What is ‘true knowledge’? Can any knowledge that we now have be called true knowledge, or is all our knowledge just a semblance of true knowledge? Is there indeed any such thing as true knowledge, and if so how can we know what it is? Is it something that we can attain, or is it beyond the power of the human mind to grasp? If it is beyond the power of our mind to grasp, do we have any deeper level of consciousness by which we can experience it? How can we experience true knowledge?
Let us first decide what knowledge can be considered as true. To qualify as being true knowledge in the strictest sense of the term, the knowledge in question must be absolutely true – perfectly, permanently, unconditionally and independently true. That is, it must be a knowledge that is true in its own right, a knowledge that is true at all times, in all states and under all conditions, a knowledge whose truth is not in any way dependent upon, limited by or relative to any other thing, a knowledge whose truth is ever unchanging and immutable, being unaffected by anything else that may appear or disappear, or by any changes that may occur around it. It must also be self-evident, perfectly clear and absolutely reliable – devoid of even the least ambiguity or uncertainty – and must be known directly – not through any intervening media upon whose truth and reliability its own truth and reliability would then depend. Only such knowledge can be considered to be true knowledge in an absolute sense.
Knowledge that is not true from such an absolute standpoint but only from a relative standpoint is not perfectly true. It may be true under some conditions, but it is not true under all conditions. It may be true at one time or in one state, but it is not true at all times or in all states. It is true only relative to certain other things, and hence its truth is dependent upon and limited by the truth of those other things, and is affected by their appearance and disappearance, and by changes that may take place within them. Such relative knowledge is uncertain and unreliable, particularly since it is invariably obtained by us not directly but only through the intervening media of our mind and our five senses, whose truth and reliability are (as we shall see later) open to serious doubt. Knowledge which is thus true only relatively and not absolutely does not warrant the name ‘true knowledge’ in a strict analysis of what knowledge can be considered as true or real.
Therefore whenever the term ‘true knowledge’ is used in this book, it means only knowledge that is absolutely true, and not just relatively true. The aim of this book is not to deny the relative truth or validity of any of the many forms of relative knowledge that we experience, but is to investigate our experience deeply in order to discover whether or not any knowledge within our experience is absolutely true.
If we can discover some knowledge that is absolute, from the perspective of that absolute knowledge we will be able to appreciate better the relativity of all the relative forms of knowledge that we now experience. Because we think that we do not now experience anything that is absolute, we attribute undue reality and give undue credence to the seeming truth of all our relative knowledge. This book, therefore, is primarily concerned not with determining the relative truth of any knowledge, but only with investigating whether there is any absolutely true knowledge that we can experience.
Most of the knowledge that we now take to be true is only relatively true. For example, we generally accept that, with the exception of optical illusions such as a mirage, and other such sensory misperceptions, the knowledge that we acquire by means of our five senses is true. However, all such knowledge is relative, because it is dependent upon the questionable reliability of our five senses, and because it is limited to their range of perception. Since our physical senses are strictly limited and not entirely reliable, they are an imperfect media for acquiring true knowledge. Though they may provide us with knowledge that is relatively true and that meets many of our relative needs, including our biological survival, they cannot provide us with any knowledge that is absolutely true.
Not only is all the knowledge that we acquire by means of our five senses merely relative, but so also is all the knowledge that we acquire by means of our mind. Like our five physical senses, our mind is an imperfect medium for acquiring true knowledge, because it is a limited and unreliable instrument.
We all recognise the fact that much of the knowledge that our mind takes to be true at certain times is not actually true. For example, our mind may mistake an illusion to be true while it is experiencing it, but it later recognises that it was at that time mistaken in its judgement of what is true or real. Likewise, our mind mistakes its experiences in a dream to be true while it is actually experiencing that dream, but it later recognises that all those experiences were imaginary and therefore not true. Since we know that our mind is easily deceived into believing that whatever it is currently experiencing is true, how can we rely upon our mind as a dependable instrument through which we can acquire true knowledge?
Our mind is not just deluded temporarily into mistaking its own imaginations to be true, but is also deluded repeatedly into making this same mistake. Having once understood that in dream it was deluded into mistaking the unreal to be real, it does not thereby become immune from being again deluded in the same manner. The same delusion repeats itself again and again whenever our mind experiences a dream.
Since it is unable to learn from its repeated mistakes, our mind is a very unreliable judge of what knowledge is true and what knowledge is false. When it is so frequently incapable of recognising its own imaginations as false, how can we be sure that anything that it experiences is not merely an illusion, an unreal product of its own imagination?
Our mind has access to only two basic sources of objective knowledge, namely its five physical senses, which it believes provide it with knowledge obtained from outside itself, and its own internally generated knowledge such as its thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, concepts and so on. Neither of these two sources can provide it with consistently reliable information. Its physical senses often provide it with misperceptions, and its internally generated knowledge often provides it with dreams, and when it actually experiences such misperceptions or dreams, it is usually unable to distinguish them from all its other knowledge, which it assumes to be true.
Moreover, our mind is unable to distinguish between the knowledge that it is supposed to have obtained from each of these two sources. In a dream our mind believes that the world it is experiencing is perceived by it through its physical senses, and that that world therefore exists outside itself. However, when it wakes from that dream, our mind recognises that the world in its dream was not actually perceived by it through any physical senses, but was only an internally generated imagination.
Even now in our present waking state, our mind has no means of knowing for certain that the knowledge that it seems to obtain from outside itself through its physical senses is not actually just an internally generated imagination. All the knowledge that our mind experiences is experienced by it within itself, so it has no reliable means of knowing for certain that any of its knowledge is actually derived from outside itself.
Whether we imagine it to be derived from some external source or to be internally generated, or a combination of both, any knowledge we have of anything other than ourself is objective knowledge. All objective knowledge is dualistic and therefore relative, because it involves a distinction between the knowing subject and the known objects. Any knowledge that involves any form of duality must necessarily be relative.
Since the knowledge we have of everything else is objective, dualistic and therefore relative, the only knowledge we have that can possibly qualify as absolute is our subjective and therefore non-dual knowledge of ourself. Our knowledge of ourself, that is, of our own essential being, is the only knowledge that is devoid of all duality and relativity.
To know ourself, that is, to experience our own essential being as ‘I am’, we do not need the aid of our five senses or even of our mind. We know our own being, ‘I am’, even in sleep, when we are completely unaware either of our body and its five senses, or of our mind. Therefore our basic knowledge ‘I am’ is not dependent upon any other thing. In the complete absence of all otherness, such as in sleep, we know ‘I am’.
Whatever else we may know, and even when we know nothing else, we always know ‘I am’. Therefore our basic knowledge ‘I am’ is not only completely independent of all other knowledge, it is also permanent and unchanging. Other forms of knowledge may come and go, and they may even appear to be superimposed temporarily upon our basic knowledge ‘I am’, thereby seemingly obscuring it (though never actually hiding it), but this knowledge ‘I am’ itself remains permanently, without ever coming or going, appearing or disappearing, or beginning or ending, and without ever undergoing any change. Therefore this basic knowledge of our own being, ‘I am’, is the only absolute knowledge we experience.
The reason why we always know ourself as ‘I am’ is that we are consciousness, and consciousness is necessarily and essentially self-conscious. As consciousness, we always know our own being, not because our being is an object known by us, but because it is ourself, our own essential consciousness. We are therefore both being and consciousness. Our being and our consciousness are a single non-dual whole. Our consciousness is being, because it is, and our being is consciousness, because it knows itself.
However, when we say this, we are expressing the oneness of our being and our consciousness crudely and imperfectly, because we are speaking about them in the third person, as if they were objects. Our being-consciousness does not know itself objectively as a third person, but only subjectively as the first person. Therefore, rather than saying that our consciousness is being because it is, we can express the truth more accurately by saying that we are being because we are. Likewise, rather than saying that our being is consciousness because it knows itself, we can express the truth more accurately by saying that we are consciousness because we know ourself.
Still more accurately, we can express the truth by saying that I am being because I am, and I am consciousness because I know myself, because not only does our being-consciousness know itself only subjectively as the first person, but it also knows itself not as the first person plural, but only as the perfectly non-dual first person singular.
In his teachings, whether he happened to be referring to our real self or to our individual self, Sri Ramana often used the first person plural pronoun ‘we’ rather than the first person singular pronoun ‘I’, but he did not mean to imply thereby that there is any sense of plurality or duality in our real self. He referred to our real self as ‘we’ in order to include whomever he was speaking to or writing for, and to indicate that we are all one reality.
In many cases, if he had used ‘I’ instead of ‘we’, it would have created the impression that our real self is exclusive, whereas in truth it is all-inclusive. Therefore, wherever he has used the term ‘we’ in reference to our real self, we should understand that he used it as the first person inclusive pronoun rather than as the first person plural pronoun.
All our objective knowledge is known by us indirectly through the imperfect media of our mind and five senses, whereas consciousness is known by us directly as our own self. No form of indirect or mediate knowledge can be absolute, because such knowledge is inherently partitioned and dualistic, since it involves a distinction between the subject that is knowing, the object that is known, and the medium through which the subject knows the object. Since absolute knowledge must be free of all limitations, both internal and external, it must be devoid of any divisions, parts or duality. It must therefore be direct and immediate knowledge, knowledge that knows itself, in itself and by itself, without the aid of any internal or external medium.
Absolute knowledge must therefore be self-conscious – perfectly and singly self-conscious. It must be known by itself, and only by itself. It cannot be known by anything other than itself, because if it were it would not be absolute. The existence of anything other than it that could know it would set a limitation upon the wholeness of its being, and would therefore mean that it was not absolute in the fullest sense of the word.
Absolute knowledge cannot exist in relation to anything else, but only in itself and by itself. In order to be absolute, a knowledge must be the only truly existing knowledge. All knowledge that appears to be other than it must be false. Conversely, to be true – absolutely and perfectly true – a knowledge must be absolute.
Since true knowledge must therefore by definition be absolute, it must be a single, infinite, whole, undivided, non-dual, immediate and self-conscious knowledge. The only knowledge that knows itself is our essential consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’. Even our mind is not truly self-conscious, because it does not know itself as it really is, and because its seeming self-consciousness is limited to the two imaginary states of waking and dream. The only knowledge that is truly self-conscious, therefore, is our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’, because it knows itself always, undisturbed and unaffected by the passing of the three transient states of waking, dream and sleep.
Our essential consciousness ‘I am’ is not only immediately and eternally self-conscious, it is also single, undivided and non-dual. Is it, however, infinite? Is it the unlimited whole, other than which nothing can exist? Yes, it is, because it has no form of its own, and hence it is free of all boundaries and limits. Therefore, since it is not limited in any way, nothing can truly be other than it.
Everything else that appears to exist depends for its seeming existence upon our basic consciousness ‘I am’. No other knowledge could exist if our first and original knowledge ‘I am’ did not exist. Since all other knowledge appears and disappears in our mind, and since our mind appears and disappears in our underlying consciousness ‘I am’, no knowledge is truly separate from or other than this fundamental consciousness ‘I am’.
The ‘otherness’ of all other knowledge – our feeling that what we know is separate from or other than ourself – is caused by the limitations that we seemingly impose upon ourself when we imagine ourself to be a finite creature, a consciousness that experiences itself as ‘I am this body’. However, even when we experience this illusion of separation or ‘otherness’, all our ‘other’ knowledge is known in us and by us, so it is truly not separate from or other than ourself. It is in fact all just a product of our imagination, and our imagination is just a distorted function of our consciousness.
The apparent ‘being’ of every ‘other’ thing that we know is just a projection of our own true being, which is consciousness. Though other things appear to exist outside ourself, the outside in which they occur is actually just a part of our imagination. The process by which they are projected from within ourself into a seeming outside is in fact just an internal distortion of our consciousness – a distortion that nevertheless occurs not really but only seemingly.
None of the things that we know have any being or existence apart from our knowledge of them, and hence in the final analysis all ‘things’ are only knowledge, and knowledge is only consciousness. In a dream we experience knowledge of things that appear to be separate from and other than ourself, but when we wake up we recognise that all such knowledge was created by our imagination, and therefore had no independent existence outside our consciousness.
Like any other form of imagination, a dream is just an internal distortion of our natural consciousness. All the knowledge that we experience in our dream is formed in our own consciousness, and of our own consciousness. That is, the substance of which all our imaginations are formed is our own consciousness.
Other than our consciousness, there is no substance from which all our imaginations – our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and every form of dualistic knowledge – could be formed. The only substance we truly know is our own consciousness or being. Everything else that we seem to know is generated by our consciousness within itself and from its own substance.
However, there is an important distinction between our consciousness that seems to imagine and experience other forms of knowledge, and our real consciousness, which experiences only our own being, ‘I am’. Our consciousness that imagines that it is experiencing ‘otherness’ – knowledge of things other than itself – is what we call our ‘mind’. Though this mind is in essence just our real and infinite consciousness of being, ‘I am’, it experiences itself as a finite consciousness because it imagines the appearance of things other than itself. Its separation or distinction from our real consciousness is therefore just an imagination.
Nevertheless, when we are critically analysing our various forms of knowledge or consciousness and testing their reality, this distinction between our object-knowing consciousness and our self-knowing consciousness is one that we have to make in order to be able to experience the latter as it really is. Because this distinction is the root cause of all duality, it is in effect very real and significant so long as we experience even the slightest trace of any duality or ‘otherness’.
Since our aim is to experience our true and essential knowledge or consciousness as it really is, a need inevitably arises for us to distinguish it from all the unreal forms of knowledge that we have seemingly superimposed upon it by our power of imagination. Since all other forms of knowledge are experienced in and by our mind, in order to distinguish our true knowledge ‘I am’ from every other knowledge we need only distinguish it from our mind.
Our mind is just a distorted form of our true consciousness of being, ‘I am’, and it has become distorted only by imagining things other than itself. Since knowing itself just as ‘I am’ is the very nature of consciousness, the natural ‘target’ or resting-place of its attention is itself. That is, in its true and natural state, the focus or attention of our consciousness rests automatically and effortlessly upon itself, and not upon any other thing. Our attention becomes diverted away from ourself towards ‘other things’ only when we imagine them or form them in our consciousness.
So long as the focus of our consciousness or attention rests naturally upon ourself, we remain as the infinite real consciousness or true knowledge that we always are, but when the focus of our consciousness seems to be diverted towards imaginary objects or thoughts, we seem to become the finite consciousness that we call our ‘mind’. Therefore, if our mind wishes to experience the true knowledge that is its own real self, all it need do is withdraw its attention from all other things and to focus it keenly upon its own essential consciousness, ‘I am’. This state in which our mind thus rests its attention in itself, knowing only its own being or consciousness, is described by Sri Ramana in verse 16 of Upadēśa Undiyār as the state of true knowledge:
[Our] mind knowing its own form of light, having given up [knowing] external objects, alone is true knowledge.
