Why am I so moved by this Swamiji?

H.V.R. Iyengar

A few years ago I went to call on a friend of mine in Delhi, holding one of the highest official positions, and, in the course of conversation, asked about his wife and children. I was not being other than just polite. I did not know his wife particularly well. I knew that she was the daughter of one of the most eminent men in India in the early part of this century, a great barrister who had amassed wealth, and that she had been brought up in a life of luxury, that she had married a distant cousin how was in Indian Civil Service and who had a highly successful career. When I first met them, the British Raj was still very powerful and social life in Delhi was built round a mixed crowd of British and Indian members of the services and their families. My friend and his wife circulated constantly in this crowd. He was an epitome of all that was best in Madras and Oxford; and she combined the graces of a cultivated Hindu family with the sophistication derived from frequent travels overseas. They had charming and intelligent children. And everyone would have said, and did say, that they were the luckiest family in Delhi and, indeed, in all India. They had everything to make them happy-wealth, status, good character, charm, and lovely children.

My friend said that his wife had gone to a place near Rishikesh to spend a week in the ashram of a Swami. I was quite astonished. I could not think of her living in a rustic ashram. She had been so accustomed to luxury and she moved with such ease in the sophisticated circles of Delhi and London that I could not imagine her spending any time-let alone a whole week-in the rather primitive conditions of an ashram. However, I said nothing: it would have been impolite to be curious.

As it happened , sheer chance took me and my wife to the ashram in the course of the week. We were having a holiday with friends and happened to be driving in the Vicinity of the ashram, when it occurred to me to visit my friend's wife in the ashram. It also occurred to me that I might as well call on the Swami. I had never called on a Swami before. I am not particularly religious and, if I may add, without being particularly religious and, if may add, without being arrogant or sacrilegious, I had no particularly high opinion about Swamis in general.

We dropped in at the ashram during what turned out to be the prayer time. During the prayer I saw my friend's wife sitting in the ashram. I could scarcely recognise her. Gone was the lovely and expensive sari; gone were the jewels; gone was all the sophistication of make-up. She was dressed in a rough homespun sari and she sat completely absorbed during the prayer, with her eyes half-closed. She saw us only after the prayer was over. She then smiled, talked to us briefly, and said she would take us to the Swami.

"Are you surprised?" she asked, "to find me, of all people, here? You have only seen me in cocktail parties and receptions in Delhi. I have to take part in the life of my husband. But I have my own life. He is so busy with his official work that he has no time even to think of anything else. I have plenty of time. My children are growing up. The Swami has given me eyes to see Reality." There was a faraway look in her eyes-as if she had seen something that was beautiful and shining in the distance. And then she took us inside the ashram and introduced us to the Swami.

He was friendly and gracious. I tried very hard to sense the unusual, the mystic, the pulse of the spiritual but, try as I might, I could not. There are quite a few men who are friendly and gracious-bankers, merchants even politicians. But he did not give the feeling, which obviously my friend's wife and several others living in the ashram had-of something otherworldly; something that compelled you to think of Divine Grace.

The Swami was kind enough to send me subsequently several of his books. I tried hard to read them. They did not mean much to me-nothing, in fact. Somehow, we did not seem to be in the same place of communication. And yet there were others who were-such as my friend's wife. I did not think the fault was the Swami's I felt it must be mine; there must be something wanting in me which made it impossible for me to offer the quick response for a mystic or a spiritual call.

After this, I met more than one Swami, and in each case the result the disappointingly similar. The conversation was stilled and sterile, and lacked all genuine feeling of communication-other than normal, polite conversation. I became oppressed by the feeling that there must something wanting in myself. For several other people-and some of them I knew well-had been most genuinely moved and uplifted.

And then, one day, I received a telephone call asking whether I would call on the Sankaracharya of Kamakoti. I was very surprised, for although I had heard a great deal about him, I had made no attempt to contact him. I knew that in his presence and in the presence of any Swami, I would be shy and uneasy. Moreover, I was not aware of what I had done to receive this unusual message. People have waited long period and gone long distances just to get a glimpse of the Sankaracharya, and here was I being offered the honour and privilege of calling on him.

At the time I got the message I was on the point of going out of Madras. After I returned I received the message again and this time I was indisposed. A third message came and this time happily I was in a position to accept the kind invitation of the Sankaracharya. But my main impulse was one of curiosity. Why had he sent for me?

As soon as I offered him my respects he said, "I read that article of yours on your mother. I felt I should like to see you."

It was as if a screen was suddenly opened. I had been holding high official positions for many years. I had made speeches and written articles which had acquired for me a certain degree of acclaim. All this has no significance to the Sankaracharya. But he had seen a tribute I had paid to my mother and what evidently attracted him was the evocation of the qualities of my mother which I had emphasized.

What were these qualities? A utter belief in the unseen Power which shapes human destines, a belief so strong that it could not be shaken by any kind of calamity-a dedication to the ideal of Chastity, a dedication so completely instinctive that she was astonished to think that other women did not automatically share it-compassion and utter integrity. I had been asked to write short piece for the Deepavali Number of a well-known literary magazine and had decided to write a brief reminiscence of my mother. I had drawn a picture of her early life which was one of luxury, of her married life which was one of penury and continuous misery, of her serenity an dignity, come what may and, till her dying day, of her faith in a Divine dispensation. It was this that attracted the Sankaracharya.

Our talk related to the revival of faith in the essentials of Hindu religion. I told him that I was not particularly "religious-minded: in the sense that I very rarely went to the temple, that I did not practice rituals, and that I led a somewhat anglicised life. He brushed all this aside. My article on my mother had let him to think that I had got the essentials of the Hindu faith. he pleaded that people like myself-holding good positions, should get together and see that the younger generation, particularly, should be taught to respect the essentials of the Hindu faith. He emphasized the need for tolerance and compassion in any program that may be launched for the purpose.

As I watched his frail and emaciated body, I asked my self, why am I so moved by this Swamiji? It is no just the words, for there are others whose words are equally charged with simplicity and dignity and tolerance. it is not the personality, for I have seen other men whose personality is more impressive. It is not the surroundings, for the surroundings were not impressive. What is this totality of impression and feeling that makes me think that here is a person charged with Divine Grace? I cannot explain this but just feel that it would be good just to sit near him in silence.

It is another story altogether as to why neither I nor any of my friends have done anything yet on the lines indicated by the Sankaracharya. That is not his fault.