The following very interesting dialogue ensued:
David: Based on what I have read about Sri Ramana Maharshi, and based on what little I know about your own teaching career, it seems to me that one learns to be a Guru by trial and error. That is to say, enlightenment may be there, the power to wake others up may be there, but the effective use of this power requires some practice and experience. Do you agree?
Papaji: No, I don’t. A Guru does not need to practise. Gurus are born with the ability to teach. Take … Krishna, for example. He was sent to school at the age of six to be taught by his Guru, but his Guru soon discovered that Krishna already knew all the things that he wanted to teach him. In this case the creator of the universe arranged for all the necessary knowledge to be implanted into Krishna’s brain. It is said that the goddesses of knowledge, prosperity and physical energy gave him everything he needed. He didn’t need to learn how to be a teacher, or practise his teachings skills. All the necessary knowledge and skill were there within in him, right from the beginning. If you are destined to be a Guru, the Self automatically bestows on you all the necessary knowledge and power. It doesn’t send you to school to learn these things; it gives them to you directly…. So I don’t agree that one has to learn or practise anything in order to be a Guru. Practice is for other professions. If you want to be a political leader, for example, you attach yourself to some political leader and learn all the tricks of the trade from him. But this kind of apprenticeship is not necessary for Gurus.
David: I thought that you would say something like this. Since you feel that Gurus don’t need to practise their art, I want to tell you a few incidents from Sri Ramana Maharshi’s life that seem to indicate the contrary. Perhaps you could comment on them. Shortly after his enlightenment, when he was still sixteen years old, Sri Ramana was sitting quietly at home with his eyes closed. A school friend asked him what he was doing, and he replied, ‘Meditating’. The friend asked, ‘Can you show me how to do it?’ and Sri Ramana replied, ‘Yes. Sit down, close your eyes and I will show you.’ When the boy had closed his eyes, Sri Ramana put the blunt end of a pencil on his friend’s forehead, between the eyes, and pressed lightly for a few seconds. The boy was suddenly engulfed by a wave of fear and panic. He jumped up and shouted, ‘You’re trying to kill me! I felt that I was dying! Don’t ever do that to me again!’ Sri Ramana had tried to give him an experience of the Self, but because of the boy’s immaturity, he only induced fear and panic instead.
At sixteen years of age Sri Ramana clearly had an instinctive knowledge of how to wake people up, but lacking experience in its use, he didn’t know how much power he could safely transmit. This is one possible interpretation. What’s yours?
Papaji: You say that this is a case of immaturity. I agree, but the immaturity was in the boy who wanted the experience, not in the Maharshi. The Maharshi had the power to enlighten others at this young age, thus proving that the power is innate and not learned, but he couldn’t use it effectively because this boy had too many doubts and fears in his mind. The Maharshi never had any doubts or fears when the Self gave him that direct experience when he was the same age as this boy. The Self revealed itself to him, and he had absolute trust in that revelation. He didn’t doubt it, fear it, or try to escape from it. He surrendered to it and fully accepted it. That showed his spiritual maturity. His school friend, though, showed his unreadiness and his immaturity by panicking and running away from the same experience. Though the Maharshi showed that he had the power to enlighten even at the age of sixteen, he had not yet assumed the role of Sadguru. That came later when he moved to Arunachala. Arunachala, his own Sadguru, then empowered him and gave him the grace to be a Sadguru in his own right.
David: The next incident I want to tell you is a very well-known one. It took place nineteen years later, in 1915. Sri Ramana’s attendant, Palaniswami, was dying and Bhagavan was trying to give him enlightenment before he died, or at the moment of his death. He put one hand on his head and the other on Palaniswami’s heart-centre and kept them there until he thought that the individual self had been extinguished. Then, thinking that Palaniswami had realised the Self, he took away his hands. A few seconds later the ‘I’-thought reappeared, left the body through the eyes and, according to Sri Ramana, took rebirth in one of the deva realms. In this case too there seems to have been a misjudgment of the amount of power that was transmitted. However, Bhagavan learned from the experience. When he tried the same technique on his mother while she was dying six years later, he kept his hands in place for a much longer period. Afterwards he remarked, ‘I thought that she was liberated but, remembering what had happened in Palaniswami’s case, I kept my hands there for a few minutes longer’. Doesn’t this story, and Bhagavan’s own comments on it, indicate that Bhagavan learned how to use this technique effectively by trial and error? Didn’t his inexperience with Palaniswami cause him to make a mistake with Palaniswami, and didn’t his failure in this particular case give him the experience to enlighten his mother a few years later?
