Sri Ramana often said that there are only two means by which we can attain the experience of true self-knowledge, namely self-investigation and self-surrender. However, he also said that these two means or ‘spiritual paths’ are truly one in essence. That is, though they are described in different words, in their actual practice they are identical. What exactly are these two means or paths, how are they one in essence, what is their one essence, and why did he describe that one essence in these two different ways?
According to the ancient philosophy of vēdānta, there are four paths that lead to spiritual emancipation, namely the ‘path of [desireless] action’ or karma mārga, the ‘path of devotion’ or bhakti mārga, the ‘path of union’ or yōga mārga, and the ‘path of knowing’ or jñāna mārga. Of these four paths, the second and the fourth are the principal means, while the first and the third are merely subsidiary aspects of these two principal means. In other words, all the various types of spiritual practice or ‘paths’ can in essence be reduced to these two principal paths, the ‘path of knowing’ and the ‘path of devotion’. If any practice does not contain an element of either or both of these two paths, it cannot lead us to the state of spiritual emancipation, the state in which we are freed from the bondage of finite existence.
To express the same truth in a more simple fashion, we can attain spiritual emancipation or ‘salvation’ only by experiencing true self-knowledge – that is, by knowing ourself to be only the real and infinite spirit or consciousness ‘I am’, and not this unreal and finite individual whom we now imagine ourself to be. In order to know ourself thus as the absolute reality, we must be consumed by intense love for our essential being, because if we are not consumed by such love, we will not be willing to relinquish our false individual self, which we now hold more dear than any other thing.
In other words, in order to attain spiritual emancipation we must know our essential being, and in order to know our essential being we must love it. Thus ‘knowing’ and ‘love’ or devotion are the two essential means by which we can attain emancipation from our present illusion of being a finite individual.
The more we love our essential being, the more we will attend to it, and the more we attend to it, the more clearly we will know it. Conversely, the more clearly we know our essential being, the more we will love it, because it is the true source of all happiness. Thus love and knowing go hand in hand, each feeding the other. We cannot know without loving, and we cannot love without knowing. Therefore the ‘path of knowing’ and the ‘path of loving’ or devotion are not two alternative means, but are just two aspects of the one and only means by which we can regain our natural state of absolute being.
The two means to attain true self-knowledge taught by Sri Ramana correspond to these twin paths of ‘knowing’ and ‘devotion’. The practice of self-investigation is the true ‘path of knowing’, and the practice of self-surrender is the true ‘path of devotion’. Therefore self-investigation and self-surrender are not two separate paths, but are just two aspects of the same one path – the only means by which we can experience the absolute reality, which is our own true and essential being.
Though Sri Ramana taught the practice that leads to true self-knowledge in these two different ways, describing it either in terms of self-investigation or in terms of self-surrender, he taught it most frequently in terms of the former. Let us therefore first consider this path of self-investigation. What exactly is this practice that Sri Ramana described as self-investigation, self-examination, self-scrutiny, self-enquiry or self-attention?
Though he used various words in Tamil to describe this practice, one of the principal terms that he used was the Sanskrit term ātma-vicāra, or more simply just vicāra. The word ātmā means self, spirit or essence, and is often used as a singular reflexive pronoun applicable to any of the three persons and any of the three genders, though in this context it would be applicable only to the first person, meaning myself, ourself or oneself. The word vicāra, as we saw in the introduction, means investigation or examination, and can also mean pondering or consideration, in the sense of thinking of or looking at something carefully and attentively. Thus ātma-vicāra is the simple practice of investigating, examining, exploring, inspecting, scrutinising or keenly attending to ourself – our own essential self-conscious being, which we always experience as our basic consciousness ‘I am’.
In English the term ātma-vicāra is often translated as ‘self-enquiry’, which has led many people to misunderstand it to mean a process of questioning ourself ‘who am I?’. However such questioning would only be a mental activity, so it is clearly not the meaning intended by Sri Ramana. When he said that we should investigate ‘who am I?’ he did not mean that we should mentally ask ourself this question, but that we should keenly scrutinise our basic consciousness ‘I am’ in order to know exactly what it is. Therefore if we choose to use this term ‘self-enquiry’ in English, we should understand that it does not literally mean ‘self-questioning’ but only ‘self-investigation’ or ‘self-scrutiny’.
Because some people had misunderstood his teaching that we should investigate ‘who am I?’ or ‘from where do I rise?’, taking it to mean that we should ask ourself such questions, and were accordingly spending their time in meditation repeatedly asking themself these questions, towards the end of his bodily lifetime, when he composed the brief poem Ēkātma Pañcakam, Sri Ramana wrote in verse 2:
Declare a drunkard who says, ‘Who am I? What place am I?’, as equal to a person who himself asks himself ‘who am I?’ [or] ‘what is the place in which I am?’ even though oneself is [always] as oneself [that is, though we are in fact always nothing other than our own real self or essential being, which clearly knows itself as ‘I am’].
Though Sri Ramana sometimes described the practice of self-investigation in terms of questions such as ‘who am I?’ or ‘from what source do I rise?’, he did so only to illustrate how we should divert our attention away from all thoughts towards our own essential self-conscious being, which is what we always truly are, and which is the source from which we seemingly rise as our mind or individual sense of ‘I’. That is, when he said that we should investigate ‘who am I?’, he meant that we should turn our attention towards our basic consciousness ‘I’ in order to scrutinise it and know what it really is. He did not mean that we should allow our mind to dwell upon the actual question ‘who am I?’, because such a question is only a thought that is other than ourself and therefore extraneous to our essential being.
We can know our own real self with perfect clarity only by focusing our entire attention on our own essential self-conscious being to the exclusion of all thoughts. By focusing our attention thus, we will withdraw our mind from all activity, and thus it will sink deep into our clear, thought-free and ever-motionless consciousness of our own mere being.
Instead of penetrating deep within our own essential being in this manner, if we keep our attention dwelling upon thoughts such as ‘who am I?’ or ‘what is the source from which I have risen?’, we will continue to float on the surface of our mind, being perpetually agitated by thoughts that rise and subside there like waves on the surface of the ocean, and will thereby prevent ourself from gaining the true clarity of thought-free self-consciousness, which ever exists in the innermost core or depth of our being.
By comparing a person who meditates upon thoughts such as ‘who am I?’ or ‘what is the place in which I am?’, expecting thereby to gain true self-knowledge, to a drunkard who prattles such questions due to the confusion and consequent lack of clarity that result from intoxication, Sri Ramana very emphatically asserts that if we meditate thus, we are as confused about ourself as a drunkard is, and that we have entirely misunderstood the practice of self-attentive and therefore thought-free being that he intended to teach us. Asking ourself repeatedly questions such as ‘who am I?’ is the very antithesis of the practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation that he taught, because as he often used to say, self-investigation is not ‘doing’ but only ‘being’.
That is, self-investigation is not any action or activity of our mind, but is only the practice of keeping our mind perpetually subsided in our real self, that is, in our own essential and ever clearly self-conscious being. This is made clear by Sri Ramana in the sixteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?, in which he defines the true meaning of the term ātma-vicāra or ‘self-investigation’ by saying:
[…] The name ‘ātma-vicāra’ [is truly applicable] only to [the practice of] always being [abiding or remaining] having put [placed, kept, seated, deposited, detained, fixed or established our] mind in ātmā [our own real self] […]
In both Sanskrit and Tamil the word ātmā, which literally means ‘self’, is a philosophical term that denotes our own true, essential and perfectly non-dual self-conscious being, ‘I am’. Hence the state that Sri Ramana describes in this sentence as sadākālamum maṉattai ātmāvil vaittiruppadu is the state of just ‘being’, in which we keep our mind firmly fixed or established in and as ātmā, our own essential non-dual self-conscious being.
The compound word sadā-kālamum means ‘always’ or ‘at all times’, maṉattai is the accusative form of maṉam, which means ‘mind’, ātmāvil is the locative form of ātmā and therefore means ‘in self’, and vaittiruppadu is a compound of two words, vaittu, which is a verbal participle that means ‘putting’, ‘placing’, ‘keeping’, ‘seating’, ‘fixing’ or ‘establishing’, and iruppadu, which is a gerund formed from the verbal root iru, which means ‘be’. When it is used alone, this gerund iruppadu means ‘being’, but when it is appended to a verbal participle to form a compound gerund, it serves as an auxiliary verbal noun denoting a continuity of whatever action or state is indicated by the verbal participle. Therefore the compound word vaittiruppadu can be interpreted either literally as meaning ‘being having placed’, or idiomatically as denoting a continuous state of ‘placing’, ‘seating’, ‘fixing’ or ‘keeping’. However there is actually no essential difference between these two interpretations, because the state in which we keep our mind continuously placed, seated, fixed or established in ātmā or ‘self’ is not a state of activity or ‘doing’, but is only the state of just ‘being’ as we really are.
Thus in this sentence Sri Ramana clearly defines the exact meaning of the term ātma-vicāra, saying that it denotes only the state of just ‘being’ – the spiritual practice of keeping our mind firmly established in and as ātmā, our own real ‘self’ or essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’. In other words, ātma-vicāra or the investigation ‘who am I?’ is only the practice of just being as we really are – that is, just being in our true and natural state, in which our mind has subsided peacefully in and as our own essential self, our thought-free and therefore absolutely actionless self-conscious being.
Thus from this extremely clear, simple and unambiguous definition of ātma-vicāra that Sri Ramana has given in Nāṉ Yār?, and also from many other compatible truths that he has expressed elsewhere in his own writings, we are left with absolutely no scope to doubt the fact that the essential practice of self-investigation does not involve even the least activity of mind, speech or body, but is simply the non-dual state of mind-free and therefore perfectly inactive self-conscious being.
Since our real self is absolutely non-dual self-conscious being, we cannot know it by doing anything but only by being as it is – that is, by just being ourself, our own perfectly thought-free self-conscious being. Therefore true self-knowledge is an absolutely thought-free, non-dual and therefore non-objective experience of clear, uncontaminated self-conscious being. Hence in verse 26 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana defines the non-dual state of true self-knowledge by saying:
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].
Since our goal is only the non-dual state of self-conscious being, the path by which we can attain that goal must likewise be nothing other than self-conscious being. If the nature of our path were essentially any different from the nature of our goal, our path could never enable us to reach our goal. That is, since our goal is a state that is infinite and therefore devoid of all otherness, division, separation or duality, the only means by which we can ‘reach’ or ‘attain’ such a goal is just to be one with it by merging in it – that is, by losing ourself, our seemingly separate finite mind, entirely in it.
In other words, we cannot be firmly established as our own real non-dual self-conscious being by doing anything or by knowing anything other than ourself. No amount of ‘doing’ can enable us to merge completely in the real state of just ‘being’. Hence in order to know and to be our own real self, we must attend to nothing other than ourself, our own essential self-conscious being.
Attending to anything other than ourself is an action, a movement of our mind or attention away from ourself. Attending to ourself, on the other hand, is not an action or movement, but is just an actionless state of being self-conscious, as we always really are. Therefore ātma-vicāra or ‘self-investigation’ is only the practice of being self-conscious – that is, the practice of being conscious of nothing other than our own self, ‘I am’. Only by this simple practice of thought-free self-consciousness or self-attentiveness can we know who or what we really are.
