FIRE IS A VERY SIGNIFICANT symbol. Its nature is twofold: as heat, it can destroy and as light, it reveals. Bhagavan is the jnana agni, the fire of jnana. He destroys our destiny and reveals the light of wisdom that is already there in each one of us. This twofold operation of his grace, can be most vividly seen in the life of this remarkable devotee. His name was Chellaperumal.
When he was born, his father had his horoscope prepared. It predicted that Chellaperumal would become an ascetic, a sadhu, and that he would not lead a family life. His father wanted to prevent it. So he did not send Chellaperumal to school, thinking that if he studied he might chance upon some spiritual text which would influence him to become an ascetic. Being a farmer, he started taking his son to his paddy fields, always keeping him by his side with this one-pointed aim that he should not study anything. But Chellaperumal’s keenness in learning was so intense that he taught himself how to read a full word through slowly reading every alphabet in that word! Throughout his life, he had this gift of perseverance not interrupted by failure!
One day while going with his father, Chellaperumal noticed a few sadhus dressed in ochre robes. He was so fascinated that he visited one of them on the sly and started studying spiritual books. There was also a lady in a neighbouring village whose piety drew him. This lady took him to her house and gave Tamil books on Advaita like Kaivalya Navaneetam. As she could not read, she asked Chellaperumal to read and explain these texts. When he started reading them, though he had no prior knowledge of any Vedanta, some power from inside made him understand and explain everything albeit in a childish way.
Soon, at a particular time every day, he would run away from home without his father’s knowledge to this lady’s house, read a particular spiritual text and then explain it. His spiritual talks started attracting the woman’s neighbours. In a matter of a few months, his talks had become so popular that the pious woman invited him to stay in her house. The next six years, he was away from his father and it was a golden period for Chellaperumal. He started wearing sacred ash and rudhraksha beads, prostrating before pictures of deities and meticulously following traditional religious practices. One day, when he was giving a spiritual talk, his father came stealthily in. He was stunned on seeing his son’s transformation. But he still did not encourage him.
Despite that, Chellaperumal was determined to become an ascetic. Though only a teenager, he took sannyas. And because traditional people would not initiate him into sannyas, he did it himself. When he came back to the village, some of the villagers, noticing his greatness, started helping him. Inspired by the late and famous saint, Ramalinga Swamigal, who taught that one should serve humanity, he started giving water from an earthen pot to travellers in summer. Soon, he was distributing gruel to the poor from a small hut that the villagers helped him build. However, though his mind was bent on helping others, he continued his religious practices. One day, he came to know that the Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Mutt was coming to a neighbouring village. When he went to meet him, the Shankaracharya told him, “Come to the next village, I will meet you.” He went and met the Shankaracharya there and begged for spiritual guidance. The Shankaracharya gave him the mantra ‘Sivaya Namaha’, and asked him to chant it one hundred thousand times.
Soon after this, a wandering sadhu gave him Bhagavan’s book Upadesa Undiyar, Thirty Verses of Instruction, in Tamil. On seeing the photograph of Bhagavan in it, he was certain that this was his guru. He knew nothing about Ramana Maharshi nor could he understand Upadesa Undiyar, but he felt that this was his guru. So, he went around the village proclaiming, “I have found my guru and he is in Tiruvannamalai. I have to go to him”. The villagers, knowing that he was a sadhu with no money, gave him some for his journey to Tiruvannamalai.
Just when he was to leave, he came to know, that the Kanchi Shankaracharya was once again camping in a neighbouring village. By this time, Chellaperumal knew that this was the same Shankaracharya who had sent Paul Brunton to Ramana Maharshi. He went to the Shankaracharya, prostrated and requested him, “Please bless me. I am going to Ramana Maharshi”. The Shankaracharya gave him sacred ash, eleven silver coins and blessed him saying, “You are going on a good errand, go.”
