[As with an earlier post a few weeks ago, some of the material appears in white boxes. There is no significance to the white bits. Just ignore them. I can't get them to disappear.]
When we speak of the Guru, mention of ‘the feet’ is never far away. We surrender to the feet, we sit at the feet, we give offerings to the feet, we touch the feet, and if we are lucky enough to be graced by them, we ultimately merge with the feet. The feet exist physically, of course, and all devotees consider it an honour and a privilege to touch them, but they are also a potent symbol of the transcendent state of the true enlightened Guru. In Padamalai, for example, Muruganar portrays Bhagavan as ‘the foot’ (padam) in every verse. In this long poem he used the term padam to denote the physical form of Bhagavan, the state in which he constantly abided, and the power that emanated from that state through that particular form.
Though Bhagavan did admit on a few occasions that the physical feet of the Guru had a special power, he went out of his way to minimise the importance of his own. In the last few decades of his life devotees were actively discouraged from attempting to touch them. A low railing was erected around his sofa to keep would-be foot-touchers out of range, and whenever Bhagavan went for a walk, one of the principal jobs of the attendants who accompanied him was to ensure that no one would impede his progress by attempting to prostrate and touch his feet.
In Living by the Words of Bhagavan Annamalai Swami recorded the following incident, which is a typical Bhagavan response:
A devotee once approached Bhagavan and asked him if he could prostrate to him and touch his feet.
Bhagavan replied: ‘The real feet of Bhagavan exist only in the heart of the devotee. To hold onto these feet incessantly is true happiness. You will be disappointed if you hold onto my physical feet because one day this physical body will disappear. The greatest worship is worshipping the Guru’s feet that are within oneself.’
Sadhu Natanananda, in Sri Ramana Darsanam, also recorded two key replies from Bhagavan on this subject. The first comes from a section entitled ‘The real meaning of touching the Guru’s feet’; the second is entitled ‘True namaskaram is only surrender of the ego’:
A certain lady, who had a lot of devotion, performed a traditional ritual for worshipping sages whenever she came into Bhagavan’s presence to have darshan. She would prostrate to Bhagavan, touch his feet and then put the hands that had touched Bhagavan’s feet on her eyes.
After noticing that she did this daily, Bhagavan made the following remarks:
‘Only the Supreme Self, which is ever shining in your Heart as the reality, is the Sadguru. The pure awareness, which is shining as the inward illumination ‘I’, is his gracious feet. The contact with these [inner holy feet] alone can give you true redemption. Joining the eye of reflected consciousness [chitabhasa], which is your sense of individuality [jiva bodha], to those holy feet, which are the real consciousness, is the union of the feet and the head that is the real significance of the word ‘asi’. As these inner holy feet can be held naturally and unceasingly, hereafter, with an inward-turned mind, cling to that inner awareness that is your own real nature. This alone is the proper way for the removal of bondage and the attainment of the supreme truth.’
Invoking that lady devotee’s natural experience, Bhagavan revealed the true meaning of the gracious feet that unite the jiva with Brahman. Mature ones should attach themselves to these feet….
Some of those who came for Maharshi’s darshan used to perform ashtanga namaskaram in the traditional way. It was their belief that this practice, done devoutly, was indispensable for those who wanted the grace of the Sadguru.
In order to drive home the point that in spiritual life mere mechanical observance of any sadhana, without knowing its inner meaning and without experiencing its fruit, will not make one blessed, Bhagavan, addressing one such devotee, said:
‘The benefit of performing namaskaram to the Guru is only the removal of the ego. This is not attained except by total surrender. Within the Heart of each devotee the gracious Guru is giving darshan in the form of consciousness. To surrender is to offer fully, in silence, the subsided ego, which is a name-and-form thought, to the aham-sphurana [the effulgence of ‘I’], the real holy feet of the gracious Guru. Since [this is so], Self-realisation cannot be attained by a bowing of the body, but only by a bowing of the ego.’
Some devotees were lucky enough or privileged enough to touch Bhagavan’s physical feet, but Bhagavan made it clear that no special transmission was involved when this happened. This subject was brought up by Devaraja Mudaliar in Day by Day with Bhagavan:
A second edition of Sri Ramana, the Sage of Arunagiri by Aksharajna has recently come out. Sampling it here and there, I came across the passage that Bhagavan blesses his disciples in various ways, the ‘mild’ by sight, the middling by thought and the advanced by touch.
Once when I was reading Kaivalyam in Tamil, I asked Bhagavan, ‘Many books speak of Gurus blessing disciples or giving diksha by touching the head of the disciple with their hands or feet. How is it then Bhagavan never does any such thing?’
