Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi – Arthur Osborne
Arthur Osborne (1907-1970), an Oxford-educated Britisher, had a high level of spiritual inclination since his university days. He was the founder-editor of The Mountain Path. He edited Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi and authored Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge; Ramana-Arunachala; My Life and Quest; Be Still, It Is The Wind That Sings; and The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in His Own Words. He was greatly influenced by French philosopher Rene Guenon, whose book La Crise du Monde Moderne was translated by him as The Crisis of the Modern World.
Osborne was a lecturer in English at a university in Bangkok. In 1941 he came to India on long leave. While in Bangkok, Osborne had heard of the Maharshi and had received some of his writings and photographs, which had ‘made a tremendous impact’ on him. But as one of his Guenon group1 members, who had a house at Tiruvannamalai reported to him that the Maharshi was not a guru and did not give initiation, which he was looking for, he along with his family went to other places in India for holidaying during his leave period. When Osborne had to go Backto Bangkok alone due to the war condition, he left his wife and three children with his friend, David MacIver2 at Tiruvannamalai. Osborne came to Tiruvannamalai in 1945. Regarding the meetings his wife and he had with the Maharshi, Osborne writes:
My wife entered the hall and sat down. Immediately, Bhagavan turned his luminous eyes on her in a gaze so concentrated that there was a vibration she could actually hear. She returned the gaze, losing all sense of time, the mind stilled, feeling like a bird caught by a snake, yet glad to be caught. She wrote to me that all her doubts had vanished; her objections no longer mattered. She had complete faith. The most beautiful face, she told me, looked commonplace beside him, even though his features were not good. His eyes had the innocence of a small child, together with unfathomable wisdom and immense love.
She felt Bhagavan’s power and guidance constantly. During the years of our separation – most of those years with no news of one another – she did not worry, although by temperament prone to worrying. When offered a job she did not accept it: the time to go into the world would come later; this was the time to be with Bhagavan.
Bhagavan was very gracious during these years both to her and the children. They would come and show him their toys and tell their secrets. In general, Bhagavan avoided touching people or being touched by them. But each cool season when my wife brought the children Backfrom the hills, he touched Frania, the youngest, at some time or other, and once he picked her up and carried her.
While communications were still open, I had received a letter from my wife telling me that my eldest daughter Catherine and my son Adam had gone to Bhagavan and asked him to bring me Backsafely and that he had smiled and nodded. From then on, she said that she never doubted that I should come out of it alive. There was also a letter from Catherine (seven years), one of the most moving I have ever received. “Daddy, you will love Bhagavan. When he smiles everybody must be so happy.”
Of all those I had known in the camp at Bangkok3 only Louis Hartz, a Dutch, was drawn to Bhagavan and came to Tiruvannamalai. Bhagavan was very gracious to him. He received initiation by look. Although he was told by the devotees that this was Bhagavan’s mode of initiation, he wanted to make quite sure and therefore said, “I want Bhagavan’s initiation.” Bhagavan replied, “You have it already.”
This is the only occasion ofwhich I know when Bhagavan explicitly confirmed having given initiation. Hartz also desired an assurance from Bhagavan. He perhaps feared that when he got Backinto life of the world with all its distractions, his steadfastness might weaken. He asked Bhagavan for some guarantee and was given the tremendous assurance: “Even if you let go of Bhagavan, Bhagavan will never let go of you.” 4
Bhagavan did not immediately reveal himself to me. I felt far less from his bodily presence than I had from his invisible support in the camp. His photograph had been more real and vivid to me than any person, and yet now that I saw him face to face I felt his presence much less.
I entered the hall before Bhagavan had returned from his daily walk on the hill. I had expected something grander and less intimate. When he entered, there was no great impression; certainly far less than his photographs had made. Just a white-haired, very gracious man, walking a little stif^y from rheumatism with a slight stoop. As soon as he eased himself on the couch he smiled at me and then turned to those around and to my young son and said, “So Adam’s prayers have been answered; his Daddy has come Backsafely.” I felt his kindness but no more. I appreciated that it was for my sake that he had spoken English, since Adam knew Tamil.
The change came a few weeks later at one of the yearly festivals. There were huge crowds for the festival and we were sitting in the courtyard outside the hall. Bhagavan was reclining on his couch and I was sitting in the front row. He sat up, facing me, and his narrowed eyes pierced into me with an intensity I cannot describe. It was as though they said, “You have been told; why have you not realised?” And then I felt quietness, a depth of peace, an indescribable lightness and happiness.
Thereafter, love for Bhagavan began to grow in my heart and I felt his power and beauty. Next morning for the first time, sitting before him in the hall, I tried to follow his teaching by using vichara, ‘Who am I?’ I thought it was I who had decided. I did not realise that it was the initiation by look that had vitalised me and changed my attitude of mind. Indeed, I had only heard vaguely of this initiation and paid little heed to what I had heard. Only later did I learn that other devotees also had such an experience, and that with them also it had marked the beginning of the active sadhana (quest) and Bhagavan’s guidance.
