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The Unity of Surrender and Self-Enquiry (from Mountain Path Magazine)
The Unity of Surrender and Self-Enquiry, by David Godman, from The Mountain Path, Vol.18, No.1, 1981 - 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 Enquir Hindu Spiritual Articles and Videos
One of Ramana Maharshi’s most frequent comments was that
there were only two reliable methods for attaining Self-Realization;
one could either pursue self-enquiry or one could surrender.
An almost equally common statement was that jnana and bhakti are
ultimately the same. This second statement is usually interpreted to
mean that whichever of the two paths one chooses to follow, the
ultimate goal and the culminating experience will be the same.
It is generally assumed that the two paths do not converge until the
moment of realisation is reached. However if Ramana
Maharshi’s teachings are correctly interpreted, then it will
be seen that the paths of surrender and Self-enquiry merge before
Realisation, and that in the higher levels of practice, if one follows
the path of surrender, then one’s sadhana will be the same as
that of someone who has chosen the path of Self-enquiry.
This may seem very radical at first sight, but this is only because of
the general misconceptionsthat many people have about
Ramana’s teachings on the true nature, meaning and practice
of surrender. In order to eliminate these misconceptions, and to
clarify Ramana’s attitude and approach to surrender, it will
be helpful to examine some of these commonly held ideas in the light of
Ramana’s statements on the subject, firstly to show how
unfounded most of these ideas are, and secondly, by eliminating them,
to illustrate the profundity of Ramana’s real teachings.The
most convenient starting point for this enquiry is the relationship
that exists between Ramana Maharshi, the Guru, and the thousands of
people who call themselves his devotees.
There is a long tradition in this country (India) of people accepting
certain teachers as their gurus, and then proclaiming immediately that
they have surrendered to them. In most cases, this surrender is only a
statement of intent, or at best, there is a partial surrendering to
this new authority figure in the hope of acquiring some material
Ramana’s opposition to this type of religious bribery was
quite clear and it is best summed up in the following statement:
to Him and abide by His will
whether he appears
If you ask Him to
do as you please,
it is not
surrender but command to Him.
You cannot have
Him obey you and yet
think that you
He knows what is
best and when and
how to do it.
Leave everything to Him;
His is the burden,
you no longer have any cares.
All your cares are
Such is surrender.
(Talks, p. 425).
This statement, typical of many that he made is a categorical
refutation of the idea that one can surrender to one’s God or
Guru, and yet demand that the God or Guru fulfills one’s
desires or solves one’s problems. Despite this often repeated
refutation, it is probably true to say that the majority of
Ramana’s devotees both believe that they have surrendered to
Ramana, yet at the same time, would not hesitate to approach
him with their personal and material problems, especially if the
perceived need required an urgent solution.
In Ramana’s teachings on surrender, there is no room for
stray desires, and no room for expectations or miracles, no matter how
desperate the situation might appear to be.
you must be able
to abide by the will of God
and not make a
out of what may
not please you.”
Under Ramana’s strict interpretation of absolute surrender,
the only appeals which might qualify for approval are those where the
devotee approaches the God or Guru with the attitude “This is
your problem and not mine; please attend to it in any way you see
This attitude bears the marks of partial surrender, for it fulfills the
bare minimum requirements of Ramana’s definition of true
surrender. On this level of surrender, there is no longer any
expectation of a particular solution, there is simply a willingness to
accept whatever happens.
It is interesting to note in this connection that although Ramana
clearly stated that devotees who wanted their problems solved were not
practicing true surrender, he did admit that surrendering
one’s problems to God or to the Guru was a legitimate course
of action for those who felt that they could not stick to His absolute
teaching of complete surrender.
He was once asked: “Is it proper that one prays to God when
one is afflicted by worldly ills?” and his answer was:
(Talks, p. 501).
This admission that the Guru may be approached with personal problems
should be seen as an extension of, and not a contradiction of his
teachings on absolute and unconditional surrender. For those who are
not ready for complete surrender, there is this intermediate practice
of surrendering one’s problems to the external
“Higher Power.” It is not a dilution of his notion
that surrender must be complete and total to be effective, it is more
an admission that for some devotees, such a massive step is impractical
without some lesser intermediate stage.