When our mind knows ‘external objects’ or things other than itself, it does so by mistaking itself to be a physical body, which is one among those other things that it knows. But when it withdraws its attention back towards itself, it will cease to know any other thing, and thereby it will cease to mistake itself to be a physical body or any other product of its imagination.
By thus attending only to its own essential consciousness or ‘form of light’, and thereby giving up attending to any form of imagination, our mind will experience itself as its own natural consciousness of being, ‘I am’. In other words, by attending to and knowing only its own true consciousness of being, our mind will merge and become one with that consciousness. This non-dual experience of true self-consciousness is the state of true and absolute knowledge.
What exactly does Sri Ramana mean when he speaks of our ‘mind knowing its own form of light, having relinquished external objects’? What is our mind’s ‘own form of light’?
Our mind, as we saw in chapter three, is our compound consciousness ‘I am this body’, which is composed of two elements, our essential and fundamental consciousness ‘I am’, and the superimposed adjunct ‘this body’. Since the adjunct ‘this body’ appears at one time and disappears at another time, and since it changes its form, appearing as one body in waking and another body in dream, it is merely a superficial appearance, a spurious and unreal apparition. Therefore the only real element of our mind is our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’, our essential consciousness of our own existence, because this fundamental and essential consciousness is permanent – not something that appears at one time and disappears at another time – and never changes its form. Since this fundamental consciousness of our own being is thus the true and essential form of our mind, and since it is the ‘light’ that enables our mind to know not only itself but also all other things, in this verse Sri Ramana refers to it as our mind’s ‘own form of light’.
When our mind turns its power of attention back on itself, away from all other things, focusing its attention keenly and exclusively upon its fundamental and essential consciousness of its own being, ‘I am’, it will subside and disappear, merging in and becoming one with that fundamental consciousness. That is, when we, who now mistake ourself to be this limited individual consciousness that we call ‘mind’, focus our attention exclusively upon our fundamental adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’, we will discover this adjunct-free consciousness to be our own real self, and thus we will no longer mistake ourself to be this mind, the adjunct-bound consciousness ‘I am this body’.
However, so long as we attend to things other than ourself, we will perpetuate the illusion that we are this mind. In order to know ourself as we really are, therefore, we must stop attending to other things and must attend only to our own essential being – our adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’.
Therefore, when our mind gives up its habit of attending to external objects, and instead knows only its own true form of light – our clear self-luminous consciousness ‘I am’ – it will no longer appear to be a separate entity called ‘mind’, but will instead shine only as its own true and essential being, which is our eternally self-knowing consciousness ‘I am’. Hence, that which knows our adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’ is not actually our mind, but is only our adjunct-free consciousness itself. Since it knows only itself, and is known only by itself, our adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’ is essentially non-dual.
Therefore, our ‘mind knowing its own form of light, having relinquished external objects’ is the non-dual state in which, by knowing its own true and essential nature, our mind has ceased to be the imaginary adjunct-bound, object-knowing consciousness called ‘mind’, and instead remains only as our essential adjunct-free self-consciousness – our true consciousness, which always knows only its own being, ‘I am’.
As Sri Ramana says, this non-dual state of clear self-consciousness or self-knowledge is alone the state of true knowledge. Why is this so? The only thing we know with absolute certainty is ‘I am’. If we ourself did not exist, we could not know any other thing. Therefore, because we are conscious, we do exist.
We may not know exactly what we are, but we cannot reasonably have any doubt about the fact that we are. Our consciousness ‘I am’ is therefore the only knowledge that we can be absolutely sure is a true knowledge.
Unlike all our other knowledge, which is only relatively or conditionally true, our consciousness ‘I am’ is absolutely and unconditionally true, because it is permanent, unchanging and perfectly self-evident. Since it is known directly by itself, and not by anything else or through any other medium, its truth or reality does not depend upon any other thing. Because it is true at all times, in all states and under all conditions, and because it is ever unchanging and immutable, being unaffected by anything else that may appear or disappear, or by any changes that may occur around it, it is true in its own right – absolutely, unconditionally and independently true.
Since it is the only thing we experience at all times, in all states and under all conditions, and since it always remains as it is without ever undergoing any change, this fundamental consciousness ‘I am’ must be our real self, our true and most essential nature. However, though we already know this consciousness ‘I am’, we do not clearly know it as it is, because it seems to be clouded by the superimposition of our mind – the spurious consciousness that always knows itself mixed with adjuncts, and that can never know itself free of adjuncts as the mere consciousness ‘I am’. Therefore, rather than being the means to true knowledge, our mind is in fact the primary obstacle to true knowledge.
Why can no knowledge other than self-knowledge – the non-dual state in which we clearly know and firmly abide as the consciousness that knows only its own being, ‘I am’ – be considered to be true knowledge? All knowledge other than our real adjunct-free non-dual consciousness ‘I am’ is known only by our mind – our false adjunct-bound consciousness ‘I am this body’. Whereas our unadulterated consciousness ‘I am’ is essentially non-dual, because it knows only its own being, our mind is an intrinsically dual form of consciousness, because it appears as a separate individual consciousness only by seemingly knowing things other than itself.
All dual knowledge, that is, all knowledge in which what is known is separate from or other than that which knows it, is relative knowledge. That which is known as an object distinct from the knowing subject exists relative to that subject which knows it, and is therefore dependent for its seeming reality upon that subject. Unless the knowing subject is itself real, none of its knowledge of objects can be real.
All the knowledge that we have of objects is only thoughts that our mind has formed within itself by its power of imagination. We cannot know any objects – anything other than our own being, ‘I am’ – except through the medium of our mind. Hence we cannot know whether any object really exists independent of the thought of it that we have formed in our mind. Therefore all our knowledge about everything other than ‘I am’ is nothing but thoughts, which are only as real as our mind that has formed them.
As we have seen earlier, our mind, together with all its knowledge of duality, is merely an imagination superimposed upon the one real knowledge, which is our non-dual consciousness ‘I am’. Our consciousness ‘I am’ is non-dual because it knows only itself – its own essential being – and not any other thing. That which knows things that are seemingly other than itself is only our mind.
All objective knowledge – all knowledge of duality, all knowledge other than ‘I am’ – is known only by our mind, and therefore exists only relative to our mind. Hence all knowledge other than ‘I am’ is dualistic and relative knowledge, and as such it depends for its seeming reality upon our mind that knows it.
Our mind is an unreal form of consciousness, because it comes into existence as a separate object-knowing consciousness only by falsely identifying itself – its essential consciousness ‘I am’ – with an adjunct, ‘this body’, which is merely one of its own thoughts – an image that it has formed within itself by its power of imagination. Since our mind is thus formed only by our power of imagination, all that is known by it is also only a product of our imagination.
How can any such imaginary, relative, dualistic and objective knowledge be considered to be true knowledge? Is it not clear, therefore, that the only true knowledge that we can attain is the clear knowledge of ourself as we really are, devoid of any superimposed adjuncts – that is, knowledge of ourself as our unadulterated and essential self-consciousness, ‘I am’, which is the absolute non-dual consciousness that knows only itself?
All objective knowledge involves a basic distinction between the subject, who is knowing, and the object, which is known. It also involves a third factor, the subject’s act of knowing the object.
Because our knowledge of ourself involves only the inherently self-conscious subject, and no object, we know ourself just by being ourself, and we do so without the aid of any other thing. Because we are naturally self-conscious, we do not need to do anything in order to know ourself. Therefore unlike all our objective knowledge, our knowledge of ourself involves neither an object nor any act of knowing, and hence it is a perfectly non-dual knowledge.
Objective knowledge involves an act of knowing because of the seeming separation that exists between the knowing subject and the known object. That is, because the object is something that seems to be other than the subject, in order to know the object the attention of the subject must move away from itself towards the object. This movement of our attention away from ourself towards something that seems to be other than ourself is an action or ‘doing’.
Whereas we know ourself by just being ourself, we can know other things only by actively attending to them – that is, only by directing our mind towards them. When we know ourself, our attention, which is our power of knowing or consciousness, rests in itself, without moving anywhere. But when we know any other thing, our attention must be diverted from ourself towards that other thing.
This act of directing our attention towards something that appears to be other than ourself is what we call thinking. Every thought involves a movement of our attention away from ourself towards some image in our mind. Our mind forms all its thoughts or mental images only by seemingly moving its attention away from itself.
Since all our objective knowledge is just thoughts or mental images that our mind has formed within itself by seemingly moving its attention away from itself, it appears to exist only because of this action, which we call by various names such as thinking, knowing, cognising, experiencing, seeing, hearing, remembering and so on. Likewise, all the objects that we know come into existence only because of our act of knowing them. That is, since all objects are thoughts or images that arise in our mind, they are formed by our action of thinking or imagining them – an action that can occur only when we allow our attention to move seemingly away from ourself.
Thus all objective knowledge involves three basic elements, the knowing subject, its act of knowing and the objects known by it – or in other words, the knower, the knowing and the known. These three basic elements or factors of objective knowledge are known in Sanskrit as tripuṭi and in Tamil as muppuḍi, two terms which both literally mean ‘that which is threefold’ but which can be translated more comfortably by the word ‘triad’.
Of these three factors of objective knowledge, the first and foremost is the knower, which is our own mind or object-knowing consciousness. Without this first factor, the other two factors could not appear to exist. Therefore our knowing mind is the root or original cause of the appearance of these three factors of objective knowledge. In other words, what these three factors depend upon for their appearance or seeming existence is the appearance of our mind. Hence they will appear to exist only so long as our mind appears to exist.
This truth is clearly stated by Sri Ramana in verse 9 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
The pairs and the triads exist [only by] clinging always to one [that is, to our mind or object-knowing consciousness]. If [we] look within [our] mind ‘what is that one?’, they will slip off [because we will discover that their cause and supporting base, our mind, is itself non-existent]. Only those who have [thus] seen [the non-existence of our mind and the sole existence of our real self] are those who have seen the reality [the absolute reality or true ‘am’-ness]. They will not be deluded [confused or agitated by again imagining the existence of such pairs and triads]. See [this absolute reality, which is our own true self – our essential non-dual consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’].
In this verse the word iraṭṭaigaḷ or ‘pairs’ means the pairs of opposites such as life and death, existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, happiness and unhappiness, real and unreal, knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, good and bad, and so on. The word muppuḍigaḷ or ‘triads’ means the various forms that the ‘triad’ or set of three factors of objective knowledge assumes, such as the knower, the knowing and the known, the thinker, the thinking and the thought, the perceiver, the perceiving and the perceived, the experiencer, the experiencing and the experienced, and so on.
The unreality both of these ‘triads’, which form the totality of our objective knowledge, and of these ‘pairs’, which are an inherent part of our objective knowledge, being objective phenomena experienced by our knowing mind, is emphasised by the word viṇmai, which Sri Ramana added between the previous verse and this verse in the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu. Being placed immediately before the opening words of this verse, iraṭṭaigaḷ muppuḍigaḷ, this word viṇmai, which literally means ‘sky-ness’ – that is, the abstract quality or condition of the sky, which in this context implies its blueness – defines the nature of these ‘pairs’ and ‘triads’. That is, these basic constituents of all our objective or dualistic knowledge are unreal appearances, like the blueness of the sky.
Just as the sky is actually just empty space, which is devoid of colour, so we are actually just the empty space of unadulterated self-consciousness, which is devoid of duality or otherness. But just as the seeming blueness of the sky is formed because the light of the sun is refracted when it enters the earth’s atmosphere, so the appearance of duality is formed in the undivided space of our consciousness because the clear light of our non-dual self-consciousness is seemingly divided into many thoughts or mental images when the phantom of our mind arises within us.
This is why Sri Ramana says that these pairs of opposites and triads exist only by ‘clinging always to one’. The ‘one’ to which they always cling is our mind or object-knowing consciousness, and they are said to cling to it because for their seeming existence they all depend upon its seeming existence. When our mind seems to exist, as it does in waking and dream, the pairs of opposites and the triads also seem to exist, and when it does not seem to exist, as in sleep, they also do not seem to exist.
Therefore Sri Ramana says that if we look within our mind to see what that ‘one’ is, the pairs of opposites and the triads will slip off. That is, if we keenly scrutinise ourself in order to know what this object-knowing consciousness really is, we will discover that it is actually just our essential non-dual self-consciousness, which knows nothing other than itself, and hence all the otherness and duality that it now appears to know will vanish.
Our mind or object-knowing consciousness appears to exist only when we ignore our true non-dual self-consciousness, and hence it will cease to exist when we attend only to ourself – that is, to our fundamental and essential self-consciousness. When we look closely at an imaginary snake, it will disappear, and in its place only the real rope will remain. Similarly, when we look closely at this imaginary object-knowing consciousness that we call our ‘mind’, it will disappear, and in its place only our real non-dual self-consciousness will remain.
Just as the snake disappears because it is imaginary and therefore never really existed, so our mind will disappear because it is imaginary and has therefore never really existed. And just as the sole reality underlying the imaginary appearance of the snake is the rope, so the sole reality underlying the imaginary appearance of our mind is our fundamental non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’.
When we look closely at the object-knowing consciousness that we call our ‘mind’, we will discover that it is non-existent as such, being nothing other than our real consciousness – our non-dual self-consciousness ‘I am’, which never knows anything other than itself. When we thus discover that our object-knowing mind is non-existent as such, we will also discover that all the duality that appeared to be known by it was likewise non-existent. This is why Sri Ramana says that if we look within our mind to see what this object-knowing consciousness really is, the pairs of opposites and the triads will ‘slip off’ – that is, they will disappear along with their root cause, our mind.
After saying that the pairs of opposites and the triads will slip off if we see what the one object-knowing consciousness really is, Sri Ramana says, ‘Only those who have seen [thus] are those who have seen the reality’. Here the word kaṇḍavarē, which I have translated as ‘only those who have seen’, means only those who have thus ‘seen’ or experienced the non-existence of our mind and the sole existence of our real self. The word uṇmai, which I have translated as ‘the reality’, but which etymologically means ‘is’-ness or ‘am’-ness, here denotes the absolute reality, which is our true ‘am’-ness – our own essential non-dual self-conscious being.
