Sunday, July 11, 2010

The qualifications needed to do self-enquiry

A few days ago I was asked to comment on a dialogue between Bhagavan and a devotee in which he appeared to insist that certain moral qualifications were necessary before one could attempt self-enquiry, or follow it successfully. The conversation originally appeared in The Maharshi, the journal of the Arunachala Ashram, Nova Scotia. ( I will give the questions and answers first and comment on their origin afterwards:

K.V. next questioned Maharshi:

Who is the Adhikari, i.e., the person competent to launch on this Atma Vichara, the Self-quest? Can anyone judge for himself if he has the necessary competency?

Maharshi: This is an important preliminary question. Before Atma Vichara is started some antecedent experience, some achievement in the moral field is essential.

People having varied experiences in the world, at one stage develop a disgust or repulsion (vairagya) towards sense attractions or, at any rate, an indifference to such attractions, and feel forcibly the miserable transient nature of this body through which these attractions and enjoyments are had. This may be the result of the practice of devotion or some other upasana in this life, or of such devotion or other good works performed in previous lives. People with minds thus purified and strengthened are the adhikaris, the ones competent to launch on Atma Vichara or enquiry into the Self; and these are the qualifications or signs by which one can determine such competency.

Where does this dialogue come from? In an earlier issue of The Maharshi ( the following introductory remarks are made:

The following text is from an unpublished manuscript on Sri Ramana Gita that has recently surfaced in Sri Ramanasramam. The manuscript contains typed and handwritten pages by B. V. Narasimha Swami, the author of Self Realization.

While BVN was residing at the Ashram, around the year 1930, he appears to have taken up the project of recasting Sri Ramana Gita in its original conversational form. Some of the answers in this new manuscript appear to be quite lengthy compared to the versified text composed by Ganapati Muni. It is unlikely that BVN had access to any notes taken on the occasion of the questions put to the Maharshi between the years 1913 and 1917, so we can only assume, as he explains in his introduction, that the elucidations further developed by the Maharshi in this new version must have come from subsequent questions for clarification put by BVN himself.

Many years after BVN’s preparation of this manuscript (which includes 36 typed legal-size sheets, reproduced from 25 handwritten pages, and 18 handwritten pages never put into typed format), someone began typing up an edited version of the first and second chapters, five pages in all. For whatever reason, this short-lived project also ceased and the manuscript was stored away. After BVN had typed some of his handwritten chapters, he gave a number of these pages over to Bhagavan to read, correct and fill in the required Sanksrit text, for which he left adequate space.

One such Sanskrit text beautifully written by Bhagavan on these pages is his famous verse describing the means to enter the Heart (reproduced on page 2), which is verse two of Chapter II in Sri Ramana Gita. This verse constitutes the basis for that chapter, titled “The Three Paths”.

We do not know why BVN never completed this project, or how these manuscripts came to be filed away and forgotten, buried in an uncatalogued library cabinet of the Ashram. Perhaps someone knows and will come forward with the information.
A historical digression

I can shed a little light on the questions raised in the final paragraph of this introduction. The story is not merely interesting in itself, it also gives some relevant background information to the topic I will discuss later: Bhagavan’s views on who is qualified to undertake self-enquiry.

I first came across Narasimha Swami’s manuscripts when I began to catalogue the ashram’s archives in the late 1970s.

V. Ganesan gave me the key to a couple of cupboards in the ashram office, saying, ‘We are like the “dog in the manger” with these cupboards. We guard them, we bark protectively if anyone goes anywhere near them, but we never do anything with the material inside. We don’t even know what is in there. It’s just a repository for all the old manuscripts that we have collected over the years.’

I went through the contents and found them to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of archival treasures. There were little notebooks in Bhagavan’s handwriting, proof copies of ashram books personally corrected by Bhagavan, and much, much more besides. One of the items I discovered was a huge folder full of material accumulated by B. V. Narasimha Swami. He had left it all in the ashram when he departed, around 1930, to pursue his spiritual career with Shirdi Sai Baba. The most valuable part of the collection, in my opinion, was the notes he took when he was interviewing Bhagavan for his biography, Self-Realization. Two of these accounts, which related to Bhagavan’s first and second death experiences, were reproduced in The Mountain Path soon after I discovered them. Next in importance were the stories of devotees. Narasimha Swami had written to all the devotees of Bhagavan he knew about, asking them to write accounts of their experiences with Bhagavan. Many of these stories were published in The Mountain Path and in various ashram books. I am personally indebted to Narasimha Swami for persuading Masthan Swami to give a brief account of his association with Bhagavan. This one-and-a-half-page account, in Tamil, is the only first-hand record we have of Masthan’s life with Bhagavan.

