What did Ramana mean when he quoted, “Be still and know that I am God”?

In Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk 338, we read:

…the whole Vedanta is contained in the two Biblical statements:

“I am that I AM” and “Be still and know that I am God.”

I think people often misunderstand what Ramana meant when he quoted those statements. It’s natural to assume he intended these words to convey the same meanings they have in the Bible. I don’t think he did.

He was repurposing the words, giving them new meanings. (More about repurposing in Extra Bonus Chatter below.)

This shows how tricky words are. Very often, a statement means one thing to the speaker and something else to the listener. But they don’t realize this. They assume the statement means the same thing to both even though it doesn’t. The words are the same but the meanings are not.

“I” and “God” mean one thing in these Biblical statements and something else when Ramana quoted them.

In the Bible, in these quotations, “I” and “God” refer to a super-powerful person named Yahweh. That person, when he says “I”, is referring to himself as an individual. In the Bible, that “I” is not you. It is sacrilege to suggest that he is you.

When Ramana quotes these words, as I’ll explain in a moment, he is also quoting the Vedanta. “I” means you and “God” means the Self. Something that says “I” is the Self. This fact is the highest truth, not sacrilege.

I’m going to repeat that last sentence because it gives me goosebumps when I typed it. Something that says “I” is the Self.

The meanings are utterly, radically, profoundly different even though the words are the same.

Ramana says these quotations sum up the Vedanta. Traditionally, four sentences from the Vedanta itself are said to sum up the Vedanta. These sentences are called mahavakyas which means “great sayings.” One of these great sayings is:

I am Brahman

To understand that sentence, we need to see the text it’s quoted from, paragraphs 1.4.1‒10 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

In the beginning this world was just a single body (ātman) shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself. The first thing he said was, ‘Here I am!’ and from that the name ‘I’ came into being… Now, the question is raised; ‘Since people think that they will become the Whole by knowing brahman, what did brahman know that enabled it to become the Whole? [1.4.10] In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole… If a man knows ‘I am brahman’ in this way, he becomes the whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). [Patrick Olivelle, tr.]

I highlighted the sentence that contains the mahavakya.

When Ramana quoted “Be still and know that I am God” from the Bible, he was also quoting the mahavakya from the Upanishad, because he was interpreting “God” to mean “Brahman”.

Ramana took the meaning from the Upanishad and applied it to the Bible.

Bonus Chatter

In English translations, we see Ramana use the word “God” in two different ways. I don’t read Tamil so I can’t be sure, but I think this problem is mostly or entirely an artifact of translation. We have to judge from the context which way he was using it. For example, in paragraph 7 of his most important written work, ‘Who Am I?’ (Nan Yar), he wrote:

The world, soul and God [īśvarargaḷ] are kalpanaigaḷ [fabrications, imaginations, mental creations, illusions or illusory superimpositions] in it, like the [illusory] silver in a shell. These three appear simultaneously and disappear simultaneously. [Michael James, tr.]

Here “God” is something created by the mind. It appears and disappears. But at other times, as with these Bible quotations, Ramana means the Self which is utterly real and always existent.

In Tamil there is no ambiguity because he wrote īśvarargaḷ (“gods”).

Extra Bonus Chatter

Ramana attended a high school run by American Christian missionaries where he took Bible classes in English. Almost certainly, this is where he learned about these two Bible quotations.

I wonder, did he understand the quotations as the Jewish authors of those words intended?

Or did he hear those words through the filter of his own Vedic culture and interpret them to be consistent with the Vedanta?

Ramana was a literary genius but that doesn’t mean he became an expert on Jewish theology from taking a high school Bible class. And in fact, it may take more genius to interpret these words the way he did than to interpret them as a rabbi or Catholic theologian would.

I started thinking about this the other day when an Indian friend of mine mentioned that he, like Ramana, went to a Christian high school in India. And then he said a very interesting thing:

“Strangely, in my younger days, I thought Jesus was one of the Hindu gods too just like Ganesh, Meenakshi and so forth!”

On the one hand, an Indian boy takes Jesus as a Hindu god. On the other hand, an Indian boy takes the Biblical “I am God” as the Vedantic mahavakya “I am Brahman.” Are the two things so different?

Additional Extra Bonus Chatter

Why is it the case that something that says “I” is the Self? Because only something that is conscious can say “I” meaningfully. In that quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when the first atman says “Here I am,” we understand that he means, “I know I’m here!” He knows.

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