By David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
Self-inquiry (Atma-vichara), such as taught by Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, is regarded as the simplest and most direct path to Self-realization.
However, Self-inquiry is also very subtle and can be hard to accomplish even after years of dedicated practice. It depends upon a great power of concentration and acuity of mind along with an intense longing for liberation. One might say metaphorically that Self-inquiry requires a certain flame. It requires that we ourselves become a flame and that our lives become an offering to it. Without such an inner fire, Self-realization may elude us whatever else we may attempt. Therefore, it is important to look at Self-inquiry not simply as a mental practice but as an energetic movement of consciousness like the rising up of a great fire.
The Search for the Universal Self
In this psychological age, particularly seekers coming from the West tend to confuse Self-inquiry with a kind of psychological self-examination, a looking into our temporal, bodily or ego self and its fears and desires as constituting a true search for the higher Self. One examines ones personal traumas and sorrows and looks for a psychological state of peace, clarity and joy, which is a kind state of personal integration, as if it were true Self-realization.
However, according to Vedanta, the true Self that we are seeking to realize is not our human self but the universal Self, the Self that is present in all beings, in all bodies and in the entire world. It is the Self that is the witness of all time and space and transcends our psychology, which consists mainly of the incidentals and peculiarities of our personal circumstances and proclivities in life. The true Self resembles more the great powers of nature like fire, wind or sun than it does our personal thoughts and feelings. The search for this transcendent Self is very different than any psychological self-examination, which is at best a preliminary stage in its approach.
Other seekers with a more intellectual background tend to approach the Self in a conceptual or philosophical way, as if it were some category of cosmic existence to be appreciated by the rational mind. This too generally misses the living reality of the Self which has the power to consume the mind and cannot be approached by any mere logic or dialectic.
To question deeply about who we really are is to create a friction at the core of the mind that naturally gives rise to an inner fire. The inquiry ‘Who Am I?’ is the ultimate stirring of the mind that brings forth an inner flame that can consume all other questions and doubts, like a fire burning dry grass. It takes us back to the core fire at the core of the mind, which is the inextinguishable light of the supreme I AM. That universal Self of pure light and consciousness shining deep within us is the real goal of our search.
Self Inquiry as a Yajna or Fire Sacrifice
The Self in the Vedas and Upanishads is often symbolized by fire (Agni). The Rig Veda begins with the worship of Agni, who is the deity of the sacrifice. But who is this Agni and what is the nature of the sacrifice to be offered to it?
There are many forms of Agni in Vedic thought. Agni outwardly as fire and light and inwardly as life and consciousness pervades all things in the universe. In the Vedic view, Agni has three main cosmic (adhidaivic) or world forms as fire, lightning and sun which are the ruling forces in the three worlds of earth, atmosphere and heaven. These are the three lights in the world of nature and the three manifestations of Paramatman, the Supreme Self that is the Divine Light and the light of all the worlds.
In addition, Agni has three main internal (adhyatmic) forms as speech (vak), prana and intelligence (buddhi), which are the ruling forces in the three aspects of our being as body, life and mind. They are the three lights of our internal nature and the three manifestations of the Soul or Jivatman, the consciousness or light principle within us.
These three internal forms of Agni create the three main paths of Yoga practice. Agni’s speech form is the basis of Mantra Yoga or the repetition of sacred sounds like OM or longer prayers like the Gayatri mantra. Mantra practice creates an internal fire that helps purify the subconscious mind and make the mind receptive to meditation. Agni’s prana form is the basis of Prana Yoga or yogic breathing practices of pranayama. Pranayama increases the fire of prana (Pranagni) within us that cleanses the nadis of the subtle body and helps unloosen the knots or granthis of the heart. Agni’s mind form is the basis of Dhyana Yoga or the yoga of meditation. The mind form of Agni or the buddhi is the discriminating part of the mind that allows us to distinguish truth from falsehood, reality from unreality and the Self from the not Self. These three forms of Agni and their related yogic paths take us to the Jivatman or our individual Self and help us understand its basis in the Paramatman or Supreme Self.
