A few days before Christmas, Michael received a thick brown envelope displaying Indian stamps. The sender was John. Enclosed in it was a letter and attached to it with a paper clip was a manuscript.
12th December, 1966
It is with great sadness that I write to you that Swami passed away three days ago. I don’t know if the American newspapers carried a snippet reporting this—I rather doubt it.
When it was clear that the end was near, the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India got in touch with me and invited me to write an article on Swami. I told him that, were I to oblige, it would be impossible for me to maintain anything approaching journalistic objectivity. He replied that a moderately personal article on Swami’s last days would be of interest to the Weekly’s readers. I’m enclosing a copy of my attempt. (I apologize for the barely legible type—it is the second carbon copy I’m enclosing.)
Shocked, Michael sat down on the couch in the family room and switched to reading the article before finishing the letter.
The Passing of a Sage
The great sage, Swami Arulananda, passed away this week in his ashram in Kabirpet, Secunderabad. A man with no biological offspring, he left behind thousands—this writer included—who deem themselves orphaned by his death. His life has been exemplary in its demonstration of how one lives in the Elysian heights of wisdom that are accessible to all but embraced only by a handful. People from all over the twin cities and elsewhere, irrespective of their religious denominations, came to pay their last respects when they learned that his death was imminent.
It was a rapid progression from the discovery of Swami’s illness to his death. About three months ago, Swami’s voice acquired a rasping quality. He ignored it for a few weeks, passing it off as the result of a sore throat. When it persisted, at the insistence of his associates in the ashram, he agreed to have a doctor examine him. The doctor’s diagnosis was acute bronchitis and he prescribed some antibiotics.
The problem persisted. A few weeks later, Swami found that he had difficulty swallowing. He began to lose weight. Alarmed by this development, his associates took Swami to a throat specialist. His diagnosis, after a biopsy, was throat cancer. Apparently, a tumor was growing furiously in his throat. Within a few weeks, it had grown to the size of a walnut. The doctor recommended immediate surgery. According to him, the initial misdiagnosis had already caused a serious delay. The date for surgery was quickly set, despite Swami’s reluctance to undergo the procedure. (He conceded when the ashram associates and other well-wishers implored him to go through with it for their sakes, if not for his.)
When word spread about Swami’s illness, there was a steady stream of distraught visitors to the ashram. Swami, though touched by their grief, kept telling them that their sadness was misdirected—until, that is, he grew too weak to do this. When asked why, he replied, “You identify me with this body, just as you identify yourself with yours. It is this basic misperception that makes you grieve for what is fleeting.”
Not knowing what to offer him, ironically, people would cook what they heard were his favourite dishes and bring them along. To avoid disappointing them, he usually took a mouthful, despite his difficulty with swallowing. Letters inquiring about his welfare poured in by dozens each day. Many people sent money orders with small contributions towards the expenses of his impending surgery.
On the evening before Swami underwent surgery, I was attending on him when his surgeon dropped by to check up on his condition.
“How much pain do you feel in your throat, Swami?” the doctor asked.
“I feel some pain,” Swami replied, “but it is not unendurable.”
“After the surgery tomorrow your suffering will be greatly reduced.”
Swami shook his head. “There is no suffering.”
“But you just said—. How is this possible?” the surgeon asked, intrigued. “In my experience, people at this stage of throat cancer suffer greatly.”
“Suffering comes from identifying with the body. When this identification is tenuous, one experiences pain but not suffering.”
“Most interesting! What is your explanation for this, Swami?”
“Suffering comes from holding the belief that you are an entity who is being invaded or ravaged by the disease. When you don’t entertain such a belief—and it really is only a belief—there is no suffering.”
“It is as simple as that?”
“Yes. It is this entity you take yourself to be which desires things to be other than what they are at this moment. Paradoxically, suffering stems from the denial of pain—from the attempt to make pain vanish. When what is occurring is entirely acceptable to you, there can be no suffering. The willing acceptance of pain is the end of suffering.”
