This article first appeared on my blog in 2008.
In 2008 the following questions were posed online by Cliff Shack, the administrator of a Facebook ‘Teachings of Ramana Maharshi’ group.
What was Ramana’s attitude towards the totalitarian regimes of his day?
Would Ramana advocate resistance or passivity to the emerging New World Order currently being foisted upon humanity today?
Also, Did Ramana give Gandhi and Nehru practical advice on dealing with the British Indian occupation? Have his responses been preserved and if so, where?
I will respond to these queries in two separate sections. The first will explain why Bhagavan did not involve himself in politics or encourage others to do so; the second will be specifically about Gandhi and the fight for Independence that was going on during Bhagavan’s lifetime.
Bhagavan’s apolitical world view
Bhagavan’s perspective on the events of the world that were unfolding around him in the first half of the twentieth century came from his abidance in the Self and the consequent knowledge that everything that was occurring was unfolding according to a pre-ordained script. He had no opinions on these scripted events, and no desire to change their course. The classic statement on this topic comes from the note he penned for his mother when she begged him, in 1899, to return to the family home in Madurai. Bhagavan wrote:
The ordainer [God] controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds – their prarabdha karma. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen – try how hard you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is for one to be silent. (Self Realization, p. 66)
Ideas such as ‘I should do this’, or ‘This needs to be done’, were entirely absent in Bhagavan since he had neither the desire to do anything nor the belief that events needed to be different from what they were. Bhagavan’s position was elegantly summarised in a reply he gave to two devotees who, having had a disagreement, came to Bhagavan for a decision on which course of action they should follow. In response to the question, ‘As we hold two different opinions, we are enquiring in order to find out what Bhagavan would like best’, Bhagavan replied:
What I like is to know who I am and to remain as I am with the knowledge that what is to happen will happen and what is not to happen will not happen. Is that not right? Do you now understand what Bhagavan likes best? (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 16th February, 1949)
His ‘preference’, if one can use such a word, was to abide in the Self with the secure knowledge that all events in the world were unfolding according to a divine ordinance:
No one can do anything that is opposed to the ordinance of the Supreme Lord who possesses unlimited power and who can do anything. Therefore, to end the illusory anxieties of the mind, which engender an evil discontent, the proper course is to remain under the spell of supreme consciousness, which arises from meditating on the divine feet, with the mischief of the ego subdued. (Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 1191)
Politics is the process by which people group together and engage in discussions or activities that promote their idea of how society should be run or changed. If such programmes were undertaken by people who regarded themselves as individual people with an agenda to fulfill, Bhagavan would regard such activities as a conscious turning away from God in order to pursue a self-centred agenda that ignored His plan and script. Change, according to Bhagavan, is only necessary or possible at the personal level.
Unless a person firmly adheres to the dictum ‘That which deserves to be reformed is my own mind,’ by turning Selfwards and correcting himself, his mind will get defiled more and more by paying attention exclusively to the defects of others. (Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 788)
A desire for political change or action stems from a personal belief that one course of action, or one way of organising society, is somehow better or preferable to another. A natural outgrowth of this is a belief that one’s own ideas and proposals are intrinsically better than others’. Changing society then becomes a process of convincing others – an electorate, people who disagree with you – that your ideas are right, whereas theirs are somehow defective. This is how Annamalai Swami described Bhagavan’s attitude to such posturing:
Bhagavan taught that one should reform oneself rather than find fault with others. In practical terms this means that one should find the source of one’s own mind rather than make complaints about other people’s minds and actions. I can remember a typical reply that Bhagavan gave on this subject.
A devotee, who was quite intimate with Bhagavan, asked him, ‘Some of the devotees who live with Bhagavan behave very strangely. They seem to do many things that Bhagavan does not approve of. Why does Bhagavan not correct them?’
Bhagavan replied, ‘Correcting oneself is correcting the whole world. The sun is simply bright. It does not correct anyone. Because it shines the whole world is full of light. Transforming yourself is a means of giving light to the whole world.’ (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 108)
It follows from this that Self-realisation is the greatest help that one can give to the world. A mind that engages itself in political pursuits enmeshes itself in anxiety, suffering and desire; a mind that has extinguished itself in the Self allows that Self to shine and benefit the whole world:
Question: They say that there are many saints in Tibet who remain in solitude and are still very helpful to the world. How can it be?
