Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 5.01.07

Ramana Maharshi: The Sage of Arunachala
By Arvind Sharma, Viking, Rs 295

The Sankaracharya defines the non-dual perception of the self or atman as the only valid knowledge since it is not contradicted. This notion constitutes the base of the Advaita Vedanta, of which Ramana Maharshi was an early 20th-century exponent.

Venkataramana, as Ramana Maharshi was known in his early life, was born in a middle-class family in December, 1876, away from the city of Madurai. When he approached his sixteenth year, two incidents signalled a change in his life. First, he came across a relative in Madurai who hailed from Arunachala. The name of ‘Arunachala’ cast a mysterious spell on him. Second, around the same time, he came upon Periapuranam, which contains the life sketches of the 63 nayanars, the famous poet-saints of Tamil Shaivism. These accounts, too, left an indelible impression on him.

In 1896, Venkataramana was exposed to what people now call a “conversion experience”. He was seized by a strong fear of death, grappling with which he came to realize that his body was not his true self. That was Venkataramana’s first brush with Advaita philosophy. Six weeks after this experience, he left Madurai for Arunachala (Tiru vannamalai) and, after a stressful journey, took shelter in the Virupaksha cave.

In this impassioned biography, Arvind Sharma traces the spiritual odyssey of this great South Indian sage, whom M.K. Gandhi had wanted to meet. Sharma derives material copiously from other biographies of the sage and from the Maharshi’s dialogues with his disciples and visitors. This derivative and reconstructive method enables Sharma to present different interpretations of the Maharshi’s life to the reader, leaving him to judge for himself. But Sharma should have offered his judgment in certain crucial parts. He is less than critical about some of the Maharshi’s failings — such as his tacit consent to the Brahmins dining separately in his ashrama or his allowing his devotees to prostrate themselves before him. These practices are incompatible with the basic tenets of Advaita Vedanta.

Sharma depends so heavily on the devotees’ accounts of the miracles in the Maharshi’s life that his biography borders on hagiography. He lacks a historian’s insight and probably does not recognize that today’s biographer is to a large extent a historian because he, too, has to grasp and analyse the spirit of a segment of historical time.

However, Sharma is good at exploring the Maharshi’s metaphysical teachings and also at portraying the purely human aspects of the sage, believed to be an avatar, specially where he describes the Maharshi praying for his sick mother or shedding tears on hearing the news of Gandhi’s assassination.