An Introduction to Sri Ramana's Life and Teachings
David Godman talks to John David
jd: Is it right that during that time he was still available?
DG: He was very insistent that anyone who wanted to see him could have
darshan at least once a day. When people realized he wasn't going to be here much longer, the crowds increased. For the last few weeks there was a 'walking
darshan'. People would file past his room and pranam to him one by one.
jd: And that went on until his last day?
DG: Yes, he gave his final public darshan on the afternoon of the day he died.
jd: Yes, I actually met someone who walked past him the day before he died.
DG: He insisted that the public should have as much access as possible. Up until the 1940s, the doors of his room were open twenty-four hours a day. If you wanted to see him at 3 a.m., no one would stop you from walking in and seeing him. If you had some problem, you could go and tell him in the middle of the night.
jd: So even though he was doing a lot of work - cutting vegetables, working on the buildings and so on - he was, in fact, always available?
DG: In that era of his life there weren't too many people around him. You are talking about the years when he was actively involved in cooking and building work. In those days, if a group of people came to see him, he would go to the hall to see what they wanted.
Everybody who lived in the ashram had a job. You were either working in the cowshed or the kitchen, the garden, the office, and so on. These ashram residents were not allowed to sit with Bhagavan during the day because they had work to do. In the evening all the ashram workers would gather around Bhagavan, and for a few hours they would generally have him to themselves. The visitors would usually go home in the evening. The people whom he saw during the day in the hall would be visitors to the ashram, along with a few devotees who had houses nearby.
jd: Was everyone free to question him?
DG: In theory, yes, but many people were far too intimidated to approach him. He would sometimes talk without prompting, without being questioned. He liked to tell stories about famous saints, and he often told stories about what had happened to him in various stages of his life. He was a great storyteller, and whenever he had a good story to tell, he would act out the parts of the various protagonists. He would get so involved in the narratives, he would often start crying when he came to a particularly moving part of the story.
jd: So the impression of him being silent is not really true?
DG: He was silent for much of the day. He told people that he preferred to remain in silence, but he did speak, often for hours at a time, when he was in the mood.
I'm not saying that everyone who came to see him got a prompt verbal answer to his or her question. You could come and ask an apparently earnest question, and Bhagavan might ignore you. He might stare out of the window and show no sign that he had even heard what you had said. Someone else might come in and ask a question and get an immediate reply. It sometimes looked like a bit of a lottery, but everyone in the end got what they needed or deserved. Bhagavan responded to what was going on in the minds of the people who were in front of him, not just to their questions, and since he was the only person who could see what was going on in that sphere, his responses at times seemed to outsiders to be occasionally random or arbitrary.
Many people would ask something and not get a spoken answer, but they would find later that merely sitting in his presence had given them the peace or the answer they required. This was the kind of response that Bhagavan preferred to make: a silent, healing stream of grace that gave people peace, not just a satisfactory spoken answer.
jd: When did he begin to give out teachings, and what were they? I have been told that when he was living in a cave on the hill someone came to him and asked what his teachings were. He apparently wrote them out in a small booklet. Can you say something about this?
DG: This was 1901. He didn't even have a notebook. A man called Sivaprakasam Pillai came and asked questions. His basic question was 'Who am I? How do I find out who I really am?' The dialogue developed from there, but no words were spoken. Bhagavan wrote his answers with his finger in the sand because this was the period in which he found it difficult to articulate sounds. This primitive writing medium produced short, pithy answers.
Sivaprakasam Pillai didn't write down these answers. After each new question was asked, Bhagavan would wipe out his previous reply and pen a new one with his finger. When he went home, Sivaprakasam Pillai wrote down what he could remember of this silent conversation.
About twenty years later he published these questions and answers as an appendix to a brief biography of Bhagavan that he had written and published. I think there were thirteen questions and answers in this first published version. Bhagavan's devotees appreciated this particular presentation. Ramanashram published it as a separate booklet, and with each edition more and more questions and answers were added. The longest version has about thirty.
At some point in the 1920s Bhagavan himself rewrote this series of questions and answers as a prose essay, elaborating on some answers and deleting others. This is now published under the title
Who Am I? in Bhagavan's Collected Works, and separately as a small pamphlet. It is simply Bhagavan's summary of answers written with his finger more than twenty years before.
jd: It sounds fairly brief.