Bhagavan then told me, ‘It is true the books mention the three ways of diksha, viz., by sight, touch and thought. But diksha by thought is really the best.’
So I asked Bhagavan today about the above passage in Aksharajna’s book, saying, ‘He also knew Bhagavan well. He must have had some reason for saying so.’
Bhagavan said, ‘I don’t know,’ and added, ‘I might have touched some by accident or for other reasons, not with the intention of giving diksha’.
While Bhagavan made it clear here that he never initiated people in this way, he did on a few rare occasions transmit power through touching devotees. Palaniswami, his mother and Lakshmi the cow all benefited from Bhagavan’s holy touch in their final moments. In these cases, and in the few others that appear to be similar transmissions, Bhagavan used his hand, rather than his foot to transmit the necessary grace.
I do believe that Bhagavan did have power in his feet; he just never publicly acknowledged it or voluntarily used it to transmit grace to devotees. Consider the following story, narrated by Kunju Swami in Reminiscences, which dates from Bhagavan’s early days at Arunachala:
One of the earliest people to recognise Sri Bhagavan’s greatness, and to inform others of it, was Achyutadasa, a famous poet and scholar. When Sri Bhagavan was staying in Gurumurtham in the 1890s, a holy man with a bright face came with his disciples for Sri Bhagavan’s darshan. After performing bhajans for some time, he sat near Sri Bhagavan, caught hold of his feet and hands and immediately went into a state of ecstasy.
When his disciples also approached Sri Bhagavan to catch hold of his feet, Achyutadasa stopped them saying, ‘This is a huge fire. None of you can get close to it.’
He then sang some excellent vedantic songs. As Sri Bhagavan was still remaining in silence at that time he merely witnessed that scene without commenting on it. Finally, the visitor bowed to Sri Bhagavan and left most unwillingly. Only after a few days was it learned that the visitor was Achyutadasa, a famous person who had composed many vedantic songs in Tamil. He later sent a book of his vedantic songs for Sri Bhagavan’s perusal.
This seems to be the case of a mature devotee recognising, by direct experience, the power in Bhagavan’s feet, and then warning others who were not so mature not to touch them in case the power turned out to be too much for them.
In the next incident, narrated by Krishnamurti Iyer in The Power of the Presence, part one, something strange happened when Bhagavan’s foot accidentally came into contact with a nearby devotee:
Ranga Aiyer, another member of our
The fourth stanza in the third decad begins, ‘Let me place your soft, holy feet on my head...’.
As this line was being chanted one of Sri Bhagavan’s feet descended, came into contact with the top of Ranga Aiyer’s head and stayed there for quite some time. The whole group, including Ranga Aiyer, was more or less hypnotised by this act and went on repeating the same stanza over and over again. It seems that they were quite incapable of proceeding any further. Only when Sri Bhagavan withdrew his foot and resumed his former sukhasana posture was the group able to continue and complete the chanting. The devotees all viewed this as a rare example of pada diksha [initiation by being touched by the Guru’s foot]. I have spoken to Ramaswami Pillai about this incident, since he was present when it happened, and his own account agrees in every detail with Ranga Aiyer’s.
Given that Bhagavan has already said in the citation I gave from Day by Day with Bhagavan that he never gave initiation by touch, I think it would be safe to assume that he would deny that he had given initiation in this particular case. However, the power of Bhagavan’s foot in this instance cannot be denied.
Though Bhagavan never consciously used his own feet to bring about experiences in devotees, he did seem to accept that the power in a Guru’s foot was enough to bring about liberation in advanced devotees. Here is a story, which he frequently told, of a saint who attained liberation in this way. The story is from Letters from Sri Ramanasramam and the narrator is Suri Nagamma:
That devotee then said, ‘There is a similar incident in the story of Namadeva, is it not?’
‘Yes, that is so,’ said Bhagavan and began relating that story thus:
‘Namadeva used to pride himself on the fact that Vittal [
Krishna] was always more fond of him than others and so once Jnanadeva and others took him to the house of Gorakumbhar for a feast. After food, all of them sat in a row and, during conversation, one of them said in an allegorical manner to Gorakumbhar, “You are used to making good pots, aren’t you? Now tell us which amongst these pots are good and which are bad?” Gorakumbhar thereupon took a potter’s testing rod and began hitting them on the head one by one.
