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       =======  Understanding Hinduism  =======


The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
Edited by David Godman

Click on underlined words to open paragraph

Self-enquiry - Theory

Self-enquiry- Practice


The lower self is your enemy
The higher Self is your friend
The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verse 5

Self-enquiry- Theory

By David Godman

Sri Ramana Maharshi maintained that Self-realisation could be brought about merely by giving up the idea that there is an individual self, which functions through the body and the mind. A few of his advanced devotees were able to do this quickly and easily, but the others found it virtually impossible to discard the ingrained habits of a lifetime without undertaking some form of spiritual practice. Sri Ramana Maharshi sympathised with their predicament and whenever he was asked to prescribe a spiritual practice which would facilitate Self-awareness he would recommend a technique he called self-enquiry. This practice was the cornerstone of his practical philosophy.

Before embarking on a description of the technique itself it will be necessary to explain Sri Ramana Maharshi’s views on the nature of the mind since the aim of self-enquiry is to discover by direct experience, that the mind is non-existent. According to Sri Ramana Maharshi, every conscious activity of the mind or body revolves around the tacit assumption that there is an ‘I’ who is doing something. The common factor in ‘I think’, ‘I remember’, ‘I am acting’, is the ‘I’ who assumes that it is responsible for all these activities. Sri Ramana Maharshi called this common factor the ‘I’-thought (Aham-Vritti). Literally aham-vritti means ‘mental modification of ‘I’. The Self or real ‘I’ never imagines that it is doing or thinking anything; the ‘I’ that imagines all this is a mental fiction and so it is called a mental modification of the Self. Since this is a rather cumbersome translation of Aham-Vritti it is usually translated as ‘I’-thought.

Sri Ramana Maharshi upheld the view that the notion of individuality is only the ‘I’-thought manifesting itself in different ways. Instead of regarding the different activities of the mind (such as ego, intellect and memory) as separate functions he preferred to view them all as different forms of the ‘I’-thought. Since he equated individuality with the mind and the mind with the ‘I’-thought it follows that the disappearance of the sense of individuality (i.e. Self-realisation) implies the disappearance of both the mind and the ‘I’-thought. This is confirmed by his frequent statements to the effect that after Self-realisation there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence.

Since he upheld the notion that the Self is the only existing reality he regarded the ‘I’-thought as a mistaken assumption which has no real existence of its own. He explained its appearance by saying that it can only appear to exist by identifying with an object. When the thoughts arise the ‘I’-thought claims ownership of them- ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, ‘I want’, ‘I am acting’ – but there is no separate ‘I’-thought that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with. It only appears to exist as a real continuous entity because of the incessant flow of identification which are continually taking place. Almost all of these identifications can be traced back to an initial assumption that the ‘I’ is limited to the body, either as an owner-occupant or co-extensive with its physical form. This ‘I am the body’ idea is the primary source of all subsequent wrong identifications and its dissolution is the principal aim of self-enquiry.

Sri Ramana Maharshi maintained that this tendency towards self-limiting identifications could be checked by trying to separate the subject ‘I’ from the objects of thought which it identified with. Since the individual ‘I’-thought cannot exist without an object, if attention is focused on the subjective feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ do not arise, then the individual ‘I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of ‘I’ is sustained, the individual ‘I’ (the ‘I’-thought) will disappear and in its place there will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ was called self-enquiry (vichara) by Sri Ramana Maharshi and he constantly recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the ‘I’-thought.

In Sri Raman’s terminology the ‘I’-thought rises from the Self or the Heart and subsides back into the Self when its tendency to identify itself with thought objects ceases. Because of this he often tailored his advice to conform to this image of a rising and subsiding ‘I’. He might say ‘trace the "I"-thought back to its source’, or ‘find out where the "I" rises from’, but the implication was always the same. Whatever the language used he was advising his devotees to maintain awareness of the ‘I’-thought until it dissolved in the source from which it came.

He sometimes mentioned that thinking or repeating ‘I’ mentally would also lead one in the right direction but it is important to note that this is only a preliminary stage of the practice. The repetition of ‘I’ still involves a subject (the ‘I’-thought) having a perception of an object (the thoughts ‘I, I’) and while such duality exists the ‘I’-thought will continue to thrive. It only finally disappears when the perception of all objects, both physical and mental ceases. This is not brought about by being aware of an ‘I’, but only by BEING the ‘I’. This stage of experiencing the subject rather than being aware of an object is the culminating phase of self-enquiry.

This important distinction is the key element which distinguishes self-enquiry from nearly all other spiritual practices and it explains why Sri Ramana consistently maintained that most other practices were ineffective. He often pointed out that traditional meditations and yoga practices necessitated the existence of a subject who meditates on an object and he would usually add that such a relationship sustained the ‘I’-thought instead of eliminating it. In his view such practices may effectively quieten the mind, and they may even produce blissful experiences, but they will never culminate in Self-realisation because the ‘I’-thought is not being isolated and deprived of its identity.

Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Question: What is the nature of the mind?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The mind is nothing other than the ‘I’-thought. The mind and the ego are one and the same. The other mental faculties such as the intellect and the memory are only this. Mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), the storehouse of mental tendencies (chittam), and ego (ahamkara); all these are only the one mind itself. This is like different names being given to a man according to his different functions. The individual soul (jiva) is nothing but this soul or ego.

Question: How shall we discover the nature of the mind, that is, its ultimate cause, or the noumenon of which it is a manifestation?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Arranging thoughts in the order of value, the ‘I’-thought is the all-important thought. Personality-idea or thought is also the root or the stem of all other thoughts, since each idea or thought arises only as someone’s thought and is not known to exist independently of the ego. The ego therefore exhibits thought-activity. The second and the third persons (he, you, that, etc.) do not appear except to the first person (I). Therefore they arise only after the first person appears, so all the three persons seem to rise and sink together. Trace, then, the ultimate cause of ‘I’ or personality.

From where does this ‘I’ arise? Seek for it within; it then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom. When the mind unceasingly investigates its own nature, it transpires that there is no such thing as mind. This is the direct path for all. The mind is merely thoughts. Of all thoughts the thought ‘I’ is the root. Therefore the mind is only the thought ‘I’.

The birth of the ‘I’-thought is one’s own birth; its death is the person’s death. After the ‘I’-thought has arisen, the wrong identity with the body arises. Get rid of the ‘I’-thought. So long as ‘I’ is alive there is grief. When ‘I’ ceases to exist there is no grief.

Questioner: Yes, but when I take to the ‘I’-thought, other thoughts arise and disturb me.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: See whose thoughts they are. They will vanish. They have their root in the single ‘I’-thought. Hold it and they will disappear.

Question: How can any enquiry initiated by the ego reveal its own unreality?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The ego’s phenomenal existence is transcended when you dive into the source from where the ‘I’-thought rises.

Question: But is not the Aham-Vritti (modifications of the mind), only one of the three forms in which the ego manifests itself? Yoga Vasishtha and other ancient texts describe the ego as having a threefold form.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: It is so. The ego is described as having three bodies, the gross, the subtle and the causal, but that is only for the purpose of analytical exposition. If the method of enquiry were to depend on the ego’s form, you may take it that enquiry would become altogether impossible, because the forms the ego may assume are legion. Therefore, for the purpose of self-enquiry you have to proceed on the basis that the ego has but one form, namely that of Aham-Vritti.

Questioner: But it may prove inadequate for realising jnana (knowledge).

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Self-enquiry by following the clue of Aham-Vritti is just like the dog tracing his master by the scent. The master may be at some distant unknown place, but that does not stand in the way of the dog tracing him. The master’s scent is an infallible clue for the animal and nothing else, such as the dress he wears, or his build and stature, etc., counts. To that scent the dog holds on undistractedly while searching for him, and finally it succeeds in tracing him.

