A few weeks ago I saw a query, posted on the Yahoo Ramana Maharshi group site, which asked about the meaning of a Tamil verse that Bhagavan composed in the late 1930s. I contributed my own thoughts on this topic by posting a response, but the verse continued to surface in my mind from time to time, and each time it did, I realised there were extra nuances and sources I could have given. In the end I sat down and expanded my answer into this article, which I hope covers most of the possible meanings, along with some of the published comments on this verse.
This is the translation of the verse that currently appears in
Keep advaita within the Heart. Do not ever carry it into action. Even if you apply it to all the three worlds, O son, it is not to be applied to the
Annamalai Swami has given an account of how this particular verse came to be written. It began with the following remarks by
‘Advaita should not be practised in ordinary activities. It is sufficient if there is no differentiation in the mind. If one keeps cartloads of discriminating thoughts within, one should not pretend that all is one on the outside.
‘Westerners practise mixed marriages and eat equally with everyone. What is the use of doing only this? Only wars and battlefields have resulted. Out of all these activities, who has obtained any happiness?
‘This world is a huge theatre. Each person has to act whatever role is assigned to him. It is the nature of the universe to be differentiated but within each person there should be no differentiation.’
I [Annamalai Swami] was so moved by this speech that I asked Bhagavan to summarise these ideas in a written Tamil verse. Bhagavan agreed, took a Sanskrit verse from
Tattvopadesa [by Adi-Sankaracharya, verse 87] which expresses a similar idea, and translated it into a Tamil
venba. When he was satisfied with his translation, I also managed to persuade him to write the first fair copy in my diary. This verse was eventually published as verse thirty-nine of
Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham.(2)
At the beginning of his commentary on this verse Sadhu Om states that Bhagavan composed it on 16th February,
1938.(3) The discussion that Annamalai Swami alluded to may have taken place a few days earlier since a brief summary of an idea from this verse can be found in
Talks in an entry dated 13th February, 1938.(4) On that day Bhagavan remarked: ‘[the] non-dual idea is advised, but not
advaita in action. How will one learn advaita if one does not find a Master and receive instructions? Is there not duality then?’
Maurice Frydman, the compiler of I am That and
Maharshi’s Gospel, questioned Bhagavan about the first half of this verse and received the following explanation:
Question: Sri Bhagavan has written [Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham, verse 39] that one should not show
advaita in one’s activities. Why so? All are one. Why differentiate? Bhagavan: Would you like to sit on the seat that I am sitting on? Question: I don’t mind sitting there. But if I came and sat there the sarvadhikari [the ashram manager] and the other people here would hit me and chase me away. Bhagavan: Yes, nobody would allow you to sit here. If you saw someone molesting a woman, would you let him go, thinking, ‘All is one’? There is a scriptural story about this. Some people once gathered together to test whether it is true, as said in the
Bhagavad Gita, that a jnani sees everything as one. They took a brahmin, an untouchable, a cow, an elephant, and a dog to the court of King Janaka, who was a
jnani. When all had arrived King Janaka sent the brahmin to the place of brahmins, the cow to its shed, the elephant to the place allotted to elephants, the dog to its kennel and the untouchable person to the place where the other untouchables lived. He then ordered his servants to take care of his guests and feed them all appropriate food.
The people asked, ‘Why did you separate them individually? Is not everything one and the same for you?’
‘Yes, all are one,’ replied Janaka, ‘but self-satisfaction varies according to the nature of the individual. Will a man eat the straw eaten by the cow? Will the cow enjoy the food that a man eats? One should only give what satisfies each individual person or animal.’
