DR. PAULOS MAR GREGORIOS
A Personal Reminiscence
Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D.
Several memories about Thirumeni flashed through my mind as I entered the Delhi Orthodox Center that day; the images of his erudite lectures, powerful orations, philosophical discourses, spiritual leadership, reflections on his vision for a just and peaceful world, enlightening sermons, and above all, his fatherly affection.
I remembered especially his recent leadership of the
Parliament of the World’s Religions in
GregoriosThirumeni was the Archbishop of Delhi of the Malankara
Orthodox Church of India and the Principal of the Orthodox Theological
Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala. But he was much larger than those official
chairs he held in his Church. A leading Theologian of the
However, I did not go to
I was ushered into his bedroom as soon as I got there. Thirumeni was sitting on his chair, wearing the plain white kammeeze of the Orthodox Christian priest. A walking stick, which he had been using for a while, leaned against the arm of the chair. I knew he was ill, but he did not look sick. The usual exuberance and energy was not there, but his face looked bright and serene, and his mind was as sharp as ever.
I perched quietly on a modest wooden chair, one of two guest chairs in that small, austere room.
”How was your flight? I am sorry I could not send my car to the airport to pick you up. I don’t have a chauffeur now.” His hospitality had always been embarrassingly perfect ever since I first met him in 1955. I was deeply humbled once when he waited for an hour at the airport to meet me.
”And how is Chinnamma?” He inquired as well about my
children Joe, Kurian, and Liz with the love and yearning of a grandfather.
He wanted to know about their marriages, their work and educational
endeavors. It was he who had first placed his hand on their heads to bless
them when they arrived on this planet. Although he was working in
When Joe was going through a stressful freshman year in
college, Thirumeni made a special trip to
GregoriosThirumeni had played with my children for
hours whenever he had a chance to visit with us. He enjoyed playing with
all children and would keep on, oblivious to anything or anyone around,
whether in a tense and crowded airport in
One of his greatest joys was visiting with the children of the Orphanage in Thalacode, Kerala. The orphanage was one of Thirumeni’s favorite projects and he developed it into a viable institution. In his will Thirumeni bequeathed a significant portion of his estate to this orphanage. Those innocent children always remember him as a loving grandfather.
Dr. Gregorios turned into a child when he was with children, and a philosopher, scientist, or king when in the company of the elite ones. I am afraid it was difficult for him to be anywhere in between! He could relate easily with the international roster of his friends like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Dr. Robert Runcie (Archbishop of Canterbury), Pope John Paul I, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Baba Virza Singhji Maharaj (Delhi), Swami Chidanand Saraswathi (Rishikesh), MaulanaAbulHasan Ali Miyan (Luckno), Swami Lokeswarananda (Ramakrishna Mission), Dr. Karan Singh, Governor P. C. Alexander, President R. Venkatraman, and President Roman Herzog of Germany. He could find immense joy in conversing and playing with children as well.
Family dinners, when he stayed with us, were always
memorable and relaxing. One evening he started explaining Hegel’s
dialectical philosophy to Joe, Kurian and Liz who were only in Grade
school! “ What is going on here?” I wondered! At the time he was reading
Hegel in the original German in order to write a book on the works of the
Holy Spirit. He had borrowed the books from the
At another dinner, Kurian asked Thirumeni how he came
to know the Emperor Hailie Sellassie of
For a brief article on Thirumeni this may be a rather
long narration on his stay in
Long ago, he had told me about an unusual experience he
had during the earliest days of his life in
Gregorios Thirumeni, who was then a teacher in
directed the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar for his school’s anniversary celebrations. (A bishop in the Orthodox Church receives a new name when he is ordained as bishop.) In the play he acted as Mark Antony, a role in which Thirumeni’s oratorical talents found full expression. The Emperor Hailie Sellassie was in the audience to demonstrate his special interest in the educational activities of his country. Deeply moved by the performance of ‘Mark Antony,’ the Emperor wanted to meet with him personally. During the conversation Paul Verghese talked to the Emperor in Amharik, the Emperor’s native language. Amazed at this foreign teacher’s command of Amharik, HailieSellassie asked how long Paul had been in Ehiopia.
” An year and a few months, your Majesty.”
Hailie Sellassie was fascinated by the play and asked for a copy of Julius Caesar to read that night.
A few weeks later Paul Verghese received an order
appointing him as the Senior Teacher of the Amharik language in the most
prestigious High school in
Paul Verghese wanted to study theology and got a
scholarship to go to
Paul Verghese took his undergraduate degree in two
years, and then went to
Love overcomes hurt pride. Hailie Sellassie followed
the whereabouts of his favorite “son” and kept track of him. When the
Emperor was on a State visit to the
The father meets the son with love, with a heart filled with forgiveness!
