(First published in The Mountain Path, 1991, pp. 79-88.)
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Sometime last year I received a letter from Professor James E. Royster of Cleveland State University, USA, which contained the following interesting question:
My reason for writing is to raise a question with you that has long puzzled me. I have been reading Ramana Maharshi for about twenty years and frequently find him using the expression. 'I-I' but I'm not clear on his meaning. Why 'I-I' rather than simply 'I'? I can think of many possible meanings but I am not at all sure what Ramana intended. Is it to suggest that the sense of separate self (or self-consciousness) arises only in relationship to another sense of separate self? Or that the individual
atman is derived from (''subtracted'' from) the Absolute Atman,
BrahmanNirguna? Does 'I-I' refer to the ego or the Universal Self? My guesses and interpretations go on and on.
If you can shed some light on this issue I will be most appreciative. Perhaps there has been an article in
The Mountain Path or elsewhere that takes up this question.
This question has not, to my knowledge, been discussed in any great detail in either
The Mountain Path or any other ashram publication. I therefore sent the following detailed reply to the professor. Since I suspect that some devotees may disagree with some of my conclusions, I should say in advance that this is not intended to be a definitive explanation. It merely reflects my own views.
* * *
Bhagavan never used the term 'I-I' to denote the mind, the ego or the individual self, nor did he intend it, as Professor Royster speculates, to indicate that there is any relationship between the individual 'I' and the Self. On the contrary, Bhagavan makes it clear on many occasions that 'I-I' is an experience not of the ego but of the Self. Verse thirty of
Ulladu Narpadu is quite emphatic about this:
Questioning 'Who am I?' within one's mind, when one reaches the Heart, the individual 'I' sinks crestfallen, and at once reality manifests itself as 'I-I'. Though it reveals itself thus, it is not the ego 'I' but the perfect being the Self Absolute.
Verses nineteen and twenty of Upadesa Undiyar describe the same process in almost identical terms:
19. 'Whence does the 'I' arise?' Seek this within. The 'I' then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom.
20. Where the 'I' vanished, there appears an 'I-I' by itself. This is the
Although Bhagavan is here clearly equating the experience of 'I-I' with the experience of the Self, one should be wary of jumping to the conclusion that he is saying in these three verses that the 'I-I' experience occurs after the final realisation of the Self. Why? Because on many other occasions Bhagavan told devotees that the 'I-I' experience was merely a prelude to realisation and not the realisation itself. I shall return to the question of whether the 'I-I' experience can be equated with Self-realisation later in this article, but first I feel that it would be more profitable to examine some of the quotations in which Bhagavan gave detailed descriptions of the 'I-I'.
Bhagavan frequently used the Sanskrit phrase aham sphurana to indicate the 'I-I' consciousness or experience.
Aham means 'I' and sphurana can be translated as 'radiation, emanation, or pulsation'. When he explained what this term meant he indicated that it is an impermanent experience of the Self in which the mind has been temporarily transcended. This distinction between the temporary experience of the 'I-I' and the permanent state of Self-realisation that follows it is well brought out in the question-and-answer version of
Vichara Sangraham (Self-Enquiry):
Therefore, leaving the corpse-like body as an actual corpse and remaining without even uttering the word 'I' by mouth, if one now keenly enquires, 'What is it that rises as 'I'? then in the Heart a certain soundless
sphurana, 'I-I', will shine forth of its own accord. It is an awareness that is single and undivided, the thoughts which are many and divided having disappeared. If one remains still without leaving it, even the
sphurana - having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, 'I am the body' - will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and
This answer can be taken to be an amplification of and a commentary on the three verses already quoted, for the same sequence of events is described, but at greater length; after the source of the 'I'-thought is sought for, the 'I'-thought subsides, disappears and is replaced by the
aham sphurana. What this longer quotation makes clear is that even this
sphurana of 'I-I' has to subside before the final and permanent stage of Self-realisation is attained.
Bhagavan's use of the word sphurana in this quotation once puzzled Devaraja Mudaliar. He therefore asked Bhagavan about it and received a detailed, illuminating answer:
I have always had doubt about what exactly the word sphurana means [in question three of
Vichara Sangraham]. So I asked Bhagavan and he said, 'It means… 'Which shines or illuminates''.' I asked, 'Is it not a sound we hear?' Bhagavan said, 'Yes, we may say it is a sound we feel or become aware of'. He also referred to the dictionary and said, 'The word means ''throbbing'', ''springing on the memory'', ''flashing across the mind''. Thus both sound and light may be implied in the word
sphurana. Everything has come from light and sound.'
I asked Bhagavan what it is that 'shines', whether it is the ego or the Self. He said that it was neither the one nor the other, but something in between the two, that it is something that is a combination of the 'I' (Self) and the 'I'-thought (ego) and that the Self is without even this
Another more philosophical explanation of the aham
sphurana and 'I-I' can be found in one of the later answers of Vichara
Sangraham. This is a most interesting answer because it can serve as a commentary on the first half of one of Bhagavan's most famous verses. In
Sri Ramana Gita, chapter two, verse two, Bhagavan states that, 'In the interior of the heart-cave,
Brahman alone shines in the form of Atman with direct immediacy as I, as
Although this verse, and particularly its second half, has been extensively discussed in the Ramana literature, no commentators, so far as I am aware, have mentioned Bhagavan's own written explanation of the 'I-I' shining in the Heart.
