The Silent Blessing (Journey to India, Part 4)

(Photo by Vic Mansfield, 1993)

Sri Sankaracharya had a fever and wasn’t giving audiences when we arrived in Kanchipuram, India for a third visit in 1994. We were disappointed, but not surprised. He was 99 and frail.

Vic and I sat in meditation each morning in the area where we’d had audiences with him in the past, but the green curtain stayed closed and we were the only visitors. I still felt the power of his quiet presence behind the curtain, just a few feet away.

“Since Sankara is ill, let’s go to the Ramana Ashram for a day,” Vic suggested after a week of closed curtain meditation. Ramana Maharshi had been our first introduction to Hinduism. I’d imagined a visit to the Ramana Ashram on our two earlier trips to India, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave Sankara’s presence. His illness was an opening–and a closing. The Tamil Nadu hotel clerk arranged for a cab to drive us to the ashram and bring us back to Kanchipuram the following day.

(photo by dreamtime)

Before we left, I wanted to do my usual morning ritual of offering flowers. I asked the cabbie to stop at my favorite flower lady’s table near the Sankara Temple so I could buy jasmine garlands.

Vic and I went to the now deserted area outside Sankara’s living quarters. The curtain was still closed, but I found a basket for my flowers and arranged the jasmine garlands in a mandala while Vic sat for a five minute meditation.

When we were ready to leave, Sankara’s attendant Balu peeked around the closed curtain and motioned for us to follow him. We tiptoed in bare feet through a dark concrete passageway before entering a bright bare room.


Balu lowered one flattened palm toward the ground.  The silence was deafening. We sat on the cement near a family of wealthy people dressed in gold-threaded silks. Their feet were bare out of respect, not poverty. These diamond people, as the Indians called the wealthy devotees, must have been too important to turn away despite the sage’s illness. After watching us wait outside Sankara’s curtain for a week, sweet Balu slipped us into the sage’s resting place with the diamond people.

Sankara lay on a cot a foot off the floor. He was sleeping or in a coma, cocooned in faded saffron cotton with the soles of his ancient bare feet facing us. Hindus honor the feet of the guru, so his exposed toes were a blessing.

I watched the gentle up and down waves of the sage’s breathe under the thin cloth while my pounding heart quieted. In ten minutes, Balu touched my shoulder and motioned it was time to leave, but I had sipped a drop of the sage’s silence, a Presence as deep and vast as the Grand Canyon.


Have you traveled a great distance to spend time with a teacher or someone who opened your heart? Maybe it was family or maybe a wise woman or man. I’ll share a few more stories about this last trip to India in coming weeks.

This is the fourth in a series about traveling to India. For other posts in the series, begin with:  Out of Control: Pilgrimage to India, 1.  There are two more: Out of Control: Journey to India, Part 2 and Journey to India, Part 3.

  1. Oh, my dear friend! I could smell the jasmine through time and space and held my breath when you slipped behind the curtain to join the diamond people! What an honour it must’ve felt to have been there at that time and share those experience with your beloved Vic.

    Thus far in life, I realise I’ve never travelled great distances, to another continent or even a country, to see teachers but I have travelled shorter ones to learn and receive deep lessons. The shortest distance in inches I guess is the one from head to heart, the work of a lifetime.

    Thank you, so much dear Elaine, for sharing this latest post on your journey to India. I’ve enjoyed them all and looking forward to the next one, when you’re ready. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, Vic loved traveling and I loved traveling with him because he was relaxed about every mix-up and delay–a mellow and curious traveling companion with a touch of daring and lots of trust. Going to India and sitting in the silence of Sri Sankara was a life changer for both of us. Vic was cremated in a silk shroud given to him by Sankara and he gave me one, too. (They weren’t obvious shrouds, but I knew when Vic died. My sons know where mine is when the time comes. I have photos of His Holiness in my home and the memory of inner quiet in the midst of chaos.

      The deepest lessons are all inner or in nature now, but I’m grateful for contact with a few transcendent teachers, including Marion Woodman. I’ll probably create two more posts about India since it ended in an unforgettable way. Sending you love and joy as you near the goal of finishing your book. My goal is to finish this winter. For once, the goal seems realistic.

      • I never heard this story. This is why writing is so important. It’s the things we don’t say.
        I need to learn from Vic still. “He was relaxed about every mix-up and delay.”
        Why do I get so agitated about small things?
        A waste of life’s energy for sure.
        Of course I am moved by reading about Shankaracharya. He pushed the limits of what I know about being a person. What it means to be a person. And with so few words.
        Thanks for writing.

