Chapter 16 of the biography “Ramana Maharshi And The Path Of Self-Knowledge” written by Arthur Osborne
The entire writings of Sri Bhagavan are very small in bulk, and even of them (then) nearly all were written to meet the specific needs of devotees. Devaraja Mudaliar records in his diary how Sri Bhagavan remarked on this when speaking about a visiting poet.
“All this is only activity of the mind. The more you exercise the mind and the more success you have in composing verses the less peace you have. What use is it to acquire such accomplishments if you don’t acquire peace? But if you tell such people this it doesn’t appeal to them; they can’t keep quiet. They must be composing songs. . . . Somehow, it never occurs to me to write a book or compose poems. All the poems I have made were on the request of someone or other in connection with some particular event. Even Forty Verses on Reality, of which so many commentaries and translations now exist, was not planned as a book but consists of verses composed at different times and afterwards arranged as a book by Muruganar and others. The only poems that came to me spontaneously and compelled me, as it were, to write them without anyone urging me to do so are the Eleven Stanzas to Sri Arunachala and the Eight Stanzas to Sri Arunachala. The opening words of the Eleven Stanzas came to me one morning and even though I tried to suppress them, saying ‘What have I to do with these words?’ they would not be suppressed till I composed a song bringing them in; and all the words flowed easily, without any effort. In the same way the second stanza was made the next day and the succeeding ones the following days, one each day. Only the tenth and eleventh were composed the same day.”
He went on to describe in his characteristically vivid way how he composed the Eight Stanzas.
“The next day I started out to go round the Hill. Palaniswami was walking behind me and after we had gone some way Aiyasami seems to have called him back and given him a pencil and paper, saying, ‘For some days now Swami has been composing poems every day. He may do so today as well, so you had better take this paper and pencil with you.’
“I learnt about this only when I noticed that Palaniswami was not with me for a while but caught me up later. That day, before I got back to Virupaksha, I wrote six of the eight stanzas. Either that evening or the next day Narayana Reddi came. He was at that time living in Vellore as an agent of Singer & Co. and he used to come from time to time. Aiyasami and Palaniswami told him about the poems and he said, ‘Give them to me at once and I will go and get them printed.’ He had already published some books. When he insisted on taking the poems I told him he could do so and could publish the first eleven as one form of poem and the rest, which were in a different metre, as another. To make up the required quota I at once composed two more stanzas and he took all the nineteen stanzas with him to get them published.”
Many poets composed songs to Sri Bhagavan in various languages, outstanding among them being Ganapati Sastri in Sanskrit and Muruganar in Tamil. Although, in the conversation quoted above, Sri Bhagavan deprecated the writing of poetry as a dissipation of energy that could be turned inwards to sadhana, he listened graciously and showed interest when poems were sung before him. Prose books and articles about him were also written, and he would often have them read out and translated so that all could understand. One was struck by the extraordinary impersonality of his interest, the childlike innocence of it.
There are two prose books which one might say were written by Sri Bhagavan. During the early years at Virupaksha, when he was still maintaining silence, he wrote out instructions on various occasions for Gambiram Seshayyar, and after Seshayyar’s death these were arranged and published as a book under the title Self -Enquiry. Similarly, his replies given at the same period to Sivaprakasam Pillai were amplified and arranged in book form as Who Am I? The other prose books that the Ashram has published were not written by him but are records of verbal expositions that he gave in answer to questions and are therefore all in the form of dialogue.
His poems fall into two groups: those which express rather the approach through bhakti, that is through love and devotion, and those which are more doctrinal. The first group is composed of the Five Hymns to Sri Arunachala all written during the Virupaksha period. The element of devotion in them does not imply any abandonment of Advaita but is perfectly fused with Knowledge. They were written from the standpoint of the aspirant or devotee, even though he who wrote them was in fact established in the supreme Knowledge, in the Bliss of Union not the pain of longing; and it is for this reason that they appeal so powerfully to the heart of the devotee.
Mention has already been made of two of them, the Eight Stanzas and the Eleven Stanzas. In the latter Sri Bhagavan not only wrote as an aspirant but actually used the words, “One who has not attained the Supreme Knowledge.” Desiring an explicit confirmation, one of the devotees, A. Bose, asked him why he wrote so, whether it was from the standpoint of the devotees and for their sake, and Sri Bhagavan admitted that it was so.