Thus, in 1928, at the age of twenty one, Chellaperumal came to Tiruvannamalai. On his way to Ramanasramam, he saw a big crowd around a small mantap. He asked someone the reason for the crowd. The man answered, “The siddha purusha, Sheshadri Swami, is inside the mantap. The crowd is waiting for him to come out and give them his blessing. You can also go see him and receive his blessing.” Chellaperumal, peeping through the crowd, saw Sheshadri Swami inside with a ladoo, an Indian sweet, in his hand. The crowd, because of the awe and respect it had for the Swami, was afraid to go inside. Chellaperumal, not having any previous knowledge of the Swami’s reputation, went in and prostrated. Sheshadri Swami took the ladoo near his mouth and then threw it at the crowd, all of whom took it as prasad. Then, turning to Chellaperumal, he started abusing him, “You fool! Why have you come to Arunachala? Why have you come to Tiruvannamalai? What is there here for you to come?” Shocked at this outburst, Chellaperumal beat a hasty retreat. Fortunately for him, a sadhu standing outside stopped him and reassured him, “Sheshadri Swami is a siddha purusha who blesses through abuses. When he says, ‘You fool, why have you come to Arunachala?’ it means what a great person you are to have come to Arunachala! And, ‘What purpose have you come here for?’ means that whatever purpose you have come here for will be fulfilled.” Reassured by this abusive blessing, Chellaperumal came to Ramanasramam.
When he entered the ashram, he saw Bhagavan walking down from the hill to the Old Hall. After washing his feet, Bhagavan entered the hall. Chellaperumal was thrilled! Before he left his village, Bhagavan had appeared in a dream in which he walked down from the hill, washed his feet and then entered the hall. Look at the beauty of the Lord accepting this simple man! As he entered the hall, Chellaperumal noticed that he was alone with Bhagavan. He placed a small packet of raisins that he had taken with him for Bhagavan, and with emotions welling up in profuse tears, prostrated to him. When he got up, he saw Bhagavan eating the raisins. For Chellaperumal, it was as if Lord Siva himself was accepting his offering. For nearly fifteen minutes thereafter, Bhagavan directed his glance of grace on him and Chellaperumal was thrilled. When, many years later, I asked him how it felt, he replied, “I felt a wonderful coolness pervade my body as if I was immersing myself in a cool pool after being outside in the hot sun.” The beauty is that his first experience of Bhagavan’s grace had a connection with what he was going to do during his future life in the ashram – work in the hot sun. After this, he went up to Chinna Swami, the sarvadhikari, to request him to assign him some work. He was told to go into the hall and be an attendant of Bhagavan. Thus, he got this exclusive opportunity of not only being with Bhagavan but also serving him.
Bhagavan himself named him Annamalai Swami, which is significant. For instance, Bhagavan used to call his brother by his family nickname, Pichai, even after he took sannyas and changed his name to Niranjanananda Swami. Viswanatha Swami was called Viswanatha and Kunju Swami was called Kunju. Of course, if someone named Kesava Swami came, Bhagavan would not hesitate calling him Kesava Swami. But, the only person he renamed was Annamalai Swami. I asked Annamalai Swami how this happened. Annamalai Swami recounted, “The very next day after I came to Bhagavan, he casually mentioned that I reminded him of a man called Annamalai Swami, an attendant of his at Skandasramam who passed away in 1920. Bhagavan started to use this name as a nickname for me. When the other devotees heard this, they too followed suit. Within a few days, my new identity was firmly established.” Because his surrender to Bhagavan was total, Bhagavan gave him his complete attention. The jnani is like a mirror – the way he responds to you reflects the way you approach him. If you surrender totally, the blessing is total.
