To read part one first, click here.
These days the Ashram Sri Ramanasramam Ashram Sri Ramanasramam is crowded with many visitors, mostly westerners. The visitors are not boisterous or even conversational; instead they are quiet, respectful, and contemplative.
During Ramana Maharshi’s life, he had welcomed all people who came to him for guidance, speaking with great compassion and clarity with women as well as men, which was unusual at the time, and with people who came from the west as well as from India.
He is buried in a sarcophagus in the main hall, where there is an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.
In a smaller hall, people sit in a lotus position, in prayer or meditation. Visitors are encouraged to go and spend time there, since remaining a few minutes in calm and silence may bring about more understanding than many words.
In the dining hall people have a dinner of rice and vegetables, served on a palm leaf.
Outside there are the tombs of several of Ramana’s animals. His beloved cow, Lachshmi, who was with him for many years, is there; also a dog, a monkey, and a crow that he had rescued. He had always insisted that the animals must be treated with the same courtesy extended to humans. They were to be spoken with gently and allowed to wander wherever they wished.
The way to enlightenment taught by Ramana Maharshi is called Self-Inquiry. It is not in essence any different from traditional Hinduism, but is presented in a particular way. Ramana taught that a person seeking enlightenment must look within him or herself, asking the question, “Who am I?” The purpose in asking the question is not to discover what kind of person one is: wise or foolish, good or bad, or what one’s human personality may be like. Instead it is to come, eventually, to a realization that the true Self within each of us is not the human personality at all.
It is not our name, our profession, our identity, our life history, where we are from or what we look like, whether we are kind or cruel, truthful or deceitful, charming or impolite, world-famous or insignificant, confident or timid, rich or poor – none of these things is us.
The human personality, the “ego-sense,” is a construct, it is not the fundamental essence of an individual.
There is a Hindu chant, Shivoham, which means “I am Shiva” or “I am God.” This and similar expressions of identity with God are often grossly distorted and made fun of, especially in the west by people who do not understand what is meant. “I am Shiva” is not really a good translation. A better way to put this would be, “I do not exist. Only Shiva exists.” Or “I do not exist. Only God exists;” that is closer to the true meaning.
This perception that only God exists isn’t a linear, rational sort of truth. It is a mystical awareness, which can be grasped to a small extent intellectually, but which can only become a genuinely perceived reality through a direct experience, which comes about by the grace of God, and one puts oneself within reach of this divine grace only through diligently following a path.
Advaita Vedanta, one of the primary philosophies of Hinduism, teaches that the essence, or the soul, the Self or the “Atman,” of all beings is “Brahman,” the ultimate divine reality.
On an ultimate level, the soul of you or me, of a criminal or a saint, of a tree, a cloud, a flower, or a mountain, a monkey, a bumblebee, or a river, is the same soul. There is only one soul, which is Brahman.
Seeing this intellectually is a small step. Seeing this as the only real truth occurs as a mystical experience, and cannot be reached by the wandering thoughts of the mind.
It was Ramana’s mission, and that of so many other Hindu saints over the millennia, to open the gates that will allow enlightenment, like the sun shining through the darkness.
After around fifty years of living a tranquil, inspiring life on the slopes of Arunachala, in November of 1948, he developed a malignant tumor on his left arm, which was operated on four times by surgeons. When they wanted to amputate his arm, he declined, feeling that his time on earth was meant to come to a close.
On the evening of April 14, 1950, as he lay dying, he shed tears of joy on hearing his devotees chanting, “Arunachala Shiva.” At 8.47 that evening, his breathing slowed and came peacefully to a stop.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer, who had been staying near the ashram for a couple of weeks, was standing in front of his house that evening with a few friends when he saw a brilliant shooting star pass across the sky, disappearing behind Arunachala. He looked at his watch, seeing that it was 8:47. Guessing the import of the shooting star, they rushed over to the Ashram, to learn, as they had feared, that Raman had passed away. He was 71 years old.
In the days leading up to his death, he had said calmly to re-assure his worried disciples, “Where can I go? I am here.”
Photos: © Sharon St Joan, 2013
Top photo: A side path by the Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple.
Second photo: Sculpted cows rest peacefully on a pillared hall.
Third photo: Sivagangai Vinayagar Sannathi
Fourth photo: One of the gopurams (temple gates)