Along with his notes and the personal reminiscences of devotees there were a number of pages that belonged to unfinished book projects. From the introductory comments he made it would seem that his intention was to bring out a book of dialogues between Bhagavan and devotees that would communicate the essence of his teachings. The papers that recently appeared in The Maharshi were part of this collection. In addition to the Sri Ramana Gita reconstruction, there were many pages of dialogues that purported to be between Bhagavan and visitors. I found the style and the presentation of these conversations to be highly untypical. I showed them to Viswanatha Swami, who was then the editor of The Mountain Path, and he agreed.

After going through the talks he told me, ‘Bhagavan didn’t deal with devotees in this way. These dialogues creep forward, establishing points one by one, with each new point depending on the arguments that have been presented and concluded in the previous answer. Bhagavan didn’t beat around the bush like this. He always went to the heart of the question with his first reply.’

He was right. The dialogues were incrementally Socratic in style, and quite alien to the way that Bhagavan taught. We both concluded that Narasimha Swami had used his legal skills (he was a lawyer) to assemble the salient points of Bhagavan’s teachings in the form of highly structured but artificially contrived dialogues. The teachings themselves were fairly accurate, but the form they were presented in (a dialogue between Bhagavan and a questioner) was entirely fictitious.

I then showed him the Sri Ramana Gita reconstruction. He went through it with a frown on his face before making the following comments:

‘There is a lot of extraneous material here, comments and extrapolations that are not in the original text. Bhagavan himself went through the original text many times, both in Sanskrit and in some of its translations. We can trust the original version because we know that Bhagavan has gone through it word by word. We have no idea where this extra material came from, and we can have no reason to believe that this is what happened in the original conversations. I don’t think Narasimha Swami ever had any contact with the people who asked these questions, and some of the things that Bhagavan is saying here don’t sound authentic to me.’

As a result of this conversation, the manuscripts containing the dialogues went back into the archives and remained there for decades, whereas the ones containing reminiscences were published in dribs and drabs over the succeeding years.

This explains why, since 1980, ‘these manuscripts came to be filed away and forgotten, buried in an uncatalogued library cabinet of the Ashram’. What about the years before that? Why did no one think about printing any of them prior to 1980? From 1950 onwards I think the main answer would have been financial. In the twenty years that followed Bhagavan’s passing away the ashram was chronically short of funds. I very much doubt that Narasimha Swami’s papers would have been considered for publication in this era, even if they hadn’t been forgotten and buried in a thoroughly neglected archive. One of the items I found in the cupboard was the typed manuscript of At the Feet of Bhagavan. It had sat there, gathering dust, for more than fifteen years. It had been properly edited and it seemed to me to be ready to be sent to the press. There were even instructions for the printer in the margins. It seemed odd to me that, after so much work had been put into it, it had simply been filed away and forgotten about.

I asked Ganesan, who looked after all ashram publications for decades, why it had never been printed.

He laughed and said, ‘The ashram decided to print it in the 1960s. It was made ready for the press, but Koppikar, who looked after the ashram accounts, told us we didn’t have enough money to print it. He lost the argument but won the battle by hiding the only copy of the manuscript so we couldn’t waste money on it by printing it. We had no idea what he had done with it until you rediscovered it.’

Around the same time I had a conversation with Suri Nagamma about her writings on Bhagavan. She told me that in the 1950s D. S. Sastri had offered on many occasions to translate Letters from Sri Ramanasramam into English if the ashram would agree to print it. His offer was persistently rejected on the grounds that Ramanasramam didn’t have the funds for it. When the then president finally relented and agreed to the publication, she said that D. S. Sastri raced through the job as fast as he could because he felt that the offer might be withdrawn at any moment if the president felt that his limited funds were needed elsewhere.

Here again is the question that was posed at the end of the introduction to the Sri Ramana Gita reconstruction:

We do not know why BVN never completed this project, or how these manuscripts came to be filed away and forgotten, buried in an uncatalogued library cabinet of the Ashram.

And here are my answers, which are partially just my own personal opinions:

Narasimha Swami never completed the project because he seemed to lose interest in writing about Bhagavan. When he went to Shirdi, he left behind all his papers, including his unfinished book of dialogues with Bhagavan. He also left behind a huge collection of notes on Seshadri Swami since he also had a plan to bring out a separate book on him. Since the book of conversations with Bhagavan was far from complete, there would have been no reason, during Bhagavan’s lifetime, for anyone to contemplate publishing it. After Bhagavan’s death, for a period of about twenty-five years, the manuscript was lost, and even if it hadn’t been, a lack of funds would have prevented its publication. In the late 1970s, when the manuscript was rediscovered, the ashram decided not to publish it because Viswanatha Swami (and a few others I showed it to) felt that the conversations recorded in it were not authentic.

