Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Chapter 7


It was on a Sunday, in early September, 2002, that I visited Sri Bala Peetam housed in a small village called Nemili, on the outskirts of Madras. My mother and sister came as well. Once we reached the sleepy little village of Nemili, it wasn’t hard to find the place. However, I was in for a surprise.
Instead of the usual temple structure, we found an ordinary, nondescript house! We were reassured this was the temple of Bala. Rather hesitantly, my mother, sister and I walked inside. We removed our slippers, in the dark, narrow , hallway. Above this entrance was a picture of a goddess, depicted as a very young girl, wearing a green skirt - paavadai - and blouse, holding a book in one hand and a string of beads in the other.

We took a few steps over this threshold and came inside a very large hall. On the far side of this large room was a dais, and on this was quite an elaborate mandapam. I was straining my eyes to observe the main deity, but could not really see her!

As we were pondering about this, an elderly gentleman came out of one of the rooms on the side of this hall. He motioned for us to sit in front of the dais and then, pulling up a chair, proceeded to give us the background information about the deity and how the house had become sanctified. Apparently, over 150 years ago, a very small idol of this goddess, called Bala, had been found by one of this gentleman’s ancestors, a devout Brahmin called Subramanya Iyer. This idol is very tiny, about the size of a thumbnail, and was discovered in the river bed following a dream in which goddess appeared to Subramanyam and told him that Bala ( an incarnation of Raja Rajeshwari) would come to his house to rest and bless those who visit her. The young girl proceeded to give precise instructions about how she would be found in the nearby river.After a relentless search for three days, this tiny bronze idol seemed to float into the cupped hands of a delighted and grateful Subramanyam.

The tiny figurine of Bala was then placed in a special small, throne in the puja room, just below the idol of her mother, Raja Rajeshwari and prayers were offered. An elaborate tradition of worship has been carried on by successive generations of this family. Slowly, people from neighbouring towns and villages started to come and worship the image of this tiny child-goddess. There were some miracles - and, as some devout believers spread the word, more people came to see “Bala” and get her blessings.
It seemed that Bala, the child- Goddess could alleviate most of the problems faced by her sincere devotees. Marriages that keep getting postponed or delayed soon get arranged with Bala’s help. Women unable to beget children soon become mothers, children struggling with their studies are able to complete higher education and get gainful employment. What Bala “gives” her sincere believers is endless!
Every possible life-situation or problem is envisaged and remedies are provided in the form of melodious songs. All a person has to do is recite these songs with faith and Bala seems to do the rest.
Any unfavourable event is soon reversed, be it lack of education, ill health, financial problems, and so on.

The elderly priest who was narrating this story took pains to emphasise the fact that people who wanted their wishes fulufilled didn’t necessarily bargain with the goddess—i.e. give donations or contributions either in cash or kind, as is so often
the case at many temples, if their sorrows vanished or desires were fulfilled. Instead, at this temple, pilgrims enter and get her blessings. Goddess Baala is aware of the problems afflicting her devotees and quite simply takes care of them. Now, this might
seem far-fetched to most rational human beings, struggling to cope with the many disasters life deals to them. However, the statement that the elderly priest made was very simple and it could only appeal to those who had immense faith in the many aspects of saguna bhakthi.

I felt an enormous sense of calm sitting in front of this little shrine. I closed my eyes and savoured the feeling of perfect serenity that seemed to envelope the whole room. Very rarely, have I felt that divine presence so much, as I did that day, sitting in the front hall of this small house that was also a temple. I have experienced the same feeling in just one other temple- that was at Skandashramam, in Salem, when I was similarly seated, with my eyes closed , at the feet of Swamigal.

I had taken with me, on this occasion, copies of the six black and white Devi pictures I had drawn—( the third set of paintings). I had initially wanted Swamigal to bless them, but as he had passed on, I requested the elderly priest at this Bala temple to bless them
instead. Later, as we did our namaskarams and were about to leave, the priest came up to me and said he really liked my paintings and would it be possible for him to have in particular, my drawing of the “Bala”, as she appeared in my dream.

Now, the six pictures that had just been blessed had been a gift from me to my mother for her birthday, so I informed this man, I couldn’t really give him that particular copy on that day.

On the way back to Madras, I felt a bit guilty I hadn’t acceded to the man’s request and mentioned this to my mother. Her reaction was surprising - she had been standing right next to me as we took leave of the priest. “I don’t really recall him asking for any of your
pictures,” she said, “ it must be your imagination”. I decided not to dwell on this issue and we left it at that.

However, the sequence of events that followed were rather surprising. It just so happened that my children were going to visit their aunt and uncle in Poona for a few days. I wanted to send a gift for my sister-in-law, and decided to give her a selection of prints from my drawings. I chose a few prints and gave them to a nearby art gallery to be framed. I requested they do a rush job on it as my children were leaving early next morning. The people at the art gallery promised to deliver the framed pictures on time. As things turned out, they didn’t live up to their promise and the framed pictures reached me too late. So, I decided to give a few to my uncle in Madras and after
he made his selection, there was only one framed print left - this was of course, the picture of Bala.

Even at this point, I didn’t think too much about either this remaining picture, or the priest’s request. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit this temple again. After all,
Nemili was quite a distance from Madras and I was pre- occupied with other matters at that time. However, I was destined to visit this temple not just one more time but twice!.

