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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Table of Contents



The Sage: Ramana Maharshi

David Lane

“There is no greater mystery than this--that being the Reality ourselves, we seek to gain Reality. We think there is something binding our Reality and it must be destroyed before the Reality (Truth) is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will laugh at your effort. That which is on the day of laughter is also now.”

--Ramana Maharshi

Almost all human beings have a sense of self or "I-ness" which permeates their consciousness. It is an undeniable feeling of individuality. Yet what exactly is this "I" motivating our day-to-day actions? Is it a physical sensation, the outcome of material processes? A mental perception based upon a unification of similar thoughts and ideas? Or a bracketing in consciousness itself, an illusory whirlpool in a field of infinite awareness?

All of us at one time or another have asked, "Who am I?" But few have experientially explored the query with the vigor that Ramana Maharshi did as a youth almost turning 17. Instead of accepting temporary answers to the question, Ramana directed his inquiry with such zeal that he did not yield until the ultimate truth was realized. The remarkable feature of Ramana's enlightenment in 1896 in a small room in Madurai, South India, was its utter simplicity. Paul Brunton in his book A Search in Secret India retells it:

"He [Ramana] was sitting alone one day in his room when a sudden and inexplicable fear of death took hold of him. He became acutely aware he was going to die, although outwardly he was in good health. He stretched his body prone upon the floor, fixed his limbs in the rigidity of a corpse, closed his eyes and mouth... 'Well, then,' said I to myself, 'this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and then reduced to ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? This body is now silent and stiff. But I continue to feel the full force of my self apart from its condition.' These are the words with which the Maharishee [Maharshi] described the weird experience through which he passed... He seemed to fall into a profound conscious trance wherein he became merged into the very source of selfhood, the very essence of being. He understood quite clearly that the body was a thing apart and that the I remained untouched by death. The true self was very real, but it was so deep down in man's nature that hitherto he had ignored it."

From this transcendental encounter Ramana emerged a new person. No longer interested in the outward activity of his family and peers, he embarked on a journey to Arunachala, the holy "Red Mountain" in Tiruvannamalai, South India, which is a highly revered sacred spot among Hindus. The young sage arrived in the latter part of 1896 and never left the area until his death in 1950.

Subsisting on a meager diet, possessing no material wealth, Ramana spent his entire life at Arunachala meditating or teaching others the way of Knowledge. What had he realized that was profound that it dramatically changed his life and the lives of thousands of others?

The answer is deceptively simple: The world arises in a field of Consciousness. There is no beginning and ending to Consciousness. That very Consciousness is our True Self. Ramana's understanding was not born of a long intellectual quest but was based entirely on an experiential realization which resulted from a direct inquiry into the process of death.

At every level of awareness, Ramana intuited that there was one all-pervading Being. This Being, the real and permanent "I," is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the illusory ego, the "small I" which blinds man to his True Self. In our ignorance, we believe ourselves restricted to a particular form. In other words, "I am this body," "I am this person," "I am this personality" and so on. Yet the truth is quite the opposite: we are not things, as all particularizations are, but contents within the larger stream of consciousness. Our ordinary waking state illustrates this point: How do you know the world exists? How do you know you have a body? Surprisingly, the answer is: because you are aware--not because the body and the world reveal themselves as ontologically real. Put simply, without awareness you cannot know anything that exists, much less the relative status of physical properties.

Descartes' saying "I think, therefore I am" glimpsed this fact. It is not thinking that creates "I am" but rather thinking confirms a priori the underlying "I am" or awareness which allows for mental processes. The world is not material; it is an aspect of consciousness. Our "small I's" do not create consciousness; they are merely products of it. Hence, Ramana Maharshi's realization should not be equated with solipsism (the philosophical theory that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing) as he clearly indicates the ego ("small I") does not create the world, nor is the world unreal. Quite the contrary, Ramana stresses finding the source from which the world and the ego appear permanent and real. That source, Ramana argues, is Pure Awareness, the True Self of man. As Ramana himself so gracefully said:

"There is only one Consciousness and this, when it identifies itself with the body, projects itself through the eyes and sees the surrounding objects. The individual is limited to the waking state; he expects to see something different and expects the authority of his senses. He will not admit that he who sees the objects seen and the act of seeing are all manifestations of the same Consciousness--the 'I-I' [Real Self]. Meditation helps to overcome the illusion that the Self is something to see. Actually there is nothing to see. How do you recognize yourself now? Do you have to hold a mirror up in front of yourself to recognize yourself? The awareness is itself the 'I.' Realize it and that is the truth."

