The purpose of this page is to help visitors to Arunachala, especially those Westerners who have never travelled to India before. It contains some practical advice and some not-so-pleasant facts, so if you don't want to read about such things then close this page.
First and foremost, I cannot encourage people enough to come here on a genuine spiritual pilgrimmage. It will be the most important journey of your life.
However, there is undoubtedly a culture shock for people when they come here for the first time. A clash of cultures that sometimes leads to inner and outer conflict. Western minds are inclined to see things in black and white, whereas the Indian mind is more inclined to continuous compromise in a totally uncompromising way and this is where difficulty arises for many people.
The secret of survival here is to compromise on everything except your health and your sadhana. Do not bring your western values with you expecting the locals to change to your way of thinking. That is not going to happen - they will compromise to a point, but remember, this is their country and you are a guest in it. They have to live here all of the time, but you go back home.
Your reason for coming here should be spiritual progress for yourself. Stick to that and you will flourish.
The good side of Tiruvannamalai:
Arunachala is a wonderful place, full of potent spiritual power, capable of lifting any sincere aspirant to the heights of spiritual attainment. It is a fact that all who come here are significantly affected by the proximity of this holy mountain, which legend states is Lord Siva Himself.
Lord Siva said:
“Though in fact fiery, my lack-lustre appearance as a hill on this spot is an act of grace for the maintenance of the world. I also abide here as the Siddha. Within me there are many glorious caves filled with all kinds of enjoyments. Know this.
“Action naturally binds the entire world. One’s refuge (from such bondage) is this glorious Arunachala by seeing which one becomes itself.”
“What cannot be acquired without great pains - the true import of Vedanta (viz. Self-realization) - can be attained by anyone who looks at (this hill) from where it is visible or even mentally thinks of it from afar.”
“I, the Lord, ordain that those who reside within a radius of three yojanas of this place (Arunachala) shall attain union (with the Supreme) which removes bondage even in the absence of initiation, etc.”
“This is always the abode of pious devotees. Those who do evil to others here will, after suffering ills, be destroyed. Wicked persons will be completely bereft of their powers to do evil here in the twinkling of an eye. Do not fall into the burning fire of the anger of Lord Arunachala who has assumed the form of a hill of fire.”
From Sri Arunachala Mahatmyam
Arunachala can also be a very difficult place for devotees. Here, every virtue and vice that lays hidden within is brought to the surface and exposed. Those who lack self-control and discrimination are often overwhelmed and set about indulging their desires and prejudices. Many realise the error and put a stop to it, but others just sink lower and lower, losing sight of the real purpose for which they came and in the end they are forced to leave. However, sincere devotees will find that support and strength comes from within, enabling them to address these troublesome issues and deal with them - that is the benefit of being here.
Those who are mentally unstable before coming here are very often severely affected by the mountain and indulge in insanity of all kinds, most of it harmless, but sometimes resulting in tragedy. However, the vast majority of sincere visitors experience a deep spiritual change within them and their lives are never the same again.
When you travel to Arunachala it should be for the sole purpose of an inner cleansing. Here it is very easy to identify the qualities in our nature that are the cause of misery and rebirth, because they become so prominent. Once you have identified them you can root out these qualities and destroy them.
You will be surprised and even shocked at some of the ideas and thoughts that assail you very powerfully here, especially during efforts at meditation, but as you will see below, we are all subject to both good and evil propensities. Some of these propensities may have remained dormant for most of our lives and others may have been suppressed, but here they all surge upwards, ready to be addressed and dealt with – NOT indulged in; this is the cleansing effect of Arunachala.
Below are described the qualities of the three gunas - set out by Lord Krishna in the Uddhava Gita of the Srimad Bhagavatam:
Lord Krishna said:
Now, O precious Uddhava, I shall explain how each particular guna affects men’s moral nature, independently of the others.
The effects of sattva are:
Mind and sense control, forbearance, sound judgement, truthfulness, benevolence, clear memory, contentment, abstemiousness, belief in God and in life eternal, modesty, liberality, abstinence from prohibited acts.
The actions of rajas are:
Craving for sensuous pleasures, arrogance, passion, desire for action, obstinacy, discontent, hankering after blessings (from gods and men), discrimination between the interest of oneself and that of others, lust, garrulousness, love of praise, aggressiveness.