”So this is your University. We (the Imperial We) have
tracked you down. And we know that you have finished your studies and will
be getting your degree in a few days. You are coming back with us to
An eternal human dilemma! Return to plough the
father’s farm or follow one’s own vision? They were both stubborn people,
and pursued relentlessly whatever they wanted from life. Neither one gave
in, yet each kept affection and high regard for each other. Paul Verghese
Religious activities began to flourish with his arrival at the college. Over and above the routine Scripture lessons in the college curriculum, I attended his weekly Bible Study group in the evenings. Weekends were filled with spiritual activities. As President of the Student Christian Fellowship and Secretary of the Philosophy Association, I worked very closely with him for several hours every week. He became my guru and a big brother too.
He never turned me down. When he and I were planning an entertainment program to raise funds for the Student Christian Fellowship, he glanced through his bookshelf and pulled out Shakespeare’s works. “Why not produce Julius Caesar?” he mused.
Julius Caesar! A Shakespearean Play! In
A reassuring smile! Then he told me the story of his
‘acting career’ in
”Hey, this sounds great! Can you act as Mark Antony again?” I asked. This was an audacious request by a student of a teacher those days. Professors were kept on a high pedestal and they never acted in a play side by side with students. We never even mingled with the faculty socially.
To my surprise he nodded “Yes.” Then who will play the other roles?
”Let us ask Joseph Achen to act as Julius Caesar. And, let us try to get George Zachariah for Brutus,” he said.
Professor George Zachariah was my Psychology professor.
Joseph Achen was a senior faculty member, Professor of English, and a
priest too! I did not have the nerve to ask either of them to act in a
play. Respectable and serious minded people in
The entertainment went very well, the best one in memory. Everyone welcomed the participation of the faculty and the new, lively interaction between students and faculty.
When Emperor Hailie Sellassie paid a State visit to
I was at the Fellowship House, the residence of Paul Verghese,
when he received the telegram from the Emperor. The mailman had taken
eight hours to deliver the telegram, an unusually long delay even by
Indian standards. I told him he should complain to the Postmaster. But,
with a smile he said, “You know, I worked as a telegraph clerk in the Post
Office for six years before I went to
The Ambassador’s mission failed, but the Emperor would
not give up. When Hailie Sellassie reached Kerala during his tour he had a
meeting with His Holiness Baselius Geevarghese II, the Head of the Malankara
Orthodox Church. Paul Verghese was there as the interpreter for H.H. Baselius
Geevarghese II, the only human being Paul Verghese would obey without
question. The Emperor made his request to His Holiness, who tactfully
persuaded Paul Verghese to accept Hailie Sellassie’s request. Soon he
moved to the
Life in the Palace could be a dream for common folks like me. But Paul Verghese was not happy there, and was very uncomfortable with the intrigues, power politics, and corruption that went on around the place. It was not the life he wanted, and he wanted to get out of that trap.
On a day of State Celebrations, quite unexpectedly, the Emperor called Paul Verghese to his presence. When he went in, the Emperor was sitting on his throne, dressed in his formal attire. The Emperor’s pet lion kept him company, regally watching his master, the ‘Lion of Judah.’
”What do you want to be in life?” asked the Emperor.
Carefully observing all the formalities of addressing the Emperor, Paul Verghese voiced his wish, “I want to serve the people.”
” Years from now I will probably be forgotten. But I have a charity fund, The HailieSellassie Charity Fund for which I want to be remembered by posterity. You be in charge of that fund.”
With awe in the presence of the Emperor, the demure
Paul muttered, “I want to serve the people of my Church in
Reaching for the power of powerlessness!
Suddenly, the Emperor stood up in anger and roared,
“You were born in
A week later Paul Verghese received a memo giving him charge of the HailieSellassie Charity Fund. He was also personally given shares of the Emperor’s private business endeavors, the Addis Ababa Transportation Company, and the Ethiopian brewing company.
The Emperor’s granddaughter, a British-educated, beautiful young woman, was also appointed as Paul Verghese’s secretary. With a twinkle in his eyes HailieSellassie later asked Paul Verghese, “How is the new secretary working out?”
What is the agenda here!
The Emperor wanted Paul Verghese to be his grandson-in-law. “My son is not my son,” the Emperor once told Paul Verghese. HailieSellassie did not hold the Crown Prince in high regard. They never got along well.
Money started to flow into Paul Verghese’s bank account from the transportation and the brewery companies.
Power and money, and now an invitation to be a member of the royal family - the great ‘Temptations!’Wouuldn’t it be unsettling to anyone? But is this God’s calling for Paul Verghese?
