A legendary spiritual master born in Kerala, the land famous for acharyas like Shri Shankara, is Pakkanar, a pariah by birth. Numerous stories are told about how he gave lessons in the highest wisdom to people in his unique ways. In one of these stories, Pakkanar meets on the road a group of brahmanas who were on their way to Kashi, the holiest of holy places in India. He greeted these men as was appropriate for someone born to one of the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy and enquired of them where they were going. When they replied they were going to Kashi, Pakkanar showed them his walking stick and asked them, “Could your lordships do me a favour? Could you take this stick along and give it a dip in the Ganga too?”
They were offended by the request. They did not want even to touch a pariah’s walking stick. Why should they carry it all the way to Kashi and give it a bath in the Ganga and bring it back? But the man who was making that request was known to be not an ordinary pariah but a man of great wisdom. So instead of refusing him, they asked: “Why do you want the stick to be given a dip in the Ganga?” And all Pakkanar would say was that he would tell them when they brought the stick back.
Reluctantly they took the stick with them.
When the brahmanas reached Kashi, one of them dipped the stick in the Ganga and the force of the current carried it away. It disappeared before they could snatch it back. The brahmanas were upset about what happened, but there was nothing they could do. They finished their ritual baths in the Ganga and after visiting a few other holy places en route, eventually came back to their native place. When Pakkanar heard they were back, he went to them and after greeting them with due reverence, enquired about his stick. Did they give it a bath in the Ganga? Have they brought it back? And they told him they lost it.
“Where did your lordships lose it?” asked Pakkanar.
“In the Ganga, in Kashi,” they answered.
“Oh, that’s no problem then,” said Pakkanar with a smile. With that he went to the muddy pond that was close by and made a request to it, “Please, may I have my stick back?”
Legend says that the stick immediately rose up from the pond to the amazement of the brahmanas and Pakkanar picked it up.
Legend says that the stick immediately rose up from the pond to the amazement of the brahmanas and Pakkanar picked it up.
The brahmanas realized the invaluable lesson Pakkanar was giving them: Ganga is sacred. But every pond in the world is Mother Ganga herself, and all water is as sacred as the water of the Ganga.
Once we are able to see every place as equally sacred, all life becomes a sacred pilgrimage. Then you have no more to make special pilgrimages – be it to the sacred places of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. And once you are able to see God in all living beings, then every breath you take becomes a sacred act.
Sometimes even great masters fall under the spell of illusion in a rare moment of unawareness. That does not mean they are not enlightened; it only speaks of the great power of maya over the human mind. Speaking about this the Adhyatma Upanishad says it is like moss on water. You move it away with your hand, and a moment later it comes back: yathā apakrshtam śaivālam kshanamātram na tishthati, avrnoti tathā māyā prajnām vāpi parāngmukhām. A moment of inattentiveness, of carelessness, and maya takes over your enlightened mind. For that reason the Upanishad asks even great masters to be constantly aware of the power of illusion.
This story is about the great Acharya Shankara himself. Once he was in Kashi and was walking along a narrow lane that led to the Vishwanatha temple accompanied by his disciples and a small crowd of devotees when he saw a chandala, the lowest of the low in the traditional caste hierarchy of India, coming across him, surrounded by his pack of dogs. The chandala was covered in dirt and had rags wrapped around him and the dogs barked continuously. Any chandala would have moved out of the way to give way to the acharya and his disciples, as was the social practice in those days, but this chandala was moving steadily towards the acharya, his steps showing no sign of slowing down, nor his eyes any sign of hesitation. “Gaccha! Gaccha!” the acharya shouted – “Move away, move away!”
But the chandala still did not slow down his steps or move aside. He advanced steadily towards the great master and standing before him with a smile on his face asked the him who had conquered practically all known scholars in India, “Mahatman, tell me one thing. When you said move away, what did you mean? Did you mean this body should move away from your body? In that case your demand is ridiculous. Because my body is made of the same five elements that your body is made of and it consists of blood, bone, flesh and marrow as yours does. In case you mean my self, then you know that my self is as pure as yours. The soul cannot be corrupted at all – not by dirt, not by sin, not by pollution, not even by ignorance. What then did you want to move away?”
