Sri Ramana Maharshi in his late 60s
30 December 1879
|Died||14 April 1950 (aged 70)|
|Literary works||Nān Yār? ("Who am I?") |
Five Hymns to Arunachala
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Ramana Maharshi / / (30 December 1879 – 14 April 1950) was an Indian Hindu sage and jivanmukta (liberated being). He was born Venkataraman Iyer, but is most commonly known by the name Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.[note 1]
He was born in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, India. In 1895, an attraction to the sacred hill Arunachala and the 63 Nayanmars was aroused in him, and in 1896, at the age of 16, he had a "death-experience" where he became aware of a "current" or "force" (avesam) which he recognised as his true "I" or "self",[web 1] and which he later identified with "the personal God, or Iswara",[web 1][note 2] that is, Shiva. This resulted in a state that he later described as "the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani".[web 1][note 3] Six weeks later he left his uncle's home in Madurai, and journeyed to the holy mountain Arunachala, in Tiruvannamalai, where he took on the role of a sannyasin (though not formally initiated), and remained for the rest of his life.
He soon attracted devotees who regarded him as an avatar and came to him for darshan ("the sight of God"), and in later years an ashram grew up around him, where visitors received upadesa ("spiritual instruction") by sitting silently in his company asking questions. Since the 1930s his teachings have been popularized in the West, resulting in his worldwide recognition as an enlightened being.
Ramana Maharshi approved a number of paths and practices, but recommended self-enquiry as the principal means to remove ignorance and abide in Self-awareness,[web 2] together with bhakti (devotion) or surrender to the Self.[web 2]
Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer on 30 December 1879 in the village Tiruchuzhi near Aruppukkottai, Madurai in Tamil Nadu, South India. He was the second of four children in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family. His father was Sundaram Iyer (1848–1890), from the lineage of Parashara, and his mother was Azhagammal (1864–1922). He had two brothers Nagaswami (1877–1900) and Nagasundaram (1886–1953), along with a younger sister Alamelu (1887–1953). Venkataraman's father was a court pleader.
Both a paternal uncle of his father and his father's brother had become sannyasins. Venkataraman's family belonged to the Smarta denomination, and regular worship of Lord Siva, Lord Vishnu, Lord Ganesa, Lord Surya and Goddess Shakti took place in their home.
When Venkataraman was seven he had his upanayana, the traditional initiation of the three upper varnas into Brahmanical learning and the knowledge of Self. He had a very good memory, and was able to recall information after hearing it once, an ability he used to memorise Tamil poems.
Narasimha notes that Venkataraman used to sleep very deeply, not waking up from loud sounds, nor even when his body was beaten by others. When he was about twelve years old, he may have experienced spontaneous deep meditative states. Sri Ramana Vijayam, the Tamil biography that first appeared in the 1920s, describes a period a few years before the death-experience in Madurai:
Some incomplete practice from a past birth was clinging to me. I would be putting attention solely within, forgetting the body. Sometimes I would be sitting in one place, but when I regained normal consciousness and got up, I would notice that I was lying down in a different narrow space [to the one where I had first sat down].[note 4]
When he was about eleven his father sent him to live with his paternal uncle Subbaiyar in Dindigul as he wanted his sons to be educated in the English language so that they would be eligible to enter government service. Only Tamil was taught at the village school in Tiruchuzhi, which he attended for three years. In 1891, when his uncle was transferred to Madurai, Venkataraman and his elder brother Nagaswami moved with him. In Dindigul, Venkataraman attended a Hindu School where English was taught, and stayed there for a year.
Venkataraman first attended Scott's Middle School and then the American Mission High School where he became acquainted with Christianity.
