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The Saint (1958)

Non-Fiction > Points of View >


When I went to India, in 1936, it was with the intention of spending most of the time at my disposal in the native states. It was my good fortune to be given by an old friend, the Aga Khan, letters of introduction to various Maharajahs. They invited me to stay with them and sumptuously entertained me. When they discovered that I had not come to shoot a tiger, or to sell anything, nor especially to see the Taj Mahal, the Caves of Ajanta or the temple of Madura, but to meet scholars, writers and artists, religious teachers and devotees, they were surprised and pleased. I was something new in their experience. To what had been before merely a civil gesture was now added a desire to do what they could to satisfy a design that commended itself to them. I was thus able to make acquaintance with a number of persons who were to me of absorbing interest.

I have among my books the fifteen volumes of Baring Gould's Lives of the Saints, and now and then I take down a volume and read the account he gives of one or other of them who for some reason has aroused my curiosity. I have read the autobiography of St. Theresa and the lives, written by those who knew them, of St. Francis of Assisi, of Catherine of Siena, and of Ignatius Loyola. But it never occurred to me that I might be so fortunate as to meet a saint in the flesh. But that is actually what I did. In the course of my journey I went to Madras, and there met some people who seemed interested to know what I had been doing in India. I told them about the holy men who had suffered me to visit them, and they immediately proposed to take me to see a Swami who was the most celebrated and the most revered then in India. They called him The Maharshi. Pilgrims from far and near went to him for instruction, advice and consolation in their troubles. Swami is a Hindu word which means literally religious teacher, but it seems to be generally applied to any ascetic. This one lived, it appeared, only a few hours by car from Madras at a place called Tiruvannamalai, and his ashram, his hermitage, was at the foot of the holy mountain Arunachala, holy because the mountain was regarded as an emblem of the god Siva, and once a year great celebrations, attended by thousands of people, were held in his honour.

I did not hesitate to fall in with the suggestion and, a few days later, early one morning, we set out. After a dull, hot drive along a dusty, bumpy road, bumpy because the heavy wheels of ox-drawn wagons had left deep ruts in it, we reached the Ashram. We were told that the Maharshi would see us in a little while. We had brought a basket of fruit to present to him, as I was informed was the graceful custom, and sat down to the picnic luncheon we had been sensible enough to put in the car. Suddenly I fainted dead away. I was carried into a hut and laid on a pallet bed. I do not know how long I remained unconscious, but presently I recovered. I felt, however, too ill to move. The Maharshi was told what had happened, and that I was not well enough to come into the hall in which he ordinarily sat, so, after some time, followed by two or three disciples, he came into the hut into which I had been taken.

What follows is what I wrote in my note-book immediately on my return to Madras. The Maharshi was of average height for an Indian, of a dark honey colour, with close-cropped white hair and a close-cropped white beard. He was plump rather than stout. Though he wore nothing but an exiguous loin-cloth (what his biographer somewhat inelegantly calls a cod-piece) he looked neat, very clean and almost dapper. He had a slight limp, and he walked slowly, leaning on a stick. His mouth was somewhat large, with thickish lips, and the whites of his eyes were bloodshot. He bore himself with naturalness and at the same time with dignity. His mien was cheerful, smiling, polite; he did not give me the impression of a scholar, but rather of a sweet-natured old peasant. He uttered a few words of cordial greeting and sat down on the ground not far from the pallet on which I lay.

After the first few minutes, during which his eyes with a gentle benignity rested on my face, he ceased to look at me, but, with a sidelong stare of a peculiar fixity, gazed, as it were, over my shoulder. His body was absolutely still, but now and then one of his feet tapped lightly on the earthen floor. He remained thus, motionless, for perhaps a quarter of an hour; and they told me later that he was concentrating in meditation upon me. Then he came to, if I may so put it, and again looked at me. He asked me whether I wished to say anything to him, or to ask him any question. I was feeling weak and ill, and said so; whereupon he smiled and said, "Silence also is conversation". He turned his head away slightly and resumed his concentrated meditation, again looking, as it were, over my shoulder. No one said a word; the other persons in the hut, standing by the door, kept their eyes riveted upon him. After another quarter of an hour, he got up, bowed, smiled a farewell, and slowly, leaning on his stick, followed by his disciples, he limped out of the hut.

I do not know whether it was the consequence of the rest or of the Swami's meditation, but I certainly felt very much better, and in a little while I was well enough to go into the hall where he sat by day and slept by night. It was a long bare room, fifty feet long, it seemed to me, and about half as broad. There were windows all around it, but the overhanging roof dimmed the light. The Swami sat on a low dais, on which was a tiger skin, and in front of him was a small brazier in which incense burnt. Now and again a disciple stepped forward and lit another stick. The scent was agreeable to the nostrils. The faithful, inhabitants of the ashram or habitual visitors, sat cross-legged on the floor. Some read, others meditated. Presently two strangers, Hindus, came in with a basket of fruit, prostrated themselves and presented their offering. The Swami accepted it with a slight inclination of the head and motioned to a disciple to take it away. He spoke kindly to the strangers and then, with another inclination of the head, signified to them that they were to withdraw. They prostrated themselves once more and went to sit among the other devotees. The Swami entered that blissful state of meditation on the Infinite which is called Samadhi. A little shiver seemed to pass through those present. The silence was intense and impressive. You felt that something strange was taking place that made you inclined to hold your breath. After a time I tiptoed out of the hall.

Later, I heard that my fainting had given rise to fantastic rumours. The news of it was carried throughout India. It was ascribed to the awe that overcame me at the prospect of going into the presence of the holy man. Some said that his influence, acting upon me before ever I saw him, had caused me to be rapt for a while into the Infinite. When Hindus asked me about it, I was content to smile and shrug my shoulders. In point of fact that was neither the first nor the last time that I have fainted. Doctors tell me that it is owing to an irritability of the solar plexus, which presses my diaphragm against my heart, and that one day the pressure will last a little too long. I feel unwell, and know what to expect; I put my head between my legs as, many years ago, when a medical student at St. Thomas's Hospital, as a clerk in the outpatients' department I was taught to make nervous women do when they seemed about to faint; but it does not avail me: darkness descends upon me and I know nothing more till I regain consciousness. One day, I shall not. Since then, however, Indians come to see me now and then as the man who by the special grace of the Maharshi was rapt into the Infinite, as his neighbours went to see Herman Melville as the man who had lived among cannibals. I explain to them that this bad habit of mine is merely a physical idiosyncrasy of no consequence, except that it is a nuisance to other people; but they shake their heads incredulously. How do I know, they ask me, that I was not rapt into the Infinite? To that I do not know the answer, and the only thing I can say, but refrain from saying for fear it will offend them, is that if I was, the Infinite is an absolute blank. This idea of theirs is not so bizarre as at first glance it seems when one remembers their belief that in deep, dreamless sleep consciousness remains and the soul then is united with the Infinite Reality which is Brahman. But I shall have something to say later which will make this appear less strange.

