I did not return for many years. When I finally came for darshan again, Bhagavan had moved to Skandashram. As I approached him, he was washing his face near the parapet wall. He recognised me even from a distance.
When I still had to climb four or five steps to reach Skandashram, Bhagavan called out to his mother, ‘Amma! Rangan is coming!’
‘Let him come,’ she answered.
I went in the entrance and prostrated before him.
This time he said to me, ‘Darshan, [seeing or being seen by] holy people, is not easily attainable. It is better to visit them often. They get the cloth woven and keep it ready for wear.’
I understood this to mean that if one gets Bhagavan’s grace, one will attain jnana [enlightenment] without any effort. Though Bhagavan had given this promise and assurance, at this time I was still not certain whether I was receiving Bhagavan’s grace, or even whether I was eligible for it. I didn’t dare to ask Bhagavan directly about this, but a little later on this visit I tried to get an assurance by asking Bhagavan’s mother instead.
‘Mother, do you know whether I have a share in your son’s earnings?’
I thought that we were alone, but mother called out to Bhagavan, ‘Did you hear what Rangan said?’
Bhagavan appeared, smiled and replied, ‘Yes, yes! Is he not also one of us? Certainly he has a share.’
The stories on this page are narrated by Rangan, a childhood friend of Bhagavan. They are taken from The Power of the Presence, part one. There are extensive footnotes in the original publication. In this version I have inserted them in white at the appropriate place.
Only one photo of Rangan exists: a family portrait that was taken in Madurai. The photo on the right has been taken from that group picture. There is therefore no photographic record of his association with Bhagavan.
Rangan came with his mother to see Bhagavan in the early years of Bhagavan's stay at Virupaksha Cave. The stories in his narrative come from his later visits, when Bhagavan was staying at Skandashram.
When I started to visit Bhagavan regularly at Skandashram, it occurred to me that it would be good if I became a sannyasin [mendicant monk]. I knew that this was a foolish and irresponsible dream because it would leave my family, already in a precarious financial position, with no one to support them. However, the thought would not leave me. One night, while I was lying in my bed at Skandashram, I was unable to sleep because this thought kept recurring so strongly.
As I was turning uneasily in my bed, Bhagavan came to my side and asked me, ‘What is the matter? Are you in pain?’
‘Venkataraman, [Bhagavan’s childhood name]’ I replied, ‘I want to adopt sannyasa.’
Bhagavan went away and came back with a copy of Bhakta Vijayam, an anthology of the lives of some famous saints who lived in western India many centuries ago. He opened the book and read out the story in which Saint Vithoba decided to take sannyasa. In the story his son, Jnanadeva, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, gave him the following advice.
‘Wherever you are, whether in worldly society or the forest, the same mind is always with you. It is the same old mind, wherever you reside.’
After reading this out Bhagavan added, ‘You can attain jnana even while you are living in samsara [worldly activities]’.
‘Then why did you become a sannyasin?’ I countered.
‘That was my prarabdha [destiny],’ replied Bhagavan. ‘Life in the family is difficult and painful, no doubt, but it is easier to become a jnani while living as a householder.'
Though it is true that Bhagavan abandoned his family in 1896 to live at Arunachala, he was never formally initiated into any of the traditional orders of sannyasins. It should also be noted, in the context of this conversation, that his renunciation of a worldly life came after his Self-realisation.
A Skandashram-era photo of Bhagavan that appeared in a magazine or newspaper. The date and circiumstances of the photo are not known.
I asked Bhagavan, ‘Why don’t you teach me that nirvikalpa samadhi?’
‘What good is it to you?’ replied Bhagavan. ‘You must be in sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi. While living in the world, you must be unattached to the world. While seeing everything, you must be in the state of unseeing.’
Nirvikalpa samadhi is a trance-like state in which there is a temporary awareness of the Self, but no awareness of the body or the world. The sahaja (natural) nirvikalpa samadhi is, according to Bhagavan, the highest state. One who is in this state has a full and permanent awareness of the Self and is able to function normally in the world.
A few years later Bhagavan told me a little about this dog.
‘There used to be a dog here. She always slept in front of me. Even when she was awake, she would be immersed in nirvikalpa samadhi. When she got pregnant, the ashram authorities chased her away because they feared that she might deliver unwanted pups in the ashram. She went some distance up the hill and delivered the pups there. She used to suckle them on the hill and then come and lie down in front of me.’
