Ramana Maharishi is perhaps the most influential teacher of the 20th century. Through much of the 1930's and early 40's, whilst his health permitted, he was always open to receiving devotees irrespective of the time of day, abiding eternally in a state of samadhi, which transcended wakefulness or sleep.
A lot of miraculous things happened in his presence; devotees had the most wonderful experiences, and some that came with a head full of questions just melted into the silence that radiated off the enlightened master. David Godman, in his series – 'Talks On Ramana Maharishi' – narrates a story that is incredibly simple and yet invaluable in its teaching.
A French academic came to see Ramana Maharishi and asked him what the word samsara meant to him. One must note that speaking to the Maharishi was like interacting with pure, unadulterated consciousness, a little bit like peeking into the mind of God, which is why he was also called Bhagwan. There wasn't always an obvious answer to a question. In some cases, the questions disappeared in the wake of his powerful silence, while in others they were answered without words.
Being of a Western scholastic persuasion, the French academic didn't give up, persisting in his inquiry. One day, a famous politician of the era came to visit the ashram, and in a flash, all the disciples were gone, until it was just Bhagwan and his attendant with the academic who were left. Bhagwan suddenly turned to the academic and said, “For three days you've been asking me what samsara is. People come to the ashram seeking enlightenment, and after some time has passed, they forget all about it and get excited by something else. That is samsara!”
Now that might seem like a very simple statement, but once we unpack the profoundness of it, one can't help but be left reeling from the impact. In the course of our spiritual pursuits, we decide to abandon habits, homes, people and so much more, hoping that the distance we create will propel us towards what we seek.
Like a travelling circus, we pack up our tent and move to another location, and despite our best intentions, such is the lure of maya, that we unpack our belongings one by one, be they habits, routines or whatever else we thought we had abandoned, until one day we realise we are back to square one, just in a different place. So it's our minds we need to clear out, not the physical space, for even in the sacrosanct quiet of the Himalayas, one could be lusting for a bhelpuri from Dadar Chowpatty.