In November 1895 Venkataraman realized that Arunachala, the sacred mountain, was a real place by reading Tamil version of the very famous Kannada epic poem Prabhulingaleele by 15th Century Virashaiva poet Chamarasa and the very famous character in the poem the Philosopher and great poet of the 12th Century Allama Prabhu. Recently, Dr. Prasanna Santhekadur's book, Ettana Allama Ettana Ramana?(Allama Prabhu and Ramana Maharshi, how are they related?) clearly shows the major influence of Allama Prabhu on Ramana Maharshi. He had known of its existence from an early age, and was overwhelmed by the realisation that it really existed. During this time he also read Sekkizhar's Periyapuranam, a book that describes the lives of the 63 Nayanmars, which "made a great impression" on him,[web 3] and revealed to him that "Divine Union" is possible. According to Osborne, a new current of awareness started to awaken during his visits to the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, "a state of blissful consciousness transcending both the physical and mental plane and yet compatible with full use of the physical and mental faculties". But Ramana later stated that he remained uninterested in religion or spirituality until his awakening eight months later.[web 3]
According to Narasimha, in July 1896,[note 5] at age 16, a sudden fear of death befell him. He was struck by "a flash of excitement" or "heat", like some avesam, a "current" or "force" that seemed to possess him,[web 1] while his body became rigid. He initiated a process of self-enquiry asking himself what it is that dies. He concluded that the body dies, but that this "current" or "force" remains alive, and recognised this "current" or "force" as his Self, which he later identified with "the personal God, or Iswara".[web 1][note 6][note 2]
In one of his rare written comments on this process Ramana Maharshi wrote, "inquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving That alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see."[web 5]
Later in life, he called his death experience akrama mukti, "sudden liberation", as opposed to the krama mukti, "gradual liberation" as in the Vedanta path of jnana yoga.[web 3][note 7] It resulted in a state of mind which he later described as "the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani:"[web 1]
After reading the language of the sacred books, I see it may be termed suddha manas [pure mind], akhandakara vritti [unbroken experience], prajna [true knowledge] etc.; that is, the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani."[web 1]
After this event, he lost interest in school studies, friends, and relations. He was absent-minded at school, "imagining and expecting God would suddenly drop down from Heaven before me".[web 3] Avoiding company, he preferred to sit alone, absorbed in concentration on this current or force, and went daily to the Meenakshi Temple, ecstatically devoted to the images of the 63 Nayanmars and of Nataraja, wanting "the same grace as was shown to those saints",[web 3] praying that he "should have the same bhakti that they had"[web 3] and "[weeping] that God should give me the same grace He gave to those saints".[web 3][note 8]
Knowing his family would not permit him to become a sanyassin and leave home, Venkataraman slipped away, telling his brother he needed to attend a special class at school. Venkataraman boarded the train on 29 August 1896 and reached Tiruvannamalai on 1 September 1896 where he remained for the rest of his life.
On arriving in Tiruvannamalai, Maharshi went to the temple of Arunachaleswara. The first few weeks he spent in the thousand-pillared hall, then shifted to other spots in the temple, and eventually to the Patala-lingam vault so that he might remain undisturbed. There, he spent days absorbed in such deep samādhi that he was unaware of the bites of vermin and pests. Seshadri Swamigal, a local saint, discovered him in the underground vault and tried to protect him. After about six weeks in the Patala-lingam vault, he was carried out and cleaned up. For the next two months he stayed in the Subramanya Shrine, so unaware of his body and surroundings that food had to be placed in his mouth or he would have starved.
In February 1897, six months after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai, Ramana moved to Gurumurtam, a temple about a mile away. Shortly after his arrival a sadhu named Palaniswami went to see him. Palaniswami's first darshan left him filled with peace and bliss, and from that time on he served Ramana as his permanent attendant. Besides physical protection, Palaniswami would also beg for alms, cook and prepare meals for himself and Ramana, and care for him as needed. In May 1898 Ramana moved to a mango orchard next to Gurumurtam.
