An Unlikely Saint: The Life of Sri Ramana Maharshi 19 April 2016
Nick Jordan explores the life and spiritual journey of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a twentieth century saint whose teachings have influenced people from various colours and creeds around the world.
In January 1938 the world-famous novelist and playwright, Somerset Maugham, was urged to crown his tour of India with a visit to the ‘most celebrated and the most revered’ of the holy men. Upon entering Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Tamil Nadu compound, the eager tourist soon lapsed into a deep and lengthy faint – a natural response, many supposed, to the mind-transforming serenity that pervaded the sage’s home. Maugham himself doubted this interpretation, but could not dispute that when in the presence of this ‘extraordinary man…the silence was intense and impressive. You felt that something strange was taking place that made you inclined to hold your breath. After a while I tiptoed out of the hall.’
When visiting Bombay some months later, the Swiss psychiatrist and religious writer Carl G. Jung was presented with the same opportunity – but chose not to enter at all. In his autobiography he justifies himself: ‘I studiously avoided all so-called ‘holy men’. I did so because I had to make do with my own truth, not accept from others what I could not attain on my own.’ Considering Jung’s sense of himself as an inspired teacher of men, many have accused him of avoiding a confrontation which would almost certainly have left him humbled. In private correspondence with the Countess Klinckowstroem he was less guarded, and perhaps, more honest: ‘Since I am neither an Indian nor a Chinese, I shall probably have to rest content with my European presuppositions, otherwise I would be in danger of losing my roots for a second time. This is something I would rather not risk, for I know the price one has to pay to restore continuity that has been lost.’
Wherever the truth lay, it was already clear that the immense spiritual force of this humble recluse had made him the most adored saint of his era, and left some of the most famous intellectuals of the West off-balance and struggling for explanation.
His Spiritual Search
In the summer of 1896, Venkataraman was a typical Indian schoolboy: liked by his peers, esteemed for his skill in football and wrestling, berated by his teachers and guardians for occasional lapses in application. Everything suggested his future would follow the pattern of the father and the uncles before him: the comfortable salary of a clerk, a wife and children to love, a household of relations to provide for. Yet one evening, while sitting alone in a room in his uncle’s house, the 16 year-old Venkataraman was suddenly seized by the violent fear of death. In his own words: ‘I just felt “I am going to die” and began thinking about what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself there and then.’ The shock, he said, left him feeling dissociated from his body, and as an observer, he watched his own form spread itself upon the floor and turn rigid in a vivid re-enactment of rigor mortis. The real-time narration of his strange behaviour continued mentally:
‘Well then, I am dead. 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.’
When Sri Ramana Maharshi reflected on this episode from his childhood, he explained how the changed mode of consciousness created a discord with his life situation. No longer was he afraid of death: he knew himself to be deathless. No longer could he excite himself about the prospect of family, career and success: the person he knew himself to be was satisfied, and already at peace. Thus the young Venkataraman, who had no practical or theoretical religious understanding, struggled to motivate himself in school, lost interest in pursuing a career, and was unable to explain to concerned relations exactly what had occurred. He became uninterested in his schoolmates, and his former obstreperous personality became submissive and bland. Things came to a head on August 29th, while sat at his desk copying out a school text: a task given to him as penance for his laziness. The futility of the whole situation struck him so forcefully that he pushed the books away and lapsed into meditation. His older brother, upon finding him in this state became immediately angry: ‘Of what use is this meditation for someone like you?’ he asked. The imputation was obvious. Venkataraman was no longer behaving as an aspiring householder should behave. Something had to change.
Spiritually significant occurrences had up to this point been scarce in Venkataraman’s life, but from his childhood he remembers an old relative who had just returned from a sacred hill called Arunachala. The resonance of the name (which means ‘Fire Mountain’ in Sanskrit) overwhelmed the boy with awe – he could not believe that a place so mythically titled could actually exist. ‘Despite my innocence,’ he said, ‘it had shone in my mind that Arunachala was something of surpassing grandeur.’
The plan for escape now formulating in Venkataraman’s mind would require the deception of his controlling guardians. The opportunity finally came when his brother asked him to take five rupees from the kitty and pay his school fees on his behalf. Writing a few lines to his mother as his only farewell, Venkataraman took three of the rupees and bought a train ticket that would take him to the foot of his beloved Arunachala. Upon arrival, he hastened to the temple and established himself in a meditation so immense that the locals were soon drawn by the radiant peace that surrounded him. Venkataraman was not to travel further than one kilometre from Arunachala until his death in 1950. His life as a holy man had begun: a life that would inspire spiritual seekers around the globe.
