The philosophy of Sri Ramana — which is the same as that of Advaita-Vedanta — has for its aim Self-realization. The central path taught in this philosophy is the inquiry into the nature of Self, the content of the notion 'I'. Ordinarily the sphere of the 'I' varies and covers a multiplicity of factors. But these factors are not really the 'I'. For instance, we speak of the physical body as 'I'; we say, 'I am fat', 'I am lean' etc. It will not take long to discover that this is a wrong usage. The body itself cannot say, 'I' for it is inert. Even the most ignorant man understands the implication of the expression 'my body'. It is not easy, however, to resolve the mistaken identity of the 'I' with egoity (ahankara). That is because the inquiring mind is the ego, and in order to remove the wrong identification it has to pass a sentence of death, as it were, on itself. This is by no means a simple thing. The offering of the ego in the fire of wisdom is the greatest form of sacrifice.
The discrimination of the Self from the ego, we said, is not easy. But it is possible. All of us can have this discrimination if we ponder over the implication of our sleep-experience. In sleep, 'we are' though the ego has made its exit. The ego does not function there. Still there is the 'I' that witnesses the absence of the ego as well as of the objects. If the 'I' were not there, one would not recall on waking from one's sleep-experience, and say; "I slept happily. I did not know anything". We have, then, two 'I's' — the 'pseudo-I' which is the ego and the true 'I' which is the Self. The identification of the 'I' with the ego is so strong that we seldom see the ego without its mask. Moreover, all our relative experience turns on the pivot of the ego. With the rise of the ego on waking from sleep, the entire world rises with it. The ego, therefore, looks so important and unassailable. But this is really a fortress made of cards. Once the process of inquiry starts, it will be found to crumble and dissolve. For undertaking this inquiry, one must possess a sharp mind — much sharper than the one required for unravelling the mysteries of matter. It is with the one-pointed intellect that the truth is to be seen (drsyate tu agraya buddhya). It is true that even the intellect will have to get resolved before the final wisdom dawns. But up to that point it has to inquire — and inquire relentlessly. Wisdom, surely, is not for the indolent!
The inquiry 'Who am I?' is not to be regarded as a mental effort to understand the mind's nature. Its main purpose is 'to focus the entire mind at its source'. The source of the 'pseudo-I' is the Self. What one does in Self-inquiry is to run against the mental current instead of running along with it, and finally transcend the sphere of mental modifications. When the 'pseudo-I' is tracked down to its source, it vanishes. Then the Self shines in all its splendour — which shining is called realization and release. The cessation or non-cessation of the body has nothing to do with release. The body may continue to exist and the world may continue to appear, as in the case of the Maharshi. That makes no difference at all to the Self that has been realized. In truth, there is neither the body nor the world for him; there is only the Self, the eternal Existence (sat), the Intelligence (cit), the unsurpassable bliss (ananda). Such an experience is not entirely foreign to us. We have it in sleep, where we are conscious neither of the external world of things nor of the inner world of dreams. But that experience lies under the cover of ignorance. So it is that we come back to the phantasies of dream and of the world of waking. Non-return to duality is possible only when nescience has been removed. To make this possible is the aim of Vedanta. To inspire even the lowliest of us with hope and help us out of the Slough of Despond, is the supreme significance of such illustrious exemplars as the Maharshi.
As most of Sri Raman Maharshi’s followers found it difficult to absorb the truth of his teachings in its highest and most undiluted form, he prescribed an innovative method of self-attention which he called self-enquiry. He recommended this technique so often and so vigorously that it was regarded by many people as the most distinctive motif in his teachings.
According to Sri Ramana, every conscious activity of the mind or body revolves around the tacit assumption that there is an ‘I’ who is doing something. The common factor in ‘I think’, ‘I remember’, ‘I am acting’ is the ‘I’ who assumes that it is responsible for all these activities. Sri Ramana called this common factor the ‘I-thought’ (aham vritti). But there is no separate ‘I’-thought that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with. This tendency towards self-limiting identifications could be checked by trying to separate the subject ‘I’ from the objects of thought which it identified with. If attention is focused on the subjective feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ do not arise, then the individual ‘I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of ‘I’ is sustained, the individual ‘I’ (the ‘I-thought’) will disappear and in its place there will be the direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ was called self-enquiry (atma-vichara) by Sri Ramana and he recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the ‘I’- thought. He suggested various aids to assist this process – one could ask oneself ‘Who am I’ or ‘Where does this I come from?’
