The Second-most Beautiful Cow in the World
Notes from Tiruvannamalai
Lunch at Raggini’s
Among earnest aspirants in Tiruvannamalai, Raggini’s is the pre-eminent choice for lunch. The serious Western devotee types, if not staying in the ashram itself, will be sitting here on the straw mats at 12:45, waiting for Raggini to bring red rice, dal, curd, and two vegetables on a stainless steel thali plate. The meals, prepared with little salt and without spice, are mercilessly sattvic* and nutritious; it seems likely that even the sickest, and most debauched, could be restored to health and morality, if only they would consent to eat lunch at Raggini’s three days in a row.
I have come every day without fail for several weeks. (My restoration is ongoing.) I eat here because it is healthy and even tasty, in a quiet way. It only costs 80 rupees, which is less than two bucks. There are no options or choices, which is a pleasure after months on the road.
Most of all however, I eat lunch at Raggini’s – to learn how to eat lunch at Raggini’s. It reminds me of studying kanji in Japan: each day I am given a small test, which I invariably fail. Every day I leave my shoes at the door, take a spoon and sit on the floor among the earnest devotee types. Every day I am aware of my chest tightening, wondering where I will sit, if I should speak or remain silent, if I should smile or appear meditative.
Every day I leave feeling flawlessly nourished and even more nervous than when I arrived. These earnest spiritual types are imposing, unpredictable, and, above all, overwhelmingly sensitive. All of them, it appears, have been meditating in a cave since 4am and ventured out, just now, blinking into the light, in search of lunch. There are French people who become offended if you even so much as nod at them, like, “I was nearly to nirvakalpa samadhi** and then YOU had to nod.” There are luminous European yogi boys I can’t look at, can’t not look at, and feel ashamed for looking at, until I am about ready to go home and cry. Loneliness is non-negotiable in my current way of living.
We are the earnest aspirants. It appears that we are all trying desperately hard. All of us, that is, except for Raggini, who is the only one actually doing anything. She serves us all, and checks on us, and does so with so much tenderness and warmth that I cannot help but feel grateful, as well as a little foolish.
* That which is sattvic gives rise to what is most pure and spiritual in the body and mind. In practical terms this means: no meat, no eggs, no garlic, no onions, no mushrooms, and limited spice.
** In nirvakalpa samadhi, it is reported, the world and body both completely disappear. Enlightenment is just a non-existent stone’s throw from there. If only Americans would stop causing problems.
God and the World
Introduction to reality, which is sometimes called initiation, is most commonly granted by thought or by touch. It is rare to bestow it, as Sri Ramana Maharshi did, with a look. Here, in the Old Hall, is the couch where the Maharshi sat for thirty years, reclined upon a pile of cushions, his legs stretched out due to rheumatism, and, although he did speak now and then, most of his teaching was done in silence, by means of a gaze or a glance.
More than sixty years after his death, the Old Hall is set aside for silent meditation. In this simple narrow room, with stone floor and bare walls, many feel the Maharshi is still alive and present, still available and giving darshan.
Personally I feel the space ought to be designated ‘Advanced Meditators Only’ since, considering the ferocity of the traffic noise and the cell phones going off every minute, it is unlikely that ordinary people will be able to concentrate.
Although the Maharshi left his body long ago, his presence remains within the holy precincts of Ramanasramam. If he were still physically present I wonder if he wouldn’t have long ago packed up and moved someplace quieter.
The Maharshi would not have needed to pack. He never possessed more than a loincloth, a towel, a cup for water and a walking stick. He could have just gotten up and left. He stayed, he said, for the good of everyone else. For years he did not budge from the ashram even to take a walk, for fear that someone might arrive, find him absent, and go home disappointed. His duty he said, was to give darshan, to see and be seen. He did not budge from it.
About fifty years ago, Arthur Osborne wrote, “Not only the Ashram premises are hallowed but all the neighborhood around. The peace that abides there encompasses and permeates: no passive peace but a vibrant exhilaration.” Nowadays, visitors to the sacred neighborhood are advised to take care, lest they be mown down by vibrant exhilaration in the form of a bus.
An earnest devotee must turn his or her attention within. The body and the world are found to be essentially dreamlike and renounced. We need not concern ourselves. God will take care of the world. The responsibility belongs to Him.
This appears to be the final word. However, I cannot help but wonder, as the world becomes swiftly more uninhabitable, if some notion of caring for it may yet be found, in the doctrines of the Bhagavan.
Yesterday the power stayed on all afternoon. It was unprecedented. Evening came and the power was still on. Like any long stretch of good luck, it was excruciating, almost, because it seemed doomed to stop the moment I noticed it. It didn’t stop. I felt lucky and happy. I believed punishment must surely be on its way.
In the evening I even went so far as to use the Internet and every message I sent was exclamatory, bubbly, and desperate, like my phone calls from India twenty years ago. I just have a minute! Can you hear me? I love you!!!
