This was originally posted on my blog on 19th September 2008:
As I was driving home from a shopping trip this morning I suddenly remembered the story of Mastan, and how I managed to find out information about him. The memories grabbed me so strongly, I felt an urge to write them down as soon as I reached my house. So, here they are…
I first heard about Mastan from Sadhu Om in the late 1970s. He had gone to Mastan’s home village around 1960 to interview Akhilandamma, one of Bhagavan’s earliest devotees. At that time she was over eighty years of age. Among the many stories she told him was one about Mastan Swami, and how she first took him to Bhagavan in the Virupaksha Cave era. I didn’t read Sadhu Om’s account, which had been published in Tamil, but he did tell me that Mastan was such a great devotee, people today still went to his samadhi shrine because they felt that it was a place where one’s wishes could be fulfilled. Years later I read Kunju Swami’s reminiscences, and these included the story of how Bhagavan sent him to Desur (Mastan’s home village) when Mastan passed away there with instructions to make him a special samadhi shrine that is usually reserved for Saiva saints. I did a little checking and discovered that Bhagavan had only commissioned or requested samadhis of this kind on four occasions: for his own mother, for Seshadri Swami, for Lakshmi the cow, and for Mastan Swami. This put Mastan Swami in very elevated company.
In the early 1980s I came across an account by the editor of Arunachala Ramana. He too had gone to talk to Akhilandamma, and she had obliged him with the moving story of how Mastan Swami had passed away. In his final hours he had seen Siva ganas and Apeetakuchamba (the Sanskrit name of the consort of Siva in the Arunachaleswara Temple), and spoken excitedly of how they had all come to collect him to him home.
This was definitely someone I wanted to find out information about, but where to start? Mastan himself had passed away in 1931, and he had received little more than passing mentions in the ashram books I had read. He was present on the famous occasion when the ashram was robbed in 1924, and also on the occasion when the golden mongoose visited Bhagavan at Skandashram, but he didn’t appear to have a major role to play in either incident. I took the relevant information from Sadhu Om’s Tamil account of Akhilandamma, and then began to hunt for any extra tidbits that might have escaped the attention of earlier writers. I only began this work in 2001, so I didn’t have access to devotees such as Kunju Swami, Ramaswami Pillai and Annamalai Swami who would, undoubtedly, have been able to provide me with useful information.
I knew the English and Tamil sources of information on Bhagavan well enough to know that there was not much to be found in the literature of either language, but I thought there might be something in Telugu I had overlooked. Several of my friends were devotees of Sri Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji, an Andhra householder and Guru, who had thousands of devotees in Andhra Pradesh. He was in Tiruvannamalai at the time and my friends had all told me that he had a great respect for Bhagavan and an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the stories about him. I asked one of his devotees to ask him if he could remember reading anything in Telugu about Mastan Swami.
Sri Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji is a great devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba. His first teacher had been Acharya E. Bharadwaja, a man who had done much in the 1960s and 70s to spread the teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba. In his youth Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji had spent quite a lot of time in and around Ramanasramam, and he had also spent time with Poondi Swami, an eccentric yogi who lived about 20 km from Tiruvannamalai. In later years his devotion focused exclusively on Shirdi Sai Baba, although he does acknowledge that Poondi Swami played a major part in his spiritual development.
Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji’s devotion to Shirdi Sai Baba became so intense, he began to acquire some of the wish-fulfilling powers that Sai Baba was famous for. People began to flock to him when these powers became public knowledge, so much so, he found it hard to live a normal life in Andhra Pradesh. If he ever went anywhere by train, hordes of people would descend on him at each place the train stopped, each hoping to have his or her desire fulfilled. Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji never did anything consciously to help these people; he always said that if people brought a problem to him, as often as not Sai Baba would attend to it. He never claimed to be doing any of these things himself.