“Most interesting. This seems to me to be a unique perspective, Swami.”
“Not really. This is the essence of the message contained in all the spiritual traditions. Krishna singled out this attitude as the very core of spirituality. It is also, I believe, what Christ meant when he said, ‘Resist not evil’.”
The doctor bowed, pressed his palms together respectfully and left.
After the tumor was surgically removed, Swami returned to the ashram within a few days, because he felt that the number of visitors flocking to the cancer ward of the hospital was an inconvenience to other patients. There was euphoria in the ashram because the problem had been satisfactorily resolved—or so it seemed. Unfortunately, the cancer returned within a few weeks, and with greater vehemence.
Once again, there were small and large contributions made from all over the country towards the expense of another possible surgery. One rich businessman even offered to pay to have Swami sent to America for the best treatment possible. But, this time, Swami was adamant. He refused to go in again for surgery, and no amount of persuasion made him relent.
A British reporter, who happened to be in Hyderabad at this time, asked me if I could arrange for her to interview Swami. On the understanding that I too could report on the conversation, I approached Swami and received permission to set up the interview.
“Why do you refuse surgery, Swami?” she asked. “Is it because you believe God will cure you himself?”
Swami smiled. “No. God is not an object in some far-off place.”
The reporter, sitting on a chair with her legs crossed and with a notebook on her lap, scribbled down his reply in shorthand.
“I don’t quite understand,” she said. “Could you please elaborate?”
“One could say that the operating surgeon is also an embodiment of God.”
“Then why do you refuse?”
“I believe the time has come for this body to die. There is no reason to prolong its life, and there is no point in wasting money in the attempt.”
“But your expenses will be covered. I understand that the doctors in St. Teresa’s Hospital in this city are willing to operate free of charge.”
“That is so, and I am grateful for their gesture, but I believe that their time and effort are better spent on someone else.”
“Then do you pray, Swami?”
“Not in the usual sense,” Swami replied.
“I don’t know what to pray for,” Swami carelessly responded.
“Why, that God may free you of the disease, of course.”
“I have left that matter in his hands,” was the immediate answer.
“Do you not think prayer is efficacious?”
“Efficacious for what?”
“For curing your disease.”
“In my view, man’s prayer is most effective in curing only one affliction—the delusion that makes him imagine that he is an object independent of God. The best prayer is one that acknowledges that God is all and that we are nothing. The proper use of prayer is in the humbling of man’s pride, not in the attempt to get what he desires.”
“If you don’t pray to God in ‘the usual sense’, is there a sense in which you do?”
Swami didn’t reply immediately. He leisurely came back with a query of his own: “Offering as little resistance as possible to his will so that it may be accomplished with regard to me—does this count as prayer?”
The response seemed to have made a deep impression on the reporter. She then uncrossed her legs and lowered her eyes. She appeared to have suddenly conceived a deeper veneration for this man with a gaunt body propped up on a bed. In silence she took down his answer in her notebook.
“Are you not afraid of dying, Swami?” she inquired.
Swami smiled. “I would be if I thought I was dying.”
The reporter, puzzled, looked about her at the people around. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“The fear of death is the fear of extinction. The truth is, the annihilation of my being is not even an option that is open to me. There is nothing I can do to bring that about. I can not ever cease to be, no matter how hard I might try.”
“Only objects can be created or destroyed. My being, as well as yours, is not an object. Your being is the subject—it derives from God’s being and shares his immortality. It cannot be assailed by any created object.”
“Why do I fear death, then?” There was a look of intense curiosity on her face.
“What you fear, really, is the death of who you take yourself to be,” Swami replied, looking into her eyes. “In other words, you fear the loss of your idea—your concept—of yourself. It is the ego’s fear of extinction. Given your beliefs, this is an understandable fear—the ego does die with the body. But it is not a fear that is justified by fact because, despite your beliefs, you are not the body you take yourself to be. Your body is merely an object in the boundless ocean of awareness that you are.”
“What happens at death, then?”