The favorite son Paul waited. When the Emperor went
abroad on a State visit Paul Verghese flew to
The determination to be what he wanted to be! To be true to one’s own spirit!
As I write this, in the same dining room in which Thirumeni told the story of the Monarch and the Monk, I can see in my mind’s eyes the look on my children’s faces. Their eyes and ears were glued to Thirumeni, like a Norman Rockwell painting. Who says children can’t pay attention to long discourses!
Thirumeni told them several other stories of his long relationship with Emperor Hailie Sellassie. Some may be worth repeating here, for what they reveal of Thirumeni and echo in his own life.
Once, he told them, when
The Emperor called Paul Verghese into his chamber.
”I am going to face the Army,” said Hailie Sellassie in a calm, firm voice. Then he grabbed Paul’s hand and said, “Examine my body. In thirty minutes I could be dead by a soldier’s bullet. I want you to be my witness that I don’t have any bulletproof vest on. I have never feared anyone but God!”
An embodiment of Imperial courage! The faith of the Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church!
Emperor Hailie Sellassie addressed the soldiers for thirty minutes. They dispersed in peace!
As Thirumeni continued his story, I wanted to tape-record his unique eyewitness account of history, but I was afraid that might interrupt his train of thought. Besides, it felt awkward to record a private family dinner chat and make everyone self-conscious.
The story continued, and he talked about the coup d’etat. The Emperor was abroad, and the Crown Prince announced over the radio that Hailie Sellassie had been dethroned and that the Prince had taken over the power as Head of State.
HailieSellassie flew back to
He wanted to talk this over with Paul Verghese, his
trusted counselor. Paul Verghese flew to
HailieSelassie poured out his heart. “ You always tell me that I don’t trust people. How could I? It was my own Palace Guards who did this to me,” bemoaned the Emperor. It had been four hours by the time they let the doors of the chamber open.
The Crown Prince had his side of the story. He invited Paul Verghese to his palace for dinner. As soon as he was received at the door the Prince signaled that there be no talk; that means no discussion of the political situation. Every room was bugged, the Prince suspected.
After dinner the Prince told the guards, “Two chairs,” and pointed his fingers in the direction of the garden in the backyard. He wanted it to be just the two of them, where it possibly was safe to talk.
The Prince explained the situation to Paul Verghese and
said he was innocent. The military junta had forced him into the radio
station, and at gunpoint made him read the statement overthrowing the Hailie
Sellassie regime. The Crown Prince said that
When the turmoil subsided Paul Verghese sat down with
Hailie Sellassie and gave some suggestions for a future course. ‘
The Emperor called a Cabinet meeting and solemnly proclaimed, “From now on you have the responsibility of running the Government. I shall stay in the background as a figurehead. Whatever good you do, you get the credit, and whatever mistakes you commit, you take the blame for it.”
Things went smoothly for a few weeks. Everyone felt
relieved and comfortable. But Hailie Sellassie couldn’t help it. On every
little issue, the Emperor started calling up the Cabinet ministers to yell
at them, “Why did you do this, why did you do that,” and so on. Finally
the Cabinet members gave up on ‘democracy,’ and
But the average Ethiopian loved him, adored him, and one sect of people even believed that Hailie Sellassie was their prophet. Hailie Sellassie repeatedly told them that he was not a prophet, but they wouldn’t accept it. They insisted that the prophecy specifically said that the prophet would deny that he was the prophet. Everything about HailieSellassis’s life fit the story of their Prophet. A group of such ‘believers’ rebelled against their government in an island state. They said the Governor of that state had no authority over them; only Hailie Sellassie was their god-king. The Emperor sent Paul Verghese to this island state to tell them that Hailie Sellassie was only a human being and not a god or a prophet. After they heard the emissary, their Chief held an orange and a knife in his hands, chopped off the top of the orange, and threatened the messenger that his head could be chopped off just like that for bringing this ‘heresy!’ No, the Truth never appeals to blind fanatics! However, Paul Verghese wasn’t intimidated. He persisted and negotiated an end to the rebellion against the governor.
Intimidation never worked with Thirumeni. He would
always fight against a threat and would never consider running away from
it in cowardice. I remember once when a priest in the American parish
mentioned to him that Thirumeni had enemies in
Restlessness and rebellion continued to brew in
Thirumeni was allowed to visit Hailie Sellassie in the Palace, the last foreign visitor to see him. HailieSellassie acted as though he was still in charge as the Emperor. He called his secretary, gave her orders, dictated letters, and so on. She was only Mangitsu’s spy! The Prisoner Hailie Sellassie sat on the chair of the Emperor Hailie Sellassie, and talked to Thirumeni, still with the dignity His Majesty was used to.
At the end Thirumeni asked, “After all this, Your Majesty, do you still believe in God?”