Back to the topic of who is qualified to practise enquiry

I hope that the previous meandering section was not too off-putting for those who are waiting for some useful material on self-enquiry. I included it primarily to provide evidence for my belief that (a) the original Sanskrit text of Sri Ramana Gita is the authentic one and (b) Narasimha Swami’s version is not. Therefore, if there is new or contentious material that only appears in Narasimha Swami’s version, in my opinion it can be discarded as unreliable. Bearing this in mind, look at the initial words that are attributed to Bhagavan in Narasimha Swami’s version:

Question: Who is the Adhikari, i.e., the person competent to launch on this Atma Vichara, the Self-quest? Can anyone judge for himself if he has the necessary competency?

Maharshi: This is an important preliminary question. Before Atma Vichara is started some antecedent experience, some achievement in the moral field is essential.

If you compare this with the original text, you can see that the two sentences that Bhagavan begins with are not present. This is how the 1998 Ramanasramam edition of Sri Ramana Gita presents the question and the answer:

Question: Who is considered fit for this enquiry? Can one by oneself know one’s own fitness?

Bhagavan: He whose mind has been purified through upasana [worship] and other means or by merit acquired in past lives, who perceives the imperfections of the body and sense-objects, and feels utter distaste whenever his mind has to function among sense-objects and who realises that the body is impermanent, he is said to be a fit person for self-enquiry.

By these two signs, that is by a sense of the transitoriness of the body and by non-attachment to sense-objects, one’s own fitness for self-enquiry can be known. (Sri Ramana Gita, chapter 7, verses 8, 9, 10, 11)

The notion that ‘some achievement in the moral field is essential’ for those seeking to practise self-enquiry is an interpolation by Narasimha Swami. Some conditions are laid out in Bhagavan’s original reply, but having a strong moral base is not one of them.

I showed the Narasimha Swami version to Venkatasubramanian yesterday, without telling him any of the background information that I laid out in the previous section. Venkatasubramanian and I have been working on translations of Bhagavan’s teachings for about ten years.

He looked at it and said, ‘I can’t believe that Bhagavan ever said anything like this. It is so completely alien to all his other statements on enquiry.’

My sentiments exactly. I told him about the origins of the manuscript, and he agreed with me that the sentence about morality was most likely a spurious interpolation.

Karshni, the devotee who asked the question, subsequently asked whether various religious rituals should be followed by those who were qualified for enquiry (verses twelve and thirteen). Bhagavan said they were aids to make the mind pure, but he didn’t accept that they were necessary for those who were qualified for enquiry. He concluded by saying (verse 19):

The non-performance of prescribed actions by a mature person pursuing self-enquiry is no sin. For self-enquiry is itself the most meritorious and most purifying [of actions].

Bhagavan did not teach that one should, through one’s deeds, bring about a level of good character and dharma that would then equip one to practise enquiry. In fact, he said the opposite was true: that the practice of self-enquiry was the best way to establish good qualities in oneself:

It is, no doubt, said in some books that one should cultivate one quality after another and thus prepare for ultimate moksha, but for those who follow the jnana or vichara marga [the path of self-enquiry], their sadhana is itself quite enough for acquiring all daivic [divine] qualities; they need not do anything else. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 18th July, 1946)

A similar reply can be found in the dialogues that precede Sat Darshana Bhashya:

Bhagavan: When one is a sufficiently developed soul (pakvi) he becomes naturally convinced [that the real Self awaits inside].

Question: How is this development possible?

Bhagavan: Various answers are given. But whatever the previous development, vichara (earnest quest) quickens the development. (Sat Darshana Bhashya p. viii)

For me, the essential point in both of these dialogues is that one need not waste time and energy attempting to gain a mature state in which one will be better equipped to do self-enquiry since enquiry itself is the most efficient way to attain spiritual maturity.

In Upadesa Manjari, chapter two, question two, the following question and answer can be found:

Question: Can this path of enquiry be followed by all aspirants?

Bhagavan: This is suitable only for ripe souls. The rest should follow different methods according to the state of their minds.

The ‘different methods’ are listed in the subsequent reply. They include singing the praises of the Lord, japa, meditation and yoga.

Since it is clear that Bhagavan does, on this and a few other occasions, indicate that there are some people who are ready to do enquiry and some who are not, it is worth examining some of his other statements on this topic to get a clearer idea of who he thought could benefit from enquiry, and who should take to other practices.

