Sri Ramana Maharshi used to recommend two main paths: self-enquiry and devotion, or bhakti as it is called in India. Although at first sight both approaches seem to be very different, they are in fact two different modes of each other and may be regarded as complementary. In due course the differences will fade away because the goal is in any case nothing else but the dissolution of a false sense of self. This ego was never really our true self but a huge mental conglomeration of all past experiences including the reactions that these memories had created as well as the anxious effort to control the future so as to avoid painful feelings and secure pleasant ones.
I call this devotional approach ‘Path of the Heart’, because I would like to hint at its universal meaning. Each tradition has formed its own cultural expression of this path of love, whether it belongs to the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or Christian world. A central practice consists in the continuous repetition of a name of God or of the formless absolute until the mind merges with this name or rather with its subtler aspects and sinks into the heart. The experience of the name has by then become progressively more and more subtle until it has become still and unified in the heart where the repetition ends.
Sri Ramana said of this practice, which is called ‘japa’:
The object of japa or dhyana (meditation) is the exclusion of several thoughts and confining oneself to one single thought. Then that thought too vanishes into its source - absolute consciousness, i.e., the Self. The mind engages in japa and then sinks into its own source. -Talks No. 328
The parallel with self-enquiry is obvious: the I-thought also must merge into the heart. Therefore Sivaprakasam Pillai, the devotee who first wrote the booklet ‘Who am I?’ quotes Ramana as follows:
Blessed are the feet of the siddha (perfect one) who explains, ‘By mantra japa the mind will subside. Japa is vichara sadhana.
- ‘Sri Ramana Pada Malai’, verse 25
The Way of a Pilgrim
The term ‘prayer of the heart’ originates from Russian Orthodox Christianity. One of the best-known books that beautifully illustrates this practical and simple path is ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’.
It contains an evocative account of a simple and faithful seeker who is initiated by a starets, (a Russian master of the spiritual life) into the practice of the prayer of the heart. The pilgrim devotes himself to this task with great single-mindedness and soon has some very encouraging experiences. During his practice the repetition of the Jesus-prayer becomes effortless and continuous. In India this is called ajapa-japa, an involuntary subtle stream of devotion, which is not even interrupted by sleep. It is a state of great strength, purity and joy and this account by the unknown author gives many examples of this rarefied state of mind.
The teaching of his starets was as follows:
The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart while forming a mental picture of his constant presence and imploring his grace during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer this prayer always, that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within them of its own accord. Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is?
The pilgrim had experienced some difficulties with the first practice, which involved some visualisation of the heart and a certain rhythm of breathing as support. His teacher proved himself to be adaptable and taught a simpler basic exercise:
If after a few attempts you do not succeed in reaching the realm of your heart in the way you have been taught, do what I am about to say and by God’s help you will find what you seek. The faculty of pronouncing words lies in the throat. Reject all other thoughts – you can do this if you will – and allow that faculty to repeat only the following words constantly: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Compel yourself to do it always. If you succeed for a time, then without a doubt your heart also will open to prayer. We know it from experience. … Here is a rosary. Take it and to start with say the Prayer of Jesus 3,000 times a day. Whether you are standing or sitting, walking or lying down, continually repeat, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Say it quietly and without hurry, but without fail exactly 3,000 times a day without deliberately increasing or diminishing the number. God will help you and by this means you will reach also the unceasing activity of the heart. ’
The first two days were a little hard but already by the third day the pilgrim had developed the power of concentration, and with it came joy and a deep yearning to devote himself more and more to the practice. His starets increased the number of prayers to 6,000 and soon afterwards to 12,000, upon which the pilgrim reported:
Early one morning the Prayer woke me up, as it were. I started to say my usual morning prayers, but my tongue refused to say them easily or exactly. My whole desire was fixed upon one thing only - to say the Prayer of Jesus, and as soon as I went on with it, I was filled with joy and relief. It was as though my lips and my tongue pronounced the words entirely of themselves without any urging from me. I spent the whole day in a state of the greatest contentment and I felt as if I was cut off from everything else. I lived as though in another world, and I easily finished my 12,000 prayers by early evening.
His starets was very happy:
Be thankful to God that this desire for the Prayer and this facility in it have been manifested in you. It is a natural consequence, which follows constant effort and spiritual achievement. So a machine to the principal wheel of which one gives a drive, works for a long while afterwards by itself; but if it is to go on working still longer, one must oil it and give it another drive. Now you see with what admirable gifts God in his love for mankind has endowed even the bodily nature of man. You see what feelings can be produced even outside a state of grace in a soul, which is sinful, and with passions unsubdued, as you yourself have experienced. But how wonderful, how delightful and how consoling a thing it is when God is pleased to grant the gift of self-acting spiritual prayer, and to cleanse the soul from all sensuality!
It is a condition, which is impossible to describe, and the discovery of this mystery of prayer is a foretaste on earth of the bliss of heaven …
A genuine master is very skilful in preventing any pride or complacency within the disciple by giving him a foretaste of the mature understanding. The pilgrim was allowed to practice without being limited to any number, but soon his starets died and the pilgrim was obliged to continue his wanderings alone, carried forward by the strong and pure power of devotion:
And that is how I go about now, and ceaselessly repeat the Prayer of Jesus, which is more precious and sweet to me than anything in the world. At times I do as much as 44 miles a day, and do not feel that I am walking at all. I am aware only of the fact that I am saying my Prayer. When the bitter cold pierces me, I begin to say my prayer more earnestly and I quickly get warm all over. When hunger begins to overcome me, I call more often on the name of Jesus, and I forget my wish for food. When I fall ill and get rheumatism in my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on the Prayer and do not notice the pain. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all. I have become a kind of fool; I don’t worry about anything any longer and nothing attracts me anymore and nothing vain can hold my interest. The one thing I wish for is to be alone, and all by myself to pray, to pray without ceasing; and doing this, I am filled with joy. God knows what is happening to me!
During his further wanderings the oral Prayer started to sink into the heart. The oral recitation stopped and his attention focused upon the ‘praying heart’ itself.
One of the most well known saints of India during the last century who took to the path of devotion through the Name of God was Swami Ramdas. One of his descriptions of the divine name was:
There is no word in any human tongue that yields such a marvellous power, that mysteriously works for absolute good, as the Name, which stands for God. The Name of the Lord is the very expression of God as a mystic sound. To attune the mind to the sweet melody of the Name is to harmonize your life with the Life eternal. The music of the Name brings about the union of the soul with the universal Soul. When the soul loses itself in the thrills generated by the Name, it attains a state of ineffable ecstasy in which all forms and lives are seen as the manifestation of the one supreme essence of Truth. The Name expands the narrow vision of the individual into a vision of infinite value and grandeur.
The soul, who is drinking deep in the nectarine charm of the Name, rises from the lower worlds of fettered thoughts and action and enters into the universal kingdom of freedom and perfection. Now this transformed life reveals in all its glory the magnificence of the basic Reality of which it and the worlds are but expressions. By the power of the Name its votary distinctly perceives the inner laws and purposes that work out the external phenomenal changes in the universe.
When the Name becomes the sole mainstay and refuge of the aspirant who thirsts for the highest goal of life — God-realization — he or she marches towards the ideal not only in rapid strides but also with a heart filled with courage and cheerfulness. Indeed, blessed is the soul who possesses an unflinching faith in the greatness of the Divine Name!
- God Experience, ch.10