He survived the fall without sustaining any serious injury except that he was blinded in one eye by a stone. This was attributed to his doubting that the Vedas were true. Instead of saying ‘If the Vedas are true…,’ he should have said, ‘As the Vedas are true…’.
He escaped from the Buddhists, settled down in Allahabad and continued with his studies.
However, some time later, overcome with guilt that he had both deceived his Buddhist guru and expressed a slight doubt about the truthfulness of the Vedas, he decided to commit suicide as an act of atonement. His chosen method was self-immolation. He placed himself on top of a pile of paddy husk and was on the point of igniting it when Adi-sankaracharya appeared and asked him to debate his ideas. Kumarila Bhatta refused, saying that he had already taken the decision to give up his life to atone for his sins. Instead of debating with Adi-sankaracharya, Kumarila Bhatta recommended that he visit one of his own students, Mandana Mishra, and have the desired debate with him instead. Adi-sankaracharya took the advice, debated the student and defeated him, but before he went there he accepted Kumarila Bhatta’s final request that he chant the Taraka mantra as the flames consumed his body.
I have to confess that I find Kumarila Bhatta to be a very odd candidate for a previous life of Ramana Maharshi. I can understand how Ganapati Muni took Bhagavan to be an avatar of Subrahmanya after his 1908 vision. I can also understand why he also identified him with Jnanasambandhar because of the similarities in their lives and the belief, started by Arunagirinathar, that Jnanasambandhar was an incarnation of Subrahmanya. However, the assertion that he was also Kumarila Bhatta seems to have no published facts or evidence to support it. There is also a chronology problem. This is how Krishna Bhikshu explained the various births of Bhagavan:
As Kumarila he established the supremacy of the karma marga, as Jnanasambandhar, he brought bhakti marga close to the people, and as Ramana he showed that the purpose of life was to abide in the Self and to stay in the sahaja state by the jnana marga. Truly wonderful! (Sri Ramana Leela, p. 314)
The problem with this sequence is that Jnanasambandhar lived about two hundred years before Kumarila Bhatta, who was supposedly the first of the three human incarnations of Subrahmanya. Modern scholars have concluded that Adi-Sankaracharya lived around the eighth century. Some traditional scholars who base their conclusions on genealogies of the Sankaracharyas that have been preserved by the Sankaracharya maths have claimed that Adi-sankaracharya lived over a thousand years earlier, but this contention brings up some glaring anachronisms such as Adi-Sankaracharya commenting on texts that had not even been written when he was alive.
What did Bhagavan make of all this? This is what he had to say on the subject when he was asked in 1946:
Mr G. Subba Rao read from Ramana Lila that [a] Sankaracharya had told one of his disciples that Bhagavan was the third avatar of Subrahmanya, the first one having been Kumarila Bhatta and the second Jnana Sambandhar, and asked Bhagavan to whom it was [the] Sankaracharya said so. Bhagavan did not know. But he said that [the] Sankaracharya must be the one before the last, i.e., the third back from the present one. Bhagavan also added, ‘That Sankaracharya came and met me at Skandasramam. He must have been repeating what he heard. It is only Naina [Ganapati Muni] that started it. None said so before.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 1st February, 1946, afternoon)
The problem of the chronology of the various incarnations was also raised in a discussion that Suri Nagamma recorded:
On the 7th of this month [January 1947] Dr T. N. Krishnaswamy, a devotee of Bhagavan, celebrated the Jayanthi of Sri Ramana in Madras. It seems a Pandit mentioned in the course of his lecture on the occasion that there was a reference somewhere that Bhattapada [Kumarila Bhatta] would be born in Thiruchuli as Ramana.
While the devotees in the Asramam were searching for these references, Bhagavan himself said, ‘Nayana [Ganapati Muni] said that Skanda (Lord Subramanya) was born first as Bhattapada, then as Sambandha (Thirujnanasambandhar), and in the third birth as Ramana. The appellation, “dravida sisuhu” used by Sri Sankara in Soundarya Lahari refers to Sambandha, doesn’t it? Therefore Sambandha must have existed prior to Bhattapada who was a contemporary of Sankara. Nayana said that Sambandha was of a later date than Bhattapada. One is not consistent with the other; which of the above versions is the authority for the aforesaid lecturer’s statement is not yet known.’
Surprised at these words which were meant to throw everyone off his guard, I said, ‘Why so much discussion about it? We may ask Bhagavan himself. Doesn’t Bhagavan know who He is? Even if He does not tell us now, there is His own reply to the song asking, “Who is Ramana?” written by Amritanatha Yatindra while Bhagavan was dwelling on the Hill.’
