Indian Teaching tradition Part 2 Chapter 2
Meeting and Reflections
Go and See the Sage Even if you are not Invited.
Now we have come to one of the key parts of this book: the account of meetings between gurus and disciples during the four years I devoted to preparing this work in India. Field-work and work through books have both been equally important for me, and they influenced one another through the years. The next two chapters about the guru-disciple relationship in Hinduism, in the manner in which they are treated here, are the consequence of oral teachings rather than the result of reading. The orientations I received during some of these meetings allowed me to grasp what was meaningful amidst the enormous amount of information available regarding the guru-disciple relationship, and enabled me to make a selection of them and to present them in this volume. My ambition is two-fold: to understand tradition through its texts and to examine the way it is lived at present.
"Method is the Path After Travelling Through it"
After these years in India, I am taking the risk of offering some retrospective reflections about the method which has imposed itself on me when studying this very peculiar subject-matter that the guru-disciple relationship is. Though I am a psychiatrist, I did not embark into psychometric or sociological investigations; these seemed to me to be unrelated to my goal, which is to describe the very experience of the traditional teaching relationship. I have read some sociological studies about gurus and sadhus; they allow one to avoid some mistakes of appreciation, but they do not teach much about what this relationship is (See footnotes 88 to 91 in chapter II). As far as utilising tests, I have passed the age for this, as also had the gurus with whom I conversed; they were aged people and we have talked normally as among grown up persons, without need of those toys which charts and statistics often are. I may, nevertheless, mention in passing the experiments done by Maryse Choisy with Shivananda in Rishikesh. Maryse Choisy had an attraction for novel experiences, either by disguising herself as a monk and going for a while among the purely male ascetics of Mount Athos, or by working for some months as lion-tamer in a circus... This time, in the years 1950s, she had decided to let Shivananda take the TAT (Thematic Aperception Test). This is a ‘projective’ test consisting in interpreting some ambivalent images by putting on the stage personages evoking parents. The last image of the series is blank, void. Seeing it, the yogi began to speak about the Self being nothing else but Brahman penetrating the universe, omnipotent, omniscient, being at the same time both at the centre and at the periphery, everywhere and nowhere... Having heard this, Maryse Choisy collected her bunch of tests and, not without wisdom, concluded that a sage of the Himalaya could not be evaluated with the same methods used for school children.
I too would not use the technical language of psychology for describing my impressions. This would only make a heavy style without adding to clarity, or, even worse, would give the illusory impression of having understood all about a relationship which is fundamentally beyond words. This criticism about the utilization of a technical language in order to speak about psyche is coming out now: I met a professor of psychology who was publishing a collective book on this subject-matter; he wishes to restore in the human sciences the common-sense language, ie., the ordinary language. His great idea is that technical language gives a reality to problems that later are brilliantly solved in order eventually to come back to the starting point, namely, that actually there was not much of a problem apart from those which have been created by using a neo-esoteric language. It is a criticism that Shankaracharya had already made more than a thousand years ago, speaking of "this strange tendency of the human spirit of losing its way in the forest of words." For my purpose, the subjective language seems to me, paradoxically, the more objective, the more faithful to reality, because it lets life filter in while the pretended objective language would behead it and eventually kill it.
Among all the gurus I have met, I have deliberately chosen to evoke those who looked to me to be the more representative of the traditional ideal of the Sadguru. I say "they looked to me" pley appeored to are as send, because one has to live a long time near a master to be really sure of his level of realisation. Actually, only a disciple, after a certain period of observation, may say in what ways his guru deserves the high function he is occupying. Surely my choice has been directed by intuition, but such an intuition was refined by some years of field work. This does not mean that I did not make mistakes, or that I did not have to use quite a few times psychiatric criteria rather than those of tradition in order to understand the functioning of certain self-styled gurus. Most of the authentic gurus, about whom I speak here, are less known to Westerners, but to my mind they well deserve to be known. I will not discuss either spiritual leaders who are the object of too passionate polemics. I do not wish either to fall into the attitude of some less scrupulous journalists who constantly try to find the dirty story that could guarantee good sales of their papers, or in that of the examiner who puts marks of merit or demerit to each candidate one after the other. I want also to avoid the position of one who cites the faults of some scandalous gurus as an excuse for not having found a true guru, while actually not yet being at the level where one understands the interest of the quest. Kabir said: "I travelled in the five worlds and I have hardly found a single person who does not love to criticise." I have, therefore, replaced the mere critique with some traditional criteria upon which to assess the quality of a given guru, provided that one has found enough information about him Such criteria are developed throughout this work and I expect the reader as adult euough to be able to integrate these and to form for himself an opinion in each specific case.
Provided one is a bit receptive to it, the meeting with a guru is rarely banal, it is an "inner experience", about which it is not easy to speak. The world of gurus represents for Westerners another world, and it is not easier to enter in it oneself than to let another to go in. One of the yogis I have met, told me a story werreted by Ramakrishna: "A born-blind person once asks one of his friends: "what is white?" The other answers: "It is like milk.—"And how is milk?" continues the blind man. His friend is irritated and says: "white is the colour of the swan!"—"and how is the swan?" invariably continues the blind man. His friend has an idea; he bent his arm and hand giving them the shape of the neck and head of a swan and asks the other to touch it. "That is it! I have understood!" exclaims the blind man and runs to meet everybody with his bent arm saying: "Look what is white! Look what is white!" Such a story, nevertheless, did not totally discourage me either from continuing my pilgrimage, or from trying to communicate some of my impressions, whatever the risk of deforming the information. I have not stayed for years from morning to evening every day with some of these gurus, because I moved from one place to another; but I have to confess that they have a kind of special presence which generally leaves behind a trace even after having left them. As one of the very old monks I met in Benares, undoubtedly one of the last living disciples of Sarada Devi (the spouse of Ramakrishna), repeatedly said to me: "Sarada Devi was not an ordinary being... Do not believe that she was an ordinary being." The word "presence" is one of the titles given to the spiritual Master in Sufism; the inscription found on the grave of Rumi at Konya is Ya Hadra, Maulana, "Oh Presence, our Master."
Meeting with the "Saint Francis of India"
It is the name that some give to Swamy Chidananda of Rishikesh, a little town placed where the Ganges comes out of the Himalayas. He is the successor of Shivananda at the head of that big organization: Colled the Divine Life Society. The text of the interview I had with him has come out in the journal Sources in 1987. He has given me the impression of a guru both traditional and gifted by a great presence, knowing how to adapt himself completely to his interlocutor and discreetly awakening in him potentialities that the latter had not suspected before. We spoke for three hours, with almost continuous eye contact. He thinks that to consider oneself an actual disciple of a guru, one has to live at least some time in his company, so as to have the possibility to establish a personal relationship with him and to imbue oneself with something of his way of being. Perhaps because he was partly educated by the Jesuits, had been the disciple of such an ecumenical guru as Shivananda, and had been influenced by Ma Anandamayi towards an universal teaching in its simplicity, he is appreciated by Christians. When he gives them initiation, it is with the mantra "Om, Jesus". We spoke about Father Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda, (+1973), a French Benedictine monk who signifi-cantly contributed to the meeting of Hinduism and Christianity), whom he met in the years 1970s and in whom he admired the spirit of renunciation. He joined with him in giving initiation to Marc Chaduc in a combined Hindu-Christian rite, the only one of this kind, to my knowledge. Chidananda has precisely stated that it was an initiation not into Hinduism as such, but into Vedanta, that is this fundamental Upanishadic truth teaching inner silence beyond rituals and dogmas. Some nuns are bound to him, but, he specifies, more as students than as disciples. I know that he has been criticised, both by fundamentalist Hindus and by Christians, for answering to this plea for spiritual help by nuns. He thinks that Westerners make a lot of mistakes due to reading the lives of yogis such as Milarepa which make them think that gurus, in practice, have to brutalize their disciples, to make them schizophrenics or to push them to commit suicide.