One day, my sister- in-law, who runs a school for Down’s Syndrome children, decided to take her entire school on an outing to this particular temple, so they could be blessed. After all, the deity here was a child- goddess, and like the priest there told us, she loved
children, and in particular loads of sweets. So, armed with a lot of offerings, particularly biscuits and sweets, I went along with my sister-in-law’s school and the staff for the second visit to this lovely house. Just as we were embarking on the trip, I took the framed print that was left behind and, remembering the priest’s request, I decided to give this to him when we reached Nemili.

This little half-day outing was greatly enjoyed by all the children at this very special school. They sat in perfect silence during the small puja performed by the priest and were delighted when they received their prasadams - sweets. All this time, I sat at the back of the hall and placed my picture out of sight behind a pillar. My intention was to give the priest the picture after the short ceremony was over.

Finally, as the children were trooping slowly out of the hall, I got up to retrieve my picture. Just then, the priest’s wife came from a room at the back of the hall and said “ Oh, is that a picture of our Bala? She looks just as if she is seated on a swing”. Apparently, that is the manner in which this child goddess often appears in the visions to her devotees - seated on a swing! I said I wished to give this picture to the temple, if they wanted it. Of course, they were delighted and the priest said to me “ You know, the other day when you came here with all the six pictures of Devi, I really wanted to have this particular picture, but I didn’t ask you as you seemed intent on taking them back. See how Bala herself has brought it back for me!”. I was astounded. I had heard his mental thoughts as clearly as light of day!

My children returned home to London after a few weeks in Madras and I decided to stay on longer in order to spend some more time with my mother, and also to fully recuperate from my back problems.

During this period, I had a few visions. It was always the same goddess who kept appearing, very briefly, just before I was fully awake in the mornings. The distinguishing feature of this very dark-hued goddess was the golden crown she wore - represented by the hood of a cobra! I was puzzled by this and decided to visit the temple of
Karumarriamman at a place called Thiruverkadu, near Madras. The deity here has a serpent’s hood on her head, as a crown.

Later, I had a very strong mental suggestion to draw the picture of this deity, Karumarriamman. This time, I decided to draw a bigger sized image of the goddess. My intention was to paint the deity using colours, rather than the stark black and white images I had previously done. Within one week, I managed to finish the picture of the deity and I was very happy, especially with the expression on her face. There was a serenity and calmness that was indeed divine. I decided to paint this picture in glowing colours and set about buying my painting materials.

Whilst I was engaged in this task, I experienced another powerful vision. This was in September 2002. I was in a temple along with a few members of my family. There was a crowd of people standing in front of the shrine, in this (unknown) temple. Directly in front of me stood a young boy. All I was aware of was that something was wrong with this boy. He appeared to be afflicted with a mental ailment. I moved forward and placed my hand on the boy’s neck. My hands stroked the back of his head. All of a sudden there was this surge of light emanating from my hand . There was a very bright flash of light. I knew that whatever had bothered him or troubled him was over.

He seemed perfectly calm and normal. The people around me surged forward to embrace him. “ He’s Alright now”, they cried. No one noticed me. The bright flash of light that came out of my hands seemed to have back fired. I was lying on the ground, in pain. No one seemed to care. At last, one young person helped me up to my feet. I remember crying out the name of my Goddess Bhuvaneswari .
“Amma, please help me”, I wept, as I ran around the precincts of this temple. Finally, I came to a short flight of steps on one side of the temple. This seemed to lead up to a small shrine. No one was about. I crept up and made my way to the door of this little room. It was ajar. Slowly, I ventured inside to get a glimpse of the deity. To my surprise it was a small image of the Goddess enthroned on a snake.
The wide hood of the serpent rose majestically above this diminutive goddess, as if protecting her.

While I was staring at this fascinating sight, I heard the rustle of people coming towards this shrine. There was a large procession of people making their way
towards the shrine, but one figure at the head of the group caught my eye. This was His Holiness Shanthananda Swamigal. He was coming towards me with a gold crown on the top of his head that was a snake’s hood. Smiling very gently when he saw me, he said
“Why Uma , you have come here before I could”. Then, he turned towards a priest and said “ Give her a nice, big garland of roses”.

I shall never forget this incident. While I do not understand what it meant, I was happy just to receive the blessings of my Guru before I finished my painting. From that small start, I have carried on to execute many more paintings to date.

However, due to a sudden turn of events, I decided to cut short my stay in Madras and return to London. I thought I should make an effort to visit that temple in Nemili one final time before I left.

This time, my aunt and uncle accompanied me. Usually, it is the custom to place a phone call to the house at Nemili before departure from Madras, just to ensure that the priest is at home. After all it is run as a normal household and he might well not be there when we
reached. I tried ringing the number but was unable to get through. After several attempts, I decided to just take a chance and drive on. I prayed that Bala would give me this last opportunity to visit her. I remembered what the priest said “You cannot come here until she wants you to visit her”.

The three of us set off one afternoon, a couple of days before I was due to return to London. When we reached the house in Nemili, the front door was locked and there seemed to be no one about. Our car driver went to the side of the house and
tried to peer through the windows, but could not spot anyone. I was disappointed!

However, just as we were leaving, I decided to take a last chance. We went up to the front door and saw through a small crack in the door that there were some slippers inside. Someone must be inside the house. We called out loudly. After what seemed like a long time I heard the shuffle of footsteps and the door was opened by a young man. Apparently, his father, the priest was taking his afternoon nap. He requested us to come inside the hall and

After a short while the priest appeared and to our great delight performed a puja and gave us blessings. He told me as we were leaving that I had tremendous faith and this would always protect me. My aunt and uncle were particularly happy as they too felt the divine presence here and were touched by the simplicity and courteousness of the people who lived in this house. That last visit I still cherish very much indeed.

