Who was Ramana Maharshi?
Ramana Maharshi, better known as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, was an Indian Hindu sage, philosopher, and “jivan mukta” (“the enlightened one”). Also known as “the Sage of Arunachala,” “Bhagavan” (“the Lord”), and the “Great Master,” Ramana originally contributed the technique of “vichara” (“self-pondering inquiry”) in yogic philosophy. He read spiritual and mystical literature from an early age and got drawn toward the sacred Mt. Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai and the 63 Nayanmars. A sudden “death experience” led him to become cognizant of a “force” (“avesam”), or “current,” which he identified as his actual “self,” or “I.” He later identified this with Shiva. He eventually renounced his worldly life and traveled to the sacred mountain Arunachala, where he became a “sannyasin,” although not initiated formally, and stayed there till his death. With time, the number of his followers grew. They considered him an incarnation of God and visited Arunachala to have his “darshan” (“auspicious sight”). His “ashram,” developed later, was where he imparted his “upadesa” (“spiritual instruction”) to his devotees and visitors. His “upadesas” gradually gained popularity in the West, marking him as an enlightened one across the globe.
Childhood & Early Life
Ramana Maharshi was born Venkataraman Iyer, on December 30, 1879, in Tiruchuzhi, Virudhunagar, India, to court pleader Sundaram Iyer and Azhagammal. He was the second of their four children. He grew up with brothers Nagaswami and Nagasundaram and sister Alamelu.
Ramana hailed from an orthodox Brahmin family from the lineage of Parashara, which belonged to the Smarta denomination. They followed regular domestic worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Devi (Shakti), and Ganesha. A paternal granduncle and a paternal uncle of Ramana became “sannyasins.” His “upanayana” was held at age 7.
He attended his village school for 3 years. At age 11, his father sent him to Dindigul to live with his uncle and study in English so that he could try for the ‘Indian Civil Service’ (British India). He stayed there for a year and attended ‘Hindu School’ before relocating to Madurai in 1891, with his elder brother, Nagaswami, and his uncle, after the latter was transferred there.
According to B.V. Narasimha Swami, Ramana’s sleep used to be so deep that neither any loud sound nor anyone beating his body would wake him up. Possibly, Ramana experienced intense meditative states that occurred spontaneously when he was around 12 years old. Ramana lost his father on February 18, 1892. He studied at the ‘Scott's Middle School’ and then joined the ‘American Mission High School.’ He became familiar with Christianity in the latter.
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Spiritual Awakening & Self-Inquiry
The spiritual and mystical books that he read during his adolescence had a deep impact on Ramana. He got drawn toward the holy mountain of Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai in November 1895, after reading the Tamil version of the epic poem ‘Prabhulingaleele,’ written by noted Indian Virashaiva poet Chamarasa. The life stories of the 63 Shaiva Nayanars, poets of Lord Shiva, that he came to know about after reading the Tamil book ‘Periyapuranam,’ written by saint Sekkizhar, also had a great influence on him. This led him to comprehend the possibility of a “divine union.”
Narasimha mentioned that in July 1896, at 16, Ramana suddenly experienced a fear of death. A flash of excitement or heat, just like “avesam,” hit him, and he felt as if a force or current had possessed him, while his body became stiff. Although initially Ramana thought that a spirit had taken over his body, this vision of death later led him to become aware of the “self.”
He asked himself what exactly dies and finally came to the conclusion that the current or force remains immortal while the body dies. He identified this current or force as his “self” and later perceived this as "the personal God,” or “Iswara.” The process of self-enquiry was thus initiated from his own awakening.
Later, in 1945, Ramana mentioned such insight to a visitor as "aham sphurana" (“self-awareness”). He said that he could clearly perceive the "aham sphurana" during the death vision, while all the senses were benumbed and thus realized that this self-awareness, which never decays or can never be affected by anything, is what we call “I,” and not the mortal body. He later called the death vision as “akrama mukti,” meaning "sudden liberation," and said that he was overtaken by this before he could pass through the different stages of “krama mukti,” or "gradual liberation" (as mentioned in the “jnana yoga,” a spiritual path in Hinduism).
The experience of death vision and awakening made a profound impact in his life. He lost interest in school studies, relatives, and friends, preferred to be alone. He visited the ‘Meenakshi Temple’ daily, focused on the current and force, and got drawn to the images of the 63 Nayanmars and the Nataraja. On August 29, 1896, he left his home for good. Following this, he boarded a train and reached Tiruvannamalai on September 1, 1896.
