Before I ever travelled to India, I had a skeptical attitude to all matters spiritual, considering it a fantastic device for coping with the rigours of life that some people seemed to need. Not me though. I was a rational, if somewhat ganja-fogged, young fellow who had no such need. Life was what one made of it, and with a strong will one could forge the path of life. Surrendering to some god-concept or Fate was a negation of ones responsibility to take account of life’s circumstance and to do something about it, whatever the situation. If you have a problem, deal with it, instead of pursuing some sort of illusory path to so-called enlightenment. That’s a long time ago now, before I met him.
India just happened to be a country on the way to Europe, and with my first visit in 1975, it just happened to be on the overland trail much trodden by my generation . Yet somehow I knew – absolutely knew beyond any desires or hopes – that India was going to be special for me, was going to have a profound impact on my life.
A blood-red sun settling down into the grey formless gloaming of an evening obscured by millions of fires of twigs and dung preparing an evening meal. It was December, winter approaching, and people were obscure forms themselves, swaddled in shawls and blankets moving slowly about the cycle of their business at that time. I was touched deeply.
Hardly any surprise then, I suppose, that an aspect of the transformation process which I perceived was beginning, should also include an assault on my firmly – rigidly held is more accurate – skepticism.
Resistance, or rigidity to a preconceived outcome in India are an invitation to disaster or disappointment.”The best laid plans of mice and men, are wont to run astray!” The very idea of going to India with an intention to ‘achieve’, is a perilous path indeed. Times have changed, and economies of efficiency these days have become a very real concept in some sectors, but even twenty years ago India was quite different.
When I first spent time in India 37 years ago and in the intervening many years I have spent there, I have always read broadly about its history and culture, philosophies and religions, the better to understand the country which so captivates me. This research invariably invited more questions than it answered, but greatly enriched my experience of India, nurtured a much more intimate relationship with it.
One book which particularly fascinated me, was ‘A Search in Secret India, written in the 1930s by an Englishman, Paul Brunton, who came to India with the aim of uncovering its spiritual mysteries. He travelled extensively, seeking out many famous and more obscure ‘holy one’, men and women who had earned reputations and fame for achieving elevated states of consciousness, or performing remarkable feats and ‘miracles’. Brunton dismissed some as fraudulent tricksters, was impressed and astounded by others. Yet none had filled his yearning to be transported to another state of consciousness through the power or capacity of another. He prepared himself to depart from India, rather disappointed by the continuing presence of an unfulfilled sense of emptiness which India had been unable to satisfy.
Intending to depart from Madras, he passed through Kanchipuram, the seat of one of the high priests of Hinduism. Having arranged for an interview, Brunton explained his mission and lack of success. The priest listened and sympathised with the Englishman, but encouraged him to visit one more, in the nearby town of Tiruvannamalai, one hundred kilometres away, and to try to meet a revered saint there, named Ramana Maharshi. Brunton
He arrived in Tiruvannamalai resigned to one more disappointing encounter. Yet the moment he entered the small hall and came in the presence of the simple holy man, Sri Ramana, his long search was over. This was immediately clear; all doubts were dissolved by direct experience of an extraordinary inner peace, the stilling of his constantly active and questioning mind.
Reading the account touched a strong nerve of familiarity in me, that I could only accept and be impressed by direct experience. Ramana Maharshi must have been a remarkable person, but whether he would have touched me in the same way was another matter. My walls of doubt were well cultivated and strongly maintained. Yet I WAS afffected by the tale. Not that I was so intrigued as to do something about it, and simply continued to cultivate my deepening love for India, soaking up the incessantly changing cultural differences wherever I went. For several years I lived and wandered in the glorious Himalayas, and was so captivated that I never returned to south India, which had fascinated and attracted me on my first journey in 1975.
India is so full of gurus and enlightened people, or at least those claimed – or claiming – to be. I found it all repelled me, added to my skepticism, even if I didn’t do anything to personally seek out such people. And since there was always plenty of sensational news on the grapevine about who they were and where they could be found, I had no trouble to avoid contact altogether. Blissfully ignorant.
Still, I could relate to Brunton’s experience, at least to the extent that it was only by actual experience – and that in the context of doubt earned through previous encounters – that he was touched. My curiosity did not extend to chasing the length of India to find anybody in particular, and the particular certainly included gurus.
