Sri Ramana Maharshi was probably the most famous sage of the twentieth century both in India and the rest of the world.
He was renowned for his saintly life, for being fully realized, and for the powerful transmissions that often occurred to visitors in his presence. At age 16 he realized spontaneously and ran away to Arunachala, one of India's traditional holy sites, where he stayed for the rest of his life. So many people came to see him there that an ashram was built around him. Many of his close devotees were regarded by their peers as self-realized.
Ramana Maharshi always said that his most important teaching was done in silence. He meant that when people were in his physical presence, their minds were affected. In some cases the effects were astonishingly strong.
One of his direct devotees, Sankarammal, a Self-realized woman who worked in the ashram kitchen, described it like this:
Bhagavan’s silence was his direct teaching. He taught Self-Enquiry to those who could not comprehend his silence; so Self-Enquiry actually takes a secondary place as far as his teaching is concerned. He imparted his teaching of silence by his mere grace filled glance. This is the look that Muruganar and others refer to as his glance of grace. There was never a need to talk to Bhagavan. He made me mature gradually and steadily. All of Bhagavan’s devotees extol Bhagavan’s look of grace; however, even that look was an external expression of his inner silence. Silence was the state of Bhagavan and his direct teaching was only through silence. Those who received his message of silence had no need whatsoever to talk to him, much less a need for his instructions. How can I possibly express in words the mysterious working of Bhagavan through silence?
—Quoted in Ramana Periya Puranam by V.Ganesan, page 284.
His second-most important teaching was a practice called vichara in Sanskrit. The customary English translation is "self-enquiry."
Self-enquiry as taught by Sri Ramana is the effort to keep attention continuously on the source of the I-thought. He called this source the Heart or the Self.
He sometimes expressed that idea like this:
“Fix the mind in your Heart. If you keep your attention on the source from where all thoughts arise, the mind will subside there at the source and reality will shine forth.”
—Quoted by Masthan Swami in Ramana Periya Puranam by V. Ganesan.
When this is done, awareness intensifies and thoughts diminish. In most cases the practice must be performed continuously for long periods in order to achieve results.
Sri Ramana often used the word "enquire" in the sense of "observe closely." For example, in verse 23 of Ulladu Narpadu he wrote, "With a keen mind enquire from where this 'I' emerges."
Self-enquiry does not mean asking questions except as an occasional device for reminding ourselves to refocus attention when it wanders.
Self-enquiry does not mean focusing on the physical heart or on any other part of the body or on any object whatsoever.
One of Sri Ramana’s direct disciples, Frank Humphreys, described Self-enquiry like this:
“The phenomena we see are curious and surprising – but the most marvellous thing of all we do not realize, and that is that one and only one illimitable force that is responsible for all the phenomena we see and the act of seeing them. Do not fix your attention on all these changing things of life, death and phenomena. Do not think of even the actual act of seeing them or perceiving them, but only of that which sees all these things, that which is responsible for it all. This will seem nearly impossible at first, but by degrees the result will be felt. It takes years of study and daily practice, but that is how a master is made. Give yourself a quarter of an hour a day. Try to keep the mind unshakably fixed on that which sees. It is inside you. Do not expect to find that ‘That’ is something definite on which the mind can be fixed easily – it will not be so. Though it takes years to find that ‘That’, the results of this concentration will soon show themselves in four or five months time – in all sorts of unconscious clairvoyance, in peace of mind, in the power to deal with troubles, in the power all around, always unconscious power. I have given you these teachings in the same words that the master gives to his intimate disciples. From now on, let your whole thought in meditation be not on the act of seeing, nor on what you see, but immovably on that which sees.”
—Quoted in Ramana Periya Puranam by V. Ganesan.
For more information, see our page on self-enquiry.
Sri Ramana summarized his method in a pamphlet called "Who Am I?" which was for years his most widely disseminated writing. The title has probably contributed to the widespread but mistaken impression that the method consists of questions.
Actually, the main significance of the title is that the method is a technique for finding the answer.
Sri Ramana didn't intend the question to be mysterious. Early editions of the pamphlet began with the sentence "Who am I?" The next sentence supplied the answer: "Consciousness [arivu] itself is I."
For more info about Who Am I?, see this page.
He was born on December 30, 1879 in a village called Tirucculi about 30 miles south of Madurai in southern India. His middle-class parents named him Venkataraman after Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati, the family deity. His family were Iyers, members of the Tamil Brahmin caste. His father died when he was twelve, and he went to live with his uncle in Madurai where he attended American Mission High School.
At age 16, he became spontaneously self-realized. Six weeks later he ran away to the holy hill of Arunachala where he would remain for the rest of his life. When he arrived he threw away all his property including the thread which marked him as a Brahmin. For several years he stopped talking and spent many hours each day in samadhi. When he began speaking again, people came to ask him questions and he soon acquired a reputation as a sage. In 1907, when he was 28, one of his early devotees named him Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, Divine Eminent Ramana the Great Seer, and the name stuck. Eventually he became world-famous and an ashram was built around him. He died of cancer in 1950 at the age of 70.
At age 16, he heard somebody mention "Arunachala." Although he didn't know what the word meant (it's the name of a holy hill associated with the god Shiva) he became greatly excited. At about the same time he came across a copy of Sekkilar's Periyapuranam, a book that describes the lives of Shaivite saints, and became fascinated by it. In the middle of 1896, at age 16, he was suddenly overcome by the feeling that he was about to die. He lay down on the floor, made his body stiff, and held his breath. "My body is dead now," he said to himself, "but I am still alive." In a flood of spiritual awareness he realized he was the Self.
Hundreds of books have been written about Sri Ramana, and some are much better than others. In our opinion the best single book for people who want to get a true understanding of Sri Ramana's teachings is Be As You Are edited by David Godman.
As a second book we suggest Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Among the many books of dialogs, in addition to Talks which we recommended in the preceeding paragraph, we especially like the one translated and compiled by Devaraja Mudaliar called Day by Day With Bhagavan because Ramana once said (source):
All others interpret when I talk; only Devaraja Mudaliar translates exactly what I say.
One of the most important categories of books for seekers are those that give detailed, concrete instructions for doing Self-enquiry and which were written by Sri Ramana or by his direct disciples. At least three books of this type exist. The first and by far most important is Who Am I? by Sri Ramana himself. The others are Path of Sri Ramana Part One by Sadhu Om which you can download for free, and The Technique of Maha Yoga by Narayana Aiyer (also spelled Iyer). Sadhu Om’s book advocates an approach based purely on the pursuit and intensification of consciousness. Narayan Aiyer recommends the use of japa, pranayama, and attention to the Heart in a quasi-physical sense.
Two other books by a direct disciple, Annamalai Swami, consist partly of instructions for Self-enquiry: Annamalai Swami: Final Talks and Living by the Words of Bhagavan. Both are edited by David Godman. We recommend these two books very highly.
There are many books of reminiscences of Sri Ramana by people who knew him personally. Two of our favorites are Living by the Words of Bhagavan, which we mentioned above, and A Sadhu’s Reminiscenses by Sadhu Arunachala (Major A.W. Chadwick).
Two other documents are of special importance although they may not be to the average reader's taste. Ulladu Narpadu, a poem of 42 verses, is regarded by many as Sri Ramana's most significant work. See, for example, Sri Sadu Om’s opinion in this interview. Guru Vachaka Kovai, a collection of 1254 verses composed by one of Sri Ramana's closest disciples, Sri Muruganar, and checked for accuracy by Sri Ramana, is probably the most detailed statement of Sri Ramana's teachings. It is available in three different translations.
For David Godman’s appraisal of various books on Ramana, go here.