In the early editions of Self-Realization, B. V. Narasimhaswami’s English biography of Bhagavan, there was group photo entitled ‘Ladies Group – 1930’. It is a rather murky picture but it contains a large unkempt woman who is identified as Sundarammal. There are two Sundarammals in the Ramana literature, both of whom have remarkable stories.
This is what B. V. Narasimhaswami wrote about the Sundarammal in this photo. His account no longer appears in modern editions of the book, but it was reprinted in the second volume of Arunachala’s Ramana, Boundless Ocean of Grace, p. 274:
Sundarammal was the wife of a well-to-do official at Madras. She had some hysterical attacks long ago and visited Ramanasramam. The fits ceased but she continued childless. She repeated her visits to the Asramam to get over her sorrows and troubles. In 1928, she resolved to alter her mode of life, and to become a sanyansini. She questioned Maharshi if there was any bar to her assumption of sanyasa and to her wearing the kashaya cloth, which is its badge. Acting on his answer, she put on a kashaya cloth and took the vow of silence. She went up the Hill one evening and all alone stayed on the verandah of the Virupakshi Cave. She was dissuaded from being so wild in her choice of her residence. She then removed to the Satguru Swami Cave. She gave up all her former comforts … . Instead, her daily food became a couple of plantain fruits and a cup of milk. She refused to attend to her hair which consequently grew matted and hung loose, and she spent her time in meditation – during the day at the Asramam in Maharshi’s presence and at night in her cave or room. For over three years she led a rigorous life of penance and is later spent her time in pilgrimages at sacred places like Tirukkazhukkunram, Pazhani, Kuttalam, etc. Later she shaved [her head] and took food given to her by all persons, regardless of caste.
Kunju Swami’s account is far more extensive. This is the version that appeared in The Power of the Presence, part two. I am currently working on a new edition that will have added photos. I came across her photo while I was looking for pictures of the people I was writing about.
She was tall and majestic, the daughter of a lawyer from Tiruvellore, which is near Madras. Sadhus often came to her house, and even as a child she welcomed them. Once, a wandering monk, inspired by her devotion, taught her how to meditate between the eyebrows. She practised with great enthusiasm and could sit for a long time, lost in total contemplation. When she grew up, her family married her to a man in Madras, but whenever she went to her husband’s house, she would start to develop a severe headache that would not respond to any treatment. When she went back to her father’s house, the headaches would stop. They would only recur when she tried to re-enter the front door of her husband’s house. Her husband was a very understanding man. He sympathised with her plight and allowed her to stay permanently in her father’s house. It was clearly not her destiny to live a normal married life. Soon afterwards she entered a new phase of her spiritual growth when she found that the headaches occurred whenever she was not absorbed in meditation. Initially, it was only married life that gave her a headache. Now, everything in the world that was not connected with meditation brought on the same physical pain. The pain of normal consciousness and the desire for a contemplative life drove her to the point where she meditated all day.
After a few years she heard of Sri Bhagavan, came to see him, and found immediate peace and relief in his presence. Initially she stayed with Echammal, but later on she lived alone on the hill as a sadhu. As her hair became long and matted, she acquired the name ‘Jatini Sundarammal’. [‘Jatini’ means ‘a woman with matted locks’.]
Though she lived some distance from the ashram, she came every day to have Sri Bhagavan’s darshan. On one occasion she fasted for twenty-one days and ended it by offering a bhiksha to Sri Bhagavan and the devotees. Afterwards, at her request, all of us, including Sri Bhagavan, went on a giri pradakshina with her. On the way round, Sundarammal described in detail the spiritual practices she was following, the problems she faced, and sought Sri Bhagavan’s guidance for furthering her sadhana. By way of an answer, Sri Bhagavan asked me to tell her the story of Queen Chudala. This is a story that appears in Yoga Vasishta. I told it in great detail and with great enthusiasm. Many people were shy in the presence of Sri Bhagavan. They would stammer and stutter when they had to talk to him. I was never like that. I never felt uneasy if I had to speak in front of him. Like a child that displays its ability with enthusiasm and confidence when it is in front of its beloved mother, I always used to be happy and confidant while reading stotras or talking about spiritual matters in front of Sri Bhagavan.
This is how I told the story:
King Sikhidvaja and Queen Chudala ruled the kingdom of Malava. Chudala regularly practised meditation in the silent hours of the night. In due course she realised the Self, as a result of which her face shone brightly and she became much more beautiful than before. The king noticed this and asked the reason. The queen replied that it was due to her Self-realisation. The king laughed at her, thinking that realisation was possible only through severe austerities and could never be gained while living in a palace. He himself had religious inclinations and wanted to leave the kingdom to practise tapas in the forest so that he could gain Self-realisation. The queen tried to dissuade him and suggested that he could carry on the tapas in the palace itself and rule the kingdom as well. Refusing to act on her advice, he went to the forest and performed hard penance. The queen ruled the kingdom in the king’s absence.
