To pass beneath the green arched ‘Sri Ramanasramam’ sign is to enter a hermetically sealed world of elegant simplicity; white washed walls offset the ashram’s signature green and terracotta paint, orange clad sadhus tread silently on raked sand walkways, milk white peacocks fan their tails on the temple roof.
I was there to practice Jnana Yoga, the most challenging of yogas. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the guru in whose honour the ashram was built, believed that repetition of the question ‘Who am I?’ destroys all other thoughts leaving behind only sat-chit-ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss.
My alarm went off at 5am; the question ‘Who am I?’ quickly followed by ‘and what the heck am I doing here?’ I threw on my ashram-friendly white dress and followed in the slipstream of dozens of similarly clad devotees on their way to the main hall, for the morning milk offering to the Maharshi.
A bare-chested large bellied swami bearing armfuls of orange, pink and white garlands conducted a prayer ceremony, scattering leaves and petals as he chanted, filling the air with a heady mix of rose, citronella and incense.
I went to breakfast looking like a true disciple – my forehead smeared with sandalwood paste. I ate off a banana leaf which I was told to sprinkle first with water – I wasn’t sure if this was devotional or hygienic but I gave it a good dousing. A pot bellied sadhu with a huge tin bucket turned the leaf dirty side up, threw the contents of his ladle upon it and beamed. I beamed back, attempting to practice non-attachment to cleanliness.
The breakfast of iddlies submerged in brown sugar and some very hot, strong south Indian coffee restored my energy levels and I spent the rest of the day exploring Arunachala, the hill that the Maharshi called his ‘guru.’ I tried to meditate in his cave, and then in the little house that he’d lived in for many years before the ashram was built, but there was no room at either inn. The dark inner chambers of both were full, with a long queue of cross legged devotees patiently awaiting their turn. An Indian man had fallen asleep and was now snoring loudly.
Perhaps I would have more luck in the ashram’s own meditation hall. The Maharshi would lie for hours on a tiger skin covered bed, the only sound the swish of a fan, surrounded by every form of life – from Jackie the dog who would sit on an orange cloth and stare at him, not eating until he ate, to Lakshmi the cow – believed by the Maharshi to be an incarnation of the old lady who used to feed him when he lived in the cave.
There were no cows or dogs anymore but there was plenty of room so I settled down and soon I was dropping like Jacques Mayol, the freediver immortalised in The Big Blue, leaving the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life behind, sinking deeper into the infinite blackness, getting very quiet. I sat listening to my breath – deep and steady – watching the air bubbles rising like reversing rain drops, nothing to worry about. And in that weightless inkiness I found stillness, an awareness of a bigger reality. Just pure existence, consciousness, and yes, bliss. As Jacques says in the film, ‘you go down to the bottom of the sea where the water isn’t even blue anymore, where the sky’s only a memory, and you float there, in the silence.’
I don’t know how much time passed before the cleaning lady’s sudden entry awoke me from my deep dive but I resurfaced without the bends. Had I experienced Jnana yoga? Who cared? Whatever it was called, and however long it had lasted, I had, for the first time in the yoga schools of India, felt the potential of a merger with cosmic bliss. No matter that it was in the presence of a saint who had been dead for more than fifty years and thought a cow was an incarnation of an old lady. For this miracle I award it the title of Ashram of the Year.
Sri Ramanasramam Ashram is donation only – spiritual epiphanies not included.