Osborne wrote that during this time Ramana completely neglected his body. He also ignored the ants which bit him incessantly. Gradually, despite Ramana's desire for privacy, he attracted attention from visitors who admired his silence and austerities, bringing offerings and singing praises. Eventually a bamboo fence was built to protect him.
While living at the Gurumurtam temple his family discovered his whereabouts. First, his uncle Nelliappa Iyer came and pleaded with him to return home, promising that the family would not disturb his ascetic life. Ramana sat motionless and eventually his uncle gave up.
In September 1898 Ramana moved to the Shiva-temple at Pavalakkunru, one of the eastern spurs of Arunachala. He refused to return even though his mother begged him to.
Soon after this, in February 1899, Ramana left the foothills to live on Arunachala itself. He stayed briefly in Satguru Cave and Guhu Namasivaya Cave before taking up residence at Virupaksha Cave for the next 17 years, using Mango Tree cave during the summers, except for a six-month period at Pachaiamman Koil during the plague epidemic.
In 1902, a government official named Sivaprakasam Pillai, with writing slate in hand, visited the young Swami in the hope of obtaining answers to questions about "How to know one's true identity". The fourteen questions put to the young Swami and his answers were Ramana's first teachings on Self-enquiry, the method for which he became widely known, and were eventually published as Nan Yar?, or in English, Who am I?.
Many visitors came to him and some became his devotees. Kavyakantha Sri Ganapati Sastri,[note 9] a Vedic scholar of repute in his age, with a deep knowledge of the Srutis, Sastras, Tantras, Yoga, and Agama systems, but lacking the personal darshan of Shiva, came to visit Ramana in 1907. After receiving upadesa from him on self-enquiry, he proclaimed him as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Ramana was known by this name from then on. Ganapati Sastri passed on these instructions to his own students, but later in life confessed that he had never been able to achieve permanent Self-abidance. Nevertheless, he was highly valued by Ramana Maharshi and played an important role in his life.
In 1911 the first westerner, Frank Humphreys, then a police officer stationed in India, discovered Ramana and wrote articles about him which were first published in The International Psychic Gazette in 1913.[note 10]
In an appendix to Self realisation Narasimha wrote that in 1912, while in the company of disciples, Ramana had an epileptic fit, in which his vision was suddenly impaired three times by a "white bright curtain" which covered a part of his vision. At the third instance his vision was shut out completely, while his "head was swimming", and he felt his heart stop beating and his breathing seizing, while his skin turned blue, as if he was dead. This lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes, whereafter "a shock passed suddenly through the body", and his blood circulation and his respiration returned. In response to "strange accounts" about this event, he later said that it was a fit, which he used to have occasionally, and did not bring on himself. According to Osborne, it "marked the final completion of Sri Bhagavan’s return to full outer normality".
In 1916 his mother Alagammal and younger brother Nagasundaram joined Ramana at Tiruvannamalai and followed him when he moved to the larger Skandashram Cave, where Bhagavan lived until the end of 1922. His mother took up the life of a sannyasin and Ramana began to give her intense, personal instruction, while she took charge of the Ashram kitchen. Ramana's younger brother, Nagasundaram, then became a sannyasi, assuming the name Niranjanananda, becoming known as Chinnaswami (the younger Swami).
During this period, Ramana composed The Five Hymns to Arunachala, his magnum opus in devotional lyric poetry. The first hymn is Akshara Mana Malai.[translation 1] It was composed in Tamil in response to the request of a devotee for a song to be sung while wandering in the town for alms. The Marital Garland tells in glowing symbolism of the love and union between the human soul and God, expressing the attitude of the soul that still aspires.
Starting in 1920, his mother's health deteriorated. She died on 19 May 1922 while Ramana sat beside her.
From 1922 until his death in 1950 Ramana lived in Sri Ramanasramam, the ashram that developed around his mother's tomb. Ramana often walked from Skandashram to his mother's tomb. In December 1922 he did not return to Skandashram, and settled at the base of the Hill, and Sri Ramanasramam started to develop. At first, there was only one hut at the samadhi, but in 1924 two huts, one opposite the samadhi and the other to the north, were erected. The so-called Old Hall was built in 1928. Ramana lived there until 1949.
