Series: Westerners in India.
The following article is an excerpt from Ashrams of India.
Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta (1893 – 1968) travelled to Arunachala to meet Ramana Maharshi in 1938 after reading Paul Brunton’s book A Search in Secret India, and stayed for three days. This visit made a tremendous impact on her. She later wrote in her 1960 autobiography Here Lies the Heart that these were the three most significant days of her life.
Mercedes de Acosta was professionally unsuccessful but is known for her many lesbian affairs with famous Broadway and Hollywood personalities and numerous friendships with prominent artists of the period. She did not attempt to hide her sexuality; her uncloseted existence was very rare and daring in her generation. In 1960, when de Acosta was seriously ill, she published her memoir, “Here Lies the Heart.” In it are recounted the off-stage life and lifestyles of many of the iconic figures of Hollywood from the 1920s to 1940s.
The 2016 Reprint of 1960 Edition is a full facsimile of the original edition, not reproduced with Optical Recognition Software, and is available from Amazon.com
Reprinted from Here Lies the Heart:
A Search in Secret India (a book by Paul Brunton) had a profound influence on me. In it I learned for the first time about Ramana Maharshi, a great Indian saint and sage. It was as though some emanation of this saint was projected out of the book to me. For days and nights after reading about him I could not think of anything else. I became, as it were, possessed by him. I could not even talk of anything else. Nothing could distract me from the idea that I must go and meet this saint. From this time on, although I ceased to speak too much about it, the whole direction of my life turned toward India and away from Hollywood. I felt that I would surely go there, although there was nothing at this time to indicate that I would. Nevertheless, I felt I would meet the Maharshi and that this meeting would be the greatest experience of my life.
I had very little money, far too little to risk going to India, but something pushed me towards it. I went to the steamship company and booked myself one of the cheapest cabins on an Indian ship, the S. S. Victoria, sailing from Genoa to Bombay toward the beginning of October. In the meantime I flew to Dublin to see my sister.
I had booked passage to Ceylon intending from there to cross over to southern India and go directly to Tiruvannamalai, where Ramana Maharshi lived. But when the ship called at Bombay, Norina Matchabelli came on board to see me with a message from Meher Baba saying that Consuelo (a lady travelling companion who was a follower of Meher Baba) and I must get off the ship and come to see him in Ahmednagar, about two hours from Bombay. I did not want to do this as my real purpose in India was to see the Maharshi, and I was impatient to get to him.
In Madras I hired a car, and so anxious was I to arrive in Tiruvannamalai that I did not go to bed and travelled by night, arriving about seven o’clock in the morning after driving almost eleven hours. I was very tired as I got out of the car in a small square in front of the temple (Arunachaleswara Temple). The driver explained he could take me no farther. I turned toward the hill of Arunachala and hurried in the hot sun along the dust-covered road to the abode about two miles from town where the Sage dwelt. As I ran those two miles, deeply within myself I knew that I was running toward the greatest experience of my life.
When, dazed and filled with emotion, I first entered the hall, I did not quite know what to do. Coming from strong sunlight into the somewhat darkened hall, it was, at first, difficult to see; nevertheless, I perceived Bhagavan at once, sitting in the Buddha posture on his couch in the corner. At the same moment I felt overcome by some strong power in the hall, as if an invisible wind was pushing violently against me. For a moment I felt dizzy. Then I recovered myself. To my great surprise I suddenly heard an American voice calling out to me, “Hello, come in.” It was the voice of an American named Guy Hague, who originally came from Long Beach, California. He told me later that he had been honourably discharged from the American Navy in the Philippines and had then worked his way to India, taking up the study of yoga when he reached Bombay. Then he heard about Sri Ramana Maharshi and, feeling greatly drawn to him, decided to go to Tiruvannamalai. When I met him he had already been with the Maharshi for a year, sitting uninterruptedly day and night in the hall with the sage.