‘They all kept quiet out of regard for him and just kept their heads bent. When it came to the turn of Namadeva, he expressed his resentment at the procedure and refused to undergo the test. Kumbhar forthwith declared that that was an immature pot. All the others burst into laughter at that. Poor Namadeva could not contain his anger. He began saying that they all had conspired together to humiliate him thus and went to Vittal with tears in his eyes to complain. “Well, what is the matter?” asked Swami, and Namadeva related the whole story. “That is all right; but tell me what did the others say when they were tested?” asked Swami.
‘Namadeva: They all shut their mouths and bowed when tested with the rod.
‘Vittal: And you?
‘Namadeva: Am I like them? How intimate I am with you! Am I to be beaten like that for a test?
‘Vittal: That is called ahankara [ego]. All of them knew my real Self and had a contented mind. You are not so.
‘Namadeva: But you are kind to me; and what more is there for me to know?
‘Vittal: That is not it. You must serve elders if you want to know the truth. What am I? If you dance, I dance. If you laugh, I laugh. If you jump, I jump. If you find out the truth, you will not have these jumpings and bumpings.
‘Namadeva: You say, “elders”. Who is there older than you?
‘Vittal: Who? There is a temple in the nearby forest. In that temple there is a sadhu. Go to him and you will realise the truth.
‘When Namadeva went to that temple in the forest, he saw an unkempt man lying there. “How could this man be a sadhu?” he thought and, when he went closer to that person, he found the legs of the man on a linga. Shuddering at the sight, he said with trepidation, “Sir, what is this? You are putting your legs on the head of God!” That man said, “Oho! Nama, is that you? Vittal sent you, didn’t he?” Taken aback at this and wondering how the sadhu could know about him, he asked again, “Sir, you are a sadhu, aren’t you? How could you put your legs on a linga?” “Is that so, my dear son? I don’t know all that. I am unable to lift my legs. Will you please lift them for me and move them away from the linga?” he said. Namadeva, agreeing to do so, lifted them and tried to put them elsewhere but found that there was another linga there also. Thus wherever he tried to put the legs, he found a linga there and so finally, he placed them on himself, when he himself became a linga. That is to say, by the touch of those holy feet, he had jnanodaya [dawn of knowledge of the Self]. Namadeva stood up dazed. The sadhu asked, “Yes, do you now realise [the truth]?” Saying “Yes I have realised,” he bowed before Visobakesar, disciple of Jnaneswar, went home, sat in his room and got immersed in dhyana and stopped going to Vittal.
‘After some days, Vittal came there running and asked him, “Nama, how is it you haven’t been coming to me of late?” Namadeva said, “Oh, Prabhu [Lord]! Where is the place in which you are not present? I see you here at all times. I am you and you are me. That is why I do not go to you.” “Oh, I see, that is good.” So saying, Vittal vanished.’
In more recent times there is the famous incident in which Ramakrishna touched Vivekananda with his foot and gave him a powerful experience that almost resulted in the extinction of his individual self. I don’t think the full story of this encounter has appeared in a Ramanasramam publication, but the story was known by both Bhagavan and his devotees. Here is a version of it I found online. I will give Bhagavan’s comments on the incident afterwards:
Naren’s [Vivekananda’s] doubt about Ramakrishna would not disappear, and perhaps he feared that he would be drawn into the orbit of his lofty spiritual presence. Not until a month had elapsed did he return to Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna was in a strange mood, Naren was to relate, and he was apprehensive that Ramakrishna would once again enact something crazy. Indeed, no sooner had that thought passed through his mind than Ramakrishna placed his foot on Naren’s body, and Naren at once had a ‘wonderful experience.’ Naren was to add:
‘My eyes were wide open, and I saw that everything in the room, including the walls themselves, was whirling rapidly around and receding, and at the same time, it seemed to me that my consciousness of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void. This destruction of my consciousness of self seemed to me to be the same thing as death. I felt that death was right before me, very close. Unable to control myself, I cried out loudly, “Ah, what are you doing to me? Don’t you know I have my parents at home?” When the Master heard this, he gave a loud laugh. Then, touching my chest with his hand, he said, “All right, let it stop now. It needn’t be done all at once. It will happen in its own good time.” To my amazement, this extraordinary vision of mine vanished as suddenly as it had come. I returned to my normal state and saw things inside and outside the room standing stationary, as before.
Bhagavan was asked about this foot-touching incident in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk 252:
Question: Sri Ramakrishna touched Vivekananda and the latter realised bliss. Is it possible?
Bhagavan: Sri Ramakrishna did not touch all for that purpose. He did not create Atma. He did not create realisation. Vivekananda was ripe. He was anxious to realise. He must have completed the preliminary course in his past births. Such is possible for ripe persons only.