Life in Tiruvannamalai
After reaching Tiruvannamalai, Ramana went to the ‘Arunachaleswara Temple,’ dedicated to Lord Shiva and situated at the base of Arunachala hill. It is believed that he performed his penance at the underground “lingam” of the temple called the ‘Pathala Lingam.’ According to sources, Ramana meditated and attained supreme salvation in the temple while vermin and pests bit his body.
He then went to the ‘Gurumurtam Temple’ in February 1897, where a “sadhu” named Palaniswami visited him and eventually became his permanent attendant. Ramana gradually started attracting visitors. During this time, his family came to know his whereabouts. Although his uncle, Nelliappa Iyer, visited him and pleaded with him to return home, assuring that his ascetic life would not get disturbed, Ramana stayed motionless. Finally, his uncle had to give up. Later, he also refused his mother’s request to return home.
He went to the Shiva temple at Pavalakkunru in September 1898. Soon, he resolved to live on Arunachala and moved upward in February 1899. He lived in the ‘Satguru Cave’ and the ‘Guhu Namasivaya Cave’ briefly and then in the ‘Virupaksha Cave’ for 17 years. His first teachings on his widely famous method of self-enquiry came as answers of 14 questions on "How to know one's true identity" that Sivaprakasam Pillai, a government official, asked him when Pillai visited the young “swami” in 1902. These teachings were later published as ‘Nan Yar?’ (‘Who am I?’).
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He was proclaimed “Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi” by Vedic scholar Kavyakantha Sri Ganapati Sastri, after the latter visited him in 1907 and received his “upadesa” on self-enquiry. Since then, Ramana was known by this name. Many of his visitors eventually became his devotees and disciples. Frank Humphreys, a police officer posted in India, was the first westerner who spotted him in 1911. Humphreys’s articles on Ramana were first released in 1913, in ‘The International Psychic Gazette.’
Around 1914, Ramana composed some of his earliest poems, compiled as ‘The Five Hymns to Arunachala.’ His mother and younger brother, Nagasundaram, visited him in Tiruvannamalai in 1916. They then followed him to the ‘Skandashram Cave’ (where Ramana stayed till 1922) and attained “sannyasa.” His brother, who assumed the name “Niranjanananda,” became reputed as “Chinnaswami” (meaning “the younger swami”). He lost his mother on May 19, 1922.
After his mother’s death, when Ramana settled near her “samadhi” (shrine), his devotees started to develop an “ashram” near his mother’s tomb. Initially, one hut was built near the “samadhi.” Two huts were built by 1924, one opposite the tomb and the other toward the north. In 1928, the ‘Old Hall’ was constructed. Ramana lived there till 1949.
With time, Sri Ramanasramam expanded and included facilities such as a library, a hospital, and a post office. British writer Paul Brunton, who first visited Ramana in January 1931, is believed to have introduced Ramana to the West and popularized the holy man in India through the books ‘The Secret Path’ and ‘A Search in Secret India.’ The same year, B. V. Narasimha wrote Ramana’s biography ‘Self Realisation: The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi.’
Writer Arthur Osborne lived in his “ashram” for 2 decades. He wrote many books on Ramana and his teachings. He also founded and edited the English-language quarterly magazine ‘The Mountain Path,’ published by the “ashram.” In 1949, Mouni Sadhu stayed in the “ashram” for several months. David Godman lives in the “ashram” since 1976. He has so far written or edited 14 books on Ramana. Other notable people, such as Wei Wu Wei, Alfred Sorensen, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Swami Sivananda, too, have visited the “ashram.”
Last Years, Death, & Legacy
Ramana underwent a surgery in February 1949, after a small cancerous lump was found on his arm in November 1948. In March 1949, another growth was spotted. This was followed by an operation and radiotherapy. Although doctor believed that to save Ramana’s life, his arm would have to be fully amputated till the shoulder, the holy man refused to do so. Gradually, Ramana’s health deteriorated, making him quite weak. He could hardly go to the hall. Thus, visiting hours were cut short by April 1950. Ramana died on April 14, 1950, at 8:47 p.m. A shooting star was seen during that time, which some of his devotees considered as a synchronicity.
Various devotees believed him to be Dakshinamurthy, an incarnation of Jnana Sambandar, an avatar of Skanda, and an incarnation of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (Bhaṭṭa). Some of his notable devotees were Sri Muruganar, A. R. Natarajan, O. P. Ramaswamy Reddiyar, Gudipati Venkatachalam, H. W. L. Poonja, and Ganapati Muni. Westerners such as David Godman, Robert Adams, Ethel Merston, Arthur Osborne, and Paul Brunton were also among his followers.
The ‘Ramana Maharshi Center of Learning’ was started by A. R. Natarajan in Bangalore.