Article by Michael Highburger published in SARANAGATI SRI RAMANASRAMAM Magazine.
Dear Devotees, In this issue, we begin a new biography of a devotee who spent more than two years in Bhagavan’s presence up until his Mahanirvana in Thelma Rappold took copious notes throughout her stay at Ramanasramam in the late 1940s and compiled them into a large manuscript which is only now being published for the first time.
Thelma Rappold: In Search of Bhagavan
In September 1947, the American Thelma Benn crossed the Hudson aboard the S.S. Falcon en route to Southampton in the first leg of a long dreamed of pilgrimage to India. It was a trip that would change her, marking the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Thelma had never crossed the Atlantic, much less seen Asia, but she had saved enough money that she hoped would enable her to remain in India for several years.
Once in the UK, her stay was brief. In between the sights, she wasted no time in booking a passage to Bombay, taking the help of some South Indian exchange students on their way home to Madras.
On October 13, 1947 at Liverpool, Thelma boarded the S.S. Empire Brent and embarked for Bombay, sailing via Gibraltar, Alexandria, the Suez Canal, Port Said and Colombo, Ceylon. Her intention was clear: to find a spiritual teacher which she felt only India could offer her. She carried a typewriter along with her to record day by day the unfolding sojourn. On the 5th of November, she makes her first entry from India:
Dreams of many long-years-standing began to unfold this morning as the S.S. Empire Brent eased its way into Bombay harbour at dawn. India has always been the home of spirituality and the land of Self-Realization. May it also become the land of Realization for me.
Thelma Benn had no idea what was in store for her, but her determination led her forth with great confidence into the broads of the subcontinent. She travelled by train to Delhi and Agra, and soon found herself in holy Kashi:
Benares ranks in reverence and affection with the people of Hindu faith as Mecca does with the Mohammadans. Benares stands on the left bank of the Ganges in whose sacred waters pilgrims from all parts of India bathe, to wash away their sins. The whole life of the city is closely interwoven with the [observances] and ritual of Hinduism. Shrines, temples and palaces belonging to great Hindu nobles rise tier above tier from the water s edge, crowded with ghats, the minarets of the mosque of Aurangzeb towering overall. The holiest spot in the city is the Bisheshwar or Golden Temple, dedicated to Lord Siva and crowned by a dome and spire of copper covered with thin plates of gold. The Durga Temple is remarkable for its simple and graceful architecture. The temple of Annapurna is embellished with delicately tinted sculptures. The most esteemed ghats are those of Dasashwamedh, Panchganga and Manikarnika. According to legend, when Aurangzeb destroyed the original Vishwanath Temple, the image of Lord Siva was rescued and thrown into the well, thus making the water from this well much sought after by pilgrims.
Longstanding connections with the Ramakrishna Mission led Thelma to contact Swami Pavitrananda who gave her cautions and advice in her search for a guru. He suggested writing to Sri Ramanasramam for permission to visit. He sent her to Belur Math, Math of the Ramakrishna Center five miles outside of Calcutta, and once there, she found herself in the capable hands of Swamis Chidananda, Viragananda, Atmabodhananda, Abhoyananda, Nirvananda and the President, Swamiji Virajananda, all of whom in their well-intentioned way, mentored her. She took advantage of the monastic schedule, spent her free time in the temples and apprenticed herself to the many spiritual hints offered her. Her well-wishers again urged her not to overlook South India and among other places, the town of Tiruvannamalai.
In mid-january, she left Howrah Station and travelled by the Puri Express to Orissa where she took refuge once again at the Ramakrishna Mission, beautifully situated on the Bay of Bengal. By the third week of January she was in Madras and a few days later, at Pondicherry in the Aurobindo Ashram. She met Aurobindo and the Mother and got some basic training in Ashram life, even taking up volunteer duties.
One day after several weeks at the Aurobindo Ashram, she befriended Dilip Kumar Roy who had some influence in the Ashram and was able to open doors for her. But the most significant connection he helped her to make was with a visitor from Tiruvannamalai. The day was 21st February, Darshan Eve, amid the crowd gathered for the celebration that was to take place the next day. Dr. Syed, a friend of Dilip Kumar Roy and a Ramana devotee, arrived at the Aurobindo Ashram. Upon meeting him, Thelma was impressed by his stillness and presence. His words roused deep interest in her as to what lay further down the road, namely in Tiruvannamalai. This propitious meeting was so influential that it took her only three days to pack up her life in Pondicherry, bid her farewells to the many friends and acquaintances she had come to know during the previous month, and board the charcoal-powered bus for the bumpy seven-hour overland journey to Arunachala.
She had a good feeling about her decision and got confirmation on the way. Over dusty roads, while lost in reverie, a face appeared in her dream-like mid-day slumber.
Arriving at the Tiruvannamalai bus terminal, a coolie loaded her luggage in a vandi, a two-wheeled horse-drawn covered cart to carry her the rest of the way to Ramanasramam.
Raja Iyer, the Ashram postmaster and receptionist, greeted her at the gate and took her to the Ashram dining hall. Lunch had finished long before, but Raja insisted she have food and served her a full meal. This was her first time eating in the South Indian style from a banana leaf. She admired the walls of the dining hall decorated with pictures of the Maharshi and other great souls.
Raja told her that this was Bhagavan’s resting hour but suggested they go to him anyway. Thelma was unprepared for what was to follow, feeling perhaps inappropriately dressed. But entering the darshan hall, her apprehensions proved unfounded:
One look and those great oceanic eyes stopped all motion. He penetrated every atom of my being. My tongue lost its power of speech, even thoughts were momentarily at a standstill.
