Tuesday, June 10, 2008

'Yes, but what do I do?'

About fifteen years ago, when I was collecting information for Nothing Ever Happened, I had the assistance of a group of people who were helping me by transcribing satsang tapes. Occasionally, the volunteers would make mistakes, especially if they did not know technical terms or the names of saints and gods that Papaji occasionally inserted in his stories. Sometimes, when non-native English speakers were involved, ignorance of English idioms occasionally caused errors. Usually, I could spot mistakes and correct them without ever needing to listen to the tapes, but I did occasionally get stuck, as when someone offered me a transcript in which Papaji had apparently said, ‘I don’t give people any goose or goats’. I thought for a few seconds, knowing that it was obviously wrong, but having no idea of what the original words might have been. I gave up, ran the tape, and heard Papaji say: ‘I don’t give people any do’s or don’ts’.

Last year I mentioned this story to a friend of mine, Aruna, who occasionally does graphic design and page making work for me. Since she was coordinating transcription work for another Guru, I thought she might appreciate the story. She supplied me with her own best example, taken from her own volunteer crew. One of them had sent her a transcript in which the Guru had apparently said: ‘I am neither a butler nor a nanny.’ After deciding that this was probably not what the Guru had said, she checked the tape and found he had said: ‘I am not a bhakta or a jnani.’

Mishearings such as these were nicely parodied in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in the scene where a group of men find themselves slightly too far away to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. One of them asked the people in front what Jesus was saying, and the word came back, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’. This confused most of the group, but one man, who considered himself to be a theological expert, started to give a talk on the religious significance of ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’. How many religious doctrines, I wonder, have emerged from misunderstandings such as these?

The last two paragraphs are just entertaining digressions. What I want to do today is elaborate a little on Papaji’s statement: ‘I don’t give people any do’s or don’ts.’

Many people go to the Guru with the idea that he should tell them to ‘do’ something in order to reach some goal or be relieved of some problem or other. We are all so addicted to ‘doing’, we believe that we have to ‘do something’ to attain whatever spiritual goal we are chasing.

When the Guru says, ‘You are the Self, you are Brahman,’ the disciple often responds by saying, ‘Yes, I understand, but what do I do to attain it? How do I discover this for myself?’

The asking of such a question means that the disciple thinks that Brahman is something he should become, through effort, rather than something that he already is. The assumption implicit in this world-view is the premise behind all sadhana.

With this in mind, read verse 271 of Guru Vachaka Kovai:

The Guru who instructs the disciple, who has taken complete refuge in him, by giving one more prescription for action, instead of directing him towards jnana, and who leads him into activities, saying ‘These should be done,’ is for the disciple [equivalent to] the coming of cruel Yama and Brahma. Only he who consummates them [the disciples], transforming them into those who have done all that needs to be done, enabling them to attain the true benefit of this birth, is the grace-bestowing, divine Guru.

Since Brahma is the god of birth and Yama the god of death, the verse is implying that gurus who get their disciples involved in unnecessary activities, physical or mental, instead of directing them towards jnana, will be responsible for them being reborn. Bhagavan gave similar advice to the following devotee when the latter came up with a ‘Yes I understand, but what do I do?’ query:

Question: Our grasp is only intellectual. If Sri Bhagavan be pleased to direct us with a few instructions we shall be highly benefited.

Bhagavan: He who instructs an ardent seeker to do this or that is not a true master. The seeker is already afflicted by his activities and wants peace and rest. In other words, he wants cessation of his activities. Instead of that he is told to do something in addition to, or in place of, his other activities. Can that be a help to the seeker?

Activity is creation; activity is the destruction of one’s inherent happiness. If activity be advocated the adviser is not a master but the killer. Either the Creator (Brahma) or Death (Yama) may be said to have come in the guise of such a master. He cannot liberate the aspirant but strengthens his fetters. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 601.)

The same idea appears in Day by Day with Bhagavan, 27th March 1946, afternoon, where Bhagavan tells a questioner: ‘the truth is, all karma of whatever kind will lead to fresh bondage. That is why it is said in Ozhivil Odukkam that the Guru who prescribes fresh karma or action of any sort, i.e., rituals or sacrifices to one who after trying various karmas comes to him for peace, is both Brahma and Yama to the disciple i.e., he only creates fresh births and deaths.'

