Ramana Maharshi (30 December 1879 – 14 April 1950) was an Indian sage and jivanmukta. He was born Venkataraman Iyer, but was and is most commonly known under the name Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
He was born in what is now Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, South India. In 1895 an attraction to the holy hill Arunachala and the 63 Nayanars was aroused in him, and in 1896, at the age of 16, he had a “death-experience” in which he became aware of a “current” or “force” (avesam), which he recognised as his true “I” or Self, and which he later identified with Ishvara. This resulted in a state which he later described as “the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani.” Six weeks later he left his uncle’s home in Madurai, and journeyed to the holy mountain Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai, where he took on the role of a sannyasin and remained for the rest of his life.
He soon attracted devotees who regarded him as an avatar and came to him for darshan (“the sight of God”), and in later years an ashram grew up around him, where visitors received upadesa (“spiritual instruction”) by sitting silently in his company and raising their concerns and questions. Since the 1930s his teachings have been popularised in the west, resulting in worldwide recognition as an enlightened being.
Ramana Maharshi gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices, but recommended self-enquiry as the principal means to remove ignorance and abide in Self-awareness, together with bhakti (devotion) or surrender to the Self.
Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer on 30 December 1879 in the village Tiruchuzhi near Aruppukkottai, Madurai in Tamil Nadu, South India. His birth fell on Arudra Darshanam day, the day of the Sight of Siv. Venkataraman was the second of four children in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family. His father was Sundaram Iyer (1848–1890), from the lineage of Parashara, and his mother was Azhagammal (1864-1922). He had two brothers Nagaswami (1877–1900) and Nagasundaram (1886–1953), along with a younger sister Alamelu (1887-1953). Venkataraman’s father was a court pleader.
Both a paternal uncle of his father and his father’s brother had become sannyasins. According to Osborne, a wandering ascetic who came begging for food at the house of one his forebears and was refused, had once stated that “thenceforth one out of every generation of his descendants would wander and beg his food,” a foreshadowing of the fate of Venkataraman.
Venkataraman’s family belonged to the Smarta denomination, and regular worship of Siva, Vishnu, Ganesa, Surya and Sakti took place in their home. His mother was devotional, reciting the Dakshinamurthy Stotram, an Advaitic hymn to Shiva written by Adi Shankara, and was initiated into the sakti-panchakshari japa, the chanting of the five syllables na-maH-shi-vA-ya, “I bow to Shiva,” the inner self.
When Venkataraman was seven he had his upanayana, the traditional initiation of the three upper varnas into Brahmanical learning and the knowledge of Self. He had a very good memory, being able to recall information after hearing it once, an ability he used to memorise Tamil poems.
Narasimha Swami notes that Venkataraman used to sleep very deeply, not waking up from loud sounds nor even when his body was beaten by others. When he was about twelve years old, he may have experienced deep meditative states spontaneously. In Sri Ramana Vijayam, the Tamil biography that first appeared in the 1920s, narrates about a period a few years before the Self-realisation experience in Madurai:
Some incomplete practice from a past birth was clinging to me. I would be putting attention solely within, forgetting the body. Sometimes I would be sitting in one place, but when I regained normal consciousness and got up, I would notice that I was lying down in a different narrow space
When he was about eleven his father sent him to live with his paternal uncle Subbaiyar in Dindigul as he wanted his sons to be educated in the English language so that they would be eligible to enter government service. Only Tamil was taught at the village school in Tiruchuzhi which he attended for three years. In 1891, when his uncle was transferred to Madurai, Venkataraman and his elder brother Nagaswami moved with him. In Dindigul, Venkataraman attended a Hindu School where English was taught and stayed there for a year.
In 1892, when Venkataraman was 12, his father Sundaram Iyer suddenly fell seriously ill. Sundaram Iyer’s brother and Venkataraman and Nagaswami went to him immediately, but he died within four days, on February 18. Alagammal was left with the four children who ranged in aged from 4 to 14. Paul Brunton recorded what Ramana told him about his response to his father’s death, which may have been a “forerunner” of his awakening four years later
Maharishi told once how he got realization. On the day his father died he felt puzzled and pondered over it, whilst his mother and brothers wept. He thought for hours and after the corpse was cremated he got by analysis to the point of perceiving that it was the ‘I’ which makes the body to see, to run, to walk and to eat. “I know this ‘I’ but my father’s ‘I’ has left the body.”
After his father’s death, the family split up; Venkataraman and Nagaswami stayed with Subbaiyar in Madurai.
See also: Nayanars, Shaiva Siddhanta and History of Shaivism
Venkataraman first attended Scott’s Middle School and then the American Mission High School where he became acquainted with Christianity. According to Sab Jan, a Muslim school friend of Venkataraman, already as a student Venkataraman was very religious:
Every Saturday and Sunday he would go to Tiruparankunram and go round the Subramania Swamy Temple with fervent religious ecstasy. He used to take me several times with him and make me go around the temple saying, ‘God’s creation is alike and there is no difference in creation. God is the same, the apparent differences in Gods are created by man’. In the company of Venkataraman I never felt any difference between a mosque and the Subramania Swamy temple.