Papaji: I don’t think that there was a misjudgment or a mistake in this case either. It was not the fault of the Maharshi that Palaniswami failed to realise the Self in his dying moments. I would say instead that the jivatma [individual self] of Palaniswami would not admit any interference from the Maharshi because it was not yet ready for enlightenment. For freedom one needs the grace of the Paramatman [Supreme Self]. And if the jivatman is not worthy, the Paramatman will not bestow that grace. Palaniswami had, by faithfully serving a Sadguru, earned enough merit to go to some heavenly world, but he had not earned the ultimate liberating grace of the Paramatman. That is why the Maharshi could not succeed with him. On a superficial level it might look as if a mistake was made, but the Paramatman never makes mistakes. If the worthiness is there, freedom automatically comes. If it is not there, no amount of interference by the Guru can bring it about…. The Maharshi was one of those rare beings who, by grace, could transmit complete liberation to others. His mother and the cow Lakshmi received this ultimate gift of grace, as did others both known and unknown. (Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, pp. 351-356)
The next aspect of this intriguing subject that I want to discuss is: ‘How does the Guru choose whom to direct his power at, and does not the act of choosing suitable targets imply some kind of sankalpa in the Guru?’
First, I will give three explanations from Lakshmana Swamy:
Lakshmana Swamy: Why did Ramakrishna love Vivekananda more than any of his other devotees? If the jnani sees only the Self everywhere, how can he appear to treat one devotee differently from another? The same thing happened at Ramanasramam when Ramana Maharshi was alive. In the late 1940s many people noticed that Sri Ramana appeared to give G. V. Subbaramayya more love and grace than anyone else. How can this be so? It is true that the jnani sees the Self in all devotees, but when he looks into a devotee’s eyes he also sees the devotee’s mind. If the jnani sees that there is great devotion or a pure mind free from thoughts, then the love and grace will start to flow towards that particular devotee. Not all devotees have reached the same stage of development, and so the love and grace are not equally distributed. Because of this the jnani may ignore some people and shower his grace on others. The same grace is available for all, but it cannot be given until the devotee starts to surrender his mind to the Self. Very advanced devotees who have reached the effortless thought-free state do not even have to go to the jnani. The jnani will come and sit at their feet and give them enough grace to realise the Self. Such is the power of self-surrender. (No Mind – I am the Self, pp. 77-8)
Lakshmana Swamy: The Self or the Guru is an infinite ocean of grace. Ramana Maharshi has said that if you approach this ocean with a cup, you can only take away a cupful; if you come with a bucket, you can only take away a bucketful. The amount of grace which one receives is proportional to the degree to which one surrenders. If you surrender completely, then you will receive enough grace to realise the Self. When the Guru looks into a devotee’s eyes, he is looking into the devotee’s mind to see how far it is humbling and surrendering itself to the Self. If the Guru sees that the devotee’s mind is quiet and humble, then the grace will automatically flow. (No Mind – I am the Self, p. 74)
Question: Does the grace of the Guru flow automatically or does the Guru exercise some control over who receives it and who does not?
