As I get closer to 30, I’ve noticed a lot of us transitioning from the ‘formless blob’ phase of our early 20s into the absolute, right-angled plots of tentative maturity. With this maturity comes a lot of impressive labels (and some fine print, but that’s another story) that we’re allotted to inform other members of society just ‘who we are’. Some are vegans. Some are right-wing neo-cons. Others remain gatekeepers of rare cards in Magic: The Gathering. And so on.
I’ve decided that my spirituality can best be described as ‘panthestic Taoist’. My hopes are that one day this will be a box I can check on my census form, but that’s probably a long shot. Anyways, pantheistic Taoist. It’s a muddy way of saying that my beliefs are quite eclectic but essentially united, even across what appear to be outward divisions. This is because in my own independent studies of religion and spirituality, I’ve found that, once you penetrate through the outer guise of symbology, ritual, liturgy and so forth, many of the inner truths in different traditions overlap.
Pantheistic Taoist. Sorry guys, I’m having a meta-linguistic moment here. The more I look at the phrase, the more the letters trick me into reading ‘pathetic toast’. Maybe this is a good name for the ego as it’s described in Hinduism. Pathetic toast. In fact, I think Sri Ramana Maharshi would’ve approved!
OK, so in writing this post I wanted to share some thoughts on a book I just read called Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. The book was lent to me by a gentleman I met at the Thai Buddhist temple in Layton, Utah, not far from Salt Lake. Maharshi was one of India’s most renowned gurus of the first half of the 20th century. People would travel from all over the world to visit him in his ashram at Arunachala and bask in his self-realized wisdom. This particular text, compiled by David Godman (no, that’s not a typo!), is pretty cool because it’s a record of the Q&A sessions Maharshi would entertain in his ashram, organized by subject.
I should mention that Maharshi’s heyday was right before the age of the mail-order guru, where any guy with good acting skills, a marketing plan and low lighting can affix a strap-on beard to his face and claim to lead the devout to enlightenment. I think that once the great yogi Parahamsa Yogananda brought his teachings to the States, a legion of hoaxsters followed, looking to make good on Americans’ postwar disillusionment and new openness to ‘oriental’ spiritualities. Just to be clear, this was before all that.
As with a lot of these ‘pre-hype’ yogi figures, Sri Ramana Maharshi was by all accounts an incredible human being. He left his home and school behind around the age of 16 after having a life-changing moment of samadhi, a spontaneous experience of union and complete absorption in the presence of God. Young Maharshi arrived at the canonically holy hill of Arunachala around 1895 and would remain there for the rest of his life. His spiritual presence was so great that an ashram was built around him, and it still stands today. Maharshi’s life and philosophy were viewed as the greatest example of the Bhagavad-Gita’s teachings–when it came to holy men, he was the real deal.
Besides his noted ability to beguile seekers into a visionary trance through the impact of his silence alone, Maharshi was perhaps best known for his philosophy of self-enquiry. A lot of his ideas were at variance with prevailing forms of Hindu meditation and mantra, which, Maharshi taught, weren’t as effective in casting off the vasanas, the ego’s mental tendencies that got in the way of realizing “the Self” and merging with the source of creation. This is because meditation and mantra perpetuated the duality of the world and the self, the very thing Maharshi preached liberation from.
In contrast, self-enquiry allowed an individual to get at the very root of all illusion, the ‘I’-thought. As Maharshi says himself, “The ego functions as a knot between the Self and the physical body, which is inert and insentient.” The idea was to loosen the knot through self-examination with questions like “Who am I?” Eventually, the illusory I-thought would evaporate, and in Maharshi’s formula the individual would be left with the collective ‘I’ of “I Am That I Am”. This would lead directly into the liberation of samadhi.
I have to say, it’s hilarious to read transcripts of conversation between a guru and his followers. These poor, exasperated souls stagger into the ashram after traveling for 3 days, sit down at the feet of Maharshi and lay their sorry problems out before him, to which he responds with answers that in many cases only exasperate them more. His pithy paradoxes fly over their heads, but to the guru it’s all as self-evident as how to use a screwdriver. At one point Maharshi says, “There is no reaching the Self. If Self were to be reached, it would mean that the Self is not here and now and that it is yet to be obtained…You are already the Self.”
I like to imagine Maharshi as a hard-ass football coach who says things like this:
Quarterback: Coach, we need to draw up a play. What can we do?
Coach: We score a touchdown.
Quarterback: But we’re backed up on our own 1-yard line and it’s 2nd-and-long. How the hell are we gonna score a touchdown?
Coach: We already have scored the touchdown.
Quarterback: Wha-what? Coach, are you–
Coach: You thinking we haven’t scored the touchdown is the problem, you peabrained wuss.
Quarterback: OK, I’m just gonna go long to Davis.
Coach: Don’t rely on anyone else to kick the extra point, either.
We are awakened in the here-and-now, Maharshi would council, it’s just that we allow our mental tendencies and false identification with the physical body to obscure our self-realized nature. “Realization is not acquisition of anything new, nor is it a new faculty. It is only removal of all camouflage.” Much like how the Buddha comes across in his Sutras, Maharshi is extremely pragmatic and avoids discussions of metaphysics, occult powers and the conflicting particularities of reincarnation as much as possible. He is only concerned with your ability to remove all illusion and merge with source…right now.
I always find the contrasts between religious practices in the East and West to be fascinating. On the one hand, you have systems like Judaism and Christianity, which generally say that your good deeds and devotion in this life will be rewarded after the dissolution of the body. Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, have more of a Do It Yourself ethos, emphasized by this idea that those who fail to liberate and overcome illusion in this life will be doomed to repeat the cycle again. In other words, it’s not enough to acknowledge God; you have to swim upstream a little bit, too.
Without getting too deep in theology, however, I’d also like to point out that every major religion has a mystical core, and an argument could easily be made that the sum of these mystical doctrines are trans-religious. Be it the Castilian Kabalists, the Christian Gnostics, the Sufi Muslims or the Indian yogis, their views on the relationship between ‘the Lover’ and ‘the Beloved’ and ecstatic union with God are remarkably similar. When you take away the outer dross, if you will, of every doctrine, at its heart you find the ceaseless quest for Primal Oneness.
Which brings us back to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi in the year 2000-Now. Look at what’s happening around us: absolute chaos. The materialism of technology and sense-object fetish is at an all-time high, with dominator-model regimes waging economic mayhem all around the world. ‘Getting’ is what’s permanently trending. What better time than now to revisit the peaceful words of a guru who taught about the folly of ego and world-attachment, who stressed the salvation of universal love that inherently occupies all of our souls?
Whatever your current label, I think it’s some deepening that all of us could use.
“The body is itself a mere projection of the mind, and the mind is but a poor reflection of the radiant Heart. But people do not understand this. They cannot help thinking in terms of the physical body and the world. For instance, you say, ‘I have come to this ashram all the way from my country beyond the Himalayas.’ But that is not the truth. Where is ‘coming’ or ‘going’ or any movement whatever, for the one, all-pervading spirit which you really are? You are where you have always been. It is your body that moved or was conveyed from place to place till it reached this ashram. This is the simple truth, but to a person who considers himself a subject living in an objective world, it appears as something altogether visionary!”