The Devotional Face of Jnana
Nadhia is a Russian devotee who lived inside the Guhainamsivayar temple compound (formerly occupied by Keerai patti) on Arunachala hill for nearly ten years. She was a member of the editorial staff of the Mountain Path from 1989 to 1995. After staying many years in Sri Ramanarsam, she returned to Canada. Recently she came on a visit to the ashram. She is a sincere spiritual seeker deeply connected to Arunachala Hill and we are pleased to share her insights into “Aksharamanamalai” of Ramana Maharshi
Sri Ramana Maharshi always maintained that Bhakti (devotion) is Jnana mata meaning Bhakti gives birth to Jnana as a mother gives birth to a child. In His major devotional work, “Aksharamanalai,” Sri Maharshi illustrates how this most elevated form of bhakti presents itself, the variety of moods it reflects, and how it leads unerringly to Self-realization.
Since Swami Vivekananda brought the teachings of Advaita Vedanta to the West, and Sri Ramana Maharshi later incarnated to embody those ideals so completely, a great many misunderstandings have arisen about the nature of advaita and that of bhakti. “Non-dualism,” say some, “means that Brahman alone is real, and everything else is unreal. Therefore you are unreal, I am unreal, and God is unreal. So it is ridiculous for an unreal person to utter unreal prayers to an unreal God. They haven’t a hope of getting anywhere.”
These people err in many respects. First, advaita – non-duality – means NOT TWO; it does not mean one. This is a topic for deep reflection: the Ultimate isn’t two and it isn’t one – it is NOT TWO.
Another misconception has arisen about Bhagavan’s teachings about predetermination, the notion that what is to happen will happen however much you may try to thwart it, and what is not to happen will not happen however much you may try to make it happen. In Bhagavan’s own words, “The best course, therefore, is to be silent.” Without properly digesting this teaching, some people conclude that therefore no effort whatsoever is required to obtain Realization. It will come when it comes, and there’s nothing more to it. Prayer, they say, cannot possibly help the aspirant since the end result is already predetermined. If we take this to its logical conclusion, not only prayer would be fruitless, but also self-enquiry or any other sadhana, for that matter.
This kind of spiritual indigestion not only hinders the aspirant but can actually stall him or her until they see the shallowness of their conceptual understanding. Sri Bhagavan always maintained that it takes a lot of effort to get to non-effort. As He told Kunjuswami, the three stages of sadhana – sravana, (hearing the Teaching), manana (continuously reflecting on it until it is fully digested) and nididhyasana (abiding in what one has digested) must be kept up until full Realization.
Moreover, the same Source that provokes the aspirant to do self-enquiry may provoke an aspirant to pray. “The grace that you seek is also the grace that is seeking,” Sri Bhagavan used to say. After all, the Source is One just as all prayers are directed ultimately to that One. The jivatman is a reflection of the paramatman, inseparable from it so long as the jiva lasts: the self enquires into the Source of itself just as the bhakta prays to the Source of bhakti. Otherwise, why would Sri Bhagavan pray for the cure of His mother’s illness? And why write “Aksharamanamalai”?
Sri Bhagavan often remarked that he was afraid of two devotees, Ramanatha Brahmachari and Mudaliar Pati. He said that they loved him so much that he could not refuse them anything they asked, thus affirming the tenet that devotion is the rope to bind God. If such a statement could come from Sri Bhagavan, an embodiment of the One Supreme, how can we argue that prayer and devotion are useless, foolish or futile?
Sri Bhagavan makes perfectly clear in “Aksharamanalai” that the bhakta who prays is no different than the so-called unreal individual who does self-enquiry. Sri Bhagavan has said that just as the enquirer is like the stick that stirs the funeral pyre and is ultimately burnt in that same pyre, so the bhakta who prays is ultimately absorbed into the Ishtha, that “form” of the Ultimate that is inseparable from it. This is called in Sanskrit ananya bhakti – that highest form of bhakti wherein the individual is completely lost in the Divine Ultimate BEingness.
There is a further side to the issue. Sri Bhagavan and all great jnanis have asserted that non-duality is an inner abidance, a constant dwelling in the perception of the one essential nature of all manifestation. However, so long as one is in the body, bheda bhava (recognition of difference in form) must always be preserved. The essence of a tree is identical with the essence of a human being, but the needs of their forms are different so their forms must be treated differently. Non-difference in essence – and not non-difference in form – is what is meant by non-duality, not-two-ness. A genuine jnani – like Sri Bhagavan – will never treat any form of life as though it were unreal. Look at his treatment of Lakshmi the cow, the deer, the crow, etc. Sri Bhagavan’s solicitousness towards ALL forms was always reverent and deeply caring. An incident is recorded where He came across someone beating a mango tree in order to obtain its fruit. He ordered him to stop beating the tree and scolded him saying, “Take the fruit by all means – that is the desire of the tree. But why must you beat it? Don’t you think it feels the pain as much as if someone were to beat you?”
Now let us look at a few of the slokas of “Aksharamanalai” to see the profound and moving way in which Sri Bhagavan has expressed how this one-pointed bhakti towards Arunachala leads to liberation.
1. (a) Thou dost root out the ego of those who meditate on Thee in the heart, O Arunachala!
28. (a) Let me, Thy prey, surrender unto Thee and be consumed, and so have peace, O Arunachala!
(b) I came to feed on Thee, but Thou hast fed on me; now there is peace, O Arunachala!
44. ‘Look within, ever seeking the Self with the inner eye, then (it) will be found,’ Thus didst Thou direct me, beloved Arunachala!
48. When I took shelter under Thee as my One God, Thou didst destroy me altogether, O Arunachala!
66. With madness for Thee hast Thou freed me from madness (for the world); grant me now the cure of all madness, O Arunachala!
101. As snow in water, let me melt as love in Thee, Who art love itself, O Arunachala!
Thus the moth – the one-pointed devotee – is absorbed, annihilated, and liberated in the flame – the Self – Arunachala.