In the late 1980s I spoke to Annamalai Swami about Ramanatha Brahmachari since they had been neighbours together in Palakottu for several years. This is what he said:
Ramanatha Brahmachari first came to Bhagavan in the days when Bhagavan was living in Virupaksha Cave. He had a very distinctive appearance because he was very short, wore thick glasses, and always covered his body with a large amount of vibhuti. In the Virupaksha Cave days he used to go for bhiksha in town. He would bring whatever food he had managed to beg to Virupaksha Cave, serve it to Bhagavan, and afterwards eat whatever remained.
One day, as he was bringing some food to Bhagavan, he met his father on the hill. He found him sitting outside Guhai Namasivaya Temple about halfway between the town and Virupaksha Cave. His father said that he was very hungry and asked for some of the food that his son had begged.
Ramanatha Brahmachari, thinking that it would be improper and disrespectful to feed anyone, even his own father, before Bhagavan had received his share, told his father, ‘Come with me to Bhagavan. We can share the food there.’
His father, who had no interest in Bhagavan, refused to come. He asked his son to give him some food and then leave, but Ramanatha Brahmachari refused.
Bhagavan had been observing all this from Virupaksha Cave. When Ramanatha Brahmachari finally arrived there, Bhagavan told him, ‘I will not take any of your food unless you first serve your father’.
Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Guhai Namasivaya Temple, but instead of following Bhagavan’s instructions he again asked his father to come and eat with Bhagavan at Virupaksha Cave. When his father, for the second time, refused to come, Ramanatha Brahmachari went back to Virupaksha Cave without giving him any food.
Bhagavan told him, this time more firmly, ‘I will only eat if you feed your father first. Go and feed him.’
This time Ramanatha obeyed the order, fed his father and returned to Virupaksha Cave with the remaining food. I mention this story only because it shows how great his devotion to Bhagavan was and how little he cared about anything else, including his own family.
Ramanatha Brahmachari used to feed Bhagavan with such love and devotion, Bhagavan felt he had been captured by his love. That is why Bhagavan said on one occasion, ‘I am only afraid of two devotees, Ramanatha Brahmachari and Mudaliar Patti’.
It was not physical fear, it was more a feeling of helplessness. If a devotee has a strong, burning love for his Guru, the Guru is compelled to do anything that the devotee asks. Bhagavan always felt apprehensive whenever Ramanatha Brahmachari appeared because he knew he would not be able to resist any of his requests. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa once expressed the same idea when he said: ‘When you have attained ecstatic love, you have found the rope to tie God with.’
A few years after the ashram moved to the foot of the hill, Chinnaswami and Ramanatha Brahmachari had some sort of quarrel. I don’t know what it was all about but the end result was that Ramanatha Brahmachari was banned from eating or sleeping in the ashram. An advocate in town, Neelakanta Sastri, came to his rescue by volunteering to feed him.
He told Ramanatha Brahmachari, ‘Don’t worry about your food. From now on you can come to my house every day. I have photos of Bhagavan and Vinayaka. If you do a daily puja to both of these pictures, I will give you breakfast and lunch in my house. You can also take whatever is left over from lunch in a tiffin carrier to eat as your evening meal.’
After his exclusion from the ashram Ramanatha Brahmachari built himself a tiny hut in Palakottu. He had been attracted to some of Gandhi’s ideas even while Bhagavan was still living on the hill. In addition to spinning cotton, a must for all Gandhians in those days, he had a great attraction to the idea of service. When he moved to Palakottu he performed seva [service] by cleaning the huts of all the sadhus who lived there and by doing all their shopping for them. Before he went to town he would ask all the sadhus in Palakottu if they needed anything. Invariably he would return with whatever had been requested. Because of all these activities Kunju Swami gave him the nickname ‘Palakottu Sarvadhikari’ [The Supreme Ruler of Palakottu].
Ramanatha Brahmachari was willing to do anything for the Palakottu sadhus. Some people took advantage of this by giving him trivial or unpleasant tasks to complete but he never complained. I remember one occasion when somebody in Palakottu asked him to go to town and read all the posters that had been pasted to the walls. He was supposed to come back with a report on the details of each poster. Ramanatha Brahmachari did this job in the same spirit that he did all his other jobs: joyfully and with love. He wasn’t in the least offended that his helpfulness and generosity were being abused. Since he had no ego that could take offence, he could carry out futile jobs such as these in a spirit of service, without being irritated by the motives of the people who were wasting his time. Because of his strange appearance and because of his odd character and personality traits, many people ridiculed him and teased him. Most of these people were misled by his eccentric appearance and idiosyncratic activities to such an extent they couldn’t see the love that bound him to Bhagavan and Bhagavan to him.
Bhagavan gave him his grace when he was still a teenaged boy, and Ramanatha Brahmachari repaid this with lifelong service to both Bhagavan and his devotees. In performing all his tasks with humbleness and joy, and in serving Bhagavan with great love and devotion, he was an outstanding example of what a good devotee ought to be.