It is, perhaps, because of this slightly masochistic prejudice that certain visitors are baffled by the simplicity and amiability of Chidananda. They think that if the guru does not break the disciple’s ego by hammer’s strokes, he is not authentic. But, practically, especially at the beginning, the visitors are not willing to have someone break their ego, and the guru cannot do much about it, except to patiently establish a solid relationship of confidence. Afterwards, such a relationship is intensified and becomes more effective,—at least this is the opinion of more old disciples of Chidananda whom I have known for many years. They may that the sura is roueoue whis pound of he is looked for; and the is also the person surely to be pound if seorehed.
At the end of the "pilgrimage to the sources",
two hermits as one can imagine them....
Coming down from a trip to the sources of the greatest river of India, I stopped weet Gangadas, whose name means "consecrated to the Ganges." He has made a vow of stability and for the last forty-eight years he has not even come down to Gangotri, which is only two kilometres downstream. He dwells on the very bank of the river with four or five disciples. Although blind siure many years, he exhibits a rather uncommon joy; it is a case of divine intoxication, which makes him laugh, cry, ceaselessly play with words between English and Hindi and generously distribute presents. In yoga psychology, these symptoms are associated with an awakening of the kundalini; if this awakening is directed toward the goal of sadhana, i.e., toward the Absolute, it is considered very positive. Not all yogis make such extraordinary vows. Such vows are tapasya, an asceticism by which a given result is obtained by a given effort; it does not necessarily lead to realisation. For instance, a disciple of Ma Anandamayi begged from her the peruistion to perform a vow of remaining for a year without laying down, sleeping seated, leaning on a wall. Ma, who generally was generally not in favour of such austerities, nevertheless accepted. At the end of a year, the disciple was asked about what all this gave him and his only answer was: "I need less blankets!"...
After Gangotri, I visited another great Himalayan pilgrimage centre, Badrinath, also considered, with Kedarnath, as a source of the Ganges. There, there is a temple to Vishnu, built on the site of some wells of warm water springing up at the foot of Shivalingam, a peak higher than 7,000 metres. Some kilometres ahead is the Tibetan border. It is said that this place was a centre of pilgrimage even before Hinduism. It was Buddhist for some time, and tradition says that Shankaracharya found there a statue of Vishnu and consecrated it in the temple, just before dying at the age of thirty-two years. If one has the chance to observe this statue in the morning before it is dressed with its ritual ornaments, one may notice that it represents the god in the form of a yogi in the habitual posture of meditation, hands united over crossed legs. This statue has a unique style because its arms are held apart from the body, giving the impression that the god is bursting with laughter or that he is going to fly, in any case an impression that could be described as that of eternal dynamism. It was this same dynamism that I found again in Saradananda, who lived in a cave facing the temple of his chosen divinity, Vishnu-Badrinath. For more than a quarter of a century he has been there, until his death a few years before the English publication of this book. He was a disciple of Shivananda from Rishikesh, and he used to wear a kind of thick covering mantel presented to him by his guru about thirty years ago. Notwithstanding his old age, he was one of those four or five hermits remaining on the spot during winter. They are furnished with food by the army which has a camp a few kilometres away. Because of some of his reflections, I sensed that Saradananda could easily read my thoughts and was much more conscious than an ordinary interlocutor. In spite of my then very limited Hindi, I could ask him if he did not get bored after being twenty-five years in the same place. He then showed me the opening of his cave, with its direct view of the temple and started laughing while repeating Bhagavan! Bhagavan!... meaning: "God! God!"
The Tears of the Buddha
In order to study the Master-disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism, I went to Dharamsala. It is a village of Tibetans within Indian territory, perched on a ridge in front of some snowy peaks pointing for the exiled people toward the direction of the "Roof of the world." It is there that the Dalai Lama resides. I interviewed Geshe Sonam Rinchen, one of the two professors of the Tibetan Library. He began his studies in Lhasa, and has worked for twenty or thirty years to obtain his degree of Geshe. I had met him at the time of a lecture and I was impressed by his calmness, though with a slight doubt. In order to clarify such doubt I asked his secretary and translator, a lady of English origin who has accompanied him throughout the world for many years, if he kept his composure in every situation, and she answered me: yes, he does. He is, then, someone remarkably calm. I have asked him to explain to me in detail how to meditate on the guru according to Tibetan tradition. Here are his explanations: there is a set of suitable means for creating unity between guru and disciple as well as between guru and yidam (the Ishta devata of the Hindus, the divinity in whom the practitioner concentrates his devotion). It is requested, for instance, to visualize one’s own chosen divinity in his normal form furnished of all his attributes, but with the face of one’s own guru; or to see three luminous rays uniting the three upper chakras of the guru to those of the disciple (between the eyebrow, at the throat and at the heart). One may also visualize the guru seated at the level of the lotus of a thousand petals (the summit of the head) or at the heart level. There are hints on such techniques in some Hindu texts of the Middle Ages like the Guru Gita, but it is among the Tibetans that they are better practised thanks to the living tradition of monasticism. I also questioned the Geshe about his own gurus. His first guru was his instructor who taught him to read and write; without him he could not have gone further on. He had, then, different teachers in the monastery. I pressed him a bit by asking him if he had a "root-lama." a lama who represented the Buddha in his eyes. He told me yes, that he met him at the age of eighteen; at that moment, the Geshe, until now full of compassion, but also firm as a rock, started silently to shed tears.
Happy Festival, Babaji
Gurupurnima is the festival of guru, during the full moon of June-July. On such an occasion, I was with Swami Prakashananda at Nasik, near Bombay. He has been the first to take sannyas from Swami Muktananda at Ganeshpuri. He met the latter after he had already stayed many years in a cave as an independent hermit. He was all right like this, but people pushed him to have a guru. Once he met Muktananda and requested initiation from him, he "did not know why", he added smiling... It could not be said that he had an ashram, he had only some rooms and four disciples, two Indians and two Westerners. Due to the morning and evening chants, the satsangs twice a day, we were in the presence of Babaji for about six hours everyday. People used to come by, to speak about the weather, and from time to time Babaji told them a story or made a reflection. For Guru-purnima, many hundreds of persons came to him to pay their respects. He actually had that air of delight of a small boy who suddenly discovers that people have thought about him and have prepared candles, cake and presents for his birthday. He is known in the region because he passed thirty years in the mountains, initially totally alone, later getting involved in a school for the children of the surrounding region, who were generally illiterate. At Nasik also, some forty children come to his place daily to chant mantras or hymns and receive food to eat. For about eight days at this period, we hardly exchanged any word, but the very act of meditating six hours daily in his presence allowed me to directly integrate, by osmosis if one may say it, something of his being. It is an experience that one feels very naturally, notwithstanding the difficulty of explaining it; there is no need to have a great intuition or a long experience of meditation to begin to benefit from the presence of a yogi. The daily life around Babaji has been well described in all its cultural and psychological implications by an anthropologist in ‘Story-tellers, Saints and Scoundrels’ (Motilal Banarsidas).
