Suri Nagamma (1902-80) is known for her 273 letters in Telugu, written during 1945-50, at the behest of her elder brother, who was an executive in a commercial bank and a devotee of Sri Ramana. These letters faithfully record discussions the devotees and visitors had with the Maharshi and happenings at the Ashram. In addition to Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, her two other books are: My Life at Sri Ramanasramam and Letters from and Recollections of Sri Ramanasramam. Nagamma in a way acted as Sri Ramana’s secretary in regard to copying from scriptures, writings etc., where Telugu language was involved.
My father passed away when I was four years old, and my mother, when I was ten. When hardly eleven years, I was married. Only a year later my husband passed away. As years rolled by, I began to understand the ways of the world. Religious discourses, devotional songs and similar matters began to attract me.
Being born in a village not having even an elementary school, I looked after my education by learning to read and write with the help of elders. I read Pothana’s Bhagavatam over and over again. One day I prayed with all sincerity that I should have a siddha pursha like Kapila Mahamuni1 for a guru. I wept and wept and getting tired, fell asleep. During the sleep, I had the darshan of a sage seated in a padmasana pose on a pedestal three feet high facing south with a mouna mudra like Lord Dakshinamurthi.2 There was a holy aura around him. When I saw that brilliant figure a thrill went down my spine. I tried to get up to offer my salutations to him and so involuntarily opened my eyes. The vision disappeared. That was in 1913. Since then I have had that vision imprinted in my mind. Whenever I was reminded of that vision, I used to pray to God that I should have the privilege of serving such a sage in my lifetime.
In 1941, my elder brother went on a pilgrimage to the South. He happened to go to Tiruvannamalai also and have Bhagavan’s darshan. Luckily for me, it occurred to him that I too would be greatly benefited by going there. As the daughter of one of our uncles was at the Ashram after her husband’s death, my brother agreed to send me there.
I entered the hall full of nervousness, bowed before Bhagavan and sat with bent head in the place reserved for ladies. After about ten minutes I lifted my head and found Bhagavan looking at me intensely. His compassionate look calmed my mind, but as I could not withstand its intensity, I involuntarily bent my head again. Though for the next ten days Bhagavan had not spoken to me, I was deeply impressed by him. I found in him a resemblance to the siddha purusha who had once came into my dream, and also saw in him all the attributes of a jivanmukta as described in the Vasistham and other vedantic books.
He seemed unattached to anything like water on a lotus leaf, sparkling in the sun. As I observed Bhagavan from day to day, I felt convinced that he was the person who could dispel my ignorance and that I should surrender myself into his care. However, I could not summon enough courage to say so.
One day, I took courage and wrote eight verses on saranagati and, being afraid to handover them to Bhagavan personally, gave them to his attendant Madhavaswami. The Master read the verses and said to Madhavaswami, “Look, her name is Nagamma. These are verses on saranagati, paste them in the book.”3 I felt very happy. I intuitively felt that I have found my haven and decided to stay on at the Ashram permanently.
After I received the grace of Bhagavan, like Ahalya getting rid of her past ignorance by the touch of the dust of the holy feet of Sri Rama, the darkness got dispelled from my mind. Bhagavan’s grace began to flow towards me steadily like water flowing through a parched field, making it blossom. I started my sadhana by enquiring into the origin of all thoughts. Bhagavan gave me peace of mind and contentment.
It is natural for any devotee to sing praise of the guru after receiving his grace. The tendency to write poems, which had been dormant in me, began to come out. In 1943, I composed songs describing Bhagavan’s life, which were sung before him. While going on the hill one afternoon, it seems Bhagavan said to his attendant Rangaswami, “Look, people write saying that I am this avatar and that. Do you know what Nagamma has written? He is the omnipresent, omnipotent Self, and is born to show us the path for realisation of the Self. Where is Vijayawada and where is Arunachala? She has come from there and is staying here all alone. What can we say about it? The nature of the people reveals itself according to their samskaras. Her samskaras are like that.”
