Ramana Maharshi and “Self-Enquiry”

The following essay uses many terms and definitions culled from ancient traditional Hindu sources in order to point the reader to a direct understanding or apprehension of non-duality as espoused by the contemporary master Ramana Maharshi. This method of Self-discovery is uncompromising in its simplicity: there is ultimately no room for symbolism or poetry here, the aim is to unmask Reality at its core, revealing raw awareness as the changeless refuge and abode of Wisdom. Even the idea of “unity” is thrown out as an inappropriate metaphor, implying that there is “multiplicity” that needs to be gathered together into “one,” when in reality this is the condition that arises naturally and unbidden as it already is. To venture into “multiplicity” and “unity” would be to enter the unlimited field of conceptualization that leads away from, rather in to, awareness of the original, primal state of things as they really are. The essay uses key examples of an opposing traditional philosophy in the “Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali” to further illustrate this essential non-dual point, and other examples from various disciplines to introduce the reader to the mystical universality of this profound method of realization. Indeed, what follows is only an introduction to the topic of Self-Enquiry, and the reader is of course encouraged to investigate the works cited for a more in-depth study.

Terms used and identified in the text (short definitions are taken directly from the essay):

  • Vedas—primordial truths seen by…rishis:
  • Rishis (seers)
  • Brahman—universal support, Absolute reality…there follows an example from the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi… more def. of Brahman follow through quote by Jeanine Miller.
  • Upanishads—group of teachings emphasizing transcendental metaphysics.
  • Atman—Innermost sense of oneself…subjective nature of objective Brahman.
  • Advaita Vedanta—Non-dualism expressed in the Upanishads…etc.
  • Tawhid—explained by Bulent Rauf.
  • Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali—philosophy of liberation, etc. explained in detail.
  • Jivanmukta—enlightenment while still in a corporeal form, etc.
  • Purusha—transcendental Self, supreme Soul, Absolute awareness…
  • Prakriti—transcendent aspect of Nature.
  • Buddhi—intellectual sense of self as supreme Reality.
  • Avidya—affliction, misapprehension, etc.
  • Mandukya Karika—metaphyisical writing by Shankara using Advaita Vedanta as basis.
  • Aparokshanubhti—Shankara writing establishing self-enquiry model.
  • Jnana—the way of wisdom or mental knowledge (as opposed to bhakti, the way of the heart/love).
  • Dharma—truth, the way of finding & knowing reality.

”Who am I?” Enquire in this way, turning the mind backward to its primal state. The enquiry “Who am I?” is the only method of putting an end to all misery and ushering in Supreme Beatitude. Whatever may be said and however phrased, this is the whole truth in a nutshell.
—Ramana Maharshi1)

In the Rig Veda (c. 4000 B.C.E.), the oldest of the sacred corpus of Indian scriptures known as the Vedas—primordial truths “seen” by ancient Rishis (seers)- Brahman first appears. Brahman is the universal support, the Absolute reality, of everything knowable and unknowable. Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240 A.D.) termed this incomprehensible area the “Universe of the Divine Nature” ‘alemi-l lahut, also known as the First Presence—Ghaybi-l mutlaq, where, “All the Names and Qualities are buried in annihilation in the Ipsiety of God.”2)

The world is illusory; Brahman alone is real; Brahman is the world.
-Ramana Maharshi

The identity of the Absolute is questioned in order to draw the personal awareness into universal Self-enquiry:

…where was he born? What was he created from? Breath of the gods, embryo of the universe, this god wanders where he pleases. His sounds are heard, but his form is not seen…
—Rig Veda [10.168]3)

Vedic scholar Jeanine Miller writes,

The ancient Brahman of the Rig Veda is a drawing forth out of the subconscious layers of the psyche of that power, creative in the widest sense and dynamic, which lies latent in each human being, and which is directly related to the spirit, or atman. The plunge into the depths of consciousness—a subjective action which is in the essence of absorption (dhyana) and marks a step further than thinking—with mind completely stilled and in a poised, receptive state of awareness, results in…an active participation, by means of mental energy and spiritual insight, in the divine process.”4)

The Upanishads (to “sit near devotedly”) are a group of ever-evolving secret Vedic teachings and explanations that emphasize transcendental metaphysics. The earliest Upanishad appeared sometime around the 9th century B.C. Here, the Atman, the innermost sense of oneself, is identified as identical to the universal Brahman, and the two are intertwined as a single concept or recognition of being as the “Self.” In a sense, Atman is the subjective nature of the objective Brahman, although in unity, and ultimately in the dissolution of even the idea of “unity” there is no subject or object.

