So how did the Jews get round saying the name of Yahweh when they read the scriptures or spoke of Him? They used two further euphemisms: ‘Adonai‘, meaning ‘Lord’ or merely ‘Shem‘, which means ‘the name’. In the ancient Hebrew script there were no vowels, only consonants, and so Yahweh was written YHWH. Whenever the Jews came across this sacred combination of letters, they ignored the correct pronunciation and instead said ‘Adonai‘ or ‘Shem‘. This habit eventually caused, inadvertently, the name Jehovah to come into existence. On some manuscripts written about a thousand years ago, when vowel sounds had begun to be added to the consonants, the vowels of the word Adonai were interspersed between the consonants of YHWH to remind readers to say ‘Adonai‘ rather than ‘Yahweh‘. When these manuscripts were translated into English, the translators, ignorant of this convention coined the word Jehovah, which they thought was a correct rendering of the word. This is still the most common rendering of Yahweh in English, even though it is now known to be incorrect. So far as the Jews are concerned, Jehovah is a meaningless non-word; the real name for them remains Yahweh, ‘He who is’.
Most English translations of the Bible have opted for the euphemism rather than the real name itself, even though there is no prohibition in Christianity against pronouncing the divine name as ‘Yahweh‘. The name YHWH occurs about 6,800 times in the Old Testament and is most commonly rendered in English as LORD, usually printed in capital letters. Thus, for example, when God speaks in the preamble to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2), He says, in English, ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt…’.
Though the divine name Yahweh appears thousands of times in the Bible, there is no evidence that the Jews conceived their God to be immanent being. Theological speculation of any kind was alien to the ancient Jews and there is no indication in the Old Testament that they thought of God as a formless abstraction. Rather, they conceived of Him anthropomorphically, attributing all kinds of human traits to Him. Nor is there any evidence that the Jews of the biblical period thought that the aim of life was to attain union with Him, or partake of His being in any way. YHWH, for the Jews, was a transcendent being who had to be worshipped, placated, served, and above all, obeyed. He was separate from His creation, rather than immanent in it, and so far above and beyond the creatures He had created that, none of them could ever dream of uniting with Him or even approaching Him. For the Jews, ‘knowing God’ meant having a personal relationship with Him in a totally dualistic way.
The only Jews who used God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ to develop both a theology of God and a spiritual practice through which He might be directly experienced were groups of mystics who followed a tradition known as Kabbala. They evolved intricate cosmologies, deriving them from a mystical exegesis of Old Testament texts, and broke with traditional Judaic thought by proclaiming that man could approach YHWH and in His presence commune with His beingness.
Kabbalistic practices are many and varied, but two are of particular interest if one is looking for points of contact between mystical Judaism and the teachings of Bhagavan. For the Kabbalists, God, the Supreme Being, is Ehyeh, ‘I am’, and one can approach him directly by invoking the divine name of Yahweh. In the Book of Zohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic texts, it is written, ‘Blessed is the person who utterly surrenders his soul to the name of YHWH, to dwell therein and establish therein its throne of glory’. (Tikkune Zohar, Second Lecture, n. 137)
Kabbalistic ideas on creation are also derived from their conception of God as ‘I am’. In the Jewish tradition creation occurs by the utterance of a single word. The word is the first of all sounds to be heard in manifest existence, and thus parallels the Hindu conception of Om. For the Kabbalists this word is none other than the supreme name of God, ‘Eyheh‘, ‘I am’. According to one of their traditions, every creature utters the divine name ‘I am’ on being created and at the time of its dissolution it repeats the same ‘I am’ as it is reabsorbed into its maker. This utterance of the divine word ‘I am’, according to the Kabbala, gives reality to the created world and sustains and upholds it. The uttered ‘I am’ is an emanation of the unutterable ‘I am’; it is God Himself moving from the unmanifest to the realm of manifest being.
An interesting parallel to this idea can be found in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (talk no. 518) where Bhagavan says ‘The Supreme Being is unmanifest, and the first sign of manifestation is aham sphurana [the radiation or emanation of ”I”].’