When I paid for the internet, I said to the man how amazing it was that the power had stayed on so long. He gave me the look my dimness warranted. Of course the lights are on, he said, the politicians are in town.
The street was lined with banners and flags and giant billboards of a smiling severely obese woman. There were dozens of different images and it was completely interesting to study them, because each artist had had to make a decision about how to depict the lady’s multiple chins.
Some chose to include, even emphasize, the chins, as much a source of India’s rightful pride as the udders of a cow. Others performed radical surgery. Evasion was the most popular choice: the esteemed lady was shown in the pose of ‘The Thinker’, chins in hand.
I celebrated the good this politician had brought to her community: one entire day of electricity. In the middle of the night, when the power finally cut out, I lay sleepless, sweating into the bed and pleading, Bring the fat lady back!
God and the World / 2
If everyone else received a quarter of a mango, Sri Ramana Maharshi became quite upset if he was given half. Whether it was dinner or comfort, coffee or shade, the Maharshi refused to be given any more than the person deemed least important.
He demanded that nothing be wasted, not even the scraps from the kitchen.
Famous for his love of animals, he greeted each dog, cow, crow, snake, squirrel, scorpion, pigeon, monkey, leopard, peacock affectionately and with respect. He considered their needs at least as significant as those of his human devotees.
Although Sri Ramana may have shown many the path to self-liberation, there were only two whom he escorted there personally. One was his mother, Alagammal. The other was Lakshmi, the cow.
Some days it seems like all the good gurus are dead. The ones who could wake you up in a flash with a bop on the head or a long hard stare. Back then the masters weren’t nearly as miserly with miracles as they are now. Nowadays you’re lucky for a little vibhuti -- holy ash -- and that’s if you can find a guru at all, one you can get anywhere near and afford. If enlightenment is always available. . . why does it so often feel as like we’ve come around too late?
That’s why this is the age of video darshan. The swami lives on, on TV. Didn’t make it to Lucknow before the mahasamadhi? Fear not: Papaji is showing on Thursdays at 7, in a fancy little room atop Ramana Towers. Looking for a master in tune with your rock n roll lifestyle? Catch Lee Lozowick on DVD, Sundays 7:15 at Triveni.
Why do we bother to come to India at all? Is it just to see the Taj Mahal and be groped on buses? Is dysentery really so glamorous? Are we disliked at home? I foresee the next great wave of masters, who will have done nothing but surf YouTube.
Approximately thirty pounds lost, including ten he didn’t need and twenty he’d like to have back. The ornamental muscle, gay bar credentials, has entirely departed. The gait is slightly but discernibly more wobbly, as result of a crippled leg, which is bound to give out before a healthy one. The face has been aged prematurely by sun and excessive self-concern.
On a more positive note, meat and alcohol are no longer consumed. The expression on the face, no longer swollen by stress and consumption of alcohol, is tranquil and alert. Panic attacks and claustrophobia are absent. Although sadness is sometimes evident, as may be expected in human life, there is no depression.
While he recognizes that his condition is uncertain and his future may be short, the subject is in very good health.
That’s personal history, say spiritual people, with infinite distaste. As if you were a weapons manufacturer. As if you’d just given them crabs. I saw a woman slap herself in the middle of her own colorful anecdote. Just story bullshit, she said and silenced herself.
The idea, as far as I can tell, is to encourage people to disengage with whatever grand narrative they’re hauling around. For example, if a person is obsessed with the idea of being a cripple who was never fully welcome anywhere.
In practice, however, this anti-story stance is just a handy way to shut down or shut out people one dislikes. When people apologize for telling tales, I’ve learned to say, “I’m SO sorry, but I LOVE stories – can’t you just tell me?” I promise not to report them for using the word “I” and the past tense.
Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories. Not atoms.” It seems to me as pointless and nonsensical to hate stories as to hate atoms. We are each an intersection of infinite stories. Perhaps we ought to take heed of their multiplicity, instead of getting all caught up in our one small precious pet doom, which we clutch to our chest and use to interpret the world.
It is true that there are stories from which we need urgently to free ourselves. One good way to be free of a story is to tell it.
God and the World / 3
In the 272 letters of Suri Nagamma about life in Ramanasramam with Sri Ramana Maharshi, there is only one occasion when he appears actually enraged. It is in letter #42, dated April 20, 1946, when he discovers that the workers have been attempting to harvest mangos by beating the trees with sticks.
Bhagavan: When you are to gather the fruit, do you have to beat the tree so that the leaves fall off? In return for giving us fruit, is the tree to be beaten with sticks? Who gave you this work. Instead of beating the tree, you might as well cut it to the roots. You need not gather the fruit. Go away!
I don’t know how the thought occurred to me: I started giving numbers to my pain. So that now, when I feel fearful about my body, as it shrinks by the day, I say “Three.” I skip the monologue. (I’ve heard it ten thousand times before.) And when I feel worried about the future of this awkward and unprofitable misfit person, I say “Four.” The plight of life on Earth is “Five”, which I’m ashamed to say does not show up nearly as often as my fears for my body and future, to say nothing of the fury, grief and helplessness of “One” and “Two”.
