T. R. Kanakammal came to Bhagavan in the mid-1940s when she was still a teenager. She moved closely with Muruganar and received lessons from him on the meaning of Bhagavan’s works and teachings. Though she is now well into her eighties, she still visits the ashram regularly, and she also receives visitors in her Ramana Nagar home each morning, where she regales them with stories of Bhagavan and explanations of his teachings.
The first quarter of this article, which was published in an abbreviated form in The Mountain Path earlier this year, repeats material I already posted a few days ago. However, once she has narrated the circumstances under which Narayana Iyer came to Bhagavan, she branches out into new territory, giving a personal account of how Narayana Iyer lived his life in Tiruvannamalai.
Narayana Iyer was a devotee who came to scoff, but remained as a worshipper. Before he met Bhagavan he was an out and out sceptic with no religion in him. He considered sannyasins and sadhus to be impostors and parasites and felt that no one, however great, had the right to accept the homage of others. But a chance meeting with Bhagavan wrought a complete transformation in this doubting Thomas and turned him into a staunch devotee.
Dr Ramakrishna Iyer was his friend, philosopher and guide. Like Narayana Iyer, this doctor was also working in Chetpet. He was well acquainted with Bhagavan, being the son of Lakshmi Ammal of Tiruchuzhi, one of Bhagavan’s childhood playmates. He invited Narayana Iyer to go with him to Tiruvannamalai during the Deepam festival, and his invitation was accepted, even though Narayana Iyer disliked crowds and temple festivals had no attraction for him; he agreed on the condition that he would neither come inside the ashram nor prostrate to the swami if perchance he met him.
Circumstances forced him to accompany his friend into the ashram. As they were coming inside, a person clad only in a white loin cloth, a towel on his shoulder, a kamandalu [water pot] in one hand and a walking stick in the other stopped in his walk in the opposite direction when he saw them. He spoke kindly to the doctor and enquired about his mother and brother. Though Iyer guessed that this must be the Maharshi, he did not look up, thinking that, after all, he was a complete stranger to him. On being introduced as the Sub-registrar of Chetpet, out of courtesy he looked up. Let us hear him now in his own words:
‘What a wonderful face and what a welcoming smile! Bewitching, fascinating and a powerful look too! In a moment I was at his feet on the gravel ground…. He is not bogus…. looks genuine…. but has he solved the mystery of life, of the universe that we see around us? If not, I withdraw my homage and go my way…. I tried to find out if he had written any books. I got a copy of Ulladu Narpadu [Reality in Forty Verses] in Tamil. It had just been published.’
As he tried to read the first stanza he was confounded and filled with dismay at the repeated use of the word ulladu, which seemed too closely packed. The pure language, embodying the essence of absolute reality, would drive even pundits of Tamil prosody to despair. Someone nearby said that the Maharshi himself would explain the forty verses that night. In anxious and eager suspense Narayana Iyer waited for the night.
A solemn stillness pervaded the air. There was absolute silence. The Maharshi read the first stanza. The mere reading of it made the meaning as clear as clarity itself. Stanza by stanza he read and explained in a voice so sweet and melodious, it seemed to come from a transcendent being.
The climax came when he said, after explaining a verse, ‘God cannot be seen with our eyes and known by our senses. This is what is meant by saying, “To see God is to be God”.’
Suddenly the stentorian voice of Dandapani Swami boomed from out of the listeners, ‘Is Bhagavan saying this out of personal experience [swaanubhava]?’
The question asked with such naiveté was answered with equal candour: ‘How else would I dare to say so?’
It flashed upon Narayana Iyer instantly that if He whom all religions acclaim as God were to appear before him in flesh and blood, here He is. Successive waves of bliss flooding from within shook his frame. He went out to compose himself.
He says, ‘I came, he saw, he conquered’.
The spell was thus cast. Henceforth Bhagavan was his God. Bhagavan was the way and the support on the way as well.
To Narayana Iyer the content of Ulladu Narpadu became a vedic truth and its verses veritable mantras. He took to chanting them as japa. From then on nothing could stop him from frequenting the ashram.
