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January 9, 2022

Ramana Marharshi: a saint’s saint

Who do we calculate for? Who is the object of our thought?  The good guy or the bad guy in a movie, the person making our latte ever so slowly, the girl friend who hasn’t returned our call, the policeman following us devotedly, the wife ever so gregarious, the boyfriend ever so angry? Throughout our day we anticipate endless variables about people, but beneath all calculations there is of course, first and foremost number one, “I,” a sense of self that arises before all thought of “other,” the sublime and impersonal “I” that slips by unnoticed. It is the “I” that feels the immense joy of oneness with others, and the end of selfishness.

The “I” we usually take as “I” is the “I” that arises in association with forms, sounds, feelings, etc. and the thoughts we recognize as “belonging” to us. This is the “I” of likes and dislikes. But, before the “I” of likes and dislikes arises there is an impersonal “I,” an “I” that takes only itself as it’s object, a process known as “apperception.” This “I,” if we can glimpse it, leads to self-realization. We can only perceive this “I” by becoming its prey. Are we ready to receive this apperceptive and impersonal “I?”

Ramana Maharshi, the Indian master who was a cover story and study of a “Life” magazine article in the 1950s, attained full realization without a guru. Unique to my knowledge, he henceforth put himself on “display” 24/7, from the time of his awakening until his passing fifty years later.

Before his awakening Ramana lived in caves, garbage dumps, open areas, the Tripurswari  temple’s dirt parking lot, and so forth, abiding in non-stop absorbed meditation.. Once he was discovered in a hidden vault beneath a temple pillar, his body being consumed by rats. Local yogis who discovered him carried him out and looked after him for months until his health finally was restored. He was all the while lost in samadhi (breathless state of inward absorption.)

Ramana’s meditation was so deep he seldom came out of samadhi to eat. Frequently devotees would shake him and pour food down his throat. Once during this seven year period, eighteen months passed in a single samadhi without Ramana bathing or cutting his hair. A motherly women devotee had enough! She came with a bucket of water and scissors and dragged Ramana from his cave and cut his hair and bathed him. So many pebbles were embedded in his fallen matted locks that Ramana afterwards remarked he felt as if he had lost his head.

He continued his ascetic practices until the only thing left was the impersonal apperceptive “I.” Thereafter he felt no need to meditate and dwelt in the rare state called “shining.”  He was 21 years old. Henceforth he never left the famed “Arunachala Hill” which he regarded as God. Over the years hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world came to see and experience the presence of this muni (silent one,) destined to became famed as “the one who enlightens by sight,” whether it was seeing him, or him seeing you, or both.

A devotee purchased a couch, more like a “love seat,” for Ramana to recline on.. Of course, he declined, but the devotee cried for three days and nights, and Ramana finally accepted it.

Thereafter, Ramana rested semi-reclined day and night in plain view of everyone. He ate with all his devotees and slept where all could see him. His only break was his daily afternoon walks on the “Hill,” but even then hundreds followed him, and on holy days, thousands.

His fame became so great and his spiritual power so overwhelming that saints such as Paramahansa Yogananda would come from all over India to experience his presence. Gandhi lamented openly that his plans to see him failed twice, Prime Ministers, and many politicians also visited, freedom fighter, yogis, and mystics, and later Americans and Europeans, many who previously never thought of meditating, were drawn to the aura of this sage.

He conveyed a deep spiritual experience on beginners as easily as life-long practitioners. “Initiating by sight” is common if the devotee is advanced and the Master enlightened, but it was unique to Ramana to initiate anyone, even those who had not heard or practiced any dharma. The immediate experience of samadhi was so powerful as to on the spot plant the seed of a lifelong meditation practice. Many moved to be near him and remained in his proximity permanently.

Ramana’s method was simple, ask yourself: “Who am I?” Every question put to him would fall back to this. If asked, “how can I attain enlightenment,” he would answer, “Who wants to attain enlightenment?” If asked, “how can I remove my obstacles?” Ramana would answer, “whose obstacles?” If asked, “what is the best form of meditation?” he might answer, “who wants to know, or who wants the best?”

Ramana relentlessly turned all inquiries back on the inquirer, to constantly observe the “I” thought and seek wherefrom it arises, what does it take as its object, its relation to the breath, what is the “I” in the absence of body, mind and thoughts? He taught that through constant inquiry eventually the I will shine back on itself, and that that “I” “I” is the end of endless misidentification of self for what is other than self.

Anyone who has ever tried self-inquiry knows how difficult a practice it is. It is universally regarded as the most effective form of meditation, but least approachable. It is generally advised only after one is deeply steeped in other spiritual practices. We cannot engage with the thought “who am I? “as we might a story in a newspaper, let alone become so deeply engaged that not only do we not waver, but become thoroughly absorbed in the query.  But, once that initial engagement arises, it draws us into it like a magnet, and we cannot put it down even if we wanted to.

When asked by a reporter: “What is the difference between you and other people,” Ramana replied, “”there are no other people.”

What is the takeaway from the 1000 words above? The takeaway is in the last five words, (“there are no other people,”) five words which answer the first five (“who do we calculate for?”).

If all the people we think about we could learn to view as ourselves, then we would realize the end of selfishness, the cause of all sorrow and divisiveness.

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