A Spiritual Initiation
© Copyright 1995 by Phil Servedio. All rights reserved
By all appearances, I was a civil engineering student at Clarkson College in Potsdam, NY, a small engineering college located in the northernmost region of New York State. I was 18 years old in 1972, and the drug culture was alive and well everywhere, even in this very straight and conventional school, hundreds of miles from any major city. I was very much into the daily habit of partying with my friends at college and within a short period of time, my supply of marijuana was getting low. So I decided to visit my home town buddy Alan, who went to the University of Buffalo, a 5 hour Greyhound bus ride from Potsdam. He boasted of wild parties and plentiful dope, so I booked a ride on Greyhound to pay him a visit and score some righteous weed.
Buffalo seemed to be such a huge metropolitan area relative to the rural little town where I was living. The downtown was dirty and sleazy (isn't the area around the bus station sleazy in every city?), and the University seemed monstrous and was somewhat overwhelming, with 20 story dormitories housing thousands of students. I met many of Alan's friends, and as a welcoming gesture to me, we all trudged out to a local bar for some brews and munchies after an initial round of partying. It was decided to go to a bar/restaurant nearby known as the "Library", known to be a place where you can have a conversation with someone without having to scream over the noise of the band or disc jockey selection. The "shtick" was to resemble a library, so as to draw the intellectual crowd, I suppose. Around all of the walls of the building were stacks and stacks of used books. I thought it was a novel idea, though a bit pretentious.
About ten of us sat down at a long table in the corner of the place and began a number of rounds of pitchers of beer for the night. Conversation ebbed and flowed, and being new to the group of people, I remained quiet for periods of time, listening to the local gossip and news being shared around the table. Towards the middle of the evening, I was bored and decided to peruse the books on the shelves to my right, looking for some kind of distraction. The books were old and for the most part dull and uninteresting. One book, however, struck my fancy, a small number in a yellow bound hard cover titled "Here Lies The Heart". At first I thought it was some kind of romance novel, but it turned out to be the autobiography of a well-networked Spanish artist named Mercedes D'Acosta. Flipping through the pages, I noticed that she hob-nobbed with the rich and famous all over the world in the thirties and forties - Dietrech, Garbo, Stravinsky, to name a few.
At one point in her life, she decides to go to India, which perked my interest. Being somewhat intrigued about the matters of the east, I was wondering if she had any mystical experiences or met some powerful guru who imparted her some great secret she would share in the pages of the book. Many of my friends were just getting into reading Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Carlos Castenada, and Herman Hesse (standard reading for the hip in the late sixties and early seventies). Certainly anything to do with the alteration of consciousness was of interest to me, though I preferred the easier route at the time, ingestion of some kind of psycho-active substance (as opposed to what seemed to be a lengthy process of yoga and meditation). I read on, hoping to expand my horizons, as the next set of brews were being served.
The author, Mercedes D'Acosta, was apparently a mystic and spiritual seeker in her own right, and wanted to see all of the popular teachers of the time, such as Sri Aurobindo and Meher Baba among others. Her experience with the Aurobindo group tasted of deceit, and her experience with Meher Baba was not that interesting to me. But more than anyone or anything else, she especially wanted to meet this famous sage named Ramana Maharishi who resided at the base of Arunachala mountain. I had never heard of him, but the story she told changed my life. He was a man clearly and obviously totally enlightened, and her initial meeting with Ramana was so powerful, it was transmitted through the pages of the book to me. In the terms of those days, it was a wonderful "contact high". Her meeting with Ramana was the greatest moment of her life, and made such an impression on her that she titled the book based on a phrase he spoke to her.
I read through Chapter 44, oblivious to the goings on at the table. Mercedes walked into the ashram and saw Ramana sitting in radiant samadhi. An American named Guy Hague told her to go up and sit right in front of Ramana, since one never knew when he would come out of this trance like samadhi. Not long after she sat down, Ramana gazed right at her and Mercedes experienced the transmission of a fully enlightened master for the first time. Ramana told her that he had been guiding her to his ashram, and asked if she had any questions. Though Mercedes felt like all her questions were already answered in the moments of his gazing at her, she pulled out a piece of paper full of questions and dialogued with Ramana for a short period of time. This chapter was essentially the documentation of a simple yet profound initiation process, rare for a Western woman at the time. I was totally transfixed by this encounter, and people at the table were wondering what the hell I was reading that so readily absorbed my attention.
At the end of the conversation, Ramana reached down to Mercedes and placed his fist over her right breast and said the words I've never forgotten, "Here lies the Heart, the Dynamic, Spiritual Heart. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart. " I was dumb struck by this dialogue and by the time I had finished reading the entire encounter, it was time to leave the bar. I was so moved and excited, that I offered to buy the book from the bar. The waiter hemmed and hawed but after talking to his boss, sold the book to me for one dollar.
This chance meeting up with this book in the most unlikely of places started a reaction in me that truly changed my life around. My spiritual search began, and within a year, I was totally clean of all drug activity and had begun a meditation practice. The one puzzling thing to me, though, was why did he place his fist over her right breast, when clearly any book on yoga describes the heart chakra in the middle of the chest? Well, it wasn't until a number of years later when I read the Knee of Listening by Franklin Jones (Da Free John) did I become aware of an even more profound current in the body than the chakra system, known as the Amrita Nadi, which begins at a point on the right side of the chest. I credit Ramana Maharishi with initially instilling in me the thirst for spiritual enlightenment, and am fully grateful to him for this gift.
Below are three different sections from the book. The first
section describes Mercedes' deep desire to meet Ramana Maharishi after
meeting Paul Brunton. The second section details her experiences with
Meher Baba and Sri Aurubindo. The third section is the entire encounter
with Ramana Maharishi. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
by Mercedes D'Acosta
The author's initial contact with Ramana
...I used to go constantly to Adrian's. When we came from the studio we often had dinner by ourselves in his house or he would give parties and ask me to help him arrange the table or receive his guests.