His job entailed frequent transfers; he was successively posted to Arani, Polur, and Shankagiri (
Once when Shantammal enquired of Bhagavan whether she could prepare some snacks in the ashram, Bhagavan replied, ‘Tomorrow is Sunday. Narayana Iyer will be arriving and will surely be bringing something to eat.’
Such was the certainty of his arrival and of the snacks that came with him.
In the afternoon devotees bringing snacks would offer the entire amount, in their containers, to Bhagavan. After a quick look around the hall, Bhagavan would pick up a little and hand over the rest to the attendant nearby to be distributed in equal measure among those present. Muruganar, a keen observer of Bhagavan’s ways, used to recall with wonder that if the attendant gave each one present exactly the same amount that Bhagavan had taken, it would just suffice for all, whether the number present was great or small. This was found to be unfailingly true; whatever the quantity Bhagavan allotted for himself was found to be the right measure for distribution that day.
In those days [the early thirties] the area surrounding the ashram was very bare, with no trees or shrubs. The Mother’s
At he came before Bhagavan. Bhagavan had spied him on his arrival and noted his subsequent disappearance.
As soon as he entered the hall Bhagavan asked him, ‘Didn’t you come at ? I saw you arriving through the window and was expecting you to come to the hall at any moment. But you didn’t come. Did you have to go elsewhere?’
Narayana Iyer, who had no idea that Bhagavan was not supposed to know of the new arrangement, replied in all innocence, ‘My train arrived late and I could come only at . I was informed that Bhagavan nowadays rests in the afternoons and is not to be disturbed until That’s why I have only come in now.’
Bhagavan listened without any comment, other than his customary, ‘Oh! Is that so?’
The next day after lunch, instead of going into the hall, Bhagavan sat outside the hall. The attendant very hesitantly suggested that he go inside, as it was becoming very hot.
Bhagavan said, ‘Nobody is allowed to enter until Is there also a rule that I should not sit here until two?’
Then Bhagavan, the very embodiment of compassion added, ‘People come from far-away places by various means, suffering innumerable hardships in order to get here. How can they be sure of the exact time of their arrival? When they come after all that trouble, how fair is it to deny them ready access?’
Hearing this, the management immediately revoked the new rule.
In due course, owing to the profound grace of Bhagavan, Narayana Iyer was posted to Tiruvannamalai itself. He was the first in a long line of devotees to have had the rare privilege of establishing a residence near the ashram in order to be in the holy presence of Bhagavan on a regular basis. His entire sadhana comprised of simply remaining with Bhagavan whenever possible, in the hall or in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, grinding chutney and preparing breakfast in the wee hours of the morning. On any given morning the trio of G. V. Subbaramayya, Kalyana Sundaram Iyer of the bookstall and Narayana Iyer, would be found with Bhagavan.
One year, due to an unusual spell of drought, the ashram faced severe water scarcity on the eve of Jayanthi. The devotees, organising themselves into a long chain, passed vessels filled with water from hand to hand from the Agasthya Teertham in Palakothu to the kitchen. Narayana Iyer very enthusiastically participated in this collective endeavour.
An extensive area of twenty grounds [one acre] was the site of Narayana Iyer’s residence where he grew a variety of fruit trees and fodder for his cow. Whatever wild creatures found in that area were left to themselves. Occasionally, he had snakes caught and released in isolated spots on the mountain.
Prior to constructing the house, Iyer took the plans to Bhagavan to have them blessed. After careful perusal Bhagavan observed, ‘The plan is all right, but where is the well?’
Though Iyer had a location in mind, it was not marked on the blueprint. This turned out to be a benediction as Bhagavan selected the site and marked the exact location. Later, one could see what a blessing it was; not only was the water as sweet as tender coconut water, but the well never ran dry and was thus a source of succour for the entire neighbourhood in times of severe drought.
A little distance from the front door was a hexagonal thatched porch with a knee-high parapet wall. Inside was a water pot, two wooden book shelves with books, and a few chairs for visitors. Though a large estate, in keeping with Iyer’s spartan lifestyle, this sparsely and humbly furnished thatched hut was where Narayana Iyer spent most of his time when he was not with Bhagavan. It was the centre of the household’s social activities.
