I still remember vividly sitting among the other disciples of my teacher in his ashram and listening to the verses of Ramana Maharshi’s Upadesa Saram sung by him decades ago. Swamiji had learnt to sing these verses in Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai, listening to the Maharshi singing it. Swamiji he sang those verses melodiously, in his rich, deep voice, sending a thrill through us as we listened to him.
It helped that Swamiji had learnt classical Karnatic music as a child in Tanjavur from traditional music teachers. Listening to him chanting the Upadesa Saram was a spellbinding experience. Swamiji of course sang the verses exactly as Maharshi had sung them. Following the chanting of the verses, he would comment on them. Usually he commented on one verse a day, for ninety minutes to two hours – so the thirty-one verses of the book took a month for us to study under him. By the time he finished, we had, of course, memorised the entire book, apart from exploring the meaning. The true meaning of the book, as in the case of the teachings of every self-realized teacher, Swamiji told us, dawns in your heart when you personally experience it.
Later I listened to another teacher who explained to us, a small group of four or five of friends, the meaning of Upadesa Saram. This was in Madras [Chennai] and the teacher gave us an option. He knew only two languages – Tamil and Sanskrit. Tamil was his mother tongue and he spoke Sanskrit as fluently as he spoke Tamil. We chose to listen to him in Sanskrit, more for the privilege of being taught in Sanskrit, which I consider is indeed a rare privilege.
Sastrigal, our teacher, began teaching us the Upadesa Saram by narrating a small incident from his life when he was living in Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai. Satrigal was writing a small poem in Sanskrit – a single long verse in fact – and struggle as he might, he could not complete the last part of it. Eventually after hours of effort he left the paper on which he was writing where it was, along with the pen, and went for a bath. And lo! When he came back, he found the verse was complete. Puzzled, he made enquiries all over the ashram and then he learnt the amazing truth. Ramana Maharshi was taking a walk inside the ashram when he came across the pen and the paper with the incomplete verse. He had picked up the pen and effortlessly completed the verse in a spontaneous act of composition!
Reminds me of how Jayadeva felt reluctant to write about Radha placing her foot on Krishna in the Gita Govindam and went for a bath. When he came back, he found the verse completed for him. Legend says that Krishna himself had come and completed the verse. [Jayadeva might feel reluctance about Radha placing her foot on Krishna; but Krishna has no such reluctance about it!]
The most amazing thing about what Maharshi did is that while Sastrigal was a Sanskrit scholar, Ramana Maharshi was not. He had picked up a bit of Sanskrit from the scholars who used to visit the ashram and discuss things among themselves or with the Maharshi and that was all – he had never studied the language formally.
Of course, it was the Maharshi himself who had rendered the Upadesa Saram into Sanskrit from his Tamil original, though he did get some help here.
Some people prefer to say that he composed it in four languages – Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Telugu. That is to say, they consider all four compositions as independent ones, rather than as one original and its three renderings.
Every verse in the Upadesa Saram is precious and extremely beautiful. But I have always had a special fascination for verse 17:
manasam tu kim margane krte
naiva manasam marga arjavat.
“If you make an enquiry into what the mind is, you find that there is no mind, if your path is straight.”
The mind is a myth.
And the strangest of all things is that we all live our entire lives for the mind. All our seeking, all our ambitions and aspirations, all our struggles, the entire pursuit of our life, is to satisfy the mind. And the mind itself does not exist! It is only a myth.
Abraham Maslow in his celebrated theory of human needs speaks of eight dimensions of human needs [In the revised version of his theory. The original and more widely known theory has only five dimensions]. Physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization needs and self-transcendence needs. The lowest dimension of physiological needs are at the physical level – at the level of instincts and impulses. And the highest dimension of self-transcendence is the need to reach beyond the mind, beyond the ego, into our true being. In this dimension we transcend the mind. In all other six dimensions, it is the needs of the mind that the human being tries to satisfy, it is the needs of the mind that motivates all his actions. Our safety needs, our belongingness needs, our esteem needs, our cognitive needs, our aesthetic needs, our self-actualization needs are the needs of our mind. And our life story is the story of our race through the arena of the world to achieve these, the story of our battles to satisfy these.
And what Ramana Maharshi says is that the mind does not exist.
He is pulling away from under our feet the plank on which we are standing. He is making the earth on which we stand disappear from below our feet.
Following his path would force us to reconsider all that we try to achieve in life. We will have to question the meaningfulness of all that we do in life.
We will have to ask ourselves if the mind is unreal, aren’t all mental pursuits illusory? We will have to question if there is anything that is really meaningful in life apart from searching for self-transcendence.
And once that is achieved? Once self-transcendence is achieved? Then what?
Here is what the amazing Yeshe Tsogyel, Tibet’s greatest female teacher and the Mother Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, has to say in her embodiment as Vajra Mamo, the Dakini of Crazy Wisdom:
“Whatever happens; may it happen.
Whichever way it goes; may it go that way.
There is no purpose.”
Crazy because that sounds crazy to us.
But this is what India has always called lila. Life as the divine lila. Krida.
It has no goal, it has no purpose.
For there is nothing to achieve.
Only the game has to be played.
As Krishna says in the Gita:
na me parthasti kartavyam
trishu lokeshu kinchana
“Listen, Oh Partha. There is nothing whatsoever that I must do in all the three worlds. There is nothing for me to achieve that I have not already achieved.”
From the standpoint of the self-transcended individual, there is nothing to be achieved.
Until then there is a goal: achieving self-transcendence.
Continued . . . Part 2