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Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi
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Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, was a great 20th century sage, who lived in South India on the holy hill Arunachala. He went there shortly after his unexpected, spontaneous and sudden enlightenment, at the young age of 16. He lived there until his Mahasamadhi (final conscious release from the body at death) on April 14, 1950, at the age of 71. Dr. Carl G. Jung, the world famous psychologist, once said of him: “In all of India, he is the whitest spot in a white space.”
The following account about him is taken from the booklet “Who Am I?” which itself is a simple, concise statement of his pure Teaching in the form of answers he gave to questions posed by one of his early devotees, and published by Sri Ramanasramam. This is the story of his early and unexpected enlightenment contained in the “Preface” of the booklet.
Copyright © 1990 Sri Ramanasramam. Tiruvannamalai, India:
“In the town of Madurai in South India, on a busy street leading to the beautiful and ancient Meenakshi Temple, stood a humble home. As vendors sold their wares and bullock carts lumbered through the dusty road, a boy of 16 years lay outstretched in a tiny room on the second floor of his uncle’s home. Venkataraman was a seemingly normal Indian boy, fonder of sports and play than study. That day in the middle of July, in the year 1896, he had an unmistakable fear of death. He had not been ill, and there was no logical reason for him to feel this way. It didn’t occur to him to consult with his elders; he was resolved to solve the problem himself, then and there. And indeed he did.
To quote his own words:
“The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inward and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words, ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying?... This body dies.
“I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff, as though ‘rigor mortis’ had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the inquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ nor any other word could be uttered.
“‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is this body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality, and even the voice of “I” within me, apart from it. So I am 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; [rather] 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 that ‘I’.
“From that moment onward, 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 that time on.
“Other thoughts might come and go, like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the [single] fundamental ‘struti’ note [in Indian music] that blends with all the other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centered on ‘I’.
“Previous to that crisis, I had no clear perception of my Self, and was not consciously attracted to it. I felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.” (From Self-Realization p. 21-22)
Six weeks after Sri Bhagavan Ramana realized the true Self he left home, and traveled a few days journey to the town of Tiruvannamalai. Even though he was not an actively practicing Hindu (he was attending a Methodist missionary high school at the time of his enlightenment), he settled there at its ancient and holy Temple – dedicated to Lord Siva (God) – at the foot of the holy hill Tiruvannamalai, or Sri Arunachala (in Sanskrit). This hill in the state of Tamil Nadhu is a famous place of spiritual pilgrimage for pious Hindus throughout Southern India.
On leaving home, he left behind a note saying, “I have gone to meet my Father.” His reference to God as “Father” was evidently from his study of the Bible and love or admiration of Jesus, where Jesus Himself also referred to God as “Father.” Sri Bhagavan’s earthly father had died a few years earlier, and this was his way of telling his relatives why he had left home, even though he did not tell them where he had gone.
Arunachaleswara Temple, Tiruvannamalai, South India
Arriving at the Arunachaleswara Temple at the foot of the holy hill, after going through the customary Hindu purificatory ceremonies, he entered the inner shrine of the main temple and prostrated himself before the Divine Image saying, “Father, I have come.” This was probably from his respect and partially from his family background, since his family members were all Hindus. But his calling God “Father” was evidently from his affinity with Jesus, or the influence of having attended the American Methodist school until the time of his enlightenment, where he was taught and became fairly well versed in both the words and spiritual teaching of Jesus, even though he was never a Christian, per se. Nor did he ever consider himself as a Hindu. He showed respect for all religions, but practiced none. Yet he had members of all religions and those of no religion come to him for his spiritual guidance. He never turned away any sincere seeker.
It was during this sudden and unexpected event in his life – where he became aware of the inevitability of death, and the feeling that it was imminent – that Sri Bhagavan spontaneously made use of Self-Inquiry. It was quite unexpected, unplanned and he was not prepared for it; apparently at least not from anything he had learned in this lifetime.
The fear of death, which arose in him, drove his mind inward, and he chose to deal with it entirely on his own, or for himself, without consulting anyone. And he handled it by simply saying to himself: “Okay, so death has come and is inevitable – just who is it, or what is it that dies?” Then came the intuitional question – not as a thought or idea – but the direct insight and quest to know or understand: “OK, the body dies... but, with the death of the body, am ‘I’ dead, is the body ‘I’?” This direct process of Self-investigation, or Self-inquiry, which he followed one-pointedly in that crucial moment, itself produced his immediate realization of the Supreme Self as being the real and very Self of all.
He had received no significant spiritual training prior to this event, and did not know to use this method of Inquiry from anything he had learned, or from anyone. However, his use of this little known ancient process carries an even greater significance! For, with it, he gave to the world a very important missing ingredient to this ancient method of enlightenment already considered an advanced one. That being, converting into the process of direct Self-realization what is usually only done as a long process of eliminating all that is seen or observed objectively as not-Self, or as “not-I”, “not-I”, etc.; which in Sanskrit is “neti, neti, etc.”
The method, in its ancient known traditional usage, is a negative process, which requires many years of practice, and must occupy all of one’s time and effort to focus attention on what is not the Self, or is outside, separate and different from the Self; but which doesn’t always give realization of the Self, for it still requires the mind in order to do the process, and which therefore only reinforces the mind.
Sri Bhagavan’s method of “Who am I?” directs the full attention entirely subjectively onto the Self, rather than on the mind and what is objective and not the Self. With awareness poised in Self-Attention or Self-Abidance, the not-self naturally dissolves through lack of use, much like a plant that is not watered will eventually wilt, wither and die. Or, like a flame that is not given fuel will eventually go out or be extinguished.
In the traditional or ancient method, it formerly meant the aspirant usually had to withdraw from the world, and go to some place isolated like the forest, or live on a mountain or in a cave in seclusion in order to continue with his spiritual practice. But, Sri Bhagavan’s form of Inquiry, as “Who am I?” means that the method of Self-Inquiry is now available and very useful even for modern man, such as for anyone living an active Western lifestyle.
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