Since Ramanatha Brahmachari was an ardent Gandhian, when Mahatma Gandhi announced that he intended to make and collect salt illegally, as a protest against British rule, Ramanatha Brahmachari decided that he should follow his example. At the time, the British rulers of India levied a tax on salt. Gandhi’s idea was to take thousands of his followers to a beach in western India where sea water was commercially evaporated. The demonstrators would then manufacture and collect untaxed salt there as a gesture of collective defiance to British rule. The British were informed in advance, so there was a strong possibility that the salt march would end violently. Gandhians in other parts of India, who could not make the long trip to Gujarat, were encouraged to have their own local protests. Ramanatha Brahmachari joined a South Indian salt march that was led by Rajagopalachari, a leading Congress politician. The destination was Vedaranyam, a southern coastal town.
When Ramanatha Brahmachari informed Bhagavan that he wanted to go on this march, Bhagavan laughed and remarked, ‘The police will be afraid of you. They will run away when they see you.’
Ramanatha Brahmachari went on the march and managed to avoid being arrested. In fact, he was completely ignored by all the police. On his return he presented Bhagavan with some of the salt he had made and collected.
When ashram workers left to go on trips such as these they were expected to get permission from the ashram manager. In this particular case Chinnaswami refused to allow Ramanatha Brahmachari leave to join the protest. Since he was determined to contribute to this protest march, Ramanatha Brahmachari left without getting the requisite permission. When he returned, Chinnaswami refused to allow him to resume his work in the ashram. This meant that Ramanatha Brahmachari had to make alternative arrangements for his food and accommodation since only visiting devotees and full-time ashram workers were allowed to eat and sleep in the ashram.
Ramanatha Brahmachari’s relationship with Chinnaswami had already been strained by an incident that had taken place a few years earlier. Chinnaswami had asked Ramanatha Brahmachari to stop spinning thread, saying that it would damage his already weak eyesight. Ramanatha Brahmachari refused. Somehow, this seemingly innocuous conversation degenerated into a violent quarrel in which Chinnaswami started rolling the diminutive figure of Ramanatha Brahmachari along the ground. Kunju Swami intervened when it looked as if Chinnaswami was about to roll Ramanatha Brahmachari down some stone steps.
Chinnaswami, in an attempt to enforce his authority, shouted, ‘Do you know who I am?’
Ramanatha Brahmachari replied meekly, ‘If we knew that, we wouldn’t be in this quarrel’.
When Ramanatha Brahmachari spun cotton thread, some of his output was given to Mastan, a weaver-devotee of Bhagavan who lived in Desur, a village about forty miles from Tiruvannamalai. Mastan would use this thread to make the cloth that was used for Bhagavan’s kaupinas (loincloths), the only clothing he ever wore. Mastan also made towels for him out of the same thread.
The next account comes from Kunju Swami, who was one of Ramanatha Brahmachari’s neighbours in Palakottu in the 1930s and 40s.
One of the devotees who joined us in Palakottu was Ramanatha Brahmachari. He was the boy, mentioned earlier, whom Sri Bhagavan had looked after when the former had had bubonic plague. Ramanatha Brahmachari was a tireless worker, and in addition to being a devotee of Sri Bhagavan, he was also a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.
Of his own accord he would clean all our huts in Palakottu. In the evening he would prepare the wicks, pour oil and light the lamps. He was always looking for odd jobs to do.
In those days we were all quite young and thought we were great ascetics. We would not bother to sweep our rooms in Palakottu, or care to light the lamps. If there was no fuel, we might even skip our meals. But Ramanatha Brahmachari would take care of all these chores whether we asked him to or not.
Once, when we were all sitting in front of Sri Bhagavan, a letter was received from Ekanatha Rao. He had made enquiries about ‘the sarvadhikari of Palakottu’.
When Sri Bhagavan read that, he enquired, ‘Who is this? I don’t know anything about this.’
I got up and nervously pointed to Ramanatha Brahmachari. ‘We call him the sarvadhikari [‘Supreme Ruler,’] of Palakottu. He buys our things, cleans our lamps, and sweeps our floors. So we call him the “Palakottu Sarvadhikari”.’
Sri Bhagavan said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this? With a sarvadhikari like this, everyone should be happy.’
Ramanatha Brahmachari got up very shyly and said, ‘I don’t know, Bhagavan. They gave me that name as a joke.’
‘What is funny about it?’ asked Sri Bhagavan. ‘It is a good name.’
Ramanatha Brahmachari was a simple man who had no time for spiritual or philosophical abstractions. He was content with his own experiences and with the service that he offered Bhagavan and his devotees. This is brought out in the following story.
Once, when Ramanatha Brahmachari was ill, T. S. Rajagopala Iyer took him to Madras for treatment. They stayed at the home of T. S. Rajagopala Iyer’s brother, who was a great Sanskrit pandit and a professor of Sanskrit in a well-known college. The professor gave them a lengthy discourse on spiritual matters, quoting profusely from various texts. Ramanatha Brahmachari initially listened calmly and patiently to the lecture, even though he could tell that the professor was saying many things that contradicted Bhagavan’s teachings.
Finally, when there was a small pause in the discourse, Ramanatha Brahmachari quoted part of verse thirty-five of Bhagavan’s Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham: ‘What is all this for? They are like a gramaphone. Tell me, Lord of Arunachala, what else are they?’
After making this statement, he got up and left, and the professor’s lecture came to an abrupt halt.