You don’t shave the image in the mirror
[ R. Narayana Iyer did personal service to Sri Ramana. He wrote a number of articles in The Mountain Path under the pen name Vishnu. When he first went to Sri Ramana as a young man, he was a modernist and a free thinker. ]
In 1929, when employed as Sub-Registrar at Chetput, a town 30 miles from Tiruvannamalai, I was an out-and-out skeptic with no religion in me, scoffing in my references to sadhus, sannyasis and swamis, whom I considered impostors and parasites on society, who exploited the credulous folk for personal ends.
My only friend and constant companion was Dr. Ramakrishna Iyer, son of Lakshmi Ammal, a friend and playmate of Sri Bhagavan in his boyhood days at Tiruchuzhi. He was well acquainted with Bhagavan and an occasional visitor to the Ashram. He once asked me to accompany him to Tiruvannamalai during the festival of Karthikai Deepam.
The pomp and pageantry of the temple festival had no attraction for me, yet I agreed, not wishing to hurt my friend’s feelings. However, I requested him to let me stay with my parents, who had gone for the festival and were staying in the town. He agreed. But on seeing the number of persons huddled in a small house in the town, I consented to stay at the Ashram, which was less crowded. On the way, I repeated my opinion about the so-called holy men and said to Dr. Iyer, “I will not come in or join in any of your ‘foolish acts’. If by chance I meet your Swami, I will not prostrate before him. I mean no insult but I cannot do what is against my conviction.”
We walked in. A man in a white loincloth, a towel suspended on his shoulder, a kamandalu in one hand and a walking stick in another, stopped in his walk on seeing us. My friend hastened his steps and I slowly followed. He was greeted very kindly and was asked about the welfare of his mother and brother. Out of courtesy I looked at the Maharshi. What a wonderful face and what a welcoming smile; bewitching, fascinating and a powerful look too!
In a moment I was at his feet on the gravel ground! I soon regained my self-possession and felt ashamed. With a pleasing smile he said, “You have a couple of days’ leave, is it not so? You can stay in the Ashramam.” I dared not say anything. I was dazed. Soon I recovered and wanted to find out if he had written any books. I got a copy of Reality in Forty Verses in Tamil. I tried to read the first stanza. I could not follow. The words seemed too closely packed and somehow jumbled together to form a stanza. I was flabbergasted. “What”, thought I, “can he not say what he has to say in some intelligible language?” Someone nearby said that it had been arranged that the Maharshi himself would explain to us the Forty Verses that night.
At night, the Maharshi sat on a dais inside a shed containing his mother’s samadhi. About half a dozen of us were seated on the ground before him. A solemn stillness pervaded the air. There was absolute silence. Maharshi read the first stanza. The mere reading of the stanza made the meaning as simple as simplicity itself ! Stanza by stanza he read and explained in a voice that was so sweet and melodious and coming as though from ‘somewhere’. The climax came. Explaining one verse he said, “God cannot be seen with our eyes or known by our sense perceptions. This is what is meant by the saying: To see God is to become God.”
A stalwart person with a severe expression named Dandapani Swami, interposed: “Is Bhagavan saying this out of personal experience?” The question asked bluntly with such naivete was answered with equal candour: “Else would I dare to say so?” What takes so much time to think flashed upon me in a moment. God cannot be known by our sense faculties. The only way was to become God. If God were to appear before one in flesh and blood here He is. My body experienced a thrill from somewhere deep down in me. Again and again, thrill after thrill quivered and shook my frame. I went out to compose myself.
Well, I seemed caught in a net! The more I was with him; the more I wanted to be with him. But I was shortly transferred to Arni, another town within the same radius of thirty miles. Here I missed the company of the doctor friend. Losing all delight in all other things, I turned the monthly visits to the Ashram to weekly ones, coupling Sundays with other holidays. And I was always welcome at the Ashram.
Sri Bhagavan had his head shaved once a month on the full moon day. Natesan was the barber who used to do this service. Bhagavan sat on a stool and Natesan would stand and shave him. Once Sri Bhagavan suggested to Natesan in all seriousness that it would be more comfortable for the barber to sit on the stool while he himself would sit on the floor!
I used to translate from Tamil to English Bhagavan’s replies to letters received by him. I had made friends with the attendants, Madhavaswami, Satyanandaswami, Krishnaswami, Rangaswami and others. They did not protest when I gradually introduced personal services to Sri Bhagavan, such as massaging his legs, fomentations, etc.
