Different forms of self-inquiry
For those who have rambled long enough in the corridors of spirituality, especially nondual spirituality, self-inquiry is a familiar word, if not rare. A google search for the word will return the results of Ramana Maharishi’s “method” of self-inquiry, which begins with asking the question, “Who am I ?” Even Wikipedia, for some reason, devotes it’s page on self-inquiry exclusively to Ramana, which in my opinion, is a very myopic statement of facts.
This leads to a very ubiquitous notion among people who are new to self-inquiry, even among those who have spent several years in this business, that there is one form of self-inquiry. As a matter of fact, the notion of self-inquiry is found in several schools of Buddhism, as also in the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. But self-inquiry in Buddhist schools leads to different results from self-inquiry in Hindu ones. While a Buddhist, pursuing self-inquiry, discovers no-self, the Hindu discovers an eternal Self. It’s a different matter that I think both to be talking about the ending of the conceptualizing ego mind as the ultimate liberation. Just the ways they go about doing it and speaking about it are different.
The complexity and perplexity of this matter do not end here. Even among those who talk about eternal, non-dual Self, there are different individuals who teach different methods. For example, the trio of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Atmananda Menon, all talk about the same truth, but the method of inquiry taught by each one of them is quite unique. Though they all can be loosely called to be representatives of the school of Advaita Vedanta, their instructions for self-inquiry are quite different from the traditional school of Advaita Vedanta: which bases itself on three texts of Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagavad Gita.
In my own journey of self-inquiry, I stumbled into traditional Advaita in 2012. At that time I did not have the wisdom I have today about different paths and teachings. Looking back I can say that all my previous years of sadhana/spiritual practice with the teachings of J Krishnamurti had landed me automatically to the doorstep of Advaita – the highest teaching of non-duality in Hindu school of thought.
Self-inquiry in Advaita
What I am going to describe here is the manner of self-inquiry I underwent in traditional Advaita, and not through any of the individual teachings of Ramana, Nisargadatta or Atmananda. What I am going to describe, is the way self-inquiry is done traditionally in the school of Advaita (found in Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika and later in Shankaracharya), through three processes of
- Sravana – Listening/reading of scriptures
- Manana – Reflection/dialogue on scriptures till all doubts cease
- Nidhidhyasana – Contemplation on truth ascertained through manana/reflection for arising of non-dual insight.
The qualifications required of a seeker for self-inquiry in Advaita
This process of self-inquiry is called Jnana Yoga/ Knowledge Yoga in Advaita and one has to be an adhikari/a qualified aspirant before one can come to Jnana Yoga. This is something that is quite overlooked by modern seekers. Not everyone has the right orientation to inquiry. Most are actually seeking some form of psychological solution to their problems. Self-inquiry is not a solution to problems of mundane life. Though it does solve them eventually, it is actually quite disruptive and disturbing in the beginning. It is going to demand and involve you in a way that can disrupt your livelihood, family and other pursuits.
Realizing the predilection of immature seekers to jump to self-inquiry, Advaita actually enjoins seekers to first achieve a certain set of qualifications before coming to Jnana Yoga, else, one has to do Karma Yoga/Yoga of Action, which develops these qualities in the seeker. The set of qualities for a seeker to enter Jnana Yoga are
- Viveka/Discrimination – the ability to differentiate between what is true and what is false.
- Vairagya/ Dispassion – lack of attachment to mundane ends of life – duties, wealth and gross pleasures
- Shad Sampat/ wealth of six virtues – sama/control of mind, dama/control of mind, upariti /life activities reduced to bear essentials, titiksha/endurance to opposites of experiences, shraddha/faith in scriptures, and samadhana/constancy of purpose to reach liberation
- Mumukshutva/Intense desire for liberation
Personally, I never did Karma Yoga. I was following Krishnamurti’s teachings of self-inquiry for seventeen years before I came to Advaita. My Krishnamurti style of self inquiry had already developed the above qualities. The result was, when I came in contact with Advaita, within no time the teachings precipitated the insight – I am Witness/Self – for me.
