Know Thyself: The Path of Sri Ramana–Part Two

Know Thyself

The primary aim of life is to Know Thyself. This investigation Sri Ramana Maharshi called “Self-inquiry” or atma vichara.

In The Path of Sri Ramana–Part Two, Sri Sadhu Om proposes that very few are engaging in the above inquiry. Why? Because many of us have been fixated on inquiries into the second and third persons.

Second and Third Persons in Tamil

In Tamil, the translator notes, the second person means “‘that which stands in front'” (p. 2) while the third person “denotes those objects which are not not now perceived in front of us but which are thought of by the mind” (p. 2).

World, Mind, and God

From the above, it immediately follows that the world, mind, and God (an important qualifier: when understood conceptually) are only second and third persons.

  • 2nd Person: World–object of the senses standing “out in front”
  • 3rd Person: Mind–objective aspect of the mind
  • 3rd Person: God–object of thought

Natural Science

Sri Sadhu Om is now in a position to argue that the world is only the object of scientific research. Since the latter is nothing but an extension of or elaboration upon the second person (that is, natural science models the behavior of nature “out in front”), science can never tell us who we are. To be sure, it’s not trying to, but then it’s already too far downstream.

For, as Ramana states often, the second person can only arise if the first person has risen. Who is this first person?


A similar analysis applies to dualistic religions. Since God is only an object of thought or feeling, trying to know God only involves the attempt to continue to engage with the third person. “But who is the one so engaged? Who is it that wants to know God?” To answer those questions is to ‘turn around’ and engage in Self-inquiry.


Finally, “All that psychologists have [ever] made research upon is this objective aspect of the mind, and they have never made research upon its subjective aspect, the first person thought ‘I'” (p. 8). As a result, psychology cannot tell us who we are, only what (say) personality types, archetypes, or psychological processes have unfolded in the mode of the third person. In this sense, psychology is thus too far removed from the essential matter at hand.

Going Upstream

What remains but to turn around and examine Our Self? To begin this inquiry, which is Self-inquiry, is to commit to knowing Thyself: the highest aspiration there is.

Sri Sadhu Om’s Defense Of Ramana Maharshi’s Self-inquiry

In what follows, I’d like to bring out what I think is most salient about Sri Sadhu Om’s defense of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s approach to Self-inquiry. In doing so, I’ll set aside his fervor and bombast and come straightaway to the pith. And the pith is not only that (1) Self-inquiry gets you a two in one but also that (2) Self-inquiry goes directly to the heart of the matter.

Two in One

In The Path of Sri Ramana Maharshi: Part 1, Sri Sadhu Om’s argument in favor of Self-inquiry (atma vichara) is compelling. He states that many meditations can bring one from scattered, dispersed, wandering mind to one-pointedness, yet (only?) Self-inquiry, in addition to bringing one to one-pointedness, enables one to take the backward step.

Consider following the breath. After a while, the body relaxes and the mind quiets. Quieting, the mind rests its attention on the sensations arising in the nostrils. Perhaps it comes to stabilize there as well.

Sri Sadhu Om would say, “Fine, but this is still on the third person. What of the first person?” We’ll come, below, to his other major point, but for now it’s enough to say, with Sri Sadhu Om, that ultimately one must “turn around” and ask about the asker. For the questioner, it becomes clear, really is the question, must be the point at hand.

For Sri Sadhu Om, the beauty of Self-inquiry is that it is two in one: it can give rise to one-pointedness and it necessarily facilitates one’s taking the backward step.

The First Person Comes First

Sri Sadhu Om hammers away at Ramana’s suggestion that “I” rising is the condition for “it,” “you,” and “we” to rise. Without “I” rising, could there be an “it” or a “you”? No. Then, Ramana often tells us, find out what the source of this “I” is.

For Sri Sadhu Om, this point about the metaphysical priority of the “I” becomes what he wants us to stick with. Why focus on pranayama when doing so means focusing on an “it”? Why focus on a mantra when that too is an “it”? And why focus on any thought when that thought may be about an “I” addressing itself to a “you”?

If any “it” or “you” has risen, trace it back to this “I.” And then trace the “I” back to its source. When the “I” is completely absorbed in the Heart/Source, then the inquiry is complete.