The acharya was shaken to his very soul by what the chandala had said. He was absolutely right. The body – his body as well as the chandala’s body consisted of blood, flesh, bone, marrow and other substances any of which you would take a bath if you touched. The soul was ever pure, its purity beyond the reach of all impurities. To what was he then shouting, asking it to move away?
The great acharya realized that in spite of all his knowledge, for a moment he had become a victim to habitual ways of thinking – for a moment he had been blinded by social expectations, the customs of the society in which he had lived all along. Instead of the Vedantin he was, he had become an ordinary individual bound by societal conventions.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the great acharya whose feet crowned heads touched in humble obeisance kneeled at the feet of the chandala touching his dirty feet with his forehead. The chandala had opened his eyes, reminded him of his own wisdom, the wisdom that he had taught so many people. The chandala was his guru, as much as Govindapada was.
Tears of joy flowed from the acharya’s eyes and he felt a current of rapture filling his whole being. With intense devotion the great master raised his head from the chandala’s feet and stood up, his eyes still closed in bliss. The ecstasy he felt in his heart found its expression in beautiful words as it had done on so many other occasions when was moved by rapture. What came out of the acharya in those moments of ecstasy and gratitude is what the world today knows as the five verses of Maneesha Panchakam, maneesha meaning wisdom. The acharya rises above social perceptions and declares fearlessly the truth of Vedanta in those verses and says:
chāndālo’stu sa tu dvijo’stu gururityevā maneeshā mama: whether he is a chandala or a brahmana, he is my guru, such is the wisdom of my heart.
At the end of the ecstatic song, the acharya opened his eyes and it was no more a chandala standing before him that he saw, but the great Lord of the Universe, the Master of the Holy City, the teacher of teachers, Shiva himself.
Was it that Shiva appeared as a chandala before Shankara or was it that the acharya saw Shiva in the chandala? Or does it really matter, since the entire universe is Shiva himself and all we need is the eyes to see?
The greatest of all teachers had given yet another lesson in his own unique way not just to Shankara but to all humanity.
Our tragedy is that in spite of all these great lessons, we live our life unconsciously, holding on to our petty beliefs, practices and concerns, thus reducing ourselves to ignorant men and women.
In this story, Acharya Shankara Bhagavadpada forgets his wisdom for a moment. His eyes are opened and he is given a lesson in humility by Lord Shiva himself.
In another popular story Bhagavadpada himself opens the eyes of his scholarly disciples and gives them a lesson in humility. There are different versions of this story, as in the case of most Indian stories and the version I am narrating here is the one I heard from my guru.
One evening the acharya and all his other disciples except Sanantana were seated, ready for their daily session with the master. But on that day the acharya wouldn’t begin. The seated disciples asked him why he wouldn’t start the lessons and the acharya said he was waiting for Sanantana. This produced mild laughter in the scholarly disciples – the acharya must be joking. Sanantana was illiterate and served the master more like a personal attendant and less as a disciple. He was not expected to benefit from the scholarly expositions of the acharya who perhaps was the greatest intellect our land has ever seen. Why should he wait for Sanantana?
The acharya understood their silent question and told them they would all go and look for Sanantana. The disciples looked at one another and reluctantly got up and followed their master. Bhagavadpada went straight to the bank of the river near which they were staying at that time. They could see Sanantana on the other side of the river – he had gone there for some work. The acharya raised his voice so that it could be heard above the murmur of the river and called, “Sanantana, come! It’s time for class.” Sanantana raised his head as he heard the acharya’s voice. He looked this side and that – there was no boat available. Without another moment’s hesitation, Sanantana started walking towards his master across the river.
It is said that as Sanantana placed each step on the water, a lotus flower rose up and supported his feet. He crossed the river and fell at the master’s feet. The master raised him up, hugged him and looking at his other disciples who stood wonderstruck, said, “Now you know why I waited for him to begin the class. His strength is not scholarship but shraddha and in shraddha none of you excel him. And it is shraddha that gives the highest knowledge, not scholarship. Scholarship is no value when it comes to enlightenment, as the Upanishads themselves say.”
That day the great master renamed his fond disciple Padmapada, the name by which we know him today. Padmapada means Lotus Feet – the man who was supported by a lotus that rose up from the river as he walked on water like a great yogi at the call of his master.