The mechanism for self-inquiry and insight into true Self in Advaita
This is how actually traditional Advaita works. For a mind that is sufficiently prepared, the mere exposition of the scriptural truths of Advaita by a teacher results in the awakening of insight in such a mind about one’s true Self. I did not even go to a teacher or search out any teacher. Advaita says that one does not actually need to actively search for a teacher: when one is ready, the teacher appears. In my case, the teacher did not even appear physically. I was just reading the writings of one Advaita teacher – James Swartz, very intensely for a week. I was reading others too but for some reason, I felt an inexplicable pull towards his writings only. One day, while reading one of his articles, the insight about my true Self just flashed in me. The article was to do with something called akhandakara vritti in Advaita.
Before I can go into what it is, I have to briefly go into the central premise of liberation in Advaita. According to traditional Advaita, the root cause of our suffering is the ignorance of our true nature. In our ignorance, we identify ourselves with our phenomenal self. This phenomenal self – in Advaita – is the apparatus of body, mind, and intellect. Because we take our self to be the body-mind-intellect apparatus, we are subject to suffering. The body-mind-intellect apparatus is a limited, changing identity subjected to the duality of pain and pleasure; birth and death. The solution to our riddle of suffering, as per Advaita, is to realize that we are not this limited, changing apparatus of body-mind-intellect. We are actually the eternal, formless Self/Witness which is aware of the impermanent and changing body-mind-intellect apparatus.
In our ignorance we mistake our true Self/Witness to be the mind-body-intellect. I consider myself to be Anurag which is a body that was born and which is going to die. But Advaita tells that I am not the body. I am that to which the body-Anurag appears. I am the eternal, formless Self/Witness. The body is a form that appears in the formless Self/Witness and which dissolves back in the formless/Witness. So the Self/Witness is the eternal subject. What I take as myself – body-mind-intellect apparatus – is actually an object to me -the eternal Self/Witness.
All our suffering is related to our wrong identification of our eternal Self/subject with impermanent objects: body-mind-intellect. The solution is to reclaim our true Self through knowledge. There is no action required. The Self being eternal, unborn and undying always exists. It is just clouded by ignorance like the clouds shield the sun. The sun never ceases to shine. The ignorance is nothing but wrong knowledge. Once we get the right knowledge, we see the sun which had always been shining.
So Advaita acts as the source of knowledge which dispels the ignorance of our true nature. One may validly ask at this point, why is it that anyone and everyone who reads Advaita, not get liberated with the insight of eternal Self? The reason is simple. For any knowledge to be assimilated, we need two things
- Valid source/object of knowledge
- Valid sense organ/subject for assimilating the knowledge
For instance, if we want to know the color of a rose, we have to have a pair of functioning eyes. I cannot know the color of a rose through my ears. Once an ‘object to be known’ is placed in front of the ‘valid knowing subject’, there is an immediate arising of knowledge. No other extraneous effort is required. But if there is any limitation in the object or subject, true knowledge does not arise. Suppose there is a defect in my eyes, I shall not be able to get the knowledge of a rose through my eyes, even if it is placed in front of them. In the case of Advaita, the object to be known is the Self through teachings/scriptures/words; the subject that has to know/assimilate this object is the intellect, and the knowledge to be assimilated is the nature of one’s true Self/Witness. If my intellect is sufficiently prepared, without any psychological defects, when the teachings/ scripture/words are enunciated by a competent teacher; knowledge of one’s true Self/insight happens spontaneously and effortlessly. But if there is a psychological defect in the intellect in the form of doubt, lack of motivation: basically the lack of four qualifications I mentioned earlier etc., insight does not awaken. In such a case, one has to ‘purify’ one’s intellect through Karma Yoga or keep doing Sravana/Listening/Reading, Manana/Dialogue/Reflection and Nidhidhyasana/Contemplation, till the insight arises.
The akhandakara vritti – The unbroken thought
In my case, as I said earlier, my mind was already prepared through seventeen years of Krishnamurti style self-inquiry and the knowledge of the basic framework of Advaita. So when I was reading the article on akhandakara vritti by my teacher (whom I did not even know by that point), the insight about my true Self/Witness just flashed. So let us go into what is this akhandakara vritti.