One day, he asked, “Bhagavan give me some upadesa.” Bhagavan answered, “Go, go inwards and always hold onto the Self. Identifying with the body and the mind causes misery. Dive deep into the Heart, the source of being and peace. Be established thus – always in your being.” Look at this first upadesa of Bhagavan to Annamalai Swami. It is very important because Annamalai Swami himself later told me, “At that time, Ganesa, I did not know the significance of these words. The rest of my life is based on this very first upadesa. I did not know or grasp the main meaning of this teaching. My vasanas came up and I started noticing others around Bhagavan at a very early stage. They were all gossiping and I did not like that.” See the power of vasanas, the latent tendencies. He felt, “Yes, Bhagavan is great. But, the people around him are going to distract me. So I will not stay here. Instead, I will go and do my spiritual practices elsewhere.”
Without even telling Bhagavan, he walked away. After nearly twenty miles, he felt very tired and hungry. At two hundred houses he begged, but nobody gave him even a morsel of food. Finally, when he did not know whom or where to turn to, somebody asked him, “Hey, why are you suffering? Where are you coming from?” “I am coming from Tiruvannamalai.” “From where in Tiruvannamalai?” came the next question. “From Ramanasramam,” Annamalai Swami replied. He was reprimanded, “You have come here from Ramanasramam and you are suffering? Fool, go back.”
“Fool, go back!” At that moment, he decided to go back to Bhagavan. Immediately, everything started happening miraculously. An hotelier called him and gave him food. He then boarded a train to Tiruvannamalai without a ticket. The ticket inspector checked all the others in the compartment, except him, for tickets. Many things like these happened on his return journey to Tiruvannamalai. Falling at Bhagavan’s feet, he revealed everything and begged him for forgiveness. And Bhagavan’s glorious reply? “How can you escape? You have work to do here. If you try to leave without doing the jobs destined for you, where can you run away? Stay here.” Once again, Annamalai Swami fell at Bhagavan’s feet. “Bhagavan, whatever you tell me, I will do, I will not leave your presence.”
The very next day, when Annamalai Swami was serving Bhagavan, he turned to him, “Annamalai Swami, a wall is being built near the water tank. Go and see what work the mason is doing.” He thought Bhagavan wanted information. So he went to the mason and questioned him. The mason replied, “I am building this wall.” He came back and reported to Bhagavan, “The mason says he is building a wall.” Five times Bhagavan sent him back to find out what the mason was doing. The mason got really annoyed: “Are you a fool, are you an idiot? How many times do I have to tell you that I am building this wall?” Then, Annamalai Swami woke up. “Why does Bhagavan send me repeatedly? Perhaps he wants me to supervise this work.” First, he had thought Bhagavan wanted him to do some easy work. But when he held on to Bhagavan’s earlier words, he understood that a cascade, an avalanche of work, was going to come. One after another, one after another, came in work which was impossible for any one man to complete by his own effort. But complete a stupendous amount of construction work Annamalai Swami certainly did! Today, people going to Ramanasramam can still see what this one man managed to accomplish.
Work after work, physically painful work, came. He had to often stand under the hot, tropical sun next to where lime mortar, which produces intense heat, was being made. To add to his acute discomfort, the people around him, instead of appreciating his efforts, constantly ridiculed, chided and insulted him. The only relief he got was when Bhagavan came to see how he was doing. Every time Bhagavan came, he exhorted him, “Annamalai Swami, you are not the body, you are not the mind, you are pure consciousness — the all pervasive Self. Be aware of this all the time, even while you are working.” Why did Bhagavan assign all this almost impossible work to Annamalai Swami? Earlier, he had tried to run away because he did not approve of some of the people in the ashram. But he had to return because as Bhagavan told him, “You have work to do.” This was not just the external construction work. It was also the internal work of washing away his destiny. Each of us creates our own destiny. And our individual destinies can be washed out only by each one of us. Nobody else can do it for us, however sympathetic he or she might be. Destroying our destiny is very important because our destiny carries with it the vasanas which influence us. So, whenever Annamalai Swami got agitated by people criticizing him or not cooperating with him, Bhagavan used to go there and forcefully remind him, “You are not the body, you are not the mind, you are pure consciousness, the all pervasive Self. Pay your attention to that. Be aware of it all the time even while you are working.” Annamalai Swami later told me, “I held steadfastly on to that.” He was affected by all the criticism but in the fight between his destiny and Bhagavan’s grace, he held on to Bhagavan’s saving words, “You are all pervasive, you are the awareness. Hold on to that while you are working.”