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, my parama guru, is one of the greatest spiritual masters the world has ever seen. There are innumerable stories of miracles happening around him, though he never claimed, or even owned up, any of these miracles. One of my teachers who lived with him in his ashram for forty-five years was certain he was brought back to life from certain death when he was a young man by the Maharshi. But in this article I will not be talking about his miracles, but of his unique way of teaching. Of course, the Maharshi is famous for frequently teaching through silence, for which he is often compared to Dakshinamurti, Lord Shiva incarnated as a teacher. The incident I shall discuss here is much simpler, though – it is of someone asking him what nishkama karma is and the Maharshi teaching him what it is.
The incident is reported by Prof K Swaminathan, who at one time taught English at Presidency College, Madras and was the Chief Editor of the monumental 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Let me reproduce here his own words, from the book Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi compiled and edited by Professor Laxmi Narain and published by Sri Ramana Kendram, Hyderabad.
“Once Rangachari, a Telugu teacher in a Vellore college, asked the Maharshi to explain nishkama karma [desireless action]. There was no reply. After a time, the Maharshi went up the [Arunachala] hill followed by a few devotees and Rangachari. There was a thick, strong, thorny branch lying on the way which the Maharshi picked up and began working on. The spikes were cut off, the knots were made smooth and the surface polished with a rough leaf. Hours of hard and careful work resulted in a nice stick that Maharshi presented to a passing shepherd boy who appeared dejected because he had lost his stick. Rangachari confessed that he had learnt a new lesson in the art of teaching, for this silent practical demonstration was the Sage’s perfect answer to his earnest question.”
Of course Ramana Maharshi’s entire life was the most powerful teaching – in jnana yoga, in bhakti yoga, in dhyana yoga and in karma yoga. To speak of one more lesson in Karma Yoga, for years the Maharshi entered the ashram kitchen at 2.30 in the morning and began chopping vegetables so that breakfast could be served to the hundreds of people who came to see him every day from all over the world. They were coming to see him, to be in his presence and to be blessed by him – to be blessed by a man who had spent months at a stretch in Samadhi as a result of his intense meditation that lasted for years, who had climbed to the greatest heights meditation can take you, just by being near whom people went into powerful states of meditative trance and were healed of life-threatening diseases and perhaps even escaped death. But he would go to the kitchen hours before brahma muhoorta, long before these guests woke up, to help in the preparation of their breakfast! What could be a greater lesson in karma yoga?
Here is another incident reported by Prof. Swaminathan that happened in the 1940s, a few years before Ramana Maharshi’s death. It was a day like many other days in the ashram. The Maharshi was reclining on a couch in the hall and there was a group of scholars seated in front of him, debating the intricacies of the wisdom of the Upanishads enthusiastically. The debate was absorbing and everybody seemed to be fully lost in it. All on a sudden Bhagavan rose from his couch and started walking towards a man who looked like someone from one of the nearby villages. He was standing with his palms joined towards Bhagavan. Bhagavan went to him and soon the two were engaged in deep conversation, oblivious to everything else. The scholars had stopped their debates and were now watching what was happening. After a while Bhagavan took leave of the man and came back to his couch to continue to sit as though nothing had happened, while the villager went away. The debates among the scholars started once again.
Prof. Swaminathan who was watching the whole incident with great curiosity rushed towards the departing villager. Stopping him, he asked the man what exactly had happened. Why had the villager come to the ashram and what had the Maharshi been asking him, coming to him getting up from the middle of an absorbing discussion on the ultimate reality as discussed by Vedanta?
The villager told Prof. Swaminathan that he was a stranger to the place and had come to the ashram to have Bhagavan’s darshan when the Master saw him and came to him. The Maharshi had made enquiries about him and his family and their welfare. He had asked the Maharshi how he could earn his blessings and the sage had enquired if there was a temple in his village and who the deity was. Then the sage had told him to repeat the name of the deity constantly and assured him he would receive all the blessings he needed through it.
This is how Prof. Swaminathan concludes the incident: “I came back to Bhagavan’s presence, but lost all interest in the discussions. I felt that the simple humility and devotion of a peasant had evoked a far greater response from our Master than any amount of learning. I then decided that though a scholar by profession, I should always remain a humble, ignorant peasant at heart and pray for Bhagavan’s grace and blessings.”
