Venkataraman (later to be known as Ramana) was born 30th December 1879 at 1 a.m., in the village of Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu. The day of his birth was the auspicious Arudra Darshan, which, according to Puranic legend, commemorated the manifestation of Lord Siva on earth. Venkataraman was the second of three sons born to Sundaram Aiyar and Alagammal, who both belonged to the Saivite Brahmin caste that worshipped Lord Siva as the Supreme Being. Sundaram Aiyar, of whom Ramana would later call a 'towering presence', was a self-made man who built up a large practice as a pleader at the local Magistrate's Court. The mother Alagammal, a noble woman; was a devoted wife and loving mother.

Next to the family home was the Bhuminatha Temple[1], and the young Venkataraman and his friends would sometimes play in the temple's open spaces or in its large exterior hall and at other times would go outside the village to Koundiniya River to fly kites and sail paper boats.

When Venkataraman was twelve, the tragic death of his father, Sundaram Aiyar marked the end of a carefree childhood as the family unit was split up and he was sent to nearby Madurai to live with his paternal uncle, Subba Aiyar. There, Venkataraman studied first at Scott's Middle School and later at the American Mission High School. Although he had a remarkable memory and was highly intelligent, he spent little time on studies, preferring instead to take part in sports such as wrestling and swimming. He grew up as just an average boy. He was an indifferent student, not at all serious about his studies. But he was a healthy and strong lad and his school mates and companions were afraid of his strength. If some of them had a grievance against him, they would dare play pranks with him only when he was asleep. In this he was rather unusual; he would not know of anything that happened to him during sleep. He could be carried away or even beaten without his waking up.

A noteworthy event of his early life occurred in November 1895 when Venkataraman met a relative from Tiruchuli who was in an ecstatic mood after returning from a pilgrimage to Arunachala. The boy asked him where he had come from. The relative replied 'From Arunachala'. The very name 'Arunachala' acted as a magic spell on Venkataraman, and with an evident excitement he put his next question to the elderly gentleman, 'What! From Arunachala! Where is it?' And got the reply that Tiruvannamalai was Arunachala. On hearing the word 'Arunachala' the young boy was thrilled with awe and joy!

Referring to this incident the Sage says later on in one of his hymns to Arunachala:

'Oh, great wonder! As an insentient hill it stands. Its action is difficult for anyone to understand. From my childhood it appeared to my intelligence that Arunachala was something very great. But even when I came to know through another that it was the same as Tiruvannamalai I did not understand its meaning. When, stilling my mind, it drew me up to it, and I came close, I found that it was the Immovable.'

Soon after the incident which attracted Venkataraman's attention to Arunachala, there was another happening which also contributed to the turning of the boy's mind to the deeper values of spirituality. He chanced to lay his hands, on a copy of Periyapuranam which relates the lives of the Saiva saints. He read the book and was enthralled by it. This was the first piece of religious literature he read. The example of the saints fascinated him; and in the inner recesses of his heart he found something responding favourably. Without any apparent earlier preparation, a longing arose in him to emulate the spirit of renunciation and devotion that constituted the essence of saintly life.

Then at the age of seventeen, on 21 August, 1896, a day much like any other, Venkataraman had an experience of death that would entirely change his life. That evening while sitting alone in a room on the first floor of his house, he was suddenly seized with an overwhelming fear of death. The fear so powerfully concentrated his mind that he began an intense enquiry.

"The shock made me at once introspective or 'introverted'. I said to myself mentally: 'Now death has come. What does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.' I at once dramatized the scene of death. I extended my limbs and held them rigid as though rigor mortis had set in. 'Well, then,' said I to myself, 'this body is dead. It will be carried to the burning ground and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body, am "I" dead? Is the body "I"? This body is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even the sound "I" within myself - apart from the body. So "I" am the spirit, a thing transcending the body'. All this was not a mere intellectual process. It flashed before me vividly as living truth.'

As Sri Ramana narrated this experience later on for the benefit of his devotees it looked as though this was a process of reasoning. But he took care to explain that this was not so. The realization came to him in a flash. He perceived the truth directly. 'I' was something very real - the only real thing. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. From then on, 'I' continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends with all other notes. Thus young Venkataraman found himself on the peak of spirituality without any arduous or prolonged sadhana.