Ozhivil Odukkam is a Tamil philosophical text composed by Kannudaiya Vallalaar several centuries ago. It was one of Bhagavan’s favourite advaita texts, so much so that he asked Muruganar to make a Tamil prose rendering of it in order to make the meaning clearer and more accessible. The original Tamil is extremely difficult to follow, and most people gain an understanding of the work through a commentary that has appeared in all editions of the text. Unfortunately, the commentator incorporated a few interpretations of his own that are not present in the text, which is why Bhagavan thought that a new and clearer rendering of the original was desirable. Muruganar never found time to execute this commission, so the true meaning of the original verses remains inaccessible to all but the most learned Tamil scholars.

The idea that Gurus who tell disciples to do things are Yama and Brahma in disguise comes from verse 123 of this work:

Having exhausted themselves by activities, aspirants come to the Guru seeking jnana. He alone is the true jnana-bestowing Guru who, possessing the wealth of bliss, produces the crop of bliss in them so that they wander without volition and without doing anything. But the Guru who occasions the least rising of their ego through his instructions is both Brahma, he who possesses the ability to create the world, and Yama too, the god of death.

Without volition and without doing anything’ refers to the ego-free state in which there are no sankalpas (decisions or choices made by the mind) and no sense of being the performer of the actions that the body is doing.

Most people will read a verse like this and decide that it refers to physical activities alone.

‘My Guru is OK.’ they will say, ‘He doesn’t tell me to run around doing things; he tells me to meditate instead.’

That is not an acceptable response to this verse because it is also implying that keeping the mind busy – even with meditation – is no different from keeping the body busy. Anyone who prescribes either course keeps his followers on the wheel of birth and death. It would seem that Bhagavan accepted this position because, in the two citations from Talks and Day by Day that I have already given, he is introducing the ideas from this verse and endorsing them.

I began with a quote from Papaji. I will reintroduce him here because one of his often-repeated maxims is highly relevant to what I am endeavouring to say: ‘Physical activities produce physical results; mental activities produce mental results; since the Self is neither physical nor mental, an awareness of it cannot be brought about by either physical or mental activity.’

That’s a hard conclusion to accept for most people because it undercuts and negates all their mental activities that are optimistically geared towards realising the Self. The solution, as both Bhagavan and Papaji pointed out on many occasions is ‘being still’ (summa iruttal). When Bhagavan gives out the instruction ‘Summa iru’ (be still), he is not telling us to practise being still – that would just be more ‘doing’ – he is telling us desist from all mental activity, even meditation. ‘Being still’ is not something you accomplish by effort; it is what remains when all effort ceases.

Here is a Thayumanavar verse (‘Udal Poyyuravu’, verse 52) on this topic that Bhagavan was fond of quoting:

Bliss will arise if you remain still.

Why, little sir, this involvement still

with yoga, whose nature is delusion?

Will [this bliss] arise

through your own objective knowledge?

You need not reply,

you who are addicted to ‘doing’!

You little baby, you!

To which I will add verse 647 of Guru Vachaka Kovai, followed by another quote from Thayumanavar that comes from the same poem:

If you remain still, without paying attention to this, without paying attention to that, and without paying attention to anything at all, you will, simply through your powerful attention to being, become the reality, the vast eye, the unbounded space of consciousness.

If we truly see-without-seeing the inner light,
not investigating, not thinking at all,
will not the flood of bliss come,
spreading in all the ten directions,
rising up in surging waves to overflow its banks?
(‘Udal Poyyuravu’, verse 58)

There is a section in Padamalai that gives a broad summary of Bhagavan’s views on ‘being still’. I will conclude today’s offering by reproducing it. The verses are in bold, editorial comments in italics, and parallel quotations in roman.


Supreme liberation will shine as Atma-swarupa if one remains still.

This verse is introduced by the word ‘amma’, which indicates that Bhagavan is expressing surprise in this statement, possibly at the thought that anyone could think otherwise.


Through his gentle smile, radiant Padam joyfully declares: ‘Why this distress? Be happy by just remaining still.’

Bhagavan: Your duty is to be, and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth; the method is summarised in ‘Be still’.

And what does stillness mean? It means ‘Destroy yourself’; because, every name and form is the cause of trouble. ‘I-I’ is the Self. ‘I am this’ is the ego. When the ‘I’ is kept up as the ‘I’ only, it is the Self. When it flies off at a tangent and says ‘I am this or that, I am such and such’, it is the ego.

Question: Who then is God?

Bhagavan: The Self is God. ‘I am’ is God. If God be apart from the Self, He must be a selfless God, which is absurd.

All that is required to realise the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that? Hence Atma-vidya [Self-knowledge] is the easiest to attain. (Maharshi’s Gospel, pp. 31-2)


Since becoming established in the state of the Self is both the means and the goal to be attained, remain still.

Though it was Bhagavan’s highest and simplest upadesa, he conceded that for many people, it was an impossible command to execute:

Question: What should one do in order to remain free from thoughts as advised by you? Is it only the enquiry ‘Who am I?’

