Part 1 can be read here.
The Most Fundamental Question
The most fundamental question is: “Who am I?” This can be shown through two different proofs, those that Ramana Maharshi offers in different texts.
Proof #1: Pronouns as Clues
What is the condition of possibility for there being an “it” or “its”? In order for there to be an “it” or an “its,” there must first be the positing of an “I.”
After all, any “it” is always an “it” for me. The point of reference from which the “it” appears and to which it is evident is the “I” in question. In this sense, it can be said that the first-person pronoun underwrites the third-person pronoun.
But the above, suffice it to say, is not a claim about linguistic usage; it is a proposition about metaphysics. And the weight of the claim can be registered here: in order for there to be a world, there must first be an ego-mind.
Hence, it would be at once wise and reasonable to ask about the status of this ego-I. If the rising of the world is conditional upon the rising of the “I,” then (a) what is the nature of this ego-I and (b) whence does it arise?
But this is precisely the starting point of Self-inquiry.
Proof #1: Who Says “I”?
Ask yourself now, “Who is it that says–that can say–‘I'”? In Forty Verses on Reality, Ramana Maharshi argues that the world does not say “I,” for how could the world say “I”? Moreover, the inert body cannot say “I.” But neither does the Self say “I.” The Self, as Self, has no reflexive capacity that would make it possible to say “I.”
Thus, it can be seen that the “I” rises as a “knot” that ties together the Self and the body. That specific knot is the finite mind.
It is the mind, then, that says “I.” Hence, the natural question is: “Given that ‘I’ is said, what is the nature of this ‘I'”?
But this, again, is the precise starting point of Self-inquiry.
Both proofs, then, bring us to the trailhead where the fundamental question can be naturally posed.
The Centerpiece Is The Mind
Ramana is not alone is placing the mind as the centerpiece of his mode of inquiry, yet he is, perhaps, alone in the dogged insistence he places on it.
In his reckoning, it is not the mantra but the sayer of the mantra that is in question; not the breath being followed or controlled (as in pranayama) but the awarer of the breath; not the mind being controlled but the status of the mind; and so on. For him (and if, for the purposes of our discussion of the path of knowledge, we set aside the other path he urges–namely, that of surrendering to God), all practices must lead to Self-inquiry one way or another.
This is because what is at stake is the source and substance of the awareness of the physical senses, of the breath, and of thought and feeling.
If all roads lead here, he submits, then we might as well begin the inquiry with the mind. The mind, essentially, is asking the nature of itself, and the discovery of its substance–well–may be a delightful surprise…
The Central Presupposition
While we “forget” that I is the one walking, I is the one talking, I is the one appearing to act while losing ourselves in walking, talking, and acting, Self-inquiry turns the matter on its head and, in so doing, asks about the asker, the walker, the talker, and the actor. In Self-inquiry, no longer can the central presupposition be taken for granted. It must be not only brought out; it must be, henceforth, the central locus of the investigation.
This foregrounding the question of the “I” is as obvious as it is wild…