I first met Robert Butler around 1980 when I was looking after the Ramanasramam library during the era when it was still located in two places: a room by the ashram cowshed, and the New Hall where Bhagavan lived and gave darshan in the late 1940s. He helped me with cataloguing, and when the library moved across the road to the Morvi Compound in 1981, he helped to run the library until the mid-1980s.
Elsewhere on this site I have written about all the book projects I havsamabe been involved in over several decades in Tiruvannamalai. This is what I wrote about my collaboration with Robert and the various projects we did together:
In the early 1980s he had come to Ramanasramam where he helped me to run the ashram library.
I soon discovered that he had a natural flair for languages. About two weeks after he had announced that he was going to learn Tamil, I spotted him reading a Tamil newspaper in one of our local tea shops. It only took a few more weeks before he was immersing himself in the intricacies of literary Tamil. He was making his first tentative translations of Tamil poems about six months after he started his studies.
He returned to the UK in 1983 and continued his Tamil studies there. About a year later, while he was working as a night guard in a factory, he managed to translate a medieval biography of Manikkavachagar in between patrols of the factory grounds. In the 1990s, while he was working as a computer expert for the government of his local area, the Ramana Maharshi Centre for Learning in Bangalore invited him to make a translation of a book of Muruganar’s devotional poetry. Though he struggled with some of the verses and sought aid from various experts in India, he still managed to produce a publishable translation of the text. Many years later, when his translation skills and his knowledge of Muruganar’s style had massively increased, he revised and expanded the text and republished it himself.
When Venkatasubramanian suggested that I invite him to help [with our project to translate Padamalai], Robert had not been in India for many years. I realised that it was also many years since I had communicated with him. I found his phone number by trawling through ‘directory enquiries’ in his home town and called him from a public phone box opposite the Ramanasramam gates. This was before mobile phones had gained a foothold in India. When he discovered where I was, he asked me to open the door so he could listen for a minute or so to the raucous sounds of India that swirled around the ashram gates. He was clearly missing India, and Tamil Nadu in particular. It didn’t take me long to persuade him to join our project. In fact, he was delighted to be able to find a tough challenge that would improve his already considerable knowledge of literary Tamil.
Robert had always had a flair for languages. He knew several European languages and had eventually ended up studying French for four years at Oxford University in England and the Sorbonne in Paris. He once told me that an exam paper he had written on Medieval French had been marked as the best in the university that year. At the end of his final year, for no reason he can remember, he found himself in Blackwell’s, the Oxford University bookstore, buying a Sanskrit dictionary, a Sanskrit grammar book and a teach-yourself-Sanskrit book. He had never been to India or felt any attraction to go, but he said something made him pick up these books, buy them, take them home and study them.
He sat down at a table, opened the books and attempted to go through the first few lessons. For no reason he could think of, he couldn’t concentrate on them. Every time he sat down, he felt physically uncomfortable and spent more time fidgeting than actually reading the books. This was the first language that he had not been able to focus on and learn quickly. Eventually, after a few days of what appeared to be a half-hearted attempt to pick up the basics, he gave up, deciding that this was one language he was not destined to learn. A couple of weeks later, while he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, he decided to have another go. This time the learning was effortless, and he picked up Sanskrit as easily as he had all his other languages. He used to joke that his Sanskrit samskaras (habits and tendencies from his past lives) were stored in his knees, and that once he assumed the right position, the language he had learned before flowed effortlessly back into him. He was, most definitely, an Indian pandit in exile. During the 1980s I used to send him dhotis by post from India. He hated wearing trousers but had to put up with them during his day job with the government. In the evening, though, he would put on a dhoti, sit cross-legged on the floor and study Tamil poetry.
Over the years he developed a passion for Sangam poetry, a mysterious era of Tamil literature from about 2,000 years ago. He learned the intricacies of its style, symbolism and grammar and was eventually good enough to publish a translation of Kuruntogai, one of the major collections of love poetry from this neglected period of Tamil history.
As I mentioned in the excerpt, in the early 2000s I was working with Dr T. V. Venkatasubramanian on several projects. The one that he invited Robert to join was our attempt to translate Padamalai, a lengthy poem by Muruganar in which he recorded teaching statements made by Bhagavan and to a lesser extent experiences he had had through Sri Ramana’s grace and power. This was the first of four book-length projects that Venkatasubramanian, Robert and I collaborated on: Padamalai, Guru Vachaka Kovai, Sorupa Saram and Ramana Puranam. All four books are available on this site, and at the links just given, excerpts from each book can be read.
Concurrently with these projects we also combined to translate poetry composed by Tamil saints whom Bhagavan had spoken about and cited in an approving way. These were eventually incorporated into long articles that I wrote. The saints included Manikkavachagar, Thayumanuvar, Guhai and Guru Namasivaya, Umapati Sivam, Tattuvaraya, Allama Prabhu and Kumaradeva. All of these articles are featured on the site in the Tamil Saints section.
Robert has also translated texts independently. Some he has published himself, and some have been published by Sri Ramanasramam. I want to highlight five which are now available both at Ramanasramam and on this site for people who live outside India.