I met my guru Swami Chinmayanandaji for the first time in 1972, in the Sandeepany gurukulam [Sandeepany Sadhanalaya] in Mumbai. By then I had already been an inmate of the grrukulam for a couple of months and Swamiji had just come back after a world tour. We brahmacharis and brahacharinis of the ashram received him at the gate with a poornakumbha, all of us chanting the mantras that are traditionally used to receive a sannyasi:
na karmana na prajaya dhanena
tyagenaike amritatvam anashuh
parena nakam nihitam guhayam
vibhrajate yad yatayo visanti
sannyasayogad yatayas shuddha sattvah
te brahma loketu parantakale
te brahma loketu parantakale
paramritat parimuchyanti sarve
dahram vipapam varameshmabhutam
yat pundareekam puramadhya sam’stham
tatrapi dahram gaganam vishokah
tasmin yatantas tad upasitavyam
tatrapi dahram gaganam vishokah
tasmin yatantas tad upasitavyam
yo vedadau svaraprokto
vedante cha pratisthitahyah parah sa maheshvarah
Not by rituals, not by progeny, not by wealth,
But by renunciation is immortality attained.
The highest, which is beyond heaven
Which sages enter
Is hidden in the cave of the heart
Where it shines brilliantly
Those who have ascertained the meaning of the highest teachings of the Upanishads through direct experience,
Those who have practiced the yoga of renunciation and through it purified their hearts,
They, having realized their oneness with the Supreme,
Enter the world of Brahman at the time of the fall of their body.
At the center of this city of the body,
In the lotus of the heart,
Is the sacred abode of the Supreme,
Therein, in that tiny space,
On the Supreme Being
Untouched by sorrows.
The swara we pronounce at the beginning of the commencement of the Vedas
The swara rooted firmly in the Upanishads
Which dissolves in what is beyond
As we transcend the world of nature
Through meditation –
What is beyond that is the Supreme Lord
As I chanted the mantras along with the others, my eyes were on Swamiji. Tall, majestic in every imaginable way, glowing with spiritual tejas, Swamiji exuded a kind of energy that I had never felt in anyone else. As the chanting of the mantras began, Swamiji’s eyes closed by themselves and it was clear he had entered a world of his own into which none of us had admittance.
We expected him to rest at least for a day – after all he had just come back from a hectic world tour that had lasted for several months and taken him to numerous countries. Nothing like that – in an hour or so, we were sitting in front of him cross legged for our first session with him, our hearts thrilled with eagerness and excitement. The spiritual legend we were all constantly talking about for the past few months was before us, the man behind the stories we were always hearing. For the next one hour we sat enthralled as Swamiji wove sheer magic for us with his words and his presence.
In the Taittiriya Upanishad there is a beautiful prayer by a teacher:
Amayantu brahmacharinah svaha
Vimayantu brahmacharinah svaha
Pramayantu brahmacharinah svaha
Damayantu brahmacharinah svaha
Shamayantu brahmacharinah svaha
Yathapah pravata yanti
Yatha masa aharjaram
Dhatar ayantu sarvatah svaha
May students come to me in large numbers! Swaha!
May students come to me speedily! Swaha!
May students come to me from all sides! Swaha!
May students come to me filled with self-mastery! Swaha!
May students come to me filled with inner serenity! Swaha!
Even as waters flow towards depths
Even as months flow into years
Oh Lord, may students come to me from every direction!
This is a teacher’s greatest desire – that students come to him in large numbers from all directions.
Thinking back on that day, and on numerous such subsequent occasions, I realize it would have been difficult for Swamiji to hold himself back from the students who had come to him from all over the world to sit at his feet and learn from him. Just as we were impatient to be with him, he must have been eager to meet us, to be with us.
This first memory of Swamiji is mingled with a little bitterness for me. Swamiji was meeting us for the first time, since studies in the ashram had begun earlier while he was still away under our other guru, Swami Dayanandaji. By way of knowing us, he asked us if there was anyone among us who hadn’t heard him earlier. Two hands went up – mine and another person’s. “Which corner of the world are you coming from?” he asked in his characteristic thundering voice with both amusement and surprise in his voice, his eyes widening as he asked that question. And I mentioned his home town – his home town!
Today I am a different person, but in those days more than anything else I was a questioner. I had gone to the ashram full of questions that my reading of atheist literature had given rise to. Rather than a devotee, I was a seeker. I was always a voracious reader, and among the books I had read were the works of the great Swami Brahmananda Sivayogi in Malayalam, who questioned a lot of things that we traditionally believe to be the heart of religion but actually are not. Shivayogi who lived from 1852 to 1929, the founder of Ananda Matham [religion of bliss; matham/matam is the word for religion in Malayalam] denounced idol worship and said all human activities are the result of man’s search for ananda, his true nature. This rebel who had an important role in the reawakening of spiritual Kerala inspired me with a kind of spirituality that appealed greatly to my heart.
