How did Ramana Maharshi get Self-realized? The standard description goes something like this:
One day when Ramana was 16 years old, for no apparent reason, he suddenly thought he was about to die. Instead of shouting for help or running to a doctor, he lay on the floor and pretended he was already dead. He made his limbs immobile and held his breath. He did this, according to his biographer’s translation of his words, in order to “solve the problem.” Then he thought, in effect, “Okay, this is what it’s like to be dead. But I’m still conscious. Therefore I’m not my body. I am something else.”
With this understanding, he realized the Self. It took just a few minutes.
Why does this story matter? Because the method of Self-enquiry that Ramana taught for the rest of his life was based on this experience. When he told people to practice Self-enquiry he was saying in effect, “Do what I did when I was 16 years old.”
Therefore if we understand exactly what he did that day, we will know better how to practice Self-enquiry.
If you want to read all the published accounts of this experience at full length, you can find them here.
This account has never made sense to me for the following reasons:
1. What “problem” was Ramana trying to “solve”? Usually when people think they’re dying, the problem is that they’re dying and the solution is preservation of life. But he made no effort to save his life. On the contrary, he pretended that he was already dead. Why did he do this?
2. This experience came out of nowhere. Before it happened, he knew nothing about enlightenment and had never done sadhana. Why would he suddenly react this way?
In this article, I’m going to suggest a hypothesis that answers those questions. Why does this hypothesis matter? Because if we can understand what Ramana really did that day — if we can understand his motivations — if we can put ourselves in his shoes — we will be better equipped to imitate his example and practice Self-enquiry successfully and get Self-realized.
Here’s the hypothesis:
On that day, Ramana had already been practicing Self-enquiry for four years. He had begun this practice at age 12 when his father died and he wondered, “Is dad really gone now? Or is he still alive in a non-physical form, like religious people say?”
His father’s death caused tremendously powerful emotions which made him wonder about this with enormous intensity.
Soon after his father died the corpse was cremated. Ramana was a smart kid, and he understood that this meant that his father could only still be alive if he had never been his body.
So Ramana began to wonder, “Was my father his body? Or was he and is he still something else?”
And then Ramana’s wondering went one step further. He realized that this same question applied to himself. If his father had been something other than his body, then Ramana also is something other than his body.
In which case Ramana should be able to see this fact. He should be able to look at himself and recognize that he isn’t his body.
To put this another way, Ramana could figure out whether his father was still alive by looking at himself, Ramana, and seeing whether he was his body or something else.
So he started looking at himself, at his sense of “me”, to see whether he was his body or something else.
In part he was trying to figure out whether his father was still alive, and in part he was trying to discover whether he himself, Ramana, would die one day like his father apparently did or whether he would live forever.
That was the “problem.” The problem was a question: Am I my body or am I something else?
He didn’t merely ask the question.
He tried to see the answer.
The effort to see the answer is Self-enquiry.
He made this effort without thinking, “I’m doing sadhana.” He didn’t tell himself, “This is Self-enquiry.” His effort was simply a natural, unpremeditated reaction to events in his life.
During the next four years this effort became a sort of vasana, a chronic thought, a habitual wondering.
Then one day Ramana felt like he was dying and suddenly he had to find the answer very quickly because time was running out.
Why did he suddenly feel like he was dying? Because the four years of trying to see the answer to his question had brought him to the final moment of Self-enquiry when the I-thought gets sucked into the heart and dissolves. That final experience can be scary and can feel like death.
This hypothesis explains the enormous intensity with which Ramana made this enquiry. He was driven by the emotions caused by his father’s death. This intensity, in turn, helps explain why he was so successful.
This hypothesis makes Ramana human and intelligible. Without it, he’s a mysterious superhuman prodigy to whom something inexplicable happened. With it, he’s a human being like you or me. We can empathize with him. We can understand what he did. We can imitate him.
What evidence do I have for this hypothesis? I know of only two brief published paragraphs that support this idea. The first is a paragraph in the first edition of Conscious Immortality published in 1984 by Sri Ramanasramam. The paragraph no longer appears in the current edition.* Presumably the paragraph was written by Paul Brunton:
Maharshi told once how he got realization. On the day his father died he felt puzzled by death and pondered over it, whilst his mother and brothers wept. He thought for hours and after the corpse was cremated he got by analysis to the point of perceiving that it was the ‘I’ which makes the body to see, to run, to walk, and to eat. “I now know this ‘I’ but my father’s ‘I’ has left the body.” (Paul Brunton and Munagala Venkataramiah, Conscious Immortality, first edition, p. 68)
There is also a footnote in The Path of Sri Ramana Part One by Sadhu Om:
When, after hearing of His father’s death, Venkataraman [Ramana] came from Dindukkal to Tiruchuzhi to see him, He wondered: “When father is lying here, why do they say that he has gone?”. Some elders then told Him, “If this were your father, would he not receive you with love? So you see, he has gone.” This information might have roused in Him the idea that this body was not his father, the person. We may assume that this was a seed which afterwards — blossomed in Him at the age of sixteen. (Sri Sadhu Om, The Path of Sri Ramana Part One, p. 4)
This hypothesis may help explain why Ramana wrote in his farewell letter to his family, when he left home for Arunachala, “I have [gone] in search of my father.” People usually say he wrote “father” because he had been educated in a Christian high school, and Christians frequently refer to God as “father.” But maybe that’s only part of the explanation.
*The Paul Brunton Philosophical Foundation has told me that by July 2020 they will publish Brunton’s notebook on which Conscious Immortality was based. The foundation seems to be highly competent at publishing Brunton’s works properly, and presumably for the first time we will have a reliable, accurate edition of the notebook.