Mittwoch, 17. September 2008

1. Birth and Childhood

Sundaram-Mandiram (the house where Ramana was born)

1. Birth and Childhood

What value has this birth without knowledge born of realization?

Venkataraman, later to be known as Ramana Maharshi, was born into an old Brahmin family on 30th December 1879 in Tiruchuli, a village of approximately 500 houses some 30 miles south of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, South India. Tiruchuli is the administrative centre (Taluk) for the Ramnad District. There has been a village on this spot for many centuries and it is mentioned in several legends in the Puranas. The Bhuminatheswara temple, dedicated to Shiva as Lord of the World, is a very popular place of pilgrimage. People often bathe in the temple tank, as it is claimed that the high sulphur content of the water has healing properties.

Sri Ramana’s father, Sundaram Iyer, started his professional life at the age of twelve as a clerk for a village accountant. He later became a petition writer and ultimately worked his way up to the post of uncertified pleader (Vakil). He practised principally at the local court of arbitration and earned sufficient money to enable him to provide a comfortable life for his family. He was considered to be both extremely skilled and fair and had a reputation for dealing kindly with the poor and oppressed. He was highly respected in the local courts, so much so that on occasions both parties, plaintiff and defendant, wanted him to plead on their behalf.

Sundaram was also wellknown for his great generosity and hospitality. His spacious house in Kartikeyan Street near the temple had two separate areas with identical furnishings and fittings. One area was used by the family, the other was made available to guests. Any poor person who knocked at the door was provided with a meal.

Countless clients and visitors came to the house throughout the day. Sundaram also offered accommodation and assistance to any newly arrived officials, until they found permanent lodgings of their own.

In so far as concerns spiritual matters Sundaram was very ordinary. His spiritual life, like that of every other devout Hindu, involved occasional pilgrimages to local temples, reading the legends of Hindu Saints and performance of the daily domestic puja.

Sri Ramana’s mother, Alagammal, came from Pasalai, a village near Manamadurai. She was married to Sundaram Iyer when she was still a child. There was no formal school education for women at that time, but from the elder women in Tiruchuli she learned many vedantic hymns, from which she took the spiritual instruction for her life.

She and her husband were an ideal couple. She supported Sundaram’s hospitality in every way, even if it meant she had to prepare a meal for guests in the middle of the night. The harmony between them was further emphasized through their names - Sundaram means ‘beauty’ in Sanskrit, while Alagammal means ‘beauty’ in Tamil. Ramana wrote in one of his hymns to Arun-achala, “May Thou and I be one and inseparable like Alagu and Sundaram, Oh Arunachala.”

Ramana was born one hour after midnight on Monday, 30th December 1879, as the second of three sons and one daughter. Throughout Southern India it was the day of the Arudra Darshan, the festival of the cosmic dance of Shiva Nataraja. That year this special festival day lasted from sunrise on the 29th to sunrise on the 30th December. At dawn on the 29th the devotees of Shiva took their ritual bath in the temple tank. Afterwards the flowerbedecked statue of Nataraja was carried through the streets of the village to the sound of drums and bells and much singing. At 1 a.m. it was returned to the temple of Tiruchuli where the customary rituals were performed. Venkataraman was born at that precise moment. It is recorded that a blind woman present in the delivery room had a vision of a wondrous light and said, “He who is born today in your house must be a divine being.”

Sundaram named his second oldest son Venkataraman. Ramana is an abbreviation of Venkataraman, but nobody, with the exception of one relative, ever called him that. Later Ganapati Muni (see Chapter 8) used the name ‘Ramana Maharshi’ and it is only since this time that ‘Ramana’ has been in use.