Sri Ramanasramam grew to include a library, hospital, post-office and many other facilities. Ramana displayed a natural talent for planning building projects. Annamalai Swami gave detailed accounts of this in his reminiscences. Until 1938, Annamalai Swami was entrusted with the task of supervising the projects, and received his instructions from Ramana directly.
Sri Ramana led a modest and renunciate life. However, according to David Godman, who has written extensively about Ramana, a popular image of him as a person who spent most of his time doing nothing except sitting silently in samadhi is highly inaccurate. From the period when an Ashram began to rise around him after his mother arrived, until his later years when his health failed, Ramana was actually quite active in Ashram activities such as cooking and stitching leaf plates.[web 7]
In 1931 a biography of Ramana Maharshi, Self Realisation: The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, written by B. V. Narasimha, was published. Ramana then 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. In this book he describes how he was compelled by the Paramacharya of Kanchi to meet Ramana Maharshi, his meeting with Ramana Maharshi, and the effect this meeting had on him. Brunton also describes how Ramana's fame had spread, "so that pilgrims to the temple were often induced to go up the hill and see him before they returned home". Brunton calls Ramana "one of the last of India's spiritual supermen", and describes his affection toward Ramana:
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.
While staying at Sri Ramanasramam, Brunton had an experience of a "sublimely all-embracing" awareness, a "Moment of Illumination". The book was a best-seller, and introduced Ramana Maharshi to a wider audience in the west. Resulting visitors included Paramahansa Yogananda, Somerset Maugham (whose 1944 novel The Razor's Edge models its spiritual guru after Ramana),[web 8] Mercedes de Acosta and Arthur Osborne, the last of whom was the first editor of Mountain Path in 1964, the magazine published by Ramanasramam.
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 performed 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. Visitors would file past the small room where he spent his last days to get one final glimpse. He died on 14 April 1950 at 8:47 p.m.[web 9] At the same time a shooting star was seen, which impressed some of his devotees as a synchronicity.
Ramana Maharshi was, and is, regarded by many as an outstanding enlightened being. He was a charismatic person, and attracted many devotees, some of whom saw him as an avatar and the embodiment of Shiva.
Many devotees visited Ramana Maharshi for darshan, the sight of a holy person or God incarnate, which is advantageous and transmits merit. According to Flood, in Indian religions the guru is akin to the image or statue of a deity in the temple, and both possess power and a sacred energy. According to Osborne, Ramana Maharshi regarded giving darshan as "his task in life", and said that he had to be accessible to all who came. Even during his terminal illness at the end of his life, he demanded to be approachable for all who came for his darshan.
Objects being touched or used by him were highly valued by his devotees, "as they considered it to be prasad and that it passed on some of the power and blessing of the Guru to them". People also tried to touch his feet, which is also considered darshana. When one devotee asked if it would be possible to prostrate before Sri Ramana and touch his feet, he replied:
The real feet of Bhagavan exist only in the heart of the devotee. To hold onto these feet incessantly is true happiness. You will be disappointed if you hold onto my physical feet because one day this physical body will disappear. The greatest worship is worshipping the Guru's feet that are within oneself.
In later life, the number of devotees and their devotion grew so large that Ramana became restricted in his daily routine. Measures had to be taken to prevent people touching him. Several times Ramana tried to escape from the ashram, to return to a life of solitude. Vasudeva reports: "Bhagavan sat on a rock and said with tears in his eyes that he would never again come to the Ashram and would go where he pleased and live in the forests or caves away from all men."
Ramana did return to the ashram, but has also reported himself on attempts to leave the ashram:
I tried to be free on a third occasion also. That was after mother's passing away. I did not want to have even an Ashram like Skandashram and the people that were coming there then. But the result has been this Ashram [Ramanashram] and all the crowd here. Thus all my three attempts failed.