The interest aroused by this incident, unimportant to me, but significant to the Maharshi's devotees, has caused them to send me a mass of material concerned with him, lives, accounts of his daily activities, conversations with him, answers to the questions put to him, expositions of his teaching, and what not. I have read a great deal of it. From it I have formed a vivid impression of the extraordinary man he was, and I propose in the following pages to tell the reader what I have learnt from the various publications that my kind, unknown friends in India have been good enough to send me. The story I wish to tell is strange and moving, and I should like to tell it as simply as I can, without comment or animadversion, without criticism of behaviour that to a Western reader must seem extravagant; as naïvely, in short, as those old monks wrote the lives of famous saints. But before setting about this, I must give the reader some account of the Maharshi's religious beliefs, for unless he knows something of them his motives and behaviour, his mode of life, will be hardly intelligible. I embark upon this undertaking with trepidation, since I am dealing with a matter with which my acquaintance is but superficial. What I know about it, I have read in books. The most important of these are Sir Charles Eliot's Hinduism and Buddhism; Radhakrishnan's History of Indian Philosophy and his translation of the Upanishads; Krisnaswami Iyer's Vedanta, or the Science of Reality; Brahma-Knowledge by Professor Barnett; and Sankara's Vivekachudamani. I have often used the very words of these authors and, except that it would have been tiresome, I might very well have put much of the next section of this essay in quotation marks. The religion of the Hindus is not only a religion, but also a philosophy; and not only a religion and a philosophy, but also a way of life. If you accept its first principles the rest follows necessarily, as the conclusion of a syllogism follows on the premise and the middle term. It is a very ancient religion, an amalgam of the religion of the Dravidians, the earliest inhabitants of India, with that of the Aryans, who invaded the country during the second millennium before Christ; and after a fashion it was systemised by the sages of the Upanishads, the first of whom flourished some thousand years later. That a religion is very old does not mean that it is true; but it does mean that for age after age it has satisfied the spiritual demands of those who believe in it.


On a previous page I had occasion to speak of Samadhi. Since I shall have to do so somewhat frequently and I may have readers who do not know precisely what it means, I think it may be well to tell them. Samadhi is usually, though not invariably, achieved through the prolonged practice of meditation. Meditation is an operation of the mind in which it is concentrated on an appropriate object. It differs from Samadhi in that there is not the complete unconsciousness of external objects which is characteristic of Samadhi. When the Maharshi' s devotees at the ashram recited poems or read aloud, as they did at certain hours, if a word were mispronounced or a line of verse incorrectly quoted, the Maharshi, though rapt in meditation, would give the correct quotation and the proper pronunciation of the word. So, a skilled musician, entranced by a piece of great music, might on a sudden be distracted by a false note played, and in mind half unawarely correct it, while still continuing, unperturbed, to rejoice in the sounds that met his ear. Samadhi is a trancelike state of profound absorption in the Infinite Reality, which is Brahman, in which the adept is one with the Absolute, and in spirit enjoys existence, knowledge and bliss. The proficient is able to enter into this state at will, and is then insensible to the world about him. I will give an instance of this.

When I was in Calcutta I met an Indian biologist of some distinction, who had married an American woman. He was a deeply religious man and he spent an hour or two every day in meditation. We chanced to talk about Samadhi, and his wife told me that, a little while before, they had had to take a night's journey by train to some place where he was to attend a scientific conference. The carriage in which they found themselves was crowded and it was impossible to lie down. When the train started the biologist entered into Samadhi and did not emerge from it till next morning when they reached their destination. Their fellow travellers ate and talked throughout the night. The wooden seats were hard and uncomfortable, and the poor lady found it impossible to sleep. By morning she had a splitting headache and her every bone ached; her husband was fresh and rested. When they got to their hotel she could only go to bed; he went about his long day's work as though he had slept the night through in his own comfortable bed at home.


The Upanishads are a collection of dialogues in prose and verse composed during a long period of time by sages in search of truth. They arc assumed to have been divinely inspired, and it is claimed that they are the highest and purest expression of the speculative thought of India. Their aim is not so much to reach philosophical truth as to bring peace and freedom to the anxious human spirit. They are often obscure and hard to understand. Various commentators have interpreted them, generally to substantiate their own doctrines, and of these, it is admitted, I think, that Sankara is the most notable. He is said to have been born in Southern India towards the eighth century of our era and to have died at the early age of thirty-two. He was a man of immense intelligence, a poet, a philosopher and a great religious teacher. His supreme achievement was to take the speculations of the Upanishads and in conjunction with them construct the religious philosophy which is known as Advaita. It is an absolute monism, or, as Indian scholars prefer to call it, a non-dualism. Its main principles, if I understand it aright, are two: they have the sort of connection that reminds one of the twin stars that astronomers tell us revolve about one another by the mysterious force of gravitation. These are Brahman and Reincarnation. Brahman is the only reality. Brahman is not personal as is the God of Christians and Muslims; it is neuter and is referred to as It. Brahman is being, consciousness and joy. It is without parts, without qualities, without action, without emotion; it knows no bonds, no suffering, no decay. It has neither beginning nor end. It is the universal spirit, the one without a second, infinite and immutable. It is unknowable, for it is the knowing subject and can be known only by itself. It is the omnipotent and omniscient cause of the origin, maintenance and dissolution of the universe. It is the sole source of life. Of all the gods that the fears and yearnings of men have devised, it is perhaps the most awe-inspiring as it is the most inscrutable.

The world is a manifestation of Brahman. It exists, potentially or actually, from eternity to eternity. But the question arises why Brahman, which is infinite, void of motive or desire, should thus manifest itself. Two theories seem to have been prevalent: one is that this manifestation is an expression of Brahman's joy and power. When one considers how full the world is of sorrow and suffering, one can hardly refrain from thinking that Brahman might have done better to leave well alone. A more engaging notion is that creation is the spontaneous overflow of the nature of Brahman. It can no more help creating than Newton's apple could help falling to the ground. The authors of the Upanishads knew nothing of the clusters of vast galaxies millions upon millions of light years away. They knew nothing of the myriad stars of the Milky Way, with their attendant planets on numbers of which it is only reasonable to suppose that life exists. The wit of man is hard put to it to conceive of a creator of such immensities. In comparison with these the universe of the Upanishads, with its fourteen worlds, all within time and space, inhabited by various kinds of beings, is a small one. When it came about that Brahman manifested itself in this world, it was by means of an aspect of itself to which the name of Isvara is given. Isvara is the personal God. He is the supreme spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and perfect. He is the first cause, the creator, preserver and destroyer of the world. The world issues from him and returns to him. He creates it by means of the power of Maya. Maya is a very difficult concept to explain. It is generally translated by the word illusion, and is used to denote the deceptive character of the phenomenal world. The world is neither real nor unreal. It is a reflection of Brahman, and its reality consists in the fact that it reflects Reality. The world is illusory, judged from the standpoint of Reality, but it is not an illusion. It is a fact of consciousness. The wise men of India are fond of using the following illustration: you see on a dark night what you take to be a snake and you run away from it; but when a light is brought, you see that what you took for a snake is in fact a rope. It was an illusion that what you saw was a snake, but it was a rope. And the rope has at least this reality, that you can tether an ox with it, tie up your boat with it–or hang yourself. The concept of Maya is intimately related with the concept of Avidya. This is translated as ignorance or false knowledge. It was through Avidya that you mistook the rope for a snake, and it is through Avidya that you ascribe the phantom world and your individual self to the reality of Brahman.

