Thoughts on Ramana Maharshi | Mark Whitwell
My teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was a contemporary of Ramana Maharshi and lived a three-hour drive away in Madras. He considered Ramana to be a great Rishi realizer of the tradition of Veda.
He would say that Ramana was a “white spot on a white page on the great book of Veda” — meaning that he was pure and could not be faulted.
Ramana Maharshi was born on December 30, 1879 near Madurai in South India. He was raised in a middle-class family of Tamil Brahmin caste. An otherwise normal child, his realization came spontaneously in his teenage years.
At the age of 16, Ramana fell into a life-long love-peace. He describes one day being struck by an overwhelming feeling that he was about to die. When he lay down in absolute fear it dawned on him that he was not a separate ego-I: he was Reality Itself.
Ramana’s realization was permanent. Soon after, he left his family and travelled to Arunachala where he took up residence as a spiritual teacher.
Ramana attempted to teach a method of practice based on his experience: to ask “Who am I?”; to enquire of the source of the “I” identity; and to fix the mind’s attention on the spiritual heart. He was one of the few realizers of modern times who spoke about the heart on the right as the high locus of spiritual realization.
“It is only by diving deep into the spiritual Heart that one can find the Self.” He placed his right hand on his right breast and continued, “Here lies the Heart, the dynamic, spiritual Heart.
It is called hridaya and is located on the right side of the chest and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the spiritual path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.”’ — A student in dialogue with Ramana quoted from Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Desikachar would say that India’s spiritual history was full of special people like Ramana who had become spontaneously awakened to the natural state or the Source of the Cosmos. Their realization had come about through relationship with their guru or for no reason at all.
These men and women simply found themselves to be in the natural state with no obvious cause. As a result, the presence and teaching of spontaneous realizers like Ramana was given without a Yogic context.
In the ancient culture of Veda, it was readily understood that in order to make use of a realizer like Ramana then you must have a Yoga practice.
Hatha Yoga, the union of opposites within and without, is the complete and easy means to participate in the source of all opposites, the heart on the right that Ramana spoke of: the nurturing source of all and its flow.
Sexual intimacy, practiced within intimate family life, is also part of the practice of heart abiding: participation in Sex is the heart’s activity and is not to be avoided in the mistake of motivefull celibacy.
Based on his scholarship in the religious traditions of his culture, Krishnamacharya was emphatic that asana, pranayama and intimacy must be there as the vital means of conducting and maintaining the clarity and nurturing power that is transmitted in meetings with people like Ramana.
Krishnamacharya also regarded the hridaya as the high locus of spiritual realization. It was his commitment to the heart that differentiated Krishnamacharya from patriarchal cultures with their fixation on the head or crown.
From a Yogic perspective however, the heart does not have to be focused upon or discovered. You do not have to realize the heart. The heart simply is: it is self-evident and self-existing in everybody.
Everybody’s heart is flowing. Nurturing Source is unfolding from the heart in spherical patterns like a flower blooming as the whole body and mind. If the pranas were not flowing from the heart already then you would be dead.
Our Yoga is to participate in the heart naturally and non-obsessively without any requirement for any experience whatsoever.
The necessity for an actual Yoga practice as part of devotional life is a big question of spiritual life that remains today in all religions and all communities of sincere people who have encountered Grace: whether via an actual person or through sacred text.
It is sad to see that a real Yoga education is often missing from these cultures and that asana and pranayama are not understood as a student’s principle devotional practice to what has inspired them: not philosophy, not enquiry, not meditation.
“Yoga joins the two to become One,” Krishnamacharya said. “Otherwise two remains the fixation of the mind.”
Krishnamacharya would warn people that without an actual Yoga practice, it is better not to be inspired by a figure like Ramana in the first place. Without the practical means to respond, your life can be made worse by such encounters.
A gap may be created between the sublime experiences felt in the company of one’s guru and the experience of the ordinary, usual life droning on.
The Yoga tantras that Krishnamacharya held for humanity flourished in India between the 8th and the 14th centuries. The supreme usefulness of these technologies and their cultural adaptability meant that they travelled all over the ancient world of South Asia.
