The Life and Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi
By B. V. Narasimha Swami
The crisis of Venkataraman's life, the great awakening that converted his listlessness and dull life into one of lofty realisation and devotion to ideals, came about in the middle of the year 1896, when he was in his seventeenth year - the age at which the greatest number of religious persons have experienced their 'conversion' or started a new life. Long after this event, he was often queried by his devotees as to how he was transformed, and the following is substantially what he himself said:
"The shock of fear of death made me at once introspective, or 'introverted'. I said to myself mentally, i.e., without uttering the words - 'Now, death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.' I at once dramatized the scene of death. I extended my limbs and held them rigid as though rigor-mortis had set in. I imitated a corpse to lend an air of reality to my further investigation, I held my breath and kept my mouth closed, pressing the lips tightly together so that no sound might escape. Let not the word 'I' or any other word be uttered! 'Well then,' said I to myself, 'this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body, am "I" dead? Is the body "I"? This body is silent and inert. But I feel the full force of my personality and even the sound "I" within myself - apart from the body. So "I" am a spirit, a thing transcending the body. The material body dies, but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. I am therefore the deathless spirit.' All this was not a mere intellectual process, but flashed before me vividly as living truth, something which I perceived immediately, without any argument almost. 'I' was something very real, the only real thing in that state, and all the conscious activity that was connected with my body was centered on that. The 'I' or my 'self' was holding the focus of attention by a powerful fascination from that time forwards. Fear of death had vanished at once and forever. Absorption in the self has continued from that moment right up to this time. Other thoughts may come and go like the various notes of a musician, but the 'I' continues like the basic or fundamental sruti note which accompanies and blends with all other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centered on 'I'. Previous to that crisis I had no clear perception of myself and was not consciously attracted to it. I had felt no direct perceptible interest in it, much less any permanent disposition to dwell upon it. The consequences of this new habit were soon noticed in my life.
A Word in Parting
The parting letter runs thus:
in search of my Father and
"I have ^ in obedience to his command, started from here. THIS is only embarking on a virtuous enterprise. Therefore none need to grieve over THIS affair. To trace THIS out, no money need be spent.
Your College fee has not been paid. Rupees two are enclosed herewith."
The opening sentence blurts out an 'I'. The individual consciousness is then to the fore and clearly noticed by the reader. But in the very next sentence, the philosopher's stone touches and transmutes the baser metal (the individual ego) before the reader's eyes into the gold of an impersonal or expanded 'I'. The next phrase after 'I', in the letter is (my Father). Here leaps the blest ego on to Heaven, asserting a son's right to visit the father. The baseness of the ego is immediately lost, and the survivor is the 'Son of God.' He is like his Father, a spirit, and not a "cunning cast of clay." The removal of dehatma buddhi (the idea 'I am the body'), this disappearance of the earth-stain from the writer, furnishes the clue to the otherwise puzzling term (this) in the following sentences. Reference is made by the enlightened soul of the writer in the second sentence, to the journey to Tiruvannamalai; and in describing himself, the third person neuter is employed. Not 'I', but 'this' is what launches on the enterprise. What leaves Madurai for Tiruvannamalai now (i.e., from the second sentence onwards) is not the spirit, that is already getting absorbed in God, but the body, viewed clearly as distinct from the spirit. Then comes the letter to a close with a "Thus --------." Here, in place of the dashes, a signature would have been appended by Venkataraman of earlier years. But on this occasion, the personality which began with an 'I' had melted into 'this' in the succeeding lines, and at the close there was evidently no person remaining at that time and at that place to sign the letter.
At the Father's Feet
Alighting at Tiruvannamalai station on the morning of 1st September 1896, Venkataraman beheld his "promised land" in the "starry-pointing" towers of Arunachaleswara's Temple from afar. As with the Saint Nanda, the very sight of the towers filled his soul with joy, arising not merely from the sense of achievement but also from the close proximity to Bliss itself. With quick steps and a bounding heart he proceeded straight to the great Temple. The gates of the three high compound walls and all the inner doors were open. There was not a soul beside him there; and it looked as though the Father was thus preparing to welcome his 'beloved son', who marched straight to the inmost shrine, the Holy of Holies without any hindrance and addressed Arunachaleswara (in the shape of a lingam) thus:
O God, obedient to Thy call,
Here I have come, deserting all.
That moment all physical and mental excitement disappeared; he felt a soothing sensation and his cup of bliss was full to the brim.
On the very day of his arrival he had aimlessly walked to the Ayyankulam Tank and thrown away the bundle of sweetmeats given to him at the Kilur Bhagavatar's house, saying to himself, "To this block (i.e., the body) why give any sweetmeat?" As he walked back from the tank and came near the temple some one accosted him and asked, "Do you want to have your tuft of hair shaved off?" "Yes," replied the young Swami, who was immediately taken to a barber and had the entire hair on his head shaved off.