Bhagavan: Only to remain still. Do it and see.

Question: It is impossible.

Bhagavan: Exactly. For the same reason the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ is advised. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 322)

Bhagavan: All the age-long vasanas carry the mind outward and turn it to external objects. All such thoughts have to be given up and the mind turned inward. For that, effort is necessary for most people. Of course everybody, every book says, ‘Summa iru,’ i.e. ‘Be quiet or still’. But it is not easy. That is why all this effort is necessary. Even if we find one who has at once achieved the mauna or supreme state indicated by ‘Summa iru’ you may take it that the effort necessary has already been finished in a previous life. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 11th January, 1946)


The wonderful meaning of the one supreme word [summa iru] is to know and rest in the Atma-swarupa through the enquiry ‘Who am I?’


Except by remaining still [summa iruttal] by what great tapas can the Atma-swarupa be attained in the Heart?

Bhagavan: People seem to think that by practising some elaborate sadhana the Self will one day descend upon them as something very big and with tremendous glory, giving them what is called sakshatkaram [direct experience]. The Self is sakshat [direct] all right, but there is no karam or kritam about it. [That is, there is no one who performs actions, and no actions being performed.] The word ‘karam’ implies doing something. But the Self is realised not by doing something but by refraining from doing anything, by remaining still and being simply what one really is. (The Power of the Presence, part three, pp. 131-3)


It will be impossible to merge with the feet of Lord Sonachala [Arunachala], unless one remains still, with the mind consumed and annihilated.

Bhagavan: Stillness is total surrender without a vestige of individuality. Stillness will prevail and there will be no agitation of mind. Agitation of mind is the cause of desire, the sense of doership and personality. If that is stopped there is quiet. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 354)


By shining motionlessly, which is meditation on the Self, all manner of excellent benefits accrue.


To remain still, without thinking about that which is other than the Self, is to offer the mind to the Self.


Being still is the experience of swarupa jnana. Whatever is perceived by the senses is a false, illusory appearance.


To rest, remaining still as consciousness, is union [sayujya], the abundance of peace.


Knowing That is only abiding as That. Therefore, shine, remaining still without objectifying.


Murali said...


How does this re-concile with the unremitting practice (effort) Bhagavan advocated? Is it not that practice (of turning 180 degrees) is needed to attain the Summa-iru stage?

Is it not that if the idea of futility of effort falls in the ears of normal people, it leads to more sloth and laziness (Tamas)?

Sorry if this is an immature question.

Regards Murali

Jupes said...

Murali, I don't think your question(s) are immature at all. Very apt, in fact.

David, as I was reading this I thought of something from the interview with Papaji that you posted a few weeks ago. I wrote it on a scrap of paper and this may not be a direct quote, but it was something like, "Don't look anywhere. Don't allow your mind to abide anywhere."

'Keeping quiet', 'being still' is, for me, the hardest thing to do (probably, in part, because it's not really 'doing'). And yet it is precisely what is most needed in order to achieve true union and true happiness. The way that Papaji puts it, "Don't allow your mind to abide anywhere," feels slightly more useful to me when I am making the effort to 'be still'. In a sense, that phrase almost defines 'being still' and therefore gives a little more direction, which I seem to need. The other hard part is remembering to do it!

Thanks for the wonderful post.

David Godman said...


I thought this would come up. Have a look at the quote that is appended to verse 27 of Padamalai. There, Bhagavan is saying that for those who can't 'keep quiet' naturally, self-enquiry is advised, and by that I assume he means effort. Elsewhere, in another of the supplementary quotes, Bhagavan says that keeping quiet is only easy and possible for those who have done some sort of practice in their past lives.

I would say that the instruction 'summa iru' represents Bhagavan's highest verbal teachings. For those who were not able to carry out this instruction, self-enquiry was advised to put the mind in a state in which it no longer had a chronic tendency to rush out and occupy itself with objects of thought.

Many gurus start their disciples off with something simple. When they demonstrate they they have mastered it, the gurus move them on to something more advanced. Bhagavan took the opposite approach.

He would say, 'Be quiet, be still'.

If people came back to him saying, 'I can't do it, my mind is too busy,' he would say, 'Then do self-enquiry'.

If that too proved to be too much of a challenge, he might recommend japa or pranayama. With Bhagavan, the only qualifications to receive the highest teachings are a willingness to listen to them and a determination to try them out.

There is an interesting story that illustrates this. A group of villagers came to Bhagavan and asked him what was the most effective practice. Bhagavan told them it was self-enquiry.

