This was an fun article that I wrote in 2004, and was published in both Collaboration Magazine and the integralspirituality.net website. It is of interest fo those who have a connection to Indo-Buddhist spirituality. Sri Aurobindo is a core influence to Integral understanding, which cares about transformation in this world, not off in some heaven or Nirvana elsewhere. He directly influenced Integral Recovery, and believed in the importance of “Wake Up, Grow Up, Clean up, Show Up” before anyone else.
The Connection of Sages: Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo
by Charles Ismael Flores
This article includes an imaginary interview in which the author compares, based on published quotes from Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, what each of them might say to questions posed by a spiritual Seeker who is learning about the Indian tradition of Kevalya Advaita and Integral (Purna) Yoga. The article sheds light on the distinctly different spiritual approaches of these two masters.
The case of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo is one that is unique in modern times. Two of the greatest saints of modern India lived in the same era, what would today be a mere three- and-a-half-hour drive from each other in southern India, the state of Tamil Nadu. Side by side lived the highest modern representative of an ancient yoga, and the lauded progenitor of what has been claimed to be an entirely new yoga.
This article explores the unusual connection of saints that were destined to be linked in a ripple of time and space.
Ramana Maharshi came to the holy mountain Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai in 1896 when he was 16 years old, and he reportedly never left the mountain for 54 years.
Sri Aurobindo fled from Bengal to the French colony of Pondicherry in 1910 due to his revolutionary activities to overthrow British rule. Once there he never left, since at one level, it would have been dangerous- but far more importantly to Sri Aurobindo, he had to focus on his sadhana, or spiritual practice.They both died within a few months of each other- Bhagavan Maharshi on 14 April and Sri Aurobindo on 5 December 1950.
So although Tiruvannamalai and Pondicherry are only 65 miles apart, the political realities of the period and the sages’ own practices prevented a physical encounter. One may only speculate that these yogis could have “met” in subtle realities.
What are left are the remembrances of visitors and disciples between the two ashrams. Though it is known that thousands of seekers traversed through both ashrams while both sages were alive, only a few have written about their experiences.
Swami Madhahavamitra was a devotee of Ramana Maharshi who had some familiarity with Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, and he recalled one discussion had with Ramana about it. (Godman, 2000)
Two of Sri Aurobindo’s most respected disciples, M.P. Pandit and his teacher T.V. Kapali Sastry, were also once disciples of Ramana Maharshi. Both considered Sri Aurobindo and the Mother their ultimate gurus, but that in no way diminished their high regard of their former guru.
Pandit, who is perhaps the most famous and prolific commentator on Sri Aurobindo’s yoga thus far, wrote of the Maharshi in his book Mighty Impersonality: “He was a direct Emanation from the Divine Being in its aspect of conquering Knowledge, Skanda Sanatkumara …” (Pandit, 1998)
Sastry wrote extensive commentaries about the Maharshi philosophy and also recorded talks with him. Sastry explains succinctly in his diary in 1948 how he works out the different yogas for himself:
“In the Maharshi’s teaching, as indeed in all the yoga of ancient India, the problem to be solved is the problem of the individual. In Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, it is the problem of man in his total being and the meaning of his existence on earth that is sought to be discovered and worked out. The problems are different and so are the solutions.” In this way, Sastry found a compatibility with his gurus.
As A.R. Ponnuswami lyer writes in his forward to Sastry’s The Maharshi, “Even after, under the imperative urge of an inner development, he [Sastry] took the sadhana of Sri Aurobindo, he retained his reverential attachment to Sri Maharshi. This he could do without sacrifice for he saw, appreciated, and assimilated the realized truth of these two greatest teachers of the age have given to the world. Small men, with their little egos, boast of their teachers, as they boast of their material possessions, feel needless jealousies, and stir up passion and discord in a realm where harmony should reign. But Sri Sastriar could be loyal to Sri Aurobindo without being disloyal to Sri Maharshi or his still earlier guru Sri Ganapati Sastrigal.” (Sastry,1979)
How do we as post-modern critical thinkers, using our minds, which may in reality have very limited capacities for discernment in the subtle worlds and spiritual realities, make sense of the relationship of the two seers and their yogas?
