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'Self Enquiry' - from The Path of Sri Ramana by Sri Sadhu Om

Who Am I, Nan Yar, Teachings of Ramana Bhagavan, Gems from Bhagavan, Theory of Self Enquiry, Practice of Self Enquiry, What is Self-Enquiry, Self Enquiry Articles, Atma Vichara, Self Enquiry Practice, Self Enquiry Meditation, Hindu Spiritual Articles Hindu Spiritual Articles and Videos
from The Path of Sri Ramana - Part One, Chapter 7 by Sri Sadhu Om

“On hearing the expression ‘Self-enquiry’ [atma-vichara], people generally take it to mean either enquiring into the Self or inquiring about the Self.  How to do so?  Who is to inquire into the Self, or who is to inquire about Self?  What does enquiry actually mean?  Such questions naturally arise, do they not?

As soon as we hear the terms ‘Atma-vlchara’ or 'Brahma-vichara', many of us naturally consider that there is some sort of effulgence or a formless power within our body and that we are going to find out what it is, where it is, and how it is. This idea is not correct, because, Self [atman] does not exist as an object to be known by us who seek to know it!  Since Self shines as the very nature of him who tries to know It, Self-enquiry does not mean enquiring into a second or third person object.  It is in order to make us understand this from the very beginning that Bhagavan Ramana called Self-enquiry  ‘Who am I?’,  thus drawing our attention directly to the first person. In this question,  ‘Who am I?’,  ‘I am’ denotes Self and ‘who’ stands for the enquiry.

Who is it that is to inquire into Self?  For whom is this enquiry necessary?  Is it for Self?  No. Since the Self is the ever-attained, ever-pure, ever-free and ever-blissful Whole, it will not do any enquiry, nor does it need to! All right, then it is only the ego that needs to do the enquiry. Can this ego know Self? As said in the previous chapters, this ego is a false appearance, having no existence of its own. It is a petty infinitesimal feeling of ‘I’, which subsides and loses its form in sleep. So, can Self become an object that could be known by the ego? No, the ego cannot know Self! Thus, when it turns out that Self-enquiry is unnecessary for Self and Self-knowledge is impossible for the ego, the questions arise:  ‘What then is the practical method of doing Self-enquiry? Why is this term ‘Self-enquiry’ found in the sastras? Are we not to scrutinize thus and find out?   Let us do so.

There is a difference between the way in which the term ‘enquiry’ is used by Sri Bhagavan and the way in which the sastras use it. The sastras advocate negating the five sheaths, namely the body, prana (breath), mind, intellect and the darkness of ignorance, as ‘not I, not I’ [neti, neti]. But who is to negate them, and how? If the mind (or the intellect) is to negate them, it can at best negate only the insentient physical body and the prana, which are objects seen by it. Beyond this, how can the mind negate itself, its own form? And when it cannot even negate itself, how can it negate the other two sheaths, the intellect and the darkness of ignorance, which are beyond its range of perception?

During the time of enquiry, therefore, what more can the mind do to remain as the Self except to repeat mentally, ‘I am not this body, I am not this prana’? From this, it is clear that ‘enquiry’ is not a process of one thing enquiring about another thing. That is why the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ taught by Sri Bhagavan should be taken to mean Self-attention! (that is, attention merely to the first person, the feeling ‘I’).

The nature of the mind is to attend always to things other than itself, that is, to know only second and third persons. If the mind in this way attends to a thing, it means that it is attending (attaching itself) to that thing. Attention itself is attachment! Since the mind is to think about the body and breath –
though with the intention of deciding ‘this is not I, this is not I’ – such attention is only a means of becoming attached to them and it cannot be a means of negating them! This is what is experienced by any true aspirant in his practice. Then what is the secret hidden in this?