Questioner: The question still remains why the quest for the source of Aham-Vritti, as distinguished from other vrittis (modifications of the mind), should be considered the direct means to Self-realisation.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Although the concept of ‘I’-ness or ‘I am’-ness is by usage known as Aham-vritti it is not really a Vritti (modification) like other Vrittis of the mind. Because unlike the other Vrittis which have no essential interrelation, the Aham-vritti is equally and essentially related to each and every Vritti of the mind. Without the Aham-vritti there can be no other Vritti, but the Aham-vritti can subsist by itself without depending on any other Vritti of the mind. The Aham-vritti is therefore fundamentally different from other Vrittis.

So then, the search for the source of the Aham-vritti is not merely the search for the basis of one of the forms of the ego but for the very source itself from which arises the ‘I am’-ness. In other words, the quest for and the realisation of the source of the ego in the form of Aham-vritti necessarily implies the transcendence of the ego in every one of its possible forms.

Question: Conceding that the Aham-vritti essentially comprises all the forms of the ego, why should that vritti alone be chosen as the means for self-enquiry?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Because it is the one irreducible datum of your experience and because seeking its source is the only practicable course you can adopt to realise the Self. The ego is said to have a causal body (the state of the ‘I’ during sleep), but how can you make it the subject of your investigation? When the ego adopts that form, you are immersed in the darkness of sleep.

Question: But is not the ego in its subtle and causal forms too intangible to be tackled through the enquiry into the source of intangible to be tackled through the enquiry into the source of Aham-vritti conducted while the mind is awake?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. The enquiry into the source of Aham-vritti touches the very existence of the ego. Therefore the subtlety of the ego’s form is not a material consideration.

Question: While the one aim is to realise the unconditioned, pure being of the Self, which is in no way dependent on the ego, how can enquiry pertaining to the ego in the form of Aham-vritti be of any use?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: From the functional point of view the ego has one and only one characteristic. The ego functions as the knot between the Self which is pure consciousness and the physical body which is inert and insentient. The ego is therefore called the Chit-jada-granthi (the knot between consciousness and the inert body). In your investigation into the source of Aham-vritti, you take the essential Chit (consciousness) aspect of the ego. For this reason the enquiry must lead to the realisation of pure consciousness of the Self.

You must distinguish between the ‘I’, pure in itself, and the ‘I’-thought. The latter being merely a thought, sees subject and object, sleeps, wakes up, eats and thinks, dies and is reborn. But the pure ‘I’ is the pure being, eternal existence, free from ignorance and thought-illusion. If you stay as the ‘I’, your being alone, without thought, the ‘I’-thought will disappear and the delusion will vanish forever. In a cinema show you can see pictures only in a very dim light or in darkness. But when all the lights are switched on, the pictures disappear. So also in the floodlight of the supreme atman (Self) all objects disappear.

Questioner: That s the transcendental state.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. Transcending what, and by whom? You alone exist.

Question: It is said that the Self is beyond the mind and yet the realisation is with the mind. ‘The mind cannot think it. It cannot be thought of by the mind and the mind alone can realise it.’ How are these contradictions to be reconciled?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Atman (Self) is realised with Mruta Manas (dead mind), that is, mind devoid of thoughts and turned inward. Then the mind sees its own source and becomes that (the Self). It is not as the subject perceiving an object.

When the room is dark a lamp is necessary to illumine the eyes to cognize objects. But when the sun has risen there is no need of a lamp to see objects. To see the sun no lamp is necessary, it is enough that you turn your eyes towards the self-luminous sun.

Similarly with the mind. To see objects the reflected light of the mind is necessary. To see the Heart it is enough that the mind is turned towards it. Then mind loses itself and Heart shine forth. The essence of mind is only awareness or consciousness. When the ego, however, dominates it, it functions as the reasoning, thinking or sensing faculty. The cosmic mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. This is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’.

When the mind perishes in the supreme consciousness of one’s own Self, know that all the various powers beginning with the power of liking (and including the power of doing and the power of knowing) will entirely disappear, being found to be an unreal imagination appearing in one’s own form of consciousness. The impure mind, which functions as thinking and forgetting, alone is Samsara, which is the cycle of birth and death. The real ‘I’ in which the activity of thinking and forgetting has perished, alone is the pure liberation. It is devoid of Pramada (forgetfulness of Self) which is the cause of birth and death.

Question: How is the ego to be destroyed?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Hold the ego first and then ask how it is to be destroyed. Who asks the question? It is the ego. This question is a sure way to cherish the ego and not to kill it. If you seek the ego you will find that it does not exist. That is the way to destroy it.

Question: How is realisation made possible?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: There is an absolute Self from which a spark proceeds as from a fire. The spark is called the ego. In the case of an ignorant man it identifies itself with an object simultaneously with its rise. It cannot remain independent of such association with objects. The association is Ajnana or ignorance and its destruction is the object of our efforts. If its objectifying tendency is killed it remains pure, and also merges into the source. The wrong identification with the body is Dehatma Buddhi (‘I am the body’ idea). This must go before good results follow.

The ‘I’ in its purity is experienced in intervals between the two states or two thoughts. Ego is like that caterpillar, which leaves its hold only after catching another. Its true nature can be found when it is out of contact with objects or thoughts.

This ghostly ego which is devoid of form comes into existence by grasping a form; grasping a form it endures; feeding upon forms which it grasps it waxes more, leaving one form it grasps another form, but when sought for it takes to flight.

Only if that first person, the ego, in the form ‘I am the body’, exists will the second and third persons (you, he, they etc.) exist. If by one’s scrutinizing the truth of the first person the first person is destroyed, the second and third persons will cease to exist and one’s own nature, which will then shine as one, will truly be the state of Self.

The thought ‘I am this body of flesh and blood’ is the one thread on which are strung the various other thoughts. Therefore, if we turn inwards enquiring ‘Where is this ‘I?’ all thought s (including the ‘I’-thought) will come to an end and Self-knowledge will then spontaneously shine forth.

Questioner: When I read Sri Bhagavan’s works I find that investigation is said to be the one method for realization.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, that is Vichara (self-enquiry).

Question: How is that to be done?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The questioner must admit the existence of his Self. ‘I am’ is the realisation. To pursue the clue till realization is Vichara (self-enquiry). Vichara and realisation are the same.

Question: It is elusive. What shall I meditate upon?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Meditation requires an object to meditate upon, whereas there is only the subject without the object in Vichara. Meditation differs from Vichara in this way.

Question: Is not Dhyana (meditation) one of the efficient processes for realisation?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Dhyana is concentration on an object. It fulfils the purpose of keeping away diverse thoughts and fixing the mind on a single thought, which must also disappear before realisation. But realisation is nothing new to be acquired. It is already there, but obstructed by a screen of thoughts. All our attempts are directed to lifting this screen and then realisation is revealed.

If seekers are advised to meditate, many may go away satisfied with the advice. But someone among them may turn round and ask, ‘Who am I to meditate on an object?’ Such a one must be told to find the Self. That is the finality. That is Vichara.

Question: Will Vichara alone do in the absence of meditation?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Vichara is the process and the goal also. ‘I am’ is the goal and the final reality. To hold to it with effort is Vichara. When spontaneous and natural, it is realisation. If one leaves aside Vichara, the most efficacious Sadhana (spiritual practice), there are no other adequate means whatever to make the mind subside. If made to subside by other means, it will remain as if subsided but will rise again. Self-enquiry is the one infallible means, the only direct one, to realise the unconditioned, absolute being that you really are.

Question: Why should self-enquiry alone be considered the direct means to Jnana (knowledge)?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Because every kind of Sadhana (spiritual practice) except that of Atma-vichara (self-enquiry) presupposes the retention of the mind as the instrument for carrying on the Sadhana, and without the mind it cannot be practised. The ego may take different and subtler forms at the different stages of one’s practice, but is itself never destroyed.

When king Janaka exclaimed, ‘Now I have discovered the thief who has been ruining me all along. He shall be dealt with summarily’, the king was really referring to the ego or the mind.

Questioner: But the thief may well be apprehended by the other Sadhana as well.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The attempts to destroy the ego or the mind through Sadhanas (spiritual practices) other than Atma-Vichara (self-enquiry) is just like the thief pretending to be a policeman to catch the thief, that is, himself. Atma-Vichara alone can reveal the truth that neither the ego nor the mind really exists, and enable one to realise the pure, undifferentiated being of the Self or the absolute.

