Monday, May 5, 2008

The authenticity of Bhagavans writings and dialogues

Several years ago a friend of mine in California asked the following question by email:

Which books do you feel are the most genuine documentations of Ramana’s words and teachings? Even the Talks was published several years after his death, though it reads consistently throughout. I have only seen the original translation of Who am I?, the small green booklet, and was unaware that there are other translations. How do these all compare for authenticity and clarity?’

Through circumstances that I can’t quite remember, the reply I sent ended up being posted online. I then found myself defending and clarifying some of the points I had made. I have just dusted off that particular series of correspondence and amalgamated all the points into one presentation. These are my thoughts on this topic, along with the reasoning behind them. It is a bit of a touchy subject and I suspect that some devotees will disagree with me.

Question: I have only seen the original translation of Who am I?, the small green booklet, and was unaware that there are other translations. How do these all compare for authenticity and clarity?’

Answer: There have been several translations of Who Am I?, some better than others. There are also several versions of the original text, which complicates matters. It has appeared as a question-and-answer version with the number of questions varying from thirteen to thirty. The essay version composed by Bhagavan himself is the most authentic because the original question-and-answer version that appeared in 1923 was composed and edited by Sivaprakasam Pillai and was not shown to Bhagavan prior to its publication.

Sivaprakasam Pillai questioned Bhagavan in 1901 and Bhagavan wrote down his replies either in the sand or on a slate, After each new question had been asked, the preceding reply was wiped out to make space for the new answer. Only the last one was not erased. Sivaprakasam Pillai then went home and wrote down what he could remember of this conversation. Given the circumstances of the questioning, it is possible that some errors crept in since the recording was dependent on Sivaprakasam Pillai’s memory of the replies.

Who am I? was first printed in Tamil in 1923 as an appendix to Sri Ramana Charita Ahaval, a verse biography of Bhagavan by Sivaprakasam Pillai. It was an immediate success with devotees. In 1926 Bhagavan rewrote the whole work in the form of an essay. This should be regarded as the standard and authentic text. During Bhagavan’s lifetime Bhagavan insisted that this book be subsidised so that new visitors to the ashram could have a short and accurate summary of his teachings. Many translations were brought out, and these too were subsidised so that non-Tamil speakers could have access to these key teachings. When new visitors asked what his teachings were, he would sometimes ask them to read Who am I? and then ask questions afterwards.

Although the essay version should have superseded the question-and-answer version, the question-and-answer version continued to be printed in various formats. However, over the next few years its text was back-edited to make it conform more closely to the essay version. Nowadays, there is very little difference between the two texts.

Question: Which books do you feel are the most genuine documentations of Ramana’s words and teachings?

Answer: At the top of this list has to be Bhagavan’s own writings, the works that appear in The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi. These would include Who am I?, Ulladu Narpadu, (Forty Verses) Upadesa Undiyar (Upadesa Saram), the five hymns to Arunachala and a few other smaller works. These were all composed by Bhagavan and checked by him during his lifetime. However, I should make it clear that Bhagavan only checked the Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and Malayalam versions of his writings that appeared during his lifetime. The later European-language translations of these works are only as good as the understanding and the linguistic ability of the person doing the translating. The first English edition of Collected Works was not published until the 1950s, after Bhagavan had passed away. I do not know of any English translations of these works that were checked and revised by Bhagavan except for some that were done by Major Chadwick. These were rather free, rhyming translations, rather than accurate renditions of the original philosophical ideas.

I would also include the portion of Ramana Puranam that was composed by Bhagavan on this list of works that have the highest authority and authenticity. In the 1930s Muruganar began a long Tamil poem in praise of Bhagavan, but stopped when he had written about 200 lines. He went out for a walk, and when he returned he discovered that Bhagavan had completed the poem by adding another 300 or so lines. Although much of this poem is a hymn in praise of Bhagavan, it also includes many teaching statements that summarise or elaborate on ideas that had already appeared in some of Bhagavan’s earlier philosophical poems.

