Ramana Maharshi on Judaism

In January the spring semester starts here at Banares Hindu University. As part of the Master’s program there is a requirement to have several weeks on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The person who taught the course in recent years is on Sabbatical, so I asked the person who will be teaching it this January -how Judaism will be covered? He answered that he will focus on “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14] as showing that God is ultimate Brahman, that only Moses was the realized being who attained this insight therefore the Israelites will accept him, and that unfortunately Judaism does not teach that the goal of the soul should be to identify and merge with this “I am.” He will also teach about the names of God and those that can still be pronounced and those that cannot be pronounced. His source is Ramana Maharshi. Since I will teach part of this class- Where should I cover? Where do I begin?

Questioner:  Is the thought “I am God” or “I am the Supreme Being” helpful?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14]. “I am” is God – not thinking, “I am God”. Realise “I am” and do not think I am. “Know I am God” – it is said, and not “Think I am God.” 
~ from ‘Talk 354’; 8th February, 1937

Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) is one of the outstanding Indian gurus of modern times.  At the age of sixteen, he lost his sense of individual selfhood, an awakening which he later recognized as enlightenment.In response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, Ramana recommended self-enquiry as the principal way to awaken to the “I-I”,realising the Self and attaining liberation. He also recommended Bhakti, and gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices. Paul Brunton, Carl Jung and Heinrich Zimmer were among the first westerners to pick up Ramana’s teachings. In some of the following quotes Ramana Maharshi is simply called “Bhagavan” – “his divinity.” The discussion below relies on both direct quotes and discussion by David Goldman, a leading authority of Ramana Maharshi.

Ramana Maharshi often cited the Bible, and in particular the statement ‘I am that I am’, to support his contention that God’s real nature was ‘I am’.

‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is so well put as the biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus chapter three. There are other statements such as brahmavaiham [Brahman am I], aham brahmasmi [I am Brahman] and soham [I am He]. But none is so direct as Jehovah [which means] ‘I am’.

The essence of mind is only awareness or consciousness. When the ego, however, dominates it, it functions as the reasoning, thinking or sensing faculty. The cosmic mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. That is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’.

Here are some more short statements

Mr. C. R. Wright, his secretary, asked: How shall I realise God?

M.: God is an unknown entity. Moreover He is external. Whereas, the Self is always with you and it is you. Why do you leave out what is intimate and go in for what is external?

D.: What is this Self again?

M.: The Self is known to everyone but not clearly. You always exist. The Be-ing is the Self. `I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement “I AM THAT I AM” in EXODUS (Chap. 3).

God says “I AM before Abraham.” He does not say “I was” but “I Am’ (Talks, 408).

The Cosmic Mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. This is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’ (Reflections, 111).

“I am that I AM” and “Be still and know that I am God.” (Talks, 307).

Is God personal?

One of Brunton’s criticisms of Ramana was that Ramana did not believe in a personal God. And yet there are statements where Ramana says the opposite. Ramana responds to the question, “Is God personal?” as follows:

M. Yes, He is always the first person, the I, ever standing before you.Because you give precedence to worldly things, God appears to have receded to the background. If you give up all else and seek Him alone, He alone will remain as the I, the Self (Maharshi’s Gospel, 55).

But other statements indicate a God far removed from our personal concerns:God has no purpose. He is not bound by any action. The world’s activities cannot affect him. (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 87, in answer to question is not this world the result of God’s will?)

Below is from David Goldman, a leading expert on Ramana

Ramana criticized some Jews and Christians for clinging to the idea of a permanently real and separate ego, although he says that the greatest mystics did not do so (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 46). [He also criticizes thinking  about God rather than pure I am.]

Ramana refers to prayer. He says that Western thinkers pray to God and finish with “Thy Will be done!” He comments that it is better to remain silent: If His Will be done why do they pray at all? It is true that the Divine Will prevails at all times and under all circumstances. The individuals cannot act of their own accord. Recognize the force of the Divine Will and keep quiet (Talks, 546).

Kabbalistic ideas on creation are also derived from their conception of God as ‘I am’. In the Jewish tradition creation occurs by the utterance of a single word. The word is the first of all sounds to be heard in manifest existence, and thus parallels the Hindu conception of Om. For the Kabbalists this word is none other than the supreme name of God, ‘Eyheh’, ‘I am’.

The only Jews who used God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ to develop both a theology of God and a spiritual practice through which He might be directly experienced were groups of mystics who followed a tradition known as Kabbala.(10) They evolved intricate cosmologies, deriving them from a mystical exegesis of Old Testament texts, and broke with traditional Judaic thought by proclaiming that man could approach YHWH and in His presence commune with His beingness.

