Thursday, 25 June 2009
THREE GURUS: PART ONE: RAMANA MAHARSHI
"A realised one sends out waves of spiritual influence in his aura, which draw many people towards him. Yet he may sit in a cave and maintain complete silence." - Ramana Maharshi
Well, I made it. Four months or incredible adventures across the vast landscape of India which took me from such epic sights as the Taj Mahal and the Great Temple of Thanjavur to the natural beauty of Karnataka and the backwaters of Kerala. I saw every religion known to man in operation - Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, even Bahai (ok so I didn't see Taoism or Shinto, but nobody's perfect) - and drank deep on the mystic wonder of the country. It wasn't all roses. I saw and smelt more shit and faeces than I care to remember, although even that experience came to be an integral part of the whole journey. I remember getting out of a bus to take a photo of the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen only to be assailed by a wall-like stench of stinking piss... But this was towards the end of my time there and so, almost completely assimilated, I realised then that it wasn't going to faze me anymore. Majestic beauty and utter squalor were all One... India had done its magic...
While I was out there, of course, I couldn't avoid the ubiquitous presence of the Guru. Everywhere you go in India Holy Men and Women abound. While such people barely exist over here, in India they are still very much part of the landscape. Indeed one of them, Sai Baba, claims that India is the last country on Earth where a Guru can completely incarnate. The argument is that the inherent spirituality of the people is still so communally great that, consciously or unconsciously, they can still provide an environment in which the soul of the Guru can fully realise itself. Inherent in this idea is that we are ALL involved in creating a spiritual condition in which things can grow. Thus a genuine Guru is an expression of a collective aspiration towards inner growth... Its a beautiful, anti-elitist idea and says something about how we are all able to make a contribution to the wellbeing of everyone else. But it takes a society which hasn't turned its back on the idea of spirituality to happen en masse. Makes you think about where we are in our part of the world with our rampant materialism and skepticism and what kind of environment that creates for the Spirit to soar....
Cultural comparisons aside (and they are always simplistic), the presence of the Guru is a key element of India. There are many bogus ones, many genuine ones and many scandalous ones with some Gurus, as we shall see, accused of being all three. Not all Gurus have enormous communities attached. Some remain obscure individuals in remote parts of the country with only a few dedicated followers. Others have international organisations attached. I encountered three on my travels, visiting two of their Ashrams and actually staying on one for the greater part of the week. To my delight, it turned out that the three I encountered, two of whom were dead, one living, were three of the most important in India, so I had the chance to encounter the singular power of these three men in person. I thought I would dedicate this post which marks my return to these three men - Ramana Maharshi, Sru Aurobindo Ghose and Sai Baba...
Ramana Maharshi was one of the most famous of all the twentieth century Saints and Gurus of India. So great was his reknown that Carl Jung, when he went to India, made a point of not visiting him. Not only did he not visit him, but he wrote a lengthy article about why he didn't visit him. What is interesting about this article is the fact that he doesn't really explain why he decided not to, except that he felt that India produced Holy Men like Ramana all the time, so there was no real reason to do so. Reading between the lines, one senses that the great man was a little nose out of joint at the fame surrounding Ramana Maharshi. Perhaps everywhere he went everyone said to him 'Oh you must visit his Ashram!' so often that he got a bit fed up with it. A shame, because although the article remains a rather wonderful description of India, it would have been wonderful to know what would have happened had the two men met...
Jung, genius though he was, was always a little suspicious of Indian thought. Although he admired the wisdom of the Buddha enormously, he was not so enamoured of Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which, to his mind, was the antithesis of his own explorations. For Jung, the purpose of existence was to realise the Self through the Individuation Process. Roughly speaking, this was the evolution of the Self, its development and growth into its fullest nature. It was not the annihilation of the Ego but the transformation of the Ego into something greater than itself, hence his interest in Alchemy with its vision of the transmutation of Lead, the Base Metal, into Gold. For Jung, the goal was to become truly oneself, images of which he included Christ, Buddha and other high expressions of mythic culture such as Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus, Odin and so on. His suspicion, or perhaps wariness about Hindu thought was that to him it was just the opposite, preaching the disappearance of the Ego/Self into the All. Thus instead of realising the Self, in his eyes Vedanta was about annihilating the Self, vanishing it into nothingness. To Jung, this was the antithesis of everything he stood for.
