Venkataraman Iyer, (known later as Ramana, Ramana Maharshi, Bhagavan Ramana or simply Bhagavan), was born on 30 December 1879, in Tiruchuzi, a small town in Tamil Nadu, South India. He was the second child of Sundaram Iyer, a rural lawyer (vakil) and his wife Alagammal. Ramana had an older brother (Nagaswami) and younger brother (Nagasundaram) and sister (Alamelu).
From all available accounts, Ramana was a normal child. He attended elementary school at the local temple complex in Tiruchuzi. At the age of eleven, he went to school in Dindigul, a larger town close to his home. The early death of his father in 1892, when Ramana was only twelve, resulted in the relocation of this family. Ramana and his siblings moved to the home of his paternal uncle in the city of Madurai. There he attended Scott’s Middle School and the American Mission High School. Ramana did not demonstrate deep scholarly interests. He was known for his athletic abilities, his extraordinary memory and his ability to sleep so deeply that his friends could move him around and even beat him without his conscious knowledge!
Ramana’s biographers emphasize also that his religious knowledge was minimal. He learned about Christianity from attending missionary schools, but never read any Hindu texts. He had a childhood reverence for Arunachala, a sacred mountain at Tirunvannamalai, and was quite astonished to learn from a relative that the mountain was real and could be seen. When he was almost sixteen years old, Ramana read the well-known Tamil text, the Periapuranam, narrating the lives of sixty-three Tamil saints. He was deeply moved by their love for God and the spirit of renunciation that permeated their lives. The loss of his father affected him profoundly and oriented him to contemplating the meaning of life and death.
On 17 July 1896, a few months before the turned seventeen, Ramana had a life-changing experience. This occurred at his uncle’s home in Madurai. We have a description of this experience of awakening, supposedly in Ramana’s own words.
It was about six weeks before I left Madurai for good that the great change in my life took place. It was so sudden. One day I sat up alone in the first floor of my uncle’s house. I was in my usual state of health. A sudden and unmistakable fear of death seized me. I felt I was going to die. Why I should have felt so cannot now be explained by anything I felt in the body. I did not however trouble myself to discover if the fear was well grounded. I did not care to consult doctors or elders or even friends. I felt I had to solve the problem myself there and then.
The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatised the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ nor any other word could be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centred on that ‘I’. From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on. Other thoughts might come and go like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends with all the other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centred on ‘I’. Previous to that crisis I had no clear perception of my Self and was not consciously attracted to it. I felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.
Ramana Maharishi’s experience of self-awakening raises many interesting issues for our consideration of the nature of religious genius. His experience appears to have occurred spontaneously without any lengthy period of religious quest, practice of religious discipline (sadhana), and traditional discipleship. There was no conscious seeking for liberation (moksha). Ramana is quoted as saying, “I knew nothing of life and had no idea that it was full of sorrow; and I had not desire to avoid rebirth or seek release, to obtain detachment or liberation.” Ramana’s discovery of self is rare for the reason that such a seemingly spontaneous awakening at a young age is quite unusual. This must be seen also in the wider context of the tradition’s teaching that religious awakening at any age is quite rare. In the Bhagavadgita (7:3), Krishna puts it in these words:
Among thousands, a rare person makes the effort for liberation. Even among those making such an effort, a rare person comes to know the truth about Me.
The reasons for the rarity of self-knowledge are many. This knowledge requires preparation that qualifies the religious seeker (adhikari). The tradition of Advaita, to which Ramana belongs, stipulates a constellation of intellectual, mental and emotional virtues (sadhana catustsya) that must be cultivated in order for self-knowledge to occur. These include the ability to distinguish between the timeless and timebound, detachment from the finite, control of one’s thoughts and body, fulfillment of obligations to others, patience, faith, and attentiveness or focus of mind. Many, even after embarking on a religious quest, lack the necessary commitment for sustaining and persisting with the journey.
