1895. Venkataraman was about 16 years then. The studies did not interest him. Most of the time, he remained in contemplation. He found happiness only while standing before the image of Meenakshi temple at Madurai. He was moved while reading the works of Saivite saints. Then he had an unusual experience with death. While sitting in his uncle’s house, suddenly, he felt he was going to die. The fear of death prompted him to enquire what death is all about. He questioned himself “What happens when death comes knocking at your door? What is it that dies?’ He then lied down imagining himself dead. He held his breath, kept his mouth shut, pressed his lips tight and considered himself a corpse. He even visualized his body being carried to crematorium and burned. He then pondered the question: “With the death of the body, am “I” dead? Is the body “I”? This body is silent and inert. But I am still aware of the full force of my personality and I could even hear the sound of “I” within myself. It was that current or force that constituted my Self and kept me acting and moving. The body may be burnt and turned to ashes but I will not become extinct because I am not the body. I am the deathless spirit, the indestructible conscious entity” The focus of his attention then turned on “I”. The fear of death had vanished because, absorbed into Self, he became aware that there is no death to Self. After the experiment with death, the external world lost all its relevance to Venkataraman. He remained withdrawn to himself. When he heard his relation mentioning the name ‘Arunachala’, the very name ‘Arunachala’ made profound influence on him. He felt Lord Arunachala was beckoning him. One fine morning, he wrote a note stating that he was leaving and nobody needs to search for him. He left the note in a prominent place, went to the station, bought a ticket with the money he was supposed to give as fee. Overcoming many obstacles, he reached Tiruvannamalai, went straight inside the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Arunachala and embraced the Lord. He then emerged from the temple as a realized saint. It happened on the 1st first September 1896. It was he who gave the answer to the world’s cry for liberation. He has renounced everything which the modern world held as highly valuable. He was what the world has come to know as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
He explained his experience in his Arunachala Ashtagam thus: “As I saw Lord Arunachala, my mind turned inward and I saw Him within. Elated, I asked myself “whom I saw?” I realized that I saw my own ‘Self’, my Atma. How can I describe that which is indescribable? It can only be experienced. “Oh! Arunachala, this is what you taught me in silence”, he said in one of his songs later. After the death experience, he was all along feeling a light heat passing through his body. Even his mind was under some stress. Now, after having surrendered, he felt light, transcended from the domain of body and mind.
“Atman is like a powerful magnet. Hiding itself in the recess of the heart, it slowly draws the individual towards it”, he said. “The individual feels as if he is striving to seek the Atman while in fact it is the Atman within that draws the individual towards it. As the individual reaches near it, the magnet (Atman) restricts his worldly activities, makes him still and conscious. As the proximity increases, the magnet (Atman) completely submerges the individual. Thus, the individuality of the Jiva ceases to exist. He becomes conscious of it and overwhelmed by such experience, he attains the state of Samadhi. Actually, the individual Jiva is like the needle caught by the power of magnet. Our effort at self-knowledge is like a divine magnetic action. The individual is striving to reach only up to the sphere where the magnetic force extends. Once he reaches there, the magnetic force draws him towards it and integrates him.“ This is what happened to Sri Ramana Maharshi.
The saint remained at the Arunachala temple precincts for some time. From there, he moved over to different places till at last he found a place congenial to his spiritual pursuits. He has chosen Virupaksha cave, located on the eastern slope of the hill, as the ideal ground to contemplate and meditate. He found solace and peace in the serene surroundings here. Most of the time, he was in a state of silence, Samadhi and introspection. “Sometime when I opened my eyes, I found it a day. At some other time, it was night. I never knew when the sun rose or set”, he said. During the period of his stay here, he had totally detached himself from the world and turned within. He was unaware of the existence of body or its needs and remained unresponsive to any external moves. During his stay here, his mother also came to live with him, followed by her youngest son, Nagasundaram. Maharshi stayed here for 17 years, contemplating, meditating, meeting devotees and reading scriptures. “As I studied the sacred books, I found that they were analyzing what I had already felt intuitively,” he said. Though traces of Vedanta and concepts of Upanishads reflected in his teaching, they were only similarities which tallied with his own experience. Later, in 1917, he moved over to a hermitage called Kandasram, located slightly higher the hill. He spoke very few words. The time he has not spoken was more than the time he has spoken. A devotee asked him: “What is that one thing, knowing which all doubts would be cleared?” Maharshi replied: “Know the doubter. If the doubter is known, doubts will not arise”.