The last of the Five Hymns Sri Bhagavan wrote first in Sanskrit and then translated into Tamil. The story of its writing is astounding. Ganapati Sastri asked him to write a Sanskrit poem, and he replied, laughing, that he did not know the fundamentals of Sanskrit grammar or any Sanskrit metres. Sastri explained a metre to him and implored him to try. The same evening he composed five perfect verses in Sanskrit. They have been rendered into English as follows:
Ocean of nectar, full of Grace, engulfing the universe in Thy Splendour, Oh Arunachala, the Supreme! Be Thou the Sun and open the lotus of my heart in Bliss.
Oh Arunachala! in Thee the picture of the universe is formed, abides and is dissolved. In this enigma rests the miracle of Truth. Thou art the Inner Self Who dancest in the hearts as ‘I’. ‘Heart’ is Thy name, Oh Lord!
He who turns inward with untroubled mind to search where the consciousness of ‘I’ arises realizes the Self and rests in Thee, Oh Arunachala! as a river when it merges in the Ocean.
Abandoning the outer world, with mind and breath controlled, in order to meditate on Thee within, the Yogi sees Thy Light, Oh Arunachala! and finds his delight in Thee.
He who dedicates his mind to Thee and, seeing Thee, always beholds the universe as Thy form, who at all times glorifies Thee and loves Thee as none other than the Self, he is the Master without peer, being one with Thee, Oh Arunachala! and lost in Thy Bliss.
These stanzas are more doctrinal than the other four hymns, epitomising as they do the three main margas or approaches to realization. Speaking about them later, Sri Bhagavan explained: “The third stanza deals with the Sat aspect (Being), the fourth with Chit (Consciousness) and the fifth with Ananda (Bliss). The Jnani becomes one with the Sat or Reality like a river merging in the ocean; the Yogi sees the light of Chit; the bhakta or karma yogi is immersed in the flood of Ananda.”
However, the most moving and beloved of the Five Hymns is the Marital Garland of a Hundred and Eight Verses to Sri Arunachala, commonly known in English by its refrain, ‘Arunachala Siva’. During the early years of Sri Bhagavan’s abode at Virupaksha, Palaniswami and others used to go into town to beg food for the small group of devotees, and one day they asked Sri Bhagavan for a devotional song to sing as they went. He replied that there were plenty of sublime songs composed by the Saints, many of them neglected, so there was no need to compose a new one. However, they continued to urge him and some days later he set out on pradakshina round the Hill, taking a pencil and paper with him, and, on the way, composed the hundred and eight verses.
Tears of ecstasy streamed down his face as he wrote, sometimes blinding his eyes and choking his voice. The poem became the great devotional inspiration of the devotees. All the pain of longing and all the bliss of fulfilment are mirrored in its glowing symbolism. The perfection of Knowledge is combined with the ecstasy of devotion. And yet this most heartfelt of poems was composed from the standpoint of the devotee, of one who is still seeking. It is also an acrostic, its hundred and eight verses beginning with the successive letters of the Tamil alphabet. Nevertheless, no poem could be more spontaneous. Some devotees asked Sri Bhagavan the interpretation of some of the verses and he replied: “You think it out and I will too. I didn’t think while I was composing it; I just wrote as it came.”
There is an ancient legend that a party of Rishis or Sages, living with their families in a forest, were practising karmas, that is ritualistic and devotional acts and incantations, by which they had attained supernatural powers and hoped eventually to obtain the supreme Deliverance. In this, however, they were mistaken. In order to convince them of their error, Siva appeared before them as a mendicant, accompanied by Vishnu in the guise of Mohini, a beautiful lady. All the Rishis fell in love with Mohini and their wives with Siva, with the result that their equanimity was disturbed and their powers began to wane. Seeing this, they decided that Siva must be an enemy and conjured up serpents, and a tiger and elephant that they sent against him. Siva, however, merely took the serpents for a garland and, slaying the tiger and elephant, used the skin of the former as a loincloth and of the latter as a shawl. The Rishis thereupon, recognising his greater power, bowed down before him and besought him to give them upadesa or guidance. Only then did Siva explain to them their error, teaching that action cannot bring release from action, that karma is the mechanism, not the cause of creation, and that it is necessary to go beyond action to contemplation.
The poet and devotee Muruganar wrote this story in Tamil verse, but when he reached the point where Siva gives instruction to the Rishis he besought Bhagavan, who was Siva Incarnate, to write it. Thereupon Bhagavan composed the Upadesa Saram or Instruction in Thirty Verses in which, beginning with devout and disinterested activity, he explains that, beneficent as this is, incantations are more effective, silent incantations again more effective than those uttered aloud, and more effective still contemplation. Sri Bhagavan translated the Thirty Verses into Sanskrit and the Sanskrit version is regarded as a scripture in that it was chanted daily before Sri Bhagavan together with the Vedas and is now so chanted before his samadhi shrine of grace.
