Ramana Maharishi is one of the spiritual masters of India who was beloved to people worldwide. His approach to spirituality was very different from the common practices of the times.
Ramana Maharishi was born in a religious family near Madurai, South India in 1879. The unique background of the family was that a wandering monk had cursed them. A member of the family had refused the monk food. So, the monk cursed the family that one member of every generation would renounce material life.
As a child, Ramana was a very introspective and absent-minded child who also had little interest in school. Even as a child he would ask probing questions such as “Who am I?”.
He had the ability to sleep very deeply. When asleep, he would not wake up even if beaten or carried around. This peculiarity earned him the nickname of Kumbhakarna after the character in the Ramayana who could sleep very soundly.
In 1896, Ramana experienced a different state of consciousness in which he felt as if he had died and then returned to life. During his episodes of altered consciousness, he felt detached from his physical body and realised that he was an eternal entity. He also became fascinated with the word Arunachala and was happy to learn that there was indeed a town by that name. This town is the modern-day Tiruvannamalai.
Ramana had almost finished high school when he overheard a remark that he was not fit to be a student. He had been reading a book on Tamil saints who had left home and become religious seekers. He resolved to follow the same path. At the age of 17, he left home and headed to Arunachala. He travelled by train and reached after 4 days. On arriving at Arunachala, he went to the Shiva temple (Shiva Temple in Tiruvanmallai) there and told the Shiv Linga there that he had responded to God’s call and arrived at Arunachala.
The young Ramana Maharishi lived in caves and temples for ten years. He spent his days meditating and spiritually purifying himself. He maintained non-attachment and silence. His reputation started to grow. After this phase, he began to live in an ashram with less rigorous austerities. His disciples constructed the ashrama and here Ramana Maharishi did not expect any special treatment and sat with all the people to eat. He had visitors from India and abroad who sought him out to help with their problems. Ramana Maharishi was very fond of animals and the ashram became a sanctuary for them as well.
Who Am I
Ramana Maharishi’s approach to spirituality continued to based on the question of “Who am I?”. He encouraged all who came to him for spiritual guidance to use the same method of self inquiry. Instead of giving disciples mantras to repeat he advised that they repeat the phrase “I” or “I am”. This made the person lose focus on the external and instead look within himself. It is recorded that Ramana Maharishi used to initiate his disciples merely by touch or glance. This would have the effect of immediately making the student aware that their inner primal being was one with the Guru.
Ramana Maharishi made a great impact on the lives of people just by them being in his presence. It is said that he would travel through the subtle body and meet people and had initiated people through their dreams. He had also appeared to disciples miles away in a luminous form. Ramana Maharishi likened life itself to a dream and referred to life as dream 1 and a dream 2 as he saw no distinction between the two states. The only difference he said was the level of awareness. Therefore, Ramana Maharishi recommended that one renounce physical as well as mental pleasures to enter the state where they could perceive this oneness. When a person lived their life on earth like an actor playing his part in a play with no attachment to the result of actions, they would be immune to any emotional disturbance.
There were many incidents that clearly illustrated that Ramana Maharishi lived by these principles of non-attachment. When his mother (who came to live at the ashram after selling the family home) passed away, he was the same. When thieves entered the ashram and even struck him, he was unmoved. He also instructed that they were to have whatever they wished.
Ramana Maharishi was unperturbed even when he developed cancer. So much so he insisted on being operated upon by doctors without anaesthesia. He also reassured his disciples that he would always be exactly where he always was. He felt no conflict between life and death.
Ramana Maharishi died in April 1950. There was an astronomical event that occurred at that exact time. There were reports all over the state of Tamil Nadu that a comet was seen in the sky at that time. Eyewitnesses near the ashram saw it appear over the sacred Arunachala mountain when Ramana Maharishi died. It is believed that as he was so fond of the mountain that he circumambulated it as a comet.