“Your college fees have not been paid, here are the two rupees.” Venkataraman’s older brother, Nagaswami, had given him five rupees, asking him to pay his school fees. Instead, on September 1 of 1896, leaving his brother this brief note, Venkataraman Iyer, who would become known to the world as the Hindu saint, Ramana Maharshi, left his home near Madurai, in the south of Tamil Nadu, using the remaining three rupees to pay his fare to take a train north. He would never return.
He was just seventeen. Looking out the window of the speeding train, he watched the green countryside slip by, where men, and women in colorful sarees, worked in rice and vegetable fields.
After many hours, he reached his destination, the little temple town of Tirunnamalai. There overlooking the town was Arunachala, the sacred mountain, who is Lord Shiva. Arunachala rises, a sheer rock towering above the surrounding plain that can be seen for miles. When he’d first heard of Arunachala, he had been mesmerized by the sound of the name. It sounded melodic and magical.
Long ago, it is said that the two great Gods, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, were having a dispute over which one was the greatest. The argument went on and on with no clear winner. Then the site where they stood was engulfed in a huge flame that reached from the center of the earth up to the tipmost top of the heavens. Witnessing this awesome display of Shiva’s cosmic power, Brahma took the form of a swan and flew up to try to reach the top of the flame, which stretched up to infinity. Vishnu, in his form as a boar, dug far down, to reach the bottom of the flame, but it too was out of reach. Both Brahma and Vishnu withdrew, conceding that Shiva was far more powerful than either of them. Over time, the immense flame that had manifested cooled and formed the mountain that is Arunachala.
Later on in his life, Sri Ramana Maharshi, who had been the boy Ventakaram, would write, “Arunachala is truly the holy place. Of all holy places it is the most sacred! Know that it is the heart of the world. It is truly Siva himself! It is his heart-abode, a secret kshetra (sacred place). In that place the Lord ever abides as the hill of light named Arunachala.”
When Ramana arrived at Aranachala, he soon sought out the deepest, darkest, and oldest part of the temple, the Patala Lingam. This is a small dark ancient den, which was already there at least two thousand years ago; well before the temple that now surrounds it was built. His time there was a time of penance and austerity. As well as enduring the dark and the damp of this small place where he lived for a few weeks, he suffered greatly from insect bites and scorpions. Concerned about the young newly-arrived monk, one of the other monks brought him back up out of the Patala Lingam and found a cleaner, drier place for him to live.
In those early days, Ramana lived in a state of trance or meditation. Every day the other monks brought his food to him. He never spoke.
Since childhood, whenever he slept, he had slept so soundly that he could not be waken. A few months before traveling to Arunachala, he had attended the wedding of his older brother. After the wedding, while staying at the home of the bride’s parents, as he was lying down on an upper floor of the house, he was overcome by an intense sensation that he was dying. He felt himself becoming still and lifeless. Feeling that he was dead, he had a striking moment of enlightenment, as the knowledge swept over him that, although his body was lifeless, his essential being was unchanged. Only the body dies; that which survives is the true being, who belongs to eternity and never dies. This enlightenment never left him.
To be continued. To read Part Two, click here.
Top photo: / G.G. Welling / Wikimedia Commons / Ramana Maharshi, around age 60 / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / Ramana Maharshi, around age 60.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan /Arunachala.
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / The slopes of Arunachala.