Venkataraman Ayyar, later to be known as Ramana Maharshi, was born on December 29, 1879, in the Tamil region of southern India and enjoyed his childhood in a typical middle-class Brahmin family. He was not particularly scholarly, but he was athletic, with an interest in football, wrestling, and swimming.
As a teenager, he was not specifically drawn to religious literature, but became inexplicably intrigued when, at around the age of sixteen, he heard the name of a holy place called Arunachala in a town called Tiruvannamalai and felt a strong attraction to it. As it turned out, he would spend the rest of his life in that legendary place. Arunachala was the name of a large hill, the focal point of Tiruvannamalai, and a place of pilgrimage for many holy men and devotees.
Around this same time, Venkataraman read a book which contained the stories of the lives of sixty-three Tamil saints, and he was thrilled to learn of the possibility of a life devoted to the pursuit of God. The burning love, faith and renunciation attributed to these storied saints filled him with admiration and inspiration. Thereafter, he began making regular visits to the Meenakshi Temple at Madura, and he began to experience a deep introspective meditation on the meaning of his own existence.
At the age of seventeen, he had a pivotal experience, which much later he described in this way:
“It was about six weeks before I left Madura for good that the great change in my life took place. It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness, and on that day, there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt “I am going to die” and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor, or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then.
The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: “Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? The body dies.” And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word “I” nor any other word could be uttered. “Well then,” I said to myself, “this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So, I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.” All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought process. “I” was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centered on that “I”. From that moment onwards the “I” or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on.”
Venkataraman then resolved to leave home and take refuge in Tiruvannamalai. And so, at the age of seventeen, he left behind his family and the life he had known up to that time for a destination of which he had only heard, so strong was his conviction, faith, and inner need to devote his life to the pursuit of Self-knowledge! After three days, during which he missed a train connection, and walked many miles, he came at last, on the first of September, to the gates of the great temple at Arunachala. There he sat before the image in the shrine, and dedicated his life anew to the renunciant’s life, the life in quest of God.
After some time, Venkataraman became known to the other monks at Arunachala as Ramana Swami, which would later become “Ramana Maharshi (great rishi, or seer)”. Often, he was addressed simply as “Bhagavan (Lord)”. Bhagavan remained in that ashram at Arunachala, giving darshan and answering questions, till the end of his life—which came in 1950.
Quoted from The History of Mysticism by Swami Abhayananda.
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