At the end of eight days, I put to him a question, and he answered me for an hour. He gave me some elements of his philosophy of life by explaining to me that this philosophy was not that of his guru Muktananda, and that it had not to become my own as well. He spoke to me of suffering. He was over seventy years old and a diabetic with a lot of complications. He told me, laughing, with the air of a child going to receive a new toy: "It is like during the monsoon, the house receives water and cracks all over; but soon I shall change this house which is my body and I shall receive a new one... The different parts of my body made their job by signalling to me what does not work, and I make mine by not getting angry with them. Or I regard myself as a woman and my body as a grumbling husband complaining everyday of imaginary sicknesses; I do not listen to it any longer."
Since I visited him in 1987, Babaji has died of a cardiac arrest. Some days before his death, when his health was no worse than usual, he sent a French disciple who was very attached to him, back to France. She was a young nurse who had lived in his ashram for many years. Perhaps he wanted to make her aware that their separation was not a blow of destiny, but that he deliberately chose to give her, her independence in order that she could walk her own path in life.
Indira, Shri Aurobindo’s Grandchild and Guru of Artists
Ma Indira Devi lived thirty years with her guru Dilip Kumar Roy, one of the main disciples of Shri Aurobindo, who lived twenty years in the Ashram at Pondicherry and was one of the two, with Amar Kiran, to whom Shri Aurobindo has written until his death in 1950. Ma Indira Devi has worked in dance, published some books of poetry, and among her visitors has many professional artists. She follows the path of devotion to Krishna, something that may appear surprising in a spiritual grandchild of a sage educated in England. But a true disciple is not forced to imitate the guru’s appearances and to invariably repeat what he wrote. He or she is rather supposed to grasp the ultimate nature of the Master and to identify him or herself with it. The atmosphere of the sacred services in the ashram’s temple is calm and meditative, which does not always happen in Hindu religious centres... When I introduced myself, by saying that I had worked as psychiatrist, she squealed and imitated the act of fainting, provoking a general laughter. Immediately after she asked me: "can you heal me?" When she was young, her first mystical experiences worried her family, who consulted psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, with whom she finally sympathized; they soon found out that she was not pathologically ill, though she was in relative opposition with her relations. Her husband, whom she left for her guru, once came to the ashram for a retreat—not as a husband, but this time as a disciple; he, then, experienced with her that very peculiar com-bination of mutual knowledge and "impersonality" which characterizes the guru-disciple relationship. A German man who was there at that time told me that it took him a year to realise that that discreet Indian devotee was but the former husband of Indira.
Ma Indira Devi had some bhakti experiences that are reminiscent of Ramakrishna’s ones. Once, she saw someone beating an animal and next day she had some red marks on her back as if she was beaten up herself. During our meeting, when she spoke about the awakening of kundalini (the energy liberated by yoga practices), she was seized by a bhava, that is by a sudden outburst of ecstatic experience. She began by stammering, then she clapped her hands against each other and upon the top of her head. She showed all the marks of an intense psychic fight. She regained her composure at the end of about thirty seconds and seemed dissatisfied with having been seized by such a condition. In the same way Ramakrishna, when feeling that the Divine Mother was manifesting herself in him, struck all his body with his hands saying: "go back inside, go back indeed!" and it worked, he regained his calm. Indeed, she insisted on the fact that authentic mysticism is not to dream all night long to help the whole humanity and next morning to find oneself with a behaviour as much centred on oneself as ever. What has helped her most in her spiritual life during the last thirty years, is that she never considered her relationship with her guru as a given fact, as automatically acquired with due rights, but as a grace to earn daily. She clearly expresses the role of guru in her letters:
"An Indian guru is not only responsible for an institution or a monastery; he is that very institution. Elsewhere, one first of all goes into a given monastery, where one enters in an order, then begins to love the one who is at its top; but in our case, one goes to the guru and it is because of him that one resides in an ashram. There cannot be an ashram in a proper sense of the word after the death of the guru. The disciples may continue to live there because it is easier, but that is all."92
"Nothing has helped me more than watching my guru lead a life of devotion and complete concentration day after day, year after year. For me, to see such a greatness, such a sanctity, at close quarters has been a most precious help... It was especially inspiring to see him practising what he preached up to the least detail and to verify that such an aspiration as well as such a surrender are possible..."93
"I do not know whether the doctrine of the guru may be agreeable to intellectuals, and I do not care about it. All that I know is that there is but one doctrine of guru, not two. It cannot be vulgarized in order to suit modern inclinations. The guru is the representative of the Lord and the disciple must accept him as such... It is to be taken or to be left; this cannot be modified or sweetened up. I have nothing against those who need their independence or want freedom. For me, I wish to be the child of my guru... How it is possible to have a life happier than this one?"94
This statement did not keep Dilip Kumar Roy from following Indira’s advice when the latter began to speak during her samadhi. He left her the responsibility of the ashram during his last years. It seems that she carried out such a responsibility with as much maturity as discernment.
Gurus Among the Sacred Heart Nuns
Christ Prema Ashram at Poona was founded, or rather taken over, by the Sacred Heart nuns in the year 1969. They were quickly joined by some Anglican sisters, whose presence gave to the Centre an ecumenical orientation—along with an opening towards Hindu thought. The Christ Prema Ashram was visited by Anandamayi Ma and by Swami Chidananda. Sister Vandana, one of the founders, has now started an ashram in Jayharikal, near Landsdowne in Pauri (Himalaya). Influenced by Swamy Abhishiktananda, she wrote a book titled Gurus, Ashrams and Christians. In it she stresses the presence of the principle of guru in filigree in Christianity, by giving the example of Mary (Magdalene) "who sat at the feet of Jesus in silence", and of whom it was said that she "chose the best part". She stresses the insufficiency of the mere community life or of the authority diluted in the institution, if one wishes fast spiritual progress. The Hindu guru system should remind Christians of the importance of an authority rooted in Christ, but embodied in a human being, and not only in a hierarchical function. She quotes, in this instance, a letter of St Ignatius of Loyola on the virtue of obedience:
"Those who follow me must not look at the individual as such when they obey him, but see in him Our Lord the Christ for whose love they obey... to recognize the Christ in their superiors and by doing it with the greatest accuracy shows a respect and an obedience to the Divine Majesty in him... and this, not because he possesses virtue, prudence or other divine gifts, but because he stands in the place of God."