DG: Yes, it is probably about six pages in most books.
jd: The key is this question 'Who am I?' Is that right?
DG: It's called Who am I? but it covers all kinds of things: the nature of happiness, what the world is, how it apparently comes into existence, how it disappears. There is also a detailed portion that explains how to do self-enquiry.
jd: You could say something on that. I've personally been reading about self-enquiry for many years but it's never quite clear exactly what it is. Is it something you do in the morning as a practice? Is it something you do once or regularly? Is it like a breathing technique or a type of meditation?
DG: Papaji always used to say 'Do it once and do it properly'. That's the ideal way, but I only know of two or three people who have done it once and got the right answer: a direct experience of the Self. These people were ready for a direct experience, so when they asked the question, the Self responded with the right answer, the right experience.
jd: Like Papaji himself?
DG: Papaji never did self-enquiry, although he did advocate it vigorously once he started teaching.
I'm thinking of two remarkable people who both came to Bhagavan in the late 1940s. One was a woman who had had many visions of Murugan, her chosen deity. She was a devotee who had never heard of self-enquiry. She didn't even know much about Bhagavan when she stood in front of him in April 1950. She was one of the people who had 'walking
darshan' in Bhagavan's final days. As she stood in front of Bhagavan, the question 'Who am I?' spontaneously appeared inside her, and as an answer she immediately had a direct experience of the Self. She said later that this was the first time in her life that she had experienced
The second person I am thinking of is Lakshmana Swamy. He, too, had not done any self-enquiry before. He had been a devotee for only a few months and during that time he had been repeating Bhagavan's name as a spiritual practice. In October 1949 he sat in Bhagavan's presence and closed his eyes. The question 'Who am I?' spontaneously appeared inside him, and as an answer his mind went back to its source, the Heart, and never appeared again. In his case it was a permanent experience, a true Self-realization.
In both cases there had been no prior practice of self-enquiry, and in both cases the question 'Who am I?' appeared spontaneously within them. It wasn't asked with volition. These people were ready for an experience of the Self. In Bhagavan's presence the question appeared within them, and in his presence their sense of individuality vanished. In my opinion being in the physical presence was just as important as the asking of the question.
Many other people have asked the question endlessly without getting the result that these people got from having the question appear in them once.
I should also like to point out that both these people had their experiences in the last few months of Bhagavan's life. Though his body was disintegrating, physically enfeebling him, his spiritual power, his physical presence, remained just as strong as ever.
jd: Are you saying that self-enquiry is not a practice, that it is not something that we should do laboriously, hour after hour, day after day?
DG: It is a practice for the vast majority of people, and Bhagavan did encourage people to do it as often as they could. He said that the practice should be persisted with, right up to the moment of realization.
It wasn't his only teaching, and he didn't tell everyone who came to him to do it. Generally, when people approached him and asked for spiritual advice, he would ask them what practice they were doing. They would tell him, and his usual response would be, 'Very good, carry on with that'.
He didn't have a strong missionary zeal for self-enquiry, but he did say that sooner or later everyone has to come to self-enquiry because this is the only effective way of eliminating the individual 'I'. He knew that most people who approached him preferred to repeat the name of God or worship a particular form of him. So, he let them carry on with whatever practice they felt an affinity with.
However, if you came to him and asked, 'I'm not doing any practice at the moment, but I want to get enlightened. What is the quickest and most direct way to accomplish this?' he would almost invariably reply, 'Do self-enquiry'.
jd: Is he on the record as saying that it is the quickest and most direct way?
DG: Yes. He mentioned this on many occasions, but it was not his style to force it on people. He wanted devotees to come to it when they were ready for it.
jd: So even though he accepted whatever practices people were involved in, he was quite clear the quickest and most direct tool would be self-enquiry?
DG: Yes, and he also said that you had to stick with it right up to the moment of realization.
For Bhagavan, it wasn't a technique that you practiced for an hour a day, sitting cross-legged on the floor. It is something you should do every waking moment, in combination with whatever actions the body is doing.
He said that beginners could start by doing it sitting, with closed eyes, but for everyone else, he expected it to be done during ordinary daily activities.
jd: With regard to the actual technique, would you say that it is to be aware, from moment to moment, what is going on in the mind?
DG: No, it's nothing to do with being aware of the contents of the mind. It's a very specific method that aims to find out where the individual sense of 'I' arises. Self-enquiry is an active investigation, not a passive witnessing.
