Ramana Maharshi, Talks with Ramana Maharshi. (Carlsbad California: Inner Directions, 2010) 550 pages
Book Review By Ozodi Osuji
This book is composed of a series of talks given by the Hindu Sage, Ramana Maharishi, from 1935 to 1939. Those who compiled it say that it contains the essence of Maharishi’s teachings. The book was originally published in India in 1955 and republished in California in 2010.
Ramana Maharshi was born in 1879 in India (his given name was Venkataraman). From an early age he heard one word voice, Arunachala. This word was repeated on a number of occasions and he did not know what it meant. In the meantime, he went to school but at the age of sixteen experienced intense fear of death and decided to help death out and die. He simulated death, tried to stop breathing, allowed his body to stay motionless, stiff. His goal was to die instead of live with the fear of death. Why live if all you are going to do is be afraid of dying. You either live fully, whatever that means to you, or you die and that is all there is to it. If you are going to live you had better not live in fear of dying, a fear that paralyzes most people. Well, he just laid there welcoming death to come and get him.
In doing so, that is, looking death in the face and not been afraid of it he defied the hold of death on people. He transcended the ego for the ego is that self that lives in fear of death and tells one to do this and that to avert death; the ego tells us to eat food, take medications, wear clothes, live in shelters etc. or else we died. We obey and live in fear of death.
We enslave our lives to doing senseless things in order to get what maintains our ego and body existence (the desire to live in body, by the way, is what gives the dictators of this world the power to control us; if one does not wish to live no tyrant has hold on one’s allegiance; no one can intimidate you into doing something he wants you to do unless you have an irrational desire to live in body at all costs).
Alas, despite all our struggles to live in ego and body, give or take one hundred years and we die. What is the point of the struggle? Now, suppose one accepts death what hold has the ego on one? None!
It was while Ramana was lying down and beckoning death to come get him that he experienced Samadhi, the death of his ego self (ahankara) and the reawakening of the awareness of his real self (atman). He was liberated (Moksha) from the hold of the ego and its gift of fear to us.
Subsequent to that experience, people noticed that he was a different person. For one thing, he stopped going to school. His siblings began calling him holy man, Sadhu and asked him why he had not taken to the forest and go live there as Hindu Holy men did. Good idea, he thought and left home and kept walking. Several days later he found himself at the foothills of a hill and was told that the hill is called Arunachala, the word he had heard all his life. He decided to make the foothill his home.
Thus, the sixteen year old lived right there, sleeping in a cave in the hill. He was disinterested in the things of this world and simply stayed there and meditated. He lived in perfect solitude, not talking to people. When hungry, like holy men are supposed to do, he begged for his food, not taking more than he needed at a time and returned to living his cave, silent existence.
Years later, folks discovered him and his unique manner of existence and talked to him and recognized that he spoke as a Hindu sage. Word spread and people from all over India flocked to listen to him talk. Later, people from all over the world, especially Europeans and Americans came and asked him questions. He still lived in his cave.
Eventually, devotees built an ashram (where a holy man teaches his devotees) at the foothill and he would be in the hall, sited on a couch, cross legged, in his one and only Dottie (shorts) and towel and answered questions posed to him by his visitors. He lived and slept on that couch and in that hall. However, after 1945 when his health became fragile he allowed his followers to build a hut behind the hall and lived there. He died in 1950 of cancer.
The word is that Ramana Maharshi was the greatest Indian sage (Sri Bhagavan) of the twentieth century. India had Sri Ramakrishna in the nineteenth century and Ramana in the twentieth century.
What did he teach? The book in question is written in questions and answers format. Visitors to his ashram would ask questions and he would answer them. In the process he essentially explicated most of Hinduism. However, the explication is not systematic, not done in a sequential, logical manner. Indeed, the answers tend to be repetitive and tedious (only the most persistent reader would read this book from the beginning to the end).
The reader who is likely to benefit most from the book is one that has studied Hinduism (or taken classes in comparative religions with Hinduism as one of the religions covered). In formal studies teachers systematically explain what each religion stands for. This is not what took place in these talks. Instead, folks brought their issues to the saint and he gave them answers and the answers are in sync with Hinduism, especially his particular path (jnana Yoga), the path of knowledge and wisdom.
Since the reader may not be familiar with Hinduism let me briefly summarize Hinduism before we proceed.
Hinduism is one of the world’s great religions (the others are Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It is probably the oldest religion? It has been written down, in Sanskrit, for about four thousand years. The religion began in India.