News of this encounter reached Ganapati Muni, who was then staying on the hill.

When he heard what had happened, he said, 'If they had come to me for advice, I would have asked them to do japa. How can people like this understand what self-enquiry is?

When news of this comment filtered down to Bhagavan, he said, 'They asked me what the most effective practice was, and I told them "self-enquiry", which is true. If I had told them anything else, would I not have been cheating them?'


I agree that Papaji's 'don't allow the mind to abide anywhere' is a clear and elegant way of visualising what Bhagavan meant by 'keep quiet'. It's a concise summary of the beginning of the Guru Vachaka Kovai verse that I gave:

'If you remain still, without paying attention to this, without paying attention to that, and without paying attention to anything at all...'

Murali said...


My effort-hypnotised mind is happy that I need to put determined effort to practice Self-Enquiry to reach effort-less ness:-)

Personally,the teaching "effort is not needed" is like a beacon light which always warns me. Born a Hindu and Indian, I am surrounded by a lot of rituals. This teaching always warns me not to lose myself in them.

Regards Murali

Regards Murali

Anonymous said...

Namaskar David, I appreciate your work so far (the little I have read).

Namaskar Murali,
I want to share my personal experience regarding both approaches: active (inquiry) and passive (renunciation to the slightest trace of me and mine).
There are times during which one's mood is such that one approach feels more natural or easier to follow than the other. Either way the goal is always to make awareness stronger, and inattention weaker. Deep inattention is the root of misery (actually non apprehension of the Self), so by applying the right pressure in the right way (attention of one's nature) that poison that is inattention will be annihilated for sure.

Also, there is the importance of practicing inquiry and at the same time be still as much as possible. Meaning to inquire in an active way, and at the same time not expect any result, and be without effort, relax every effort that approaches. To recede, always recede, like the lion that looks back (as Nisargadatta said).

Regarding effort, Nisargadatta said something like: "to remember what must be remembered is the key to success". So I think of the constant remembering in two ways:
1) To point out. No effort involved. To point out that one already is and that whatever action or sensation the mind agonizes, that is no threat nor hope for the mind. There's not a thing that can be done to start being, nor there is a thing that can be done to stop being. This pointing out is without effort and efficient in nature.
2) To remember oneself, machine like, japa like, without tension but with persistence about what one is to do (must and wants). The act of constantly reminding oneself of what matters is very much "needed" when tamas or rajas are overly predominant. In this case, it's important that one has a "natural" grasp and doesn't fight that which one is reminding oneself.

It is my opinion, that only by adopting the right attitude alone (silence and humility as Ramana said), can one be worthy of the Sadguru's Grace, which is ever present. Thoughts taste incompleteness and are weak, they are my children. I, the son of Kali, am the father of all thoughts, be them incomplete and little, or good and sacred thoughts.
No need is there to justify or excuse past inattention, as soon as I am aware, no place for fear nor lament is there, since just like a father who takes care effortlessly and fearlessly of his children, I take care of past vasanas. It is indeed the last vasana, the vasana of attention, that which will bring death to all binding vasanas.

Om Prema Shanti

vivekns said...

David Godman,

Many thanks for this post. I have wondered in the past as to whether self - enquiry could be categorised as a spiritual activity or not? Now I have understood the difference between "being still" and doing "self-enquiry".


Vijay Rajamani said...

thanks for an excellent post on Summa Iru. Happened to Google this term today and found some interesting connections with Thiruppugazh. It is said that Sri Arunagirinathar, the great Saint and the author of this amzing poem received this saintly advice from Lord Muruga - "Summa Iru, Sol Ada" - Be Still, dont talk or Remain in Silence without any word being spoken.

Sri Arunagirinathar goes on to say he knows no other means to find God but the path of silence, solitude and stillness.

On another note, thank you for putting together "Be as you Are". It is a wonderful summary of the great Ramana's teachings and put together in a very thoughtful way.

You might be curious to know I found it in a little book store called Sai Towers in the little town of Puttaparthi when I was visiting Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I was struck by how easily this happened (it was Baba who made this all happen), showing that Guru, God and the Self are all the same entity as Sri Ramana often said.

Also saw Power of the Presence (all three volumes) there.

Best regards. Thanks for everything you have done to diseminate Sri Ramana Maharshi's teachings! Yoeman's work indeed!

Question - How to obtain Padmalai? Also is Annamalai Swami's final talks available as PDF or only in book format?

Thanks again! Supreme Peace.

Anonymous said...

Glad you found what you are looking for.I remember I was similarily very happy when I was introduced to the life of Ramana through Mr.David's works and this blog. Once again thanks David.

Here's some information on books: