadeva [God or the great effulgence], who is free from the three states [of waking, dreaming and sleeping] and merely witnesses them – that person is ativarnasrama [beyond castes and asramas].
17 The essential truth about the identity of the Self and Iswara is only attainable by those who have heard the vedantic vakyas from a competent guru.
18 & 19.1 The regulations concerning varnasrama, which have been created by maya, pertain only to the body. These things [the rules about varnasrama] are not applicable to the Atma, awareness of which is an awakening from ignorance. One who realises this [Atma] is deemed to be ativarnasrama.
19.2 & 20 ‘Just as the world is functioning of its own accord in the presence of the sun, before me the world is also functioning.’ One who thinks in this way is supposed to have transcended the varnasramas. This knowledge can only be attained by realising the import of the mahavakyas.
21 ‘Just as the various ornaments made out of gold are created by maya, so this world, created by the mind in myself, is also created by maya.’ One who has realised this with the help of the mahavakyas is ativarnasrama.
22 & 23 Just as the appearance of silver on an oyster shell is an illusion created by the mind, so the entire world is the creation of maya. One who realises this through the mahavakyas is ativarnasrama.
24 & 25 ‘O Purushottama [Vishnu]! There are different grades of bodies: low caste, high caste, plants, trees and devas. Pervading all these bodies like akasa [space or ether] and not affected by all these things, is the Supreme, without beginning or end, without form, effulgent. I am that Supreme.’ One who understands this through realising the mahavakyas is ativarnasrama.
26 & 27 A person’s confusion in an unknown place is dispelled by a guide. Later, when he recollects his previous state, he remembers his old confusion [without being troubled by it]. Similarly, the reality of the world, though destroyed by true knowledge, still appears to me. But really that [world-appearance] no longer exists. One who realises this through the mahavakyas is ativarnasrama.
29 By realising his own Self, the instructions imposed by varnasrama dharmas drop away of their own accord. Such a person transcends the barriers of asramas and castes and remains in his own Self.
30 In this way a person who has transcended all asramas and varnas, and who remains in his pure Self, is declared to be ativarnasrama by all the vedantic experts. (Skanda Purana, Suta Samhita, Mukti Khanda, ch. 5)
Bhagavan kept a small booklet entitled Suta Samhita Saram (The Essence of Suta Samhita) on a bookshelf by his sofa. It contained a Tamil translation of all the verses from the Siva Mahatmya Khanda and the Mukti Khanda that I have given in this article. Since he often cited it or produced it when the subject of atiasrama came up, it is reasonable to infer that, except for the verses that insist on a strict observance of all varnasrama rules, he endorsed its contents. The same booklet, incidentally, also contains a sequence of verses whose aim is to demonstrate that women may become sannyasis. Some schools of thought in India teach that women are not eligible to enter this state. If Bhagavan was ever approached for an opinion on this matter, he would often produce the same small booklet in order to demonstrate that there was scriptural authority to support the claims of women who wanted to take sannyasa.
These two sets of verses that Bhagavan cited to support his views on atiasrama indicate that there are two aspects to this state: the first, and the most fundamental one, is that by realising the Self the atiasrami has transcended all names, forms and categories; and the second aspect, which follows naturally from the first, is that because the atiasrami has ceased to be a person inhabiting a body and identifying with it, he is no longer subject to any of the rules which apply to those who still imagine that they are individual human beings. From a theistic point of view one can say that the atiasrami’s actions are God’s and cannot therefore be encompassed or judged by any human code of conduct. Bhagavan upheld this view when he once remarked, ‘…a man [who holds the Self in remembrance] is not concerned with the right or wrong of actions. His actions are God’s and therefore right.’ (Conscious Immortality, 1984, p. 130)
It has become somewhat fashionable among certain modern gurus to say, in effect, ‘I have realised the Self; therefore I can do what I like because society’s rules no longer apply to me’. The true atiasrami would never make a statement like this because he or she would know that there is no ‘I’ left that can select particular desires and then indulge them. The true jnani or atiasrami according to Bhagavan, has no sankalpa, that is to say he has no will or desire of his own. His actions are spontaneous manifestations of the Self.
Sadhu Natanananda, in his Tamil book Sri Ramana Darsanam, has recorded an interesting incident that demonstrates the point that Bhagavan, as an atiasrami, had no will or desire of his own:
During his last days, when Sri Bhagavan’s body was affected by cancer, he remained indifferent to the treatments arranged by his devotees. He handed over the care of his body to the doctors since that was the wish of the devotees. At that time he said, ‘Our job is only to remain as a witness to all that happens; it is not to imagine this way or that way regarding anything’.
Following this dictum he remained to the very end as a mere witness, free from anxieties. When devotees found that there was no apparent improvement in his condition, even after prolonged treatment, they became agitated. They wanted to know whether Sri Bhagavan would permit them to try a drastic method of treatment that had been prescribed by the doctors as a last resort.
Sri Bhagavan replied, ‘Why should you ask me all this? Was it I who asked for treatment? Was it not you alone who took the initiative in this? Ideas regarding what should happen and what should not happen occur only to you. I have no connection with this.’ And then he kept quiet. (Sri Ramana Darsanam, 1973, p. 91)
There was no thought in Bhagavan to prolong the life in his body, and since no desire arose in him to alleviate the excruciating pains of terminal cancer, he was quite content merely to witness them.
