In what follows, I have attempted to narrate my spiritual journey from childhood. You may, of course, interpret it in any manner suitable to you depending on the exact position you are at in this quest for eternal liberation.
As far back as I can remember, religion has always played a major role in my life.
During my childhood, major festivals and pujas were always celebrated with great care, and elaborate rituals were performed in strict accordance to the methods prescribed in the shastras. Being the youngest of a rather large, extended family, these religious days
were immensely enjoyable for me. First of all, I could dress up in a pattu pavadai and adorn myself with shiny bangles and chains.
Secondly, a lot of relatives would turn up and I could play with my cousins. Finally, there would invariably be a large feast and I could eat lots of sweets.
I must have been about three years old when I had my first introduction to my Guru. His name was Shri Santhananda Swamigal of Pudukkotai, but we called him just “Swamigal” as if to imply there could be no other resident Guru for our household.
My first meeting with him stands out in my memory for two reasons. The first was his rather daunting physical appearance. As for the second, I was taught my first proper prayer.
Here was a man with the most alarming and ferocious-looking hair. This hair was brown, matted and long - very long. It touched the ground and made a soft swishing noise as it skimmed the edges of the ochre robe he wore. I remember staring transfixed at the
sight of Swamigal doing his morning japa on the roof terrace of our family home. At that point, he was staying for a few days at our house. A big homam was being done to propitiate the nine sacred planets and over the next few days, verses from the Ramayana
were chanted. As children, we were given strict orders by our parents not to be seen or heard from, unless we were summoned by my father to receive Swamiji’s blessings. We were also expected to observe a strict fast and could eat only once in the day, that too,
in the late evening after the Brahmins had been fed.
My aunt was taking care of me then, as my mother was industriously attending to the details of this homam. She was in charge of giving my siblings and me a little drink of milk at frequent intervals to keep us going through the day until supper time.
On one of these days, while smoke from the Homam slowly filtered through the house from the roof- terrace, where it was being performed, my aunt took me downstairs, perhaps with the intention of preventing me from becoming too bored and a nuisance to others. I, after all, was only three years old at that time. So, we carefully made our way downstairs, perhaps with the notion of going outside into the garden. However, we suddenly came upon Swamigal sitting all alone on the sofa in a rather airless front hall.
My aunt remembers switching on the fan and asking me to do my namaskaram to him. Swamigal smiled and very gently asked me to come towards him. He asked me if I knew any slokas, to which I replied that I did not.
So began my first introduction to prayer. Sitting cross-legged in front of this benevolent man I was taught a very small sloka in praise of the goddess Bhuvaneswari. I had to recite it several times and, when Swamigal was confident I would never forget it, I was allowed to leave. My Aunt feels that he had mentally accepted me as his disciple at that very moment.
In later years I came to understand that my Guru’s visit to the house had indeed been a momentous one. A huge portrait of Goddess Bhuvaneswari had been properly established in the small puja room right at the top of our house. From then onwards daily homams
and pooja to the deity were performed and over the years, quite literally, this small space became sanctified. It still remains, in my mind, a shrine to both my Guru and his Goddess and here, his physical presence is very tangible.
Shri Santhananda Swamigal, as I have mentioned, is the third in the line of Avadutha Saints. The word Avaduth literally means “clad in space”. Although our Swamigal wore a simple ochre robe, his preceptors wandered about without clothes and put their bodies
through rigorous penances and tribulations in order to achieve the highest degree of mastery over senses.
Born in 1920 as the tenth child to his parents, Subramaniam as he was then called was clearly destined for a spiritual life. Until he attained Samadhi in 2002, Swamigal promoted and extended Saktha worship or the worship of Devi as Goddess Bhuvaneswari. During his early years Swamigal performed severe penances and Tapas in the Himalayas and wandered extensively in North India before he was initiated
into this holy order of Avaduthas. It was in the early sixties that he installed a massive Bhuvaneswari idol in the temple at Pudukkottai. After this, various other temple complexes were built in later years, including a massive hill top temple at Skandashramam in Salem in early 1970’s and in his final years, yet another temple housing rare and less well-known deities from the shastras, at Skandashramsam in Tambaram. He had the vision - and Goddess Bhuvaneswari made sure that sufficient financial contributions poured in to make it a reality!
I remember vividly a visit to the Bhuvaneswari temple in Pudukkottai in the early sixties, when Swamigal performed a huge yajna. Our entire family attended this function. My father had contributed financially towards this yajna, as was quite customary in those days. The concept of sharing wealth and making charitable donations is one I literally grew up with. My father was at that time a relatively prosperous businessman and if there is one major attribute he possessed in addition to mental acumen, it was generosity. Money never rested easily with him!
Three days were spent entirely at the yagna sala. This involved sitting in one spot and watching priests chanting mantras and offering oblations into the fire. This was quite a difficult feat for a fidgety ten year old! The only way to keep boredom at bay and to prevent myself from nodding off to sleep was to recite these mantras, and so this is precisely what I did - so many times and so incessantly that the four lines of the mantra (taken from the Devi Mahatmyam), still run like an endless refrain in my mind whenever I relax or go for a long walk.
