What is Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi’s uniqueness amid Hindu spiritual masters?
Ramana Maharshi was a true gyani – the knower of self. He was a jivan mukta – one who attained liberation even when he was alive. For his bhaktas who adored him as God, he was an Avatara Purusha – God descended in human form, though for Ramana, as a true Gnyani, the idea of avatar was of least significance. For him everything existing is verily the Self (atman).
Ramana’s philosophy reaches out to all segments of spiritual seekers irrespective of their religious moorings. Ramana attained his liberation purely by a simple self-inquiry “Who am I?” It is this simple self-inquiry technique that he preached to all spiritual seekers too. Am I the body? Am I the mind? Am I the intellect? This body perishes. This mind always seems to be wandering aimlessly. The intellect gets confused by contradictions. But behind all this, “I” exist. That “I” exists when I am awake, when I sleep with dreams and when I sleep deep without dreams. Even when I sleep like a log without any bodily conscience, this “I”, though not ascertaining its presence at that time, is very much there, it understood its natural blissful state, to declare when awake saying “I slept so blissfully”.
It is this “I” that Ramana wants everyone to identify. One who has grasped the true nature of that “I” knows Self (Atman). It is none other than the all pervasive Brahaman, that Upanishads talk of. You are that – “Tat twam asi” One who truly experienced it, states by virtue of his personal attainment, “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman). In Ramana’s scheme of things, there is really no need of any personal God for worship. No need of names and forms. No chanting of mantras. No need of worship. No need of accepting Jesus Christ and the holy trinity. No need to worship in the direction of Mecca and Madina. But Ramana acknowledges the fact that such religious and spiritual practices, widely practiced by many, have their utility in purifying the mind and aiding progress in the spiritual path, “the path of self-inquiry is straight” in his opinion and experience.
No wonder Ramana’s philosophy, which was none other than the ancient Hindu philosophy of Advaita, was lapped up by spiritually earnest seekers, who had their disinclination towards formal and institutionalized form of religions and worships.
Birth and early years
Venkataraman (later Sri Ramana Maharshi) was born on December 30, 1879 at Tiruchuzhi, a small village in Tamil Nadu, some thirty miles off Madurai to Sundaram Ayyar and Alagamma. He was the second child. He had one elder brother and one younger brother and a younger sister.
When Venkataraman was twelve, Sundaram Ayyar died. He and his elder brother were sent to live with their paternal uncle, Subbier, at Madurai. Here, Venkataraman studied upto ninth standard. He was an average student, but had a good memory. He was much interested in sports.
In his boyhood years Venkataraman was prone to abnormally deep sleep. He could not be easily awakened from his sleep.
His Spiritual Awakening
An elderly relative who visited their house mentioned 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 more from the relative the whereabouts of Arunachala and his inexpicable curiosity and awe over the place increased.
A little later, young Venkataraman came across a copy of the Periapuranam, which contains stories of sixty-three Tamil saints who received Lord Siva’s grace and vision by their exemplary devotion. As Venkataraman read the book, he was overwhelmed with ecstatic wonder that such deep faith, and bhakti was ever possible in him too.
Sometime in the middle of July 1896, when he was just sixteen and a half years old, Venkataraman realized the Self in a totally unexpected and miraculous manner. Years later, he explained to his devotees what happened that day 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 dramatized 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. and I am perceiving it now without any doubt. That means I am the deathless Atman.’”
Venkataraman seemed to fall into a profound conscious trance wherein he became merged into the very source of his Self, the very essence of Being.
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. 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.”
Leaving for Arunachala – once for all
Venkataraman’s uncle and elder brother noticed the nonchalant behavior of Venkataraman and were critical about it. Then came the tangible turning point 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 and meaningless of such an exercise stuck him; he pushed the notebooks aside and sitting cross-legged, abandoned himself to meditation.
His elder brother Nagaswamy who was watching this, scolded him for behaving like a yogi while still staying in the family and pretending to study. “Yes”, thought Venkataraman, “What business do I have 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 mystic hill Arunachala himself.
