On the evening of 14th April 1950, Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer, and student of a great Indian sage, witnessed a shooting star with a luminous tail, moving slowly through the sky until it reached the top of the sacred mountain of Arunachala and then disappeared behind it. He looked at his watch and noted the time — 8.47pm. He hurried back to the ashram to learn that the great sage had left his body at that exact time. Who is this person whose passing was marked by the heavens? He was a great Soul known as Bhagavad Ramana Maharshi, although this was not his birth name. He was given this name, which means Divine Eminent Ramana the Great Seer, by one of his early devotees in 1907, and the name stuck. He is known all over the world, through his many books and the teachings of his devotees.
Maharshi was born on 30 December 1879 near Madurai in the South of India, to a Brahmin family. His birth name was Venkataraman Iyers, and apart from the death of his father when he was 12 , there was nothing remarkable about his early life. That changed in one afternoon in 1895 when he was 16 years of age. Sitting in his room alone one afternoon, he was suddenly gripped by a violent fear of death. It came completely out of nowhere, and he felt he was going to die. In his own words: “The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: “Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.” To pursue the questions that came to him, he found himself imitating a corpse, stretching out his limbs as though rigor mortis had set in, and holding his breath with his lips tightly closed so no sound could escape. Asking himself: “With the death of this body am I dead?” he began to feel the full force of his personality and the voice of what he called the “I” apart from his body. In that instant he understood that the “I” transcends the body, even when the body dies the “I”, which is the Self, is deathless. From that moment he was an enlightened being, and until the day he left his body, he desired only to sit in experience of the “I” or Self. As soon as he let go of the idea many shares that “I am the body”, his soul let go of its hold on the physical and sought a new anchor.
Within six weeks, telling no one, he left home and travelled about 120 miles to the town of Tiruvannamalai, which surrounds the holy mountain of Arunachala. He did not choose this place randomly- since he was very young his heart had stirred at any mention of Arunachala.
In fact, in later years he would say Arunachala was his Guru. He headed for the famous Shiva temple there, Annamaiyar Temple. This is the place where Lord Shiva is said to have appeared as a pillar of fire to Brahma and Vishnu, who were arguing over which of them was greater. He sat there, unmoving, absorbed in silence for a number of weeks before moving to an underground vault known as Patala Lingam. He sat in the complete darkness, not disturbed by the insects and rats that lived there. Word spread about this extraordinary young Swami and people began to spend time sitting with him. He was oblivious to everything, and if a well-known Swami, Sashadri Swamigal, hadn’t fed him during the two months he spent there he would not have eaten. Concerned for his health his new devotees physically moved him out after two months to Subrahmanya Shrine. The young Maharshi was so deep within himself he never stirred or changed his posture while they lifted him out. He moved from here to caves in the mountain, spending 17 years in Virupaksha Cave, and a further 5 years in Skandashram higher up. Many people came to sit in the radiance of peace and love that shone through him. As the years passed he engaged more with what had grown into a considerable number of spiritual followers, answering their questions, but much preferring to teach through direct silence. He taught that: “Subjugation of the mind is meditation; deep meditation is eternal silence.” This is why he said years later that his years in the cave were not done as “tapas” (austere practices), but were simply to meet his soul’s longing for the complete experience of the “I” or Self.
An ashram was eventually developed, and people of all nationalities came for Maharshi’s teachings. What he taught can be summarised as Self-Enquiry, and with one question “Who am I?”. He believed each of us can find the answer by using efforts to continuously focus on the source of the “I-thought”, the source he called the Self. He taught that our true nature is Mukti, that we are always trying to attain something which we have always been and are, but we won’t understand it until we come to our own source. He told this story to a hall full of devotees to explain what he meant: “ A man goes to sleep in this hall. He dreams he has gone on a world tour, is roaming over hill and dale, forest and country, desert and sea, across various continents, and after many years of weary and strenuous travel, returns to this country, reaches Tiruvannamalai, enters the ashram and walks into the hall. Just at that moment he wakes up and realises he has not moved an inch, but was sleeping where he lay down. He has not returned to the hall after great effort, but is, and always has been, in the hall. It is exactly like that. If it is asked, why being free we imagine we are bound, I answer, ‘Why being in the hall did you imagine you were on a world adventure, crossing hill and dale, desert and sea?’. It is all mind or maya.”
Find your source and remain there, he taught, and this is the essence of how he lived his life from the day he was caught in the grip of the fear of death. Those blessed to have sat with him have always said that his greatest teachings came through the grace of his silent presence. He was a man who truly understood the Vedantic Mahavakya “Tat Twam Asi” — You Are That. A short time before he left his body, he said: “People say that I am going. Where shall I go? I am there where I am always.” — there is no conflict between life and death.