Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bhagavan's death experience

In a recent comment on one of the other posts I promised to find the manuscript version of Bhagavan's enlightenment experience that was printed in The Mountain Path. It's from 1981, pp. 67-69. It's a very interesting account, one that sheds a lot of extra light on the events of that day and the weeks that followed. The material in italics is the editor's introduction to the article, while the material in roman is Bhagavan's story, as recorded by B. V. Narasimha Swami.

The most detailed published account of Bhagavan’s realisation is to be found in B. V. Narasimha Swami’s biography Self Realization. It was the first major biography to be written, and all subsequent accounts have relied heavily on his version, either quoting it verbatim or summarising its contents. The account in the book was not a direct transcription of Bhagavan’s words, and the author makes this clear in a footnote which has appeared in most of the editions of the book. He said that he was merely summarising, in his own words, a series of conversations which he had with Bhagavan over a period of six weeks in 1930. The following account gives two of the conversations on which his final account was based. These are the only records of the conversation that are still in existence, but fortunately they cover all the known aspects of the experience, so it is unlikely that much valuable material has been lost. The first conversation took place on 8th January 1930 and the second a few weeks later on 5th February.

There are two important points in this account that are not brought out in the published version. The first is Bhagavan’s repeated use of the word avesam to describe his initial perception of his experience. In Tamil the word means ‘possession’ in the sense of being taken over by a spirit. For the first few weeks Bhagavan felt that he had been taken over by a spirit which had taken up residence in his body. The second related point is that the feeling persisted until shortly before he left home. His discovery that the avesam was the Self, and not some external being residing in his body, may have been a contributory factor in his decision to leave home.

The account is in Bhagavan’s words, and though there are strong traces of the translator’s style and preferred terminology, it is still a more accurate version than the ones that have appeared in all the published biographies.

Bhagavan: My fear of death was some six weeks before I left Madurai for good. That was only on one day and for a short time. At the time there was a flash of excitement; it may roughly be described as ‘heat’, but it was not clear that there was a higher temperature in the body, nor was there perspiration. It appeared to be like some avesam or some spirit possessing me. That changed my mental attitude and habits. I had formerly [had] a preference for some foods and an aversion to others. This tendency dropped off and all foods were swallowed with equal indifference, good or rotten, tasty or tasteless. Studies and duties became matters of utter indifference to me, and I went through my studies turning over pages mechanically just to make others who were looking on think that I was reading. In fact, my attention was never directed towards the books, and consequently I never understood their contents. Similarly, I went through other social duties, possessed all the time by this avesam, i.e., my mind was absent from them, being fascinated and charmed by my own Self. I would put up with every burden imposed on me at home, tolerating every slight with humility and forbearance. Periodically, interest in and introspection on the Self would swallow up all other feelings and interests.

That fear was only on the first day, that is, the day of the awakening. It was a sudden fear of death which developed, not merely indifference to external things. It also started two new habits. First, the habit of introspection, that is, having attention perpetually turned on my Self, and second, the habit of emotional tears when visiting the Madurai Temple. The actual enquiry and discovery of ‘Who I am’ was over on the very first day of the change. That time, instinctively, I held my breath and began to think or dive inward with my enquiry into my own nature.

‘This body is going to die,’ I said to myself, referring to the gross physical body. I had no idea that there was any sukshma sarira [subtle body] in human beings. I did not even think of the mind. I thought of the gross physical body when I used the term body, and I came to the conclusion that when it was dead and rigid (then it seemed to me that my body had actually become rigid as I stretched myself like a corpse with rigor mortis upstairs, thinking this out) I was not dead. I was, on the other hand, conscious of being alive, in existence. So the question arose in me, ‘What was this “I”? Is it the body? Who called himself the “I”?’

So I held my mouth shut, determined not to allow it to pronounce ‘I’ or any other syllable. Still I felt within myself, the ‘I’ was there, and the thing calling or feeling itself to be ‘I’ was there. What was that? I felt that there was a force or current, a centre of energy playing on the body, continuing regardless of the rigidity or activity of the body, though existing in connection with it. It was that current, force or centre that constituted my Self, that kept me acting and moving, but this was the first time I came to know it. I had no idea of my Self before that. From that time on, I was spending my time absorbed in contemplation of that current.