For example, you may be thinking about what you had for breakfast, or you may be looking at a tree in the garden. In self-enquiry, you don't simply maintain an awareness of these thoughts, you put your attention on the thinker who has the thought, the perceiver who has the perception. There is an 'I' who thinks, an 'I' who perceives, and this 'I' is also a thought. Bhagavan's advice was to focus on this inner sense of 'I' in order to find out what it really is. In self-enquiry you are trying to find out where this 'I' feeling arises, to go back to that place and stay there. It is not simply watching, it's a kind of active scrutiny in which one is trying to find out how the sense of being an individual person comes into being.
You can investigate the nature of this 'I' by formally asking yourself, 'Who am I?' or 'Where does this ''I'' come from?' Alternatively, you can try to maintain a continuous awareness of this inner feeling of 'I'. Either approach would count as self-enquiry. You should not suggest answers to the question, such as 'I am consciousness' because any answer you give yourself is conceptual rather than experiential. The only correct answer is a direct experience of the Self.
jd: It's very clear what you just said, but almost impossible to accomplish. It sounds simple, but I know from my own experience that it's very hard.
DG: It needs practice and commitment. You have to keep at it and not give up. The practice slowly changes the habits of the mind. By doing this practice regularly and continuously, you remove your focus from superficial streams of thoughts and relocate it at the place where thought itself begins to manifest. In that latter place you begin to experience the peace and stillness of the Self, and that gives you the incentive to continue.
Bhagavan had a very appropriate analogy for this process. Imagine that you have a bull, and that you keep it in a stable. If you leave the door open, the bull will wander out, looking for food. It may find food, but a lot of the time it will get into trouble by grazing in cultivated fields. The owners of these fields will beat it with sticks and throw stones at it to chase it away, but it will come back again and again, and suffer repeatedly, because it doesn't understand the notion of field boundaries. It is just programmed to look for food and to eat it wherever it finds something edible.
The bull is the mind, the stable is the Heart where it arises and to where it returns, and the grazing in the fields represents the mind's painful addiction to seeking pleasure in outside objects.
Bhagavan said that most mind-control techniques forcibly restrain the bull to stop it moving around, but they don't do anything about the bull's fundamental desire to wander and get itself into trouble.
You can tie up the mind temporarily with
japa or breath control, but when these restraints are loosened, the mind just wanders off again, gets involved in more mischief and suffers again.
You can tie up a bull, but it won't like it. You will just end up with an angry, cantankerous bull that will probably be looking for a chance to commit some act of violence on you.
Bhagavan likened self-enquiry to holding a bunch of fresh grass under the bull's nose. As the bull approaches it, you move away in the direction of the stable door and the bull follows you. You lead it back into the stable, and it voluntarily follows you because it wants the pleasure of eating the grass that you are holding in front of it. Once it is inside the stable, you allow it to eat the abundant grass that is always stored there. The door of the stable is always left open, and the bull is free to leave and roam about at any time. There is no punishment or restraint. The bull will go out repeatedly, because it is the nature of such animals to wander in search of food. And each time they go out, they will be punished for straying into forbidden areas.
Every time you notice that your bull has wandered out, tempt it back into its stable with the same technique. Don't try to beat it into submission, or you may be attacked yourself, and don't try to solve the problem forcibly by locking it up.
Sooner or later even the dimmest of bulls will understand that, since there is a perpetual supply of tasty food in the stable, there is no point wandering around outside, because that always leads to sufferings and punishments. Even though the stable door is always open, the bull will eventually stay inside and enjoy the food that is always there.
This is self-enquiry.
Whenever you find the mind wandering around in external objects and senses perceptions, take it back to its stable, which is the Heart, the source from which it rises and to which it returns. In that place it can enjoy the peace and bliss of the Self. When it wanders around outside, looking for pleasure and happiness, it just gets into trouble, but when it stays at home in the Heart, it enjoys peace and silence. Eventually, even though the stable door is always open, the mind will choose to stay at home and not wander about.
Bhagavan said that the way of restraint was the way of the yogi. Yogis try to achieve restraint by forcing the mind to be still. Self-enquiry gives the mind the option of wandering wherever it wants to, and it achieves its success by gently persuading the mind that it will always be happier staying at home.
jd: In that very moment when you realize there's plenty of grass at home and therefore no need to go out, would you call that awakening?