HailieSellassie could not hold on to his facade anymore. He burst into tears and said, “That is all I have left now!”
Face to face with the Ultimate Truth!
A few days later the Ethiopian Government made the official announcement that Emperor Hailie Sellassie died in his sleep!
With tears brimming in his eyes, Thirumeni said, “They poisoned him!”
(Years later it was found out that that they had choked him to death with a pillow.)
Thirumeni looked distraught. He couldn’t continue his story. As we sat there stunned, he stood up and staggered away to his room.
I have seen him in tears only one other time. After
suffering from a heart attack, I was placed in the intensive care unit in
Let us go back now to the
Thirumeni had gone through several personal traumas during his life including his mother’s nervous breakdown, his own stroke, post-surgical complications, and cancer! But self-pity was not one of his flaws, even though now, here he was with ‘all of the above’ plus fatigue, diabetes and hypertension!
”He walked around with regal dignity, but lived like a Yogi, and he was comfortable at both,” said his biographer Professor K. M. Tharakan. The place of his abode could not have been simpler.
His bedroom had only one window. The stone wall that
snuggled around the massive
He had raised the money, and designed and built the
An old chair, with two pieces of hard wood on both sides to support his arms, found its place close to the wall. It was kept slightly elevated, propped up on a bunch of unrefined bricks so that he could get up by his own stubborn self with no outside human help. A small, traditional Indian cot found its humble place on the right side of the chair. Underneath was a piece of old carpet with patches of bald spots and diminishing luster. A thin cotton mattress and a pillow clad in white cotton fabric apologetically adorned the bed, awkwardly reminding him that it felt awfully rejected much of the time. A thin, brown wool shawl, neatly folded, lay unobtrusively at one end of the bed.
Squeezed between his chair and the bed was a night stand which held a tape player that purred his ever-favorite Gregorian chants, a telephone, a traveling alarm clock, a few books, a pen and an appointment book. The two wooden chairs in the corner of the room didn’t look very inviting to anyone who might think of settling down to exchange small talk. And on the opposite wall, a bookshelf with glass doors held a few books, some odd items of personal interest, and small gifts received.
Two beautiful Russian Orthodox icons, the only ornament in this sparse room, adorned the walls, one of Jesus and the other of St. Mary, holding the infant Jesus. Two small silver dhoopakkutties (incense burners) adorned both sides of these icons like worshiping angels. I felt as though they were transmitting the vibrations of a celestial aura over us.
Thirumeni took a few Russian and Byzantine icons with him wherever he traveled. Those were permanent fixtures of his personal surroundings, as much as the Masanipsa and the cross on his person.
I gave Thirumeni a couple of tapes of Gregorian Chants
that I had bought for him. This kind of devotional music usually kept him
company when he was alone in his room in
Did he have a chance to listen to the new tapes I had bought him? I hope he did. But I would never know!
I asked about his medical condition. His doctor was planning to start the second course of chemotherapy that week.
I knew that he was an avowed apostle of holistic
health. I talked to him about my recent presentation at the Midwest
Conference of the Biofeedback Society in
He reflected for a moment and in a pensive tone said, “If stress has anything to do with my cancer, it is the stress from my work to bring peace in the Church.”
In the past we had talked about his agony over the prolonged legal battles between the Patriarch and the Catholicos factions in the Malankara Orthodox Church. He was a Bishop in the Catholicos faction of the Church, but his heart and mind were above all those petty, local conflicts. Most people in the opposition (Patriarch) party believed in his fairness and his earnest desire for a peaceful settlement. However some extremists on both sides worked hard to sabotage the peace mission, and even went to the extent of throwing insults in his face. It was agonizing, and yet he continued his peace mission, as no one else had a better chance to accomplish his noble goals.
At this time he sounded hopeless. He believed that if
the Patriarch (
The late VattasserilThirumeni, the leader of the Catholicos
faction, had passed away in despair and disillusionment. Manalil Achen
(Father YakobManalil), his secretary to the end, once told me that the
failure of Vattasseril Thirumeni’s earnest efforts to work out a peaceful
settlement with the Patriarch faction was the main cause of his illness
and death. Professor K. C. Chacko, “the black saint of
Is this Church under the spell of a curse?
Thirumeni’s legs appeared to be hurting. He had constant discomfort in his lower legs. I noticed that there were several dark spots on his feet, scars from diabetic sores. He was sicker than he appeared, I thought. I sat down at his feet and tried to massage them. And I found myself embarrassingly inept at it.
I can never forget those feet. Gregorios Thirumeni
taught me the only kind of exercise I still practice. We used to go for
long evening walks when I was a student at the
I am annoyed with myself whenever I think of my inept, clumsy performance of the ‘massage therapy.’ I could not even do such a simple service for him. I can never go back for a second chance. Death has a grim finality to it. Every moment in life may be the last chance you ever have.
