John, Jesus and Ramana: Who Am I
Lets take a look at three great teachers, two from Palestine of 2000 yrs ago and one from 20th century Tamil Nadu, India, teaching the same thing, in different words. They searched, and found, who the self / the ‘I’ is that is controlling everyone’s life. And they tried, each in his own way, to share it with us.
The ‘John’ we are talking about here is John the baptist from the Bible and non-Biblical scriptures. John lived in the desert, wore camel skin, ate locusts and honey, baptised people and became a great light in his time. He is said to have been a member of the Essene sect, to which Jesus might also have belonged. They, both, may have been trained by that sect for their separate ministries. Jesus was apparently later than John and was his student. John baptised Jesus and helped him start his ministry. John was killed by King Herod Antipas for criticising the King’s personal affairs. He is mentioned in the Quran too and is also a prophet for Muslims.
There’s not too much attributed to him in the different sources; I would have loved to hear more of what he said, if, indeed, he did exist. He seems to have been a fascinating man. In this post, we’ll look at one sentence attributed to him in the Bible (New Testament) that I would like to mention here which has so much depth, clarity and method in it that its mind-boggling. There are very few people who have said so much in one sentence. The Book of Mark (Chapter 1: 1-3) in the Bible says this about him, “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”
Seems like a simple sentence, but lets try to go deeper into it. The sentence has two parts, both referring to the same thing. The first part is: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord”. What does that mean for me / the disciple / the seeker, whom John is advising?
First, there is an implication, an assumption on John’s part, that I, the seeker, am interested in seeking the Lord.
Second, he thinks that there is a distance, a separation between the seeker and the Lord. That is why he says, “Prepare the way for the Lord”, which means that the Lord is somewhere else or the seeker is somewhere else.
Third, there is also the implication that the Lord is coming, whether we like it or not. That was the nature of the Palestinian apocalyptic messianic Christianity (as Prof. Robert Eisenman calls it), as opposed to the present day Christianity. For John, the apocalypse was at hand. We needed to take urgent action. We can see the traces of that apocalyptic message in Jesus’ words too. However, today, the Church is much more relaxed, laid back.
The message today (coming from the Pauline doctrines) is that we are sinners. Jesus appointed Peter as the head of the Church and the Pope is Peter’s religious descendent. The Pope and the Church will save us if we tithe regularly. So, just sit back and relax, give us your money and we (the Church / the Pastor) will do the rest. That is the basic cause of lack of spirituality today. There is a middle man between God and us, who is promising to take care of things that he cannot. But we believe them.
Jesus and John were not undertaking such commercial transactions, i.e., taking money and promising to act on our behalf. They were encouraging us to take action. In fact, they were encouraging us to take revolutionary action. They didn’t want our money. They wanted inner / spiritual action.
If we want to improve our spiritual lives, if we want to get back on our feet, if we really want to connect with the divine, the eternal, the universal, then the middle man, the Pope, the Bishop, the Padre, the Pastor, the Maulwi, the Pundit and the Pujari, will need to be fired. The Church will have to be abolished (it has very limited utility in any case). We will need to throw away this crutch and use only our own two legs. That’s how Jesus did it. He rebelled against the church of his tmes and that’s why they were up in arms against him. But that is the only way to reach the divine. No church can do it for you. You have to do it yourself. Alone and naked, without any and all crutches, excuses or possessions. Alone and naked is how we came into this world from the divine and alone and naked is how we will return physically and alone and naked is also how we need to return spiritually.
Fourth, John thinks that the distance, the separation between God and us can be removed and we can meet God. There can be a meeting of the seeker and the divine. (Jesus used to pray for “complete unity” of the Father, the Son and the people, see the Book of John, Chapter 17, in the Bible)
Fifth, John is telling the seeker that (i) although the Lord is coming, yet, as things are right now, the Lord cannot reach the seeker, but that (ii) the seeker can do something about it, the seeker can prepare the way.
