This chapter is taken from The Silent Power – Selections from The Mountain Path and The Call Divine – Part II – On Bhagavan
In as much as India is notoriously the most metaphysically minded of all countries, it was natural that I should seek discussions in this field.
Ever since I had read Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India, I had been keen to visit Ramana Maharshi, the sage whom Brunton found most impressive of all those he sought out. Soon after my arrival at his Ashram, I bade one of the two men who mainly ministered to him to inquire whether I might ask two questions. Accordingly, I was requested to take my seat in front of the group of visitors and an interpreter sat next to me (although Maharshi usually gets queries directly through English) and was invited to present my question.
The first of these questions was: “If it is true that all the objective world owes its existence to the ego, then how can that ego ever have the experience of surprise as it does, for example, when we stub our toe on an unseen obstacle?”
Sri Bhagavan answered, ‘that the ego is not to be thought of as antecedent to the world of phenomena, but that both rise or fall together. Neither is more real than the other, only the non- empirical Self is more real. By reflecting on the true nature of the Self, one comes at length to undermine the ego and at the same time, material obstacle and stubbed toe are equally unreal and to dwell in the true reality which is beyond them all.’
He then went on to outline that we only know the object at all through sensations derived from it remotely. Moreover, that physicists had now shown that in place of what we thought to be a solid object there are only dancing electrons and protons.
I replied that while we had, indeed, direct knowledge only of sensations, we know less, for all that knowledge about the objects which gave rise to the sensations, about which knowledge was checked continually by making predictions, acting on them and seeing them verified or disproved. Furthermore (here I went on to my second query), “If the outer phenomena which I think I perceive have no reality apart from my ego, how is it that someone else also perceived them? For example not only do I lift my foot higher to avoid tripping over that stool yonder, but you also raise your foot higher to avoid tripping over it too. Is it by a mere coincidence that each of us independently has come to the conclusion that a stool is there?”
Sri Maharshi replied that the stool and our two egos were created by one another mutually. While one is asleep, one may dream of a stool and of persons who avoided tripping over it just as persons in waking life did, yet did that prove that the dream stool is any more real. And so we had it back and forth for an hour, with the gathering very amused, for all Hindus seem to enjoy a metaphysical contest.
During that afternoon’s darshan I again had the privilege of an hour’s talk with Maharshi himself. Observing that he had given orders to place a dish of food for his peacock, I asked, “When I return to America would it be good to busy myself with disseminating your books to the people just as you offer this food to the peacocks?” He laughed and answered that if I thought it good it would be good, but otherwise not. I asked whether, quite apart from whatever I thought, it wasn’t useful to have pointed out a way to those who were ripe for a new outlook. He countered with “Who thinks they are ready?”
The Maharshi went on to say that the essential thing is to divorce our sense of self from what our ego and our body are feeling or doing. We should think “Feelings are going on, this body is acting in such and such a manner”, but never “I feel, I act.” What the body craves or does is not our affair.
I then asked, “Have we then no responsibility at all for the behaviour of our ego?”
He replied, “None at all. Let it go its own way like an automaton.”
“But”, I objected, “you have told us that all the animal propensities are attributes of the ego. If when a man attains jivanmukti he ceases to feel responsibility for the behaviour of his ego and body, won’t they run amok completely?” I illustrated my point with the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Maharshi replied, “When you have attained jivanmukti, you will know the answer to those questions. Your task now is not to worry about them but to know the Self.”
But I am forced to doubt the whole theory unless it explains away this discrepancy. “Here before us is the Maharshi who has attained jivanmukti, and so withdrawn from all responsibility for the conduct of his ego and the body we see before us. But though he declares them to be the seat of all evil propensities, his ego and body continue to behave quite decorously instead of running wild. This forces me to suspect that something in the hypothesis is incorrect.”
He answered, “Let the Maharshi deal with that problem if it arises and let Mr. Hopkins deal with who is Mr. Hopkins.”