Saturday, March 26, 2011

A LIFE Look at Sri Ramana Maharshi

Sri Ramana Maharshi in LIFE Magazine 60 years ago.

LIFE magazine, one of the world’s most popular photo journals from America during most part of the 20th century, devoted a lavish eleven pages to an article on Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi in its issue dated 30th May 1949, nearly 60 years ago. The article was entitled “HOLY MAN: Sri Ramana Mahrashi has India’s answer to most of man’s problems”. It was written by one Winthrop Sargeant, one of the Senior Editors of the magazine. It was the heyday of photo journalism when globetrotting writers and photographers brought the excitement of the outer world into the homes of the affluent, more or less like what the satellite TV does today. The article is sumptuously illustrated by LIFE’s staff photographer Eliot Elisofan. There are eleven black and white photographs, full of punch, in the typical LIFE style.

[LIFE magazine was founded in America in 1883 as a weekly journal with an emphasis on photo-journalism. It finally closed down with its issue dated 20th April 2007, after a lapse of 124 years. During its heyday it had a paid circulation of one and a half million copies]

Sargeant visited India sometime in 1949 with the main purpose of meeting two of the greatest Yogis of that time namely Maharshi Aurobindo of the Pondichery Ashram and Maharshi Ramana of the Sri Ramanashram at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. As Aurobindo was living in seclusion during those days and was giving public Darshan only four times a year on specified dates, Sargeant could not see him. Even though he was fully aware of it, he still he went to Pondichery a view to meeting the other inmates of the Ashram and get first hand knowledge. As the next public appearance of Aurobindo was months away, Sargeant proceeded to Tiruvannamalai, about 100 miles away, to meet Ramana Maharshi who, according to Sargeant, was ‘an equally famous man’. Sargeant had heard that Ramana was more sociable. His meeting with the Maharshi was arranged by Prof.K.Swaminathan, Professor of English Literature at the Madras University, who was a very close devotee of Ramana.

Recording his first impressions about the meeting, Sargeant says “Sri Ramana would have looked like a superior human being in any surroundings. He has the quietly assured look of a man who has experienced a great deal and thought everything through to a final, unshakable connection. Even the unbeliever could see that he possessed a sort of personal serenity that is rare even in the contemporary Orient. I mumbled a few words of greeting which I hoped were appropriate and was smilingly waved to a place on the floor. The Maharshi spoke very little, sometimes in English and sometimes in Tamil which a considerable part of his audience could not understand. But that didn’t seem to matter. “You can attain peace of mind merely by being near him” the Professor of English Literature explained later.

Even though the main theme of his article is Ramana Maharshi, Sargeant appears to have been closely and correctly acquainted with several important scriptures of Hinduism like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavadgitha, the Upanishads, the several systems of Yoga etc. which is obvious from his article. Paying glowing tributes to Hinduism and comparing it with the Western philosophy, Sargeant writes “Hinduism is not only old, durable and extensive: it is unquestionably the most complicated religion in the world. It owes some of this complexity to the mental attitudes of a people who have always loved intellectual elaboration for its own sake. What the West calls theology has expanded in India to the portions of a universal science which includes nearly every aspect of Indian culture. Indian art, music, literature, psychology etc are all theological subjects. The Westerners refer to all these theological pursuits as Hindu philosophy. Hindu philosophy is by no means primitive. Its literature would already have filled vast libraries before the Christian era and it has been growing ever since. It encompasses a huge amount of what even Western scholars concede to be great literature and a mass of obscure metaphysical speculation that has touched on most of the problems of the Western thought. The West often forgets that it was the Hindus who invented the concept of zero in mathematics and who evolved the science of algebra. They also anticipated countless Western scientific hypotheses, from the atomic theory to modern psychiatry’s concept of unconscious mind”

Comparing the development of thought in both the hemispheres, Sargeant writes
“But to the orthodox Hindu mind, which considers the material world an illusion of the senses, experiment has never seemed important. While the Westerner busied himself with test tubes with an effort to subdue and comprehend his material environment, the Hindu simply sat and thought. That is one of the main reasons why Westerners find it difficult to understand India and why they often underestimate the Hindu mind which in morals, mathematics, psychology, philosophy and other fields of more or less subjective thought is at least the equal of our own”.

Displaying an intimate knowledge about Hindu philosophy and dealing with such subjects as polytheism, idol worship, creation of the world, the concept of the Trinity etc,
Sargeant broadly discusses about the Hindu concept of the reincarnation of birth. Sargeant says “ Hinduism’s outstanding tenet is the doctrine called ‘reincarnation’—the idea that the human soul never dies but is reborn again and again like the vital force that causes plant to sprout, seed, die and resprout. Ultimately, by a process of purification, the soul becomes free of the necessity of repeated rebirths and is permanently united with the vital force itself. This final state is the goal of all human life and the surest method of attaining it is the discipline of Yoga”.

As we all know, the Bhagavadgitha has ramifications of the doctrine of reincarnation. So, Sargeant is naturally led to take up the subject of Bhagavadgitha. Stating his views on the Geetha, Sargeant says “The Bhagavadgitha, which is to Hinduism what the Sermon on the Mount is to Christianity, dates in word of mouth- form from long before the time of Buddha [500 B.C]. Seldom in the history of religious and philosophical writing has so much profundity of thought been encompassed in a few pages, and the result is a compendium of the essentials of the Hindu religion”.

After dealing extensively about the origin, contents and the importance of Bhagavadgitha in daily life, Sargeant puts a question to himself “Now what has all this ancient doctrine got to do with with Sri Ramana Maharshi, the sun-tanned old gentleman who lives at the foot of the Arunachala Mountain?” “Everything” he himself answers “Sri Ramana’s views are extremely orthodox and correspond exactly with those propounded in the Geetha. His life of austerity, his renunciation of all worldly desires, his contemplative serenity, his unshakable peace of mind are all part of the traditional equipment of the Hindu sage. To millions of Hindus he is a living saint and an example. Sri Ramana, they believe, is about to break his cycle of rebirths. When he dies, he will be absorbed into eternal union with Brahman. Only the presence of his physical body, an outer husk connected with the world of appearances, still sustains this illusion that he is a man like other men”.
[Maharshi attained Samadhi on 14th April 1950]


ARTICLE NO. 453--Sri Ramana Maharshi in LIFE Magazine 60 years ago
Created: Friday, July 18, 2008 10:35 PM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home