Of all religions thou art the source,
The light of thy knowledge shining,
There is no day or night,
Nor being nor non-being-
Thou alone art.
—Svetasvatara Upanishad5)

Advaita Vedanta (lit. Non-dualism: Veda’s End) is a blanket term for the metaphysical non-dualism expressed in the Upanishads as they relate to core ideas originally found in the Vedas. Advaita Vedanta also refers to all subsequent schools of thought, pantheistic, monotheistic, or panentheistic that have emerged from the “non-dual end of primordial truth.” Generally speaking—recognizing that there are exceptions, some more subtle than others- in texts and various schools relating to Advaita Vedanta there is essentially one singular Reality that only appears to be multitudinous. This is echoed in Islamic Sufism in the concept of Tawhid:

Tawhid then comes to mean the recognition of plurality as no other than the fact that what seemingly appears as many or varied is in reality One and Only in Essence.
—Bulent Rauf6)

It is somewhat difficult to place Patanjali, the famous author of the “Yoga Aphorisms” in a particular timeframe. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad mentions Patanjali as a family surname, and most scholars speculate that he lived in the 2nd century A.D. His work ultimately deals with what was later labeled the “Philosophy of Liberation,” a way of attaining “enlightenment,” for example, while still maintaining a corporeal existence, Jivanmukta. It appears at first glance that he broke with the idea of the One Reality espoused by the Upanishads and later works by positing that there exist both the Purusha or transcendental Self, and Prakriti, the transcendent aspect of Nature. It could however be argued that Liberation occurs with the reconciliation of these two apparently dual principals. When it is considered that Purusha generates everything associated with Nature, then it is seen that the body, and all that is perceived as internal/external, is in fact the vehicle for liberation. The “Self” or Purusha initially engenders a yearning in the Buddhi (intellect) to “shake off” the illusory nature of Maya, and encounter the Real.

This “shaking off” is the immutable part, Purusha or “Self” which always exists, asserting—as it is always serene and passive it requires the human vehicle, the ego, for example, to perform realization of itself as Self—through the mutable Buddhi, or intellectual sense of “myself” the supreme Reality. Consider the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali,

Book II, 25: The absence of alliance that arises from lack of it is the freedom and that is the state of liberation of the Seer. Refer back to Book I, 20. Note 2: “I know myself, ‘I’ is Seer (Purusha, the Supreme Soul, Absolute Awareness) or pure consciousness, immutable; ‘myself’ is unconsciousness (Buddhi), the rest of ‘I’, knowledge of objects is supplementary to the cognition ‘I know myself.’”7)

Every thing other than “I” is mutable, transient, changeable, in passing, subject to the appearance of movement, etc.

Book II 24. (The alliance has) Avidya or nescience as its cause.

Avidya: Misapprehension; wrong knowledge; type of affliction.

Seeing the world and gaining knowledge of objects through Buddhi, one only gains a colored misapprehension of Purusha, and mistakes one for the other, Seer with seen, “I” for “myself.”

(Referring back to Bk II 25.): Buddhi is dependant upon an alliance through misapprehension, Avidya, with Purusha in order to accumulate—or attempt to accumulat—knowledge. Once the realization arrives through this accumulation that information gathering and the mutable knowledge gained therefore is not Wisdom, the alliance (Avidya) disappears and only Purusha remains, immutable and free. Then one realizes the “liberation of the Seer.” Not that Purusha in itself “needs” liberation, of course, it is only expressed in this way to indicate the state of one “liberated while still alive,” Jivanmukti. Mukti = liberation from sorrows.

Book IV, 30. From that afflictions and actions cease. Jivanmukti: a realized being purified by true knowledge (erroneous knowledge being the cause of rebirth) who has attained liberation from sorrow but has not yet given up the body.

Afflictions belong to all that is other than Purusha, and actions come out of “constructed mind” (Nirmana chitta) almost the way an actor acts, with intent toward a particular end, with no identification other than in the knowledge that the action is subject to Buddhi, and in the service of relieving the suffering of others.

Remaining perfectly happy and experiencing enjoyment in all that is expected of him, he performs all actions while abandoning the misconception of doership.
—Yoga-Vasishtha (V.77.7ff.)