Yet the thought that he might die so soon never crossed my mind. I had plans to return after a few months with a video camera and conduct a few interviews with him about his life and philosophy, and his visions for the future. I did not even take a still picture of him this time. Why should I? I was going to come back to spend a long vacation with him!
And he was going to be there for a long, long time!
Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die. All of us will pass through the gate of death some day, but most of us are afraid to think about it. From my clinical practice, and from my own experience, I have come to think that freedom from the fear of death liberates us from crippling existential anxiety. It is important to be at peace with one’s own transition to the other Life. As Morrie Schwartz puts it in Tuesdays with Morrie, “When you learn to die, you learn to live.”
As I visited Thirumeni, Cardinal Bernadin’s body was
being laid to rest in
Cardinal Bernadin was an old friend of his, since the days when the Cardinal was just Father Bernadin. But I was nervous about bringing up this topic. I did not want to evoke images of cancer-related death before him, but on the other hand, I wanted to make sure that he had already reached this very special peace, a must for everyone of his age and of ill health.
Was Thirumeni at peace with the extinction of his own mortal being? When I watched his defiant struggle against his physical disability, his unceasing striving to learn, think, and write, his incessant campaign for a just and peaceful world, I wondered if he would soon detach himself from all these worldly preoccupations. Maybe he had a different way of dealing with life. ‘God gave me this precious life, and I must use every drop of it to my last breath, for His glory.’ Like a burning pellet of camphor at the altar of a deity, did he want to burn it all before God with not a trace left?
With a quiver in my heart, I finally told him about the Cardinal’s death. There was a moment of silence, and a wave of gloom rolled over his face.
”How old was he? Seventy five?”
”No, he was in his late sixties,” I said.
Was Thirumeni reflecting on his own life span? I wondered.
As I came to read his Last Will later, I realized that
my concern about his preparedness to leave this world was unfounded. A
week after he suffered a stroke, and with his left hand paralyzed, he
wrote from his hospital bed in Room 341 of Krankenhaus Sankt Josef in
I inquired about Avarachen (Paul Abraham of
Fate has its own freakish designs. Thirumeni’s body reached his childhood family church in Tripunithura, the same church where the wedding was to be conducted, and the same day it was scheduled to take place, but in a sad way, for the traditional last farewell.
In the Malayalam language, the word Veli has a dual meaning, wedding and death. That day was to be the celebration of his Veli, the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Thirumeni was showing signs of fatigue. “Have you
brought anything to read? There may be books of interest to you in my
library,” he said. “Do you have any plans to visit places or other friends
”I have no other plans, Thirumeni. I came only to spend some time with you,” I said.
He reached for his walking stick and struggled to get up from his chair as I watched, keeping my impulse to assist him under firm control. I was not at all comfortable watching him struggle though.
”I like to do this by myself,” he said, as he dragged his body toward the bed. “My legs don’t seem to have the strength to carry the weight of my body.” I knew his stoic self resented sympathetic helpers. I ventured to help only when he asked for it.
A nurse attended him during the day. His physical capacities had been breaking down one after the other over the past forty months, in spite of his valiant fight against this at every stage.
I joined the resident priest Father Solomon, and some aspiring priests who lived at the Center, for and evening prayers in the Chapel. We then ate Ashram-type meals together in the dining hall.
I surprised myself by waking up for the prabhathanamaskaram (early Morning Prayer). I can count on my fingers the number of days I might have seen the sun rise in my entire life. My father used to wake me up at for prayer. I couldn’t stand it. I used to fall asleep in the middle of that ritual or I would fake sleep when it didn’t happen naturally. Finally, he gave up on me and carried on with his discipline all his life. But this time it felt different. I had a reason to pray. I joined the worship services three times every day to lift up Thirumeni’s name before God.
Thirumeni was living on a frugal diet of only fruits
and vegetables for over a week at the recommendation of a certain European
quack. Father Solomon was of the opinion that this was the reason Thirumeni
became too weak at the time. He recalled that Thirumeni had enough energy
to teach a two-hour class for the philosophy students from the
Thirumeni had several complaints about the culinary art of the resident chef at the Center. Sometimes he would say to me “maybe it is my appetite, or a problem with my taste buds.” In his frustration, he had written to us a while ago, “I can’t even get a Vada”, his favorite delicacy.
I spent most of my time reading and meditating in the reception-room area close to his bedroom.
My schedule was the same as Tuesday, just being near Thirumeni, but away in the adjoining living room. I seldom bothered him with intrusions on his private time, very little of which was left by now. The nurse was in the next room if he needed anything. And I was there if she needed any help.