The most obvious issue of evaluation is the fact that Ramana Maharshi never wrote of or spoke extensively about Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, whereas deep understanding of Advaita was an essential foundation of Sri Aurobindo’s Purna Yoga. Maharshi’s arguments are ancient, and circular; the eternal Self allows no room for innovation. Sri Aurobindo, on the other hand, wrote extensively in Synthesis of Yoga and The Life Divine about what he called the old “Mayavada” yogas, the Buddha and Shankara having been the most famous expositors of the world as illusory.
Monistic Advaita, of which Ramana Maharshi is a prime example, affirms the separation of the limitless Self behind phenomena and the finite self that perceives phenomena. The apparent separation is explained by maya, or that the Eternal has imagined itself as divisible.
The Monistic Advaitist believes that all is Self, life is an illusion. When one realizes the Self, then one will live until the body dies, and after there is no life. For the Monistic Advaitist, there can be no transformation, because the parts of the being-mind, life, and body-are all maya. Life is about relations; in pure Sell; all relations vanish. There would be no use in transforming an illusion that could be nothing other than an illusion. A life with Self would be impossible. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga)
Sri Aurobindo, by contrast, describes his yoga as Realistic Advaita. In his book The Life Divine, he explains that the world is the manifestation of the Real and is in itself real. The Real or the Spirit is involved in matter, and it is in the process of evolution that it will manifest explicitly as Spirit through his yoga-ultimately by opening all the parts of the being to a transformation through the descent of the supramental truth-consciousness [what he believed would be the next step of evolution beyond the mental].
But there are many steps that must be taken before the supramental descent is possible- most importantly, contact with the psychic being, and allowing it to purify and guide the body, the vital, and the mind. Thus Sri Aurobindo takes very different approach to yoga for a completely different aim than the followers of traditional Advaita.
It perhaps would not be fruitful to compare these two great yogic realizations by the use of hermeneutics, or textual interpretation for meaning. Both yogas are logically compelling for the scholar. Seekers (and also scholars) are ultimately drawn to the aim of the yoga using their own minds and their spiritual experiences. Some may be compelled to choose the yoga that states that life and the world is an illusion, and many others today will be drawn to the yoga that dares to affirm life and the world by transforming it to something that explicitly expresses the full range of divine potentialities in matter. In the personalities of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, we have seen in modern times just a couple of the great choices at the crossroads we must make for ourselves in our rapidly changing world.
The following fantasy interviews are based upon actual recorded talks and letters with Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, and the seekers who came to them. There is no recorded talk between the two sages, so none is ventured here. As previously stated, it is not known whether they had ever met in person, but it seems highly improbable.
Conversations in supradimensional space
Seeker: Through the Divine grace, I have been so fortunate as to be able to arrange talks with Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo in supradimensional space, for the purpose of my inquiry into the natures of their yogas. They should be here at any moment!
[Bhagavan apparently manifests in the illusion of individuality.]
Seeker: Sri Bhagavan, it is truly an honor to be in your presence. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with you the differences between the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and your own yoga.
Ramana Maharshi: You ask about two beings, and supposedly two yogas.
What are they? Difference is in relation to some center. What is it? Enquire.
Seeker: My understanding is that there are differences between Your .yoga and Sri Aurobindo’s yoga …
Ramana Maharshi: Who is it who sees such differences? Find it out.
Seeker: Yes, I think I understand what you are getting at. But I have been learning that others believe that there are different routes to realization- and Sri Aurobindo speaks of realization that includes the transformation of matter.
Ramana Maharshi: As for Aurobindo, you ask him. As for my opinion, how does it matter to you? How will it be of any use to you? Have you got any opinion on the matter? That alone will affect you, not the opinion of others.