Bhagavan always maintained that the ‘I’-thought rises from the Self and then, quite literally, creates the world it sees and gives it its apparent reality. And, paralleling the Kabbalistic notion, Bhagavan taught that the world ceases to exist when the ‘I’ is reabsorbed back into the Self.
One should not push parallels between Judaism and Bhagavan’s teachings too far, for orthodox Judaism maintains that God is wholly and eternally separate from the world, whereas Bhagavan taught that the Self is the sole reality, and that the world is an appearance in it, rather than a creation of it. For Bhagavan, the world is being in the same way that God Himself is being, for the two cannot be separated: ‘Being absorbed in the reality, the world is also real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 33)
Christian theologians have also taken God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ to indicate that His fundamental nature is being, but they will not concede that creation is in any way a manifestation of God’s essence. Take, for example, the following statement by a Catholic theologian:
God is the fullness of being, that is, subsistent existence and subsistent reality, not merely as existent being, a real object, but existence itself, reality itself. (God [an anthology of essays on God]. Ch.4, ‘God, the fullness of being, spirit and reason’, by the Rev. L. W. Geddes, 1930 ed., p. 119)
This statement, which I am sure Bhagavan would endorse, is not by some maverick interpreter. It comes from a respected theologian and fits comfortably into the mainstream of Catholic thought on the subject of God as being. However, it cannot be interpreted to mean that the world partakes of God’s reality because virtually all Christian sects believe that God created the world ex nihilo, that is to say ‘out of nothing’. Matter, say the Christian theologians, is not a part of Him, nor is it an emanation from or of Him. It is, according to them, quite literally conjured up out of nothing. Although the world is brought into existence by Him, Christians will not accept that it partakes in any way of His essential nature. Views to the contrary are known as pantheism and are condemned by Christian theologians as being erroneous or even heretical. So, while Christians are fully prepared to accept that God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ means that His fundamental nature is being, they are not prepared to concede that the world partakes of his beingness in any way. In the words of a Vatican Council: ‘As being, one sole absolutely simple immutable substance, God is to be declared as really and essentially distinct from the world.’
There is another crucial area in which Bhagavan’s teaching differ fundamentally from those of both Judaism and Christianity. Bhagavan taught that ‘I am’ is not merely the real name of God, it also the real name and identity of each supposedly individual person. Extending the notion to its logical conclusion, Bhagavan maintained that if one could become aware of one’s real identity, ‘I am’, then one simultaneously experienced the ‘I am’ that is God and the ‘I am’ that is the substratum of the world appearance. The following quotes are typical and summarise his views on the subject:
It [I am] is the substratum running through all the three states. Wakefulness passes off, I am; the dream state passes off, I am; the sleep state passes off, I am. They repeat themselves and yet I am. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 244)
The egoless ‘I am’ is not a thought. It is realisation. The meaning or significance of ‘I’ is God. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 226)
‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone. Nothing else is so self-evident [pratyaksha] as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, viz., the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. Pratyaksha is another name for Self. So to do self-analysis and be ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. ‘I am this or that’ is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 22nd March, 1946)
Perhaps the clearest statement in the Ramanasramam literature on the identity of the divine name ‘I’ and the manifest world comes not from Bhagavan himself, but from Namdev, the 14th century Marathi saint. In his The Philosophy of the Divine Name, a work that Bhagavan frequently cited and read out with approval, Namdev explains how the ‘I’ manifests as the world and how its real nature can be discovered:
The Name permeates densely the sky and the lowest regions and the entire universe… The Name itself is form. There is no distinction between Name and form. God became manifest and assumed Name and form… there is no mantra beyond the Name. The Name is Keshava [God] Himself… The all-pervading nature of the Name can only be understood when one recognises one’s ‘I’. When one’s own name is not recognised, it is impossible to get the all-pervading Name. When one knows oneself, then one finds the Name everywhere. To see the Name as separate from the named creates illusion… Surrender yourself at the feet of the Guru and learn to know that ‘I’ myself is that Name. After finding the source of that ‘I’, merge your individuality in that oneness which is Self-existent and devoid of all duality. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 448)
