Q.408 Ramana’s ‘Who am I?’

Q: I would like to ask a question about the practice of Sri Ramana’s teachings and in particular the way of carrying out the self-enquiry ‘who am I?’

According to what I’ve seen so far regarding instructions, when a thought arises one enquires ‘to whom this thought has arisen’. If the answer to that is ‘to me’, the enquiry continues with ‘who am I?’

At this stage, the mind becomes silent. Are we supposed to remain in this silence until another thought arises or should we continue enquiring ‘who am I?’ every few seconds or so?

Would you be kind enough to clarify this for me.

A (Dennis): If you are committed to following those ideas that are frequently claimed as representing the essential teaching/method of Ramana, then I am not the best person of whom to ask these questions.

Ramana was not a traditional teacher; he was not trained in the methodology of any sampradAya. There is no doubt of his status as a j~nAnI and transcriptions of his talks show brilliant insights into many aspects. But I have to say that the ‘enquiry’ as you describe it is most unlikely to lead to Self-knowledge. I prefer to think that such practice can only lead eventually to the realization that one needs a teacher to provide the guidance via the proven succession of shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. It is primarily an intellectual process – the mind is both the problem and the solution. You have to hear the truth, expounded in a convincing manner; ask questions to clear doubts; then repeat in whatever manner is available. Silence will not tell you anything.

I also suggest you read my article on manonAsha.

2 thoughts on “Q.408 Ramana’s ‘Who am I?’

  1. For the Information of the Questioner, I may add the following:

    The Self-inquiry beginning with the Question, “Who am I?” and the concurrent Question, “What is this world around?” are not Ramana’s inventions. Many ancient Advaita treatises (short monographs) start with those questions and systematically explore the phenomenal world and what is beyond it.

    Coming to the specific doubt expressed by the Questioner, David Godman discusses the issue at p: 45 to 91 citing many actual conversations of Ramana in his book : “Be As You Are — Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi,” Arkana, Penguin,1985, available as a pdf download on the internet.


  2. To add to Ramesam’s and Dennis’ comments . . .

    Sri Ramana’s ‘who am I’ enquiry is not intended to be a mantra that is to be chanted. It is pointing out a path – to examine, to investigate the nature of the ‘I’ that we think we are. Vedanta says that we are ever our true Self, Brahman; however in our ignorance, we have mistakenly come to believe that we are the body-mind-ego. So Sri Ramana’s self-investigation is a suggestion to examine carefully this ego that we reflexively take ourselves to be, every time that it arises, and observe for ourselves whether it has any substance to it. Sri Ramana says that this very intense looking at / for the ego will make it dissolve.

    Here is something that was written a couple of years back:

    Ramana’s teaching was more wide-ranging and subtler than the caricatured understanding of who am I that is portrayed by some.

    Ulladu Narpadu contains the epitome of the philosophy he espoused and Guru Vachaka Kovai expands broadly around this. Ramana says the ego is the cause of our ignorance, and it is the primary datum that we are aware of, and therefore this is what is to be investigated and understood. He explains in a verse almost paralleling Gaudapada’s “first is projected the jiva, and then the world”:

    “If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence; if the ego does not exist, everything does not exist. [Hence] the ego itself is everything. Therefore, know that investigating what this [ego] is alone is giving up everything.”

    So how is this primary datum, the ego to be understood? He uses the five sheaths and neti neti. He also emphasizes the 3 states analyses, and points out that dream and waking are essentially the same (as it has both the ego and the world appearance) and that in deep sleep we exist, but without any adjuncts, without any ego or the world. Therefore deep sleep is the most meaningful pointer to understand what we are in essence:
    “Sleep is not ignorance, it is one’s pure state; wakefulness is not knowledge, it is ignorance. There is full [pure] awareness in sleep and total ignorance in waking. Your real nature covers both and extends beyond.”

    So, he recommends developing this intellectual analysis, understanding and conviction of who am I, (or self-investigation to give its proper sense). And he has the greatest respect for the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita as transmitters of this knowledge. But just this intellectual knowledge is not sufficient to eradicate ignorance, because the ego is the one that has this knowledge and ignorance. A simple conceptual knowledge does not cause the dissolution of the ego. I suspect this is why Sankara also emphasized vairagya and renunciation as essential elements (whether you want to call it preparatory or otherwise) for this knowledge to be assimilated.

    Once you’ve done the intellectual self-investigation, then Ramana would say turn you attention away from the mind/body/world, and focus attention on the ‘I’-thought, the sense of being a separate self. Whenever thoughts / feelings / actions arise be (choicelessly) aware of the sense of ego underlying these. As an aside V.S.Iyer, who himself was taught by one of the Sankaracharyas of Sringeri, used to advise along practically similar lines:

    “Analyse yourself, ‘In this thought, am I thinking of the ego?’ Do this every minute of the day and get rid of the false notion of separateness.”

    As this inward-turned awareness develops, you get to Bhagavan’s favourite aphorism: summa iru, just be, or be still. What does this mean? It means abide in this subtle discriminatory awareness of the I-sense, without attending to any second or third person. This of course is no different from Nisargadatta’s “abide in the I am”, or indeed V.S Iyer again:

    “The real secret of jnana yoga is that it is the continuous practice of enquiry whereby you try to eliminate all those ideas and objects which constitute the field of awareness, from awareness itself. That element of awareness which is contained in all ideas is what you should seek. It is the unlimited element, not that which is limited to a particular thought or thing.”

    The Bhagavad Gita says the same in:

    “By means of an extremely courageous intellect (power of discrimination), make the mind motionless little by little; fix the mind firmly in Self (atman) and never think of any other thing.
    Towards whatever thing the unsteady mind wanders, from each thing pull it back, fix it always in the Self and make it firmly abide there.”

    And through this subtle awareness, Bhagavan says the ego will dissolve, because it has no real substance (it is just an assumption, a deep conditioning, akin to Kant’s a priori knowledge); and so ends ignorance, and Knowledge / Consciousness / Existence alone is.

    For me, this is the Ockam’s razor of philosophy: you focus on the first thing that you are aware of – yourself – and investigate its truth. Vedanta articulates the truth, and you use the scientific method to assess its veracity – by closely observing this ego, this snake, to see whether it really exists or whether with close examination yields the rope.

    best wishes,

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