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Ramana Maharshi

Category: Mystic

Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) is widely acknowledged as one of the outstanding Indian gurus of modern times. His birth name was Venkataraman Iyer.  His family lived in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu (South India), he received schooling in English and at an English school. His father died when Ramana was 14.

At the age of sixteen, Venkataraman 'lost his sense of individual selfhood' – in effect he experienced Ecstasy, an experience he only later recognised as the first stage of enlightenment. About 6 weeks later he left his home and travelled to the holy mountain Arunachala, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Arunachala is a holy hill at Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. It is one of the five main shaivite holy places in South India. The Annamalaiyar Temple, a temple of Lord Shiva is located at the base of the hill.  In other words Ramana Maharshi was a Shaivite.

His first years were spent in solitude, but his stillness and his appearance as a sanyassin soon attracted devotees. In later years, he responded to questions, but always insisted that silence was the purest teaching. On the whole very little of what he taught remains and practically all of it was recorded by his devotees, very little by his own hand. He wrote beautiful poetry, truly beautiful symbolic poetry, but it would seem comparatively little of this has survived. The Five Hymns to Arunachala, is his magnum opus in devotional lyric poetry.

 

But despite a lack of observations that I can use, he needs to be on the site because of who he was and what he was trying to explain. He was trying to teach people to still the chattering mind – still the Intellect and he taught them by demonstration not by words. As such all the books of his sayings are somewhat worthless as a means of understanding what he was trying to explain.

He was also the very embodiment of the phrase 'Squash the big I am'. In later years, a community grew up around him, and hundreds of people used to visit his ashram. He was even worshipped. But he helped in the ashram, gardening and cooking, looked after his Mother until her death, refused gifts, refused praise, refused special treatment and treated everyone with equal respect. The ashram that grew around him eventually became a small village with a library, hospital, post office and many other facilities and he did much of the planning and helped with the building.

 
 

I like him greatly because he is so simple and modest, when an atmosphere of authentic greatness lies so palpably around him; because he makes no claims to occult powers and hierophantic knowledge to impress the mystery loving nature of his countrymen; and because he is so totally without any traces of pretension that he strongly resists every effort to canonize him during his lifetime [Paul Brunton].

Much of what he was trying to teach is embodied in the activity I have on this site of Contemplation and detachment, but there was one additional activity he was trying to teach - that of Knowing yourself. He called the Higher spirit the "I-I", and the I-Self and placed much emphasis on the need to reach this higher part of yourself. Ramana called this need to Know yourself 'Self-enquiry', and his explanations of the method for this was eventually published as 'Nan Yar?', or in English, 'Who am I?’ 

 

It is very clear from all the descriptions that his charisma and kindness attracted people because they loved who he was. For example, in February 1897, six months after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai, Ramana moved to Gurumurtam, a temple about a mile out of Tiruvannamalai. Shortly after his arrival a sadhu named Palaniswami went to see him. The meeting left him filled with such peace and bliss, that from that time on he served Ramana, joining him as his permanent helper. Besides physical protection, Palaniswami would beg for alms, cook and prepare meals for himself and Ramana, and care for him as needed.

There is considerable emphasis in his sayings on the role of Destiny in a person's life and the need to discover it and work with it, for example he said

In accordance with the prarabdha (destiny to be worked out in current life) of each, the One whose function it is to ordain makes each to act. What will not happen will never happen, whatever effort one may put forth. And what will happen will not fail to happen, however much one may seek to prevent it. This is certain. The part of wisdom therefore is to stay quiet.

Ramana became relatively well known in and out of India after 1934 when Paul Brunton, having first visited Ramana in January 1931, published the book A Search in Secret India. So good is Paul's description of his first meeting that I have included it here in full.

It is, I think, one of the best I have found to show both why Ramana Maharshi was regarded with such devotion, but also what he was trying to teach.  It is long but quite perfect in its explanation.....

Paul Brunton - A Search in Secret India

I fold a thin cotton blanket upon the floor and sit down,  gazing expectantly at the silent figure in such a rigid attitude upon the couch. The Maharishee's body is almost nude, except for a thin, narrow loin-cloth, but that is common enough in these parts. His skin is slightly copper-coloured, yet quite fair in comparison with that of the average South Indian. I judge him to be a tall man; his age somewhere in the early fifties. His head, which is covered with closely cropped grey hair, is well formed. The high and broad expanse of fore-head gives intellectual distinction to his personality. His features are more European than Indian. Such is my first impression.  The couch is covered with white cushions and the Maharishee's feet rest upon a magnificently marked tiger skin.

Pin-drop silence prevails throughout the long hall. The sage remains perfectly still, motionless, quite undisturbed at our arrival. A swarthy disciple sits on the floor at the other side of the divan. He breaks into the quietude by beginning to pull at a rope which works a punkah-fan made of bamboo matting. The fan is fixed to a wooden beam and suspended immediately above the sage's head. I listen to its rhythmic purring, the while I look full into the eyes of the seated figure in the hope of catching his notice. They are dark brown, medium-sized and wide open.

If he is aware of my presence, he betrays no hint, gives no sign. His body is supernaturally quiet, as steady as a statue. Not once does he catch my gaze, for his eyes continue to look into remote space, and infinitely remote it seems. I find this scene strangely reminiscent. Where have I seen its like ?  I rummage through the portrait gallery of memory and find the picture of the Sage Who Never Speaks, that recluse whom I visited in his isolated cottage near Madras, that man whose body seemed cut from stone, so motionless it was. There is a curious similarity in this unfamiliar stillness of body which I now behold in the Maharishee.

