One twilit Sunday evening, a friend and I embarked on the 14-kilometre Giripradakshina trek. In this specific case, Giripradakshina refers to the ancient practice of circumambulating the sacred hill Arunachala—which rises majestic from the center of the intriguing ancient temple town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, south India.
Taking off from Ramana Ashram, we made our way through a segment of crazy busy highway until we reached the serpentine tree-shaded mountain path (Girivalam) road populated with varying types of sadhu—from the often belligerent itinerant hoping to escape a tricky mundane situation by donning the orange robe that bestows instant spiritual status and garners support from many quarters—to the true renunciate of radiant countenance.
Some sadhus beg voraciously, others meditate or read spiritual texts, while still others engage in various forms of simple work. My favorite sadhu sits beneath a hoary tree near the entrance to Niruddhi Lingam. Seated cross-legged on the bare ground, armed with scissors, needles and thread, he patiently fashions gorgeous bags out of bits and pieces of donated material for his fellow sadhus. A smile of great sweetness illuminates his aged face—this despite being burdened with a bum leg that clearly causes him pain, and the hard fact that he has chosen to survive almost solely on the bounty of mountain lovers. (He told me he’d started out as a family man with a career in watch/clock repair; unable to meet the nagging material demands of his wife, he’d returned her to the bosom of her prosperous family, and moved to Tiruvannamalai as a renunciate.)
Still other sadhus offer us dazed looks that hint at the use of ganja or booze. (One fragile old chap with the demeanor of a saint begged me for money to buy his asthma medication, which I forked over. Next day, while walking my dogs, his fellow sadhus chided me—apparently the wily old chap had run directly to the gadang (country liquor shop) and had imbibed so copiously he’d landed up in the local hospital!) Just to remind you, though—there are myriad jewels among this community of ascetics who abide in the shadow of the great hill—and many do make good use of our help.
Seven kilometers or so down the road, my friend and I re-entered the bustling town. Vehicles hurtled towards us from all sides like meteors—only not so pretty—motor bikes, cyclists, cars, trucks, lorries and gas-hungry SUVs that usurped the road, often at reckless speed. Hungry, and tired from the long walk, we decided to break for dinner at Ramakrishna Hotel.
My friend ordered idlis (steamed rice/lentil cakes accompanied by a vadai (a fried rice/lentil cake) flavorful coconut, tomato and mint chutney as well as the ubiquitous sambhar—lentil/vegetable gravy). Craving something other than the usual south Indian cuisine, I bravely ordered the chef’s version of Szechuan noodles—a mound of well-flavored noodles garnished with—believe it or not!—bits of fresh fruit! Fortunately I was not disappointed, for the crunch of tart-sweet pomegranate, crisp apple, and crimson preserved cherries made the dish bizarrely yummy.
As we were paying the bill, two young men strolled into the restaurant and sat at the corner table diagonally opposite us. I read the caption on the first one’s tee-shirt: Your Ego is Not Your Amigo—and burst out laughing—most certainly there are no accidents! You see, the major reason seekers on the path of jnana (eastern metaphysical wisdom) circumambulate Arunachala is to beseech Shiva to burn their ego to ashes—so they can experience the bliss of their true nature, the luminous Self.
Now here was one more saucy reminder that the ego is not my true friend—simply because it cares for nothing beyond the gratification and glorification of mini-me. Venturing beyond the relative frightens the ego—for once body and mind are seen to be ephemeral, and once the immortal blissful Self begins to reveal itself within our own human hearts, it is inevitable that this false sense of self must die.
And yet the ego is the most cunning warrior you will ever encounter: seeking to preserve itself by any means necessary, it leads the incorrigible egotist into endless suffering—which is why the acronym for EGO that I first heard so long ago in the 12-Step rooms of Manhattan: Easing God Out—continues to make such perfect sense to me. Why is this? Because the ego, backed as it is by the smoke-and-mirrors tactics employed by the cosmic enchantress Maya, has the power to delude us into believing that we are no more than body, mind, emotions—and thereby blinds us to the truth of who we really are—which, according to eastern mystics, is no less than the Divine/Absolute in temporary human form—no less than Sat-Chit-Ananda (pure existence-pure consciousness and pure bliss).