A Hindu, when faced with this text, would surely question himself about the decline of the guru ideal to a rather military notion of discipline, for the greatest efficacy of the Company of Jesus and not much more than this. In my view, Sister Vandana evades a bit the competition existing between guru and institution: if a guru really teaches from his own experience, he does not need the support of an institution; and the institution feels threatened by those people teaching essentially from their own experience. The coexistence of the two poles is not that easy.
The Answers from the Saint of Kanhangad
Mother Krishnabai was eighty-four years old when I met her. She "left her physical body", (the expression preferred by Indians when they speak about the death of a sage), at the beginning of the year 1989. She had succeeded Swami Ramdas, the author of "The Vision of God" and "In Quest of God,"95 at the head of Anandashram in Kerala, in the year 1963. Swami Satchitananda, who was also a disciple of Ramdas, has succeeded her. She was known all over India as a model of devotion to the guru; and if for nothing else, I was keen to meet her. This did not mean that she was closed to any spiritual influence other than that of Ramdas. In her room, facing the photo of the latter, there was also the photo of Ramana Maharshi. This simple fact shows that at a high level, Bhakti and Jnana, love and devotion, duality and non-duality, which already were as the two sides of a single coin, actually are but one. I was able to have an interview with her. Here I have transcribed some of her answers:
QUESTION: "After more than half a century of devotion to your guru, who is Ramdas for you?
— I do not know about psychology, but I shall tell you what is essential, what for me signifies "Papa" (the name given to Ramdas). Papa is the eternal existence, that manifested itself in everything and is beyond everything. He was One in the joy, and in order to enjoy such happiness he became manifold. Normally we are identified with the consciousness of body and mind. But, after realizing ourselves to be like Papa and many other saints, we have our activities, we continue to play our role in life though having our being in the eternal existence. Papa said that for a long time the power of the Name has been a great force. But now more than ever, in this age of darkness, his Being can be realised simply by the recitation of the Name (the mantra). Papa, in his embodiment in time as Swami Ramdas, it may be said, has played different roles: chief of family, spiritual seeker, then renouncer wandering from one place to another, then renouncer received by families, then installed in an ashram and doing what was to be done in this ashram. Papa has taken on many different roles.
"I myself have gone through important periods of suffering and depression. Then I came to Papa and, in fact, I asked him for peace. Papa told me: "You cannot attain peace but by attaining the Supreme." He gave me the Name and I started reciting it. Since my mind wandered here and there, I asked Papa: "what to do?" "If the mind goes here and there, consider that it is Rama. All the thoughts thought by the mind are Rama. The mind cannot go outside Rama" he answered. He requested me to feel that, if Rama is all, Rama is equally beyond all. I had to sing the mantra with this mental attitude. He has also requested me that, whatever the work I was doing, whoever the people I was serving, to serve and to work for Rama himself. All the forms in the universe are manifestations of Rama. It is at the same time Bhakti, Karma and Jnana-Yoga. Bhakti is to recite the Name, Jnana is to contemplate Rama in all his forms and Karma is to serve everybody as Rama himself. By this practice (sadhana) Papa has taken me out of my depression. When the mantra is given at the time of initiation, its force comes from the universe. It is because of this that, whatever the mantra, whoever the saint, its efficacy is the same.
Q. — Do you give a Christian mantra to Christians?
[Answer by the translator Swami Satchidananda] Mother does not give initiations, therefore the question does not arise.
Q. — Some criticise the mantra, saying that it numbs the mind, that it rather acts as a symptomatic cure and as a tranquilizer than going to the real causes of suffering. What you think of this?"
— Those who criticise, receive their impulse to criticise from Papa himself. Nobody else can give it to them. Both the aspects are present. Even in this body there are so many opposite things: good and bad, heat and cold, etc. Thus, there are the two faces: praise of mantra, criticism of mantra; but realisation must be beyond, it is an infinite space, an absolute vacuity, beyond good and evil, of praise and criticism, both belonging to the relative."
The Crazy Beggar of Tiruvannamalai
This ancient disciple of Ramdas whom I met at Tiruvannamalai, near Pondicherry, refers to himself as "this beggar". His name is Yogi Ram Surat Kumar; he lives in the shadow of the temple of Shiva, which is said to be the biggest in India, and where Ramana Maharshi passed his first years of retreat. I let him narrate his own story:
"This beggar came for the first time to the South in the year 1948. He had the darshan of Shri Aurobindo, of Mère (the Mother of his Ashram) and lived two years with Ramana Maharshi here. In 1952, he received his initiation from Ramdas. This beggar has requested Ramdas three times to allow him to remain in his ashram, but three times Ramdas refused; he told him that the disciples who want to remain too long near their guru were like shrubs trying to grow at the root of a great tree: they could not develop completely. In such a situation the disciple had not the capacity of acquiring three virtues imperative to spiritual progress: independence, fearlessness, and perseverance. Ramdas asked this beggar: "Where are you going now?" The beggar did not have the slightest idea of where; he answered without thinking: "Tiruvannamalai" and after seven years of wandering around he has reached his destination and has remained here since then.
"This beggar does not believe in the devil; he sees Ramdas everywhere. For some time the people of the village threw stones at him. In order to get help, he asked an American medical friend to write a book about him. Since then people do not throw stones any more... For this beggar, Ramdas, Ramana Maharshi, Shri Aurobindo did not die victims of illness. Once their mission ended, they decided to quit their body and to go back near their Father. They can either remain there, or take another body when they want to."
Though himself a beggar, the yogi receives and helps other beggars. During our interview, he was visited by a woman with her son of about eight years old. From their gestures and their faces I understood that they did not have anything to eat. After having gazed at them with a look that went much further than an ordinary look, he gave them some money. Our beggar called himself a crazy man, but I never noticed in him purposes or gnashing behaviours like those appearing among the schizophrenics. Certainly he used the pretension of craziness in order to tell what he wished, when he wished and to whom he wished. But these wishes did appear, as I felt, only according to the needs of his interlocutors.
I asked him, during our meeting with a group of French friends, to tell us of his first meeting with Ramdas. He did not answer and continued to gaze into the eyes of each member of the group in succession. At the end of several minutes, I repeated my question, and he answered me very kindly as if to someone who does not understand anything: "Let me meet Ramdas in each and every friend who is here!" This idea of seeing Rama in everything, may seem a delirium, but even so it is a useful delirium.
If All the Hermits of the World Could Hold Hands...
The mountain of Arunachala looking over Tiruvannamalai did not draw to itself only Ramana Maharishi and Yogi Ram Surat Kumar; it seems to have been inhabited by Indian monks as far back as historical sources go. But after the death of the Maharshi, it could be well worthy of the name "International Hermitage", so vast is the number of nationalities represented there. Among those met by me personally some came from the United States, from Canada, from France, Spain, Great Britain, Holland, Germany, Japan and from Reunion Island. The "Red and Immobile" Mountain—such is the meaning of aruna-achala,—for instance, has attracted a couple of French dentists who had lived there for more than twenty years, devoting themselves to meditation. I also talked with a former Dutch psychotherapist, who had corresponded with C.G. Jung and was a friend of Hermann Hesse. He had a difficult youth, because he was in a Japanese concentration camp in Java between 1942 and 1945. They were, at the beginning, eight thousand young people, and only two thousand survivors at the end. Twice he found himself on the hip of corpses being taken to be thrown to crocodiles, and both times they took him out of there seeing that he was still breathing. First he tried to comprehend what he had gone through with the help of Western psychology, but he remained as hungry as before. It was at that moment that Hermann Hesse pressed him to go to India, where it seems to have found what he was looking for, because he has spent the greatest part of his time for the last forty years in this country.