At one of these dinners I met Paul Brunton who had written a book
called A Search in Secret India. When I read this book it had a profound
influence on me. In it I learned for the first time about Ramana
Maharshi, a great Indian saint and sage. It was as though some
emanation of this saint was projected out of the book to me. For days and
nights after reading about him I could not think of anything else. I
became, as it were, possessed by him. I could not even talk of anything
else. So much so, that as a joke, Adrian made a drawing of me peering
out from behind a group of Indians and wrote under it A SEARCH IN
SECRET INDIA. But nothing could distract me from the idea that I
must go and meet this saint. From this time on, although I ceased to
speak too much about it, the whole direction of my life turned toward
India and away from Hollywood. I felt that I would surely go there
although there was nothing at this time to indicate that I would.
Nevertheless, I felt I would meet the Maharshi and that this meeting would
be the greatest experience of my life.
Voyage to India - Conversations with Meher Baba and Sri Aurobindo
And this time I wanted most of all to go to India to see the great Indian sage and saint, Ramana Maharshi, and I felt that I must go at once.
I had very little money, far too little to risk going to India, but something pushed me toward it. I went to the steamship company and booked myself one of the cheapest cabins on an Indian ship, the S.S. Victoria sailing from Genoa to Bombay toward the beginning of October. In the meantime I flew to Dublin to see my sister Baba and her husband, Freddie Shaw, and their two children Frederick and Mercedes. Like many youngest sons, Freddie had no money, but he was a remarkably good and fine man. They were living in a modest little house and I never saw a family so devoted to each other or so happy together.
Alfredo Sides' wife sailed with me to India. She intended to stay there several years with Sri Meher Baba, but Alfredo, when he came to the station to see us off to Genoa, said, "Don't let Consuelo do anything foolish and please take care of her." Before Alfredo, Consuelo had been married to Charles Nungesser, the aviator who tried to fly west over the Atlantic at the same time that Lindbergh flew east. Nungesser was lost on the flight. But it was not until she married the unmarriageable Alfredo that we became close friends. I will never know what made Alfredo suddenly marry. He was out of character in doing so and was certainly not the husband for Consuelo.
I had booked passage to Ceylon intending from there to cross over to southern India and go directly to Tiruvannamalai where Ramana Maharshi lived. But when the ship called at Bombay, Norina Matchabelli came on board to see me with a message from Meher Baba saying that Consuelo and I must get off the ship and come to see him in Ahmednagar, about two hours from Bombay. I did not want to do this as my real purpose in India was to see the Maharshi, and I was impatient to get to him. But Consuelo was going to Baba and she and Norina pressed me to do the same. It was an appallingly hot day and I had a migraine headache, so I let them pack my things and, in a daze, followed them off the boat. I remember edging my way through masses of people whose dark faces stood out in the brilliant sunlight against the white which the men wore. There was also a great deal of color among the crowds -- turbans and saris of brilliant pinks, blues, greens, every imaginable color, and after the incessant black one sees worn in occidental countries, Bombay gave me the impression of a gay festival.
The next day we motored to Baba's ashram in Ahmednagar. This a place he had built a number of years ago, even before he had European disciples. He had built it for what are called in India "God-mad men and women" These are people who become possessed by God and the spiritual life, and go out of their minds. A great many of them had become insane at an early age. Thousands of them wander all over India, sleep in the fields and are fed by anyone who gives them food. Most of them are harmless, but their physical condition becomes tragic. Although they are considered holy and like the Sacred Cow allowed privileges, down through the ages nothing had been done about them by the government or by individuals.
Meher Baba is the first person in India who has taken care of them and attempted to cure them. He sends his Mandali (men disciples) throughout India to bring as many of them as they can to his ashram. Here he puts them in order physically, and then works spiritually and psychologically to cure them. He has cured hundreds of them and many of them, after coming to their senses, have become his Mandali and helped to cure others. When I arrived in Ahmednagar, Baba had a great compound where about five thousand of these mad people lived. I saw him bathe many of them, a technique he uses to work spiritually through water, which seems to calm a great many of them in an extraordinary fashion. I was very much impressed by these sessions.
I was, however, not at all happy my first night in the ashram. Baba had many times spoken to me about it, and he had always promised me that if I ever went there I would have a room or a cabin of my own. This point had been brought up because Norina had told me that all the women slept in dormitories. I am a poor sleeper and I knew that under these conditions I would not be able to sleep. Also I have a horror of a lot of women herded together. This is one of the reasons why I have always hated convents and the life of nuns and any kind of dormitory school life. So I was extremely upset when I was told I would have to sleep in a dormitory. I mentioned this to Norina, who brushed my objections aside and said that I had to be "like everyone else." Looking back on it now I realize that I had no right to expect special treatment. Baba was possibly teaching me a lesson, but I felt that a man who was a spiritual teacher should not break his word.
In any case I spent a miserable night. The heat was terrific, many of the women snored, and all of them had pots under their beds which they used during the night. This was about the last straw for me. I arose at five and I was in no good mood when Norina told me that Baba expected Consuelo and me to stay with him for five years.
Five years!" I cried. "Are you out of your mind? I came to India to see the Maharshi and I am leaving here today."
I went to Baba's cabin. He was sitting on the floor in the Buddha posture with bare feet and a garland of flowers around his neck. He embraced me warmly and I sat down on the floor before him. He spelled out on his board, "I see you have slept badly." I shrugged my shoulders. I was not going into all that again. He continued. "I want you and Consuelo to stay here with me for five years. I hope you will agree to this."