In Advaita, one is initially trained to separate the true subject and objects which are mixed up in ordinary consciousness. This is called the process of viveka/discrimination. Discrimination is about differentiating the changing objects from the unchanging subject. When we begin, we start with identifying and negating objects. Thus all things which we can perceive, and which change, are objects. I have an unbroken experience of self, so I cannot be something changing. Something changing will have gaps: but I do not feel as though I exist at some times and do not exist at some times. Also, I cannot perceive something which is me: there will be no difference between perceiver and perceived, hence no perception. I can only perceive something which is outside of me. We can perceive our body, so we are not the body; Similarly, we can perceive our mind in the form of feelings and thoughts, so we are not our feelings and thoughts too. The last and most difficult object to discern is the thinker/doer/experiencer. I take myself, Anurag, as the thinker/doer/experiencer. Because of this, I am constantly caught in the process of life – avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure in all its myriad forms, including life and death.
So all thoughts we have normally, in ignorance, are called vishayakara vritti : meaning they are object-oriented thoughts. They have a duality between subject and object. Thus, in ignorance one says, “I am feeling anger/angry”. There is a subject “I” and there is an object “anger.” In ignorance, I take this subject “I”, which is experiencing anger, to be myself. The teachings of Mandukya Upanishad – the most highly revered textbook of Advaita – elucidates the three states of – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – to show that even this “I” – the thinker/doer/experiences, which we take as our permanent self, is actually not permanent: it modifies in the dream state, and completely vanishes in the deep sleep state. Mandukya Upanishad, then talks about Self/Witness being the only thing that is present in all three states. Once a seeker has grasped this, he is ready for the arising of akhandakara vritti. One has started looking for Self/Witness in one’s experience, which is not an object, and which does not change. This prepares the ground for the last and most subtle discrimination to be made between the thinker/doer/experiencer and Witness/Self.
The meaning of akhandakara vritti is “unbroken thought”, which means that this is a thought, which, unlike vishayakara vritti, does not have a subject-object duality, or ‘broken-ness.’ In akhandakara vritti the subject and object are the same; when it appears spontaneously in one’s mind, it breaks the ignorance of our false self and reveals the true self simultaneously. So when I was reading about akhandakara vritti, in the article written by my Advaita teacher, I suddenly had an akhandakara vritti in my own mind, which was in the form of “I am awareness”. If one examines this thought, it says that the subject “I” of the sentence is the same as the object “awareness” in the sentence; but this awareness is actually the non-dual, eternal metaphysical subject I was seeking in my inquiry: and I am That. The object of my inquiry, paradoxically, turns out to be “me” – the subject. The eternal Self that I was seeking is the one who was witnessing all this seeking and the seeker. So an immediate shift in my identity took place. Instead of me – Anurag – looking out for awareness in my experience, I became Awareness looking at Anurag as an object/experience in Awareness. (Though, I had my insight in term
The fruits of this insight
The insight was phenomenal. It gave me a freedom that I had never experienced in all my years. It was not any experience. Experience comes and goes in time: insight is permanent. It was not the end of bad times for me. I faced a huge crisis in years to come, especially in the end of 2016. Please read my series of articles – “Prarabdha Karma After Self Realization” for a deeper ending of this issue. But nothing ever touched me fundamentally. As Self/Witness, I had found a sanctuary which is described in Ashtavakra Gita, one of my favorites, by King Janaka as
In me, the shoreless ocean, let the waves of the universe rise and fall as they will. I am neither enhanced nor diminished.
Chapter 7, Verse 2 – Ashtavakra Gita
The aim of this article was actually just to precisely lay out how self-inquiry and insight happen in the traditional way of Advaita. I rarely come across anyone describing this process of insight which results in the shift of identity to being Witness/Self. It may help other people with their inquiry in Advaita. I must definitely add here that this is not the final stage of liberation in Advaita. This is called the “I Am” stage in short “I Am Brahman” or the Witness stage. The final stage is “Everything is Brahman”, which comes when the notion of the Witness collapses with further deconstructions. I reached the final stage in Dec 2020. One can read about the final stage as well as other stages of self inquiry in my page – “Stages of Self Inquiry”.
2 thoughts on “Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita”
I get how the working of self enquiry works. But the question is why did self enquiry even happen in the first place?