Shankara, (trad., 788-822 A.D.) received Advaita Vedanta from his teacher Govinda, a disciple of Gaudapada, author of the Mandukya-Karika, an early metaphysical treatment of Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Shankara’s subsequent commentaries and original writings contributed to the resurgence of ancient Vedic non-dualism as espoused in the principal Upanishads. Early on, it appears that Shankara studied Patanjali’s work, ultimately leading him to the evolution of thought bringing about liberation through self-enquiry.8)

In his work entitled Aparokshanubhti—Self-Realization we find the following Self-enquiry:

12. “Who am I? How is this (world) created? Who is its creator? Of what material is the (world) made? This is the way of that Vichara (enquiry).”

16. “As I am also the One, the Subtle, the Knower, the Witness, the Ever-Existent and the Unchanging, so there is no doubt that I am ‘That’ (ie; Brahman). Such is this enquiry.”

Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950 A.D.) began life as an average child born of an average family in the small town of Tiruchuzhi (Tamil), in South India. At the age of 16 he underwent what is commonly referred to now as a “NDE” (Near Death Experience). What sets this particular NDE apart from most is that it included within it Jivanmukta.

Distracted as we are by various thoughts, if we would continually contemplate the Self, which is Itself God, this single thought would in due course replace all distraction and would itself ultimately vanish. The pure Consciousness that alone finally remains is God. This is Liberation. To be constantly centered on one’s own all-perfect pure Self is the acme of yoga, wisdom, and all other forms of spiritual practice. Even though the mind wanders restlessly, involved in external matters, and so is forgetful of its own Self, one should remain alert and remember:

‘The body is not I.’
—Ramana Maharshi

As the young man lay on the floor convinced that he was dying he was seized by fear and asked himself “Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies…But with the death of the body am I dead?…The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.”9)

Above the senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above that is the ego, and above the ego is the unmanifested Cause. Beyond is Brahman, omnipresent, attributeless. Realizing him one is released from the cycle of birth and death.
—Katha Upanishad (II. iii. 7-8)

The question arises as to why an enlightened being such as Ramana Maharshi would continue on in the body, as a Jivanmukti. The most common response would be that it is done out of compassion for all who are yet to become freed from the illusion of suffering, from the conceptualization of “birth” and “death”.

Referring back to Patanjali, Book IV, 30. From that afflictions and actions cease. “Jivanmukti: …one purified by true knowledge while still living and therefore freed from the cycle of births…Erroneous knowledge being the cause of rebirth.” In the commentary by Vyasa, -legendary compiler of the Vedas, the Mahabarata, and other works- it is pointed out that one who remains in the body rather than transcending it does so because of “residual latent impressions.”10) This implies that when one is absorbed completely in the Atman-Brahman, (Purusha, Self, etc.) there is no separate idea of anything, including “body,” as being other than Brahman, the Absolute. When this arises in Jivanmukta, it is simply a phenomenal illusion, a sense impression, or function of memory, given no more validity than a passing thought, a phantasm, a “color” whirling around the still center that has no center or stillness. Anything being “born” or “dying” is given the same consideration, until only what is (conceptually) immortal is present. This is how, through innate awareness, through “true knowledge” one is freed from the cycle Avidya (misapprehension; wrong knowledge) of the conceptual affliction of “birth and death.”11)

Of course, it is unfathomable to realize exactly why Ramana Maharshi chose to remain in bodily form on Earth for 55 more years after his spontaneous Awakening. Most likely it is because the true realization of Brahman dissolves all conceptuality, including “body” and “Earth.” He settled on the famous holy mountain of Arunachala, and espoused a simple and elegant method of Shankara’s Self-enquiry, boiled down to asking “Who Am I?”

As the clouds of Avidya pass by and the sun of wisdom appears, “Who Am I” peels back the layers of self-deception until the Self shines forth. When a thought arises, “Who is thinking?” Applying this enquiry to all aspects of life, of apparent action in the world, cuts like an axe-blade of discrimination.