This practice of self-attention or awareness of the ‘I’-thought is a gentle technique which bypasses the usual repressive methods of controlling the mind. It is not an exercise in concentration, nor does it aim at suppressing thoughts; it merely invokes awareness of the source from which the mind springs, to be aware of what one really is by withdrawing interest and attention from what one is not.
“You are the mind or think that you are the mind. The mind is nothing but thoughts. Now behind every particular thought there is a general thought which is the ‘I’ that is yourself. Let us call this ‘I’ the first thought. Stick to this ‘I’-thought and question it to find out what it is. When this question takes strong hold on you, you cannot think of other thoughts…..what happens when you make a serious quest for the Self is that the ‘I’-thought disappears and something else from the depths takes hold of you and that is not the ‘I’ which commenced the quest.”
“The mind will merge only by means of the enquiry 'Who am I?' The thought 'Who am l?' will destroy all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire ‘To whom did they rise?’ What does it matter how many thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask ‘To whom did this rise?’ The answer will be 'To me'. If one then enquires 'Who am I?' the mind will turn back to its source (the Self). The thought which arose will also submerge. By repeatedly practicing this, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.”
“Every kind of sadhana except that of atma-vichara (self-enquiry) presupposes the retention of the mind as the instrument for carrying on the sadhana, and without the mind it cannot be practiced. The ego may take different and subtler forms at the different stages of one’s practice, but is itself never destroyed….it is just like the thief pretending to be a policeman to catch the thief, that is, himself. Atma-vichara alone can reveal the truth that neither the ego nor the mind really exists, and enable one to realize the pure, undifferentiated being of the Self or the absolute.”
Many of the world’s religious traditions advocate surrender to God as a means of transcending the individual self. Sri Ramana accepted the validity of such an approach and often said that the method was as effective as self-enquiry. Traditionally the path of surrender is associated with dualistic devotional practices. But Sri Ramana stressed that true surrender transcended worshipping God in a subject-object relationship since it could only be successfully accomplished when one who imagined that he was separate from God had ceased to exist.
The method of surrendering responsibility for one’s life to God is related to self-enquiry as it aims to eliminate the ‘I’-thought by separating it from the objects and actions that it constantly identifies with. When following this practice, whenever one becomes aware that one is assuming responsibility for thoughts and actions – for example, ‘I want’ or ‘I am doing this’ – one should try to withdraw the mind from its external contacts and fix it in the Self. In both cases the aim is to isolate the ‘I’-thought and make it disappear in its source. Sri Ramana himself admitted that spontaneous and complete surrender of the ‘I’ was an impossible goal for many people. So he sometimes advised his followers to undertake preliminary exercises which would cultivate their devotion and control their minds. Most of these practices involved thinking of or meditating on God or the Guru either by constantly repeating his name (japa) or by visualizing his form. He said that if this was done regularly, with love and devotion, then the mind would become effortlessly absorbed in the object of meditation. Once this is achieved, complete surrender becomes easier.
The constant awareness of God prevents the mind from identifying with other objects, enhancing the conviction that God alone exists. It also produces a reciprocal flow of power of grace from the Self. As with self-enquiry, when all the outgoing tendencies of the mind have been dissolved in the repeated experiences of being, the Self destroys the vestigial ‘I’- thought so completely that it never rises again.
“There are two ways to surrender. One is looking into the source of ‘I’ and merging into that source. The other is feeling ‘I am helpless by myself, God alone is all- powerful and except by throwing myself completely on him, there is no other means of safety for me.’ By this method one gradually develops the conviction that God alone exists and that the ego does not count. Both methods lead to the same goal. Complete surrender is another name for jnana or liberation.”
“Surrender appears easy because people imagine that, once they say with their lips ‘I surrender’ and put their burdens on their Lord, they can be free to do what they like. But the fact is that you can have no likes or dislikes after your surrender; your will should become completely non-existent, the Lord’s will taking its place. The death of the ego in this way brings about a state which is not different from jnana. So by whatever path you may go, you must come to jnana or oneness.”
“One of two things must be done. Surrender because you admit your inability and require a higher power to help you, or investigate the cause of misery by going to the source and merging into the Self. Either way you will be free from misery. God never forsakes one who has surrendered.”
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