Since, whether we know it or not, Self, which is now wrongly considered by us to be unknown, is verily our reality, the very nature of our (the Supreme Self’s) attention itself is Grace [anugraha]. This means that whatever thing we attend to, witness, observe or look at, that thing is nourished and will flourish, being blessed by Grace. Though one now thinks that one is an individual soul, since one’s power of awareness is in fact nothing but a reflection of the ‘knowing-power’ [chit-sakti] of Self, that on which it falls or is fixed is nourished by Grace and flourishes more and more! Hence, when the power of attention of the mind is directed more and more towards second and third person objects, both the strength to attend to those objects, and the ignorance of the knowledge of the five senses in the form of thoughts about them – will grow more and more, and will never subside!

[The practice of witnessing thoughts and events, which is much recommended nowadays by lecturers and writers, was never never even in the least recommended by Sri Bhagavan. Indeed, whenever He was asked what should be done when thoughts rise (that is, when attention is diverted toward second and third persons) during sadhana, He always replied in the same manner as  He had done to Sivaprakasam Pillai in 'Who am I?' where He says, "If other thoughts rise, one should, without attempting to compete them, enquire 'To whom did they rise?' What does it matter however many thoughts rise? At the very moment that each thought rises, if one vigilantly enquires 'To whom did this rise?', it will be known "To me'. If one then enquires 'Who am I?', the mind (our power of attention) will turn back (from the thought) to its source (Self)".  Moreover, when He says later in the same work, "Not attending to what-is-other (that is, to any second or third person) is non-attachment  [vairagya] or desirelessness [nirasa]",  we should clearly understand that attending to (witnessing, watching, observing or seeing) anything other than Self is itself attachment, and when we understand thus we will realize how meaningless and impractical are such instructions as 'Watch all thoughts and events with detachment' or 'Witness your thoughts, but be not attached to them', which are taught by the so-called gurus of the present day. ]

Have we not already said that all our thoughts are nothing but attention paid to second and third person objects?  Accordingly, the more we attend to the mind, the thoughts which are the forms (the second and third person objects) of the world, the more they will multiply and be nourished. This is indeed an obstacle. The more our attention – the glance of Grace - falls on it, the more the mind’s wavering nature and its ascendancy will increase. That is why it is impossible for the mind to negate anything by thinking ‘I am not this, I am not this’.  On the other hand, if our (Self's) attention is directed only towards ourself, our knowledge of existence alone is nourished, and since the mind is not attended to, it is deprived of its strength, the support of our Grace.

‘Without use when left to stay, iron and mischief rust away’ – in accordance with this Tamil proverb, since they are not attended to, all the vasana seeds, whose nature is to rise stealthily and mischievously,  have to stay quiet, and thus they dry up like seeds deprived of water and become too weak to sprout out into thought-plants. Then, when the fire of Self-knowledge [jnana] blazes forth, these tendencies [vasanas], like well dried firewood,  become a prey to it.

This alone is how the total destruction of all tendencies [vasanakshaya] is effected.

 If we are told, ‘Abandon the East’, the practical way of doing so would be to do as if told, ‘Go to the West’!  In the same manner, when we are told, ‘Discard the five sheaths, which are not Self’, the practical way of discarding the non-Self is to focus our awareness on ourself,  ‘What is this?’ or ‘Who am I?’. Thinking ‘I am not this, not this’ [neti, neti], is a negative method.

Knowing that this negative method is just as impractical as saying ‘Drink the medicine without thinking of a monkey’, Sri Bhagavan has shown us the practical way of drinking the medicine without thinking of a monkey, by giving us the clue, ‘Drink the medicine while thinking of an elephant’, that is, He has reformed the ancient negative method by giving us the positive method ‘Who am I?’.

          ‘Verily the ego is all!  Hence the enquiry ‘What is it?’
           (In other words, ‘Who am I, this ego?’)
            is the true giving up (renunciation) of all,
            Thus should you know!’ -- Ulladhu Narpadhu, verse 28


Verily, all (that is, the five sheaths and their projections – all these worlds) is the ego. So, attending to the feeling ‘I’, ‘What is it?’ or ‘Who is this I?’, alone is renouncing the five sheaths, discarding them, eliminating them, or negating them. Thus Bhagavan Ramana has declared categorically that Self-attention alone is the correct technique of eliminating the five sheaths!