I met a disciple of Ramana Maharshi named Annamalai Swami, who is always at the feet of Arunachala, established for more than half a century a few hundreds metres from the ashram of his guru. The latter told him, after a period in the beginning in which he resided in the ashram itself: "Now you may go to live alone." Some years later, Annamalai met Maharshi on the mountain, asked him a question and the latter answered: "Why are you still asking me questions? I have already given you all." When somebody goes to visit him he affirms rather forcefully: "The words of Shri Ramana and mine are but one!" He does not look for disciples; he lives alone with a brahmachari assisting him,—because he is eighty years old—, and who translates his interviews. Like his guru, Annamalai wears the minimum, that is a kaupinam, a simple cloth round his waist. His way of contact is a bit gruff, but it may be that this is his way to convey energy to those who come to ask him questions. It is clearly felt that he transmits the same energy to all, like a lamp which spreads the same light in all directions. It rests, then, on each person to receive it according to his own capacity. Contrary to other Indian gurus, he prefers that his visitors come with something explicit to ask regarding yoga practice. As I had in front of me an ascetic who had spent more than a half century meditating at the foot of a rocky and half deserted mountain, I took the opportunity to ask him whether Vedantic meditation had not in itself a drying side. Here are his own words: "Vedanta is not drying. The Self is ananda, happiness. Do not identify yourself with dryness, do not identify yourself with any specific sentiment." What had struck me, even beyond some of his words which are actually the same as those of Ramana Maharshi, is the force released by him, and his eyes: eyes gazing in a totally direct way, as I have seen but very seldom except in other yogis, and which in any case I did not see in the Western therapists. And this is rather understandable: the yogi, constantly meditating on unity, can afford to have a unified gaze. But how could a therapist who is constantly caught in the labyrinth of his own mind and in that of his patients, attain it himself? Synthesis is more difficult than analysis, but I reached the conclusion that the former is worthy of one’s long term effort. Annamalai Swami passed away in 1995 when he was 88 years old.
I think that some readers may ask themselves: "what is the use of an old man of this kind who has devoted his life to the quest for the Self and who speaks about this Self to all his visitors?" It can immediately be answered that, from an external point of view, Annamalai was much less alone than most of the old people that I visited in the suburbs of Paris, when I was doing some social work for the elderly. Some hundreds of people came to see this man every year. From a psychological standpoint, he helped his visitors to understand their own mind and to free themselves of all those mental swirls which do not allow them to be simply happy there where they are. Who are, among us, the psychotherapists having enough energy to work up to the age of 88 years? If for nothing else, his kind of life stands justified, according to ordinary criteria. One may add, moreover, that, from a spiritual point of view, for many who approached him or who merely know that he exists, he embodies the purity of yoga tradition, a living proof that a human being can spend his life to seeking his own ego-identity, and ending it very happy to have found out that such identity does not exist. He had as well the capacity to let the others share in his happiness. When one was meditating near Annamalai, one did not know whether he was silently identified to Being, or to Non-Being; but it was clear that he was identified to something very vast.
Is it Shri Aurobindo Whom I Met in Pondichery?
I asked the crazy beggar of Tiruvannamalai whether he knew somebody he could recommend in the ashram of Pondicherry. He answered immediately: "Kameshwar Rao". When I met the latter, he was peacefully laying on his bed, in a hall that opened directly onto the road; the door was fully open, any one could enter to talk with him. Perhaps because of his white beard but especially for his eyes, he reminded me of Shri Aurobindo in his last photos. At eighty-three years he continues to work: he gives instruction and controls what the young people around him are doing. "It is not difficult", he told me, "a little attention is enough." I found in him, like in a certain number of other yogis, the marks of a state of being which we ordinary people have not experienced: a state of happiness without any trace of excitement, and behind this intense happiness, one gets the impression of dealing with someone completely sure of himself. I put to him a question which was worrying me about Shri Aurobindo and the Mother: "Why do their devotees claim that they are avatars, divine incarnations? Is it not only to inflate their self-pride as disciples?" He immediately answered me, almost as if excusing himself like a child caught red-handed: "You know, in the eyes of a disciple, the guru is always an avatar." This simple answer gave me a key to understanding the Indians’ devotion for their guru: they concentrate themselves on the person, but with the only end of discovering in it the impersonal, the absolute. It is the paradox of guru, so difficult to catch for most Westerners. The following dialogue shall perhaps help in clarifying further this basic notion:
Once somebody approached Ramana Maharshi and told him:
"I want to benefit from the grace of a guru.
— You were never separated from such a grace; it is in you.
— But I want the grace of a Sadguru in flesh and blood.
— It is in you.
— It is not enough for me!
— This Sadguru who is before you tells you that the Sadguru is in you."
The Boy Who Went to Live in the Forest at Thirteen Years Old
Near Ganeshpuri in Maharashtra, I met a hermit, about thirty years old, who had left for a wooded mountain when he was thirteen years old. His parents, who have been barren, went to see the famous Bhagavan Nityananda, the guru of Swami Muktananda, who taught in the West during the ’70s. They remained silently standing in front of him, inwardly requesting from him the grace of having a child. Nityananda made a little gesture with his hand, which they interpreted as a consent. Ten months later the infant was born. They called him: "the gift of Bhagavan". It was said to them: "He shall not remain long with you; at thirteen years of age he will go." And in fact at this age the son said "I am going." He climbed some ten kilometres, near the summit of a mountain overshadowing the region, sat below a tree and declared: "It is here that I want to do my sadhana." His parents, who accompanied him up to there, could not do anything else but to climb down to their village and send some provisions to him from time to time. He has been at the same spot for seventeen years, dressed only with a kaupinam, like Annamalai at Tiruvannamalai. He is an avadhuta, somebody who has renounced all. His popularity, little by little, has spread around in the area. Like thousands of people who have done the same over the years, I too climbed the long and steep path leading to his ashram. He is silent, but during darshan, when his eyes meet yours, you can formulate the questions that you have in your heart.
He sings morning and evening. Listening to him, one feels a most complete concentration on Nityananda whom he considers his guru, though he was only four years old when the latter passed away. He teaches directly with his presence, and in this he well deserves his name Sadananda: "Happiness of Being." I did not know about his existence, but the people of Ganeshpuri village, after having seen me for about a week, proposed to accompany me to him. I have been happy to meet a yogi embodying in such an evident manner, in this end of twentieth Century, the myth of the hermit Shiva, the archetype of the rishi in his forest, of the Vedic sage in his retreat, only at some ten kilometres from the endless suburbs of the great Bombay. I could ascertain the vividness, the impact of such a myth or of such an archetype simply by looking at the faces of the Indians, belonging to all conditions in life, who climbed to see him.