D: It was stated [in your previous answer] that Brahman is manifest as the Self in the form of 'I-I' in the Heart. To facilitate an understanding of this statement, can it be still further explained?
M: Is it not within the experience of all that during deep sleep, swoon etc, there is no knowledge whatsoever, that is, neither Self-knowledge nor other knowledge. Afterwards, when there is experience of the form 'I have woken up from sleep' or 'I have recovered from swoon' - is that not a mode of specific knowledge that has arisen from the aforementioned state? This specific knowledge is called
vijnana. This vijnana becomes manifest only as pertaining either to the Self or the not-Self, and not by itself. When it pertains to the Self it is called true knowledge, knowledge in the form of that mental mode whose object is the Self or knowledge which has for its content the impartite [Self], and when it relates to the not-Self it is called ignorance. The state of this
vijnana when it pertains to the Self and is manifest in the form of the Self is said to be the
aham sphurana. This sphurana cannot remain independently, leaving the Reality. It is this
sphurana that serves as the mark for the direct experience of the Real. Yet this by itself cannot constitute the state of being the Real. That, depending on which this manifestation takes place, is the basic Reality, which is also called
prajnana [pure consciousness]. The Vedantic text 'prajnanam brahma' [Brahman is pure consciousness] teaches the same
Here an interesting phenomenon needs to be commented on. In his writings Bhagavan has made several relatively brief
statements(7) in which he equates the 'I-I' experience with the Self. At first sight they appear to be descriptions of the state of Self-realisation, but when they are read in conjunction with the long explanations of the 'I-I' that can be found elsewhere in his
writings (8) and in his verbal comments, it is possible to see in these verses a description of the impermanent
aham sphurana rather than the permanent state of realisation. This is an unusual interpretation, but I believe that it is a sustainable one. However, I would not go so far as to say that it is the only legitimate way of interpreting these verses.
In the previous quotation from Vichara Sangraham the 'I-I' is defined as being a clear knowledge
(vijnana) of the Self in which the mind, still existing, clings tightly to its source and is permeated by emanations of 'I'-ness radiating from the Self.
Ganapati Muni may have had this particular answer in mind when he wrote to Bhagavan and asked the following question: 'Is abidance in
vijnana a means for gradually attaining the perfect, or is it not? If it is not certainly a means for that, then for what purpose is
In his reply Bhagavan repeated the relevant parts of the answer from
Vichara Sangraham but he also added some remarks on how self-enquiry leads to aham sphurana and how abidance in
aham sphurana, or 'I-I', leads to Self-realisation:
The 'I'-thought which rises in this manner [by catching hold of something] appears in the form of the three
gunas, and of these three the rajas and tamas aspects cling to and identify with the body. The remaining one, which is pure
sattva, is alone the natural characteristic of the mind, and this stands clinging to the reality. However, in the pure sattvic state, the 'I'-thought is no longer really a thought, it is the Heart itself… The state in which the pure
sattva mind shines clinging to the Self is called aham sphurana…The source to which this
sphurana clings alone is called the reality or pure consciousness… When the mind, having pure
sattva as its characteristic, remain attending to the aham sphurana, which is the sign of the forthcoming direct experience of the Self, the downward-facing Heart becomes upward-facing and remains in the form of That. This aforesaid attention to the source of the
aham sphurana alone is the path. When thus attended to, Self, the reality, alone will remain shining in the centre of the Heart as
The quotations given so far should make it clear what Bhagavan was referring to when he spoke of the 'I-I' experience, but they fail to address one of Professor Royster's principal questions: why does Bhagavan use the term 'I-I' rather than 'I'? The term 'I' is clearly inadequate and confusing since it denotes either the Self or the ego rather than the
aham sphurana which is, as Bhagavan says, 'neither the one nor the other'. A. R. Natarajan in his commentary on
Sri Ramana Gita suggests that 'to denote the continuous nature of the throb of consciousness, Ramana repeats the words as
''I-I''.'(11) This is certainly plausible. An alternative explanation, suggested by Sadhu
Om,(12) can be derived from the rules of Tamil grammar. In simple Tamil sentences the present tense of the verb 'to be' is usually omitted. Thus, the expression
'nan-nan' ('I-I' in Tamil) would generally be taken to mean 'I am I' by a Tamilian. This interpretation would make 'I-I' an emphatic statement of Self-awareness akin to the biblical 'I am that I am' which Bhagavan occasionally said summarised the whole of Vedanta. Bhagavan himself has said that he used the term 'I-I' to denote the import of the word 'I'. This explanation appears in both
Upadesa Undiyar (verse 21) and in the talks that precede Sat Darshana
Whichever explanation one chooses, either these or others, one should avoid those which postulate that the experience is called 'I-I' because it radiates in discrete pulses, for Bhagavan was quite emphatic that the experience was continuous and unbroken. For example, in the essay version of
Vichara Sangraham he wrote: 'Underlying the unceasing flow of varied thoughts there arises the continuous unbroken awareness, silent and spontaneous, as 'I-I' in the
I would like now to address more fully the question of whether the 'I-I' experience, as defined by Bhagavan, is present after realisation takes place. Most devotees who are familiar with Bhagavan's teachings would have no hesitation in asserting that this is so. If pressed to provide evidence to support their point of view, they would probably quote the verses from
Ulladu Narpadu and Upadesa Undiyar that I have already cited, and probably add verse twenty of
Upadesa Saram. They would be quite justified in doing so, for it is possible to translate and interpret all these verses in such a way that their meaning would be that the 'I-I' experience is a consequence and not a precursor of Self-realisation. To see how this is so, one must look at the verbs in these verses and examine what they mean in their original languages. For the sake of convenience I will give the verses again with the relevant verbs printed in italics.