Bhagavan replied, ‘Yes, yes!’ with the smile of approval on His face.’ He waited for a while, and then said, ‘Amritanatha is a peculiar person. He is very interested in all matters. When I was on the Hill he used to come now and then, and stay with me. One day I went somewhere. By the time I returned, he had composed a verse in Malayalam, asking “Who is Ramana?” left it there and went out. I wondered what was written on the paper, so I looked at it and found out. By the time he returned I [had] composed another verse in reply, in Malayalam, wrote it down below his verse and put the paper back. He liked to attribute supernatural powers to me. He did so when he wrote my biography in Malayalam. Nayana had it read out to him, and after hearing it, tore it off, saying, “Enough! Enough!” That was the reason for his posing this question also. He wanted to attribute some supernatural powers to me, as “Hari” or “Yathi” or “Vararuchi” or “Isa Guru”. I replied in the manner stated in the verse. What could they do? They could not answer. A Telugu translation of those verses is available, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, there is. Isn’t Bhagavan’s own version enough for us to establish that Bhagavan is Paramatma himself?’ I said.
Bhagavan smiled, and lapsed into mouna. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 29th January 1947)
Amritanatha Yati posed the following question in a verse: ‘Who is this Ramana in the Arunachala cave, who is renowned as the treasure of compassion? Is he Hari [Vishnu] Sivaguru [Subrahmanya], Yativara [Siva] or Vararuchi [the principal scholar at the court of King Vikramaditya]? I am desirous of knowing the Guru’s mahima [greatness].’
This is Bhagavan’s reply, taken from Collected Works, page 142:
In the recesses of the lotus-shaped hearts of all, beginning with Vishnu, there shines as absolute consciousness the Paramatman, who is the same as Arunachala Ramana. When the mind melts with love of him and reaches the inmost recess of the Heart wherein he dwells as the beloved, the subtle eye of pure intellect opens and he reveals himself as pure consciousness.
It is clear from this reply and all the other recorded responses on the same topic that Bhagavan was not interested in endorsing any of the past-life suggestions that were made to him, nor was he willing to offer any alternatives. I am sure he knew who he was last time around, but he kept this knowledge to himself and never gave the slightest hint of who he might have been.
I once asked Papaji if he could recollect having any association with Bhagavan in an earlier life. I asked because Papaji sometimes spoke about a remarkable incident in which he saw all his past lives while he was sitting on the banks of the Ganga.
With all this past-life knowledge he surprised me by saying, ‘I must have had some connection with him. How else could I have gone to him and taken him as my Master? But I have no idea where and when that connection was.’
I also asked Saradamma once if Lakshmana Swamy had ever told her who Ramana Maharshi had been in his previous lives. She responded by giving a mischievous smile and putting her index finger to her lips. I took this to mean that it was a secret that neither she nor Lakshmana Swamy was willing to divulge. Lakshmana Swamy had had recollections of previous lives – one as a yogi, one as a raja and one as a Christian priest – but I never heard him speak of any incident that revealed a connection with Bhagavan.
I don’t find Ganapati Muni’s claims to be very plausible, and I have not an iota of reliable evidence to support any alternative claims. However, I won’t let that stop me from playing my own guessing game about whom Bhagavan might have been last time around. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that visions indicate the state of mind of the person who is seeing them and as such are not reliable indicators of who Bhagavan might have been. I would take a different approach and look at the samskaras that Bhagavan manifested and extrapolate them backwards to see what kind of person he was in his past life, and what interests he had.
The strongest and most obvious samskara was his love of Arunachala. In the first verse of Arunachala Ashtakam he wrote, ‘From knowledgeless early childhood Arunachala was shining in my mind as that which is most great’. That is to say, before he had the capacity even to think rationally, he instinctively knew that Arunachala represented or constituted the Supreme. Next, since he realised the Self with the minimum amount of effort and practice, that would indicate that he was a highly mature soul who had almost reached the goal of liberation in his previous birth. One other talent or interest is worth noting. He had an aptitude for Tamil literature while he was still a young boy. Though he never did much work at school, he was apparently correcting his Tamil literature teacher when he was only thirteen. These three characteristics – an immense love for Arunachala, spiritual maturity and a talent for Tamil poetry – would seem to me to indicate that Bhagavan had a recent life as an Arunachala saint who either appreciated Tamil poetry or who had a talent for composing it. And, it goes without saying, it has to be someone who died before Bhagavan was born.