Having realised the Self, nothing remains to be known, because it is perfect bliss, it is the all.

Question: Why is self-enquiry more direct than other methods?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Attention to one’s own Self, which is ever shining as ‘I’, the one undivided and pure reality, is the only raft with which the individual, who is deluded by thinking ‘I am the body’, can cross the ocean of unending births.

Reality is simply the loss of ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself. This is the direct method, whereas all other methods are done only by retaining the ego. In those paths there arise so many doubts and the eternal question ‘Who am I?’ remains to be tackled finally. But in this method the final question is the only one and it is raised from the beginning. No Sadhanas are necessary for engaging in this quest.

There is no greater mystery than this- that being the reality we seek to gain reality. We think that there is something hiding our reality and that it must be destroyed before the reality is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now.

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Index Alphabetical [Index to Pages]

Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Self-enquiry- Practice
Edited by David Godman

By David Godman

Beginners in self-enquiry were advised by Sri Ramana to put their attention on the inner feeling of ‘I’ and to hold that feeling as long as possible. They would be told that if their attention was distracted by other thoughts they should revert to awareness of the ‘I’-thought whenever they became aware that their attention had wandered. He suggested various aids to assist this process- one could ask oneself ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this I come from?’- but the ultimate aim was to be continuously aware of the ‘I’ which assumes that it is responsible for all the activities of the body and the mind.

In the early stages of practice attention to the feeling ‘I’ is a mental activity which takes the form of a thought or a perception. As the practice develops, the thought ‘I’ gives way to a subjectively experienced feeling of ‘I’, and when this feeling ceases to connect and identify with thoughts and objects, it completely vanishes. What remains is an experience of being in which the sense of individuality has temporarily ceased to operate. The experience may be intermittent at first but with repeated practice it becomes easier and easier to reach and maintain. When self-enquiry reaches this level there is an effortless awareness of being in which individual effort is no longer possible since the ‘I’ who makes the effort has temporarily ceased to exist. It is not Self-realisation since the ‘I’-thought periodically reasserts itself but it is the highest level of practice. Repeated experience of this state of being weakens and destroys the Vasanas (mental tendencies) which cause the '‘I’-thought to rise, and, when their hold has been sufficiently weakened, the power of the Self destroys the residual tendencies so completely that the ‘I’-thought never rises again. This is the final and irreversible state of Self-realisation.

This practice of Self-attention or awareness of the ‘I’-thought is a gentle technique, which bypasses the usual repressive methods of controlling the mind. It is not an exercise in concentration, nor does it aim at suppressing thoughts; it merely invokes awareness of the source from which the mind springs. The method and goal of self-enquiry is to abide in the source of the mind and to be aware of what one really is by withdrawing attention and interest from what one is not. In the early stages effort in the form of transferring attention from the thoughts to the thinker is essential, but once awareness of the ‘I’-feeling has been firmly established, further effort is counter-productive. From then on it is more a process of being than doing, of effortless being rather than an effort to be.

Being what one already is is effortless since beingness is always present and always experienced. On the other hand, pretending to be what one is not (i.e. the body and the mind) requires continuous mental effort even though the effort is nearly always at a subconscious level. It therefore follows that in the higher stages of self-enquiry effort takes attention away from the experience of being while the cessation of mental effort reveals it. Ultimately, the Self is not discovered as a result of doing anything, but only by being. As Sri Ramana Maharshi himself once remarked:

‘Do not meditate – be!

Do not think that you are – be!

Don’t think about being – you are!’

Self-enquiry should not be regarded as a meditation practice that takes place at certain hours and in certain positions; it should continue throughout one's waking hours, irrespective of what one is doing. Sri Ramana Maharshi saw no conflict between working and self-enquiry and he maintained that with a little practice it could be done under any circumstances. He did sometimes say that regular periods of formal practice were good for beginners, but he never advocated long periods of sitting meditation and he always showed his disapproval when any of his devotees expressed a desire to give up their mundane activities in favour of a meditative life.

Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Question: You say one can realise the Self by a search for it. What is the character of this search?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You are the mind and think that you are the mind. The mind is nothing but thoughts. Now behind every particular thought there is a general thought, which is the ‘I’, that is yourself. Let us call this ‘I’ the first thought. Stick to this ‘I’-thought and question it to find out what it is. When this question takes strong hold on you, you cannot think of other thoughts.

Question: When I do this and cling to myself, that is, the ‘I’-thought, other thoughts come and go, but I say to myself ‘Who am I?’ and there is no answer forthcoming. To be in this condition is the practice. Is it so?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: This is a mistake that people often make. What happens when you make a serious quest for the Self is that the ‘I’-thought disappears and something else from the depths takes hold of you and that is not the ‘I’ which commenced the quest.

Question: What is this something else?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: That is the Self, the import of ‘I’. It is not the ego. It is the supreme being itself.

Questioner: But you have often said that one must reject other thoughts when one begins the quest but the thoughts are endless. If one thought is rejected, another comes and there seems to be no end at all.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: I do not say you must go on rejecting thoughts. Cling to yourself, that is, to the ‘I’-thought. When your interest keeps you to that single idea, other thoughts will automatically get rejected and they will vanish.

Question: And so rejection of thoughts is not necessary?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. It may be necessary for a time or for some. You fancy that there is no end if one goes on rejecting every thought when it rises. It is not true, there is an end. If you are vigilant and make a stern effort to reject every thought when it rises you will soon find that you are going deeper and deeper into your own inner self. At that level it is not necessary to make an effort to reject thoughts.

Questioner: Then it is possible to be without effort, without strain.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Not only that, it is impossible for you to make an effort beyond a certain extent.

Question: I want to be further enlightened. Should I try to make no efforts at all?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Here it is impossible for you to be without effort. When you go deeper, it is impossible for you to make any effort.

If the mind becomes introverted through enquiry into the source of Aham-Vritti (ego-sense), the Vasanas (mental tendencies) become extinct. The light of the Self falls on the Vasanas and produces the phenomenon of reflection we call the mind. Thus, when the Vasanas become extinct the mind also disappears, being absorbed into the light of the one reality, the Heart.

This is the sum and substance of all that an aspirant needs to know. What is imperatively required of him is an earnest and one-pointed enquiry into the source of the Aham-Vritti.

Question: How should a beginner start this practice?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’ destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre. If other thoughts rise one should, without attempting to complete them, enquire ‘To whom did they rise?’ What does it matter however many thoughts rise? At the very moment that each thought rises, if one vigilantly enquires ‘To whom did this rise?’, it will be known ‘To me’. If one then enquiries ‘Who am I?’, the mind will turn back to its source (the Self) and the thought which had risen will also subside. By repeatedly practising thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.

Although tendencies towards sense-objects (Vishaya Vasanas), which have been recurring down the ages, rise in countless numbers like the waves of the ocean, they will all perish as meditation on one’s nature becomes more and more intense. Without giving room even to the doubting thought, ‘Is it possible to destroy all these tendencies (Vasanas) and to remain as Self alone?’, one should persistently cling fast to self-attention.

As long as there are tendencies towards sense-objects in the mind, the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ is necessary. As and when thoughts rise, one should annihilate all of them through enquiry then and there in their very place of origin. Not attending to what-is-other (anya) is non-attachment (vairagya) or desirelessness (nirasa). Not leaving Self is knowledge (Jnana). In truth, these two (desirelessness and knowledge) are one and the same. Just as a pearl-diver, tying a stone to his waist, dives into the sea and takes the pearl lying at the bottom, so everyone, diving deep within himself with non-attachment, can attain the pearl of Self. If one resorts uninterruptedly to remembrance of one’s real nature (Swarupa- Smarana) until one attains Self, that alone will be sufficient.

Enquiring ‘Who am I that is in bondage?’ and knowing one’s real nature (Swarupa) alone is liberation. Always keeping the mind fixed in Self alone is called ‘sef-enquiry’, whereas meditation (Dhyana) is thinking oneself to be the absolute (Brahman), which is existence-consciousness-bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda).