Ramana Maharshi stressed that those ready to follow the path of Self-enquiry should meditate in this way on identity, while others at a beginning level should work first on controlling the breath. He also suggested that if the aspirant finds the path of total absorption in the Self to be beyond their capacity they should instead, or first, follow the paths of Bhakti (devotion), or Karma (ritual actions).12)

What is the use of knowing about everything else when you do not yet know who you are? (We) avoid this enquiry into the true Self, but what else is there so worthy to be undertaken?
—Ramana Maharshi

Jnana, the way of wisdom, involves the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. This transmitting process has crystallized into a wide range of teachings and texts, some, such as the Vedas, and Upanishads discussed in this essay are among the most ancient in the world dealing with spiritual subjects. In 8th century Tibet, direct Dharma transmission arrived from India in the person of vidyadhara Tantric master Padmasambhava. This teaching has survived in the lectures and books of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche (1939-1987 A.D.), who asked again the question “Who am I?” calling this method “…nontheistic spirituality in its fullest sense.”13)

Swami Vivekananda, (1863-1902 A.D.) famous disciple of Paramahamsa Ramakrishna and early 19th century transmitter of Advaita Vedanta to America labeled Jnana “creedlessness,” a stage above and beyond creeds.14) All scriptures, instructions, poems, words, thoughts, and yes: enquiries, eventually point to the abode of eternal silence, Absolute Reality.

When a man knows his true Self for the first time something else arises from the depths of his being and takes possession of him. That something is behind the mind; it is infinite, divine, eternal…you may give it what name you wish.

What exists in truth is the Self alone. The world, the individual soul, and God are all appearances in it, like silver in mother-of-pearl; these three appear at the same time and disappear at the same time.
—Ramana Maharshi

One aim stands beyond all others in these teachings: the pursuit of liberation, specifically liberation from misguided conceptualization. Here is the paradox, repeated beyond India in metaphorical ways around the world in almost every culture: control of the mind, or the negation of thought related to “mind” is the goal, yet the only vehicle present to achieve this is mind. Within a discussion of Dharma transmission, Ch’an master Hsi Yun (circa 840 A.D.) noted: “By their very seeking for it they produce the contrary effect of losing it, for that is using…mind to grasp mind.” And: “The understanding of mind implies [the realization that] there is no mind and no Dharma.”15)

Self-enquiry, as first espoused in the Vedas, articulated in the Upanishads, elucidated by Patanjali, revived by Shakara, and brought into the context of our times by Ramana Maharshi, is a simple way to realize who you are, here and now.

There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny nor free-will; neither path nor achievement; this is the final truth.
—Ramana Maharshi

All Ramana Maharshi quotes in this essay are taken from the following sources: Osborne, 1970; Wilber, 2000; The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, 1972; and The Spritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi, 1972.
Kernal of the Kernal, a translation by Ismail Hakki Bursevi of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Lubbul Lubb, Gloucestershire, Beshara Publications, nd., Chapter 3, p10.
Doniger-O’Flaherty, v. 3-4 p 176.
Miller, p 48-49.
Although a core 108 original Upanishads are extant, Shakara recognized only sixteen as being authentic. The tradition continues, however, the most recent Upanishads were composed in the 20th century.
Bulent Rauf, Addresses, Roxburghshire, Beshara Press, 1986, p 62.
All references to the Yoga Aphorisms are derived from: Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, by Samkhya-yogacharya Swami Hariharananda Aranya, SUNY Press, Albany, 1983.
See also, Ramanuja (1017-1137 A.D.) who formulated the Vishishta-Advaita (Qualified Non-dualism) school of thought, based in part on Bhakti, or devotion.
Osbourne, pp 18-19.
Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, ibid, p 399.
A typically poetic “latent residual impression” goes like this: “Human life exists only because Kundalini deludes herself into believing that she and the limited body-mind personality are identical. When Kundalini is fully awakened, she realizes she is Shiva’s Shakti…In such circumstances the body cannot continue to exist, because Kundalini will immediately forget it and will remember Shiva. She sacrifices her identity to Him, undergoing instant enlightenment in the process.”—Dr. Robert Svoboda, Prakruti—Your Ayurvedic Constitution, Geocom, Wilmot, 1988, p 185.
Ramanuja felt that Bhakti is ultimately a form of Jnana (Wisdom).
Chogyam Trungpa, Crazy Wisdom, Boston, Shambala, 1991, pp 3-13. See also the same author’s Journey Without Goal, Boston, Shambala, 1981, chap 15, “Maha Ati” p 133-142.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 5, p 272, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989.
“Some Mahayana Philosophies,” The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, by E.A. Burtt, New American Library, New York, 1955, p196, and p203. See also: Buddhist Mahayana Texts, ed., by E.B. Cowell, Dover, New York, 1969.


All material in this section copyright © John Eberly