The Indian subcontinent was originally inhabited by black folks (called Dravidians). Aryans (white folks from Persia, Iran) crossed the Cyndi River (from which Hindi was derived) and, apparently, conjoined their Aryan religion with the religion of the Dravidians they conquered.
The religion began when shepherds, called Rishis, would write poems about God. Those poems are now called Veda. Subsequently, folks wrote long epic tales about their religion (such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata). Later, intellectuals wrote philosophical treatises on the religion called Upanishads (the Upanishads probably are the most rational explication of the doctrines of a religion known to man; it was the first attempt by people to explain God in pure reason, rather than mythopoeic language). Later still, pure philosophers like Shankara, Ramanuja and so on wrote systematic discourses on Hinduism (writings that Western Christian theology has not equaled).
A brief description of the religion is contained in the Bagavad Gita (which is a section of Mahabharata). In the book, Krishna (supposedly God in human form) talked to Arjuna. Arjuna was a general about to go to war and was bothered by his conscience. He did not want to kill people. Krishna came along as his charioteer and tried to encourage him to go do his duty, to go kill. In the process he explicated Hinduism, especially its teaching that people are eternal and are not born and do not die, that they merely seem to be born and die in bodies, those taking place in a dream hence Arjuna should not be bothered by killing folks for in actual fact he is killing no one.
While in God, people sleep and have dreams. They have many dreams, each dream a life time in body; they have many life times in bodies while all the time remaining as spirit.
Krishna also explicated the various paths to God taught by Hinduism. Patanjalii wrote a book explaining those paths to God.
According to Hinduism, people are born with different temperaments, or as we would today say, different personalities. Each person’s personality disposes him to prefer a specific path to God. No specific path is better than others but folks must follow the path suited to them (while, of course, also trying the other paths). All paths, all religions are ways that lead to God.
The paths are collectively called Yoga. Yoga is Sanskrit for yoking, reconnecting people back to their source, God (religion is Latin word meaning the same thing, reconnecting to our source).
There are four main yogas: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja yoga (there are also tangential yogas such as Hatha Yoga…flexibility exercises, Ayurveda Yoga…India’s folk medicine).
Jnana yoga is the intellectual path to God (it is also called Vedanta). It teaches advaita philosophy, non-dualism (that everything is one thing; one thing manifests in seeming diverse things but they are one).The world of multiplicity and separation we see with our eyes is said to be an illusion, not real. What is real is oneness, the unity of all things. It says that following pure thinking one can recognize that the ground of our being is one. One spirit, one self, called Brahman is all people. One self, Braham, as it were, has many parts, each part called Atman. Each of us is Atman. The Atman is the same as Brahman. One of the Upanishads says; thou art that. You (your real self) are God.
Bhakta Yoga is for those who are devotional in nature, folks who like to see God as a person and worship him. These people like to see God as a powerful father figure and pray to him and worship him. In worshiping their God (or his surrogate, such as Jesus Christ) they sometimes lose sense of their individuality and become one with him (experience the oneness that the Jnana yogis realized intellectually). According to Hinduism, over 90% of mankind is Bhakti, whereas only 1% is Jnani (intellectuals, wise persons).The path of love of God or Bhakti is suited to people who value love. Christianity is a Bhakti Yoga path to God; here, you love God and love the symbol of his ideal son, Jesus Christ. In loving God and his ideal son you and them become one self (hence self-realization through Bhakta yoga).
Karma yoga is the path of selfless work; it is for doers, businessmen, administrators, those who do not reflect on the nature of reality but engage in action. These are the producers of the world. They work and produce what we live on. They make our existence in body possible by producing our food and other things without which we would not survive physically. In as much as Brahman manifests in all of us and they make it possible for us to live they are serving Brahman, God through their work. Go ahead and make billions of dollars selling goods and services and you are serving God through whatever you produce and sell; you do not need to go to church and talk about your belief in God to be serving God, you can serve God by serving his children who are one with him.
Raja Yoga is the royal path, the path that leads to God quickest. This is the path of meditation. Sit down and meditate. This means telling yourself that you are not your body, not your ego. It means negating your entire ego based thinking. Neti, neti, nothing that you can think of is the truth. So, what is the truth, and who are you if you are not the body, ego and your thoughts? You do not know who in fact you are and what anything means. So keep quiet with a mind emptied of all ego conceptions of who you are and what reality is. Let go of your ego personality and its thinking and become a void, a no- ego separated self; remain silent.
In meditation people claim to have escaped from their ego self and the egos world and experienced their real self, the unified self, Brahman and Atman. In that state there is no you and I, no seer and seen, no subject and object; there is just one self-Brahman who is simultaneously infinite selves.
