Ramana Maharshi, The Early Years: Gabriele Ebert's Biography

Carl Sagan was humbled by the vastness of the universe and in his Cosmos series he reminded us repeatedly that the universe is not about us, dust motes dancing for a moment before falling away.  Unlike Sagan, Ramana Maharshi told us that we are here to stay, but not as we think we are. Like Sagan, Ramana saw the human ego as a bit of ephemera but, unlike Sagan, not as something alive. That, Maharshi might have said, is not bad news, but good news.
Being itself gives rise to what humans call their selves, their personalities, its shadows.  Sagan sought to expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge, to explore outer space. Maharshi taught that all knowledge, however useful for people and societies, leads away from inner space, which, if explored, becomes seen as no-space—no inner, no outer, just this, one without a second.

Since the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927, when physicists debated whether a wave is a particle or vice versa—and when Neils Bohr said in effect, Forget it, that's just the way it is—science has come to accept that its paradigm has limits.  Still, even today, many physicists regard as useless the idea that the observer of quantum phenomena somehow affects the thing observed.  Enter on stage: other efforts at explanation such as string theory and the many worlds hypothesis, both dependent on math rather than empirical experience.  Quantum physics now points into uncharted territory, beyond the five human senses.

Imagine Ramana Maharshi waiting in the wings, offering a simpler solution, a new paradigm, one that points out the flaw in the consensual world-view.  In a word, the flaw is dualism.  He would say there is only one without a second.

In 1950, the year Ramana died, Paul Dirac's work on gravitational, and quantum, field theory anticipated today's superstring theories.  Ramana, The Sage of Arunachala, could have understood none of it.  But he knew something else. Looking at his body that year, infected by incurable cancer, Maharshi shrugged at it as another illusion.  For me that is somewhat reminscent of the Sixteenth Karmapa, who on his death bed in 1981 told a crying student, Don't worry. Nothing happens.

Gabriele Ebert has written a biography of the man, Ramana Maharshi, His Life. He came to the biography after being influenced by the sage. In Reading Who Am I?, based on the sage's teachings, Ebert saw in death a way to the answer he sought.  Ramana himself "died" as a teenager and found the answer.  In an essay, Ebert wrote, "The way back is death. One has to die. This is nothing else than real and full surrender: giving up everything. Sri Ramana told us, that when this happens something new takes hold of us, one is born anew as That."

As a school librarian in Germany, Gabriele Ebert wrote the book in German, later translated into English. Ebert found his path to Ramana first via Zen and later through Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India. Ramana taught the question  "Who am I?," in which Ebert found a kind of koan practice. In the dead Indian master he recognized his guru and realized the question was not an intellectual exercise but one that pointed to being itself. Just as Ramana discovered he could not die because he had never been born, so Ebert began to understand that the quintessential focus of life had to begin on death.

As for method, Ramana Maharshi often taught through silence, recalled by William Samuel, a 21-year-old Captain of American infantry, who visited Ramana on R and R for respite from fierce combat in the Burmese theater. In April 1944 Samuel stayed in the ashram and later recalled the visit. “For fourteen days a group of us sat at the feet of this Master, during which time he spoke not one word—not so much as a grunt—until the final day when he bade us farewell and assured us we had learned much.  And to my surprise, I had.  It took months before the seeds of those silent days began to sprout one by one, revealing that there are indeed many things for which the uptight, recondite babble of books and teachers is more hindrance than a help.” After his two week rest, Samuel returned to command a company in some of the most hellish fighting of WWII and in 1950 was recalled for Korea, where he saw things he did not want to remember. He later became a spiritual teacher known for his clarity and wisdom.

Ebert's biography covers Ramana's entire life, but—because they are rarely discussed—interesting to me were the years before he began receiving visitors at the ashram that grew around him and before he was noted for his Direct Path teaching, important in the rennaisance of advaita.  By the time he became famous he had been visited by W. Somerset Maugham, who penned a novel, The Razor's Edge, inspired by that visit, and he had been written about by Carl Jung, who called him "the whitest spot in a white space."

