Rama Tirtha – a Biographical Note
Swami Rama Tirtha was a mathematician and scientist of modern India, who was also a fully illumined Mahatma. His teaching has a special attraction for our times, for here it is the modern man who speaks, it is the modern mind, unsentimental, critical, analytical, intellectually uncompromising, which examines the philosophy and technique of yoga. And it is the same mind which, when describing the illumination itself, cries out “I am He” in the authentic voice of the Upanishads.
Swami Rama was born in 1873 in the Punjab, of Gosain Brahmin parents. The family was poor but distinguished, and among his direct ancestors was Gosain Tulsidas, author of the Hindi Ramayana.
The young Rama Tirtha had a brilliant academic career, specialising in mathematics, of which he finally became Professor at the University at Lahore. It is interesting to note that this is a subject in which India has traditionally excelled, from the invention of the numerals which we call “Arabic” but the Arabs correctly call “Indian”, down to the Nobel Prize in this century.
Professor Rama Tirtha wrote for his pupils a pamphlet on how to excel in mathematics, based on his own practice. One of his rules was : “Try to do everything by your own unaided efforts; try as it were to re-discover everything.” The students were recommended to read the enunciation of a geometrical proposition, for instance, and then try to work out their own demonstration of the proof. As a student he had carried out this plan with such determination that he resolved to commit suicide if he ever failed. On one occasion he stayed up all night over one problem, and having to admit failure he actually prepared to take his own life. As he picked up the knife, he relates, he suddenly saw the solution as it were written in the air. “It was, of course, very wrong to decide to take my own life rather than ask for help from the teacher,” adds Swami Rama, “but still it shows the spirit in which difficulties must be tackled and by which they are overcome.” The story also shows two important traits in his character: independence and unbending will.
There was something else in his nature in favour of which he finally gave up the splendid career opening out before him. This was the desire to become a Mahatma. He came to see that the pursuit of truth through science was merely an offshoot of the impulse to know truth by direct experience. He had been religious from childhood, but religion did not give him immediate experience, and he determined to enter the traditional path of Yoga. The process however required a guru or spiritual teacher. For a man of such acute intellect and independence of mind it can have been no easy matter to accept a teacher. Nevertheless he found one, a Brahmin of average education but of overwhelming spiritual attainments; from him the mathematician learned the technique of transcending the finite mind. The teacher was Shri Dada of Aligarh.
Characteristically, Swami Rama focused his whole will on the meditation and other practices given him, One summer day he set out from Rishikesha, where he was on holiday, and entered Brahmapuri forest. His mind, coloured in the deep dye of “I am Shiva, I am Shiva” was only half conscious of his physical surroundings. He resolved either to have a direct perception of the Infinite Self or to end his physical life in the endeavour. This is the Great Vow taken by Buddha on the eve of Enlightenment, and it was foreshadowed in the life of Swami Rama by the resolution either to master mathematics independently or give up his life. What followed is best described in the words of the short biography by Hari Prasad Shastri, who knew him intimately: “His shouts of OM echoed, re-echoed in the valleys. He slept on the velvety sands of the holy Ganges.”
Now oblivious to the outer environment, he climbed a high rock called Ganeshila which projects far out into the water. Sitting on the rock he practised the supreme affirmation : “I am Shiva, I am Shiva”. The moon was shining with all its brilliance and fleecy cloudlets dotted the sky. He was at one with nature. He meditated on the verse of the Isha Upanishad : “Where is there delusion, where grief, to him who is established in Unity ?” Suddenly he rose and walked to the edge shouting “I am Shiva, I am Shiva”. He fell from that tremendous height into the deep water. His body sank far but it was brought to the surface. When he opened his eyes there was one existence pervading all. Duality of matter and spirit had ended for ever. The stars congratulated him; the mountains seemed to bow before the great Knower who had passed into the realm beyond the trio of knower, knowledge and known.”
After this his life moved more and more towards the state of a monk and complete renunciation of the world. The ancient tradition is that the permission of a guru must always be obtained before such a step. Although now fully illumined, Swami Rama followed the tradition and obtained the permission. Then he made provision for his wife and family, resigned from his position, and went up the Ganges route into the Himalayas of the State of Tehri. He lived as a wandering monk in the depths of the mountains, never touching money, begging his food or simply doing without it, on friendly terms with the numerous beasts of prey and other animals. To the villagers he seemed a god, impervious to hardship and fatigue, the friend of the spirits that dwelt in the rocks and trees.
He had not left the world for ever. At the request of the Maharaja of Tehri he went to Japan to lecture on Vedanta and then to America. Many of the lectures were taken down and have been published under the title “In Woods of God Realization”. After over two years he returned, and again went into the mountains, this time for good. But he continued to teach by writing, the materials being brought to his cave by friends. His writings and lectures have made a deep and lasting impression on the hearts of many in India and elsewhere.
Swami Rama made no official disciples and founded no group. He was now seeing no more individuals, but only the Reality everywhere. He wrote in this period : “God must be at least as real as persons and things. To attach reality to the masks is to invite the wrath of the Reality which dwells behind them.” His life had become simply the expression of his inner spiritual experience; without conscious effort, as he says repeatedly, the impulses to write or speak came to him. His realization was expressed both in the classical forms and also in terms of the scientific studies which had engaged his mind so long.
For instance, he speaks of God seen in the Incarnations or in the spiritual teacher. It is not, he says, that the weight of a body is actually concentrated at the centre of gravity (for that point is to all appearances like any other point), but for aught that concerns our mind, the mass is concentrated there. So God is all-pervasive, immanent in nature, present equally everywhere. Yet relatively to our intellect, this universal Reality can be most conveniently handled-and affects our conduct – as if it were embodied in a personal being. This personal being leads us from the visible to the Unseen.