Apart from atheist literature and Sivayogi’s works, one other book that had sent thrills through me was Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India – the part where he speaks of ancient India’s spiritual glory. It was in Nehru’s Discovery of India that I first came across the words of the Taittiriya Upanishad that I would later learn to ritually chant, following the Vedic tradition, under Chidambareswara Sastrikal, as the other antevasis of the ashram did – words that said:
bhishasmad vatah pavate
mrityurdhavati panchama iti.
I became ecstatic reading those lines. It reawakened the ecstasy I had felt the first time I had come across the Gayatri mantra – for months my feet wouldn’t touch the ground, so joyous was I. As I read the Upanishad mantra, the same ecstasy spread through me and took roots there. I had to know that – that for fear of which the wind blew and the sun rose; for fear of which fire burned and Indra did what he was supposed to do; for fear of which death stalked the world tirelessly.
It is this quest that had led me to the ashram. Unlike the other inmates of the ashram, I had missed Swamiji before I joined the ashram.
How Swamiji Had Learned to Swim in a Pond in My Village
Every morning all of us brahmacharis and brahmacharinis went to Swamiji’s room to touch his feet and take his blessings whenever he was in the ashram. All of us did it early in the morning, but there was no fixed time, nor any queues in spite of the large number of inmates and guests in the ashram. Swamiji would be at his table, working, ready after his bath and other morning rituals, by five in the morning without break and you could walk in and take his blessings.
One day when I went to him, he was alone and in a leisurely mood. As I turned to go after prostrating at his feet, Swamiji asked me to stop, a smile spreading across his face. He asked me where exactly I was from – and I told him the name of my village. It is a well known small place in Kerala, famous for its temple drummers. Years later I learnt that it was in the Ayyappa temple in our village that something unique in the history of sacred Vedic scholarship in the country had begun – kadavalloor anyonyam, in which two groups of Kerala brahamanas, known as namboodiris, would meet and assess the Vedic scholarship of one another. The scholars represent the brahmaswam mathas of Thrissur and Tirunavaya, and through this anyonyam [a word that means each other] both perform a ritual as well as examine the precision of the chanting and through it the learning of the scholars from the two traditions. The anyonyam is of great value in preserving the prakriti and vikriti pathas [readings, chantings] of the Rig Veda and scholars are awarded titles like Mumpilirikkal, Katannirikkal and Valiya Katannirikkal. Though started in the temple in our village, the anyonyam is these days conducted at the Kadavalllor temple in Kerala as a spell-binding event that lasts ten days. I understand that such a debate-cum-ritual-cum-examination of Vedic scholarship is not conducted anywhere else.
As I mentioned the name of my village, Swamiji thought for a moment and asked, “Isn’t there a famous family there, a landed aristocrat family? What is their name?” I immediately recognised the family – a girl from the family had been my classmate in high school. I named the family and Swamiji said, “Yes, that’s it.”. And then he told me how it was in a pond surrounded by paddy fields, some distance behind their house, that he had learnt swimming. He was staying as a guest in their house as a boy and used to go there for his bath, and as children do, learnt swimming there. Swamiji’s face was beaming as he recalled those childhood days.
Some years later, a few members from that family and a couple of other young people visited my home when I was there and they had a request for Swamiji which they wanted me to take to him. When I told them of how Swamiji still cherished memories of his stay in their house as a boy, they were understandably delighted.
Some four-five years back, on a visit to my sister’s house, I took a walk on the eastern side of our village. I hadn’t been to those parts of the village for decades. One of the things I was looking for was the pond – well, it was almost as large as a small lake, maybe in reality or at least in my memories. I had spent so many hours as a child happily swimming in it – swimming from one side to the other was a big challenge because of its size and I remember how my mother always warned me against it. And now Swamiji’s association with the pond had made it sacred for me. I was all excited as I took the walk.
To my shock, I realized the great progress Kerala has been making had completely swallowed up the pond. My initial feeling was perhaps I had missed the place and have reached somewhere else. Possible, because the village has changed so completely. What was once a rubber estate was now a sprawling residential complex originally planned for people who returned from the Gulf. Several other residential complexes have appeared. In fact, there was hardly anything that had not changed except the Ayyappa Temple, the attached temple pond, the primary school and a rare few houses. “No,” my sister who was with me assured me. “You are exactly where the pond used to be.”
I looked everywhere and all I could find was a tiny pool of water, not ten or twelve feet wide and some thirty feet long. The rest had all disappeared, a victim to encroachment.
As I type out these lines on my computer in a city in the eastern parts of the country, I have changed so much from the little village boy I used to be. But in spite of that I can still smell the wet freshness of the air around the pond and the crystal clarity of its water across the more than four decades of time that has passed.
It makes me really, really sad to think of the disappearance of the pond. True, so much else has disappeared and everything is vinashavan – everything perishes. Time claims everything as its own. Yet the pond where Swami Chinmayandaji learnt swimming just vanishing.....!
I am writing these lines in the birth centenary year of Swamiji when Chinmaya Mission has organized celebrations all over the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has released a gold coin in Swamiji’s memory and so many other things are happening. That makes it sadder still.
To be continued....