Another trip away from Shantivanam took me to the sacred mountain of Arunachala. I went there because I had gradually learned that Abhishiktanada had been a student of Sri Ramana Maharshi and I had come to read some transcripts of speeches Maharshi had given in the 1930's. Maharshi is renown in India as a holy man of the advaitic tradition - something that profoundly interested me at the time. This was my journal entry of that trip...
At Ramanashram in Tiruvanamalai followers go around the advaitic teacher’s grave chanting. They sit before photos of him and meditate. They speak of his “presence” at the ashram. I wonder if it must have been similar with the followers of Jesus just after his death. Sri Ramana Maharshi has been dead for about 30 years. In the early Christian Church, the oral tradition was just beginning to be written down at this point. Much directness with the actual Jesus had been lost by this time. I imagine it is the same with Maharshi. Though many people remember him, I wonder if their interpretations are accurate.
The mountain of Arunchala looms above the ashram. Here hermits live in various caves throughout the rocky cliffs. There are patches of wind-swept grass along the path up the mountain. You see many workers harvesting the grass crop as you ascend. They will usually beg westerners for money, suddenly assuming pitiful expressions and stances where a moment before they were vigorously working.
The mountain is dotted with a few large mango trees. Near one of them sits a cave where Maharshi lived and meditated for seventeen years of his life. Today the space is inhabited by an ascetic hermit known as Maniswami. He has lived there for ten years. In that time he has never been off the mountain, has visited neither the ashram or the city below.
Maniswami is in his sixties. Thin with dark, rough skin, he has piercing shining dark brown eyes which share a face that is eternally smiling.
I meditate in the cave for an hour or so. The actual opening is sheltered by a room which has been constructed on the side of the mountain. It stands about 10 x 15 in size with a small sleeping space, a shelf with a dozen or so books, and a small kitchen area. The cave itself is not much larger. It contains an altar to the god Shiva built out of cement blocks. There is a raised area around the altar which allows for sitting. The whole situation is somehow more to the point of Maharshi’s teachings than the activities of the ashram below.
Afterwards, we talk. Maniswami tells me in his broken English about the two times he met Maharshi. Nothing spectacular, just that he was in awe of the man who he now tries to emulate. He often says “Shiva” softly, confidently to himself as we speak. It is a habit to help him remain focused, he tells me.
“Moon will soon be coming,” he tells me in his strange phrasing. He gestures with his open hands toward the cave. This is his way of inviting me to spend the night with him. I cannot refuse. I go back to the ashram to gather my few belongings.
Upon my return we enjoy a meal together. It is simple. Sweet apple bread, fresh warm milk with medicine root, and bananas. The sun is going down but Maniswami’s eyes still radiate. He chants a chapter from the Bhagavad Gita in the native Sanskrit. It is like a song, rhyming and beautiful. Later, we go back into the cave for sleep. The incense that perpetually burns relaxes me. But the sound of bus horns from the city below echo about the cave walls. I wonder if such would have affected Maharshi during his seventeen years in this space.
I awake before sunrise. The bus horns are gone. I feel strength in the dark silence from the rhythms of Maniswami’s breathing. I meditate until the false dawn begins to bring faint light into the cave’s opening.
The temple at Tiruvanamalai was visible from the cave entrance. Notice the pilgrims at the bottom of the photo making their way up the mountain path to the cave.
Outside the air is very cool. I watch the morning mist blow up the side of Arunachala. It is like a waterfall flowing backwards. The sun rises over the city. Bus horns begin again. Maniswami and I enjoy some hot tea with fresh ginger. I meditate again. Other westerners begin to visit for the day. I leave a 10 rupee donation on the altar and return to the ashram. There is nothing here like the holiness of the mountain. Everyone seems to be living in the past. Worshipping a dead man rather than following his insights. I sit for a long time near Maharshi’s shrine and watch wild monkeys play in an open garden.