Questioning 'Who am I?' within one's mind, when one reaches the Heart the individual 'I'
sinks crestfallen, and at once reality manifests itself as 'I-I'. Though it reveals itself thus, it is not the ego 'I', but the perfect being, the Self Absolute.
(Ulladu Narpadu, verse 30)
'Whence does this 'I' arise? Seek this within. This 'I' then vanishes. This is the pursuit of wisdom.
Where the 'I' vanished, there appears an 'I-I' by itself. This is the infinite
[poornam]. (Upadesa Undiyar, verses 19 and 20).
Where this 'I' vanished and merged in its source, there appears spontaneously and continuously an 'I-I'. This is the Heart, the infinite Supreme Being.
(Upadesa Saram, verse 20).(15)
The first two italicised verbs, 'sinks crest-fallen' and 'vanishes' are translations of the Tamil phrase
talai-sayndidum, which literally means, 'will bow its head'. In ordinary usage it means 'will humble itself', 'sinks crest-fallen', or 'will bow its head in shame'. However, in colloquial usage it can also mean 'will die'. If this colloquial usage is preferred, both verses will have as their meaning that the 'I-I' will only manifest after the death of the individual 'I'. Sadhu Om in his translations has preferred the colloquial usage 'will die', but other translators have opted for variations on 'sinks crest-fallen'. This may seem like pointless pedantry, but a crucial distinction is at stake: if the verb chosen indicates a permanent extinction of the ego, then the 'I-I' arises as a consequence of Self-realisation; but if the chosen verb indicates that the 'I' had only temporarily subsided (e.g. 'vanished', 'merged', 'disappeared', etc.) then Bhagavan is indicating that the 'I-I' manifests before realisation. It is of course possible to have it both ways and say that the 'I-I' is experienced both before and after realisation. Adherents of this school of thought would probably say that the
Upadesa Undiyar and Ulladu Narpadu verses describe the post-realisation 'I-I' experience whereas the
Vichara Sangraham quotations refer to the aham sphurana experience which precedes it.
The third italicised phrase, 'where the 'I' vanished', is a translation of the Tamil word
'ondru' which means 'where it merges' or 'where it becomes one with'. Since the union referred to in this verse can be dissolved by the re-emergence of the 'I', the term
ondru does not imply a permanent extinction of the 'I'. However, those who support the thesis that the 'I-I' manifests after the permanent eradication of the 'I' would probably point to Bhagavan's Sanskrit translation of this verse. In it he uses the word
nasa (for the fourth italicised verb, 'vanished and merged') where the word
ondru is used in the Tamil original. This has been variously translated as 'destroyed', 'annihilated', and 'perished', all terms which indicate a permanent destruction of the 'I', It is quite permissible though to translate
nasa as 'disappear' or 'vanish', and indeed several translators have done
so.(16) Since one should select a meaning that is consonant with the idea expressed in the original Tamil, I feel that 'vanish' or 'disappear' is preferable. The implications of words such as 'destroy' or 'perish' are not present in the original text.
(2) Upadesa Saram translated by B. V. Narasimhaswami. Although the work is entitled
Upadesa Saram, it is actually a translation of Upadesa Undiyar, Upadesa Saram is Bhagavan's Sanskrit rendering of
(3) Question three of Vichara Sangraham, translated by Sadhu Om, taken from page 98 of
The Mountain Path, 1982. The word order has been slightly changed in this version.
(12) Upadesa Undiyar, translated by Sadhu Om and Michael James, p. 20.
(13) Sat Darshana Bhashya, 7th ed. p.iii. I was told a few years ago by Sri K. Natesan, who was present in the old hall when Kapali Sastri read out the manuscript version of
Sat Darshana Bhashya, that Bhagavan himself made the author delete the original phrase (Sri K. Natesan can no longer remember what it was) and replace it with 'import of'.
(15) Taken from The Maharishi's Way, a translation of
Upadesa Saram by D.S. Sastri, 1989 ed., p. 38. The sources of the other two quotations have been cited in footnotes 1 and 2.
(16) In addition to D. M. Sastri, two other published authors have translated
nasa in verse twenty of Upadesa Saram as 'vanished': Swami Atmananda in
Light on Religious Practices, p. 29 and Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha in Upadesa Sara of Maharshi
Ramana, p. 11.