On one of my visits to Skandashram I noticed Bhagavan’s leg was bleeding. He had just had a bath and he was drying his body with a towel.
‘What is that injury?’ I asked with great concern.
Bhagavan had not noticed it before, so he replied, ‘I don’t know’.
‘How can it be, Bhagavan, that you are not even aware that your leg is bleeding so much?’
I was surprised that Bhagavan could be so ignorant of such a major injury.
After considering all the possibilities, Bhagavan remarked, ‘I think a coal from the incense burner must have fallen on my leg and caused a burn.’
I got some medicine and applied it to his leg with a new understanding of how much distance there is between Bhagavan and his body. This understanding was reinforced by another incident that took place on a day when Bhagavan and I were walking on the forest path round the mountain. At one point, I stepped on a thorn. When Bhagavan saw me lagging behind, he stopped, came back to where I was, and removed the thorn from my foot. A few yards later it was Bhagavan’s turn to step on a big thorn. I ran up to him, lifted his foot and was astonished to see innumerable thorns sticking out of it. Some were old and some were new. I lifted his other foot and found that it had just as many thorns embedded in it.
‘Which thorns will you remove?’ asked Bhagavan with a laugh. ‘The old ones or the new ones?’
Bhagavan then crushed the protruding thorn with the same foot it was embedded in and happily walked away, accompanied by me. What better proof is there that Bhagavan had nothing to do with his body? In retrospect, I think that Bhagavan intentionally let me see him behaving like this in order to make it clear that he had ceased to identify with his body.
On another day, when we were at Skandashram together, I felt Bhagavan’s leg from heel to knee and commented, ‘When our legs touched when we played games together in our childhood, yours used to feel like iron. Your skin used to be so rough, when it touched mine, it felt like I was being scratched by thorns. Now your skin is all changed. It is like velvet.’
Bhagavan commented, ‘Yes, my body is all changed. This is not the old body.’
When Rangan told this story on other occasions he sometimes said that Bhagavan had said, ‘This is not the old body. The old body was burned by jnanagni [the fire of jnana].’
Sadhu Om told me that he had been given this version of the story by Rangan himself in the 1940s.
A painting of Azhagammal that is based on a damaged print. In the original Azhagammal was sitting next to Bhagavan on a rock on Arunachala.
My urge to take sannyasa subsided and eventually it disappeared. Though Bhagavan himself had abandoned the world at an early age, I came to understand that it was my particular destiny to stay in the world, work, and look after my growing family. As a householder I also had the advantage of knowing that I could depend on Bhagavan to look after my family and me whenever we were in need of assistance. There were many occasions when we needed help and I soon got into the habit of telling Bhagavan all about my family troubles on my visits to Skandashram.
On one of these occasions Bhagavan turned to me and said, ‘You think that your own troubles are very great. What do you know about my troubles? Let me tell you about one incident that happened to me. Once, while I was climbing a steep part of the mountain, I was holding on to a rock to keep my balance. The rock was loose and would not take my weight. I lost my balance, fell onto my back and was partly buried by a small avalanche of stones. I managed to remove them and stood up. I immediately noticed that my left thumb was dislocated. It was hanging loosely near the little finger. I pushed the thumb back into its socket and went home.’
I think that Bhagavan was understating the extent of his injuries, for while he was relating this incident, his mother came out of Skandashram and remarked, ‘I cannot bear to recall that dreadful accident. He came home bleeding all over. He was in such a bad condition, I don’t even like to think about it any more.’
I got on very well with Bhagavan’s mother because we had known each other when she lived in Madurai. While I was talking to her one day she mentioned that she had once had a vision in which many snakes were wound around Bhagavan’s neck, chest and legs. After a short while they all crept away. I think Bhagavan gave her this vision to remove from her mind the illusion that he was her son.
On another occasion, when Bhagavan’s mother and I were in Skandashram, she told me, ‘Ten days ago, at about this time, I was looking steadily at Bhagavan. His body gradually disappeared and in its place I saw the lingam of Tiruchuzhi. The lingam was very bright. I could not believe my eyes. I rubbed them but I still saw the same, bright lingam. I was frightened because I thought that my son was leaving us for ever. Fortunately, the lingam gradually transformed itself into Bhagavan’s body.’
The 'lingam of Tiruchuzhi' denotes the temple in the town where Bhagavan was born. Bhagavan spent the first twelve years of his life there.