However, though ātma-vicāra or ‘self-investigation’ is truly not any form of mental activity, such as asking ourself ‘who am I?’ or any other such question, but is only the practice of abiding motionlessly in our perfectly thought-free self-conscious being, in some English books we occasionally find statements attributed to Sri Ramana that are so worded that they could make it appear as if he sometimes advised people to practise self-investigation by asking themself questions such as ‘who am I?’. In order to understand why such potentially confusing wordings appear in some of the books in which the oral teachings of Sri Ramana have been recorded in English, we have to consider several facts.
Firstly, whenever Sri Ramana was asked any question regarding spiritual philosophy or practice, he usually replied in Tamil, or occasionally in Telugu or Malayalam. Though he understood and could speak English quite fluently, when discussing spiritual philosophy or practice he seldom spoke in English, except occasionally when making a simple statement. Even when he was asked questions in English, he usually replied in Tamil, and each of his replies would immediately be translated into English by any person present who knew both languages. If what he said in Tamil was seriously mistranslated, he would occasionally correct the translation, but in most cases he would not interfere with the interpreter’s task.
However, though he seldom expressed his teachings in English, many of the books in which his oral teachings were recorded during his bodily lifetime were written originally in English. Unfortunately, therefore, from such records we cannot know for certain exactly what words he used in Tamil on each particular occasion. However, from his own original Tamil writings, and from the record of many of his oral teachings that Sri Muruganar preserved for us in Guru Vācaka Kōvai, we do know what Tamil words he used frequently to express his teachings.
Therefore, when we read the books in which his teachings are recorded in English, we have to try to infer what words he may actually have used in Tamil. For example, when we read such books and find in them statements attributed to him such as ‘ask yourself “who am I?”’ or ‘question yourself “who am I?”’, in order to understand the correct sense in which he used whatever Tamil verb has been translated as ‘ask’ or ‘question’, we have to try to infer what that verb might have been.
The Tamil verb that is used most commonly in situations in which we would use the verbs ‘ask’ or ‘question’ in English is kēḷ. Besides meaning to ask, question or enquire, kēḷ also means to hear, listen to, investigate, learn or come to know, so if this were the verb that Sri Ramana used on any of the occasions in which the English books have recorded him saying ‘ask yourself “who am I?”’ or ‘question yourself “who am I?”’, the inner meaning that he implied by these words would have been ‘enquire “who am I?”’, ‘investigate “who am I?”’ or ‘find out “who am I?”’.
Another Tamil verb that is often used in the sense of ‘question’ or ‘enquire’, and that Sri Ramana sometimes used when describing the practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation, is viṉavu. Besides meaning to question or enquire, viṉavu also means to investigate, examine, listen to, pay attention to, bear in mind or think of.
One example of the use that Sri Ramana made of this verb vinavutal is in verse 16 of Upadēśa Taṉippākkaḷ, which we discussed in chapter six. The words in this verse that I translated as ‘[…] by subtle investigation [or minute examination], which is [the practice of] constantly scrutinising yourself […]’ are eṉḏṟum taṉṉai viṉavum usāvāl. The word eṉḏṟum is an adverb meaning always, constantly or at all times, taṉṉai is the accusative form of the pronoun tāṉ, which means self, oneself, ourself, yourself and so on, and usāvāl is the instrumental form of the noun usā, which means subtle, close or minute investigation or examination. Together with its adverb eṉḏṟum and its object taṉṉai, the verb viṉavum acts as a relative clause, which describes the nature of the usā or ‘subtle investigation’ and which means ‘which is [the practice of] constantly scrutinising self’.
Being a relative participle form of viṉavu, in this context viṉavum means ‘which is investigating’, ‘which is scrutinising’ or ‘which is paying attention to’. If taken at face value, viṉavum could also be translated here as ‘which is questioning’, thereby implying that the usā or ‘subtle investigation’ that Sri Ramana refers to here is merely the practice of constantly questioning ourself. However, since the central idea in the first half of this verse is that ‘in waking the state of sleep will result by subtle investigation’, this ‘subtle investigation’ must be a practice that is much deeper than the mere mental act of questioning oneself, and hence we cannot do justice to the truth that Sri Ramana expresses in this verse unless we interpret taṉṉai viṉavum to mean ‘which is investigating ourself’ rather than ‘which is questioning ourself’.
Like kēḷ and viṉavu, most other Tamil verbs that could be translated as ‘ask’, ‘question’ or ‘enquire’ could also be translated as ‘investigate’, ‘examine’, ‘scrutinise’ or ‘attend to’. Therefore just because in some English books we occasionally find statements attributed to Sri Ramana such as ‘ask yourself “who am I?”’ or ‘question yourself “who am I?”’, we should not conclude from these words that he meant that we should literally ask ourself ‘who am I?’, or that questioning ourself thus is the actual practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation.
In certain places where it has been recorded that Sri Ramana said ‘ask yourself “who am I?”’ or ‘question yourself “who am I?”’, the Tamil verb that he used may have been vicāri, which is the verbal form of the noun vicāra, because in such places he appears to be referring more or less directly to the following passage from the sixth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?:
[…] If other thoughts rise, without trying to complete them [we] must investigate to whom they have occurred. However many thoughts rise, what [does it matter]? As soon as each thought appears, if [we] vigilantly investigate to whom it has occurred, ‘to me’ will be clear [that is, we will be clearly reminded of ourself, to whom each thought occurs]. If [we thus] investigate ‘who am I?’ [that is, if we turn our attention back towards ourself and keep it fixed firmly, keenly and vigilantly upon our own essential self-conscious being in order to discover what this ‘me’ really is], [our] mind will return to its birthplace [the innermost core of our being, which is the source from which it arose]; [and since we thereby refrain from attending to it] the thought which had risen will also subside. When [we] practise and practise in this manner, to [our] mind the power to stand firmly established in its birthplace will increase. […]
In this passage the Tamil verb that I have translated as ‘investigate’ is vicāri, which occurs once in the form vicārikka vēṇḍum, which means ‘it is necessary to investigate’ or ‘[we] must investigate’, and twice in the conditional form vicārittāl, which means ‘if [we] investigate’.
As the Tamil form of the Sanskrit verb vicar, the principle meaning of vicāri is to investigate, examine, scrutinise, ascertain, consider or ponder, but in Tamil it is also used in the secondary sense of ‘enquire’ in contexts such as enquiring about a person’s welfare. This secondary sense in Tamil does give some slight scope for us to interpret the meaning of vicāri in this context as ‘enquire’, ‘ask’ or ‘question’, but even if we choose to interpret it in this rather far-fetched manner, we should understand that Sri Ramana does not mean that we should literally ask or question ourself ‘who am I?’, but only that we should figuratively ask or question ourself thus.
That is, if any words used by Sri Ramana can be interpreted to mean that we should ask ourself any question such as ‘who am I?’, we should understand that the true inner meaning of those words is that we should figuratively ask ourself ‘who am I?’ in the sense that we should keenly scrutinise ourself in order to know clearly through our own immediate non-dual experience what the real nature of our essential self-consciousness ‘I am’ actually is. Since the only real answer to this question ‘who am I?’ is the absolutely non-dual and therefore perfectly clear experience of our own true thought-free self-conscious being, the only means by which we can effectively ‘ask’ or ‘question’ ourself ‘who am I?’ – that is, the only means by which we can ‘enquire’ in such a manner that we will thereby actually ascertain who or what we really are – is to withdraw our attention entirely from all thoughts or objects and to focus it keenly and exclusively upon our own essential non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’.
In his teachings Sri Ramana frequently employed ordinary words in a figurative sense, because the absolute reality about which he was speaking or writing is non-objective and non-dual, and hence it is beyond the range of thoughts and words. Since the one undivided and infinite reality can never be known objectively by our mind, but can only be experienced subjectively by and as our own essential non-dual self-consciousness, no words can describe it adequately, and hence its true nature can often be expressed more clearly by a metaphorical or figurative use of simple words rather than by a literal use of the more abstract technical terms of scholastic philosophy.
Since the true nature of the one absolute reality cannot be known by our mind or described by any words (which are merely tools created by our mind to express its knowledge or experience of objective phenomena), the only means by which we can merge in and as that non-dual and otherless absolute reality is likewise beyond the range of thoughts and words. Hence Sri Ramana often used simple words figuratively not only when he was expressing the nature of the one absolute reality, but also when he was expressing the means by which we can attain our true and natural state of indivisible oneness with that infinite reality.
Therefore when we read the spiritual teachings of Sri Ramana, we should not always take at face value the meaning of each word or combination of words that he uses, but should understand the inner meaning that he intends to convey by such words. This is not to say that his teachings are difficult to understand, or that they contain any hidden meanings. He did in fact express his teachings in an extremely open, clear and simple manner, and hence they are very easy to understand. However in order to understand them correctly we must attune our mind and heart to the truth that he was expressing and to the manner in which he expressed it.
Though one of the great strengths of his teachings – one of the reasons why they are so powerful and compelling – is the simplicity and clarity with which he expressed even the most subtle and profound truths, the very simplicity of his teachings can at times be deceptive. Just because he used very simple words, we should not overlook the fact that what he was expressing through those simple words was an extremely subtle truth – a truth that can be understood perfectly only by an equally subtle clarity of mind and heart.
The extremely subtle inner clarity that we require in order to be able to comprehend perfectly the truth of all that Sri Ramana expressed in his teachings will arise in us only when our mind has been purified or cleansed of all the desires and attachments that are now clouding it. However, though we may not now possess such perfectly unclouded inner clarity, to whatever extent our mind is purified we will be able to comprehend his teachings, and if we sincerely try to put into practice whatever we have been able to understand, our mind will gradually but surely be further purified and clarified.
Though we cannot expect to be able to understand his teachings perfectly from the outset, if we sincerely wish to understand them we should not only try to put our present imperfect understanding into practice, but should also continue to study his teachings carefully and repeatedly, because as our practice of self-investigation and self-surrender progresses and develops, we will be able to understand what we study with increasing clarity. This is why it is said that śravaṇa, manana and nididhyāsana – study, reflection and practice – should continue in the life of a spiritual aspirant until the final goal of true non-dual self-knowledge is attained.
In order to understand Sri Ramana’s teachings as clearly and as perfectly as we can, we should not attempt narrowly to understand any of his words, writings or sayings in isolation, but should attempt to understand each of them comprehensively in the light of all his other teachings. Unless we understand all his teachings comprehensively, we will not be able to understand each individual teaching in its correct perspective. Only if we cultivate a truly comprehensive understanding of his teachings, will we be able to recognise and grasp the real inner meaning of the simple words that he uses figuratively, and will we thereby avoid the error of interpreting too literally any of his figurative expressions of the truth.
Therefore if we read in any book that Sri Ramana said, ‘Ask yourself the question “who am I?”’, or any similar statement, in order to understand what meaning he really intended to convey by such words, we should consider them carefully in the light of all his other teachings, particularly the teachings that he expressed in his own writings. When doing so, we should first consider whether or not the literal meaning of such a statement is entirely consistent with the fundamental principles of his teachings, because we should accept that literal meaning at face value only if it is clearly consistent with those principles. If it is not consistent, then we should consider whether the real meaning of that statement might perhaps be not merely its apparent literal meaning but only some other deeper and more figurative meaning.
If any statement attributed to Sri Ramana appears to be in any way inconsistent with the central principles of his teachings, there may be several plausible explanations for this. Firstly, it could be either an inaccurate recording or an inaccurate translation of what he actually said. Secondly, it could be one of the many instances in which he expressed his teachings in a modified or diluted manner in order to suit the limited understanding or maturity of mind of a particular questioner. Or thirdly, if it is an accurate recording of his actual words, and if it is not clearly an instance in which he deliberately diluted his expression of the truth to suit the individual needs of the concerned questioner, it could be a case in which the real meaning of his words is figurative rather than literal.