Of the texts that appear in Collected Works and which are attributed to Bhagavan, Vichara Sangraham (Self Enquiry) occupies a bit of a grey area for me. Like Who am I?, this work arose from replies that Bhagavan wrote out in the period, around the start of the twentieth century, when he was not speaking. However, the content has one important difference. Sivaprakasam Pillai was asking questions on the nature of reality and the means of discovering it; Gambhiram Seshayya, the devotee who recorded the Vichara Sangraham answers, was more interested in getting an understanding of passages in Tamil spiritual books that he couldn’t understand because either the language or the philosophy was too difficult for him. He showed Tamil spiritual books to Bhagavan and asked him to summarise key passages from them in a simplified form. Bhagavan then wrote out paraphrases of these texts. Some of the teachings in Self Enquiry are clearly Bhagavan’s own, and were probably written in response to questions put by Gambhiram Seshayya, but they are mixed with material that is simply Bhagavan’s presentation of ideas taken from other books that he didn’t necessarily agree with.

All this would not matter so much if Bhagavan had, as he did with Who am I?, produced his own authoritative version of the text at a later date. Unfortunately, he did not write either the question-and-answer version that first appeared in Tamil around 1930 or the Tamil essay version that was first printed in 1939. Both of them were written and edited by Sadhu Natanananda. I am sure that Bhagavan checked and approved the versions that ended up in Collected Works, but one cannot really say that either was his own work.

The original source of Self Enquiry is the notebook that Gambhiram Seshayya’s relatives sent to the ashram in 1930. Since this notebook no longer exists, it is no longer possible to determine exactly how this work evolved from the original notes to the final published version.

While the works that appear in Collected Works have the highest provenance and the greatest authority, I believe that the version of Guru Vachaka Kovai that came out in Tamil in 1939 has an almost equal authority. Throughout the 1920s and 30s Muruganar sat in the hall and listened to Bhagavan give out his verbal teachings. Whenever Bhagavan said something that Muruganar thought was worth recording, Muruganar would write it down in the form of a four-line Tamil verse. These short and pithy recordings were shown to Bhagavan on the day that they were written, allowing Bhagavan to check their veracity. Sometimes Bhagavan would make corrections to the verse and return it. In 1939 all these verses were assembled and arranged by subject by Sadhu Natanananda, the man who wrote and edited the Tamil versions of Self Enquiry. Bhagavan went through a proof copy of Guru Vachaka Kovai and made major revisions to many of the verses. He also added a few verses of his own. After he had completed his editing work, Bhagavan turned his attention to the introduction that had been written by Sadhu Natanananda. There he found this statement:

In summary it can be said that this is a work that has come into existence to explain in great detail and in a pristine form Sri Ramana’s philosophy and its essential nature.

Bhagavan added one word to this sentence that makes an enormous difference to the meaning of this sentence. After he had edited it, the sentence read, ‘… this work alone has come into existence to explain in great detail and in a pristine form Sri Ramana’s philosophy and its essential nature.’

This interpolation by Bhagavan himself gives the highest imprimatur to this work. Editions of Guru Vachaka Kovai that came out after Bhagavan had passed away included verses that Bhagavan had not personally edited in this way, so their authority is slightly less, but even so, I would regard Guru Vachaka Kovai as the most authoritative collection of Bhagavan’s verbal teachings. It is also worth noting that it is recorded in Tamil, the language in which Bhagavan generally gave out his teachings. Other compilations of his verbal teachings were recorded in English (Talks, Day by Day) or Telugu (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam). The versions of them that now appear in Tamil are translations, not original texts.

If anyone is interested in tracking down the verses that appeared in the 1939 Tamil edition of Guru Vachaka Kovai, there are some appendices in the new translation of Guru Vachaka Kovai that will facilitate this search. This new edition, by Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself, will be out in a few months’ time.

Next, in order of authenticity and reliability, are the records of conversations that appeared during Bhagavan’s lifetime which were checked and edited by him prior to publication. This list would include Maharshi’s Gospel, Spiritual Instruction, and the talks that precede Sat Darshana Bhashya.

