Sri Ramana Maharshi’s philosophical pronouncements were very similar to those upheld by the followers of Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta, an Indian philosophical school which has flourished for well over a thousand years. Sri Ramana Maharshi and the Advaitins agree on most theoretical matters but their attitudes to practice are radically different. While Sri Ramana Maharshi advocated self-enquiry, most advaitic teachers recommended a system of meditation which mentally affirmed that the Self was the only reality. These affirmations such as ‘I am Brahman’ or ‘I am He’, are usually used as mantras, or, more rarely, one meditates on their meaning and tries to experience the implications of the statement
Because self-enquiry often starts with the question ‘Who am I?’, many of the traditional followers of Advaita assumed that the answer to the question was ‘I am Brahman’ and they occupied their minds with repetitions of this mental solution. Sri Ramana Maharshi criticised this approach by saying that while the mind was constantly engaged in finding or repeating solutions to the question it would never sink into its source and disappear.
He was equally critical, for the same reason, of those who tried to use ‘Who am I?’ as a mantra, saying that both approaches missed the point of self-enquiry. The question ‘Who am I?’, he said, is not an invitation to analyse the mind and to come to conclusions about its nature, nor is it a mantric formula, it is simply a tool which facilitates redirecting attention from the objects of thought and perception to the thinker and perceiver of them. In Sri Ramana Maharshi’s opinion, the solution to the question ‘Who am I?’ is not to be found in or by the mind since the only real answer is the experience of the absence of mind.
Another widespread misunderstanding arose from the belief that the Self could be discovered by mentally rejecting all the objects of thought and perception as not-self. Traditionally this is called the Neti-Neti approach (not this, not this). The practitioner of this system verbally rejects all the objects that the ‘I’ identifies with –‘I am not the mind’, ‘ I am not the body’, etc.-in the expectation that the real ‘I’ will eventually be experienced in the pure uncontaminated form. Hinduism calls this practice ‘self-enquiry’ and, because of the identity of names, it was often confused with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s method. Sri Ramana Maharshi’s attitude to this traditional system of self-analysis was wholly negative and he discouraged his own followers from practising it by telling them that it was an intellectual activity which could not take them beyond the mind. In his standard reply to questions about the effectiveness of this practice he would say that the ‘I’-thought is sustained by such acts of discrimination and that the ‘I’ which eliminates the body and the mind as ‘not I’ can never eliminate itself.
The followers of the ‘I am Brahman’ and ‘Neti-Neti’ schools share a common belief that the Self can be discovered by the mind, either through affirmation or negation. This belief that the mind can, by its own activities, reach the Self is the root of most of the misconceptions about the practice of self-enquiry. A classic example of this is the belief that self-enquiry involves concentrating on a particular centre in the body called the Heart-centre. This widely held view results from a misinterpretation of some of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s statements on the Heart, and to understand how this belief has come about it will be necessary to take a closer look at some of his ideas on the subject.
In describing the origin of the ‘I’-thought he sometimes said that it arose to the brain through a channel which started from a centre in the right hand side of the chest. He called this centre the Heart centre and said that when the ‘I’-thought subsided into the Self it went back into the centre and disappeared. He also said that when the Self is consciously experienced, there is a tangible awareness that this centre is the source of both the mind and the world. However, these statements are not strictly true and Sri Ramana Maharshi sometimes qualified them by saying that they were only schematic representations which were given to those people who persisted in identifying with their bodies. He said that the Heart is not really located in the body and that from the highest standpoint it is equally untrue to say that the ‘I’-thought arises and subsides into this centre on the right of the chest.
Because Sri Ramana Maharshi often said ‘Find the place where the "I" arises’ or ‘Find the source of the mind’, many people interpreted these statements to mean that they should concentrate in this particular centre while doing self-enquiry. Sri Ramana Maharshi rejected this interpretation many times by saying that the source of the mind or the ‘I’ could only be discovered through attention to the ‘I’-thought and not through concentration on a particular part of the body. He did sometimes say that putting attention on this centre is a good concentration practice, but he never associated it with self-enquiry. He also occasionally said that meditation on the Heart was an effective way of reaching the Self, but again, he never said that this should be done by concentrating on the Heart-centre. Instead he said that one should meditate on the Heart ‘as it is’. The Heart ‘as it is’ is not a location, it is the immanent Self and one can only be aware of its real nature by being it. It cannot be reached by concentration.