There was noticed a complete change in the young boy's life. The things he had valued earlier now lost their worth. The spiritual principles which he had ignored till then became the only objects of attention. School-studies, friends, relations - none of these had any more significance for him. He grew utterly indifferent to his surroundings. Humility, meekness, non-resistance and other virtues became his adornment. Avoiding company he preferred to sit alone, absorbed in concentration on the Self. Every day he went to the Meenakshi Temple and experienced exaltation standing before the images of the Gods. Tears flowed from his eyes profusely.

"I would occasionally pray for the descent of Grace upon me so that my devotion might increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three canonized saints.[2] Mostly I would not pray at all; but let the Deep within flow on and into the Deep without. Tears would mark this outflow of the soul but not betoken any particular feeling of pleasure or pain."

About six weeks after his death experience (Self-realization), Venkataraman's elder brother, Nagaswami, coming into the room and seeing his younger brother sitting in samadhi, roused him and pointing to some school-books said, 'Why should one who behaves in this way, retain all this?' Venkataraman thought, 'What my brother says is true, what business have I here now?' and the thought of Arunachala, which had previously caused him such a thrill, came to him. Taking three rupees from money given to him to pay his brother's school fees, Venkataraman left a short unsigned note and departed for the railway station.

"I have, in search of my father and in obedience to his command, started from here. This is only embarking on a virtuous enterprise. Therefore, none need grieve over this affair. To trace this out, no money need be spent.

Your college fee has not yet been paid. Rupees two are enclosed herewith. Thus."Venkataraman detrained at Villuparam (near Pondicherry) for food and thereafter decided to walk. By sunset he arrived at Araiyaninallur Temple where he remained for meditation and later went to the nearby village of Kilur. The next day after pledging his earrings for four rupees he entrained for Tiruvannamalai arriving before noon on September 1, 1896. Immediately he went to the Arunachaleswarar Temple and it was there at the Ayyankulam tank that Venkataraman tore his dress to make a kaupinam[3], threw everything else away including his remaining money and his Brahman sacred thread, and allowed a barber to give him a tonsure.

Venkataraman would spend about eighteen months within the precincts of the ArunachaleswararTemple. To begin with he would sit in some corner, motionless, not speaking to anyone. Around midday he would leave the Temple to beg a little rice in town. As he did not even have a bowl in which food could be placed, he simply held out his hands to receive whatever was given. He would then eat, wipe his hands on his hair and immediately return to the Temple compound.

Eventually he moved into an underground cell in the courtyard of the first prakaram[4] of the Thousand Pillared Mandapam[5] of the Arunachaleswara Temple. The dark, sheltered spot was known as Pathala Lingam and it was here that became his place of meditation. Sitting in that dark, damp cell for hours at a stretch completely lost in samadhi, his body developed sores and worms crawled out of his raw flesh. Local urchins began to pelt him with stones. The intensity of the Swami's tapasya started to receive attention and it was at this time that Sri Seshadri Swamigal entered Venkataraman's life.

On leaving the precincts of the Pathala Lingam the young Swami spent a few weeks near the Subramanya Shrine and then passed to the adjoining Illupai flower garden. After spending a few days in the vehicles room at the Arunachaleswarar Temple, the now named Brahmana Swami[6] moved to the Mangai Pillayar Temple, where he had his first constant attendant, Uddandi Nayinar and Annamalai Thambiran. From the shrine he moved to Guru Moortham where he spent the next eighteen months. While at Guru Moortham a man from Kerala named Palani Swami joined him as his permanent attendant. As days passed and as Ramana's fame spread, increasing numbers of pilgrims and sightseers came to visit him. After about a year's stay at Guru Moortham, the Brahmana Swami moved to a neighbouring mango orchard.

Until this point the young sage observed silence and never revealed his identity but due to the persistence of devotees, he eventually identified himself as Venkataraman - Tiruchuzhi. News spread and eventually an uncle arrived from his native place to take him home but all efforts proved futile. Mother Alagammal, refusing to accept her son's decision arrived in Tiruvannamalai with her eldest son, Nagaswami, and finally met up with Venkataraman at Pavazhakunru. Day after day the mother and eldest brother visited the young Swami and tried to influence him in various ways. Finally her son wrote his reply on paper:

"The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds their Prarabdha Karma. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain. The best course therefore is for one to be silent."

From that time onward, the young Swami lived on the Hill, moving from one cave to another. After living in the Mango Tree Cave, he went to the Virupaksha Cave, where he was to live for sixteen years until 1916.

