SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI Birth and Early Years
( A LIFE SKETCH )
Venkataraman (later Sri Ramana Maharshi) was born on December 30, 1879 at Tiruchuzhi, a small village in Tamil Nadu, some thirty miles off Madurai and eighteen miles from Virudhunagar, the nearest railway station. Venkataraman’s mother Alagamma was a pious, devoted person and his father Sundaram Ayyar was a pleader, who practised mostly before the local magistrate. Venkataraman had a brother, two years his senior. His other brother and his sister were both younger to him by a few years. It was a happy, well-to-do middle class family.
When Venkataraman was twelve, Sundaram Ayyar died and the family was broken up. He and his elder brother were sent to live with their paternal uncle, Subbier, who had a house in Madurai. Here, Venkataraman first attended the Scott’s Middle School and then joined the American Mission High School for his ninth standard. At school, his one asset was an amazingly retentive memory, which enabled him to repeat a lesson after hearing it just once.
Endowed with a stronger constitution than most of his classmates and with a spirit of independence that marked him off from other students, Venkatraman found school games and outdoor life more congenial than studies and reading books.
In his boyhood years Venkataraman was prone to abnormally deep sleep. Speaking about it in later years he said: “The boys didn’t dare to touch me when I was awake, but if they had any grudge against me they would come when I was asleep, carry me wherever they liked, beat me, paint my face with charcoal and then put me back, and I would know nothing how it happened until they told me next morning.”
In November 1895, an elderly relation spoke to Venkataraman about his visit to Arunachala, the sacred hill in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. The word ‘Arunachala’ somehow had evoked in him since childhood an inexplicable awe and love. He enquired from the relative the whereabouts of Arunachala and ever afterwards found himselfhaunted by its thoughts.
A little later, a copy of the Periapuranam fell into Venkata-raman’s hands. This purana contains stories of sixty-three Tamil saints who could secure Lord Siva’s grace by their exemplary devotion. As Venkataraman read the book, he was overwhelmed with ecstatic wonder that such faith, such love and such divine fervour was at all possible.The tales of renunciation leading to Divine union filled him with awe and admiration. Something greater than all dream lands, was proclaimed real and possible in the book.
From that time onwards, the spiritual current of awareness began to waken up in the young boy. This grew ever stronger with the passage of time and after a few months, sometime in the middle of July 1896, when he was just sixteen and a half years old, Venkataraman realised the Self in a miraculous manner. Years later, he described the event himself in the following words:
About six weeks before I left Madurai for good, a great change took place in my life. It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room in my uncle’s house, when a sudden fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it. I just felt, ‘I am going to die’ and began thinking about it. The fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, ‘Now that death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? Only this body dies.’ And at once I dramatised the occurrence of death. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed and said to myself, ‘This body is dead. It will be carried to the cremation ground and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is this body ‘I’? I am the spirit transcending the body. That means I am the deathless atman.’
What happened next is difficult to comprehend, though easy to describe. Venkataraman seemed to fall into a profound conscious trance wherein he became merged into the very source of selfhood, the very essence of Being. He quite clearly perceived and imbibed the truth that the body was a thing apart from the atman that remained untouched by death.
Venkataraman emerged from this amazing experience an utterly changed person. He lost interest in studies, sports, friends and so on. His chief interest now centered in the sublime consciousness of the true Self, which he had found so unexpectedly. He enjoyed an inward serenity and a spiritual strength, which never left him.
The new mode of consciousness transformed Venkataraman’s sense of values and his habits. Things he esteemed earlier had now lost their appeal. In his words: “Another change that came over me was that I no longer had any likes or dislikes with regard to food. Whatever was given to me, tasty or insipid, I would swallow with total indifference.”
Venkataraman’s uncle and elder brother became critical of his changed mode of life, which seemed to them utterly impractical. Then came the tangible crisis on August 29, 1896. Venkataraman was then studying in tenth standard, preparing for his public examination. His teacher had given him an exercise in English grammar to be written three times. He copied it out twice and was about to do so for the third time when the futility of it struck him so forcibly that he pushed the papers away and, sitting cross-legged, abandoned himself to meditation. His elder brother who was watching this, scolded him for behaving like a yogi while still staying in the family and pretending to study. Such remarks had been made constantly during the last few weeks, and had gone unnoticed. But this time they went home. “Yes”, thought Venkataraman, “What business have I here?” And immediately came the thought of Arunachala that had caused such a thrill in him a few months ago. He decided then and there to discover the fabulous and legendary Arunachala of his dreams.
