“Once in a way a man of extraordinary spiritual caliber makes his appearance in this world and leaves an indelible impression on the mind of humanity. Such a one was Ramana Maharshi. Ramana taught both through silence and speech. His silence was so powerful as to silence the mind of the seeker with right receptivity. When he used speech for instruction, the effect could be Socratic.”
—N. Balarama Reddy
When my wife and I first met Balarama Reddy on a visit to India in 1979-1981 he was in his late seventies, with the energy and vitality of a person half his age. There was a lilt in his walk and a regal air about him; keeping up with him during early evening walks was always a challenge. Balarama lived in a simple, austere room along the northern part of Sri Ramanasramam, the Ashram of Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai, South India. He would almost always keep to himself but would “hold court” for the few that had an opportunity to move more closely with him.
Balarama spent most of the year at Ramanasramam, leaving only during the hot summer months. Wherever he lived his routine was always the same: he would rise at 2:30 a.m. each morning and drink a cup of coffee prepared the night before, kept warm in an old thermos. The balance of the morning hours would be spent sitting on his bed, absorbed in meditation until daybreak. After breakfast he would read, attend to correspondence, and take a brisk walk. After lunch and the proverbial post-lunch Indian siesta, it would be time for tiffin—the traditional late-afternoon snack and coffee. Toward the end of the siesta period, a man would often come to our room with a note from Balarama, inviting us to join him for tiffin. It was during these afternoon meetings that Balarama would open his heart and talk about spiritual life and his long association with Ramana Maharshi.
As a young man he had studied for a law degree at a major university in the city of Benares. However, once he understood that his real calling in life was to realize his true nature, he simply walked out of the university, shortly before taking his final exams. After living with Sadhu Vaswani, a well-known Indian saint, he settled at the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo. It was at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram that Balarama came to learn of the great sage Ramana Maharshi. After visiting the Maharshi on several occasions, he felt that this is where he should spend the rest of his life.
When Balaram spoke of Ramana his face would light up. But more than words, he had the special ability to bring the presence of the great sage to the conversation. Those who listened to his stories were able to feel the tangible peace that permeated the Maharshi’s presence.
In the late evenings, when we would be at the end of a long walk, he would often find a quiet place to sit and would become quietly absorbed. Meditating with him at these times lifted one beyond the mind and body to that awareness which simply is. Once, on an afternoon walk, we sat on boulders facing the sacred hill Arunachala, and he spoke about the environs of this special hill. “The town of Tiruvannamalai had always been a religious center” he said, “but because of Ramana Maharshi, it is now a spiritual center. His presence is felt everywhere. In other places power is quick to enter the seeker, bringing many experiences through the mind. Here, Ramana’s path is through the heart and one’s experience comes slowly, but the benefits are permanent. For us time is bound in our own preconceptions; for Ramana it was a speck in eternity.”
He was very clear that the goal of life was Self-knowledge and that we need only realize what we already are. His outlook was very eclectic and he recognized the same truth in all authentic teachings, drawing on them and making them his own. One day we were walking down the road and he began to describe the great contribution of Jesus as a spiritual teacher. He became quite animated and was completely absorbed in the moment with Christ and his disciples. As he raised his hands exclaiming the truth of Jesus’ words, I had to quickly reach out and grab him from the path of an oncoming bus.
We had the opportunity to travel with him on many occasions and wherever we went in South India, admirers would learn about his presence in town and join in the afternoon tiffin. Balarama’s mother tongue was Telugu but he spoke excellent English, Tamil, and Sanskrit as well. He was a scholar in the true sense of the term and would read classic Hindu texts in their original languages. An appropriate quote from the vast array of scriptures was never far from his lips when making a point or conveying an idea. While he was an avid reader, he always encouraged people to learn who they truly are and not rely on second-hand knowledge. It was this great mind and simple heart that allowed him to “see” the essence of things.
He once had a long philosophical dialogue, in Sanskrit, with the current senior Acharya (Spiritual head) of the Kanchi Mutt (monastic center), in South India. Yet with all this great learning, he was intrinsically a very simple man. When people began to articulate and discuss the nuances of meditation or self-enquiry, he would often say, “This is nothing new. Socrates said it long ago, simply ‘know thyself’.”
While Balarama Reddy dedicated his life to the path of self-enquiry, he could appreciate and understand those whose path was divine love and devotion. When the great English mystic Krishna Prem (Ronald Nixon) came to visit Ramana Maharshi, the Maharshi asked Balarama to personally escort Krishna Prem on his tour of South India. Balarama was impressed with Krishna Prem’s deep devotion to God, which manifested outwardly in his life as a traditional Vaishnaivite Hindu monk.
Balarama often spoke about the essence of love, especially as embodied in Ramana Maharshi. “The love of Ramana was unmistakable. Even if one were to sit in the hall and be totally unnoticed for weeks together, one would leave feeling this great love.”
We had an opportunity to experience the expression of this love when I needed to take up professional work for a while and would be leaving the Ashram. Balarama accompanied my wife and me to Bangalore, and like a loving father took us from shop to shop, purchasing saris, pants, and shirts for our use. He became so filled with childlike enthusiasm while shopping that he had the salesperson literally pulling down piles of goods—to make sure we had enough items to choose from. We heard later from a friend that this simple, loving act was quite unusual since he rarely stepped into a shop to buy anything.