In the case of Ramana, we see no evidence of intentional preparation. The rarity of Ramana’s experience, however, has to be seen also in the context of the doctrines of karma/samsara. What this means, for us, is that the inexplicability of religious genius may take on new meaning when seen the context of rebirth. Religious genius could be the culmination of a search and religious effort spanning many lives. We see this claim very explicitly in a text like the Bhagavadgita (6:40-44). Practice in one life may bear fruits in another, leading to birth in family of wise persons and the regaining of knowledge cultivated in a previous life. Perhaps, the nature of religious genius may not be understood by fixing our attention on a single life experience.
The rarity of Ramana’s awakening to self, whether viewed through the lens of a single life or multiple ones, is compounded by the fact that his initial conviction about himself, discovered in the experience described above, never wavered. There was a remarkable permanence about his state of self-knowledge. He did not engage in or require any special practices to protect and to preserve his self-knowledge. There was a relaxed freedom from struggle and doubt. As he would remark later, “I did not eat, so they said I was fasting. I did not speak, as they said I was a mouni [someone observing a vow of silence.” His point is that these were not meant to achieve or secure his self-knowledge.
The impact of this experience on the sixteen-year-old Ramana was radical, profound and consequential. His sincerity was evident in the changes that he described.
The consequences of this new awareness were soon noticed in my life. In the first place, I lost what little interest I had in my outer relationship with friends and relatives and went through my studies mechanically. I would hold an open book in front of me to satisfy my relatives that I was reading, when in reality my attention was far away from any such superficial matter. In my dealings with people I became meek and submissive. Formerly if I was given more work than other boys I might complain, and if any boy annoyed me I would retaliate. None of them would dare make fun of me or take liberties with me. Now all that was changed. Whatever work was given, whatever teasing or annoyance there was, I would put up with it quietly. The former ego that resented and retaliated had disappeared. I stopped going out with friends to play games and preferred solitude. I would often sit alone, especially in a posture suitable for meditation, and become absorbed in the Self, the Spirit, the force or current which constituted me. I would continue in this despite the jeers of my elder brother who would sarcastically call me “sage” or “yogi” and advise me to retire into the jungle like the ancient Rishis.
Ramana became even more indifferent to his studies. As punishment for his poor school performance, his English teacher ordered him to copy portions of an English grammar book. Ramana felt that the exercise was meaningless but his elder brother, noticing his detachment, scolded with famous words, “Why should one, who behaves thus, retain all this?” His brother was echoing the traditional belief that a renunciant is called upon to give up the comforts of life in a family home. If one lives in a home, one cannot shirk the fulfillment of domestic obligations. These words had a powerful impact on the young Ramana. Under the pretext of having to attend a class, he left home and headed for the one sacred place that had filled his imagination since childhood, the Arunachala Mountain in Tiruvannamalai. He would never return home. On 1 September 1896, three days after leaving home, Ramama arrived in Tiruvannamalai and entered, for the first time, the temple sanctum of Arunacalesvara.
Ramana spent the next two years of his life in the vicinity of the temple living, at first, in the Thousand Pillared Hall. He attracted the attention of other boys of his age who sought amusement by throwing stones at the silent and unmoving Ramana. To avoid their violence, Ramana sought refuge in a dark, damp and dirty vault under the hall. He lived for several weeks in the vermin-infested vault; these feasted on his body, leaving his body permanently scarred. Concerned observers lifted him bodily from the vault and transported him to various locations around the temple. Ramana showed little awareness of these locations and ate only when fed by others. In 1898, he moved to the mountain itself, living at first in various caves. Eventually a modest dwelling place was constructed at the foot of the southern slope of Arunachala and this became Ramana’s home until his passing (mahasamadhi ) on 14 April 1950. Ramana attracted seekers and disciples from all walks of life and gave of himself unreservedly in offering religious guidance and instruction. He became one of the most accessible of modern religious teachers, living his life in public view and turning away no one who sought his wisdom.
