Chinnaswami is seated in the first row, Alagammal in the second.
Sometimes Ramana made fun of her strict orthodox way of living. Though meals at the Ashram were strictly vegetarian, Alagammal also thought, as do very orthodox Brahmins, that certain plants were impure (‘unsattvic’), for example onions. One day Ramana said to her jokingly, “Amma, what are you going to eat? Today they have brought only drumsticks [a kind of vegetable] and onions. If you eat them, will you not encounter forests of drumsticks and mountains of onions on the way to moksha?”53
Gradually Alagammal came to see that for the spiritual path only moderation in food was required. If by accident her sari were to touch a non Brahmin he would tease her, saying, “Look! Purity is gone! Religion is gone!” But little by little her strict opinions concerning caste weakened.
If Alagammal were to think that this thing or that thing were needed, Ramana would say to her, “Mother, if you want bodily comfort, go to the other son; if you want mental comfort you stay here.” Alagammal understood and became accustomed to the life of privation at the Ashram. She never thought of leaving.
She once wanted to prepare appalams for her son (thin crispy cakes made with dark flour), as he used to like them very much. In secret she went to various people to beg for the ingredients and in the evening, when all the visitors had left, she was ready to start preparing the appalams. She wanted to make between two and three hundred of them so she asked Ramana to help her, as he used to do as a boy. But he refused saying, “You have renounced everything and have come here, haven’t you? Why all this? You should rest content with whatever is available. I won’t help you. I won’t eat them if you prepare them. Make them all for yourself, and eat them yourself.” But she did not give way. Then he had another idea, “All right. You make these appalams. I will make another kind.” And he started to compose a song about appalams. Alagammal knew several similar advaitic songs, such as the rice song and the soup song, but so far there was no appalam song, and she liked this kind of song. So, while she was preparing the appalams he wrote the song and both finished their work at the same time. The last verse runs as follows,
“Put the appalam in the ghee of Brahman
Held in the pan of infinite silence
And fry it over the fire of knowledge.
Now as I transmuted into That,
Eat and taste the Self as Self,
Abiding as the Self alone.”54
Alagammal wanted her younger son Nagasundaram, whose wife had died, to come to live with them in the Ashram. His sister Alamelu had taken over the upbringing of his small son Venkataraman (Venkatoo), so he was free and unattached. She sent one of Ramana’s companions to Nagasundaram to tell him of her wish. In 1918 Nagasundaram left his job and came to Tiruvannamalai. First he lived at a friend’s house and climbed up to the Ashram each day. Then he took a vow of renunciation and adopted the ochre robe of a sannyasin. His name was changed to Niranjanandaswami, but he was generally called ‘Chinnaswami’ (little Swami), because he was the brother of the big Swami. At first he used to go to town every day begging, later he gave it up as there was by now enough for all to eat in the Ashram itself.
Outwardly Sri Ramana seemed to have returned to a family life with regular household duties. According to the common view a householder is on a lower level than a sadhu, who no longer cares about worldly affairs. Once Seshadri Swami joked about this, saying to a man who wanted to visit the Maharshi, “Yes, go and see. There is a householder there. You will get sweet cakes there.”
Alagammal’s only desire was to be with Ramana at the moment of her death. When her daughter Alamelu invited her to the ceremony to open her new house, she declined, fearing that she would be unable to return to her son if she became sick there. She said to Ramana, “Even if you were to throw away my dead body in these thorny bushes I do not mind but I must end this life in your arms.”
Since 1920 her health had been deteriorating. She was now unable to work very much and was forced to conserve her strength. Medication did not bring any improvement. During her sickness Ramana spent a lot of time with her, he often spent the whole night seated at her bedside.
When Alagammal felt that her end was nearing, she called both her sons to her side, placed Chinnaswami’s hand in the hand of Ramana and said to the latter one, “This boy does not know what is right and what is wrong. Don’t let him go away from you. Keep a watchful eye on him. This is my last wish.”