Venkataraman knew that it was necessary to use some guile because his family would never otherwise let him go. So he told his brother that he had to attend a special class at the school. Unintentionally providing him with funds for the journey, his brother said, “Take five rupees from the box and pay my college fees.” Venkataraman took only three rupees, no more than what he thought was necessary for reaching Tiruvannamalai. In the note he left (which fortunately is preserved), he wrote in Tamil:
“I have set out in quest of my Father in accordance with His command. It is on a virtuous enterprise that ‘this’ has embarked, therefore let none grieve over this act and let no money be spent in search of ‘this’. Your college fees have not been paid. Two rupees are enclosed.” The note ended with the word ‘Thus’, and a dash — in place of his signature.
It is significant that the opening sentence in the note began with ‘I’, but later Venkataraman used ‘this’ in reference to himself.Thus, what left Madurai for Tiruvannamalai was not the spirit, which had already got absorbed in the Lord, but the body, now viewed as distinct from the spirit. The personality which began with ‘I’, got merged into ‘this’, and at the end there was no person left to sign; hence the note remained unsigned. The note made it clear that the writer was driven by a Divine command, which had to be obeyed.
Reaching Tiruvannamalai on the early morning of September 1, 1896, after a series of trials and tribulations, Venkataraman went straight to the great Arunachaleswara temple and stood before his Father. His cup of bliss was now full to the brim. It was the journey’s end, and his homecoming.
Coming out of the temple, the youth got his head shaven and threw away all his belongings and clothes except for a strip he tore off his dhoti to serve as a loincloth. Thus renouncing everything, he went back to the temple complex and got immersed in the Bliss of Being, sitting motionless, day after day, night after night.
One Seshadri Swami, a learned ascetic of high spiritual attainment, took it upon himself to look after Brahmana Swami, as Venkata-raman began to be called. Some schoolboys started throwing stones at him as they were intrigued to see someone not much older than themselves sitting like a statue. And as one of them put it later, he wanted to find out whether he was real or not. To avoid the situation, Brahmana Swami took shelter in the Patala Lingam, an underground small Siva shrine within the enormous temple complex, where ants and vermin fed on his flesh during the weeks he spent there. But the young Swami, absorbed in bliss, remained unmoved.
When some devotees discovered the Swami in the vault, oblivious of the dreadful condition he was in, with worm-infested wounds and oozing pus, they removed him to a nearby shrine within the temple complex. From then on, he continued to move within the complex to various other shrines and groves away from curious onlookers. In all these places, he was looked after by mendicants, devotees from the town, temple functionaries and others. He continued to remain absorbed in the Self and was virtually dead to the world: he had to be shaken by the shoulders before he would accept water or food, which some devotees brought for him.
Years later, the Maharshi recalled how he had been forcibly administered a bath by a motherly devotee, the first in four months after his arrival in Tiruvannamalai. It was twelve months later that another such devotee gave him a second bath. Likewise, his hair remained uncut and his face unshaven for some eighteen months. He told Suri Nagamma : “The hair had got matted and woven like a basket. Small stones and dust had settled in it and the head used to feel heavy. I had long nails and a frightful appearance. When some people pressed me to have a shave, I yielded. When my head was shaven clean, I began to wonder whether I had a head or not, I felt so light.”
In February 1897, the young Swami was removed to the Gurumurtam - a math, some distance away from the town, where he lived for about nineteen months. He continued to remain Self-absorbed and was looked after mainly by a sadhu named Uddandi Nayanar and his friend Annamalai Thambiran. Pilgrims and sightseers began to throng the math and many would prostrate themselves before the Swami, some with prayers for boons and some out of pure reverence.
As the crowd became large, a bamboo fence was put around the Swami’s seat to prevent the public from touching him.There was no difficulty about food, as several devotees wished to supply it regularly; the more pressing need was to keep away the crowd of sightseers and visitors.
