Ramana Maharshi – a twentieth century Indian saint, Part Three

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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.

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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.

Sivagangai Vinayagar Sannathi IMG_6407 2

 

 

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.

 

SriArunachaleswarar templeIMG_6413 2

 

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)

Ramana Maharshi – a twentieth century Indian saint, Part Three

sidepathnearSri Arunachaleswarar TempleIMG_6455 2
These and the photos below were taken at the Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple in the nearby town. They are not photos of the ashram.

Continued from Part Two, to begin reading with Part One, click here.

These days the 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.

pillared hall, gopuramIMG_6416 2

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.

Sivagangai Vinayagar Sannathi IMG_6407 2

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 limited 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.

SriArunachaleswarar templeIMG_6413 2

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 suspected, 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 / These are photos of the Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple in the nearby town, not of the ashram.

Top photo: A side path near the temple.

Second photo: A pillared hall, with peaceful sculpted cows on top.

Third photo: Sivagangai Vinayagar Sannathi, part of the temple.

Fourth phtoto: Gopuram of the Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple

Ramana Maharshi – a twentieth century Indian saint, Part Two

1000Hall-Meenakshi Temple

Continued from Part One. To read Part One first, click here.

 

After the experience of enlightenment which came upon him suddenly, at the age of seventeen, Ramana lost all interest in school, in his friends, and in his daily life.  He went every day to the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, where he spent hours lost in worship, with tears streaming from his eyes.  His older brother, Nagaswami, worried about him and, frustrated by his lack of interest in his schoolwork, spoke with him about it, saying that he was behaving like a sadhu, a Hindu holy man or wandering ascetic. He intended, with this comparison, to shake his younger brother out of a passing phase. Instead, Ramana thought to himself that there was more truth to his brother’s words than he knew, and shortly thereafter, he left home and set out on his train ride to Arunachala.

Ramana lived at several different sites near Arunachala over the years.  While he was living at Gurumurtam, a temple about a mile outside of Tiruvannamalai, his family discovered his whereabouts.  It is customary for a person who wishes to become a sannaysi (a holy man) to ask permission from his family, specifically his mother. Ramana had not done this.  His family had no idea where he was or what had become of him.  In the months after his arrival though, news spread, and people began to hear about the odd young monk who did not speak and who spent all his time in devotion.

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When his family discovered his whereabouts, his uncle arrived one day to beg him to return home, saying that they would all respect his ascetic way of life.  Ramana did not reply. He sat still without moving or speaking, until after a while his uncle gave up and went away.

Asking permission from one’s mother before setting out to become a holy person isn’t just a custom, it’s an imperative.  India, historically, is a land of many saints, and so rules have grown up for becoming one. Obedience to one’s parents is taught in the earliest Hindu books, the Vedas, and it is a pillar of Indian society.  This strong thread of obedience has been the power at the root of Indian culture and civilization.

Ramana’s mother, who loved him, was not going to give him permission to leave home.  Her husband, Ramana’s father, who had died not long before, had been an attorney. Their family held a respected place in society, and if their son set out on his own, who knew where he might end up?  The young man might become a destitute wondering monk, living on the streets or in the forests.  Such a life couldn’t even be considered. She felt he must give up his wild, unrealistic dreams and settle down to lead a normal life and assume proper responsibilities.

Ramana, for his part, must have understood all too clearly that his family would oppose any request of his to leave home to embark on such an uncertain future. But, truly, his spirit had already left. He was no longer the student pouring over his lessons or the schoolboy on the sports field; his soul had been carried away and he was rapt in devotion to the Gods, for hour upon hour, day upon day. He inhabited another world, and he would never be able to turn back to occupy himself with the daily concerns of normal life. He had been called by God to live in a different world, a different universe.

For this reason, he had simply left, in silence.  Silence was to be his way for many years.  It is the chosen way of teaching by Lord Shiva in the form of Dakshinamurthy, the guru who teaches through silence.  Ramana was often likened to Dakshinamurthy.

In 1898, Ramana moved to the Shiva temple at Pavalakkunru, to the east of Arunachala.  There his mother, Alagammal and his older brother Nagaswami came to see him in December of 1898.  They stayed for several days, and every single day his mother pleaded with him to come back home.  She even appealed to his devotees, trying to enlist their help, and one of them asked Ramana to write down a reply to his mother, since he would not speak.  He wrote words to this effect:  “What will be will be, and what will not be will never be.  Therefore the wisest course is silence.”

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Saddened by this response, his mother and her older son left shortly afterwards to return home.

The next February, Ramana moved to live on the slopes of Arunachala itself, in the Virupaksha Cave where he lived for the next seventeen years.

The numbers of visitors grew and grew.  In 1911, a British visitor, who served as a policeman in India, wrote several articles about Ramana, which appeared in the International Psychic Gazette.  The numbers of western visitors and devotees increased greatly from that time on.

In 1916, both his mother, Alagammal, and his younger brother came to join him to live permanently at Arunachala. He moved to a larger cave, where he lived near them for the next six years.  His mother became a sannyasin (a holy person), and his brother a sunnayasi.  Alagammal took charge of the kitchen of the ashram, and Ramana spent many hours of his time with her, giving her spiritual instruction.

Alagammal lived only until 1920. On the day she was dying, Ramana stayed with her throughout the day, then after her death at around eight in the evening, Ramana said to everyone present that she had left to go beyond the bounds of earth, having achieved enlightenment.  She was buried in a shrine, and the word Matrbhuteshwara was written there, which means “Shiva as mother.”

The Ashram Sri Ramanasramam grew up around his mother’s tomb, and Ramana lived at that site until he died in 1950.

Sri Ramanasramam Ashram grew to include many buildings; a hospital, a library, and a post office, as well as others.  Ramana found that he had a natural talent for planning buildings; the building construction was supervised by Annamalai Swami following Ramana’s instructions.

It was there at the ashram that Ramana lived a simple life, sitting in the hall, teaching his disciples and visitors or walking along the hillsides.

To be continued in Part Three …

Top photo: Gopi Rajaseharan (Zingzoo at en.wikipedia) / Wikipedia Commons / “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Zingzoo at the English Wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.” /1000 Pillar Hall at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

Second photo: © Sharon St Joan, 2013 / At the foot of Arunachala.

Third photo: © Sharon St Joan, 2013 / Near the slopes of Arunachala.

Ramana Maharshi – a twentieth century Indian saint, Part One

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“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.

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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.

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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.