Mooji sits at the front of a large, mostly off-white hall crammed full of mostly white, western truth seekers. He is not a typical yogi; more Laughing Buddha than ascetic monk, Jamaican and with a gurgling chuckle that brings to mind an affable Uncle, albeit one with some profound things to say about the world. He is delivering Satsang; an opportunity for people to ask questions relating to truth from one who has some experience of the subject. Mooji, like most of the Gurus in this town, follows the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy where the path to enlightenment involves questioning “Who Am I?” until you finally unveil the true “self”. This is the non-dual view of the universe that takes us all as one, coming from one source and ultimately being the same in our true nature. The illusion of life as we see it comes from our associating truth to it but actually by using self-inquiry you can begin to understand that the “I” we create is not real. You are not your body and you are not your mind because it is possible to observe both and possible to disassociate from them also. You are not your past or your future but you are existing as pure consciousness and awareness right now in the present moment observing what the character you are associating with is doing. Viewing life in this way can bring a great lightness to everything you do, allowing you to take things less seriously and ultimately to exist in a state that is closer to whatever universal truth exists out there. In this way it is quite beautiful in its simplicity and the way that some of the teachers present it is often said to be in us already. We are already enlightened we just don’t realise it yet.
The search for truth, says Mooji, is like a fish in the ocean looking for water. The fish complains “I’m really thirsty.” “So drink, you are surrounded by water” responds Mooji. “Well yes,” replies the fish, “I understand that intellectually…”
On a more subtle level the search for truth is like waves looking for the ocean, it is difficult to see because we are part of the whole.
If there is a spiritual zeitgeist it seems we are riding the wave after hearing that:
“Oh yeah, most of the spiritual world are in Tiru right now, make sure you see Werner”
Werner sits on the roof of his house under a shade with a perfectly framed view of the holy mountain Arunachala in the background. He is the most happy looking and bright-eyed of meditators, with an ageless air about him as he recieves questions twice a week from another group of western truth seekers. There are Russians here who through confession don’t understand a word he says and yet come regularly to feel his presence. Compared to Mooji this is a low key affair but his story is quite extreme by Western standards, having spent at least 7 years in the basement of Amma’s ashram in the Kerala backwaters meditating until he reached a point of realisation.
The view of the mountain is what dominates this small town and Arunachala, said to be an emanation of Shiva, does seem to have a power to it. We start walking up the hill and are stopped by a Baba at a temple, stripped to the waist and wearing a black lunghi almost the same colour as his skin. He has bright eyes, a wide smile and good enough English to draw us into his story. We go inside the baking hot shrine room where he shows us a photo book gift he was given by some German tourists who stayed with him. It is a beautiful present with some touching photos and he is obviously as proud of the present as his visitors were inspired to give it. He takes our name and performs a blessing on each one individually.
Carrying on along the Inner Path and surrounded by herbs and lush vegetation it doesn’t take long before you turn a corner and find the honking bustle of the town below is long left behind and a peacefulness descends. It is here that I really begin to understand the magic of the town.
Each full moon the town and pilgrims from afar do a full Cora or circumnambulation of the mountain on the longer 14Km road route which takes in a multitude of Shiva Lingams. As is often the case in India of course, a spiritual activity like this is turned somewhat into a family holiday trip as shops along the route sell everything from gold watches to posters of WWE wrestlers (or your favourite God). In December the full moon is marked by a giant fire on the top of the hill and the crowd swells to massive numbers. It seemed crowded enough when we did it so I can only imagine the bedlam on this occasion.
The pilgramage or Gilvaram is supposed to be undertaken barefoot although we didn’t realise this when we set off. We took our time and made several Chai stops, checked out the stalls selling honeyed dates and marvelled at the lengthy queue building to climb through a small gap at one of the many Shiva Lingam shrines around the mountain.
The most famous Guru from Tiru is undoubtedly Sri Ramana Maharisi. His ashram dominates proceedings and the tourist part of town emanates from it as a central hub. (From there and the chai shop opposite doing the best ginger masala chai around). He meditated in a cave halfway up Arunachala for around 20 years after some years suffering rats in the main temple in town and then established his ashram as a home for truth seekers. The ashram is a relatively peaceful place (as long as you don’t get a room next to the road) with powerful meditation spaces, peacocks roaming the grounds and a beautiful old tree in the entrance courtyard.
His most fundamental and common teaching was to ask the question “Who am I?” while probing at that which marks us out as an individual. He said that his greatest teacher was the mountain and his silent teachings were the ones he considered most powerful.
Using the subject/object oriented view of the world one can begin to understand that you are not your mind or body because you are able to observe both. Looking at the awareness that is behind that is when you start to probe the true self and by extension the source of all existence.
The main temple is a huge affair. With 4 gigantic towers marking the compass point entrances and leading through more and more shrines to the central Darshan area which is like an oven as you queue to get the blessing from the Shiva flame burning constantly inside. Stepping in is like something from a fantasy film and the energy is powerful. You get a great birds eye view from up the mountain and going inside is equally impressive. You can get blessed by the (not particularly happy-looking) elephant, or watch the baby monkeys counting their prayer beads. I stayed down here for the first week or so due to the lack of accomodation and the pissy-smelling street with tourbusses of pilgrims arriving to a honking chorus at 5AM eventually made my decision to move but it was a great area with some fantastic local food and the feel of real, crazy India apart from the sanitised western guru grounds.
James Schwarz sits in a small air-conditioned room on the top of one of the more expensive hotels in town, teaching more intellectual types his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. He is a very impressive scholar, clearly doing a great deal of research and explaining the spiritual path as he sees it from an academic perspective but also reflecting on the different types of practice and how he sees it. Where Mooji can be vague in his practical teachings but warm and all-encomapssing in his welcome then James is very precise in his teaching but harder to warm to.
He seemed to do a good job of making what is a very simple philosophy rather more complicated than it needed to be and his habit of disparaging the credentials of other spiritual practicioners didn’t really sit right with me but then he has many followers who find his words inspiring so he must be doing something right.
While James was the wordiest guru I went to see the ancient Hindu practice of Mouna or silence is also in effect with some teachers.
Every day sees the opportunity for Darshan (meeting the guru) with Shiva Shakti. We sat in silence in the bright room at her ashram and waited until this small Indian woman descended the stairs. She looked calm and peaceful and the atmosphere was reverent but positive. Her every move was slow and deliberate as she crossed the room and sat down. Looking around she would blink her eyes between people as she made to look at everyone in the room individually. Then she stood up and came closer to the group, seemingly making Mudras with her hands and blessing people through this action. After 15 minutes observing this I was no closer to being convinced by her enlightenment, although I appreciate this isn’t the point. I did feel peaceful afterwards and it seems that she does have a good energy which perhaps the room leeches from her, I guess this is her gift to us. Going in I knew nothing about her and even now I know little more.
The philosophy of Sri Ramana and by extension Papaji, Mooji and Eckhart Tolle has been a bit of a revelation since I first picked up the Power of Now in Thailand. To arrive in Tiru where the philosophy is so ingrained in the teachings and where this thinking has certainly been popularised is a revelation, particularly since I had no idea what I was coming to beforehand. As much as I like Buddhism, the core philosophy isn’t so different but Advaita offers a more direct path and with less BS ritual or practice. Self-inquiry isn’t so easy or simple as it sounds but at the same time it does cut right to the crux and makes a lot of sense to me.