The second part of the sentence says, “make straight paths for him”. John seems to be saying that the path is not straight right now and we will have to make it straight for the Lord to come to us. What could that mean?
In my view, John is referring to the ego. The “I” is the ego. It is made up of images and attachments. I am how I see myself, the images I have about myself from childhood to the present. All the experiences and memories, all the thoughts, desires, all the things I wish to achieve, things that I want to avoid, all the plans, strategies, aims, goals. All that is ‘me’. My attachment to my name, to my family, my house, my city, country, religion, race. These are things I am bound to. Even if I want to, I cannot break away from these. These attachments are like chains that bind me and keep me away from uniting with my eternal / universal self. These are the things that are standing in the way of the Lord. These are what would keep him from reaching us.
In today’s language, John is telling us that our ego keeps us bound to the smaller / physical / temporal self and keeps us from attaining our universal / eternal self.
John is saying, give up the ego, give up everything that constitutes the ‘I’. Throw away these things, throw away all the garbage of the ego, clear the way and give the Lord a straight path to yourself. Once you have given up everything, once all the chains are gone, once the path is clear and nothing stands between you and God, then the meeting between you and God becomes possible.
To be more precise, once the the ego is gone, the meeting happens. The “complete unity”, that Jesus was calling for, has come about. The seeker / the “I” is gone and God is gone. The two do not exist any more. The seeker exists as long as God exists and God exists as long as the seeker exists. Krishnamurti used to say, the seeker is the sought. Both, the seeker and God, are images created by human thought, which is the ego. The ego creates separate / divided images. When the ego, i.e., thought, ceases to exist, the images cease to exist. The seeker and God merge into oneness, into complete unity.
In the words of Rumi, the lover meets the beloved and the two become one.
That is the message of John, as I understand it.
Now, lets take a look at Jesus and his teachings about the self, the “I”.
Most of the key sayings of Jesus in the Bible come from the first four books of the New Testament, i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (these four books in the New Testament are called the Gospels). Some historians consider these four books to be literature and mythology rather than history. Others, along with millions of modern day Christians, believe the Bible to be history. I consider these four books as treasure troves, full of the amazing wisdom of this so-called Jesus.
The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, used to say that myth is the collective dream of a people. That is probably right. I am not a historian and, hence, not qualified to opine on the historicity of the Bible. This post will not go into the controversies of whether the Bible is historical or whether it is partly historical and partly literature woven around ancient Jewish mysticism or whether it is an exercise in Greco-Roman mind control / propagandist literature aimed at pacifying a particular nation into subordination. No, lets steer clear of these debates and lets just look at this fascinating, mysterious and mystical character of Jesus and the many words of wisdom attributed to him in the particular context of this post.
Firstly, as we have already seen above in this post, Jesus believed in “complete unity” and oneness of the universe. He said, “I am He who exists from the Undivided” (Thomas 61, which is not part of the Bible).
He believed that no one could experience the divine unless they were “born again”. This concept of ‘born again’ has been quite misunderstood and misused by the present day Church. Jesus was talking about a revolutionary change, an inner change, whereby you, as you know yourself, cease to exist. The ‘I’ ceases to exist. The ego ceases to exist. And a new life begins, a life which does not end in death. You become one with the eternal, immortal and universal self. Better to say, you realize your eternal, immortal and universal self. You were already that, but you have forgotten. And when you realize it, that’s the second birth Jesus was talking about.
Today, the Church preaches that if you come to the Church and just get baptised, you are “born again”. This is a misunderstood “born again” being sold by the Church. People fall for it because it is exciting to take a dip in the Church pool with the pastor in front of everyone else. The positive side for the church is that it keeps the business running. It makes people happy by giving them a fake satisfaction, so that they can stay in their comfort zones and continue with their fake, laid-back spiritual lives as before. So, its another typical Church ritual designed to undermine the revolutionary zeal of the real teachings of Jesus and promoting status quo.