Venkataraman knew that without a little lie, he would not be allowed to escape from home. 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 still preserved), he wrote in Tamil:
“ நான் என் தகப்பனாரைத் தேடிக் கொண்டு, அவருடைய உத்தரவின்படி இவ்விடத்தை விட்டுக் கிளம்பி விட்டேன். இது நல்ல காரியத்தில் தான் பிரவேசித்திருக்கிறது. ஆகையால் இதற்காக யாரொருவரும் விசனப்பட வேண்டாம். இதைப் பார்ப்பதற்காக பணமும் செலவு செய்ய வேண்டாம். உன் சம்பளத்தை இன்னும் செலுத்தவில்லை. ரூ. 2 இதோடு கூட இருக்கிறது.
“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.
The way this letter had been written has its own significance – 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.
Venkataraman reached Tiruvannamalai in a journey involving two trains, a long walk and a couple of trials and tribulations en route on the early morning of September 1, 1896. He went straight to the great Arunachaleswara temple and stood before his Father. His cup of bliss was now full to the brim with inexplicable surge of bliss. The journey’s end, and his homecoming at last.
Immersed in the trance of divine bliss
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 without any concern about his body, the need for food or drinking.
Local urchins thought he was a madman and started throwing stones at him wherever he was in the temple complex. To escape from their teasing, the young ascetic 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.
Seshadri Swamigal who was a well known saint and a resident of Thiruvannamalai recognized the young ascetic’s spiritual status and soon words spread about the missing young brahmin Swamy. 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 forcefully fed with a glass of milk obtained after doing abhishekam to the divine Mother’s deity or a few morsels of cooked rice.
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.
About this time, a Malayalee sadhu named Palaniswami, living in great austerity, was devoting his life to the worship of Lord Vinayaka. He came to know of the Brahmin ascetic and as he saw the Swami for the first time, he was stirred to his depths and had discovered his saviour. He devoted the remaining twenty-one years of his life serving the Maharshi as his attendant.
Very slowly and unwillingly, Venkataraman started responding to the prodding of his devotees and aftair their persistent efforts, he wrote his name ‘Venkataraman, Tiruchuzhi’ in English. His knowledge of English came as a surprise. He became well known as Brahmana Swamy in Thiruvannamalai town.
In search of the missing Boy
In the meantime, Venkataraman’s relatives were making anxious enquiries and searches at various places, but he could not be traced in the next couple of years. Finally, hearing about a famous young brahmin Swamy at Thiruvannamalai, his paternal Uncle Nelliappa Iyer came to Thiruvannamalai. At first he could not identify him, as the young Swami was with long matted hair, beard and totally unkempt remaining with just a loin cloth. But later, confirming with his birth marks, he pleaded in vain for the Swami’s return and then left for Madurai empty-handed.
After sometime, the young Swami began to reside at the Pavalakunru shrine on the Arunachala hill, his mother Alagamma came and met her son. 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. Based on repeated appeals by devotees to communicate something to his mother, Brahmana swami wrote in Tamil:
“அவரவர் பிராரப்தப் பிரகாரம் அதற்கானவன் ஆங்காங்கிருந்து ஆட்டுவிப்பன். என்றும் நடவாதது என் முயற்சிக்கினும் நடவாது; நடப்பது என் தடை செய்யினும் நில்லாது. இதுவே திண்ணம். ஆதலின் மெளனமாயிருக்கை நன்று.”
“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.”
His mother too had to return dejected, but she was later quite determined to live with her saintly son. Future events unfolded towards her will.
Shifting to Virupaksha cave
Early in 1899, the young ascetic, accompanied by his attendant Palaniswami took up his residence in the Virupaksha Cave, a cave situated behind a solid rock en route to the top of Arunachala hill. He stayed in this cave for the next 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 of hardly any facilities had come into being at the cave. The young swamy gradually started speaking a few words to his devotees. Curious and sincere seekers like Palaniswamy brought spiritual books from the local library and started reading them in front of the swamy and demanding his explanations for their doubts.
It was then that the young swamy really came across formal scriptures like Upanishads and other Vedantic scripts in Tamil. It was rather surprising to them that whatever spiritual experiences he personally had were being mentioned in the scriptures!
