This was originally posted on my blog on 3rd January 2009:
I recently received the following email from a Sri Kannadasan:
There is a samadhi of one European devotee of Bhagavan near Vadippatti village, which is about 25 km from Madurai. His name is Ramana Giri. There is a Shiva Lingam installed over his samadhi and a small temple built around it. I used to visit this place on my way to Madurai, which is located in quiet spot, at the foot of a small mountain range. The manager of the place gave the following information about Sri Ramana Giri:
His original name was Per Westin. He belonged to the royal family in his native Sweden. He came to India to study Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University. He met Bhagavan and did not return to his native place. Bhagavan gave him a small begging bowl made by himself, out of coconut shell. In the following days, he could not get sufficient quantity of food as bhiksha, and complained to Bhagavan about it. Bhagavan told him that thereafter he need not go in search of food as it would come to him. From that time he did not have to bother about his food. He then moved to different places and settled at this place, which is near a jungle stream. The coconut shell begging bowl, made by Bhagavan, is kept safely in a jewel box, along with other belongings of Sri Ramana Giri. They gave it to me see it. It has been made by cutting the coconut vertically. Though small in size, it is in perfect oval shape, and nicely polished. Holding it in my hands, I was overwhelmed by emotion. As a souvenir, I was given an old visiting card of Sri Ramana Giri with his original name. The card has his old name and address as ‘Djursholm’. I have not come across Sri Ramana Giri in Bhagavan’s literature so far. If you have any info on him, kindly share with me.
A few hours before I received this email I had been going through one of my old trunks, looking for a document I hadn’t seen for years. As I was searching, I found an article on Swami Ramanagiri I had written many years ago. I put it to one side, thinking that I could post it here. I took the subsequent email on the same topic to be a sign that I should take up the work immediately.
In the last couple of days I have been doing some research on this article, and on Swami Ramanagiri in general, and I discovered that it was published in The Mountain Path in 1994 (pp. 144-8), although my name did not appear on it there. A little more research revealed that I had taken most of the information in the article from one that had been written by Prof. K. C. Sashi and published in The Mountain Path in 1986, pages 71-4. Prof. Sashi knew Swami Ramanagiri personally. His account has the most biographical details of any I have so far come across.
I decided to update and expand my original article by adding to it all the other information on Swami Ramanagiri that I have been able to locate elsewhere. In addition to the articles I have already cited, the following sources have been utilised:
(a) An article entitled ‘Guru’, written anonymously by ‘A Chela’, and published in The Mountain Path, 1980, p. 229. This was written by a disciple of Swami Ramanagiri.
(b) About twenty years ago I was given a seventeen-page manuscript about Swami Ramanagiri by Michael James, who had received it from a devotee of Swami Ramanagiri. Much of the material in this manuscript appears in the other sources I have cited, but there is an interesting section after the biographical details that contains Swami Ramanagiri’s thoughts on a variety of spiritual topics. It is entitled ‘Cold Fire’, which seems to be a reference to the way he perceived the Divine Mother’s grace working on him. In one of his notebook entries he wrote: ‘Your steps are so gentle, Your voice so sweet, and Your touch so tender. Mother’s nature is that of a cooling fire.’
(c) Dancing with the Void, by Sunyata. Bhagavan once described the Danish devotee Sunyata as a ‘natural born mystic’. In chapter ten (pp. 59-63) of this book he gives a brief description of his association with Swami Ramanagiri.
(d) I went to the Ramanasramam Archives two days ago to see what material might be available. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that John Maynard, who works there, had visited the samadhi shrine of Swami Ramanagiri and taken some photos. I have included a few of them in this post.
(e) There was a site about Swami Ramanagiri (no longer online) that contained, almost verbatim, the 1994 article I wrote, with little extra information. However, it did have photos of Swami Ramanagiri and his samadhi shrine that do not appear in this post. There is also some information on how to reach the village that contains Swami Ramanagiri’s samadhi shrine, and how to contact the people who are in charge of it.
