text and photographs by Mark McCloskey
The Holy Mountain Arunachala
When I had recently received an e-mail asking that I come to India to visit suppliers who sell our company shrimp (I am in the seafood importing business!) and from whom I have been purchasing for a few years, I hesitated. Having had already traveled much of the globe in my younger years, I had developed a bit of disdain for long trips and still prefer to hang around the home turf. The very fact of going to India, with its overpopulation, destitute poverty and recent proclivity to inter-religious violence had not been a thrilling prospect. But as I looked at a map to find my main arrival point of the city of Madras, I suddenly began to fill with excitement when I looked about a half an inch southwest of Madras and gazed on a name of a town which I knew very well, Tiruvannamalai: the home of Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest teachers of spirituality the world has known. I quickly replied to my suppliers saying that I would be there to visit their factories and shrimp farms. I also made arrangements to visit Arunachala, the sacred mountain, and to stay at Sri Ramanasramam, the place where Ramana Maharshi, the magnificent sage of non-duality, had spent most of his life and delivered his famous teaching of Self-Inquiry. You see, it was Ramana's teaching which had finally and gently coerced this fishmonger's own restless mind to be still. This would be a neat trip indeed and one of life's many unfolding paradoxes and touches of grace itself.
The shrine at Skandasram cave
My first stop was Mumbai airport and soon after the wheels of my Lufthansa 747 touched down, after having spent a pleasant 18 hours in first class (upgraded by mileage points), the blatant reality and seeming paradoxical duality of life in India made itself known. For as the car which was taking me from the airport to my 5 star hotel moved slowly thru the darkness of the early morning Bombay streets there appeared a large number of bodies sleeping on the sidewalks, on the backs of cars on oxcarts, literally strewn all over the place: thousands of people, homeless, yet having claimed their own place in this cosmos on this planet called earth in the dirty, still streets of Bombay. No sooner had the surrealistic vision passed by, I found the car pulling into the hotel entrance and soon I was in my king-size bed, in my air conditioned room, and had finally allowed the gentleness of sleep to close my now tear-filled eyes.
In the next few days I arrived in Madras and from there took a car to Arunachala, and from the crowed streets of Tiruvannamalai, its darshan of stillness manifested itself to me. From the old photos it looked a large looming mountain, whereas in reality I would consider it just a medium-sized brown, orange and green colored hill. Still it was exciting to approach this place that I had heard and read so much about. Our car negotiated the town streets carefully, as is the custom while driving in India, past motorized yellow rickshaws, swerving taxis, ruminating cows, cars, trucks, mopeds, bicycles and many many people, each carrying on their normal tasks as they have done all their lives. It really did not appear to be a place where one of the holiest of humans hailed from. But after all, Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) was supposed to have been born in a stable, so who can figure? As a matter of fact, the sense of the spiritual was the farthest from my mind at that point for here we were simply in another Indian village crowded with life and the mingling of technology and timeless history, of wealth and destitution, all people living together in the shadow of the orange granite hill Arunachala.
Busy streets of Tiruvannamalai
We soon arrived at the Ashram gate. It would have been difficult to find this place had it not been for the lovely green color of the archway sign. I know we would have driven right past. You see, nothing distinguished this place from the surrounding houses, stores and driveways. Beggars sat outside with outstretched hands, cows laid quietly near; people walked in and out, back and forth. No, I did not get any sense of any specialness about this place - perhaps this would be the true meaning of this trip for me.
Under the Ashram entrance sign
After checking in to my meager accommodations which included a straw filled mattress in a small 6 by 10 foot room I immediately went outside to "do the tour." I saw Ramana's tomb, his mother's tomb, the temples, and the various rooms where he loved, lived and taught. What was especially nice to see was the shrine built over the tomb of the cow Lakshmi, who supposedly received self-realization in the presence of the Maharshi. For the next two days I attended some of the rituals and meals and basically watched the people coming and going. There were many older Indians, who looked like
sannyasins or sadhus, wearing ashes on their foreheads and making ritualistic offerings in the temple. There were equally a large number of westerners, many clothed in traditional Indian garb as in white kurta pajamas. They were performing prostrations before Ramana's shrine and circumambulating his Samadhi or tomb. They looked out of place here. I do not know how many were graced with self-realization or if they even knew what 'it" was. I hope that they were not there fleeing their lives, which is seen today in greater numbers: people unhappy with their present circumstances and traveling the earth to find something of value. It reminded me of so many who leave their positions, families and circumstance here in the west to "find inner peace" by traveling far away to places like India, etc. and donning robes, shaving their heads and all the rest of it. Ramana spoke about this and advised us that there is "no where to go to find the Self" and that people doing their daily jobs, living their simple lives could find Self-Realization. I suddenly felt very alone. Here I had merely come to visit the place where this man of wisdom had lived his life. I wanted to see the background where the tremendous liberating teaching "Who am I" had been formulated. But instead I found something disturbing. Here, people were seemingly treating Ramana as someone to be revered or bowed to. It appeared to me that the experiential teaching took second place to the worshipping and honoring of the teacher. Please do not get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with worship and honor. But when these become the priority, the treasures of the truth become hidden.