Since this is so, with what purpose did the sastras use the term ‘enquiry’ to denote the method neti, neti? By means of neti, neti can we not formulate intellectually the test which we have given in paragraph 4 of this book, ‘A thing is surely not ‘I’ if it is possible for one to experience ‘I am’ even in the absence of that thing? So long as there exists the wrong knowledge ‘I am the body’ pertaining to the aforesaid five sheaths or three bodies, will not one’s paying attention towards the first person automatically be only an attention towards a sheath or a body – a second person?  But if we use this test, can we not find out that all such attentions are not the proper first person attention?  Therefore, it is necessary first of all to have an intellectual conviction that these are not ‘I’ in order to practice Self-attention, without losing our bearings.

It is only the discrimination by which we acquire this conviction that has been termed ‘enquiry’ by the sastras.  What then is an aspirant to do after discriminating thus?  How can the attention to these five sheaths, even with an intention to eliminate them, be an attention to Self?  Therefore, while practicing Self-enquiry, instead of taking any one of the five sheaths as the object of our attention, we should fix our attention only on the ‘I’-consciousness, which exists and shines as oneself, as the singular, and as a witness to and aloof from these sheaths.

 Instead of being directed towards any second or third person, is not our power of attention, which was hitherto called mind or intellect, thus now directed only towards the first person?  Although we formally refer to it as ‘directed’, in truth it is not of the nature of a ‘doing’ [kriya-rupam] in the form of directing or being directed; it is of the nature of ‘being’ or ‘existing’ [sat-rupam].  Because the second and third persons (including thoughts) are alien or external to us, our attention paid to them was of the nature of a ‘doing’ [kriya]. But this very attention, when fixed on the non-alien first person feeling, ‘I’, loses the nature of ‘paying’ and remains in the form of ‘being’, and therefore it is of the nature of non-doing [akriya] or inaction [nishkriya]. So long as our power of attention was dwelling upon second and third persons, it was called ‘the mind’ or ‘the intellect’, and its attending was called a doing or an action.  Only that which is done by the mind is an action.  But on the other hand, as soon as the attention is fixed on the first person (or Self), it loses mean names such as mind, intellect or ego-sense.  Moreover, that attention is no longer even an action, but inaction [akarma] or the state of ‘being still’ [summa iruttal]. Therefore, the mind, which attends to Self, is no more the mind; it is the consciousness aspect of Self [atma-chit-rupam]! Likewise, so long as it attends to the second and third persons (the world), it is not the consciousness aspect of Self;  it is the mind, the reflected form of consciousness [chit-abhasa-rupam]! Hence, since Self-attention is not a doing [kriya], it is not an action [karma]. That is, Self alone realizes Self; the ego does not!

 The mind which has obtained a burning desire for Self-attention, which is self-enquiry, is said to be the fully mature one. Since it is not now inclined to attend to any second or third person, it can be said that it has reached the pinnacle of desirelessness [vairagya]. For, do not all sorts of desires and attachments pertain only to second and third persons? Since this mind, which has very well understood that (as already seen in earlier chapters) the consciousness which shines as ‘I’ alone is the source of full and real happiness, now seeks Self because of its natural craving for happiness, this intense desire to attend to Self is indeed the highest form of devotion [bhakti].

It is exactly this Self-attention of the mind, which is thus fully mature through such devotion and desirelessness that is to be called the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ taught by Bhagavan Sri Ramana!  Well, will not at least such a mature mind, which has come to the path of Sri Ramana, willingly agreeing to engage in Self-attention, realize Self?

No, no, it has started for its doom!  Agreeing to commit suicide, it places its neck (through Self-attention) on the scaffold where it is to be sacrificed! How?  Only so long as it was attending to second and third persons did it have the name ‘mind’, but as soon as Self-attention is begun, its name and form (the name as mind and its form as thoughts) are lost.

So we can no longer say that Self-attention or Self-enquiry is performed by the mind.  Neither is it the mind that attends to Self, nor is the natural, spontaneous Self-attention of the consciousness aspect of Self, which is not the mind, an activity!