In his email Sri Kannadasan mentioned that he had not come across any information on Swami Ramanagiri in the Ramana literature. There have been a few articles in The Mountain Path, but Sri Kannadasan is right in suggesting that Swami Ramanagiri has been completely ignored by those who have written books on Bhagavan. You will find no mention of him in any of the biographies, nor will you find his story in any of the books about devotees. He failed to make the editorial cut for the 160 devotees who appeared in Face to Face with Bhagavan; his story did not appear in the eight volumes of Arunachala’s Ramana; I did not select him as a subject for the three volumes of The Power of the Presence; V. Ganesan didn’t mention him in Moments Remembered, his collection of devotees’ stories; and he didn’t even make an appearance in A. R. Natarajan’s book on western devotees. Cumulatively, these omissions seem to be perverse and inexplicable since Swami’s Ramanagiri’s story is astounding and unique: it is a great personal odyssey combined with a vivid demonstration of Bhagavan’s power and grace. I hope today’s post will go some way towards bringing a knowledge and an appreciation of Swami Ramanagiri to those devotees who have not so far encountered his story.
Swami Ramanagiri was born into an aristocratic Swedish family in June 1921. Though he was related to the king of Sweden, it was the ‘royal’ yoga of Patanjali that finally claimed him. In his youth he came across Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga and found he had an immediate affinity with the subject matter, so much so that he began to develop yogic siddhis soon after beginning the practices.
He came to India in 1945 on a two-year scholarship to study philosophy at Banaras Hindu University, but the principal aim of his journey was to find a competent teacher who could help him to make progress with his yogic practices. The Danish devotee Sunyata recalls meeting him soon after his arrival:
It was on a sunny, winter day in holy Benares, in the 1940s, that I met Peer A. Wertin. He came gliding along by the shore where the washermen were busy splashing the dirty linen of respectable egojis [Sunyata’s affectionate name for all embodied jivas]. I was sharing my leftover food with donkey friends, as human friends would always give me too much to eat. Peer seemed touched by my donkey friendship. Birds of a feather and kindred asses flock together! Peer was in a body of some twenty-five summers – tall, dark and slim. He was studious looking, civilised, respectable and balanced. His upper lip had been slightly damaged by some explosion [he had received] during military duty. I detected a slight stoop… We went together to see some sadhus, gurus and learned pandits in the holy Benares. One Guru fastened on Peer the name ‘Sri Hanuman’. I was not much impressed by the competence of that guru nor with the name he gave to Peer. Since Peer had been in holy Bharat only a short while then, I felt he would eventually find his due path. ‘Step by step as thou goest, the Way will open unto three.’
The two soon became friends. When summer came Sunyata invited Peer to stay with him in Almora:
Peer came to my Himalayan retreat in the spring when the heat came upon the plains. He stayed in my upper Sunya cave on the hill’s crest. It had vast scenic views and a vaster expanse of silence. He imbibed the gracious solitude in the pure, Krishna-blue azure realm, while Paramahamsa wings grew and unfurled. He had the psychological urge towards stark openness and nudeness. It was the need of being natural, without the rags of ego deceit, artificial respectability or artistic hiding. In this purity, the mental fig leaves become positively indecent or a kind of vulgar prudery.
Peer felt right in that Himalayan setting with nature, with books and a rich inner life. In the outer play there was the ringing self-radiant Silence, the winds in the pines below, and the crescending of Aums. I left Peer alone except for an occasional service and chat. Sometimes we played naturally, nakedly together, raking pine needles, or cutting grass or wood – all part of our Himalayan contemplation.
Peer Wertin had been awarded a two-year scholarship in India to study religious and philosophical lore, but he renounced it all when he took to yoga and intensive self-enquiry. I later introduced him to Maharshi Ramana in Tiruvannamalai. In and through Maharshi, he eventually came to full ‘awakening’, conscious ‘Self-awareness’, or ‘advaita experiencing’. Hanuman, the name given to him in Varanasi dropped off and ‘Ramanagiri’, conferred on him by Ramana Maharshi, emerged. Comparisons are odious, yet Maharshi Ramana is Himalayan to many current molehills and tinpot, claptrap gurus.