I have focused on the details of Ramana’s early life, and especially on his asceticism and renunciation, shortly after leaving home, for important reasons. In his concept paper that informs this project on religious genius, Alon Goshen-Gottstein expresses strong disagreement with William James over the latter’s understanding of the significance of asceticism in relation to religious genius. Goshen-Gottstein distinguishes himself from James in the following way:
James saw asceticism as a by-product of the four attributes of saintliness identified by him. That he lists it as the first characteristic practical consequence of the expanded sense of awareness suggests how central asceticism is to the spiritual path. However, I cannot concur with James on asceticism being simply the passionate transformation of self-surrender into self immolation. James’ discussion of asceticism shows little understanding of the dynamics of spiritual progress. It is not a whim, a fancy, a tendency grown wild. It is a method of attaining what aspirants realize is the vital precondition for achieving their goal – purity. Asceticism is almost universal and with that comes the recognition of the universality of the quest for purity as a defining feature of the spiritual life, and an indispensible feature of religious genius. Thus, anyone who lacks purity, in a meaningful and recognizable fashion, should not be considered a religious genius, according to the high benchmark here proposed.
What light does the example of Ramana shed on this difference of opinion? Ramana’s asceticism followed his discovery of the truth of himself. Years later Ramana would say, “I have never done any sadhana. I did not even know what sadhana was. Only long afterwards did I came to know what sadhana was and how many kinds of it there were.” Ramana did not understand himself, even when he seemed radically indifferent to his physical body and needs, to be engaged in ascetic practice for the purpose of attaining the religious end of liberation (moksha). His external asceticism did not alter his state of self-awareness. This does not imply that renunciation (vairagya) is not an essential requisite or precondition for religious growth. It is a fundamental virtue to be cultivated in the tradition of Advaita. Ramana’s example, however, challenges us since we do not have evidence of ascetic practice or renunciation prior to his awakening. His asceticism seemed to express his inner state of awakening to the truth of his Self.
Ramana did not exemplify this radical asceticism in later life, even though his life was spontaneously characterized by a simplicity, non-possession, and freedom from greed. The term used by Goshen-Gottstein is “purity,” and Ramana exemplified this quality at all stages of his life and under all conditions. It was a natural expression of his state of being. Purity, in the Hindu tradition, is connected intimately with freedom from greed and there can be no description of religious genius without giving central importance to this quality. Ramana was free from greed in all of its forms: for wealth, power, privileged treatment, fame and honor.
There are many examples to illustrate his radical purity and non-possessiveness, but one stands out prominently. This was the occasion when the ashram was attacked by a group of thieves. Ramana urged the inmates not to resist violently, but the attackers proceeded to beat each one with a stick, including Ramana. Ramana remarked to the thief, “If you are not satisfied yet, you may strike the other leg also.” He explained that they were all poor renunciants and did not keep money. Seeing the weal on Ramana’s leg, one of his disciples became enraged, grabbed an iron bar and sought Ramana’s permission to retaliate. He dissuaded his disciple and advised restraint. “We are sadhus. We should not give up our dharma. If you go and strike them, some may die. This will be a matter for which the world will rightly blame us and not the thieves. They are only misguided men and are blinded by ignorance, but let us note what is right and stick to it. If your teeth suddenly bite your tongue do you knock them out in consequence?” [my italics].
Although agreeing, in general with Goshen-Gottstein on the importance of purity as a characteristic of religious genius, I wish he had clarified with more specificity the nature of this purity. He seems, on the whole to equate purity with asceticism, but the nature of this asceticism is not described. Ramana manifested a phase in life where he seemed indifferent to his body, he did not pursue such practices with intentionality and certainly did not recommend these as necessary for self-knowledge. “Renunciation,” he taught later, “does not mean outward divestment of clothing and so on or abandonment of home. True renunciation is the renunciation of desires, passions and attachment.” The ego can find expression powerfully and problematically in the pride of ascetic practice.
With these comments on purity and asceticism, I focus, in the rest of this discussion, on Ramana as a religious genius, employing Goshen-Gottstein’s dimensions that include love, humility, self-surrender, expanded awareness of reality and the logic of imitation. I concur also with his view that these dimensions overlap and interrelate. I begin with the dimension of an expanded awareness of reality.