The effects of tamas are:
Intolerance, miserliness, truthlessness, malevolence, ingratitude, hypocrisy, love for discord, grief, despondency, drowsiness, indolence, fear, anger, demanding favours, etc.
“These are the individual characteristics of the gunas, but in practice all the three go together in various proportions; one at one time dominates the others, and another at another time. From the behaviour of men one can easily distinguish the guna, which at that moment happens to be prevalent in any of them.
Those who take to sattvic actions go higher and higher.
Those who take to rajasic actions go to the intermediate state.
But those who take to tamasic actions go lower and lower even to the inanimate forms of existence.
When at the moment of death sattva is predominant, the deceased ascends to heaven; if tamas, he descends to hell, and if rajas is then predominant, he returns to the human fold, but if he has transcended the gunas, he attains to Me alone.
This is the clearest advice possible and a sure guide to inner progress for us all. I highly recommend reading this book, especially the English version translated by S. S. Cohen, as this version deals only with the subject in hand and does not have any hidden agenda.
Circumambulation of the mountain is recommended by all of the sages and by the Arunachala Mahatmyam itself. This is indeed the most beneficial thing that you can do. Ideally, your mind should be fixed on the mountain as Lord Siva throughout the circumambulation, identifying it with your own Self and finding its power within you and not apart from you. If this is not possible then simply surrender to it. Others prefer to chant Arunachala-Siva or to sing other songs. But Bhagavan recommended going round slowly with mind fixed on the mountain and this is definitely the best method.
The purpose of circumambulation of Arunachala or the worship of God, is to break attachment to those things that give rise to evil deeds and the cause of rebirth – the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, not to continue to indulge in them in the vain hope of avoiding karma and rebirths because you commit the errors at Arunachala or go around it occasionally.
The aspirant will do well to read the words of Bhagavan and the scriptures very carefully and to follow them with the same care.
Problems you might encounter
What follows is the unpleasant side of Tiruvannamalai. It is graphically detailed here to act as a cautionary note.
The environment - Tiruvannamalai is a very dirty place. Open sewers are everywhere (efforts are now underway to provide underground systems, but this is going to take a very long time) and the population is exploding. The noise and pollution from traffic is overwhelming, with only two to three hours a day of reduced cacophony.
Most drivers appear to be in a permanent state of road-rage and great care should be taken when walking on, or crossing the roads. Children and immature adults ride poweful motorbikes and two-wheelers at speed along small roads, many with one hand whilst talking on their cellphones, or shouting to their friends on other bikes alongside them. I cannot count the number of near-misses I have had from two-wheelers whilst walking. They are extremely dangerous and extreme care should be taken when walking on or off the roads.
The rise in popularity of Arunachala and Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi has brought about a rapid increase in the asking price for land; it has now reached ridiculous levels coupled with cheating on a huge scale by self-appointed land-brokers and agents – most of it aimed at foreigners who know nothing about Indian Law. Fake ashrams and charities are being created to fleece gullible foreigners out of their money and they are mostly successful. Beggars litter the streets, some of them aggressive.
There is a general attitude that those who get cheated deserve it and you will get absolutely nowhere asking for help if you have been cheated out of your money.
Lots of people come here with property purchase in mind. What follows is a cautionary note. It is not designed to prevent anyone from buying property, but to make you aware of what you will encounter and to outline the Laws of India in relation to property purchase by foreign nationals.
For some inexplicable reason, some people just throw caution to the wind here, jump into the deep end, suffer the consequences and then complain about it. The basic rule is - follow the same process here that you would follow in your own country if you were purchasing property.
Six years ago the average price of land was between Rs.30,000 and Rs.200,000 (two lakhs) per acre, even on the pradakshina road. But the popularity of Tiruvannamalai has escalated the property market to a huge scale. Self-appointed land brokers – who are supposed to take only 2% commission have joined in as psuedo-owners, milking vast profits from both the seller and buyer. Foreigners and NRI’s are the main targets and are quoted 5-10 times the 'Indian' price because they are considered to be stupid, millionaires and deserve to be cheated. I am told that cheating is part of the culture here, so don't be surprised at what you meet.
Virtually everyone who comes here is assaulted with offers of land from the minute they arrive, the desperation of the local property-touts and charity-touts to be the first to capture any new arrival should set alarm bells ringing for you. The following advice is here to help you; I have no motive and no hidden agenda by giving it, but have witnessed the torture and torment that so many go through because of this problem.