No one was in the Hall apart from Bhagavan and his attendant. Thelma stood and stared, but was unable to utter a single word. Her written account continues:
What just happened? He alone knows! I just stood there as if transfixed to the spot until Raja suggested it was time to go. The most startling thing once I came down to earth was that it was Bhagavan’s face that had appeared to me so vividly during one of the catnaps on the way from Pondicherry. How exhilarating to know that the search for a guru has now ended and that I am here to stay for a long time, regardless of the primitive surroundings and glaring physical difficulties ahead. To be able to drink in Bhagavan s presence is all that matters now. The most wonderful part is that we are allowed to spend almost as much time as we like in Bhagavan’s presence, thus giving absorption a free hand.
Raja Iyer then took her to one of the Ashram guestrooms for a much-needed rest. After tea at 2.30 pm, everyone assembled in the meditation hall, the men on one side and the women on the other. Bhagavan sat on the sofa at one end of the hall with an attendant at his side. At 4.45 pm after reading the outgoing mail, he went for a short walk. While he was away, a place under the pandal outside the meditation hall was made ready. At 5.30 pm the Vedapatasala boys chanted the Rudram and Bhagavan s verses to Arunachala. At 6 pm, the ladies went to eat their dinner in order to be out of the Ashram by 6:30 pm. Mrs. Osborne, meeting Thelma for the first time, offered her Dr. Sujata Sen’s cottage which was to be vacant until she returned from Madras.
Thelma took stock of all she was experiencing, taking in the setting and her very exotic surroundings. Her entry from 27th February reads:
The Pondicherry Ashram is the most modern and Westernized Ashram in all India. Sri Ramanasramam goes to the opposite extreme. It has been referred to as the Jungle Ashram which it truly is. It is operated strictly according to old orthodox customs. It is located at the foot of Arunachala. On one side is located the Palakottu jungle hermitage where sannyasin-devotees live, mostly on alms from the village. On the other side of the Ashram, except for a small dobhi hut and a few wayside shrines and samadhi tombs, is open country. Between the two small trails spread out fan-like in many directions, leading to the simple homes and thatched huts of the many householders, as well as other earnest seekers, who have come to offer themselves at the feet of Bhagavan. Ashram guestrooms are open only for a few days after which each must make his own arrangements in the little community that has clustered near Bhagavan. To come here means leaving one’s home with all its pleasures and conveniences to live a primitive life. One can easily be content with the bare necessities of life in exchange for the rare and blessed privilege of being with a great Rishi like Bhagavan.
From the first day, Thelma is intent on being present for early morning meditation and takes to life in the darshan hall, surprised that she feels no need to talk to the Maharshi, finding that being in his presence is sufficient:
It amazes me how he sits absolutely quiet and motionless, yet his eyes are so penetrating. When I have questions, I do not verbalize them, because it isn’t necessary; the questions are answered almost immediately. Our means of communication is a mind-to-mind connection.
In March 1948, Thelma Benn knew that she was where she needed to be and all other plans for pilgrimage in and around India dropped away. She
settled in for the long haul and took careful note of her surroundings. Even if she was new to Ashram life and life at the feet of a Master, she took to it like a duck to water:
Four-thirty comes very early these mornings. Dressing in the dark is becoming a habit. It seems much easier than going through the struggle of trying to light the lantern. The privilege of being with Bhagavan is well worth all the effort of getting up early. Everything is so quiet in the morning. In that “thought-free” atmosphere, Bhagavan’s presence penetrates the very heart of the soul…[When hearing] the Veda Parayana, sometimes the boys are out of tune and off beat, but even so, the chanting steps up the vibrations and has a very quietening effect on the restless mind, especially in Bhagavan’s presence. It was surprising to see so many turn out at 5 am in the morning. After Parayana, Bhagavan takes his early morning walk. Mrs. Osborne suggested going up the Hill to watch the sunrise – what a magnificent sight! We went barefooted, found a small [outcropping] looking out over the city below. The eastern horizon was a blaze of colour, eagles glided down the mountainside from their homes on sacred Arunachala and all was peace and quiet. It may appear as only a barren rock-studded hill but to sit quietly in meditation on the crest of one of its hillocks is to feel the fiery magnetism that pulsates from its innermost depths.
In the Hall
The daily round began to become familiar to her, centred as it was on hours in the Hall in Bhagavan’s presence:
The morning hours with Bhagavan are always the best, followed by the hour or so beneath the Margosa tree. This being Sunday, large crowds came to see Bhagavan. Some of the townspeople gave money for a feast… At 8 am Bhagavan’s radio is turned on for the morning news. From all indications the radio is there for the benefit of the devotees, as Bhagavan seems quite indifferent to it… In the meditation hall some people sit and watch Bhagavan, some appear to be more interested in what is going on around them, others close their eyes and sit in meditation, while still others read or write in his presence. I started to read Self-Realization, the story of Bhagavan’s life. Being in his presence helps one to think more clearly and to understand better what is being read. Bhagavan says “Self-Realization is an easy thing, the easiest thing there is.” If we were only fully aware of that fact, how wonderful!
Raja announced that Dr. Sen would be returning on March 7th, and that I could have a room at Dr. Syed’s place if that was satisfactory to me. Bhagavan knows that I want to stay and so surely something will work out despite the crowded conditions.
Light and Power
Thelma sat, observed and commented in her journal, shy to speak up and voice her own personal concerns:
Today was someone’s birthday. A lady brought two big trays of prasad and was very much disappointed when it wasn’t distributed in the hall. Lunch was a very festive occasion with all sorts of delicacies. Whenever there is a special event, devotees bring large trays of goodies for Bhagavan because he won’t take any unless all share alike. This afternoon one of the devotees started a very interesting discussion about light and power. He tried to get Bhagavan to declare himself on the subject which Bhagavan of course refused to do. It is interesting to watch Bhagavan’s eyes light up like two pools of liquid luminosity whenever he gets into a discussion and to see how subtly he can subdue the most unyielding intellect.
