In early 1991 a skin ailment of unknown origin began to cause deep inner itching on both of my arms. At the time, I was working as an operations coordinator for a pioneering transportation technology company. Various remedies, like dermatological creams and other treatment options did not resolve the condition, though the innovative floatation tank sessions gave short term relief.
One day in late October of that same year my friend Susan, knowledgeable in alternative healing, referred me to the office of Dr. Burton, a local acupuncturist. On November 1st 1991, I arrived for my first appointment. I do not remember much of that session but I’ll never forget the pictures that adorned the office walls. The ancient wisdom of the East had arrived in the healing form of acupuncture, but even more importantly, via India, where my heart awoke to the ancient Sages, Saints and Seers who spoke to me without words.
One photo in particular ignited a light within my heart; it was of the Sage Ramana Maharshi, I soon learned. Somehow a 3 inch by 5 inch portrait, taken 50 or 60 years earlier, transmitted the direct presence of God. On that day the seed containing the Mighty Tree of Self-realization was planted. Inwardly attuned, reflective and quiet, the manifestation called Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi entered into the depth of Soul.
The first Westerner to make contact with Ramana in 1911 stated it eloquently when he wrote:
“I was told to look the Maharshi (Great Seer) in the eyes, and not to turn my gaze. For half an hour I looked Him in the eyes which never changed their expression of deep contemplation. I began to realize that the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. I could feel His Body was not the man, it was the instrument of God, merely a sitting motionless corpse from which God was radiating terrifically. My own sensations were indescribable.”
Ramana shared everything without a word. Those that did not have the ability to receive the wordless blessing contained within his silent presence often felt the need to ask questions. Ramana would advise them to look inward using a process called self-inquiry:
“…An examination of the ephemeral (fleeting) nature of external phenomena leads to disinterest. Inquiry is the first and foremost step to be taken…through inquiry the “I–thought” (or ego-sense) becomes clearer for inspection…”
This process roots out the latent tendencies of mind which pull one from the natural state of peace.
Ramana was born in the south of India on January 5th, 1879. An ordinary life transpired until age 17 when a great event took place wherein he realized the deathless nature of his true Self. Leaving home a short time later, he was led to the holy mountain Arunachala in Tiruvanamalai, India. He settled there, completely lost in the bliss of being without body identification, spending the next 10 years in temples and caves and emanating an all-pervasive silence. Even to sit near him or receive a short glance was enough to catapult seekers into a state of bliss.
Ramana did not care about creating a formal ashram but his devotees did. As the ashram came into being, Ramana was involved in every aspect. He would awaken at about 4 am after only 3 hours sleep each night. After taking some salt with ginger for chronic digestive issues, he would go to the kitchen and begin cutting vegetables for the afternoon meal, grind chutney, or form rice cakes for the breakfast and then take a bath or walk on the hill. The days would be spent supervising construction works, answering questions and removing the doubts of all devotees that sought him out.
The principle book describing his teachings is “Talks with Ramana: On Abiding Peace & Happiness’ gathered in the years 1935-39. I found the book strangely compelling when I first discovered it. I would read a few pages, then fall into a trance or nap and upon waking be unable to comment on what I’d read in an intellectual way. Yet I found myself drawn over and over to those pages.
In 1996 I began a deep and lifelong immersion in the teachings and presence of Ramana when I visited his ashram in India. My journal entries from that trip (listed in italics) contain a snapshot:
May 18, in Bangalore, India: “…I am being lead to Arunachala, to Ramana’s ashram…after a brief stop at a roadblock, the bus moves on…loud music prevails and crying babies, along with vomiting children…
Six and a half hours later we arrive in Tiruvanamalai at 3:15 am. After trying two places for a room, I finally am able to arouse someone and given a room for sixty rupees a night (about 1.50 cents U.S. at the time) along with a thirty rupee tip for the rickshaw driver. Just before bed, I rushed to the toilet for a full-blown dysenteric explosion. (This particular sickness had arrived a week earlier). At 5 am I woke up and once again leap to the toilet in time for another volcanic eruption…
Morning arrives and I wander outside and catch my first glimpse of Arunachala, the sacred mountain. Two pigs walk the streets with me. I spent the day sleeping, eating garlic and drinking water. I leave my door open during the day, allowing the cool breezes to enter as rain falls.