Lakshmana Swamy: Grace is always flowing from the form of the Guru. If your mind is quiet you will automatically receive it. But if a Guru sees that a particular devotee is full of devotion or free from thoughts, he may respond to the devotee’s state of mind by increasing the flow of grace towards him. So you can say that grace is always flowing, but that sometimes the flow is increased because the Guru is deliberately projecting it. (No Mind – I am the Self, p. 61)
These explanations, and other similar ones, indicate that the ‘picking and choosing’ are not arbitrary, nor do they indicate that the Guru has a personal preference for one devotee over another. The flows of grace – seemingly directed in one direction but not another – are actually natural and automatic responses to the states of mind of the people who have entered the Guru’s presence, either mentally or physically. Annamalai Swami, speaking about his own experiences of being in Bhagavan’s presence, came to similar conclusions:
Annamalai Swami: If you enter a dark place with a lamp, light falls on everyone who is near you. You don’t have to tell people, ‘I have a light,’ because they will all be aware of its presence. In the presence of a jnani like Bhagavan the spiritual darkness of devotees is put to flight by the radiant light of jnana. In Bhagavan’s case this light cleaned and calmed the minds of those who were near him. When mature devotees basked in this light, they sometimes had an experience of the Self. The radiation of this spiritual power was Bhagavan’s mauna diksha [initiation through silence]. He radiated this power quite effortlessly. It was not done by an act of volition; it was a natural consequence of his realisation. Bhagavan didn’t need to speak about the Self. He was the Self, and he radiated its power all the time. Those who were receptive to this power needed no verbal explanations from Bhagavan. The spoken teachings were only for those who were not able to tune into his silent radiation. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 335)
I spoke to Papaji about these occasions when the Guru seems deliberately to choose to give a devotee a transmission of grace. Though he often appeared to do this himself, he dismissed the suggestion that there was any partiality or personal preference involved:
David: I want to ask you a few questions about sankalpa [will, intention, volition]. Ramana Maharshi often said that the Guru, like the sun, has no sankalpa. That he shines equally on all. That those who are ready for realisation get it, and those who are not do not. According to this explanation, the Guru does not pick and choose the recipients of his grace, he simply radiates it indiscriminately, and those who are mature enough benefit from it. This is a very simple and satisfying explanation, but it only seems to be half the truth … When [T. K. Sundaresa Iyer] wrote … ‘Grace is flowing over the sentient and the insentient,’ Bhagavan made him change it to ‘Grace is directed…’. You have also said that on many occasions in the past you deliberately tried to give certain people a direct experience of the Self. If the Guru really has no sankalpa, what is the explanation for the occasions when the Guru appears to pick ands choose the recipients of his grace?
Papaji: The Guru never picks out one person to be the recipient of his grace, nor does he reject anyone. When one is ready, one is automatically attracted to the light of the indwelling Atman. The light does not choose: when one is attracted to it, one automatically moves towards it. It is like the moth and the flame. The moth is attracted to the flame by its nature, not by any sankalpa that it has. There is no sankalpa in either the moth or the flame. It is the nature of the flame to burn, and it is the nature of the moth to fly towards the light. Each is behaving according to its inherent nature. The candle stays still and burns brightly. It does not call the moth, but the moth flies towards it. The moth offers its form to the light, burns, and becomes the candle itself. (Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, p. 330)
When I did the editing and page-making for Nothing Ever Happened, I included a facsimile of an entry that Papaji made in his journal in 1983. It seems to summarise his position on this topic very elegantly.
In fact I do nothing to anyone. Every soul receives what it deserves. Since I am the source of consciousness, I allow its desires to be fulfilled. (Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, p. 336)
It is the experience of just about everyone who has sat with a great Guru that experiences happen, and that they seem very clearly to be instigated and executed by the Guru himself. How then can the Guru say, as Papaji says here: ‘In fact I do nothing to anyone. Every soul receives what it deserves’? The solution to this apparent paradox – that the Guru says he does nothing yet clearly is giving experiences to the people around him – lies in what Bhagavan called the ‘sannidhi’ or ‘presence’. The Guru himself does nothing, but by abiding steadfastly in the Self, an energy or a presence is created that takes care of the needs and desires of the devotees who approach him. This was well explained by Bhagavan in a reply he gave to Narayana Iyer:
One day when I was sitting by the side of Sri Bhagavan, I felt so miserable that I put the following question to him: ‘Is the sankalpa [wish] of the jnani not capable of warding off the destinies of the devotees?’ Bhagavan smiled and said: ‘Does the jnani have a sankalpa at all? The jivanmukta can have no sankalpas whatsoever. It is just impossible.’ I continued: ‘Then, what is the fate of all of us who pray to you to have grace on us and save us? Will we not be benefited or saved by sitting in front of you or coming to you? What use is there then for family men like me to gain by coming here to you?’ Bhagavan turned graciously to me and said: ‘Just as a trouble (or arrow) that comes to destroy the head goes away carrying with it only the turban, so a person’s bad karma will be considerably reduced while he is in the presence of a jnani. A jnani has no sankalpa but his sannidhi [presence] is the most powerful force. He need not have sankalpa but his presiding presence, the most powerful force, can do wonders, save souls, give peace of mind, even liberation to ripe souls. Your prayers are not answered by him but absorbed by his presence. His presence saves you, wards off the karma and gives you the boons as the case may be, involuntarily. The jnani does save the devotees, but not by sankalpa, which is non-existent in him, only through his presiding presence, sannidhi.’ (The Mountain Path, 1968 p. 236)
This reply has not, so far as I am aware, been repeated anywhere else in the Ramana literature. It is undoubtedly a key passage on the nature of the Guru and the way that he functions and helps devotees. I once read out this statement by Bhagavan to Papaji and then asked him about the process by which desires are fulfilled in the Guru’s presence:
David: What about the statement that it is the sannidhi, the presence, that grants liberation, and not the Guru himself? When the Guru appears to wake someone up through a word or a look of grace, who or what is doing the work?
