A dialogue between David Godman
and Maalok, an Indian academic now teaching in America
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Maalok: I think on hearing some of your above examples (all of which led to desirable final outcomes) we can perhaps wrongly deduce that if we want to get things done our way we should adopt this trick of leaving things up to God. I don't think that's what you meant. In the state you were describing, one truly doesn't have a preference for things to work out one way or the other. Is that true?
David: Yes. The state of being grateful for the way things are is the goal. It's not a trick to get what you want. If things turn out well, that's just a side effect. It's not the main purpose of surrender. Surrender is an aim and a goal in itself.
Let me read you a couple of answers that Sri Ramana gave to a devotee who was asking about surrender. They were recorded in the 1940s by Devaraja Mudaliar in
Day by Day with Bhagavan:
Question: Does not total or complete surrender require that one should not have left even the desire for liberation or God?
Answer: Complete surrender does require that you have no desire of your own. You must be satisfied with whatever God gives you and that means having no desires of one's own.
Question: Now that I am satisfied on that point, I want to know what the steps are by which I could achieve surrender.
Answer: There are two ways. One is looking into the source of 'I' and merging into that source. The other is the feeling 'I am helpless by myself; God alone is all powerful and except by throwing myself completely on him, there is no other means of safety for me.' By this method one gradually develops the conviction that God alone exists and that the ego does not count. Both methods lead to the same goal. Complete surrender is another name for jnana or liberation.
In the first reply Sri Ramana gives the answer that true surrender is being satisfied with whatever God gives you, without having any desire for your life to be any different. In the second answer he explains that one can approach this goal in a gradual way. I think that Sri Ramana knew that no one could immediately give up all thoughts, ideas, desires and responsibilities, so he encouraged devotees to do it in a gradual way. One can start on the path of surrender by handing over to God some of the petty responsibilities of life that we believe are ours to solve. When we feel that God has done a good job with managing them, we have more faith in Him and we are encouraged to hand over more and more of our life to Him. The stories that I narrated earlier belong to this phase of surrender.
Sri Ramana occasionally encouraged his devotees to give him all their problems. That is to say, to tell him about them, and then forget about them. One of his persistent images or metaphors was of a passenger on a train who insists on carrying his luggage on his own head instead of putting it on the floor and relaxing. The idea behind this is that God is running the world and looking after all its activities and problems. If we take some of these problems on our own heads, we just inflict unnecessary suffering on ourselves. Sri Ramana is telling us that God is driving the train that constitutes our life on this earth. We can sit down and relax with the knowledge that he is taking us to our destination, and not interfere, or we can imagine that we are responsible for it all.
We can pace up and down the aisles of the train with 100lbs on our head if we
want to. It's our choice.
When devotees surrendered their problems to Sri Ramana, it was the same as surrendering them to God. They were submitting to the same divine authority, surrendering to a living manifestation of that same power. Here are some statements that Sri Ramana made on this subject. I have taken them from a book I am currently working on. Each sentence was originally recorded by Muruganar in Tamil verse:
My devotees have the qualifications to rejoice abundantly, like children of an emperor.
Abandon the drama [of the world] and seek the Self within. Remaining within, I will protect you, [ensuring] that no harm befalls you.
If you inquire and know me, the indweller, in that state there will be no reason for you to worry about the world.
For the cruel disease of burning samsara to end, the correct regimen is to entrust all your burdens on me.
In order that your needless anxieties cease, make sure that all your burdens are placed on me through the brave act of depending totally on grace.
If you completely surrender all your responsibilities to me, I will accept them as mine and manage them.
When bearing the entire burden remains my responsibility, why do you have any worries?
Long ago you offered your body, possessions and soul to me, making them mine, so why do you still regard these things as 'I' and 'mine' and associate yourself with them?
Seek my grace within the Heart. I will drive away your darkness and show you the light. This is my responsibility.
These verses come from a sub-section I have entitled 'Bhagavan's Promises'. When people surrendered completely to him, he was more than happy to manage their lives for them. Just about everyone discovered that when she surrendered the burden of responsibility for her life to Sri Ramana, problems diminished or went away completely.
The Guru is primarily there to teach the truth, to bestow grace on his disciples and to bring about the liberation of the mature souls who come to him. But he also has this very nice sideline of being able to manage the affairs of his devotees much better than they can.