When I am at Ramanasramam, I often go and lay my head on the walls of the buildings built by Annamalai Swami under the guidance of Bhagavan, and feel blessed! One of the first constructions that Annamalai Swami undertook was a revetment behind the ashram. Bhagavan told him “Build a wall and see that it is like the China Wall.” It is a long, wide, stone wall built to prevent the floods from the hill coming into the ashram. When that was done, Bhagavan told him “Go and construct the store room.” You should go and see all these places, the cow shed, Bhagavan’s bathroom, Valli the deer’s samadhi, Jackie the dog’s samadhi, the huge, old dining hall, the kitchen, the Vedapatashala, the stone steps to the ashram tank, Major Chadwick’s room and finally, the ashram dispensary. Many have asked me, “How is it that all these were built without cement? How were they built?” And they found it impossible to believe when I replied, “A simple, uneducated man from a village built them.” In the later years, when Annamalai Swami used to walk into the hall, Bhagavan used to humourously say, “When you walk in, it is as if the buildings are walking towards me.”
Just imagine how much physical and mental pain Annamalai Swami must have suffered! Standing in the sun and toiling away with everyone around ridiculing, betraying and insulting him! But he just held on to Bhagavan’s first upadesa: “You are not the body, you are not the mind; you are the Self.” So, whatever destiny his body and mind had to undergo, he knew that Bhagavan was washing it away. Then, one day in 1938, after all this was built, Bhagavan looked at him and said, “You are now a free man. All your karmas are finished.” Annamalai Swami fell at Bhagavan’s feet with tears of gratitude. Yogi Ramaiah, another devotee, begged him, “Bhagavan, Annamalai Swami has been working very hard and his health has been affected. Why do you not ask him to take rest?” Bhagavan said “Yes, I will do that.” Not only did Bhagavan give him rest, he hugged Annamalai Swami, which he has never done to anyone before or afterwards, and put a full stop to his destiny. With a hug he changed the entire life of Annamalai Swami from destiny to grace!
Many years later, when I asked Annamalai Swami about this life changing hug, this is what he told me: “One day, I went to Bhagavan’s bathroom to help him with his morning bath. Madhava Swami and I gave him his usual oil massage. When the bath was over, Madhava Swami asked, ‘Bhagavan, people who take ganja lehiyam (an Ayurvedic medicine whose principal ingredient is marijuana), they experience some kind of ananda, bliss. What is the nature of that ananda? Is it the same ananda the scriptures speak of?’ Bhagavan replied that eating ganja is a very bad habit. Then, laughing loudly he came over to me, hugged me and exclaimed, ‘Ananda, ananda, ananda, ananda! This is how these people who eat ganja behave.’ It was not a brief hug. Madhava Swami told me later that he held me tightly for about two minutes. After the first few seconds, I completely lost all awareness of my body and the world. Initially, there was a feeling of happiness and bliss. This soon gave way to a state in which there were no feelings and no experiences. I did not lose consciousness. I just ceased to be aware of anything that was going on around me. I remained in that state for about fifteen minutes. When I recovered my usual worldly consciousness, I was standing alone in the bathroom. Madhava Swami and Bhagavan had long since left for breakfast. I had not seen them open the door or leave. Nor had I heard the breakfast bell. This experience completely changed my life. I knew that my working life at Ramanasramam had come to an end. I knew that from now on, I would be living outside the ashram and spending most of my time in meditation. The very next day, I told Bhagavan, ‘Please bless me. I am going to live in Palaakothu.’”