Papaji: … Whenever you go near a saint, whatever desire you have in your mind will be fulfilled. If your desire is for liberation, and if you have that desire in the sannidhi, the presence of the Guru, it has to be fulfilled. But it will only work if you are in the presence of a man who is himself completely desireless. There is nothing that cannot be fulfilled if you are in the presence of a man who himself has no desire. When I was at Ramanasramam in the 1940s I used to spend hours looking at the Maharshi’s eyes. They would be open and staring, but not focused on anything. Though his eyes were open, they were not seeing anything. Those eyes were completely free of thoughts and desires. The mind is revealed very clearly in the eyes, but in those eyes there was nothing at all to see. In all the hours that I concentrated on those eyes I didn’t once even see a flicker of a thought or a desire. I have not seen utterly desireless eyes like his on any other face. I have seen many great saints during my life, but no one has impressed me as much as the Maharshi did. If you want freedom, find a man like this who has absolutely no desire, someone who sits unmoving like a mountain. Sit in his presence and see what happens. You want to know who or what is doing the work when someone gets enlightened in the Guru’s presence. Nobody is doing the work. Enlightenment happens in these circumstances merely because the Guru is abiding in a state of absolute desirelessness. (Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, pp. 337-8)
Papaji had his own rather amusing variation on this ‘sannidhi takes care of everything’ story. This is how he once explained it to me:
I have a very efficient secretary. I call her ‘Miss Peace’. When people come to satsang, she inspects their minds as they sit there. She finds out what they want or need, and arranges for them to get it. Though she can help anyone with their desires, she is actually looking for pure minds to give herself to. If she finds worthy people, those people experience peace and even become peace itself. She doesn’t bother to tell me what she is doing. She doesn’t need to. She just gets on with her work. Like a lot of employees, she tries to impress her boss by working hard when I am around. But when I am not there, she tends to slack off a bit. That’s why I have to turn up and sit in Satsang Bhavan [the place where Papaji gave satsang every morning] because if I didn’t come, she wouldn’t do so much. My physical presence is needed there to make her work properly. It doesn’t really matter what I do while I am there because she is actually doing all the work. I can answer questions, give people advice, tell them to do enquiry, or ask them to sing a song. It’s not important what I do. The important thing is that while I sit there, seemingly occupying myself with devotees’ affairs, Miss Peace is actually taking care of all their needs and desires.
This seeming activity that appeared on the substratum of actionless immobility was summed up in an elegantly phrased entry in Papaji’s 15th February 1983 journal:
He whose work has ceased with the dawn of knowledge does not find an opportunity to do or say anything, even though in ordinary people’s eyes he is doing work.
