Ramana Maharshi: The Master of Silent Teaching: By Gabriele Ebert
Editor’s note: Because Gabriele Ebert’s native tongue is German, I had to edit the article. If there are any mistakes in the article, I accept complete responsibility. Please bring any such errors to my attention and these will be corrected right away.
Master and Disciple
The characteristics of a spiritual master is that he leads his disciple toward experience of the eternal truth by way of teaching. In Hinduism this is called upadesa (spiritual teaching, spiritual instruction). But master and disciple have to harmonize with each other, i.e. the master must be able to transmit his teaching whereas the disciple must be ready to grasp it and put it into practice. Otherwise, the relationship of master and disciple will bring no fruit.
In giving instructions to the student, medium of speech normally plays an important role. However, in spiritual instruction and transmission to the prepared student, according to Sri Ramana, speech is not the most potent means. Indeed, the sage of Arunachala is known as the great master of silent teaching.
A visitor said: “Bhagavan says, ‘The influence of the Jnani (Self-Realized one)steals into the devotee in silence.’ Bhagavan also says ‘Contact with great men, exalted souls, is one efficacious means of realising one’s true being.”
Ramana responded: “Contact with them is good. They will work through silence. By speaking, their power is reduced. Silence is most powerful. Speech is always less powerful than silence. So mental contact is the best.”
Silent Teachings – Heart to Heart Instructions
The silence (mouna) Ramana talks about is not just absence of speech. It is when the mind/ego becomes silent, free from thought, and comes to rest in the Self.
If the ego/mind is fully absorbed in the Self, it will not appear anymore and assert itself as a separate identity. Such a one in whom the ego has been fully vanquished is called a Jnani. He will stay in the Self and will no more return to an ego-centered state. The ‘I’ working through him/herself is no more the little ego-I, but the Self of God. In his booklet “Who am I?” Ramana says: “It is this state, where there is not the slightest trace of the ‘I’-thought, that is the true Being of oneself. And that is called Quiescence or Mouna (Silence).”
Only who rests permanently in this silence can also transmit his teaching in silence. The disciple is not yet in this state, but he yearns for it above all. Through the silence of his teacher he is guided into his own heart, the source of the ego, to that ‘place’ from where this impermanent ego-I arises and submerges again.
In the beginning, the disciple will become silent, and enter for a short in the same state in which his master permanently rests. In this state, he finally experiences his own true nature. In this silence he starts to understand the truth. This is the Heart to Heart instruction.
This is a different path than the one of eloquent speeches and lectures of popular swamis and gurus. This is the direct path of experience. This is the pathless path, and only suitable for mature seekers. Ramana states that for most seekers verbal instruction is needed.
“Silence is the best Upadesa (spiritual teachings), but it is suited only for advanced students. Others are unable to draw full inspiration from it, therefore they need words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanations. Lectures may entertain individuals for a few hours without having an effect upon them, whereas the result of silence is permanent and benefits all. Even though it is not understood, that does not matter. Oral lectures are not so eloquent as silence. It is unceasing eloquence. The primal master Dakshinamurti is the ideal and he taught in silence.”
Ramana and Dakshinamurti
Ramana was often identified with Dakshinamurti, who is the youthful Siva and represents his ascetic aspect. He is considered as the Guru of all Gurus, sitting under a Banyan-tree in silence. The four disciples, who seek his guidance, are “old”, i.e. they are ripe and Dakshinamurti teaches them in silence alone.
Ramana writes in his two verses on Dakshinamurti:
“Who is the youthful guru beneath the banyan tree?
Very old are the pupils who seek him.
The handsome teacher’s speech is silence.
Cleared are all the pupils’ doubts.
Under the wonderful banyan tree shines the youthful
guru. Aged pupils come to him. Silence is this teacher’s
The following episode from Sundaresa Iyer’s reminiscences illustrates Ramana’s way of silent teaching:
At 8 p.m. one of the Sadhus stood up, did pranam (offered obeisance), and with folded hands prayed: ‘Today is Sivaratri Day; we should be highly blessed by Sri Bhagavan expounding to us the meaning of the Hymn to Dakshinamurti (stotra).’ Says Bhagavan: ‘Yes, sit down.’
The Sadhu sat, and all eagerly looked at Sri Bhagavan and Sri Bhagavan looked at them. Sri Bhagavan sat and sat in His usual pose, no, poise. No words, no movement, and all was stillness! He sat still, and all sat still, waiting. The clock went on striking, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, one, two and three. Sri Bhagavan sat and they sat. Stillness, calmness, motionlessness – not conscious of the body, of space or time.
Thus eight hours were passed in Peace, in Silence, in Being, as It is. Thus was the Divine Reality taught through the speech of Silence by Bhagavan Sri Ramana-Dakshinamurthi.