"I regret terribly to have to refuse you this request. I could not possibly remain here and I must not deceive you, Baba - In case you don't already know it, I must tell you I came to India to see Ramana Maharshi."
He asked on the board, "Do you consider the Maharshi a Perfect Master?"
"I don't know anything about such things. I am no judge of Masters or of the fact that they exist. I only know that I long to see the Maharshi with all my heart, and I must go to him."
"When do you want to leave?"
"I would like to leave today."
"There is no car to take you to Bombay today. You will have to go tomorrow. But Consuelo will remain."
"I hope she will not. Alfredo put her in my care and I think after a few months she should go back to Europe."
Baba made no comment on this and I felt dismissed. Suddenly I knew I was no longer within the inner circle. The European disciples withdrew from me and their attitude strengthened my wish to leave. I did not feel any spirituality in such a lack of understanding.
That night Norina walked up and down with me in the compound. She made one more effort to change my mind and used all her charm and force of personality--and she had an abundance of both--to accomplish this. When Norina spoke of Baba or God she became ferocious. She told me laughingly once that Professor Jung had called her a "God- beast" because, he said, he feared she might devour God. It was a dark night and as we walked she swung a lantern back and forth in her hand. She told me that by refusing Baba's request I would face ten terrible incarnations. I laughed and said, "I'll take my chances." She said, "Surely you are not thinking of going back to that horrible Western world and to that terrible Hollywood!" I told her that after I had seen the Maharshi it was quite likely I would return to Hollywood. She threw her hands up in disgust. "There is nothing to be done with you. You are lost."
The next day I had a battle with Consuelo. Norina had persuaded her to stay. But I won out. As we were leaving, Meher Baba was very gracious to us, which was more than the others were. He kissed us both good-by and enacted a promise from me that I would not go to see either Gandhi or the Maharshi before sightseeing all over India. I afterwards regretted this because it caused me to miss meeting Gandhi.
When we left Bombay, Consuelo and I kept our promise to Baba and went on quite an extensive tour of India. Among the many places we saw I was most charmed, in a worldly sense, by the little city of Jaipur built entirely of pink stone. Here was a fairy tale world--a world from a Bakst ballet. In front of the pink palace with its ornate door of gold stood Indian guards wearing only short white skirts and white jaipurs, and the most beautiful green turbans draped in a very special manner. I saw a string of elephants belonging to the Maharajah sauntering past the palace. Thrown over their backs were blankets of the most exquisite gold material, while on their heads sat naked boys in the Buddha posture wearing brilliantly colored turbans, and directing the elephants with sharp cries.
Because of the paintings and photographs I had seen of the Taj Mahal I had expected to dislike it. But we had the good fortune to arrive in Agra by full moon, and as I stood in front of the Taj I was overcome by its white beauty. It seemed to me a living thing, and when I touched it the stone was warm and lifelike. The heat of the sun on the stone did not cool off at night.
Benares, of course, is an unforgettable experience. There too we were fortunate, as we arrived for an eclipse of the moon, an event considered sacred by the Indians who are tremendously influenced by astrology and the heavens. Millions of people crowded down to the Ganges and plunged into it, many of them carrying their sick and dead. Regardless of the consequences they were determined to submerge in the river at the moment of the eclipse.
We went to Ellora, and Ajanta. Here, in the caves of Ellora, and especially Ajanta, I felt art transcended beyond art. Here was some blending of mysterious forces that went beyond the human. Here was the testimony of the divine heights man can reach. This was an experience for me beyond Greece and beyond the greatest Gothic cathedral.
Meher Baba wired us to go to Poona, and when we got there he sent us a message to go to a certain cave and meditate for several weeks. This I flatly refused to do. I told Consuelo she could do so if she wished, but that I was on my way to southern India and the Maharshi. So she came along with me. We went to Bangalore, Mysore, and Madras and then to Pondicherry, hoping to see Aurobindo Ghose in his ashram.
Oddly enough, we arrived in Pondicherry on November 21 not knowing that Aurobindo always held darshan on the 22. This word, in a sense, means what Christians would call a blessing or benediction. It is derived from the Sanskrit darshana, meaning cognition or even sight. And yet it is not exact to say it is a blessing or a benediction because darshan is neither given nor received--it occurs. It may appear to be given by a saint or a sage, but it is not. It is really an experience. An experience which may occur at the sight of the river Ganges, or at the sight of a holy temple, or at the sight of a sacred hill such as Arunachala --any one of these may give darshan as well as a person. The thing to understand is that any spiritually-minded Indian will travel hundreds of miles and put up with any discomfort if at the end he is to receive darshan. Thousands of people had already arrived; many of them had been walking for six months from villages in the north to arrive in time for darshan. The town was already crowded and masses of people were sleeping in the fields. Consuelo and I, not knowing what the crowd was about, went to the ashram and rang the bell. A disciple, dressed in a sort of monk's costume, opened the door. I asked if it would be possible for us to see Aurobindo. He could not have been more surprised. He explained that no one ever saw Aurobindo and that he lived in complete seclusion except on the day of the darshan, which happened to be the next day and was the reason for the great crowds in the town.
It would seem now that Consuelo and I should have known all this, but twenty years ago very few people outside of India knew much about the great Indian sages such as Aurobindo and the Maharshi. I had read everything that Aurobindo had written, although it had not always been easy to get his books in Europe or America. But I did not actually know about his habits as I did about Ramana Maharshi's, in whom I was intensely interested and had taken the greatest pains to find out every- thing about. I do not wish to attempt a comparison between these two sages. Aurobindo was an intellectual and in his early years he had been in politics. In his later years, in his years of seclusion, he had, I believe, allowed himself to be dramatized by the Mother, a Frenchwoman who ran the ashram and had an enormous influence on him and who under stood the value of creating the legend around him that he never saw anyone but her, except at darshan, which he gave twice a year--November 22nd and March 22nd.
