Ramana Maharshi - Advaita I


By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo


The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdhakarma (destiny to be worked out in this life, resulting from the balance sheet of actions in past lives).  Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.

Ramana Maharshi

                                     Introduction                                  .

The Vedas are four collections of Hindu scriptures dating from 2000 BC to 500 BC. To the Hindus the Vedas are the ultimate source of authority. And these scriptures (vedas) were revealed to the ancient Rishis. Vedanta is a metaphysical philosophy derived from the Upanishadic texts. The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas. The Upanishads are the text from which all Vedanta philosophy is derived.

Advaita is a doctrine of Non-duality. Which mean that nothing exists apart from the Spirit? Every form in the universe is assumed by the Spirit. Non-duality also means only the Absolute is. This also means that the entire cosmos exists within the Absolute. The Absolute manifest, as everything in the cosmos, but the Absolute itself is eternally unchanged throughout. All the items, things and sentient beings come into existence and disappear, all the time in a state of flux, but the Absolute remains totally unmoved, untouched, and unborn. The Absolute is also the Self, which is also the cosmos and of every being. Summarizing, the Self is the Absolute, which is also the Spirit. These three are synonymous and identical: Self, Absolute (Brahman) and Spirit.

The doctrinal division among the Hindus is between the schools of Advaita and Dvaita. The Dvaitists or Dualists worship a Personal God separate from the worshipper. The Advaitists (non-dualists) while accepting the truth of this concept on one plane goes beyond it with a higher concept of the Absolute, which will absorb the Spirit of man back to its Source and the real Self. Thus Self-realization will return the self to That, after which the realized man, the Jnani, is in pure bliss and in boundless Consciousness of Being ---Sat-chit-ananda. The jnani, is Spirit, is Self and is also the Absolute.

Sri Ramana Maharshi’s early years.

Venkataraman was born on 30th December1879, the day of Arudra Darshan, and the day of the “Sight of Siva”. His father was Sundaram Ayyar and his mother was Alagammal. The town that he was born in was Tiruchuzhi, South India. Venkataraman had an elder brother, Nagaswami, two years his senior. He also had a younger brother, Nagasundaram, six years his junior. Two years after him, the youngest daughter was born as Alamelu.

His father died when Venkataraman was twelve, and the family was broken up and the children went to live with a paternal uncle in Madura. Venkataraman was sent first to Scott’s Middle School and then to the American Mission High School. Although he had a very good memory, he was not a scholar. He was more an athletic, indulging in football, wrestling, and swimming. His one ability in those young days was the fact that his sleep was profoundly deep, and he attributed it to his good health.

In this early period, two significant events took place. One day he asked an elderly relative from Tiruchuzhi where he came from? The reply was “From Arunachala.” Where is that? He asked again. It is Tiruvannamalai, a real tangible holy hill where men could visit. This overwhelmed him.

The second event took place in Nov. 1895, around his sixteenth birthday. Venkataran picked up a book borrowed by his uncle. It is the life-stories of the sixty-three Tamil Saints. He was filled with ecstatic wonders that there is such faith, such love and such divine manifestation on earth. The tales of renunciation leading to Divine Union inspired him greatly. From thence onwards he started to have a current of awareness, which is akin to blissful consciousness transcending both the physical and mental planes, and yet he can continue to function physically and mentally. He thought this was a fever of the pleasant type, and he was not averse to it.


The above current of awareness grew stronger and more constant everyday until one day it led to his enlightenment. This self-realization, sahaja samadhi, is a state in which there is uninterrupted bliss, and yet he was able to have normal function of perception and activities of life. This was very rare indeed, as he did not prepare for it. There was no spiritual practice or striving. This self-realization was triggered by reading the stories of saints! This is his own description of the event, shortly before his sixteenth birthday:

“It was about six weeks before I left Madura for good that the great change in my life took place. It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness, and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt “I am going to die’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then.

“The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither word ‘I’ nor any other word could be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to me, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit. All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth, which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centered on that ‘I’. From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focussed attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on. Other thoughts might come and go like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends with all the other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centred on ‘I’. Previous to that crisis I had no clear perception of my Self and was not consciously attracted to it. I felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.”


From the above description, one realizes that Ramana Maharshi had destroyed the ego and from thence onwards was constantly aware of his Self, the Spirit, which is also the Spirit and Self of every man. In other words he was enlightened in that half-hour of experience. While before the event he experienced an intense fear of death, but after that he had no fear of death for the rest of his life. This is because he was constantly with his deathless Self even though he was talking, acting or walking. This awakening would have taken many other yogis many lifetimes, but he accomplished it in half an hour without previous spiritual practice. This is unique and truly phenomenal.

His character had changed. He was no more interested in those things that he previously valued. He felt that conventional life appeared unreal. This must have been a very difficult time for a boy who had no training in the spiritual path, and suddenly thrown into a realm of constant awareness of bliss. He also had to remain in the family and go to school as well. His family noticed this change in him. There was no more interest in his former relationship with friends and relatives. He went through his studies mechanically with his book opened, but the mind far away elsewhere. His dealings with people were meek and submissive: there was now no complaint or retaliation as before. He preferred to be alone to meditate and to be absorbed in the Self or Spirit, rather than to play with friends. Whatever food was given to him was consumed indifferently.

One great change was his attendance to the Minakshi Temple. He used to go there very occasionally. Now he was there every evening standing in front of the images of Siva or Minakshi or Nataraja and the 63 Saints. As he stood there, waves of emotions overwhelmed him. In silence he allowed his soul to flow deep into the beyond. Sometimes he prayed for the Grace of Iswara to descend upon him so that he could become like the 63 Saints. He did not behave like other mystics with their experience of ecstasy etc. Ramana simply stood there experiencing the blissful awareness of his Spirit. He did not have to practice any spiritual path. There was no more striving for him, because he had no more egos. Being identified to the Self he himself was radiating Grace to those that approached him. He was still trying to emulate the Saints and worry about what his elders would think of him. This was the remnant duality that still lingered. He was just waiting to go to the temple of Tiruvannamalai.