The Kumbha Mela is the greatest religious event of Hinduism. It takes place once every three years in one of four towns of India consecutively, and, therefore, it comes back every twelve years to each of them. I went to that of Allahabad in 1989, at the confluence of Ganges and Yamuna, that is in one of the most sacred places of North India. I gave a review of it in the form of an article in the Journal Nouvelles Clés.96 The vast sandy shores that become exposed during the winter season allow an enormous camp to be established over more than hundreds of acres. Surrounded by such a swarm of round tents with pointed roofs topped with small flags, one is inclined to believe oneself to be rather in a camp of Tamerlane somewhere in Central Asia than in the twentieth Century India. It is said that, during the span of a month about sixteen million people come to bathe at the merging of the two rivers.
The Kumbha Mela has several functions: a kind of council inspired by the Buddhist monks’ customs allowing meetings of Hindu gurus among themselves (ordinarily they do not meet often); encouraging the practical organization of the orders of itinerant monks; electing various people in-charge and initiating novices, and especially allowing meetings to occur between crowds of lay people and gurus and ascetics of all kinds, some of whom come down from Himalayas only for such an occasion. It is a true "fair of gurus", where each group has a right to have its stand, where even the sect of the Hare Krishna, so dreaded by the Western media, is drowned among the masses like a drop of water in the ocean, and this notwithstanding all its publicity efforts. The general atmosphere is that of an awful din, every tent being provided with loud-speakers put at their maximum and playing cassettes when they have had enough of banging of drums and of reciting their mantras, for instance at the middle of night... Indians appear to be very busy and satisfied to go from one guru to another to have their darshan, briefly exchanging, when meeting, their own impressions about those sages who look more authentic, in whom one can "feel God".
The Kumbha Mela is the most spectacular meeting point between Hindu society and all those who have gone out of it: sadhus, yogis, ascetics, etc. But even there, there is one among them who always manages to be outside of such a temporary society that Mela is: his name is Deora Baba. This Baba (term of respectful affection for an old man who has not been officially ordained as a monk) lives about a kilometre upstream from the main camp on the border of the Ganges. He has mounted his hut on a kind of platform and he sits there most of the day, seen by all, naked or rather "sky-clad", digambara, as they say in Indian tradition. He answers the questions of individual visitors and gives his darshan to a constantly rotating crowd of about one thousand people. By the way, this is one of the rarest occasions in India in which I saw a big crowd completely silent. As Deora Baba is one of the most famous sages of the Mela, there is an endless stream of people coming and going on the path leading to his hut.
I had the opportunity to talk with the Baba one year earlier at Vrindavan, the village of Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna, during a period in which there was only a small number of visitors. It is not so much the intellectual content of his teaching that is striking, but rather the energy he puts into giving it, despite his great age. The visitor before me was a policeman. He was so impressed by Baba’s force that he prostrated full length—with his body flat on the sand (sashtanga pranam)—every time the old man began to preach to him. He had just the time to get up before he found himself on the floor again under the strike of a new sentence... Without being a great anthropologist, one may perceive that Deora Baba is, like Sadananda of Ganeshpuri, a living symbol of the God Shiva who, though seated in meditation on his rocky peak outside and above society, listens to human questions and answers them; though physically being at the periphery of this society, spiritually he is at its centre; a centre empty like the middle of the wheel, because the yogi has attained the silence of the mind (yoga: citta vritti nirodha, definition of yoga given by Patanjali). Deora Baba passed away after the Kumbha Mela 1989.
About Tantrism and the Art of Repairing Motorbikes
Hinduism is a religion not based on a monopoly, but on a "free market economy", if it could be so expressed. The best proof of this can be detected in the very multiplicity of "stands" in such a great ‘fair’ of gurus as that of Kumbha Mela. Witness to that Tantric guru who materialized for us some ashes, after the manner of Sathya Sai Baba, and who showed us some photos of his live burial which lasted, he says, several times ten hours—under good watch in order to avoid trickery... He denies performing miracles and says that it is only a question of simple techniques that anyone may learn from a guru who knows them. One of his disciples has narrated to us how he came to be with this guru: he was practically abandoned by his parents, a fact that left him with an anxious and sad personality. He looked for peace of mind with different yogis, but it was with this Tantric yogi that he found his peace... At the end of our interview, the Master gave us his visiting card, "Tantric Guru," excused himself and went out to try to repair his motorcycle which had broken down a little while before...
Shri, or the Grace of a Child-Pope
During this Kumbha Mela I was able to meet Shri, chief of a Nimbarka Sect, one of the most powerful religious groups of North India. He was chosen at birth to inherit this heavy responsibility, and he was at the time when I met him about thirty years old. He more or less agreed to give me a private interview, but he must have thought that the anticipated subject-matter: "the guru-disciple relationship" was of a certain interest for his devotees, because there were about two hundred who listened with great attention to his answers at the time of our "private" meeting... I could not help asking him the evident question of his free choice, since he had been assigned from his birth to become the pope of his sect, was ordained a monk at eleven years old, and named guru three years later. He answered me with a sincerity that surprised me coming from a high religious dignitary: "I had a lot of luck... a lot of luck to have been educated by remarkable people, by having lived from the beginnings in their company... there are so many ways to go on a false path, but for me I was guided very precisely." His simplicity had been affirmed that very morning, which was the main day for taking bath in the Ganges: while the other gurus fought among themselves to get the first place in the procession going toward the river, Shri went bathing all alone, bare footed, later in the afternoon after all the others.
What perhaps impressed me most was the reaction of my interpreter: she was a young Hindu lady who had migrated to Canada, and whose mother was a disciple of Shri. She thought she would ask for initiation as well, and was very moved by the interview. As an emigrant, she was in search of her roots, and the fact of finding herself in India, at the feet of the guru of her mother, was a bit like facing the roots of her roots. She was seized in the middle of her translation during several minutes by fits of cough, due to emotion. Shri watched her silently, with an attentive kindness. It was evident to me that he understood the reason of the cough and the whole situation. At the end of the meeting, he literally covered her with garlands of flowers and packets of prasad (nourishment that the guru offers to his visitors). It was like a kind of acknowledgement by "Mother India" of a child who had almost disappeared in the distance. In any case, her whole family and herself, in a conversation with them a little later in their own tent, have recognized that.
Sidhi Ma, a Guru in Her Tent
Sidhi Ma moves a lot, and often receives her visitors in her tent; During one of our interviews, she once even begged for forgiveness for such a luxury because her guru, Nimkaroli Baba, she explained to me, preferred to sleep under the starry sky. The latter was a very well known sage in North India and followed the Bhakti path like Ramakrishna. He passed away some twenty years ago. His teaching has been spread in the United States by the intermediary of Ram Das (Richard Alpert), an American professor of psychology, who had at one time advocated free circulation of LSD and who, practising what he preached, had reached almost the limits of psychological addiction. He was seduced by the disinterested love without reason of Nimkaroli Baba and, becoming one of his disciples, found a help for detoxifying from LSD and resolving some of the myriad psychological problems he had despite the nature of his profession.
