As the monks continue working on the biography of our Satgurus, “Seven Mystic Gurus,” many stories are manifesting. Today we share one, a miraculous and true story of Kadaitswami, the Tamil siddhar who lived from 1804 to 1891. Here is one of his many miracles. This story takes place in Northern Sri Lanka.
Kadaitswami lived life striding through the countryside and various townships, stopping and staying in patterns discernible to no one. As his reputation grew, everyone wanted blessings from him. With the passing years, he had a sizable contingent of devotees and anecdotes of his miracles were the devotional coin of the kingdom. We could imagine one such blessing, based on a true report, as follows.
Kadaitswami burst into the entrance of a bustling market one day, with shoppers vigorously negotiating for the slightest amounts of everything from flour to fish. Down the road to his right were fresh fruits and vegetables in lavish variety, each kind stacked in neat geometrical pyramids at open stalls tended by the farmer’s family. Bullock carts were still lumbering in from the farther fields, laden with the morning’s yield. Every region had its market, a giant version of the modern farmer’s market, with the growers engaging directly with the buyers in a frenzied melee. In those days, everyone was a locavore. Villagers had no refrigerators, not even ice, so visiting the market was an almost daily chore for every household, and food was always fresh. The age-old drama played out, with the merchants trying to maximize their take and villagers trying to minimize their expenditure.
A medley of prepared foods were on display in a separate sector. Pittu, a mixture of rice flour and shredded coconut steamed in cylindrical bamboo tubes, laid in steaming pots, fresh and ready to eat -- the fast food of those days, but much healthier. Idiyappam (known as stringhoppers in English), that strangely wonderful spaghetti-pancake-looking treat made of a thick rice flour dough, were being steamed. Dosai and appam, made from a fermented batter of rice and dal, were being skillfully cooked on wood-heated iron griddles. Iddli, vadai, biryani, uthappam and uppama were all available.
This was not Thondan’s first exposure to Kadaitswami. The great missionary’s exploits were legendary, and Thondan was part of a circle of devotees dedicated to Kadaitswami and his teachings, but the two had never spoken. Suddenly, there the guru stood, an arm’s length away, his six-foot-four-inch frame towering above the crowd. Looking down at Thondan, Kadaitswami spoke in a deep, resonant voice, “I am coming to your home for lunch tomorrow.” It was not a request or a negotiation.
Looking up at the improbably tall swami, Thondan folded his hands together and paused for a moment in the hopes of saying something inviting, yet profound, grateful and reverent. All he could muster was a lame smile and a barely audible “Yes, Swami.” Swami turned around and left without a word. The rumor spread like wildfire. Thondan had been chosen by Swami. Down the line of stalls, people greeted the news with joy, curiosity and downright envy.
Each stall purveyed a plethora of curries, along with the obligatory triad of red, green and cream colored chutneys, stone ground from fresh coconut and herbs to compliment the main dish. Here, at a glance, one could see and enjoy 8,000 years of culinary evolution which has resulted in the most varied and healthful vegetarian palette on the planet. Saivites were so uniformly vegetarian in those days that the word for vegetarianism in Tamil is saiva. No wonder they mastered the veggie diet, having no fleshy distractions.
As he wandered home, Thondan’s mind wandered to food. He had not eaten a full meal in five days. His family had simply sustained themselves on a little dal, the milk of the family cow and a compassionate neighbor’s occasional offerings. Thondan was too proud to ask anyone for help. How then would he serve the swami?
Reaching home, he was struck by the oddly placed reminders of his old life: the tile floors, a luxury compared to the cow dung floors of neighboring huts; a finely carved chair with a silk cushion; a silver-plated chest with engraved artistry. He lost himself for a moment, remembering how, when times were better, they lived and had servants in a home five times this size.
Thondan realized there was not much time to receive Kadaitswami properly, and he had to do something. Snapping out of his reverie, he snatched the chest and bolted awkwardly out the door. An hour later, he returned to the questioning glance of his wife, Gowri, who knew something was amiss. Thondan announced, “Kadaitswami is coming tomorrow for lunch!” Gowri’s immediate reaction was enthusiastic, for a spiritual master was about to step foot in her home. But as fast as the smile came to her face, it left when she pondered how to receive him. Turning to her husband, she queried as diplomatically as possible, “How would you like to receive the swami?”
Her husband said nothing, but handed her a small pile of rupees. Gowri quickly discerned that he had liquidated the prized silver chest, and while shocked she said nothing. Their silent exchange was sufficient conversation. There was neither anger nor annoyance within her. The dutiful wife quickly appraised the handful of notes and, without actually counting, judged it more than enough for one fine meal. Gowri smiled, kissed her husband on the cheek and headed for the door, announcing, “I will go to the market and be back with the food for tomorrow.” Before she could leave though, Thondan cautioned, “This will never happen again in our lifetime, so make sure each item is the very best, and be sure to buy oranges.” Thondan went on to list a dozen more items, from sweets to nuts, all exotic and all expensive.