The Journey to Tiruvannamalai

Two months after his realization, on 29th August, he started his journey to Tiruvannamalai. He took three rupees with him for his travelling expenses. He took three days to arrive at his destination, scarcely eating anything on his way. On the way by train or waiting for the train he began his second phase of turning inwards. What happened was that he went into samadhi whenever an opportunity arose. Whenever he was sitting down either in the train or in a station or elsewhere, he would sit in a meditation pose and went into samadhi. He also fainted once for a few minutes when he stumbled.  Perhaps this was due to lack of food. He got himself shaved on the way as well. He took up abode in the thousand-pillared hall, on a raised platform in the temple. He sat there in samadhi for weeks, not moving, and not speaking. He was completely absorbed in Reality, his true Self. This is his second phase towards full realization. This phase gradually blossomed into the third phase, when he acted as a beacon to all and sundry, which approached him for spiritual guidance. His light shone with brightness for half a century. This is only the outer appearance of his state. Internally, however, there was no change in his state of consciousness throughout the three phases.

In the Temple at Tiruvannamalai

During this second phase of staying alive, but mostly in samadhi, there was absolutely no inclination towards looking after his physical body. The very first person to look after him was a sadhu called Seshadriswami, who tried his best to ward away all the naughty urchins that had been throwing stones and bottles both at the caretaker sadhu and Sri Ramana. Sri Ramana was not bothered by ants, vermin and mosquitoes biting him. His thighs were covered with sores that ran blood and pus. He remained in bliss in spite of the sores. Then he was moved to an underground vault, dark and dank with no sun penetrating. At least the urchins were afraid to enter there. Later some one lifted him bodily to be at the shrine of Subramanian, but Sri Ramana remained unconscious of being transported. He stayed at this shrine for two months in samadhi. Sometimes food had to be placed into his mouth. A Mouni Swami used to feed him with a mixture of fluid used to wash down the Goddess Uma. This consists of milk, water and tumeric powder, sugar, bananas and other ingredients. This glass of mixture was gulped down everyday and that was his only daily nourishment. Later this was changed to pure milk.

After a few weeks he moved out to the temple garden with oleander bushes. He again remained mostly in samadhi and he would wake up to be near a different bush. After this he would sit under a tree alongside the road that runs round the temple precincts or at the Mangai Pillayar shrine. Annually crowds of pilgrims come to Tiruvannamalai for the Kartukai festival. Many of these would gaze or prostrate to Sri Ramana. It is here that a regular first devotee came in the form of Uddandi Nayinar, who was engaged in spiritual studies, but failed to achieve peace. In attending to Sri Ramana Swami, he hoped to get some teaching from him, but this Swami never spoke. At this time, one Annamalai Tambiran was so impressed by Sri Ramana that he moved him to a more sheltered place called Gurumurtam in February 1897.

There were still ants biting him, but he was not bothered by them. He sat on a stool in one corner. Again crowds of devotees started to form, so that a bamboo palisade had to be erected around his seat to prevent the crowd from touching him. Food was no problem as many devotees were eager to supply it.

A Malayali sadhu, Palaniswami, who was worshiping a stone God Vinayaka, decided to switch attention to the living Swami in Gurumurtam. At the sight of this young Swami (Sri Ramana), he was so touched that he remained his attendant for twenty-one years. There is not much he could do except to give the Sri Ramana a cup of food at noon from those offered by the devotees. The remainder was returned as prasadam to the givers. In fact Sri Ramana was totally neglected. He was unwashed, unshaven with long matted hair and finger-nails grown long and curled. His body was weakened to the limits of endurance. He could hardly stand up without support. Tamboran tried to worship the Swami with burning of camphor, sandal –paste, flowers etc. The Sri Ramana stopped it the next day by stating that a cup of food is worship enough.

In May 1898, he was moved to a mango orchard, which could be locked and more privacy could be obtained. No one could go into this shelter without Palaniswami’s permission. He stayed here for six months. This is the place where he had to study to help out Palaniswami in his own pursuit of spiritual philosophy. Sri Ramana used to read the Tamil books brought over by Palaniswami. He would summarize them and instruct the latter. Sri Ramana’s prior spiritual heritage and knowledge enabled him to memorize all the books that were brought to him for explanation. In this way he became erudite without much effort.

His uncle, Nelliappier, came all the way to beg Sri Ramana to go home, but to no avail. Then he moved from the mango orchard to a small temple of Arunagirinathar. Here he started the habit of going out daily to beg for food. He would clap his hands, and if food was given to him, he would received it in his cupped hands and eat it standing on the road. He would never enter the house, and he would go to a different street each day so that he did not beg from the same house. Then he moved to one of the towers of the great temple and the Alari Garden.  After a week he ended at a Pavazhakkunru temple. Again he would spend his time in samadhi and wake up to beg for food. It was here that his mother, Alagammal, found his son. She came with her oldest son, Nagaswami. The same thing happened again. With lots of pleading and condiments she entreated him tearfully to return home, but again with no effect. She tried with the help of his devotees to intervene, but Sri Ramana did not break silence and wrote what was in the beginning of this article about the Ordainer controlling the fate of souls --. It was couched in an impersonal language. His answer was ‘no’, but he also taught the fact that ‘whatever is to happen will happen due to the person’s prarabdha (G-plan)’. However one must not do anything, as this presumes that the individual knows his G-plan. As one does not know his destiny, one must try one’s best. After the mother returned home, in the next two and quarter years, he began to assume a normal life. He began to eat his meals at a regular hour. He spoke a few times by responding to devotees, to read books and to start teaching. His not eating and speaking are not due to his search of Realization. It is the result of Realization.