Today the asking price for land on the pradakshina road is between fifty lakhs and one crore per acre - $120,000 - $250,000 US. It is fast approaching the same price within a 3km radius of the Mountain. However, the average income for the majority of townspeople is less than Rs.24,000 ($600) per annum, most are on less than Rs.12,000 ($300) .... one lakh is 100,000 rupees, one crore is one hundred lakhs (ten million rupees).
Tiruvannamalai is fast becoming a place where only the very rich can afford to live or stay. It is a tragedy of immense proportions for the majority of devotees who are very poor, and both they and the locals are finding that the increased prices and rents are far beyond their means. Ashrams provide little accommodation and most of that very short-term.
If you intend to purchase property you must obey the laws of India and Indian Law is very clear about the purchase of land by foreigners. Foreigners of non-Indian origin can purchase building land only if they have permission from the RBI or are residents of India - holding a 'residents permit' issued by the foreigners registration department at the police headquarters in Tiruvannamalai, or elsewhere, subject to the following rules:
A person resident in India means a person residing in India for more than one hundred and eighty-two days during the course of the preceding financial year (April-March) and who has come to or stays in India either for taking up employment, carrying on business or vocation in India or for any other purpose, that would indicate his intention to stay in India for an uncertain period. In other words, to be treated as “a person resident in India”, under FEMA a person has not only to satisfy the condition of the period of stay (being more than 182 days during the course of the preceding financial year) but has also to comply with the condition of the purpose/intention of stay.
In case of doubt whether a person is to be considered as a resident or otherwise, he has to prove his residential status as per law. e.g. RBI does not give a status certificate. Generally this status is clearly applicable to most of us. But in the case of businessmen or dependents of non-residents who travel regularly, students studying abroad, Indians who have acquired foreign citizenship but have come to India for work on deputation, etc. there may be scope for interpretation. It is advisable to consult experts before entering into transactions.
On the other hand, a foreign national of non-Indian origin resident outside India (e.g. Mr George Bush) cannot acquire any immovable property in India by way of purchase. Moreover property cannot be purchased jointly in the name of one eligible person with one non-eligible person even as a second name. That means an NRI or PIO cannot buy a property jointly with a foreigner (i.e. who does not even have the PIO status).
However, a foreign national resident in India does not require approval of RBI to purchase any immovable property in India. This is because once he is a resident in India, he gets the rights like any other resident. This freedom of course is not available to citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Nepal and Bhutan. Thus if you propose to sell your property to a “foreigner” because the price is attractive, better verify his residential status!
Such “ineligible persons” (e.g. foreign nationals of non-Indian origin and also citizens of certain countries specified above) can acquire residential (not commercial) accommodation on lease not exceeding five years without any RBI permission.
The fact is that 99.9% of foreigners who visit Tiruvannamalai are ineligible to purchase land of any kind. Many are told that they can legally purchase in joint names with a trusted Indian resident, but this is complete rubbish as it clearly states above. If you do this then not only are you breaking the law, you are just purchasing some land for your ‘trusted’ accomplice who will sell it at a later date and keep the money. Complaining to the police that you broke the law and now want your money back will not work, so you can say goodbye to your savings.
A recent case in 2008 - a foreigner purchased land a few years ago with a trusted local as the named owner. He built a house on the land and recently decided to sell it. His trusted accomplice has refused to transfer the land to a new buyer and there is nothing he can do about it. He is now faced with trying to sell a house on someone else's land for which he does not even have a lease. You can guess the rest.
Another story is that you should form a Trust with Indian trustees and this will then permit you to purchase land. This is another lie. The Trust can purchase land, but you will never own it, cannot leave it to your children and you can never sell it.
If you are eligible under Indian Law to purchase land – i.e., you complete the 182 days and residential requirements, then you can purchase it in your own name. If you do not comply with this then you can never own land without RBI permission and you will just be cheated out of your money. Do not do it!
This kind of thing is completely opposite to anything spiritual, but it is nevertheless a very prominent reality today.
If you are serious about sadhana and can only come ocassionally, then be sensible and rent a house somewhere. You are going to save yourself a lot of heartache, torture and stress this way.
You have been warned. For more detailed information on these subjects go to arunachala-property.com
This is even worse and is becoming an art form in Tiruvannamalai.