Then, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what the grace and blessings of a guru could mean. My love and devotion to Bhagavan deepened. I went about with a lilt ofhappiness in my heart, feeling the blessing and mystery of the guru, repeating, like a love song, that he was the Guru, the link between heaven and earth, between God and me, between the Formless Being and my heart. I became aware of the enormous grace of his presence. Even outwardly he was gracious to me, smiling when I entered the hall, signalling to me to sit where he could watch me in meditation.
And then one day a vivid reminder awoke in me: “The link with the Formless Being? But he is the Formless Being.” And I began to understand why devotees address him simply as ‘Bhagavan’. So he began to prove in me what he declared in his teaching that the outer guru seems to awaken the guru in the heart. The constant ‘Who am I?’ vichara began to evoke an awareness of the Self as Bhagavan outwardly, and also simultaneously ofthe Self within.
The specious theory that Bhagavan was not a guru had simply evaporated in the radiance of his Grace. Moreover, I now perceived that, far from his teaching not being practical guidance, it was exclusively that. I observed that he shunned theoretical explanations and kept turning the questioner to practical considerations of sadhana, ofthe path to be followed. It was that and only that he was here to teach.
Bhagavan was the most simple, natural, unassuming of men; he was what a man should be, quite without affectation, like a child; and at the same time with an indescribable beauty and wisdom and with such power that many trembled in his presence and feared to speak to him. To address him in the third person as ‘Bhagavan’, seemed appropriate than saying ‘you’ to one who was leading us beyond the duality of ‘you’ and ‘I’. In simple daily affairs he would play the part of an individual, just as an actor could play Lear’s frenzy without himselfbeing frenzied, without supposing he was Lear.5 Unfortunately, few in the West understand the possibility of this supreme state.
There was an air of modesty, of utter simplicity, a childlike defencelessness in Bhagavan. The mere sight of him walking across the Ashram ground was enough to grip the heart.
His manner of life was the most normal. The love that shone in his eyes, the luminous understanding, cannot be described. Someone has come to the Ashram broken down with the hopeless grief of bereavement, and Bhagavan, after hearing the story simply looked, no word spoken, and peace flooded the soul.
He called nothing as his. He never asked for anything. He refused to have any special consideration shown to him. He refused to have an electric table fan because the devotees would not benefit equally. Later, ceiling fans were installed and all benefited alike. He never asked anyone to come or told any to go. He never pressed any to stay. And yet he watched over each one with the loving solicitude of a mother for her only child.
He was affable and courteous to all comers. There was no pontifical solemnity in his expositions; on the contrary, his speech was vivacious. A devotee asked why his prayers were not answered and Bhagavan replied laughing, “If they were, you might stop praying.“
Bhagavan Sri Ramana was meticulously exact. His daily life was conducted with a punctiliousness that Indians today would have to call pure Western. In everything he was precise and orderly. The books were always in their places. The loincloth, which was all he wore, was gleaming white. The two clocks in the hall were adjusted daily to radio time. The calendar was never allowed to fall behind the date.
He was Divine Grace in human form.While fully human, he was fully in samadhi, fully divine, alike when talking and when sitting silent. He merely responded according to the need of those who approached him. He was all love, and yet for weeks together he might not favour a devotee with a single look or smile.
Bhagavan was a jivanmukta, emancipated while yet in the physical body. He was indeed the universal Divine Guru.
One who has attained the supreme state is above all forms of religion. They are the paths leading up to the peak, but he is the peak itself, and everything else. He came to answer the need of our age, proclaiming a path which, with his grace and support, can be followed by aspirants of any religion, and indeed whether they observed any formal religion or not.
Bhagavan’s initiation was not given freely and openly; it was concealed. Had it been open, the constant stream of visitors from India and abroad would have demanded it, putting Bhagavan under the necessity of accepting one and rejecting another; for ordinarily many seek initiation without pledging themselves to the quest, merely as a sort of spiritual tonic. If asked, Bhagavan would never deny that he gave initiation, but he would also not openly affirm it.
Being the universal Guru, Bhagavan proclaimed his teaching openly. It has been usual for a guru to maintain secrecy about methods of training. Under Bhagavan’s guidance, however, understanding and aspiration were the only qualifications, and their absence the only barriers.
Man has three functions: thought, action and being. ‘Being’ underlies the other two and is the necessary substratum for them, and yet is almost completely overshadowed by them. The simile Bhagavan made use of was of a cinema screen on which film is shown. The spectators become aware of the picture, which are only shadows on the screen, which is unaffected by them. A fire in the picture does not burn the screen nor a flood makes it wet. Sometimes he gave the example of the actor on a stage playing a certain part, although knowing that he is not really that person; sometimes of a bank cashier who pays out thousands coolly and efficiently, knowing that it is not his money that he is paying.