In time, the opportunity for a private encounter is made available to her and she does not pass it up:
Raja Gopal, one of Bhagavan’s attendants said he would arrange a private meeting with Bhagavan for tomorrow while Bhagavan was on his afternoon walk. “No privacy” seems to be one of the prices of fame – Bhagavan can’t even go to the bathroom without someone wanting to talk with him. Inasmuch as today is Sunday, there was a steady stream of visitors and so there was no opportunity to talk with Bhagavan alone.
However, her chance came the following day. Thelma makes the following entry:
Raja Gopal took me out to the Post Office steps to wait for Bhagavan until he returned from his walk. Raja left me standing there while he hurried out to tell Bhagavan what I wanted to ask him. When Bhagavan came around the corner and looked at me and spoke to me in English, it was as though my entire being was enveloped in a sea of dazzling light – his compassion and love is so far-reaching. To feel Bhagavan’s presence is to chase all thoughts to the four-winds.
Elsewhere, she describes an encounter with Bhagavan this way:
To try and describe Ramana Maharshi in words is most difficult, because the essence of what Ramana is cannot be described. When he comes into the Ashram after lunch or returns from his daily walk, I feel that someone has suddenly turned on a bright light. If I open to that I am in a state of relaxation. In front of me is this tall man with nothing but a little loincloth on, whose eyes melt away all problems… His face and eyes are luminescent. He tries to show me the reality of who I really am. Just sitting there, I am awed by the light in his eyes and by his being.
On March 9th, Thelma celebrated her first major feast day in the Ashram:
When I arrived at the meditation hall at 5 am this morning, it was so crowded I had difficulty finding a place to sit. Later someone said it was Sivaratri, a very auspicious day. This is the day the year’s supply of holy ash is prepared, the basic ingredient being cow-dung. For breakfast we had a variety of special sweets, in addition to the standard items of fresh peppered ground nuts and idlies.
Sivaratri called for a special puja in the temple. Siva was decked with garland upon garland of flowers. The temple was dazzling with lights. Even the meditation hall came in for its share of the little oil lamps. On this big occasion women can remain an extra hour in the hall with Bhagavan and everyone ate dinner at the same time. These occasions are such a treat
as they give one the added joy of eating another meal with Bhagavan. Major Chadwick was drawn out of his solitary hut for the event, but he didn’t appear to be enjoying the meal. Ordinarily he never eats anything at night… Raja suggested my joining the group going around the Hill tonight. Whatever wish is made on this night Siva is supposed to grant.
At 8:30 pm all the pilgrims assembled ready to make the pradakshina. Raja said it was customary to first get Bhagavan’s permission and blessing before starting, so he went with me to the Hall. Except for the attendant Bhagavan was alone when we went in. As so often happens in his presence, a feeling of child-like awe came over me, and I shyly asked, as one might ask a paternal father, “Bhagavan, may I go around the Hill tonight?” He chuckled and laughingly pointed to me and said to the attendant, “Look she asks ME if she may go around the Hill.” All had a good laugh as I stood there blushing from head to toe.
Elsa Lowenstern and I walked together, always keeping well in back of the others so that we couldn’t hear their constant chatter. We both had the same idea of remaining silent. It was a beautiful starry night. The new moon had already gone to rest and so we took a hurricane lantern to light our way. It was a thrilling experience. As we sat at the Ashram gate, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, feeling sorry for our tired aching bodies, a blind swami who makes the trip around the Hill twice every night passed us with lightning speed with only a cane and his inner eye to guide him. He really put us to shame. He sleeps in the temple in town during the day and spends his nights walking around the Hill.
Setting Up House
The time came for Thelma to leave the Ashram and set up a more permanent living quarters and she felt blessed to be invited by Dr. Syed and Mrs Syed. She writes:
At 3 am, I cut across lots to go to Dr. Syed’s tea. He is a Mohamedan and a retired professor from Allahabad University. He also invited Miss Merston. He said he would have taken me for a Kashmiri lady, but certainly not for an American, because I seem much more like an Indian lady than a Westerner. The tea was made from the tulsi plant which is supposed to have many curative qualities. It is also supposed to be the most sacred plant in India. The infinite varieties of Indian delicacies are always a pleasure to the palate. Much as I enjoyed the tea, I hated to miss spending that time with Bhagavan.
The Syeds have a lovely view of Arunachala from their place. With the 6 pm dinner comes the Lamp Lighter’s Serenade. One of the devotees brings in a lighted lamp and places it alongside the leaf-plate. It seems a little foolish to walk down the open road in broad day light with a lighted lantern, but that is country life in India.
Thelma took a room from the Syed’s and shifted on 21st March 1948:
Moving day! The new quarters at Dr. Syed’s could hardly be put in the same category as the Ritz, but they are reasonably comfortable. There is a rope cot, a small table and a chair and even an electric light in the larger of the two rooms. The combination kitchen and bath didn’t fare so well, however, it has only a single wooden plank for an all-purpose shelf; no lights and just one tiny window. The thatched roof and side walls don’t meet, leaving an open invitation to mice, rats, cats, snakes, etc. Looks as though I am due for an invitation into the real Indian way of life. But Mrs. Syed is very accommodating and helpful and has even offered to teach me Hindi. After the evening meal at the Ashram, Yogi’s children were waiting to escort me to their house. Mother Yogi had made sweets for the occasion. She gave me a charcoal stove, a generous supply of tins, and other miscellaneous things to start me on my Indian housekeeping adventure.
