Sampurnamma (1899-1993), a Brahmin widow, served for long as a cook at the Ashram.
When my husband died, I fell into a state of deep despair in which I thought that life was no longer worth living. One day during this period, when I came out after worshipping at the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, an old Brahmin asked, “Won’t you cook a meal for me?” It was a strange request. A Brahmin would ask for already-prepared food, but this man wanted food to be made for him. However, I invited him to accompany me to our family house promising him to cook a meal for him. Before going Backwith the Brahmin, I had to go inside the temple for a short while. When I came out, the Brahmin was not to be seen. I had good reasons to believe that the old man was Bhagavan himself and the request was a summons to cook for him.
As Bhagavan was born in a village next to our village, many of our people knew him. When he became a great saint my relatives often used to go to see him. In 1928, I accompanied my sister and her husband to Tiruvannamalai. I was able to sit for long hours in Bhagavan’s presence, immersed in a strange state in which the mind would not have a single thought. Those were days of deep and calm happiness in which my devotion to Bhagavan took firm roots. On this first visit, I stayed for twenty days. While leaving, I got a copy of Who am I ? from Bhagavan’s own hands.
Backin my village, I was restless. I longed to go to the Ashram; and gladly accompanied my uncle who happened to go there. On my arrival I was to help in the kitchen. I was not good at cooking, but Bhagavan was always by my side, helping me with detailed instructions. His firm principle was that health depended on food that could be digested easily. So, we used to spend hours on grinding and stewing. Bhagavan was always willing to leave the hall to give advice in the kitchen.
Once 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 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.
Bhagavan 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 Bhagavan’s mind was on cooking. In reality his grace was on the cooks. As usual, he did not fail us and 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 preparation with a ladle and went away without saying anything. Soon afterwards we found the stalks quite tender. The dish was simply delicious, and many diners were asking for a second helping.
As a cook, Bhagavan was perfect. He was very strict with us. We soon learned that his orders were to be obeyed to the last detail. So long as we followed his instructions, everything would go well with our cooking, but the moment we tried to act on our own we were in trouble.
One would think from the care he took in cooking that he liked good food and enjoyed a hearty meal. Not at all. When meals were served, he would mix up the little food he would allow to be put on his leaf-plate – the sweet, the sour and the savoury, everything together – and gulp it down carelessly as if he had no taste in the mouth. When we would tell him that it was not right to mix such nicely prepared dishes, he would say, “Enough of multiplicity, let us have some unity.”
Bhagavan would allow nothing to go waste. Even a grain of rice or a mustard seed lying on the ground would be picked up, dusted and taken to the kitchen and put in its proper place. 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 waste. In these matters I am quite strict.“
While we were cooking he would tell us stories. He used cooking to teach us religion and philosophy. He also taught us that work is love for others. He imbued us with the spirit that we are to serve others. By his very presence he taught us that we are always in the presence of God and that all work is His.
As ladies were not allowed to stay in the Ashram at night, we had our accommodation in the town. In coming to and going from the Ashram I had to walk in along a jungle path. When Bhagavan noticed that it made me afraid, he said, “Why are you afraid? Am I not with you?” Once when I came before dawn, the sarvadhikari asked me, “How could you come all alone? Were you not afraid?” Bhagavan rebuked him: “Why are you surprised? Was she alone? Was I not with her all the time?”
Once another lady cook and myself decided to walk around the hill. We started very early. We were very afraid of the jungle. After walking a little way we saw a strange, blue light in front of us. It was something mysterious and we thought it was a ghost, but it led us along the path. When we realised it was guiding us, we felt safe with it. It left us at dawn.
Another time, the two of us were walking around the hill early in the morning and chattering about our homes and relatives. We noticed a man following us at a distance. We had to pass through a stretch of lonely forest, so we stopped to let him pass us and go ahead. He too stopped. When we walked he also walked.
We got alarmed and prayed aloud, “Lord Arunachala, you alone can save us.” The man caught up with us and remarked, “Yes, Arunachala is our only refuge. Keep your mind constantly on him. Always have him in mind.” We wondered who he might be. Was he sent by Bhagavan to remind us that it is not proper to talk of worldly matters, while going round the hill, or was it Arunachala himself in human disguise? We looked back. But there was nobody on the path.
During their period days, women were not given Ashram food to eat, nor allowed to enter the Ashram. Once, when Bhagavan was told that I would not be coming for three days and was sitting in the mandapam in front of the Ashram gate, he ordered that I be brought inside and served the Ashram food. Everybody was shocked, for it was a clear breach of the accepted rule. An ancient rule was thus broken and Bhagavan had sanctified its breach.
I once suggested that we should eat our dinner in the open air. Bhagavan agreed and we arranged the food to be served in the courtyard near the hall. As Bhagavan sat with us, we saw a strong and clear halo around his head. Was it the moonlight or some other cause? I cannot say, but the halo was there and many could see it. Just before the meal, somebody brought a big basketful of sweets, enough for all. Was it a coincidence or Bhagavan’s wonderful play?