People soon started coming up the Hill to see him. In 1902 a Government official named Sivaprakasam Pillai, with writing slate in hand, visited the young Swami in the hope of obtaining answers to questions long perplexing him based upon 'How to know one's true identity'. The fourteen questions put to the young Swami led to the first enunciation of the teaching that was based on the Sage's own Self discovery. It would come to be known as the doctrine of Self-Enquiry and would eventually be published in book form under the title 'Who am I?'

In 1907 Kavyakantha Ganapati Sastri, known as Ganapati Muni, because of the austerities he had been observing, came to visit the young sage. Ganapati Muni had the title Kavya-kantha (one who has poetry at his throat), and his followers addressed him as nayana (father). He was a specialist in the worship of the Divine Mother, a brilliant Sanksrit scholar, a prolific poet, and had already gathered a small group of disciples around him. He had visited Venkataraman twice before, but he had not put any questions to him, but during this visit he entreated the young Swami to enlighten him as to the nature of tapas.

Finally breaking his silence Venktaraman, speaking in Tamil, said to Sastri:

'If one observes whence this notion "I" springs, the mind is absorbed into that. That is tapas. When a mantra sound is produced, the mind is absorbed into that. That is tapas.'

Sastri, believing that the Goddess Uma, whom he worshipped, had given this revelation through Venkataraman's instruction, at once composed five verses in praise of young Venkataraman, and shortened the name of the young sage to Ramana. The next day he wrote about the event to his family and followers, requesting them to henceforth address the sage as Bhagavan (because he had realized the Self), and as Maharshi or Great Seer (because of the originality of his teachings). Henceforth Brahmana Swami was to be known as Sri Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi.

In 1912 the Maharshi underwent a second death experience in the company of a group of devotees. He was returning from a pond when suddenly he felt unwell, and for about fifteen minutes showed the symptoms of death. Unlike the first experience of death, this event was not attended by any fear on his part, for his inner awareness of Being continued undiminished throughout.

From that time on, he would manifest the kind of supraconsciousness known as Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi. This is a state which the Maharshi simply described as a continuous fixation in the Self with, at the same time, the full use of the thinking mind and other normal faculties. Henceforth, the world would never again be shut out from his awareness even while in meditation. Other people would no longer disturb him and he would have no need to remain in seclusion for he perceived the Self in everyone alike.

In 1916 mother Alagammal and her son Nagasundaram joined Sri Ramana at Tiruvannamalai and followed him when he moved to the larger Skandashram Cave, where Bhagavan lived until the end of 1922. The mother received training in intense spiritual life. She donned the ochre robe, and took charge of the Ashram kitchen. Ramana's younger brother, Nagasundaram, then became a sannyasin, assuming the name Niranjanananda. Among Ramana's devotees he came to be known as Chinnaswami (the younger Swami).

In 1920 the mother grew weak and Ramana tended her with care and affection. Alagammal finally left the body on May 19th, 1922, whereupon Sri Bhagavan indicated that she had attained Liberation. Her body was buried on the banks of Palitirtham, a tank at the foot of the southern slope of Arunachala. After the Mother's passing away Bhagavan would often walk from Skandashram to her tomb, then in December 1922, he came down from Skandashram permanently and settled at the base of the Hill.

In due course many devotees came to live in the presence of Bhagavan and in this way the present Sri Ramana Ashram developed. Perfect equality was the principle lived by Bhagavan in the Ashram. He always sat among the devotees for meals and in the case of edibles and treats offered to Him; everything would be equally distributed in his presence. As well as human beings; cows, dogs, monkeys, squirrels and peacocks enjoyed perfect freedom and full rights in the Ashram. The doors of the Hall where Sri Bhagavan lived were open to all, day and night.

In 1928 a young man, age 22, became the Maharshi's personal attendant and given the name Annamalai Swami. His duties, as directed by Sri Ramana, were to oversee the ongoing construction at the ashram; including the goshala (cow shed), dining hall, dispensary and other various projects. A temple eventually was raised over the tomb of the mother Alagammal and consecrated in 1949. As the years rolled by the Ashram steadily grew, and people from India and throughout the world came to see the sage and receive His help.

Maharshi consistently guided the seeker back to the source of abiding happiness - one's own Self. His teachings are among the clearest and most direct of the advaitic (non-dualistic) teachings originating from India. Ramana taught that we exist as the Supreme Self at all times and one needs only awaken to this reality by seeking the source of the ego, or 'I-thought', and abide in the Self. He referred to this method as Self-Enquiry.