When I understood that I could not see Aurobindo alone and would have to wait till the next day to see him with thousands of other people, I asked if we might see President Wilson's daughter Margaret, who was living in the ashram and whom Consuelo and I both knew. She was, of course, surprised to see us but immediately said she could arrange for us to go to darshan and would also find a place for us to spend the night, as the ashram and the hotels were already crowded. As we passed through corridors I had an unpleasant sensation. To me it seemed like another convent and I have always wanted to forget my convent experiences. Women in nunlike costumes were whispering in corners and the whole place had a deadly atmosphere as well as a theatrical one. This was not surprising, as the Mother, who was the supreme influence there, had been on the stage in France. She had evidently not lost her sense of theatre over the years.
I asked Margaret Wilson if she was happy. She said she was and that not for anything would she want to leave the ashram. She said she hoped to die there and only a few years later she got her wish.
That night Margaret arranged for us to stay in the house of a French lady--a Madame Yvonne Gaebele. Darshan was to be at five o'clock in the morning. Madame Gaebele graciously served us tea and cakes at three o'clock in the morning and around four we went to the ashram with our garlands and fell into line with the many people who had been holding their places all night. Madame Gaebele was well known at the ashram and because of her and Margaret Wilson we were allowed to go almost to the front of the line. There was great tension and an extraordinary silence as everyone waited for Aurobindo to appear and take his place on a huge chair on a high platform. Everything was in readiness when suddenly a disciple appeared and made the astounding announcement that Aurobindo would not give darshan. He explained that Aurobindo had sprained his ankle and was in too much pain to give it. He said the Mother would give darshan in his place. I could hardly believe my ears. Thousands of poor people who had traveled hundreds of miles, many Of whom had been journeying for months, were to be disappointed because of a sprained ankle. There was a hush, and a wave of depression ran through the crowd that was almost staggering. Many people wept, but I was angry. "If a spiritual leader can disappoint so many people how can one find fault with a government leader or a politician?" I asked out loud--but no one answered me.
The Mother appeared and mounted the platform. Made up within an
inch of her life, her lips scarlet and her hair brightly dyed, she wore a
trailing chiffon dress, and as she took her place on the chair I wondered
if anyone in that crowd could experience darshan. But we all filed past
her, placing our garlands at her feet. I felt like a first-class hypocrite.
Some years later Vincent Sheean told me that when he was in the similar
position before the Mother she had slyly winked at him. I was glad to
hear this. It at least made me feel better to know she had some humor.
But strangely enough, opinions differ. Consuelo was impressed by the
Mother and by the whole place. She wanted to stay there. I, however,
said good-by to Margaret, and sadly enough it was really a last good-by.
As I left the ashram I wondered how such a great man as Aurobindo
could have allowed himself to be so exploited. He is now dead, but the
Mother still carries on in the ashram even though the Light has gone out.
Meeting The Great Sage Ramana Maharishi
I left Pondicherry and spiritually turned my heart toward Tiruvannamalai where the Maharshi lived. To get there, however, I had to return to Madras. On my way to Madras I had an amusing experience. This particular day I traveled third class in order to study the native types, but the only occupants of the coach besides myself were an old Indian (wearing a loincloth) and a well-dressed young Indian barrister. Presently the conductor appeared and began to talk very excitedly to me in the language of southern India--Tamil. I shrugged my shoulders and said in English that I did not understand Tamil, at the same time displaying my ticket and making signs that I hoped there was nothing wrong with it. The old man leaned forward and, in the most scholarly English, asked if he might translate for me and explain what the conductor was saying. I was delighted and asked if anything was wrong with the ticket. "It is not your ticket he is asking about. He is asking if you believe in the unity of the Divine and the individual soul."
Not a little staggered by this question, I tried, however, to appear as though such an inquiry from a railroad conductor was the most natural in the world. I then replied that I was of the opinion that there is no separation between the Divine Source and the individual soul. My interpreter conveyed my sentiments to the conductor who beamed at me and nodded and bowed, making me understand that he, too, held these same views. He then mumbled something and rushed off into the other coach. "He says he is going to collect the tickets," the loinclothed one remarked, "but he will soon return for further conversation." He not only returned, but he settled himself down next to me, peering into my face, and until I reached my destination we four discussed the Vedas, the old man translating from time to time to the conductor.
In Madras I hired a car and, so anxious was I to arrive in Tiruvannamalai that I did not go to bed and traveled by night, arriving about seven o'clock in the morning after driving almost eleven hours. I was very tired as I got out of the car in a small square in front of the temple. The driver explained that he could take me no further as there was no road up the hill where Bhagavan could be found. I learned then to call the Maharshi "Bhagavan," which means Lord and is a title by which he was always addressed. A religious ceremony was in progress, and men wearing bright-colored turbans and women in their festive saris were already surging into the square, carrying garlands of flowers and images of Siva. I did not linger to watch them, but turned toward the hill of Arunachala and hurried in the hot sun along the dust-covered road to the abode about two miles from the town where the Sage dwelt. As I ran those two miles up the hill, deeply within myself I knew that I was running toward the greatest experience of my life. I was no longer tired and I was unaware of the distance and of the heat of the sun on my uncovered head. I ran the whole way and when I reached the ashram I was not even out of breath.
Though only 2,682 feet high, Arunachala dominates the landscape. It looks as though a giant hand had quietly opened and dropped it into place. From the south side of the ashram it is just a symmetrical hill with two almost equal foothills, one on either side. But its aspect changes as the sun moves and the light varies. It has many faces and early in the morning a white cloud often drapes what seems to be its brow--in reality its summit.
