The earlier post describes the early life of a boy by the name of Venkataraman who later came to be known as the sage Ramana Maharshi. The story brings us to the time when Venkataraman gave up his home and reached Arunachala at about the age of 17. Arunachala is in fact the name of an ancient and holy hill. At the foot of the hill is the town of Tiruvannaamalai.
Once he arrived in Arunachala, Venkataraman completely lost all interest in worldly affairs. He sat in deep meditation in the hall of thousand pillars for long periods. He maintained complete silence and felt no urge to speak to anybody. Soon he moved to a remote location in the basement of the temple so that he would not be disturbed. He spent days in meditation and was absorbed in such deep Samadhi that he was unaware of the bites of vermin and pests. A local eccentric saint discovered him and took upon himself to protect and feed him. After about 6 weeks in the underground basement the eccentric saint had his devotee carry Venkataraman out and clean him up. He personally cleaned Venkataraman’s blood oozing wounds and revealed Venkataraman as a saint to the world. It seems it was the destiny of Venkataraman to stay alive and fulfill a larger mission. That is why people around him felt compelled to take care of him. Absent this, he would have probably died of physical neglect.
Things started looking better for the young saint. He was being looked after and fed and had some place to stay. Someone provided him with a loincloth that he began wearing. Venkataraman spent most of his time in meditation and maintained complete silence. At this point he was referred to as Brahmana Swami. (Someone who is absorbed in Brahma.) Soon a person by the name Palaniswami came to see Venkataraman and just the sight of this boy absorbed in meditation filled him with peace and bliss. From that moment onwards he became a disciple and a permanent attendant. He would go out beg for food, do the cooking and cleaning, and stand guard when Venkataraman was in deep meditation, which was most of the time. Slowly the fame of this boy-saint spread and people started visiting him. After about 2 years of his stay in Arunachala word also reached his family about his whereabouts. Soon his mother and brother arrived to try and convince him to return home. They could not even get him to give a response. Finally somebody requested him to at least write a response out and Venkataraman complied. His reply implied that it was his destiny to stay here and not return home. This saddened his mother and brother and they returned back empty handed.
Next year Venkataraman decided to move up the hill into its various caves. They spent the next 17 years in a cave called Virupaksha and another 6 years in a cave by the name Skandasramam. For the first three of four years after his arrival in Arunachala he remained in Samadhi for long periods. He rarely ate and portions of his body began to rot. Portions of his legs had open festering sores, but this did not seem to bother him. When he would open his eyes after meditation he would have no idea how long he had been meditating. He would get up and if he found his legs not to be too wobbly then he concluded that his meditation had gone on for just a few days. If his legs buckled and he was unable to stand or walk then he concluded that his Samadhi had gone on longer, maybe weeks. Many times when he opened his eyes he would find himself in a new place and have no idea that he had been carried from one place to another while meditating.
In 1903 about 7 years after his arrival in Arunachala and 4 years after he moved into the Virupaksha cave a renowned scholar by the name Ganapati Sastri visited him. What he saw impressed him and he continued to pay occasional visits to Venkataraman for the next few years. But in 1907 he was assailed by grave doubts about the spiritual progress he was making. Such was his anxiety that he immediately proceeded to Arunachala and ran up the hill to Venkataraman’s cave and prostrated before him saying, “All that has to be read, I have read. Even Vedanta Sastra I have fully understood. I have done japa (japa is usually translated to “repetitive chanting”) to my heart’s content; yet I have up to this time not understood what tapas is. Therefore I have sought refuge at your feet. Pray enlighten me as to the nature of tapas.” (Tapas is usually translated as “austerity”.)
Venkataraman replied, “If one watches whence the notion “I” arises, the mind gets absorbed there; that is tapas. When a mantra is repeated, if one watches whence the mantra sound arises, the mind gets absorbed there; that is tapas.”
When Ganapati Sastri heard this reply it was as if the veil of ignorance had been lifted. He was awestruck and he felt enveloped by the grace of the presence of Venkataraman. He found the answer revelatory as it explained the practice of Tapas in yogic terms, rather than defining it as some sort of denial or ritual. Ganapati Sastri immediately proclaimed that from now on Venkataraman who was being referred to as Brahmana Swami would be known as Sri Ramana Maharshi.
In 1911 Frank Humphrey, a British policeman stationed in colonial India, was looking for an eastern mystic. He was taken to Ganapati Sastri who then introduced him to Ramana Maharshi. Frank Humphrey was greatly impressed and was the first westerner to come in contact with Ramana Maharshi. This is what he wrote subsequently in the International Psychic Journal:
“Ganapati Sastri told me to look the Maharshi in the eyes, and not to turn my gaze. For half an hour I looked Him in the eyes, which never changed their expression of deep contemplation… I could only feel His body was not the man; it was the instrument of God, merely a sitting motionless corpse from which God was radiating terrifically. My own sensations were indescribable… He is a man beyond description in His expression of dignity, gentleness, self-control, and calm strength of conviction”
In 1912 16 years after he arrived in Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi’s devotees observed him to go in a state for 15 minutes where it appeared as if he was dying with stoppage of breath and pulse. However he had merely entered into a state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. From now on he could maintain his connection with the Absolute without having to meditate. This allowed him to interact with people around him more often and he also began to take part in daily practical activities. A new phase was dawning in Ramana Maharshi’s life. Freed up from his need to meditate, he was now more accessible and more able to communicate his thoughts and ideas to people. Next week we will talk about the core message of Maharshi and provide details on the final phase of his life.