During the many years he taught visitors and his disciples, Sri Ramana Maharshi would often receive questions about improving the world, about diminishing the suffering of others, and about understanding the nature of the world. And he would often reply in the following manner:
Visitor: What is the reality of the world?
Bhagavan [Ramana]: If you know your reality first, you will be able to know the reality of the world. It is a strange thing that most people do not care about their own reality, but are very anxious to know about the reality of the world. You realise your own Self and then see if the world exists independently of you and is able to come and assert before you its reality or existence.
Another Visitor: Why is there so much pain even for the innocent, such as children for instance? How is it to be explained? With reference to previous births or otherwise?
Bhagavan: As about the world, if you know your own reality, these questions won’t arise. All these differences, the pains and miseries of the innocent, as you say, do they exist independently of you? It is you that see[s] these things and ask[s] about them. If by the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ you understand the seer, all problems about the seen will be completely solved.(Day by Day with Bhagavan, pp. 28-9)
To some, his reply may sound counterintuitive. To many (perhaps to you who are reading this post right now), it may seem downright callous. But is it either?
Strange to say, you are engaged in activities throughout the course of the day and night–sleeping, walking, eating, going to the bathroom, thinking, feeling, perceiving, and so on–without taking more than the slightest interest in the one so engaged in these activities. Instead, the tendency is to focus on the activities themselves or, more likely, on the objects.
Thinking, for instance, is verily caught up in the object, the content of thought. If a memory arises, it’s the content of the memory that enthralls. If a thought about a plan arises, it’s likewise the content–namely, the object being considered–that exhausts one’s attention.
Bhagavan, then, is inviting us to ‘turn around’ and ask about the subject: about the asker, the thinker, the feeler, the observer, and so on. Who is remembering? Who is planning? Who cares about the world? Indeed, to whom does all phenomenal experience arise in the first place?
Inquiry #1: “But the world is an independent entity.” Not so. For there is no apparent world apart from the rising mind. And there is no rising mind apart from thought.
Then to whom does this thought occur?
Inquiry #2: Not clear yet? Try to grasp what Bhagavan is offering by a different route. In order for there to be any you or any it, there must first arise an I. You designates any other being while it refers to the apparent world.
How can there be a you without the I first arising and positing this difference between I and you? That is, without the rising of I, how can there be any (apparently separate) you? Similarly, without the rising of I, how can there be any (apparently separate) it, i.e., world?
Thus, both inquiries–i.e., 1. and 2.–both lead us back to the logical and metaphysical priority of the I.
For this reason, there is simply no way of getting around the maxim: “Know thyself.” Indeed, the most fundamental inquiry must begin here. And then we can see whether other inquiries, like the one about the “reality of the world,” remain open or shut. In point of fact, what will be understood will be precisely this: “If by the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ you understand the seer, all problems about the seen will be completely solved.”