Shri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi lived from 1879 to 1950 in India. His family members were religious Hindus; an uncle had become a sannyasin, someone who renounces the world.
When 16 years old, he had an overwhelming spiritual experience in which a life force seemed to possess him, and his body became rigid. Later in life, he considered this experience to be sudden liberation. Two months later, he secretly slipped away from home to become a sannyasin.
In the first year of being a sannyasin, Ramana Maharshi was so deep in Samadhi that he was oblivious to the bites of vermin and pests. Saints and friends started to protect him and take care of him. He was so unaware of his body, that food had to be placed in his mouth or he would have died from starvation.
Over many years, spiritual seekers were attracted to being around Ramana Maharshi. In 1902, one follower published Ramana Maharshi’s answers to 14 questions that pertained to self-inquiry to “achieve the effortless awareness of being”. Many visitors started to come to see Ramana Maharshi and some became devotees. Ramana Maharshi used words sparingly, and a main means of instructions was just “silently sitting together” with his visitors.
In 1912, Ramana Maharshi had an epileptic fit in which his vision was impaired from a “bright white curtain”, his breathing was seizing, and his skin turned blue. Ramana later said that he occasionally had previous epileptic fits.
In the 1930’s, two books introduced the Western World to Ramana Maharshi. People were flocking to the ashram, and some people had to be prevented from trying to touch him. Ramana Maharshi considered trying to flee in order to live a life in solitude.
From 1948 to the time of his death in 1950, he had a cancerous growth on his arm for which he tried surgery and other remedies. Ramana Maharshi reportedly told a disciple, “Duraswami is crying because he thinks I am suffering agonies! My body is suffering but I am not suffering. When will he realise that I am not this body?”
Well-known gurus who were greatly influenced by Ramana Maharshi include: H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji), Mooji, Andrew Cohen, Gangaji, David Godman, Ramesh Balsekar, Robert Adams, Paul Brunton, Arthur Osborne, and Ethel Merston.
Here are my skeptical views of Ramana Maharshi and his spiritual path:
- There were long periods of time in which he could not take care of his own safety and health which makes me wonder why people would want to emulate or follow him. In his first years of being a sannyasin, he was so deep in Samadhi that he was oblivious to the bites of vermin and ants. In one period of time, people put food in his mouth for fear that he would die from starvation.
- Ramana Maharshi admitted to having occasional epileptic fits. His “sudden liberation” when he was 16 years old sounds like an epileptic fit. Some epileptics are known for their over-religious zeal. His obsessive behavior as a sannyasin and his intense mental life that he advocated seem similar to some characteristics of Geschwind syndrome. Also see my blog post on epilepsy and hyper-religiosity.
- It appears that the devotees and visitors felt something when in the presence of Ramana Maharshi. They probably had an experience of powerful silence or some other extraordinary mental shift. Whatever emanated off Ramana Maharshi was somewhat contagious. It seems to me that Ramana Maharshi might have cultivated a mental illness through self-inquiry in conjunction with epilepsy. A skeptical point of view would postulate that the extraordinary mental shifts experienced by devotees and visitors contained a mixture of beneficial and deleterious effects. It would be difficult to decide whether the devotees’ preoccupation with a spiritual path (at the expense of practical living) or the actual results of spiritual practices had bigger adverse effects on their lives.
- When on his deathbed fighting cancer, Ramana Maharshi would sometimes cry out in pain, but state that the pain did not touch his Self. He claimed to not have any body-consciousness, and therefore he did not feel pain even as his body suffered from cancer. A skeptic would notice the paradox that the same voice that spoke eloquently about self-inquiry and enlightenment was now screaming in pain. A skeptic would question whether the benefit of enlightenment was overstated or whether his understanding of enlightenment was just plain incorrect.
- Even a skeptic would concede that Ramana Maharshi believed that he was Brahman, but a skeptic may think that that his inner subjective experience was a delusion.