Some of Ramana Maharshi's devotees regarded him to be as Dakshinamurthy; as an avatar of Skanda, a divine form of Shiva popular in Tamil Nadu; as an incarnation of Jnana Sambandar, one of the sixty-three Nayanars; and as an incarnation of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, the 8th century Mimamsa-philosopher. According to Krishna Bhikshu, one of his early biographers:
As Kumarila he established the supremacy of the karma marga, as Jnana Sambandar, a poet, he brought bhakti marga close to the people and as Ramana he showed that the purpose of life was to abide in the Self and to stay in the sahaja state by the jnana marga.
A number of Ramana's Maharshi's Indian devotees (not comprehensive):
A list of Western devotees of Ramana Maharshi (not comprehensive):
Ramana Maharshi provided upadeśa ("spiritual instruction") by providing darshan and sitting silently together with devotees and visitors, but also by answering the questions and concerns raised by those who sought him out. Many of these question-and-answer sessions have been transcribed and published by devotees, some of which have been edited by Ramana Maharshi himself. A few texts have been published which were written by Ramana Maharshi himself, or written down on his behalf and edited by him.
Ramana Maharshi also provided an example by his own devotion to Shiva, which has been extensively described by his devotees, such as walks around the holy hill Arunachala, in which devotees participated, and his hymns to Arunachala.
Ramana Maharshi described his Self as a "force" or "current", which descended on him in his death-experience, and continued throughout his life:
... a force or current, a centre of energy playing on the body, continuing regardless of the rigidity or activity of the body, though existing in connection with it. It was that current, force or centre that constituted my Self, that kept me acting and moving, but this was the first time I came to know it [...] I had no idea at that time of the identity of that current with the personal God, or Iswara as I used to call him [...] I was only feeling that everything was being done by the current and not by me [...] This current, or avesam, now felt as if it was my Self, not a superimposition [...] That avesam continues right up to now.[web 1]
Ramana used various terms to denote this Self.[note 12] The most frequently used terms were sat-chit-ananda, which translates into English as "truth-consciousness-bliss"; God, Brahman and Siva,[note 13] and the Heart, which is not to be confused with the physical heart, or a particular point in space, but was rather to indicate that "the Self was the source from which all appearances manifested".
According to David Godman, the essence of Ramana Maharshi's teachings is that the "Self" or real "I" is a "non-personal, all-inclusive awareness": 
The real Self or real 'I' is, contrary to perceptible experience, not an experience of individuality but a non-personal, all-inclusive awareness. It is not to be confused with the individual self which (Ramana) said was essentially non-existent, being a fabrication of the mind, which obscures the true experience of the real Self. He maintained that the real Self is always present and always experienced but he emphasized that one is only consciously aware of it as it really is when the self-limiting tendencies of the mind have ceased. Permanent and continuous Self-awareness is known as Self-realization.
Ramana considered the Self to be permanent and enduring, surviving physical death. "The sleep, dream and waking states are mere phenomena appearing on the Self," as is the "I"-thought. Our "true nature" is "simple Being, free from thoughts".
Ramana would field many questions about jnanis ("liberated beings") from devotees, but even the terms jnani and ajnani (non-liberated being) are incorrect, since it leads one to the idea of there being a knower and a known, a subject and an object. The truth of it according to Ramana Maharshi is that there are neither jnanis nor ajnanis, there is simply jnana, which is Self:
The jnani sees no one as an ajnani. All are only jnanis in his sight. In the ignorant state one superimposes one's ignorance on a jnani and mistakes him for a doer. In the state of jnana, the jnani sees nothing separate from the Self. The Self is all shining and only pure jnana.