The Mother

In 1916 the mother, Alagammal, came to stay with Sri Ramana in Tiruvannamalai. She started to prepare meals for the Ashram. She then summoned the younger son to join her at Tiruvannamalai. He came and donned the ochre robe to become Niranjanjajada Swami. This younger brother was now known as ‘little Swami’. The mother had to undergo harsh training from her son. This is spiritual training. First to go was pride that her son was the Swami. Then her ego started to weaken and finally she devoted herself to service the devotees. She found out one day that her son was of Divine Incarnation. She was sitting before him and suddenly he disappeared and a lingam (column) of pure light replaced him. After she burst into tears, he appeared again. In another occasion, she saw him surrounded with serpents. The lesson here is that the son’s form is illusory and not important.

In 1920 the mother’s health started to fail. Sri Ramana attended to her constantly. Even at this stage, her spiritual maturity improved tremendously with silence and meditation. The end came on the 19th May. While she was heaving with difficult breathing, he put his right hand on her heart and his left hand on her head. At eight o’clock at night she was released of her body. Sri Ramana cheerfully rose up saying that there was no pollution. He announced that ‘she did not pass away, she was absorbed.’ Since she Self-Realized herself, she was buried and not cremated. Saints are not cremated. As Alagammal had already destroyed pride and attachment, she benefited tremendously from Sri Ramana’s grace and guidance. Hence her realization was expedited.

Sri Ramana’s last days

From 1947 onwards Sri Ramana had been suffering from ill health. He had rheumatism of the entire body. His legs were crippled and his back and shoulders were racked with pain. He was also generally weakened. Although he was seventy years old, he looked much older than that, but he was not interested in doing anything to improve his health. The reason for his frailty was the fact that he was alleviating the karma of his devotees. There was evidence that he truly bore their burdens. There were many incidents where his devotees’ suffering disappeared when he took over their pain.

In the last year of his life his devotees grieved and suffered his oncoming death, but Sri Ramana did not care. A small nodule appeared below his left elbow in early 1949. In February the doctor removed the nodule thinking nothing of it. Within a month it recurred. This time round it was larger and more painful. Now it was diagnosed as a malignant sarcoma (cancer of soft tissues). In March doctors from Madras came and operated again. The wound did not heal properly and the tumour soon grew again to a larger size in a higher location. Amputation of the arm was suggested but as a jnani's limbs should not be removed the amputation was denied. Sri Ramana then allayed their fears by saying, “there is no cause for alarm”, as death to him is not alarming at all. Although there was obviously much pain, Sri Ramana did not appear to suffer. He answered one of his attendants: “where is the pain if there is no mind?” A jnani does feel the pain, but his mind being in bliss, the pain is much more tolerable.

The arm, which is afflicted with this sarcoma, became heavier and more inflamed each day. In August a third operation was done followed by radium treatment. After a few months of apparent improvement, the tumour reappeared climbing up higher in the arm to be nearer the shoulder. A fourth and last operation was performed in December. After this the doctors gave up hope. He celebrated his seventieth birthday on the 5th Jan1950. Many devotees knew that it was a matter of weeks. After this the tumour grew bigger up the shoulder, causing anaemia. The pain must have been excruciating, but he never complained, except that he moaned during his sleep. He was not eating, and yet he was able to thank his attendants for their care. Many devotees suggested that he should have used his own power to heal himself. His answer was a scorn: “Who could have such a thought!” One’s prarabdha (G-plan) has to be fulfilled. To the devotees who were concerned for their own welfare, he answered: “They say that I am dying but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here”

On the April the 14th night at 8.47 p.m. Sri Ramana died with pain still painted on the face. However his face returned to a normal composure overnight.

The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi

This is a good time to summarize the spiritual teachings of Sri Ramana. His entire teaching was based essentially on ADVAITA, the philosophical teaching of non-duality.


Sri Ramana at sixteen realized his identity with the Absolute, which is Pure Being underlying all that is. He did not know then that there was an Essence underlying everything and he and God were identical with it. Non-duality means the entire cosmos exists within the Absolute, but itself has no intrinsic reality. The cosmos merely manifests the Absolute, which itself remains eternally unchanged and unmanifest. This also means the Absolute is the Self of the cosmos and of every being. Therefore by asking ‘Who am I’, one can possibly identify with his Self and Universal Being. This is pure Advaita. Some people object to the concept that the world is unreal, but the spirit is real. S.S. Cohen clarified this point thus:

“Shankaracharya has been criticized for his philosophy of Maya (illusion) without understanding his meaning. He made three statements: that Brahman is real, that the universe is unreal, and that Brahman is the universe. He did not stop with the second statement. The third statement explains the first two; it signifies that when the universe is perceived apart from Brahman that perception is false and illusory. What it amounts to is that phenomena are real when experienced as the Self and illusory when seen apart from the Self.”

A man is the Self, which is pure Being, pure Consciousness, pure Bliss, but the mind creates an illusory separate individual. In deep sleep, the man is with the Self as the mind is stilled, but in an unconscious way. In samadhi he is one with the Self in a fully conscious way. If the mind can be emptied and stilled, the Self can prepare to be identified with this Bliss and radiant Knowledge, pure I-am-ness. That is why; we meditate to empty the mind so that we can go deeper and deeper to reach that ground of Universal Cosmic Consciousness, which is our Self.


The Nature of the Self

Let us clarify some of the terms used by Sri Ramana in his teachings. The most used is the Self.

The Self

This term is defined as the real Self or real ‘I’, which is a non-personal, all-inclusive awareness. This is not to be confused with the individual self, which is a fabrication of the mind. This individual self also obscures the true experience of the real Self. The real Self is always present, but one can be consciously aware of it only when the mind ceases to function. Permanent and continuous Self-awareness is known as Self-realization.


The Self is Being, beyond the real and the unreal. It is also beyond knowledge and ignorance. It is really undefinable. When one realizes the Self, there is no seeing of anything. There is no reaching some goal or attaining something new. One just has to be one Self. Just Be. This stage transcends the seer and the seen. The seer who is seeing all this now ceases to exist and the Self alone remains. One cannot have one self knowing the other Self, meaning the presence of two selves. Therefore realization is simply being oneself. One is that which alone is and which alone has always been. It is ineffable. In this state one is also without thoughts, meaning silence. The silence alone is God. There must be true silence. There must be true Voidness. Any other knowledge or thoughts is not-self.