There were occasions when his muscles became rigid or painful. After his work like cutting vegetables and directing the task of the kitchen workers in the early hours of the morning, he would be on his couch in the hall sitting there or just reclining like a statue cut in alabaster or like one posing for a painter or sculptor. Sitting in this manner all day made his muscles hard and inflexible and so he required some massage. Thus, by slow degrees a sort of familiarity and intimacy grew up between Bhagavan and me.
Once I asked, “Bhagavan, you left your home in Madurai where your relatives had been treating you with love and kindness and spending money upon your education. You misappropriated their money for your train fare to Tiruvannamalai. You sneaked your way to the railway station so as not to be noticed by anyone. You posed yourself as a pilgrim who had lost his kit. Was all this straightforward and proper?” He was silent for a while and then replied, “This can be explained. It is said in the Kural that even falsehood is akin to truth when it is unblemished good and harms none.”
I once told Bhagavan, “I have been here for many years. People meditate and get into samadhi. I close my eyes for a minute and the mind travels round the world ten times and so many long forgotten things come up.” Upon this he said, “Why do you concern yourself about others? They may meditate or sleep and snore. Look to yourself. Whenever the mind goes astray bring it back to the quest.”
Once a few very learned Sanskrit scholars were seated in the hall discussing portions of the Upanishads and other scriptural texts with Bhagavan. I felt in my heart, how great these people are and how fortunate they are to be so learned and to have such deep understanding and ability to discuss with our Bhagavan. I felt miserable. After the pandits had taken leave, Bhagavan turned to me and said, “What?” looking into my eyes and studying my thoughts, “This is only the husk ! All this book learning and capacity to repeat the scriptures by memory is absolutely of no use. To know the Truth, you need not undergo all this torture of learning. Not by reading do you get the Truth. Be Quiet that is Truth. Be Still, that is God.”
Then very graciously he turned to me again, and there was an immediate change in his tone and attitude. He asked, “Do you shave yourself?” Bewildered by this sudden change, I answered trembling that I did. “Ah”, he said, “For shaving you use a mirror, don’t you? You look into the mirror and then shave your face; you don’t shave the image in the mirror. Similarly, all the scriptures are meant only to show you the way of Realization. They are meant for practice and attainment. Mere book learning and discussions are comparable to a man shaving the image in the mirror.” From that day onwards my long-standing sense of inferiority vanished once for all.
Once I cried and told the Maharshi that I knew nothing about Vedanta nor could I practise austerity, being a householder. I prayed to him to help me by showing the Reality or the way to it. I also frankly told him that his method of Self-enquiry was too hard for me. He then graciously said, “You know Ulladu Narpadu [Truth in Forty Verses]. It imparts Pure Truth, deals with it and explains it. Go on reading it verse by verse. The words of the verses will in course of time vanish and Pure Truth (sat) alone will shine, like the snake relinquishing its skin and coming out shining.”
One day I felt puzzled by the teaching that everything in the world is maya or illusion. I asked Bhagavan how with the physical existence before our eyes we can all be unreal and non-existent? Bhagavan laughed and asked me whether I had any dream the previous night. I replied that I saw several people lying asleep. He said, “Suppose now I ask you to go and wake up all those people in the dream and tell them they are not real, how absurd would it be! That is how it is to me. There is nothing but the dreamer, so where does the question of dream people, real or unreal, arise; still more of waking them up and telling them that they are not real. We are all unreal, why do you doubt it? That alone is real.” After this explanation I never had any doubt about the unreality of the objective world.
About the jivanmukta, Bhagavan said, “The jivanmukta is one without any thoughts or sankalpas. The thought process ceases completely in him. Some Power makes him do things. So he is not the doer but the one who is made to do.”
Bhagavan’s compassion has graced my life many times – On the day my wife died, it rained in torrents. I was afraid that the cremation would be delayed. Bhagavan sent some Ashram workers to help me. When Bhagavan was told that the rain was too heavy for the funeral, he said, “Go on with it, never mind the rain.” When the body was taken to the cremation ground, the rain stopped, and after the body was burnt to white ashes, it started raining again.
In 1942, I wanted to get my daughter married. I had a suitable boy in mind but he raised some objections. Anxiously, I showed his letter to Bhagavan, who said, “Don’t worry, it will come off.” Soon afterwards the boy himself came and the marriage was celebrated.
It is our greatest fortune that the Supreme Consciousness appearing in the garb of a human body graciously undertook to come down to our level of understanding and bore the tremendous task of imparting to us the atma vidya. The contact and impact that I have had with Bhagavan have been such as to make me feel that knowingly or unknowingly I must have done something in the course of my lives to deserve this unique blessing.
Face to face with Ramana Maharshi
R. Narayana Iyer