Sidhi Ma was associated for more than half a century with her guru. First as a child, then as a married woman, finally as full time disciple after the death of her husband. She appears like a traditional Hindu woman, discreet and modest. When she answers questions she is very often in the company of another disciple of Nimkaroli Baba, slightly older than she, whose approval she sometimes seeks before risking an answer, like a child would do in the presence of her mother. This does not prevent her from not caring a bit for some special Hindu habits: for instance, her secretary was a young brahmacharini: she was the only person of female genre that I saw driving a Jeep in four years of wandering in India. Anyway, she seemed to find this all-terrain driving very amusing.
The chosen deity of Nimkaroli Baba was Hanuman, the Monkey-god, symbol of disinterested service. In this path service to the guru and to others is one of the main elements of sadhana. Nimkaroli Baba used to say with a certain humour: "I could have been a great sage if I did not feel so concerned about the service of others." This service to others had in him a Medieval mark of festivity, spontaneity and irrationality which would have dismayed experts in philanthropy. For example, a French friend of mine donated, one evening in the camp, a sum of money more or less equivalent to two months of salary of a small Indian employee. The next day, the person in charge of the camp announced a great banquet: about two to three hundred sadhus, ascetics and beggars of all kinds swarmed the place and the money was totally spent during that very day, one cannot even say "thrown out the window", because there were not even windows there....
The disciples of Nimkaroli Baba say sometimes that they do not meditate, that they prefer to train themselves through the company of their guru or by serving others. Nevertheless Dada, one of the disciples nearest to the master, confided to me that since his retirement from professorship in university, he far preferred sitting in his room and "thinking things out" because, he told me, he was tired of speaking about what he had not experienced." His wife, who also thinks that she does not "meditate," has spent about eighteen years—from three to five hours a day—to creating some drawings with flower petals before the photo of her guru. This kind of designing is a traditional art in India. "It was not meditation "she excuses herself" it was only a way to be a little with him."
Even if the general style of conversation with Sidhi Ma is sweetness and humour, she does not, thereby, touch one’s feelings less directly. Her name itself means the Direct Mother, the straightforward Mother. Twice during the week I stayed with her, I saw a visitor crying without any vital subject having apparently been touched. In order to try to express my experience before her, through a comparison, I could say that we all are in our small bubble: our ready-made ideas, our emotions, our preferences, our fears close us up, make us sure and at the same time they cut us from the outside. But Sidhi Ma has the force of void, she is no longer in a bubble, that is clear; in her presence, of course, one feels one’s own small soap bubble bursting and one experiences, at least for a while, the happiness of being as free as space.
The Man who Made the Diagnosis of C.G. Jung Go Wrong
Swami Jnanananda is originally from Zurich in Switzerland. He is sixty years old, more or less, and has lived for almost forty years in India. His mother, some months after his departure, began to get worried about the choices of her son and went to see C.G. Jung, his friend in Zurich. She submitted to him the case of her offspring. "It is a crisis of adolescence" said the old psychoanalyst, at that time at the summit of his glory. "Do not worry; he shall soon come back." Unfortunately for Jung, the said boy never came back and forty years later, from his remote Himalayas, he comments smiling: "Jung, he was very young."
Swami Jnanananda became interested in India and yoga through reading The Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda Paramhamsa. He came by road, via hitchhiking, when this was not done. Some people dropped him at the Indian border, on the Pakistan side. He passed the no man’s land and was stopped on the Indian side by two big Sikh soldiers of fierce appearance: "No entrance! Why do you want to enter India?—In order to practice yoga!" The Sikhs, a bit disconcerted, talked among themselves for a long minute. At the end one of them asked: "Do you have a guru?" Jnanananda, who at that time never doubted anything, answered: "Yes!" The countenance of the Sikhs cleared up: "Welcome!" and it was in this way, pedibus cum jambis (on foot) that our Swiss man entered India never yet to leave. On reaching Calcutta, he quickly met with some gurus of the Kriya-Yoga line (the technique of Yogananda), chose one at the end of a week and remained faithful to him until his death nine years later. Afterwards, he travelled for a long time in India, meeting all kinds of yogis and living on alms. His method was to wait standing before a house for some minutes without asking anything, silently. If somebody came out to give him something to eat, well and good; if nobody came well and good the same and he continued on his way.
He stays with great simplicity in a small hut on the slopes of the Himalayas, below Mussoorie, and often receives Indian or Western visitors, though he does not have an ashram. One of his disciples is a former teacher from the Transcendental Meditation Movement; he is certainly tired of big international organizations and has decided to work on himself alone in the frame of a more personalized teaching relationship. Jnanananda has composed some bhajans (devotional songs) in a new style, half way between Western and Indian music, and this has been a great success among the local population. Even more striking was their success with another visitor, who let herself become involved in chanting with him the glory of Brahman; she was a lady from Moscow, wife of a general in the Red Army, which was at that time fully communist...
Jnanananda speaks of his own experience; for about thirty years he has lived independently, outside all institutions and without fixed resources. He seems to manage well. One of his last pieces of advice was: "Be independent, walk your path by yourself."
Mata Amritanandamayi, the woman who searched within and found a river
"I searched within, I found a river and now such river does not stop flowing for the benefit of others." It was in this way that Ma Amritanandamayi once defined her itinerary, and this image of a river gives, to my mind, an accurate image of the impression I got when I met her in her ashram at Vallickavu, about thirty kilometres North of Quilon (Kerala) on the coast of the Arabian Sea.
Mata Amritanandamayi, called also "Amma", Mother, was born in 1953 in the very place where she now has her ashram. She was the daughter of a poor fisherman, a low caste in the Hindu social frame. Since childhood she had an intensly mystic life, which caused her a lot of trouble, especially from her family’s side. At first severely punished for her behaviours, judged abnormal by her parents who were certainly religious people but also narrow minded, she was later kept apart as crazy; she also refused the various arranged marriages which they tried to impose on her. This tension had mounted to such a degree that some people in her encourage tried even to attempt on her life. She did not bear resentment against those who once tormented her but who now recognize her greatness. She says about that period: "if a man cuts a tree, the latter does not cease to give him shadow."97
Curiously enough, one of the first to have recognised her mystical capacities was one of the Catholic priests of the nearby parish church. Like many young Indian girls she received a very elementary instruction and was quickly employed in her home to help her mother, often sick and confined to bed. Though of a low caste, poor and without a guru, she succeeded in establishing herself as spiritual Master in the very spot where she was born; in India everything is possible, including to become a "prophet in one’s own land." Amma followed the path of devotion (bhakti), had an eventful sadhana with apparently psychopathological symptoms in some periods, but also an experience of inner sweetness that she knew how to transmit to others and that gave her her name of Amritanandamayi: made (mayi) of the happiness (ananda) of immortality (amrita). Amrita may as well be translated as "Ambrosia of immortality." Despite her Bhakti orientation, her first four Western disciples came from Tiruvannamalai where they had spent several years practising the yoga of knowledge. To somebody who asked her whether she had a guru, she answered: "Amma does not have either guru or disciple, Amma bows before everything in this world. All is guru for Amma; she learned all from Nature; at a stage of meditation we obtain the knowledge of essential principles thanks to all objects of Nature."98
Amma has a wonderful capacity for being awake. During long periods she could sleep but two or three hours a night and sometimes she could go without sleep completely; moreover she did not eat during most of these times. In the days when she receives great crowds, she may remain from twelve to fifteen hours seated in one place, neither eating nor drinking, in order to receive every visitor one after the other. In many respects she is reminiscent of Ramakrishna. Sometimes, towards the end of her sadhana, one of her disciples read to her daily The Gospel of Ramakrishna. Her first entourage of devotees was aware of the resemblance. One of the disciples of Amma sees also a striking analogy between the latter and Ma Anandamayi, whom he had met several times. The sadhana of these two gurus in their youth had many similarities. Nevertheless Amma, since she does not come from a traditional brahmanic milieu, surely finds it easier than Ma Ananadamayi to let her teaching be passed to Indian lower castes as well as to the West, where she has already been several times.