Ramana’s own Spiritual Experience
Ramana’s way of teaching in silence arose from his own spiritual experience. At the age of 16 he suddenly had a kind of death-experience, through which he spontaneously realized the Self.
One day, when he was all alone at home, unexpectedly and without reason an unmistakable fear of death caught hold of Ramana. But instead of seeking help from outside he turned within and asked, who was it, that is going to die and if death of the body means also death of himself. Suddenly the shell of the ego dropped off forever. From then on, he was certain, that in truth he was the Self (Atman, God, the Absolute, or whatever name one might like to give it). His attitude towards the world changed completely. Ramana had become silent in the deepest sense of the word.
Soon after he left his home in Madurai and went to the holy hill Arunachala, which he venerated since childhood. He settled down and stayed there until his death.
In the first few years at Arunachala Ramana was silent and completely absorbed in this truth, which was his inner most and real Being. Withdrawn from the world, Ramana remained in perpetual samadhi while the insects fed on his body. His body was kept alive by a few people who by the grace of God happened to be around and noticed this teenager doing what they believed was intense tapas (spiritual practice).
Ramana did not start teaching of his own accord. If people would not have noticed him and sought his company or advice, he perhaps never would have become known. But the spiritual seekers who came within his orbit felt instintcively that he was a great sage, a rishi, a Maharishi, the One, who was a great seer and who lived the truth and was completely authentic.
Sincere people started to come to Ramana with their questions. The silent Sage answered them, at first only by writing down his answers. But slowly in response to the aspirations of those around, Ramana returned gradually to speech, and using words to teach.
Ramana always emphasized that the highest teaching is transmitted in silence. Ramana never called himself a guru or Maharishi. In His view there were no master and disciples. However, the students who gathered around him were overwhelmed by the brillaint luster and the peaceful radiance of the great sage of Arunachala. Ganapati Muni, one of most powerful intellect and spiritual personalities of the time was the first to call Ramana a Maharishi (Great Seer).
As Ramana adapted to his surroundings, he gradually became more and more open to talks. In the Hall, where he could be met days and nights, philosophical topics were vividly discussed. Pundits came with their questions. His followers like Ganapati Muni, were superb adepts of the holy Hindu-scriptures – and the answers which Ramana gave fill many volumes. At times the Hall was also a workshop of artful peotry. Politics and themes of everyday life were discussed as well.
Though Sri Ramana was a master of silent teaching and silence (mouna) is seen as an important means in Hinduism, he dissuaded his devotees from taking a vow of silence. Nevertheless Major Chadwick, one of the Western devotees of Ramana made plans to do so.
This amusing story is found in Major Chadwick’s reminiscences: “During the war I decided that I would like to do so, chiefly to protect myself from the jibes of others. I went and asked Bhagavan’s permission. He was not enthusiastic and told me that it was useless to keep the tongue still but to continue to write messages on bits of paper which so many so-called Maunis (silent ones) continue to do. In this way only the tongue had a rest but the mind continued just as before. I said that I had no intention of doing this but would throw my pencil and paper away. I felt that I had obtained a reluctant consent as Bhagavan agreed that people were worrying me. So I made the necessary arrangements, installed a bell from my room to the kitchen so I should not have to call my servant, and fixed a lucky day to begin.
The night before I was to start, a friend of mine brought up the subject in the Hall after the evening meal when only a few of us were present. Bhagavan immediately showed his disapproval and said it was unnecessary and in fact not a good thing at all. I did not talk much anyhow. It was better to speak only when it was necessary, that it actually did no good to observe silence, that if one did so for twelve years one became dumb and might obtain some thaumaturgic powers, but who wanted them? Speech acted as a safety valve. Naturally after this talk I gave up the idea.”
The Power Of Silent Look (Darshan)
Many people came to be in Ramana’s silent presence, without asking him questions or talk to him. His look was extraordinary intense and penetrating directly into the hearts. The cook Shantamma reports the following example:
“One morning a European came in a horse carriage to the Ashram and went straight to Bhagavan. He wrote something on a piece of paper and showed it to Bhagavan. Bhagavan did not answer; instead he gazed at the stranger with unwinking eyes. The stranger was staring back at him. Then Bhagavan closed his eyes and the stranger also closed his. They stayed without moving. At mealtime the meals were served but Bhagavan would not open his eyes. Madhavaswami, the attendant, got Bhagavan’s water pot and stood ready to lead Bhagavan out of the Hall. Bhagavan would not stir. We felt afraid to go near, such was the intensity around him. His face was glowing with a strange light. The guests in the dining hall were waiting and the food before them was getting cold. Chinnaswami was talking loudly to attract Bhagavan’s attention. Even vessels were banged about, but all in vain. When the clock was striking twelve Bhagavan opened his eyes. They were glowing very brightly. Madhavaswami took up the water jug; the European got into the carriage and went away. It was the last we saw of him. We did not even get his name.”