I packed the unfinished portrait of Karumariamman, in my suitcase, intending to finish it when I returned to London.

It was mid- September when I arrived. I decided to paint the picture of Amman during the Navarathri period that was to follow shortly.This nine day period of worship for Durga is perhaps one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar. It was during this period that the Goddess, assuming the forms of Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, successfully fought and destroyed the terrible demons and asuras who were harassing the Devas.

The esoteric significance, of course, is that as humans, we should constantly be on guard and fight against those negative qualities like anger, greed, lust and laziness, all of which prevent us from ever understanding our true nature.

Foes within us are the dark qualities, while the enemies outside are those whom we alienate due to some reason or the other. I started the painting on the first day of Navarathri. As was my usual custom, I prayed to Lord Vigneswara, the remover of all obstacles and then recited the Lalitha Sahasranama. Nine glorious days were spent adorning and decorating the picture I had drawn. My concentration
was at all times only on Devi, as I idealised her, in numerous forms. Mentally, I was chanting Lalitha Sahasrama incessantly, along with other hymns and slokas on Durga. Whenever, I found my mind veering off even a little, from thoughts of the Divine, I recited the mantra mentally or listened to my Vedanta tapes. In fact, by now my daily routine was so well established that the entire chunk of 8 or 9 hours
during the day were spent in constant meditation or contemplation of a particular deity, follwed by Vedanta.

I finished my first large colourful portrait of Devi Karumari Amman on the final day of Navarathri. I framed the picture myself and hung it above the fake fireplace in our living room. This was the very first painting to be hung in the flat. More would continue over the next year.

I was quite pleased with this portrait of the goddess and wanted to take a photograph so I could send it to my mother. The Goddess looked grand seated on her golden throne, carrying in her many hands, both weapons of destruction as well as symbols of prosperity
and happiness. I had decorated her with many beautiful, coloured stones and the whole effect of this finished picture was, in my mind, quite breathtaking.

In fact, she seemed very alive and seemed to energise me whenever I gazed on her in deep contemplation. I wanted my mother to share this sense of happiness, albeit through the medium of a photograph. However, I was mistaken. I spent an entire roll
of film taking various shots of the portrait from different angles and using various light settings. When the pictures were developed I had a huge shock. Not one single photo had been developed properly. In fact, all I saw was a sea of black, with a few non identifiable
patches. At the same time, I felt deep down in my heart that I was being sent a message—“ Don’t develop my pictures, or send them to anyone”, the Devi seemed to say.

I decided not to take any more photos just then. In any case, I soon found myself busy with drawing my next picture. It had always been my desire to visit the famous Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, especially since I knew that this ancient place had been a source of inspiration to Swamigal.

Indeed, I read in his biography, that he had spent a lot of time as a youth meditating before Goddess Meenakshi. So, I decided to paint her, as a lovely maiden, dressed in a
green sari, holding the customary parrot in one of her hands. It was during the painting of this deity that I started to listen to the chanting of Rudram, Namakam and Chamakam. I studied these ancient slokas very carefully and marvelled at both the structure and content of these powerful verses. Lord Shiva is extolled as the very essence of all things in the universe. The inventory of this great universe occupies the central portion of this great vedic chant! As a work of poetry, in language, style and content, all aspects of this heartfelt prayer to Lord shiva to bless humanity are powerful, and the vibrations set off by the precise chanting of these verses helped me to achieve a great deal of concentration.

It took nearly an entire month for me to finish my work of art. I used a lot of colourful crystals to embellish the picture and was very happy that by the divine grace of God, I could produce such a beautiful image of the deity. I framed this picture by myself and requested my husband to hang it in the living room.

Now, I must explain here that while my husband did not impede in any way either my spiritual progress or my interest in art, he remained largely indifferent to it and was terribly ignorant of the deep philosophical truths expounded by our religion. However, he did promise to hang up the painting, as it was very heavy and difficult for me to accomplish the task by myself.

One weekend, while I was busy in the kitchen, he decided to undertake this task. He informed me he was going to hang the new painting over the mantelpiece, in the same place we had first placed my painting of Karumarriamman. I hesitated, almost involuntarily. It was as if a sudden premonition crossed my mind. I said, “ Please don’t take down that Karumarriamman painting, I don’t think she wants to be moved”.

My husband however, only laughed—“ It’s only a painting--- she’s not going to mind, surely!” I didn’t reply and instead went about my normal chores in the kitchen.
For a while there was silence.

Then, without warning, I heard a loud crash and the very certain sound of splintered glass. My only thought was “Amma, how can you allow your portrait to be broken - the painting I had done with no other thought except pure love for you”.
I ran to the living room and found broken glass scattered in all directions. My husband’s hands were bleeding and he was standing in the middle of the room, totally speechless.
He had taken down the painting of Karumarriamman and placed it on the ground. However, the portrait of Meenakshi Amman he had tried to hang in its place had crashed down within seconds. A closer inspection revealed that only the frame had broken. My painting of the Goddess had survived intact and not a single stone I had embellished the picture with had even budged.

My husband was totally stupefied, and without me having to utter a word, quietly restored the Karumarriamman to her original place. In fact he made the comment “ That’s the last time I touch this painting, unless she wants me to move her, I will not!”.

As a fitting end to this little episode, my husband was able to get a free , new, glass frame from the shop, again, by sheer generosity of the owner!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Chapter 6


The month of June passed by and I was improving very slowly. I had to attend a lot of physiotherapy sessions and these along with exercises made me a bit more mobile now. The months of June and July were typically busy months for my children as they had their exams. So, I did my best to keep things going smoothly at home and tried not to allow them to worry about my state of health.

