The Life and Poetry of Rama Tirth

by Joan Greenblatt

Rama TirthRama Tirth, the well-known poet-saint from India, was born on October 22, 1873, in the village of Muraliwala, about 60 miles north of Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. At the age of six, his extraordinary brilliance revealed itself. According to the customs of the day, he married at the age of ten and soon was sent to high school in a nearby city. Rama was put under the care of his father’s friend, Bhakta Dhanna Rama. Dhanna Rama was a spiritual aspirant and, through his influence, Rama Tirth thrived as he had a natural affinity with spiritual ideals. At fifteen he graduated high school with honors in mathematics and enrolled in college. After graduatiing college, he secured a job as a Junior Professor and became known for his extreme generosity and kindness.

In 1896, the seeds of spirituality, planted by his mentor Dhanna Ram, began to bear fruit. The impulse to spend long hours in meditation had been nourished by continuous reading of classic texts such as Yoga Vasishtha and the Bhagavad Gita. He was also drawn to the writings of some of the world’s great poets, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Kalidasa, and Hafiz. Filled with an almost drunken ecstasy during this time,

Rama Tirth exclaimed:
Within my heart there dwells such an Emperor,
that if He stepped out of it to pitch his tent,
earth and sea could not contain him.

As the years went on, Rama Tirtha continued his duties as husband and professor, but was continually being drawn into the vortex of inner awakening—with a fury that consumed him. It was during these years that he began spending time in solitude in the exalted mountain regions of Hardwar and Rishikesh. By the edge of the rushing waters of the sacred river Ganges, like the Buddha before him, he was determined to attain enlightenment, or die in the attempt. One day, in the course of deep absorption, he fell into the surging river and was struck by a rock. At that moment, he experienced the unshakable conviction that he was the one Self—present in all beings. His natural gift for poetry began to flow unimpeded and from that day forward all his poetical writings were solely an expression of this realization.

Returning to his job at Forman Christian College, Professor Rama began to infuse his lectures on mathematics with the reality of his own enlightenment. This soon became unacceptable to the college administration and there was much talk on campus about the “crazy professor.” Soon after, Rama Tirth abandoned his career and went to live in the Himalayas. In this lofty atmosphere, Rama wrote joyous poetry to his heart’s content. These were eventually published in a magazine called Alif, specially started by his followers for the purpose of preserving his writings. Many of these poems were later translated into English and became part of his well-known collected works, entitled In Woods of God-Realization. Writing about this period, Rama Tirth speaks here in the third-person—in a stream of consciousness style—which reflects his state of a witness:

“With the aid of pointed Alpine sticks we mounted the slope, and lo! there lay before us fair, flat extensive fields of dazzling snow, miles upon miles in width . . . At last on a snowy mound the red blanket was spread. Rama sits on it, all alone, above the noise and turmoil’s of the world . . . Perfect silence reigns here . . . The rays of the sun sifted through; the thin clouds fell on the scene and immediately turned the silver snows into burning gold. Very appropriately has the place been called Sumeru, the mountain of gold . . . O ye men of the world . . . numberless Sumeru like this you will find within you when once you realize your own real Self.”

In the summer of 1902, Rama Tirth descended into the Gangetic plain and met the Raja of Tihri, who proposed that he represent Hinduism at the World Congress of Religions in Japan. When Rama arrived in Japan, he discovered the information about the congress to be erroneous. He was in Japan for two weeks when he met an Indian circus-proprietor who invited him to join the troupe on their upcoming trip to America. Rama accepted and landed penniless in San Francisco. When asked how he survived in America, Rama Tirth replied:

“That is simple. I do not try. I believe. I attune my soul to the harmony of love for all men. That makes all men love me, and where love is, there is no want, no suffering. This state of mind and faith brings influence to me that supply my needs without the asking. If I am hungry, there is always someone to feed me.”