If one accepts that one is the body, then there are multiple selves in the world. If one realizes that one’s true Self is not the body or mind, then there is only one Self. In other words, the world does not exist without the body, the body never exists without the mind, the mind never exists without consciousness and consciousness never exists without reality. So the person who has self-realized knows only the Self, because the ego which mistakenly identifies the body as ‘I’ has been destroyed. Therefore he is left with the formless existence-consciousness (sat-chit-ananda). The jnani (the enlightened one) knows that nothing else exists except the Self. To a jnani the presence or absence of a body is immaterial. Actually, realization is not quite the right word. It is more like getting rid of all the deluding, untrue coverings of the atman. When all these are eradicated, then one just sits back to become the true Self.


Sri Ramana gives a very good simile with the cinema screen. The white screen is our true Self. All the pictures that are projected onto the screen are like the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. They do not get stuck onto the screen. All the millions of films are shown over and over again on the screen, but they are only shadows, not the real thing. When all the shows are over, one is left with the real thing---the white screen, which is the Self. This is pure consciousness, which is the screen.


This Sanskrit term means being-consciousness-bliss, which is the soul. The Self is also sat-chit-ananda. The Self is pure being, a subjective awareness of ‘I am’, but not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’. There is only an awareness of being without subject or object in this Self. Synonymously this awareness is also consciousness.  The direct experience of this consciousness is also accompanied by bliss. Being, consciousness and bliss are experienced as a holy trinity and not as separate attributes of the Self. They are inseparable.


Sri Ramana maintained that the universe is sustained by the power of the Self, the Absolute (Universal Consciousness). Since theists attribute this power to God, he often used the word God as synonymous to Self. The Hindu names Brahman and Siva are also similarly used. Sri Ramana’s God is not a personal one. It is a universal, formless consciousness sustaining the universe. God is not the creator of the universe. The universe is merely a manifestation of his inherent power; God (Self) is inseparable from it, but he is not affected by its appearance or its disappearance.


The experience of Self is sometimes called jnana or knowledge. There is no person who has knowledge of the Self, as in the state of Self-awareness there is no knower and there is nothing that is separate from the Self that can be known. True knowledge, or jnana, is not an object of experience, nor is it an understanding of a state which is different and apart from the subject knower. It is a direct and knowing awareness of the one reality in which subjects and objects have ceased to exist. One in this state continuously is a jnani.


Turriya and turyatita

There are three levels of relative consciousness – waking, dream and deep sleep. Sri Ramana stated that the Self underlies the temporary appearances of these three states. With this reasoning he called the Self as turiya avastha or the fourth state. Turriyatita means ‘transcending the fourth’ and this indicates that there is truly one transcendental state, not four.


Reality is always real without forms and names. It is the underlying Self, Universal Consciousness, without limitations. It is unbound. It underlies the real and the unreal. Reality is that which is. It is as it is. It is beyond existence and non-existence.

When there is no more ignorance or knowledge of objects, the Self, (atman), alone remains. This is pure consciousness, pure Self-awareness. One awareness is the radiance of being-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) shining equally within and without and is the supreme blissful primal reality. Its form is silence. Jnana alone is non-attachment; it is purity; it is the attainment of God; when it is not forgetful of Self it is immortality; Jnana alone is everything.



One already is awareness. Therefore, there is no need to attain it. Just give up being aware of the things that are not-self. Then pure awareness alone remains, which is the Self. One is not aware of this Self, because Self is non-dual and does not require a subject or object. As long as one is in duality, one’s knowledge is due to ego’s relative knowledge. Memory is also relative in that it requires an object to be remembered. In non-duality, who is the subject to remember?

The Mind

The mind does not exist apart from the Self. The mind has no independent existence. The Self exists without the mind, but the mind cannot exist without the Self. When the mind turns inwards it is the Self; when turned outwards, it becomes the ego and the entire world.

The Self being sat-chit-ananda is also perfect bliss. It is also peace. Once the Self is realized, the bliss and peace are eternal. It is not dependent on external causes, e.g. possessions or status. In deep sleep, one is without possessions yet one is in bliss.


Sri Ramana used the Sanskrit word hridayam (the heart) when talking about the Self. A more literal translation would be ‘this is the centre’, not implying a particular location for the Self. He was indicating that the Self was the source from which all appearances manifested

This is the seat of consciousness, the core of one’s being. This is the spiritual Heart and not the physical Heart. This is the center from which all thoughts arise. Thoughts are contents of the mind, which shape the universe. The Heart center is where all beings come into existence, which is Brahman. Brahman is the Heart. The Heart is also the Self from which everything springs from---the body, the world etc. There is no exact location for it, but he always mentioned that it was on the right side of the chest near the bottom of the sternum. When you are in the Heart, it is neither at the center nor the circumference, but there is nothing apart from it. This Heart is pure consciousness, which is real existence and it does not go out to know things, which are other than the Self. This consciousness attends only to the Self and is the light of all clear knowledge.


Awareness of the Real Self


Sri Ramana classified his devotees into three categories: 1) the most advanced ones are those who realize the Self, the minute they are told about its real nature. 2) The second class needs to reflect for some time before Self-awareness is established. 3) The third class of individual needs many years of spiritual practice before Self- realization can be achieved. For the first two categories they merely have to cease attributing the ideas and notions of non-self to the real Self. The main misconception is that the Self is limited to body and mind. In more detail, the real Self is not the body; it is also not the five senses, not the organs of action, nor the breath or vital force (prana), nor the mind including the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The Self is also not the five sheaths covering the atman (sat-chit-ananda). After rejecting all these things, one is left with only consciousness in silence (mouna). With this logical reasoning, one must also accept that the world, ego and God are one and the same thing. That means one really needs not practice but simply to realize that the Self is not to be attained. One simply has to discard the limiting attributes of the non-self, and one is left with the true Self.