Though Sri Ramana did often express the truth in a diluted manner to suit the actual needs of whoever he was talking to, he usually did so only with regard to more general aspects of spiritual philosophy or practice, but not with regard to the actual practice of self-investigation, which is the very core of his teachings. Whenever he advised or prompted anyone to practise self-investigation, he expressed very clearly what that practice actually is. Therefore if he ever said any words that literally mean ‘ask yourself “who am I?”’ or ‘question yourself “who am I?”’, he was certainly not expressing the practice of self-investigation in a diluted manner but only in a figurative manner.
Just as he often figuratively described our real and essential self, which is formless, infinite, undivided and non-dual spirit or consciousness – consciousness that knows nothing other than itself, because there is nothing that is truly other than itself – as an iḍam, sthana or ‘place’, or sometimes more specifically as the ‘birthplace’ or ‘rising-place’ of our mind, our false finite object-knowing consciousness, and just as he also often figuratively described it as a ‘light’, so he might also have figuratively described the thought-free, actionless and non-dual practice of self-investigation as being a state of ‘questioning ourself’, ‘enquiring [into or about] ourself’ or simply ‘asking who am I?’. However, just because he used words that literally mean ‘place’ or ‘light’ to denote our real self, we should not misinterpret his figurative use of such words as implying that our essential self is actually a place confined within the objective dimensions of space and time, or that it is actually a light that we can see objectively by either our physical eyes or our mind. Likewise, just because he occasionally used words that could be taken literally to mean ‘question yourself’, ‘enquire [into or about] yourself’ or ‘ask yourself who am I?’, we should not misinterpret his figurative use of such words as implying that the ultimate spiritual practice known as self-investigation is merely a mental act of asking ourself questions such as ‘who am I?’.
In spiritual philosophy, an important distinction often has to be made between vācyārtha, the literal meaning of a word or group of words, and lakṣyārtha, its intended meaning. Whereas vācyārtha, the ‘spoken meaning’ or ‘stated meaning’, is merely the meaning that is superficially expressed by a particular word or group of words, lakṣyārtha, the ‘indicated meaning’ or ‘target meaning’, is the implied meaning that is really denoted by it – the true inner meaning that it is actually intended to convey.
In many contexts in which Sri Ramana talks of the question ‘who am I?’, the vācyārtha or meaning superficially suggested by these words is the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’, whereas the lakṣyārtha or true inner meaning that he actually intended these words to convey is the state in which we look keenly within ourself to see who or what this ‘I’ really is. Therefore if he says any words that superficially appear to mean that we should ask ourself the question ‘who am I?’, we should understand that the lakṣyārtha of such words is that we should focus our entire attention upon our consciousness ‘I am’ in order to know what exactly it is.
When we see his words translated as ‘who am I?’, in most cases the actual words that he used in Tamil were ‘nāṉ yār?’ or ‘nāṉ ār?’, which literally mean ‘I [am] who?’. By placing nāṉ before yār or ār, that is, ‘I’ before ‘who’, he gave prime importance to it, thereby emphasising the fact that it alone is our lakṣya – our real target or aim.
In these words, ‘nāṉ yār?’ or ‘I [am] who?’, the vācyārtha or superficial meaning of ‘I’ is our mind or ego, but its lakṣyārtha is our real self, our true adjunct-free self-conscious being, ‘I am’, which is the sole reality underlying this illusory apparition that we call our mind or ego. Likewise, the vācyārtha of ‘who’ is merely a question that we frame in our mind as a thought, but its lakṣyārtha is the keenly scrutinising attention that seeks to experience this ‘I’ as it really is – that is, to experience thought-free, unadulterated and therefore absolute clarity of true self-consciousness.
We cannot ascertain who or what we really are by merely asking ourself the verbalised question ‘who am I?’, but only by keenly attending to ourself. If Sri Ramana were to say to us, ‘Investigate what is written in this book’, we would not imagine that we could discover what is written in it by merely asking ourself the question ‘what is written in this book?’. In order to know what is written in it, we must open it and actually read what is written inside. Similarly, when he says to us, ‘Investigate “who am I?”’, we should not imagine that he means that we can truly know who we are by merely asking ourself the question ‘who am I?’. In order to know who or what we really are, we must actually look within ourself to see what this ‘I’ – our essential self-consciousness – really is.
In order to experience ourself as we really are, we must withdraw our attention from everything other than our own real self – our essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’. Since the verbalised question ‘who am I?’ is a thought that can rise only after our mind has risen and is active, it is experienced by us as something other than ourself, and hence we cannot know who we really are so long as we allow our mind to continue dwelling upon it.
Therefore though we can use this verbalised question ‘who am I?’ to divert our attention away from all other thoughts towards our own essential self-consciousness ‘I am’, we should not continuously attend to it. As soon as we have used it effectively to divert our attention away from all other thoughts towards this consciousness that we experience as ‘I’, we should forget this question and attend keenly and exclusively to its target or lakṣya, which is ‘I’ – our own essential thought-free self-conscious being.
This letting go of the verbalised question ‘who am I?’ is a secondary but nevertheless valid meaning of the second half of the first sentence of the sixth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?, in which Sri Ramana says:
Only by [means of] the investigation ‘who am I?’ will [our] mind subside [or cease to be]; the thought ‘who am I?’, having destroyed all other thoughts, will itself in the end be destroyed like a corpse-burning stick [that is, like a stick that is used to stir a funeral pyre to ensure that the corpse is burnt entirely] […]
The primary meaning of the statement ‘[…] the thought “who am I?”, having destroyed all other thoughts, will itself in the end be destroyed […]’ is that which is implied when we understand the term ‘the thought “who am I?”’ to be a figurative description of the effort that our mind makes to investigate ‘who am I?’ – that is, the effort that it makes to turn its attention away from all other thoughts towards itself. This effort to investigate ‘who am I?’ is the lakṣyārtha or intended inner meaning of this term ‘the thought “who am I?”’.
Since our mind has a strong and deeply engrained liking to attend to thoughts, which appear to be other than ourself, if we wish to turn our attention towards ourself in order to know ‘who am I?’, we have to make an effort to draw our attention back from all the thoughts that are now distracting it away from ourself. Since this effort to investigate ‘who am I?’ is made by our mind, Sri Ramana describes it figuratively as ‘the thought “who am I?”’.
Since other thoughts can survive only when we attend to them, and since this effort to investigate ‘who am I?’ draws our attention away from all other thoughts, Sri Ramana says that this effort will destroy them all. Though our mind commences the practice of self-investigation by making this effort to attend to itself, as a result of this effort it will subside, because it can rise and remain active only by attending to thoughts. Therefore, since our mind will begin to subside as soon as it makes this effort to attend to itself, and since by persisting in this effort it will eventually subside entirely in the perfect clarity of thought-free self-consciousness, the effort that it makes to attend to itself will subside along with it. This is the real meaning that Sri Ramana intended to convey when he said, ‘[…] the thought “who am I?”, having destroyed all other thoughts, will itself in the end be destroyed like a corpse-burning stick’.
Though this is the primary meaning of this statement, a secondary meaning of it is that which is implied when we understand the term ‘the thought “who am I?”’ to mean literally the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’. This verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ is the vācyārtha or superficial meaning of this term ‘the thought “who am I?”’. If we interpret this statement according to this more superficial meaning, we should understand that the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ is only an aid that helps to remind us to direct our attention towards ourself, thereby drawing it back from all the thoughts that are now distracting it away from ourself.
The verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts only when we allow it to divert our attention away from those thoughts towards ourself, and it will itself be destroyed only when we allow it to divert our attention away from itself towards its actual aim or target, which is our essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’. Just as a ‘corpse-burning stick’ is itself destroyed by the same fire that it stirs in order to destroy the corpse completely, so the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’, if used correctly, will itself be destroyed by the same fire of clear non-dual self-consciousness that it arouses and that destroys each and every other thought.
That is, if we use the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ to divert our attention away from other thoughts towards ourself, it will thereby enkindle within us a fresh clarity of self-consciousness. This clarity of non-dual self-consciousness is the fire of true knowledge that alone can destroy not only each individual thought that arises, but also our mind, which is our first thought and the root of all our other thoughts. Though this clarity of thought-free self-consciousness will be aroused whenever we use the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ to draw our attention back towards ourself, if we then keep our attention fixed firmly upon ourself, the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ will thereby subside automatically along with all other thoughts.
Hence as a verbalised thought the question ‘who am I?’ can be of use to us only when other thoughts have arisen. As soon as it has helped us to divert our attention away from other thoughts towards ourself, this verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ has served its purpose. That is, by asking ourself questions such as ‘who is thinking this thought?’, ‘who knows this thought?’ or ‘who am I?’, we can remind ourself of the ‘I’ that is thinking, and thus we can turn our attention away from any other thought towards ourself. This turning of our attention towards ourself is the only benefit to be gained by asking such questions.
If we choose to use any thought such as the question ‘who am I?’ as a means to turn our attention away from other thoughts towards ourself, that selfward-directing thought will act like a portal or doorway through which we can enter the state of self-attentiveness or clear self-consciousness, which is our natural state of mind-free being that Sri Ramana calls ātma-vicāra or self-investigation. No thought, word, sentence or question can be the actual state of true non-dual self-consciousness, because all thoughts and words are just objective forms of knowledge, and hence they can exist only in the state of duality. As Sri Ramana says in verse 25 of Upadēśa Taṉippākkaḷ:
Questions and answers [can occur] only in the language of this dvaita [duality]; in [the true state of] advaita [non-duality] they do not exist.
Just as a doorway is a means by which we can enter our house, but is not our house itself, so a thought such as ‘who am I?’ may be a means by which we can enter our own natural state of clear non-dual self-consciousness, but it is not our self-consciousness itself. If we wish to enter our house, we should not just stand at the doorway but should pass through it and leave it behind us. Similarly, if we wish to enter our real state of non-dual self-consciousness, we should not cling to any thought such as ‘who am I?’ but should pass through such thoughts and leave them behind us.
If we continuously dwell upon the thought ‘who am I?’, instead of passing through and beyond it, it will not enable us to enter into our natural state of thought-free self-conscious being. Therefore having turned our attention towards ourself by asking ourself ‘who am I?’, we should calmly subside without even the slightest thought into the innermost depth of ourself – that is, into the absolute isolation of our own true non-dual self-conscious being.
Though we may use a thought such as ‘who am I?’ as a means to turn our attention towards ourself and thereby to subside deep into our real thought-free self-conscious being, we should not imagine that the thought ‘who am I?’ is the actual practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation. The real practice of ātma-vicāra is only the state in which we have left behind all thoughts, including the thought ‘who am I?’, and have thereby sunk deep into our own essential and perfectly clear self-conscious being.
Therefore, having once asked ourself ‘who am I?’, we need not ask this same question again. In fact we should not ask it again, because once we have turned our attention successfully towards ourself, the verbalised thought ‘who am I?’ would only distract us away from our vigilantly attentive state of clear thought-free self-consciousness, just as any other thought would.
This is the reason why, whenever anyone asked Sri Ramana whether we should repeat the question ‘who am I?’ like a mantra, he replied emphatically that it is not a mantra and should not be repeated as such, and he explained that our sole aim while practising ātma-vicāra should be to focus our entire mind or power of attention in its source, which is our own self-conscious being. In the same context, he also sometimes stated explicitly that if the vicāra or investigation ‘who am I?’ were merely a mental act of questioning, it would be of no real benefit to us.