Thelma’s entries pertaining to Tiruvannamalai’s environs in the 1940s communicates the rural beauty and simplicity of a less complicated time in history:
Sleeping on the roof terrace of Dr. Syed’s new home is perfectly wonderful. Awakened several times during the night just to enjoy the view of Arunachala and the star-canopied heaven. The moon too was so pretty as it slowly made its way across the sky. Went to Yogi’s for breakfast this morning and for a lesson in Indian cooking. Mr. Yogi was busy with the daily home spinning while breakfast was being prepared. He spent twenty years with the Congress Party before taking up Bhagavan’s “cause” as he calls it. He proudly tells of the time he spent in jail for his country’s cause. The children don’t go to school, but he instructs them daily. Dr. Syed left for Allahabad today which means Mrs. Syed and I will have the compound to ourselves.
Breakfast with Bhagavan
Though till now she had been sleeping in Sujata Sen’s kutir, she had been allowed to eat at the Ashram each day. But the move to the Syed’s signalled her willingness to take up cooking and provide for her own food needs in light of the space and resource limitations in the ever-growing Ashram:
This morning I had my last breakfast with Bhagavan and so I took special care to thoroughly enjoy it: No rushing this time. Today Sakur, Mrs. Syed’s servant, did some marketing for me. When he returned Mrs. Syed spread a mat on the ground in the back yard and Sakur (who looks like six years old but is actually twelve) spread out all the purchases and then came the fun. It was really amusing to see the procedure. He had bought some things for Mrs. Syed also and so the reckoning was a bit complicated for his little head. However with his Tamil figures, Mrs. Syed’s Urdu figures and my English ones everything tallied perfectly which brought a gleam of satisfaction to Sakur’s eyes. He is a bright little fellow with plenty of initiative. He bought several extras which I hadn’t asked for but which he knew I would be needing. Child-like he bought himself a half anna toy which was all Mrs. Syed would allow me to give him for all his trouble.
Accepting Whatever is Offered
Though now some blocks away from the Ashram, Thelma continues the daily round which includes morning meditations at the Ashram and darshan with the Maharshi:
These are glorious days attending the early morning Veda Parayanas, followed by an hour’s meditation beneath the favourite Margosa tree in full view of Arunachala, the never-changing One. Days fly by like minutes in Bhagavan’s presence. When I sit in Maharshi’s presence I feel that my little ego has slipped back someplace, and I open my heart and let those beautiful waves enter me. I feel willing to accept whatever is offered me.
As the weeks and months passed, Thelma was slowly introduced to the liturgical rhythms of South Indian orthodoxy. With its many grand festivals and celebrations punctuating ordinary time with the divine, hinting at the eternal even in the midst of conventional living, she revelled in the experience which proved unlike any in her life. She used her daily journal entries as a means of grounding her enthusiasm, making the effort to keep her observations casual and unadorned, and even took notice of very ordinary goings-on:
This being full moon day Bhagavan got his monthly shearing which delayed lunch until 12 noon. Raja gave me some buttermilk to tide me over until lunch. In our anticipation of going on the eight-mile pradakshina, we neglected to eat breakfast. Raja then took me to the Dispensary so I could lie Down – a very welcome half-hour of relaxation. Much as the body revolted, I got up the next morning and went to 5 am parayana. The rest of the crowd slept in. Bhagavan seemed to get a kick out of my face this morning which looked like an over-ripe tomato [after the previous day’s pradakshina]. This afternoon, a French sannyasin came for Bhagavan’s darshan. He left France four months ago without a [single paisa]. He stowed away on a French ship for India. Barefoot and with nothing to call his own but the cloth on his back, he is making a pilgrimage through India in search of spirituality. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Thelma’s first major feast in the Ramanasramam cycle was Mahapuja on 1st June 1948:
The Ashram has undergone many changes these days in preparation for Mahapuja. Bhagavan sat in a small enclosure in front of the temple. The coloured lights and hundreds of people moving about made the scene appear like a lively county fair. Ate dinner at the Ashram with hundreds of other devotees. Sat next to Mr. Sam Rappold. We compared notes on our trip to India. [The next day], thousands of people came to the Ashram to celebrate the Mahapuja of Bhagavan’s Mother. At the time of her death, Bhagavan placed his hands on her forehead and heart to ensure that she reached the Ultimate. The women wore their best saris for the occasion only to be trampled on by the mob. The puja itself was very colourful. Krishnaswami sprinkled rose water over the crowd. At lunch time, we were jostled about to such an extent that my sari nearly went home on another body. Major Chadwick was the big front man making his way through the frenzied crowd that stampeded the barricade. Policemen were stationed at the entrances to push the people back when they got out of control. In addition to the poor feeding, lunch was served to approximately 3,000 persons. Bhagavan sat blissfully through the entire performance as though nothing [out of the ordinary] were going on. Poems, speeches, and songs were composed for the occasion. People were packed so tightly in the meditation hall it is a wonder someone didn’t suffocate. Even the big elephant from the temple in town came to pay its respects to Bhagavan. He has been taught to go down on bended knee before Bhagavan in a bodily gesture of “namaste.” He is always rewarded by several bunches of bananas, volumes of rice, coconuts and gallons of water.
Bhagavan in the Dining Hall
Thelma attends to Bhagavan’s every move and makes note of what she sees:
It is a symphony in motion to watch the graceful gestures of Bhagavan’s long tapering fingers while eating. Not a grain of rice is left on his banana leaf plate. Rarely is a word spoken during mealtime.
Castor Oil Prasad
Thelma is invited to participate in the ritual life of the community which includes taking unexpected prasad:
At parayana this morning, everyone got a dose of castor oil and bananas. Why? Ask Bhagavan. According to Raja, whenever Bhagavan takes a laxative, enough is prepared for everyone. What next?