One of the methods is to eradicate the thought that ‘one is not realized’. When you are still or at peace you are realized. You are always the Self. As long as one is in doubt and identifies oneself with the attributes of the non-self, one is veiled from one’s true Self. There is no reaching the Self, because one is already the Self. Ignorance covers the pure Self with wrong knowledge that the body and mind is Self. When this wrong knowledge is removed one is left with pure bliss of the true Self. This being the case, there is also no bondage. One is always liberated but ignorance clouds this fact. 

The Self is pure consciousness and it is this consciousness that is continuous throughout the states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. That the awareness of the world and the body is present only when one is awake. When in deep sleep there is no awareness of the world and the body. So the Self is continuous in the three states but there is no continuity of the individual and other objects (world). The Self is permanent and real; and the individual is discontinuous and false. Therefore being-consciousness, the true Self, is the screen; and the body and world are the films projected onto the screen. Everybody including a child knows the real ‘I’. So being the Self, why does one need to attain the Self. Just give up the thoughts that ‘I am the body’ and all the external objects and all things that are not-Self. That means eradication of the ego, which is composed of the body and mind.

Memory and oblivion are thought-forms, which are dependent on the individual self. This individual ‘I’ is not real. It is an illusion due to ignorance. Spiritual practice is to remove this ignorance, so that one becomes aware, which is jnana. Jnana is eternal and natural. The difficulty is the destruction of the samskaras (innate mental tendencies). Samaskaras brings doubt and confusion. One’s guru would have to teach the truth, which has to be believed. Then this truth will have to be solidified by practices like meditation and contemplation. The advanced seekers become Self-realized after hearing the truth only once. Therefore one should not start with a goal in mind, because the goal is already there in us. But if we take the Self as the ego, mind or the body, we become these things. At the end it is the mind that is the culprit. With the arising of the mind, the whole world arises. With the subsidence of the mind the Self presents itself and it is self-luminous. So being in the Self why search for it. “Making the vision absorbed in jnana one sees the world as Brahman” say the ancients.


The Enlightened Ones (Jnani)


The seekers of reality are called ajnanis and the knowers of reality are named jnanis. The ignorant assumes that there is a person (jnani) who experiences the state he calls the Self. The truth of the Self is that there are neither jnanis nor ajnanis, there is only jnana.

The ordinary man lives in the brain unaware of himself in the Heart. The jnani lives in the Heart. When he moves and deals with other people he knows that what he sees is not separate from the one supreme reality, Brahman, the real Self. He knows that the Self is behind him, behind the world. He is aware that the Self is in all selves, in all things, in all that is impermanent and mutable. He himself is eternal and immutable. The ajnani sees things outside of him and that he is separate from the world.

The ajnani in his delusion believes that in the waking state the world and his ego are real. Seeing the jnani acting like other people, he concludes that the jnani also possesses individuality, but the jnani has no sense of individuality at all. His real nature is the Heart and is therefore identical to the undifferentiated, pure consciousness, Brahman. The jnani sees the Self as the substratum of all that is seen when he views the world. Being the Self, the world may come and go and it leaves no impression on him. There is no seer in the Self, and therefore there is nothing to be seen. The jnani knows that the screen and the pictures are only the Self. With the pictures the Self is in its manifest form; without the pictures it remains in the unmanifest form. To the enlightened, it does not matter whether it is manifest or not.

The jnani also dreams, but he knows it to be a dream. He is in the fourth state, turiya, detachedly witnessing the other three states. To the jnani there is no distinction in all the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. They are all equally unreal. To one with pure consciousness, there is neither mind nor the three states. He is awake only to the eternal Self, as he has no ‘I-am-the-body’ consciousness. When a jnani is bitten by an insect, he feels the sensation, but he also knows that he is not the body. If there is pain, let it be for all this is part of the Self, Brahman. There is now no doer or sufferer with the jnani, and there is no more karma being made. With the ajnani, he still identifies with the body and suffers karma accordingly.

The jnani is seen to be doing things, but there is no individual inside his body. He is without a mind while acting. It is like a potter’s wheel, which goes on turning after the potter has ceased to turn it. Similarly, the fan continues revolving for some minutes after the fan has been switched off. So in the jnani, as long as he is still alive he has to carry out living his G-plan (prarabdha) with all the daily activities, but he is not the doer of these activities. He has no doubt that he is not doing anything even though his body is engaged in some activity. These activities maybe quite intricate and they are also well performed. The jnani never commits any sin because all his activities are for others. He has no selfish intention. He does not differentiate between a jnani and an ajnani: they are both the same to him.

The sign of jnana is equality, but he also sees the differences in appearances, sound, taste, form and smell etc. He finds all these differences as superficial and impermanent, but part of one truth, Reality. Therefore he has no preferences. Friendship, kindness, happiness come naturally to the jnani. Natural characteristics of the jnani are affection towards the good, kindness towards the helpless, happiness in doing good deeds and forgiveness towards the wicked. He weeps laughs, plays, sings etc with everybody. His presence is like a pure mirror. He reflects the image exactly, but is not affected by what he sees. The greatness of the saint is beyond the ajnani. The jnani is like a child in that he is interested in an incident as long as it lasts. He forgets about it after that, as there is no lasting impression of the incident. Therefore, do not worry about liberation or bondage. Just find out who you are.