In most religions of the world, devotees are encouraged to repeat the name of God in order to experience His grace, His presence or even His real nature. The religions of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have conflicting and irreconcilable metaphysics but there is a surprising degree of agreement among them on the theory and practice of uttering the divine name. The following explanation gives a Muslim point of view, but adherents of all the religions just cited could produce similar expositions from their own traditions:
The Divine Name, revealed by God Himself, implies a Divine Presence which becomes operative to the extent that the Name takes possession of the mind of the person invoking. Man cannot concentrate directly on the Infinite, but by concentrating on the symbol of the Infinite, he attains the Infinite Himself: for when the individual subject becomes identified with the Name to the point where all mental projection is absorbed by the form of the Name, then the Divine Essence manifests spontaneously, since this sacred form tends to nothing outside of itself. It has a positive affinity with Its essence wherein Its limits finally dissolve. Thus it is that union with the Divine Name becomes union with God Himself. (Introductions aux Doctrines Esoterique de l’Islam, T. Burckhardt, p. 101)
For Bhagavan the divine name was ‘I’ or ‘I am’. Although, like Namdev, he generally encouraged his devotees to do self-enquiry and reach God by finding the source of the ‘I’, he was prepared to concede that repetition of the divine name ‘I’ would lead to the same goal. However, he generally recommended this path only to those who found self-enquiry too hard:
If you find the vichara marga [the path of self-enquiry] too hard, you can go on repeating ‘I’, ‘I’, and that will lead you to same goal. There is no harm in using ‘I’ as a mantra. It is the first name of God. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 8th May 1946)
A housewife who complained that self-enquiry was too hard and that she had no time for meditation received a similar answer:
If you can do nothing more, at least continue saying ‘I’, ‘I’ to yourself all the time, as advised in Who Am I?, whatever you may be doing, and whether you are sitting, standing or walking, ‘I’ is the name of God. It is the first and greatest of all mantras. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 28th June 1946)
In another answer Bhagavan explained why this method was so successful:
Question: How does the name [‘I’] help realisation?
Answer: The original name is always going on, spontaneously, without any effort on the part of the individual. The name is aham, ‘I’. When it becomes manifest it manifests as ahamkara – the ego. The oral repetition of nama leads one to mental repetition which finally resolves itself into the eternal vibration. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 591)
I should like now to return to the Old Testament and elaborate on another quotation that Bhagavan was fond of citing. In Psalm 46, verse 10, it is written ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Bhagavan appreciated this line so much that he sometimes said that the statements ‘I am that I am’ and ‘Be still and know that I am God’ contained the whole of Vedanta. (See, for example, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 338.) In Bhagavan’s view the quotations are very closely related for he taught that ‘the experience of ‘I am’ is to ‘Be still’. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 226) The two words ‘Be still’ denote both the method and the goal for it is through being and through stillness that the ‘I am’ is revealed: ‘If [the mind] is turned within it becomes still in the course of time and that I-AM alone prevails. I AM is the whole truth.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 503)
When the term is used in its absolute sense, ‘being still’ is not mere quiescence. As Bhagavan makes clear in the next answer, to attain it one must reach, permanently, the state of pure being in which the separate self has been destroyed:
Question: How is one to know the Self?
Answer: Knowing the Self means ‘Being the Self’ … Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means ‘destroy yourself’. Because any form or shape is a cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 363)
‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Here stillness is total surrender without a vestige of individuality. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 354)
All that is required to realise the Self is to ‘Be still.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 379)
If one paraphrases Psalm 46, verse 10, to bring out more fully the meaning that Bhagavan attributed to it, it would say, ‘Reach the state of pure being and absolute stillness in which the mind is destroyed and one will then experience directly that God is ”I am”’.
Bhagavan often stressed that in order to ‘Be still and know that I am God’ one must be totally free from thought, even the thought ‘I am God’. After citing this biblical quote he once added, ‘To be still is not to think. Know and not think is the word.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 131) And on another occasion: ‘One should not think ”I am this – I am not that”. To say ”this” or ”that” is wrong. They are also limitations. Only ”I am” is the truth. Silence is ”I”.’ (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 248)