Once I reached that conclusion (as I said, on the first day of the six weeks, the day of my awakening into my new life) the fear of death dropped off. It had no place in my thoughts. ‘I’, being a subtle current, it had no death to fear. So, further development or activity was issuing from the new life and not from any fear. I had no idea at that time of the identity of that current with the personal God, or Iswara as I used to call him. As for Brahman, the impersonal absolute, I had no idea then. I had not even heard the name then. I had not read the Bhagavad Gita or any other religious works except the Periyapuranam and in Bible class the four Gospels and the Psalms from the Bible. I had seen a copy of Vivekananda’s Chicago lecture, but I had not read it. I could not even pronounce his name correctly. I pronounced it ‘Vyvekananda’, giving the ‘i’ the ‘y’ sound. I had no notions of religious philosophy except the current notions of God, that He is an infinitely powerful person, present everywhere, though worshipped in special places in the images representing Him. This I knew in addition to a few other similar ideas which I picked up from the Bible and the Periyapuranam. Later, when I was in the Arunachala Temple, I learned of the identity of myself with Brahman, which I had heard in the Ribhu Gita as underlying all. I was only feeling that everything was being done by the current and not by me, a feeling I had had ever since I wrote my parting note and left home. I had ceased to regard the current as my narrow ‘I’. This current, or avesam, now felt as if it was my Self, not a superimposition.

While, on the one hand, the awakening gave me a continuous idea or feeling that my Self was a current or force in which I was perpetually absorbed whatever I did, on the other hand the possession led me frequently to the Meenakshi Sundaresa Temple [in Madurai]. Formerly I would visit it occasionally with friends, but at that time [it] produced no noticeable emotional effect, much less a change in my habits. But after the awakening I would go there almost every evening, and in that obsession I would go and stand there for a long time alone before Siva, Nataraja, Meenakshi and the sixty-three saints. I would sob and shed tears, and would tremble with emotion. I would not generally pray for anything in particular, although I often wished and prayed that…

The rest of this particular manuscript is missing, but a few weeks later, on 5th February 1930, Narasimha Swami questioned him again on this topic, and Bhagavan gave the following answer:

It was not fear of death that took me to the Madurai Temple during those six weeks in 1896. The fear seized me for a short while when I was upstairs in my uncle’s house, and it gave rise to that avesam or current. That obsession made me introspective and made me look perpetually into my own nature, and took me also to temples, made me sob and weep without pain or joy or other explanation, and also it made me wish that I should become like the sixty-three saints and that I should obtain the blessings or grace of Iswara – general blessings, specifying and expecting nothing in particular. I had no thought or fear of death then, and I did not pray for release from death. I had no idea before those six weeks or during those six weeks that life on earth was full of pain, and I had no longing or prayer to be released from samsara, or human life or lives. All that idea and talk of samsara and bandha [bondage] I learnt only after coming to this place and reading books. I never entertained either the idea that life was full of woe or that life was undesirable.

That avesam continues right up to now. After reading the language of the sacred books, I see it may be termed suddha manas [pure mind], akhandakara vritti [unbroken experience], prajna [true knowledge] etc.; that is, the state of mind of Iswara or the jnani.

Question: How is it that there was a perception of difference and prayer that ‘I should become like the sixty-three saints and get Iswara’s grace?

Bhagavan: The akhandakara [unbroken] current was sporting with these and still remained despite that desire.

[Back to me in 2008... What I like in this account is the clear process of self-enquiry that is mentioned. This seemed a lot more vague in the final published version. I was also pleased to note that the phrase ' ...I feel the full force of my personality...' is absent here. I always found it odd that Bhagavan would say that he felt the full force of his personality after his realisation, so I suspect that this phrase was inserted by Narasimha Swami. Twenty-five years ago I talked to Prof. Swaminathan about this and asked him what Tamil phrase might correspond to this 'full force of his personality', but he couldn't think of anything that it might have been.

The term avesam does appear in the Self-Realisation account, but it is translated there as 'spirit, current or force'. The idea of possession is absent.]



11 comments:

ramanamayi said...

Thank you so much for posting this!

shival said...

THANK YOU very much, David for this priceless post. I don't find words to convey the gratitude for bringing out the details of Sri.Bhagavan's experience.

Praying for Sri.Bhagavan's grace.

Om Namo Bhagavate Sri Ramanaya

arvind said...

Many thanks for putting up this important article from the Mountain Path, and also for having dug up the material from Sri BVN’s old notebooks and writing it in 1981 in the first place.

Clearly, the word “avesam” adds a whole new dimension to the “death experience” and can have layers of meanings for the serious devotee.

