Shankarlal Banker, a close associate of Gandhiji, was imprisoned with him for printing the latter’s controversial articles in 1922 in Young India, of which he was the printer. A recent publication records:
In 1934, Shankarlal met a high-ranking serving officer of the German Air Force and a member, besides, of the German aristocracy. In the course of their conversation the officer wondered whether he had heard of Ramana Maharshi, who, he said, was a rare personality, and suggested that he could visit him.
In 1935, during his visit to Madras, Shankarlal chanced to meet the editor of Sunday Times, M. S. Kamath, a great devotee of Sri Ramana, who agreed to take him to the Maharshi. Shankarlal joined other guests and visitors in the hall where the Maharshi was present. He had plenty of things on his mind. But in the hall, all anxieties seemed to vanish and, as recorded by him, “I had the feeling that I was that ‘pure Brahman’ and the words ‘Sivoham, Sivoham’ [I am the Supreme Being] raced through my mind. I was astonished at this phenomenon.” He wondered whence came those thoughts, considering that he was not a very spiritually-inclined person. To his surprise, he experienced a feeling of “extraordinary self-confidence” and felt convinced that the experience was real.
As he took leave of the Maharshi he experienced a great deal of peace and encouragement. Later that month, he narrated his experience to Gandhiji, who not only expressed his joy but also suggested to him that on the next occasion he should stay longer at the Ashram.
In the summer of 1936, Shankarlal once again found himself in the presence of the Maharshi. This time he made bold to ask the Maharshi: “What books should I read for spiritual progress?” The reply startled Shankarlal. “Books? Why books?” the Maharshi queried and repeated the words, “Why books?” Then the Maharshi added, “Make your heart pure and you are bound to see the light!” That was to make a lasting impression on his mind and he kept thinking over it during his entire day’s stay at the Ashram. On the train that was to take him to Madras, he later recorded, “Around 4 a.m. I suddenly woke up and saw the picture of the Maharshi floating before my eyes! I opened my eyes fully, rubbed them, and wonder of wonders, I felt as if he was standing before me^ I had a continuous feeling of exultation and joy as if there was no need to think or have any anxiety about anything in the world!”
He again reported this experience to Gandhiji who recommended that he visit Tiruvannamalai more often. Gandhiji also told him, “After listening to you, I have suggested to Rajendra Babu and Jamana Lal Ji also to go there.” [They can be seen in a group photo (no. 17) in the book, along with the Maharshi.]
Shankarlal was Backin Tiruvannamalai in 1937. This time he took with him pictures of famine-stricken people in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. He was seated in the hall along with others as Sri Ramana was talking of Self-realization and the bliss of the soul. This distressed Shankarlal who had seen starving people in Tirupur. How, could, he wondered aloud to his friend Dr. Syed [No. 23], who was sitting next to him, one reconcile misery with the bliss of the soul? And he showed him the photographs of starving people, he had brought with him.
Dr Syed did the unexpected. He went over to the Maharshi and placing the pictures in his lap said, “This gentleman here says, when there is so much misery in the world, how can we think of the bliss of the soul?” Instead of being fazed by the question, the Maharshi replied gently that while all effort should be made to help those in distress, one should not take individual credit for the act. The Lord alone was the saviour of the people. The Maharshi added that he has seen people who had not eaten for two or three days and they seemed to glow with some inner joy. Where did that joy come from? Only the Almighty could give it to them! When Shankarlal retrieved the snapshots and looked at them again, he was to observe what he had not noticed before! Those poor starving people engaged in breaking stones seemed to have smiles on their faces! For Shankarlal it was a revelation.
Shankarlal met the Maharshi the next day quite unexpectedly. This time he wondered how marvellous it would be if the Maharshi and Gandhiji met. To which the Maharshi replied with a soft smile, “Distance does not exist!” When Shankarlal next visited Wardha, he repeated this conversation to Gandhiji who said, “Haven’t you understood? Distance does not exist the way we think. I have written on the subject only three days ago!” Gandhiji called for that article and read out to him what he had written.
In 1939, when Shankarlal’s health deteriorated, he was advised to devote himself to a life of manan and chintan – meditation and contemplation, and withdraw his mind from all mundane activities, which he found difficult to practise. Here again, Sankarlal got direction from the Maharshi when he watched him engaged in cleaning and chopping vegetables in the kitchen. He noticed that the Maharshi was going about his work with remarkable expertise. He even heard the Maharshi telling a devotee how to slice a pumpkin skillfully! It was, thought Shankarlal, a lesson for him, too. Do ajob, do it well, and do it with complete detachment!
He could not resist waking up the next day at 4 a.m. and go to the kitchen. This time he heard Sri Ramana asking someone in Tamil, “Is Banker there?” When he was told that Banker was present and sitting outside, the Maharshi came out with a ladle full of cooked lentils and looking quizzically at Shankarlal, invited him to taste it. “It is a bit hot. But I cooked it myself,” said the Maharshi by way of explanation. Shankarlal tasted it and exclaimed, “Why, it is very tasty!” At that the Maharshi broke into laughter and went Backto the kitchen. Shankarlal got the answer to the problem that was bothering him, about engaging himself in some activity even while involved in spiritual pursuits. Wasn’t the Maharshi telling him by example that to be working actively was as important as searching for spiritual bliss?