About this time, a Malayalee sadhu named Palaniswami, living in great austerity, was devoting his life to the worship of Lord Vinayaka. One day his friend Srinivasa Iyer told him, “Why do you spend your life with this stone swami? There is a young swami in flesh and blood at the Gurumurtam. He is steeped in tapas like the young Dhruva. If you go there and attach yourself to him, your life will attain its purpose.” When Palaniswami went to the math, he was stirred to his depths at the very sight of the Swami and felt that he had discovered his saviour. He devoted the remaining twenty-one years of his life serving the Maharshi as his attendant.
As the Swami’s body was utterly neglected, it got weakened to the limits of endurance. When he needed to go out, he had barely the strength to rise. Many times it so happened that he would raise himself by a few inches and then sink back again.
One Venkatarama Iyer, head accountant in a government office in the town, used to visit the Swami everyday before going to his work. One day, he placed before him a sheet of paper and a pencil and besought him to write his name and place of origin. When the Swami made no response to his pleading, he declared that he would neither eat nor go to office till he received the desired information. Then Sri Ramana wrote in English ‘Venkataraman, Tiruchuzhi’. His knowledge of English came as a surprise.
In the meantime, Venkataraman’s relatives were making anxious enquiries and searches at various places, but he could not be traced. Annamalai Thambiran (mentioned in the second para of the previous page), who had learnt the young Swami’s name and native place at the math, happened to visit Madurai. He spoke to one of Venkataraman’s family friends about the well-known young saint at Tiruvannamalai who belonged to Tiruchuzhi. Immediately after getting this information, Venkataraman’s uncle set off for Tiruvannamalai. He pleaded in vain for the Swami’s return and left for Madurai empty-handed.
After sometime, the young Swami began to reside at the Pavalakunru shrine on the Arunachala hill, where also he would sit as before, immersed in the Bliss of Being. It was here that mother Alagamma came to take back her son, whom she recognised despite his wasted body and matted hair. With a mother’s love and concern, she lamented over his condition and pressed him to go back with her, but he sat unmoved despite her repeated entreaties. One day, pouring out her grief to the devotees around him, she beseeched them to intervene. Seized by the mother’s plight, one of them told the Swami, “Your mother is weeping and praying; at least give her an answer. The Swami need not break his vow of silence, but he could certainly write what he has to say.”
Venkataraman took a pencil and wrote in Tamil: “The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdha-karma.Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try hard as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it.This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.”
The last sentence applied to the mother, who was asking what could not be granted. It applies to people in general in the sense that ‘it is no use kicking against the pricks,’ opposing the destiny that cannot be altered. But it does not mean that utmost sincere efforts to succeed are not made. The man who says, “Everything is predestined, therefore I need make no effort”, is indulging in the wrong and tricky assumption that he knows what is predestined. The mother returned home and the Swami remained absorbed in the Self, as before.
Early in 1899, the young ascetic, accompanied by his attendant Palaniswami took up his residence in the Virupaksha Cave, named after the thirteenth century saint Virupakshadeva, whose remains lie buried there.The cave is curiously shaped to resemble the sacred monosyllable OM, the tomb being in the inner recess. He stayed in this cave for about seventeen years.
Here also the young Swami maintained silence for the first few years. His radiance had already drawn a group of devotees around him and an ashram had come into being. He occasionally wrote out instructions and explanations for his disciples, but his silence did not impede their training because his most effective way of imparting instruction was through the unspoken word. The penetrating silence became the hallmark of the young sage.
Sivaprakasam Pillai , an officer in the Revenue Department and an intellectual, heard of the young Swami residing on the hill. At his very first visit in 1902, he was captivated by the Swami’s aura and became his life-long devotee. As the Swami was maintaining silence he answered fourteen questions of Pillai by writing on a slate. These were later expanded and arranged in a book form Who am I? This is perhaps the most widely appreciated prose exposition of the Maharshi’s philosophy.
Ganapati Muni , a renowned Sanskrit scholar and poet, was another devotee who visited the Swami from 1903 onwards and accepted him as his guru in 1907. It was the grateful Muni who named the Swami as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, and sang of him as an incarnation of Subrahmanya, son of Lord Siva. The Maharishi’s answers to the questions put by the Muni and his disciples, largely constitute the well-known work Ramana Gita. The most quoted sloka of this book tells us: In the interior of the Heart-Cave [right hand side of the chest, not left] Brahman alone shines in the form of atman. Enter deep into the Heart with a questioning mind, or by diving deep within, or with breath under check, and abide in the atman.