The key to success is clearly maturity. In the 1890s Achyutadasa, a mature sadhaka, felt the power of Bhagavan feet and warned his group not to touch them; Vivekananda, as Bhagavan explained, was ready for this experience of samadhi by virtue of spiritual work done in previous births; and Namadeva, despite, his bouts of petulance, was a pure enough soul to be spending large portions of his time with Vittal.
Bearing this in mind, I should like now to narrate two more modern and very dramatic stories that illustrate the power inherent in the Guru’s feet.
Jillellamudi Amma (1923-1985) was a modern-day Telugu Guru who had thousands of devotees in Andhra Pradesh in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She received her title from the
Jillellamudi Amma declined to have her cremated and instead made a samadhi shrine for her, a sign of her saintliness. This is a description of the burial rites, taken from Mother of All by Richard Schiffman.
Jillellamudi Amma first garlanded her daughter’s corpse, tied flowers garlands to her hair, put kumkum on her forehead and placed the body in siddhasana, facing eastwards.
For some time Mother stood at the edge of the pit with her foot placed squarely on the crown of Hyma’s head. When Doctor Potluri Subba Rao prepared to take a photo of this, Amma gestured towards the pit and asked, ‘Should I also get in?’
Then she smiled and remarked somewhat wistfully: ‘How can I get in? Haven’t I got some more things to do? I won’t stay here.’
Mother gazed down at her foot on Hyma’s head and said, ‘My fire has entered her. My foot is getting roasted by the heat. The pulse may also return, but what would be surprising about that?’
Amma gestured for the doctor to check and he discovered, to his amazement, that Hyma’s body was indeed hot to the touch. Even more surprisingly, a slight breath had returned and her chest heaved visibly, as the doctors and several others who were nearby could easily observe. Mother placed her own gold bangles into the grave, picked up a hand fan and began to fan Hyma. Meanwhile, devotees were filing past with offerings of vibhuti, kumkum and flowers which they threw into the pit....
For some time Amma sits quietly at the edge of the pit with her eyes closed. When she opens them again, she looks towards Doctor Subba Rao and says jocularly, ‘If I sit like this, people will say that I am transmitting power’. ‘That is exactly what I am going to say,’ the doctor answers with a smile.
Then Mother offers another coconut and places some vibhuti on the top of Hyma’s head. At just this moment the electricity fails and the lights that have been placed on poles around the pit blink off, leaving the area in total darkness. When they come on again a few minutes later, Mother points to the flow of blood coming from the uppermost crown of Hyma’s head, the place where, according to yogic science the thousand-petalled lotus, the highest of all the chakras and the final barrier which must be punctured before the individual soul can merge with the infinite, is located.
Then Mother covers the pit with a white silk sari of hers and turns to Doctor Subba Rao: ‘Doctorji, my work is over,’ she says, and together with her husband, waves a tray of burning camphor, a final arati before this covered pit.
This account came out in 1983, and I probably read it soon afterwards. On my next visit to Lakshmana Ashram I told Saradamma about this story of the Guru apparently reanimating the disciple’s body after it had been dead for quite some time, and then (my conjecture) making the jiva leave the body through the crown of the head. She told Lakshmana Swamy about it later that day. He was curious to learn more since transmissions of this kind were something that interested him very much. I obtained a copy of the book for him and marked the passage where this incident was recorded. After he had read it, he made some interesting comments:
‘If the jiva leaves through the crown of the head, it indicates an advanced soul. Usually, it leaves through the mouth or the eyes. But leaving in this way does not indicate that liberation has happened, even though this is what the yogis claim. A jiva that leaves through the crown of the head will have to be reborn again. For liberation, the jiva has to go down the amrita nadi and die in the Heart. That is the place of its final liberation.
‘This Guru had power, and she was dealing with an advanced devotee. If she had kept her foot on the girl’s head, the jiva might have gone back into the Heart and died. Instead, she took it off and the jiva escaped to take another birth.’
It is worth noting here that Ramana Maharshi also taught that liberation was not attained by causing the kundalini to reach and merge with the sahasrara. He said that for final liberation, it had to come back to the Heart through the channel that Lakshmana Swamy called the amrita nadi.
Lakshmana Swamy had had his own experience of this phenomenon when Saradamma realised the Self in his presence through the power of his grace and, more specifically, the power of the Guru’s feet. This is the account I wrote of that event in No Mind – I am the Self:
The next morning she [Saradamma] came out of samadhi with a strong awareness that her ‘I’-thought was still existing. She remembered the peace of the previous day and night when she had been in samadhi, with the ‘I’-thought temporarily gone, and she decided to see if she could enter the same state again. She closed her eyes and within a few minutes her ‘I’-thought subsided into the Heart and she went back into samadhi again. The ‘I’-thought emerged from the Heart several times during the day, but each time it subsided Sarada was convinced that she had realised the Self. She was still able to talk and Swamy, thinking that her realisation was near, placed a small tape-recorder near her to record her words. Sarada spoke in short, quiet sentences, with frequent pauses as she was overwhelmed by the bliss of the Self.
