Subbalakshmi Ammal, a Brahmin widow, got Sri Ramana’s blessings when she was sixteen, but she came to his fold 15 years later and served as a cook at the Ashram for long.
After losing my husband at the age of 16, I went Backto my mother’s house, devoting my life in prayer and meditation. While returning from a pilgrimage from Rameswaram with my mother, we stopped at Tiruvannamalai. When we went up the hill, Sri Ramana was sitting outside the Virupaksha Cave. He was about thirty at the time and wonderful to behold. His eyes were blooming and clear like petals of a lotus and he shone brightly like burnished gold. I, somehow, at once got a feeling that god Arunachala himself had come in a human form. We returned to our village in Nellore. I did not even dream at that time that my life would be spent at the feet of the great Swami.
Fifteen years later, again on our return from a pilgrimage, we stopped at Tiruvannamalai and enquired about the Swami. He was sitting on a couch in the hall. We sat in silence for about ten minutes before him. This gave me an unforgettable experience of mental stillness. Away from him, I spent most of the next year vainly trying to free myself from thoughts.
When I chanced to go to the Ashram again, I went to the hall. No one else being there, I gathered courage and asked, “What is atma?” Bhagavan replied, “To remain without thinking is atma.” Then he looked at me and I felt my mind melt away into nothing. No thoughts came. Only the feeling of immense unutterable peace was there.
One day Bhagavan’s own sister asked me to take her place in the Ashram kitchen because she had to leave for some time. I could not refuse. At that time Shantammal [No.66] was the chief cook and my duty was to help her. To my great joy I discovered that Bhagavan worked with us in the kitchen for most of the time. He soon taught me how to cook tastily and neatly.
Once Bhagavan was grinding the dhal. It was heart-rending to see him do so. Yet I did not have the courage to take his place lest he may stop coming to the kitchen, which was far more important to us than anything else. Later, when he asked me to take over I was happy thinking that the Swami had got some relief. But when I went into the kitchen, I saw him standing near the fire preparing some dish. He was sweating profusely. A boiling vegetable piece fell on his hand causing it to swell. When asked about it he joked, “Don’t you know? It is my special ring.“
Sometime later, I felt overburdened with work. I wanted to sit quietly and meditate in solitude. I went Backto my village, but my heart was really at Sri Ramanasramam. At home, it seemed to me that I was wasting my time.
On a festival day at the Ashram, Bhagavan announced, “Today Subbalakshmi will turn up. Keep some pongal for her.” Bhagavan’s prediction was correct; that was the day I returned to the Ashram, unannounced, after a year. In the weeks and months that followed I wanted to leave the Ashram many times, but Bhagavan held on to me far more powerfully than I held on to him.
I used to keep fast quite often. I had read: “He who wants to know himself and yet pays attention to his body is like a man who trusts a crocodile to take him across a river.” When I showed the text to Bhagavan, he said, “It does not mean that you should starve. It only means that you should not give the body more than it needs. With your mind, hold on to the enquiry [Who am I?] and just keep the body going on so that it does not become a hindrance. For this, fresh food, simply prepared and taken in moderation is a great help.“
Bhagavan disliked being given preference in any form. For example, he would refuse to eatpappadams, if out of our love we selected a bigger one for him. Torn between attachment and obedience, we felt lost. When our Lord wanted to be treated as equal with the humblest, we felt ourselves to be the smallest of the small.
During the meal I would pour rasam into Bhagavan’s hands. He would sip it, and when his palms were empty I would fill them again. One day he asked me to pour rasam over the rice and go. I thought I had offended him in some way and asked Shantammal [No. 66 ] to find out the reason. Bhagavan told her, “When she serves me slowly, she makes others wait.” Despite my protests and requests, he never took rasam again in his palms.
He would ruthlessly sacrifice the little comforts we so loved to provide for him, as soon as he noticed a trace of preference. The law that what cannot be shared must not be touched was supreme in his way of dealing with us. Separate and exclusive feelings are the cause of ‘I’ and therefore the greatest obstacles in the realisation of the Self. No wonder he was exterminating them so relentlessly.
Bhagavan loved retelling incidents from old devotional classics. His face would light up as he recounted the amazing stories of saints of long ago. He would be visibly moved when he recited their inspired poetry.
With children, Bhagavan was their playmate; to family people he was a wise counsellor; to pandits he was a storehouse of knowledge; and to yogis, he was God of victory. Everyone who came to him with a sense of devotion was charmed by his love and kindness, his beauty and wisdom, and by the overwhelming sense of unity he radiated. Crowds would gather around him and each one would see him differently.
One afternoon a lady visitor sat near Bhagavan and exclaimed, “How glad I am that I have met you, Swami! I have been desperate to see you for such a long time, Swami. Please be kind enough to give me salvation. That is all I want. I want nothing else.” After she left, Bhagavan had a hearty laugh and said, “Look at her! Is salvation something to be handed over on request? Do I keep bundles of salvation concealed about me that I can give away when people ask fot it? She said, ‘I do not want anything else.’ If what she says is true, that itself is salvation.“
Though Bhagavan did not mind our faults and mistakes, he made us follow his instructions to the letter. While he was in the kitchen, he was one of us; but in the hall, seated on the sofa, he was the great Lord of Kailas. While in the hall he belonged to everybody, but when he came to the kitchen, he belonged only to us.
Bhagavan would take any amount of trouble to teach us the virtues necessary for self-discovery. Our life at the Ashram was a school of yoga, and a hard school too.Through the trifles of daily life he taught us Vedanta both in theory and practice. We were changed to the root of our being, not knowing the depth and scope of his influence.
Bhagavan would make the small tasks of daily life into avenues that led to light and bliss. We experienced ecstasy in grinding, rapture in cooking, and joy in serving iddlies to the devotees. Why? Because while we were doing these things, we were experiencing the state in which the mind is in the Heart. One who has not experienced this cannot really know how much bliss a human heart can contain.
Lord Krishna in his mercy became a cowherd to teach simple milkmaids the way to salvation. Similarly, Bhagavan, the same Supreme Being in another form, took to cooking in order to save a few ignorant women.