The doctrine taught by Sri Bhagavan is enunciated the most comprehensively in this poem and in the Ulladu Narpadu or Forty Verses on Reality together with its Supplement of a second forty verses.
Many translations have been made of the Forty Verses on Reality and commentaries written on it. It has a universality and a condensed wisdom that demands commentary. And yet, as Sri Bhagavan remarked in the conversation quoted above, it was not written as a continuous poem but the verses were composed from time to time as occasion arose. Some of the supplementary forty were not even composed by Sri Bhagavan himself, but culled from other sources, for when an adequate verse existed elsewhere he saw no need to write a new one. Nevertheless, the whole is the most complete and profound enunciation of his doctrine.
Apart from these two groups there are a few short poems also. Humour is not lacking among them. One contains instructions for sadhana under the symbolism of a recipe for making poppadum, a favourite South Indian savoury. The mother of Sri Bhagavan was making it one day and asked him to help, and he thereupon spontaneously wrote the symbolical recipe for her.
The poet Avvayar once wrote a complaint against the stomach: “You will not go without food even for one day, nor will you take enough for two days at a time. You have no idea of the trouble I have on your account, Oh wretched stomach! It is impossible to get on with you!”
One day there had been feasting at the Ashram and all were feeling more or less uneasy, and Sri Bhagavan parodied Avvayar’s stanza. “You will not give even an hour’s rest to me, your stomach. Day after day, every hour, you keep on eating. You have no idea how I suffer, Oh trouble-making ego! It is impossible to get on with you.”
It was in 1947 that Sri Bhagavan wrote his last poem. This time it was not in response to any request, and yet it had something of the appearance of a tour de force, since he wrote it first in Telugu, but to a Tamil metrical form, and then translated it into Tamil. It was called Ekatmapanchakam (‘Five verses on the Self’).
Forgetting the Self, mistaking the body for the Self, going through innumerable births and finally finding and being the Self — this is just like waking up from a dream of wandering all over the world.
He who asks ‘Who am I?’ although existing as the Self, is like a drunken man who asks about his own identity and whereabouts.
When in fact the body is in the Self, to think that the Self is within the insentient body is like thinking that the cinema screen on which a figure is projected is inside the figure.
Has the ornament any existence apart from the gold (of which it is made)? Where is the body apart from the Self? The ignorant mistake the body for the Self, but the Jnani, knower of the Self, perceives the Self as the Self.
That one Self, the Reality, alone exists for ever. If even the Primal Guru (Adi Guru, Dakshinamurti) revealed it in silence, who can convey it in speech?
There are also a few translations, mainly from Shankaracharya. A visitor to Virupaksha Cave once left there a copy of Shankaracharya’s Vivekachudamani. After looking through it, Sri Bhagavan recommended Gambiram Seshayya to read it. He, however, did not know Sanskrit, so he wanted it in Tamil. Palaniswami obtained a loan of a Tamil verse rendering and Seshayya, seeing it, wrote to the publishers for a copy but was told that it was but of print. He therefore asked Sri Bhagavan to make a simple rendering in Tamil prose. Sri Bhagavan began to write one but before he had got far with it Seshayyar received the verse edition he had ordered, so he left the work uncompleted. A few years later, on the earnest request of another devotee, he took up the work again and finished it. Only then did the devotee say that his purpose in pressing for its completion had been to get it published. Hearing this, Sri Bhagavan wrote a preface saying that a free prose version might be of use even though a Tamil verse rendering already existed. The preface itself contains an epitome of the book and a concise exposition of doctrine and the path.
The last thing he ever wrote was a Tamil translation of Shankaracharya’s Atma Bodha. It had been with him in Virupaksha in the very early days but he had never thought of translating it. In 1949 a Tamil translation, perhaps not a very perfect one, was sent to the Ashram, and shortly afterwards Sri Bhagavan himself felt the urge to make one. For some days he ignored it, but the words of the translation rose up before him, verse by verse, as though already written, so he asked for paper and pencil and wrote them down. So completely effortless was the work that he said, laughing, that he was afraid some other author might come along and claim that the work was really his and had been copied.
Also among the works of Sri Bhagavan is a compilation of forty-two verses from the Bhagavad Gita which, on the request of a devotee, he selected and rearranged to express his teaching. This has been translated into English under the name The Song Celestial.