This article originally was originally posted on my blog in 2008
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 Collected Works:
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 Guru. (The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, tr. by Prof K. Swaminathan)
Annamalai Swami has given an account of how this particular verse came to be written. It began with the following remarks by Bhagavan:
‘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. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, 2nd ed. p. 99)
At the beginning of his commentary on this verse (Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai – Vilakkavurai, p. 314, 1987 ed.) Sadhu Om states that Bhagavan composed it on 16th February, 1938. 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. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 458)
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 past. (Living by the Words of Bhagavan, pp. 216-7, 2nd ed.)
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 non-duality. (Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai – Vilakkavurai, pp. 314-15, 1987 ed.)
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 three of 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 on. (Ulladu Narpadu, p. 162, 1979 ed.)
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 efforts. (Maha Yoga, pp. 175-6, 2002 ed.)
The final comment by Lakshman Sarma is one he appended to verse 416 of Sri Ramana Paravidyopanishad. Verse 416 of this work is a translation of Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham, verse 39. The full text and Lakshman Sarma’s commentary on it can be found in Sri Ramana Paravidyopanishad.
… 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 necessary.
That is to say, one should strive for advaita in the Heart, but in outer activities one should adhere to the dualistic rules of dharma.
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 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 Trimurtis. (Sri Ramanopadesa Nul Malai – Vilakkavurai, p. 315, 1987 ed.)