Sri Ramana then declares, ‘kalaṅgārē’, which means, ‘They will certainly not be deluded, confused or agitated’. That is, since all delusion, confusion and agitation arise only due to our knowledge of duality or otherness, which in turn arises only due to the imaginary appearance of our mind, and since our mind will disappear for ever when we experience the absolute and only truly existing reality, which is our own perfectly non-dual self-conscious being, after we have experienced this reality we will never again be deluded or confused by the imaginary appearance of duality.
Thus in this verse Sri Ramana emphasises the fact that our mind is the one foundation upon which this entire imaginary appearance of duality is built, and that we can therefore experience the absolute reality that underlies this appearance only by scrutinising its foundation, our mind. Until we thereby free ourself from our self-delusive imagination that this mind is our real self, we will continue to experience the unreal knowledge of duality, and we will therefore be unable to experience the non-dual true knowledge that is our own real self.
The knowledge that our mind has about the world is twofold, taking the form of knowledge about some things and ignorance about other things. Such relative knowledge and ignorance (which is one of the pairs of opposites to which Sri Ramana refers in verse 9 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu) is possible only about things other than ourself.
About ourself we can never really be ignorant, because we always know ourself as ‘I am’. However, until we know ourself without the obscuring veil of superimposed adjuncts, we do not know ourself as we really are, but know ourself wrongly as ‘I am such-and-such a person’.
Though this wrong knowledge that we seem to have about our true nature is sometimes called ‘self-ignorance’, ‘ignorance of our real self’ or ‘spiritual ignorance’, it is not in fact real, but is merely an appearance that seems to exist only in the outlook of our mind. That is, it is just a seeming ignorance that is experienced only by our mind, and not by our real consciousness, which always knows itself merely as ‘I am’. In the experience of our real consciousness ‘I am’, there is no such duality as knowledge and ignorance, because it is the sole reality underlying all appearances, and hence nothing exists apart from or other than it for it either to know or not to know.
Like all the other knowledge and ignorance that is experienced by our mind, our seeming ignorance of our true and essential nature is only relative. Moreover, even the state of self-knowledge that we now seek to attain exists only relative to our present state of self-ignorance. However, it is relative only from the standpoint of our mind, which seeks to attain it as if it were some knowledge that we do not now possess, and that we can therefore newly experience at some time in future.
This concept that our mind has about self-knowledge is a false image of what the true experience of self-knowledge really is. When we actually experience the state of true self-knowledge, we will discover that it is not something that we have newly attained at a particular point in time, but is the one and only real state, which we have always experienced and will always experience, because it exists eternally, beyond the relative dimensions of time – past, present and future. That is, in that state we will clearly know that we have always been only the pure consciousness of being, ‘I am’, and that ignorance – the wrong knowledge ‘I am this body’ – never really existed, just as when we finally see the rope as it really is, we will understand that we were always seeing only that rope, and that the snake we imagined we saw never really existed.
Even when we imagine that we do not know our real self and therefore try to attend to ourself in order to know what we really are, we are in fact nothing other than our real self, which always knows itself as it really is. Our seeming ignorance of the true non-dual nature of our real self is only an imagination, and the sole purpose of our effort to know ourself is only to remove this imagination. This truth is stated emphatically by Sri Ramana in verse 37 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
Even the argument that says, ‘Duality [is real] in [the state of] spiritual practice, [whereas] non-duality [is real] in [the state of] attainment [of self-knowledge]’, is not true. Both when we are lovingly [earnestly or desperately] searching [for ourself], and when [we] have attained ourself, who indeed are we other than the tenth man?
The word daśamaṉ or ‘the tenth man’ refers to an analogy that is often used in advaita vēdānta. According to the traditional story on which this analogy is based, ten dull-witted men once forded a fast-flowing river. After crossing the river, they decided to count how many they were in order to make sure that they had all crossed safely. Each one of them counted the other nine men, but forgot to count himself, so they all imagined that they had lost one of their companions, and instead of trying to know who that missing ‘tenth man’ was, they all began to lament his loss.
Seeing them weeping over the loss of their supposedly missing companion, a passer-by understood that each of them had forgotten to count himself, so to convince them that none of them was really missing, he suggested that he would tap each of them one by one, and that starting from ‘one’ each man should count the next number in sequence as he was tapped. When the last man was tapped he counted ‘ten’, whereupon they all understood that none of them was ever really missing.
Who then was the ‘tenth man’ whom they had each imagined they had lost? Each man, who had counted the other nine men but forgotten to count himself, was himself the supposedly missing ‘tenth man’. Just as the ‘tenth man’ appeared to be missing only because each one of them had ignored himself and counted only the others, so we appear not to know ourself only because we habitually ignore ourself and attend only to things that appear to be other than ourself.
Therefore when Sri Ramana asks, ‘[…] who indeed are we other than the tenth man?’, what he means by the word daśamaṉ or ‘the tenth man’ is only our own real self, which we now imagine we do not know. Hence the meaning of the rhetorical question that Sri Ramana asks in the last sentence of this verse is that we are always truly nothing other than our own real self, both when we are searching for it, and when we have discovered ourself to be it.
Just as the loss of the ‘tenth man’ was merely an imagination, so our present state of self-ignorance is likewise a mere imagination. Therefore, since all the duality that we experience in this state is a result of our imaginary self-ignorance, it is also a mere imagination. Hence, even in our present state of seeming self-ignorance, the only reality is our own essential non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’.
In order for any of the ten men to discover the missing ‘tenth man’, all that was required was for him to remove his imagination that one of them was missing, and that could be achieved only by drawing his attention to himself. Similarly, in order for us to discover our own real self, all that is required is for us to remove our imagination that we know anything other than our real self, and that can be achieved only by drawing our attention towards ourself. That is, since the cause of our imaginary experience of duality or otherness is our seeming self-ignorance, it can be removed only by the experience of clear non-dual self-knowledge, which we can achieve only by attending keenly and exclusively to ourself.
The necessity for spiritual practice – for our making effort to be keenly and exclusively attentive to our own self-conscious being – arises only because we imagine ourself to be anything other than our real self, which is our essential non-dual self-consciousness. This is the meaning implied by two words that Sri Ramana added before the opening words of this verse in the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, namely aṟiyādē muyalum, which mean ‘which [we] attempt [or make effort to do] only [due to] not knowing’.
Being placed before the initial word of this verse, sādhakattil, which means ‘in [the state of] spiritual practice’, these two words imply that we make effort to do any form of spiritual practice, including the ultimate practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation, only because we do not experience true self-knowledge – the true knowledge that we are just absolutely non-dual and therefore perfectly clear self-conscious being. Though this self-ignorance or lack of true self-knowledge is only imaginary, so long as we experience ourself as being anything other than absolutely unadulterated self-consciousness – consciousness that knows nothing other than itself, its own essential being or ‘am’-ness – it is necessary for us to practise self-investigation, which is the real spiritual practice of abiding undistractedly as our own true self-conscious being.
However, since our present self-ignorance is truly imaginary, when as a result of our practice we do experience our real self – our absolutely non-dual self-conscious being – we will discover that we have never known anything other than it. Just as the ‘tenth man’ was never anyone other than the man who imagined him to be missing, so the real self that we are now seeking is never anything other than ourself, who now imagine it to be something that we do not clearly know. Therefore Sri Ramana says that it is not true to say that duality is real when we are seeking our real self. Even now we are truly nothing other than the non-dual real self that we seek.
Since we ourself are the real self that we now seek, and since the true nature of our real self is to know nothing other than itself, we have never really experienced any duality. Our present experience of duality is therefore just a dream – an imagination that exists only in our own mind. Since our mind is itself just an imagination, and since it will therefore disappear when we experience ourself as we really are, our dream of duality will be dissolved by our experience of true self-knowledge.
In the state of true self-knowledge we will discover that we are the one non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’, which never knows anything other than itself. Since this true non-dual self-consciousness is our real self, we are actually this at all times and in all states, even when we imagine ourself to be something else.
Therefore, since we are the one non-dual, undivided, infinite, eternal and immutable self-consciousness, we ourself are the only true knowledge. That is, we are the one absolute knowledge that transcends all relativity – all knowledge and ignorance, all distinctions such as that between the knowing subject, the act of knowing, and the objects known, all time and space, and all other forms of duality.
All forms of duality or relativity exist only in the imagination of our mind, which itself is no more than a figment of our imagination – something which in truth has never really existed. However, though true knowledge transcends not only all forms of duality or relativity, but also our mind, by which all forms of duality and relativity are known, it is nevertheless the ultimate substratum that underlies and supports the appearance of all of them.
True knowledge is therefore only the absolute knowledge that underlies yet transcends all relative knowledge and ignorance. It transcends them because, though it is their ultimate substratum or support, it nevertheless remains distinct from, independent of and unaffected by them, just as a cinema screen is the support that underlies the appearance of the pictures that flit across it, yet nevertheless remains distinct from, independent of and unaffected by them. Just as the screen is not burnt when a picture of a raging fire is projected upon it, nor does it become wet when a picture of a flood is projected upon it, so true knowledge – our real non-dual self-consciousness ‘I am’ – is not affected in the least by any relative knowledge or ignorance that may seem to arise within it.
Though our true, absolute and non-dual knowledge ‘I am’ is the ultimate support or substratum that underlies all forms of duality or relativity, it is not their immediate support or base. The immediate base upon which all duality depends, and without which it ceases to exist, is only our wrong knowledge ‘I am this body’, which is our individualised sense of selfhood, our ego or mind. Therefore in verse 23 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana says:
This body does not say ‘I’ [that is, it does not know ‘I am’, because it is just inconscient matter]. No one says ‘in sleep I do not exist’ [even though in sleep this body does not exist]. After an ‘I’ has risen [imagining ‘I am this body’], everything rises. [Therefore] by a subtle intellect scrutinise where this ‘I’ rises.
What exactly Sri Ramana means by saying in the first sentence of this verse, ‘This body does not say “I”’, was clarified by him in the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, in which he added before it the words mati-y-iladāl, which mean ‘since it is devoid of mati’. The word mati usually means mind, intellect or power of discernment and understanding, but in this context Sri Ramana uses it in a deeper sense to mean consciousness.
That is, since our body has no consciousness of its own, it cannot by itself say ‘I am’. Here ‘say’ is not used objectively to mean ‘make sound by mouth’, but is used more subjectively to mean ‘testify’, ‘bear witness’, ‘declare’ or ‘make known’. Our body does not experience or witness its own existence, any more than a corpse does, and hence it cannot testify ‘I am’. That which now experiences its seeming existence is only we – the consciousness or mind within this body – and since we imagine it to be ourself, we feel ‘I am this body’. Hence, when this body seems to say ‘I’, it is in fact we who speak through it referring to it as ‘I’.
Our mind, ego or individual sense of ‘I’, which now feels this body to be itself, is actually neither this body nor our real consciousness ‘I’. It is not this body because this body is just inconscient matter, which does not know its own existence as ‘I am’, and it is not our real ‘I’, because we know that we exist in sleep, even though we do not experience our mind in that state.
Because our mind does not exist in sleep, no duality exists in that state. Duality or multiplicity appears to exist only after our mind has risen, posing itself as our real ‘I’. Therefore the cause of the appearance of duality in waking and dream is only the appearance of our mind or ego, which arises by imagining itself to be a body.
Since our mind or individual sense of ‘I’ is not real, but arises merely as an imagination, Sri Ramana concludes this verse by advising us to scrutinise the source from which it rises. That source is ourself – our real ‘I’ or essential self-consciousness, which we experienced even in sleep. If we scrutinise ourself with a ‘subtle intellect’, that is, with a clearly refined and therefore deeply penetrating power of discernment, cognition or attention, we will experience ourself as the true non-dual self-consciousness that we really are, and thus our mind or ego will vanish.
In the last line of this verse, the two words nuṇ matiyāl, which literally mean ‘by a subtle intellect’, are very significant, and in order to understand their meaning more clearly we should compare them with two similar words that Sri Ramana uses in verse 28, namely kūrnda matiyāl, which literally mean ‘by a sharp intellect’ or ‘by a pointed intellect’, that is, by a sharp, keen, intense, acute and penetrating power of discernment, cognition or attention. Since he says in verse 28 that by such a ‘sharp intellect’ or kūrnda mati we ‘should know the place [or source] from which [our] rising ego rises’, it is clear that the ‘subtle intellect’ that he refers to in verse 23 is the same as the ‘sharp intellect’ that he refers to in verse 28.
Our real self is infinitely subtle, because it is formless consciousness, whereas in comparison all our thoughts are gross, because they are forms or images that appear to be other than ourself. Therefore if we are habituated to attending only to thoughts or objects, our intellect or power of discernment will have become comparatively gross, blunt and dull, having lost its natural subtlety, sharpness and clarity, and hence it will not be able to discern clearly our true, subtle, adjunct-free self-consciousness.
Since by constantly attending to gross thoughts and objects we have lost our natural subtlety, sharpness and clarity of attention or discernment, in order to regain these qualities we must attempt to attend repeatedly to our infinitely subtle self-consciousness. The more we practise such self-attentiveness, the more subtle, sharp and clear our power of attention or discernment will become, and as its subtlety, sharpness and clarity thus increase we will be able to discern our true self-consciousness more clearly, precisely and correctly, until eventually we will experience it in its absolutely pristine purity. This pristine experience of our real non-dual self-consciousness is alone the state of absolute true knowledge.
The result that will be achieved when with a truly subtle power of attention we scrutinise our essential self-consciousness, ‘I am’, which is the source from which our mind or false finite sense of ‘I’ arises, is stated by Sri Ramana explicitly in the words that he added at the end of this verse in the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu. The final word of this verse is eṇ, which is an imperative that in this context means ‘scrutinise’, but in the kaliveṇbā version he modified it as eṇṇa, which is the infinitive form of the same verb that is used idiomatically to mean ‘when [we] scrutinise’, and he added a concluding verb naṙuvum, which literally means ‘it slips off’, ‘it steals away’ or ‘it escapes’, and which therefore implies that it will depart, disappear, vanish, evaporate, dissolve or become entirely non-existent. Thus the meaning of this final sentence in the kaliveṇbā version is: ‘When [we] scrutinise by a subtle intellect where this “I” rises, it [this rising ‘I’] will vanish’.
This rising ‘I’, our mind or ego, appears to exist only when we imagine ourself to be a body, and hence its seeming existence depends upon our turning our attention away from our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’, towards a body and other thoughts, all of which are objects that we have created by our own power of imagination. When we do not attend to any imaginary object, such as this body, the world or any of the other thoughts in our mind, our mind or finite sense of ‘I’ cannot stand, and hence it subsides and vanishes within us, being found to be entirely non-existent. Therefore when we scrutinise the source of our finite rising ‘I’ – that is, when we turn our attention away from all thoughts or mental images and focus it wholly and exclusively upon our own essential self-conscious being – this false ‘I’ will vanish in the absolute clarity of our perfectly adjunct-free non-dual self-consciousness.
