The teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
[Note: By David Godman: The original texts from which
At first sight Sri Ramana Maharshi’s statements on God appear to be riddled with contradictions: on one occasion he might say that God never does anything, on another that nothing happens except by God’s will. Sometimes he would say that God is just an idea in the mind, while at other times he would say that God is the only existing reality.
The contradictory statements are largely a reflection of the differing levels of understanding he encountered in his questioners. Those who worshipped personal Gods would often be given anthropomorphic explanations. They would be told that God created the world, that he sustains it by his divine power, that he looks after the needs of all its inhabitants and that nothing happens that is contrary to God’s will. On the other hand, those who were not attracted to such a theory would be told that all such ideas about God and his power were mental creations, which only obscured the real experience of God, which is inherent in everyone.
At the highest level of his teachings the term ‘God’ and ‘Self’ are synonyms for the immanent reality which is discovered by Self-realisation. Thus realisation of the Self is realisation of God; it is not an experience of God, rather it is an understanding that one is God. Speaking from this ultimate level, Sri Ramana’s statements on God can be summarised in the following way:
On a lower level Sri Ramana Maharshi spoke about Iswara, the Hindu name for the supreme personal God. He said that Iswara exists as a real entity only so long as one imagines that one is an individual person. When individuality persists there is a God who survives the activities of the universe; in the absence of individuality Iswara is non-existent.
Beside Iswara, Hinduism has many deities which resemble the gods and
demons of Norse and Greek mythology. Such deities are a central feature of
popular Hinduism and their reality is still widely accepted. Sri Ramana
surprised many people by saying that such beings were as real as the
people who believed in them. He admitted that after realisation they
shared the same fate as Iswara, but prior to that, he seemed to regard
them as senior officials in a cosmological hierarchy which looked after
the affairs of the world.
Question: God is described as manifest and unmanifest. As the former he is said to include the world as a part of his being. If that is so, we as part of that world should have easily known him in the manifest form.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Know your self before you seek to decide about the nature of God and the world.
Question: Does knowing myself imply knowing God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, God is within you.
Question: Then, what stands in the way of my knowing myself or God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Your wandering mind and perverted ways.
Question: Is God personal?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, he is always the first person, the I, ever standing before you. Because you give precedence to worldly things, God appears to have receded to the background. If you give up all else and seek him alone, he alone will remain as the ‘I’, the Self.
Question: Is God apart from the Self?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Self is God. ‘I am’ is God. This question arises because you are holding on to the ego self. It will not arise if you hold on to the true Self. For the real Self will not and cannot ask anything. If God be apart from the Self he must be a self-less God, which is absurd. God, who seems to be non-existent, alone truly exists. Whereas the individual, who seems to be existing, is ever non-existent. Sages say that the state in which one thus knows one’s own non-existence (sunya) alone is the glorious supreme knowledge.
You now think that you are an individual, that there is the universe and that God is beyond the cosmos. So there is the idea of separateness. This idea must go. For God is not separate from you or the cosmos. The Gita also says:
The Self am I, O Lord of sleep,
Thus God is not only in the heart of all, he is the prop of all, he is the source of all, their abiding place and their end. All proceed from him, have their stay in him, and finally resolve into him. Therefore, he is not separate.
Question: How are we to understand this passage in the Gita: ‘This whole cosmos forms a particle of me’?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: It does not mean that a small particle of God separates from him and forms the universe. His sakti (power) is acting. As a result of one phase of such activity the cosmos has become manifest. Similarly, the statement in Purusha Sukta, ‘All the beings form his one foot’, does not mean that Brahman is in several parts.
Questioner: I understand that. Brahman is certainly not divisible.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: So the fact is that Brahman is all and remains indivisible. It is ever realised but man is not aware of this. He must come to know this. Knowledge means the overcoming of obstacles, which obstruct the revelation of the eternal truth that the Self is the same as Brahman. The obstacles taken together form your idea of separateness as an individual.
Question: Is God the same as Self?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Self is known to everyone, but not clearly. You always exist. The be-ing is the Self. ‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus 3. There are other statements, such as Brahmaivaham (Brahman am I), Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) and Soham (I am he). But none is so direct as the name Jehovah which means ‘I am’. The absolute being is what is. It is the Self. It is God. Knowing the Self, God is known. In fact God is none other than the Self.