Seeker: I want know the differences to move further in my sadhana. 1 am open to the descent of the Divine to manifest within me. What should I do?
Ramana Maharshi: All right. Be what you are. There is nothing to come down or to become manifest. All that is needful is to lose the ego. That what is, is always there. Even now you are That. You are not apart from it. What do you wait for?
The thought, “I must know,” the expectation to know and the desire of obtaining knowledge, are all the workings of the ego. You have fallen into the snares of the ego. The ego says all of these and not You. Be yourself and nothing more!
Seeker: But don’t I have to open in myself to the descent of the supreme Self?
Ramana Maharshi: Is not the Self already within us? How can the all-pervading Self be taken from one place to another?
Seeker: Sri Aurobindo speaks of the body becoming supramentalized, and that this new body will not grow old, and wi11 not die without one ‘s desire.
Ramana Maharshi: The body itself is disease. To wish for a long stay of that disease is not the aim of the jnani. Anyway, one has to give up identification with the body. If one has the attitude, “if the higher power is to come down, it must come down into my body,” this will only increase identification with the body. Truly speaking, there is no need of any such descent. After the destruction of the I-am-the-body idea, the individual becomes the form of the Absolute. In that state, there is no above or below, front or back.
Seeker: Sri Aurobindo says that the Divine has created various kinds of worlds and with this descent, will create a new world.
Ramana Maharshi: Our present world is not real. Each one sees a different imaginary world according to his imagination, so where is the guarantee that the new world will be real? The jiva, the world, and God, all of these are relative ideas. So long as there is the individual sense of “l” these three are also there. If you stop the mind, the three will not remain, but Brahman alone will remain, as it remains and abides even now. We see these things because of an error. The idea of a descent is an error. Whether this world is real or unreal, conscious or inert, a place of happiness or a place of misery, whether you feel an ascent or descent, all these states arise in the state of ignorance. They are not useful after realization.
Seeker: I once had an experience of a kind of decent to the center of my chest around my heart, or at least it felt that way. Is that an error? This noticed feeling came when 1 surrendered to the vast ultimate, something like what Sri Aurobindo advises when he speaks of surrendering to the Supreme. Then he speaks of the parts of our being that transform when we surrender completely.
Ramana Maharshi: Aurobindo advises complete surrender. Let us do that first and await results, and discuss further, if need be afterwards and not now. There is no use discussing transcendental experiences by those whose limitations are not divested.
Learn what surrender is. It is to merge in the source of ego. The ego is surrendered to the Self. Everything is dear to us because of love to the Self. The Self is that to which we surrender our ego and let the Supreme, i.e., the Self, do what it pleases. The ego is already the Self’s. We have no rights over the ego, even as it is. However, supposing we had, we must surrender those rights, also.
If after surrender, you still feel the desire to bring the power of God into the body, then the surrender has not been successful.
Seeker: But what of this experience of bringing down the Divine from above into my heart?
Ramana Maharshi: As if the Divine is not already in the Heart? “O Arjuna, I am in the expanse of the Heart,” says Sri Krishna. “He who is the sun, is also in this man,” says a mantra in the Upanishads. “The Kingdom of God is within,” says the Bible. All are thus agreed that God is within. So what is to be brought down`? From where? Who is to bring what, and why?
Seeker: I know what you say is true, but I also seem to have the experience that there are differences between the parts of our being. Part of me feels that they may be important.
Ramana Maharshi: Realize the Self or the Divine. All of these differences will disappear.
Seeker: Right. I am coming to this realization gradually. I am only beginning to have some small partial realization. I am afraid 1 cannot just get this full realization instantaneously!
Ramana Maharshi: Realization is nothing new. It is eternal. There is no question of instantaneous or gradual, partial or full realization. There is only Realization.
Seeker: But Sri Aurobindo actually talks of starting with Self-realization, and developing farther.
Ramana Maharshi: First realize, and then see. [Pause] The fact is, there is Reality. It is not affected by any discussions. Let us abide as Reality and not engage in futile discussions as to its nature.