Though in Tamil (sadly, which I do not speak or know) the meaning could be taken as “spirit possession”, the fact is that “avesam” is not an original Tamil word at all & so the direct meaning must come from the language from which it was picked up – Sanskrit. Here the word (“avesa”) primarily means “joining one’s self, entering, entrance, absorption of the faculties in one wish or idea, intentness, devotedness to an object etc” and only the secondary derived meaning is taken as “demonical frenzy, possession etc” (as taken from the venerable Monier-Williams dictionary). The word “avesa”, or the closely related “samavesa”, is used to describe the highest spiritual experience in a lot of the ancient Sanskrit Saivite texts, and Sri Bhagavan by 1930, when the conversation with Sri BVN was held, would have gone through many such texts. So it is quite possible that Sri Bhagavan used the word in a purer sense than what Sri BVN imagined. And also, I believe, it was used by Sri Bhagavan in the sense that you have so aptly mentioned in your reply to my earlier posting – “that something happened to him, rather than something that he did”. This is so as the Sanskrit “avesa” or “samavesa” also has the sense of “Grace” associated with it – that It comes of Its own volition when the time is ripe – rather than by “individual effort”.

And we may remember here that we, in discussing Sri Bhagavan’s “death experience”, are talking about the highest spiritual attainment, moksha itself. A state in which there can be no “possessor”, as a differentiated spirit, to “possess” a differentiated human body. After all, in the state of final liberation, there is no second entity, only the Self is.

However, I would believe that a young lad unschooled in religious texts and unfamiliar with spiritual experiences would struggle, initially, to express in words His enormous attainment. Initially He could only perhaps express it as “avesam” in the sense of “spirit possession”. And, as you have so aptly mentioned, its meaning changes as the account progresses. From initially denoting “spirit possession” to a young lad, it ends up being described by the Great Master as suddha manas, prajna and akhandakara.

[As an aside, I may add here that some recent Indological scholarship has been fascinated by the concept of “possession” (as in demoniac possession, ecstasies etc) & its linkages to spirituality. They have equated “avesa” with “spirit possession”, drawing particularly from the beliefs & impressions of the common Indian public these days and beginning from medieval times, and from recent ethnographic studies etc on popular cults of today. They hold that “avesa” or “samavesa” in the ancient texts refers only to “possession by a spirit” - whether demoniac or beneficial. Though one can respect their sincerity, dedication and efforts, in my humble opinion, they have missed the big picture. Because, put very simply, as discussed above, if everyone agrees that the terms denote the highest spiritual attainment, then in that state, where is the duality for a “spirit” to possess another entity “body” ? Unless of course, the belief is that the highest spiritual state is a dualistic state in the first place!]

David Godman said...

Many, many thanks for posting this. You linguistic knowledge has added a whole new dimension to this account.

When I first came across this account, I asked several Tamil devotees how they would understand use of the term avesam. All of them opted for 'possession'. It is not surprising, therefore, that B. V. Narasimha Swami also took it in this sense.

However, as you remarked, Bhagavan was very well read, and he probably knew about the other meanings that you pointed out. He may have selected a term which simultaneously denoted both the original idea that he had been taken over by some alien being and the more metaphysical idea of absorption.

It is clear from other remarks he made on this subject that Bhagavan initially had no idea what had happened to him in 1896. He is, for example, on record as saying, apropos the death experience, that he initially thought he might have caught some strange disease, but was happy for it to stay since it was such a pleasant one. Having made it quite clear in this account that he knew nothing about God or Brahman, it is not surprising that he grasped at explanations that fitted the rather limited world-view he had acquired as a child and a teenager: possession or a disease. Within a few weeks, however, he understood that 'This is my own Self; this is not something imposed from outside, and it not is not something that is going to come and go.' The avesam of possession moved on to the avesam of Self-abidance.

spinal said...

If a teenager had this experience today in the west he or she would probably be put on some sort of medication. When I was in my late teens I also experienced something resembling this - I lay on my bed and 'became convinced' I was dying - then enjoyed a sense of wellbeing and detachment that came from a conviction that I was not the body. It became an important part of my spiritual journey but was essentially a transitory episode for me. I heard about Ramana's experience later and was surprised that it is considered to be his key enlightenment moment.

I don't think we can underestimate the importance of the other factors that turned Sri Ramana's 'death experience' into something profound and permanent - his great courage in leaving home, a cultural environment that nurtured the mystic experience and provided a place for it, and his unwavering absorption in the Self forged it seems particularly through the initial years of silence and solitude.

