Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi – S. (Samuel) Cohen

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S. (Suleman) S. (Samuel) Cohen, an Iraqi Jew, was a qualified accountant. He came to India in 1927 in search of the key to the mystery of life. He worked in Bombay for a few years before joining the Theosophical Society at Madras, where he heard of the Maharshi and read some of his books. This worked as magic and he adopted Sri Ramanasramam as his home in 1936. He died in 1980, and lies buried in the Ashram campus. He is the author of Guru Ramana, Reflections on Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi and Residual Reminiscences of Ramana.

It was then the Ashram’s custom to honour the newcomer by giving him his first meal in a line directly opposite the Maharshi’s seat. After food, someone announced that the Maharshi was coming to the hall. I rushed there. Behind me calmly walked in the tall, impressive figure of the Maharshi with leisurely though firm steps. I was alone in the hall with him. Joy and peace suffused my being, never before had I such a delightful feeling of purity and well-being at the mere proximity of a man. After a while, I saw him looking at me with large penetrating eyes, rendered divinely soothing by their child-like innocence. I became absorbed in the entrancing personality of this magnificent human magnet – Sri Ramana Bhagavan. It is needless to say that from that day Sri Ramanasramam became my permanent home.

A few days after my arrival, I sat in the hall almost alone after the Maharshi’s return from breakfast. He saw a leather-bound book by my side and asked me, “What book is that?” taking it, I guessed, for a scriptural manual. I answered that it was a notebook. He chuckled and said to the interpreter: “Vellai karan (the white man) does not move about without a notebook.” This opening encouraged me to broach the subject of sex. I said, “Last night Mr.Brunton and myself had a heated discussion on the question of sex and marriage, especially as it affects the spiritual life. What does the Maharshi think about it?”The Maharshi kept silent for a moment and remarked, “As far as sadhana is concerned, brahmacharya means dwelling in Brahman,” leaving me to take it as I willed.

I constructed a hut for my residence near the Ashram in March 1936. I hardly stayed in it in the daytime: my mind was wholly fixed on the Master. So I spent my days and a part of my nights in the hall, where the

Maharshi lived and slept. There I quietly sat and listened to the visitors’ talks with him and to his answers, which were sometimes translated into English, particularly if the questioner was a foreigner or a North Indian. His answers were fresh and sweet. His influence was all-pervasive in his silence not less than in his speech.

To the serious-minded, Bhagavan was a beacon light in an otherwise impenetrable darkness, and a haven of peace.

Bhagavan was the most liberal of gurus. At no time did he consider the need to frame rules and regulations to control the lives of his disciples; nor did he believe in a common, enforced discipline, for he himself had attained the highest without them. He left his disciples completely free to mould their lives as best as they could. This physical freedom considerably helped me to tide over the first few difficult months of my new existence.

The years 1936-38 were very blissful indeed. We could gather around Bhagavan’s couch, speak to him intimately as to a beloved father, tell him our troubles without let or hindrance. Bhagavan related to us stories yielding to transportation of emotions when he depicted a scene of great bhakti, or great human tragedies to which he was sensitive to the extreme. Then he shed tears, which he vainly attempted to conceal.

Some stories are memorable like that of Kabir1 who had siddhis yet he earned his livelihood by weaving, which was his profession. One day, when Kabir was working on his loom, a disciple entered in great excitement and said, “Sir, there is a juggler outside who is attracting large crowds by making his stick stand in the air.” Thereupon Kabir, who like all true saints, discouraged the display ofjugglery, wanting to shame the man, rushed out with a big ball of thread in his hand and threw it in the air. The ball went up and up unwinding till the whole thread stood stiff in mid air. The people including the juggler were stunned in amazement, and Bhagavan’s eyes acted the amazement, while his hand stood high above his head in the position that of Kabir when he threw up the ball.

On another occasion, Bhagavan recited from memory a poem of a Vaishnava saint, in which occurred the words ‘Fold me in thy embrace, O Lord’, when the arms of Bhagavan joined in a circle round the vacant air before him, his eyes shone with devotional ardour, while his voice shook with stifled sobs which did not escape our notice. It was fascinating to see him acting the parts he related, and be in such exhilarated moods as these.

The notion that the guru always watched his disciples continued lurking in my mind. But as I discovered later, Bhagavan was doing nothing of the kind. He was Supreme Detachment incarnate. The strict aloofness which appeared to me at first as sheer callousness on the part of the Maharshi, turned out across the years to be more potent in its action to purify, guide, reform and mature the disciples’ consciousness than the guru’s conscious interference. Without this detachment, the guru is bound to grow partial and discriminative.

