Silence and Solitude in Ramana Maharshi
The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was not only a representative of Advaita Vedanta, the loftiest Hindu teaching on non-duality, but also known for his silence. He spent years in solitude, and when devotees pressed him for a public presence, Ramana spent hours before them in silence. Ramana's silence was not an eccentricity but a conscious expression of his philosophical and spiritual teaching.
The term mouni refers to several aspects of silence: 1) to one of the traditional austerities or tapas undertaken as an indefinite vow or a temporary spiritual practice, 2) to the actual practitioner of the vow of silence, and 3) to the profound spiritual condition experienced in meditation. Ramana did not represent himself as a mouni practicing silence from a vow. Such a vowed silence, like many monastic austerities, can be easily undermined. Thomas Merton, who belonged to the Catholic Trappist order (whose full title is Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, because silence is a vow), has remarked on the inevitable use of gestures and hand signals in the monastery that circumvent silence. Silence is not the absence of communication. Silence is a positive state, and this is how Ramana understood and used it.
As Ramana puts it, silence is
that state which transcends speech and thought ...; it is meditation without mental activity. Subjugation of the mind is meditation; deep meditation is eternal silence.
Hence, silence is the natural result of meditation, not merely an a priori vow to be taken or an imposed austerity to be accepted and/or resented. Silence flows from the transcendent self because there is no longer anything relevant that ca be said by or to or on behalf of the enlightened person.
To Ramana, silence is not a negation but a noumena, a true thing-in-itself:
Silence is ever-speaking, it is the perennial flow of "language." It is interrupted by speaking, for words destroy this mute language. Silence is unceasing eloquence. It is the best language. There is a state when words cease and silence prevails.
Though Ramana expressed his concept of silence in a clear and reasoned fashion, it was experience and not abstract learning that brought him insight. At the age of seventeen, he unexpectedly experienced samadhi, the state of insight or enlightenment wherein he became conscious of non-duality, of the identity of self and Self (capital S) as one. He had been a typical youth of his village and clan. Ramana's father was a part-time pleader and country lawyer (some sources identify him as a farmer), and Venkataraman (Ramana's given name) was a fair student, more interested in sports and daydreaming than reading, not particularly religious. The only signal events he recalled as striking was a sense of mystery concerning Arunachala, the sacred hill near his town, and an inspired reading of the Periyapuranam, a book of biographies of sixty-three Tamil saints.
After the awakening experience, Ramana's behavior changed, a change characteristic of solitaries:
I lost what little interest I had in my outer relations with friends and relatives. ... Whatever work was given [to me], whatever teasing or annoyance there was [in school], I would put up with it quietly. The former ego that resented and retaliated had disappeared. I stopped going out with friends to play games and preferred solitude. I would often sit alone, especially in a posture suitable for meditation and become absorbed in the Self, the force or current which constituted me.
Another change was Ramana's daily visits to Minakshi Temple at Madura, a prelude to his leaving home to live at the temple shrine of Tiruvannamalai a couple of months later, where he lived in silence and without possessions, dependent on the grace of others for food and water and no more. Although he was willing to sit in silence with visiting devotees for periods of the day after the 1920's, it was the solitary silence that was to remain his mode of existence the rest of his life.
Not unexpectedly, his family was baffled by Ramana's behavior, and his mother came to him pleading for his return. Because he would not see or speak to anyone at this time, Ramana responded to his mother through an intermediary, in a written note expressing in an impersonal manner the incontrovertible nature of each person's destiny. "Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent." Many have compared this response to that of Jesus at Cana.
Ramana was not merely telling his mother to be silent and leave him alone. He was framing every person's necessity to recognize reality in a larger karmic setting. Silence is our mature response to the vicissitudes of life.
This response to worldly circumstance is not simply a psychological pose or a stoicism. It is a setting for nirvikalpasamadhi or oblivion to the manifest world, a prelude to the fuller experience of enlightenment. It is not a permanent state. It is, unlike the mouni's silence, to be broken as needed. Ramana came to realize a kind of pragmatism in this regard, speaking occasionally and deeply concerning philosophical and spiritual teaching, or even to give mundane advice to those who visited him, in this way showing that silence was not an end to itself but a path open to all.
Ramana's notion of enlightenment without a personal guru is especially relevant to silence and solitude. For despite the strong Hindu tradition that enlightenment is attained under a guru or spiritual mentor or master, Ramana clearly broke with and transcended this prescription. "The Guru is the self," he maintained. "The Master is within." Those who came to him sought him out as their guru, but Ramana's chief instruction (upadesa) was to remain profoundly silent before them. This silence was itself an instruction or guidance, called mouni-diksha.