There is a proof copy of the first edition of Maharshi’s Gospel in the Ramanasramam archives which shows that Bhagavan made minor handwritten revisions to the text prior to its publication.

Spiritual Instruction has always appeared in The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, even though it is a record of answers Bhagavan gave out, rather than a written work. All the items that appeared in the Tamil edition of Collected Works have been thoroughly checked by Bhagavan himself.

The dialogues that precede Sat Darshana Bhashya were read to Bhagavan by Kapali Sastri prior to their publication. As he was listening to them, Bhagavan made suggestions that were all incorporated. K. Natesan, who was present in the hall on the day of the reading, told me that Bhagavan asked Kapali Sastri to change one phrase to ‘import of I’ – a nice English phrase – but he couldn’t remember what words it replaced.

Sri Ramana Gita, which was also published during Bhagavan’s lifetime, is more problematic. It was not shown to Bhagavan prior to its publication, and G. V. Subbaramayya has recorded an incident in which Bhagavan wanted to change the original Sanskrit of one verse because a particular term was inappropriate. The first edition was not published by Sri Ramanasramam, but when the ashram took over the book, subsequent editions were checked by Bhagavan before they were printed. Bhagavan also took care to ensure that the editions of Sri Ramana Gita that were published in other languages were accurate. I visited K. K. Nambiar in Chennai in the early 1980s and he showed me the Malayalam edition of Sri Ramana Gita that he and Bhagavan had worked on together. Bhagavan had eventually written out all eighteen chapters in Malayalam, and this handwritten copy was sitting on Nambiar’s altar when I visited. He told me that he recited the whole work in Malayalam every day as parayana.

Ganapati Muni, the devotee who recorded Sri Ramana Gita, had a photographic memory, and Bhagavan has gone on record as saying that the teachings recorded there are an accurate presentation of the conversations that took place. However, he was not so happy with the questions themselves or with the motives that lay behind them.

Around 1980 Sadhu Om interviewed Sadhu Natanananda about various events that had taken place during Bhagavan’s lifetime and the conversation was recorded on an audio tape. Sadhu Om and Michael James made an English translation of this conversation shortly afterwards, and Michael was kind enough to give me a copy.

Sadhu Natanananda said during the interview that shortly after he had arrived at Ramanasramam he had asked Bhagavan about the contents of Sri Ramana Gita because he didn’t read Sanskrit himself. Bhagavan told him that he didn’t need to read the text.

Then Bhagavan told him, ‘They came to me, not to get knowledge of my teachings, but to convert me to their own. They tried to get me to agree with them, but I refused. Even though I wouldn’t say what they wanted me to say, they went ahead and published the book. This is a bit like a high-wire circus artist who falls off the wire, does a somersault on the way down to the safety net, and then pretends that falling off was all part of the act.’

This is harsh criticism indeed, but it didn’t stop Bhagavan from doing his usual thorough job of editing and translating the editions of this book that came out in the last few decades of his life. The book was popular with many devotees and Bhagavan took great care to ensure that all editions of it were accurate and well translated.

Next, I must mention a little-known book that Bhagavan was actively involved in. In the late 1920s he asked Lakshmana Sarma if he had read Ulladu Narpadu. Lakshmana Sarma replied that he hadn’t, adding that the Tamil in the verses was too complicated for him. Lakshmana Sarma knew Sanskrit and had a good grounding in Vedanta, but he hadn’t studied the literary Tamil format in which Bhagavan had composed Ulladu Narpadu. Bhagavan invited Lakshmana Sarma to come every day and have lessons on the meaning of each verse. After each verse was completed, Lakshmana Sarma would compose a Sanskrit rendering of that verse to prove that he had fully understood the meaning. Bhagavan checked these Sanskrit verses and usually made him change them several times until he was satisfied that the meaning had been accurately conveyed. Lakshmana Sarma’s Sanskrit rendering of Ulladu Narpadu was eventually published under the title Revelation, and an English translation of it, by Lakshmana Sarma himself, is also available from Sri Ramanasramam. Other than Muruganar, Lakshmana Sarma was the only devotee to have private lessons from Bhagavan on the meanings of his written works.