He rose from where he was sitting against the wall and came toward me, taking my hand and leading me back to a place beside him against the wall. He did not at first speak to me, allowing me to pull myself together. I was able to look around the hall, but my gaze was drawn to Bhagavan, who was sitting absolutely straight in the Buddha posture looking directly in front of him. His eyes did not blink or in any way move. Because they seemed so full of light I had the impression they were gray. I learned later that they were brown, although there have been various opinions as to the color of his eyes. His body was naked except for a loincloth. I discovered soon after, that this and his staff were absolutely his only possessions. His body seemed firm and as if tanned by the sun, although I found that the only exercise he ever took was a twenty-minute walk every afternoon at five o’clock when he walked on the hill and sometimes greeted yogis who came to prostrate themselves at his feet.
He was a strict vegetarian, but he only ate what was placed before him and he never expressed a desire for any kind of food. As he sat there he seemed like a statue, and yet something extraordinary emanated from him. I had a feeling that on some invisible level I was receiving spiritual shocks from him, although his gaze was not directed toward me. He did not seem to be looking at anything, and yet I felt he could see and was conscious of the whole world.
“Bhagavan is in samadhi,” Guy Hague said.
I looked around. Squatting on the floor or sitting in the Buddha posture or lying prostrate face down, a number of Indians prayed — some of them reciting their mantras out loud. Several small monkeys came into the hall and approached Bhagavan. They climbed onto his couch and broke the stillness with their gay chatter. He loved animals and any kind was respected and welcomed by him in the ashram. They were treated as equals of humans and always addressed by their names. Sick animals were brought to Bhagavan and kept by him on his couch or on the floor beside him until they were well. Many animals had died in his arms. When I was there he had a much-loved cow who wandered in and out of the hall, and often lay down beside him and licked his hand. He loved to tell stories about the goodness of animals. It was remarkable that none of the animals ever fought or attacked each other.
After I had been sitting several hours in the hall listening to the mantras of the Indians and the incessant droning of flies, and lost in a sort of inner world, Guy Hague suggested that I go and sit near the Maharshi. He said, “You can never tell when Bhagavan will come out of samadhi. When he does, I am sure he will be pleased to see you, and it will be beneficial for you, at this moment, to be sitting near him.”
I moved near Bhagavan, sitting at his feet and facing him. Guy was right. Not long after this Bhagavan opened his eyes. He moved his head and looked directly down at me, his eyes looking into mine. It would be impossible to describe this moment and I am not going to attempt it. I can only say that at this second I felt my inner being raised to a new level — as if, suddenly, my state of consciousness was lifted to a much higher degree. Perhaps in this split second I was no longer my human self but the Self. Then Bhagavan smiled at me. It seemed to me that I had never before known what a smile was. I said, “I have come a long way to see you.”
There was silence. I had stupidly brought a piece of paper on which I had written a number of questions I wanted to ask him. I fumbled for it in my pocket, but the questions were already answered by merely being in his presence. There was no need for questions or answers. Nevertheless, my dull intellect expressed one.
“Tell me, whom shall I follow — what shall I follow? I have been trying to find this out for years by seeking in religions, in philosophies, in teachings.” Again there was silence. After a few minutes, which seemed to me a long time, he spoke.
“You are not telling the truth. You are just using words — just talking. You know perfectly well whom to follow. Why do you need me to confirm it?”
“You mean I should follow my inner self?” I asked.
“I don’t know anything about your inner self. You should follow the Self. There is nothing or no one else to follow.”
I asked again, “What about religions, teachers, gurus?”
“If they can help in the quest of the Self. But can they help? Can religion, which teaches you to look outside yourself, which promises a heaven and a reward outside yourself, can this help you? It is only by diving deep into the spiritual Heart that one can find the Self.” He placed his right hand on his right breast and continued, “Here lies the Heart, the dynamic, spiritual Heart. It is called Hridaya and is located on the right side of the chest and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the spiritual path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.”
It is a strange thing but when I was very young, Ignacio Zuloaga said to me, “All great people function with the heart.” He placed his hand over my physical heart and continued, “See, here lies the heart. Always remember to think with it, to feel with it, and above all, to judge with it.”