Ramana's main means of instruction to his devotees in order to remove ignorance and abide in Self-awareness was through silently sitting together with his visitors, [web 12] using words only sparingly. His method of instruction has been compared to Dakshinamurti – Shiva in the ascetic appearance of the Guru, who teaches through silence:
One evening, devotees asked Sri Ramana to explain the meaning of Shankara's hymn in praise of Dakshinamurti. They waited for his answer, but in vain. The Maharishi sat motionless on his seat, in total silence.
Commenting upon this silence Ramana said:
Silence is the true upadesa. It is the perfect upadesa. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore, they require words to explain the truth. But truth is beyond words; it does not warrant explanation. All that is possible is to indicate It. How is that to be done?
Vichara, "Self-enquiry", also called ātma-vichār or jnana-vichara is the constant attention to the inner awareness of "I" or "I am". Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of realizing Self-awareness, in response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta.[web 13][note 14]
According to Ramana Maharshi, the I-thought[note 15] is the sense of individuality: "(Aham, aham) ‘I-I’ is the Self; (Aham idam) “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego." By paying attention to the 'I'-thought, inquiring where it comes from,[web 15][note 16] the 'I'-thought will disappear and the "shining forth" (sphurana)[web 3] of "I-I"[web 17][note 17] or Self-awareness will appear.[note 18] This results in an "effortless awareness of being",[web 15] and by staying with it[web 3][note 19] this "I-I" gradually destroys the vasanas "which cause the 'I'-thought to rise".[web 15] When the vasanas disappear, the mind, vritti[note 20] also comes to rest, since it centers around the 'I'-thought, and finally the 'I'-thought never rises again, which is Self-realization or liberation:[web 15]
If one remains still without leaving it, even the sphurana – having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, 'I am the body' – will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and scriptures. (The Mountain Path, 1982, p. 98). [web 3][note 21]
Robert Forman notes that Ramana Maharshi made a distinction between samadhi and sahaja samadhi. Samadhi is a contemplative state, which is temporary, while in sahaja samadhi a "silent state" is maintained while engaged in daily activities. Ramana Maharshi himself stated repeatedly that samadhi only suppresses the vāsanās, the karmic impressions, but does not destroy them. Only by abiding in Self-awareness will the vāsanās, which create the sense of a separate self, be destroyed, and sahaja samadhi be attained.[note 22]
Although he advocated self-enquiry as the fastest means to realisation, he also recommended the path of bhakti and self-surrender (to one's deity or guru) either concurrently or as an adequate alternative, which would ultimately converge with the path of self-enquiry.
Surrender has to be complete and desireless, without any expectations of solutions or rewards, or even liberation. It is a willingness to accept whatever happens.[web 2] Surrender is not the willful act of an individual self, but the growing awareness that there is no individual self to surrender. Practice is aimed at the removal of ignorance, not at the attainment of realisation.[web 2]
Bhagavan: There are only two ways to conquer destiny or to be independent of it. One is to inquire whose this destiny is and discover that only the ego is bound by it 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, realizing one’s helplessness and saying all the time: "Not I, but Thou, oh 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 the love of God for the sake of love and nothing else, not even for the sake of salvation. In other words, complete effacement of the ego is necessary to conquer destiny, whether you achieve this effacement through Self-inquiry or through bhakti-marga.
According to David Godman, Ramana Maharshi taught that the idea of reincarnation is based on wrong ideas about the individual self as being real. Ramana Maharshi would sometimes say that rebirth does exist, to step forward to those who were not able to fully grasp the non-reality of the individual self. But when this illusoriness is realised, there is no room any more for ideas about reincarnation. When the identification with the body stops, any notions about death and rebirth become inapplicable, since there is no birth or death within Self. Ramana Maharshi:
Reincarnation exists only so long as there is ignorance. There is really no reincarnation at all, either now or before. Nor will there be any hereafter. This is the truth.