Though he traveled extensively throughout America, he spent most of the time as the guest of Doctor Albert Hiller, at Shasta Springs, in Northern California. As usual, he lived an ascetic, simple life. Rama spent his time speaking to those who came to meet him. He slept outdoors in a hammock, asked for a little food, and made a point of chopping wood in return for the kindness of his host. After two years, he returned to India as a celebrity. He spent the last few years of his life alternating between speaking engagements that were arranged for him and periods of solitude in his beloved Himalayas. Speaking of his time in solitude, he sang:

“In such lofty solitude, serenely does the sun enjoy his charming glory. On such heights no hamlet or hut could be expected, the nights were passed in caves where breezes sleep. Oh! The joy of roaming in the heavenly infinite forest-deeps of “One only without a second.”

In 1906, at the age of thirty-three, Rama settled in a hut in the upper hills, by the sweeping waters of the Ganges. One day before his meal, he walked down to the river to bathe. In the course of bathing, his foot slipped and he was quickly carried out by an eddy toward a dangerous central current. Three times he tried to shake himself clear, calling out to his cook not to be anxious. He summoned his strength for one final dive, but the current carried him back. Realizing further struggle was useless, he concentrated his mind and uttering the sacred syllable “OM” several times the river absorbed him.

Rama Tirth has fascinated me over the decades. It began with the gift of a tiny book of his poems. The joy, ecstasy, the sheer exuberance of his writings is infectious and enduring. The poetry of Rama Tirth can be compared in some way with the poetry of Rumi. Though appearing to speak of his beloved and Lord as separate from himself, Rama Tirth, as with Rumi, transcended apparent duality and was aligned with the oneness that spiritual unity brings. To select just a few verses that represent his passion, and his completely free spirit, is indeed a challenge.

Know for certain that you yourself are God,
The supreme Self, the eye of the eye,
Which the eye cannot see.
You are the essence of speech,
Which speech cannot express.
You are the hearer of hearing,
Which the ear cannot hear.
You are the life of life,

Who does not need the lifeforce to love.
Recognize that you are the light of the mind,
Which the mind cannot know.

O man of God,
When duality goes, what do we lose?
Have you ever drunk such a potion as this?
Till now, you have never done yourself justice.
You took an ocean for a water drop
And perceived not the mountain within you.
The brilliance of all lights is yours,
Why are your own eyes dim?

The voice of the bubble in the river
Says, “You and I are one.
Do not think yourself different,
You and I are one.”
When the bud burst at dawn in the garden,
It whispered quickly into the ear of the rose,
“Today my tongue has been loosened,
You and I are one.”
When the mirror was held before the face,
The reflection seemed to say, “Brother,
Why are you so amazed to see me?
You and I are one.”
The grain of corn said to the sheaf,
“Quiet, this is no place to argue.
A glimpse of unity has appeared in multiplicity,
You and I are one.”
When I came into the world, I saw
That all growth proceeds from my true essence.
As the strand is one with the cotton.

You and I are one.
Why do you think I am a stranger,
Why do You hide your beautiful face?
Remove the curtain, come forward,
You and I are one.

O seekers of God,
I am with you at every moment.
I am manifest in your eyes
And hidden in your hearts.
The notion that I am distant or hidden
Is purely your fancy.
I am ever present as your support,
Like the sea supporting the wave.
I am charmed by my own beauty,
I am present in love and amidst lovers.
I am Leila and Majnun, Wamiq and Azra.
Sometimes I practice supplication,
Sometimes independence is my glory.
Both attitudes suit me,
I am both servant and master.
In form I am human, in nature divine.
I am more manifest than the manifest,
More hidden that in the hidden.
My nature is unlike the objects of the world.
Though hidden in my true nature,
I am manifest as the world.
Though in reality I have no veil,
Yet am I encased in the veil of concealment.

Earth and sky cannot contain your greatness,
Yet You are wholly present within my heart.
No hint of duality can enter your unity,
No mirror can hold itself up before You.
Go your ways, messenger! Only one’s own heart
Can receive a message like this.
Beware, imprudent one, do not forget God.
If you can forget, forget the ego.