[Long pause, the Maharshi vanishes into the Self]
Thank you, Sri Bhagavan.
[Sri Aurobindo manifests a few moments later]
Seeker – You just missed Ramana Maharshi! Hey wait, come back! Oh, that’s not very respectful.
Sri Aurobindo (chuckling): It seems that you can only receive one guest at a time, Sir!
Seeker – I’m so sorry. It is such an honor to be in your presence today, Sri Aurobindo. As you might have seen, I just asked Ramana Maharshi about the differences between your two yogas. But all he kept telling me to do was to realize the Self. He really wasn’t interested in engaging in this conversation, and actually referred me to you about your opinion.
Sri Aurobindo: I have written extensively about the difference between my Pirna Yoga and the older yogas. I have also discussed my view of Kevala Advaita, of which Maharshi is an exemplar.
Seeker – Yes, 1 am aware of that. But how do you understand the difference specifically between your yoga and his? I have read about Ramana Maharshi’s experience from a direct disciple of his: “One day the heart center opened and I began to hear “1, 1,” and everywhere 1 saw this “I.”
Sri Aurobindo: All experiences are true and have their place. But because one is true, one can’t say that the other is false. Truth is infinite. The wider you become, the higher you go. The more you find, there is still more and more. In this instance, Maharshi has his experience of “I,” but when I had the Nirvana experience I could not think of an “I”: however much I tried I could not think of any “I.” The word simply got displaced. One can’t speak of it as “I.” It is “That.” That I call Laya. Realization of the Self is all right: Laya was a part of a realization which is much more comprehensive.
When I do not accept the Mayavada. it is not that I have not realized the Truth behind it or the “One in All,” and the “All in the One,” but because I have other realizations which are equally strong and which cannot be shut out. The Maharshi is right and everybody else is also right.
Seeker: You say Laya is more comprehensive. You and Ramana Maharshi say different things. How do we find for ourselves which is more comprehensive?
Sri Aurobindo: Each one goes to the limit of his consciousness. Masters often say that their realization is the highest, and are quite sure about it, yet each one is standing at a different place in consciousness.
Seeker: When I asked Ramana Maharshi about mv sense that there is a divine or supramental descent, he stated that it is not possible for Self which is everywhere, to move to another place.
Sri Aurobindo: It- the descent- is the experience of many sadhaks even outside of our yoga. An old sannyasi of the Ramakrishna Mission saw a flood of light descending, and when he asked about it he was told it was all the work of the devil and the whole experience stopped afterwards. In Maharshi’s case he has received the thing in the heart and has worked with it, so he does not feel the descent.
Seeker: Ramana Maharshi did not seem at all concerned with anything in the world but realization of the Self.
Sri Aurobindo: Maharshi was intended to lead this sort of life. He had nothing to do with what happened around him. He remained calm and detached. The man is what he was. But I was glad to hear a story of him shouting at an Indian Christian; it means he can also at times become dynamic.
Seeker: It seems to me that your yoga is more difficult. Ramana Maharshi has realized the Self and he is happy and content with that. It seems a complicated and long process to manifest the Divine in one’s body and one’s life. Instead of calmness, it would seem to lead to exhaustion!
Sri Aurobindo: One must be quite dynamic. One must have the power to be free, by moving out of evolution, that is to say, one must get the power to act from beyond the evolution.
Many yogis when they go beyond into the Spirit or the cosmic consciousness, allow cosmic Nature to act through them without any sense of individual responsibility. They remain concentrated in, or identified with, the higher consciousness, uncontrolled. So you find as others have found that the spiritual man uses foul language; of course, the yogi or the spirit in him is not bound by the rules of decency. When one has attained the higher consciousness then, as the Upanishad says, one does not regret: I did not do that which was good, or I did this which was evil. It is not that all yogis act that way. But some of them know the reason, or the necessity of the way they act in a particular situation, at a particular time. Only, they are not bound by their action.