Although the same man may play the role of all the characters in a play, his acts will be determined by the role that he is playing at each moment. In the role of a king he will sit on the throne and rule. If the same person takes on the role of a servant, he will carry the sandals of his master and follow him. His real Self is neither increased nor decreased while he plays these roles. The
jnani never forgets that he himself has played all these roles in the
One can have the idea that everything is a manifestation of the Self, and one can attempt to incorporate this idea into one’s daily life by treating other people in an egalitarian way. However, all this would all be theoretical since it would be based on an idea of reality instead of stemming from a direct experience of the Self. From the standpoint of the Self ‘practising
advaita’ is an oxymoron since in that state there is no longer an entity who can make choices about what should or should not be done. In that state action arises spontaneously from the Self, unmediated by the I-am-the-doer idea. Sadhu Om has elaborated on this important point in his commentary on this verse:
Advaita is the experience of clearly apprehending that, in reality, the Self, being-consciousness, shining continuously as ‘I am’, alone exists, and that all that appears in duality, consisting of the body, mind and world, is entirely unreal. Therefore, since
doing belongs to the dualistic state, where the mind and body appear to be real, non-duality cannot be expressed through
doing. On the contrary, should anyone think that non-duality might be expressed through
doing, they would [be showing themselves to] be bereft of the experience of the truth of
If, as Bhagavan instructed in the first quotation I gave from
Living by the Words of Bhagavan, ‘Advaita should not be practised in ordinary activities,’ how is the
sadhaka to relate to the world, which he still sees as separate from himself? Lakshman Sarma, who received personal lessons from Bhagavan on the meaning of the
Ulladu Narpadu verses, answers this question in his own comments on this verse:
... it is established that, until the I-am-the-body sense is removed, advaita cannot exist. It is fitting then that all the behaviours that occur in this state should respect the rules of duality, and one should act accordingly. It is not possible to implicate
advaita in these behaviours. If any such attempt is made, impurities will arise through the power of the ego, and man’s dvaitic
vasanas will wax greater. We observe that even a jnani who is established in the advaitic state will not, in his conduct, infringe the rules of dvaitic respect. Bhagavan’s view is that
advaita is the direct experience of the jnani, whilst for the ajnani, it is useful for meditation and so
It may be difficult to make out the reason for these injunctions [not to attempt to put
advaita into practice]. But if we remember the power of the ego to pervert and frustrate even honest efforts to realise the truth – which would mean its own death – we need not be puzzled. Reflection on the truth of
advaita tends to dissolve the ego and develop devotion to the truth. But action from the advaitic standpoint is suicidal because the enemy [the ego] would be in charge of such action. While ignorance is alive, duality persists in appearing as real, because of the ego sense, and truly advaitic action is impossible. The sage alone can put
advaita into action, because he is egoless. Hence the sacred lore and also the sage advise us to restrict our activities and not to extend them, so as to give as little scope as possible for the ego to frustrate our
... theoretical knowledge of the truth of non-duality does not avail to destroy the primary ignorance, so as to raise one to the egoless state in which wrong action would be impossible. So, until that state is won, the ego would be in command of actions, and this warning is therefore
That is to say, one should strive for advaita in the Heart, but in outer activities one should adhere to the dualistic rules of
There are two ideas present in this Anubandham verse: the first, which has just been dealt with, is that one should not attempt to practise
advaita in the day-to-day activities of one’s worldly life; the second is a much more specific injunction that one should never practise
advaita towards one’s Guru. That is to say, one should never think, ‘All is one. My Guru is the same as I am. Therefore, I don’t have to treat him as someone special since in essence he is just the same as everything and everyone else.’
Before I begin to deal with this topic I should like to point out that the second half of the verse contains the phrase, ‘Even if you apply it [advaita] to all the three worlds...’. One needs to understand what the ‘three worlds’ might denote in order to appreciate the full force of what follows.
Sadhu Om, in his Tamil commentary, has equated (in my opinion, correctly) the ‘three worlds’ mentioned in this verse with the heavenly realms of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Having raised this possibility, he then elaborates on its implications:
Though we might speak of a man going to Brahma Loka and addressing Brahma with the words, ‘You and I are one,’ or going to Vishnu Loka and addressing Vishnu saying, ‘You and I are one,’ or going to Siva Loka and addressing Siva saying, ‘You and I are one,’ yet it would never be permissible to address one’s
Sadguru, saying, ‘You and I are one’. Why? Because someone in the individualised state, though he might, through the power of his austerities, acquire even the powers of creation, preservation and destruction exercised by the Trimurtis, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, it would be an entirely impossible task for him to obtain the power that belongs [only] to the
Sadguru, that of destroying the ignorance of others. Thus, the action of destroying
ajnana ... is vastly more powerful than those three operations that are present in [the state of]
ajnana. Thus, the power of the Sadguru’s grace is vastly superior to the powers of the
Many respected teachers of advaita have said that the Guru is in a higher state, and has more power and authority, than the gods themselves. As this extract maintains, the gods can create, preserve and destroy, but they do not have the ultimate power of destroying the egos of devotees. Some teachers have even maintained that the gods must eventually incarnate on earth and come to an earthly
Sadguru in order to attain liberation. These gods cannot grant liberation since they themselves are not liberated. This position, of course, would probably be vigorously challenged by devotees of these particular deities.
