Monday, March 15, 2010

Ramana Maharshi: The Human Side of a Jnani

Ramana Maharshi is often perceived as a pure jnani, living at a dimension far beyond that of ordinary mortals. He is sometimes seen as entirely devoid of a human side to him – an impression that I myself had retained for a long time, in spite of being taught by two of his direct disciples. The following excerpts from SS Cohen’s Guru Ramana show how this impression is totally wrong. SS Cohen was an inmate of Ramanasramam for fourteen years, until the Maharshi passed away in 1950.


There I quietly sat and listened to the visitors’ talks with him and to his answers, which were sometimes translated into English, particularly if the questioner was a foreigner or a north Indian – not always. His answers were fresh and sweet. His influence was all pervasive in his silence not less than in his speech. To me in the beginning this was all the more perceptible in the contrast it offered to the hustle and bustle of the life on which I had just turned my back – to the wasted energy, the false values, the foolish expectations from ideals which are in themselves hollow reeds, the dreary intercourse with people with whom one has very little in common; to the social rules which have been laid down by many generations of selfishness, convention and superstitions, not to speak of the mess of politics, of rank and wealth, and the bitter jealousy and hatred they breed in the minds of men. It is small wonder therefore that Bhagavan appears to the serious-minded as a beacon light in an otherwise impenetrable darkness, and a haven of peace.

Bhagavan was then enjoying the sound, robust health of middle age, and could very well afford to be available at almost all hours of the day to devotees. The years 1936-1938 were very blissful, indeed, to us, when we could gather round his couch and speak to him as intimately as to a beloved father; tell him all our troubles and show him our letters without let or hindrance. After 8 p.m. when the hall contained only the local residents, we sat round him for a ‘family chat’ till about 10 o’clock.

Then he related to us stories from the Puranas or the lives of Saints, yielding to transportations of emotions when he depicted scenes of great bhakti, or great human tragedies, to which he was sensitive to the extreme. Then he shed tears which he vainly attempted to conceal. Some stories are memorable like the following one. Kabir was a great bhakta (devotee) and lived in or near Benares some centuries ago. Although he had siddhis (psychic powers), he earned his livelihood by weaving. One day, when he was working on his looms, a disciple entered in great excitement and said: “Sir, there is a juggler outside here who is attracting large crowds by making his stick stand in the air”, etc. Thereupon Kabir, who like all true saints, discouraged the display of jugglery, wanting to shame the man, rushed out with a big ball of thread in hand. Seeing the long bamboo standing in the air, he threw up the ball of thread, which went up and up unwinding till the whole thread stood stiff in mid-air, and to a far greater height than the juggler’s stick, without any support whatever. The people, including the juggler himself, were stunned in amazement, and Sri Bhagavan’s eyes acted the amazement, while his hand stood high above his head in the position of that of Kabir when he threw up the ball.

On another occasion Bhagavan recited from memory a poem of a Vaishnava Saint, in which occurred the words “Fold me in thy embrace, O Lord,” when the arms of Bhagavan joined in a circle round the vacant air before him, and his eyes shone with devotional ardour, while his voice shook with stifled sobs which did not escape our notice. It was fascinating to see him acting the parts he related, and be in such exhilarated moods as these.

Some disciples and his attendants used to sleep on the floor of the hall at night. Bhagavan’s sleep was very light: he woke every now and then, and almost always he found an attendant nearby fully awake to say a few words to, and slept again. Once or twice he would go out for a few minutes, and, by 5 a.m., when the Veda chanters came from the township, they found him fully awake and chatting in a soft, subdued voice. Now the parayanam would get started and go on for a little less than an hour, during which everybody abstained from talking, and Bhagavan often sat cross-legged and completely indrawn. Then he went out for bath, breakfast, and a little stroll on the hill, and returned at about 7.30, when visitors and devotees began trickling in – men, women and children – till they filled the hall by about 9 a.m.

This morning hour of the parayanam was the best time of the day for meditation: the congregation was small, women and children were absent, the weather cool, and the mind had not yet completely emerged to run its usual riot. Over and above this Bhagavan then shone in the stillness of his samadhi, which permeated the hall and the meditation of the disciples.

But unfortunately I could not keep up this attendance, nor could I benefit by it even when present, for my mind remained in the fog of somnolence. Being a life-long bad sleeper I never succeeded in making the requisite six-hour sleep before six in the morning. Another tendency which I could not completely overcome was intolerance to noise, of which the hall was seldom free. Apart from the free access to it by all and sundry there was also the freedom of singing, which at times took one by surprise at a moment when the hall was plunged in silence and the atmosphere conducive to meditation. All of a sudden a soprano voice rose from somewhere in the hall intoning some hymn or other, or reciting some shloka in a South-Indian language, to be succeeded by a tenor or another soprano, often the latter, in competition with a male of the species, till Bhagavan went out at his usual hours. These were: 9.45 for a few minutes, 11 o’clock for luncheon, followed by the midday stroll in Palakottu, evening 4-45 on the hill, preceding the evening Veda parayanam, and 7 o’clock for dinner.

