Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950)
Ramana was born in 1879 in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu (South India). He was named Venkataraman Ayyar; this was later abbreviated to Ramana. When he was 12, his father died and he moved to his uncle’s house in Madurai. He attended a Christian mission school, a fact that is important because he later drew parallels between Hindu and Christian thought. For example, he said that the whole of Vedanta is contained in the two Biblical statements “I am that I AM” and “Be still and know that I am God.”
As a young boy, Ramana had a profound experience as a result of an enactment of death by himself. He had a sudden, violent fear of death. He lay down and imitated a corpse stretched out stiff, held his breath and kept his lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape. He realized that, even if his body died, his self would survive. He felt that he became absorbed in this self or ‘I’; this feeling never left him after that. It is believed by his devotees that Ramana was fully enlightened in this experience, without instruction from any guru or teacher.
Ramana claimed that his enlightenment was not based on Scripture or on the study of other works. He said that at the time of his enlightenment at his home in Madurai, he had not even heard of ‘Brahman’ or ‘samsara’. The only books he had read were the Bible, the Periapuranam [stories of 63 Tamil saints] and bits of the Tayumanavar [hymns of the saint Tayumanavar (1706 – 1744). After his enlightenment, he read other books, and found that they “were analysing and naming what I had felt intuitively without analysis or name.” It is said that Ramana’s experience was therefore not due to these books, but that it was an immediate experience. And it is also claimed that he had not engaged in any yoga or other spiritual disciplines prior to his enlightenment.
A few months after this experience, Ramana secretly left his home and travelled alone to the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, because a relative had told him about the sacred mountain Arunachala which is located there. Here is a picture of the temple at Tiruvannamalai. As you can see, it is a very large complex:
For about six months Ramana lived in the temple in a trance, maintaining almost complete silence and seemingly oblivious to his physical discomfort. After that, he lived in the temple grounds, other nearby shrines, and in a nearby orchard. He continued to ignore his physical body, and had to be looked after by others. One of his devoted followers was Palanisvami, who stayed with him for 21 years. Ramana moved from this orchard to a cave on Arunachala. Here is a picture of the young Ramana, and a picture of the holy mountain of Arunchala:
Ramana lived in caves on Arunachala for 23 years, until December 1922 after the death of his mother. It was after this time that the ashram really was formed around Ramana. Here are some photos of the ashram:
Entrance to the ashram
View from the ashram
The samdhi, or memorial to Ramana
The dining hall
In 1912, while still living in the caves, Ramana had a real near-death experience. While he was walking back to his cave, a sudden weakness overcame him. He said that the landscape in front of him gradually was shut out, as if a curtain was being drawn across his vision. Darkness and faintness came over him three times. He says that a bright white curtain completely shut off his vision, his head was swimming and his breathing stopped. His skin turned blue. His companion held him in his arms and began to lament his death. Ramana says he could feel the clasp of his companion and hear his words. He saw the discoloration of his own skin and felt the stoppage of his circulation and breathing, and the increased chilliness of his body’s extremities. He says this condition lasted for ten to fifteen minutes. Then a shock passed through his body with enormous force. Circulation and breathing revived, and he perspired from every pore. He opened his eyes and got up and said, “Let’s go.” Ramana said that he did not bring on this fit on purpose, but that it was one of the fits he got occasionally, and that this one was more serious.
Ramana himself wrote very little. These works have been collected and edited by his disciple Arthur Osborne. This includes his translations of other works. Most of the books that set out Ramana’s ideas are records of conversations with him, and letters written from disciples at the ashram at Tiruvannamalai.
Ramana’s primary teaching was the teaching of the quest for the self. He called this the atma-vicarana, the enquiry into the atman or Self. Between 1900 and 1902, while he was maintaining silence in Virupaksha cave, he wrote out instructions for the disciple Gambhiram Seshayyar. After Seshayyar’s death, these were arranged and published as a book under the title Self-Enquiry. The book “Who am I?” derives from replies given during the same period to another disciple, Sivaprakasam Pillai. Both works are contained in The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi.
Ramana centered all his spiritual guidance and teaching on this simple question: “Who (am) I?” He said that this very question “Who am I?” is itself the revelation of Brahman. This method of self-enquiry is the straight, short and direct path to realization. This method of self-enquiry is superior to bhakti (devotion) as well as to yoga.