Modern psychology might describe the death experience as some kind of paranoiac or schizophrenic episode. For Ramana it was obviously of great importance but we are seeing it in light of subsequent events and through a particular lens of interpretation. I personally am of the opinion that such experiences on their own cannot be that uncommon.

arvind said...

Many thanks for putting up this important article from the Mountain Path, and also for having dug up the material from Sri BVN’s old notebooks and writing it in 1981 in the first place.

Clearly, the word “avesam” adds a whole new dimension to the “death experience” and can have layers of meanings for the serious devotee.

Though in Tamil (sadly, which I do not speak or know) the meaning could be taken as “spirit possession”, the fact is that “avesam” is not an original Tamil word at all & so the direct meaning must come from the language from which it was picked up – Sanskrit. Here the word (“avesa”) primarily means “joining one’s self, entering, entrance, absorption of the faculties in one wish or idea, intentness, devotedness to an object etc” and only the secondary derived meaning is taken as “demonical frenzy, possession etc” (as taken from the venerable Monier-Williams dictionary). The word “avesa”, or the closely related “samavesa”, is used to describe the highest spiritual experience in a lot of the ancient Sanskrit Saivite texts, and Sri Bhagavan by 1930, when the conversation with Sri BVN was held, would have gone through many such texts. So it is quite possible that Sri Bhagavan used the word in a purer sense than what Sri BVN imagined. And also, I believe, it was used by Sri Bhagavan in the sense that you have so aptly mentioned in your reply to my earlier posting – “that something happened to him, rather than something that he did”. This is so as the Sanskrit “avesa” or “samavesa” also has the sense of “Grace” associated with it – that It comes of Its own volition when the time is ripe – rather than by “individual effort”.

And we may remember here that we, in discussing Sri Bhagavan’s “death experience”, are talking about the highest spiritual attainment, moksha itself. A state in which there can be no “possessor”, as a differentiated spirit, to “possess” a differentiated human body. After all, in the state of final liberation, there is no second entity, only the Self is.

However, I would believe that a young lad unschooled in religious texts and unfamiliar with spiritual experiences would struggle, initially, to express in words His enormous attainment. Initially He could only perhaps express it as “avesam” in the sense of “spirit possession”. And, as you have so aptly mentioned, its meaning changes as the account progresses. From initially denoting “spirit possession” to a young lad, it ends up being described by the Great Master as suddha manas, prajna and akhandakara.

[As an aside, I may add here that some recent Indological scholarship has been fascinated by the concept of “possession” (as in demoniac possession, ecstasies etc) & its linkages to spirituality. They have equated “avesa” with “spirit possession”, drawing particularly from the beliefs & impressions of the common Indian public these days and beginning from medieval times, and from recent ethnographic studies etc on popular cults of today. They hold that “avesa” or “samavesa” in the ancient texts refers only to “possession by a spirit” - whether demoniac or beneficial. Though one can respect their sincerity, dedication and efforts, in my humble opinion, they have missed the big picture. Because, put very simply, as discussed above, if everyone agrees that the terms denote the highest spiritual attainment, then in that state, where is the duality for a “spirit” to possess another entity “body” ? Unless of course, the belief is that the highest spiritual state is a dualistic state in the first place!]

hkpillalamarri said...

hkpillalamarri

Thanks a lot for such a lovely and truthful article. This made me ponder more on my divine kind of own feelings I am experiencing myself for sometime. I pray the Almighty god in the form of Sri Ramana Maharshi to bestow me with more wisdom on the realization of GOD. I love to learn more on these subjects and enlighten myself towards attaining nirvana. If I am fortunate and blessed with the divine thoughts, I intend to use my life for the good of humanity and help rid of their own miseries as I myself think the existence of this universe is not serving the true purpose and evil forces are overruling the truth, wisdom and reality. All the humans should turn their eyes towards doing good to other fellow un-privilised and under-privilized humans directing all their energies and actions all the time. It is what the God likes and wants us to do. Come on, let us try to wake up ourselves and call upon others to wake up for creating a better world - a kind, peaceful and lovable place to live in. I have many thoughts to share with you all and hope to reach you soon again.

At the feet of Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi.

Hema Kumar Pillalamarri

Arvind said...

This is further to my comment above on 8.5.2008 (why is it appearing again on 17.11.2010 ?). Sorry to be posting on such an old thread now, but Bhagavan’s “death” experience is an important event to learn from, and one keeps a lookout for additional information. Just happened to chance upon some fascinating material on “Avesa”, “Samavesa” and “Bhava” as technical terms appearing in classical texts, and thought to put an update on this old topic.

