Questions about Self-inquiry
A visitor at Ramanashram asks an especially helpful question that reveals a common confusion. “A little while later Ramamurti [a visitor] asked, ‘That which rises as ‘I’ within us is the Self, is it not?'”
Ramana Maharshi replies, “No; it is the ego that rises as ‘I.’ That from which it arises is the Self.”
To which, Ramamurti replies: “They speak of a lower and a higher atman.”
Ramana Maharshi ably rejects the distinction, saying: “There is no such thing as lower or higher in atman. Lower and higher apply to the forms, not to the Self or atman” (Day by Day with Bhagavan, p. 281).
Any time the thought arises, “I am walking,” “I am upset,” “I need to get this done,” and so on, it arises as the I-thought or, what is the same thing, the ego thought. Verse 25 of “Forty Verses on Reality” confirms the ego’s dependency on form:
Know that this formless ghost (the ego or “I”) springs up in a form (body). Taking a form it lives, feeds and grows. Leaving a form it picks up another, but when it is inquired into, it drops the form and takes to flight.Ramana Maharshi, “Forty Verses on Reality”
Given that there is no ego I apart from thought and given also that the ego I is what rises in the mode of thought, it follows that the first part of Self-inquiry is concerned with pinpointing–or, in essence, with failing to pinpoint–this illusory ego as when it is asked: “To whom does this thought arises?” The answer, “To me,” refers to the belief in a separate self.
In which case, “Who am I?” is indeed a question analyzed into (i) “I” = ego-self, (ii) “am” = existence, being (sat), and (iii) “Who” = Self.
“Who?” can be regarded not as equivalent not just to a “What?” question but also to a “Whence?” question. Bhagavan makes this clear in his elegant reply: “No; it is the ego that rises as ‘I.’ That from which it arises is the Self” (my italics).
Self-inquiry, then, is concerned first with deconstructing the ego I and second with revealing the source of all, including–most centrally–the illusory ego.
Bhagavan, then, won’t allow us to hold onto any duality as would be true were there to exist a lower atman and a higher atman. No, there exists only atman, or Self.
Which is to say that what Self-inquiry (atma vichara) discloses is that (a) the ego was believed to be an existing entity but that belief was born of ignorance and that (b) the “I” in “Who am I?” dissolves as “it” returns to its Source, i.e., the sole Reality which is the Self.