“A naked lie then it would be
If any man were to say that he
Realized the Self, diving within
Through proper enquiry set in.
Not for knowing but for death
The good-for-nothing ego’s worth!
‘Tis Arunachala alone,
The Self, by which the Self is known!” 
--Sri Arunachala Venba, verse 39

 The feeling ‘I am’ is the experience common to one and all.  In this, ‘am’ is consciousness or knowledge.  This knowledge is not of anything external, it is the knowledge of oneself.  This is chit.  This consciousness is ‘we’
“We are verily consciousness”, says Sri Bhagavan in ‘The Essence of Instruction’ verse 23. This is our ‘being’ (that is, our true existence).  This is called ‘that which is’ [ulladhu].

Thus in ‘I am’, ‘I’ is existence [sat] and ‘am’ is consciousness [chit]. When Self, our nature of existence-consciousness [sat chit swarupam], instead of shinning only as the pure consciousness ‘I am’, shines mixed with an adjunct [upadhi] as ‘I am a man, I am Rama, I am so-and-so, I am this or that’, then this mixed consciousness is the ego.

This mixed consciouness can rise only by catching hold of a name and form. When we feel ‘I am a man’, I am Rama, I am sitting, I am lying’, is it not clear that we have mistaken the body for ‘I’, and that we have assumed its name and postures as ‘I am this and I am thus’?

The feeling ‘this and thus’ which has now risen mixed with the pure consciousness ‘I am’ [sat-chit] is what is called thought.   This is the first thought.


The feeling ‘I am a man, I am so-and-so’ is only a thought. But the consciousness, ‘I am’ is not a thought; it is the very nature of our ‘being’. The mixed consciousness ‘I am this or that’ is a thought that rises from our ‘being’. It is only after the rising of this thought, the mixed consciousness (the first person), that all other thoughts, which are the knowledge of second and third persons, rise into existence.

 “Only if the first person exists, will the second and third person exist...” 
--‘Forty Verses’ verse 14.

This mixed awareness, the first person, is called our ‘rising’ or the rising of the ego.

This is the primal mentation [adi-vritti]! Hence:

 “Thinking is a mentation;  being is not a mentation!...” 

-- ‘Eleven Verses on Self-enquiry’, verse 1, by Sri Sadhu Om.

The pure existence-consciousness, ‘I am’ is not a thought; this awareness is our nature [swarupam]. ‘I am a man’ is not our pure consciousness; it is only our thought!

To understand thus the difference between our ‘being’ and our ‘rising’ (that is between existence and thought) first of all, is essential for aspirants who take to the enquiry ‘Who am I?’

 Bhagavan Sri Ramana has advised that Self-enquiry can be done either in the form ‘Who am I?’ or in the form ‘Whence am I?’.   Hearing these two interrogative sentences, many aspirants have held various opinions about them up till now and have become confused as to which of them is to be practiced and how!

Even among those who consider that both are one and the same, many have only a superficial understanding and have not scrutinized deeply how they are the same.  Some who try to follow the former one, ‘Who am I’? simply begin either vocally or mentally the parrot-like repetition ‘Who am I?, Who am I?, as if it were mantra-japa.  This is utterly wrong!

Doing japa of ‘Who am I?’ in this manner is just as bad as meditating upon or doing japa of the mahavakyas such as ‘I am tBrahman’ and so on, thereby spoiling the very objective for which they were revealed!!

Sri Bhagavan Himself has repeatedly said, “’Who am I?’ is not meant for repetition [japa]”!

Some others, thinking that they are following the second interrogative form, ‘Whence am I?’ try to concentrate on the right side of the chest (where they imagine something as a spiritual heart), expecting a reply such as ‘I am from here”!

This is in no way better than the ancient method of meditating upon any one of the six yogic centers in the body!! For, is not thinking of any place in the body only a second person attention (an objective attention)?

Before we start to explain the technique of Self-enquiry, is it not of the utmost importance that all such misconceptions be removed? Let us see, therefore, how they may be removed.