According to Wehr, C. G. Jung noted that Ramana Maharshi is not to be regarded as an "isolated phenomenon", but as a token of Indian spirituality, "manifest in many forms in everyday Indian life".[note 23] According to Zimmer and Jung, Ramana's appearance as a mauni, a silent saint absorbed in samadhi, fitted into pre-existing Indian notions of holiness. They placed the Indian devotion toward Ramana Maharshi in this Indian context.[note 24]
According to Alan Edwards, the popular image of Ramana Maharshi as a timeless saint also served the construction of an Indian identity as inner-oriented and spiritual, in opposition to the oppressive, outer-oriented, materialistic culture of the British colonial rulers:
Hindus from all over India could look to the purely spiritual Maharshi as a symbol that inspired them to preserve their distinctive national culture and identity, which of course entailed forcing the British to quit India.[note 25]
Though Ramana's answers explain and incorporate elements from Advaita Vedanta, his spiritual life is strongly associated with Shaivism. The Tamil compendium of devotional songs known as Tirumurai, along with the Vedas, the Shaiva Agamas and "Meykanda" or "Siddhanta" Shastras, form the scriptural canon of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta. As a youth, prior to his awakening, Ramana read the Periya Puranam, the stories of the 63 Tamil saints. In later life, he told those stories to his devotees:
When telling these stories, he used to dramatize the characters of the main figures in voice and gesture and seemed to identify himself fully with them.
Ramana himself considered God, Guru and Self to be the manifestations of the same reality.[web 22] Ramana considered the Self to be his guru, in the form of the sacred mountain Arunachala, which is considered to be the manifestation of Shiva. Arunachala is one of the five main shaivite holy places in South India, which can be worshipped through the mantra "Om arunachala shivaya namah!" and by Pradakshina, walking around the mountain, a practice which was often performed by Ramana. Asked about the special sanctity of Arunachala, Ramana said that Arunachala is Shiva himself.[note 26] In his later years, Ramana said it was the spiritual power of Arunachala which had brought about his Self-realisation. He composed the Five Hymns to Arunachala as devotional song. On the three occasions Venkataraman (Ramana) referred to himself he used the name Arunachala Ramana. Ramana Maharshi also used to smear his forehead with holy ash, as a token of veneration.
In later life, Ramana himself came to be regarded as Dakshinamurthy, an aspect of Shiva as a guru of all types of knowledge, and bestower of jnana. This aspect of Shiva is his personification as the supreme or the ultimate awareness, understanding and knowledge. This form represents Shiva in his aspect as a teacher of yoga, music, and wisdom, and giving exposition on the shastras.
During his lifetime, through contact with educated devotees like Ganapata Muni, Ramana Maharshi became acquainted with works on Shaivism and Advaita Vedanta, and used them to explain his insights:
People wonder how I speak of Bhagavad Gita, etc. It is due to hearsay. I have not read the Gita nor waded through commentaries for its meaning. When I hear a sloka (verse), I think its meaning is clear and I say it. That is all and nothing more.
Already in 1896, a few months after his arrival at Arunachala, Ramana attracted his first disciple, Uddandi Nayinar, who recognised in him "the living embodiment of the Holy Scriptures". Uddandi was well-versed in classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, and recited texts as the Yoga Vasistha and Kaivalya Navaneeta in Ramana's presence.
In 1897 Ramana was joined by Palaniswami, who became his attendant. Palaniswami studied books in Tamil on Vedanta, such as Kaivalya Navaneeta, Shankara's Vivekachudamani, and Yoga Vasistha. He had difficulties understanding Tamil. Ramana read the books too, and explained them to Palaniswami.
As early as 1900, when Ramana was 20 years old, he became acquainted with the teachings of the Hindu monk and Neo-Vedanta teacher Swami Vivekananda through Gambhiram Seshayya. Seshayya was interested in yoga techniques, and "used to bring his books and explain his difficulties". Ramana answered on small scraps of paper, which were collected after his death in the late 1920s in a booklet called Vichara Sangraham, "Self-enquiry".