The following dialogue from Day by Day with Bhagavan gives a few hints about this:

This afternoon, a visitor asked Bhagavan, “No doubt the method taught by Bhagavan is direct. But it is so difficult. We do not know how to begin it. If we go on asking, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who am I?’ like a japa, with ‘Who am I?’ for [a] mantra, it becomes dull. In other methods, there is something preliminary and positive with which one can begin and then go step by step. But in Bhagavan’s method, there is no such thing, and to seek the Self at once, though direct, is difficult.”

[Bhagavan:] “You yourself concede it is the direct method. It is the direct and easy method. When going after other things, alien to us, is so easy, how can it be difficult for one to go to one’s own Self? You talk of ‘Where to begin’. There is no beginning and no end. You are yourself the beginning and the end. If you are here and the Self somewhere else, and you have to reach that Self, you may be told how to start, how to travel and then how to reach. Suppose you who are now in Ramana Asramam ask, ‘I want to go to Ramana Asramam. How shall I start and how to reach it?’, what is one to say? A man’s search for the Self is like that. He is always the Self and nothing else. You say ‘Who am I?’ becomes a japa. It is not meant that you should go on asking ‘Who am I?’ In that case, thought will not so easily die. All japas are intended, by the use of one thought, the mantra, to exclude all other thoughts. This, japa eventually does for a man. All other thoughts, except the thought of the mantra, gradually die and then even that one thought dies. Our Self is of the nature of japa. Japa is always going on there. If we give up all thoughts, we shall find japa is always there without any effort on our part. In the direct method, as you call it, by saying ask yourself ‘Who am I?’ you are told to concentrate within yourself where the I-thought (the root of all other thoughts) arises. As the Self is not outside but inside you, you are asked to dive within, instead of going without, and what can be more easy than going to yourself? But the fact remains that to some this method will seem difficult and will not appeal. That is why so many different methods have been taught. Each of them will appeal to some as the best and easiest. That is according to their pakva or fitness. But to some, nothing except the vichara marga will appeal. They will ask, ‘You want me to know or to see this or that. But who is the knower, the seer?’ Whatever other method may be chosen, there will be always a doer. That cannot be escaped. Who is that doer must be found out. Till that, the sadhana cannot be ended. So eventually, all must come to find out ‘Who am I?’ You complain that there is nothing preliminary or positive to start with. You have the ‘I’ to start with. You know you exist always, whereas the body does not exist always, e.g., in sleep. Sleep reveals that you exist even without a body. We identify the ‘I’ with a body, we regard the Self as having a body, and as having limits, and hence all our trouble. All that we have to do is to give up identifying our Self with the body, with forms and limits, and then we shall know ourselves as the Self that we always are.” (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 8th October, 1946)

In this dialogue Bhagavan was invited to suggest preliminary exercises or practices that would lead up to self-enquiry. He rejected the suggestion, pointing out that the true starting place should be the ‘I’ or the ‘I’-thought. However, though he recommended this method with enthusiasm to a devotee who didn’t seem very keen on it, he also admitted that not everyone has a natural affinity with the technique:

But the fact remains that to some this method will seem difficult and will not appeal. That is why so many different methods have been taught. Each of them will appeal to some as the best and easiest. That is according to their pakva or fitness. But to some, nothing except the vichara marga will appeal. They will ask, ‘You want me to know or to see this or that. But who is the knower, the seer?’

In Sri Ramana Gita verses I have already given, Bhagavan sets the qualification bar for self-enquiry quite high by saying:

He whose mind has been purified through upasana [worship] and other means or by merit acquired in past lives, who perceives the imperfections of the body and sense-objects, and feels utter distaste whenever his mind has to function among sense-objects and who realises that the body is impermanent, he is said to be a fit person for self-enquiry.

In this Day by Day with Bhagavan exposition, though, he doesn’t mention the Sri Ramana Gita qualifications at all. He says that those who are temperamentally inclined towards vichara can and should practise it, whereas those who are not should take to other methods. The bottom line here is: if you want to do enquiry, and feel good about it as a method, then you are qualified to follow this practice.

