Sonntag, 14. September 2008

11. Sri Ramana in the Kitchen

Ramanashram today: left hand side the kitchen, right hand site the dormitory for men,
in the background Arunachala.

You must cover your vegetables when you cook them. Then only will they keep their flavour and be fit for food. It is the same with the mind. You must put a lid over it and let it simmer quietly. Then only does a man become food fit for God to eat.

In the early years at Ramanashram the food was quite simple, it was only in later years that there were large numbers of visitors, so it did not take long to cook the meals. In Ramana’s words, “A big vessel used to be put on the fire. Whatever vegetables were received till noon used to be cut and put into it, boiled and sambar made. There was no ladle even to stir and mix them. We used to take a piece of firewood, chisel it and use it for stirring those vegetables in the vessel. That preparation was the only side dish. When we mixed it with rice and ate, it used to be very tasty. The labour also was comparatively less.”63

As the Ashram grew and the number of visitors increased, the cooking also became more complicated and time-consuming. Up until the late 1920s Chinnaswami acted as the main cook, with the assistance of Dandapani Swami and others. When he became the Ashram manager, he was replaced in the kitchen by a number of Brahmin widows - Santammal, Lokammal, Subbalakshmi Ammal, Sampurnamma and others. Only members of the Brahmin caste were allowed to do the cooking. This orthodox caste rule was observed because of the Brahmins, as otherwise they would have eaten nothing from the Ashram kitchen.

But, for a long time, overall supervision was the responsibility of Sri Ramana himself. He was the first to appear in the kitchen, long before sunrise, preparing breakfast and helping at times to cook lunch or giving instructions on how it was to be prepared. Sampurnamma remembers, “In the evening, before I would leave the Ashram for the town to sleep, he would ask me what there was to be cooked the next day. Then, arriving at day-break the next morning, I would find everything ready – vegetables peeled and cut, lentils soaked, spices ground, coconut scraped. As soon as he saw me in the kitchen, he would give detailed instructions about what should be cooked and how. He would then sit in the Hall awhile and then return to the kitchen to see how things were moving, taste them now and then, and go back to the Hall, to come again an hour or two later.”64
This way Ramana remained in constant contact with the kitchen, even while he was seated in the Hall.

G.V. Subbaramayya, a college professor and poet, used to visit the Ashram regularly during his college vacation. Whilst staying there from April to June 1940 he helped Sri Ramana with the preparation of breakfast in the kitchen. “The hours of duty were between 2.30 a.m. and 4 a.m. Sri Bhagavan would come punctually at 2.30 a.m. and first spend some time in cutting vegetables with the workers and devotees. Then He would enter the kitchen and prepare sambar or chutney for breakfast, and occasionally some extra dishes also. … At first I was an ignoramus in the work. … I did not know at first how to hold the pestle and grind. Sri Bhagavan placed His hand upon mine and turned the pestle in the proper way. Again what a thrill ! … After the work was finished, Sri Bhagavan would take out a bit from the dish, taste a little of it and give us the remainder to taste, and sometimes when our hands were unwashed, He would Himself throw it into our mouths with His own hand. That would be the climax of our happiness. Then He would hasten back to the Hall and lie reclining on the couch and appear dozing as the Brahmins arrived for parayana [singing of the Vedas].”65

Work with Sri Ramana had both its difficult moments and its pleasant moments. Although he was full of kindness he was also a strict disciplinarian and would not tolerate the slightest negligence. Everything had to be done perfectly and with full awareness. He demanded that his instructions be followed to the letter.

One evening a disciple who was a solicitor, insisted on helping with the work. He was asked to move a vessel containing sambar. As he moved it some drops spilled over the sides. At once Bhagavan said, “You are fit only for arguing before the Court. This work is not for you.”

Kunju Swami narrates, “Sri Bhagavan used to go into the kitchen by 4 a.m. and start cutting vegetables; one or two of us would also join and help. Sometimes the amount of vegetables used to startle us. Bhagavan managed to cut much more and more quickly than the rest of us. At such times we would look up at the clock in our impatience to finish the job and try and have another nap. Bhagavan would sense our impatience and say: ‘Why do you look at the clock?’ We tried to bluff Bhagavan saying: ‘If only we could complete the work before 5, we could meditate for an hour.’ Bhagavan would mildly retort: ‘The allotted work has to be completed in time. Other thoughts are obstacles, not the amount of work. Doing the allotted work in time is itself meditation. Go ahead and do the job with full attention.”66

The Ashram garden

Sri Ramana was a perfect cook. He never added too much or too little salt or spices. Sampurnamma reports, “As long as we followed his instructions, everything would go well with our cooking. But the moment we would act on our own we would be in trouble. Even then, if we sought his help, he would taste our brew and tell us what to do and what to add to make the food good for serving. We thus came to know fully that in dealing with him our only duty was to obey. This training became a part of our lives. By daily practice we learned to have our minds always focussed on Bhagavan. Whenever we were afraid, anxious or in pain, we had only to think of him and we felt his helping hand.”67

The Ashram did not have the means to increase the number of staff, so there was always plenty of work to do in the kitchen. An unwritten rule demanded that the kitchen helpers had to continue working until the last meal had been served and cleared away. Chinnaswami did not allow any of them to stay in the Hall to meditate or to listen to the talks when they were supposed to be working. Sundaram reports, “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.’”