After hearing her account I looked at Bhagavan for confirmation or comment, but he just smiled and said nothing. In those days my son was writing a book called Bhagavan Parinayam [The Marriage of Bhagavan] in which Bhagavan marries jnana kanya [the bride of jnana]. I told him this story of Bhagavan’s accident and he incorporated it in his manuscript. A few months later, when my son read out his book before Bhagavan, Bhagavan asked him how he knew about this particular incident.
‘My father told me,’ replied my son.
‘Oh!’ said Bhagavan, ‘Did he really tell you about all that?’
The other devotees were curious to know more about this particular incident because none of them had heard about it before, but Bhagavan said ‘It was nothing’ and diverted their attention to something else.
I witnessed another strange manifestation of Bhagavan’s power on one of my visits to Skandashram. Two men came from a village and asked Bhagavan to give them vibhuti [sacred ash] with his own hand.
‘Vibhuti is there,’ he said, pointing at some. ‘You can help yourself and take some away.’
The men pleaded with Bhagavan, begging him to hand it over with his own hand.
Bhagavan refused, saying, ‘There is no difference between your hand and mine’.
The visitors were very disappointed and left the ashram without taking any vibhuti.
I followed them and asked, ‘Why did you want the vibhuti from Bhagavan’s own hand? Why were you so insistent?’
One of them told me, ‘I used to have leprosy. When I came to see Bhagavan on a previous occasion, he gave me some vibhuti with his own hand. I applied it to my body and within a day there were no signs of the disease. This is my friend. He also has leprosy. That is why I asked Bhagavan to give vibhuti with his own hands.’
Bhagavan must have known that he had inadvertently cured the leper of his disease. He probably refused to hand over a second batch of vibhuti because he didn’t want to acquire a reputation as a ‘miracle man’.
When I visited Skandashram, Bhagavan used to wake me up at 3 a.m., before anyone else awoke, and take me to Pandava Tirtham. We used to swim in the tank there before dawn. One morning, when Bhagavan came to wake me up, he found Dikshitar, who usually slept next to me, poking around the floor, looking for something.
‘You are searching for your takli aren’t you?’ asked Bhagavan.
Dikshitar got up and said with some surprise, ‘Just now I had a dream that Sravana Purnima, the day on which everyone changes their sacred thread, is approaching. I was searching for the takli to spin the thread when you came up to me and asked me about the same thing.’
Brahmin men wear a loop of string, draped from the left shoulder to the right side of the waist, to indicate their caste. Once a year, on Sravana Purnima, the August full moon, they are given a new thread at a special ceremony. The takli is a small gadget that is used for converting cotton fibres into this thread.
Bhagavan’s unexpected knowledge of this minor detail reminded me of a question I had asked him the previous day.
‘Bhagavan,’ I had asked, ‘is it not true that jnanis know all the three aspects of time – the past, the present and the future?’
Bhagavan had answered, ‘This is a small matter to them. They know all that happens in three states – dreaming, waking and deep sleep, and all the happenings of the world too. But whichever world appears to you, that world will appear to be true and real. God gave man so much knowledge, but he withheld from him knowledge of the future. The ordinary man does not know what is going to happen to him in one minute’s time.’
I have already mentioned that Bhagavan could recognise spiritual greatness or maturity in the people around him. He could also discern it in some of the animals that came to visit him or live with him.
One day, for example, Bhagavan’s mother asked him, ‘Why does that dog always like to stay in your lap?’
Bhagavan turned to me and said, ‘This dog is always in unwavering samadhi. A great soul has come in the form of a dog. Mother does not know this, so she asked that question in ignorance.’
Hearing this I thought, ‘If a dog can learn how to go into samadhi, it should not be too difficult a feat for me’.
Bhagavan with a dog at the entrance to Skandashram. Although dogs appear in many of the old photos, it is not possible to identify any of them, or to ascertain whether they are dogs that are referred to in stories by Bhagavan.
I mentioned on an earlier page that in the early years of the last century it was necessary for photography subjects to remain motionless for a few seconds while the picture was being taken. Dogs are not very good at that. Here (below) is an early photo in which all the three dogs associated with Bhagavan and his devotees seem to be wagging their heads at the moment when the photo was taken.
For the record, the woman on the back row is Echammal; next to her is Ramakrishna Swami; fourth from the left is Chinnaswami; second from the right is Mahadeva, Ganapati Muni's son; sitting, second from the right, is Viswanatha Swami. The other devotees have not been identified. The photo appears to have been taken in the early 1920s.
David Godman Books
Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings