THE sun was setting. A maulvi seated in the same compartment was narrating the stories of different sages to his fellow passengers, who were absorbed in his narration. But this young man was indifferent, did not even open his eyes. Curious, the maulvi approached him and asked, "Swami, where are you going?"
Maulvi: I am also going there.
Venkataraman : Is it so?
Maulvi : Not exactly, but to Tirukkoilur the station adjacent to it.
Venkataraman : (Surprised) Is there a train to Tiruvannamalai?
Maulvi : Of course. To which station did you buy your ticket then?
Venkataraman : To Tindivanam.
Maulvi : Oh my! Why to Tindivanam? You have to get off at Villupuram and take another train that goes to Tirukkoilur and Tiruvannamalai.
The Father was lending a hand to lead His son! If not, why did the maulvi get into that very compartment? Why did he accost him and give him so many details?
Maybe, the one with matted hair, Siva, guided him. Gladdened, Venkataraman resumed his meditation.
By the time he reopened his eyes, darkness had enveloped all round, the train reached Tiruchchirapalli station. Quite strangely, the maulvi who said he was going to Tirukkoilur was not to be seen; equally strangely, until then Venkataraman was not hungry at all. It was dinner time and then he felt hungry as if he was duty-bound to feel so. He bought two country apples and began to eat. He just had two bites by which time he felt satiated. This again, was quite strange. Normally he had a substantial meal but on that occasion a meagre meal sufficed.
He fell into meditation again. At the early hours of the next day the train reached Villupuram. Venkataraman got down and began looking for the way to Tiruvannamalai. He was hesitant to ask anybody. Yet his Father carried on his duty! As Venkataraman walked along he saw several guide posts one of which pointed towards "Mambalapattu". But he did not know that Mambalapattu was on the way to Tiruvannamalai.
He roamed about hungry and tired and reached a hotel where he was told that meals would be ready only by noon. He decided to wait and sat there and fell into meditation. The owner of the hotel was observing the lad who was bright, very fair with thick dark hair, earrings, without any luggage and lost to the world! Who could he be? By noon the food was ready; the hotel owner woke up Venkataraman and served him. Venkataraman offered to pay for it but the hotel owner declined to take it on learning that Venkataraman had very little money. Maybe, that was the Lord's way of showing His grace!
With that meagre amount Venkataraman could buy a ticket to Mambalapattu. He travelled by train upto that point and then began walking. He walked on till it was quite dark. He reached Arayaninallur.
Arayaninallur, also known as Sivalankapuri, is a great pilgrim centre. On a small hillock near the village is situated the Atulyanatheswara Temple. The great poet-saint Jnana Sambandar sang in praise of Atulyanatheswar. He also consecrated an image of Arunachaleswara there. When Sambandar sat in meditation, Arunachaleswara appeared first as a column of light and later as an old Brahmin but Sambandar could not recognise him and made enquiries. The visitor replied that he belonged to Arunagiri and that he visited Arayaninallur every day to collect flowers for Arunachaleswara. Sambandar asked the Brahmin to take him also to Arunagiri to which he agreed. On the way, the Brahmin disappeared. A band of robbers surrounded Sambandar and his retinue and robbed them of their belongings. Sambandar was taken aback and prayed to the Lord, who revealed himself and told Sambandar that the robbers were part of His retinue (ganas). He promised to take him across if Sambandar stayed back as his guest for dinner and also offered to return all the articles stolen. Normally, Sambandar never ate without serving some guests but on that occasion, himself became a guest of Easwara. How Sambandar reached Arunachala and sang in praise of Arunachaleswara is a different story.
Tired and exhausted, Venkataraman reached the temple only to find the doors closed, as the priest had not arrived. He waited till the priest came. The priest went in and got involved in the pooja. Venkataraman walked in and settled down in a corridor, shut his eyes, opened his heart and began his mental pooja of Easwara. It was at that very spot that Jnana Sambandar saw the column. Sambandar was also barely sixteen when he had the experience.
All of a sudden, a bright light, from a source unknown to Venkataraman, enveloped him. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but bright light all around. He thought it could be the light of the Deity and walked towards the sanctum sanctorum. But by the time he reached it, the light vanished. The sanctum was dark, the light could not be from there.
But where had it come from? Did his atma-jyoti shine forth from his Heart? Or did Arunachaleswara come to invite him just as he invited Jnana Sambandar? Did Easwara whom Venkataraman always meditated upon, grant him knowledge of the Self? (Did not Chokkanatha appear in the form of the maulvi and promise to accompany Venkataraman till Tirukkoilur after all, Arayaninallur was a part of Tirukkoilur. Possibly, there his jurisdiction ended and that of Arunachaleswara commenced thereafter -- possibly also he came in this form and assumed the responsibility of protecting Venkataraman thenceforth)
Venkataraman returned from the dark sanctum to his former place in the corridor and resumed his meditation. The temple priest completed his pooja and called out, "Who is there ? it is time to close the doors of the temple. Get up and go." Venkataraman came out of his meditation and pleaded for a little prasad. The priest said brusquely, "There is no food ready for you here." "Alright, at least let me rest here this night," asked Venkataraman. The staff of the temple intervened and said, "Kilur is about a mile from here. You have a Virateswarar temple there. Maybe you can get some prasad there. Come along." Venkataraman accompanied them. At the temple, he fell into meditation as long as the pooja was going on. After the pooja the priest who was distributing prasad flatly refused to offer him any. One of the temple musicians took pity on the boy who was tired and suggested to the priest that his share of prasad might be given to the lad.
Someone took Venkataraman to a nearby house for water. By the time Venkataraman reached that house he fainted nobody knew whether it was due to weakness or sleep or meditation. He revived a little later and noticed that he was at a different spot. All the food was scattered on the ground, and a crowd gathered round him, watching him. Venkataraman picked up the food, drank some water and slept on that street.
The following day was Gokula-Ashtami August 31st 1896. He was hungry and still had to go twenty miles.
As Venkataraman was walking down the street he saw the door of one house ajar but nobody was to be seen inside. He went in and asked the owner, Muthukrishna Bhagavatar who was taking his bath, in the back yard for food. The Bhagavatar had a widowed sister who looked after the house, but at that moment she had gone to the nearby river to fetch water. There were no other female members in the house. The Bhagavatar asked him to wait till she returned.
In due course, she came and seeing the boy asking for food looked upon him as Krishna himself come in the form of a Brahmin youth seeking food! She saw the hungry look on his face and though she commenced cooking she felt the lad would not be able to withstand the delay. She said to him, "Come along, I shall serve you some left overs for the present." Venkataraman had barely two morsels when his hunger vanished. But the lady would not leave him till he ate all that was served.
Venkataraman had no energy left to walk any further.
Nor did he have any money to purchase a train ticket. What if he sold the ruby earrings? But he had no experience in such deals. Finally he thought it best to raise a loan and approached the Bhagavatar. He answered all the Bhagavatar's questions and added for good measure, that he had lost his luggage in the train. He gave his real address also in the confidence that at that distant place there was no chance of the news reaching any of his relatives. The Bhagavatar examined the earrings and was satisfied with their quality. He estimated that the earrings would cost twenty rupees at least whereas the lad was asking for only four rupees. He saw no reason to suspect anything wrong and gave Venkataraman the money he wanted.
By then, the food was ready. The lady of the house invited both of them and served them a sumptuous meal it being a festival day her joy knew no bounds as she thought that her guest was none other than Krishna himself. She also prepared several sweets to offer to Krishna that evening. She gave a packet of them to her guest even before offering the sweets to Krishna. How blessed she was!
Venkataraman promised the Bhagavatar to take back his earrings as soon as possible. He collected the packet of sweets and set out for the station. At a little distance away from the house he tore to pieces the slip of paper containing the Bhagavatar's address was he to get involved in worldly affairs any more? He reached the station and slept there that night. The train was to arrive early in the morning. Venkataraman purchased a ticket for Tiruvannamalai.
We have spoken several times about Venkataraman's hunger. It is true, he experienced hunger, his body felt weak and on several occasions would faint. But when he attempted to eat, even a little food would suffice. No reason could be given for this.