This article first appeared on my blog in 2008
Today’s topic is, ‘Why is it that some jnanis have the power to enlighten devotees, while others don’t? And how do those who have that power go about transmitting it to those who deserve it?’ It is a subject that has intermittently intrigued me over the years but I have not come to any definite conclusion since the people whose authority I respect – Ramana Maharshi and those direct disciples I have associated with and written about – have either not commented on these specific points, or they have come to differing conclusions.
I will start by giving two extracts from a dialogue that Annamalai Swami had with one of his visitors:
Question: Are there differences in the degree of realisation of the Self? For example, Ramana was widely acclaimed as a Sadguru. Is your understanding the same as Ramana’s?
Annamalai Swami: You see a big lamp before you. Your own lamp is unlit. So you bring your lamp to the lamp which is already burning. And when you go away from that lamp, you have your own lamp, your own light. Wherever you go, from that point on, the light is with you. The state of jnana is the same for all. Anyone who realises the Self is in the same state of peace, which is beyond the mind. Though the experience of the Self is the same in all cases, it is true that some jnanis end up helping a lot of people, whereas others, who are equally enlightened, may help fewer people. Some jnanis do not teach at all. They live ordinary lives and are rarely, if ever, recognised for what they really are. Water can be in a well or it can be in a lake. It is the same water, but one source can quench more thirsts than the other. A small lamp can light up a room, whereas a big one can light up a whole street. Bhagavan was one of those big, blazing lights that could light up a huge area. He guided and brought light to many people.
Question: Swamiji is saying that some jnanis are big lamps and that others are small. Do the small lamps become bigger, or do they always remain the same?
Annamalai Swami: Whichever light you go to, the light is always the same. This business of the lamps is just an example. What I am trying to say is, only a few people have the capacity to guide a large number of people towards the truth. Realising the truth is one thing, but guiding others towards it is something else. All jnanis are not equally capable when it comes to guiding others. (Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, pp. 44-5, 2006 ed.)
Question: I read somewhere that Bhagavan said that jnanis have the power to link the individual mind to the supreme Self.
Annamalai Swami: Yes. A big ship can carry many people to the other side of the ocean, and a small ship can carry only a few people.
Question: And some jnanis don’t carry anyone at all.
Annamalai Swami: These jnanis who don’t have disciples don’t appear to be helping anyone, but their power, the power of their realisation, is having a beneficial effect on all beings. It is true, though, that some jnanis pass away without teaching anyone directly. Lakshmi the cow and Bhagavan’s mother are examples of this. (Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, p. 48)
When I wrote my post ‘Who were you Ramana?’ some of the responses I received tried to make the case that some jnanis were superior to others simply because they attracted more disciples, lived saintly lives, enlightened some of their devotees, and so on. I took the position that Annamalai Swami confirms here: that all jnanis were equal in their jnana. However, it is true, as Annamalai Swami notes in these replies, that some have the power to enlighten, whereas others do not. This is not related to their state of abiding as the Self, since jnana is the same for all. Some other factor is involved.
In 1993 Papaji made the following remarks about J. Krishnamurti. The first paragraph is Papaji’s words. The subsequent two are my comments on them, taken from Nothing Ever Happened, volume two, p. 230:
‘I listened to Krishnamurti while I was in Switzerland. I liked him very much because I could find no fault in him. I am a hard person to satisfy but I will say that he was, no doubt, an enlightened man. But something was missing. The power to transmit that enlightenment to others was not there.’
Papaji’s assessment, though it seems to be harsh, was shared by Krishnamurti himself.
In a book commemorating his birth centenary Evelyne Blau, a long time associate of his, wrote: ‘For fifty years he had taught, spoken and travelled all over the world. Why was not a single person transformed? He [Krishnamurti] was certainly concerned with this problem.’ As Krishnamurti lay dying in California, a tape recorder was running to record his final words. Shortly before he died he said, ‘Where did I go wrong? No one got it?’ Apologies to those of you who are Krishnamurti fans, but I think his own words on this topic are hard to refute.
So far as I am aware Bhagavan never gave any explanation as to why some jnanis have the power to enlighten while others don’t. I called up Venkatasubramanian, my Tamil collaborator, while I was writing this piece to see if he could remember any such quotes, but he drew a blank as well. If there are any such references, I would love to see them posted in the ‘responses’ section. With no guidelines from Bhagavan on this subject, I will review the ideas of what three of his devotees (Annamalai Swami, Lakshmana Swamy and Papaji) had to say.
The first theory comes from Annamalai Swami:
Question: Does Swami understand Jesus Christ to be a jnani like so many other jnanis, or was he something more than that?