The ashram was a small place. I remember only a stone hall where day and night Bhagavan sat on a couch. Not far from this hall, scattered around the hill, were small houses where some of the disciples lived including his brother. I am told that all this has greatly changed. Once the Sage's great spiritual reputation began to spread, the ashram grew larger. In my time comparatively few people journeyed to see Bhagavan and only a few Western women had ever been there. In 1943 Heinrich Zimmer, the famous authority on Indian spiritual thought, wrote a book about the Maharshi called The Way of the Self for which Jung wrote a preface. In recent years, and especially since his death in 1950, Bhagavan has become widely known all over the world.
The Sage in Somerset Maugham's book The Razor's Edge is supposed to be Ramana Maharshi. It is possible that this is so as a few weeks before my visit to the ashram, Somerset Maugham had been there. I was told that an English author had come to see Bhagavan and had fainted when first coming into his presence. I asked his name but they did not know how to pronounce it. One of the disciples retired and came back with Somerset Maugham written on a piece of paper. A few years later I saw Mr. Maugham in New York and inquired if he had actually been to see the Maharshi. He said he had, but I did not feel I should trespass on a possible spiritual experience by asking if it was true that he had fainted.
When, dazed and filled with emotion, I first entered the hall, I did not quite know what to do. Coming from strong sunlight into the somewhat darkened hall, it was, at first, difficult to see. Nevertheless, I perceived Bhagavan at once, sitting in the Buddha posture on his couch in the corner. At the same moment I felt overcome by some strong power in the hall as if an invisible wind was pushing violently against me. For a moment I felt dizzy. Then I recovered myself. To my great surprise I suddenly heard an American voice calling out to me, "Hello, come in." It was the voice of an American named Guy Hague, who originally came from Long Beach, California. He told me later that he had been honorably discharged from the American Navy in the Philippines and had then worked his way to India, taking up the study of Yoga when he reached Bombay. Then he heard about Sri Ramana Maharshi and, feeling greatly drawn to him, decided to go to Tiruvannamalai. When I met him he had already been with the Maharshi for a year, sitting uninterruptedly day and night in the hall with the Sage.
He rose from where he was sitting against the wall and came toward me, taking my hand and leading me back to a place beside him against the wall. He did not at first speak to me, allowing me to pull myself together. I was able to look around the hall but my gaze was drawn to Bhagavan who was sitting absolutely straight in the Buddha posture looking directly in front of him. His eyes did not blink or in any way move. Because they seemed so full of light I had the impression they were gray. I learned later that they were brown, although there have been various opinions as to the color of his eyes. His body was naked except for a loincloth. I discovered soon after that this and his staff were absolutely his only possessions. His body seemed firm and as if tanned by the sun, although I found that the only exercise he ever took was a twenty-minute walk every afternoon at five o'clock when he walked on the hill and sometimes greeted Yogis who came to prostrate themselves at his feet. The rest of the time, day and night, and for over half a century, he had been sitting on his couch. He was a strict vegetarian, but he only ate what was placed before him and he never expressed a desire for any kind of food. As he sat there he seemed like a statue, and yet something extraordinary emanated from him. I had a feeling that on some invisible level I was receiving spiritual shock from him although his gaze was not directed toward me. He did not seem to be looking at anything, and yet I felt he could see and was conscious of the whole world.
"Bhagavan is in samadhi," Guy Hague said.
Samadhi is a very difficult state to explain. In fact I do not think anyone has ever explained it. Doctors have tried to analyze it from a medical and physical point of view, and have failed. I have heard it described as "a state of spiritual ecstasy in which consciousness leaves the body." But this is not the whole phenomenon, as the breath stops and so does the beating of the heart. But it is not a form of trance as in the trance state both of these continue. It is claimed that samadhi is a state attained only by highly enlightened people--people who have reached Spiritual Illumination. It is a state where the spirit temporarily leaves the body and goes into one of bliss. All the Enlightened Ones who have attained samadhi describe it as Bliss. In the last century the great saint Ramakrishna often went into samadhi. The Maharshi would go into it for hours at a time, and often for days. When I arrived at the ashram he had already been in it seven hours.
I looked around. Squatting on the floor or sitting in the Buddha posture or lying prostrate face down, a number of Indians prayed-- some of them reciting their mantras out loud. Several small monkeys came into the hall and approached Bhagavan. They climbed onto his couch and broke the stillness with their gay chatter. He loved animals and any kind was respected and welcomed by him in the ashram. They were treated as the equals of humans and always addressed by names. Sick animals were brought to Bhagavan and kept by him on his couch or on the floor beside him until they were well. Many animals had died in his arms. When I was there he had a much-beloved cow who wandered in and out of the hall, and often lay down beside him and licked his hand. He loved to tell stories about the goodness of animals. He was very fond, too, of snakes and many came into the hall to pay their respects. He always had a little milk for them. It was remarkable that none of the animals ever fought or attacked each other.
The story of the Bhagavan is a simple but unique one. Born into a poor Brahmin family of South India, at the age of seventeen he asked himself "Who am I?" He said, "I am not this changing body, nor am I these passing thoughts." Then he tried to imagine death. He stretched out and so vividly visualized himself dead that his body became cold and lifeless. This convinced him that the body was not he, but only a cloak that would be cast off at death. He decided that the goal of every life should be to find the Self and that nothing else was important. He had heard of the sacred hill of Arunachala and had long been attracted to it. He decided to go there and start the quest for the Self. He first went to the temple in Tiruvannamalai. There he meditated for several months with such spiritual absorption that the temple priest began to wonder about him. But people, sensing his holiness, became his devotees. Feeling that he was attracting too much attention in the temple, he left it and one night wound his way up the hill of Arunachala. At this early time he took up his abode in a cave and, until his death fifty-four years later, he never left the hill. Devotees found him and asked his help and guidance. Out of compassion he allowed them to live near him and from then until his death he allowed anyone--poor and rich, great and humble--to come freely to see him. He himself, through the quest of the Self, found Enlightenment, living out his long life in the egoless state but subject, nevertheless, to all the conditions of human pain and sickness. Bhagavan was asked many times about his egoless state. He explained it and said, "The Gnani (the Enlightened) continually enjoys uninterrupted, transcendental experience, keeping his inner attention always on the Source, in spite of the apparent existence of the ego, which the ignorant imagine to be real. This apparent ego is harmless; it is like the skeleton of a burnt rope--though it has form, it is of no use to tie anything with."
