Ramana Maharshi

Religion

Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi

 (1879-1950)

 

"Distracted as we are by various thoughts, if we would continually contemplate the Self, which is itself God, this single thought would, in due course, replace all distraction and would it self ultimately vanish. The pure consciousness that alone finally remains is God. This is liberation. To be constantly centered on one's own all-perfect pure Self is the acme of yoga, wisdom, and all other forms of spiritual practice."

 

Ramana Maharshi (Maha or great, Rishi or Enlightened Being) was a sage who belonged to the line of seers, beginning with the Upanishadic masters and including

Buddha and Sankara, who taught by precept and example jnana marga or the path of knowledge. After Sankara (788-820 AD) the Maharshi was the most outstanding representative of this path. The Maharshi, like a scientific discoverer, explored de novo the deeper dimensions of reality and perfected for us a technique of self- enquiry with which others can repeat his experiment and verify the findings by direct experience. He was a guru of international renown from south India who taught during the first half of the twentieth century. He was as typical flower of Tamil culture with its rigorous intellectual precision, as Sri Ramakrishna was of Bengali culture with its emotional warmth, and Mahatma Gandhi of Gujarati culture with its brisk, down-to-earth practicality.

 

Ramana Maharishi's childhood name was Venkataraman. He was born a little past midnight of December 29/30, 1879, corresponding to Punarvasu of Dhanurmasa. He was the son of Sundaram Iyer, a pleader in Tiruchuzhi and mother Alagamma. He had his early schooling in his native town and went to Dindigul for middle school for a year. On the sudden death of his father in 1892, Venka taraman and his elder brother N agaswami were taken to Madurai by their younger paternal uncle Subba Iyer. The two younger children, Nagasundaram and Alarnelu, with their mother, went to stay with Nelliappa Iyer, the elder uncle, at Manamadurai. After sometime, Venkataraman joined the American Mission High School at Madurai. He did not take his studies too seriously but was intelligent and had an excellent memory. So he got promoted from class to class. There was, at this time, little to show that he was spiritually inclined. He was much interested in games and used to win in wrestling and swimming matches, and when he fell into sound sleep it was difficult to wake him up.

 

To the boy, Arunachala had evoked much awe and love. But it was only in November 1895 that he learnt from his elderly relation that Arunachala was Tiruvannamalai, a real and nearby place. A little later, a copy of Periapuranam fell into his hands and he was overwhelmed with joy as he read the stories of the sixty-three saints who had obtained the grace of Shiva. The great event, which formed a turning point in the life of the Maharshi and in modern man's quest for identity, took place in the middle of July 1896, about six weeks before he left Madurai for good. One day, he was sitting alone on the first floor of his uncle's house when he had a sudden fear of death. This turned his mind inward and he pursued an enquiry somewhat like this: "Now I am dying. What does this death mean? What is it that is dying?

 

This body dies." He went through the act of death, extended his limbs and made them rigid, held his breath and kept his mouth closed. He continued the silent enquiry: "Well then, the body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there cremated and reduced to ashes. But am I dead? Is the body "I"? The body is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even hear the voice, the sphurana, of the "I" within. Hence, I am awareness transcending the body. I am the spirit immortal." All this enquiry was not an intellectual exercise but a living experience of the pure "I am" awareness which he went through in his mind. This vivid dramatization of death transformed the schoolboy into a sage at the age of 17.

 

The young sage told no one of his inner conversion and for a while continued to carryon the role of student and family member. But others around him noticed a complete change in his outlook. He completely lost interest in sports, studies and his former friends. Rather than being strong personality that inspired fear in his friends and fellow beings, he now became meek, humble, indrawn, and indifferent to his surroundings. He avoided company and preferred to sit alone, absorbed in complete concentration of the universal Self. Almost every evening he went to the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai and stood in quiet exaltation before the images of saints and gods depicted within the temple. Waves of emotion overcame him and tears flowed profusely from his eyes as he stood contemplating the images before him.

 

A single experience of this nature subsumed the Buddha's prolonged contemplation of human suffering and death. In Shakespeare's words, he fed on "death that feeds on men, and death being dead there is no more dying then". The peak experience of total identity with awareness and detachment from the body-mind complex not only shattered for Venkataraman the artificial barrier between ontology and epistemology but released a perennial sprint of all-embracing love and joy which proved through half a century of egoless living the one-ness of all selves. As he explained repeatedly to many inquirers, other thoughts might come and go like the various notes in music, but the sphurana or vibration of Self-awareness continued like the basic or fundamental sruti which the other notes had to accompany and blend with. The whole vision of death occupied in him less than half an hour but it not only brought about a radical and permanent transformation in the young man's life but gave him the handy, unfailing and all-purpose weapon, the question, ''Who am I?".