In November 1895 Venkataraman realized that Arunachala, the sacred mountain, was a real place. He had known of its existence from an early age on, and was overwhelmed by the realisation that it really existed. During this time he also read Sekkizhar’s Periyapuranam, a book that describes the lives of the 63 Nayanars, Tamil Saivite bhakti saints, which “made a great impression” on him,and revealed to him that “Divine Union” is possible According to Osborne, a new current of awareness started to awaken during his visits to the Meenakshi Temple at Madura, “a state of blissful consciousness transcending both the physical and mental plane and yet compatible with full use of the physical and mental faculties.”
According to Osborne, this new current of awareness culminated in awakening. According to Narasimha Swami, in July 1896, at age 16, a sudden fear of death befell him. He was struck by “a flash of excitement” or “heat,” like some avesam, a “current” or “force” that seemed to possess him, and he initiated a process of self-enquiry asking himself what it is that dies. He concluded that the body dies, but that this “current” or “force” remains alive, and recognised this “current” or “force” as his Self, which he later identified with “the personal God, or Iswara.”
Various accounts of this event can be found. The best-known was published by Narasimha Swami in Self Realisation, the biography of Ramana Maharshi published in 1931. Another, somewhat different account of this event is given in the Sri Ramana Leela, the Telugu biography of Ramana that was written by Krishna Bhikshu and published in 1936. According to David Godman, yet another account is given by Ramana in Vichara Sangraham . At 22 November 1945 he also told about his death-experience to a Bengali Swami. Two accounts of this narrative exist, which slightly differ. Devaraja Mudaliar mentions the arising of a “power” or “force:”
Later in the morning, at Rishikesananda’s request, Bhagavan recounted his first experience of the Self in his upstairs room at Madura. ‘When I lay down with limbs outstretched and mentally enacted the death scene and realised that the body would be taken and cremated and yet I would live, some force, call it atmic power or anything else, rose within me and took possession of me. With that, I was reborn and I became a new man. I became indifferent to everything afterwards, having neither likes nor dislikes.’
Another visitor also narrated this event, though she could only hear the following part, and uses the term “aham sphurana”:
In the vision of death, though all the senses were benumbed, the aham sphurana (Self-awareness) was clearly evident, and so I realised that it was that awareness that we call “I”, and not the body. This Self-awareness never decays. It is unrelated to anything. It is Self-luminous. Even if this body is burnt, it will not be affected. Hence, I realised on that very day so clearly that that was “I”.
In one of his rare written comments on this process Ramana Maharshi himself wrote:
Enquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving That alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see.
Later in life, he called his death experience akrama mukti, “sudden liberation”, as opposed to the krama mukti, “gradual liberation” as in the Vedanta path of jnana yoga. It resulted in a state of mind which he later described as “the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani:”
After reading the language of the sacred books, I see it may be termed suddha manas, akhandakara vritti , prajna etc.; that is, the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani.
After this event, he lost interest in school studies, friends, and relations. He was absent-minded at school, “imagining and expecting God would suddenly drop down from Heaven before me.” Avoiding company, he preferred to sit alone, absorbed in concentration on this current or force, and went daily to the Meenakshi Temple, ecstatically devoted to the images of the 63 Nayanars and of Nataraja, wanting “the same grace as was shown to those saints,” praying that he “should have the same bhakti that they had” and ” that God should give me the same grace He gave to those saints”. Venkataraman’s elder brother, Nagaswami, was aware of a great change in him and on several occasions rebuked him for his detachment from all that was going on around him. About six weeks after Venkataraman’s absorption into the current or force, on 29 August 1896, he was attempting to complete a homework assignment which had been given to him by his English teacher for indifference in his studies. Suddenly Venkataraman tossed aside the book and turned inward in meditation. His elder brother rebuked him again, asking, “What use is all this to one who is like this?”, referring to his behaviour as a sadhu.
Knowing his family would not permit him to become a sanyassin and leave home, Venkataraman slipped away, telling his brother he needed to attend a special class at school. His brother had asked him to take five rupees and pay his college fees on his way to class. Venkataraman took out an atlas, calculated the cost of his journey, took three rupees and left the remaining two with a note which read:
I have set out in quest of my Father in accordance with his command. This (meaning his person) has only embarked on a virtuous enterprise. Therefore, no one need grieve over this act. And no money need be spent in search of this. Your college fee has not been paid. Herewith rupees two.
Venkataraman boarded a train on 1 September 1896 and traveled to Tiruvannamalai where he remained for the rest of his life.