The Triangular Prison Of The Mind

In The Path of Sri Ramana Maharshi: Part One–The Jnana Aspect of the Teaching, Sri Sadhu Om tells us a story about a man who is apparently imprisoned. The story goes like this:

The man, believing that he is in a triangular-shaped prison, continues to search along two walls that meet–let’s say–at a right angle. Along the first wall, he finds no opening, no means for escape. All the way up and down the seam between the two walls he also discovers no crack, no aperture. And as he gropes along the second wall, he is at a terrible loss.

Bemoaning his fate, the man is lucky enough to have a friend standing outside. Out of compassion, the friend approaches the imprisoned man and says to him, “Well, why don’t you search for a way out on the third wall behind you” (p. 164)!

The man turns around and quickly realizes that there is no third wall!

Immediately, he intends to run out of the prison, but the friend says to him, “What! Why do you run away? Is it necessary for you to do so? If you do not run away, will you remain in prison” (p. 165)?

The man now knows:

“Oho! yes, yes! I was not at all [i.e., never] imprisoned. How could I have been imprisoned when there was no wall at all behind me? It was merely a delusion that I was imprisoned, I was never imprisoned, nor am I now released! So I do not even need to run away from near these walls where I am now! The defect of my not looking behind was the reason for my so-called bondage; and the turning of my attention behind is really the sadhana [spiritual practice] for my so-called liberation. In realty, I am evey remaining as I am, without any imprisonment or release. (p. 165)

Such is Self-realization.

How Deep Sleep Dispels The View That I Am The Body


Quite beautifully, Sri Sadhu Om, in The Path of Sri Ramana Maharshi: Part One–The Jnana Aspect of the Teaching, showed me how Sri Ramana Maharshi deployed “I am sleeping soundly” to unseat the “I am the body idea.”

After all, most people believe that they are their bodies, that they are their minds, or that they are some composite bodyminds. I suspect that you and I, dear reader, have often identified ourselves with these gross physical bodies and perhaps have even done so daily. Maybe even now.

Short of near death experiences, out of body experiences, or very deep meditation, how could some flavor of the truth that I am not the body be revealed to us?


We could use, at least for a start, what Sri Atmananda Menon called “higher reasoning.” Which I do in what follows.

The position that Sri Sadhu Om so clearly formulated, the one that serves as the crux of the argument, is this:

Sat = Chit = Ananda

I. Who Knows?

If you say, “I slept soundly last night,” how did you know this?

It must be that you were aware (chit). You were aware of the peaceful nature (ananda) of deep, dreamless sleep. Even that isn’t quite right. Better: your awareness was itself peaceful.

First doubt: “But what was aware? Wasn’t the mind aware?”

In our direct experience, mind arises only when thought or feeling arises. As direct experience and Ramana Maharshi both demonstrate, in the absence of thinking or feeling there is no mind. In the case of deep sleep, there is no thinking or feeling. As a result, there is no mind.

Therefore, the mind could not be aware of this sense of peace. Better: the mind could not be this peaceful awareness.

According to the seminal claim above, awareness (chit) = existence (sat). Consequently, “I” must be the aware existence that is also peaceful.

II. Am I the Body?

We can run the argument again in order, at least at the level of intellectual understanding, to dispel the illusion that I am the body.

For if I am the body, how can I continue to exist in deep sleep while the the body does not?

Second doubt: “But that’s already begging the question. Everybody knows that the body and the world continue to exist in deep sleep. It’s just that I am not conscious or aware of my body or the world. If others were to observe me while I was sleeping, they would report that my body surely continues to exist.”

Not at all. In fact, the doubt, so posed, is question-begging. One of Ramana Maharshi’s most basic claims is that “you” and “we” both rise from “I.” That is, an “I” must first rise in order a “you” or a “we” to subsequently rise. If there is no ego-I, then, there can be no you and no we.

This is a crucial methodological remark. It states, “We must begin and hold ourselves fast to the direct experience of the rising ‘I.’ In so doing, we cannot admit as evidence that which already comes ‘too late’–i.e., from a ‘you’ or a ‘we.'”

Hence, we can revisit the question: “while holding onto my direct experience only, how do I account for the fact that I continue to exist in deep sleep while the body subsides?”

We can return to our original statement: “I slept soundly.” In the first place (as Ramana Maharshi often says), you don’t doubt that you slept soundly, peacefully, or happily. This you know for certain. In which case, what is self-evident to you is a glint or hint of ananda. So far, so good.