Hinduism teaches that our real self is Brahman who is at the same time infinite people. When one experiences that real self (called self-realization) one is said to be enlightened to one’s real self, is illuminated to one’s true self. The person who is realized is characterized by peace and joy; he is now aware that he is not his body and ego and that he lives eternally in spirit.
Buddhism is another name for Raja Yoga (Gautama Buddha, in effect, was a raja yogi…in India his religion, Buddhism, was absorbed by Hinduism as part of its raja yoga, whereas outside India it is known as Buddhism).
Hinduism teaches that there is one self, that self is called Brahman. Brahman is one and simultaneously infinite in numbers. Each of his part is called Atman. Atman and Brahman are one. They are not two people; they are one self, one self that is simultaneously whole and parts.
You are a self, a whole (Brahman) and a part (Atman).There is no space and gap between whole and part, no gap between people. We are all one self, literally. You are all people.
One self, Braham cast Maya on his mind and sleep and in his sleep projected out his infinite selves, atman’s, out and made each of them seem housed in body and living in space, time and matter. Maya made each of them seem to be different from others. Thus, on earth, the great illusion, the universal dream each of us sees himself as different from other people.
The goal of Hinduism is to teach us that whereas we seem different and separated from other people that, in fact, we are one. You are all selves.
You sleep and in dreams project out a world that seems real and populate that world with seeming different people and call yourself Ozodi or whatever your earthly name is. You see space, time and distance between you and other people.
The external world seems real. Hinduism says that the external world is not real, that it is in your mind, in my mind; in our shared one mind (Hinduism is solipsistic).
The various yogas and other Hindu practices are designed to enable you to realize that you are the world. In meditation, for example, you escape from the separated self and experiences unified self and know from that experience (Samadhi, called Nirvana in Buddhism and Satori in Zen) that you are all people. When you do so you are liberated from the ego and its suffering (Moksha). You now live peacefully, lovingly and joyously. You love all people not because you are doing them a favor but because in loving all people you love your whole self (contracted as holy self). Conversely, if you hate people you hate your holy self and must therefore live in conflict and be unhappy.
Hinduism believes in reincarnation (dreams). We are always in Brahman but while in it sleep and dream many life times in bodies. In each life time, each dream time we do things. Our actions have consequences for us and for other people.
If we love people we build positive samsara. If we hurt other people we build negative samsara. We get reborn on earth to take the consequences of our past actions.
If we were good in past lives we get born in loving circumstances; if we lived hurtful lives in past lives we are born in horrible circumstances in this life time (Africans, the sellers of their people, criminals, come back to suffer in this life time until they learn to love rather than exploit their people).
As Hinduism sees it, we are each at different stages in our evolution on planet earth. Hinduism divided society into four classes: Brahmin, Kastriya, Sudra and Untouchables. Each of us is said to be in the group where his past life’s actions places him.
The Brahmin class is the highest group, they are the priestly class, those who loved and served humanity in past lives.
The next to the priests are the Kastriyas; they are the leaders of society, the soldiers and administrators.
The third class is the Sudra; they are the workers of society.
The untouchables are the lowest social class, they are outcastes. These people supposedly were evil in past lives… Hitler today is probably somewhere living as an outcast in Africa?
Whereas there is some merit to India’s class system it is now abused. The rulers of India categorize people as born into classes and treat them as such. Originally, the castes are not where you are born into but where your behavior places you. Now in India black folks are mostly the untouchables, the outcasts. The conquering light skinned Aryans relegated the dark skinned blacks into the outcasts and thus control them. This is the bastardization of religion’s good idea.
Hinduism believes that those who love all people and work to serve all people when they die no longer are reborn on earth. They stay in the spiritual world (there are many levels of the spiritual world, including astral world, the world of light forms; there is the formless world of Brahman, Brahmaloca).
Enlightened people may choose to come back to the world and upon birth immediately reject the material world, for they know that it is transitory and ephemeral and focus on what is changeless and permanent, spiritual matters. They are the teachers of God, the avatars like Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha.
Hinduism classifies people into three mental states; Sativa, Rajas and Tamas. Those with Sativa mind are calm and focused on spiritual matters; those with Rajas mind are the doers, active people; those with Tamas mind are lazy, unproductive and given to corruption (think Nigerians).
Hinduism says that the world of matter is composed of three strands, called three gunas (this is akin to physics notion that the atom has three parts, electrons, protons and neutrons).
