What does it really mean to be enlightened?
This is a question that’s been argued over for millennia. Who has experienced a real awakening, and who is simply trying to profit from the seeking of others?
At very best we can come to a consensus on certain figures. One of those beings was the 20th-century sage Ramana Maharshi, who was one of the first gurus to introduce the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta to the West.
Born in 1879 in what is now Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu in India, Maharshi had a strong death experience at age 16 that sparked in him an awakening that would impact an entire generation. Six weeks after the experience he moved to the holy mountain Arunachala, where he stayed until his death in 1950.
Throughout his life, a community sprouted up around him as he was regarded by many as an enlightened being, and is now generally considered one of the most advanced sages of the last century.
Because of the time in which Ramana Maharshi lived, there is a certain degree of mystery surrounding his life story. A strange man by our cultural standards, he sometimes spent years in complete silence throughout his life, only answering questions by drawing with a stick in the sand. In his early years, he would often meditate for hours through the attacks of ants, mosquitoes, and even scorpions.
As he recalls:
“Days and nights would pass without my being aware of their passing…When anyone thought that I should have food, I would stretch a hand and something would drop into my hand. My hands were not useful for any other purpose. I would eat and rub my head on my head or body and drop again into my continuous mood. This was my condition for some years from the time of my arrival.”
The teachings of Ramana Maharshi
Ramana Maharshi mainly advocated the path of jnana yoga, which emphasise a method of self-inquiry. By constantly paying close attention to the feeling of ‘I’ and asking questions around that sensation, particularly ‘Who am I?’ and ‘To whom do these thoughts arise,’ he believed your ego would dissolve and you would become one with the infinite Self.
Maharshis most famous discipline, Papaji, went on to influence the west and become teacher to some well know modern gurus such as Mooji and Gangaji.
Note: In the following quotes, when Maharshi talks of the Self with a capital S, he is referring not to our idea of self, but to the infinite.
On Spiritual Awakening
“Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world.”
“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
“Realisation is not acquisition or anything new nor is it a new faculty. It is only removal of all camouflage.”
“Aim high, aim at the highest, and all lower aims are thereby achieved. It is looking below on the stormy sea of differences that makes you sink. Look up, beyond these and see the One Glorious Real, and you are saved.”
“Time is only an idea. There is only the reality whatever you think it is, it looks like that. If you call it time, it is time. If you call it existence, it is existence, and so on. After calling it time, you divide it into days and nights, months, years, hours, minute, etc. Time is immaterial for the Path of Knowledge. But some of these rules and discipline are good for beginners.”
“Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Find out what it is that remains.”
Through his teachings, Ramana explained that to realize the truth of existence would be the best way you could give back to the world. Instead of trying to please everyone, he emphasised the importance of dissolving the ego and understanding the nature of Self. This, in turn, would lead you to act as an expression of the infinite, which would be spontaneous, loving, and more fruitful for your community than acting from the perspective of personhood.
“Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”
“The explorers seek happiness in findings curiosities, discovering new lands and undergoing risks in adventures. They are thrilling. But where is pleasure found? Only within. Pleasure is not to be sought in the external world.”
“If one’s mind has peace, the whole world will appear peaceful.”
“All unhappiness is due to the ego. With it comes all your trouble. If you would deny the ego and scorch it by ignoring it you would be free.”
“Man’s search for happiness is an unconscious search for his true Self. The true Self is imperishable; therefore when a man finds it, he finds a happiness which does not come to an end.”
“Everything in the world was my Guru.”
Happiness, as Maharshi explained it, was something that you essential were, not something that you had to attain. Through diligent self-inquiry, you would strip away the ideas that got in the way of your peaceful nature and contentment would become your permanent state.
“The greatest error of a man is to think that he is weak by nature, evil by nature. Every man is divine and strong in his real nature. What are weak and evil are his habits, his desires and thoughts, but not himself.”
“Have faith in God and in yourself; that will cure all. Hope for the best, expect the best, toil for the best and everything will come right for you in the end.”
“Know that the eradication of the identification with the body is charity, spiritual austerity and ritual sacrifice; it is virtue, divine union and devotion; it is heaven, wealth, peace and truth; it is grace; it is the state of divine silence; it is the deathless death; it is jnana, renunciation, final liberation and bliss.”
Though he wasn’t as big an advocate for Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion to god, as some of his predecessors and disciples, Ramana was still entirely committed to the expression of the infinite he saw in Mount. Arunachala. As he explained when asked “Is it good to love God, is it not? Then why not follow the path of Love?”
“Who said you couldn’t follow it? You can do so. But when you talk of love, there is duality, is there not – the person who loves and the entity called God who is loved? The individual is not seperate from God. Hence love means one has love towards one’s own Self.
On Stillness and Silence
“The method is summed up in the words “Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means destroy yourself. Because any form or shape is the cause for trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’. All that is required to realize the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that?”
“If the mind falls asleep, awaken it. Then if it starts wandering, make it quiet. If you reach the state where there is neither sleep nor movement of mind, stay still in that, the natural (real) state.”
“There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny not free will, neither path nor achievement. This is the final truth.”
“Silence is truth. Silence is bliss. Silence is peace. And hence Silence is the Self.”
“You can only stop the flow of thoughts by refusing to have any interest in it.”
“Remain still, with the conviction that the Self shines as everything yet nothing, within, without, and everywhere.”
“Become conscious of being conscious. Say or think “I am”, and add nothing to it.” Be aware of the stillness that follows the “I am.” Sense your presence, the naked unveiled, unclothed beingness. It is untouched by young or old, rich or poor, good or bad, or any other attributes.”
“When one remains without thinking one understands another by means of the universal language of silence.”
Stillness was a core motif throughout Ramana’s teachings. He saw the path of inquiry as leading to stillness and the perspective of stillness as leading to truth. The early years at his ashram saw him spending years meditating, often perfectly still in both body and mind.
If you’d like to learn more about this method from modern-day teachers who are better suited to explain in language we may understand, search YouTube for talks by any of the following experts:
- Rupert Spira
- Gary Weber
What experience have you had with self-inquiry? Let me know in the comments!