 In Sanskrit, the terms ‘atman’ and ‘aham’ both mean ‘I’. Hence ‘atma-vichara’ (Self-enquiry) means an attention seeking ‘Who is this I?’.
It may rather be called ‘I-attention’, ‘Self-attention’ or ‘Self-abidance’. The aconsciousness ‘I’ thus pointed out here is the first person feeling. But as we have already said, it is to be understood that the consciousness mixed with adjuncts as ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ is the ego [ahankara] or the individual soul, whereas the unalloyed awareness, devoid of adjuncts and shining alone as ‘I-I’ (or ‘I am that I am’) is Self [atman], the Absolute [brahman] or God [iswara].

Does it not amount to saying then that the first person consciousness, ‘I’, can be either ego or Self? Since all people generally take the ego-feeling (‘I am the body’) to be ‘I’, the ego is also given the name ‘self’ [atman] and is called ‘individual self’ [jivatma] by some sastras even now. It is only for this reason that even the attention to the ego, ‘What is it?’ or ‘Who is it?’, is also named by the scriptures as ‘Self-enquiry’ [atma-vichara].

Is it not clear, however, that Self, the existence-consciousness, neither needs to do any enquiry nor can be subjected to any enquiry?

It is just in order to rectify this defect that Bhagavan Ramana named it ‘Who am I?’ rather than using the ancient term ‘Self-enquiry’! The ego, the feeling of ‘I’ generally taken by people to be the first person consciousness, is not the real first person awareness; Self alone is the real first person awareness.

The ego-feeling, which is merely a shadow of it, is a false first person awareness. When one enquires into this ego, what it is or who it is, it disappears because it is really non-existent, and the enquirer, having nothing more to do, is established in Self as Self.

Because it rises, springing up from Self, the false first person awareness mentioned above has to have a place and a time of rising. Therefore, the question ‘Whence am I?’ means only ‘Whence (from where) does the ego rise?’.

A place of rising can only be for the ego. But for the Self, since It has no rising or setting, there can be no particular place or time.

“When scrutinized, we -- the ever-known existing Thing – alone are; then where is time and where is space? If we are (mistaken to be) the body, we shall be involved in time and space; but are we the body? Since we are the One, now, then and ever, that One in space, here there and everywhere, we – the timeless and spaceless Self alone are!”

– ‘Forty Verses’ verse 16

-thus says Sri Ramana.
Therefore, enquiring ‘Whence am I?’ is enquiring ‘Whence is the ego?’. Only to the rising of the ego, which is conditioned by time and space, will the question ‘Whence am I?’ be applicable.

The meaning, which Sri Bhagavan expects us to understand from the term ‘Whence’ or ‘From where?’ is ‘From what?’.  When taken in this sense, instead of a place or time coming forth as a reply, Self-existence, ‘we’, the Thing [vastu], alone is experienced as the reply.

If, on the other hand, we anticipate a place as an answer to the question ‘Whence?’, a place, conditioned by time and space, will be experienced within the body ‘two digits to the right from the center of the chest’ (as said in ‘Forty Verses’ verse 18).

Yet this experience is not the ultimate or absolute one. For, Sri Bhagavan has positively asserted that Heart [hridyam] is verily Self-consciousness, which is timeless, spaceless, formless, and nameless.

“He who thinks that Self (or Heart) is within the insentient body,
while in fact the body is in the Self, is like one who thinks that the screen,
which supports the cinema picture, is contained within the picture!”

– ‘Five verses on the Self’, verse 3

Finding a place in the body as the rising-point of the ego in reply to the question ‘Whence?’ is not the objective of Sri Bhagavan’s teachings; nor is it the fruit to be gained by Self-enquiry. Sri Bhagavan has declared clearly the objective of His teachings and the fruit to be gained by seeking the rising-place of the ego as follows:

 “When sought within ‘What is the place from which it rises as I?’, ‘I’ (the ego) will die!  This is Self-enquiry [jnana-vichara].”