In the early 1930s Lakshmana Sarma used the knowledge he had gained from these lessons with Bhagavan to write a Tamil commentary on Ulladu Narpadu. This commentary was serialised in a Tamil magazine. Bhagavan cut them all out of the magazine and pasted them in a scrapbook that was kept near his sofa. If people approached him and asked him for the meaning of any particular verse, he would often hand over the scrapbook and ask them to read the relevant entry. Chinnaswami, the manager of Ramanasramam, refused to publish this work as an ashram book because he had had some other dispute with Lakshmana Sarma, so Lakshmana Sarma published it himself. Bhagavan was not happy with this arrangement. Usually, he never interfered with the administration of the ashram, but in this case he decided to make an exception. He went to the ashram office and told Chinnaswami, ‘Everyone is saying that this is the best book on Ulladu Narpadu. Why don’t you print it?’

Chinnaswami took the hint and subsequent editions were printed by the ashram. Lakshmana Sarma’s commentary has never appeared as a book in English, but over the last year or so a translation has been serialised in The Mountain Path. Presumably, when this serialisation is over, it will come out in book form.

I should like to put the spotlight now on Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, the biggest published collection of dialogues with Bhagavan. The first thing to note is that Bhagavan never checked and revised this book in the way that he did with Guru Vachaka Kovai or the other books of conversations that appeared during his lifetime. A portion of the original manuscript, recorded by Munagala Venkataramiah in the 1930s, still exists. There are various editing and correction marks in it done by devotees of that era, but none of the marks is by Bhagavan. Annamalai Swami and Sadhu Om both told me that they saw Bhagavan reading parts of the manuscript in the hall, but at no point did he make any attempt to edit or change what was there.

There are several factors that need to be weighed when one is assessing the reliability of what appears in this book:

(a) No one ever recorded Bhagavan’s voice. All the dialogues that appear were written down from memory.

(b) Munagala Venkataramiah was not always allowed to write down what Bhagavan said at the time he said it. For some time Chinnaswami enforced a rule that no one was allowed to take any notes in the hall. During these periods Munagala Venkataramiah had to wait till he got back to his room, often several hours later, before he could commit his memories of conversations to paper.

(c) Munagala Venkataramiah had a reputation for adding comments of his own when he acted as Bhagavan’s translator in the hall. Some of these additional comments found their way into his manuscript.

(d) Munagala Venkataramiah was not the sole recorder. Visitors who had had conversations with Bhagavan when Munagala Venkataramiah was absent sometimes wrote up their own versions of these conversations and passed them on to Munagala Venkataramiah. These contributions can only be as reliable as the people who made them. Munagala Venkataramiah sometimes edited these contributions, and sometimes incorporated them without changes. Talk numbers 530-47, for example, were recorded by Annamalai Swami in his own diary. Munagala Venkataramiah heavily edited many of these entries.

(e) Other people such as S. S. Cohen, who were also recording dialogues during this period, sometimes have quite different versions of the same conversation.

When my comments about the provenance of Talks were first posted online, I received an email from Ajay Kumar that pointed out that Major Chadwick had given its accuracy a much higher rating in his introduction to the book:

The completed notes were often shown to questioners for verification, but the whole had the seal of approval of Sri Bhagavan himself, as the records were always shown him for his approval or the necessary alteration after they had been entered in the notebook. Thus we may be sure that here we have the exact teaching of the Master.

Most of what follows, in bold, is the reply that I sent him:

When one is attempting to evaluate the accuracy of a particular text that was in existence in Bhagavan’s lifetime, it is important to recognise a distinction between something Bhagavan read and something Bhagavan actually corrected and revised. I am sure that huge portions of the Talks manuscript would have been quite acceptable to Bhagavan had he taken the trouble to edit it for publication, but the fact remains that he didn’t.

