Ramana Maharshi (1879 – 1950) was an Indian saint and spiritual teacher who taught a path of self-enquiry and devotion as a means to attain Self-awareness. Born in Tamil Nadu, India, he had a near-death experience at the age of 16, which caused him to turn away from the material life and focus solely on meditation and spiritual practice. He travelled to the sacred hill of Arunachala in Tamil Nadu and stayed there until his passing in 1950 aged, 70. The spiritual presence of Ramana Maharshi attracted a range of followers from both India and the West, who came to be uplifted by his peaceful vibration. Ramana Maharshi never claimed to be a guru but said his main job was to give darshan to seekers and encourage them on the path of self-enlightenment.
“Reality is simply the loss of ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself.”
Be As You Are, The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1985)
Ramana Maharshi was born on 30 December 1879 in the village Tiruchuzhi near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, South India. His birth name was Venkataraman Iyer and he was born to an affluent orthodox Hindu Brahmin family, with a strong tradition of spirituality. The family’s religion was Smarta denomination – a path of Hinduism that encompasses different deities and spiritual traditions. The family worshipped Shiva, Vishnu Ganesh and the Goddess Shakti.
Venkataraman was given a basic education in the Hindu scriptures and was very quick to memorise Tamil poetry. He was also taught rudimentary English as his father hoped he would enter the civil service. The young Venkataraman was a good student, devout Hindu and widely admire for his generous and kind spirit. He also enjoyed regular activities such as mixing with friends and sport including football, wrestling, boxing and swimming dangerous rivers. As football captain, his team would invariably win, gaining him the name Tangakai, which means ‘Golden hand.’ One unusual habit was his habit of sleep walking and becoming so deep in sleep, no-one could wake him – even after hitting with a stick.
On one occasion a relative visited and mentioned to Ramana that he had just been on a pilgrimage to Arunachala, this stirred something very deep from within, and the name of Arunachala became like a special mantra he could not fully understand.
In July 1896, aged 16 Venkataraman became overwhelmed with a fear of death, leaving him paralysed. Even though he was in good physical health, he had a strong fear and feeling that he was going to die. For days, he could not function but lay down immobile. With his body in virtual corpse position, he reasoned”
“Well then, this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and then reduced to ashes. But, wit the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? This body is not silent and stiff. But I continue to feel the full force of myself apart from its condition.” – Account by Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India.
As his fear of death began to drop away, Venkataraman began to spontaneously meditate and seek to go beyond the level of his thoughts. Marashi later recounted that he came to a point where thought stopped and leaving only ‘That which stands forever.” He became overwhelmed with a sense of spiritual bliss and ecstasy.
After his sudden enlightenment, he lost all interest in worldly affairs, preferring to remain alone, in silence with the inner current of delight. In this state, he went to a local Meenakshi Temple, devoted to Shiva in the form of the divine dancer “Nataraja” Maharshi felt ecstatic devotion to the 63 Nayanmars of Shiva.
The spiritual realisation changed him completely. Before Venkataraman would retaliate to any provocation with his boxing skills, but now he accepted any slight meekly – without retaliation or saying a word. His friends and family were at a loss to understand his sudden transformation. On one occasion, his brother burst into his room but, rather than doing his homework, his papers were scattered on the floor and he was deep in meditation. His brother was indignant saying why stay here if he wanted to be a yogi?
With only a desire to spend the rest of his days in Meditation, this touched Ramana Maharshi deeply so, not telling anyone of his intention, Ramana Maharshi slipped away from his family home, and with just five rupees in his pocket quietly travelled by train and arrived at Tiruvannamalai on the 1 September 1896. He felt such a spirit of renunciation that he discarded all clothes and sat naked in meditation. At the insistence of temple priests, he accepted he should wear a semi-loin cloth which remained his attire for the rest of his life.
On reaching Tiruvannamalai, he went to the temple of Arunachaleswara. For the next three years, he spent his time in meditation and contemplation never speaking to anyone. He became indifferent to the world and untouched by surrounding pests and dangerous animals. Even when youths threw mud at him for enjoyment, Maharshi remained unaware for many hours and he never harboured any resentment, no matter what the provocation. He only maintained the thinnest connection with the world. A local holy man Seshadri Swamigal, came across Ramana Maharshi and recognising his spiritual aura, took it upon himself to feed Ramana Maharshi, sometimes with his own fingers. After spending time in different temples such as Gurumurtam and Shiva temple at Pavalakkunru, he travelled to the foothills of Arunachala Hill, where he would remain for the rest of his life. From an early age, just the name Arunachala created a deep mystic chord with Ramana, he viewed it as not a mountain but the living presence of God. His life and sadhana were forever tied up with the holy mountain.
Formation of ashram and teaching
Despite his extreme austerity and neglected physical appearance, a slow stream of spiritual seekers sought out Ramana Maharshi. And in 1902, Sivaprakasam Pillai asked him a few spiritual questions on the nature of man’s real identity. Ramana Maharshi answered these questions in writing and this marked the beginning of his informal teaching. Without seeking out anybody else, pandits and seekers began to report that Ramana Maharshi was a real sage and this created a steady trickle of devotees, curiosity mongers and people seeking his darshan.
After a few years, Ramana’s secret disappearance found its way back to his family. For many years, his mother – Azhagammal – had begged his son to return home. Ramana Marashi always responded to these tearful requests with silence. His silence was so deep and unyielding his mother and uncle returned home. But 19 years after leaving his home, in 1916, his mother and younger brother Nagasundaram came to stay with Ramana Marashi at Tiruvannamalai. His mother took sannyasin and later became responsible for working in the ashram kitchen. His mother became extremely close to her son, and she passed away in 1922, in the arms of her son and Guru.
