Socrates and Ramana Maharshi

Reflection on Life and Death

Comparative study of thoughts and teachings of two adept-thinkers requires sensitive receptive mind. This specially when they are  born in different places and during different periods and living and responding to different racial, social, cultural surroundings and situations. The primary purpose of comparative philosophy is to bring out similarity or dissimilarity, without being dogmatic, assertive and argumentative, without doubting the enlightenment experienced or justifying the opinions expressed. The primary purpose should be to examine them as living vibrant fundamental Truths of the persons, in the places and during the period they lived.

We have, therefore, taken for our study the teachings as are available of the two great savants - Socrates born in the west in Greece in pre-Christian era and lived during 429-399 B.C. and Ramana Masharshi born in the east in India during  1879 – 1950 more than 2000 years thereafter. Their spiritual experiences were intensely personal received by the  mind in the primary stage, without being influenced, conditioned, restricted and burdened by the racial memory or personal experiences, responses and thoughts gathered through instruments of senses, though expressed by Persons in the words and terminology, signs and symbols contemporary to the Places and the Periods.

Neither Socrates nor Ramana Maharshi left any writings of their teachings and what we know of as their teachings is what we have received from their followers as their teachings, no more nor less. Therefore, for the wisdom of Socrates, we have takenthe translation done by R. S Bluck  in The Dialogues of Plato  published by Bantom Books and edited by Erich Segal. However, to come close to the essence of his teachings,  slight changes have been made in the terminology and construction of the language. Those who desire more clarity, without being bound by the words or the language they have used, may also refer to the translation of Pheado done by Benjamin Jowett or any other author. It would be useful to accept the suggestion made by Socrates himself to Cebes, his follower, when he said, ‘Hellas (the name applied to the ancient Greece and the neighbouring islands) is wide and in it there are many good men, even among many tribes of the barbarians, therefore, must enquire diligently for such charmer. You should search also among yourselves and help one another. But it is difficult for you to find any one more capable of doing this than you are’. Therefore, self-inquiry is the most potent instrument.   

For the wisdom of Ramana Maharshi we have used the books published by Ramanashrama, Tiruvannamalai. The extracts quoted from the books should be considered with the suggestion which J. Krishnamurti had made when he said that  Communication between two persons, even if both of them know each other well, is difficult. Because the words used by one  may have significance different from the other. Understanding comes, therefore, only when both meet on the same level at the same time. Therefore, the quotations have been redrafted minimally to bring out the essence which the savant may have intended, at the same time never claiming that the speaker has understood truly and fully. Therefore, readers need not, should not clutch and be glued to the steps to reach to the top of the ladder.

Erich Segal points out in his Introduction that Socrates did not leave any writings, being deeply ambivalent about the value of the written word, saying that the true Philosopher lives in the realm of ideas and not of books, which represent pale reflections of truth, declaring ‘Any one who leaves behind him any thing in writing and like wise anyone who takes it over from him supposing that such writing will provide some thing reliable and permanent would be a fool’( Phedo). Yet he had in rare occasions seems to have composed few poems. When Cebes inquired that ‘ A number of people have asked me, and Euenus did just recently, about those poems which you have written, putting Aesop’s tales into verse and the hymn to Apollo. . . although you had not composed anything before’, Socrates replies, ‘Tell him the truth, Cebes,  that I did not compose  them . . to rival him or his works (but because)I was trying to discover the meaning of some dreams and I wrote the poems to clear my conscience’. He spoke of a dream that was coming to him from time to time during his life, taking different forms at different times but always saying : Socrates pursue the arts, and work hard at them’. He took this as a suggestion that ‘he should follow the popular kind of art, follow it and not to disobey’. So to salvage his conscience he composed some poems in obedience of the dream, in honour of the god for whom ceremonies were being held and then realizing that if he was going to be a poet, or composer at all, he must compose not factor fiction.  

Ramana Maharshi responded almost in identical manner. When some one asked for his opinion of a famous poet who had visited him, he replied reminiscently, ‘All this is only activity of mind. The more you exercise the mind and more success you have in composing verses the less peace you have. What use is it to acquire such accomplishments if you don’t acquire peace?. . . Some how it never occurs me to write a book or compose poems. All the poems I have written were on the request of some one or the other in connection with some particular event. Even Forty Verses on Reality, of which so many commentaries and translations no exist, was not planned as a book but consists of verses composed at different times and afterwards arranged as a book by Murugannar and others. The only poems that came to me spontaneously and compelled me, as it were, to write them without any one urging me to do so are the Eleven Stanzas to Sri Arunachala and the Eight Stanzas to Sri Arunachala. The opening words of the Eleven Stanzas came to me one morning and even though I tried to suppress them, saying What have to do with these words? They would be suppressed till I composed a song bringing them in;  and all the words flowed easily without any effort ’.