We had not made any plans for the summer holidays. Initially, I did intend to make a trip home, particularly to meet Swamigal, but since he was gone, there did not seem much point in this trip. Also, the doctor had advised me not to undertake any long trips to avoid putting a strain on the back. I could not sit for long periods, and this also meant I could not carry on with that unfinished painting.

I was quite unhappy about the turn of events, but nothing much could be done. Then one day, a rather surprising piece of news came my way. I received a phone call from my sister-in-law . She had called to merely inquire about my health. During the course of this conversation I casually mentioned the vision I had about Balambikka a couple of months ago.

I remember saying this in the context that I was very unsure what was going on. First, I have been experiencing many strange dreams and now, my beloved Swamigal was no more. He, whom could I ask for guidance, especially when I was under so much physical as well as mental strain. These were some of the issues I discussed with my sister-in-law. She is an extremely pious soul and unlike some other family members who did think I was quite mad, seemed to be interested in the details of my dream, particularly the exact date on which I got this vision of Balaambika.

I told her it was the full moon day, in April 2002, towards the end of the month. We then discussed the possibility of my coming home for the summer and perhaps visiting a temple or two as a pilgrimage, and then ended our conversation.

It must have been a few hours later when she called me back. Apparently, on the very day I had this vision of the Goddess in the unidentified temple, my brother’s family
had visited a temple in the district of Trichy.

This was no ordinary temple visit. At that time, my sister-in-law had been doing some research on the Kula Deivam or, guardian deity for the family. Over the course of a few months, using historical data that tracked down exactly where our fore-fathers lived, she had narrowed the search to a few temples in the region of Trichy. She obviously considered it important to propitiate the deity that had been worshipped by our ancestors.

Finally, a temple had been selected in a village called Thiruvasi , where my father’s grandfather had once lived. It was widely believed he worshipped the deity in this temple. The temple priests then conducted a “Prasna” – i.e. a ritual for authenticating this information. It came to light at that point that this temple could be viewed as valid as housing the Kula Deivam, if some member of the household had a vision or premonition.

Now, my brother and his wife had taken a clutch of family members along with them on the trip. These members were individually asked about any visions or dreams they might have experienced prior to embarking on this journey. Although all members of my family are indeed deeply religious, no one had, on this particular occasion, experienced any thing special. In any event, some homams and pujas were performed at this temple and the party left.
This event had taken place on the very day I had the vision of my personal Goddess, whom I called out to as “Baalaambikkai”. My sister-in-law told me that the
presiding deity of that very ancient temple in Thiruvasi was also called Bala!

I remember being totally stunned by this piece of information. To this day, I can’t get over the extraordinary coincidence, indeed, a play of Devi - who appeared to me in such a vivid manner, here in London, thousands of miles away, from Thiruvasi, where my family had gathered together in their quest for the Kula Deivam.

What about the significance of the outstretched hands and the fact they looked like
they belonged to an old woman, not a young girl (Bala)? My sister-in-law explained this curious fact as well. The idol in the sanctum has two hands- the right hand is raised in the usual, protective, abhaya varadha, gesture, but there is something unique about the left hand. This resembles the gnarled hand of an old woman. The left palm is partially open and points downwards, in the boon- giving or “Varadha hastam” pose. However, the fist is loosely clenched by misshapen fingers . (The Sanskrit term for this Mudra or hand gesture is called “Kataka” or ‘Kartaka” Hastam and derives from the term “crab”).

To say, I was stunned is an understatement. I can’t get over this miracle, even now, as I am writing this and I don’t think, in my lifetime I can ever forget this mysterious turn of events and indeed the power and clarity of my vision. It seemed to me that these revelations that came to light nearly two months after my dream, gave me all the energy and mental strength I needed at that very low point in my life.

I decided to finish that last painting I had begun. My husband and children forbade me to sit and draw lest my back pain should recur. So, I finished this painting lying down on my front. It didn’t take too long. It was as though someone was hurrying me along. I finished my Devi drawing on a Friday and said my usual prayers. All the time I had been drawing, my back had improved, almost miraculously. By the time I finished the Bala drawing, I had not even the slightest trace of pain either in my lower back or right leg. It was only then I understood that last curious incident in my dream - that tremendous, heavy feeling I had experienced before entering the temple. It was almost a premonition of what was going to happen. I wanted to go home and visit this temple in Trichy, but my husband was still not very keen on my taking a long- haul air travel just as yet. Also, my mother’s 80th birthday festivities had been planned for August and I did not
want to miss it. While I was mulling over these issues, I had another vision, or, in hind sight, another premonition.

This vision appeared again, in the early hours of the morning. I am not too sure about the exact day of the week. I found myself in a temple . It was quite unfamiliar to me. I remember very clearly, the vastness of this temple, and the massive stone pillars. There seemed to be many stone pillars in what seemed to me a very ancient temple. Yet there was something incongruous in my dream. I remember seeing fluorescent tube lighting fastened to the top of some of these pillars and some scaffolding or construction work going on at one side of this massive temple complex. I was standing next to my second brother. No one else seemed present. There was a curtain in front of the deity and we were standing, waiting for it to be opened. All of a sudden, the priests opened the curtains with a flourish and I saw Lord Vigneswara. The idol was very white in colour and I couldn’t understand the significance of this. All I remember is standing,
almost by myself in front of this lovely, glowing white image of the Lord. I called my mother the next day and asked her to perform an archana at a Pillayar temple, the one my brother would normally go to in Madras. I thought that this was the only significance of my dream - the fact I had to think about and meditate on Vigneswara as well.