Venkataraman’s childhood was completely normal. He was a strong boy and was breastfed by his mother until he was five years old. He was friendly and open-minded by nature and was loved by everyone in the village. He attended the local primary school in Tiruchuli for three years before going to the secondary school in Dindigul when he was eleven. Whereas his elder brother, Nagaswami, was a diligent pupil, Venkataraman, although intelligent, took little delight in learning. He was far more interested in sports and games. The Bhuminatheswara temple and its surroundings were his favourite playground. He liked to meet with his friends there at the temple tank. A phenomenon which remains unexplained even today, is the change in water level in the Tamil month of Masi (mid-February to mid-March), with the waxing moon the water rises approximately 12 inches a day for ten days in a row, then subsides with the waning moon back to its original level. Ramana remembered how, fascinated, he used to watch this as a boy, “In my boyhood days, all of us used to join together and draw on the steps some signs in order to see how much the water rose each day. It used to be amusing. The rising of the water used to start 10 days earlier [before the full moon] and used to submerge the steps at the rate of one step per day and become full by the full moon day. To us, it was great fun.”1

Another of Ramana’s playgrounds was the Gaundinya river near the Kalayar temple on the outskirts of Tiruchuli. There he and his friends used to swim or play together inside the temple area.

Not a great deal is known about this period of Ramana’s life, but what is known makes it clear that he was a lively boy who liked to play pranks.

One day, when he was about six years old, he climbed up to the loft of his house along with some friends. The place was full of bundles of old papers and documents, which his father had decided to store there and which related to lawsuits longsince settled. The children took one of the bundles down and made a fleet of paper boats out of it, which they then sailed in the temple tank. When Ramana’s father came home, he was furious, so Ramana quickly made himself scarce. When he did not return for the midday meal, a search was organized. He was found sitting in the tem-ple in the shrine of goddess Sahayambal (one of Shiva’s consorts), from whom he had sought solace.

On another occasion Ramana went even further, he climbed into the house of a neighbouring lawyer and carried away some papers he found in a cupboard, unaware that they were important documents relating to a court case. He invented a game for himself, distributing the documents to passers-by on the street, as if they were advertising leaflets. When the lawyer returned home and saw what had happened, he demanded the papers back, but it proved impossible to recover many of them. Of course when he told Ramana’s father what had happened, the latter became very angry and shouted, “Undress the boy! Shave his head completely and give him only a loincloth to wear! Don’t give him any food!” How far the punishment was carried out is, unfortunately, not reported.

Ramana, however, in addition to his predilection for playing pranks, also had a compassionate heart, as is illustrated by the fol-lowing story, which he later recounted himself, “One day he [referring to a neighbouring boy three years his younger] got a sugarcane and a knife, and as he could not cut it himself, he requested his brothers to help him, but they went away without heeding his request. He began weeping. I felt sorry for him. I took the sugarcane and tried to cut it. My finger got cut and began to bleed. Even so, I felt sorry for him because he was weeping and was a little fellow, so somehow I managed to cut the cane into pieces. I tied my finger with a wet cloth; the bleeding, however did not stop.”2

The rite of Upanayama (putting on the sacred Brahmin thread) was performed when Ramana was around the age of eight, and he thus became a full member of the Brahmin caste, but still he showed no special spiritual inclination.

Although this fortunate family was no more religious than any other, there was one peculiar feature in its history. An old family legend tells how, one day, an ascetic came to the house begging for food, but, against all tradition, he was not treated with the proper respect and was not given a meal. The ascetic promptly issued a curse, stating that henceforth one member of each generation of the family would wander about begging as an ascetic like himself. This ‘curse’ had its effect, because in each generation one member renounced worldly life to become a wandering ascetic. One of Sundaram Iyer’s uncles on his father’s side had taken the ochre robe, the staff and the water jug of a sannyasin and had left to live life as a wandering renunciant and beggar. His elder brother Venkatesa also disappeared from the village one day, no doubt to embark upon the same path. He was never heard of again and since that time Sundaram had been the head of the family.

There are no indications that Sundaram Iyer ever thought that one of his sons would one day also leave home. And no doubt the thought never crossed the mind of the young Ramana either.

1 Nagamma: Letters and Recollections, p. 78
2 dto., p. 80

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