In spite of his inadequate skills in handling Thirmeni’s frustrations, his attendant Thomas cared about him very much and did the best he could. Forgive me for inserting this paradoxical lamentation of Thomas in this somber chronicle. When Thirumeni passed away, the grief-stricken Thomas wailed in tears, with a profound sense of loss, “Ente Deivame! Enne vazhakku parayaaniniaarumillallo!”(“Oh, God! I have no one left to scold me!”)
I have heard some people say that Thirumeni was difficult to work for. His perfectionist, hard-working, and idealistic personality had no room for stupidity, inefficiency, and corruption. Uncompromising stubbornness and intolerance of domination by others also go with this type of personality profile. I once asked him, “ Would they be working as orderlies if they had been as bright and smart as you are?”
Many people went to work for Thirumeni with a hidden
agenda, such as his finding a job for them in the Gulf or securing
admission and scholarship in an
Cerebral and friendly as Thirumeni was much of the time, volcanic anger shot through his rigid veneer of rationality and composure without much forewarning. In Psychoanalytic terms, his Superego was so domineering that the Id forces staged a ruthless revolt, playing havoc, destroying everything on their path like a tornado. Or in Jungian terms, a pussycat at the Conscious level can be a tiger at the Unconscious level. He was painfully aware of this ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ contradiction in him, but he never managed to integrate those opposing forces successfully.
In his autobiography, Love’s Freedom – The Grand Mystery Thirumeni writes about his young adulthood: “There was quite a bit of goodness in me, but I knew that a lot of sheer wickedness was lurking underneath all the time. Ambition could not always be distinguished from love of domination and power, from the desire for adulation and flattery. Yearning for love and affection often took the form of seeking glory and honor…I loved to be praised, but I was afraid to be loved, mainly for fear that I could not take it when the love would be withdrawn. I was once the object of great love and affection from my mother, but its apparent withdrawal as a result of her illness was a trauma that I never got over. My personality was unmistakably dual and unintegrated.”
Unfortunately, the stroke he suffered exacerbated his problem with his irritability. Brain damage of the right hemisphere, as he had suffered, usually results in impairment of emotional control and change of personality. Within a week after he suffered the stroke, my wife and I talked with him over the phone. We talked at length and felt that his verbal abilities and thought processes were intact. Those capacities were very important for the way he lived his mission in life. The impairment of emotional control was expected, but did not get as bad as so many others we had seen in the hospitals here. Despite his impairment, and his reputation for such angry outbursts, I have never witnessed any such incidents myself, nor has anyone in my family. His reactions were not as idyllic as his pre-stroke years, but somehow he managed to keep them within acceptable limits. Maybe we had mastered the art of handling him well. He has always treated us with love, understanding, kindness, and respect.
He was a man of several paradoxes. Although he
benefited a great deal from his education at
”Northwestern is a good University, but do not settle
These are the things he loved to hate in the socioeconomic order of the century: the monstrosities of industrial and defense establishments, the secularism and materialism of the European Enlightenment, and the cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism of the West. He attacked these things with a passion wherever he got a chance.
Thirumeni’s friend Dr. CherianEapen (
Thirumeni’s fight for social justice was not limited
Thirumeni envisioned a society with robust Christian social values, rooted in faith in God, love, and altruism, devoid of selfishness and monitory motives. When he found that profiteers and oppressors dominated even ecclesiastical establishments, he turned to the leftist revolutionary movement, only to be disillusioned even more deeply. He refused to take into account human psychology and the pragmatic problems it would entail to maintain the kind of utopian society he had envisioned. For most human beings, self-interest, not spiritual authenticity, is the core motive that propels their lives. Humanity has not, it seems to me, developed much beyond the narcissistic stage. Agape, compassion, and altruism are still elements of a noble dream. Nevertheless, he continued to cling to his vision to the very end. In 1995 he wrote, “Alas, the communists became as dogmatic, corrupt and power hungry as the Roman Catholic Church and dug their own graves. But I still remain committed to socialism as the nearest alternative to the just society I am envisaging as a Christian.”
It was a sedate post-breakfast hour. I went to his room to see how he was doing.
”Nebu just called,” he told me. “They are coming to see
me on the 18th of January.” He seemed happy about it. Nebu and Betty (Drs.
Abraham and Betty Koshy) had been close to him for several years. In their
The expectations of people for him to be a certain way, according to their own preconceived notion of how a high priest and an influential leader should appear and act put tremendous pressure on him, as it would on any authentic human being. In our homes we reached beyond his official, public persona and connected with the true human being within him. He was relaxed and pleasant when people would allow him to be genuine, and loved him for what he was.