Renunciation and surrender is the cornerstone of sadhana, and with the Maharshi it was the ‘completest.’ There were a number of deluded deovtees who tried to ingratiate themselves with him, but Bhagavan never deviated from the neutrality in his spiritual attitude towards them. Answering spiritual questions he always did, but he never attempted consciously to give Self-realisation to any in all the 14 years of my contact with him, either by touch or mental projection or any other means.

Early mornings I went alone for Giri pradakshina – an eight-mile trek around Arunachala hill, which took me almost three hours to accomplish. This had its own special benefis. At that early hour I generally was in a walking meditation mood, particularly as I expressly made a habit of it. Another factor to a successful pradakshina and, to me, the greatest, was the determination at the very start not to retrospect – not to look back upon the past – throughout the walk. I would never allow memory to ruin my calmness. Each time I caught memory sneaking in, I immediately brought my attention to the rhythm of my footfalls till the mind regained its restful state. The partial fatigue experienced in the latter half ofthe journey automatically induced this mental rest without much effort.

Speaking of retrospection, sadhakas must be warned against the tricks of memory. It cannot be too often recommended to them to forbear looking into the past with its trials and errors, acts of omission and commission, regrets, fears, passion, love and hatred, personal tragedies etc. Everything is dust, everything transitory, including the seemingly indissoluble human ties, more so wealth and fame, are thus not worth a moment’s regret. Nothing is changeless and lasting but the natural state of Pure Being.

Three years rolled by. The Master used to pass by my hut almost everyday. Often he took shelter from the midday sun on my verandah for two or three minutes, during which I made myself scarce, in order not to inconvenience him, till one day I foolishly placed a chair for his use on the sly, which made him once and for all boycott the verandah. Despite his full knowledge of our adoration for him, he was extremely sensitive to the slightest trouble which might ensue from him to us, or, for that matter, to any one: thus placing a chair for him, or expecting him everyday at a fixed hour, he interpreted as interfering with my rest, hence the boycott.2

After three years’ stay at the Ashram, I got Bhagavan’s permission to go on a yatra to the South. He smiled approval and enquired about the date and time of my starting, and whether I had made arrangements for my stay in the various places of my visit. Extremely touched by his solicitude, I answered that I was going as a sadhu, trusting to chance for accommodation.

During my leisurely tour in south India, I visited temples and stayed in holy places for long or short durations, as the spiritual mood took me. Everywhere I was well received. Wherever I went Bhagavan’s name acted like a charm, particularly as I had adopted the Indian dress from the beginning (1936), lived in Brahmin streets, and ate Brahmin food. I even for the time discarded the wearing of footwear, bathed in Hindu bathing tanks and attended evening temple worship with the smearings on my arms and forehead.

During my yatra I used to plunge in reflections on Bhagavan’s blissful silence and calm repose. The stillness of his mind haunted me wherever I went. I felt his influence in the depth of my soul and I cried: “O Bhagavan, how mighty you are and how sublime and all-pervasive is the immaculate purity of your mind! With what tender emotions do we, your disciples, think of your incomparable qualities, your gentleness; your serene, adorable countenance; your cool, refreshing smiles; the sweetness of the words that come out of your mouth; the radiance of your all embracing love; your equal vision towards one and all, even towards stray animals!

The influence of the Maharshi on genuine seekers, who leave the world behind and turn pilgrims on the path of the Absolute, is indeed great; for such aspirants touch a sympathetic chord in his soul, evoking spiritual responses of great magnitude. A close friend of mine once related to me his experience when a brief talk with the Master made him stop his fruitless pursuit of the occult and take to the path of knowledge (jnana). In the words of my friend:

“I was convinced that the Maharshi spoke from direct, valid experience and I made up my mind to speak alone with him, before the hall got filled with devotees. It was eight in the morning. Bhagavan had just entered and had hardly settled in his usual place, when I drew near his sofa and squatted on the bare floor. Nothing, I knew, gave greater pleasure to the Maharshi than to listen attentively to his devotees’ spiritual difficulties and give his advice. This knowledge encouraged me to explain to him slowly and briefly in clear, simple English the agitations ofmy mind. After I finished, he remained pensive for a few seconds and then, in the same language but with considerable deliberation, said, ‘Yes, you are right; all preconceptions must go, practice alone will show you where the truth lies.’ Apart from the words which he uttered, I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming urge to surrender unreservedly to him to guide me in my spiritual hunger. My fate and all that I was, passed from that moment into the sacred hands of Bhagavan forever.”