If we can reach this point where we accept that we cannot ask Ramana to
solve our problems and still claim that we have surrendered, then we
move forward a few steps in our understanding of his teachings, but if
we then try to put our new understanding into practice, we immediately
encounter a new and apparently insoluble problem. The problem is that
the desire to surrender is in itself a desire which we want fulfilled,
and since, according to Ramana, true surrender cannot be accomplished
without complete desirelessness, the presence of this desire in us is
sufficient to prevent true surrender from taking place. It is the
paradox of effort which is inherent in nearly all forms of sadhana.
Simply stated, the problem is that there is a perception that there is
an individual self which wants to extinguish itself so that the state
of Realisation will be revealed, but anything which this individual
self tries to do to eliminate itself merely prolongs its own existence.
If one sees spiritual practice as something that one does to attain
Realisation, then there is no solution to this problem; there is no
solution because the whole problem stems from the totally false
assumption that this individual self has a real
The first step along the path to true surrender is not to throw oneself
at someone’s feet and say “I surrender”,
it is the cultivation of the awareness and the understanding
that there is no individual self to surrender, and that this individual
self never at any time had, has, or will have any real existence.
When Ramana said on several occasions:
to surrender what and to whom?”
(Talks, p. 176),
he was trying to drive home this fundamental point that without this
understanding that there is no individual self, then all spiritual
practices are done under false pretences, and that meditation,
surrender or self-enquiry done without this constant awareness are
merely exercises in self-deception.
The best illustration of this point that I have come across appears in
a recent publication called The Secret of Arunachala. In it, a devotee
remarked to Ramana that a certain fellow devotee must be well advanced
onthe spiritual path because he meditated for eight to ten hours every
day. (Page 73).
meditates, he eats he sleeps.
But who is
meditating, eating, sleeping?
What advantage is
there in meditating for ten hours a day if
in the end that only has the result of
establishing you a little more deeply in the conviction
that it is you who are
This aspect of Ramana’s teachings, that one is already
realised here and now is widely ignored when it comes to practice, but
its importance cannot be overstated.
Ramana has said:
removal of ignorance is the aim of practice
acquisition of Realisation.”
(Talks p. 322).
The most fundamental piece of ignorance is that there exists an
individual self who is going to do sadhana, and that by doing sadhana,
this individual self will disappear or be merged in some super-being.
Until this concept is eliminated on the mental level, it is not an
exaggeration to say that one is wasting one’s time in
attempts to surrender or to enquire ‘Who am I?’
Correct attitude and correct understanding of this matter are of
pre-eminent importance if the application of Ramana’s
teaching is to be successful.
Returning now to the practice of surrender, and bearing in mind the
necessity of maintaining the right attitude with regard to the
nonexistence of the individual self, there remains the problem of how
to surrender since the mere desire to surrender invents an illusory
person who is going to surrender.
The key to this problem and the key to all problems connected with the
practice of Ramana’s teachings, is to bypass the mind and
move to the realm of being. One cannot truly surrender without escaping
from that vast accumulation of ideas and desires we call the mind, and
according to Ramana, one cannot ecape or destroy themind by any kind of
Ramana’s solution is to let the mind subside to the point
where it disappears, and what remains when the mind has subsided is the
simple, pure being that was always there. In a conversation in Talks Ramana gives
the following illuminating answer. He says:
“It is enough that one surrenders oneself. Surrender is to
give oneself up to the original cause of one’s being
… One’s source is within oneself. Give yourself up
to it. That means that you should seek the source and merge in
This is an immensely profound statement which not only sweeps away many
of the myths that surround the practice of surrender – it
also shows an indication that the route to the rediscovery of the Self
is the same whether one chooses to label it
“surrender” or “self-enquiry”.
If we examine this statement closely it is possible to extract three
important conclusions regarding Ramana’s attitude and
approach to surrender. Firstly, there is no external deity or
manifestation to whom one must surrender; secondly, the source of
one’s being is within us; and thirdly, and most importantly,
true surrender is to go back tothe original cause of one’s
being and remain firmly and continually rooted there.
If this is translated into terms of practical advice, then surrender
comes down to two words: being and stillness.
duty is to be, and not to be this or that,‘I am that I
am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in
The stillness and the being of which Ramana speaks co-exist with each
other and reveal themselves in their full radiance whenever interest in
one’s thought stream dries up. Thus, for Ramana, the practice
of surrender is to find within oneself this feeling of beingness and
surrender oneself completely to it. On this level of surrender,
practice consists of giving up wrong ideas by refusing to give them
Ramana’s statement that
removal of ignorance is the aim of practiceand not acquisition of
(Talks, p. 322)
is extremely relevant in this connection, for it is only wrong ideas
that separate us from a full awareness of our natural state. This final
stage of surrender is simply a giving up of attachment to ignorance by
bypassing the mental processes which cause and perpetuate it. The
practice is the fruit of the conviction that there is nothing to
surrender, for by denying attention to the mental processes, one is
finally surrendering the erroneous idea that there is an individual
self to surrender.