In the second half of verse 23 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana points out the obvious truth that everything – that is, all duality or otherness – rises only after our mind or individual sense of ‘I’ has risen, and he advises us that we should therefore scrutinise with a ‘subtle intellect’ the source from which this ‘I’ arises. He also adds that when we scrutinise thus, this ‘I’ will slip away, vanish or become entirely non-existent. The inference that we should understand from his statement, ‘After an “I” has risen, everything rises’, from his subsequent advice, ‘By a subtle intellect scrutinise where this “I” rises’, and from his final statement that this ‘I’ will then vanish, is stated by him clearly in verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
If [our] ego comes into existence [as in the waking and dream states], everything comes into existence. If [our] ego does not exist [as in sleep], everything does not exist. [Hence our] ego indeed is everything [this entire appearance of duality or relativity]. Therefore, know that examining ‘what is this [ego]?’ is indeed relinquishing everything.
In the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana added the word karu-v-ām, which means ‘which is the karu’, before the first word of this verse, which is ahandai or ‘ego’. As I explained in chapter three when discussing the meaning of verse 716 of Guru Vācaka Kōvai, the word karu means ‘embryo’, ‘germ’, ‘efficient cause’, ‘substance’, ‘foundation’ or ‘womb’, and Sri Ramana describes our ego or mind as being the karu because it is the embryo or seed from which everything – all duality or otherness – is born, the substance of which everything is formed, the active cause or creator that brings everything into being, the foundation that supports the appearance of everything, and the womb inside which everything is born and contained.
Except our essential self-consciousness ‘I am’, everything that we know or experience is just a thought or image that we have formed in our mind by our power of imagination. Therefore everything is just an expansion of our own mind, our ego or root thought ‘I’. This is why Sri Ramana states emphatically that our ‘ego indeed is everything’.
Why does he then proceed to say that examining or scrutinising our ego in order to know what it is, is renouncing or casting off everything? Examining our ego is similar to examining the seeming snake that we see lying on the ground in the half-light of dusk. When we look carefully at the snake, we will discover that what we were seeing was never really a snake, but was always only a rope. Similarly, when we scrutinise our ego or individual sense of selfhood with a keen and subtle power of attention, we will discover that what we have always been aware of as ‘I’ was never really a limited adjunct-bound consciousness, but was always only the unlimited adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’.
Just as the snake as such never really existed, so our ego as such has never really existed. And just as the sole reality underlying the illusory appearance of the snake was merely a rope, so the sole reality underlying the illusory appearance of our ego is only our own true self, our adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’. Therefore, when we carefully examine our ego and discover that it is non-existent as such, the entire appearance of duality, which depended for its seeming reality upon the seeming reality of the ego, will cease to exist – or rather, it will be found to be truly ever non-existent.
In reality, therefore, the true knowledge ‘I am’ alone exists, and all other forms of knowledge – all relative knowledge and ignorance – are ever non-existent. However, so long as we experience the illusion of relative knowledge and ignorance, it must, like every illusion, have some reality underlying it, and that reality can only be our true and absolute knowledge ‘I am’.
Our true knowledge ‘I am’ is the support or base underlying our false knowledge ‘I am this body’, and our false knowledge ‘I am this body’ is in turn the support or base underlying our illusion of relative knowledge and ignorance. Therefore, to experience true knowledge as it is, we must not only remove the illusion of relative knowledge and ignorance, but must also remove its base, which is our false sense of individual selfhood, our knowledge ‘I am this body’.
This truth is expressed by Sri Ramana in verses 10, 11 and 12 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
Without [relative] ignorance, [relative] knowledge does not exist. Without [relative] knowledge, that [relative] ignorance does not exist. The knowledge that knows [the non-existence of] that [individual] self which is the base [of all our relative knowledge and ignorance], [by investigating] thus ‘that [relative] knowledge and ignorance [are known] to whom?’ is indeed [true] knowledge.
Knowing [any] other thing without knowing [the non-existence of our individual] self, which knows [such other things], is ignorance; instead [can it be] knowledge? When [we] know [the non-existence of our individual] self, [which is] the ādhāra [the support or container] of knowledge and [its] opposite, [both] knowledge and ignorance will cease to exist.
That which is [completely] devoid of both knowledge and ignorance is indeed [true] knowledge. That which knows [that is, our mind or individual self, which alone knows things other than itself] is not true knowledge. Since it [our real self] shines [as the only existing reality] without [any] other [thing] to know or to make known [that is, either for it to know, or to make itself or anything else known], [our real] self is [true] knowledge. It is not a void. Know [this truth].
Though our real self, our essential adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’, is completely devoid of knowledge and ignorance about anything other than itself, it is not merely an empty void, because it is the fullness of being – the fullness of perfectly clear self-conscious being, which is the fullness of true self-knowledge. Therefore the term śūnya or ‘void’, which is used to describe the absolute reality not only in Buddhism but also in some texts of advaita vēdānta, is in fact intended to be understood only as a relative description of it – a description of it relative to the multiplicity of relative knowledge that our mind now experiences.
Though the absolute reality, which is our essential self-conscious being, is devoid of all relative knowledge – all knowledge of duality or otherness – it is not an absolute void, because it is not devoid of true knowledge, which is the absolute clarity of perfectly non-dual self-consciousness. Therefore rather than describing the absolute reality as a state of śūnya, ‘emptiness’ or ‘void’, it is more accurate to describe it as the state of pūrṇa, ‘fullness’, ‘wholeness’ or ‘completeness’, because it is the absolute fullness of true knowledge.
The same truth that Sri Ramana expresses in verse 12 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu is expressed by him even more succinctly in verse 27 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
The knowledge which is devoid of both knowledge and ignorance [about objects], alone is [true] knowledge. This [true knowledge] is the [only existing] reality, [because in truth] there is nothing to know [other than ourself].
Why is there truly nothing for us to know other than our own self? All knowledge of otherness or duality is known only by our mind, which is merely a false form of knowledge – an apparition that appears only when by our power of imagination we superimpose some illusory adjuncts upon our true knowledge ‘I am’. When we examine this illusory apparition, it disappears, being truly non-existent, like the illusory snake that we created by our power of imagination. When we thus discover that our mind is truly non-existent, we will also discover that all other things, which were known only by our mind, are equally non-existent.
However, though all our knowledge of duality is unreal as such, we are able to imagine that we experience such knowledge of duality only because we experience the true knowledge ‘I am’. If we did not know our own existence, ‘I am’, we could not imagine that we know any other thing. Therefore our imaginary knowledge of duality is only an illusory form of our true knowledge ‘I am’, as explained by Sri Ramana in verse 13 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
[Our true] self [our essential being], which is knowledge [our essential knowledge or consciousness ‘I am’], alone is real. Knowledge which is many [that is, knowledge of multiplicity] is ignorance. [However] even [that] ignorance, which is unreal, does not exist apart from [our true] self, which is [the only real] knowledge. The multiplicity of ornaments is unreal; say, does it exist apart from gold, which is real?
This verse is a terser but more content-rich version of an earlier verse that Sri Ramana composed, which is included in Upadēśa Taṉippākkaḷ as verse 12:
Knowledge [the true knowledge ‘I am’] alone is real. Ignorance, which is nothing other than the [false] knowledge [our mind] that sees [the one real knowledge ‘I am’] as many, itself does not exist apart from [our true] self, which is [the only real] knowledge. The multiplicity of ornaments is unreal; say, does it exist apart from gold, which is real?
The diversity of gold ornaments is merely a diversity of transient forms, and as such it is unreal. What is real and enduring in all those diverse ornaments is only the substance of which they are made, namely gold. Similarly, though the knowledge of multiplicity is unreal, being merely a transitory appearance, its underlying reality or substance is only the true knowledge ‘I am’, without which it could not even appear to exist.
Therefore the only thing that is worth knowing is our own real self, our essential consciousness ‘I am’. That is why Sri Ramana says in verse 3 of Āṉma-Viddai:
What [worth does all our knowledge have] if [we] know whatever else without knowing [our real] self? If [we] know [our real] self, then what [else] is there to know? When [we] know in ourself that [real] self, which shines undivided [as the unlimited, adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’] in all the divided [or separate] living beings, within ourself the light of self [the clarity of true self-knowledge] will shine. [This is] indeed the shining forth of grace, the annihilation of ‘I’ [our ego, mind or separate individual self], [and] the blossoming of [true and eternal] happiness.
Just as in verse 16 of Upadēśa Undiyār, which we discussed earlier in this chapter, Sri Ramana used the term ‘its own form of light’ to denote our mind’s essential consciousness ‘I am’, so in this verse he uses the term ‘the light of self’ to denote the clear consciousness or knowledge of our real self. Why does he use the word ‘light’ in this figurative manner to denote consciousness or knowledge? Since our consciousness ‘I am’ is that by which both ourself and all other things are made known, in the poetic language of mysticism it is often described as being the true ‘light’ that illumines everything, including the physical light that we see with our eyes.
This metaphorical use of the word ‘light’ to denote our true consciousness of being, ‘I am’, can be found in the sayings and writings of sages from all traditions and all cultures. Jesus Christ, for example, referred to our consciousness ‘I am’ as the ‘light of the world’. Since it is the light that enables us to know the world, and since it shines as the essential being of each and every one of us – including even God, who declared himself to be that ‘I am’ when he said to Moses, ‘I am that I am. […] Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I am hath sent me unto you’ (Exodus 3.14), and Christ, who indicated that he was that same timeless ‘I am’ when he said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am’ (John 8.58) –, Christ not only said, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12 and 9.5), but also addressing people said, ‘Ye are the light of the world’ (Matthew 5.14).
Hence this consciousness ‘I am’ can rightly be said to be the ‘spark of divinity’ within each one of us. Indeed, this pure consciousness of our being, which we each know as ‘I am’, is itself the ultimate and absolute reality, which in English is called ‘God’ or the ‘Supreme Being’, and which in Sanskrit is called brahman. This truth is affirmed not only by the above-quoted statement of God in the Bible, ‘I am that I am’, but also by the four ‘great sayings’ or mahāvākyas of the Vēdas, which declare the oneness of ourself and that absolute reality.
Of these four mahāvākyas, one is contained in each of the four Vēdas, in the portions of them that are known as the upaniṣads, which are some of the earliest known expressions of vēdānta, the ‘end’ or philosophical conclusion and essence of the Vēdas. The mahāvākya of the Ṛg Vēda is ‘prajñānaṁ brahma’, which means ‘pure consciousness is brahman’ (Aitarēya Upaniṣad 3.3), that of the Yajur Vēda is ‘ahaṁ brahmāsmi’, which means ‘I am brahman’ (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.10), that of the Sāma Vēda is ‘tat tvam asi’, which means ‘it [brahman] you are’ (Chāndōgya Upaniṣad 6.8.7), and that of the Atharva Vēda is ‘ayaṁ ātmā brahma’, which means ‘this self is brahman’ (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad 2).
Our oneness with the absolute reality called ‘God’ is explained by Sri Ramana more clearly in verse 24 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
By [their] nature which is [that is, in their essential nature or being, ‘I am’, which merely is], God and souls are only one poruḷ [substance or reality]. Only the adjunct-sense is [what makes them appear to be] different.
We feel ourself to be a soul or individual being because we identify ourself with certain adjuncts, and these adjuncts distinguish us from God and from every other living being. Just as we identify ourself with a certain set of attributes or adjuncts, we identify God with another set of attributes or adjuncts. However, none of the attributes that we ascribe either to God or to ourself are actually inherent in or essential to the fundamental being which is the true nature of both himself and ourself, but are all merely adjuncts that are superimposed upon it.
Since all such attributes or adjuncts are mere thoughts or mental images created by our power of imagination, Sri Ramana refers to them collectively as upādhi-uṇarvu, the ‘adjunct-sense’ or ‘adjunct-consciousness’ – that is, the feeling, notion or experience of adjuncts. Though the exact meaning of upādhi is a ‘substitute’ or thing that is put in place of something else, it actually comes from the verbal root upādhā meaning to place upon, impose, seize, take up, add, connect or yoke, and therefore by extension it also means a disguise, a phantom, a deceptive appearance, an attribute, an adjunct, a qualification or a limitation. Thus in our present context it means any extraneous adjunct, anything that is superimposed upon some other thing, making itself appear to be that other thing. Therefore whatever is not actually ourself but we mistake to be ourself, such as our body or mind, is one of our upādhis or limiting adjuncts, and our mistaken notion or imagination that such adjuncts are ourself is our upādhi-uṇarvu.
Since we superimpose such upādhis or limiting adjuncts not only upon ourself but also upon God, we experience an upādhi-uṇarvu or feeling of adjuncts both with respect to ourself and with respect to God. However, since our experience of adjuncts that distinguish us from God is created only by our own power of imagination, and not by God, all these distinguishing adjuncts exist only in the outlook of our mind and not in the outlook of God, who is in reality only our own true self-conscious being – our being that knows only itself.
Therefore, in order to know God as he really is, all we need do is to eradicate our own illusory sense of adjuncts. When we thus cease to identify ourself with any adjuncts, we will no longer imagine God as having any adjuncts, but will discover him to be nothing other than our own true and essential self-conscious being. Therefore in verse 25 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana says:
Knowing [our real] self, having relinquished [all our own] adjuncts, itself is knowing God, because [he] shines as [our real] self.
The knowledge that remains when we relinquish all of our adjuncts is only our essential non-dual consciousness of our own being, which is the true nature of God. That which experiences this true self-knowledge is not our mind but is only our own real self, our essential being, which is ever conscious of itself as ‘I am’. Our mind is our essential consciousness mixed with adjuncts, which are the various forms of wrong knowledge that we have about ourself, and it therefore cannot survive as such in the perfectly clear state of true self-knowledge.
Thus the state in which we know ourself as we really are, and in which we thereby know God as our own self, is the state in which our mind has been entirely consumed in the absolute clarity of true self-knowledge. Therefore in verse 21 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana says:
If [it is] asked what is the truth of [the supreme state that is indicated in] many sacred texts which say ‘[our] self seeing [our] self’ [and] ‘seeing God’, [we have to reply with the counter questions] since [our] self is one, how [is our] self seeing [our] self [possible]? If it is not possible [for us] to see [ourself], how [is] seeing God [possible]? Becoming food [to God] is seeing [him].