Many people tend to think that jnanis are omnipotent, that they can accomplish anything they wish. Bhagavan never felt this way. In another telling exchange, which was also recorded by Sadhu Natanananda at the end of Bhagavan’s life, he informed one grieving devotee that he had no ability to change the destiny of the body that the devotee identified as Bhagavan:
Towards the end of Bhagavan’s life a devotee, who firmly believed in the omnipotence of the great ones, could not bear to see the Maharshi’s body become weak because of the disease that was afflicting it. The devotee appealed to the Maharshi with great feeling that he should transfer the disease to him and stay in the body for some more time in order to save many other helpless devotees. Wondering at the devotee’s child-like innocence, Sri Bhagavan looked at him with compassion and replied graciously, ‘Who created this disease? Is it not enough that I have borne till today all by myself this load of flesh which [once it is dead] must be carried by four persons? Should I continue bearing it henceforth?’
Through these kind words he made clear that the law of destiny was inexorable. (Sri Ramana Darsanam, 1973, p. 112)
The atiasrami’s inability to execute or even have personal desires was brought home to me some years ago in a conversation I had with U. G. Krishnamurti, an iconoclastic spiritual teacher who likes to poke fun at traditional ideas on spirituality. While talking about the state of realisation he remarked, ‘All religious teachers say that the seeker is in bondage whereas the so-called enlightened one is free. Actually, the opposite is equally true. One who imagines himself to be a person also imagines that he has free-will. That person makes choices, and if he chooses not to be put off by legal or social restrictions, he can do whatever he likes. But when the idea of the person disappears, free-will, which is just another idea, goes along with it. One is then utterly bound by circumstances because there is no one left to make choices or act on desires. In that state the actions of the body and the brain are just automatic responses to external stimuli. Since no inherent faculty remains to modify these responses, the bondage is complete and irreversible.’
These remarks were made partly in jest, but there is also a certain element of truth in them. To solve the apparent contradiction – that the jnani or the atiasrami is simultaneously liberated and bound – one must define more accurately what ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ is. There are two kinds of freedom: ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. ‘Freedom to’ implies the existence of choice and of one who chooses. It is basically self-indulgence, for the individual self selects certain desires and then attempts to fulfil them. This ‘freedom to’ is finite since there is a limit to how much the body may indulge: one cannot, for example, eat a million meals a day.
‘Freedom from’ may also be finite – one may be free from attachment to money, for example, but not free from the desire for fame. But for the jnani ‘freedom from’ is absolute because he has permanently given up the idea that he is an individual person. Though he has no ‘freedom to’, since that would imply the existence of an individual self, he is free from all desires, fears, etc., and is content to let his body experience whatever destiny has in store for it. Not having an ability to choose and judge may seem like bondage to an ajnani, but for the jnani it is a consequence of the ultimate freedom.
From occasional remarks that Bhagavan made, one can get the impression that he had very little ‘freedom to’ especially in the later years at Sri Ramanashram. Two stories told by N. N. Rajan will illustrate the point I am trying to make. In 1943, after one of his attendants, Sivanandam, had tried unsuccessfully to compel Bhagavan to take a drink of water, Bhagavan remarked, with some irritation, ‘Look, people call me “Swami, Swami,” and are under the impression that sagehood is a bed of roses. See the trouble encountered by Swami now. Whoever asks me to do anything I have to obey and satisfy him; whatever visitors say, according to their likes and dislikes, I have to patiently follow. Look at the way a sage is under the control of the people around him!’ (The Mountain Path, 1981, p. 66)
In another story recorded in 1948 Bhagavan remarked to the same attendant who was about to go off duty. ‘You all at least have some change, but I am fixed up here throughout the day without any freedom. I am unable to move about freely like you. This is the fate of even maharajas and other famous people. They have to take medical advice for choosing items of food even while they are normal and healthy. This is the case with me also. I like food made with wheat, but the people here will not allow me to take it. Anyone who wants to eat delicious food may eat whatever they want, but why should they compel me to take only some specified items of food? See how it is.’ (The Mountain Path 1981, p. 93)
One more story on the same theme. It was well know that Bhagavan didn’t like to sit on his sofa all day. He called it his ‘jail’ and only sat there out of consideration for the devotees who were continuously coming for darshan. Up till the early 1930s Bhagavan was able to spend a lot of his time away from the hall, doing odd jobs in the ashram. If any devotees came for darshan, Madhava Swami, the attendant who looked after the old hall, would come and notify him and Bhagavan would then go back to his sofa. Annamalai Swami told me that he was once working with Bhagavan when they both saw Madhava Swami walking towards them. Bhagavan sighed and said, ‘Here comes a new warrant for my arrest. I have to go back to jail!’
Clearly then, Bhagavan had very little ‘freedom to’ in his daily life. However, his ‘freedom from’ was absolute, enabling him to witness dispassionately all the inconveniences that ashram life imposed upon him. One should also remember that only those who identify him with a body could imagine that his freedom was in any way curtailed. If one can have instead the attitude that he was and is the unmanifest Self, it is easy to see that at all times he was utterly free.