Self-Enquiry (vichara)

This spiritual practice is Sri Ramana’s own technique to discover the nature of the mind by direct experience. The mind is truly non-existent. This method is not a meditation or a mantra. He maintained that all the other practices require the presence of a subject who meditates on an object. These methods strengthen the ego-subject rather than eliminate the ego. So they may quieten the mind or even experience bliss, but the ‘I’-thought is not eliminated. When the mind is active an ‘I’ is assumed to be doing something: ‘I’ think’, ‘I’ speak, or ‘I’ act. This ‘I’ is responsible for all the activities. He used the word ‘aham-vritti’ to represent the ‘I’-thought, which is a mental modification of the Self. The real ‘I’ or Self never assumes that he is doing or acting anything. The ‘I’ that imago all this mental activity is a mental modification of the Self and it is translated as and ‘I’-thought. Sri Ramana held that the notion of individuality is the ‘I’-thought manifesting itself in many ways. All the different aspects of the mind like the ego, intellect and memory are lumped together as the ‘I’ –thought. Since individuality is equivalent to the mind and since the mind is the same as ‘I’-thought, Self-realization implies the disappearance of both the mind and ‘I’-thought. After Self-realization there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence. When thoughts arise the ‘I’-thought claim ownership of all the mental activities by identifying with an object. There is no separate ‘I’-thought that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with. It only apparently appears real because of the incessant flow of identifications that are taking place. This series of wrongful continuous identifications is the primary source of error in our assuming that the ‘I’ is the body or mind. The principal aim of self-enquiry is to eradicate this identification with the body or mind.

‘I’-thought arises from the Self and subsides back into the Self when the ‘I’-thought ceases to identify with thought objects. That is why Sri Ramana repeatedly asked his devotees to trace the ‘I’-thought back to its source or ‘find out where the “I” arises from”. That means maintain the awareness of the ‘I’-thought until it dissolves back to its source. The ‘I’-thought will disappear only when perception of all physical and mental objects ceases. This can only be achieved by being the “I”. This stage of noting only the subject without object is the penultimate stage before realization.

Mind is ego and it is nothing other than thought. The other names like intellect, memory, storehouse of mental tendencies and individual soul all come under umbrella term of ego. The first ‘I’ to appear is the personality-idea or root of all other thoughts that follow. After this the ego will continue with its thought activity e.g. he, she, that etc will appear. When they sink back to the Self, all the mental objects will also disappear together. That is why he asked us to trace the ultimate cause of ‘I’ or personality back to the Heart. Look for this ‘I’ within until it vanishes. This path of wisdom is to continuously investigating the nature of ‘I’ until one finds out that mind is nothing but thoughts. Of all the thoughts the thought ‘I’ is the root.  So, when there are no thoughts, the ‘I’-thought or personality or ego does not arise. It also means that when the mind is silent the ego is not raised. This ‘I’-thought or ‘I am’-ness is different from other modifications of the mind. This ‘I’-thought is the fundamental modification of the mind. It is the very source of ‘I am’-ness, the very ego from which arise all other mental issues. It is the irreducible datum of one’s experience and if one can trace it to its source, one would arrive at the Self. The ego functions as the knot between the Self of pure consciousness and insentient physical body. The ego has various forms, one of which is consciousness. With this form it must lead to pure consciousness of the Self. One must distinguish between the pure ‘I’ and the ‘I’-thought. The latter is the individual of the ajnani. He does all the things that an ajnani does and is reborn over and over again. The pure ‘I’, the Self, is never reborn and free from ignorance. It is free of thought and therefore the ‘I’-thought, ego, will disappear forever. The Self uses the floodlight of the atman to flush out thought forms and illusion. Now there is only pure awareness or pure consciousness, which is the universal, cosmic mind.

Meditations and other methods mostly utilize the mind to get rid of the mind. In meditation one needs a subject as well as an object. In vichara (self-enquiry) one merely traces the subject, ‘I’, back to the source. In other methods, there is only temporary subsidence of the mind or ego. Thoughts will arise again when the mind or ego comes back. Besides Ramana’s vichara, all the other practices engage the mind to get rid of the ego---impossibility. The ego may take many subtle forms and is never destroyed in these sadhanas. With vichara, the Self is realized. There is now perfect bliss as nothing remains to be known. It is so easy. One just has to realize the Self by Being the Self.


How to Practice Self-Enquiry

Pay attention to the inner feeling of ‘I’ and hold on to it as long as possible. Whenever other thoughts distract one, pull one’s attention back to the ‘I’-thought again. This is repeated ad nauseam. One of the ways to aid this process is to question oneself: ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this ‘I’ come from?’ Ultimately it is to be continuously aware of the ‘I’-thought, which is responsible for all the activities of the mind and body.

In the early stages this feeling of ‘I’ is only a mental activity or a thought. Later on it becomes a subjective experience of ‘I’. When this subjective feeling does not connect with thoughts and objects the ‘I’ feeling completely vanishes. What remains is the sense of Being, in which the individual has temporarily ceased to exist. At the beginning this experience is intermittent, but with repeated practice it becomes easier and easier to 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’ has temporarily ceased to exist. This is not Self-realization yet as the ‘I’-thought still can reassert itself. Continuous practice and experience of this state of being will destroy the mental tendencies (vasanas). This weakening of the vasanas will eventually be completely destroyed by the power of the Self that the ‘I’-thought will never rise again. This is the final state of Self-realization.


This self-attention to the ‘I’-thought is not a concentration meditation or a controlling of the mind. It merely gently invokes the awareness of the source of the mind. Once the source of the mind is found by not identifying the self with what one is not, abide there at the Heart. At the beginning effort is required by transferring attention from the thoughts to the thinker. Once awareness of the ‘I’-feeling has been established, no more effort is required. From now onwards, it is a matter of Being rather than doing, of effortless being rather than an effort to be.


Since Beingness is always present, it is effortless to be what one already is. On the other hand trying to be what one is not (the body and mind) requires constant mental effort. So one can see that the Self is discovered only by being. Self-enquiry should be carried out throughout one’s waking hours, as it is not a meditative practice. There is no conflict between working and self-enquiry, although at the beginning regular periods of formal practice is good.

Do not meditate ---be!

Do not think that you are – be!

Don’t think about being – you are!

