David Godman on Ramana Maharshi’s Highest Teaching

These [Ramana Maharshi’s] verbal teachings flowed authoritatively from his direct knowledge that consciousness was the only existing reality. Consequently, all his explanations and instructions were geared to convincing his followers that this was their true and natural state. Few of his followers were capable of assimilating this truth in its highest and most undiluted form and so he often adapted his teachings to conform to the limited understanding of the people who came to him for advice. Because of this tendency it is possible to distinguish many different levels of his teachings. At the highest level that could be expressed in words he would say that consciousness alone exists.

If this was received with skepticism he would say that awareness of this truth is obscured by the self-limiting ideas of the mind and that if these ideas were abandoned then the reality of consciousness would be revealed. Most of his followers found this high-level approach a little too theoretical – they were so immersed in the self-limiting ideas that Sri Ramana was encouraging them to drop that they felt that the truth about consciousness would only be revealed to them if they underwent a long period of spiritual practice. To satisfy such people Sri Ramana prescribed an innovative method of self-attention which he called self-enquiry. He recommended this technique so often and so vigorously that it was regarded by many people as the most distinctive motif in his teachings.

Even then, many people were not satisfied and they would continue to ask for advice about other methods or try to engage him in theoretical philosophical discussions. With such people Sri Ramana would temporarily abandon his absolute standpoint and give appropriate advice on whatever level it was asked. If he appeared on these occasions to accept and endorse many of the misconceptions which his visitors had about themselves it was only to draw their attention to some aspect of his teachings that he felt would help them to better understand his real views.

Inevitably, this policy of modifying his teachings to meet the needs of different people led to many contradictions. He might, for example, tell one person that the individual self is non-existent and then turn to another person and give a detailed description of how the individual self functions, accumulates karma and reincarnates. It is possible for an observer to say that such opposing statements may both be true when seen from different standpoints, but the former statement clearly has more validity when it is viewed from the absolute standpoint of Sri Ramana’s own experience. This standpoint, summarized by his statement that consciousness alone exists, is ultimately the only yardstick by which one can realistically assess the relative truth of his widely differing and contradictory statements. To whatever extent his other statements deviate from this it may be assumed that to that extent they are dilutions of the truth.

(Source: David Godman, Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, 1985: Arkana Penguin Books, Introduction)

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