Many people have heard the name Ramana Maharshi, but surprisingly most of them don’t know who he was and why he was one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Personally, his teachings thrust me on the path of spirituality at a young age. He was one of the great sages who opened the door of Eastern wisdom for me. I hold Ramana Maharshi in the highest echelon of sages who graced the Earth. I believe he belongs in the honorable company of the Buddha, Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, Shankara, Patanjali, Bodhidharma, Nagarjuna, and Mahavira. He belongs to this ancient thread of enlightened masters.
The teachings Ramana Maharshi expounded belong to one of the greatest teachings on the planet called Advaita Vedanta, which is one of the main schools of thought in Hinduism. But before we dive deep into these teachings and his own wisdom, how did Ramana Maharshi become a great sage?
The Life and Death of Venkataraman Iyer
Ramana Maharshi’s birth name was Venkataraman Iyer. He was born on December 30, 1879 in the small village of Tiruchuli in the south of India. He had a normal upbringing, just like any other young Indian. Nothing in his early life was out of the ordinary. But everything changed for him at the age of sixteen. One day, he was alone in an upstairs room inside his uncle’s house in Madurai. Suddenly, he had an intense fear of death, where for the next few minutes he went through a simulated death experience. During this experience, he became aware of his true nature for the first time. He realized that his real nature is eternal, and it is unrelated to the body, mind, and personality.
According to Vedanta, he had a realization of the Atman, the Self with a capital S, which is the undifferentiated consciousness at the core of our being. The young Venkataraman realized the Atman at the core of his being and his life was instantly transformed. And yet, you’re probably thinking that many people have had this experience. But what makes Ramana Maharshi’s experience unique, is his experience of the Self was permanent and irreversible. This claim didn’t come from the mouth of the man himself, but rather his followers. So, if you are unfamiliar with this type of knowledge you might be skeptical about existing permanently as the Self, beyond the personality. But if you’ve truly experienced the Self, you know that your life has permanently changed and, thus, your life is dedicated to the path of liberation, moksha in Sanskrit.
There is no turning back to the mundane concerns of life when you have had a true experience of the Self. I would also like to suggest that all experiences of the Self are permanent and irreversible, but the reason we view Ramana Maharshi’s experience differently is because the sense of an individual person in him had ceased to exist, and it never reared its ugly head again. Not all of us can say that the individual person ceased to exist after realizing the Self, because most of us try to maintain our social life which requires a certain amount of personality to survive. But young Venkataraman, on the other hand, walked completely out of his life to never return. This type of renunciation is revered in India, and according to the great traditions of Vedanta, Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya, and Yoga, this type of worldly renunciation is necessary to establish yourself in your true nature (this sort of knowledge is explained with differing philosophy and terms in the great traditions).
So, in 1896, at the young age of sixteen, Venkataraman Iyer walked out on his family. At the time, he never told anyone in his family about his experience. After his realization of the Self, he kept up appearances at his school and with his family for six weeks, but it was difficult for him to pretend to be this person people know as Venkataraman Iyer. He couldn’t play this game too much longer and so he pined for an environment more conducive for spiritual life. He had a deep calling to go to the holy mountain of Arunachala in the small town of Tiruvannamalai. This was not a random urge, because Arunachala is considered by Hindu’s as a manifestation of Shiva. Ramana Maharshi actually said in later years that it was the spiritual power of Arunachala which brought about his enlightenment. And I can tell you that from personally spending a lot of time at the foot of Arunachala, the mountain definitely has a certain power and also an ability to settle the mind which is indescribable.
The Birth of a Great Sage
Once Ramana Maharshi arrived at Arunachala, he never moved more than two miles away from its base from 1896 until his death in 1950. During those years the birth of the great sage Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi came into the world. Actually, it was one of his earliest followers who renamed him Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. To understand this name, first Bhagavan means Lord or God, Sri is a title of honor in India similar to Sir in England, Ramana is a contraction of his birth name Venkataraman, and Maharshi means “great seer.”
From 1899 to 1922, Ramana resided in many caves on the slopes of Arunachala. In his early years there, he spent most of his time in silence. It was through this intense silence that people began to gravitate around him. This silent force he emanated could bring stillness to the minds of those around him. People were naturally more peaceful and their minds were completely still in his presence. This deep silence was his original teaching and this powerful silence is a state of consciousness revered in the great Eastern traditions. In later years, Ramana was more willing to give verbal teachings for people who couldn’t feel or experience the power of his deep silence.
His Nondual Teachings
His verbal teachings were guided by his direct knowledge that consciousness was the only reality. Brahman alone is real (Brahman in Sanskrit is the Ultimate Reality that pervades and is immanent in all existence). This means all ideas of separation are illusory. There is only one reality, Brahman. And Ramana explained this beautifully when he was asked why he says maya, illusion of separation, and reality, Brahman, are the same. It’s a fair question for any seeker considering we have the nondual reality of Brahman and the illusion of the dualistic world, maya. Ramana explained that the great Advaita Vedanta sage Shankara was criticized for his views on maya because Shankara once said:
“Brahman is real,
the universe is unreal, and
The universe is Brahman.”
