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Copyright 2001 Realization.org.

 

 
 
  REFERENCE
 

Self-Inquiry
(Atma-vicara)


SELF-INQUIRY IS a meditation technique for attaining enlightenment which is associated with Sri Ramana Maharshi.

The Sanskrit name for it, atma-vicara, really means self-investigation, self-examination, self-reflection, or looking within, but self-inquiry has become the standard translation. As we'll show below, this can be misleading. Self-enquiry is the British spelling; self-inquiry is American.

History of Self-Inquiry

Self-inquiry is an ancient technique that dates back at least to the Upanisads. For example, the Katha Upanisad says:

 
Sri Ramana Maharshi wrote his famous booklet Self-Enquiry when he was in his early twenties.

  The primeval one who is hard to perceive,
    wrapped in mystery, hidden in the cave,
    residing within the impenetrable depth—
Regarding him as god, an insight
    gained by inner contemplation,
    both sorrow and joy the wise abandon.1
    1. Katha Upanisad, 2.12. From Patrick Olivelle, tr., The Early Upanisads (Oxford University Press: New York, 1998), 385.

This is a pretty good summary of Ramana Maharshi's method, although it's written in veiled language. The "primeval one" in this verse is Brahman (the Self) and the "cave" is the heart center, so the meaning is: concentrate inwardly (on the feeling of me) until the innermost self is discerned in the heart and recognized as God. A similar reference occurs in the Maitri Upanisad 6.34.

   

Ramana Maharshi was aware of the method's long history, for he himself pointed out that self-inquiry is described in book six of the Bhagavad Gita:2

  2. He is quoted to this effect in Sri Sadhu Om, The Path of Sri Ramana Vol. 1 (Sri Ramana Kshetra: Tiruvannamalai,1997), 77.

 

Little by little, he should come to rest,
With the intellect firmly held.
His mind having been established in the Self,
He should not think of anything.

Whenever the unsteady mind,
Moving to and fro, wanders away,
He should restrain it
And control it in the Self.
3

 
   
  3. Bhagavad Gita 6.25–26. From Winthrop Sargeant, tr., The Bhagavad Gita (State University of New York Press: New York, 1994) 296–97.

How to Do It

The best description we've seen of self-inquiry was written by David Godman. It appears in two of his books, both of which we recommend highly. Here is what David wrote:

   

 

It was Sri Ramana's basic thesis that the individual self is nothing more than a thought or an idea. He said that this thought, which he called 'I'-thought, originates from a place called the Heart-centre, which he located on the right side of the chest in the human body. From there the 'I'-thought rises up to the brain and identifies itself with the body: 'I am this body.' It then creates the illusion that there is a mind or an individual self which inhabits the body and which controls all its thoughts and actions. The 'I'-thought accomplishes this by identifying itself with all the thoughts and perceptions that go on in the body. For example, 'I' (that is the 'I'-thought) am doing this, 'I' am thinking this, 'I' am feeling happy, etc. Thus, the idea that one is an individual person is generated and sustained by the 'I'-thought and by its habit of constantly attaching itself to all the thoughts that arise. Sri Ramana maintained that one could reverse this process by depriving the 'I'-thought of all the thoughts and perceptions that it normally identifies with. Sri Ramana taught that this 'I'-thought is actually an unreal entity, and that it only appears to exist when it identifies itself with other thoughts. He said that if one can break the connection between the 'I'-thought and the thoughts it identifies with, then the 'I'-thought itself will subside and finally disappear. Sri Ramana suggested that this could be done by holding onto the 'I'-thought, that is, the inner feeling of 'I' or 'I am' and excluding all other thoughts. As an aid to keeping one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', he recommended that one should constantly question oneself 'Who am I?' or 'Where does this "I" come from?' He said that if one can keep one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the 'I'-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre.

This, according to Sri Ramana, is as much as the devotee can do by himself. When the devotee has freed his mind of all thoughts except the 'I'-thought, the power of the Self pulls the 'I'-thought back into the Heart-centre and eventually destroys it so completely that it never rises again. This is the moment of Self-realization. When this happens, the mind and the indvidual self (both of which Sri Ramama equated with the 'I'-thought) are destroyed forever. Only the Atman or the Self then remains.4

 
  4. David Godman, Living By the Words of Bhagavan, (Sri Annamali Swami Ashram Trust: Tiruvannamalai, 1995), 24-25. The same text appears in another book by the same author, No Mind—I Am the Self.

