30th December 1879: Ramana Maharshi, Indian spiritual teacher, was born

Ramana Maharshi, a spiritual guru from India who attracted followers from across the world, was born as Venkataraman Iyer on December 30, 1879, in Tiruchuli, a village near Madurai in present-day Tamil Nadu, in a Hindu Brahmin family.

His father Sundaram Iyer worked in the court. Venkataraman liked playing sports in school. He went to live with an uncle at the age of 11 and joined a British school. Sundaram died in 1892 after a sudden illness. Venkataraman later attended theAmericanMissionHigh School. In 1895 he read a text that described the lives of Saivite saints and this affected him deeply. He started visiting a nearby temple.

In 1896 Venkataraman had what he later described as a spontaneous experience that culminated in the ego being “lost in the flood of self-awareness”. He was sitting alone in his uncle’s house that day (as he later recalled) when a “sudden violent fear of death” overtook him. The next few moments were very intense and the 16-year-old realised that the “body dies but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death”. Soon the fear of death vanished.

Following this vision, he withdrew into himself, avoiding company, and visited the temple more often. He eventually set out for Arunachala Hill, taking a train to Tiruvannamalai in September 1896. In February 1897 he moved to Gurumurtam, a nearby temple. Here, a sadhu called Palaniswami became Ramana’s personal attendant. All this time Ramana was unconcerned about his physical appearance and well-being, caring only for meditation and devotion towards god.

In 1898 he moved to a temple at Pavalakkunru in the foothills of Arunachala. His mother and brother came looking for him here but he refused to return home. The following year he started living on Arunachala, changing a few caves before making the Virupaksha Cavehis home for 17 years.

Several devotees and prominent officials started visiting him. Among them was the Vedic scholar Kavyakantha Sri Ganapati Sastri who after receiving instructions from Ramana proclaimed him as Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Frank Humphreys was among the first westerners who met Ramana and wrote about him in an international journal.

After his mother’s death in 1922, Ramana started living in the ashram built around her tomb.

More visitors including foreigners came to the ashram in the 1930s. Ramana spoke and wrote about fundamental questions such as the meaning of the self and the relationship between the self and the world. On the link between perception and reality, he said: “If the mind, which is the cause of all knowledge and all actions, subsides, the perception of the world will cease. [If one perceives a rope, imagining it to be a snake] perception of the rope, which is the substratum, will not occur unless the perception of the snake, which has been superimposed on it, goes. Similarly, the perception of one’s real nature, the substratum, will not be obtained unless the perception of the world, which is a superimposition, ceases.”

During a talk on September 1935 he said: “The mind is only a projection from the Self, appearing in the waking state. In deep sleep, you do not say whose son you are and so on. As soon as you wake up you say you are so and so, and recognise the world and so on... That which is seen is…the world. Which is the eye that sees it? That is the ego which rises and sinks periodically. But you exist always. Therefore that which lies beyond the ego is consciousness — the Self.”

In 1934 Paul Brunton in his book Search in Secret India described Ramana as “simple and modest” surrounded by an atmosphere “of authentic greatness”. His fame only grew in the remaining years of his life, but his personal life and habits remained austere.

In 1948 Ramana was diagnosed with cancer. He died on April 14, 1950. After his death, his teachings were popularised by devotees and members of his ashram.

One of his followers Robert Adams, a spiritual guru who was once a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, wrote: “What Ramana taught was not new. Ramana simply taught the Upanishads. ‘Who am I’ has been around since time immemorial…Ramana simply revised the ‘Who am I’ philosophy and made it simple for people in the 20th century. But what did he teach? He simply taught that you are not the body-mind principle. He simply taught that if you have a problem, do not feel sorry for yourself, do not go to psychiatrists, do not condemn yourself, simply ask yourself, ‘To whom does this problem come?’ And of course the answer will be, ‘The problem comes to me.’ Hold onto the ‘me’. Follow the ‘me’ to the source, the substratum of all existence.”

Also on this day:

1948 — Surinder Amarnath Bhardwaj, Indian cricketer, was born

1968 — Sabeer Bhatia, Indian American entrepreneur who founded Hotmail, was born  

1987 — Datta Naik, Hindi film music director, passed away

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