As a boy at Dindigul and Madurai he was noted for the beauty of his hair (fine, long, jet-black locks) and now at one stroke he parted with this without a sigh. A clean-shaven head was the token of asceticism (sannyasa), i.e., of parting with all the vanities of the world, and entering upon a solemn course of life in which things far higher, far more serious, should occupy every minute of one's attention. He then tore off his cloth to shreds, and, wearing one of them as a loin-cloth, cast away the rest and all his money, amounting to three rupees and a half. He also removed his sacred thread from his body and threw it away. He was not going to touch, and never after did touch, money.
One day when the young Swami was sitting on the central dais of the mantapam plunged in meditation, he found stones whizzing from behind and front. Luckily they did not hit his body. But he moved to the dark recess of a large pit (known as Patala Lingam) in the mantapam, where he hoped to be free from such attentions. The change, however, proved to be from the frying pan into the fire. The dark pit, despite the sacred images in it, was never lit, or swept or cleaned. It was damp and full of insects. As the young Mouni (The silent one) sat there, enjoying the bliss of his soul, scorpions, ants, mosquitoes, and other vermin, the rightful occupants of the pit, attached themselves to the intruder's body and rejoiced in drinking his blood. The nether side of his thighs and legs, as he sat there, were full of sores from which blood and pus issued. The fact that he was completely unconscious of this only goes to prove the depth of his absorption in the Infinite.
Years of Strenuous Life
As the Swami continued to neglect his comforts, and even cleanliness, he rose in popular esteem. His body was besmeared with unwashed dirt, his hair became a clotted mass, and his finger-nails grew so long and curly that his hands were not useful for any purpose. He sat for some weeks on a floor which was always infested by ants and, despite their constant crawling and biting, he sat for hours with eyes closed, leaning against the wall in samadhi, and left on it the imprint of his back. The visitors could not endure for even a few minutes the ants which he endured for hours, days and weeks, losing his body consciousness. The Swami was therefore provided after some time with a stool in a corner, the feet of the stool being placed in water. But even then his leaning on the wall gave the ants their chance and left another impress on the wall which is even now fairly discernible. People swarmed to see this height of self-neglect; some said: "This Swami must be very old," and pointed to the length of his nails as proof. Many people jumped to the conclusion that, being so saintly, he could grant them all the boons they desired, such as wealth, health issue and salvation, and poured praises into his ears and offerings at his feet. All this developed the Swami's humility, patience, endurance, and self-restraint, (Atma vinigraha), though to some extent they proved a disturbance to his meditation, which however was minimised by a bamboo palisade placed round him. His fame steadily increased as days passed; and this meant increased disturbance and increased self-restraint, though the question of food-supply (if it ever was a question) was completely solved.
M. Sivaprakasam Pillai and the Swami
When he thought of going back to his village on 4th May 1913, something remarkable took place. There were many persons with the Swami; Pillai also was sitting nearby. He went on gazing at the Swami; and ere long, he had a strange vision. The Swami's face was no longer the ordinary human face. A dazzling aura was surrounding him. From his head, lo! a golden child gradually emerged and before long re-entered it. This strange phenomenon repeated itself twice or thrice. Sivaprakasam Pillai could hold out no more. He felt deeply agitated at this sudden proof of the existence of a higher benign power. His heart welled up with emotion; tears of ecstasy flowed from his eyes; and he sobbed, unable to express what he felt. Those present did not see any vision and wondered what the matter was with Pillai. When later he communicated his vision, they cracked jokes at his expense. He was in no joking mood however.
Next evening, that is, on the 5th May, he sat before the Swami. This day also he saw a vision. The Swami was suddenly seen surrounded by a halo which was as powerful as a number of full moons thrown together. The Swami's body was shining like the golden morning sun, and again his entire body smeared with holy ashes. His eyes beamed with mercy. There were others in the room at the time, but they did not see any such vision. Pillai did not ask the Swami about these matters, nor did the Swami say anything. Two days later when Pillai went and saw the Swami, the latter appeared like a mass of crystal to Pillai's eyes. Pillai's heart overflowed with joy and he had obtained the grace of the Swami. He resolved to lead a similar life of tapas (austere penance) curbing all sex desires and observing brahmacharya (celibacy).
Ganapati Sastri and the Swami
A. Ganapati Sastri, known by his title Kavya Kantha, is the disciple to be mentioned.
Sastri quivered with emotion as he walked up to the Virupaksha cave. Luckily for him the Swami was seated alone on the outer pial. Sastri fell flat on his face and held the Swami's feet with both hands and his voice trembled with emotion as he cried: "All that has to be read I have read. Even Vedanta Sastra I have fully understood. I have performed japa to my heart's content. Yet I have not up to this time understood what tapas is. Hence have I sought refuge at thy feet. Pray enlighten me about the nature of tapas." For fifteen minutes the Swami silently gazed at Sastri as he sat at his feet in anxious expectation. None came to interrupt them at the time. Then the Swami spoke in short and broken sentences in Tamil: (translation)
If one watches whence this notion of 'I' springs, the mind will be absorbed into that. That is tapas.
If a mantra is repeated, and attention directed to the source whence the mantra-sound is produced, the mind will be absorbed in that. That is tapas.
