Ramana Maharshi was a guru of international renown from southern India who taught during the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in 1879 near Madurai, Tamilnadu. His father was a farmer. He was the second of three sons. The family was religious, giving ritual offerings to the family deity and visiting temples. One unusual aspect of his family history was a curse that was put on the family by a wandering monk who was refused food by a family member. The monk decreed that in every generation, one child in the family would renounce the world to lead a religious life.
Ramana was largely disinterested in school and absent-minded during work. He had a marked inclination towards introspection and self-analysis. He used to ask fundamental questions about identity, such as the question “who am I?”. He was always seeking to find the answer to the mystery of his own identity and origins.
One peculiar aspect of Ramana’s personality was his ability to sleep soundly. He could be beaten or carried from one place to another while asleep, and would not wake up. He was sometimes jokingly called “Kumbhakarna” after a figure in the Ramayana who slept soundly for months.
In the summer of 1896, Ramana went into an altered state of consciousness which had a profound effect on him. He experienced what he understood to be his own death, and later returned to life.
He also had spontaneous flashes of insight where he perceived himself as an essence independent of the body. During these events, he felt himself to be an eternal entity, existing without reliance on the physical body or material world.
Along with these intuitions came a fascination with the word “Arunachala” which carried associations of deep reverence and a sense that his destiny was closely intertwined with this unique sound. At the age of sixteen, Ramana heard that a place called Arunachala actually existed (the modern town’s name is Tiruvannamalai) and this brought him great happiness.
Ramana was nearing the end of high school when a careless criticism describing him as a person not fit to be a student jarred him into making a final decision to leave school. He had been reading a book on famous Tamil saints and resolved to leave home and lead the life of a religious seeker. Naturally, he planned to go to Arunachala, the place which was the focal point of all his religious ideals.
When he was seventeen years old, Ramama left for Arunachala, arriving after four days of mostly train travel. He went directly to the central shrine at the temple and addressed the Shiva symbol (linga) stating he had given up everything and come to Arunachala in response to the god’s call.
Ramana spent ten years living in temples and caves meditating, and pursuing spiritual purification, keeping the disciplines of silence and non-attachment. At this point, his reputation as a serious teacher (he was called Brahma Swami) began to grow and other seekers began to visit him. His disciples, some of whom were learned individuals, began to bring him sacred books. He became conversant with the religious traditions of South India written in the different regional languages.
Early disciples had a difficult time learning about Ramana’s background and even his native language because he was silent and refused to speak. As time passed he ceased his ascetic phase and began to live a more normal life in an ashram setting. Many people came to visit him with a variety of problems, from both India and abroad.
Ramana’s disciples constructed an ashram and temple, and space the accommodate the many visitors. All ate the same food and Ramana sat with the rest of the people during meals and did not expect special treatment. The ashram was a sanctuary for animals and Ramana had great fondness for the cows, monkeys, birds, and squirrels that inhabited the grounds.
Ramana continued to practice the method of inquiry into the nature of the self best expressed by the question “who am I?”.
Ramana was not a guru in the classic sense of a teacher who gives instruction on a regular basis or gives mantras during initiation. In fact, if the seeker wanted to practice repetition of a mantra rather than the “who am I?” method of self inquiry, he recommended repeating the pronoun “I” or the phrase “I am” rather than repeating sacred Sanskrit words or the names of gods. This focused the person’s mind on “being itself” or the mystery of their own awareness rather than an external object or word.