I was driving with my family from Bengaluru to Puducherry when we stopped for lunch at a place called Thiruvannamalai. There were a lot of foreigners in the restaurants and it served continental dishes apart from Idly, Vada and Dosa. After breakfast we just walked to the other side of the road to visit the Ramana Maharishi Ashram. There was a Ramana Maharishi Centre in Sadashivanagar in Bengaluru but I did not know much about him. At the ashram I read the life story of Ramana inscribed on the pillars and the walls. And something about him instantly connected with me. But at that point of time it is just one aspect of his life that made the deepest impression on me and in a way changed the way I lived my life. Let me quote from his bio on the website ‘arunachala.org’ :
“It was about the middle of the year 1896; Venkataraman was seventeen then. One day he was sitting up alone on the first floor of his uncle’s house. He was in his usual health — there was nothing wrong with him. But a sudden and unmistakable fear of death took hold — he felt he was going to die. Why this feeling should have come to him he did not know. The feeling of impending death, however, did not unnerve him. He calmly thought about what he should do. He said to himself, “Now, death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies”. Immediately thereafter he lay down, stretching his limbs out and holding them stiff as though rigor mortis had set in. He held his breath and kept his lips tightly closed, so that to all outward appearance his body resembled a corpse. Now, what would happen? This was what he thought: “Well, this body is now dead. It will be carried to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death, of this body am I dead? Is the body I? This body is silent and inert. But I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am the Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit”. As Bhagavan Sri Ramana narrated this experience later on for the benefit of his devotees it seemed as though this was a process of reasoning. But he took care to explain that this was not so. The realization came to him in a flash. He perceived the truth directly. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing. Fear of death vanished once and for all.’
From then on, I would often go around with my life imagining I was dead. After all that would be the situation one day. I would be dead and the world would go on. The experience was very liberating.
I stopped at the Ashram on my way back from Puducherry. I felt the vibes again. Back home in Bengaluru I tried to read up stuff on Ramana. All the books are mostly recollections of followers who spent time with the Maharishi and recollected his sayings and their experience. Ramana wasn’t a conventional guru. He didn’t preach. He didn’t even speak much. He went about his life, occasionally answering queries. One constant refrain from him was : Know thyself. If someone asked questions related to existence of God, he replied, “Before that, do you know who you are?”
‘Nearly all mankind is more or less unhappy
because nearly all do not know the true Self.
Real happiness abides in Self-knowledge alone.
All else is fleeting.
To know one’s Self
is to be blissful always’
“”God dwells in you, as you, and you don’t have to ‘do’ anything to be God-realized or Self-realized, it is already your true and natural state.” Just drop all seeking, turn your attention inward, and sacrifice your mind to the One Self radiating in the Heart of your very being. For this to be your own presently lived experience, Self-Inquiry is the one direct and immediate way.”
Ramana Maharishi is one sage I would have liked to spend some time with. I am not a religious person. My worldview and inner word is largely created by books, films, theater, paintings, music…the arts in general. But I have no great desire to meet my favourite writers, painters, actors, directors or musicians. Because I know, their best is in their work. The people I would have liked to be with are people who went beyond that and were really wise. Apart from Ramana Maharishi, the others I would have liked to learn from by being with them and spending some time with them are Gandhi, Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Kabir. Since there is no way I can do it, like Ekalavya, I have tried to learn whatever I could from across the distance of many years.
The earliest influence on me from among these was Gandhi. I was in school when I read, ‘My Experiment with Truth’. Someone in public life could write about his life this way? With total honesty? I was blown. The message of truth and non-violence stayed with me. I realized, if you are truthful it saves you so much bother. And eschewing violence improves your quality of life. Your freedom to act multiplies manifold if you have nothing to hide. Unlike so many gurus and religious leaders of today, Ramana or Ramakrishna lived in full public view, wearing minimal clothes. I admired Gandhi’s courage. Imagine meeting the Prime Minister of England on whose empire the sun never set, wearing just a dhoti and chadar! Over the years I read many more works by Gandhi, saw films and plays on him and my admiration only increased. I was amazed at the way he lived his life, practicing what he preached, working tirelessly, walking all across India, travelling third-class, writing, meeting people, leading people – he was the best example of a karmyogi for me. He never differentiated between morality in his political life and personal life. It was so elementary. How can they be different! But only he said it, and lived by it. I admired his big, generous heart which was full of love for all regardless of caste, religion, gender, race, nationality, position in society, or political views, and hate for none. I never saw a picture of him that was grumpy or glum. I have never heard of him losing his temper or using harsh words with anyone. And God only knows how many trying situations he went through and how many different sorts of people he interacted with! His understanding of social and economic issues was so spot on, that it remains relevant today, even in a global context. Kabir, Gandhi, Ramakrishna, Ramana….they belonged to entire humanity…not just Indians or Hindus.