 

After this event, Venkataraman fell more and more into fits of Self-absorption and went through his studies mechanically. He became more meek and humble in his dealings with people and visited the temple very often and . with deeper emotional fervour. The stories of the Periapuranam and the images of the sixty-three Nayanars which he had seen in the temple now took on new significance. On August 29, 1896, the sixth-form pupil was sitting at home and transcribing a passage from Bain's English Grammar, which he had to do thrice over by way of punishment. After making out two copies and before he started the third, he got disgusted with this enforced task, pushed aside the papers, shut his eyes and started meditating. His elder brother, who was watching all this, scolded him for behaving like a yogi while staying in the family and pretending to study. Venkataraman took the hint and decided then and there to leave home and go to Arunachala.

 

He reached Tiruvannamalai on September 1, 1896, early in the morning, and went straight to the temple of Sri Arunachaleswara and stood before his Father. He had His complete bliss and the fever that had raged within his body for days left it now. He came out of the temple, had his head shaven and threw away his belongings-the sacred thread, the money he had, the packet of sweets, and his clothes except for a strip he tore off from his dhoti to serve as kaupina. Thus, he renounced everything and went back to the temple, had a sharp shower on the way thus cleaning himself and took his abode in the thousand-pillared hall where he spent some weeks in motionless silence. The Brahmana Swami, as the young ascetic came to be called, took shelter in a vault, known as Patala Linga, beneath the hall. Ants, vermin and mosquitoes fed on his flesh during the weeks he spent there but the young man absorbed in the bliss of Being, was unmoved. This vault was dedicated, and a portrait of Ramana Maharshi was unveiled there in May 1949 by C. Rajagopalachari, then Governor-General. It has now become a place of special interest in the temple complex.

 

When some devotees discovered the Brahmana Swami in the cellar, oblivious of the dreadful condition he was in, with worm-infested wounds oozing pus, they moved him to a stone mandapam in the nearby shrine of Gopuram Subramanyar. From now on he was moved to various shrines and groves on the outskirts of the town away from curious onlookers, and was looked after by various good people- mendicants, devotees from the town, temple functionaries and others. He was absorbed in Self and virtually dead to the world during these months, and had to be vigorously shaken by the shoulders before he would notice and accept the food and water which some devotee brought to him once a day. His hair had got matted and woven like a basket. Small stones and dust had settled in it and the head became heavy. He had long nails and a frightful appearance. People pressed him to have a shave and he yielded. When his head was shaven clean he began to wonder whether he had a head or not, he felt so light.

 

In the meantime, Venkataraman's relatives at Madurai and Manamadurai had no news of what had happened to him. For twenty months, anxious inquiries and searches were made at various places but he could not be traced. It was a few days after the death of Subba Iyer at Madurai on May 1, 1898 that perchance Alagammal and her brother-in-law Nelliappa Iyer had come from Manamadurai to attend the funeral ceremonies. Annamalai Thambiran, who had learnt the young Swami's name and native place at Gurumurtam, happened to visit Madurai at the time and, at a religious discourse, spoke to a jnung man sitting next to him about Venkataraman of Tiruchuzhi who was a well-known saint at Tiruvannamalai. The young man, who was a friend of the family, went straight to the house of the deceased Subba Iyer, met Nelliappa Iyerand Alagammal and told them what

he had .heard. When Nelliappa Iyer reached the spot, Venka taraman was hardly recognizable, with shaggy hair, long nails and generally unkempt appearance. But the light- red mole on the sole of the right foot was undoubtedly Venkataraman's. In spite of several requests, the young ascetic would not break his silence. Therefore, it was with a heavy heart that Nelliappa Iyer returned to Madurai.

 

After spending about 19 months in the Gurumurtam mutt and the adjacent mango grove, the young Swami moved on to the shrine of Arunagirinatha in the latter part of 1898. During the month that he spent in this temple, the young Swami lived the life of a mendicant, begging alms in the streets of Tiruvannamalai. After spending some days in the towers of the Arunachaleswara temple, he left the town limits and began to reside on the eastern slope of the Arunachala hill at a place known as Pavalakunru where there was an Iswara shrine, a spring and a cave. Here his mother met him for the first time, 28 months after his disappearance from his uncle's house in Madurai. The mother renewed her pleadings but he sat unmoved and silent, getting up and slowly walking away when she burst into tearful sobs. The then Swami wrote down: "What is destined to happen will happen and the best course is to remain silent." The sad mother returned to Manamadurai and the Swami remained as before.