However, though he stated explicitly that we should not repeat the question ‘who am I?’ as if it were a mantra, and that the practice of ātma-vicāra is not merely a mental act of asking ourself this question, Sri Ramana did not actually say that we should never ask ourself this question, or that asking it is not of some value as an aid to our actual practice of ātma-vicāra. What he warned us to avoid was firstly the futile practice of misusing this question by repeating it in a parrot-like manner, and secondly the mistaken notion that ātma-vicāra is merely a mental practice of asking ourself this question either repeatedly or even occasionally.
If we carefully read all the teachings of Sri Ramana, which are expressed extremely clearly both in his original Tamil writings and in Guru Vācaka Kōvai, and somewhat less clearly in the various books in which they were recorded in English, we should be able to understand very clearly what the actual practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation is and what it is not. Though many passages in the various English books may appear to be unclear or confusing, if we study such books with discrimination in the light of his original Tamil writings and Guru Vācaka Kōvai, we should be able to sift and pick out all the grains of genuine wisdom from the chaff of imperfectly or inadequately recorded ideas.
Regarding the practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation, two of the fundamental truths that we should be able to understand by reading the various available books are as follows: Firstly, ātma-vicāra is not a mental practice of repeatedly asking ourself any question such as ‘who am I?’. And secondly, asking ourself any such question even once is not actually an essential part of the practice of ātma-vicāra.
When we first try to practise self-attentiveness, we may find that asking ourself such questions occasionally is helpful as a means to divert our attention away from other thoughts towards ourself, but after we have gained even a little experience in this simple practice of self-attentiveness, we will find that it is easy for us to turn our attention towards our natural and clearly self-evident consciousness ‘I am’ without having to think ‘who am I?’ or any other such thought.
Whether or not we choose to use any question such as ‘who am I?’ as an aid in our effort to turn our attention towards ourself is ultimately irrelevant, because all that is actually necessary is that we focus our attention keenly and exclusively upon ourself – that is, upon our essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’. The actual practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation is only this intense focusing of our entire attention upon ourself. This practice of intense and clear self-attentiveness or self-consciousness is not a thought or an action of any kind whatsoever, but is only the absolutely silent and peaceful state of just being as we really are.
Besides using the Sanskrit word vicāra, Sri Ramana used many other Tamil and Sanskrit words to describe the practice of self-investigation. One word that he frequently used both in his original writings such as Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu and in his oral teachings was the Tamil verb nāḍu, which can mean seeking, pursuing, examining, investigating, knowing, thinking or desiring, but which with reference to ourself clearly does not mean literally either seeking or pursuing, but only examining, investigating or knowing.
He also often used the word nāṭṭam, which is a noun derived from this verb nāḍu, and which has various closely related meanings such as ‘investigation’, ‘examination’, ‘scrutiny’, ‘sight’, ‘look’, ‘aim’, ‘intention’, ‘pursuit’ or ‘quest’. In the sense of ‘scrutiny’, ‘look’ or ‘sight’, nāṭṭam means the state of ‘looking’, ‘seeing’ or ‘watching’, and hence it can also be translated as ‘inspection’, ‘observation’ or ‘attention’. Thus it is a word that Sri Ramana used in Tamil to convey the same sense as the English word ‘attention’.
Since the term ātma-vicāra is a technical term of Sanskrit origin, in conversation Sri Ramana often used instead the more colloquial Tamil term taṉṉāṭṭam, which is a compound of two words, taṉ, which means ‘self’, and nāṭṭam, which in this context means ‘scrutiny’, ‘investigation’, ‘examination’, ‘inspection’, ‘observation’ or ‘attention’. In English books that record or discuss his teachings, this term taṉṉāṭṭam is usually translated as self-attention, self-investigation or self-enquiry, but is also sometimes translated as ‘seeking the self’ or ‘quest for the self’.
Though the verb nāḍu can mean to seek, search for or pursue, and though the noun nāṭṭam can correspondingly mean a quest or pursuit, when Sri Ramana uses these words in the context of self-investigation he does not mean that we should literally seek, search for, go in quest of or pursue our own self as if it were something distant or unknown to us, but that we should simply investigate, inspect, examine or scrutinise ourself – that is, that we should attend keenly to our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’, which we always experience clearly, but which we now mistake to be our body-bound mind or ego, our false finite object-knowing consciousness that feels ‘I am this body’.
Another verb that Sri Ramana used in the same sense as nāḍu is tēḍu, which literally means to seek, search for, trace, pursue or enquire into. However, just because he used words that literally mean to ‘seek’ or ‘search for’, we should not imagine that the ‘self’ he asks us to ‘seek’ is anything other than ourself – anything other than that which we already and always experience as ‘I’.
The practice of ātma-vicāra, taṉṉāṭṭam or self-investigation is not a practice of one ‘I’ seeking some other ‘I’, but is simply the practice of our one and only ‘I’ knowing and being itself. In other words, it is simply the absolutely non-dual practice of we ourself knowing and being ourself.
Since we are in truth ever self-conscious, in order to know ourself as we really are we do not need literally to ‘seek’ ourself but just to be ourself – that is, just to be as we really are, which is thought-free non-dual self-conscious being. Therefore the practice that Sri Ramana sometimes described figuratively as ‘seeking’ ourself is simply the practice of just consciously being ourself.
As we discussed earlier, Sri Ramana often used simple words in a figurative sense, and his use of the verb tēḍu is a clear example of this. Therefore whenever he uses this verb tēḍu in the context of self-investigation we should understand that he is not using it literally to mean that we should seek some object that we do not already know, but is only using it figuratively to mean that we should ‘seek’ the perfect clarity of true non-dual self-knowledge by keenly scrutinising our own ever self-conscious essence, ‘I am’.
Other words that he used to describe this extremely simple practice of self-investigation include the Tamil nouns ārāycci and usā, which both mean a close and subtle investigation or scrutiny, their verbal forms ārāy and usāvu, which mean investigating, examining or scrutinising keenly, the Tamil term summā iruppadu, which means ‘just being’, the Sanskrit term ātma-niṣṭha, which means self-abidance or being firmly established as our own real self, ātma-cintanā, which means self-contemplation or ‘thinking of self’, svarūpa-dhyāna, which means self-meditation or self-attentiveness, svarūpa-smaraṇa, which means self-remembrance, ahamukham, which means facing ‘I’, looking towards ‘I’ or attending to ‘I’, and ātmānusandhāna, which in Sanskrit means self-investigation or close inspection of ourself, and which in Tamil is also used in the sense of self-contemplation. These and other words that he used all denote the same simple practice of focusing our entire attention upon ourself, that is, upon our essential self-conscious being, our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’, in order to know who or what we really are.
The practice of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation is therefore just a calm and peaceful focusing of our entire attention upon the innermost core of our being, and hence it is the same practice that in other mystical traditions is known as contemplation or recollection – recollection, that is, not so much in the sense of remembering, as in the sense of re-collecting or gathering back our scattered attention from all other things by withdrawing it into its natural centre and source, which is our own innermost being – our true and essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.
Whereas attending to anything other than ourself is an activity, a movement or directing of our attention away from ourself towards something else, attending to ourself is not an activity or movement, but is a motionless retention of our attention within ourself. Since we ourself are consciousness or attention, keeping our attention centred upon ourself is allowing it to rest in its natural abode. Self-attention is thus a state of just being, and not doing anything. It is consequently a state of perfect repose, serenity, stillness, calm and peace, and as such one of supreme and unqualified happiness.
Because the practice of self-investigation is thus a state of just being, a state in which our attention does not do anything but simply remains as it really is – as the perfect clarity of our natural non-dual self-consciousness – rather than describing self-investigation as ‘self-attention’ we could more accurately describe it as ‘self-attentiveness’. That is, it is truly not a state of actively attending or ‘paying’ attention to ourself, but is instead a state of just being passively attentive or conscious of our own essential being.
Since we are in reality nothing other than absolutely and eternally clear self-conscious being, when we practise this art of just being self-attentive or self-conscious, we are merely practising being ourself – being our real self, being what we really are, or as Sri Ramana often used to describe it, simply being as we are.
Now let us consider the path of self-surrender. In this context what exactly does the word ‘surrender’ mean, what is the self that we are to surrender, and how can we surrender it?
In a spiritual context, the word ‘surrender’ means yielding, letting go, relinquishing everything, giving up all forms of attachment, renouncing all our personal desires, abandoning our own individual will, resigning ourself to the will of God, and submitting ourself entirely to him. Since the root of all our desires and attachments is our finite self – our sense of being a separate individual person – we can surrender all our desires and attachments completely and effectively only by surrendering this finite self. We cannot truly let go of everything that we consider to be ‘mine’ until we let go of everything that we consider to be ‘I’.
The self that we are to surrender is therefore our false finite self, our mind or ego. Since this individual self is a mere illusion, which arises due to our imagining ourself to be something that we are not, we can surrender it only by knowing our true self as it really is. If we clearly know what we really are, we will be unable to imagine ourself to be anything else. Therefore, as soon as we know our true self, we will automatically give up or surrender all the false notions that we now have about ourself. We can therefore truly surrender our false imaginary self only by knowing our real self.
The state of surrender is the state in which we do not attach ourself to anything or identify ourself with anything. Of all our attachments, the most fundamental is our attachment to our body, because we mistake it to be ourself. Our mind or separate individual consciousness can rise only by identifying a particular body as ‘I’, so all our experience of duality or multiplicity is rooted in our identification of ourself with a body. Without first attaching ourself to a body, we cannot attach ourself to anything else. Therefore, in order to give up all attachment, we must give up our attachment to our body.
We are attached to our body because we mistake it to be ourself, and we mistake it to be ourself only because we do not have a clear knowledge of what we really are. If we knew what we really are, we could not mistake ourself to be what we are not. Conversely, until we know what we really are, we will be unable to free ourself from all the mistaken notions that we now have about ourself. Hence, so long as we continue to lack a clear and correct knowledge of ourself, we will continue to mistake ourself to be what we are not.
Therefore we cannot surrender ourself entirely without first knowing our real self, that is, without actually experiencing our real nature or essential being. In other words, in order to surrender our false individual self, we must focus our entire attention upon our essential being in order to know what we really are. Thus self-investigation is the only effective means by which we can surrender ourself entirely.
Therefore in the thirteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? Sri Ramana defines true self-surrender by saying:
Being completely absorbed in ātma-niṣṭha [self-abidance, the state of just being as we really are], giving not even the slightest room to the rising of any thought other than ātma-cintanā [the thought of our own real self], is giving ourself to God. […]
The term ātma-cintanā literally means ‘self-thought’ or ‘thought of ourself’, but could perhaps be better translated as ‘self-contemplation’, because in this context the word cintanā or ‘thought’ does not actually mean ‘thought’ in the sense of a mental activity. Our mind is active only when we attend to anything other than ourself, and all its activity will therefore cease when we try to ‘think’ only of ourself. Thus ‘self-thought’ or ‘self-contemplation’ is not actually an act of thinking, but is only a perfectly inactive state of thought-free self-attentiveness or self-consciousness.
