There could hardly be two people more different than Poonja and Sri Nannagaru, though both of them ascribe their awakening to the grace of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nannagaru has spent much of his life as a farmer in a village of Andhra Pradesh, in the region of the Godavari river. Some 20 years ago, a saint came to him in a dream and kissed him on the cheek. Some time later, he saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a book on spirituality. The advertisement caught his eye, and he sent off for the book. When he opened it, he found the photo of the same saint who had kissed him. It was Sri Ramana Maharshi, whom he had never heard of before. He made a pilgrimage to Sri Ramana's ashram at Arunachala, and returned frequently, over the ensuing years, though Sri Ramana had died some 15 years previously. His whole life began to turn on Sri Ramana’s teachings, and he began to preach Sri Ramana’s message in his neighbourhood. Then, some years later, he was in Ramanashram when, in the morning, between sleeping and waking, he - as he put it to me - felt his mind falling once and for all into his heart. From then on he was a changed man. It was as if he was living by a force other than the ordinary personality, which had gone into abeyance. People begain to see him as their guru instead of a preacher, and his name quickly spread throughout Andhra Pradesh. Today, he travels throughout south India, staying at the home of one or another of his disciples for a few days, then moving on. Whenever he arrives somewhere, people from that area come all day long with their problems and pleas for help. He listens to them all with deep attention, blesses them, sits in silence with them, gives a talk sometimes to the gathered assembly. He is the archetype of the traditional Indian guru - a soul doctor, a counsellor, a friend, a wise guide in the affairs of life, and for those few who want it, a spiritual presence and teacher.
I first came across Sri Nannagaru in Ramanashram, at Tirvannamalai, in the last days of 1993. A friend had told me that a guru was giving darshan near the library that evening. Arunachala and Sri Ramana’s cabe were sufficient for me, I thought; I felt no particular attraction for the darshan of yet another guru. It happened that the library was next to my room, however, and as I returned from the cave that evening I saw a crowd of westerners outside sitting in silence before a man in his early 60s who was sitting on a chair. At his feet were a bevy of well-dressed Indian women. They were all gazing at the man intently. The man’s eyes were drifting slowly from one person to another. I couldn’t help feeling that he looked like the cornershop grocer. Every now and then he let out a prolonged belch, and rubbed his stomach.
I sat down, intending to stay until the first mosquito arrived. In moments I was aware of the depth of the silence in the group around me. Sri Nannagaru kept gazing at one individual after another, sometimes resting his eyes on a person for minutes on end. At the same time he would raise his right hand in an open palm blessing. My body became as still as a stone. All thought of going anywhere vanished. All thoughts of any kind vanished. His look was one of the most tender compassion, t)f a lover to his beloved; yet there was no sense of anybody doing anything, wanting anything, trying to create some effect; just the innocent an ' d empty gaze of love, available to all, and yet intensely personal, it seemed, with each individual. His body seemed to carry no tension at all: his whole being flowed unobstructed out of his eyes. After half an hour or so, he silently bowed, and got up to go to his room. Nobody moved, and the silence continued for several more minutes.
When I did finally move, I made my way without forethought to Sri Nannagaru's door. It was half open, and one of his disciples was standing in the entrance. I asked if I could see Sri Nannagaru, and the disciple ushered me in. Sri Nannagaru was sitting on his bed. He had just picked up a newspaper. 'Which country?' he asked. When I told him, he asked me if I read The Times. When I told him I didn't, he asked me about the other good newspapers in England. I responded briefly and then came to my point: 'I was deeply touched by the silence you led us into just now,' I said. 'But what I really want is to be that silence myself, wherever I am. I cannot always be in India with someone like you.' 'You like the silence?' he asked, leaning forward like a delighted child. 'Come to Veerupaksha Cave with me tomorrow, and I shall answer your question.'
I agreed to meet him at 3pm the next afternoon, when he would take me to the cave in his car.
The next day at the appointed time, I piled into an Ambassador car along with half a dozen of Sri Nannagaru's Indian devotees. Sri Nannagaru himself led the way in another car. We drove into town and climbed the short path up to the cave, whose entrance was already packed with expectant faces. Sri Nannagaru went into the cave, paid his respects to the place, and returned to sit under the tree outside. He then proceeded to speak to his Indian audience in his native Telegu for the next half hour, while I and the other Westerners sat in the silence. The silence was tangible, even when he was speaking, and it didn't matter that he never returned to my question. That evening he sat on the floor in the ashram dining hall along with everyone else, quite inconspicuous, in an ordinary dhoti, without any special attentions or favors. The man seemed to glide rather than walk through the day.
