8.04.2013

RAMANA MAHARSHI, CARTIER-BRESSON AND RAMANATOM

This article relates my brief correspondence with the photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson, (1908-2004), and contains the images of three original photos which he sent to me.  (My name is Thomas Dorsett, Ramana/om is a pseudonym of mine, coined in honor of the great Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, 1879-1950. The pseudonym is actually a three-way pun:  Ramana/tom, Ram an atom, and Raman at OM.)

PRELUDE

I consider myself to be a religious person; I am, however, unaffiliated with any religion, even unaffiliated with the term, "God."  Two interconnected aspects of life seem to me to be of the utmost importance, namely love and wisdom.   I believe that the paths of love are very well delineated in the Western religions, while the path of wisdom is best demonstrated by the East.  Ramana Mararshi was perhaps the greatest sage of the twentieth century, a representative of the ancient Hindu school of wisdom called advaita, non-duality. The teachings of this school contain perhaps the greatest insights into wisdom that has ever been attained.   Everything is connected; find the source of the ego and you will discover the peace which is at the root of your nature. This teaching has had a profound effect on me over the past half century.

Since I don't attend synagogue or church, I felt I needed some ritual, beyond daily meditation.  I decided to ritually commemorate Ramana Maharshi's samadhi, that is, his death, which occurred on April 14, 1950. It has been pointed out that Maharshi was a Christ-like figure who was born (December 29) shortly after Christmas and who died shortly after Easter. As an ardent lover of music, I decided to listen to a very profound piece of Easter music, Bach's St. John Passion, during a long meditation every year on what I call Ramana Samadhi, April 14th.   (I do not allow myself to listen to this music at any other time during the year.) During the approximately two-hour duration of this sublime music, I sit in meditation gazing at a little platform that contains a picture of the sage, some flowers and a stick of incense.



In preparation for my yearly meditation, I read a little booklet, The Last Days and Maha-Nirvana of Bhagavan Sri Ramana, which I obtained during a visit to Ramanashramam, Maharshi's ashram at the foot of the sacred hill of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India.  (Literature by and about Mararshi can now be obtained online at the following link: sriramanamaharshi.org.)  The pamphlet contains two very moving accounts of the sage's death from a painful cancer.  (When Maharshi was asked whether he felt pain, he replied that there was pain, but no suffering, since he had completely transcended ego and its resultant bodily attachments.)  The devotees were overcome with grief at Maharshi's impending death; the sage felt compassion for them but never any trace of sorrow for himself.  Since he completely identified with the Self, he consoled them by saying he would always be with them, and thus, he in the deepest reality was not going anywhere.  Some of this is hard for us Westerners to accept, but we must be impressed by the fact that he never doubted or wavered at all since his conversion during a near-death experience at age 13. (See my article by googling "Ramana Maharshi's Near-Death Experiences" by Thomas Dorsett.)

One of the accounts contained this passage about the moment of the sage's death, which intrigued me:

...There was no struggle or spasm, no other sign of death; only that the next breath did not come.  For a few moments, people stood bewildered.  The singing continued. A french press photographer who had been pacing the road outside came quickly into the throng and asked a devotee at what precise moment it had happened.  The devotee, taking it to be journalistic callousness, answered brusquely that he did not know, and then, recalling Bhagavan's unfailing courtesy, gave as precise an answer as he could; and the photographer had thereupon declared that at that very moment an enormous star had passed slowly across the sky.  Many had seen it; even as far away as Madras. Many who were not present felt what it portended.






At a visit to an exhibition of the works of Cartier-Bresson at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was very moved by three photos.  One was the famous photo of Maharshi with a picture of Gandhi on the ashram wall, taken shortly before the former's death.  The other two were a photograph of Ramana Maharshi's funeral and a photo of the Dalai Lama.  Cartier-Bresson greatly admired Maharshi, and was visiting the ashram at the time of the sage's death.  The passage in the little book obviously referred to the great French photographer.