Again, he explains by another analogy from mathematics the important question : Up to what point in spiritual progress is there danger of relapse? The spiritual illumination can become at last so high and strong as to be sovereign. Let us conceive the human mind (says the Swami) with its different possibilities of equilibrium, as a many-sided solid with different surfaces on which it can lie flat. Then the mental revolution can be likened to the spatial revolutions of such a body. Suppose that the spiritual problem is to bring it from lying on surface A to lie on surface B. As it is prised up, say by a lever, from the position in which it lies on surface A, it will linger for a time unsteadily half-way up. And if the lever now ceases to wedge it, it will tumble back or relapse under the continuous pull of gravity. But if at last it rotate far enough for its centre of gravity to pass beyond surface A altogether, the body will fall over on to surface B, and abide there permanently. The pull of gravity towards A has vanished, and may now be disregarded. The polyhedron has become immune against further attraction from that direction.
He answers with an arithmetical example the objection that Vedanta admits Reality cannot be defined exactly, and it is therefore shadowy and vague. The relation between circumference and diameter, he points out, cannot be exactly expressed in arithmetical figures. But the relation itself is definite and rational, and is expressed by the Greek letter pi. We can construct it geometrically, and its actuality is observable in the mathematical relations of the starry heavens, for the calculation of which pi is indispensable. Just so Reality, though not exactly defined in words, is expressed by the word OM, and is known as Existence-Consciousness-Bliss in deep meditation.
All knowledge, says Swami Rama in another of his notes, aims at reaching the Unknown from the known, by dispelling Maya or illusion. Knowledge must proceed from the starting point of Self, which is the postulate and axiom of existence. Perfect knowledge is that whereby universal unity is established in the Self. We practically verify it in a number of cases, and finally see it in all concerns of life. In just the same way we verify the relation between the curve of the hyperbola and the asymptote up to a certain point, and for the rest we know for certain that the same relation subsists. So having determined Self to be the substratum of the universe, there are no further questions about it which need be answered.
Swami Rama carried his views to their logical conclusion. Reality must be known in the arms of the bear, in the tiger’s mouth. We must see Reality of God alone, acting through all things, their seeming forms being non-entity. Similarly causality must be replaced by the vision of God. Compare the view of causation taken by the primitive, by the educated, and by the illumined. To the first, superstitious and credulous, almost anything might be a causal agent.
To the more advanced, many of these supposed causes are unreal, have no force. The true seer feels no force at all in anything but God, to him no suggested causes have any reality. The question now arises, if we give up all regard to causation, if we see in the different objects God and God alone, how shall we undertake action, how will the body be preserved? Swami Rama gives the same answer that Christ gave, the answer of the Avadhut or total renunciate : “As a faithful wife, when loved, attends cheerfully to all the household duties of her own accord, but when we seem to love another, she is stricken with jealousy and the household affairs are all neglected – so God attends to all we need if we love nothing but the Supreme.” And again : “Not until you have given up the seeming objects will you see the infinite faithfulness and love which is in the things of this world ; not till you have laid aside the garb of names and forms can you see the God hidden therein.”
As to action: “While in God, the right methods, the right impulses, the right inspiration, the right inclinations spontaneously well up in the heart and lead us. The fully illumined man lacks the ordinary springs of motive, and cannot be influenced by profit and loss, counsel of friends, unexpected news and so on. But in him the right acts become as spontaneously imperative as the demands of a healthy appetite. And to him, to perform the right acts brings as much immediate satisfaction as the satisfaction of the appetite brings to ordinary men” Many times, and with many illustrations, Swami Rama repeats the central point of his teaching. “You look out from the high window on the things in the street, but if you try to get them directly by jumping from the window you will be smashed to pieces. You have to go down and come out of the front door. So you may see the things of the world, but to enjoy them truly you must turn away from them, go within and pass through the door of Illumination.”
To try to enjoy them directly leads to disaster. “Correct yourself first and all else will be corrected or corrigible. Never otherwise. Let the order for correction to the environments go through the right channel, and with the seal of the magistrate upon it – the seal of Illumination. Anything that the magistrate tries to carry out personally, and not as the order of the Bench, will cause only violent resistance. But any constable, with the uniform on, can arrest even the greatest in the land.”
All the events of the world, concludes Swami Rama, are to be seen not as chains of cause and effect, but as servants of God, who is the highest Self. Their purpose is to drive man to Godhead. All the great tragedies, the illnesses, the sufferings physical and mental, have only this object. The King has gone out incognito into the city, and sees something in a private house which he wants. He tries to seize it directly, and the police come and arrest him without recognizing him. But when he returns to the palace with them and resists no more, he is recognized and sits on the throne and is obeyed by them. Just so Swami Rama looked upon physical illness and all other events. “They whip me and stab me when I enter this hovel of body consciousness; but they obey me when I occupy the Throne of Illumination.”
Towards the end of his short life of thirty-three years, Swami Rama swam every day in the strong mountain river, in spite of his weakness. One day he was caught in a whirlpool and carried away. The thing was seen by a hill man who could not swim. He said that Swami Rama made three attempts to get out of the current, and failing, cried strongly and clearly : “If it is to go, then let it go ! Om, Om, Om !” Then he was carried away.
It was clear from a note found among his papers that he expected to leave the body soon. The body had become useless and almost unknown to him, who had become the One of whom the Upanishad says: “From fear of him, fire burns; from fear of him, the sun shines; from fear of him, the deities carry out their duties; from fear of him, Death moves on his way.”
© Trevor Leggett