This passage might seem like a bit of a mind bender, but Ramana skillfully elucidates the depth of Shankara’s teaching. He explained that Shankara didn’t stop at the second line because the third line explains the first two lines. The third line signifies that the universe is only real if it is perceived as the nondual Brahman from the Self within us. And the universe is unreal when perceived through the dualistic conditioning of the persona, which is to view the universe apart from the Self. This profound explanation is why maya and reality are one and the same. And though this is probably contested by other schools of thought, this is the main view of Advaita Vedanta.
But the world is still an illusion to a person with a mind accustomed to separation because you are not perceiving the world from the Self, from the Atman which is identical to Brahman. Once you abide in the Self, then and only then will you look upon the whole universe as Brahman. Only a few of his followers assimilated this deepest truth.
The Practice of Self-Enquiry
For the thousands of visitors he had over the last twenty years of his life, most of them found his teachings hard to comprehend or follow because back in that time, just like now, people were too busy in their ordinary lives and polluted with mundane concerns. Many people assumed that his teachings can’t be realized without a long period of spiritual practice in isolation, sadhana in Sanskrit. This is correct in some sense, even though Ramana would disagree. But keep in mind that Ramana also underwent extensive sadhana for many years before he became a guru. So, to satisfy people with such concerns, he prescribed an innovative method of self-attention known commonly as self-enquiry, or vicara in Sanskrit. He recommended this method a lot, which is why it became the most distinctive element of his teachings.
To explain self-enquiry, you have to understand that the Self is the only existing reality, there is only Brahman. This is the view of Advaita Vedanta and also Ramana Maharshi. Ramana regarded the “I”-thought as a mistaken assumption with no real existence. He explained that the “I”-thought can only appear to exist by identifying with an object. For example, I am Jason, I think this, I believe this, I am Australian, I want this, I don’t like him, and so forth and so on. So, we are unaware that when thoughts arise the “I”-thought claims ownership of them. And according to Ramana, the primary source of all these assumptions can be traced back to the “I am the body” thought. Our sense of separateness from life originates from our identification with the physical form. All subsequent wrong identifications came from the idea “I am the body.”
Self-enquiry’s main aim is to dissolve this belief in “I am the body.” To do achieve this dissolution, we have to focus on the practice of self-enquiry Ramana taught. First, we have to accept that the “I”-thought cannot exist without an object. Second, we have to focus our attention on the subjective feeling “I” or “I am” with extreme intensity. If you can intensely do this, then you will notice that the thoughts “I am this” and “I am that” do not arise. Your “I”-thought is unable to connect with an object. The key to this practice is the ability to sustain our awareness on the “I.” If we can sustain our awareness on the “I” you will notice that it will disappear and then in its place will be a direct experience of the Self. This is the sweet nectar of self-enquiry. And once you have a direct experience of the Self, it’s hard to be totally wrapped up in the illusion of separateness.
For those interested in self-enquiry, Ramana would recommend a beginner to put their attention on the “I” as long as possible. As with meditation, when your mind begins to wander bring your attention back the feeling of “I.” The more you practice self-enquiry the easier it becomes to sustain your attention on the “I.” The practice will get to a point of effortless awareness because individual effort is no longer possible since the ego who makes effort has dissolved. The ego will cease to exist temporarily for most people. But Ramana would explain that eventually through repeated experiences of being the Self, we will destroy our latent tendencies and habits (vasanas in Sanskrit) which cause the “I”-thought to arise. The power of the Self will eventually destroy all vasanas permanently. This is the ultimate state which is irreversible. If you reach this permanent state as Ramana did, then you have fulfilled the method and goal of self-enquiry (and life itself), which is to abide as the Self.
There is only the Self, so everything is Brahman because Atman is Brahman. There is no duality. And the way to verify this nondual reality is to practice self-enquiry in every waking moment as Ramana did. He emphasized that it is not a meditation practice we do for a certain period of time, but rather it should be practiced irrespective of what you are doing. This might sound easier said than done, but it’s definitely a practice that can be sustained in all facets of life, from the busiest situation to the simplest. But it might be hard for you to get to the deepest levels Ramana did if you haven’t done any serious lengthy sadhana. Actually, the wisdom and practice explained by Ramana will be hard for you to grasp if you haven’t done any extensive sadhana. But if you’ve done a lot of sadhana, then this wisdom and practice have a far better chance of sticking.
In conclusion, I could go on and on about Ramana’s teachings and his extraordinary life, but I would need an entire book, so I’ve explained only the core of his teachings that hopefully you will study and put into practice. If you can practice self-enquiry strictly, then you will begin to dissociate and distance yourself from your dualistic personality to reveal that you are not “this” or “that,” but rather you are or in Ramana’s words I am. You will verify that I am not this person but instead I am That, the Atman which is Brahman. Once this ultimate dimension is your direct experience, you will begin to emanate that silent force accessed by the great Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.