The Mind, The World, And The Self In Ramana Maharshi’s “Who Am I?”

At the age of 22, Ramana Maharshi is already answering questions profoundly yet simply. In the short dialogue, “Who Am I?,” he is asked about the nature of mind (question 8). He replies,

What is called ‘mind’ is a wondrous power residing in the Self. It causes all thoughts to arise. Apart from thoughts, there is no such thing as mind. Therefore, thought is the nature of the mind. Apart from thoughts, there is no independent entity called the world. In deep sleep there are no thoughts and no world. In the states of waking and dream, there are thoughts, and there is a world. Just as the spider emits the thread (of the web) out of itself and again withdraws it into itself, likewise the mind projects the world out of itself and again resolves it to itself. (The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 23)

We had better pause here and contemplate before reading on.

  1. Mind, a temporary phenomenon, arises in Reality. It is not self-subsistent nor is it ontologically primitive. Thus, to get down to practice, Nisargadatta’s injunction: “Look at the mind from the outside.”
  2. What causes thoughts to arise? The mind, this “wondrous power.” And of what does mind consist? Only of thoughts. It seems, then, that mind and thought turn out to be identical or, if not identical, then co-arising. No thoughts, no mind. No mind, no thoughts.
  3. Can you imagine or conceive of a world, as an independent entity, without using thoughts? Ah, you see that my question, as formulated, is contradictory! Take away thought (concepts: time, space, shape, color; memory; etc.) and what is left of the apparent perceptible world? Clearly nothing! Therefore, the apparent perceptible world is mind-concocted. In brief, no mind, no world.
  4. In 1-3, Maharshi is driving home the point that the mind and world are insubstantial and unreal. They are insubstantial and unreal in the first sense that they are transient (coming and going), in the second sense that they are co-dependent (with apparent perceptible world requiring mind and with mind requiring thought), and in the third sense that they must “rest on” Reality (for mind is “residing IN the Self”).
  5. In sum: without thought, no mind. Without mind, no world.

Let’s read on:

When the mind comes out of the Self, the world appears. Therefore, when the world appears (to be real), the Self does not appear; and when the Self appears (shines) the world does not appear. When one persistently inquires into the nature of mind, the mind will end leaving the Self (as the residue). What is referred to as the Self is the Atman. The mind always exists only in dependence on something gross; it cannot stay alone. It is the mind tat is called the subtle body of the soul (jiva) (pp. 34-5)

Beautiful. Parsing:

  1. The crux about the world appearing does not have to do with its mere appearance. It has to do with the mind’s taking the world to be real. How to express this? Each day we, as personal consciousnesses, wake up and take this world to be real. Reading the news can make the world seem not only real but also very “sticky,” solid, firm, and resolute. Yet once the question arises, “Is the world really real?,” inquiry begins to demonstrate, in one’s experience, that it is not real. Instead, it is like a waking dream. As we cease taking the world to be real, we naturally ask, “What is it, then, that is really real?” At which point, we can begin to “go back the way we came” (Maharshi). The world recedes as the mind quiets and as the mind quiets, there can be early glimpses of the Self.
  2. “[W]hen the Self appears (shines) the world does not appear.” Maharshi is making two points. The first is that the Self can only shine when the world does not appear as real. The second is that in the inward-facing path, one begins by realizing the no-thing-ness (in Zen, this coincides with: “I do not see the mountain”). There are no gross or subtle objects here, only unicity. Now, Maharshi is not implying that, as concerns the outward-facing path, that the world of differentiation is nullified. It is not. Remember that he is speaking, just now, with spiritual aspirants whose concern is with the inward-facing path at this juncture.
  3. Deep, persistent inquiry into the nature of the mind reveals the Source of the mind. So, concerning release/liberation, Maharshi concludes, “Inquiring into the nature of one’s self that is in bondage, and realizing one’s true nature is release” (p. 40). What is the ego-self? And what is the source of the ego-self/mind? To inquire persistently into what the mind is and into what is beyond the mind will “end leaving the Self” in all its brightness and clarity.