Before I review the limited options on this I want to relate an interesting incident that took place a few years ago at Virupaksha Cave. A visitor who was meditating there went into a kind of trance and passed out for some time. When he came round, he said that he had had some kind of vision in which he had been taken back in time to the days when Virupaksha Devar was there, and he found himself sitting with the saint. He said that Ramana Maharshi was also there, and in that previous life both the man who had had the trance and Bhagavan seemed to be disciples of Virupaksha Devar. Now, as I have already mentioned, I don’t set much store by visions, but this is just the kind of life I would expect Bhagavan to have had. Virupaksha Devar and Guhai Namasivaya came from Karnataka together about 450 years ago on the instructions of their Guru. Little is known about Virupaksha Devar, but Guhai Namasivaya wrote thousands of Tamil venba verses that praised Arunachala. The venba metre was the one that Bhagavan most commonly used when he wrote Tamil verse. I would certainly list Guhai Namasivaya as a possible last-life candidate for Bhagavan, and I would not exclude Virupaksha Devar, even though he does not appear to have left any poetic record. The fact that Bhagavan was drawn to live in both Virupaksha Cave and Guhai Namasivaya Temple (which is where he composed Who am I?) might indicate that he had samskaras associated with both places. There is also the possibility that Bhagavan, as reported by the man who had the vision in the cave, was an unknown disciple of Virupaksha Devar.
There is one other candidate I would add to my list: Isanya Jnana Desikar. He was also a Tiruvannamalai saint who fell in love with Arunachala and wrote verses in praise of it. He was born in 1750 and passed away in 1829 in Tiruvannamalai. For those who are interested, this article gives a lot more information about this saint’s life and poetry.
I think I would put him slightly ahead of all the other candidates I have offered so far because his poems contain not just praise of Arunachala but also teachings that are highly reminiscent of Bhagavan’s own. The references in his Garland of Hymns to Arunachala to ‘being still’ to ‘Who am I?’, and to ‘finding the source of the “I”’ are highly unusual in Saiva saints who normally focus on devotional pleas and sentiments.
As I have said before, I have not the slightest shred of evidence to back up my views on this subject, so please take what I have said as just a little entertaining speculation. I will conclude with a few of Isanya Jnana Desikar’s verses. All of them are addressing Arunachala. As you read them, ask yourself, ‘Who does this remind me of?’
11 O Supreme Bliss! Eternal Plenitude! Teacher of Nama Sivaya! You who cannot be approached by the Agamas, the Puranas, the Itihasas and the Vedas! Father! Eternal One! [Arunachaleswara!] the husband of Mother Unnamulai who resides in Arunai! Please instruct me about the supreme state: the single, infinite state that is full of silence, in which the flood of the unified taste of peace prevails, where the body and all enjoyments are blissfully forgotten, where true knowledge shines like the sun. This is the yogic state that is called ‘Being still’.
[ Note: Unnamulai is the local name for the consort of Siva in Tiruvannamalai. Arunai is an ancient name for Tiruvannamalai.]
12 Eternal One! Consort of Unnamulai residing in Arunai! Without knowing the Self, I played with the body through the senses, the breath and the mind. I thought that I was born and that I will die. I considered my parents, women, the world and all its enjoyments to be real. But then you possessed me and made me join the select band of your devotees. You made me realise the complete knowledge that has neither birth nor death and let me enjoy the simple essence of remaining as the Self. O Father, thank you so much!
16 Like the scent in a flower, like the taste in honey, blissfully you have entered into me. Self of all souls! Lord of the Red Hill! Immanently you pervade the whole world, manifesting as the sky, the wind, fire, water, earth, the moon, the sun and the individual soul. You are the soul, the ‘you’ and the ‘I’. Up till now I have considered the world, which is only a mirage-like appearance, to be real. Who am I? What is this body? What is it that speaks ‘I’? What are all these relationships that appear as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘women’? Tell me!
20 Self of all souls on earth, existing beyond the mind, you are the plenitude of bliss! Lord of the Red Hill! You have entered me! Standing as the light through which the eye sees, you show me your form. From you arise, in the ear, songs, melodies, poetry and other sounds. The taste of earth on the tongue, the scent of a flower in the nose, the wind in the ear, the bite of a mosquito on the skin – all proclaim and announce you. Since you make me feel everything, from where, then, arises the sense or feeling of ‘I’?
22 Lord of the Red Hill! As complete bliss you have become the Self of all souls and entered me. Will you please tell me how the following pairs came into existence: the beginning and the end, men and gods, the arts and the Vedas, mother and father? What is this strong, binding karma? What pleasures and pains does the body undergo in heaven and hell? And what is it that remains beyond all this as ‘I’? Is it fair for you, the omnipresent one, to fail me? You are the first, the head of all others, so please show me your grace.
82-85 It is sheer delight to speak of Lord Aruna, the Light who is both beginningless and endless, unbroken, infinite space. It is sheer delight to say that Lord Aruna, the Light, is the source giving light to the sun, the moon, and fire. At the moment when one realises the Self by diving within, you become the face on the mirror. O personification of grace! What else needs to be known other than You who are omnipresent and who possess all?