I have not so far quoted much material from Bhagavan himself since he didn’t have a lot to say about the way that the Guru used power to help devotees and bring out their liberation. However, there is one key story in which Bhagavan does explain how the Guru uses his power, and what the limits of that power are. It is T. K. Sundaresa Iyer’s captivating narrative, entitled ‘A Walk to the Lake’, which appears in his memoir At the Feet of Bhagavan. Here is the story in full:
The Samudram Lake at the foot of Arunachala Hill near Sri Ramanasramam is very extensive; neither summer rains nor winter monsoons in Tiruvannamalai fill this lake save once in a way, when it overflows. Thus it overflowed once long years ago. The sight of it was very grand, and the outflow was as wide as a river. The tank really seemed that day like the ocean of its name (Samudram). Bhagavan told us that it held this name because a certain local ruler had this tank constructed as a miniature sea to give his queen an idea of what a sea would look like; for she had never seen the sea and wished to do so. People thronged to look at the overflowing lake, and then came to Bhagavan to talk about it.
One morning the devotees in the hall expressed to Bhagavan a desire to visit the lake, and he was kind enough, human enough, to accept the suggestion; so we all went for a stroll to see it. The tank bund is about a mile long; we walked about a mile from the ashram to the tank, and then the whole length of the bund. The presence of Bhagavan with us, and his words, were more interesting to us than the brimming tank and the grand view of the wide waters at the foot of holy Arunachala. Bhagavan talked of many things on that walk with us, but at this distance of time I remember only two topics that interested me. At one place he pointed out a palmyra tree which had decayed in the embrace of a parasitic banyan tree. Some bird had dropped a banyan seed into the palmyra, and as it began to grow the palmyra became cloven and stunted in its own growth. Drawing our attention to this phenomenon, Bhagavan remarked that this is just what the look of grace from a jnani does. One look into a soul, and the whole tree of past tendencies and prejudices (vasanas), gathered up through long cycles of past births, is burned up and decays away. Then the reality of the Self is experienced. Thus he explained to us the effect of contact with the great and he said the supreme jnana obtained with the touch of the saint can never be won through the study of any number of scriptures, or by any store of good deeds, or by any other spiritual practices and efforts.
Later, after returning to the ashram, I put this in verse form as below: ‘A bird drops seed upon a tree and causes its decay. So Guru’s grace rays knowledge into the seeking mind. Replacing ego-shadows with resplendent jnana’s light.’
The point of this verse, brought out fully in the Tamil, is that made by Bhagavan himself. The seed of the huge banyan tree, which grows to shelter hundreds, is one of the tiniest and represents unselfish benevolence. The seed of the palmyra which is so large, grows into a tree which can hardly shelter a single man from the sun, and so well represents the selfish ego. Yet this tiny seed can be dropped by a bird in its droppings, and while it grows it can demolish the palmyra tree itself. So the tiny seed of grace can destroy the great tree of egoism. Then when we actually came to the overflowing outlet at the end of the lake, we all marvelled at its width. We stayed there for some time, and then returned. On the return walk we happened to pass the sluice at the centre of the bund.
Pointing to this, Bhagavan remarked: ‘Look at this small outlet, as compared with the big one at the end! But for this small hole, through which the stream of water trickles, the vast contents of the lake would not be helpful to vegetation. If the bund breaks it will be a regular deluge, and the entire crop will be destroyed. Only if the water be served under proper regulation through this sluice are the plants helped to grow. So too is it with the divine consciousness. Unless the bliss of this consciousness is gifted through the grace of the Guru in controlled outlets, the soul cannot be helped to the destruction of its tendencies of the past; for in this way the Self, abiding as such in its oneness with the divine, is established in the Guru’s state of being. Holding on to its being-consciousness, the work of destroying the past (vasanas) proceeds as and when thoughts arise to push the mind into action. This work becomes possible only in the proximity of the Guru. Hence the Guru is himself like the sluice and irrigates souls with grace from his ocean of kindness, needed so that the Self may abide and the old tendencies be withered away. But if the bund is broken, the full force of the whole lake rushes through and sweeps everything before it. This resembles a practitioner (sadhaka) receiving the full force of divine consciousness without the intervening and mitigating grace of Guru’s sluice; he dies without the benefit of having the tendencies destroyed.’
This idea too I later put down in the form of a Tamil verse to this effect: Water flowing through a channel carries off great heaps of sand; so mountain masses of the ego are washed away by grace.