Despite the large family he had to provide for, no domestic worry ever deflected him from his devotion to Bhagavan. His single-pointed dharma was serving Bhagavan’s devotees with profuse hospitality, and his pastime was satsang with fellow devotees, The topic of conversation was invariably Bhagavan. Narayana Iyer’s closest friends included Major Chadwick, Gurram Subbaramayya, Amritananda Yati, Maurice Friedman, Mouni Sadhu and Viswanatha Swami. They and other gurubhais frequently gathered there to engage in fervent and engrossing conversations about Bhagavan and his teachings. Chadwick especially relished Lalitha Iyer’s cooking, and Amritananda Yati always chose to dine in their house whenever he was in Tiruvannamalai. One of Bhagavan’s attendants, Venkataratnam, who resided in a small cottage in Iyer’s compound, was often there as well. Thus, all of his friends were able to partake of feasts both spiritual and temporal. Whenever Narayana Iyer had time, he went for pradakshina around the hill, accompanied by G. V. Subbaramayya. Much of his spare time was spent reading books on Bhagavan.
His wife was a truly sattvic woman, given to dharmic ways and scrupulously adhering to the sastraic injunctions pertaining to a housewife. She shared her husband’s ways and views completely. Though born in a rich family, she had no pretensions or airs about her. Simple, carefree and unattached, she ran the household with a contented mind and to the satisfaction of the entire family, making optimum use of the resources available to her. The children, like the mother, were an uncomplaining lot and were content in doing what they were told to do by their father.
Narayana Iyer derived inordinate pleasure in serving his cow. Tending his garden was also dear to him. The occasions when his cow was about to give birth were significant enough to merit a day’s leave from his work. This exclusive privilege, Mrs Iyer humorously used to remark, was the cow’s alone, and not extended to his wife for her deliveries.
Iyer’s one passion was to chant Ulladu Narpadu unceasingly. Neither conventional vedic duties nor extravagant ritualistic observances had any attraction for him. The constant chanting of Ulladu Narpadu was all the religious observance known to him. It would start right from the morning.
Dyed in brahminical custom, Narayana Iyer looked forward to his invigorating cup of morning coffee. The person who milked the cow used to turn up at , announcing his arrival by ringing his bicycle bell. Iyer, who would invariably be chanting Ulladu Narpadu loudly, would open the gate for him. The day would, therefore, begin with Ulladu Narpadu, a routine so predictable and punctual, the neighbour opposite him, an Andhra lady, remarked that she could safely set her clock by his recitation in the morning. His chanting continued throughout the day while he watered the plants or gave the cow a bath.
If ever he were to hear a voice raised in argument among the children, he would simply raise his voice and chant even louder. It was a wonder to see the children immediately quietened, as if the mesmerising spell of this powerful mantra made them aware of Bhagavan’s very presence.
When Mrs Iyer used to list the requirements of the household, acknowledgement of it would be the continuation of chanting of Ulladu Narpadu. Whenever one of his shoes went missing, the other would be prominently suspended above the entrance, making entry or exit impossible. Even then, chanting would go on uninterruptedly, but in a raised voice. Mrs Iyer, taking the hint, would get the children to search and in no time the missing shoe would be found. Narayana Iyer had evolved a way of communicating via his chant.
In those days the area around the ashram was uninhabited. There were just one or two houses in Ramana Nagar. During the holy month of Margazhi [December-January] in the still hours of the early morning Iyer would walk to the ashram from his house chanting Ulladu Narpadu all the way. His chanting filled the air with its reverberations, saturating the atmosphere with its advaitic content which echoed to the sound of ‘Soham, Soham’.
Iyer had the unshakeable conviction that Ulladu Narpadu was verily the upanishadic truth. The Taittriya Upanishad of the ashram’s morning Veda Parayana extols the greatness of the syllable
I [Kanakammal] stayed in Iyer’s compound, occupying a small cottage for nearly ten years. He looked upon me as his own daughter. He always made himself aware of my requirements when he procured groceries for his own household and would always meet my needs.
