Sri Ramana Maharishi, born Vekatraman Iyer, was a Hindu sage. He was born in a Tamil speaking Brahmin family in Thiruchuzhi, Tamil Nadu. After having attained liberation at the age of 16, he left home for Arunachala, a mountain considered sacred by Hindus, at Thruvannamalai, and lived there for the rest of his life. Although born a Brahmin, after having attained Moksha he declared himself an “Atiasrami”, a Sastraic state of non-attachment to anything in life and beyond all caste restrictions. The ashram that grew around him, Sri Ramana Ashram is situated at the foothill of Arunachala to the west to the pilgrimage town of Thiruvannamalai.
About thirty miles south of Madurai there is a village Tirucculi by name with an ancient Siva temple about which two of the great Tamil saints, Sundaramurti and Manikkavacakar, have sung. In this sacred village there lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century an uncertified pleader, Sundaram Aiyar with his wife Alagammal. Piety, devotion and charity characterised this ideal couple. Sundaram Aiyar was generous even beyond his measure. Alagammal was an ideal Hindu wife. To them was born Venkataraman – who later came to be known to the world as Ramana Maharshi – on the 30th of December, 1879. It was an auspicious day for the Hindus, the Ardradarsanam day. On this day every year the image of the Dancing Siva, Nataraja, is taken out of the temples in procession in order to celebrate the divine grace of the Lord that made Him appear before such saints as Gautama, Patanjali, Vyaghrapada, and Manikkavacaka. In the year 1879 on the Ardra day the Nataraja Image of the temple at Tirucculi was taken out with all the attendant ceremonies, and just as it was about to re-enter, Venkataraman was born.
There was nothing markedly distinctive about Venkataraman’s early years. He grew up just as an average boy. He was sent to an elementary school in Tirucculi, and then for a year’s education to a school in Dindigul. When he was twelve his father died. This necessitated his going to Madurai along with the family and living with his paternal uncle Subbaiyar. There he was sent to Scott’s Middle School and then to the American Mission High School. He was an indifferent student, not at all serious about his studies. But he was a healthy and strong lad. His school mates and other companions were afraid of his strength. If some of them had any grievance against him at any time, they would dare play pranks with him, only when he was asleep. In this he was rather unusual : he would not know of anything that happened to him during sleep. He would be carried away or even beaten without his waking up in the process.
It was apparently by accident that Venkataraman heard about Arunachala when he was sixteen years of age. One day an elderly relative of his called on the family in Madurai. The boy asked him where he had come from. The relative replied “From Arunachala”. The very name ‘Arunachala’ acted as a magic spell on Venkataraman, and with an evident excitement he put his next question to the elderly gentleman, “What! From Arunachala! Where is it?” And he got the reply that Tiruvannamalai was Arunachala.
Referring to this incident the Sage says later on in one of his hymns to Arunachala : ‘Oh, great wonder! As an insentient hill it stands. Its action is difficult for anyone to understand. From my childhood it appeared to my intelligence that Arunachala was something very great. But even when I came to know through another that it was the same as Tiruvannamalai I did not understand its meaning. When, stilling my mind, it drew me up to it, and I came close, I found that it was the Immovable.’
Quickly following the incident which attracted Venkataraman’s attention to Arunachala, there was another happening which also contributed to the turning of the boy’s mind to the deeper values of spirituality. He chanced to lay his hands, on a copy of Sekkilar’s Periyapuranam which relates the lives of the Saiva saints. He read the book and was enthralled by it. This was the first piece of religious literature that he read. The example of the saints fascinated him; and in the inner recesses of his heart he found something responding favourably. Without any apparent earlier preparation, a longing arose in him to emulate the spirit of renunciation and devotion that constituted the essence of saintly life.
The spiritual experience that Venkataraman was now wishing devoutly to have came to him soon, and quite unexpectedly. It was about the middle of the year 1896; Venkataraman was seventeen then. One day he was sitting up alone on the first floor of his uncle’s house. He was in his usual health. There was nothing wrong with it. But a sudden and unmistakable fear of death took hold of him. He felt he was going to die. Why this feeling should have come to him he did not know. The feeling of impending death, however, did not unnerve him. He calmly thought about what he should do. He said to himself, “Now, death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.” Immediately thereafter he lay down stretching his limbs out and holding them stiff as though rigor mortis had set in. He held his breath and kept his lips tightly closed, so that to all outward appearance his body resembled a corpse. Now, what would happen? This was what he thought : “Well, this body is now dead. It will be carried to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death, of this body am I dead? Is the body I? This body is silent and inert. But I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am the 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”. As Bhagavan Sri Ramana narrated this experience later on for the benefit of his devotees it looked as though this was a process of reasoning. But he took care to explain that this was not so. The realization came to him in a flash. He perceived the truth directly. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. From then on, ‘I’ continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends with all the other notes. Thus young Venkataraman found himself on the peak of spirituality without any arduous or prolonged sadhana. The ego was lost in the flood of Self-awareness. All on a sudden the boy that used to be called Venkataraman had flowered into a sage and saint.
There was a curse on Venkataraman’s family – in truth, it was a blessing – that one out of every generation should turn out to be a mendicant. This curse was administered by a wandering ascetic who, it is said, begged alms at the house of one of Venkataraman’s forbears, and was refused. A paternal uncle of Sundaram Aiyar’s became a sannyasin; so did Sundaram Aiyar’s elder brother. Now, it was the turn of Venkataraman, although no one could have foreseen that the curse would work out in this manner. Dispassion found lodgement in Venkataraman’s heart, and he became a parivrajaka.