Upon arriving in Tiruvannamalai, Maharshi went to the temple of Arunachaleswara. The first few weeks he spent in the thousand-pillared hall, then shifted to other spots in the temple and eventually to the Patala-lingam vault so that he might remain undisturbed. There, he spent days absorbed in such deep samādhi that he was unaware of the bites of vermin and pests. Seshadri Swamigal, a local saint, discovered him in the underground vault and tried to protect him. After about six weeks in the Patala-lingam, he was carried out and cleaned up. For the next two months he stayed in the Subramanya Shrine, so unaware of his body and surroundings that food had to be placed in his mouth or he would have starved.
In February 1897, six months after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai, Ramana moved to Gurumurtam, a temple about a mile from Tiruvannamalai. Shortly after his arrival a sadhu named Palaniswami went to see him. Palaniswami’s first darshan left him filled with peace and bliss, and from that time on he served Ramana as his permanent attendant. From Gurumurtam to Virupaksha Cave (1899–1916) to Skandasramam Cave (1916–22), he took care of Ramana. Besides physical protection, Palaniswami would also beg for alms, cook and prepare meals for himself and Ramana, and care for him as needed. In May 1898 Ramana and Palaniswami moved to a mango orchard next to Gurumurtam.
Osborne wrote that during this time Ramana completely neglected his body. He also ignored the ants which bit him incessantly Gradually, despite Ramana’s desire for privacy, he attracted attention from visitors who admired his silence and austerities, bringing offerings and singing praises. Eventually a bamboo fence was built to protect him
While living at Gurumurtam temple his family discovered his whereabouts. First his uncle Nelliappa Iyer came and pleaded with him to return home, promising that the family would not disturb his ascetic life. Ramana sat motionless and eventually his uncle gave up
In September, 1898 Ramana moved to the Shiva-temple at Pavalakkunru, one of the eastern spurs of Arunachala. His mother and brother Nagaswami found him there in December, 1898. Day after day, his mother begged him to return but no amount of weeping and pleading had any visible effect on him. She appealed to the devotees who had gathered around, trying to get them to intervene on her behalf, until one requested that Ramana write out his response to his mother.
At this point his deeply saddened mother returned to Madurai.
Soon after this, in February 1899, Ramana left the foothills to live on Arunachala itself. He stayed briefly in Satguru Cave and Guhu Namasivaya Cave before taking up residence at Virupaksha Cave for the next 17 years, using Mango Tree cave during the summers, except for a six-month period at Pachaiamman Koil during the plague epidemic.
In 1902, a government official named Sivaprakasam Pillai, with writing slate in hand, visited the young Swami in the hope of obtaining answers to questions about “How to know one’s true identity”. The fourteen questions put to the young Swami and his answers were Ramana’s first teachings on Self-enquiry, the method for which he became widely known, and were eventually published as ‘Nan Yar?’, or in English, ‘Who am I?’
Many visitors came to him and some became his devotees. Kavyakantha Sri Ganapati Sastri, a Vedic scholar of repute in his age with a deep knowledge of the Srutis, Sastras, Tantras, Yoga, and Agama systems, but lacked the personal darshan of Shiva, came to visit Ramana in 1907. After receiving upadesa from him on self-enquiry, he proclaimed him as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Ramana was known by this name from then on. Ganapati Sastri passed on these instructions to his own students, but later in life confessed that he had never been able to achieve permanent Self-abidance. Nevertheless, he was highly valued by Ramana Maharshi and played an important role in his life.
In 1911 the first westerner, Frank Humphreys, then a policeman stationed in India, discovered Ramana and wrote articles about him which were first published in The International Psychic Gazette in 1913.
In an appendix to Self realisation Narahamsi wrote that in 1912, while in the company of disciples, his vision was suddenly impaired three times by a “white bright curtain” which covered a part of his vision. At the third instance his vision was shut out completely, while his “head was swimming,” and he felt his heart stop beathing and his breating seizing, while his skin turned blue, as if he was dead. This lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes, whereafter “a shock passed suddenly through the body,” and his blood circulation and his respiration returned. In response to “strange accounts” about this event, he later said that it was a fit, which he used to have occasionally, and did not bring on himself. According to Osborne, it “marked the final completion of Sri Bhagavan’s return to full outer normality.
In 1916 his mother Alagammal and younger brother Nagasundaram joined Ramana at Tiruvannamalai and followed him when he moved to the larger Skandashram Cave, where Bhagavan lived until the end of 1922. His mother took up the life of a sannyasin and Ramana began to give her intense, personal instruction, while she took charge of the Ashram kitchen. Ramana’s younger brother, Nagasundaram, then became a sannyasi, assuming the name Niranjanananda, becoming known as Chinnaswami (the younger Swami).
