TEACHING IN THUNDERING SILENCE
On April 14, 1950 at 8:47 p.m. an enormous star trailed slowly across the night sky. Passing north-east toward ancient mount Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, India, it disappeared from sight. People saw it, knew what it portended and fell into a spontaneous outburst of grief. The great sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana, popularly called Ramana Maharshi, had attained maha nirvana (eternal liberation).
Tiruvannamalai, 187 kilometers from Chennai, India, has three claims to fame. First, the mysterious holy hill of Arunachala that’s said to grant liberation to even those who think of it. Every year, in the month of karthik (October-November), a huge fire is lit atop the mountain and millions of pilgrims take a 13 kilometers walk around it.
The second famous spot is the massive temple of Lord Shiva that sports one of the tallest raja gopurams (temple towers) in India.
And then there is Ramana Maharshi, who preached pure Advaita in ‘thundering silence’ and was heard with remarkable clarity. Thousands flock to Ramanasramam to walk around the confines of his earthly abode. They meditate in silence in rooms that resonate with his presence and the tremendous compassion that he exuded.
Ramanasramam president V.S. Ramanan says succinctly: “Bhagavan showed his compassion by allowing devotees and visitors 24-hour access. There were never any fixed darshan (to see or to get a glimpse of a deity or holy person) hours in all the 50-odd years. He hardly ever slept for more than a couple of hours a night. When it was suggested that the darshan room doors remain closed during the afternoon, his response was that he would sit outside the doors to receive whoever came.”
His life revolved around the message of compassion. Tall, gentle and gracious, he always related to all at their own level. He would patiently talk to children and painstakingly bind their torn books. He loved animals and seemed to understand them perfectly. Leopards, peacocks, cows, dogs, monkeys, snakes, squirrels and birds would all gravitate towards him. Gently, he would admonish a leopard to back off, sort out problems between quarrelling monkeys and remain unperturbed while a snake slithered over his legs.
His belief that the Source or Consciousness exists in every life form made him respect plant life. He called trees “standing men” and men “walking trees”. Once a female devotee who had vowed to dopuja (the act of worship) with a large quantity of tulsi or basil leaves could not obtain the required amount. She mentioned this to Bhagavan, who replied: “If you cannot get the leaves, why not pinch yourself and do the puja? If it pains you to pinch your own body, is it not painful for the tree when you pluck the leaves?”
Maharshi was born on December 30, 1879 in Tiruchuzhi, a small town 38 miles from Madurai, India, where he later attained enlightenment at the age of 16. The second of four children, when he was 12 his father passed away and the children went to live with a paternal uncle in Madurai. At school, football, wrestling and swimming appealed to him, not studies. But he had an amazingly retentive memory.
DYING TO THE WORLD
Maharshi’s enlightenment is best described in his own words: “It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I was seldom sick, and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden fear of death overtook me. There was nothing to account for it, but I just felt ‘I am going to die’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor, my elders or friends.
“The shock of 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? This body dies.’ I dramatized death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground, burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am the Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means, I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth, which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centered on the ‘I’. From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from then on. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centered on the ‘I’.”
Two months later, he left home for Tiruvannamalai with five rupees in his pocket. Maharshi had heard about Arunachala and his body burned until he reached this hill where he remained for over 50 years until his physical death.
Although the central focus for decades in an ashram visited by thousands of seekers from all over the world, Maharshi never recognized anyone as his disciple. He insisted that Consciousness alone is the guru or teacher. Maharshi indicated that although the guru is within everyone as primal awareness, an illumined sage can push us ‘inward’. He could do this with a glance; seated in silence, he would suddenly fix one with an intense gaze, and the person would become directly aware of his own nature, which is a vibrant current of primal awareness.
After years of Krishna japa (incantations) and visions, Papaji (H.W.L. Poonja , the late Lucknow-based master) went to Maharshi and asked to see God. He was told: “You alone are God” and “Find out who the seer is”.