From 1922, a growing group of followers began to form around Ramana Maharshi and so plans were made to begin an ashram on the base of the hill. Ramana Maharshi supervised the building of the ashram, directing where and how to build, he took a great interest in aspects of ashram life, such as cooking. Maharshi could take great care and attention with even small details. He liked to avoid any waste and sought to use all aspects of a food-product, throwing nothing away.
“It is said that a good brotherly feeling with a sense of equality is the supreme goal to be reached collectively by all members of the community.” – Sri Ramana Gita
He encouraged cleanliness and ashramites to see work as part of their spiritual sadhana. He also insisted that all animals be treated as if they were equal souls to humans and would never allow mistreatment. His love for animals was exemplified with a cow named Lakshmi. Ramana Maharshi was extremely devoted to the holy cow, and would regularly interact and offering his blessings
Ramana Maharshi did answer questions from disciples, but his main form of teaching was meditation and silence. He felt that it was only in silence that true teaching could be shared.
“Silence is most powerful. Speech is always less powerful than silence.” – Ramana Maharshi, “Abide as the Self”
Meeting with Paul Brunton
Paul Brunton, an English author with an interest in mysticism, visited Ramana Maharshi in 1931. Brunton arrived after a long series of travels through India meeting fakirs, fake gurus, charlatans and holy men. To Brunton, meeting Ramana Maharshi was the pinnacle of his visit to India. He felt in Ramana Maharshi an authentic and real spirituality that was evident from his inner silence. Bruton was also impressed by his humility and lack of interest in self-promotion.
“I like him greatly because he is so simple and modest, when an atmosphere of authentic greatness lies so palpably around him..he is so totally without any traces of pretension that he strongly resists every effort to canonize him during his lifetime.” – A Search in Secret India.
It was during his visit to Ramana Maharshi and Arunachala that Brunton had a memorable spiritual experience, something he accredited to the spiritual presence of Ramana Maharshi.
Attitudes and personality
Ramana Maharshi never touched money or requested gifts. If necessity demanded he would take a begging bowl into the local village. In the early days, an old widow took pity on him and afterwards regularly supplied him with food. Many stories attest to his inner connection with animals. Once when he was meditating in a cave, a cobra came with a few feet and stood hood raised looking at Ramana Maharshi, however, he did not flinch from his poised position and the cobra turned and slithered away. Ramana felt a deep compassion to all living creatures. His philosophy was akin to ‘Turn the other cheek’ espoused by Jesus Christ. Once the ashram hall was broken into by decoits and they were furious to only find a few rupees. They then found Ramana Maharshi and proceed to beat him, leaving marks on his body. But, rather than defend himself, he bore their attack patiently and then invited the robbers to share a meal. He had only empathy for their spiritual ignorance.
Ramana Maharshi would rise at 4 am, needing very little sleep. He would begin the day with meditation and chanting bhajans or devotional songs with other devotees. He would then supervise work in the kitchen, ensuring good standards and that everyone was equally treated. In the afternoon, he would sit in the main hall to offer darshan to visitors – reclining on his couch. Usually these sessions would be conducted in silence, though sometimes he may answer questions. During the day he would also engage in aspects of ashram life, such as bookbinding, correcting proofs of his writings or dictating answers to others.
In 1948, Ramana Maharshi developed a cancerous tumor. This was operated on, but a new tumour grew back. Refusing an amputation of the arm, Ramana Maharshi’s health deteriorated as treatment failed to stem the cancer. Despite increased ill health, he continued to sit for meditation and darshan for visitors. Just two days before his death, he allowed all followers to pass by his intense gaze. His followers were increasingly anxious about his health and urged him to find a cure. But, with customary detachment, Ramana Maharshi dismissed these concerns and replied – invoking his spiritual philosophy that we are not the body but an immutable spirit asking his devotees – “why are you so attached to this body”
On 14 April 1950, Ramana Maharshi passed away with devotees chanting his hymn “Arunachala Shiva’ in the background. On the same day, onlookers across south India saw a comet passing over Arunachala, a phenomenon often associated with the passing of a great sage.
Ramana Maharshi was visited by many great sages and famous figures including Swami Ramdas, Paramhansa Yogananda, Somerset Maugham, Henri Cariet Bresson.
Teachings of Ramana Maharshi
“Know Thyself. All else will be known to thee of its own accord. Discriminate between the undying, unchanging, all-pervading, infinite Atma and the ever-changing, phenomenal and perishable universe and body. Enquire, “Who am I?” Make the mind calm. Free yourself from all thoughts other than the simple thought of the Self or Atma.” – Ramana Maharshi
Ramana Maharshi authored some writings directly, including poems in Tamil about Arunachala. More writings were transcribed by his followers from his question and answer sessions. A key teaching of Ramana Maharshi is that a seeker should pursue self-inquiry to understand who we really are – beyond thought. Maharshi encouraged a seeker to look within and find out – What is the essence of yourself, from which the root though “I” comes? In addition to self-enquiry, Ramana Maharshi advised followers to cultivate devotion (bhakti) for the divine (in whichever form a devotee preferred) and seek to quieten the mind.
Ramana Maharshi sometimes gave spontaneous commentary on spiritual scriptures, answering from his own inner wisdom. Although he sought to answer seeker’s queries; his focus was always to lead a seeker inwards to their own self-realisation and not get lost in philosophical arguments.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Ramana Maharshi”, Oxford, UK – www.biographyonline.net. Published 22 March 2020.
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