During this period, Ramana composed The Five Hymns to Arunachala, his magnum opus in devotional lyric poetry. The first hymn is Akshara Mana Malai. It was composed in Tamil in response to the request of a devotee for a song to be sung while wandering in the town for alms. The Marital Garland tells in glowing symbolism of the love and union between the human soul and God, expressing the attitude of the soul that still aspires.
Beginning in 1920, his mother’s health deteriorated. On the day of her death, 19 May 1922, at about 8 a.m., Ramana sat beside her. It is reported that throughout the day, he had his right hand on her heart, on the right side of the chest, and his left hand on her head, until her death around 8:00 p.m., when Ramana pronounced her liberated, literally, ‘Adangi Vittadu, Addakam’ (‘absorbed’). Later Ramana said of this: “You see, birth experiences are mental. Thinking is also like that, depending on sanskaras (tendencies). Mother was made to undergo all her future births in a comparatively short time.”Her body was enshrined in a samadhi, on top of which a Siva lingam was installed and given the name Matrbhuteshwara, Shiva manifesting as mother. To commemorate the anniversary of Ramana Maharshi’s mother’s death, a puja, known as her Aradhana or Mahapooja, is performed every year at the Matrbhuteshwara.
From 1922 till his death in 1950 Ramana lived in Sri Ramanasramam, the ashram that developed around his mother’s tomb. Ramana often walked from Skandashram to his mother’s tomb. In December 1922 he didn’t return to Skandashram, and settled at the base of the Hill, and Sri Ramanasramam started to develop. At first, there was only one hut at the samadhi, but in 1924 two huts, one opposite the samadhi and the other to the north, were erected. The so-called Old Hall was built in 1928. Ramana lived here until 1949.
Sri Ramanasramam grew to include a library, hospital, post-office and many other facilities. Ramana displayed a natural talent for planning building projects. Annamalai Swami gave detailed accounts of this in his reminiscences. Until 1938, Annamalai Swami was entrusted with the task of supervising the projects and received his instructions from Ramana directly.
Sri Ramana led a modest and renunciate life. However, according to David Godman, who has written extensively about Ramana, a popular image of him as a person who spent most of his time doing nothing except silently sitting in samadhi is highly inaccurate. From the period when an Ashram began to rise around him, after his mother arrived, until his later years when his health failed, Ramana was actually quite active in Ashram activities such as cooking and stitching leaf plates.
Discovery by westerners (1930-1940)
In 1931 a biography of Ramana Maharshi, Self Realisation: The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, written by B. V. Narasimha, was published. Ramana then became relatively well known in and out of India after 1934 when Paul Brunton, having first visited Ramana in January 1931, published the book A Search in Secret India. In this book he described how he was compelled by the Paramacharya of Kanchi to meet Ramana Maharshi, his meeting with Ramana Maharshi, and the effect this meeting had on him. Brunton also describes how Ramana’s fame had spread, “so that pilgrims to the temple were often induced to go up the hill and see him before they returned home”, and the talks Ramana had with a great variety of visitors and devotees. Brunton calls Ramana “one of the last of India’s spiritual supermen”, and describes his affection toward Ramana:
I like him greatly because he is so simple and modest, when an atmosphere of authentic greatness lies so palpably around him; because he makes no claims to occult powers and hierophantic knowledge to impress the mystery loving nature of his countrymen; and because he is so totally without any traces of pretension that he strongly resists every effort to canonize him during his lifetime.
While staying at Sri Ramanasramam, Brunton had an experience of a “sublimely all-embracing” awareness, a “Moment of Illumination”. The book was a best-seller, and introduced Ramana Maharshi to a wider audience in the west. Resulting visitors included Paramahansa Yogananda, Somerset Maugham (whose 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge models its spiritual guru after Ramana), Mercedes de Acosta and Arthur Osborne, the last of whom was the first editor of Mountain Path in 1964, the magazine published by Ramanashram.
Sri Ramana Maharshi Mahanirvana in Ramanasramam
In November 1948, a tiny cancerous lump was found on Ramana’s arm and was removed in February 1949 by the ashram’s doctor. Soon, another growth appeared and another operation was done by an eminent surgeon in March 1949 with radium applied. The doctor told Ramana that a complete amputation of the arm to the shoulder was required to save his life, but he refused. A third and fourth operation were performed in August and December 1949, but only weakened him. Other systems of medicine were then tried; all proved fruitless and were stopped by the end of March when devotees gave up all hope. To devotees who begged him to cure himself for the sake of his followers, Ramana is said to have replied, “Why are you so attached to this body? Let it go” and “Where can I go? I am here.” By April 1950, Ramana was too weak to go to the hall and visiting hours were limited. Visitors would file past the small room where he spent his final days to get one final glimpse. He died at 14 April 1950 8:47 p.m.. At the same time a shooting star was seen, which impressed some of his devotees of its synchronicity.