When the cook Subbalakshmi Ammal wanted to meditate more and complained that the kitchen work would take up all of her time, Ramana answered, “If you identify yourself with the body, you are bound to dualities. Work would appear difficult. Even if we free ourselves from work will the mind cease to wander? It does not let us even sleep in peace. It keeps wandering as in dreams.”68

But in the evening, after the visitors had left, the kitchen workers had Ramana to themselves. He then chatted with them, made them laugh, asked about their health and gave instructions for the following day.

Everybody knew that Sri Ramana was very careful with everything, particularly with food, and never wasted anything. This was, of course, especially noticeable in the kitchen. When once some mustard seeds fell on the floor, the cooks took no notice, but Ramana picked them up one by one with his fingernails and placed them in a small bowl. Raja Iyer reports that Ramana had shown him how to use the ladle in such a way as to avoid a single morsel of food falling on the floor, how to pour without spilling anything and how to make a fire with only a few drops of kerosene.

For each vegetable Ramana knew a special kind of preparation. Nothing was thrown away. If he cut spinach, he separated the leaves, the stalks and the roots. With the leaves he made the curry, the stalks were bound together, cooked and put into the sambar and the roots were washed carefully, squeezed and their juice put into the rasam. Any orange peel or apple peel was put into the chutney. The leftovers from the previous day were warmed up and served at the following breakfast, along with the iddlies. If there was any soup or vegetables left, they were put into the sambar. This was against the caste rules of the Brahmins, according to which leftovers may not be used the following day. But Ramana insisted that the avoidance of waste was more important than anything else. To give the leftovers to beggars was also not practicable, as they had to have the same as everyone else and not be given poor quality food.

One evening Ramana had cut spinach and brinjal (aubergines) and laid aside the pieces which he could not use so as to make use of them the following day. The next morning, when he came into the kitchen as usual and asked for the pieces he had put aside, he was told that they had already been thrown away. He therefore went outside, found them, cleaned them, cut them into smaller pieces and used them.

Sampurnamma recounted another story along the same lines, “Once a feast was being prepared for his birthday. Devotees sent food in large quantities: some sent rice, some sugar, some fruits. Someone sent a huge load of brinjals and we ate brinjals day after day. The stalks alone made a big heap which was lying in a corner. Bhagavan asked us to cook them as a curry! I was stunned, for even cattle would refuse to eat such useless stalks. Bhagavan insisted that the stalks were edible, and we put them in a pot to boil along with dry peas. After six hours of boiling they were as hard as ever. We were at a loss what to do, yet we did not dare to disturb Bhagavan. But he always knew when he was needed in the kitchen and he would leave the Hall even in the middle of a discussion. A casual visitor would think that his mind was all on cooking. … ‘How is the curry getting on?’ he asked. ‘Is it a curry we are cooking? We are boiling steel nails!’ I exclaimed, laughing. He stirred the stalks with the ladle and went away without saying anything. Soon after we found them quite tender. The dish was simply delicious and everybody was asking for a second helping. Bhagavan challenged the diners to guess what vegetable they were eating. Everybody praised the curry and the cook, except Bhagavan. He swallowed the little he was served in one mouth-full like a medicine and refused a second helping. I was very disappointed, for I had taken so much trouble to cook his stalks and he would not even taste them properly.

The next day he was telling somebody, ‘Sampurnam was distressed that I did not eat her wonderful curry. Can she not see that everyone who eats is myself? And what does it matter who eats the food? It is the cooking that matters, not the cook or the eater. A thing done well, with love and devotion, is its own reward. What happens to it later matters little, for it is out of our hands.”69

One of Sri Ramana’s particularities should be mentioned at this point. Since his enlightenment experience in Madurai, what he ate meant nothing to him. He no longer had any preferences. This was evident in his later eating habits, as he liked to mix the various sour, sweet and spicy dishes together into a mash on his banana leaf. When once a lady devotee served him a variety of dishes, he asked her not to take so much trouble in future on his account, saying, “All of you have many tastes but I have only one taste; your taste is in the many, mine is in the one.” Then he mixed it all together to a mash and ate it.

On another occasion he said, “What is taste? It is what our tongue tells us. We think that taste is in the food itself, but it is not so. The food itself is neither tasty nor not tasty; it is the tongue that makes it so. To me no taste is pleasant or unpleasant, it is just as it is.”70
Although Sri Ramana was an excellent cook, took great care in the preparation of the meals and did not tolerate any carelessness on the part of the cooks, the pleasure of eating seemed to mean nothing to him.

At the end of the 1930s he stopped cooking, as the stream of visitors was growing ever larger and building projects increasingly demanded his attention. But even so he still remained in constant contact with the kitchen.

63 Nagamma: Letters, p. 388
64 Sampurnamma: Bhagavan in the Kitchen. In: Ramana Smrti, p. [132]
65 Subbaramayya: Reminiscences, pp. 70ff
66 Ganesan: Moments, pp. 107ff
67 Sampurnamma: Bhagavan in the Kitchen. In: Ramana Smrti, pp. [132ff]68 Unforgettable Years, p. 8769 Sampurnamma: Bhagavan in the Kitchen. In: Ramana Smrti, p. [132]
70 Lokammal: Sri Ramanasramam. In: Ramana Smrti, p. [101]

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