 

In early 1899, the young ascetic left Pavalakunru and took up his residence in Virupaksha cave, so named after a saint whose remains were buried there. He stayed there for about 17 years. There he was with Palaniswami who asked his master to explain the contents of works like Adhyatma Ramayana, Yoga Vasishtha, Kaivalya Navanitam and Vedanta Chudamani which he used to bring from a library in the town. The young Swami learnt Malayalam for this purpose with the help of Palaniswami and soon became highly proficient in that language. He later mastered Telugu with the help of Gambhiram Seshayya, and Sanskrit with the help of Kavyakantha Ganapati Sastri. Soon his fame began to spread. This brought an increasing number of devotees and darshan~seekers, unlettered folk as well as the spiritually inclined among those pursuing various modern professions. As a jnani he drew learned seekers, many of whom felt their intellectual doubts and questions vanish as they absorbed the serenity radiating from him. His warm humanity attracted even little children who felt completely at home in his presence.

 

Among those who sought the Sage at Tiruvannamalai for the peace that his presence conferred was Echammal. She came early in 1906 after having successively lost her husband, son and daughter while she was still young. As she stood speechless before him, she felt healed by the compassion shining in the eyes and became a lifelong devotee. She would bring or send cooked food daily at noon for the Swami though she lived four miles away in the town. After sometime, and with his concurrence, she adopted a girl named Chellammal and, in due course, got her married, and rejoiced in the birth of a grandson whom she named Ramana after the sage. One day, as she was in her house at Tiruvannamalai, she received a telegram from her son-in- law's village informing her that Chellammal was dead. She ran to the Swami and handed him the telegram. He wept as he read it The Maharishi's reaction to the sorrows of Echammal was: ''Thejnani weeps with the weeping, laughs with the laughing, plays with the playful, and sings with those who sing, keeping time to the song. His presence is like a pure mirror. It reflects our image exactly as we are. It is we that play the several parts in life. How is the mirror or the stand on which it is mounted affected? Nothing affects them, as they are a mere support." Like the art of tragedy, the look of the sage transforms pain and makes it impersonal. As with Echammal, so it was with many others that suffering turned into life-long devotion.

 

The great Sanskrit poet and scholar, Kavyakantha Ganapati Sastri, was yet another person who came to the young sage. He visited the Brahmana Swami from 1903 onwards but accepted him as his guru four years later. He had mastered the sacred books and had performed tapas but was unhappy as he lacked clarity and certitude. When he came to Virupaksha cave again in 1907, he prayed to the Brahmana Swami for enlightenment on the nature of tapas. After some moments of silence the Swami replied:

 

If one watches whence the notion 'I' arises, the mind is absorbed into That; that is tapas. When a mantra is repeated, if one watches the source from which the mantra sound is produced, the mind is absorbed in That; that is tapas.

 

It was Kavyakantha who renamed the Brahmana Swami as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi and sang of him first as an avatar of Subrahmanya. The questions put by Kavyakantha and his learned disciples like TV Kapali Sastri and Daivarata together with the Maharshi's answers constitute the well-known Sanskrit work Ramana Gita. Kapila Sastri wrote:

 

The Maharshi is unique in the history of the world's saints. To have lived for full fifty-four years after realization, to have influenced so many from his seat in one place, to have been accessible to all at all hours, to have stemmed the tide of scepticism as he did, is something truly unprecedented.

 

Kavyakantha composed a number of hymns in Sanskrit on Ramana Maharshi and was also responsible for the Maharshi trying his hand at various difficult Sanskrit metres. Ganapati Sastri's Saddarshan, being a translation of the Maharshi's Forty Verses on Reality, is justly famous as a modern metaphysical classic.

 

After Alagammallost her brother-in-law Nelliappa Iyer and the wife of her youngest son Nagasundaram leaving an . infant son, she spent the last years of her life with her ascetic son. She stayed with him in Virupaksha Cave. Her youngest son, Nagasundaram, also joined soon after and became a sannyasi with the name of Niranjanananda and began to look after the affairs of the ashram. Gradually, Maharshi weaned his mother from her orthodox ways and from the sense of importance as the mother of a Maharshi and prepared her for final release.

 

Alagamma died on May 19, 1922. During the last hours, the devotees sat round her chanting the Vedas and repeating Ramanama, while the Maharshi was by her side with his right hand placed on her heart and the left on her head. It was felt that she had attained mahasamadhi, or become absorbed in the Self. Her body was not cremated but interred in a spot at the foot of the hill near Palitirtham and a lingam brought from Benaras was installed over it. The shrine which arose around it was completed in 1948, and daily worship, according to traditional Hindu rituals, is performed there in honour of Matribhuteswara (god in the form of Mother). In the months that followed, the Maharshi visited the Mother's samadhi again and again and from December 1922 he refrained from returning to Skandasram and stayed on beside the samadhi at the foot of the Hill. An Ashram came up at that place and developed into a fairly large complex of buildings. Innumerable seekers, in all stages of spiritual evolution, came to Maharshi from far and near and found peace and clarity and strength of mind in his presence. His darshan, the willingness to see and be seen, to listen and sometimes to answer with a glance, a smile, a gesture, was his greatest gift of grace.