One could think that the path of Indian devotion is inaccessible for the Westerners in so far as it refers to a foreign culture, to a special folklore which does not have any affinity with the deep memory of an European or an American. And yet, they are many around Amma. They are more attracted by her openness of heart, by her communicative dynamism, by the force of her purified emotions, than by a given Hindu god. In any case, a certain number of disciples choose not to concentrate on a particular deity but directly on Amma, nevertheless trying to meditate on her interior and impersonal aspect rather than on her physical features.
It is clear that both Indian and Western disciples living at the ashram, "please themselves" by being near Amma practically day and night, because in Vallickavu people may also work, drink coffee, sing, talk or laugh with their guru for a great part of the night as well... at least those who want to or who are informed of the last minute change of programme. One is also free to remain in bed if one has had enough of Amma. This "pleasure of being together" is not turned into a guilt complex; it is part of the spiritual work of the ashram, on a par with meditation or social work. By sometimes staying in this way near Amma and by watching her freedom to be, the circulation of her emotions without obstacles, it is readily perceived that practically all of us are prisoners of an "obsessional armour" aimed at checking our impulses of aggressivity, of desire or of fear in order to be able to have a behaviour more or less sociable. As regards Amma, she seems to have freed herself from this sort of armour.
When I visited Ma Amritanandamayi at her place in Kerala, I got the impression I had penetrated another world. To reach the ashram one has to take a boat traversing the lagoon; thus one finds oneself on a strip of sand about five hundred metres wide, bordered on the other side by the Arabian Sea. The dwelling places, often simple huts made of branches, are spread around in the shadow of coconut trees. The dark shapes of the fishing-boats are scattered on the shore which stretches out, rectilinear, as far as the eye can see. Children come to speak at length with you in their language, Malayalam, and you answer as you can, by gestures, smiling or grunting. It was in this ashram at the end of the world, that I met a colleague, like me a former psychiatrist of the Villejuif hospital, near Paris. She was sweeping the stairs; I helped her to carry some buckets of gravel, then we sat on the clean steps and talked. She was going through a period of changes if not crises of all sorts, and since she loved the personality and the teachings of Amma, she came to the ashram for some weeks in order to get back to the source, to "re-charge again her batteries" and to solve some of her problems.
Another Westerner looked to me much more in crisis than the psychiatrist of Villejuif. He was a well built chap, a kind of colossal fellow about six feet tall; practically every time that he went to prostrate before Amma, he started crying as a child and he, then, could not leave her. He remained seated at her feet, a little aside, sometimes for hours, while the other visitors went by as in procession according to their turn... He told me, later, that he came from Romania. It had been less than a month since the bloody change of regime had occurred in his country. I did not insist on asking him in which camp he was, whether he had shot someone, if some of his relations had been killed, and if yes, how many. Simply, he looked emotionally very perturbed and seemed to feel protected and pacified by being physically near Amma. It was strange, in an ashram at the end of the world, to see, in the person of this Romanian, a drop of a great wave of violence in the world come to die at the feet of Mother.
Later, I met near Amma a psychiatrist of Indian origin. She did didactic work in Zurich with a grand-child of Jung and then with Marie-Louise von Franz. Though a woman of intellectual brilliance, during the last twenty years, since entering psychoanalysis, her life had not been all roses. She was divorced; her only son, of whom she spoke in detail to me, manifested some disquieting symptoms leading her to think he was facing the beginnings of schizophrenia; she came recently to India with her own ninety year old mother and had been incessantly quarrelling with her even more than usual. She had just seen a ritual prayer (puja) to the Divine Mother, in the presence of Amma, and was deeply impressed: "It was twenty years that I had spoken about the Divine Mother and her symbolism, but right there, I felt the Divine Mother herself." One of the aims of her travel was to look for a place to live in India. She wished to come back to her roots, and seriously to start a traditional spiritual practice (sadhana).
By quoting these three examples of disciples that I met at the ashram of Amma, I do not want to give the impression that the ashram is but a kind of psychotherapeutic centre for people going through a crisis. It is this for some people, since it is open to each and everyone, but generally it is predominantly made up of balanced people. Their aim is to be in contact with Amma and to get the benefits of her help in multiple ways for exploring and perfecting their mind by following the ancient path of yoga. The new-comers and visitors get trained especially by being with Amma at the time of darshan, of questions and answers, of songs, and of manual works. Those who dwell long term in the ashram have a much stricter programme with, in principle, eight hours of seated meditation per day, along with all the other intellectual and manual works. Amma thus explains her method:
"At the beginning a Sadguru, an authentic master, shall not give formal instructions to his disciple. He shall be contented to love him, to establish a link with him by his unconditional love. The disciple, then, shall be ready to be moulded by the guru who shall influence his vasanas (his latent mental tendencies). Gradually the guru gives, always with love, more and more strict instructions, and completely transforms his disciple. In the real guru-disciple relationship it would be difficult to know who is the guru and who the disciple, because the guru shall be humbler than the disciple and the disciple humbler than the guru."99
Amritanandamayi’s organization has rapidly developed in these last years, both in India and in the West. Sarvatma, her principal disciple in metropolitan France, has gone back to Paris after living for five years in the Amma’s ashram in Kerala. He did not know anybody and did not have any money; he found an accomodation in a kind of corridor where there was not even place for putting a bed. He lives, when not touring around, in a centre situated in the Vosges (an area of hills and forest in East France). Since his return from India about ten years ago, he has organized many groups of Amma’s devotees in eighteen towns of Europe. He has worked on a book developing a Vedantic reading of the Bible, and continues his evolution in the West.
The case of Ma Amritanandamayi is a good illustration of the flexibility and religious vitality of the Guru system. Though Amma was at the bottom of Hindu social hierarchy, as a girl of a low caste, without a guru, her strength and her other rare spiritual qualities afforded her recognition as a spiritual master by a small group and, from that starting point, she benefitted of a great freedom for teaching and leading people according to her own experience.