Bhagavan seemed to endorse the supremacy of the Sadguru in these matters. Verse 800 of
Guru Vachaka Kovai, which is derived from a famous verse in Guru Gita, reads:
The words of sages say that if one does wrong [apacharam] to God, it can be rectified by the Guru, but an
apacharam done to the Guru cannot be rectified even by God.(11)
In his commentary on this verse Muruganar noted: ‘... even if one swerves from the vedic codes, one should never disobey the Guru’s words. Thus it is stressed that devotion to the Guru is greater than devotion to God.’(12)
Lakshman Sarma has noted that there is an important reason why one should revere the Guru as a living manifestation of the Self, and as an embodiment of the divine power that can bestow liberation.
Only that devotion to the Guru is good which is rendered to a sage-Guru, and which regards him as identical with God. Only by such devotion does one attain freedom from delusion. Truly the sage is not other than God.
[Also] there is the text of the Upanishads, that one who wants deliverance must worship the knower of the Self. If he thinks of him [the sage, who is the Guru] as other than God, that thought will obstruct his
In a comment on one of these two verses Lakshman Sarma wrote: ‘The sage who is accepted as one’s Guru must not be regarded as just a human being, a person, but as an incarnation of God Himself, because that is the truth of the sage, and because, if the Guru be so regarded, the goal will be reached soon.’
The point of the second half of the Anubandham verse thus becomes clear. One goes to a Guru for liberation – something that is unattainable even from the gods – but if one has the belief or attitude that he is one’s equal, or just an ordinary person, one is unlikely to receive it.
Having a strong conviction that one’s Guru is God Himself can help one to retain, as well as gain, an experience of the Self. This was brought home to me a few years ago when I interviewed Sharad Tiwari, a devotee of Papaji who had had an experience of the Self within a few days of meeting him in the 1970s. When I spoke to him in the mid-90s, about twenty years after the experience had happened, he told me that the experience had never left him. I have met many people who claim to have had a direct experience of the Self in Papaji’s presence, but the vast majority of them seem to lose the experience later. When I interviewed him in 1996, I asked Sharad why other people were losing the experience whereas he had managed to keep it.
David: Papaji shows people who they are. Sometimes, though, he says that it is up to the person concerned to recognise it and not throw it away. From what you have told me, in your case the experience never went away. Why do some people like you stay in that state while others appear to go back to their limited viewpoint again? Sharad: Anyone who recognises Papaji as God and who never wavers in his conviction that Papaji is God will keep the experience naturally and effortlessly. That is my firm conviction.
When the glimpse comes, it is God revealing Himself as God within you. If you treat Papaji as God, and if you treat the experience he has given you as an experience of His divine nature, it will never go away. If you allow the ego to arise again and cover up the experience, it means that you have thrown away your previous knowledge that Papaji is God, along with your belief that the experience he gave you is God Himself shining within you. It all comes down to having the right attitude.
David: How do you yourself hold onto the absolute conviction that Papaji is God? Is it through awareness of his form, his formlessness, or a combination of both? Sharad: There is no difference between form and the formless. Form itself is formless and the formless is the form. To know Papaji as God is to know that there is no difference between the
Later in the interview Sharad, who is something of a mystic visionary, told me, ‘Quite often I see the gods dancing around him in mid-air, paying obeisance to him. When I see the gods themselves bowing before him with my own eyes, how can I doubt that I am in the presence of the Supreme Lord?’
This injunction in the Anubandham verse – that of not displaying
advaita towards the Guru – seems to apply even after full liberation, when both Guru and disciple, abiding in the natural state, effortlessly know and experience the truth of the non-dual Self. Bhagavan used a colourful but apt image to convey this. He said that even though a Hindu wife may have enjoyed sexual union with her husband, in public she will still show him deference and respect.
Formal respect is only for external show. When the husband and the wife are in bed, where is all this [formal
The habit by disciples of worshipping their Guru, who has taken them as His own, is, if pondered over, only observed as an outward formality, just like a wife’s habit of outwardly observing proper reverence towards her husband while in
Extending this analogy into the spiritual realm, the disciple may have attained oneness with his or her Guru, but the behaviour he or she exhibits is always reverent and deferential. This is what Sadhu Om has to say on this point in his commentary on this verse:
When the Sadguru has destroyed the ajnana that is his disciple’s individual consciousness; when he has graciously bestowed upon him the experience of non-duality; and when he has made him one with himself in the state where duality is no more; even then, such a disciple will always serve his
Sadguru and show for him a fitting respect, and will continue to venerate his name and form. Although, in an inner sense, it is not possible to show a reverence that is dualistic in the state of oneness where duality is not present, still, that disciple will show respect outwardly, just as a wife acts respectfully toward her husband.