That is, when we try to ‘think’ of ourself, our attention will be withdrawn from all other thoughts and will remain motionlessly focused on ourself. Thus by ‘thinking’ of ourself exclusively we will avoid giving room to the rising of any other thought, and thereby we will remain calmly absorbed in self-abidance, the thought-free state of just being our own real self. Since in this state of clear self-attentiveness or firm self-abidance we do not rise as the separate thinking consciousness that we call our ‘mind’ or ‘individual self’, this is the state of complete self-surrender.
All action or ‘doing’, including our basic action of thinking or knowing thoughts, is a result of our failure to surrender our false individual self. We feel that we are thinking and doing other things only because we imagine ourself to be this thinking mind and this doing body.
That is, so long as we identify ourself with our body, speech or mind, we will feel that the actions of these instruments are being done by us. Everything that we experience ourself doing, ‘I am walking’, ‘I am talking’, ‘I am seeing’, ‘I am hearing’, ‘I am thinking’, ‘I am feeling’, ‘I am knowing’ and so on, is an effect of our identification of ourself with our body, speech, senses, emotions and mind.
All our actions and all our dualistic knowledge arise only because we identify ourself with these instruments of action and knowledge – this entire body-mind complex. Therefore, so long as we feel that we are doing anything or knowing anything other than our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’, we have not surrendered our attachment to this body-mind complex, or to our individual self, which identifies this complex as ‘I’.
Since complete and perfect surrender is the state in which we have entirely renounced our individual self, and thus all connection with its body and mind, it is a state devoid of any action and any knowledge of duality. That which feels ‘I am doing’ or ‘I am knowing’ is not our real self, but only our false individual self. The nature of our real self is just to be, and not to do or know anything other than itself. Therefore, if we have truly surrendered our finite individual self, we will remain as mere being, and will not feel that we are doing anything or knowing anything other than our own self-conscious being. The state of true surrender is therefore a state of just being, and not a state of doing anything.
Since perfect surrender is only the state of just being, the means to attain that state must also be just being. The practice of self-surrender is therefore the cultivation of the skill just to be, and not to be this or that. How can we cultivate this skill? According to the principles upon which the path of self-surrender is based, we can cultivate it by surrendering our individual will to the will of God, that is, by giving up all our own personal desires, because our desires are the power that impels us to do actions, and that thereby prevents us from just being.
By cultivating the attitude ‘Thy will be done; not my will, but only thine’, we will be able gradually to reduce the strength of our own individual will – our likes and dislikes, our desires, attachments and aversions – and thus we will begin to deprive our mind of the force or power that impels it to be active. The more we are able to reduce the power of our individual will, the more our mind will subside, and the closer we will come to the state of just being.
In order for us to surrender ourself completely, we must give up all our desires. But is it possible for us to remain completely free of desire? Is it not natural for us to be always driven by some form of desire? Can we not surrender ourself to God simply by giving up all our selfish desires, and replacing them with unselfish desires?
We can answer this last question only by understanding what we mean by an unselfish desire. Some people believe that if they are concerned only for the welfare of others, and that if they sacrifice all their own personal comforts and conveniences and dedicate all their time and money to helping other people, they are thereby acting unselfishly and without any personal desire. However, even if we are able to act in such an ‘unselfish’ manner, which few if any of us are actually able to do, what actually impels us to do so?
If we are perfectly honest with ourself, we will have to admit that we act ‘unselfishly’ for our own satisfaction. We feel good in ourself when we act ‘unselfishly’, and therefore acting in this way makes us feel happy. Hence our desire to be happy is what ultimately and truly motivates us to act ‘unselfishly’. There is therefore truly no such thing as an absolutely ‘unselfish’ desire, because underlying even the most unselfish desire is our fundamental desire to be happy.
We all desire to be happy. However, because we each have our own personal understanding of what makes us happy, we each seek happiness in our own individual way. All our actions, whether good or bad, moral or immoral, virtuous or sinful, saintly or evil, are motivated only by our desire for happiness. Whatever we may do, and whatever effort we may make, we cannot avoid having the desire to be happy, because that desire is inherent in our very being.
Is it then impossible for us to be completely free of all desire? Yes, it is, or at least in a certain sense it is. If by the word ‘desire’ we mean our basic liking to be happy, then yes, it is impossible for us ever to be free from it. However, our liking to be happy exists in two forms, one of which is correctly called ‘love’ and the other of which is correctly called ‘desire’. What then is the difference between our love to be happy and our desire to be happy?
‘Love’ is the only suitable word that we can use to describe the liking to be happy that is inherent in our very being. Happiness is truly not anything extraneous to us, but is our very being, our own real self. Our liking for happiness is therefore in essence just our love for our own real self.
We all love ourself, but we cannot say that we desire ourself. Desire is always for something other than ourself. We desire things that are other than ourself because we wrongly imagine that we can derive happiness from them. We can therefore use the word ‘love’ to describe our liking to be happy when we do not seek happiness in anything outside ourself, but when we seek happiness outside ourself, our natural love to be happy takes the form of desire.
Therefore we can be completely free of desire only when our natural love of happiness is directed towards nothing other than our own essential being. We will never be able to free ourself from the bondage of desire until we replace all our desire to acquire happiness from other things with an all-consuming love to experience happiness only in ourself. In other words, we can transform all our finite desires into pure and infinite love only by diverting our liking for happiness away from all other things towards our own essential being.
The obstacle that prevents us from surrendering ourself entirely is our desire to obtain happiness from anything other than ourself. But how does such desire arise in the first place? If our love just to be is our real nature, how have we forgotten such love and fallen a prey to the vultures of our desires?
So long as we remain as our infinite consciousness of being, which is what we truly always are, we can experience nothing other than ourself. In such a state nothing exists for us to desire, and therefore we are perfectly peaceful and happy in ourself. But as soon as we rise as the finite body-bound consciousness that we call our ‘mind’ or ‘individual self’, we separate ourself seemingly from the happiness that we truly are, and we experience things that seem to be other than ourself. Having separated ourself from our own real self, which is infinite happiness and for which we therefore naturally have infinite love, we are overwhelmed by desire to regain that happiness.
However, because we have forgotten what we really are, and because we see our own self as the many objects of this world, we are confused and imagine that we can obtain the happiness we desire from those objects. Due to the illusory appearance of duality or otherness, we experience both our natural happiness and our natural love for that happiness as two pairs of opposites, pleasure and pain, and desire and aversion. That is, we imagine that certain things give us pleasure or happiness, and that other things cause us pain or suffering, and therefore we feel desire for those things that seem to give us happiness, and aversion for those things that seem to make us unhappy.
Thus the root cause of all our desire is our forgetfulness or ignorance of our own real self. When we ignore our true and infinite being, we imagine ourself to be a false and finite individual, and therefore we experience things that seem to be other than ourself, and feel desire for them, thinking that they can give us the happiness that we seem to have lost. Since our imaginary self-ignorance is the sole cause of all our desires, we can free ourself from them only by regaining our natural state of true self-knowledge.
Until we regain our true self-knowledge, we cannot remain free of desire. We may be able to replace our ‘bad’ desires by ‘good’ desires, but by doing so we will only be replacing our iron chains with golden ones. Whether the chains that bind us are made of iron or of gold, we will still be bound by them. Therefore, in order to experience true and perfect freedom, we must give up all our desires, both our base desires and our noble desires, which we can do only by knowing ourself as we really are.
Since we can achieve true and complete self-surrender only by experiencing non-dual self-knowledge, why is the path of self-surrender generally associated with dualistic devotion to God? Though Sri Ramana taught that we can surrender ourself completely only by knowing our real self, even he often described self-surrender in terms of dualistic devotion, and he did so for a very good reason.
In the thirteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?, for example, when defining true self-surrender as the state of thought-free self-abidance, he describes it as ‘giving ourself to God’, and he goes on to explain the practice of self-surrender in terms of dualistic devotion to God:
Being completely absorbed in self-abidance, giving not even the slightest room to the rising of any thought other than self-contemplation, is giving ourself to God. Even though we place whatever amount of burden upon God, that entire amount he will bear. Since one paramēśvara śakti [supreme power of God] is driving all activities [that is, since it is causing and controlling everything that happens in this world], why should we always think, ‘it is necessary [for me] to act in this way; it is necessary [for me] to act in that way’, instead of being [calm, peaceful and happy] having yielded [ourself together with our entire burden] to that [supreme controlling power]? Though we know that the train is carrying all the burdens, why should we who travel in it suffer by carrying our small luggage on our head instead of leaving it placed on that [train]?
Why does Sri Ramana explain self-surrender in such dualistic terms? The necessity to surrender ourself arises only when we mistake ourself to be a finite individual, and in this state we experience all duality as if it were real. As we saw in chapter four, so long as we feel ourself to be a finite person or individual consciousness, the world and God both exist as entities that are separate from us. God as a separate being is as real as our own separate individuality. Because we have limited ourself as a finite individual, the infinite love and power which is our own real self appears to us to be separate from us, and therefore we give it the name ‘God’. It is this power of our own real self that Sri Ramana describes here as the ‘one paramēśvara śakti’, the one ‘supreme-God-power’ or ‘supreme ruling power’.
Everything that happens in this world happens only by the ‘will of God’, that is, by the love of this one supreme ruling power. Since God is all-knowing, nothing can happen without him knowing it. Since he is all-powerful, nothing can happen without his consent. And since he is all-loving, nothing can happen that is not for the true benefit of all concerned (even though our limited human intellect may be unable to understand how each happening is truly good and beneficial). In fact, since he is the source and totality of all the power that we see manifest in this universe, every single activity or happening here is impelled, driven and controlled by him. As an ancient Tamil proverb says, ‘avaṉ aruḷ aṉḏṟi ōr aṇuvum asaiyādu’, which means ‘except by his grace, not even an atom moves’.
Since God is therefore bearing the entire burden of this universe, he can perfectly well bear any burden that we may place upon him. But what exactly do we mean when we speak of placing our burden upon him, and how can we do so? We all feel that we have some cares and responsibilities, but since God is responsible for everything, and since he is taking perfectly good care of everything, the truth is that we need not take any care or responsibility upon ourself.
Our only responsibility is to surrender ourself to him – that is, to yield our individual will to his divine will, which simply means to give up all our personal desires, fears, likes and dislikes, and thereby to leave all our cares and worries in his perfectly capable hands. If we surrender our individual will in this manner, he will take perfect care of us and will bear all our responsibilities.
However, our surrender does have to be sincere. We should not delude ourself by thinking we have surrendered to him, and then indulging in irresponsible behaviour. If we have truly surrendered our individual will to him, he will prompt our mind, speech and body to act in an appropriate fashion in every situation. But so long as we have any lurking desires, any likes or dislikes, we have to accept responsibility for any of our actions that result from such desires. However, even if we have not yet been able to relinquish all our desires, so long as we sincerely want to surrender to his will and make every effort to do so, we can be sure that he will guide our actions and safeguard us from falling a prey to the delusion ‘I have surrendered myself to God’.
If we do think ‘I have surrendered myself to God’, we have still retained our individual ‘I’, so our so-called ‘surrender’ is merely a self-deception. When we have truly surrendered ourself to him, we will not exist as an individual to think anything. We will have lost ourself in the all-consuming fire of true self-knowledge, and therefore we will only remain as mere being.
Until such time, we should conduct ourself with perfect humility, both inwardly and outwardly, and we should never imagine that we have gained any sort of spiritual achievement. So long as we are aware of any otherness or duality – anything other than our mere consciousness of our own being – we are still mistaking ourself to be a finite individual, and hence we should understand that we have not truly surrendered ourself or gained any worthwhile spiritual achievement.