What was it that makes one self enquire?
Like, the inner motivation?
Is it not meaninglessness?
If it is, why is it not addressed directly?
Meaninglessness is a result of unhappiness with the reality of present life. So, the issue is unhappiness.
Is unhappiness a disappointment with life itself or with the harsh realities?
If harsh reality is the issue, then that means we love our life, happy moments, contentment etc. so much that we are not able to accept any blemish on it whatsoever.
Then if that is the case, then isn’t it stupid to ever enquire in the first place. I mean, ultimately you will reach a point in enquiry where you will conclude the ultimate end which is not like life at all but an imagined utopia that too which you cannot say into any words.
So, one loves something so much but does the opposite. Can’t see anything more fragmenting than this just to escape the harsh realities.
Just an observation. 🙏
Thank you for taking the time to read my article and share your thoughts.
Concerning your first question, “What is the intention behind self-inquiry?”, the answer is simple: to find the end of all suffering. You can include all negative feelings under the umbrella of suffering, whatever you have written – meaninglessness, unhappiness, disappointments etc.
Now, having understood the intent behind self-inquiry, one may ask, “Can suffering really end?” How are you going to answer this question? There can be only three approaches to this question. The first is that you presume that suffering can never really end. It is the basic “harsh reality” of life, and so there is absolutely no point to self-inquiry. The second approach is to presume that suffering can end, in which case you will set out to find a means to end suffering. Please note carefully what I am saying here. You have “presumed” that suffering can end. Once this presumption is made, can there be any genuine self “inquiry”? Inquiry means that you do not set out with any presumptions, including the very presumption that suffering can end. But inevitably people start out with this presumption, and then they land on dualist paths which promise various forms of utopias, blissful experiences, heavenly afterlife or myriads of other rewards – either in this life, the next life or in heaven.
Now, what would one do with the question, “Can suffering end?”, if one does not want to presume anything – not predetermine any answer to this question in the form of a yes or no, because we can see by now that both movements are actually escapes of the mind. What if I stay with the question itself, with its energy and movements without escaping into any paths, methods or techniques? Then I would come in actual contact with the nature of suffering. If I want to understand a machine which I have never seen before, what do I do? I don’t think about it, I observe it very deeply and see how each part fits into the other and how each part functions to generate the entire movement of the machine. There is no “technique, method or path” for seeing this machine. We just directly look at it and understand it. The same is the nature of suffering with all its movements. We start watching all its movements directly. We start watching the entire, complex, intricate, beautiful machinery of suffering as it operates. We observe the entire mind without any techniques, methods, paths or systems. When we see anger, we do not instantly start chanting or meditating or modifying our anger through some psychological or philosophical system. We deny all these movements because we have clearly seen them to be operations of dead presumptions. When we view the mind through any philosophical or psychological system, we have already created a view or a lens through which we are going to observe the mind. Our project is sacrificed from the start itself because the lens is going to determine what we are going to see (the kind of “utopia” the system wants us to land on) So all systems, methods and paths are basically nothing but conditioning the mind in another way. Unfortunately, this is the form of so-called “self-inquiry” that 99% of people propagate.
But real self-inquiry is not any path or system or movement. Self-inquiry is not a method practised to reach a pre-determined end/utopia. Because it is quite obvious by now, practising a method to reach a predetermined end is no inquiry at all. Inquiry can only proceed when we do not start out with any assumptions. To not start out with any assumptions means that I do not have paths, systems or methods with me, promising me different rewards. I deny all this. I strip myself from all this. Can you see the quality of such an austere mind? What has it done? It has denied all false approaches to the question of the ending suffering. This denial itself is a revolutionary act for an individual: to deny all systems, all methods, all paths and all experts and to confront one’s mind totally unburdened. When one actually does this, not just in theory, then an explosion takes place in the mind. Then you can see for yourself what happens. No one would need to tell you about it. You do not have to sit and think about it. The reality will be there for you to see in your direct experience. Watch the movement of the mind totally in the way we have described here. Actually it’s not any way, it’s a negation of all ways of seeing the mind and to observe the mind without any centre. Such observation is actually self inquiry, not what you commonly hear.