Bhagavan then came close to Annamalai Swami and blessed him with a brief, light hug. The choice of the place in Palaakothu, the design of his cottage, what he was doing every day, what was happening — he reported everything to Bhagavan. Bhagavan visited him almost every day, guiding him spiritually. Then, the time came when Bhagavan felt that Annamalai Swami should be established totally in the Self. He advised Annamalai Swami, “You are now established in your inner poise. There is no need for you to come to Ramanasramam, even for darshan.” He added, “Do not move from your place in Palaakothu and go towards the road. You are free to walk on the hill.” Once, when Annamalai Swami did not have any food Bhagavan told him to go into the forest, cut leaves of a particular herb, make some gravy with it and eat it with a little rice which was always provided for him. Bhagavan never instructed anyone to eat this or not eat this. For Annamalai Swami alone, everything was by his instruction. To many other devotees, including his brother, Bhagavan specified even which street to go and beg for food. For Annamalai Swami, he did not do this. Our scriptures say that there are two ways of living — either like a honey bee that goes from flower to flower gathering food or like the python which does not move but swallows food that comes its way. For Annamalai Swami Bhagavan did suggest the python method — he did not even allow him to go and beg. Instead, he saw to it that everything was provided.
Established in the Self, Annamalai Swami started teaching Self Enquiry. A misconception prevalent at that time was that Self Enquiry was only for intellectuals and scholars, and that lay men did not have the capacity or alertness to turn their attention inwards and do it. Annamalai Swami taught even ordinary village folk how to do Self Enquiry. It is very thrilling how he taught them: “Since you say that you have forgotten your real Self, the only way is to go back to it. If you keep the light on all the time, darkness can never enter your room. Even if you open the door and invite the darkness to come in, it cannot enter. Darkness is just the absence of light. In the same way, the mind is a self inflicted area of darkness in which the light of the Self has been deliberately shut off. So, go back to your own Self.” Somebody said that since Self Enquiry was very difficult he was wondering whether he should practice some other path like devotion or karma and then come to Self Enquiry. Annamalai Swami was very categorical: “If you have some interest in the path of Self Enquiry you should follow it even if you feel that you are not very good at it. If you want to do Self Enquiry effectively and properly, you should stick to that method alone. Other methods may be good in their own right but they are not good as preparations for Self Enquiry. If you are serious about becoming a good violin player, you take lessons from a good teacher and practice as much as you can. If you encounter some difficulties, you do not switch over to clarinet for a few months! You stay with your chosen instrument and keep practicing till you get it right.” See the simple, but vivid, example he uses! The best preparation for Self Enquiry is the practice of Self Enquiry. Even now there are villagers who guided by Annamalai Swami, are practicing Self Enquiry.
When I was working in Ramanasramam, we used to go walking in the forest with Kunju Swami. Often, we would take a detour and step into Annamalai Swami’s ashram and bask in his presence. He used to give us ginger tea, which too we enjoyed very much. Every time I went, I would prostrate to him. While getting up and I was still in the kneeling position, he would put his hand on my head, ruffle my hair and then put his head on my head. I thought then it was just his way of greeting me. A few days later, when I was there with my friend Anuradha, he did the same thing. Anuradha asked him why he was ruffling my hair and putting his head against mine. He replied, “In 1938, Venkatoo’s family was brought to Tiruvannamalai. This Ganesan, his second son, was just a toddler. He had a peculiar habit when he was taken to Bhagavan’s hall. He would climb down from Bhagavan’s sister’s lap, crawl towards Bhagavan’s sofa and try to climb up. Bhagavan’s attendant Krishna Swami would stop him and place him back on Bhagavan’s sister’s lap saying, ‘Do not try to establish any special family relationship here.’ One day, Bhagavan had sent Krishna Swami on some errand. This baby Ganesan very quickly crawled up to the sofa and climbed on it. To prevent him from falling off the sofa, Bhagavan pressed baby Ganesan down into the sofa with his left leg, and placing his right leg on his crown, ruffled his hair. My master’s holy foot is there, Anuradha. I put my head not on Ganesan’s head — I am putting my head on my master’s holy feet!” And Anuradha asked, “Please swami, tell us some other story.” Annamalai Swami said “No, today only Ganesan’s story.”
