As I Saw Him: By S.S. Cohen

THE THIRD OF FEBRUARY 1936, early morning, saw my horse cart rolling on the uneven two-and-a-half mile road from Tiruvannamalai railway station to Ramanasramam. Two sleepless nights in the train from Bombay found me tired in body and mind. My head was swimming and my senses confused. I had hoped for some rest at the Ashrama, but when I arrived there at last there was not a soul to be seen anywhere.

Presently, a corpulent man with a giant, rugged head and scarlet-red lips from perpetual chewing of betel nuts appeared. “Is that Mr. Cohen? Follow me quickly before the Maharshi goes out for his walk,” he called out. I obeyed, extremely eager to see the great sage who had haunted me night and day for three long months. I was led to a small dining room, at the door of which I was asked to remove my shoes. As I was trying to unlace them my eyes fell on a pleasant-looking middle-aged man inside the room, wearing nothing but a koupin, with eyes as cool as moonbeams, sitting on the floor before a leafplate nearly emptied and beckoning me with the gentlest of nods and the sweetest smile imaginable.

Bhagavan on the couch

It was then the Ashrama’s custom to honour the newcomer by giving him his first meal in a line directly opposite the Maharshi’s seat and at hardly four feet distance from it. I took no notice of the cakes, although my hand fingered them, but directed my whole look at the peaceful countenance of Sri Bhagavan. He had by then finished eating and was slowly rolling a betel leaf for a chew, as if deliberately to give me a little more of his company, when a man entered from the back door, which was the passage to the small kitchen, and in a low voice said something in Tamil to him. Then Maharshi rose, looked at me by way of farewell, and left the room. I hastily swallowed half a cake, gulped the cup of tea and went out in search of my room to which my luggage had been taken, when someone announced that Sri Maharshi was coming to the Darshan Hall. I rushed straight to the Hall with my hat and full suit on. Behind me calmly walked in the tall, impressive figure of the Maharshi with leisurely though firm steps.

I was alone in the Hall with him. Joy and peace suffused my being – such a delightful feeling of purity and well-being at the mere proximity of a man, I never had before. My mind was already in deep contemplation of him – him not as flesh, although that was exquisitely formed and featured, but as an unsubstantial principle which could make itself so profoundly felt despite the handicap of a heavy material vehicle. When after a while I became aware of my environment, I saw him looking at me with large, penetrating eyes, wreathed in smiles rendered divinely soothing by their childlike innocence.

Bhagavan was then enjoying the sound, robust health of middle age and could very well afford to be available at almost all hours of the day to devotees. The years 1936-1938 were very blissful indeed to us, when we could gather round his couch and speak to him as intimately as to a beloved father, tell him all our troubles and show him our letters without let or hindrance. After 8:00 p.m. when the Hall contained only the local residents, we sat round him for a ‘family chat’ till about ten o’clock.

Then he related to us stories from the Puranas or the lives of saints, yielding to transports of emotion when he depicted scenes of great bhakti, or great human tragedies to which he was sensitive to the extreme. Then he shed tears which he vainly attempted to conceal.

On one occasion, Bhagavan recited from memory a poem of a Vaishnava saint in which occurred the words, “Fold me in Thy embrace, O Lord,” when the arms of Bhagavan joined in a circle around the vacant air before him and his eyes shone with devotional ardour, while his voice shook with stifled sobs which did not escape our notice. It was fascinating to see him acting the parts he related and be in such exhilarated moods as these.

Some disciples and his attendants used to sleep on the floor of the Hall at night. Bhagavan’s sleep was very light. He woke every now and then and almost always he found an attendant nearby fully awake to say a few words to, and then sleep again. Once or twice he would go out for a few minutes and, by 5:00 a.m, when the Veda chanters came from the township, they found him fully awake and chatting in a soft, subdued voice. Now the parayanam would get started and go on for little less than an hour, during which everybody abstained from talking and Bhagavan often sat cross-legged and completely indrawn. Then he went out on the hill and returned at about 7:30, when visitors and devotees began trickling in – men, women and children, till they filled the Hall by about 9:00 a.m. This morning hour of the parayanam was the best time of the day for meditation. The congregation was small, women and children absent, the weather cool, and the mind had not yet completely emerged to run its usual riot. Over and above this, Bhagavan then shone in the stillness of his samadhi, which permeated the hall and the meditation of his disciples.