This instruction filled Sastri's heart with joy. He stayed for some hours and ascertained the Swami's name from the attendant Palaniswami to be Venkatarama Ayyar. Sastri immediately composed five stanzas in praise of the Swami in which he contracted his name to Ramana which has stuck to the Swami ever since. In the letter which Sastri wrote next day to his relations and disciples he mentioned the upadesa (instruction) he had received from the Swami known as Brahmana Swami on the hill; and added that he must henceforth be called 'Maharshi' since his teaching was quite original, and nothing like what had been found in any book that Sastri had read. He wished all his own disciples to call Brahmana Swami, Bhagavan Maharshi. Since that date this name has come into vogue among his devotees; and to Sastri must be given the credit for its currency.
Meditation at the Asram
So far mention has been made of how Maharshi helps the ordinary run of devotees who visit him. A few who are more finely strung, perhaps more delicately attuned, mention their experiences with him, which cannot be adequately described to one who has not had a similar experience. Some say that at a glance of Maharshi or because of his mere presence (vide. e.g., the entries in the diary of Ramaswamy Iyer, Ch. XVI) a current from him entered their heart and greatly assisted them in mind and body. Some say that Maharshi, in order to instruct them about the working of 'the Heart' which is said to be the seat of intuition, or Self, has asked them to place their palm on his right breast where they felt the rhythm of this peculiar heartbeat. Some of them felt something like an electric shock coursing through their entire body at the very touch of his body. Whether these phenomena are subjective or objective, the results have been the same in their spiritual course. Some disciples say that they derived similar benefit by their bodies being touched by Maharshi when he appeared before them in dreams or waking visions.
Epilogue by S. S. Cohen
Master's Illness and Mahanirvana
He had entered his 70th year, and the chronic complaints which he had acquired during the early years of his absorption in the Ultimate Consciousness, owing to the entire neglect of his body, began to tell on him. Due to exposure to cold, rain, wind and the dampness of the underground cave (Pathala Lingam), in various open spaces, and on the hill, he had contracted asthma, and then an arthritic rheumatism which clung to him till the end. Signs of pronounced weakness appeared in 1947, which exposed his system to the invasion of latent or new diseases. The rheumatism itself increased in violence, and spells of nervous hiccup of long duration further weakened him and paved the way to a virulent sarcomatous growth on his left elbow, to which his body finally succumbed, after a severe illness lasting more than a year.
"14th April, 1950:- Maharshi is in a very precarious condition. The whole morning has been spent by devotees in hushed gloom and bated breaths. After the evening darshan which was attended by more then fifteen hundred persons, the unanimous verdict was that it was positively the last. The Master is now propped on large pillows, almost in a sitting posture to enable him to breathe freely. At 7 p.m. oxygen is administered to him for a few minutes, but , seeing it gave him no relief, he feebly asked that it should be stopped. The situation was tense; about five hundred devotees were outside in sad expectation of the solemn last moment. Blood relations, Ashram workers, and a few veteran disciples went in by turn to have a last sight of him. When the end was known to be approaching the whole congregation with one voice took to chanting the Tamil hymns he had composed in praise of Lord Arunachala : "Arunachala Siva, Arunachala!", till it came at 8.47. Many devotees grief stricken and beating their breasts with agony, rushed to the big darshan Hall, to which the sacred body had been brought and made to sit cross-legged in yoga asana, to pay their last respects.
"15th April : At 6.30 p.m. the body which by then had received the homage of not less than about 40,000 persons was carried in a decorated palanquin, reserved for the God of the temple, to the samadhi. Here it was placed in the same yoga-asana posture into a bag made of the finest kaddar (home-spun cloth), which was then filled with pure camphor, and lowered into the area in the pit which had been reserved for it. Then the pit was filled to the brim with camphor, salt, and sacred ashes to preserve the body from worms and rapid disintegration, and closed with masonry work.
Sri Niranjanananda Swamigal
Feeling that his end was near, on the 28th January 1953, he called T. N. Venkataraman who is his son and successor to the Ashram's seat, his family and some Asram workers and devotees, and with thick speech, said:
"I am departing with a clear conscience and clean hands. I have not used even a pie of the Ashram funds for my own benefit. Everything here belongs to Bhagavan, and should be guarded with care and vigilance. Devote yourselves heart and soul to the service of the Lord, and in return He will shower His grace on you. Be sincere and truthful to the core of your being. Uphold our revered ancient tradition in the working of this Ashram, as I have upheld them all my life."
With him passed away the last living child of Sundaram and Alagammal.
But though this book is finished and the Maharshi, his brother and sister have left the scene, the Asram, as has already been stated, continues as a place in whose sanctity the same peace is still to be found. Pilgrims and devotees come, sit in front of the Holy Samadhi, or in the meditation hall, close their eyes and find that they are once again in the very real presence of the beloved Guru, who meant everything to them and whom for a weak moment they feared they had lost. Surprise is followed by a look of joy and, rising from their place they go on their way convinced that RAMANA LIVES.