My own feeling is that this particular response is more typical of Bhagavan than the reply given in Sri Ramana Gita. Here is a similar answer in which Bhagavan also declares that temperament and personal predilection determine who takes to self-enquiry and who does not:

Bhagavan: An examination of the ephemeral nature of external phenomena leads to vairagya. Hence enquiry (vichara) is the first and foremost step to be taken. When vichara continues automatically, it results in a contempt for wealth, fame, ease, pleasure, etc. The ‘I’ thought becomes clearer for inspection. The source of ‘I’ is the Heart – the final goal. If, however, the aspirant is not temperamentally suited to vichara marga (to the introspective analytical method), he must develop bhakti (devotion) to an ideal - may be God, Guru, humanity in general, ethical laws, or even the idea of beauty. When one of these takes possession of the individual, other attachments grow weaker, i.e., dispassion (vairagya) develops. Attachment for the ideal simultaneously grows and finally holds the field. Thus ekagrata (concentration) grows simultaneously and imperceptibly - with or without visions and direct aids.

In the absence of enquiry and devotion, the natural sedative pranayama (breath regulation) may be tried. This is known as yoga marga. If life is imperilled the whole interest centres round the one point, the saving of life. If the breath is held the mind cannot afford to (and does not) jump at its pets - external objects. Thus there is rest for the mind so long as the breath is held. All attention being turned on breath or its regulation, other interests are lost. Again, passions are attended with irregular breathing, whereas calm and happiness are attended with slow and regular breathing. [A] paroxysm of joy is in fact as painful as one of pain, and both are accompanied by ruffled breaths. Real peace is happiness. Pleasures do not form happiness. The mind improves by practice and becomes finer just as the razor’s edge is sharpened by stropping. The mind is then better able to tackle internal or external problems. If an aspirant be unsuited temperamentally for the first two methods and circumstantially (on account of age) for the third method, he must try the karma marga (doing good deeds, for example, social service). His nobler instincts become more evident and he derives impersonal pleasure. His smaller self is less assertive and has a chance of expanding its good side. The man becomes duly equipped for one of the three aforesaid paths. His intuition may also develop directly by this single method. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no 27)

In many spiritual traditions beginners are given preliminary exercises and do not move on to the supposedly more advanced ones until they have demonstrated that they are doing the first ones successfully. As the preceding quotation indicates, Bhagavan did not follow this approach. He asked almost everyone to start with self-enquiry, and only recommended other methods if devotees complained they didn’t get the hang of it. It was left to the devotees themselves to decide whether they wanted to start or continue with enquiry. Bhagavan himself never told a single devotee that he or she was unfit to practise this method.

This is best illustrated by a wonderful story that was narrated by Kunju Swami:

Once, when Ganapati Muni was present in the hall, a group of villagers asked, ‘How are we to control the mind?’

In reply Bhagavan asked them to look into the origin of the mind and explained the path of self-enquiry. Soon they left and Bhagavan as usual went out for a walk.

Remarking to the others [Ganapati] Muni said, ‘The path of Self-knowledge which Bhagavan teaches is so difficult even for the learned, and Bhagavan advocated it to the poor villagers. I doubt whether they understood it and still less whether they can practise it. If Bhagavan had advised them to practise some puja or japa, that would have been more practical.’

When this was conveyed to Bhagavan, he commented, ‘What to do? This is what I know. If a teaching is to be imparted according to the traditional way, one must first see whether the recipient is qualified or not. Then puja, japa or dhyana are prescribed step by step. Later the Guru says that this is all only preliminary and one has to transcend all this. Finally, the ultimate truth that “Brahman alone is real” is revealed and to realise this, the direct path of self-enquiry is to be taught. Why this roundabout process? Should we not state the ultimate truth and direct path at the beginning itself rather than advocating many methods and rejecting them at the end?’ (Bhagavan Sri Ramana, a Pictorial Biography, p. 74)

If I may sum up: I accept that the comments on the qualifications needed to undertake self-enquiry that were made by Bhagavan in the original Sanskrit text of Sri Ramana Gita (7:8-11) are undoubtedly authentic, but I also am inclined to believe they are not typical of what he had to say on this topic. It was more usual for him to say that anyone who felt an inclination towards enquiry was qualified to pursue it.

Bhagavan’s conviction that the path of self-enquiry is suitable for everyone finds confirmation in Upadesa Undiyar. In two succinct verses he describes the method:

18 The mind is only thought. Of all [these thoughts] the thought ‘I’ alone is the root. What is called ‘mind’ is ‘I’.

19 When one scrutinises internally in the following way ‘What is the rising place of “I”?, the ‘I’ will die. This is jnana vichara.

And who is qualified to undertake this? The answer is clearly given in the preceding verse:

17 When one scrutinises the form of the mind without forgetfulness [it will be found that] there is no such thing as mind. This is the direct path for all.

Open Thread

Two times in the last twelve months the 'Open Thread' feature of this blog has started to malfunction when the comments approached a thousand. This time I am pre-empting a possible failure by starting a new one. Please use this new one in future, rather than the one that began in March.