Our mind can only know things other than itself, because if it turns its attention selfwards to know itself, it will subside and drown in its own essential self-conscious being. When it truly knows itself, or rather, when we truly know ourself, we will cease to be the mind or object-knowing consciousness that we now imagine ourself to be, and will remain instead in our natural state as our own non-dual consciousness of being.
Knowing or seeing, when understood from the distorted perspective of our mind, means experiencing duality – a separation between the consciousness that knows and the object that is known. Therefore, since we are one, we cannot know or see ourself as an object. We can know or see ourself only by being ourself, and not by any act of knowing or seeing. Therefore Sri Ramana asks, ‘Since [our] self is one, how [is our] self seeing [our] self [possible]?’.
Since it is not possible for us to see ourself as an object, how is it possible for us to see God as an object? That is, since God is the reality of ourself, we cannot see him as an object any more than we can see ourself as an object. Therefore Sri Ramana asks, ‘If it is not possible [for us] to see [ourself], how [is] seeing God [possible]?’.
Since we cannot know either ourself or God by an act of objective knowing, in order to know both ourself and God we must give up all objective knowing. That is, we must cease to be this object-knowing mind, and must instead remain as our natural non-dual consciousness of our own being – our true and essential self-consciousness ‘I am’. Therefore Sri Ramana concludes, ‘ūṇ ādal kāṇ’, which means, ‘Becoming food [is] seeing’. That is, we can see God only when we are wholly consumed by him, thereby becoming one with the infinite self-conscious being that is the absolute reality of both himself and ourself.
Until and unless we know and remain as our own real self, our simple non-dual consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’, we cannot know God. If we imagine that we are seeing God as an object other than ourself, we are seeing only a mental image. Therefore in verse 20 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana says:
Leaving [ignoring or omitting to know our own] self [our individual self or mind], which sees [all otherness or duality], [our] self seeing God is [merely] seeing a mental vision [sight, image or appearance]. Only he who sees [his real] self, [which is] the base [or reality] of [his individual] self, is a person who has [truly] seen God, because [our real] self – [which alone remains after all our mental images or objective forms of knowledge have disappeared due to their causal] root, [our individual] self, having gone [perished or ceased to exist] – is not other than God.
The wording of this verse is very terse and therefore difficult to translate exactly into fluent English, but its sense is quite clear. The opening words, ‘leaving self which sees’, refer to our usual habit of ignoring and making no attempt to know the reality of our individual self or mind, which is the self-deceiving consciousness that imagines itself to be seeing or knowing things other than itself. The remainder of the first sentence, ‘self seeing God is seeing a mental vision’, means that, when we do not know the truth of ourself who is seeing, if we imagine that we are seeing God, what we are seeing is actually nothing but a mind-made or manōmaya vision – a vision that is made or formed by and of our own mind.
The words that Sri Ramana uses in the original are manōmayam-ām kāṭci, which literally mean a ‘sight which is composed of mind’. Though the word kāṭci literally means ‘sight’, ‘vision’ or ‘appearance’, being derived from the verbal root kāṇ, which literally means ‘to see’, but which is often used in a broader sense to mean ‘to perceive’, ‘to cognise’ or ‘to experience’, like its verbal root it can imply any form of experience. In this context, therefore, it implies not only a vision of God in some visual form such as Siva, Sakti, Krishna, Rama, Buddha or Christ, but also any other experience of God in which he is felt to be other than ourself, such as hearing the ‘voice’ of God or feeling his presence. So long as the ‘presence of God’ that we feel is experienced by us as something other than our own simple self-conscious being, ‘I am’, it is only a manōmayam-ām kāṭci, a mental image, thought or conception. Any experience of God as other than ourself is known only by our mind, and is therefore a product of our own imagination.
The second sentence of this verse is still more terse. For poetic reasons it begins with its main clause, which in Tamil prose would normally conclude such a sentence. The meaning of this main clause, ‘only he who sees self is a person who has seen God’, is quite clear. That is, we can truly see God only by ‘seeing’ or knowing our own real self.
The next two words, taṉ mudalai, are linked in meaning to the word ‘self’ in the opening words of the main clause, ‘only he who sees self’. The word taṉ is the possessive form of the reflexive pronoun tāṉ, and therefore means ‘of self’, ‘one’s own’, ‘our own’ or ‘his own’. The word mudalai is the accusative form of mudal, a word whose primary meaning is ‘first’ or ‘beginning’, and which in this context means the source, base, reality or essential substance. Thus these two words here mean ‘the base [or reality] of [the individual] self’, and they are a description applied to the real self referred to in the first clause, which with their addition means, ‘only he who sees [his real] self, [which is] the base [or reality] of [his false individual] self, is a person who has seen God’.
In the next group of words, tāṉ mudal pōy, tāṉ refers to our individual ‘self’, mudal means ‘root’, and pōy means ‘having gone’, ‘having perished’ or ‘having ceased to exist’. Thus three words together mean ‘the root, [which is our individual] self, having gone [perished or ceased to exist]’. The reason why our individual self is thus described as the ‘root’ is that it is the root or primary cause of the appearance of all duality, otherness or objective knowledge. Whereas our essential being or real self is the ultimate mudal or base of our false individual self, our false individual self is the immediate mudal or base of every other thing.
The final words are ‘because [or since] self is not other than God’. Here the word tāṉ or ‘self’ denotes our real self, and coming immediately after the previous three words, tāṉ mudal poy, it implies that our real self is that which remains after our false individual self, the base of all our objective knowledge, has ceased to exist.
Thus the meaning conveyed by this second sentence can be paraphrased as follows: Since our real infinite self, which remains alone after our false finite self, the base of all our objective knowledge, has ceased to exist, is not anything other than the absolute reality called God, when we ‘see’ or experience our own real self, the base of our false self, we will truly be seeing God.
Thus the combined conclusion of verses 20 and 21 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu is that we can see or know God only by knowing our own real self, because our own real self is itself the absolute reality that we call God, and that we can know our own real self only by ceasing to exist as our false individual self, that is, by surrendering ourself entirely to God, the infinite fullness of being, thereby becoming a prey to him and being wholly consumed in his absolute, infinite, undivided, unqualified and perfectly non-dual self-conscious being.
The only means by which we can thus experience God as our own real self or essential being is then clearly explained by Sri Ramana in verse 22 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
Except [by] turning [folding or drawing our] mind back within [and thereby] keeping [it] immersed [sunk, settled, subsided, fixed or absorbed] in the Lord, who shines within that mind, giving light to [our] mind, how [can we succeed in] knowing the Lord by [our] mind? Know [the Lord by thus turning back within and immersing in him].
The ‘Lord’ or pati referred to in this verse is God, who is the infinitely luminous light of pure self-consciousness. As we saw earlier, in spiritual literature our own essential consciousness of being is figuratively described as the original light, the light by which all other lights are known, because just as physical light enables us to see physical objects, our consciousness of being is that which enables us to know all things.
However, whereas our basic consciousness of our own being is the true and original light, the consciousness that we call our mind, which is the light by which we know all other things, is merely an illusory reflected light, because it comes into existence only when our original light of self-consciousness is seemingly reflected in imaginary adjuncts or upādhis such as our body and our individual personality. Therefore, when Sri Ramana says that the Lord shines within our mind giving light to it, he means that he shines within our mind as our fundamental consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’, thereby giving it the consciousness by which it is able to know all other things.
Because everything other than our essential self-consciousness – that is, all otherness, duality or multiplicity – is known only by our mind, in the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana added the words evaiyum kāṇum, which mean ‘which sees everything’, before the initial word of this verse, mati or mind. Since our mind is an object-knowing form of consciousness, its nature is to know everything other than its own real self, but in order to know all those other things it must borrow the light of consciousness from its real self – from its own essential self-conscious being, which is the absolute reality that we call ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’.
Since God is the original light of consciousness – that is, the true light of non-dual self-consciousness – which shines within our mind, enabling it to know all other things, how can our mind know him except by turning itself back within itself, thereby drowning itself in his infinite light? So long as our attention is turned outwards, we can only know things that appear to be other than ourself, which are all merely products of our own imagination. Since God is the true light of consciousness, which enables us to know all other things, we can never know him as he really is so long as we are misusing his light to know any other thing. Only when we turn our mind or attention back to face him within ourself, will we be able to know him truly.
However, even when we turn back to attend to him within ourself, we will not know him as an object, because our object-knowing mind will drown and be dissolved in his infinite light of adjunct-free self-consciousness. Therefore when we turn back within ourself, we will know him by becoming one with his true self-conscious being.
If we use a mirror to reflect the light of the sun upon objects here on earth, that reflected ray of light will illumine those objects, enabling us to see them clearly. But if we turn that mirror towards the sun itself, its reflected ray of light will merge and dissolve in the brilliant light of the sun. Similarly, the reflected light of consciousness that we call our mind enables us to know the objects of our imagination so long as we turn it towards them. But when we turn it back within ourself to face our own essential self-conscious being, which is the source of its light, it will merge and dissolve in the infinitely luminescent and therefore all-consuming light of that source.
The state in which the limited light of our mind dissolves in the infinite light of God, thereby disappearing as a separate entity and becoming one with him, is the state that Sri Ramana described in the last sentence of the previous verse when he said, ‘Becoming food [to God] is seeing [him]’. The fact that the only means by which we can truly see or experience God, the absolute reality, is to become one with his essential self-conscious being by carefully examining or scrutinising our own essential self-conscious being and thereby subsiding and dissolving in it, is also emphasised by Sri Ramana in verse 8 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
Whoever worships [the absolute reality or God] in whatever form giving [it] whatever name, that is a path [or means] to see that [nameless and formless] reality in [that] name and form. However, becoming one [with that reality], having carefully scrutinised [or known] one’s own truth [essence or ‘am’-ness] and having [thereby] subsided [or dissolved] in the truth [essence or ‘am’-ness] of that true reality, is alone seeing [it] in truth. Know [thus].
The word ēttiṉum, which I have translated as ‘worships’, literally means ‘even if or though [anyone] praises’, but in this context it implies the act of worshipping in any manner, whether by body, speech or mind. However, as Sri Ramana explains in verse 4 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
This is certain, pūjā [ritual worship], japa [vocal repetition of a mantra or name of God] and dhyāna [meditation] are [respectively] actions of body, speech and mind, [and hence each succeeding] one is superior to [the preceding] one.
That is, vocal worship such as the chanting of hymns or the repetition of a name of God is superior to any form of physical worship such as the performance of rituals, and mental worship such as silent meditation upon a name or form of God is superior to vocal worship, the word ‘superior’ or uyarvu meaning in this context more efficacious. Therefore as a means to see God in any chosen name and form, meditating with love upon that name and form is the most efficacious form of worship.
By saying, ‘Whoever worships [the absolute reality or God] in whatever form giving [it] whatever name’, Sri Ramana indicates that we are free to worship God in any name or form that attracts our love and devotion, because God himself has no particular name and form of his own. No matter in what name or form a devotee may worship God, if that worship is sincere and performed with true love for him, God will certainly respond to it favourably, because even though his devotee may not know it, he knows that the true object of his devotee’s love and worship is his nameless and formless reality or true being.
Therefore any sectarian form of religion or theology that teaches that only one particular name or form of God is his true name or form, and that all other names and forms are merely false ‘gods’, has failed to understand the true, infinite and all-transcendent nature of God. No concept or mental image that we may have of God (including even the concept espoused by certain religions that he is formless and therefore should not be worshipped in the form of any idol, icon, symbol or ‘graven image’) can truly define God or adequately depict him as he really is, because he is the absolute and infinite reality that transcends all concepts and mental forms of knowledge.
In the words pēr-uruvil, which Sri Ramana placed in this verse before the words ‘a path to see that reality’, the terminating syllable il can either be the locative case ending meaning ‘in’, or a negative termination signifying non-existence or absence. Thus in this context they can mean both ‘in name and form’ and ‘nameless and formless’. In the sense ‘nameless and formless’ they qualify ‘that reality’, indicating the fact that the absolute reality is completely devoid of all names and forms. In the sense ‘in name and form’ they qualify the manner in which we can see that reality by worshipping it in name and form. That is, though the absolute reality transcends all names and forms and therefore has no name or form of its own, it is possible for us to see or experience it in any name and form in which we choose to worship it.
However, seeing God thus in name and form is not seeing him as he really is, but is only seeing him as we imagine him to be. No matter how real such a vision of God in name and form may appear to be, it is in fact just a manōmayam-ām kāṭci or ‘mind-made image’, as Sri Ramana says in verse 20 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu.
In both the first and the second sentence of verse 8, the word that I have translated as ‘reality’ is poruḷ, which literally means ‘thing’, ‘entity’, ‘reality’, ‘substance’ or ‘essence’, and which is used in Tamil philosophical literature to denote the absolute reality or God as the true substance or essence of all things. In the second sentence Sri Ramana further clarifies the sense in which he uses this word poruḷ by qualifying it with the word mey, which means ‘true’ or ‘real’, thereby forming the compound word meypporuḷ, which means ‘true essence’ or ‘real substance’, and which is another term commonly used in Tamil philosophical literature to denote God. Thus the nameless and formless reality which he is discussing in this verse is absolute self-conscious being, which is the true essence or real substance both of God and of ourself.
In order to see or know this absolute reality or essential being ‘in truth’, that is, as it really is, Sri Ramana says that we must become one with it by scrutinising and knowing our own truth and thereby subsiding and dissolving in the truth of that real essence. The word that I have translated as ‘truth’, which he uses three times in the second sentence of this verse, is uṇmai, which etymologically means uḷ-mai, ‘am’-ness or ‘is’-ness, and which is therefore a word that is commonly used to denote existence, reality, truth, veracity, or the intrinsic nature or essential being of anything.
Since uḷ is the base of a tenseless verb meaning ‘to be’, in its basic form uḷ it just means ‘be’, and hence uḷ-mai or uṇmai literally means ‘be’-ness. Because it is a verbal base, uḷ does not denote specifically the first person, second person or third person, so from a purely grammatical perspective uḷ-mai can equally well be taken to mean ‘am’-ness, ‘are’-ness or ‘is’-ness.
However, since true being is self-conscious, and since it is known by nothing other than itself, from a philosophical perspective uḷ-mai is more accurately described by the term ‘am’-ness than by the terms ‘are’-ness or ‘is’-ness. That is, true being is only our own self-conscious being, which we always experience as ‘I am’, and not any other objective being that we experience either as ‘you are’ or as ‘he is’, ‘she is’ or ‘it is’. Therefore, since Sri Ramana uses the word uṇmai here to denote true being, in this context its etymological meaning is best translated as ‘am’-ness.