I returned to Australia, then again to India, and more Australia. Then, years after that first light cracking of my impregnable wall against spirituality, the next blow to it came. In Australia I had involved myself passionately in local environmental issues and tree-planting on my own land. A deep ecology workshop was held on that land, formerly ravaged cattle-grazing country and oft-burnt eucalyptus forest, now being transformed towards its old glory as rainforest and a beautiful arboretum. During the workshop – appropriately conducted on one of the wettest weekends before or since – I was asked by the facilitator if I was interested in volunteering to co-ordinate a reforestation project in semi-arid southern India.
“Well sure,” I responded enthusiastically; the notion of combining my two primary passions – India and tree-planting/environmental conservation – was irresistable.
“Have you heard of a sacred mountain called Arunachala?” I was stunned. Is the world round, and does the sun come up each day? There was hardly anywhere in India more significant for me to be invited to plant trees than Arunachala. My cynicism about matters spiritual and esoteric had just taken another big battering. The person who had given me that book long before, who was long a distant devotee of Sri Ramana, was dear Rob, who in spite of his prior doubts about all the fanfare raves of the beauty and richness of the hills and valleys and beaches of northern New South Wales, had never really left after his first visit. At first we would both be going, but finally Rob recognized that such an ‘organised’ role was not his idea of enjoying India, nor his modus anyway, and that if we both left, then the remarkable arboretum we had been passionately creating on our land would be nelected at it’s most vulnerable beginning. I would be leaving alone in October 1989..
I will never forget the first sight of the silhouette of Arunachala, emerging through the bus window in almost a mirage of haze; I felt an excitement not so different than those first moments in India 14 years earlier, when I sensed that I had taken a step that would change my life forever.
Tiruvannamalai, the small city at the foot of the mountain, had been a magnet for pilgrimage for many centuries, though very insignificant compared with the status it has since achieved. Amongst the small number of foreigners who came there for varying time spans and intentions, a popular expression of piety was “to give oneself up to the mountain”.
Give myself up to the mountain! I can still remember how my lip curled derisively at such a notion. Giving myself up to a barren pile of rocks was the last thing I contemplated doing. I was there to actively plant that pile of rocks, not contemplate my navel, and certainly not to passively surrender myself, as if “it” could somehow be sovereign over my life or fate.
Ramana Maharshi had died almost 40 years earlier, and the Ashram which had grown around his presence was now dedicated to his memory. His burial shrine was revered, and there were many photos and memories associated with him. I appreciated the tranquil atmosphere there amongst the large trees and coconut palms in the shadow of the sun-baked rocky mountain. There were many books and tales testifying to and explaining his wisdom and philosophy, interpreting their significance, and although I did read or attempt to read some of them, none had the same impact on me as the photos of the same man at various stages of his life. Though it may have been my ingenuous perception, or simply a delusion triggered by some hidden craving lying inside me, nothing touched me like the images of that simple man, and the sense of goodness and purity which filled me. It felt good, so it was good!
Anyway, I really was utterly submersed in initiating the project, whose aims were deemed by most to be utterly unrealistic and quite unachievable. There would never be a forest on Arunachala, and certainly every photo of Ramana, stretching right back to the time of his youthful arrival in the eighteen nineties, revealed a mountain almost totally devoid of anything resembling a tree.
I worked like a madman, throwing myself into a role I had never contemplated before, trying to inspire interest and belief in greening the mountain, scraping away the rocky soil to plant seedlings we raised in a primitive nursery, watching most of them initially die of thirst, or fire, or the grazing of the rugged goats and sheep which were the only domesticated creatures who could glean anything from the mountain apart from a handful of grass cutters who gathered the common lemon-grass as roof-thatching, and later set fire to the mountain to encourage grass regrowth, and discourage any alternative regrowth.
I did manage sometimes to tarry a while in the ashram, to dissolve some of the tension and discouragement which really did now and then seem to support the cynics who were adamant no forest would come. It was during one of these pauses that I first met Nanna Garu. He was visiting with a handful of followers, and they seemed to simply sit around together in a shady courtyard of the Ashram, with a small aging man as their focus. I was intrigued, almost by the lack of anything in particular I suppose, and accepted the impromptu invitation to join them. One or two other foreigners were there too, so I did not feel too conspicuous, and nobody fed such discomfort. On the contrary, I simply felt remarkably calm and relaxed to be there, though nothing whatsoever was happening that I could identify with. It occurred to me that I had never felt so delightfully content, so I returned while the small group remained in the Ashram; they were from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, and it was a ritual several times each year to visit the shrine of the man who had deeply touched Nanna Garu as a young man.
