The Jnana Yoga of Sri Ramana Maharshi
by George Catlin
|The path to the heart has been sought by aspirants for thousands of years. It is as if we all know that there is a place — associated with the heart — where consciousness becomes filled with love, compassion and a sense of one’s unity with all things. However, finding one’s way to this sacred place is no easy matter. Focusing one’s attention there may help, but the one who focuses the attention, the separate self, remains as the center of the problem it is trying to fix. Another means must exist, and one of the greatest sages of recent times, Ramana Maharshi, has offered just such a path.
The life story of Sri Ramana Maharshi is remarkable. At a young age he experienced his own death. He did not actually die, but had a fully conscious experience of death of the body, which included awareness of himself as something other than the body, an eternal stream of energy. From that day forth he was no longer an average village boy. Despite his family’s best efforts to keep him in a somewhat normal life, he left home with just a few rupees, heading for a sacred mountain he had heard about from an uncle. That mountain, Mount Arunachala, was revered by Hindus as the actual body of the god Shiva. It rises above the ancient temple city of Tiruvanamali in the heart of southern India. It is saturated with power — certainly with energies that were anchored there long ago, and probably further enhanced by the life of the great sage who first arrived at the age of 16.
When Ramana arrived at Tiruvanamali, no one knew what to do with him, but that really didn’t matter because all he wanted to do was lose himself into union with the Self. It is said that he meditated in the temple basement for months at a time, taking food only rarely and allowing rodents to gnaw at his shrinking body. Somehow he survived and emerged from the temple, taking up residence in a cave on the mountain. By this time devotees were aware of him and supplied meager food for the blessing of being in his presence. He was silent for most of the 23 years he spent on the mountain before being persuaded to come down into a modest ashram that was taking shape to accommodate those who wanted to be near him.
Once in the ashram, his ‘teaching’ began. He preferred to teach through the mere power of the silence that surrounded him. Devotees would sit for hours soaking up the peace and awareness that seemed to emanate from him. But of course many were insensitive to this form of learning and brought their questions to him. He responded with a teaching that sprang directly from his experience and cut to the heart of the most basic questions of the spiritual path.
The fundamental issue from Ramana Maharshi’s perspective is “Who am I?” Sri Ramana explains that the eternal is always present — our natural state —but we miss it because we are captives of the mind. To escape the grasp of the mind one needs to turn attention inward toward the mind: to see the mind for what it really is — a charlatan, something that appears much more substantial than it really is. The technique he offered was simply to continually trace thoughts back to their origin — to see from where they actually arise. This search brings one eventually to the ‘I thought’, the thought that ‘I’ exist as an entity separate from God and all creation. It is natural enough that such a thought should arise, but Ramana encouraged his followers to try to get to the root of this thought. From where did it come? From where does it come minute to minute? Looking for this one finds first that there is no mind as a substantial entity that creates all thought. Rather there is just a stream of thought and every thought can end once its essential reality is questioned.
To see this in the simplest terms, think of a simple thought such as “I need to go to the store this afternoon.” Such a thought can seem very real — a true fact of life. But then with just a slight switch in perspective, that very same thought can appear to be nothing more than a self-created fantasy based on a bunch of other thoughts that are equally insubstantial. It is easy to see that “I need to go to the store” is “just a thought” — meaning something not particularly real.
The same process of insight can be applied to all thoughts. When one thinks: “I am afraid,” the question can be asked: “Who is afraid?” Looking at that, one soon realizes that thought is afraid, nothing more. Again, the fear is “just a thought”. The ubiquitous process of thought eventually comes to be seen as a prison in which we encase ourselves. Thought rules everything. We are our thoughts — at however a conscious or unconscious level they may be operating. But again, Sri Ramana would have us look at these thoughts and see their transient, insubstantial, unreal nature. One by one they can be eliminated, or one can look to the root of them all, the ‘I thought’.
It seems far harder to see the falsity of the ‘I thought’ than all the other thoughts that spring from it. It is as if all thoughts could be seen as a tree. The little thoughts (“I need to go to the store”) are the twigs and they can be easily cut off with just a little awareness. Bigger thoughts (“I’m afraid”) are like the branches and they require more awareness to see though them. The biggest thought of all, the ‘I thought’, is the trunk of the tree and it requires tremendous, sustained awareness to perceive its non-reality.
One of the all-time great journals of a spiritual quest is Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India. Brunton was very much an ‘ordinary guy’ — though admittedly one possessed with a fascination with India. His book chronicles an amazing string of encounters with individuals with various powers or states of awareness. Some offer to instruct him, but he pushes on relentlessly, searching for someone who can really meet his mind’s high standards for a true teacher. In light of his ultimate discovery, it is noteworthy that one of the teachers he cannot bring himself to stay with is Ramana Maharshi. However, his description of his first encounter with the sage bears repeating. Arriving from an overnight train journey and lengthy ride in a bullock cart, Brunton enters a shaded hall to find a semi-circle of 20 or 30 seated around the sage. He writes:
“There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet. I cannot turn my gaze away from him. My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being totally ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly. But it is not until the second hour of the uncommon scene that I become aware of a silent, resistless change which is taking place within my mind. One by one, the questions which I have prepared on the train with such meticulous accuracy drop away. For it does not now seem to matter whether they are asked or not, and it does not seem to matter whether I solve the problems which have hitherto troubled me. I know only that a steady river of quietness seems to be flowing near me, that a great peace is penetrating the inner reaches of my being, and that my thought-tortured brain is beginning to arrive at some rest.”
Unfortunately for Brunton, that “thought-tortured brain” is roused back into activity all too soon. The meditation ends, and after a week his quest draws him on, elsewhere. He travels for months until, like the above mentioned iron filings, he is drawn once again to the powerful magnet at the foot of Mount Arunachala. Then, finally, when physically sick and with time and money running out, through his own intense effort and surely the grace of Ramana Maharshi, Brunton finds his way into the real. It is exactly as Ramana had described: once the origin of thought is perceived, it loses its hold on consciousness and awareness is absorbed into the true Self.
To those wanting to take the journey today, the way is no less open than it was when Ramana Maharshi was still physically on the planet. As his passing out of the body approached, he said to his disciples: “You say I am going, but where could I go?” The fact is that Ramana Maharshi is no more the body that lived and died in southern India than God is merely the physical objects of the universe. Sri Ramana’s spirit lives on undeterred and seems to remain available to those who align to it. Similarly, his teachings remain completely available to us — perhaps more available than they were years ago.
One of the best books on Ramana Maharshi’s teachings is probably Be as You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi edited by David Godman, who has done a remarkable job in drawing together the sage’s teachings from a wide range of sources and then arranging them topically. Each chapter begins with Godman’s clear introduction to Sri Ramana’s ideas on a particular aspect of the path. This is followed by questions and answers arranged to read almost like one extended conversation on that topic.
No single passage does justice to the power and joy of the teachings but, to conclude, the following captures something of the spirit of this great teacher and his teaching.
“Question: When a man realizes the self, what will he see?
Answer: There is no seeing. Seeing is only being. The state of Self-realization, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been. All that is needed is that you give up your realization of the not-true as true. All of us are regarding as real that which is not real. We have only to give up this practice on our part. Then we shall realize the Self as Self; in other words, ‘Be the Self’.”