That evening, when I arrived for his (darshan, he motioned me to Come and sit by his side. Every, few minutes, he would look down with an innocent tenderness, at d stroke my head. To begin with, I felt a certain self-consciousness at receiving such undivided attention in public; but my awkwardness soon gave way, to a tranquility and ease that was to remain with me for weeks afterwards. The next day, Sri Nannagaru was leaving. I was among the crowd that had gathered to see him off, and as he made his way to his car he came over to me and held me in his arms. 'Roger,' he smiled, 'Roger': like some lover taking his leave. I have since witnessed him act in the same way with many, people, treating each one as if they were the only person in the world. I have never seen such a living example of tile way Krishna must have acted with the gopis.
Some months later, I went to stay with Sri Nannagaru at his village, and accompany him for a few days on his rounds through Andhra Pradesh. It was a journey into the heart of rural India. The village was built in traditional style. The houses were not unlike Spanish haciendas, with verandahs supported by carved wooden posts and red-tiled roofs. Sri Nannagaru would sit on his verandah, read the newspaper, and receive the trickle of people who came to see him. His family, disapproved of the public attention they were getting, and discouraged Sri Nannagaru from using their house as an open forum. This was one reason he now traveled so much. He put me up in a house next door which belonged to a devotee who had gone away on business. On my first morning, there was a knock at the door, and I opened it to find Sri Nannagaru there with a cup of coffee. In the evening- ,,, he brought me into the kitchen of his house and stood over me as I made my way, through the food his wife had prepared for me. 'Nice food?' he enquired in his rudimentary English. 'Very nice food?' when I confirmed my pleasure, he beamed, insisting on offering me more. Very-nice food,' he repeated. ‘Very nice food.' over the next week or so we went to several different homes over an area of perhaps 100 miles, accompanied by one of his few male devotees who took charge of all the arrangements. At each stop, he and I were ushered to the table first, while the women hovered around watching us eat, as he had watched me. Then the men of the family ate, and finally the women and children sat down. During the day, dozens of people would come and sit at his feet while he would give them a talk on some aspect of Sri Ramana's teaching, respond to their problems, or occasionally sit in silence. We went to three weddings, blessed the foundations of a new house, visited a paper factory, and a temple that someone had recently built in his honour. Sri Nannagaru was the same still presence wherever we went. He flowed at the same slow pace, and never showed any trace of a reactive mind. in the car, as we went from one place to the next, he would gaze at a tiny picture of Sri Ramana that he held in his lap, apparently lost to us and the journey we were on. Yet as soon as we stopped, he would be totally present to whatever situation we walked into.
A number of Westerners have now accompanied him in this way, some for much longer periods than I. Everyone that I have met confirms the same experience of prolonged inner silence in his presence, and nothing but an undemanding simplicity on his part. One, a 70-year-old man from New York, told me that he had watched Sri Nannagaru weep for an hour while an old woman told him her story, He himself had not been aware of anything special happening to him while he was with Sri Nannagaru, although it was a warm, if uneventful time. Then, a few days after his departure, he realized that a sadness which had been with him all his life had completely vanished.
Since his own awakening was not the result of any specific sadhana, other than a spontaneous love for Sri Ramana Maharshi, it is not surprising that Sri Nannagaru recommends no particular method or technique himself. His own way of working with people is clearly to have them in his presence while going about the business of everyday life. Being a householder himself, he does not separate the spiritual from the secular. Much of his day is spent dealing with people's everyday concerns, and playing his part in the life of his community. He will talk for hours to his Indian devotees on various aspects of advaita teaching, but with Westerners, he is invariably silent-except when he asks about their country and their national press. His economy with words is partly because of his poor English, but also because he knows that many Westerners, unlike most of the Indians around him, seem to value his silence more. Westerners are already full of concepts and theories, and are usually grateful to experience what lies beyond them.
People come and go from him without any mention of a relationship of guru arid disciple. He responds spontaneously to a person's openness, but his response carries no weight or demand. He seems to represent an invitation to fall into the inner heart, where all differences, formal relations and emotional needs dissolve. Silence was also the teaching method of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who considered it the only real form of communication. Yet Sri Nannagaru's presence naturally draws people, and his Indian followers, being culturally attuned to the guru-disciple relationship, treat him accordingly.
Sri Nannagaru's followers have recently built a small retreat center near Ramanashram, in Tiruvannamalai, which they have called Andhra Ashram. Sri Nannagaru plans to be resident there some months of each year, so he seems certain to become far more widely known than he is at present.
Last modified on May 23, 1998
Composed with care by: Krishna
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