Swami Abhishiktananda, a French Catholic monk who visited Bhagavan in 1949 and who stayed on the lower slopes of Arunachala in the early 1950s, wrtote about a Sundarammal. When I first read his accout, I though he might be describing the woman whom Kunju Swami wrote about, but I later realised that this was not possible since the lady he met was still living on the mountain in the late 1940s. This is how he narrated her story in The Secret of Arunachala, pp. 95-100:
It was while I was in the same cave of Arutpal Tirtham [on the eastern slopes of Arunachala] that I also got to know Sundarammal. She had been living for a month in a small house next to that of Lakshmi Devi, the one vowed to silence, but I had made no attempt to speak with her, nor she with me. We simply exchanged our namaskaram when we passed each other on the path.
However, one day she invited me to receive bhiksha at her house. It was two or three weeks after my first meeting with her, and was the Telugu New Year. As she belonged to Andhra, she felt bound to offer bhiksha on this day to the ‘saints’ on the mountain. Besides, her forty-eight days of retreat were coming to an end, and this meal on the New Year would be both a thanksgiving and a farewell.
Thus it happened that, after the other guests had left, she told me her story… However, her Tamil was extremely difficult to follow, being terribly mixed with Telugu, and I was very much afraid that I had misunderstood her. Later on, I went to see her in her house at the foot of the mountain, this time in the company of a young Tamilian. Very gladly she repeated the story for the edification of this young man, and immediately afterwards I made notes of what she had said. It is the latter account that is given here, only slightly abbreviated.
She belonged to a wealthy Madras family, Vaishnavite in faith. According to the custom of her caste, she married young, but very soon lost her husband. As a widow she continued to live at home where her parents and her brothers lavished their affection on her. She had no formal education and only after many years learned to read her mother tongue, so that she could at least benefit by reading religious books and devotional hymns. At home there was nothing for her to do, as everything was looked after by the servants. Of course, she never went outside, except at very rare intervals in the company of her father.
It happened that one day her father took her to a neighbouring temple to hear a sermon. This was in 1932, when her age would have been about thirty. The speaker was a devotee of Ramana Maharshi. He described the sage’s ‘conversion’, his flight to Tiruvannamalai, his hiding in the mountain, his holy life, the gathering of disciples and pilgrims round him. Sundarammal was deeply impressed. She begged her father to allow her to go to Tiruvannamalai along with some other people who wanted to have the darshan of the Maharshi. Her father refused, but promised that when the time came [he would take her] to Sri Ramana’s ashram.
However, he did not keep his promise. Sundarammal passed the time in thinking of Ramana, singing to him, praying to him. Several times she renewed her attempt to move her father, but always in vain. There was always some urgent work that compelled him to postpone the journey. Sundarammal soon lost her appetite and was unable to sleep.
Two years later, one afternoon about four o’clock, she seemed to see Ramana coming down from his mountain and approaching her.
‘Have no fear, Sundarammal,’ he said. ‘It is I. Enough of this weeping and fasting and lying awake at night. Come. I am expecting you.’
Her heart was filled with profound joy. Once again she appealed to her father to take her to see Ramana, and once again he put off the journey to another day.
Sometime later, on the night of the first of January, she was in her room alone, weeping and as usual calling on the Maharshi with all her soul. At last, completely exhausted, she fell asleep.
Suddenly, she felt a blow on her side and awoke with a start. It was about three o’clock in the morning. There was the Maharshi standing beside her pillow.
‘Now is the time. Come,’ was all he said.
She followed him downstairs, crossed the hall and came out on the veranda. Hardly had she reached it when, to her alarm, she found herself alone. The Maharshi had disappeared. She sat down uneasily.
After a few minutes a rickshaw arrived and stopped in front of the house.
‘Is this number twelve?’ asked the rickshaw puller. ‘Sundarammal? Get up.’
Sundarammal looked at him uncomprehendingly.
‘An old sadhu came and woke me up when I was asleep in my rickshaw. He told me to come and look for you and to take you to the bus.’
