It is rare for someone to give the highest teaching on Earth in Silence. It is rare to find one who with little formal education and no scholarly leanings, comes to be regarded as the guiding light on the most intellectual path of yoga (Jnana Yoga). It is rarer still that even the mere photograph of someone radiates so much Grace that by just looking at it, thousands of people feel themselves to be in the presence of purity and Truth, having never met the person.
A great saint like Ramana Maharshi (Maharshi meaning ‘great sage’ in Sanskrit) does not often come to live on this Earth but when he does, even by just sitting in a loincloth in a remote town in South India, he draws the world’s attention to his presence and inspires waves upon waves of seekers from as far away as the other side of the world.
Birth and Early Life
Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu in 1879. The day of his birth was the auspicious festival of Arudra Darshan, an ancient festival (in December – January) to celebrate Lord Shiva’s manifestation on Earth in the aspect of the cosmic dancer, Nataraja. Arudra signifies a red flame which is the form of Shiva performing the cosmic dance. Ramana Maharshi was born in the middle of the night, at 1 a.m., as the villagers were taking the procession for the festival through the village.
The second of three brothers, Venkataraman was a very intelligent and energetic child but did not show much academic inclination, preferring instead to play sports like wrestling and swimming. Tragedy struck the family when his father passed away when Venkataraman was 12 years old. For financial reasons, he was then sent away to live with his uncle in Madurai.
Defining Moment of Awakening
When he was 16, Venkataraman had an experience that completely changed the course of his life. On an ordinary afternoon in July 1896, he was alone in his room when an intense fear of death gripped him. He became convinced that he was about to die. The fear was so overwhelming that his full attention was absorbed and turned inward. He later described this experience to his followers:
“The shock made me at once introspective or ‘introverted’. I said to myself mentally: ‘Now death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ I at once dramatized the scene of death. I extended my limbs and held them rigid as though rigor mortis had set in. ‘Well, then,’ said I to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried to the burning ground and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body, am “I” dead? Is the body “I”? This body is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even the sound “I” within myself – apart from the body. So “I” am the spirit, a thing transcending the body’. All this was not a mere intellectual process. It flashed before me vividly as living truth.”
The Sage of Arunachala
This experience left Venkataraman profoundly changed. He spent most of his time absorbed in contemplation and samadhi and visited the Meenakshi temple in the town everyday, becoming overwhelmed by tears at the Divine Grace he perceived there.
Soon after, he would leave his life as he knew it and set off to seek Arunachala, the sacred hill in the town of Thiruvannamalai, that he had heard about from a relative and towards which he felt a strong pull. Arunachala has been described in the ancient Hindu scriptures (Puranas) as the form of Lord Shiva as the fire of illumination. While Mount Kailash (in the Himalayas) is believed to be the abode of Shiva, Arunachala is believed to be Shiva himself and the spiritual heart or centre of the world. It is considered to represent the fire of self-enquiry and wisdom (jnana) (see more).
Once he reached Thiruvannamalai (with much difficulty), Ramana Maharshi would never again leave the place and his beloved Arunachala, that he considered to be his guru. He would later describe how he felt that the mountain was pulling him towards its heart of complete Stillness:
“Oh, great wonder! As an insentient hill it stands. Its action is difficult for anyone to understand. From my childhood it appeared to my intelligence that Arunachala was something very great. But even when I came to know through another that it was the same as Tiruvannamalai I did not understand its meaning. When, stilling my mind, it drew me up to it, and I came close, I found that it was the Immovable.”
The local people of Thiruvannamalai were intrigued by the young boy sitting near-naked in caves and temples around the area, completely immersed in samadhi. He was soon recognised as a sanyasin (renunciate) and gathered a following of devotees. Though Ramana was not inclined to speaking much, his mere presence was enough to draw people who recognised the light in him.
When his mother and brothers learned of his having left his uncle’s home and possibly gone to Thiruvannamalai, they tracked him down and pleaded for him to return home. Unmoved by their pleadings, Ramana wrote out a reply on a piece of paper:
“The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds – their Prarabdha Karma.
Whatever is destined not to happen, will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain.
The best course therefore is for one to be silent.”
Some years later, when it became obvious to people that Ramana Maharshi was no ordinary soul but a great spiritual master (and Bhagavan or God as he came to be called by his followers), his mother and brother too joined him in Thiruvannamalai as devotees. The title Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi was given to him by the brilliant Sanskrit scholar and prolific poet Ganapati Muni who became a disciple.
Ramana Maharshi believed the greatest teaching to be: Silence. He spoke rarely, only when he felt it was necessary to answer a question put to him by a spiritual seeker. He is most well-known, especially in the West, for his teachings contained in the small booklet, “Who Am I?” which are the first set of instructions given for the path of self-enquiry (atma – vichara). This ancient path and teaching was not created by Ramana Maharshi but was revived by him in our times. It is the path of Jnana Yoga, following the pointings of Advaita (non-duality) shown also by other great sages, most prominently Adi Shankaracharya, that leads most directly to the experience of the Self as described in Vedanta.
It might appear to be ironic that a master known for the most intellectual-minded path of yoga never placed great importance on scholarship, book-learning or even reading the scriptures. Instead, he always only asked people to turn their minds inward.