Hinduism believes that the universe comes and goes. A universe, called Kalpa/Yuga, comes, lives and dies and another is born. Lord Shiva awakes and a new universe is born and goes to sleep and that universe dies; he awakens to another universe etc. Our current universe is said to be the era of worshipping of God (India has many gods, all representing the different aspects of Brahman, including Vishnu, Shiva, Kali etc.).
Hinduism believes in what it calls the seven chakras, energy centers in the body beginning at the base of the spine, and the top one at the head. Each of the chakras performs certain functions. The first three perform lower functions of adaptation to their world, whereas the upper three perform mental functions; the middle chakra is the heart function (the center of love and connection to other persons).
At the base of the spine is kundalini energy, coiled like a snake; it can be awakened and enables the individual to awaken the chakras. Many ways are employed in the effort to awaken the kundalini energy, including controlled deep breathing (puraka), meditation (raja yoga), repeating an assigned mantra (a name a guru gives to one to repeat to help him quiet and concentrate his mind in Japa, religious practice).
Hinduism posits that we on earth live in ignorance of our real self; our real self is said to be atman (the individual self is jivatman); the goal of Hinduism is for us to remember our real self and live from that awareness.
Actually, we are said to be always in the real self but choose to forget it so as to identify as the ego and body and dream that we are those false self-identities.
The world is an illusion; we are in a dream that we are who we are not. In the dream there is a past, present and future, but in reality there is only the now of God with no past and future.
The goal is to find out who our real self and the real world is. Ramana Mahaishi employs the self-inquiry method to find out “who am I”; am I the ego and body or am I the person who owns the ego and body? Through asking these questions and ruling out false answers one is supposed to realize ones true self.
Now that we have a bird’s eye view of Hinduism let us see what Ramana Maharshi said? He called his path to God Self-inquiry method. His path, like all Hindu paths, is meant to lead to self-realization. In broad terms he was a jnana yogi, he embraced the path of wisdom and intellect to God (lased with Bhakti yoga every now and then…such as when he prays and sings to his God).
Ramana Maharshi asked people to find out who their real self is. So, who is your real self? Are you the self that you currently know yourself as, the ego self-housed in body? If that is all you are then you will die and that would be the end of you.
We know that your body is composed or nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon and oxygen and traces of other elements. Your body is a composed thing. All composed things must be decomposed. Whether you like it or not your body will die. Give or take, a hundred years and your pretty body, the body you slave for, that you work like a slave to earn a living to maintain it would die and decompose, and smell like feces. The atoms that compose your body would decompose.
The elements that are now your body would decay to their parts (electrons, neutrons and protons). Those particles would in time decay to quarks and then to photons (light particles). Light energy would ultimately decay to wherever it came from during the Big Bang that 13.7 billion years ago produced the universe of matter, space and time.
If all you are is your body then you are nothing since your body came from nothing and returns to nothing.
If, as science teaches us, your ego mind is epiphenomenal, that is, is produced by your body, brain, and when your body dies your ego mind dies and you end.
Is that who you are or do you have a different self, a self that does not live in body, does not die and disappear into nothingness? Ramana says that we have a different self, one that is changeless, eternal and permanent.
Ramana tells us to go find out who is our real self. Through his questions and answers method he tells us that there is another self in us, the self, the I that asks the question who am I? This is called the I-I method of inquiry.
One I, the Brahman in us ask the question: who am I? The other I, the ego self obviously is temporary and Ramana believes that it is not who we are. He wants a person to go beyond the illusory self, the false self, the ego self and find out that his real self is the atman who is one with the Brahman.
Like all good teachers Ramana Maharshi used homespun metaphors to drive his point home. For example, he liked to use what he calls the three states of being to make his point: the waking state, the sleeping state and the dreaming state.
In deep sleep we do not know that we have a self. In waking state we have awareness of the ego self. In dreaming state we also have the awareness of the ego separated self. He says that both the waking state (our day self) and the dreaming self is of the ego.
The ego and its world are false; one self-dreams at night and one self-dreams in the day time. We have no awareness of our self when we are in deep sleep (dreamless sleep).
Did our self-die when we are not aware of it in deep sleep? Ramana says no. it returns to Brahman and other worlds, and when we are in those worlds we are not aware of our world. In effect, when you sleep and is not dreaming you could be in unified spirit, God, or the light world and since the categories of those worlds are different from those of our world when you awaken you cannot remember them.
This is an intriguing idea although if you are skeptical Ramana did not make a persuasive argument that convinces you that we exist in a different state in sleep. Pure reason tells me that in deep sleep I do not understand where the I in me am. To tell me that it is in God is Hinduism’s idea that I do not know is true or not.