After I had been sitting several hours in the hall listening to the mantras of the Indians and the incessant droning of flies, and lost in a Sort of inner world, Guy Hague suggested that I go and sit near the Maharshi. He said, "You can never tell when Bhagavan will come out of samadhi. When he does, I am sure he will be pleased to see you, and it will be beneficial for you, at this moment, to be sitting near him."
I moved near Bhagavan, sitting at his feet and facing him. Guy was right. Not long after this Bhagavan opened his eyes. He moved his head and looked directly down at me, his eyes looking into mine. It would be impossible to describe this moment and I am not going to attempt it. I can only say that at this second I felt my inner being raised to a new level--as if, suddenly, my state of consciousness was lifted to a much higher degree. Perhaps in this split second I was no longer my human self but the Self. Then Bhagavan smiled at me. It seemed to me that I had never before known what a smile was. I said, "I have come a long way to see you." He said, "I knew you were coming and I have been guiding your steps." There was a silence. I had stupidly brought a piece of paper on which I had written a number of questions I wanted to ask him. I fumbled for it in my pocket, but the questions were already answered by merely being in his presence. There was no need for questions or answers. Nevertheless, my dull intellect expressed one.
"Tell me, whom shall I follow--what shall I follow? I have been trying to find this out for years by seeking in religions, in philosophies, in teachers and teachings." Again there was a silence. After a few minutes, which seemed to me a long trine, he spoke.
"You are not telling the truth. You are just using words--just talking. You know perfectly well whom to follow. Why do you need me to confirm it?"
"You mean I should follow my inner self?" I asked.
"I don't know anything about your inner self. You should follow the Self. There is nothing or no one else to follow."
I asked again, "What about religions, teachers, gurus?"
"If they can help in the quest of the Self. But can they help? Can religion, which teaches you to look outside yourself, which promises a heaven and a reward outside yourself, can this help you? It is only by diving deep into the Spiritual Heart that one can find the Self." He placed his right hand on my right breast and continued, "Here lies the Heart, the Dynamic, Spiritual Heart. It is called Hridaya and is located on the right side of the chest and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the Spiritual Path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart."
It is a strange thing but when I was very young, Ignacio Zuloaga said to me, "All great people function with the heart." He placed his hand over my physical heart and continued, "See, here lies the heart. Always remember to think with it, to feel with it, and above all, to judge with it."
But the Enlightened One raised the counsel to a higher level. He said, "Find the Self in the real Heart."
Both, just at the right moment in my life, showed me the Way.
Bhagavan was not a philosopher and he did not set himself up as a teacher, a master or a guru. He made the same statement all through his life--that there is no use knowing anything if one does not know the Self. He said, "Without knowing the Self, of what avail is it to know anything else? And, knowing the Self, what else remains yet to know? all else but the Self is ignorance." He pointed out a path to Liberation through the practice of "Self Enquiry" and the question "Who am I?" If this question is pursued and narrowed down, the questioner will arrive at understanding that there is no "I" because I am not my hands, my feet, my body, my so-called personality, or even my brain. I am certainly not my physical sum total, because, when I am dead, where am l? Does some success flatter me? I must ask the question "Who is flattered?" Am I sad? I ask the question "Who is sad?" By remembering that I am not the doer it is possible to understand the illusion of the world. Bhagavan gave as an example a bank clerk who handles money daily, but without agitation because he knows it is not his money. So, too, it is not the Real Self that is affected by changes of states or fortunes.
People said to Bhagavan, "I would like to find God." His answer was: "Find the Self first and then you won't have to worry about God." And once a man said to him, "I don't know whether to be a Catholic or a Buddhist." Bhagavan asked him, "What are you now?" The man answered, "I am a Catholic." He then said, "Go home and be a good Catholic and then you will know whether you should be a Buddhist or not."
Bhagavan pointed out to me that the Real Self is timeless. "But," he said, "in spite of ignorance, no man takes seriously the fact of death. He may see death around him, but he still does not believe that he will die. He believes, or rather, feels, in some strange way, that death is not for him. Only when the body is threatened does he fall a victim to the fear of death. Every man believes himself to be eternal, and this is actually the truth. This truth asserts itself in spite of man's ignorant belief that the body is the Self."
I asked him how to pray for other people. He answered, "If you are abiding within the Self, there are no other people. You and I are the same. When I pray for you I pray for myself and when I pray for my- self I pray for you. Real prayer is to abide within the Self. This is the Meaning of Tat Twam Asi--I Am Thou. There can be no separation in the Self. There is no need for prayer for yourself or any person other than to abide within the Self."
I said, "Bhagavan, you say that I am to take up the Search for the Self by Atman Vichara, asking myself the question Who Am I? I say I ask Who Are You?"
Bhagavan answered, "When you know the Self, the 'I' 'You' 'He' and 'She' disappear. They merge together in pure Consciousness."
I understood then that Bhagavan, being egoless, could not speak for himself in terms of "I" or "We." His nearest approach to a direct answer was "Pure Consciousness" which to a discriminating mind did not answer the question, though it could not be answered in any other way. Bhagavan, abiding in the egoless state, was awake only to Truth and the Real Self. He was asleep to the world, the appearance of which is false, being born out of and sustained by ignorance.