Now, going back to the radical re-birth that Jesus was talking about, he said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” (Thomas 70)
Also in Thomas 22, he talked about the importance of unifying the inside, “When you make the two one and you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below and when you make the male and the female one and the same so that the male not be male nor the female female— then you will enter the Kingdom”
In a future post, I would like to go in detail into the present day studies on the concept of multiple personalities inside everyone of us. For now, lets just consider what Jesus is saying. He is talking about the ego, which is a collage of images we have in our brains. We have been collecting these images since childhood. Images about our sex, our relationships, our ambitions and desires, our goals, our family, our society, our city, our country, our friends and every other attachment that we have. All these images define “I” and “You” and “They” and the society around us. Jesus is saying that all these images need to go. The ego needs to go. When the ego is gone and all the images are gone, we become one inside.
In Matthew 16, Jesus says something which again goes to the heart of his teachings, i.e., “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me.”
Here Jesus gives a 3-step formula for discipleship:
(i) Deny Yourself: which means deny who you are; deny the “I”, the ego, basically meaning everything you are, all images about yourself, all thoughts, all attachments, whatever your mind tells you about yourself. Deny your name, deny your physical self, deny your family, deny your property, deny your relationships, give up all tangible and intangible possessions. Peel away your ‘self’, like peeling an onion, layer by layer. In the end, when you have peeled away the last layer, what is left? Nothing. And actually we cannot even call it “Nothing”. It is not describable. It has no name, no quality, no form, no face, no appearance. Words become useless when we come face to face with it. There is no way to say anything about it.
Osho, the great modern day Indian mystic and one of my most beloved teachers and the one I have probably learnt the most from, used to say, spirituality is not about finding God, it is about losing yourself. He was saying the same thing. The ego / the “I” is a cloak we put on our divine / eternal / universal self, our God-self, our Godliness.
Spirituality, enlightenment or nirvana is about realizing the existence of that cloak and removing it. It is about letting go of the ego, denying that cloak, the temporary self. Once we let go of that temporary self, once we remove it, then God, the undivided wholeness, the Atman, The All, which is our true nature, our real face, is revealed.
(ii) Pick Up Your Cross: Jesus is telling us that if we have taken the first step, i.e., we have started denying / letting go of ourself, then we should be ready to die. Because that is what is going to happen. We have started moving towards death. Life, as we know it, is about to end. We are headed towards annihilation. The “I” will cease to be. It is not a physical death. It is the death of the ego, the personality, the mind as you have known it. Jesus’ own life, as I have written in another post, is a parable for the seeker’s spiritual life. The cross is symbolic of death, of ending. However, it leads to the next step, which is resurrection. This death is not an ordinary death. It is a death which opens the door to an everlasting life. To a deathless existence. To immortality. That is the ‘Holy Grail’, if there was any. We are talking about the ultimate alchemy. Your lower / smaller / temporary self is turned into the higher / universal / eternal self. So, be prepared.
(iii) Follow me: Jesus is inviting us on a journey. The journey of the seeker / the disciple. Jesus’ life in the Bible is symbolic. He gave up everything he’s telling us to give up. His name, his family, his house, his parents’ faith, the usual comforts of life, everything. And, in the end, he gave up his life. That is the seeker’s way. A total let-go.
In Thomas 37, his disciples ask him, “When will you be revealed to us and when will we see you?”
And Jesus replies, “When you disrobe without being ashamed and when you take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then you will see the Son of the Living One and you will not be afraid.”
The ego is the robe / the cloak that we wear all the time. Jesus is telling us to take off that robe and be utterly naked and, if, like children, we are not ashamed to be naked, i.e., without the ego, then we will have attained the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, nirvana, enlightenment, moksha, call it whatever.
There are many, many other verses (all of them very interesting and eye-opening) which contain Jesus’ words on the same topic, but just to keep this post manageable, we will look at them in another post.