Years ago one of my friends, a Bengali gentlemen several years my senior in age, presented to me a beautifully produced copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, one of my cherished possessions which I open and read at random every now and then. The book refers to several meetings of Sri Ramakrishna and Keshab Chandra Sen, the great Brahmo Samaj leader. One of their last meetings took place in Sen’s house when the Brahmo leader was extremely sick. Here is how the Gospel describes that meeting:
“At this moment Keshab entered the room. He came through the east door. Those who remembered the man who had preached in the Town Hall or the Brahmo Samaj temple were shocked to see this skeleton covered with skin. He could hardly stand. He walked holding to the wall for support. With great difficulty he sat down in front of the couch. In the mean time Sri Ramakrishna had got down from the couch and was sitting on the floor. Keshab bowed low before the Master and remained in that position a long time, touching the Master's feet with his forehead. Then he sat up. Sri Ramakrishna was still in a state of ecstasy. He muttered to himself. He talked to the Divine Mother.
“Raising his voice, Keshab said: "I am here, sir. I am here." He took Sri Ramakrishna's left hand and stroked it gently. But the Master was in deep samadhi, completely intoxicated with divine love. A stream of words came from his lips as he talked to himself, and the devotees listened to him spellbound.”
What a complete change from the response Sri Ramakrishna produced in Keshab on one of the first occasions – perhaps it was their first meeting – when the master visited Sen. The following words are the master’s own, again from the Gospel:
"I visited him at his house in Colootola Street. Hriday was with me. We were shown into the room where Keshab was working. He was writing something. After a long while he put aside his pen, got off his chair, and sat on the floor with us. But he didn't salute us or show us respect in any other way.”
Well, of course, it was only by and by that Keshab Chandra Sen came to understand the master and learn to revere him. But there is more to it than that. The master, out of his infinite compassion, made sure that such a great man as Sen did not remain closed to his influence and thus miss what he could have learned from the master. He went out of his way to teach humility to Sen and thus make him more open. Here is how the master did it, in his own words:
"He used to come here now and then. One day in a spiritual mood I said to him: 'One should not sit before a sadhu with one leg over the other. That increases one's rajas.' As soon as he and his friends would arrive, I would salute them before they bowed to me. Thus they gradually learnt to salute a holy man, touching the ground with their foreheads.”
That was Sri Ramakrishna’s way!
One of the most unforgettable lessons the saint of Dakshineshwar gave in his unique way was to young Narendranath, the future Swami Vivekananda. Narendranath’s family had at that time been living in extreme poverty, even finding two meals a day was difficult. This pained Naren deeply. The sensitive Naren was pained by the suffering of even strangers, what to speak of his own family that had once lived in rather lavish style, since his father was a lawyer who had a solid income. Unable to endure his pain, young Naren asked the master, on whose spiritual powers he had by then developed great faith, to pray to Mother Goddess so that she blessed him with some wealth. Naren was sure that Mother Kali would never refuse anything to the master – he was her child, Kali’s child.
Sri Ramakrishna understood the dire straits in which his young disciple found himself and his need for money, even if it was only so that he can focus more on his sadhana. When your family’s poverty and hunger are constantly pulling you down to misery, how is anyone with a sense of responsibility to concentrate on his sadhanas? The master explained to Naren that the mother was the source of all knowledge, all wisdom and all power and if it was her blessings in the form of money that he wanted, why doesn’t he himself go to her and ask her? She is capable of giving anyone anything – she has created the universe and what can she not do? The master added that it was a Tuesday, a day special for the worship of the Goddess, and he should go to the Mother that very evening and place his need before her.
Young Naren went to the temple of Bhavatarini at nine that evening. As he stood there, he forgot all about his family and its poverty, all about his suffering and instead was enveloped by a divine feeling of pure bliss. The Mother Goddess’s name came out of his mouth in a never ending torrent and he felt boundless love emanating from the idol before him. The Mother appeared to him the source of all beauty, all bliss and all knowledge. All he could do was to stand transfixed in devotion before her, fervently repeating her name. Eventually when he brought himself to ask the Mother for something, it was not for financial help that he asked, but for the highest knowledge and untainted devotion, for her repeated visions.