Krishna and I went to see the little temple on the rock mound in town where Bhagavan had stayed for a while. We took some fruits to the sadhus who are doing tapas there, and then we climbed up on a prominent rock and sat “milking mangoes” while the evening sun set over Arunachala’s left shoulder, a gorgeous sight.
Thelma delights in Bhagavan’s appreciation of the animal world and the grace he shows his non-human devotees:
This afternoon two chipmunks played gleefully about on Bhagavan’s couch. About the same time one of the monkeys made a quick dash into the hall, swiped a banana lying on the floor and made his getaway before the attendant saw him. Bhagavan’s eyes really sparkle when he witnesses such scenes. Two different persons brought homemade delicacies for Bhagavan which were passed around to everyone. Meditation suffered considerably because of all the distractions… Never a day goes by without its major and minor problems. [But what a wonder how lifetimes pass] in just a fleeting moment with Bhagavan.
A Friend from Back Home
An old friend from back home, Mrs. Wally Groeger, arrived from Seattle via Colombo on 1st December. Thelma went to Madras on the 2nd to meet her:
We spent four days there getting her equipped with Indian dress. Mrs. Groeger delivered a package [from home]. Coming back from Madras, Mrs. Groeger and I decided to try 3rd class on the train. That was my first experience riding 3rd class. Usually the cars in 3rd class are as packed as a New York subway at 5 pm. The coolies put our baggage on the train and to our surprise when we pulled out of the station, we were the only ones in the car. Later we learned the reason. A notice had been posted outside the car to the effect that it had been reserved for 33 prisoners. Luckily the coolies couldn’t read. No wonder when we stopped on the way people passed by and stared at us as though we were something strange. I think that was the first time in history two ladies had a ‘private’ 3rd class compartment. The prisoners got on the train where we got off at 2 am.
Not long after returning from Madras, the Karthigai Deepam festival commenced and day by day pilgrims from every quarter appeared in the town to participate in the celebration and worship the glory of Arunachala. On the 14th December 1948, the flame atop the Hill was lit, and for many subsequent days. Thelma looked to the goings-on in amazement:
For the past 48 hours there has been a constant parade around the Hill at all hours of the day and night. At 4 am in the morning the place is already humming with excitement, the beating of drums, ringing of bells and the jingle jangle of anklet clad bare feet on pilgrimage around the Hill of the Holy Beacon. All this in the midst of a jungle setting is something that must be witnessed to appreciate, especially the colour, mystery and beauty. Most of the women wear several toe rings on each foot, several anklets on each ankle, nose studs as well as nose rings. Sometimes as many as six or eight rings on each ear. The gold earrings are so heavy the lobe of the ear hangs down so as to resemble an old-fashioned hoop. With their bright coloured saris and gaily coloured flowers in their hair they are really a picture.
The Maharaja of Amarnagar
A few days after the lighting of the Deepam flame, Bhagavan’s Jayanti took place on the 18th December. A few days before Christmas the Maharaja of Amarnagar State of Katheatar came to the Ashram. He invited Thelma and other devotees for afternoon tea:
He brought with him 25 or 30 servants. Aside from stumbling over one another, I can’t imagine what they could do for one single man. Europeans and Americans were invited to the Morvi Guest House which is otherwise reserved for royalty. We had a delightful time of course. While we were all having a festive time, the Maharaja got the idea that we should all have Christmas dinner together. Nobody refused and so we put on our best bib and tucker and went to the big dinner. There was a continual procession of servants passing before us to make sure we didn’t run short of food. We had a large variety of dishes. Some of them were hot enough to start a forest fire and others quite delicious. The day before Christmas, various devotee-friends sent fruits and sweets to Wally and me.
Though in the heart of spiritual India, Thelma and her friend from home, Mrs. Groeger, made a small gesture at keeping the American Christmas tradition:
We decided to get up at 5 am Christmas morning and do a bit of baking. A truly Herculean task in a place where an oven is an oddity for museums rather than to be used in kitchens. To make our task more difficult, we had no recipes for cookies. Wally made some lovely pretzel-shaped cookies that were real works of art. When we peeked into our improvised oven—a frying pan with a lid—to our dismay, the pretzels had been turned to flapjacks—what a mess. We tried other varieties of cookies with very little success. We tried to make some candy which was also a fiasco. In short, we didn’t draw one winner from all the things we made. We made up our little trays anyway and sent them to devotees who had been so nice to us. Reports came back that they were good, but Wally and I knew better. We had a lot of laughs anyway and nobody got a stomach-ache.
Shortly after the first of the year another Maharani came to the Ashram and invited us to dinner. We always welcome such invitations in that we don’t have to cook on those days. The elegant saris worn on such occasions are breath-taking, some of them are several hundreds of years old and are worth fortunes. Mr. Rappold, Mrs. Groeger and I have combined efforts on cooking which saves time and effort for everybody. Mrs. Groeger brought a nice one-burner kerosene stove with her and so we use that most of the time. In this way we can spend more time in the hall [with Bhagavan] which of course is what we all want.
Night in a Cave
Mrs. Groeger had become equally enamoured of Bhagavan and the Hill and the two made their best efforts at introductory renunciate life:
Wally and I spent another night in a cave. Who knows, maybe in preparation for a future stay in the Himalayas. Anyway, it was very thrilling. That night there was just a crescent moon. On all these excursions, we have to get up on the Hill before dark as it is very dangerous climbing about after the sun goes down. The best thing to do is to stay where one is until daybreak if caught unawares. Anyway, in front of the cave were some nice big flat rocks, just as though they had been put there for a veranda. During the night one of those tropical downpours awakened us and we had to retreat inside the cave which was only two feet high and hardly long enough for the two of us. I don’t mind saying I felt a wee bit creepy, not knowing exactly when some unwelcome animal, insect or snake might come crawling in wanting to share our small quarters. But no mishaps. It certainly was a novel experience and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
Once a week now, usually on Wednesdays, I go into mounam. I shall try 24 hours in the beginning, which may be a challenge, not talking for that long. It’s rather fun. The big challenge is to keep the mind from running all around the country, but it does have a soothing effect on the system. It also helps with meditation inasmuch as it cuts out all the unnecessary chatter.