Questioner: The Yogis say that one must renounce this world and go off into secluded jungles if one wishes to find the truth.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The life of action need not be renounced. If you meditate for an hour or two every day you can then carry on with your duties. If you meditate in the right manner then the current of mind induced will continue to flow even in the midst of your work. It is as though there were two ways of expressing the same idea; the same line which you take in meditation will be expressed in your activities.

Question: What will be the result of doing that?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: As you go on you will find that your attitude towards people, events and objects gradually changes. Your actions will tend to follow your meditations of their own accord.

Question: Then you do not agree with the yogis?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: A man should surrender the personal selfishness which binds him to this world. Giving up the false self is the true renunciation.

Question: How is it possible to become selfless while leading a life of worldly activity?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: There is no conflict between work and wisdom.

Question: Do you mean that one can continue all the old activities in one’s profession, for instance, and at the same time get enlightenment?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Why not? But in that case one will not think that it is the old personality which is doing the work, because one’s consciousness will gradually become transferred until it is centred in that which is beyond the little self.

Questioner: If a person is engaged in work, there will be little time left for him to meditate.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Setting apart time for meditation is only for the merest spiritual novices. A man who is advancing will begin to enjoy the deeper beatitude whether he is at work or not. While his hands are in society, he keeps his head cool in solitude.

Question: Then you do not teach the way of yoga?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The yogi tries to drive his mind to the goal, as a cowherd drives a bull with a stick, but on this path the seeker coaxes the bull by holding out a handful of grass.

Question: How is that done?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You have to ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’ This investigation will lead in the end to the discovery of something within you, which is behind the mind. Solve that great problem and you will solve all other problems.

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Questioner: Seeking the ‘I’ there is nothing to be seen.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Because you are accustomed to identify yourself with the body and sight with the eye, therefore you say you do not see anything. What is there to be seen? Who is to see? How to see? There is only one consciousness which, manifesting as ‘I’-thought, identifies itself with the body, projects itself through the eyes and sees the objects around. The individual is limited in the waking state and expects to see something different. The evidence of his senses will be seal of authority. But he will not admit that the seer, the seen and the seeing are all manifestations of the same consciousness – namely, ‘I, I’. Contemplation helps one to overcome the illusion that the Self must be visual. In truth, there is nothing visual. How do you feel the ‘I’ now? Do you hold a mirror before you to know your own being? The awareness is the ‘I’. Realise it and that is the truth.

Question: Upon enquiring into the origin of thoughts there is perception of ‘I’. But it does not satisfy me.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Quite right. The perception of ‘I’ is associated with a form, may be the body. There should be nothing associated with the pure Self. The Self is the unassociated, pure reality, in whose light the body and the ego shine. On stilling all thoughts the pure consciousness remains.

Just on waking from sleep and before becoming aware of the world there is that pure ‘I, I’. Hold on to it without sleeping or without allowing thoughts to possess you. If that is held firm it does not matter even if the world is seen. The seer remains unaffected by the phenomena.

What is the ego? Enquire. The body is insentient and cannot say ‘I’. The Self is pure consciousness and non-dual. It cannot say ‘I’. No one says ‘I’ in sleep. What is the ego then? It is something intermediate between the inert body and the Self. It has no locus standi. If sought for it vanishes like a ghost. At night a man may imagine that there is a ghost by his side because of the play of shadows. If he looks closely he discovers that the ghost is not really there, and what he imagined to be a ghost vanishes. The ghost was never there. So also with the ego. It is an intangible link between the body and pure consciousness. It is not real. So long as one does not look closely at it, it continues to give trouble. But when one looks for it, it is found not to exist.

There is another story, which illustrates this. In Hindu marriage functions the feasts often continue for five or six days. On one of these occasions a stranger was mistaken for the best man by the bride’s party and they therefore treated him with special regard. Seeing him treated with special regard by the bride’s party, the bridegroom’s party considered him to be some man of importance related to the bride’s party and therefore they too showed him special respect. The stranger had altogether a happy time of it. He was also all along aware of the real situation. On one occasion the groom’s party wanted to refer to him on some point and so they asked the bride’s party about him. Immediately he scented trouble and made himself scarce. So it is with the ego. If you looked for it, it disappears. If not, it continues to give trouble.

Question: If I try to make the ‘Who am I?’ enquiry, I fall into sleep. What should I do?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Persist in the enquiry throughout your waking hours. That would be quite enough. If you keep on making the enquiry till you fall asleep, the enquiry will go on during sleep also. Take up the enquiry again as soon as you wake up.

Question: How can I get peace? I do not seem to obtain it through Vichara (enquiry).

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Peace is your natural state. It is the mind that obstructs the natural state. If you do not experience peace it means that your Vichara (enquiry) has been made only in the mind. Investigate what the mind is, and it will disappear. There is no such thing as mind apart from thought. Nevertheless, because of the emergence of thought, you surmise something from which it starts and term that the mind. When you probe to see what it is, you find there is really no such thing as mind. When the mind has thus vanished, you realise eternal peace.

Question: When I am engaged in enquiry as to the source from which the ‘I’ springs, I arrive at a stage of stillness of mind beyond which I find myself unable to proceed further. I have no thought of any kind and there is an emptiness, a blankness. A mild light pervades and I feel that it is myself bodiless. I have neither cognition nor vision of body or form. The experience lasts nearly half an hour and is pleasing. Would I be correct in concluding that all that was necessary to secure eternal happiness, that is freedom or salvation or whatever one calls it, was to continue the practice till the experience could be maintained for hours, days and months together?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: This does not mean salvation. Such a condition is termed Manolaya or temporary stillness of thought. Manolaya means concentration, temporarily arresting the movement of thoughts. As soon as this concentration ceases, thoughts, old and new, rush in as usual; and even if this temporary lulling of mind should last a thousand years, it will never lead to total destruction of thought, which is what is called liberation from birth and death.

The practitioner must therefore be ever on the alert and enquire within as to who has this experience, who realises its pleasantness. Without this enquiry he will go into a long trance or deep sleep (Yoga Nidra). Due to the absence of a proper guide at this stage of spiritual practice, many have been deluded and fallen a prey to a false sense of liberation and only a few have managed to reach the goal safely.

The following story illustrates the point very well. A yogi was doing penance (tapas) for a number of years on the banks of the Ganges. When he had attained a high degree of concentration, he believed that continuance in that stage for prolonged periods constituted liberation and practised it. One day, before going into deep concentration, he felt thirsty and called to his disciple to bring a little drinking water from the Ganges. But before the disciple arrived with the water, he had gone into Yoga Nidra and remained in that state for countless years, during which time much water flowed under the bridge. When he woke up from this experience he immediately called '‘Water! Water!'; but there was neither his disciple nor the Ganges in sight.

The first thing that he asked for was water because, before going into deep concentration, the topmost layer of thought in his mind was water and by concentration, however deep and prolonged it might have been, he had only been able temporarily to lull his thoughts. When he regained consciousness this topmost thought flew up with all the speed and force of a flood breaking through the dykes. If this were the case with regard to a thought which took shape immediately before he sat for meditation, there is no doubt that thoughts which took root earlier would also remain unannihilated. If annihilation of thoughts is liberation, can he be said to have attained salvation?

Sadhakas (seekers) rarely understand the difference between this temporary stilling of the mind (Manolaya) and permanent destruction of thoughts (manonasa). In Manolaya there is temporary subsidence of thought-waves, and though this temporary period may even last for a thousand years, thoughts, which are thus temporarily stilled, rise up as soon as the Manolaya ceases.

One must therefore watch one’s spiritual progress carefully. One must not allow oneself to be overtaken by such spells of stillness of thought. The moment one experiences this, one must revive consciousness and enquire within as to who it is who experiences this stillness. While not allowing any thoughts to intrude, one must not, at the same time, be overtaken by this deep sleep (Yoga Nidra) or self-hypnotism.