Inside the Temple
It is in this that a great sense of duality revealed itself. Ramana had NEVER wanted to be worshipped like a god and merely allowed people to offer respect to him because he felt kindness for them and their ritualistic ways. The essence of his non-dual teaching is that there are NO differences between us, that one should not be above another. He equally embraced rich and poor, did not distinguish caste and even treated animals as equals. The One Self which is the only reality is not more abundant in one particular human over another. Rather, the Self is all in all, equally and lovingly manifested. Ultimately I was seeing the tragic mistake we humans have made from time immemorial: making gods of those few enlightened ones who have revealed the Truth to us, and instead of following their teachings, their messages of simplicity, we worship them, idolize them, divinize them and even try to become them. In other words, we may have missed the mark entirely. Instead of dropping all conceptual comparisons, we have divided reality into those labeled "Divine" and all the rest of us. We have often put others on great pedestals above us, instead of simply realizing that we and they are exactly the same, that there exists no division between us at all. The greatest realization is that there is no division between us and the Divine itself. Very simply put: we are that which we seek.
I passed that night in meditation and silence. Actually it was all I could do as I had no light and the power had gone out and it was much too hot to sleep with no ventilation and a powerless ceiling fan. There was a lot of noise as well in this Ashram, from the cries of peacocks, monkeys and birds, to the constant drone of traffic on the highway nearby and the incessant horn beeping of trucks passing by. Some locals had even decided to have a cheering and clapping celebration about something at 3:00 AM. I perceived it all as a sly test offered by Ramana - sort of a challenge to me to stay fixed in the self, in the interior silence, even while all was noisily moving about me. That was a great teaching in itself. Grace always follows and appears in the most inauspicious situations.
The next and final day, my associate and I decided to walk the path up Arunachala itself. To do this I was told I would have to discard the Timberlands and walk barefooted up the holy mountain. Not too quick to be defeated I took up the task for I really wanted to see where Ramana lived in the caves and rocky crags of the beautiful hill. It was a great movement in reflexology and as I crossed the stones one by one, I soon made my way to Skandasram cave, the unbelievably small accommodation where Ramana stayed for so many years of his life. Inside it was dark, musty and unbearably hot with little moving air. How firmly fixed in his own stillness he must had been to have been living here at all. How absolutely spoiled we are as Westerners, given all the comforts we have in daily life. Another great lesson unfolded.
The rocky path up the mountain
As we walked down the hill to the other side, we approached what I considered the supreme teaching of the entire trip. We walked through a small area of absolute poverty and destitution. There, in sight of both Arunachala and the very home of Ramana Maharshi, people lived in squalor, in huts smaller than Ramana's cave, with no electric, no running water, no sanitary facilities and very little food, clothes or provisions. And as I walked by and gave them each a few rupees their eyes shone with a remarkable brightness which did not dim, which filled me with a gentle remnant, a lingering morsel which has since remained in my soul. Their smiles filled the air with a silent compassion the likes of which I have only experience in the depths of meditation. There was an especially happy woman, about 60 years old, who was sitting in a pile of mud and cow dung and she was mixing the two elements to be used, I was told, as a fuel to burn lamps at night. She bowed her head, smiled and mouthed Namaste (I bow to the Divine Self in you) as we passed by. She and all these people were the Self. And in their poverty, and in their littleness, they shone more brightly that all the rituals and teachings and philosophies and traditions, more that all the temples of the earth. Their eyes spoke so keenly to this person about the true meaning of non-duality, which Ramana knew and taught so well. You see my friend these blessed ones are you and I this moment: needing nothing, wanting nothing, having nothing, and taking nothing. The Self, which is silence within is already free, already enlightened, already shining, already healed and rich beyond any measure. In the realization of that, there exists no separation between us and it, or them and us. We are all one in that glory. And one does not need to climb a mountain, or fly across an ocean or prostate to the ground or perform any ritual or offer any prayer. You do not need to leave your job, or your spouse or your home to find this. That which you are IS this moment and in that there is only love: gentle, abundant and forgiving. The stillness of Arunachala is the same inside you and me. All we need to learn is simply to abide there. The rest is all joy.
Arunachala Mountain as seen from the Ashram
Ramana's message to us then and now is the same. Relax into the ever present Self, which is the pure silence within you, where there is no "I", no thought, no concept, no past and no future. There is just this moment. In that we are one. Even Arunachala will someday disappear, no matter its seeming might. The essence of you, which has always been here and will always be, is the eternal witness of all this: and is silent, enduring and free. Arunachala is so small by comparison.
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