‘I have no body. I have no “I”. I am not the body. How I am talking, I do not know. Some power is talking through me.’
Swamy asked her if she was looking, and she replied: ‘Even though I am looking, I am not looking. Where is the “I” to look. When the mind enters the Heart, there is no “I” to tell that there is no “I”. My “I” is dead.’
Swamy then asked her how she was feeling.
‘My whole body is filled with peace and bliss. I cannot describe it. Everything is filled with peace. The Self is pulling me towards it and I am not able to open my eyes. The whole body is weak.’
Swamy remarked, ‘It is like an elephant entering a weak hut. The hut cannot stand the strain. Is it beyond time and death?’
‘It is beyond time and death as there is no mind. As the “I” is dead I don’t wish to eat anymore. I am not able to eat. However tasty the food I cannot eat. I have no desire to eat. Everything is filled with peace and bliss. I am content with my realisation. I have recognised my own Self, so I am content.’
Swamy then told her that her “I” was not yet dead and that she had not yet reached the final state. Sarada replied: ‘As the “I” is dead, there is no you.’
‘Have you no mother or father?’ asked Swamy.
‘No father, no mother, no world. Everything is peace and bliss. Why do I have to eat when there is no “I”? The body is inert; it cannot eat. A corpse will not eat. It is like that because the “I” is dead. As I cannot eat, I cannot talk. Who is talking, I do not know.’
‘Then who is talking?’ asked Swamy.
Sarada remained silent, and so Swamy answered his own question. ‘The Self is talking.’
Sarada continued: ‘Even though I am seeing, I am not seeing. Even though I am talking, I am not talking. Whatever I do I am not doing it because the “I” is dead. I have no body. All the nerves are filled with peace and bliss. All is Brahman. All is bliss. In the veins instead of blood, love and bliss are flowing. A great power has entered into me.’
Three months before Swamy had told Sarada, ‘Even though I sleep I am not sleeping’.
Sarada remembered this, repeated Swamy’s words and said that she was finally able to understand what he had meant.
Sarada continued to talk: ‘I have no thought of doing anything. I have no fear of death. Before, I feared death, but not anymore. I don’t care about death. I have nothing more to do. I shall give up the body.’
Swamy asked her to stay but Sarada answered: ‘What is death to die now? The body is inert, how can it die? My “I” is dead, what is there left to die? Why then fear death?’
Swamy then reminded her that her ‘I’ was not dead and that she was not yet in the final sahaja state. Swamy then stopped the tape we were listening to and talked a little about the state that Sarada was experiencing when she spoke these words.
‘Anyone whose mind completely subsides into the Heart for a short time can talk like an enlightened person. Their experience of the Self is the same as that of a realised person. However, their “I”-thought is not dead and it is likely to re-emerge at any time. Such an experience is not the final state because it is not permanent.’
He then played the final portion of Sarada’s comments on her experience.
‘I am everywhere. I am not the body. I have no body so I have no fear. I am immobile. Whatever I may do, I am immobile. I am shining as the Self. Everything is a great void [maha-sunya]. How can I describe the Self in words? It is neither light nor dark. No one can describe what it is. In the past, present and future no one can describe what it is. It is difficult to describe. Self is Self, that is all.’
Throughout that day Sarada’s mind kept sinking into the Self, but on each occasion it came out again. At the “I”-thought went from the Heart to the brain and started to bang against the inside of her skull. Sarada said later that it was like an axe trying to split her head open from the inside. Since she was not able to bear the pain she came forward, took Swamy’s hand and placed it on her head. The “I”-thought went back to the Heart, but again it was only a temporary subsidence, Three minutes later it rose again and once again started to bang against the inside of her skull. Sarada came forward, placed her head on Swamy’s feet and a few seconds later the “I”-thought returned to its source and died forever.
With her “I”-thought permanently gone, Sarada had realised the Self. Swamy says that in the final few minutes her “I”-thought was trying to escape and take birth again, and that had he not been present, the “I”-thought would have killed her and escaped.
A few years later I asked Saradamma why holding Swamy’s hands on her head had not worked, whereas putting her head on his feet did. Her reply was short and to the point: ‘More power in the feet.’