... as long as the Guru and disciple appear in the perceptions of others as separate individuals, possessing individual minds and bodies, it will always appear to others that they are, in reality, separate from each other. Therefore, even when this perfected disciple who knows reality attains the non-dual state in which, in his Heart, he and his Guru are one, he will always conduct himself in a subservient and deferential manner toward his
Sadguru, such that other disciples, taking him as an example, will follow him and behave in a fitting
I have found this to be true with all the great teachers and enlightened beings I have been associated with. Nisargadatta Maharaj, for example, did an elaborate Guru
puja every day of his life, long after he had realised the Self. One morning, just before he started, he paused to give an explanation of this daily ritual.
‘I don’t need to do this at all. There is nothing that I can gain from it because I know who and what I am, and what I am cannot be added to in any way. My Guru asked me to do
bhajans and puja every day, and even though I no longer use them to attain a spiritual goal, I will continue to do them until the day I die because my Guru asked me to do them. In carrying out these orders I can show not only my respect for his words but also my continuous, undiminishing gratitude to the one who gave me the knowledge of who I really am.’
Muruganar wrote thousands of verses in which he thanked Bhagavan for bestowing the state of liberation on him, but he still did elaborate full-length prostrations whenever he came into Bhagavan’s presence. Sometimes he would remain lying on the floor after his
namaskaram was completed and talk to Bhagavan while he was still prostrate at his feet. Viswanatha Swami used to make fun of Muruganar for this, calling the resulting conversations ‘lizard talk’.(18)
Once, while I was sitting with Papaji, someone asked him if he had any regrets about his life. At first he answered ‘no,’ but after a few seconds’ reflection he added, ‘Actually, I do have one regret. Because my legs are now almost paralysed, I can no longer throw myself full length on the floor at the feet of my Master.’ In his later years he had to be content with a standing ‘namaste’ whenever he wanted to pay his respects to Bhagavan’s image.
And what about Bhagavan himself? His respect and veneration towards Arunachala, his Guru, were legendary. However, I will just mention one interesting point. When he composed his philosophical works such as
Upadesa Undiyar and Ulladu Narpadu, his tone was non-dualistic. The verses were an uncompromising expression of what the
Anubandham verse calls ‘advaita within the Heart’. However, when Bhagavan wrote about his Guru, Arunachala, in his devotional poems, he often adopted the pose of the loving, grateful devotee, a standpoint that enabled him show proper respect and veneration to the form and power of the mountain.
One final story about Bhagavan: when Arunachaleswara (the God Arunachala who is the principal deity in the Tiruvannamalai temple) was being taken in procession around the hill in the 1940s, it stopped outside the gate of Sri Ramanasramam. Bhagavan noticed it as he was taking a walk to the cowshed. He sat on a bench to watch, and when devotees brought him
vibhuti as prasad, he applied it reverently to his forehead and remarked, ‘The son is beholden to the father’.(19)
(1) The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, tr. by Prof K. Swaminathan.
(2) Living by the Words of Bhagavan, 2nd ed. p. 99.
(3) Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai –
Vilakkavurai, p. 314, 1987 ed.
(4) Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 458.
(5) Living by the Words of Bhagavan, pp. 216-7, 2nd ed.
(6) Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai –
Vilakkavurai, pp. 314-15, 1987 ed.
(7) Ulladu Narpadu, p. 162, 1979 ed.
(8) Maha Yoga, pp. 175-6, 2002 ed.
(9) This is a comment by Lakshman Sarma that he appended to verse 416 of
Sri Ramana Paravidyopanishad. This particular verse was a translation of
Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham, verse 39. The full text and Lakshman Sarma’s commentary on it can be found at
Sri Ramana Paravidyopanishad.
(10) Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai – Vilakkavurai, p. 315, 1987 ed.
(11) Unpublished translation by Sadhu Om and Michael James.
(12) Unpublished translation of Muruganar’s Tamil commentary on
Guru Vachaka Kovai by Sadhu Om and Michael James. Though this work has not appeared in book form in English, it can be found at
Guru Vachaka Kovai.
(13) Sri Ramana
Paravidyopanishad, verses 25 and 237.
(14) Nothing Ever Happened, volume three, pp. 127-8.
(15) Sri Ramana Pada Malai, by Sivaprakasam Pillai, cited in
The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 63.
(16) Guru Vachaka
Kovai, verse 304, unpublished translation by Sadhu Om and Michael James.
(17) Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai – Vilakkavurai, pp. 315, 1987 ed.
(18) Moments Remembered, pp. 56-7.
(19) Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 21st November, 1945.