        • Lauren, it was a short miraculous experience in the midst of so many unforgettable experiences–and he died later that day or the next morning. So that was the last time we saw him alive. It was so brief–but it was enough. I’m an anxious traveler (and even more so now that I can’t hear what’s going on except a roaring of airport fans and announcements that could be in any language at all). It was good for me to travel with Vic who usually stayed calm even in the face of my emotionality. We were a good balance in lots of ways.

          Being in the presence of Sankara transformed my life and the lives of many. It’s not easy to condense what happened in India, so I’m pulling out the luminous moments. This was one. It’s hard to explain what happened when I sat on hard pillows near him for hours, but I’ll never forget the inner silence. I’ll also never forget the sensory assault of the noisy world when walking out on the street after spending a few hours with him.

    • …The shortest distance, between head and heart.
      This sentence keeps echoing.

  2. As you know, I am not familiar with all the nuances of Hindu ritual, but I do remember “priests” visiting the college early in my tenure there and creating a mandala on a table in the lobby of the arts building. I was fascinated by the intricate designs, concentric and (I think) representing unity. They were simply stunning.

    The jasmine garlands are beautiful. And I know they smell spicy and sweet too. Thanks for the education here, Elaine.

    By the way, with all the aches and pains I’m experiencing in this decade, I can’t imagine living to age 99. I can sympathize with needing a closed curtain.

    • Marian, I wonder if you saw Tibetan Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. As they work, they grate pieces of colored rock into sand, so there’s a rhythmic scraping along with the prayers and creation of elaborate, precise images. They spend days creating the image with prayers and then sweep it into water. Vic invited the Buddhist monks from Ithaca to come to Colgate U where he taught and there was a week of ritual and photography–and then all was swept into the campus lake. Another lesson in impermanence! Hindus also create elaborate altars, but your description sounds more like the Tibetan Buddhist altars–not that it matters. It’s all prayer. I loved buying jasmine garlands on the way to the temple to give as an offering. Vic and I went to a huge flower bazaar on one of our visits where people could buy garlands, bouquets, and big bags of loose jasmine and marigold flowers plus more. Flowers were a big part of ritual life.

      Sri Sankara kept giving to the end. When he was 96, he would offer blessings to lines of pilgrims many hours each day. He looked at each person with his piercing gaze (one eye had a thick cataract) and sometimes asked questions. He spoke many languages, including English. People brought offerings and he passed the gifts along. Elephants and cows came in the morning for blessed grains from him. People wept in devotion while he blessed each person. I wept, too. It was an astounding contrast to the contained Presbyterian rituals of my youth.

      • Elaine, I don’t recall seeing the monks creating the mandala, just the beautiful creation when it was finished. Probably arts faculty took their students to view the actual process.

        • And I may be mistaken about what you saw, but it sounded like a Tibetan sand mandala and it’s common for Buddhist artist-monks to create them in public places like libraries, universities, museums, etc. They’re beautiful and impermanent. A prayer in every grain of sand.

  3. Thank you for evoking his presence, dear Elaine

    • Harriet, I’m working my way toward the hard part–saying goodbye. It was a closing, but also an opening. I’m glad we were together on that first trip to India.

  4. How absolutely extraordinary that you and Vic were given those moments to be with your teacher, Elaine. Life never fails to amaze.
    I love Deborah’s comment about the shortest distance is between the head and heart. For me it’s been the longest distance but o my gosh, what an adventure!

    • It was extraordinary, Susan, and he was one of many teachers in my life. His presence gave the blessing of inner silence, but so did the Dalai Lama and a few others. One of the outcomes of Sankara’s death was knowing I had to work with a woman teacher. It came as an intuition that had to be unpacked, and I’ll write about it before ending my India tales.

      When you write about your adventures with your husband, I remember the incredible trips I shared with Vic–including the elephants in India and the monasteries of Taiwan. It’s not as much fun traveling without my relaxed companion.

  5. “The silent was deafening.” So much meaning packed into so few words. I’ve experienced the silence that feels like a prayer in many holy sites. It’s so deeply aware, respectful, and accompanied by a sense of one’s insignificance in the universe. It makes you feel connected to something awesome, like it must feel to be floating in space looking at earth and the universe beyond…..It also makes me think of what you’re experiencing now with Meniere’s disease. Of how over the years, well before you ever experienced the first symptoms, you were somehow unknowingly training yourself to be comfortable with silence in your many silent meditation retreats. As if something in your soul was somehow preparing you….. I wonder if you’ve felt that way at all or is it just my wishful thinking? Much love, dear friend, Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I’ve been to silent holy sites, too–the St. Francis crypt at Assisi comes to mind and the Ramana Ashram in India, but the Sankara Mutt was often noisy–a Mosque a few doors away with calls to prayers, horns honking on the street, cows mooing, temple elephants, and people seeking blessings and bringing offerings shouting their needs and petitions since the Sage was very deaf. Still, Sri Sankara’s inner silence penetrated through the noise and brought inner silence to me and others who sat in his presence. Vic and I teased that we were beggars like everyone else: “a glimpse of the sacred, please, or a moment of silence or solve my impossible problem or help, help, help…” India was tumultuous and busy, so I don’t think it prepared me for my life now–no partner, pandemic separation from friends, so much time alone, little talking although with my hearing equipment, life isn’t silent but sound is distorted. I’ve grown used to my quiet life (most of the time) and have friends not far away and the beautiful colors of autumn at the moment. I send love to you in FL and hope you didn’t have much damage from the Hurricane. It must have been a wild ride.

