This weekend we went to a very spiritual town in South Tamil Nadu, Tiruvannamalai. Here, is a mountain that is the physical incarnation of god Shiva. Shiva is one of three main gods in Hinduism, responsible for change and called the “god of destruction” We were all glad to see mountains again, even if we would hardly call them that in the northwest. One of the five major Shiva temples is located at the base of the mountain. Every full moon, the time when Shiva’s powers are greatest, over half a million people walk around the mountain all night long. On some full moons even 7-8 million devotees travel to Tiruvannamalai to walk and pray.
We also went to see the Ramana Maharshi Ashram that is set inside the mountain. The Ashram was the home of a young man named Venkataraman who lived in Tamil Nadu and became enlightened at only 17 years old, in the late 1890’s. He travelled to the mountain and, according to the story, sat in a small basement of the Shiva temple for 7 weeks with no food or water. When he was discovered, he was severely disabled from bugs and creatures that feasted on him. He was put back to health but otherwise stayed in deep meditation for fifty years. People flocked to him as a Guru, a spiritual teacher, and eventually his disciples became many. They moved among mango troves and eventually to caves inside the mountain. Venkataraman would not be called by this name anymore, because he believed he had left his body and his spirit was not belonging to any person. He was given the name Sri Ramana Maharshi by a Hindu scholar.
There are many ashrams that are devoted to Gurus in India and Ramana Maharshi’s story is unique because he was so young when he “reached the divine” and because he was very humble and quiet. His ashram, which is like a big building where ancient Hindu texts are sung and people join to bask in the divinity of the guru, is very popular and quite large. We joined the Saturday evening gita, prayer song, that was in Tamil—which is unique because they are usually done so in Sanskrit. Westerners and Indians all packed the space where pictures of Ramana along with flowers, incense, and bells filled the air.
We climbed a ways up the mountain where we visited the Ramana lived in, it was a powerful experience. From some points on the mountain there is a bird’s eye view of the Shiva temple, which is absolutely massive. Four column type structures with inner chambers and secret gardens. Coming from the west, our understanding of Hinduism was very limited. It was an experience where I realized how much more there is outside the classroom and that no matter how much we travel and study, there is still another layer that makes a place more complex.