They were used by all religions as the practical means to actualize the beautiful ideals of their culture.
One unexplained connection between Ramana and the tantras is that he had installed a large Sri Yantra on one of the walls at his ashram (the visual manifestation of the union of opposites) implying that the tantra or the Yogas of participation in the union of opposites was relevant to what he was teaching and what he had realized. Although he never made it part of his teaching, he nonetheless had it there as a religious icon.
In the traditions of in South India, there is a long history of Vedantic practitioners making use of the tantric practices of Hatha Yoga. In his writings, Adi Shankacharya declared the famous transcendental Vedantic invitation to go beyond objects, form and Sex by writing: “There is only God, everything else is a dream.”
Yet, at the same time he was an avid tantric writer in high praise of the divine feminine known as Shakti, Goddess or Mother: the form of all forms.
Later, Ramanuja of the tenth century proclaimed that Yoga and family life are required for the realization of advait, the non-dual state, or the Truth principle of Vedanta.
Whilst Krishnamacharya was not able to openly acknowledge the tantric roots of the Yoga that he brought forth, due to the negative associations it carried in South India at the time, the leaders of Vedanta knew that Yoga worked for them and came for instruction from him. There was deep mutual respect.
Desikachar told me, “They accepted Yoga, but only reluctantly.”
From the 14th century onwards, the Yoga tantras were obliterated from public life by patriarchal cults. Direct participation in spiritual life was taken off the public. It was replaced by power structures of womanless men who were fixated on control and the disastrous impulse to transcend the feminine rather than embrace her.
As a result, the sublime presence and teaching of many modern realizers have appeared in a world that is missing the necessary Yogic context in which they can be received. Communities have formed around realizers but without individuals having a functional means to respond.
Reality realizers of all kinds have been diverted into patriarchal models of response to inspiration: reflective contemplation, enquiry, personal inwardness, meditation, submission within hierarchy and seeking (all within the presumption that your heart is not already flowing).
These cultures create the thought structures of seeking and the false identity of the persona not yet realized. In the culturally implanted need to try and realize the source of “I” and to duplicate Ramana’s experience, the student’s ability to enjoy their natural, given state and their tangible relationships with loved ones is obstructed.
Cults of struggling devotees and even the struggling guru trying to communicate have become the form of modern Indian spiritual life.
It was this dynamic of seeking that led U.G. Krishnamurti to famously ask Ramana “Are you enlightened and can you give it to me?”
To which Ramana responded, “I can give it, but can you take it?”
In his youth, U.G. was disgusted with the presumption of superiority and difference that Ramana’s response carried.
“That chap is like me, a human being. How is he different from me?”
U.G. later said that Ramana was “the real deal.”
In the 1970s, my friends and I travelled to Madras to study Yoga with Desikachar. During our trips we would often take an overnight train to Arunachala. We were glad to receive the spiritual power in the land and to see the sites of worship which had been the residence of many rishis, saints, and sages since primordial times: Ramana being the most recent one.
Nature will not stop throwing up spontaneous reality realizers. What we need is a way to respond to their Grace. This is why we continue today the world work of bringing a Yoga education to the world that Krishnamacharya and his brilliant son Desikachar got started.
It was Krishnamacharya’s sincere desire to see that the world’s religions and spiritual traditions received Yoga: the union of opposites within and without.
Mark Whitwell a Yogi and world teacher whose simple mission is to bring the principles of practice that came through the ‘teacher of the teachers’ Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) into the mainstream of public life. He has taught Yoga around the world since 1975 and is a direct student of TKV Desikachar (1938–2016) with whom he enjoyed a relationship with for more than twenty years.
He is the author of four books including the beloved Yoga of Heart (2004), Hridayasutra (2004), The Promise (2016), and most recently God and Sex: Now We Get Both (2019). Mark was also the editor and contributor to his teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga (1995), a text that is celebrated on teacher trainings around the world as the “bible of modern Yoga.” Mark is the founder of the Heart of Yoga foundation and the Heart of Yoga Peace Project. He is the founder of the Heart of Yoga Online Studio. He lives between Fiji and New Zealand where he continues to write, teach, and speak.