Prof. K. Swaminathan (1896-1994) taught English at the Presidency College, Madras. He was the Chief Editor of the monumental 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, and for some time edited The Mountain Path. He authored Sri Ramana – The Self Supreme, and for the National Book Trust he authored Ramana Maharshi. He translated into English verse Muruganar’s 1282 stanzas of Guruvachaka-Kovai and 1851 verses of Ramana Sannidhi Murai. In his letters to the Ashram, he would address Sri Ramana as Ammaiappa – one who combines the attributes of mother and father, and sign as ‘Ramana sei’ – Ramana’s child. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1972.
I was told about Bhagavan in 1927, but then I was not interested in someone sitting still and doing nothing when so much was needed to be done to change this mad, bad world, and Mahatma Gandhi strode the land doing so many things ‘socially relevant’. In 1940, I had many baffling problems and mental conflicts. Sir P.S.Sivaswami Iyer, my paterfamilias after my father’s death, advised me to take a series of lessons on the Brahma Sutras from a great Sanskrit pandit in Bangalore. Then I could see that behind this apparent laziness of Bhagavan there was something very profound. And, that man said, this is not mere theory, you go to Tiruvannamalai and see for yourself.
As one deeply interested in poetry, I have read the poems of Muruganar [No.53] and said to myself, good heavens, the man who could inspire this kind of poetry is divine. It moved me completely; Muruganar completely converted me. Then, when Grant Duff [No.7] came to my college, I took him around. After I spent a week with him, he casually asked me, “Have you seen Ramana Maharshi?” I said to myself, here is an Englishman steeped in Italian philosophy telling me about the Maharshi. I felt ashamed, and I was ashamed. All these events convinced the obstinate camel that the oasis he badly needed was near and easy to reach.
When I told Sir Sivaswami about my decision to visit the Ashram, he said, you are a young man with many responsibilities; when you go to Bhagavan you will be swept off your feet and fall into an abyss. Don’t go alone, tie yourself in many bonds; take somebody you like, you are attached to, to hold you. So I took my wife and two of my students with me.
The Maharshi deprived me of none of the persons or pleasures that were dear to me. He left them all with me enriched and sanctified. Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and the Bible meant much more for me when illuminated by the light he shed on all he saw. From the Bible he often cited the key passages like: Be still and know that I am God; the kingdom of God is within you; my Father and I are one.
My first darshan of the Maharshi on September 29, 1940, was the most memorable event of my life. The last darshan occurred a fortnight before his mahanirvana on April 14, 1950. In between, during many weekends and college vacations, repeated visits to the Ashram kept me (as spells of sound sleep keep one) in health, happiness and taut efficiency. The pure happiness I enjoyed was that of a child when it sits securely in its mother’s lap.
Bhagavan was a perfect Impersonality, like the sun in the sky or like unnoticed daylight in an inner chamber. This impersonal being would suddenly become a Person full of sattvic power, highly human, charming, mother-like, who could communicate with sharp precision his own Awareness Bliss to other persons according to their needs and moods. The sun now came down and played with us as the light of the moon to illuminate the mind, or as the fire in the home to cook our food.
Bhagavan listened like a child to passages from Shakespeare’s plays and Keats’ letters and quickly and convincingly revealed the universal truth in each flower unique in its own beauty. On Keats’ letter on ‘negative capability’ his passing comment was: “So there are Upanishads in English as in Sanskrit.” After a passage from Shakespeare was read, discussed and duly praised, Bhagavan said, “Shakespeare the Self enjoyed writing this, so that, born again as we, he might enjoy reading it.” No wonder then that Bhagavan not only permitted and encouraged Muruganar in his copious outpourings but also often joined him in playing the grand game of rhyming and chiming in words that double a common joy. Was he not the sole begetter of thousands of marvellous poems by Muruganar and so many others?
Bhagavan often equated Gandhi with Hanuman, the humble and heoric servant of Sri Rama. He once said: We say that Hanuman is chiranjivi (immortal). It does not mean that a certain monkey goes on living forever and ever. It only means that there will always be on earth someone who serves Rama as your Gandhi does now.
Once Rangachari, a Telugu teacher in a Vellore college, asked the
Maharshi to explain nishkama karma (desireless action). There was no reply. After a time, the Maharshi went up the hill followed by a few devotees and Rangachari. There was a thick, strong, thorny branch lying on the way which the Maharshi picked up and began working on. The spikes were cut off, the knots made smooth and the surface polished with a rough leaf. Hours of hard and careful work resulted in a nice stick that Maharshi presented to a passing shepherd boy who appeared dejected because he had lost his stick. Rangachari confessed that he had learnt a new lesson in the art of teaching, for this silent practical demonstration was the Sage’s perfect answer to his earnest question.
In one article the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung contrasted Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Bhagavan and saw in this succession the progressive advance from bhakti to jnana. On hearing this, Bhagavan promptly sat erect and protested against the comparison, saying: When one has reached the mountain-top, no matter from which side and by which path, one knows and understands all other paths. What is there that Sri Ramakrishna did not know?