Though this is a sign of progress towards the goal, yet it is also the point where the divergence between the road to liberation and Yoga Nidra take place. The easy way, the direct way, the shortest cut to salvation is the enquiry method. By such enquiry, you will drive the thought force deeper till it reaches its source and merges therein. It is then that you will have the response from within and find that you rest there, destroying all thoughts once and for all.

Questioner: This ‘I"-thought rises from me. But I do not know the Self.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: All these are only mental concepts. You are now identifying yourself with a wrong ‘I’, which is the ‘I’-thought. This ‘I’-thought rises and sinks, whereas the true significance of ‘I’ is beyond both. There cannot be a break in your being. You who slept are also now awake. There is no unhappiness in your deep sleep whereas it exists now. What is it that has happened now so that this difference is experienced? There was no ‘I’-thought in your sleep, whereas it is present now. The true ‘I’ is not apparent and the false ‘I’ is parading itself. This false ‘I’ is the obstacle to your right knowledge. Find out from where this false ‘I’ arises. Then it will disappear. You will then be only what you are, that is, absolute being.

Question: How to do it? I have not succeeded so far.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Search for the source of the ‘I’-thought. That is all that one has to do. The universe exists on account of the ‘I’-thought (the false ‘I’). If that ends there is an end to misery also. The false ‘I’ will end only when its source is sought.

Again people often ask how the mind is controlled. I say to them, ‘Show me the mind and then you will know what to do.’ The fact is that the mind is only a bundle of thoughts. How can you extinguish it by the thought of doing so or by a desire? Your thoughts and desires are part and parcel of the mind. The mind is simply fattened by new thoughts rising up. Therefore it is foolish to attempt to kill the mind by means of the mind. The only way of doing it is to find its source and hold on to it. The mind will then fade away of its own accord. Yoga teaches Chitta Vritti Nirodha (control of the activities of the mind). But I say Atma Vichara (self-investigation). This is the practical way. Chitta Vritti Nirodha is brought about in sleep, swoon, or by starvation. As soon as the cause is withdrawn there is a recrudescence of thoughts. Of what use is it then? In the state of stupor there is peace and no misery. But misery recurs when the stupor is removed. So nirodha (control) is useless and cannot be of lasting benefit.

How then can the benefit be made lasting? It is by finding the cause of misery. Misery is due to the perception of objects. If they are not there, there will be no contingent thoughts and so misery is wiped off. ‘How will objects cease to be?’ is the next question. The srutis (scriptures) and the sages say that the objects are only mental creations. They have no substantive being. Investigate the matter and ascertain the truth of the statement. The result will be the conclusion that the objective world is in the subjective consciousness. The Self is thus the only reality, which permeates and also envelops the world. Since there is no duality, no thoughts will arise to disturb your peace. This is realisation of the Self. The Self is eternal and so also is realisation.

Abhyasa (spiritual practice) consists in withdrawal within the Self every time you are disturbed by thought. It is not concentration or destruction of the mind but withdrawal into the Self.

Question: Why is concentration ineffective?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: To ask the mind to kill the mind is like making the thief the policeman. He will go with you and pretend to catch the thief, but nothing will be gained. So you must turn inward and see from where the mind rises and then it will cease to exist.

Question: In turning the mind inwards, are we not still employing the mind?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Of course we are employing the mind. It is well known and admitted that only with the help of the mind can the mind be killed. But instead of setting about saying there is a mind, and I want to kill it, begin to seek the source of the mind, and you find the mind does not exist at all. The mind, turned outwards, results in thoughts and objects. Turned inwards, it becomes itself the Self.

Question: Even so, I do not understand. ‘I’, you say, is the wrong ‘I’ now. How to eliminate the wrong ‘I’?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You need not eliminate the wrong ‘I’. How can ‘I’ eliminate itself? All that you need to do is to find out its origin and abide there. Your efforts can extend only thus far. Then the beyond will take care of itself. You are helpless there. No effort can reach it.

Question: If ‘I’ am always, here and now, why do I not feel so?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: That is it. Who says it is not felt? Does the real ‘I’ say it or the false ‘I’? Examine it. You will find it is the wrong ‘I’. The wrong ‘I’ is the obstruction. It has to be removed in order that the true ‘I’ may not be hidden. The feeling that I have not realised is the obstruction to realisation. In fact it is already realised and there is nothing more to be realised. Otherwise, the realisation will be new.

If it has not existed so far, it must take place hereafter. What is born will also die. If realisation is not eternal it is not worth having. Therefore what we seek is not that which must happen afresh. It is only that which is eternal but not now known due to obstructions. It is that which we seek. All that we need to do is remove the obstruction. That which is eternal is not known to be so because of ignorance. Ignorance is the obstruction. Get over the ignorance and all will be well.

The ignorance is identical with the ‘I’-thought. Find its source and it will vanish.

The ‘I’-thought is like a spirit which, although not palpable, rises up simultaneously with the body, flourishes and disappears with it. The body-consciousness is the wrong ‘I’. Give up this body-consciousness. It is done by seeking the source of the ‘I’. The body does not say ‘I am’. It is you who say, ‘I am the body’. Find out who this ‘I’ is. Seeking its source it will vanish.

Question: How long can the mind stay or be kept in the Heart?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The period extends by practice.

Question: What happens at the end of the period?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The mind returns to the present normal state. Unity in the Heart is replaced by a variety of perceived phenomena. This is called the outgoing mind. The Heart-going mind is called the resting mind.

When one daily practises more and more in this manner, the mind will become extremely pure due to the removal of its defects and the practice will become so easy that the purified mind will plunge into the Heart as soon as the enquiry is commenced.

Question: Is it possible for a person who once has had the experience of sat-chit-ananda in meditation to identify himself with the body when out of meditation?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, it is possible, but he gradually loses the identification in the course of his practice. In the floodlight of the Self the darkness of illusion dissipates forever.

Experience gained without rooting out all the Vasanas (latent impressions or mental tendencies) cannot remain steady. Effort must be made to eradicate the Vasanas; knowledge can only remain unshaken after all the Vasanas are rooted out.

We have to contend against age-long mental tendencies. They will all go. Only they go comparatively soon in the case of those who have made Sadhana (spiritual practice) in the past and later in the case of others.

Question: Do these tendencies go gradually or will they suddenly all disappear one day? I ask this because although I have remained here for a long time I do not perceive any gradual change in me.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: When the sun rises, does the darkness go gradually or all at once?

Question: How can I tell if I am making progress with my enquiry?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The degree of the absence of thoughts is the measure of your progress towards Self-realisation. But Self-realisation itself does not admit of progress, it is ever the same. The Self remains always in realisation. The obstacles are thoughts. Progress is measured by the degree of removal of the obstacles to understanding that the Self is always realised. So thoughts must be checked by seeking to whom they arise. So you go to their source, where they do not arise.

Questioner: Doubts are always arising. Hence my question.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: A doubt arises and is cleared. Another arises and that is cleared, making way for yet another; and so it goes on. So there is no possibility of clearing away all doubts. See to whom the doubts arise. Go to their source and abide in it. Then they cease to arise. That is how doubts are to be cleared.

Question: Should I go on asking ‘Who am I?’ without answering? Who asks whom? Which Bhavana (attitude) should be in the mind at the time of enquiry? What is ‘I’, the Self or the ego?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: In the enquiry ‘Who am I?’, ‘I’ is the ego. The question really means, what is the source or origin of this ego? You need not have any Bhavana (attitude) in the mind. All that is required is that you must give up the Bhavana (attitude) that you are the body, of such and such a description, with such and such a name, etc. There is no need to have a Bhavana about your real nature. It exists as it always does. It is real and no Bhavana.

Question: But is it not funny that the ‘I’ should be searching for the ‘I’? Does not the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ turn out in the end to be an empty formula? Or, am I to put the question to myself endlessly, repeating it like some mantra?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Self-enquiry is certainly not an empty formula and it is more than the repetition of any mantra. If the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ were a mere mental questioning, it would not be of much value. The very purpose of self-enquiry is to focus the entire mind at its source. It is not, therefore, a case of one ‘I’ searching for another ‘I’. Much less is self-enquiry an empty formula, for it involves an intense activity of the entire mind to keep it steadily poised in pure Self-awareness.