Some time during the year 1912, Brahmana Swamy had a second experience of confronting death. This time, it was not an imagined one, but a real death experience when his heart beat stopped totally and his skin turned blue. He remained in that state for about 15 minutes, totally conscious of his unchangeable status as Atman. In a way, it can be said that this second death experience confirmed his unshakable status of Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi. After this experience, The Brahmana Swamy’s life became more normal and his interaction communication with his devotees became much freer and easier.
Some Early Devotees
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 in Tamil on a slate. These were later expanded and arranged in a book form “நானார்?” Who am I? This is perhaps the most concise and most widely appreciated prose exposition of the Maharshi’s philosophy, given by the Maharshi at his age of 23, which got widely published much later, in the year 1923. Ramana’s another devotee Sri Gambhiram Seshayya too jotted down Sri Ramana’s answers to his queries sometime during 1900-02 and got it published much later as booklet titled “விசார சங்கிரகம்” (Self inquiry) in the year 1930.
The teachings contained in these 2 small small books remained authentic, needing no future revisions by Bhagvan. In his long life spanning 71 years, Sri Ramana wrote so many other poetic works in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Sanskrit, but this Tamil prose version still remained the basic teaching that found more exposition in those future works.
Kavyakanda Ganapati Muni , a renowned Sanskrit scholar and poet, was another devotee (much elder in age to Sri Ramana) who visited the Swami from 1903 onwards and accepted him as his guru in 1907. It was who who christened the name Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi to his Guru. He sang of him as an incarnation of Lord Subrahmanya (Muruga). The Maharishi’s answers to the questions put by the Muni and his disciples, largely constitute the well-known work Ramana Gita in Sanskrit.
The earliest Western seeker to come under the Swami’s influence (in 1911) was F.H. Humphreys.
Several householder devotees started taking care of Sri Ramana by offering food. Echammal and Alakaraththammal (Mudaliar patti) were two ardent lady devotees of Ramana who started sending food to him to Virupaksha cave and their dedicated service of offering food to Bhagwan continued uninterrupted for almost 50 years!
Evolution of Ramana, the poet
‘The knower of Self becomes the knower of all’ — so goes the saying.
It was during the years in Virupakshi cave that the hitherto unknown face of Sri Ramana — as a mystic poet, came to the fore. Some of the devotees who came to Ramana were Tamil scholars. By way of association with him and by the exposure he got into the poetic devotional works like Thevaram and Thiruvasagam and also Vedanta Tamil texts like Kaivalya Navaneetam etc through the books brought by his devotees, Bhagwan Ramana got an irresistible inner urge to pour out his supreme knowledge in the form of poems.
Sri Ramana wrote the Tamil poetic works Arunachala Pathikam and Arunachala Ashtakam, praising the glory of the Arunachala Hill. (Related reading —> Bhagwan Ramana’s attraction towards Arunachala Hill)
Several earnest devotees started staying with him and they used to go begging for food at the town once a day. They requested for an exclusive song to be sung by them as a sign of identification with Sri Ramana when they go around begging at the streets. During one of the Girivalam (circumambulation of Arunachala), Bhagwan composed Akshara mana Maalai song. It was a wonderful piece of poetry, written in devotional Nayaki Bhava (as if a woman expressing her love towards her sweet heart) containing the yearning of Jivatma towards Paramatma (represented by Arunachala Hill) for union. Despite being a Jyani par excellence, Sri Ramana’s tender heart brimmed with emotional bhakti too when he composed Aksharamana Malai as he revealed to his devotees in later years how he was overwhelmed with tears of divine love flowing from his eyes and his throat choking with uncontrollable emotions when he composed those songs.