Papaji describes his encounter with Maharshi thus: “He looked at me intently. I could feel him looking into my heart. A process of transformation was going on—every part of my body was being purified. A new me was being created. Then, suddenly, I understood. I knew that this man who had spoken to me, was in reality what I already was, what I had always been. There was a sudden impact of recognition, as I became aware of the Self. The silent gaze of Maharshi re-established me in that primal state, but this time, it was permanent.”
Many foreigners also visited Maharshi. One of the famous ones was Paul Brunton, a seeker who had met many masters. His book, A Search in Secret India, narrating his experience with Maharshi, brought more foreigners and Indians to Tiruvannamalai.
Brunton describes his experience with Bhagavan: “Maharshi turned and looked into my face. I, in turn, gazed expectantly at him. I become aware of a mysterious change taking place with great rapidity in my heart and mind. The old motives, which have lured me on, begin to desert me. The urgent desires, which have sent my feet hither and thither, vanish with incredible swiftness. The dislikes, misunderstandings, coldness and selfishness, which have marked my dealings with many of my fellows, collapse into the abyss of nothingness. An untellable PEACE falls upon me and I know now that there is nothing further that I shall ask from life.”
As conveyed by Papaji and Paul Brunton, Maharshi would speak less and so his teachings were transmitted in an unusual fashion. Very few verbal instructions were given, except to answer specific questions of devotees. He constantly emanated a silent force that stilled the minds of those attuned to it. In later years, he was willing to impart verbal teachings as the spiritual level of people varied. The silent teachings, however, were meant for those who were able to make good use of them.
WHO AM I ?
The verbal teachings flowed from his direct experience that Consciousness or Self is the only existing reality. Consequently, all his explanations were geared to convince followers that this was their true state. At the highest level, he said, Consciousness alone exists. If this were greeted skeptically, he said that awareness of this truth is obscured by self-limiting concepts of the mind. Letting go of these concepts would result in the truth being revealed. To those who found even this difficult to follow, he prescribed an innovative method of self-enquiry, which he called atma-vichara(asking ‘Who am I?’). A technique regarded as the most distinctive motif in his teachings.
Maharshi said that through self-inquiry, Consciousness could be awakened. When a devotee enquired: “What is the nature of the mind?” Maharshi replied: “The mind is nothing other than the ‘I’ thought. The mind and the ego are one and the same.”
The devotee then asked: “How shall we discover the nature of the mind?” Maharshi explained self-enquiry: “Arranging thoughts in the order of value, the ‘I’ thought is the all-important thought, since each idea or thought arises only as someone’s thought and it is not known to exist independently of the ego. From where does this ‘I’ arise? Seek for it within; it then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom. When the mind unceasingly investigates its own nature, it transpires that there is no such thing as a mind. Get rid of the ‘I’ thought. When ‘I’ ceases to exist, there is no grief and there is peace.”
Maharshi did not prescribe ‘Who am I?’ (vichara) as a formal meditation technique but as an attitude that should quietly permeate daily consciousness. However, he encouraged beginners to sit for formal meditation in the morning and evening so as to continue vichara throughout the waking state. And he added that as one penetrates deeply enough into inquiry, a natural flow happens spontaneously.
His teaching is best exemplified not just in the way he lived, but especially in his death. In 1949 at the age of 70, a tumor was discovered below his left elbow. This was operated several times without anesthesia. Being malignant, the tumor grew at an amazing pace.
When devotees begged him to cure it with his yogic powers, Maharshi replied in the spirit of his teachings: “Who is there to have such a thought? Who is there to will this?” Through suffering great pain, he sought to alleviate the grief of devotees-not the easy way by removing suffering and postponing death, but fundamentally by making them realize that the body was not Maharshi. “They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away, but where would I go? I am here.”
After his death, the body was interred with divine honors in the north wall of the temple at the ashram. A hall of silence has been erected over his samadhi where devotees sit in meditation as they did before the living Ramana.
As the late Arthur Osborne, a close devotee of Maharshi, said: “Even now, those who sit before the samadhi find the grace of Bhagavan as powerful and as sweet and subtle as during his body’s lifetime. Some who lived there have remained. Some who went away, have returned. Many more will come. For according to his promise, he has not left us. He is here in our hearts. He is here at Arunachala.”