That was years ahead, when we think of the Sage of Arunachala, not the boy, not the young man. Ebert gives us a story of Maharshi's early life as well as the later years. Because of the great detail in the biography, I choose to limit myself to focus on the path to his awakening, as well the time immediately following it. This serves to point out that he did not suddenly become the Ramana Maharshi known today. The early years were spent in obscurity, an obscurity to which he was indifferent. After enlightenment, they were spent in what others would regard as severe hardship and privation, but which to him were nothing but shadows of the real.

Boyhood, Family, and Personality

In Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu (southeast India) Ramana was born as Venkataraman Iyer, with Iyer as a common name in India, mainly original perhaps in the region of his birth. From his first name, he was called Ramana for short.

His father was Sundaram Iyer, in midlife a petition writer and later an uncertified pleader, meaning that he was involved in court arbitration, a vocation that gave his family a comfortable life for that place and time.

We must imagine Ramana growing up in a tightly knit community with a stranger being immediately noticed. Daily the Iyer house welcomed clients and visitors.  In modern Western society we find it hard to imagine providing board and lodging for newly arrived employees, but that is what Sundaram did. He offered it to any officials until they found permanent lodgings of their own.

Ramana's mother, Alagammal, came from Pasalai, a village near Tiruchuli where Ramana first grew up. In traditional fashion, as a child she was married to Sundaram and had no formal school education as that was also part of the tradition. Interesting for Westerners, she breast-fed Ramana till he was five.

Among villagers he was recalled as friendly, open-minded, and well-liked. He enjoyed wrestling, boxing, football, and running as well as other sports. Stronger than most boys his age, his strength and ability made him a leader. People noticed that his team always won.

He began primary school in Tiruchuli at eight and at eleven, when living with his uncle, he went on to Scott’s Middle School and later to the American Mission High School, though he did not graduate as his spiritual  awakening caused him to lose interest in school just before he was to matriculate. In school he learned English, which he would use to teach Westerners at his ashram. While his older brother, Nagaswami, was a good student, Venkataraman, although intelligent, was not. He attended class unprepared and remembered just enough to keep up. Instead, he liked playing under the open sky. In short, there was nothing in him to suggest an intense spiritual question about the world.

He was noted as a lively boy prone to mischief and  pranks. At about six years old, he and playmates found old documents in the loft of the family house, legal documents his father had stored, many relating to settled law suits. Venkataraman and his pals took one of the bundles down and made a fleet of paper boats out of it, sailing them in the temple tank.

Finding out about it, his father, furious, looked all over for the son but the boy was nowhere to be found. He didn't want to face paternal anger and punishment so he disappeared. The family looked for him, and finally found him in the temple of Sahambai, a goddess, and one of Shiva's consorts.

Awakening from "Death"

Ramana/Venkataraman's spiritual awakening through "dying":  It can be argued that the seed was sown by the death of his father, sudden and traumatic for the boy. In February 1892 Sundaram Iyer unexpectedly died, a relatively young man, in his mid-forties. This could only have left the boy with existential angst and with the shock of recognition of his own eventual demise.

Sundaram's family lost their means of support, but those were different times. The extended family took over. They took in his wife Alagammal,  Nagaswami aged fourteen, Ramana aged twelve and Nagasundaram aged six and their daughter Alamelu aged four. For her part of the extended family, Alagammal with the younger children Nagasundaram and Alamelu moved in with her brother-in-law Nelliappa Iyer. Another part, the house of Subba Iyer, received Nagaswami and Ramana.

His spiritual awakening followed a few years after his father's death, but was preceded by the fabled hill Arunachala. What I mean is this. In November 1895, almost sixteen by the Western calendar, he met a relative who had just come from Arunachala, a place holy and long venerated in India. Ramana had thought it only something from story books but at that moment realized the place was not mythological but real. He wanted to go there some day.

Next year, mid-July 1896, in his final year at secondary school he had six weeks to go, when, as he put it, a "great change in my life took place. It was so sudden. One day I sat up alone on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I was in my usual health. I seldom had any illness. . . . But a sudden and unmistakable fear of death seized me. I felt I was going to die. . . . and at once set about thinking out what I should do. I did not care to consult doctors or elders or even friends. I felt I had to solve the problem myself then and there. . . . I said to myself mentally, i.e., without uttering the words – ‘Now, death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying?' " After reaching deep into the body and its fear, he recalled,       " 'Well then,’ said I to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body, am 'I' dead? Is the body 'I'?"