Although there are several potentially ambiguous comments of this kind about the Heart and the Heart-centre, in all his writings and recorded conversations there is not a single statement to support the contention that self-enquiry is to be practised by concentrating on this centre. In fact, by closely examining his statements on the subject one can only conclude that while the experience of the Self contains an awareness of this centre, concentration on this centre will not result in the experience of the Self.
Question: I begin to ask myself ’Who am I?’, eliminate the body as not ‘I’, the breath as not ‘I’, and I am not able to proceed further.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Well, that is as far as the intellect can go. Your process is only intellectual. Indeed, all the scriptures mention the process only to guide the seeker to know the truth. The truth cannot be directly pointed out. Hence this intellectual process.
You see, the one who eliminates all the ‘not I’ cannot eliminate the ‘I’. To say ‘I am not this’ or ‘I am that’ there must be the ‘I’. This ‘I’ is only the ego or the ‘I’-thought. After the rising up of this ‘I’-thought, all other thoughts arise. The ‘I’-thought is therefore the root thought. If the root is pulled out all others are at the same time uprooted. Therefore seek the root ‘I’, question yourself ‘Who am I?’. Find out its source, and then all these other ideas will vanish and the pure Self will remain.
Question: How to do it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The ‘I’ is always there- in deep sleep, in dream and in wakefulness. The one in sleep is the same as that who now speaks. There is always the feeling of ‘I’. Otherwise do you deny your existence? You do not. You say ‘I am’. Find out who is.
Questioner: I meditate Neti-Neti (not this-not this).
Sri Ramana Maharshi: No- that is not meditation. Find the source. You must reach the source without fail. The false ‘I’ will disappear and the real ‘I’ will be realised. The former cannot exist apart from the latter.
There is now wrong identification of the Self with the body, senses, etc. You proceed to discard these, and this is Neti. This can be done only by holding to the one which cannot be discarded. That is ‘iti’ (that which is).
Question: When I think ‘Who am I?’, the answer comes ‘I am not this mortal body but I am Chaitanya, Atma (consciousness, the Self).’ And suddenly another question arises, ‘Why has Atma (Self) come into Maya (illusion)?’ or in other words, ‘Why has God created this world?’
Sri Ramana Maharshi: To enquire ‘Who am I?’ really means trying to find out the source of the ego or the ‘I’-thought. You are not to think of other thoughts, such as ‘I am not this body’. Seeking the source of ‘I’ serves as a means of getting rid of all other thoughts. We should not give scope to other thoughts, such as you mention, but must keep the attention fixed on finding out the source of the ‘I’-thought by asking, as each thought arises, to whom the thought arises. If the answer is ‘I get the thought’ continue the enquiry by asking ‘Who is this "I" and what is its source?’
Question: Am I to keep on repeating ‘Who am I?’ so as to makes a mantra of it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. ‘Who am I?’ is not a mantra. It means that you must find out where in you arises the ‘I’-thought, which is the source of all other thoughts.
Question: Shall I meditate on ‘I am Brahman’ (Aham Brahmasmi)?’
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The text is not meant for thinking ‘I am Brahman’. Aham (‘I’) is known to every one. Find out the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is already Brahman. You need not think so. Simply find out the ‘I’.
Question: Is not discarding the sheaths (Neti-Neti) mentioned in the sastras?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: After the rise of the ‘I’-thought there is the false identification of the ‘I’ with the body, the senses, the mind, etc. ‘I’ is wrongly associated with them and the true ‘I’ is lost sight of. In order to sift the pure ‘I’ from the contaminated ‘I’, this discarding is mentioned. But it does not mean exactly discarding of the non-self, it means the finding of the real Self. The real Self is the infinite ‘I’. That ‘I’ is perfection. It is eternal. It has no origin and no end. The other ‘I’ is born and also dies. It is impermanent. See to whom the changing thoughts belong. They will be found to arise after the ‘I’-thought. Hold the ‘I’-thought and they subside. Trace back the source of the ‘I’-thought. The Self alone will remain.