But why did an omnipotent and all good God create a world in which there is so much misery? Can God be the cause of the world in which some are treated well and some ill? God must be unjust and cruel when he inflicts such various lots upon his creatures. No one who has read The Brothers Karamazov can ever forget the horrible story Ivan tells his brother Alyosha when they are discussing the subject of evil. Ivan can believe in a God who punishes the wicked for their sins, but why should innocent children suffer? He tells Alyosha of a brutal landowner who, when one of his serfs, a little boy, had thrown a stone at one of his dogs, and lamed it, has him stripped and, bidding him run, sets his dogs on him and sees him torn to death before his mother's eyes. Ivan says that if there is a God to permit such things, he is wicked, and he refuses to believe in him. The problem of evil, as we know, has always been a stumbling-block to monistic religions. The Hindus have coped with it by means of their belief in reincarnation and the conception of Karma. The body is destroyed at death, but something, what the Hindus call the subtle body, passes on and migrates to another transitory tenement. No one seems to know how the idea of reincarnation entered the Indian consciousness. It has been suggested that it was designed to explain how it comes about that in a world created by an omnipotent deity there should be such inequalities in the lot of human beings, that some should have good fortune, others ill, that some should be born to happiness, others to affliction. This seems more like an explanation invented to justify a notion already accepted, rather than one to account for how it arose. It is more likely that it was taken over by the Aryan invaders from the animistic peoples they found in India who believed that after death their souls lived in trees and animals. To say that the Hindu believes in reincarnation is a gross understatement, it is an intimate conviction, bred in the bone, which he doubts as little as we should doubt that if we put our hand in the fire it would be burnt. Karma is the force that conditions the nature and circumstances of the human being as the result of his actions in previous existences. It is the events of past lives, and of the present life, which determine the character of succeeding lives. If we see our fellow-creatures suffering from misfortune that seems unmerited, if they are born with physical defects, if they meet with untoward accidents, if they are stricken with any of the ills that flesh is heir to, it is not to be ascribed to a malignant fate, but to the sins and errors they have committed in past lives. If Alyosha had been a Hindu, he would have answered Ivan by saying that there was nothing in his dreadful story to impugn the mercy of God. The child was suffering for deeds committed in previous births, so justice was done and, having thus atoned for them, he would be reborn in happier circumstances. So far as I know, this conception offers as plausible an explanation of the existence of evil in the world as has been devised by human wit.

When the Hindu dies, what is called his gross body–his limbs, lungs, heart and bowels–is burnt; but his subtle body–his mind, his senses, his ego–is immaterial and so cannot be destroyed by fire. The subtle body, like Christian in the Pilgrim's Progress, bears the burden of sins committed in the deceased's past lives and accompanies his soul when after an interval, short or long, it migrates into a new abode. Soul is the word translators use to signify the Sanskrit word Atman. But the Atman is more than soul, for the Christian soul is newly created with each birth, whereas the Atman has existed from all eternity. It is the real self and essence of every human being. It passes unchanged through innumerable births, unaffected by the accidents of life. It is the persistent identity of the human being which it inhabits. It does not change with his youth or age, nor knows its joys and sorrows. It is the unmoved witness. It is no bigger than a mustard seed and no smaller than the Infinite. The Atman is not part of Brahman, for Brahman is without parts; it is Brahman. How disturbing, how awful, how terrifying even, it is; how strangely must it affect our attitude towards our fellow creatures if we believe, nay, if we know for a certainty, that in all of us, not only in the good and the clever, but in murderers, thieves, cheats, in liars, hypocrites, humbugs, bores, fools–God dwells!

Isvara creates the world and after a period withdraws it within himself; after another period he re-creates it. During the interval, the souls that are still subject to the penalty of birth and rebirth remain dormant. It is natural to ask why Isvara should create the world again and again. The answer supplied is that opportunity must be given to those souls to atone for their past errors, and the process must be endless, for it had no beginning. The world exists from eternity to eternity. But if you ask why Isvara, omnipotent and all good, did not create human beings who were without sin, the only explanation that seems plausible is that, as the sparks fly upwards, man is born to sin. Just as he would not be man if he were without heart, lungs and bowels, so he would not be man if he were devoid of evil. Evil is a necessary component of him just as (if I may be permitted a flippant comparison) Noilly Prat is a necessary component of a dry martini. Without it you can make a side-car, a gimlet, a white lady, or a gin and bitters, but you cannot make a dry martini.

The aim of the pious Hindu is to achieve knowledge of Brahman. He must so conduct his life that he may overcome the evil which is in him and thus achieve release from this long, long series of birth and rebirth. He must suppress passion. His mind must be pure and he must be quit of lust. He must practise charity and renounce selfish desires. He must not give way to ill-temper, sloth, fretfulness or perplexity. It is well that he should pray to the God of his election, Siva or Vishnu, but he must not fail to remember that these Gods are merely aspects of Brahman. (It is told of Sankara that on his death-bed he prayed to Brahman to forgive him for having worshipped in temples dedicated to other Gods.) He must make a practice of meditation on the One without a Second. When at last he attains the realisation that he is one with Brahman, and he attains it not by ratiocination, but by intuition and the grace of Brahman, saved, he is no longer subject to rebirth. For the remainder of his days, no longer under the sway of the errors, errors of deed, errors of thought, of his past lives, he lives on to atone for the deeds of his present life. It comes to an end, and his self is united for ever with the Eternal Self which is Brahman.

Does he retain his individuality? No. Why should he wish to since the ego is the source of suffering and sin, and to annihilate it has been the purpose of his life?

I have given this brief and inadequate outline of Sankara' s doctrine so that the reader may the better be able to understand the following pages in which I propose to relate what I have been able to learn of the Maharshi's life. It has been written, under the title of Self Realisation, by Narasimha Swami.


The Maharshi was born in 1879, in a village of some five hundred houses about thirty miles from the important town of Madura. He was named Venkataraman. His father, Sundaram Ayyar, was an uncertified pleader in the local magistrate's court, something like a country solicitor in England, and he was a man of importance in the village. He was religious without being devout: "the priest in his house regularly worshipped a set of tiny images and offered the daily food to them before it was served to the family." Sundaram was kindly and hospitable, and it was said that every stranger found a ready seat at his table. There had been ascetics in the family. Once a sannyasin, a religious devotee, came to the house and was neither treated with respect, nor given anything to eat, whereupon he left with a curse that in each generation a member of the family should leave home and as an ascetic beg his food. Sundaram Ayyar's uncle and his elder brother had in fact donned the yellow robe and were seen no more. When Venkataraman was twelve, his father died. The widow, with her three sons and a daughter, went to live at Madura with her brother-in-law, and there the two elder boys went to school. Venkataraman seems to have been a very ordinary lad, fonder of playing games than of learning his lessons, and his idleness caused his family grave concern. When he was sixteen an odd thing happened. An elderly relation came to Madura, and when the boy asked him where he had come from, he replied, "From Arunachala." Venkataraman was suddenly filled with awe and joy at the name of the holy place, the hill which represents one of the eight forms of God, and he was strangely shaken. But the impression passed and to all appearance had no further effect on him. Not very long afterwards, however, he came upon a book that his uncle had borrowed. This was a collection of the lives of Tamil saints. They deeply moved him, but to no lasting consequence, and he continued to lead his usual life, playing football, running races, wrestling and boxing. He was a strong, active, handsome boy. The crisis came some months later. He was in his seventeenth year. His disciples have reported what happened then in his own words: "It was about six weeks before I left Madura for good that the great change in my life took place. One day I sat alone on the first floor of my uncle's house. I was in my normal health . . . . But a sudden and unmistakable fear of death seized me. I felt I was going to die. Why should I have so felt cannot now be explained by anything felt in my body. Nor could I explain it to myself then. I did not, however, trouble myself to discover if the fear was well grounded. I felt I was going to die and at once set about thinking what I should do. I did not care to consult doctors or elders or even friends. I felt I had to solve the problem myself, then and there.