For the Kabbalists, God, the Supreme Being, is Ehyeh, ‘I am’, and one can approach him directly by invoking the divine name of Yahweh. In the Book of Zohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic texts, it is written, ‘Blessed is the person who utterly surrenders his soul to the name of YHWH, to dwell therein and establish therein its throne of glory’.( Tikkune Zohar, Scholem, Second Lecture, n. 137.)

In one interesting practice, which parallels Hindu sadhanas, Kabbalists split the name Yahweh into two components and invoke ‘Yah’ with the incoming breath and ‘weh’ with the outgoing breath in an attempt to be continuously mindful of the reality that the name signifies.

We find similar emphases on the ‘I am’ experience in other writers dealing with comparative mysticism. Rudolf Otto comments on Eckhart’s use of the verse “I am that I am”, and compares this to Shankara.D.T. Suzuki says that all our religious or spiritual experiences start from the name of God given to Moses, “I am that I am.”

One should not push parallels between Judaism and Bhagavan’s teachings too far, for orthodox Judaism maintains that God is wholly and eternally separate from the world, whereas Bhagavan taught that the Self is the sole reality, and that the world is an appearance in it, rather than a creation of it. For Bhagavan, the world is being in the same way that God Himself is being, for the two cannot be separated: ‘Being absorbed in the reality, the world is also real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.'(12)

There is another crucial area in which Bhagavan’s teaching differ fundamentally from those of both Judaism and Christianity. Bhagavan taught that ‘I am’ is not merely the real name of God, it also the real name and identity of each supposedly individual person. Extending the notion to its logical conclusion, Bhagavan maintained that if one could become aware of one’s real identity, ‘I am’, then one simultaneously experienced the ‘I am’ that is God and the ‘I am’ that is the substratum of the world appearance. The following quotes are typical and summaries his views on the subject:

It [I am] is the substratum running through all the three states. Wakefulness passes off, I am; the dream state passes off, I am; the sleep state passes off, I am. They repeat themselves and yet I am.(14)

The egoless ‘I am’ is not a thought. It is realization. The meaning or significance of ‘I’ is God.(15)

‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone. Nothing else is so self-evident [pratyaksha] as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, viz., the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. Pratyaksha is another name for Self. So to do self-analysis and be ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. ‘I am this or that’ is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self.(16)

I should like now to return to the Old Testament and elaborate on another quotation that Bhagavan was fond of citing. In Psalm 46, verse 10, it is written ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Bhagavan appreciated this line so much that he sometimes said that the statements ‘I am that I am’ and ‘Be still and know that I am God’ contained the whole of Vedanta.(22) In Bhagavan’s view the quotations are very closely related for he taught that ‘the experience of ”I am” is to ”Be still”’.(23) The two words ‘Be still’ denote both the method and the goal for it is through being and through stillness that the ‘I am’ is revealed: ‘If [the mind] is turned within it becomes still in the course of time and that I-AM alone prevails. I AM is the whole truth.'(24)

Question: How is one to know the Self?

Answer: Knowing the Self means ‘Being the Self’ … Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means ‘destroy yourself’. Because any form or shape is a cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’.(25)

If one paraphrases Psalm 46, verse 10, to bring out more fully the meaning that Bhagavan attributed to it, it would say, ‘Reach the state of pure being and absolute stillness in which the mind is destroyed and one will then experience directly that God is ”I am”’.

Bhagavan often stressed that in order to ‘Be still and know that I am God’ one must be totally free from thought, even the thought ‘I am God’. After citing this biblical quote he once added, ‘To be still is not to think. Know and not think is the word.'(28) And on another occasion: ‘One should not think ”I am this – I am not that”. To say ”this” or ”that” is wrong. They are also limitations. Only ”I am” is the truth. Silence is ”I”.'(29) ‘Being still’, according to Bhagavan, requires no thinking and no assertions. On the contrary, it requires a complete absence of both.

Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord;And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.

Once one knows that Yahweh denotes God as ‘I am’, That is to say, both Moses… were saying, indirectly, that heart, soul and mind must be directed exclusively and lovingly towards the ‘I am’ that is God.  In fulfillment of this command, orthodox Jews attend their synagogues wearing phylacteries on their foreheads and hands that contain copies of these verses from Deuteronomy. They also have copies in special containers that are attached to their door and gateposts. Some devout Jews even kiss the container reverently each time they enter and leave as a gesture of respect towards Yahweh, the one God who revealed Himself to Moses as ‘I am’. Verse four in particular is the greatest and most widespread affirmation of faith for all Jews. Whatever their mother tongue, and irrespective of what country they live in, all practicing Jews regularly recite verse four in the original biblical Hebrew.

23 responses to “Ramana Maharshi on Judaism

  1. I always understood I will be such that I will be as an eternal promise that God can be found at any stage in the future. Even if our perception of Him is different to the perception of Him in a millenia from now. it’s a historical promise of sorts. I wonder how such a translation with emphasis on future impacts a Hindu perspective on the verse.

