Ramana Maharshi and the self-inquiry technique, “Who am I?” 

Firstly, I am no authority on this subject. There are several Jnanis who have spoken about self-inquiry (in silence or through words) and I don’t know if one more voice is required but just for my joy of sharing whatever little I’ve learned, I feel inspired to pen this down. Humble pranaams to Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nochur Venkatraman and all the masters. 

Arunachala invited us to stay in Tiruvannamalai in 2021 and it has only been a downpour of grace. Not ‘pleasant’ experiences all the time but Dakshinamurti (Lord Shiva) destroys vasanas, rather burns vasanas. There have been smaller visits since 2015-16 but this intense calling to spend at least a year in the vicinity of mount Arunachala has been a process of churning to rest in the heart. And the power of Arunachala is such that one need not ‘do’ anything, just staying in Arunachala kshetra does it for the seeker. Again, this kshetra might be different for different people but as the Maharshi says, “At the end, everyone comes to Arunachala”. In the end, everyone has to die, rather, everyone has to contemplate death, on nothingness. And be completely comfortable with the idea of one’s death.  

I penned down a guide on Tiruvannamalai earlier but whenever friends visit, the story of Ramana Maharshi’s life of course comes up. While it’s a pleasure to recount it every time, I thought it would be good to share it here as well. 

Writing this at 30,000 ft above sea level, Ramana Maharshi’s presence is as strong as it can be (I started writing this post while on a flight). And for me, it happened through my guru, Sri Nochur Venkatraman (there’s no formal initiation here, I’ve just attended his talks). Ramana Maharshi is like the epicenter of jnana, the embodiment of Advaita. And all of us are tiny ripples of the same consciousness, tiny manifestations, tiny ornaments made from the same gold. 

Bhagwan Sri Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi- Bodily Life Journey

Born as Venkatraman in a small village called Tiruchuzhi in Tamil Nadu, the boy Venkatraman was a spirited young student good at sports, especially swimming. There was nothing extraordinary about him apart from a small quirk that he slept very deeply. In fact, so deep that his friends would carry him from bed to a different place and no amount of shaking would bring him out of sleep. 

Once, at his uncle’s house in Madurai, when he was 16, he was on the first floor of the house while everyone else was on the ground floor. Sometime during the day, an intense fear of death gripped him. No backstory, no incident, just like any feeling or emotion, this fear arose. The fear was so strong that he couldn’t shrug it off. It gripped him completely. He stayed with the feeling. In fact, he played out the entire feeling – he laid down as if his body was a corpse. And he inquired- “What actually happens when a person dies? Is it the body that dies? Is it the mind that dies? What is life? Where does it go? Does it actually go anywhere?” All of these experiences flashed by in his being and it all merged at the heart center in the form of a throbbing, “I, I”. Aham. Not the limited body-mind ‘I’ that you and me usually associate ourselves with but this impersonal I. The “I” which in Advaita (non-dual philosophy) is known as bhrahman. But for some, it can be a loaded word and hence can be understood as consciousness, awareness, god, or any other such word. 

Death Experience as described on one of the Ashram’s walls. Picture Credit: AmitG on Medium.

This is a place where there are no “two”. There are no others.  There is only consciousness (Shiva)- from which everything emerges/manifests (Shakti) and subsides within Shiva again. Every person, event, incident, any creation- is the power of Shakti and it emerges (as a part) of Shiva and subsides within. For Venkatraman, the identification with the limited I dropped in a moment and he remained in that state forever. For most of us, we get a glimpse of this vast consciousness and we slip back into Samsara and it takes years or lifetimes to recognise the simple state of aranya (no conflict) and remain in it. From that time on, Venkatramana lost interest in studies and began to spend more and more time at temples or anywhere else, absorbed in meditation. 

Looking at this, his brother once commented, “Why don’t you become a sanyasi if this is all that you want to do?” This struck a chord with the young Venkatramana and said, “Yes, there’s no need for me to pursue studies or be in this house.” During his death experience, a voice was throbbing from within- “Arunachala, Arunachala”. He had also heard about this mountain from his uncle previously and when the moment of decision came as to where to go, it was clear. Arunachala. (For people unfamiliar with the mountain, don’t confuse it with the North Eastern Indian state of Arunachala Pradesh. Arunachala is a mountain in the city of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, South India). 

Arunachala Shiva

He had 5 rupees on him to pay the school fees of his brother. He looked up the train fare on some charts and estimated that it’d take about 3 rupees to take a train closest to Tiruvannamalai and reach Arunachala. He took three rupees and left a note saying that his brother’s fees are yet to be paid and that he is embarking on a noble journey and no money needs to be spent on searching for him. With that, he dropped everything else and began his journey toward his father, Arunachala. 