Chinnaswami stayed his whole life with his older brother. In 1929 he took over the Ashram management as sarvadhikari. Ramana always kept an eye on him and if there were any difficulties he found a tactful solution. For his part Chinnaswami was totally dedicated to his brother and had the greatest veneration for him.
On 19th May 1922 Alagammal’s condition became critical. Kunju Swami reports, “After his morning walk, Sri Bhagavan went into mother’s room and sat beside her. He ate his lunch there itself and was sitting beside her all the time. When he noticed her struggling for breath, he put his right hand on her chest. She became a little restful after a while. The time of mother’s liberation was drawing near. Sri Bhagavan put one of his hands on her head and another on her chest and sat quietly.”55 The devotees had started to recite the Vedas, Akshara Mana Malai and the name of Ram simultaneously in three groups, to silence down her mind. At 8 p.m. Alagammal died. Ramana left his hands in this position on her chest and head until the last and also for a while after her death. Only then was he sure that she had attained liberation.
He had done the same at Palaniswami’s death. The faithful attendant Palaniswami had continued living in the solitude of the Virupaksha Cave when Ramana moved to Skandashram. When Palaniswami became seriously ill, Maharshi visited him daily. At the hour of his death he also laid his right hand on the right side of his chest, the place of the spiritual heart (see also Chapter 18) and the left on his head. But with Palaniswami he had pulled away his hands too soon – as he reported himself, “In her case it was success; on a previous occasion I did the same for Palaniswami when the end was approaching, but it was a failure. He opened his eyes and passed away.” At the last moment Palaniswami’s mind and life force fled through the eyes instead of being absorbed in the heart centre.
When Sri Ramana came out of his mother’s room his face shone with happiness about her liberation. There was no grief, because she had attained her goal. He said with relief, “Hereafter we can eat. Come on; there is no pollution.”56
Alagammal’s face was shining and beaming like that of a yogi sunk in meditation. He himself described it in these words, “After mother breathed her last, her body glowed with a divine resplendence. Immediately after the body was bathed that effulgence subsided.” When someone said that mother had passed away. Ramana corrected him saying, “No, she did not pass away, she was absorbed.”
Mother’s dead body was wrapped in a new sari and decorated with flowers, her forehead was signed with holy ashes (vibhuti). There were no purificatory rites. As she was liberated, her body was not to be burned. It was, however, decided to bury her near the Pali Teertham at the southern foot of Arunachala, as it was forbidden to perform cremations and burials on the hill. Throughout the night from 9 in the evening till 4 in the morning the Tiruvasagam of Manikkavasagar was recited. Arunachala Swami, Kunju Swami and Ramana recited it in turns. Some devotees went into town to obtain the preparations required for the burial ceremony. Early in the morning Ramana and his companions laid Alagammal on a stretcher made of bamboo and carried her down the hill. The cacti and the undergrowth had been cleared away from the place where she was to be buried.
In the meantime Alamelu had arrived along with her husband, her nephew Venkatoo and some devotees. Although it had been decided that Alagammal’s burial should be a quiet affair, a huge crowd of Maharshi’s devotees had come, bringing fruit, flowers and coconuts. A Shiva lingam was erected over the grave, which, at the suggestion of Ganapati Muni, was named Mathrubhutheswara (God in the form of the mother).
54 The Song of the Poppadam. In: Collected Works, p. 140
55 Kunju Swami: Reminiscences, p. 62
56 Death is seen to be a form of pollution and requires a purificatory rite for all those present in the house of the dead person. But if the deceased has attained liberation (moksha) and is no longer subject to rebirth, there is also no pollution. His/her mortal remains are not allowed to be cremated but must be buried. In Hinduism it is believed that the life breath and life stream of such a saint remain in such a body for thousands of years. Also his body requires no purification by fire. It is bathed, embalmed and placed into the grave in a seated position, with legs crossed.