Question: God seems to be known by many different names. Are any of them justified?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Among the many thousands of names of God, no name suits God, who abides in the Heart, devoid of thought, so truly, aptly, and beautifully as the name ‘I’ or ‘I am’. Of all the known names of God, the name of God ‘I’ – ‘I’ alone will resound triumphantly when the ego is destroyed, rising as the silent supreme word (mouna-para-vak) in the Heart-space of those whose attention is Selfward-facing. Even if one unceasingly meditates upon that name ‘I-I’ with one’s attention on the feeling ‘I’, it will take one and plunge one into the source from which thought rises, destroying the ego, the embryo, which is joined to the body.
Question: What is the relationship between God and the world? Is he the creator or sustainer of it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Sentient and insentient beings of all kinds are performing actions only by the mere presence of the sun, which rises in the sky without any volition. Similarly all actions are done by the Lord without any volition or desire on his part. In the mere presence of the sun, the magnifying lens emits fire, the lotus-bud blossoms, the water-lily closes and all the countless creatures perform actions and rest.
The order of the great multitude of worlds is maintained by the mere presence of God in the same manner as the needle moves in front of a magnet, and as the moonstone emits water, the water-lily blossoms and the lotus closes in front of the moon.
In the mere presence of God, who does not have even the least volition, the living beings, who are engaged in innumerable activities, are embarking upon many paths to which they are drawn according to the course determined by their own Karmas, finally realise the futility of action, turn back to Self and attain liberation.
The actions of living beings certainly do not go and affect God, who transcends the mind, in the same manner as the activities of the world do not affect that sun and as the qualities of the conspicuous four elements (earth, water, fire and air) do not affect the limitless space.
Question: Why is samsara- creation and manifestation as finitised- so full of sorrow and evil?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: God’s will!
Question: Why does God will it so?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: It is inscrutable. No motive can be attributed to that power –no desire, no end to achieve can be asserted of that one infinite, all-wise and all-powerful being. God is untouched by activities, which take place in his presence. Compare the sun and the world activities. There is no meaning in attributing responsibility and motive to the one before it becomes many.
Question: Does everything happen by the will of God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: It is not possible for anyone to do anything opposed to the ordinance of God, who has the ability to do everything. Therefore to remain silent at the feet of God, having given up all the anxieties of the wicked, defective mind, is best.
Question: Is there a separate being Iswara (personal God) who is the rewarder of virtue and punisher of sins? Is there a God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes.
Question: What is he like?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Iswara has individuality in mind and body, which are perishable, but at the same time he has also the transcendental consciousness and liberation inwardly.
Iswara, the personal God, the supreme creator of the universe really does exist. But this is true only from the relative standpoint of those who have not realised the truth, those people who believe in the reality of individual souls. From the absolute standpoint the sage cannot accept any other existence than the impersonal Self, one and formless.
Iswara has a physical body, a form and a name, but it is not so gross as this material body. It can be seen in visions in the form created by the devotee. The forms and names of God are many and various and differ with each religion. His essence is the same as ours, the real Self being only one and without form. Hence forms he assumes are only creations or appearances.
Iswara is immanent in every person and every object throughout the universe. The totality of all things and beings constitutes God. There is a power out of which a small fraction has become all this universe, and the remainder is in reserve. Both this reserve power plus the manifested power as material world together constitute Iswara.
Question: So ultimately Iswara is not real?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Existence of Iswara follows from our conception of Iswara. Let us first know whose concept he is. The concept will be only according to the one who conceives. Find out who you are and the other problems will solve themselves.
Iswara, God, the creator, the personal God, is the last of the unreal forms to go. Only the absolute being is real. Hence, not only the world, not only the ego, but also the personal God are of unreality. We must find the absolute – nothing else.
Question: You say that even the highest God is still only an idea. Does that mean that there is no God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: No, there is an Iswara.
Question: Does he exist in any particular place or form?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: If the individual is a form, even Self, the source, who is the Lord, will also appear to be form. If one is not a form, since there then cannot be knowledge of other things, will that statement that God has a form be correct? God assumes any form imagined by the devotees through repeated thinking in prolonged meditation. Though he thus assumes endless names, the real formless consciousness alone is God.