A few days later, I wrote four verses under the title ‘Prarthana’ and placed them before Bhagavan. Seeing them he began to laugh to himself. Noticing this, Bhagavan’s another attendant Rajagopala Iyer asked what had been written. With a smile he said, “These four verses are written as a prayer. The second verse is amusing. It seems, after I left the hill and settled down here, I have no monkeys to serve me. So, ‘why not accept my mind which is a monkey for service? This monkey is after material things. Tie it down or chastise it; but see that it does service to you.’ Adi Sankara in Sivananda Lahari has written a sloka approximating to the idea, wherein he says: “O, Lord Sankara! You are a bhikshu. Why not tie down my mind, known as monkey, to your stick and go about begging? You will then get alms in abundance.”
In 1943, I got a letter from my brother in Vijayawada asking me to visit him. While Bhagavan was returning from the goshala, I approached him saying that my relatives want me to visit them and I am afraid of falling again in the vortex of their family affairs. Smilingly Bhagavan said, “When everyone is falling into us, where is the question of our falling into others?” And walked away. I did not at that time understand the significance of what Bhagavan had said till I reached Madras on my way to Vijayawada. When I reached Madras, I found a message for me asking me to wait till the arrival of my brother so that I may accompany them to the Ashram, which they wanted to visit. I was greatly surprised.
Between 1943 and 1945, I wrote several verses such as Nakshatramala, Arpana, Balakrishna Geetavali and Ramana Satakam. I also commenced writing letters to my elder brother, as was desired by him, about the happenings at the Ashram.
A lady from Andhra at the Ashram could sing melodiously. She began singing devotional songs composed by reputable Andhra pandits substituting the word Rama with Ramana. As the songs were pregnant with meaning and she was an accomplished singer, everyone felt happy. When asked, she said she herself had written the songs.
Some devotees asked her to write down the songs for translation into English. She showed the songs to Bhagavan and requested him to get them translated. Bhagavan merely handed them over to Munagala Venkataramiah [author of the famous book Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi], who happened to be there at the time. Venkataramiah asked me to explain the meanings of some difficult Telugu words. I agreed to do so, and also told him that some elders wrote these songs about Rama long ago. He straight went to Bhagavan, who smilingly said , “Oh! Is that so? When I noticed the language and the great ideas behind them I thought that ancient scholars must have composed them. What does it matter? When people come here they feel like writing or singing something. Poets write on their own; others copy the writings of someone else and substitute Ramana for Rama. The words Rama and Ramana are one and the same. So what do you say? Will you carry on with the translation?” Asked Bhagavan. All kept quiet.
Servers in the kitchen usually devoted special attention to Bhagavan. One night, milk pudding was prepared and a little more than usual was served to Bhagavan. He burst out instantly: Again the same nonsense. When it comes to serving Bhagavan, the ladle is immersed fully, while it is immersed only half for others. How often have I told you not to do so? When the ladle is in his hand, the server thinks he is powerful as the District Collector and can do anything without fear. And Bhagavan went on talking in that strain rebuking all concerned.4
One day in 1945-46, I went to the Ashram late in the afternoon. Devotees were munching some ripe coconuts which had fallen on the ground. As soon as Bhagavan saw me he said, “There she is, Nagamma has come. Give her also a portion.” “Ayyo! It is all exhausted,” exclaimed those nearby. Then Bhagavan called me near him and gave me all he had in his hand. On my protest he said, “I have already eaten. Your share only is leftover.” I accepted it as a mahaprasadam and ate it with relish. To me it appeared like nectar. My joy was indescribable.
Once a devotee asked Bhagavan the significance of fasting. With a benevolent look, he said, “If all activities of indriyas are given up, the mind becomes single pointed. When such a mind gets concentrated upon God, it is real upavasam. ‘Upa’ means near and ‘vasam’ means living. Where is he going to live? He will live in his Self. Desires are the food of mind. Giving them up is the upavasam. One who can ‘fast’ the mind, need not fast the body. For those who cannot fast the mind, fasting the body has been suggested so as to purify the mind.“
A lady devotee from Andhra staying at the Ashram, began to conceive Bhagavan as Lord Krishna and herself as a gopika. She even wrote to Bhagavan accordingly and started publicising about it. Bhagavan remained untouched by such trivialities but I could not keep quiet after seeing atrocious writings of her, which Bhagavan handed over to me. I rebuked the lady. She flared up and began writing all sorts of nasty things about me. On seeing them, Bhagavan said laughingly, “Here are the papers from her. All about you only.” One day with tears in my eyes I told Bhagavan, “I cannot read such letters. Please do not give me her letters,” and he stopped doing so. Some days later the lady went berserk and her husband had to be called to take her away.