Self-enquiry is the quest and pursuit of the true Self within the self. The cause of bondage is our mistaking the body or the not-I for the Self. One must seek the actor who is behind the acting, the thinker behind the thought, the one who wills behind the act of willing. The enquiry focuses inward, for the Self is found in the “cave of the heart.” This Self remains the same through all our states of consciousness: waking, sleeping, dreaming, and the fourth state, turiya, which is achieved in the enquiry. The goal is to attain the natural state (sahaja samadhi), the deepest, innate truth of our nature. This state is lived with full awareness only when one has experienced the Self. Ramana refers to this as the “I-I”. This “I-I” is not ego or individuality. It is a limitless expanse of consciousness. To know the Self we must destroy the ego. When the ego vanishes, Reality will shine forth of itself. If we find out who we really are, enlightenment or realization will inevitably follow.
This realization of the Self is by “direct and immediate experience.” It is an “Intuitive Knowledge of the Heart.” The Self is self-luminous because it is self-evident and does not depend on an external knowledge to be known. The realization is beyond expression; words can only point to it; one knows samadhi only when one is in samadhi. This experience is contrasted with knowledge that depends on subject and object.
In my recent book, I show that Ramana Maharshi’s story of enlightenment is much more complex than his devotees have assumed. Ramana’s own interpretation of his experience was influenced by non-traditional Hindu ideas of living liberation (jivanmukti), and by Western ideas such as Blavatsky’s theosophy and even Christian sources.
Ramana’s early disciple Ganapati Muni and Ramana’s biographers Frank H. Humphreys, B.V. Narasimha Iyer and Paul Brunton all contributed to these influences. Paul Brunton made Ramana Maharshi well-known to Westerners by his book A Search in Secret India. Brunton later admitted that he had used Ramana Maharshi as a “peg” on which to hang his own previously formed ideas. In this way, Brunton may not only have distorted Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, but he may also have influenced the way that Ramana Maharshi regarded his own teachings.
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What does this examination of Ramana’s sources mean for our understanding of Ramana Maharshi and his teachings? It means that he was emulating others in his attempt to achieve enlightenment and that he interpreted his experience in terms of other writings. Furthermore, Ramana’s experience was not immediate. He was influenced to seek the experience by the few books that he had read before his experience? Osborne says that prior to his enlightenment, Ramana was inspired to emulate the saints when he read the Periapuranam:
[Ramana] was overwhelmed with ecstatic wonder that such faith, such love, such divine fervour was possible, that there had been such beauty in human life. The tales of renunciation leading to Divine Union inspired him with awe and emulation.
It is also clear that Ramana used ideas in the books he read in order to explain his experience to his disciples. For example, when he was staying in the temple grounds and orchard, Palanisvami would bring him books from the library and read them to Ramana. Ramana had a very good memory, and he would then summarize the works for Palanisvami. These books appear to have included the Yoga Vasistha. Later, when Ramana was living in one of the caves, he continued to read books from the library, and also Sanskrit books belonging to another Swami living nearby. In 1899, while he was living in the first cave Virupaksha, someone brought him a copy of the Vivekacudamani, a work that is attributed to Shankara. Ramana read it and made a Tamil prose translation of it.
This reading of these and other works occurred prior to his own writings, and many years before he was called Ramana Maharshi. That event did not occur until 1907, when Ganapati Sastri visited the Swami, as he then was known, in his cave. Ganapati Sastri (also called Ganapati Muni) had visited many sacred places in India, and had learned to repeat mantras and to perform tapas (asceticism). He was not satisfied, and so he asked Ramana what tapas was. Ramana replied that if one observes the source where the notion ‘I’ arises, and the source where the mantra is produced, and if the mind is absorbed into that source, that is tapas. Sastri was overjoyed and declared that the Swami must thereafter be known as Bhagavan Sri Ramana, and as the Maharshi (the Great Rishi). He referred to Ramana as a manifestation of God. Bhagavan means ‘the Divine’. Sastri wrote a book in Sanskrit in praise of Ramana that he called the Ramana Gita.
But the instruction that Sastri received from Ramana came more than seven years following Ramana’s reading of works such as the Vivekacudamani and the Yoga Vasistha. As I have shown, Ramana’s ideas are derived from these and other works.