“What drops away at death is the body. If you were consciously aware of the immortality of your being, you would have no fear of death.”
“Is your perception completely unaffected by your physical condition—by your cancer, in particular?”
“Yes. As I said, the truth of your being is not at the mercy of anything created. Not only is your being eternal, it completely transcends everything in this created universe. Nothing can touch that. It is the One without a second, the Alone.”
“How does one become consciously aware of one’s immortality?”
Swami took a while before he gave his terse reply. “By dying to your idea of who you think you are.”
“There are many ways. If you believe in God, you can give yourself over to him and relinquish all concern for yourself. In time, this will erase your assumed identity and reveal pure awareness as your true identity. That awareness is who you are.” He stopped for a while and motioned to me for some water. He took a few sips from the glass I handed him and continued. “If you are an atheist, whenever you lapse into identification with your body and mind, persistently release yourself from it by assuming the stance of the awareness that witnesses whatever is happening in the present moment.”
“These seem like very difficult things to do!” the reporter exclaimed.
“Alternatively, you might try living each day as if you knew it to be the last one of your life, doing what needs to be done and letting everything else go.” He rested for a minute and then continued, “If you can genuinely do this, it would force you to release control—of your ambitions, your desires, your life, and your idea of who you believe you are.”
“What happens then?”
“Sooner or later, a time will come when you die to the idea that you are the body.” After a while, he added in a barely audible voice, “Then you realize that your being is from God and has always remained so. You come to understand that the death of your being is an impossibility, and that the death of your body is an event of little consequence.”
The reporter frantically jotted down what Swami had said. Since it was apparent that he was becoming extremely tired, the interview came to an end.
As the days went by, Swami had to give up eating solid food. Soon, he even had difficulty swallowing liquids. He was rapidly losing weight. Given the rate of his weight loss, everyone around him knew that it was only a matter of days before the inevitable happened.
The number of visitors arriving each day increased dramatically. It was the custom of the ashram to offer meals to visitors if they happened to be there at meal times. The resources of the kitchen were being taxed beyond their limits. Still, people managed with what little they received merely to catch a glimpse of this sage.
Another week went by and Swami no longer had the energy to walk. During the day, his bed was moved into the verandah of his house. The wooden trellis on the outer side of the verandah was removed so that he could see the people who had come to pay their respects. The ashram’s manager had them file past in a line. He kept the line moving by allowing them only a brief glimpse of Swami. People waited for hours just to see him for a few seconds. As far as it was possible, Swami acknowledged their presence with a nod. Despite the huge crowds, there was a respectful silence amongst the visitors, broken only by the occasional sighs triggered by the shock of seeing the sage’s condition.
On what turned out to be Swami’s last day of his life, he was too weak even to sit propped up on his bed. The ashram’s manager did not give permission to anyone (except his regular attendants, which included this writer) to approach Swami. The only exception that was made—at the behest of Swami himself—was for Ellamma, a lower caste follower of Swami and a steadfast devotee of Krishna. One sensed that it was her unsullied aspiration that compelled Swami to insist on this concession. As she approached his bed, she managed to suppress her sobs but not her tears. With great difficulty, Swami placed his right hand on her forehead. What benediction he bestowed on her heaven alone knows. He then beckoned her to come closer. In an unrecognizably hoarse voice, he whispered to her in Telugu. He told her, “Krishna is always with you, whether you realise it or not. If you never abandon him, you won’t ever need external props like me.”
Those were his last words. Later that evening, at 10:05 on Friday, 9th December 1966, Swami Arulananda passed away. The body was left on display for a few hours the next morning and those who came to see him for the last time walked by in stunned silence. One could see the anguish on their faces as they muffled their cries and held back tears. One may have expected Swami’s body to be cremated, in accordance with Hindu tradition. However, an exception is made with sages: out of consideration for spiritual aspirants (who hanker for landmarks of the physical presence of such sages), they are buried. Swami’s body was placed in a teakwood coffin and interred within the ashram’s premises under the Bodhi tree. People sat around the site for hours on end. By evening, they started departing and, by late night, almost all had left. Only a solitary figure remained, leaning on the trunk of the Bodhi tree, weeping. It was Ellamma. Krishna had seen fit to rescind the grace of an external prop and to bestow, instead, the grace of himself: a trade of the visible for the invisible, of an object for the subject.