He would often say that Ramana Maharshi was a phenomenon, and that the power and grace of his presence had just begun to be released: “Ramana is the phenomena of the age. He cannot be compared, as one cannot compare the ocean or the sky. The Maharshi had the unique ability to instill in one a sense of self-confidence concerning one’s ability to become fully awakened. He would say, ‘why do you say it is difficult; you can realize at any moment?’ His words were not the words of a mere man —they actually transformed lives. When the Maharshi was alive, those around him would say ‘Bhagavan is in the hall,’ or ‘he is taking his walk’ or ‘he is in the kitchen.’ Now, his presence is everywhere, not limited to a specific location.”
Balarama’s childlike nature included a deep sense of gratitude for even the smallest favor done for him. Once, we brought him a small gas stove to help him heat up milk and coffee when he awoke at 2:30 each morning. It was a very simple act but his reaction was quite astonishing. For days we heard about the amazing qualities of the stove, how it had made his milk warming so effortless and so on. It made a lasting impression on me, since we take for granted most things that happen in our lives.
Balarama never made any claims about himself and avoided company as far as possible. He never spoke about himself being a disciple and, in fact, emphasized that Ramana himself often said he had no disciples. He was amused by those who made claims to have had “special experience” or ideas of “successorship,” and he encouraged us to check them out for ourselves. Yet there are several people who spent many years in association with the Maharshi and seemed to imbibe a grace—a fragrance which would emanate from them. Balarama Reddy was one of these people. He passed away as naturally as he had lived; in a quiet, almost invisible manner. There is much to be learned by observing the lives of such people who contribute to the legacy of authentic living, by their firm abidance in God or the Self at all times.
What is most memorable was his steadfastness to Truth. His was an ironclad determination and the complete conviction that he was not the body but the eternal witness to all phenomena. He was fortunate that financial circumstances allowed him to live a hermit’s life, without undue cares, responsibilities, or pressure, in close proximity to one of the great sages of this century. Yet it doesn’t mean we have to live in a forest hermitage to experience this awareness. Balarama was very clear that the Self is not limited or bound by time or space, and we can awaken to it in whatever circumstances we happen to be. One of the last things I remember Balarama telling us was, “Is this (the Maharshi’s) presence for a lifetime only? When devotees pleaded with him during his illness that he should not leave them he answered: ‘Where can I go?’ As I recall these words now, 30 years later, it remains as vivid as the moment they were spoken. Ramana did not ask anyone to do anything, he simply wanted us just TO BE.”
Balarama Reddy used to often remind us that to be what we are requires no external activity and is always available regardless of outer circumstances. He shunned teachers and gurus who would impose their will on another and he believed in experience rather than blind devotion. Balarama Reddy never wrote publicly about Ramana Maharshi. One day I asked him why he didn’t share the reminiscences of his close association with this great sage. He was silent for a long time. Then he lifted his head, looked directly into my eyes, and with a great intensity said, “There is already so much written about it. I don’t have much to add. The ego is so sly that I don’t want to even give it a chance to raise its head. It may project that I was privileged to experience these events. It is not the events that are important; it is each one’s experience of Truth. The essence of Ramana’s life and teachings is experiencing Truth—it is that simple.”
A Pilgrimage to Tirupathi
During the hot summer months Balarama would leave Tiruvannamalai, to spend time in cooler, elevated cities. On two occasions, Balarama invited us to spend the weekend with him at Tirupathi, in the state of Andrah Pradesh. Tirupathi is probably one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in India. The ancient Venkataeswara (Vishnu) Temple is built high atop a mountain at the edge of town. These sacred hills, known as the Tirumala hills, attract pilgrims from all over India.
Arriving at Balarama’s hotel room in Tirupathi, he gave us the name of a person to meet for arranging a room at the top of the hill. After he dropped us at the bus station, we were privileged to take an infamous “wild bus ride” courtesy of the Indian bus drivers who seem to relish living life on the edge. Rounding hairpin turns at breakneck speeds, these drivers delight in meeting oncoming buses head-on, only to swerve off the road at the last minute. While we were praying to simply reach the top, the other passengers happily cheered our driver on.
Settling into a small room in the vicinity of the temple, we found ourselves transported into another time and realm. The sounds of prayer bells and chanting filtered through the mist-shrouded air, and from wherever one stood the top of the temple tower hovered in sight. All around the perimeter of the temple was a pedestrian road where Mutts (monasteries) representing many of the major religious groups of Hinduism were located.
The next day Balarama joined us and took us on a tour. We had never seen him so excited. Steeped in the Advaitic (non-dualistic) tradition and a brilliant scholar in Vedantic lore, he became like a child, almost ecstatic, and his heart opened in a special way. As we rounded the corner to the Temple steps we began to see hundreds of pilgrims lining up in long queues around the Temple’s outer periphery. Balarama stopped and, almost moved to tears, began telling us about the pilgrims who had waited almost a lifetime for a chance to stand in these queues—often up to twelve hours at a time. The thought of making this pilgrimage had sustained them through their difficult days and they had sacrificed much to spend a few moments walking through the halls of this temple. He asked us specifically to notice the joy on the faces of these simple folk. We stood there transfixed, watching people whom most would refer to as “downtrodden.” But these were not downtrodden people at all—for they were rich; rich in faith, rich in love, and filled with a genuine sense of happiness and gratitude for the fulfillment of their dream.
After this experience, life in India was never quite the same.