Which is a shame, because the teachings of Ramana Maharshi are not too far from this. His Ashram was the one I spent time on. It was a wonderful experience, even though I was there for only a few days. Had I booked months in advance I could have stayed longer but I wasn't able to even find out where the Ashram was until I got to India, and even then only through the fortuitous event that one of my friends was visiting it while I was in Coorg at the School I was teaching. It is located at the foot of Arunachala, or the Red Mountain, near the town of Tiruvannamalai, a centre of pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu. Arunachala is revered as a physical embodiment of Siva in his guise as the element of Fire (Agni). Legend has it that he manifested as an infinite lingam, or column of flame to prove to Vishnu and Brahma how superior he was to them. Every year in November Sadhus light an enormous pyre there to commemorate this event and, down below in the town, there is an enormous, white-towered Temple honouring Siva as Divine Fire, one of a network of four other Temples in Tamil Nadu which represent his other guises as Divine Water, Air, Earth and Spirit.
Ramana Maharshi didn't found the Ashram, it grew up around him. He arrived at Arunachala as a boy of 16 having had a life-transforming near-death experience which made him understand his existence as Pure Consciousness. I will post his own famous description of the event in the Comments box as a note (1) but, in a nutshell, he underwent a living experience of death in which he felt his body go numb and inert like a corpse. Immediately as this happened, he realised the truth that his body was only a temporary vehicle for something more eternal within - the Higher Consciousness which the Vedantists call the Atman, or World Soul, of which our own individual Atma, or Soul, is part. Suddenly Ramana Maharshi lost all fear of death and from then onwards dwelt in an awareness of this state of Pure Consciousness. He tried to continue life as a schoolboy of 16 and then, thanks to a vision or sense of yearning, found himself leaving his home town of Madurai and undergoing a pilgrimage to Arunachala where he spent the rest of his life, having been guided to the place he needed to be.
Its worth taking a pause here and explaining a little bit about Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which is the uniting factor of the three Gurus I am discussing here. The word Vedanta stems from the Vedas, the name given to the holy hymns and prayers which form the foundation of Hindu culture. These prayers were 'channelled' by ancient Brahmin Priests of the Aryan conquerors who first poured down into the Indus valley from the Himalayas millenia ago, Veda simply meaning 'Knowledge' (interestingly, the same term for the Western concept of Gnosis and, in a sense, Kabbalah, which means 'received tradition'). Vedanta is the movement or 'Way' which grew out of these divinely inspired hymns and the later Upanishads which supplemented their wisdom. Vedanta, to the surprise of most people who view Hinduism as essentially Polytheistic, is fundamentally Monotheistic. The Vedas and the Upanishads posit the existence of a single Spirit without Form or Limit known as Brahman. This Spirit is universal, omnipresent, immanent and transcendent, containing and sustaining everything, even the Gods. Brahma, Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesh. Lakshmi, Kali, Durga et al are seen as avatars of Brahman, expressions of this single Spirit which is everywhere. The idea is very much like the Ain Soph of Kabbalah, the One of the Hermetica, the Concealed God of Apophatic Theology, the Tao of Lao Tzu, the Great Spirit of the Lakotah Indians etc etc. Brahman is found in everything, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere and, most powerfully, in the human soul, as the Upanishads reveal. This is the source of their inherent beauty, a beauty which is also sublimely simple, for the Upanishads reveal the essential truth that Brahman is in us just as we are in Brahman. When we know this, and the knowledge is not dependent upon rituals or obedience or penance, 'we go to God' as the sages say.
Vedanta was of special interest to the Quantum Physicists, most particularly Nobel Prize Winners Erwin Schroedinger and Eugene Wigner for a very simple reason: Brahman was defined as Consciousness, or rather Universal Consciousness. The three key terms with which the Vedantists describe Brahman are SAT, CHIT and ANANDA which translate variously as Being, Consciousness and Bliss or Existence, Awareness, Joy (keen syncretists might want to think of the parallels between this trinity and the Trinity of Christianity). The central term, CHIT, is the key one here, as Consciousness is the prime element of Brahman. Given that the Quantum Physicists were keenly interested in the role Consciousness played in the operation and cohesion of the Universe, the Vedantic concept of CHIT was especially important to them. So it was to Ramana Maharshi and, as we shall see, the two other Gurus I encountered.