The passing of Swami Arulananda is a watershed for spiritual seekers. For over three decades, he had been a silent beacon for thousands the world over. What set him apart was the simplicity of the approach he recommended to seekers of truth. Based on the ancient wisdom of India, verified by his own realization, he espoused the position that God is pure Awareness (what Christians refer to as Spirit). That is the ultimate and only Subject—and all objects derive their being from That. Swami’s view is consistent with the essence of all the major religions of the world. The core of his message is that, since we derive our being from God, we can become conscious of this truth by identifying with awareness under all circumstances. When we discover our real identity beyond all doubt, we are established in the peace that surpasses understanding.
By John Latham
Arulananda Ashram, Secunderabad
After Michael finished reading John’s article he returned to his letter:
I managed to spend some time with Swami after he returned from the hospital. In fact, I stayed at his house for the first two nights to attend to him. On the second evening, when he and I were alone, I asked him what he believed was preventing me from becoming permanently established in the enlightenment that I had received a brief glimpse of, years ago in Burma. Swami gestured to me to bring him something to write on.
“You are very focused and you seem to have no preoccupation that is a distraction, except for one,” he wrote in the notebook I found him.
I read and reread what he wrote. I was surprised, because I thought I had given up everything that might be an impediment. I asked him what that distraction might be.
“It is your zeal for enlightenment.”
I was baffled. “But I thought that it is this zeal which leads to the dissolution of the self,” I said.
“It takes you most of the way. But in the end, excessive striving can become a hindrance.”
“By replacing all your other desires with this one—a loftier one, granted, but nevertheless a desire. Any desire can become a barrier to the realization of the truth of your nature. This is the last stranglehold of the ego. As Ramakrishna once remarked, a chain of gold can tether you just as firmly as one of lead.”
I knew that I should not tax his energies at this point, but I couldn’t help myself. “What do you recommend I do, Swami?”
“Let go of your search. Your years of searching have been helpful because they have enabled you to drop all other encumbrances. The time has come for you to abandon your search.”
“I fear, Swami, that if I do, I may never arrive.”
“You have to let go of this goal too. You have to surrender all your desires—all. Learn to become equanimous to the possibility that you may never receive enlightenment, despite your utmost effort.”
My heart sank. The quest for enlightenment had been my guiding light since the end of World War II. How could I give up a hope that I have cherished for so many years, especially after all I have sacrificed to keep this one hope alive? How could I possibly be equanimous to whether or not I become enlightened?
Seeing my reaction, Swami wrote: “When you manage to do that, Self-Realization will be yours without the asking.”
In the three weeks or so that remained, there was never again an occasion when he was well enough to write. Needless to say, this last ‘conversation’ with Swami will remain engraved on my brain as long as I live. I shall miss him greatly.
Emily was yet to return from work. Michael got up and put on the kettle to make himself some tea. He was deeply moved by this news. Three years earlier, at around this time, he had been in Swami’s ashram, discussing things as he went for walks with him. He had never imagined that, in such a short time, Swami would be gone. Everything John had written in his article seemed to be completely consistent with Swami’s life. The man had died the way he had lived—in conscious communion with his deathless being.
Looking back, Michael felt that Swami had done him the great favor of undermining his most fundamental assumptions about the nature of his identity and of reality. Without intention, through his example he had also provided compelling circumstantial evidence of the falsehood of these assumptions. The total freedom from fear that Swami exhibited at all times had persuaded Michael that it was possible to live in a realm of consciousness that is devoid of self. For many can talk readily about philosophical matters, but few can live in such complete harmony with their most profound perceptions that there is no gulf between their words and their actions.