Parts of the Talks manuscript did appear in Maharshi’s Gospel, which came out in 1939. The second half of Maharshi’s Gospel contains dialogues that do not appear anywhere else. I strongly believe that they were dialogues that Maurice Frydman, the editor of the book, had with Bhagavan but I can’t prove this conclusively because he covered his tracks very well. The first half of Maharshi’s Gospel, though, comprises conversations that were lifted verbatim from the Talks manuscript. Judging by the small number of alterations that were made to the Maharshi’s Gospel proof copy by Bhagavan, one can infer that he was reasonably happy with the text in the manuscript.

Chadwick stresses that ‘we may be sure that here [in Talks] we have the exact teaching of the Master’. I am not so convinced, and the reason I say this is that there is one excellent bench mark against which the accuracy of Talks can be measured. In 1936 Bhagavan gave a deposition in a court case. This took place in the hall, and devotees were allowed to attend. The court stenographer made a verbatim transcript of everything Bhagavan said, while Munagala Venkataramiah made notes that he later included in Talks. The full dialogue can be found on my website in the article entitled Bhagavan the Atiasrami. I will just give a couple of extracts from it to illustrate the point I am trying to make. They are from 5th December, 1936:

Munagala Venkataramiah’s version

Question: Who is your Guru?

Bhagavan: The Self.

Question: For whom?

Bhagavan: For myself. The Guru may be internal or external. He may reveal himself internally or externally.

The only reply recorded by the court stenographer on this topic was:

Bhagavan: For me Atma itself is the Guru. My Atma is Guru for my Atma.

Munagala Venkataramiah again:

Question: You spoke of atiasrama the other day. Is there authority for it? Is it mentioned anywhere?

Bhagavan: Yes, in the Upanishads, the Suta Samhita [Skanda Purana], Bhagavata, Bharata and other works.

Court record of Bhagavan’s reply to this question:

Bhagavan: Details about atiasrama are contained in the Suta Samhita.

If you compare the two sets of questions and answers, you will see that some of Munagala Venkataramiah’s transcriptions are decidedly off the mark. Not only does he fail to record the answer to the key question ‘Who is your Guru?’ correctly, he also pads it out with additional comments that Bhagavan did not make. The additional comments are remarks that Bhagavan did make on this subject on other occasions, but on this particular day he restricted himself to what the stenographer recorded. This habit of padding out the answers can also be seen when Bhagavan gives a scriptural citation for atiasrama (the Suta Samhita). Munagala Venkataramiah added the Upanishads, the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata to the list. These works may contain material on this subject, but they were not cited by Bhagavan during this deposition.

These two examples should be enough to demonstrate the point I am trying to make. I have spoken to many devotees who were present in the hall in the 1930s when Munagala Venkataramiah was the principal translator. Most of them told me that he regularly added his own comments to what Bhagavan said. When he wrote down the conversations later, many of these additional comments found their way into his record. The additional comments were usually remarks that Bhagavan had made on the same subject on different occasions, so they were not entirely inappropriate, but I feel there was no justification for padding out Bhagavan’s comments in this way. Bhagavan, who had a good grasp of English, must have known what was going on, but he didn’t interfere unless his own words had been mistranslated in some way. I have been told that when Devaraja Mudaliar translated for the first time in the early 1940s, Bhagavan beamed with pleasure and said words to the effect, ‘Finally, someone who translates exactly what I say’. I have heard three different versions of this comment from devotees who were with Bhagavan in the 1940s, and this is a summary of the gist of all three of them.

Having said all this, I have to say that Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi is one of my favourite books of Bhagavan’s teaching. One can feel the power of Bhagavan’s words and teachings on every page. It may not be exactly what Bhagavan said, but his teachings are simple and clear enough to withstand the occasional embellishment.

I will revert now to my discussion of which collections of his verbal teachings Bhagavan read and checked.

Most of the text of Day by Day with Bhagavan was not checked by Bhagavan. Devaraja Mudaliar showed the first few pages to Bhagavan when he started compiling his record, but dropped the habit soon afterwards, except when he was unsure of what he had recorded. Devaraja Mudaliar operated under the same constraints that the compiler of Talks did, so the same qualifications must also apply. One plus in favour of this work is that Bhagavan publicly pronounced himself to be highly satisfied with Devaraja Mudaliar’s skill and accuracy as an interpreter.