Now, lets go to India in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Popularly known as Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi, Venkataraman Iyer was born in Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, India in 1879 and died in 1950.
At the age of 16, after some strange experiences and thoughts of death, he started asking himself, “Who am I?” and also started inquiring into the nature of death. He realized that a current / force seemed to be running through the body. He also came to the realization that this current / body remained once the body died. He became a life-long monk.
His views on the “I” are most clearly contained in a famous series of questions and answers titled, “Who Am I?”. The questions were asked by a visitor and Ramana answered them
The gist of his views is as follows:
Firstly: In answer to the first question, “Who am I?” Ramana says, “I” am not the body, “I” am not the five senses, “I” am not the sense organs and “I” am not the mind and neither the thoughts, meaning “I” am not the ego either, because ego is all thought. All this I am not.
He is talking about the real “I”, the divine / eternal / universal self. And he is doing exactly what Jesus sought to do. Peel away the layers of the visible / temporal / temporary “I”, keep peeling away and soon you will arrive at the real “I”. Jesus said, “Deny yourself”. This is exactly what Ramana is doing.
Secondly: what am I then, if I am not any of the above? Ramana says, I am pure awareness. When asked what is awareness, he says, awareness is existence-consciousness-bliss. I think Ramana is saying that the “I” is consciousness, which is the only thing that exists and when one realizes this, the ego disappears and there is only a blissful existence of the consciousness.
Thirdly: Ramana says that while awareness is the only reality, the world that we see is an illusion. As long as we are in the illusion, the reality is not. When the illusion is not, the reality is. Ramana is saying exactly what Jesus was saying, i.e., that the world of images and attachments keeps us from our eternal / universal self. Jesus said, it is only the solitary who will enter the bridal chamber. When everything merges into one whole, with no divisions, no images, no attachments, no “I” and “You” and “They”, then there is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Fourthly: Ramana said the only way to come upon awareness is to hold steadfast to the question, “Who am I?”. Whenever a thought arises in the mind, ask yourself, “To whom has the thought arisen?” Ramana’s tools are incessant questioning and untiring examination. Keep peeling away. Keep digging deeper and deeper. And one day you will arrive at the real self. You will see your real face.
I would suggest those who are interested in this incredible man to go to the website sriramanamaharishi.org and check out all the material that is freely available including the booklet ‘Who Am I’, which can be downloaded and printed, if needed.
The wikipedia entry on Ramana is amazing too. And Amazon has other books available.
This post is a combination of three earlier posts that I did. There is loads and loads of material to read about John, Jesus and Ramana, three of my favourite teachers. In this post, I only intended to present enough to spark an interest in readers who can then, if interested, launch their own inquiry into the subject and read the available words of these wonderful men, who sought to bring us something from the beyond. Indeed, they were from the beyond. That is the one characteristic of men and women like these, they are in this world only to bring to us something from the other world.
In the end, words are just words, just the tip of the iceberg. The only path for you will be your own path, not the path of John, Jesus or Ramana. They walked their own paths. You have to walk yours! And remember, the path leads to a certain death. If you start walking and you stay on the path, the illusory “you” is going to die… and the real “you” is going to live forever, as if you drank from the fountain of everlasting life!
Learn to hear that voice coming from the wilderness inside you. Yes, there is this wilderness inside and it calls to each one of us. But there is so much noise outside that we don’t hear that voice. Or even when we do hear it, we choose to ignore it because of all the attractions, all the problems and all the issues outside. We have too much on our plate. If we want, we can train the ‘I’, the ego, to step aside and let eternal / the universal take over. But we will not do that, because all our life we have been trained to let the ego run the show.
David Hume, the British philosopher, said about life, “this damned existence from which we dare not tear ourselves apart”.
We love this life of the ego too much to let go of it.
But one day, may be we will start listening to that voice in the wilderness and start learning how to remove all obstacles and all the garbage of the ego and make a straight path for the eternal, the universal to reach us.