Back at home, the routine of morning prayers and going up to the “Mel Maadi”,
( Upstairs room), as the puja room was called, became firmly
established in my childhood days, particularly on exam days!
My mother was a tremendous devotee and a major influence in my spiritual evolution. She used to rise very early each morning, literally at the crack of dawn - “Brahma Muhurta”- to go upstairs and recite the 700 verses of the Devi Mahatmyam. Despite the fact that she is now over eighty years old, she still does!
She was, and still is a stubborn woman who would insist on fasting several days a week and literally starve herself during the nine days of navarathri—all for the benefit of my father. In fact, I don’t ever recall her sitting down for a meal along with the family at the dining table. I can only remember her serving to the needs of my Dad and being continually worried about his health. My father was a very busy man. However, he would always begin his working day by spending some time in quiet contemplation of the Goddess Bhuvaneswari. In later years, his heart condition meant he couldn’t climb the stairs to the puja room at the top of the house. Instead, a black and white photograph of the deity that Swamigal had personally installed upstairs was placed in a downstairs puja room near the kitchen. Here, he prayed every morning.
These happy childhood days ended rather abruptly at 8.20 a.m., February 14th, 1968- the day my father died. I was fourteen then. The years that followed are a bit blurred in my memory, perhaps intentionally so. All I can say is that the carefree and secure feeling of
childhood was totally and irrevocably lost.
Afterwards, my mother threw herself into both social service and religion with great vigour. She realised she had to be mentally strong if she had to help her children; she derived this strength from her Guru and her unwavering faith in him. I myself met the Swamigal a few times after my father’s demise, including right after the event. He blessed me and my siblings, mentioning that the day my father left us was a very holy one called Maha Magham. He remarked that our Dad would have been lucky and his atma would certainly merged with God, because at the very moment he died, thousands of people would have been taking a dip in the holy Ganges.
These kind words didn’t serve to console any of us; yet, in my heart I always knew my Father had reached Maatha Bhuvaneswari. In fact, on that terrible day he died I remember rushing up to the “Mel Maadi” puja room, and, while a chorus of wails and sobs racked the whole house downstairs, I entered this empty room and asked Bhuvaneswari to take care of his soul. And indeed, she had already accepted him – for, at the very time of his death, my aunt and uncle were visiting the Bhuvaneswari temple at Pudukkottai and the first Archanai was in my father’s name - almost at the very minute he passed on. I heard about this only recently from my aunt who
possesses an extremely good memory. Even now, 35 years after his death, it still comforts me to know that my prayers for him, said on that day, were not in vain.
As a college student, time flew by very quickly. Although frequently busy with my studies and generally enjoying myself in the company of friends, I never lost sight of the importance of spiritual nourishment.
One particular friend of mine – regarded by others in our group as slightly peculiar - was always interested in philosophy and scriptures, attending a lot of lectures given at the Chinmaya mission in Madras. I found that we did have a lot in common after all, and was slowly drawn into discussions of the teachings of great souls like Ramana Maharshi and Swami Vivekananda. We used to read poems by Rabindranath Tagore and discuss his love of nature and perception of oneness with the Supreme Being. I also remember attending lectures given by various Swamijis expounding the art of meditation. One incident stands out in my memory: my friend insisted she heard divine music when she was meditating on “nothingness”or “Soonyam”. This was directly after an uplifting lecture by a visiting Swamiji. Intrigued, I went to my room, switched off the lights and tried to blank out my thoughts, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Except for a terrible cramp, I did not see any dazzling lights or hear celestial music. I must admit I was quite annoyed with myself. I decided that perhaps I was not spiritual enough. At that time, Swamigal had come to stay for a few days at our house. These occasions were quite rare in our household, especially after my father died.
In the very early days when Swamigal visited us, my parents would perform pada puja and my mother used to give him bhiksha. This was a truly unforgettable sight. I can still see Shri Santhananda Swamigal receiving three handfuls of food vividly in my mind’s eye.
Rice mixed with Sambar and Yogurt was usually given. It was truly amazing to see the Guru accept the food in the cupped palm of one hand and eat it so meticulously with the other hand. Not a single grain of rice fell to the ground. Regrettably, these visits became
fewer over the succeeding years.
So, during this period - perhaps his last stay at our house - I was able to talk to him on one day. It was late in the evening and the endless streams of visitors who had flocked to see him earlier had abated for a while. Sitting in front of him, I asked him about this
problem I had experienced. Why was I not able to concentrate on “Soonyam”? I had been told this was the only way to learn the art of meditation. Swamigal laughed loudly and said that it was not surprising I had this problem: “ How can you meditate on nothingness?
Think of Ambal and concentrate on her instead. Someone has advised you wrongly.” I was genuinely relieved to hear this as I didn’t want to give up the image of Bhuvaneswari that would automatically come to my mind (and still does), whenever I close my eyes to do dhyanam.