As Sundarammal still did not dare to entrust herself to him, he went on, ‘Do you imagine that I came all this way in the middle of the night just for fun – not mention the cold?’
‘Good, it must be Bhagavan,’ thought Sundarammal in her simplicity. ‘He must have gone ahead to wait for me at the bus stand. Let us go!’
But when they got there neither Sundarammal nor the rickshaw puller could see a sign of Ramana. What was to be done?
It was, however, no time for hesitation. Things had gone so far that she could not turn back. She asked for the bus to Tiruvannamalai, but at that hour there was no direct bus. Instead, she could take one to Gingee or Tindivanam, where she could catch another bus to take her to Tiruvannamalai. Of course she had no money with her, but she did have her golden earrings, and with them she would be able to manage for the time being. On the way her bus passed another, which was coming in the opposite direction. Someone got down from it, climbed onto her bus, and asked if a certain Sundarambal was among the passengers.
‘Yes, I am here,’ she said.
‘Oh, splendid! Bhagavan has sent me to find you.’
At the next stop, where they had to change, both got down. Her companion sold the gold earrings for her, which brought several hundred rupees. She went to the temple, offered a puja with a thankful heart, and then, when the time came, took the bus for Tiruvannamalai.
It was almost night when they arrived, too late to go to the ashram; and besides, her guide had told her that no woman was allowed to enter or remain in the ashram after sunset. She therefore let herself be taken to one of the many shelters for pilgrims that are found in all the holy cities of India. There was indeed a special one for pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh, where she was received with great kindness by the woman on duty. The lady saw that she took food, and then gave her all the information she could desire about Sri Ramana’s mode of life, and his total indifference to all questions of caste.
The next morning Sundarammal was up very early. She obtained from the bazaar the ingredients she required and then prepared with her own hands the cake that she meant to offer in homage to Bhagavan on her arrival. When it was ready, she set off for the ashram. She arrived about nine o’clock, went straight to the hall, laid her cake at the feet of Bhagavan, and prostrated.
‘Ah, so you have come at least!’ Ramana said to her at once. Then he took a mouthful of her cake and distributed the rest to those who were present.
At eleven o’clock a bell sounded to show that it was time for the meal, but Sundarammal paid no attention. Everyone went out, Ramana the last of all.
‘Come on now,’ he said to her, ‘we are all going to eat.’
But she threw herself at his feet, embraced them fervently, and said, ‘Bhagavan, I came here for you, not for food!’
Ramana laid a fatherly hand on her head, and she, absolutely beside herself, looked into his eyes and sang the famous Sanskrit verse ‘Tvam eva mata…’
‘You are my mother, my father, my brother,
‘You are my whole family, my whole wealth.
‘You are my all, absolutely all, my Lord.’
Some days later her brothers arrived. They had searched in vain through all the houses known to them in Madras, and as a last resort tried Tiruvannamalai, asking themselves even so how this child who till then had never been outside her own home, could possibly have managed to come so far by herself.
She was deeply absorbed in looking at Bhagavan that she had not the slightest idea that her brothers were there, either during the darshan, or even at midday in the dining room. Only in the afternoon when, like the other devotees, she joined Ramana in walking along the mountain path, did she at last notice them.
They told her how everyone at home was broken-hearted.
‘Father and mother are refusing even to eat. They spend all their time weeping, and asking themselves what can have happened to you. Take pity on them and come home with us. Later, we will all come back here together.’
‘They are only the father and mother of this body,’ replied Sundarammal. ‘Here I have discovered the father of my spirit. I shall never leave.’
Her brothers lost their temper and threatened to remove her by force.
‘If you do that, I shall throw myself into a well, or hang myself.’
The brothers had to admit defeat. In the end they helped her to find a small house close to the ashram, brought her things from Madras, set her up as well as they could and then left, after supplying her with a little money.
A month later her father came in his turn and agreed to leave her in the care of Ramana.
During the last fifteen years of Maharshi’s life, she never once left Tiruvannamalai.
Such was the story that Sundarammal told me that morning – Sundarammal, who could never speak of God without her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.