There are many Vedic yajnas or fire-sacrifices both external and internal. External yajnas consist of offerings of special substances of wood, ghee, milk or rice into the sacred fire. Internal yajnas consist of offerings of speech (mantra), breath (prana), and mind (meditation) into our internal fires. Vedic Yoga practices of mantra, pranayama and meditation are the main internal yajnas. Yoga itself is the inner sacrifice in all of its forms. The fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita explains these different internal sacrifices which reflect the different practices of Yoga including pranayama (Prana-yajna), pratyahara (Indriya-yajna), dharana (Mano-yajna) and dhyana (Buddhi-yajna). Each relates to a different form or aspect of Agni on the levels of body, breath and mind.
The highest Yajna is the Atma-Yajna or Self-sacrifice in which we offer the ego into the Self. This is the also the highest form of meditation or the mind-sacrifice, as the ego is the root of the mind. For this Yajna, the Agni is the Atman or true Self in the heart. Self-inquiry is perhaps the ultimate form of this Atma-Yajna or Self-sacrifice, in which the ego can be directly consumed. It is also called the knowledge-sacrifice (Jnana-yajna) that proceeds through the power of the fire of Self-knowledge (Jnanagni)
As the Gita states:
Preferable to the material sacrifices is the knowledge-sacrifice (Jnana-yajna). All actions are comprehended in knowledge.
As a fire when enkindled burns up dry wood and turns it to ashes,so the fire of knowledge (Jnana-agni) turns all our karmas to ashes.
Bhagavad Gita IV. 33, 37
In this Self-sacrifice, the Self is not only the offering; the Self is the offerer and the fire in which the offering is given. In this regard we are again reminded of the words of the Gita.
Brahman is the process of offering. Brahman is the substance offered. Brahman is the offerer, who places the offering into the fire of Brahman. Brahman alone is attained by this action of absorption in Brahman.
If we look at Self-inquiry as a Self-sacrifice or Atma-yajna, we gain a new perspective to take our practice to a deeper level beyond the complications of the outer mind.
The Flame in the Heart
The Vedas not only equate the Self with fire, they also equate the heart, which is the seat of the Self, with fire. The Self is said to exist like a flame the size of a thumb in the heart. This small flame in the heart is the real person, power and presence that allows the body and mind to function. It is like the pilot light in a stove that lights all the other burners on the stove. The light of the Self lights all the other fires of the body, prana, senses and mind. Even the digestive fire can only work with its support.
This flame of the Self sustains us through all our states of waking, dream and deep sleep and through the entire process of birth or death. Even prana or the life-force is but its manifestation or shadow. This flame leaves the body at death and carries the samskaras that propel us on to another birth. Only for those who are fully Self-realized, who have totally merged into their inner fire, are able to escape this process.
This Self in the heart is clearly explained in the Narayana Sukta which states:
“In the middle of the heart is a great fire (Mahan Agni) that carries all light and looks to every side. It is the first eater and dwells apportioning our food, the undecaying seer.
He gives heat to the entire body from the feet to the head.
In the middle of this fire is the subtle crest of a flame pointed upwards, shining like a streak of lightning from a dark blue rain cloud.
In the middle of the crest of this flame the Paramatman dwells. He is Brahma (Creator), Shiva (Transformer), Vishnu (Preserver), Indra (Ruler), OM and the supreme Lord.”
The great fire (Mahan Agni) in the heart is the subtle body (or linga) and the being behind it of lightning-like appearance is the individual soul or Jivatman. At its core is the atomic point of the Supreme Self which is the doorway into the infinite light, the Sun of suns, the God of Gods. Indeed we could say that the hridaya or heart that Ramana emphasizes is also this flame that dwells there. The heart, Agni and Atman are ultimately three ways of looking at the same supreme truth.
Ramana, Agni and Skanda
Not surprisingly as the great teacher of Self-Inquiry, Ramana himself was regarded as an incarnation of Agni. He was identified with Skanda, the younger son of Shiva and Parvati, who himself is the child of fire or Agni. Skanda is born of Agni and carries his form and his powers. Skanda is also called Kumara, the Divine fire child. This six day old child has the power to destroy all the negative forces of time and ignorance symbolized by the demon Taraka. He is also called Guha or the one who dwells in the cavity of the heart. To find him, we must trace our way back to the cavity of the heart, which is to trace our thoughts back to their origin in the I behind the I. This process is explained as early as the Rig Veda I. 65-73 in the hymns of the great Rishi Parashara, though in cryptic Vedic mantras.
