Although Sri Ramana Maharshi was a spiritual master of the highest order, his teaching contains nothing which is new of itself. It belongs to the tradition of the Hindu Advaita-Vedanta, in which he found his own experience explained and interpreted. Vedanta means literally ‘end of the Vedas’ and is a school of philosophy in Hinduism which finds its profoundest expression in the Upanishads. Vedanta and Advaita are often used synonymously or in conjunction. One of the principal exponents of Advaita-Vedanta was Shankara who lived in the 8th century AD.
The fundamental teaching of Advaita, which literally means ‘non-duality’, is that the Absolute is not two, but only One. All manifestations are appearances within this one Reality. Atman (the divine within the human being) is identical with Brahman (the basis or source of the universe, the Absolute). Separate from this One Reality nothing exists: there is no separate world, no separate God and no separate individual Ego. All is contained in Brahman. The feeling of being a separate, independent individual is the essential problem of the human condition. But how does this feeling of individuality arise at all?
Sri Ramana explains that individuality is nothing more than a thought or an idea. The I-thought ‘I am’ is the first thought which arises from the Heart-centre (for further details about the spiritual Heart see below), having arisen it identifies itself with the body, its actions and perceptions. (The term ‘body’ must be understood here in its fullest sense.) As a result, various thoughts and emotions arise which veil one’s true identity. An individual subject sees itself as being separate from countless objects and an objective world. This individual ‘I’ now not only says about itself “I am”, but further describes itself by saying “I am this or that” and “I am doing this and that.”
Liberation according to Sri Ramana is found by reversing this process through Self-enquiry (Atma Vichara). One must, as it were, go back the way one came. He recommends asking oneself the question “Who am I?” The ‘I’ in this quest being the first I-thought, the I-feeling, on which all other thoughts and emotions are based. If one is able to keep one’s attention on this pure I-consciousness, all other thoughts will be eliminated. Identification of the I-thought with the multitude of thoughts and objects will cease, as concentration on the I-thought severs this connection. In this way objects disappear as objects. Thoughts dissolve and finally even the first I-thought disappears. The true Self is revealed in its place. The mind sinks back into the spiritual Heart, whence it arose. The power of the Self draws it back to the place of its origin and finally totally destroys it, so that it can no longer arise. Only the Self remains. The ego is destroyed forever. This is what is known as ‘Self Realization’. Henceforth everything is experienced as the one Self. The experience of the jnani, who has reached this final goal, is described as sat-chit-ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss).
And in his booklet ‘Who am I?’ (Nan Yar) it says that the enquiry at first may also be a mental process, but with continued practice it destroys all thoughts and at last itself. “By the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ the thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self Realization.”132 In this way the I-thought - the feeling of being a separate personality – will be dissolved.
A visitor once asked, “How are these thoughts to be ended?” Ramana replied, “Find out their basis. All of them are strung on the single ‘I’-thought. Quell it; all others are quashed.” When the visitor asked further, “How to quell the ‘I’-thought?” the answer was, “If its source is sought it does not arise, and thus it is quelled.”133
And when being asked, “What is the means for constantly holding on to the thought ‘Who am I?’”, Sri Ramana explains in very precise terms, “When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: ‘To whom did they arise? It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, ‘To whom has this thought arisen?’ The answer that would emerge would be, ‘To me.’ Thereupon if one inquires ‘Who am I?’ the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source. When the mind that is subtle goes out through the brain and the sense-organs, the gross names and forms appear; when it stays in the heart, the names and forms disappear. Not letting the mind go out but retaining it in the Heart is what is called ‘inwardness’ (antarmukha). Letting the mind go out of the Heart is known as ‘externalization’ (bahirmukha). Thus, when the mind stays in the Heart, the ‘I’ which is the source of all thoughts will go, and the Self which ever exists will shine. Whatever one does, one should do without the egoity ‘I’. If one acts in that way, all will appear as of the nature of Shiva (God):”134
But what remains when the ego is dissolved?
The Maharshi stressed that the so called ‘Self Realization’ is neither a spectacular happening nor something new to be gained, “What is Self Realization? A mere phrase. People expect some miracle to happen, something to drop from Heaven in a flash. It is nothing of the sort. Only the notion that you are the body, that you are this or that, will go, and you remain as you are. Indeed, Realization is but another name for the Self.”138 And elsewhere he says, “It is false to speak of Realization. What is there to realize? The real is as it is, ever. How to realize it? All that is required is this. We have realized the unreal, i.e. regarded as real what is unreal. We have to give up this attitude. That is all that is required for us to attain jnana.“139 He also describes Realization of the Self as follows, “In a pinhole camera, when the hole is small, you see shapes and colours. When the hole is made big, the images disappear and one sees only clear light. Similarly when the mind is small and narrow, it is full of shapes and words. When it broadens, it sees pure light. When the box is destroyed altogether, only the light remains.”140
Although Sri Ramana supported all spiritual paths, he untiringly and expressly recommended Self-enquiry as the most effective path, in which all other paths finally merge. He constantly advised seekers to ask themselves the question, “Who am I?” When a confessed atheist provocatively asked him, “Is there God; can you prove the existence of God.” he smiled and replied, “Why worry about God? Let Him worry about Himself! Find out who raises the question.” The atheist was puzzled. Sri Ramana recommended that he read the book ‘Who am I?’ The visitor, who only wanted to stay for a few hours, ended up staying for several days. Finally he said, “Bhagavan! When I came here as an atheist, denying God, I was happy. But, now, after asking myself the question ‘Who am I?’ I am thoroughly confused. I feel I have deteriorated; therefore I am very unhappy.” Sri Ramana smiled at him and said, “Your confusion is not a state of deterioration. All these days you have been indifferent to the truth behind your own existence. Now you have raised the fundamental question; thereby you have moved away from indifference. So it is only an improvement! From indifference to confusion, from confusion to clarity, from (intellectual) clarity to experience and from experience to abidance in the Self – this is the order of ascendancy in spiritual sadhana.”141
132 Collected Works, p. 42
133 Talks, p. 345 (from Talk 379)
134 Collected Works. pp. 42ff (from ‘Who am I’)
135 dto., p. 45
136 Talks, p. 464 (from Talk 485)
137 Mudaliar: Day by Day, p. 65
138 Subbaramayya: Reminiscences, p. 138
139 Mudaliar: Day by Day, p. 88
140 Tales of Bhagavan. In Ramana Smrti, p. 
141 Purushottama Ramana, p.