The best I could do then was to remain in a semi-contemplative or reflective mood, reserving my serious meditation to the quiet solitude of my own room. Major Chadwick, the only other foreign resident then, who had preceded me to Ramanashram by exactly three months, used to wonder how I could meditate in my room at all. I reciprocated by myself wondering how he could seriously concentrate amidst so much disturbance in the hall. Even in as small a matter as this, it will be observed, individual idiosyncrasies are apparent. These lonely hours I snatched from the time when Bhagavan was out.

The constant influx of visitors was of some help in that it afforded the much-needed relaxation to an otherwise tense life. Secondly the peculiar problems which visitors brought with them were a useful study – study of the human mind and the endless ills to which it is subject. The problems of the mind and the conditions which give rise to them are infinitely more numerous than the variety which the physical universe presents to the human senses.

Moreover, watching the masterly ways Bhagavan tackled these problems was sadhana in itself. Rationality was the very essence of his arguments. Whilst the ultimate answer to all the questions was always the same, namely, “Find out who you are,” he first met every questioner on his own ground, and then slowly steered him round to the source of all problems – the Self – the realisation of which he held to be the universal panacea. Psychologists deal only with the working of the mind, but Bhagavan goes to the source, the mind or Self itself.

It was a wonder that all visitors were agreeably impressed by him, sometimes even without comprehending the drift of his ideas. People take siddhis as the sure sign of Perfection, but few understand the subtle influence of the truly Perfect person, who, without the deliberate use of miracles, works out the transformation of the people who come into contact with him, more so the genuine disciples, whom he actually turns into muktas, or well on the way to mukti, of which external siddhis are totally incapable. Many of those who have had the inestimable privilege of a long stay with Bhagavan bear witness to the blessedness which his mere presence conferred on them. This is the highest and truest siddhi which always accompanies Jnana (knowledge of the Self or Supreme Perfection).

When the audience shrank, the Master at times became humorously autobiographical about his early school and home life, or about his many experiences on the hill with sadhus, devotees, etc. One of the stories was about a “miracle” he had once performed in Skandashram, when his mother one day, leaving him inside a room in deep samadhi, bolted him in from outside and went to the town, and, on her return, to her great surprise, found him seated under a tree in the garden outside, and the door still bolted, as she had left it. She was so impressed by this “miracle” that she told it to everyone she met. The truth was, Bhagavan said, that he had unbolted the two door-shutters from inside and then re-bolted them, as before, from outside, from sheer habit.

Again and again the Master spoke of his early life in the big Arunachaleshwara temple in the first year of his escape to Tiruvannamalai (1896). Whilst urchins troubled him, educated adults had much respect for him, although he was then still in his teens. Pious men used to seek his company almost daily on the steps of Subramanya’s shrine. Two lawyers, in particular, were assiduous in this respect. On a certain Hindu festival day they prepared a grand dinner and came to take him to it, but his immovable silence indicated his refusal of their invitation. There was no alternative for them but to use force, which they did by joining hands and bodily lifting him, till he agreed to walk with them. Bhagavan said that that was the only house in Tiruvannamalai where he ate once. Another time he was also bodily carried and bundled into a waiting cart and fed, but that was not in a private house but in Ishanya Mutt – an Ashram-like institution for sannyasis of a special caste in the northern end of the town.

The stream of visitors [to Ramanasramam] continued to increase, so that soon afterwards sitting accommodation and easy access to the Master on personal matters became difficult. In fact under the new rules, letters and articles written by devotees were made first to pass the censorship of the office before they could be shown to him, which was not without reasons. One or two devotees, taking advantage of the Master’s compassionate nature, took to write to him letters running to several pages in very small hand on petty, often imaginary, difficulties in their spiritual practice, on which he strained his eyes for one or two hours. He was too scrupulous to let a single word go unread, which encouraged them to write still longer letters and daily too, imagining their epistles to be of great interest to Bhagavan till the management found it imperative to clamp down a ban on all correspondence to be shown or written to him.

A year or two later a colony of devotees, with families for the most parts, sprang up round the Ashram. As Bhagavan’s body grew weaker, his power to influence and attract increased,so that the tide of settlers and visitors continued steadily to rise and included world-famed philosophers, scholars, politicians, ministers, provincial governors, generals, foreign diplomats, members of foreign missions. They all came, whether in war or peace, in rain or shine. The tide swelled and swelled and reached its zenith in 1950, the last year of his earthly life. Till the last the Master continued to instruct. In the whole history of the Ashram there has never been a bar to the seeking of spiritual guidance orally from him, except in the very last year when he was seriously laid up and the visitors of their own accord desisted from troubling him.

As time passed and the Master’s state of mind and ideas took firm root in me, I ceased to ask questions, or to intercept him in his walks outside the Ashram grounds, as I used to do in the first six months of what I call my Vanaprastha life; for by then all my spiritual questions – call them problems, if you like – had resolved themselves in various ways. The final conclusion to which I came in the end of these six months I reported it one day to Bhagavan. He showed his gracious approval by a gesture of finality with his hand and said: “So much lies in your power, the rest must be left entirely to the Guru, who is the ocean of Grace and Mercy seated in the heart, as the seeker’s own Self.”


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