On 30th December 1879 a child named Venkataraman was born to Sundaram Aiyar (father) and Alagammal (Mother) in the village of Tiruchuli, 30 miles south of Madurai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. This boy was destined to be later called as the sage Ramana Maharshi.
However growing up there was nothing unusual or distinctive about the boy. He grew up like any other kid and went to school like other kids of his age. At the age of 12 his father died and this required the family to move from the village into the town of Madurai to be with a paternal uncle.
Though highly intelligent and blessed with a powerful memory, he was an indifferent student with nothing notable about his academic performance. He was a strong and healthy lad and his classmates were afraid of his strength. No one dare mess with him. The only notable thing about this lad was that he had an unusually deep sleep. He could be carried in his sleep, or even mishandled, without his waking up or his sleep being disturbed.
One day a relative was visiting when Venkataraman was about 16 years old. When he learnt that his relative was from a place called “Arunachala” it was as if the name cast a spell on him. This was the first time Venkataraman realized that he had some kind of connection with this place called Arunachala.
Shortly after this incident Venkataraman came across some religious texts that aroused his intense curiosity and excitement. It was as if these texts awakened within him his deeper spiritual tendencies.
One day in 1986 when he was not quite seventeen, and was sitting alone on the second floor of his uncle’s house, when a sudden and overwhelming fear of death came over him. He was sure he was going to die. The feeling of his imminent demise however did not unnerve him. He calmly lay on the ground and stretched out his limbs, holding them stiff, as if rigor-mortis had set in. A wave of realization soon hit him and he came to a deep realization that he was not his mind-body. The fear of death vanished forever from his life. Venkataraman found that from now on he was on a higher spiritual plane than normal and his life was forever changed. Somehow Venkataraman had stumbled into a kind of “self-awakening”, a process that normally is difficult for most of us even under the guidance of an expert Guru. From now on nothing that he had valued earlier mattered. School, friends, relatives, nothing of this mattered to him anymore. All he was concerned about was all things spiritual. He would go to the temple everyday and be so moved by the images of saints and gods that tears would flow freely. He now avoided company and instead preferred to sit alone and meditate.
His older brother noticed these changes and was concerned. He chided Venkataraman to pay attention to his studies. One day, about 6 weeks from his experience, he was working on some homework and he suddenly realized the futility of what he was doing and threw away his books and paper and began meditating. His brother saw this and rebuked him. This was a turning point and Venkataraman decided then to leave home and become a renunciate. He finally admitted to himself that there was no use pretending to study and be his old self and carry on a fruitless charade. It was immediately apparent to him that he should go to Arunachala though he had no idea where this place was or how to get there. He looked up an old atlas in the house and determined the nearest station to Arunachala. His opportunity came when he was given 5 rupees for his college fee. Calculating that he only needed 3 rupees he left the balance with a note in a place where it would be found and quietly left his home. He did not want his family members to know where he was going and his note did not mention his destination.
The station was half a mile away and he walked there. Fortunately the train was running late that day and he made it just in time. At that point he did not realize that he had referred to an old atlas and that a new railway line had been built to a point closer to Arunachala than what the atlas indicated. Consequently he disembarked at an earlier point at 3 am with the intention to walk the rest of the way at daybreak. As he started out, he decided to wait till noon to get his food and then embark on his walk. After having his food he proffered payment but the restaurant owner refused to accept the money when he realized that that was all the money he had. It was from the restaurant owner that he learnt that he should go back to the station and get on a train that would take him to a closer point to Arunachala. He went back to the station and purchased a ticket to a station in the direction of his destination with all the money he had left. When he reached this place he set out to walk towards Arunachala and after walking about 10 miles he saw a temple built on a large rock. He entered the temple as soon as the gates were opened and sat down in the pillared hall. Here he had a vision and a bright light enveloped him. After the vision faded he continued to sit in meditation till he was roused by the temple priests who had to lock the doors and go to another temple. Venkataraman followed the priests to the next temple and once again got lost in meditation. After finishing their duties the priests once again asked Venkataraman to leave but they offered him no food. The temple drummer saw the rude behavior of the priests and gave his share of food to this strange boy.
He stayed overnight at the temple and the next morning he got the thought of disposing off his gold earrings to raise the money to buy food and fare to the station that would take him closer to Arunachala. He went to the nearest house and gave up his earrings in return of money. He walked back to the station and purchased his ticket only to realize that the train was due next morning. He slept in at the station and boarded the train next morning. He reached his destination a short while later and he hastened to Arunachala reaching the more than 1000 year old “Great Temple of Arunachala” with its 1000 pillared hall. He found the temple completely deserted and even the priests were missing. As he entered the temple, all the gates spontaneously opened for him including the doors to the inner sanctum. He entered the inner sanctum and embraced the lingam and experienced great ecstasy and joy. A strong internal burning sensation that had been part of his experience since his self-awakening dissipated and melted away when he touched the lingam. He had reached home.
Venkataraman was never initiated into a formal order of monkhood. As he exited the temple someone called out to him and asked if he wanted to have the hair on his head shaved off. He consented readily and was directed towards the barber. He then stood on the steps of a nearby tank and threw away in the water his remaining money, the food he had, and all his clothes. He stood there utterly naked and happy knowing that this was the start of a new life for him. An epic spiritual journey was about to begin.
This is the first part of a multi-part series that will cover the life of Ramana Maharshi. The next part in the series is: Becoming Established.
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