 – ‘Upadesa Undhiyar’, verse 19

Therefore, the result, which is aimed at when seeking the rising-place of the ego, is the annihilation of that ego and not an experience of a place in the body. It is only in reply to the immature people who – not able to have even an intellectual understanding about the nature of Self, which shines alone as the one, non-dual Thing, unlimited by (indeed absolutely unconnected with) time and space, unlimited even in the form: ‘Brahman is everywhere, Brahman is at all times, Brahman is everything’ -- always raise the question, ‘Where is the seat for the Self in the body?”,  that the sastras and sometimes even Sri Bhagavan had to say:

“...two digits to the right (from the centre of the chest) is the heart”. Hence this heart-place [hridaya-stanam] is not the ultimate or absolute Reality.

The reader may here refer to ‘Maharshi’s Gospel’, Book II, chapter IV,

‘The Heart is the Self’ (8th edition 1969, pages 68 to 72; 9th edition, 1979, pages 72 to 76).

 Thus attending to oneself in the form ‘Whence am I?’ is enquiring into the ego, the ‘rising I’, but while enquiring ‘Who am I?, there are some aspirants who take the feeling ‘I’ to be their ‘being’ (existence) and not their ‘rising I’!

If it is taken thus, that is attention to the Self. It is just to understand clearly the difference between these two forms of enquiry that the difference between our ‘rising’ and our ‘being’ has been explained earlier in this chapter.

Just as the correct meaning of the term ‘meditation upon Brahman’ used by the sastras up till now is explained by Sri Bhagavan in the last two lines of the first benedictory verse of ‘Ulladhu Narpadhu’ to be ‘abiding in the Heart as it is’ (that is to say, abiding as Self is the correct way of meditating upon it), so also, the correct meaning of the term ‘Self-enquiry’ is here rightly explained to be ‘turning Selfwards’ (or attending to Self.)

In either of these two kinds of enquiry (‘Who am I? or ‘Whence am I?’), since the attention of the aspirant is focused only on himself, nothing other than Self, which is the true import of the word ‘I’, will be finally experienced. Therefore, the ultimate result of both the enquiries, ‘Whence am I?’ and ‘Who am I?’, is the same!

How?  He who seeks ‘Whence am I?’ is following the ego, the form of which is ‘I am so-and-so’, and while doing so, the adjunct ‘so-and-so’, having no real existence, dies on the way, and thus he remains established in Self, the surviving ‘I am’.

On the other hand, he who seeks ‘Who am I?’ drowns effortlessly in his real natural ‘being’ (Self), which ever shines as ‘I am that I am.’

Therefore, whether done in the form ‘Whence am I?’, or ‘Who am I?’, what is absolutely essential is that Self-attention should be pursued to the very end.

Moreover, it is not necessary for sincere aspirants even to name beforehand the feeling ‘I’ either as ego or as Self. For, are there two persons in the aspirant, the ego and Self? This is said because, since every one of us has the experience ‘I am one only and not two’, we should not give room to an imaginary dual feeling – one ‘I’ seeking for another ‘I’ – by differentiating ego and Self as ‘lower self’ and ‘higher self’.

“...Are there two selves, one to be an object known by the other? For, the true experience of all is ‘I am one’” 

-- ‘Ulladhu Narpadhu,’ verse 33 - asks Sri Ramana.

Thus it is sufficient if we cling to the feeling ‘I’ uninterruptedly till the very end. Such attention to the feeling ‘I’, the common daily experience of everyone, is what is meant by Self-attention. For those who accept as their basic knowledge the ‘I am the body’ – consciousness [jiva bhava], being unable to doubt its (the ego’s) existence, it is suitable to take to Self-attention (that is, to do Self-enquiry) in the form ‘Whence am I?’.

On the other hand, for those who, instead of assuming that they have an individuality [jiva bhava] such as ‘I am so-and-so’ or ‘I am this’, attend thus,
‘What is this feeling which shines as I am?’ it is suitable to be fixed in Self-attention in the form ‘Who am I?’.

What is important to be sure of during practice [sadhana] is that our attention is turned only towards ‘I’, the first person singular feeling.”


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