Peer was blessed in Maharshi’s grace and sahaja recognition. When I met him first I asserted nothing. Himalaya and Sunyata have no need to assert. I could sense in him a certain Swedish occultism and an intense longing to realise the truth. Ramanagiri later came through an ancient road, a homeward way, frequented by the wholly awakened ones. Here all mental concepts and ideals vanish. Only awareness remains, bereft of all theories and ideal abstractions. It is the serene state of exalted calm in absolute Silence. It has been called nirvana, or turiya or sunya.
Ramanagiri was in this state of ‘advaita experiencing’. I did pranam to Ramanagiri in glad homage, in karuna love and in Himalayan ananda gratitude. Upon leaving my place he went on a pilgrimage. His Jiva Yatra [soul’s pilgrimage] was lived mostly in South India, by seashores, in jungles and at the grail-glowing holy mountain, Arunachala.
At some point, when he was still living in Benares, Peer took sannyasa via a formal initiation. I don’t know the name of his diksha guru; he is simply referred to as a ‘holy man of Benares’. On taking sannyasa Peer renounced both his academic studies and his personal fortune, which apparently amounted to over eight million dollars.
At the time of his initiation his diksha guru stipulated that he should never ask for anything, and only accept what was offered to him. On the day following his initiation he passed by a friend’s house, but his friend failed to recognise him because of his shaved head and orange robes.
When he saw the sannyasin, he shouted to his wife, ‘A mendicant is going by! Give him the rotten bananas!’ This was his first bhiksha.
On the following day he was walking in front of the palace of the Raja of Benares when a soldier accosted him and asked him to step inside.
‘Why?’ asked the swami.
The soldier replied that it was the practice of the raja to offer food daily to the first sannyasin he saw walking in front of the palace gates. So, on that day, he was taken in, accorded a royal reception, and given a feast, personally served by the raja himself.
When he later narrated both of these incidents to his diksha guru, he was told that both should be treated with equal indifference, as food is only for physical sustenance. For the rest of his brief life he never asked for anything and never handled money.
In early 1949 he came to Tiruvannamalai to meet Bhagavan for the first time. Though he had a natural inclination for raja yoga, having practised it for years, Swami Ramanagiri felt an immediate attraction to atma vichara, the path of Sri Ramana. Since this was a departure from the practical teachings he had been taught by his diksha guru, Swami Ramanagiri felt that he should consult him about this change of direction. The diksha guru let him know that Bhagavan was his true Guru, and he encouraged him to follow the teachings he was being given at Ramanasramam.
Swami Ramanagiri did self-enquiry intensively for forty days in Bhagavan’s presence and was rewarded, on Sivaratri day 1949, with a direct experience of the Self. When asked later about what had happened on that momentous day, he would usually say, ‘On that day I became a fool’. For the rest of his life he referred to himself in the third person as ‘this fool’.
Speaking of the effect this experience had had on him, he wrote in one of his notebooks:
I don’t know anything,
and that ‘I’ which knows is nothing but an ignorant fool.
I think, when I don’t think,
that I have no end and no beginning.
That which thinks has to take thousands of births.
When there is ‘I’ He is not; when He is, I am not.
How did he practise atma vichara? Certainly not in the way prescribed by Bhagavan. It was his own idiosyncratic method, combining classical vichara, pranayama, a little neti-neti, and some imaginative visualisations. Some interesting insights into his method can be gleaned from the following long letter that he wrote to Prof. K. S. Sashi. He began by saying:
In the course of sadhana, maya first comes to the sincere soul in the form of worldly troubles; second in the form of desires, and third in the form of dear friends who keep him away from the quest.
He had had his own experiences of ‘dear friends’ who kept him away from the quest. In one of his notebooks he wrote: ‘Three years ago I found that letters from my previous family became an obstacle on the spiritual quest, so whenever any letter came, I never opened it or read it. I experienced that the divine was on my side in spite of my improper action.’