”Pinnekaanam,” (“See you later”) he had told Nebu.
The pinne never came to be.
Dr. CherianEapen of
Two women disciples came to see him around the late
afternoon on Wednesday. They were Hindu Brahmins and professors at the
Thirumeni sat up on his chair, a small food tray on wheels placed in front of him. It had just enough space for two dinner plates, one for him and the other for me. I sat on the other side of the portable table. They served steaming masaladosa and sambar, the best I have tasted in a long time.
Vestiges of the unkind stroke asserted itself. His left hand was paralyzed, and he struggled to prove that he could take care of things with one hand alone. The dosa kept skating around on his plate as he fumbled to slice it with a fork. I watched this ‘chasing around’ for a little while. He wouldn’t ask for help. Finally I put my fork firmly on his dosa, like holding a live catfish down by its neck, and held it in place. As if nothing had happened he chopped off slices from his dosa, mixed it with sambar and ate. He ate three of those delicious masaladosas with sambar as those daughters of caring kept on sliding fresh dosas on to our plates. As he finished eating, looking very satisfied he said “ I have been looking forward to this for many days.”
It was our last meal together, and I believe it was the last of his enjoyable suppers in the company of friends and disciples. A kind of Last Supper! Served by disciples from another Faith!
Dr. Jayashree’s friend (pardon my nominal aphasia) who
came to see Thirumeni said she was originally from Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu.
This led Thirumeni to talk about his current research on the ancient
Dravidian civilization of
Sai Baba was on the news that day. Thirumeni talked
about the kind of miracles Sai Baba was known for, and of an experience he
once had with a Yogi who claimed similar powers or sidhis. This particular
Yogi once came to Kerala and created gift objects as if from the air, and
gave them away to the devotees. One such object was an expensive idampiri
conch shell, which had a religious significance for the Hindus. Thirumeni
became curious about this sidhi and paid him a surprise visit at his house
”How did you do this?” asked Thirumeni. The Yogi told
him that through his extrasensory perception he saw that Thirumeni was on
his way to visit him, and that he had bought those stones from a store in
Chandraswamy, the controversial Guru of some
politicians and business magnates the world over, was also in the news. Thirumeni
recalled his encounter with this 'godman’ during the Parliament of the
World’s Religions in
He was by no means a novice to the Vedic philosophy and
We discussed current politics, religion, science, and the philosophy of the modern medical sciences. He seemed to be in the pleasantly erudite and entertaining mood that I was familiar with, and had experienced during the dinners he shared with my family in our home.
An hour or two went by, and his voice was beginning to fail. We suggested he take some rest. He moved over to his bed from his chair, again defying the power of his infirmity. Dr. Jayashree knelt down to the floor on her knees, the traditional Hindu way at the feet of the Guru, and Thirumeni placed his hand on her head to bless her. When the women were on their way out, I kissed his hand for blessing, turned off the lights and left the room.
I went to my room and, reclining on the bed with my
head resting on the cold wall behind, slipped my legs under the rasai
(thick blanket used in north India) to get halfway comfortable. I was
reminded of how few comforts – like the meal prepared for him by the Hindu
women – were gracing his last days. I then opened my Bible for my bed time
meditation. It read, “On the way to
A silent moment with God, then I turned off the lamp, and went to sleep.
Preparing for some important event! I thought.
Morning prayers, prayers, and evening prayers, and the barely nutritious meals as usual! And Thirumeni in his room, confined as a prisoner of his own body!
A genetics professor (again, excuse my nominal aphasia)
Was there a dark lining to the silver cloud of his tribute to me? Did he feel neglected by his church and its people for whom he devoted his whole life?
Dr. SojanIpe called from Kolenchery, Kerala. After a
brief conversation Thirumeni told Sojan that I was with him and then
handed the phone over to me. He stayed with Thirumeni and took care of him
I just listened. Some oncologists had told me his type of cancer advanced at a very slow pace and that by the time it could gobble him up he would have been gone from something else.
Well! For a change, Thirumeni had confidence in a
doctor, his oncologist Dr. V. Raina, Professor of Medical Oncology at the
All India Institute of Medical Sciences in
I remembered the letter he had faxed us about a recent
experience at a hospital in Mumbai (
I feel that hospitals often have an attitude problem. Many of them act as though they are too busy to pay attention to the patient’s sentiments, and they have a culture which makes them blind to anything alien to their customs. Once you check into a hospital, it is as if some malevolent wrecking crew runs over you with a vengeance, demolishing your dignity, privacy, free will, intuition, feelings and what not! Thirumeni would never surrender his free will for anything on earth. He was one of those “difficult patients.”