He moved to Shirdi, in Maharashtra, in 1989, and at the time of this story he had small houses in both Chennai and Tiruvannamalai where he would occasionally meet with the many people who wanted to see him. Mostly, though, he lived a reclusive life, and his public appearances were severely rationed. I sent my request via an old friend of mine who was lucky enough to be attending satsangs with him on a regular basis. She asked my question – ‘Do you know any Telugu sources of information on Mastan Swami?’ – but Sainaathuni Sarath Babuji (who is known as ‘Guruji’ to all his followers) made no reply.
Later that evening his attendant asked him privately, ‘What answer should I give to David? You didn’t say anything during the satsang.’
Guruji replied, ‘Tell him that Baba is taking care of it’. The next day my friend reported this to me in a very excited tone of voice. When I asked her why she was so excited – it didn’t seem to me to be much of an answer – she told me that this was what Guruji said when he knew that Sai Baba had intervened in some way and was taking care of a request or a problem.
‘Just wait,’ said my friend. ‘If any information exists, it will all end up in your hands, probably from the most unlikely sources.’
The first improbable event occurred soon afterwards when I was standing in the Ramanasramam library, looking at a shelf of books. A. R. Natarajan came up to me and asked what I was working on.
‘I’m looking for information on Mastan,’ I replied, ‘but I am not getting very far. ‘Did you ever turn up any information on him?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘but I do have the notes that B. V. Narasimhaswami wrote when he was interviewing devotees for Self-Realisation. There is a one-and-a-half page Tamil account there by Mastan Swami. I can send you a copy.’
A. R. Natarajan had taken all of Narasimha Swami’s notes to Bangalore several years before, so I was not aware that there existed an account by Mastan himself of his time with Bhagavan. I thanked Natarajan for the offer and waited to see what would turn up.
A few days later I received a xeroxed copy of the information that Mastan had given to Narasimha Swami. Though brief, it was a fascinating account of his early life and the questions he had asked Bhagavan.
Next, I went to see Sri V. Ganesan, since I knew he had spoken to many of Bhagavan’s devotees about their time with him. I was aware that Kunju Swami had briefly mentioned that Mastan Swami had gone into samadhi on first meeting Bhagavan, but details of the event were frustratingly sketchy. I asked Ganesan if anyone had given him more details of this incident.
He looked surprised. ‘Didn’t I mention that in one of my books? That’s a great story. Viswanatha Swami told me all about it. I can’t imagine why that one hasn’t been printed before.’
Then he proceeded to tell me the extraordinary story of how Mastan Swami had come to see Bhagavan in Virupaksha Cave. He told me how, on one occasion, even before seeing Bhagavan, Mastan had, while opening the gate to the cave compound, fallen into a deep samadhi that had lasted about eight hours. More remarkable still, Ganesan remembered Viswanatha Swami telling him that Bhagavan had said that Mastan was ‘in an entirely different category to most of the people who came’. High praise indeed from Bhagavan, who rarely made public comments on the differing levels of maturity that he saw in the devotees in front of him.
Next, I organised, via Ramanasramam, a trip to Desur, the village 40 miles from Tiruvannamalai where both Akhilandamma and Mastan Swami lived. One of the ashram’s office workers came from that area, so we took him along to make use of his local knowledge. Chandramouli also came with the ashram’s video camera in case we turned up any interesting stories.
We had a highly productive day. The pujari who looked after the samadhi shrine had made a point of collecting stories about Mastan Swami from the local people. He had recorded these in Tamil in a notebook that he allowed me to copy. The shrine itself contained a very blurry photo that I assumed to be Mastan. I took a photo of it and found out later that it had been taken from a group photo which had been taken near Virupaksha Cave.
As we were traveling around Desur we tracked down two old men who had actually known Mastan Swami; both were happy to share their memories with us. And as we were sitting next to the shrine, reflecting on a good day’s work, an old man wandered past who not only knew Mastan, he had actually been part of the group that had dug the samadhi pit in 1931. This was all most extraordinary. We had gone to a village to find information about a man who had died seventy years before and unexpectedly found a group of ninety-year-olds whose memories were still working well enough to give us illuminating details of Mastan’s Swami’s life.