The letters that comprise Letters from Sri Ramanasramam were published in a Telugu journal during Bhagavan’s lifetime, but there is no evidence that Bhagavan ever checked the material before it went to the press. Balaram Reddy told me in the 1980s that there was a rivalry between the various 1940s recorders (Krishna Bhikshu, Devaraja Mudaliar and Suri Nagamma) with each accusing the other of transcribing irrelevant or inaccurate material. Bhagavan, following his usual habit of non-interference, refused to take sides or intervene in this. Balaram Reddy also told me that these devotees would give the writings of the other two to Bhagavan to be checked in the hope that he would publicly announce that there was some mistake in them. It was all a bit petty, but it did have the serendipitous result of Bhagavan going through a lot of material that he might not otherwise have checked.

This leads me onto another factor that has to be considered. Bhagavan would often read material that devotees had submitted and return it without making any corrections, even if the material was wildly inaccurate. The most famous instance of this was a Malayalam biography that was written while Bhagavan was still at Skandashram. It was a complete fantasy, compiled by a railway clerk who had had several children. In the book Bhagavan was portrayed as an ex-railway clerk with several children who had miraculous powers that he frequently exhibited. Bhagavan patiently went through the manuscript, correcting a few spelling and grammatical mistakes along the way and then handed it back to the author. None of the devotees in the ashram at that time knew Malayalam. Kunju Swami, a Malayali, was off on a trip, so no one knew what had been written in the manuscript.

When Kunju Swami returned the other devotees told him about the manuscript and asked him to translate it for them. Kunju Swami read it and was horrified to discover how badly Bhagavan had been misrepresented.

He approached Bhagavan and enquired, ‘Is any of this true?’

Bhagavan apparently replied, ‘It’s as true as all this,’ waving at the world around him.

So, knowing that Bhagavan read something and returned it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is accurate. However, I should also point out that if Bhagavan did take an interest in something that was shown to him, he could be a fiercely uncompromising editor. Lakshmana Sarma had to recast his Sanskrit translations of Bhagavan’s Tamil verses many, many times before Bhagavan pronounced himself satisfied. Muruganar’s first draft of Guru Vachaka Kovai was extensively reworked by Bhagavan before it went to the press. Translations or presentations of his teachings by close devotees always received special attention. G. V. Subbaramayya’s book, Sri Ramana Reminiscences, records many incidents that show just how seriously Bhagavan took his editing responsibilities.

There is one other category of Bhagavan literature that I must discuss: biographies.

The first major biography of Bhagavan, Self Realization, was written by B. V. Narasimha Swami and published in 1929. Narasimha Swami did extensive research on Bhagavan’s life and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude for all the work he put in. He wrote to all the devotees he could find the addresses of, asking for information about Bhagavan and for stories about the devotee’s connection with Bhagavan. He interviewed many people in the ashram, including Bhagavan himself, and travelled extensively all over Tamil Nadu, looking for information and collecting photographs. Somewhat surprisingly, he did not show his manuscript to Bhagavan before it was published. I referred earlier to a court deposition that Bhagavan gave in the hall. A former devotee was suing the ashram, claiming to be its true owner. This man’s lawyer produced a copy of Self Realization and asked Bhagavan if he had read it prior to its publication, and whether the incidents depicted in it were true. Bhagavan replied that he had not been shown it in advance, and that there were some mistakes in it. He did not, unfortunately, elaborate on what they were.

However, having read the book, I believe that the mistakes were only minor. B. V. Narasimha Swami left Ramanasramam shortly afterwards and never updated his book. The portion that deals with Bhagavan’s life after 1930 was added by S. S. Cohen many years later.