Another difficulty arises because most of the yogis are very bad philosophers, and so they cannot put their experience in mental terms. But that does not mean that they have no real spiritual experience. They do not want to acquire intellectual development, for they wanted only to reach a higher consciousness and they are satisfied with that. I see you looking for things that the yogi has never tried to attain, so you are disappointed, like that other American who objected to Ramana Maharshi’s spitting and biting his nails. That has nothing to do with his spirituality.
You have some sense by now that in our yoga, the aim is not only the realization of the Self, but the divinization of inconscient matter itself, a kingdom of heaven on earth. For that integral path, the mind cannot be bypassed or ignored.
Seeker: Why is it that Ramana Maharshi, along with many other great sages, does not seem to care about or even understand certain aspects of your yoga, such as the supermind, overmind, and so forth?
Sri Aurobindo: As I said, they would tend to want to bypass the mind. Mayavada Vedantins had no clear perception of these things because they lived at the highest in the spiritualized higher mind, and for the rest could only receive things from the overmind.
Seeker: So you do not accept Maharshi’s one injunction to me, “Be what you are,” or that I only need to realize That, nothing more.
Sri Aurobindo: I do not base my yoga on the insufficient ground that the Self (not soul) is eternally free. This affirmation leads to nothing beyond itself, or, if used as a starting point, it could equally well lead to the conclusion that action and creation have no significance or value. The question is not that but also the meaning of creation, whether there is a Supreme who is not merely a pure undifferentiated Consciousness and Being, but the source and support also of the dynamic energy of creation and whether cosmic existence has for It a significance and a value. That is a question which cannot be settled by metaphysical logic which deals with words and ideas, but by a spiritual experience which goes beyond mind and enters spiritual realities.
Each mind is satisfied with its own reasoning, but for spiritual purposes that satisfaction has no validity, except as an indication of how far and on what line each one is prepared to go in the field of spiritual experience. If your reasoning leads you toward a Shankara or Maharshi idea of the Supreme, that might be an indication that the Monistic Advaita is your way of advance.
Seeker: How do I know if your yoga is correct for me?
Sri Aurobindo: My yoga accepts the value of cosmic existence and holds it to be a reality: its object is to enter into a higher truth-consciousness or divine supramental consciousness in which action and creation are the expression not of ignorance and imperfection, but of truth, the light, and the divine ananda. But for that, surrender of the mortal mind, life, and body to that higher consciousness is indispensable, since it is too difficult for the mortal human being to pass by its own effort beyond a mind to a supramental consciousness in which the dynamism is no longer mental but of quite another power. Only those who can accept the call to such a change should enter into this yoga.
Thank you, Sri Aurobindo.
[Sri Aurobindo transfigures into his supramental body.]
Hartel, D. and Sharma, A.K. (eds.) (1995). “The Recollections of N. Balaram Reddy,” The Maharshi Newsletter, March/ April, vol. 5, no. 2.
Godman, D. (2000). The Power of the Presence: Part One.
Narasimhaswami. B.V. (1944). The Life and Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Rama
na Maharshi, Sri Ramanashram. Tiruvannamalai.
Osborne, A. (ed.) (1959). The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanashram, Tiruvannamalai.
Pandit, M.P. (1998). Mighty Impersonality, Dept. Publications, Pondicherry.
Purani, A.B. (recorder) (1982). Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo (3rd ed. ), Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry.
Saravati, Swami Ramanananda (recorder) (2000). Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramanashram, Tiruvannamalai.
Sastry, TN. Kapali. (1979). Collected Works of T. V.Kapali Sastry, vols. 2 and 3. Dipti Publications, Pondicherry.
Sri Aurobindo. (1970).
-The Hour of God and Other Writings, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (SABCL), vol. 17, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.
-Letters on Yoga, SABCL, vol. 22.
-The Life Divine, SABCL, vol. 18.
-Supplement, SABCL, vol. 27.
-The Supramental Manifestation and Other Writings, SABCL, vol. 16.
-The Upanishads, SABCL, vol. 12.