Sixty years after the death of Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest Indian teachers, his ashram still attracts throngs of devotees from all over the world, and is considered one of the great spiritual centers of India. The temple complex is located (unfortunately) on the main road to Tiruvannamalai, a busy town in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India.
Once you wade through the onslaught of beggars and the barreling buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws, and bicycles—all blaring horns to announce their presence—you enter the quiet bustle of the ashram precinct. A majestic banyan tree protectively shades the front courtyard. Among tropical trees and flowers stroll peacocks, jump chattering monkeys, fly exotic birds, all of which gives the impressions of Paradise before the fall.
But all the commotion of the outside world is erased as if by a magic wand as you step into the old meditation hall where Ramana used to spend most of his time in meditation, reclining on a couch in a corner. Even the chatter of your mind is stilled as if by some outside force, and you sink into a state of intense peace. This is the most charged area in the whole ashram.
Two new shrines, which house marble tombs of Ramana and his mother, didn’t do anything for me. In the sharp neon light, devotees circle around the tombs, chanting songs of worship to their guru and his mother. I was twice reprimanded for breaking the temple rules and offending gods. First for smelling the flowers used to make garlands for ritual offering (they were discarded after I smelled them), then for sitting together with Dwight in the part of the hall reserved for men (I had to move to the side allotted to women).
To get away from the petty rules—imposed after Ramana’s death, to be sure—we climbed the sacred hill of Arunachala that looms above the ashram. There, in caves, Ramana spent the early years of his life before the ashram was built. From the upper cave, shielded by a mango tree, the view extends over the whole of Tiruvannamalai and the plains beyond. In the inner sanctum, so small that only two people can meditate at the same time, a large picture of Ramana still evokes his presence. In the flicker of one candle, his eyes glow as if alive. I lost myself gazing into his eyes, and a deep sense of serenity and peace enveloped me.