But the Enlightened One raised the counsel to a higher level. He said, “Find the Self in the real Heart.”
Both, just at the right moment in my life, showed me the way. People would say to Bhagavan, “I would like to find God.” His answer was: “Find the Self first and then you won’t have to worry about God.” And once a man said to him, “I don’t know whether to be a Catholic or a Buddhist.”
Bhagavan asked him, “What are you now?”
He answered, “I am a Catholic.”
He then said, “Go home and be a good Catholic and then you will know whether you should be a Buddhist or not.”
Bhagavan pointed out to me that the real Self is timeless. “But,” he said, “in spite of ignorance, no man takes seriously the fact of death. He may see death around him, but he still does not believe that he will die. He believes, or rather, feels, in some strange way that death is not for him. Only when the body is threatened does he fall a victim to the fear of death. Every man believes himself to be eternal, and this is actually the truth. This truth asserts itself in spite of man’s ignorant belief that the body is the Self.”
I asked him how to pray for other people. He answered, “If you are abiding within the Self, there are no other people. You and I are the same. When I pray for you I pray for myself and when I pray for myself I pray for you. Real prayer is to abide within the Self. This is the meaning of Tat Twam Asi – That Thou Art. There can be no separation in the Self. There is no need for prayer for yourself or any person other than to abide within the Self.”
I said, “Bhagavan, you say that I am to take up the search for the Self by Atma Vichara, asking myself the question Who Am I? May I ask who are you?” Bhagavan answered, “When you know the Self, the ‘I’ ‘You’ ‘He’ and ‘She’ disappear. They merge together in pure Consciousness.”
Noticing one time what I thought were some evil-looking priests who had come from the temple, I remarked on them to Bhagavan. He said, “What do you mean by evil? I do not know the difference between what you call good and evil. To me they are both the same thing – just the opposite sides of the coin.” I should have known this. Bhagavan was, of course, beyond duality. He was beyond love and hatred, beyond good and evil, and beyond all pairs of opposites.
To write of this experience with Bhagavan, to recapture and record all that he said, or all that his silences implied, is like trying to put the infinite into an egg cup. One small chapter cannot in any way do him justice or give an impression of his enlightenment, and I do not think that I am far enough spiritually advanced – if at all – to try to interpret his supreme knowledge. On me he had, and still has, a profound influence. I feel it presumptuous to say he changed my life. My life was perhaps not so important as all this. But I definitely saw life differently after I had been in his presence, a presence that just by merely “being” was sufficient spiritual nourishment for a lifetime. It may have been that when I returned from India, undiscerning people saw very little change in me. But there was a change — a transformation of my entire consciousness. And how could it have been otherwise? I had been in the atmosphere of an egoless, world – detached, and completely pure being.
I sat in the hall with Bhagavan three days and three nights. Sometimes he spoke to me; other times he was silent and I did not interrupt his silence. Often he was in samadhi. I wanted to stay on there with him but finally he told me that I should go back to America. He said, “There will be what will be called a ‘war’, but which, in reality, will be a great world revolution. Every country and every person will be touched by it. You must return to America. Your destiny is not in India at this time.” Before leaving the ashram, Bhagavan gave me some verses he had selected from the Yoga Vasishta. He said they contained the essence for the path of a pure life.
Steady in the state of fullness, which shines when all desires are given up, and peaceful in the state of freedom in life, act playfully in the world, O Raghava!
Inwardly free from all desires, dispassionate and detached, but outwardly active in all directions, act playfully in the world, O Raghava!
Free from egoism, with mind detached as in sleep, pure like the sky, ever untainted, act playfully in the world, O Raghava!
Conducting yourself nobly with kindly tenderness, outwardly conforming to conventions, but inwardly renouncing all, act playfully in the world, O Raghava!
Quite unattached at heart but for all appearance acting as with attachment, inwardly cool but outwardly full of fervour, act playfully in the world, O Raghava!
I sorrowfully said farewell to Bhagavan. As I was leaving he said, “You will return here again.” I wonder. Since his physical presence has gone I wonder if I shall. Yet often I feel the pull of Arunachala as though it were drawing me back. I feel the pull of that sacred hill of which he was so much a part and where his mortal body lies buried.