When one attempts to practice this conviction by putting attention on
the feeling of being that is within us, thoughts and desires will
initially continue to grow at their normal rate, but if attention is
maintained over a period of time, the density of thoughts decreases,
and in the space between them there emerges the clarity, the stillness
and the peace of pure being. Occasionally this stillness and this peace
will expand and intensify until a point is reached where no effort is
needed to sustain the awareness of being, the attention merges
imperceptibly with the being itself, and the occasional stray thoughts
no longer have the power to distract.
When this point of surrender has been reached, all the ignorant
misperceptions, which constitute the illusory ego, have disappeared.
But this is not the final state of Realisation, because the
misconceptions are only in suspension and sooner or later, they can
Ramana has stated that the final, definite elimination of ignorance is
a matter for Self. He says that effort can only take one to a certain
point and then the Self takes over and takes one to the goal. In the
case of surrender, the initial effort is the shifting of
one’s attention from the world of thoughts to the feeling of
being. When there is no attention on it, the mind subsides revealing
the being from which it came, then in some mysterious way, the Self
eliminates the residual ignorance and Realisation dawns.
Ramana summed it all up very neatly when he said:
“Just keep quiet and Bhagavan will do the rest.”
(Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge p. 147)
This shifting of attention is the ultimate act of surrender. It is an
acknowledgement that the mind, its concepts and desires are all
ignorance, and that involvement in and attachment to the ignorance is
all that prevents a full awareness of Reality.
It is an acknowledgement that nothing that is understood or believed is
of any use; that no belief, theory, idea or mental activity will bring
one any nearer to Realisation. It is an acknowledgement and a final
acceptance of the idea that all striving and all notions of attainment
are futile and illusory. This simple shifting of attention constitutes
the culmination of surrender because it is the final surrendering of
the ignorant notion that there is an individual self to surrender. It
is the final acceptance in practice of the conviction that there is
only attachment to wrong ideas and that this attachment can be severed
by refusing to give these ideas any attention.
This final level of surrendering ignorance represents the full
flowering of Ramana’s teachings on surrender, and any less
absolute interpretation merely entangles one in the meshes of the
ignorant ideas he was striving so hard to eliminate. It is admitted
that as a concession to weakness, he occasionally permitted and
approved lower levels of surrender such as devotion and worship, but
for those who could comprehend and practice his more absolute
teachings, he would be satisfied with nothing less than the total
unconditioned surrender which is implied in the practice of being and
the detachment from ignorance.
Bearing this in mind it will now be constructive to have a closer look
at the practice of self-enquiry, and to focus attention on the large
overlap that exists between enquiry and surrender. Ramana’s
advice on self-enquiry was clear, simple and direct, but like his
advice on surrender, it has often been misunderstood and
misrepresented. The easiest way to avoid errors is to remember three
simple but fundamental tenets of Ramana’s teachings; firstly,
that we are all Realised here and now and that the only purpose of
sadhana is to remove the idea that we are not; secondly, there is no
individual self to extinguish because the individual self never at any
time existed; and thirdly no amount of mental sadhana is helpful
because the mind cannot do anything except extend the frontiers of its
own ignorance. If an awareness of these points is continually
maintained, then the most obvious errors in practice can be avoided.
One immediately sees that concentration on a point in the body is
counterproductive because it involves mental effort. One can also
eliminate the idea that self-enquiry is a mantra or an exercise in
self-analysis because both of these approaches involve mental activity.
On a more subtle level, if one maintains an awareness that the
individual self at no time ever existsthen one can avoid the dangerous
but often deeply-rooted notion that self-enquiry involvesone self
looking for another self.
To cut through the entanglements of these and similar misconceptions,
and to find out what positive practical advice Ramana had to offer on
self-enquiry, one cannot do better than go back to the words of Ramana
Gospel, he says that:
purpose of self-enquiry is to focus the entire mind at its
The purpose of this focussing is the same as that which has just been
outlined for the practice of surrender. According to Ramana the mind is
only a connection of ignorant ideas and unless one steps completely
outside this mental realm by keeping attention on the being from which
the mind emerges, then the ignorance and the wrong ideas inevitably
continue. It is important to note that Ramana never explains
self-enquiry as a practice by which an individual self is eliminated,
he always phrases his advice to indicate that when one looks for the
source of the mind or the ego, they both disappear, and it is
discovered that neither of them ever existed. This stepping outside the
mind is as crucial to an understanding of self-enquiry as it is to an
understanding of surrender.