It seemed to me that try as I might, Saguna worship was here to stay. These visions and dreams were merely reinforcing the fact that I viewed God as a separate entity, apart from myself, and the oneness that I might have experienced in my dream was purely a physical phenomenon. Having listened extensively to Paramartha expounding the nature of Vedantic learning, I was quite puzzled about my experiences.

Paramartha clearly teaches us that any object apprehended by the senses or dreams, visions, etc are all strictly in the world of Maya. True Brahman can never be experienced, because it can never be the object of study or learning. It simply is the existence
principle itself. My intellect could grasp the logic and reasoning behind this argument. Yet what was I to make of these strange and mysterious visions I was having?

I pondered about this at great length and could only come up with this explanation. This was the guidance of Swamigal, taking me slowly, step by step up the ladder of spirituality. When I was a child, it was Swamigal who started me off on this spiritual journey with a simple prayer. Through my early years and as a young adult, he had continued to nourish my spiritual growth.

While listening to Paramartha’s magnificent teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, I was particularly riveted to one portion that describes the various steps in the
ladder of progress to Moksha or liberation. I felt that I must have, without conscious knowledge, progressed along several rungs of this ladder.
According to Paramartha, there are not many different paths leading to liberation - i.e. freedom from the sorrows that afflict us while enmeshed in samsara. Karma, and Bhakti yoga are not to be viewed as different paths, but merely transitory ways of moving from a
lower to a higher plane of understanding.

In the beginning, just as a child starts off education by attending nursery school, so so are we all taught the importance of simple prayers. At first, we are told to pray because prayer would please a particular deity, who would then grant our wishes. It is a small
bargain; you might think it is mercenary. Nevertheless, it is the only way most people would get attracted to religion. They want to know what benefit they would get by doing the prayer!

So, too, in the very beginning, my prayers always had a wish tag attached to it. I prayed before exams in order to get an easy question paper, then prayed again, so the results might be good, did specific mantras to help me out of difficult situations, etc. There was a
constant dependence on God and then later on the Guru, to guide and assist me at every stage. Swamigal’s mantra was also just that - to help me achieve strength of my mind, help me concentrate, etc. That is also an achievable goal. I followed his instructions and from these early steps, I found myself slowly moving on to the next higher plane.

No longer was it so important for me to get all my worldly desires accomplished through prayer or japa. I found myself moving away from clinging on to prayers as a life-line, and instead looked upon them as an enjoyable routine, whether or not my wishes were granted. This shift in focus from Sakama Karma to prayers being offered as Nishkaamya Karma took place almost without me noticing it. I did feel that prayers were no longer satisfying my spiritual needs and the vedantic philosophy was like a magnet, grabbing my attention. Here, I found the answers to all the questions raised by my intellect. Mere prayers were meaningless without understanding the very nature and intended purpose of them, and here, only the “Antha” (or the end), portion of the Vedas—i.e. the Upanishads - could help.

The transition from bhakthi to the next higher plane of reasoning is, as Paramartha says, only possible with the help of a Guru. My guru, Sri Santhananda, did not emphasise Advaita- in the sense that he did not give lectures on the Upanishads like the swamijis in the Chinmaya mission did. He was one of those self-realised souls whose main goal was to allow people to have full faith in a saguna deity, first. Later, he would initiate those whom he considered proper recipients, with the revelation of “Brahma Rahasyam”. As far as I was concerned, it was only his blessings that guided me to listen to Advaita philosophy as expounded by another Swamiji- Paramartha. Of this I have no doubt.

Similarly, my paintings developed slowly through various stages. In the first set of gross paintings, I was praying on a very gross level—i.e. sakama bhakti- I needed relief from various problems and appealed to various deities.

In the second set of paintings, I could notice a subtle shift. I enjoyed executing these paintings, just as I enjoyed doing my prayers or puja, with no particular motive. Finally, in the third set of my paintings, of which five had been finished before my vision, I had progressed beyond prayers and rituals and wanted this moksha or liberation, in exclusion to anything else.

Problems of this world started to lose their grip on me. I wasn’t particularly concerned about setbacks, minor or major. This doesn’t mean I was indifferent to family problems, nor was I fatalistic. Personal and financial problems still existed and did bother me in the sense, they had to be set right because this was my duty as a householder, caught up in the web of samsara.

Given the parameters I faced, I could only put forth the very best efforts I was capable of, given the limitations of Swabhava and Prarabhda, and then wait patiently for time and divine grace to sort out unpleasant circumstances and situations.

So, I was puzzled then, that at this stage in my journey, when I seemed to be moving to a higher level of nishkaama bhakti, that I should have these visions. To this day, I have not found an answer. However, I am still continuing to allow the bhakthi to mature more fully, whilst still established firmly on this path. My only true desire now is to be an instrument by which I could be of service to mankind - even, in a very small manner, for it is only by performing selfless deeds that one can achieve liberation in this life time itself.

We have to develop a world vision wherein, all the people regardless of caste, creed, religion and nationality are seen as part of that same Divinity, which is in and through every object in nature, which is present in the animals, and of course, among all of us lucky enough to have been born as humans!

Although I could not fully comprehend the strange dreams, I did not analyze them too deeply. Instead, I merely used these experiences to become more self-aware and indeed critical of my own thoughts and actions, especially during transactions with other individuals. As always, I wanted to see the big picture, not the tiresome irritations in life.