Before leaving the ashram I wrote down several questions for Guy Hague to ask Bhagavan that I had not had a chance to ask myself. I had been bothered by the fact that so many saints and enlightened people had been ill and suffering physically. I asked, “Should they not have perfect bodies and why do they not cure themselves?” In Europe I got a letter from Guy saying he had discussed my question with Bhagavan. He wrote: “Bhagavan told me to tell you that the spiritually perfect person need not necessarily have a perfect body. The reason, as he explained it, is very simple.
“You see, the ego, the body and the mind are the same thing. The spiritually perfect person, like Bhagavan, is above these three things. Consequently he has… no body to heal, neither a mind – or ego – to heal it with. He is beyond all this because it is illusion. He is living in Reality. Christian Scientists can take the mind and heal the body – for they are the same thing. American Indians heal, too, in this manner. It is faith healing.
“But if the spiritually perfect person is sick in body it is because the body is working out its karma. Bhagavan gave an illustration of karma, which he says is like an electric fan and must just run its course, only gradually ceasing even after it has been turned off. He says the mind is born into illusion and builds a body and a world to suit it – that is, a world that it has earned and deserves (by its karma). Bhagavan, knowing the body and the mind to be illusion, cannot experience any bodily ailment or discomfort. We make him suffer pain, loss of weight, etc. It is in our minds, not his. He is actually bodiless, though you and I cannot realise this as a fact.”
In another letter Guy answered my questions, which led to others. He wrote down my questions and Bhagavan’s answers.
Question: Is reincarnation a fact?
Bhagavan: You are incarnated now, aren’t you? Then you will be so again. But as the body is illusion then the illusion will repeat itself and keep on repeating itself until you find the real Self.
Question: What is death and what is birth?
Bhagavan: Only the body has death and birth, and it (the body) is illusion. There is, in Reality, neither birth nor death.
Question: How much time may elapse between death and rebirth?
Bhagavan: Perhaps one is reborn within a year, three years or thousands of years. Who can say? Anyway what is time? Time does not exist.
Question: Why have we no memory of past lives?
Bhagavan: Memory is a faculty of the mind and part of the illusion. Why do you want to remember other lives that are also illusions? If you abide within the Self, there is no past or future and not even a present since the Self is out of time – timeless.
Question: Are the world, the mind, ego and the body all the same thing?
Bhagavan: Yes. They are one and the same thing. The mind and the ego are one thing, but there is no word to explain this. You see, the world cannot exist without the mind, the mind cannot exist without what we call the ego (itself, really) and the ego cannot exist without a body.
Question: Then when we leave this body, that is when the ego leaves it, will it (the ego) immediately grasp another body?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes, it must. It cannot exist without a body.
Question: What sort of a body will it grasp then?
Bhagavan: Either a physical body or a subtle-mental body.
Question: Do you call this present physical body the gross body?
Bhagavan: Only to distinguish it – to set it apart in conversation. It is really a subtle-mental body also.
Question: What causes us to be reborn?
Bhagavan: Desires. Your unfulfilled desires bring you back. And in each case – in each body – as your desires are fulfilled, you create new ones. You must conquer desire to be absorbed into the One and thus end rebirth.
Question: Can sex change in rebirth?
Bhagavan: Oh, surely. We have all been both sexes many times.
Question: Is it possible to sin?
Bhagavan: Having a body, which creates illusion, is the only sin, and the body is our only hell. But it is right that we observe moral laws. The discussion of sin is too difficult for a few lines.
Question: Does one who has realised the Self lose the sense of “I”?
Question: Then to you there is no difference between yourself and myself, that man over there, my servant — are all the same?
Bhagavan: All are the same, including those monkeys.
Question: But the monkeys are not people. Are they not different?
Bhagavan: They are exactly the same as people. All creatures are the same in One Consciousness.
Question: Do we lose our individuality when we merge into the Self?
