(First published in The Mountain Path, 2000, pp. 179-87)
Sri Bhagavan’s mother attained Self-realisation in her dying moments on the evening of 19th May, 1922. The devotees, after some deliberations, decided that her body should be buried, rather than cremated, since that was the accepted procedure for women saints. They realised that it would be necessary to select a burial site at the foot of the hill, rather than on the hill itself, since the Arunachaleswara Temple authorities, who administered the part of the hill on which Skandashram had been built, would not allow any bodies to be buried on the mountain itself. Their logic was that since the mountain itself was a Siva lingam, it would be an act of desecration to inter a dead body on it. There was another temple rule, which was also strictly enforced, that forbade the worship of any images on the hill. This meant that even if the devotees had secretly buried the body on the hill, they would not have been permitted to raise a shrine over it and perform ritual worship there.
In the 1930s Bhagavan revealed, in a deposition about the ownership of Arunachala, that the temple authorities had reminded him of one of these rules shortly after his mother had died:
On the hill there was one Saraswati Swami. That swami advertised that he wanted to perform ritual worship before an image of Lord Subramanian on the hill. The temple authorities objected and stopped it. In an official notice they said that the hill itself is Linga swarupa, and that to do ritual worship of another image on it, and to celebrate festivals there, is against the tradition of the sastras. On another occasion, when my mother attained samadhi, they raised a precautionary objection that her samadhi should not be on the hill; they feared that we might build her samadhi on the hill itself. On this occasion also their objection was that the hill is Iswara swarupa.
Bhagavan concurred with this attitude by saying, a little later in his deposition, ‘There is an ancient tradition that this hill is Linga swarupa; that is to say, this hill itself is God. This tradition is not to be found anywhere else. That is the cause of the glory of this place.’
Because of these rules and traditions it was decided, on the evening the Mother died, that her body should be buried at the foot of the hill on the southern side of Arunachala. This location was selected because it was a traditional site for the burial of sadhus. It seems that Bhagavan initially wanted the body to be buried secretly and without ostentatious ceremonies.
In later years he told T. P. Ramachandra Iyer that he had instructed the devotees to ‘take the body in the dark without making any noise and without anyone knowing about it. Make a pit in no-man’s land. Bury it quickly and come back before dawn.’
Since it would have been extremely difficult to carry the body down the hill in the middle of the night, the plan was never carried out. Instead, the devotees sat around the body until about 4 a.m., chanting verses from the Tiruvachakam. The burial party eventually left with the body just before dawn, at about 5 a.m.
The site that was initially selected for the samadhi was rather close to the road. Sri Ramakrishna Iyer, a devotee who was also the village munsif, suggested that it be relocated nearer the hill. He pointed out that if the burial site was well away from the road, it would be very convenient to construct a temple over it in later years. His suggestion was accepted and a large samadhi pit was dug according to the rules in the Tirumantiram that had been laid down for the burial of jnanis. I asked Kunju Swami, who was present at Skandashram when the Mother died, why no one had attempted to carry out Bhagavan’s original instructions. He replied:
It wasn’t possible to get some of the things done in the middle of the night. Mother died late in the evening. Afterwards, there was a lot of work to do and many things to arrange. We needed to get the permission of the village munsif and also the permission of the Bavaji Math, which owned the land on which the samadhi pit was dug. These people were not available in the middle of the night. I didn’t get the feeling that Bhagavan was serious about the hasty burial because he kept most of us at Skandashram and initiated a chanting of the Tiruvachakam that lasted almost the whole night. Mother’s body did not leave Skandashram until shortly before dawn. We wanted to do it properly.
There is a tradition that if you bury a jnani’s body in ordinary earth, that will be bad for any nearby town. It is equally bad if you burn it. In the Mother’s case a special deep pit was made, lined with stones. In Tirumular’s Tirumantiram it says that a jnani’s body must be buried in a pit lined with stones. We followed this rule, but I don’t thing that we followed all the other traditional rules because we were not aware of some of them at the time. While the samadhi pit was being dug, the Mother’s body was seated under a big peepul tree on the bank of the Pali Tirtham. So many devotees came from town to pay their last respects that a large area of cactus and shrub had to be cleared to accommodate them. After abhishekam had been done to the body, it was taken to the place of burial.
Kunju Swami continues with his description of the funeral rites:
Sacred ash and sacred grasses were put inside the samadhi and the Mother’s body was lowered into it. Sri Bhagavan and others each put in a handful of vibhuti and camphor. It was then covered with a stone slab on the top of which was placed a Siva lingam. The lingam was then worshipped in the traditional manner.
At twelve noon all of us left for Palakottu. Bhagavan walked very slowly while the nadaswaram played on his instrument with great enthusiasm. The distance from the samadhi to Palakottu is not much more than a hundred yards, but it took the procession an hour to cover the distance. It was a beautiful scene as the musician played on his instrument with great gusto, looking to Bhagavan who was setting the slow pace at the head of the procession and slightly swaying in time to the rhythm on the music.