Behind the mind or thoughts, there is the ‘I’-thought. Hang on to this ‘I’-thought to find out what is it. With only the ‘I’-thought in mind no other thoughts can come in. At this early stage, one has to reject other thoughts, but as one goes deeper and deeper there will come a time when the real Self comes out from the depths. In the first few times one may not recognize it as the Self! From here onwards there is no necessity to use effort to reject thoughts. In fact one cannot make any effort at all. Introverting the mind in this enquiry, the vasanas (mental tendencies) become extinct by the light of the Self. So when the vasanas are eradicated, so is the mind. It is being absorbed into the light of the Self, the Heart. It is the Ernest enquiry into the aham-vritti, the ‘I’-thought. This practice is simply asking the question: ‘Who am I?’ This will turn the mind back to the source (the Self), and the original thought will subside. Continuing with this practice, the mind will stay and abide at its source more and more. In this fashion, the number of thoughts will get less and less until all vasanas are destroyed. One really need not renounce oneself as a householder practicing self-enquiry. Giving up the false self is the true renunciation.

Just on waking up from sleep, before being aware of the world and with no thoughts intruding there is this short period of time when the true Self shines forth. If this true Self can be held steady for a longer period of time, it is the same as realization. But this period never lasts. Then the ego arises to link the inert body with the pure consciousness (Self). This ego is an intangible link, which disappears as soon as it is sought for. This ego is also the mind, which is truly non-existent, as it is composed mainly of thoughts---ephemeral. When thoughts are depleted, peace and bliss reign supreme. There is a condition call manolaya, which is a temporary cessation of thoughts. This condition is due to concentration and is a temporary lulling of the mind, which can last for days or months. It is not a true destruction of thoughts. Once this condition ends, thoughts will rush in as before.

In self-enquiry, we are not really using the mind to kill the mind. We are seeking the source of the mind and in this process we find that the mind does not exist at all. When the mind turns outwards it brings in many thoughts and objects. When it turns inwards we find the Self.


The Practice of Surrender


When some of his followers find it impossible to practice self-enquiry, Sri Ramana accepted the usual practice of surrender of other religions. However, he imposed two conditions to this dualistic practice by stating 1) that the devotee must cease to exist. His preliminary exercise must be to hold on to the ‘I’-thought until it disappears. 2) The devotee completely surrenders his whole life to God or Self. He must not have any personal desires or will. There should not be an individual who is capable of acting independently of God. In other words: ‘Thy will be done’. The first condition is identical to self-enquiry. The second condition is also related to self-enquiry as there is no individual who acts or desires and that only the Self exists. That means the mind should not be allowed to go outwards to objects; it must be turned inwards to be absorbed into the Self. Both conditions isolate the ‘I’ to disappear into the source.

“Be still and know that I am God”. Stillness is total surrender without a vestige of individuality. There is no agitation of the mind, which is a sense of doership or personality. The ‘know’ here is to ‘be’.

Sri Ramana also realized that some of the devotees must also constantly meditate or think of God. This would lead to absorption of subject-object with God. Once this is achieved, complete surrender is much easier. The constant awareness of God would prevent the mind form straying to external objects. This conviction that God alone exists will also produce a reciprocal flow of power back from the Self. This will also destroy the vasanas thereby helping the absorption of the ‘I’-thought into its source. The final blow is still the power of the Self, which completely destroys the vestigial ‘I’-thought so that it never arises again. In this whole process there should not be any motive or even the desire to self-realize.

‘I am that I am’ is the same as ‘I am God’. Realize ‘I am’ and do not think ‘I am’. ‘Know I am God’ and not ‘Think I am God.’

Once you have totally surrendered, leave everything to him. Your burden is his. You have no more cares. All your cares are his. Such is surrender.


Teaching in Silence

Sri Ramana reckoned that silent teachings were the most direct and most powerful way of giving instructions. When he emitted this silent power, the minds of his devotees became quiet and peaceful straightaway. Some even experiences the Self in that instant. This flow of power can be received by anyone who is focused on the Self or on the form of the Guru. Distance is of no impediment. Traditionally, it involves being in the presence of a jnani, but Sri Ramana reckons that a mental connection to the Guru will do.


Meditation and Samadhi

Sri Ramana deemed self-enquiry to be the best direct path to realization and all the other paths are indirect and inefficient. If other methods like meditation do finally arrive at the Self it is because they inadvertently lead the yogins to the awareness of the ‘I’-thought. And it is this awareness of the ‘I’-thought that leads to enlightenment. So Sri Ramana says why not go straight to the direct path of the ‘I’-thought in order to realize the Self, because all the other methods take a much longer time. However, if the devotee cannot indulge in self-enquiry and already has a practice of meditation, he would encourage him to carry until absorption, at which point throw away the merged or absorbed product. This would then lead to the Self. However, Sri Ramana did advise that if one meditated on one single object e.g. the Self, then this was true meditation. This is the same as self-enquiry.


This term means an advanced stage of meditation in which the subject is intensely absorbed in the object of meditation or there is a conscious experience of the Self. Sri Ramana classified the various samadhis into three categories:

1.      Sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi This is the state where the jnani has irrevocably eliminated the ego. Sahaja means ‘natural’ and nirvikalpa means ‘no differences’. The jnani is able to function naturally in the world. Knowing that he is the Self, the jnani sees no difference between himself and others and no difference between himself and the world. For him, everything is a manifestation of the indivisible Self.

2.      Kevala nirvikalpa samadhi This is the stage below Self-realization. There is a temporary but effortless Self-awareness, but the ego has not been eliminated. There is no body-consciousness. The yogin cannot perceive sensory information or function in the world. When body-consciousness returns, the ego reappears. This is because the vasanas (mental tendencies) are not destroyed.

3.      Savikalpa samadhi In this state Self-awareness is maintained by constant effort. When effort is not maintained samadhi discontinues. When Self-attention wavers, Self-awareness is obscured.

For further guidance Sri Ramana’s definitions for samadhi are:

1.      Holding on to reality is samadhi.

2.      Holding on to reality with effort is Savikalpa samadhi.

3.      Merging in reality and remaining unaware of the world is nirvikalpa samadhi.

4.      Merging in ignorance and remaining unaware of the world is sleep.

5.      Remaining in the primal, pure, natural state without effort is sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi.