With regard to his location, God does not reside in any place other than the Heart. It is due to illusion, caused by the ego, the ‘I am the body’ idea, that the kingdom of God is conceived to be elsewhere. Be sure that the Heart is the kingdom of God.
Know that you are perfect, shining light, which not only makes the existence of God’s kingdom possible, but also allows it to be seen as some wonderful heaven. To know this is alone jnana. Therefore, the kingdom of God is within you. The unlimited space of Turiyatita (beyond the four states, i.e. the Self), which shines suddenly, in all its fullness, within the Heart of a highly mature aspirant during the state of complete absorption of mind, as if a fresh and previously unknown experience, is the rarely attained and true Siva-loka (the kingdom of God), which shines by the light of Self.
Question: They say that the jiva (individual soul) is subject to the evil effects of illusion such as limited vision and knowledge, whereas Iswara has all-pervading vision and knowledge. It is also said that Jiva and Iswara become identical if the individual discards his limited vision and knowledge. Should not Iswara also discard his particular characteristics such as all-pervading vision and knowledge? They too are illusions, aren’t they?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Is that your doubt? First discard your own limited vision and then there will be time enough to think of Iswara’s all-pervading vision and knowledge. First get rid of your own limited knowledge. Why do you worry about Iswara? He will look after himself. Has he not got as much capacity as we have? Why should we worry about whether he possesses all-pervading vision and knowledge or not? It is indeed a great thing if we can take care of ourselves.
Question: But does God know everything?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Vedas declare God to be omniscient only to those who ignorantly think themselves to be people of little knowledge. But if one attains and knows him as he really is, it will be found that God does not know anything, because his nature is the ever-real whole, other than which nothing exists to be known.
Question: Why do religions speak of Gods, heaven, hell, etc.?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Only to make the people realise that they are on a par with this world and that the Self alone is real. The religions are according to the view-point of the seeker.
Question: Do Vishnu, Siva, etc., exist?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Individual human souls are not the only beings known.
Question: And their sacred regions Kailasa or Vaikuntha, are they real?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: As real as you are in this body.
Question: Do they possess a phenomenal existence, like my body? Or are they fictions like the horn of a hare?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: They do exist.
Question: If so, they must be somewhere. Where are they?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Persons who have seen them say that they exist somewhere. So we must accept their statement.
Question: Where do they exist?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: In you.
Question: Then it is only an idea, which I can create and control?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Everything is like that.
Question: But I can create pure fictions, for example, a hare’s horn, or only part truths, for example a mirage, while there are also facts irrespective of my imagination. Do the Gods Iswara or Vishnu exist like that?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes.
Question: Is God subject to Pralaya (cosmic dissolution)?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Why? Man becoming aware of the Self transcends cosmic dissolution and becomes liberated. Why not Iswara who is infinitely wiser and abler?
Question: Do devas (angels) and pisachas (devils) exist similarly?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes.
Question: These deities, what is their status relative to the Self?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Siva, Ganapati and other deities like Brahma, exist from a human standpoint; that is to say, if you consider your personal self as real, then they also exist. Just a government has its high executive officers to carry on the government, so has the creator. But from the standpoint of the Self all these gods are illusory and must themselves merge into the one reality.
Questioner: Whenever I worship God with name and form, I feel tempted to think whether I am not wrong in doing so, as that would be limiting the limitless, giving form to the formless. At the same time I feel I am not constant in my adherence to worship God without form.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: As long as you respond to a name, what objection could there be to your worshipping a God with name or form? Worship God with or without form till you know who you are.
Question: I find it difficult to believe in a personal God. In fact I find it impossible. But I can believe in an impersonal God, a divine force which rules and guides the world, and it would be a great help to me, even in my work of healing, if this faith were increased. May I know how to increase this faith?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Faith is in things unknown, but the Self is self-evident. Even the greatest egotist cannot deny his own existence, that is to say, cannot deny the Self. You can call the ultimate reality by whatever name you like and say that you have faith in it or love for it, but who is there who will not have faith in his own existence or love for himself? That is because faith and love are our real nature.
Question: Should I not have any idea about God?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Only so long as there are other
thoughts in the Heart can there be a thought of God conceived by one’s
mind. The destruction of even that thought of God due to the destruction
of all other thoughts alone is the unthought thought, which is the true
thought of God.