The prelude to a devotee's upadesa was initiation, simply introducing the petitioner to the guru Ramana. After this initiating experience, the petitioner might learn some fundamental teaching, or simply bask in the radiating grace of Ramana's silent attention. Arthur Osborne cites this example:
The initiation by look was a very real thing. Sri Bhagavan [i.e., Ramana] would turn to the devotee, his eyes fixed upon him with blazing intentness. The luminosity, the power of his eyes pierced into one, breaking down the thought-process. Sometimes it was as though an electric current was passing through one, a vast peace, a flood of light. One devotee has described it: "Suddenly Bhagavan turned his luminous, transparent eyes on me,. Before that I could not stand his gaze for long. Now I looked straight back into those terrible, wonderful eyes, how long I could not tell. They held me in a sort of vibration distinctly audible to me"
Ramana's method of Self-enquiry or Self-knowledge (vichara) was an historical path in Hinduism but invariably required silence on the part of guru and devotee. Ramana considered this method superior to any other path, including all forms of devotion, ritual, and action. Typically, then, he did not give more than a few words of oral instruction at a time to his devotees. His collected spiritual writings, assembled by devotees and listeners, are sparse but very rich.:
Lectures may entertain individuals for hours without improving them. Silence, on the other hand, is permanent and benefits the whole of humanity.... Preaching is simple communication of Knowledge: it can really be done in silence only. What do you think of a man who listens to a sermon for an hour and goes away without having been impressed by it so as to change his life? Compare him with another who sits in a holy presence and goes away after some time with his outlook on life totally changed. Which is the better, to preach loudly without effect or to sit silently sending out inner force?
Of course, Ramana is speaking here of his own method, but there is a firm metaphysics to justify it.
There is abstract Knowledge, whence arises the ego, which in turn gives rise to thought, and thought to the spoken word. So the word is the great-grandson of the Original Source. If the word can produce effect, judge for yourself, how much more powerful must be the Preaching through Silence!
In Hinduism, the model of silent teaching is Dakshinamurti, manifestation of Shiva, who transmits truth through silent teaching. But Adaita Vedanta proposes enlightenment without a guru, and this tenet of Ramana is an important component of his method as well.
Ramana was flexible and practical in the application not only of silence but of solitude. He begins with the observation that ascetic and householder alike are capable of achieving enlightenment or samadhi.
Solitude is in the mind of a man.. One might be in the thick of the world and yet maintain perfect serenity of mind: Such a person is always in solitude. Another may stay in the forest but still be unable to control his mind. He cannot be said to be in solitude. Solitude is an attitude of the mind; a man attached to things of life cannot get solitude, wherever he may be. A detached man is always in solitude.
Ultimately, then, there is no physical solitude, only a spiritual state called ekantavasa or dwelling in solitude. As the Self is all-pervasive, there can be no particular place for solitude. Rather, the state of being free from mental concepts is what Ramana calls "dwelling in solitude."
As with silence and solitude, Ramana views asceticism in a practical way. Asceticism is a means towards a spiritual goal and is a tool for detachment, but its not to be identified exclusively with a certain religious order or even a particular state of life.
As dispassion is the means of inquiry [into Knowledge], joining an order of ascetics may be regarded , in a way, as a means of inquiry through dispassion. Instead of wasting one's life by entering the order of ascetics before one is fit for it, it is better to live the householder's life.
And this holding on to the householder's life may go on indefinitely, explains Ramana, as long as there are concrete moral duties dependent upon one's karma.
A wise householder may also discharge without attachment the various household duties which fall to his lot according to his past karma, like a tool in the hands of another. Action and knowledge are not obstacles to each other. ... Although he is entirely unmindful of his bodily comforts, if, owing to his past karma, his family has to subsist by his efforts, he may be regarded as doing service to others.
So the concepts of silence, solitude, and asceticism are eminently practical -- if spirituality is to made accessible -- and practical for all. Where both silence and solitude are lofty and difficult, Ramana places no obstacles to them, no rigid access or prerequisites. Indeed the practice of solitude and silence ascend and descend on a spiritual ladder of sorts, each rung a step or stage of bliss.
A devotee once asked Ramana, "Research on God has been going on from time immemorial. Has the final word been said?" After a long interval, in which Ramana did not respond, the visitor asked, "Should I consider Sri Bhagavan's silence as the reply to my question?" Ramana replied:
Yes, Mouni is Isvara-svarupa [God-state]. Hence the text: "The Truth of Supreme Brahman proclaimed through Silent Eloquence."
The printed works of Ramana are available in The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, edited and annotated by Arthur Osborne. London: Rider, 1959; New York, S. Weiser, 1970, The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in His Own Words, edited by Arthur Osborne. London: Rider, 1962, and The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi. Boston, Shambhala, 1988 (reprint of 1972 ed.). Complete books by and about of Ramana in pdf format are available for download from the official Ramana Maharshi Web site: http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/bookstall/downloadbooks.html and from http://www.arunachala-ramana.org/downloads/downloads.htm. See also Arthur Osborne: Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge. London: Rider, 1954.