Sometime in November 1949, I received a letter from her enquiring about Bhagavan’s health as she had received reports about his declining health. She had also apologised for what she had done to me earlier, and requested for an early reply. I informed Bhagavan about the letter. He simply said, “Is it so?” and kept quiet for about three days.
During those days the usual graciousness in his look was absent whenever I prostrated before him; instead he used to turn his face away from me. It then occurred to me that the cause was my ill will towards that lady, and not replying to her. I therefore immediately wrote Backto her and came to Bhagavan. When I got up after the usual prostration he looked at me graciously. When I told him that I was coming after posting the letter, he told his attendants who were there, “Look, Nagamma has sent a reply to that Telugu lady who had written to her that she had abused her sometime Backbut now she realised her mistake and wanted to be excused and know about Bhagavan’s health.” He thereafter turned to me with a benign and benevolent look.
Narrating this incident I told someone that renunciation could never be real if anger and resentment remained in the mind. Though the lady had behaved senselessly, Bhagavan always had compassion for her. He also made me understand in his inimitable way that I should not harbour any ill will towards her.
When the summer set in, Bhagavan started staying all the time in the Jubilee Hall.5 At midday, when it was hot, the attendants shifted Bhagavan’s sofa to the north where there was a bower with crotons on either side and water was sprinkled on khas-khas tatties 6 that were tied around.
One afternoon I happened to go there. Bhagavan was seated with a cloth over his body and the head. There was no one except his attendant Krishnaswami. He was standing behind Bhagavan with a sprinkler in his hand, which appeared to be full of rose water. He opened the screw cap to sprinkle the rose water on Bhagavan like a light shower of rain. When Bhagavan saw me, he said, “Look! They are doing abhishekam to me. They have covered me with this wet cloth. They have tied tatties all around and are sprinkling water thereon. This place is now cool like Ootacamund.” After a while, Bhagavan in a reminiscent mood began to talk:
When I was in the Virupaksha Cave, we used to change over to the Mango Cave during summer, as there was no water at the former. At the Mango Cave, at midday, some women of the lower castes, with heavy loads of grass on their heads and very tired, used to come in search of water. Poor people, they start from their homes after taking a little gruel, go up the hill and secure a head load of grass. As soon as they came to the cave they would throw down their bundles, bend down and say, “Swami, Swami, first throw a vesselful of water down our spines.” I would throw water on them as desired, to make them recover from their exhaustion. Then, making a cup of both the hands they would drink stomach-full of water, wash their faces, take some rest and depart. They alone could experience the happiness of it all.
When I enquired whether it was Bhagavan who poured the water, he answered in the affirmative and added, “I knew they would be coming at that hour and so I used to wait with the water. What could they do?
Being of low caste, they were not allowed to go near the tank and there was no water anywhere else. The heat was unbearable. They could not have food unless they sold the grass and got some money. They had children at home. They must reach home quickly to look after them. What could they do, poor people! They used to come to the cave in the hope that the Swami will supply water. We were not cooking at that time. If any day we did cook, we poured a lot of water into the rice while cooking and made gruel by adding salt and ginger, if available. By the time they came, the gruel water would be quite cool. When a tumbler of it was poured into their hands, they drank it like nectar. They alone could know the taste of that gruel and the happiness which followed the drink.” After saying this, Bhagavan got filled with emotion and assumed silence.
1. Mentioned in the Bhagavatam.
2. Refer annexure-V on Dakshinamurthi, p. 415.
3. Big bound volume in the Ashram kept for this purpose.
4. Refer p.74 also for Sri Ramana’s displeasure in this regard.
5. The pandal erected outside the meditation hall at the time of the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1946.
6. Khas-khas is the grass obtained from the roots of a plant. It releases fragrance and makes the air cool when water is poured on it. Tatties are like mesh made by thin bamboo sticks in which the khas-khas is woven.