India is an amazing country and unique in several aspects. For example, in every age great spiritual personalities appear who are aware of their true nature and act as guides to the truth. One such outstanding personality in recent times was Ramana Maharshi, who left his body in April 1950 at the foot of Arunachala Hill in Tiruvannamalai. His teaching is as up to date as it can be. He has distilled the essence of India’s ancient wisdom into one single question. It is the ultimate science and the ultimate fulfilment: to know “Who am I?”
What made this man so special, who sat for years mostly silently on a couch, wearing only a loin cloth? What is the reason that even today many well-known spiritual teachers consider him to be their inspiration? Why do so many people from all over the world keep coming to the place where he had lived – over 60 years after his death?
The reason is that the name Ramana Maharshi guarantees for quality in a field where impostors also roam. His life is an open book. And whoever reads in it will be touched by his simplicity and compassion.
Ramana Maharshi was above average. Yet he would not agree. He saw clearly and stressed it all his life: the essence in everyone is the same as in him – the one, eternal Atman, in English translated as ‘Self’, ‘real I’ or ‘pure consciousness’. This continuous, ever-present I is the only ‘thing’ that truly exists. Everything else is nothing but insubstantial, fleeting thoughts – the countless personal egos and the great, big world included.
Ramana was 16 when he experienced this out of the blue. Until then he was a normal boy, tall, strong, a good football player and swimmer. In studies also he was not bad thanks to his phenomenal memory.
Then suddenly, one afternoon, he experienced a terrible fear that he was going to die ‘right now’. He was healthy and the fear inexplicable, yet very real. He was lying down and observed what was happening. On that afternoon he realised that there was an eternal I present in him that cannot die. From then on, this I kept drawing his attention. It was incredibly attractive, fascinating and most beloved. Even playing football had lost its charm for him.
Six weeks later he secretly left his home and went to the holy Arunachala hill. He reached there on September 1st, 1896, threw away his clothes except the loin cloth, had his head shaven and went into deep meditation for weeks together in a dark dungeon beneath the temple in Tiruvannamalai.
Sheshadri Swami, a well-known saint in Tiruvannamalai, noticed him, carried him out and looked after him. Ramana had festering wounds from the vermin in that cellar and from stones which boys had thrown at him to find out whether he was real or a statue, as one of them later confessed.
Ramana stayed about four years at the foot of Arunachala and then moved higher up on the mountain to the Virupaksha cave. Wherever he went now, people followed him. They simply sat with him in silence; even children ran up the hill and sat with him quietly. His glance was full of peace. He seemed absorbed in the pure Being that is the basic reality of all appearances. But now he remained conscious of his environment. The trance states became less frequent. Yet he still did not talk.
The news spread that there was an extraordinary young swami up on the hill and more people came to see him – people who had been on the spiritual path for years, who had read books, met gurus, practised sadhana and yet had not found inner peace. Among them were some who had themselves already followers, like Ganapathy Muni, a famous, brilliant scholar and poet.
Ganapathy Muni was one year elder to Ramana and not yet 30, when he climbed up the hill in the midday sun. He knew the scriptures and had practised almost all possible methods but had reached a dead end. “What is the right striving for self-realisation?” he asked Ramana who sat alone on his veranda. Ramana wrote down the answer: “Observe from where the I-feeling emerges. Go to its source. If you go to this source, you will dissolve in it. That is the right striving for self-realisation.”
This was one of the first instructions of Ramana Maharshi.
Ramana stayed for 17 years in the Virupaksha cave and five more years in a cave, called Skandashram, further up on Arunachala. Now, several people lived with him, among them his mother and younger brother.
In September 1896 his mother had not resigned herself to the fate that her son had disappeared. She did everything to find him and four years later she stood before him. Yet her plea to come home did not meet with success. Ramana wrote for her on a chit:
….what is destined not to happen, will not happen even if one does everything to make it happen and what is destined to happen, will happen even if one does everything to prevent it. That is certain….
Several years later, after her eldest son had died, his mother came to Ramana and stayed with him till she died. After her death in 1922, Ramana moved to the foot of Arunachala on the southern side, where slowly an ashram came up, because people wanted to stay near him. Some years earlier he had started to talk and now he became the great teacher as whom the world knows him.
Paul Brunton, an Englishman, had travelled in India in the 1930s and had, on the recommendation of the highly revered Shankaracharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchipuram, come to meet Ramana. Brunton was greatly impressed by him. Through his book “Search in Secret India”, Brunton made Ramana known in the west. Foreigners now also found their way to the ashram, among them well-known personalities, like Sommerset Maugham and Maurice Friedman.