One of the works that Ramana used to explain his insights was the Ribhu Gita, a song at the heart of the Shivarahasya Purana, one of the 'Shaiva Upapuranas' or ancillary Purana regarding Shiva and Shaivite worship. Another work used by him was the Dakshinamurthy Stotram, a text by Shankara. It is a hymn to Shiva, explaining Advaita Vedanta.
Ramana gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices from various religions, with his own upadesa (instruction or guidance given to a disciple by his Guru)[web 24] always pointing to the true Self of the devotees.
In contrast to classical Advaita Vedanta, Ramana emphasized the personal experience of self-realization, instead of philosophical argumentation and the study of scripture. Ramana's authority was based on his personal experience, from which he explained classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, which he came acquainted with via his devotees. Arvind Sharma qualifies Ramana Maharshi as the chief exponent of experiential Advaita, to distinguish his approach from Shankara's classical doctrinal Advaita. Fort classifies him as a neo-Vedantin, because of the focus on self-inquiry instead of philosophical speculation. Ramana himself did not call his insights advaita, but said that dvaita and advaita are relative terms, based on a sense of duality, while the Self or Being is all there is.
Although Ramana's teaching is consistent with and generally associated with Hinduism, the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta, there are differences with the traditional Advaitic school. Advaita recommends a negationist neti, neti (Sanskrit, "not this", "not this") path, or mental affirmations that the Self is the only reality, such as "I am Brahman" or "I am He", while Ramana advocated Self-enquiry Nan Yar. In contrast with traditional Advaita Vedanta, Ramana Maharshi strongly discouraged devotees from adopting a renunciate lifestyle and renouncing their responsibilities. To one devotee who felt he should abandon his family, whom he described as "samsara" ("illusion"), to intensify his spiritual practice, Sri Ramana replied:
Oh! Is that so? What really is meant by samsara? Is it within or without? Wife, children and others. Is that all the samsara? What have they done? Please find out first what really is meant by samsara. Afterwards we shall consider the question of abandoning them.
Although many claim to be influenced by him,[web 25] Ramana Maharshi did not publicise himself as a guru, never claimed to have disciples, and never appointed any successors.[web 26][web 27] While a few who came to see him are said to have become enlightened through association,[note 27] he did not publicly acknowledge any living person as liberated other than his mother at death. Ramana never promoted any lineage.
With regard to the Sri Ramana Ashram, in 1938 Maharshi made a legal will bequeathing all the Ramanashram properties to his younger brother Niranjanananda and his descendants. In 2013, Ramanashram is run by Sri Niranjananda's grandson Sri V.S. Raman. Ramanashram is legally recognised as a public religious trust whose aim is to maintain it in a way that is consistent with Sri Ramana's declared wishes. The ashram should remain open as a spiritual institution so that anyone who wishes to can avail themselves of its facilities.[web 29]
In the 1930s, Maharshi's teachings were brought to the west by Paul Brunton in his A Search in Secret India.[note 28] Stimulated by Arthur Osborne, in the 1960s Bhagawat Singh actively started to spread Ramana Maharshi's teachings in the US. Ramana Maharshi has been further popularised in the west by the neo-Advaita movement, which the students of H. W. L. Poonja have been instrumental in, and which gives a western re-interpretation of his teachings placing sole emphasis on insight alone. It has been criticised for this emphasis, omitting the preparatory practices.[note 29] Nevertheless, Neo-Advaita has become an important constituent of popular western spirituality.
According to Ebert, Ramana "never felt moved to formulate his teaching of his own accord, either verbally or in writing". The few writings he is credited with "came into being as answers to questions asked by his disciples or through their urging". Only a few hymns were written on his own initiative. Writings by Ramana are:
All these texts are collected in the Collected Works.
Several collections of recorded talks, in which Sri Ramana used Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, have been published. Those are based on written transcripts, which were "hurriedly written down in English by his official interpreters".[note 30]
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