It is an ancient theory of mine that one can take the inventory of a man's soul from his eyes. But before those of the Maharishee I hesitate , puzzled and baffled.  The minutes creep by with unutterable slowness. First they mount up to a half-hour by the hermitage clock which hangs on a wall ; this too passes by and becomes a whole hour. Yet no one in the hall seems to stir; certainly no one dares to speak. I reach a point of visual concentration where I have forgotten the existence of all save this silent figure on the couch. My offering of fruits remains unregarded on the small carved table which stands before him.  My guide has given me no warning that his master will receive me as I had been received by the Sage Who Never Speaks. It has come upon me abruptly, this strange reception characterized by complete indifference.

There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet. I cannot turn my gaze away from him. My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being totally ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly. But it is not till the second hour of the uncommon scene that I become aware of a silent, resistless change which is taking place within my mind. One by one, the questions which I have prepared in the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away. For it does not now seem to matter whether they are asked or not, and it does not seem to matter whether I solve the problems which have hitherto troubled me. I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest.

How small seem those questions which I have asked myself with such frequency ! How petty grows the panorama of the lost years ! I perceive with sudden clarity that the intellect creates its own problems and then makes itself miserable trying to solve them. This is indeed a novel concept to enter the mind of one who has hitherto placed such high value upon intellect.

I surrender myself to the steadily deepening sense of restfulness until two hours have passed. The passage of time now provokes no irritation, because I feel that the chains of mind-made problems are being broken and thrown away. And then, little by little, a new question takes the field of consciousness. " Does this man, the Maharishee, emanate the perfume of spiritual peace as the flower emanates fragrance from its petals ? "

I do not consider myself a competent person to apprehend spirituality, but I have personal reactions to other people.  This dawning suspicion that the mysterious peace which has arisen within me must be attributed to the geographical situation in which I am now placed, is my reaction to the personality of the Maharishee. I begin to wonder whether, by some radio-activity of the soul, some unknown telepathic process, the stillness which invades the troubled waters of my own soul really comes from him. Yet he remains completely impassive, completely unaware of my very existence, it seems.

Comes the first ripple. Someone approaches me and whispers in my ear, " Did you not wish to question the Maharishee ? "

He may have lost patience, this quondam guide of mine.  More likely, he imagines that I, a restless European, have reached the limit of my own patience. Alas, my inquisitive friend ! Truly I came here to question your master, but now I, who am at peace with all the world and with myself, why should I trouble my head with questions ? I feel that the ship of my soul is beginning to slip its moorings ; a wonderful sea waits to be crossed ; yet you would draw me back to the noisy port of this world, just when I am about to start the great adventure !

But the spell is broken. As if this infelicitous intrusion is a signal, figures rise from the floor and begin to move about the hall, voices float up to my hearing, and-wonder of wonders! -the dark brown eyes of the Maharishee flicker once or twice.  Then the head turns, the face moves slowly, very slowly, and bends downward at an angle. A few more moments, and it has brought me into the ambit of its vision. For the first time the sage's mysterious gaze is directed upon me. It is plain that he has now awakened from his long trance.

The intruder, thinking perhaps that my lack of response is a sign that I have not heard him, repeats his question aloud.  But in those lustrous eyes which are gently staring at me, I read another question, albeit unspoken. "Can it be-is it possible-that you are still tormented with distracting doubts when you have now glimpsed the deep mental peace which you-and all men-may attain ? "

The peace overwhelms me. I turn to the guide and answer : "No. There is nothing I care to ask now. Another time – “

 

In November 1948, a tiny cancerous lump was found on Ramana's arm and was removed in February 1949 by the ashram's doctor. Soon, another growth appeared and another operation was done by an eminent surgeon in March 1949 with radium applied. The doctor told Ramana that a complete amputation of the arm to the shoulder was required to save his life, but he refused. A third and fourth operation were performed in August and December 1949, but only weakened him. Other systems of medicine were then tried; all proved fruitless and were stopped by the end of March when devotees gave up all hope. To devotees who begged him to cure himself for the sake of his followers, Ramana is said to have replied, "Why are you so attached to this body? Let it go" and "Where can I go? I am here."

By April 1950, Ramana was too weak to go to the hall and visiting hours were limited. Swami Satyananda, the attendant at the time, reports,

On the evening of 14 April 1950, we were massaging Ramana's body. At about 5 o'clock, he asked us to help him to sit up. Precisely at that moment devotees started chanting 'Arunachala Siva, Arunachala Siva'. When Ramana heard this his face lit up with radiant joy. Tears began to flow from his eyes and continued to flow for a long time. ..... The doctor wanted to administer artificial respiration but Ramana waved it away. Ramana’s breathing became gradually slower and slower and at 8:47 p.m. it subsided quietly."

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer, who had been staying at the ashram for a fortnight prior to Ramana’s death, recounted the event:

It is a most astonishing experience. I was in the open space in front of my house, when my friends drew my attention to the sky, where I saw a vividly-luminous shooting star with a luminous tail, unlike any shooting star I had before seen, coming from the South, moving slowly across the sky and, reaching the top of Arunachala, disappeared behind it. Because of its singularity we all guessed its import and immediately looked at our watches – it was 8:47 – and then raced to the Ashram only to find that our premonition had been only too sadly true: the Master had passed into parinirvana at that very minute."

Ramana Maharshi was 71 years old at the time of his death.

The New York Times in its article dated 16 April 1950,concluded:

Here in India, where thousands of so-called holy men claim close tune with the infinite, it is said that the most remarkable thing about Ramana Maharshi was that he never claimed anything remarkable for himself, yet became one of the most loved and respected of all.

 Arunchala at sunset

References

The classic biography is said to be Ramana Maharshi, Self Realisation: The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, written by Narasimha Swami.

Observations

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