We wish to have an eternal self and could delude ourselves into taking our wish as reality. Let us then say that if one is an agnostic one would not be convinced that one is eternal and that God exists by Ramana’s efforts.
Ramana presented just about every argument that Hindu thinkers have ever presented that convinces them that God exists. However, he would not persuade a materialist, an atheistic scientist that what he is saying is anything but wishful thinking.
If God exists, for example, and Ramana is a God realized person, as he claimed to be, and God is powerful, how come he had cancer and died of it; how come he could not use his god’s powerful mind to heal his body or prevent it from having cancer? You could come up with other reasons to disagree with his thesis but the problem is that we do not know that in fact there is another self that transcends body and ego.
Perhaps another self exists and only those who have experienced it know that it exists? If that is the case one has to take the word of those who claim to have experienced it that it exists, or solder on until one experience it or dismiss the idea as bunkum.
If one chooses to base ones belief on mere word of mouth report by those who claim to have experienced something one runs the risk of being deceived; humanity has been deceived by loads of charlatans claiming god experience they have not had. If one chooses to predicate ones belief in God on others feedback, not on one’s conviction, well, one lays one’s self open to be deceived by quacks who claim to speak for God (speak from psychosis, may be?).
Ramana Maharshi’s talks did not provide scientific proof for what he teaches. For example, he says that the world is our thoughts projected out, that the external world we see is a mirror reflecting what we are thinking, what is in our minds. Is this true or just a baseless assertion? The world I see does not seem to reflect my thinking. I wish that only love and peace exist in the world but I see a world at war with itself. If you say that a deeper part of me, the ego unconscious mind in me, wishes for war when it separated from God and other persons you merely made an assertion that I cannot verify as in me. It is not for you to tell me what is in my mind if I do not see it there. It is like Sigmund Freud and his bunch of Vienna sex perverts telling us that our unconscious minds are ridden with polymorphously perverse sexual desires and some of us told them that we do not see their claims in us and they told us to just accept them as there in us. Accept them because the god called Freud spoke and what he says must be accepted on authority. Human beings can deceive themselves no end. Only what I can verify as true is acceptable to me, not what so-called credible persons say is true.
For millennia Indians sought ways to negate this world and escape to another world, a blissful world. They did not focus on the material world of the here and now and seek science to understand it and technology to master it, as the West did. They ignored the realities of this world; they denied the existence of the outside world by telling themselves that the external world is not real and that it is in their minds. The result of this escape from earthly reality is the abject poverty Indians lived in.
Indians, who are probably the most intelligent human beings on earth, ended up been backward Vis a Vis the West. Therefore, Ramana Maharshi may be doing his people and those who embrace his solipsistic and idealistic philosophy a disservice; he may be encouraging folk to ignore paying attention to the external world that they live in; in effect, he might stymie science and technology, the best means for understanding and mastering our world. Religion’s hocus pocus does not understand and master this world.
There is a universe of space, time and matter out there and our business is to understand it as objectively as is possible, regardless of whether it is real or not. The last time I checked, if I want to travel from Los Angeles to New York, a distance of about three thousand miles, I have to fly in an airplane. I do not teleport myself from one city to the other, as religion’s mumbo jumbo would suggest that my mind is capable of doing. Until religion goes beyond positing merely interesting ideas about the nature of reality, proves its ideas as real, science and technology is mankind’s best way of understanding and coping with the exigencies of this world.
I see science as the best way to understand our physical world hence we must study physics, chemistry and biology. I see technology as the best way to make the most of our world hence we must engage in it. Religions talk consoling talk but do not really walk their talk; they do not deliver when it is needed, such as heal people’s physical sicknesses and provide food for them to subsist on.
However, that does not mean that God and the real self does not exist.it means that science and religion are two different views of reality and that they should not be mixed. If one can compartmentalize the two approaches to living and not mix them, do physics, science and also do metaphysics, meta- science that is fine.
From reading this book, I learned a lot of new Indian words; however, those did not help me experience Samadhi. Until one experiences the oneness that Ramana Maharshi talked about one must remain quiet and nevertheless say with Polonius to his son Horatio (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet)that: there are many things in heaven and earth that are not known in our science (philosophy).
I recommend this book. Read and understand it for it helps you understand the Hindu view of reality (the East sees the world as inside us, as a projection of our thinking). Compare it to the western view of reality (the West sees the world as outside us and that we must study and understand it; this is scientism, aka materialism). Then decide for you what is reality.
You should not take refuge in what other people told you are the nature of reality; it is only what you yourself say is the nature of reality that matters to you and your behavior.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
December 22, 2012