THE CORRESPONDENCE

During the 1990s, I was an active reader of and contributor to the British periodical, Self-Enquiry, which contained articles about Maharshi and his and other wisdom teachings.  I am a poet and wrote a poem commemorating the sage's death, and decided to include it in an article about Maharshi's samadhi. I also decided to write to Cartier-Bresson.  I asked him if he was the one referred to in the little book, and whether he really saw a comet slowly move across the sky at the moment of the sage's death.  I also rather sheepishly requested that if he would send me a copy of the funeral photo for the article I was writing, I would be delighted.  I doubted that the greatest photographer of the twentieth century would reply to an exceedingly obscure poet, but I was wrong.  I wrote to him in French; what follows is his reply:

(Note: I am unable as yet to put in the accents.)

Henri CARTIER-BRESSON
198, rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris                                                   Paris, le 10 Fevrier, 1998

                                                                      Monsieur Thomas DORSETT
                                                                      P.O. Box 1
                                                                      Perry Hall
                                                                      Maryland 21128-0001

Cher Monsieur Thomas Dorsett                                                                                                  

Je suis tres emu par votre lettre et le superbe poeme au sujet de la mort de Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, poeme qui me rappelle le boule de feu qui traversa longuement le ciel en silence au moment de sa mort.

Ci-joints les tirages qui vous interessent ainsi qu'un petit texte que j'ai ecrit sur le bohddhisme.

                                                   Tres cordialement,

                                                    Henri Cartier-Bresson

The letter was typed except for the Tres cordialement and the signature, which he wrote  in a large and beautiful hand.

My translation of the letter:

Dear Thomas Dorsett,

I was very much moved by your letter and the superb poem about the death of Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, a poem which reminds me of the ball of fire which crossed the sky in silence at the moment of his death.

Enclosed are the prints you are interested in; also included is a little text which I wrote about Buddhism.

Very cordially,

Henri Cartier-Bresson.

This is the text about Buddhism:

L'anarchie est une ethique.

Le Bouddhisme n'est ni une religion ni une philosphie, mais un moyen qui consiste a maitriser son espirit afin d'acceder a l'harmonie et, par la compassion, l'offrir aux autres.

My Translation:

Anarchy is Ethics

Buddhism is neither a religion nor a philosophy, but is a means which consists of controlling one's mind in order to accede to harmony, and, by means of compassion, to offer that harmony to others.

A very beautiful approach to Buddhism!  I have framed this text, which along with the framed letter, has remained on my mantle piece ever since. The framed prints, however, I keep hidden away.

Also included in the letter were three original prints--that is, prints the photographer made himself, each with a handwritten number and the artist's name, proving that they were produced at Cartier-Bresson's studio.

Here are images of these masterful photographs:







What a kind, generous, wise man Cartier-Bresson was!

When I went to the printer to put the photo I wanted in the article I had written, he at first refused, since the photos were originals and could not to be duplicated.  After much pleading--Cartier-Bresson had sent them to me for use in an article, after all-- the printer finally consented.  The  article finally appeared in the magazine, Self Enquiry, Winter, 1998.

I am convinced that these three photos were the photographer's favorites among all those he took of Ramana Mahrshi and of the Dalai Lama. I thus have no doubt that the artist had indeed been "very much moved" by my letter. For this and other reasons, the correspondence from Cartier-Bresson and the prints are among my most precious possessions.  I have no idea what they're worth--maybe a little, maybe a lot--but their monetary value really doesn't matter; I will never give them up.

5 comments:

  1. Beautiful article. Interesting to read Cartier-Bresson's letter. Many thanks.

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  2. Thank you for posting this article. I've always loved Cartier-Bresson's photographs but I've learned only now from what you wrote how deeply he appreciated Sri Ramana Maharshi. I agree that his short text is a wonderfully succinct essence-capturing statement. However I don't understand how "L'anarchie est une ethique" relates to the rest of it. Your article made me very curious to see the poem you sent to him, but I can't find it. Is it on the Web somewhere? Thanks again.

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