He continued with his spiritual advice with the following words:
Our own mind is the greatest cheater in the world. It will make thousands of different reasons to go its own way. There are three ways of handling this cheat, who is nothing but a bundle of thoughts creeping into the conscious mind.
First, to treat him as a friend and give him full satisfaction. This is a very long and tiresome way because he is never satisfied.
Second, to treat him as an enemy and with all force try to get rid of him. This is only possible by the grace of the divine because the mind has got two very powerful weapons – the discriminating intellect and the imaginative faculty. These two fellows can convince even God himself that black is white.
The third way is the way taught by Sri Ramana in the days of silence at the foot of sacred Arunachala. This way, which has been adopted by this fool, is to treat the mind as a patient, or rather several patients who are coming to a doctor to complain about their various ailments.
Just as a doctor sits in his room receiving different kinds of patients, this fool imagines himself sitting in the sacred cave of the Heart and receiving the different thought-patients. You know that a sick person likes to babble for hours about his complaint. In the same way a thought likes to multiply itself, but the doctor always cuts it short, saying, ‘Very good. Take this medicine. Thank you very much.’ And then he calls for another patient. This is how this fool decided to meditate.
First the fool slows down his breath as much as possible, but only to the point where there is no discomfort. To this fool, two breaths per minute is the proper speed, but that may not be possible for you because this fool has practised for a long time. You may be able to decrease your breathing to 8-10 per minute in the beginning. Don’t get to a level where you are uncomfortable, because that discomfort will give rise to thoughts.
This fool decided to receive twenty patients before closing the dispensary of the Heart. He calls out ‘Number one!’ and he waits for thought patient number one to come. The thought patient may say, ‘Smt such-and-such is not well. Sri so-and-so is worried.’
Then this foolish doctor says, ‘Oh, you are number one. Very good. The name of Lord Murugan will cure you. Thank you very much.’
Then he calls for number two, and he waits till the second patient is entering the room. ‘Mr so-and-so may get mukti this life,’ he says.
‘Very good. You are number two. The whole world is benefited if one soul gets liberated. Thank you very much.’
Numbers three, four, five, and so on are dealt with in the same way. When all the twenty thought patients have come and gone, the doctor closes the room to the Heart, and no one else is allowed to come inside. Now he is alone. Now there is time for atma vichara.
He asks himself, ‘To whom have all these thoughts come?’
Three times he slowly repeats the same question, along with the outgoing breaths.
Then he, in that same slow manner, answers, ‘To me, to me, to me’.
‘Then who am I? Then who am I? Then who am I?’
All questions and answers are repeated three times, very slowly.
‘This “I” is not a thought. This “I” is not a thought. This “I” is not a thought.’
‘Then who is the receiver of the thought? Then who is the receiver of the thought? Then who is the receiver of the thought?’
‘”I” – “I” – “I”’ Now the mind is centralised in the source itself. ’
‘Then who am I? Then who am I? Then who am I?’
Now the breath comes to an end and the attention is concentrated 100% on the sound caused by the palpitation of the heart, as if the sound would give the answer to our questions. This is nothing but the pranava itself. If, during this time, the sakti which was static is converted to movements or becomes dynamic, trance will occur. If the primal energy reaches the space between the eyebrows, savikalpa samadhi will occur. If the energy rises up to the top of the head, nirvikalpa samadhi will occur, which is nothing but the Self itself.
However, you should also know that even if the doctor has closed the dispensary door, some patients may come and peep in through the window to complain about their ailments. At the beginning of atma vichara, the patients at the window are many. In the same way, although the door to the cave of the Heart is closed, some thoughts may occur at the time of dhyana.
For example, a thought may come: ‘Mr Iyer’s sushumna nadi has opened up.’
Since the patient has not come at the proper time, the doctor doesn’t attend to him.
Instead, he continues the quest: ‘To whom has the thought of Mr Iyer come?’ ‘To me, to me, to me.’
‘Then who am I? Then who am I? Then who am I?’
Dearest ‘S’. In all humility this fool has babbled something about how he tries to establish himself in the experience of ananda, which is no different from the Self itself.
With all my love to you.
Ramanagiri in Him