October 2016 By Purnima Coontoor The path of self-enquiry as advocated by Ramana Maharshi is the classic jnana route to enlightenment. Purnima Coontoor offers an experiential understanding of the concept A couple of weeks ago I met up with my school buddies to spend a delightful afternoon rich with shared memories, inane banter, and inside jokes. We particularly recalled a school play the entire class had put up, not in school alone but in auditoria across Bangalore. Our school and my class was chosen by the renowned theater person, the late BV Karanth, to showcase a new Kannada play called Ispeet Rajya (Kingdom of Cards) written by him. Probably it was an initiative by the school management. The play was put up for a week, three shows a day in different venues open to the public – like a professional theatre group. Thus many of us were trained to portray multiple characters which we took turns in playing at different shows. I had trained for two characters – totally different in nature – which I had played with great aplomb. Now, 40 years later, as I relaxed with my friends discussing those days and laughing about it all, something very obvious struck me. The characters that I had portrayed were not me at all. This feeling grew stronger and I was confused – is the person laughing with her friends right now, me? Or are the details on my resume, me? And then I am a completely different creature in my dreams – is that me? Who am I? At Vipassana, I was told to remain a witness to the impermanent nature of the universe. The Zen masters urged me to live with mindful awareness. Act selflessly, without thought of gain or reward, instructed karma yoga. Surrender yourself and all your affairs to God said the bhakti marga. To pierce the veil of ignorance through the intellect was the instruction of the jnanis. Raise your consciousness by converting physical and mental energies into spiritual energy taught raja yoga.s a spiritual aspirant for a while now I have done what every other seeker on the path does _tried everything! From New Age gurus to the enduring masters, ritualistic worship to Art of Living, mantra japa to watching the breath, Bhagavad Gita to Tibetan Book of the Dead – I discovered that many were the paths to liberation. If ‘I’ is the bane and if its effacement the boon – none of the above were helping me get rid of ‘myself’ by a long shot. In fact, to my alarm, I found that what little I practised of the above only strengthened my ego, as it was ‘I’ who was becoming all humble and pious and knowledgeable through them. This is part of the journey, I often consoled myself. Rome was not built in a day, God isn’t to be found in a lifetime. Even Adi Shankara, the foremost proponent of the Maya theory, at the acme of his intellectual accomplishments, had to be reminded of his hypocrisy by a chandala. Even Sant Namdev, who was able to talk to his Lord Vithoba at will, had to be declared a half-baked pot by the humble potter Gora before the saint could be enlightened. Then what to say of an ordinary mortal like myself? My every waking second is filed with I, me, myself. Starting from ‘I woke up, I had coffee, I rushed to office, I bought vegetables’ and ending with ‘I go to bed’, the first pronoun has me in thrall. I-I-I-I, I go the whole day. But then how do I make these statements without using the word? Some enlightened masters like Swami Rama Tirtha used the third person to refer to themselves, ‘Rama says….’, but that could prove to be a tad awkward in the long run. But whereas sages use the ‘I’ as a transactional tool of communication, I am supremely unaware of its usage and connotation. I actually ‘own’ the things I do, whether unconsciously or deliberately. In rare moments of humility I may declare that I am a mere instrument of God and mean it too, but it takes but half a second for me to revert to the ‘I’ syndrome. How do I then overcome this 24/7 phenomenon cultivated over several lifetimes? What is this ‘I’? Why is it so hard to get rid of? Why should it be gotten rid of, anyway? And where from does this ‘I’ arise? It was when these questions were getting stronger by the day that I decided to look into this phenomenon keenly. And as luck would have it, one fine day of spring cleaning revealed a tiny booklet, Who Am I? by Ramana Maharshi, languishing in a corner of my bookshelf. A couple of lines read and I felt it was compelling stuff, and so I sat there with the duster and the piles of book around me and read it cover to cover. The main purport of the teaching was that this mysterious ‘I’ thought arises as soon as a person wakes up from deep sleep. “That which arises in the physical body as ‘I’ is the mind. Of all thoughts that arise in the