“Those who live within 30 kilometers from Arunachala reach enlightenment,” says an ancient quote. Well, I do not know – I would not dare to claim that each of the more than a million inhabitants of Tiruvannamalai is enlightened, but there might be something about it after all. One comes, stays for a couple of days, does nothing special and all of a sudden, a kind of gentle and intangible inner silence starts filling them slowly, unstoppably; as if the restless Self started gradually spreading in new, deeper dimensions. “Yes,” says such an aspirant with undisguised pleasure, “I have progressed significantly on my spiritual path.” And they would float happily around Arunachala holding up a mirror to their infinite minds for hours. Touched and internally inspired, they leave Arunachala again – but what happens? Thrown back to their daily world they usually find their familiar self with all its vices after a short time again. And then, after some time, perhaps they would return to Arunachala. And the story may repeat itself… (However, some seeds can be entirely invisible…)
Throughout the years spent in India I visited Arunachala and Ramanashram countless times. And I got gradually familiarized with the place, the people and the entire surroundings. The same familiar faces always welcomed me in the office, the smiling ashram president, the incredible kitchen staff managing to cook unreal piles of meals every day, and surprisingly, the same faces of visitors, too. As if time did not pass here at all. The unchanging daily routine, ringing of the bell calling for meals with the precision of a time signal, regular morning and evening rituals in sanctuaries, monkeys lurking for unwary banana carriers… The Mexican Eduardo setting out for the Virupaksha Cave at nine a.m., napping on a stone bed at the same place at noon, the same faces of beggars sitting in rows around the main gate, vendors scattered around the ashram beckoning from a distance, trucks and buses rolling down with a deafening repertoire of the most bizarre horns and claxons. And Arunachala, dominating above all of this, with a bit modernized tracks and signs over the past three years (perhaps, not necessary at all); however, still the same, mysterious, untouchable, impenetrable… And always with quiet and open arms welcoming those who keep on returning to it.
The road around the foot of Arunachala (Giri Pradakshina) is specifically charming. Ramana Maharshi himself took it with pleasure and recommended to all (though the fourteen-kilometer walk must have been rather more romantic in his times). In case one would like to enjoy a bit of peace and solitude even today, it is good to set out late in the evening, when we meet hardly anyone on the way (everyone tends to set out early in the morning). Actually, I do not recollect that I would have set out for it any other time than in the evening. Always barefoot, with a requisite bottle of water over my shoulder.
With just a fifteen-minute walk the road starts abandoning the city and the main road, it narrows and heads for small villages in the surroundings. The rising night fills everything with its special mysterious magic; sometimes it is full of stars and moonlight, sometimes it covers all with its black impenetrable cloak. The road is lined with ancient small temples and sanctuaries with statues of Shiva or other gods illuminated by small burning lamps. Gone is the omnipresent hustle and bustle and business. Only the singing of invisible cicadas and crickets can be heard and high above all there rises the peak of Arunachala, which uncovers itself gradually from all sides. Steps, one after another, pass the road that silently opens behind the horizon. Where is time and where is Now? How many times have we passed this place? Maybe it is the same road that we keep on returning to. All those countless stories that hastily fulfill us every day remain nothing but a reflection somewhere in our minds. Where are all of them right now? And where is our mind? As if each of the ancient silent statues, illuminated by the eternal flame, knew the answer. But they cannot utter it in words. So at least I greet each of them quietly, sometimes passing around the entire sanctuary, and then again I continue in my journey.
After two hours, Tiruvannamalai is approaching again and its presence is immediately properly perceived – the road leads directly past a bus station boiling with bustle even at midnight. Afterwards, it is necessary to pass through the entire city until the gate of the ashram, sleeping in a deep night, appears.
At the Very Peak of the Mountain
The ascent of the very peak of the mountain Arunachala is somewhat more challenging. Unlike Giri Pradakshina, I accomplished it only once. I chose a monsoon day for it (so that I avoided the merciless sun), inquired about the way and set out. Barefoot again – which proved to be a not very good idea in the course of the ascent; however, it was too late to run back for my shoes.