Ramana Maharshi showed a direct way: “Find out who you are”, was his advice. It is the core of his teaching. Many might have noticed only then that they did not really know themselves and that the ideas they held were not tenable when deeply questioned. Was it possible that they were something completely different from what they thought they were?
Ramana Maharshi pushed every questioner back to face himself. Paul Brunton for example had asked some questions.
Maharshi: “Who is the I who asks this question?”
Brunton: “I, Paul Brunton.”
Maharshi: “Do you know him?”
Brunton: “All my life.”
Maharshi: “That refers only to the body. Who are you?
A thread runs through whatever Ramana Maharshi says:
There is only one Atman (I or Self). Everybody is That. Always. Ever. Right now. Everybody is basically perfect. Nothing is to be attained. Everybody is always only the one Self. The whole point is to get rid of a wrong idea – the idea that ‘I’ am this separate person and this body.
Thoughts are the cause for this feeling that one is the body. Thoughts dim the splendour of the Self, foremost among them the I-thought, which is the basis of all other thoughts. There is not a big I and a small I next to it. There is only one real I, from which an I-thought regarding the individual emerges. This I-thought has no substance. It is not real, yet it pretends to be the real I. This insubstantial I is the basis for everything that happens in our life and in our world. Everything revolves around this personal I which is nothing but thought.
This individual, thought-based I exists only in the waking state. In deep sleep it is not there. Yet I am no doubt continuously there – in waking, dreaming and sleeping. The personal, pseudo I emerges from the real I on waking up.
Ramana advised to make use of the moment of waking up. The awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ appears a little before thoughts regarding the world crowd the mind. This short transition is ideal to realise the truth because the I-thought without the trail of other thoughts is the source that Ramana had mentioned in his instruction to Ganapathy Muni. “Find out its source and remain there,” he had advised. And added, “That is all what you can do. From then on you are helpless. No kind of effort can get you further. From then on, That which is beyond thoughts and which is present in everyone takes over. Nobody is without this all powerful and all-knowing Atman. It is the ever present inner guru.
An incident illustrates the power of the inner guru:
A devotee of Ramana Maharshi found himself once in a life-threatening situation. Anguished, he cried out for help to his guru. Ramana appeared to him and saved him.
On his next visit to the ashram, the devotee asked his guru, “Did you know that you came to my rescue at that time?” Ramana replied, “The guru need not know. The one consciousneess takes that particular form that the devotee calls out for and that is dearest to him.”
Some of Ramana Maharshi’s listeners were worried, whether they would be able to function normally after self-realisation, probably having his early trance states in mind. But Ramana Maharshi cleared their doubts:
An actor dresses, acts and feels the role which he plays, but he knows that in real life, he is not that role but someone else. The fact that the actor knows who he truly is, does not obstruct him playing his role well. In the same way, remaining in the Self will not be an obstruction to fulfil one’s duties with care.
Ramana took the analogy even further: in the same way, as the role of an actor is determined, so are the actions of a body. Does this mean the individual has no free will? He clarified: As long as one considers oneself to be an individual person, one has free will and has to use it well – and this concerns probably all of us. On the other hand, Ramana claimed, “the purpose of one’s birth will be fulfilled whether you will it or not.” And then intriguingly added: “Let the purpose fulfil itself.”
If this sounds confusing, he once explained that the whole discussion about free will is basically irrelevant, and gave an analogy of his times: people listen to a song from a radio. Then they discuss whether the person sitting in the radio can sing as he wants or whether he has to sing as the radio station decides….
Well, only small children will believe there is a person in the radio. There is no person. Similarly, there is only the one Consciousness, Atman, that shines through each person. So when there is in truth no separate individual, the question whether this individual has free will is indeed irrelevant.
Ramana Maharshi was once asked, whether he thinks. He replied that usually he does not think. “But I see you talk to people”, the questioner persisted. “When I talk, of course, I think. But usually I don’t”, he replied. “And I see you read newspaper”, the questioning continued. “When I read newspaper, I think, but normally I don’t”, Ramana answered.
The issue is basically for the ego with its myriad thoughts and feelings to get out of the way for Atman to shine through. How much light of Atman comes through in each bodily form depends mainly on the degree of egolessness. In some persons, the light is dim, in others bright.
Ramana Maharshi was certainly one of those rare cases through whom the light shone brightly. He did not identify with the body and was not compelled to think incessantly.
Shortly before he died he said, “People say that I am going. Where can I go? I am always here.” By ‘here’ he surely did not mean the place at the foot of Arunachala and by ‘I’ not to the person known as Ramana Maharshi.
~ Maria Wirth