He realized "The material body dies, but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. . . . ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing in that state, and all the conscious activity that was connected with my body was centered on that."

Of that experience, he said, "Fear of death had vanished once and forever."

He explained that "Absorption in the Self has continued from that moment right up to this time. Other thoughts may come and go like the various notes of a musician, but the ‘I’ continues like the basic or fundamental sruti note which accompanies and blends with all other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centered on ‘I’."

He said, "I became a new man. I became indifferent to everything afterwards, having neither likes nor dislikes."

He indeed had changed from the boy with no spiritual interests. He no longer led his pals in sports or games. He sat by himself in yoga posture, meditating with eyes closed. It was all a shadow world, even school. He would not, could not, study.  He told nobody why but his new spiritual behavior was apparent to all. His brother Nagaswami became frustrated with him, seeing him waste his chances at a good material life.  Nagaswami jibed, joked, said Ramana had become a jnani (enlightened being) or yogiswara (highest of all yogis). He mocked his younger brother, saying Ramana should find some forest where he could sit to his heart's content.

But Ramana's absorption in the Self had become almost constant, and in August 1896, he left home for good. It came after he had not prepared for a lesson on English grammar and was punished by being told to copy the lesson three times. He tried, but at the third copy, pushed the lesson aside. Nagaswami, seeing this, asked angrily, “Why should one, who behaves thus, retain all this?,” meaning the home life Ramana enjoyed.


He was right, realized Ramana, whose mind turned to Arunachala, 250 Miles away.  For anyone else, getting there would be described as an ordeal, with trudging on foot, going hungry, and having no soft bed for sleeping, for the boy's train ticket left him at a station far short of his goal, Tiruvannamalai, by the hill Arunachala. But he got there, finally, and there he sat in deep samadhi.

Imagine sitting so long that pus festered from sores on your legs, with urchins throwing stones at you, trying to wake you from samadhi.  That happened to him.  At Patala Lingam in its many-pillared hall he sat exposed to throngs of pilgrims and the general public. Street urchins saw him daily motionless, silent, and tossed things, trying to provoke his ire. Nothing. He just sat.

Another ascetic, Seshadris, also endured the children but saw in the young fellow something deeply removed from them. He and Ramana moved farther inside, away from the traffic, into the cellar of the Shiva Lingam, damp with woodlice, ants, bees and wasps. Despite being bitten by mosquitoes Ramana sat unmoved in yoga posture with legs crossed, impervious to the world. His thighs, where they met the ground, were soon covered with ulcers, from which blood and pus oozed. The scars were to remain visible for the rest of his life.

In sum, his early years were filled with deep absorption in Self, with little interest in the world, and only slowly, very slowly, did he emerge into public light as his fame slowly spread and seekers founded an ashram to be by his side. Indeed, he came back into the world and took pleasure in it while not being of it. He participated in the development of the ashram, received countless visitors seeking to know Truth.


In ending this, the essential point serves not to praise his severe early asceticism, which I regard as particularly Indian, but to observe that although Ramana had no auspicious beginning as a great teacher, a following grew up around him as people came to recognize great spiritual depth in him. They provided the activity, the energy, for the ashram centered on him  They spread the word of his teachings.  A huge difference exists between Western culture and his.  No ashram would arise around any homeless person sitting on an Ohio sidewalk in yogic silence, even if we imagine for a moment a penniless person equally awakened.  But in India it did, for the culture enabled a recognition that he had realized, had seen, and in his selfless behavior, his deep spiritual understanding, he drew seekers to him. They had been reared to appreciate nonduality, that there is only one without a second, and in Ramana they saw somebody who lived it.

Some Indians knew that nonduality does not fit the scientific paradigm, and that while philosophers of science insist on monism it is a monism of matter, and the Indians didn't deny the thinking but saw it only as useful, not final, a view different than Western mentality.  Ramana told people there is only one and their culture had taught them the acceptability of what he meant.  They had many other wise men to compare against him, and his counsel spread his fame so that today, despite passing in 1950, he lives on in the ashram at Tiruvannamalai, at the foot of Arunachala.

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