Maalok: Ramana Maharshi was a prime example of living detachment. However, it is said, if there was one thing that he had slight attachment to, it was Arunachala. Perhaps you could explain why the Maharshi never moved from Arunachala after reaching there as a teenager.
David: Arunachala has been a spiritual magnet for as long as records have been kept. Various saints, yogis and spiritual seekers have felt its call for at least 1,500 years, probably much longer. Some inexplicable power draws people to this place and keeps them here. Seen in this context, Ramana Maharshi is just the latest and most famous saint to feel the pull of this place. When he was very young, he had an intuitive knowledge that the word Arunachala denoted God or a heavenly realm, but at the time he didn't realize it was a place he could actually visit. He didn't find this out until he was in his early teens. A few weeks after he realized the Self at the age of sixteen, he left home, traveled to Arunachala and spent the rest of his life there.
Why this place? For him it was his father, his Guru and his God, Siva. It may sound strange to say that a mountain can be all these things, but Sri Ramana was not alone in seeing Arunachala in this light. This is what a famous local saint,
Guru Namasivaya, wrote a few hundred years ago:
Mountain who drives out the night of spiritual ignorance.
Mountain who is the lamp of true knowledge to devotees.
Mountain in the form of abundant knowledge.
Mountain who came to me, a mere dog,
As father, mother and Sadguru:
Annamalai is the local Tamil name of the mountain. This is what the Tamil
purana of Arunachala, also written centuries ago, has to say about the holiness of this place:
Beginning with these first ones and continuing up to the present day, many are those who have attained the deathless state of liberation through dwelling on Aruna[chala] in their thoughts, through lovingly speaking its praises, through hearing of it, and then coming to gaze upon it, through performing
pradakshina of it on foot, through dwelling there in a state of righteousness, through walking in the path of truth there, through bathing in its broad tanks, and through carrying out good works, performing holy service in the temple and worshipping there at the feet of that Effulgent Light.
That is the tradition of this place. Throughout its history Arunachala has attracted ardent seekers and liberated them. Yet, surprisingly, it remains relatively unknown even within India.
Arunachala has always been regarded as a manifestation of Siva, not just a symbolic representation of Him, or a place where He lives. The mountain itself is a
lingam that has the full power and authority of Siva Himself. This is what millions of South Indian believe, and their belief is backed up, authenticated by many great saints who have gone on record as saying that it was the power of this mountain that brought about their own spiritual liberation. Ramana Maharshi was one of them. He was quite categorical that Arunachala was his Guru, and that Arunachala had been the agent that brought about his own realization. Seen in this context, why should he not spend the rest of his physical life in its vicinity?
Sri Ramana loved this mountain passionately. He wrote devotional poetry about it that at times verged on the ecstatic, and in all the fifty-four years he lived here, he could never be persuaded to go more than a mile from the base of the mountain.
Maalok: How did the mountain of Arunachala get to be such a powerful place? Was it because of all the pilgrims who have been coming here for centuries and worshipping it?
David: This is a question that intrigues me, but I have no answer to it. Sri Ramana said, in one of his poems, 'Mysterious is the way it works, beyond all human understanding'. He clearly recognised its power, but I don't think he had any explanation for it.
Years ago I heard Lakshmana Swamy make the following remarks about the mountain. 'When I gaze at Arunachala, I know I am in the presence of
jnana. There is the same energy coming off the hill that I felt when I sat in Bhagavan's presence.'
I don't think this kind of energy would accumulate from all the prayer and worship of devotees. In fact, I think it is the other way round. People offer worship here because, at some intuitive level, they feel the power coming off the mountain.
Lakshmana Swamy seems to sense spiritual power in unexpected places. In the days when he was more accessible, when he moved around more outside his compound, he would occasionally comment that he could sense small amounts of spiritual power in certain places, animals, trees, and even apparently inanimate objects. He seems to have an extra faculty that picks up these emanations. However, nothing remotely compared to the power that he felt radiating from the mountain of Arunachala. For him, for Sri Ramana, and for many other saints who have been drawn here, this mountain is radiating the power of the Self in a way that no other place is doing. Jnanasambandhar, a famous Tamil saint who came here in the sixth century, described it in one of his poems as a 'condensed mass of
jnana'. I like that description. It echoes the principal myth of Arunachala in which Siva condenses himself from an effulgent column of light into the form of a mountain for the benefit of devotees who want a less blinding form to worship. Following this version of events, one can say that though the brightness of the original column of light has gone, the condensed spiritual radiance of
Siva-jnana is still there. The energy that comes off the mountain is so intense, so awesome, even great saints such as Sri Ramana just gaze in wonder at it.
