A Personal Encounter
What does Sri Bhagavan mean to me? After many years of experiencing his grace I can now reply, ‘He is everything to me. He is my Guru and my God.’ I can say this with confidence because, had I not had the good fortune of seeing him and thereafter getting into closer contact with him, I would have been still groping in the dark. I would still have been a doubting Thomas.
How did it all begin? When I was eighteen I read a lot of books by Swami Vivekananda and Swami Rama Tirtha. This reading generated a desire in me that I should also become a sannyasin, like the authors of these books. Their writings also implanted in me the ideal of plain living, high thinking, and a life dedicated to spiritual matters. Somehow, my desire to become a sannyasin was never fulfilled, but the ideal of a dedicated life made a deeper and deeper impression on my mind. At the age of twenty I had the good fortune of contacting Mahatma Gandhi. His ideals won my heart and for several years I faithfully tried to put them into practice.
I was doing my duty to the best of my ability and leading, as best I could, a pure and dedicated life till the age of thirty-eight. Around that time scepticism began to assail me and my mind became a home for all kinds of doubts. I began to doubt the ideals of Gandhiji; I began to doubt sadhus and sannyasins; I doubted religion, and I began to doubt the existence of God.
It was in this darkest period of my life that I first heard of Sri Ramana Maharshi. At that time I seemed to be heading swiftly towards total scepticism. The world appeared to me to be full of injustice, cruelty, greed, hate and other evils, the existence of which logically led me to a strong disbelief in God. For, I argued, had He truly existed, could anything dark or evil ever have flourished? Doubt upon doubt assailed me like dark shadows that dogged my footsteps. I had, as a consequence, lost whatever little reverence I might have had for sadhus and sannyasins. I found myself slowly but surely losing my interest in religion. The very word itself eventually became a synonym in my mind for a clever ruse to delude the credulous of the world. In short, I began to live a life lacking in optimism and faith. I was not happy in my disbelief, for my mind took on the aspect of turbulent waters, and I felt that all around me there was raging a scorching fire that seemed to burn up my very entrails.
One day, while travelling as usual on the train to the office, I happened to meet a friend who had spent over a decade in Europe and America. I hadn’t met him for quite a long time and I sometimes used to wonder where he had disappeared to. In answer to a query about his recent activities he said that he had been to Sri Ramanasramam and immediately launched into a description of what went on there. While he was trying to describe to me his experience of the darshan of Sri Bhagavan he drew out from his pocket a small packet that he extended to me. I wondered what it contained. He explained that it contained something extremely precious – some vibhuti, holy ashes brought from the ashram. He insisted on my accepting them. His kind invitation did not interest me in the least. On the other hand, it amused me.
I said, scornfully, ‘Pardon me, but I think that all this sort of thing is mere sham and humbug, so I trust you will not misunderstand me if I refuse to accept.’
He then argued that by refusing his gift, I was not merely insulting him, I was also insulting the vibhuti. I thought that this was rather comical, but to placate him I replied, ‘Well, if that be so, to please you I will take a pinch of these ashes on condition that you will allow me to do whatever I like with them’.
Unsuspectingly, he nodded his head in assent and passed the packet over to me. A smile appeared on his lips as he watched me take a pinch out of it. This smile was the preface to a zealous expiation on Sri Bhagavan and his miraculous greatness. While he was lost in his missionary enthusiasm, I surreptitiously let the ashes fall onto the floor of the compartment. To be quite frank, it was a relief when my friend had concluded what I had then considered to be a puerile and unnecessary lecture.
At the end of it I remarked, ‘I have an utter contempt for these so-called saints’.
My friend refused to give up. He insisted on impressing on me that Sri Ramana Maharshi was not a ‘so-called’ saint, but an authentic sage, acknowledged as such by great savants all over the world. He suggested that for my own benefit I read about him in some of the available literature. To start me off he gave me a book entitled Sri Maharshi that had been written by Sri Kamath, the editor of The Sunday Times in Madras.
I must confess that despite my prejudices the book evoked in me an interest in Sri Bhagavan. After completing this small book I was sufficiently curious to borrow another book about him from a different friend. It was the second edition of Self-Realization, the earliest full-length biography of Sri Bhagavan. From then on, my interest grew without my being aware of it. A little later I felt compelled to write to Sri Ramanasramam to ask for all the literature on Sri Bhagavan that was available in English. As I began to study it with great avidity, I found that my outlook on life began to undergo a subtle transformation, but only a partial one. At the back of my mind there still lurked a heavy doubt, resembling a cloud, that stained the gathering illumination. My old scepticism did not wish to yield place so easily to this new faith, which was apparently being inculcated in my mind.
My scepticism tried to challenge my new faith by arguing, ‘So many books are wonderful to read, but their authors, more often than not, are not as wonderful to know. It is possible for men to teach truths that they are unable to live themselves. What, then, is the use of books, however wonderful?’
To counter this doubt I decided to correspond directly with Sri Bhagavan. Over the next few months I wrote several letters to him, all of which were answered by his ashram with a rare punctuality. However, although they breathed the teachings of the Master, they hardly gave me a glimpse into the nature of the daily life lived by him. Because of this I began to be haunted by a desire to visit the ashram to see for myself what went on there.