  6. Vic was right. I think we’re all, rich and poor, hungry beggars, even if we don’t pray to a sacred image. Hungry for love and nourishment, security and safety, order and predictability, power and success, wisdom and justice, connection with otherness. Feeling. Meaning. No wonder we follow spirit persons and powerful politicians! “Please help me survive the confusion and tumult and suffering of this world and my life. Please help me understand myself. Please help me make a difference in this world.” I think those hungers, and above all, the hunger for self-knowledge, are what drive my writing. In fact, I know they are.

    We were mercifully spared the worst of Hurricane Ian. Surrounded as our little neighborhood is by water, our lakes and waterways are connected by canals and a system of weirs that ultimately empty excess water into the St. John’s River on the east coast. Our house is built several feet above the flood plain so although our road and part of our yard was totally flooded for a few days, we had no more damage than that. But you can’t imagine the gigantic piles of gathered limbs and branches we all gathered. Some were picked up by city crews, but we’re not in the city limits so we had to hire a few workmen to pile over 1,000 pounds of it into a trailer and haul it away to a licensed collection site. They weighed it, and we had to pay for it.

    My godson in Ft. Myers didn’t fare as well. The flooding covered four cars, and damaged two boats in his driveway. He uses the boats in his business as a captain who takes people out into the ocean on fishing expeditions. Luckily, they built and live in a hurricane-proof piling house that’s elevated more than 15 feet off the ground, so the house is fine. Here in the low areas around Orlando many people had flooding halfway up their walls or higher and lost everything. It’s so terribly sad. And very hard to imagine.

    • The spiritual lineage feels irrelevant–as you point out–but the issue is our helplessness and quiet or loud pleas for relief and happiness, connection and creativity, or an escape from what feels unbearable. Jeanie, I’m grateful you and your family were spared the worst of the hurricane. It seems as if our country has already moved on to the next tragedy and forgotten the suffering many still endure in FL. One thousand pounds of downed limbs? That’s a huge amount. I’m glad your godson’s house survived along with his family, but it sounds like he lost his livelihood temporarily. I’m grateful to live high on a hill with a deep well, although you can remind me I said that when the wind blows and snow falls in January. I’m grateful for autumn sunshine and a big stack of dry firewood in the barn to keep me warm all winter. And I’m grateful for the competent man who helps me here and that he’s become good friends with my son Anthony so I can call on either or both of them as necessary.

      In India, life felt on edge in so many ways. Beggars on the street, drought or floods, hire a cab and know it will break down at least once before reaching the destination if it’s more than a few miles. And yet it was uplifting and transforming in ways hard to articulate. I’m grateful I went with an easy-going traveler with a sense of humor like Vic.

  7. I can already follow your steps one by one. You both were looking for the self, and that’s nice that you tell us wonderfully. Since the silence certainly had a lot to appeal to.
    Sorry, Elaine, I do not have so much free time to read your worthy tells. My thoughts are mainly towards Iran and the innocent young girls fighting for their rights. I understand that; western people have been living in their free society for so long and never could feel, as much as I feel, what is already going on in Iran. Have a lovely week ahead, dear Elaine.

    • Aladin, I found a whole new spiritual path in the next few days, one it took me time to understand.

      Please don’t ever apologize for not responding to my posts. You have world-shaking issues to deal with. It’s true I can’t imagine how difficult the happenings in Iran must be for you and the kinds of memories they stir, but I can hold your troubles in my heart. Our “free society” may be coming to an end in the United States. We always think it won’t happen to us, but that’s a fool’s opinion. It’s happening, but I’m in a safe place and safe part of my country for now. Please take good care and be safe.

  8. Somehow I missed reading this one, dear Elaine. Reading it just now made me almost feel as though I was right there with you. Thank you for taking us along with you on these sacred journeys. with love, anne

    • Thank you, Anne. It will take another post or two to finish this story and then I’ll return to what’s happening now. My primary focus is finishing the 3rd draft of the Monarch book. Sending you autumn love.

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