The journey wasn’t smooth and it took him about three days in trains and by walk to reach Arunachal but as soon as he got a glimpse of the mountain, Lord Shiva, he knew he had arrived home. He straight away went to the main Arunachaleshwara temple (a 9th-century Shiva temple) and as chance would have it, the sanctum sanctorum was somehow open to welcome its favorite son. He took the blessings, came out, discarded all his clothes except the loin cloth, and went straight into samadhi in Patala Lingam (basement cave of the temple). Here, he was so absorbed in the supreme that there was no body consciousness to the point that rodents and other creatures had started gnawing away at his body. This is when Seshadri Swamy and other saints recognised the divinity of the Maharshi and brought him out of the basement cave. 

He was offered some liquid and food and his body was kept alive. He spent the next couple of years at Gurumurtham, Arunagirinathar temple, and some other places before moving to Virupaksha cave where he spent 16 years, and then to Skandashram for 9 years. Both these caves are now a part of the Ramana Ashram and are accessible to devotees (read here on how to visit). 

While at the caves, a small group of devotees started living around him. It was the scholar Kavya Kantha Ganapathi Muni who gave him the name of Bhagwan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Murugnar, Annamalai Swami, Major Chadwick, and many other realised souls lived with the master and a small ashram came up in due course of time. The Maharshi’s body lived from 1878-1950 but the essence of the Maharshi, the teaching carries on. The ashram is as resplendent with the greatest teaching as it has ever been. Every particle in and around the ashram communicates the highest teaching in silence. The ashram flourished during the last few years of the Maharshi being in the body but after his physical body passed away, it fell into an externally poor state for a couple of decades. But from the ’80s a revival set in and the ashram recently (2023) celebrated the Centenary of Sri Ramanashramam. With thousands of pilgrims and devotees visiting the ashram every month, the ashram can get crowded during the winter season but the serenity, the peace, and the fire of wisdom blaze constantly! 

The Practice of Self-Inquiry

Coming to the teaching of the Maharshi- again, a disclaimer that I am no authority here and am only sharing whatever little I’ve learned- The practice of self-inquiry is extremely potent. On the surface, it might just look like one question- “Who am I?” But it is the only question that matters. It is the ultimate question. But what does it really mean? How to practice?

Firstly, in my experience, self-inquiry assumes one can meditate. It assumes that an aspirant has the capacity to meditate for at least 1 hour a day regularly. After the mind is quiet to a certain extent, the inquiry has strong potency. The ask is simple- whenever a thought arises, whenever a feeling arises- ask as to whom does it arise? The answer would come- “I”. Now, who is this “I”? Is it the body? Is the mind? Is it my identity as a good family man, a successful businessman, a creative artist, a monk, a sanyasi, etc., etc.? Following this question, one has to go through the same inquiry that the Maharshi went through on the first floor of his Madurai house. 

One does not have to find an intellectual answer. Constant inquiry and diving within will take the aspirant to the source of the question- to the heart center, where it all merges. Here, the heart is used metaphorically and also in the physical sense. All questions, all mind, everything arises from this heart center which is the substratum of everything. The practice is to go to this source and rest there. Now, who goes to this source? It is this small “I” in the form of a question or an agitation or an emotion. Whatever arises, settles back into the heart center. With this practice, one is able to constantly be the Self and then act but always resting in the heart center. 

Nothing has to be done- one just needs to “be”. How? Sit quietly, in any comfortable posture. And just be. Don’t try to do anything, don’t even try to meditate. Let the mind settle. It is only the mind which is creating fantasies, suffering over past events, making plans, and posing questions. Everything is an occurrence. Perfect as it should be. Let everything be. Don’t try to change anything. Just rest. Quietly, peacefully, in the breath. 

While doing this- one may feel “I am feeling good.” As the same question- “What is this I that is feeling good?” Back to the heart center. Rest. 

Many ask- “But what then?” “What should I do after resting in the heart and feeling peace?” 

Well, if that question arises, we haven’t reached the heart center. Because the purpose or rather the state of realisation is nothing grand but just this sense of everlasting peace, and contentment. A jnani is completely content. Not wanting anything, not even liberation. There has to be an “I” to get liberation. There is no person in that state. A person can never get enlightened. As long as a person is there, the mind is there. As soon as realisation shines forth, there is no person. Only god is. Only god is. 

Om Arunachala. 

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