Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tales I

As I have written about her repeatedly, I continue to insist that Krishnammal is one of the world’s great storytellers. That is what attracted me to her when we first met back in 1977, and much of what keeps me coming back. She is unlike any other 80-year-old I have ever encountered, with the energy, vibrancy, excitability of someone less than half her age, and I often feel old in her presence, and yet like a young child thirsting for more stories! What gives her her timeless quality is the ability to encapsulate her experience (and those of others) into something which is out of time, sometimes like an ancient folktale (only one that just occurred!), or simply a good page-turner of a larger-than-life biography.

Having heard so many of the stories repeatedly (and written them down), they almost never fail to strike me in new ways. Looking back at what I know, and trying to understand what drives her on with such incredible force, it seems to me that there are three stories that represent the three transformative experiences of her life. The last, already well-known among those who work with her, was her experience of the killing of the 44 women and children in Kilvenmani on Christmas night 1968. This episode, and her understanding that its message was specifically directed at her and that the souls of the women and children live inside her to this day, sets the stage for all of her activities for almost the past 40 years.

The first one, less talked about, is her leaving her home in Ayyankottai with her elder brother at age 11 for the city of Madurai, where she was taken into a Christian hostel, and received an education. Krishnammal tells the story of having to take a course in Christianity, and so she memorized long parts of the Old and New Testaments. She says, and contrary to what was likely expected (which was religious conversion), what she took from Jesus was the injunction to go into a closet and pray in private, a practice that she continues to this day, and sometimes when she is particularly troubled (she says) for as long as several days at a time. But it is not Christian prayer, for at the same time she moved into the hostel, she was invited to a meeting about her beloved Saint Ramalinga, of the Divine Light within all beings, of whatever religious persuasion, and which spoke to her condition. We’ve reflected together on how that haphazard occurrence of being invited to a meeting has so changed her life (and those of many others) for all these years.

But there was a third experience, which represents (I think)the full flowering of Krishnammal into the “Amma” she has become. On my last day in Kuthur, at 6 a.m., she asked me to sit down, and record her tale.

“I went to join Vinoba Bhave (the Walking Saint) on September 11th, 1952 (on his birthday) in Benares, Uttar Pradesh, in north India. The city of Benares is considered the sacred city of the Hindus. First, I went with Jagannathan to the River Ganga and took a bath. It was very cold, and the water was very thick and muddy. Round about, I could see there were dead bodies floating by. There is a belief among the Hindus that when dead bodies are placed in the Ganga, souls rise up to heaven. The bodies are half-burned and pushed into the River. I didn’t want to take a bath there, but bathing in the Ganga is considered sacred, and I dipped three times into the water.

“I became ill almost immediately, with a high fever. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. Vinobaji’s party was leaving early in the morning (4 a.m.) for the next camp. At the prayer meeting, Vinobaji asked my husband (whom I had not seen in months) to go to Tamil Nadu immediately to start the movement. Jagannathanji left me in the room and went away, as did the entire party. I did not even get a letter from him for seven months!

“My sickness continued for a month. After a month, Vinobaji asked me to go to the Sevapri Ashram near Benares. There was no road there, and four people carried me in a cart, and left me in a small room. I was so weak, I couldn’t sit up and eat. I spoke no Hindi, and so could barely communicate with anyone, other than to arrange for some simple food. When I was lying down, a noble thought from the great Tamil nationalist poet Subramanian Bharathi came to my mind. In one of his songs (Krishnammal sings it to me), he compares the body to a beautiful veena, the divine music instrument. In the poet’s thought, the body is given by God. He prays to the goddess, the mother of the earth, ‘Oh, ParaShakti (the powerful one, representing the feminine forces of the universe), you have given me a beautiful body, like a veena. Am I to leave this beautiful body in the dust and allow it to waste away? No, I do not want to waste my life. Give me the strength to live for the whole world, not for my own individual welfare. You have given me intelligence that shines within me every day with a new light. So, oh ParaShakti, give me the strength I need for it to shine through.”

“This song gave me the inspiration to get up and walk a little bit. Then I realized that there is not only physical strength, but here is also an inner strength, and the goddess is there to lead me. Every day I started to walk, first three times across the room, then six times. I had to maintain the body so I prepared a little food. I felt I am with Something greater than myself. And I realized the inner strength is greater than the physical.

“And another noble thought came to me from the poet. (She sings again.) Man is always running, earning, eating, with the idea that the purpose of life is to run, earn, and eat. He fills the stomach, and talks about trivial things, and is not happy. At the same time, he creates many ugly things to disturb the mind of others, creating trouble for his fellow beings. He gets gray hair, and becomes old, and dies. It is common to human beings – eating, and spending time in unnecessary things, creating disturbances, and dying. I am not such a person. I am different from this. I want to ask for your blessings. Come to me immediately and bless me, and provide my mind with clear thoughts. Everyday I must feel that I am getting new life from you, and serving the world, that I may be happy for ever and ever.”

And then she recited an old story, told by one of the ancient Tamil siddhas. “He compares the body to a pot, explaining it in a novel way. There was a gardener who appealed to God to give him a clay pot to water the garden. He meditated for 10 months, and finally received a pot. When he received it, he does not realize its value or importance. He uses it playfully, jumping here and there, balancing the pot this way and that. While playing mindlessly, he dies not pay attention to the pot, and it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Like that, a man living in his mother’s body, doing penance (tapasya) for 10 months, by the grace of God emerges from his mother’s womb, but fails to understand the meaning of his body. So instead of using the body for a noble purpose, man spends his time in useless ways, and creates trouble for the whole world. At the end, he dies, just like the pot that is broken without having fulfilled its purpose. The body and life is wasted, and his penance goes for naught.

“These three noble thoughts every day occurred in my mind. So I refused to give in to my physical illness, and starting walking in my room. Nearly for a month I did the same thing – walking and praying. I felt it was a rare occasion to develop my inner strength, and to understand my inner power, and dedicate my life for a good purpose and cause.

“What I mean to say is that we have to search for new principles, new ideals, and keep them forever with us. They will help us better than any amount of money. Always these noble thoughts have helped me in a great way to serve my unfortunate sisters and brothers, and hence enjoy my life to the fullest. My mother taught me that God will also take me where I belong, through good and bad which should be accepted, and I am always tested to see what I can do to help all those I meet.”


Here's a rough translation of a beautiful Bharathi song:

Resolute mind I seek
Refined words I seek
Considerate thoughts I seek
Coveted things to be mine I seek
Dreams that turn real I seek
And turn real soon I seek
Wealth and happiness I seek
Fame in this world I seek
Clarity of vision I seek
Determination in work I seek
Women's liberation I seek
Protection of the creator I seek
Growth of this land I seek
Vision of heaven I seek
Triumph of truth I seek
Om Om Om Om



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