When Lakshmana Swamy first moved back to Arunachala about twelve years ago, he initially lived in a rented room that had no windows facing the hill. He could only see a small outcrop of rock at the base of the western side of the mountain from one of his side windows. However, that was more than enough for him. Saradamma told me that he would sit by the window and gaze, in a state of rapture, at this tiny portion of the mountain for hours together. As with his own Guru, Sri Ramana, the power emanating from the mountain drew his attention to itself and kept it fixed there.
Sri Ramana once wrote in one of his verses to Arunachala:
'I have discovered a new thing! This hill, the lodestone of lives, arrests the movements of anyone who so much thinks of it, draws him face to face with it, and fixes him motionless like itself, to feed upon his soul thus ripened. What a wonder is this!
When there is no mind to delude you into believing that you are just looking at a form of a mountain, the power of Arunachala compels your attention to such an extent, it is sometimes hard to look anywhere else.
I was once making the seating arrangements for one of Lakshmana Swamy's public
darshans. I put his chair facing the hill.
Saradamma saw what I had done, laughed and said, If you leave it there, he won't notice anyone. He will spend the whole time gazing at the hill. If you want him to look at the people who come, put his chair so it faces away from the hill. Then there will be no distractions.'
I asked him once, 'How did this mountain come to be enlightened?' It seems a strange question to ask, but I couldn't think of phrasing it any other way. Here was this very solid mass of granite rock that was emanating the power of the Self. How did it get that way?
He said he didn't know and couldn't speculate. He could clearly feel its power, but he couldn't think of any scenario that would explain how it came about.
I tried a couple of leading question, such as, 'Was there some enlightened being who took the form of this hill or became one with it in some way?' He said 'No' to that one and to all my other proffered suggestions. In the end we were back to Sri Ramana's comment, 'Mysterious is the way it works, beyond all human understanding.'
The preceding sentence, by the way, says, 'Look, there it stands as if insentient'. Ordinary people, people with minds, look at this mountain and see insentient rock. Those with true vision come here and see and feel the radiation of
Maalok: Is it true that Ramana Maharshi encouraged people to do a
pradakshina around the sacred Arunachala mountain as often as possible? Isn't recommendation of this kind of practice a bit 'out-of-sync' with his general teaching of being still? Could you also explain the significance of doing this
David: Lucia Osborne, Arthur Osborne's wife, made an interesting comment in
The Mountain Path about twenty-five years ago. She wrote that Sri Ramana never prescribed a spiritual practice for anyone unless he was first asked for advice. However, there was one exception to this rule: he often encouraged people to walk around the hill, even if they had not asked whether or not they should do it.
When Sri Ramana spoke of 'being still', he wasn't talking about sitting motionless on the floor. He was speaking instead about mental silence. He advocated
pradakshina of Arunachala as a means of reaching this silence. Kunju Swami has recorded a story in which Sri Ramana speaks of a kind of 'walking
samadhi' that sometimes overtakes one as one is doing the
It's all very illogical and not even Sri Ramana had an explanation of how and why it worked. If skeptics who wanted to be convinced of the efficacy of
pradakshina came to him to ask him about it, he would say, 'Try it and see'. He had found from long experience that people who had completed one
pradakshina would always enjoy it, and soon afterwards would want to do it again. After a few circuits of the hill, most people would be convinced that it was doing them some good. One became convinced by experience rather than by any sensible or rational explanation.
When Sri Ramana sent people off to do pradakshina, he was sending them to commune with his own Guru for a few hours. Walking around the base of the mountain, one is always aware of its looming presence. By being aware of the constantly changing form of the mountain as one walks around it, one is putting one's attention on a highly charged form of the divine. And once the mind has made contact with that divine form, the grace, the energy of that form begins to flow. This is what silences people as they open themselves to the mountain's power.
