For most of the last forty years I have visited India every year. There is no compelling reason for me to do so, yet here I am again in my seventieth year. At first ours was a passionate love affair. My beloved could do no wrong. Then, as she yielded her secrets it became more complicated. It was as if I was observing her through strange spectacles: one rosy lens revealed her eternal spiritual glory…Bharat, Land of Light! And the other, a clear glass, presented the ugly horror of a primitive samsara. Joy and sorrow woven fine.
When I first came to Tiruvannamalai in the Seventies it was a peaceful small town and Ramana, sad to say, the sage of Arunachala, was more or less forgotten. It took thirty minutes to find someone in the ashram who could give me a room. Ramana’s Samadhi glowed with an amazing power and a friend and I witnessed an extraordinary miracle there. Then Papaji died and the fledgling Western spiritual world discovered Ramana. At the same time in the early Nineties a famous Tamil film star sang a song in a movie about Arunachala and Ramana. He said that if you circumambulated Arunchala on the full moon you would get everything you wanted. It was an old easily misinterpreted idea. It meant that if you seek and realize the truth, you will have gained everything you ever wanted from life. But needy devotional minds read something else into those words and Arunachala was meant to deliver a male ‘issue,’ money for a daughter’s dowry, health for a sick relative and other worldly things too numerous to mention. People began to walk around the mountain in the thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands. I missed the big one this year by design but I recall one a few years back that certainly attracted a million people and lasted the better part of three days.
With all this attention the town became a chaotic small city. The main temple flourished and the ashram, once a peaceful haven, became a noisy busy pilgrimage center. It became so popular that the management installed a cell phone jammer to keep the Indians from talking on their phones in the meditation hall, much to the consternation of the Western meditators who became vocal and aggressive and attacked the management. Indians are polite to a fault and conceal their contempt for rude foreigners behind a dispassionate façade, but the management was having none of it so the meditators were forced come up with another solution. At one point some clever entrepreneur began selling expensive medallions that were meant to neutralize the micro waves and guarantee peace of mind. Ramana must be turning over in his fancy Samadhi i.e. grave.
The area around the ashram grew and grew and Chengam Road, once unpaved, now resembles any ugly filthy noisy uncontrolled Indian street. Whereas once only a handful of sincere sadhus came to quietly pursue their seeking, Ramana Nagar now teems with ‘spiritual’ travelers of all ilk, from hirsute malordous hippies to buttoned down middle class tourists from suburban Western McMansions in huge busses, eager to garner a credential for their spiritual resume. I found it very amusing one day when a bus load was forced to avert their eyes as a beggar defecated in the gutter running in front of the ashram.
As things deteriorated my love affair turned into a love/hate relationship. It was my habit to stay three or four months and then head back to Europe or the States in the spring. Usually the first three months was all love. I was unaffected by the shallowness, the ugliness, the shit in the streets, the pretentious Western gurus and the Neo-Advaitic lifestylers. But slowly it got to me and I started counting the days until my plane left. At least twice, as my neighborhood lost its charm, I gave away all my possession and swore never to return. But somehow, not really by my own will, I found myself returning. Then, a couple of years ago, things changed again and I actually regretted leaving. Maybe I just let go of the memory of the good old days or maybe as death approaches I can’t be bothered by the silliness of this world.
In any case three days ago I found myself landing at the airport in Madras, exhausted by the long trip waiting for India to work her magic on my weary mind. In the West you can wait forever to be reminded of the Light that illumines every atom of the visible. Everything you see refers only to its small self or to some tawdry emotion or absurd idea, but India, lurching chaotically and exuberantly into the Internet Age, still has her magic. As the taxi stalled in heavy traffic at the bottom of a filthy dark underpass I looked out window and saw a sign painted on the cement “Baby Jesus Temple.” It was enough to send my mind to that far away every present state that is the essence of all things. I left modern India and entered Bharat, the Land of Light.
It happens like that here. A few years ago I was sitting in my favorite café sipping my chocolaty milky coffee reading the paper when I came across this article with the following caption:
Farmer Takes Samdhi, Turns God
Bodi. (Bhavnagar district) Dec 26
By choosing to give up his life at an appointed hour, a 70-year-old farmer, revered in the village for his piety, has acquired the status of a god in his Bharwad community of shepherds.
On Wednesday morning, Hemubhai Talasibhai lowered himself to a five feet deep pit he had dug the previous day. A 5,000-strong crowd gathered around the pit. Villages say he sat cross-legged with a coconut in his hands. In a couple of minutes, they swear, they saw the "soul of Talasibhai leave his body".
Then, as they had been told, the villagers put handfuls of mud over the body, worshipping their new god, Talasibhai, who had "taken samadhi". The villagers said they hadn't buried him alive; it was only after they realized that he had given up life that they cast fistfuls of earth into the pit. The spot Talashibhai had chosen for samadhi was close to a temple to his guru in the middle of his field.
Mohanbhai Bharwad, son of Talashibhai, says the samadhi-taking had been delayed for over five years. The family had opposed the old man's decision. "But this time he was adamant. The previous night he said his guru had sent for him, and he was going to leave his body. We tried our best to change his mind - but he was firm," said Bharwad.
Villagers say Talasibhai was a very "simple and religious man". "He would wake up at 4 in the morning, come to the fields and pray for long hours. In the evening too, he would come and pray near the temple of his Guru - Shri Shivabhai - for hours. People of the nearby villages had already started treating him as a saint," said Khedubhai, a villager who witnessed the samadhi-taking.
By afternoon, local police got to know of the event. But by the time they reached the spot the samadhi-taking and the burial was over. They had the body taken out, an on-the-spot post-mortem was conducted and Talasibhai declared dead.
Said Talasibhai's son, "We let the police do their job. What was the point in stopping them after my father was already gone?" He said he had noticed a certain impatience in his father's pleadings for seeking samadhi recently: "My father even told my mother that their journey as husband and wife was over, and that he had to go. The night before the samadhi, Talasibhai stayed awake performing Ram Dhun. About 9 am he calmly lowered himself into the pit. He looked peaceful."
So, if you want to come to India, don’t come looking for anything. Just come and let India reveal herself to you. It will happen.