Avoiding any form of pride or self-delusion is an integral part of self-surrender. True self-surrender is total self-denial. As individuals we are nothing, and should understand ourself to be nothing. Without the aid of God we are absolutely powerless to do anything, even to surrender ourself to him. Therefore if we truly wish to surrender to him, we should pray for his aid, and should depend upon him entirely to safeguard us from the self-deceptive rising of ego and pride.
However, knowing our powerlessness and worthlessness, we should not feel dejected. As a finite, confused and self-deluded mind, we truly cannot do anything to attain true self-knowledge, but why should we even imagine that we need to do anything? Our responsibility is not to do anything, but just to be. In order to be, we must reject our mind along with its sense of doership, and simply surrender ourself to the supreme power of love that we call ‘God’. If we have even the slightest wish to surrender ourself thus, he will give us all the aid that is necessary to make our surrender complete.
In truth, even the iota of liking to surrender ourself that we now have has been given to us by him, and having given us this small taste of true love for the infinite being that is himself, he will not cheat us by failing to nurture this seed of love that he has planted in our heart. Having planted this seed, he will surely nurture it and ensure that it grows to fruition – the state in which we are wholly consumed by our love for absolute being.
Therefore whenever we feel dejected, knowing how feeble is our love for just being, and how half-hearted are our attempts to surrender ourself, we should console ourself by praying to God in the manner shown to us by Sri Ramana in verse 60 of Śrī Aruṇācala Akṣaramaṇamālai:
Having shown to me, who am devoid of [true] love [for you], [a taste of] desire [for you], bestow your grace without cheating [me], O Arunachala.
Sri Ramana has composed many prayers like this showing us how we should beseech God to help us in our efforts to attain the state of just being, because prayer is an important part of the process of self-surrender. God of course does not need to be told by us that we require his help, but that is not the true purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer is to enkindle in our heart a sense of total dependence upon God. Since we cannot surrender ourself and attain the state of being merely by our own effort, we must learn to depend entirely upon God, because he alone can enable us to surrender ourself completely to him.
Moreover, since God exists in the core of our being as the core of our being, that is, as our own true self, whenever we pray to him, we need not think of him as some far-off being up in heaven, but can address our prayers to him directly within ourself, and thus we can make prayer one more opportunity to turn our attention towards our own innermost being.
All the help that we need to enable us to attain the state of just being is available to us in our own heart, that is, in the core of our being, which is the true abode of God, the supreme power of love. To obtain all the divine aid or grace that we need, we need not look anywhere other than in our own heart, our real self or essential being. All our efforts, prayers and attention should therefore be directed inwards, towards our own being.
This truth is clearly implied by Sri Ramana in verse 8 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
Rather than anya-bhāva, ananya-bhāva [with the conviction] ‘he is I’ is indeed best among all [forms of meditation].
In this context bhāva means ‘meditation’, but also has the added connotation of ‘opinion’, ‘attitude’ or ‘outlook’, and anya means ‘other’, whereas ananya means ‘non-other’. Thus the meaning implied by anya-bhāva is meditation upon God considering him to be other than oneself, whereas that implied by ananya-bhāva is meditation upon God considering him to be not other than oneself. This meaning of ananya-bhāva is further emphasised by the words ‘he is I’, which are placed in apposition to it.
Therefore in whatever manner we may practise devotion to God, it is always better to consider him to be our own real self, rather than considering him to be other than ourself. The benefit of developing the attitude that God is our own real self or innermost being, and meditating upon him, worshipping him or praying to him accordingly is explained by Sri Ramana in verse 9 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
By the strength of [such] meditation [or attitude], being [abiding or remaining] in the state of being, which transcends [all] meditation, is alone the true state of supreme devotion.
So long as we consider God to be other than ourself, whenever we think of him our attention will be directed outwards, away from ourself, but when we consider him to be our own real self or essential being, ‘I am’, whenever we think of him our attention will be directed inwards, towards the innermost core of our being. When our attention is directed away from ourself, our mind is active, but when our attention turns back to the core of our being, our mind becomes motionless and thereby subsides in the state of being, which transcends all thought or meditation. The state in which we thus remain subsided in the state of being is the true state of supreme devotion, because it is the state in which we have surrendered ourself entirely to God, who is our own essential being.
This state of just being, in which our mind or individual self has completely subsided, is not only the pinnacle of true devotion or love, but is also the ultimate goal and fulfilment of the other three spiritual paths, the paths of desireless action, union and knowing, as affirmed by Sri Ramana in verse 10 of Upadēśa Undiyār:
Being [firmly established as our real self] having subsided in [our] rising-place [the core of our being, which is the source from which we had risen as our mind], that is karma and bhakti, that is yōga and jñāna.
Though it is our mind that sets out to practise any of the four ‘paths’ or types of spiritual endeavour, namely the path of karma or action performed without desire for any reward, the path of bhakti or devotion, the path of yōga or union, and the path of jñāna or knowing, our mind is in fact the only obstacle that stands in the way of our achieving the goal of these four paths. Therefore the final end of each of these paths can only be reached when our mind, which struggles to practise them, finally subsides in the state of being, which is the source from which it had originally risen. Thus complete self-surrender is the true goal of all forms of spiritual practice.
Even self-investigation, which is the true path of knowing or jñāna, is necessary only because we have not yet surrendered ourself completely. Since the correct practice of self-investigation is not doing anything, but is just being, we cannot practise it correctly without surrendering ourself – our ‘doing’ self or thinking mind. Conversely, since we cannot effectively surrender our false finite self without knowing what we really are, the correct practice of self-surrender is to keenly scrutinise ourself and thereby to subside in the state of just being. Thus in practice self-investigation and self-surrender are inseparable from each other, like the two sides of a single sheet of paper.
When we try to surrender ourself, we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that our mind or individual self does not surreptitiously rise to think of anything. Since our mind rises only when we think of or attend to anything other than ourself, we can prevent it from rising only by vigilantly attending to the source from which it rises, which is our own real self.
When we thus attend vigilantly to our own innermost being, we will be able to detect our mind at the very moment it rises, and thus we will be able to crush its rising instantaneously. In fact, if we are vigilantly self-attentive, our mind will not be able to rise at all, because it actually rises only on account of our slackness in self-attention.
To return once again to our discussion of the thirteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?, in the third sentence Sri Ramana asks, ‘Since one paramēśvara śakti is driving all activities, why should we always think, “it is necessary [for me] to act in this way; it is necessary [for me] to act in that way”, instead of being having yielded to that?’. Besides what we have discussed already, there are two more important points to note in this sentence.
Firstly, when he asks us why we should think that we need to do this or that, the meaning he implies is not only that it is unnecessary for us to do anything, but also that it is unnecessary for us to think anything. If we truly believe that God is doing everything, and is always taking care of every living being, including ourself, we will have the confidence to place upon him the burden of thinking for us, and thus we will be freed of the burden of thinking anything for ourself.
If we really surrender ourself entirely to God, he will take full control of our mind, speech and body, and will make them act in whatever way is appropriate in all situations. Only when we thus cease to think anything will our surrender to God be complete.
Secondly, the words that I have translated as ‘instead of being having yielded to that’ are very significant, because they are an apt description of what real self-surrender is. In the original Tamil, the words used by Sri Ramana are adaṟku aḍaṅgi-y-irāmal. The word adaṟku means ‘to that’ or ‘to it’, that is, to the one paramēśvara śakti or ‘supreme ruling power’. The word aḍaṅgi is a verbal participle that means not only ‘having yielded’, but also having subsided, settled, shrunk, laid down, submitted, been subdued, become still, ceased or disappeared. The word irāmal means ‘without being’ or ‘instead of being’. Thus the meaning implied by these words is that true self-surrender is a state of just being, that is, a state in which we remain as mere being, having yielded or submitted ourself to God, and having thereby subsided, settled down and become still, and having in fact ceased altogether to exist as a separate individual.
As we saw earlier, God is our own real self, and he appears to be separate from us only because we have limited ourself as a finite individual consciousness. In other words, as soon as we delude ourself into imagining that we are a finite individual, our own real self manifests as God, the power that guides and controls our entire life as an individual, and that thereby gradually leads us back towards our natural state of true self-knowledge.
However, God is not the only form in which our real self manifests to guide us back to itself. At a certain stage in our spiritual development, our real self also manifests as guru, and in this form it reveals to us through spoken or written words the truth that we ourself are infinite being, consciousness and happiness, and that to experience ourself as such we should scrutinise ourself and thereby surrender our false individual self. When we have once heard or read this truth revealed by our real self in the form of guru, and if we have been genuinely attracted by this truth, we have truly come under the influence of guru, and we are therefore well on our way to reaching our final goal of true self-knowledge.
This state in which we have come under the influence of guru is described by Sri Ramana in the twelfth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? as being caught or ensnared in the ‘glance of guru’s grace’:
God and guru are in truth not different. Just as that [prey] which has been caught in the jaws of a tiger will not return, so those who have been caught in the glance of guru’s grace will surely be saved by him and will never instead be forsaken; nevertheless, it is necessary [for them] to proceed [behave or act] unfailingly according to the path that guru has shown.
Though the real guru outwardly appears to be a human being, he is in fact God in human form, manifested as such in order to give us the spiritual teachings that are necessary to prompt us to turn our mind towards the source from which it had risen, and thereby to subside and merge in that source for ever. Or to explain the same truth in another manner, since the person who had previously occupied the body in which guru is manifested had surrendered himself entirely to God and had thereby been consumed in the fire of true self-knowledge, that which remains and functions through that body is only God himself. Therefore that which speaks, sees, hears and acts through the human form in which guru is manifested is not a finite individual, but is the infinite power of love and true knowledge that we otherwise call God.
This absolute oneness of God, guru and our own real self is the true significance of the Christian Trinity, as explained by Sri Ramana. God the Father is God as the power that governs this whole universe and the life of each individual in it, God the Son is guru, and God the Holy Spirit is our own real self. Though in the limited and distorted outlook of our mind they appear to be three distinct entities or ‘persons’, God, guru and self are in reality the one infinite and indivisible being.
Though the word guru is used in many different contexts and may therefore mean a teacher of any ordinary art, science or skill, in a spiritual context it correctly denotes only the sadguru, the ‘real guru’ or ‘being-guru’, that is, the guru who is sat, the reality or true being of each one of us. Though there are many people who claim to be spiritual gurus, the true spiritual guru is very rare, and hence in a spiritual context the term guru should only be applied to those rare beings like Buddha, Sri Krishna, Christ, Adi Sankara, Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Ramana, who have a clear divine mission to reveal to us the path to attain true self-knowledge. No such real guru will ever claim to be the guru, either explicitly or implicitly, because the real guru is totally devoid of ego, and therefore knows himself only as ‘I am’ and not as ‘I am God’ or ‘I am guru’.
Once we are caught in the influence of the real guru, we are like the prey that has been caught in the jaws of a tiger. Just as a tiger will unfailingly devour the prey it has caught, so guru will unfailingly devour us, destroying our mind or individual consciousness, and thereby absorbing us into himself, that is, making us one with our own true and essential being, which is what he really is.
However, Sri Ramana adds a cautionary note, saying that though guru will surely save us in this manner, and will never forsake us, we should nevertheless unfailingly follow the path that he has shown us. In the clause ‘it is necessary to proceed unfailingly according to the path that guru has shown’, the original Tamil word that I have translated as ‘to proceed’ is naḍakka, which means to walk, go, proceed or behave, and therefore it implies that we should conduct ourself or act in accordance with his teachings, or in other words, we should unfailingly practise the twin path of self-investigation and self-surrender that he has taught us.