I should also mention that Sri Ramana taught that the power of this mountain is not dependent on whether or not one believes it to be divine. Sri Ramana said that it is like a fire. Those who approach it get burnt whether they believe in it or not.
Maalok: About you - what exactly made you leave everything and come to Tiruvannamalai in your early youth? Could you also share some of the surrounding circumstances, your
state of mind, and the events that led to this move?
David: I first came across Sri Ramana's teachings in 1974 by reading one of the few books about him that had been published in the West. I read this book in a few hours and immediately my whole
world view was transformed. It wasn't just a new piece of information that I could file away with all the other pieces of knowledge I had stored in my brain; it was a living transmission that completely changed the way I perceived myself and the world around me. I didn't have to think about the teachings or convince myself that they were true. I recognized the truth of them as soon as I read them.
Nor was it just one set of beliefs being replaced by another. It was more a case of a busy, searching mind being utterly silenced by an exposure to the light of a higher power. In the months preceding my discovery of Sri Ramana, I had bought and read many spiritual books. The information they contained had been stored in my memory, but none of it had truly touched me. When I read Ramana Maharshi's words for the first time, my mind actually stopped. I stopped searching and I stopped reading spiritual books. The words had a power in them that silenced my mind. I didn't judge these words and decide that they were correct. The words themselves went straight inside me, stopped the busy-ness of my questing mind and gave me a state of silence that had within itself the conviction 'This is the truth'.
A few months later I dropped out of university and went to Ireland to meditate. I chose the west of Ireland because it was remote and cheap. I wanted to have a complete break from all the things I had been doing, all the people I had been associating with. I wanted to drop all the trivia that had accumulated in my life. I lived there alone - it was in the Limerick area if anyone wants to know - for about nine months, growing my own food and meditating. At the end of that period I had to leave because my landlady wanted her house back. I took a break by going to Israel for the winter, thinking that I would go back to Ireland the following spring. While I was in Ireland, the thought came to me, 'Why not have a quick trip to India before you settle down in Ireland again?' I decided to come here for a few weeks.
The weeks turned into months, and then the months turned into years. I am still here twenty-six years later. I think the key moment came while I was walking around Sri Ramana's
samadhi. It must have been some time in 1976. I was wondering how much longer I would be able to stay here before I had to go 'home'. As I was walking, an understanding suddenly dawned in me: 'I don't have to go home. This is home. I already am home.'
This revelation actually stopped me in my tracks. I stopped walking and was suddenly filled with a flood of happiness, of relief. Something in me acknowledged that I was physically, spiritually and emotionally home. The thought of leaving, or having to leave, never arose again.
Maalok: What about your own relationship with Arunachala? Can you briefly elaborate on what this mountain has meant to you in the almost three decades you have spent here?
David: I came here initially because of Sri Ramana and his teachings. I just wanted to be in the place where he had lived and taught. Later, I realized that it had probably been the power of Arunachala that had brought me here. One of Sri Ramana's devotees, Sadhu Om, once wrote a nice poem about Arunachala, comparing it to a post to which a cow is attached by a long rope. The cow walks round and round the post, shortening the rope with each circuit. Eventually it is stuck next to the post, unable to move anywhere. That's how I feel sometimes. The mountain has pulled me here, shortened my tether inch by inch until I now feel that I am pressed up against it, unable to go anywhere else. It's a very happy imprisonment, though. I enjoy it. I have no desire to be anywhere else.
I see Arunachala as the source, the powerful fountainhead of the lineage that includes not only Sri Ramana and his disciples but also all the other saints who have lived here in the last 1,500 years. I am fascinated by these people, but I can't say why. Perhaps it is because all these people are conduits of this power that is
For me, Arunachala is the power of the divine in a physical form. If you want to ask, 'Why have you chosen to spend your adult life near this mountain in South India?' I would first say, 'I don't think I had a choice. I was drawn here by a power that is beyond my control.' Then I might add, 'Why should I not choose to spend my days sitting in the presence of God, because I have to accept that this is what this mountain is.'
Maalok: David, it has indeed been a great joy to have this heart-to-heart conversation with you. I am very grateful to you for sharing your insights, and for your extraordinary generosity in sparing your time. On behalf of all of us, a heartfelt thank you!