By SundaramWITH the death of my wife the bond between me and my family snapped. The desire to serve God had been in my mind for quite a long time. I gave up my job. I had heard a lot about Bhagavan. So I decided to go to Ramanasramam. Immediately after my arrival I was fortunate to be taken on the Ashram staff. I was looking after the Ashram's correspondence. Still later I was asked to work in the kitchen. There I had the good fortune to work under Bhagavan's direct supervision.
I was suffering for long from Asthma. It gave me a lot of trouble while cooking, but I never mentioned it to Bhagavan. I felt that I should endure it to the very end.
Bhagavan used to prepare various kinds of chutney, usually made of coconut with fragrant herbs and condiments. He was very fond of using the cheapest and most commonly found herbs and seeds and was a wizard in making wonderful dishes from the simplest ingredients. When something unusual was ready, he would give everybody in the kitchen a pinch to taste and we would take it with eyes closed, deeming it to be prasad. On one such occasion he gave me a pinch of some chutney and said, "This is medicine for you". Without giving much thought to it I swallowed the titbit and soon realised that I was completely cured of asthma.
Once somebody complained to Bhagavan that the Ashram food was very pungent. He said, "When sattvic food is essential for spiritual practice how is it that the Ashram food is so heavily spiced"? Bhagavan explained that as long as the ingredients were pure and prepared in a pure place and in the proper way, seasoning was a matter of taste and habit and did not make food less sattvic.
An unwritten rule in the Ashram demanded that until the last meal was served and cleared, the workers should attend to their duties only. Sitting in meditation or in Bhagavan's hall was strongly discouraged. The manager argued, with good reason, that devoted service to the Ashram was itself spiritual practice of the highest order and no other practice was needed. He would not allow us to linger in the hall during working hours, which was often tantalising because of the interesting discussions and happenings that were going on there. When we would sneak in and hide ourselves behind people's backs, Bhagavan would look at us significantly, as if saying, "Better go to your work. Don't ask for trouble".
At night, after dinner, we would all collect around Bhagavan. The visitors would have left by that time and we had him all to ourselves. We felt like a big family collected after a day's work. During this short hour Bhagavan would enquire about our welfare, chat with us, make us laugh, and also give instructions for the next day.
With time I realized that working with Bhagavan in the kitchen was not mere cooking, but definitely a form of spiritual training. The first lesson in spiritual education to learn, and to learn for good, is to obey the guru implicitly without questioning or using one's own judgement in the least. Even if we knew a better way of doing it, we had to do it exactly as the Master told us. It might have appeared that by obeying him the work would be ruined, but still one had to obey. One must master this art of instantaneous and unquestioning obedience, for the secret of realization lies in this utter surrender and renunciation of one's own judgement.
Bhagavan himself was an excellent cook and made a point of teaching us to cook properly. Cooking is the most rewarding work, for good cooks are usually poor eaters, and all profit goes to others. That is probably why Bhagavan selected cooking as a training ground for some of his devoted disciples.
It was Bhagavan's order that the leftovers should be used as stock for the next day's breakfast. Iddlies with sambar being the standard breakfast at the Ashram, the leftovers from the previous day would come in handy. Bhagavan would come into the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, warm the leftovers, dilute it and add some more ingredients for the morning sambar. The injunction against taking food from the previous day was very much respected among the higher castes. He insisted that avoidance of waste overrules everything else, and he would never permit God's gifts to be thrown away. As to giving leftovers to beggars, it was not practicable, for he insisted that beggars be given the same food as everybody else and not some inferior stuff. Even dogs had to be fed from the common meal, and first, too!
Every morning just before breakfast Bhagavan would enter the kitchen. The vessels containing coffee, iddlies and sambar were kept ready, covered and shining bright. He would lift the lid, look inside and say, "This is coffee. These are iddlies. This is sambar". We all felt that this consecrated the food before it was distributed to the visitors and inmates.
Once he came to the kitchen before dawn and put some of the previous day's soup on the fire for heating. Some leaves were washed and cut and he told me to mix them in the soup and continue mixing until they lost their bright green colour. For a long time he did not return. The leaves would not change colour, the soup was getting dry and I was afraid there might be no sambar for breakfast. Bhagavan came in just before breakfast. "What, you are still mixing?" he asked with a bright smile. He was pleased that I had implicitly obeyed him and asked me to continue mixing. The gravy was ready in time and was delicious.
Once Bhagavan was frying a large quantity of condiments in a big iron pan over a strong fire. I was standing beside him when he quietly asked me to remove the pan from the fire at once. Probably he saw that more heating would burn the spices. There was nothing nearby to hold the pan with, so I caught the pan with my bare hands, lifted it and put it on the ground. I was not at all afraid to touch the hot iron, nor was I surprised that I could lift it without feeling its weight. The surprise came later when I realized how utterly impossible was all that had happened. It was a striking instance of the power of obedience to one's guru.
Sometimes I was fortunate enough to be able to serve food to Bhagavan with my own hands. I studied carefully how I should serve to please him and was very alert and careful. Yet he would be more alert than me and notice the slightest mistake.
"Why did you serve me more than usual? Do I need more food today than yesterday? And why do I get more sweets and dainties than others? How do you dare to make distinctions?"People nearby would plead for me. "No, Bhagavan", they would say, "Sundaram did not serve you more. Look, we got as much as you did". But Bhagavan would not be easily appeased. "You do not know, the ego is strong in him. His giving preference to me is the working of his ego". I could not find out where I was at fault, but I took his scolding as a kind of blessing and would not worry.
The women working in the kitchen were so orthodox that they could not accept the previous day's food. Once when some leftover sambar was taken to a devotee's house, a special ceremony was ordered to purify the house. On hearing that Bhagavan told the ladies, "Call the purifiers and get your kitchen purified. I shall never more enter your kitchen". The women, for the sake of their orthodox customs, lost Bhagavan's constant presence, company and guidance. It was a real tragedy. Each devotee in the Ashram believed that Bhagavan was God Himself who had come to purify and bless him and put his feet firmly on the path to liberation. Yet when God Himself went against their religious customs, they would rather cling to their customs than to God. Blessed were those who had no other rule but obedience to Bhagavan. It was clear that he was trying to teach us the simple lesson that in his presence no rule was valid except the rule of absolute surrender. But it was not an easy lesson to learn. Again and again old habits and loyalties would assert themselves and make us pit our will against his, to our greatest harm.
Bhagavan was not a rebel or a reformer. He did not discourage people from following their religious customs at home. But in the Ashram he would not take all customs for granted. In the Ashram he was the religion and the custom, and those who forgot it had to face his very strong will.
APOLOGY TO HORNETSOne day a disciple said to Bhagavan, "When you stepped on a hornet's nest, mistaking it for a bush and the hornets attacked your leg and stung it badly, why did you feel remorse for what had happened only accidentally, as if you had done it intentionally?"
The story relating to the above is as follows:
One day when Bhagavan was climbing about the Hill as was his wont in the early days of his sojourn in Tiruvannamalai, his leg struck against a hornet's nest and disturbed the hornets. They attacked him in a body and stung his leg and thigh very badly so that it became terribly swollen and painful. Bhagavan expressed great sorrow for what he had done unwittingly. He would not move from the place till they had finished the punishment and flown away.
Refer Apology to Hornets
Referred Resources: Apology to Hornets