Thelma sees Bhagavan’s hand in everything around her:
A very interesting phenomenon occurs whenever it rains. Many of the heavy downpours come in the late afternoons, but invariably at 7:30 when the men are scheduled to leave the Hall—the rain stops—perhaps only for a few minutes but long enough for the men to get home. Just a coincidence, some will say – perhaps!
Followed Bhagavan to the woodshed in the rain. A devotee came to the Ashram this morning wearing “glowing” raiment such as I had never seen before. An unforgettable picture framed by the gateway of the little temple shrine. The radiance of the moment dazzled even the attendant who approached the open doorway. We caught a glimpse of the “Rainbow Madonna” as we sat watching the mist-covered sun rise through the archway.
Bolt of Lightning
On another day, all were sitting quietly at the feet of Bhagavan listening to the raging wind and the roaring thunder, when suddenly, lightning struck within three feet of where Thelma was sitting:
All the women in that section seemed to jump in unison, and miracle of miracles, the lightning struck the ground right there and not even a hair on anyone’s head was harmed. Years ago, I was very much frightened of lightning, but strange as it may seem, the heart didn’t even skip a beat that day. It must have been the presence of Bhagavan that protected everyone… Only by the Grace of Bhagavan could such calm reign in the midst of such fury.
True Home and Teacher
Thelma pauses from the outward adventure of life with Bhagavan to appreciate what is at work in her:
At the Ashram I found my true home and teacher. It [is] as if I had lived several lifetimes in [this short time I have been] with him. The person who came to him in the beginning is not the same person [now]. I [begin to understand] how to open up the power locked within me… When I first met Sri Ramana, he told me, “You are what you are—accept it. When the time comes to give it up, do it with grace.” [I keep] trying to ‘open’ as much as possible. I recognize that we all choose our suffering because we do not open up and accept what life brings; we don’t find out ‘who’ it is that is experiencing the suffering. I have never, at any previous time in my life, really let go and tried to just ‘be’. When we can do this, love just pours out.
Life in the presence of Bhagavan had ordinary moments, too. Time with a friend on the Hill, for example, provided needed intervals to take in and assimilate all that Thelma was undergoing internally during her darshans in the hall:
A few nights ago, Wally (Mrs. Groeger) and I went up on the Hill to spend the night on some of the mammoth rocks. The original plan was to meditate all night rather than sleep. However, that seemed to be a wee bit too much for us for the first time. The moon was so beautiful, there was a lovely breeze and it was almost a pity to close the eyes. We told Bhagavan what we planned to do as it is considered rather risky business normally on account of the many snakes and wild animals such as cheetahs, panthers and scorpions. By Bhagavan’s grace, all went well, and nothing more than the big ants bothered us. We hated to come down from the mountain the next morning, but all good things must come to an end.
Thelma continued living in Dr. and Mrs. Syed’s compound and her life in the tropics regularly brought fresh encounters:
At the moment, I am considering changing the name of “Aspiration Abode” to “Aspiration Zoo”. As mentioned before “Aspiration Abode” is so tiny another person couldn’t possibly stay with me. However, a tailless lizard and his family of little lizards and all their relatives have moved in with me. Papa lizard must have been minding somebody else’s business because he got his tail bitten off. I notice however he is starting to grow another. In addition to the lizard family I have Hoppy the frog, Mickey the mouse, Noisy the cricket, Skinny the silverfish and a dozen other varieties of creatures whose names I don’t know living with me. I almost forgot to name the flyingroach who loves to eat and make his nest in any kind of paper. So far I haven’t found anything that will affect the roaches. They seem to grow fat on DDT. This morning I even found a two-foot snake just outside the door. Anyone interested in moving into my little Zoo with me?
Two Western Visitors
But Thelma began to see herself as a veteran of the tropics when other uninitiated Western visitors came to South India for the first time:
A few days ago, two English women from South Africa arrived in Madras – Gertrude de Kock and Eureka Wessels. Mrs. de Kock is 56 but could easily pass for a woman in her early 40’s. Eureka I should say is in her early 30’s. De Kock is a “New Thought” teacher in South Africa and has had a very thrilling life which reads like a story book. This was their first trip to India, and they had no idea what they were getting into. The primitive way of life, the hot food and having to sit on the floor cross legged, and to eat food with the fingers from a banana leaf was almost more than they could take all at one time. Someone on the ship coming over told them that was what they would have to do but they thought the man was kidding. They were used to all the modern luxuries of life. On the train coming from Madras, Rappold told them that if the food at the Ashram was too spicy, he would be glad to cook for them provided they were satisfied with the plain food he ate. They decided to take him up on his offer. He told me about it and asked if I would help. The result was that I was cooking two meals a day for four people and serving the four of us when the weather didn’t permit eating outside. How we managed in my tiny 5 x 1O-foot abode is more than I know. The walls seemed to expand while they were here and now that they have gone the walls have assumed their normal proportions again. The women were here for ten days. After the first day or two they began to unbend considerably, and we had many good laughs over their experiences and the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Inaugurating the Mother’s Shrine
Meanwhile life continued at the Ashram and preparations for inaugurating the temple over the Mother’s Shrine were underway. By the middle of March 1949, everything was ready:
The Mahakumbhabishekam celebration from the 14th to the 17th of March was a big affair. Thousands of people came from all parts of India. Special trains were dispatched from various parts of the country. The crowd is gradually dwindling and we should be able to get our breath once again. During that time, we couldn’t sit in the hall without being sat on. About two months ago one of the top editors of Life Magazine, a Mr. Sargant, was here one afternoon. That particular afternoon Mrs. Groeger and I had gone to Major Chadwick’s to have Ramon, his servant, read our palms. While there Harindranath, the poet, called me out to meet Mr. Sargant. We talked for a long time about various topics of interest and then he went away. During the big celebration who should appear on the scene but Mr. Elisofon, Life Magazine’s no. 1 photographer to “shoot” the place, and so unless something unforeseen happens, Sri Ramanasramam should make Life Magazine sometime during the latter part of May.