I did go home in the summer of 2002 to be with my mother on her birthday. During my stay, I was destined to visit the two temples I had foreseen in my dreams.

Soon after her birthday celebrations were over, my mother expressed a desire to visit the famous temple at Pillayarpatti housing this magnificent rock cut idol of Lord Vinayaka. I was fortunate to be included in this family trip. We reached this famous rock temple for
Pillayar one afternoon. Arrangements had been made at the temple for a special puja. As we entered the vast temple, it seemed strangely familiar. I remember looking around at the vast pillars and suddenly it struck me that I had seen them previously—in my
dream. I was quite stunned. We proceeded further inside the temple complex. A portion of the precinct had been cordoned off, in one corner. On enquiry, we were told that since it was a very ancient temple, some renovation works were being carried out. There was some scaffolding erected around some pillars and on the top of some of them were affixed fluorescent lights. Now, I could not pretend even to myself, that this was not familiar. Why, it was the same vision I’d had in my dream. My brother was nearby, standing alongside, just as he had been before.

We assembled in front of the doorway leading to the inner sanctum and the puja began. The huge black idol of Lord Vinayaka was just barely visible in the darkness of the inner room. This was a huge idol carved out of the rock inside a massive cave, thousands of years ago. The inner room was illumined by large oil lamps and in the dim light I could see enormous rats scuttling around the flowers and incense burners.
The priests began their prayers and this massive idol was bathed with holy water, oil, etc. Then, a screen was drawn around the idol so the priests could decorate the lord with flowers and clothes.

I remember sitting on the stone steps of the temple, eyes closed, saying a simple prayer to the Lord. I opened my eyes just as the priests drew back the curtain with a flourish. What my eyes beheld was something my intellect cannot comprehend even today. The
vision I saw in front of my eyes was that of Lord Vinayaka, completely covered by white, vibhuti.

The lord appeared totally white, just as he had appeared in my dream. They told me later this was called the “Vibhuti Alankaram”, or decoration of the lord with holy ash. I felt
exhilarated to have my dream come true in this manner. At the same time, I felt extremely lucky and indeed blessed to have such a beautiful darshan of the lord.

The next day, we visited the temple of the “Kula Deivam”, at Thiruvasi. I was curiously excited to visit this temple, especially because of the mysterious vision I had experienced on the very day my sister-in-law had visited this temple, a few months ago. We entered the ancient temple. There were not many people about, and it was very calm and peaceful. The temple priest did his small puja in front of the deity, and later took us in to the very inner sanctum to inspect this idol at close quarters. I stood in awe in front of this huge idol depicting Balambal. The priest lifted his lamp and took it closer to the idol’s left hand. I looked at her gnarled hand, the knobbly fingers were clenched as if holding an invisible crab!

We returned to Madras shortly thereafter and I felt energised by the whole episode. Shortly after this temple visit, I was fortunate to visit yet another ancient temple - this one was at Tirupathi. Once again, I couldn’t help but remember that lovely vision of the Lord I had experienced in my dream, in the autumn of the previous year. Only this time the darshan was for real . I was able to contemplate and meditate on the Lord, while sitting in front of the sanctum, as he was being bedecked with flowers, early in the morning. This is a sight I shall never forget.

There is another incident that I must relate at this juncture. At my mother’s birthday function, I happened to meet up with a cousin of mine I had not seen in a long time. She is an extremely religious person, well grounded in rituals and samskaras. Upon hearing details of this rather amazing dream I had experienced, she immediately took me aside and told me I should visit a particular temple while I was still in Madras. “Only”, she said, “it is not really a temple, rather a house and a temple , both together. You will understand what I mean if you visit this place”. I was quite intrigued and requested for the details regarding location, and the particular deity this place housed. My cousin informed me that the deity here is called “ Bala”- She told me that among all the female aspects of power or shakthi, this deity was indeed most powerful. I was instructed to visit this holy place without delay.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Chapter 5


Then, one full moon day in April 2002, I had another powerful vision in the early hours of the morning. I remember every detail of this dream clearly .

It was dusk and the lamps had been lit in the precincts of this very ancient temple. I was unfamiliar with this particular temple, that is, I was not aware of what the principle deity was. In strong contrast to my earlier dream where I had been in no doubt that this was indeed the Lord in Tirupathi, I was in a quandary. The temple seemed lovely and old, very old. I recall looking at the ancient grey, stone pillars—with bevelled grooves rising majestically to support the roof. There were two such pillars on either side of
the moola stambam or central pillar. I looked beyond and saw a dark doorway leading inside the sanctum sanctorum.

I could see no light here and the interior seemed engulfed in total darkness. I felt I had to see the deity but was unsure how to proceed inside. I remember looking around. Then, I saw him – an elderly man was sitting just to the south-west of the main shrine. In front of him was a low stool on which rested a well-worn prayer book. This man was hunched over his prayers, totally absorbed in them.

Very hesitantly, I approached him, and at the sound of my footsteps, he looked up. “Evening prayers are over today” he said, “ You will have to come back tomorrow morning”. I remember feeling extremely dejected. Nevertheless, I knew temples had their regulations. Slowly, I started to walk away.

Just as I was about to circum perambulate the inner sanctum, I heard a rustling and looked up sharply. All of a sudden, I found myself in the midst of a crowd of people. There were priests carrying lamps, followed by some more carrying platters
of fruits and flowers. There were women jostling each other in the crowd, carrying in their hands the customary , small, wicker baskets with coconuts, betel leaves, and flowers for an archana.