Gowri’s good cheer left the room. An experienced market-goer, she knew the money in her hand was woefully inadequate for the feast her husband was hoping for. At the same time, she saw his vulnerability in the moment. Like many proud men, he did not want to be told he had fallen short and might not earn the spiritual titan’s blessings.
Torn by her beloved’s anguished look, Gowri assured him, “We will make the best meal for Swami. Somehow we will do it.” Seeing her confidence, he grew happy.
Gowri instinctively clutched her thali, the solid gold pendant worn on a golden chain around the neck of all Hindu wives. Wives never remove this sacred symbol of marriage, and most faithfully worship their marital talisman each morning. To lose it is considered unthinkably inauspicious. They hugged as two people do when confronted with life’s trials, then began the business of preparing for Swami, he cleaning and preparing their entryway as she set out for the market with a surreptitious stop at the goldsmith’s shop.
The next day arrived almost immediately, or so it seemed since there was so much to do. The couple conscripted their two sons to help, and everyone was scrambling. By 11:45 am the last of the dishes was ready, but kept fresh in the kitchen to be served hot only after the swami had seated himself on the woven palm mat that served as the dining room. Their scurrying was interrupted by a thundering thump on the door, “Thondan, I have come!”
Gowri grabbed the camphor, Thondan the lamp and the two boys held the tray as their parents placed the camphor on the lamp and lit it. Thondan opened the door. Hands held in anjali mudra, he offered a reverent “Vanakkam, Swamiji.” But as they tried to offer the camphor flame in the traditional salute to holy men and women, Kadaitswami marched past and into the house. Obviously in good cheer, he gave Thondan a hearty thwack on the back, “Fine day, young fellow!” Swami sat on the mat prepared for him, indicating not so subtly that there had been enough niceties and he was ready to eat.
Taking an unadorned clay basin in one hand and a jug in the other, Gowri poured water over Swami’s right hand as he turned it over and flexed his fingers in a cleaning gesture that begins all Tamil meals. Thondan went to the kitchen where, one by one, his wife handed him the items to be served onto the banana leaf in an exacting order. Only men would serve a swami in those days, and the family ate only after their guest had finished.
True to her husband’s wishes, Gowri had and purchased an abundant supply of every savory staple and treat. But Kadaitswami was a big and active man with a matching appetite. As is customary when serving a guest in a Tamil home to this day, the host kept offering his guest more of each item as it disappeared, giving the sense that there was a never-ending supply. What the family didn’t expect was that Swami would keep eating and eating and eating, never extending his hand over the leaf to block the onslaught of sumptuous offerings, never saying, “Pothum,” enough. While pleased that their honored guest was so thoroughly enjoying their feast, the family grew anxious as Thondan was handed the last of the food, which was supposed to feed the four of them as well. He ate it, noticing their nervous watchfulness. “Fine meal!” Kadaitswami announced, folding the banana leaf that had been his plate in two, thus indicating that he was finished. He patted his stomach and pronounced, “Very full!” Relieved, Gowri relaxed. She literally had nothing more to serve him.
Turning to Thondan, Swamiji said, “I require one more thing before I go. You are a blacksmith now, is that right?” Thondan managed a muted, “Yes, Swami.” Not that he felt it was a lowly profession, but compared to his old business, his fortunes as a blacksmith were abysmal. He was the family provider, and he was ashamed not of his work but of his inability to care for them as he once had.
Kadaitswami instantly understood. “It is not what you do, young man, that is the key to fortune. Lakshmi can visit any profession. You must know how to call upon her.” Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and fortune, was then called forth as Swami quoted from the Tirukural, “Compassion, which is the child of love, requires for its care the bountiful nurse called wealth.” The whole family looked perplexed. “Do you have an iron rod in your shop? I require an iron rod before I go.” Confused and disappointed, everyone stared helplessly at Kadaitswami. Why would he ask for some worthless metal while talking about wealth?
Kadaitswami pressed, “Do you have an iron rod?” Thondan motioned to one of his sons. After a few moments, the boy returned carrying a rod a meter long and four centimeters thick, which he placed on a mat in front of Kadaitswami. Solemnly nodding in appreciation, Kadaitswami turned to Gowri, “Lakshmi is modest and changes in private. Do you have a clean sari?” Still confounded by it all, Gowri fetched a sari and handed it to her guest, who wrapped the iron rod with the cloth. Kadaitswami began to slowly chant, “Aum Namah Sivaya, Aum Namah Sivaya” Abruptly, he stood up and left. It was an odd departure, but Kadaitswami was nothing if not eccentric. A bit startled by it all, the family basked in the aftermath of Swami’s presence, so pure, so noble and mysterious.
Gowri went to put the sari and the rod away, only to be frozen by what she found: a solid gold rod. A miracle had happened in their home. Swami had transformed the iron into precious gold. Each one was transfixed by the marvel before them, and it would be days before they realized fully the value of the rod. The family never sold the rod. They didn’t need to. The blessing of Swami’s presence transformed more than the iron; it reinspired them to work harder than ever as a tight-knit team. In time, they prospered. Their afternoon with Kadaitswami was more valuable than gold, for it connected them to something inexplicable and supernal.