Goshen-Gottstein describes the nature of an expanded awareness of reality in the following way:
A religious genius lives in more than one plane of existence. He or she is simultaneously present to the physical order of life and to the alternative order, to which he or she is increasingly drawn. The latter redefines one’s way of being in the physical plane. It establishes priorities, provides meaning and reorients all of one’s actions. The genius of religious genius comes from the fact that all actions, engagements, teachings and all expressions of the religious life are experienced from an awareness that transcends the physical plane, even as the individual seeks to transcend his or her sense of limited personal self.
Ramana’s awakening may certainly be described in the language of a new or expanded awareness or even more accurately, as a new or expanded Self. In a conversation with Paul Brunton, Ramana offers one of his many descriptions of what this new awareness means. Please note his identification of this state as the common goal of all religious quest.
The sense of “I” pertains to the person, the body and brain. When a man knows his true Self for the first time, something else arises from the depths of his being and takes possession of him. That something is behind the mind; it is infinite, divine, eternal. Some people call it the Kingdom of Heaven, others call it the soul and others again Nirvana, and Hindus call it Liberation; you may give it whatever name you wish. When this happens a man has not really lost himself; rather he has found himself.
This expanded state of awareness for Ramana was direct, “ a living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process.” What this expanded state of consciousness means and its difference from ordinary consciousness are described more specifically by Ramana in these words:
The ordinary man lives in the brain unaware of himself in the Heart. The Sage lives in the Heart. When a Sage moves about and deals with men and things, he knows that what he sees is not separate from the one supreme reality, Brahman, which he realized in the Heart, as his own Self, the Real. The Sage who has realized the supreme truth of his own Existence realizes that it is the one supreme reality that is there behind him, behind the world. In fact, he is aware of the One, as the Real. The Self in all selves, in all things, eternal, immutable, in all that is impermanent and mutable.
It is clear from Ramana’s description, which is entirely consistent with the insights of Advaita, that in associating genius with an expanded state of awareness one will have to be cautious with dualistic language. Such awareness does not necessarily transcend the physical plane. The physical is seen as an expression of the one infinite and not disconnected from it. It is not the connection between two orders of reality, since there is only one. The central Advaita teaching, affirmed by Ramana is that all is brahman (savam khalvidam brahma).
Ramana integrated his awareness of this single, eternal and immutable reality with the smallest actions of his daily life. He sometimes used the metaphor of an actor to describe the mode of the life of the living liberated.
It is like an actor. He dresses and acts and even feels the part he is playing, but he knows really that he is not that character but someone else in real life. In the same way, why should the body-consciousness or the feeling ‘I-am-the-body’ disturb you once you know for certain that you are not the body but the Self? Nothing that the body does should shake you from the abidance in the Self. Such abidance will never interfere with the proper and effective discharge of whatever duties the body has, any more than the actor’s being aware of his real status in life interferes with his acting a part on stage.
Ramana lived his life in all things, small and great, from the perspective of a profound awareness of infinite and eternal brahman as the ground and self of all. Declining an anesthetic when his cancerous arm required a surgical procedure. Ramana said to a disciple who broke into tears, “Duraiswami is crying because he thinks I am suffering agonies. It is true that my body is suffering. But oh, when will he realize that I am not this body?” If we agree that a direct knowledge of a deeper reality and the faithful and consistent integration of this knowledge in life are marks of religious genius, Ramana qualifies.
Alon Goshen-Gottstein, in his description of love as a characteristic of religious genius, identifies love with altruism. According to Goshen-Gottstein, “The more expansive the love, the higher the state of being that is manifested, the greater the expression of religious genius.” Here again, the language of a “higher state of being,” may be problematic for Advaita since the infinite brahman does not have a higher or lower state. Perhaps we may rephrase this by stating that the more expansive the love the greater the integration of the meaning of self-knowledge in human relationships. The word “love” does not appear in the conversations of Ramana, but it’s meaning as service and care for the well-being of others finds expression in all aspects of his life.
