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Blessings of Arunachala: A Serialized Travelogue - Part 7 of 12

Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.

A much loved photo of Ramana Maharishi

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Ramana Maharishi was born in Tiruchili, Tamil Nadu, in December 1879. The name given to him at birth was Venkataraman Iyer. As a young boy, Venkataraman showed very little interest in education, spirituality, or religion. His only interest was sports and spending time with friends.

Venkataraman’s father, a lawyer by profession, died when he was 12. After the death of his father, his family, which now comprised of his mother and brother, moved to their maternal uncle’s house in Madurai.

Venkatraman led quite an ordinary life till he was 16, but things changed rapidly after he heard the word “Arunachala” from one of his relatives who had returned from a pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai. Somehow the word “Arunachala” mesmerized young Venkataraman, and he grilled his relative for more information. From then on, “Arunachala” became an obsession for him.

Around this time, he also started reading stories of the 63 Nayanars—the saints of Tamil Shaivism. This was probably the first time when Venkataraman found something really interesting. His interest in spirituality and the lives of the saints increased until he himself had what he described as a death experience.

One day Venkataraman’s body started to become stiff, and he felt like he was dying. Perhaps to get away from the shock and fear of that experience, he started inquiring into the phenomenon of death. He asked himself—“so this body will die and turn to ashes… but will I also die along with it?” Thus he continued inquiring into death and the nature of the self for the next 30-minutes – the duration of his death experience.

I’ve read differing accounts of the effect this experience had on Venkataraman. One account states that as he inquired into the real nature of self during this experience, he saw it as a current of eternal and impersonal energy. He realized this as the true self, which is neither born nor dies.

Yet another account states that the death experience increased his spiritual fervor causing him to lose interest in education as well as material life. He spent most of his time meditating on the ‘true self’. Even when he had one of his study books in front of him, he simply pretended to study while continuing his spiritual inquiry. Eventually he realized the true nature of the self as a current of eternal and impersonal energy.

Whichever be the case, the death experience had a profound effect on Venkataraman. It caused him to lose interest in studies as a result of which he got into a lot of trouble at school with his teachers. They constantly burdened him with punishments and homework until one day he decided to leave it all and follow his inner calling at Arunachala.

This is the note he wrote to his brother on August 29th 1896:

“I am leaving this place to seek out my [spiritual] father as he commanded. This is a virtuous thing, so please do not grieve over me. Please do not also spend any money to trace me out…your school fees has not been paid. I am taking 2 rupees and the remaining money is enclosed herewith…”

After leaving Madurai, Venkataraman went to Tiruvannamalai and stayed there for the rest of his life.

His first teachings were given to a government official, Sivaprakasam Pillai, who visited him in 1902 to learn about the “true identity of the self”. Sivaprakasam asked him fourteen questions, the answers of which were recorded and are thought to be his first teaching or upadesa. The answers revolved around a method of self-inquiry by contemplating on the question—“Who am I?”

Venkataraman was later known as Ramana Maharishi and was visited by several saints and devotees from around the world. Ramana Maharishi did not speak much. He taught his devotees through silence. They would gather in the meditation hall and just sit in silence. Many people have reported experiencing profound shifts in consciousness during these silent sessions. It is said that sometimes, he would look into the eyes of a devotee while meditating and his sharp gaze would literally burn away a karma or blocks that were preventing the devotee from ascending in consciousness. Such was the power of his silence and focus. However, he also encouraged people to ask him questions about the practice after the silent satsangs. In such sessions, his answers mostly focussed around how the disciple could work with the practice of inquiring on the “true nature of the self”.

In 1916, Ramana Maharishi’s mother Alagammal, and younger brother Nagasundaram also joined him at Arunachala. Both of them also became sanyasis.

His mother Alagammal died in 1922 and, according to tradition for self-realized people, was not cremated but buried at the base of Arunachala. The formal ashram, known as Sri Ramana Ashram, eventually developed at the base of Arunachala.

The entrance courtyard of Sri Ramana Ashram, Tiruvannamalai

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During his lifetime, Ramana Maharishi’s ashram was visited by numerous devotees from India and the west.

The first book that helped spread awareness about his teachings was B. V. Narasimhan’s biography of Ramana Maharishi called Self Realisation: The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi.

However, Paul Brunton, an Englishman who visited the ashram in 1931 was instrumental in spreading awareness about Ramana Maharishi’s teachings in the west through his memoir: A Search in Secret India.

The popular writer, Somerset Maugham, also penned a novel in 1944 called The Razor’s Edge. An important character of the book, Sri Ganesha—a spiritual guru, was inspired by his meeting with Ramana Maharishi.

Ramana Maharishi died on April 14th 1950 at 8:47 PM. A shooting star was observed at the time of his death by several people across, what was then, the state of Madras. This incident was reported by several newspapers published in English and Tamil the next morning.

© 2021 Parag Shah 333

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