Iyer had a humorous side to his personality. He delighted in harmless, mischievous pranks. The vegetables and provisions he got for me would be left on different window sills, in bits and pieces, leading me on a treasure hunt. Chadwick, a great votary of the Sri Chakra Puja, one day gave the prasad – the half coconut – to Iyer. But to give away prasad without partaking of even a little of it, Chadwick felt was sacrilegious, so he bit off the protruding part and handed the rest over. Aghast, Iyer refused it saying that once bitten into, it became impure. Instantly Chadwick removed the adjoining portion with his finger nail and repeated the offer. But Iyer still declined. To him once something is bitten into, it is ever impure.
One day I received an urgent summons from him, through his son Arunachalam, to come and see something. What I beheld was a rare and wonderful spectacle. Iyer’s cow was calving; the head of the calf had emerged and was fully visible but the rest of its body was still concealed. So the cow now was two faced; one head in front and another in the rear. Extolled by the sastras as a ‘dwimukhi’ , a two-faced cow, this is considered highly auspicious. The entire household had gathered for this rare sight and prostrated before the cow and calf, and so did I.
Nights were an ideal time to be with Bhagavan, though the ladies were not allowed this privilege. In the sweet and silent hours of the early night, permeated by the powerful presence of Bhagavan, those around him never knew the passage of time. That was when Bhagavan regaled devotees with the most interesting stories and soul-stirring incidents, immersing them all in waves of bliss. And what bliss it was to be alive then! To be in the presence was heaven indeed. These few devotees had Bhagavan exclusively to themselves, for even the attendants who had been present the whole day, on seeing these close devotees, would quietly depart, leaving them to be alone with Bhagavan.
Narayana Iyer and Venkataratnam used to narrate to me whatever transpired in the hall during the nights and on days when I was unable to attend. When I recall those blessed and most happy days, time stands still and my heart brims with joy and peace and I become one with it.
Subsequently Iyer was posted to Polur, but he did not move his residence from Tiruvannamalai. Instead, he cycled to the station, left his cycle there, took the train to Polur and again cycled to his office from there. His return in the evening was by the same route, but like an arrow he would speed his way directly to the ashram in order to be with Bhagavan. He was like a calf rushing to its mother. By then it would usually be
One evening, as Iyer came from the station, Bhagavan enquired whether he had eaten his dinner.
‘Not yet Bhagavan.’
Bhagavan, compassion incarnate, was filled with concern and said, ‘It is already so late. Poor Lalitha will be waiting for you. Just think how late it will be for her to go to bed after serving you dinner, eating herself and then completing the domestic chores. From now on go home first, have your dinner and then come to the ashram.’
Thus ordered by Bhagavan, and also moved by his compassion, Iyer reached his house and exclaimed to his wife, ‘How fortunate you are to be so graciously remembered by Bhagavan, despite remaining within the house. From now on I will have my dinner straight away when I come home from the station. Please have it ready then.’
As Bhagavan’s mahanirvana approached, Narayana Iyer never moved away from the vicinity of Bhagavan. He was a witness to all that went on during those precious last days. At that time Bhagavan’s water pot [kamandalu] and walking stick were in his room as he could not use them anymore. Iyer sensed that several people had secret designs on them, wanting to take them away and preserve them as private, sacred relics. After the mahasamadhi of Bhagavan, abhishekam, alankaram and arathi were performed and the holy body was taken in procession in a small ratha around the Mother’s
In the aftermath of Bhagavan’s mahanirvana Iyer did not give up his earlier routine of having Bhagavan’s darshan daily. He had darshan of Bhagavan at the samadhi shrine and continued to visit the old hall. The Iyers stayed on in Tiruvannamalai, as did Chadwick who, for a time, took up residence in the Iyer compound in a small thatched-roof cottage until he was invited by the ashram management to move back there again. Iyer and Chadwick were spiritual companions, their uniting bond being the love and devotion they both had for Bhagavan.
Later, when all their children had settled in
Narayana Iyer and his wife were grihasta asrama [householders] and followed that dharma meticulously. Yet mentally both had donned ochre robes. Their lives, the way they lived, was a penance [tapas] that required no other spiritual practice. Wherever Iyer went, his continued recitation of Ulladu Narpadu made the air around him vibrant with the holy presence of Bhagavan, compelling an inner response from all.