Question: It is difficult to follow. I understand the theory. But what is the practice?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The other methods are meant for those who cannot take to the investigation of the Self. Even to repeat Aham Brahmasmi or think of it, a doer is necessary. Who is it? It is ‘I’. Be that ‘I’. It is the direct method. The other methods also will ultimately lead everyone to this method of the investigation of the Self.
Questioner: I am aware of the ‘I’. Yet my troubles are not ended.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: This ‘I’-thought is not pure. It is contaminated with the association of the body and senses. See to whom the trouble is. It is to the ‘I’-thought. Hold it. Then the other thoughts vanish.
Question: Yes. How to do it? That is the whole trouble.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Think ‘I, I’, and hold to that one thought to the exclusion of all others.
Question: Is not affirmation of God more effective than the quest, ‘Who am I?’ Affirmation is positive, whereas the other is negation. Moreover, it indicates separateness.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: So long as you seek to know how to realise, this advice is given to find your Self. Your seeking the method denotes your separateness.
Question: Is it not better to say ‘I am the Supreme Being’ than ask ‘Who am I?’
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Who affirms? There must be one to do it. Find that one.
Question: Is not meditation better than investigation?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Meditation implies mental imagery, whereas investigation is for the reality. The former is objective, whereas the latter is subjective.
Questioner: There must be a scientific approach to this subject.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: To eschew unreality and seek the reality is scientific.
Questioner: I mean there must a gradual elimination, first of the mind, then of the intellect, then of the ego.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Self alone is real. All others are unreal. The mind and intellect do not remain apart from you.
The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Stillness is the sole requisite for the realisation of the Self as God.
Question: Is Soham (the affirmation ‘I am He’) the same as ‘Who am I?’
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Aham (‘I’) alone is common to them. One is Soham. The other is Koham (Who am I?). They are different. Why should we go on saying soham? One must find out the real ‘I’. In the question ‘Who am I?’, ‘I’ refers to the ego. Trying to trace it and find its source, we see it has no separate existence but merges in the real ‘I’.
You see the difficulty. Vichara (enquiry) is different in method from the meditation Sivoham or Soham (‘I am Siva’ or ‘I am He’). I rather lay stress upon Self-knowledge, for you are first concerned with yourself before you proceed to know the world and its Lord. The soham meditation or ‘I am Brahman’ meditation is more or less a mental thought. But the quest for the Self I speak of is a direct method, indeed superior to the other meditation. The moment you start looking for the self and go deeper and deeper, the real Self is waiting there to take you in. Then whatever is done is done by something else and you have no hand in it. In this process, all doubts and discussions are automatically given up just as one who sleeps forgets, for the time being, all his cares.
Question: What certainty is there that something else waits there to welcome me?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: When one is a sufficiently developed soul (pakvi) one becomes naturally convinced.
Question: How is this development possible?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Various answers are given. But whatever the previous development, Vichara quickens the development.
Questioner: That is arguing in a circle. I am developed and so I am suitable for the quest but the quest itself causes me to develop.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The mind has always this sort of difficulty. It wants a certain theory to satisfy itself. Really, no theory is necessary for the man who seriously desires to approach God or to realise his own true being.
Question: No doubt the method taught by Bhagavan is direct. But it is so difficult. We do not know how to begin it. If we go on asking, ‘Who am I?, who am I?’ like a japa (repetition of the name of God) or a mantra, it becomes dull. In other methods there is something preliminary and positive with which one can begin and then go step by step. But in Bhagavan’s method, there is no such thing, and to seek the Self at once, though direct, is difficult.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: You yourself concede it is the direct method. It is the direct and easy method. When going after other things that are alien to us is so easy, how can it be difficult for one to go to one’s own Self? You talk of where to begin? There is no beginning and no end. You are yourself in the beginning and the end. If you are here and the Self somewhere else, and you have to reach that Self, you may be told how to start, how to travel and then how to reach.
Suppose you who are now in Ramanasramam ask, ‘I want to go to Ramanasramam. How shall I start and how to reach it?’, what is one to say? A man’s search for the Self is like that. He is always the Self and nothing else.
