Friday, August 28, 2009

Full Enlightenment, Reincarnation, Redemptive Suffering

Rare footage of another of India's (and the world's) great sages, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. According to his own admission, he achieved 'full enlightenment' at the age of 16, without any guidance from anyone. Given the whole testimony of his extraordinary life, I see no reason to doubt him. Pulled by a mysterious attraction, he left home without a word to anyone and traveled to the sacred mountain of Tiruvannamalai, about thirty miles south of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India, where he was to remain for the next 50 years of his life. No less a figure than Mahatma Gandhi revered him highly, and we sense, I think, that the Mahatma, for all of his greatness, and Mother Teresa, for all of hers, were not in the same 'sacred space' of human spiritual evolution as Sri Ramana. The latter individual seem to have transcended our ordinary categories of human holiness and to have achieved a rare dimension of human/divine consciousness. Is the distinction important? Yes, because these higher reaches of human nature witness to the full potential of the human person and the true nature of our vocation in this life. When I look at this video and read the statements of Sri Ramana, I think this is what it must have been like to have sat at the feet of the radiant master from Nazareth two thousand years ago.

Ammachi has testified that from her earliest moments of rational awareness, she was conscious of her oneness with the divine, but that it took many years of her childhood immersed in spiritual practices before her human psychic system could adapt to and express the spiritual consciousness inundating her being. Sri Ramana, likewise, for the first three years of his stay at Tiruvannamalai, was so absorbed in the divine consciousness flooding his being that he could not attend to his basic bodily functions, but had to be cared for by a sympathetic caretaker of the temple of Siva on the mountain. When these three years of 'adjustment' were over and the boy's human consciousness could now cope with such powerful spiritual impulses in a balanced manner, he returned to a normal physical existence and began his vocation as one of the greatest sages in India's long spiritual history (see photo above when he returned to his normal state).

This raises interesting questions about reincarnation, since it is difficult to explain such extraordinary spiritual precocity at such a young age without such an option. Here is Bhagavan himself talking about the realisation of the great monk, Vivekenanda through the influence of his own spiritual guru, Ramakrishna:

Sri Ramakrishna touched Vivekananda and the latter realised Bliss. Sri Ramakrishna did not touch all for that purpose. He did not create Atma. He did not create Realisation. Vivekananda was ripe. He was anxious to realise. He must have completed the preliminary course in his past births. Such is possible for ripe persons only.

I remain an agnostic on the issue, open and respectful, but to quote the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: " Do I believe in reincarnation? Well, no. But I think the reasons eminently plausible."

This also raises other intriguing possibilities. Would this explain the appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, of the spiritual master from Nazareth who exhibited such original and profound spiritual authority. (Some say he is Elijah come again.)

To end this posting and to offer some reflection on the 'redemptive suffering' of a great spiritual master, I append this description of Bhagavan's final days, dying from one of the most painful diseases known to us, cancer of the bone:

The golden jubilee of Ramana’s advent at Tiruvannamalai was celebrated in 1946 and a published souvenir was brought out to mark the occasion. In 1947 his health began to fail. He was not yet seventy, but looked much older. Towards the end of 1948 a small nodule appeared below the elbow of his left arm. As it grew in size, the doctor in charge of the Ashram dispensary cut it out. But in a month’s time it reappeared. Surgeons from Madras were called, and they operated. The wound did not heal, and the tumour came again. On further examination it was diagnosed that the affliction was a case of osteosarcoma, an extremely painful form of bone cancer. The doctors suggested amputating the arm above the affected part. Ramana replied with a smile: “There is no need for alarm. The body is itself a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? Simple dressing of the affected part will do.” Two more operations had to be performed, but the tumour appeared again. Indigenous systems of medicine were tried, and homeopathy too. The disease did not yield to treatment. The sage was quite unconcerned and was supremely indifferent to suffering. He sat as a spectator watching the disease waste the body. But his eyes shone as bright as ever and his grace continued to flow towards all beings. Crowds came in large numbers. Ramana insisted that they should be allowed to have his darshan. Devotees profoundly wished that the sage should cure his body through an exercise of supernormal powers. Some of them imagined that they themselves had had the benefit of these powers which they attributed to Ramana. Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over the suffering, and he sought to comfort them by reminding them of the truth that Bhagavan was not the body: “They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away – where can he go, and how?” The end came on the 14th of April 1950. That evening the sage gave darshan to the devotees that came. All that were present in the Ashram knew that the end was nearing. They sat singing Ramana’s hymn to Arunachala with the refrain ‘Arunachala-Siva’. The sage asked his attendants to make him sit up. He opened his luminous and gracious eyes for a brief while; there was a smile; a tear of bliss trickled down from the outer corners of his eyes; and at 8:47 the breathing stopped. There was no struggle, no gasping, none of the signs of death. At that very moment, a brilliant star-like object slowly moved across the sky, reached the summit of the holy hill, Arunachala, and disappeared behind it. It was seen in many parts of India, even as far as Bombay (Mumbai)


Joshua Pielemeier said...


I liked this article, and was wondering if you could help me where you found the quote from Thomas Merton: "Do I believe in reincarnation? Well, no. But I think the reasons eminently plausible."

Thank you!