The vast majority of so-called Charitable Trusts, are neither charitable, not trustworthy by any stretch of the imagination. At least 80% of all of the trusts in Tiruvannamalai are outright frauds. All of the donations are simply stolen by the trustees and no good whatsoever is done for the poor, the sick, the orphans or the elderly that they say they take care of. More are being formed all of the time to get in on the act.
I have seen children who have been severely maimed in order to scam people out of money. Children are starved, tortured and harmed for this purpose every day in India. This is nothing unusual and it is even carried out by their own families.
I know of only one genuine non-profit organisation in Tiruvannamalai, where all of the money is used properly and that is the Rangammal Memorial Trust, which operates the best hospital in the area, a free residential school for 200+ deaf children and takes care of all of the disabled children in the district on a very limited budget.
The best advice I can give is - do not believe anything that anyone tells you about a local charity. Use your own eyes and your intelligence, not your emotions. If it is possible, go to the Rangammal children’s home and see how well the children are taken care of – they are clean, healthy, well fed, well educated and happy. This is the fruit of a real charity. Go to the others and you will see dirty, hungry and nervous children. Then look at the trustees, their vehicles, their clothing, their homes, etc.
There is of course real poverty in Tiruvannamalai, with people struggling to feed their families on a daily basis, but most of these work hard in low paid jobs. There are the homeless and disabled who live in the dirt at the side of the road. There are also many fake homeless people who are just too lazy to find work and spend their days harassing people and drinking alcohol.
Then there are the professional scroungers, entire families of them who have never done a decent days work in their lives and who spend their lives moaning about their condition – but they all have homes, food, motorbikes, cars, televisions and property and can afford to be lazy, because you, out of misplaced sympathy, provide them with the money for all of the luxuries in life.
Your support for the lazy and the criminals is the cause of real suffering in children and others. If money can be obtained by torturing and maiming children then it will not stop.
This is the stark truth and Tiruvannamalai is no different from anywhere else. Do not be sucked into this. If you want to help people then be very careful how you do it, check everything out, do not give money to anyone simply because they want it or expect it - the majority do not respect you for it, but will laugh at you behind your back for being a fool ... this is a FACT based upon eleven years at Tiruvannamalai! Provide food and clothing, not money, if you want to help the starving and the poor.
Watch how the locals and visiting Indians react to these people - at the most they will give two rupees to a beggar or a banana to eat. Westerners give anything from ten rupees up to tens of thousands of rupees and create a very serious problem for everyone else. Very foolishly I also did the same for many years and was pursued by beggars and scroungers every time I stepped outside the ashram because of it. At least 50% of the money I handed over was completely wasted, even when I tried to do something constructive by paying for things that they said they needed - clothing, rice, equipment, help with dowry's, medical bills paying, etc. What they actually wanted was the money to buy luxuries to show off to their neighbours, alcohol, or an easy life; so they just sold whatever I purchased for half the price or took half of the money from the medical shop after returning the medications.
The other 50% undoubtedly did some good and I count myself lucky that it was not all a complete waste of time.
There really is no standard by which to judge anything that anyone tells you here. Lying is second-nature to most of those who will approach you ... it is a part of the culture here and they expect you to believe them. You just have to be careful and before you throw any money away, ask an independent local or another westerner for advice ... do not ask an auto driver as some of them are part of the game, especially the health-care scams!
I certainly do not want to prevent anyone from helping someone in real need, but first establish the need and check everything out thoroughly.
The guru business
Many people – including myself when I first came here in 1997 – expect to find Tiruvannamalai and the ashrams situated here overflowing with saintly people. This is of course a complete mistake. The opposite is the real truth. There are lots of people who think that they are holy, but they are not holy at all.
The guru business is the best 'legal' business in the world with huge amounts of money changing hands. The vast majority of ashrams are businesses – one-way businesses, all incoming and no outgoing, not charities as we understand the term. Charitable status is for tax avoidance only. They might feed a few sadhus and poor people every day as a facade, but the cost of that represents only the tiniest fraction of the vast income that they have. Do not be fooled by these places. The easiest way to find out the truth is to ask for help for someone in need and see what the response is.