Ramana always encouraged people to live life in the most natural manner. There was no question of engaging or disengaging in activity - all happens according to destiny. The primary consideration is to be free from the 'I-am-the-doer' illusion. The path of Self-Enquiry liberates one from the never-ending fear and disorder resulting from taking the ego to be real. By becoming free of the ego-illusion, one experiences true freedom and supreme peace. It is a path that takes one from the apparent duality of the individual and the world to the bliss of one's real nature. Through this awakening to Self-awareness, even by imperfect glimpses, one begins to sense a Reality not limited to the ego's world. And, this current of Awareness, is ultimately revealed as the Self - Pure Consciousness.

Ramana's first Western devotee was thought to be Frank H. Humphreys. He came to India in 1911 to take up a post in the Police service at Vellore. Given to the practice of occultism, he was in search of a Mahatma. He was introduced to Ganapati Sastri by his Telugu tutor; and Sastri took him to Ramana. The Englishman was greatly impressed. Writing about his first visit to the sage in the International Psychic Gazette, he said:

'On reaching the cave we sat before him, at his feet, and said nothing. We sat thus for a long time and I felt lifted out of myself. For half an hour I looked into the Maharshi's eyes, which never changed their expression of deep contemplation.... The Maharshi is a man beyond description in his expression of dignity, gentleness, self-control and calm strength of conviction.'

Humphrey's ideas of spirituality changed for the better as a result of the contact with Ramana. He repeated his visits to the sage and continued to record his impressions in letters to a friend in England which were published in the Gazette (mentioned above). In one of them he wrote, 'You can imagine nothing more beautiful than his smile.' And, 'It is strange what a change it makes in one to have been in his Presence!'

People poured into Maharshi's ashram as his fame spread, fuelled by word of mouth and publicity generated by books and articles of various supporters and authors. Paul Brunton (writer, mystic, and philosopher) is credited with opening up to the West the experience and knowledge of Enlightenment. Other important chroniclers were; Julian P. Johnson, W. Somerset Maugham and Mercedes De Acosta.

Not only good people were attracted to the Ashram. Sometimes bad ones turned up also - even bad sadhus. Twice in the year 1924 thieves broke into the Ashram in quest of money. On the second of these occasions they even beat Maharshi after finding that there was little for them to take. When one of the devotees sought the sage's permission to punish the thieves, Sri Ramana forbade him, saying: 'They have their dharma, we have ours. It is for us to bear and forbear. Let us not interfere with them.' When one of the thieves gave him a blow on the left thigh, he told him: 'If you are not satisfied you can strike the other leg also'. After the thieves had left, a devotee enquired about the beating, Ramana remarked, 'I also have received some puja', punning on the word which means 'worship' but is also used to mean 'blows'.

Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi showed the same consideration to animals (whom destiny had brought into contact with him) as to the people. Birds and squirrels would build their nests close to him and mother monkeys were often seen to bring their babies to him for blessings in the same way human mothers would bring their children. Ramana never referred to animals in the usual Indian style as 'it' but always as 'he' or 'she.' At meal time at the ashram the animals were always fed first, then sadhus or beggars who might have chanced by, and then the devotees. He referred to the ashram dogs as 'the Lads'.

Many animals found their way to the ashram including dogs, cats, cows, peacocks, squirrels, birds and monkeys. Squirrels would hop through the window of Ramana's room and He always kept treats for them by his side. The animals felt his Grace and he loved them in return.

Despite protests from his followers, Ramana would not have the snakes that inhabited the ashram grounds killed, as he felt it was the people who were the invaders, so the homes of all the animals should be respected. He treated the snakes with great respect and it was said no devotee was ever harmed by one. Many animals would gather in the evenings when Bhagavan sat in the hall. On occasions when Bhagavan would be delayed, the animals would come to the hall and peer anxiously in the direction of his empty couch. Bhagavan was very intimate with the animals especially the local monkeys who considered him one of their own. Once Bhagavan and his devotees walked farther than expected and had become hungry. Out of nowhere appeared a band of monkeys who swarmed to the top of a high fig tree shaking its branches so that all of the fruit dropped to the ground for Bhagavan and his followers. The monkeys, taking no fruit for themselves, left as quickly as they had appeared.