Over the decades that followed, word of the young sage gradually spread, and Ramana was visited by countless thousands of devotees: from local peasants to powerful Indian statesmen. Many were compelled to write of their experiences, and these have been anthologised by Professor Narain in Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi. The transformative power of Ramana’s presence is a constant refrain. Justice Aiyar was High Court Judge at Madras: ‘When he fixes his keen gaze upon us, it looks as though he is seeing the inner clockwork of a mechanism in a transparent case; and you get the feeling that a mild current of grace is flowing into you from him. He is a veritable storehouse of spiritual energy and wisdom. He radiates shanti or Peace, and those who come into contact with him feel a subtle, pervasive and godly influence greatly spreading over them.’
Ramana Maharshi considered the silent transmission of peace to be the most effective initiation into the spiritual life, and as Paramahansa Yogananda himself experienced: ‘During the hours we spent with him and his disciples, he was mostly silent.’ He was always willing, however, to offer a verbal teaching for seekers to practice in their own time. This he called Vichara – Self-Enquiry. The aim is to find the same Self that Ramana himself found when his body went into rigor mortis as a young man. This Self is the fundamental sense of identity that observes all the passing phenomena that make up experience. Whether the phenomenon is mental or physical in nature, the same enquiry must be made: ‘to whom is this happening?’ Assiduous practice will, he assures us, root us more and more in the Self that sees our own individual ego as nothing other than various passing thoughts and sensations. To realise this Self is liberation, and is the state of peace and bliss that Ramana himself realised.
A Lasting Legacy
Ramana Maharshi has been dead for sixty-five years, but his home – the Ramana Ashram – still holds a magnetic attraction for those in search of truth. Jojo Simons, from London, described herself as ‘a fairly typical angst filled twenty something, raised in a cultural orthodox Jewish family’ when she discovered a short volume of Ramana Maharshi’s sayings on her homeopath’s bookshelf:
‘I could not ‘understand’ his words, but I felt all my questions had been answered by this knowing, kind being. From that point on, I felt a connection, respect, awe and faith in Ramana and had no idea what to do with it. I was still very identified with my Jewish culture, and just had no place for a guru.’
But many years later, and now financially free to travel, she felt the urge to explore the influence Ramana had. ‘What struck me so clearly was that I wanted to go to Ramana Ashram for three days and say “Thank you”. I arrived on Deepam Festival, and had a scheduled flight to Thailand a month later and an onward ticket to Tokyo. Six months later I was still at Ramana Ashram!’
For Simons, the special atmosphere that had impressed Somerset Maugham is present to this day: ‘I had a tiny studio flat in an adjacent street to the Ashram, and I did not understand many of the religious ceremonies and traditions. But the mountain, the silence, the Ashram was pretty quickly the most transparent and sweet and love-filled place on earth. There is still a feeling, that when you enter the gates, you drop everything behind.’
Ramana’s teaching, Self-Enquiry, has also lost none of its relevance: ‘It is still one of the clearest teachings that could exist,’ says Simons. ‘We don’t believe it for years, and years, and we continue to ask questions. But simple enquiry, will, and does, entirely erase the question and the questioner. One does not even have to be especially patient to get results.’
Many of the western world’s most influential spiritual teachers are also quick to acknowledge Ramana’s profound influence on their thought. Eckhart Tolle, the author of the best-selling title The Power of Now, and himself listed number 2 on Watkins Magazine’s famous 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People considers Ramana one of his two main influences:
‘One is Krishnamurti, and another is Ramana Maharshi. I feel a deep link. They seem very, very dissimilar, but I feel that in my teaching the two merge into one. It is the heart of Ramana Maharshi, and Krishnamurti’s ability to see the false, as such and point out how it works. So Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi, I love them deeply. I feel completely at One with them. And it is a continuation of the teaching.’
This teaching is continued not just by Tolle but by the growing number of individuals who claim to have awakened to the transcendental Self Ramana described. Often emphasising the sense of non-duality that comes when we realise that our separate ego is a myth, these teachers view Ramana as a living crystallisation of the message contained in all spiritual teachings. As the popular American teacher and writer Adyashanti puts it:
‘Ramana Maharshi’s gift to the world was not that he realized the Self. Many people have had a deep realization of the Self. Ramana’s real gift was that he embodied that realization so thoroughly. It is one thing to realize the Self; it is something else altogether to embody that realization to the extent that there is no gap between inner revelation and its outer expression.’
Jojo Simons has witnessed this surge in interest first-hand at the Ashram: ‘People report that only 12 years ago what is now called Post Office Road was still a peanut farm. Now people are coming from all over to study Ramana – not just India, but from Europe, from Russia….’
Ramana Maharshi always insisted that the same realisation came at the end of all the world’s religious paths. It seems that many people’s paths are guided well by his example.