SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI
The following piece was written for Namarupa:
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) has been described as “the whitest spot in a white space” by Carl Jung, and “the greatest sage of the 20th century” by Ken Wilber. The Dalai Lama has said of him, “his spiritual greatness is guiding millions of people”. These descriptions are about a being, whose identity as a boy named Venkataraman was permanently shattered, when at age 16 he was overcome by and faced an immense fear of death. His full surrender into this experience brought on his remembrance of his true nature, beyond the illusion of the solidity of mind and its projected ego. This spontaneous enlightenment, rare by any standard, was even more so, considering the age and lack of any prior spiritual practice of this teenage sage.
This awakening led to his abandonment of family and material possessions in Madurai within several months, and pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Arunachala. Located in southern India, and rising from the foothill town of Tiruvannamalai, this mountain is considered as the manifestation of Lord Shiva in the Hindu tradition. His taking up residence here was due to the fact that from youth he had always associated the name Arunachala with the divine without ever knowing that it was an actual place. Upon the realization of its reality, a place which he credited with the powers that led to his Self-realization, he took up residence there permanently until the demise of his physical body.
The name Bhagavan (Lord) Sri (Honorable) Ramana (shortened version of his birth name) Maharshi (great seer) was given to him by the great ascetic Vasishta Ganapati Muni during his early years in Arunachala. During these years, his life was conducted in total silence and absorption in the Absolute, and hence a severe neglect of the physical body. This was followed by a period of silent teaching mostly through the emanation of spiritual energy, and finally through verbal communication in a humble ashram that was built for him by his devotees. The ashram Sri Ramanasramam has been expanded and still exists today, where tens of thousands of people from the world make the pilgrimage annually to benefit from the ever-present energy, as any attendee can attest.
Sri Ramana reiterated throughout his teachings that being open to and immersed in his silent presence and its stilling effects on the mind was the most direct path to Awakening, and that verbal instruction was for those who could not access that space. His Advaitic (non-dualistic) teaching can be summed up as the fact that consciousness or pure Being is all that exists, all else is nonexistent. And that Awakening involves only needing to remember this non-personal, ever-present awareness he named the Self (as opposed to the ego or personal self), not discovering or attaining some new experience. It is the ego, which is a false projection of the mind, which obstructs the direct experience of this true nature. It is not a matter of seeking or acquiring something new, but remembering the true nature of things. He likened the experience to looking all over for a misplaced piece of jewelry, until realizing that it has been around our neck all along. We are that we seek and that “the Absolute Consciousness alone is our real nature”.
His technique in helping seekers remember they already are this Supreme Self or Atman was Vichāra (Self-Inquiry). This process involves seeking the source of the ego as the “I-thought” through asking the question “Who am I?” He stated that “one destroys the ego by seeking its identity” and since “the ego has no real existence, it will automatically vanish, and Reality will shine by itself in all its glory”. This, he called the “direct method”. It is interesting to note that he differentiated between dhyana (meditation) and vichara by stating that the latter destroys the ego by revealing its lack of reality, while the first, although initially useful, can only succeed in quieting the mind temporarily. The mind will always erupt and assert the ego as real.
Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi was the personal incarnation of what we Westerners consider a guru. A humble, kind, and just man; with no possessions but a loin cloth, a metal water jug, and a walking stick. He revealed his true grasp of the inherent oneness of all phenomena by his even-handed treatment of all sentient beings, whether humans of all social ranks, animals, or plants. His concern for the welfare of animals and plants around him is especially moving. He worked hand in hand with devotees in attending to the tens of thousands of seekers who poured in over the years for darshan, never asking nor accepting preferential treatment. He did not even have separate living quarters. For most of his life, he resided in the same hall where he received visitors and conducted his teaching.
He was diagnosed with malignant cancer in his arm one year prior to his death. He constantly reminded the devotees that if they had listened to his teachings, there was no need for grieving. That nothing is lost by death except for the body, one was not born, and hence can not die. When begged to stay alive and not leave this realm, he would reply: “Where could I go? I am here.” Upon his death on the eve of April 14, 1950, an enormous star was seen by all present, slowly passing over the peak of Arunachala.