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Subject: Perennial philosophy, John C. Lilly, Ramana Maharshi, Paul Brunton, H. W. L. Poonja, Who Am I?, Bhagwan Gopinath
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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.

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 6] pointing to the true Self of the devotees and showing them the truth of it.[4]

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 7]

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 7]

Self is awareness

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 8]

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 8]


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.

Not 'I am Brahman

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

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

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

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

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.[5] Other devotees recorded the talks between Ramana and devotees, a large amount of which have also been published.[web 7]

Ramana "never felt moved to formulate his teaching of his own accord, either verbally or in writing".[5] The few writings he's credited with "came into being as answers to questions asked by his disciples or through their urging".[5] Only a few hymns were written on his own initiative.[5].

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]


From Be As You Are

When one turns within and searches
Whence this 'I' thought arises,
The shamed 'I' vanishes
And wisdom's quest begins.

Upadesha Saram, v 19, Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi taught that every conscious activity of the mind or body, for example 'I think', 'I remember', 'I feel' 'I am acting', etc., revolves around the tacit assumption that there is an individual 'I' who is doing something, a common factor and mental fiction termed the 'I'-thought (a translation of Aham-Vritti, which literally means 'mental modification of 'I'). The individual "I" from which all thoughts arise is the ego/mind itself.

Sri Ramana equated individuality with the mind and the mind with the 'I'-thought which is dependent upon identification with an object, and said that after Self-realization there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence. When the thoughts arise, he said, the 'I'-thought claims ownership of them — 'I think', 'I believe', 'I want', 'I am acting'. The individual "I' is the ego mind itself. In reality, truth, there is no separate 'I' that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with, rather, an incessant flow of misidentifications based on an initial assumption that the 'I' is individual and associated with the bodily form. He considered this 'I am the body' idea as the primary source of all subsequent wrong identifications and its dissolution as the principal aim of self-enquiry.

Sri Ramana taught that since the individual 'I'-thought cannot exist without an object, 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. In its place will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of 'I' or 'I am' is called self-enquiry (atma vichara). 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 finally disappear when the perception of all objects, both physical and mental, cease and only Self-awareness exists. This is not brought about by being aware of an 'I', but only by BEING the 'I'. This stage of experiencing the subject rather than being aware of an object is the culminating phase of self-enquiry.

This important distinction is what distinguishes self-enquiry from most other spiritual practices. It also explains why Ramana Maharshi consistently maintained that most other practices were ineffective. He often pointed out that traditional meditations and yoga practices were predicated on the existence of a subject who meditates on an object and he would usually add that such a relationship sustained the 'I'-thought instead of eliminating it. In his view such practices may effectively quieten the mind, and they may even produce blissful experiences, but they will never culminate in Self-realisation because the 'I'-thought is not being isolated and seen to have no real existence.[9]

From Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi

Arranging thoughts in the order of value, the `I' thought is the all-important thought. Personality-idea or thought is also the root or the stem of all other thoughts, since each idea or thought arises only as someone's thought and is not known to exist independently of the ego. The ego therefore exhibits thought-activity. The second and the third persons do not appear except to the first person. Therefore they arise only after the first person appears, so all the three persons seem to rise and sink together. Trace, then, the ultimate cause of `I' or personality. The `I' idea arises to an embodied ego and should be related to a body or organism. Has it a location in the body or a special relation to any particular spot, as speech which has its centre in the brain or amativeness in the brain? Similarly, has `I' got any centre in the brain, blood, or viscera? Thought-life is seen to centre round the brain and the spinal-cord which in turn are fed by the blood circulating in them, carrying food and air duly mixed up which are transformed into nerve matter. Thus, vegetative life — including circulation, respiration, alimentation, etc. — or vital force, is said to be (or reside in) the core or essence of the organism. Thus the mind may be regarded as the manifestation of vital force which again may be conceived as residing in the Heart.[10]

From The Path of Sri Ramana, Part One, by Sri Sadhu Om

Sri Ramana Maharshi named Self-enquiry as ‘Who Am I?’, thus drawing our attention directly to the first person. In this question, 'Who Am I?', 'I am' denotes Self and 'who' stands for the enquiry. It does not mean enquiring into a second or third person object. Also, Self (atman) does not exist as an object to be known by us who seek to know it!

Self-enquiry is unnecessary for the Self, and Self-knowledge is impossible for the ego. The enquiry 'Who Am I?' taught by Sri Ramana should be taken to mean Self-attention (that is, attention merely to the first person, the feeling 'I').

