Soon after I came I was given a new name by Bhagavan. My original name had been Sellaperumal. One day Bhagavan casually mentioned that I reminded him of a man called Annamalai Swami who had been his attendant at Skandashram. He started to use this name as a nickname for me. When the devotees heard this, they all followed suit and within a few days my new identity was firmly established.

 

Bhagavan lived at Skandashram, on the eastern slopes of Arunachala, from 1916-22. Annamalai Swami died there during a plague outbreak in 1922.

 

When I had been an attendant for about two weeks the Collector from Vellore [the senior-most civil servant from the local district headquarters] came to have Bhagavan’s darshan. He was called Ranganathan and he brought a large plate of sweets as an offering to Bhagavan. Bhagavan asked me to distribute the sweets to everyone in the ashram, including those who were not then present in the hall. While I was distributing the sweets to the people outside the hall, I went to a place where no one could see me and secretly helped myself to about double the quantity that I was serving to everyone else. When the distribution was completed, I went back to the hall and put the plate underneath Bhagavan’s sofa.

 

Bhagavan looked at me and said, ‘Did you take twice as much as everyone else?’

 

I was shocked because I was sure that no one had seen me do it.

 

‘I took it when no one was looking. How does Bhagavan know?’

 

Bhagavan made no answer. This incident made me realise that it is impossible to hide anything from Bhagavan. From that time on I automatically assumed that Bhagavan always knew what I was doing. This new knowledge made me more alert and more attentive to my work because I didn’t want to commit any similar mistakes again.

 

It was also the attendants’ job to protect Bhagavan from eccentric or misguided devotees. I remember one incident of this kind very clearly. A boy about twenty years of age appeared in the hall wearing only a loincloth. After announcing to everyone that he also was jnani, he went and sat on the sofa next to Bhagavan. Bhagavan made no comment about this, but very soon afterwards he got up and went out of the hall. While he was away I took the opportunity to eject this impostor. All of us in the hall were annoyed by his arrogance and his presumption, and I must admit that I handled him rather roughly while I was throwing him out. I also forbade him from coming into the hall again. When peace had been finally restored Bhagavan came back into the hall and resumed his usual position on the sofa.

 

I was very happy to have found such a great Guru as Bhagavan. As soon as I saw him I felt that I was looking at God Himself. However, initially, I was not very impressed either by the ashram or by the devotees who had gathered around him. The management seemed to be very autocratic and most of the devotees didn’t seem to have much interest in the spiritual life. So far as I could see, they were primarily interested in gossiping. These early impressions disturbed me.

 

I thought to myself: ‘Bhagavan is very great. But if I live in the company of these people, I may lose the devotion that I already have.’

 

I came to the conclusion that it would not be spiritually beneficial for me to associate with people who didn’t seem to have much devotion. I know now that this was a very arrogant attitude, but those were my true feelings at the time. These thoughts disturbed me so much that for three or four nights I was unable to sleep. I finally came to the conclusion that I would keep Bhagavan as my Guru but live somewhere else. I remember thinking: ‘I will go and do meditation on the Self somewhere else.

 

Without having the distracting friendship of any human beings, I will go to an unknown place and meditate on God. I will go for bhiksha [beg for food] and lead a solitary life.’

 

About three weeks after I first came to the ashram, I left to take up my new life. I told no one, not even Bhagavan, about my decision. I left at 1 a.m. on a full-moon night and started to walk towards town. I went straight through the town, past Easanya Math [a monastic institution on the north-east side of Tiruvannamalai] and started walking towards Polur. I had no particular destination in mind; I just wanted to get away from the ashram. I spent the whole night walking and reached Polur [twenty miles north of Tiruvannamalai] just after dawn. The walk had made me very hungry so I decided to go for bhiksha in the town. It was not a great success. I begged at about 500 different houses but no one gave me any food. One man told me that I should go back to Tiruvannamalai while another man, who was serving a meal when I approached him, shouted at me, telling me to go away. Eventually, I gave up and walked to the outskirts of the town. I found a well in a field and spent about half an hour standing in it, with the water up to my neck, hoping that the coldness of the water would take my hunger pains away. It didn’t work. Then I made my way to the samadhi [shrine] of Vitthoba and sat there for a while.

 

Vitthoba was an eccentric saint, rather like Seshadri Swami, who lived in Polur in the first decades of this century. He died a few years before Annamalai Swami went there.

 

I finally got something to eat when an old lady came to do puja.

 

She looked at me and said, ‘It seems as if you are very hungry. Your eyes are starting to sink into your face. I don’t have much myself but I can give you some ragi [millet] gruel.’

 

 

Annamalai Swami sitting in Palakottu

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Annamalai Swami sitting in Palakottu

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Annamalai Swami.jpg
Annamalai Swami.jpg

Annamalai Swami sitting on a rock near Palakottu

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Annamalai Swami sitting in Palakottu

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The slide show comprises images of Annamalai Swami taken during the last few years of his life.

David Godman Books

 

Books by David Godman on Ramana Maharshi, his devotees and his teachings