In the Vedas, Agni is called Jatavedas or the knower of all births as he knows the births of all creatures as their indwelling Self. Jatavedas is the Jiva or the individual soul hidden in the body. This Jiva when awakened discovers its unity with the Supreme. Then it becomes Vaishvanara or the universal person, which symbolizes the liberated soul. Jatavedas or the individual fire becomes Vaishvanara, the fire of the universal Self, which is the other main Vedic name of Agni (not to be confused with Vaishvanara as merely the soul of the waking state in later Vedantic thought). Vaishvanara is this Divine child who has realized its unity with the Divine Father, Shiva.
Ganapati Muni, Ramana’s disciple and spiritual brother, the great mantric seer who knew both the Vedas and the Puranas, not only lauded Ramana as Skanda, he spoke of the unity of Skanda and Agni, and identified Ramana with Agni. He states in his Agni-Devata-Tattva-Nirupanam (The elucidation of the truth of the deity Agni) that “Agni Vaishvanara, who dwells in the cave of the heart, is indeed Ramana. Ramana is not different from Kumara. Vaishvanara is Sanat Kumara. “
This means that Agni, Skanda and Ramana are the same. Skanda as Kumara is also Sanat Kumara or the eternal child. Sanat Kumara is the primal or adi guru for humanity in Vedic and Upanishadic thought. He is the guru of all gurus and the inner guru that we must all eventually contact. Ramana is the incarnation of that supreme Guru within us. This all-seeing flame in the heart is the true Guru of all that took a wonderful outer manifestation in the form of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
As the guru of the heart, Ramana did not put much emphasis on outer formalities. As the incarnation of the inner fire he showed how all teachings and practices could be consumed like fuel in the great fire of Self-knowledge.
Cultivating the Inner Fire
Self-inquiry is a lot like cultivating a fire. Our awareness grows by offering our speech, breath and mind into the witnessing Self that is the eternal and inextinguishable flame within us. It is the quality and consistency of our offering that is the main factor in growing this flame, not any outer formulas or formalities. We must maintain our awareness like a fire, keeping it from going out even for an instant by continually offering our mental modifications into it as its fuel.
Indeed we could say that the modifications of the mind are nothing but the smoke coming forth from an improperly burning fire of awareness. When that inner flame burns cleans and consistently then there is only pure light and the mind itself gets merged in its source.
For Self-inquiry to be a living process we must invoke and incarnate that inner flame of knowing in our daily lives. Self-inquiry is not a matter of ordinary thinking or logic. It is not a matter of emotion or feeling either. It is not a matter of just blanking or stopping the mind as it is. Nor is it some esoteric intuition. It is the most fundamental form of knowledge, perception or consciousness that we have. It is cultivating the pure light behind all the glitter and shadow of the mind and senses. The Self is the mind behind the mind, the eye behind the eye, the speech behind speech and the prana behind prana as the Upanishads so eloquently state.
Behind all of our senses through which we perceive the external world is a more primary internal sense of self-being through which we know that we exist and through which we are one with all existence. This self-sense is more immediate than all the outer senses which are only possible through it. But it is so immediate and given, our very sense of being, that we take it for granted and ignore it. In the maze of sensory information we lose track of who we really are. We get caught in the movements of the body and the mind and forget our true nature that transcends them and for which alone they work.
We must remember this very subtle inner fire through which the mind and senses shine and reveal their objects of perception. Cultivating this direct awareness of the Self (aparoksha anubhava of Vedanta) is a lot like conducting a fire sacrifice. Behind all of our states of mind, even the most ignorant or confused, like a flame hidden in darkness, the Self shines as the eternal witness of all. What is important is to bring that flame out, like a fire hidden in wood, through the friction of inquiry.
This Self within the heart transcends all the worlds. As the supreme Agni or digestive power, it has the capacity to eat or absorb the entire universe. As the Taittiriya Upanishad ends;
I am food. I am food. I am food.
I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food. I am the eater of food.
I consume the entire universe. My light is like the sun!