Since true, self-conscious and unqualified being is single, infinite, indivisible and hence absolutely non-dual, the ‘am’-ness of God and of ourself is truly one. Hence, by scrutinising and knowing our own ‘am’-ness, we will subside and dissolve in the infinite ‘am’-ness that is God, thereby becoming one with it, as in truth we always are. Becoming one with God, having thus known our own ‘am’-ness and having thereby dissolved in his true ‘am’-ness, is alone seeing him as he really is. Such is the true non-dual experience of Sri Ramana, as expressed by him in this verse.
The true nature or essential being both of God and of ourself is only that which merely is, and not that which is either ‘this’ or ‘that’. That which merely is, and is not contaminated by association with any adjuncts such as ‘this’ or ‘that’, is what is described in philosophy as ‘pure being’ or ‘pure existence’. This pure adjunct-free being is the one true substance of which all things are formed – the sole reality underlying all appearances. In truth, therefore, pure being alone exists.
Hence, since nothing can exist as other than being or existence, there can be no consciousness other than being to know being. If consciousness were other than being, consciousness would not be. Since consciousness exists, it cannot be other than being or existence. Therefore that which knows that which is, is only that which is, and not some other thing which is not.
Since that which knows pure being is thus pure being itself, pure being is itself consciousness. Our being and our consciousness of our being are one. Both are expressed when we say ‘I am’, because the words ‘I am’ signify not only that we are, but also that we know that we are. Therefore in verse 23 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana says:
Because of the non-existence of [any] consciousness other [than ‘that which is’] to know ‘that which is’, ‘that which is’ is consciousness. [That] consciousness itself exists as ‘we’ [our essential being or true self].
Since we are both being and consciousness, we need not know ourself in the same manner in which we know other things. We know other things by an act of knowing, and hence all our knowing of other things is an activity of our mind – an activity that we describe by various terms such as ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, ‘perceiving’ and so on. But no such activity or act of knowing is required for us to know ourself. We know ourself merely by being ourself, because our being is self-conscious – that is, our being is itself our consciousness of our being. Therefore in verse 26 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana says:
Being [our real] self is indeed knowing [our real] self, because [our real] self is that which is devoid of two. This is tanmaya-niṣṭha [the state of being firmly established in and as tat or ‘it’, the absolute reality called brahman].
Because our real self is totally devoid of even the least duality or two-ness, the only way we can know it is by being it – by relinquishing all our adjuncts and thereby being entirely absorbed in and firmly established as the one absolute reality, which in the philosophical terminology of vēdānta is known as tat or ‘it’, and which is our own pure, adjunct-free, essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.
The state of true knowledge, therefore, is not a state of knowing anything, but is just a state of being – a state of being our own real self-conscious self. It is the state in which we simply abide as pure knowledge, which is our fundamental non-dual knowledge or consciousness of our own essential being, ‘I am’.
Pure knowledge, which is our own real self or essential being, is absolute and non-dual. However, though we are always pure knowledge, and nothing other than that, we imagine ourself to be a finite individual consciousness that knows objects. Therefore the state which is described as ‘being our real self’ or ‘abiding as pure knowledge’ is the state in which we refrain from imagining ourself to be an object-knowing consciousness. Thus true knowledge is just our present knowledge of our own being, bereft of our imaginary activity of ‘knowing’ anything.
Our real self, ‘I am’, is not only pure being and pure consciousness, it is also pure happiness. All misery and unhappiness exist only in our mind, and when our mind subsides, as in deep sleep, we experience perfect peace and happiness. The peaceful happiness that we experience in deep sleep is the very nature of our true self. Because our mind always thinks in terms of duality and differences, we think of being, consciousness and happiness as being three different things, but in essence they are one and the same reality. Just as absolute being is itself absolute consciousness, so it is also itself absolute happiness.
There is no such thing as absolute non-existence, because non-existence does not exist. If at all something called ‘non-existence’ does exist, it is not absolute non-existence, but just a non-existence that only exists relative to some other equally relative existence. Likewise, there is no such thing as absolute unconsciousness, because unconsciousness can be said to exist only if some consciousness other than it exists to know it. Any unconsciousness that is known to exist, exists relative only to the equally relative consciousness that knows its existence. For example, the unconsciousness that we experience in deep sleep exists relative only to our mind, the relative consciousness that we experience in waking and dream, because the state of deep sleep is a state of unconsciousness only in the outlook of our mind.
Just as both non-existence and unconsciousness are merely relative, so unhappiness is also merely relative. Since unhappiness is merely an absence or negation of happiness, and since a negation can only be relative, requiring something other than itself to negate, there can be no such thing as absolute unhappiness. Only that which is positive, and not that which is negative, can be absolute, because that which is positive does not require anything other than itself either to negate or to relate to in any other way.
However, though our real self, which we may call either our essential being, our essential consciousness or our essential happiness, is in truth absolute, in the outlook of our mind these three essential and absolute qualities appear to be relative to their opposites, non-existence, unconsciousness and unhappiness. Since the vision of our mind is essentially dualistic, it can only experience relativity, and can never experience the absolute as it is.
However, since our mind could not appear to exist without the absolute reality that underlies its appearance, it always knows that absolute reality, but only in a distorted form. Just as it knows the absolute reality ‘I am’ in the distorted form of a relative entity that feels ‘I am this body’, so it knows absolute being, absolute consciousness and absolute happiness as three relative pairs of opposites, existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, and happiness and unhappiness. These relative pairs of opposites are each merely a distorted reflection of the absolute quality to which they correspond.
Our mind experiences many relative pairs of opposites, but not all of those relative pairs of opposites correspond to a particular quality of the absolute reality. For example, long and short, or rich and poor, do not correspond to any particular quality of the absolute reality. Why then should we say that certain pairs of opposites, such as existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, and happiness and unhappiness, do correspond to a particular quality of the absolute reality?
We know that each these three pairs of opposites do indeed correspond to a particular quality of the absolute reality because in deep sleep, when our mind has subsided along with all its knowledge of duality and relativity, we experience our natural being, our natural consciousness, and our natural happiness, devoid of any notion of their opposites. Therefore from our experience in deep sleep, we know that our natural being, consciousness and happiness do exist beyond our mind, and hence beyond all duality and relativity.
Therefore, though no words can adequately express the true nature of the absolute reality, which is beyond the range of thoughts or words, in advaita vēdānta – the philosophy of advaita or non-duality, the essence of which is declared in the Vēdas as their anta or ultimate conclusion – the absolute reality or brahman is often described as being-consciousness-happiness or sat-cit-ānanda.
Though in its true nature the absolute reality ‘I am’ is totally devoid of any form of duality or relativity, it is nevertheless the essential substance that underlies and gives a seeming reality to the appearance of all forms of duality or relativity, just as a rope is the essential substance that underlies and gives a seeming reality to the appearance of the imaginary snake. Therefore, since the absolute reality is the essential being that underlies and gives a seeming reality to the appearance of relative being and non-being, or existence and non-existence, we can aptly describe it as sat, true and absolute being or existence. Since it is the essential consciousness that underlies and gives a seeming reality to the appearance of relative consciousness and unconsciousness, or knowledge and ignorance, we can aptly describe it as cit, true and absolute consciousness or knowledge. And since it is the essential happiness that underlies and gives a seeming reality to the appearance of relative happiness and unhappiness, we can aptly describe it as ānanda, true and absolute happiness or bliss.
However, though these three separate words, being, consciousness and happiness, are used to describe the absolute reality, which is our true self, we should not think that this implies that the absolute reality is anything more than one single whole. The absolute reality is essentially non-dual, and hence these three different words are used to describe it only because they are in fact words that all denote the same single reality. Being is itself the consciousness of being, and is also the happiness of merely being as that consciousness of being. True being or existence, true consciousness or knowledge, and true happiness or love, are all only the one non-dual absolute reality that we always experience as ‘I am’.
In most of the major religions of this world, the absolute reality or ‘God’ is described as being not only the fullness of being, the fullness of consciousness or knowledge, and the fullness of perfect happiness, but also the fullness of perfect love. Why is the absolute reality thus said to be infinite love?
We all love ourself, and such love of oneself is natural to all living beings. What do we all love above everything else? If we analyse deeply, it will be clear that we all love ourself more than we love any other thing. We love other things because we believe that in some way or other they are giving, will give or can give happiness to ourself.
We love whatever gives us happiness, and because absolute happiness is our true and essential nature, we love ourself above all other things. Happiness and love are inseparable, because they are in fact one and the same reality – our own essential non-dual nature, ‘I am’. Happiness makes us love, and love gives us happiness. We love ourself because being ourself and knowing ourself is the supreme happiness. Therefore, a term that is sometimes used in advaita vēdānta in place of sat-cit-ānanda or being-consciousness-bliss is asti-bhāti-priya, which means being-luminescence-love.
The state of true self-knowledge is thus the state of pure and perfect being, consciousness, happiness and love. Therefore in verse 28 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana says:
If we know what our [real] nature is, then [what will remain and be known as the sole reality is] anādi ananta akhaṇḍa sat-cit-ānanda [beginningless, endless and unbroken being-consciousness-bliss].
The Sanskrit word ananta, which literally means ‘endless’ or ‘limitless’, also means ‘eternal’ and ‘infinite’. In the original Tamil verse, the adjectives ‘beginningless’ and ‘endless’ are appended before the noun ‘being’, anādi ananta sat, and the adjective ‘unbroken’ is appended before the nouns ‘consciousness-bliss’, akhaṇḍa cit-ānanda, but these words are formed in this manner only to fit the poetic metre. Since being, consciousness and bliss are one single non-dual reality, the implied meaning of these words is that being-consciousness-bliss as a single whole is beginningless, endless and unbroken.
Why does Sri Ramana describe the one absolute reality, which exists and shines as being-consciousness-bliss, as beginningless, endless and unbroken? A beginning, an end or a break are each a limit or a boundary, and as such they can occur only in time, in space or in some other dimension. Anything that has a beginning, an end or a break is therefore finite and relative, and hence it cannot be the absolute reality. That which is absolute is by definition infinite, because it is free of all limits and boundaries, and hence it cannot have any beginning, any end or any break.
A being, a consciousness or a happiness that has a beginning, an end or a break is finite, and hence it cannot be absolutely real. True being, true consciousness and true happiness must therefore be absolute, and as such they can have no beginning, end or break. Being absolute and infinite, they have no limits or boundaries in time, in space or in any other conceivable dimension, and therefore they are all-transcending.
Being is the essence of each and every thing that is, and consciousness is the essence of our knowledge of each of those things. Though things appear to be many, they are divided and made manifold only due to the limitations inherent in their respective forms. However, in their essence, which is their ‘is’-ness or being, they are undivided. Similarly, though knowledge appears to be manifold, it is divided and made manifold only by the limitations inherent in its various forms, which are thoughts or mental images. However, in its essence, which is consciousness, knowledge is undivided.
The being which is the essence of all things, and the consciousness which is the essence of all knowledge, are not two separate things, because no thing can be separated or distinguished from our knowledge of that thing. Indeed, the notion that being and consciousness could in essence be two separate things is a logical absurdity, because if they were, consciousness would not be, and therefore being would be unknown.
Being and consciousness are therefore one essence, and being the essence of everything and every knowledge, they have no limits or boundaries. Since true being and true consciousness are therefore one single reality, and since that one reality has no limits or boundaries, it is beginningless, endless and unbroken.
The beginning and the end of something are its external boundaries, boundaries that limit and define its extent in time, space or some other dimension. Since that which is absolutely real is infinite, it is free of all such external boundaries, and it transcends the limits of all dimensions. Therefore, since there is no limit to its extent either in time or in space, it is eternal and omnipresent.
Moreover, being infinite and absolute, it is not only free of all external boundaries or limits, but also of all internal boundaries. Whereas a beginning and an end are external boundaries, a break or division is an internal boundary, and hence the absolute reality is not only devoid of any beginning or end, but is also devoid of any break or division.
Because it is unlimited in its extent, nothing can be separate from or other than the absolute and essential being-consciousness, and therefore it exists alone, without anything outside itself. And because it is unbroken and undivided in itself, it consists of no parts. It is therefore perfectly non-dual. It is the single, infinite, eternal and omnipresent whole, other than which nothing exists.
Since no other thing exists to disturb the perfect peace of its being, the absolute being-consciousness is also absolutely peaceful and happy. Hence, since peace and happiness are inherent in being, the non-dual, infinite and absolute whole is not merely being-consciousness but is being-consciousness-happiness. Therefore, being devoid of all internal and external limits, it is indeed beginningless, endless and unbroken being-consciousness-happiness.
Since it is beginningless, endless and unbroken both in time and in space, it is eternal and omnipresent. There is no time and no place in which it does not exist. Since no break ever occurs in the continuity of its being or existence, it does not cease to exist at one moment and begin to exist again at another moment. Moreover, because it is unbroken, it is devoid of all forms of division and all distinctions. It is a single, partless and indivisible whole, and hence there is absolutely no distinction between its being, its consciousness and its happiness.
Being-consciousness-bliss is the eternally undivided infinite whole, other than which nothing exists. Though all appearances seem to arise and subside in it, it is not itself divided or affected in any way by such appearances, because in reality it merely exists as it is, devoid of the appearing or disappearing of anything. All that appears and disappears does so only in the view of our mind, which is itself a mere apparition that never truly exists, and not in the view of the absolute reality, which, being without any beginning, end or break, never undergoes any kind of change or modification.
However, though we speak of the beginningless, endless and unbroken being-consciousness-bliss as ‘it’, as if it were a third person, it is in fact the sole reality of the first person ‘I’, which is in turn the cause, foundation and support of all second and third persons. Therefore the unlimited, undivided, eternal, omnipresent, infinite and absolute being-consciousness-bliss is our own true and essential self, and hence we can experience it only by knowing what our real nature is.
The state in which we thus know what our real nature is and thereby experience ourself as infinite being-consciousness-bliss is the state of true knowledge. Because this state of true self-knowledge has no beginning, end or break, it is our eternal state. Thus when we cease to mistake ourself to be our time-bound mind, we will discover that true self-knowledge has always existed, and that we have therefore always known ourself as we really are. Hence we will not experience self-knowledge as something newly attained, but as that which always exists, without any beginning, break or end.
When we discover by keen self-examination that our mind is truly non-existent, we will also discover that time is likewise truly non-existent, being nothing more than a product of our mind’s power of imagination. Beginning, break and end are all phenomena that can occur only within the limits of time and space, but time and space are themselves phenomena that are known only by our mind.