Bhagavan went out at his usual hours. These were : 9:45, for a few minutes; 11 o’clock, for luncheon, followed by the midday stroll in Palakottu; evening, 4:45 on the hill, preceding the evening Veda parayanam; and 7 o’clock for dinner.

The constant influx of visitors was of some help in that it afforded the much-needed relaxation to an otherwise tense life. Secondly, the peculiar problems which visitors brought with them were a useful study. Watching the masterly ways Bhagavan tackled these problems was a sadhana in itself.

Rationality was the very essence of his arguments, while the ultimate answer to all the questions was always the same, namely, “Find out who you are.” He first met every questioner on his own ground, and then slowly steered him round to the source of all problems – the Self – the realisation of which he held to be the universal panacea. When the audience shrank, he at times became humorously autobiographical about his early school and home life or about his many experiences on the hill with sadhus, devotees, etc. As time passed and the Master’s state of mind and ideas took firm root in me, I ceased to ask questions, or to intercept him in his walks outside the Ashram grounds, as I used to do in the first six months. The final conclusion to which I came in the end of these six months I reported one day to Bhagavan. He showed his gracious approval by a gesture of finality with his hand and said: “So much lies in your power, the rest must be left entirely to the Guru, who is the ocean of grace and mercy seated in the heart as the seeker’s own Self.”

The builders had put the finishing touches to my small mud hut in Palakottu garden on April 4, 1936. I completed my arrangements for the warming ceremony, known here as griha pravesham, to take place the next day. The invited devotees gathered in my hut, and about noon the Master himself strolled in, on his way back from his usual walk and, refusing the special chair I had ready for him, he squatted like the others on the mat covered floor. After the ceremony, Bhagavan left. I followed him from a distance, waited till the devotees cleared away and approached him. “Bhagavan,” I started, “you have given a home for my body, I now need your grace to grant the eternal home for my soul, for which I broke all my human ties and came.” He stopped in the shade of a tree, gazed silently on the calm water of the tank for a few seconds and replied: “Your firm conviction brought you here; where is the room for doubt?” “Where is the room for doubt, indeed?” I reflected.

Three years had passed since that griha-pravesham day. “Bhagavan,” I said on a day then near my hut, “I feel a strong urge to go on Yatra (pilgrimage). I feel that I need a change for some months, which I intend spending in holy places.” He smiled approval and enquired about the date and time of my starting and whether I had made arrangements for my stay in the various places I was to visit. Extremely touched by his solicitude, I answered that I was going as a sadhu, trusting to chance for accommodation.

For three months thereafter I lay on a mat in Cape Comorin, immensely relieved of the mental tension which the Master’s physical form had caused me. In solitude I plunged into reflections on his blissful silence and calm repose. The stillness of his mind haunted me everywhere I went – in the beautiful, gem-like temple of the youthful virgin goddess, on the shores of the vast blue ocean around me and the sand dunes, in the fishing villages and endless stretches of coconut groves, which ran along the sea shore and the interior of the Cape. I felt his influence in the depth of my soul and cried: “Oh Bhagavan, how mighty you are and how sublime and all pervasive is the immaculate purity of your mind! With what tender emotions do we, your disciples, think of your incomparable qualities, your gentleness; your serene, adorable countenance; your cool, refreshing smiles; the sweetness of the words that come out of your mouth; the radiance of your all-embracing love; your equal vision towards one and all, even towards diseased stray animals.”

Source: S.S. Cohen’s book, GURU RAMANA.

See the The Maharshi Newsletter May / Jun 1991, Vol.1 No.3

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