Ockham’s razor is a rule in science and philosophy that the simplest explanation is the best. Extending this principle to religion and spirituality, Ramana, a twentieth-century Indian mystic, shines.
Only recently did I began reading Ramana seriously. I wish I had done so earlier. I’d always thought that the Vedanta teachings which form the core of Ramana’s message were intellectual and complex. They can be, if a complex intellectual tries to communicate Vedanta.
But when the teachings are described by Ramana in the lively question and answer format of “Talks with Ramana Maharshi,” the highest form of Vedanta is revealed as marvelously simple and practical. This is Advaita, literally “not two.”
What could be simpler than one?
Advaita finds unity at the core of the cosmos. So does science. Or, at least this is what science expects to find. The quest of physicists is for the theory of everything that is the root explanation of the universe, not for the theories of everything.
Ramana’s teachings thus have an appealing scientific flavor. This is in contrast to most other spiritual paths and every religion, which expect you to believe in things that defy rational explanation or direct experience. Why? Because any faith founded on dualism necessarily posits a gap between the believer and what is believed.
If I believe in God, there obviously are two entities involved here: “I” and “God.” Given this situation, confirming my belief gets complex. Somehow I have to narrow the divide between me and divinity so what now is just a subjective idea or emotion for me becomes an undeniable objective fact.
So spiritual systems generally proscribe dogmas and theologies that amount to marching orders. Do this, don’t do that; follow this course, not that one. If the believer follows directions and treads the spiritual path in the correct manner, then the promise is that he or she someday will arrive at God’s doorstep (taking “God” to mean ultimate reality, not necessarily a personal being).
The more steps you’re asked to take, the more potential missteps there are. This is why I’m much attracted to Ramana’s simplicity. He says that all of Vedanta can be summed up in two Biblical passages: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) and “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalms 46:10).
The “I” being referred to here isn’t a far-off God in the heavens. Ramana says that it is the Self, the only truly real reality. If the cosmos is one, then nothing is separate from this oneness. The “I” of little me is the same “I” as the great entity spoken of in Exodus.
A visitor to Ramana said, “I see that I am coming around to ‘I.’” He answered, “Because you are always that and never away from it. There is nothing so simple as being the Self. It requires no effort, no aid. One has to leave off the wrong identity and be in his eternal, natural, inherent state.”
Easy to say, for most people not at all easy to do. The five hundred pages of “Talks with Ramana Maharshi” are filled with dialogues of this sort (which just preceded the quote above). Complainer: “All this is so difficult.” Reply: “The idea of difficulty is itself wrong. It will not help you to gain what you want. Again I ask, ‘Who finds it difficult?’”
Socrates advised, “Know yourself.” But then he went on to talk, through Plato, about all kinds of other stuff. Ramana also advises that self-knowledge is the highest wisdom, yet stays much more consistently on message in his documented conversations with vistors to his ashram.
Ramana: “God is an unknown entity. Moreover, He is external. Whereas, the Self is always with you and it is you. Why do you leave out what is intimate and go in for what is external?”
Visitor: “What is the Self again?”
Ramana: “The Self is known to everyone, but not clearly. You always exist. The Being is the Self. ‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ [or, in my Bible, ‘I am who I am’] in Exodus…The Absolute Being is what is—it is the Self. It is God. Knowing the Self, God is known. In fact, God is none other than the Self.”
So the simplest way to know God, says Ramana, is direct self-inquiry. Just keep asking “Who am I?” No words are needed to make this query. Just seek the source of the “I” who is asking the question.
If you can’t do this because of your temperament or previous conditioning, then Ramana says that meditation will have to be practiced. A word, or mantra, can be repeated to focus the scattered attention. This will draw you closer and closer to knowing the one who is repeating the mantra. Eventually the same state of self-realization reached by the self-inquirer is attained by the meditator, though through a more circuitous route.
Ken Wilber wrote the foreword to “Talks with Ramana Maharshi.” Wilber has an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy, religion, and mysticism. His first paragraph offers high praise to Ramana that, in my own opinion, is entirely deserved:
I am often asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island and had only one book, what would it be?” The book you are now holding in your hands—“Talks with Ramana Maharshi”—is one of the two or three I always mention. And “Talks” tops the list in this regard: it is the living voice of the greatest sage of the twentieth century and, arguably, the greatest spiritual realization of this or any time.
The Churchless will find no better source of inspiration than this great mystic.
This is the third of my follow-ups to the “Five Books to Support the Churchless” post where I said I’d share what I like most about the teachings of Vivekananda, Ramana, Eckhart, Plotinus, and the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing.”
All of the excerpts in this post are from “Talks with Ramana Maharshi,” Inner Directions Publishing, 2000.