“To know the Truth, you need not undergo all this torture of learning. Not by reading do you get the Truth.
Be Quiet, that is Truth.
Be Still, that is God.”
“Just as one who needs to sweep up and throw away rubbish [would derive] no benefit by analysing it, so one who needs to know oneself [will derive] no benefit by calculating that the tattvas, which are concealing oneself, are this many, and analysing their qualities, instead of collectively rejecting all of them. It is necessary to consider the world [which is believed to be an expansion or manifestation of such tattvas] like a dream.”(1)
Ramana Maharshi showed that by enquiring into what we refer to as “I”, one is taken to the very source from where the “I” thought arises, the source of our very being. It is through the wrong identification of the “I” with the limitations of the body and mind, that human beings fall into ignorance and suffering. Therefore, he emphasised: enquire constantly, “Who Am I?”
Often when a seeker would come to Ramana Maharshi with some problem he was facing, the Maharshi’s reply would be: “first find out who you are”.
However, even though Ramana Maharshi is known most prominently for what is considered to be the path to Self-realisation using the intellect, he also pointed to devotion or bhakti as an equally powerful path.
“There are only two ways to conquer destiny or be independent of it.
One is to enquire for whom is this destiny and discover that only the ego is bound by destiny and not the Self, and that the ego is non-existent.
The other way is to kill the ego by completely surrendering to the Lord, by realizing one’s helplessness and saying all the time, “Not I but Thou, O Lord”, giving up all sense of “I’ and “mine” and leaving it to the Lord to do what He likes with you.
Surrender can never be regarded as complete so long as the devotee wants this or that from the Lord.
True surrender is love of God for the sake of love and nothing else, not even for the sake of liberation. In other words, complete effacement of the ego is necessary to conquer destiny. Whether you achieve this effacement through self-enquiry or through bhakti marga.”
– From ‘Be As You Are (The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi)’ by David Godman
The local people believed Ramana Mharshi to be an avatar (incarnation) of Skanda (also known as Muruga or Subramanya), the son of Lord Shiva. People also viewed him as Dakshinamurthy, the face of Lord Shiva that looks southward and that teaches through silence. People poured into the Maharshi’s ashram from far and wide to see and speak with him, including important personalities from the West like Frank H. Humphreys, Julian P. Johnson, W. Somerset Maugham and Mercedes De Acosta. He was always available to see visitors and devotees at any hour of the day. People sought answers to their spiritual questions or just simply the look of Grace they perceived in the master. The Maharshi however, always emphasised the unimportance of the physical form.
“God, Grace and Guru are all synonymous and also eternal and immanent. Is not the Self already within? Is it for the Guru to bestow It by his look? If a Guru thinks so, he does not deserve the name.
The books say that there are so many kinds of initiations – by hand, by touch, by eyes and by mind. They also say that the Guru makes some rites with fire, water, japa, mantras, etc., and call such fantastic performances Initiation, as if the disciple becomes ripe only after such processes are gone through by the Guru.
If the individual is sought he is nowhere to be found. Such is the Guru. Such is Dakshinamurti. What did he do? He was silent; the disciples appeared before him. He maintained silence; the doubts of the disciples were dispelled, which means that they lost their individual identities. That is wisdom and not all the verbiage usually associated with it.
Silence is the most potent form of work. However vast and emphatic the scriptures may be, they fail in their effect. The Guru is quiet and peace prevails in all. His silence is vaster and more emphatic than all the scriptures put together. These questions arise because of the feeling, that having been here so long, heard so much, exerted so hard, one has not gained anything. The work proceeding within is not apparent. In fact the Guru is always within you.”
– Source: https://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/
Bhagavan left his body on 14 April 1950. On the evening of his Mahasamadhi, as he left his body, his followers saw a bright comet shoot to the top of the hill Arunachala and disappear behind it.
Ramana Maharshi’s teachings are still alive today, “his spiritual greatness..guiding millions of people”, in the words of the Dalai Lama. His disciple H.W.L. Poonja ji (see an article here) further continued the teaching of this path and Poonja ji’s disciple Mooji (see an article here) continues it today.
The teaching is simple. So simple that it doesn’t even need words. Yet the path of self-enquiry appears to be the hardest and is usually only considered approachable when the other paths or yogas of bhakti (devotion) and karma (selfless action) have been followed first. Jnana is considered the highest and most direct path, one to which all souls must eventually come. As the Maharshi said: “In the end everyone must come to Arunachala.”
From ‘Conscious Immortality’ (Ramana Maharshi’s teachings):
is like a powerful hidden magnet within us.
It draws us gradually to itself,
though we imagine
we are going to it of our own accord.
When we are near enough,
it puts an end to our other activities,
makes us still,
and then swallows up our own personal current,
thus killing our personality.
It overwhelms the intellect
and over floods the whole being.
We think we are meditating upon it
and developing towards it,
whereas the truth is that we are as iron filings
and it is the Atman-magnet
that is pulling us towards itself.
Thus the process of finding Self
is a form of Divine Magnetism.
Om Namo Bhagavate Sri Ramanaya
Om Arunachala Shiva!
(1) For more quotes of Sri Ramana see: https://www.facebook.com/RamanaMaharshi/