Sri Ramana Maharshi reclining in the Old Hall where he lived from 1927 to 1950
Ramana Maharshi was, and is, regarded by many as an outstanding enlightened being. He was a charismatic person, and attracted many devotees, some of whom saw him as an avatar and the embodiment of Shiva.
Many devotees visited Ramana Maharshi for darshan, the sight of a holy person or God incarnate, which is advantageous and transmits merit. According to Flood, in Indian religions the guru is akin to the image or statue of a deity in the temple, and both possess power and a sacred energy.According to Osborne, Ramana Maharsi regarded giving darshan as “his task in life,” and said that he had to be accessible to all who came. Even during his terminal sickness at the end of his life, he demandend to be approachable for all who came for his darshan.
Objects being touched or used by him were highly valued by his devotees, “as they considered it to be prasad and that it passed on some of the power and blessing of the Guru to them”. People also tried to touch his feet, which is also considered to be darshana. When one devotee asked if it would be possible to prostrate before Sri Ramana and touch his feet, he replied:
The real feet of Bhagavan exist only in the heart of the devotee. To hold onto these feet incessantly is true happiness. You will be disappointed if you hold onto my physical feet because one day this physical body will disappear. The greatest worship is worshipping the Guru’s feet that are within oneself.
In later life, the amount of devotees and their devotion became so extensive that Ramana became restricted in his daily routine. Measures had to be taken to prevent people touching him. Several times Ramana tried to escape from the ashram, to return to a life of solitude. Vasudeva reports:
Bhagavan sat on a rock and said with tears in his eyes that he would never again come to the Ashram and would go where he pleased and live in the forests or caves away from all men.
Ramana did return to the ashram, but has also reported himself on attempts to leave the ashram:
I tried to be free on a third occasion also. That was after mother’s passing away. I did not want to have even an Ashram like Skandashram and the people that were coming there then. but the result has been this Ashram and all the crowd here. Thus all my three attempts failed.
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; as an incarnation of Jnana Sambandar, one of the sixty-three Nayanars; and as an incarnation of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, the 8th century Mimamsa-philosopher. According to Krishna Bhikshu, one of his early biographers:
As Kumarila he established the supremacy of the karma marga, as Jnana Sambandar, a poet, he brought bhakti marga close to the people and as Ramana he showed that the purpose of life was to abide in the Self and to stay in the sahaja state by the jnana marga.
A number of Ramana’s Marharshi’s Indian devotees (not comprehensive):
Palaniswami, Ramana Maharshi’s attendant from 1897 to 1918 brought books on Indian religiosity to Ramana, who helped him to better understand these texts.
Ganapati Muni (1878–1936), Sanskrit scholar and poet, activist for Indian independence, and one of Ramana’s foremost devotees. Muni deviced the name “Ramana Maharshi”,
Muruganar (1893–1973), another prominent devotee who lived as Ramana’s shadow for 26 years, recorded an extensive collection of Ramana’s sayings in a work called Guru Vachaka Kovai, “The Garland of Guru’s Sayings”. Ramana carefully reviewed this work with Muruganar, modifying many verses to most accurately reflect his teaching, and added in verses. Muruganar was also instrumental in Ramana’s writing of Upadesa Saram, “The Essence of Instruction”, and Ulladu Narpadu, “Forty Verses on Reality”.
Gudipati Venkatachalam (1894 to 1976), a noted Telugu writer lived the later part of his life and died near Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Arunachalam.
Sri Sadhu Om (1922–1985) spent five years with Ramana and about 28 years with Muruganar. His Advaita Vedanta interpretation of Ramana’s teachings on self-enquiry are explained in his book The Path of Sri Ramana – Part One.
Suri Nagamma, who wrote a series of letters to her brother in Telugu, describing Ramana’s dialogues with devotees over a five years. Each letter was corrected by Ramana before it was sent.
H. W. L. Poonja, himself, a teacher of self-enquiry, who visited Ramana Maharshi in the 1940s
Swami Ramdas visited Ramana Maharshi while on pilgrimage in 1922, and after darshan, spent the next 21 days meditating in solitude in a cave on Arunachala. Thereafter, he attained the direct realisation that “All was Rama, nothing but Rama”.
O. P. Ramaswamy Reddiyar, an Indian National Congress politician and freedom-fighter, who served as the Premier of Madras from 1947 to 1949.
A list of Western devotees of Ramana Maharshi (not comprehensive):
Paul Brunton’s writings about Ramana brought considerable attention to him in the West.
Major Chadwick, who ran the Veda Patasala during Ramana’s time.
Arthur Osborne, the first editor of the ashram journal, The Mountain Path.
S.S. Cohen, a Jewish born Iraqi who wrote the book Guru Ramana.
Maurice Frydman (a.k.a. Swami Bharatananda), a Polish Jew who later translated Nisargadatta Maharaj’s work I Am That from Marathi to English, was also deeply influenced by Ramana’s teachings. Many of the questions published in Maharshi’s Gospel (1939) were put by Maurice, and they elicited detailed replies from the Maharshi.