"The shock of fear of death made me at once introspective or introverted. I said to myself mentally, that is, without uttering the words, 'Now death is come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.' I at once dramatised the scene of death. I extended my limbs and held them rigid, as though rigor mortis had set in. I imitated a corpse to lend an air of reality to my further investigation. I held my breath and kept my mouth closed, pressing the lips tightly together so that no sound might escape. 'Let not the word "I", or any other word, be uttered!' 'Well then,' I said to myself, 'this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of the body, am "I" dead? Is the body "I"? This body is silent and inert. But I feel the full force of my personality, and even the sound "I" within myself apart from the body. So "I" is a spirit, a thing transcending the body. The material body dies, but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. I am therefore the deathless spirit.'"

Though Venkataraman did not know it at the time, this condition was what the sages have called illumination. He had read few books and, strange as it may seem, had never heard of Brahman, the One Real, underlying all phenomena, or of the endless succession of births and deaths. He knew nothing of life and had no idea that it was full of sorrow. The result of this crisis was that he lost any interest he had had in his studies and came to regard his friends and relations with indifference. He preferred to sit by himself in the posture proper for meditation and, closing his eyes, lose himself in concentration on the spirit which constituted himself. Almost every evening he went to the temple and, as he stood before the images, waves of emotion overcame him. He wept, not with any feeling of pleasure or pain, but from the overflow of his soul. Sometimes he prayed to Isvara, the controller of the universe and the destinies of mankind, that his grace might descend upon him and become perpetual. He did not know then that there was an Impersonal Real that underlay everything, and that Isvara, aspect of the Real, and himself were identical with it. Often he did not pray at all, but let the deep within himself flow on and into the deep without.

Naturally enough, this behaviour displeased his uncle and exasperated his brother. At school, his master grew impatient with him because he persistently neglected his work. He refused to listen to reason and was blandly indifferent to reproof. One morning, the date is given exactly, Saturday, 29th August 1896, when he had failed to prepare an English lesson, the master ordered him as an imposition to write out three times a passage from Bain's Grammar. He sat upstairs in his uncle's house and made two copies of the lesson; he started on the third and, suddenly, throwing the grammar and the copy aside, sat up in the fitting attitude, with his eyes closed, and lost himself in meditation. His brother, who was watching him, called out, "Why should one who behaves thus retain all this?" Why should one, this meant, who prefers meditation to his studies and to his domestic and social duties, continue to stay at home and pretend to study? It is stated that something like this had often been said to him before, but he had taken no notice of it. This time it went home, and he said to himself, "What my brother says is quite true. What business have I here any longer?" The thought of Arunachala, which some months before had so deeply moved him, recurred to him, and he was seized with a compelling desire to go there. Arunachala called him, and the call was the call of God.

He knew that he must go secretly and, so that his family should not know where he was and fetch him back, that his destination must be concealed. He rose to his feet and told his brother that he would go to school to attend a special class. His brother answered, "Well then, don't fail to take five rupees from the box below and pay my college fees." Venkataraman felt that this was manifestation of help from the Unseen; for with that money he would be able to buy himself a ticket to go by train to the town of Tiruvannamalai, near which was the temple of Arunachala. He looked at an old map and decided that this would not cost more than three rupees. His aunt gave him the five rupees he asked for. He left the balance of two rupees for his brother with the following note, "I have in search of my father and in obedience to his command started from here. This is embarking on a virtuous enterprise. Therefore none need grieve over this affair. To trace this one, no money need be spent.



As a postscript he added, "your college fee has not been paid. Rupees two are enclosed herewith."

By referring to himself as this, by writing dashes instead of his name as a signature, he meant to indicate that he was no longer a person, but a spirit absorbed in the Infinite. From then on he never used the word I, but invariably, when speaking of himself, used the third person. He used it when he gave his devotees the account of his conversion from which I have quoted, and it is only for the convenience of the English reader that his biographer has made him speak in the first person.

Venkataraman went to the station and after taking his ticket was left with two rupees and thirteen annas. The train stopped at Trichinopoly at sunset, and by then he was hungry. He bought a couple of pears and began to eat, but when he had eaten a mouthful he was sated and could eat no more. He was surprised, since till then he had had a good appetite and eaten two full meals a day besides cold rice in the morning and a snack in the afternoon. He had to change at a place called Villupuram. It was three o'clock in the morning. He walked up and down the streets and when the day was somewhat advanced went to an inn and asked for food. The landlord told him he must wait till noon. The boy sat down and became immersed in Samadhi. At noon he was given a meal and in payment offered the innkeeper two annas. "How much have you?" the inn-keeper asked him. "Only two annas and a half," he answered. "Keep it." He started off to the station and bought himself a ticket to a place called Mambalapattu, which was as far as his money would take him and, having arrived there, decided to walk the rest of the way. He walked on and on, and at last came to a temple. He waited till the door was opened and, going in, sat down to meditate. Suddenly he had a vision of dazzling light, which streamed forth and pervaded the pillared hall. It disappeared and he again entered into Samadhi. The priest roused him when it was time to close the temple. He asked for food, but the priest said there was none; then he asked if he might stay there, but was told that no one was allowed to do that. The priest, having a further service to hold, set out with his attendants to another temple at no great distance, and Venkataraman, told by one of them that after it was over he might get something to eat, followed. The priest performed his worship, but when it was over again refused to give the boy food. Then one of the attendants, the temple drummer, cried out, "Why, sir, give him my share." He was given a plate of boiled rice and led to a neighbouring house to get water to drink with it. But while he waited, he fell asleep and slept till morning.

At break of day, Venkataraman set out for the town of Tiruvannamalai, on the outskirts of which, at the foot of the hill sacred to the god, was the great temple of Arunachala. But it was twenty miles away, and he was hungry and very, very tired. He had to get food and then enough money to go by train. He was wearing gold ear-rings, set with rubies, which were worth twenty rupees. He went to a house where a charitable woman gave him a meal and her husband advanced him four rupees on the ear-rings and a receipt, so that, if he wished to, he could redeem them. They gave him another meal later in the day and sent him off with a packet of sweets to the station. On the way, as he had no intention of redeeming his ear-rings, he tore up the receipt. He slept the night at the station and next day caught the train for Tiruvannamalai. On arrival he beheld from afar the towers of the temple of Arunachala. He went there forthwith. He found the gates open and not a soul within; he made his way to the innermost shrine where there was a linga, the formless emblem of Siva, and there in ecstasy offered himself to the God. On his way back to the town, passing a tank, he threw into the water the parcel of sweets that the kind woman had given him the day before, saying to himself, "To this block why give sweetmeat?" By 'this block' he meant his body. While he was wandering about, a man asked him whether he did not want his hair cut off; he said he did, and the man led him to a barber's. He had been noted for the beauty of his long, jet-black locks: he came away with his head clean-shaven, which was the token of Sannyasa, asceticism, and a sign that he was parting with the vanities of the world. He tore his clothes to pieces, keeping only a thin strip to serve as a loin-cloth, and cast the rest away along with what was left of his money. He then removed the sacred thread from his body. This is a thin coil of three cotton threads worn over the left shoulder and allowed to hang diagonally across the body to the right hip. The Brahman is invested with it in his eighth year in a solemn ceremony, and it is the mark of his second birth. By thus ridding himself of it, Ventakaraman discarded his superiority of caste and every notion that the body was the self. He did not take the customary bath after having his head shaved–"Why should this block be accorded the comfort of a bath?" he asked himself; but, as though miraculously, a heavy shower of rain bathed him before he entered the hall of the temple with its thousand pillars, and sat down to meditate.