When they were departing, some of the Andhra people – they were mostly women – invited my girlfriend and I to visit them sometime. A doctor accompanying them extended his hospitality to lodge us there. Wonderful, and a completely new face and region of India I had not previously visited in my broad travels on the sub-continent.
We were delightfully received and accommodated there, in the small village on the fertile floodplain or the Godavari River. In the morning after our arrival, a group of perhaps eight of us (we two being the only foreigners present) were gathered on the small verandah of Nanna Garu’s modest home. He was sitting on the only chair, while the rest of us occupied the floor space in the traditional cross-legged position. Nanna Garu was just sitting there, reading his local newspaper, chewing his gums, since his preference was to insert his dentures only when necessary.
The atmosphere was relaxed, quiet, with only the village noises infiltrating in from the lanes: poultry clucking, kids playing, disjointed conversations in a language I had no hope of understanding. My mind was rattling along as usual, and the thought came to me: what a funny old world it is. Here am I, John Button, long-practising spiritual sceptic, sitting here in a little Indian village in the middle of nowhere at the feet of a funny-looking little house-holder man with no teeth, along with a small group of folk who see him as some sort of cross between a saint and an enlightened one. Whatever that means. Blah blah blah jabbered my mind, flittering around from one theme to the next without particular focus.
As I prattled on, Nanna Garu suddenly looked up at me with his kindly expression. Sharp as a razor. I felt naked, discovered with my doubting thoughts. And he knew it all. That was my sensation, clear as day, and I felt a rush of guilt, embarrassment to be so exposed. Then in the same moment as those negative thoughts were struggling with themselves, they simply dissolved, vanished, leaving my mind perfectly empty. Surely not, and I tried to gather together some focus of attention. No chance, and the vacuum consolidated, leaving a state of blissful contentment. Thoughtless.
So what, you might say; the deluded ramblings of a gullible man seduced by tales of ‘Indian mysticism’ might be a judgement you come to. That doesn’t matter either. Each is entitled to his own opinions. And delusions, so hear me out. Or don’t!
I was staggered, left with no doubt whatsoever that the ‘funny-looking man’ had been able to enter my mind and somehow throw the switch. Without a trace of judgement or criticism (after all, I already had more than enough of that to myself), he quietly demonstrated a capacity beyond my comprehension. Impressive, very impressive.
In the next days we visited various households in the area and as far as Hyderabad, a little entourage of cars in convoy around followers of Nanna Garu. Their hospitality was simply wonderful; warm and generous and peaceful. And of course there was the opportunity to spend a concentrated time basking in the tranquility of his presence. That same tranquility pervaded his devotees. It was not mute surrender by any means. The atmosphere was joyful, light, playful, stimulating, even very day-to-day. Even sensuous, as exemplified by one delightful moment in one of the kitchens where we congregated, our little warm group. The woman of the house was preparing various dishes, including some tasty, mouth-sized balls in a sweet rose-flavoured syrup. She offered me one, but first pressed her thumb in one, and spooned a little pure ghee into the depression. She popped it into my mouth, giggling as she did so. We all laughed, both at her boldness, and my discomfort at exposure. Such beautiful intimacy between us all, almost strangers united by pleasured contentment.
Ah the delight of gentle sacred time shared absolutely without doctrine or creed, worship or mantras. All these can be okay, but the lack of compulsion or ritual has such light and purity with it too.
We returned from Hyderabad to Tiruvannamalai by train, and I haven’t been back to little village of Jinnoor in Andhra Pradesh again. I take the opportunity of spending time in Nanna Garu’s presence, whenever he returns to Tiru when I am there, which is decreasingly often in the past years.
While I was involved with the reforestation orject, I was so passionately involved that such times to spare on ‘guru visits’ were very limited. The project was young, it’s needs many, as were the problems to be solved, complicated by bureaucratic or cultural issues.