After two or three years at Tiruvannamalai, when it became necessary to earn an income, I took up a job as an assistant editor of a newspaper in Madras.Thus, a period of intensive training was followed by the practice of Self-enquiry in the life of the world. I took with me a lifesized reproduction of the photograph painted over in oils, a gift from a devotee, and showed it to Bhagavan before leaving. He took it in his hands and then gave it Backto me saying, “He is taking Swami with him.” Since then it has looked at me with the love and compassion of a Guru and spoken more profoundly than all other portraits.
Thereafter I went to Tiruvannamalai only for weekends and holidays, and each visit was revitalizing. The graciousness of Bhagavan’s reception melted the heart and awoke a feeling of guilt as to how great was the reward for so little effort made. I was there on that fateful April night of the body’s death. Since that day his presence in the heart has been more vital, the outpouring of the grace more abundant, his support more powerful.
After bringing out some books on Bhagavan, Osborne shifted to Calcutta in 1952 as a school headmaster. He narrates the post-mahanirvana experiences of himself and his family:
One June morning in 1956, the first awakening to Reality occurred. I was alone in the room when I woke up and sat up in bed. I just was – my Self, the beginningless, immutable Self. I had thought ‘nothing is changed’. There was no excitement, no joy or ecstasy, an immeasurable contentment, the natural state, the wholeness of simple being. There was the thought: ‘It is impossible ever to be bored.’ The mind seemed like a dark screen that had shut our true consciousness and was now rolled up and pushed away. It is the mind that craves activity and feels bored when it does not get it; the Self is untouched by activity and abides in its pristine state of simple happiness.
From the window of my room in Calcutta I saw the roofs of houses with crows wheeling between them. Again there was a paradox, the feeling that all this was at the same time both real and unreal. This is a paradox that has been much commented on, because it is stressed in Zen teachings. It is what Tennyson was trying to express in the line of ‘The Princess’ where he says: ‘And all things were and were not’.
I do not know how long the experience lasted. In any case, while it lasted it was timeless and therefore eternal. Imperceptibly the mind closed over again, but less opaque, for a radiant happiness continued. I had my bath, dressed and went into the sitting room, where I sat down and held the newspaper up in front of me as though I was reading it. I was too vibrant with happiness really to read. The after glow continued for several weeks, only gradually fading out.
At about the same time my wife also had a glimpse of Realisation. It was a great help and support to be together on the path and often our experiences tallied. My daughter Frania (24 years) also had a glimpse some eighteen months later. A Tamilian devotee living in Calcutta had invited us to a celebration of Bhagavan’s jayanti. There was singing of religious songs. I could see from the beauty and serenity of Frania’s face that she was enjoying an exceptionally good meditation. Later I learned that it was even more than that; when she wrote it down: “I am not the mind nor the body – found myself in the heart; the me that lives after death. There was a breath-taking joy in the feeling ‘I am’, the greatest possible joy, and the full enjoyment of existence. No way to describe it. Gradually – rapidly – my body seemed to be expanding from the heart. It engulfed the whole universe. I couldn’t identify myself as any speck in that vastness, there was only God, nothing but God. The word ‘I’ had no meaning any more; it meant the whole universe – everything is God, the only reality.“
Osborne left Calcutta for Tiruvannamalai in 1958, where he settled for good. He wrote many books and was the founder-editor of The Mountain Path from 1964 till his death in 1970, when his wife Lucia succeeded him as editor till the end of 1973. Osborne wrote a large number of poems on Bhagavan and Arunachala. A representative
piece out of these is given below:
Heart of my being, seen outwardly as one In human form, to draw my human love, Lord Ramana, Guru, the risen Sun, Self Manifest, the Guide of all who rove Lost and alone
In tangled thought and vain misgivings.
Such have I known,
Him of lustrous eyes, Him whose sole look Pierced to the heart, wherein the seed was sown Of wisdom deeper than in holy books Of Truth alone Not to be learned but lived.
Thou art the Sun of suns, Dispel my darkness,
Grant me wisdom, I beseech Thee Shake me out of this torpor I beseech Thee, Bhagavan.
A prey to my unsteady mind I lack patience, I lack constancy, I lack purity. Forgive the grievous wrong of that poor self, And do as Thou wilt, Thou who knowest best. But grant me only ever increasing love For Thy Feet.
1. Followers of French philosopher Guenon, who said: ‘Being is one, and therefore by realising your true Self you realise your identity with Divine, the Universal Being.
2. No.126 relates to Mrs.MacIver.
3. The Japanese had put him and many foreigners in a concentration camp.
4. Sri Ramana never used any personal pronoun while referring to himself. He mostly used the word as employed by the party addressing him, which usually was ‘Bhagavan’.
5. Reference is to Shakespeare’s play King Lear.