You say ‘Who am I?’ becomes a japa. It is not meant that you should go on asking ‘Who am I?’ In that case, thought will not so easily die. In the direct method, as you call it, in asking yourself ‘Who am I?’, you are told to concentrate within yourself where the ‘I’-thought, the root of all other thoughts, arise. As the Self is not outside but inside you, you are asked to dive within, instead of going without. What can be more easy than going to yourself?
But the fact remains that to some this method will seem difficult and will not appeal. That is why so many different methods have been taught. Each of them will appeal to some as the best and easiest. That is according to their Pakva or fitness. But to some, nothing except the Vichara Marga (the path of enquiry) will appeal. They will ask, ‘You want me to know or to see this or that. But who is the knower, the seer?’ Whatever other method may be chosen, there will be always a doer. That cannot be escaped. One must find out who the doer is. Till then, the Sadhana (spiritual practice) cannot be ended. So eventually all must come to find out ‘Who am I?’
You complain that there is nothing preliminary or positive to start with. You have the ‘I’ to start with. You know you exist always, whereas the body does not exist always, for example in sleep. Sleep reveals that you exist even without a body. We identify the ‘I’ with the body, we regard the Self as having a body, and as having limits, and hence all our trouble.
All that we have to do is to give up identifying the Self with the body, with forms and limits, and then we shall know ourselves as the Self that we always are.
Question: Am I to think ‘Who am I?"
Sri Ramana Maharshi: You have known that the ‘I’-thought springs forth. Hold the ‘I’-thought and find its source.
Question: May I know the way?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Do as you have now been told and see.
Questioner: I do not understand what I should do.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: If it is anything objective the way can be shown objectively. This is subjective.
Questioner: But I do not understand.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: What! Do you not understand that you are?
Questioner: Please tell me the way.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Is it necessary to show the way in the interior of your own home? This is within you.
Questioner: You have said that the Heart is the centre of the Self.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes, it is the one supreme centre of the Self. You need have no doubt about it. The real Self is there in the Heart behind the jiva or ego self.
Questioner: Now be please to tell me where it is in the body.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: You cannot know it with your mind. You cannot realise it by imagination, when I tell you here is the centre (pointing to the right side of the chest). The only direct way to realise it is to cease to fantasize and try to be yourself. When you realise, you automatically feel that the centre is there.
This is the centre, the Heart, spoken of in the scriptures as Hrit-Guha (cavity of the heart), Arul (grace), Ullam (the Heart).
Questioner: In no book have I found it stated that it is there.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Long after I came here I chanced upon a verse in the Malayalam version of Ashtangahridayam, the standard work on Ayurveda (science of life, health and medicine), wherein the Ojas Sthana (source of bodily vitality or place of light) is mentioned as being located in the right side of the chest and called the seat of consciousness (samvit). But I know of no other work which refers to it as being located there.
Question: Can I be sure that the ancients meant this centre by the term ‘Heart’?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Yes that is so. But you should try to have rather than to locate the experience. A man need not find out where his eyes are situated when he wants to see. The Heart is there ever open to you if you care to enter it, ever supporting all your movements even when you are unaware. It is perhaps more proper to say that the Self is the Heart itself than to say that it is in the Heart. Really, the Self is the centre itself. It is everywhere, aware of itself as ‘Heart’, the Self-awareness.
Question: In that case, how can it be localised in any part of the body? Fixing a place for the Heart would imply setting physiological limitations to that which is beyond space and time.
Sri Ramana Maharshi: That is right. But the person who puts the question about the position of the Heart considers himself as existing with or in the body. While putting the question now, would you say that your body alone is here but you are speaking from somewhere else? No, you accept your bodily existence. It is from this point of view that any reference to a physical body comes to be made.
Truly speaking, pure consciousness is indivisible, it is without parts. It has no form and shape, no ‘within’ and ‘without’. There is no ‘right’ or ‘left’ for it. Pure consciousness, which is the Heart, includes all, and nothing is outside or apart from it. That is the ultimate truth.
From this absolute standpoint, the Heart, Self or consciousness can have no particular place assigned to it in the physical body. What is the reason? The body is itself a mere projection of the mind, and the mind is but a poor reflection of the radiant Heart. How can that, in which everything is contained be itself confined as a tiny part within the physical body which is but an infinitesimal, phenomenal manifestation of the one reality?