While practising Self-enquiry, instead of taking any one of the five sheaths as the object of our attention, we should fix our attention only on the 'I'-consciousness, which exists and shines as oneself, as the singular, and as a witness to and aloof from these five sheaths.

Sri Ramana has advised that Self-enquiry can either be done in the form 'Who am I?' or in the form 'Whence am I?'. 'Who is this I?' may rather be called 'I-attention', 'Self-attention' or 'Self-abidance'. Enquiring 'Whence am I?' is enquiring 'Whence is the ego?', meaning ‘From what?’. When taken in this sense, instead of a place or time coming forth as a reply, Self-existence, 'we', the Thing (vastu), alone is experienced as the reply.

When sought within 'What is the place from which it rises as 'I'?, 'I' (the ego) will die! This is Self-enquiry (jnana-vichara)[11]

He who seeks 'Whence am I?' is following the ego, the form of which is 'I am so-and-so', and while doing so, the adjunct so-and-so, having no real existence, dies on the way, and thus he remains established in the Self, the surviving 'I am'.[12]

On the other hand, he who seeks 'Who am I?' drowns effortlessly in his real natural 'being' (Self), which ever shines as 'I am that I am'. Therefore, what is absolutely necessary is that Self-attention should be pursued till the very end.

From Reality in Forty Verses

14. 'You' and 'he' — these appear only when 'I' does. But when the nature of the 'I' is sought and the ego is destroyed, 'you' and 'he' are at an end. What shines then as the One alone is the true Self.

23. The body says not it is 'I'. And no one says, "In sleep there is no 'I'." When 'I' arises all (other) things arise. Whence this 'I' arises, search with a keen mind.

26. When the ego rises all things rise with it. When the ego is not, there is nothing else. Since the ego thus is everything, to question 'What is this thing?' is the extinction of all things.

29. Cease all talk of 'I' and search with inward diving mind whence the thought of 'I' springs up. This is the way of wisdom. To think, instead, 'I am not this, but That I am,' is helpful in the search, but it is not the search itself.

30. When the mind turns inward seeking 'Who am I??' and merges in the Heart, then the 'I' hangs down his head in shame and the One 'I' appears as Itself. Though it appears as 'I-I', it is not the ego. It is Reality, Perfection, the Substance of the Self.[13]

From Miscellaneous Scriptures

Enquiry should be made this wise: With the kind help

of the Sat Guru one should enquire ‘Who am I? what is this

world? what is the reality behind all these?’
—Sage Ribhu, Ribhu Gita[14] Ch.32, v21
Only by those strong willed persons who make earnest and persistent Self-enquiry will the turbulent mind be controlled and fixed still in the practice of firm bhavana. In due course all thoughts and nescience will disappear, yielding place to the effulgent Awareness-Self of mukti.
—Sage Ribhu, Ribhu Gita, Ch.32, v26
You are unconditioned and changeless, formless and immovable,

unfathomable awareness, unperturbable: so hold to nothing but

—Sage AshtavakraAshtavakra Gita,[15] Ch.1, v.17
The great remedy for the long lasting disease of samsara is the enquiry, 'Who am I?, to whom does this samsara belong,' which entirely cures it.
—Sage Valmiki Yoga Vasistha Sara,[16] Ch.1, v.5
O Rama, this enquiry into the Self of the nature or 'Who Am I?' is the fire which burns up the seeds of the evil tree which is the mind.
—Sage Valmiki,  Yoga Vasista Sara, Ch.1, v.5
This wisdom (realising the Self) can be gained by a long course of practice of unceasing enquiry into the Self.
Disciple: 'What is this enquiry?'
Master: 'Enquiry consists in pondering over the questions: Who is this 'I' in the body, including mind, senses, etc.? What is sentience? What is insentience? What is their combination, called bondage? What is Release?'
—Tandavaraya Swami , Kaivalya Navaneetha (The Cream of Emancipation), Section II, v.63

What is the "I AM"?

418. The only true and full Awareness is
Awareness of Awareness.
Until Awareness is Awareness of itself,
it knows no peace at all.

432. Is it not because you are yourself Awareness,
that you now perceive this universe?
If you observe Awareness steadily,
this Awareness as Teacher, will reveal the Truth.

52. If mind turned towards Awareness and concentrating on Awareness,
seeks the Self, the world made up of ether and other elements is real, as all things are Awareness,
the one sole substance of true Being.

435. True natural Awareness, which does not go after alien objects, is the Heart.
Since actionless Awareness shines as real Being,
its joy consists in concentration on itself.

742. In the Self, he stands firm fixed who dwells
and truly meditates on himself as pure awareness.

See also



Written references



Further reading

  • '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

  • 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
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