For some weeks, observing the rule of silence, he remained there, rapt for hours at a time in the bliss of Samadhi. A woman, touched by his youth and impressed by his piety, provided him with the little food he needed. But life was made difficult for him by the mischievous boys in the town who seem to have resented the behaviour of the stranger, no older than themselves, who had adopted the life of an ascetic. They amused themselves by throwing stones and broken pots at him. To escape them he moved into a large pit in the hall where the sacred images were kept. It was damp and dark and dirty, never lit and never swept. As the young Swami sat there, deep in meditation, vermin of all sorts, wasps, ants, mosquitoes, scorpions, attached themselves to his body and drank his blood. His legs were foul with purulent sores. He noticed nothing. One day a certain man, having chased away the boys who were still molesting him, went into the pit and, as his eyes grew used to the darkness he dimly saw the outline of a young face. Shocked, he went into the adjoining garden, where a religious was working with his disciples, told them what he had seen and brought the party back to the pit. They went down and carried the youth to the shrine of another temple and there deposited him. Ventakaraman, deep in Samadhi, with his eyes closed, was unconscious of what they did.

He remained where they had placed him for some weeks and was looked after by a Swami who lived there. The Swami fed him, but so rapt in meditation was the lad, often for eight or ten hours at a stretch, that the food had to be thrust into his mouth. Then he moved into a near-by garden and after a while settled himself at the foot of an illupai tree. He had by then attracted the attention of pilgrims, and numbers came to see him. A devotee, Nayinar by name, attached himself to the pious youth and attended to his bodily needs. Nayinar was a scholar, and would recite to him works expounding the Advaita doctrines, of which at the time Ventakaraman was ignorant. After all, he had till then no more than the elementary education he had been given at the school at Madura. But Nayinar could not be with him always, and during his absence the young Swami was much troubled by the curious and by the wretched boys, who thought he was crazy and constantly played foul practical jokes on him. It happened then that yet another Swami, deeply impressed by the youth's purity of heart and devotion, invited him to go to a shrine in a suburb of Tiruvannamalai where he could carry on his meditation undisturbed. He consented and remained there for eighteen months. During this time an ascetic, known as Palamiswamy, was induced to visit Ventakaraman, and at once, feeling that he had found his saviour, made up his mind to devote himself to his service. He kept the increasing crowds away from him and on his behalf received the offerings of food made by the devout. He gave a cupful to the Swami at noon, his only meal of the day, and returned what was over to those who had brought it.

Venkataraman continued to practise his austerities. He became fearfully thin. His body was smeared with unwashed dirt; his hair, grown again, was a clotted mass, and his nails were so long that he could not use his hands. He sat for weeks on the floor in deep Samadhi, unconscious of the thousands of ants that crawled over and bit him. In order to assume the proper posture of meditation he leant against a wall and for long after people saw with wonder the imprint on it of his back. The young Swami's fame increased and the swarm of pilgrims grew so intolerable that, with the faithful Palamiswamy, he moved to a mango grove, which no one was allowed to enter without the owner's leave. Here he stayed for six months. Palamiswamy had access to a library in the town and was able to bring Venkataraman Tamil books on Vedanta. The Swami read them and explained them to his devoted attendant. The biographer points out that the study of books was not necessary for the Swami's Realisation, since he had already attained it; he studied them in order to be able to answer the questions that were put to him by the seekers after truth who came to see him. It was presumably for this reason that he broke his rule of silence. He had maintained it for three years, and during the rest of his life resumed it from time to time for a period.

For some reason the Swami left the grove and moved to a neighbouring temple. He wished to see whether he could live entirely alone. He said to the good Palamiswamy, "You go one way, beg your food and get on. Let me go another way, beg my food and get on. Let us not live together." The poor man went away, but after a day came back. "Where can I go?" he asked. "You have the words of life." Venkataraman allowed him to stay and he remained in attendance on the Swami until he died twenty years later. The Swami, seeking to avoid the devotees who disturbed his meditations, tried place after place, and presently settled down on a spur of the hill Arunachala, where there was a spring, a cave and a temple to Isvara. His habit was to meditate in the temple and, when Palamiswamy happened to be away, go down to the town with his begging bowl and beg for food.


When Venkataraman ran away from home, his family, distressed, tried in vain to find him, and it was not till two years later that by chance they had news of him. A young man of their acquaintance happened to hear a pious man speak with great reverence of a young saint living at Tiruvannamalai, and on making further enquiries he grew certain that this was the fugitive. He told the family, whereupon Venkataraman's uncle decided to go to Tiruvannamalai. There he was told that the Swami was residing at the mango grove. He went there and sought to enter, but the owner refused to let him do so. He persuaded him, however, to take a note to the Swami. Venkataraman, having read it, agreed to see him. He besought the youth to come home, promising that the family would not interfere with his mode of life, but only wished him to settle near them, so that they might attend to his wants. Venkataraman listened, but answered neither by word nor gesture. His uncle could do nothing but leave him to his devotions.

On his return to Madura he told the boy's mother, whose name was Alagammal, how fruitless his errand had been. It seemed to her that if she could see Venkataraman herself she might induce him to change his mind, and that she resolved to do. She had to wait till her eldest son, a clerk in a government office, was able to get leave and then went with him to Tiruvannamalai. Having arrived, they climbed the hill, for the Swami had left the mango grove by then, and found the lad, for he was still little more, lying on a rock. She was shocked by his matted hair, his filthy body, the long nails and the dirty loin-doth. She begged him to go back with her. He remained silent. Day after day she went to see him, bringing him sweetmeats, and entreated him to have pity on her. He never said a word; he might have been of stone. At last she upbraided him for his callous indifference and burst into tears. Shaken, he got up and withdrew. She sought him again, and again with tears pleaded with him. He did not stir; she might have been speaking to the empty air. Then she addressed the devotees who were there and begged them to intercede for her. One of them, moved by her distress, thus spoke to the Swami:

"Your mother is weeping and praying. Why don't you at least give her a reply? Whether it is yes or no. Swami need not break his silence. Here are pencil and paper. Swami may at least write out what he has to say."

I have said on an earlier page that Venkataraman never used the word 'I' in speaking of himself. I should add here that no one ever addressed him as 'you'. He took the paper and wrote in Tamil:

"The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen–try however hard you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen–do what you will to stay it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to be silent."

The elder boy's leave came to an end, and he had to return to his office. The unhappy mother could not but go with him.