When he came out of the temple, Sri Ramakrishna was sitting outside, waiting for him. “Did you ask the Mother to help your family?” he asked. When Narendranath confessed what had happened, the master sent him back to the temple, telling him to make sure this time he asked for wealth from the Mother.
As Naren stood before the deity, once again he was immersed in bliss and it was fervent prayers for deeper devotion, for the visions of the Divine, and the bliss of knowledge that came out of him. He couldn’t bring himself to ask the Mother for money. Naren came out of the temple in a state of ecstasy to find Sri Ramakrishna still waiting for him outside.
The master was rather rough with the young man this time. He scolded him for failing to ask for money once more and sent him into the presence of the Mother for a third time, strongly admonishing the youth for his repeated failure and instructing that this time he should not fail to ask for monetary help. But in spite of all the instructions given by the master in strict words, Naren failed to ask the Mother for wealth for his family once again.
Which of course delighted the master. That precisely was what Sri Ramakrishna had expected from Naren, knowing who he was, knowing his potentials, knowing what he was born to. The disciple had passed another test by the master. The master hugged Naren and congratulated him. He assured the young man that his family will never want for food and clothing, will always have enough to live by.
Recently I was teaching a course to the students of 3-Continent Masters in Business Management in one of the top business schools in India. The students come from some twenty-five different countries of the world and do one part of their course in Europe, one part in India and one part in the US [hence the “3-Continent]. I was talking to the students about spiritual leadership when an American student suddenly raised her hand and said, “Professor, please tell me one thing. Why are all the spiritual masters men?”
I explained to her that was not the case – all over the world there have been several great spiritual masters who were women. In India in particular there have always been and there still are any number of great women spiritual masters – and I named a few beginning with Vagambhrini and Lopamudra of the Vedas down to today’s women masters venerated by millions.
The masters we have discussed so far are all men. So let us talk of a great lesson in the highest wisdom given by a woman master – by Rubia, one of my favourite Sufi masters and perhaps the most venerated of women Sufi saints.
One evening a passerby found Rubia searching for something under a street lamp. The man went to her and asked her what she was looking for and she said she had lost her needle. Of course, the great Rubia was looking for lost needle – you couldn’t let her do it all alone and go away. The man joined the search. Soon another person came by and he too joined them. And then another, and then another and soon there was a large group of people looking for Rubia’s lost needle under the street lamp.
A long time passed and the night was fast approaching. Suddenly one man stopped, stood up and asked Rubia, “Mother, are you sure you lost the needle here under this lamp?
There was complete stillness as the group waited for Rubia’s answer.
Rubia laughed and said, “Of course not. I lost it at home.”
“Then why are searching for it here?”
“Because there is no light at home.”
Aren’t we all looking for what we have lost at home under the street lamp because there is light there? Every single one of us has lost a precious treasure and all our life, all that we do, is nothing but a search for that priceless treasure. The only problem is we are not looking for it where we lost it, but where all the razzle and dazzle of the world is, where all the neon lamps glitter.
I will conclude this article with a Zen story I love in which another great master teaches very unconventionally. The story is about Hakuin.
One day a soldier named Nobushinge came to the master as he stood chopping wood in his garden. “I have heard about heaven and hell. Is there really a heaven and a hell?” asked Nobushinge.
“Who are you?” asked Hakuin. The soldier said he was a samurai.
There was an expression of great contempt as Hakuin asked, “You a samurai? What kind of master will hire you as his guard? You look more like a beggar.”
Enraged, Nobushinge began to draw his sword. Unimpressed, Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword too! What is it for – slicing bread? It doesn’t look good for anything else!”
Nohushinge’s sword was out in a split second, ready to strike off Hakuin’s head. “Here open the gates of hell!” said Hakuin serenely.
Nohushinge looked at the master’s face. There was great calm there. He sheathed his sword and bowed to the master.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin
Ancient India used birds as symbols for the highest awakening. For awakening is leaving our small world and soaring into boundless skies. And what masters do is give us wings to do so. And masters would use any method that would help us spread our wings and soar. Their interest is not in the method, but in giving us wings.