Noticing one time what I thought were some evil-looking priests who had come from the temple, I remarked on them to Bhagavan. He said, "What do you mean by evil? I do not know the difference between what you call good and evil. To me they are both the same thing just the opposite sides of the coin." I should have known this. Bhagavan was, of course, beyond duality. He was beyond love and hatred, beyond good and evil, and beyond all pairs of opposites.
To write of this experience with Bhagavan, to recapture and record all that he said, or all that his silences implied, is like trying to put the Infinite into an egg cup. One small chapter cannot in any way do him justice or give an impression of his Enlightenment, and I do not think that I am far enough spiritually advanced--if at all--to try to interpret his Supreme Knowledge. On me he had, and still has, a profound influence. I feel it presumptuous to say he changed my life. My life was perhaps not so important as all this. But I definitely saw life differently after I had been in his presence, a presence that just by merely "being" was sufficient spiritual nourishment for a lifetime. It may have been that when I returned from India undiscerning people saw very little change in me. But there was a change--a transformation of my entire consciousness. And how could it have been otherwise? I had been in the atmosphere of an egoless, world-detached, and completely Pure Being.
I sat in the hall with Bhagavan three days and three nights. Sometimes he spoke to me, other times he was silent and I did not interrupt his silence. Often he was in samadhi. I wanted to stay on there with him but finally he told me that I should go back to America. He said, "There will be what will be called a 'war,' but which, in reality, will be a great world revolution. Every country and every person will be touched by it. You must return to America. Your destiny is not in India at this time."
Before leaving the Ashram, Bhagavan gave me some verses he had
selected from the Yoga Vasishta. He said they contained the essence
for the Path of a Pure Life.
I sorrowfully said farewell to Bhagavan. As I was leaving he said, "You will return here again." I wonder. Since his physical presence has gone I wonder if I shall. Yet often I feel the pull of Arunachala as though it were drawing me back. I feel the pull of that Sacred Hill of which he was so much a part, and where his mortal body lies buried.
Guy walked with me down the hill into the town. We went to the temple and saw the spot where Bhagavan had first attained samadhi. Then I went by car to see the beautiful temple in Madura, stopping on the way to see other temples in southern India. From Madura I went to Ceylon, stopping first at Colombo. I went, of course, to Kandy and to a number of places and temples throughout the island sacred to Buddhists. In Anuradhapura I had a deeply spiritual experience. I sat beneath the sacred Pipal or Bo-Tree under which Buddha often sat and preached his sermons. It was transplanted from Buddhgaya, in India, to Anuradhapura by the Princess Sanghamitta around 288 B.C. It is the oldest historical tree existing. To me it was more than a tree. It was the living essence of Buddha himself. It had sheltered the Tathagata and surely drunk into its very roots the Supreme Holiness of the Blessed One. I touched its trunk and leaves and felt purified. And I sat beneath its shade and meditated.
While visiting a Buddhist monastery, a monk asked me if I came from America. When I told him that I did he said there was a monk in the monastery who was an American, but that, unfortunately, she was in India on the road with the begging bowl. In Buddhist monasteries no distinction is made between men and women. They both wear the yellow robe, shave their heads, are considered monks and are known only by the name they take when they enter the order. When I inquired this monk's name, he said he would go and look it up in the book. He came back with it written on a slip of paper. It was Constant Lounsbery. This was a great surprise to me as I had been looking for Constant Lounsbery since Rita's death in 1929. I had wanted to thank her for the very touching piece she had written about Rita then in the Paris Herald Tribune. I left a note for her there in Ceylon.
And there in Ceylon I received word from Gandhi that he would see me. I had written him before coming to India, but his answer had followed me around from one place to another and now, sadly enough, I did not have the money or the energy to retrace my steps and go north to him. Besides I felt that having seen the Maharshi, my cup was already filled and, in a sense, brimming over. I wired my regrets, thinking I would see him the next time I went to India. Alas. Had I known I surely would have made the effort.
Consuelo was there in Ceylon with me. Together we sailed on the S.S. Victoria from Colombo, the same ship we had arrived in India on. Two days later it stopped in Bombay. Consuelo couldn't make up her mind whether or not to get off and stay on in India a few weeks longer. At the last minute she got off and I sailed alone back to Europe.
Before leaving the ashram I wrote down several questions for Guy to ask Bhagavan that I had not had a chance to ask myself. I had been bothered by the fact that so many saints and enlightened people had been ill and suffering physically. I asked, should they not have perfect bodies and why do they not cure themselves? In Europe I got a letter from Guy saying he had discussed my question with Bhagavan. He wrote, "Bhagavan told me to tell you that the spiritually perfect person need not necessarily have a perfect body. The reason, as he explained it, is very simple- You see, the ego, the body and the mind are the same thing. The spiritually perfect person, like Bhagavan, is above these three things. Consequently he has no body to heal, neither a mind--or ego--to heal it with. He is beyond all this because it is illusion. He is living in Reality. Christian Scientists can take the mind and heal the body--for they are the same thing. American Indians heal, too, in this manner. It is faith healing. But if the spiritually perfect person is sick in body it is because the body is working out its Karma. Bhagavan gave an illustration of Karma, which he says is like an electric fan and must just run its course, only gradually ceasing even after it has been turned off. He says the mind is born into illusion and builds a body and a world to suit it--that is, a world that it has earned and deserves (by its Karma). Bhagavan, knowing the body and the mind to be illusion, cannot experience any bodily ailment or discomfort. We make him suffer pain, loss of weight, etc. It is in our minds not his. He is bodiless, actually is, though you and I cannot realize this as a fact."