The beauty of Ramana's insight is that it was exemplified in his everyday actions. Although he spoke little (usually in Tamil) and then in "terse and epigrammatic" terms, Ramana's presence was tangible to human beings and animals alike. Perhaps the most heartwarming stories surrounding Ramana's life concern his kindness toward animals. Monkeys, dogs and even cows were counted among his devotees, as they were peculiarly drawn to him. As well as being a strict vegetarian, Ramana always treated lower life forms with the utmost respect. Once when he stepped on a hornet's nest, he apologized verbally and did not move his leg while it was being severely stung. For most Westerners, the logic of karma extends only to human beings but for Ramana it extended everywhere. He realized that all forms are manifestations of the one supreme spirit. B.V. Narasimha Swami recounts Ramana's relations with animals:

"A characteristic of Maharshi that strikes every visitor is the way in which he deals with animals, especially those living in the Ashram [the spiritual retreat built around Ramana Maharshi].’Lakshmi has come; give her rice-food at once,' he says, looking from the hall through the window; and the newcomer thinks that some young girl had to be given her meal. But presently steps in a cow answering to the name Lakshmi. 'Have the boys been given their food?' he again asks. Probably there are little boys brought up here or come for a visit one would think. But presently a couple of dogs answer a whistle and each is told to take his plate of rice... One watches the Maharshi for days, months and years and never finds him calling any of these animals 'it' or treating it as less than a human being."

Such was Ramana's love that even dangerous animals and reptiles did not harm him. A number of accounts relate that snakes, including cobras, reacted calmly in his presence. Ramana once remarked, "We have come to their residence and have no right to disturb them. They would not molest us if we are well-disposed toward them." Naturally, if such benevolence was shown to animals, one can imagine how considerate Ramana was toward human beings.

One poignant example of Ramana's ahimsa (nonviolence toward living things) arose when his ashram was robbed by six dacoits (thieves) on June 26, 1924. When one of his devotees wanted to strike back violently at the robbers, Ramana replied, "Let these [thieves] play their role [dharma]; we shall stick to ours [nonviolence]. Let them do what they like; it is for us to bear and forebear. Let us not interfere with them." When Ramana was hit on the left thigh by one of the ruffians, he at once said, "If you are not satisfied yet, you may strike the other leg also." As it turned out, the thief stopped. Eventually all the robbers were captured by the police after the escape from the ashram. Explaining his stance in the incident, Ramana commented: "These [thieves] are only misguided men. They are blinded by ignorance. But let us note what is right and stick to it. Sometimes your teeth suddenly bite your own tongue. Do you knock them out in consequence?"

Ramana Maharshi did not formally accept any disciples nor did he see himself as a guru or master. Nevertheless, both in India and abroad he attracted a large following of people impressed by his teachings and touched by his radiance. Among Ramana's admirers were Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the famous psychologist; Dr. Paul Brunton, whose book A Search in Secret India made Ramana Maharshi well known; Arthur Osborne, his eventual biographer; and T.M.P. Mahadevan, the respected Indian philosopher.

After a long illness, Ramana died of cancer at 8:47 P.M. on April 14, 1950. At that exact moment, writes A. Devaraja Mudaliar, "a meteor-like flash, leaving a trail of some yards long, appeared in the sky to the southwest and moved north eastwards to Arunachala Hill where it disappeared behind the peak. The light that was Bhagavan [Ramana] just merged in the Pillar of Light that was and is Arunachala, the Sacred Hill."

True to his insight, Ramana did not grieve over the decay of his physical body but humorously referred to the cancerous growth on his arm as a "lingam." In India the lingam represents Siva, the destroyer-god. As to where he will go after death, Ramana Maharshi replied, "They say that I am dying but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here." For the great Sage of Arunachala there was no death. He realized that the True Self of man is both birth less and timeless.


1. Swami Rajeswarananda, Thus Spake Ramana (Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1976), pages 122-123.

2. Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1981), page 283.

3. Arthur Osborne, The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1971), page 24.

4.B. Varasimha Swami, SelfRealization:Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1976), page 157.

5. Ibid., page 155.

6. A. Devaraja Mudaliar, My Recollections of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1960), page 151.

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