The material in Self Realization was extensively used by the early Tamil and Telugu biographers: Suddhananda Bharati used it to write Sri Ramana Vijayam in Tamil, while Krishna Bhikshu brought out Ramana Leela in Telugu. Initially, Ramana Leela was just a translation of Self Realization, but in the years that followed it was updated several times. Sri Ramana Vijayam remained the same. By the 1940s some devotees were noticing that stories were being told differently in these three books, and one of them asked Bhagavan why this was so. Bhagavan replied that the authors of Self-Realization and Sri Ramana Vijayam had left shortly after completing their works, whereas Krishna Bhikshu had stayed and updated his book from time to time. I would take this to imply that Bhagavan thought that Ramana Leela was more accurate than the others because the author had taken the trouble to check the revisions with Bhagavan himself.

For several decades Ramana Leela was only available in Telugu, but a few years Ramanasramam brought out the first English edition of this key work.

I should now like to distil everything I have said into a few key, and possibly oversimplified, statements:

(a) The material composed by Bhagavan himself that contains his own teachings and experiences, rather than summaries or translations of other people's, are the most reliable and authentic.

(b) The works that Bhagavan took the trouble to edit, correct or supervise himself can all be regarded as highly reliable sources. These include Maharshi’s Gospel, Spiritual Instruction, Revelation, Guru Vachaka Kovai in Tamil, Sri Ramana Leela, and the conversations in Sat Darshan Bhashya. This category would also include translations of ashram texts, such as Sri Ramana Gita, which Bhagavan supervised and edited.

(c) The remaining sources of the teachings may be reliable, but they were not checked and personally revised by Bhagavan. They may also contain errors that resulted from the transcribing conditions prevailing in the ashram.

I have only dealt with titles that were published during Bhagavan’s lifetime, or which were based on material that was recorded by devotees prior to Bhagavan’s passing away. In subsequent years many devotees wrote their own accounts, many of which contained their experiences with Bhagavan, the stories he told and the teachings he gave out. These can only be as reliable as the memories of the people concerned. However, some of these books contain records that were written down on the day that the events were witnessed or the talks heard. S. S. Cohen (Guru Ramana), G. V. Subbaramayya (Sri Ramana Reminiscences), and Annamalai Swami (Living By The Words Of Bhagavan) all kept diaries that recorded Bhagavan’s teachings and the events that were going on in his presence. I think it is fair to assume that the material which was written down on the day it happened is intrinsically more accurate than memories transcribed several decades later.


arvind said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge & thoughts in this & the other postings.

You mentioned Sri BVN’s biography “Self-Realisation” & of course it contains the crucial narrative relating to Sri Bhagavan’s “death experience” in Madurai. Then, on this event, there is the stunning Mountain Path article in the 1981 April issue (which one suspects was written by you, since you were on the editorial board then), which gives new insights into the whole thing. So is there any additional authentic material available relating to this event ? Is there anything written by any of the old devotees in the old notebooks, who may have spoken to Sri Bhagavan about this ? Even just a stray noting here or there ? It seems that Sri Bhagavan Himself never edited or corrected any of the published versions of this event nor did He talk about it much.

In fact, I am hoping that you might have quizzed some of the old-timers on this event & would be really really grateful if you could tell anything further on the matter.

David Godman said...

Thanks for your input on this.

The narrative of Bhagavan's enlightenment that appears in Self Realisation was written by B. V. Narasimha Swami after he had gathered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle from Bhagavan over a period of several weeks. Bhagavan did not narrate the event in the way that Narasimha Swami told the story; he simply provided snippets of information that Narasimha Swami later assembled into what he thought was a coherent narrative. Narasimha Swami was honest enough to admit this. In a footnote to the first edition he said that he had written this account himself, deriving its contents from information gleaned from Bhagavan over a period of several weeks. In later editions this note disappeared, leaving new readers with the false impression that this was how Bhagavan described the event himself. As you are probably aware, this description has been accepted as the standard and authentic one; there is even a huge signboard in the New Hall adjacent to the Mother's Temple where the whole experience is displayed for visitors to read.