Ramana's fundamental teaching was that everything was Pure Consciousness. Indeed, Pure Consciousness was the only Reality. Understanding of this was found in the Atma, or Self, also translated as the Soul. If the Seeker could truly understand this, then the antinomies and conflicts of life would come to an end and he or she would dwell in a constant state of ANANDA, or Bliss, as Maharshi himself did. Thus the actual teachings he gave were very simple, often stubbornly so, for Maharshi was very hostile to all esoteric discussion or enquiry which distracted from the pursuit of this knowledge of the Self. Although he knew his way around all the different concepts of Vedanta, he discouraged speculation on Creation, the Nature of Reality, Reincarnation etc, not because he thought they were false, but because he believed what he called 'Self-Enquiry' was the true route to what he was teaching.
'Self-Enquiry' was the exploration of one's own Consciousness. As one's Atma was the seat of this Consciousness and the bridge to the Atman (World Soul) which was One with Brahman, Maharshi urged his followers to ask 'Who is asking the question?' - in other words to go inwards beyond the waking self into the Brahmanic Self which was behind it. Vedanta recognises four levels of Consciousness, each of which is contained within the four syllables of the Sacred Word OM, pronounced AUM. These levels are Waking Consciousness (A), Sleeping Consciousness (U), Dreaming Consciouness (M) and Brahmanic or Cosmic Consciousness (the Silence after uttering the Word). By asking 'How may the Knower be Known', by passing through the different levels of Consciousness, back through all the different illusions which we call the 'I' to the Universal Consciousness, the Seeker would discover the Brahmanic state of Pure Consciousness that each of us truly is. At this moment, Liberation would occur and ANANDA would fill the Soul... As Ramana said, with characteristic simplicity: "Just be the Self, that is all."
Maharshi lived and taught in the Ashram and in two caves higher up on the Mountain where he sometimes retired with only his Mother for company for extended periods of meditation. He never wrote anything and most of the books that contain his teachings were compiled by Disciples who transcribed his different conversations. If one is looking for elaborate cosmological systems or detailed moral teachings, one is likely to be disappointed, as Maharshi tended to turn every conversation back to his central point. Some listeners found themselves baffled as he tried to head them off from fruitless questions about, for instance, how Reincarnation worked. On one occasion, when a listener was expressing frustration that he had not yet had a vision of Siva, he said to him: 'What is more real? The vision of Siva or the person having the vision of Siva? Ask first who is having the vision.' As an example of how he would try to bring back any inquirer to his central truth it is probably unsurpassed.
Even such conversations were rare as more often than not, Maharshi preferred to 'teach' by sitting in silence among his followers, merely emanating his condition of dwelling in a state of Pure Consciousness. To we skeptical Westerners, this sounds ridiculous, mere poppycock designed to dupe the gullible at worst, a way of avoiding doing anything at best. But I can say from experience that a visit to the Ashram reveals the reality of what these silent teachings must have been. Rudolf Steiner, in his writings about Christ and the Buddha, speaks of how when the soul of these individual incarnate in physical bodies, they do important work but the work is, by necessity, impeded by the obviously obscuring nature of human communication. When they die, their physical bodies give way to an etheric presence - ie the earthly Christ becomes the Cosmic Christ or Holy Spirit, for instance - and the work of the former individual takes on a new, more universal, intuitive but at the same time more easily accessible and effective mode. The physical presence gives way to the all-pervading presence. If this is so, it explains the extraordinary atmosphere of the Ashram and its Meditation Room in particular...
The Ashram is approached by a ten or twenty minute auto-rickshaw ride from the bus station of Tiruvannamalai, which, like so many small Indian towns, is a mixture of wreckage, chaos, suffering and squalor but also warmth, vibrancy and life. The road outside the gates are lined by shops, beggars, crumbling temples and the whacked-out looking Sivaite Sadhus who tend them. Inside the Ashram the atmosphere is infinitely calm, as if noise and sound tread respectfully around the trees and buildings within. The only real noise one hears are the sudden, cacophanous outbursts of the many peacocks and peahens that roam freely there along with the monkeys that bounce around regularly. These peacock choruses are such a prominent feature of the place that they even found their way onto the intro of Kula Shaker's first single, GOVINDA, a song to Krishna put to a rock beat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SyVaLpa_vc&feature=related). They roam around the small collection of huts and buildings that make up the Ashram, which include the administrative centre, complete with bookshop, the Temple to Siva, which includes a shrine to Ganesh and a monument to Ramana Maharshi himself, a dining hall, the Samadhis, or mausoleums of deceased Saints and Teachers, some other hust which serve as accomodation for the Priests and elders of the community and the Meditation Room.