The constant influx of visitors was of some help in that it afforded the much-needed relaxation to an otherwise tense life. Secondly, the peculiar problems which visitors brought with them were a useful study – study of the human mind and the endless ills to which it is subjected. The problems of the mind and conditions which give rise to them are infinitely more numerous than the variety which the physical universe presents to the human sense. Moreover, watching the masterly way Bhagavan tackled these problems was sadhana in itself. Rationality was the very essence of his arguments whilst the ultimate answer to all the questions was always the same, namely, ‘Find out who you are’. He first met every questioner on his own ground, and then slowly steered him round to the source of all problems – the Self – the realisation of which he held to be the universal panacea.

Psychologists deal only with the working ofthe mind, but Bhagavan goes to the source, the Self itself. It was a wonder that all visitors were agreeably impressed by him, sometimes even without comprehending the drift of his ideas.

People take siddhis as the sure sign of Perfection, but few understand the subtle influence of the truly Perfect person, who without the deliberate use of miracles, works out the transformation of the people who come into contact with him, more so the genuine disciples, whom he actually turns into muktas, or well on the way of mukti, something which external siddhis are totally incapable of.

Many of those who have had the inestimable privilege of a long stay with Bhagavan bear witness to the blessedness which his mere presence conferred upon them.

The following brief extracts are from Cohens notes of Bhagavan’s replies to questions in the 1930s and 40s. He says: Bhagavan always spoke in Tamil, except when the questions were put in Telugu or Malayalam, which he answered in the same language. The visitors who knew none of these languages received answers through an interpreter in English.Although the Maharshi could read and understand English well, he did not prefer to speak it.

The Real is ever-present, like the screen on which the cinematographic pictures move. While the picture appears on it, the screen remains invisible. Stop the picture and the screen will become clear. All thoughts and events are merely pictures moving on the screen of Pure Consciousness, which alone is real.

In a cinema-show you can see pictures only in a very dim light or in darkness. When all lights are switched on, pictures disappear. So also in the floodlight of the Supreme atman all objects disappear.

Think of God, attachments will gradually drop away. If you wait till all desires disappear before starting your devotion and prayer, you will have to wait for a very long time indeed.

It is every intelligent man’s experience that evil doing recoils on the doer sooner or later. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself ‘ means that you should love him, because he is your Self.

That which comes and goes, rises and sets, is born and dies is the ego. That which always abides, never changes and is devoid of qualities is the Self.

Pain and pleasure are to the ego, which is itself imagined. When the ego disappears through a constant enquiry into its nature, the illusion of pleasure and pain also disappears, and the Self alone remains.

Habits create the false notion that thinking is a permanent institution, with which it is impossible to dispense, but enquiry and discrimination will blast this fallacy. None succeeds without effort and the successful few owe their victory to perseverance.

We are so accustomed to objectivity that we have lost the knowledge of ourself simply because the Self cannot be objectified. We are the Self, yet we ask how to know the Self.

I have never said that there is no need for a guru. All depends on what you call guru. He need not be in a human form. Dattatreya had 24 gurus. The Upanishads say that none but a guru can take a man out of the jungle of intellect and sense perceptions. Did I not sing hymns to Arunachala? Guru is God or the Self. First a man prays to God to fulfill his desires. A time comes when he will no more pray for the fulfilment of material desires but for God itself. God then appears to him in some form or other, human or non-human, to guide him to Himself in answer to his prayer and according to his needs.

Meditation includes mind control, the subtle watchfulness against intruding thoughts. In the beginning, efforts for control are greater than for actual meditation, but in due course, meditation wins and becomes effortless.

Heart is the seat of jnanam. It is represented in the physical body by a hole smaller than the smallest pinpoint, which is always shut. When the mind drops down in kevala-nirvikalpa3 it opens but shuts again after it. When sahaja4 is attained it opens for good. The former is like the mental bucket under the water, which can be pulled out any moment. The latter is like the river that has linked up with the ocean from which there is no return.

1. A great saint and top-ranking Hindi poet of 14th century who lived in Benaras.

2. Major A.W. Chadwick writes: In the early days of my stay (1935-36), I was living in a big room adjoining the Ashram storeroom. Here Bhagavan often used to visit me. On coming into my room unexpectedly he would tell me not to disturb myself but to go on with whatever I was occupied at the time. I would remain seated, carrying on with whatever I was doing at the time. I realize now that this was looked upon as terrible disrespect by the Indian devotees, but it had its reward. If one put oneself out for Bhagavan or appeared in any way disturbed he just would not come in future; he would disturb no body, so considerate was he. But if one carried on with what one was doing then he would himself take a seat and talk quite naturally without the formality, which usually surrounded him in the hall. I had no idea how lucky I was and how privileged, but certainly appreciated the visits. A Sadhu S Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi, p.23.

3. A high-level state of samadhi.

4. The highest level of samadhi.

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