The earliest Western seeker to come under the Swami’s influence (in 1911) was F.H. Humphreys. When he asked how he could help the world, Sri Ramana replied, “Help yourself, and you will help the world. You are not different from the world, nor is the world different from you.”
The number of devotees increased greatly over a period of time. The text provides a record of experiences of a large number of such of those devotees who felt inclined to write or communicate through others.
The text contains many instances of Sri Ramana’s concern for the underprivileged. One such incident was narrated by Sri Ramana himself many years after the event to Suri Nagamma: When we were on the hill, at midday some women of the lowest caste, who carried heavy loads of grass on their heads, would frantically search for water to quench thirst and relieve exhaustion. But as they were not permitted to go near the well, I would wait near the well and pour water in the cup of their hands, which they drank with great satisfaction. They had to reach home quickly to look after their children, and used to come to us with hope and expectation.
In 1916, as the number of resident devotees increased, Sri Ramana shifted to the more commodious Skandasram, named so as it was built through Herculean efforts of his staunch devotee Kandaswami.
After the death of his mother in 1922 (who had come to stay with her ascetic son six years before and had got nirvana in his hands), her body was laid to rest at the foot of the Arunachala hill. The present Ashram, named Sri Ramanasramam, has developed around the mother’s samadhi called Matrubhuteswara, God in the form of Mother.
The Ashram, which began with a single thatched shed over the mother’s samadhi, has developed into a fairly large complex of buildings, the most important of which, according to many sadhakas, is the Old Hall where Sri Ramana spent most of his living time for over twenty years on a couch gifted by a devotee. The shrine over Sri Ramana’s samadhi, which has a large, bright, and airy meditation hall attached to it, regularly draws a large number of devotees and visitors throughout the year.
After Sri Ramana came down to live in the Ashram at the foot of the hill, he made it clear, though not explicitly, that giving darshan and communicating with people through silence or brief messages of deliverance was his sole goal in life. A large number of seekers in various stages of spiritual evolution came to him and found peace, clarity and strength of mind in his presence, as detailed in the text.
Among the qualities that endeared Sri Ramana to thousands, was his soulabhya - easy accessiblility. He sacrificed all privacy of time and sat in the hall day in and day out, and even slept in the presence of all. He did everything possible to make himself available to the devotees. With advancing age, the Ashram management thought of some rest for him after lunch by closing the doors of the hall for two hours. When Sri Ramana learnt about it, he sat outside the hall after lunch saying: “To see me, people come from different parts of the world. They may have some other urgent work. The management is welcome to close the doors but I am free to meet the visitors outside.” It took a lot of persuasion to make him relent.
Equally charming was his sahajata - the utter normality of behaviour. His manners were so natural that the newcomer immediately felt at ease with him. By a single glance, a nod of the head or by a simple enquiry from him, the visitor felt that Sri Ramana was his very own and that he cared for him. He was extremely humble and unassuming. There was no pontifical solemnity in his expositions; on the contrary, his speech was lively. When a devotee asked why his prayers were not being answered, Sri Ramana laughingly said, “If they were, you might stop praying.”
Much could be written about the way Sri Ramana practised samatva - equality. In his presence all were alike: high or low, rich or poor, man or woman, child or adult, human or animal. He would never tolerate any consideration or attention being shown to him more than to any other in the Ashram. Last two paras at p. 74 show how Sri Ramana opposed any physical concession to himself. If some little excess was served to him of any dish or any delicacy above the quantity served to others, he would chide whoever was responsible. ‘Samatva" for some incidents.
Sri Ramana had compassion for all species of life.Sri Ramana taught the Ashram inmates more by example than precept.
Sri Ramana stressed that the path to peace is through service, and he himself set an example in the daily life at the Ashram. He would diligently correct manuscripts and proofs, cut vegetables, clean grain, shell nuts, stitch leaf-plates and assist in cooking, thus exemplifying the dignity of labour and charm of simplicity. Karma was, for him, not some special ritualistic action, but the daily tasks that are our common lot.
