To the poet the Maharshi was an inspired poet; to the scholar, an endless ocean of knowledge; to the Yogi, a supreme adept established in Divine Union. Everyone who approached him with humility and faith, saw something of themselves reflected back, with greater insight and clarity. It is no wonder that those uneducated but spiritually mature women who served him by cooking in the kitchen saw him as a flawless cook who taught the highest wisdom in simple kitchen chores. Sampurnamma diligently served Bhagavan in the kitchen for many years and still lives in Sri Ramanasramam today. She can be seen in the Ashrama with cane in hand, walking slowly with short steps, bent, and wearing a well-used white sari which is draped over the top of her head. When you speak to her, a beautiful smile lights up her face. In reminiscences from an interview, Sampurnamma tells us her story.
Bhagavan was born in the village next to ours and my people knew him from his earliest childhood. When he became a great saint with an Ashrama at Tiruvannamalai, my relatives used to go there often, for they were quite devoted to him. I was busy with my household and was not interested in going with them. When my husband died, I was in despair and thought life not worth living. My people were urging me to go to Ramanasramam to get some spiritual guidance from Bhagavan, but I was not in the mood to go anywhere.
In 1932 my sister and her husband, Narayanan, were going to see Bhagavan and I agreed to go with them. We found Bhagavan in a palm leaf hut built over his mother’s samadhi (place of burial). Some devotees and visitors were with him and all were having their morning coffee. Dandapani Swami introduced me to Bhagavan, saying: “This is Dr. Narayanan’s wife’s sister.” As soon as I was introduced, Bhagavan gave a happy smile and said, “Varatoom, varatoom. (She is welcome, she is welcome.)” When I was able to sit for long hours in Bhagavan’s presence my mind would just stop thinking and I would not notice the time passing. I was not taught to meditate and surely did not know how to stop the mind from thinking. It would happen quite by itself, by his grace. I would sit, immersed in a strange state in which the mind would not have a single thought and yet which would be completely clear. Those were days of deep and calm happiness. My devotion to Bhagavan took firm roots and never left me.
I stayed for twenty days. When I was leaving, Bhagavan got a copy of Who am I? and gave it to me with his own hands. When I returned to my village I was restless. I had all kinds of dreams. I would dream that a pious lady would come to take me to the Ashrama, or that Bhagavan was enquiring after me and calling me. I longed to go again to Ramanasramam. My uncle was leaving for Arunachala and I eagerly accepted his offer to take me with him. On my arrival I was asked to help in the kitchen because the lady in charge of cooking had to leave for her home. I gladly agreed, for it gave me a chance to stay at the Ashrama and to be near Bhagavan.
Bhagavan as Cook, how he ate
In the beginning I was not good at cooking. The way they cooked in the Ashrama was different from ours. But Bhagavan was always by my side and gave me detailed instructions. His firm principle was that health depended on food and could be set right and kept well by a proper diet. He also believed that fine grinding and careful cooking would make any food easily digestible. So we used to spend hours on grinding and stewing. He would sit in the middle of the kitchen, watching and offering suggestions. He paid very close attention to proper cooking. I would give him food to taste while it was cooking, to be sure that the seasoning was just right. He was always willing to leave the Old Hall to give advice in the kitchen. Amidst pots and pans he was relaxed and free. He would teach us numberless ways of cooking grains, pulses and vegetables, the staples of our South Indian diet. He would tell us stories from his childhood, or about his mother, her ways and how she cooked. He would tell me: “Your cooking reminds me of Mother’s cooking. No wonder, our villages were so near.” I think Bhagavan must have learned cooking from his mother, for if I made some dish very well, while testing it he would exclaim, “Ha, you have made this dish just like Mother used to make it.” And whenever my going home was mentioned he would say: “Oh, our best lady cook wants to go away.”
In the kitchen he was the Master Cook, aiming at perfection in taste and appearance. One would think that he liked good food and enjoyed a hearty meal. Not at all. At dinner time he would mix up the little food he would allow to be put on his leaf – the sweet, the sour and the savory, everything together- and gulp it down carelessly as if he had no taste in his mouth. When we would tell him that it was not right to mix such nicely made up dishes, he would say: “Enough of multiplicity. Let us have some unity.”
When I think of it now, I can see clearly that he used the work in the kitchen as a background for spiritual training. He taught us to listen to every word of his and to carry it out faithfully. He taught us that work is love for others, that we never can work for ourselves. By his very presence he taught us that we are always in the presence of God and that all work is His. He used cooking to teach us religion and philosophy.
He would allow nothing to go to waste. Even a grain of rice or a mustard seed lying on the ground would be picked up, dusted carefully, taken to the kitchen and put in its proper tin. I asked him why he gave himself so much trouble for a grain of rice. He said: “Yes, this is my way. Everything is in my care and I let nothing go to waste. In these matters I am quite strict. Were I married, no woman could get on with me. She would run away.” On some other day he said: “This is the property of my Father Arunachala. I have to preserve it and pass it on to His children.” He would use for food things we would not even dream of as edible; wild plants, bitter roots and pungent leaves were turned under his guidance into delicious dishes.
Once a feast was being prepared for his birthday. Devotees sent food in large quantities: some sent rice, some sugar, some fruits. Someone sent a huge load of brinjals and we ate brinjals day after day. The stalks alone made a big heap which was lying in a corner. Bhagavan asked us to cook them as a curry! I was stunned, for even cattle would refuse to eat such useless stalks. Bhagavan insisted that the stalks were edible, and we put them in a pot to boil along with dry peas. After six hours of boiling they were as hard as ever. We were at a loss what to do, yet we did not dare to disturb Bhagavan. But he always knew when he was needed in the kitchen and he would leave the Hall even in the middle of a discussion. A casual visitor would think that his mind was all on cooking. In reality his grace was on the cooks. As usual he did not fail us, but appeared in the kitchen. “How is the curry getting on?” he asked.
“Is it a curry we are cooking? We are boiling steel nails!” I exclaimed, laughing.
He stirred the stalks with the ladle and went away without saying anything. Soon after, we found them quite tender. The dish was simply delicious and everybody was asking for a second helping. Bhagavan challenged the diners to guess what vegetable they were eating. Everybody praised the curry and the cook, except Bhagavan. He swallowed the little he was served in one mouthful like a medicine and refused a second helping. I was very disappointed, for I had taken so much trouble to cook his stalks and he would not even taste them properly. The next day he was telling somebody: “Sampurnamma was distressed that I did not eat her wonderful curry. Can she not see that everyone who eats is myself? And what does it matter who eats the food? It is the cooking that matters, not the cook or the eater. A thing done well, with love and devotion, is its own reward. What happens to it later matters little, for it is out of our hands.”
It was clear that Bhagavan did not want me to treat him differently from others and would set me right by refusing to touch the very thing I was so proud of and eager to serve.