Mr. Elisofon stayed in the same room Wally had when she first arrived which meant we were close neighbours. Madan Gopal, his host had me over on occasions to help entertain the American. He was here for four days and when he left, he gave me a few tins of miscellaneous articles from the good old USA. What a treat.
Sam Rappold before Bhagavan in the Hall
Thelma began to note down interactions in the Hall:
Only the birds were on hand at parayana this morning to chant the Vedas. Proceeded to the rocking-chair rock for further meditation. Hurried back to the hall in time to hear Rappold ask Bhagavan a series of questions. Always Bhagavan comes back to the same “Who Am I” and “There is nothing. Just BE”.
Sam Rappold asked Bhagavan, what a devotee should do at the time of death. Bhagavan answers:
A devotee never dies, rather he is already dead. (Then Bhagavan stops and waits for a competent translator. Devaraja Mudaliar enters. Bhagavan completes the answer:) What should a devotee do at the time of death? What can he do? Whatever a man thinks in his lifetime, so he does in his last moment—the worldly man thinks of his worldly affairs and the devotee of devotion and spiritual matters. But a Jnani having no thoughts of any kind, remains the same. His thoughts, having died long ago, his body also died with them. Therefore, for him there is no such thing as death. Again, people fear death because they fear to lose their possessions. When they go to sleep, they do not have such fear at all. Although sleep resembles death in leaving all possessions behind, it causes no fear in their hearts because of the knowledge that the next morning they will enter into their possessions once again. The Jnani, having no sense of possession, is entirely free from the fear of death. He remains the same after death as before it.
The Whole World Disappeared
Regularly, Thelma would get caught off guard and have to once again catch her breath and reassess the changes that were going on within her under Bhagavan’s influence:
It seemed that the so-called problems I thought I had just vanished. I went through a cleansing process. I would think to myself, “What am I so concerned about, it doesn’t really matter, nothing matters but who am ‘I,’ who is this ‘I,’ what is this entity?” Ramana’s presence made me inquire, not intellectually, but deeper and deeper into Awareness. The whole world disappeared, and I was in this wonderful space—it was up to me to absorb it, open to it, and let it become my being.
Growth on Bhagavan’s Arm
In February 1950, Bhagavan had a growth removed from his left elbow and within a month it had grown again to the size of an egg. The doctors insisted it had to be cut away again. Specialists were brought from Madras but the second wound wouldn’t heal:
He kept losing about a cup of blood every day and became so weak he could hardly walk. The Doctors held a conference and decided they should apply radium externally eight hours each day in order to stop the bleeding and arrest further growth. Despite all they did the wound wouldn’t heal as it should. Seven doctors got together, and the majority said the arm should be amputated.
Other physicians said instead there should be a third operation:
Bhagavan put his foot down and refused to have anything more done. Many of the devotees were weeping and wailing and pleading with Bhagavan not to give up his body. The Doctors also said they had done all they possibly could and now it was time for him to heal himself—for their sakes. Strangely enough, since the first of May 1949 he had been on a steady upgrade, since all the treatments have been discontinued. According to his birth chart, the local astrologers say, he was supposed to go through a very bad period during the months of February, March and April, which he certainly did. Now he is supposed to have a very good period for the next four months. After that, according to his chart he will have another four months period much worse than the one he has gone through. We shall see how things work out.
The dreaded day arrived and Bhagavan left his body. At 8.47pm on 14th April 1950, a giant meteor moved across the sky and fell behind the Holy Mountain where Bhagavan had spent 55 years of his life:
Even though his Light has now gone from this place, still his presence permeates every atom here and the air is charged with his scintillating presence. By 9.30pm that night his body was removed from the little room where he parted and was taken to the big meditation hall in the new Temple. There it was placed in a sitting position with folded hands and crossed legs as he had sat so often before. His body was garlanded with flowers, sandalwood paste, holy ashes, essences of various scents etc. When his passing was announced the place was in a state of confusion, but soon after [his inert form] was removed to the big hall and we gathered sitting at his feet as before, a great peace and calm spread over us like a warm blanket on a wintry night. All the sniffling, sobbing, weeping and wailing of men, women and children stopped instantly as if by magic. It was nothing short of miraculous in that some had even fainted and passed out in grief. Incense was burned the whole night through, along with the chanting of the Vedas and the hymns Bhagavan had written many years ago to Arunachala. News of his passing spread like wildfire over the town and neighbouring villages. A special police force was called in from Vellore to manage the large crowd which had come to pay their last respects to Bhagavan. The townspeople were allowed to go through single file and often the gate had to be locked to let the crowds disperse before letting more in. We who had been with Bhagavan for a long time were allowed to remain all night. I went home about 5am to get a bite of food and a bath before returning. It was a never to be forgotten experience, a privilege of many many life times, to watch the passing of so great a soul.