Silence is the Eternal Stream of Speech
In “Talks” many quotes of the Maharshi can be found, which make clear, that silence is the actual, direct and eternal speech, which flows heart to heart.
“Silence is ever-speaking; it is a perennial flow of language; it is interrupted by speaking. These words obstruct that mute language. There is electricity flowing in a wire. With resistance to its passage, it glows as a lamp or revolves as a fan. In the wire it remains as electric energy. Similarly also, silence is the eternal flow of language, obstructed by words. What one fails to know by conversation extending to several years can be known in a trice in Silence, or in front of Silence – e.g., Dakshinamurti, and his four disciples.
Elsewhere it is stated: “Silence is never-ending speech. Vocal speech obstructs the other speech of silence. In silence one is in intimate contact with the surroundings. The silence of Dakshinamurti removed the doubts of the four sages. Mouna vyakhya prakatita tatvam (Truth expounded by silence). Silence is said to be exposition. Silence is so potent.
On 20th July 1936 Ramana had the following talk:
A visitor asked: “What is mouna (silence)?”
M.: “Mouna is not closing the mouth. It is eternal speech.”
D.: “I do not understand.”
M.: “That state wich transcends speech and thought is mouna.”
D.: “How to achieve it?”
M.: “Hold some concept firmly and trace it back. By such concentration silence results. When practice becomes natural it will end in silence. Meditation without mental activity is silence. Subjugation of the mind is meditation. Deep meditation is eternal speech.”
D.: “How will worldly transaction go on if one observes silence?”
M.: “When women walk with water pots on their heads and chat with their companions they remain very careful, their thoughts concentrated on the loads of their heads. Similarly when a sage engages in activities, these do not distrub him because his mind abides in Brahman.”
Major Chadwick reports the following episode: “A gentleman from Kashmir came to the Ashram with his servant who could not speak a word of any other language except his native Kashmiri. One night when the Hall was almost dark except for the pale glimmer of a single hurricane lantern, the servant came into the Hall and stood before Bhagavan in a respectful manner jabbering something rapidly in his own language. Bhagavan said nothing, but lay quietly gazing at him. After a while the servant saluted and left the Hall. Next morning his master came to Bhagavan and complained, ‘Bhagavan, you never told me you could speak Kashmiri, was it fair?’
‘Why, what do you mean?’ asked Bhagavan. ‘I know not a single word of your language.’
Bhagavan aksed the gentleman how he had got hold of this absurd idea and the latter explained: ‘Last night my servant came to you and asked you several questions in his language. He tells me that you answered him in the same language and cleared his doubts.’
Another story: “When Bhagavan Sri Ramana was staying in the Virupaksha Cave, a District Collector and a Deputy Collector went there for his darshan. After prostrations to Sri Bhagavan, the Collector began to speak, narrating at length all that he had read and done by way of sadhana [spiritual practice], and at the end confessed that in spite of all that, peace was as far from him as ever before. No sooner had he finished than the Deputy Collector started to tell his story and stopped only after saying all that he had to say. These two conversations took quite a long time, but Sri Bhagavan did not interrupt them even once, observing strict silence all throughout.
Seeing that neither of them got any reply from Sri Ramana, the Collector once again delivered a long harangue and stopped only when he was at the end of his resources. Yet not a word passed from the mouth of Sri Ramana. The Collector was a little put out at this, and drawled out: ‘We have been speaking to you since long, but you don’t open your lips at all! Will you please tell us something at least?”
Then, Sri Bhagavan spoke: ‘All the while I have been speaking in my own language. What can I do when you won’t listen to it?’
The Collector was intelligent and he caught the meaning of Sri Ramana’s cryptical reply. He was overpowered with devotion and fell down at the feet of Sri Bhagavan, chanting the following (Sanskrit) verse: ‘Strange (sight) under the banyan tree! The disciples are all old and the Guru is youthful; he expounds (the Truth) in Silence and the disciples are freed from doubts!’
Silence and Inspiration
This silence of the Heart is no dead silence, but also the source of all inspiration. Sri Ramana inspired Ganapati Muni in his writing of the last part of his major poem ‘Uma Sahasram’ just by silently sitting with him. Sundaresa Iyer reports the story in detail:
“Sri Kavyakanta [Ganapati Muni] had composed 700 stanzas of Uma in some thirty different meters, and had announced to his devotees in various parts of the country that this poem would be dedicated on a certain Friday in the Shrine of Sri Uma in the great Temple of Sri Arunachaleswara. Over a hundered persons gathered at the Pachaiamman Temple so as to be present on the occasion. … At about 8 p.m. on the evening before the dedication day, after supper, Sri Maharshi asked Sri Kavyakanta whether the dedication would have to be postponed to some other Friday, as 300 verses were still to be composed to complete the thousand. But Sri Kavyakanta assured Bhagavan that he would complete the poem immediately.