mind, the thought ‘I’ is the first one. It is only after the rise of this ‘I’ that other thoughts arise. It is only after the first personal pronoun arises that the second and third personal pronouns appear” said the sage in the book. In short, the world, which is absent for a person during deep sleep, becomes real when the person wakes up and identifies with the ‘I’ and all that is associated with it. This reminded me of a delightful anecdote from the Devi Mahatmyam, which illustrates this concept dramatically. In the beginning, was the ‘I’… The opening chapter of this Purana by Veda Vyasa talks about this very ‘I’ and how it arises in one’s consciousness. At the beginning of creation Lord Vishnu was asleep on his Adishesha on ksheerasagara, the ocean of milk. Deep in his yoga nidra, he was absorbed in his own Self, and oblivious to anything else. Meanwhile, two demons Madhu and Kaitabha, born of the ear-wax of Vishnu and nurtured on the pristine ksheerasagara, had grown from strength to strength and started harassing Brahma, who was seated on the lotus arising from Vishnu’s navel. Brahma tried his level best to counter the twin threats himself in vain, and then tried to awaken Vishnu to enlist his support. But Vishnu was so deep in his yoga nidra that he couldn’t be woken up. The legend goes that Mahamaya compels the sleeping Vishnu to awaken and get involved in the world. Thus Brahma appealed to Mahamaya – the Goddess of Delusion herself, to awaken the Lord. The Devi obliged and cast her spell on Vishnu. Awakened from his Self-absorption, Vishnu opened his eyes only to take in the drama enacted around him and get totally involved in the same! Thus the Devi shloka hails her as Vishnumaya – Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Vishnumayeti Shabdita – the one who is known in all beings as the delusion that enveloped Vishnu too, upon waking up into the manifest universe. She is also hailed as Vishnu Maya Vinashini- meaning she is the one who releases Vishnu from her Maya as well. This anecdote, I feel, holds a mirror to what happens to us mortals when we are not in yoga nidra; when one is not absorbed in the higher Self, one becomes personally invested with the apparently real world. What does that entail? Why, everything that follows! I feel happy, hungry, angry, hurt and a million other things all the time. The ‘I’ keeps me engaged with the world every second and therefore makes me a mere pawn in the karma scheme, forcing me to come back to experience more of my same old self all over again. But whereas there is no I… It is now obvious that if there’s a way out of this, it must be a way to get out of this ‘I’. As philosopher Wei Wu Wei puts it, we are so unhappy because 99 per cent of what we think and everything we do is for our self, and there isn’t one! Meaning, the notion that I am a separate individual disconnects me from the universe. Because, as realised masters have been telling us all along, God is all there is, and all that is, is God. If this is so, the individual ‘I’ is a fallacy, a distortion of the mind which arises upon waking from sleep and immediately throws me into a world of duality in which the opposites exist; good-evil, health-sickness, beauty-ugliness. Ramana Maharshi: Routing the ‘I’ To get out of this syndrome altogether I need to go to the very source of this ‘I’, the cause of all trouble, and annihilate it. Self-enquiry seems to be the direct method to do that. “What is essential in any sadhana is to try to bring back the running mind and fix it on one thing only. Why then should it not be brought back and fixed in Self-attention (To this feeling of ‘I’)? That alone is Self-enquiry (atma-vichara)” says Ramana. “Even if you do nothing more than unceasingly think of that first name ‘I-I’ with the attention focussed on that ‘I’ sense, that practice will take you to the source from where rises the illusory thought ‘I’, which is the embryo of the ego that connects you to the body”. His contention is simple: – every being longs to be perpetually happy – every being loves himself the most – happiness alone causes love to blossom – in order to attain that happiness one has to know what he loves most – himself – one’s real Self is experienced daily in the mindless state of deep sleep – to achieve that mindless state when awake, enquiry in the form ‘Who am I?’ is the foremost means. So what do I do?While I found Ramana’s Who-Am-I instruction for Self-enquiry fascinating, it was cryptic too. So I was glad to find a step-by-step explanation of the same by Advaita Vedanta master Robert Adams. It goes as follows: The first step is to practise becoming aware of one&rs
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