Who is THE definitive poster boy of modern Advaita Vedanta (Non-Duality), beloved by traditionalists and progressives alike? Without a doubt it would have to be Ramana Maharshi. For those who have been living in a hermit's cave for the last several decades, Ramana had a panic attack when he was 16 years old, described here in his own words:
"...a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt "I am going to die" and began thinking what to do about it. (...)
The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: "Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies." And at once I dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the inquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word "I" nor any other word could be uttered. "Well then," I said to myself, "this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the 'I' within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am deathless Spirit."
After this transformative experience, Ramana maintained silence for many years before eventually being recognized as a guru and having an ashram built up around him. He passed away in 1950.
Among many modern spiritual folks, it seems that Ramana is held in even higher esteem than the iconic and ever-popular Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha. From all accounts, he was a really nice guy and that probably makes him more of a lightning rod for worship than many modern gurus who have been caught taking part in one or more criminal behaviors. A thriving tourist trade has sprung up around Ramana's ashram in Thiruvannammalai, India and pictures and quotes of his flood social media. The core of his philosophy is that we are an absolute, transcendental Self (capitol "S") that is synonymous with pure awareness. This is the same idea as the ancient Hindu concept of Brahman - the singular, unchanging, timeless reality.
I was once a believer in these concepts but part of my personal experience was a deep, spontaneous questioning of all of the things I accepted as truth. Then I realized that I had just internalized another conceptual system by accepting the tenets of non-duality. I find it impossible to believe any of these absolutist statements anymore so, when I hear my friends discussing them, I recognize the same religious fervor I once held for these ideas. I was also once very good at explaining these beliefs to others and could often cause them to have an "aha" moment and corresponding dopamine rush. Some might even call it an "enlightenment" experience! Many people came to me to talk about these things when I was speaking about them with certainty. Now I wonder if the fascination with "transcendence" is really just hopeful thinking and wish fulfillment.
I felt, as many do who come in contact with the concepts of Advaita Vedanta, that I had reached "the end of the road" and that I had finally encountered "absolute knowledge." One hallmark of the form is extremely grandiose statements expressed with total authority. "I was never born and I will never die." "I am infinite, timeless awareness." "I am the Truth beyond all appearances." "I am the unchanging reality." When I was really taken with these ideas, I would tell them to my wife and she'd point out that they sound like the insane ramblings of a complete megalomaniac.
Today a friend posted some of these types of statements and, in the resulting discussion, Ramana was quoted and later in the conversation I wrote, "so many beliefs and philosophies are just the fear of death in action." Then I remembered Ramana's "awakening" story and it dawned on me that his entire philosophy was born in the fear of a panic attack!
If you've never had a panic attack, it is a powerful, visceral experience. The easiest way to describe it is the total, overwhelming fear of imminent death. I had many panic attacks in 2013 due to adrenal exhaustion. I eventually got rid of them by nutritional therapy and lifestyle changes but I can still remember their intensity. I often wonder if most "transcendental" beliefs are rooted in the fear of death, for example - the Christian belief in heaven. How different is it to believe that you are a birthless, deathless, eternal "Self"? This idea can feel really good but does it have anything to do with reality? I don't know, and I would be willing to bet Ramana didn't either. Why would we assume that any other human being is closer to truth than us or has esoteric knowledge that we lack?
I'm not saying this is necessarily the way it was but bear with me for a moment... WHAT IF, as a boy Ramana was faced with the idea of death and his young mind couldn't handle the overpowering fear? WHAT IF his entire philosophy was built on the DENIAL of this fear and an escape into wishful "magical" thinking? In his "awakening" story, it says his limbs went stiff and he imagined what it was like to be dead but was he REALLY dead? Of course not.
What do we really KNOW about death? Most of us know what it can look like from the outside but what do we ACTUALLY know about what the experience is like? Yes, we can believe what one "authority" or another has said about it but what do we KNOW about it? I will admit that I don't know ANYTHING about it and that suits me just fine. It seems we can only fear our IDEAS about what we don't know. No ideas = no fear.
In all of the absolutist concepts, I find a denial of one's unknowing and of one's mortality, I also find a denial of the mercurial, ever-transforming nature of the observable universe. What if the idea of an absolute is just a false refuge for a mind in fear? We see what believers through history have done to protect their beliefs, their certainty. People were burned at the stake for even daring to question the "absolute" knowledge of those in power and still are today.
These bodies are going to die. My Mother died last December and I went through the whole process with her, excluding the actual moment of her death (she was being cleaned by a nurse when it happened). It was a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences. I can see how someone faced with the heaviness of what is happening might want to cling to some comforting beliefs but I have deeply believed and then let go of so many things. What are we REALLY certain about? What if the whole human religious and spiritual enterprise is born in the inability to experience life as it is WITHOUT trying to explain the shadows away? What if we FACE the fact of death and recognize that we don't really know about what it's like to die? Why should we want to deny the natural cycles of birth and death? I told my Mom that consciousness either continues after death or it doesn't and that neither option is that bad. I won't claim to know the answer either way.
In my life, there have been what have felt like profound insights. The first was the recognition that there is something deeper to me than who I thought I was. This aspect can be called consciousness or awareness (among other things) and it must be present for us to experience anything. Many in the Advaita Vedanta movement apparently see this fact and then somehow imagine that this awareness is apart from life. Ironically, this venerated "Pure Awareness" is just another dualistic conceptualization. Life is everything happening, INCLUDING awareness. If we look at our own experience we don't find consciousness apart from what is perceived. In the name of "non-duality," many just imagine another form of separation - "Pure Awareness" from the rest of existence. Though I once believed in this division, this is not my direct experience.
I can see that often, when we recognize the uncertainty inherent in life we reach out for something "eternal." In seeing death and pain, we seek a way to transcend these and there are plenty of philosophies and religions that claim to offer such transcendence, the cost of admission is belief in the system. Non-duality is no different. Once I started seeing that my new found "absolute truth" was merely just another conceptual system and started sharing these realizations, one of my friends who was still a believer asked me, "What happened to you, you used to be so clear?" I responded, "Every orthodoxy must have it's heresy." I understand the fear that would lead one into absolutist concepts. I have shared this fear. Now I find total security in letting go of the concepts. I see all of our beliefs about the nature of reality as mental poison and avoid them like the plague. Some of the poison is very sweet tasting but toxic, nonetheless.
We over-thinking primates easily get lost in descriptions. We mistake our concepts for actuality. In my opinion it's so much easier if we can suspend our beliefs and just be openly aware of what is happening. As far as I can tell, our own life experience is the closest we will ever get to any sort of "truth."
I'm not saying that Ramana was wrong, how could I know one way or the other? Many seem to enjoy is teachings and I think there's merit in that, I'm just asking why we should accept the word of ANY external authority as gospel Truth. Instead of parroting ancient, dead "wisdom," I personally feel that we would be better served by looking at life for ourselves. For me, the greatest realization was how little I actually know. It was earth-shaking in it's implications and it freed me from a great many illusions that I had up to that point called "Truth" (with a capitol "T" - of course)!
Obviously I'm no more of an authority than you or anyone else, just sharing the way I see things. I try to keep an open mind towards whatever it seems like life is showing me at the moment. Whatever our beliefs about the nature of life and the universe are, there is so much beyond them.