I remember following this crowd as they proceeded on their pradakshinam of the sanctum. The only thought in my mind was that I had no wicker basket filled with either fruits or flowers. How was I going to perform an archana? Finally, we arrived in front of the doorway that had earlier been totally dark and gloomy. Now, there
was the smell of incense, lot of lights from the lamps as the priests surged ahead,and behind them some of these women. It was soon my turn to go in. However, the minute I reached the large raised step leading to the inner sanctum, all the lights totally vanished,
and the noisy crowd evaporated almost instantly. I found myself with my left foot placed firmly outside the sanctum and my right leg poised to raise itself over the holy threshold.

Then, I felt the pain. It was the kind of numbing, paralysing pain that seemed to shoot
through my entire right leg, immobilising it completely. I found I could not enter this temple, after having come so far. I was totally dejected now, because I was burning with curiosity to see the deity inside, but this deity was eluding me.

I tried to budge my right leg gently but it did not help. It was as if a dead weight had been attached to my leg. I did not wish to give up and tried again, and again. Finally, after what seemed to be a long time, and with one mighty, last effort, I managed to get my right leg over the stone step. I found myself straining my eyes in the gloom to see the deity.

Then I saw her. The one very clear, distinct impression I have is that of oil lamps burning. Not one, but many – she was in fact surrounded by what seemed to be myriads of glowing lights. There was this divine vision, surrounded by a halo of lights walking towards me. Even as she approached nearer, the lights seemed to glow brighter. I felt I was not inside my body anymore. I was running, or floating towards this holy vision, almost pulled in a straight line, or as if propelled forward without any conscious will on my part.

I was running towards her and she seemed to be running forward towards me as if to embrace me. All I can remember are shreds of fear and trepidation mixed with this
extraordinary sense of total bliss. In my dream I heard myself say, “Balambikkai is coming towards me”. I don’t know why I said this. I do not know why I felt it was Devi, as a young girl coming towards me. But this was what I remember seeing and experiencing in this very extraordinary dream.

The next thing I remember was going up a short flight of steps, somewhere on the side of the temple premises. I remember it as being on the right –hand side of the sanctum. A kind of spiral stone staircase with grey, cold, steps led up to a doorway through which
we entered a room. I say “we” because I felt that the Goddess was somehow with me, mixed up with me in a manner that I couldn’t really understand properly.

The room we entered was long and rectangular, with no windows. But there was a light of some sort coming from somewhere. My mother was at my side and the three of us together were proceeding across the room towards the far side. I noticed another door in the far right hand corner of this rather curious looking room.

Then “she” came towards me - a young girl, with her hand outstretched - I thought it was the left hand. “Look at my hand”, she said. I looked and remember being very
surprised. This hand was very old, withered and dark in complexion and on the outstretched palm there were six distinct lines.

Mentally, I could not comprehend how such a divine and glowing deity full of the exuberance of youth, could ever have such a gnarled hand like that. Also, I seem to remember thinking that no one has six lines on their palm. There are just the three distinct lines of palmistry - heart, head and that of fate or destiny. Yet, I looked again at her outstretched palm, there were indisputably six dark brown/grey lines running parallel to each other. Then, even as I was perplexed, she said emphatically “Look , you have six lines on your hand as well”.

“I don’t”, I said, “I don’t have six lines on the palm of my left hand. Look, you can see yourself”. I stretched out my hand. She took my left hand and held it open, so she could see the palm. “You do have six lines here, just like me”. I laughed and said “ I certainly don’t have six lines running across the palm of my left hand. Maybe you do, but then you are Devi, my supreme Goddess - I can’t be like you”. She was very insistent, however.

All I remember was this continual insistence on the fact that I had the six lines just like her. Even as we were talking, I found that we had come very close to the door at the far end. My mother was walking behind me , and I was being led, so it seemed at the time, by this divine vision. Just as we reached the door, she said to me, “ I will
never leave you” .

I don’t know what impulse made me say this, but I uttered the following words: “ Please, I would like to go home now, I’m feeling very, very tired.”.

The next minute, I felt an enormous pressure on my chest. It was a hard pressure, as if someone had placed a heavy weight down on me. I also felt, that I had come back to my body. I was not “ floating”, but brought down to earth. The next feeling was that I was in a deep slumber, a deep stupor that I could not awake from. I remember feeling a bit afraid, in my dream, that I might never get up!

This is not an uncommon feeling. I have experienced this feeling of not being able to awaken from a dream, not being able to move my limbs, on many occasions. I summoned all my mental strength and began to force my lips to move. Slowly, I mouthed the syllables MU- RU- GA- over and over again. I don’t know why I appealed to this particular deity. I just did this several times, over and over again, until I felt I could move my legs, then my hands and finally, with great effort, opened my eyes. It was early morning, about 4.30 a.m. on a Friday. It was Pournami or Full moon that day. I woke up in a daze and looked at my hands. No, I did not have six lines on my left
hand. I was puzzled by the dream, but one thing I was sure of doing later in the morning. I wanted to say my Lalitha Sahasranamam and as I meditated in front of my puja closet, I felt a strong suggestion that I had to draw an image of this Goddess Balambikkai.

I finished my prayers on that Friday and immediately set about drawing the image of Baalaambika, as she appeared in my dream.

