How could I remain in Tiruvannamalai and not take advantage of the rich spiritual tradition of this town? Well, I couldn't. So, this afternoon, I had my own small pilgrimage up Arunachala to the cave where Ramana Maharshi spent seventeen years, and attained moksha (an enlightened state of detachment from all material things in life, beyond caste or suffering).
I climbed the long and rocky path up the sacred hill in the afternoon heat, wearing only my cheap, Chinatown flip-flops (a.k.a. chancletas, or chappals in India). Sweat dripped in my eyes and ran down my back as the red dust colored my feet a rich terracotta. Wild dogs spotted the path, some lounging in the shade on the side of the path, scratching themselves or sleeping, some chasing each other across the rocky trail. I also passed numerous other spiritual pilgrims; a few Westerners in T-shirts, like myself, but most in dhotis or full saris.
About forty five minutes into the walk, monkeys began descending from the trees and converging on the path. These were not the small mischievous monkeys I'd seen before, but rather, slower, lumbering, relaxed monkeys the size of ten year old children. Black primate faces with silver-gray, spiky Mohawks atop their heads. I was frightened and slowed down, but then I saw an Indian couple walk by a large one who just ignored them as they passed. Nervously, I sidled past the long tailed, lazy fellow, and he ignored me too.
I stopped to admire the view of Tiruvannamalai and the temple below, drenched and wishing I had brought water with me. As I escalated, the monkey population increased, and the dog population dwindled. Finally, I reached the cave, walked through an archway where, above, mischievous little monkeys were eating banana peels and picking things off each other. I removed my chappels before climbing the few steps to the cave (it's called a cave but it's really more of a stone dwelling built into the rock-face on the side of the hill), and entered a cool and peaceful little stone hut where a number of people were sitting in silent meditation before a flame and a picture of Ramana. Flowers lay before his portrait, offerings as if to a deity or god. I joined the people in the cool dark room and sat silently as my wet T-shirt stuck to the trunk of my body. My perspiration slowed, so did my heartbeat and my thoughts. I felt an unexpected peace wash over me.
When I allow myself to concentrate on the absence of thought, I can feel my breathing slow and deepen, the awareness of my physical condition becomes heightened, and I get closer to achieving an incongruous combination of self-awareness and freedom from self. I can quiet the mind and watch thoughts float by and linger momentarily, like notes of a melody played from a neighboring house, then just as easily they float away.
After a while, maybe a half hour, maybe more, I respectfully bowed to the image of the enlightened one and left the cave. Cooler now, I started down the rocky trail towards the ashram below. Now, chappals in hand, I stepped carefully in my bare feet. More monkeys, and a flurry of contradictory thoughts. These were not the floating thoughts that easily come and go like gentle breezes, but rather stubborn, nagging reflections. Had I not just had some kind of spiritual experience? Why now was I thinking about the young British boy from yesterday's yoga class? I had talked to him for only a few minutes, and quickly assessed him to be about as intellectually keen as a box of hair. Sweet, age-inappropriate, lovely to look at, and almost painfully simple; the exact type of fellow that usually sets me salivating like a hungry predator. Earlier in the day he'd waved at me from across the main road in town, a vacant idiot grin plastered across his pretty face. Would I see him again? Might I invite him to sit and have some chai, and then? My mind kept snapping back and I wrestled with these needling thoughts as with a recalcitrant umbrella. The visual details from yesterday's class burned into my memory and repeated; his lean flexible body, soft blond beard, the gentle curve of his throat, the arch of his feet.
Noticing physical beauty is one thing, not being able to appreciate the present moment because of some sexual preoccupation is another. I don't even think my preoccupation was necessarily sexual. It may have just been a persistant old idea. Here I am, descending the path of a spiritual pilgrimage, having just meditated on sacred ground, surrounded by nature, beauty, and even monkeys!, yet I remain enslaved by an old sexual idea.
Is this ever something I can be relieved of?
I pray daily to be relieved of the bondage of self. I know that to be happy, joyous, and free I must be willing to "let go of my old ideas absolutely." Knowing this, being willing to do it, and being able to do it are concepts that remain distant from each other, long rocky trails apart. I may visit the location, but moksha, even a temporary encounter with it, remains elusive.