In the state of true self-knowledge, all that exists and is known is only being-consciousness-bliss – the infinite joy of being and knowing our own true self, ‘I am’. In that perfect non-dual state of true knowledge, time, space and all other forms of duality or relativity are non-existent. Therefore the absolute reality, which is sat-cit-ānanda or the blissful state of being conscious of ourself as mere being, ‘I am’, is that which is without ādi or beginning, khaṇḍa or break, and anta or end.
Though the absolute reality is given many names and descriptions such as God, allāh, brahman, the absolute, the eternal, the infinite, the fullness of being, pūrṇa or the whole, pure knowledge, sat-cit-ānanda or being-consciousness-bliss, tat or ‘it’, nirvāṇa, the kingdom of God and so on, Sri Ramana often said that the words that express its real nature most perfectly and accurately are ‘I’ and ‘am’, or their combined form ‘I am’.
This is so because what these words ‘I’ and ‘am’ express is not only being, but also the essential self-consciousness of being. Therefore, no matter in which language these words are expressed, the first person singular pronoun, ‘I’, and the equivalent first person singular form of the basic verb to be, ‘am’, both express the whole truth as accurately as any words possibly can express it.
This is why in most of the major religions of the world the name ‘I am’ is revered as the first, foremost and ultimate name of God. The supreme sanctity of this divine name ‘I am’ is expressed and enshrined in the Old Testament (upon which are based the three great religions of west Asian origin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in the words spoken by God to Moses, ‘I am that I am’ (Exodus 3.14), and also in the Vēdas (upon which are based the broad family of south Asian religions known as Hinduism) in the mahāvākya or great saying ‘I am brahman’ (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.10).
The fact that ‘I’ and ‘am’ are the original and natural names of the absolute reality or God is stated emphatically by Sri Ramana in verses 712, 713, 714 and 715 of Guru Vācaka Kōvai:
When meypporuḷ [the ‘real substance’, ‘true essence’ or absolute reality], which is called uḷḷam [the ‘heart’ or ‘core’], itself [seemingly] comes out and spreads gradually from the heart as consciousness [that is, when it seems to manifest outwardly as innumerable names and forms, which are actually just imaginary distortions of the one true formless and undivided consciousness ‘I am’, which is that ‘real substance’ itself], among the thousands of [sacred] names that are [attributed] to [this] uḷḷa-poruḷ [the ‘being-essence’ or absolute reality], know that when [we] scrutinise [we will discover that] ‘I’ indeed is the first [the original and foremost].
Since [together] with that ‘I’, which was previously [in the above verse] said to be the primary name [of the absolute reality or God], as its meypporuḷ-viḷakkam [the light which is its real essence] it [‘am’] always exists as ‘I am’ [in the heart of each one of us], that name ‘am’ also is [the primary name of the absolute reality or God].
Among the many names [attributed to God in all the different religions and languages of this world], which are thousandfold, no name has [such] real beauty [or] is [so] truly appropriate to kaḍavuḷ [God, who is kaḍandu-uḷḷavaṉ, ‘he who exists transcending’], who abides in [our] heart devoid of thought, like this name [‘I’ or ‘am’]. [That is, ‘I’ or ‘am’ is the most beautiful and truly appropriate name of God, because he exists in our heart as our naturally thought-free self-conscious being, ‘I am’.]
Among all [the names of God] that are known, only the [original, natural and true] name of God, [which is experienced] as ‘I [am] I’, will thunder [its sole supremacy] to those whose attention is selfward-facing, shining forth as the mauna-parā-vāk [the supreme word, which is absolute silence], filling the space of [their] heart, in which [their] ego has been annihilated.
When we turn our attention selfwards and thereby experience ourself as we really are, our mind or ego will be annihilated, all duality will disappear, and in the thought-free space of our heart, which is the infinite space of being-consciousness-bliss, only our non-dual self-consciousness ‘I am’ will remain shining clearly in all its pristine purity. Since there is nothing to disturb the perfect peace of this experience of true self-knowledge, and since it reveals its own absolute reality more clearly than any spoken or written words could ever do, Sri Ramana describes it as the mauna-parā-vāk, the ‘supreme word’ or parā-vāk, which is absolute silence or mauna.
The power of the silent clarity of unadulterated self-consciousness to reveal itself as the absolute reality is expressed by Sri Ramana poetically in verse 5 of Ēkātma Pañcakam:
That which always exists is only that ēkātma vastu [the one reality or substance, which is our own true self]. Since the ādi-guru at that time made that vastu to be known [only by] speaking without speaking, say, who can make it known [by] speaking?
The word ēka means ‘one’, ātma means ‘self’, and vastu is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Tamil word poruḷ, which means the absolute reality, substance or essence. Therefore the ēkātma vastu, which Sri Ramana declares to be eppōdum uḷḷadu, ‘that which always is’, is the one absolute reality or essential substance, which is our own true self.
In the kaliveṇbā version of Ēkātma Pañcakam Sri Ramana added two more words to qualify uḷḷadu, which means ‘that which is’, namely taṉadu oḷiyāl, which mean ‘by its own light’. Thus he declared not only that the ēkātma vastu is the only thing that always exists, but also that it is ‘that which always exists by its own light’, that is, by its own light of non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’.
The compound word ādi-guru means the ‘original guru’, and is a term that denotes Sri Dakshinamurti, a form of God that symbolises the revelation of the absolute reality through silence, which is the ‘supreme word’ or parā-vāk, and which Sri Ramana describes poetically as ‘speaking without speaking’, that is, communicating the truth without thought or spoken words. Since the ēkātma vastu is our own thought-free and therefore absolutely silent self-conscious being, it can only reveal itself by shining within us silently and clearly as ‘I am I’, without the obstruction of any thoughts or words.
Since this silent, thought-free, peaceful and absolutely clear experience of pure non-dual self-conscious being, ‘I am’, is the true and natural state of our real self, which is the one absolute reality or essential substance that we call ‘God’, Sri Ramana says that the original and most beautifully appropriate name of God is only ‘I’, ‘am’, ‘I am’ or ‘I am I’.
Though ‘I’ and ‘am’ are two separate words, they both denote our single, non-dual and absolutely indivisible sense of self – our essential consciousness of our own being, our fundamental knowledge of our own existence. Each of these two words is therefore implied in the other.
The pronoun ‘I’ implies that we exist, and this existence of ourself is expressed by the verb ‘am’. Conversely, the verb ‘am’ implies the existence of nothing other than ourself, which is expressed by the pronoun ‘I’. In many languages, therefore, either of these two words can be used on its own, since its counterpart is implied in it and is therefore clearly understood. In such languages, the compound form ‘I am’ is an option that is used only for added emphasis.
In this respect, English is an exception. For example, if we wish to say that we are a human being, in English we have to use both the words ‘I’ and ‘am’ and say, ‘I am a human being’, whereas in many other languages it is sufficient in such a context to use either just ‘I’ or just ‘am’. In Tamil, for example, we need not say the long-winded sentence ‘nāṉ māṉiḍaṉāy irukkiṟēṉ’, which means ‘I am [a] man’, because we can convey exactly the same sense simply by saying either ‘nāṉ māṉiḍaṉ’, which means ‘I [am a] man’, or ‘māṉiḍaṉāy irukkiṟēṉ’, which means ‘[I] am [a] man’. Similar is the case with many other ancient and modern Asian and European languages, of which Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Latin are a few examples.
In the Gospel according to St John, which was originally written in a form of ancient Greek, there are many well-known ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus, in several of which he is alluding more or less clearly to the Old Testament usage of the words ‘I am’ to denote the essential self-conscious being of God. This allusion is particularly clear in the seven verses (8.24, 8.28, 8.58, 13.19, 18.5, 18.6 and 18.8) in which he uses ‘I am’ without appending any predicate to it, and which Biblical scholars therefore describe as being instances of his ‘absolute’ use of ‘I am’.
In each of these seven verses, the best known of which is, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am’ (8.58), his saying ends with the Greek words ego eimi, which mean ‘I am’. By using these two words together, and by placing them at the end of each respective sentence, these verses succeed in placing great emphasis upon the meaning of ‘I am’ intended by Jesus, but in some cases this emphasis has unfortunately been lost in translation.
Besides these seven instances of his ‘absolute’ use of ‘I am’, there are more than thirty other sayings in which he uses ‘I am’ with a predicate, but whereas in some of these sayings the words ego eimi are used in the original Greek, in others the word eimi, which means ‘am’, is used on its own without the word ego, which means ‘I’.
Such a valid use of the verb ‘am’ without its logical subject ‘I’ is common in those languages in which all verbs take a particular form in each of the three persons and each of the two or more tenses. One such language is Latin, and therefore in Latin the word sum, which means ‘am’, and also the first person singular forms of other verbs can be used without the word ego or ‘I’. For example, when Descartes famously concluded, ‘cogito ergo sum’, which means ‘[I] think, therefore [I] am’, he did not need to use the word ego either before cogito or before sum, because it is clearly implied in the grammatical form of each of these verbs. As we shall see in the next chapter, this conclusion of Descartes is really putting the cart before the horse, but I cite it here only as an example of the verb ‘am’ conveying a complete sense without the explicit use of its corresponding pronoun ‘I’.
In the original Hebrew in which Exodus was written, the words that are usually translated as ‘I am that I am’ are ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’. The word ehyeh actually means just ‘am’, and the pronoun ‘I’ is simply implied in it, so a more literal translation would be ‘am that am’ or ‘am what am’.
In ancient Hebrew there were no tenses as such, but only two ‘aspects’ of a verb, the ‘perfect’ and the ‘imperfect’. The ‘perfect aspect’ of a verb was used to denote an action that has been completed or ended, and was therefore equivalent in function to the past tense, whereas the ‘imperfect aspect’ was used to denote an action that was not yet completed or ended, and was therefore used in cases in which we would use either the present or the future tense.
Since ehyeh is the first person ‘imperfect’ form of the verb ‘to be’, it implies a continuous present tense, which we could translate as ‘am being’. Thus ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’ could be translated as ‘[I] am being what [I] am being’, or more freely as ‘[I] always am what [I] always am’.
Some Biblical scholars suggest that it should be translated as a future tense, ‘[I] shall be what [I] shall be’, but if it is translated thus, it should be understood in the sense ‘[I] shall always be what [I] shall always be’ or ‘[I] shall always be what I always am’, because it is not an exclusively future tense, but only a tense continuing into the future. However, since the essential being that is God is eternal and ever present, ehyeh is most appropriately translated in this context by a continuous present tense, ‘am’ or ‘am being’.
Since being is in reality always present, it transcends the three divisions of time, past, present and future. This eternally continuous nature of being is aptly expressed by the word ehyeh, which as an ‘imperfect aspect’ of the verb ‘to be’ implies an unended and continuing state of being.
Being as such never begins or ends, nor does it ever undergo any change. It always remains as it is, so in future it will always be what it always has been, and will never become anything new. Therefore the true nature or absolute reality of God is just eternal and unchanging being, and is not any form of ‘becoming’. Becoming implies change, and change requires time, but the true being of God transcends the limits of time, and is therefore beyond all change and becoming.
Moreover, since true being is self-conscious, and since it can therefore never be an object of knowledge, a second or third person, but always experiences itself as the first person, the first person ‘imperfect’ form ehyeh is a perfect expression of the true nature of being.
However we may choose to translate this profound expression of the true nature of being, ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’, what is important is that we understand the truth that it expresses. On its own, the word ehyeh expresses the fact that being is self-conscious, non-objective and continuous – or in other words, that being is the eternally present self-conscious reality of the first person. This truth about being, which is expressed perfectly by the first person continuous verb ehyeh or ‘am’, is reiterated and emphasised by the whole sentence ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’.
That is, by saying ‘[I] am what [I] am’, these words further emphasise the truth that the eternal self-conscious first person being ‘am’ is absolutely single and non-dual. They imply, ‘I am only what I am’, ‘I am nothing but what I am’, or more simply, ‘I am just I, and nothing other than I’.
Because this Biblical saying, ‘I am that I am’, is such a perfect expression of the absolute, eternal, non-dual, non-objective, self-conscious, first person nature of being, Sri Ramana used to say that it is the greatest mahāvākya, even greater than the four mahāvākyas or ‘great sayings’ of the Vēdas. Though the import of each of the Vedic mahāvākyas, ‘pure consciousness is brahman’, ‘I am brahman’, ‘it you are’ and ‘this self is brahman’, is essentially the same as that of this Biblical saying, they are actually less perfect and accurate expressions of the reality because they each contain one or more words that are not first person in form.
That is, in ‘I am that I am’ the first person sense of being, ‘am’, is equated only with itself and not with anything else, whereas in each of the Vedic mahāvākyas it is equated either with a third person noun, brahman, which means the absolute reality or supreme spirit, or with the third person pronoun, ‘it’, which denotes the same absolute reality. Though ‘I am’ is truly the absolute reality or brahman, as soon as we think that it is so, our attention is diverted away from our natural first person consciousness of being towards an unnatural and alien mental conception of ‘the absolute reality’. To help us fix our whole and undivided attention upon ‘I am’, it is better that we are told that ‘I am’ is just ‘I am’, rather than being told that ‘I am’ is God, brahman or the absolute reality.
Just as the absolute truth of being is expressed by God in Exodus by equating ‘am’ only with ‘am’, and with nothing besides ‘am’, whenever Sri Ramana expressed the eternal experience of our being that is revealed when the imaginary obscuration caused by our mind is removed, he expressed it by equating ‘I’ only with ‘I’, and with nothing besides ‘I’.
When doing so, he used the minimum words, just ‘nāṉ nāṉ’, which literally mean ‘I I’, but which, in accordance with the Tamil custom of omitting ‘am’ whenever its sense is made clear by the use of ‘I’, clearly imply ‘I [am] I’. That is, just as ‘nāṉ yār?’ means ‘I [am] who?’ and ‘edu nāṉ?’ means ‘what [am] I?’, or just as ‘nāṉ maṉidaṉ’ means ‘I [am a] man’ and ‘nāṉ iṉṉāṉ’ means ‘I [am] so-and-so’, so ‘nāṉ nāṉ’ clearly means ‘I [am] I’.
Three important instances of his use of these words ‘nāṉ nāṉ’ or ‘I [am] I’ to describe the state of true self-knowledge are verse 20 of Upadēśa Undiyār, verse 30 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu and verse 2 of Āṉma-Viddai, in which he says:
In the place [the core of our being] where ‘I’ [our mind or individual self] merges [or becomes one], the one [true knowledge] appears [or shines forth] spontaneously [or as ourself] as ‘I [am] I’. That itself [or that, which is ourself] is the whole [the infinite totality or fullness of being, consciousness and happiness].