  2. Alan wrote:

    > Since I will teach part of this class- Where should I cover? Where do I begin?

    You have your hands full!

    Perhaps start with an attempt to encourage an attitude among your students of wanting to understand another religion from the inside, rather than the outside. That instead of trying to cast Judaism into a form that fits within Hinduism, that they come at it with a clean slate. Then present Judaism as Jews see it.

    If they get feisty, bring them down to earth by letting them know how Jews would understand Hinduism if they approached it from within Judaism,

    • I may start with a piece of Gemara and work backwards. I dont know if the issue is within Judaism or what you pick. I spoke to a Chabad rabbi here and for him Hinduism from within meant like Yitzhak Ginsburgh- an Vedanta Advaitan discussion of higher and lower unity/ yesh and Eyn. But I assume you mean the Jew who starts by equating Hinduism with Baal.

  3. Yes, or the recent description of Hinduism as developed in the interfaith conferences with the Rabbanoot: Hinduism okay for non-Jews (it’s monotheism) but avoda zara for Jews.

    You can make the point that the ultimate one-ness of all and the delusion of self is not a central issue (in general) for Jews. Instead what’s central is *much* *more* *important*!

    (That should make them sit up and take notice.)

    Perhaps then focus in on the point of Judaism, which (to me) is creating a state of holiness to enable God’s presence to dwell within us and among us. If that resonates, contrast it with the point of Hinduism, however you understand it.

    Then you could discuss the nature of God (if we can even speak of such a thing) within Judaism (drawing on Rav Chaim Volozhiner perhaps?), chosen nation, revelation, holiness via observance of God’s word, the land, and God’s manifestation in history, Mishkan and MIkdash.

    • enable God’s presence to dwell within us and among us.
      They would agree with that

      chosen nation,
      not the same way

      revelation, holiness via observance of God’s word, the land,
      They would certainly agree with these

      Mishkan and MIkdash.
      They would agree with these but say they need many – all over the place- they argue that they are larger than dan to beersheva.

      and God’s manifestation in history,
      They really like the manifestation part but are not keen on history.

  4. Then maybe God-in-history should be the entry point?

  5. IMO the emphasis in this realm should be on the soteriological quest which is the essence of most Hindoo doctrines and not to compare two very diff mentalities.
    Where in Judaism is a specific reference made to the idea of ‘moksha’ or ‘samhadhi’ i.e. ‘perception=spiritual salvation’?
    And BTW the reference to Yitzhak Ginsburgh’s writings is wrought with several incorrect details.
    A little more academic rigour?

    • funes wrote:

      > Where in Judaism is a specific reference made to the idea of ‘moksha’ or ‘samhadhi’ i.e. ‘perception=spiritual salvation’?

      In Judaism, proper behavior (physical action, speech and thought) potentially brings a state of holiness. Holiness creates the conditions for God to manifest in the world and in the person.

      Improper behavior does the opposite.

      A Jew’s perceptions are not central, and they certainly don’t bring “salvation” (whatever that word might mean in Judaism) without proper behavior. No moksha. No samadhi.

      Jews don’t seek a release from the cycle of death and rebirth. We don’t seek union. We have an understanding of reincarnation and the nature of the soul that is different from the Hindu.

      Jews seek to make this place, this life, this time – here and now – holy by living according to God’s word. While knowing and perhaps even experiencing that all is ultimately God, Jews live in the perspective that this world is real.

  6. Rabbi brill,
    I advise not to be afraid to show that Judaism is different than Hinduism. If you just show it’s the same then it is superfluous to them. Why not learn excerpts from Dereh Hashem./ Da’at Tvunot – both professional and basic, both have complete English translations.

  7. The mention of Jung picking up on Maharshi’s teaching is not exact. In the book ‘The Politics of Myth'{if I remember which book correctly} Jung is quoted, when asked if he would visit Marharshi “why would I go to another swamy they all tell me the same thing”.

    • Sri Ramana is a true son of the Indian earth. He is genuine and, in addition to that, something quite phenomenal. In India he is the whitest spot in a white space. What we find in the life and teachings of Sri Ramana is the purest of India; with its breath of world-liberated and liberating humanity, it is a chant of millenniums…
      Carl Jung in his foreward to Sri Ramana and His Message to Modern Man, as published in the book, The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi.)

  8. Words are very often irrelevant – which seems to be the main point of the teachings being quoted. For people who live natural lives, buildings constructed of words are an abberation from life. In Judaism, God is always unknowable and beyond reach. So Moshe did not know God – which seems to be an important point missing from the above quotes.

    • Pinchos wrote:

      > So Moshe did not know God…

      We see from the closing lines of the Torah that, in the end, Moshe did relate to God “face-to-face”. (Note the name of God that’s used there.)