Sri Ramana Maharshi became a great source of inspiration. Many people came to him and raised their doubts, fears and sorrows and invariably, his answer was: “Find out who doubts? Who fears? Who is suffering? It is the mind that raises these questions. Calm the mind, go beyond the mind and body and realize your innate essential nature”, he said. He said that body and mind are objects that appear and disappear just like pictures on a screen. They are subject to motions and emotions, but the Self, like the screen, remains still, unmoved. The Self has no thought and no action. It is beyond time and place. It remains like a detached witness. “Once you realize Self, you are on the right path to liberation,” he said.
Many aspirants came to Maharshi with various doubts in their mind but sitting in silence before the saint and having experienced the peace and serenity that radiated from him, all their doubts cleared. Paul Brunton, an accredited journalist from Britain was in quest of spiritual knowledge. He came to India and sought guidance from Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal of Kanchi Mutt who directed him to see Maharshi at Tiruvannammalai. The journalist who was awarded the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy by Roosevelt College, USA, sat cross-legged before Maharshi, waiting for an opportunity to clear the doubts which he had noted down in a piece of paper. There was silence all over. He felt he was falling in the vast expanse of the ocean of silence. While remaining in silence, the whole world became still or non-existent. When the world itself has disappeared, there are no issues, no problems and no doubts. Remaining in silence, Brunton got the message loud and clear that there is nothing to know other than the ‘Self’. Having received the grace of Maharshi, he returned with a sense of fulfillment. He explained his spiritual experience in his book, “A Search into Secret India”. Soon, many westerners started heading towards India with Tiruvannamalai as their ultimate destination.
We get a fair knowledge about Maharshi’s teachings from the advice he has given when he was only 21 years. “The five elements of fire, air, earth, water, space do not constitute my “I”, nor my “Self” is made of the five Jnanendriyas, nor my “I” comprises of five Karmendriyas. The air that forms my breath and creates the energy within is also not “I”. My inner equipments (Antakaranas) do not form part of my “I”. “After I reject all the elements which do not form part of me that which alone remains is the Self. This advice, given by Maharshi to a group of devotees, was brought out in the book form “Who Am I?” by Sri Sivaprakasam Pillai.
Just as the truth of rope is not perceived so long the myth of snake persists in mind, unless the imaginary world is removed from mind, the real ‘Self” is not realized. The very awareness of one’s existence which is expressed as “I AM” is Self-knowledge. A devotee said: “It seems very difficult to attain Self-realization”. Maharshi replied: “There is nothing to realize afresh. Realization is already there. There is never a moment when the Self is not. It is ever present. If it was not present but attainable by some effort, at some time, it is not worth pursuing, because what is got afresh will also disappear as it appeared. What is not natural is not permanent.” “Self is not realized because you are already the Self. It is already there. It is eternally obvious. It is ever present (nityasiddha). It is more intimate than anything,” What is needed is to discard the idea “I am not realized”.