Annamalai Swami: If the ego is destroyed, only non-dual consciousness remains. There is no higher or lower in that state. You cannot say that one jnani is in a different state from another. You cannot say that Jesus Christ is better than Bhagavan, or vice versa. There is no higher state than that of the jnani, and there is no jnani who is superior to any other jnani. Although the inner state of all jnanis is the same, their outer activities differ because each of them has a different destiny to fulfill. Some will be teachers and some will not. If there is water in a glass it will quench the thirst of one man; if there is water in a big pot, it may quench the thirst of thirty or forty people; if there is water in a well, it can quench the thirst of all the people in a village or a town. Some spiritual aspirants have done tapas only for their own realisation. After realisation they may be able to help a few people. But some jnanis have done prolonged tapas not only for their own realisation, but also to help liberate others. The jnanis who have done this kind of tapas become world famous masters and have many followers. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 310)
Since jnanis never do anything for a reason or for any particular goal, and since they see no one as different from themselves, or unenlightened, I am assuming that Annamalai Swami is referring to tapas done prior to the moment of realisation. His idea seems to be that tapas done with a strong desire that its fruits should benefit others results in a jnani who has the power and capacity to help and enlighten others. I am also assuming that this tapas can be spread over more than one lifetime. If one wants to include Bhagavan in a theory of this sort, then one would have to say that his tapas was done in some other incarnation.
More than twenty years ago I was sitting with Lakshmana Swamy on the lower slopes of Arunachala. We were speaking about the same topic. This is a summary of what I remember him saying that day:
If one sits quietly after realisation, a great power is accumulated. The longer one sits quietly, the stronger the power. This is the power that the Gurus use to enlighten others. You cannot make a choice to sit quietly or not sit quietly. That is just part of your destiny. If it is your destiny to sit quietly for years after your realisation, then that power will be available to help others later on.
This is a somewhat different proposition from Annamalai Swami’s. There is no desire to help others; no tapas is done for the benefit of others. If there is a destined long period of quiet, Self-absorption, a reservoir of power will accumulate which can benefit devotees later on. Bhagavan spent most of his first decade at Arunachala intensely absorbed in an inner Self-abidance that made it difficult or even impossible for him to extrovert his attention and lead a normal life in the world. Was this the source, or one of the sources, of his great power? I have no idea, but I do know from Bhagavan’s own comments that the power of the Self in him was so strong, it made his body shake and tremble. We are all familiar with Bhagavan’s comments that having the power of the Self in the body is like having an elephant entering a weak hut:
Annamalai Swami: Sometimes Self-realisation makes the body very weak. Bhagavan’s body used to shake a lot. When he was asked about this, he would sometimes say, ‘If an elephant enters a weak hut, what will happen to the hut?’ The elephant was Self-realisation and the weak hut was his body. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 269)
Most of us have seen the film of Bhagavan with his head shaking as if he had a mild case of Parkinson’s disease. It wasn’t any kind of disease; it was simply the Self agitating the body. The slight oscillations of the head were there for most of the time, but whenever Bhagavan went into an inner Self-abidance in which he would be unaware of his body or the world, all the shaking would stop. The same thing would happen when he was transmitting power to a particular devotee, or just radiating it in general to people in his vicinity.
T. M. P. Mahadevan has recorded the following observation:
Even when I first saw the Master [in 1928], his head had begun to nod. The shaking head seemed to me to be saying ‘neti’, ‘neti’ (not this, not this). And, all of a sudden the nodding would stop, the vision of the Master would become fixed, and the spirit of silence would envelop everyone present. (Ramana Maharshi and his Philosophy of Existence, section three, Ramana experience)
Kunju Swami has also noted (sorry, can’t remember the exact reference) that Bhagavan’s use of a walking stick was not just for helping out his rheumatic knees: he apparently couldn’t balance very well when he was standing still. The walking stick gave him a tripod-like stability when he had to stop to speak to someone. This was probably another manifestation of the ‘elephant in the weak hut’.
If Bhagavan could mitigate the shaking of his body and lessen the effects of the ‘elephant’ by looking at devotees and transmitting power and grace to them, why didn’t he do it more often and give his body a rest? Lakshmana Swamy gives his answer to this rather selfish question in the following interesting remarks:
Lakshmana Swamy: Although the power and grace of the Self are infinite, the Guru must use his body to transmit this power. The body could not stand the strain of giving so much grace to many people in such a short time. The body would weaken and die within a very short period. Instead of weakening his body by wasting his power on all the immature devotees who come to see him, the Guru saves his power and his health by only transmitting large amounts of grace to the good devotees who deserve it. [But] if the devotee’s mind is ready, the grace will automatically start to flow. Ramana Maharshi used to give darshan to hundreds of people every day, but most of these people only received a brief glance or a smile. He was not transmitting power to most of these people. When he was once asked if he would tour India and give darshan to all the thousands of devotees who could not come to Tiruvannamalai, he replied, ‘I cannot give darshan to everyone’. I don’t know what he meant by this. He may have been saying that it was physically impossible for him to meet all the thousands of people who wanted to see him, but he may also have been implying that it would have been too much of a strain on his body to give so much power and grace in such a short time. (No Mind – I am the Self, pp. 74-5)
So, there is a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ element to this: if the ‘power to enlighten’ builds up in the body, it becomes the elephant charging around in the weak hut, causing health problems; if it is transmitted outwards in large amounts, it also causes problems within the body. In the Gurus I have met and talked to, there always seems to be more power available than outlets through which it can be usefully and safely directed, and that means it stays in the body.