Only when walking up the Arunachala does one realize how big it actually is. Climbing up and up the sharp stones and unpleasant thorns, thinking the peak must be already there on the horizon, but as soon as one approaches it, a higher point and even a steeper climb grows in the distance right behind it.
After a three-hour ascent and constant losing of the trail I finally reached the very peak, sat myself happily on a big stone, stroked my sorely tired soles and watched the world below me silently. The peak was immersed in light fog and so I could feel like at Olympus. However, I was soon baffled by a well-known croak: several monkeys appeared on an opposite stone. Amused, I beckon to them. In a short while, another stone is also occupied by at least ten of them. Then, more and more monkeys started to appear from all sides. So, in an instant, I was hermetically surrounded by a huge crowd of monkeys – big ones, small ones, even the tiniest little monkeys, there was not a single stone that would have remained vacant. I have probably never seen so many monkeys together. The circle started to tie up slowly. Some of the monkeys started to approach up close to me with aggressive grumbling and perhaps, they would have wanted to grab my bag at least. If you want to eat me, there is not much I can do, resigned I say to myself at first. Nevertheless, then I grab several big stones and resolutely drive the aboriginal inhabitants of the mountain cliff away. Surprisingly, it works and thus, after a while, I am sitting alone and undisturbed again at the highest point of Arunachala and I can let the legendary Shiva’s message resonate within me: “Just like the moonlight has its origin in the sun, so the power of all sacred places has its source in Arunachala. It is the only place where I took on this form for benefaction of those who want to worship me and attain the ultimate knowledge.”
Afterwards, I slowly start to descend to the foot of the mountain, to the Arunachaleswarar Temple, I pass through all of its courtyards and with slightly lamenting feet I return back to the ashram.
The ashram where Annamalai Swami, a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi, dwelled for more than forty years is located by a small lake not far from the foot of the mountain. He spent more than twenty years with Ramana Maharshi, supervised the construction of many buildings in the ashram and eventually, instructed by Maharshi, he built his own small ashram, where he stayed continuously for entire decades.
He resembled Ramana Maharshi in his appearance a lot. Every day in the morning, anyone could have come to visit him and ask about anything through his aide Sundaram or just remain in his silent and radiant presence. His teaching was straightforward: “Discover your true Self and rest forever in it.” He was a living embodiment of this path and the moments I could repeatedly spend in his presence will always fulfill me with a deep inspiring memory.
He deceased three years ago (he was almost ninety) and thus, at present, we can only perceive those gentle energies that used to be connected to his physical presence in the ashram.
Based on his narration a very interesting and extensive book (Living by the Words of Bhagavan) about his life was written, in which we can find lots of remarkable and little-known episodes about Ramana Maharshi and the life in the ashram. It is a curiosity that the book is not allowed to be sold in the ashram bookstore. The reason is the fact that many stories and persons (especially persons relationally associated with the current management of the ashram) appear there without the usual idealized aureole, which opens up a very interesting and realistic view of the real life in the former ashram.
Lakshmana Swamy is one of those to whom the direct contact with Ramana Maharshi opened the deepest dimensions of reality. He spent many years living in silence and solitude and today, he dwells in a house near Arunachala. In contrast to Annamalai Swami, he usually does not accept visitors and it is possible to spot him only at important occasions several times a year (Shivaratri, Christmas, birth date of Ramana Maharshi and the like). He is always unofficially announced as “darshan” for such occasions.
The meetings with Annamalai Swami and Lashamana Swamy were pleasant, just a small group of people was usually coming to them. The reason is simple: in contrast to the neighbouring Yogi Ramsuratkumar (mentioned in the previous part), at whose place thousands of visitors are crowded daily, nor Annamalai Swami or Lashamana Swamy are engaged in worldly problems of the comers and they do not confer individual specialized blessings, which is rather uninteresting for majority of the locals.