The scene that followed can hardly be believed by one who did not actually witness it. Sri Maharshi sat silent and in deep meditation like the silent Lord Dakshinamurty. The eager disciples watched in tense admiration the sweet flow of divine music in Sanskrit verse as it came from the lips of the great and magnetic personality of Sri Kavyakanta. He stood there delivering the verses in an unbroken stream while disciples eagerly gathered the words and wrote them down. … The ‘Sahasram’ was finished in several meters. … For a while the disciples present enjoyed the deep ecstasy of the silence pervading the atmosphere, as Sri Kavyakanta concluded with the normal type of colophon. Then Sri Bhagavan opened His eyes and asked, ‘Nayana, has all that I said been taken down?’ From Sri Ganapati Muni came the ready and grateful response ‘Bhagavan, all that Bhagavan inspired in me has been taken down!’
Silence and Self-Inquiry (Atma Vichara)
Sri Ramana taught self-inquiry (atma vichara) as the most effective spiritual practice. For the spiritual practitioner both – atma vichara and silence – belong inseparably together. Atma vichara is the active spiritual practice, which leads – together with the influence of the guru, to this silence. Ideally both complement each other (practice and influence of the guru) – as is the case with devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Ramana has described the method of atma vichara in his booklet “Nan Yar?” (“Who am I?”). The I in the question relates to the original I-feeling of the human being. Ramana says, that this I is the first thought, on which all other thoughts and feelings are based.
But this I-feeling is no continuous entity, as there are also times, when it is absent, so for example in deep-sleep. Ramana explains, that the mind, i.e. this I-feeling arises from the Heart and submerges therein again. With the question “Who am i?” the mind turns to its own origin. But no answer, which the intellect might give can be accepted. Ramana assures us, that with continuous practice the ego will dissolve in the Self – though this is no more in the hands of the practitioner. One day the ego will be rooted out and just drop away. Ramana has repeatedly pointed out this path as the most effective among all.
Teaching in Silence is not bound to Time and Space
One might ask, if with the bodily death of the Maharshi his silent teaching of the Heart to Heart transmission as well came to an end. Does this kind of contact with Him continue or have we to go on search for another master?
Before his death Ramana said: “I am not going away, I am here!” Again and again he assured his devotees, that the body is not the guru and that it does not matter for the jnani, if he is in the body or not. So his bodily death did not end his spiritual guidance.
When in 1950 Sri Ramana died of cancer, his devotees scattered to the four winds. The Ashram was deserted, so that even in daylight thieves could break in and loot. Only slowly the truth of Ramana’s words dawned on the devotees. The power of the Silent Truth and transmission again brought the devotees together to Ramanashram.
This continues today. People are still drawn towards Ramana Maharshi and open themselves to his silent guidance and to self-inquiry as taught by him.
This article is the translation of: Ebert, Gabriele: Ramana Maharshi: Der Meister der schweigenden Belehrung, in: Wege der Stille, Hamburg 2008)
Iyer, T.K. Sundaresa: At the Feet of Bhagavan. – Tiruvannamalai, 1980
Mudaliar, A Devaraja: Day by Day with Bhagavan. – 3rd repint. – Tiruvannamalai, 1989
Ramana Maharshi: Collected Works. – 9th ed. – Tiruvannamalai, 2004
Ramana Maharshi: Words of Grace (Who am I?, Self-Enquiry, Spiritual Instruction) . – 3rd ed. – Tiruvannamalai, 1996
Ramana Smrti Souvenir: Ramana Maharshi Birth Centenary Offering 1980. – 1.ed. – Tiruvannamalai, 1980
Sadhu Arunachala (A.W. Chadwick): A Sadhus Raminiscences of Ramana Maharshi. – 4th ed. – Tiruvannamalai, 1994
Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. – 9th ed. – Tiruvannamalai, 1994
Mudaliar: Day by Day, 9.3.1946
Recent Books by Gabriele Ebert are:
Ramana Maharshi: Sein Leben, Stuttgart, 2003
Sadhu Arunachala: Erinnerungen eines Sadhus, Berlin, 2004 (German transl.)
Both books are available at amazon.de and can be ordered from each German book-shop.
Gabriele Ebert is a well known Ramana devotee. Gabriele is a German librarian, scholar, and a painter. Please go to the following link to see her beautiful article on icon paintings full of inspiring pictures.
Gabriele is a long term member of HarshaSatsangh (Harshasatsangh@yahoogroups.com) which is the largest Ramana Maharshi Internet Group on the web. Gabriele has been active in Sri Ramana groups for many years. She has served as an inspiration and a role model for all of us with her dedication to the interfaith approach to spirituality.