In the second place, there must be some continuous awareness that allows for the statement–“I slept soundly”–to be made. In II., since we are not considering whether I could be the finite mind, we can set that matter to the side for now. (But see, again, I. above.)

Given our supreme identity–Sat = Chit = Ananda–we have all that we need to draw the conclusion: if I am aware while in deep sleep, then I exist in deep sleep. That is, I cannot be aware without also existing.

Despite the abstract reasoning, the conclusion at hand should not be lost on us. It is that deep sleep demonstrates that I am not the gross physical body. In other words, my existence, since it continues in deep sleep and thus in the absence of body-rising, is not limited to the gross physical body.

III. Making It Concrete

Throughout the day, then, you can ask yourself at odd moments, “I am the body?” Let the question be mysterious, real, vibrant.

Ask the question earnestly and just see.

Buddhist Psychology On Selfish Desire

Stephen Ruppenthal provides us with a beautiful interpretation of the Buddha’s thoughts about “thirst” in The Dhammapada (trans. and ed. Eknath Easwaran). In the introduction to the Buddha’s verses on thirst (pp. 227-33), Ruppenthal begins by observing: “It has been said that Buddhism is essentially a psychology of desire” (p. 227).

Eknath Easwaran’s gloss of the Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is “selfish desire.” We might compare this Buddhist understanding of the cause with Advaita Vedanta’s or Kashmir Shaivism’s; the latter two will say that the cause of suffering is ignorance (avidya). It seems to me that, quite helpfully, these various traditions are looking the same phenomenon from a different angle. In the first, the focus is on the volitional while in the second, it is on the cognitive. Both are right in that the ego-self, apparently veiling Buddha-nature, arises just as selfish desire arises.

Let’s continue with our discussion of selfish desire. According to Ruppenthal, “All the Buddha’s teachings round to this one practical point: to find permanent joy, we have to learn how not to yield to selfish desire” (p. 228). The Upanishads will say something similar when it is suggested that permanent joy differs from transient pleasure and also that permanent joy is only experienced when one realizes the True Self. Again, we see the phenomenon from two different angles. If we can stop seeking and come to complete rest, then we can, as Zen urges, see precisely What Remains. And, from another angle, if we can maintain ourselves in dhyana, then Divine Grace may absorb “ourselves” into Itself.

It’s edifying to think about the three kinds of selfish desire that we need to cease trying to satisfy. These, Ruppenthal tells us citing Samyutta Nikaya, are (1) the desire for sense pleasure, (2) the desire for separateness, and (3) the desire for extinction.

Concerning (1), we know that no sense pleasure–be it that arising from gourmet food, sex, or intellectual pursuits–can satisfy. Case 1: the desire is fulfilled, yielding pleasure, only to quickly fade away. Case 2: the desire goes unfulfilled; in which case, we experience frustration and possibly disappointment. Case 3: the desire is fulfilled, yet we experience boredom. In all three cases, whatever pleasure comes is succeeded by either whatever is neither pleasant nor unpleasant or by the unpleasant. In brief, following the path of sense pleasure–that is, the hedonic path–is inherently and necessarily self-defeating.

The same analysis applies to pleasures associated with status, prestige, wealth, and so on. They’re all losing strategies.

Concerning (2), the contemporary spiritual teacher Francis Lucille, at a retreat my wife and I attended in February/March 2020, said: “The separate self is addicted to the pet project of being [and remaining–AT] separate.” And: “The problem is that we [identifying ourselves as separate, limited consciousnesses–AT] love to be separate.”

At this point, we return to the cause of suffering. For Francis, who is following the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, “If you suffer, it’s only because of ignorance.” For the Buddha, it’s because of selfish desire: the desire to remain separate from all others is precisely what perpetuates your dukkha.

Concerning (3), Ruppenthal states, “In Buddhist psychology, any activity that is potentially self-destructive stems from the urge for extinction. Even that second double martini intended to deaden the strains of the day is an example of the urge to escape oneself for a few hours” (pp. 232-3, my emphasis). Noteworthy in Ruppenthal’s interpretation is that the selfish desire for extinction amounts, in many cases, to the more jejune matters of wanting to escape oneself, and one’s situation, for a short while. Therefore, daydreaming and fantasizing, even for a few minutes, is what keeps samsara alive.

We are left, therefore, with a question that is also a practice. Can we see all manifestations of selfish desire as they arise and, seeing them clearly, can we let them melt away?