Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi was a culinary expert and a perfect cook in the kitchen of Sri Ramanashram at Tiruvannamalai. He wasn’t an ordinary cook and used the kitchen as a background for spiritual training to all the disciples who worked there. Some lesson or the other from Vedanta could be learnt from observing the way he worked in the kitchen and during his interaction with the others. He was a disciplinarian and his orders were to be obeyed to the last detail.
The way Ramana took interest in the kitchen even in the minutest detail, one would think that he was a foodie and enjoyed a hearty meal. However, that was not so. At dinner time, he would mix up the little servings on his plantain leaf — the sweet, the sour and the savoury –everything together and gulp it down carelessly as if he had no taste in his mouth. When one of the cooks in the kitchen Sampurnamma, a young widow, told him that it was not right to mix such nicely prepared tasty dishes, he said, “Enough of multiplicity let us have some unity”. When someone commented that the interest he took in preparing the fine delicacies belied his poor taste, the Maharshi would say that the preparation is done with a spirit of service to others and not to please his own appetite.
Bhagavan’s methodology, cleanliness and economy
Bhagavan used to exercise extraordinary care for every aspect of cooking, stressing in particular methodology, cleanliness and economy. He used to tell the other workers in the kitchen, “You must cover your vegetables when you cook them. Only then will they retain their flavour and will be fit for consumption. It is the same with your mind. You must put a lid over it and let it simmer quietly. Then only does a man become food to eat for God”. Ramana would use such ingredients to prepare food which normal cooks would not even dream of as edible. Wild plants, bitter roots and pungent leaves would turn under his guidance into delicious dishes. “A thing well done and with sincerity, devotion and love has its own reward. It is the cooking that matters, not the cook or the eater”, he would say.
During their periods, women were not allowed to enter the ashram nor were they given ashram food, as they were considered impure at the time. But Bhagavan broke conventional rules, by feeding them in the ashram. “There is no one who is pure or impure. All are one, and all are same”, he would say. Thanks to him, women were allowed to not only stay in the ashram but also have ashram food in the kitchen during their periods. By his gesture Bhagavan taught the inmates a lesson that in spirituality, the human being comes first and that Compassion is the Supreme Law.
Untouchability was not practiced in the ashram since all were treated as equals, irrespective of their caste, creed and nationality. Everbody would have meals together. Many times the inmates of the ashram found themselves caught in the trap of outmoded customs and convention that discriminated against the less fortunate in the society, especially women and lower castes. Bhagavan was strict in treating everyone equally. He would often say, “The ashram does not see any differences. There are no untouchables here. Those who do not like to eat in our kitchen may eat elsewhere. What is the difference between man and man? Am I a Brahmin and he a paraiah (downtrodden)? God resides in every heart whatever may be his caste.”
The Maharshi was particular about the leftovers and he would allow no food to go to waste. The leftovers of the previous day were warmed up and served at breakfast the next morning along with hot idlis. If there was any soup or vegetable left, they were mixed with sambar and used. Ramana knew very well that this would hurt the caste rules of some orthodox Brahmins, but he would not bother. He was of the firm opinion that no food should be wasted. He also opposed giving leftovers to beggars since, in his opinion, beggars should be fed along with others, given the same food as others and never to be fed with poor quality of food.
Bhagvan comes to his devotee’s rescue
In 1932, one Mr. M.S. Nagarajan, a staunch devotee of Ramana, was in charge of the daily pooja of the Mother’s shrine at the ashram. He was also in charge of the ashram kitchen. During Dhanurmasam (the cold season of December – January), a devotee volunteered to offer some special prasadam of sakkara pongal and vada – to the Mother at the early morning pooja before dawn (called Usha Pooja in Sanskrit). Nagarajan got up early in the morning at 3.30 a.m., had his bath in the pond, went to the shrine, kept the premises tidy and clean for the pooja. Thereafter he went to the kitchen for the preparation of the special prasadam. As he was not conversant with the preparation of vadas, he was a bit worried but started the work. After grinding some dough he tried to spread it on a leaf in the shape of a neat round vada as he had seen others do, but it would not come out properly. He tried again and again, but to no avail. Annoyed, he threw the dough back into the vessel. At that moment, he felt some movement behind him and turned around to see Bhagavan watching his efforts. Nagarajan was agitated but Bhagavan affectionately told him, “It does not matter. You have added too much water while grinding the black gram. Anyway now make round balls of dough and fry them. They will become bondas”.
When the bondas were served at breakfast, the devotee who had made the offerings got annoyed and shouted, “Look here! Did I not ask you to prepare vadas? Why have you made bondas?” Bhagavan intervened and calmly replied, “What does it matter? If the cakes are flat and circular they become vadas and if they are spherical they become bondas. Both taste the same. Only the name and form change but the substance remains the same.”
Bhagavan brought home the Vedantic truth that the world consists of only names and forms which are not real and what lies behind all of them is one and the same, i.e. the “Sat or the Ultimate Truth or Divinity”.