Venkataraman tavelled from Madurai to Tiruvannamalai. The rest of what we regard as Ramana’s life – this is how we shall call him hereafter – was spent in Tiruvannamalai. Ramana was not formally initiated into sannyasa. As he came out of the temple and was walking along the streets of the town, someone called out and asked whether he wanted his tuft removed. He consented readily, and was conducted to the Ayyankulam tank where a barber shaved his head. Then he stood on the steps of the tank and threw away into the water his remaining money. He also discarded the packet of sweets given by the Bhagavatar’s wife. The next to go was the sacred thread he was wearing. As he was returning to the temple he was just wondering why he should give his body the luxury of a bath, when there was a downpour which drenched him.
The first place of Ramana’s residence in Tiruvannamalai was the great temple. For a few weeks he remained in the thousand-pillared hall. But he was troubled by urchins who pelted stones at him as he sat in meditation. He shifted himself to obscure corners and even to an underground vault known as Patala-lingam. Undisturbed he used to spend several days in deep absorption. Without moving he sat in samadhi, not being aware of even the bites of vermin and pests. But the mischievous boys soon discovered the retreat and indulged in their pastime of throwing potsherds at the young Svami. There was at the time in Tiruvannamalai a senior Svami by name Seshadri. Those who did not know him took him for a madman. He sometimes stood guard over the young Svami, and drove away the urchins. At long last he was removed from the pit by devotees without his being aware of it and deposited in the vicinity of a shrine of Subrahmanya. From then on there was some one or other to take care of Ramana. The seat of residence had to be changed frequently. Gardens, groves, shrines – these were chosen to keep the Svami. The Svami himself never spoke. Not that he took any vow of silence; he had no inclination to talk. At times the texts like Vasistham and Kaivalyanavanitam used to be read out to him.
A little less than six months after his arrival at Tiruvannamalai Ramana shifted his residence to a shrine called Gurumurtam at the earnest request of its keeper, a Tambiransvami. As days passed and as Ramana’s fame spread, increasing numbers of pilgrims and sight-seers came to visit him. After about a year’s stay at Gurumurtam, the Svami – locally he was known as Brahmana-svami – moved to a neighbouring mango orchard.
It was in the beginning of 1916 that the mother came, resolved to spend the rest of her life with Ramana. Soon after his mother’s arrival, Ramana moved from Virupaksa to Skandasramam, a little higher up the hill. The mother received training in intense spiritual life. She donned the ochre robe, and took charge of the Asrama kitchen. Nagasundaram, Ramana’s younger brother too became a sannyasin, assuming the name Niranjanananda. Among Ramana’s devotees he came to be popularly known as Chinnaswami (the Younger Swami). In 1920 the mother grew weak in health and ailments incidental to old age came to her. Ramana tended her with care and affection, and spent even sleepless nights sitting up with her. The end came on May 19, 1922, which was the Bahulanavami day, in the month of Vaisakha. The mother’s body was taken down the hill to be interred. The spot chosen was at the southernmost point, between Palitirtham Tank and the Daksinamurti Mantapam. While the ceremonies were being performed, Ramana himself stood silently looking on. Niranjanananda Swami took his residence near the tomb. Ramana who continued to remain at Skandasramam visited the tomb every day. After about six months he came to stay there, as he said later on, not out of his own volition but in obedience to the Divine Will. Thus was founded the Ramanasramam. A temple was raised over the tomb and was consecrated in 1949. As the years rolled by the Asramam grew steadily, and people not only from India but from every continent of the world came to see the sage and receive help from him in their spiritual pursuits.
The philosophy of Sri Ramana – which is the same as that of Advaita-Vedanta has for its aim Self realization. The central path taught in this philosophy is the inquiry into the nature of Self, the content of the notion ‘I’. Ordinarily the sphere of the ‘I’ varies and covers a multiplicity of factors. But these factors are not really the ‘I’. For instance, we speak of the physical body as ‘I’; we say, ‘I am fat’, ‘I am lean’ etc. It will not take long to discover that this is a wrong usage. The body itself cannot say, ‘I’ for it is inert. Even the most ignorant man understands the implication of the expression ‘my body’. It is not easy, however, to resolve the mistaken identity of the ‘I’ with egoity (ahankara). That is because the inquiring mind is the ego, and in order to remove the wrong identification it has to pass a sentence of death, as it were, on itself. This is by no means a simple thing. The offering of the ego in the fire of wisdom is the greatest form of sacrifice.
End of Worldly Life
The golden jubilee of Ramana’s coming to stay at Tiruvannamalai was celebrated in 1946. In 1947 his health began to fail. He was not yet seventy, but looked much older. Towards the end of 1948 a small nodule appeared below the elbow of his left arm. As it grew in size, the doctor in charge of the Asrama dispensary cut it out. But in a month’s time it reappeared. Surgeons from Madras were called, and they operated. The wound did not heal, and the tumour came again. On further examination it was diagnosed that the affection was a case of sarcoma. The doctors suggested amputating the arm above the affected part. Ramana replied with a smile : “There is no need for alarm. The body is itself a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? Simple dressing of the affected part will do.” Two more operations had to be performed, but the tumour appeared again. Indigenous systems of medicine were tried; and homeopathy too. The disease did not yield itself to treatment. The sage was quite unconcerned, and was supremely indifferent to suffering. He sat as a spectator watching the disease waste the body. But his eyes shone as bright as ever; and his grace flowed towards all beings. Crowds came in large numbers. Ramana insisted that they should be allowed to have his darsana. Devotees profoundly wished that the sage should cure his body through an exercise of supernormal powers. Some of them imagined that they themselves had had the benefit of these powers which they attributed to Ramana. Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over the suffering, and he sought to comfort them by reminding them of the truth that Bhagavan was not the body : “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?” The end came on the 14th of April, 1950.
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