When [our] mind reaches [our] heart [the core of our being] by inwardly scrutinising ‘who am I?’ [and] when he [our mind] who is ‘I’ [our ego or individual self] is [thereby] subdued [literally, ‘when he suffers head-shame’, that is, when he subsides, bowing his head in shame], the one [true knowledge] appears [or shines forth] spontaneously [or as ourself] as ‘I [am] I’. Though it appears, it is not ‘I’ [our individual self]. It is the whole poruḷ [the infinite essence, substance or reality], the poruḷ which is [our own real] self.
Since the thought ‘this body composed of flesh is I’ is the one string on which [all our] various thoughts are attached, if [we] go within [ourself scrutinising] ‘who am I? what is the place [the source from which this fundamental thought ‘I am this body’ rises]?’, [all] thoughts will disappear, and within the cave [the core of our being] self-knowledge will shine spontaneously [or as ourself] as ‘I [am] I’. This alone is silence [the silent or motionless state of mere being], the one [non-dual] space [of infinite consciousness], the sole abode of [true unlimited] happiness.
Though Sri Ramana describes this experience of true self-knowledge as ‘appearing’ or ‘shining forth’ spontaneously as ‘I [am] I’, it does not actually appear anew, because it is the eternal and infinite whole, the fullness of being and consciousness, which we always experience as ‘I am’.
However, because we imagine ourself to be our mind or individual consciousness, the natural clarity of our non-dual self-consciousness or true self-knowledge now appears to be obscured. Therefore, when we scrutinise our basic consciousness ‘I am’, which is the essence of what we now feel to be our mind, and when our mind thereby ceases to exist as a separate individual consciousness, being found to be nothing other than our essential consciousness ‘I am’, we will experience this natural mind-free consciousness ‘I am’ as if it were a new and fresh knowledge.
However, the newness and freshness of this self-knowledge will be experienced as such only at the precise moment that our mind vanishes. What will remain thereafter is the clear knowledge that we are and always have been nothing other than this simple consciousness of our being, ‘I am’, which is the one, only, eternal and infinite reality. Therefore, in verse 30 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, after saying that it will appear or shine forth spontaneously as ‘I am I’, Sri Ramana adds:
[…] Though it appears [or shines forth], it is not ‘I’ [our individual self, which appears and disappears]. It is the [eternally existing] whole essence [substance or reality], the essence which is [our real] self.
Because we now experience ourself as a limited individual consciousness that mistakes itself to be this body, our knowledge of ourself now appears in the form ‘I am this’. When this false and illusory knowledge of ourself is destroyed by the clarity of true self-knowledge, we will cease to feel ‘I am this’ and will instead feel only ‘I am I’.
However, as soon as this fresh experience ‘I am I’ appears, we will recognise it as our eternal and natural state of being, which we always experience as ‘I am’, and thus we will no longer feel it to be new or fresh in the sense that it was previously absent, but will instead experience it as the infinite whole, which transcends the imaginary dimension of time and is therefore eternally new and fresh.
To emphasise the fact that this ‘whole’ or infinite totality of being, which is the absolute clarity of true self-knowledge or self-consciousness that shines as ‘I [am] I’, is not something that ever appears or disappears, even though it momentarily appears to be newly experienced at the precise instant that our mind is dissolved in and entirely consumed by it, after saying in verse 20 of Upadēśa Undiyār that it appears spontaneously as ‘I [am] I’ when our mind or ego, our finite individual sense of ‘I’, merges and becomes one with it, in verse 21 Sri Ramana affirms that, since it is always experienced by us as our own essential being, it is eternal:
That [one infinite whole that shines thus as ‘I am I’] is at all times [in the past, present and future, and in all eternity] the [true] import of the word ‘I’, because of the absence of our non-existence even in sleep, which is devoid of [any separate or finite sense of] ‘I’.
The opening words of this verse are nāṉ eṉum sol-poruḷ, which I have translated as ‘the import of the word I’. However, though I have translated the word poruḷ as ‘import’, there is actually no adequate word in English to convey its full meaning, particularly as it is used in this context. When it is combined with the word sol, which means ‘word’, to form the compound word soṯporuḷ, as it is here, it would normally mean just the true ‘import’, ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’ of whichever word it refers to. However, when used in philosophy, poruḷ has a much deeper significance, because it denotes the absolute reality, the true substance or essential being of all that is. Therefore in this context nāṉ eṉum sol-poruḷ means the absolute reality or essential being that is denoted by the word ‘I’.
That is, though due to our confused knowledge of ourself we frequently use this word ‘I’ to denote our body or mind, what we actually feel when we say ‘I’ is our essential self-consciousness – our fundamental consciousness of our own being. Because we are conscious of our being, we feel ‘I am’, but because we confuse our being with this body and mind, we misapply this word ‘I’ by using it with reference to these extraneous adjuncts.
When we thus confuse our consciousness of our being with a body, the resulting mixed consciousness that feels ‘I am this body’ is the limited and distorted form of consciousness that we call our ‘mind’. This mind or adjunct-bound consciousness is our finite ‘I’, our individual self or ego.
Though we experience this mind in waking and dream, it disappears in sleep. However, though this mind or individual ‘I’ is absent in sleep, we do not feel that we cease to exist at that time. Therefore in the second half of this verse Sri Ramana says, ‘[…] because of the absence of our non-existence even in sleep, which is devoid of “I”’.
Here the words ‘because of the absence of our non-existence’ are a poetic way of saying ‘because we are not non-existent’. That is, even though our mind becomes non-existent in sleep, we continue to exist and to know our existence as ‘I am’, and hence our mind is not our real ‘I’ but only an impostor, an apparition or phantom which poses as ‘I’. Our real ‘I’ can only be that which we are at all times and in all states.
Because we know ‘I slept’, we clearly recognise and acknowledge our continued existence or being in sleep, even though at that time we did not feel ourself to be this limited mind or adjunct-bound ‘I’ that we mistake to be ourself in waking and dream. Therefore, since we continue to exist even in the absence of this false ‘I’, it cannot be the true import of the word ‘I’.
That is, since the word ‘I’ denotes ourself, its true import must be that which we are at all times, and not that which we appear to be only at certain times. Hence the true import of the word ‘I’ – the reality that is truly denoted by it – can only be our ever-present consciousness of our own essential being, which we always experience as ‘I am’, even in sleep.
Since our essential being remains eternally distinct from and untouched by any adjuncts or upādhis that may appear to be superimposed upon it, it never feels ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’, but is always clearly conscious of itself only as ‘I am’ or ‘I am I’. Since this ‘I am’ does not become non-existent even in sleep, when our false adjunct-bound ‘I’ ceases to exist, it is at all times and in all states our true being – the real import of the word ‘I’.
Therefore, since it is not limited in any way by any finite adjuncts, or by any finite dimensions such as time or space, our essential consciousness of being, which we always experience as ‘I am’, is eternal and infinite. Since it is not limited as ‘this’ or ‘that’, it is not separate from anything. Since we always experience it as the base of all our knowledge of everything, it is in fact the true essence of all things. Since it alone endures through and beyond all time, while all other forms of knowledge appear and disappear within time, it is the only knowledge that is absolutely true.
All other forms of knowledge appear and disappear because they are known only by our mind, which itself appears and disappears. Since it appears only in waking and dream, and disappears in sleep, our mind cannot be our real self – the true import of the word ‘I’. Therefore in verse 717 of Guru Vācaka Kōvai Sri Ramana says:
Since the body-soul [the embodied soul, the finite consciousness that imagines itself to be a body] itself appears and disappears, [it cannot be the enduring reality denoted by the word ‘I’, and hence] ātmā [our real self], which is the abiding base of the body-soul, alone is the correct [direct or honest] poruḷ [import, significance or reality] of the word that [each embodied soul] says as ‘I’. Know that when [we] scrutinise, [we will discover only our own ātmā or fundamental self-consciousness] to be the conclusive poruḷ [the ultimate reality denoted by the word ‘I’].
The basic reality that underlies the imaginary appearance and disappearance of our body-bound mind is only our own essential self-conscious being, which we always experience as ‘I am’. Though everything else appears and disappears, our basic self-consciousness neither appears nor disappears, because it endures in all states and at all times, and hence it alone is the reality that is truly denoted when we say the word ‘I’.
Because Sri Ramana often used the terminology of advaita vēdānta, making free use of many of its standard terms such as sat-cit-ānanda or being-consciousness-bliss, his philosophy is generally considered to be a fresh expression of that ancient philosophy. However, he did not arrive at his philosophy by studying any of the philosophical texts of advaita vēdānta, but did so even before he had had any opportunity to become acquainted with those texts.
His philosophy was an expression of his own direct experience of true self-knowledge, which he attained at the age of sixteen when, prompted by a sudden and intense fear of death, he turned his attention inwards and focused it keenly and exclusively upon his consciousness of being, ‘I am’, in order to discover whether or not his ‘I’ would die when his body died. As a result of this keenly focused self-scrutiny, he discovered that he was not the perishable body, but only the imperishable reality, which is beginningless, endless and unbroken being-consciousness-bliss. Only much later, when people asked him questions to clear their doubts about what they had read in the texts of advaita vēdānta, did he have occasion to read such texts, and when he did so he recognised that they were describing his own experience.
Advaita vēdānta is an ancient Indian system of philosophy, and its name etymologically means the philosophy of ‘non-duality’ (advaita) or ‘no two-ness’ (a-dvi-tā), which is the ‘end’ (anta) of all ‘knowledge’ (vēda), or the ultimate conclusion of the Vēdas. Though most of the knowledge expressed in the four Vēdas concerns only duality, in their later portions each of the Vēdas finally give some expression of the knowledge of non-duality. Where all the knowledge of duality (dvaita) expressed in the Vēdas comes to an end (anta), there remains the knowledge of non-duality (advaita).
That is, the true non-dual knowledge ‘I am’ that alone remains when all dualistic knowledge – which is the central concern not only of the Vēdas but also of most other scriptures, philosophies and sciences – has finally come to an end, is the knowledge of non-duality or advaita expressed in vēdānta.
In truth, therefore, advaita vēdānta is not a philosophy that is exclusive to the Vedic tradition of India, but is the ‘perennial philosophy’ that underpins all true forms of mysticism, metaphysics and radically profound philosophy. That is to say, though in the context of the Vedic tradition the philosophy of non-duality is named advaita vēdānta, the essential philosophy of non-duality that is so named can be found expressed in other words in many other mystical and philosophical traditions throughout the world. However, while discussing the philosophy of non-dual true knowledge, it is often useful to refer specifically to advaita vēdānta, because in the post-Vedic tradition known as vēdānta this philosophy has been given a particularly clear expression.
Therefore, when it is said that the philosophy of Sri Ramana is a modern expression of the ancient philosophy of advaita vēdānta, this does not mean either that his philosophy is derived from advaita vēdānta, or that it is relevant only in the context of the Vedic religion and culture known as Hinduism. His philosophy expresses a truth that is beyond all religious and cultural differences, and that can be found expressed in some form or other in most of the major religions and cultures of this world.
All the philosophical verses and other writings of Sri Ramana that I quote in this book express the experience of a being who is in a state of consciousness that is quite different to the body-bound state of consciousness with which we are all familiar. Since he is talking about a state of absolute non-dual knowledge of which we personally have no experience (or rather, of which our experience has seemingly been obscured, and of which we therefore imagine that we have no experience), is there any reason why we should believe all that he says, or at least accept it tentatively?
Sri Ramana does not ask us to believe anything blindly. He begins his exposition of the philosophy of non-duality by asking us to analyse critically our own experience of ourself in our three states of consciousness, waking, dream and deep sleep, which we all experience every day. All the rest of his exposition of this philosophy follows on logically from the conclusions that we arrive at by means of this critical analysis.
Nothing that he says is unreasonable, nor is it based upon unsound premises. Therefore, though we may not at present be able to verify immediately from our own experience all that he says about the absolute reality, which is the state of true knowledge, we cannot reasonably refute it, and hence there is no reason why we should not accept it at least tentatively.
Moreover, when he spoke about the state of absolute true knowledge, he did not do so with the intention that we should merely believe his words. Believing something that we do not know for certain is of little use to us if it does not help us to attain certain knowledge of it. Therefore Sri Ramana not only told us the nature of the absolute reality, which is perfectly non-dual being-consciousness or true self-knowledge, but also told us the means by which we could attain direct experience of that reality.
The means that he taught fits logically into the whole philosophy of non-duality that he expounded. Since our critical analysis of our experience of ourself in our three states of consciousness leads us to understand that our essential self-consciousness ‘I am’ is the sole reality underlying the appearance of these three states, being the only thing which we experience continuously throughout all of them, it is reasonable for us to conclude that, before trying to know any other thing, we should first try to know the true nature of this fundamental consciousness ‘I am’.
Since we cannot know something without attending to it, the only way we can know the true nature of this consciousness is to scrutinise it with a keenly focused attention. This simple yet profound method of self-investigation, self-scrutiny or self-attention is therefore quite logically the only means by which we can discover the true nature of the reality that underlies all the diverse forms of knowledge that we now experience.
Thus the philosophy of non-dual true knowledge expounded by Sri Ramana is not only a well-reasoned philosophy, but also a practical and precise science. Because it begins with a minute analysis of our own consciousness, which is the base of all our knowledge, and thereby builds for itself a foundation of carefully thought out and clearly reasoned theory, the quest for true knowledge or self-discovery that Sri Ramana urges us to undertake is a philosophy in the truest and most profound sense of that word. And because from that theory it naturally leads us on to the practice of the simple empirical technique of turning our power of attention – our power of knowing or consciousness – back on itself, towards our basic consciousness ‘I am’, in order to discover what this ‘I’ really is, this quest for true self-knowledge is also a true science. Thus it is a complete philosophy-science, one in which both theory and practice are necessary and inseparable parts of the whole.
The theory of this science of self-knowledge is necessary to start us, to guide us and to motivate us in its practice. But if we never commence the practice, or if we do not follow it through to its conclusion, all the theory is of little use to us. The theory by itself can never give us true knowledge, but only an intellectual understanding about it. Such intellectual understanding is merely a superficial and dualistic knowledge, a knowledge in which what is known is distinct from the person who knows it.
No intellectual understanding can ever be true knowledge, because our intellect is merely a function of our mind, our limited adjunct-bound consciousness, which is the root of all wrong knowledge, being itself a wrong knowledge that arises only when we mistake ourself to be a physical body. A theoretical understanding of this philosophy and science is therefore useful only to the extent that it both motivates us to seek direct experience of true non-dual self-knowledge, and enables us to understand clearly the means by which we can attain such direct experience.