Bhagavan: It can be so. Realisation of the Self is the greatest help that can be rendered to humanity. Therefore, the saints are said to be helpful, though they remain in forests. But it should not be forgotten that solitude is not in forests only. It can be had even in towns, in the thick of worldly occupations.
Question: It is not necessary that the saints should mix with people and be helpful to them?
Bhagavan: The Self alone is the Reality; the world and the rest of it are not. The realised being does not see the world as different from himself.
Question: Thus then, the saint’s realisation leads to the uplift of humanity without the latter being aware of it. Is it so?
Bhagavan: Yes. The help is imperceptible but is still there. A saint helps the whole of humanity, unknown to the latter.
Question: Would it not be better if he mixed with others?
Bhagavan: There are no others to mix with. The Self is the one and only Reality. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 20)
When the ‘I’ rises, it separates itself from the Self by identifying with a body. As this process is taking place, it simultaneously projects an illusory world that it lives in and interacts with. This world may appear to be populated by suffering people, but once forgetfulness of the Self has set in, there is no knowledge that the suffering one sees and experiences is a part of an illusory projection. The radical and definitive way to end self-projected suffering is to extinguish the self that projects it. The dreamer can choose to organise his dream and make it a better place for dream people to live, or he can wake up. If he elects to wake up and succeeds, he discovers that the dream people and their problems no longer need his intervention, his service or his politics.
Another visitor, who said that he was from Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram, asked Bhagavan: ‘But we see pain in the world. A man is hungry. It is a physical reality. It is very real to him. Are we to call it a dream and remain unmoved by his pain?
Bhagavan: From the point of view of jnana or the reality, the pain you speak of is certainly a dream, as is the world of which the pain is an infinitesimal part. In the dream also you yourself feel hunger. You see others suffering hunger. You feed yourself and, moved by pity, feed the others that you find suffering from hunger. So long as the dream lasted, all those pains were quite as real as you now think the pain you see in the world to be. It was only when you woke up that you discovered that the pain in the dream was unreal.
However, Bhagavan did not take this to the extreme of saying that people should completely ignore the suffering of those in their immediate vicinity. He encouraged devotees to stay with their families and look after their needs; his ashram gave out free food to sadhus and poor people every day; and Bhagavan himself frequently set an example by helping people who were in need. It was not the mitigation of need and suffering that Bhagavan objected to, it was the attitude ‘I am the doer; I must perform this act’ that he criticised. He said that one should serve others not out of a sense of personal responsibility, but from a feeling that each person is one’s own Self. The quotation I have just given continues with Bhagavan saying:
Till you reach the state of jnana and thus wake out of this maya, you must do social service by relieving suffering whenever you see it. But even then you must do it, as we are told, without ahamkara, i.e., without the sense ‘I am the doer,’ but feeling: ‘I am the Lord’s tool’. Similarly one must not be conceited, ‘I am helping a man below me. He needs help. I am in a position to help. I am superior and he inferior.’ But you must help the man as a means of worshipping God in that man. All such service too is for the Self, not for anybody else. You are not helping anybody else, but only yourself. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 5th January 1946)
Those who feel themselves to be individual people identify with a particular body and feel ‘There are things that I can do that need to be done’. These may be personal, such as getting an education or cleaning the kitchen, or they may involve attempts to organise and change society in some way. There is a Sanskrit word, kartavya, which denotes the idea that there is a feeling or a conviction that there are certain activities which have to be performed. Kartavya arises and co-exists with kartrutva, the feeling that one is the performer of the body’s actions. Bhagavan taught that both kartrutva and kartavya were impediments that needed to be eliminated. Here is a sampling of his teachings on this topic:
The notion of duties that need to be done [kartavya] will not cease as long as the sense of doership [kartrutva] exists in the heart.
Why do you become mentally agitated, blindly believing there are things you have to do [kartavya]?
The bondage called ‘duty’ will cease [being known] as a delusion caused by the ego, when the firm knowledge of reality is attained.
Because the kartavya idea, that deluding conviction, is indeed the evil seed that produces in quick succession all of one’s afflictions, only in those who have been freed from it will the authentic bliss of tranquillity spring forth from the Heart and shine.
Do not pointlessly perform deeds, as if they are worth doing, prompted by the resolve, ‘I should do this; I should not do that’, [ideas] which are invariably associated with unceasing anxiety of mind. The true secret of worshipping God, the soul of the soul, is to act in whatever way the divine grace of God dictates.