Ethel Merston, who wrote about Ramana Maharshi in her memoirs.
Robert Adams, an American devotee whose book of dialogues Silence of the Heart centres around the teachings of Ramana Maharshi.
Mouni Sadhu (Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski) (17 August 1897 – 24 December 1971), author of spiritual, mystical and esoteric subjects.
David Godman, a former librarian at the ashram, who has written about Ramana’s teaching and the lives of Ramana’s lesser-known attendants and devotees.
Ramana Maharshi sitting in the Old Hall at Sri Ramanasramam
Ramana Maharshi provided upadeśa (“spiritual instruction”) by providing darshan and sitting silently together with devotees and visitors, but also by answering the questions and concerns raised by those who sought him out. Many of these question-and-answer sessions have been transcribed and published by devotees, some of which have been edited by Ramana Maharshi himself. A few texts have been published which were written by Ramana Maharshi himself, or written down on his behalf and edited by him.
Ramana Maharshi also provided an example by his own devotion to Shiva, which has been extensively described by his devotees, such as walks around the holy hill Arunachala, in which devotees participated, and his hymns to Arunachala.
Ramana Maharshi described his Self as a “force” or “current,” which descended on him in his death-experience, and continued throughout his life:
… a force or current, a centre of energy playing on the body, continuing regardless of the rigidity or activity of the body, though existing in connection with it. It was that current, force or centre that constituted my Self, that kept me acting and moving, but this was the first time I came to know it I had no idea at that time of the identity of that current with the personal God, or Iswara as I used to call him I was only feeling that everything was being done by the current and not by me This current, or avesam, now felt as if it was my Self, not a superimposition That avesam continues right up to now.
Ramana used various terms to denote this Self. The most frequently used terms were sat-chit-ananda, which translates into English as being-consciousness-bliss; God, Brahman and Siva, and the Heart, which is not to be confused with the physical heart, or a particular point in space, but was rather to indicate that “the Self was the source from which all appearances manifested.”
According to David Godman, the essence of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings is that the “Self” or real “I” is a “non-personal, all-inclusive awareness”:
The real Self or real ‘I’ is, contrary to perceptible experience, not an experience of individuality but a non-personal, all-inclusive awareness. It is not to be confused with the individual self which (Ramana) said was essentially non-existent, being a fabrication of the mind, which obscures the true experience of the real Self. He maintained that the real Self is always present and always experienced but he emphasized that one is only consciously aware of it as it really is when the self-limiting tendencies of the mind have ceased. Permanent and continuous Self-awareness is known as Self-realization.
Ramana considered the Self to be permanent and enduring, surviving physical death. “The sleep, dream and waking states are mere phenomena appearing on the Self”, as is the “I”-thought. Our “true nature” is “simple Being, free from thoughts”.
Ramana would field many questions about “jnanis” (liberated beings) from devotees, but even the terms “jnani” and “ajnani” (non-liberated being) are incorrect, since it leads one to the idea of there being a knower and a known, a subject and an object. The truth of it according to Ramana Maharshi is that there are neither “jnanis” nor “ajnanis”, there is simply “jnana”, which is Self:
The jnani sees no one as an ajnani. All are only jnanis in his sight. In the ignorant state one superimposes one’s ignorance on a jnani and mistakes him for a doer. In the state of jnana, the jnani sees nothing separate from the Self. The Self is all shining and only pure jnana.
Ramana’s main means of instruction to his devotees in order to remove ignorance and abide in Self-awareness was through silently sitting together with his visitors, using words only sparingly.His method of instruction has been compared to Dakshinamurti – Shiva in the ascetic appearance of the Guru, who teaches through silence:
One evening, devotees asked Sri Ramana to explain the meaning of Shankara’s hymn in praise of Dakshinamurti. They waited for his answer, but in vain. The Maharishi sat motionless on his seat, in total silence.
Commenting upon this silence Ramana said:
Silence is the true upadesa. It is the perfect upadesa. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore, they require words to explain the truth. But truth is beyond words; it does not warrant explanation. All that is possible is to indicate It. How is that to be done?
See also: Self-enquiry, Jnana Yoga, Vicara, Hua Tou, Pointing-out instruction, Subitism, Choiceless awareness, Shikantaza, Shentong, Sahaja and Turiya
Vichara, “Self-enquiry”, also called ātma-vichār or jnana-vichara is the constant attention to the inner awareness of “I” or “I am”. Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of realizing Self-awareness, in response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta.