From that day on, puja was performed daily at the shrine.
On the tenth day after the Mother’s liberation a special puja was done, about a thousand people were fed, and the moksha deepam, the light of liberation, was lit at the shrine. Thereafter, Bhagavan’s brother, Chinnaswami, undertook the job of maintaining the samadhi and doing daily puja there. Bhagavan continued to live at Skandashram but Chinnaswami and Dandapani Swami decided that they would live full-time near the Mother’s samadhi. They erected a coconut-leaf hut over the shrine and built another hut nearby that they used as a kitchen. Rice, dhal and other provisions were brought down daily from Skandashram. These were converted into meals for the sadhus and into food offerings for the daily puja. Sometimes, when no food was available, Chinnaswami had to go begging in town to acquire the provisions for the daily puja. At this stage of the ashram’s development, food was often in short supply. The items of food that devotees contributed were stored in Vasudeva Sastry’s house in Tiruvannamalai. Each day he would send enough provisions to Skandashram for a meal to be cooked there. As some of these provisions were taken to the Mother’s samadhi, the sadhus who lived at Skandashram occasionally did not have enough food to eat. Vasudeva Sastry felt that there were insufficient resources to maintain two establishments, one at Skandashram and the other at the Mother’s samadhi. Since some of the other devotees felt the same way, he sent a note to Ramanatha Brahmachari, who was living at Skandashram, which read, ‘Devotees give not to Vasudeva but to Vaasudeva’.
Since Vasudeva was the parent of Vaasudeva, the note implied that the devotees wanted their donations to go to Bhagavan and not to the institution that was beginning to grow up around the Mother’s samadhi. When Ramanatha Brahmachari showed the note to Bhagavan, Bhagavan expressed his approval of the activities that were going on at the Mother’s samadhi by saying, ‘How could there be Vaasudeva without Vasudeva?’ When this remark was conveyed to Vasudeva Sastry, he abandoned his opposition to the diversion of food. Shortly afterwards, Bhagavan left Skandashram for good and went to live in the hut that had been built over the Mother’s samadhi.
In later years he would say that it had been the ‘divine will’ that had prompted him to move down the hill and take up residence in his mother’s shrine.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was the divine will that prevented him from leaving the shrine to go back to Skandashram, for he once told Devaraja Mudaliar, ‘After Mother’s death I used to come down now and then to the samadhi and return to Skandashram. One day, about six months after Mother’s death, I went there on one such visit and after sitting there for some time, wanted to get up and go back. However, something told me that I should not go back but stay on there. It was as if my legs refused to get up. And I stayed on. That is how the asramam began. Who knew then that all this would grow up?’ (My Recollections, pp. 134-5)
Bhagavan added further sanctity to the Mother’s samadhi by living in the small building that had been erected over it for a period of 5½ years. He only moved out of it in 1928 when the devotees constructed the old hall on an adjacent piece of land.
In the mid-1920s Bhagavan himself decided that a more substantial building was needed to house the Mother’s samadhi. He decided to utilise some badly baked bricks that had been abandoned by some brick makers who had set up a temporary kiln near the ashram. Some devotees in town were called in to help move the bricks. One night they formed a human chain, with Bhagavan as one of the links, and transferred all the bricks one by one to the ashram. The following day a mud-and-brick wall was constructed around the samadhi. Bhagavan himself did all the work on the inside of the wall while a professional mason worked on the outside.
The ‘temple’ was completed by erecting a thatched roof on top of the wall. This construction, the forerunner of the temple that now stands on the same site, remained unchanged for more than ten years. In the 1930s Sri Ramanashram began to develop and expand. The cowshed, the dining room and the kitchen, the storeroom, the patasala, the old office and the bookstore were all built in a burst of activity between 1929 and 1938. At the end of this period the only remaining large, uncompleted project was a plan to build a proper stone temple over the Mother’s samadhi. Since the construction of such a temple would be enormously expensive, many devotees were opposed to the plan on the grounds that it would be a white elephant that the ashram could ill afford. At Bhagavan’s sixtieth birthday celebrations, which took place in January 1939, there was a long debate between those devotees who wanted a big temple and those who thought that the ashram’s funds would be better invested in building more accommodation for visitors. The anti-temple group also wanted to acquire large tracts of land on which the ashram’s food could be grown. Bhagavan remained aloof from the debate and no one at that time really knew what his own views on the subject were.
Although Bhagavan delegated most day-to-day management decisions to Chinnaswami, the ashram manager, he exercised a strict control over all the ashram’s building projects. It was Bhagavan alone who decided when buildings should be constructed, where they should be built, on what scale they should be constructed, and even who should be put in charge of building them. He personally drew up the plans for many of the large buildings that now exist in the ashram, and he refused even to look at alternative plans and blueprints that had been drawn up by professional engineers and architects. It was clear, therefore, that no action could be taken until Bhagavan himself gave the word.