      • Moshe understood the chok of Parah Adumah so he knew the secret of life that King Shlomo was unable to conceive of (amarti echkemah vehi rechokah mimeni). This seems to be along the same lines as Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s comment in Ruach haChaim on the mishna in Avot of moshe kibbel torah misinai where he says that the reason there is no pesik between the two names of Moshe when he was called ‘Moshe Moshe’ at the burning bush is because he knew of no hephsek between the element of his neshama that came to olam hazeh and the element of ones neshama that remains in olam habah (as opposed to Avraham where there is a pessik between ‘Avraham Avraham’ at the akeidah).

        So he knew Hashem mitzad olam habah as well (asher yodao yud-keh-vav-keh, olam habah beyud and olam hazeh with the heh), but this still only relates to a level of knowledge that corresponds to Moshe’s completeness, not to ein sof.

  9. I hate to be so literal, but אהיה means “I will be”, future and imperfect. How then could the name refer to the ever-present indwelling?

  10. I understand, but while convenient to his point, that’s far from a universal take on the term.

  11. I believe that אהיה would be out of the normal grammatical categories because in the sefer torah it is sanctified only in this place whereas in any other place it would be the future tense and not sanctified.
    It is simply the ontological statement “I am that I am”
    Maybe the Sanskrit/Samkhya ‘Ishvara’ parallel.

    • Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Living Torah” (Maznaim Publishing Corporation) has it translated as: “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”

      Artscroll’s “The Stone Edition Tanach” has it as: “I Shall Be As I Shall Be.”

  12. It’s probably also important to teach that if a Jew were to be called God (as in: …Ramana Maharshi is simply called “Bhagavan” – “his divinity”) that would be deeply problematic. You can elaborate on the theme as to why.

  13. Where to begin? Well, in teaching Torah or Judaism, I always try to preface that I am always giving my interpretation, what I see as central. That having been said, what I find central is Judaism’s particular combination of “refined” thought, legal, philosophical, or mystical, with its “organic” connection to the more primitive religious notions of the past.

    I cannot help but see your Hindu students of today as following what is a very “refined” religion. Our Judaism by contrast cannot but appear to them as rather “primitive,” closer to many aspects of ancient “tribal” religion. But they may be able to appreciate that there is a positive side to our less-refined “primitive” holdovers, in that Judaism may be more holistic and organic. What do I mean by this, what would I emphasize? Well, there’s always Max Kadushin, z”l and his “Organic Thinking, but there is a more basic approach.

    Our conception of salvation is salvation of the nation as a whole, and the individual finds his salvation as a part of the Jewish People as a whole. Their salvation is individual release. Our God is the God of the Abrahamic and the Israelite family/tribe/nation/kingdom. God is king/general , as well as head of the family. He can demand a degree of exclusive loyalty and worship because of that. God himself is not purely the En-Sof; his having a personality and being a personal God is due to His being a Living Organism Himself. The covenant with Adam and with Noah failed, and God began again by having an organic connection with a family. Hayyim Vital wrote that emanation/creation which proceeded by logical speculative means lead to shevirat ha-kelim, and the emanation/creation begins again with Abba and Imma. Our Shehitat Hullin tradition is intimately connected to the old sacrificial tradition; Masekhet Hullin is part of the Order of Qodashim. Hindus have elements of tribal religion in their past, as well, but they have evolved differently.

    They may be able to appreciate the way the two religions have kept a continuity with the “primitive” past of “tribal religion” in different ways, and appreciate the different paths taken in what was preserved and kept as well as what ended up being lost.

    I appreciate Hinduism’s emphasis on the spiritual development of the individual Soul/Self. But I also appreciate more Judaism’s emphasis that the religious life means much more than the spiritual development of the individual; that the Self, even the Greater Self, must often be sacrificed to the welfare of the society at large. That emphasis upon society over the individual also explains why we emphasize objective truth over subjective truth.

    But are historical and comparative approaches to religion completely anathema to orthodox Hindus? You mentioned Mircea Eliade. Do Hindus today read him? Have they any general education in Western comparative religion?
    Sorry to write so much, but you asked some big questions

    • Ira,
      I think you have it correct. They can say they have primitive elements only because of lack of education but once the primitive get educated then they will be elevated.Judaism on the other hand, enjoys its bronze age and early primitive so that they will never fade.
      On comparative relegation, this January they are having their first conference of the newly formed Indian academy of Religion. The historic and comparative have generally not been their approach.

  14. alon goshen-gottstein

    In this entire discussion of I am that i am, i think we are missing one important component of the Hindu read of Ex. 3,14. it is highlighting the word THAT.. The typical, and almost universal vedantic (not at all exclusive to Ramana) reading is I am THAT,, suggesting union of the person with the ultimate. Therefore, there are two issues at stake – am vs. will be and their overread of the THAT of the translation

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