As far as love and compassion are concerned, Ramana refutes the common stereotype that the liberated person in Advaita is incapable of love since he or she sees and experiences no diversity and there is no “other” to love. The truth, however, is that the liberated one sees and experiences diversity and difference. The difference, as explained earlier by Ramana, is the knowledge of the identity of Self in every being and the Self as constituting the ground and reality of everything that exists. The liberated sees the many as expressions of the one. Ramana’s love for all beings flowed from knowing himself to be the Self of all. His love, like his purity, was the expression of his self-knowledge. A person like Ramana does not love or practice any other virtue because of obedience to a scriptural injunction. Love is a spontaneous expression of being. His fullness of Self overflowed in loving generosity to others. No act was too small or inconsequential.
On one occasion, the Maharshi and Mudaliar Swami were walking together on a hill, a little above Virupaksha Cave where there was a huge rock about 15 feet high and with a cleft at the top. A little shepherdess stood there crying. On the Maharshi asking her the reason, she said that one of her sheep had slipped into the cleft and she was unable to retrieve it. He at once descended into the cleft, took the sheep on his shoulders, climbed up and delivered it the overjoyed girl.”
Although Ramana’s love excluded no human being, he identified in a very special way with the poor and the outcastes. He offered water in the oppressive heat of the summer to women from the lower castes who roamed the mountain gathering grass. He knew that they were hungry and unable to drink from tanks considered to be sacred for fear of polluting these water sources.
What can they do, poor people! They used to come to the cave with the hope that the Swami would supply water. We were not cooking at the time. If any day we did cook, I poured a lot of water in the rice while cooking, took out the gruel, poured it into the pot, mixed water with it liberally, and added salt. If dry ginger was available, I would mix it in also. By the time they came, the gruel water would be quite cool. When a tumbler full of it was poured into their hands, they used to drink it like nectar and go away. The taste of that gruel and happiness of drinking that water they alone could know.
Noticing on one occasion that the poor were not fed at the ashram, Ramana walked out and stood with them. “If you will not give them food first,” said Ramana, “I will not come the dining hall at all. I will stand under the tree and stretch out my hands for food like them and when I am given a bowl of food I will eat it, to straight to the hall and sit.” What an extraordinary example of love for the despised from a revered teacher!
Ramana’s love expanded to include and embrace animals. He treated the animals in the vicinity of the ashram with respect as individuals, seeing each one as an expression of the one reality. He became a friend to them, advocating and protecting them from human aggression. They seemed without fear in his presence. He made sure that the dogs were fed before him. When an ashram animal died, proper funeral and burial ceremonies were performed. The incidents of Ramana’s compassionate interaction with animals are too numerous to mention. These were obviously prominent enough to find significant space in all biographies and eye-witness accounts. A disciple once observed Ramana taking out some flour from a small tin, putting it in a vessel and adding water from his drinking pot. He assumed that Ramana was preparing a special meal. After boiling the mixture, Ramana poured some on a plate and lifted a bucket.
Four pups with joy came out to the plate to drink the gruel. Ramana tried to restrain them as he thought the gruel might be too hot for them. Ramana who had not spoken until then, said, “Catch the four.” I caught hold of the four pups. After the gruel had cooled, Ramana said, “ Release them one by one.” I released them one by one. The pups, with their stomachs full, tottered along. One of them passed urine. Ramana got up, washed the spot with water, and wiped it with an old gunny sack.
The next dimension of genius is humility characterized by Goshen-Gottstein as the proper recognition of one’s position in the great scheme of things, although he does not elaborate on the nature of that great scheme and one worries about dualistic hierarchies. His descriptions of humility as “closely related to decentering of the self,” and “as distinct from the ways in which the ego seeks to assert itself in order to boost one’s sense of personal worth,” are more helpful in understanding of Ramana. Ramana’s humility flowed from at least two sources. First, his perception of the unity and identity of the Self in all implied a radical equality at the most profound level with every being. Second, his experience of the fullness of this Self meant that it was unnecessary for him to assert self-value by comparing himself favorably with others. Ramana’s humility was synonymous with the complete acceptance of his Self, and his knowledge of his identity with others. He was free from vanity and notions of self-importance.