But people do not understand this. They cannot help thinking in terms of the physical body and the world. For instance, you say, ‘I have come to this ashram all the way from my country beyond the Himalayas’. But that is not the truth. Where is ‘coming’ or ‘going’ or any movement whatever, for the one, all-pervading spirit which you really are? You are where you have always been. It is your body that moved or was conveyed from place to place till it reached this ashram. This is the simple truth, but to a person who considers himself a subject living in an objective world, it appears as something altogether visionary!
It is by coming down to the level ordinary understanding that a place is assigned to the Heart in the physical body.
Question: How then shall I understand Sri Bhagavan’s statement that the experience of the heart-centre is at the particular place in the chest?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Once you accept that from the true and absolute standpoint, the Heart as pure consciousness is beyond space and time, it will be easy for you to understand the rest in its correct perspective.
Question: The Heart is said to be on the right, on the left, or in the centre. With such differences of opinion how are we to meditate on it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: You are and it is a fact. Dhyana (meditation) is by you, of you, and in you. It must go on where you are. It cannot be outside you. So you are the centre of Dyana and that is the Heart.
Doubts arise only when you identify it with something tangible and physical. Heart is no conception, no object for meditation. The Self remains all alone. You see the body in the Heart, the world is also in it. There is nothing separate from it. So, all kinds of efforts are located there only.
Question: You say the ‘I’-thought rises from the Heart-centre. Should we seek its source there?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: I ask you to see where the ‘I’ arises in your body, but it is really not quite correct to say that the ‘I’ rises from and merges in the Heart in the right side of the chest. The Heart is another name for the reality and it is neither inside nor outside the body. There can be no in or out for it, since it alone is.
Question: Should I meditate on the right chest in order to meditate on the Heart?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: The Heart is not physical. Meditation should not be on the right or the left. Meditation should be on the Self. Everyone knows ‘I am’. Who is the ‘I’? It will be neither within nor without, neither on the right nor on the left. ‘I am’- that is all. Leave alone the idea of right and left. They pertain to the body. The Heart is the Self. Realise it and then you will see for yourself. There is no need to know where and what the Heart is. It will do its work if you engage in the quest for the Self.
Question: What is the Heart referred to in the verse of Upadesa Saram where it is said, ‘Abiding in the Heart is the best Karma, Yoga, Bhakti (devotion) and Jnana (knowledge)?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: That which is the source of all, that in which all live, and that into which all finally merge, is the Heart referred to.
Question: How can we conceive of such a Heart?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Why should you conceive of anything? You have only to see from where the ‘I’ springs. That from which all thoughts of embodied beings issue forth is called the Heart. All descriptions of it are only mental concepts.
Question: There are said to be six organs of different colours in the chest, of which the Heart is said to be two finger-breaths to the right of the middle line. But the Heart is also formless. Should we then imagine it to have a shape and meditate on it?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: No. Only the quest ‘Who am I?’ is necessary. What remains all through deep sleep and waking is the same. But in waking there is unhappiness and the effort to remove it. Asked who wakes up from sleep you say ‘I’. Now you are told to hold fast to this ‘I’. If it is done the eternal being will reveal itself. Investigation of ‘I’ is the point and not meditation on the Heart-centre. There is nothing like within or without. Both mean either the same thing or nothing.
Of course there is also the practice of meditation on the Heart-centre. It is only a practice and not investigation. Only the one who meditates on the Heart can remain aware when the mind ceases to be active and remains still, whereas those who meditate on other centres cannot be so aware but infer that the mind was still only after it becomes again active.
In whatever place in the body one thinks Self to be residing, due to the power of that thinking it will appear to the one who thinks thus as if Self is residing in that place. However, the beloved Heart alone is the refuge for the rising and subsiding of that ‘I’. Know that though it is said that the Heart exists both inside and outside, in absolute truth it does not exist both inside and outside, because the body, which appears as the base of the differences ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, is an imagination of the thinking mind. Heart, the source, is the beginning, the middle and the end of all. Heart, the supreme space, is never a form. It is the light of truth.