A Common Misunderstanding

The key sentence in David Godman's description, quoted in the previous section, is this one:

"He [Ramana Maharshi] said that if one can keep one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the 'I'-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre."

As this sentence suggests, self-inquiry is basically about keeping the attention fixed on the I-thought — that is, on the feeling of me.

The word inquiry leads many people to think, wrongly, that the technique has more to do with asking questions than with focusing attention. Since the technique does involve questions, the misunderstanding is natural.

One of these questions, "Who Am I?", is the name of Ramana Maharshi's first written work. He meant to suggest that self-inquiry reveals the answer to this question, not that a seeker should ask the question over and over.

Self-inquiry also involves a second question, "To whom does this thought arise?" Ramana Maharshi advised meditators to ask this question whenever their concentration is interrupted by a thought, because the answer causes the attention to return to the feeling of me where it belongs.

Ramana Maharshi summed up his technique as follows:

   

  What is essential in any sadhana [practice] is to try to bring back the running mind and fix it on one thing only. Why then should it not be brought back and fixed in Self-attention? That alone is Self-enquiry (atma-vicara). That is all that is to be done!5     5. Sri Sadhu Om, The Path of Sri Ramana Vol. 1 (Sri Ramana Kshetra: Tiruvannamalai,1997), 77.

Contrast with Yoga

Ramana Maharshi often said that yoga and self-enquiry are two methods of controlling the mind, which he compared to an agitated bull. Yoga attempts to drive the bull with a stick, while self-enquiry coaxes it with green grass. See, for example, Self-Enquiry, Question 36.

   

Technical Vocabulary

Two important technical terms are used with self-inquiry: I-thought and heart center. Neither is wholly original with Ramana Maharshi.

The term I-thought is the false notion that the mind (rather than the Self) is the seer or doer. (We refer to it in this article as the feeling of me because, well, that's what it feels like.) The term goes back at least as far as Sankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta. He used several Sanskrit expressions for this idea: ahamdhi, ahampratyaya, ahamkriya, and ahamkara.6

  6. See Segaku Mayeda, tr., A Thousand Teachings: The Upadesasahasri of Sankara, State University of New York Press: New York, 1992), 40.

According to Sankara, "awareness of one's own Atman [i.e., the Self] is established at the time of the cessation of the 'I'-notion."7 This awareness and cessation are exactly what self-inquiry is designed to accomplish.

  7. Ibid., verse 200, p. 193.

The second technical term, heart center, is a translation of the Sanskrit hridayam. According to Ramana Maharshi, this is where the Self is located. The I-thought rises from this location and, at the end of the process of self-inquiry, sinks back into it, causing self-realization. This idea goes back to the earliest Upanisads, where Brahman is found in the "cave of the heart".

Ramana Maharshi sometimes described the heart center as an actual object located in the right side of the chest, but at other times he said this was an oversimplification for people who couldn't understand the truth. According to H.W.L Poonja, Ramana Maharshi told him:

   

  When I speak of the 'I' rising from the right side of the body, from a location on the right side of the chest, the information is for those people who still think that they are the body. To these people I say that the Heart is located there. But it is really not quite correct to say that the 'I' rises from and merges in the Heart on 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. I do not mean by 'Heart' any physiological organ or any plexus or anything like that…8     8. David Godman, Nothing Ever Happened Vol. 1 (Avadhuta Foundation: Boulder, 1998), 143.

A Quotation About Self-Inquiry

"Devotee: If I go on rejecting thoughts can I call it Vichara?

"Maharshi: It may be a stepping stone. But really Vichara begins when you cling to your Self and are already off the mental movement, the thought-waves."9

  9. K, Sat-Darshana Bashya and Talks With Maharshi (Sri Ramanasramam: Tiruvannamalai, 1993), ix.

Further Reading on the Web

Sri Ramana Maharshi wrote several booklets and poems to describe the method of self-inquiry. These include Who Am I?, Self-Enquiry, and Forty Verses on Reality.

Our main reference page on Ramana Maharshi is here. A second prominent teacher of self-inquiry in modern times was H.W.L. Poonja. A third famous guru, Nisargadatta Maharaj, became self-realized through self-inquiry although he did not ordinarily refer to it by that name in his teaching.

The most important source of information about self-inquiry on the Internet is the website of the Sri Ramana Ashram.

   


This page was published on August 5, 2001 and last revised on September 5, 2001.

   

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.