Bhagavan: There is no individuality in the Self. The Self is One – Supreme.
Question: Then individuality and identity are lost?
Bhagavan: You don’t retain them in deep sleep, do you?
Question: But we retain them from one birth to another, don’t we?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes. The “I” thought (the ego) will recur again, only each time you identify with it a different body and different surroundings around the body. The effects of past acts (karma) will continue to control the new body just as they did the old one. It is karma that has given you this particular body and placed it in a particular family, race, sex, surroundings and so forth.
Bhagavan added, “These questions are good, but tell de Acosta (he always called me de Acosta) she must not become too intellectual about these things. It is better just to meditate and have no thought. Let the mind rest quietly on the Self in the cave of the Spiritual Heart. Soon this will become natural and then there will be no need for questions. Do not imagine that this means being inactive. Silence is the only real activity.” Then Guy added, “Bhagavan says to tell you that he sends you his blessings.”
This message greatly comforted me.
On my way back to Europe my boat stopped at Port Said. I landed there and motored across the desert to Cairo where I stayed three days and then caught the ship again when it docked at Alexandria.
In Cairo I stayed at the old famous Shepherd Hotel. I spent one day in the museum seeing the Tut Ankh Amon collection, and the second day I rode out by camel to see the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. When I reached the Pyramid it was nearly sunset. There was no one around except my own dragoman and one or two Arabs sleeping against their kneeling camels. I decided to climb to the top of the Pyramid. Although it towered above me, tapering off into the sky, and looked terribly high, I did not realise how high it was until I started climbing. I started out briskly but after a certain distance I grew tired and my pace slackened. The steps of the Pyramid are very narrow and eroded, but I was determined to reach the top. Thoroughly exhausted, I finally did. The sun had already gone down. I turned and looked down the steep and awesome slope of the Pyramid. Suddenly I was overcome by the most frightful vertigo. My head swam and I felt that I was going to plunge to my death. I crouched on the narrow steps and clung to the top of the Pyramid so fiercely that my nails broke against the stone and my fingers bled. I could not bring myself to look down again. An agonising fear took hold of me. I felt cold sweat pouring over my face, neck and back. I became hysterical. What was I to do? I knew if I let go I would fall, but I also knew I could not hold on much longer. I closed my eyes. I remembered what the Maharshi said — to dive deep into the Spiritual Heart. I summoned every faculty and all power within me and concentrated on the Heart. Suddenly I saw it, like a great light in my mind’s eye. In the centre I saw the Maharshi’s face smiling at me. Instantly I felt calm. I turned and looked down. Far below I saw a man waving at me. I loosened one hand and held it over my head, then I waved back. The man began calling someone else. Another man ran to him. Swiftly they began to climb. They climbed expertly and fast but it seemed hours to me. Probably it took them about thirty-five minutes to reach me. One man had a rope. He tied it around my waist and gently stroked my face. He mumbled some words that I could not understand, but I knew they were kind words to encourage me. Between them, each one holding the rope as though we were mountain climbing, we began to descend. Eventually we reached the bottom safely. Some time after this I was told by an enlightened person that climbing the Great Pyramid was considered in ancient Egypt one of the “fear tests” which students had to pass in order to be initiated into the great religious mysteries. Aspirants were required to climb to the very top of the Pyramid, and if on reaching the top of it he or she could conquer fear, this particular test was won.
Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi died on April Fourteenth, 1950. He had said, “I am going away? Where could I go? I am here.” By the word “here” he did not imply any limitation. He meant rather, that the Self ‘is’. There is no going, or coming, or changing in that which is changeless and Universal. I should not have regarded his death as a blow. How could I lose him? How can one lose anyone? How can one lose that which is Eternal? It is only in the first shock, and gripped in the illusion of death, that one grieves for the physical presence. Yet, millions in India mourned the Maharshi. A long article about his death in the New York Times ended with, “Here in India, where thousands of so-called holy men claim close tune with the infinite, it is said that the most remarkable thing about Ramana Maharshi was that he never claimed anything remarkable for himself, yet became one of the most loved and respected of all.”