In keeping with the spirit of the man, there is no strict regimen to the Ashram. What programme of events there is fits on a single piece of paper, most of which describes meal times and a few Pujas (ceremonies) and daily readings. No compulsory Yoga classes, no doctrines or teachings being pushed. Instead, one is allowed to roam free, respectful of others, to experience the place as one wants. The effect is to plunge you into a wonderfully calm, contemplative mood, in which nothing is expected of you and so everything becomes possible. One can sit in the main Siva Temple, made in exquisite marble, meditate, or simply watch the people coming and going, praying and circumambulating the shrine. It is the same for the monument to Maharshi and the other Temple building. One can listen to the readings, walk the shrine oneself, drink in the Vedic hymns sung by the Priests at key moments (even without knowing the Sanskrit the effect of the sound is incredible) or even, if one is so inclined, stay in one's room, thinking, resting and reading. At the opposite end of the scale, its possible to pass through a gate at the back of the Ashram and walk up the mountain to the two small caves where Maharshi used to live and meditate for years on end. Be warned, its something of a trek, and given the baking sun, make sure you take water. Oh, and watch out for the 'helpful' guides!
Meals in the Ashram are communal. One sits on the floor with everyone else and eats off a banana leaf food which is so delicious it baffles the mind. In fact these communal meals were a highlight of my stay there. The group feeling of equality, friendship, lack of pretention and togetherness was wonderful and gave me an insight into what life in a monastery or special community might have once been like.
But the real sense of presence is felt in the Meditation Room. It is here that the true magic of Ramana Maharshi is most tangible and where one understands what his 'silent sermons' must have been to experience. I went in on my first day, aware of the Room's reputation thanks to a leaflet my friend had given me which described the overwhelming feeling of the 'sense of Presence' there. I still wasn't prepared for the enormous emotional experience of going in.
It is a tiny room. When he was alive, this was where Ramana Maharshi 'held court' as it were, reclining upon the bed in one corner, while his followers and disciples sat and asked him questions. Now he is gone a life-size painting of him in the Room has taken his place. The powerful atmosphere there was indeed as tangible as I was told. As with the Aurobindo Ashram which I will get to in my next post, the silence and concentration there was something I had never experienced before. I can only describe it as a kind of 'negative silence', a silence beyond silence or below silence. The people within were so steeped in their own meditations that the air felt full of a kind of hidden energy, as if the air had been made especially heavy by the collective concentration of the people within. One didn't even have to meditate to have a profound experience and some of us just sat there, looking about us, staggered by the power of the emotions we were having. I have never been very good at mediatating, but here I could do so and the effect was extraordinary.
The sense of Ramana Maharshi being there in some way was absolutely real and didn't diminish each time I returned to the Room. On each occasion I was struck be the power of the presence in the room, which increasingly felt like it was in another world. The people there were often so deep in meditation it felt like they were floating outside their bodies, or at least in a very altered state. The sense of communication with something deep, profound and benign was very moving. I myself felt that some kind of dialogue was going on just below the frequency of waking consciousness. So powerful and real was it that if you asked me today, I would tell you that I had met Ramana Maharshi. I understood easily what the books meant when they said that often he would just sit there giving off his energy to all who were present....
I was only able to stay at the Ashram for a few days but I will always be grateful for the experience. I will never forget it, or the different people and Gurus I met there and around it. Tiruvannamalai is one of the holiest towns in Tamil Nadu and Maharshi's Ashram still one of the most revered and respected in India. Its a place where one feels genuinely welcome, not coralled or patronised or told what to think or do. The people I met there were all very genuine. There was none of the false spirituality I encountered in other places of the dreadlocked, beautiful-body, yoga-on-the-beach type, nothing New Agey or bogus, just something very pure and simple and, dare I say it, humourous, as if Ramana Maharshi's welcoming, slightly wry, crooked smile was glowing in every corner of the walls...
"That pure consciousness which is the reality, and which shines without a break, as "I AM" when the mind becomes calm, is the supreme bliss." - Ramana Maharshi