The Mother Divine
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Remembering Kunju Swami

(Kunju Swami – devotee of Ramana Maharshi)

It was many years ago that I first embraced the spiritual life. Interested in what they could teach me of the meaning of life and beyond, I began to frequent various ashrams. This despite giving free reign to old vasanas — I thought people lived in ashrams to escape responsibilities in the world and were therefore prone to be anti-social and aloof from normal activities. By the Lord’s grace however, I was prompted to frequent Sri Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai and here I met Kunjuswami and, purchasing his Reminiscences in the ashram bookshop, I began to spend time with this swami. I was taken aback at how simple he was. Though he was in his eighties, he was completely unattended and I was able to talk freely with him, unlike with the senior swamis in other institutions.

In the Reminiscences, there were two chapters, which particularly caught my attention, ‘Ambition to Learn Vedanta’ and ‘If One Remains Oneself, Everything Will Be Known’. These chapters were autobiographical accounts that raised some questions in my mind. For instance, there was one story from the time of Sri Bhagavan, which concerned a trip Kunjuswami had made to Peraiyur to attend a temple kumbabishekam. While there, he had answered questions on philosophical matters concerning Vedantic teaching from an assembly of sadhus. It dawned on him during the meeting that if he was going to make a habit of fielding such questions, he had a responsibility to study Vedantic texts. Therefore, he made an agreement on the same day with a math swami at Peraiyur that he would regularly come back to the math and study with him. The narration continues:

After telling my friend that I would come to study with him as soon as I could, I returned to Sri Ramanasramam.

A few days after my return to the Ashram, I told Sri Bhagavan about the events that had taken place in Peraiyur.

I concluded: “When people from other maths who have studied Vedanta find out that I have come from Sri Ramanasramam, they start asking me philosophical questions. I feel that if I do not give fitting answers to their questions, it will reflect badly on our Ashram. Because of this, I asked Sri Krishnananda of Tirukhalar to give me lessons on Vedanta and he told me to come to Tirukhalar. He has agreed to teach me such lessons on Vedanta, and to complete them as early as possible. I am now considering going to Tirukhalar to learn Vedanta.”

 Sri Bhagavan responded with a mocking smile, “Now you are going to study Vedanta, then it will be Siddhanta, then Sanskrit, and then polemics.”

He kept adding more and more subjects and I stood before him dumbfounded.

Seeing my depressed look Sri Bhagavan added, “It is enough if you study the One”. Seeing that his answer had puzzled me, he added, with some compassion, “If you learn to remain within your Self as the Self that will amount to learning everything. What Vedanta lessons did I take? If you remain as the Self, the echo from the Heart will be from experience. It will be in agreement with the scriptures. This is what is called ‘the divine voice’.” On hearing Sri Bhagavan’s words, the desire to learn Vedanta in order to answer the questions of others left me for good. From that day onwards, if someone asked me questions relating to Vedanta, I was able through Sri Bhagavan’s grace, to find an appropriate answer from within.

The last sentence of this account was too big a pill for me to swallow. In this he is surely bluffing, I thought, as my old vasanas voiced their prejudices about maths and sadhus.

In the course of time, Sri Kunjuswami smoothly taught me the entire Collected Works of Sri Bhagavan. I had previously argued with another sadhu elsewhere, that in spite of my sincere efforts to understand Sri Bhagavan’s works, their language and deeper meaning eluded me. He finally sent me away telling me that Bhagavan would have to shower his grace on me.

As Kunjuswami had lived with Sri Bhagavan from the early 1920’s, I knew I was blessed to be in his satsang.

Thanks to the (Hindu) tradition taught to me by my parents — that elders are to be respected — I took it upon myself to serve Sri Kunjuswami in a small way during my visits. I was regularly provided accommodation adjacent to his room in Major Chadwick’s cottage. During his talks with devotees, he often experienced dryness in the throat and I used to give him water and sugar candy to quench his thirst. I was blessed in return that he taught me to chant the Malayalam works of Sri Bhagavan such as Upadesa Saram, Sat Dharsan and Gita Saram.

One day he casually mentioned that a group would be visiting that evening after 9:30. He added, “Why they should come at that night hour, I don’t know. Anyway let them do what they want.”
 The group centred on a respected devotee who happened to be the leading music director for the Chennai movie industry. He had regularly visited the Ashram and Sri Kunjuswami for over a decade, and remains an ardent devotee of Bhagavan today. He said he would be bringing some guests but there was no mention about who the guests might be.

That evening after the appointed time had passed, I gave Kunjuswami his usual medicines and we both went to bed in our respective rooms. Around 11 p.m. I awoke to some bustle outside. When I opened my door, I saw some of the ashram authorities and the Chennai music director as well as a very well-known film actor and his wife. They then entered Sri Kunjuswami’s room and, naturally curious to hear what would ensue, I sat outside my room with ears pricked. The music director requested Kunjuswami to say something to the celebrity actor who was there for the first time. Kunjuswami, at this time already around 90 years old had been asleep at this late hour, but he began at once to lucidly tell the story of Mother Parvati’s coming to Arunachala.

“To purify herself of sin, Mother Parvati requested Lord Siva to indicate the most auspicious place for her to carry out her tapas. The Lord suggested Kasi and she went there immediately. At the time, the local king in Kasi had opened choultries and was feeding the poor. Inevitably, out of her abundant motherly compassion, Tapasvini Parvati suspended her penance and joined in, feeding thousands of people each day. Eventually she acquired the name ‘Annapoorani’ and later, when the king and people found out who she was, thousands poured in to pay respects to her, thus inadvertently interrupting her penance. Recalling her original reason for coming to Earth, Mother Parvati prayed to Lord Siva to recommend an alternate site for her tapas for she had become ‘too famous’ in Kasi to continue her tapasya there.”

At this point, the listeners gathered in Kunjuswami’s room engaged in a hearty laugh, saying, “How true, Swami! Instead of visiting you during the daytime, we had to disturb you in the dead of night for the same reason you have mentioned.” Kunjuswami responded, “Yes, name and fame are hindrances to tapasya.”

By this time I could sense Kunjuswami’s mouth was getting dry and in need of the usual water and sugar candies. However, being a visitor, I was hesitant to barge in. So I meekly awaited the famous visitor’s departure. Then I went in, gave the required water and sugar candy, and took the opportunity to ask Kunjuswami, if he knew who the special guest had been. He said, “I don’t know. Somebody came and asked me to say something, so I did”. Imagine that, I thought. He said, “Something to somebody!” What humble words for these two famous film people.

Over the years, I had served as a translator for non-Tamilian devotees and had therefore heard Kunjuswami explain Arunachala Purana a number of times. However, on no previous occasion had he ever given the reason (becoming “too famous”) for Mother Parvati’s change of location. Neither in Arunachala Mahatmyam (Sanskrit) nor Arunachala Puranam (Tamil) is there mention of this detail. How did it then occur to this elderly devotee of Bhagavan to use such a suitable interpretation for that particular occasion? Did it not prove Sri Bhagavan’s words: “If you learn to remain within your Self as the Self that will amount to learning everything?” It did indeed prove Sri Kunjuswami’s prophetic words from Reminiscences, “By Sri Bhagavan’s grace, I get the required knowledge as and when the occasion arises.” An assertion I had previously doubted.