In a passage in Talks
“The fact is that the mind is only a bundle of thoughts. How
can you extinguish it by the thought of doing so or by a
desire… Your thoughts and desires are part and parcel of the
mind! The mind is simply fattened by new thoughts rising up. Therefore
it is foolish to attempt to kill the mindby means of the mind. The only
way to do it is to find its source and hold on to
This finding the source and holding on to it is the beginning, end and
purpose of self-enquiry. The precise method is simple and well known.
When thoughts arise one does not allow them to develop. One asks
oneself the words “To whom do these thoughts
occur?” And the answer is “To me,” and
then the question occurs “Then who am I? What is this thing
in me which I keep calling ‘I’?”
By doing this practice one is shifting attention from the world of
thoughts to the being from where the thought and the thinker first
emerged. The transfer of attention is simply executed because if one
holds onto the feeling “I am” the initial thought
of “I” will gradually give way to the feeling of
“I” and then sooner or later this feeling
“I am” will merge into being itself, to a state
where there is no longer either a thinker of the thought
‘I’ or a feeler of the feeling ‘I
am’; there will only be being itself. This is the stage where
attention to the feeling of “I am” has merged with
the being from which it came so that there is no longer the dualistic
distinction of a person giving attention to the feeling of “I
am”. There is only being and awareness of being.
lf this practice is done persistently, then the verbal redirection of
attention soon becomes redundant; as soon as there is the awareness of
attachment to a particular thought then attention is immediately
switched back to the being, from which the thoughts and the imaginary
thinker came. It is important to stress that the verbal preliminaries
of asking “Who am I?” or “To whom do
these thoughts occur?” are simply tools to redirect the
attention; the real self-enquiry begins with the subsequent witnessing
of the disappearance of the thoughts and the re-emergence of being as
the mind subsides into temporary abeyance.
Ramana summarized this very succinctly when he said in Talks:
(spiritual practice) consists of withdrawal into the self everytime you
are disturbed by thought. It is not concentration or destruction of the
mind, but withdrawal into the Self”.
Since, in Ramana’s terminology the terms being and Self are
virtually synonymous, what he is describing here is the practice of
withdrawing into being, and remaining there undisturbed by the
transient distractions of thoughts.
This practice may be viewed from two perspectives. On the higher levels
of surrender maintaining awareness of being can be seen as a
surrendering of wrong ideas including the wrong idea that there is
someone to surrender, whereas in self-enquiry, one reaches this same
point of being by actively discarding thoughts and by tracing back the
feeling of “I am”, until it finally
subsides into the being from which it came.
Though the two descriptions might appear to be describing two
completely different approaches, particularly in the preliminary
stages, if the practices of surrender and self-enquiry are persistently
and earnestly persued, the two approaches finally merge imperceptibly
into the single practice of being.
To surrender false ideas is simply to be and that same state of being
is the point where thoughts and the idea of the thinker disappear. This
point, this state of being, is beautifully described in Talks when
the state of perfect awareness and perfect stillness combined. It is
the interval between two successive thoughts, and the source from which
the thoughts spring…Go to the root of the thoughts and you
reach the stillness of sleep. But you reach it in the full vigour of
search, that is with perfect awareness.”
This point which Ramana describes so graphically is the point of
convergence between the path of self-enquiry and the path of surrender.
The final, definitive detachment from ignorance has not yet happened,
for this final elimination is a matter for the Self. Until that
elimination takes placeone can only be, and once the awareness of being
is maintained effortlessly, then the being of surrender in which one
has given up all ideas,is the same being which results from
witnessingthe disappearance of the
This state of being is still a stage of sadhana, for it lacks
permanence and the mind is liable to reassert its dominance at any
time. However it is the final stage, and as such it is the purest and
deepest level of both surrender and self-enquiry. It is a state which
belongs neither to the world of ignorance nor to the Absolute Reality,
but somehow, mysteriously, according to Ramana, it provides the link
between the two.
When Ramana said on one occasion,
do not think that
you are, BE”,
Anurachala, p. 73),
he was summarising the whole of his practical teachings, because for
Ramana, it is only in this state of effortless awareness of being that
the final Realisation will be revealed.