In another letter Guy answered my questions, which led to others. He wrote down my questions and Bhagavan's answers.
Question: Is reincarnation a fact?
Bhagavan: You are incarnated now, aren't you? Then you will be so again. But as the body is illusion then the illusion will repeat itself and keep on repeating itself until you find the Real Self.
Question: What is death and what is birth?
Bhagavan: Only the body has death and birth, and it [the body] is illusion. There is, in Reality, neither birth nor death.
Question: How much time may elapse between death and rebirth?
Bhagavan: Perhaps one is reborn within a year, three years or thousands of years. Who can say? Anyway what is time? Time does not exist.
Question: Why have we no memory of past lives?
Bhagavan: Memory is a faculty of the mind and part of the illusion. Why do you want to remember other lives that are also illusions? If you abide within the Self, there is no past or future and not even a present since the Self is out of time--timeless.
Question: Are the world, the mind, ego and the body all the same thing?
Bhagavan: Yes. They are one and the same thing. The mind and the ego are one thing, but there is no word to explain this. You see, the world cannot exist without the mind, the mind cannot exist without what we call the ego [itself, really] and the ego cannot exist without a body.
Question: Then when we leave this body, that is when the ego leaves it, will it [the ego] immediately grasp another body?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes, it must. It cannot exist without a body.
Question: What sort of a body will it grasp then?
Bhagavan: Either a physical body or a subtle-mental-body.
Question: Do you call this present physical body the gross body?
Bhagavan: Only to distinguish it--to set it apart in conversation. It is really a subtle-mental-body also.
Question: What causes us to be reborn?
Bhagavan: Desires. Your unfulfilled desires bring you back. And in each case--in each body--as your desires are fulfilled, you create new ones. You must conquer desire to be absorbed into the One and thus end rebirth.
Question: Can sex change in rebirth?
Bhagavan: Oh, surely. We have all been both sexes many times.
Question: Is it possible to sin?
Bhagavan: Having a body, which creates illusion, is the only sin, and the body is our only hell. But it is right that we observe moral laws. The discussion of sin is too difficult for a few lines.
Queston: Does one who has realized the Self lose the sense of "I"?
Question: Then to you there is no difference between yourself and myself, that man over there, my servant, are all the same?
Bhagavan: All are the same, including those monkeys.
Question: But the monkeys are not people. Are they not different?
Bhagavan: They are exactly the same as people. All creatures are the same in One Consciousness.
Question: Do we lose our individuality when we merge into the Self?
Bhagavan: There is no individuality in the Self. The Self is One--Supreme.
Question: Then individuality and identity are lost?
Bhagavan: You don't retain them in deep sleep, do you?
Question: But we retain them from one birth to another, don't we?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes. The "I" thought [the ego] will recur again, only each time you identify with it a different body and different surroundings around the body. The effects of past acts [Karma] will continue to control the new body just as they did the old one. It is Karma that has given you this particular body and placed it in a particular family, race, sex, surroundings and so forth.
Bhagavan added, "These questions are good, but tell de Acosta [he always called me de Acosta] she must not become too intellectual about these things. It is better just to meditate and have no thought. Let the mind rest quietly on the Self in the cave of the Spiritual Heart. Soon this will become natural and then there will be no need for questions. Do not imagine that this means being inactive. Silence is the only real activity." Then Guy added, "Bhagavan says to tell you that he sends you his blessings."
This message greatly comforted me.
On my way back to Europe my boat stopped at Port Said. I landed there and motored across the desert to Cairo where I stayed three days and then caught the ship again when it docked at Alexandria.
In Cairo I stayed at the old famous Shepheard's Hotel. I spent one day in the museum seeing the Tut-Ankh-Amon collection, and the second day I rode out by camel to see the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. When I reached the Pyramid it was nearly sunset. There was no one around except my own dragoman and one or two Arabs sleeping against their kneeling camels. I decided to climb to the top of the Pyramid. Although it towered above me, tapering off into the sky, and looked terribly high, I did not realize how high it was until I started climbing. I started out briskly but after a certain distance I grew tired and my pace slackened. The steps of the Pyramid are very narrow and eroded, but I was determined to reach the top. Thoroughly exhausted, I finally did. The sun had already gone down. I turned and looked down the steep and awesome slope of the Pyramid. Suddenly I was overcome by the most frightful vertigo. My head swam and I felt that I was going to plunge to my death. I crouched on the narrow steps and clung to the top of the Pyramid so fiercely that my nails broke against the stone and my fingers bled. I could not bring myself to look down again. An agonizing fear took hold of me. I felt cold sweat pouring over my face, neck, and back. I became hysterical. What was I to do? I knew if I let go I would fall, but I also knew I could not hold on much longer. I closed my eyes. I remembered what the Maharshi said--to dive deep into the Spiritual Heart. I summoned every faculty and all power within me and concentrated on the Heart. Suddenly I saw it, like a great light, in my mind's eye. In the center I saw the Maharshi's face smiling at me. Instantly I felt calm. I turned and looked down. Far below I saw a man waving at me. I loosened one hand and held it over my head, then I waved back. The man began calling someone else. Another man ran to him. Swiftly they began to climb. They climbed expertly and fast but it seemed hours to me. Probably it took them about thirty-five minutes to reach me. One man had a rope. He tied it around my waist and gently stroked my face. He mumbled some words that I could not understand, but I knew they were kind words to encourage me. Between them, each one holding the rope as though we were mountain climbing, we began to descend. Eventually we reached the bottom safely.
Some time after this I was told by an enlightened person that climbing the Great Pyramid was considered in ancient Egypt one of the "fear tests" which students had to pass in order to be initiated into the great religious mysteries. Aspirants were required to climb to the very top of the Pyramid, and if on reaching the top of it he or she could conquer fear, this particular test was won.