Remembering Ramana Maharshi
Sri Ramana Maharshi reclining in the Old Hall where he lived from 1927 to 1950 | Wikimedia
Ramana Maharshi (30 December 1879 – 14 April 1950) was an Indian Hindu sage. He attracted devotees that regarded him as an avatar and came to him for darshan. Some of Ramana Maharshi‘s devotees regarded him to be as Dakshinamurthy, as an avatar of Skanda, a divine form of Shiva popular in Tamil Nadu.
Childhood & Early life
He was born Venkataraman Iyer but is mostly known by the name Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer on 30 December 1879 in Tiruchuzhi, near Aruppukkottai, in Virudhunagar District, Tamil Nadu, India. As the second of four kids, he was raised in a Hindu Brahmin family. He was the son of Sundaram Iyer (1848-1890), from the lineage of Parashara. There were two older brothers, Nagaswami (1877 – 1900) and Nagasundaram (1886 – 1953), and a younger sister, Alamelu (1887 – 1953). His father Sundaram Iyer worked in the court.
Venkataraman liked sports at school. When he was 11, he moved in with an uncle and went to a British school. In 1892, his father, Sundaram, died suddenly. Venkataraman later went to American Mission High School. He was deeply affected by a text that described the lives of Saivite saints he read in 1895. He started going to a temple nearby.
He later described it as a spontaneous experience that resulted in his ego being “lost in the flood of self-awareness”. When he was sitting alone in his uncle’s house that day, a “sudden violent fear of death” overtook him. In a few moments, the 16-year-old realised that “the body dies, but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death”. Suddenly, the fear of death was gone.
His reaction to this vision was to withdraw into himself, avoid company, and visit the temple more often. In September 1896, he set off for Arunachala Hill, taking a train to Tiruvannamalai. He moved to Gurumurtam, a temple nearby, in February 1897. A sadhu named Palaniswami became Ramana’s attendant. Ramana did not care about his physical appearance or well-being, only about meditation and his devotion to God.
His temple at Pavalakkunru in the foothills of Arunachala was built in 1898. His mother and brother came looking for him here, but he remained adamant in his devotion to meditation.
He started living on Arunachala the following year, changing caves before settling in Virupaksha Cave for 17 years.
His devotees and prominent officials started showing up. Among them was Kavyakantha Sri Ganapati Sastri, who proclaimed Ramana as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi after receiving instructions from him. Frank Humphreys was the first westerner to meet Ramana and write about him in an international magazine. After his mother died in 1922, Ramana moved into the ashram built around her tomb.
In the 1930s, the ashram had more visitors, including foreigners. Ramana wrote and spoke about fundamental things like the meaning of the self and how we relate to the world. On the link between perception and reality, he said:
If the mind, which is the cause of all knowledge and all actions, subsides, the perception of the world will cease. [If one perceives a rope, imagining it to be a snake] perception of the rope, which is the substratum, will not occur unless the perception of the snake, which has been superimposed on it, changes. Similarly, the perception of one’s real nature, the substratum, will not be obtained unless the perception of the world, which is a superimposition, ceases.
During a talk in September 1935, he said:
The mind is only a projection from the Self, appearing in the waking state. In deep sleep, you do not say whose son you are and so on. As soon as you wake up you say you are so and so, and recognise the world and so on… That which is seen is…the world. Which is the eye that sees it? That is the ego which rises and sinks periodically. But you exist always. Therefore, that which lies beyond the ego is consciousness — the Self.
In his book Search in Secret India, Paul Brunton described Ramana as “simple and modest” and surrounded by an “authentic greatness.” His fame grew in his final years, but his personal life and habits remained austere. One of his followers Robert Adams, a spiritual guru who was once a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, wrote:
What Ramana revealed was not new. Ramana simply taught the Upanishads. ‘Who am I’ has been around since time immemorial…Ramana simply revised the ‘Who am I’ philosophy and made it simple for people in the 20th century. But what did he teach? He simply taught that you are not the body-mind principle. He simply taught that if you have a problem, do not feel sorry for yourself, do not go to psychiatrists, do not condemn yourself, simply ask yourself, ‘To whom does this problem come?’ And of course, the answer will be, ‘The problem comes to me.’ Hold onto the ‘me’. Follow the ‘me’ to the source, the substratum of all existence.
Ramana was diagnosed with cancer in 1948. Died on 14 April 1950. Devotees and members of his ashram popularized his teachings after he died.