The purpose of the manifestation of our real self in the human form of guru is to teach us the means by which we can attain salvation, which is the state of true self-knowledge. It did not manifest itself as guru merely for us to worship him as God, expecting him to bestow upon us any finite benefit or happiness either in this world or some other world.
The function of guru is the ultimate function of God, which is to destroy for ever our illusion of individuality – our delusion that we are the body and mind that we now imagine ourself to be – and he performs this function by teaching us that we should turn our attention inwards, towards our innermost being, in order to know our real self and thereby surrender our false individual self. Therefore, if we truly wish to be saved from our own self-imposed delusion, we must unfailingly do as guru has taught us, making every possible effort to attend to our essential being, ‘I am’, and thereby to surrender our finite self in the infinity of that being or ‘am’-ness.
The grace of God or guru is always providing us all the help we need to follow this spiritual path, but we must take full advantage of that help by turning our mind inwards and thereby remaining in our natural state of just being, which is the true state of self-investigation and self-surrender. God or guru is always bestowing grace upon us by shining within us as ‘I am’, but we must reciprocate that grace or love by attending to ‘I am’.
The reason why we have not yet attained salvation is that we continue to ignore the true form of grace, which ever shines within us as ‘I am’. As Sri Ramana says in verse 966 of Guru Vācaka Kōvai:
Since uḷḷadu [the absolute reality, ‘being’ or ‘that which is’] alone is [the true form of] tiruvaruḷ [divine grace], which rises [clearly and prominently within each one of us] as uḷḷam [our ‘heart’, ‘core’ or essential consciousness ‘am’], the fault of ignoring [or disregarding] ‘that which is’ is suited [to be considered as a defect that belongs] only to individuals, who do not unceasingly think [remember or attend to this grace, which shines lovingly as ‘am’], inwardly melting [with love for it]. Instead, how can the fault of not bestowing sweet grace be [considered as a defect that belongs] to [God or guru, who is] ‘that which is’?
Being ungracious, unloving, unkind or unhelpful is a fault that can be blamed only upon us individuals, who ignore and disregard the infinite and absolute reality – uḷḷadu, ‘being’ or ‘that which is’ – which shines within us effulgently as ‘am’ or ‘I am’, and not upon God or guru, who is that reality. God or guru never ignores us, but constantly shines within us as our own being or ‘am’-ness, beckoning us lovingly to turn within and merge in him. However, though he is always making himself so easily available to us, we choose to ignore him constantly and to attend instead to our thoughts about our petty life as an individual in this imaginary world.
For us to attain salvation, only two things are necessary, the grace of God or guru and our own willingness to submit to that grace. Of these two indispensable ingredients, the former is always abundantly available, and only the latter is lacking. Until we are perfectly willing to surrender and lose our individuality, God or guru will never force us, but he will be constantly nurturing the seed of such willingness or love in our heart, helping it to grow until one day it consumes us.
Therefore, though guru will certainly save us and will never forsake us, it is essential that we should do our part, which is to submit ourself willingly to his grace, which is the perfect clarity of our own fundamental self-consciousness – our absolutely non-dual consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’. The only way we can thus submit or surrender ourself to his grace is to ‘think of’ or constantly attend to our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’, melting inwardly with overwhelming love for it. Sincerely attempting to surrender ourself in this manner is what Sri Ramana meant when he said, ‘Nevertheless, it is necessary to proceed unfailingly according to the path that guru has shown’.
In order to know our own real self, which is absolute, infinite, eternal and undivided being-consciousness-bliss or sat-cit-ānanda, we must be willing to surrender or renounce our false finite self. And in order to surrender our false self, we must be wholly consumed by an overwhelming love to know and to be our own real self or essential being.
So long as we feel complacent about our present condition, in which we have imaginarily limited ourself as this finite mind and body, we will lack the intense motivation that we must have in order to be sufficiently willing to surrender our false self. Since we now imagine our mind and body to be ourself, our attachment to them is very strong, and hence we will not be willing to surrender this attachment unless we are very strongly motivated to do so.
Our attachment to our mind and body is so strong that it induces us to delude ourself into a deceptive state of complacency, making us feel that our present condition is not as intolerable as it really is. Rather than recognising the fact that the deep dissatisfaction that we feel with our present condition as a finite body-bound individual consciousness is an inevitable consequence of our imaginary separation of ourself from the infinite happiness that is our own real nature, and that we can therefore never overcome this dissatisfaction by any means other than true self-knowledge – that is, other than experiencing ourself as the adjunct-free, infinite, undivided and therefore absolutely non-dual real self-consciousness ‘I am’ – we complacently continue our life as a body-bound individual imagining that we can achieve the happiness that we seek by enjoying the petty transient pleasures that we experience by satisfying any of our countless temporal desires.
This self-deceptive complacency is a serious problem that all true spiritual aspirants experience, and we must overcome it if we truly wish to surrender our false finite self and thereby to know our real infinite self. Since this deep-rooted complacency is an inevitable consequence of our having succumbed to our power of māyā or self-delusion, which is the power that causes us to imagine ourself to be this finite body and mind, we normally cannot overcome it unless we experience an intense internal crisis, such as being suddenly confronted by a profound inward fear of death.
Therefore when we reach a certain stage of spiritual maturity, the power of grace will generally induce us to experience some such internal crisis, and when we experience it we will be shocked out of our present sense of complacency and will therefore turn our attention selfwards with intense love to know what we really are.
In the life of Sri Ramana such an internal crisis occurred in the form of the sudden intense fear of death that he experienced when he was a sixteen-year-old boy. As we saw in the introduction to this book, this intense fear prompted him to turn his attention inwards to discover whether he was really the body, which is subject to death. So intensely did he focus his attention upon his innermost being – his essential self-consciousness ‘I’ – that he experienced it with perfect clarity, and thus he came to know from his own direct experience that he was not the mortal body but was only the immortal, eternal and infinite spirit, which is absolutely non-dual being, consciousness and bliss.
Sri Ramana describes this experience of his in the second of the two verses of the maṅgalam or ‘auspicious introduction’ to Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
Those mature people who have intense fear of death will take refuge at the feet of God, who is devoid of death and birth, [depending upon him] as [their protective] fortress. By their surrender, they experience death [the death or dissolution of their finite self]. Will those who are deathless [having died to their mortal self, and having thereby become one with the immortal spirit] approach the death-thought [or thought of death] [ever again]?
Though the Tamil word am literally means either ‘those’ or ‘beauty’, I have translated it here as ‘those mature’, because in this context the beauty that it denotes is the true beauty of spiritual maturity, which is the truly desirable condition in which our mind has been cleansed of most of its impurities – namely its cruder forms of desire – and is therefore ready to surrender itself entirely to God.
The fear of death is naturally inherent in all living beings, but it usually remains in a dormant form because we spend most of our time thinking about our life in this world and hence we seldom think about death. Even when some external event or some internal thought reminds us that we will sooner or later die, our fear of death seldom becomes intense, because the thought of death prompts us to think of the things in our life to which we are most strongly attached.
However, though it usually remains in a dormant form, our fear of death is in fact the greatest, most fundamental and most deep-rooted of all our fears. We fear death because it appears to us to be a state of non-existence – a state in which we ourself will cease to exist, or at least cease to exist as we now know ourself. Since we love our own being or existence more than we love any other thing, we fear to lose our own being or existence more than we fear any other thing. In other words, our fear of death is rooted in our self-love – our basic love for our own essential self or being.
The reason why we love our own self or being is that we ourself are happiness. Because by our very nature we love happiness, and because happiness is in fact our own being, we cannot avoid loving our own being or existence, and hence we cannot avoid fearing the loss or destruction of our being or existence. Therefore so long as we experience ourself as a physical body – that is, so long as we confuse our existence with the existence of a mortal body – we cannot avoid having a deep-rooted fear of death.
Hence the fear of death will always exist in us until we truly decide to free ourself from our self-created illusion that we are a mortal body. Because we imagine ourself to be this body, we are unavoidably attached to it, and therefore we fear to lose it. However, though we all know that one day our body will die, and that death can come at any time, our power of māyā or self-delusion lulls us into a state of complacency, making us imagine that death is far away, or that we do not really fear death.
Though we may imagine that we do not fear death, if our life is put in sudden danger, we will certainly respond with intense fear. However, as soon as the immediate danger is past, our fear will subside and we will continue our life in our usual state of self-deceptive complacency.
Though we experience intense fear of death whenever the life of our body is in extreme danger, the intensity of that fear is short-lived. It is not sustained because when we are confronted with death we react by thinking of our loved ones, our friends, our material possessions, our status in life and other such external things to which we are attached, and which we consequently fear to lose.
Even our religious beliefs can be a means by which we sustain the comfort of our complacency. If we believe, for example, that after the death of our body we will go to some other world called heaven, where we will be reunited with all our loved ones and friends, and where we will live with them an eternal life free from all suffering, that belief will help us to ward off our fear of death. Even if we have some less optimistic belief about life after death, so long as our belief is sufficiently comforting, as most such beliefs are, it will help us to feel complacent about the certainty of death.
So long as we lack true spiritual maturity or freedom from desire for anything external, the fear of death will impel our mind to rush outwards to think of our life in this world or the next, and due to such thoughts our attention will be diverted away from the thought of death, and thus our fear will lose its intensity. However, when we eventually gain true spiritual maturity, our reaction to the thought of death will be different.
If we are spiritually mature, the intensity of our desire for and attachment to external things, either in this world or the next, will be greatly reduced. Therefore, when we think of death, we will not fear to lose any external thing, but will only fear to lose our own existence or being. Since the last vestiges of our desire and attachment will be centred on our own very existence as an individual, and since we confuse our existence with the existence of whatever body we currently imagine ourself to be, when the thought of the death of our body arises within us, our mind will turn inwards to cling to its own existence or essential being.
This is what happened in the case of Sri Ramana. When the thought of death suddenly arose within him, his reaction was to turn his attention within, towards his own very being, in order to discover whether he himself would die along with the death of his body. Because his attention was focused so keenly on his own essential being or ‘am’-ness, he clearly experienced himself without any superimposed adjunct such as his mind or body, and thus he discovered that his real self was not a mortal body or a transient mind, but was only the infinite, eternal, birthless and deathless spirit – the one true non-dual consciousness of being, which always knows ‘I am’ and nothing other than ‘I am’.
In the first sentence of this second maṅgalam verse of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana says:
Those mature people who have intense fear of death will take refuge at the feet of mahēśaṉ [the ‘great Lord’], who is devoid of death and birth, [depending upon him] as [their protective] fortress. […]
This is a poetic way of describing his own experience of self-investigation and self-surrender. Though the word mahēśaṉ, which literally means the ‘great Lord’, is a name that usually denotes Lord Siva, the form in which many Hindus worship God, Sri Ramana did not use it in this context to denote any particular form of God, but only as an allegorical description of the birthless and deathless spirit, which always exists in each one of us as our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.
No name or form of God is truly devoid of birth or death – appearance or disappearance – because like all other names and forms the various names and forms in which devotees worship God are transitory appearances. They can appear only when our mind has risen to know them, and they disappear when our mind subsides. Therefore in this context the words ‘the great Lord, who is devoid of death and birth’ do not denote merely the saguṇa or qualified aspect of God – that is, God as he is conceived by our finite mind – but only his essential nirguṇa or unqualified aspect – that is, God as he is really, which is the nameless and formless absolute reality, our own true self-conscious being, which always knows its own existence without ever appearing or disappearing.