I was talking one evening with Nawaz, the secretary of the Executive Committee of the project which I was co-ordinating. We occasionally had arguments about the politics of the project, but invariably returned at some stage to Rumi, the 13th century sufi poet-mystic. At least we had absolutely nothing to argue about over his exquisite poetry. I had mentioned Nanna Garu to Nawaz in the course of our conversations about matters spiritual.
On this evening in particular though, our point of discussion was my sense of being controlled by the Executive Committee with whom I always discussed any important decisions to be taken, and wished for the same, but very rarely was offered that reciprocal courtesy. I mentioned, by way of explanation or theory, that an astrologer-friend of mine had insisted on reading my horoscope once, and focussed very strongly on the position of Saturn in my starry horizons, and that it indicated that I would have serious issues regarding control. He specified more precisely that I would not want to control others, but would detest any sense of being controlled by others. I’ve never been good around control figures, I must admit.
He suggested that, since Nanna Garu was in town at that time, why not talk with him about my struggles. I explained that my relationship with Nanna Garu was not one of seeking advice or counsel, but that I simply felt good in his presence and intrigued that I had such a reaction to a guru-figure.
“Oh well,” Nawaz remarked. “As you like, it was just a thought.”
After our meeting had finished though, I went along to the hall where Nanna Garu would be, and found it absolutely packed with people. Of course it was totally crowded around where he would sit, since devotees clamoured to be as close to their guru as possible. I’ve never had the slightest inclination to clamour with them; it embarrasses me even to see them at it. I thought not to bother this time, but stayed all the same. I loved just to be around where he is, and the distance doesn’t seem to be so important. In any case, the only place left for me was to squeeze into a corner at the very back of the hall. Even if I could hardly see him, still it was enough to encourage me to stay, as much to see if it had the same impact. Curious at the very least.
Anyway, eventually Nanna Garu came into the hall, way down there at the front, namasted to the throngs of people, and sat down on his swivel chair. He namasted a few more times, smiled that gentle loving smile, nodded here and there to nobody in particular. There was no way that he could pick me out huddled way back there, but after a minute or two, the only words he spoke were: “John Button, are you here? John Button?” Utterly surprised, I declared myself. “Come up here, John Button.” Ah, the grace of the guru, as they say (with hardly a trace of irony!).
I picked my way through the crowd and took my place at his feet. He smiled lovingly at me, touched my cheeks softly, nodded to me in kindly benevolence. I was transported into that bliss again. We didn’t actually speak during the entire 40 minutes or so of his presence. He spread his benediction from time to time with hand movements, infusing peace and well-being to all, and finally rose to leave, again namaste-ing and acknowledging the crowd. He turned back to me, touched my cheeks, patted my head, seemed to think for a moment before turning back to the assembly and announcing: “John Button, he is a karma yogi, a karma yogi!” A karma yogi is one who works with his heart and whole being, without thinking about criticism or success. He just devotes himself to his path, in my case at that time, to co-ordinate the project that might or might not succeed in creating a Green Arunachala. We had not spoken a word about my work with the project, yet he offered me the best advice anybody could have given me in my situation of frustration and sometimes offence. I have no doubt that he had access to my soul and my mind, to be able to serve my immediate needs so perfectly.
I have not seen Nanna Garu physically for a number of years now, yet think of him often, daily in truth. The mere thought fills me with a warmth and sense of humour and well-being. I have no questions about what it means; simply I know that it is good, and I am grateful that he is a part of my life, whatever the nature of that connection. No questions.
I also don’t think that all would be attracted to him, don’t doubt that everyone has his/her own path and way of reaching to their potential, of living their lives. Guru is no longer a word that holds fear or resistance for me. As one studied person pointed out to me: ‘guru’ comes from two Sanskrit roots, ‘gu’ signifying ‘light’, and ‘ru’ meaning ‘dark’. One who shines light in the darkness, clarity in the fog. We can all be each other’s gurus. I shouldn’t harshly judge others and their choices of spiritual path, or lack of it. I do, of course, from time to time, but that’s okay too; just more lessons to learn for me, about intolerance and judgement that serve no purpose! I believe in discernment and the capacity to discriminate between what is good or not good for each of us, and know that each step offers the potential to teach and remind.
I celebrate life in all it’s complexity and simplicity. I am thankful.