After a spiritually transcending experience at the age of 16, Ramana Maharshi renounced his place in the material world and moved to the Indian city of Tiruvannamalia. It was here, around the Arunachala Hill, where Maharshi would spend the remaining 54 years of his life completely devoted to spiritual practice. The great Hindu sage will forever be remembered for his teachings about self-inquiry meditation, the true self, and the ego.
Ramana Maharshi Profile:
Birth Name: Venkataraman Iyer
Birth: December 30th, 1879
Death: April 14th, 1950 (age 70)
Spiritual Role: Hindu Sage & Spiritual Teacher
Focused On: Self-Inquiry Meditation
Ramana Maharshi Overview:
On the 30th of December, 1879, a young boy was born into an upper caste family as the Indian village of Tiruchuli celebrated Arudra Darshanam. The holiday, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance (the continuous cycle of creation and destruction), is of great significance to the people of Tiruchuli and throughout the state of Tamil Nadu. The birth, although unknown at the time, would also become significant to the people of southern India.
It was on this day when Sundaram and Azhagammal Iyer welcomed their son, Venkataraman, now commonly known as Ramana Maharshi, into the world. For Sundaram and Azhagammal, this was their second of four children, and they hoped that he would one day work in the Indian government while carrying on the family’s strong religious beliefs.
Maharshi had a normal childhood as a young boy. He did well in school and enjoyed spending time with friends. At the age of seven, he, like many upper-caste boys his age, began studying the Hindu religion in hopes of improving his understanding of himself. To help him and his older brother obtain the necessary skills needed to work in governmental services, namely learning the English language, their parents decided to send them to live with their uncle when he was 11 years old.
The two boys first joined their uncle in the larger Tamil Nadu city of Dindigul before moving with him to the state’s cultural hub, Madurai, after he was transferred there for work. Unfortunately while staying in Madurai, the brothers received bad news. Maharshi’s father had become seriously ill, which caused the young boys to feverishly return home in hopes of seeing his recovery. This, however, did not happen and it was only days after the children’s arrival that Sundaram passed away. It was here where Maharshi, 12 at the time, had his first experience with death and his first true experience of exploring the idea of one’s self.
For the next four years, Maharshi continued his education under his uncle’s guidance, but in 1896, at the age of 16, the life of the young adolescent took a drastic change of course. As he was sitting in his room at his uncle’s house, it is said that he was overcome with an extremely pervasive fear of dying. He was certain that he would die then and there, but instead of telling his uncle or brother, the young boy decided that he needed to solve the problem for himself.
Maharshi began asking himself about the meaning of death. He went into a deep state of ponder and tried to determine who or what exactly dies. He then dramatized the occurrence of his own death, lying motionless on the floor and holding his breath before he had a spiritually transcending moment. Maharshi is quoted as saying:
I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff 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’? It 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 Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. This means I am the deathless Spirit.”
It was from this experience alone that Maharshi lost interest in the physical realm of reality and moved toward his truer self. For the next six weeks, Maharshi became noticeably more detached from his schoolwork, family, and friends. After getting in trouble at school and being questioned for his newly detached views of external reality, Maharshi made the decision to leave home and become a sannyasi, or ascetic, even though he was merely 16 years old.
One night, he told his family that he needed to go to school to finish a project, but instead left for the town of Tiruvannamalia, which was home to Arunachala Hill. The hill holds great significance to worshipers of Shiva, and it is here that Maharshi would spend the rest of his life. After his family discovered his location, they unsuccessfully pleaded for the young boy to return home. His mother, who initially wept for his homecoming, eventually became a loyal follower of her mystical son.
During the 54 years Maharshi stayed in Tiruvannamalia, he spent his time living in a variety of temples and caves. Over time, news of Maharshi’s incomparable stillness and devotion spread, which resulted in a following of spiritual seekers. While his initial time spent around Arunachala was lived in complete silence, he eventually began speaking about the importance of self-awareness, self-observation, and self-inquiry.
When Maharshi’s following grew large enough, an ashram for spiritual practice was built in his name. Today, the Sri Ramanasramam Ashram still attracts thousands of visitors each year. It is said that Ramana Maharishi didn’t outline any rules for the ashram, but instead abided by those that management put in place. He believed that everyone was equal and insisted on not receiving preferential treatment.
Ramana Maharshi passed away at the age of 70 in 1950, but will forever be remembered as the Saint of Arunachala. Numerous books, audio recordings, and documentaries highlight the life of Maharshi, but his own personal writings are limited. He is most well-known for the self-inquiry meditation technique that revolves around the question, ‘Who Am I?’
3 Messages to Take from His Teachings:
- Ask Yourself ‘Who Am I?’: Ramana Maharshi came to believe that any individual could dissolve their ego and reach a state of enlightenment by inquiring into their very own nature. The great Hindu sage told us that by continuously and persistently asking ourselves ‘Who am I?’, we could come to realize how we are in fact much more than our physical bodies, societal roles, and mental cognitions. This one singular question severs as the basis for the self-inquiry meditation technique that Maharshi is associated with, and he believed that this was the most effective way to progress spiritually. By taking the time to ask yourself ‘Who am I?’ on a daily basis, and exploring the various aspects of your being, you can move closer to finding everlasting contentment and fulfillment. The truth is that your physical body is nothing but small waves of energy moving together in a synchronized way, your beliefs are the byproduct of social conditioning, and the titles that you give yourself are dependent upon your circumstances and constantly changing. So then who are you actually? The question ‘Who am I?’ can help you realize that your truest self is beyond the illusions of the physical and mental realms of reality and is in fact only pure consciousness.
- Removing the Veil of Ignorance: Many people falsely believe that they need to obtain something in order to reach the covenant spiritual state of enlightenment. Maharshi, however, knew this to be untrue and told us that in order to reach nirvana, all we have to do is remove the veil of ignorance that prohibits our deeper nature from shining freely. The great Hindu sage came to realize that each of us is already inherently enlightened and only through ignorance and conditioning does this truth become hidden. In much the same way that a sky becomes clouded when a thunderstorm moves into the area, your deeper nature becomes masked as you progress throughout your life. He told that instead of searching for a mystically transcendent state, all we have to do is remove the veil of ignorance that covers up the true self. Fortunately, you can begin the process of disassociating from the ego by using self-inquiry meditation.
- Love All with Connective Understanding: Once an individual becomes self-realized, they come to understand how every living being is deeply connected and made from the same source. The common Hindu greeting Namaste, which translates to mean, ‘The divine in me respects and honors the divine in you,’ exemplifies this truth. Coming to discover the interconnected nature of all beings, Maharshi went to great lengths to treat not only every person with dignity and respect but also every animal. It is said that monkeys, dogs, and cows were actually considered to be Ramana’s devotees. At the level of pure consciousness, which is where everything arises from, all creatures are inherently the same. For this reason, you should make a consciously driven effort to not only treat all humans as your brothers and sisters but also treat every animal as part of God’s family.
- “Our own self-realization is the greatest service we can render the world.”
- “It is the Higher Power which does everything, and the man is only a tool. If he accepts that position, he is free from troubles; otherwise, he courts them.”
- “Without understanding yourself, what is the use of trying to understand the world?”