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Self-enquiry - Theory by Understanding Hinduism



1 ~ Self-enquiry – Theory

2 ~ Self-enquiry – Practice

3 ~ Self-enquiry - Misconceptions





The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Self-enquiry- Theory
Edited by David Godman

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.



1 ~ Self-enquiry – Theory

2 ~ Self-enquiry – Practice

3 ~ Self-enquiry - Misconceptions




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