The Masters of Enlightenment: Ramana Maharishi
The series on The Masters of Enlightenment, which is part of the series on Spirituality, continues today with a profile of a great spiritual teacher who was a true master of enlightenment, Ramana Maharishi.
Sri Ramana Maharishi was born December 30, 1879 and died April 14, 1950. He was a Hindu jnani, someone who had attained self-realization.
In the Indian caste system, he was born a Brahmin (a member of the priestly class), but after having attained moksha (which is literally translated as “release”) he declared himself an “Atiasrami,” a Sastraic state of unattachment to anything in life and beyond all caste restrictions.
At the age of 16, he attained enlightenment, liberation, or moksha. He then left home for Arunachala, a mountain considered sacred by Hindus, and lived there for the rest of his life. An ashram eventually grew around him, Sri Ramana Ashram, situated at the foothill of Arunchala, to the west to the pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai.
Sri Ramana maintained that the purest form of his teachings was the powerful silence which radiated from his presence and quieted the minds of those attuned to it. He gave verbal teachings only for the benefit of those who could not understand his silence (or, perhaps, could not understand how to attain the silent state).
His verbal teachings were said to flow from his direct experience of Consciousness (Atman) as the only existing reality. When asked for advice, he recommended self-inquiry as the fastest path to moksha.
He considered his own guru to be the Self, in the form of the sacred mountain Arunachala. Sri Ramana did not publicize himself as a guru, never claimed to have disciples, and never appointed any successors. Sri Ramana was noted for his belief in the power of silence and relatively sparse use of speech. He led a modest and renunciate life, and depended on visitors and devotees for the barest necessities.
When Sri Ramana first went to Arunachala at age 16, his was a spiritual quest, done solely for his own spiritual evolution. He had no interest or ambition in becoming a teacher. For the next 30 years, he lived in various caves around the sacred mountain. Gradually, despite Sri Ramana’s silence, austerities, and desire for privacy, he attracted attention from visitors, and some became his disciples. And with that, his reputation grew.
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 Sri Ramana’s first teachings on self-inquiry, the method for which he became widely known, and were eventually published as “Nan Yar?”, or in English, “Who am I?”
In 1911 Sri Ramana became known to the west when the first westerner, Frank Humphreys, then a policeman stationed in India, discovered Sri Ramana and wrote articles about him which were first published in The International Psychic Gazette in 1913.
However, Sri Ramana only became relatively well known in and out of India after 1934 when Paul Brunton, having first visited Sri Ramana in January 1931, published the book A Search in Secret India, which became very popular. Resulting visitors included Paramahansa Yogananda, Somerset Maugham, (whose 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge models its spiritual guru after Sri Ramana), and many others.
Sri Ramana’s relative fame spread throughout the 1940s. Even as his fame spread, Sri Ramana was noted for his belief in the power of silence and his relatively sparse use of speech, as well as his lack of concern for fame or criticism. His lifestyle remained that of a renunciate.
When Sri Ramana Maharishi passed away on April 14, 1950, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer, who had been staying at the ashram for a fortnight prior to Sri Ramana’s death, recounted the event:
“It is a most astonishing experience. I was in the open space in front of my house, when my friends drew my attention to the sky, where I saw a vividly-luminous shooting star with a luminous tail, unlike any shooting star I had before seen, coming from the South, moving slowly across the sky and, reaching the top of Arunachala, disappeared behind it. Because of its singularity we all guessed its import and immediately looked at our watches – it was 8:47 – and then raced to the Ashram only to find that our premonition had been only too sadly true: the Master had passed into parinirvana at that very minute.”
Millions in India mourned his death. A long article about it in the New York Times concluded: “Here in India, where thousands of so-called holy men claim close tune with the infinite, it is said that the most remarkable thing about Ramana Maharshi was that he never claimed anything remarkable for himself, yet became one of the most loved and respected of all.”
His method of teaching was characterized by the following:
- He urged people who came to him to practice self-inquiry;
- He directed people to look inward rather than seeking outside themselves for Realization. (“The true Bhagavan resides in your Heart as your true Self. This is who I truly am.”);
- He viewed all who came to him as the Self rather than as lesser beings. (“The jnani sees no one as an ajnani. All are only jnanis in his sight.”);
- He charged no money, and was adamant that no one ever ask for money (or anything else) in his name;
- He never promoted or called attention to himself. Instead, Sri Ramana remained in one place for 54 years, offering spiritual guidance to anyone of any background who came to him, and asking nothing in return;
- He considered humility to be the highest quality;
- He said the deep sense of peace one felt around a jnani was the surest indicator of their spiritual state, that equality towards all was a true sign of liberation, and that what a true jnani did was always for others, not themselves.
What is Self-Inquiry?
And what was self-inquiry, which was his greatest teaching? He felt it was the most direct way of self-realization, liberation, moksha, and enlightenment. Interestingly, Ramana Maharshi often said that yoga and self-inquiry are two methods of controlling the mind, which he compared to an agitated bull. Yoga attempts to drive the bull with a stick, while self-inquiry coaxes it with green grass.
Self-inquiry has been classified as the Path of Knowledge among the Indian schools of thought. Although the teaching of self-inquiry is consistent with and generally associated with Hinduism, the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta, Sri Ramana gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices from various religions.
Here in an nutshell is what the process of self-inquiry is:
It was Sri Ramana’s basic thesis that the individual self is nothing more than a thought or an idea. He said that this thought, which he called ‘I’-thought, originates from a place called the Heart-centre, which he located on the right side of the chest in the human body. From there the ‘I’-thought rises up to the brain and identifies itself with the body: ‘I am this body.’
It then creates the illusion that there is a mind or an individual self which inhabits the body and which controls all its thoughts and actions. The ‘I’-thought accomplishes this by identifying itself with all the thoughts and perceptions that go on in the body. For example, ‘I’ (that is the ‘I’-thought) am doing this, ‘I’ am thinking this, ‘I’ am feeling happy, etc.
Thus, the idea that one is an individual person is generated and sustained by the ‘I’-thought and by its habit of constantly attaching itself to all the thoughts that arise. Sri Ramana maintained that one could reverse this process by depriving the ‘I’-thought of all the thoughts and perceptions that it normally identifies with. Sri Ramana taught that this ‘I’-thought is actually an unreal entity, and that it only appears to exist when it identifies itself with other thoughts.
He said that if one can break the connection between the ‘I’-thought and the thoughts it identifies with, then the ‘I’-thought itself will subside and finally disappear. Sri Ramana suggested that this could be done by holding onto the ‘I’-thought, that is, the inner feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ and excluding all other thoughts. As an aid to keeping one’s attention on this inner feeling of ‘I’, he recommended that one should constantly question oneself ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this “I” come from?’
He said that if one can keep one’s attention on this inner feeling of ‘I’, and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the ‘I’-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre.
This, according to Sri Ramana, is as much as the devotee can do by himself. When the devotee has freed his mind of all thoughts except the ‘I’-thought, the power of the Self pulls the ‘I’-thought back into the Heart-centre and eventually destroys it so completely that it never rises again. This is the moment of Self-realization. When this happens, the mind and the indvidual self (both of which Sri Ramama equated with the ‘I’-thought) are destroyed forever. Only the Atman or the Self then remains.