The next time I met the Swamigal was several years later, in the early Seventies. My mother was worried that she couldn’t find a suitable match for me to get married and wished me to have his blessings He was staying at the house of one of his numerous
devotees at the time . Swamigal gave me a mantra- not directly, but through another priest - and asked me to recite it about one or two lakh times. I realised how important my marriage was to my mother and for her sake, I approached this mantra in a very
methodical manner and managed to recite it the prescribed number of times. It wasn’t very surprising then that during this period my marriage was arranged and soon afterwards I left the country. The year was 1975. I wasn’t destined to meet the Swamigal again until 1993. However, his guidance continued. That is to say, he was there for me when and if I needed him.
My husband and I were living in New York and my mother visited us in 1976. Swamigal had sent me a small bronze statue of Bhuvaneswari to worship. I put her into a small hallway closet in our tiny flat , adorned her with a silk skirt and some jewels and
prayed to her everyday. I was studying at University then, and was desperately hoping to get a job when my degree course ended.
One day, in the summer of 1978, when I was still job hunting, I felt very strongly in my mind that I should paint a picture of Goddess Bhuvaneswari. That was my very first attempt at drawing a religious deity. I had dabbled in art before, and had done some abstract oil paintings earlier just as a hobby. Slowly this new image took shape. I soon found I could draw better when my mind was totally engrossed in the deity. I began the practice of listening to audio cassettes. To the background music of prayers, bhajans and kirtanas on the Devi, I finally finished my painting one Friday. It is a very simple and stark black and white etching of the Goddess. A few days later, I got my first job.
Working life was hectic and my artistic ambitions were temporarily put on hold. Nevertheless, my routine of morning prayers continued. The commute from our home to Manhattan was about an hour everyday and this time was ideal for me to listen to bhajans
and prayers while travelling on the bus or train. Working life however ended when the children came into our lives; we moved to London shortly after the birth of my eldest daughter in 1984. Life as a young parent was chaotic. However, I did find time to do a few more sketches of various deities, particularly Shiva and Anjaneya. Nonetheless, my very first portrait of “Amman” still took pride of the place in the living room. She was enthroned above the mantelpiece and to me it seemed that she was looking over all our family, protecting us.
The décor in our cramped London flat, especially in the early years was typically Indian. My “God” paintings meant a lot to me - not from an artistic perspective but from the sense of spiritual enjoyment they exuded. I have always felt that what I might have lacked from good family relationships and material wealth were more than made up for by the slow evolution of my spiritual side. In fact, this latter development took place only because of the trials of samsara. No one goes through life without a few hiccups- some may be small and manageable, others may be huge setbacks to health, wealth, or personal relationships. How prepared we are to face these demons that rise out of samsara really depends on the state of our preparedness, or mental strength.
I have found from personal experience that mental strength is only acquired in proportion to the battles we face in life. For example, the ability to endure harsh words and untruthfulness cannot materialise automatically. In fact the more sensitive a person is, the more these cruel deeds and actions of disrespect from gross individuals seem to hurt. The solution isn’t to become less sensitive and develop a tough hide so these barbs will not hurt. Very often we find that the most kind-hearted souls are actually the people
who are the most sensitive . Unless one is sensitive to the feelings of others, how would one realise why or how they are upsetting them? On the other hand, a sensitive person who is either deliberately misunderstood or wounded with harsh words may or may not
choose to react. That again, depends on his or her level of mental preparedness. It is this building up of mental preparedness I’m talking about. It is distinctly analogous to a country spending money on defence so it can be properly equipped in the event of a
conflict. This cannot be done overnight. Soldiers have to be trained and the weapons arsenal has to be built up only over time.
Similarly, we have to undergo strenuous training in order to discipline our own mind and acquire “weapons” such as sense control, mind control, and virtues such as viveka(discrimination), vairagya( dispassion), fortitude, and tolerance. The acquisition of these virtues and indeed the polishing of an individual happens only over time. In Fact, the more tumbles and disappointments we experience in life, the wiser we get, assuming that we learn from them.
We have the luxury of this one life where we are continually travelling non stop from birth until inevitable death. The earlier we prepare ourselves to fight battles in life, the better off we are - and happier too. By fighting life’s battles I do not mean here that one has to engage in a battle of words, or actions with whomsoever you perceive to be the wrong doers. That fails to work because the individuals who hurt you would never accept their fault. They are too insensitive and therefore incapable of seeing their errors.
Instead, these gross individuals are actually clever in the way they justify their deeds or unjust actions. Confronting them about their wrong doings simply does not work because it will be never accepted as such by these people who have no conscience. Instead our
peace of mind can only be preserved by gaining the spiritual maturity to see the overall picture - that is when we can develop the ability to completely disassociate the inner self from all these distressing situations. Only then can there be no reaction to any
adverse situation. You have to develop a good shock- absorber for life!