 

He taught the ashram inmates more by example than precept how to simplify life, effect economies and avoid waste and extravagance. He would preserve for writing or other uses the wrapping paper or envelopes in which the mail came. He would make cups and spongs of coconut-shells, polish them like ebony and tell the attendants to keep and handle them with care. Orange peels would be saved for making pickles and faded rose petals for adding flavour to payasam. He would diligently correct manuscripts and proofs, copy out poems accurately in a neat hand, bind books with professional dexterity, cut vegetables, stitch leaf-plates and assist in cooking, thus exemplifying the dignity of labour and the charm of simplicity. Karma was, for him, not some special ritualistic action, but the daily tasks that are our common lot. At mealtime in the Ashram, the Maharshi would sit in front of a partition dividing the dining hall, thus facing both the few orthodox Brahmins sitting on his right and the much larger company of others on his left. He himself mingled freely with Untouchables and people oflow caste as well as with the foreigners of no caste. Those who personally attended on him and handed him his towel or drinking water belonged to no particular caste.

 

In the light of the Maharshi's teaching on the unity and intemporality of Being, his physical survival or death was unimportant. Devotees, wanting him to continue in the body and be available, became much concerned after the onset of his last illness in February 1949, when a cancerous growth appeared on the left elbow and began to spread upward. He wanted to let nature take its course, but was prevailed upon to undergo a series of operations. The doctors knew that the pain, which lasted for many months, must have been excruciating and they wondered how anyone could bear it with such fortitude. Some wished that the end should come and bring relief. He taught his devotees that as his flesh shared with them the common lot of mortality, their awareness could share with him the bliss of transcendent being. To those who were distraught by the thought of parting, the Maharshi would say: "I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here." The end came on April 14, 1950. A French press-photographer, M. Cartier-Brassen, standing before his cottage near the ashram, saw a shooting- star, vividly luminous coming from the south and moving slowly northward across the sky and disappearing behind the peak of Arunachala. It was 8.4 7 pm. This was the very moment when the Maharshi breathed his last. The appearance of the bright meteor in the sky was observed by many people all over south India and was widely reported in the papers.

 

Maharshi is no more but his spiritual greatness is guiding millions of people. Such masters light the path and bring solace to suffering humanity. His devotional hymns and his works illustrate not only his readiness to help and encourage pilgrims along the path of jnana, but also clarify or confirm his own central teaching of Self-realization through self- enquiry. As early as in 1909, the Maharshi yielded to the request of one Arunachala Mudaliar and helped him with a selection and arrangement of extracts from it which have been repeatedly reprinted under the title Vichara Mani Malai (Jewel Garland of Enquiry). In this compact catechism all the fundamental questions of Advaitic inquiry and experience are raised and answered with remarkable precision and clarity. To oblige a devotee, who knew no Sanskrit, the Maharshi not only wrote out a long resume of Sankara's Viveka Chudamani, but also provided an introduction which is itself a brilliant formulation of the great Master's teaching. He has translated into Tamil several other minor works of Sankara, for example Drik Drisya Viveka in prose and Dakshinamurti strota and Hastamalaka in verse. In the Gita Sara, a permutation of 42 shlokas chosen from the ancient scripture, we see the Maharshi's masterly skill in distilling out its perennial essence and presenting it in a handy and attractive form eminently acceptable to the modern man. Day by Day with Bhagavan by A. Devaraja Mudaliar and Suri Nagamma's Letters from Sri Ramanaeramam record conversations with the Maharishi and quote the comments and answers elicited by various visitors. Reading these informal works one gains a lively sense of Maharishi's normal human qualities and the clear daylight of common sense which he shed on the fundamentals of metaphysics and the bewildering complexities and paradoxes of the religious quest.

 

His method was not a mere meditation. It is an honest, strenuous enquiry into one's identity both as being and becoming, and as awareness and action. He said:

 

Self-reform automatically brings about social reform. Stick to self-reform and social reform will take care of itself. Acquire strength by surrender and you will find your surroundings improve in direct proportion to the strength acquired by you.

 

In short, Ramana Maharshi may be viewed as a man, as transcendental man, the very image and essence of humanity, the purushottama of our age. He was the archetypal man in all men, the growing edge oftwentieth century humanity in its evolutionary role fulfilling its divine destiny.

 

Ramana Maharishi was the awe-inspiring sage whose presence graced the renowned sacred Arunachala Hill during much of the twentieth century. He was known throughout India and to many in the rest of the world as the silent sage whose peaceful presence and powerful gaze changed the lives of the many who came into his presence. In silence, he radiated peace and contentment like a powerful beacon, effecting a change in anyone who came within his sphere. He encouraged people to look within and decide whether they were actually the body or the changeless eternal self within. His powerful example and inner influence led many people to experience this inner self as the same self behind all awareness, above the transient mind, emotions and body.

 

 

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