Olivier Lacombe


By Olivier Lacombe

(L’Attache Culturel, Consulat General de France, Calcutta.)

The visit I had the honour to pay in May 1936 to Tiruvannamalai was only a short one. It was long enough, anyhow, to impress me with a strong feeling that I had met there, for a few moments, with a genuine Vidvan, an exceptionally true representative of Hindu spirituality. As my souvenirs from this visit have already been published in a French catholic review, Les Etudes Carmelitaines, I shall have to give to the present reflexions a more impersonal character.

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Any student of the history of Indian thought is bound to be struck by the congeniality of the Maharshi’s experiences to the traditional advaitic doctrine. But more remarkable even is the almost purely spontaneous character of this congeniality, without a guru, without any regular ‘sastric training, without study’, Sri Ramana Maharshi has, from his early years, gone through a series of psycho-spiritual experiences that are as old as the Upanishads: and after having rediscovered by himself these traditional data, he later was in no difficulty to express them in terms essentially consonant with the most strict advaitavada.

Now, the power of appeal of the advaitic doctrine is mainly to be found in the uncompromising, nay drastic, purity with which it declares absolute Being and Consciousness to be infinitely above the possibility of any internal division or external dependence, and spiritual life to spring from within ourselves. I would like to stress that the teaching of the Sage Ramana, by its aphoristic character, as well as because of the intense personality of its author, enhances to the highest pitch this common feature of the whole advaitic tradition.

Let us compare, in this respect, the Maharshi’s spiritual way with a passage from the Chhandogya Upanishad in which Prajapati endeavours to lead Indra to the supreme spiritual goal by skillfully using a method of gradual approach and successive removals of all obstructive illusions. Indra, from among the Devas and Virochana in the name of the Asuras come “into the presence of Prajapati, fuel in hand" in order to “search out that Self, the Self by Searching out whom one obtains all worlds and all desires”,..... “the Self which is free from evil, is ageless, deathless, sorrowless"..... “For thirty-two years the two live the life of brahmacharya. Then Prajapati says to them: “That Person who is seen in the eye (or in water or in a mirror) - He is the Self..... That is the immortal, the fearless. That is Brahman.” The disciples are satisfied and go. But Indra, even before teaching the gods, saw this danger: “Just as, indeed, that one (i.e., the supposed self that can be perceived in a mirror) is well-ornamented when this body is well-ornamented....., even so that one is blind when it is blind..... It perishes immediately upon the perishing of this body. I see nothing enjoyable in this.”

He comes back to Prajapati and lives with him for another thirty-two years. He is then taught that “He who moves about happy in a dream he is the Self...... That is the immortal, the fearless. That is Brahman.” Indra takes leave with tranquil heart. But a few moments later a doubt creeps in his mind. The self of the dream is free from the defects of the gross body, but he is not free from the miseries he dreams of. He cannot be the true Self. Thir ty-two years later, Prajapati addresses him again: “Now, when one is sound asleep, composed, serene, and knows no dream that is the Self.” Indra is not yet satisfied with this doctrine. This self of the dreamless sleep-state appears to him as unconscious and therefore as not blissful. Prajapati promises to teach him the ultimate truth about the Self after five years, at the end of which, that is to say, one hundred and one years since the first visit of Indra, he so speaks: “O Maghavan, verily, this body is mortal. It has been appropriated by Death. (But) it is the standing ground of that deathless, bodiless Self. Verily, he who is incorporate has been appropriated by pleasure and pain. Verily, there is no freedom from pleasure and pain for one while he is incorporate. Verily, while one is bodiless, pleasure and pain do not touch him.…. He obtains all worlds and all desires who has found out and who understands that Self.” Such is the traditional way through which all infatuations and illusions are gradually cancelled, with the result that, in the end, the Self alone remains, unique and without a second.

Let us now listen to the report of young Ramana’s realization of the Self. “Who or what is it that dies? It is this visible body that dies; the kinsmen come and take it away and burn it to ashes. But when this body dies, shall I also die? That depends on what I really am. If I be the body, then when it dies, I also would die; but if I be not this, then I would survive.” Such were Ramana’s reflexions at the age of sixteen. “Then there arose in his mind an over-powering desire
to find out, then and there, whether he the real Self of him would survive after the death. And it occurred to him that the surest way to find it out would be to enact the process of death. This he did by imagining that the body was dead. A dead body does not speak nor breathe; nor has it any
sensation; all this he imagined with such perfect realism, that his body became inert and rigid just like a corpse; his vital energies were withdrawn from it and gathered into the mind, which now turned inwards, animated by the will to find the real Self....... At this moment a mysterious power rose up from the innermost core of his being and took complete possession of the whole mind and life; by that power he - that is to say, his mind and life - was taken inwards...... All this happened while he was wide awake, and therefore he became aware of his own Real Self, free from all thought-movement; this Self was free from the bondage of desires and fears and therefore full of peace and happiness.” Undoubtedly, this is a genuine advaitic realization, but how much condensed and full of energy: one stroke of will, if I may so, and all that is not the Self is eliminated.

The Maharshi’s method, in its entirety, is comprised within this simple interrogation: “Who am I?” With him, three words only are enough to sum up the long traditional description of the way to liberation. “Lo, verily, it is the Self that should be seen, that should be hearkened to, that should be thought on, that should be pondered on...”. In conformity with this Upanishadic text, the Vedantic tradition insists on the preparatory stages of the spiritual quest, and considers mediate knowledge, reflexion (manana) upon the major utterances of the sruti, either positive (aham Brahmasmi, tattavamasi) or negative (neti, neti...), as a normal if not always necessary step towards the realization of the Self. The Sage of Arunachala admits, or rather concedes that “to meditate ‘This is not I’ or ‘ That I am’ may be an aid...”. But, as he himself reached the goal almost without such an aid, he does not feel bound to stress its importance or to deem it as a normal stage in the process of salvation. It is, perhaps, the startling simile of the “driver” that expresses most vividly the Maharshi’s original method: “As one who dives, seeking to find something which has fallen into water, so must one dive inwards with one pointed mind, checking the speech and breath, and find the place from which the uprising ‘I’ originates.” “The path of Knowledge (Jnana-marga) is only to dive inwards with the mind, not uttering the word “I” and (with the mind) to question whence as I it rises...” The diver does not linger scrutinizing the horizon; he is not interested in the changing scene that plays on the surface of  the sea. He knows only one dimension: the dimension of depth; one movement: the vertical dive; one environment: the “inner-ness” of the infinite abyss; one goal on which he totally concentrates (ekagra): the extensionless spot, the absolute non-duality of the Self, wherefrom surges the principle of the finite “ego” and of all mundane misery.

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The advaitavada is a grand doctrine; Sri Ramana Maharshi’s advaitic message is, at the same time, true to that grandeur and original. As an historian of Indian culture, I have tried, by the above few remarks, to throw light on this twofold merit, with full intellectual and human sympathy. As a Christian philosopher, I feel still more deeply moved when recognizing in their teaching some momentous metaphysical truths so earnestly pursued, so sincerely realized by the greater advaitavadins throughout ages: I cannot, therefore, but regard that, for fear of a relapse in the dreaded nets of multiplicity, they deliberately overlook the no less supreme and absolute
character of some other truths and values the provisional acknowledgement of which is valid on the superior plane of Bhakti but not on the supreme plane of Vidya, is after all only a delayed cancellation.