Sri Ramana’s teachings were mirrored to perfection in his life. He declared that to abide in the Self was the highest attainment, and it was in this State Transcendent that one found him at all times. He had the characteristics of a jivanmukta - emancipated, while yet in the physical body. According to the Yoga Vasistha, to such a person: “Pleasures do not delight, pains do not distress. He does not work to get anything for himself. There is nothing which he has to achieve. He is full of mercy and magnanimity. He rests unagitated in Supreme Bliss.”
Sri Ramana always laid stress on maunam - the silence, which is not meant to be negation of activity. It is something very positive. It is Supreme Peace, immutable like a rock that supports all activities, all movements. Answering the puzzlement of her Western friends about the ‘inactivity’ ofSri Ramana, Ella Maillart writes: Having identified ourselves with our bodies, we are convinced that one has got to be visibly active. We forget that inactivity is the basis of its corollary activity; that the useful wheel could not exist or move without a motionless base. .
Sri Ramana never consciously did anything to make an impact or to carve out a niche for himself in the annals of history. He shunned all publicity and image building. He had successfully effaced himself. Paul Brunton, a British journalist, who lived near Sri Ramana for a few weeks in 1930, writes: “I like him greatly because he is so simple and modest, when an atmosphere of authentic greatness lies so palpably around him; and also because he is so totally without any traces of pretension and he strongly resists every effort to canonize him during his lifetime.”
Sri Ramana never gave discourses, much less went on lecture-tours. After leaving home, he lived continuously for fifty-four years on or near the Arunachala hill. When people went to him and put questions, he answered them in his own simple way, devoid of solemn discourses.
Sri Ramana was much against miracles. He once said, “A magician deludes others by his tricks, but he himself is never deluded. A siddha who manifests his siddhis is inferior to the magician as he is deceiving others as much as himself.” The ‘miracles’, which used to happen from time to time looked like coincidences, and if brought to Sri Ramana’s attention he would just laugh them away. Sri Ramana would use the term ‘Automatic Divine Action’ for the ‘miracles’ and he made the devotee believe that he had no part to play in the matter.
Sri Ramana did not found a new cult or religion. He did not insist on compliance with any established religious mode, ritual or line of conduct. He emphasized the unity of Being and its accessibility through one’s own efforts. According to him, the practical path to realization is atma-vichara, the search for the Self, through constant and deep meditation on the question Who am I? The approach is neither a religion nor a philosophy. It entails no belief, no scholarship and no psychological doctrine.
In Sri Ramana’s view the trouble afflicts us due to the mistake of limiting ourselves to the body. Constant self-questioning helps us to understand and imbibe the true knowledge about our identity, which is our Higher Self (atman), residing in the body.
Sri Ramana clarified that Who am I? is not a mantra to be repeated. The purpose of asking the question is to withdraw the mind from going outward and diving deep within one’s own Self. The monkey-mind which is only a bundle of thoughts, would eventually vanish through persistent and serious meditation on the question Who am I?
Sri Ramana maintained that we become unhappy because we have failed to appreciate our true nature, which is happiness and which is inborn in the True Self. The constant urge of all of us to secure happiness in life is an unconscious search for our True Self.
The Last Days
Towards the end of 1948, a small nodule appeared above the left elbow of Sri Ramana. Operations were performed but the malignant tumour appeared again. The disease did not yield to any treatment.The sage was quite unconcerned and remained supremely indifferent to his suffering.
Sri Ramana allowed himself to be operated to satisfy his devotees. Major Chadwick writes: “The night before the last operation I went to see Bhagavan and on my knees begged him not to have it. It was obvious that it could do no good. Each time the tumour had grown bigger and bigger. I prayed that this extra suffering was useless and that he would let us be spared of the strain. But he refused, for, as he said, the doctors had taken so much trouble, it would be shame to disappoint them now. Bhagavan’s attitude had all along been to let everybody have a chance; no one should be disappointed.”
Sri Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over his ‘suffering’ and he sought to comfort them by referring to the basic truth, the core of his message, that we are not the body. In his unique way he would ask whether we ever retained the leaf-plate after the meal was over.
The end came on April 14, 1950 at 8.47 p.m. At that very moment a bright comet moved slowly across the sky, reached the summit of hill Arunachala and disappeared high in the sky. The super soul reached its source.