According to ancient Eastern philosophy, a sat guru, or 'true teacher', is a human incarnation of the Divine, someone who has 'realized' themselves as pure, unconditional love. For those of us bogged down with the mundanity of life, struggling to understand that we too are Divine, these teachers innocently shine a light on the path of self acceptance and, by example, help remind us of our own essential, God-like nature.
In the West, we have no frame of reference to assist the understanding of this notion. Our religions do not encourage the belief that Godliness is a human attribute, and when characters of extraordinary selflessness and compassion arise (such as Mother Teresa), they need die before their true nature is 'officially' recognized by their own religious institutions.
So when a quiet, unassuming English woman from Ashton-under-Lyme dons understated Hindu garb and custom, reveals herself as a sat guru and offers darshan (the opportunity to sit in her presence and experience the transmission of Divine love), we are confused, maybe even suspicious. Is this the work of a demented ego? Are we being duped? Can a human being as ordinary as you or I really be considered Divine?
These were the questions that went through my mind when I first heard about Ramana Devi (pictured). A Lancastrian mother of four, brought up Catholic, from a white middle class family … self realized? I have studied Yoga and Vedanta for many years, am familiar with the concept of enlightened sages guiding aspirants towards more refined states of spiritual consciousness, and yet it never occurred to me that such a soul could be home grown. Surely one has to make pilgrimage to the Himalayas to find a great saint? Or at the very least join the vast crowds that surge and pulse around teachers of more established provenance, like the internationally revered Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionally known as Hugging Ma? A guru on my own doorstep seemed so unlikely.
Intrigued by my prejudice, I decided to go to one of Ramana's events. It was held in a Quaker Meeting House in Liverpool and was surprisingly well attended – largely by open minded folk who seemed to have no idea of what darshan with a sat guru might entail. We were told, in the humble, mumbled tones of a shy assistant, that sitting in Ramana's presence would 'change our lives', as her bounteous love would allow us to experience the purest version of ourselves. I was skeptical. But as she made her way patiently through rows of plastic chairs introducing herself to everyone individually, I was struck by the charge in the room, by the gentle tears of those she had touched, and by the extraordinary beating of my own heart...
As the afternoon unfolded, time was divided into periods of silence, personal audiences with Ramana and a Q&A session. I queued for an hour to speak with her privately and was impressed with the pertinence of her message to me. The meeting ended without ceremony, the chairs hurriedly stacked away and the room cleared, but I was left with a feeling of something significant having happened. I didn't have language for it, but it felt good, reassuring.
Some weeks later, when I visited her farm in Rossendale, I felt similarly heartened. There was no opportunity for dialogue this time, but her understanding presence made words seem unnecessary. Once again I sat cross-legged in a queue, and when my turn came to be with her, she held my hand, looked kindly into my eyes and gave me a long embrace. Moments passed and to my surprise, I melted … feeling the most poignant and profound sense of relief. It was as if all my burdens had been put down and I could rest at last. Was this a taste of my pure self as promised, an experience of the part of me that knows how to trust and accept, despite it all?
I am a cynic. I pursue a spiritual path with hopefulness, but little conviction of my own Divine nature. I have been blessed with inspiring teachers, but am always aware of their beautiful contradictions and fallibilities. We are human, after all, and to be human is to be perfectly imperfect. Sat Guru Ramana Devi, a local girl from Lancashire, is surely as human as the rest of us, but she has a quality of compassion and unconditional acceptance that I have not come across before. She has had to leave her own culture to find expression for this uniqueness, which makes her an unknown quantity, but we have much to learn from the unknown and much to be grateful for in her example. We are in dire need of guiding lights here in the West, of accessible mentors we can relate to and dialogue with about the complex nuances of spiritual awakening. Despite my intellectual reservations, it would seem that Ramana is a bright, bright light. Human, yes. Divine, possibly. A healer, definitely. A woman unafraid to stand for truth and authenticity in a way that inspires us all to live a better life.
For details of Sat Guru Ramana Devi's charitable and humanitarian work, go to www.sriramanadevi.org
Copyright Penny Jane Fuller 2014