According to Ramana Maharshi, the I-thought is the sense of individuality: “(Aham, aham) ‘I-I’ is the Self; (Aham idam) “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego.” By paying attention to the ‘I’-thought, inquiring where it comes from, the ‘I’-thought will disappear and the “shining forth” (sphurana) of “I-I” or Self-awareness will appear. This results in an “effortless awareness of being”, and by staying with it this “I-I” gradually destroys the vasanas “which cause the ‘I’-thought to rise.” When the vasanas disappear, the mind, vritti also comes to rest, since it centers around the ‘I’-thought, and finally the ‘I’-thought never rises again, which is Self-realization or liberation.
If one remains still without leaving it, even the sphurana – having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, ‘I am the body’ – will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and scriptures. (The Mountain Path, 1982, p. 98).”
Robert Forman notes that Ramana Maharshi made a distinction between samadhi and sahaja samadhi. Samadhi is a contemplative state, which is temporary, while in sahaja samadhi a “silent state” is maintained while engaged in daily activities. Ramana Maharshi himself stated repeatedly that samadhi only suppresses the vāsanās, the karmic impressions, but does not destroy them. Only by abiding in Self-awareness will the vāsanās, which create the sense of a separate self, be destroyed, and sahaja samadhi be attained.
Although he advocated self-enquiry as the fastest means to realisation, he also recommended the path of bhakti and self-surrender (to one’s deity or guru) either concurrently or as an adequate alternative, which would ultimately converge with the path of self-enquiry.
Surrender has to be complete and desireless, without any expectations of solutions or rewards, or even liberation. It is a willingness to accept whatever happens. Surrender is not the willfull act of an individual self, but the growing awareness that there is no individual self to surrender. Practice is aimed at the removal of ignorance, not at the attainment of realisation.
According to David Godman, Ramana Maharshi taught that the idea of reincarnation is based on wrong ideas about the individual self as being real. Ramana Maharshi would sometimes say that rebirth does exist, to step forward to those who were not able to fully grasp the non-reality of the individual self. But when this illusoriness is realised, there is no room any more for ideas about reincarnation. When the identification with the body stops, any notions about death and rebirth become inapplicable, since there is no birth or death within Self.
Reincarnation exists only so long as there is ignorance. There is really no reincarnation at all, either now or before. Nor will there be any hereafter.
According to Wehr, C.G. Jung noted that Ramana Maharshi is not to be regarded as an “isolated phenomenon”, but as a token of Indian spirituality, “manifest in many forms in everyday Indian life”. According to Zimmer and Jung, Ramana’s appearance as a mauni, a silent saint absorbed in samadhi, fitted into pre-existing Indian notions of holiness. They placed the Indian devotion toward Ramana Maharshi in this Indian context. According to Alan Edwards, the popular image of Ramana Maharshi as a timeless saint also served the construction of an Indian identity as inner-oriented and spiritual, in opposition to the oppressive, outer-oriented, materialistic culture of the British colonial rulers:
Hindus from all over India could look to the purely spiritual Maharshi as a symbol that inspired them to preserve their distinctive national culture and identity, which of course entailed forcing the British to quit India‟.
Though Ramana’s answers explain and incorporate elements from Advaita Vedanta, his spiritual life is strongly associated with Shaivism. Tamil culture has a long tradition of devotional spiritual practices and non-monastic religious authority, such as the Nayanars and the Siddhas. Shaiva Siddhanta, the Shaivism which is prevalent in Tamil Nadu, combines the original emphasis on ritual fused with an intense devotional tradition expressed in the bhakti poetry of the Nayanars. In contrast to Shankara’s Vedanta, which speaks of Maya and sees “this world as a trap and an illusion, Shaivism says it is the embodiment of the Divine”. It speaks of “the Goddess Shakti, or spiritual energy, portrayed as the Divine Mother who redeems the material world”.
The Tamil compendium of devotional songs known as Tirumurai, along with the Vedas, the Shaiva Agamas and “Meykanda” or “Siddhanta” Shastras, form the scriptural canon of Tamil Shaiva Siddhanta. Osborne notes that Ramana was born at Arudra Darshan, the day of the ‘Sight of Siva’ As a youth, prior to his awakening, Ramana read the Periya Puranam, the stories of the 63 Tamil saints. In later life, he told those stories to his devotees:
When telling these stories, he used to dramatize the characters of the main figures in voice and gesture and seemed to identify himself fully with them.
Ramana himself considered God, Guru and Self to be the manifestations of the same reality. Ramana considered the Self to be his guru, in the form of the sacred mountain Arunachala, which is considered to be the manifestation of Shiva. Arunachala is one of the five main shaivite holy places in South India, which can be worshipped through the mantra “Om arunachala shivaya namah!” and by Pradakshina, walking around the mountain, a practice which was often performed by Ramana. Asked about the special sanctity of Arunachala, Ramana said that Arunachala is Shiva himself. In his later years, Ramana said it was the spiritual power of Arunachala which had brought about his Self-realisation. He composed the Five Hymns to Arunachala as devotional song. On the three occasions Venkataraman (Ramana) referred to himself he used the name Arunachala Ramana. Ramana Maharshi also used to smear his forehead with holy ash, as a token of veneration.