However, though in this context Sri Ramana is not actually describing any form of saguṇa upāsana or worship of God in name and form, by using the word mahēśaṉ, which is a personal name of God, he does allude to such worship. This allusion is intentional, because if we worship God in name and form with true heart-melting devotion, our mind will gradually be purified or cleansed of its cruder forms of desire, and thus it will eventually gain the maturity that is required for it to be able to surrender itself entirely to him.
However, no matter how much we may worship God in name and form, we cannot achieve the final goal of the path of devotion, which is the complete surrender of ourself to him, until we turn our attention inwards to worship him in the profound depth of our own heart – in the innermost core of our being – as our own true and essential being. In other words, in order for us to attain the true goal of saguṇa upāsana or worship of God in name and form, such worship must eventually flower into nirguṇa upāsana, which is the true worship of God as the one nameless and formless absolute reality, which always exists within us as our own essential self-conscious being.
We can experience God as he really is only when we turn our mind inwards – away from all names and forms, which are merely thoughts that we have formed in our mind by our power of imagination – and thereby allow it to dissolve in the absolute clarity of our own true and essential self-conscious being, which is the true ‘form’ or nature of God. However, in order to turn our mind inwards and thereby surrender it completely in the all-consuming light of God’s own true being, we must have overwhelming love for him, and such love is cultivated by the practice of saguṇa upāsana or dualistic worship.
However, though the true love that we require in order to be willing to surrender ourself entirely in the absolute clarity of pure self-conscious being, which is the reality of both God and ourself, can be cultivated gradually by the practice of dualistic devotion, the quickest and most effective way to cultivate it is by the practice of non-dualistic devotion – that is, by the practice of self-attentiveness, which is the true adoration of God as our own real self or essential being.
Whether we cultivate the true love or willingness to surrender ourself entirely to the absolute reality, which is the infinite fullness of being that we call ‘God’, by dualistic devotion or by non-dualistic devotion, once we have cultivated it sufficiently any internal crisis such as an intense fear of death will impel our mind to turn inwards and to sink into the innermost depth of our own being in order to surrender itself entirely to him. Only when our mind thus merges in the source from which it had risen, which is our own true and essential self-conscious being, will its surrender to God become complete.
This complete surrender of our mind or individual self in the innermost depth of our own being is what Sri Ramana describes in this verse by the words ‘will take refuge at the feet of God, who is devoid of death and birth, [depending upon him] as [their protective] fortress’.
In Hindu devotional poetry and literature the adoration of God is often described as bowing to his feet, falling at his feet, clinging to his feet, taking refuge in or at his feet, and so on, because such actions imply humility, devotion and submission. Therefore in Indian languages the term ‘feet’ has come to be synonymous with God as the ultimate object of worship or adoration.
Moreover, as Sri Ramana often explained, the term ‘the feet of God’ is an allegorical description of his true state – the egoless and perfectly non-dual state of unalloyed self-conscious being, which always shines within each one of us as ‘I am’. In order to remind us that we can experience God as he really is only in the core of our own being, he always emphasised the truth that the ‘feet of God’ cannot be found outside but only within ourself. On one occasion, when a lady devotee bowed before him and caught hold of his feet saying, ‘I am clinging to the feet of my guru’, he looked at her kindly and said, ‘Are these the feet of guru? The feet of guru are that which is always shining within you as “I I”. Grasp that’.
Therefore the words ‘those mature people will take refuge at the feet of God’ mean that they will lovingly subside in the innermost depth of their own being, where they will experience God as their own real self. The only true refuge or fortress which will protect us from the fear of death and every other form of misery is the innermost core of our own being, which is the real abode of God and which, being the foundation that underlies and supports our mind and everything known by it, is figuratively described as his ‘feet’.
In the second sentence of this verse Sri Ramana says, ‘By their surrender, they experience death’. The death that they previously feared was the death of their body, but when the fear of that death impels them to take refuge at the ‘feet of God’, they experience death of an entirely different kind. That is, when they take refuge at the ‘feet of God’ by subsiding into the innermost depth of their own being, they will experience the absolute clarity of unadulterated self-consciousness, which will swallow their mind just as light swallows darkness.
Our mind or finite individual self is an imagination – a false form of consciousness that experiences itself as a body, which is one of its own imaginary creations. We imagine ourself to be this mind only because we ignore or fail to attend to our own true and essential being. If we knew what we really are, we could not mistake ourself to be any other thing. Hence, since our mind has come into existence because of our imaginary self-ignorance, it will be destroyed by the experience of true self-knowledge.
Therefore when we subside into our ‘heart’, the innermost core of our own being, where our true self-consciousness shines free from all adjuncts, all thoughts, all imaginations, all duality and all forms of limitation, our mind will disappear in the absolute clarity of that pure self-consciousness, just as an imaginary snake will disappear when we see clearly that what we mistook to be that snake is in fact only a rope. Because our mind is a false knowledge about ourself – an imagination that we are a material body – the experience of true self-knowledge will reveal that it is unreal.
Therefore the death that we will experience when we surrender our false individual self in the absolute clarity of true self-knowledge, which always shines in the innermost core of our being, is the death of our own mind. The death of our body is not a true death, because when our body dies our mind will create for itself another body by its power of imagination. As long as our mind survives, it will continue thus creating for itself one body after another. Hence the only true death is the death of our own mind.
However, though the experience of true self-knowledge is figuratively described as the death or destruction of our mind, we should not imagine that this implies that our mind has ever really existed. The death of our mind is like the ‘death’ of a snake that we imagine we see in the dim light of night. In the morning when the sun rises, that imaginary snake will disappear, because we will clearly see that it is in fact only a rope. Similarly, in the clear light of true self-knowledge our mind will disappear, because we will clearly recognise that it is in fact only our infinite and non-dual consciousness of our own essential being.
Just as the snake does not really die, because it never actually existed, so our mind will not really die, because it has never actually existed. Its death is real only relative to its present seeming existence. Therefore though in figurative terms the experience of true self-knowledge may be described as the death of our unreal self and as the birth of our real self, in reality it is the state in which we know that our real self alone exists, that it has always existed, and that our mind or unreal self has never truly existed.
In the third and final sentence of this verse Sri Ramana says, ‘Will those who are deathless approach the death-thought?’. Here the word sāvādavar, which means ‘those who do not die’ or ‘those who are deathless’, denotes those who have surrendered themself entirely to God, thereby dying as their mind or mortal self, and thus becoming one with the immortal spirit, the infinite and eternal self-consciousness ‘I am’, which is the true and essential being of both God and ourself.
The rhetorical question ‘will they approach the death-thought?’ is an idiomatic way of saying that they will never again experience any thought of death. Death is just a thought, as also is the fear of death. We can think of death and experience fear of it only when we imagine ourself to be a mortal body.
Our body, its birth and its death are all mere thoughts or imaginations. When we imagine that we are this body, we accordingly imagine that we were born at some time in the past and that we will die at some time in the future. Who or what imagines all this? Only our mind imagines these and all other thoughts. If our mind is real, these thoughts are also real, but if we keenly scrutinise our mind to see whether it is real, it will disappear, and only our own essential self-conscious being will remain as the eternal and deathless reality.
Our mind, which imagines the existence of our body, its birth and its death, is itself a mere thought or imagination. It is a phantom that comes into existence only by imagining itself to be a mortal body, and though it will disappear when this body dies, just as it disappears every day in sleep, it will reappear by imagining itself to be some other body, just as it reappears in a dream or on waking from sleep. It will itself die or disappear permanently only when we surrender it in the absolute clarity of true self-knowledge.
Since death is a thought, and even the thinker of death is a thought, the true state of deathlessness or immortality is only the thought-free state of absolutely clear self-conscious being – the state in which our thinking mind has died. When by our complete self-surrender we abide permanently in this egoless and mind-free state of true immortality, we will never again be able to imagine the thought of death or any other thought.
Thus in this verse Sri Ramana describes both the goal and the means to attain that goal. The goal is the state of immortality, in which our thinking, fearing and desiring mind has died, and the means by which we can attain that goal is complete self-surrender, which we can achieve only by subsiding within ourself and taking refuge there in the birthless and deathless absolute reality, which is our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.
As we have been seeing throughout this chapter, the essence of both self-investigation and self-surrender is just being. So long as we feel ourself to be thinking or doing anything, our attention is not focused entirely upon our own being, and therefore we have not yet surrendered ourself entirely to God.
The essence of all spiritual practice can be summarised in two words, ‘just be’. However, though these two words are the most accurate possible description of the only means by which we can attain the infinitely happy experience of true self-knowledge, most of us are unable to understand their full significance, and therefore we wonder how we can just be.
We are so accustomed to doing, and to considering that we cannot achieve anything without doing something, that we tend to think, ‘what must I do in order to just be?’. Even if we have understood that being is not doing anything, and that we therefore cannot do anything in order to be, we still wonder how we can refrain from thinking or doing anything.
To save us from all such confusion, Sri Ramana gave us a simple clue to enable us to be without doing anything. That is, he taught us that in order to be without doing anything, all we need ‘do’ is to focus our entire attention upon ourself, that is, upon our own essential being ‘I am’. Though this practice of focusing our attention upon our being may appear to be a ‘doing’, the only ‘doing’ that it actually involves is the withdrawing of our attention from all other things, because once our attention is thus withdrawn and allowed to settle on itself, all ‘doing’ will have ceased and only ‘being’ will remain.
Moreover, though this withdrawing of our attention from all other things towards our own innermost being may appear to be a ‘doing’ or action, it is actually not so, because in practice it is just a subsiding and cessation of all activity. That is, since our mind rises and becomes active only by attending to things other than itself, when it withdraws its attention back towards itself, it subsides and all its activity or ‘doing’ ceases. Thus this clue of self-attention which Sri Ramana has given us is an infallible means by which we can make our mind subside in our natural state of just being.
This subsiding of our mind in our natural state of being is what is otherwise known as complete self-surrender. True self-surrender is a conscious and voluntary cessation of all mental activity, and what remains when all our distracting thoughts have thus subsided is the clear and undisturbed consciousness of our own true being. Therefore just as self-attentiveness automatically results in self-surrender, so self-surrender automatically results in self-attentiveness, which is the true practice of self-investigation.
In fact, though we speak of self-investigation and self-surrender as if they were two different practices, they are not actually so, but are merely two seemingly different approaches to the same practice, which is the practice of just being – just being, that is, with full consciousness of our being. What exactly do we mean when we describe them thus as different approaches? Though in actual practice they are one and the same, they differ only in their being two different ways of conceptualising and describing the one practice of just being.
Whereas self-investigation is the practice of just being conceived in more strictly philosophical terms, self-surrender is the same practice conceived in more devotional terms. However, this distinction is not a rigid one, because when understood correctly from a deeper and broader perspective, self-investigation and self-surrender are in fact both based upon the same broad philosophy and are both motivated by the same deep love and devotion.
It is only in the view of people who have a superficial and narrow understanding of philosophy and devotion, and who therefore see them as being fundamentally different viewpoints, that this seeming distinction exists. If however we are able to recognise that philosophy and whole-hearted devotion to the absolute truth are essentially the same thing, we will understand that there is really no difference between self-investigation and self-surrender.
Therefore, since self-investigation and self-surrender are two names given to the same practice of self-attentive being, let us now consider this practice or art of being in greater depth.