Ramana’s later poetic works in Tamil covered உபதேச உந்தியார், உள்ளது நாற்பது, உள்ளது நாற்பது அனுபந்தம், தக்ஷிணாமூர்த்தி ஸ்தோத்ரம், பகவத் கீதா சாரம், அத்தாமலகம், அருணாசல நவமணி மாலை, ஆன்ம வித்தை, அப்பளப்பாட்டு (Upadesa Undhiyaar, Ullathu Narpathu, Ullathu narpathu anubhandam, Dhakshinamoorthy sthothram, Bhagavad Gita saaram, Hasthamalakam, Arunachala nava mani malai, Anma vidyai, Appala paattu etc) etc. Ramana’s ardent devotee and a great Tamil Scholar Muruganar was in a way instrumental in goading Bhagwan Ramana to write many of the later poetic works in Tamil.
Through the association with Ganapathi Sasthri, Ramana picked up sanskrit. Likewise by the association with Telugu and Malayalam devotees, Ramana quickly mastered the nuances of these languages and became adept in even writing poetry in these languages. Yielding to appeal of these devotees, Bhabwan Ramana translated many of his Tamil works to corresponding poetic works in Telugu and Malayalam too.
His mother’s arrival and stay
During 1914, Alagammal, Ramana’s mother came again to see her son, on her way back from a pilgrimage to Tirupathi. Alagammal fell seriously ill at that time and Ramana took care of her; he fervently prayed to Arunachala for mother’s recovery and composed 4 songs of prayer. His mother soon recovered and went back to live with her other sons.
A little later after his mother’s arrival, Ramana’s younger brother Nagasundaram, who lost his wife at early age took up renunciation (with a monostic name Niranjanananda) and he too arrived at Thiruvannamalai to live with his saint brother. With a few sadhus already staying with Ramana permanently and with the arrival of the mother and brother, Virupaksha cave which was very small in size became rather over-crowded and there came a need for a bigger ashram.
Shifting to Skandashram
Further up in the hill from Virupaksha cave, there was a natural spring that gave water perennially right throughout the year. Ramana’s ardent devotee Kandasamy took up a great task of levelling a small plot of land in the hilly slopes adjacent to the spring, planted several trees and then with herculean efforts built a small tiled brick building to serve as the new ashram. To acknowledge Kandaswamy’s efforts, Ramana named the ashram “Skandashram” and shifted to that place along with all his companions in the year 1916.
During 1922 after leading a life of strict austerity under her son for 6 years in Skandashram, mother Alagammal became seriously ill with no signs of recovery in the year 1922. Ramana nursed her with utmost care but he was resigned to the fact that her life was nearing end. During her final hours when she was breathing heavily, Ramana sat next to her, put one hand on her chest and another hand on her head. Ramana was determined to grant her moksha and he subdued all her vasanas that ebbed from her heart as her prana was attempting to get released from her body. Finally Ramana ensured that her soul dissolved in her heart without the scope of escaping through any of the openings of her body and granted her samadhi.
He stood up and declared the fact that there was no need to follow the customary acharas (like not eating food when there is a dead body) as his mother had attained liberation from birth/ death cycle and asked everyone to take their food.
Alagammal’s body was taken down hills and was buried at the foot hills and a Shiva Linga (Matrubhuteswar) was established at the place of burial (adjacent to a water tank called pali thirtham) as per norms followed for those who attained samadhi. Minimal ritualistic worship of the Matrubhuteswar lingam was getting carried out by Niranjananantha for a while by visiting from Skandasram daily.
A few months later, one early morning Sri Ramana visited mother’s samadhi down hills and he opted to remain there without returning to Skandasram. It happened by the end of December 1922.
The establishment of Ramanashramam adjacent to the mother’s samadhi began in the form of a thatched hut. (See picture).
Ramanashramam was growing slowly and steadily as more and more spiritually earnest people started coming to meet Sri Ramana and many of them started staying in and around the ashram. One of Ramana’s prime disciples Sri Muruganar, a great Tamil Scholar came and met Bhagwan in the year 1923. He was overwhelmed by Bhagwan’s divinity and within the next few years he came and stayed permanently at Thiruvannamalai.
By the divine influence of Bhagwan, pristine Tamil poetry flowed ceaselessly from the heart of Muruganar. He wrote “Guru Vachaka Kovai” (குரு வாசகக் கோவை) containing the teachings of his guru in poetry form. Inspired by Thiruvachagam, he wrote “Ramana Sannidhi Murai” (ரமண சன்னதி முறை). He had written more than 30,000 Tamil verses in his life.