When I say the number, I lightly touch the pain, but I don’t talk to myself about it. I just say the number and resume being quiet. Which is not to say that I push the pain away or say it is not real. It’s real. A lot of things could use some help, including (sometimes desperately) myself. Still, I find it helps me exceedingly, to number so as not to worry, weep, or rage.
Sometimes now, when I pray before the shrine, I simply place my hands together and slowly count to five.
The Second-Most Beautiful Cow in the World
The black and white speckled cow who loiters near the shrine of Mahakali on the main street is a downright gorgeous cow. Black legs, a sturdy build and a thoughtful expression -- I swear she is the second-most beautiful cow I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the second-most beautiful cow in the world.
The second-most beautiful cow in the world has one broken horn. The complete horn is painted blue. The other horn is just a stub. The broken horn is not a defect. It’s a commentary and personal reinterpretation of the myth of Ganesh, who broke his tusk to serve as scribe.
This is one subtle cow.
How unfortunate that I remain trapped in my ordinary mind, a slave to comparisons, so that, for me, this can only ever be the second-most beautiful cow. The number one most beautiful cow in the world was a cow I met in Sringeri, at the holy temple of Ma Sharadama, who is also known as Sarasvati, a temple founded by Sri Shankara himself.
This celebrity cow went nowhere without an attendant. This was a brown cow, though the word “brown” can hardly suffice. There are so many excellent words for colors – does there not exist a word for a luminous and resplendent brown?
This gleaming agate cow jewel was adept at gazing, with unblinking adoration, into the small sanctuaries beside the main temple of Ma Sharadamba. Yet, even as the cow gazed enraptured at the god, it was obvious that the cow never stopped thinking, “Oh what a fantastic impression I am making! Everyone is delighted with me!”
As pilgrims came and, with reverence, touched first the cow and then their foreheads, the cow blazed with radiant self-satisfaction. To tell the truth, this cow did not consider that her sanctity was of an ordinary sort, common to all cows. Not in the least. This cow believed that the devotion she received had everything to do with her personally.
Who blames her? To tell the truth, I feel quite special myself. To think I have known such beautiful cows!
God and the World / 4
Listen to me, Lady!
Know that only the wise man who never harms any form of life,
Whether insects, worms, birds or plants
Is a person seeking true knowledge.
One should never uproot any tree or plant (for use in worship)
Nor even merely pluck its leaves. Neither should one harm
Any living thing out of anger. One should not pluck
Even one flower mercilessly.
(From the Devikalottaram, a work of 24,000 verses. Of the 85 verses selected by Sri Ramana Maharshi as essential, these are verses 69 and 70.)
Satya Sai Chicken
The man spoke as if he’d been hired to live each moment of his life as a motivational speaker. Even from the other side of the room I could hear him, as I sat eating lunch at Raggini’s:
At that time I was a SERIOUS VEGETARIAN. Had been for twelve years. And PURE for the previous four. NO milk NO eggs NO nothing. And frankly I was SICK. Nothing urgent but SICK. Not that I wanted to ADMIT it.
At that time I was staying in PUTTAPARTHI, right near Baba’s place. A DEAR FRIEND of mine was taking care of someone who was SICK and so she was making him CHICKEN. She saw me lying around, NO energy, NO gumption, NO nothing, and she said, You want some CHICKEN? And I said, No I haven’t touched the stuff in twelve years.
She said, Are you sure you’re not living in the PRISON OF THE PAST? Well, that just knocked me back. Then I don’t know why, BIG MYSTERY, she handed me a piece of that chicken and I took it!
I tasted it. My mouth said, OH TERRIBLE. My mind said, OH TERRIBLE. And my body said, HALLELUJAH! I swear I could feel myself healing on the spot. Like that was some kind of MAGIC CHICKEN.
Right then I prayed to Baba. I said BABA, you have got to COME TO ME and you have got to COME TO ME TONIGHT! BABA, I have got to HEAR FROM YOU.
That night I had the MOST INCREDIBLE DREAM. I was at the temple and it wasn’t just an ordinary day. It was the day of the big festival. YOU KNOW THAT SAI BABA! HE’S SUCH A SHOWMAN! Baba was giving darshan and the line was so LONG. I thought, I’ve got to go to the end of that line but, NO, people kept pushing me forward, pushing me forward, until finally I was right there with RADIANT SATYA SAI BABA. He was so beautiful. Smiling at me. Holding a covered plate of Prasad.
He pulled back that cloth and YOU KNOW what it was. You know it! THAT WHOLE PLATE WAS PILED HIGH WITH CHICKEN! And Sai Baba picked up a drumstick and shoved it straight in my mouth.
EAT THE CHICKEN!!! said Satya Sai Baba.
That Sai Baba! WHAT A SHOWMAN!