To fulfil that desire I paid my first visit to Sri Ramanasramam in the Christmas holiday of 1939. At first I was terribly disappointed because nothing seemed to strike me in the way I had expected. I found Sri Bhagavan seated on a couch, as quiet and unmoving as a statue. His presence did not seem to emanate anything unusual, and I was very disappointed to discover that he displayed no interest in me at all. I had expected warmth and intimacy, but unfortunately I seemed to be in the presence of someone who lacked both. From morning till evening I sat waiting to catch a glimpse of his grace, of his interest in me, a stranger who had come all the way from Bombay, but I evoked no response. Sri Bhagavan merely seemed cold and unaffected. After pinning such hopes on him, his apparent lack of interest nearly broke my heart. Eventually, I decided to leave the ashram, knowing full well that if I did so, I would be more sceptical and hard-headed than before.
The Veda parayana was chanted every evening in Sri Bhagavan’s presence. It was considered to be one of the most attractive items in the daily programme of the ashram, but in my depressed state it fell flat on my ears. It was the evening of the day I had decided to leave. The sun was setting like a sad farewell, spreading a darkness over both the hill and my heart. The gloom deepened until the neighbourhood disappeared into the blackness of the night. In my sensitive state the electric light that was switched on in the hall seemed like a living wound on the body of the darkness. My mind, which was deeply tormented, felt that the psychic atmosphere in the hall was stuffy and choking. Unable to bear it any longer, I walked outside to get a breath of fresh air.
A young man called Gopalan came up to me and asked me where I had come from.
‘Bombay,’ I replied.
He asked me if I had been introduced to the Master, and when I replied that I had not, he was most surprised. He immediately led me to the office, introduced me to the sarvadhikari [manager] and then proceeded with me to the hall where he introduced me to Sri Bhagavan. When he heard my name Sri Bhagavan’s eyes turned to me, looked straight into mine and twinkled like stars. With a smile beaming with grace he asked me if I were a Gujarati. I replied that I was. Immediately he sent for a copy of the Gujarati translation by Sri Kishorelal Mashruwala of Upadesa Saram, a few copies of which had only just arrived. He then asked me to chant the Gujarati verses from the book.
‘But I am not a singer,’ I answered, hesitating to begin. But when it became clear that I was expected to perform, I got over my initial hesitation and began to chant verses from the book. I had sung about fifteen when the bell for the evening meal rang. All the time I was chanting I could feel Sri Bhagavan keenly observing me. It seemed that the light of his eyes was suffusing my consciousness, even without my being aware of it. His silent gaze brought about a subtle but definite transformation in me. The darkness, which a few minutes before had seemed heavy and unbearable, gradually lightened and melted into a glow of well being. My erstwhile sadness completely disappeared, leaving in my heart an inexplicable emotion of joy. My limbs appeared to have been washed in an ocean-tide of freedom.
That evening I sat close to Sri Bhagavan in the dining room. In my exalted state the food I ate seemed to have an unusual and unearthly taste. I quite literally felt that I was participating in some heavenly meal in the direct presence of God. After having such an experience I of course abandoned all thought of leaving the ashram that night. I stayed on for three days longer in order to widen the sacred and extraordinary experience that had already begun, an experience of divine grace that I felt would lead me in the direction of spiritual liberation.
During the three days of my stay in the proximity of the Divine Master, I found my whole outlook entirely changed. After that short period I could find little evidence of my old self, a self that had been tied down with all kinds of preconceptions and prejudices. I felt that I had lost the chains that bind the eyes of true vision. I became aware that the whole texture of my mind had undergone a change. The colours of the world seemed different, and even the ordinary daylight took on an ethereal aspect. I began to see the foolishness and the futility of turning my gaze only on the dark side of life.
In those few days Sri Bhagavan, the divine magician, opened up for me a strange new world of illumination, hope and joy. I felt that his presence on earth alone constituted sufficient proof that humanity, suffering and wounded because of its obstinate ignorance, could be uplifted and saved. For the first time I fully understood the significance of darshan.
While I lay in bed in the guest room of the ashram, the encounter that had taken place on the train in Bombay replayed itself in my mind. I recalled the blind audacity that had prompted me to drop the thrice-holy vibhuti in contempt onto the floor of the railway carriage. Today, even one speck of such vibhuti is treasure to me, for prasad received from the Master is a form of grace that no wealth on earth may buy. Sometimes I even feel that I am not worthy enough to raise it to my eyelids and streak my forehead with it.
‘O Master,’ I thought to myself, ‘what a miracle of transformation! Why did it take half a lifetime before I could meet you? Half a lifetime of blundering, of failing and falling. But I suppose, my Master, that you would say that time is a mental concept. For I feel that in your sight your bhaktas [devotees] have, throughout all time, always been with you and near you.’
As these thoughts were passing through my mind, I slowly fell into a deep sleep. The next morning I arose in a rejuvenated state. There was a new vigour in my limbs and an awareness that my heart was permeated with light. On the third day of my visit I sadly took leave of Sri Bhagavan. I was still human enough, still caught in the sense of time and space, for the parting to leave me with a feeling of aching and emptiness in the heart. But there was no despair. Something assured me that I would be returning to the feet of the Master sooner than I could imagine.
My intuition turned out to be correct. In the following years repeated visits seemed to be miraculously and easily arranged by the Master. He seemed to know that I felt an occasional need to be close to him physically. In the years that followed each succeeding visit deepened the light within, toned up my nerves and suffused my senses with an increasing experience of exhilaration.
The subtle and subconscious manner with which the Master toils at his children is amazing. There were times without number when I distinctly saw his hand, his mighty hand, extended to me when I stood in need of guidance. These occasions continually reminded me of his famous comment in Who am I?
He that has earned the grace of the Guru shall undoubtedly be saved and never forsaken, just as the prey that has fallen into the tiger’s jaws will never be allowed to escape.