Shortly after this, Venkataraman once more changed his abode to go up the sacred hill, Arunachala, and for some years he dwelt in cave after cave. They are called caves, and doubtless they were, but from photographs you see that some work has been done on them to make them more fit for human habitation. His fame had by then so much increased that a stream of visitors brought him food–cakes, milk, fruit. But since the visitors had to be fed too, Palamiswamy and other devotees, who had gathered round, would go down to the town with their begging bowls and, blowing a conch, call the charitable to their aid. The Swami led his usual life of meditation. As the Sanskrit verse puts it, "For one who rejoices in and is contented with the Self, there is nothing to do." Sometimes offerings of money were made, but these he sternly refused to accept. Sometimes visitors brought books with them which they found hard to understand, and the Swami would read and expound them. What with the books he read and the recitations he heard, he grew versed in Indian thought; and his memory was such, so it was said, that after a single perusal of a book he could repeat it word for word. Ordinarily, however, he held to his rule of silence. We are not told when he began to give more attention to his body; somewhat later photographs show him very clean, with his loin-doth washed, his hair short and his beard trimmed. In later years he had his hair cut and his beard shaved once a month. When I saw him he was, as I have said, neat and dapper.

His visitors were of all kinds. Some came for food, others for help in trouble, others again for the spiritual benefit they might get from one who had achieved liberation. Sometimes they had strange experiences. One, Pillai, employed in the Revenue Department, and so, one may presume, a responsible and intelligent man, when sitting near the Swami, had a vision in which he saw him surrounded by a halo. His body shone like the morning sun. Then there was Echammal. She was a woman who, while still in the early twenties, had lost her husband and children and could not get over her bitter grief. With her father's permission, she went to a place in the Bombay Presidency to serve the holy sages who resided there in the hope that her terrible sorrow might be assuaged. But none of them could help her. She returned to the village and there was told that on the hill of Arunachala was a young and holy saint, who maintained silence and benefited many who approached him with faith. She went there and, climbing the hill, saw the Swami. He sat motionless and said never a word. She stood for an hour in his presence and suddenly felt that the load of grief was lifted from her heart. From that day on she prepared food for him and his followers, and so continued for many years. She had a house at Tiruvannamalai, where she made devotees and visitors welcome. One day, when she was going up the hill with food, she passed a cave and saw two persons standing near-by. One of them was the Swami and the other a stranger. As she went on, she heard a voice say, "When one is here (meaning, when I am here) why go farther up?" She turned to look at the Swami, but there was no one there. When she reached the cave she found him, seated cross-legged as usual, talking to the stranger.

The most noteworthy of the many who came under the magnetic spell of the Swami's personality was a certain Ganapati Sastri. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a man of learning and a poet. He had spent ten years wandering from one holy place to another, and performed penance under the most rigorous conditions. He had collected around him a band of disciples. At length, dissatisfied because he had not gained the peace he sought, he climbed the sacred hill and, prostrating himself, sought refuge at the Swami's feet. The instruction he received filled him with joy, and after this he frequently visited the Swami. At one time he spent seven years at Tiruvannamalai to be near him. The connection is a remarkable proof of the strange power which possessed the Swami; for Sastri was not a youth attracted to an older man; the two were of the same age; he was famous for his immense knowledge and he was a poet of distinction. Scholars and poets have a tendency to think very well of themselves, and Sastri was a masterful man, not apt to knuckle under to others. He caused his own disciples to become the Swami's and himself was the Swami's most ardent devotee. It was he who for the poems he wrote in praise of him contracted his name from Venkataraman to Ramana and instructed his own followers to style him Bhagavan Maharshi. It is as the Maharshi that I shall from now on refer to him.

The following story is told by the Maharshi's biographer. One year, Sastri went to a place called Tiruvottiyur near Madras to perform penance. There was a Ganesha temple there, and Sastri, observing a vow of silence for eighteen days, proceeded to practise meditation. On the eighteenth day, when he was lying down, wide awake, he saw the Maharshi come in and sit by his side. He was astonished, and tried to get up, but the Maharshi, taking hold of his head, pressed him down. This gave Sastri a strange feeling, which he regarded as the Maharshi's grace conferred by his hand. Now, the Maharshi had never left Tiruvannamalai since he first went there and had never in his life been to Tiruvottiyur. When, long afterwards, Sastri narrated the incident, the Maharshi, who was present, answered, "One day, some years ago, I lay down. But I was not in Samadhi. I suddenly felt my body carried up higher and higher, till all objects disappeared, and all around me was one vast mass of white light. Then suddenly the body descended and objects began to appear ... The idea occurred to me that I was at Tiruvottiyur. I was on a high road and went along that road. On one side, and some distance away, was a Ganesha temple. I went in, and talked, but what I said or did, I do not recollect. Suddenly I awoke and found myself lying down in the cave ...."

Sastri found that the Maharshi's description of the place at Tiruvottiyur exactly tallied with the Ganesha temple at which he had carried out his penance.

Time passed. Alagammal, the Maharshi's mother, from time to time went to see him. Her eldest son and her brother-in-law died. The family was left very badly off. Alagammal thought she would be happier if she could live near her son, the Maharshi, so she went to Tiruvannamalai and for a while lived with Echammal. Then the Maharshi moved to what was called the Skandashram. Though he never accepted the money that well-to-do admirers pressed upon him, they were apt to leave it with his disciples so that it might be used for his benefit. When he went to the Skandashram it was thus possible to build a cottage and provide a garden. Alagammal installed herself and cooked for the community. Her youngest son, whose wife had also died, was sent for, so that for her remaining years he might live with his mother. He became a devotee of his brother and donned the yellow robe of the ascetic. Alagammal felt that she had a mother's claims on the Maharshi and that he should treat her with special consideration; but though he would talk with Echammal, he never spoke to her. When she complained of this, he told her that all women were mothers to him, and not she only. His aim was to rid her of worldly delusion and teach her detachment. They were hard lessons to learn, but gradually she learnt them; and when, in 1922, she died, to all appearance he felt no pain, but rather, relief, for he was assured that by a course of good works his mother had atoned for many of the errors of her past lives, so that her soul might rise to some higher region to dwell for a period with the gods and then again inhabit a human body to purge her remaining sins. When someone referred to her passing away, the Maharshi corrected him, "No, not passing away–absorbed." To him death was a triviality, a mere locution, a change to a new life which called for a new name. Alagammal was buried in the plain, a few yards from the road, masonry was built to cover the grave, and this later became a temple and a place of worship.

For six months the Maharshi went almost every day to visit his mother's grave, and one day he stayed there for good. At first, there was to house him no more than a little shed covering the linga, the symbol of Siva, but soon thatched huts were put up near-by. When it was seen that he meant to make this his permanent abode, money was offered by the faithful, and a hall was built where he could spend the day and pass the night. From then on, with his ever-increasing fame more and more visitors came. On ordinary days there would be as many as fifty, but on special occasions, such as the Maharshi's birthday, they came in hundreds. They brought gifts; but he would never accept anything that all present might not share. When eatables were offered, he would pick a little off the plate and distribute the rest. But his fame had drawbacks; the idea got about that he was rich, and one night thieves broke in. The Maharshi was resting as usual on the dais in the hall and four of his disciples were asleep by the windows. The Maharshi told the thieves that there was nothing for them to steal, but that they were welcome to take what they liked. The disciples were eager to make some attempt at resistance, but he would not let them. "Let the thieves play their role," he said. "We shall keep to ours. It is for us to bear and forbear. Let us not interfere with them." He offered to leave the hall with his companions so that the robbers might help themselves to whatever they wanted. The ruffians consented, but before they let them go, brutally beat them. The Maharshi received a blow on the leg. "If you are not satisfied with that," he said, "strike the other leg also." Left to themselves, the thieves broke open the bureaus, looking for money, but found none, for there was none to find, and eventually with a miserable booty left. In the confusion one of the disciples had managed to escape. He ran across the fields to the town for help and returned with the police. They found the Maharshi seated in the shed to which he had retired, discoursing, calm and composed, with his disciples on spiritual matters.

