from: Michael James, Happiness and the Art of Being
Bhagavan Sri Ramana never sought of his own accord to teach anyone the truth that he had come to know, because in his experience that truth – the consciousness ‘I am’ – alone exists, and hence there is no person either to give or to receive any teaching. However, though he inwardly knew that consciousness is the only reality, he was nevertheless outwardly a personification of love, compassion and kindness, because, knowing both himself and all other things to be nothing but the consciousness ‘I am’, he saw himself in everything, and hence he quite literally loved all living beings as his own self. Therefore, when people asked him questions about the reality and the means of attaining it, he patiently answered their questions, and thus without any volition on his part he gradually revealed a wealth of spiritual teachings.
Though in his teachings Sri Ramana borrowed some of the terminology, concepts and analogies commonly used in the classical literature of advaita vēdānta, his teachings are not merely a repetition of the old and familiar teachings contained in that literature. Because he was teaching the truth that he had known from his own direct experience, and not merely learnt from books, he was able to set aside all the dense mass of non-essential, complex and ponderous arguments and concepts found in that literature, and to throw a fresh and clear light upon the inner essence of advaita vēdānta.
In his teachings he has revealed the true spirit of advaita vēdānta in a clear and simple manner that can easily be understood even by people who have no previous acquaintance with such philosophy. Moreover, the simplicity, clarity and directness of his teachings have helped to clear the confusion created in the minds of many people who have studied the classical literature of advaita vēdānta, but have been misled by the many well-established misinterpretations of it made by scholars who had no direct experience of the truth. In particular, his teachings have cleared up many misunderstandings that had long existed about the practice of advaita vēdānta, and have clearly revealed the means by which we can attain the experience of true self-knowledge.
Since the means to attain self-knowledge is for some reason seldom stated in clear and unambiguous terms in the classical literature of advaita vēdānta, many misconceptions exist about the spiritual practice advocated by advaita vēdānta. Therefore perhaps the most significant contribution made by Sri Ramana to the literature of advaita vēdānta lies in the fact that in his teachings he has revealed in very clear, precise and unambiguous terms the practical means by which self-knowledge can be attained.
Not only has he explained this practical means very clearly, he has also explained exactly how it will lead us infallibly to the state of self knowledge, and why it is the only means that can do so. Unlike many of the older texts of advaita vēdānta, the teachings of Sri Ramana are centered entirely around the practical means by which we can attain self-knowledge, and all that he taught regarding any aspect of life was aimed solely at directing our minds towards this practice.
Though this practical means is essentially very simple, for many people it appears difficult to comprehend, because it is not an action or state of‘doing’, nor does it involve any form of objective attention. Since the practice is thus a state beyond all mental activity – a state of non-doing and non-objective attention – no words can express it perfectly. Therefore, to enable us to understand and practice it, Sri Ramana has expressed and described it in various different ways, each of which serves as a valuable clue that helps us to know and to be the pure consciousness that is our own true self.
…most of the terms Sri Ramana used to describe the practical means by which we can attain self-knowledge are either Tamil words or words of Sanskrit origin that are commonly used in Tamil spiritual literature.
The words he thus used in Tamil have been translated in English by a variety of different words, some of which convey the import and spirit of his original words more clearly and accurately than others. Perhaps two of the clearest and most simple terms used in English to convey the sense of the words that he used in Tamil to describe the practical means to attain self-knowledge are ‘self-attention’ and ‘self-abidance’. The term ‘self-attention’ denotes the knowing aspect of the practice, while the term ‘self-abidance’ denotes its being aspect.
Since our real self, which is non-dual self-consciousness, knows itself not by an act of knowing but merely by being itself, the state of knowing our real self is just the state of being our real self. Thus attending to our self-consciousness and abiding as our self-consciousness are one and the same thing. All the other words that Sri Ramana used to describe the practice are intended to be clues that help to clarify what this state of ‘self-attention’ or‘self-abidance’ really is.
One of the terms that occurs in the classical literature of advaita vēdānta and that Sri Ramana frequently used to denote the practice of self-attention is vicāra (which is commonly transcribed as vichara, since the ‘c’ in vicāra represents the same sound as ‘ch’ in chutney), but the significance of this term was not clearly understood by most of the traditional scholars of advaita vēdānta. According to the Sanskrit-English dictionary of Monier-Williams, the term vicāra has various meanings, including ‘pondering, deliberation, consideration, reflection, examination, investigation’, and it is in these senses that this same word is used in Tamil, as is clear from the Tamil Lexicon, which defines it both as ‘deliberation’ or ‘consideration’, and as ‘unbiased examination with a view to arriving at the truth’ or ‘investigation’. Therefore the term ātma-vicāra, which Sri Ramana frequently used to describe the practice by which we can attain self-knowledge, means ‘self-investigation’ or ‘self-examination’, and denotes the practice of examining, inspecting or scrutinizing our fundamental and essential consciousness ‘I am’ with a keen and concentrated power of attention.
Though the term ātma-vicāra can best be translated in English as ‘self-investigation’, ‘self-examination’, ‘self-inspection’, ‘self-scrutiny’, ‘self-contemplation’, or simply ‘self-attention’, in most English translations of Sri Ramana’s teachings it has been translated as ‘self-enquiry’. This choice of the English word ‘enquiry’ to translate vicāra has had unfortunate consequences, because it has created an impression in the minds of some people that ātma-vicāra, or the vicāra ‘who am I?’ as Sri Ramana often called it, is merely a process of questioning or asking ourself ‘who am I?’.
This is clearly a misinterpretation, because in Sanskrit the word vicāra means ‘enquiry’ in the sense of ‘investigation’ rather than in the sense of ‘questioning’. When Sri Ramana spoke of the vicāra ‘who am I?’ he did not intend it to imply that we can attain the non-dual experience of true self-knowledge simply by asking ourself the question ‘who am I?. The vicāra ‘who am I?’ is an investigation, examination or scrutiny of our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’, because only by keenly scrutinizing or inspecting our consciousness ‘I’ can we discover who we really are – what this consciousness ‘I’ actually is.