Free Will

According to our G-plan (prarabdha) every single detail of our lives is predestined by our prarabdha. For instance a car suddenly knocked me down at a particular minute and particular hour on a particular day when I stepped out of the house, There is no way I can avoid this accident. This incident in my G-plan must come to pass. This predestination also includes trivial things like urinating at a certain time and day. There is no way I can avoid it, as it is bound to happen the minute I was born.

The next question is “Is there any free will at all?” Ramana’s answer is “All the actions that the body is to perform are already decided upon at the time it comes into existence: the only freedom one has is whether or not to identify oneself with the body.” If one acts a part in a play the whole part is written out beforehand and one act as faithfully as one is able, but one is unaffected by that action as one is not that person. Similarly a Self-realized person acts his part in the world without fear or anxiety, hope or regret, as he is not touched by the part he played.

Summary and Commentary

There has never been a saint with such a history of enlightenment. He was unique in the sense that he was only 16 yeas old when he self-realized himself in half-hour of ‘death experience’. He had no background of spiritual practice. He had no knowledge of religion with any erudition. His family was far from spiritual. He went into a half-hour swoon and woke up with no fear of death (he was extremely fearful of death before this event) but fully identified himself with his true Self or the Absolute. It is arguable that he could have been a jnani at birth, but he needed that episode of ‘death experience’ to trigger his identification with the Self. There were three distinct phases after this illumination. The first phase was two years as a silent yogin in the temples and shrines of Tiruvannamalai. He was in samadhi most of the time. The second phase was twenty-four years in the caves of Arunachala Hill as a lonely hermit. The last phase was twenty-eight years as a teacher or Bhagavan in his Ashram at the foot of the hill.

After his illumination, he renounced the world to go to Arunachala Hill, from which vicinity he never stepped out for the rest of his life. He never claimed to be a Maharshi. He sought no fame or tried to establish a Mission. Although it was reported that he never performed any miracles, those who were close to him experienced many incidents and happenings that were nothing less than miraculous.

The best summary of Sri Ramana’s message and his method of self-enquiry are from Prof. K. Swaminathan’s recent book, Ramana Maharshi, brought out by the National Book Trust, India:

“Everyone is already realized and ever-realized. One thinks one is bound because one mistakes the body for the Self, which is infinite, pure awareness. What we call ‘realization’ consists in getting rid of the wrong notion that one is not realized. Realization is not something newly got. It is only the elimination of ignorance (avidya). Avidya is the sense of separateness, which is false, because we are all one awareness. There is only one Self. Limited, it is the ego; unlimited, it is the infinite Self, the sole reality. Egos are different and numerous, like bubbles. The Self is one alone, like the ocean. Accept your identity with the Real; be the water, not the bubble. Dive in.

“This diving in is self-enquiry; searching for the empirical ‘I’---the ego--- and seeing it disappear. The ego belongs neither to the body nor to the Self but vanishes when an earnest enquiry is made into its identity, its origin and connections. Then what remains is reality “shining forth by itself”.

“This ‘shining forth by itself’--- the ultimate identity with one’s Self which is pure awareness--- is purest and highest happiness in abstraction. Even as our much-sought-after mundane desires are fulfilled, the ‘sense’ of satisfaction therefrom is derived from a glimpse of that happiness, though of a dim degree.

“Happiness is the very nature of Self. There is no happiness in any object in the world. In fact when the mind goes out, it experiences only misery. In truth, when its desires are fulfilled, it returns to its own place and enjoys the happiness that is the Self.” Thus aesthetic and spiritual experiences are closely related.

This leads to the startling concept of the Maharshi, namely, “apart from thoughts, there is no such thing as the mind. Apart from thought-provoked concept, there is no independent entity called the world. What is called the world is thus thought evolved. When the world disappears, i.e. when the mind experiences no thought, the mind experiences happiness” (as one says he ‘very happily’ slept).

“Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the ‘I’ thought are the first and the foremost. It is only after the rise of this ‘I’ that the other thoughts bearing on that arise. It is after the appearance of the first personal pronoun that the second and third personal pronouns jump out. Without therefore the first personal pronoun, there will not be the second and third.

“The means to still the mind is the inquiry ‘Who is this ‘I’? The thought “Who am I?” will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization.

When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them but should inquire: ‘To whom did they arise?’ The answer would be ‘To me.’ Thereupon if one inquires ‘who is this me---Who am I?’ the mind will go back to its source; and the thought will subside. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will learn to stay in its source---in its ‘heart’.”

That this young boy of sixteen went through a half-hour of death experience in the process of Self-realization is irrefutably true. Then he took another two years of samadhi in the temples in the first phase and another twenty-four years as a hermit in the caves in the second phase to bring his realization into full maturity. After these twenty-six years he was fully mature and set to teach the rest of the world his methods of self-enquiry and surrender. This took him another twenty-eight years before he passed away. Even the way he died was no ordinary way. He knew when he was going and placated his devotees not to fuss, as he was ‘not going anywhere’.

Comparing his method of self-enquiry to other eastern spiritual practices, there is a fair amount of similarities. Emptying the mind of thoughts unto silence and tracing the thoughts to their source have already been practiced for centuries in the Buddhist Theravada tradition in Vipassana and the Zen teaching of Shikantaza. Both these Buddhist methods should bring one to emptiness of thoughts and thence to Voidness. In my teaching I have always advocated that the yogin brings down his awareness of emptiness to the region of the heart area. Here one could then deepen one’s emptiness layer after layer till one arrives at the Void, which is the ground of the soul. This is Sri Ramana’s Self or Brahman. His frequent repeating of Jesus’ teaching of stillness accentuates this point: ‘Be still and know that I am God’.

His exhortation of asking ‘Who am I?’ throughout the day while performing normal daily functions is similar to the Buddha’s teaching of ‘Four Foundation of Mindfulness’. Here the Buddhist is taught to be mindful of every action that he takes, be it sitting, walking, or acting a chore, he should be totally aware of that particular action. This practice is to prevent any thoughts from entering the mind—that is to let the mind be as empty as possible.


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