Preparing Bhagavan’s Samadhi
Puja was offered to Bhagavan Ramana after Abhishekam on the following morning and again in the evening of 15th April before the body was placed
in the Samadhi pit:
Amidst moving scenes and in the presence of a vast concourse of weeping men and women the body of Sri Ramana Maharshi was placed in Maha Samadhi a little before seven in the evening. As the flower-decked body which was detached from the pedestal on which it was placed in a sitting posture was lowered into the stone vault, devout cries of “Hara Hara,” rent the air. Sands collected from several ‘punya thirthams’ (sacred waters) including the Vaigai, the Tampraparni, Cape Comorin, Rameswaram, the Cauveri, the Tapthi, the Ganges, the Jumna,Prayag, Kasi, the Sindhu, the Krishna, the Godavari and the Thungabhardra were strewn inside the vault. Kumkum, vibhuti, powdered camphor, salt and precious stones (navarathnams) were also strewn inside the vault. ‘Bana Lingam’ brought from the Narmada is to be installed on the Maha Samadhi. The lowering of the Maharshi’s remains evoked so much spiritual emotion that many of the bhakthas threw in whatever valuable things they had on their person. Mr. N. Annamalai Pillai M.L.A. threw the gold buttons he was wearing on his shirt, and a number of women flung their gold rings, while others showered coins. From all directions, flowers were showered over the departed sage.
Meditation Comes So Easy
Just prior to Bhagavan’s departure, writers for the Saturday Evening Post arrived at the Ashram:
Darrel Berrigan of the Saturday Evening Post who had just recently arrived from China with Hi Chu his Chinese interpreter as well as Henri Cartier Bresson with his Indonesian wife were all here at the time. It was a big break for them. Berrigan said the Post would be running a story, although it wouldn’t appear for at least six weeks to six months. I have alerted the folks at home to be on the lookout for the article. People have been leaving rather fast since Bhagavan’s passing. It seems a pity to leave while the air is so potently charged with Bhagavan’s presence. Meditation comes so easy now, that it would be a shame to break the spell so soon. Naturally I am eager to know what the future holds, but patience and Inner Silence is the keynote for the present.
Thelma began to reflect on the gift she had been given, on her precious time with Bhagavan, and on the relevance of his teachings for the broader world:
I think Ramana’s teachings are accessible to everyone, but generally people are sound asleep and not ready for them; they can’t relax and let go. Until they do that, they can’t get much from Ramana’s teaching. It’s too simple. We Westerners think it has to be complicated and full of mumbo jumbo, but it doesn’t work that way. We really have to get to the source of life. Meeting Ramana totally changed my sense of values. My old sense of values simply
disappeared because I had come to the realization that none of this really matters. You come into this life and try to do as well as you can, and it is only for a short period. If you don’t learn your lesson well, then you come back and you have to repeat it. When I meet someone who is troubled, I try to help that person discover who he really is, to let some of this glorious Presence flow into him.
When a door closes, a window opens, goes the saying, and though Bhagavan was no longer present in physical form, his compassionate interventions and guidance continued to bless devotees. In the case of Sam Rappold and Thelma Benn, this took place in a very surprising way. The two commiserated with each other following their loss:
Sam and I have been thrown together under varying circumstances and on many occasions during the past few years. He came to India a confirmed bachelor and hermit. He nearly took the vows and robes of a Buddhist Monk. But it seems Bhagavan had other ideas. I too have been adamant in my stand against marriage for at least twelve years. Again, it doesn’t seem that Bhagavan consulted me on the matter. To summarize, Sam and I have undergone some most unusual experiences together, the kind of which could never have happened in the West, or any other place else in fact, except at the feet of a Great Guru such as Bhagavan.
Initial reluctance gradually gave way to Bhagavan’s persistence:
Many of the experiences were sparkling with beauty and the essence of Reality, but not all were of that nature, some were as if born in the deepest night of despair. All however were the guru’s way of grinding out those egotistical characteristics in us that block the way to Realization. The harder the knocks, the greater the lessons and with Bhagavan’s Grace and guidance we have been able to live many lifetimes in the period of these short years [in his presence]. On several occasions before Sam returned
to the States, he had asked me to share a life of sadhana with him. I consistently refused, thinking that was not for me. The vision he had while in California this last time, which impelled him to return to Tiruvannamalai with sky-rocket speed was deeply significant and not to be ignored or taken lightly. At the same time Sam had his vision there, a peculiar transformation took place in me and I knew intellectually I had absolutely nothing to say in the matter from then on. When Sam returned and revealed his dreams, again the most uncanny phenomenon took place. Bhagavan was also there. So clearly was he manifested that for the time being we forgot he had long since left his physical body. It was then that He in his own mysterious
way completed a masterpiece of inscrutable welding, and in His Presence, there was nothing for either of us to do but to accept with a heart full of thanksgiving the rare treasure he had given us. It was then we knew that sometime, somewhere, somehow, we would merge our individual efforts into one, and pursue the great goal of Realization together.
On their way home, these two Americans who had arrived in India independently as Sam Rappold and Miss Thelma Benn, left India as Mr. and Mrs. Rappold, having been married in Varanasi. A year later, they had a baby boy whom they named ‘Ramana’. — [Thelma lived in Sri Ramanasramam from February 1948 until summer of 1950. She subsequently settled in California and lived to the ripe old age of 93. After passing away peacefully in late 1998, a friend brought her ashes and scattered them at one of her favourite places near Sri Ramanasramam.]
Note: Ramana Samuel Rappold – The only child of Thelma and Sam, changed his name in later years to Ray. He is the father of Eric and Ella Rappold, Thelma’s grandchildren. He currently lives in Santa Rosa, California.