There is more than one account of the daily life at the Ashram. The Maharshi rose between three and four in the morning and, after performing his ablutions, sat on his dais. The disciples began the day with a chant in his honour or with the recitation of one of his own Tamil poems in praise of Arunachala. Then a period was devoted to meditation. By five or six, visitors came and, after prostrating themselves before the Maharshi, went about their own concerns. When they were gone a light meal was eaten of rice or semolina. Then the Maharshi resumed his seat in the hall. The disciples occupied themselves in various ways. Some picked flowers and made them into garlands; some worshipped at the tomb of the Maharshi's mother; others engaged in literary work; they composed, corrected, translated works by the Maharshi, who by then had produced a number of compositions, or by other holy personages; some busied themselves with the preparation of food for the inmates and for the visitors. The Maharshi often helped in these tasks and would cut the vegetables and mix the various ingredients that made up the meal. When he had no literary work on hand, he would polish walking-sticks, repair water bowls, stitch the leaf platters on which food was served, copy works in his own script, bind books and read letters.

Breakfast followed between eleven and twelve, and then work, followed by a rest, was resumed. At about three another meal was eaten, after which visitors were received. As the day closed, meditation was resumed till it was time for the evening meal. All retired at nine. But sometimes the whole night was spent reading aloud, reciting verses or singing the hymns which the Maharshi had composed. At about this time he was commonly spoken of as Bhagavan and in talking of himself he habitually used it. This is translated as 'the blessed one' or 'the divine', and the pious used it in referring to or addressing God. When the devotees came into the Maharshi's presence they prostrated themselves before him. He listened graciously when they read to him the poems they had written in his praise. There seems in all this at first sight some lack of modesty; but it must be remembered that the Maharshi looked upon himself not as a person, but as pure spirit; his body was merely a sheath, there to enable him to work out the Karma of his present existence, and it was not to him that the devout prostrated themselves and chanted hymns of praise, but to Brahman, with which, on achieving realisation many years before, his Atman had become one.

The Maharshi loved animals and had a strange power over them. The Brahmins considered dogs unholy, polluting, and avoided their contact. The Maharshi regarded them as fellow ascetics who had come to atone for the error of their past lives in his proximity. He saw that they were kept clean and comfortable, and lovingly called them the children of the Ashram. He talked to them and gave them instruction which they could understand and obey. There was a calf which had the run of the Ashram, and for which he had a great affection. He believed it to be the present incarnation of the Old Lady of the Greens, who, when the Maharshi first went up the sacred hill, would gather herbs and edible shrubs, which, after cooking, she would carry up to the young Swami. There were often serpents in the caves he lived in, but he would not allow them to be driven away. "We have come to their residence," he said, "and we have no right to disturb them." Squirrels and crows would come to the cave, bringing their young, and take food off the palm of his hand to feed them.

The hill swarmed with monkeys. The Maharshi came to understand their feelings and their cries. When there were quarrels between two groups, they would come to him and he composed their differences. On one occasion, he heard that one of their chieftains was dying and had it brought to the Ashram. It died, and the Maharshi buried it with the honours due to a dead sannyasin. Several times a year the Maharshi, accompanied by the inmates of the Ashram, made it a practice to walk round the sacred hill of Arunachala. There was a good road, shaded by handsome trees, with tanks, shrines and temples on one or the other side. Sometimes they would start after the evening meal and return at dawn. Sometimes they would set out at dawn and take a day or two to come back. The road was no more than eight miles long, and it could easily have been walked in a couple of hours; but the Maharshi, often in a state of Samadhi, walked at the rate of a mile an hour and rested at the end of each mile. One very hot day, when they were tired, hungry and thirsty, a group of monkeys, observing their condition, ran up a jambol tree, shook down a quantity of ripe fruit and ran away without taking any for themselves. The party ate it gladly. Thus the monkeys repaid their obligations to the Maharshi. On another occasion, however, he was less fortunate. He happened to brush against a nest of hornets and in a second the whole swarm was upon him. They dug their stings into the thigh that had disturbed them. "Yes, yes, this is the leg that is guilty," he said. "Let it suffer." He did not drive them away, nor move till they left him. He bore the excruciating pain as the working out of the law of Karma.

Year by year more and more visitors came to the Ashram. They were of all classes. One evening, after dark, he was sitting with a devotee in the hall when they heard someone calling from outside. The devotee went to see who it was and found a man with his family at the gate. The man asked him whether he and his wife and children could approach the Bhagavan and receive his grace. The devotee was surprised since the Maharshi was open to all comers. "Why do you ask?" he said. The man answered, "We are untouchables." The devotee knew that it would be an injustice to the Maharshi even to beg his permission, for caste signified nothing to him, and so told the man that they would be welcome. The party entered and prostrated themselves before the Maharshi. His look dwelt upon them for about ten minutes, and grace was vouchsafed them. The devotee said later that he had seen many rich and notable persons fall at the Maharshi's feet and receive no such favour. I venture to explain what is here meant by grace. The Tamil word which the biographers thus render might perhaps be better rendered with the word 'blessing'. It has something of the force of a magic spell which, once given, cannot be withdrawn; so, when Isaac found that he had given his blessing to Jacob under the impression that he was giving it to Esau he could do nothing but weep and rend his clothes. Grace is a boon, of efficacy to regenerate and sanctify men, "to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist temptation."

The Maharshi seldom spoke. For the most part he remained lost in contemplation; but merely to be in his presence enabled visitors to shake off their troubles and find peace. Sometimes they saw him suffused in brilliant light, but when they told him of this he brushed it off as a matter of no importance. They asked him questions. When they were frivolous, he maintained silence; when, however, he saw that they were in earnest he gave the instruction suited to the enquirer's need. It seemed to many that he could read their minds, for he would on occasion answer questions that they had not ventured to put to him. Many, influenced by his example, left their homes and came to the Ashram, desiring to lead the life of austerity which would lead them to the blessed state of union with the Infinite which is termed illumination. When the Maharshi knew that they had duties, a wife and mother dependent upon them, for instance, he dissuaded them from taking the step. Often persons came to ask whether their avocations could not but interfere with their spiritual efforts. Here is what he told one such enquirer: "It is possible," he said, "to perform all the activities of life with detachment and regard only the Self as real. It is wrong to suppose that, if one is fixed in the Self, one's duties in life will not be properly performed. It is like an actor. He dresses and acts and even feels the part he is playing; but he knows that he is not that character, but someone else in real life. In the same way, why should the body-consciousness or the feeling 'I am the body' disturb you once you know that you are not the body, but the Self? Nothing that the body does should shake you from abidance in the Self. Such abidance will never interfere with the proper and effective discharge of whatever duties the body has, any more than the actor's being aware of his real status in life interferes with his acting a part on the stage."

