Friday, January 25, 2013

Arunachala Yoginis

There is little information available on lady saints who have come and performed tapas at Arunachala. In fact so little information is available its almost impossible to believe that there have in fact been many holy women who have lived at Arunachala performing intense sadhana. 

In the 40s and 50s several eminent ladies occupied hermitages and caves on the South East slope of Arunachala. Amongst these women was the revered and highly respected Lakshmi Devi who dressed in saffron and lived on the mountain. Lakshmi Devi kept a vow of silence for 12 years and responded by making signs in answer to questions from a constant stream of visiting devotees and pilgrims. At the end of a 12 year vow of silence she returned to her native place near Mysore. However her love of the peace she experienced at Arunachala drew her back and she returned to the caves and hermitages of the mountain. 

Another sadhaka who lived on the Hill during the same time period was Srimati Radhabai Ammayar, who was known as Ammal of Vadalur. Ammal was a faithful disciple of Ramalinga Swamigal and originally she and Lakshmi Devi shared a cave but Ammal eventually moved to a small rocky cleft higher up the hill. The little cave was so low and narrow one had to remain seated, and even then ones head practically touched the roof. Ammal of Vadalur, always wore white, and lived in the rocky cleft for three years in perfect silence, her only possessions being an oil lamp and a book of the hymns of her Master Ramalinga. She took a daily meal during the afternoon which consisted of a few handfuls of rice-flour, roasted and mixed with curd. After three years she moved into a small nearby hut with a women disciple. Ammal of Vadalur was also much revered and visited during her time at Arunachala. 

Below is a fascinating narrative written by the hermit and sage, Swami Abhishiktananda entitled the,“Anchoresses of Arunachala,” detailing the lives of these great women renunciants of Arunachala. 

Anchoresses of Arunachala 

An unending succession of hermits has occupied the caves on the slopes of Arunachala, the sacred mountain of South India; pilgrims never cease to throng the temples at its foot, and each year crowds gather from every part of Tamil Nadu to adore the holy fire which is ignited at its summit on the night of the full moon of Karttikai (November-December), regarded as the most blessed time of the year. 

I often had the privilege of spending months of recollection in those caves which are hallowed by the saints of earlier times. These caves also came to know Radhabai Ammayar and Lakshmi Devi, two saintly women who chose the slopes of Arunachala for their place of seclusion. 

The first time I met them was in August, 1950. One morning, with a young lad a guide, I climbed up to Skandashrama, and thereafter took the path down towards the Temple of Arunachala. 

Renunciant Cave on Arunachala

On the way down to the Temple and the town there was a series of caves and little cells, mostly hidden in the bushes. In these caves and huts were to be found all sorts of hermits. The one who was seated in the Virupaksha Cave did not even blink when we entered and inspected his dwelling; others had transformed their caves into temples, like that of Mulaipal Tirtham. 

In this way we came to the cell of Lakshmi Devi. We knocked at the door, but when she opened it to us, the only expression of her welcome and greeting was her beautiful smile. She had taken a vow of silence which was due to last for twelve years. Now she was living there in silence, praying and meditating. Underneath her small room she had constructed a kind of cave, lit only by an oil lamp, into which she was accustomed to withdraw for deep meditation. People often came up from the town to see her. She listened patiently to her visitors, replied in sign language, and sent them back with her blessing. 

A short distance further on was the cave and hut of Radhabai Ammayar, or the “Vadalur Ammayar,” as she was more commonly called. 

Later on, I often had the joy of being the neighbour of these two women hermits. The cave that I most often used was just beside that of Lakshmi Devi. Later still, when Radhabai had built herself another cottage nearer to the tank, I moved into the old one she had occupied. 

Radhabai had come to Tiruvannamalai some twelve years earlier. At first she had lived in silence with Lakshmi Devi in the cave which I afterwards used, each of them sitting and meditating in her own corner. Then she moved fifty yards higher up the hill and settled in a rocky cleft that she had noticed. This was so small that it was impossible for her to lie down straight, and so low, that even when seated, her head touched the roof. 

She lived there for three years without uttering a word, her only possessions being an oil lamp and a book of hymns of Ramalinga Swami. Her only meal, taken during the afternoon, consisted of a mixture of curds and grilled rice floor. When the three years of silence and severe tapas (austerity) were over, she put up a minute hut in front of her cave and installed herself there with a woman disciple. 

Lakshmi Devi wore kavi, the saffron-coloured dress of the Indian sannyasi (one who has renounced the world), but Radhabai kept to white after the custom of sadhus (monks) in the tradition of South Indian Saiva Siddhanta. Even to see her, seated thus in her home dressed all in white, was a joy and a blessing. 

We had no need to exchange words in order to understand each other, and she knew that I too loved silence. 

One festival day I was invited to take my meal with Vadalur Ammayar. While her disciple was preparing the food, I sad on the verandah together with another sadhu whom she had also invited. He soon began to read in a loud voice from some book which happened to be within reach. Not only did he read aloud, but he proceeded to comment on it in even louder tones. Vadulur Ammal quickly sensed my irritation – I was not so patient as he was! She gently explained to the sadhu that I had a very special love for silence. He seemed quite astounded that I was not all eagerness to receive his words of wisdom! However, out of deference to Ammal, he gave way and continued to read it to himself, while Ammal and I were left to enjoy our silence. 

On another occasion her guru came to visit her. I never managed to discover on what grounds she called him her guru, but no matter. He normally lived at Mount Abu in the far north, but that year he had come to spend several weeks at the ashram of his disciple. Alas, the arrival of the so-called guru soon destroyed the silence of the hermitage. He had invited some other people to accompany him, no doubt with the idea of sharing his wisdom with them also. Day and night the ashram rang with hymns, addresses, conversations. Ammal introduced me to her guru, and I greeted him with a due respect, but we never could discover any common ground on which we could converse. 

When I was alone with Ammal, she showed me her little room . . . all cluttered up with images, statues and lamps. Right in the middle had been placed a Sri Chakra, for the guru was a devotee of Shakti, the Divine Mother. 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Radhabai, as she showed it all to me. “Of course,” I replied, “but, all the same, it strikes me as terribly inconvenient in your tiny hermitage. It leaves no room even to turn around.” “Ah! So you also know how I feel.” She said quickly, “I am so glad. But ‘he’ needs all this, so why should we upset him? When he leaves, I will clear it all away and once again enjoy peace and silence.” 

The day came when Lakshmi Devi completed her twelve years of silence. With a woman companion she went to Tirupati to be released from her vow. After that she had to return to her home near Mysore. However, in the following year, when I came back to Tiruvannamalai, I was surprised to find her once again in her hermitage. I asked her what had happened. “Yes, indeed. I went back home as arranged.” She answered, “but when one has spent twelve years on Arunachala, where else can one find shanti (peace) to compare with the caves of this mountain?” 

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