The disciple in turn, considerably influenced the guru to write more works in Tamil. Bhagwan Ramana wrote Upadesa Saram (உபதேச சாரம்/ உபதேச உந்தியார்) that contained in a nutshell all his teachings, as an extension to a poetic work on a story based on Lord Shiva’s divine play wrote half way by Muruganar, in the year 1927. Later Bhagwan himself translated this work into Malayalam and Telugu. Kavyakanta Ganapathi Shashtri wrote the translation of Upadesa saram in Sanskrit.
Arrival of Paul Brunton & Other western devotees
Paul Brunton (Raphael Hurst) was a curious seeker of Indian mysticism who met Bhagwan Ramana in 1930. He stayed in Ramanashramam for a few days and practiced Self-Inquiry based on Ramana’s teachings and he could get a glimpse of his Self by the grace of Bhagwan. He wrote about Bhagwn in his famous book A Search in Secret India. In a way, this book paved the way for many western and earnest seekers of spirituality to visit Bhagwan.
In later years Major Chadwick (Sadhu Arunachala), Arthur Osborne, SS Cohen, Maurice Frydman, Robert Adams and such westerners became devotees of Ramana and practiced Ramana’s Self-inquiry as a spiritual method for self-realization.
Like a beacon in the sea shore, Bhagwan Ramana stayed put in Thiruvannamalai al through his life (since his arrival to the holy town in the year 1896). Bhagwan’s ardent devotees decided to celebrate the 50th year (Golden Jubilee) of Bhagwan’s arrival to Arunachala on 1st September 1946). Ramana’s devotees from across the country including several dignitaries participated in the grand function.
The ashram grew gradually into brick and mortar buildings. In the year 1939, Bhagwan laid the foundation stone for constructing Matrubuteshwar Temple at the samadhi of his mother. It took 10 years of yeomen efforts by Swami Niranjanananda to bring the temple to a compact and yet beautiful shape. The consecration ceremony (Maha Kumbhabishekam) of the temple took place in a grand scale in the year 1949. A granite Shree Chakra Meru was established behind the Lingam in the temple as per Sri Vidya Tantra shatras and Sri Bhagwan sanctified it by touching it by his hand before consecration.
The cancerous Tumor and the End — “Where can I go? I will be here”
By the end of year 1948, a small tumor appeared at the left elbow of Bhagwan Ramana. The Ashram doctor decided to cut and remove it. After a few days, the tumor appeared again. Surgeons from Madras were called and it was removed by operation again. But as the tumor resurfaced, every one got alarmed. It was causing considerable pain but Bhagwan did not seem to mind it. Soon it was diagnosed as Sarcoma. A couple of operations were followed and Bhagwan remained just a witness to all the suffering allowing the doctors to do their duty in their own limited judgement. The malignant tumor at one stage grew and looked like a small cauliflower and oozed lot of blood. Bhagwan’s body was going weaker by the day. Bhagwan allowed other types of treatment like Ayurveda, Unani, Homeopathy and so on done onto him by experts from the respective fields but to no avail.
Devotees shed tears to see Ramana’s physical body suffering but they were at a loss what to do further. Bhagwan stoutly refused a suggestion to amputate his left arm. He said, ” “They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent the Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away — where can he go, and how?”
Despite all the physical suffering and the efforts of his associates to give him seclusion from the disturbances of visiting devotees , Bhagwan insisted that all those who are thronging to see him be allowed to have his darshan. Bhagwan’s eyes were glowing like powerful lamps while his body was undergoing pain and suffering beyond measure. He continued to glance and bless his devotees as they queued up and passed one by one by having a last glimpse outside the entrance of his room.
Finally, Bhagvan breathed his last at 8:47 PM on 14th of April 1950. At that very moment, a comet moved slowly across the sky, reached the summit, of the holy hill, Arunachala, and disappeared behind it.
A Documentary film on Bhagwan Ramanamahasrhi from the Archives of Ramanashramam