Question: Is it enough if I spend some time in the mornings and some time in the evenings for this atma-vichara (self-enquiry)? Or should I do it always, even when I am writing or walking?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: What is your real nature? Is it writing, walking or being? The one unalterable reality is being. Until you realise that state of pure being you should pursue the enquiry. If once you are established in it there will be no further worry.

No one will enquire into the source of thoughts unless thoughts arise. So long as you think ‘I am walking’ or ‘I am writing’, enquire who does it.

Question: If I go on rejecting thoughts can I call it Vichara (enquiry)?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: It may be a stepping stone. But really vichara begins when you cling to your Self and are already off the mental movement, the thought waves.

Question: Then vichara (enquiry) is not intellectual?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No, it is Antara Vichara, inner quest.

Holding the mind and investigating it is advised for a beginner. But what is mind after all? It is a projection of the Self. See for whom it appears and from where it rises. The ‘I’-thought will be found to be the root-cause. Go deeper. The ‘I’-thought disappears and there is an infinitely expanded ‘I’-consciousness.

Question: I asked Mother in Sri Aurobindo Ashram the following question: ‘I keep my mind blank without thought arising so that God might show Himself in His true being. But I do not perceive anything.’ The reply was to this effect: ‘The attitude is right. The power will come down from above. It is a direct experience.’ Should I do anything further?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Be what you are. There is nothing to come down or become manifest. All that is necessary is to lose the ego. That which is is always there. Even now you are that. You are not apart from it. What do you wait for? The thought, ‘I have not seen’, the expectation to see and the desire of getting something, are all the workings of the ego. You have fallen into snares of the ego. The ego says all these and not you. Be yourself and nothing more!

Once born you reach something. If you reach it you return also. Therefore leave off all this verbiage. Be as you are. See who you are and remain as the Self, free from birth, going, coming and returning.

Question: How is one to know the Self?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Knowing the Self means being the Self. Can you say that you do not know the Self? Though you cannot see your own eyes and not provided with a mirror to look in, do you deny the existence of your eyes? Similarly, you are aware of the Self even though the Self is not objectified. Or, do you deny your Self because it is not objectified? When you say I cannot know the Self’, it means absence in terms of relative knowledge that you identify yourself with it. Such wrong identity has forged the difficulty of not knowing the obvious Self because it cannot be objectified. And then you ask ‘how is one to know the Self?’

Question: You talk of being. Being what?

Sri Ramama Maharshi: Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in the words ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means destroy yourself. Because any form or shape is the cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’. All that is required to realise the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that? Hence Atma Vidya (Self-knowledge) is the easiest to attain.

The truth of oneself alone is worthy to be scrutinised and known. Taking it as the target of one’s attention, one should keenly know it in the Heart. This knowledge of oneself will be revealed only to the consciousness which is silent, clear and free from the activity of the agitated and suffering mind. Know that the consciousness which always shines in the Heart as the formless Self, ‘I’, and which is known by one’s being still without thinking about anything as existent or non-existent, alone is the perfect reality.

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Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Self-enquiry- Misconceptions
Edited by David Godman

by David Godman

Sri Ramana Maharshi’s philosophical pronouncements were very similar to those upheld by the followers of Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta, an Indian philosophical school which has flourished for well over a thousand years. Sri Ramana Maharshi and the Advaitins agree on most theoretical matters but their attitudes to practice are radically different. While Sri Ramana Maharshi advocated self-enquiry, most advaitic teachers recommended a system of meditation which mentally affirmed that the Self was the only reality. These affirmations such as ‘I am Brahman’ or ‘I am He’, are usually used as mantras, or, more rarely, one meditates on their meaning and tries to experience the implications of the statement

Because self-enquiry often starts with the question ‘Who am I?’, many of the traditional followers of Advaita assumed that the answer to the question was ‘I am Brahman’ and they occupied their minds with repetitions of this mental solution. Sri Ramana Maharshi criticised this approach by saying that while the mind was constantly engaged in finding or repeating solutions to the question it would never sink into its source and disappear.

He was equally critical, for the same reason, of those who tried to use ‘Who am I?’ as a mantra, saying that both approaches missed the point of self-enquiry. The question ‘Who am I?’, he said, is not an invitation to analyse the mind and to come to conclusions about its nature, nor is it a mantric formula, it is simply a tool which facilitates redirecting attention from the objects of thought and perception to the thinker and perceiver of them. In Sri Ramana Maharshi’s opinion, the solution to the question ‘Who am I?’ is not to be found in or by the mind since the only real answer is the experience of the absence of mind.

Another widespread misunderstanding arose from the belief that the Self could be discovered by mentally rejecting all the objects of thought and perception as not-self. Traditionally this is called the Neti-Neti approach (not this, not this). The practitioner of this system verbally rejects all the objects that the ‘I’ identifies with –‘I am not the mind’, ‘ I am not the body’, etc.-in the expectation that the real ‘I’ will eventually be experienced in the pure uncontaminated form. Hinduism calls this practice ‘self-enquiry’ and, because of the identity of names, it was often confused with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s method. Sri Ramana Maharshi’s attitude to this traditional system of self-analysis was wholly negative and he discouraged his own followers from practising it by telling them that it was an intellectual activity which could not take them beyond the mind. In his standard reply to questions about the effectiveness of this practice he would say that the ‘I’-thought is sustained by such acts of discrimination and that the ‘I’ which eliminates the body and the mind as ‘not I’ can never eliminate itself.

The followers of the ‘I am Brahman’ and ‘Neti-Neti’ schools share a common belief that the Self can be discovered by the mind, either through affirmation or negation. This belief that the mind can, by its own activities, reach the Self is the root of most of the misconceptions about the practice of self-enquiry. A classic example of this is the belief that self-enquiry involves concentrating on a particular centre in the body called the Heart-centre. This widely held view results from a misinterpretation of some of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s statements on the Heart, and to understand how this belief has come about it will be necessary to take a closer look at some of his ideas on the subject.

In describing the origin of the ‘I’-thought he sometimes said that it arose to the brain through a channel which started from a centre in the right hand side of the chest. He called this centre the Heart centre and said that when the ‘I’-thought subsided into the Self it went back into the centre and disappeared. He also said that when the Self is consciously experienced, there is a tangible awareness that this centre is the source of both the mind and the world. However, these statements are not strictly true and Sri Ramana Maharshi sometimes qualified them by saying that they were only schematic representations which were given to those people who persisted in identifying with their bodies. He said that the Heart is not really located in the body and that from the highest standpoint it is equally untrue to say that the ‘I’-thought arises and subsides into this centre on the right of the chest.

Because Sri Ramana Maharshi often said ‘Find the place where the "I" arises’ or ‘Find the source of the mind’, many people interpreted these statements to mean that they should concentrate in this particular centre while doing self-enquiry. Sri Ramana Maharshi rejected this interpretation many times by saying that the source of the mind or the ‘I’ could only be discovered through attention to the ‘I’-thought and not through concentration on a particular part of the body. He did sometimes say that putting attention on this centre is a good concentration practice, but he never associated it with self-enquiry. He also occasionally said that meditation on the Heart was an effective way of reaching the Self, but again, he never said that this should be done by concentrating on the Heart-centre. Instead he said that one should meditate on the Heart ‘as it is’. The Heart ‘as it is’ is not a location, it is the immanent Self and one can only be aware of its real nature by being it. It cannot be reached by concentration.

Although there are several potentially ambiguous comments of this kind about the Heart and the Heart-centre, in all his writings and recorded conversations there is not a single statement to support the contention that self-enquiry is to be practised by concentrating on this centre. In fact, by closely examining his statements on the subject one can only conclude that while the experience of the Self contains an awareness of this centre, concentration on this centre will not result in the experience of the Self.