I came to Ramakrishna Paramahansa through his parables; first in Odia, then in English; and only recently I bought the Kathamrita in original Bengali. I liked the way he talked…with a mischievous sense of humour, more earthy than intellectual, talking of real life experiences than in a theoretical framework. Kabir, Gandhi, Ramakrishna, Ramana…they all had a sense of humour, all of them talked in the concrete than the abstract. I became drawn to Ramkrshna by one simple episode. ‘Have you seen god’, someone asked. ‘ Yes, as vividly as I see you’, he replied. That settled it for me. No beating about the bush. No counter question like, “Have you seen a molecule?” So if one had to learn about God one had to do it from a man like him rather than anyone else. And with him, when he says. “Yes, I see Kali as vividly as I see you’, you get a sense that he means it. It was Kali for Ramakrishna and Arunachal for Ramana. They didn’t feel the need to look beyond or travel anywhere beyond the Dakshineshwar temple or the Arunachal Hill. A few years ago I read a book called ‘Ecstasy’ which is a kind of fictionalized parallel take on the life of Ramakrishan and his relationship with Vivekananda. To quote a review of the book, “Jumping ahead several decades, we meet Vivek, a worldly, well-educated student wrestler who visits Ram Das Baba on a whim and is shocked by the warmth and intensity of his welcome. After making it clear that Vivek, too, shows signs of a spiritual calling—including a keen disinterest in women—the narrative returns to Gopal’s youth and recalls his captivating ascent to sainthood. Central to this transformation are talking bronze idols, tantalizing visions of the sex act, possession by female goddesses and six-week meditation fasts.” But the wonderful thing is whatever may have been the truth of Ramakrishna’s physical roots of his visions and his rites of initiation, they don’t take anything away from the insights from his direct experience that he provides. And once again he went against the traditional Hindu pieties, breaking all taboos, learning from all religions, but ultimately trusting his own direct experience. As Ramachandra Gandhi in his book ‘The Seven Sages’ writes, “And through his catholic realization, oh, he becomes a Muslim and he starts eating beef. He throws away the pictures of gods and goddesses. And he [an orthodox Brahmin] cleans the latrines of scavengers. And he becomes a Christian, he goes into a church and he’s in a trance looking at the picture of Jesus and, of course, he has these visions of men with beards, and so on.There is quaintness to those visions; I don’t see why god shouldn’t appear in quaint and humorous ways to true lovers of god. I don’t see why he should appear in classical perfection of form. So I think that’s no disqualification . . . I think Ramakrishna entered the heart of all religions. Again and again, he entered samadhi, bliss. Again and again, [he took] from Sufism, from Christianity, from orthodox Islam, from orthodox Hinduism.”
In a way that I cannot explain, he is also a bit Dostoevskian for me, with his simplicity and other-worldliness.
A sample of his parables: Samadhi means end of Karma
Ramakrishna: Someone once asked name, ‘ Will you teach me Samadhi?’ ( Laughter from people around.)
“Samadhi means end of all karma. Puja, japa, worldly duties…everything ceases. Initially there is a lot of excitement around karma. The closer you come to God the hullaballoo around karma dies down. Even the praise of his name and attributes ceases. ( To Shibnath) As long as you had not come to the gathering we were all talking about you , your good qualities and your acts. Now that you have arrived, all that has stopped. Now we are happy just to see you. Your darshan is what we are enjoying. Now people are only saying, “ Shibnath-babu has arrived.” All other talk about you is heard no more.
I came into Kabir late when I attended a programme organized by Shabnam Virmani of the Kabir Project with some fabulous performances by such wonderful artistes as Prahlad Tipnya and Farid Ayaz. Again it was a moment of epiphany. Kabir’s is an oral tradition and it is good that my first serious engagement with him was through the performance form. Of course I bought a bundle of CDs and DVDs after the programme. I listened, and I saw. I listened again to my CDs and cassettes of Kumar Gandharv singing Kabir. Then I started reading Kabir… dohas, beejaks and everything else. One of the most interesting was Tagore’s English translation of more than 100 poems of Kabir. Let me quote a couple :
NIRGUN ÂGE SARGUN NÂCAI
BEFORE the Unconditioned, the Conditioned dances:
“Thou and I are one!” this trumpet proclaims.
The Guru comes, and bows down before the disciple:
This is the greatest of wonders.
VÂLAM, ÂWO HAMÂRE GEH RE
MY body and my mind are grieved for the want of Thee;
O my Beloved! come to my house.
When people say I am Thy bride, I am ashamed;
for I have not touched Thy heart with my heart.
Then what is this love of mine?
I have no taste for food, I have no sleep;
my heart is ever restless within doors and without.
As water is to the thirsty, so is the lover to the bride.
Who is there that will carry my news to my Beloved?
Kabîr is restless: he is dying for sight of Him.