Over the course of the following week, I worked continuously on this portrait. I first drew the sacred mandapam or sanctified place where idols of deities are usually placed. As was common in all the drawings I’d done so far, this was sort of a raised platform with a
few decorated steps leading up to it. All around this I drew in some lamps. Usually, it was my practice to draw two lovely standing lamps - kutthu villakkus - at the base of this sacred portal. However, in this picture my intention was to depict the deity more or less
as she had appeared in my dream. In my vision, there were lots of oil lamps and the whole scene was bright and glowing from both an inner brilliance coming from the deity as well as from the myriad of suspended lamps. This is the effect I finally managed to

By the Thursday of the following week, I had finished most of the picture except for the face. I had drawn Devi as a young girl standing on this raised platform with a string of prayer beads in one hand and the other hand turned inwards, as if in a protective
gesture, resting lightly against her thigh.

On her crown, she wore a crescent moon and her dress was not a saree but instead a kind of skirt and blouse ensemble typically worn by young girls. I was quite happy with the progression of my painting so far. I had taken greater care than usual in drawing this
image. My thoughts and prayers had as always rested on that supreme goddess Lalitha, whose thousand names I recited constantly, in waking as well as in sleep and dream state. I rose with her Holy name on my lip and went to bed thinking about my beautiful Devi. Somehow, nothing else in the world seemed to be of any importance. It was at this time that my children began to be more conscious of the amount of time I was spending immersed in prayer. Although to this day, I have never allowed my prayers to
hinder the carrying out of daily household tasks, my prayers and meditation started to bother my children greatly.

I must admit that I have never enforced religion on my children, because my mother had never done this to any of us. We naturally imbibed religion from the atmosphere around us. However, for my girls, the fact they had been born and brought up in the very
materialistic western society meant they could not easily tolerate my religious practices.

They could not appreciate my “Indian” music, or understand my prayers, if by some chance, they heard me playing my audio tapes loudly. Consequently, I listened to all my
Vedanta tapes and prayers with the help of headphones.

Normally this did not bother me. I felt that these disturbances were merely some more obstacles that I had to overcome in my spiritual quest. I did not allow the children’s attempts to distract me in my meditation affect me too much and tried as far as possible
to work on my paintings when they were at school. To this day, they have never seen my earlier sets of paintings because I had kept them all very carefully hidden in my drawing book.

This painting was different. I wanted to finish it as quickly as possible, so the children as usual made remarks that I was “at” my paintings again. In their minds, I was slowly becoming God- intoxicated.
However, regardless of all these distractions, I had made good progress on this drawing. Finally, only the eyes had to be drawn. I always reserved the drawing of the eyes to the very last.

I was very meticuluous when it came to drawing the face and in particular the eyes. The expression had to be just right. I have never considered for a single moment that it was “I”, who created these lovely pictures. I have always felt myself to be just an instrument
carrying out divine instructions. So, on this auspicious Friday, I decided to pray to Durga for her blessings before I drew in the eyes. I went into the bathroom to wash my hair with the intention of starting this Friday off on a good tone. What followed was just an
unfortunate series of events.

With absolutely no prior warning, my back froze just as I bent down to pick up a towel to dry myself after my bath. There was a searing pain that extended from the base of my spine, all along the right leg. I could not move. Luckily, the mobile phone was near my side and I just managed to call my husband for help before collapsing on the floor. Help was quite long in coming and there were further complications because I had locked the apartment door from the inside. A locksmith had to be called to try and get it open from the outside. I could hear the anxious voices of my daughter and husband from outside as they discussed the possibility of just breaking down the door.

At this point, I was lying on the ground, waves of pain racking my leg and back. I tried hard to hoist myself up, but found it impossible to shift my leg, let alone try to stand.

However, with one last attempt, I managed to first crawl, and then stumble
the few paces to the front door. I remember turning the key inside the lock and heard it open before passing out. The next thing I remember, was that I was on the bed, on my tummy with an ice pack on my back.

The doctor arrived much later that evening and I finally got some extra strong pain killers. But it was bad news. I had a lesion or tear in my disc, with the result that the projecting portion of the disc was putting pressure on a vital nerve, thus sending those shooting pains down my right leg. The next few weeks passed in a painful daze. I had to have a lot of powerful medication. In addition, I had to take a lot of bed rest. I found it very difficult to either sit or stand and could walk only very slowly and with much pain.

I did not understand why this had happened to me, particularly on the day I was going to draw the face of my Goddess. I spent most of the next few weeks in bed, recuperating and listening to my indispensable audio cassettes. I tried to find some solace in the
teachings of Paramartha and did my prayers and meditation lying in bed.

It was at this time that yet another piece of bad news came my way. My mother informed me on May 27th, that in the very early hours of that day, our beloved Swamigal had attained Samadhi. I was totally shattered by this news.

There were several selfish reasons for this.

In the weeks leading up to this event, I had asked my mother to visit Swamigal and get his blessings for my sake. Actually, my mother had mentioned that Swamigal wasn’t very well and had been admitted in hospital. She did not give me too many details, perhaps
because I had this painful back condition and she did not want to add to my worry. I told her then that I had this desire to take in all my paintings of Devi from this last, third set to Swamigal and personally get his blessings. So, the news that Swamigal had shed his
human body came as a big blow! There was nothing anyone could do except pray—and this is what I did.

My mother gave the exact time when the holy last rites were to be given on that day. I managed with great difficulty to take a shower and then went to my very neglected puja cupboard. I cleaned it a bit and then lit a lamp. I looked at my photograph of Swamigal and then couldn’t keep standing any more. This effort had been too much for me. I got back into bed and recited prayers, mentally, for the next couple of hours, thinking of no one else but him and remembering his kind face in my mind.