Ramana’s humility expressed itself in his refusal of special treatment and in his sublime simplicity. He insisted on eating the same food as everyone else, firmly refusing special treatment that was not extended to everyone. He saw no need to isolate himself from others for fear of familiarity and disrespect. He would often rise early in the morning to peel and cut vegetables in the kitchen and to help with the cooking. He remained at all times in the ashram to be available and accessible to visitors and lived his life in the public view and gaze. There was no drama, theater or fanfare. He stopped devotees from rising when he entered the hall with the words, “If you get up when I enter you will have to get up for every person who enters. “
The dimension of self-surrender as a characteristic of religious genius becomes interesting in view of Ramana’s non-dual perspective. “Self-surrender,” according Goshen-Gottstein, “defines a particular attitude and relationship of the self to the higher reality that it seeks to identify with.” In dualistic theistic systems, a gap of one kind or another, is always posited between the human and the divine or in Goshen-Gottstein’s words, “the higher reality.” Self- surrender is offered in dualistic traditions as one way of bridging that gap and connecting the human with the divine.
Ramana does not exclude the way of love (bhakti) or self-surrender (prapatti) as a means to liberation. He understands this way, however, as resulting in the same end as the path of self-inquiry that he taught. The result, in both cases is the fall of the ego-self and the awakening to true Self. Let us look at two passages from Ramana on the subject of self-surrender:
(1) There are two ways to surrender; one is looking into the source of the “I” and merging into that source; the other is feeling “ I am helpless by myself, God alone is all powerful and except for throwing myself completely on Him there is no other means of safety for me,” and thus gradually developing the conviction that God alone exists and the ego does not count. Both methods lead to the same goal. Complete surrender is another name for jñāna or liberation.
CHECK QUOTE.(2) God is required for devotional spiritual practice (sādhana). But the end of the sādhana, even in the path of devotion (bhakti mārga), is attained only after complete surrender. What does it mean, except that effacement of the ego results in the Self remaining as it always has been? Whatever path one may choose, the “I” is inescapable, the “I” that does the selfless service (niṣkāma karma), the “I” that pines for joining the Lord from whom it feels it has been separated, the “I” that feels it has slipped from its real nature, and so on. The source of this “I” must be found out. Then all questions will be solved.
Self-surrender, according to Ramana, reaches its culmination and fruition in the discovery of the falsity of separate selfhood and in the knowledge that Self/God alone exists. Through the lens of Advaita, Ramana did not see any fundamental differences between the paths of knowledge and self-surrender.
Self- surrender for Ramana seems to be closer to what Goshen-Gottstein speaks of at the “logic of imitation, “ or the attempt to “make life on this plane attuned to, commensurate with, harmonious with, that higher reality.” In Ramana’s life we see the harmonization of all actions with his understanding of the nature of the ultimate. His was a comprehensive consistency of living out the meaning of his vision of the Self in a manner that seemed spontaneous. No dimension of life was exempt from transformation and illumination. I share Goshen-Gottstein view that the total transformation of life of life on the basis of a vision of the ultimate is a quality of religious genius. This dimension was powerfully evident in Ramana.
The religious genius of Ramana Maharshi was especially evident in his life-altering awakening to the truth of a Self without boundaries. His insight about himself, at the tender age of sixteen, occurred without prior struggle or search. The consequence was a radical transformation from an established way of life to a new one, marked by departure from his home, break with family ties and life-long residence as a renunciant on the sacred Arunachala mountain. Every detail of his life reflected his expansive knowledge of self and his state of being. His purity, freedom from greed, compassion and loving generosity for all beings were evident in ways that are certainly uncommon and reflect an extraordinary integration of vision and life. The genius of Ramana Maharshi is evident in all the dimensions specified by Goshen-Gottstein although, as I suggested throughout this discussion, these dimensions will need redefinition to uniqueness of Ramana within the framework of the Advaita tradition.
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