There is additional information on this event elsewhere. In the Telugu version of his realisation, recorded by Krishna Bhikshu in Ramana Leela, Bhagavan notes that he experienced the aham spurana just prior to the final experience. The grammar of that account is also quite interesting. By saying 'The body lay itself down on the floor, the limbs stretched themselves out,' and so on, he is making it clear that it is something that happened to him, rather than something that he did. Narasimha Swami couches the story in an 'I did this, then I did that' format. Just before he begins the crucial part of the story, he has Bhagavan say, 'I felt I had to solve the problem myself then and there'. The impersonal passive voice of Krishna Bhikhu's account sounds more reliable to me.

Then, quite remarkably, there is the complete absence of the phrase 'Who am I?' from Narasimha' Swami's account, even though this was a key element of the process.

When Bhagavan himself wrote about the experience in Arunachala Ashtakam, verse two, he wrote:

'Enquiring within "Who is the seer?" I saw the seer disappear, leaving That alone which stands for ever. No thought arose to say "I saw", how then could the thought arise to say "I did not see"?'

The absence of the specific act of enquiry and the aham sphurana experience that preceded the final liberation are major and significant omissions.

Yes, I was responsible for publishing the death experience account that appeared in the 1981 edition of The Mountain Path. I found it among Narasimha Swami's papers in the ashram archives. It seemed to be part of the original notes that were later tuned into the final published version. I will get a copy from the library and post it here since I think many people will be interested in reading it.

Anonymous said...

Scott Fraundorf: I have a question. On one page in Talks with Ramana Maharshi, it has a dialogue between Mr. Krishnamurti, an Andhra gentleman, and Bagavan. Do you know if that is Jiddu Krishnamurti? Some of the phrasing of the questions reminded me of him, especially asking about why someone would do tapas by holding their arm in the air for years.

David Godman said...


Jiddu Krishnamurti never came to see Bhagavan.

Nanda said...

It was U.G. Krishnamurti who met Sri Ramana, not Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Losing M. Mind said...

One problem I see with recording dialogues of Maharshi from memory, is that in my own case, the ego is highly distorting of what happens, and what is perceived. And so if I was sitting with Maharshi and then went away and wrote what I heard, but I had not Realized the Self, there would be bound to be distortions. Because the words of the Master is not an intellectual topic, that I can just get the gist of. So in a way, this article almost seems to detract the credibility of Talks considerably. Because if Maharshi didn't even think that person was a fit translator, that means that he did not understand Maharshi's teachings, and the things he added were from his own flawed understanding. Whereas, even though Day by Day wasn't checked and edited the fact that he valued that person's translating, implies that that person's grasp was deeper. I really sense that, that Day by Day is a better text than Talks, glows more. From reading my own teacher's commentary on Self-Enquiry "Essence of Enquiry", I am convinced that it is perhaps a more important text then is given credit. The thing I found powerful about Self-Enquiry and previously it was one I had skipped over was that it does deal with topics besides the highest teachings. For an unripe aspirant such as myself reading it, it details the stages of 'progress' toward samadhi. While Maharshi's teachings of Who am I? are kind of it seems the ultimate Truth. If I didn't deal with the more gross egoic issues, I wouldn't stand a chance. And Self-Enquiry seems to comprehensively deal with some of the more basic issues and the necessity of Self-enquiry.

Nanda said...

It was U.G. Krishnamurti who met Sri Ramana, not Jiddu Krishnamurti.

arvind said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge & thoughts in this & the other postings.

You mentioned Sri BVN’s biography “Self-Realisation” & of course it contains the crucial narrative relating to Sri Bhagavan’s “death experience” in Madurai. Then, on this event, there is the stunning Mountain Path article in the 1981 April issue (which one suspects was written by you, since you were on the editorial board then), which gives new insights into the whole thing. So is there any additional authentic material available relating to this event ? Is there anything written by any of the old devotees in the old notebooks, who may have spoken to Sri Bhagavan about this ? Even just a stray noting here or there ? It seems that Sri Bhagavan Himself never edited or corrected any of the published versions of this event nor did He talk about it much.

In fact, I am hoping that you might have quizzed some of the old-timers on this event & would be really really grateful if you could tell anything further on the matter.