The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Question: I begin to ask myself ’Who am I?’, eliminate the body as not ‘I’, the breath as not ‘I’, and I am not able to proceed further.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Well, that is as far as the intellect can go. Your process is only intellectual. Indeed, all the scriptures mention the process only to guide the seeker to know the truth. The truth cannot be directly pointed out. Hence this intellectual process.

You see, the one who eliminates all the ‘not I’ cannot eliminate the ‘I’. To say ‘I am not this’ or ‘I am that’ there must be the ‘I’. This ‘I’ is only the ego or the ‘I’-thought. After the rising up of this ‘I’-thought, all other thoughts arise. The ‘I’-thought is therefore the root thought. If the root is pulled out all others are at the same time uprooted. Therefore seek the root ‘I’, question yourself ‘Who am I?’. Find out its source, and then all these other ideas will vanish and the pure Self will remain.

Question: How to do it?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The ‘I’ is always there- in deep sleep, in dream and in wakefulness. The one in sleep is the same as that who now speaks. There is always the feeling of ‘I’. Otherwise do you deny your existence? You do not. You say ‘I am’. Find out who is.

Questioner: I meditate Neti-Neti (not this-not this).

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No- that is not meditation. Find the source. You must reach the source without fail. The false ‘I’ will disappear and the real ‘I’ will be realised. The former cannot exist apart from the latter.

There is now wrong identification of the Self with the body, senses, etc. You proceed to discard these, and this is Neti. This can be done only by holding to the one which cannot be discarded. That is ‘iti’ (that which is).

Question: When I think ‘Who am I?’, the answer comes ‘I am not this mortal body but I am Chaitanya, Atma (consciousness, the Self).’ And suddenly another question arises, ‘Why has Atma (Self) come into Maya (illusion)?’ or in other words, ‘Why has God created this world?’

Sri Ramana Maharshi: To enquire ‘Who am I?’ really means trying to find out the source of the ego or the ‘I’-thought. You are not to think of other thoughts, such as ‘I am not this body’. Seeking the source of ‘I’ serves as a means of getting rid of all other thoughts. We should not give scope to other thoughts, such as you mention, but must keep the attention fixed on finding out the source of the ‘I’-thought by asking, as each thought arises, to whom the thought arises. If the answer is ‘I get the thought’ continue the enquiry by asking ‘Who is this "I" and what is its source?’

Question: Am I to keep on repeating ‘Who am I?’ so as to makes a mantra of it?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. ‘Who am I?’ is not a mantra. It means that you must find out where in you arises the ‘I’-thought, which is the source of all other thoughts.

Question: Shall I meditate on ‘I am Brahman’ (Aham Brahmasmi)?’

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The text is not meant for thinking ‘I am Brahman’. Aham (‘I’) is known to every one. Find out the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is already Brahman. You need not think so. Simply find out the ‘I’.

Question: Is not discarding the sheaths (Neti-Neti) mentioned in the sastras?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: After the rise of the ‘I’-thought there is the false identification of the ‘I’ with the body, the senses, the mind, etc. ‘I’ is wrongly associated with them and the true ‘I’ is lost sight of. In order to sift the pure ‘I’ from the contaminated ‘I’, this discarding is mentioned. But it does not mean exactly discarding of the non-self, it means the finding of the real Self. The real Self is the infinite ‘I’. That ‘I’ is perfection. It is eternal. It has no origin and no end. The other ‘I’ is born and also dies. It is impermanent. See to whom the changing thoughts belong. They will be found to arise after the ‘I’-thought. Hold the ‘I’-thought and they subside. Trace back the source of the ‘I’-thought. The Self alone will remain.

Question: It is difficult to follow. I understand the theory. But what is the practice?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The other methods are meant for those who cannot take to the investigation of the Self. Even to repeat Aham Brahmasmi or think of it, a doer is necessary. Who is it? It is ‘I’. Be that ‘I’. It is the direct method. The other methods also will ultimately lead everyone to this method of the investigation of the Self.

Questioner: I am aware of the ‘I’. Yet my troubles are not ended.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: This ‘I’-thought is not pure. It is contaminated with the association of the body and senses. See to whom the trouble is. It is to the ‘I’-thought. Hold it. Then the other thoughts vanish.

Question: Yes. How to do it? That is the whole trouble.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Think ‘I, I’, and hold to that one thought to the exclusion of all others.

Question: Is not affirmation of God more effective than the quest, ‘Who am I?’ Affirmation is positive, whereas the other is negation. Moreover, it indicates separateness.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: So long as you seek to know how to realise, this advice is given to find your Self. Your seeking the method denotes your separateness.

Question: Is it not better to say ‘I am the Supreme Being’ than ask ‘Who am I?’

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Who affirms? There must be one to do it. Find that one.

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Question: Is not meditation better than investigation?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Meditation implies mental imagery, whereas investigation is for the reality. The former is objective, whereas the latter is subjective.

Questioner: There must be a scientific approach to this subject.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: To eschew unreality and seek the reality is scientific.

Questioner: I mean there must a gradual elimination, first of the mind, then of the intellect, then of the ego.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Self alone is real. All others are unreal. The mind and intellect do not remain apart from you.

The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Stillness is the sole requisite for the realisation of the Self as God.

Question: Is Soham (the affirmation ‘I am He’) the same as ‘Who am I?’

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Aham (‘I’) alone is common to them. One is Soham. The other is Koham (Who am I?). They are different. Why should we go on saying soham? One must find out the real ‘I’. In the question ‘Who am I?’, ‘I’ refers to the ego. Trying to trace it and find its source, we see it has no separate existence but merges in the real ‘I’.

You see the difficulty. Vichara (enquiry) is different in method from the meditation Sivoham or Soham (‘I am Siva’ or ‘I am He’). I rather lay stress upon Self-knowledge, for you are first concerned with yourself before you proceed to know the world and its Lord. The soham meditation or ‘I am Brahman’ meditation is more or less a mental thought. But the quest for the Self I speak of is a direct method, indeed superior to the other meditation. The moment you start looking for the self and go deeper and deeper, the real Self is waiting there to take you in. Then whatever is done is done by something else and you have no hand in it. In this process, all doubts and discussions are automatically given up just as one who sleeps forgets, for the time being, all his cares.

Question: What certainty is there that something else waits there to welcome me?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: When one is a sufficiently developed soul (pakvi) one becomes naturally convinced.

Question: How is this development possible?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Various answers are given. But whatever the previous development, Vichara quickens the development.

Questioner: That is arguing in a circle. I am developed and so I am suitable for the quest but the quest itself causes me to develop.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The mind has always this sort of difficulty. It wants a certain theory to satisfy itself. Really, no theory is necessary for the man who seriously desires to approach God or to realise his own true being.

Question: No doubt the method taught by Bhagavan is direct. But it is so difficult. We do not know how to begin it. If we go on asking, ‘Who am I?, who am I?’ like a japa (repetition of the name of God) or a mantra, it becomes dull. In other methods there is something preliminary and positive with which one can begin and then go step by step. But in Bhagavan’s method, there is no such thing, and to seek the Self at once, though direct, is difficult.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You yourself concede it is the direct method. It is the direct and easy method. When going after other things that are alien to us is so easy, how can it be difficult for one to go to one’s own Self? You talk of where to begin? There is no beginning and no end. You are yourself in the beginning and the end. If you are here and the Self somewhere else, and you have to reach that Self, you may be told how to start, how to travel and then how to reach.

Suppose you who are now in Ramanasramam ask, ‘I want to go to Ramanasramam. How shall I start and how to reach it?’, what is one to say? A man’s search for the Self is like that. He is always the Self and nothing else.

You say ‘Who am I?’ becomes a japa. It is not meant that you should go on asking ‘Who am I?’ In that case, thought will not so easily die. In the direct method, as you call it, in asking yourself ‘Who am I?’, you are told to concentrate within yourself where the ‘I’-thought, the root of all other thoughts, arise. As the Self is not outside but inside you, you are asked to dive within, instead of going without. What can be more easy than going to yourself?