He continued, “When he was a two year old baby, he was very chubby, like a ball of butter and I was his vehicle. I carried him wherever I went — even when I was supervising construction work. In fact, if you go and see the old photo albums of the ashram, in a few group photographs, you will see me holding baby Ganesan.” He was in a mood to talk that day. “I was very fond of this baby, not only because he was a baby, but because Bhagavan paid so much attention to him. When Ganesan was six years old, he was holding on to me one day when I was supervising the construction of the dispensary. That day, Bhagavan came and sat on a big rock nearby. Ganesan ran up to Bhagavan and sat leaning on his knee. Seeing this, my ‘attendant vasana’ came up! You see, all the attendants of Bhagavan had been instructed not to allow anyone touch Bhagavan’s body!” (Even though Annamalai Swami was not an attendant then, he was humourously telling Anuradha, “My ‘attendant vasana’ came up.”) “So, I went and tried to stop Ganesan from leaning on Bhagavan’s knee. Bhagavan held him back between his legs and told me, ‘What is it to you? Annamalai Swami, what is it to you? Go and attend to your business.’ That is why this baby is special to me even now.” At the time of this conversation, this baby was sixty years old!
In 1995, when I resigned from the ashram management, I went to Annamalai Swami’s ashram, with a copy of the last issue of The Mountain Path I had helped bring out. I gave that copy to Annamalai Swami who was upstairs drying some herbal leaves. I prayed to him, “Swami, give me your permission and blessing so that I can totally retire from all the activities that I was involved in with the ashram management.” He jumped up to his feet, came and gave me a hug. A hug from one who was once hugged by Bhagavan — I felt thrilled and blessed! He told me, “You have made my heart very happy. This is the greatest service you can do to Bhagavan. Till now, Ganesa, we were only friends. From now on, we are brothers. My blessings are always with you.” He hugged me again and then put his head on my head. When I walked out, my heart was flooded with bliss. He was so happy that he left his work behind and accompanied me down the stairs. He presented me with a few saplings of a herbal plant called iruvaatchi (Bauhinia Tomentosa), saying, “Bhagavan showed me this herbal plant in the forest and told me to pluck its flowers and leaves, mix it up with rice and eat it. I have been doing it since then. Now, as prasad, I am giving these four or five plants to you.” These plants have now grown into big trees in my garden in Ananda Ramana.
When Annamalai Swami dropped his body, it was interred in his ashram. I was distressed because this great devotee’s samadhi was not in Ramanasramam. By Bhagavan’s grace, I had managed to build the samadhi of many old devotees within its precincts. But in the case of Annamalai Swami, this was not to be. That was the reason for my anguish. But look at Bhagavan’s grace! He has now included Annamalai Swami’s ashram and samadhi in Ramanasramam. The deep and yearning wish of this childish fool has been fulfilled by Bhagavan. He has absorbed this gem of a devotee’s samadhi into his ashram. This herculean, super builder is now eternally there, as a dust at the holy feet of his satguru, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Intellectual clarity is important to thwart destiny. Melting of the heart is the next step. If you want to flower into wisdom, melting of the heart is absolutely necessary. Then comes surrender! Surrender the ‘me’ as done so totally by Annamalai Swami. We have seen how at every step Annamalai Swami obeyed his master. Thus, the mason attained the final goal of human life. This is a great lesson for us. Melting is not crying or rolling on the floor: It is surrendering the ‘me’ — deliberately, willingly and with great ease. And when you do this, what a joy it is!
Copyright © V. Ganesan. Used with permission. From the book Ramana Periya Puranam: Inner Journey of 75 Old Devotees where it appears as the chapter entitled “Annamalai Swami.”
V. Ganesan is the grandnephew of Sri Ramana Maharshi and the former general manager of Sri Ramanasramam. For many years he was editor of the ashram’s official magazine, The Mountain Path.
This page was first published on August 30, 2019 and last revised on August 30, 2023.