The most favoured of all the animal devotees was a cow named Lakshmi. She was brought along with her mother as a gift to Bhagavan. As he felt the Ashram could not properly care for the cows, they were taken to a farm in a neighboring village. After Lakshmi had been with the farmer for more than a year, the man went one evening to Ramanashram bringing Lakshmi and her mother with him for a visit. Lakshmi was irresistibly attracted to Ramana and must have noted carefully the way to the ashram. The next day she appeared on her own and from then on came every day and returned, by herself, to her own home in the evening. She soon became a permanent member of the ashram. During her life, Lakshmi bore several calves at least three of them on Bhagavan's birthday. She was extremely devoted to Bhagavan and he showed her the utmost Grace and kindness.

On June 17, 1948 Lakshmi became very ill and it was clear her time had come. Bhagavan went to her and said: 'Amma (Mother), do you want me near you?' He sat down and cradled her head in his lap putting one hand on her head and one over her heart just as he had done when his own human mother lay dying. He gazed into Lakshmi's eyes for a long time and lay his cheek against hers stroking her gently. She focused all of her attention on Bhagavan and was conscious up to the end, her eyes bright and clear. On June 18th at 11:30 am she left her body peacefully. She was buried in the Ashram compound with full funeral rights. Her grave is next to those of a deer, crow and dog also buried by Bhagavan. A stone was placed over Lakshmi's grave with her likeness carved into it. On the stone was also engraved the epitaph he had written for her stating she had attained (Mukti) final liberation.

Life in the Ashram flowed on smoothly. With the passage of time more and more visitors came - some of them for a short stay and others for longer periods. The dimensions of the Ashram increased, and new features and departments were added - a home for the cattle, a school for the study of the Vedas, a publication department, and the Mother's Temple, within which worship was regularly conducted.

Ramana sat most of the time in the Hall witness to all that happened around him. He was also active with Ashram duties and used to; stitch leaf-plates, dress vegetables, read proofs received from the press, look into newspapers and books and suggest lines of reply to letters received. There were numerous invitations for him to undertake tours but, he never left Tiruvannamalai, and in later years, the Ashram.

From the day Ramana set foot in Tiruvannamalai, he did not move away even for a moment but lived there continuously for fifty-four years. In 1949 a lump began to grown on the lower portion of his left upper arm. At first the lump was very small but grew bigger after two operations, bleeding profusely and continuously, and proving to be cancerous. All kinds of treatment were tried, including radium application, but in vain. Even after the fourth operation, which was done on December 19th, 1949, the disease was not cured.

The sage was quite unconcerned, and was supremely indifferent to suffering. As he sat, a spectator watching the disease waste the body, his eyes shone as bright as ever; and his Grace flowed towards all beings. Crowds came in large numbers and Ramana insisted they should be allowed to have his darshan. Devotees intensely wished the sage should cure his body through an exercise of supernormal powers, but the Maharshi never exhibited even the slightest interest in Siddhis.

Even during the period of great torture caused by the disease, Bhagavan comforted the devotees whenever they were worried about this health. He once remarked:

'The body itself is a disease that has come upon us. If a disease attacks that original disease, is it not good for us?', and remarked to another devotee lamenting over his illness:

'Oh! You are grieving as if your Swami were going away? Where to go? How to go? Going and coming is possible for the body, but how can it be possible for us?'

No-one was prevented seeing Him till the very end which came at 8.47 p.m. on Friday April 14th, 1950. Earlier that evening the sage gave darshan to devotees. All present knew that the end was nearing and they sat singing Ramana's hymn to Arunachala with the refrain Arunachala-Siva. The sage asked his attendants to make him sit up. He opened his luminous and gracious eyes for a brief while; there was a smile; a tear of bliss trickled down from the outer corner of his eyes; and at 8-47 the breathing stopped. There was no struggle, no spasm, none of the signs of death. At that very moment, a comet moved slowly across the sky, reached the summit, of the holy hill, Arunachala, and disappeared behind it.

[1] Temple famous since medieval times for being celebrated in the hymns of two Tamil poet-saints, Sundaramurti and Manikkavachakar.

[2] This refers to the Periapuranam a collection of narratives on the lives of sixty-three Saivite Saints.

[3] Loincloth

[4] Courtyard

[5] A raised platform of stone covered over with an ornamental roof supported by pillars.

[6] Name can be translated as 'Saint of the Absolute'.