I began to read “Absolute Consciousness’ –obtained from the ashram bookstore. The book commemorates the centennial of Ramana’s enlightenment episode 1896-1996 and talks about God (Self) and how all there is- is God. God is your Self. Just surrender to the Divine and everything will be taken care of. Essentially the teachings are, abide in silence, peace will reign naturally…
AT THE ABODE OF THE SILENT SAGE
Ramana was known for his hallmark quality: Silence. As he said:
“Silence is the most potent form of work. Silence is the most potent initiation. Silence is the true teaching. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker.” He said.
Through this silence an inexplicable power has entered me and it matters not what the body must undergo.
The bible says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Ramana says, “Stillness is the sole requisite for the realization of the Self as God. You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All you have to do is give up being other things that are not Self. Effortless and choiceless awareness is our real nature.”
It has been said that Ramana’s voice is “melodious and soft as that of a child; it is exceedingly sweet.” One day a devotee brought a tape recorder into the Hall to record Ramana’s voice. He set the recorder in front of Ramana, prostrated before him and asked for permission to record. He thought Ramana had agreed and asked all the devotees to be quiet before pushing the record button.
“Only the whizzing sound of the revolving reel on the recorder could be heard. Ten or fifteen minutes passed thus, in near absolute silence.” Turning off the recorder the devotee said to Ramana:
“Unless you speak, how can I record you?”
“My voice, indeed, has been recorded. My language is that of silence, and that has been recorded. Is it not so?”
A nice Indian man greeted me kindly as I walked into the ashram office the next morning. He set me up in a private room, simply adorned with a single bed, Indian-style toilet and an overhead fan–a must in this heat.
I ate lunch on the floor of the ashram dining hall, a curry served on a leaf mat, while sitting next to a kind, older Indian man. One look at me and he knew the plague (dysentery) had struck. He advised me to drink lots of water until my urine was clear and to consume curd every day. The curd, besides being full of friendly intestinal flora, would help me acclimatize better to the heat. I thanked him and went back for a nap after eating a few cloves of garlic and drinking more water.
A bicycle rickshaw took me around Arunachala. (The holy hill). Ramana claimed that going around the hill, known as pradakshina, is a powerful spiritual practice, like going around the whole world.
I find my primary desire is to be in silence…
Sunday, May 19th:
What a gift to be here, to receive these pure and direct teachings. To realize that the Self is always here, unchanging and to find bliss whenever I chance forget my true nature.
Mind chatter has slowed down in the peace-filled serenity of the Ramana ashram. I feel the blessings of this great Sage.
May 20, Monday, am: Awoke to the sounds of the forest, screeching monkeys, swinging through the trees behind me. I slept for 12 hours, am very weak, dragging myself up for a morning walk in the nearby vicinity.
There are small oasis-like communities all around the mountain. The mountain does have a strong pull for me energetically. I was impressed with the upkeep. The people here really care about the environment around this holy hill. Wandering sadhus (holy men) with their staffs or canes are abundant. Other people are using primitive means to build or make amendments to their homes.
I feel more human now after eating some food, but can’t seem to get fully hydrated. It is so hot here.
I awoke to a gentle knock; it was 4:50am. A Rickshaw driver, who I hired to escort me to the top of Arunachala, arrived. Nothing was going to stop me from at least trying to climb Ramana’s beloved hill.
We stopped to buy one extra liter of water from a weary shop owner who was just opening her door. Others nearby wash clothes and begin their morning. It is thirty minutes before sunrise as we walk up gravel stone road between thatched huts. I gaze through the open doors to see the sleeping families lying on the floor inside. Some are even lying on the front porches. Pigs scurry about, probing the garbage. Crows gather overhead, making their incessant inquiries and then condense towards three or four larger trees. An army is forming. A lone little black goat lies perched on a natural rock railing as we reach the base of Arunachula. He does not appear to have moved in days. My little friend is not well.
The tranquility of the day is a hint of the power of this spiritually rich mountain.
It is said that Ramana Maharhshi lived all over this mountain, on top, in caves from 1896-1922, noting that “there was not a place he had not walked on the mountain.”
Finally, in 1922, shortly after his mother died, he moved to a permanent location, where the ashram is now located.
Several huts are garnished with small spiritual shrine, looking like miniature temples. As we pass the last few huts, a family of goats moves about, beginning their quest for food. It is mostly barren this hot season, but green plant life is sparsely spaced all over the mountain, top to bottom. Small trees, bushes, plants, including cacti, all sprout up every few hundred yards.