Because his connection to kartrutva has been cut off, the jnani will not be aware of any actions that he is duty-bound to do. Nor will any trace of doubt or wrong understanding arise for him since, in his jnana perspective, not even a minute particle will appear as an alien, inert object.
A mind that has dissolved in the state of God, and ceased to exist, will not be aware of any activity that needs to be performed because, when the ego, which has the idea that it is the performer of actions, has been completely destroyed, the idea that something needs to be accomplished ends. (Padamalai, p. 175, vv. 119, 120, 121; Guru Vachaka Kovai vv. 466, 467, and 1118; Padamalai, p. 175, vv.122, 123.)
In verse 1246 of Guru Vachaka Kovai Murugunar describes his own final experience in the following words:
I am neither the possessed nor the possessor. I am neither the master nor the slave. I have no kartavya – the feeling that there are duties that must be done. I have no bhogtavya – the feeling that I have to experience enjoyments. I am not the doer.
This is the state that Bhagavan encouraged all his devotees to aim for. He did not encourage them to embark on crusades to change the world; instead, he encouraged them to arrive at the state where they would understand, from direct experience, that there was nothing that needed to be done or could be done. When the doer is eradicated, ideas of doing things and performing activities vanish as well.
In Irai Pani Nitral, one of the most moving poems of Sri Ramana Sannidhi Murai, Muruganar begs Bhagavan for advice on what to do to solve various problems and reach particular goals. In response to each plea Bhagavan tells him, ‘Be still, be quiet’. Instead of advising him to ‘do’ something, Bhagavan tells him to abide as the Self and let all his actions be dictated by the grace of the Self:
Whichever way I went
I heard your praise, O happy one,
and to your feet surrendered
my body wealth and life.
‘Ocean of virtue, mountain-high,
show me the way to happiness!’
Ramana, just, majestic, said:
‘Stand still. Stay where you are.’
Digging and soaring, Vishnu and Brahma
could not find you at all. And I,
trudging, trudging, towards diverse goals
was worn thin.
‘Tell me how to merge in the Feet,
beyond the knowledge of life!’
Said Ramana, pure, secure:
‘Be still, rest as you are.’
Passing, passing through various births,
Driven on and on through the force of deeds,
I cried: ‘Show me the way, my friend, my Master!
Show me the way to reach you!’
Said Ramana, Lord of Wisdom and Welfare,
‘Be not angry, be not glad.
Gather your mind to oneness
and be guided by the grace of the Lord.’
Like a picture sprawling on paper,
rootless I ramified
‘Tell me how to cut the surface!’
Ramana, Master of Wisdom, said:
‘Steady and bright,
like the flame in a pitcher,
burn in the grace of the Lord. Be still! Fulfill His will.’
‘Lord and Master, tell me how
to make good deeds prevail
against deluding evil deeds!’
My Father, dear, my Ramana said:
untroubled in the centre standing,
move only as you may be moved
by the grace of the Lord.’
‘Mighty Father of Works,
creating, preserving destroying,
tell me the means of salvation!’
Ramana, wise and virtuous, said:
‘Watching word and thought,
walk as you are guided
by the grace of the Lord who dwells
in the lotus of your heart.’
‘Tell me how to end
the strong inveterate deeds
that torment and force me back
into the torrid current of births!’
Said Ramana, best and brightest of Teachers:
‘Walking the straight path fixed of old,
join and be enjoined by
the grace of the Lord of Joyous Awareness.’
O rain-cloud with compassion big!
Teach me truly the trick
of escaping alive from the flood of births!’
Said Ramana, Lord of Wisdom and Welfare:
‘Loathe not, like not true nor false.
Stand in the centre and be
impelled by the grace of the Lord.’
‘All forms I see are forms of you,
yet none of the Gods know you aright!
Tell me firmly what to do.’
Said Ramana, Lord of Wisdom and Welfare:
‘A way there is to escape
the hungry current of births,
to reach the shore and be safe:
join and be one with the grace of the Lord.’
Best of Masters! You who shone
in the kurunda tree’s cool shade
to teach your devotee of Vadavur,
full and clear, lay bare to me
the secret of Self-knowledge.’
Said Ramana, my Father and King:
‘Be as you are, your Self.’
(Homage to the Presence of Ramana, pages 94-96, translated by Prof. K. Swaminathan)