Lakshmana Swamy told me once that having all this power made the body quite weak since it wasn’t designed to process these energies all the time. Just as thin wires cannot take a heavy electric current, it would seem that the nervous system of the body is ill-equipped to deal with major and continuous flows of sakti. There is a third option that I briefly alluded to when I mentioned that Bhagavan would cease shaking his head when he went into samadhi. This seemed to ‘ground’ the energy in some way and, as Krishnamurti Iyer reported, instead of having a deleterious effect on his body, it was actually good for Bhagavan’s health:
N. R. Krishnamurti Iyer: It is clear that Bhagavan, out of his infinite mercy and grace, cures even the fatal diseases of his devotees. Does not Bhagavan’s body suffer on that account?
Bhagavan: (speaking in English) Yes and no.
N. R. Krishnamurti Iyer: Please, Bhagavan, explain in more detail.
Bhagavan: The mukta purusha [liberated being] does not need his body once he has realised the Self. However, so long as he stays alive, he has the power to drain off devotees’ illnesses into his own body. That is why his body suffers for the time being. That is what is meant by the answer ‘yes’. If he retires into the solitude of a quiet corner and remains in kevala nirvikalpa samadhi, completely oblivious of the body-world complex, the disease received in the body gets dissipated. When he returns to his body consciousness the body is cured and restored to its original health. The duration of that samadhi should be in adequate proportion to the seriousness of the disease concerned. Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, who attained Self-realisation at a very young age with a very healthy and strong body, was engaged in ceaseless activity in the state of sahaja samadhi. Out of his infinite mercy he gave relief to hosts of suffering people who came to him with all sorts of serious diseases. He was continuously active, day and night, and never cared to recoup his health by retiring into the solitude of kevala nirvikalpa samadhi. As a result he gave up his body while he was in his early thirties. (The Power of the Presence, part one, pp. 172-3)
In The Power of the Presence I added the following three paragraphs of my own as a footnote to this story:
In the period that Bhagavan lived in Skandashram he went into a deep samadhi almost every day, usually during the daily evening chanting of Aksharamanamalai. He would be so deeply immersed in this state, the devotees would find it difficult to rouse him for the evening meal. In Enadu Ninaivugal Kunju Swami has related how devotees would shake him and blow a conch in his ear to bring him back to normal.
When Bhagavan moved down the hill to Sri Ramanasramam, the frequency of these samadhis decreased, and devotees who were in regular contact with him at the end of the 1920s have reported that such instances were down to about two a week. In the 1930s they occurred more rarely. In the last fifteen years of his life such samadhis are not reported, though there are frequent mentions of Bhagavan going into a state of deep absorption in the Self. At these times he would sit with open unblinking eyes, utterly immobile.
Up till the mid-1930s Bhagavan appeared to be in vigorous, robust health. In film footage taken in 1935, the earliest available, he looks his age (mid-fifties) and appears to be in a good physical state. In films taken at the end of his life his body looks crippled and feeble, and he appears to be a man who is well into his eighties, rather than a man approaching seventy. In the light of what Bhagavan told Krishnamurti Iyer in this conversation, it is tempting to relate Bhagavan’s good physical condition prior to 1935 to the samadhis that he regularly went into. However, it should also be remembered that visitors and devotees came to him in far fewer numbers during this period. It is possible that his accelerated aging between 1935 and 1950 was due to the far greater numbers of people he had to deal with every day.
One should also remember that this third course (going into samadhi) is not an ‘option’ for a jnani who wants to process energies of this kind. The jnani’s body has a prarabdha that may or may not include going into samadhi; it is not something the jnani himself can choose to do or avoid doing. I should now like to introduce Papaji to this survey of opinions on ‘the power to enlighten’.
At the beginning of this post I gave two quotations from Annamalai Swami and Lakshmana Swami that listed their differing views on how jnanis accumulated the power to become Gurus. Papaji did not subscribe to either of these viewpoints. He maintained that jnanis do not become Gurus with the power to enlighten by doing tapas that includes a desire to help others (Annamalai Swami) or by sitting quietly after realisation and accumulating a store of power that can be used to help devotees (Lakshmana Swamy). Papaji instead maintained that if the Self wants a jnani to become a Guru, it gives him the necessary power and authority to do the job. That power does not have to be earned by prior tapas.
I had a dialogue with Papaji on this subject in the early 1990s. I knew that Papaji felt that Gurus are given power and authority by the Self, so I played ‘devil’s advocate’ by suggesting to him more than once that Gurus had to learn how to enlighten people by trial and error. I took this position because I wanted to introduce several incidents from Bhagavan’s own life into the conversation since it might be possible to interpret them in such a light.