Real gurus are not interested in money or property, but the false gurus will use any weapon to extract what they want from you. Guilt is the weapon most used by these spiritual pimps or their representatives to coerce people out of their savings and property, or to force them into satisfying their base desires - all for God of course, but God doesn't need money or property and does not indulge in base desires.
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was a real guru, a Brahma-jnani of the highest order. During his life at Tiruvannamalai, Bhagavan never touched money and strictly forbade people to collect it in his name. He said ‘food is enough for this’. That instruction like so many others was completely ignored and His name is used on a daily basis by selfish and greedy people to line their own pockets with as much of your money as they can - all in Bhagavan's name of course. They have been very, very successful, secretly accumulating tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not a new phenomenon, it was happening even during His lifetime, but now that He has left the body it has escalated to overwhelming proportions.
That the purity of Bhagavan's example is being destroyed is a crime of the highest order. It is a dreadful indictment that those who purport to preserve his heritage and his example have instead destroyed it in pusuit of their personal greed and ambitions. One can only conclude that these people have been cursed by God himself.
Mukti is not for sale. Simply giving money to people who do not deserve it is a complete waste of both your money and your faith. Later, when you discover your error you will be plagued by anger and despair, both of which only serve to push you further away from God. Do not do it. Instead, find Bhagavan in your heart, because that is where he waits for you.
Many people find it hard to reconcile Bhagavan's purity and power as a brahma-jnani with the unpleasant things that went on around Him and continue today. It is however very simple to understand. Jnani's are not policemen, they do not pass judgement or intervene in events, except in the rarest of cases when a sincere aspirant is in real need. They simply set the example and you can follow it or not - Bhagavan stated "I have shown the way, the rest is up to you". This is very, very, very clear.
Bhagavan will not prevent you if you choose to ignore what is right and continue to commit bad deeds. You have to do the work. Jnani's cannot eat your food for you; if they did then they would gain the benefit not you. That does not mean that they do not help sincere seekers in all sorts of ways, they do, but that help is not necessarily what you expect it to be.
This can be very clearly understood from the right perspective - the ego/mind complex is the root of all suffering and the last thing that ego/mind wants is to be destroyed; any solution that it comes up with for a given situation quite naturally involves its survival, if not its enhancement. A real jnani will not subscribe to that; his purpose is to destroy the ego and its support, not to preserve it, thus his response, if any, will focus on the Reality and not on the illusion.
Mukti is not possible whilst the root causes of its denial remain intact - 'I' and 'mine', 'you' and 'me', are the obstacles to it as Bhagavan and every other great sage have said ad infinitum. Anyone whose conduct preserves and enhances that difference is of no value to a seeker, but it has to be understood in the right context.
Differences are necessary for the smooth operation of creation, but Bhagavan treated all with complete equality, he went to great lengths to ensure that whatever came to the ashram was shared equally amongst all present - both human and animal. He did not show special favour to any and did not set anyone higher than any other ... including himself. The differences are in function but not in spirit, everything is only the Self or God. Bhagavan said that 'to do your work properly is the greatest sevice to God', this remark was said to a worker who stopped to prostrate to him as he passed.
Bhagavan was like a mother to his devotees, he took care of them when they were ill, ensured that they were well fed with clean and nutritious food (when available), gave encouragement when needed and chastised them when it was necessary. He was the best friend that anyone could have, because everything that he said or did was aimed at bringing to an end the source of all misery for his devotees. He did not ask for anything from anyone, lived the simplest of lives, owned nothing and coveted nothing; he was available to all day or night and showered his grace upon all who came.
Though Bhagavan dropped the body in 1950, he has not turned his back on his sincere devotees. Many now feel his presence more powerfully in their everyday lives, in their homes and elsewhere. This is the measure of the true Jnani who is not limited to the corpse - animated or otherwise. Bhagavan said many times "you give too much importance to the body" - the implication here is your body as well the one used by Him.
For a real understanding of Bhagavan's teaching, I recommend two books - 'Tripura Rahasya' an ancient sanskrit text translated by Swami Sri Ramanananda Saraswathi and 'Srimad Bhagavatam' translated by S. S. Cohen, this latter book chronicles the life story of Lord Krishna and contains the clearest teaching on advaita and the paths to it. Both of these books are available from Sri Ramanasramam and might be available for free download. Both books were recommended by Bhagavan to sincere seekers and should be read from cover to cover on a regular basis until everything is clearly understood.