I did not know till now that the great sage Sri Abhinavagupta (10th Century or so) defined the Sanskrit “Avesa” directly in his magnum opus “Tantraloka”. Now we may remember that besides the spiritual works he wrote, Abhinavgupta was a great aesthetician, poet, musician and grammarian; and his knowledge of Sanskrit was nonpareil. This is probably the only definition of the Sanskrit term “Avesa” found anywhere in classical literature.

"Avesasca asvatantrasya svatadrupanimajjanat.
Paratadrupata Sambhoradyacchaktyavibhaginah" [Tantraloka – Ahnika I, verse 173].

“Avesa means the mergence or disappearance of the limited self into and becoming identical with Supreme Siva, who is at one with the Adi Sakti”.

Of course the terminology is that of Saivism, but the meaning is clear. What is described above is the state of enlightenment in non-dual Saivism. “Avesa” means Self-realization.

Ravi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ravi said...

Arvind/Friends,
In the very first verse of Chinmayananda guru,Saint ThAyumAnavar mentions the 'Avesa Asai kadal':

அங்கைகொடு மலர்தூவி அங்கமது புளகிப்ப
அன்பினா லுருகிவிழிநீர்
ஆறாக வாராத முத்தியின தாவேச
ஆசைக் கடற்குள் மூழ்கிச்
சங்கர சுயம்புவே சம்புவே எனவுமொழி
தழுதழுத் திடவணங்குஞ்
சன்மார்க்க நெறியிலாத் துன்மர்க்க னேனையுந்
தண்ணருள் கொடுத்தாள்வையோ
துங்கமிகு பக்குவச் சனகன்முதல் முனிவோர்கள்
தொழுதருகில் வீற்றிருப்பச்
சொல்லரிய நெறியைஒரு சொல்லா லுணர்த்தியே
சொரூபாநு பூதிகாட்டிச்
செங்கமல பீடமேற் கல்லா லடிக்குள்வளர்
சித்தாந்த முத்திமுதலே
சிரகிரி விளங்கவரு தக்ஷிணா மூர்த்தியே
சின்மயா னந்தகுருவே.

Translation:
With flowers in out-stretched hand,
Hair standing on end in joyous thrill,
Eyes melting in love, tears streaming as a river -
Thus do I not immerse myself into the fervent Sea of Mukti.
And so hail Thee not as
''Oh! Sankara!
Oh! Swayambu! Oh! Sambu!''
And adore Thee not in faltering words of ecstatic joy;
And pursue not the path of Sanmarga.

When such indeed is my unholy condition
Will you ever accept me in Thy rapturous Grace?
With the holy munis, Sanaka and the rest,
Seated by Thine side in prayer,
Thou revealed the path indescribable by a singe word
And conferred the bliss of Svarupa.
Thou, who is seated on the crimson lotus
At the foot of the wild banyan tree.
Oh! Thou, the Primal Source of Siddhanta Mukti.
Oh! Chinmayananda Guru! Dakshinamurthi !
Thou seated high on the hilltop of Siragiri.

siragiri refers to Tirusira Hill - Tiruchirappalli Hill - Now known as the Rock Fort in the town of Tiruchirappalli.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
'Avesa Asai'-Sri Ramakrishna calls it mahabhava or prema.

Namaskar.

Anonymous said...

hello david,

i would like to comment on something here both in terms of the root meaning of 'avesam' (I am tamil) and also a comment made by arvind in terms of young ramana not having the facility to describe properly, his experience.

first, the colloquial meaning of 'avesam' IS 'with force' which often might be construed as 'fiercely'...as i am trying to articulate this, the phrase 'may the force be with you'...comes to mind ;-)

linguistically speaking (although) i am somewhat proficient in sanskrit, i will stick to tamil here - the word vesam means 'role' or 'mask', and thus might be inferred to mean 'personality'. with the 'aa' at the beginning, it would then imply, 'with out any role or mask or personality'.....which is what one might describe the SELF as...

and finally, this is a small point, but nevertheless important, i think. the influx of the 'force' or 'Spirit' or "Self' is in itself a self-revealing mechanism in that, the most apt words albeit that are already in the sphere of personal knowledge are likely to be used. so i do not at all think the 'role or identity' of 'a young lad unschooled' was in play here, by default definition of being in SELF.

v