Approximately an hour before the announced time of “darshan” the first comers (mostly old acquaintances) are slowly gathering in front of the gate to Lakshman’s house. After some time, a boy leaves the house, opens the gate for us and lets us sit on the porch. Almost no one is talking; all of us are being filled with pleasant, quiet atmosphere full of expectation. Each one of us is mostly trying to calm down and open to subtle energies of the upcoming “darshan” of the great “jnani”. The announced time has long passed, but none of us pays attention to it; each of the approximately fifteen visitors is fully immersed somewhere in the innermost depths of one’s self. And then, at one moment the door opens and Lakshmana Swamy appears. Dressed in white attire, he is sits himself down on a prepared cane chair facing us. Profound peace is radiating from his face covered with a white beard and at the same time, it is possible to feel something mysterious and impenetrable. There was absolute silence and it seems all the sounds in the surroundings have faded, too. The view of Arunachala rising in the direct background completes the unforgettable moment. Swamy closes his eyes for a while and afterwards, he starts looking around slowly at all of those present. Thoughts start slowly dissolving, time stops being important. Only the boundless Now, gradually opening its endless gates, is spreading everywhere around. At once, I feel a strong inner impulse, literally a physical shiver – and I can see that at that moment Swamy has laid his eyes directly upon me. I do not know how long it took. I do not know what to say about it… Words cannot be precise enough at times. Then, Lakshama Swamy is getting slowly up and not saying a word he is returning back to his house. We all keep on sitting for some time and afterwards, we are slowly leaving the gate of Lakshama`s house, into which I keep on returning several times throughout the upcoming years.
Playing at the Ashram’s Sanctuaries
Many times I had the opportunity to play at the large sanctuary of Ramana Maharshi and of his mother, too. From the moment I had been asked for it in the ashram for the first time, it became a custom. Always, when I arrived, the president of the ashram would nod his head and say with a smile: “Well, we will have concerts again.”
To play at these sacred places has always been a profound experience for me. I do not know how it always spreads around (perhaps, Eduardo has his share here), but in the evening tens of people are quietly sitting in the large sanctuary (that is normally closed after dinner). I never rush, I like to wait until the noise dies down and only then, in the light dimness of the huge sanctuary lit only by several flames, I pick up my violin and start to play… Each tone is gently carried in the space and disappears somewhere in an ungraspable distance. The sounds are being joined to form floating accords that are getting stronger and then, dissolve in the silence of the sanctuary, where the body of Ramana Maharshi is buried. Sometimes I used to play in the neighboring ancient sanctuary of his mother, which evokes slightly different atmosphere inspired by countless statues and reliefs of symbolic Indian deities that are located there in great numbers. Places where music merges with Silence and inspiration springs from the deeply intimate Unknown…
Arunachala at the Turn of the Millennia
Things remain the same and still, they change. Even throughout those seven years that I have been arriving to Arunachala, a lot has changed. Whether for better or for worse, who can say? The fact remains that the proceeding commercial age is casting its nets wherever it can. Shops and little stores with “Western goods” (one can get “German” bread or genuine jeans with no difficulties, not speaking of backstreet money exchange) are growing in the surroundings of the ashram. Even while walking up Arunachala someone is always insistently offering something to you or asking for something from you (but one would like to be alone and undisturbed).
Arunachala itself is changing its “image” a bit. Besides the already mentioned tracks and signs, new and new trees are being planted as a part of a green program. However, they do not have a long life: If the local women have nothing to make up the fire with, they know what to come for – it is unbelievable but it is true.
If we are unlucky to be accommodated in a room close to a road (there is majority of such rooms), we have to prepare for dreamless nights (in case we are not blessed with extraordinarily deep sleep or poor hearing). Endless streams of wildly hissing and honking buses and trucks keep on vibrating intensively through the walls of the little house and as a pneumatic drill joggle our poor bed. Early in the morning tens of local radios and hoarse loudspeakers (including the big ones of the temple) join in as a bonus…
As a part of the more and more widespread “spiritual tourism” a bus full of Japanese tourists, who, bedecked with their cameras, would run across everything in a half of a day, get on and move on (to Sai Baba?), enters the ashram gates now and then.
However, these are but trivialities after all. Surely there is something that does not change and never will. Something that is not limited by time or internal influences. Something that is eternal and omnipresent. But as if the gate to It was a bit more accessible and open at some particular places. The gate to our own Heart. Arunachala is certainly one of such places. And if we are also close to everything around, everything connected to its past and to all those who have belonged to it, we will keep on returning here…