In a like manner he deprecated comparison by some devotees between himself as a jnani and Mahatma Gandhi as a karma-yogi. The eye that sees and the hand that works are like organs of one and the same Eternal Goodness. Bhagavan saw only adhyatma sakti (the Supreme power) working everywhere. Different persons perform different functions; arranging them in an order of merit is ‘the mischief of the ego’.
Sri Bhagavan preferred to speak in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. But he corrected mistranslations in English. He used the phrase, ‘automatic divine activity’ while explaining prarabdha through the analogy of the electric fan which goes on getting slow before it finally stops. And he added smilingly, “But you can stop it straightaway with a stick ifyou want.“
Despite the Maharshi’s profound reverence for and frequent reference to the gods, his predominant concern was with impersonal jnana. He also maintained strict silence on irrelevant, speculative issues like the nature of God. This brings him close to the Buddha. In his technique of self-enquiry, the exploration of consciousness, which gives energy and meaning to the whole human life and breaks down the barriers between sacred and secular, he resembles the scientist.
The experience of the peace conferred by the Maharshi’s presence, testified to by so many devotees, accords with his reply to a visitor who asked which of the many spiritual teachers he should follow: “Choose that guru from whom you get santi (peace).” The Maharshi was fond of the story of Tattvaraya who composed a bharani in honour of his guru and invited an assembly of learned men to hear him.The pandits raised the objection that a bharani could be sung only in honour of a warrior who had killed a thousand elephants and certainly not in honour of a mere ascetic. Then the poet said, “Let us all go to my guru and settle the matter in his presence.” They went to the guru and the poet reported the pandits’ objection. The guru sat silent and so did all others. Thus days passed, with no thought at all occuring to any of them. At the end of the long, silent session the guru made a slight movement of his mind and the assembly declared with one voice: “Vanquishing a thousand elephants is nothing before this man’s power to quell the rutting elephants of our egos.” And they called upon Tattvaraya to proceed to read his bharani.
Bhagavan’s special mission was to convince all and sundry that by self-enquiry, ‘Who am I?’ (his brahmastra), and self-surrender, anyone of us can and should live securely, comfortably and happily in both worlds, the Timeless and time.
Bhagavan succeeded in being a fTiend of every one – saint or sinner, prince or peasant, learned or ignorant, cow, dog or monkey.
J.C.Molony, I.C.S. (a district collector) has noted how his hound preferred the hermit’s company to his own. He records: After visiting the sage on the hill, when I reached my camp, one of my dogs was missing. In the evening arrived the holy man leading the truant on a string. The sage said, “He came Backto me, and I should have liked to keep him. But why should I steal him from you?”
Women and harijans were no less welcome to his charmed circle. Bhagavan gave freedom to all to enjoy his saameepya (proximity, nearness), and his soulabhya (easy accessibility).
Once in the 1940s, I was sitting outside the hall with many devotees. Bhagavan was reclining on a couch. A group of learned pandits was discussing passages from the Upanishads with great enthusiasm and profundity. All, including Bhagavan, appeared to be attentively listening to the interesting discussion when, all of a sudden, Bhagavan rose from the couch, walked some distance and stood before a villager who was standing looking lowly with palms joined. All eyes turned to Bhagavan and the villager who was standing at a distance. They appeared to be conversing. Soon Bhagavan returned to his couch and the discussion was resumed.
Being curious to know why Bhagavan had to go out to meet a villager, I slipped away from the discussion and caught up with the villager before he left the Ashram. He told me that Bhagavan was asking why I was standing so far and also asked my name, about my village, what I did, and about my family etc. I enquired, “Did you ask him anything?” The villager replied, “When I asked him how I could earn his blessings, he asked whether there was a temple in my village and the name of the temple deity. When I told him the deity’s name, he said, go on repeating the name of the deity and you would receive all the blessings needed.“
I came Backto Bhagavan’s presence, but lost all interest in the discussions. I felt that the simple humility and devotion ofa peasant had evoked a far greater response from our Master than any amount of learning. I then decided that though a scholar by profession, I should always remain a humble, ignorant peasant at heart and pray for Bhagavan’s grace and blessings.
Extracts from his poems:
Sri Ramana – the Self Supreme
You are the Perfect, One praised of old The Gita’s Jnani, the Jivanmukta of ‘The Crest Jewel of Discrimination’
Inactive Doer of all deeds done Wishing no wish and taking no side Contemplative witness of things that pass Steadily established in Satchidananda Nothing topical, temporal, novel No noise, no struggle and no change The pole star, Truth, forever the same.
Steep uphill is the way You have taken To the shining mountain-top oftruth Steep, yet short and straight and clear Free from darkness, confusion and peril.
Rock of faith, O Dawn of Hope, Child of Charity, Holy Sage,
O Silent Presence on the Mount,
O Tiger bright with burning eyes! You sought us, and you have caught us;
Forsake us not; consume us quite; Sri Ramana of Aruna.