I was preparing to leave the next morning. I went out
to the neighboring shopping center to buy some gifts for my family. The
entire area was dusty and filthy, and I could not stay out too long. I
knew that Thirumeni had a social work project to help the people in that
area. As conditions there existed then, it would take a million Thirumenees
to raise that neighborhood to the level we are accustomed to in
And that was the world in which he chose to live and work.
I had to leave at
in the morning to catch the flight to Thiruvananthapuram. I didn’t want to
wake him too early in the morning to bid farewell, so at bedtime I went in
to say goodbye to him. He was in bed, reading a book. We had a brief chat.
I raised my concerns about finding a good chef to prepare some agreeable
food for him. “We tried everything. Asked so many people in Kerala through
the church.Announced in all the parishes in
I kissed his hand to receive his blessing. Soon, closing his eyes, he turned onto his right side facing away from me as if he did not want to see me leave.
I stepped back, turned off the lights and left the room.
Should I leave
Thirumeni! Thank you for sparing me the agony of seeing you die right before my eyes.
I felt an ominous sensation as I was leaving the
My wife called the
”Chinnammaeppozhaingottuvarunne?” (“Chinnamma, when are you coming over?”).
She sensed his yearning to see us all. “No plans for the immediate future, Thirumeni,” she said apologetically.
”Valiyachelevuaayirikkum, alle?”(“ It is too expensive, maybe.”), he said. His voice was feeble, and it didn’t sound as robust as it used to. Yet, he wanted to talk.
”You sound very tired, Thirumeni. Let’s not talk too long.” That was our last contact with him.
Thirumeni had been steadily gaining more strength since I saw him Tuesday. I read a report that he had even gone up to his study and resumed his writing, putting his companion, the laptop computer to work.
Finding a chef for Thirumeni was my immediate
preoccupation. My cousin Mr. Iype Thomas, the lay trustee of the Jacobite
Syrian Orthodox Church, offered to send one of his employees, a chef, to
But soon he would have no need for a chef! Soon he was going to go beyond the world of Vada and Dosa, beyond everything of importance on this planet.
A telephone call woke me before sunrise.
Around Sunday, Thirumeni called his attendant Thomas for a drink of water. He was uncomfortable and an hour later he called Thomas again. This time it was chest pain. And it got worse as minutes passed by. Father Solomon and staff took him to the nearby hospital. But the doctors could not revive his heartbeat. A few long minutes! And Thirumeni left his body at Sunday morning.
I attended the Quorbana at the St. George Church,
Next door, at the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Dr. Babu Paul eulogized his old Guru in a very touching way. Babu knew Thirumeni, and I knew Thirumeni. Like those blind men who saw the elephant!
Thirumeni used to leave personal copies of his books
with me when he visited with us in
In a review of his book, Enlightenment- East and West,
The New York Times wrote that it was one of the ten most important books
published in this decade. The review read, “After Vivekananda, this work
helps us to get to know the soul of
I might need a lifetime of reading and research to understand the mind of this great man.
In over 1900 years of its existence, the Orthodox Church of India never produced another son of his scholarly caliber, and only future generations will fully appreciate his contributions to his Church and the world.
Finally, this Jnana-Karma-Bhakthi yogi from AarshaBhaarat has this word for us all:
”I leave this word to all who survive me: Love God with all your mind and all your will and all your feeling and all your strength. Live for the good of others. Pursue not perishable gold or worldly glory. Wish no one any evil. Bless God in your heart, and bless all his creation. Discipline yourself while still young, to love God and to love his creation, to serve others and not to seek one’s own interest. Pray always that God’s Kingdom may come and all evil be banished from this created order.” (The Last Will)
This was what he taught me in
The rest is history, already known to the public
through extensive media coverage in
A Manorama Daily van in the funeral procession paused
for me. Someone inside spotted me in the crowd. The staff of the
Mourners of all Faiths and politicians of all ‘colors’
lined up from
”There can’t be a single chef among them!” I mused.
Thirumeni’s body reached its final place of rest, the body that encased this free spirit for seventy-four eventful years. Prelates, politicians, cabinet ministers, and Justices were all there to eulogize him. Messages of condolence from President Narayanan and Sonia Gandhi as well as so many others who knew him personally blared over the loud speakers.
But the powerful voice that had thrilled and inspired
over five thousand delegates from all over the world at the Parliament of
the World’s Religions was silent. The echo of the thundering applause and
the standing ovation at
The Vivekananda of this century will speak no more.
I stood in line, along with the thousands of other mourners, to touch his feet and get a last glimpse of his face. Caught up in the fast-moving crowd, I got a split-second to look at his face. This was not the face I wanted to engrave in my memory.
I left right away.
Thirumeni was not afraid of the other world. He has a friend up there, his Lord! With a face lit up in transcendent love and bliss!