Around the time I was doing this research Venkatasubramanian, Robert and I were working on the translation of Padamalai. I can’t remember exactly what we were looking for, but at one point Sankaran, who looks after all of Muruganar’s papers, opened his trunks to find something for us and accidentally brought out a poem that had been written by one of Mastan’s devotees. The devotee had sent the poem to Bhagavan; Bhagavan had passed it on to Muruganar; and Muruganar had decided there was enough merit in it to keep it and store it along with all his other papers. In addition to descriptions of the beauty of Desur and praise of Mastan Swami, the poem includes the only known ‘teachings’ of Mastan.
When I began my research, the known published material on Mastan Swami amounted to a couple of pages at most. A few weeks later I had managed, somewhat miraculously, to assemble enough material to write a twenty-page chapter for part three of The Power of the Presence. Was this due to ‘Baba taking care of it’? I am inclined to say ‘yes’ simply because too many seemingly fortuitous things happened in too short a space of time for them all to be attributed to chance or good research. I didn’t go to Guruji for a miraculous intervention; I just hoped he would pass on any knowledge he had. Now, having had this experience, I can see why so many people flock to him with their problems and requests.
The president of Ramanasramam read my account while he was on holiday in the US. He immediately called the ashram and asked the people there to take steps to renovate Mastan’s shrine and make sure that it was looked after properly. The place was depressingly unkempt on the day I went there. We had to hunt around for half an hour to find the key to open the front door, and once we had gained access, we found the interior to be dusty and filled with cobwebs. Unfortunately, there seems to be some sort of village feud over who owns or controls the shrine, so for the moment, none of the renovation plans have been executed. However, I hope all this gets settled and the shrine restored in some way. It marks the final physical resting place of one of Bhagavan’s most extraordinary devotees.
Here, just to remind you of what a great man he was, is what I wrote in The Power of the Presence chapter.
Mastan, who appeared in Ramanatha brahmachari’s chapter as the weaver who made the cloth for Bhagavan’s clothes, was born in 1878 in Desur, a small village about forty miles from Tiruvannamalai. He came from a Muslim family but was drawn to Bhagavan by Akhilandamma, a widow of the village who made regular trips to Tiruvannamalai to see Bhagavan and cook for him. A document preserved in the shrine where Mastan is buried states that at a very early age he would spontaneously fall into a samadhi-like state while he was working on the family loom. His hands and feet, which were plying the machinery of his trade, would stop and he would become absolutely still. His parents, Hussain and Salubi, thought that he was falling asleep on the job. Whenever they saw him in this condition, they would hit him, bring him back to his waking state, and tell him to get on with his work. These episodes seem to have been a recurring feature of his childhood. The notebook in which this story is recorded says the ‘he plunged into jnana’ on these occasions, making it clear that they were not just fainting fits.
Mastan himself made no mention of these dramatic experiences when he described his early years:
I came under the spell of bhakti before the age of twenty. During the Muharram festival I would put on the garb of a pandaram [a Saiva monk], smear vibhuti on myself, carry a begging bowl and roam around.
I discovered and read the verses of Gunagudi Mastan [a Muslim saint who probably lived during the early 19th century]. It occurred to me that at the following Muharram festival I should dress up as a pandaram and sing these verses. I obtained a copy of this book, read the portion entitled ‘Ecstatic Joy’ and tried to learn it by heart.
While I was doing this, it occurred to me that I should never again put on this pandaram outfit.
‘It is of no use,’ I thought. ‘I should, instead, seek liberation.’
For one year after this decision I didn’t sleep either during the day or the night. Most of the time I was going through Gunagudi Mastan’s verses. I also went through the poems and songs of Thayumanavar and Pattinathar.