I read a wonderful biographical novel on Kabir’s life. It was not written in a realistic style, but as a bit of fantasy, with a thread from his loom telling the story. What I liked about Kabir is how he lived a normal life with his wife and daughter and how he dared to take on both the pundits and mullahs, denouncing their fake religiosity. More than book knowledge or rituals he stressed on the importance of feeling the love for the supreme reality in your heart. I think his entire message is captured in the two lines of this doha:
Pothi pad pad jag muaa pandit bhayo na koe,
Dhaai akshar prem ke jo padhe so pandit hoye.
His dohas amaze me with their depth of wisdom. But there is one aspect of his life that has influenced in a very direct and concrete way. In my mental picture of his life I observed how he worked on his loom every day, weaving cloth. He did it as best as he could, without sloth, also without any great ambition. He did not want praise for his weaving, he did not want to become very rich with his weaving. He had a reasonable degree of skill in it, and he liked weaving, and he did it every day. That’s how I felt about my writing. I loved to write… didn’t matter if it wasn’t anything out of the world. Didn’t matter if it was published. Didn’t matter if it was advertising copy, a jingle, a film review, a book review, translation of a poem, or just a Facebook post. I liked to write honestly, clearly and as well as I could. It made life so simple and uncluttered. Kabir also helped me connect with the sufi poets – Bulle Shah, Amir Khusru – and the Bauls and fakirs – Lalan – and musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahman, Farid Ayaz, Paban Das Baul and others. I heard Shabnam Virmani again a year back when she sang at the opening day of the Annual Day at our university. Very recently, our university organized the launch of Linda Hess’s new book ‘Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in Northern India.’ I had read her earlier book , ‘Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir’, with CD of Kabir songs selected by Kumar Gandharva. She read excerpts from the new book and there was a performance by Kalauram Bamaniya and Mandali. It is such a pleasure dwelling in Kabir’s world. It is wonderful. The heart is filled with bliss.
Quite oddly there have been a couple of atheists and their books which have helped me realize my own existence as a part of the larger , infinitely larger, cosmos. The first is Stephen Hawkings and his “ A Brief History of Time”. His breathtaking description of the first few millionth of a second after the Big Bang and the subsequent expansion and the eventual formation of our planet makes the process very real and wonder-inspiring. Richard Dawkins’ ‘ The Selfish Gene’ does that for life on earth , taking us on a journey of how we humans evolved from tiniest of microbes, helping me firma kinship with all living beings. (The fact that we got our dog Chlsea around the same time as I was reading the book made this empathy with all living things very concrete.) These two books together helped me to fix a scale of my own existence against the vast space and eternity, but also enabling me to exult as a tiny drop of water dancing along the waves of a vast, limitless ocean. But this is only possible through love. Tagore made me realize this explicitly in one of his essays, I think in the book’ Vishwadarshan’. He says we can never match nature or God in power, but when it comes to love, we can. ( Incidentally, the poems of Tagore that have left the deepest impression on me are in a collection called ‘Shishu’. It was my first exposure to Tagore, and I read it while in school, in an English translation called ‘Crescent Moon’, and I was moved to tears of joy as I was sucked into the wondrous world of children filled with innocent delight. Since then, children have been a great source of experiencing love for me.)
Well, it is okay to talk intellectually about feeling a oneness with the cosmic infinity, but how does it one really feel that in one’s bones? A small spark of that realization was lit by my exposure to the Polish theatre scientist Jerzi Grotowski. Deepak Majumdar who had attended a workshop in Poland with the master was n Bengaluru for a few months and conducted a workshop of two weeks at Penukonda. I was a part of it. Among many other exercises and experiences, there was one called ‘ Source’ where one got close to nature, not just by watching, but by touching, rolling and getting really intimate with nature. It was a brief experience but it did teach me to open up my pores to soak in nature and feel one with it. And it made answering the question, ‘ What after death’ easy: You were always a part of the infinite cosmos and you will always be a part of the infinite cosmos. The ebb and flow will go on as ever. Talking of Jerzy Grotowski, I recently came across the revelation that he had visited Ramana Maharishi’s ashram and had spent some time with him. I knew he had stayed in Kerala to study Kathakali, driven by his interest in Epic Theatre, but his interest in Ramana Maharishi was an interesting revelation. I also learnt that on Grtowski’s death, his ashes were scattered on the Arunachala Hill. (You can read about this at: http://arunachalamystic.blogspot.in/2014/10/jerzy-grotowskis-journey-to-arunachala.html )
So Kabir, Ramkarishna, Gandhi, Ramana, Tagore….from them I learnt and am still learning, the message of focusing on self, focusing on the ultimate reality and the big picture instead of trivialities, and the need to love deeply, widely and unselfishly.
And let me not forget to add my constant source of joy The Beatles, whom I discovered around the same time as Gandhi, in the final years of school; and they sang, “All you need is love, love is all you need.”
- A Real Scarefest
- Kapoor & Sons