But the fact remains that to some this method will seem difficult and will not appeal. That is why so many different methods have been taught. Each of them will appeal to some as the best and easiest. That is according to their Pakva or fitness. But to some, nothing except the Vichara Marga (the path of enquiry) will appeal. They will ask, ‘You want me to know or to see this or that. But who is the knower, the seer?’ Whatever other method may be chosen, there will be always a doer. That cannot be escaped. One must find out who the doer is. Till then, the Sadhana (spiritual practice) cannot be ended. So eventually all must come to find out ‘Who am I?’

You complain that there is nothing preliminary or positive to start with. You have the ‘I’ to start with. You know you exist always, whereas the body does not exist always, for example in sleep. Sleep reveals that you exist even without a body. We identify the ‘I’ with the body, we regard the Self as having a body, and as having limits, and hence all our trouble.

All that we have to do is to give up identifying the Self with the body, with forms and limits, and then we shall know ourselves as the Self that we always are.

Question: Am I to think ‘Who am I?"

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You have known that the ‘I’-thought springs forth. Hold the ‘I’-thought and find its source.

Question: May I know the way?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Do as you have now been told and see.

Questioner: I do not understand what I should do.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: If it is anything objective the way can be shown objectively. This is subjective.

Questioner: But I do not understand.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: What! Do you not understand that you are?

Questioner: Please tell me the way.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Is it necessary to show the way in the interior of your own home? This is within you.

Questioner: You have said that the Heart is the centre of the Self.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, it is the one supreme centre of the Self. You need have no doubt about it. The real Self is there in the Heart behind the jiva or ego self.

Questioner: Now be please to tell me where it is in the body.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You cannot know it with your mind. You cannot realise it by imagination, when I tell you here is the centre (pointing to the right side of the chest). The only direct way to realise it is to cease to fantasize and try to be yourself. When you realise, you automatically feel that the centre is there.

This is the centre, the Heart, spoken of in the scriptures as Hrit-Guha (cavity of the heart), Arul (grace), Ullam (the Heart).

Questioner: In no book have I found it stated that it is there.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Long after I came here I chanced upon a verse in the Malayalam version of Ashtangahridayam, the standard work on Ayurveda (science of life, health and medicine), wherein the Ojas Sthana (source of bodily vitality or place of light) is mentioned as being located in the right side of the chest and called the seat of consciousness (samvit). But I know of no other work which refers to it as being located there.

Question: Can I be sure that the ancients meant this centre by the term ‘Heart’?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes that is so. But you should try to have rather than to locate the experience. A man need not find out where his eyes are situated when he wants to see. The Heart is there ever open to you if you care to enter it, ever supporting all your movements even when you are unaware. It is perhaps more proper to say that the Self is the Heart itself than to say that it is in the Heart. Really, the Self is the centre itself. It is everywhere, aware of itself as ‘Heart’, the Self-awareness.

Question: In that case, how can it be localised in any part of the body? Fixing a place for the Heart would imply setting physiological limitations to that which is beyond space and time.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: That is right. But the person who puts the question about the position of the Heart considers himself as existing with or in the body. While putting the question now, would you say that your body alone is here but you are speaking from somewhere else? No, you accept your bodily existence. It is from this point of view that any reference to a physical body comes to be made.

Truly speaking, pure consciousness is indivisible, it is without parts. It has no form and shape, no ‘within’ and ‘without’. There is no ‘right’ or ‘left’ for it. Pure consciousness, which is the Heart, includes all, and nothing is outside or apart from it. That is the ultimate truth.

From this absolute standpoint, the Heart, Self or consciousness can have no particular place assigned to it in the physical body. What is the reason? The body is itself a mere projection of the mind, and the mind is but a poor reflection of the radiant Heart. How can that, in which everything is contained be itself confined as a tiny part within the physical body which is but an infinitesimal, phenomenal manifestation of the one reality?

But people do not understand this. They cannot help thinking in terms of the physical body and the world. For instance, you say, ‘I have come to this ashram all the way from my country beyond the Himalayas’. But that is not the truth. Where is ‘coming’ or ‘going’ or any movement whatever, for the one, all-pervading spirit which you really are? You are where you have always been. It is your body that moved or was conveyed from place to place till it reached this ashram. This is the simple truth, but to a person who considers himself a subject living in an objective world, it appears as something altogether visionary!

It is buy coming down to the level ordinary understanding that a place is assigned to the Heart in the physical body.

Question: How then shall I understand Sri Bhagavan’s statement that the experience of the heart-centre is at the particular place in the chest?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Once you accept that from the true and absolute standpoint, the Heart as pure consciousness is beyond space and time, it will be easy for you to understand the rest in its correct perspective.

Question: The Heart is said to be on the right, on the left, or in the centre. With such differences of opinion how are we to meditate on it?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: You are and it is a fact. Dhyana (meditation) is by you, of you, and in you. It must go on where you are. It cannot be outside you. So you are the centre of Dyana and that is the Heart.

Doubts arise only when you identify it with something tangible and physical. Heart is no conception, no object for meditation. The Self remains all alone. You see the body in the Heart, the world is also in it. There is nothing separate from it. So, all kinds of efforts are located there only.

Question: You say the ‘I’-thought rises from the Heart-centre. Should we seek its source there?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: I ask you to see where the ‘I’ arises in your body, but it is really not quite correct to say that the ‘I’ rises from and merges in the Heart in the right side of the chest. The Heart is another name for the reality and it is neither inside nor outside the body. There can be no in or out for it, since it alone is.

Question: Should I meditate on the right chest in order to meditate on the Heart?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Heart is not physical. Meditation should not be on the right or the left. Meditation should be on the Self. Everyone knows ‘I am’. Who is the ‘I’? It will be neither within nor without, neither on the right nor on the left. ‘I am’- that is all. Leave alone the idea of right and left. They pertain to the body. The Heart is the Self. Realise it and then you will see for yourself. There is no need to know where and what the Heart is. It will do its work if you engage in the quest for the Self.

Question: What is the Heart referred to in the verse of Upadesa Saram where it is said, ‘Abiding in the Heart is the best Karma, Yoga, Bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (knowledge)?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: That which is the source of all, that in which all live, and that into which all finally merge, is the Heart referred to.

Question: How can we conceive of such a Heart?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Why should you conceive of anything? You have only to see from where the ‘I’ springs. That from which all thoughts of embodied beings issue forth is called the Heart. All descriptions of it are only mental concepts.

Question: There are said to be six organs of different colours in the chest, of which the Heart is said to be two finger-breaths to the right of the middle line. But the Heart is also formless. Should we then imagine it to have a shape and meditate on it?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. Only the quest ‘Who am I?’ is necessary. What remains all through deep sleep and waking is the same. But in waking there is unhappiness and the effort to remove it. Asked who wakes up from sleep you say ‘I’. Now you are told to hold fast to this ‘I’. If it is done the eternal being will reveal itself. Investigation of ‘I’ is the point and not meditation on the Heart-centre. There is nothing like within or without. Both mean either the same thing or nothing.

Of course there is also the practice of meditation on the Heart-centre. It is only a practice and not investigation. Only the one who meditates on the Heart can remain aware when the mind ceases to be active and remains still, whereas those who meditate on other centres cannot be so aware but infer that the mind was still only after it becomes again active.

In whatever place in the body one thinks Self to be residing, due to the power of that thinking it will appear to the one who thinks thus as if Self is residing in that place. However, the beloved Heart alone is the refuge for the rising and subsiding of that ‘I’. Know that though it is said that the Heart exists both inside and outside, in absolute truth it does not exist both inside and outside, because the body, which appears as the base of the differences ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, is an imagination of the thinking mind. Heart, the source, is the beginning, the middle and the end of all. Heart, the supreme space, is never a form. It is the light of truth.

The lower self is your enemy
The higher self is your friend
Gita, Chapter 6, Verse 5

Let a man lift himself by his own Self alone; let him not lower himself, for this self alone is the friend of oneself and this self alone is the enemy of oneself. Gita, 6 – 5.
Related articles
Who am I
Direct Path

Self- Atma

Nature of Reality
Consciousness-the three states

Freedom and Bondage


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