‘The queen took pity on her husband. Being anxious to rescue him from the mire of delusion, she practised siddhis and took the guise of a rishi called Kumbha Muni. She then materialised before him a few feet off the ground. The king, thinking that some celestial being had descended from the heavens to bless him, fell at his feet, told him his woes and sought guidance.
The muni gave the king the following advice: ‘Karmas [activities] can give fruit as ordained by the Lord, but karmas themselves cannot grant you liberation. By doing disinterested actions, one’s mind can become pure. Then, with the pure mind, one should contemplate the Self. This will destroy the vasanas. Next, one should approach a Master and through his grace learn how to enquire into the nature of the Self. Liberation is possible only through enquiry and not by performing any amount of karma. By renouncing everything, one can realise the truth.’
The king said that he had renounced everything already, including his kingdom and family. Kumbha Muni told him that his renunciation was only external and that the seeds of attachment were still latent in him. The king then took his walking staff, his water pot, his rudraksha beads, his clothes, threw them all in the fire and stood naked without any possessions. On being told that he had still not renounced completely, the king was ready to drop his last possession, his body, by jumping from the top of a mountain.
The muni asked him, “What harm has the body done to deserve this punishment?”
By giving this answer the muni taught him that he could not realise the truth by destroying the body, but only by destroying the mind that was the source of all attachments. The mind identifies itself as ‘I’ and this is the bondage. The snapping of this identification is the renunciation of everything. Having got this far with his instructions, the muni then described in detail the sadhana of discrimination.
After hearing all these words the king’s doubts were dispelled and his mind became pure. The king took the advice to heart, enquired into the source of self, soon became one with it and remained in a blissful samadhi.
Kumbha Muni disappeared and returned sometime later, but the king was still in samadhi. Chudala roared like a lion to wake him up, but could not bring him out of his samadhi state. So, taking a more subtle form, she entered the king’s heart and found it pure and devoid of any latent tendencies. In a melodious voice she began to chant the Sama Veda. Like the blossoming of a lotus, the king suddenly became aware of the world. Filled with joy, he remained silent, finding no words to express his gratitude. Then, as advised by the queen, he returned with her to the kingdom. Fully established in truth, he ruled the kingdom with the queen for many years.
Sri Bhagavan was pleased with my narration. At its conclusion he said, appreciatively, ‘Not bad! He narrates in such a way that it can be understood very well.’
As for Jatini Sunderammal, she had listened to my story with rapt attention. It had a profound effect on her and she left Arunachala soon afterwards. I had no doubt that the story and Sri Bhagavan’s grace fully established her in the Self. What else could happen since Sri Bhagavan chose such a powerful story to be told to her?
The next part of the story comes from Reminiscences of Kunju Swami, a new translation of Kunju Swami’s Enadu Ninaivugal, published by Sri Ramanasramam:
Sundarambal [this is the spelling that Kunju Swami uses in his account] left for her place but came again after some months, staying with Echammal and coming daily for darshan of Bhagavan as before … . She maintained silence and would talk to Bhagavan alone very softly, only when talking was necessary. Bathing in cold water every day and not tending to her hair made her tresses matted. We began referring to her as ‘Jatini Sundarambal’, the prefix meaning ‘She of the matted tresses’.
In those days female visitors were allowed to stay in the ashram from six in the morning to six in the evening. After that, brahmin women would go to Echammal’s house to spend the night, while others would stay with Mudaliar Patti. In those days the ashram was separated from Tiruvannamalai town by a mile or so. Except for those undertaking giri pradakshina or going to nearby villages, very few people passed the ashram. There were no buildings of any sort at the ashram and women were not permitted to stay at the ashram during the night. By 6 p.m. women, after finishing their night meal, boarded the hired bullock cart that was permanently stationed at the ashram and returned to town. They would come the next morning by the same cart.
Sundarambal too first followed this routine but, not wanting to burden Echammal, soon rented a room at the shrine of Guhai Namasivaya. [This is a temple on the lower slopes of Arunachala where Bhagavan briefly stayed around 1902.] After cooking her food, she came for darshan of Bhagavan and went for giri pradakshina daily. Her husband would send her money every month through a postal order. His money order form would carry the words ‘Eesa! Jagadeesa! Kapaleesa!’ [names of Lord Siva that Sundarambal would regularly call out.] There would be no other message. I used to admire his culture and refinement. After spending some years at the ashram in this way, Sundarambal started on a pilgrimage to North India. She returned from it and left again, this time undertaking a pilgrimage in southern Tamil Nadu. After that she did not come back to Tiruvannamalai. I once ran into her in the town of Palani. There was no news of her after that.