One comes to know and perceives different things, but the first thing that he experiences is his own existence. This experience of ‘being’, expressed as ‘I AM’, is the fundamental experience. It is based on this experience; he gains all other knowledge and gains all other experience. The very sense of ‘being’, ‘existing’ or the awareness of “I AM”, is Self knowledge, but when the individual identifies himself with his body and mind, he forgets his real essential nature (Swarupa). Just as the pure crystal covered with a colored cloth appears colorful, when the concept of body and mind is superimposed on the Self, he does see the light of the Self shining within us. It is to rescue the individual from the delusion, “I am the body” or ‘I am the mind”, Maharshi advised us the ideal way, the path of Self-enquiry (Vichara Marga). It is a process by which the attention shifts from the world outside to the reality of the Self within. This is the process by which one questions “Who Am I? Am I the body? Does the body constitute the Self?” The body is like a corpse when we sleep. The body cannot be the Self because body is insentient, ever changing, and perishable. “Am I the mind”? Mind is only a cluster of thoughts. It is the mind which creates the false notion of ‘I’ (ego). “What constitutes the real ‘me’?” One should keep on questioning the source of ‘I’, eliminate by his own power of reasoning those non-self elements till at last, he finds the real ‘I’ shining as the ever existing reality (Atma). As the questioning continues, he negates those elements which do not constitute his identity and the realization dawns that he is the pure Consciousness, eternal, ever free and supreme (Nitya śuddha, buddha, mukta, swarūpa) . This consciousness which is beyond the body and mind which is beyond time and place is Self-knowledge. If one abides in this state, the ‘I am the body’ idea would disappear. This is the supreme Sadhana.
The teachings of Maharshi are available to us mainly from three sources, from the words he has spoken, from his silence and from his works. Some of the immortal works done by Maharshi are “Naan Yaar?” (“Who Am I?”), “Aksharamana Malai” (Marital garland of letters), “Ullatu Narpadu” (The forty verses of truth) “Upadesa Unthiyar” and “Guruvachaka Kovai”. These are considered as outstanding works that lead to Atma Vidya (knowledge of Self). Going through these verses, a devotee remarked: “He was excellent in eloquence and controlled in speech”. Notable among Maharshi’s disciples are Muruganar, Kavya Kanda Ganapati Muni, Kunju Swami, Sundaresa Iyer, Devaraja Mudaliar, Major A.K. Chadwick, Arthur Osborne and the list goes on and on.
On May 19, 1922, the mother who presented to the world a great spiritual leader bid farewell. The mother’s body was taken down and last rites were performed. A Matrubuteswar shrine also came up over her Samadhi. Soon, Maharshi left Kandasramam, came down and stayed at the thatched shed near the shrine. As more devotees started coming, it became an Ashram and gradually acquired the name “Sri Ramanasramam”.
Maharshi remained in Samadhi, the un-interrupted state of realization. He lived beyond the realm of body or mind. An occasion for leaving the body came in April 1950. It came in the form of a disease. Doctors’ attempt to cure the body illness failed. While devotees were chanting Akshara Mana Malai hymns, the sparkling eyes of Maharshi closed their lids and Maharshi attained Maha Samadhi. There is no death or decay to Maharshi. Kathopanishad says “whoever realizes the Atman becomes free from the agonies of death”. The light that radiated from Maharshi is still illuminating Sri Ramanasramam and surroundings and the grace that emanated from him still guides the devotees all around. Though the seat he used to sit is empty, his invisible presence is felt everywhere. His message of Supreme Self, Atman, continues to reverberate.
Though Maharshi appeared to have lived by speaking, writing and doing several other things, he was, in reality, a Jivan Mukta, totally liberated. Who is a Jivan Mukta? Yoga Vasishta clearly defines the qualities of Jivan Mukta. “Pleasures do not delight him, pains do not distress. He is beyond the mind which produces feelings of likes and dislikes. He rules over his body wisely and does not starve it. He appears to be externally engaged performing action that suits the occasion and speaking words that are appropriate to the circumstance. One may not find any outward difference between a Jivan Mukta and an ignorant person but the real difference lies in the ‘impersonality of the former and the ‘personality’ of the later and in the desirelessness of the former and the multiplicity of desires in the later. Though the Jivan Mukta appears like any other human, doing worldly activities (Vyavahara) deep within, he is beyond activity or inactivity, beyond the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘you’, beyond knowledge and ignorance and always calm, peaceful and in supreme bliss.