After a quarter mile, we turn to see the temples below in the city just as the sun begins to rise to our right. The climb grows steeper, there is no real trail. Arrows painted on rocks mark the direction, which is straight up. Faded red dirt, rocks and boulders continue to greet us as we trek upward. The peace is pervading and, as we pull away from the awakening noise of the city, tranquility is the force of the day; along with a growing weariness I am not accustomed to.
We stop so I can take a few pictures, a great excuse to rest after two days of water fasting and my recurrent bouts with dysentery and dehydration. My legs are shot. I realize that I am in for a fight, if the top is to be reached. I consider surrendering about halfway up and returning to my room, as the realization comes that my only food is a now smashed banana. I pull it from my fanny pack, salvaging a couple small bites.
My weariness grows over the next quarter mile of the 2000 foot climb and hopes of reaching the 2600 foot summit dwindle. Thank goodness it is in the high 70’s low 80’s as we climb, being early in the morning. Somewhat cool breezes blow by about every ten minutes. My heart isn’t the factor yet, my legs are.
I sit on a boulder. A young male, about 18 years old, catches up with us. He has a most impressive physique, much like a mixture between a deer and Ethiopian distance runner. Wearing a skirt and no shirt and barefooted, he carries about 5 gallons of water slung over his shoulder in a several large plastic containers. He stops next to me.
“How often do you climb this mountain?” I ask, as my rickshaw driver-companion translates. He says that he has been climbing the mountain every day for a year. He brings water to the sadhu that lives on top. I ask him how much money he gets for this. He replies that he gets nothing but spiritual blessings from the sadhu.
He presses the pace as we begin again as a small group. Noticing me struggling, he picks some “special herbs” from a plant growing on the hillside. Instant energy arrives. ‘What was that stuff, I wonder to myself an Indian version of the coco plant?’
I am invigorated but still bringing up the rear. The man of steel keeps inspiring me with:
“Michael, come.” A wave of a hand from the trim figure above urges me upward. It is a humbling role reversal for me. This process continues all the way to the top. Just before we reach the summit, I see goats and monkeys perched near the summit ridge. A bit delirious, I reach the top, pulling out my camera to get a shot of a monkey in the foreground and the temple town in the background.
Thirty feet away, about twenty feet below the summit, on the other side of the hill, I observe a vine and thatch natural shelter or hut. This is where the sadhu lives. The top of the mountain is blackened, as if a constant fire has been burning slowly for centuries.
A few places exude smoke, as I remember that Arunachula literally means, “Red Mountain or Hill of Fire.”
The thatch hut reminds me of a Native American sweat lodge, but with openings on two sides, one partially covered. Five monkeys scamper about the place, aggressive monkeys who make their presence felt. We walk towards the entrance of the sadhu’s hut. Bowing in respect, I barely catch a glimpse of the sadhu inside, who is said to be about sixty-five years old with an unknown history. He does not speak and I never saw him look up during my entire time there. He mumbles like an old man with a gag in his mouth. The only sounds he makes are grunts.
We prepare to be blessed by first rubbing smoked ash on our third eye. The sadhu has several helpers. One brings water and milk along with some special herbs, which for seven years is apparently all that he has consumed. I felt a presence of stillness, but the moans I could not figure out. We walked around his hut fifteen times, in some type of ceremonial fashion, he chanted: “Om shiva, shiva, shiva, shiva — Arunachala, Arunachala.” And a few other chants of devotion and liberation before we began to drink a water herb mixture out of half coconut shells that almost appeared to be petrified they were so old. We drank many glasses of this. We then shared some fruit that others had brought.
A daring monkey stole a banana.
A GIFT FROM THE SAGE
Back at the ashram an extreme sense of wonder overcomes me: ‘How can I feel so good, given all the variables, fasting, dysentery, etc?’ Yet, it is so. An aura of peace of the kind I have never known courses through me in the environment of the ashram. Wild peacocks abound in their natural habitat. The office manager feeds banana bits to one. The birds and other animals of this jungle-like forest hermitage begin their pre-evening calling. The mixture of sounds dances and the mountain pulsates within me.
Suddenly one of the peacocks spread its plume in a magnificent display of color as if bowing before Arunachala:
“I will take all you have to give, blessed mountain!”