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Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. An Indian guru who advocated Self-enquiry.

Self-enquiry (also spelled self-inquiry) (Sanskrit ātma-vichār) is the constant attention to the inner awareness of 'I' or 'I am'. Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the ‘I'-thought. He taught that the 'I'-thought will disappear and only "I-I"[web 1] or Self-awareness remains, which is Self-realization or liberation.[1]


Ātman (IAST: ātman, Sanskrit: आत्मन्) is a Sanskrit word that is usually translated as "self".[note 1] The root *ēt-men (breath) is cognate with Old English "æþm", Greek "asthma", German "Atem": "atmen" (to breathe). It is derived from Latin "anima" (breath,soul), which is cognate to Sanskrit "ánilaḥ" (wind). Although "ánilaḥ" and "ātman" have similar meaning, they are not etymologically related.[citation needed]

In Hindu philosophy, especially in the Vedanta school of Hinduism, Ātman is the first principle,[2] the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. To attain salvation (liberation), a human being must acquire self-knowledge (atma jnana), which is to realise that one's true self (Ātman) is identical with the transcendent self Brahman (or paramatman).

Vichara (Sanskrit: विचार) has several meanings, such as reflection, pondering, investigation.[web 2]

Strictly speaking, "self-enquiry" is not the investigation of the "Self", "atman", but of the "I", "aham" (Sanskrit), "nan" (Tamil).


Ramana's teachings on Self-enquiry originated in his own awakening at age 16, when he became firmly aware of death. It made him aware of the Self. Ramana summarised his insight into "aham sphurana" (Self-awareness)[note 2] to a visitor in 1945:[web 3][note 3]

In the vision of death, though all the senses were benumbed, the aham sphurana (Self-awareness) was clearly evident, and so I realised that it was that awareness that we call "I", and not the body. This Self-awareness never decays. It is unrelated to anything. It is Self-luminous. Even if this body is burnt, it will not be affected. Hence, I realised on that very day so clearly that that was "I".[web 3]

At first, Ramana thought that he was possessed by a spirit, "which had taken up residence in his body".[web 4] This feeling remained for several weeks.[web 4]

Later in life, he called his death experience akrama mukti, "sudden liberation", as opposed to the krama mukti, "gradual liberation" as in the Vedanta path of jnana yoga:[web 3][note 4]

‘Some people,’ he said, 'start off by studying literature in their youth. Then they indulge in the pleasures of the world until they are fed up with them. Next, when they are at an advanced age, they turn to books on Vedanta. They go to a guru and get initiated by him and then start the process of sravana, manana and nididhyasana, which finally culminates in samadhi. This is the normal and standard way of approaching liberation. It is called krama mukti [gradual liberation]. But I was overtaken by akrama mukti [sudden liberation] before I passed through any of the above-mentioned stages.'[web 3]

Ramana's written works contain terse descriptions of self-enquiry. Verse thirty of Ulladu Narpadu:

Questioning 'Who am I?' within one's mind, when one reaches the Heart, the individual 'I' sinks crestfallen, and at once reality manifests itself as 'I-I'. Though it reveals itself thus, it is not the ego 'I' but the perfect being the Self Absolute.[web 1]

Verses nineteen and twenty of Upadesa Undiyar describe the same process in almost identical terms:

19. 'Whence does the 'I' arise?' Seek this within. The 'I' then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom.

20. Where the 'I' vanished, there appears an 'I-I' by itself. This is the infinite.[web 1]

Vichara Sangraham (Self-Enquiry):

Therefore, leaving the corpse-like body as an actual corpse and remaining without even uttering the word 'I' by mouth, if one now keenly enquires, 'What is it that rises as 'I'? then in the Heart a certain soundless sphurana, 'I-I', will shine forth of its own accord. It is an awareness that is single and undivided, the thoughts which are many and divided having disappeared. If one remains still without leaving it, even the sphurana – having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, 'I am the body' — will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and scriptures.[web 1]



Ramana gave upadesa, "instruction or guidance given to a disciple by his Guru",[web 5] pointing to the true Self of the devotees and showing them the truth of it.[3]

As author and long-time devotee David Godman explains,

Beginners in self-enquiry were advised by Sri Ramana to put their attention on the inner feeling of 'I' and to hold that feeling as long as possible. They would be told that if their attention was distracted by other thoughts they should revert to awareness of the 'I'-thought whenever they became aware that their attention had wandered. He suggested various aids to assist this process – one could ask oneself 'Who am I?’ or 'Where does this I come from?’ — but the ultimate aim was to be continuously aware of the 'I' which assumes that it is responsible for all the activities of the body and the mind.[web 6]

Self-enquiry can be practised at all times:

Self-enquiry should not be regarded as a meditation practice that takes place at certain hours and in certain positions; it should continue throughout one's waking hours, irrespective of what one is doing. Sri Ramana Maharshi saw no conflict between working and self-enquiry and he maintained that with a little practice it could be done under any circumstances. He did sometimes say that regular periods of formal practice were good for beginners, but he never advocated long periods of sitting meditation and he always showed his disapproval when any of his devotees expressed a desire to give up their mundane activities in favour of a meditative life.[web 6]

Self is awareness[edit]

Ramana stated that the Self is awareness:

The Truth is that Self is constant and unintermittent Awareness. The object of enquiry is to find the true nature of the Self as Awareness. Let one practise enquiry so long as separateness is perceived.[web 7]

Giving up awareness of not-self leads to pure awareness:

You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self."[web 7]


As David Godman explains,

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 That', are usually used as mantras, or, more rarely, one meditates on their meaning and tries to experience the implications of the statement.[citation needed]

Not 'I am Brahman[edit]

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. 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.[note 5]

Not a mantra[edit]

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 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.

Not neti-neti[edit]

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 the names are identical, it was often confused with Ramana Maharshi’s method. His 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 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.

Self/Heart not located in body[edit]

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 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 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. 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.

Ramana's works[edit]

Early on, Ramana attracted devotees who would sit in his company, and ask him questions. Several devotees recorded the answers to their own specific questions, or kept the sheets of paper on which Ramana answered, and had them later published.[4] Other devotees recorded the talks between Ramana and devotees, a large amount of which have also been published.[web 6]

Ramana "never felt moved to formulate his teaching of his own accord, either verbally or in writing".[4] The few writings he's credited with "came into being as answers to questions asked by his disciples or through their urging".[4] Only a few hymns were written on his own initiative.[4]

Ramana's earliest teachings are documented in the book Nan Yar?(Who am I?), in which he elaborates on the "I" and Self-enquiry. The original book was first written in Tamil, and published by Sri Pillai.[5] The essay version of the book (Sri Ramana Nutrirattu) prepared by Ramana is considered definitive, as unlike the original it had the benefit of his revision and review. "Nan Yar" was documented by his disciple M. Sivaprakasam Pillai, who was already heavily influenced by traditional Advaita, and so had added notes about the traditional Advaitic negation method for his own clarification; these additional notes were later removed by Ramana.[6] A careful translation with notes is available in English as 'The Path of Sri Ramana, Part One' by Sri Sadhu Om, one of the direct disciples of Ramana.[7]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Though in the western world the word "self" signifies the whole of the individual being, where-as in the Indian context it signifies the unchanging essence which is identical to Brahman.
  2. ^ David Godman: "Bhagavan frequently used the Sanskrit phrase aham sphurana to indicate the 'I-I' consciousness or experience. Aham means 'I' and sphurana can be translated as 'radiation, emanation, or pulsation'."[web 1]
  3. ^ An extensive account on Ramana's use of the words "Self", "I-I" and "aham sphurana" is given in [web 1]
  4. ^ Rama P. Coomaraswamy: "[Krama-mukti is] to be distinguished from jîvan-mukti, the state of total and immediate liberation attained during this lifetime, and videha-mukti, the state of total liberation attained at the moment of death."[8] See [web 8] for more info on "gradual liberation".
  5. ^ See I am Brahman


Written references[edit]

  1. ^ "Self-enquiry". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  2. ^ Deussen 2010, p. 86.
  3. ^ Zimmer 1948, p. 192.
  4. ^ a b c d Ebert 2006, p. 78.
  5. ^ Ramana Maharshi 1982.
  6. ^ Sadhu Om 2005-A, p. 147.
  7. ^ Sri Sadhu Om 2005-A.
  8. ^ Coomaraswamy 2004.



Further reading[edit]

  • 'Who Am I?', Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi (ISBN 81-88018-06-6). Includes Nan yar, Who am I?
  • Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Edited by David Godman (ISBN 0-14-019062-7)
  • Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, Edited by David Godman (ISBN 0-9711371-6-1)

External links[edit]

  • Self-Inquiry 'Who am I' Meditation Technique for beginners online
  • Guru Vachaka Kovai, by Sri Murugunar, Translation by Sadhu Om and Michael James free e-book
  • Self-enquiry, from Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Edited by David Godman online
  • 'Who Am I? — Nan Yar?', question and answer version online
  • 'Who Am I? — Nan Yar?', prose version online
  • Self-Enquiry online
  • Spiritual Instruction online
  • Reality in Forty Verses – Ulladu Narpadu online
  • The Path of Sri Ramana – Part One, by Sri Sadhu Om (ASIN B000KMKFX0) free e-book