I have been longing to write about the bhiksha way of accepting (crudely, begging) and having food by Sannyasins. The seed was planted in my mind by my Acharya who rhetorically said once (in some lecture), “How does a common householder know why Sannyasis accept Bhiksha?” (I paraphrase). I do have some Shaastraic sources available to me to answer this however I cannot access them well at this point of time due to my lack of knowledge of Sanskrit. I continue to ponder over this question with the following thoughts in my mind –
- My teacher on several occasions had recalled the line, “Daataa Ek Raam, Bhikaari saari duniya” (Hindi line meaning: Rama is the only giver, all others can only be receivers/beggars). There is enough Vedantic significance to just this line. One way to read it is to understand that the body, the mind and all of the worldly instruments are given to us (by the all-encompassing Ishwara) right from our birth but we don’t own them. Thus, Bhiksha becomes a physical affirmation of this teaching.
- Having the duty of only striving to know Ishwara, and having given up identity with the body, the Sannyasis have the duty of subsisting the body for knowing Ishwara by means of praarabdha alone. In short, the idea is – “What I get out of Ishwara’s will (as karmaphala of my praarabdha for this janma), using that alone I shall maintain the body”.
- The process of accepting bhiksha saves time in cooking and maintaining of food etc which can be used for higher adhyaatmic purposes.
- Bhiksha food can be of several tastes, and types. This acts as a saadhana to be non-attached to particular varieties of food stuff.
- Bhiksha cannot in general be constantly had from one place. Sannyasis are expected in general to be moving around. All this fosters further vairaagya.
- I also note what Swami Vivekananda said – “With a view to certain ends we have to adopt certain means. These means vary according to the conditions of time, place, individual, etc.; but the end always remains unaltered. In the case of the Sannyasin, the end is the liberation of the Self and doing good to humanity. For accomplishing the two above-mentioned ends, the begging excursion would be a great help to a Sannyasin at a time when the householders [set] apart every day a portion of their meal for ascetic guests. Nowadays things have changed considerably…it would be mere waste of energy to try to live on Madhukari [the practice of getting bhiksha from different places], and you would profit nothing by it. The injunction of Bhiksha (begging) is a means to serve the above two ends, which will not be served by that way now.” (NOTE: Some parts have been omitted as they are not very relevant here).
The above points are based on my current understanding and influences. In this post, I compile incidents from Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi’s life at Arunachala, where He speaks of the joy of having Bhiksha, simple nourishing food and the like. In case of the Maharshi this was all natural, not saadhana as He is known to have reached the pinnacle of Vedanta Jnana even before He arrived at Arunachala. The extracts are from “Day by Day with Bhagavan”, by Sri Devaraja Mudaliar. While I plan to write a Shastraic post on another occasion, this has sufficed my interest generously for now.
First bhiksha by Arunachaleshwara:
Bhagavan also related today that on the morning of the day after his arrival, he had his first meal at Tiruvannamalai. Apparently he ate nothing at all on the first day. He said, “The next day I was walking up and down in the sixteen-pillared mantapam in front of the Temple. Then a Mauni Swami who used to be living in the old days in the Kambathu Ilaiyanar Temple came there from the Temple. Another Palani Swami, a well built man with long matted hair who used to do a lot of service, by cleaning the Temple precinicts with the help of a band of sannyasis, also came to the sixteen-pillared mantapam from the town. Then the Mauni looking at me, a stranger here, being in a hungry and exhausted condition, made signs to the above Palaniswami that I should be given some food. Thereupon the above Palaniswami went and brought some cold rice in a tin vessel which was all black, with a little salt strewn on top of the rice. That was the first Bhiksha which Arunachaleshwara gave me!”
Maharshi accepting alms:
.. G.V.S asked Bhagavan about his early days [in Tiruvannamalai] and whether he ever went about accepting alms. Then Bhagavan related how it was T.P. Ramachandra Aiyar’s father who first took him by mere force to his house and fed him, and how the first time he begged for food was from Chinna Gurukal’s wife. He went on to tell how after that he freely begged in almost all the streets of Tiruvannamalai. He[Bhagavan] said: “You cannot conceive of the of the majesty and dignity I felt while so begging. The first day, when I begged from Gurukal’s wife, I felt bashful about it as a result of habits of upbringing, but after that there was absolutely no feeling of abasement. I felt like a king and more than a king. I have sometimes received stale gruel at some house and taken it without salt or any other flavouring, in the open street, before great pandits and other important men used to come and prostrate themselves before me at my Asramam, then wiped my hands on my head and passed on supremely happy and in a state of mind in which even emperors were mere straw in my sight. You can’t imagine it. It is because there is such a path that we find tales in history of kings giving up their thrones and taking to this path.”
In illustration of this, Bhagavan told us a story of a king who renounced his throne and went begging, first outside the limits of his state, then in his own state, then in its capital city, and finally in the royal palace itself, and thus at last got rid of his ego-sense. After some time, when he was wandering as an ascetic in another state, he was chosen to be its king and accepted because now that he had completely lost the sense of “I”, he could act any part in life as a mere witness and the cares of kingship no longer worried him. When his own former state heard of it, they also asked him to resume his kingship and he did so, because however many kingdoms he might rule over, he realised now that he was not the doer but simply an instrument in God’s hands.
Bhagavan recalls having simple gruel (“Kanji”):
T.P.R told Bhagavan that he took only kanji (gruel) for lunch, as he had dysentry. Bhagavan spoke highly of the efficacy of a gruel made of rice, dried ginger, coriander and rock salt and added: “It seems they are going to give us all kanji tomorrow morning… People do not realize how wholesome kanji is and how tasty. In those days [early days at Arunachala], we would make kanji and one aviyal [a kind of mixed vegetable porridge] with all the vegetables we had on hand. None of the fine dishes they make here now [in the Ashram] can equal the simple fare we enjoyed then. People do not realize the enjoyment of such a meal”.
Bhagavan went on to say, “People don’t know how a poor man appreciates his food, simple though it often is. He comes home terribly hungry after a day’s hard work in the field or elsewhere, and then when he sits down for his meal, down goes one huge fistful after another until it looks as though he would swallow the plate as well. Your rich man sits down to a meal with all sorts of delicacies served on fine plates before him and nibbles or sips at one thing after another but relishes nothing and has no sort of satisfaction from all the luxury spread before him. Even after we came down here we still used to make kanji. At first there were a lot of men working on the premises, clearing it of cactus and levelling it, wand we used to prepare a midday meal for them in addition to their wages. For them and us together we used to prepare only two dishes; a huge pot of kanji and another of all the vegetables we happened to have on hand. You can imagine the quantity when I tell you that the ladle we stirred it with was the branch of a tree. In those days I used to do all the grinding for the cooking. Once I made uppuma out of keeraithandu [stalks of greens]. Somebody had brought a whole sack of them and we cut the whole lot up into small bits. There were seven to eight measures of it. I added one measure of ravai [rice semolina] to it and boiled the whole lot well and made uppuma out of it. Everyone enjoyed it as uppuma made of ravai, but when I told them how it was really made, they were not so pleased. People always like something expensive”.