I need touch but very briefly on the convictions which the Maharshi, as time passed, had come to entertain, and by which his life was regulated; for they were founded on the form of Vedanta promulgated by the great Sankara which I have described as best I could in the earlier part of this essay. The doctrine is pessimistic. That is not to condemn it. It is rash to decry a persuasion that since the beginning of recorded time has been held by sages, poets, and men of the world. The doctrine declares that the world, life and the state of man are evil. Man is destined to pass from birth to death, from death to life, hundreds, nay, thousands of times, until by the grace of Brahman he gains liberation and so is united with the Infinite. To the Maharshi the world was a place of suffering and sorrow. Such pleasures as it offers are negligible since they are transitory. What changes cannot be eternal, and only the eternal has value. But the cause of suffering is in ourselves alone. It is due to our ignorance. To those who came to the Maharshi to resolve their doubts, to pour out their troubles, he would tell to look into their own selves, their true selves, and so gain the happiness off salvation.

The Self he spoke of was situated in the heart, but not the heart that the anatomist dissects, the heart that the lover knows. It was Infinite Reality. So, when Mahatma Gandhi sent an emissary to see him who, on his departure, asked him, "What message may I take him?" the Maharshi answered, "What message is needed when heart speaks to heart?" Man, he taught, can only achieve freedom from bondage, the bondage of birth and rebirth, by disentangling the knot that binds the Atman to the ego. When men asked how it was possible to attain this blessed state, he told each one to ask himself, "Who am I?" He sought to impress upon the aspirant that he was not the body which he temporarily inhabited, but the Self which was eternal. It was on this that he must concentrate his mind. Many complained that when, with this object, they engaged in meditation, discordant thoughts crossed their minds. The Maharshi told them that this was no matter. They must discard them, and again fix the mind on the Self, and in course of time it would become easy. He was very tolerant of human weakness and taught that all methods of meditation were good. Each must choose for himself the way that suited his temperament and came more readily to him. Some might find that they could avoid distraction by such methods as fixing their attention on the space between the eyebrows or on the tip of the nose. These were Yoga practices, and the Maharshi regarded them with misgivings. The better way was to occupy the mind with such an object of devotion as Siva or Vishnu. But even this was no more than a device to help the aspirant to fix his mind on the real subject of the quest, the Self Realisation is not gained by knowledge, but by inspiration. When the aspirant has made his own the knowledge that he is not the physical body (the sense organs) nor the mind (which is only the sum of his thoughts) and has discovered that the intellect is merely the instrument of the subject and not the subject itself, when, in short, he has destroyed the ego, so that only the Self remains, he will by the grace of Brahman achieve Realisation. But though the steps towards Realisation can be described, Realisation is indescribable. It can only be felt.

The Maharshi was a fatalist. Philosophers have discussed at length this matter of free will and determination, but, so far as I know, they have never come to a conclusion that is spiritually satisfactory. Unless I am mistaken, they appear to believe that we are able to choose whether we shall take one course rather than another, but having taken it, it was inevitable that we should do so. Suppose we come to a fork of the road when travelling and, uncertain whether to take the road on the right or the road on the left, toss up a coin, deciding that if it comes down heads we will take the road on the right and if tails, on the left–was it fated that the coin should come down heads and so lead us to take the road we actually took? When we look back on our lives, we, who are not philosophers, can hardly fail to recognise that much that has happened to change our life's course looks as though it had been due to mere chance. The Maharshi, I think, would have said that this is an illusion. People continually came to him for guidance. Some were concerned to know whether they would be justified in taking an active part in the struggle at long last to liberate their country from the foreign yoke; others, horrified at the appalling poverty of the masses of India, asked whether it would be right for them by engaging in social service to do what they could to alleviate their wretched lot. The Maharshi told them first of all to realise the Self in themselves, for that was the most important thing; after that they could do what they liked; but since nothing happens except by divine dispensation, nothing they might do could affect it. "If you are destined not to work, work cannot be got even if you hunt for it; if you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it; you will be forced to engage in it. So, leave it to the Higher Power; you cannot renounce or retain as you will." It was natural that the question should be put to him: If what is destined to happen will happen, is there any use in prayer or effort? It does not seem to me that he answered the question. "There are only two ways to conquer destiny and be independent of it," he replied. "One is to enquire for whom is this destiny and discover that only the ego is bound by destiny, and not the Self, and that the ego is non-existent. The other way is to kill the ego by completely surrendering to the Lord, by realising one's helplessness and saying all the time, 'Not I, but thou, O Lord,' and by giving up all sense of 'I' and 'Mine', and leaving it to the Lord to do what he likes with you. . . . True surrender is love of God for the sake of love and nothing else, not even for the sake of salvation."


The Maharshi was growing old. He was approaching the age of seventy. He had long been troubled with rheumatism, occasioned, it was thought, by the many years he had spent living in caves, and his eyes began to fail him. Towards the end of 1948 a small growth was noticed on his left elbow; it turned into a painful tumour and had to be operated on. The wound healed, but in a little while the growth, judged by then to be cancerous, returned, and a further operation was necessary. The surgeons decided that the only hope of saving the Maharshi's life was to amputate the arm, but this he refused. Smiling, he said, "There is no need for alarm. The body itself is a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it?" He grew worse. Various methods were tried to stay the disease and for a while his general health improved. Then the tumour re-appeared and another operation was performed; a second tumour arose near the armpit and swelled rapidly. The doctors agreed that from then on they could do nothing but administer palliatives. The Maharshi suffered great pain, but seemed indifferent to it. Throughout, he remained unconcerned, and if he submitted to treatment it was only to please the devotees. "If I were asked," he said, "I should always say, as I have said from the beginning, that no treatment is necessary. Let things take their course." On one occasion he said to one of his faithful attendants, "When we have finished a meal, do we keep the leaf-plate on which we have eaten it?" On another, he told him that he who has right knowledge rejoices to be relieved of the body, as a servant rejoices to lay down his burden at the place of delivery. During the two years his fatal illness lasted, the Maharshi continued as long as possible his daily routine. He took his morning bath an hour before sunrise, and sat up at fixed hours to grant the favour of his grace to the pilgrims who came to receive it. News of his condition spread throughout India and they came in hundreds. His seventy-first birthday was celebrated with the usual ceremonies, and he listened to the hymns that were chanted in his honour. The elephant of the temple of Arunachala came and, after bowing down to the Maharshi, stood for a while, and then took leave of him by touching his feet with his trunk. It was plain that he could not live much longer. Congestion of the lungs supervened, but when a doctor came, bringing medicine to relieve him, he waved him aside. He told him that it was not necessary and that everything would come right within a little while. He bade his attendants retire and leave him alone. That evening, reclining on his bed, he gave his last blessing to a great gathering of devotees. At sunset he asked to be raised to a sitting position, the ritual posture of meditation. A group of his disciples, seated on the temple ramp opposite the room in which he sat, began to chant the hymn to Arunachala which long ago he had composed. His eyes opened and tears of ecstasy rolled down his cheeks. His heart stopped beating. The Maharshi had entered the Reality of the One without a Second. At the moment he died, a comet moved slowly across the sky, reached the top of the sacred hill, Arunachala, and disappeared behind it. It was seen by vast numbers, and they ascribed the strange phenomenon to the passing of a great soul.
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