There is one verse of Gunagudi Mastan that says: ‘O mind, is it possible to speak of the misery and desolation experienced by those who get wedded to women?’ This impressed me very much. There would be no marriage for me. When I became aware that my elder brothers, who were employed in the army, were making arrangements to get me married, I shuddered.
At the age of fifteen I lost my father, and when I was twenty-five my mother died. After these deaths I gave up the family weaving business. I had a Rs 100 debt from this work, but a devotee paid it off for me, freeing me from this occupation.
This information came from the interview that Narasimhaswami had with him in 1930. Nothing more is known about Mastan until the day he accompanied Akhilandamma on his first visit to Tiruvannamalai in 1914. This is how Mastan described the meeting when he spoke to Kunju Swami:
When I came to Bhagavan, he was seated like a rock…. [His unwavering gaze] was filled with grace, compassion and steady wisdom. I stood by his side. After giving me a look, he opened the gate of my Heart and I was also established in his state. I stood like that for eight hours, absolutely without fatigue, but filled with total absorption and peace. Bhagavan in those days used to open our Heart with a simple gracious look, and it transformed us. There was no need for any questions since he made us, by his look, like himself. (The Mountain Path, 1979, p. 154.)
The version of this first meeting that Mastan gave to Narasimhaswami was far less dramatic. It completely omitted the spectacular experience that Mastan had there:
The first time I saw him he was near the mango tree that is adjacent to Jada Swami’s ashram. Afterwards I had his darshan in many caves. I often spent about a month in his presence.
Having gone through Mastan’s brief interview with Narasimha Swami, I am convinced that Mastan was deliberately downplaying the experiences he had had with Bhagavan. The accounts of Mastan’s life that have come from people who knew him well indicate that he was a quiet, humble man who went out of his way to avoid attracting attention to himself. The following story, narrated by Viswanatha Swami, shows that Bhagavan himself was less restrained when he spoke of Mastan’s early visits to Virupaksha Cave.
Many of Sri Bhagavan’s activities, utterances and reactions were to some degree predictable. When you live in close proximity to a great being such as Bhagavan, becoming drenched in his presence and teachings, you start to believe that you understand him, at least to a certain extent. However, once in a while Bhagavan would spontaneously say things that astounded us all, making us realise how little we really knew and understood him. I remember one such statement very well.
Bhagavan once told me, ‘All sorts of beings gravitate towards the presence of a jnani – devas [inhabitants of the heavenly realms], rishis [sages], Brahmanishtas [those established in Brahman], siddhas [perfected beings with supernatural powers] and yogis. Some come in a normal human form, but others turn up in their subtle, astral bodies. Some of these great beings show up in the guise of beggars or madmen, and some of them even manage to appear in the forms of birds and animals.
‘Among those who show up in a normal human body, and who subsequently stay on and become devotees, there is a huge range of spiritual attainment: complete beginners mix with highly advanced souls. The most advanced are ripe fruits, just waiting to fall. They only have to come into the presence of a jnani in order to plunge into a deep experience of the Self. One such devotee was Mastan.
‘He was such a ripe soul, when he came to Virupaksha Cave to see me he would sometimes go into a deep samadhi before he had even entered the cave. As soon as he touched the railings of the gate, he would have a paralysing experience of the Self. He would stand, rooted to the spot, unable to move, for six or seven hours. This happened several times. Usually, these experiences would happen before he had even seen me since I would be inside the cave, unaware of what was going on at the gate.
‘Mastan was in an entirely different category to most of the people who came. He was highly spiritual, although outwardly he looked like an ordinary man. He was a kind generous man who was always looking for an opportunity to help other people. He never showed any self-importance. On the contrary he liked to stay in the background, unnoticed and unappreciated by ordinary people.’ (Unpublished story narrated to V. Ganesan by Viswanatha Swami in the 1970s)