In later life, Ramana himself came to be regarded as Dakshinamurthy, an aspect of Shiva as a guru of all types of knowledge, and bestower of jnana. This aspect of Shiva is his personification as the supreme or the ultimate awareness, understanding and knowledge. This form represents Shiva in his aspect as a teacher of yoga, music, and wisdom, and giving exposition on the shastras.
Via his devotees Ramana Maharshi became acquainted with classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta. Ramana himself did not call his insights advaita, but said that dvaita and advaita are relative terms, based on a sense of duality, while the Self or Being is all there is.
Although Ramana’s teaching is consistent with and generally associated with Hinduism, the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta, there are some differences with the traditional Advaitic school. Advaita recommends a negationist neti, neti (Sanskrit, “not this”, “not this”) path, or mental affirmations that the Self is the only reality, such as “I am Brahman” or “I am He”, while Ramana advocated Self-enquiry “Nan Yar”. In contrast with traditional Advaita Vedanta, Ramana Maharshi strongly discouraged devotees from adopting a renunciate lifestyle and renouncing their responsibilities. To one devotee who felt he should abandon his family, whom he described as “samsara” (illusion), to intensify his spiritual practice, Sri Ramana replied:
Oh! Is that so? What really is meant by samsara? Is it within or without? Wife, children and others. Is that all the samsara? What have they done? Please find out first what really is meant by samsara. Afterwards we shall consider the question of abandoning them.
During his lifetime, through contact with educated devotees like Ganapata Muni, Ramana Maharshi became acquainted with works on Shaivism and Advaita Vedanta, and used them to explain his insights:
People wonder how I speak of Bhagavad Gita, etc. It is due to hearsay. I have not read the Gita nor waded through commentaries for its meaning. When I hear a sloka (verse), I think its meaning is clear and I say it. That is all and nothing more.
Already in 1896, a few months after his arrival at Arunachala, Ramana attracted his first disciple, Uddandi Nayinar, who recognised in the him “the living embodiment of the Holy Scriptures”. Uddandi was well-versed in classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, and recited texts as the Yoga Vasistha and Kaivalya Navaneeta in Ramana’s presence.
In 1897 Ramana was joined by Palaniswami, who became his attendant. Palaniswami studied books in Tamil on Vedanta, such as Kaivalya Navaneeta, Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, and Yoga Vasistha. He had difficulties understanding Tamil. Ramana read the books too, and explained them to Palanaswami.
As early as 1900, when Ramana was 20 years old, he became acquainted with the teachings of the Hindu monk and Neo-Vedanta teacher Swami Vivekananda through Gambhiram Seshayya. Seshayya was interested in yoga techniques, and “used to bring his books and explain his difficulties”. Ramana answered on small scraps of paper, which were collected after his death in the late 1920s in a booklet called Vichara Sangraham, “Self-enquiry”.
One of the works that Ramana used to explain his insights was the Ribhu Gita, a song at the heart of the Shivarahasya Purana, one of the ‘Shaiva Upapuranas’ or ancillary Purana regarding Shiva and Shaivite worship. Another work used by him was the Dakshinamurthy Stotram, a text by Shankara. It is a hymn to Shiva, explaining Advaita Vedanta.
Ramana gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices from various religions, with his own upadesa (instruction or guidance given to a disciple by his Guru) always pointing to the true Self of the devotees.
Although many claim to be influenced by him,Ramana Maharshi did not publicise himself as a guru,never claimed to have disciples, and never appointed any successors. While a few who came to see him are said to have become enlightened through association, he did not publicly acknowledge any living person as liberated other than his mother at death. Ramana never promoted any lineage.
With regard to Sri Ramana Ashram, Maharshi had in 1938 made a legal will bequeathing all the Ramanashram properties to his younger brother Niranjanananda and his descendants. The Ramanashram as in 2013 is run by Sri Niranjananda’s grandson Sri V.S. Raman. Ramanashram is legally recognised as a public religious trust whose aim was to maintain Ramanasramam in a way that was consonant with Sri Ramana’s declared wishes that is the ashram should remain open as a spiritual institution so that anyone who wished to could avail themselves of its facilities.
In the 1930s Maharshi’s teachings were brought to the west by Paul Brunton in his A Search in Secret India. Stimulated by Arthur Osborne, in the 1960s Bhagawat Singh actively started to spread Ramana Maharshi’s teachings in the USA. Ramana Maharshi has been further popularised in the west by the neo-Advaita movement, which the students of H. W. L. Poonja have been instrumental in, and which gives a western re-interpretation of his teachings which places sole emphasis on insight alone. It has been criticised for this emphasis on insight alone, omitting the preparatory practices. Nevertheless, Neo-Advaita has become an important constituent of popular western spirituality